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Monday, March 31, 2008

Cool camping: how many hipsters believed the hype?

The cool camping cool caravanning hype may have convinced style-conscious travellers to get out of the city and get away to the country to pitch a tent for a weekend or two, but did it really fuel some kind of fashionable camping revival? Had camping ever become chic in the first place or was it just a clever bit of marketing that the travel media perhaps embraced a little too enthusiastically? It was a fresh and novel idea after all. And let’s admit it, ‘cool camping’ has a ring to it, don’t you think? Fortunately, one travel writer decided to find out if people were really sleeping under deer skins in daisy-patterned tents and how much things had really changed. For “What, no yurt?”, The Guardian's self-styled ‘urban pansy’ Benji Lanyado set off for Blackberry Wood, the coolest UK campsite according to Jonathan Knight's Cool Camping bible. Lanyado discovered that Blackberry Wood (despite its charming name) was actually “blissfully free of posh tents and designer wellies”. The reality, he found, was that it was just a good old-fashioned camping spot - only after the re-branding, it got busier. And that’s the thing about camping, it’s just a plain old-fashioned travel experience, a great way to escape everyday life and get out and enjoy nature. It’s simply good fun. Did it ever need to be sold as the next sexy travel trend? As Knight himself wrote in The Times' ‘Britain’s Perfect Pitches’: “Its very appeal lies in its contrast with our modern lives, in the chance to lose electricity, the traffic, the television and telephone for a while. Chilling in the countryside, sleeping under the stars and breathing clean, fresh air, is a rich and recharging experience…” If there's been one positive outcome from travel writers’ fixation with camping’s cool factor, it's that the mainstream media now devotes more column inches and web pages to the activity than ever before. The Times even has a dedicated section solely devoted to Camping and Caravanning. Now that has to be a good thing, right?

Pictured is our tent on platform, with double bed and bathroom, which we stayed in at El Questro's Emma Gorge. More impressive than the accommodation were the stunning bush surroundings and birdsong outside your (canvas) door.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Hands up if you traded the Airstream for a gypsy caravan?

“Hands up if you traded in the Airstream – for a Gypsy Caravan?” The Times asked in The Family Bandwagon. This article must take the cake in a long line of silly stories over the last couple of years by lazy travel writers who all too keenly latched on to the cool camping cool caravanning phenomenon, freely quoting from the same press releases (well, that’s what they’re there for, right, is what they’re thinking) and borrowing ideas from each other. Don't get me wrong, I do think gypsy caravans are pretty cool. Check out these prettily-painted wooden wagons at Gypsy Caravans, these cosy things at the Gypsy Caravan Company, and these darlings at Gypsy Waggons, which, incidentally, are a favourite with legendary guitarist Ronnie Wood (and I’m surprised that juicy tidbit didn’t make it into the article, seeing celebrities can be credited with giving caravanning and camping the makeover it needed). Regardless, you have to agree this story is rather ridiculous: “First camping went upmarket - now it is the turn of caravanning,” Emma Mahony writes, “Who remembers when camping holidays were just wall-to-wall nylon from the sleeping bag to the kitchen area, and one match lit in the wrong place could spell the end of your holiday? Your children? Probably not. They are more likely to think of camping as a cotton yurt experience with luxury kilims on the floor and a cedar-wood barbecue area outside.” Really? (My comment of dismay). “But just as camping has had a successful image makeover, with Cath Kidston tents (Oh, no, not again! Me again) and family festival-goers, so caravans are now looking to have their face lift.” Gypsy caravans, Mahony tells us, are the hottest thing in caravanning: “Ignoring the fact that fashion stylists have been using the rural Gypsy Caravan for years, elbowing the real Romany couple to one side in order to drape clothes over models…” (Oh, c’mon now.) “Suddenly those same gypsy caravans are having their wheels oiled and being offered up, complete with lessons in horse care, as venues for family holidays… In Wales the static Romany originals are suddenly so popular that companies such as Under the Thatch, offering its gypsy caravans at £329 per week, have no availability until October. Real show-offs are even buying their own from Gypsy Caravans.” Cute idea and everything, but I have to ask, how many gypsy caravans have you seen on the road? And would you buy one?

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Cool camping vs cool caravanning: a case study in 'cool' travel writing

Travel by caravan, RV or kombi may be just as cool as camping if vehicle registrations and club member- ships are anything to go by, but to the travel media it’s cooler to write about camping – unless the caravan is expensive, luxuriously fitted out, comes with quirky extras or retro-cool packaging, or is simply not a caravan. For the travel media it’s more palatable for travellers to camp than to caravan. Even though travel writers are perfectly willing to jump on the cool camping/cool caravanning bandwagon, employ the same buzz words, regurgitate the same press releases, and borrow ideas from each other. If they have to write about caravanning it must be qualified and if the traveller must caravan, then they must do it in a luxe vintage model or retro van with kitsch value. (Despite campers being allowed to pitch £50 tents.) Take The Observer’s much-critiqued (by me) Cool Camping article where we’re told “...the lowly mobile home has had a Changing Rooms moment.” (My italics.) And: “Also on the continent, Belrepayre Airstream & Retro Camping is more trailer flash than trailer trash.” Ouch! (My italics again.) The story continues: “Closer to home, Vintage Vacations rents out three shiny Airstream trailers on a farm on the Isle of Wight. With interiors more suited to the pages of Wallpaper* magazine than Butlins, this is the UK's swankiest camping experience.” But “if you really want to be mobile, Scooby Campers has just set up shop... Rental of its re-conditioned VW campervans (which come with cream leather upholstery, SatNav and a CD of Sixties 'Scoobymusic' to set you on your way) starts from £250 for a three-night weekend and similar companies are springing up around Britain. Be warned though, that 'mobile' is a relative concept; budding Jenson Buttons need not apply." I don't know about you, but I'm not a fan of snobby writing and derogatory language doesn't have a place in travel writing. Call me a snob but I prefer an Airstream to a daisy-patterned tent any day, however, I'd happily camp in either and gladly write about both on equal terms. Isn't the important thing that they allow us to travel? Isn't that cool enough in itself?

Okay, if I have to choose an Airstream then I'm opting for The International Line and the Ocean Breeze please. Check out the photos. Call me a hypocrite,
it's retro-cool, I know.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Cool camping: cowboy-print tipis and other chic accoutrements

Forget the need to worry about whether your gear is waterproof, breathable or even lightweight “The only question cool campers will be asking of their equipment this summer is whether they should opt for Ted Baker's flying duck-motif tent or Cath Kidston's cowboy-print tipi,” The Observer told us in ‘Cool Camping’. And that was only the start of it, they threatened. A mini reindeer skin was a must for getting cosy around the camp fire, as was the Ted Baker range (naturally) of blow-up tiger skin mattresses and foldable camping chairs that looked like padded leather chesterfields, available from Blacks. While at Millets, we could choose from Cath Kidston’s (of course) cowboy-print tipis, floral windbreaks, and stripy camping chairs. If the cool camper still couldn’t find anything to suit their style, they could simply create their own with the Eurohike Paint Your Own Tent kit, which comes with waterproof paints and brushes. If you’re taking your tent to a music festival you want to make it stand out after all. But how could the happy camping-by-day clubbing-by-night camper not find anything hip among the Hed Kandi range? Surely the Hed Kandi sun seat (“the perfect assist for those hazy days and balmy nights”) would be the first thing to go in the shopping cart? And right after it would be the Hed Kandi Snuggle Bag (which can be zipped to another) for a “close knit disco nap in your Boudoir tent”. Yes, the music festivals have a lot to answer for. Of course, I’d gladly pack away a tiny Grilliput barbecue, a portable shower, an Aerobie Aeropress espresso maker, and a compact travel mosquito net any day. They may not be covered in cow-print or daisy-patterns but they’re my idea of creature comforts. But if rainbow colours and kaleidoscopic patterns are what it takes to inspire some of us to get out and experience nature, then here’s to cool camping with all its chic accessories! Don't you agree?

And, um... yes, that is a mini-bar in the 'tent', and, yes, I'm afraid that is a bookshelf on the wall... but it is holding travel guides, there were mosquitoes, and the Mekong River and Burma are just outside. You can see them from the outdoor rain shower. Oh, and from the massage tables.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Cool camping: creature comforts, clever marketing and celebrity campers

A Mongolian yurt, luxury tented cabin, wooden wigwam, or plain old pup tent... wherever you choose to roll out your sleeping bag know that (just like caravanning), camping is cool. Or so the media has been insisting for a while now. More Brits were taking their tents to the country than ever before, BBC News told us in April 2006, raising the question “So how did camping become cool?” in ‘Why the British Carry on Camping’: “Boy scouts, hippies and soggy tents… camping used to have an image problem”, but not anymore. Thanks to celebrity campers Kate Moss, Jodie Kidd and Sienna Miller taking an interest in pitching tents (sound familiar?), along with chic camping gear to show off - “Ted Baker blow-up mattresses, Cath Kidston sleeping bags or Mongolian-style yurts” – camping became “more palatable” to those who loved the idea of the great outdoors but didn’t want to give up their creature comforts. While Cool Camping series author Jonathan Knight admitted top designers introduced camping to a new audience by bringing a sense of style to the experience, he said there was more to the trend: "The designers made it cool but the popularity is because more and more people are living in towns and cities, many without a garden or outdoor space, and camping offers them an antidote to urban life." (As one happy camper in the story said: "You can gather round a campfire with smoke in our faces and there's something very relaxing about that.") Also that month in an article called ‘Cool Camping’ The Observer claimed camping had come a long way since “the dank ages”: “Pull up the tent pegs of history and pack away memories of soggy childhood camping trips,” Rhiannon Batten wrote, “Nowadays, staying under canvas is less about smelly sleeping bags and dank communal toilet blocks and more about thread-counted sheets and tents that come with private showers… Pitch up at the right spot and you'll find facilities designed with an altogether new breed of camper in mind - one who likes the idea of getting back to basics just so long as it involves the comfort of a Cath Kidston sleeping bag, Ted Baker blow-up mattress or even a kingsize bed and a duck-down duvet. Welcome to cool camping.” (Haven't we read this somewhere before?) The writer then gave us a rundown of cool camping options: Kenyan safari-style lodges, Maharaja-type hunting tents, yoga-camps in Turkey, hi-tech Alpine eco-pods in Switzerland, and – the "ultimate in bohemian chic" – Mongolian yurts in Cornwall. What has me wondering is not which was cool first, camping or caravanning, but who sent out the press release? Jonathon Knight? Or was it Cath Kidston or Ted Baker? Whoever it was, at least they got everyone outdoors.

The photo? Oh, that old thing, that's... um... our luxury 'tent' at the Four Seasons Tented Camp at the Golden Triangle.

** I've been wondering how many people actually live and travel in yurts, other than Mongolians of course... and the people over at TrekHound have only sparked my curiosity further with their extraordinary compilation of research on yurts. Check this out! Very impressive.

Cool caravanning: it’s okay, it's safe to mention the c-word

So then, is caravanning really cool? The UK media told us it was back in 2004 when The Guardian assured us it was safe to mention the c-word. For ‘Go on admit it, my van’s the man’, writer Tom Templeton spent a weekend driving a sleek silver 'teardrop of a caravan' and was converted. It wasn’t only the cute design of the 520 kilo T@B van that persuaded him, but that he'd stayed in scenic Caravan Club sites such as Kentsford Farm,“a vast and beautiful orchard, trees groaning with cider apples, begging to be scrumped, peacocks, guinea fowls and strange turkey-like ducks grimble around the place, a brook babbles past...” He concluded: “I can see the appeal of caravanning. Basically you pitch up, hand over a fiver, untether your caravan, wind out the legs in a process that lasts about five minutes and, with the night's billet secure and snug, are then free to head off on an adventure - or alternatively make a cup of tea.” But when Tom asked friends how cool caravanning was, two theories emerged: “One, that it's like having an ugly best friend - surrounding yourself with uncool stuff makes you look all the cooler. Two, that caravanning is cool in a retro, hippyish kind of way, with overtones of the traveller movement and circuses.” Two years later The Observer's Gemma Bowes explained ‘How Caravans Became Cool’. “It's official: caravanning is now cool,” she wrote, “Style magazines have long been celebrating the retro charms of the caravan, but figures from the Caravan Club confirm that holidays on wheels are enjoying something of a revival.” According to the Club, which had almost 1,000,000 million members, caravanning was the most popular paid-for UK holiday, accounting for 17% of vacations in Britain. The 2006 summer heatwave and security crisis at UK airports contributed to the popularity surge, along with high-profile members and a new generation of enthusiasts such as Kate Moss, Sean Penn, Nicole Richie, Jamie Oliver, and Lenny Kravitz, who'd given it a makeover. “Caravanning has become very fashionable,” said the Club spokesperson, “Young couples who want to go surfing or travelling are trying it, as are families and retirees, and it's been made stylish by the revival of the VW Campervan and designer Airstream caravan.” Or, as the manager of the International Caravan and Motorhome Show said: “It is no longer Carry on Camping, bad cabarets and tin boxes on wheels.” A year later the Mirror was insisting “Caravanning's cool (honest): Cheap flights to Europe are so 2006… just ask the growing list of celebrities who are choosing caravans instead of crowded airports. The star factor was clearly what made caravanning cool for The Mirror: “Next time you're trapped behind a caravan on a country road, mocking its boring occupants, just think... it's as likely to be Billie Piper or Helen Mirren holding you up as a geeky guy from the Caravan Club.” With an estimated four million Brits a year caravanning, it was more popular than ever. “That's right,” The Mirror told us, “there's now nothing cooler than a caravan.”

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Travel has no (age) limits

Caravanning around Australia and ‘full- timing’ by RV in the USA was once the domain of grey nomads, adventurous families setting out to give their kids some real life lessons, and middle-aged couples looking for a sea change. But caravanners and campervanners are getting younger so it seems. Travel around Australia and you’ll see foreign 20-to-30-something couples driving a hired Britz campervan and gap year backpackers trading the hop-on-hop-off-bus for a psychedelic painted Wicked Campers kombi van. You only have to take a quick look at their websites to see who they’re marketing their products to - a very different audience to the campervanners of a decade or so ago. In the USA, the average age of an RV owner is 49, yet they’re apparently getting younger there too. Take a look at 12 feet, an inspiring travel blog by San Francisco-based travellers Rikki and Chris, two guys who, after a clash of schedules and cancelled Alaska travel plans, spontaneously rented an RV to explore the Nevada deserts. “We loved it so much we ended up buying our own,” Rikki tells me. “For some reason there was this need to disprove that RV travelling is only for old people,” he admits, “And now our friends, co-workers and families all agree: it is cool. How else can you go places, be out enjoying nature, travel with your pets, and be in the safety and comfort of your own home all at the same time? I think in the US, RV travelling is becoming popular and 'mod' again. More and more families, younger groups, and couples are travelling on the road rather than flying (a fact after 9-11). We wouldn't mind living in the RV if we were able to travel full-time. That's how much we love the RV and the experience of travelling in it!”

Monday, March 24, 2008

Home is where you park it – for citizens of the road

Becoming ‘a citizen of the road’ is a big part of the appeal of caravanning. For the 8 million American households that have a recreational vehicle, or RV, ‘it’s not just a vehicle, it’s a lifestyle’. And taking to the road on a permanent vacation has never been more popular despite the rocketing fuel prices, according to the recent USA Today article: RVs Beckon Baby Boomers Despite Fuel Costs. In Australia, caravanning is also experiencing something of a revival (see yesterday’s post and the Sydney Morning Herald story: Paradise Fills Up Fast for Nomads), where some 300,000 RVs are registered and up to 80,000 are thought to be touring at any one time - not a small number when you consider the country's tiny population. In the USA, the idea of ‘full-timing’ (as the RVers refer to permanent travelling) is increasingly appealing to a population fed up with airport hassles and flight delays. So much so that the industry predicts a boom in sales as a generation of baby boomers begin to make retirement decisions. ‘Home is where you park it’ was the slogan on a t-shirt spotted by the USA Today reporter at a recent rally where RVs ranged from humble, collapsible, canvas-walled camping trailers (known as ‘pop-ups’ in Australia) to luxurious 45 foot motor homes equipped with king-sized beds and state-of-the-art entertainment systems, and price tags from US$15,000 to $1.5 million. The owners of the old vans parked on this simple camping site (pictured), splendidly situated on a fertile cliff top on the Arkamas Peninsula in Cyprus, certainly weren't concerned with cutting-edge sound - and who would be with the soundtrack of the ocean for background music? - but I bet they'd proudly wear those t-shirts.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Recollecting Easter Holidays and the Renaissance of Caravanning

My childhood memories of Easter: painting hard-boiled eggs red with my Russian baboushka; gluing pastel coloured cotton wool balls onto a silly hat (um, I mean, helping my mum make my Easter bonnet for the class competition); aching legs from standing for hours in the incense-filled Russian Orthodox church; wondering why my Easter bonnet didn’t win; concentrating on holding my candle upright so as not to spill hot wax on myself as we circled the Russian church (it was midnight); hunting for chocolate-shaped bunnies and eggs my dad had hidden in our backyard; and, naturally, eating chocolate, for days so it seemed. My memories are hazy; scrambled together are moments from two separate Easters, the Western Christian Easter we celebrated with the rest of Australia, and 13 days later, the Eastern Orthodox festivities my mother’s Russian side of the family observed. What is clear, though, is that Easter holidays usually involved family caravanning trips away. We’d tow the van to leafy caravan parks by the beach in small towns on the New South Wales coast with strange Australian names like Yamba, Tuncurry, and Mollymook. High on our list of priorities were fishing, swimming, sun, and seafood. By day we’d be on a boat or on the beach and in the evenings we’d be cooking barbeques by the van and playing monopoly or cards before bed. The parks were crammed with families who all had the same idea, to catch the last of the warm weather before autumn (fall) set in, so there’d always be long lines for the showers and toilets in the morning, plenty of other children to play with, and people for my folks to have a drink with after I was in bed. In those days, we called and booked our site a few days in advance, sometimes we even rocked up on the day. Either way, we nearly always got an excellent site within splashing distance of the sea. Or at least close enough to be able to walk barefoot down to the beach, and to fall asleep listening to the waves crashing on the shore. But I've already told you enough about my caravanning youth. These days, Australian families book a year in advance for school holidays, and there's such a shortage of parks that government land is being acquired to build more. The Australian economy is booming, Australian families could travel anyway they please. So is caravanning experiencing a renaissance? Take a read: Paradise Fills Up Fast for Nomads.

Places You Must Go This Spring: part 2

Here are three more fragrant, flower- filled places you should spend some time in this spring. See my previous post for three more heady destination ideas and the post before that for my criteria for selecting these aromatic spots:
3) SYRIA – in the mountains behind the seaside town of Tartus, on the way to delightful Safita (itself a village of twisting lanes and cobblestone alleys dominated by a splendid Crusader keep) and Mishtayeh (with its handsome stone buildings), you’ll find quintessentially Mediterranean scenery of olive groves and citrus orchards, woods of pine trees, ramshackle stone houses with terraces shaded with grape vines and gardens grown wild with tangles of bouganvillea, jasmine, oleander, and cactus.
4) SICILY – in spring the interior of the island is blanketed with wildflowers, especially in the wild Madonie mountains near Cefalu where you can inhale the aromatic air as you walk old shepherd’s routes. As you drive through the picturesque landscapes around Siracusa and between the hill towns of Ragusa and Noto, with their beautiful baroque architecture, you’ll see an abundance of flowers by the roadside.

5) CYPRUS – the whole countryside is stunning, covered with fields of yellow mustard flowers in spring, but you’ll see kaleidoscopic colours in the more remote, pristine Karpaz peninsula (in Northern Cyprus), home to bucolic farmland and windswept sandy beaches, and the beautiful Arkamas peninsula (in the Republic of Cyprus) with its pine-covered hills and rocky coastline.

Places You Must Go This Spring: part 1

It's time to get out and smell the wildflowers! Pack your walking boots, grab your picnic basket, get on a plane, and prepare to drive through breathtaking scenery. See my previous post for the criteria for selecting these sublime spring destinations:
1) CRETE – the isolated eastern coast is dotted with tiny seaside communities of summer cottages peeling with paint and pristine sandy beaches; behind them colossal mountains cradle lush, fertile farming plateaus with quaint stone villages. In March the area is dotted with flowers, but in April there's an explosion of colour here and also on the equally isolated and mountainous western coast.
2) MAINLAND GREECE – the deep blue Prespa lakes and sleep fishing village of Psarádes
near the Macedonian and Albanian borders, Meteora with its magical mountain-top monasteries (pictured), the magnificent Pindos Mountains and Zagoria villages where traditional grey stone houses cling to the hillside, the Pelopponese with its remote Mani, fertile Arcadia and wild Sparta, the dramatic Parnonas Mountains, and because I can't resist including one island, fragrant Corfu. For more ideas, see our Greece trip journal written during a Spring 2006 research trip for Lonely Planet.
3) TURKEY - all along the Mediterranean you'll find flowers blooming everywhere, especially in the countryside surrounding the beachside villages of Olimpos, Patara and Cirali, around the tomato-growing town of Kumluova, and in the woods around the ruins of Kaya. On a Sunday you'll frequently see empty cars parked on the side of the road - their owners, families of locals can be seen picking flowers in the fields or picnicking in the forests. You'd be wise to follow their example.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Spring is here!

We wind down the windows of our car and breathe in the fresh air - it's fragrant! Floral scents mingle with pine and eucalyptus. Wildflowers carpet the countryside. Butterflies are fluttering about. Turtles cross the road (don't ask me why). Trees that were bare and lifeless a week ago have come to life and are sprouting green leaves. The weather is all of a sudden warmer. It must be spring! We really noticed the change in season today on our drive from Kas on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, where we're holing up at a friend's house to write for a while, to Antalya. So it seems timely to create a list of destinations you must visit this (northern hemisphere) spring. Let's see.. my main criteria? The scenery must be spellbinding in its natural beauty, the air must be aromatic, at every turn you need to come across animals grazing on the new grass, and there must be an explosion of colour in the countryside, with fields suddenly flush with wildflowers. I'm on to it!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Life of a Travel Writer

As you can guess from the title, Travel Blogs: Hand-Picked Tales from the Road is a site featuring the best travel blogs produced by travellers and travel writers. There are regular featured blogs that enjoy the spotlight for a week, along with the Life of a Travel Writer series where professional travel writers are interviewed, the latest being this author. I've been asked by readers of this blog to write more about travel writing and research and share tips from the road, and I'll try to do that where I can. Aspiring writers should also check out Write to Travel, which offers writing advice, lists blogs and resources, runs an Interview with a Travel Writer series, and features a Travel Blog of the Week. This week one of my favorites, Pret a Voyager, is showcased. (Cool Travel Guide was featured back in December.) World Hum is another good resource for aspiring travel writers: read the recent interview with guidebook author Robert Reid. Rolf Pott's has a long-running travel writer profile series on Vagabonding, along with a fascinating series of podcasts, video and radio interviews.Then there's Gadling, which in February featured the post My First Stint at Guidebook Writing dispelling some of the myths surrounding the life of a travel writer. While I agree that our working lives aren't always as glam as people perceive them to be, as Catherine Bodry points out we can spend all day working in our pyjamas if we so desire! We could also sip a glass of wine (or two) while we work (hey, I'm looking out at the Mediterranean as I write, can you blame me?) or simply decide not to work at all if we choose (with no leave forms to fill out!). But the real beauty of being a travel writer is we get to just pack up and go, when, where and however we fancy, because that's what we do. Here's a toast to all the travel writers out there! I don't know about you, but I have a thing or two to celebrate.

The Cool Travel Guide to: getting the most out of archaeological sites (part 2)

Here are some more ideas as to how to make the most of your ambles about archaeological sites:
4. Use your imagination. I mean, really use it. Don’t just look at those old stones and see a building, but try to visualize the form and function of the place, the shape and feel of the neighbourhood, the structure and organization of the city. Sure, seeing a brothel in one of Pompeii’s main streets is surprising and the latrines at Ephesus are funny, but just begin to imagine the people that frequented these places, how they interacted with each other, and the society and time in which they lived.
5. Hone in on the detail. It doesn't matter if you don't care about the big picture. All the more reason to take a close look at the flamboyant patterns on the pillars, the intricate carvings on the stones, the fine detail of that script above the castle entrance, the elaborate structure and so on. Simply appreciate the architectural design, the aesthetic value, and the craftsmanship that went into creating the work.
6. Try to find new ways of seeing the site. Forget about replicating the postcard shot. Instead, lie on the ground, look through a window, stand on your head if you must. Find fresh ways of seeing the place and your experience and perspective will (quite literally) be unique.

7. Take your time. Enjoy the picturesque surroundings. So you don’t have time to read a book, you don’t like museums, and your imagination’s not your strong point, then fine. Simply kick back and take in the scene. Enjoy the leafy setting, shady trees, fresh mountain air, sea breeze... or don’t. You’re hot? You’re sticky? It’s a desert setting and it’s sweltering. Then think about how people who lived here 2000 years ago must have suffered before air-conditioning. Or, as I first suggested, just enjoy the stunning setting.

8. Do go prepared: take a bottle of water, snacks, sunscreen, hat, insect repellent... trivial as they may seem, they'll go a long way to improving your experience.

The Cool Travel Guide to: getting the most out of archaeological sites (part 1)

Do all but the most impressively striking of archaeological ruins look like piles of rubble to you? You can’t be blamed. So many guidebooks give such glowing reviews of ancient sites and write so evocatively about them that, regardless of the condition they're in, or how important or interesting they may be, the completists among us just can’t resist ticking them off. Yet, unless you’re an archaeologist or historian, some sites simply may not be all that compelling. For one, the ruins may be so ruined, it's impossible to even identify what they were. Here are some tips to getting more out of the experience:
1. Read about the ruins before you visit and go beyond that one column in the guidebook. Thumb through a history book or guide by a respected archaeologist who specializes in the period/area you’re visiting and knows how to write. For instance, for Syria, Ross Burns’ Monuments of Syria* is a must. With a more complete understanding of the site’s history, society, culture, who lived there, why they built it, what happened to them, and why it’s important, you’ll get so much more out of the experience.

2. Visit the nearest archaeological museum before you head to the site, because seeing the extraordinary tablets, splendid statues, fascinating artefacts, exquisite jewellery, and perfectly-formed pottery and glass, found at a site will bring those old rocks and mounds of dirt to life. As you wander the site, you’ll better appreciate the place in which they were made and used, and get a kick out of making connections between the stuff on display and the people who created it.
3. Get a map of the site and use it. Whether it's the map on the site's own brochure, or, better yet, one from a book like
Burns’ Monuments of Syria, follow it. Don't just wander around aimlessly. The map will help you make sense of the rubble and help you to see that those low stone walls you're looking at were actually rooms within a grand palace. With a bit of imagination, you'll be visualizing a whole city in no time.

* I could happily travel Syria with Burns’ book alone to guide me, but if you’re planning a trip do look out for our update of our Lonely Planet’s Syria and Lebanon guide coming out mid-year. We’ve include an enlightening interview with archaeologist Greg Fisher who we met in Damascus. Unfortunately we can’t reproduce that interview here, but maybe Greg will email in with some additional tips.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Notes on Observations and Conversations Overheard at Ancient Knossos: part 2

Knossos – well-restored rooms. Spacious. Light-filled. Vast storage jars called: pithoi. Tick. Three 20-something backpackers read sign outside rooms. Sign says: MAGAZIN. Girl says: “I didn’t know they had magazines in those days.” One guys says: “I think it refers to the magazine of a gun…” Other guy silent. Looks confused. First two dawdle to next set of rooms. Other guy stays. Looks at sign. Looks at room. Looks baffled. (I want to write that he scratched his head but that would be a lie. But I do imagine him scratching his head.) magasin = shop/store in French? Pithoi in rooms – a store room? French archaeologists? Is ‘magazin’ warehouse in Greek? Look this up. Guards start blowing whistles continuously! They shout loudly and rudely at us!! “Ruins are closing. Leave immediately!” Like being in concentration camp/prison! I look at watch – 15 minutes to go!!! They obviously have somewhere to go. Things to do: write letter of complaint to Ministry for Tourism. English backpacking couple look incredulously at guidebook. Poor things just arrived! Guy approaches guard. “Guidebook is wrong!” shouts guard, “They are always wrong!” (Well, mine is right.) “Come back tomorrow,” she barks. “But tomorrow we’ll be at Gortys” (Another ruin on other side of island. Dates to Minoan times. Guards nice there, although still looked like they’d prefer to be at home) “Does Gortys close at the same time?” “Of course!” growls guard, “These are the winter hours!” She whistles in his face. (This is true.) Couple look disappointed in guidebook. Ticket guy must have been asleep when they came through – forgot to tell them they had no time to see anything. Couple run around and take photos. Guard keeps whistling. Terry still taking photos for book. Sees me. Looks at watch. Looks at guard. Shakes head. (Still 10 minutes before official closing time. Takes 1 minute to walk to exit.) Guard looks at us “The ruins are closing!” she barks for hundredth time. Terry says to me: “Don’t worry, I haven’t sworn at her yet.” Guard understands. Looks Terry up and down. Says something in Greek to other guard. Clearly not commenting on his clothes. We admire cherry blossoms on way out. Bookshop. Tick. Souvenir shop. Tick. Café. Tick. Ancient Knossos. Tick.

Notes on Observations and Conversations Overheard at Ancient Knossos: part 1

Visit to Knossos, most popular archaeological site in Crete: ancient Minoan palace (AKA Minos) settlement built around 2000BC. Neolithic remains suggest area settled as far back as 6000BC! Accommodated 100,000 people at height of Minoan civilization!! After paying for tickets, ticket guy tells me ruins close in 1 hour. Closing time. Tick. “Be quick,” he says, closes eyes, returns to sleep. “I’m a writer, updating a guidebook,” I tell him. “I need to check the phone number and summer opening hours.” (It’s winter. I already know price.) Ticket guy looks bored. Disinterested. Woman hovering behind me, shoves me aside aggressively, sticking her head near window. She must know closing time, I think. Eager to see ruins. Still, she’s rude.“Do you mind?” I ask her, irritated. “I’m helping you with translation,” she says. The ticket seller speaks English. “Do you need a guide?” she asks. “No, we’ve been here before,” I lie. (It’s easier this way.) She goes away. (If I simply said 'no' she would keep following us, firing trivial titbits and random dates at us. That’s what they do, hoping we’ll say: “Oh, come on then, we’ve changed our minds, you’ve impressed us so much with your incredible knowledge of useless facts and dull trivia, we'd love you to chatter away at us endlessly for hours, spoiling our pleasure of the ruins!”) Knossos – controversial - in 1900 English archaeologist Arthur Evans hastily reconstructed much of palace – Evans said original wooden pillars and beams would have collapsed otherwise. Result splendid – vividly painted walls, red pillars, vibrant mosaics and frescoes. Flamboyant. Did it really look like this?? Two Japanese travellers race around – one eye on guidebooks, other on sights. (Is that possible?) They look at watches more than ruins. Two female Greek guards check out Japanese girls. Look them up and down. Speak to each other in Greek. Commenting on clothes? Greek guards could take inspiration from murals – Minoans really knew how to dress! Elderly French couple spend inordinate amount of time admiring enormous pottery urns. Surely they know they only have an hour?! It’s a massive site! (Okay, this happened at Phaistos, but it seems appropriate to place it here.) Phaistos Palace dates to 1900 BC. Beautifully sprawled down a hillside overlooking a fertile valley. I spend more time watching old French couple than I do enjoying ruins. What if couple wander to far end of site, guard (eager to get home) doesn’t see them and locks them in?! Staff start to leave 15 minutes before closing time – they appear irritated that we take our time. Don’t they know how far we have all come to see these ruins?!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Romantic representations in guidebook writing: case study #2

The Cypriot village of Lefkara, pictured here and in the previous two posts, is an old village of stone buildings that have been beautifully restored. Known for its lace, its tiny hilly streets are lined with shops selling the exquisite handmade embroidery (along with imported, manufactured reproductions.) The road leading to town is lined with enormous tacky signs saying telling you to “Park here!” and Come inside and watch old women make lace!” If you ignore the signs and drive on, you’ll most likely be confronted by touts furiously waving to get your attention only to tell you it’s impossible to drive your little car through the extremely narrow streets of the village and that you’re better off parking here – conveniently, outside the entrance to his restaurant. Ignoring him, you’ll push on, finding out that the lanes are no narrower than those of any other Cypriot village, but discovering that the old ladies are just as aggressive at encouraging you into their stores as the touts are, making shopping for lace suddenly unappealing. On your way out of town you’ll look back with disappointment, until you notice the picturesque village vista and won’t be able to resist parking to take a photo. Once out of the car, however, you won’t help but notice the abandoned junk scattered about the place (rusty fridges are common) and the trash sprawling down the hill, as if dumped there daily by the local garbage truck. This is a typical sight outside villages in Cyprus that you definitely don’t read about in guidebooks. The first time you see it you’ll be disappointed and you’ll probably find yourself getting angrier each time you see it after that. But what do you prefer to read? The romantic version or the reality?

Romantic representations in guidebook writing: case study #1

Romance or reality: what do travellers really want to read in guidebooks? Cyprus is dotted with delightful villages of winding lanes and atmospheric stone houses sprawling down hillsides in woody valleys. Sturdy old ladies can be seen carting bundles of wood down the street on their backs and old men ride donkeys through town, the guidebooks tell us. And it’s true. But unfortunately many of the villages are now ghost towns, their ramshackle old stone houses boarded up, their gardens unkempt, junk crowding their yards, and trash dumped down hillsides on the outskirts of town. The young people have moved to the cities or overseas to work and the few residents that are left are over 60, enjoying their last years in the village they have loved and known all their lives, and struggling alone to maintain their traditional way of life. Well, they’re not so alone. It’s not uncommon to see a wrinkled old lady in headscarf and apron sitting in her doorway, taking in some sun and watching the passing traffic – and next to her see a bored young Filipina or Indian woman, perhaps employed by the guilty son or daughter as a companion-cum-maid to watch over their abandoned parent. You don’t read any of this in the guidebooks.

Romanticism versus reality: what do travellers really want?

So why is it that guidebooks romanticize destinations and that we’re much more likely to read the unpleasant truths about a place in poetry than we are in a travel guide? A travel editor’s argument might go, do readers really want to read about ugly places and the social problems of a destination they are dreaming about visiting? Who wants to destroy their dreams? (Because to destroy dreams is to destroy book sales.) But, the author might argue, how many travellers wants to arrive at a place only to be disappointed because it’s not as pretty as it appears in the portrait that the book has been painted? How many travellers want to get robbed because they’re ill-prepared and have let down their guard? Take Buenos Aires, a city that’s been flavour-of-the-month for a few years now, a city that the travel press frequently runs features on. Rarely is Buenos Aires’ high incidence of gun crime mentioned, nor the fact that not everyone has recovered from the 2001 economic crisis, nor that parts of the city are crawling with pickpockets preying on tourists, nor that travellers will see the cartoneros criss-crossing the city, trawling through people’s trash to collect cardboard to sell for recycling. Don't get me wrong, I love the city and I've written about it a lot. But do travellers really only want to read about tango and red wine? As travellers, do we not prefer to know the truth, to get a balanced perspective, and to be prepared? And then be pleasantly surprised?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The romance of poetry – and guidebooks

The Romantic English poet William Wordsworth was carrying a copy of a travel guide as he did a walking tour of the Wye valley in 1798 when he composed the lyrical poem Tintern Abbey. The guidebook was William Gilpin's ‘Observations on the River Wye’. In his poem, Wordsworth paints a portrait of the abbey ruins and the surrounding valley that is far more romanticized than that depicted in Gilpin’s book. Wordsworth writes of steep and lofty cliffs, the wild green landscape, and the fair river. In reality, the ruined abbey served as a home to the poverty-stricken, the destitute, beggars, and vagrants, and not far away noisy iron-smelting furnaces puffed out putrid-smelling smoke from the factory’s location on the riverbank, while the river’s water itself was polluted. A romantic, Wordsworth didn’t want to acknowledge the social realities of the time, the damage to the environment by new industries, unemployment, and homelessness. Gilpin’s guide is a rarity, even now. These days the situation is reversed – we’re more likely to read truths in a poem than in a guidebook.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Scenic touring and tips on appreciating ‘the picturesque’ nature of travel

Romantic travel writer and artist William Gilpin gives tips on how to get the most out of ‘scenic touring’ in his 1794 piece ‘On Picturesque Travel’ that are just as relevant to travel now as they were over 200 years ago:
1. Seek out novel experiences and new destinations.
"The first source of amusement to the picturesque traveller is the pursuit of his object – the expectation of new scenes continually opening, and arising to his view… Under this circumstance the mind is kept constantly in an agreeable suspense... Every distant horizon promises something new…”

2. Take time to take it all in.

“After the pursuit we are gratified with the attainment of the object. Our amusement… arises from the employment of the mind in examining the beautiful scenes we have found. Sometimes we examine them under the idea of a whole: we admire the composition, the colouring, and the light, in one comprehensive view.”

3. Allow your senses to be assaulted!

"We are most delighted when some grand scene… rising before the eye, strikes us beyond the power of thought… and every mental operation is suspended… an enthusiastic sensation of pleasure overspreads it… the general idea of the scene makes an impression, before any appeal is made to the judgment. We rather feel, than survey it."

4. Make meaning from the experience.

“Our next amusement arises from enlarging and correcting our general stock of ideas. The variety of nature is such that new objects, and new combinations of them, are continually adding something to our fund, and enlarging our collection… the same kind of object occurring frequently is seen under various shapes, and makes us... more learned in nature.”

5. Let one experience enrich the next...

"We are, in some degree, also amused by the very visions of fancy itself. Often, when slumber has half closed the eye, and shut out all the objects of sense, especially after the enjoyment of some splendid scene; the imagination, active and alert, collects it's scattered ideas, transposes, combines, and shifts them into a thousand forms, producing such exquisite scenes, such sublime arrangements, such glow, and harmony of colouring, such brilliant lights, such depth, and clearness of shadow, as equally foil description..."

6. Start dreaming about new places to see all over again.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Guidebooks to ‘the picturesque’: creating a new generation of traveller

Travel writer, artist, teacher, and reverend, William Gilpin obsessively collected drawings and sketched, and, as a student at Oxford in 1748, self-published ‘A Dialogue upon the Gardens at Stow in Buckinghamshire’. With practical tips for travellers on how they could get the most out of their visits to the country and best enjoy the scenery, the book was probably the world’s first travel guide. A unique combination of guidebook and reflective essay on aesthetics, it explored Gilpin’s ideas to do with ‘the picturesque’. A mad fan of landscapes – the craggier, more rugged and wilder, the better – Gilpin ruminated on the beauty of nature and perception in a way that hadn’t been done before. In his ‘Essay on Prints’ on landscape painting, published 20 years later, Gilpin defined ‘the picturesque’ as the kind of beauty that pleases us when we look at a painting, and formulated (often amusing) full-blown theories on picturesque beauty. Gilpin travelled widely during the 1760s and 1770s and on his trips began to apply his theories to what he was seeing, filling journals with sketches and thoughts, which he then circulated among friends. A decade later in 1782 Gilpin published ‘Observations on the River Wye’, based on a summer there, followed by ‘Observations on the Lake District and the West of England’, a guidebook series in the making… Both books were incredibly popular, inspiring people to travel to the English countryside simply for a spot of ‘scenic touring’, and to enjoy the landscapes in the ways Gilpin suggested – in much the way contemporary guidebooks direct us to today. When Gilpin’s readers travelled they too spent their time sketching and talking about their experiences in the way they might chat about visiting a gallery and the paintings they’d seen. I like to wonder whether Gilpin was created this new generation of traveller or whether he simply preached to the converted (no pun intended) and wrote for a readership of travellers like himself.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Spots of time and memory making

I’ve experienced so many ‘spots in time’ as we’ve travelled around Crete and Cyprus these last couple of months that my spirit if visible would appear polka-dotted. According to the poet William Wordsworth, ‘spots in time', discrete critical moments that we experience, such as a few minutes in the countryside taking in a bucolic scene, can number among some of the most significant moments in our lives. I'm more conscious of these 'spots of time' now than I used to be so when we have a "stop the car!" moment, I make an effort to fix the image in my memory. I gaze as long and hard as I can, I take a photo (or two or three) and I make notes about the light, smells and sounds around me.

Wordsworth wrote in The Prelude:
There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain

A renovating virtue, whence–depressed

By false opinion and contentious thought,

Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,

In trivial occupations, and the round

Of ordinary intercourse–our minds

Are nourished and invisibly repaired;

A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,

That penetrates, enables us to mount,

When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.

The film ‘Spots of Time’ explores Wordsworth’s ideas and attempts to translate his poetry into film while the ‘Spots of Time’ photography project captures images of the Lake District at night, when all the tourists have gone home, as it would have been in Wordsworth's time.
Alain de Botton reflects upon Wordsworth and his 'spots of time' in The Art of Travel, and you can download Wordsworth’s poems at Project Gutenberg.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Reasons to be alive: spots in time

I’ve been dipping into Alain De Botton’s The Art of Travel, as I do when I travel and reflect upon the nature of travel. De Botton tells us that the poet William Wordsworth believed that certain scenes stay with us throughout our lives and each time they enter our consciousness they offer a contrast to and relief from the present. De Botton writes about his own ‘spot of time’ during a visit to the Lake District, when, sitting on a bench in the late afternoon, he looks at a clump of trees by a stream and suddenly appreciates their “sharp gradations of green, as if someone had fanned out samples from a colour chart”. He wants to bury his face in the trees and be restored by their smell, and it strikes him as extraordinary that nature could “have come up with a scene so utterly suited to a human sense of beauty and proportion.” De Botton admits to being unaware of having fixed the scene to memory until one afternoon when he’s stuck in a traffic jam in London, “… the trees came back to me, pushing aside a raft of meetings and unanswered correspondence and asserting themselves in my consciousness. I was carried away from the traffic and the crowds and returned to trees whose names I didn’t know but which I could see as clearly as if they were standing before me. These trees provided a ledge against which I could rest my thoughts; they protected me from the eddies of anxiety and, in a small way that afternoon, contributed a reason to be alive.”

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Rural travel: the restorative powers of nature

We came across these sheep sleeping by the side of the road in the isolated north east of Crete and we spent some time simply taking pleasure in their peace. We’ve done this a lot recently, as we’ve travelled around Crete and Cyprus, pulling the car over to watch some ducks paddling across a creek or goats clambering up a hill, spending some moments taking in a bucolic landscape, a field blanketed with mustard flowers, or falcons gliding over a limestone gorge. The effect has been soothing, calming, even uplifting, and invigorating. In the Art of Travel, Alain de Botton writes about a trip he took to the Lake District, England. While the reasons for the journey were personal, he tells us, they belonged to a broader eighteenth century historical movement when city dwellers started to travel to the country “to restore health to their bodies, and more important, harmony to the souls.” De Botton ruminates about nature’s ability to heal and inspire, and about English Romantic poet William Wordsworth who would sit under a tree with a sublime landscape before him, writing about daffodils dancing in the breeze and other odes to the restorative power of nature. Admired for his ability to reveal the poetic beauty in the everyday, Wordsworth believed that nature was a requirement of happiness, and, as De Botton discovers, that birds, streams and sheep were indispensable in correcting the damage inflicted by city life. That nature helped us to seek out the good in life. According to De Botton, Wordsworth found instances of sanity, purity and permanence in nature, flowers were models of humility, animals the paragons of stoicism, and went as far as to invite readers to look at the world through animals’ eyes. De Botton also finds himself coming face to face with some sheep on his trip. It’s interesting to know that Wordsworth’s poetry (like films today) attracted travellers to the places that inspired it, so that, as De Botton tells us, by 1845 it was thought that the Lake District had more tourists than sheep.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Strolling with shepherds and olive-picking picnics: an eco-tourism experience in Northern Cyprus

In the tiny village of Büyükkonuk in Northern (Turkish-speaking) Cyprus, we recently got to hang out in a paddock with a shepherd and his sheep, clamber through perfumed bushland to collect wild herbs (thyme, oreganos, sage, myrtle, and fennel), and learn how to make local feta and olive bread with the village baker. In the cosy sandstone home of our hosts, Ismael and Lois Cemal, we warmed ourselves by a pot-bellied stove and ate a delicious dinner of baked rabbit with vegetables, both from their own garden. The couple are the architects of a project that has established eco-tourism in Northern Cyprus and turned little Büyükkonuk into the area's first eco-village. Driven by a desire not to see Northern Cyprus go the way of the South with its ugly mass tourism development, and disappointed by the readiness with which their compatriots are selling their farms to developers, Lois and Ismael devised a plan. First they turned part of their property into a B&B, providing simple accommodation in a traditional stone house. Next they trained as tour guides and offered a range of activities intended to give people a taste of life in a working village, from donkey treks through the countryside to olive picking 'tours' followed by picnics in the groves. After winning a scholarship at the University of Turin to develop the project further, Ismael set about bringing the rest of his community on board. He encouraged his neighbors to rebuild their crumbling stone houses, transforming them into B&Bs, and applied for funds to reconstruct historic town buildings for community use, like the restoration of an old olive press and the creation of a public square, which Ismael is overseeing. The hope is that if the villagers can see how they can make a living carrying on the traditional way of life they have for centuries then they won't sell out to big business and their village life won't disappear. A stay at Büyükkonuk is a must if you're the kind of traveller seeking more authentic experiences and the opportunity to participate in the everyday life of a working village - or if you've ever wondered what it is exactly that a shepherd does.

If you're flying
Jazeera Airways over the next month,
take a look at our longer feature story on Lois and Ismael's eco-tourism project in J Magazine, the airline's in-flight read.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Close encounter of the goat kind

One of the great things about travelling in Crete is the chance to get up close and personal with the locals, especially the four-legged kind. That's one of the reasons I prefer travelling by car over any other form of transport, for the opportunities it affords you to get off the beaten track. And the flexibility and freedom you have to stay as little or as long as you want in a place, to be able to stop and take photos, or simply take the scenery in. We recently did a drive on Crete's isolated west coast and had slowed down to capture the breathtaking views of the coastline below. We've gotten used to facing off with herds of goats and sheep on the roads, and used to the routine - as soon as they see the car they stop dead in their tracks, they wait a little to see what we'll do, and then, when they see we're no threat (because we've turned the engine off), they hurry past, often leaping and bounding in the air, to get on their way. But on this occasion we were surprised by the friendliness of this lone goat who appeared out of nowhere and came right up to my window.The goat went as far as to nuzzle my hand. He was curious and affectionate, more like a dog or cat, so we stayed a bit to enjoy his company. It's moments like these that make travelling by car cool for me.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Traffic hazards in Crete

Like Thailand - with its stray ox sauntering along the road, its dreadful drivers, its food vendors, and moveable feasts - Crete has its fair share of traffic hazards too. We have revised our list of world's worst drivers, adding the Cretans (and Cypriots) to the top of the list, however, after human beings, the most hazardous things on Crete's road are its animals, namely its goats, sheep, donkeys, and dogs. We have been confronted with a herd of goats or sheep heading our way on a local highway on more than one occasion, with their shepherd strolling not far behind. Our strategy? Simply stop and enjoy the passing show. How often, I ask myself, do we get a chance to get this close to nature?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Observations on Cretan Village Life, or enjoying a bit of ethnographic travel

The people of Crete are proud of their villages, the village way of life, and their traditional customs. The image here of an elderly village couple hangs on the wall at one of Chania's chicest restaurants. City dwellers return to their villages every chance they get - for the olive harvests, religious celebrations, and their village's saints day. Drive around Crete and you'll inevitably pass through a few villages - right through their heart, where the highway has narrowed to a single lane and the walls of the old stone houses jut against the curb to form a canyon. Where you have to drive through at a snail's pace in case someone opens the door of their home, because they''ll be stepping straight out on to the road. If you're in the passenger seat you'll enjoy catching glimpses into people's houses, seeing the yellowed lace curtains on the windows, the embroidered tablecloths and vases of flowers on crooked wooden tables, the old framed black and white portraits of long-gone loved ones on the walls, and an elderly woman or man perched on a stool by the door so they can watch the passing traffic while taking in the sun. We see old men and women on donkeys riding through the main street and capped farmers driving tractors through town, their wives up there with them right by their side. Men less busy are seated around wooden tables playing backgammon and cards in the local kafenion (traditional cafe) while old women dressed in black, wearing head scarves tied beneath their chin, sweep the road with handmade brooms. Old ladies carry loads of firewood and olive branches on their backs or climb the rocky hills on the outskirts of town in search of wild herbs. Driving through Crete is an ethnographer's dream.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Cherry blossoms blooming in Crete

The cherry blossoms are beginning to bloom in the countryside in Crete. Everywhere we drive we see them and when we do we're compelled to stop and photograph them. There's a delicate beauty about them that's so attractive. Perhaps it's because we know the life of their flowering is short. In Japan they celebrate the arrival of the cherry blossoms with hanami or 'flower-viewing' celebrations, with feasts under the trees and walks through parks to admire the blossoms. These contemplative strolls take the form of a retreat to renew the spirit. In Crete their appeal is also about their misplacement. What is something that appears so vulnerable, a tree we normally associate with Japan, China and the Himalayas, doing in a harsh, arid Mediterranean landscape of hardy olive groves, sturdy pines and eucalyptus trees? Though I have to admit that while I wonder about the history of their journey and how they came to be here, simply sighting them is sufficient an experience for me. I never cease to be surprised by how the simplest things about travel - like seeing cherry blossom trees in a Cretan landscape - can often be the most pleasurable. Yet why don't guidebooks tell us these things? Instead, they must send us to cherry blossom festivals or cherry harvests, tell us where to eat cherry pie or buy cherry jam. Why isn't it enough to describe the beauty of the cherry blossom and tell us when, where and how we can see them flower? That's enough for me, because, like the Japanese, I find my spirit renewed simply by gazing at the tree. In Japan, the cherry blossom carries loads of symbolism, its short blooming time signifying the transience of life. Good reason to give the festivals a miss and take time out to stop and smell the roses... um, cherry blossoms.

Monday, March 3, 2008

That was then, this is now: how we travel

How differently we travelled when we were younger, when we tripped about the planet as 'travellers' rather than as professional travel writers. We've just finished four consecutive days of travel between three countries (we've just finished updating four books), involving four hotel stays, three rental cars, one border crossing, and two (delayed) late night flights. As I've been queuing at X-ray machines and passport control counters I've been thinking about how differently we travel now in terms of the choices we make:
* THEN we would pack our backpacks as light as we could, knowing we'd soon be filling them with souvenirs and other bits and pieces, NOW we cram as much into the Samsonite wheelie bags as we can - clothes for all seasons, guides, books and research materials, and every bit of technology imaginable - offloading things when we're done with them, leaving bags about the globe with friends, posting things back to family, and paying excess baggage when we have to;

* THEN we would take overnight buses and trains if we could to avoid forking out the cost of a hotel room for a night, NOW we do anything to avoid the late night trips and (when we have a choice) will happily pay more to travel at a more civilized time;

* THEN we would store our luggage at the hotel and wander around the streets for hours and hours killing time until our departure (and have sponge baths in bus stations if we had to!), NOW we will happily pay extra to get a late check-out so we can make more productive use of our time (and avoid sticky journeys!);

* THEN we would hang out in the departure lounge and read a book if we had a long wait for a connecting flight, NOW if we have to transit we head straight for Information to find out if there's a business lounge we can pay for to work at for the day - with their showers, internet access, complimentary drinks and snacks, and free magazines (hint: just peel off those "don't remove from this lounge" stickers), the lounges can actually be great value;

* THEN we would take public transport from the airport into the city to save money, and explore places by train and bus, NOW we hire a car straight from the airport and explore on our own wheels, purely for the convenience and freedom it allows;

* THEN we would see as much as we could in the time we had available, even if it meant travelling to a different town or city every second day or so (you know, "If it's Tuesday it must be Barcelona"), NOW we stay as long as we can in the one place, preferring to rent apartments over hotels if the project allows, and getting to know one destination more deeply than many places superficially;

* THEN we would get up early, race around and see as much as we possibly could and go to bed as late as we could (not much different to researching a guidebook actually), NOW (when possible, i.e. when we're not researching guidebooks) we prefer to take it easy, only seeing what interests us and instead doing what the locals do, even if it means heading out to eat at 11pm and sleeping in late.

While most of the changes to how we travel now are driven by work - the neverending deadlines, the need to work anywhere anytime, to not waste a second - I wonder if some are also the result of getting older and wanting to take things slower. Have you changed the way you travel?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Cool Travel Guide’s Alternative Holiday Mojo Maintenance Programme

Here's my alternative guide to that top ten list of ways to find and keep your holiday mojo: 1. Immerse yourself in your destination at least a month or so before you leave. Read as much as you can about the history, culture, people, politics, cuisine, etc, watch movies and listen to music about the place. That way, when you arrive your knowledge will be greater and your discoveries will be deeper and will consequently stay with you longer.
2. Do plan for your return, but stock the fridge with the food and liquor of the place you’re travelling to. Better yet, buy a local cookbook, some ingredients, and a bottle of the local drink of choice while you’re there, so you can continue to savour your experiences when you return.

3. Don’t arrive back early. Stay away as long as you possibly can and make the most of your trip. Even better, maintain that adventurous spirit and fly in the morning you’re due back and rock straight up to work with your luggage and souvenirs for your boss and colleagues. (Leave a change of clothes at the office on your last day.)

4. Definitely ease back into work gently and answer only important email. Spend the rest of the day emailing friends and family about your vacation or typing up your holiday diary before you forget your experiences.

5. Don’t just keep one reminder of your holiday close to you – create an online shrine of memories and memorabilia, scanning in your ticket stubs, postcards, matchboxes, bottle labels, and coasters, blogging anecdotes and recollections, and posting your photos for everyone to see. Buy souvenirs that you can use – a beautifully designed kitchen item from Scandinavia, clothes from Buenos Aires – and they way the memories will always be with you.

6. Keep your connection to the destination alive by buying CDs, DVDs and books and magazines from the place while you’re there and listening, watching and reading them when you return. If you went to Spain spend have a Pedro Almodovar film festival one weekend. If it was Lebanon, then stick Fayrouz on the stereo and keep her there. Paris or Milan? Send a few hours thumbing through French or Italian Vogue.

7. Don’t just “slip into holiday mode”, stay in holiday mode: take a short walk every evening (just head to the nearby park or around the block), head to a local café every day for an hour, have a candelit meal every night, and spend time reading a book before bed.

8. Do relax every day, but relate your choice of relaxation to your holiday – swim if you went to the Mediterranean, do yoga if you went to India, get Thai massages if you went to Thailand, and so on.

9. Be a tourist in your hometown every week – head to a concert or show once a week, visit a museum or sight on the weekend that you’ve never been to, go on a walking tour or guided visit, and get out of town regularly, even for a day.

10. And when you’re so sick and tired of Fayrouz, you can’t stomach another taco, and you just can’t get into tai chi, apply for leave, start planning your next holiday, and return to #1.
Any other ideas? I'd love to hear your tips.