Top 5 Holiday Destinations for History Buffs

If you can’t tear yourself away from your history books during your travels, or you simply can’t set foot in a city without wanting to find out about every major event there for the last 500 years, make sure you head to the top destinations for history enthusiasts. Here are our top 5…

  1. Rome

Interesting fact: Did you know that gladiator blood was used to aid fertility in Ancient Rome?

Before you sigh, yes, Rome can be tourist nightmare in peak seasons, and shuffling through the Vatican like squashed sardines isn’t a great experience. But that shouldn’t take away from the incredible history of the Roman Empire; go in the off season if you have to. The Colosseum and the Forum ruins is a window into Italy’s interesting past. A great book to take with you is Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (read reviews here).

  1. Angkor Wat

Interesting fact: Did you know that the Cambodian flag is the only flag with an image of a building?

War tourism is a funny thing these days. We’re fascinated by our violent past but the terrifying fact of it is, the Khmer Rouge happened within the now older generation’s lifetime. This modern history holiday destination is not made for the faint-hearted and anyone leaving Cambodia without compassion must have a heart of stone. Take First They Killed by Father by Loung Ung (review here) but be prepared for tears.

  1. Petra, Jordan

Interesting fact: Did you know that Petra is home to 800 carved tombs?

An archaeologist’s dream, Petra in Jordan is truly one of the most fascinating historical places to visit on this planet. The Treasury is one of the most amazing architectural attractions and dates back over 2,000 years. It is said that the ‘lost city’ still has many secrets to reveal. A great read is the Holidayplace.co.uk blog – there’s been an excellent recent post on discovering Jordan.

  1. Athens, Greece

Interesting fact: Did you know that the Virgin Goddess is a notorious killer of women?

Athens isn’t a luxury holiday, for those who are mistaken. This is a history geek’s heaven but luxury seekers may turn away now because it’s a clash between the beautiful and the ugly. Due to the economic difficulties which persisted in Greece for several years, many parts of Athens are a little run down. But if you’re travelling to learn about Greek history, you won’t find anything more spectacular.

  1. Beijing, China

Interesting fact: Did you know that Fortune Cookies were not invented in China? (They were invented in San Francisco)

There’s no doubt that Beijing is a becoming city. The country itself has changed dramatically in recent years and ever since the Beijing Olympics, the world has looked upon China differently. The Great Wall remains to be one of the most amazing wonders of the world and the country is rich in breath-taking history.

For a controversial read to accompany you on your journey, take Empire of Lies: The Truth About China in the 21st Century (read a review here).

3 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Do in Rome

rome

Rome is one of the most famous cities in the world, and rightfully so. Where else can you see The Colosseum and other iconic wonders? But what if you want to find some treasures that are off the beaten path? Here is your guide to exploring three of the coolest, lesser-known attractions the ancient city of Rome has to offer.

See St. Peter’s Bones at the Vatican

Yes, everyone knows that you can go to the Vatican. But did you know that you can actually go under the Vatican? There is a tour that takes you underneath the famous attraction, to the excavation area. A necropolis rests there, with the tombs of many prominent Roman citizens. Archaeologists believe that the graffiti “Peter is Here” in one area alludes to the bones of the Catholic church’s first pope, St. Peter. This tour is not available for younger children and those who are claustrophobic may want to avoid it, as there are some sections which will feel quite confined.

More Bones… Arranged Intricately

Another unique attraction is The Capuchin Crypt, which is an unforgettable museum of sorts. Back in 1631, the collection commenced with the bones of 300 deceased friars. As the years passed, bodies underwent a burial and exhumation process, after which their bones would be removed from the ground for inclusion in the artistic arrangement. All in all, the bones of approximately 3,700 monks are believed to included in the six rooms that comprise the crypt. This famous attraction courted controversy in the 1850s, with some visitors appalled by the macabre nature of the exhibit. The order insists, however, that the Capuchin Crypt exists merely to remind us of the swiftness of life’s passing.

The Keats-Shelley House

At the foot of the Spanish Steps lies a lesser-known attraction, the last home of poet John Keats. He was only 25, but his contributions were great. His bedroom is preserved for visitors to see, and the house also boasts a collection of over 8,000 volumes of Romantic literature. A small cinema room, gift shop, and book shop are also on hand for visitors who want to pick up trinkets reminding them of their visit.

With so many impressive, off-the-beaten path attractions, tourists to Rome have a wide range of options. These are just a few, but they’ll definitely whe your appetite for more!

Exploring Scandinavia – The Viking Holiday

Scandinavia is an awe-inspiring country, full to the brim with breathtaking scenery and steeped in incredible and rich history, a legacy left behind by the Vikings. From bloody excursions, to pre-Christian burial rituals, to ships and weaponry; although the Vikings disappeared long ago, their artefacts, folklore and the intrigue that came with them is still around today. The legendary Vikings were well known for their love of adventure and their exploration of new and exciting lands, so why not follow in their footsteps, book a trip to Scandinavia and have a Viking inspired adventure of your very own?

The Icelandic Horse

There is one thing that certainly should not be missed when discovering your own piece of Viking history, and that is a horse back tour on the aptly named “Icelandic Horse”. This particular breed of horse was introduced to Iceland by the Vikings themselves and can still be found in Iceland today. The tours run daily and allow you to leisurely discover the stunning Icelandic scenery including waterfalls and geysers. Suitable for Vikings of all ages.

Viking History

The Vikings built some of the most structurally impressive and intimidating ships ever to grace the seas. The Viking Ship Museum is home to one of the world’s best preserved Viking Ships – the Oseberg Ship, which displays some of the finest examples of intricate Viking woodcraft and carvings. To get a real taste of Vikings traditions, the preparation of their ships before they set sail on their brave voyages and the ship burials that housed the rich and powerful after they died, this museum is a must-see.
For a true taste of Viking culture, visit the Lofotr Viking Museum, home to the largest reconstructed Viking longhouse in the world. It features tradition-inspired decorations and carvings, a mead hall and the opportunity for you to witness an authentic Viking feast, wild boar, mead, bonfire smells et al. If you want to discover just how tough the Vikings were, there are even seasonal events such as archery and axe-throwing for you to try.


Sail the Seas

If you’d rather experience life as a Viking in a more traditional sense, then why not do so in a way in which they were accustomed – by the sea! Opting to take a cruise will allow you to take in some of the same sights the Vikings did all of those years ago. Companies like Hurtigruten offer cruises with stops allowing you to explore some of the most magnificent scenery, fjords, national parks and wildlife you are ever likely to see.

Whether you’re travelling with children, or you’re travelling with a friend or partner, there really is something for everyone, and you’ll soon discover why the Vikings were so fond of this land.

Top 5 Things To Do In Ireland

If you listen to the stories about Ireland, you will spend your break drinking, dancing and looking at hills. For many people, this would actually be a brilliant holiday and there would be no need to uncover different activities and past-times. However, in the classic words spoken by Alan Partridge, “there’s more to Ireland than this” and you may be pleasantly surprised by the amount of great holiday options and attractions there are to enjoy in Ireland.

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Galway

Don’t think that Dublin is the only city to choose for exciting nightlife. Galway is a great destination for trips to Connemara and the Aran Islands but with even young Dubliners heading West for a weekend away, you will find plenty in the way of exciting and entertaining bars to party the night and days away. And who knows, you may even find your very own Galway Girl.

The Guinness Storehouse

The tour is quite decent and the advertising campaign section is really entertaining but let’s be honest, if you’re going to Ireland, you need to sample the local wares. The best place to do is at the end of the Guinness tour in the Gravity Bar. Even if you don’t like the drink (and many don’t but you get a free pint), the panoramic views of Dublin afforded by the bar area will delight every guest.

Croke Park

As a deeply religious country, Ireland has plenty sacred places and where people go to pray. The most popular place of this nature is Croke Park, an 80,000 capacity stadium where games such as hurling and Gaelic football are played. These games are mainly amateur games although in recent times, the GAA has given authorisation for “foreign games”, such as rugby, to be played on the hallowed turf at Croke Park.

Croke Park was also the setting for one of the most shameful acts in British history when the Black and Tans and the RIC opened fire on the crowd at the stadium, killing 14 innocent civilians, in 1920. One of the stands at Croke Park was renamed the Michael Hogan Stand after a footballer who was killed that day. This incident played a major part in turning general opinion in Ireland against the British and the Crown.

Cliffs-of-Moher-Sunset-wallpaper

Cliffs of Moher

Life in Ireland may seem a little relaxed and casual for your liking so if you want to get your heart racing, take a trip to the Cliffs of Moher. This can be found in County Clare and there is a terrifying drop off the edge and there are not too many handrails around the top. People have fallen off the edge so be sure to approach with caution but if you are keen to experience stunning views and to get the smell of the Atlantic in your nostrils, this is the place to visit.

With the massive drop off the edge of the Cliffs of Moher, your thoughts will no doubt stray towards holiday insurance and you’ll be hoping that you have some in place just in case!

The Blarney Castle

One thing you’ll soon learn about Ireland is that the local people love to tell a tale or two. Whether you choose to take the stories at face value or not is entirely up to you but there is no doubt that you’ll have a hugely entertaining time listen to them talk. One of the ways that the Irish have been given the gift of the gab, so they say, is through the magical powers of the Blarney Stone. Blarney Castle was built over 600 years ago and it is a stunning example of an ancient castle that is well worth checking out in its own right. However, if it is here you will find the Stone of Eloquence, the Blarney Stone, and if you kiss this, you will be gifted the ability to talk and weave a great story for the rest of your life.

The fanciful nature of the story ties in wonderfully with the Irish way of life and if you are keen to retell your stories with the strongest possible delivery after you return home, this may be the helping hand you need.

Greg is an avid travel writer who enjoys trips around Europe. One of his favourite places to visit is the west of Ireland and especially the county of Mayo with its rugged scenery and great coasts.

The Ultimate Guide to Abandoned Places

If you’re a budding urban explorer and love wandering around and taking photos of abandoned buildings, take a look below at some of the most interesting abandoned places in the world!

Chernobyl 

Chernobyl - 271

In 1986, a reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear plant exploded causing the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. The people of Chernobyl and the nearby city of Pripyat were quickly evacuated, and all that remains now is an eerie decaying time capsule of the 1980s. Pripyat includes some great locations such as schools, cinemas, swimming pools and infamous Ferris wheel. The area opened to tourists in 2002 and has become a popular destination for those wanting to see the reactor (from a safe 200 meter distance) and the abandoned city of Pripyat.

Nara Dreamland

Nara Dreamland was Japans answer to Disneyland. Built in 1961, this theme park closed its doors in 2006 due to declining number of visitors. Since that time Nara Dreamland has remained intact and untouched, but has quickly aged, becoming overgrown with vegetation and rusty. It is not legal to enter the site (the area is patrolled by guards) but that hasn’t stopped a number of explorers that have infiltrated the perimeter to take some fantastic atmospheric photographs.

Abandoned Military Hospital

This abandoned military hospital in Beelitz, Germany was originally intended to be a sanatorium. It then became a hospital for the Imperial German Army during the First World War, and housed Hitler when his leg was injured during the Battle of the Somme. In 2000 the majority of the hospital, including the surgery, the psychiatric ward, and rifle range, were abandoned. This haunting building has gone onto become the location for films and music videos.

Hashima Island

Hashima was originally a coal mining facility, and the island was populated between 1887 and 1974. Japan’s first concrete apartments were built here in 1916 for workers as the islands population reached 5,259 in 1959. However, due to the dependence on petroleum in the 60s, coalmines were shut down. Hashima was closed in 1974, and the concrete apartment buildings were left abandoned. Some of the buildings have collapsed but many still remain. An area of the island was opened to the public in 2009, and in 2013 an employee from Google was sent to take pictures in order to provide people with a panoramic interactive online experience of the island.

Submerged City

In order to visit this last location you will need to don your wetsuit and scuba gear. The submerged ancient cities of Shi Cheng and He Cheng were the result of a man made flood by the government to create a new reservoir after the completion of the Xin’an River hydroelectric station in 1959. The cities were rediscovered in 2001 when a diving club organised a trip there. Walls, buildings and beams are still intact but will not remain so forever.

We hope that these locations will inspire you to start packing up your lenses and planning your next trip today.

About the author: Milly Crowther is a freelance writer and photographer who blogs for Holiday Gems. For more travel tips, checkout the Holiday Gems Facebook page.

Caribbean Magic

If you’re after a luxury escape, what could be better than sailing around the Caribbean on a first-class cruise ship? Let’s be honest, when it comes to an unforgettable getaway, Caribbean cruises certainly rank highly in the ‘luxury’ stakes.

408220_10100814450756531_686433623_nSo how can you get your own bit of Caribbean magic? Your best bet is to get online and start searching for the Caribbean escape that best suits your wish-list. For instance, would you prefer a week’s holiday or a whole month? Have you always hankered after a trip to St Lucia, or Barbados, or would you settle for any Caribbean island? When can you travel? And, perhaps most importantly, how elastic is your holiday budget?

To help answer these questions, visit a tour operator like Cruise Thomas Cook and use their search panel to get started. The great thing about Thomas Cook’s website is that you can browse cruise holidays across all the major Caribbean cruise operators – including Royal Caribbean, P&O Cruises, Celebrity and more – and compare the price and offering of each. You can filter your holiday search results by the criteria that matters most to you, be it price, destination or departure date, and whittle down your options until you find a favourite.

So, if that’s got you thinking wistfully about Caribbean cruises, let’s take a look at some of the options. P&O offer a cracking 14-night voyage departing from Southampton, which takes in the delights of Antigua, St Kitts, Dominica and Barbados, as well as a stop at the beautiful Azores en route. The ever-popular Royal Caribbean International has a week-long trip to Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, St Kitts, Aruba and Curacao, while Norwegian Cruise Lines focuses on a different part of the Caribbean coast – namely parts of Mexico, including Cozumel and Costa Maya, Belize and Roatan in Honduras, as well as the fascinating city of New Orleans in Louisiana.

So, which magical corner of the Caribbean takes your fancy?

Melbourne’s International Eats

11242_824714973001_1857862_nThere’s no reason to assume that Melbourne, the capital of Australia’s Victoria province and that country’s cultural mecca, would be one of the best places in the world to experience a variety of international foods, but then, there’s no reason not to. So with that in mind, and having resolved to book a Melbourne hostel through HostelBookers.com, read on about the great culinary diversity of the city.

Southeast Asian Cuisine

Australia lies in close proximity to Southeast Asia, and so it should not be a surprise that there are many restaurants specializing in that region’s gastronomy. Melbourne is a metropolis that attracts international students, and likewise has the cheap eats that suit their homesickness. Indonesian cuisine is a particularly interesting example of a unique thing that is hard to come by in other Western nations. Make your way to the district known as Prahan, and on Commercial Road you’ll find a restaurant called Blok M, which garners the most praise. Some other Indonesian restaurant names to look out for are Nelayan, Bali Bagus and Agung.

Malay food, and that of Singapore, can also be found in great abundance in Melbourne. Laksa and prawn noodles, if you’ve had them before, will surely draw you back; you will find them served at restaurants such as those along Little Bourke Street and at the newest joint to join the ranks of Malay establishments, Petaling Street, which you’ll find in the Boxhill neighborhood.

Middle East cuisine

Although not as widely represented as Southeastern fare, and precisely because there are more residents from those longitudes, Middle Eastern food can be found in Melbourne as well. Once in the city, make your way to Brunswick, or to Coburg, which are the neighborhoods were this cuisine is mostly concentrated. Half Moon Café has been highly recommended; you’ll find it on Sydney Road.

Chinese cuisine

If you’re a world traveler, then you will know that one of the most intriguing measures of a place is by what extent local options have affected the Chinese food produced there. Everywhere Chinese food is slightly different, and that of Melbourne is no exception. In the city center, there’s a dedicated and historical Chinatown where you can meander to your heart’s content, and learn in the process that the Cantonese food is more widely represented than northern Chinese dishes.

African cuisine

Melbourne might not have a whole lot to choose from when it concerns African varieties, but Ethiopian is there, and Eritrean, its neighbor, as well. You’ll have to travel a bit to find the cafes in Footscray or Flemington, but they’re authentic and in fact serve a mostly African clientele.

European cuisine

The city center boasts a whole street dedicated to Greek food, called Lonsdale, and plenty of suburbs have Greek restaurants. If you weren’t expecting it, Melbourne has a large Italian population as well, and the myriad of Italian restaurants, mostly offering up dishes from the south of that country, is spread all over the city. More focused are the communities where you’ll find Polish fare, in Richmond, and Kosher establishments in Caufield.


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There are many more cuisines to be found in Melbourne, from Indian and Japanese to Thai and American, French and Irish. Australian food, if you’re tired of the international fare, mostly means meat pies or costly kangaroo steaks that you find in the chic joints. Like most contemporary, global-class Western cities, Melbourne’s native fare usually means fusion-design-concept restaurants and eateries that take a little from everywhere and nowhere. In that respect, there’s one more reason that Melbourne is truly gastronomically international.

Weird and Wonderful Milan: The Bone Church

The Italian city of Milan has much to recommend it: a world-renowned fashion industry, an enthralling charm and, of course, its gelato.

But did you know that there are also some pretty weird sights in this stylish and sophisticated city? Sights like the Bone Church, known in Italian as the Chiesa di San Bernardino alle Ossa. Duck inside the dimmed light of the building and let your eyes get used to the dank interior before slipping inside the morbidly decorated ossuary…

bone_church2History of the church

In 1145, a hospital and cemetery were built in front of the Basilica di Santo Stefano Maggiore. When the cemetery ran out of space in 1210 a room was constructed next to it to hold the remains of those who died, then a church was added on in 1269. When it was restored in 1679, the bones were used to decorate the walls of the ossuary, but this church was destroyed 30-odd years later. A new building sprang up on the site in 1712 and was dedicated to St. Bernardino of Siena.

It is thought the bones that now adorn the walls of the chapel are partly from the original ossuary, some are from the old hospital (both from the patients and the monks who worked there) and others are from people who died in prison.

What’s inside?

Located just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Duomo, this church looks perfectly ordinary from the outside. Even once you slip inside its white-washed walls, the interior seems fairly innocuous. But walk down the quiet hallway following the signs to the ossuary and you’ll soon find yourself in a room surrounded on all sides by human bones.

Wire cages are used to keep the skulls, humeri, tibiae and femur bones in place, and these are arranged in intricate patterns to depict ornate crosses and other symbols of the religious environment. A large display of skulls over the back doors is made from the remains of criminals who were beheaded for various reasons, and these are set apart from the ‘good’ people whose bones are contained within the other cages.

Although it sounds grizzly, the ossuary is actually a very peaceful and respectful place. There are chairs dotted around the room if visitors want to sit awhile and take in the atmosphere, or even offer a prayer for their own deceased loved ones.

While you are there, be sure to check out the rounded ceiling of the chapel where a fresco painted by Sebastiano Ricci in 1695 remains. The artwork is layered in the four corners where the walls meet the ceiling to give it a 3D effect.

Visiting hours

The Chiesa di San Bernardino alle Ossa is open between 7.30am and 6pm Monday to Friday with a lunch hour between 12pm and 1pm. On Saturdays visitors can pop in between 7.30am and 12.30pm, then on Sundays the church is open from 9.30am to 12.30pm. Mass is held at 8.30am on weekdays and Saturdays, and at 11am on Sundays.

If you are lucky, there may be a guide on hand to show you around and explain the history of the building. It helps if you already know conversational Italian, although it is likely the staff there will know some English.

Getting around

Although Milan is quite a small city, it still helps to have access to a decent pair of wheels. Hire a car from Milan airport with Auto Europe and you will be able to save time whizzing from site to site, taking in all the things the city has to offer without waiting around for public transport.

New Zealand Road Trip – Part 9

(This is part of a multi part series – to check out the previous entry, click here!)

Epilogue

It’s hard to know how you’re supposed to feel when you leave a place, especially if you feel like you’ve really had a life altering experience during your time there. On one hand it’s sad to see it go because you’d like to keep on enjoying yourself, but on the other hand you know all good things must come to an end.

Just before we were about to leave, we stopped in to the Kiwi House in central Christchurch to see one of the namesake birds in a zoo-like habitat (it’s very hard to see them in the wild as they’re skittish, keep to the woods and are threatened) – such a cool thing to see. While staying in Christchurch we saw a lot of amazing architecture and beautifully designed buildings. The old history that New Zealand holds is written within the walls of ancient temples and churches. You can visit several of these sanctuaries all throughout the city. We took advantage of plenty sightseeing opportunities on our vacation here. Travelling down the streets we stopped at the vendors selling hats, coats and “touristy” souvenirs. We also walked by the Christchurch Cathedral – which not six months later would be virtually destroyed by an earthquake.

It's really too bad it was damaged not long after this...

It’s really too bad it was damaged not long after this…

The thing about travel is you never really do know what you’re going to see and you don’t know if it will be around forever. There are no shortage of things out there that can blow your mind if you only get out there and look. I guess that’s what I like the most about travelling, is this sense of being a part of the story of these places and how they weave themselves into your own little narrative. For me, that’s the meaning of life.

I’ve said this many times to people – if there was a country I could move to and settle aside from Canada, it would be New Zealand. The people were incredible, the landscape was humbling and I enjoyed every minute of my time there – even struggling to figure out a standard camper van, I realize now, was a character building exercise. I have never met someone who had a bad thing to say about their time in New Zealand, and that’s surprising because even some of my other most cherished trips have had dissenters.

Hands down wins the award for best camper van ever

Hands down wins the award for best camper van ever

In total, we drove 2000 km from start to finish over 6 days of travel and were kind of glad to see the end of our camper van. I would love to revisit the south island again, maybe this time in the summer, and maybe in a rental car instead. The campsites along the way offer places to traditionally camp, park your vehicle and even stay in little rooms – talk about accommodating! It’s hard for me to take a road trip again when I think about what New Zealand has because from infrastructure to scenery, it’s not a fair competition.

Anyways, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my road trip through the south island of New Zealand. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and whether you have done the same. Take care!

New Zealand Road Trip – Part 8

(This is part of a multi part series – to check out the previous entry, click here!)

There and Back Again

It was going to be hard to top the last day, or any of the days for that matter, but we were bound and determined to make the most of our last full day in New Zealand.

It served us well.

It served us well.

Something I haven’t mentioned so far is what the nights were like in a camper van. First, it was surprisingly comfortable to sleep in and chill out in for the two of us with the only drawback coming from getting out to plug it in or run to take a shower at the campsites. Yes, we had toilet and shower facilities in the van, but seeing as most of the campsites along the way were decked out with all the luxuries of a first rate hostel and it was included with the $30 we paid each night to plug in for power, we didn’t see the need to use our own toilet/shower. Plus, that saved us having to clean it out later and fill up the water – we think ahead!

One of the most magical things though about being there in the winter is all the things you miss out on by travelling in the summer. For one thing, the crowds are minuscule both at the campsites and on the road. This made for some great driving and opportunities to pull over and take pictures. The other great thing about travelling in winter was just how many stars you can see in the sky at night – both because of the lack of light pollution where we were and because winter you’re further away from the sun’s light. Little things like that aren’t the reason you take a vacation but they’re nice bonuses.

The last thing we really did before heading back to Christchurch was stop by Lake Tekapo, which was something on my list of things to see just because I heard a lot about it from other travellers. There’s not much there – just this little church beside a lake, but I kid you not when I say it was one of the highlights of the trip. Something about how simple it all is, set against the mountains, the frozen lake… it was a sight to behold. We could’ve spent all day there if it wasn’t so cold (and the Japanese tourists were kind of taking it over!), but we had to get going so as to get back to Christchurch in decent time.

Can't imagine a better setting...

Can’t imagine a better setting…

A few hours later, we arrived in Christchurch and went back to the same campsite we stayed at the first night we arrived – a strange sense of deja vu. It was hard to imagine that the next day we were heading out, possibly never to return to this amazing land. While it wasn’t the longest trip nor even the most startling experience I’ve ever had travelling, it definitely left it’s mark on me and for that I am eternally grateful.

Next up, the final thoughts.