"Quotation 50"
CITIES

CITY BREAKS
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Fez is fabulous; one of the largest car free medeival cities in the world, it's authentic, exotic, and superb for shopping...
posted by Richard Green on 29/03/2017
 

Move over Marrakech: Fez has entered the league of city breaks that are short haul and super-exotic. Before British Airways launched its new non-stop flights from Gatwick, reaching it was a mission, but now Morocco’s most Arab feeling imperial city is just 3 1/2 hours away.

It will take time to for the allure of Fez to become as polished as it’s illustrious neighbour, but that’s an advantage. Visit there now and you’ll be catching it at just the right time - with its magnificent and authentic Medina packed with history and culture (the largest inhabited mediaeval city in the world), a sprinkling of tastefully restored and decorated raids and restaurants, and amazingly few tourists.

To walk into the car free Medina is to step back in time - back to sights and sounds straight from the Tales of the Arabian Nights. There are dozens of exotic souks, each for a specific commodity, like spice, henna, or jewellery. In each, under the shade of reed mats slung high above, is the marvellous commotion of daily life, just as it’s been for 11 centuries. And each of the 186 micro districts within the walls has a mosque, a drinking fountain and a communal bakery, all in constant use.

Wandering through the Medina is a thrill in itself, and you soon get used to peeking through doorways at every chance. The hustle and bustle of the alleys evaporates behind modest doorways, through which you’ll spy brilliant mosaic floors of a Madersa (or Islamic school), peer into the clattering gloom of a woodcarving workshop, or step into one of the meticulously restored emporiums or raid hotels. The latter is the perfect opportunity for a relaxing mint tea by the courtyard fountain or high up on the roof terrace.

You don’t need to be intrepid to enjoy Fez, but being prepared for the culture shock and being open to becoming lost does help. With almost 10,000 alleyways inside the ramparts - enough to madden a Minator – it’s a cert that you’ll be lost within minutes. And this is part of the city’s magic. Trust in serendipity, relax, and go with the exotic flow.

Local knowledge

Fez has three distinct sections: to the east is the vast 9th Century Medina of Fes el-Bali (Old Fez); five kilometres south west is the administrative quarter of the Ville nouvelle, constructed by the French in colonial era; and in the middle is Fes el Jedid (Fez the New), the first stab at a new town, built in the 14th Century and home to the giant Royal Palace and Mellah (Jewish area).

The best views of the Medina are from the decayed footsteps of the Merinid Tombs or from the Borj Nord, which houses the Arms Museum and a vast collection of weaponry. From either vantage point, particularly at dawn or dusk, it’s mesmerising to gaze down over the pell-mell of houses and minarets. The tall minaret above the expanse of green tiled roofs is the Karaouyine Mosque, capable of holding 20,000 worshippers and built in 859.

The Fes el-Bali is where you’ll spend most of your daytimes, but most restaurants not attached to hotels close at night, which is the best time to head over to the Ville nouveau and its busy streets and cafes.

Sightseeing: The best idea is to hire a guide for your first morning at least. They can be booked through your hotel or the tourist office (055 62 34 60), for about £7.50 for a half day, regardless of the size of your party. It’s also worth highlighting what you want to see before you set off, as unchecked many guides will gleefully take you to emporiums all day long.

Apart from the Medina itself, the tanneries are the most arresting sight in the city. It’s a scene that’s changed little over the centuries - mud-walled vats are filled with coloured dye, as youths, up to their waists in liquid, tread pigment into the hides. Stuck onto the surrounding buildings are dozens of hides, curling as they dry in the heat and looking like a rash of giant’s shaving cuts. The smells can be powerful (from pigeon poo powered dyes, amongst other things), as can the twinge at seeing such hard labour. The best views are from the leather emporiums, which have terraces looking over the sites.

The Najjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts is housed in a meticulously restored caravanserai, or merchant hostel. The collection of woodcarvings ranges from ornate shelves to elaborately carved and painted children’s cots. Also don’t miss the excellent display of cobalt blue ceramics in the Dar Batha Museum of Arts and Crafts (Place de L’Istiqlal), which has a large peaceful courtyard and collections of carpets, jewellery, and some fine antique astrological devices.

Fez El-Jedid contains the 80-acre private Royal Palace, but it’s worth a visit just to look at the front door – a grand gateway of many arches with intricate inlays and mosaics. Next to it is the Mella, or Jewish quarter, where there’s a cemetery, finely decorated windows, and the little Ibn Danan synagogue, recently restored.

Shopping: even if you don’t fancy yourself as a carpetbagger, it’s a good idea to visit some of the tourist craft shops: they are set in beautifully restored buildings and there’s always a preamble on the history and techniques involved.

Fez remains an important centre for craftsmanship and its wares are exported all over Morocco and the World. Good buys include; clothing, leather, woodcarving, jewellery and carpets. A little south of the Borg Sud is the Quartier de Poterie (32, Ain Nobki route Sidi Hrazem), where you be given a tour of the small pottery and massive shop, selling excellent plates, jugs and mosaics.

Out of town: under an hour’s drive away is the imperial city of Menkes, known as the Versailles of Morocco for it’s super showy monuments built by Sultan Moulay Ismail in the 17th century. It also has an excellent Medina, and is easily combined with Volubilis 30 km to the, where there’s a ruined Roman city, set stark against an expansive valley and wooded hills.

Nightlife: most of the hotels and raids have an alcohol licence and make great havens for a gentle tipple. Otherwise do as the locals do and promenade the Avenue Hassan II in the early evening – this tree-lined boulevard is alive with activity and has many cafés and a few bars.

The Son et Lumiere show takes place on a hill overlooking the southern bastion and the trowel-shaped curve of the Medina. As well as sound and light, the 45-minute show uses lasers, fountains, and projects slides onto the walls of the Borj Sud. At one point, the entire Medina is arc-lit, which alone is worth the price of the ticket, £6. Closed December to March.

Getting around: inside the Medina the only option is walking. Bright red petit taxis are metered and cheap – about £1 between the old and new town. Note that fares increase at night by about 50%.

Where to stay: the Raid Louna has six lovely rooms and a splendid terrace. More conventional is the Hotel Batha, with a good-sized pool and two restaurants. Small rooms, but great value. Ryad Mabrouka is an excellent eight-roomed property, with a delightful little garden, pool, courtyard and terrace, and friendly staff. Riad Zamane occupies an 1860’s house. The courtyard is idyllic, the rooms simply and stylishly decorated, and there’s a nice terrace. The Palaise Jamai is a grand luxury hotel. Formerly a sultan’s palace, it has an excellent pool, superb gardens, and sumptuous decor in the public spaces, restaurants, and old wing rooms.

The most romantic place in town is Raid Maison Bleue, the six roomed sister house of the original La Maison Bleue. The courtyard has tangled greenery and a small pool, the rooms are eclectically decorated and there’s a tranquil rooftop terrace.

Places to eat and drink: the Fassi cuisine speciality is “TFAÏA”, made from lamb and mild spices, onions, eggs and roasted almonds. And finish off your meal with a mint tea and a Moroccan pastry like “corne de gazelle” - a crescent-shaped crimp of pastry dough with an orange water and almond paste filling.

La Kasbah is just outside Bab Bou Jeloud, where there are also a clutch of eateries; either grab a kebab for about 10 from one of the tiny alley stalls, or climb the narrow stairs of La Kasbah for a good meeting place and excellent views, mains from £2. Café Restaurant La Noria (Fes el-jedid) is a quiet spot in the Bou Jeloud Gardens, next to one of the cities original 12 waterwheels, a limited selection of mains, mostly Tagines, from £2.50.

Inside the Medina are many Palace Restaurants in restored houses. Restaurant Asmae (4 Derb Jeniara) is less fussy than most and serves good set menus on two floors. Or try the Restaurant Zagora (5 Blvd Mohammed V) in the ville nouveau, which is a modern French Moroccan place serving a wide variety of dishes. The sautéed veal kidneys are particularly good. Mains from £4.

La Maison Bleue is the place for a romantic fine dining experience. Tables are set into little alcoves in the courtyard and the atmosphere is quite magical. Set menus from £30 and it’s essential to book ahead.

Restaurant Al Fassia occupies a series of sumptuously carved and decorated spaces, dating from 1879. The setting is exquisite and there’s musical accompaniment and belly dancing. Set menu from £25.

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One more thing...It's impossible not to buy something when in Fez, as the cottage craft industry here makes some terrific stuff. You'll for sure be enticed into an emporium or two by a sweet smile and a sweet tea. Just relax and enjoy feeling like a king while the wares are displayed for you. Not buying anything won't cause offence, but not bargaining if you do likely will. It's a way of life in these parts - as a rule of thumb make your first offer half of their first sensible asking price, then expect to bargain to reach a price that's about 60%.

If you are in the Medina and want a break from the bustle, head for the Najjerine Museum, where there are seats by a fountain and a quiet rooftop café.

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Reasons to be cheerful: Fez is a wonderful assault on the senses. It's romantic, exotic and authentic, and it sees just a small fraction of the tourist numbers that visit Marrakech. There is a good choice of riads in the city, many of them moderately priced, and still with lovely shady courtyards and rooftop areas to watch the sunset from.

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You can't always get what you want: the city is uncompromising to tourists, which is one of its draws, but this does mean spending much of your time hopelessly lost in its maze of alleyways, walking past butchers with dripping sheep heads hanging on display, and making way for delivery carts and donkeys often. Plus the touts trying to take you to a carpet emporium can be unpleasantly tenacious. Just be firm, and 'la' is no in Arabic.

puzzle

Fitting Fez into a holiday: Fez makes about the most exotically different weekend break there is - especially so considering that it's only 2-3 hours flying time from much of Europe. If you are at all nervous about a first trip to the country though, it does represent diving in at the deep end somewhat. It's easy to travel by car or train from Fez, so you could combine it with Tangier and Marrakech say too.

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Getting there:Getting there: the small Fez Sais Airport is served by Air Arabia Maroc to Bordeaux, Montpellier, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Toulouse, Barcelona, Brussels, London Gatwick, Lyon, Marrakech, Rome and Strasbourg. Other airlines are Royal Air Maroc, Ryanair, Transavia, TUI fly Belgium, and Vueling.

weather

When to visit: best is Spring (April and May) and Autumn (September and October), when temperatures are in the mid 20’s and the skies are clear. Remember that winter nights can be cold and summer days are regularly over 40 degrees.

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More info: for a good upmarket selection of riads and tailor made options there's Lawrence of Morocco. Other good UK based tour operators include Complete Morocco, Fleewinter, and for good touring trips, On the Go Tours. Or Medina Tours is based in Fez. Also see Visit Morocco

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Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.


CITY BREAKS
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Marvellous Manchester, a year on from the 2017 Arena attack...
posted by Richard Green on 22/05/2018
 

Today is the first anniversary of the apalling 2017 attack, in which 22 people were killed when a bomd was detonated at the end of a concert at the Manchester Arena. Last July I visted the city as part of a press event designed to showcase the best of the city and its people, and the following article first appeared in the Australian travel suppliment, Escape, on December 6th. I'd not really been a fan of Manchester before this trip, but it surprised me with it's big city feel, liveability and sense of community.

***

It’s raining as I arrive in Manchester – sheeting it down from a pewter-grey sky and soaking me as I bundle into the taxi. I comment on the deluge, and like everyone else I was to meet in the city, the driver had a good line in cheery weather-related banter. “ “Yes it rains here, but not as much as some other places,” he said with a smile. “I’ve checked you know! And we get a few Arab tourists who come here to cool off and see rain -- they love our changeable weather.”

The dampness prevented cotton from snapping during weaving apparently, in the days when Manchester was the world’s first industrial city and was known as Cottonopolis - producing 85% of the globe’s finished cotton in the 1840s. The legacy is redbrick textile warehouses scattered across the city, cast iron kerb edges that didn’t crack under heavy textile carts, and household linen still called ‘Manchester’ in Australia to this day.

The cotton trade has long since vanished from the city – and now Manchester is more famous for football, a sort of ‘Socceropolis’ with its two world-class teams – United and City – battling it out for the top titles and trophies. Forbes calculates the combined value of the two clubs at more than $7 billion, with annual revenues of about a one and a half billion – roughly the same as the UK’s entire fishing industry.

It’s still bucketing it down when I hop on a yellow and black tram to Manchester United’s Old Trafford ground. Stadium tours run every ten minutes and my group include excited fans from Singapore, Toronto, Bremen and St Lucia. The empty ground is smaller and more worn than I imagined - but it’s great to see the players’ changing rooms, the tunnel to the pitch and Mourinho’s dugout.

Players are big noises in the city as you might expect. Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs opened Hotel Football next to the Old Trafford Stadium, the fine diner Rabbit in the Moon (‘space age Asian’), and are hatching a plan to turn the former central police station into a luxury hotel. Rio Ferdinand is part owner of swanky Italian Rosso.

I instead opt for an evening at Bongo’s Bingo and queued around the corner to enter the beautiful Albert Hall, the former Methodist hall built in 1908. The crowd of 800 is astonishingly up-for-it from the start, and in between the bingo – with prizes including a Space Hopper, a cardboard politician and a bottle of Amaretto – the maestro called “Dancing Queen number seventeen”, “Staying Alive number five” and so on. All are cues for predictable mini raves and table dancing.

A bingo audience and atmosphere like you have never seen. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Football and bingo have working class roots and this earlier spirit is captured in the People’s History Museum. Like every other museum I visit in the city, it’s free, and it’s where I take my hangover the next morning. It’s a non-political museum that’s very political, highlighting as it does the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, the 1833 Tolpuddle Martyrs, and the 1984 miners’ strike. I also learnt that Emily Pankhurst was born in Manchester and her former home (now the Pankhurst Centre museum) is where the Suffragettes movement was founded.

You wouldn’t know it now, what with the snazzy glass tower of the Football Museum (with showy internal funicular), the futuristic Armani shop and the glass-fronted Selfridges, but Manchester was rather down at heel in the 80s and 90s. Back then it was said that only 250 people actually lived in the city centre. It’s now up to 20,000.

The slump in fortunes didn’t do any harm to the city’s music scene though; in fact the deprivation may just have helped it according to local music guide Sue McCarthy, who shows me the vinyl shops on Oldham Street, the once shadowy square where Northern Soul began, and the location of the Hacienda – a legendary music venue that closed in 1997 and has since been obliterated by the Hacienda Apartments.

At the dingy-looking alleyway entrance to Corbier’s, a man not unacquainted with daytime drinking said good-naturedly “Call in, call in; you may never come out!” The bar was opened by a former Man-U player in 1978. It has a corking jukebox, and is where the Happy Mondays first bumped into Bez - their maracas-playing mascot.

The bonhomie reminds me of two pasty lads I met in Sumatra wearing identical T-shirts printed with ‘This isn’t Manchester, this is the trip!’. Like other Mancunians, they were proud of their city, quick-humoured and swift with banter.

Next morning, after a brilliant bacon butty in Manchester’s Art Gallery café, I find myself staring at a screen of white noise while listening to ‘Decades’ by Joy Division. The ‘True Faith’ exhibition is inspired by the band, and New Order as it became after its lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide aged 23. The exhibition includes installations, album covers, and Curtis’ original hand written lyrics for ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’.

Manchester has produced musical talent in spades. It started with the Hollies, Herman’s Hermits and Freddie and the Dreamers in the 60s. Then in the 80s and 90s came Joy Division and New Order, The Smiths, Stone Roses, Simply Red, Swing Out Sister, James, Happy Mondays, Chemical Brothers, Oasis, and Take That.

The Northern Quarter is where it’s at these days. It’s not exactly pretty – with red brick buildings and wrought iron staircases that occasionally stand in for New York in films - but the city’s bohemian enclave is where you’ll find provocative street art, trendy vintage shops, and even an Icelandic coffee café called Takk.

On my last afternoon I went traditional and walked along the Castlefield canals, past crowds of outdoor summer drinkers at ‘Dukes 92’ and Barca, and end up sitting in the warm sunshine by Cathedral Square with a pint of ale beside the 16th century Old Wellington.

Out of the blue it starts to rain, but along with everyone else I scoop up my glass and joined the friendly indoor crush. What might have been a day-spoiling event in many cities was over in 10 minutes. Then we all take our drinks outside again as though nothing had happened.

***

puzzle Manchester makes for an interesting city break, plus of course the city attracts a lot of football tourism both for the matches, and also for the football heritage. Within daytripping distance of Manchester is Blackpool, Chester, Buxton, and the Peak Disctrict. And a 90-minute drive away is the gorgeous, and famously damp scenery of the Lake District.
31 Manchester Airport is 14 kilometres south-west of the city and handled 27.8 million passengers in 2017. There are flights to Manchester from across the UK and Europe, plus a growing number of long haul routes, including Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific, Dubai with Emirates, Beijing with Hainan Airlines, Singapore and Houston with Singapore Airlines. Upcoming new routes include Addis Ababa with Ethiopian Airlines (starting December 1 2018), and Mumbai with Jet Airways (from November 5 2018).
weather The best time to visit the Cape Town area is during the dry summer months from October to April, with January and February being the warmest with an average of 25°C. Temperatures will likely be below 20 with more than 10 days rain per month in May-September. 
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See Visit Manchester


CITY BREAKS
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Hamburg; a fabulous maritime city that's 110 kilometres from the sea
posted by Richard Green on 27/06/2017
 

Captain Hoffman stands on the bridge in naval uniform intently watching an approaching container vessel. But instead of barking orders for a change of course he takes up a microphone and announces in a kindly manner - from two 600-watt speakers - the tonnage, length and homeport of the oncoming ship. Then at the click of a mouse a lofty anthem booms out across the water. 

Herr Hoffman welcomes arriving ships with an announcement and their national anthem. Photo My Bathroom Wall 

“I have 153 national anthems here,” Herr Hoffman says proudly. “They used to be on vinyl, then cassette tapes, and now they are MP3’s. That one was from the Marshall Islands because that is where the ship is flagged.”

Before you think the German navy has completely lost the plot, we’re on dry land, Herr Hoffman is retired, and his ‘bridge’ is a small office on the side of the Schulauer Fährhaus restaurant. This bonkers little ceremony takes place at a narrow point in the Elbe River 22 kilometres west of Hamburg, conducted for all arriving and departing ships over 5,000 tons. It first began in 1952 – initiated by the restaurateur who was constantly being asked by customers where the ships were from.

A ship passing the Schulauer Fährhaus and so called 'Welcome Point'. Photo Schulauer Fährhaus

Hamburg is Germany’s richest city, the country’s media, design, and music capital, and Europe’s second biggest port. It feels more chilled than Munich, less swaggering than Berlin, and despite being 110 kilometres from the North Sea, the connection with seafaring is ever present.

You can’t miss the giant port that smothers one bank of the River Elbe. The city is clearly proud of it, and flaunts it with an historic riverfront that grandstands the dry-docked cruise liners here for refits, the banks of containers and rows of cranes.

And the love of shipping doesn’t stop there.

The splendidly shipping-themed lobby of the 25hour HafenCity Hotel. Photo 25hours Hotels

I stayed at the 25hour HafenCity Hotel, a funky new place where standard bedroom décor includes a rope ladder, a life size cartoon of a sailor in the bathroom, a globe and a faux antique Louis Vuitton travel trunk. I could however have chosen the Atlantic Kempinski, which was built for first class passengers travelling on the Hamburg-America line and has a lobby bar like a cruise liner’s; or the recently refurbished Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, where older rooms have double doors with a space in between, formerly for the discreet delivery of luggage – just as posh old liners once insisted upon. 

The Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten. Photo Fairmont Hotels

The ‘Love Boat’ theme was playing when I entered the Fairmont bar, which is a cabin-like nook with wood panelling and a spiral staircase. The chap taking red wine and cheese at the bar immediately chatted: “This has been my ritual to escape the hustle of every day life for forty years now.” And with an air-twirl of his fork he added, “Did you know that Hamburg has 64 kilometres of docks and more bridges than Venice and Amsterdam put together?” I looked sceptical, but a short while later the white-coated barman returned and said he’d checked his mobile and it wasn’t correct. “Wikipedia says that there are 2,400 bridges in Hamburg, more than Venice, Amsterdam and London put together,” he beamed. 

The almost seaside vibe at the Strandpearl bar/restaurant. Photo My Bathroom Wall

At the Strandpearl beach restaurant, I joined the tables of beautiful people on a rather grey beach and watched as the mammoth blue bulk of a container ship slide past. As I chomped through a bratwurst and beer, two mates in their 70s asked if the seats beside me were taken. Wolf excitedly told me that the blue container ship was the APL Sentosa – “Too big for the Panama Canal even, 70 meters longer than the Eiffel Tower and carrying up to 14,000 containers!”  His friend Berndt rolled his eyes: “Oh, here we go again,” he bemoaned through a huge smile. “Wolf knows everything about ships.”

The views are fabulous from the open air section of the 'Clouds' Bar. Photo Clouds Bar

The hippest places for cocktails are ‘Clouds’ and the ‘20up Bar’, both topping tall buildings and angled for the best floor-to-ceiling harbour views. There are bars down on the river, too -- cheap eats on the ten Landsbrücken pontoons with a seaside-feeling medley of excitable children and excruciating postcards. Nearby I sat in a deckchair and felt the sand between my toes at the mellower Hamburg del Mar bar, then I had a drink on the floating Astra floating biergarten, and rounded off on the curvaceous wooden deck of a little red lighthouse ship.

The 'Hamburg del Mar' bar, even though the mar is 110 kilometres away. Photo My Bathroom Wall

On the U3 metro line I was startled when the train emerged from a tunnel to reveal fantastic views of Hamburg’s river. Between Landsbrücken and Baumwall stations, the train trundles over rails elevated on spindly iron stilts for views not unlike those heading in or out of Sydney’s Circular Quay Railways Station. Public transport ferries fuss along the Elbe and dozens of harbour cruise options vie for the tourist’s attention, and there’s an extraordinary river tunnel too, built in 1911 for workers to commute to the docks. Glass lifts for pedestrians, and older garage-sized ones that take two cars at a time, descend 75-meters to the tunnel floor.

The late afternoon sun drew me to stroll westwards along the riverbank on my last day in Hamburg. I passed U-434, a Russian submarine (now a museum) and an office block in the shape of a ship, and eventually reached a cute cluster of historic vessels at the Oevelgönne museum.

The welcoming wooden interior of the old ferry boat restaurant. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Inside the cosy dining room of a converted 1952 Hamburg ferry, I tasted the city’s speciality of Labskaus – once a common seamen’s dish - a delicious hash of beef, potato and onion topped with an egg. The young waitress bent beside the table like a First Class airhostess and after the meal suggested that I should get a ferry back to where I’d started - and that one was leaving in four minutes. “At night when I finish it feels like a village here,” she said, “all peaceful and quiet. I get the ferry back to the centre sitting on deck watching the lights of the docks cranes and ships, and I feel very lucky.”

Four minutes later, the tug-like ferry arrived and lowered its gantry. I hurried on and took her advice, sitting on deck to watch the eerily lit cargo ships, their containers stacked like toy bricks, and red lights pinpointing the toiling crane tips.

I felt very lucky too.

Sunset over the River Elbe. Photo Visit Hamburg

puzzle Hamburg makes a great city break. It's an intriguing place with lots to see, a buzzing atmosphere, and outstanding maritime heritage. It's easy to get to, yet noticably less touristy than other top tier European cities.
31 Hamburg Airport is 8.5 kilometres north of the city and handled 16m passengers in 2016. There are flights to many European cities, plus to Dubai with Emirates, and Tehran with Iran Air
weather The best time to visit Hamburg is in summer from May to October. Temperatures rarely top  the high 20s and there is the chance of showers at any time of the year. Winters are chilly to cold, but snow falls only a few times a year. 
35 www.hamburg.com is the city’s website. Public transport day pass is €7.5 and the Hamburg Card is €9.5 a day, including discounted entry to museums and places of interest.  

CITY BREAKS
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Atmospheric souks, three flavours of chocolate fountain and dune bashing. Twenty reasons to holiday in Dubai...
posted by Richard Green on 11/06/2017
 

Bastikiya 
Getting happily lost in the narrow alleyways of Bastikiya. But fear not, it will only be for a matter of minutes, as this former Persian fishing village next to The Creek and Dubai Museum is only a small patch of what Dubai would have been like before the arrival of oil and airlines and the like. 


Souvenir shops down an alleyway in Bastikiya. Photo My Bathroom Wall

It's been restored and turned over to arty boutiques, cafes, and guesthouses. I mooched between its coral-built houses and pushed open a magnificent wooden front door or two. Indoors I discovered romantic courtyards and spaces cooled by traditional wind towers that ingeniously funnel down even the faintest whisper of breeze. One door revealed the gorgeously arty courtyard of the XVA Hotel, gallery and cafe, another the The Majlis Gallery with it’s wonderful collection of water colours, fabrics, and a 3m long bronze fish mobile. I spent an unintentional but blissful few hours at the Basta Art Café here too – settled with a book on an outdoor sofa, in the shade of a Narra tree, slurping creative melanges of fresh fruit juices and picking at a chicken and apricot salad.

Arabian Oryx 
Getting face to face with an Arabian Oryx. The open-sided safari Range Rovers drive close to this beautiful white antelope with two foot straight horns. They are probably the origin of the Unicorn myth too – either seeing one from the side when the horns appear to merge, or from an injured single horned creature. 


The Unicorn fable apparently started when sailors spied very still and side-on Oryx. Really? Photo Sir Bani

Yas Desert Islands
Sir Bani Yas Island is 160 miles southwest of Abu Dhabi, where Sheikh Zayed - founder of the UAE – kept his private island and made a reserve and saved the Arabian Oryx from extinction. He had a great eye for beautiful and secluded desert islands, and now it’s open to tourists too. The rugged island is home to the largest herd of Oryx in the world, a lovely 64-room hotel, and no other buildings except for the high-walled Sheikhs palace. My balcony had intricate wooden carvings and overlooked the swimming pool and bright blue waters of the Gulf beyond - the occasional oil tanker gliding by to anchor the scene. I kayaked through the mangroves; mountain biked over crags, and took far too many Oryx pics on the jeep safari. See www.sirbaniyasisland.com 

Brunch
Swaying in front of the best sushi display I’ve ever seen. It was a tipsy sway too, thanks to the waiters rapid refilling of my champagne flute, but I took aim and plucked more perfect parcels of fish from the ice-field of a counter. Friday brunch at a restaurant or swanky hotel is an institution in the Emirates – as the Muslim weekend falls on Friday and Saturday.


The chocolate fountain station at the Abu Dhabi Shangri-La brunch. Photo Time Out 

My favourite all you can eat extravaganza of crab and curries, carved meats and couscous, is the giant spread offered by the Abu Dhabi Shangri La (www.shangri-la.com/abudhabi, £42pp with alcohol, £59pp with champagne). How to top the many flavour of ice cream left me in a quandary – should I aim for the milk chocolate fountain, the dark one, or the white one? It has won the Best Brunch award several times, but the local Time Out magazine lists the latest venues – currently more than 85 of them. 

Dubai Museum
Descending into history underneath Dubai’s oldest building. I was surprised to discover a state-of-the-art-museum beneath the coral built Al Fahidi Fort. It’s a pretty Beau Geste like castle by the Creek, dating from 1787, yet underground is a large area of interconnecting displays and of Emerati life through the ages.

The lighting is twighlight, and there’s sand on the floor and sound effects as you walk-through life size dioramas of merchant shops, dhow loading and pearl diving. Uncannily convincing enough to mistakenly ask directions of, and all you need to know about Bedouin life. Dubai Museum (Al Fahidi Fort, Bastikiya).

Shopping
Rounding a corner revealed the cheery sight of everyday Emirati's on ice. Girls in head scarves and lads in brilliant white dishdasha’s were whizzing round the shopping mall’s the ice rink. There are hundreds of souks and small shops in Old Dubai, but the mega malls are so daft they are fun, and full of bonkers surprises too. The Mall of the Emirates has an indoor ski slope and ice rink and Dubai Mall (thedubaimall.com) has the largest aquarium-viewing panel in the world.


Not a Shanghai junk shop, but the China Court of the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai. Photo Ibn Battuta Mall


My favourite is the Ibn Battuta Mall, with country-themed sections in tribute to one of the world's greatest travellers. A stroll past some of its 400 shops is made much less daunting thanks to the cheery decor in the sections devoted to India, China, Persia, Egypt, Andalucia and Tunisia.

Learn about Islam
Discovering the funny side of Islam. I learned more than I bargained for in the Grand Jumeirah Mosque because the local Muslim guide was so funny. She wisecracked about the LED display not being today’s money change rates, but actually prayer times and won us over. She explained the pre-prayer washing ritual by an outside fountain, talked us through the prayer technique, and then sat us all down on the mosque’s Persian rugs for ‘any questions’ session.


A talk for tourists inside the Grand Jumeirah Mosque. Photo Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding

I’ve been into dozens of mosques around the world, but this was a more intimate and informative an insight than any. This introduction to Islam is run by the not for profit Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Visits last 75 minutes on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, at 10am, and cost £1.70; no reservation necessary. 

Sunset 
Feeling the quick-to-cool desert sand flow through my fingers at sunset. There’s nothing quite like tearing off into the desert Emirati-style, to enjoy a sunset picnic on the dunes.


A fiery Dubai desert sunset. Photo John Karwoski/Flickr

You don’t need local pals either; as there are several desert hotels to help, including the desert fort like design of the Qasra Al Sarab, the grand-arched infinity pool overlooking the desert at the four-star Tilal Liwa Hotel, and the giant tented suites at Al Maha. I try not to miss sunset gazing each evening wherever I’m in the UAE, but desert facing is always the best. 

Burj Khalifa
Relishing the view from the tallest building on earth. The views are astonishing, with the Dubai Fountain immediately below, more lowly skyscrapers stretching along the coast, and cargo ships out in the Gulf. In fact the Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building by far – 642 feet taller than its nearest rival to be precise. The tip of its mast scrapes the sky at an extraordinary 2,722 feet.


Photo Burj Khalifa

The lift whisks you from inside the Dubai Mall to the observation deck on the 124th floor. Painfully large wall to wall and floor to ceiling windows are fantastic for drinking in the skyline way below, not so great for vertigo sufferers like me. And for better and worse, there is an outside open to the elements area with wooden decking too. Days can be hazy, so to contrast daytime and the brilliant night time lights of the city, aim to visit a little before sunset. Be sure to book your slot online at www.burjkhalifa.ae before you arrive, at £17pp, as tickets bought on the day are £68pp.

Al fresco cinema
Watching cinema under the stars on a clear winter’s night. The Wafi shopping centre shows free film screenings on its rooftop every winter Sunday. I plumped a giant lime green bean bag, sank into perfect viewing comfort, and tucked into a plate of large nachos here. By the unmistakable Wafi Pyramid shopping centre, the gardens are a great live music and chill out venue too, with fake rocks and some real grass and palms crafted into a vague amphitheatre. Bring a light jumper for the cooler winter evenings – generally from 15 to 20 degrees.


Bean bags and the al fresco screen at Wafi. Photo Wafi Dubai

Films start at 8:30pm and entry is free; see www.wafi.com. Alternatively Vox Outdoor shows outdoor films, on the roof of the Galleria Mall, see www.uae.voxcinemas.com.

The Metro
Staying cool at a futuristic Metro station. The giant golden scarab-like design of Dubai’s overhead metro stations are a pleasure to look at and use. Two lines zip past many of Dubai’s hotels and sights, with one to and from the airport. I always smile to see the gridlock of yellow Lamborghini’s, red Ferraris, and black Bentleys below, having forked out my 34p for the metro.


The typically understated design used for most of the metro stations. Photo Aedas/Flickr


There are women-only and family carriages, and with summertime highs topping 50 degrees, air-conditioning is ubiquitous; even in the overground metro stations and bush shelters. (www.dubaimetro.ae)

Cocktails
Swanky cocktails. Sipping cocktails with one of best skylines in the world for a backdrop. The manmade tree-shaped island that juts into the Persian Gulf, called The Palm Jumeirah, is more impressive from the air than from the ground. It’s one of several grandiose reclamation schemes to turn patches of the Persian Gulf into a island outlines of The World, The Universe, and three giant Palms. The views of Dubai from the Palm Jumeirah – especially from The One & Only’s floating 101 bar  – a trendy tented and wood decked bar at the tip of the first frond – are fabulous though (wwww.oneandonlyresorts.com).


The Skyline Deck. Photo One & Only Resorts

A sassy South African barmaid talked me through the cocktails on my first visit here, and helpfully tipped me off to the free speedboat service to the Royal Mirage Hotel back on the mainland – itself with a great Moroccan themed roof bar for late night boozing and schmoozing. (www.thepalm.ae)

Driving into the desert
Driving towards a desert mirage. Away from the cities, and the infamous Sheikh Zaid Road (which connects Dubai with Abu Dhabi and alternates between gridlocked and larey), driving in the UAE is a breeze. The desert roads are often dead straight, quiet, and dissolve into mirages. With open road to the horizon, sand dunes to the sides, dirt-cheap petrol, and some of the best direction givers on the planet, driving here is a hassle free fun.


Perhaps stick to the roads though, but the desert is just on Dubai's doorstep. Photo Land Rover MENA/flickr 

Like the locals I soon got obsessed with finding shade to park in – on one day temperatures reached 53 degrees and I had to wrap the fiery hot steering wheel in a t-shirt before I could handle it. Oh, and locals give exquisitely detailed directions – several times I was asked to follow the bloke I’d asked, who lead me right to the place. It comes from the desert past, where telling a stranger good or bad directions to the next watering hole or oasis could be the difference between life and death. You’ll need an International Drivers Permit, your own driving licence, and there is zero tolerance for any alcohol in the bloodstream.

Visit an oasis
Breathing in the cooling shade and sound of water in a picture book oasis. The desert Oasis town of El Ain is 75 miles south of Dubai. It’s a pleasant place partly shared by the UAE and Oman and surrounded by scorched desert. It reminded me weirdly of Carmel in California, with smart shops, diagonally parked cars, and a certain sophistication that belied it’s remote and unforgiving location.


An olive grove inside the Al Ain oasis. Photo Geneva_wirth/Flickr

The green palm grove at its centre is silent save for the swish of fronds and the tinkle of ancient irrigation channels. I took a walk through here and imagined how mesmerising it would have been to stumble on such lush cooling freshness in after days on a camel. The nearby Jebel Hafeet mountain is graced by the finest short drive I know – a three-lane road snakes from the desert floor to the 4,100ft summit in just seven miles. 

Ferrari World
Lurching back into the seat on the world’s fastest rollercoaster. I swore, a lot, when the aircraft carrier grade catapult let fly and my face pressed onto my skull. Careering out over the empty desert towards the first fearful turn was faster and scarier than his F1 Ferrari, according to Alonso. At Abu Dhabi’s Ferrari World, the Ferrari red on the rollercoaster cars is applied at the Modena factory in Italy, and the thrill of accelerating up to 240 kilometres per hour and experiencing 4.8G is just as genuine too.


The extraordinary design of Abu Dhabi's Ferrari World

There are many Ferrari themed rides, from a pootle round a miniature Italy in a model Ferrari California, to a multi lane ‘racing’ rollercoaster. Paradise for petrol heads, but I was taken by other details too, like the replica of the worker’s trattoria that’s adjacent to the real Ferrari plant, serving pizza and pasta, but not beer though. www.ferrariworldabudhabi.com; entry, over 1.5m £38pp, under 1.5m £28.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Standing aghast on a 48 ton Persian rug. I reigned in my lower jaw and paced the length of the vast marble prayer hall inside the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. The two cities are 98 miles apart – just under a two hour drive on a good day. The hand knotted carpet is the largest in the world, and the building itself rivals the Taj Mahal in grace and craftsmanship.


Photo My Bathroom Wall

It’s a modern, stunning structure, with more than 80 domes, miles of marble, and vast chandeliers. The intricate inlay work is mesmerising, as is the gigantic scale of the prayer hall, which can hold 14,000 people. I stayed here way longer than I had planned, sitting on the carpet watching other people being enthralled by the place. www.szgmc.ae; entry free

Gulf cuisine
Rounding off a meal with an apple flavoured sheesha. After a feast of grilled meats and mezze, the done thing at most local restaurants is to order a sheesha pipe to share. The Sheesha – known in different regions of the world as hookah or nargileh, or perhaps hubbly-bubbly, is an intricately designed way to smoke flavoured tobacco by sucking the smoke from an ember tray at the top, down through water and along a pipe to your mouth.


Arabic breakfast selections at Reem al Bawadi. Photo Reem al Bawadi

Restaurants are as posh, pricey, and as international as you like in Dubai, but don’t miss out by overlooking its fine Arabian and Middle Eastern cuisine too. There are several of them now, but the original Reem al Bawadi on the Jumeirah Beach Road, is a great place for good food in a convivial semi-rustic atmosphere. Staff are very friendly, and the Lebanese mezze and local grilled dishes are excellent. (www.reemalbawadi.com)

The Creek
Crossing the Creek on a rickety wooden boat. Crossing the main artery of Old Dubai, called The Creek, is a blast, on a long wooden boat known as an Abra. It costs 17 pence one-way and is the best way of getting from the Dubai Museum, Bastikiya and the Textile Souk, across to the Perfume, Gold, and Spice souks.


Abra-cadabra; the fun way to cross the Creek

I always say hello to my neighbour – they often beat me to it too – revealing cosmopolitan Dubai - tourists from Turkey, Taiwan, or Tadcaster; immigrant workers from the Levant, Lahore, or Lemington Spa. Abra's cross the Creek every few minutes, with a journey time of about 10 minutes and a one-way fare of 17p.

Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House
Loudly slurping thick Arabic coffee and eating sticky dates, Bedouin style. Towards the mouth of The Creek, on its south side, is the Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House (Shindagha waterfront), a fine 19th century mansion with a large courtyard and several wind towers. The grandfather of the current ruler of Dubai lived here until his death in 1958.


Inside the Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House. Photo Instagram/@dubaiculture

There is a great collection of pre oil pictures of Dubai, showing the meagre roads and modest landing strip. Behind it, and also worth a look is the Heritage and Diving Village; a slightly scruffy stab at demonstrating traditional life – you can sample Bedouin pancakes, have your picture taken with a falconer, or climb onto a camel. During Eid celebrations you might even stumble on a rifle-throwing competition.

Jumeirah Madinat Resort
Glide on a boat through bayou style backwaters. I really rate the evening atmosphere at the Jumeira Madinat Resort, with boats passing ornamental lamps, in between faux souks, and restaurants serving cuisine from all over the world. It’s hard to believe that like everywhere else beyond Old Dubai, it is utterly and fabulously fake.


The fabulously fake bayou of the Madinat Resort. Photo Jumeira 

Go with the flow I say and join locals, expats, and tourists, in enjoying a sashay through some of the most magnificent hotel lobbies, bars and restaurants in the world. Head to the Jumeirah Beach Hotel for great views of the Burj Al Arab (www.jumeirah.com/burj-al-arab), or to the Burj for dining in an underwater Al Mahara restaurant, or for a nightcap at the Skyview Bar 650 feet above the Persian Gulf. Or pop into Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace for coffee under the chandeliers. Staff at all of the swanky hotels are welcoming and courteous, service generally excellent. I conquered my case of posh hotel lobby apprehension syndrome in the UAE, and you can do too. For a good list of other hotels, see definitelydubai.ae and visitabudhabi.ae.

The other Emirates
Dipping over the mountains towards the gin clear Gulf of Oman. I pointed the car east, crossed some impressively craggy mountains, and entered a pocket of Omani territory too – no border crossing at this one though – and drove along the impressive Fujairah corniche. Seven Emirates make up the UAE, and exploring them by car is a great way to discover the patchwork of land that make up the country.


Trekking in the mountains of Ras al Khaimah. Photo Visit Ras Al Khaimah

As well as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, there’s Sharjah with its nicely restored souk, Ras Al Khaimah for a scattering of new hotels - including the Waldorf Astoria and Banyan Tree, Ajman for the Kempinski (www.kempinski.com/ajman) and dhow building, and sleepy Umm Al-Quwain, except for the Dreamland water park (www.dreamlanduae.com). The bling is spreading farther and wider across the UAE, but venturing away from the coastal strips of ultra modernity in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, is a highlight for me. I’ve magical memories of the super courteous Emirati’s and the rugged desert land they live in.
 

04 Reasons to be cheerful: the city has come a long way since Wilfred Thesiger passed by in 1940s, when it was a small fishing village of about 2,000 people. There is now an outstanding choice of restaurants, shopping malls, and attractions. Taxis are cheap and the metro system is efficient.
24 You can't always get what you want: a bit of a Marmite destination is Dubai - as people either love it or hate it. It's true that there are still areas blighted by ongoing construction, plus the traffic along the Sheikh Zaid Road can be terrible. And shopping and eating out have become very expensive
puzzle Fitting Dubai into a holiday: most holidaymakers use Dubai as a stopover destination in between long haul flights, or alternatively a beach break holiday. Car hire is cheap in the UAE and so self driving to Abu Dhabi and the other Emirates is very easy.
31 Getting there: the main gateway airport is the Dubai International Airport, which handled almost 83 million passengers in 2016. There are direct flights to many world cities, including Bangkok, Barcelona, Delhi, Dublin, Hong Kong, London, Nairobi, New York, Stockholm, Shanghai, and Tokyo with Emirates. Other airlines include Aeroflot, Air India, FlyDubai, KLM and Singapore Airlines. 
weather When to visit: Dubai has fearsomely hot summers, when daytime highs can reach 50 degrees or more. Some hotels have to chill their swimming pools and spray mist over sunbathers. November to mid April is a better time to visit, though it is the high season, when temperatures are hot rather than boiling.
35 More info: see www.visitdubai.com
30 Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.

 


CITY BREAKS
   4030 views   
City Break Tirana, the cheap, quirky and rewarding capital of Albania...
posted by Richard Green on 22/03/2017
 

Why go? If you’d like to try somewhere decidedly different, the Albanian capital has friendly locals, fascinating history, quirk galore and jaw-droppingly low prices: half a litre of beer costs £1, museum entry £1.25 — the opera is only £1.75, for heaven’s sake. It’s not the prettiest of cities, but it has Ottoman, Italian and communist-era highlights, and there are several fabulous day-trip options.

By day: the giant Skanderbeg Square, started by the Italians and finished by the communists, belongs in a far larger city. In a non-monumentalist corner is the little Et’hem Bey Mosque, a real treat with a gorgeous prayer room. And there’s a tremendous collection of socialist-realist art at the National Gallery of Arts (Bulevardi Deshmoret e Kombit; gka.al; £1.25) — look out for the statues of Lenin and Stalin at the back.

For lunch, you could opt for traditional Albanian cuisine in a shaded courtyard at Sarajet (Rruga Abdi Toptani 7; sarajet.com; mains £3.50). Or, for more sophisticated food, decor and service, try Vila Alehandro (Rruga Asim Zeneli 2; vilaalehandro.com; mains from £4.50). It’s in a grand white mansion that was formerly the Romanian ambassador’s residence.

Now head up to the mountain fortress of Kruja, where the weavers are making a kilim. The smooth-stoned main alleyway leads past dozens of carpet and souvenir shops, where you can haggle rugs down to about £30 and Hoxha mugs to 50p. Beyond, you enter the 5th-century castle walls that the national hero, Skanderbeg, defended stoically against the Turks — there’s a reverent museum dedicated to him (£1.25). Get to Kruja, 20 miles north of Tirana, by taxi (£25 return) or bus (90p). Or make for the ancient seaside capital, Durres, which sees Albanians in beach mode — it’s a £14 taxi ride.

By night: the Blloku neighbourhood shows a metaphorical two fingers to the former dictator. Albanians were barred from the area in his day, but now it’s as good a nightlife centre as any in the Balkans, with boutique shops, restaurants, pavement bars and clubs surrounding the 17 oversized villas where Hoxha and his coterie once slept. The incongruous Sherlock Holmes bar (Bulevardi Bajram Curri) is trendy, with white furniture, arty lighting and a beau monde clientele. Radio (Rruga Ismail Qemali 29/1) is a cracking bar with a very happy ambience and marvellous cocktails. In low-rise Tirana, the 15th floor feels giddying, but that’s where you’ll find the revolving restaurant Sky Club (skyhotel-al.com), with great views, cheap beer and a comically hesitant rotation.

One more thing...Enver Hoxha was the dictator of Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985. His legacy includes a pyramid structure built as a museum to him (now derelict) and, on Ishmail Omera street, a one-man concrete bunker — a reminder of his pet 'Bunkerisation' project that saw the country pebbledashed with perhaps 200,000 pillboxes.

They were - and thanks to their robust design and construction - in many cases still are evident throughout the country. They were prefabricated dome-topped bunkers set into the ground and with slits for firing weapons out of, and from the late 60s to the late 80s became a part of life for ordinary Albanians. People knew where their nearest bunker was, and even youngters were trained in how to defend the homeland from inside of them.  

Some of the bunkers were on a much larger scale though, and two new projects have opened in the city since I visited, which have opened up larger bunkers used by the Hoxa regime. Bunk'Art2 opened in November 2016 and reveals the murky history of Albanian Ministry of Internal Affair from 1912 to the fall of Communism in 1991. Sister project Bunk'Art1 is also sited underground, but on the outskirts of Tirana. It was the shelter in which the government planned to hole up in after a nuclear attack, and contains many rooms exhibiting the history of the Communist period of Albania, plus the room readied for the use of Enver Hoxha himself.

***

puzzle

Fitting Tirana into a holiday: Tirana is a great and refreshing city break, especially if you like somewhere unusual, yet welcoming and with lots going on. There aren't as many 'sights' as in some larger Balkan cities, but the quirky history and proud independence make it a very rewarding destination. Holidays to the Albanian mountains or coast are growing in popularity, and it's easy to travel on to other Balkan nations.  

31

Getting there: Tirana Airport saw about two million passengers in 2016. Useful direct routes include from Athens with Aegean Airlines, from Rome with Alitalia, from Vienna with Austrian Airlines , from London Gatwick with British Airways, from Frankfurt with Lufthansa, from Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, and from Budpest with Wizz.

weather

When to visit: Albania is a relatively mountainous country in the southern Balkans. The best time to visit is June_September, when days are long, warm or hot and sunny. The atmosphere on the streets is great in summer too. Hiking is good in Spring and Autumn, before winter temperatures fall and sporadic snows arrive.

35

More info: I travelled as a guest of Cox and Kings. Or try Regent Holidays, or the locally based Albanian Holidays. For general info on the city see Visit Tirana, and for country info Albania Tourism

30

Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.


 
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