Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Agia Napa: Luxury in the Balkans

Agia Napa is the most happening place in Cyprus. When summer rolls around this is the place to be. Once a sleepy fishing village, it's hard to imagine Agia Napa as anything but party-central and resort capital. Since the 1970s, this place has exploded as a popular tourist destination and the locals, with a booming economy, aren't complaining (for the most part).

For the cultured traveller, this place is like a bad beach holiday gone wrong with a good dose of kitsch in there too. Bars that look like giant sand castles, nightclubs with sleazy names and no dress code. There are few places in the world where you can walk around and even eat at a restaurant with no top on and this is one of them.

High season (July and August) come at a high price. It's often hard to find accommodation unless you book months in advance. But for travellers who appreciate a little luxury but without crowds of booze-heads and party animals from the UK and Germany, then Agia Napa in the off-season is where it's at. Just think, by the end of August the summer rush is over, the sun and sea are still hot and you can enjoy 4 star hotels at a fraction of the price. What else do you need to convince you to grab those cheap flights to Cyprus now?

Spend you September lounging on Nissi Beach, the most popular beach for its long shore and shallow waters. Just 2km from the city centre, it's a short cycle or scooter ride away. Take advantage of the end of the season sales and live it up large on Agia Napa this autumn.

What's the most luxurious destination you've ever been?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Making the most of Istanbul

A stopover in Turkey. It's an experience of a lifetime. Istanbul is a jewel that deserves more than just a quick once-over. Invest a few days here to really discover what this city is offering. The city never fails to impress, when you spot cheap flights to Istanbul, grab them! Here are five experiences that are essential to any trip to Istanbul. 

Marvel at the Aya Sofya

Istanbul is a city known for its architecture but few are better than this one. It's innovative form, historical importance and most of all, the sheer beauty of it is worth marvelling at. While not much from the outside, wait until you get inside. It's stunning.

Lose your way in the bazaars
It's a mish mash of colours, chaos and totally mayhem. Ladies, if you want to shop the way a local lady does, then don't waste your time at Kanyon. Instead, weave in and out of the caravan-like stands in the shopping streets of the Spice Bazaar. Along the shore, vendors sell it all from tasty sesame snacks to the most convincing fake Rolex's.

Independence Ave for wining and dining
The Turkish know this street as ─░stiklal Caddes, it's a hopping promenade and is the heart of modern Istanbul. At one end of it is Taksim Square, at the other is Galata. It's all laid back here. Take your time and skip between museums, cafes, wine bars, hotels, shops and bath houses. The vibe here is certainly more West than East. 

Steam it up in a hammam
It's not every day when you have the opportunity to bath half naked in a steamy room that dates to the 16th century. It's like taking a lesson in history, culture, architecture and getting squeaky clean all at the same time. There are bath houses all over the older part of Istanbul.

Get a taste for the city
Food. Let's just say that the Turkish love to eat and they love to cook. Alongside that, what they cook is nothing short of amazing. Restaurants here are loud, they're lively and you can really tell that Turk enjoy themselves when out for dinner. Start with a plate of meze and dig into a kebap.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Where are the cheapest resorts in the Balkans?

Backpacking is cool but it's not for everyone. Somehow when people think about travelling through the Balkans images of hippy hikers comes to mind, hitch-hiking around and living on a dime. People, budget holidays don't always have to mean lacking in lustre and luxury. Backpacking has its pros and its total cons and we also like to book an all-inclusive jaunt every once in a while. 

Where to go for cheap?

The UK Post Office surveyed almost 40 countries around the world to calculate the cost of holidays. While European hotspots like Portugal and Spain took the top spots, followed by the Czech Republic, the fourth spot belongs to a Balkan country, Bulgaria. The study took into consideration the price of eight regular tourist items including suncream, dinner for two, a cup of coffee, etc.

When choosing a holiday destination on a budget, you should know how much it's going to cost to stay there, on a day to day basis. On top of that, you have to find the cheapest flights, this is where you can really save a lot. If you're thinking of the Balkans, then Bulgaria is the place to go this year if you want to see your pound stretch a little bit further. 

For trips to the seaside, look for hotels and flights to Varna or Burgas, the two biggest cities along the coast of the Black Sea.

For more information check out the Holiday Costs Barometre.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Macedonian monasteries: Sveti Naum

As one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Macedonia, you'd think we'd have covered this one already. Sveti Naum, near the Albanian border, is magnificent. Its grounds with its peacocks, Lake Ohrid, the beautiful 17th c. church, the hotel... The entire region is rich in monasteries, churches and caves.

The original church was built in 900 by St. Naum himself (who is buried there). Legend says that if you put your ear to his tomb, you can still hear his heart beat. His sweat and blood are what made this beautiful site possible. From the monastery grounds, you can see the Albanian town of Pogradec on the other side of the lake on a clear day.

Admission to the Church of Sveti Naum: 100MKD (approx. £1.45)

Other churches and monasteries in the area include: 
  • Church of St. Sofia
  • Church of St. Bogorodica Perivlepta
  • St. Clement's monastery
  • Church of St. Nicholas Bolnicki
  • Church of St. Dimitry
  • Church of the Holy Mother
There are, because of the landscape, some churches located in caves as well. St. Erasmo, St. Stefan and St. Bogorodica all built churches in the cave system nearby. In most the frescos painted right on to the ceilings of the caves have been preserved but the caves themselves went through numerous reconstructions during their existence. Archaeologists estimate that they date back as far at the beginning of the 13th c. and were used by small groups of monks looking for solitude and peace for prayer.

Reaching the beautiful Lake Ohrid is easy. There is an airport 9 km from the town and is used by the following airlines: Ada Air, Balkan Airlines, Adria Airways, MAT, JAT and Aviompeks. The easiest way to get here though is to fly to Skopje and drive. It's essential though to do a proper flight comparison to know when is the best time to fly to Macedonia.

Have you ever been? What other sights around Macedonia do you recommend?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Stolen wallet/passort... now what?

While I haven't had my passport stolen, I have had my wallet (and all my money and bank cards) stolen while travelling in a foreign country... three times. It's not that I'm careless, it's just that the pick-pocketers are more skilled than I am, apparently. But what do you do if you lose it all? It can happen in an instant. All it takes is one second, you put down your bag and look away. SWOOSH!

You look back and it's gone. The feeling of dread sets in, you freak out and you think it's hopeless. A lot of travellers think they're immune to situations like this one, but truth is, it happens at the exact moment you let your guard down. So here's what to do if it happens to you.

Yeah, right. I know. Don' be hard on yourself because it happens to even the most seasoned travellers. Take a few breaths, and get yourself together. Having a positive attitude is the best way to solve the problem since we all know panic is the worst way to solve a problem.

First thing's first. Go to the police office and report the loss or theft. Get a copy of the report, it will make replacing your passport easier or file an insurance claim for pricey travel gear or rail passes. If you're lucky your bag might actually turn up again! (This happened to me 1/3 times, I actually got my wallet back, sans money though).

Since travelling even on the cheapest flights requires a passport, this is the next thing you need to do. It is your only piece of globally-accepted identification. Head to the closest embassy or consulate. Most have emergency numbers but others you'll need to go to during opening hours and wait your turn. Generally replacement passports are available within a few days. They can also arrange for someone at home to "wire" you some money if you haven't done that already.

Generally you should cancel your banking cards within 48 hours. Most major credit cards can get you a replacement within a day or two in the Balkans. Some even wire money over to you to help pay your food/accommodations in the mean time.

In some cases, losing important travel documents may mean staying put for a little longer than you planned. The most important thing is to be flexible. Cancel hotel reservations and rearrange flights as soon as possible to avoid any further penalizations. Try to keep cool, it's not the end of the world and at the end of it all, it will probably make a good story by the time you get home.

Have you ever had everything stolen while travelling? What was the first thing you did? What do you wish you had some differently in the heat of the moment?

[images from zoetnet and jackpix from Flickr, creative commons]

Thursday, March 10, 2011

As if you need them: Top 3 reasons to visit the Balkans

Backpackers are slowly discovering the discounts and total positive points of travelling through the Balkans. While some, especially backpackers from North America, focus entirely on Western Europe, hitting up spots like Amsterdam, London, Dublin, Paris and Munich... there's a whole other world waiting for a fraction of the price and a train ride away. If you haven't travelled through the Balkan countries and you've stumbled onto this blog, I hope you're inspired to check them out. Airline tickets to major cities are cheap and easy to come by, so you've got no excuses not to! 


Here are the top 3 reasons

Beach, sand and surfing:
This isn't Hawaii or Sydney but did you know that Albania, Slovenia and even Montenegro have awesome beaches? The biggest plus is that they're not overcrowded with tourists from huge cruise ships with pricey cameras slung around their necks and designer towels draped over their shoulders. The Adriatic Sea is clear and blue.

Adventure is easy to find:
Have you ever tried water-rafting? How about in Bosnia? While the country's bad reputation comes from its civil war history, the place has totally changed since then. If you're into adrenaline-pumping water sports, try white water rafting here. The Julian Alps are also great for skiing, Sarajevo did after all host the Winter Olympics in the 1980s.

Top city to party in this corner of the world? Definitely Belgrade. The city has a constantly flow of young people and plenty of clubs and bars are opening all the time. Party boats are also popular. Sarajevo, Budva and Hvar in Croatia are also cool spots to party. What's their preferred drink? It's a local brandy called rakia. Some hotels even offer a shot of it upon arrival.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Balkan Cooking: Cevapi

For many of us, one of the biggest joys of travelling is without a doubt the food. Why else do so many flock to Italy? For the coliseum? You've got to be kidding me... Of course it's for the fresh pasta, deep red wines and grandma's sauce that is "to die for..."

One of the reasons I keep returning to the Balkans is also for the food. There are so many flavours and regional dishes are hearty and tasty. Although cuisine greatly differs from region to region, I'd love to introduce a series on this blog about Balkan cooking, hoping to highlight some favourite eats while travelling through the Balkans. You can always grab cheap flights to your favourite Balkan state when you get that craving for your favourite dish, but it's also nice to be able to make it at home.

What are some of your favourites? Are there recipes you'd like to see featured?

Without further ado: Cevapi
Traditionally Bosnian, these small grilled rolls of ground beef (or lamb) in pita bread are mouth-watering. They're usually served with chopped onions, cheese and ajvar (spicy red pepper paste). 

How to make them:
500g ground beef (or 350g beef, 150g minced lamb)
40ml water
30ml oil (preferrably olive oil)
Salt & pepper (to taste)

1. Combine ingredients the day before, letting it stand in the fridge overnight.
2. Wet hands and shape the mixture into uniform rolls. Place on a tray.
3. Cook the cevapi on a hot barbecue for 6 to 10 minutes, turning frequently so as not to burn.
4. Cevapi can be served on their own or on a pita.