Zagoria, Greece's hidden wilderness

Forget the island hopping and hordes of tourists; we decided to head to Zagoria, an unspoilt mountain wilderness tucked away in northwestern Greece. 

When you hear about trips to Greece the most obvious destinations are islands such as Crete or Corfu, or perhaps city breaks to Athens or Thessaloniki. For the most part, mainland Greece is largely ignored by foreign visitors.

Recently, Joe and I embarked on a road trip hoping to explore some of Greece’s less travelled roads. For the first leg of this trip we spent 4 nights in the Vikos-Aoös National Park (map) in the Zagori region of Northwestern Greece. We spent our days hiking in the mountains, and swimming in remote rivers and eating delicious local food.

We flew into Thessaloniki and spent a night there before hitting the road in our battered Peugeot convertible. Getting to the Zagori region from Thessaloniki is a relatively uncomplicated three to four hour drive. Within an hour of leaving Thessaloniki the traffic had thinned out and we were leaving the expanse of a vast plane and heading into the mountains. 

Metsovo

It’s possible to reach the Vikos-Aoös National Park in three hours if you choose to drive non-stop, but we stopped off in the small alpine town of Metsovo (map). Sadly on the day we visited, Metsovo was blisteringly hot and overwhelmed by vast crowds of Greek and Balkan coach tours. I really hoped this wasn’t a sign of things to come! After a brief lunch of souvlaki and salad we decided to skip Metsovo and press on to Zagoria.

Dilofo

We stayed in a small guesthouse named Aithrio with our wonderful host, Olga in the tiny village of Dilofo (map). Dilofo is without a doubt one of the most charming and well preserved villages in the Zagori region. This is partly because it’s impossible to drive a car through it’s extremely narrow cobbled alleyways, and partly because almost everyone who was born in Dilofo seems to have deserted it. An ex-local who had returned for the summer told us over a carafe of local (and surprisingly palatable) wine that there are now only six full time residents in the village. Sadly, most residents have left for work, and only return for the summer. This lends the village an eery, slightly ramshackle charm.

At the centre of Dilofo is a giant sycamore tree surrounded by a paved square and a wonderful taverna. We ate there most nights. The BBQ spit roast mutton was just too good to pass up, and the tzatziki was the best I’ve ever tasted. Thick, creamy, and properly garlicky. Dinner always evolved into drinks with the owners and other locals. By the end of our stay we knew pretty much everyone living or in the village, (as well as the feral horses which passed through the square each evening). Even though we were there for less than a week, we felt like we were part of the community.

Bridge of Kokkori (map) - one of Zagoria's many traditional arched bridges.

Bridge of Kokkori (map) - one of Zagoria's many traditional arched bridges.

Hiking Vikos Gorge

The main focus of the Vikos-Aoös National Park is the vast, world-record-holding, twenty kilometre long Vikos Gorge. It’s utterly mesmerising. 

While it is possible to walk the entire length of the gorge, it’s an 8 hour one way hike with no transport links at each end, so we opted instead to walk a portion of it. We set off from the village of Vikos (map) at the head of the gorge. The walk starts with a steep descent into the gorge. The views are simply spectacular, and it’s easy to miss the incredible views walking down a valley covered in wild herbs. sage, oregano and lemon balm. We made slow progress as Joe kept stopping off to pick figs from precariously hanging fig trees.

At the foot of the valley there is a small disused monastery perched on the banks of a deep azure coloured river which appears from nowhere out of the river bed around two hundred metres upstream. We spent a few hours lounging on the riverbank and daring each other to jump into the icy cold water before continuing our hike.

On our return we met a badly prepared Australian couple in their fifties, who had decided to walk the eight hour one way hike in trainers with a single bottle of water. At the top we shared a beer with them and discovered they were also staying in Dilofo. We offered them a lift back to Dilofo before remembering our Peugeot only had two seats. Somehow though, and with a lot of contortion all four of us managed to cram into the tiny car. When we arrived back in Dilofo they invited us to dinner at Dilofo’s more upmarket restaurant. The food was superb, and the views beautiful, but the cheaper taverna is better and more authentic.

Beloi lookout and waterfalls at Iliochori

If you don’t fancy a day long hike, there are still plenty opportunities to take in the incredible views of Vikos gorge. Beloi lookout (map) is around a two kilometre walk from the small village of Vradeto and offers some of the most spectacular views of Vikos Gorge (provided you don’t suffer from vertigo).

The village of Vradeto is also home to one of the best tavernas in the area. As far as the internet is concerned, it doesn’t seem to exist. If you do find it, I’d recommend the stuffed baked peppers and filo pasty pies with local ‘horta' herbs (wild mountain greens).

lunch at vradeto taverna

After lunch in Vradeto, we drove North, towards Albania in search of a waterfall our host Olga recommended to us. As we drove North the landscape gradually transitioned into a mountainous, forested wilderness. It didn’t feel like Greece at all.

The waterfalls at Iliochori (map), a sleepy, all but deserted mountain village, are not easy to find. You have to follow a steep path down through the villages vegetable gardens, past a precariously perched monetary and down a trail which is more of a landslide than a path. The waterfalls are worth it though, we spent the rest of the day cooling off in the pool underneath the waterfall. It was the perfect way to cool down after a hot day.

Zagoria, (and specifically Dilofo) was an incredibly difficult place to leave; because of the wonderful hospitality, great food and wonderful views. As we left Olga gave us local wine and a packed lunch to take with us - we then headed off to Meteora

If you visit, my only advice would be to stay for longer than 4 days!

Quick tips for a weekend in Berlin

A friend recently asked me for some tips for a weekend in Berlin, so I thought I’d make the most of the opportunity and write a quick blog post. This list is by no means exhaustive; Berlin is one of those cities where there is an almost unlimited number of things to see and do, but here are a few of my favourites:

Berlin Free tour

I first took this free tour of Berlin back in 2008 when I was practically penniless. The tour hasn’t changed much since, and importantly is still free, but that’s not why you should take it. The tour starts right next to the Brandenburg gate and explores sights such as Checkpoint  Charlie, the Jewish Memorial and some of the few remaining examples of the Third Reich architecture such as the oppressive Luftwaffe headquarters. It’s the best way to get your bearings if you’re visiting Berlin for the first time.  

Berlin Free Tour

DDR Museum

Located nearby the TV tower where the Berlin free tour ends, the Berlin DDR Museum offers a fascinating glimpse into what life was like in the GDR controlled East Berlin. 

DDR Museum

East Side Gallery and Michelberger Hotel

Even though the Berlin Wall came crashing down well over 25 years ago there are still a surprisingly large number of stretches of the wall still standing. One of the best places to see the wall is the East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. It’s a 1.3KM stretch of wall plastered in artwork by over 100 street artists from all of the world. Once you’ve taken in the art, what could be better than sipping a cocktail at the incredibly hip Hotel Michelberger? They have a great selection of cocktails and the coolest menu design I’ve ever seen.

 

Homework - The Berlin Wall by Frederick Taylor 

No trip to Berlin would be complete without taking a walk along one of the last remaining sections of the wall, but to get a bit of background to Berlin I’d recommend reading Frederick Taylor’s Berlin Wall book. It’s a fascinating account of Berlin from the end of World War Two right up to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. Having a sense of what the city has been through in the last 70 years makes sightseeing so much more interesting.

Book pick - The Berlin Wall by Frederick Taylor

Climb the dome of the Reichstag Building

From the top of the futuristic dome crowning the Reichstag building you can peer down into the German Bundestag (parliament) and see a 360-degree view of the surrounding Berlin skyline. What’s more it’s free, provided you book in advance. It’s particularly captivating if you visit at night.

Book Tickets to visit the Reichstag Dome

Late Sunday Brunch at the Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg

I won’t say too much about this incredible palace of delicacies other than it has to be the best place to get breakfast in Berlin on a Sunday. Markthalle Neun is a vast indoor market is crammed full of stalls selling delicious breakfast items. Check opening times though, as the market doesn’t open every weekend. If you’d like to read more about breakfast places in Berlin, check out Joe’s blog post:

Galloping Ghrelin - Brunching in Berlin

Skip the jet lag - the best way to fly to Australia

There’s no escaping it, flying to Australia from Europe or the US is a killer. Whenever people talk about traveling to Australia,  it’s almost always followed up by a caveat that although they’re really excited, they’re absolutely dreading the flight.

The first time I visited Australia, I thought the best way of making the journey bearable was to book the shortest flight possible. What a mistake.

I flew the route from London to Melbourne via Doha which takes just over 21 hours (assuming you don’t miss the connection for which they generously allow 50 minutes). When I arrived in Australia dosed up on bad airline food and last years Hollywood B-movies, I barely knew what day it was. I was so exhausted and disorientated that I couldn’t sleep for the next 3 nights. I survived on a diet of strong long blacks and daytime naps.

There is a better way though. As I write this I’m sat on a flight from Singapore to Brisbane - and I feel great. 

What’s the secret?  Yesterday I took an evening flight from London to Singapore with my friend Michaela. When we arrived in Singapore, we headed into the city for a bite to eat and a stroll around before getting a solid 7 hours of sleep at an airport hotel.  Even though the journey is longer,  allows you to make the most of your time in Australia as you don’t lose the first couple of days to jet-lag. Also, who can complain about an evening in a exotic new city?

How to arrive in Australia without jet lag:

  1. Book a flight with an overnight layover. An night flight is best, and the layover should be roughly two thirds of the way to Australia. For example, if you’re flying from Europe, a stopover of 15 hours somewhere like Singapore, Bangkok, or Hong Kong is ideal.
  2. Before you fly, pack a change of clothes and a toothbrush into your hand luggage. You won’t see your checked luggage until you arrive at your final destination.
  3. As soon as you board your flight, set your watch to the local time of your layover city.
  4. Check into an airport hotel, go grab some food to eat and get a great nights sleep.
  5. Get up, grab some breakfast and remember to set your watch to the time of your destination.

Let me know if this works for you! 

Update: So, after being in Brisbane for 3 days I have to admit that the first night's sleep was horrible... I made the mistake of sleeping on the flight as well as on the lay-over! Either way, breaking up the journey helped me adjust to Australia time a lot faster than on previous trips, and who wouldn't want to spend an evening in Singapore?

Praia da Ursa - Lisbon's best beach

Last year on a week long road-trip around Portugal with Joe and Emma, we discovered Praia da Ursa, my all time favourite beach. It’s special. In fact it’s so spectacular that I actually had a tough time deciding whether I should write this post.  Surely a beach this special should be kept a secret?

Luckily, I don't think it's for everyone. Access is treacherous, forget about "facilities" and it's  not easy to swim - the Atlantic's waves and currents can be really dangerous here.

From above, Praia da Ursa is barely visible.

We’d spent the day exploring Sintra’s Moorish Castle and were ready to find a quiet beach to enjoy the rest of the late autumn afternoon. We parked at the Cabo da Roca car park before setting off on the long trek to Praia da Ursa. If you're visiting in the Summer, don't rely on finding a space here - I've heard it gets crowded. The path to Praia da Ursa follows the headland for around half a mile before descending into a perilously steep scree-covered valley. The walk is incredibly scenic, just remember to look at where you're treading as well as at the view. Emma was wearing a pair of shiny, slippery flat shoes and almost slid to her death on multiple instances. I'd definitely recommend grippy shoes. Oh and travel insurance.

Once we reached the bottom of the valley we were greeted by an arch of golden sand bordered by a range of incredibly shaped limestone stacks. Discovering that we had the beach to ourselves, we stripped off and ran straight into the sea which was warm enough even in November!  We spent the next couple of hours swimming, running around like children and taking photos of the incredible sunset.

If you're ever in Lisbon, make sure you find some time to check out Praia da Ursa. Even though it's so close to the swarms of tourists at Cabo da Roca, it's really a world away. You won't be disapointed.

Even though it was November, it was still warm enough to swim

Praia da Ursa is only accessible by scrambling down a steep scree-covered slope

As the sun started to set it cast long shadows over the golden sand

Praia da Ursa is a short walk from Cabo da Roca which is Europe's most Westerly point.

 

How to spend half a day in Amsterdam

I recently found myself with a free morning in Amsterdam. 

After a week of gruelling 14 hour days at a conference I had a 6 hour oasis of free time before I needed to catch a train to Belgium where I planned meet some friends.  Sure this wasn’t exactly the ideal amount of time to explore Europe's most vibrant and liberal capital, but there’s a lot you can do in 6 hours!

Here are my top tips for how to spend half a day in Amsterdam:

Trying to look like a local.

Trying to look like a local.

1. Rent a bike

First things first - rent a bike! It’s undoubtedly the best, and most enjoyable way of getting around Amsterdam.  Cycling is the preferred method of transport for Amsterdam locals, so the roads are generally quiet, and cycling lanes abundant.  I was able to rent a bike for the morning for around 10 euros from the Yellow Bike rentals right next to my hotel. It was worth every cent. Amsterdam is a lot bigger than it appears on a map, so cycling saves you a lot of time and gives you a pretty unique perspective of the city.

2. Skip the big attractions

I know it’s tempting to visit Amsterdam’s biggest attractions, especially if it’s your first time there! While the Ann Frank House and Van Gogh Museum are must-sees, they almost always have waits of an hour or more, so much better suited to a longer stay in Amsterdam. On the morning I visited, both the Van Gogh Museum and Ann Frank House had lines trailing right round the block. 

3. Check out some of the lesser-known museums and galleries

Amsterdam is full of gems such as the Stedelijk Museum or Droog design studios. If you’re cut up about skipping the Van Gogh Museum, visit the Stedelijk. It's crammed full of everything from impressionist works  (including Van Gogh and Matisse) to more recent experimental pieces like Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube.

4. Discover Amsterdam's street art

Amsterdam boasts some incredible street art, and a great place to start is Spuistraat. Spuistraat is a street with a history of squatting and incredible graffiti. I parked up my bike, and wandered around the neighbourhood taking in the art before grabbing a quick coffee and pastry at one of the many alternative-style cafes.

5. Just explore!

Amsterdam is a great city to just explore without much of a plan (or even a detailed map). I could have happily spent a whole day cycling along the winding canal side streets. Let me know where your bike takes you.

A pop-up BBQ on Spuistraat - a great neighbourhood for street art, cafes and quirky shops.

Arman, Couleur Tracante , 1967 at the Stedelijk Museum.

A classic Amsterdam scene near the Red Light District.

Never pay for an observation deck again - how to get that amazing view for free

Observation decks suck. I really can’t stand them. They’re expensive, they almost always have horrendous queues and are often crowded beyond belief. 

A crowd scrambles to join the queue for the queue in the Empire State building.

A crowd scrambles to join the queue for the queue in the Empire State building.

A perfect example of this is the Empire State building in New York. In order to get to the observation deck you have to work your way through four queues, take multiple lifts, partake in a cheesy theme-park style photo shoot and finally lug yourself up several flights of stairs. When you do eventually get the the observation deck it’s a scrum to secure a fleeting view of Manhattan’s skyline. Observation decks simply aren’t worth it.

So, how do you avoid observation decks and get that amazing view for free? It’s simple, next time you visit a skyscraper, don’t pay to visit the observation deck, check if the skyscraper has a bar. Skyscraper bars are awesome - they are almost always higher than the observation deck and generally free to enter. So instead of forking out a huge wad of cash for a view you can spend that money on a tasty cocktail or overpriced beer with the view thrown in for free.

I first discovered this in Boston while waiting in line to visit to the Prudential Center Skywalk. The Skywalk on the 50th floor costs $16 and a cocktail at the restaurant on the floor above costs a mere $11.

I initially thought this must just be a fluke, but so far pretty much every tall building I’ve been too since has a similar set up. So far this year I’ve pulled this trick off at The Shard in London, The ICC tower in Hong Kong,  and the Bitexco Tower in Ho Chi Minh.  

Here's to drinks with a view!

Cocktails at Ozone on the 118th floor of the ICC Tower Hong Kong

And the accompanying view

All in a day: Macau's Venice, Vegas and Lisbon

You have to feel kind of sorry for Macau. It's always been the poor relation to it's bigger and more successful sibling Hong Kong. When the Portugese first colonised Macau, they hoped it would rival Hong Kong as a centre of world trade. It wasn't to be.

The especially tastefully decorated Grand Lisboa Casino

Macau spent almost a 400 years languishing in Hong Kong's shadow. In the 1970s the Portugese tried to convince Mao to take it off their hands. China wasn't even interested. Macau was destined to spend another twenty years in Portugese hands. During this time it managed to develop a healthy addition to gambling. Dowdy, family run hotels were torn down and replaced with schizophrenically designed bronze-tinted glass casinos. 

Today Macau is the epicentre of China's booming gambling scene. It's already doing more "business" than Vegas and if the sea of cranes dominating the sky is anything to go by, that's not going to change.

How to spend a day in Macau

Like most Western visitors to Macau, Joe and I were staying in Hong Kong and decided to visit Macau for a day. The best way to get to Macau from Hong Kong is by ferry. Ferries run really frequently, but this being Hong Kong we struggled to get a place on our preferred crossing. We had to resort to buying a ticket from a shady ticket tout. I'd definitely recommend booking ahead.

Level 3, or is that 4, or maybe 6 of the Grand Lisboa. 

The Macau Taipa ferry terminal is inexplicably located on the grounds of an airport. When you pass through immigration your greeted by a surreal combination of taxiing jets and a scrum of casino promotors touting for business. The upside to this is that it's incredibly easy to get into Macau. Each casino offers a free shuttle bus. The casinos are literally fighting to get tourists into Macau.

Our first port of call in Macau was the Grand Lisboa. The Grand Lisboa is the original Macau gambling den opened by rumoured triad kingpin Stanley Ho. The casino is housed within a bronze glass clad lotus flower shaped sky-sore. It's without a doubt the ugliest building I've ever encountered on my travels.

Things aren't much better inside. Guards in black suits control your every movement throughout the dark windowless maze of a building. If it wasn't for the complimentary jasmine tea and coconut mochi balls we'd never have had the sustenance to escape. They really don't want you to leave.

Once we'd secured freedom we decided to head towards the old Portugese quarter for some lunch. Towering casinos and Hong Kong style apartment blocks gradually gave way to crumbling Portugese piles. We lunched at Albergue 1601 set in a deserted, leafy Portugese style square. They serve up a fusion of Portugese and Cantonese dishes called Macanese. I'll spare the details as Joe gives it a good writeup - I was a big fan of the "African Chicken" though. If you ever visit Macau sampling Macanese cuisine is a must!

After lunch we took a walk to Macau's most popular selfie spot: St Paul's, the empty facade of an old Portuguese cathedral. The ruins sit next to a fort which was home to the Potuguese army until the 1960s. The fort now houses a museum about Macau, but the real draw are the views of Macau's skyline.

The remnants St. Paul's Cathedral

The remnants St. Paul's Cathedral

The new, improved flood free St Mark's Square. Complete with all the luxury boutiques you just can't live without.

We finished our day in Macau with a visit to the worlds largest casino, the recently opened Venetian Macau. The scale is staggering. It took us almost 40 minutes to walk from one side to the other. In that time we walked the entire length of the grand canal, ate a portuguese pasteis and embarked on (and abruptly ended) our gambling career. 

The Venetian Macau is ghastly. It optimises everything I hate about the tourism industry. Having said that it's scale is so vast, and unlike anything I've ever seen before that it's a spectacle worth experiencing in it's own right.

Go to Macau. Make a day of it.