A stopover guide to Dubai

I lived in Dubai a few years ago when I was based there for a short work stint. Before moving, I was fantasising about Dubai being a spectacular place, but honestly I did not like it. I felt it lacked a true charm and culture like there would be in other regions around the world. It was essentially a shopping centre in the desert. I was on a very high wage and had the opportunity to continue working there, but I became very bored very quickly. I had a long enough stay in the Emirates. I have asked myself several times ‘would I return there to work in the future?’ and I said I would never ever EVER return to Dubai to work. However, I would only go to Dubai as a stopover on a journey to a further place, despite my little love for the place. So, here is my personal guide for a weekend stopover.

Dubai is a city of skyscrapers. I called it a ‘Manhattan-wannabe’, as it is laid out in similar fashion, but it is not a city you would walk around like New York. Due to the heat, it is best staying inside the comfort of a taxi, or the metro, when travelling around. On a planned stopover, I would recommend travelling to Dubai with an empty suitcase, enjoy a few days relaxing, and purchase designer clothes tax free from the two main malls in the city; Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates.

Dubai Skyscrapers at Night Image

Dubai Mall is the biggest shopping-mall centre in the world located in downtown Dubai. This city aims to have the “biggest everything in the world!” Dubai Mall has all the best clothes chains but the shopping centre is almost like a mini-funfair. Outside there is a spectacular water and light show in a large fountain. The water and light is choreographed to music. It is hypnotising to view. After seeing this water show, you should step inside Dubai Mall to where you will see a huge aquarium. This place has many distractions from the shops which may be a good thing as it is easy to burn a hole in your pocket very quickly here. Mall of the Emirates was my favourite place to shop. It almost has the same shops as Dubai Mall but the size of it is not overwhelming as the latter is. Mall of the Emirates is known for its indoor ski-slopes with snow and penguins – YES… snow and penguins in the Arabian desert!

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Dubai is a strange place… My own personal reason for travelling back there would just be only to fill up an empty suitcase while on a journey to a further destination. Mall of the Emirates is located near numerous ‘tourist’ attractions, such as the marina, the Emirate and Jumeirah golf clubs, as well as the Wild Wadi Waterpark. The iconic ‘Palm Jumeirah’ is also in this area. It is best seen from the “seven star” hotel Burj Al-Arab. However, I passed on seeing this as I refuse to enter a hotel which charges customers up to €1,000 for a room for one night. The Burj Al-Arab is an incredibly looking building and it is worth seeing from any of the nearby beaches. However, I honestly think that these places are nothing special.

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The only thing worth visiting in Dubai is the Old Town; also known as the Bastakiya District. It is largely reconstructed but it contains numerous markets and the Jumeirah Mosque which is one of the oldest mosques in Dubai. The Jumeirah Mosque is the only mosque in Dubai which is open to non-Muslims on an organised tour which can be arrange from Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding.

Old Town Food Market

Not very nice…

Image Jumeirah Mosque

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If you are in Dubai on a Friday, the number one thing to ease the pains of being in a cultureless and artificial place is to attend a ‘brunch’. Brunches are popular for expats in Dubai as Friday is the start of the weekend and a time to unwind. You can have an all you can eat buffet and a limitless amount of alcohol for around four hours. A brunch would be good for a true tourist in order to escape and numb the toothache caused by this horrendous place. Brunches take place in hotels usually from 12:00-16:00 and can cost from €40 to €100. The food at the brunches is surprisingly excellent, which is a bonus for the price, as well as something to take a break from the flow of alcohol as the brunches can get quite lively! If you have survived the brunch, there are “night” clubs open to “unwind” even further! For an excellent food and drink experience I would recommend going to Mina A’Salam Hotel.

I would recommend returning to your hotel to take a long siesta to get back your energy in order to go on an off-road trip across the sand dunes outside of the city. This can be organised by the company Desert Safari. These trips in 4x4s take place in the morning and late evenings.

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After the wild journey in the 4x4s you can enjoy a barbeque, henna painting, hookah, camel riding, as well as dressing in traditional Emirati clothing.

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ImageThe next step in my Dubai guide is to GET OUT! I would highly recommend anywhere else in the world than here!

Two Nights in Prague

“Sorry… Where is it that you are going?” asked the curious Czech girl sitting next to me on the airplane.

“Sedlec Ossuary… In Kutna Hora”

“Sorry… What?” she said. Most words in European languages are easy to pronounce but I knew that Czech was like many of the Eastern-European languages with the numerous j’s that are z sounds and z sounds that are… I actually don’t know. “Ok let me write it down for you” I said back to the woman.

“Hmmm… I don’t know it.” I was surprised because this church should be well-known in the Czech Republic because it is relatively well known outside of the country as it has been thoroughly documented in travel-writing and in television documentaries. I decided to explain what Sedlec Ossuary was. I told her that the place is nick-named ‘The Church of Bones’. She looked at me startled. I wasn’t winning… It is a church and about a thousand years ago the King of Czech Republic sent people to Jerusalem to get soil from the holy land and bring it to the area of Kutna Hora where the church was built. She looked at me confused. “Damn it” I said to myself. In this church numerous people were so keen on getting buried in the cemetery that it became too full and that they had to dig out the bodies and they decorated the interior of the church with hundreds of bones. She looked at me with much perplexity and puzzlement in her face and came another “What? Where?!” I gave up and returned to my humorous book, called Ryanland by the Irish journalist Philip Nolan, that is about travelling around with the budget airline Ryanair. I felt that this is an apt book as I was travelling on the semi-budget airline Aer Lingus.

Our time in the Czech Republic was limited to a Friday from 15:00 to a Sunday at 12:00. Kutna Hora is located an hour outside of Prague, or Praha in the local language – h’s must be g sounds, and I was hoping that this local lady would be of some help to let me know how to get to this place and not waste much time trying to figure it out. Ah well, it will be an adventure trying to get on the right train or bus to Kutna Hora. I just hoped that we don’t end up on the direct train to Bratislava or Krakow. It was part of the trip to find our way to this mysterious place that a local person never heard of and even if it doesn’t exist, as the lady was certain of, I was sure we would have a good time. I said to myself on the plane that I will just have to remember the j, z and h sounds for g’s when I ask the ticket-office person later.

Our time became more limited when we arrived to our hotel, which was located around the corner from the Old Square. We found out that the hotel was currently being renovated and we were sent to a hotel twenty minutes away from the Old Square. This was frustrating as the different hotel was not located near the main sights. The receptionist at the new hotel was a wicked witch with a blunt tongue and rhetoric that would cut through you. We were given out to over the hotel change, that had nothing to do with us, and the room key was slammed down on the reception desk. It is clear that we were not welcome however we decided to stay there as it would have taken longer to find a closer place. We prayed that we wouldn’t meet the witch later in the evening. After about an hour, when the minor drama was solved, we decided to do the best thing two Irish people can do – find a pub!

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Czech Republic is renowned for their beer and our decision to find a pub would be fitting to get relaxed again. On almost every side street in Prague there is a bar, which source or brew beers that aren’t found outside of the city. We decided to do a pub crawl around the city to some of the well-known pubs and to some pubs located on side-streets. Our first pub was one of the most famous pubs in Prague called U Zlatého Tygra, meaning ‘The Golden Tiger’, located on Husova Street. It is a traditional pub that has narrow beer halls within former cellars. It is not for people who suffer from claustrophobia! Bill Clinton visited this pub during a trip to the Czech Republic. ‘The Golden Tiger’ sits hundreds of people and serves only Pilsner. One of my favourite pubs was a microbrewery called U Valsu, located on Betlemska Street. It is a relatively new microbrewery that is within an old gothic underground cellar where you can drink opposite fermentation vessels. They brew several beers. My favourite was a dark beer called Pražský Most Tmavé. It is a gorgeous beer that is full of flavours. You get a sharp crisp hop taste that is followed with a hint of smoky roasted barely. For a dark beer it tasted quite fruity. With every mouthful there were unique flavours. They also brew an excellent light pale ale called Pražský Most Světlé that is 12%.

Novomestsky Pivovar is a superb microbrewery, on Vodickova street, that produces a dark beer called Novoměstský Kvasnicový Ležák Tmavý (I have no idea how I ordered this one from the spelling!) as well as a light beer. Both have won several distinctions in both national and international awards.  They also brew a light beer that can be served in two-litre glasses!  Another excellent brewery is Stravhov Monastic Brewery located near Prague Castle that has a long history of brewing since the 13th century. They have numerous different beer styles to pick from that are all brewed on location. A fun pub to visit in Prague is the “ice-bar” located near the Charles Bridge. It is within the biggest night-club of Prague called Karlovy Lázně, meaning Charles Spa. You get to experience a pub at minus 7 degrees Celsius and drink from glasses made from ice!

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After our evening of drinking the beer delights of Prague, we successfully made it to Kutna Hora to visit the mysterious Church of Bones that the single-serving friend on the plane did not know of. The easiest way to get there is on the Prague-Brno train. The church was an eerie place. All the stories you hear of the church is exactly as it is – disturbing. There are literally hundreds of bones inside the church and some of them are used to make chandler-esque ornaments. It was true desecration but it is something I wanted to experience and witness one time in my life as this place is somewhat unique and considered very special.

When we arrived back to Prague our main thing to visit was the Astronomical Clock that is a dominating ancient clock-tower on the old square. We did not find the interior of the clock-tower that impressive and we were quite bored, however when we reached the summit of the clock it was worth it because the views of the old city are spectacular!

After the Astronomical Clock we went on an organised tour of the undergrounds of Prague, which were formerly the ‘ground level’ of the city before the city rose. These ancient underground pathways date back over a thousand years ago. Included on the tour was a guided walk through cellars and catacombs dating back to the 12th century. If you haven’t been to the catacombs in Rome – you will thoroughly enjoy this tour. However, if you have been to Rome, I would pass on this tour – there are plenty of undiscovered pubs and breweries to visit!

Our trip to Prague was brief. It was too brief because we fell in love with the city over a short weekend. It is a city that is loved for its simple beauty. Even if you don’t visit anything in Prague it does not matter because Prague is ‘a walking city’ and it is thoroughly enjoyable talking strolls down the medieval streets, along the Charles Bridge or even just enjoying an afternoon coffee on the Old Square watching the world go by. Prague – We loved you!

A Weekend Trip to Zadar

The Church of Saint Mary

The Church of Saint Mary

You’ve got to love Ryanair for cheap flights to the most random destinations around Europe. I regularly like to look through their latest deals (which are never ending!) to see if there is anywhere I would like to go. A couple of years ago I saw a return flight from Dublin to Zadar for €40, which included all the hidden charges that Ryanair like to snag European travellers on. To be honest, with my four years of study in Geography, I did not have any idea where Zadar was! I looked it up and found it was a small town on the central coast of Croatia. A quick visit to a Mediterranean country during an awful winter in Ireland was hard to resist. I booked the flights to Zadar for two nights on impulse and a few days later I was on board Ireland’s no-frills airline.

I have a love-hate relationship with Ryanair but when I fly with them I like to indulge by staying at a decent hotel. I feel it is not much to ask after being treated like shite on board Michael O’Leary’s Ruinair enterprise for over two hours, being subjected to constant sales pitches by the cabin crew, and having to listen to the celebratory trumpet tune for ‘another on time Ryanair flight’. After the ‘pleasant’ flight, I was soon checked in to Hotel Bastion. This is a grand four star hotel located on the small peninsula of Zadar, which is the central area for tourists. Rooms can be found from €100 up to €400. The hotel has a spa and a beautiful balcony-terraced restaurant and bar. The hotel is so nice that you almost wouldn’t want to leave! I struggled against the treats on offer and I was soon out walking in the town of Zadar.

The ‘Salute to the Sun’

There is not much to see and do in Zadar, a common trait to many of Ryanair’s destinations, however the ambiance on the streets and the beating of the sun instantly wins you over. The streets on the peninsula town of Zadar are laid out as a grid iron. It is enjoyable taking a stroll down the straight streets of old simple buildings with terracotta roof tiles. Walking two minutes in any direction you will reach the coast. An unmissable architectural and engineering masterpiece, found on the western side of the peninsula, is the sea-organ and the ‘salute to the sun’. The sea-organ is along the harbour boardwalk and plays a deep trumpet-like sound as the waves push air into different sized musical tubes under the promenade. The ‘salute to the sun’ is a large circular light platform that illuminations in response to the different sounds of the sea organ. It is soothing to listen to the musical sounds with your feet in the water while watching the boats sail by in the distance.

The Sea Organ

A site worth visiting is the 9th century St. Donatus’ Church located in the centre of the peninsula. It is an impressive pre-Romanesque church. Outside the church are notable Roman ruins with crumbling marble pillars dotted along the pathways. For a small place, there are numerous other churches to see, such as St. Anastasia’s Cathedral and St. Mary’s church.

St. Donatus’ Church

There are two beaches outside of Zadar at coastal areas called Bibinji and Diklo where you can enjoy the sand and take part in water-sports. You can rent speed boats and jet-skis at Diklo to take along the coastal areas of the Adriatic Sea. Tourists can also take organised boat tours that start from Zadar Harbour.

There are numerous places to eat and drink in Zadar. My top two places would be Lotus Café Bar and The Garden. I particularly liked Lotus Café Bar as it seemed to always be full of backpackers and played classic rock music and modern classics. It was a perfect place for me to enjoy an ice-cold pint.

When I was in Lotus Café Bar, I met a group of students from University of Sheffield. I decided to talk with one of them because I was intrigued by seeing many people wearing t-shirts with ‘Bummit’ written across the chest. I couldn’t help but ask the person ‘What is Bummit?’ I am delighted I asked because it made the night very entertaining from all the chats I had with different students. Bummit is an annual charity event by University of Sheffield students who hitch-hike from England to a chosen city or town in Europe. The students are required to reach the destination on a miniscule budget within a week. The different stories people told me were incredible. I asked how they managed to make it across long distances by hitch-hiking. I was told the number one tip – hang around big service-stations and talk with drivers, as these places cater for people taking a long journey. I may build up my courage to do something like the ‘bummits’ someday as they reached a place hundreds of miles away for less money than my Ryanair ticket!

Zadar is a town you would only stay a couple of days in to unwind. When I arrived, I wished I had done more research, because another day in the town would have been good to visit Plitvice National Park, which is relatively close-by. It looks absolutely stunning. I will just have to wait for the next Ryanair deal to come along!

The True Gem of Machu Picchu

I can remember sitting in my primary school class at the age of eight learning all about the Incas. At that age, learning about people in history did not really interest me. My teacher showed us a picture of Machu Picchu and said it was an ancient city hidden in the high mountains of Peru. I didn’t even know where Peru was, but the picture my teacher showed us stuck in my head as I couldn’t believe people lived in these houses in the clouds. Clouds seem so far away and almost heavenly for school children.

The dreamland city seemed almost unrealistic but I was intrigued with my imagination of how people would have lived in the clouds. My childish thoughts vanished when I was in my teens but the image of the ancient city stuck with me. I think anyone’s first sight of Machu Picchu sparks wonder and awe. It stays with you and makes it your dream to visit there even if you don’t know it.

When I was 25 I got to see that ancient city. I have been to many famous places around the world, such as the Colossuem, Petra, the Taj Mahal and the Potala Palace, and I have been able to digest these experiences with ease. Machu Picchu was different. A year later, at the age of 26, I find it hard to assimilate my memory of the Inca city. I still feel like that child in school who could not believe the existence of this heavenly place. Machu Picchu is breath-taking. It is a must for any travel enthusiast.

There are hundreds of readings on the geography, history and the modern tours and travels of Machu Picchu so I will not bore you. However, there is a true gem in Machu Picchu that many travellers overlook despite its dominating position in the ancient city. It is Huayna Picchu – that large mountain peak in the clouds that tower over the ruins.

Traveling to Machu Picchu is very popular. However, recently it has been difficult for travellers as the Peruvian government has restricted daily visitors to the site in order to protect it. Visitors are restricted to 2,500 people per day. Huayna Picchu, which is accessed through Machu Picchu, has also been restricted to 400 people per day, for two reasons – site protection and personal safety. I call it the true gem of Machu Picchu as the Inca’s looked up to this mountain in wonderment and held it in such veneration that they carved replicas of this peak in the stones of the ancient city.

If you have the opportunity to travel to Peru, I urge you to make the most of your visit to Machu Picchu by securing a ticket to Huayna Picchu beforehand. An information page explaining how to obtain tickets to the world heritage sites has recently been published on the BBC travel website. My advice is to book very early. Huayna Picchu is a steep mountain. It is exciting for the avid trekker, that I am, but it is a mountain that anyone can climb as most of it involves walking up carved stones that resemble stairs. One part is nick-named the ‘stairs of death’, but taking it one step at a time it is trouble-free. Reaching the top of the worshipped Inca mountain is an amazing experience. To make the most of a trip to Macchu Picchu, Huayna Picchu should be included. You can see how exhilarating it is in the video below.

Some tips for Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu:

  • Peru is known for its extraordinary mountains. It is much more fulfilling to arrive at Machu Picchu after trekking on the Inca Trail or other walks such as though the Lares Valley.
  • The main town for Machu Picchu tourists is called Aguas Calientes. It is a buzzing place. However, it is not an attractive town. Accommodation is expensive for the most basic hotel. Limit yourself to one night and two days here and stay in Cusco – a beautiful colonial town with excellent hotels, pubs and restaurants.
  • If time is limited, take the extraordinary Peru-Rail to Machu Picchu from Cusco. It is a luxurious train journey with large windows and glass rooves to let passengers see the beautiful mountainous scenery.
  • Make sure you have a Camel-Pak for Huayna Picchu as you will become parched regardless of your fitness levels.
  • At altitude weather can change dramatically so be prepared by packing warm clothes and rain gear.

My Top Five Travel Books

1. “Against the Wind, Pedalling for a pint from Japan to Ireland” by Yasuyuki Ozeki.

I read this book on the first day it was published in Ireland eight years ago. It is an incredible story of one man who fell in love with Ireland so much that he had to understand what the distance was between Ireland and his home country – Japan. For five months, he cycled across the Eurasian continent crossing China, Mongolia and Russia. Yasuyuki writes with a passionate intrigue at all the sites he visits and the people he meets on his journey. It is an extraordinary read.

2. “Jupiter’s Travels” by Ted Simon.

This book was first published in 1979. I was in my early teens when I first read this. It is a very long read as Ted Simon’s journey is also very long! Ted left his home and decided to travel the world on a motorbike. After four years, he travelled over 63,000 miles, across fifty-four countries! It gives a great insight into how some countries were in the past. The book is 450 pages long with very small writing! Despite the long read, it is a true page turner.

3. “Seven Years in Tibet” by Heinrich Harrer

This book is a classic! It is a story of a man who fled into Tibet during the 1940s. Tibet was an isolated country where no visitors were welcome. He fooled Tibetan authorities on numerous occasions and he was eventually allowed to stay in the country. He tutored the Dalai Lama until he fled during Mao’s revolution. It is a moving story learning about a country and culture that once existed and now has vanished.

4. “Giant Steps” by Karl Bushby

The front cover of this book says “The Remarkable Story of the Goliath Expedition from Punta Arenas to Russia”. The word remarkable best sums up this book. Karl Bushby wants to be the first man to walk from the very tip of South America all the way to England by walking north, then crossing the frozen Bering Straits and walk westward until he makes it home. This book is an account of his walk from 1998 to 2006, describing his journey from Punta Arenas to the Bering Strait. Karl has stories of getting through the dangerous Columbian jungle, being in prison in Panama and dressing up as an itinerant to avoid attention. Unfortunately Karl has not been able to continue his expedition but this book and his achievement is certainly praiseworthy.

5. “Ruinair” by Paul Kilduff.

RuinairHow to be treated like shite in 15 different countries… and still quite like it – This book is a hilarious! Most Europeans will be able to relate to at least one thing in this book as Ryanair, also known as Ruinair, is one of the biggest airlines in Europe. They are an airline with a “no frills” policy. Paul describes nearly every story you have heard from friends or friends of friends about their disasters with Ryanair. Paul travels all across Europe and tells his readers all his mishaps with great humour. The book is complemented with numerous quotes by the Ruinair CEO Michael O’Leary – A witty guy who literally does not care about his customers. Paul Kilduff accurately describes my, and everyone else’s, love-hate relationship with Ireland’s best and worst airline!

A Short Stay in Madrid

“Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night” – Ernest Hemmingway.

A lot has changed in Madrid since Hemmingway’s days, however Spain’s capital city is still renowned for a good night-life whether you are looking for a quiet romantic evening drink with a loved one or a sleepless night enjoying the shows and spectacles Madrid has to offer. I have visited Madrid numerous times and it has easily become one of my favourite European capital cities for its architectural grandeur, bustling plazas, rich culture and excellent cuisine. My city break to Madrid in July was for my best-friend’s birthday. She loves food, art and action-packed days. I was quietly confident she was going to like her present and fall in love with this city!

We arrived on a Thursday evening and met my close friend of mine who lives on Gran Via – the main thoroughfare of the capital. This road has an extensive number of hotels that are an ideal location to stay at as it is close to main metro hub, the fashionable shopping outlets and, more importantly, a stone throw away from the old city of narrow streets bulging into exquisite squares. I am quite lucky to have a close friend who has a vast knowledge of the city’s sights and attractions. He recommended we go for an evening meal of tapas in one of his favourite restaurants called Lateral. Lateral has a chain of restaurants, which generally deter me from entering as I find such places  poor quality due to the mass-production of their food. However, Lateral was different. We went to their restaurant on Plaza de Santa Ana. At 20:00, the hottest time of the evening, Lateral was buzzing with customers and the waiter said it would be thirty minutes until we get a table outside. Despite the waiter being under pressure dealing with an over-booked restaurant, he kindly invited us to their restaurant inside that has a large bar and tables inside. We decided to wait and had a drink inside which had comfortable couches and stools. I am quite fond of Spanish draught beer and saw they had a Mahou on tap and I could not resist my cravings for an ice-cold cerveza. Mahou is brewed by the same company of San Miguel. San Miguel does not match the crisp fresh taste of Mahou! It satisfied my taste buds and was a perfect coolant for the evening heat. It was not long until we were seated outside. I was pleasantly surprised to see that this restaurant was full of Spanish people and was confident that my friend’s recommendation was excellent. Lateral serves genuine authentic tapas but with a slight modern twist. Their tapas range from €3 to €6. We ordered patatas bravas (a typical tapa found in most restaurants that consist of diced crispy potatoes drizzled with a spicy but tangy tomato sauce), jambon iberico (thinly sliced cured ham), chorizo (spiced sausage), grilled veal with melted cheese on toasted bread, lamb meatballs and… mini-beef burgers! When I see burgers served in lavish restaurants I must try it to taste a real gourmet burger! Mini-burgers as a tapa were a perfect opportunity! There were four one inch-sized burgers on the plate that were so delicious I ate more than a fair share of them that my friend was only left with one! Lateral is a restaurant I would definitely rush back to on my next visit to Madrid. It is superb! The quality of food is generally excellent wherever you eat in the city. I would avoid the over-priced restaurants tourists frequent on Plaza Mayor. Ironically, some of the best restaurants in the city are ones that you would easily walk by as they are down an alley way or just don’t look pleasant. My friend who lives in Madrid sound advice for restaurants is – ‘the smaller, darker and dirtier the restaurant is, the better it is’. He could not be further from the truth!

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On Friday, we went to Parque Warner (the Warner Brothers Theme Park) because we loves adventurous activities. Madrid has two theme parks. Most locals and tourists favour Parque de Attracciones as it is closer to the city and has a cheap entrance fee. I went to Parque de Attracciones last year and was not impressed because I considered it an average theme park. Parque Warner is located one hour outside of the city and is very expensive but it is worth every cent. It has numerous intense but thrilling roller-coasters, named after famous action heroes and villans, that will leave your legs feeling like jelly! The park also has many rides perfect for families with children and entertaining live shows for all.

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When I am abroad I usually do not go to the cinema because I feel it is a waste of a holiday and I would not have the motivation to find a cinema that has films in English and not dubbed. Madrid has many cinemas with films in English. Ideal Yelmo Cineplex is perfectly located in the city near the tourist sights and attractions. Friday was the premier of the ‘The Dark Night Rises’, a must see movie, and after a long day on our feet, a relaxing night in the cinema was perfect for us.

Despite the size of Madrid, the capital is a walking city. A lot can be seen and done in a day. One of my favourite activities was walking around the parks in the city. Most Spanish people live in apartments therefore parks are very popular places for the locals to relax in. Parque Del Retiro is my favourite park with its beautiful walkways around gardens and fountains, small museums housing modern exhibitions, and outdoor entertainers such as musicians and artists. Within the park there is a small lake where you can rent a boat for an hour for approximately €7. This was thoroughly enjoyable to soak in the peaceful ambiance of the park.

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Museo Renia Sofia is located a few minutes away that is a must do for any visitor to Madrid. It is the home of Picasso’s famous Guernica. Even if one is not interested in art they will be from seeing this magnificent piece of 20th century art! From Museo Renia Sofia take a slow walk around the old streets that lead into squares where you can stop for an ice cold sangria, cerveza or coffee. I became fond of ‘chocolate con churros’, which are doughnut-like sticks of pastry served with melted rich chocolate. They are a popular dessert or snack among locals along with ice-cream. The ice-cream in Madrid is superb and can be found on most streets. I would recommend trying ‘dulce de leche’ flavoured ice-cream. ‘Dulce de Leche’ is an Argentinian sauce comparable to toffee but it is more distinctive. ‘Dulce de Leche’ is hard to find outside Spain and Argentina so it is worth a try! Along our walk around the old city we made it to the iconic Plaza Mayor. Plaza Mayor is an expensive place to eat or drink but it is definitely worth having a drink outside on the square to enjoy the simple pleasure of people watching. I wouldn’t spend an evening here if you are on a budget as my cerveza cost €5 at Plaza Mayor where it would cost half that price in a smaller square!

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Leaving Plaza Mayor we walked to the Royal Palace of Spain which is five minutes away. You can do a tour inside the palace however my we were not interested as we took in a lot of culture today! We decided to walk to Mercado de San Miguel, which is a food hall with numerous food and drink stalls. It is a vivacious place that it can get quite cramped as the evenings get later but it is worth a visit. After food and a few drinks we met my friend in Madrid and went to a well-known nightclub called 69 Pélatos (located here). This nightclub caters for people in the mid-twenties and up. It is easily the best nightclub I have ever been to as it is a club with a live show of musicians and dancers. They have themed dancers who move about the club to entertain everyone. The most popular dancer was a man dressed as Austin Powers!

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Sunday was our last full day in Madrid. There are two thing tourists must do on a Sunday in Madrid. The first is a trip to El Rastro Flea Market. It is a bustling place with hundreds of stands that sell almost everything! It is very popular among the locals and tourists of Spain. The second is to attend a bull-fight in La Plaza de Las Ventas. Although we were aware that bull-fighting is a grotesque sport that should be banned, we could not help our curiosity. The bull-fight is absolutely shocking and not for the faint-hearted but at the same time it is quite an amazing spectacle watching the skills of the matador.

ImageCertainly ‘nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night’. It is a buzzing city that doesn’t seem to sleep. If you are looking for lively late evenings in quality nightclubs, traditional music shows or flamenco performances, Madrid is the place to be. However, the city is also a perfect resort for quiet romantic times with your loved one from the walks around parks, boating on a lake and having a tranquil drink of sangria under the stars of the night sky.

One of those moments

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We all had one of those moments when you wished you had a camera! I met this old Peruvian man a few kilometres outside Aguas Calientes. I can not speak Spanish. The old man could not speak English. However, we somehow communicated and laughed together for about twenty minutes. It was a truly extraordinary moment. I wish I had it on video. The man was delighted when this photo was taken. He showed so much excitement when he saw himself on the screen of my camera! It was one of those moments, reminding me to appreciate all the finer things in life we take for granted.

The Ugly Underbelly of Buenos Aires – A Great City or Not?

Buenos Aires is the tango hub of Argentina. Walking through the city it isn’t hard to miss tango performers along every street, and in the numerous clubs, hosting tango throughout the city. Learning to tango or watching tango exhibitions are very popular for tourists visiting the capital. However, tango was not high up on my agenda as I was mainly in the city to see Club Atlético Boca Juniors – the Boca Juniors soccer team. Buenos Aires is also the number one fashion capital in South America and it contains many historical sites. I was looking forward to my visit to the capital. I love cities, however after my visit I don’t think I would rush back there.

Many tourists walk through the area of La Boca where the Boca Juniors’ stadium, La Bombonera, is located, as well as other tourist sights. At first glance, I thought La Boca looked like a great place, full of colourful buildings and streets bustling with buskers and people selling handicraft. I couldn’t help but take a few pictures of the multi-coloured houses made of wood and steel. All the tourists here were taking pictures of these vibrant houses. On my walk to the stadium, I got to see the real La Boca that tourists miss. The main thoroughfare of La Boca is essentially a romanticised and glorified shanty town. Behind these tourist areas, you see the underbelly of Buenos Aires. Shanty houses are located in dark alleyways, street corners and under bridges that are also made of wood and corrugated sheet metal. The difference here is the ‘houses’ are dilapidated, not painted in rich colours to make them look attractive, and are made of rusted sheet metal that look like they will crumble any minute. It left me sad to see tourists being fooled by thinking this is a great place but it is an area of some of the poorest people. Such shacks are found all around the city. I sensed an unnerving atmosphere whenever I was walking around this city. I only enjoyed the capital when I was inside the excellent cathedrals and relishing on delicious beef in restaurants. Seeing a local soccer team play in Buenos Aires is the best highlight of the city in my opinion. It is something I would highly recommend for the incredible buzzing atmosphere and seeing some of the highly skilled players. From the distaste on the streets, I would have preferred to get a taxi straight to the stadium to see my favourite soccer team play than walk through La Boca.

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Most great cities around the world have a spire. Buenos Aires has one called the Obelisco. I am undecided if I would consider Buenos Aires a great city. There is much to see and do in Argentina’s capital, however I believe the best thing about Argentina is their cuisine and seeing the diverse and raw natural areas that this vast country has to offer, such as Iguazú Falls, the region of Patagonia and the Mendoza province that has the highest mountain of both North and South America called Aconcagua.

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Off the Beaten Track in Argentina

Argentina is a vast country but surprisingly easy to get around. The two best ways of traveling around this country are by plane and bus. I would recommend the latter for comfort, price and a way of seeing the countryside. The bus service in Argentina is exceptional. They are easily the best buses I have ever been on. Long distance buses are luxurious, with many having seats the size of first-class airline seats, offering free drinks and snacks. Also, the majority of long distance buses run during the night, which is ideal for a backpacker, like me, to save money on accommodation.

I based myself in Mina Clavero, a small Argentinian town in the Córdoba region, for a few days before setting off to distant places. Mina Clavero would not be high on a traveller’s itinerary for Argentina, however if you are looking for somewhere near a big city but slightly off the beaten track – Mina Clavero is the place to be. It is an hour drive from Córdoba airport and it is linked to Buenos Aires by bus. Mina Clavero may be a very relaxed and laid back town but there is a lot to do. The area in and around Mina Clavero is popular for Argentinian tourists to take time to unwind and enjoy the beautiful lakes and rivers where you can swim, cliff-dive, abseil or just simply enjoy the sun.

ImageMina Clavero is known for breath-taking landscapes and mountain ranges that are popular for trekkers, cyclists and road trippers. Although my friend Max and I are fond of cycling and trekking we decided to do a road trip around the western province of Córdoba. On the road a few kilometres outside of Mina Clavero, Max said ‘look over there’ pointing to mountains in the distance, ‘remember you were asking about the original settlers of Argentina? That over there is a place called Nono, which means ‘breasts’ in the old Indian language!’ I can see why it was called breasts because the landscape is entirely empty other than these two perky mountain peaks, which point up in the landscape that do indeed look like breasts!

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When you are driving by Nono, it is worth stopping at the Museo Rocsen that is located just outside the village of Nono. It is one of the strangest museums I have been to, as it contains the most random pieces of what they call ‘art’! Outside of the museum there are a line of numerous statues of diverse famous historical figures such as Socrates, the Buddha, Descartes, Mother Theresa and Bach! Inside, the museum is almost like a junkyard representing centuries of important pieces of technology as well as natural objects such as fossils. The museum is essentially a walk through history. My favourite part of this museum was the outside of it with the numerous statues demonstrating the people from the early days to the present times who had a major impact on humanity.

After our visit to Museo Rocsen, we drove towards Emblase Allende where La Viña Dam is located. La Viña Dam is a hydro-electric plant. Max said it used to be one of the largest hydro-electric plants in South America. I am not surprised because it is huge. On a plaque at the pedestrian entrance over the HEP plant displays the names of those involved in the engineering and construction of this dam. I noticed the names ‘Fitzsimon’ and ‘Farrell’, obvious Irish descendants who arrived here many years ago. Irish diaspora is unbelievable sometimes. I instantly felt ‘at home’ when I arrived here.

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We drove back to Mina Clavero to get some lunch at a well-known hotel in the town called Hotel Rossetti. Max and I ordered a Quilmes Cristal,which is a pale larger of the Quilmes series. Although it is extremely popular in Argentina, I found it to be very bland. However, since it was very sunny the beer was drank. Max recommended I order a dish found all across Latin America called humita. Max said there are many different varieties of humitas. In the restaurant they had humita soup, which Max said was good. It was essentially a sweet corn soup with onion, cheese and herbs. It reminded me of French onion soup but with sweet corn. It was extremely tasty but I felt it was very heavy to eat during a hot day in Argentina. I needed to finish the bottle of cervesa to cool down after it!

Soon we were back on the road and left Mina Clavero in the direction towards Córdoba city to reach a town called Alta Gracia. In between the mountainous area of Mina Clavero and Alta Gracia is one of Argentina’s world rally tracks. This road is mostly by-passed as it is a gravel and mud track with numerous potholes. Max drives a 4×4 and we could not turn down an opportunity to drive on a rickety uncharted road in an extraordinary region. It is a place you would not want to break-down or have an accident, as this place is isolated and has many sharp turns along big drops, but we were buckled up and ready!

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After surviving the drive across the rally track, we arrived at Alta Gracia. Our main reason for driving to this town was to visit the Museo Casa de Ernesto “Che” Guevara – the Che Guevara museum. This town is very close to Córdoba city so it is worth visiting for any passer-by’s to learn about one of the most famous Argentinian figures, who also has Irish roots as his full name is Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara Lynch! Che Guevara’s family moved to Alta Gracia, as Che suffered from asthma and the dry climate of this area alleviated his condition. Che spent most of his childhood and adolescence here. The museum contains excellent photographs and memorabilia from Che’s early life. It is an exceptional museum to visit, especially for the cheap entrance ticket, or even just to walk around the foothills where Che Guevara grew up.

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We drove back to Mina Clavero to relax and go for an evening meal with friends in a restaurant called Lo de Jorge, located in the centre of the town. The restaurant is renowned for their excellent dishes and high quality beef. It is best to eat there at night time when you can taste the delights of their remarkable barbequed food. I became very familiar with asados but when I arrived into Lo de Jorge I was struck with what I saw – a two sided barbecue with almost every cut of a single cow in the middle. I was fascinated by what I saw that I had to take a photograph. Much to my surprise, Argentinian tourists were taking photographs of the asado too, as they saw nothing like it before! We were seated at a table near the barbeque and enjoying ice cold cervesa while watching the spectacle. We were all served big chunks of beef and ate them like carnivores. The reputation of Lo de Jorge is well deserved because it was easily the nicest restaurant I went to during my travels. I only realised several years afterwards that Lo de Jorge is recommended in the the ‘travelers bible’ – the Rough Guide. It is definitely worth a visit. It was a fantastic last night, off the beaten track in the province of Córdoba. It was a place I truly missed when I left for Buenos Aires.

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Dreams and Gastronomical Delights in Argentina

If something is possible and you want it, then why not get it? I believe that there are two types of people in this world – Those who just dream, and those who dream and do. I dream and do. Argentina is no longer an idea. In my eyes it was a plan that can be achieved. At the age of 19 I decided to fulfil my desire to travel to a country I have longed for since my early teens.

When I mentioned the plan to my family, I was met with instant objections.

‘WHAT?’

‘Argentina! Do you know where and how far Argentina is?!’

‘Why on earth would you want to go there?’

‘Huh! Are you mad?’

I loved the opposition from my brother – ‘Do you know where and how far Argentina is?!’

I just bit my tongue and said under my breath ‘Do you not know I study f#&$ing Geography?!’ I was met with objections for over five minutes with their comments going in one ear and out the other. I walked back to my room to call my Argentinian friend, Max, who use to work in Dublin and a few hours later I had my flights booked.

A few weeks later, I was sitting in Dublin airport’s terminal one, writing and reflecting at the boarding gate for my flight to Madrid, when I caught a glimpse of a couple sitting in front of me with a ‘Footprint’ guide to Argentina in their hands. We were both looking in the same direction at the same time so I smiled and said ‘Hey! I’m glad I’m not the only person leaving Dublin for Argentina! Where are you guys headed?’ The man smiled back ‘Cool! We are headed to Madrid, then onto Buenos Aires directly’ I was thinking my flight over to Argentina via Madrid and Chile sounded daft! ‘Great! I’ve to fly to Santiago first, then I am onto Córdoba… was your flight expensive?’ ‘It was €1,800 each.’  I smiled because I was delighted that my flight cost me €1,050 – a bargain in comparison to the Irish couple in front of me. We made our farewells and boarded the plane for our adventures.

I was on my second flight in no time but I quickly became very annoyed as on board I was informed that the flight has to land in Sao Paulo before Santiago. I was hoping this extra stop over would not affect my connection to Córdoba and leave my friend waiting. Luckily, Sao Paulo was just a quick refuelling stop – They didn’t want to alarm passengers! After a rapid in-transit excursion through Santiago Airport I was on my final plane for approximately two hours. The flight over Chile was breath-taking. For a country world renowned for their wines, which I know little about, I can easily say it is certainly justified from looking over this country at the raw beauty of their mountain ranges and extensive vineyards in the mountain valleys. This flight would be a wine connoisseur’s dream!

After the pleasant journey, I was soon acquainted with my friend Max and his brother Walter. I was on the road gazing outside the car window in excitement looking at this new world I had never seen before – a picturesque city of Córdoba still tinted by its Spanish colonisers. The Universidad Nacional de Córdoba caught my eye and Max informed me that it was the former Jesuit University, built in the 17th century that was previously a school but quickly developed into a University, which is now one of the oldest Universities in South America. We stopped the car to explore the old living quarters of the missionaries within the campus that is now a World Heritage Site. We could not stay long as all of us were hungry for breakfast. After an hour drive outside the city I made it to a town called Mina Clavero. Max’s brother said ‘Hey Brian! Are you looking forward to your first Argentine breakfast?’ ‘Oh yes I am! Can’t wait! Does it include beef?!’ I said jokingly. Max laughed and said ‘No, but don’t worry Brian, we will be eating plenty of beef while you are over! You will be like a true Argentine man when you return home to Ireland!’ I was handed a plate of criollitos with a jar of Dulce de Leche. Criollito is an Argentinian pastry, that looks and tastes quite similar to puff pastry but it is much denser and filling. Dulce de Leche, meaning ‘candy of milk’, is a spread, which is made out of milk that has been reduced down until it is like caramel in texture. It tastes almost like thick condensed milk, however it is much darker and sweeter. It was absolutely delicious!

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A few moments later I began to get nervous as I saw Walter put a bag of green grinded up leaves, which resembled marijuana, on the table along with a silver pipe. My eyes were glued at this when Max was not paying attention. I never pictured Max being a drug user! What the hell is this?! Max smiled and said ‘We are going to have some Yerba Mate Brian!’

‘Yerba what now?! Yerba like herbs?! What kind of herbs are you talking about?!’ I said to myself. I could not be rude so I just said out of curiosity ‘What is that?’ I was told it is a tea Argentinian people drink, served in a wooden goblet called a gourd and filled with the marijuana-like herbs! It is then filled with hot water and the silver pipe is put in, called a bombilla. It is a social drink with an almost ritual-like ceremony as everyone drinks from the same gourd as it is passed around a table. When the water is finished in the gourd it is passed to the ‘Mate Maker’ who fills it up and the ritual is continued. It was a nice drink that helped my coffee cravings as not many people seemed to drink coffee here.

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After a long siesta and a refreshing shower, I was introduced to Max’s father who was busy preparing food for a meal with family and friends. Max pointed out the asado in his garden, which is a traditional Argentinian coal fire barbeque. The guests arrived and we were seated, watching Max’s father cook the food. The asado was full of different cuts of beef. My mouth was watering with the sights and smells. We were all served chunks of beef and nothing else! It is no joke that Argentines like beef! I was surprised to see all the meat cooked well-done as Argentinian beef is world-renowned for its quality. I was informed that this is quite normal! Despite my disappointment of not getting to eat Argentinian beef dripping with blood, I was pleasantly surprised with the powerful flavour of the meat and how the knife would cut through it easier than butter. As an honoured guest at the dinner party, I was served tripa gorda and told it was cow’s intestines. Although I am adventurous with my food, cow’s intestines sounded disgusting! However, I could not repel my inquisitiveness to new food nor could I turn down the privileged position I was put in. I ate it diligently despite the repulsive texture resembling that of a rubber hose oozing out soft warm sludge. It was a nauseating experience.
ImageAfter the meal we all followed Max to his gastropub down the road called ‘Pericles’. On the walk Max poked fun at my mannerisms at the table. I introduced myself to all the women during the meal with a big ‘Hola’ and shook their hands. ‘Brian! Brian! Brian! In Argentina we don’t do that! The etiquette here is to kiss a girl on the cheek! Don’t shake their hands! Ha ha! You only shake men’s hands but you give them a kiss on the cheek too if they are close to you or want to be extra friendly!’ Max smiled and said, ‘I will have you trained to be a true Argentinian man by the end of this night!’
 As soon as we arrived Max instantly got giddy, which I was getting terribly confused about, as he ran towards the drinks fridge and pulled out a bottle of beer. ‘Oh Brian you must try this – it tastes like Guinness!!!’ I read the label of the beer out loud ‘Quilmes Bock…. Ilmes… Guinness… It may sound like GuinNESS but I don’t think it will taste like Guinness!’ The bottle was a litre size and I was thinking I was in for some night ahead! Max gave me a glass and we were beckoned to a table where his friends were seated at. My eyes were glued to this beer that I opened as soon as I sat down and poured myself a glass. ‘Quilmes Bock’ is a very tasty dark larger, however I can gladly tell you it doesn’t taste a thing like Guinness! It is a very good beer though, quite light and has a nice sweet kick in the end. I enjoyed it so much that after a big mouth full I had to top up my glass again! I was met with stares from Max’s friends, which I didn’t understand. Max laughed and explained, ‘Brian! In Argentina we share a bottle of beer!’ I blushed from embarrassment. It was a nice social etiquette but at the speed we were drinking the litre bottles, I was thinking ‘Why don’t they just have individual bottles here?’

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ImageIt was getting late and I was beginning to feel the jetlag. The litre bottles kept on arriving at the table and everyone was becoming increasingly inebriated. I lost count of all the beer we consumed! I think all of us did! Max shot up from his seat and said ‘Fernet!… Fernet!… Fernet and Coke! Brian must have a Fernet and Coke!’ I became nervous…

‘What is Fernet?!’

‘Oh you will find out Brian!’

‘Ah bollocks!’ I muttered.

I am not a spirits drinker but I said to myself, ‘I will drink it, but hopefully whatever it is – it will stay down!’

Max came back a minute later holding numerous narrow tall glasses, about 30cm high, filled with Fernet, then topped with ice and coke! I took a sip and luckily it was something I could drink! Fernet is an Italian digestif but seen as ‘Argentine’ as everyone here drinks it on a night out! It is an extremely powerful tasting spirit with intense flavours of herbs and spices. It reminded me of Jagermeister but much more sharp in taste. Unfortunately the coke did not hide the flavour of the drink as the more I drank it the more I hated it! And the more I drank it, the stronger the taste got, as the Fernet was near the bottom of the glass!! Unfortunately the Fernet and cokes kept on coming…

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Luckily, Argentines are fond of ‘pub-grub’! I was invited into the kitchen to see how Argentinian sandwiches, called lomitos, are made. Circular shaped bread, like pita-bread but thicker, is sliced and lightly grilled. When this is completed, lettuce and tomato is placed on the base of the bread. A very thin slice of beef is put on a very hot pan, which gets turned almost instantly, then topped with a slice of ham, cheddar cheese and an egg. The heat from below melts the cheese and cooks the egg. This is placed on the bed of lettuce leafs and tomatoes and the top of the bread is pushed down on the beef, cheese and egg, breaking the yolk. It is sliced down the middle and served with crisps. Although lomitos are quite simple, they were delicious and went down a treat for everyone, especially after all the booze! I looked at my watch and saw that it had passed my first twenty-four hours in Argentina. It was time to call it a night. I smiled to myself thinking ‘This was in incredible first day! A dream come true! I am looking forward to my next day in Argentina!’