Friday, August 26, 2011

Ibiza - Beyond Clubber Paradise (Spain)

guest post by Mohamed Khazma

Dazzling away in the Mediterranean sun, the island of Ibiza is home to hedonists. Four months in a year Ibiza is turned into a clubber's paradise, it holds its status to date as the world's best clubbing destination. Trapping the biggest parties in the world into one location is a virtue of insanity, but it somehow manages to keep order and sustain its worldwide reputation.

Ibiza, however is far from just a playground of booze and music, it still to this day holds its own historical significance and reputation for a beach / adventure like destination to match the rest of the Mediterranean islands.

Summer Adventures

By day, the thousands of clubbers visiting the island will try and find a cure from the previous night and ready their adrenaline for the next night of boozing. Ibiza’s countless and sublime clear water beaches are just one cure, with this setting, the beaches provide a platform to allow access for diving, windsurfing, sailing, jet skiing, parachute sailing, banana rides and boat rentals – to name some.

Past Ibiza’s clichéd beach activities, the Jeep safaris provide visitors with a rugged discovery of the islands most secluded landscapes and pristine coastlines. Mountain biking is the adrenaline junkies alternative, providing a free roam platform to discover Ibiza’s true country paths, the tours start from the west coast through the hills of San Agustin; the east coast trail visiting the charming village of San Carlos and the tower of Pou d'es Lleo; and lastly a trail through Ses Salines Natural Park, to roam in its dunes and ponds.

An Alternative Summer

Located in Puerto San Miguel is the biggest cave in Ibiza. Cova de Can Marçà, an estimated 100,000 years old limestone cave is spectacularly lit by coloured lighting, together with an artificial waterfall – creating an almost unreal setting. Bounded by breathtaking sea-views, visitors enter the rocky inlet of stairs allowing the discovery of its underground stalactites and stalagmites, and lakes through multilingual guided tours.

With every island comes a mystery, when a landmark doesn't appear on maps, nor is it signposted from any nearby road or path – it is sure to be sought after. Atlantis, an old quarry island off the coast of Ibiza is seen by most locals as Ibiza’s spiritual Mecca (top photo). Atlantis leaves behind the remains of sculptured rocks from the stonecutters who used it as a source for raw material to fortify mainland Ibiza. The quarry is accessible via a short boat ride.

Winter in Ibiza

The clubs have locked-up, streets cleaned, beaches abandoned and the airport is at its quietest in the year. Ibiza’s white canvas is turned into vibrant flora, what remains is a well-kept secret creating the most tranquil time of year for Ibiza’s residents and the few discerning holiday makers.

One of the most unique experiences in Ibiza is horseback riding in the northern mountainous landscapes. Rising though Ibiza’s natural protected areas, encompassing wildly romantic scenery and overlooking the islands coastline, it is an indulgent adventure for the winter season. The tours start from a few hour rides, to a full week package including agro-tourism hotels, charming, yet small, but a far-cry from the monstrous tourist hotels in Ibiza’s main towns.

Deserted beaches can come rarely on such an island, even with Ibiza’s 300 day sunshine a year, winter season in Ibiza sees no sunbeds, nor masses of crowds to spoil the view. The water pulls in gently at shore, the lush vegetation rustling, birds singing, and the entire beach open for an invitation of seclusion. Strolling slowly along the sandy promenade, soaking up the sun and replenishing the winter sunshine – Ibiza paints the perfect winter like paradise for some. 

Melbourne Skyline at Night (Australia)

The Melbourne skyline reflects into the Yarra River in hues of red, blue and purple as shown in this photo taken from Southbank. As for all photos, clicking on it shows an enlarged photo. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great

In 1994 Peter Sommer walked 2,000 miles across Turkey retracing the route of Alexander the Great, and in the process fell in love with the country, its ancient civilizations, and the Turkish people. For this epic journey he received The Explorers Club of America Young Expeditioners’ award. 
You too can follow in Alexander’s footsteps on our Alexander the Great tour in Turkey, or ourAlexander the Great tour in Greece.
In the footsteps of Alexander the Great: travel article.
It all stemmed from a photograph in an old dusty book. The scene was of towering mountains enveloping a verdant river valley, through which Alexander the Great apparently passed 2,300 years ago. Like the photographer, the explorer Sir Aurel Stein, I too wished to wander in the depths of Asia in search of clues to the ancient past.
For more than two thousand years Alexander the Great has excited the imagination of people around the globe. I became fascinated by Alexander some 18 years ago when a history teacher at school unravelled a map of the classical world and traced the outline of his journey with his finger. Who could not be intrigued by a man who inspired his soldiers to march for 12 years, beyond the known ends of the earth. They tramped some 22,000 miles; from Greece all the way to India and back to Babylon. By the time the Macedonian king died at the age of thirty two in 323 BC much of the known world lay beneath his feet.
Map of Turkey with route walked in Alexander the Great's footsteps
Map of Turkey with route walked in Alexander the Great’s footsteps
Having studied his campaign in libraries I wanted to get out on the ground and see how the landscape with its mountains, rivers, and deserts shaped his strategies and determined his route. Geography so often governs history, and I wanted to see it up close for myself. I decided to organise an expedition focusing on Turkey, ancient Asia Minor, retracing his footsteps from the enigmatic city of Troy to the site of the Battle of Issus.
What better way than to walk the 2,000 miles, travelling at the marching speed of his army and experience something of the physical rigours he faced. I wanted to behold the monumental ruins of cities he visited or attacked, and to search for ancient roads, upon which his soldiers trekked. It took Alexander and his 40,000 soldiers eighteen months to reach Issus. I would refrain from fighting battles, besieging towns, and the occasional spot of pillaging, and so hoped to complete the route in some twenty weeks, covering about fifteen miles a day.
Turkey is a veritable treasure trove for those enthralled by Alexander. First stop should be Istanbul’s magnificent archaeological museum. There, pride of place, stands the Alexander sarcophagus. This was not Alexander’s personal coffin, the whereabouts of which has been hotly debated. Instead this tomb was excavated at Sidon and probably belonged to Abdalonymus, a mere gardener who was appointed as the local ruler by Alexander. In death as in life he wanted to show his continuing respect for his overlord, and so had Alexander depicted on his tomb.
To marvel properly at one of the finest pieces of craftmanship from the ancient world you really do have to drop to your knees. Carved in lustrous white marble, the sides are adorned with reliefs of battles and hunts charged with energy and grace. If one looks carefully, it’s possible to see the remnants of painted colours that highlighted the figures all the more, and the tiny holes where once tiny spears and swords were carefully positioned.
The Alexander sarcophagus, Istanbul archaeological museum, Turkey
The Alexander sarcophagus, Istanbul archaeological museum, Turkey
One side shows Alexander at the hunt, a popular pastime amongst the Macedonian nobility and one of Alexander’s favourite pleasures. On another is Alexander the Great at war, astride his trusty steed Bucephalas, rearing up on muscular legs above a fallen Persian horseman. The king himself, his head encased in a lion helmet, symbol of Hercules, stretches his right arm back over his shoulder with spear at the ready.
It was in the spring of 334BC that Alexander embarked on his epic expedition to overthrow the Persian empire. As he sailed from the Gallipoli peninsula across the Hellespont, the modern Dardanelles, he stopped mid way to sacrifice a bull and pour libations from a golden cup to placate Poseidon and the ocean. Then, dressed in full armour at the prow of the royal trireme, always a king with a showman’s instincts, he hurled his spear into the soil claiming the continent as his, won by right of conquest. Needless to say he was the first to jump from his ship and set foot on the sands of Asia.
When I visited Troy the start-point of my walk, I felt rather like many travellers first exploring the site, confused and a little disappointed. There are no great colonnaded streets decked with marbles and mosaics to inspire awe, instead you have to let your imagination fly and let ancient myths consume your thoughts.
This is what Alexander did almost immediately after arriving in Asia Minor. He stripped naked, anointed himself with oil, and ran to place a garland on the tomb of Achilles. It was a symbolic gesture, the new great warrior paying homage to his own personal hero, who had fought a thousand years before Alexander (if there is any truth in Homer’s story of the Trojan war). Next, having climbed up to the temple of Athena, he donated his own suit of armour and was given in return the finest relics from heroic times, including Achilles’ celebrated five layer shield, which was to save Alexander’s life during a siege in India.
Peter Sommer on his walk in the footsteps of Alexander the Great
Peter Sommer at the outset of his walk
My walk began in March and as I walked inland I shivered my way through hills decked in snow. Thankfully welcoming villagers were on hand calling me into their tea houses, plying me with hot cocoa, and presenting me with a cornucopia of tasty treats. Heading south having already worn out one pair of boots, I reached Ephesus. While Troy requires a leap of faith, this city needs no effort at all to bring its ruins to life. Although almost all of what can be seen today is Roman, dating to the time when the city was the capital of the province of Asia, it was an important city hundreds of years before when Alexander the Great marched through.
In Alexander’s wake I visited the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. Coincidentally it was burned down by a madman the night that Alexander was born. Nowadays the temple stands forlorn and melancholy. Just one column rises full above the swampy ground. It’s hard at first to see in the sparse ruins one of the greatest buildings ever built, but the sheer length of it offers the first easy clue. Since so many buildings in antiquity were frequently damaged then rebuilt, or in a state of construction for centuries, I find it quite refreshing to see a celebrated temple left plain and unreconstructed.
Alexander offered to defray all the costs that had been incurred in the rebuilding of the temple on the proviso that they would dedicate it in his name, but the citizens of Ephesus politely declined his attempt at PR and propaganda ‘because it did not befit one god to do honour to another’. Not far south, however, he found a far more willing recipient for his largesse. The town of Priene, always a poor cousin to Ephesus, was only too glad to take his cash and allow him to dedicate their new temple to Athena.
The temple of Athena, at Priene, on the west coast of Turkey
The temple of Athena, at Priene, on the west coast of Turkey
Today Priene stands like a veritable time capsule to the Hellenistic period following the death of Alexander the Great. Designed on a rigid Hippodamian grid square pattern, named after the architect from nearby Miletus, the stepped streets march up the steep hillside almost oblivious of the geography, to Athena’s temple.
Standing here, looking out on a breathtaking panorama high above the vast alluvial plain of the Maeander River, the passage of time is instantly obvious. 2,300 years ago, all the land below was sea. Islands which were once witness to great naval battles are now mere bumps in a seemingly endless flat. Yet strolling around Priene, almost always empty of tourists, it’s almost possible to hear the marching feet of Macedonian soldiers amongst the sound of cicadas.
Heading further south, Alexander reached Halicarnassus, the glistening capital of the Hecatomnid dynasty, built on a lavish scale by Mausolus, whose tomb, the ‘Mausoleum’, was ranked as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was also a key naval base occupied by the Persians, who manned the city’s 6.5kms of fortifications. These giant walls, bristling with towers, were a technological masterpiece and only a few decades old. They still snake their way over the hillsides above Bodrum. One can get a real sense of their majesty at the Myndos gate on the west, which stands well preserved and resolute not far from a newly built supermarket.
Alexander the Great depicted as Helios
Alexander depicted as Helios
As big and strong as they were, Halicarnassus’ walls were built to defend in a bygone age. For Alexander was equipped with a new type of weapon, the torsion catapult. Designed by engineers at the court of Philip, his father, it was powered by animal sinews that could unleash far more power than anything previously seen. Until then siege warfare had generally been a case of surrounding a town and starving it out. Now a new arms race had begun.
With these catapults Alexander could actually knock down walls, and literally smash any cities that stood in his way. One can almost imagine the look on the faces of the Persian generals, encamped in Mausolus’ old palace probably beneath the city’s Crusadar castle, as Alexander’s troops wheeled up siege towers several stories high, and let rip the first volley of stone boulders.
Three months into my expedition, I walked through the depths of central Anatolia, a never-ending patchwork of wheat fields, to the city of Gordium. Situated on the Persian Royal Road just west of Ankara, this was the capital of Phrygia, a kingdom founded by Gordius in the 8th century BC. It was expanded by his celebrated son, Midas, whose touch according to legend turned everything to gold.
It was here that one of the most celebrated moments in Alexander’s career occurred. Alexander was attracted by the story surrounding a ceremonial chariot that marked Gordius’ grave. The wagon’s yoke was attached by a knot no man had ever been able to undo. Not unlike the story of Arthur and the sword in the stone, people believed that whoever undid the knot would become Lord of all Asia. Surrounded by a crowd of onlookers Alexander struggled to loose the knot. Growing frustrated he drew his sword and slashed through it. Apparently Zeus himself approved of Alexander’s actions, for “there were thunderclaps and flashes of lightning that very night”.
In the baking heat of August, I headed southeast via Cappadocia, across the Taurus mountains, and on past Tarsus. Where the coast of Turkey turns south to the east of Adana, a great mound lies, excavated in recent times. This earthen ‘huyuk’, like many scattered around this part of the world, marks an ancient settlement, in this case, the town of Issus. It was here that Alexander left his sick and injured soldiers before moving south hot on the trail of the Persian Great King, Darius. Unbeknownst to Alexander, however, Darius’s army was actually wheeling around behind him. When Darius reached Issus, he cut off the hands of the Macedonian sick he found there.
Today the area is far removed from its ancient past, an industrial zone crammed with smoking factories. But it was here that one of the most significant battles in history was fought. On the banks of a small river, Alexander assembled his force. He had chosen the site carefully, a narrow plain hemmed between mountains and sea, to prevent the Persians from using their vastly greater numbers. I remember walking around the area, armed with the ancient writers who described the battle, trying to make sense of the landscape.
The Alexander mosaic discovered at Pompeii
The Alexander mosaic, discovered at Pompeii
As was usual, Alexander himself led the charge at the head of his finest cavalry, a true leader who showed his men the way. He aimed right at the heart of the opposing army to Darius himself. The scene is immortalised in a mosaic found at Pompeii. Alexander gallops steely eyed straight for the Persian Great King, who turns tail and flees as fast as he can. One of the ancient authors, Diodorus Siculus, wrote:
“More than achieving victory over the Persians, Alexander wished to be the personal instrument of victory”
It is a telling insight into the nature and personality of this legendary figure.
My walk finished just a few miles south of the site of the battle at the city of Iskenderun, named after a city Alexander founded here in commemoration of the battle. Four and a half months and 2,000 miles after setting off on foot from Troy, I could not believe my journey had finished.
The myriad ancient cities I had seen were embedded in my memory, but what remains foremost in my mind is the sincere friendship of the Turkish people, extended constantly to a weary traveller far from home. Every single day I was welcomed into their homes and showered with kindness and hospitality. Though just a brief affair, it was passionate in the extreme, and left me madly in love with the land that is Turkey.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Viking Ship Museum (Oslo, Norway)

The mere mention of the word viking conjures images of wild unruly men in horned helmets sailing the seas in magnificent wooden sailing ships and raiding, plundering and pillaging lands across Europe. While science has since shown that Vikings were more civilised than their reputation and didn’t wear horned helmets, they were undoubtedly master ship builders and mariners. 

Three superb Viking ships are on display in the purpose-built Oslo Viking Ship Museum (Vikingskiphuset. Fortuitously discovered over 100 years ago in a remarkable embalmed state in various local clay bogs that acted as ritual burial mounds, two of the ships are near complete.

On entering the museum, theOseberg stands majestically for all to view. Discovered as a grave in 1904, a Viking Queen was buried with the Oseberg to aid her marine passage to the next life. At 22 metres in length with fifteen pairs of rowing positions, the Oseberg was constructed in the early 800s for access to fjords and coastal waters. It is carved in magical detail with superb swirling bow and stern features and ornate patterns of Norse sagas and gods carved on its sides.

From the viewing platform, the ship’s construction can be seen with long sweeping planks of wood joined together to form the spine of the ship before cross ribs were nailed to provide the ship’s strength. The mast adds the option of sailing to that of rowing.

Sadly looted of its most valuable treasures, the burial area held two bodies along with textiles, leather shoes, tools, cooking utensils, buckets (one with a few wild apples) and wooden carvings – all made by skilled artisans and in remarkable condition after 1,200 years. These findings are especially valued as they rarely survive the ravages of over a thousand years.

Three regal carved wooden beds and the frames of two tents offer comfortable evenings for the buried queen. An intricately carved ash and oak cart designed for two horses seems strange with the lack of roads but has a well-thought design with the carriage being demountable. Along with the cart are four horse-drawn sleds also featuring ornate carvings and clever engineering to enable easy transportation in the winter months.

Turning right, the Tune ship is the smallest of the three ships and in considerable disrepair. With only part of the keel of the ship left, it shows the advanced construction in some detail but little else.

At the other end of the museum is the Gokstad. In contrast to the Oseberg, the Gokstad (built in the late 800s) is a Viking longship and far more seaworthy with its beautifully crafted broad base, high sides, hatches for the oar holes (when sailing) and strengthened keel. Less ornate and ceremonial and capable of war, the ship was discovered with 64 wooden shields for a crew as large as seventy. A copy of the Gokstad successfully sailed from Norway to the United States. While a sizable ship, every ounce of legendary Viking toughness, resourcefulness and persistence must have been needed to travel the harsh Arctic seas and conduct the long journey to North America.

Again, being a grave site, the ship was discovered with a variety of household materials, animals and harnesses for horses. The timber burial chamber and a pair of small boats are displayed in the Tune room.

The Viking Ship Museum is a superb collection of 1,200 year old relics highlighting the craftsmanship and artisanship of a highly advanced maritime civilisation. Along with the extraordinary Vigeland Sculpture Park, the museum is an Oslo highlight bringing to life the Viking way of living and a chance to revel in their complex society and admire their remarkable seamanship in a well-presented showcase.

Note:Visit Viking Ship Museum website for more detail. Click on lefthand menu (in Norwegian) for main highlights of the museum. 

The Wonders of Easter Island

Enigmatic Easter Island lies in the South Pacific, some five hours off the coast of Chile. It’s said to be the most isolated inhabited place on Earth, giving it an aura of inaccessibility which belies the fact that, thanks to regular commercial flights, a trip to this evocative island is by no means limited just to the most intrepid travellers.

Though the sheer mission of travelling to the most remote corner of the Earth is an attraction in itself, the real draw of the island is the iconic statues for which it is famed. Known in the local dialect as the moai, these monolithic figures represent deified ancestors and are thought to have been carved between around 1250 and 1500 AD. There are a staggering 887 of them, many of which are still set in the hillsides of the quarry from which the compressed volcanic rock was taken to create them. The most impressive, however, are those which stand lined up on ceremonial platforms known as Ahu. These are to be found on the coast around the island, with the figures facing inland keeping watch over their living clan. The heaviest weighs an impressive 86 tons; to put that into perspective, the heaviest of the standing stones at Stonehenge is only 30 tons!

The history of Easter Island is steeped in mystery. Nobody knows for sure when the first settlers arrived, though DNA tests have shown that the present-day Easter Islanders are of Polynesian descent and probably arrived in large numbers. Indeed, legend tells of a people displaced from an island being enveloped by the sea. When they first came ashore after their long ocean voyage, archaeological evidence shows that they would have found an island paradise rich in flora and fauna – a vision quite at odds with the barren landscape which characterises the island today. For this reason, Easter Island is often seen as a stark reminder of the effects of human occupation on fragile ecosystems; overpopulation and deforestation have left the island with virtually no trees and an economy which relies heavily on tourism. However, with UNESCO World Heritage status, the island draws in around 50,000 visitors a year – a figure expected to rise over the next decade – making tourism a reliable source of income for the remaining islanders.

So, what is it actually like to visit Easter Island? Well, there’s no getting away from the fact that the journey is a lengthy one. First you have to get to Santiago, Chile, and from there it’s another five hours or so by plane to Easter Island’s airport at Hanga Roa. But this is not difficult to arrange, and once you’re there, you’re certain to deem the slightly arduous journey more than worthwhile. Arguably the best method of exploring the island is on horseback, and horses, bikes, scooters and jeeps are all available for hire. The ideal way to visit Easter Island is as part of a longer trip, perhaps incorporating other Pacific Islands (there are flights to Tahiti from Easter Island) or South America. This will enable you to make the most of being out in this remote part of the world. Many operators of tailor-made holidays run optional extra trips to Easter Island as part of a visit to Chile; Audley Travel, for instance, offer Easter Island tours as part of a South America itinerary. But however brief your visit, this truly unique island is guaranteed to leave you awestruck, with the inscrutable faces of its astonishing statues etched into your memory for life. 

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Two months ago, I visited Hawaii’s Big Island and wrote several blog posts about where I went and what I saw (and on Culinary Colorado, what I ate). One post was called “Hawaii’s Changing Landscape on View” and focused on Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. I also wrote about the park for a website National Parks Traveler. “Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s Changing Landscape is the Only Constant.”  Same island. Same experiences. Different words.
Photo of Pu' O'o Cone taken in 1983 by the U.S. Geological Survey's George Ulrich. The cone became a crater but more recently as changed its volcanic tune again.
The words have to be different, because the volcanoes have shifted geologic gears again. When I was there in late June, no lava was flowing but a huge plume of gases, steam and particulate matter was steadily emitted into the sky from the Pu’u O’o crater. At night, the emission glowed. It still does.
During the years while this was going on, fiery lava lakes developed deep within the Pu’u O’o crater, and on Aug. 3, the bottom seemed to fall out of the lake, which dropped precipitously, and following rapid-fire volcanic activity, lava began flowing again. Earlier this month, the Park Service posted a map and status report and regularly updates reports on road, trail and facility openings and closures, depending on current activity.

Necker Island Retreat

Next time you’re ready to plan an island getaway, check to see if you have an extra $54,500 in the bank. That’s what you’ll need to rent Necker Island, Sir Richard Branson's private refuge, for just one night.  With space for 27 of your luckiest buddies, this 14-room island hideaway in the British Virgin Islands is only accessible by boat or helicopter. Once you arrive, a staff of 60 will be on hand to grant your every wish including gourmet meals made by Michelin-trained chefs. Branson, a notorious adrenalin junkie, has packed the island with adventure amenities like kitesurfing, windsurfing and power-boating. Or, do as he often does and lounge in a hammock contemplating your next million-dollar idea. You’ll need it to fund a getaway like this.