A slow train south from Madrid to the Andalucian city of Granada was the first leg of the first holiday my now wife and I took, just weeks after we first met.
The air-conditioned carriage trundled for hours across the baked earth of Castile as we ate tinned olives and shared icy bottles of Heineken.
Spain stretched out before us with the occasional puff of cloud emerging over the horizon. On arrival in the evening, the southern heat was still overwhelming. Our supper was a large plate of sliced tomatoes, garlic and olive oil with a chunk of crusty white bread. Sleepy after the journey, we held hands as we walked through jasmine scented streets in the dark.
There are several boats a week that travel along the Rio Paraguay, a long and sultry river which begins in the Pantanal of Brasil and ends at the border with Argentina in the south.
The passenger boat called the Aquidaban seems best avoided because of the crowds but the weekly journey of the Guarani, a freighter is a real treat. I say treat as it is far from comfortable or reliable but if you want an authentic, no frills view of life on the river then this is it.
The majority of the boat is taken up with all kinds of goods for the small towns and villages along the river. Food, furniture, oil, motorcycles and a huge load of gravel we collected en-route were part of the cargo. For a negotiated price of about $20 we secured a rough dark cabin above the engine.
There are no real comforts but food can be taken with the crew and the few locals who take the boat between villages. Sitting up on the tin roof watching the river go by and observing the comings and goings as the boat gets caught on sandbanks, loads and unloads and the crew get on with the tasks of running the boat. Fishing off the back of the boat in their spare time to have the old lady cook up the catch in the evening.
The passage takes roughly 2 to 3 days depending on all of the above. It is a working freighter so as such the passengers are the last concern of the crew but having said that we never felt unwelcome or in the way.
Small towns such as Puerto Pinasco and Puerto Vallemi slowly pass by. There is a huge chest freezer with beers in to help pass the time and a really ancient looking giant tv showing a constant stream of football and Paraguayan soap operas by the kitchen area at the back of the boat. The toilet and the shower are one in the same being just a hole in the floor to stand over and a shower head directly above it. All very basic and in no way designed for tourists expecting comfort or service. Brilliant. Take a good book and let the river slowly pass by.
The weather went from sweltering airless heat to heavy rain and strong wind so be warned. The end of our ride came after three days at Isla Margerita which is at the border with Brazil, we arrived at midnight and with Brasil on the far bank of the river we quickly found some cheap lodging right next to where we had disembarked. The owner of the room also happened to own a boat so for a small fee took us across the river the next day. We had arrived in Brazil.
None of the towns have a real port or dock so the boat just ties up on the riverbank. Concepcion is a major town by Paraguayan standards and can easily be reached by bus from Asunción. Find the river and the Guarani leaves sometime on a Tuesday. Speak with the captain to negotiate your passage. Timings and days vary so prepare to be very patient.
With over 35 churches to choose from, Sao Joao del Rei is a great place to view impressive baroque churches. The town also offers a train ride to Tiradentes that takes you on a lovely journey through the different landscapes aboard an authentic 19th century steam locomotive.
Just a tip about buying a ticket and recognising the train. This site is ace for planning times reiseauskunft.bahn.de/bin/query.exe/e.
Worth writing down the journey details and the Romanian for 'first-class ticket' and handing it over - no English spoken at the train station when I was there. But the Lonely Planet guide came to the rescue.
Once you have found the platform watch out. The noticeboard flagged two separate trains - one to Targa Mures and one to Bucharest. The Bucharest train stops at Sighisoara.
But the trains appear to arrive joined as one - late. So it can be confusing.
What seems to happen is that the first-class carriage is always carriage three.
If you are on the same train as me be prepared for 50 year-old rolling stock in first class.
The scenery is fantastic. Ranging from the awesome pollution of Copsa Mica to shepherds and their flocks.
Str. Garii 1-3
The toy/mountain train from Siliguri to Darjeeling is surely one of the great railway journeys of the world. But, unless you're a real rail enthusiast, nine hours on an uncomfortable train, which travels at less than walking pace, is a little bit too long.
We got a jeep up the mountain from Siliguri to Darjeeling, which cost about 300 Rupees (£4) each. The share jeeps are very regular and, although they're pretty crowded, are way more comfortable than the train.
You can then take the highest altitude part of the great rail journey from Darjeeling to Ghoom, to visit the famous Ghoom monastery. It takes about 45 minutes and is probably more romantic and comfortable than doing the hard 9 hour slog from Siliguri.
Just make sure you book the train on your first day of arrival in Darjeeling. You can't book the train from anywhere else and there is a fair wait for tickets (a few days). There is plenty to do in Darjeeling in the meantime, including the Everest museum, one of the better Indian zoos, Glenary's cafe and lots of trail walking and shopping.
Don't even bother with the tourist ride unless you've money to waste, it's a complete rip-off compared to the Ghoom trip - about 10 times the price.
Nathmulls in Darjeeling has to be the best tea shop in the world. Really helpful staff and a great range of teas to test (local of course!). Well worth a visit when you're up in the mountains.
Get to Siliguri train station, then ask a cycle rickshaw to take you to where the jeeps go from. Then just climb in a jeep and wait for it to fill up.
Nathmulls is in Rink Mall, Darjeeling, next to Cafe Coffee Day.
The CF de Provence is the last mainline narrow gauge railway in France. It runs daily from Nice to Digne leaving at 9am and arriving just in time for a memorable lunch in the station buffet at Digne.
Don't worry about missing the train back, the driver is in there too! It gets back to Nice at 5pm. The scenery is spectacular and the trains and stations enchanting. It's cheap and if you're over 55 or a student (or une famille nombreuse) you will get a big discount.
Go in February when you can leave a spring-like Nice and be in the depths of winter in 30 minutes with giant icicles and snow fields. August is lavender festival time.
The new neat station is in the rue Alfred Binet in Nice, just behind the original (now abandoned) art nouveau station which is being converted into a new town hall for Nice, but judging by how long they are taking to finish the trams, don't hold your breath.
Take the train from Dublin's Connolly station, get a window seat on the right hand side, and good views of the coast and the Irish Sea as you travel north. Get the free bus from Belfast to city centre, a pint in the Crown Bar, visit the Linen Hall library.
Me and my girlfriend (we are a lesbian couple) traveled from Moscow to Ekaterinburg, and on to Volgograd. The trip was amazing. We were a bit worried about traveling without male company, but I must say Russia is one of the friendliest and untouristy places I've ever been.
It is a big advantage to know some Russian. Outside of Moscow we met nobody who spoke English. I found Moscow very stressful and expensive. It was the least pleasant city we visited. Our next stop was Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. I highly recommend Kazan. It's an old, beautiful and exotic city with a mix of Tatars and Russes living there. The atmosphere was far more relaxed than in Moscow.
Kazan offers great mosques, and is the Muslim centre of Russia. It's a great place to relax and stroll about. This city has some stunning sights, including the UNESCO listed Kreml.
Our next stop was Ekaterinburg. We were told that it was situated in the Ural mountains, but we never saw a glimpse of them. Nevertheless; Ekaterinburg is a very pleasant and chilled city. It has a very western feeling to it. It's easy to find western food, as there's plenty of Irish pubs there. I recommend going to the Altay building. There you can take a lift and see the city from the rooftop. It's quite stunning. There's plenty of theatres all around the city, and even though you don't understand Russian, don't miss the opportunity to catch local theatre-troops.
A great place (although hard to find) to stay is the guesthouse called Academy of Geology. It's peaceful and has beautiful rooms.
From Ekaterinburg we went south to Ufa. Ufa is the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan. Ufa was quite hard to get around, but it is still worth a visit. You can visit one of Lenin's homes and spot some unique architecture. The atmosphere in Ufa is, like in Kazan, very different from the Russian cities. I highly recommend the Azimut hotel (Bus stop Gore Moskva). It's a business hotel with great standards and a friendly staff.
On to Volgograd. Volgograd is probably one of the most beautiful cities I've been to. Situated on the banks of the Volga river with an almost tropical climate, it almost feels like you're in Greece. This is a city of history. The name Stalingrad might ring a bell. The most stunning thing to see in Volgograd is the huge Mother Russia statue. It's the highest statue in the world (72 m). It's an unbelievable sight when you compare it to a church that stands beside it. It looks more like a doll's church.
I also recommend the Stalingrad Battle museum, and the Volga river cruises. There are plenty of offers. Volgograd was really easy to get around in. The city centre is quite small, and it's easy to navigate because of the river. The Volgograd Hotel is cheap and amazing.
We had a wonderful time in Russia. My girlfriend knows some Russian and that came in extremely handy. We got quite used to people looking at us, but we never felt threatened or harassed. The most common comment we got from other women was that we were brave to travel by ourselves.
One thing that is difficult however, is buying train tickets. You will need to write down the information for the train you are going on, how many tickets you need, and what kind of cupee you want. And prepare for long lines. It might take hours to get your tickets. We always went in a 4-people compartment. It was a great way to travel. We shared compartments with so many different people, and it was a great way to get to know Russians. It's important to bring some food or beverage to share.
Girls; go to Russia. It is a fascinating place....
This is only a journey for people with time on their hands - it was supposed to take three hours but took nine. But it is a real experience. The river takes you through countless villages literally built right on it - floating pig sties and huts, children picking up groceries on tiny canoes, people fishing - it is amazing. The boat drivers’ steering can be a bit haphazard at times to say the least, and it's not the most comfortable boat, but this is a journey you won't forget in a hurry. Take sunscreen and a camera.
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