Ubud is a town in Bali located among rice paddies and steep ravines. It is one of Bali's major arts and culture centres and it has developed a large tourism industry.
If you visit Ubud don't miss the night dance and singing performances in temples such as the Batukaru Temple or Pura Dalem Temple. The atmosphere is magical, with very low light and candles and the Balinese dances are very beautiful. The most striking and unmissable performance is the Kecak dance, also known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant or Kecak Fire and Trance Dance. It is performed primarily by men although a few women's kecak groups exist. The Kecak is performed by a circle of 150 or more performers wearing checked cloth around their waists, percussively chanting "cak" and throwing up their arms. It depicts a battle from the Ramayana where the monkey-like Vanara helped Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana. However, Kecak has roots in a trance-inducing exorcism dance.
It is absolutely hypnotic and captivating and you feel the dancers are in a trance while performing. Totally unmissable and a unique experience.
Batukaru and Pura Dalem Temples in Ubud have Kecak and Balinese dances performances at night.
Google map: bit.ly/UwMKyG
This Hindu temple, dedicated to Meenakshi, is the centre of Tamil Nadu's city of Madurai, built between 1623 and 1655, attracting thousands of people each day. It contains 14 gopurams, the highest reaching 52m which are decorated with brightly coloured stone representations of gods, goddesses, animals and demons. It's enormous, about 45acres in size so you can spend a good few hours wandering around, taking in the sights, smells and sounds but I found it particularly tranquil late evenings. If you can handle large crowds then the Meenakshi Thirukalyanam(Chithirai) Festival which celebrates the marriage of Meenakshi and Shiva every April/May would be an incredible and unique experience as the Gods are led in procession blessing the devotees. The city is also home to an amazing tailor's market, the Ghandi Museum and Thirumalai Nayak Palace.
Where else in the world would you find religious monuments adorned with sculptures so boldly erotic that they have earned the moniker The ‘Kama Sutra’ Temples? Constructed in 950-1050AD, these Hindu and Jain temples honour deities while prominently displaying striking scenes of an erotic nature worthy of an ‘18’ certificate. Aside from the erotica, these UNESCO World Heritage temples are worthy of a visit as wonderful examples of well preserved monuments of antiquity in a town that feels like something of a haven from the rest of manic India. As with the rest of the country, go with open eyes and an open mind, but whatever you do just go – you will not be disappointed.
Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India
Google map: bit.ly/Q4wrM2
While travelling in Thailand, my wife and I cajoled each other into embarking on a retreat in a Buddhist monastery. The overnight train from Bangkok took us Suan Mokkh Hermitage where, after registration of £30, we entered into ten days of practising yoga (never done before); meditation (never attempted); receiving instructions in Buddhist philosophy (never chased spiritual guidance) and in mindfulness (ask my wife!) All in total silence. It was truly the most challenging, thought-provoking, difficult, weird and ultimately rewarding experience I've had and I came out the most balanced, relaxed and healthy-looking I can recall - but nonetheless dying for a beer. A very small step on the road to enlightenment. Two years on and I'm still carrying a large chunk of that time around with me.
It's Europe's first traditional Hindu Temple and part of multi-cultural Britain's unique, eccentric and cohesive society. It is quite stunning.
As it is a house of god, visitors are asked to be respectful and you will be provided with a sarong if you have shorts or skirts above knee length. You are also respectfully asked to remove your shoes before entering the Mandir.
There are beautiful carvings to be seen and interesting exhibitions.
No food or drink is allowed inside but the shop/cafe serves some delicious Indian snacks!
Santa Maria del Pi embodies all the strength, solidity and creativity of the Catalan spirit. The huge single nave transmits a sensation of spirituality, space and mass all at once and its sheer width is striking.
Even the chapels between the buttresses contribute to the expanse instead of chopping it up as they do in some other churches.
The rose window, set in its cliff-like wall of stone, is said to be the largest in the world; seen from inside the church when the afternoon sun falls on it from over the buildings, it is spectacular.
Beneath the rose window and above the door is another outstanding feature and evidence of the great vision and skill of the Catalan architects and builders of the middle ages: the shallow stone arch supporting the choir. It spans the entire width of the church and its rise is so little as to make the arch itself seem an impossibility. It looks far too flat to stand, let alone bear the weight of the choir. Yet its shape is so harmonious and effortlessly elegant it leaves you breathless with admiration.
Building began in 1319 and was completed in 1391 meaning the church was one of the many Gothic buildings started during a period of prosperity but completed during the successive ravages of epidemics, plague and violent unrest.
The tower, finished off flat like most Gothic towers in Barcelona, (Why is the one in the Plaça del Rei different? That story is yet to come…) was probably finished around 1461. Designed by master architect Bartomeu Mas, work began in 1376. It is said that the master builder, desperate to find funds to complete the church, made a pact with the Devil. But the Devil only agreed to provide him with the materials required in exchange for the builder’s soul, to be delivered when the 100th step of the tower was laid. “Right-ho”, said the builder and promptly built up to the 99th and then went on to finish the rest of the church. This took so long he died of old age before getting round to laying the 100th step thus cheating the devil of his dues.
A different sort of carnival happens in January for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Epiphany celebrations, in this 17th century town.
Thousands of white clad Ethiopians descend on the town for the surreal and astonishing Timket – a fusion of African and Judeo Christian expression of faith as the replica Ark of the Covenant from each church is paraded through town accompanied by priests chanting clapping and drumming. Brightly coloured velvet umbrellas shade the arks and red carpets are repeatedly laid, swept, rolled up and passed overhead to the front for the ark to be paraded over as it makes its way forward.
For heathens like us it was fascinating – for Christians and Jews it has a whole different meaning. Lucky tourists get a grandstand view of the blessing of King Fasilidas’s pool prior to mass immersion by the faithful (nearly all young men!) Don’t go if you are uneasy in a crowd!
The accompanying carnival has just been created to take advantage of the punters, with music, fireworks and stalls selling traditional Ethiopian handicrafts, coffee, food and drink. Ethiopian traditional dancing (belly dancing for the shoulders) spontaneously erupts around town. But the main attraction is Timket which is a carnival in itself.
Cut out the middle man and book direct with experienceethiopia.com who tailor made a trip for us inc internal flights (we did the international bit) Amanuel (Yeamanuel@yahoo.com) will do the Gonder bit if that is all you want, including trekking in the Simien mountains.
Google map: bit.ly/f27tur
One good touristy thing to do is to try and see/hear the choir of monks who give performances in the Tranfiguration Cathedral in the Kremlin. Their singing is absolutely beautiful and may well leave you slightly dewey-eyed.
The Tranfiguration Cathedral in the Kremlin
On 15th May, every year the town of Gubbio comes alive with the most amazing pagan-converted-to-catholic festival: the Ceri. The local enthusiasm gets very high as the three ceri (three very heavy wooden structures topped by three saints) are carried around all day by the ceraioli (the people who carry the ceri) in a town decorated by banners and flags. Everyone dresses up according to the saint they support and start the day at 5am till night when people eat, drink and dance till very late in the piazzas. It is called a race but the winner is not the first to arrive in the church at the top of the mountain (a 7 minute run up a very steep mountain), the winner is the cero (singular of ceri) that falls the least. A bad fall of a saint is considered a bad omen. Read more and see videos on www.ceri.it
Gubbio, near Perugia and Assisi in Umbria. Central Italy.
Closest train station: Fossato di Vico.
Buses to Gubbio from Perugia. Ryanair flies to Perugia from the UK.
Worthwhile checking out the old Jewish quarter in the Mellah area in the south of the medina. The number of Jews in the area now numbers about 260 compared to more than 15,000 at the turn of the century.
You can see the evidence with the occasional Star of David and Hebrew lettering on buildings. There are still three active synagogues out of nearly 30. For a few coins the local kids will show you where the working synagogues are.
Mellah area south of medina
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.
This church just outside the centre of Chamonix dominates the town and has a magnificent interior with colourful frescoes and a golden altar.
From Chamonix train station go straight ahead down Avenue Michel Croz, at the end of the street turn left on to Place de l'eglise, the church is on your right-hand side just after the town hall.
Eglise St Maurice has a simple but striking façade but go inside to see a beautifully scuplted altar and a handsome statue of Mary Magdalene with the inscription above her which reads 'Mary prays for our souls'.
There are many side chapels where private prayer and contemplation can be done, it's also so quiet inside that you wouldn't think that you were only 10 minutes away from the tourist crowds.
Eglise Saint Maurice is a 10 minute walk from the Palais de l'ile and just
five minutes from Lake Annecy
Every evening around 7 o'clock there is an incredible Hindu ceremony to the gods through the five elements, which is performed by sadhus. The ceremony takes place on the main ghats along the River Ganges in the centre of Varanasi.
The walk to the main ghats through the markets is a great experience too. The main ghats are around the Dasaswamedh ghat, which is one of the oldest and holiest ghats. Here you can take a rowing boat on to the Ganges to catch the ceremony from the river. It's incredible to watch the ceremony and it was a really memorable experience of India.
It's a great way of getting in touch with the spiritual side of India in the oldest and one of the holiest cities in this amazing country.
Take a cycle rickshaw to the top of the open-air street market and walk down towards the river to find the Dasaswamedh ghat.
This small relaxed town was, for 150 years, the capital of Japan and is just 50 km and one hour from Tokyo Station. Today it draws thousands of tourists and pilgrims to its many shrines and temples.
Many suggested itineraries are available online, I have visited Kamakura about 10 times, generally with students in tow. Here is an abbreviated itinerary that is a little different.
Train to Kita Kamakura. As you leave the station stay on the left-hand side of the tracks. About one minute to Engakuji Zen Temple (allow about one hour). Be sure to visit the Bell (1301) and adjacent tea room (about 140 steps - look for sign) to the right of entrance. Next walk 250 metres south to the Jochiji Temple (on right). Small and quirky, allow 30 minutes.
Now look for the sign to the Hiking Trail to the Great Buddha (Kamakura Daibutsu) at Hase. This takes about 90-120 minutes, the trail is, at times, a little rugged and needs good hiking shoes.
After visiting the Great Buddha (30 minutes) walk to the Hase rail station and take the small, single track train to Kamakura. Now you have time to explore the shops and sites from the station along Komachi Shopping Street to the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. Make your way back to the station for your return to Tokyo. You have experienced a little bit of the real Japan.
If you run out of time there is a youth hostel in Hase - Tel: 81-467-243390, Fax: 81-467-243390, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information see the official tourist site:
Get the very detailed Hakone & Kamakura information sheet (PG-307) from your local Japan National Tourist Organisation.
I visited Northumberland as I have an interest in Christian history and I know this place has over a thousand years of it. I was keen to visit castles and other ancient monuments, and Northumberland was recently awarded top 10 tourist destination in the world which it deserves.
The religious history of the place, particularly around Holy Island was spectacular and thoroughly recommended.
A visit to La Mosquee (rue Saint Hilaire) is the most relaxing way to spend time in Paris. The mosque itself is very interesting - someone there will eagerly show you around - but the best part is the little cafe there.
You can sit outside in the garden and sip mint tea or eat sweet pastries in a calm, unhurried atmosphere. There is even a traditional hamman located there where you can have a very efficient Turkish-style bath for a fraction of the price any of the more indulgent spa hotels would charge to leave you feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the rest of Paris. A serene and peaceful environment where everyone is welcome.
I will treasure the memory of joining the St George's Day celebration in Lalibela. It is impossible to describe the feeling of mingling with the crowds of people, mainly wrapped in white, walking along the deep rock hewn corridors, kicking off the sandals and forcing your way into the church.
An earlier fantastic memory was walking along the day before and suddenly seeing St Giyorgis sunk into the rock.
A less pleasant memory was fleas in the carpets of the churches! Do take something for the fleas as they can migrate to the bedding.
Discover an oasis of calm. Go to the Beguinage, a beautiful small green and shaded space flanked by distinctive white buildings and crossed with paths. Sisters of the religious St. Benedict order have taken the place of the former beguines of the former cloistered community. Its atmosphere is wonderfully serene.
The Begijnhof is just off Wijngaardplein and has a shop, church and small museum. There are signs asking people to be silent (though not always obeyed).
The 'Church in the Rock' is the most striking piece of religious architecture in Helsinki.
The chuch was hewn from a huge chunk of granite, the walls left as jagged bedrock, into which a concrete altar was poured. The copper roof seems to float above the church as the light come from a circular window on to which the roof sits. A proper 'wow' moment.
Lutherinkatu 3, Helsinki
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