Friday, 14 September 2012

A Journey to the Past: Re-discovering Turin & the Valle D'Aosta! Part 1

When I was a boy, my dad took me and my sister on an expedition to Italy. We crossed France and the Swiss Alps (made even more exciting because my dad is terrified of heights, including high mountain passes), travelling and sleeping in a beat-up, old pick-up truck.

Though the purpose of the trip was to find and purchase Italian motorcycles, I remember it differently. As my first real travel experience, outside the UK (and a day trip to Calais), some of my fondest childhood memories come from that trip.

I remember the laughs we had after I woke in the night to discover someone was shaking the truck...only it wasn't someone shaking the truck. My sister had rolled onto the handbrake in her sleep and what I felt were the vibrations as we rolled down the hill and finally came to a stop in the bushes of a French service station.

I also remember the astounding views and sheer drops as we trundled at 5 mph through the Swiss valleys - the beauty and the scale of the landscape no doubt greatly amplified through a child's eyes and over time.

Then there's dad letting me ride on the back of one of the motorbikes where it sat in the back of the pick-up and as we cruised through the town of Aosta one magical evening.

But what I remember most was a campsite we stayed at, owned by a lovely Italian family and where me and my sister unearthed Roman ruins and found an ancient tomb hidden under the children's play area.

I often wondered about this campsite. How much of what I remember had been real? And how much imagined? So one day, I decided to go back.

We set out on a grand motorcycle tour of Italy (well, actually the whole of Europe), riding down Central France to Marseille, then across Northern Italy via Turin, which, after consulting my dad's (also vague) memory, we discovered was the location of this mystery campsite.

The information we had from dad was as follows:
  • It was hard to find,
  • Not in the city itself but just outside,
  • The only campsite in Turin (at least, in the mid-ninties).
It was going to be easy...I thought...

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Japan Travel Guide: Top Places in Japan!

Japan Travel Guide

Whether it’s fascinating ancient traditions, high-tech, ultra-modern youth culture, or the unique blend of the two that interests you about Japan travel, there are a few places you can’t afford to miss while you’re there; things you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
Though some are in every guide book, others are still waiting to be discovered, in a country where mysterious Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines lurk in the cracks between car manufacturers and skyscrapers.

Japan is one of the world’s richest countries, and therefore not exactly the cheapest to travel. The Japan Rail Pass is a great deal for your money and allows you to go almost anywhere in Japan, saving hundreds of pounds, but it is still not cheap. So with the daily costs and the Japan Rail Pass, it’s a good idea to cover ground quickly in Japan.

This list means you can hit all the best destinations and sights on your Japan travel experience, without wasting time on red herrings and disappointments.

Tokyo – First point of call for most travellers to Japan, Tokyo is a metropolis like no other, where East really does meet West, in a head on collision! Check out Shinjuku (possibly Tokyo’s most famous district, with some of the coolest shops you’ll ever go in), Shibuya (famous for its nightlife and the giant, six-way pedestrian crossing as seen in Lost in translation), Roppongi (known for its unrivalled nightlife and unusually high population of Westerners) and Asakusa (complete with impressive temples and shrines that come alive during festival season).

Yokohama – Connected to Tokyo, this port city with its impressive Chinatown, is often called the “Liverpool of Japan”.
Ise – This rather uneventful coastal town contains one of the most spiritual sites in all of Japan. The Meoto Iwa, or wedded rocks, jut out from the waves and are connected by a rope made of rice-straw. For believers of Shinto, for whom natural forces such as rocks, trees and rivers contain spirits, this site is unbelievably sacred.

Himeji – Home to one of the two most impressive castles.
Matsumoto – Here you’ll find the other of the two castles, nicknamed “Crow Castle” for its dark black appearance. Matsumoto is also situated in Nagano, in the Japanese Alps, making it a great base for alpine activities from skiing in the winter to scenic hiking in the summer.

Norikura Kogen – Close to Matsumoto, this spectacular area boasts forested mountains, dazzling alpine lakes, a ski resort and one of Japan’s most famous onsen baths!

Tsumago & Magome – The Nakasendo is the ancient postal road that once led through the mountains from Matsumoto to the old capital, Kyoto. Today you can hike the route, with the most impressive stage being between Tsumago and Magome, which still retain the atmosphere of the Edo period.

Osaka – Definitely Japan’s coolest city, with 24 hour, all-you-can-drink nightclubs, and its own dialect, cuisine and culture.

Kyoto – Japan’s historical city, packed with more temples, shrines, museums and other historical and cultural sites than you can shake a bokken at. Highlights include the Golden Temple, the Fushimi Inari Shrine and Gion – the Geisha district.

Nara – Nearby Nara is another historical gem not to be missed, home to the giant Buddha housed in the magnificent Todai-ji. Also, don’t miss Nara Koen (Park), where deer roam free and will chase you for biscuits.

Okinawa – This spectacular group of islands lies far off the South coast of mainland Japan but is well worth the additional journey. Beautiful National Parks, picture-perfect beaches, and an entirely different culture await those who make it here!

Hiroshima – A must-see on any Japan itinerary. The Museum and Peace Park give a unique take on war, and you will not leave Hiroshima without a changed perspective on life.

Miyajima – Easily accessible from Hiroshima by boat, this tranquil island is home to the iconic Itsukushima Torii (floating gate) and even more deer!

Nagoya – Japan’s third largest city is predominantly industrial, meaning the nightlife and culture are authentically Japanese. Check out Osu for its quirky shopping lanes and beautiful shrine.

Utsumi – If spending time in Nagoya, the idyllic beach village of Utsumi offers a break from the city, only a short train ride away.
Kanazawa – This beautiful town, often left off the foreign tourist map, boasts lush Japanese gardens, Japanese sweet making classes and more.

Wajima – Just north of Kanazawa, this quaint, rural town offers peaceful beaches on the East China Sea and is one of the best places to try a stay in an authentic Japanese RyokanInn.

Hokkaido – The northern-most of the main four islands, Hokkaido is rarely reached by travellers or Japanese alike. The awe-inspiring landscape boasts many beautiful National Parks, perfect for scenic hiking and outdoor activities.

Sapporo – The fourth largest city in Japan and the capital of Hokkaido is home to the Sapporo brewery, a number of esteemed whisky distilleries and a perfect climate.

Hakodate – This smaller, more culturally and naturally inspiring city is the gateway to Hokkaido and shouldn’t be missed as you pass through.

Nibutani – For a real adventure, journey to the sparsely populated, far Eastern coasts of Hokkaido, where you will find villages such as Nibutani. These are the last places on earth to find the Ainu, Japan’s native people, and in Nibutani you will find museums and craft shops where you can interact with the locals and learn more about their remarkable culture.

Reads for the Road: Part 2 - Top 35 Motorcycle Travel Books!

The feeling of riding a motorcycle is a hard one to describe in words...but some have pulled it off! Why 35? Because that's how many there are...that I know, at least. Here's my list of the top biker books for the motorcycle traveller:

A Place in Hell by H. R. Kaye - One of the best books for getting across the biker ideology, one of my favourite books of all time, and dictated by an ex-Hells Angel!

Jupiter's Travels by Ted Simon - The classic motorcycle travel book. 4 years. Over 64,000 miles. 46 countries.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig - This book is a motorcycle travelogue, philosophical essay and personal journey all in one.

Travelling with Che Guevara by Alberto Granada - Che Guevara's epic motorcycle journey, told through the eyes of his witty and perseptive travelling companion and lifelong friend...

The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto "Che" Guevara - ...and the classic itself!

Long Way Round by Ewan McGregor & Charley Boorman - The journey that kicked off the modern motorcycle travel business...

Long Way Down by Ewan McGregor & Charley Boorman - ...and its epic sequel!

Riding with Rilka by Ted Bishop - Another great motorcycle book that combines academic thinking with the sheer joy of riding. I've been lucky enough to have a chance meeting with Bishop in person, in Grand Prairie, Alberta.

One Man Caravan by Robert Fulton - This inspiring journey was undertaken in 1932 and still resonates today!

The Longest Ride by Emilio Scotto

Dreaming of Jupiter by Ted Simon - After many years, Ted Simon returns to the destinations of his old trip, once again by motorcycle.

Riding High by Ted Simon - More tales from Ted Simon's epic motorcycle journey.

Race to Dakar by Charley Boorman - Another boorman classic, this time without McGregor.

The Perfect Vehicle by Melissa Holbrook Pierson.

These Are the Days that Must Happen to You by Dan Walsh.

The Rugged Road by Theresa Wallach.

Red Tape and White Knuckles by Lois Pryce.

Lois on the Loose by Lois Pryce.

Into Africa by Sam Manicom.

Under Asian Skies by Sam Manicom.

Distant Suns by Sam Manicom.

Tortillas to Totems by Sam Manicom.

Uneasy Rider Travels Through a Mid-Life Crisis by Mike Carter.

One Brit, One Bike, One Big Country by John McKay & co.

Old Man on a Bike by Simon Gandolfi.

Mi Moto Fidel by Christopher Baker.

The Road to Gobblers Knob by Geoff Hill.

Investment Biker by Jim Rogers.

10 Years on 2 Wheels by Helge Pederson.

American Borders by Carla King.

Ghost Rider by Neil Peart.

Against the Wind by Ron Ayres.

Freewheelin' Frank by Frank Reynolds - Another book by a former Hells Angel, this stream of consciousness and debauchery is a must read for any interested in biker culture!

Hells Angels by Hunter S. Thompson - Thompson's first full length novel sees him infiltrate the infamous Hells Angels and live to tell the tale.

Rolling through the Isles by Ted Simon - He's back, and this time riding closer to home. A journey deep into Britain and into his own past.

Here are some more great lists of top motorcycle travel books:

...and some other great motorcycle travel resources:

A 1953 European Motorcycle Trip and the subsequent photos.

If you want to take a motorcycle trip yourself, why not check out the Top Motorcycle Rides in North America.

Or are you interested in more great travel books?

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Books for the Road: Top 10 Travel Reads!

Planning a trip and looking for more information and inspiration? 

Or are you on the road and wanting to really immerse yourself in the spirit of your destination...or the spirit of travel itself?

Either way, what you need is a good travel book!

It's true, we are what we read. (I know this because I once spent the day in a hostel in Santiago de Chile reading the entire Sherlock Holmes anthology...only to go out that night and (after a few...okay, many drinks) become convinced that my travelling companions were involved in an elaborate drug-smuggling plot and that it was down to me to solve the case.)

Anyhow, when we read we take elements from said book into other aspects of our lives, whether it be the general mood, the era, voice, character, etc, etc.

Therefore, why not carefully choose your travel reads, based on your destination, mode or style of travel, and further enrich your travelling experience?

Reading about the place you are travelling will no doubt shape your experience there, but this can be a very good thing. Your travel book will act as your "second opinion", giving you a more unbiased perspective. Through travel books you can learn things about the country that might be beyond the reach of the average traveller, such as buried histories and niche, forgotten or undiscovered destinations. Often, the extensive research done by the writer will expand upon and/or give added weight to your own observations. You will understand why things are the way they are, instead of merely seeing the way things are today. Or perhaps you'll simply learn the name of that strange-shaped tree you keep spotting everywhere. It's all good.

It depends on how you travel of course, but a travel book is a great way to pass the time spent on trains or waiting for buses.

So, without any further ado, here are my top 10 travel books, by country:

What to read while you travel...Thailand?
The Beach by Alex Garland. Obviously. This classic backpacker novel is not just good for Thailand. It is the quintessential travel book!

Under the Volcano by Malcom Lowry. Consistently voted one of the best novels ever written, this semi-autobiographical tale, set during Mexico's Day of the Dead, deftly and single-handedly captures the spirit of Mexico, drunkeness/alcoholism and the very feel of living abroad in a strange culture.

Speaking of the best (travel) novels ever written...Ulysses by James Joyce. It's hard to choose between Joyce's works (not to mention all of Ireland's other great writers): Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Finnegan's Wake would all do the job, but the style he acheived with Ulysses has become as representative of the Irish sensibility as the subject matter could ever be.

Many would say Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson. I'm not going to though. I'm going to say Gog by Andrew Sinclair. Basically, a man washes up on the shores of Britain with only snippets of memory, and as he "tramps" around in search of answers, we get a better impression of Britain, past and present, than perhaps we bargained for. A work of many levels.

South America?
I'm going to be controversial again and say that Travelling with Che Guevara by Alberto Granada makes a better travel read than Che's own Motorcycle Diaries. A much easier read for starters, it lacks the convoluted political rantings that would later be proved ineffective, and doesn't suffer from the translation difficulties. Don't get me wrong, I'm as big a Che fan as the next guy, but in this case you get a clearer portrait from the eyes of his close friend and travelling companion than from within.

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. While there's no end to the amount that's been written about India, no book gets me fired up to travel India like Siddhartha. Simultaneously a concise overview of Eastern philosophy and one of the wisest books I've ever read!

White Fang by Jack London. London is master of envoking the beauty and harshness of the Northern wilderness. Some prefer Call of the Wild, which is shorter and with a less classical ending, but they're so similar that people generally like whichever they read first. That said, no book puts the adventure back into travelling Canada like Whitefang.

Baber's Apple by Michael Marr is a hilariously poignant and little known dark comic novel that sees "Baber" flung from "leafy suburbia" into obscure and rarely travelled Kazakhstan.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. The original travel novel (well actually argued to be the original novel) still holds up impressively well today. It's also massive, so you won't need to worry about what to do when you finish it.

Last but not least, the motherland of the road novel genre. I've gone with On the Road by Jack Kerouac...again, obviously! However, it was a very tough call. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe and anything by Kerouac, particularly the second half of Desolation Angels, are amoung some of the best, most inspiring travel books ever written!

I've missed out some of my favourite travel books, and that's because they fall under the category of "Top 5 Motorcycle Travel Books"...another post for another time.

Here are the top travel books with cool names:

The Sex Lives of Cannibals, by J. Maarten Troost
The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton
The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

Here are the authors of the Classic Travel Lit:

Ernest Hemingway - A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises for vivid descriptions of Paris during its hey-day and the bull fights in Pamplona, Spain.

Bill Bryson - Author of A Walk in the Woods, In a Sunburned Country, The Lost Continent and Notes From a Small Island.

Paul Theroux - The world's favourite travel author, who brought us such travel masterpieces as Dark Star Safari, The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express.

Bruce Chatwin - Another master and writer of some of the best travel books in history: In Patagonia and The Songlines.

Mark Twain - Probably the most quoted man of all time, Twain knew what it meant to travel, and shared it in such works as Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Innocents Abroad.

John Steinbeck - The man responsible for The Grapes of Wrath, the best road novel of all time (after On the Road of course). His other travel books include The Log From the Sea of Cortez and Travels With Charley.

Jan Morris - Up there with Freya Stark as one of the finest female travel writers, particularly when it comes to writing about Europe. Some of Morris' classic travel books include Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, The World of Venice and Europe: An Intimate Portrait.

Also on the shelves of Waterstones, you are likely to find Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell and The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron, two classic pieces of travel literature.

And here are some common travel books you're likely to find in a hostel book exchange:

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Writing this post woke me up to the fact that there's a lot of interesting places out there with a disproportionately low amount written about them. If you know of any great travel books or books about places I've missed, please enlighten me in the comments and I'll get reading...