The Bucket List

Have you ever sat down and thought up a list of the places that you want to visit before you become old and wizened? Here at Exploration, we spend most of our lives doing just that. Now we’re turning our thoughts into text: our writers have been given a sack of imaginary cash and told to go and plan where and how they’d spend their five dream days abroad. This is Jess Collett’s Bucket List.

1. The Orkneys

The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney by scrappy annie (www.flickr.com)

Of course, being Exploration’s resident historian I’ve stuffed my bucket list with historical sites I have yet to visit and am desperate see for the strangest reasons. That’s the way my mind works unfortunately: offer me a ticket to see a town that is historically famous for being, say, the world capital of halibut fishing and I’ll set off the happiest woman in the world. At the top of my ever expanding bucket list – from which they will only let me choose my top five – are the Orkney Islands. As I’ve said already in a previous Hidden Histories article, the islands boast some of the best preserved prehistoric sites in the world, which give visitors a fascinating look at the pilgrimage sites, homes and even the furnishings used by our prehistoric cousins. Stone age cabinets? Brilliant.

2. Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

The Rila Monastery was built in the tenth century and has seen countless years of academic and religious activity. It is a beautiful complex, rebuilt extensively throughout the nineteenth century and epitomising the links between spiritual and social daily life in Bulgarian history. It also stands as an ongoing symbol of subversion: here you can learn about the continued survival of the traditional Slavic way of life, even after Bulgaria had endured centuries of occupation and oppression by different groups of people, from the ancient Ottomans to the 20th century Communist party. I just like the idea of rebellious monks, okay?

3. Ostia Antica, Italy

Between them, Pompeii and Herculaneum attract a lot of visitors and get a lot of acclaim. But while I do aim to visit them both someday, it’s Ostia Antica that’s made it to my Bucket List. As well as being Ancient Rome’s foremost seaport, this is a well-preserved site that paints a remarkable picture of a place that had to evolve a great deal over its four hundred years as an important Roman town. Ostia Antica has faced sacking by pirates, been turned into a country retreat for the aristocracy and seen several of its neighbourhoods rebuilt by some of Rome’s most notable figures. I think I may also be attracted to it because I loved reading about it in the Roman Mysteries series.

4. Saint Petersburg

There are so many sites across Russia to see, but Saint Petersburg deserves to sit near the top of anyone’s Russian bucket list. Do I even need to justify why I want to travel there? Ok: it boasts beautiful architecture, amazing theatre, wonderful music, links to fantastic works of literature and – of course – a long and fascinating history. Different Russian regimes have come and gone, but the city has remained as great as it ever was.

5. Craco, Italy

Craco, Italy by HTB (www.flickr.com)

Craco is an abandoned commune and village in Matera. Abandoned buildings and places always inspire strong feelings in me. I love to explore towns and buildings that are frozen and preserved, though they sometimes fill me with such a sense of sadness and loss that it’s quite difficult to balance the emotions I feel when I’m walking amongst them. But they’re always worth seeing, and to that end I’d say that Craco really is my cup of tea. For starters, as you arrive there you see that, because it was built on a steep hill, the town sits on the skyline and has a really striking profile that leaves an impression all on its own. Few people still live in the city – most of the locals left long ago because of famine and the threat of landslides – which has left the village to be devoured by time. Imagine it. Death and life being maintained in a village and is slowly destroying itself. Rather poetic, isn’t it?

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Where to go in Winter

It’s that time of year again. Christmas is over, New Year’s resolutions have already been broken and we’re trying to push ourselves through what’s been statistically voted the “most depressing month” of the year. To that end, if you’re already on the look out for a far-flung place to escape to, here are five recommended winter visits to consider.

VENICE, ITALY

Italy’s aquatic city hosts the Venice Carnevale between February 15th and March 4th this year, and this time round the festival is set to be bigger than ever. Every year, thousands fill the streets in costumes of all shapes and sizes, to immerse themselves in the colourful history of the city. Masquerade masks are a main feature of the event and the ones you’ll see people wearing might be made from leather, porcelain or even glass, and you can easily buy your own in one of the numerous market stalls around the city. Go this year, join in with the fairytale and fantasy theme and enjoy numerous carnival events such as ice skating and costume contests. Beware though: some of the attractions can be pricey though.

PARIS, FRANCE

One of the most iconic cities in Europe is a wonder to behold in the winter. Enjoy a weekend away there by taking the train from London St Pancras and you’ll be in the centre of Paris in about 2 hours. Why not go with a lover or close relative: Paris explodes with romance this time of year, especially around the Valentine’s Day period (be warned of the stereotypical influx of other loved-up couples at this time though). Sit and enjoy coffee and pastries in a café just off the Champs-Elysées or make the most of the indoor (and therefore warm) attractions like the Louvre or the Musée de l’Orangerie.

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If Carlsberg Made Bookshops?

When buying books, my first port of call is usually Amazon. Being both a bookworm and an English student, acquiring books is something I have a knack for and I would be lying if I said that Amazon hadn’t contributed to the development of my obsession: the website is quick, it’s convenient and its got every book under the sun.

However, the disadvantage of using the Internet is that it’s a lot harder to browse. Sure, this could be a good thing for incurable bibliophiles, but I think I feel the same about shopping online as some people do about reading a Kindle rather than a real book: it’s doesn’t always feel quite right. Clicking “ok”, waiting for a confirmation email, and then being told to wait for 3-5 working days is all a bit dull and anticlimactic in comparison to picking up your book in a real shop, filled with hundreds of other books that smell of paper and dust. Often the bookshops themselves are old, pretty and quirky buildings. The five following examples I’ve picked out are not only testament to the joy of real book shopping, but also to my belief that Amazon will never quite manage to conquer the world. Or at least not entirely.

Shakespeare and Company, Paris

Established in 1951 by George Whitman, the Shakespeare and Company bookshop is something of a bohemian refuge for writers and literature lovers. The small wooden interior is lined from floor to ceiling with crooked book shelves and visitors browse in a maze of tiny rooms. Classes, workshops, Sunday tea meetings and poetry readings are held upstairs. With its chairs, antique mirrors, and even a wishing well, the shop seems to be crammed with more life than should be possible in a shop. Shakespeare and Company was originally manned by passing writers and artists, and as long as they read a book every day and worked a few hours in the shop, Mr. Whitman would offer them a bed for the night (tucked between the shelves of the shop) and sanctuary, so that they could write and mingle with likeminded people. Currently, the shop is run by Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, and although she has brought in effects that allow the bookshop to sit more comfortably in the 21st century, such as a card machine, telephone and a website, the shop has lost little of its old-fashioned charm. Where else could it belong, then, but the Latin quarter of Paris, a place known for its creativity and eccentricity.

 

Livraria Lello, Portugal

A five minute walk from downtown Porto brings you to one of the most ornate bookshops in the world. Most of the bookshops on this list are buildings that have been converted, but Livraria Lello was purpose-built from Day One to cater for the most ardent literature nerds. It may not have the history that shops such as Shakespeare and Company have, but it has been making up for this through its grandiosity since 1906, when it opened to the public for the first time. The interior is adorned with stained glass, carved wood and pressed copper, and the neo-gothic design is complemented by the winding, red carpeted staircase that arcs through the building. With the quantity of wood, copper and deep red colours around, the shop could have risked ending up being a bit dingy and dark, but thanks to the magnificent stained glass skylight the shop actually has a warm, inviting glow. Livraria Lello mainly stocks Portuguese books, but the shop is worth a visit even if you don’t speak a word of it, just so that you can admire the architecture on show that makes for an afternoon out in itself.

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Zeus, Olives and Swim Trunks: Thassos in a Nutshell

 

(www.villapegasos.gr)

 

The Mecca of Greece

Sell your ox, sell your horse, but make sure you pay at least one visit to Greece’s very own paradise on earth – Thassos. Situated in the northern Aegean Sea, right off the mainland coast of Keramoti, you’ll find the crowning gem of south-eastern Europe’s summer hotspots in all its viridian glory. If you’re looking to get away from it all for a couple of weeks and you don’t want to break the bank, look no further: find a map and stick the pin on Thassos!

Practical info: Getting There

There are quite a few options for getting to Thassos. Here’s a list of the three best routes from London.

London – Kavala – Thassos

If you book well in advance, a two-week return ticket can cost in the range of £200-270 to Kavala. There are no non-stop flights, so be prepared to travel around 6-8 hours. It will be well worth it though, because from there all you need to do is hop on the ferry and enjoy the 90-minute cruise, which won’t cost you more than €12 (£10) for a return ticket. If you’re travelling by car, bringing it on the ferry will set you back around €20 (£17). All in all, you’ll be travelling approximately 8-10 hours for a little over £300 tops, give or take a taxi ride.

London – Thessaloniki – Kavala – Thassos

In that same period, the cheapest round trip tickets to Thessaloniki range from £130-200, but some flights take longer than 10 hours. If you can book a non-stop ticket, the duration is usually around 3. Thessaloniki is about 145 km away from Kavala, and bus fares to Kavala are around €15 (£13) for a 3-4 hour single trip. In total, you’ll be travelling about 15-19 hours for no more than £260, but with double the taxi time.

London – Athens – Kavala – Thassos

Round trip flights to Athens are in the same price range as those above, but are almost all non-stop and take about 3.5 hours. From there, you can either take a €90 4.5-hour plane for Kavala, or take a 6-hour bus for half that cost (though it might take a couple of hours more if the bus passes through Thessaloniki).

Overall this route will generally take you just an hour longer than the first one, for more or less the same price. However it could potentially be much cheaper, so I recommend it anyway.

Myth-sterious Thassos

Legend has it that the island was named after Thassos, the son of the Phoenician king Aginora (the guy who invented money). While leading a sea expedition to find his abducted sister, Europe, Thassos reached the island that would later carry his name, and was immediately captivated by its beauty and freshness. He ended his quest and settled down there.

The kidnapper was Zeus. Those of you who are familiar with Greek mythology will already have read about him, but to those of you who aren’t, let’s just say that Zeus back then was kind of like an immortal version of Charlie Sheen. The scene where the god of thunder disguised as a bull abducts Europe is engraved on a memorial plate in the port of Limenaria. Be sure to check it out, as it’s a free lesson from Ancient Greece’s biggest pick up artist.

That is, if you can even reach the island. People say sirens have been living there for millennia, entrancing all who pass with their spellbinding voices. Even Odysseus had a hard time with those girls, though I bet getting there in the end was totally worth it.

The Golden Beach

A tip for those of you who have never been to Greece: unless you’re into spontaneous combustion, get a high factor sunscreen, because the summer can be murder. In fact, it’s so hot that before the economic crisis the Greeks had a habit of closing shops at around 2 in the afternoon until 5, since no one in their right mind would go out into that kind of heat. I did, unfortunately, and felt like a walking lump of charcoal as I did.

But who cares about scorching hot weather, that’s what you’re there for, right? Back on topic, Thassos seems to have more beaches than it does residents. Planning to visit them all in one go would probably turn out to be hopeless, which is why I would recommend that you choose your town and hotel carefully. Never fear, though: you can still get out and about for day trips relatively easily, so you’ll be able to visit various locations around the island and see whatever it is that has most piqued your interest.

Personally, I stayed at the Hotel Aloe in Skala Potamia. This resort lies on the southern end of the Golden Beach, a long stretch of the finest golden sand in the entire Aegean archipelago. Behind it is Ipsarion, the highest peak in Thassos, towering above everything at a staggering height of 1,204 m. Because of the island’s mountainous geology and soil, you can expect to see a lot of sycamores and pine trees, especially the latter as you climb higher up into the mountains.

Olive Oil and Richard the Lionheart

Green Olives by deagol (www.flickr.com)

What does a king of England and olive fat have in common with Thassos? Well, for one, both can be found in the small town of Panagia. The town is famous for producing some of the finest olive oil in the region, and its mills are definitely worth seeing. Many even have a guide who will explain to you how olive oil is made, and let me tell you, it’s a slippery business (geddit?). Bad puns aside, do consider buying some for yourself, because you can be certain this oil is about as good as it gets and, naturally, it’s made with absolutely no artificial additives. It’s all nature, dude!

And where does Richard I of England play a role in all of this? Well, he himself doesn’t, but if you stop over at the church of Virgin Mary in Panagia (which itself is actually a name for the Mother of God in Greek), you might see his red-white banner. I have to hand it to him, the guy knew where to lead a crusade. The church is an integral part of Panagia and contains various ancient Orthodox icons from the 14th – 17th centuries. Definitely recommended for those who appreciate religious culture. If you plan your vacation around August, try and get to the church on the 15th, when the church commemorates the ascension of the Holy Mother on an annual basis with a great deal of music and a long table filled with all kinds of food, from beef with potatoes to rice and stews – a fantastic display of Christian generosity to those who visit.</p>

Making the Best of Thassos

My trip lasted about a week, so there was only so much I could see. What I have described barely scratches the emerald surface of this beautiful island. Yes, it might sound cliché, but its unspoiled scenery is truly magnificent and inspiring. Every part of the experience was absolutely worth it, from the watching the playful seagulls on the ferry to the island, to the seductive sands of its warm, sunny beaches. So, could you see yourself visiting? If you do I promise you won’t regret it. Carpe diem: seize the chance to see Thassos!

 

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