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Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Most Beautiful Mosques in The World

They act not only as places of worship but also as schools, community centres, charitable foundations and even (in days past) hospitals and law courts. They are places in which worldly divisions of class, wealth, status and ethnicity vanish, with all becoming equal in the sight of god.

Most mosques around the world are off-limits to non-believers, reinforcing stereotypes and encouraging skeptics to label them as hives of Islamist extremism. Fortunately many of Islam’s largest, loveliest and most historic shrines are freely open to all, not only allowing visitors to experience some of the planet’s most spectacular buildings, but also to glimpse something of the religious and cultural life of these remarkable monuments to the world’s most misunderstood faith.

1. Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca, Morocco

Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca sees relatively few foreign visitors despite its absorbing array of sights ranging from medieval souks to Art Nouveau mansions, strung out along an attractively windswept expanse of Atlantic coastline.

Few who visit, however, pass up the chance to explore the city’s landmark Hassan II Mosque. Completed in 1993, the mosque stands on an oceanfront promontory, its enormous minaret (the world’s tallest, at 210m) soaring above the coast like an enormous Islamic lighthouse, while the cavernous interior glows with the magical colours of blue marble mosaics, lustrous tilework and enormous pendant chandeliers.

2. Aqsunqur Mosque, Cairo, Egypt

Old Cairo is a virtual museum of mosques, with dozens of historic shrines dotted around the twisting, time-warped alleyways of the medieval centre. Amongst the finest is the stately Aqsunqur Mosque, completed in 1347. Rising above Bab al-Wazir Street, the building’s fortress-like walls are capped with minarets and intricately carved domes, while inside stands the mosque’s magnificent Mecca-facing eastern wall, entirely covered in a luminous array of azure tiles.

3. Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Soaring high above the heart of Istanbul at the meeting point of Europe and Asia, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (completed in 1616, also known as the Blue Mosque) is generally reckoned the crowning example of Ottoman architecture, with a quartet of needle-thin minarets pointing dramatically skywards and a sumptuously red-carpeted interior smothered in delicate tilework blossoming with thousands of stylized blue tulips.

 

4. Masjed-e Jameh, Isfahan, Iran

If it were almost anywhere else in the world, Isfahan’s great Naghsh-e Jahan Square would be teeming with tourists. Present-day political and practical realities mean that those who make it to Iran can enjoy an authentically foreigner-free taste of the world’s most perfectly preserved Islamic architectural set-piece.

The square is home to not one but two of the planet’s most stunning mosques, the Shah and the Jameh (Masjed-e Jameh) mosques. The Jameh Mosque is the larger and the older of the two, dating back to pre-Islamic Zoroastrian times and has been rebuilt continuously over the centuries to produce the stunning complex you see today, with three stupendously huge, blue-tiled porticoes rising around a vast courtyard, and mirror-perfect reflections in the ablutions pool between.

5. Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria

One of the world’s oldest and most revered Islamic shrines, Damascus’s Umayyad Mosque dates back to 715, less than a century after the Muslim faith first burst spectacularly into the world. The monumental building itself reflects the changing times in which it was built, adorned with Classical Roman-style Corinthian columns and Byzantine-style mosaics alongside the first of the great congregational courtyards which subsequently became the norm throughout the Islamic world.

6. Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Looming above the approach roads to Abu Dhabi like a vast wedding cake – with minarets – the Sheikh Zayed Mosque (completed 2007) offers a gigantic monument to the Muslim faith in a region now better known for its seven-star hotels, record-breaking skyscrapers and palm-shaped artificial islands.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Abu Dhabi’s shiny new mega-mosque boasts its own string of record-breaking attractions: the world’s largest carpet lives here, along with the planet’s largest marble mosaic. Although it’s the serene beauty of the overall conception, with vast expanses of lustrous marble and myriad dazzling domes shining snowy white in the fierce Gulf sunlight, which really lingers in the memory.

7. Jama Masjid, Delhi, India

A majestic monument to India’s great Mughal rulers, rising in stately splendour above the tangled labyrinth of hectic streets at the very heart of Old Delhi. Commissioned by Shah Jahan, creator of the Taj Mahal, the Jama Masjid remains an unequalled symbol of Islamic architecture in a largely Hindu country, with soaring minarets, delicate marble domes and a vast prayer hall – as well as peerless views across the teeming melée of the old city from its vast courtyard, raised high above the streets below.

The 7 Best Beaches in Portugal

 1. Praia de Tavira, Ilha de Tavira (The Algarve)

Linked to the mainland by ferry, the superb Praia de Tavira, is located on the Ilha de Tavira, a sandbar island that stretches southwest from Tavira almost as far as Fuseta.

Strung along this are miles of soft, dune-baked sand, without a hotel in sight. The main part of the beach is dotted with umbrellas and pedalos for rent, and scattered with a handful of bar-restaurants.

In high summer this part of the beach can get very busy, but you only have to wander fifteen minutes or so to escape the crowds. Come here out of season and you’ll probably have the place to yourself.

2. Praia da Marinha and Benagil (The Algarve)

The stretch of coast between Armação de Pêra and Centianes is strung with a series of delightful cove beaches that have mostly escaped large-scale development. Of them two stand out: Praia da Marinha and Benagil. A classic cliff-backed warren of coves, the only trace of development on Praia da Marinha is the seasonal beach restaurant.

Follow the clifftop path on from here as it winds round to the next bay at Benagil, a pint-sized village with its fine beach sitting beneath high cliffs. Fishing boats can take you out to an amazing sea cave, as large as a cathedral, with a hole in its roof.

3. Nazaré (Estremadura)

Now a busy seaside resort – with all the hustle and trimmings that you’d expect with that title – the former fishing village of Nazaré has a great town beach. The main stretch is an expanse of clean sand, packed with multicoloured sunshades in summer, while further beaches spread north beyond the headland.

The water might look inviting on calm, hot days, but it’s worth bearing in mind that swimming off these exposed Atlantic beaches can be dangerous. Nazaré has a worldwide reputation among surfers seeking serious waves – this is where the world’s largest-ever wave was surfed. 

4. Foz de Minho (The Minho)

Just 2km southwest from the charming, sleepy town of Caminha, Foz de Minho – Portugal’s northernmost beach – is a hidden gem.

Located on an idyllic wooded peninsula where the broad estuary of the Rio Minho flows into the Atlantic, here a wooden boardwalk hugs the water’s edge, leading to a sheltered river beach. Wander slightly further on for five minutes through the pines, and you’ll reach a great Atlantic beach, with a little fortified islet just offshore and Spain visible opposite.

5. Praia da Figueira (The Algarve)

You’ll have to walk to get here, but it’s worth it to find this often deserted beach. The small village of Figueira, is the starting point for a rough track to Praia da Figueira, that lies below the ruins of an old fort. This is one of the least-visited beaches along this stretch of coastline, mainly due to the fact that it’s not reachable by car. The walk takes twenty to thirty minutes, with the path passing through some lovely countryside.

6. Praia de Odeceixe (The Algarve)

Sleepy out of season, the charming village of Odeceixe comes to life in the summer when it draws a stream of surfers and holidaymakers, lured by it’s magnificent beach, which lies just 4km west of the village.

In the summer take the road train to Praia de Odeceixe, or follow the road on foot through the river valley to the broad bay framed by low cliffs. The beach here is one of the most sheltered along this stretch of coast, where you can enjoy fantastic surfing, and relatively safe swimming.

7. Comporta (Alentejo)

Tucked into a remote part of the northern Alentejo, a drive west of the historical port town of Alcácer do Sal, is one of the region’s best beaches.

Here at Comporta, deserted sands stretch as far a the eye can see – a magnificent, swathe of soft beach that is served by a couple of seasonal café-restaurants, which double as popular hangouts for wealthy Lisboetas.

7 Best Road Trips in Europe

 From the sunny shores of Portugal to the darkest dungeons of Dracula’s castle inTransylvania, the following itineraries can be easily combined, shortened or altered to suit your wayfaring tastes. If you’ve got wheels, wanderlust and a spot of time, start your engines: these are the best road trips in Europe.

1. From the glamour and glitz of Paris to the glorious grit of Berlin

Leaving Paris, cruise through the gentle hills of Champagne and Reims to the quaint capital of Luxembourg City, and explore the country’s plethora of fairy-tale castles.

Trier, Germany’s oldest city, is less than an hour’s drive further north-east, where ancient Roman baths and basilicas stand marvellously intact.

Spend a night in the medieval village of Bacharach in Riesling wine country, before wandering the riverside streets of Heidelberg. Onward to Nuremberg, and then to Leipzigfor a strong dose of hot caffeine with your Cold War history, classical music and cake.

2. Surf and sun in the Basque and beyond

 

The Basque roads beg a convertible – or better yet, a colourful camper van with surfboards strapped to the roof.

Begin in Bilbao, where the nearby villages boast some of the world’s best surf, and drive along the Atlantic to San Sebastian: watersports wonderland and foodie heaven. Then venture south through the rugged wilderness of the Pyrenees to Pamplona. Ascend onwards to the Roncesvalles Pass before looping back to the coast. Or continue along the Bay of Biscay to the attractive seaside resort of St-Jean-de-Luz.

Travellers with a little extra money lining their pockets will be happy to spend days lingering on boho beaches in Biarritz, while those looking for gargantuan swell can do no better than the surfer hangouts in Hossegor.

3. The Arctic fjords from Bergen to Trondheim

Kick off in the city of Bergen, on Norway’s southwest coast, and make way past mighty fjords to Voss and the colossal Tvindefossen waterfall. Then check the world’s longest road tunnel off your to-do list, a cavernous 24.5km route under the mountains.

Catch a quick ferry across the Sognefjord and carry on to the Fjaler valleys, a land of glaciers and snowy mountain peaks, to the waterside towns of Stryn or the mountain village Videster.

Work your way northward to the well-touristed towns of Geiranger, down the death-defying hairpin turns of Trollstigen (literally “The Troll Path”).

4. The unexplored east: Bucharest, Transylvania, Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna

Embark from Bucharest, travelling northward through the Carpathian mountains toTransylvania, and make a mandatory stop at Bran Castle (claimed to be the old stomping grounds of Dracula himself).

Take the Transfagarasan mountain road, one of the most incredibly beautiful routes in the world, towards the age-old cities and countless castles of Sibu, Brasovand Sighisoara. Then set course to the unexplored architectural gems of Timisoara.

Carry on towards the tranquil baths and hip ruin pubs of bustling Budapest, and be prepared to stay at least a few days. Depart for Bratislava – a capital full of surprises – from where it’s only an hour further to the coffeehouses and eclectic architecture ofVienna.

5. To Portugal and beyond

Start in Braga, before driving south to the medieval town of Guimarães, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Then it’s onward to the breathtaking “second-city” of Porto, though it’s nothing less than first-rate.

Drive east to the vineyards and steep valleys of Penafiel and Amarante before hitting the coastal road to the vast white beaches of Figueira da Foz. From here it’s on to Peniche,Ericeira and then Lisbon: the country’s vibrant capital that’s on course to beat out Berlin for Europe’s coolest city.

Drive south to Sagres, Arrifana and Carrapateira. After soaking up the sun on the picturesque shores of the Algarve, wrap this road trip up in the Mediterranean dreamland otherwise known as Faro.

But if you’ve still got itchy feet when you reach Faro, take the ferry from Algeciras in Spain to Morocco. Imagine the satisfaction of parking your ride in the desert village of Merzouga, before exploring the Sahara – that’s right, it would feel awesome.

6. High-altitude adventure on Germany’s Alpine Road

The Alpenstrasse, or Alpine Road, is your ticket to a bonafide Bavarian odyssey: a safe route through the unforgettable vistas of Germany’s high-altitude meadows, mountains, crystal-clear lakes and cosy village restaurants. Start lakeside at Lindau and head to Oberstaufen if you fancy a therapeutic beauty treatment in the country’s “capital of wellness”.

Venture eastwards to the Breitachklamm gorge, where the river Breitach cuts through verdant cliffs and colossal boulders. Carry on to the town of Füssen – famous for its unparalleled violin makers – stopping along the way at any quaint Alpine villages you please. The iconic Neuschwanstein Castle, the same structure that inspired Walt Disney to build his own version for Cinderella, isn’t far off either.

Hit the slopes of Garmisch-Partenkirchen if the season’s right. Stop at Benediktbeuern on your way to the medieval town of Bad Tölz, then up through the stunning wilderness scenes of the Chiemgau Alps before ending in the regional capital of Munich. If you’re missing the mountain roads already, carry on to Salzburg and stop in the ice caves of Werfen on the way.

 

7. Godly beaches and ancient highways in Greece

Start in Athens and take the coastal roads south through the Athenian Riviera to Sounion, situated at the tip the Attic peninsula. Watch a sunset at the Temple of Posseidon, then drive northward through mythic mountains to the fortress of Kórinthos before posting up in the legendary city of Mycenae (home of Homeric heroes).

If you’re craving a luxurious seaside stay, look no further than the resort town of Náfplio. If not, carry onwards through the unforgiving landscapes to Mystra, the cultural and political capital of Byzantium.

Feet still itching? Then it’s on to Olympia, sporting grounds of the ancients, and the mystic ruins of Delphi. Loop back towards Athens, approaching the city from the north.

7 Wildlife Photography Tips

 Wildlife photography is on the rise again. With gear becoming more affordable and landmark TV shows such as Planet Earth 2 inspiring professionals and amateurs alike, there’s a new wave of photographers wanting to indulge themselves in everything Mother Nature has to offer.

But wildlife photography is a fine art, and certainly not as easy as point-and-shoot. Whether you’re going in search of the elusive leopard on the African plains, or want to snap birds of prey high in the skies, here are eight wildlife photography tips to help you take better pictures on your travels.

1. Gear up

Thanks to massive technological advancements in digital cameras, the barrier to entry for wildlife photography has become significantly lower.

To get started, invest in a decent DSLR (think Nikon D3300) with an entry-level telephoto lens (around 300mm). Bridge cameras work too, but the light sensitivity that a DSLR gives you can make a big difference. If you’re feeling creative, invest in a wide angle (anything under 35mm) to show off the gorgeous setting you’re shooting in.

2. Plan ahead and do your research

Scout out your intended shooting locations before you want to start taking pictures. Study how the light of sunrise or sunset changes the environment, find dens or roosting sites and, of course, witness the behaviour of your subjects.

Wildlife is inherently unpredictable, which is exciting but sometimes frustrating. Pick a species you want to photograph and do your research. When are they most active? Where do they live? What do they eat? How do they react to a human presence?

Understanding the innate behaviours of your subject will not only bring better sightings but ultimately, allow you to reflect their character in your photography.

3. Get low

When setting up – whether on the forest floor in Finland or on the heaths of Scotland’s Highlands – you’ll want to get as low as physically possible. Practically, you’re far less visible to the animal. Photographically, the image will be far more powerful.

Being at eye level allows for a stronger emotional bond between the subject and the viewer. You want a viewer to feel part of the environment that your subject lives in.

4. Use light to your advantage

As with all photography, lighting is everything. For wildlife photography, there are three general categories: backlighting/rim light, standard lighting (direct on subject) and silhouetting.

To choose your approach, consider both the type of light and character of the animal. If you’re photographing a fox in the spring time, for example, you might want to consider how the dawn light plays with the dew on grass.

5. Frame it right

The right framing separates the good from the great. With long focal lengths, even a slight shuffle to the left or right could change the image entirely, so don’t just snap away without thinking.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t take a picture if the frame isn’t perfect, though: if you’re in the midst of photographing your subject and it suddenly moves, keep in mind that slightly off-framing is better than an image with no animal at all.

6. Tell a story

Light, framing and backgrounds all come together to tell a story around the subject. The best wildlife photography always creates intrigue in the viewer and gives an understanding of behaviour and environment. Think about how the background of your shot complements the animal.

Hares in long grass; little owls sitting on a post with a forested background; leopards lounging in trees: whilst the eye is naturally drawn to the subject, it’s important the whole scene tells a story.

7. Be persistent

Wildlife photography is one of the hardest mediums of all. You need good light, interesting landscapes, ideal weather conditions, and an animal – and, of course, for said animal to be doing something interesting.

The reality is that most outings won’t meet the lofty expectations that you set for yourself – with so many variables, the odds are always against you. However, persistence and a real passion for wildlife are key, and when it does come off, there’s no better feeling in photography.