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The 10 Places I loved visiting (and would love to go back to!)

Carrying on from Sunday’s blog post, here are ten places in the world that I truly loved visiting and, in a heartbeat, would run back to if money, time and common sense were chucked out of the window. I have only been to 35 countries but I have seen a fair few sights which really should be shared with the rest of you. So without a do, here are my top ten places that I have visited and would definitely visit again in a heartbeat:

10) Seychelles.

I know I have a bias towards the Seychelles as it is my mother’s country, but I have to be blunt. I really do love this country. I also love Sri Lanka, my father’s country, but due to its security situation, I really do not want to go back there for pleasure. You see, Seychelles attracts me, not just for family, but for the islands themselves. There are over 100 islands in the archipelago, and I have only seen four of them. And it is not just beaches. Great wildlife, a steamy hot and mountainous interior and wonderful old colonial architecture give the islands one hell of a lot of variety for such a small place. Plus, the culture, a polyglot of the islanders’ ancestery means that this is a fascinating place to see and meet people. Yes, the Seychelles are expensive, they are a pain to get to but it truly is one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

(Last visited 2008)

9) San Francisco.

I love America, and I jump at the opportunity to travel there. The country is so vast, and is naturally blessed with some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world. America’s cities are also some of the best that humanity has ever built. New York, Philadelphia and Boston are wonderful places that were launched on the backs of their old colonial past. But for me, San Francisco is the place to get to. A wonderful city in probably one of the most naturally beautiful places on Earth. And it is not too big or small, San Francisco is just that right size where you can explore and relax in equal amounts. A city steeped in history but also at the forefront of modern technology, this really is one of the happiest places on Earth.

(Last visited 1994)

8) Mexico.

All right, I know this is a big one, but Mexico is one hell of a country, and I have to return here one day. From the magnificent ruins of Chichen Itza, to the wonderful beauty is Chiapas and the frenetic capital of Mexico City itself – which I have to point out as one of the best cities I have ever visited!

I saw a hell of a lot of this country, but a visit back is a must for me. I loved my time here, and would happily go back and this time see the north of Mexico as well has head to the coasts for a bit of R&R.

(Last visited 2002)

7) Budapest.

One of three European cities on my list – and surprising, as I have only really begun to explore Europe in the past two years. But Budapest is truly beautiful. Split by the Danube you have the flat and fun Pest on one side of the river and the hilly, snooty but really beautiful Buda on the other bank. One thing, the Danube really shapes this city and its history. I am probably biased to this city, and I have a lot of fond memories of the place, which is also why I do want to hedd back here. But genuinely, memories are not the only thing. Budapest has tons of stuff to see, and has awoken from its communist stupor with vigour. Check it out when you have the chance, you will not regret it! I will certainly be heading back there.

(Last visited 2011)

6) Meghalaya.

The wettest place on Earth may seem like a strange place to recommend, but Meghalaya is truly a cultural gem of this world. Its unique hilltop location on a ridge overlooking the Gangetic plain both isolates and links it to the surrounding country in one fell swoop. Three unique cultures dot the state, and its pristine environment truly makes this one of India’s great surprises. I have never felt do relaxed and refreshed in my life as I have in Meghalaya. Whether it is the excess amounts of water, the wholesome food or the really cool locals, Meghalaya is a place I could visit time and time again.

(Last visited 2009)

5) Yunnan.

One of China’s true gems, Yunnan has it all. Great food, spectacular countryside and a culture that intertwines South East Asia, Mainland China and Tibet all rolled into one easily accessible destination – no small feat for a country as difficult as China. From the border with Burma to the fringes of the Tibetan Plateau there is something for everyone. Dotted with the famed backpacker hangouts of Dali and Lijiang, it is easy to be an independent traveler or to mosey in and relax with the crowd. It is definitely a part of China that I would not hesitate to visit again!

(Last visited 2001)

4) Krakow.

Wow, wow, and wow would be the best three adjectives to describe Krakow.

I know, it is surprising to include this city here, but really, my Poland bias aside, I really have to recommend Krakow and it is a city I would run back to in a heartbeat. To simply put it, there is A LOT to do in Krakow, and Poland’s piss-poor marketing skills means that it is a destination that flies far beneath the radar. Without the crowds you get in other European hotspots (unless it is a stag-do summer), you can feel a little like a pioneer coming here with all the ease of mainstream European travel. There is so much to recommend about Krakow, go on, treat yourself, and take some time out over here.

(Last visited 2011)

3) Xinjiang.

China’s biggest province is arguably it emptiest as well. Yes, there are a hell of a lot of tensions over here, with a separatist movement that is far more bloody than Tibet’s. And it is hard work to travel across here. But it is a culturally fascinating area. Plus it is a desert, now that counts as a huge amount of kudos for me. I have spent an inordinate amount of time here. It really was the first place that I experienced ‘independent’ travel, far cut-off from family, friends and anyone else, having to survive on my own with my interactions meaning the difference between food or nothing. I also crossed this vast area by foot (took me two months and lost a third of my body weight) which drove me slightly nutty.

Xinjiang is definitely a place with strong emotional ties, but I can also safely say that this is a part of the world that has a hell of a lot to give to the outside visitor. And despite beinfg in China, it is ironically the easiest part of Central Asia to visit, and that is a spectacular region of the world to taste…

(Last visited 2003)

2) Berlin.

Surprised? Well, you really shouldn’t be. Berlin has it all. An all encompassing history, easily accessible tourist spots, all at a reasonable price. Whether you are looking for cool bars, great food or simple fun, Berlin has something for everyone. London and Paris may get all the glitz and glamour. Barcelona and Milan get all the cool kids. But Berlin itself is simply magnificent. There is far too much to see and do that can be simply described in a short paragraph. There is so much I have left to see. I will be back here, and probably sooner rather than later.

(Last visited 2012)

1) Assam.

There really is not an order to this list, and while Assam currently takes the number 1 spot, I would go back to any of these destinations if I had instant access to cash. But the reason I value Assam so highly is multiple. Firstly, it was my first destination in India, and so I will always have an emotional attachment here. Secondly, it is so big, and so the variety is there. Thirdly, it is undiscovered; despite its huge size and obvious attractions, foreign tourists are few and far between, partly as it is so cut off.

But Assam is truly a stellar destination. It is easy to get round, once you get there! It is also really friendly, with a shockingly competent Tourist Office that will go out of its way to give you information. With a wide variation in Geography from lowland plains to mountainous, I just did not have the time to see all there was. There is a magnificent history, one of Asia’s great civilisations nestled here in the fields. Lush forests and wildlife that will make your jaw drop (I saw my first Rhino here!)

I will go back to India again, and while there is so much of the country I have not seen, I will have to make a beeline for Assam.

(Last visited 2009)

So that is my top ten of places I have seen, and ideally, would love to go to again. Any comments, drop them in the box below. And have you been to any of these places? Agree with me and what would be your top ten?

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Lubiąż Abbey – a little walk round

On my last trip to Poland, I happened to visit Lubiąż Abbey, one of the largest Christian Complexes in the world and while today its Holy functions no longer exist, it is still a significant tourist draw in this part of Silesia. Of course, the day I went Siberia had decided to camp out in Poland (although it was still October) meaning that it was…well…cold when I visited the former monastery on the banks of the Odra.

A little history (my usual Wiki-Quote). The first Christian functions on this site were established around 1150. Like many parts of Silesia, its history is intertwined with the political wrangling that this part of Europe has found itself in. Lubiaz Abbey has come under the control of the Prussian States, the Polish, the Bohemians and even the Habsburgs of Austria-Hungary.

But it is during WWII that Lubiaz’s history come closer to the history in the UK. While occupied by Nazi Germany, Lubiaz’s vast underground complex was home to the engine factories for the V1 and V2 rocket bombs. This vast slave labour camp existed until the Red Army invaded. The Abbey itself fell into decay until 1989 and the fall of Communism. Restoration started and it is a process that continues today.

One little titbit about the Abbey was that in 1997 Michael Jackson visited Lubiaz. Rumour has it that his helicopter tour and stop-off was to see if he could buy the Abbey. Well, his offer was rejected. However, according to the guide who took us round, the visit was meant to be kept a secret, but the whole village (and most of the surrounding area) turned out to greet the King of Pop! Given the traditional Polish welcome of bread and salt, Michale Jackson was in Lubiaz Monastery for only 20 minutes. It is reported that he was astounded by the lavish interiors. Yes, I did go inside, but we were not allowed to take photos inside of the Abbey 😦

Yeah, I think you noticed it was snowing like crazy that day. Of all the days to see a top tourist attraction, I had to pick the one day in October where Siberia decided to decamp. Snow was everywhere, but luckily, having been bitten by the famed Polish cold earlier this year, I came fully wrapped up.

One little extra you will see at the abbey is an exhibition on old German trains. I do not exactly understand the reasoning behind it (other than the fact that Lubiaz was a hot tourist spot when it was called ‘Lubies’ and a part of Germany). Although I could not get exactly what everything was about, it was fascinating to see the old cultural links that used to exist between Silesia and its big neighbour to the west (something that is more evident in Wroclaw).

Getting there and away:

One word – car. It maybe only 40 miles or so from Wroclaw, but Lubiaz is a small village and it is difficult to get to. There are local (and infrequent) buses from the two nearest railheads in Glogow and Wroclaw throughout the day, but really, unless you have your own transport (or speak brilliant Polish), it is a pain to get here.

Accommodation here is non existent too, and the restaurant in the Abbey keeps limited opening hours, so plan your trip accordingly…

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Flirting with the Polish Border at Frankfurt am Oder

Last month I was in Poland for the 8th edition of the Quest Europe film festival. Due to its location in Western Poland, Zielona Gora can be a bit of a pain to get to from its nearest Polish cities, but is surprisingly easy to get to from from Berlin across the border in Germany.

This is normally the way I go. Land in Berlin, take the train to the Polish/Germany border, walk across the border then head on a coach to Zielona Gora from the Poland side.

And of course, this being me, I have an illicit fascination with borders. And this point of the German/Polish border is one of the more fascinating parts of Central Europe, as well as one of the prettiest. Well, at least on the German side.

Germany has two Frankfurts. The first one is in Hesse in the west of Germany. Seat of the Euro, centre of the financial power of Europe’s largest economy. Big, brash and flash. The second Frankfurt is right on Germany’s eastern border in the impoverished state of Brandenburg. Frankfurt am Oder is small, shrinking and while rather pretty does not really have much to it. However, it serves as a very useful gateway to Poland, particularly if coming via road or rail. The Autobhan links with the Polish Highway network just outside the city. There are direct trains between Berlin and Warsaw that stop in the town. And, being across the border from the Polish town of SLubice, it is very easy just to take a walk over the Odra river, which also acts as the border in this case.


(Frankfurt Oder from the Polish (Slubice) side of the border)

Before the second world war, Frankfurt Oder covered both sides of the river. But after the border changes of 1945, the eastern portion of Frankfurt Oder became the Polish town of Slubice.

Slubice is, well, interesting. It is an ugly town, but it is very vibrant. People are utilising the border everyday, Germans are coming over all the time for cheaper goods, the Polish (and even some Germans) are crossing the border to work and study. And Slubice is definitely on the up. As soon as you arrive in Poland there are money changing shops, neon lights, bars and restaurants telling you to come over here. It may be the smaller of the two towns, but Slubice definitely has a sense of excitement about its border status, even if there are no longer checkpoints between the two countries.

However, on entering Frankfurt, you do not feel like you are on some border with another country. In fact, it seems like Frankfurt Oder itself decides to purposely ignore Poland as some rather embarrassing friend. If you did not know any better, this would just seem like any other impoverished Eastern German town with a shrinking population and not much else to do in town. It is quiet. And with 60,000 residents, Frankfurt Oder is small. But Frankfurt Oder is surprisingly pretty. Many parts of the town, particularly the area towards the river has been beautifully restored and like everything in Germany, Frankfurt Oder is shockingly clean.

Now while I would not make a beeline for Frankfurt Oder, it is worth spending a few hours here while waiting for a train or vice versa. It is a rather nice place to stop for a cup of coffee and because the town has been so beautifully restored, there are a lot of very nice places to wander through. And if you are in the town centre, there are a few hawker booths that serve cheap fare such as kebabs, pizza or…frankfurters…hehe…

As I said previously, there really is not much to warrant a special trip here. But for those looking for a cheap (and relatively easy) way to and from western Poland, going via Frankfurt Oder and crossing over to Slubice is a pretty good way to do so. If you have the time, the walk is not far. In about one hour you could probably walk through Frankfurt and Slubice and see everything that needs to be seen, or if you take it leisurely, it can be done in three or so hours, including a stop off for a coffee. Really, the two towns are quite small. I have regularly crossed between Germany and Poland this way and will be doing so later this year when I go back to film Great Brytania. And while I have seen all there is to see, I always like venturing back and forth to check out any details I might have missed.

Frankfurt Oder, getting there and away: Trains leave twice an hour from Berlin and take around an hour, costing €9.40. You can also hop on the Berlin/Warsaw express which call at the station. The rail station is around 15 minutes walk from the riverside/centre of town.

Poland/Germany Border: The Friendship Bridge links Frankfurt Oder with Slubice on the Polish side. It basically goes from town centre to town centre, and as there are no border controls, you can walk over it as many times as you like!

Slubice, getting there and away: The rail links to Slubice are terrible, and the only way is by coach. All the major places in Lubuskie are linked by coach including Zielona Gora and Gorzow. If you need to take the train, the town of Rzepin is a few miles away, reachable by taxi, and there are regular rail links all over Poland from here.

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Quest Europe 2012 – A Jury Member’s view back

Well, I have just arrived back from the Quest Europe Film Festival, where I was invited to be a jury member for a second year. It was a lot of fun, and a lot harder than last year. There was no clear winner, and I was split. Charles, the jury member thought one thing. But Charlie, the guy sitting in the audience thought another thing. And so here were my three favourite films (in no particular order) from Quest Europe 2012. And, yes, my favourite films were a little bit different from what I thought as a jury member…

Strona A – Brilliant. I really enjoyed watching this film and I wanted to learn more of what happened after the credits began to roll.

Ditto for Ingenuity (which you can view fully online), I just wanted to know more.

But my favourite, the laugh out loud film, that tickled me silly had to be The Man with a Plastic Bag. Documentary my ass, but who cares, it was fantastic, and had me in creases the whole way through!

So there you have it, my three favourite films from this year’s Quest Europe. Special kudos has to go to Green Olives. A hard film to watch, but brilliantly done. Also, another film that made me laugh was Night Visitor. The two main actors were one hell of a comedy pair – more of them please!

An absolutely wonderful festival, it always astounds me how a small town in Western Poland manages to pull off such a spectacle. Quest Europe has many more editions ahead of it, long may it reign, in its quest to bring quality films to the masses!

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The editing pains…

Actually, this week, especially today, has been a good one for piecing together the bits and pieces of Great Brytania that was shot in May. However, it is important to put the footage shot into a bit of context.

Not that much was actually shot. We filmed for just two days, six scenes in total. Three of the scenes are in a block that lasts around two minutes, and record events that took place in the character of Magda’s past. The scenes in that two minute block were shot around Zielona Gora’s bus terminal:

The rest of the scenes shot are splintered, individual pieces. One scene shows the character of Magda returning to her Polish home after a day at work. That particular portion of footage will make no sense until the Internal Polish scenes are shot this Autumn.

The other two scenes are dream sequences, set in the Polish countryside – and we did a little bit of cheating when we shot this, but more of that later 😉

But these two sequences are set while Magda is in London. As the London scenes will not be shot until 2013, I can chop them together, but again, they are out of context.

Anyway, the three scenes at the bus station are what makes up the teaser trailer that I have been editing. Although it is finished, I was not happy with it. As there is no rush to get a trailer ready for this year’s Quest Europe film festival in Poland, I am going back to sort out the rhythm and pace of the film, to give it a less disjointed feel.

I am also going to use this extended opportunity to colour correct the teaser. Normally, I do not colour correct trailers, I think it is a bit of a waste. But as I have time until the next segment of the film will be shot, I think why the hell not. It will make the build up for Great Brytania much more spectacular!

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Stills from Great Brytania’s Teaser

Just a couple of shots from the teaser as I edit away. This pic was taken from one of the block of flats in Zielona Gora, and in the film it represents Magda’s home in Poland.

The second shot is kind of cool, showing Magda smoking at the coach station before she departs for England. In the film, the story is split into two chronological periods. The scenes in the UK takes place in the present day, while the scenes from Poland takes place in the 1990’s. That was hard to do, shooting in today’s Poland, but to portray a world 15-20 years ago. That meant no new cars or buses, no new logos, and clothes that would match the time period. Yeah, tricky stuff, so a close up of our leading actress smoking a cigarette was a nice shot to portray.

Oh yes, the joy of editing!

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Viva Polska! Oh dear, it’s the football again…

And so it begins! Euro 2012 kicked off yesterday with all the hoopla and fanfare it could. The host nation, Poland, drew with Greece (1-1 and it was meant to be thrilling match). But you ask any Polish person worth their salt, this is not the match they care about. Next week is the big one. Poland vs Russia. The ultimate grudge match, it will make Iran vs USA in the World Cup seem like child’s play.

Yep, after the Second World War, and Communism, there are two big rivals when Poland plays internationals. Germany and Russia. Germany is a little more friendly. Being neighbours in the EU and the post-war reconciliation has meant that the games are fiercely contested, but there is rivalry. But with RUssia, it is personal. As one of my colleagues (Polish) told me: It does not matter if we do not win the group or if we do not make it past the group stages. The most important thing is that we beat Russia. And if we loose, then there is no sex for a week, as everyone, even the women will be in mourning. A celibate Poland is definitely not in my interest, so I do hope for Russia’s demolition by the host of Euro 2012. Good luck and Viva!

Poland has certainly been busy for the past year, getting ready for Euro 2012. I have been exceptionally fortunate (or maybe not, depending on your view) to have regularly visited Poznan and Wroclaw, two of the host cities for the Euro 2012 championship. New airports, train stations and traffic jams have been the order of the day as the infrastructure in these cities have been completely rebuilt. Much like the hype for the Olympics in the UK (espcecially London), Poland has been saturated by Euro 2012. As I am not a sports fan in particular (I find the whole thing dull as hell), I do not understand why it takes such pomp and ceremony to do basic improvements to necessary infrastructure. Still, if major sporting events act as catalysts for bribery and infrastructure improvements then who am I to complain?

To be honest, I look at Euro 2012 with bemusement. Being close to Poland, for personal (and now professional reasons) I find the coverage of Euro 2012 more interesting than normal sporting events. I do hope that Poland can do as well as they can, even though my research on the subject leads me to believe that, probably, sadly, Poland will loose when they play Russia next week. I hope not, but still, their fans are the best (I have to say that, otherwise my butt gets whooped by my better half…) and I have really enjoyed watching Poland get ready for their European party. I know there will be racist chanting and probably more. There is a lot of racism in much of Eastern Europe, and much of the area resembles Western Europe 40 years ago in terms of attitudes as well as their social and environmental make-up. Still, for want of a better reason, Viva Polska! But at the same time, oh dear, bloody, boring, football…

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