Thursday, 3 August 2017


Unexpected Uzbekistan
 

At a time when many travellers are sceptical of travel to Muslim countries, I visited Uzbekistan in Central Asia and found not only a safe, beautiful destination but one positioning itself as one of the world’s ‘must see’ places.

Called the pearl of Central Asia, Uzbekistan, home of the Silk Road, has been traversed by traders, invaders, adventurers and explorers for over 2.5 millennia. The names of Marco Polo, Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great are associated with the nation, drawn by its access to riches and treasures and the route that joined East to West in civilisations of long ago.  

Yet this part of the world is still relatively undiscovered by British travellers. But that looks set to change as Westerners gradually embrace the wonder of cities such as Samarkand; the very name as soft as silk, and a romance and intoxicating beauty found nowhere else in the world.

I was in Uzbekistan at Easter this year when the 5th International Uzbek Tourism

World of Leisure exhibition took place to demonstrate the tourism potential of Uzbekistan and its history and cultural attractions. Stands showcasing the 14 regions of the republic participated with 233 Uzbek travel companies taking part.  But this was no formal presentation. The Uzbeks danced, played, sang and cooked their way into the hearts of the foreign visitors who were there to experience firsthand what this nation has to offer today’s discerning tourists.  Food here plays a big part at any occasion and after a few days I was becoming a connoisseur of plov, the famous Uzbek dish of rice, vegetables and meat, usually lamb.

 


Uzbekistan is 90% Muslim, so I was surprised to find in Samarkand not only the charming Catholic Church of St John the Baptist but next door to it a Russian Orthodox Church and an Armenian Church, the only one of its kind in Central Asia. On Easter Sunday all had their doors open and my guide was more than happy to escort me to visit. The fact that these churches – and not far away, a synagogue, stand side by side with mosques speaks volumes about the rich history of the Uzbeks and also their accepting nature which embraces all cultures and, in 2017, extends a welcoming hand to tourists of all nationalities and creeds.

Islam here is more cultural than religious. Expect to see as many young women in T shirts, jeans or summer dresses as those in more traditional dress and hijab. Alcohol is widely available – the Uzbeks have been producing some of the region’s finest wines for centuries, although their national drink is tea best enjoyed at one of their traditional tea ceremonies.

Yet is the grandeur of the mosques that took my breath away. There are more than 2000 mosques in the country, ranging from the simple to the dazzling.


Uzbekistan Top five:

The highlight of any trip here is the breath-taking Reghistan square in Samarkand , (built between the 15th-17th centuries)  a space of  majestic madrassas (religious schools) ––the centrepiece of the city, and some say  the most awesome sight in Central Asia. The three grand edifices here are among the world’s oldest preserved madrassas, a wealth of azure ceramics, with interiors of gold.

 

Tashkent– Uzbekistan’s capital – was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1966, while the country was under Soviet rule, but now rebuilt the old and new stand side by side.Dont miss the atmospheric Chorsu Bazaar and the Kukeldash Madrasah, the best known historical monument in town built in the 16th century.

Bukhara. One of the oldest cities in the world, it is home to the Kalon Minaret, one of its defining symbols, built in 1127. At 47 metres high it is thought to have been the tallest building in Central Asia.

Khiva. The walled open-air city of Khiva is a living museum where it seems time has stood still. Protected by UNESCO it is still populated by Uzbek families and businesses. Dating from the 6th century, it was a successful and valued Silk Road trading city – and its ornate mosques, vast mausoleums and madrassas have been painstakingly restored.

Natural wonders. As well as the cities with their fascinating mosques and mausoleums, Uzbekistan has mountain ranges with great skiing, wild open spaces and waterfalls, rivers, lakes and deserts. You can take a jeep safari through the Kyzyl-Kum and Kara Kum Deserts and even stay in a traditional yurt. 

 

www.uzbektourism.uz

 

 

Sunday, 30 July 2017

LOOK TO LUXEMBOURG


LOOK to LUXEMBOURG

 

 A trip to the world’s only remaining Grand Duchy, Luxembourg combines a historical city break with a country escape
I was there recently to enjoy some of the city’s key attractions which the Duchess of Cambridge will also see, including the Grand Duke Jean Museum of Modern Art (MUDAM) in the Kirchberg area.

With a history dating back to medieval times, Luxembourg is a fascinating city to explore. Easily navigable on foot, the ancient streets and alleyways of the old town are featured on UNESCO's World heritage list.  Later this year Luxembourg’s long awaited new tram system opens. For the moment, one can walk or travel by bus, which is free on Saturdays!

The Ducal Palace – the official residence of the Grand Duke, this impressive building stands in the heart of the city.

The Golden lady statue. This was set up in 1923 to commemorate the Luxembourgers who perished in the First World War.

The Casements - the world's longest underground tunnel system, these 17 kilometres of tunnels are all that remains of a fortified castle on the Bock promontory built in 963.

Cathedral- The cathedral Notre-Dame of Luxembourg was built between 1613 and 1621 by the Jesuits to serve as a church to their college (now the National Library).
 Just a short drive from the city one finds some of the prettiest countryside in Europe with a wealth of things to do for all ages.

 Ardennes

A good starting point is pretty Esch sur Sure, home to the country’s oldest castle (927) and gateway to the Upper Sure Nature Park with trails, walks and even a solar powered boat for a guided tour of the reservoir. The area offers hiking, golf, fishing, sailing and enjoying the beach at the lake.

 At nearby Clervaux we find another castle, built in the 12th and enlarged in the 15th century. It is home to three museums, one being the famous ‘Family of Man’ photographic exhibition compiled by Luxembourgian Edward Steichen and first shown in New York in 1955. Comprising 503 photographs by 273 artists, from 68 countries, this is a moving collection of images showing all aspects of humanity.

THE GALLE FACE HOTEL, COLOMBO

A return to colonial grandeur

A bagpiper at sunset, croquet on the lawn and the Duke of Edinburgh’s first motor may not be what you expect to find in Sri Lanka.  But you find them all at The Galle Face Hotel in Colombo. It has been called the ‘oldest hotel east of Suez’ and indeed this is one of the region’s most impressive and historic properties.  Originally a Dutch villa it was acquired by three British businessmen and opened as a hotel in 1864, catering for the elite of the colonial era who were starting to travel to what was then Ceylon. In 1869 the Suez Canal had just opened and journey time from Europe to Asia was reduced from four months to one.  Travellers came by rickshaw to experience Ceylonese hospitality, warm weather and a taste of the tropics. Since then monarchs and celebrities from all over the world have passed through the doors, and if the walls could speak they would have some amazing stories to tell. In its heyday the Grand Ballroom, the hotel’s original ballroom, was the city’s most happening party spot. Many revellers missed their ships due to the over-the-top events there.

 

After a 30-month restoration, the North Wing of the hotel has been refurbished to recreate its original style and architectural features. Rooms and suites, bars, lobby and ballrooms now boast the grandeur that lured famous faces including Vivien Leigh and Cary Grant, literary figures such as DH Lawrence, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Arthur Clarke who wrote the final chapters of 3001: The Final Odyssey here. Harrison Ford was a guest as were Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and even Mark Twain.

Encapsulating its long history is the hotel’s museum in the South Wing.

 Here, among crockery and autographs and portraits of famous guests is Prince Philip’s first personal car, a 1935 model Standard Nine that he bought for £12 when he was stationed in Ceylon.

Here you can also read about the world’s longest serving doorman, Kottarapattu Chattu Kuttan, who served at the hotel from 1942 until 2014. He was succeeded by Mr. Banda who has been working at the hotel for 50 years and now at 71 years old is still welcoming guests.

 

And every evening at sunset, a bagpiper in tartan kilt pipes as the national flag is ceremoniously lowered, one of many delightful touches that have endured here for centuries.

 

There are 72 sumptuous rooms at The Galle Face hotel, many with sea view. All have a colonial feel with wood finishes, TV, shower, safe, tea and coffee making facilities. Wi-Fi is free throughout. A croquet lawn and ocean view executive suite complete with butler have also been added to the hotel.  An Occitane spa will open later this year near the lovely swimming pool close to the sea.

 

Superior rooms are about £137 per night for two

www.gallefacehotel.com