A Five-Day Visa-Free Trip To Belarus

Now that Belarus has loosened the red-tape a little, you can now get a five-day visa on arrival if you are from a list of 80 eligible countries. When this was announced I was rather excited that I could finally tick off another place that has unfortunately been sitting around waiting for me to visit, I just didn’t wish to go through the hoops that were previously in place. However, finally they have now seen sense and you can visit for five days, BUT only if you fly in to Minsk, you cannot arrive overland or to/from Russia.

One thing I was surprised, or maybe just stupid, was to learn was that there is officially no border control between Belarus and Russia as officially it is still part of the Russian Federation, as you’ll notice when you receive you immigration card.

When I said I was going to be visiting Belarus most people looked at me incredibly confused as to why I would want to come, and IN WINTER!? I mean, nobody really could possibly enjoy being in a cold climate in the snow, no? Sadly for me, Minsk and Belarus was experiencing warmer than usual weather and so sadly for me I didn’t get any snow and the temperature didn’t fall below zero, yet it snowed back in London. Typical!

I’m pretty certain that most Belarusians only survive on coffee, vodka and cigarettes – My experience of them is that they are definitely friendlier than Russians, they are intrigued by foreigners, although some may look at you with suspicion – which is a relic of the Soviet days. Anyone who has moved abroad and then returned to Belarus will understand you much easier and will be determined to make sure you have a good time whilst visiting. Whilst taking an Uber one day in Minsk, a professional hockey player who was back home for a short time whilst sorting a visa out for the U.S was driving the car, he invited me to a game. How amazing and friendly is that? Sadly I wasn’t able to accept the offer due to travelling to Brest that day, but I would have jumped at the chance to see this national sport being played.

Welcome to Belarus!
Photo © Travelgeekuk.com

Belarusian Visa

As of 1st January 2017, the Belarusian government finally approved a visa on arrival for a maximum of five-days for citizens of 80 countries/states. To be eligible for this you must have medical insurance before you arrive, or you will be charged at immigration. As of 1st January 2018, the visa on arrival scheme has been extended to ten days but only if you visit certain regions – very clever Government!

It certainly wasn’t the worst welcome I’ve ever had at an airport, I even received a smile from the immigration lady, always nice to step into a country and be made to feel at home!

My adventures in Belarus

I’m sure most of you have heard of Belarus, but what on earth is there to see? It doesn’t really have any world-famous sites, however it does surprisingly have one or two (four to be exact) UNESCO World Heritage sites to check out. The one that I really wanted to see was Mir Castle, sadly for me I don’t drive and it was going to be quite costly and time-consuming to get to from Minsk so I had to abandon this idea but here’s a lovely photo of it I found online for our visual pleasures.

Mir Castle
Photo Source: Wikipedia

So, onto what I did actually get round to seeing… Well I spent four days in the capital Minsk and then travelled towards the Polish border to visit the wonderful city of Brest after a four-hour train journey.

Minsk 

Everything that I had read online about Minsk before I arrived was sadly pretty much negative, this is a huge shame as what I found was a city starting to attract foreign investment, tourists and most importantly jobs. As 80% of the city was destroyed during World War 2, sadly it was redesigned to Stalin’s requirements and as such it does suffer from Communist-block heaven. Thankfully though, this is now starting to change with major hotel chains including DoubleTree and Hilton opening hotels within the last five years.

Every city needs a subway, right? Well, thankfully Minsk has its own Metro system that was completed in the 70s and is rapidly starting to expand thanks to its 800,000 people who use it daily. Believe me, all ex-Soviet Union countries I’ve been to who have rapid-transport systems are typically overcrowded, and Minsk was no exception. However, at 0.60BYN (£0.22) per journey who can blame the locals for using it to the max.

Due to a bombing that took place several years ago no photography is allowed, I didn’t see any security but decided to respect this decision and not to offend the locals.

Minsk Metro
Photo Source: Wikipedia

Speaking of the Metro, if you take line 1 heading east towards Uručča (Уручча in Russian) and get off at the third last stop called Uschod (Усход) you’ll be able to visit the National Library of the Republic of Belarus. Modernised in 2006, this building can seat about 2,000 readers and its main architectural component has the shape of a rhombicuboctahedron – a what? Like we all know what one of those is, well after Googling it I can confirm that it is in fact an Archimedean solid with eight triangular and eighteen square faces. So there we go kids, you learn something new every day on Travel Geek!

State Library in Minsk
Photo © Travelgeekuk.com

Whilst walking around the centre of Minsk you’ll notice a rather large police presence, I don’t know if that’s to make you feel safe, uncomfortable, watched or all three but I went through all of these emotions. I believe it’s also because it is a police state and you can easily walk past the State Security Committee of the Republic of Belarus without realising. Oh, if you don’t know who they are from that name then it might be more relatable when I say the KGB. Yes, that’s right folks the KGB are still well and truly present in Belarus. In theory, you can be arrested for taking photos of this building, so here’s three!

KGB still exist in Belarus!
Photo © Travelgeekuk.com

Opposite my hotel I noticed a rather curious island sticking out of the river Svislach, it’s called the Island of Courage and Sorrow but is referred to as the Island of Tears on Google. It features a memorial to the Belarusians who took part in the Soviet War in Afghanistan and is one of the most famous sights in Minsk.

Island of Tears
Photo © Travelgeekuk.com

The last place I checked out in Minsk is the Mound of Glory, which was in fact located 21km away from the city centre, so I first had to figure out how to get there. Sadly there’s no local buses that stop anywhere near (even though the airport bus goes straight past) and the Metro doesn’t come out this far, but you can get off at the very last stop of Line 1 called Uručča (Уручча in Russian) and take an Uber from there, it cost me about £4 for a return journey. Be aware though, this monument isn’t around anything except the main road and you might find it difficult to get an Uber to come back to Minsk.

When I arrived, I noticed the welcome sign (thankfully in English) which told me I had to pay an entry fee, I walked towards the registration office to check with a man there (who initially thought I was asking for the toilet) only to be shooed away and told that I didn’t need to bother?! Sweet, so thankfully I had the place to myself, for free.

This Second World War memorial complex, commemorates fallen Soviet soldiers and is still used for military parades. The actual mound of earth was created in 1969, with scorched soil from the USSR’s ‘Hero Cities’ and battlegrounds. On its summit, four towering titanium bayonets pierce the sky. It’s absolutely amazing and standing in the middle of the monument looking out over the landscape helps remind me of how fought over this land has been.

Mound of Glory
Photo © Travelgeekuk.com

Brest

350km west of Minsk you’ll find the border city of Brest, proudly sitting opposite the Polish city of Terespol. It’s easy to get to from Minsk, there’s a regular train service throughout the day and night. One of the major sites to see is Brest Fortress, it’s a contender to become an UNESCO World Heritage site and this place is absolutely massive! If you are interested in Soviet history then you could easily spend hours exploring all of the buildings. At first I wasn’t sure whether I needed to pay an entrance fee as you can easily just walk in/around the site, but I found an office and paid my 2BYN fee. From my understanding this place was the site of many battles during World War 2 when the Germans attacked without warning and sadly as expected it was a bloodbath. According to information I read on-site, both Hitler and Mussolini visited the fortress at various times. Believe me this place is well worth the trip from Minsk just to see here.

Brest Fortress
Photo © Travelgeekuk.com

I’ll admit it, I’m not only a travel geek, I’m also a bit of a train geek! When I was a kid all I wanted to be was a train driver; blame Thomas the Tank Engine. So, when I found out that Brest had the first outdoor Railway Museum in Belarus, I was right there! This place is Soviet train heaven, there’s currently 56 locomotives/units and it has even been featured in several films.

It thankfully only costs 2.50BYN to get in and although most trains aren’t open thankfully I made friends with an engineer who was on site and was more than happy to take photos and encourage me to go into some of the locos.

Brest Railway Museum
Photo © Travelgeekuk.com

Traveling in Belarus

With some countries it is almost impossible to get around if you don’t drive, thankfully this isn’t the case in Belarus as you have a fantastic and cheap train service, although some tourist sites will require a drive/bus ride. I was sad to realise that there weren’t any domestic flights, this would have made my trip much easier and have enabled me to see more places but I’m sure this will happen in time.

Belavia Belarusian Airlines

OK, I’ll be up-front and honest, I was expecting something absolutely horrendous. What I was greeted with was a recent addition to their fleet with new livery, a decent meal that was included in the price and even free check-in and carry on luggage. What more could I ask for? Well, I was disappointed not to be greeted with a welcome vodka or be offered any alcoholic drinks throughout the flight, however that is just down to me being a bit pickled most of the time.

Passenger numbers on Belavia from 2016 to 2017 have risen more than 20%, this is a significant increase and I’m certain that it has something to do with the relaxing of the visa entrance requirements, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what the Government wanted/did. I read in their onboard magazine that Belavia has started its transition period from old to new branding, this includes an overhaul of the logo, colours, introduction of web/mobile check in and even the planes themselves. Out with old Tupolev’s and in with the new Embraer and Boeing jets, this is exciting times for a company that only started thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their plans are admirable and I sincerely hope they succeed.

One thing I was sad to see, like with many other police states there was simply no competition to Belavia – the national airline and flag carrier for Belarus, more than likely because it is a state-owned company and that wouldn’t be welcomed. I know that Minsk International Airport hopes to attract some new airlines, it will be interesting to see how they stand up against the competition.

Belavia Belarusian Airlines
Photo © Travelgeekuk.com

Belarusian Railway

Similar to Ukrainian Railways, I was able to easily book tickets with Belarusian Railways via their web-site, selecting seats and print off my boarding pass with ease. At the time I thought to myself this is too easy to be true, anyway there was nothing more I needed to do but turn up.

I travelled on two trains whilst travelling in Belarus, both were unbelievably on-time and although they mostly smelled of cigarettes, body odour and fart, I suppose that’s the pleasure of paying just £3 for a ticket! Thankfully on more pleasant subjects, all staff that I came into contact with were really helpful, they went out of their way to ensure I got to where I needed to be – even if they didn’t speak English, they would find someone or even call someone to provide the information that I needed. Amazing!

Uber in Minsk

Typically when I arrive in a new country I already know how to get to/from the airport to the city, usually I’ll haggle with a local taxi company or hop on a train/bus to a central point. However, in Belarus Uber is so cheap that I couldn’t resist, and I’m glad I used it, so I’m not going to apologise for adding to their ever-growing list of successful capital cities using their service.

Brest Railway Museum
Photo © Travelgeekuk.com

Unsure whether to visit? Yeah I know that feeling, I wasn’t sure what to expect before I arrived. After reading various blogs, horror stories and reports it was difficult to picture myself there, however as soon as I arrived I’m 100% glad that I made the visit here.

Yes it is still corrupt.

Yes, officially it is still part of the Russian Federation.

Yes it can look grey and miserable (but so can the U.K)

Belarusians have proven to me throughout my trip that they are opening up to tourism, they are definitely more welcoming and friendlier than any Russians I met when I travelled there. However, every individual experience is different but I hope that now the visa restrictions are easing, tourists will become a common sight and it will help to progress this country in ways beyond their wildest dreams. Before you leave, make sure you stock up on the booze, as vodka is C-H-E-A-P here!!

Further Information?

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

All images copyrighted, if you wish to use any images produced in this blog article please contact me.

Travel to the Faroe Islands – Travel Geek UK

With adventure tourism booming in the land of fire and ice in Iceland and cruise passenger numbers increasing for Norway, I wonder when it be the Faroe Islands turn to encounter a burst in tourist figures? Thankfully 2017 might just be the one as they have experienced a 20.5% increase in passenger arrivals at the islands only airport, so I think it’s time for me to check out what all the fuss is about!

The Faroe Islands are located just north of Scotland and although similar in scenery the weather can often be quite different due to being in the milder waters of the Gulf Stream. With 18 beautiful islands, some only accessible by ferry, it is no wonder that people are starting to realise that Iceland isn’t the only northern country that they need to explore. Just what is there to discover here? Well, before I visited I knew very little about the place including what to see and where to go. Thankfully after trawling the internet, checking out some blogs and Instagram photos I built up an image in my mind of how I was going to explore this wild and unspoiled landscape. The reason for the trip? Well, it was my partners birthday and he had always wanted to visit somewhere in Scandinavia, obviously the Faroe’s aren’t officially classed as this but it was still heading north! After considering several options, I opted for the Faroe Islands simply because I hadn’t been but also because I knew that tourism is starting to pick up here and I was intrigued to go and see it for myself.

Happy Birthday Oliver!

I often get very fed up of living in the U.K, things can be quite stressful, busy and even chaotic depending on which part you live in, so for me travel and experiencing a different way of life is like my religion; it helps me learn, it helps me to grow as a person and best of all I now have someone to spoil and experience these life-changing moments with.

Have you ever imagined getting away from everything, yet still feeling connected? With just a one hour flight from Edinburgh, I opted to fly with the national airline of the Faroe Islands; Atlantic Airways, who thankfully turned out to be really great. Upon arrival you’ll likely be one of only a handful of flights to land that day at the very small but perfectly formed Vágar Airport. Stepping off the plane and breathing in the crisp, clean air is like, well a breath of fresh air. My experience of going through passport control was a breeze and I even got a nice “Welcome to the Faroe Islands”, this is always a good sign in my opinion of how friendly a country will be.

Gasadalur – a must-see place for any visit to the Faroe Islands

Admittedly the Faroe’s aren’t that easy to get around if you don’t drive, there is public transport buses but if you are looking for some freedom then I’d recommend hiring a car. Once again after a very quick check in process, before I knew it we had our hands on Renault beast that was to prove invaluable throughout our four day adventure. After my partner, Oliver, drove out of the airport on the wrong side of the road we thankfully got to grips with our new home and after only a short 15 minute drive we arrived in the perfect place for a bit of P&Q – Gasadalur. Most people will only briefly visit here to see the incredible natural beauty of Mulafossur Waterfall, but they are missing out on the unique opportunity to experience what it’s like to stay in a village with a population of only 18 people.

I often find city life can be incredibly stressful and as I describe it, an assault on every sense so places like this as perfect for me to escape. In Gasadalur there’s only one place to stay; a beautiful boutique guesthouse that has recently been built but includes a Scandinavian design (thanks Ikea) with cute and quirky Faroese touches including a woollen tea cosy and a wooden penguin. Next door is the village’s only cafe that serves traditional Faroese food including rye bread, prawns and smoked salmon. Thankfully we were just in time for dinner, but before that we met an absolutely adorable puppy who was only two months old, I seriously wanted to adopt the little mischief!

I *heart* dogs, when can I adopt him?!

Unfortunately for me and Oli, during our first night a weather system had developed and it was incredibly windy, to the point that we honestly thought our house was going to blow away, so much so that when a gust of wind occurred the whole place shook! Was pretty scary, it also meant that I woke up at 4.30am but got to experience true Faroese weather at its worst. Thankfully for me the next day it had fully cleared and the sun shined a balmy 12 degrees.

It was time to leave our wonderful turfed roof home and make our way towards the capital, Tórshavn, but not before I put my walking boots on and discover the other natural beauty of Vágar Island – Sørvágsvatn Lake. It is the Faroe Islands largest lake and sits approximately 40m above sea level, it features the stunning Bøsdalafossur waterfall where you see the sheer power of Mother Nature when the mighty waterfall plunges deep into the North Atlantic Ocean.

Sørvágsvatn Lake – the Faroe Islands largest lake

After a short 35 minute ride and my first ever sub-sea car journey, I arrived on the island of Streymoy and the capital of the Faroe Islands; Tórshavn (Thors Harbour). As one of the smallest capital cities in the world, it has only 20,000 inhabitants and boy do you notice it! It has a very laid-back, quiet yet quirky feel where you might get the opportunity to run in to the Prime Minister in the historic old part of the city, Tinganes; that basically translates as “parliament point”. With beautiful grass roofs and brightly painted wooden buildings it gives you the sense that you’ve stepped back in time.

Torshavn – the capital of the Faroe Islands

Although there isn’t a huge amount to see or do in Tórshavn, I definitely recommend spending at least one night here. I stayed at Hotel Føroyar – the only 4* place in the whole country, although for me personally it felt a little dated and I preferred other places that I stayed at throughout my trip. It is particularly famous for the time that U.S President Bill Clinton popped by in 2007 and stayed on his visit, although a myriad of other celebrities and famous people have also stayed here. Be sure to check out the rather normal Presidential Suite!

As it was Oli’s birthday I thought I’d treat him to a special meal, I had to book well in advance but I was able to get us into the only Michelin-starred restaurant in the Faroe Islands, the rather amusingly named Koks. Previously this was located in Hotel Føroyar but has since relocated to its own premises only a short 15 minute drive away. Unfortunately for me he wasn’t feeling 100% and after sampling only a handful of taster menu dishes he opted to sadly sit this one out, I think that might have been a wise move though as some of the dishes didn’t really float my boat. Have you ever fancied raw sea urchin, whale blubber or barely cooked clam? Hmm no, sadly not for me but worth trying local Faroese cuisine.

Koks – The only Michelin-starred restaurant on the Faroe Islands

The morning after and thankfully slowly recovering from my non-appetising food experience, we set off for a wander around Tórshavn. Although petite, it was really nice to simply wander although that might have had something to do with the beautiful and rather unexpected September sunshine I experienced when I visited.

Only whaling station left in the Northern Hemisphere at Við Áir

So, I’m going to approach the subject of whaling with extreme caution but sadly this is what the Faroe Islands are most unfortunately known for. Although I am completely against the practise I do believe that the world is beyond cruel to most animals, not just whales and therefore I was intrigued to visit the the only whaling station left in the Northern Hemisphere at Við Áir. Thankfully it has been defunct since 1985, except for a stranded Sperm whale that spectacularly exploded in 2013 when the rotting carcass was cut into and subsequently the clip went viral. There were plans to create an open-air museum here but when I checked this place out in September 2017 everywhere was empty/abandoned.

The beauty of a driving holiday here is that you can easily pull over and stop to admire the stunning panoramic views whilst getting to explore places that are a bit more off-the-beaten track. After leaving the capital we headed north towards our last overnight stop of Gjógv but before we arrived I made a detour to the remote village of Saksun. Be sure to time your arrival properly, unlike me who arrived sadly during high tide which will affect you seeing the most famous view of black sand, yes that’s right BLACK sand! According to Wikipedia, this place used to be an inlet of the sea which formed a natural deepwater harbour but sadly after a fierce storm this became subsequently unaccessible due to being filled by sand. It’s a fascinating place to visit, surrounded by high mountains on every side it makes for an exciting walk.

Saksun and its magical and mysterious black sands

When planning this trip I really struggled to find good accommodation, mostly due to the remoteness and also lack of investment there are very few hotels so I often had to opt for what I could find, this was definitely the case in Gjógv. There’s only one guesthouse, although if I’d used Air BnB I could have stayed in some beautiful old houses. Ah well, next time. Thankfully for us it was everything we needed to explore this part of Eysturoy island. Gjógv in Faroese means gorge, which is what the village is most famous for. It forms a natural harbour where, if you are lucky enough you’ll see vessels being pulled up the rather steep ramp to the village. Make sure if you get a clear evening you walk to the end of the path above the harbour to sit and enjoy the breathtaking scenery. If you like walking I’d recommend making Gjógv your starting point for hiking to the highest mountain in the whole of the Faroe Islands; Slættaratindur, standing at a huge 880m this was definitely not on my itinerary list but driving past this beast was an incredible sight to see.

Exploring Gjogv

Sadly it was almost time to leave the beautiful and unspoiled Faroe Islands but before we ventured back home, there is something I had to do – drive through a sub-sea tunnel! It’s one of the most unique features of this country and we took on the biggest one there is; Norðoyatunnilin. At 6.3km long and 150 metres beneath sea-level this is one of the must-do things to test out whilst you’re here, don’t worry about passing places here though as it is the newest tunnel completed in 2015. One of the most unique features about this place is that at the deepest point it turns into a rainbow tunnel for a short distance! I noticed that this won’t be the newest tunnel for long as they are currently building the Eysturoyartunnilin between the capital and two islands. This will be the world’s longest sub-sea tunnel and will even include a roundabout – how cool is that! I’m definitely heading back to check that out when it opens in 2020.

Driving in the Faroe Islands is pretty normal until you reach a sub-sea tunnel!

After passing through the island of Borðoy and into Viðoy we arrived at Viðareiði; the most northern settlement in the country and basically the end of the road. There isn’t a huge amount to do here but the scenery more than makes up for that and especially knowing that the only thing north of you is the Norwegian volcanic island of Jan Mayen before the mighty Arctic.

Travelling to the Faroe Islands can be difficult at certain times of the year, I was here in September 2017, this is right at the end of the typical tourist season (May-September) when things are starting to shut down or have reduced hours but due to its location in the Gulf Stream this place doesn’t get quite as cold as you might think. There are opportunities to see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) here due to the lack of people and light pollution I’d highly recommend this place as an alternative to Iceland.

Costs

Although expensive, the Faroe Islands aren’t quite as extreme as Norway or Iceland due to the Faroese Krona being pegged to the Danish currency which is often typically lower than other Scandinavian countries. This isn’t to say that bargains can’t be found, especially when it comes to accommodation. If you shop around and use websites like AirBnB and Booking.com you’ll find reasonable places to stay. If you use the links above you’ll also get a discount of £25 and £15 respectively when you sign up or stay at your first hotel/property.

Here’s a quick guide to roughly what things cost me;

  • Fish and Chips – £10 (approximately 79DKK)
  • Water – FREE (The water is amazing here, don’t buy bottled)
  • Beer – £4 (It ranged from 35-60DKK)
  • Michelin-star meal – £200!! (It was 1400 just for the tasting menu)
  • Hotel Føroyar – £105 for one night (the only 4* hotel in the country)

Hiring a car was really easy here, I booked online before arriving and collected at Vágar airport – highly recommended if you are to get the most out of your trip. I’d strongly advise against doing expensive day trips, they cost at least £100 just to do a 6 hour tour and they really aren’t worth it.

How to get there

It’s surprisingly easy, from the UK there’s a direct flight from Edinburgh Airport and at just over an hour it’s easier than flying to London! The Faroese national carrier is Atlantic Airways, who offered us a really unique service of traditional food (to purchase) and a mix of non-alcoholic (free) and purchasable alcoholic drinks on board. Both of my flights arriving and departing were sadly not full but as interest in the Faroe Islands grow I definitely see this as being a popular route.

My flight cost £170 return which is definitely more expensive than a flight to Iceland but that’s simply due to competition, the only other way than a direct flight from Edinburgh would be to go to Copenhagen and then fly with either SAS or Atlantic Airways which will likely end up costing you more.

Atlantic Airways – the national carrier of the Faroe Islands

LGBT Travel to the Faroe Islands

Often when me and my partner travel together as a gay couple we pick and choose our accommodation very carefully, to avoid any aggro once we arrive. Thankfully the Faroe Islands recently outlawed discrimination against the LGBT community and travelling here I felt safe and welcomed. At a recent Pride event more than 5,000 people turned up, that’s more than 10% of the population!

I recently read a BBC News article about Faroese men outnumbering women, however sadly due to religion it’s unlikely that they would be gay – but due to the lack of available ladies they were looking further afield to countries like Thailand and the Philippines for a wife, I mean that’s a long way for romance!

Although there is no gay scene, as such, you’ll definitely find a small community, especially in the capital of Tórshavn. I’d recommend if you are a solo traveller contacting the LGBT Faroe Islands group on Facebook who can definitely tell you the best places to check out and if they know of any activities happening nearby.

The Faroe Islands is open to LGBT visitors, don’t be afraid to check this place out!

Further Information?

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

All images copyrighted, if you wish to use any images produced in this blog article please contact me.

Solo Adventure; Travelling to Algeria

With the recent surge in negativity towards tourism in cities like Venice and Barcelona, how about visiting a place that’s pretty much never been on the tourist map, where you’ll be one of only a handful of English-speaking tourists in the entire country. Not only that, but the biggest one in Africa!

Algeria has struggled for many years to diversify and attract tourists, varying factors have resulted in lacklustre results but the Government now appears to be focussed solely on promoting itself as a “must-see destination”. Unlike neighbouring Morocco, Algeria receives only 20% of their tourist figures, so there’s quite a long way to go. Having now visited both countries I think you can guess which is the easiest to get to, travel around and do business in; yes you guessed it – Morocco.

After Sudan broke in two, this country is now the largest in Africa and the 10th biggest in the world so I had my work cut out trying to figure out where to visit on my very short five day trip. Located only a short hop away from Spain, Malta and Italy, yet very few international tourists actually step foot on this side of the Mediterranean. Although the last decade has been marred by terrorism and revolutions, Algeria is now relatively stable but sadly finds itself surrounded by conflicts on all sides. With Libya and Tunisia to the east, Niger and Mali to the south and Mauritania and Morocco to the west the Government certainly have their work cut out to remain stable.

Situated in North Africa, 80% of this country is actually occupied by the largest hot desert in the world; the Sahara. A place that has always fascinated me and was top of my must-see list, thankfully I got to explore the unique desert oasis cities of Timimoun and Ghardaia. Although Algeria is striving to be individual, many aspects of life seem to have continued and not dropped out of fashion since the time when France was the Colonial power. This includes things like eating bread or a baguette with every meal, trying delicate and beautiful cakes similar to a Parisian patisserie or even taking the Metro – which to me felt like a replica of the Paris metro. It’s not surprising though, between 1830 to 1962 this country was under French rule and up to 20% of the population was European.

Beautiful French architecture with an Algerian twist makes Algiers a travellers paradise.

My Travels in Algeria

Firstly let me start by saying this is not an easy country to travel around alone, if you don’t speak French or Arabic you will need a guide or someone to travel with who’s a bit more . Sadly for me, languages were never my strong point at school but the benefit of this is you do get to meet some new friends around the world whilst travelling who are willing to help you out. My friend Mohammed; a Yemeni national who currently lives in Algeria was kind enough to invite me to travel with him, thankfully for me he can speak both of the native languages. Phew!

Before I started researching I didn’t have a clue what to see or where to go, many of the must-see places aren’t that famous and there was also some off-limits places to contend with. After browsing various adventure travel company itineraries I put together a couple of ideas, I really wanted to explore Tamanrasset and the south of the country but this proved tricky and expensive so I set my sights on the centre and the mighty Sahara.

Algiers Airport followed by the delightful food offering by Air Algerie

Upon arriving in to Algiers, the nerves kicked in and I wasn’t sure whether I would even be allowed in with my visa. I flew from London with Air Algerie, as airlines go they weren’t bad but definitely won’t feature on any award-winning airline listings any time soon. Algiers International Airport is currently being redeveloped and is being extended, until this happens don’t expect European standards, I wasn’t very impressed with the welcome from the passport and immigration people. Upon arrival you’ll be greeted by two different lines, one for Algerian passport holders and the other for, well, Other passport holders (as is written on signs). Well this turned into chaos as people starting queuing thinking they were in the right place only to be shouted at to get in to the Algerian passport holder line. Confused? Absolutely, anyway I ended up at the back of the line and it took almost an hour to get through – ridiculous!

Thankfully all along the Algerian Mediterranean coastline there’s several cities that I could have flown into including Oran and Constantine, it just so happened that I picked Algiers – a.k.a The White City. Sadly the Metro doesn’t yet stretch as far as the airport, but I believe this is in development so hopefully it should rectify the rather horrendous taxi ride that you have to take into the city. If a taxi driver notices that you are foreign or can’t speak French/Arabic they will try to overcharge, quoting prices like 2,000 – 3,000 dinar whereas the real price should be more like 900 – 1,500 dinar maximum.

Algiers appears to be going through a renovation period as almost every building in the Casbah area had scaffolding up, I visited just before Eid so many families were out and about buying from the local markets. It is quite an assault on your senses as people will come at you from every angle whilst you’re trying to guide yourself and looking out for your possessions meant it was more of a quick visit to the Casbah area. Hopefully next time I’ll plan it better and then I can discover more of the incredible architecture. Algiers felt like a fairly safe city, it reminded me a lot of Beirut with its eagerness to modernise and adapt to a more European style.

The beautiful Mediterranean coastline which most tourists never get to see from Algiers

After spending a rather sleepless night in Algiers I ventured back to the airport early to catch a domestic flight with Air Algerie to Timimoun. It isn’t a place that’s widely known in the travelling community, but it seriously should be – this place is like stepping back in time. I don’t use those words lightly, but it is one of the most beautiful oasis towns in the Sahara. Remember when you were a child and you were shown some worn out, black and white photos of explorers dying of thirst and looking a little rough, well this place is what I imagine they found.

Similar to Timbuktu, these water wells can be found dotted around the Saharan Oasis town of Timimoun

Sadly for me the first thing that happened when I stepped off the plane was the local gendarmerie wanted to know who I was, why I was there and where I had been previously. After being escorted from the airport to the central police headquarters in the city I waited for two hours before the chief dealt with me. He spoke a little English but mostly communicated via my friend Mohammed, his main questions were, what is my job, why am I here and unfortunately the biggest question – why did you visit several countries. My current passport is full and I need to renew it, this means I have visas from various countries that certain places don’t like, sadly I didn’t realise Algeria would make such a fuss over my Iranian and Russian visas. The police chief could not understand why I would have visited either of these countries as a tourist, but he had no choice but to let us walk free as he had no reason to keep us at the police station.

After our brush with the law, it was time to try and find somewhere to stay for the evening. As this trip was done on a budget I resisted staying in the typical luxury tourist hotel and opted for a traditional local one that was a former caravan site in the centre of the city. I did however decide to visit the other hotel, just for the view…

I could easily have sat here all day looking at this incredible view…

Sadly there isn’t much of a tourist industry here, it is a shame as there’s quite a lot to see and I was taken back by how much this reminded me of other famous places. It is a unique spot to visit and is featured in the song Timbuktu to Timimoun, funnily enough the architecture is almost identical when it comes to the traditional water wells. As you venture towards the edge of the city you are faced with an incredible sight – the Sahara desert! It’s almost like the city gives way for this incredible mass of sand.

As you can imagine, this place is in the middle of the Sahara, so don’t expect any fine dining restaurants but you can expect several local take away places. I went to somewhere that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since 1974, but thankfully they made pizza from scratch and it cost less than £1. BARGAIN!

The true adventurer in me comes out when I venture into the wilderness. This is my Sahara…

Also don’t expect any local transport, Timimoun isn’t visited by many tourists so most people, including me, must hire a taxi. Ensure you look around and try to bargain with them for the best deal, sadly for me I ended up paying $100 and although I visited some great places I don’t think it was the best option, I’d say if I’d arranged it through my hotel then it would have been a better experience.

Sadly my time in Timimoun was short and sweet, it was time to take an 8 hour bus journey across the Sahara to another desert outpost. Ghardaia and the M’Zab Valley is a fascinating UNESCO World Heritage site, founded by the Mozabites it is located on the Sahara’s northern fringe at a strategic point along the Trans-Saharan Highway. To get from Timimoun you’ll need to either drive yourself or take the long bus journey, which I unfortunately endured. Although it was safe enough, I definitely wouldn’t recommend it at night. My bus was completely full with around 40 men, all of whom if only they’d known the truth about me would have probably murdered me there and then, thankfully for me though I don’t wear my gayness on my sleeve (so to speak).

Waiting for public transport you never know who you’ll meet, this lovely man was very interested to hear where I was from. Sadly the dude on the left failed to join the party!?!

Upon arriving in Ghardaia I discovered that only recently there had been a revolution and fierce fighting between the rival Berber Mozabites and Chaamba Arabs tribes. The source of the conflict stemmed from arguments surrounding jobs, land and housing and unfortunately due to the sheer number of police I saw on almost every street corner this situation doesn’t look like it is going to disappear anytime soon. It made me feel pretty uncomfortable, I didn’t see any other tourists and I think if I’d have researched properly before I got here I wouldn’t have visited.

Thankfully though, I did and I saw some fascinating things including many of the historic buildings that are painted in a distinctive white, pink or red colour. A must-see place is the settlement called Beni Isguen, an UNESCO World Heritage site that’s a fortified city originally constructed in the 10th century. It is a very religious place that previously only muslims were allowed to enter, thankfully now tourists can venture but they aren’t allowed to take photos of locals, smoke or wear revealing clothing (including shorts).

It hasn’t rained here for over 4 years, I’ve no idea how the locals cope as it was pushing 40 degrees when I visited. Be sure to hire a guide when you visit, it’s only 300 Dinar (£1.50) for 1-3 people, although unfortunately it’s only in French. One unique and rather fascinating fact about this place is that the women, unlike in other Islamic parts of the world, wear white to symbolise peace and they are only allowed to have one eye uncovered from head to toe. I’ve no idea how they manage to walk around, but they are incredible and a sight to be seen.

Beni Isguen – an UNESCO World Heritage site that’s a fortified city with a strict Muslim only residents rule. Fascinating insight into a place that hasn’t changed for hundreds of years.

Clearly some people who ended up in Ghardaia aren’t from here originally as I saw a lot of begging and homeless people, something that is forbidden in Islam. Located at a crossroads, many people have made it here from other parts of Africa and are heading north to the Mediterranean, it was really sad to see and is just one more problem for this unique Saharan oasis city to tackle.

Sadly it was time for me to leave Algeria, after thankfully flying back from Ghardaia to Algiers it was time to face the dreaded immigration/passport control people once more at the airport. I really thought us Brits were meant to be good at queuing but after seemingly being in the wrong line again and being shouted at again, after more than an hour I finally made it through to departures. I was so happy to discover Algerian wine being sold. I didn’t see it anywhere else, although to be fair I didn’t look very hard but I’ve heard it’s pretty good quality so I’ll let you know once I’ve opened the bottle.

Ghardaia – a bustling oasis town in the middle of the Sahara

There were literally hundreds more places I could have visited that would have all been just as stunning, something that I learned quite quickly is that if you embrace the country, the country will embrace you back. It reminded me a lot of pre-war Syria, as if something is about to kick off and it made me feel a bit uncomfortable at times; although most of the people I met were friendly and welcoming I think I’ll leave it a few years and see whether my feelings on the situation have changed.

Travelling around Algeria

Well, it was certainly an experience to say the least. It isn’t easy due to a high police presence, however they are more there to protect you rather than anything else. This can often been seen as a good, or a bad thing. For me personally I found it quite threatening at first but when you realise they are just looking after your safety and not just being a pain then I felt a bit more comfortable, however I’ll let you make your mind own up.

Air Algerie – the national airline

Air Algérie is the national airline of Algeria and is pretty much your only option if you wish to get around the country quickly. They have regular flights to various far-flung places, I travelled on several internal flights to Timimoun and Ghardaia with them on a rather scary ATR 72-500. Seriously these planes should be scrapped and put in a museum, they are old, they are falling apart but at least they do give you some service on board (unlike British Airways!). Although they aren’t the best, they are also by far from being the worst too, one amusing thing to note is that if your flight isn’t full they may attempt to leave early!

Algerian Visa

Often the most complicated part of visiting a country is applying for the visa, thankfully I’ve put an easy guide together for how to apply if you have a British passport. Click here to check it out. Algeria is one country that seriously needs to loosen the strings on its visa restrictions as it’s definitely affecting the number of people visiting, you must be in possession of a visa before arriving!

Further Information?

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

All images copyrighted, if you wish to use any images produced in this blog article please contact me.

Baku – An Exciting, Exotic and Mysterious Caucasus Capital

Azerbaijan – A relatively unknown country outside of the adventure travel market, but for how much longer? With the country already hosting huge events such as Eurovision, Formula 1 and recently the 4th Islamic Solidarity Games is it only a matter of time before people realise how wonderful this Caucasus country is?

My trip to Azerbaijan preceded Armenia and Georgia so it was an easy decision to tag it on to my journey, however why would you visit Baku for a city break? Well, a lot of people looked rather confused why I would even visit the country, presumably as they didn’t know where it was or the delights that await. Thankfully being an adventurer and wanting to seek out new opportunities, see exciting sights and discover local culture meant that I was in for a treat.

Where is Azerbaijan?

Often referred to as the “Land of Fire”, if you haven’t heard of it before the easiest way to describe its location is being situated in the South Caucasus region, similar to Turkey, Azerbaijan is sandwiched between Europe and Asia and sits on the banks of the Caspian Sea. Surrounded by Georgia, Russia, Iran and Armenia, this oil-rich nation is gearing itself up to become an established player in the International tourism market.

Baku – City of Lights

When people ask you where you are going on your next mini break, I highly doubt they expect you to say you’ll be heading to Baku. However, this is a crying shame and the city definitely deserves far more recognition. Something that made the city stand out compared to all the others I’ve been to was how clean, well maintained and functioning it was, they’ve even managed to maintain the old medieval part of the city, even with all of the huge new developments popping up around the city it hasn’t taken away the historic charm.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect before I arrived, but it certainly wasn’t the glamorous, modern yet traditional capital city that I discovered.

Some of the highlights from my trip to Baku

What to see?

If you only have a couple of days you’ll have plenty to fill your days with, my best advice is to simply wander aimlessly, you’ll be amazed at some of the new developments and getting lost down the narrow back streets of the Old Town.

Here’s a list of things that I wanted to see during my time;

  • Bayraq Meydani (3rd tallest flag pole in the world)
  • Azerbaijan Carpet Museum
  • Palace of The Shirvanshahs
  • Maiden’s Tower
  • Old Town (İçərişəhər)
  • Baku Eye
  • Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre

Also don’t forget to take the metro somewhere, it’s a throwback to Soviet times! It gets incredibly crowded but is very efficient, I’d read reports that people have been arrested before for taking photographs but I found the station staff to be very friendly and excited to be given the chance to speak English when asked questions.

Baku Metro – a fascinating insight into the city’s Soviet past

During my time visiting Baku in May 2017, I was lucky enough to attend a wrestling match at the 4th Islamic Solidarity Games that were being held in the city. It was fantastic to watch and I even got see the Vice-President of Azerbaijan, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, just a typical day mixing with the rich and famous don’t you know!

Vice-President of Azerbaijan First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva presenting an award to one of the Azeri wrestlers at the 4th Islamic Games.

Optional excursions

Although you’ll be kept busy in the city, don’t forget to do a day trip to visit some of Azerbaijan’s most famous tourist sites including the famous Mud Volcanoes, flaming rocks of Yanar Dag and the burning fire temple of Ateshgah. I don’t think I really believed that Azerbaijan had mud volcanoes, I seriously thought it was some sort of myth, but when I got there and I’m standing there staring at the bubbling mud on top of a volcano it was a surreal, Mars-like experience.

These incredible sites can all be visited on a day trip, a local company called TES tour offer a trip for 50AZN per person.

Don’t forget the name Azerbaijan, you’ll be hearing it a lot more in the coming years, believe me!

Let’s be honest, did you know Azerbaijan had mud volcanoes, flaming rocks and ancient rock art?

How to get here?

My route to Azerbaijan took me via Turkey, this isn’t the easiest route due to connection times but it is the most cost-effective. If I’d had more time to plan my trip I could have flown Lufthansa via Frankfurt, Air Baltic via Riga or WizzAir via Budapest.

Previously applying for a visa for Azerbaijan was rather complicated and simply put people off due to the expense and red-tape involved. You can now thankfully apply online for an e-visa and pay $20 plus $3 processing fee and you’ll receive your confirmation email within a couple of days. Make sure you print this off and keep it throughout your trip as you’ll also need it to leave the country. My only negative comment about the process is that they ask your HIV status, I know several other countries do this but I find this incredibly intrusive and a bit unnecessary in this day and age!

The national airline, Azerbaijan Airlines (AZAL) fly direct to many major capital cities including London, Paris, Rome, Dubai to name only a few. They’ve heavily invested in their fleet, when I flew from Baku to Istanbul with them there was plenty of leg room but sadly the entertainment system left a lot to be desired.

Heydar Aliyev International Airport and the national flag carrier Azerbaijan Airlines

Where to stay?

Baku is not short of luxury accommodation, one of the most unique places is the Fairmont Hotel located in one of the famous Flame Towers. I was lucky enough to stay here as a treat to myself, usually I opt for a homestay or budget hotel but I’d already seen the view from other people’s photos and I knew that I had to experience it for myself.

After being lucky enough to get upgraded to an incredible Caspian Sea view I couldn’t take my eyes off the beauty of Baku, forget Dubai, this place is absolutely awe-inspiring!

Fancy visiting yourself? I highly recommend staying here, to book your stay go to Booking.com and search for Fairmont Hotel, Baku. Click here using this link!

Fairmont Hotel, Flame Towers

Further Information?

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

All images copyrighted, if you wish to use any images produced in this blog article please contact me.

My 48 hour Staycation in Liverpool

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My heart sinks every time I say this, as the Great British Pound is at its lowest for over 30 years, now is the time for you to discover how amazing some of our UK towns and cities really are. Liverpool is a place with an incredible history and it’s even home to some world firsts and maritime gems.

7 Scouse Facts:

  • Place of the world’s first railway, Liverpool and Manchester Railway
  • Home to Europe’s oldest Chinese community
  • Liverpool was previously described as the “New York of Europe”
  • The city was the first in the UK to operate an airport from 1930
  • Home to the first lending-library, arts centre and theatre
  • James Street and Hamilton Square stations are the oldest deep level underground stations in the world
  • Apart from London, Liverpool is the most filmed city in the UK used as movie and TV sets to depict Moscow, New York and even Rome

Where should you visit?

Don’t expect spectacular sandy beaches or pristine sunshine weather, however what Liverpool does offer in bucketloads is culture and history. Before visiting I had no idea that the city is home to the most museums outside of London and thankfully most of them are free!

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Museum of Liverpool

This place has everything! A really well laid-out museum that features information about the Overhead Railway, Liverpool’s Chinese community, The Beatles and even about the products that used to be shipped in from all around the world.

I’d recommend that if you don’t know much about Liverpool’s past, this would be the best place to start. You’ll feel absorbed into its past but also be intrigued by what will happen in the future.

The world’s very first train, The Lion, is housed here. It was built in 1838 and was used on the Liverpool to Manchester Railway, an incredible achievement for the city.

Liverpool OverHead Railway poster

Sadly the Liverpool Overhead Railway no longer exists but these incredible posters are featured in the Museum of Liverppol

St Johns Beacon / Radio City Tower

This place is an absolute must-see whilst visiting the city! At only £5.50 (2016 prices) it is such a bargain and if you pick the right day you’ll see as far away as the Blackpool Tower and even North Wales. When I visited there was barely anyone there which I thought was rather sad given how sunny it was. At less than a quarter of the price to visit the Shard in London and with a much better view make sure you add it to your to do list.

Liverpool Cathedral

If you follow my blog you’ll know I’m not religious, however I do like visiting places like this and discovering the history. Liverpool’s Cathedral was completed in 1978, so it isn’t particularly old but it does look incredible sitting on top of St James’s Mount.

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Maritime Museum

I genuinely didn’t know that the Titanic was a “Liverpool ship”, nor did I realise I could discover all about it in Liverpool. This museum is smaller than the Museum of Liverpool but is well worth seeing as with most museums it is free!

Make sure you check out the International Slavery Museum too, it’s linked to the Maritime Museum and even though incredibly sad it’s also a fascinating look into our past and how slaves helped drive the fortunes of not only Liverpool but the UK as a whole.

Albert Docks

After the docks finally closed in 1972 most of the area fell into disrepair and was in urgent need of some TLC, thankfully in the early 1980’s the area was given a regeneration makeover and is now the most visited multi-attraction site in the UK, outside London.

I found the Albert Dock to be the perfect blend of old vs new with its well-maintained heritage but also striving forward with new buildings like the Museum of Liverpool. I only remember the Albert Dock from when I was little and the TV show This Morning used to be broadcast from here, well it has certainly changed since then.

Make sure you check out the cute historical vehicles that are now used by food vendors.

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Visit the homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney

Sadly I didn’t get the chance to visit either of them, but I thought I’d add it here for any Beatles fans amongst my readers.

Hidden Gems!

Often described as England’s finest Victorian city, Liverpool is home to more than 2,500 listed buildings and more Georgian houses than the city of Bath, isn’t it time you checked it out?

For me, Liverpool is home to a buzzing cafe culture and thankfully due to its history and multi-cultured society I was able to experience everything from Jamaican to Thai cuisines.

I really enjoyed trying the tasty sweet delights at East Avenue Bakehouse in the RopeWalks district and also trying out the amazing poached eggs at Cheese & Co. opposite the Queen Victoria Monument.

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Although not necessarily hidden, they are a gem. I love seeing all of the old vehicles that are now being used to serve street food and ice creams. A really nice touch.

Liverpool has to be one of, if not the most-friendly city I’ve visited in the UK. Ignore the pre-conceptions you hear, it is safe and very much welcoming to tourists.

Top tip: If you’re looking to buy property for investment in the UK, I’d strongly suggest Liverpool as this place is definitely on the up!

Liverpool LGBT scene

Don’t expect the gay scene hubs of London or Manchester, however you can encounter an intimate affair in the designated LGBT quarter. Stanley Street is where you’ll find bars including the Lisbon and the Curzon to name only a few places to visit.

With many other gay scenes in the UK slowly dying of death, Liverpool prides itself on being the first city in the UK to identify its LGBT quarter by installing rainbow street signs to highlight the area as gay-friendly.

Probably the most famous Liverpudlians in the world. The Beatles

Probably the most famous Liverpudlians in the world. The Beatles

Visit Liverpool for yourself

I highly recommend a visit, to book your stay go to Booking.com and search for Liverpool.

Click here using this link!

How to get here?

Liverpool is one of the easiest cities to visit in the UK, situated on the west coast of England it is ideally situated to arrive by air, rail, ferry or road.

Air: Liverpool John Lennon Airport is one of the fastest growing in the UK in terms of passenger numbers, thankfully there’s plenty of domestic and international connections, mostly from Eastern Europe.

Rail: Liverpool Lime Street is the main hub with regular trains from London, Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and North Wales.

Road: At the most Western point of the M62 (a.k.a the biggest parking lot after the M25) it’s really simple to drive to the ‘Pool.

Sea: The Port of Liverpool offers regular ferries to the Isle of Man and Dublin, you’ll also have access to a wide variety of exotic cruise destinations.

Further information?

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.