40 things to do before you’re 40

November 18th, 2013

No. 39 Journey to Jerusalem and the beginning of history

The Dome of the Rock

The city of Jerusalem is, as we all probably know, pretty old. Understanding just how old is a bit more difficult to get your head round, however, and to say that the city has had a long and colourful history is akin to saying that the Pacific Ocean is vast, and a bit wet.

Trying to put it into perspective isn’t a lot easier. What, for example, does it mean to us to say that it’s been inhabited since the fourth millennium BC? How are we meant to imagine a city that has lived and breathed in its current location for over five thousand years, when most of us struggle to imagine what life was like before the internet? (The rest of you probably weren’t even around!) And what of the peoples that have lived there over the course of time?

We can try and think about the fact that the distance of time between the birth of the city and the death of Christ as longer than the time that’s passed since then and today, but even that can’t replace the palpable sense of history that emanates from every ancient temple or church and resonates in the plethora of alleyways when you take a stroll through modern Jerusalem for yourself.

And what also of the strong claim to be the world’s holiest place? How does one understand how a city, which at its core is nothing other than a collection of buildings, streets and dwellings, plays such a central role in three of the world’s largest religions by looking at it on a map or hearing about it in the news? But this will never fully capture the devotion of those who come to the Wailing Wall to pray; those who make the pilgrimage to visit the Dome of the Rock; or the people from all over the world that come and see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for themselves.

In short, you really need to visit Jerusalem in person to get a true sense of the sanctity of the city and what it means to so many of the world’s faithful.

The Western Wall and Temple Mount complex

The Western Wall and Temple Mount complex

The Western Wall

The Western Wall is an archaeological remnant of the Second Temple of Judaism that was destroyed by the Romans when they laid siege to the city in 70 BC. It lies within the contentious Temple Mount complex that is so important to all three religions – in part because it is believed to be where Abraham was a blade’s- width away from sacrificing his son Isaac (or Ishmael according to Muslims) – that it is considered the ‘most hotly contested piece of real estate in the world’. The destruction of the temple became hugely important in the history of Judaism as it came to symbolise the end of a Jewish state; a state that would not be recovered again until the 20th century. The Second Temple itself was built after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon and the 500 odd years between the temple’s construction and its demise would be known as the Second Temple period. The wall is also commonly known as the Wailing Wall in response to those that mourn the temple’s destruction and all that it symbolised for the Jewish religion as a whole.

In Jewish tradition, the presence of the divine never left, and if you visit the wall today the strength of that belief is almost tangible as many Jews arrive here from all over the world to silently pray or leave prayer notes in the crevices between the wall’s ancient stones.

The Dome of the Rock

Also situated within the Temple Mount complex is the stunning Dome of the Rock mosque. Its golden dome catching the sun and bright blue tiled facades make it one of the most recognisable structures in the city’s skyline. Built in 691 AD, it is considered to be the first piece of Islamic architecture and remains one of its most iconic examples to this day. It was built to mark the site where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Ishmael (not Isaac as in Jewish and Christian tradition). This, and the fact that it is believed to be the spot from which Mohammed ascended to heaven, makes the Dome of the Rock the third holiest site in Islam and a place of pilgrimage for Muslims from all over the world.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Although not within the Temple Mount, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is considered the most sacred site in Christianity as it marks the place believed to be where Jesus was crucified. Within the church itself is also the tomb, or sepulchre, in which Jesus’ body was placed and from which he rose again two days later. The site itself is said to have been venerated by early Christians but it wasn’t until the fourth century that a church was built here under the Roman Emperor Constantine, who was responsible for making Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire.

The site is particularly significant to Catholic and Orthodox Christians and both faiths have a permanent presence in the church. Protestants, however, do not and many believe it not to be the location that Jesus was entombed at all.

You can visit these sites, and many of Jerusalem’s sites of religious significance, such as Mount Zion, the Mount of Olives and the  Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus walked carrying the cross, on one of several Topdeck trips that go to Israel.

40 things to do before you’re 40

November 15th, 2013

No. 38 Sleep out back with an Aussie swag

Sleep out under a huge Outback sky

Sleep out under a huge Outback sky

As early settlers to a new country, it must be a bit daunting to give new places names. After all, what you settle on will likely be etched onto maps and into history for posterity. You really wouldn’t want to get it wrong.

So credit to those early Aussie battlers, those who managed to name the distinctive topographical features of this new land in a manner that would not so much avoid any future ambiguity and confusion as squash them dead. Like cockroaches. We can’t be sure how long it took them to think up a name when they happened upon a range of mountains distinct from any others thanks to the presence of snow, but it must have been a long night at the pub after they struck toponymous gold and hit on the ‘Snowy Mountains’.  How do you accurately capture the sense of vastness, not to mention sandiness, of one of the country’s largest deserts? Well you could do a lot worse than calling it the Great Sandy Desert.

So when it came to the vast, untamed wilderness that stretches mile upon mile away from the coast and into the hinterland of the Australian continent – this land that possesses a haunting beauty tempered only by its ruthless ability to claim lives with impunity – they would have wanted to really nail it. After all, it exists out the back of every built up area in the country. So…

Welcome to the Outback!

There are few more true blue Australian travel experiences as camping out under the stars in the Outback. What could be a better way to spend the night after you’ve spent the morning on a bushwalk, the afternoon swimming in some hidden away rock pool and the evening watching a swollen sun set behind the mysterious monolith known as Ayers Rock? After sitting around the campfire swigging a cold beer and sharing a story or two, all you’ll want for now is a good swag.

Fancy a swag?

No, whatever else it might sound like it’s none of those things. It’s an item as indispensable to any Outback wanderer as a billy can and some decent tucker. Essentially it is as modest a dwelling as you could imagine; roughly the same length as a supine human and not a great deal higher. It’s enough to keep any rain off your person and flies away from your face. Which is pretty much all you need. It’s as authentically understated as an Australian place name.

Spending time in the great Australian outback is not the reserve of obscure z-listed celebrities; in fact it just so happens that you can do all the above on any number of great Topdeck trips that go to Australia’s outback. Funny that.

And you won’t have to eat iguana gonads or platypus placenta while you’re there. Or at least not if you don’t want to!

40 things to do before you’re 40

November 5th, 2013

No. 37 Souk it and see in Marrakech

Wares on show in the souks

Wares on show in the souks

Marrakech is a true North African treasure; a myriad of winding alleyways, snake charmers, Berber traditions, cluttered markets, crumbling terracotta walls and lavish gold palaces, oozing charm like no other place can even come close to rivalling. From the moment you arrive in this frenetic Moroccan city you’ll be hypnotised by its enchanting spell.

The best way to get under Marrakech’s contrasting skin is to simply wonder its labyrinth of souks (open-air marketplace or commercial quarters) and squares, which will envelope you with authentic Moroccan culture from every corner. Simply walking through the souks you’ll get face to face with the local folk who love nothing more than to stop and chat, invite you in for a mint tea or talk to you about their beloved family-run carpet shop. Once hours have passed talking carpets and silver treasure, you’ll find yourself getting lost in the city’s endless souk mazes, admiring brightly-coloured plates, sparkling jewels, rusty trinkets and endless trading outlets selling local spices, potions and produce. Be sure to set your watch to Marrakech time and remember you’re never in a hurry to get anywhere here.

The heart of the city’s action is centred around Djemaa el-Fna square which is home to endless stalls selling everything from lanterns to face creams that will turn you into a Moroccan supermodel. This square is most definitely not for the faint-hearted and is brimming with entertainers, snake charmers and street theatre goers who have all the time in the world to dazzle you in any possible way they can.

The charming chaos of the souk

The charming chaos of the souk

Once you’re done with exploring this unique city’s souks and squares the only thing to do is to kick-back at a rooftop café with some mouth-watering tagine and delicious mint tea and watch the sunset over the beautiful medina, listening to the chaotic city life from above.

Topdeck top tip #1: Head to one of the city’s many local hamams for some traditional scrub, massage or indulgent spa treatment at a very reasonable price. Bliss.

Topdeck top tip #2: Check out the magic of Marrakech for yourself on our 10 day Moroccan explorer trip. During your Moroccan adventure you’ll tour Marrakech by horse and by foot, checking out the oh-so-impressive Saadian Tombs, Bahia Palace’s lavish gardens, the local medina (the name given to the non-European quarters of any town in Morocco and other parts of North Africa); and the famous, bustling market in Djemaa el-fna square, and that’s just when you’re in Marrakech. This epic trip will showcase some other mighty-fine Moroccan beauties, including; Casablanca, Rabat, Fes, Errachidia, Merzouga and Dades Gorge too.


Casual Fridays are popular at the souk

Casual Fridays are popular at the souk

So, What are you waiting for? Get yourself to Morocco immediately on one of these other great Topdeck trips.

40 Things to do before you’re 40

October 29th, 2013

No. 36 Feel the Power of Mighty Vic Falls

Capture the power of the falls

Capture the power of the falls

As up to three thousand tonnes of water plunges over a nearly two-kilometre-long precipice every second, plummeting over a hundred metres down, the resulting white cloud of spray billowing high into the air can be seen up to thirty miles away. Both the sheer ferocity of the falls and the awesome spectacle it creates are eloquently summed up in the name given to it by those living within earshot: Mosi-oa-Tunya, ‘the Smoke that Thunders’.

That we know this mighty force of nature by the less poetic Victoria Falls is thanks to David Livingstone, the British explorer who is believed to be the first European to witness them. It is a reflection of the colonial attitudes of the day that he chose to name them in honour of the reigning Queen Victoria, similar to the attitude that would see a nearby Zambian town named Livingstone.

Fortunately though, just as a rose by any other name would cost as much, the astounding power of the world’s largest falls thunders for itself, making the chance to see them one of the most coveted travel experiences around.

But this isn’t simply about turning up, joining a group of poncho wearing tourists and taking a boat out to within a zoom-lens distance. No, no, no! The only way to really do justice to the force of the falls is to experience it in a manner as awesome and memorable as the falls themselves. And fortunately, there are a few options to choose from that will let you do just that.

Get an angel’s-eye view

Get an angel's view

Get an angel's view

In describing what he had witnessed, Livingstone said that such an amazing scene “must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” And what better way to fully grasp the magnitude and scale of the scene than to take to the air. The closest you can get to flying with the angels is a microlight flight over the area. From this vantage point you have an all-knowing view of the scene, as you can see both the wide Zambezi snaking its way down unaware, and the deep gorge ahead into which it is about to plunge a hundred metres to the rocks below. Not even Top Gun at an IMAX can take your breath away quite like the combined experience of gliding in the air, the wind gushing through your hair while some of nature’s greatest theatre plays out beneath you.

For those not so keen to put all their faith in a microflight, there are also helicopter flights that offer a similar experience. But the enclosed cabin and roar of the propellers dilutes the experience for some.

DO look down!

If flying high above the falls is the domain of the angels, then your next option is aptly named. Devil’s Pool tests the trepidation of even the most fearless traveller, as it involves jumping unaided into the river just a few metres upstream of the falls. Then, as the current drags you closer and closer towards the edge, with nothing in reach to stop you hurtling over with the current, at the very last minute a lip in the pool halts the flow and leaves you resting on a rocky outcrop and peering down into the deep abyss below. Never will you appreciate more the sheer size and force of Vic Falls than to sit in the middle of it and look down over the edge!

Going into free-fall

As to truly experiencing the sensation of free falling 100 metres to the rocks below, well the best way to do that is to just hop in a barrel a few hundred yards upstream and let gravity take care of the rest. Probably no less exhilarating though – and considerably kinder to loved ones – is the nearby bungee jump that lets you take the same fast route to the bottom of the gorge.

If your budget, or perhaps even your bladder, excludes you from doing a bungee, there are plenty of other activities available that have earned the region a reputation for being the Africa’s adventure playground. From the heart-stopping, such as a gorge swing or white water rafting on the Zambezi (starting below the falls we add), to the spirit-warming, like a sunset cruise in search of wildlife, there is something in and around the area that doesn’t just let you see them, but lets you live the force of nature that is the spectacular Victoria Falls.

And would you believe it, many of Topdeck’s fabulous Africa adventures spend several days in and around Livingstone, meaning you’ll have the chance to try all, or at least one of, the above for yourself and truly expereience the power of the mighty Vic Falls.

40 things to do before you’re 40

October 24th, 2013

No. 35 Pay homage to forces of nature in the company of the Navajo

So often have gun-slinging cowboys and bow-and-arrow-wielding ‘Indians’ been seen on horseback charging across this striking and desolate landscape on cinema screens, with their beasts’ thundering hooves stirring up great billows of dust, that Monument Valley has become virtually synonymous with the great Hollywood Western.

And it has to be said, to head out into this wide and beautifully sparse expanse and just bear witness to the collection of surreal buttes that sprout randomly out of the desert floor, like giant plinths in honour of nature, is a truly memorable experience.

But to do so under the guidance of a local Navajo, the Native American tribe for whom this striking region is both traditionally and spiritually home, well, that is another story altogether.

Dressed up for visitors

Dressed up for visitors

Get to know the Navajo

Monument Valley lies within a designated reservation named the Navajo Nation. The entire region, known to the Navajo people as Diné Bikéyah, makes up a vast area of the American southwest called the Four Corners, as each ‘corner’ of the nation extends into four different states.

The Navajo themselves are the largest recognised Native American tribe in the US and lived here for centuries before Europeans arrived in the Americas. When the nomadic Navajo themselves first came to the region, the area was already inhabited by another Native American group known as the Ancient Pueblo People, who had been here since as early as 1200 BC. Unlike like the hunter-gatherer Navajo, the Pueblo had established permanent dwellings and even had palaces built into rock faces that can still be seen today. The Navajo settled here and went on to adopt a more permanent and agricultural lifestyle from the Pueblo.

After European arrival however, a pretty dark period of persecution, inter-tribal warfare and even forced migrations ensued before the eventual the creation of a reservation. This has since enabled the Navajo to retain their traditional lifestyle, merging with a modern-day way of life where appropriate, and creating a semi-autonomous ‘nation’ that has meant the Navajo have been able to protect their identity and survive.

Know your butte from your elbow

Learning from a real expert

Learning from a real expert

When visiting Monument Valley today, regardless of the urge, it would probably be pretty inappropriate to don a Stetson and pair of spurs, jump on a stallion and cry ‘Geronimo!’ as you head off in search of imaginary redskins. Instead, far more interesting and informative – not to mention more sensitive – would be to join a local Navajo guide and venture out into the great expanse and learn first-hand about the natural forces that created this striking setting as well as how a very different people have lived, and continue to live, in such a harsh yet spellbinding part of the world.

The defining characteristic of Tsé Bii? Ndzisgaii (or Monument Valley as it is perhaps better known) is clearly the towering buttes and large mesas that proudly dominate the scene; they were the silent stars of so many Hollywood classics. The tremendous forces that have forged the area over millions of years are responsible for the many buttes and mesas, which are made of rock stronger than the surrounding sandstone and have thus withstood the erosion that has taken place around them. The mighty that have remained standing while the weaker around them have been subdued, if you like. The difference between a butte and a mesa (the later gets its name from the Spanish for ‘table’) is that the later has a top that is wider than the rock is high – much like a table top – while anything else is called a butte.

But nothing can substitute the experience of having a member of the Navajo Nation explain this to you in greater detail as you stand beneath one of these behemoths staring up in awe at the beauty and sheer size of such a masterpieces of nature.

Fortunately for you, it just so happens that Topdeck now run tours of the Southwest, of which most visit Monument Valley with an included Navajo-guided jeep safari. You really do have to experience it for yourself!

40 things to do before you’re 40

October 17th, 2013

No. 33 Jump up, jump up, and get down with the Maasai warriors!

How high can you go?

How high can you go?

How does this sound for a movie idea? An American basketball coach (to be played by someone versatile like, say, Kevin Bacon) gets this great idea to go to Africa, convinced that he’s going to find the next Michael Jordan amongst the famous jumping tribesmen of the Maasai – as obviously being able to jump’s all it takes!

Yeah, ok, so ‘The Air up There’ was a howler and the aforementioned actor really should take a good long look at himself for being involved. And forgetting, if we can, that the makers of this film took such a potentially fascinating subject only to render such a frightfully dull story, it’s perhaps no great surprise that the iconic red-robed warriors of the Maasai leapt to Hollywood’s attention, as their traditional way of life, elaborately colourful jewellery and, of course, legendary ‘jump dance’ have captured the imagination of people the world over for decades.

And it is for this way of life, and the Maasai’s ability to maintain these fascinating traditions in the face of governmental pressure to modernise and settle – and not Hollywood’s efforts to caricaturise them – that make visiting the tribes where they live and witnessing their culture one of our top travel experiences to do before you’re 40.

So just who are the Maasai?

The Maasai are a semi-nomadic people (a bit more about that later) who live in the region of the Great Rift Valley on both sides of border of Tanzania and Kenya. The grazing and ownership of livestock is central to the Maasai’s existence as it plays a central role in everything from their economy to social standing and community interaction. The protection of livestock, particularly from predators such as lions, gave rise to the ‘Maasai warrior’, for whom the daunting prospect of hunting a lion is something of a rite of passage. It is important to note that since lion numbers have been in decline, this practice has changed accordingly and policies to compensate lost cattle have also reduced the number of lion hunted by warriors.

And what’s got them jumping up and down?

The sight of the Maasai men, decked out in their bright red robes and leather sandals, leaping straight-legged and incredibly high into the air, as if assisted by a hidden trampoline, is perhaps the most iconic and enduring image of this people. Indeed the ‘adumu’, often called the ‘jumping dance’ is a popular tradition and is performed during a warrior’s ‘coming of age ceremony’. During the dance groups of men will form a circle and one or more will enter the centre and try jump as high as they can and outdo one another, while others voice their appreciation in song.

Though it isn’t all about the men. The Maasai women are also well known for the elaborate jewellery they wear as well as colourful robes, and the chance to show off their huge, colourful neck pieces is an equally important part of the same ceremonies.

Is the sun setting on the Maasai people?

Is the sun setting on the Maasai people?

Why is their lifestyle under threat?

As semi-nomads, although they will build semi-permanent dwellings and even grow crops, they do graze their cattle on a rotational basis over a wide area. Ecologists in the mid twentieth century attributed this to the destruction of sparse resources. Although this view has been convincingly challenged it is one still held by Tanzanian and Kenyan governments who have run programmes to get the Maasai to abandon their traditional lifestyle and settle permanently. This, as well as the introduction of concepts such as private ownership and integration in the outside economy, has hugely altered their traditional way of life, making their future uncertain.

What about visiting the Maasai

With the Maasai way of life under threat, many Maasai tribes today welcome visitors, to share with them the lifestyle that they have practiced for centuries and want to protect. It also helps draw attention to the governments the role the Maasai lifestyle can have in attracting tourism, and as a result and make them more inclined to do more to protect that way of life. So hopefully visiting the Maasai people can be as beneficial to them as it is an interesting and informative experience to us.

Topdeck has a great range of amazing trips to Africa, many of which visit East Africa where you can visit a Maasai tribe and learn more about their unique way of life.

40 things to do before you’re 40

October 15th, 2013

No. 33 March to the beat of history through Moscow’s Red Square

On parade in Red Square

On parade in Red Square

For decades during Communist rule, Moscow’s Red Square served as a small window through which the rest of the world would be a able to peer behind the Iron Curtain to see a picture of the Soviet Union carefully choreographed by the regime. During much of the Cold War it was here that the state would hold its many grand parades and ceremonies, during which thousands of troops would march in perfect synchrony and semi-erect missiles would be dragged past the crowds and cameras, as if to demonstrate the Soviet’s potency to the rest of the world.

Today, to stroll across the cobbles, those silent witnesses to a nation’s long history, surrounded by the same iconic buildings that were once fortresses of secrets and intrigue, is to evoke an inescapable sense of events and a time that so significantly influenced the course of human history.

What’s in a name?

Despite its role as the public face of the Soviet Union, the square’s name has nothing to do with the nation’s Communist past; red being the established colour of socialism the world over and used liberally by the Soviet state from its flag to the Red Army. Nor does it even have anything to do with the predominance of the ever-present red colour throughout the square, from the outer walls of the Kremlin to the exposed noses of cold tourists. No, sadly, the truth is a little bit more mundane than both those theories, and it is simply that the Russian word that today means ‘red’, in another time simply meant ‘beauty’.

But in a way this is probably a fortunate thing, as despite how stunning the place may be, hearing the name ‘Beautiful Square’ could never conjure up that equal measure of suspicion and intrigue, or hope to evoke the sheer weight of history with a twinge of romanticism as when you think of Russia’s Red Square.

A virtual tour

The trippy Mr Whippy onion domes of St Basil's Cathedral

The trippy Mr Whippy onion domes of St Basil's Cathedral

As you stand in the middle of this vast pedestrian-only area in the heart of bustling Moscow, the huge complex known as the Kremlin, with its long and striking red fortifications, dominates the whole western side of the square. Now the place President Putin calls home, the majority of the complex that stands today was built in the fifteenth century and has been occupied by Russian monarchs, or tsars, and a string of Soviet dictators as the seat of a nation’s power.

Turning left, your attention is soon yanked to the southern side by the eclectically coloured and multi-styled onion domes that rise up seemingly incoherently from iconic St Basil’s Cathedral. The red-brick cathedral was built on the orders of Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century, and whether or not he earned his sobriquet for his questionable taste in colour schemes, he was responsible for the construction of Moscow’s most recognisable landmark.

Directly behind you now, to the north, is the big red gingerbread-house-like facade of the State Historical Museum. Relatively modern to those around it being built at the end of the nineteenth century, inside is a different story where a vast collection of artefacts documents the Russia’s considerable history from prehistoric tribes onwards.

And finally, to your right on the east side of the square is the large ornate shopping centre known by its acronym GUM. Today, as a high temple to capitalism it may seem like a two-fingered salute to the failed dreams of Lenin who lies interned a stone’s throw away, but even during the Soviet Union it was for many years a state-run department store – but presumably without the trendy international brands that have outlets here today.

Sadly though, no flights of imagination can substitute the experience of being there in person to witness the real thing: to march through the epicentre of one of history’s most significant periods.

March here for more information about Topdeck’s fabulous trips to Russia that give you the opportunity to parade through Moscow’s fascinating Red Square for yourself.

40 things to do before you’re 40

October 10th, 2013

No. 32  Discover the joy of classical music in Vienna

Classical Vienna

Classical Vienna

Why don’t you realise Vienna waits for you?
When will you realise Vienna waits for you?
– Billy Joel

Oh Vienna! Or so sang Ultravox. But the claim to be the world’s foremost city of music relies a great deal more on the pivotal role the Austrian capital played during the classical music era of the 18th and 19th centuries than it does with 80s new wave music and the tireless Billy Joel.

Lured by the lucrative patronage of the ruling Hapsburgs of the time, many of the world’s most famous composers came to live in Vienna, making it very much the European capital of classical music. And with so many fabulous theatres still thriving in the city today, it is the significance of hearing a piece masterly performed here in its spiritual home that makes going to a classical concert in Vienna a travel experience not to be missed.

Sadly, classical music has a bit of a reputation for being, if not completely elitist, then hugely inaccessible to many of us. But it shouldn’t be. And don’t worry if you don’t know your Wolfgangs from your Ludwigs, or can’t separate Shubert from Strauss by the first sound of strings, with our quick guide to some of the great composers who lived in Vienna, when you do get the chance to witness a classical performance here in the hallowed halls of its spiritual home, the music will sound that much more meaningful, the spectacle be that much more colourful and the experience that much more memorable as a result.

Know your composers

Classical masters

Classical masters

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Arguably the best known of the Vienna crew, Mozart was also one of the most prolific composers. Born in 1756, by the age of five the young overachiever was not simply content with being able to play violin and piano but was already composing. Moving to Vienna in 1781, he soon became known as the best piano player in town. Earning a living as a musician and teacher, he would go on to create over 600 pieces of work across the spectrum of symphonies, concertos, operas and choir music – a bit like an 18th century Pharrell but on a much bigger scale!

Ludwig van Beethoven – Born in Germany in 1770, Beethoven is right up there alongside Mozart in the Classical Hall of Fame. If not as prolific as Beethoven, he was probably more influential than his fellow composer constantly pushing the boundaries of music conventions of the time. He had originally hoped to study alongside Mozart, but wasn’t able to move to Vienna until 1792, a year after the great composer’s death. Beethoven would go on to slowly lose his hearing, and amazingly compose some of his best work after he had gone completely deaf.

Franz Schubert ­– Actually born in Vienna, in 1797, Schubert was the Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison of his time, dying aged just 31. However, unlike modern musical prodigies, Schubert would become much better known in the years after his death. His best-known work is his Symphony No. 8, better known as the ‘Unfinished Symphony’ as he only ever wrote two movements despite living for six years after he started it.

Johannes Strauss II – Far removed from the above composers who are known to make up the ‘First Viennese School’, Strauss was born in Vienna a bit later in 1825 and was more of a modern pop star and famous for his ‘light’ compositions. Known as the ‘Waltz King’ as he was largely responsible for the popular dance movement in the 19th century. And if you don’t recognise his work the ‘Blue Danube’ by its name, you’re bound to just by listening to the first bar.

Topdeck has many great Europe trips that visit Vienna to choose from.

40 things to do before you’re 40 – Number 31

October 8th, 2013

Stroll across continents and through the centuries in Istanbul

Sunset on the Bosphorus

Sunset on the Bosphorus

If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital – Napoleon Bonaparte

Picture the scene: an evening sun sets silhouetting an undulating row of domes and minarets in the distance; in front of you an entire armada of every known type of vessel, from humble fishing boat to mighty oil tanker, criss-crosses the Boshphorus that separates you from Asia; as you sip on your tea the light breeze off the straight carries with it the compelling sound of a hundred competing calls to prayer and the rich smell of a multitude of spices and dishes being cooked up all around you. Welcome to Istanbul!

Straddling two continents, this magnificent city is a bustling and lively metropolis set amidst the timeless remnants of centuries of history and competing civilisations, making it one of the most exciting destinations on any traveller’s roadmap.

A brief history through time

The first to occupy this coveted spot was the Greek city of Byzantium over 500 years before Christ. In the fourth century BC, some 200 years after the city was absorbed by the Roman Empire, then Emperor Constantine decided to relocate the capital of the entire Empire from Rome to what would become known as Constantinople. After the Roman Empire split, the Eastern Empire, better known as the Byzantine Empire, continued to thrive for centuries after the downfall of its western counterpart with Constantinople as its capital. By the 15th century AD the burgeoning Ottoman Empire had conquered all of the Byzantine Empire beyond Constantinople. This once mighty empire, now reduced to just the city within its fortified walls – the remnants of which are still very much visible today – survived an eight-week-long siege before finally falling under Ottoman rule. It wasn’t until after the Ottoman Empire itself collapsed 500 years later and the modern state of Turkey was created that the city would come to be known as Istanbul.

Present-day Istanbul

Picture-perfect Blue Mosque

Picture-perfect Blue Mosque

Often touted today as the place where ‘East meets West’, this tag is as much a cultural description as it is a geographic location, as centuries of influence from both camps compete to create its modern landscape. And there is no better way to absorb the cultural contrast and lengthy history than to stroll through the centuries as you saunter down the city’s streets and narrow alleys, encountering ancient relics and religious monuments, all the while being greeted by the exotic sights, sounds and smells of modern Turkish culture.

Five must-dos in Istanbul

– See the city’s grandeur from the water on a Bosphorus cruise: whether you choose a two-hour option or go for a full afternoon on the water, this is a truly fabulous experience not to be missed as it gives you the most comprehensive perspective of the city from the very waters that define its existence.

­– ‘Come into my shop while I rip you off!’ You will inevitably be hassled as you stroll the maze of aisles and hundreds of shops that make up the Grand Bazaar, but don’t let this put you off; instead take it in your stride, as it’s frequently good natured and often even entertaining. Even if you’re not looking to buy, just witnessing the variety of what’s on offer and the techniques used to lure you in is worth experiencing at least once.

– Stand in the middle of the Hagia Sophia and gaze up in awe at the dome above you. Commissioned to be a cathedral worthy of a mighty empire, the Hagia Sofia was and still is an architectural masterpiece. It also embodies the history of the city, as evidence of its conversion from cathedral to mosque and then museum is very much evident.

– While the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque, is the most famous and renowned throughout the Muslim world for its architectural splendour and definitely worth a visit, the older, and in fact bigger, Suleymaniye Mosque with its combination of Islamic and Byzantine styles shouldn’t be missed either.

– One evening choose from the many nargile bars to be found under the Galata Bridge spanning the Golden Horn and lie back on a beanbag and witness a spectacular sunset while puffing on a water pipe sampling a variety of flavoured tobacco or just sipping on a rich Turkish coffee or refreshing beer.

Nearly all of Topdeck’s trips in Turkey include a few magical days in Istanbul, which will give you the chance to really get a grip on this culturally fascinating and historic city.

40 things to do before you’re 40 - number 30 cruise along the River Nile

September 3rd, 2013

The River Nile is the longest river in the world (all 6,400km / 3,976 miles of it) and runs all the way from the eastern cape of Africa to the sun-kissed Mediterranean shores!  This almighty river spans over eleven countries, including; Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt. It also is the primary water resource for two entire countries; Egypt and Sudan!

When you imagine this world-famous river you’d typically picture arid views and dusty pyramids, tombs and treasures galore.  Well you’d most definitely be on the right tracks! The Nile is home to a vast array of desert landscapes, dreamy oases, palm trees, open lakes as well as its riverbanks being home to a whole host of cultural and historical ancient Egyptian sites. The Nile is sure to impress you.

The ultimate way to explore the Nile is on a traditional Egyptian Felucca boat, a traditional wooden sailing boat which is still actively used in Egyptian cities like Aswan and Luxor which sit on the banks of the Nile. In our opinion this is the best way to get up close and personal with the river, admiring its off-shore cities, ancient ruins and incredible views as well as diving into its warm blue waters.

The sparkling city of Aswan is Egypt’s southernmost city and is smothered in authentic Egyptian charm. Its palm-fringed shores are dotted with an abundance of magnificent white-sailed Felucca boats and charming Nubian people. This popular tourist hotspot also is home to the ancient Abu ruins which are an open-air museum of ancient relics including the 4th-dynasty step pyramid and the partially reconstructed Temple of Khnum.  From Aswan you can also access nearby Elephantine Island (which means both elephant and ivory in ancient Egyptian), which was once famous for the island’s once important ivory trade. This spot was also the main cult centre of the ram-headed god Khnum (initially the first god of the inundation, and from the 18th dynasty he was worshipped as the creator of humankind on his potter’s wheel). Fascinating stuff!

Another rather cool and funky Egyptian city is Luxor, also known as the world’s greatest open-air museum and is easily accessible by the River Nile. This Egyptian treasure trove has endless tombs, temples, magical Theban landscapes with an unparallel archaeological presence. Some of its ‘must dos’ include the almighty Temple of Karnak, Kom Ombo Temple, Luxor’s famous gold and silver markets as well as the Temple of Luxor.

Topdeck tip: to get up close with incredible Egypt, book onto our 15 day Pyramids and Beaches trip which takes in Cairo, Aswan, Felucca sailing, Luxor, Hurghada and Dahab!


Sunset on the River Nile

Sunset on the River Nile