Archive for the ‘europe’ Category

40 things to do before you’re 40

Tuesday, 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

Thursday, 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

Tuesday, 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 29!

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

29. Cross the Arctic Circle and see the Midnight Sun

What would you do if you have a few extra hours of sunlight each day? Would you be motivated to make the most of it and do some late-night exercise, socialise with friends or just enjoy the outdoors? Well, what if the sun never set and you had 24 hours of sunlight each day for a couple of months? For those who live in parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Russia, the United States and Canada that are above the Arctic Circle, days that are full of sunlight are not so uncommon.

Before jumping straight into the phenomenon that is the Midnight Sun, let’s talk ‘Arctic Circle’. The Arctic Circle is one of Earth’s major circles of latitude in which the area northward will have the sun above or below the horizon for a continuous 24 hours at least once a year. This area north of the Circle is known as the Arctic and it’s generally a pretty cold place to be with the lowest recorded temperature hitting a cosy -68 °C! Brrrrr!

Due to the extreme weather conditions, the Arctic is not a very populated area of the world. Some of the most inhabited areas belong to Russia, with around 500,000+ Russians calling the Arctic home.

The Midnight Sun is a spectacle that many people from around the world travel to see as it’s something that is so strange and incomprehensible. As the Earth has a slightly tilted axis, during summer the North Pole faces the sun and creates lengthy periods of sunlight. On the contrary, during winter there are extended periods of darkness.

The North Cape, or Nordkapp, in Norway is one of the more popular spots for travellers to go and see the midnight sun as it’s the most northern point in Europe and has around 76 days of midnight sun per year. That’s approximately 1,824 hours of continuous sunlight over a 2-3 month period! Norway provides an incredible backdrop for the Midnight Sun and all-day sunlight with picturesque mountains and fjords, amazing ocean views and beautiful fields of tundra.

It may be difficult for some to cope with days full of sunlight, but if a truly unique experience is what you’re after then crossing the Arctic Circle and seeing the Midnight Sun has to be on your list!

Topdeck Top Tip: Sunlight is a powerful thing! It is known that travellers to the Arctic Circle during summer can feel as though they have more energy and need less sleep. Before you go, prepare yourself for a change in your body-clock and get ready to make the most of the additional hours of sunlight.

5 tips for photographing the Midnight Sun via

40 things to do before you’re 40 - Number 28!

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

28. See the Sagrada Familia before it’s finished

Have you ever started a work project, school or University assignment that just seemed to take forever to complete? Well… this one trumps all!

Described as the Bible written in stone, built by ‘God’s architect’ Antoni Gaudi, the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain is an important monument in the religious community and is an incredibly amazing architectural masterpiece. As the most visited monument in Spain and the third most valuable monument in Europe, the Sagrada Familia is not only an incredible architectural masterpiece but is a vital part of Spain’s tourism, attracting around 2.8 millions visitors each year.

It’s fair to say that it’s one impressive landmark… and it’s not even complete!

Paid for entirely by public donations, combined with the intricacy of the detail and features, plus a Civil War, it’s no wonder it’s taken over 100 years to build! Construction officially began in 1882 and the acclaimed Gaudi dedicated over 40 years of his life to the structure, which was only a quarter complete at the time of his unfortunate death.

Gaudi was an architect said to be well ahead of his time, introducing a new style of design that had not been seen before. Many of Gaudi’s most famous works can also be found in Barcelona, including the heritage listed Casa Batlló and the Park Güell.

Photo courtesy of

The Church, declared a basilica by Pope Benedict XVI in November 2010, has three façades: Nativity, Passion and Glory, each having strong Christian themes.

Nativity: The only façade to be completed by Gaudi, it represents a celebration of the birth of Jesus and is also referred to as the façade of Joy, Life and Christmas.

Passion: As the name suggests, this façade is designed by Gaudi to represent the passion of Jesus, his last days, death, and sacrifice. Facing the west, this part of the Church receives the last sunlight, creating an eerie effect that is well worth watching if given the opportunity.

Glory: Signifying the creation and glory of man, his origins, his problems, the roads he must take and his purpose. Still under construction, this will be the main entrance to the Church when completed.

During the 1936 Spanish Civil War many of Gaudi’s plans and models were destroyed or damaged leaving a difficult job for current architects to piece together information from photographs of the plans. Consequently, there is criticism that the modern construction is of a style dissimilar to Gaudi’s vision. Nevertheless, work continues and the President of the Sagrada Família Trust, Joan Rigol, has announced that the landmark may be entirely complete by 2026, almost 150 years after work began on the site in 1882 and a century after Gaudi’s death.

If you’re one for memorable life experiences, there’s no question that Sagrada Familia should be on your own personal travel list. To go down in history as one of the greatest architectural works, combined with the story behind it’s development and construction, it’s an experience that you will look back on in awe and amazement and be delighted to say, “I’ve been there!”.

Topdeck Top Tip: For visitors to Sagrada Familia, don’t just stop at entering the Church. If given the time, make your way to the incredible tombs below where Gaudi is buried. You can then make your way to the top to enjoy incredible views over Barcelona!

Sagrada Familiar video journey: An incredible video taking you on a journey outside and inside the Sagrada Familia

Virtual Tour: Go on a virtual tour throughout many parts of the Church and get a taste of it’s awesomeness!

5 Great Summer Experiences!

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

The history books are strewn with people who have made terrible decisions. Here’s a few examples -

  • Adam and Eve, the first two humans ever, deciding to eat an obviously-delicious forbidden apple. I therefore hold them personally responsible for all the idiocy which follows then!
  • Nero, the insane 1st century Roman Emperor, deciding to burn down his own city while singing happily and playing a fiddle. Not surprisingly he was killed by an angry mob.
  • Napoleon invading Russia in winter.
  • Hitler invading Russia in winter (can anybody spot a theme?).
  • The nine publishing companies who rejected JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book. Oops!

Don’t add your name to the above wall-of-shame! Make a great last-minute decision and join Topdeck for the trip of a lifetime this summer. Half of the fun is deciding where to go, but here are five of our favourite experiences for summer 2013 to inspire you…

Experience the thrill of the ‘Running of the Bulls’

The ‘Running of the Bulls’ in Pamplona is definitely one for the bucket list. Topdeck has lots of superb-value trips to take you to the heart of the action in sunny Spain, including budget trips staying at our gorgeous lakeside campsite with swimming pool from £179 (less than £36 per day!). For something a bit different, our awesome 14 day Spanish Sun & Fiestas trip combines a trip to Pamplona with the quirky ‘Wine Battle’ Festival in Haro, the cultural cities of Bilbao and Madrid, and the beachside paradise of San Sebastian.

We’ve got a great range of Running with the Bulls trips. Check them out here.

Paint The Town Red at La Tomatina

The Spanish tomato-throwing extravaganza may be one of the most eccentric festivals in a country which is renowned for eccentric festivals, but that’s what makes it so much fun! The world’s biggest food fight is a blast, quite literally! To make it even better, all of Topdeck’s La Tomatina trips offer central accommodation in the vibrant beachside city of Valencia – home of paella.

You can check out all of our trips to La Tomatina here.

Live like Marie Antoinette and Spend the Night in a French Chateau

Take a trip off the beaten track through fantastique France and realise why 80% of the French holiday in their own country! This 14 day Explorer trip travels through vibrant cities, gorgeous wineyards (with plenty opportunities to taste!), historic medieval towns, and perhaps best of all – spend the night in an opulent French Chateau in the Loire Valley. Sacré bleu!

We currently have 10% off our Discover France 13th July 2013 departure!

Stay Overnight With The Navajo Tribe in Monument Valley, USA

The breathtaking natural beauty of the USA will blow away the most cynical of travellers. Our 19 day Great Parks of the USA trip will take you back to nature, combining staggeringly beautiful national parks, the Grand Canyon, and an unforgettable overnight stay with the Navajo Native American Tribe in Utah, where you’ll also get a guided jeep tour of Monument Valley. If all the beautiful natural landscapes get too much for you, we’ll also take you to the awesome cities of Reno, Salt Lake City, Jackson, and Sin City itself - Las Vegas!

Take a look at our Greatest Parks of the US here.

Take a Party Bus Down the Las Vegas Strip

Our epic road trip across the USA from New York to Los Angeles (or reverse) is the definitive summer experience for 2013. There are too many highlights to name – Cajun cuisine in Louisiana, a visit to Elvis’s home Graceland, country music in Tennessee, a guided tour of the illuminated Washington D.C monuments, a visit to Death Valley (the hottest place on earth!), and so much more. But in my humble opinion, there is nothing in the world more fun than taking a party bus down the Las Vegas Strip, complete with mp3 dock and state-of-the-art audio equipment … Viva Las Vegas!

Read more about the Vegas Party Bus & the Coast to Coast trip here.

Come and join Topdeck for a fun-filled summer and take the hassle out of travelling. It’s a far better idea than invading Russia this winter!

Spanish Sun & Fiestas: Combining Running of the Bulls, La Batalla del Vino and San Sebastian.

Monday, May 13th, 2013

Most people are familiar with at least a couple of the festivals the Spanish celebrate every year, whether it’s the carnage of Running of the Bulls in Pamplona or the tomato-throwing extravaganza of La Tomatina, the Spanish festivals are famously eccentric.

Only a handful of people are familiar with one of the most peculiar. The tiny town of Haro in the beautiful Rioja region of Northern Spain hosts something completely bizarre on 29th June each year. To mark St Peter’s (San Pedro’s) day, thousands of locals come together to dump bucket-upon-bucket of red wine on each other!

The ‘wine battle’ as it’s known, originates from a dispute between Haro and neighbouring town Miranda De Ebro regarding who owned the mountains between them. Nobody knows who was the first to throw wine at their rival, but now locals from the entire region (along with a handful of tourists) come together in friendship instead of feud to celebrate, drink, dance, and last but not least, soak each other to the bone in red wine! Most of the local’s ‘weapon of choice’ is a bottle of wine, but those going for accuracy carry water pistols while those going for sheer volume carry buckets! When the once-white t-shirts have turned sufficiently pink, the drenched participants gather round bonfires to dry-off while eating tapas and drinking delicious Rioja wine. What could be better?!

One of the best things about the wine battle is that, for now, it remains a local affair. Tourists in Haro are still a novelty who are welcomed into the celebration with open arms. It’s only a matter of time before the festival booms in popularity in the same way as the other aforementioned Spanish festivals, but for now the wine battle is a unique and authentic taste of Spanish culture.

The Spanish reputation for partying late-into-the-night makes it one of the most hedonistic countries in Europe. While most tourists flock to the concrete seaside resorts of the Costa del Sol, the vibrant cities are where the genuine Spanish lust-for-life can be found.

Topdeck’s Spanish Sun and Fiesta trip combines a visit to the wine battle in Faro alongside four incredible cities. Vibrant Bilbao is first up – capital of the Basque region - followed by Madrid, the stunning and historic Spanish capital. A perfect trip is rounded-off with three nights in San Sebastian, a buzzing beachside city and surfer’s paradise, and finally a visit to Pamplona for the fireworks-filled San Fermin festival and the chaotic running of the bulls.

After an incredible twelve days, four cities and two mind-blowing festivals, we say a reluctant and exhausted adios to our amazing Spanish adventure!

40 things to do before you’re 40 - Number 1!

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

Did you know that in 2013 Topdeck celebrates its 40th birthday? How time flies! Since our first trip in November 1973 we’ve spent four decades sharing incredible travel experiences all over the globe with our passengers.

In anticipation of our birthday we’re going to be featuring 40 of our favourite experiences over the next 40 weeks – a travel wish list that has proved virtually impossible to narrow down!

How many of them have you done? And how many would you love to do? Check in weekly to read about some of the most unforgettable travel moments on this amazing planet of ours, and perhaps get inspired for your next travel adventure!

Explore. Enjoy. Share the Experience with Topdeck.

1. See the Eiffel Tower sparkle

What’s the most recognisable landmark in the world? If you answered the Eiffel Tower, not many would disagree with you. This elegant behemoth is beloved by Parisians… but it wasn’t always so. Did you know that for a long time after its construction in 1889, the Eiffel Tower was widely despised by many locals?

Designed as an entrance arch to the 1889 World Expo, the tower was originally intended to be a 20-year temporary structure… but the time came and went while the tower remained standing. Over time even the notoriously picky Parisians grew to love it – as do its estimated 7 million visitors per year!

Already iconic, the Eiffel Tower became even more dazzling (literally) in the year 2000, when a flickering light display was installed for the millennium celebrations.

It went down so well that it has remained in place ever since and the tower performs a nightly spectacle on the stroke of each hour.

For around five minutes the Eiffel Tower glitters above the Parisian skyline, as though the world’s paparazzi have swarmed up to every possible vantage point and started photographing the stylish city on the Seine.

The Eiffel Tower has endured Parisian cynicism, thwarted the ambitions of Hitler, and even survived a sneaky bungy jump from a mulleted young Kiwi called AJ Hackett! It has cemented its place in the cast of the world’s great landmarks and firmly deserves a place on any travel wish list.

Topdeck Top Tip: For a great view watch the display from the Champs du Mars parade ground below the tower, where the symmetrical gardens and tree-lined walkways act as the perfect frame for one of the most eye-catching displays in Europe. What’s even better is that it’s completely free!

Check out AJ Hackett’s bungy jump here:

Have you seen the Eiffel Tower sparkle?
Share your best Eiffel Tower pics and Topdeck memories with us!