Spain holidays live QA

Spain might be Britain’s favourite overseas holiday destination but finding the hidden gems between the famous Costas, and the tourist-filled city centres can be a challenge. So, for the second in our series of live Q&As on Europe’s most popular countries, we’ve brought together a panel of experts to help you plan your perfect Spain holiday. Between them the experts have travelled the length and breadth of the country, so whether you are looking for inspiration – perhaps you’re keen to explore a new area – or are after specific advice on a particular city or resort, post your questions in the comments below and the panel will do their best to answer as many as possible. And if you’re a regular visitor or live in Spain, feel free to join in the chat – we’d love you to share your insider tips. The experts will be online from 1-2pm GMT on Tuesday 12 March.

The experts

James Sturcke is a former Guardian staff reporter who moved to the mountains of La Rioja, in northern Spain, three years ago. He now runs his own press and commercial photography business– a job through which he has got to know some of northern Spain’s best chefs, hotels and places to visit. He’s developed a particularly extensive knowledge of Rioja bodegas.

Catherine Ferron is a partner of Casas Cantabricas, an independent tour operator specialising in northern Spain. Based in Cantabria for over 27 years, she has travelled all over the country is particularly knowledgeable on Cantabria, Asturias, La Rioja and Galicia. Co-author of Buen Provecho, Casas Cantabricas’ own restaurant guide, her main passion is gastronomy and wine, culture and customs – but she can also direct you to undiscovered beaches and little corners of the country.

Andrew Allen is a Barcelona-based journalist. He knows the city well but also regularly travels to inland Catalonia, the Costa Brava and the villages of Aragon. Family activities are one of his specialities as well as architecture and property.

Joe Cawley is a freelance travel writer and author living in the hills of Tenerife with his wife and two children. Having moved to the Canary Islands in 1991, he’s since written many travel features on all seven islands, covering various aspects from spa reviews to family and adventure travel. Joe also co-runs online Tenerife travel guide and wrote Kindle book More Ketchup than Salsa: Confessions of a Tenerife Barman.

Duncan Rhodes lives in Barcelona and is the founder of, an online magazine specialising in insider city guides, and, which offers tips on sightseeing, culture, eating, drinking and partying in the city.

Tim Murray Walker has lived in Andalucia since 2007. He and his wife are the owners of Casa Olea, a boutique B&B nestled in the Sierra Subbeticas mountains, half way between Granada and Cordoba. Before moving there, they travelled extensively throughout Andalucia looking for the ideal location to set up their B&B. The areas he knows best are Cordoba, Granada and Jaen provinces, along with his two favourite stretches of Andalucia’s coastline – Cabo de Gata national park (near Almeria) and the Costa de la Luz (Tarifa to Cadiz).

Sarah Serakalala is a South African living in Madrid. She is the founder of the website, a city guide giving tips on entertainment and eating out on budget in the city.

Javier Bartolomé was born in Madrid and spent his childhood holidays at locations all over Spain. In 2007 he founded Away from the crowds – a company specialising in cycling and walking holidays in Spain – with his brother, and has a local’s knowledge on where to find special locations away from the tourist hotspots.

Athens newschool wine bars

The economic crisis that has plagued Greece for the past five years has led to changes on the Athenian culinary scene, including the opening of three new types of venues that seem to be reflective of the times. The first two – cupcake places and frozen yogurt shops – are imports from abroad, perhaps indicative of a population in need of something sweet, comforting and affordable. On the other hand, the third trend, wine bars, digs deep into Greece’s roots, representing a fascinating phenomenon in a country that is one of the world’s oldest wine-producing regions.

In antiquity, Greek wine was exported across the Mediterranean, and the winemaking tradition has remained strong through the millennia. Yet although there are numerous wineries around the country, in the modern era Greek wine has never achieved the place it deserves on the international market. Production levels are low and vintners have long been unsure of how to market abroad. Outside Greece, one might at best find retsina, a sweet wine infused with pine resin that’s reminiscent of the wine used at Communion, or mavrodafni, a red varietal with an almost industrial flavour. But with Greeks themselves increasingly consuming wine, these days a new crop of wine bars has opened in Athens that give both locals and visitors the chance to taste some great domestic varieties.

Oinoscent (which we previously mentioned in our Athens Best Bites of 2012) was the first wine bar downtown when it opened a few years ago and is still very popular with young professionals. The atmosphere – which, unlike most bars in Athens, is strictly nonsmoking – is smart yet casual, with aluminium chairs and warm decor. (Don’t forget to check out the ber-sleek wine cellar downstairs.) Oinoscent’s owners, two lovely brothers in their late twenties, are happy to offer informed advice in English about what to choose from the wine list. The snacks are also excellent: in addition to the barley rusks (think big, fat rustic croutons soaking in olive oil) and olives and the truly fantastic cheese platter, there is an excellent mozzarella di bufala with baby tomatoes.

The short, carefully selected wine list at Oinoscent is balanced between domestic and foreign wines, but the real adventure lies on the list’s Greek side. We particularly like the Mikri Kivotos, a blend of agiorgitiko grapes from the Nemea region of the Peloponnese and xinomavro grapes from Amyntaio in northern Greece. Often characterised as Greece’s merlot, xinomavro is one of the most promising Greek varieties, at once dark (mavro means black), dry and rich in flavor. If you are aiming for white, another interesting option is Magiko Vouno (“Magic Mountain”), made by Lazaridi Winery in Drama in Northern Greece. This is a popular sauvignon blanc in Greece and is an elegant, exuberant wine with fruity notes.
Oinoscent wine bar. Photograph: Manteau Stam
Located just off Ermou, Athens’ biggest commercial street, Heteroclito (which means “heterogenous”) opened its doors in late summer 2012. The place is our favourite in terms of decor: the downstairs area is like a nonsmoking French bistro, while the smoking area upstairs is an ode to 60s and 70s Athens, with mosaic floors and Danish furniture. The emphasis here is on Greek wine and Greek grape varieties, something that the owners, Madeleine and Chrysoula, are always keen to point out. Indeed, all of the wines served by the glass are Greek.

We loved the malagousia – one of Greece’s best-known aromatic varieties, grown in both the Peloponnese and northern Greece – from Arvanitidis Winery outside Thessaloniki. This delicate, aromatic white grape had become virtually extinct by the 1980s, when Gerovassiliou Winery resuscitated it and turned it into a leading Greek wine, especially in the foreign market. Greece’s dessert wine tradition is also worthy of note. Some of the country’s best dessert wines are produced by a co-operative on the island of Samos. The award-winning Samos Nectar, which has a rich, sweet taste with an almost raisin-like aftertaste, is considered one of the best in its category – and, at ?4 per glass, it’s also a great deal.

There are two even newer entries to the roster of downtown Athens wine bars. By the Glass took over one of the Syntagma area’s most beautiful arcades, opposite the city’s Russian Orthodox church, to open a clean (no smoking allowed) bar with an interesting twist. Customers can pick and choose what they want to try and in what quantity, with glasses offered in 25ml, 75ml and 150ml. There are about 90 labels available, of which 19 are offered by the glass, making the venue a great place to taste different varieties. By the Glass attracts a somewhat older and more mature clientele.

Also brand-new, Harvest is located at one of our favourite street corners, where the pedestrianised Aiolou meets Evripidou, a traditional downtown trade street famous for its spices and pastirma shops. Run by the young and enthusiastic Evangelia Kontopoulou, Harvest is a place we have grown to love. The decor – funky ceramic tiles on the walls, large communal tables – is gorgeous. Thanks to both the menu and the wine list, Harvest attracts a mixed crowd, from young couples and singles to folks in their sixties. The food selection is reason enough to come here, though the tapas are on the pricy side. In our opinion, the best value-for-money items are the tostas, open grilled sandwiches served with salad on the side, of which our favourite is the one with jamón (Spanish ham) and tomato. We’re also fond of the (very Spanish) fabada, a delicious mixture of white baby beans and chorizo in red sauce.

We imagine that in a few years from now, Athens will most likely have far fewer cupcake bakeries and frozen yogurt stands. This new crop of wine bars, on the other hand, seems like it’s here to stay. We’ll drink to that.

Note: Opening and closing times are to be taken with a grain of salt, as Athens bars close when people go home.
? Oinoscent: Voulis 45-47, Syntagma, +30 210 322 9374, Mon-Thurs noon-1am, Fri-Sat noon-2am, closed Sunday
? Heteroclito: Fokionos 2, Syntagma, +30 210 323 9406,, Mon-Thurs noon-midnight, Fri-Sat 12.30pm-1.30am, Sun 5pm-11pm
? By the Glass: Georgiou Souri 3, Syntagma, +30 210 323 2560, Mon-Thurs 8pm-late, Sat 10pm-late, Sun 11pm-late (closing time depends on business)
? Harvest: Aiolou 64, downtown, +30 213 025 2284, 7pm-2am

This is an article from our Guardian Travel Network. To find out more about it, click here

Best blogs for travellers San Francisco


The Bold Italic

This lifestyle blog is not aimed at tourists, but that is what makes it all the more interesting for savvy travellers who want to get on the inside track on their destination. It’s particularly useful for nomadic types, who tend to spend an extended period in a place (see this post on little pockets around town with slightly less expensive rent). If you like unusual souvenirs, ditch the Golden Gate Bridge snow globe and head to the site’s online shop for some interesting San Francisco-themed goods, from silk scarfs designed with an area map to fake tattoos resembling a Muni ticket (the local transport network). To avoid dealing with long-distance shipping, take advantage of “pick-up Thursday” and swing by their office to collect your purchase.

Useful post Don’t miss the contributions from the so-called chief of cheap Broke Ass Stuart, who also has a notable blog of his own (, for those on meagre budgets in San Francisco (and New York).

Sfist A closed 24-hour diner – San Franciscans know the pain of finding late-night food. Photograph: Jeremy Brooks/Flickr
Mixing humour, local news and events, Sfist is the less pronounceable cousin of fellow city blogs Londonist and Gothamist. If you enjoy a good quick-fix list when planning a trip, don’t miss the page that collates the best of its “best of” articles: the best bars with an outdoor oasis, the best bike rides, the best bloody marys etc. Check out the company’s other useful offshoots across the world, including Austinist, Shanghaiist and Torontoist.

Useful post “41 signs you’re a jaded San Franciscan”: worth a read for a glimpse into local quirks and bugbears.

7×7 Brunch at Skool, on 7×7’s list of recommendations PR
Springing from the magazine of the same name, this site has been running since 2006. The name signifies San Francisco’s 49 square miles, but it has evolved into covering all the surrounding region: the entire Bay Area, Wine Country, Lake Tahoe, and even dipping into LA. The site is well organised, with plenty of content to help a newcomer or a seasoned visitor.

Useful post 11 under-the-radar brunch spots


Tablehopper Dessert at Chocolate Lab. Photograph: Chocolate Lab
“Tablehopper is not a blog; it’s a website,” says its About page, and it’s true that your average blog rarely boasts both its own app (directing you to all-important, late-night dining options around town), and its own brand of singles night. However you choose to define it, Tablehopper, run by freelance food writer Marcia Gagliardi, is a great resource for busy travellers. If you want to be one step ahead of the guidebook, take a quick glance at the right-hand sidebar, which lists 10 places to eat at right now.

Useful post San Francisco’s best chocolate desserts – featuring not just where to go, but what to order.

The Perfect Spot SF American Bao Bar, a pop-up restaurant in Mission. Photograph: Perfect Spot SF
Virginia Miller is one of San Francisco’s most prolific food writers, with countless reviews and columns racked up for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, plus various articles for major US food sites Grub Street and Eater. Constantly on the move, she provides readers with a regular newsletter, featuring all her latest finds – not just within her hometown, but also further afield. She’s got the local bar scene down, too.

Useful post The neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood food guides

The San Francisco Bar Experiment Bacchus Kirk – one of the many bars reviewed on the San Francisco Bar Experiment Photograph: San Francisco Bar Experiment
Heather Cummings started this drinks and cocktails blog because she heard San Francisco had more bars per capita than any other US city. She’s since found out that this is probably not true, but what does it matter when, over three years after launching, she still has no shortage of places to review. Perhaps the best function of the site is the drop-down menu in the sidebar, which sorts bars according to readers’ taste, mood or chosen neighbourhood: bars with fireplaces, bars with patios, bars with a pub quiz etc.

Useful post If you’re feeling experimental yourself, try mixing up one of Heather’s recipes at home, such as the pickletini


The Bay Bridged

Podcasts, gig reviews, photo galleries, festival line-ups: there’s so much happening within this guide to San Francisco’s independent music scene that you almost go cross-eyed deciding where to click first. Founded in 2006 and still rocking, the site is an essential bookmark for anyone wanting to catch local (or visiting) musicians. To find an event best suited to your location, gigs are neatly divided into San Francisco or the Bay Area. There’s more music with a local edge over at Ears of the Beholder – which does a nice line in playlists that focus on emerging artists.

Useful post The concert calendar offers up ample options for every night of the week.


MissionMission A mural in Mission district, San Francisco. Photograph: Stefano Politi Markovina /Alamy
Focusing on the vibrant Mission neighbourhood, this equally lively blog has been churning out posts since 2007 for a predominantly 20-something, party-loving crowd. Sometimes posts are a simple as Flickr pic of a brunch spot, such as Boogaloos, but that can be all you need to whet your appetite (although the first person to leave a comment seems not to agree). Yes, there are plenty of hip hangouts in this part of town, but when MissionMission tags its posts as “Being cool”, it surely has its tongue in its cheek. (Amusingly, they weren’t too impressed by Vogue’s hipster’s guide to the city).

Useful post MissionMission has kindly surveyed local bathrooms to inform readers of the ones they should check out (this one has a glitter ball ) and the ones they should avoid.

Burrito Justice
“You can pry my burrito out of my cold, dead hand”: that’s the tagline/threat on this blog. They like burritos so much, they’ve blogged an outline for a burrito-themed musical (with other local blogger 40GoingOn28). But amid the light humour, this site also has a nice emphasis on local history and geography, such as this bid to chart the city’s “microhoods” and this great post on where to dine in San Francisco in 1906. If you like looking back at cities in days gone by, you should also check out the Facebook page Lost San Francisco.

Useful post Struggling with San Francisco geography? This could either be helpful or add further confusion: a map imagines all the city’s neighbourhoods as islands.


Shopikon Thorough Bread, one of the food stores featured on Shopikon. Photograph: Shopikon
Shopikon is not strictly a San Francisco blog: it also covers six other shopping hubs (London, New York, Barcelona, Vienna, Berlin and Paris). But it’s got great insider knowledge, an attractive design and an interesting ethos, which all add up to make it well worth a visit. Fed up of clone high streets, Shopikon seeks out the best independent stores and creates an online directory, with plenty of photos to make the site just as stylish as the places it covers. Happily, for every fancy boutique, there’s a coffee shop or secondhand bookshop for those on tighter budgets.

Finally, a round-up of the best of San Francisco on the web is not complete without a special mention for @KarlTheFog – the spoof Twitter account for the San Francisco fog: “Expect lots of me in the morning. #AlwaysCarryALightSweater”, “Making a reservation at ‘Ruining Your Afternoon’ – party of 800,000” etc, etc

Florida TwiTrip day two – as it happened

Touch down in Tarpon Springs.

Tarpon Springs is about 30 miles north of St Petersburg. It’s named after the Atlantic Tarpon fish that can be seen off the coast here.

We mentioned below that the town has the highest Greek-American population of any town in the US. It certainly shows. Most of the restaurants are Greek, as is some of the music twanging out along Dodecanese Boulevard, the main drag through town.

Tarpon Springs had a boom period in the 1930s based around the sponge trade. If you’re a sponge enthusiast, this place is a must. Almost every shop is a natural sponge shop, and boats run a variety of sponge diving trips.

The sponge boom, and the Greek flavour, is usually credited to John Cocoris, originally from Greece, who hired Greek sponge divers to come to Tarpon Springs and, well, dive for sponges. He recruited divers from the Dodecanese islands in particular – hence the boulevard name – and kickstarted a multimillion dollar industry.

I’m at Spongeorama right now. It is a sponge-diving museum (free entry) on Dodecanese Boulevard, which is worth visiting for the circa 1960s sponge film they show alone. The film introduces man’s quest for sponge in quite grandiose fashion.

“The treasure sought is a gift of the sea, taken for granted by most,” a deep voice says as we watch grainy pictures of weather beaten sailors heading out to the ocean.

“Since before the time of Christ, since before the time of Moses, since before the beginning of recorded history, man has sought and prized the natural sponge.”

By the way, you have to sit through a sales pitch before seeing the film, or visiting the museum. It features a man in a red-striped shirt and moustache, whose name I missed, advising on “The Best Sponge For You”.

“The yellow sponge is a really good all-purpose sponge,” we learn. The flowerpot sponge is the best seller. “I think this pretty well sums up all you need to know about sponges,” our man says.

Pompeii is hottest ticket for British tourists fired up by new shows

Forget the Dordogne, Puglia and the sun-kissed beaches of Croatia – this year’s hot summer destination for Britons has been inspired by a hit exhibition featuring a child’s cot on rockers and a statue of a god having sex with a goat.

They are among exhibits at the British Museum which have fuelled a surge in tourists travelling to Italy to see the remains of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Roman towns that were engulfed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79 and excavated from the 18th century onwards. Tour operators report that numbers have almost doubled in the wake of the exhibition and two BBC documentaries on life in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Interest is likely to increase further in 2014 with the release of the big-budget adventure movie Pompeii, starring Kiefer Sutherland, Jared Harris from Mad Men and Kit Harington from Game of Thrones, and written by Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey.

Steph Pritchard, managing director of travel company Citalia, said that bookings to the Amalfi coast, close to Pompeii and Herculaneum, had increased by 90%, while bookings for the Neapolitan Riviera, including the islands and coastline around Naples, had increased by 20%.

“The launch of the exhibition has sparked enormous interest,” she said. “Our travel advisers have also noted an increase in customers expressing an interest in pre-booking excursions out to Pompeii, Vesuvius and Herculaneum from all of the Riviera resorts. We expect to see this interest grow in the coming months as the exhibition attracts more visitors.”

A spokeswoman for Andante Travels, which specialises in archeological trips, said bookings had increased by 51% compared with last year. A spokeswoman for Thomson said that the number of searches on its website for Sorrento and Amalfi, towns on the Neapolitan Riviera, had increased by 30% and 25%.

The British Museum began promoting its exhibition, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, in September last year. Since opening on 28 March, it has sold more than 106,000 tickets. If the exhibition were to continue to attract visitors at the same rate, by the time it closes, on 28 September, it will have been seen by around 1.5 million people.

The devastation and preservation wrought by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius have fascinated visitors since Pompeii was first professionally excavated in 1748. Mozart was said to have been inspired to write The Magic Flute by his visit to Pompeii’s Temple of Isis in 1769.

Pompeii, a trading town of 20,000 inhabitants, was covered in ash and pumice so quickly that many residents died in their homes. The town is one of Italy’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting 2.5 million visitors a year.

Herculaneum, a wealthy seaside town, was buried by mud and ash. Its residents had fled to boathouses by the sea but the pyroclastic surge, travelling at 100 miles an hour with a temperature of 500C, killed them before it covered their bodies. Herculaneum is much smaller than Pompeii but much better preserved.

Eireann Marshall, a lecturer in classics at the Open University, said: “Pompeii is vast and exhausting but it gives you an overview of a working city. It was a bustling trading town with many bars and filthy industries like tanning. The height of the stepping stones allows you to imagine how deep the manure on the streets was. You can see both the public and private aspects of Roman life.

“In Herculaneum, you get the fine detail of Roman life. There is the wineshop with its shelves; you can see the beds and the hearth. They even found the merchant’s child’s spelling list. Next door in a poorer house, there is a child’s broken wind chime. You wonder – did those children ever play together?”

Olivia Rickman of the British Museum said the exhibition had captured the imagination of the public. Exhibits also include a mosaic of a pet with the warning cave canem (beware of the dog), and casts of the victims preserved in the positions in which they died.

Two BBC documentaries have also contributed to interest in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Last month, Margaret Mountford presented Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time, and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill presented The Other Pompeii: Life and Death in Herculaneum.

The interest in the eruption of Vesuvius has caused a parallel surge in interest in visiting Italy’s major volcanoes, some of which are partially active. Eruptions of Mount Etna in Sicily have led to an increase in bookings for volcano tours of Sicily and southern Italy. UTracks reported a 30% increase in bookings for trips that also include visits to Vesuvius and the island of Stromboli, which is in a state of mild activity.

Leisure credit – why you should beware timeshares successor

Britons holidaying in Spain, Portugal and Malta this summer are being warned not to fall for the latest racket that has replaced timeshare – the sale of “leisure credit” schemes promising free or discounted future holiday bookings.

The UK European Consumer Centre warned that it has seen a big jump in complaints from holidaymakers who had been persuaded to spend large sums of cash buying credits after being subjected to high-pressure sales pitches in European resorts.

Salesmen who used to sell timeshare packages have moved into this area as it is not regulated in the same way as timeshare sales now are. Holidaymakers are promised holiday club memberships or discounts for years to come on future accommodation bookings, as well as other leisure products such as spa days, or the use of sports facilities. Packages typically cost between 10,000 and 15,000 each.

Two women who recently turned to the consumer centre for help, had agreed to purchase 250m entertainment and leisure credits while on holiday in Tenerife. They paid a 1,710 deposit by debit card. The balance of 19,300 was due after they returned home, but the pair had second thoughts and decided to pull out. With the help of the centre they got out of paying the balance but lost the deposit. Others have fared even worse.

Andy Allen, UK ECC director, says: “The product tends to proliferate in popular holiday destinations such as Spain, Portugal and Malta. We want to draw consumers’ attention to the fact that this product is not covered by the EU Timeshare Directive (2008/122/EC) and that consumers need to be aware that they do not have the protection given by this legislation if they enter into contracts for this type of product. Consumers should understand that they will have no cancellation rights, cooling-off period, deposits or consumer information rights under this timeshare legislation.”

He says complaints to the UK European Consumer Centre about leisure credit schemes rose 140% in the year to the end of March 2013, compared to the previous year.

The UK European Consumer Centre is part of the European Consumer Centre Network (ECC-Net) which deals with cross-border disputes between traders and consumer. Its UK consumer complaint line is 08456 04 0503.

Ice climbing in Norway on the trail of the Telemark heroes

Smacking an axe into the ice and stepping up on a crampon spike, I hauled myself up the frozen waterfall one final time; at last I was out of the sunless ravine. Below me was more than 100m of near-vertical ice. But, as I stood panting and sweating at the top, my gaze was drawn upwards to the dark, fortress-like building looming through the trees. This was the Vemork hydroelectric power station, scene of one of the most successful acts of sabotage of the second world war.

I had just climbed Bakveien, an ice-route in the Rjukan valley, part of southern Norway’s Telemark region. Tucked in between steep mountains, the small industrial town of Rjukan lies at one end of the narrow valley, while at the head is the power station. Running between them is a deep, thickly forested ravine, the sides of which are covered in fantastical ice-formations in winter, making it one of the best ice-climbing spots in Europe. But 70 years ago, the Nazis had other things in mind: this area was central to their plans to develop a nuclear bomb. A plant at Vemork was producing deuterium oxide – heavy water, essential for the atomic chain reaction – so Winston Churchill authorised a secret mission to destroy the supplies.

The only access to the seven-storey factory on a shelf high above the ravine was a narrow suspension bridge guarded by a minefield. On the night of 27 February 1943, nine Norwegian members of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) penetrated the defences by making an audacious climb up the frozen side of the ravine. Operation Gunnerside, as it was codenamed, was successful in destroying the heavy-water cylinders, and a version of the story was later told in the 1965 film The Heroes of Telemark. Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle has signed up to tell the story again in a 10-part TV mini-series called Telemark.
Ice climber on a icefall, Rjukan. Photograph: Hermann Erber/Getty Images/LOOK
These seemingly impregnable walls and ice pillars have now been drawing climbers to the area for nearly two decades. Its popularity is reflected in the fact that the annual Rjukan ice festival attracts some of the best in the business.

For some, the appeal may indeed be the chance to follow in the footsteps of the wartime saboteurs but, for most, the quality and quantity of the ice is the main attraction. The deep valley, consistent low temperatures and lack of sunlight create the perfect conditions for waterfalls to freeze and stay frozen, usually from mid-December to late March.

André Trondsen, who manages the popular Climb Inn hostel and runs climbing courses, said: “The Rjukan area is special because there are many waterfalls concentrated in a very small area, with many levels of difficulty.”

Thanks to the presence of a road along the top of the gorge, the majority of climbing spots can be reached with little more than a 15-minute walk. Indeed a few climbs even begin from a car park. This is perhaps Rjukan’s greatest appeal: high-quality routes with a remote mountainous feel, but which can be reached without hours of trekking. Tim Wilkinson, a British climber who has visited the area several times, summed up the lure of the place: “At Rjukan there’s so much reliable and accessible ice that you can climb more metres in a long weekend here than you could manage in years back home in Scotland or the Lakes. The result is that you can fine-tune your technique and get much better.”

Packing in as much climbing as possible was the objective of my group’s visit. Landing in Oslo mid-morning, we picked up a hire car and were on the ice by the afternoon.

At the latest count there are more than 200 routes in the valley. My introduction to a few of them was in the lower gorge, downstream from the suspension bridge, where there are relatively easy, single-pitch routes (they are short enough – about 50m – to be climbed on one length of rope.)
People gather during the official opening of the Solspiel. Photograph: NTB SCANPIX/Reuters/Corbis
Here, guides teach the basics and there’s often a sociable atmosphere, with climbers from across Europe and the US chatting with local experts. That said, it is a dark, eerie place, the silence interrupted only by the thunk of axes sinking into ice and the crashing of dislodged ice blocks – one of the hazards of the sport. Down here you get a glimpse of just what the wartime saboteurs were up against.

More experienced climbers head to the upper gorge for harder, more intimidating routes such as Lipton, a world classic so named because this ice pillar is the colour of tea. There are also ice-faces higher up the main valley sides, with routes over 300m long.

But climbing isn’t the only activity on offer in the valley: to the east lies Gaustablikk ski resort, while the Krossobanen, Europe’s oldest running cable car, leads to the foot of Hardangervidda national park and its network of cross-county skiing trails. There are plenty of places to stay in the valley, from hotels and self-catering cabins, to quite luxurious hostels. The prices are reasonable, as long as you don’t plan to drink too much alcohol.

Those who stay in Rjukan itself can also enjoy the benefits of the Solspeil, three large mirrors that reflect the sun’s rays into the main square to counter the effects of the town being in full shade for half of the year.

Reaching the top of Bakveien, I untied from the rope, got my breath back and wandered over to take a look at the famous Vemork building. While the heavy-water plant has been demolished, the older hydroelectric building is now a museum dedicated to the wartime raid. As I sat on its steps unstrapping my crampons, two Norwegians began chatting to me. It turned out that one of them was the daughter of one of the saboteurs and she just happened to be visiting the site, a chance encounter that made a perfect ending to the trip.

? Richard Nelsson is the editor of On the Roof of the World: The Guardian Book of Mountains, 8.99. To buy a copy for 6.99 with free UK p&p call 0330 333 6846 or visit

How do you recover from jet lag

It can take five days to feel normal again after a long-haul flight. What with daytime sleepiness, nightly insomnia, loss of appetite, clouded thinking and poor co-ordination, this can seem like a long time. It’s worse if you are sleep-deprived before you travel, cross more than four timezones, get dehydrated on the flight by drinking alcohol or if you are travelling east, which we find harder to tolerate than going west as the body clock copes better with being asked to stay up longer.

Jet lag is caused by disrupting your circadian rhythm, the internal body clock that regulates sleep and waking. This clock is a tiny group of cells in the brain: the hypothalamic suprachiasmatic nucleus. It’s controlled by light and dark and the hormone melatonin, which is produced when it gets dark and controls our body temperature while we sleep.

Melatonin can be made synthetically and in America is available as a herbal remedy over the counter. In the UK it is classified as a medicine and is only available to people over 55 with insomnia. But would it help jet lag? Or should you try sleeping tablets to get to sleep and stimulants such as coffee to keep awake?

The solution

A systematic review of research by the Cochrane Collaboration revealed that melatonin can be taken to reduce jet lag when crossing two or more timezones. Between 0.5mg to 5 mg of melatonin, taken daily at bedtime, helped people to get to sleep faster and better (particularly for the higher dose), as well as reduce sleepiness during daytime.

Melatonin works better the more timezones are crossed and for travelling east more than west. However it is not safe for everyone and people with epilepsy or on warfarin should not take it. There is some evidence to suggest that if you travel west, but are only staying for a couple of days, it is best to stick to your home timezone to reduce jet lag, otherwise you should adopt the local time as soon as possible.

If you are travelling east, it helps to stay in the dark for at least three hours after arriving to try to reset the circadian rhythm. If going west, get out in the daylight.

Sleeping tablets are often used to get back into a waking and sleeping cycle but the evidence is not clear that they work. Caffeine reduces sleepiness but makes it harder to fall asleep at night. And the really bad news is that research suggests it doesn’t even help to sleep on the plane, unless you’re flying when you’d usually be asleep.

US road trips into the heart of America with Andrew McCarthy

There’s nothing wrong that a hundred bucks and a full tank of gas can’t fix. It’s an idea at the core of the American psyche. From the first “road trips” of the pioneers lighting out for the west, to the California gold rush, to the dust bowl refugees of the Great Depression chasing the sun across the continent, sustaining themselves on movement, banking on hope, America has counted on the rewards of the road.

Move forward and don’t look back, your past won’t follow you out here, the highway promises. The American road trip is a rite of passage; it’s a lark, a last gasp. It is the essence of optimism in action. While we Americans claim no monopoly on the open road, the idea that renewal waits just around the bend, over the rise, or beyond that distant horizon, is deeply embedded in who we are as a people. Someone once said that to understand America, you need to understand baseball. I would argue that to truly understand America a road trip is in order. And the more miles you put between yourself and what you’ve left behind, the better.

The extended journey by car is a different kind of travel. You call all the shots. You decide when and where, left or right, turn back or forge ahead. The highway beckons, but it also challenges.

My first road trip was aborted almost before it began. As a young man I bought a sleek old car – a 1967 red Camaro convertible – while in Los Angeles. I decided to drive it back home to New York, 3,000 miles away. At the last minute my travelling companion backed out, so I set out alone. I stopped that first night in Las Vegas, just five hours from LA. I intended to be on the road early the next morning, beating the heat of the Nevada desert. Five days later I still couldn’t peel myself away from the Tropicana. I called my friend who had abandoned the trip, and asked him to fly out to get me. As we drove back to LA, where I caught a flight home, I promised myself I’d take that cross-country drive yet.

The next year I did. I had just finished a long stretch of work and felt depleted, and possessed a feeling of vague yearning. My beautiful Camaro had fallen victim to a motorway pile-up, so my two travelling companions and I rented a boxy Volvo and headed east. It took us more than a week to cover the western half of the country, sidetracking, lingering, following our collective nose; but after almost murdering one another in Fort Collins, Colorado, nearly getting arrested outside Lawrence, Kansas, and suffering food poisoning in Cincinnati, we raced over the second half of the country in two days of continuous driving.
Andrew McCarthy in his 1967 Camaro convertible … in its better days
Memories were forged on that trip that still hold a prominent place in my mind, nearly 25 years later: that first view of the Grand Canyon, a sunrise over a purple desert outside Santa Fe, and the shocking, humbling expanse of flat, corn-covered land in the Great Plains. We staggered into Greenwich Village at 2am, exhausted and ragged, but on a deeper level I had been renewed and invigorated by the trip. At the end of that drive I was somehow more connected to America than I had been, and understood myself in a way I hadn’t before. Grinding the miles away, the monotony had permitted my mind a freedom to drift that I had never previously allowed. I got to know myself on that trip in a way I hadn’t till then. It changed me, and it taught me something.

By temperament, an hour in the car is usually enough for me. But ever since that first taste of the road, whenever it’s a “damp, drizzly November in my soul”, there is one cure I favour – as Ishmael took to the sea, I hit the open road.

During a time of personal indecision, I drove across Texas with a trusted friend. We ate BBQ and drank Dr Pepper at one roadside joint after the next. Outside Amarillo we stopped at the sight of a dozen brightly painted old cars with their noses buried in the ground, their tailfins protruding up into the Texas sky at the angle of the great pyramids of Egypt. The Cadillac Ranch was a spooky, playful sight I have never forgotten. I ended that trip clear in what I needed to do.

Another time, during a period of mourning, I roamed through the stark landscape of southern Wyoming and then drifted up into Montana’s vast and lush spaces, staying in roadside motels, eating at greasy spoons with names like Mother’s and Sal’s. I welcomed the anonymous, no questions asked reception the American west often provides, and came home with the feeling of peace I craved.
It’s better to road trip than arrive … Route 50 in Nevada. Photograph: Matt Mawson/Corbis Matt Mawson/ Matt Mawson/Corbis
One of the essential components of any road trip is the soundtrack that emerges to accompany and help propel our movement. Invariably on my travels, one artist, or one record, asserts itself. Bob Dylan has carried me through the south. Sam Cooke swung me across the Great Plains, and I can’t hear Counting Crows’ first album without thinking of my time rolling through rural Pennsylvania, crossing the Allegheny river and coming into Pittsburg. But it is the end-of-the-day driving, when all the music has played itself out and the miles churn underfoot unaccompanied, that haunts my memory most – the width of Utah driven in eerie silence; only the hum of tyre on tarmac.

The road can change not only ourselves but also our relationships to those who travel with us. An intimacy is shared that no one else can understand; something happens between us as a result of all those hard-earned miles. I will always remember the endless hours in the back seat with nothing to do but stare out of the window, counting licence plates of the cars from different states, asking how much longer till we arrived. And my father always trimming time from his answer, so that we knew to add another half-hour to his response. When we crossed over the Bourne bridge onto Cape Cod, then stole our first glimpse of the Atlantic, an excitement filled the car that had seemed impossible just minutes before. These recollections remain the purest memories of my childhood.

American movies have long had an infatuation with the life-altering power of the road. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert fell in love back in 1934 while trying to hitch a ride in It Happened One Night, while Bob Hope and Bing Crosby joked and sang their way around the world in their Road to … movies of the 40s. But it was during the 60s and 70s that the American road movie came of age. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway shot up the central states as the Depression-era bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek terrorised the plains in Badlands. But it was Easy Rider, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s counter-culture homage to drugs, free love and the endless highway, that solidified the genre in 1969. More followed. Burt Reynolds romped across the south in Smokey and the Bandit, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise had their version of the road film in Rain Man, and in 1991, Thelma & Louise, in the guise of Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, stole our hearts by driving off a cliff into the Grand Canyon in a romantic declaration of freedom.
Cadillac Ranch: ‘A spooky, playful sight.’ Photograph: Kevin Vandivier/Aurora Photos/Corbis Kevin Vandivier/ Kevin Vandivier/Aurora Photos/Corbis
That gesture of defiance hints at the secret that rests at the heart of the road trip – arrival is never the true goal. Maybe that’s why, after the initial relief, disappointment is often the accompanying feeling upon reaching one’s goal. Bruce Springsteen admitted to driving across the country, only to arrive at the Pacific and turn around and drive the width of the nation back to New Jersey. What exactly are we looking for with the wheel in our hand?

While still on the road, when still in motion, hope is allowed space and time to play out on its own field of dreams – and hope is something no reality can ever match. Since America is still an idea more than anything else, that hope is indispensable to our national psyche. It’s no wonder that the facts of who we are and what we ultimately do, comes often as a shock and disappointment, even to ourselves.

But no matter. The road is there, calling, like the long and low whistle of a distant train lumbering across that same vast, forgiving landscape of the mind. Whatever you’re looking for, it’s out there, just over the rise. And even if it’s never found, the destination was always just a notion that got you out the door. The time behind the wheel is what matters. So fill ‘er up, check the oil, roll down the window and let the wind blow through – maybe nothing will ever be the same again.

Andrew McCarthy is an actor, director and author of The Longest Way Home

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