Monday, 30 January 2017

Turkmenistan - now for something unusual!

The flag of Turkmenistan was officially adopted on 19 February, 1997
By Brett Goulston

Turkmenistan – Land of the Turkmen – could best be described as an odd country. The former Soviet state became independent in 1991 and was until 2006 ruled by Niyazov, a communist-style dictator. Niyazov had absolute final say over the country when his party mandated his presidency for life and during this time, he banned any other political party. No wonder he kept winning the elections! While there may have been new leaders since Niyazov’s death in 2006, not a lot has changed in a political sense. It is considered one of the 10 most censored countries in the world and the vast majority of its citizens are forbidden to leave its borders.

But don’t let any of this put you off traveling to this fascinating, albeit odd, country – one of the five “Stans”.

The ancient cities of Merv, Nisa, Mary and Urgench, where you can walk among the ruins, were once thriving great cities. Merv continued to thrive during the medieval period and was an important stop along the Silk Road. If you like ancient history, you’ll love these places.

In great contrast, today’s capital city Ashgabat is a modern city. It’s a mix of Canberra, Las Vegas, Shanghai and Astana all in one - how is that even possible? It has tall apartment blocks which appear empty, marble and gold painted monuments on every corner and great government buildings to house the members of parliament. It also has a three-story museum dedicated to the life of the current president. (I can’t see this idea taking off in Australia). 

Away from the capital and the ancient city ruins, there are some very interesting places to visit, among which is Dashoguz and its markets where you're almost guaranteed to be the only westerner walking around. A trip to the Kov Ata caves with its hot spring is also very interesting and worthwhile. It’s a 60 metre walk deep underground, down dozens of stairs but don't forget ... of course this means it’s 60 metre walk up the stairs too!

It’s an unusual country but well worth visiting in conjunction with the other “Stans”. 
The best time to visit Turkmenistan is April to June when there is bright sunshine and cool temperatures.  

For your tour of Central Asia including, Turkmenistan and the rest of ‘the Stans’ book with Blue Dot Travel : Click here

Map of where Turkmenistan fits within The Stans

The modern city of Ashgabat

Local Turkmen people

Statue of Seljuk Beg in Ashagabat Turkmenistan

Monday, 23 January 2017

Captivating Sardinia

Bear Rock Porto Cervo at Capo d'Orso

By Margaret Farrell

I came to Sardinia with few preconceptions, except about its reputation for brigands and kidnappings. Our itinerary included a visit to the mountain village of Orgosolo, a headquarters for the brotherhood in recent years. Today it’s better known as the Painted Village, with politically inspired murals decorating most of the houses in the centre of town. The selection of topics is diverse, with Ghandi, Garibaldi and the Vietnam War all rating a mention. You need goat-like abilities to deal with the steep, narrow streets. And I have to admit that the closest we came to anyone looking like a brigand was the old guys playing bocce.

Over the space of a week we’ve traversed Sardinia from the capital, Cagliari, in the south to St Teresa di Gallura in the north. Italian and Spanish influences abound, with people in the town of Alghero Sardinia still speaking an old Catalan dialect. 

Our first taste of Sardinian hospitality came early in our tour in Pabillonis, where we were feasted and entertained by half the village. We were piped into the communal area by two men playing strange three reed instruments that surprisingly manage to drone like miniature bagpipes. The men’s cheeks distend, and they use circular breathing to continue their lively music for considerable periods.   There was a sucking pig roasting on a spit, home-made cheeses and sausages, salads, olives – and the list goes on.
There are two hotels in Sardinia which rate a special mention.

The Su Gologone hotel, in the mountains to the east of Sardinia, rambles over the hillside with numerous open-air groupings of lounges to tempt weary visitors. The whole complex is full of art works, pottery and framed textiles, including examples of exquisitely embroidered regional dress. It’s also a place for some serious shopping if you have the time and the money.

Our second amazing Sardinia accommodation was a farm stay at Il Muto di Gallura not far from the town of Aggius in the north of Sardinia. It is granite country here, and the many farm buildings are built with the stone in a very rustic country. Il Muto is a working farm with pigs, cows, donkeys, goats etc. Our hosts also make their own wine.

We were serenaded by a local male singing group -  four men ranging from 30s to late 70s sang the most amazing harmonies. In a traditional form the men stand in a huddle facing inwards while they concentrate on harmonising their voices.

Religion is still important in Sardinia, which has a long history of Catholicism. One of the simplest and most impressive churches is the Basilica of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity at Saccargia. Consecrated in 1116 AD, this ancient church is out in the middle of fields. While it’s interesting from the outside, it’s the interior that grabs the attention. The apse behind the altar is decorated with simple murals that have defied the centuries.

Not far from Saccargia is the 900 year old fortified town of Castelsardo on the north coast of the island. Originally built high on the cliffs by the Genoese, the old town is surrounded by bastions and criss-crossed by steep flights of stairs. In deference to our tiring legs, we caught a shuttle bus to near the top, and walked down through the narrow steep lane ways to the harbour.

Book your small group tour to Sardinia, plus Corsica and Malta with Blue Dot! Click here.   We make travelling around Sardinia easy.
Sardinia Map

Orgosolo - The Painted Village

Su Gologone hotel - Oliena

Su Gologone hotel - Oliena

Pabillonis - Local village feast

Bosa -  is one of Sardinia's most attractive towns


Enjoy beautiful Sardinian wines

Monday, 16 January 2017

House Boating on the Backwaters of Kerala

By Brett Goulston

The South of India around the Kerala Backwaters, could not be more of a contrast to the North. If your view of the North conjures up images of overcrowding, huge cities, poverty and grey skies, then the South is anything but! Think tropical, peaceful and clean with an abundance of wildlife. 

Our houseboat accommodation was not 5 star luxury, but it was fairly close.  Private rooms with en-suites, very comfortable beds and heaps of space to unpack, made us feel  like we were in a decent hotel room, rather than being on a house boat. When we dined in the common eating area at the rear (stern) of the vessel, we ate fabulous local food while we watched the world go by. 

There were 4 boats for my group of 16 people so there was ample room. We had dinner together on the one boat and told many stories and jokes. Before we knew it, we were all singingThis may have been
helped along by the very cheap, but tasty local beer that was on offer.

Breakfast was served on our own boats and as we sat quietly we spotted all kinds of wildlife. Watching the locals go about their daily lives must have been the highlight. The people fish, swim, wash themselves and their clothes in the backwaters. We were inundated with constant waves and smiles. One young school boy was keen to demonstrate his cycling skills on the dirt road he followed us on. He somehow managed to stand on the handle bars and wave at the same time. (Think Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid riding to “raindrops keep falling on my head”). 

If travel is your thing (you are, after all reading this blog), then make sure you add a houseboat in the Kerala backwaters to your bucket list.

Blue Dot Travel offers small group tours to Kerala (including southern India) Click here.

Transport for the locals

Some of the bird life on the Kerala backwaters

Monday, 9 January 2017

Iran - Gem of the Middle East

By Libby Manuel

I was fortunate enough to host a small group of 12 travellers to Iran during the spring of 2015.  It was a comprehensive tour, making a large loop over three weeks taking in cities and villages throughout stunning mountains and desert landscapes.

Having visited a few years earlier, I developed the itinerary that would appeal to a broad level of interests. There were many highlights… The archaeological sites of Ancient Persia: Persepolis, Pasargade and Bishapur, the stunning tiled architecture of Iran’s Savafid rulers’ mosques and palaces and the remarkable museums and palaces in Tehran, including the stunning Crown Jewels.

Takht-e-Soleyman, a 5th Century Sassanian shrine, located high up on an oval shaped plateau, experience the watch towers, palaces and fire temples of this ancient era.  Our time in Tabriz included a visit to the Blue Mosque, badly damaged by an earthquake in the 1880’s. It is considered a masterpiece of 15th century Iranian decorative tile work and now being restored with care.

We will remember Shiraz for its wonderful gardens, where today Persian poets  Saadi and Hafez are celebrated by locals and tourist alike. The desert city of Yazd will leave you in wonder at how people came to live here.

The 4000 year old irrigation channels, Qanat’s, and the wind towers, Badgir’s, dominate the  landscape that nestles under the evocative Zoroastrian Towers of Silence.

I have left the best, Safavid/Abbasid Esfahan (Half the World), for last. Today Esfahan’s monuments are ranked among the most splendid of the Islamic world. A visit to the Royal Square (Naqsh-e Jahan) will stay with you forever. Persia being the birthplace of Polo, the stone post goal posts are still visible at either end of the square. Esfahan’s square, bazar and famous bridges are worthy of multiple visits.

Without doubt, the unsurpassed friendliness and hospitality of the Iranian people will be with me forever.

For all your Iran travel information contact Blue Dot Travel.   You cannot help but have a wonderful time.

To Bbook your trip to Iran with Blue Dot Travel! Click here.

Location of Iran

The ladies in our group

Time for tea & biscuits

Khaju Bridge

In the ancient city of Bishapur


Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargad

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Malta. A small country that packs a big punch!

Beautiful city of Valletta


I am lucky to have travelled to Malta on quite a few occasions. The more I go, the more I love it. Area-wise it’s a tiny country with two main islands – Malta and Gozo. But don’t be deceived by its size. There are heaps of things to do on both islands. For first time visitors I recommend at least 4 nights for a good snap-shot, but a week is better.  You are spoilt for choice on what to visit in Malta.

My initial trip was with my family when my children were little. We had a great time shopping, eating and exploring our way around. You feel safe, everyone speaks English and the public transport is excellent but there is a definite cultural hit if you want it.  

My subsequent visits have been hosting tours so I have managed to immerse myself into the history and the culture. From ancient ruins (some, arguably amongst the world’s oldest), to fabulous museums, a great food culture (their national dish is rabbit), beautiful harbours, rocky coastlines and gorgeous fishing villages there is something for everyone. They even have a great coffee culture for those coffee-tragics like me. 

If you can get a ticket, try and see the UNESCO listed hypogeum - an underground temple in the middle of suburbia, dating back 5,000 years! Tickets are restricted and it’s not cheap at about 35 Euros but worth the effort. 

In my view, the best place to stay is in Sliema or St.Juilans where you can step outside your hotel and have food/shops/sight-seeing at your door step. Public transport can get you around the island to many places of interest and the ferry to Gozo takes about 30 minutes.  

The people of Malta are a very proud bunch. One thing you will notice is that everyone seems to have a cousin living in Australia. Bus drivers, shop keepers, taxi drivers and hospitality staff will all tell you about their relatives in Melbourne or Sydney or North Queensland where many Maltese left to work on the sugar cane farms back in the 50’s. We provide package holidays to Malta for small groups of up to 20.

For a small place, it certainly punches above its weight! 

Book your trip to Malta (which includes Sardinia & Corsia) with Blue Dot Travel! Click here.

The Azure Window is a limestone natural arch on the Maltese island of Gozo

Mosta Dome -  Valletta

Swimming in Valletta Harbour

A classic Malta bus

Mgarr Harbour Gozo

Maltese traditional fishing boats

Cottonera Marina

The best rabbit in Malta according to Jamie Oliver (Malta's national dish)