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Monthly Archives: October 2016

Exploring Norway’s north on the Nordlandsbanen

A journey on the Nordlandsbanen will allow you to experience fascinating tales of the past, to be stirred by the power of nature, and to taste the fresh flavours of the region.

The journey

Though perhaps less well-known than the Oslo-Bergen train ride, the Nordlandsbanen, which stretches northwards for 729km between regal Trondheim and spirited Bodø, could certainly lay claim to being the more unique route. As well as being Norway’s longest train line, it also crosses the Arctic Circle, one of the few railways in the world to do so.

An efficient service and spacious, comfortable trains make it a delightfully sedate way to make the ten-hour journey, but it’s the huge diversity of scenery that’s most appealing. Gently rolling, emerald-green fields rest under huge skies, and Norwegian flags whip proudly over the pillar-box red hytter (cabins) dotted haphazardly over the hillsides. Moments later, the train will track its way through dense woodland, a wall of pine trees on either side of the train breaking just long enough to snatch a two-second-long postcard of mist haunting the treetops in a shadowy forest beyond.

Then, coasting out of a tunnel, the ground falls away to one side, and suddenly a 100m-high waterfall appears. Plummeting into a churning white froth below, the roaring deluge plays out silently on the other side of the train window. Such spellbinding scenes speed past repeatedly, and then evaporate into the distance, only to be replaced by another a few moments later.

Highlights of the Nordlandsbanen

All aboard at Trondheim

Before you board the train in Trondheim, take some time to explore the picture-postcard pretty city itself. The compact centre is relatively flat and easy to explore on foot or by bike. Marvel at the mighty Nidaros Domkirke, an ornate Gothic cathedral built on the burial ground of the much-revered Viking King Olav II, then linger as you cross over the quaint Old Town Bridge for views of the 18th-century waterside warehouses.

Trondheim’s old-world charm continues at Baklandet Skydsstasjon. Owner Gurli serves up hearty, homemade fare such as super-fresh fish soup and silky-smooth blueberry cheesecake. Wash it down with that most Nordic of spirits, the potent, herby aquavit: there are 111 varieties to choose from here. Meanwhile, across town, sleek Mathall Trondheim (mathalltrondheim.no) – part store, part bar-restaurant – offers a more modern take on classic Norwegian cuisine, serving up a variety of smørbrød and a good selection of craft beer.

Verdal for Stiklestad and The Golden Road of Inderøy

After a little less than two hours on the train from Trondheim, alight at Verdal for Stiklestad, the location of the famous battle of 1030 that saw the demise of King (later Saint) Olav. It’s now home to the Stiklestad National Cultural Centre, which hosts a variety of events throughout the year, and the 11th-century Stiklestad Church. This ancient place of worship was reputedly built over the stone on which Olav is said to have died.

Verdal (or alternatively Steinkjer, the next stop along) also makes a good jumping off point to explore The Golden Road – a route through traditionally agricultural Inderøy – which brings together a collective of sustainable culinary, cultural and artistic attractions, such as farm shops, restaurants and art workshops.

Swing by Nils Aas Kunstverksted (nils-aas-kunstverksted.no), a workshop and gallery dedicated to one of Norway’s most celebrated artists. Aas’ famous statue of King Haakon VII stands near the Royal Palace in Oslo, but a collection of his pieces is also on display in a small sculpture garden just a few minutes’ stroll from the workshop.

The highlight of the road, though, is the aquavit tasting experience at Berg Gård (berg-gaard.no), a working farm with its own distillery. Book ahead to get rosy-cheeked while tasting this fiery spirit, flavoured with herbs and spices such as caraway, cardamom and anise, as the owner explains the artistry and innovation involved in creating it.

Must-see Mosjøen

A further three-hour train-glide north brings you to diminutive Mosjøen, nestled in the imposing Vefsnfjord and surrounded by wooded peaks. The oldest part of the town, Sjøgata, is almost an open-air museum in its own right: saved from demolition in the 1960s, the beautifully-preserved 19th-century wooden buildings tell the tale of a historically prosperous town, of hardy fishermen and thriving sawmills, a story echoed at the small but informative Jakobsensbrygga Warehouse museum.

Nowadays in Mosjøen the main industry is aluminium, and a factory hums somewhat incongruously amid its pristine surroundings. Nevertheless, the surrounding hills of the Helgeland region beckon visitors to explore. Hike up the 818m-high Øyfjellet for spectacular views of the town and beyond.

The town makes for a scenic spot to overnight and break up the journey to Bodø. With its cosy nooks and unique, one-room museum, Fru Haugans Hotel, northern Norway’s oldest inn, has occupied a peaceful spot on the Vefsna river since 1794.

Blink and you’ll miss it: crossing the Arctic Circle

From Mosjøen the landscape seems to change in preparation for the Arctic Circle crossing, as lush trees give way to the rolling, rocky terrain and barren peaks of the Saltfjellet mountain range.

With no defining geographical features to signal your passage across The Circle and into the chilly wilds of Arctic north, you may have to use your imagination. But keep an eye out for the two large pyramidal cairns either side of the tracks, and Polarsirkelsenteret, a visitor centre visible some distance from the train line, to indicate that You Were Here.

Five Days in Belarus

In recent years Belarus’ lively capital, Minsk, has caught on as an alternative weekend break. While Minsk’s worthwhile museums and impressive dining and nightlife scene make for a thoroughly enjoyable experience, the five-day visa-free scheme allows you to cut your teeth on provincial Belarus, a famously flat land of fairytale castles, rolling sunflower fields, forgotten schtetls (Jewish villages) and enchanted forests. You can’t do it all in five days, but with careful route-planning you can cherry-pick a few of the best spots before your visa expires.

First, the logistics. Assuming you’ll want a day or two in Minsk, you’ll be left with three or four days to explore the provinces. There are some great day-trip options to fill a couple of days using the capital as a base. To avoid backtracking to Minsk afterwards, we recommend flying into the country on a one-way ticket and departing overland into Poland via the pleasant western Belarusian city of Brest, where you can overnight. Departing through Ukraine or Lithuania is possible but less practical, as the main attractions are toward the Polish border.

Day trippin’

The major rental car agencies are well represented in the Belarusian capital, road rules are straightforward and provincial roads organised and traffic-free. Top on your hit list should be a pair of 16th-century castles that lie within a 90-minute drive southwest of the capital – Mir and Nyasvizh.

Both castles are Unesco World Heritage sites and both are legacies of the Radziwills, a family of Lithuanian nobles that rose to prominence under the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Nyasvizh Castle is an enormous complex whose 30-plus rooms comprise a museum detailing the history of Radziwills and the area under Lithuanian, Polish and Russian rule. The opulent interior evokes the great tsarist-era palaces of St Petersburg. Mir Castle wows with its impossibly picturesque exterior. Its five towers reflected perfectly in an adjacent pond, the castle has become the poster-child for Belarus tourism. The two castles are just 35km from each other, making them a perfect day-trip combo.

If you want to linger another night in Minsk – and who would blame you, given the wealth of restaurants and cracking nightlife – plan a second day of excursions out of the capital. You have a few choices, but the first on our list is the fascinating Stalin Line Museum, 25km northwest of the capital. It’s an impressive collection of Soviet war paraphernalia in a sprawling field that once formed part of the ‘Stalin Line’ – a defensive bulwark that stretched more than 1000km along the Soviet Union’s western border before WWII. Original bunkers have been restored, and you can even take a joyride in a Soviet tank. It’s an absolute must for WWII buffs and nicely complements the superbMuseum of the Great Patriotic War in Minsk.

Westward bound

Next, it’s off to Brest for your final couple of days. Save time and money on accommodation by taking a night train – an experience in its own right. Or you can take the daily business-class express train, which leaves Minsk in late afternoon and gets you to Brest in less than four hours.

Brest is easily the most interesting Belarusian provincial capital, and its cobbled walking streets, centuries-old churches and leafy parks provide a perfect antidote to monolithic Minsk. Just west of the city, the Bug River forms the border with Poland; the locals will often approach you to make conversation in broken English.

Brest is a great place to spend a day or so, with excellent restaurants and unpretentious bars and clubs. Enjoy a cosmopolitan meal at the city’s top restaurant, Jules Verne, then join the lively crowd for shots and no-holds-barred dancing at Coyote Bar or Korova.

Brest’s main attraction is the Brest Fortress, a rambling collection of war and art museums in restored 18th-century buildings at the confluence of the Bug and Mukhavets Rivers. A small band of Red Army soldiers held out here for a month against the invading Nazis and became Soviet legends. Some truly fantastic chunks of Soviet realism, including the notorious Courage Monument, honour these men.

You can walk to the Brest Fortress in about 30 minutes from vul Savetskaya, the city’s pedestrianised central street, via vul Holholya (Gogol St), a boulevard lined with trees and quirky statues built into gas street lamps – collectively known as Alleya Fonary. Indeed, you can walk almost anywhere in Brest, which is a huge part of its appeal.

48 hours in Chişinău

Day One

Morning

Day one is walking day, so fuel up at Coffee Molka, a quirky cafe that doubles as a coffee museum. This is where you can ogle antique presses and grinders while sipping coffee brewed over hot sand – an old Turkish method; make sure to ask for a demo. From here it’s a short stroll over to the Army Museum, home to a moving exhibition on repression under the Soviets. The deportations and other crimes committed by Stalin in Moldova are documented in vivid detail through dioramas, collages and sometimes graphic videos.

Once you’re sufficiently introduced to the horrors of Chişinău’s past, it’s time to enjoy the pleasures of its present. Walk northwest on the city’s main drag, B-dul Ştefan cel Mare, which contains some fine examples of fin-de-siècle architecture such as the City Hall (at No 83) and the Organ Hall (at No 81), as well as some imposing Soviet specimens. Veer southwest a couple of blocks to the grand National Archaeology & History Museum, marked by an old Soviet helicopter in the courtyard. It capably documents the 2000-year-long history of Moldova with some 300,000 artefacts. Art aficionados may prefer the well-roundedNational Art Museum nearby. Both museums are on Str 31 Aug 1989, a bar and restaurant hub, so you’re well positioned for lunch.

Afternoon

Sample as much Moldovan cuisine as you can in 48 hours – it’s similar to Romanian food, with Russian influences. Start at Pani Pit, where Moldovan country dishes like grilled rabbit mingle with beef tartare. Eat in the peasant-themed downstairs dining room or outside in the pleasant courtyard.

Chişinău’s spiritual heart lies in two adjacent central parks; explore these after lunch. Grădina Publică Ştefan cel Mare şi Sfînt is named after Moldova’s national hero, Ştefan cel Mare, a warrior prince who defended the borders of the Moldavian principality from the Ottomans more than 500 years ago. His statue is in the southeast corner of the park. Nearby, Chişinău’s very own Arc de Triomphe marks the entrance to Parcul Catedralei. Here you’ll find the city’s main Moldovan Orthodox church, the 19th-century Nativity of Christ Metropolitan Cathedral with its impressive bell tower. You might get lucky and catch a service or a wedding here, accompanied by beautiful Orthodox choral music.

Pedestrianised Str E Doga abuts the northeast side of Parcul Catredalei and is lined with outdoor bars and restaurants. You’d be forgiven for getting an early start on sampling a few Moldovan wines at this point. Or, if you have more museums in you, grab a coffee at delightful Crème de la Crème, then walk 10 minutes through pleasant back streets to the intriguing Pushkin Museum on the site where Alexander Pushkin spent three years in exile in the 1820s. The Russian national poet’s amorous escapades in Moldova during this period were legendary.

Day Two

Morning

Sure, the museums were interesting, but we know why you’re really here: the wine. Moldova was the Rhone Valley of the Soviet Union, and two of the largest wineries in the world are within 20km of Chişinău:Mileştii Mici and Cricova. Mileştii Mici has the records (200km of tunnels and 1.5 million bottles of wine), but Cricova, with a mere 120km of tunnels, is more charming and has better wine. Visitor numbers are limited, so book a tour well in advance through a travel agent in Chişinău. Lunch is recommended at both wineries – medieval-style dining in the caves is an experience in its own right.

Don’t care for wine? Plan a half-day excursion to Orheiul Vechi (Old Orhei), home to Moldova’s most famous sight, a mesmerising hilltop cave monastery overlooking the Răut River 50km north of Chişinău.

Afternoon

You have a few options for the afternoon, depending on how much wine you tasted earlier. Serious oenophiles can take in another winery, perhaps a smaller boutique one such as Château Vartely, 50km north of Chişinău, or Château Cojuşna, 13km northwest. Others might consider a siesta followed by a visit to another museum, such as the National Museum of Ethnography & Natural History, which has some wonderful dioramas depicting Moldovan folk life, extensive displays on Moldova’s flora and fauna, and an old dinothere (prehistoric elephant-like mammal) skeleton.

Best Bars in Jakarta for Creative Cocktails

Attarine: superbly crafted cocktails at a neighbourhood gem

With a chilled Californian vibe, Attarine stands out among the trendy hangouts of Jakarta’s Senopati area. This neighborhood spot is big on natural elements – wooden tables and benches fill the space, and potted plants dangle from ceiling. There’s even a fresh produce car standing in the middle of the room. The restaurant serves modern, unpretentious grub inspired by the legendary spice route, with a drinks list that fittingly reflects this. A Bloody Mary gets an Indonesian twist with local rawit chilli and a coffee martini is blended with espresso from local roasters.

E&O: fruity drinks and Southeast Asian bites

Conveniently situated in the happening district of Mega Kuningan, E&O is a great place to kick off a big night. Start with an aperitif: the Cucumber Collins is a refreshing little number and works wonders to cool off a plate of spicy Southeast Asian fare. Catch a seat barside to watch award-winning liquor masters in action as they mix Asian-inspired tipples using the best local ingredients and fresh tropical fruits.

FUJIN: handcrafted Japanese cocktails

At FUJIN bespoke whiskey-based cocktails are the drawcards, with visiting international mixologists on regular rotation. The drinks repertoire includes a selection of refined highballs and concoctions such as the flambéed Gomme Kyoto made with whisky, orange bitter, and gomme syrup. Line your stomach with a selection of Japanese tapas and teppanyaki cooked right before your eyes before moving on to the harder stuff – there’s everything from umeshu (plum wine), top-shelf Japanese whiskey, craft beer and of course, sake, to sample.

J. Sparrow’s Bar & Grill: outstanding rum-based cocktails

Housed in the heart of the Kuningan district, J. Sparrow’s is a relaxed yet refined venue with swish art deco interiors and high ceilings. An ode to a certain debaucherous pirate, J. Sparrow’s fittingly excels in top-shelf bottles of rum (a Jakarta first!) and stunning seafood dishes. Splash out on an outstanding selection of rum-based tipples, and make sure to try the house special, J. Sparrow, a mix of gunpowder-infused rum shaken with gin, lime and mint syrup. If that doesn’t suit, fret not, the experts behind the bar will happily mix something more to your taste.

LOLA: a hidden speakeasy with South American spirit

Whiskey speakeasies are generally the trend in Jakarta, but LOLA takes a new approach with South American flair. This tucked-away drinking den is entered through a black, signage-free door on the side of a building on Jalan Gunawarman. Head downstairs where luscious libations await. Killer live music by popular local cover bands set the mood for the intimate room, while the mix-masters behind the bar dream up fun and daring drinks like their Diablo Popsicle, a tequila-based cocktail with chilli powder and an actual popsicle, all served in a tiki cup (colourful plastic umbrella and all!).

Twisted classics at award-winning bar Union

Classic cocktails are celebrated as a house specialty at Union, and made even better when done with a twist. The New York-style brasserie has an infectious energy and award-winning mixologists who whip up bespoke beverages with skillful finesse. This is a great place to try a Pletok cocktail – Indonesia’s first president’s alcoholic beverage of choice. For a burst of nostalgia try Union’s signature Pop Rocks Martini, a crackling delight with actual popping candy lining the glass.

VIEW at Fairmont: stunning cocktails and even better view

For inventive cocktails with sophisticated surrounds, VIEW at Fairmont is a stylish rooftop bar that pulls out all the stops. Bespoke cocktails are at another level with concoctions brewed with house-made liquor infusions using ingredients like pandan leaves and jasmine tea. To soak up your drinks, graze on the equally appetizing five- or seven-course tasting menus.

Potato Head: cocktails with an Asian twist

From a Jakartan Bloody Mary for brunch to its best-selling aloe vera and pandan martini at night, Potato Head Jakarta is one of the CBD’s most iconic venues for cocktail connoisseurs. With celebrated mixologist Dre Masso at the helm, there’s a fine craftsmanship that goes into each drink; the menu tends towards classic combos with a creative Asian twist. Its central location, and fun, easy-going vibes makes Potato Head a sanctuary for office workers, and a favourite for locals and visitors alike.

Cork & Screw: tailored drinks in the CBD

With two equally bustling locations, Cork & Screw is just the ticket for late nights and strong liquor. The after-work crowd mingles with those dressed to the nines to sip killer cocktails – from the classics to the creative – and wines from a 300-strong wine list. Cork & Screw specialises in using fresh ingredients fit for the city’s tropical climate: a draught of the Pistachio Lemon Sorbet cocktail made with limoncello, pistachio-infused vermouth and homemade lemon sorbet, will refresh where other drinks fail.