One effect of Istanbul’s stint as European Capital of Culture 2010 will be an opportunity to showcase its shiny modern face. The city, best known for ancient Byzantine and Ottoman splendours, is actually a hip, thrusting metropolis with great designer shopping and a burgeoning contemporary art scene. But with a famous historic skyline dominated by domes, minarets and fortified Ottoman palaces, 21st century Istanbul remains largely unknown.
You wouldn’t think you could spend a morning in Greece, an afternoon in Rome and a lazy Sunday in ancient Egypt — all without leaving Oxford. You wouldn’t know it because the Ashmolean — a once fusty, dusty collection of curios crammed into display cases — didn’t let you know. But that place is a planet removed from the marvellous museum which has just reopened.
More than £61m has gone into transforming Britain’s oldest museum into what must surely be the best showcase the nation has of the world’s most important civilisations.
Considering its vibrancy, beauty and historical treasures, it’s amazing that Durham is not a major fixture on the tourist trail. One can only assume it’s because this little jewel of a city and county are squashed between the majesty of Yorkshire, which trumpets its offerings much louder, and the glorious Northumberland coast.
But this tiny place — which has been dubbed the best to visit in the UK — won’t be hiding its light under a bushel much longer.
It began in front of my TV, watching Henning Mankell’s deadpan detective, Wallander, shuffle his way unerringly to the solution of a crime. Wallander’s world was one of strong spirits, heart-warming humour and cold-hearted murders set in the moody landscape of Southern Sweden.
Not content to buy the best-selling Kurt Wallander Mysteries or wait for the second BBC series starring Kenneth Branagh in the New Year, I flew to Copenhagen and crossed the Öresund Bridge to the fertile region of Skåne (pronounced skoener), home to two worldwide hits — Absolut Vodka and Kurt Wallander.
I had never tasted potato dumpling with goat’s cheese before, let alone try to pronounce its culinary name - bryndzove halušky, but then I had never been to the Slovakian capital, before. A canopy of carbs, this hearty speciality of the city was unexpectedly appealing. Much like the city itself.
Any shipping line that brands a cruise “the world’s most beautiful voyage” is surely inviting contradiction. As a cruise virgin, I can neither verify nor refute the claim made by Hurtigruten for its round voyage up and down the Norwegian coast. But if there is a lovelier boat trip than this, I’d certainly like to hear about it.
We were on an intrepid mission and there were risks: blisters, arguments, financial ruin and a 4am wake-up call before dragging our cases on to a National Express bus at Golders Green, and then queueing for an easyJet flight to Naples.
It was tough: traipsing around Mafia-imbued streets, reading and then abandoning all guide books.
Some people love Paris in the springtime. But I’ll take Budapest in the autumn, the perfect time to go. Especially this year: Hungary was named best-value country in the Post Office’s Holiday Costs Barometer for 2009. With its recession-hit economy and devalued forint, the country is keen to attract visitors and prices have fallen accordingly.
Of course, for me Budapest is much more than an affordable holiday destination — it is where I was born, four years before the 1956 Uprising which led to my family’s flight to the West.
It took an open-top car snug enough for two, a healthy breeze and miles of unbroken road to get this Mr Toad out of Toad Hall and off to Chelsea-on-Sea. And with a poop-poop and glassy-eyed visions of million-pound designer beach huts, he was on his way up the A1 to the Fens, planning the perfect day in a perfect town where Orwell once lived and the seagulls sound just a little posher than those over Southend.
It’s breakfast time at the Vila Gale Hotel and I’m having a moment.
It began out of nothing, as these things often do, with a simple chance meeting in the lobby on my first morning. An athletic young blonde clutching a large bag of tennis racquets and wearing shorts that were a little on the small side asked me the time.
After a casual glance at my watch I gave her my very best smile and, desperately attempting to put on a casual air of relaxed professionalism, told her the time. She smiled back (I think), thanked me and was gone.