The truth lies in the tapas

tapas barXampanyet* might well be Catalan slang for ‘cheek by jowl’, which would be appropriate given the convivial crush most evenings at this popular bar on the edge of Barcelona’s beautiful and mysterious Barrio Gòtic quarter.

By early evening this venerable bar, family-run since 1929, is packed with customers standing shoulder-to-shoulder and spilling onto Montcada, a medieval street in the oldest corner of the city. We wriggle our way deep into the thick of things and discover that a tiny table has just become free at the rear of the bar.

Easily identified as Xampanyet virgins, we really don’t have to do a thing. Within a few moments of claiming vacant seats a friendly waitress makes the sensible suggestion that she simply provides us a selection of tapas. We readily agree and choose to drink the house cava, large flagons of which are being hauled at regular intervals from a massive wall fridge. At 10% proof and akin to a sparkling cider it appears to be the drink of choice with most customers.

At a table nudging ours sit three men and a woman, each from different lands but chatting together in English. They’re the guest of a local who we can’t help but overhear explaining he’s bought them to El Xampanyet for an authentic Barcelona experience.

XampanyetThe truth of that lies in the tapas. Plates arrive on our table layered with thinly-sliced Serrano ham, delicate sheep’s cheese and partly-dried tomatoes. Next come slices of raw salmon, white cod with olive tapenade,  white and red anchovies glistening with oil and huge green marinated olives, possibly the most luscious I’ve ever tasted.  We sip our shallow glasses of cava and become totally seduced by such a fabulous blend of fine tastes and  local ambience. Dessert is biscotti-like cream pastries dipped into a glass of Catalan dessert wine.

Having once again squeezed through the crowded bar we tumble on to Montcada filled with the sense that Barcelona simply couldn’t be any better. Rambling contentedly along the lamp-lit streets of the Ribiera district we find ourselves outside the Gothic church of Santa Maria del Mar. The doors are open so we step inside and catch the last glorious minutes of a performance of Mozart’s Requiem. Barcelona has just got even more marvellous!

*xampanyet = old style flat-bottomed champagne glass

El Xampanyet, Montcada 22, Barcelona 08003

Arabian ark

Abu Dhabi V&T

Sir Bani Yas giraffe

An astonishing Arabian ark of creatures inhabit the desert island of Sir Bani Yas to the south west of Abu Dhabi. They include a magnificent herd of Arabian Oryx, now classified as extinct in the wild. These beautiful creatures are the pride of what was once a private royal wildlife collection.

Sir Bani Yas was once the personal retreat of the late Sheikh Zayed, who had developed it specifically for his exotic private menagerie. Since his death the island has become the crown jewel in the multi-billion dollar Desert Islands tourism project. Several other islands about 250 kilometres west of Abu Dhabi city are involved but Sir Bani Yas is the flagship attraction and Sheik Zayed’s former guest house is now the luxurious 64-room Desert Island Resort and Spa.

There are two reserves on the island. One of them is the Arabian Wildlife Park while the other reserve contains the sheikh’s collection of African animals. These include giraffe, ostrich, hyena, eland, gemsbok, Barbary sheep and other oryx species.

There are also Australian emu, Peruvian llama, Urial sheep from Asia and Sri Lankan deer. Cheetah have been added to the mix to control the number of antelope, which multiplied rapidly in the absence of predators.

Abu Dhabi

Arabian oryx – said to be extinct in the wild

More than three million trees planted on the island over the last 20 years have transformed this formerly desiccated landscape of salt domes, sand and stone into a pocket-sized fertile crescent.

I’m amazed that each tree is individually drip-fed by irrigation tube, a massive undertaking that swallows a large percentage of the 32 million litres of water that’s pumped daily from desalination plants on the mainland. And every day some 30 tons of feed is needed for the animals, much of it consisting of grasses grown on nearby Dalma Island.

As well as wildlife watching, I kayak in the mangrove swamps and ride around on a mountain bike. Visitors may also go snorkelling and scuba diving.

Abu Dhabi V&T

Exploring the island

Archaeological sites on Sir Bani Yas include the remains of a pre-Islamic monastery dating from 600 AD.

Several rocky ocean outcrops known as the Discovery Islands have also been earmarked for tourism development with talk of two getting resorts, another two with tented camps and the remaining two as breeding reserves for birds, turtles and other marine life.

Getting a grip on old Gyeongju

Korea

Bulguksa Temple

After a tiring five-hour bus ride from Seoul to the south-eastern Korean city of Gyeongju I arrive in darkness and go straight to bed. So my first views of my new surroundings makes for a gentle welcome, with misty Bomunho Lake seen against faint green hills, akin to a delicate watercolour painting. After breakfast, I walk a lakeside track lined with cherry trees, which are seen at their most magnificent when in full blossom during April.

Gyeongju is a beguiling blend of old and new. Gyeongsnagbuk-do (Gyeongsan Province) is the location of the ancient Silla Kingdom, under which the three kingdoms of the Korean peninsula were unified during the 7th Century AD. Exquisite temples, royal burial grounds and ancient palace gardens are a legacy from that era.

On the other hand, Bomunho Lake east of the city is not one jot historic. It’s been the focus of modern tourist development, albeit  fashioned in traditional architectural style. There are hotels, a hot springs spa, conference centre, golf course, artificial waterfall and funfair with ferris wheel.

But I’m not here for this. I seek ancient wonders. I want a good dose of history so I start by visiting one of Gyeongju’s most significant sites – which just happens to be smack bang in the middle of town.

Tumuli Park is a green expanse of gentle grassy mounds, each one of them a royal Silla tomb dating from pre-unification times. There are about 23 tomb mounds – about 10 per cent of the tomb mounds found in the Gyeongju area. The Tumuli tombs are presumed to be those of kings and court officials. One is officially designated as that of King Mich’u, the 13th king of the Silla Dynasty. Relics excavated from burial mounds and now in the Gyeongju National Museum include a gold crown, silver ornaments, ceramics and  weapons.

The Hwangnyongsa historic site was once Korea’s biggest temple but was gutted by Mongol invaders in 1238 and never rebuilt. All there is now to see are some foundation stones. In contrast, Bunhwangsa Temple has an impressive standing gold Buddha, delightful bas relief carvings and an ancient pagoda that was once nine storeys tall, but whittled over the ages to just three. Bunhwangsa dates from the era of Queen Seon-Deok who ruled from 632-647AD.

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Seokguram Grotto

Anapji Pond has been restored to a semblance of its original splendour. The name means “pond of geese and ducks” and it was once part a vast palace garden with artificial lakes and graceful pavilions.

Between Anapji and Tumuli Park is the fascinating 7th Century Cheomseong Observatory, built using 365 granite blocks in the shape of a bottle.

The blocks relate to the number of days in the year and the number of open levels to the 12 months of the year, as well as the Zodiac. The monument’s filled with earth up to level 12 where a window gives access to its interior.

Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto on Mt Tohamsan are a 30-minute bus ride from the city. I take bus 11 to Bulguska and then bus 12 up to the grotto which is a cave shrine with monumental Buddha sitting serenely on a lotus pedestal.

Bulguksa is believed to be Korea’s oldest existing temple. Built on the mountain’s western slopes, it has several courtyards set around a main hall that houses a gilt Buddha triad.

The most significant structures are two stone pagodas, one simple in design, the other more elaborate, that have stood side-by-side for 1200 years.

Dharani Sutra

Dharani Sutra

Restoration work here in the 1960s uncovered a long, narrow scroll printed between 706 and 751AD. Called the Dharani Sutra and now kept in the Chongju Early Printing Museum, it’s believed to be the world’s oldest printed document.

Top End safari

The raucous gabbling of blue-winged kookaburras wakes me at first light. Through the mosquito netting I can see the spiky outline of pandanus trees and a grassy floodplain that spreads to the horizon. Making my way to the main lodge for a dawn breakfast I take care to avoid steaming buffalo deposits along the path. I’m walking on the wild side in Australia’s Top End yet feel I could be in Africa.

IMG_0316Swim Creek Station on the Mary River, about 200 km east of Darwin, is a massive working property for buffalo and cattle. The luxury wilderness camp Bamurru Plain on the property is similar to an African safari lodge yet distinctly Australian in character, thanks to an adept use of weathered, corrugated iron and dark hardwoods – not to mention those cackling kookaburras.

IMG_0189The walls of each Bamurru bungalow are made of a special netting which is see-through from inside, yet opaque to anyone outside. Buffalo, brumbies and Brahmin cattle regularly wander through the camp, day and night, and often graze placidly right outside my room. Nine bungalows are strategically placed either side of the central  dining room and lounge. There’s a wooden deck with a small swimming pool overlooking the floodplain. With a cold beer in hand while watching buffalo silhouetted against the fiery crimson of a Top End sunset I most definitely feel I’m on safari.

IMG_0246The month of May, the end of “the Wet”, is an ideal time to visit the Top End. With so much ground water lying about we are able to explore with ease, skimming across the floodplain in a V8 air-boat. Bamurru is an Aboriginal word for magpie geese and there are thousands of these majestic birds breeding among the grasses. Our noisy propeller-driven passage clearly disturbs some geese although others remain unperturbed. The birdlife at Bamurru is equals to anything I’ve seen in Africa. Flocks of whistling ducks inhabit a low barrage immediately in front of camp. They regularly take to the air in a seething, whirling brown cloud then settle again with pinpoint precision.

IMG_0483Buffalo splash through the shallows in search of higher, dryer land. We  watch others wallow contentedly in deep hollows of churned grey mud. Thick mangrove forests at the farthest edge of the floodplain are all that separate us from the immense mud flats along Australia’s northern coastline. The Mary River region is known for huge saltwater crocodile population and we are acutely aware these secretive, stealthy predators are constantly lurking unseen nearby.

IMG_0272Our air-boat takes us deep into huge paperbark swamps festooned with lilies of various hues, a dazzling profusion of white, blue and mauve. With the engine off, we float through a silent waterlogged forest of peeling tree trunks. Bamurru’s fantastic birdlife, buffalo and crocodiles have hit my safari sweet spot, as does the opportunity to learn about local ecology. Wherever it may be, in whatever country, the wilderness is often the best place to be.

Find out more: Bamurru Plains