When you’re on holiday, it’s all too easy to flop down by the hotel swimming pool with a club sandwich in one hand and a silly cocktail in the other. But travel is all about expanding your horizons, not your waistline—so pack a guidebook and hit these culture-rich destinations on your next break. Balinese Scene If you’re not already an artist, you’ll soon find the inspiration you need to become one in Ubud, the cultural heart of Bali. By Beverly Cheng Vacationers flock to Bali for its sand and surf, but what lies beyond the packed beaches is a destination rich in history and steeped in artistic tradition. Located at the center of the island, mountainous Ubud was once an artistic enclave that attracted hippies and local artists who found inspiration in its verdant rice paddies, lush jungles and friendly locals. Today, Ubud is one of the fastest developing tourist hubs in Bali and it’s growing at such a rapid rate that the town can barely cope with the hundreds of tour buses wreaking havoc in its narrow streets daily. But don’t let the throngs of tourists deter you—simply venture a bit further inland and you’ll be rewarded with a rare glimpse of Bali’s vibrant culture. Ride a bike out to the hinterlands, passing through local villages on the way to Mount Batur (one of the many active volcanoes on the island), and you’re bound to stumble across a few processions along the way. On an auspicious day deemed by the lunar calendar, men decked out in traditional sarongs bearing flags and pennants lead the way, followed by files of women wrapped in colorful waist scarves balancing bundles overflowing with fresh fruit and flowers (offerings for the gods) atop their heads. Daily offerings—palm leaf bundles filled with fresh flowers, rice, herbs and clove cigarettes— are also a common sight, found in shop fronts, outside of homes and stacked in carved stone cubbies outside of temples. Known as the island of 1,000 temples, locals will often invite tourists into their homes to tour their private temples. Placed at the center of the home, the multiple shrines are carved out of wood and limestone and house the ashes of ancestors. The nation’s finest craftsmen originate from this region, and handicrafts from Ubud are commonly prized above all others due to their high quality and intricate designs based on local folklore. Despite large-scale producers, grassroots production of hand-dyed batik fabrics, woodcarvings, masks and traditional paintings are on the rise. Balinese keepsakes of varying quality can be found at the Ubud market (Jl Monkey Forest and Jl Raya Ubud), a chaotic maze of stalls selling all sorts of wares at cheap prices if you know how to bargain. Sadly, many craftsmen have abandoned their trade to service the lucrative tourism industry, but the arts trade in Ubud has remained surprisingly buoyant. The influx of visitors isn’t all bad news, as tourist dollars have helped save many surviving local arts, financing the livelihoods of a new generation of artists who continue to create art for religious devotion while, at the same time, making ends meet by carving a few souvenirs on the side. Where to stay: Splurge at the Chedi Club at Tanah Gajah (Jl. Goa Gajah, Tengkulak Kaja, Ubud, Bali 80571, (62) 361-975-685, tanahgajah.com). Set among rice fields, this luxury hotel consistently holds the top rating on TripAdvisor—and for good reason. Once the private vacation estate of the royals, its 20 well-appointed suites and villas are all elegantly outfitted with rare artworks and Balinese antiques. Alternatively, budget accommodations can be found along the main stretch of JL Monkey Forest road. Try Adi Cottages (Jalan Wenara Wana, Ubud, Bali 80571, (62) 361-463-447), a small guesthouse that offers very basic rooms, with breakfast included, at bargain basement prices. Brush with Adventure If you want to try your hand at making your own art, a group of local artists, including painter Davina Stephens have founded The Fine Art Retreat, which holds weeklong workshops throughout the year in painting and photography. Recruiting notable artists from Australia, the workshop uses Bali’s majestic backdrop as its main subject. Courses include plein-air painting and photo safaris during which you traverse Ubud’s stunning landscapes. Prices start at US$5,470 per person for a weeklong course, which includes seven nights of accommodation at the Warwick Ibah, art course tuition and materials, guided excursions, airport transfers and some meals, including a picnic in the jungle. Visit www.fineartretreats.com.au for more information. Russia in Harbin A long lost history not forgotten. By Topaz Chan At first glance, Harbin appears like any other city on the mainland, with aging smokestacks, single-story brick houses and monotonous high rises zigzagging the skyline. Known for its frigid winters—with temperatures plummeting below minus 35 degrees Celsius—this seemingly unimpressionable city located in China’s northernmost province, Heilongjiang, boasts a surprising past entrenched in Russian history and culture, at one point holding the largest population of Russians living abroad. Once a sleepy Manchu fishing village, Harbin was transformed into a bustling trading hub as a result of the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway—a project financed by the Russian Empire to substantially shorten the distance to the Russian port city of Vladivostok. Hundreds of thousands of Russians moved and declared Harbin home, with numbers growing increasingly as people fled the Russian Revolution, inevitably bringing with them, in memories and belongings alike, bits and pieces of their old life. It quickly earned itself a reputation as “Little Moscow” with its main Central Street resembling Moscow’s famed Arbat Street—one of the oldest surviving pedestrian areas with a 600-year history. Harbin by the early 1920s had flourished into a cosmopolitan city full of European and Russian architecture popular in the belle époque era. But the optimism was short lived, and the old world glitz and glamor was destroyed under three successive regimes hostile to the Russians of Harbin: the Japanese occupiers, the post-war Soviet army and China’s communist government. Today, traces of Harbin’s elusive Russian past lingers for those who know where to find it. Central Street remains a pedestrian-only cobblestone street, about a mile long, now lined with stores, restaurants and malls—and though it is exactly as it sounds (a touristy gimmick), one can still enjoy a stroll down the wide, picturesque path, quickly becoming absorbed in the numerous European styled structures in the surroundings. The centerpiece to the strip is the century-old Modern Hotel , first owned by a member of Harbin’s thriving community of Russian Jews and built in an ornate, Louis XIV style. Friendly tip: snap a shot or two outside the impressive structure and forget staying there. Heading to the central district of Daoli, you’ll find the St. Sofia Cathedral , easily the most magnificent structure in Harbin. The cathedral was built in 1907 in an attempt to boost the morale of the Russian Army by erecting an imposing spiritual symbol in the heart of the city. It remains today a perfect standing symbol of Neo-Byzantine architecture. The main structure is designed like a cross with huge green-tipped domes delicately perched atop. Many say under the bright sun, the church and the square that it was built on is reminiscent of the Red Square in Moscow. Where to stay: You can’t go wrong with the Shangri-La (555 You Yi Rd., Harbin 150018, China, (86) 451-8485-8888), especially when it’s located on the banks of the picturesque Songhua River and situated adjacent to Stalin Park. The hotel boasts 5-star luxury accommodation, with 404 guestrooms and suites—the minus 17 degree ice bar hidden in the back of the hotel is a particularly cool touch. Pardon the pun. The Harbin Ice Festival Layer up (we recommend at least six layers of clothing—no joke) and trudge on over to the ultimate winter fest: the annual Harbin Ice and Snow World (North bank of Songhua River, Songbei District). One of the largest ice and snow exhibitions in the world, it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year and lasts for about two months, and 2012’s Ice and Snow Festival is confirmed to start on January 5, making it the perfect getaway for Chinese New Year. Think of it like a giant carnival made purely out of ice and snow. Expect to find giant ice sculptures lit up with light-emitting diodes, frozen candied fruits on sticks (be careful not to chip a tooth), zip lining, yaks waiting to be mounted for a photo, and our favorite part: the ice slides Frozen in Time Cochin, a coastal city in southern India, is a hive of diversity because of its 400-year-old history as a port. By Hana R. Alberts India’s a diverse place, so much so that people from the mountains up north can’t always communicate with residents of the hot, monsoony south because their dialects are so vastly different. The diverse nature of the country extends to the religious beliefs embraced by its denizens; though the vast majority is Hindu, other groups make up a sizable portion of the population. Kerala, a state along the southwestern coast popular with tourists for its scenic backwaters and ayurvedic massage, may just be the part of the country with the most obvious melting-pot sensibility. After all, compared to the rest of the country it has a lower percentage of Hindus and a proportionally higher number of Muslims, Christians and Jews. Even though it’s not a beach town, or full of picturesque rice paddies or tea plantations (all of which Kerala has in spades), visiting Cochin is a highlight of any trip to the region. A port city strategically located on the Arabian Sea, Cochin is a place that serves as a single snapshot of the region’s disparate communities and deeply layered history. At various points in time over the last 500 years, the Portuguese, Dutch and British held sway over local rulers; adding to the swirl of foreigners arriving on Cochin’s shores were Chinese, Italian and Arab traders. They chiefly sought spices—pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Head over to Bazaar Road —located on the spit of land called Fort Cochin that houses most of the sights of interest—and dodge rickshaws and cars while peeking into European-style storefronts with peeling paint whose floors are lined with burlap sacks full of fragrant spices. (Modern-day trading companies are happy to sell you some, or show you how to sift through the piles to separate the good from the bad—for a price, of course.) Nearby is the Jewish enclave , which boasts a charming and unique synagogue. Built in 1568, the floor is lined with Qinghua-style Chinese tiles and glittering chandeliers hang from the ceiling (which is, by the way, pretty atypical décor for a Jewish temple). There was once quite a sizable population of Jewish traders, but many families have since moved to Israel after its founding in 1948. Only about nine remain. A jarring sight that embodied the interlaced cultures of the area came when an elderly woman (who, clad in a housecoat, looked like any European or American grandma) selling matzah covers started chattering away to a neighbor in Malayalam, the local dialect. Christian influences dot the city, too, in the form of colonial-looking churches with beautifully decaying facades. St. Francis Church is said to be the oldest church built by Europeans in India. Its claim to fame is that on one of his visits to the trading hub, Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama became sick and then died in Cochin; he was buried at the church, but his remains were later taken back to Portugal. You can still see his former burial spot, clearly marked inside the church. (Santa Cruz Basilica is the other major Christian pilgrimage site.) As for the Muslim community, there are also a handful of mosques—just listen for the dissonant sound of the call to prayer. Catch a further glimpse of Chinese influence by taking a stroll along the Fort Cochi waterfront to see the massive fishing nets, which tourism officials say is the only place you can see them outside of China. Local fishermen make their living by their catches, and there are roadside hawkers who can cook up any fish you buy. Where to Stay: Care for a place to stay that reflects the city’s rich history? The Brunton Boatyard Hotel ((91) 484-301-1711, www.cghearth.com/brunton_boatyard ) was crafted out of the dregs of a Victorian shipyard that fell into disuse. Relive the glory days through Brunton’s white-columned, dark wood-vaulted architecture as old-fashioned fans whirl above. Walls are lined with old maps, and display cases showcase antique navigation devices. The hotel’s restaurant serves fusion dishes that reflect the diversity of Cochin’s history, incorporating flavors and culinary techniques of Portuguese, Dutch, English, Arab, Syrian Christian and Jewish origins. Literary Rome Penny Zhou follows in the footsteps of great writers and poets who used the Eternal City as their muse. Once the capital of the world, and still one of the most spectacular places on the planet, Rome—with its 2,500-year history rich with religion, art and architecture—never ceases to stun travellers around the globe. But while everybody has visited the Vatican, seen the Coliseum and thrown a coin in the Trevi Fountain, bookworms can discover some extra special gems as they revisit Rome’s lesser-known role as a muse for prominent modern poets, writers and thinkers from Europe and across the Atlantic. These literary spots make the Eternal City an eternal attraction for literature fans. Also known by the locals as the “English Quarter,” the Piazza di Spagna area was once home to many English Romantic poets. Percy Bysshe Shelly’s “The Cenci” was heavily inspired by his stay in Rome, and so was “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” one of Lord Byron’s most important poems. At the heart of the piazza, right next to the eye-popping Spanish Steps, is the Keats-Shelly Memorial House , famously known as the place where John Keats spent the last three months of his life. In the winter of 1820, a tuberculosis-ridden Keats received money from his friends to move to Rome in hopes that the warmer southern climate would alleviate his terminal illness. Sadly, it didn’t, and the young poet died at the age of 25 the following February. Today, fans and visitors who come to the house to commemorate Keats’s brief life will find a large collection of items related to the poet, including manuscripts, the first edition of “Endymion,” letters from Fanny Brawn (the love of his life) and drawings of him by artist Joseph Severn. Manuscripts and letters by the likes of Oscar Wilde, Robert Browning and William Wordsworth, as well as some 10,000 volumes of Romantic literature, are well-preserved and exhibited in numerous rooms. In the southeastern corner of Rome lies the city’s cypress-covered Protestant Cemetery (a.k.a. the non-Catholic cemetery). Away from all the major tourist sites, the cemetery hides behind the Pyramid of Cestius and is the perfect place for those seeking serenity and peace. Although not remotely as big as Paris’s famed Père Lachaise Cemetery, where the likes of Wilde and Proust rest underground, here too you can stumble across a lot of familiar names. Famous burials include English writers Frances Minto Elliot and John Addington Symonds , American poet Gregory Corso and Italy’s own influential writer, linguist and philosopher, Antonio Gramsci. Lifelong friends and fellow Englishmen Shelley and Edward John Trelawny are buried side by side. But your tour wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Keats’s grave, whose tombstone contains the epitaph, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Keats’s loyal friend Joseph Severn, who went to Rome and took care of the poet in his last months, was—according to his own wish—buried next to Keats upon his death in 1879, almost 60 years after Keats’s. Not far from Piazza di Spagna, the old house of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stands quietly by Piazza del Popolo. The very rooms that the German literary titan lived in during his stay in Italy in the late 18th century have now been converted into a small museum, introducing visitors to Goethe’s life and work. The highlight of the venue, however, has got to be the library, which houses an impressive collection of the first editions of the writer’s books. And they’re not just cordoned off behind glass display cases—you can also consult the books if you make an advance appointment. Where to stay: If you’re not content with merely retracing the steps of all Rome-loving writers, you can even live the way they did. Located between Piazza del Popolo and Piazza di Spagna, Hotel de Russie (Via del Babuino 9, 00187 Rome, (39) 0632-8881, www.hotelderussie.it ) is one of the city’s most prominent luxury hotels, whose famous past guests include Henry James and Charles Dickens. And look what their sojourns here have inspired: “Daisy Miller” and “Pictures of Italy.” Not bad, huh? People looking for a more poetic vibe can walk uphill to the beautiful Villa Borghese—feel free to recite “She Walks in Beauty” in front of the large-scale statue of Lord Byron. Beyond Gaudi There’s more to Barcelona’s architecture than the Sagrada Familia. Text and photos by Gregoire Glachant There are so many reasons to love Barcelona. Home to vast Picasso and Miro museums, it has some of the best modern art collections in Europe. Set by the Mediterranean—and a short drive from the legendary (but now closed) El Bulli restaurant—it’s famous for its amazing food, in particular its seafood and tapas. Apart from the amazing lifestyle, it’s also a stunningly beautiful city. There’s a medieval neighborhood with winding streets (Barrio Gotico), bold contemporary towers by the sea, and block after block of Moderniste buildings, a style that reached its peak with local architect Antoni Gaudi’s revolutionary sculptures-slash-buildings. His two most famous are the Sagrada Familia and the Casa Batllo, which you’ll most probably want to see, but the places selected here will allow you to go beyond the postcard icons, and beyond Gaudi: greats like Richard Meier, Mies van der Rohe and Jean Nouvel have left their trace in Barcelona, too. Of course you’ll want to see the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished cathedral that remains under construction to this day, or his psychedelic Casa Batllo. But architecture buffs shouldn’t miss the Casa Mila (Provenca 261-265, (34) 934-845-900. Open daily 9am-6:30pm Nov-Feb, 9am-8pm Mar-Oct). For one, its exhibition on the top floor is one of the best recaps of Gaudi’s work, with quality models, videos and displays. But it also shows off Gaudi’s ability to do smart—and elegant—interior design for what basically amount to condo units, something that resonates deeply with our urban souls. To get in, make sure you buy the package from Articket BCN ( www.articketbcn.org ). Hardly advertised at this particular venue, it grants access to seven museums for 25 euros. La Pedrera alone is 12 euros so it is definitely worth the price. Just three blocks away, the Fundacio Antoni Tapies (Arago 255, (34) 934-870-315. Open Tue-Sun, 10am-7pm) isn’t as bold as Gaudi’s nature-inspired, free-form extravagances, but it remains a shining example of the Moderniste architecture. Turned into a foundation for the arts in 1984 by artist Antoni Tapies, the building was given a crazy frizz of metallic hair while the vast hall inside now plays houses a permanent collection, rotating exhibitions and a gorgeous library paneled in wood. Also on the Articket BCN (see above). Leaving the Eixample area for the heights of Montjuic Parc, you can catch a bird’s eye view of the city and visit the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion (Av. Francesc Ferrer I Guardia 7, Parc de Montjuic, (34) 934-234-016. Open daily 10am-8pm), a treasure of modern architecture. Set at the foot of the Palau Nacional housing the National Museum, this simple flat building was originally built as the German pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. It was dismantled in 1930 and rebuilt in 1983-1986 but its purity and elegance have remained the template for the last 80 years of modern architecture. Entrance EUR4.60. The Montjuic Communications Tower , erected in 1992 for the Olympics, is a dizzying sight—and the plaza surrounding it commands views of Barcelona’s quiet backcountry. The Olympic Park itself isn’t much to look at, so get back into the park and follow the signs to the Fundacio Joan Miro (Open Tue-Sat 10am-7pm, Thu 10am-9:30pm, Sun 10am-2:30pm), where you can take in the artist’s colorful whimsies and the rugged, Corbusier-inspired architecture of the museum housing the late artist’s vast collection. You can then take a cable car back down to the city for panoramic views of the harbor. Where to Stay: One thing we love about Spain is the Room Mate Hotels ((34) 913-995-777, www.room-matehotels.com ). They’re affordable, they do a killer breakfast buffet and the clean, modern rooms have just enough designer touches to avoid boredom. Their hotel in Barcelona is a two-minute walk from Casa Batllo, so it’s in the heart of the Eixample neighorhood, with the best modernist architecture and the best shopping.