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PAMIR HIGHWAY IN TAJIKISTAN

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PAMIR HIGHWAY IN TAJIKISTAN

Sheer limestone on your right; a gravelly drop down into a glacier-blue river valley to your left. There’s barely room for a bike to pass at this point – but that’s all right. You’ll be the only ones on this road for the next 100km or so. The most traffic you’ll see is black-robed herders on horseback, corralling their horned cattle to their summer highway

pasture below. You’ve left a Silk Road city in your rear-view mirror and have the highest town in Tajikistan in your sights. Welcome to the Pamir Highway.

YOU’RE NOT JUST OFF THE BEATEN TRACK. THE PAMIR HIGHWAY IS PRETTY MUCH UNHEARD OF IN MANY TOURIST CIRCLES.

– Chris Ellis, from our adventure holiday specialists Explore

It’s little wonder that the Pamir Highway has been on Chris Ellis’ mind for the best part of four years. He’s been trying to create a Pamir Highway trip via Tajikistan since he started working for our adventure holiday specialists Explore – and he’s finally succeeded.

“We knew it was not going to be a holiday,” says Chris. “It was going to be an adventure in the truest sense of the word. It’s hard going. The pace of travel is fast; you’ve got travel at altitude; you’ve got long days in the car. It’s a hard trip, and we try to be as honest about this as possible, so that people are ready for that. You kind of know that when you put on a trip like this that it’s going to appeal to those really intrepid travellers that are looking for that next adventure.”

The Pamir Highway (or – for the unromantics – the plain old M41) is one of the highest road trips on earth. Over around three weeks and 1,250km, you’ll bump through three countries, from Tajikistan’s capital of Dushanbe to Osh, the oldest city in Kyrgyzstan, on a road with Silk Road origins. Even better: it’s via a gauntlet of lunar mountain passes, furious river rapids, hot springs and geysers.

This isn’t the sort of region you want to admire from afar. You’ll scramble across mountain passes in a four-wheel drive, hike the alpine meadows, stay with the communities that tough it out at 3,650m, and learn about the storied history of the Pamiri people who live here. Because while tourists might think this is the edge of the world, to tens of thousands it’s the centre. Along the Shuraba Pass (2,267m) – the border region between Tajikistan and Afghanistan – people still tell stories of the shepherds, pilgrims, traders, explorers and soldiers who have traversed these roads for a few millennia.

Read our Pamir Highway guide to see what’s what – and to work out whether this rocky road is your cup of tea at all.

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11 Facts About Sable Island That Might Surprise You

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Sable Island

If you’re from the Seaside, you probably grew up listening to stories about the mysterious, isolated, and wild windswept sandbar known as Sable Island.

Often referred to as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic“, Sable Island is an amazing place of strange origins and unspoiled beauty. Located 300 km southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, the island has fascinated for centuries and continues to attract explorers, explorers, artists and travelers from all over the world.

You’ve probably seen photos and heard stories about the island’s wild horses, but really, how much do you know about Sable Island? Test your knowledge or get to know the island better with our list of eleven facts about Sable Island that will surprise you!

1. Sable Island is part of Halifax.

Despite being 290 km off the coast of Halifax, Sable Island is part of the Halifax region!

In fact, during the 2017 provincial elections, a polling station for a handful of the island’s voters was created in the 27th arrondissement Halifax Citadel – Sable Island.

2. The island is much bigger than you think

Often people ask if it is possible to walk from one end of the thin crescent-shaped island to the other end. And, unfortunately, no. Sable Island is 26 miles long, the equivalent of walking across the sand from downtown Halifax to Peggy’s Cove.

3. Island contains over 500 wild horses!

After centuries of harsh winters, the exact origin of the Sable Island horse population is still unknown.

Some believe they are the ancestors of shipwrecked horses, while others claim they were abandoned on the island by Scandinavians, John Cabot, Portuguese explorers or academics.

The most popular and likely explanation is that a Boston merchant, hired to transport the academics during the exile, placed the horses on the island.

4. The horses from Island were almost taken off the island and turned into pet food!

In 1959, the Canadian government decided to recall the horses after a particularly harsh winter, with plans to turn most of them into pet food. Thankfully, thanks to letters from children across the country and around the world to then Prime Minister John Diefenbaker asking them to leave the horses on the island, this never happened.

Diefenbaker made his defense into law with the Canadian Shipping Act forbidding any tampering with or removal of the Sable Island horses from the island.

5 – There is only one tree on Sable Island.

A scrawny pine planted decades ago, barely three feet tall, is a lone sable tree. And if you saw him, you would think that he looks more like a bush than a tree.

The trees cannot survive due to the raging winds on the island and the lack of real soil to take root.

6. The Island is a paradise for bird watchers.

Over 350 bird species have been recorded on the island, and sixteen species are known to nest here.

From terns, gulls, ducks and waders to rarer birds like the Ipswich sparrow and tropical species blown north by violent storms, Sable Island is not just about horses, it’s about birds.

7. The island hosts the world’s largest breeding colony of gray seals.

Gray seals are a popular sight on the beaches of Sable Island. Harbor seals are also year-round residents, but are not as common as gray seals.

8. Sable Island was home to Canada’s first lifesaving station, founded in 1801.

With a nickname like “Cemetery of the Atlantic“, this fact shouldn’t come as a surprise. Due to rough seas, thick fog, and flooded sandbanks surrounding the island, Sable sank over 350 ships.

Thanks to advances in technology and navigation, shipwrecks are extremely rare on the island today. The last shipwreck was in 1999 from a yacht called Merrimac, and today parts of the wreck can be found on the island’s South Beach.

9. Sable Island – Canada’s 43rd National Park.

The final law was passed in December 2013 and declared Sable Island a national park. Although closed during the winter months (November to June), in June 2014 the island was opened to the public for the first time.

This was amazing news for all Atlantic Canadians who have dreamed of visiting Sable Island since childhood!

10. Sable Island is moving

Some scientists say the island is gradually moving eastward as it is slowly washed away from the western end while sand accumulates at the eastern end. Constant movement as the center of the island moves east. Others believe that its center is not moving, and the island is shrinking and may eventually disappear!

11. This hot air balloon that you accidentally missed in the clouds … probably ended up on Sable Island.

Everything that goes up must go down.

Have you ever wondered what happens to the balloons that take off into the sky? They often end up on Sable Island, where plastic has become much more common. Debris and discarded fishing gear, as well as remnants of balloons, wash ashore every day.

Sable Island resident and explorer Zoe Lucas collects thousands of balloons every year and traces their origins to balloon advertisements.

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Breathtaking Places in Spain to Visit Before You Die

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Breathtaking places in Spain

Breathtaking Places in Spain

There are many breathtaking places in Spain. So many, in fact, that it may actually be difficult to decide where to go! Now you don’t have to. Instead, just follow this list of the most stunning spots in Spain you shouldn’t miss.
Did you know you can now travel with Culture Trip? Book now and join one of our premium small-group tours to discover the world like never before.

Sagrada Família, Barcelona

Building, Church

Barcelona, Spain - September 24th, 2015: Cathedral of La Sagrada Familia. It is designed by architect Antonio Gaudi and is being build since 1882.

© Valery Egorov / Alamy Stock Photo

While the entire city of Barcelona is gorgeous in itself, the unfinished masterpiece by Antoni Gaudí, the Sagrada Família church, is simply mindblowing. Together with several other Gaudí buildings in Barcelona, the church has UNESCO World Heritage status. Construction of the famous building dates back to 1882, and although Gaudí died in 1926, construction still continues today. Projections say the Sagrada Família should be complete in 2026, and will include 18 spires. Once the building is complete, it will most likely be the tallest church in the world and one of the most breathtaking places in Spain.

Insider tip: Buy tickets online ahead of time to avoid waiting in very long lines. After all, this is one of the most popular breathtaking places in Spain (Barcelona), with about three million visitors a year. Alternately, book Culture Trip’s four-day Mini Trip to Barcelona and let our Local Insider take care of the logistics.

Designed by world famous architect Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao has one of the most unique designs in the world. The exterior, which is covered with giant sheets of glass and titanium, is waved and curved to catch the sunlight.

This modern art museum was built in 1997, and its permanent collection includes work by Rothko, Richard Serra, Basquiat, Anselm Kiefer, Louise Bourgeois and Jeff Koons. Located on the banks of the Nervión river, capturing the museum’s spectacular architectural design from different angles is almost as much fun as seeing the art inside of it.


Insider tip: After a day filled with art at the museum, make sure to chow down on some pintxos, which are gourmet tapas Bilbao is famous for – join our four-day foodie Mini Trip to the Basque Country for a pintxos tour.

The Aqueduct, Segovia

Cathedral

The aqueduct in Segovia, Spain | © Mathanki Kodavasal

One of the most well-preserved in the world and one the most breathtaking places in Spain, Segovia’s enormous Roman aqueduct dates back to the first century. The massive stone structure spans about nine miles before it reaches the city center. The city portion has 167 arches, some double and some single. The aqueduct, combined with the cathedral and fairytale-like castle make Segovia ideal for a day trip from Madrid.

Insider tip: After you’ve seen the all the breathtaking places in Spain, stop at almost any restaurant in town for Segovia’s culinary speciality of roast suckling pig, known in Spanish as cochinillo.

The Alhambra is one of the most breathtaking places in Spain. Constructed in 889 by the Moors and later changed and renovated by the Christian kings in the 16th century, the palace is a grand example of many different styles of architecture and art. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this castle, which sits perched upon a hill, is not only exciting to explore, but also features stunning views of the city of Granada and the countryside and mountains that lay beyond.

Insider tip: Buy tickets online well in advance to ensure you get to visit the Alhambra (breathtaking places in Spain), as only a certain number of visitors are allowed per day. A guided tour of the Alhambra is included on our four-day Mini Trip to Andalucia.

Towering above the Picos de Europa mountain range, the Basílica de Santa María la Real de Covadonga rises out of the greenery with its pink and red steeples. The Neo-Romanesque church is constructed entirely from pink limestone, and if you’ve never seen a pink church before this will more than satisfy your curiosity.

The Santa Cueva de Covadonga is a sanctuary carved into the side of a cave and mountain with a waterfall, where the Virgin Mary has been said to appear to worshipers. Two spectacular glacial lakes, Lake Enol and Lake Ercina, are located in the park and definitely warrant a visit too.

Insider tip: Be careful when visiting (breathtaking places in Spain) the park during inclement weather, as the lakes may be closed due to difficult curves and poor visibility.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Market

The Plaza Mayor at dusk | © Sebastian Dubiel/Wikipedia

Walking into the Plaza Mayor is one of those magnificent moments that will have you staring in awe at the 237 balconies facing the square’s center, complete with a statue of Felipe III on his horse. Enjoy a delicious—albeit, overpriced, but who cares because the plaza is just so gorgeous—cold beer on one of the many terraces as you admire this 17th century plaza that was once the site of bullfights, public executions, trials during the Spanish Inquisition and crowning ceremonies.

Insider tip: Check out the traditional San Miguel Market located just outside the Plaza Mayor for some tapas and vino.

Thanks to Córdoba’s hot, dry climate, the city’s very first inhabitants (first Romans, then Moors) created homes around a central courtyard, often with a fountain in the middle or a well. Still common today, this style of home is typical in Córdoba, and these small courtyards—now called patios—are world-famous for their stunning decoration and blooming flowers. Whereas you can view many patios year-round, the best time to see them is during the yearly patio festival each May.

Insider tip: Checking out the patios in the early evening is a great way to avoid crowds, especially during the festival, when many go in the morning or afternoon.

Ronda is one of Spain’s oldest towns, dating back to the 9th century BC. Not only is this mountaintop village quaint and picturesque, the gorge that splits Ronda is simply magnificent. Each angle of the gorge looks different—perfect for budding photographers hoping to get that amazing shot. You can even cross the gorge by walking over the Puente Nuevo bridge. It’s one place you can’t miss in southern Spain.

Insider tip: Once you’ve snapped the gorge from every direction possible, head into town to eat some rabo del toro (oxtail), Ronda’s speciality.

Rising between 500 and 800 meters (1,640 and 2,625 feet) above sea level, Los Gigantes are enormous cliffs that tower above the ocean. Situated on Tenerife, one of Spain’s seven Canary Islands, the cliffs are truly a natural beauty. Enjoy the gorgeous panoramic scenery by climbing up to the viewpoint, strolling the beach down below, or even do some hikes if you dare. A visit to the nearby black sand beaches (made from volcanic ash) can complete your day of fun on the island.

Insider tip: Visiting Los Gigantes (and Tenerife in general) is the ideal trip if you’d like to explore breathtaking places in Spain but don’t speak any Spanish. The high expat population guarantees you’ll always be able to find someone who speaks English.

Spain is full of incredible cathedrals, but the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela has a very special component. Not only is the Cathedral the burial spot of St. James, one of the 12 apostles, but it’s also the ending point of the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James), a pilgrimage of about 800 kilometers (500 miles) that many take through northern Spain. Completed in 1211, this Baroque and Romanesque church features 80-meter (260-foot) high bell towers that rise above the city.

Insider tip: Pay the extra few euros to take the rooftop tour. It’s worth it to see the grand views of Santiago de Compostela.

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Steps To Heaven-Montserrat, Spain

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Steps to Heaven

What Is It:

Located in Montserrat, Spain, ‘Steps to Heaven’ is one of the holiest places in Spain, which explains why it is such a famous place of pilgrimage among the locals.

Millions of tourists visit Montserrat every year to see some of the most beautiful monuments in the region. The Steps to Heaven is one of my favorite sights.

The Steps to Heaven, also commonly known by the locals as the Escala de l’Enteniment, was conceived by the late Joseph Maria Subirachs, one of the most famous Spanish sculptors and painters of his day.

Inspiration:

Josep Maria was inspired to design and create Steps to Heaven by Ramon Llull1, philosopher, mystic and missionary of the Kingdom of Mallorca.

The monument to Ramon Lull by Subirachs expresses Lull’s thought in which he classifies the various themes of creation. Thus, this monument consists of eight rectangular blocks that have been stacked in a spiral to represent seven different beings and their chess order in life.

In particular, each of the steps of the monument represents the following creatures from the top to the highest stone: stones, then flames, then plants, beasts, people, heaven, followed by angels and God at the top.

Stones, flames and plants are part of the material world, and the other three are from the intellectual world. We are involved in both worlds, and this duality makes us greedy and virtuous at the same time. Our choices either keep us on the lower rungs or bring us closer to the top.

Nine parallelepipeds form a set of steps that gradually unfold like a fan. Only the last one, representing God, is geometrically perfect, a cube with all the polished edges.

You can look but you can’t climb these Steps to Heaven

Although the monument seems high and it is dangerous to climb to the top, which is now prohibited, in fact the stairs are only about 9 meters high and are located in the courtyard. Thus, climbing and reaching the upper level involves climbing blocks 3 meters wide, which represent the eight stages of consciousness, from stone below to God above.

Now the sculpture was fenced off so that people could not climb to the top of the monument. Without even climbing the top rock, Subirach’s work is surrounded by a spectacular mountain range that gives a sense of calm to anyone climbing the Steps to Heaven.

The location emphasizes grandeur and, installed on one of the terraces of Montserrat, seems to open into infinity.

Location:

The monument is located very close to the Abbey of Montserrat, which belongs to the Order of St. Benedict.

A little about Joseph  Maria Subirachs:

Joseph  Maria Subirachs had a long and successful career in various other disciplines, not just in sculpture. The artist is best remembered for his work on the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, which was commissioned in 1986.

Subiraxchs was commissioned to create sculptural groups for the exterior of the church. It took Josep 18 years to complete them.

But it was not until the 1960s that Subiraki began to attract international recognition, when the artist was invited to participate in numerous exhibitions throughout Europe, America and China. Most of his sculptures are placed in public places in Barcelona and Catalonia.

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