In which we present a regular round-up of news from the world of Grown-up Travel
Wet, wild and definitely white-knuckle
From the Tay to the Colorado, and even the crocodile-invested Zambezi, there’s a river waiting to be rafted – if you have the nerve.
What’s the attraction?
Rafting is an egalitarian activity. Time isn’t an issue: options range in length from half-day tasters to multi-week expeditions. Fitness isn’t all-important either: if you chose the right trip, the current and your helmsman will do most of the hard work for you.
Plus people of all ages can try it; specialist tour operator Water By Nature (01226 740 444; waterbynature.com) has guided rafters aged from four up to 74 – the system of grading rivers I (trickle) to VI (terrifying) makes it easy to judge the dangers before you start. On many rafting holidays, you don’t even need to be able to swim. And it’s a lot of fun, too.
Scotland is home to the UK’s wildest rivers. The River Tay in Perthshire is the only course that can be rafted year round (though it gets ferocious in winter). Splash (01887 829706; rafting.co.uk) runs half-day trips on the Tay from £40 per person, negotiating the 10km stretch from Aberfeldy – a good introduction for beginners – before battling the Grandtully rapids, the longest and feistiest on the river.
If you’d prefer a gentler introduction, the Lee Valley White Water Centre (08456 770 606; visitleevalley.org.uk) in Hertfordshire – where Team GB took gold and silver during the Olympics – offers hour-long rafting experiences for £49pp.
Madrid’s three must-see sites
I’m standing on a tiny balcony overlooking the Times Square of all of Spain — Madrid’s Puerta del Sol. Within a 10-minute walk I can visit one of the greatest palaces in Europe — Madrid’s Royal Palace, the ultimate town square — Plaza Mayor, or my favourite collection of paintings under any single roof in Europe — the Prado Museum.
Just like in New York’s Times Square, crowds in Madrid fill this square on New Year’s Eve while the rest of Spain watches the action on TV. As Spain’s “Big Ben” atop the governor’s office chimes 12 times, Madrilenos eat one grape for each ring to bring good luck through each of the next 12 months.
But unlike New York’s famous gathering space, this square — like so many in Europe — has gone from a traffic nightmare to a more park-like people zone. It’s what makes Madrid livable. Car traffic has been limited (made possible by the excellent public transportation system), letting the fine old buildings show off their original elegance in an inviting, wide-open setting.
From Puerta del Sol, I’m going to do a blitz tour of three major sights. I start by strolling toward the Royal Palace (patrimonionacional.es), which I consider Europe’s third greatest palace (after Versailles, near Paris, and Schonbrunn in Vienna). Over the years, I’ve probably visited it at least 10 times — and I always learn more fascinating facts to include in my guidebook.
It’s big — more than 2,000 rooms, with tons of luxurious tapestries, a king’s ransom of chandeliers, priceless porcelain, and bronze decor covered in gold leaf. While these days the royal family lives in a mansion a few miles away, this place still functions as a royal palace, and is used for formal state receptions, royal weddings, and tourists’ daydreams.
One highlight is the throne room, where red velvet walls, lions, and frescoes of Spanish scenes symbolize the monarchy in a Rococo riot. Another eye-stopper is the dining hall, where the king can entertain as many as 144 guests at a bowling lane-size table. The ceiling fresco depicts Christopher Columbus kneeling before Ferdinand and Isabel, presenting exotic souvenirs and his New World “friends” to the royal couple.
Rialto Bridge to carry advertising as Venice seeks cash for restoration
Venice council invites bids from sponsors to support the city’s restoration of monuments.
Venice’s Rialto Bridge is to be partially draped with advertising as the city seeks €5m (£4m) for desperately needed restoration. Venice council is inviting bids from would-be sponsors, who in return will be able to hang their adverts on hoardings cloaking the bridge during work, as well as hold events in St Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace.
As Venice’s monuments suffer increasing wear and tear from rising tides and mass tourism, the city has pinned its hopes on sponsors supporting the restoration, but it faced protests in 2010 when it covered the Bridge of Sighs with a temporary Coca-Cola hoarding as it was being restored, earning it the nickname “The bridge of signs”.
Venice’s public works assessor, Alessandro Maggioni, said only a quarter of the Rialto, built in 1591, would be covered with hoardings at any one time, and only a third of the hoardings’ overall area would feature advertising.
The restoration work is expected to last 18 months and is due to wrap up in April 2015, while Venice’s Academy Bridge would be next in line for sponsored restoration, he added.
Are these the worst hotel guests ever?
Most travellers would admit to having taken a towel or toiletries from a hotel room, but these thieving guests are every hotel employee’s nightmare.
Ensuring they didn’t leave their room empty-handed, some hotel guests have nicked telephones, televisions, curtains and even mattresses from their rooms, according to a survey of 500 hotels around the world by hotel website lastminute.com.
It turns out nothing is safe, not even the floor – with one hotel guest taking such a shine to the carpet of one Las Vegas hotel that they cut it out completely and took it with them.
Meanwhile a guest at a five-star Dubai hotel liked the mini-bar options so much they decided to take the entire fridge with them, along with a sofa.
Another at a Berlin hotel stole the rain shower heads, hydro massage shower units, taps, interior plumbing, sink… and toilet seats!
A luxury Istanbul hotel reported that a guest emptied the entire room of its fittings and furniture, except for the bed, desk and TV. And they’re not the only one.
“Some even developed enlightened enthusiasm to dislodge every single bulb in a room as reported by several hotels,” the survey outlined.
Artworks, heavy statues and sculptures and antiques were also items stolen from hotels. Oh, and a cigarette machine!