Brindisi, Italy

Sitting on the boot’s heel of long-legged Italy is Brindisi, one of the three main towns of the Salento peninsula. Moving south, Italy changes, everything is different – the light is different, the language is different and the sea is different – deeper, open, Italian, Greek, Mediterranean.

Brindisi has always been known because of its port, the gateway to the East, built by the Romans that exploited its natural shape, which looks like of a deer’s head. It is one of the safest ports in the whole of the Mediterranean.

From here the Crusaders sailed to liberate the Holy Land. The Silk Route passed through Brindisi and it is still possible to spot the wagon rails used to move the goods from the trains onto the British P&O ships that connected London to Bombay.

More recently, the port’s most significant role has been to connect Italy to Greece and long before charter flights became such a big thing, travellers had to pass through here to make their way to Greece and further afield.

I must say the town has never done much to invite travellers to stop. What regularly happened was that thousands of people arrived every day in the summertime from all over the world and were left hanging around the harbour ’til late at night with nothing more to do than visit the beer and wine aisle in the cheap supermarket nearby.

Anyone who passed through Brindisi to catch a ferry to Greece up until the ’90s will tell you how boring their stay was, and how difficult it was to get local transport to beaches nearby or to small towns in the countryside.

Things have slightly changed however and are still improving. It really took a while, though! It took generations of politicians and now, as the local administrators are younger people, less motivated by the corruptive side of power, the results can be seen. The number of backpackers has fallen dramatically because interrailing is no longer the cheapest or the most comfortable way to reach holiday destinations.

More people speak other languages, more information centres can be found, and connections to pretty towns in the countryside are a lot easier.

Ostuni is only 35km north-west of Brindisi and its Arabic and Greek architecture attracts more and more visitors every year. A famous festival with street artists from all over Europe is held in the month of August and a number of other cultural initiatives take place all year long, increasing during the summer months.

Further north lies Alberobello, another little gem, with its famous trulli, pre-historical houses with cone-shaped roofs made of slates of dry stone.

Egnatia, near Fasano, with its Roman settlements and the white-washed houses in lively Cisternino are worth a visit as well.

South of Brindisi, near the beautiful Baroque Lecce, the picturesque Otranto and Gallipoli are among a number of resorts known for their nightlife and their clean and beautiful beaches.

Festivals, cultural events and sagras – occasions usually linked to the commemoration of the local saint – combined with delicious seafood and wine, make the Salento peninsula the ideal place for a really exciting holiday rather than just a stop over.

Remaining in Brindisi, the visitor can easily visit the local Archaeological Museum or the permanent exhibition of the bronze Greek statues rescued from the sea.

The unstable situation in the Balkans has forced the thousands of Turkish people living in Northern European countries to choose Brindisi as the only possible route on their way to Turkey for the summer holidays, which normally fall between the end of June and July. During these months the town struggles to cope with the number of cars waiting hours and sometimes even days for the ferries to Cesme or Igoumenitsa.

The travellers coming at this time of the year may have the impression of a chaotic hot and polluted place…and it’s not just an impression!

I would recommend, for maps to Brindisi, try the TCI regional map of Puglia and the LAC provincial map of Brindisi and LAC map of Lecce.

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Author: Archangelo Amodio

Georgia

Looking for somewhere different that is neither quite Europe nor Asia? Georgia in the Caucasus is a lot more than mountain tribes with wool hats – though you can find these as well among the 5000m-high Caucasus peaks.

It might come as a surprise to some, but the capital, Tbilisi, is a friendly, safe, relaxed tree-lined city with Soviet, Czarist, 21st century and ancient Georgian church architecture all seeming a bit confused in each others company. Add some of the most hospitable people on earth (do accept any invitation to attend a traditional Georgian feast that lasts long into the night), and you have a great off the beaten track destination with the advantage of the first guidebooks to assist you.

The Georgia Bradt Guide gives superb cultural and historic background with real practical what, where and how of even remote corners of the country. Lonely Planet fans will be glad to hear that Georgia is now also in their coverage with a combined Lonely Planet guide for Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The best map is the ITMB country map of Georgia (1:610 000 scale) with a Tbilisi town plan insert.

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Author: Gerhard Buttner

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, is a hidden gem. A very pleasant city with an extensive Old Town to explore, parks, castles and a few surprises, like the Frank Zappa Memorial (and why not?) and the run-down artists’ quarter of Uzupio. You might even be lucky and arrive at the right time, as on certain weekends Lithuanians like to dress up in traditional costume and gather in parks and town squares to sing and dance, asserting their national identity.

Unless you are in the decaying concrete suburbs that ring the city, you would never guess that this cosmopolitan city was part of the Soviet Union just a decade ago.

The most detailed guidebook to the Baltic States are definitely the Bradt Travel Guides and the Bradt Travel Guide to Lithuania is worth the buy. If needed, take the very handy Lonely Planet Baltic Phrasebook. As for maps, Latvian cartographers Jana Seta do the best maps for just about anywhere in the Baltics. I recommend both the Jana Seta street plan of Vilnius, and the 1:500,000 Jana Seta Lithuania Map.

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Author: Guy Bristow

Aran Islands

The largest of the three Aran Islands, Inishmore, can be reached by ferry from Rossaveel (or Galway) on the Connemara coast. You can see most of the island in a day trip, though I wished I’d taken more time to absorb the grandeur and isolation of the place. There is only one road running down the island’s length, and there are minivans, bicycles or horse drawn carriages to hire in the harbour at Kilronan.

The must see is the ruined prehistoric fort of Dun Aonghasa, which not only perches on the edge of the cliff high above the ocean, but incomprehensibly also faces the full force of the western winds. A mysterious and majestic site.

The Ordnance Survey of Ireland map of The Aran Islands at 1:25,000 will give you some reference points and serve as a souvenir. Once you’re bitten by the place I would recommend you to dive into Tim Robinson’s wonderful book Stones of Aran: A Pilgrimage. It is an obsessive survey of the minutiae of the island’s landscape, history and myth – a unique masterpiece. Unfortunately it is now out of print, but it is definitely worth tracking down (I know the author lived locally).

Douglas Schatz worked at Stanfords for more than 20 years, and was the company’s managing director until April 2009. He is now pursuing several exciting ideas in the world of books and digital publishing.

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Author: Douglas Schatz