juliamhammond

Julia's Travels

Over the last 25 years, I've visited over a hundred countries and learned a lot about saving money without scrimping on the travel experience. If you're looking to broaden your horizons and make your travel budget stretch further, then Julia's Travels is for you. To find out more about my work as a freelance travel writer, please visit www.juliahammond.co.uk.

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Get a jump on your travel planning – trips that require forward planning

Right now we can’t travel far, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking about it. In fact, some destinations require a lot of forward planning. If you’re keen to tick one of these trips off your wishlist, then you should get started on your research.

The Oberammergau Passion Play, Germany

Oberammergau’s Passion Play only takes place once every ten years and so if you miss out, there’s a long wait before you can try again. In the 17th century, this part of Germany was affected by the plague. The desperate villagers prayed to God and promised to perform the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ every decade, if no one else died. Their prayers were answered and the villagers honoured their word. In 1634 the first Passion Play took place. The promise has been kept every decade, but the 2020 performances, like many events last year, didn’t take place. Fortunately the play was postponed rather than cancelled and the organisers are now taking reservations for 2022. Make sure you buy your tickets from the official website only.

Japan’s cherry blossom

Japan’s dense population makes this a crowded country at the best of times, but in sakura season, things ramp up a notch. The Japanese believe that the delicate flowers symbolise the fragility of life, but also, just as importantly, how beautiful it is. And so everyone wants to go and see it. Cherry blossom forecasts are broadcast on television and hordes descend on some of the country’s most scenic paths, such as Kyoto’s Philospoher’s Path, to catch a glimpse of the pretty blossom. Hotels get booked out and so if you want to plan a trip to coincide with sakura season it’s wise to make some advance bookings. Failing that, ditch the idea and time your visit for autumn to see the fall colours instead.

Day of the Dead, Mexico

Mexico’s annual commemoration of their ancestors takes place countrywide, but some cities cater better to visitors with parades and funfairs. Oaxaca is one of them and to secure a room in the centrally located hotel of your choice you’ll need to reserve a year in advance. A number of hotels, such as Casa de las Bugambilias, put on a special programme of events which includes creating an altar, visiting the cemeteries and watching the fancy dress parades, known as comparsas. When I stayed in Oaxaca I had to be content with a hotel on the edge of the city as that was all that was left. Luckily, I was able to join the Bugambilias team for the excursions even though I wasn’t staying there too.

Inti Raymi, Peru

As with permits for the popular Inca Trail, tickets to the Inca Sun God festival known as Inti Raymi need to be bought well upfront. The parade that passes through Cusco’s Plaza de Armas is free to anyone who can find a piece of pavement, but if you wish to watch the ceremony up at Sacsayhuaman Fortress then you have to pay. The spectacle, which involves a colourful procession and re-enactment of an Inca llama sacrifice, is an unforgettable sight and definitely worth the effort. By booking as early as I could, I managed to get a front row seat. Even then, I nearly missed the start of the proceedings as heavy traffic up to Sacsayhuaman meant I had to jump out of the taxi halfway up and run the rest.

Gorillas, Rwanda and Uganda

When I visited Uganda a couple of years ago I opted to trek to see chimpanzees rather than the much rarer mountain gorillas – just 700 or so remain – that occupy the forests both there and in neighbouring Rwanda and the DRC. Partly, my decision was made on the basis of cost (permits can set you back up to $1500) but also as I didn’t think I was fit enough to cope with the physical side of the excursion (chimpanzees typically hang out much closer to where the trucks can park). Despite what would seem to be a prohibitive cost, permits are strictly limited and do sell out, even in Rwanda where there are more habituated groups of these magnificent primates.

Venice Carnival, Italy

Venice’s carnival is one of the oldest in the world, with a history that dates back to the 12th century (although it did take a break for almost 200 years before being reintroduced in 1979). Today, visitors from all over the world flock to this ancient city for the festivities. Masks are an important part of the costumes, made from leather, porcelain or even glass. Several different styles exist: the white bauta which covers the entire face, the shorter colombina, the medico della peste with its long beak and the volto, heaviest of all. Each has a story to tell. For a conveniently located hotel or a ticket for one of the lavish costume parties, get organised in plenty of time. It goes without saying that the same applies if you’re planning to attend the carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Jacmel, Haiti or Port of Spain, Trinidad.

The Afrosiyob train, Uzbekistan

The Afrosiyob is Central Asia’s first high speed rail service. It currently links the cities of Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara; it’s expected that the train will continue on to Khiva in the near future (slower trains already run this route). Modelled on the Spanish Talgo, train buffs couldn’t wait to get over to Uzbekistan to try it out. Consequently, tickets often sell out (they’re only released 45 days beforehand in any case) and I’ve read that some unfortunate travellers have found that their tour operator has been forced to switch them to a minibus instead. I haven’t yet been, but following a wonderful trip to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan a couple of years ago I would very much like to return to this part of the world. Then, Advantour took care of my arrangements so I expect to entrust them with my tickets when I visit Uzbekistan.

This isn’t a complete list by any stretch of the imagination, but nevertheless I hope that this roundup has given you food for thought. I should also add that only the pictures of Day of the Dead and Inti Raymi were taken by yours truly; thanks to Pixabay for the rest.

A different kind of New Year’s travel resolution?

There’ll be plenty in the travel media over the next week or so about travel resolutions and if last year was anything to go by (who knows after the year we’ve had?) sustainability will feature heavily. I’m not a one for making New Year’s resolutions anymore, having broken so many in the past, but if I’m forced to come up with something I’d say that next year I’d like to learn to speak Icelandic.

Having spent a blissful eleven days in Iceland in the summer, it wasn’t until I returned home that I realised just how little Icelandic I had heard. Many of the hotel and restaurant staff I came into contact with were foreign nationals and those who weren’t spoke almost faultless English. That’s understandable: tourism numbers have grown exponentially in recent years and with such a small population, I guess it was inevitable that they might have to look beyond the border to fill some of the jobs that had been created.

I’m usually more of a fan of unspoilt nature, particularly in a place where the landscape is as ruggedly handsome as in Iceland. But the beautiful East Fjords port of Seyðisfjörður challenged that somewhat. Sadly it’s been in the news the last few days as there has been a terrible landslide which has caused significant damage to property. Luckily the authorities evacuated everyone in good time but they have been left with one hell of a cleanup task.

I thought it was a pretty little place: my guesthouse was right on the water’s edge and I could walk to the church – an Instagrammers’ favourite thanks to the rainbow path that leads up to it – in a couple of minutes. Travelling in August, the village was just busy enough not to feel like a ghost town yet not so overcrowded that it was overrun. I might have had a different opinion about that rainbow path if it had been. Instead, I ambled along it in a very good mood indeed having just purchased a pair of equally colourful knitted-by-nanas socks. I was enticed away only by the thought of a beer in the sunshine; in my defence the temperatures were uncharacteristically warm.

And so I have fond memories of Seyðisfjörður. When I got home, I was itching to watch the exceptional crime drama Trapped, which actually premiered back in 2015 under its Icelandic title Ófærð. The action in the first series centres on Seyðisfjörður and its ferry. So, I was excited to reminisce and “share” the place with my husband, though it turned out a lot of the scenes were shot in the North Iceland village of Siglufjörður which I had bypassed. Honestly, though, if there’s even the slimmest of chances I’d get to see Trapped’s detective Andri Ólafsson, then a repeat visit is most definitely on the cards. Season 3 is currently in production and due to air sometime in 2021.

But I digress. The show is subtitled for international audiences, rather than dubbed, so it was only then that I became aware of what I had missed. Icelandic is a delightfully melodic language and one that I could listen to just for the sake of the sound. But it’s also fiendishly difficult to pronounce, as we found out when the volcano Eyjafjallajökull blew its top a decade ago. It doesn’t help that the Icelandic alphabet has 32 characters: no c, q, w or z but letters like æ, pronounced i and þ, pronounced th.

There are even whole words where we don’t have an equivalent – like dalalæða (valley-sneak fog) or sólarfrí (an unexpected day off when it’s sunny). Others are literal translations that just wouldn’t work in most places. Take Sauðljóst, for instance, which describes the pre-dawn haze as “the time of day when there is just enough light to see your sheep.” There are phrases too, such as Þetta reddast, which strictly speaking means it will all work out fine, but more often is used when the exact opposite is the case.

All is not lost, however. Fortunately for those who intend to stick to their resolutions (not saying whether that will be me), there are similarities between some words. Fiskur means fish, hús can only be house, dóttir is not dissimilar to daughter, fjall and fell (as in our northern hills) are obviously connected and vegur (which you’ll see on numerous road signs) translates as way. And as we quickly learned from Trapped – not to mention another gripping Nordic noir series The Valhalla Murders – there are plenty of English words that Icelanders have adopted. One of these loanwords (þriller) even means thriller.

So check back in next December and see how I’m getting on. After all, it doesn’t look like I’ll be travelling for a while, so I may as well make use of the time.

Travels in 2020 – and what’s in store for 2021

At one point this year I wondered whether I’d even be writing this post. When the UK government imposed its first lockdown in March, the future of travel looked extremely bleak. Day after day I received gloomy notifications on Facebook and Twitter, not to mention countless emails from PRs and tour operators. Borders closed, airlines cancelled flights and festival organisers postponed events. I’d have liked not to have thought about travel at all, but that’s not exactly a smart move for someone who writes about it for a living. 

At first, it seemed like it could all be over in a few months. Respite came in the summer but as autumn set in, numbers began to rise again and lockdowns and travel restrictions once again became the norm. On top of everything comes Brexit. Though in theory Brits should still be able to travel throughout the EU with minimal restrictions, in practice our coronavirus numbers could see us barred for an indeterminate period of time if, as now seems likely, a deal isn’t done. Before I get too depressed, let’s look back at where I escaped to this year.

February: New York City

Hudson Yards

I adore New York. There’s always something new to see or do and this trip was no exception. I paid a visit to Hudson Yards. Though I was underwhelmed with Vessel and let down by the PR who promised to get me onto the Edge observation deck ahead of the public opening but cancelled at the very last minute, I did at least get to wander around the mall. More interesting was my visit to Staten Island. Instead of just doing the classic ferry U-turn, I hopped on a bus and spent some time exploring Historic Richmond Town with a very engaging guide. Amid all the modern skyscrapers on Manhattan it’s easy to forget there’s a lot of old stuff in the city so it’s well worth checking it out and exploring the other boroughs.

March: St Petersburg

Museum of Soviet Arcade Games

It had been a long time since my first visit to Russia when I set out from Moscow on the Trans-Mongolian bound for Ulan Bator. In the intervening years I’ve written many times for Just Go Russia and it was that experience that won me the job with Morning Calm magazine for a feature on St Petersburg. Keen to see as much of this beautiful city as I possibly could, I put together a punishing itinerary crammed with palaces, churches and other visitor attractions. I was blown away by the lavish interiors of the royal palaces (not least because there were so few tourists) but it was the quirkier side to the city that I enjoyed the most, like figuring out how to beat the machine at the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games, meeting the feline residents of a cat cafe and drinking Maverick Bumbles in trendy cafes.

August: Iceland

Svartifoss

By the time we reached August I was going stir crazy but my Iceland itinerary changed so many times I almost didn’t dare to believe I’d actually make it. The reward for all that uncertainty was a trip blessed with unseasonably warm weather and sunny skies. Couple this with the lack of visitors and it’s not hard to understand why this was one of the best trips I’ve had, not just in 2020, but ever. After such a stressful period, hiking in the fresh air was invigorating not just for the body but also for the soul. Some of the driving was a lot more challenging than I expected, but those terrible gravel roads led me to off the beaten track corners for some truly magical moments. I can’t wait to go back to Husavik in particular and watch another sunset from GeoSea.

October: Madeira

Funchal

Nothing would compare to Iceland but I really enjoyed my first visit to Madeira. I thought I’d just relax and do a little bit of walking but there was actually a lot more to do and see than I’d anticipated. From my base in Funchal, I could explore not only the capital – and ride one of those famous wicker toboggans – but head out around the island. I walked a couple of levada trails and saw just how pretty the Madeiran countryside is, though some of the ridiculously steep descents left me hobbling in agony! But the wow factor moment came over lunch in the northern village of Porto Moniz. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the sea was brochure blue as I watched the waves break over the famous lava pools.

With Edi in Northumberland

And that’s about it, save for a holiday to Northumberland with the dog and a lot of local walks. Right now I’d normally be at a Christmas market somewhere in Europe. Most of them have been postponed until 2021, but the thought of being somewhere crowded while case numbers are this high just doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

So what of next year? If this year has taught me one thing, it’s to seize opportunities to travel while you can. If the pandemic permits, when flights resume I’m keen to visit the Azores for some more wow-factor volcanic scenery having enjoyed Cape Verde and Madeira so much. Santorini is also on my wishlist – I’ve never been but perhaps it won’t be as busy (or expensive) as it normally is. Andorra would be great, though I’d then be tempted to visit Belarus too – they’re the only two countries in Europe I’ve never been.

Cape Verde

Who knows when it will be safe and sensible to travel further afield? But if there’s no chance of being stranded and I’ve had the vaccine by then, Peru for its 200th birthday celebrations sounds like a whole lot of fun. Last year I wrote about how I’d love to visit Tajikistan, Comoros, Sao Tome & Principe, Rwanda and Madagascar – all of them are still high on my wishlist. Over in the States, I’d still love to make it to Alaska or Hawaii, though a road trip taking in Washington DC, North Carolina and Dollywood looks more likely. Nothing’s certain right now, but it doesn’t hurt to dream.

Happy travels for 2021, whether you see places in real life or travel vicariously through the words and pictures of others.

Thoughts on the COVID vaccine passport

There’s been some discussion in the press and on social media about a possible COVID vaccine passport. Currently, as you’d expect from an unanticipated pandemic, the response to traveller demand has been inconsistent, with each nation making their own decisions about how to proceed. Some require advance or on arrival COVID testing, others have closed borders and a few have relied on track and trace. Keeping abreast of changes to know what the current situation is can be tricky, as I discovered when I travelled to Iceland in the summer

Now there’s a vaccine on the cards, IATA has put forward its Travel Pass. This will be a digital platform where data on tests, vaccines and other relevant information can be stored securely. The scheme is due to be piloted this December and launched in the first half of 2021. The advantage of a speedy rollout is designed to dovetail with the vaccination programme – in other words the idea is to ensure that if you have a vaccine early in 2021 it would be recognised on this database.

Of course, there can be no assumption that the vaccine will work for everyone, nor will every negative test result ensure that the person sitting next to you on that plane won’t be an asymptomatic carrier. There are no guarantees and with a disease as contagious as COVID-19, even a digital travel pass won’t provide enough reassurance for some.

In the past, other travel vaccinations have been linked to entry requirements. When I visited Panama, I had to carry the yellow fever vaccination booklet to show to border officials if asked; I wasn’t. When applying for a visa to visit Uganda last year, I needed to supply that same proof of a yellow fever vaccine as a condition of receiving it. The WHO has this to say about yellow fever:

“The vaccine provides effective immunity within 10 days for 80-100% of people vaccinated, and within 30 days for more than 99% of people vaccinated. Good supportive treatment in hospitals improves survival rates. There is currently no specific anti-viral drug for yellow fever.”

Right now, results from the coronavirus vaccine trials indicate that they don’t have such a high success rate. But in terms of vaccines being a component of the decision on whether to permit you to travel, there’s obviously a precedent. Many of us can choose whether or not we wish to fly internationally and we can also therefore decide whether we are comfortable with both the risks involved in air travel and also with our personal information being stored in the manner IATA suggests.

As Australia’s relative isolation and sparse population have helped keep cases low during the pandemic, it was no surprise to read that Qantas was the first airline to come out and say they’ll require passengers to be in possession of this kind of travel passport when a vaccine’s been rolled out. Boss Alan Joyce was quoted in the press at the end of November as saying he felt it was a necessity to boost confidence and enable air traffic to get back to some kind of normal. That news didn’t go down well with UK travel agent Tradewinds, who countered with an announcement that they would cease booking their customers on the Australian airline. Their argument? They were pro-choice rather than anti-vaccine, they said. (As far as I can see, they aren’t offering tours to Uganda, which would have been interesting.)

Personally, I’m comfortable with having the vaccine – in the same way I’ve opted for typhoid, hepatitis and even the fairly useless cholera jabs in the past. So long as my personal data’s stored securely, I’m also OK with carrying a health passport. However, I respect that not everyone feels the same way. What about you? 

Where were you this time last year?

Where were you this time last year? If I was asked that question based solely on memory, I’d struggle to remember. One of the downsides of being a travel writer (and there aren’t many) is that I travel so often that it’s almost routine. That means that although I’ve enjoyed pretty much everywhere I’ve visited, it takes something extra special for it to stick in my mind. If not, then I have my trusty notebook, tens of thousands of photographs and a back catalogue of articles to refer to.

November 2019: Morocco

This spring, for a time at least, I didn’t even want to look back. Knowing that there were so many places I still wanted to visit with the world pretty much closed to travel made it just too upsetting to even think about. Like many of us, I turned to my local area, walking some of the coastal and riverside paths that we have in abundance. Once it was permitted, I squeezed in trips to Iceland and Madeira before autumn brought Lockdown 2.

November 2018: Barbados

Restrictions this time have been a little different. Much more is open, a vaccine’s looking likely and there’s a gradual stream of messages in my inbox from past clients looking to restart blogs, revamp online content and send out newsletters to their customers to let them know they’re planning to open for business again. The situation’s far from normal, whether measured in terms of confidence or volume of work, but there’s hope that 2021 might not be quite so awful for travel as 2020 has been.

November 2017: Cape Verde

Within that context, I’ve not felt as despondent looking back at past travels. I’ve spent many hours trawling through unsorted photographs to create photobooks of Cuba, Madeira and The Faroes. I’ve allowed myself to reminisce about my favourites – US road trips, walks in the Austrian Tirol, Seychellois beaches, Day of the Dead in Mexico, German Christmas markets and past holidays to Peru and Chile.

November 2016: Germany

One thing I’ve done for the first time is click on my Facebook memories. Though I don’t really see much point in reposting old content, it’s been fun to take a look back at where I was on this day in years past. I’ve never much enjoyed November with its grey days and lengthening nights. When I stopped teaching in favour of this new, more flexible life, the first November was spent in New York and Mexico’s Mayan Riviera and I’ve not looked back since.

November 2014: Mexico

This time last year, I was exploring the delightful Moroccan city of Chefchaouen feeling anything but blue; the year before I was drinking rum and coke with Nigel Benn’s auntie in Barbados. In 2017, I discovered how varied and pretty Cape Verde was, while four years ago I’d already ticked off my frst German Christmas market with a day trip to Regensburg. This year I’ve been in Essex, but I hope in November 2021 I will be able to report back from somewhere more exotic.