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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Northern Sicily on a budget

If you’re Europe based and looking for a budget break, then I’m recommending you check out Northern Sicily. I’ve just come back from a four-day trip and was pleasantly surprised. Here’s what I did, what it costs and why you should go too.

The train ferry

To get to Sicily there are a number of airports served by low-cost carrier Ryanair. However, I didn’t choose to fly into any of them. Instead, I hopped on a flight to Lamezia, which is on the mainland in south western Italy. Why would you do that, you ask? Well, it was cheaper (the flight cost me £21.99 one way just three days ahead of departure) but also it gave me the opportunity to tick something off my bucket list: Europe’s last train ferry.

This is not only unusual, but a lot of fun and inexpensive to boot. My single ticket from Lamezia Terme to Milazzo cost about 14 euros in second class for a 3.5 hour journey. Passengers stay on this Intercity train as the ferry tracks are lined up with those at the port. Then you trundle on. If you’re lucky to be on the first half of the train, you can disembark and stand around to watch as the second set of carriages are shunted on. Throughout the short crossing of the Straits of Messina, you are free to come and go as you please.

Up on deck, you can grab a coffee, watch the scenery or peer down onto the train below. Down on the train, some of your fellow passengers opt to stay in their seats – including in our case one travelling with her pet canary – though be warned, there’s no lights or air-conditioning as the power’s off. On arrival in Messina, the unloading process begins, and you are free to watch the tracks being aligned once more. The train continues on to Palermo, but I chose to stop at Milazzo. The train station is two miles out of town but a bus to the centre costs less than 2 euros.

Milazzo

Before I started researching this trip, I knew very little about Milazzo other than it was the jumping off point for ferries to the Aeolian Islands. I love a good volcano, especially if it’s active, so it was too good to resist. I found a stylish waterfront B&B, L’Ancora, overlooking the marina which had ensuite rooms from 45 euros, very reasonable if there are two of you sharing. Milazzo had a surprise up its sleeve – a hilltop castle and cathedral. My press pass got me in for free but if you pay your way it’s only 5 euros for a ticket. The views from up there are extraordinary: Milazzo is on a promontory so of course from up there you get to see sea on both sides.

Stromboli

I could have stayed up there all afternoon but I had a boat to catch. If you’re keen to see a couple of the Aeolian Islands independently Liberty Lines operate regular hydrofoils from the centre of town. The two hour journey to pretty Panarea, for instance, takes two hours and costs 19,30 euros; Stromboli a few euros more. Play around with the schedules as the routes vary and you can hop on and hop off to make up a bespoke itinerary.

Instead, I opted for a tour, departing from the port a five minute walk from my hotel, which was a little extravagant at 70 euros. The reason was that at this time of year (early autumn) there are no late ferries back from Stromboli and I was keen to see the volcano after dark. So I donned a pink wristband and joined a boatload of Europeans to see first Panarea and then Stromboli. A couple of hours on pretty Panarea was enough for me to have lunch at the Bar del Porto and a stroll past some of the whitewashed houses and the quayside.

From there, a different boat took us to Stromboli, passing some magnificent volcanic scenery along the way. We docked in Stromboli for the passeggiata. A cold beer and the usual snacks went down a treat while I passed the time people watching. The third and final boat took us to the other side of the island to a scar on the landscape called the Sciarra del Fuoco. Old lava flows had scoured away any vegetation. The volcano wasn’t exceptionally active; we saw a few clouds of ash and some small lava fountains – enough to say we’d seen it in action. While you can arrange a boat trip on Stromboli itself, doing a tour meant I could return to Milazzo the same evening.

Palermo

An early start got me to Palermo Centrale station (a ticket bought online through Trenitalia’s website cost 12,40 euros) in time for a No Mafia tour. Valeria, our guide, was passionate about her cause and told us how the city was fighting back against the actions of the Mafia. Though there’s still a long way to go, the percentage of businesses paying money for fake “protection” has halved. The city is a far safer place than it was in the early 1990s when two of the key prosecutors were murdered in twin bomb attacks a few months apart. The tour cost 29 euros, which included a donation to the grassroots organisation Addiopizzo, which campaigns, educates and fights against the Mafia in Palermo.

For lunch I ordered a veal spleen sandwich called pani ca’ meusa (which was utterly vile) so filled up on arancine – you can taste three different flavours if you order the mini selection at one of the city’s oldest restaurants, Antica Focacceria San Francesco, though be prepared for surly service. Afterwards, I checked in at another great value B&B, A Casa di Josephine, which cost about £59. I thought it was excellent value for a spacious, modern double just around the corner from the railway station. I spent part of the afternoon visiting the small No Mafia museum on the main shopping street Via Vittorio Emanuele and paid my respects at the Piazza della Memoria. Palermo’s a gritty but interesting city with a fabulous UNESCO-listed cathedral. There’s an entrance charge if you want to see the Royal Tombs inside it, but the rest is free.

In the evening, I joined a street food tour with Streaty. This was quite a bit cheaper than many food tours I’ve done, costing 49 euros including all food on the stops and a couple of alcoholic drinks. It was a good opportunity to try some of the carb-rich local favourites, including sweet-sour caponata, bruschetta laden with swordfish roe, delicious fried lentil discs called panelle, the local twist on potato croquettes and that veal spleen sandwich again. Unusually, we didn’t have Palermo’s famous ice cream in a brioche, but that was easily remedied.

Erice

Last stop was Erice, reached by cable car from Trapani. I caught a bus from Palermo as it took less than half the time of the train. The bus ticket cost less than 8 euros with Segesta, though I was almost denied boarding as I was wearing a cloth mask instead of the required FFP2 version. Luckily a local lady passed me her spare. The cable car up to Erice took about fifteen minutes, offering some splendid views over Trapani and the local salt works on the way up. This hilltop village is very quaint, with plenty of cobbled streets and a castle to explore. My round trip ticket cost 9,50 euros which was more than worth it. Back at sea level, it was time to hop on the airport bus (4,95 euros) and fly home from Trapani’s airport with Ryanair at a cost of £25.21.

Take out the cost of the tours – much of which you can do yourself on a far smaller budget – and this is a seriously cheap place to visit by European standards. Typically a cappucino and a croissant at a cafe cost about 3 euros and dinner at a reasonable restaurant anything from 15 to 20 euros including a beer. I could have stayed in simpler B&Bs that would have cost me about £25-30 for a single room, but I opted for better quality in a better location. Temperatures in mid September were around 24-26 degrees so it’s definitely a place you can go to slightly off peak and still get decent weather. But most importantly, this was a great place with lots of different things to do and I’m really keen to go back and see more.

How to avoid this summer’s air travel chaos

Post pandemic, travel’s starting to return to normal. After a couple of years of lockdowns, border closures and administrative hoops, it’s finally possible to travel more or less as we used to. Except there’s a problem: staffing. To weather the crisis, many travel businesses – accommodation, airports and airlines among them – had to lay off staff to make it through. Some of those haven’t returned and as a result, travellers across the world have faced disruption, longer than usual queues and sometimes lengthy delays. So what can you do to avoid being caught up in it?

Do your homework

Before you book with any airline, do some research. Even a quick Google search might give you a flavour of the current situation. Have they made the news for repeated flight cancellations and if so, have they implemented measures which have resolved the problems? Ditto the airport. Is it a busy hub that’s been struggling with demand, such as Heathrow or Schipol? If so, see if you have other options. Finally, try to find out if there are any strikes planned as industrial action is a possibility too.

Choose your flight time carefully

Certain times of day are busier than others. For instance, London Stansted has a night quota restriction which means it cannot operate as many flights between 11pm and 6am. It’s often very busy in those first couple of hours when the rules no longer apply, so you’d need to factor in additional time to pass through the airport. At a minimum, allow two to three hours. However, this needs to be balanced with the chance of delays, which tends to be lower earlier in the day.

Opt for hand baggage only

Depending on who you’re flying with, you might find carry-on allowances are surprisingly generous. Given that there have been some well documented cases of luggage hold ups or losses, you might find it less stressful to keep your bags with you. Check airline policies carefully as making sure you measure up is crucial. With some low-cost carriers, such as Ryanair, you might find it’s more cost effective to pay for priority boarding where it comes with a cabin bag allowance than to pay for hold luggage separately.

Be organised for security

Security procedures concerning liquids are something we’ve been saddled with for many years, so check what you’re carrying in your hand luggage carefully. Pack everything that has to come out into an easily accessible outside pocket. Wear slip on shoes if you’re travelling to places such as the USA which require most passengers to remove them. Consider purchasing a fast track pass if you are concerned about time. Some airports will allow you to buy one there and then, so you can see what the queue is like before you hand over your money.

Embrace holidaying at home

As we learnt when border restrictions ruled out international travel, holidaying at home can be just as rewarding. Post COVID, I’ve explored ruined castles in Northumberland, hiked to a pretty waterfall in Shropshire, drove the Bealach na Bà in Scotland and had fun with the dog at the beach on the Isle of Wight. And you don’t even need to spend a night away from home. Be a tourist in your own city or local area – it can cost next to nothing to create a holiday vibe and best of all, you can give the airport a miss completely.

Visiting a kangaroo orphanage in Coober Pedy

Josephine’s Gallery and Kangaroo Orphanage was one of the Coober Pedy attractions I was most looking forward to. The sale of Aboriginal art and a modest entry charge help support this South Australian outback institution in the rescue and rehabilitation of orphaned joeys.

Animal lovers Josephine and Terry Brennan-Kuss opened their orphanage in 2008 and since then have rescued wildlife in need from an area the size of Germany. Some have been orphaned after their parents died in road traffic accidents. Feeding time kicks off with a chance to interact with the older kangaroos who have a thing for wasabi peas. The spicy taste apparently reminds them of a shrub they eat in the wild.

Next, it was time for Terry to fetch Olly, one of two joeys at the orphanage at the time of my visit. Terry gave him his bottle while we looked on. After Olly had a hop around – and was interrupted from some mischievous munching of potting compost – we got to give him a cuddle. Holding his tail very firmly, he settled back for a rest and plenty of strokes. Unlike the older kangaroos, he hadn’t yet developed a fear of having his ears touched. (When a kangaroo gets into a fight, it throws its head back so its opponent doesn’t gouge out its eyes.)

Olly hopped head first into his bag – mimicking Mum’s pouch – and it was time for us to say goodbye. You can find the orphanage on Coober Pedy’s Hutchison Street. Feeding time is late afternoon.

Off the bucket list: the Neighbours tour

I visited Australia many years ago, and one of the highlights of my trip was doing the Neighbours tour. Since then much has happened. First, the tour was extended to include the outdoor areas of the set, something that wasn’t possible on the original version. Most recently, news broke that Neighbours was coming to an end after being on our screens for 37 years. That was enough incentive for me to book flights to Melbourne and take the Neighbours tour again. If you’re a fan too, here are some photos from the tour. It runs until the end of July 2022; after that the future of the tour is uncertain. 

First up, the street in real life: Pin Oak Court and the houses used for exterior shots.

Just down the road, at the Nunawading studios, you’ll find some of the back gardens plus Karl Kennedy’s greenhouse. In case you were wondering, you can still see one of Sheila’s gnomes even though she moved out.

As you walk in from the main gate and on the set, the first things you see are the cars, including Hermione and an Erinsborough Hospital ambulance, plus the tram.

Next, you pass by some of the less frequently used business sets, including Grease Monkeys, Fitzgerald Motors, the yard owned by Kyle Canning when he ran Dial-a-Kyle and Sonya’s Nursery. There’s an indoor set at the mechanics too, which you can see if you peer through the window.

You might also remember Sonia’s mural, the community centre, these trees and The Hive/Leo’s Backpackers. Also, you can see the university mural featuring a young Toadie (and Harlow) plus a couple of lecture rooms. The sign for the Geography department at Erinsborough High is nearer the entrance to the studios.

However, the main attraction is the Lassiters complex, of course, home to The Waterhole, Harold’s Cafe, the hotel and much more. Some of these businesses have indoor staging too, so for instance you can see the hotel lobby and lift, as well as Jarrod’s office.

That’s all from the set.

Chicago Rising from the Lake

When I reached downtown Chicago last night, several buildings were lit in blue and yellow, the colours of the Ukrainian flag. This morning I took a look at a piece of art that’s also a link to this Eastern European country.

This bronze relief is called Chicago Rising from the Lake and it’s the work of a Ukrainian artist called Milton Horn. Born near Kyiv, he came to the United States as a child. The work was created in 1954 and represents Chicago herself. Lake Michigan’s ripples feature at the bottom, a sheaf of wheat is a reference to the city’s importance to agricultural trade, while a bull is a nod to its stockyards. Even the curved bars have meaning: they’re Chicago’s railways, industry and commerce.

It was displayed for a time on the wall of a garage not far from where I’m staying. But despite the significance of the piece to the Windy City, it was torn down and languished in a warehouse for many years before being lost altogether for a time. Eventually it was discovered by a firefighter and then restored at a cost of $60,000.

Today, you’ll find it on Columbus Drive Bridge on Chicago’s River Walk.