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.

Latest

A brief guide to visiting the Zugspitze

The Zugspitze is Germany’s highest mountain. By Alpine standards it’s a paltry 2962 metres above sea level, but that’s not to say it isn’t impressive close up. The peak straddles the border between Germany and Austria. If you’re keen to admire the view from the top, here’s how to go about getting up there the easy way. You can hike up, but that’s far too much effort.

First, pick a country. You can reach the summit from either side. Technically, there’s actually nothing to stop you ascending from one country and descending to the other. On the Austrian side, you need to go to the Tirolean resort of Ehrwald. From there you need the Tiroler Zugspitzbahn, a gondola which whisks passengers up the mountain in about ten minutes.

On the German side, many visitors set out from the ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Adjacent to the town’s railway station is the separate station for the train that passes through Grainau en route to Eibsee. Tickets include an ascent of the Zugspitze, though you can get as far as the Eibsee on public transport. There’s also a bus which departs from the main railway station, easily recognisable as it’s bright blue. Here’s the timetable.

The trip costs 61 euros for an adult. Though the train journey is marketed as one ticket, you’ll actually need to change trains along the way at Grainau station. One section has regular rails but look closely and you’ll see the other is designed for a cogwheel train, equipped to tackle steeper gradients. This change is no big deal, as the two trains depart from adjacent platforms and there are no ticket checks or barriers.

Incidentally you can also purchase a 2 Peaks ticket which costs 73 euros and gets you up to the AlpspiX as well. This works out cheaper than two separate tickets. The AlpspiX is a viewing platform that from your approach looks like a pair of alligator jaws. The two viewing platforms extend out from the mountain and though you don’t have the full panorama that you’ll enjoy from the Zugspitze, it’s still a great view on a sunny day.

Back to the Zugspitze train: at Eibsee you have a decision to make: alight and take the gondola to the summit or stay on board and ascend on the train. Part of the route is inside a tunnel, similar to the ascent of the Jungfraujoch I made a few years ago. As I’d already experienced the cogwheel train, I decided to take a stroll along the lakeshore of the Eibsee – it’s gorgeous – and then finish the journey to the top on the cable car, enjoying the scenery on the way. It’s also considerably quicker.

At the top, the viewing platform enables you to appreciate this extraordinary view. The view of the Alpine landscape, with its craggy peaks, forested slopes and winding valleys, is simply lovely. Looking towards Austria, you can admire even taller mountains. There are handy guides to enable you to pinpoint particular peaks but its the bigger picture that makes this so special, whichever way you face.

However, it also reveals that you’re not quite there. The actual summit of the Zugspitze is marked by an ornate gold cross and to reach it there are metal ladders. I’m not great with heights and was perfectly content to admire the view from solid ground.

What was pretty cool was crossing the border – in reality just a narrow walkway between the German side and Austrian side. I didn’t do this just to say I’d been on both sides. There’s an excellent museum in Austrian territory which covers the history of human interaction with the Zugspitze, from the first climbers to the story behind the first cable cars. If you’ve come to the top on a German ticket, it will cost you another 4 euros on top of the price of your ticket but it is worth the money.

To go back down the German side, you also need to make a decision about whether you wish to use the cogwheel train or the gondola as they depart from different places. Either is included in your ticket. To reach the cogwheel train summit station you need to first ride the short Gletscherbahn.

This is a cable car to the glacier on the side of the mountain. You can use this as often as you like so there’s no reason not to pop down to have a look or a drink in the cafe even if you plan to use the gondola to get back down to the Eibsee.

Note though that by the end of the summer season there’s not much ice and snow left up there, as you can see. I understand that when there is, you can go snow tubing. There’s still beauty in this barren landscape, and on a warm day, quite some demand for the deckchairs that face this view.

Post-pandemic travel: Austria and Germany

Throughout the pandemic, when allowed, I have travelled. I get why some people haven’t felt confident to do so. Official websites are written in complex language and even when you think you understand the rules, there’s a nagging doubt that you’ve got something wrong which will leave your booking high and dry – and unless you’ve got decent insurance, out of pocket too. For amber list countries there’s the slim but present chance that the country you picked might turn red, necessitating expensive hotel quarantine. There’s supposed to be a logic to the classification but even the industry’s so-called experts haven’t guessed correctly prior to the reviews, so what chance have the rest of us got? Then there’s the risk of catching COVID while you’re away and finding yourself stranded or worse, alone in a foreign hospital.

I get it. You’ve got to be travel mad to want to go away. But I am, and I do.

Some of the trips I’ve made have been within the UK – with my husband and the dog to Northumberland, Shropshire and the Isle of Wight, with my Dad to Dundee and Falkirk, and solo to Barra and Skye. They’ve all been great trips, but I’ve always been most excited to travel abroad. With COVID-era trips to Iceland (twice!) and Madeira under my belt, I decided it was time to head over to mainland Europe again. Just to make things complicated, I couldn’t decide between Bavaria and the Austrian Tirol, so I opted to visit both.

Flying to Munich

easyJet have been reliable, affordable and above all, flexible during the pandemic, so once again I chose this budget carrier. It’s too early in the season for their Salzburg flights so a couple of months ago I booked to fly into Munich on the late evening flight. As it would be a late arrival (oh how I miss the old days when you had a full flight schedule to choose from rather than the new normal’s take this flight or leave it offering), I reserved a room at the Novotel just up the road. Having studied the FCDO website for Germany’s entry requirements, I was a little surprised to then receive a reply which basically said we’d love to host you but we might not be able to. At that time, the COVID incidence rates came into play – basically if the rate rose too high, under local regulations, hotels would be forced to close. Things do change quickly in regards to COVID, however, so I figured I’d just wait it out and decide what to do nearer to my departure date. As luck would have it, the rules changed in time and I was able to fulfill my original booking.

Overland to Austria

With six nights to fill, I had already toyed with travelling over the border to Austria and when the country officially opened its doors to UK travellers I decided that would be the way to go. I’ve previously trained it to Salzburg; this time, I decided to make Seefeld-in-Tirol my base. I’d last visited as a child in the 1970s so had few memories of the place. Armed with notes from my Mum about where we’d stayed and visited, I checked in to the Alte Schmiede Hiltpolt, an exceptionally well-run family hotel right in the centre of the resort. I stopped off for a wander around Mittenwald on the Bavarian side of the border – very quaint – and then hopped on a local cross-border train to complete the last few minutes of the journey. Thanks to advice given by both the German and Austrian tourist boards in the UK, I already knew that my Digital Registration on Entry submission for Germany would get me into Austria with no further need for form-filling.

Where 3G has nothing to do with your phone

Both countries currently work on the three G’s principle for many scenarios where you’ll come into contact with other people: geimpftgenesengetestet. To translate, that means you either need to be vaccinated, hold proof recovery or be in receipt of a negative test result. In my case, it was the vaccination certificate that was the documentation that got me on the plane and checked in to the hotels. Some of the cafes I ate at also asked to see it, though some were happy to take my word for it without actually looking at the paperwork. In all other respects, the situation was rather casual. When I walked across the border during a hike along the Leutasch Geisterklamm and from Germany into Austria at the summit of the Zugspitze, no checks or border formalities were made at all – just as you’d expect from two Schengen signatories.

Returning to the UK

For the last time – next time I travel the requirement to test will have been removed – I had to take a lateral flow test to be able to return to the UK. As with my Iceland trip, I’d already sent off for my do-at-home PCR test kit from Randox as the drop box is conveniently located in the next village from my home. Although I’m pleased the result came back negative this weekend, it was the booking reference from the purchase that was the crucial piece of the puzzle – without it, I’d be lacking essential information for the UK government’s Passenger Locator Form. I made sure I arrived at the airport in good time to be able to take a lateral flow test; the negative result came through about 30 minutes later. I will be glad not to have to do one next trip as it’s a bit stressful waiting for the result – even though I was pretty sure I had no COVID symptoms.

In the end, I’m pleased to report that my trip was memorable for the scenery, sunshine, food and entertainment – not for the COVID-related admin and – happily – not for a positive test result. Time to start planning the next one…

Important note

As before, this was the situation at the time of my visit in September 2021. Rules change frequently, so always check carefully before embarking on your own trip to make sure you’re abreast of current regulations when you travel.

Testing, testing

With so many hoops to jump through, it’s little wonder many people in the UK are choosing to holiday at home this year. While back in 2020 we might have thought that being vaccinated would be a ticket to freedom, unfortunately that’s not the case. International travel feels like a minefield of paperwork and regulations, but here’s my experience travelling from the UK to Iceland. Note that regulations change frequently, so check with reliable sources to ensure that you have up to date information.

Prior to departure

Preparations started before departure. As with many countries, Iceland differentiates between vaccinated passengers and those who haven’t been jabbed. You need to be fully vaccinated at least 15 days before – check the Covid.is website for the latest information. The Icelandic authorities will accept the NHS app but once or twice when I’ve gone into it the app has been unreliable – and one time my vaccine details had disappeared completely. I ordered a paper copy of the vaccine record from the NHS website and it came just under a week later through the post. Note that you can’t get this via your GP a surgery.


A green list country, Iceland required a negative test to enter the country but accepted a lateral flow test. You can keep up to date on the Covid.is website which has an up to date record of everything from regional case numbers to current government legislation. I also found it helpful to follow some of the Icelandic news websites on social media such as Iceland Monitor and Iceland Review as they gave an indication of whether the COVID situation was changing. Case numbers were on the rise before my trip so it was helpful to track that.

Which test?

Unlike the more expensive PCR tests, the lateral flow tests are the same as the NHS tests you can pick up from your local pharmacy. But you can’t use those for international travel as you require a certificate that confirms a negative result. I found that there were fewer places offering lateral flow tests in my area (perhaps because many more countries require PCR tests instead). Though I could have used a postal service I was concerned the result wouldn’t come through in time.


In the end I opted for a test with Collinson using their drive-thru testing facility at London Stansted Airport. Unfortunately I was flying from Luton, but the flight was so early I wasn’t able to use the testing facility there. So instead, I made the hour and a half round trip a couple of days ahead of my flight. There was no queue, availability was good and I stayed in my car the whole time – the nasal swabbing was conducted through the car window. The negative result came though via email almost exactly 30 minutes later. With easyJet’s discount, the cost of the test was £32 (regular price £40).


This is also the time to book your Day 2 test. The UK government requires all inbound passengers to complete a detailed Passenger Locator Form and the booking reference for this test is one of the pieces of data you’ll need to add to the form. I opted for a mail-in service this time. I used Randox. They don’t have the best reputation for reliability. Twitter users have reported that their return boxes have been full to overflowing. However, though there are only three drop-off points in Essex one of them is only a short drive from my home it is convenient. The cost of this test was £43.

Outbound

To be able to board the flight, it was necessary to show proof of the lateral flow test to the gate staff. The Icelandic government’s rules had changed just a few days before I flew out and some passengers had been caught out. They were dismayed to learn that they had been denied boarding – hopefully they were able to get a test and a later flight. Rebooking wouldn’t have been an issue in terms of availability as the flight I took was only about a third full. That’s in August, the height of peak season.


On arrival at Keflavik passport control formalities were completed fairly quickly – though of course British passports are now stamped. After that came duty free and baggage claim for those that wanted it before the final test check at the exit. Paperwork was looked at and I was good to go. I understand that there is a hefty fine for those who get caught out, though the airline should pick up any issues long before you get that far.

In Iceland

The UK government requires all inbound passengers to be tested within three days of returning to Britain. There is a testing facility very close to Keflavik Airport (easy to find in a building beside the Courtyard by Marriott hotel). I booked for the afternoon prior to my flight; a text and email reminder were useful. The sign on the door said they were all booked up for that day, so definitely plan well in advance.


I got tested with a friend who has been trained to administer the tests. She was concerned about some of the procedures being followed. Five people were escorted to the testing room at a time. Each was allocated a numbered seat and then the tester conducted each swab in turn. My friend noticed mistakes: the person didn’t swab both nasal cavities, and she squeezed each sample without changing gloves, potentially increasing the risk of cross-contamination. It was certainly a production line affair. The tests came back negative about 20 minutes later – another hurdle jumped. Cost of this test was 6900 ISK (about £41).


Next, the thing that’s so easy to forget: the Passenger Locator Form. This is a detailed document that you have to fill in on the UK Government’s website, so make sure you have WiFi or data roaming as you’ll need to go online to fill it out. Amongst other things you’ll need your flight details (including the arrival time and a seat number, so you will need to have checked in) and also your passport details. This form has been around for some time but the requirement to supply a booking reference for your inbound test wasn’t needed in 2020.

Inbound

Departing Keflavik went smoothly, but it’s important to have all your documentation to hand. Security and passport control were as normal, requiring the boarding pass and passport respectively. The UK government paperwork was checked at the gate. This can be time consuming if your flight is full so it’s wise not to leave it too late. The gate staff asked to see the passport first, then the Passenger Locator Form, then proof of vaccination and finally proof of a negative test result (for the test conducted in Iceland). Once all of those were seen, the boarding pass was scanned and I was free to board.


Arriving at Luton, I used the e-gates and as all the information was electronic and paperwork had been checked in Iceland, no further checks were necessary. I completed the PCR test using the home kit Randox had sent me and drove it over to the drop box in the next village. I had an email later that day to confirm Randox had received the kit and another the day after confirming the test was negative. Now all I have to do is to decide where to go next…

Happy 200th birthday Peru!

Today Peru celebrates the bicentennial of its independence. I’m gutted I can’t be there to join the party, but I hope to return as soon as restrictions are lifted. To mark the occasion, here’s a picture from my first ever trip to Peru back in 1995. Later, I shall raise a glass to this incredible country and my many friends there. ¡Salud!

What’s it like to drive up one of the UK’s steepest roads?

The Bealach na Bà – Gaelic for Pass of the Cattle – is the UK’s steepest ascent. This road was initially built as a drovers’ road, used by farmers to move their livestock to better pastures or to market. It dates from 1822 and cuts across the Applecross peninsula in the Scottish Highlands. It’s not the highest mountain pass in the country; that honour goes to Scotland’s Cairnwell Pass, the top of which is 670 metres above sea level. However, because the Bealach na Bà starts at sea level and rises to 626 metres, it’s widely considered the UK’s steepest ascent. I drove this historic mountain pass, part of Scotland’s North Coast 500 route, in May 2021 – so what’s it like to drive up one of the UK’s steepest roads?

View from the Bealach na Bà

I’d been tipped off by good friends – thank you Alex and Karen – that the Applecross Inn was worthy of a detour for its king scallops alone. My B&B was actually on the Isle of Skye, but fortuitously I’d opted for the southerly Sleat peninsula. (I’d like to pretend that was deliberate but in truth I just didn’t want to pay Portree prices.) Anyway, thanks to the Skye Bridge, getting back to the mainland wasn’t difficult. From there, while everyone else was still washing up their porridge pots, I followed an almost empty road across the Lochalsh peninsula and around beautiful Loch Carron.

Loch Carron

Not long afterwards, I reached this sign, which was a warning not to underestimate the route ahead. I’ve had to use this picture instead of one of my own as I was so excited to get going on the Bealach na Bà I didn’t think to stop!

Alan Talbot / Tornapress – warnings about Bealach Na Ba road (via Wikipedia)

Fortunately, it’s been a very long time since I was a learner driver and I wasn’t towing a caravan. I’ve also driven an Austrian mountain pass with the dog on board, not to mention some of Iceland’s steepest gravel roads, so I figured this wouldn’t be a big deal. They are both two-lane, however…

As on many of Scotland’s islands, this mainland route has sections that are single-track. We have them here in the north Essex countryside and they are a nightmare in the daytime. Lined with tall hedges or fields of crops, it’s almost impossible to see what’s coming and every bend is accompanied by the threat of a head on collision. At least at night you see approaching headlights. However, in Scotland, I found the narrowest highways considerably better managed. There is signage at regular intervals indicating where the passing places are, and these themselves are a significant step up from the micro-gaps and farm gateways on my local country lanes. Essex Highways, take note.

Passing place on the coastal stretch

As it turned out, I was also lucky that I’d timed my trip just before Scotland’s COVID rules relaxed to permit indoor drinking; the number of visitors was still relatively low which was a bonus when passing through the many narrow stretches. I’d set out fairly early on a Sunday morning on a fine, sunny day. There were cars about, and also the odd cyclist, but traffic was light. This is really helped once I got up on the higher ground and round its hairpin bends. You see, if the traffic can space out, there’s no need for anyone to retreat to the previous passing place. I read that sometimes a dozen or more cars have to engage reverse and creep back to let other motorists through. That wouldn’t have been fun at all.

The biggest issue apart from needing to be aware of oncoming traffic was the distraction caused by the jaw-dropping beauty of the surrounding area. On a clear day the views are incredible. Coming from the east, there’s a significant pullout which gives you a chance to get out and take a look at the road winding upwards ahead of you. After that, it’s not safe to stop until you get to the viewpoint at the top, where there’s a large car park on either side of the road. You can see some of the nearby islands, such as Raasay and Skye, and it’s one of the most fabulous panoramas in the country. Don’t be tempted though to pause in a passing place to snap a photo. You could end up blocking the traffic and that will not go down well with your fellow road users.

View at the top

The descent down into Applecross is less twisty but the scenery is still nothing less than spectacular. By the time I started working my way down it was approaching late morning and the traffic was building. After I’d had lunch (I’m pleased to report it was as good as I’d been told) I decided to take the coast road instead as I didn’t fancy ruining my good mood with the stop-start motoring that would now be likely if I backtracked over the pass. Instead, hugging the shoreline I headed north and then looped south. It added over half an hour to my journey time to postcard-perfect Plockton, my final stop of the day, but it was also very scenic and so definitely a good decision.

Pretty Plockton

Driving tips

  • Avoid winter – if the weather’s bad, the road can be impassable and if the cloud descends, those breathtaking views will disappear which would be a terrible waste.
  • Know your car – if you’re taking your own, you’ll be in familiar territory, but if you’re renting, opt for something slightly smaller than your own vehicle but don’t skimp on the horsepower. Also consider hiring an automatic which will take the hassle out of those hairpin bend gear changes.
  • Consider leaving early in the morning to give yourself the best chance of lighter traffic.
  • Always give way to oncoming traffic where they have right of way. Pull over on your own side of the road at a passing place, regardless of which side the passing place is – oncoming traffic should pull round you rather than drive in a straight line so that both vehicles remain on the correct side of the road.
  • Book ahead for the Applecross Inn as it does get busy. Allow more time than you think to get there – check your Sat Nav or Google maps and then add on a generous amount of stopping time, as you won’t want to rush this drive.
Roadside cairn beside the Bealach na Bà

My conclusion? If you find yourself in this part of Scotland, driving the Bealach na Bà is a must. My only disappointment was that I didn’t see any Highland cattle. According to Visit Scotland, I could have done (perhaps I was too busy concentrating on the road?) I guess I shall just have to try my luck another time, which gives me an ideal excuse to drive this magnificent route again.