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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Travel in an Instagram world

Is travel about wanting to see the world, or wanting the world to see you?

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A couple of weeks ago, Facebook thought I might be interested in something called Shoot My Travel. Intrigued, I visited their website. Basically, the site connects travellers with a photographer and takes them on a tour of the city they’re visiting. The twist? The tour’s curated around spots that are the most photogenic and the traveller is the focus, with the location merely the supporting act. It’s not for me, but the marketing’s pretty savvy for today’s Instagram-obsessed world. In their “How It Works” section, they say:

Experience the city
Once everything is coordinated, it’s time to meet your photographer and start
the photo tour. Your photographer will guide you through the best spots in
the city while taking candid pictures of you along the way. Our photo tours
are a travel experience where you can learn from the culture, language
and hidden gems of your destination!

I’m a bit dubious. I can’t see how much you’ll be learning about the culture, language and hidden gems of a city when there’s a photographer fussing about getting the perfect shot. And of course, that’s going to be important, because client satisfaction depends on it. If you weren’t bothered about how you looked, you’d have signed up for a regular walking tour instead. It’s not cheap, either, with prices for a one location shoot typically between about $200 and $230. Stretch that to two locations and a “tour” lasting two hours, and the price jumps to over $300. Call me picky, but it’s not much of a city tour if you only visit one or two places, is it?

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A 2017 article in The Independent stated that finding an Instagram-worthy location was the most important factor in choosing a destination among millennials. The poll was carried about by an insurance company and surveyed 1000 18-33 year olds. Of course, questionnaires can be easy to skew, but the result (over 40%) seems high enough to be significant. A bit more digging and it would seem that hotels might be jumping on the Shoot My Travel bandwagon (or is it the other way round?) This Evening Standard article reports on the “social media butlers” provided by the Conrad Maldives Rangali.

So why does this bug me so much? Surely, a live and live attitude is the way to go? But travel to some of the world’s most famous landmarks has become frustratingly busy, and the queues to get a selfie (or several) a real turn off. Thanks to the internet, the more that post, the more that follow them. I now think twice about even booking somewhere mainstream in peak season – I just don’t have the patience, let alone control over my mouth, for that to be a good idea. It bores me to see numerous copycat versions of the same scene, when all that’s changed is the person in them. Diversity and creativity fall by the wayside in the clamour to be like everyone else. And don’t get me started about those gaze-into-the-distance shots where the person doesn’t even show their face – I can’t see the point of that kind of image at all.

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However (and here’s the hypocrisy) it’s a real buzz when I find a spot that I can enjoy by myself, though of course by promoting it in the articles I write and sharing it on my social media feeds I’m part of the problem.

So why take photographs at all? I’ve taken tens of thousands of pictures over the years and looking back through them is a wonderful way of reliving my travels. Memories blur with age and poring over an album from twenty years ago is a reminder of just what we forget. Of course, the really special memories are engraved on your soul, as are those want-to-forget moments, but it’s good to get a refresher of those that fall somewhere in the middle.

So I’ll keep taking snaps while I’m travelling, but the vast majority of them won’t have me in them. And I certainly won’t be paying hundreds of dollars for someone to photograph me while I do. What about you?

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Footnote:

All the images in this post were sourced from Pixabay, using the search term “Travel”.

 

Plastic not so fantastic

I have a confession to make: until now, I’ve not paid much heed to my use of single-use plastic. That’s a very selfish thing to have done – I’ve turned a blind eye to the impact of discarded plastic on wildlife and given little thought to where my waste will end up, beyond sorting plastic bottles for recycling by my local authority. Now I see the words on paper, I’m not proud of that. It’s time for me to change some of my travelling habits and I’ve been thinking hard about what I need to do.

Water in plastic bottles

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It’s easy to justify drinking water out of plastic bottles. Some of the places I’ve travelled in have less than satisfactory water systems and having had several nasty bouts of sickness over the years thanks to my consumption of ice, salad and ice cream, I’m careful not to drink water out of the tap like I do at home  to protect my health. So what to do? I’m not sure yet about the use of iodine tablets and filter bottles, so I’m trying a halfway house. I’ve invested in a 720°DGREE insulated water bottle that I can fill from reliable sources – such as airport water fountains and filtered water – and plan to test it out in Europe very soon.

Straws

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I don’t enjoy drinking through a straw, particularly when I’ve ordered a fizzy beverage. But what I haven’t been good at is communicating this to my server, instead waiting until my drink is brought to the table and then discarding the straw. I won’t be buying a stainless steel straw as I’d rather not use a straw at all. But to avoid unnecessary waste I will make a point of asking not to be given a straw when I order a drink.

Travel-sized toiletries

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Much criticism has been given to the wastefulness of travel-sized toiletries. In-room amenities and miniatures at airside stores are two cases in point. I’m a big advocate of downsizing toiletries to save on luggage, and will continue to be. However, the bottles I religiously refill before every trip were bought as Body Shop miniatures in the early 1990s and have served me faithfully ever since. Toothpaste is something I need to consider – currently I use up the little tubes that my husband brings back from business trips or save an almost empty full-size tube to finish off while I’m away.

Airline plastic wrappers

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Speaking of on-board amenity kits, I refuse the plastic-wrapped headphones that are handed out. I’m more likely to read or play Scrabble on my Kindle app, but carry my own set of earbuds when I feel like making use of the in-flight entertainment. If I’m organised enough, I have a fleece blanket that packs small enough to fit in hand luggage (bought in response to Norwegian’s policy of charging for blankets but used many times since then).

Street food 

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I’m a huge fan of street food: it’s cheap, tasty and often freshly cooked. But one thing you can’t get around is that many street food vendors serve using plastic plates, cups and cutlery. For once, my husband has led the way on this: he habitually packs what he calls his ice cream spoon so that he can pop into Walgreens when he’s in the States on business and buy himself a large tub instead of the individual serving that comes with a plastic spoon. Yes, greed is good in this instance! I’ve been looking for a set of packable cutlery and have settled on a Joseph Joseph set, which stores in its own silicone case. When I travel with hand luggage only I guess I’ll just have to take the fork and spoon.

Wet wipes

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Wet wipes have been my go-to travel item for at least a couple of decades. I’ve never flushed them down the toilet, but nevertheless, I wasn’t aware that they contained plastic until I read this article on the BBC website:

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I’ve found what I’m hoping to be a suitable alternative in Cheeky Panda’s 100% bamboo baby wipes, which are packaged using a material called PET1 (Polyethylene Terephthalate). Though plastic, it’s said to be 100% recyclable if disposed of appropriately.

Have you any practical suggestions for reducing single-use plastic while travelling? Please feel free to drop your recommendation in the comments.

Note: though I mention specific products in this post, I have not received complimentary samples. I’ll be reviewing how I got on with my attempts to reduce my single-use plastic consumption on my travels in a future blog.

How you can afford to travel more often

Travel has always been my addiction. Family aside, I’m happy to make a whole heap of sacrifices to be able to travel. I don’t smoke, drink only in moderation and have few vices. Let me share with you a few of my tips for how you can afford to travel more often.

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Set goals

I’m a compulsive list maker. Years of being a teacher conditioned me to having a structured day and to do lists enabled me to prioritise my non-teaching periods and knock out the admin efficiently. Since I quit school and turned my attentions to travel writing, that structure has gone out of the window. How I fill my day is no longer dictated by the bell. To an extent, I can do pretty much what I want, when I want. So those same to do lists give me structure. I still run a must, should, could list and ensure I deliver what I’ve promised on time, so that my clients are happy. Applying this method to travel plans also works. Each year I think about where I’d like to visit, formulating a rough list that usually contains one or two long haul destinations plus a number of European trips. I don’t stick rigidly to this plan, but knowing what I want to achieve helps me think ahead.

Do your research

Once I know roughly where I want to go, I start researching what those trips might cost. I’m fortunate that I receive invites for press trips, but there’s nothing better than the flexibility to do what I please, so independent travel is still my preferred option. Usually, the cost of flights is the biggest expense, so I’m always on the lookout for cheap fares. I’ve signed up for email newsletters with a number of airlines and this enables me to get wind of any flash sales before they’re announced to the public. I also follow Secret Flying and FlyNous on social media for their special deal and error fare alerts. Even though I don’t book the majority of these flights, it’s a very useful gauge as to what consitutes a cheap fare for a particular destination. If I do learn of a particularly good deal, I’ve found that you have to snap them up fast. Act decisively and you get a bargain; dither and someone else does. Often, though, a deal too good to resist comes up for somewhere unexpected, such as Uganda for just over £300, for instance.

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Fix a budget

Once I have transport sorted, I figure out what my total budget can stretch to. I know what my day to day living expenses are, how much my car costs to run, what purchases I need to factor in. Adult life is a far cry from my early twenties and the girl who blew her first pay packet on a holiday to Venezuela! Instead of being impulsive and extravagant, work out how to downsize your lifestyle – cancel your gym membership and go for a run instead; sell your car and take public transport; watch movies on TV rather than at the cinema. I’ve never been one to spend big on clothes, I rarely wear make-up and I don’t choose to get expensive manicures or facials. You’ve seen my picture; that should be no surprise. When I worked full-time in education, I made a packed lunch every day. Add up what you spend on that takeaway coffee each day – it will surprise you. But also think about what you are and aren’t prepared to give up. It’s all about what’s important to you. I’d rather have a budget weekend away than spend the same money on alcohol, but if the discipline required to save for these trips is taking the joy out of your everyday life, then you’ll need to rein in that travel addicition.

Now see how far that budget can stretch

The same principle applies to the trip itself. Over the years, I’ve saved thousands of pounds because I opt for independent travel over group tours. It’s often been considerably cheaper to go it alone and pay for local guides as and when I’ve felt the need. I enjoy the flexibility and I don’t miss the company. And for me, it’s the destination rather than some luxury accommodation that is the most important element of the holiday. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy fancy hotels as much as the next person, but if switching to a simple homestay or hostel is what I can afford, I’ll book that rather than not go. Ask yourself if you can cope with a dorm bed or if you need a private room, could you manage an overnight sleeper train (surprisingly cheap) or whether you’d accept a shared bathroom down the hall (though always check cleanliness reviews before you book!) Would it work out cheaper to stay slightly out of the centre and jump on the subway each day, or would you sacrifice time and come back a day earlier if it meant you could achieve a city centre hotel within your budget?

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Choose your destination with a view to value for money

Some destinations are hard to do on a budget. I spent a week in Barbados last year. I saved money on my flight by using air miles, travelled around by public bus, found a bargain Airbnb studio apartment and did a food shop at the local supermarket to cut the cost of restaurant meals out. (It might not seem like a holiday thing to do, but tot up the cost of seven breakfasts if you eat out and compare that to the cost of a box of cornflakes and a couple of pints of milk.) Even so, that trip cost somewhere in the region of £700 and that was with the many free admissions that come with a wave of my press card. Not expensive by Caribbean standards, but not cheap either. I could have saved on the cost of accommodation by travelling with a like-minded companion, of course, which would have knocked off about £200. In contrast, Kyrgyzstan offered considerably more value for money. In fact, I even brought cash back with me, things were so cheap. Typically, accommodation was a third of the price of the equivalent standard in Barbados, and food was considerably cheaper too.

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Explore ways of making your trip pay for itself

As a travel writer, these days I bear in mind whether a destination is likely to be marketable and factor that into my decision-making. While some trips, like the Tonga add-on I did last time I was in New Zealand, are an indulgence, others are much more lucrative. With some timely commissions, I made over £1000 on one week-long trip to New York last year. Iceland, New Zealand, Russia and Italy have worked out well for me too. If there’s a downside to this, it’s that I’m on the go more and relax a whole lot less – I won’t have much to write about if I don’t stray far from the hotel pool all week. If you want to see if you can sell an article, see if you’ve got what it takes and create a profile on a freelancer platform like Upwork. But you don’t have to be a writer to earn money from your travels. Perhaps a TEFL qualification would open some doors, or maybe you could earn money from photography if you’re skilled enough and work hard at pitching your talent. Working as a tour guide, taking on house or pet sitting, taking a job in a ski resort or working on a cruise ship are just some of the ways you can fund your trip.

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To London with Greater Anglia

It’s been a busy few weeks for me when it comes to travel. I expect a lot of people think a travel writer is always travelling, but I choose to work part time and limit the number of trips I make so that I can be here for family and my beautiful dogs. Nevertheless, travel is always a privilege. Kyrgyzstan really blew me away, but 16 hours after stepping through the front door it was off to Devon, having written three articles and done five loads of washing – oh how glam! As we drove across the Dartford Bridge, a Eurostar passed beneath us, reminding me that travelling by train really is the best way to travel. So I was very pleased to have a day out in London courtesy of Greater Anglia to look forward to.

One of the most frustrating things about train travel is when there are no trains. The dreaded words “rail replacement bus” strike fear into us all, so I was really pleased when Kerri from Greater Anglia informed me that there is almost no engineering work planned on our lines into Liverpool Street all summer. She told me:

“Network Rail has paused its engineering work on the mainline for the summer with only a couple of exceptions – Sunday 16th June, when all journeys will involve a change at Stratford for the Underground into London, and Sunday 8 September, when there are buses between Colchester and Chelmsford during the morning.”

So if you were thinking of a trip up to London, then this summer’s an excellent time to go. For this week’s visit, I decided to focus on the South Bank. It’s a great area for families as there are a number of kid-friendly attractions. The London Dungeon, Shrek’s Adventure and Namco Funscape are all located close together. I opted for a visit to the SEA LIFE London Aquarium and a ride on the Coca Cola London Eye.

First up: the aquarium. What used to be the London Aquarium, housed in the bowels of County Hall at Westminster Bridge, was bought by Merlin Entertainments in 2008 and reopened a year later with a new look. It receives mixed reviews on Trip Advisor, but I was interested to see what it was like for myself. I’m sorry to report that my visitor experience didn’t get off to a good start. The member of staff who dealt with me on the ticket desk was rude and her manager wasn’t much better. Fortunately the other members of staff I encountered were more helpful and enthusiastic.

The SEA LIFE London Aquarium exhibits are arranged IKEA-style. Once you’re in, there’s no going back and even though I was assured it was a quiet day, there were some bottlenecks. At the penguin enclosure, two large primary school groups meant that it was difficult to see the birds, who’d taken themselves off down to the far end of their space, presumably for a bit of peace and quiet! The huge shark tank was very impressive, however, and I thought that it was well designed as you could get access to the tank’s windows on two different levels. Most impressive were the jellyfish, mesmerising as the lights illuminating them changed colour.

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Throughout, there are a lot of opportunities to interact with the exhibits. The kids I saw really enjoyed being able to stick their heads into the perspex domes to get a 360° view of the marine life swimming around their heads. However, it isn’t a cheap day out. Standard tickets cost £27, though families could save a little by purchasing a family ticket. Adults would pay £26, children from 3-15 £22 and under 3s free. To snorkel with sharks for 15 minutes would set you back £150.

Next: the London Eye. This was a completely different kettle of fish if you’ll pardon the pun. I’ve been before and it never disappoints. Their customer service is excellent. Every member of staff I spoke to couldn’t have been more friendly and genuinely wanted to ensure I had the best time. And it wasn’t just because I had a complimentary pass; I listened in on a few other conversations and was delighted that staff were so polite and helpful to everyone. Though they offer a VIP experience, it seemed that those staff managing the queue to board treated everyone like a VIP.

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The flight was great, even though the sky was threatening rain with dark thunder clouds in all directions. It brought to mind my first ever visit to the London Eye, not long after it opened, when an elderly lady behind me in the queue was rocking a hat she’d fashioned from a John Lewis carrier bag. This time, the rain held off and visibility was pretty good. We were a mixed bunch in our capsule, with visitors from the USA, Brazil and New Zealand all giving it the thumbs up.

“Best day ever!” one lady said.

Big Ben of course is covered in scaffolding, but it was interesting to see how much the skyline had altered in those almost two decades since my first visit. If you don’t know your Gherkin from your Walkie Talkie, there’s a useful 360 degree map that will cost you £2 on top of the price of your ticket which will help you identify what you’re looking at. Prices are pretty much the same as for the SEA LIFE London Aquarium and there are occasional special events for a similar entrance fee, like Time Out’s smart phone masterclasses. Of course, you can opt for a champagne experience too, for something extra special.

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The trouble with London, understandably, is big city prices. Finding somewhere reasonably priced to eat in a city with such high rents can be a challenge. Fish and chips from the wagon on the South Bank would have set me back £10. If the weather’s fine, there’s another option. The Jubilee Gardens Trust work hard to maintain a sizeable patch of green space right next to the London Eye. There’s a play area for young children and the Trust have just purchased what was once a car park and have plans to turn it into an adventure playground for older children. It’s perfectly located for a summer picnic on a dry, sunny day.

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Around ten minutes walk further east is one of my favourite spots this side of the river: Gabriel’s Wharf. This eclectic mix of boutiques and eateries has a more local vibe than the tourist traps closer to Westminster Bridge. Spend your £10 here, and it will buy you a delicious sit down lunch rather than an average takeaway. It’s worth checking out some of the independent stores here too. The House of Eunice works with artisans in India to create some unique clothing designs – the owner runs trips to India too if you’re keen to learn about the processes for yourself.

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We really are lucky to have such a magnificent city on our doorstep. Thanks to the speedy trains, from my Essex village by the coast I can still be in the City of London in under 70 minutes door to door (as little as 48 minutes on the train). That is always a good feeling, particularly on the way home! The recently launched Norwich in 90 and Ipswich in under 60 services bring East Anglia even closer to the capital.

Need to know

If you buy your train ticket in advance you can travel to London from Colchester or even as far as Norwich for just £10 each way. From Southend, getting to London can cost as little as £6 single if you are flexible with dates and times. You don’t need an Oyster card to score the lowest fares within the capital, as you can tap in and tap out with a contactless debit card in the same way.

You don’t need me to tell you just how many visitor attractions there are in London. Greater Anglia offer a range of 2for1 deals which can add up to some pretty significant savings. Museums, theatre tickets and even bike tours are included in the promotion – dates and specific savings vary so check on Greater Anglia’s website for more details. While the SEA LIFE London Aquarium isn’t participating, their sister attractions in Southend and Yarmouth are. The current London Eye offer with a valid rail ticket is a 2for1 deal for £30.

With thanks to Greater Anglia for my train ticket and to Merlin Entertainments for complimentary passes to SEA LIFE London Aquarium and the Coca Cola London Eye. I appreciate their generosity. All views expressed in this blog are my own.

A beginner’s guide to Kyrgyzstan

The love child of Switzerland and Mongolia, blessed with snow-capped mountains and hospitality like you wouldn’t believe, Kyrgyzstan makes an easy introduction into the ‘Stans. If you’re not sure where it is, you’ll find it on China’s western border – go halfway across Russia and then down a bit. The country’s attractions haven’t yet reached the radar of many travellers, and when the Border Force officer quizzed me on where I’d flown in from yesterday, he thought I said Kurdistan. Yet, it scored a mention on the Lonely Planet’s must see countries for 2019. So what can you expect of Kyrgyzstan?

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Getting there

There are no direct flights to the capital Bishkek from London, and in fact the country’s airlines are off limits, featuring on the EU’s “not safe to fly” list. Given that an indirect flight was necessary and Kyrgyzstan was to be my sole Central Asian destination (for now at least!) I flew with Pegasus Airlines via Istanbul. They operate out of Stansted which is convenient as that’s my closest airport. Book well ahead and they’re pretty cheap too. My flight cost £337. Though there are plenty of options for the first leg, flights to and from Bishkek are limited to one a day. Schedules change, as they did for me between booking and date of travel. What had been a three hour layover on the outbound journey changed to a five hour layover.

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That had the minor advantage of arriving at a more convenient 7am, but Sabiha Gokcen Airport isn’t close enough to the city for between-flights sightseeing unless you have a seriously long layover, so I holed up in Starbucks instead. If you’ve never been to Istanbul, pick an early flight out of the UK into the city and kill time sightseeing until the second flight departs at 11pm. It takes about an hour on average to get from the airport to the city, but allow time for traffic-related delays.

Another option might be to use Air Astana and combine Kyrgyzstan with a visit to neighbouring Kazakhstan. Bishkek and Almaty are little more than a couple of hundred kilometres apart. Air Astana has direct flights from London for a similar price. Check your visa requirements before you book.

Getting around

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Depending on what you plan to do and how ambitious your itinerary is, you could make use of the country’s network of public minibuses, known as marshrutkas. These bear the name of the destination on the front windscreen but you’ll need to figure out the Cyrillic alphabet. I’ve always found it helpful to memorise the first or last few letters of a place name so that it’s a simpler process to clock which bus is yours. Bishkek for instance shares the same last three letters so look for “kek” at the end of the word. If you plan to loop Issyk-Kul, the country’s largest lake, you shouldn’t have a problem finding transport. Note that these minibuses go when full and won’t stop along the route if they have their full complement of passengers, so plan accordingly.

If like me you want to cover more ground and head a bit further off the beaten track, it’s worth considering a car and driver. I found Advantour to be very helpful at the initial email stage, with prompt responses and useful suggestions about whether what I was planning was doable. Marat and I bounced ideas and refinements back and forth a few times before settling on an itinerary that covered the places I wished to see at a budget I could afford. Including accommodation, I paid about £800 for my week’s activities. You’ll see from the itinerary below that it represented excellent value for money.

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Another option, particularly if you have a little more time to play with, is to make use of the CBT organisations that are spread across the country. Community based tourism is a big thing in Kyrgyzstan and these helpful offices can sort you out with somewhere to stay, transport and the full gamut of activities. Each town has its own, and some even have several competing CBTs. They can hook you up with local guides, hiking packages, horse riding treks and more. I also liked the fact that they’re big on interactive experiences and will arrange cooking classes, felt-making demonstrations and more. This casual insight into Kyrgyz culture is great for the first-time visitor. Many of the bookings that Marat made for me were via the CBTs, but it’s useful to know you can cut out the middleman.

How to spend a week in Kyrgyzstan

Day 1

The advantage of arriving on the night flight is that you have an extra day to play with. The downside of pushing fifty is that sleeping fitfully on a five hour flight doesn’t refresh you enough to permit morning sightseeing. The good news is that many of Kyrgyzstan’s hotels and hostels offer an early check-in for 50% of the room rate. I opted for the budget-friendly Apple Hostel for my first night and a half, which came in at about £30 for an ensuite double for sole occupancy. Its edge of town location was good for a rush hour arrival as we didn’t get caught up in any traffic and took just twenty minutes to get from the airport. The taxi transfer, arranged by the hostel, cost about £7. There’s a cheaper shuttle bus which runs more or less during working hours.

 

I had a much-needed nap and then had Marat send my driver over for noon. After a brief detour to his office to pay for my tour, Adyl drove me to nearby Ala-Archa National Park. This beautiful park is only about a half hour drive from the city and is centred around a dramatic canyon flanked by mountains. In late May, there was still a slight chill in the air, but blue skies meant that it was perfect hiking weather. A tarmac path takes you along the river bank. That trail ends at an outwash plain where graded cobbles and streams of water can be forded to continue the walk. You can hike for 18km though I settled for a shorter walk. A couple of red squirrels were very friendly when I got to the benches.

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Day 2

I was keen to ride, and had read that one of the best places to do so was in the Chong Kemin valley, a few hours east of the capital. Marat suggested I’d need to get almost as far as Karakol today to be able to complete my wish list, so I opted for a two hour ride. My guide was the chatty Beka, who’d gone to Bishkek to study English and French before returning to his beloved valley. My request for a helmet was an initially misunderstood, as he fetched me a cap to wear. The second attempt was a bicycle helmet which I figured was better than nothing.

 

The next two hours were a pleasure, taking a leisurely ride through rolling hills and fording occasional streams (more importantly, learning to recognise the signs that your horse is about to take a bath with you on his back). Beka interspersed nuggets of Kyrgyz heritage and history with tales of his own somewhat chequered love life. Aside from my horse almost bolting after being startled by the air brakes of a lorry as we got back to the village, it was a most relaxing ride.

 

From there, we drove east, doubling back to stop for lunch in the Kyrgyz equivalent of a motorway service station midway through the Boom Gorge. Food’s cheap: you can have a proper meal for about 150 som (£1.50). Following the north shore of Issyk-Kul from a respectable distance, we pulled off the highway at Tamchy for a photo stop on the beach itself. We were a few weeks off main tourist season, so the place was deserted save for one lone paddler. The neighbouring resort of Cholpon-Ata is very popular with Russians in summer. From what I could tell, it had a lot in common with the Black Sea resorts they also favour.

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Our overnight stop was at a charming guesthouse, Reina Kerch, not far from Karakol. Set off the main road, it boasted panoramic views of the nearby canyon, but was also a working farm. Herds of sheep and cows pottered in distant fields but it was the horses I was keen to see, as the farm prided itself on thoroughbreds. The best competed in trotting races and I was able to watch one of their most successful stallions impregnate a mare. A tour of the stables followed. Next up was a boorsok-making demonstration. Boorsok is a fried dough cut into ravioli-like pieces. The dough was already made but I helped roll, cut and fry. It was salty and delicious. Dinner was excellent, making good use of the farm’s homegrown produce.

 

Day 3

Staying just outside Karakol on a Sunday, it was hard to resist a visit to the animal market on the edge of town. Scotski Bazaar isn’t the country’s largest – that honour goes to Tokmok’s weekly market which we’d passed the day before. The action starts in the middle of the night, but at around nine, it was still busy enough to be worth a visit. Sheep are traded nearest the entrance; those hoping to sell tie them to car bumpers with string leads. Further in are the cows and bulls. I was told a decent cow could go for $700 or $800. At the rear are the horses. I was made to feel very welcome.

 

Next up was Karakol itself, for a brief visit to the Dungan Mosque, which looks more like a Chinese temple than a regular mosque. That’s no surprise: the Dungans are Chinese Muslims who fled across the border in the 19th century. The colourful timbers and ornate pictures on its exterior were bright and cheerful. I wasn’t allowed in, but was invited to peer through the door. Around the corner was a charming wooden Orthodox Church, which replaced an earlier stone church that was felled by an earthquake in 1890. It didn’t have the glittering domes of other Russian churches I’d seen in Kyrgyzstan and beyond but it was a delightful sight. Mass was taking place, so I contented myself with a glimpse through the door.

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From Karakol, we followed the southerly route around Issyk-Kul. The Jety-Oguz valley was a short but worthwhile detour for its beehives as well as the Broken Heart and Seven Bulls rock formations. As we drove out of the valley, the weather took a turn for the worse and we drove through some heavy squalls. The spectacular mountain backdrop was a damp squib, obscured by thick cloud. The foreground scenery was stark also, nowhere near as pretty as the panoramic views I’d enjoyed thus far.

 

No matter, just after the scruffy town of Bokonbaevo we pulled off the main highway to reach an Alpine meadow, where we had an appointment with an eagle hunter. He produced a magnificent pair of golden eagles from the boot and back seat of his car – they couldn’t travel together as they would fight, he explained. His display was both captivating and, when he produced a live rabbit as bait, horrifying. However, I tried to rationalise the sacrificial bunny as nature’s pecking order. Nothing would be wasted, said the hunter, bundling the kill into a sack to take home. It would feed both eagles for the rest of the week. The thrill of watching a skilful bird such as this home in on its prey was, I reluctantly admitted to myself, impressive. If you’ve no stomach for hunting, you might choose to skip this, but such a tradition has been a part of the Kyrgyz culture for centuries.

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Back on the road, through more heavy showers, we reached Kochkor. Late afternoon, I was treated to a shyrdak demonstration. Felt-making is another important Kyrgyz tradition and my tutor was as skilled as she was smiley. Once again, active participation was expected and I found myself making the reed mat and stitching fabric together. A full sized carpet, I was told, takes five people two years to make. A single square can be knocked out in ten days. And I’m pleased to report there was no hard sell for either. Accommodation tonight was at a very plush homestay on the edge of town, affording magnificent views of the Tien Shan Mountains when the sun finally made an appearance.

Day 4

After the previous day’s storms, a dumping of snow on the mountains wasn’t the best for our ride up and over the Kalmak-Ashu mountain pass (highest point 3447m) to Son-Kul. This lake is smaller than Issyk-Kul by some margin, but its remote location ringed by snowy peaks makes it breathtaking. Late May is very early in the season to be up there at all, and the road had only been open for two weeks.

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We climbed steadily above the tree line. The road was wide, but it wasn’t long before we were driving alongside snowdrifts two metres high. The reward at the top for being one of the few to attempt it was a pristine meadow of snow which I left with two long lines of footprints. There was also a snow filled long drop toilet. This far into the tour, it had become something of a joke between Adyl and I that I couldn’t go more than a couple of hours without a toilet break.

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The approach to Son-Kul was just as wonderful, descending to emerging spring grass and fields of yellow buttercups. A few yurts were open for business, but at 3016m the lake is a summer destination. After crossing the Chu River, the lake’s only outlet river, we attempted to off-road to the lakeshore but the ground was still too soft for this to be possible.

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After a few failed attempts we bailed and drove down the spectacular Thirty Three Parrots Pass. A series of dramatic switchbacks carries you down the pass, and at each hairpin bend I caught my breath. I was glad to be the passenger! It’s surely up there with one of the world’s best drives though, if you have the head for it. A French traveller in a camper van had got cold feet halfway up and was trying to pick up courage to complete his ascent. A family of nomads in a small lorry, yurt in the back, made light work of it and waved enthusiastically.

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Before we headed into Naryn, Adyl invited me to try kymys, fermented mare’s milk which has a rather unpleasant sour taste to those unused to it. I managed a couple of sips, which was more than can be said for my attempt to drink a cup of Maksim, another popular sour milk drink which is just about the most vile thing I have ever tasted. Bustling Naryn was a bit of a shock to the system after a day’s solitude but Datka’s Guesthouse was comfortable and clean. At about £18 for an ensuite room with TV and hairdryer, breakfast included, it was a steal. She throws in dinner too for an extra 350 som (£3.50).

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Day 5

A much easier drive of around an hour and a half took us to Tash Rabat. This caravanserai is centuries old – no one knows quite how many – with metre-thick walls and atmosphere in spades. A lady emerged from one of the yurts opposite to unlock and collect the 100 som entrance fee (about £1, a bargain!) I was fortunate to have the place to myself for the first half an hour or so, wandering from room to room trying to imagine what it might have been like to stay in such a place. Some rooms had long benches of rock, others were square. All had skylights open to the elements which let in shafts of light. I emerged from one side chamber to give a recently-arrived Korean tourist the fright of her life (unintentional).

 

Outside, the way that Tash Rabat was engineered means that it’s pushed right up against the hillside. Climbing onto the roof and gazing down into the skylights is a peculiar sensation. The Korean had hiked up a nearby hill, so once again I had the place to myself until a bus load of Kyrgyz pulled up. The kids in the party scaled the walls with ease, chucking tiny stones down to their parents which, given the tone of voice, earned them a scolding.

 

My overnight lodging was within sight of Tash Rabat. Sabyzbek, a 62 year old maths teacher turned farmer, had a small guesthouse and a collection of four inviting yurts. Located in the quiet Kara-Kojon gorge, the road crossing the river and enabling access by car had only been built five years ago, transforming tourism in the valley. He was keen to show me both, reminding me several times that at 3200m and with a chill wind barrelling down the valley, the yurts would be cold once the sun set. Temperatures would fall below zero, he said, though I couldn’t pin him down to exactly how far. I decided to risk it for the adventure, figuring that I could pile on the spare bedcovers and every fleece I’d brought to stave off the overnight cold.

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Just before lunch, a wander around the farm led to another confronting sight. This time, the local vet was castrating a stallion. Judging by the horse’s wide eyes and blowing nostrils, accompanied by the ropes holding him down, the operation was performed without the use of tranquillisation. Potassium permanganate was used to sterilise the area and a hot poker cauterised the wound. It was uncomfortable to watch, but again, part and parcel of nomad life. Such lack of censorship is both the joy and the pain of visiting somewhere unused to mass tourism. I left as the second patient was being led to his fate.

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The afternoon was a pleasant one. Though the wind was biting, once you were out of it, the sun was rather nice. I tucked myself into a natural hollow, two woolly jumpers keeping me snug as I felt the warm sun on my face. Farm life carried on around me: a cow mooed insistently, chickens clucked over and pecked at the discarded balls of the morning’s business and horses pottered about. Every now and then, a car passed, bound for Tash Rabat, but by and large, it was quiet enough to hear birdsong. After dinner, I chatted with Sabyzbek’s daughter Tuzsun about Kyrgyz life, expectations and change. Dusk fell late; a pink sky soon clouded, I didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing when it came to how warm the yurt would be. A fire was lit in the coal burner, started by dung, just in case. I was toasty – so much so that I spent half the night with one leg stick out of the duvet resting against the cold slats of the yurt in an attempt to cool off.

Day 6

It was a long drive back to Bishkek and an early start was in order. The fire had kept me toasty inside the yurt but there was a frost on the ground outside. A bowl of steaming porridge and a mug of hot tea later, we were on the road again, retracing our steps to the capital. Bishkek’s sultry heat was a shock after several days in the mountains. I took a stroll from my centrally located hotel to Ala-Too Square. Its tall flagpole is no match for those in other Central Asian capitals, but impressive nevertheless. Nearby are several leafy parks offering the temptation of plenty of shade, as well as the presidential palace known as the White House. After a cold drink, a so-so pizza and a chat with a waiter keen to practise his English, it was time to go and pack for the following morning’s flight home.

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Would I go back?

Absolutely! Kyrgyzstan was everything I’d hoped it would be and then some. I’d love to stay in a yurt at Son-Kul and revisit the delightful Sabyzbek and his family at Tash Rabat. Osh and the Fergana Valley would also be on my wish list for a second visit. I’d definitely use Advantour again. Marat’s suggestions were invaluable and his organisation faultless, well worth the money I spent!

A few observations

The Kyrgyz are hospitable and go out of their way to make you feel welcome. I asked one hotel owner why. “Simple,” she replied, “many of us can’t afford to travel, so we learn about other countries through the people that come to see us.” I’d suggest learning a few phrases in Russian as many people speak very little English. Having a copy of the Cyrillic alphabet to hand so you can figure out lone words is also a good idea.

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Kyrgyzstan is a cheap destination and your money will stretch a long way. Even my smart hotel in Bishkek cost only $95 for a luxurious and very central room. Most comfortable guesthouses come in at around a quarter of that cost. It would have been possible to do the Ala-Archa and Issyk-Kul trips by marshrutka for a fraction of the cost of a car and driver. Likewise public transport to and from Kochkor and Naryn was plentiful.

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If you intend to self-drive, the roads are for the most part in excellent condition. Aside from the gravel roads up to and down from Son-Kul, there were none that would challenge an average driver and there were very few potholes. However, road signs are sporadic in places so it’s best to take a good map. Traffic police are everywhere: watch your speed if you don’t want to be flagged down and fined. Watch out for herds of livestock being moved between pastures and the occasional suicidal marmot.

Travelling in the shoulder season, you’ll have many places almost to yourself. I visited in late May and the road to Son-Kul had been open for two weeks, though snow still lined the Kalmak-Ashu pass. By mid-June, there’ll be plenty of yurts set up to receive visitors and off road trails down to the lakeshore will be safe to drive. By September, the season’s pretty much at an end unless you plan to ski.

It’s customary to take off your shoes when entering a house, and the same applies to homestays, guest houses and yurts – in fact the only place where it wasn’t expected was the fancy pants hotel in Bishkek. Do as the locals do and opt for footwear that can be easily slipped on and off, rather than have the bother of unlacing hiking boots each time you want to go inside.

Toilet

Toilets, save for posh hotels and the airport, are almost universally of the squat variety. Some are much cleaner than others. Those I encountered at the Kalmak-Ashu pass were full of snow. Have a stash of toilet paper handy but note that it needs to go in the bin as Kyrgyzstan’s plumbing can’t cope with paper.

English readers, everything seems to come in Morrison’s carrier bags. It’s very odd receiving a plastic bag featuring the distinctive M from a few years back and even more bizarre when it happens over and over again. I’ve yet to get to the bottom of this mystery (it’s been 12 years since this design has been used in the UK) so if anyone who’s reading this knows why, do leave a comment!

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My pick for Room 101: solo bookers who call themselves solo travellers

Apologies in advance: I’m feeling very grumpy this week. As such, it’s the perfect time for me to pretend I’m a guest on the popular BBC TV show Room 101. If you’ve never seen it, guests get to argue the case for putting something they can’t stand into the proverbial Room 101 and get rid of it for ever. Room 101 is a reference to the torture room in George Orwell’s novel 1984. (Orwell is said to have taken his inspiration from a conference room where he sat through interminable meetings while working for the BBC.)

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Items banished to Room 101 include people who call you ‘mate’ when you’ve never met them before, though coming from Essex we are rather used to that and quite honestly I wouldn’t like to see that go. Other observations include the frustration of being saddled with a waiter who pours a little bit of wine into your glass (totally agree with that, utterly pretentious). People who say “have a nice day” (sorry America, I don’t know why that winds some people up) and people who don’t pick up their dog’s poo (can’t argue with that) are two more. Travel-related good riddances include the prohibition of mosquitoes and expensive water in hotels. Yes and yes! The list is as eclectic as it is fascinating.

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So here’s mine. I’m a huge fan of solo travel and without wishing to sounding like a travel snob, solo travel by its very definition means travelling alone, without anyone else. The whole point of travelling solo is to get away from everyone else and give yourself space to explore your new surroundings. Google it, if you don’t believe me. I just did and this was the top result:

Solo travel means you’re going somewhere else alone, where you will spend a significant chunk of time alone once you get there.

Thank you Quora.

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Now call me thick if you like (though please not to my face, had about enough this week and need a dollop of nice, thank you very much), but how does that sit with someone making a booking for a group tour? My inbox and social media feeds are awash with travel suggestions that involve a solo booker joining a singles holiday or a group tour with other lone travellers.

Let me just stress, I have no problem with anyone who wants to do just that. It’s a great way to make friends and to share the experience of visiting a new country. But there’s a distinction between someone who books a single place on a tour and someone who deliberately seeks to distance themselves from a tour at all costs. The former’s a solo booker. The latter’s a solo traveller.

And they’re two different things.

Do you agree or would you send something entirely different to Room 101? I’d love to find out what your pet peeves are when it comes to travel. But if I’m a little slow in responding, that’s because I’m off to the remote Kyrgyzstan countryside for a week – solo of course.

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A beginner’s guide to Alberobello

Puglia is Italy’s heel, where a karst landscape makes its presence felt in the form of caves and sinkholes. Somewhere in the middle of all that is Alberobello, a town known for one thing: trulli. These simple circular dwellings are built without mortar and take their name from the Greek word “troullos” meaning dome.

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Getting there

The nearest airports to Alberobello are Brindisi and Bari. The latter’s the most convenient in terms of onward travel, served from London Gatwick, Stansted and Luton by easyJet, Ryanair and Wizz respectively. Flights can be had for a little under £50 return, excellent value for a flight that’s almost 3 hours long.

From Bari, a train takes you direct to Bari Centrale station, taking about 20 minutes. From there you can pick up the FSE train, tucked away on a far-flung platform – ask for assistance if you can’t find it. Even though it’s an FSE train, you can buy a ticket from the Trenitalia ticket machines (Trenitalia bought FSE in 2018). The fastest connection takes about 1 hour 15 minutes, but it’s more usually about an hour and a half. Tickets are cheap at just 5€ and can be used on any train without the need for a reservation. At the moment, until at least 2020, the stretch of track from Putignano to Martina Franca is being renovated, so there are no trains to Alberobello itself. Instead, you need to catch the connecting rail replacement bus – and fortunately it does connect, waiting for the train if the train is running late. It’s part of the same 5€ ticket, so just show the driver. The bus journey takes about half an hour.

On Sundays, things get a little more complicated. FSE trains don’t run at all. Instead there is a bus service that connects Alberobello to Bari Centrale. Though that might sound simple, the bus doesn’t start from the station. Instead, you’ll need to find the stop – tucked around the corner on Viale Bari near Hotel Astoria and the petrol station. Remember to buy your ticket online or at the petrol station; you can’t buy a ticket on the bus from the driver.

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Getting around

To explore the surrounding countryside, it’s most sensible to hire a car. Though public transport does exist, it radiates from Bari and other large towns and there are few cross-country connections. To visit Matera by public transport, for instance, would require a trip from Alberobello to Bari and then out again to Matera – a long detour.

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However, it is possible to catch the train (or Sunday bus) to some of the nearby villages. I enjoyed Locorotondo, the next village along, which is a pleasant outing for the afternoon. There aren’t many sights as such, but the hilltop location affords fantastic views across the surrounding countryside and the pretty old town is compact as a result.

Things to see

Rione Monti

The big draw when it comes to Alberobello is Rione Monti. This district is packed with trulli and straggles picturesquely up the hillside. One of the best views across from the town centre is at the Belvedere Santa Lucia. It’s also worth checking out the park beside the tourist information centre and, across in Rione Monti itself, several shops that offer free access to their upstairs terraces.

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Close up, it’s not quite as quaint, largely because many of the trulli house souvenir shops – some of which is mass produced tat. A few stood out, including La Bottega dei Fischietti which sells not only the traditional ceramic whistles common to Puglia but also some rather lovely ceramic tableaux.

Nearby, Pasteca La Mandragora sells high quality linens and there’s also a store to delight art lovers called Forme e Colori di De Marco Vita crammed full of brightly painted pottery. Be warned, however, some places that purport to be museums house a minimum of exhibits which exist as a honey trap for unwary visitors.

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But it’s also in Rione Monti that you’ll find a 20th century trulli church and where you’ll find the curious Trulli Siamesi. This double trulli has one roof. Legend has it that two brothers fell out over a woman but neither would give up the home they had inherited. Instead of moving out, the spurned sibling bricked up the wall and knocked through to make a separate front door.

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You’ll also see plenty of trulli with symbols painted on their roofs. Some people will tell you that these symbols have an ancient spiritual or religious meaning. That’s probably true, but I also read on an exhibit tucked away in a corner of the town’s museum that when Mussolini came to visit in 1927 many of the villagers were asked to paint those symbols on their trulli to add a touch of mystery. This seems to be glossed over now in favour of the more politically correct religious imagery line.

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Rione Aia Piccola

The only district to rival Rione Monti in terms of the sheer number of trulli is Rione Aia Piccola, which faces off against its nemesis across Largo Martellotta. In contrast to its touristy neighbour, it’s quieter than you’d expect from somewhere on the tour guide route. Many of the trulli here are private dwellings, though a significant number are let to visitors. You’ll see just how many if you wander through in between check out and check in, when they’re marked by vacuum cleaners and mops on their thresholds.

A tourist map I had been given implied that there was a kind of open air museum here, but there was no evidence of that during my stay – perhaps because it was still early in the season? If you are in Alberobello in the height of summer it would be worth checking out just in case.

Trulli Sovrano

In the main part of town, there are also more than a scattering of trulli, one of which is worth seeking out as it is two-storey. This is rare: Alberobello’s trulli were originally modelled on the agricultural buildings found across the Puglian countryside and the dry stone wall construction wasn’t strong enough to support an upper floor.

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Trulli Sovrano was built in the 17th century by the family of a priest, taking the name Corte di Papa Cataldo and is now a museum, its rooms recreated with antique furniture. In the front bedroom, a notice pinned to the wall states that the slit was useful for seeing who was at the door, or shooting them if they weren’t welcome. It was at one time a warehouse; if you climb the stairs, you’ll see a trapdoor in the floor used for passing goods down to the floor below. Over the years it’s had many uses, including a court, chapel, grocer’s, monastery and the HQ of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sacrament.

Museo del Territorio “Casa Pezzolla”

Much of the town’s history can be learned within the confines of this collection of fifteen or so trulli which now form a museum. It recounts the impact of the Prammatica De Baronibus, an edict of the 15th-century Kingdom of Naples. The Kings wished to impose a tax on permanent dwellings, so under the leadership of nobleman Gian Girolamo II, the residents of Alberobello were forced to live in trulli. Their dry stone construction made it easy to take them down if an inspection was imminent. The tax dodge worked, serving Alberobello well for many years but in the end, the political situation changed and thus these temporary structures became an enduring part of the urban landscape.

One of the sections of the museum explains the significance of the adornments on the roofs of the trulli. What’s called the “pinnacolo” is the only part of the trulli to be purely decorative, a kind of architect’s calling card. The more complex the design of this topper, the more talented was the master trullaro. It was also a good way of finding a particular trullo amongst so many similar constructions; think of it as the design equivalent of a postcode.

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Where to stay

If you’re going to stay in Alberobello – and why wouldn’t you, since once the daytrippers have gone home it’s absolutely gorgeous – then I’d suggest you book Trulli Anti.

While there are plenty of trulli scattered across town that can be rented by visitors, many of them cluster in Rione Aia Piccola. Though that district isn’t as plagued by tour groups during the day as Rione Monti, it’s still on the tourist trail. Where Trulli Anti wins is that it’s close to the sights without being in the middle of them. Plus it’s on such a narrow road that it’s almost impossible for cars to drive past. I only saw one car try it and that was the local police.

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That peace and quiet, coupled with its stylish and very contemporary design, gives it 10/10 in my books. If you’re thinking that I’m only saying that because I got a freebie, I didn’t. I paid my own way. It wasn’t cheap for a solo traveller, costing about 125€ a night – though it would be much better value if there are three of you. But oh was it worth it!

The trulli has been well thought out and owner Angelo is keen to ensure you have a great time. On a mezzanine, there’s a very inviting double bed under the domed roof. Lighting is good, and the stairs are pretty solid, which is reassuring as the bathroom is downstairs. That bathroom is chic – I especially loved the tiles and having a shower with some oomph to it. I also need to mention the comfortable sofa (so comfortable I fell asleep on it one evening) and that there’s a single room on the ground floor if you need a second bedroom or you’ve had so much vino you don’t trust yourself on the stairs.

If you plan to cook, there’s also a small but well-equipped kitchen with a dining table. When it comes to eating out, Angelo provides many recommendations and there are several excellent restaurants within staggering distance. Call ahead if you want to try La Cantina as it’s tiny and usually booked out. I had better luck geting into Trullo d’Oro and the food there was delicious. Make sure you try burata, a type of mozzarella that is moist and creamy. Breakfast comes in a box from a nearby cafe, with plenty of choice. You simply pick what you’d like off a menu, send it to Angelo via text message or What’s App and tell him what time you’d like it delivered. You can, if you prefer, eat at the same cafe, a ten minute stroll away.

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Out back there is a courtyard garden. During my stay the weather was rarely sunny, but if it hadn’t been wet I’d have loved sitting out there. Angelo supplies bikes too and there’s even an outdoor shower. Pots of flowers add colour to the whitewashed trulli and fairylights create a magical feel. I’m probably gushing, but it was just delightful. Trulli delightful, in fact. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

I booked Trulli Anti via booking.com – here is the link if you want to check prices and availability: https://www.booking.com/hotel/it/trulli-anti.en-gb.html