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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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.

How the pandemic has changed the way I plan trips

After a tough couple of years, it really is starting to look more positive for travel. By making such a statement I hope I haven’t jinxed my upcoming trips, but my inbox is now full of optimistic predictions which have replaced desperate pleas imploring me to “dream now, book later”. I’ve travelled as much as I can internationally since March 2020. At times, that was anxiety-inducing. Would governments hold their nerve and keep the borders open? Would I test positive and throw the whole trip off? Would it feel safe and sensible to travel at all? To keep travelling, I’ve had to change the way I plan trips. If you’re still a little unsure about whether to take the plunge again, here are a few things I’ve learnt along the way.

Embrace independent travel

Madeira

COVID is the viral equivalent of a shapeshifter and has been a constant headache for my travel plans. Back when I was a teacher tied to school holidays, I would think nothing of booking a scheduled flight 11 months ahead of departure to lock in a decent price. Now, I think that would be foolish, partly because flight schedules are changing so frequently and partly because it only takes one vaccine-resistant variant to throw the whole world into disarray. You only have to look at government actions regarding Omicron to see this in action. But I’ve never been a big fan of package tours. They often unfairly penalise solos and regardless, I prefer to be the one in charge of my travel decision-making. So how does that affect me as an independent traveller? Short answer: not much. In fact, being able to decide whether it feels right to travel without having to convince anyone else is a bonus right now.

Ditch the idea of planning too far in advance

Iceland

How far in advance is too far? I guess the answer to that one is, How long is a piece of string? In summer 2020, I had an Iceland trip all ready to go and then regulations changed. To avoid a five day quarantine, I ended up bringing the trip forward by a month and replanning everything in the space of a day and a half. At one point during that fraught weekend, I wondered if I should go at all. I did and it was one of the best holidays I have ever had. Empty roads, cheap accommodation and those incredible landscapes almost to myself in such gloriously sunny weather I wondered whether this could be Iceland at all. That was the first post-pandemic trip I made, and it felt like a weight had been lifted.

Accept that things might change

The USA

Since then, in addition to some remarkable trips within the UK, I’ve flown out to Madeira, Iceland again, Germany and Austria, Menorca, Sweden and the USA a week after it finally reopened its borders to leisure travellers. Right now, I have international bookings lined up for the USA in March and France in April. I’m looking at adding the Azores and Uzbekistan to that list for later in the year. On my bookshelf are guidebooks to Rwanda, Madagascar and Benin ready for some point in the future. But things change. Pre-pandemic, I thrived on visiting off the beaten track places in unusual destinations. I miss that, but if I’m honest, I’m still unsure about travelling to parts of the world where healthcare provision is patchy and where access can be a challenge. I don’t want to get stranded somewhere. Actually, I don’t want to get stranded anywhere.

Check the regulations with a reliable source

Menorca

Even though I’m now sufficiently convinced that booking a month or two in advance isn’t a big risk to my finances, there are still a few considerations that are influencing my choice of destination. I’m happy to test in advance. I figure if the result is positive, that still leaves me time to cancel or preferably reschedule my bookings and I’m unlikely to be out of pocket. Testing on arrival, which to be fair I was OK with on that first trip to Iceland, now seems risky, given how much more spreadable variants such as Delta and Omicron proved to be. I’m fully vaccinated and boostered, but though that’s likely to prevent me becoming seriously ill, I can still catch it. I don’t want to test positive the minute I step off the plane and risk that massive disappointment. Similarly, nowadays, anywhere with a quarantine in place is a no for me, for example, as that might imply high case numbers. I use the FCDO’s travel advice pages in conjunction with other official government sites and tourist board socials to get as full a picture as I can of the current situation before settling on a destination.

Keep flights flexible

Germany

I’ve always planned trips to be flexible to some degree, but that’s even more the case now. I’ve tried to choose flights with airlines that permit date changes. Over the past couple of years that’s been BA, easyJet and Virgin Atlantic but policies change so double check the small print if you plan to fly with them. Ryanair didn’t offer the same flexibility when it came to planning my Stockholm trip last December but they were so much cheaper and more convenient than other airlines I figured I’d risk it and write off the cost of the flight if I had to. I didn’t, by the way, and the trip went off as planned. Another thing I’m trying to do at the moment is stick to direct flights, which reduces the chance of something changing at the layover destination and preventing inward or onward travel.

Make the most of free cancellation policies

Iceland

I often use booking.com to source accommodation – just a personal preference rather than a travel writer perk – and they offer to book on a free cancellation basis which has been a real help. You do need to check the dates, however. Some properties offer free cancellation as late as 6pm on the day of arrival whereas others require you to lock in your reservation as much as a week or more in advance – which might be fine for a hotel you’re planning to use later in the trip but not the one you plan to stay in when you first arrive. Where possible, if I have to cancel, I do so as far in advance as I can; more often, I try to move the reservation to alternative dates. I mark crucial dates in my diary, usually a reminder 24 hours before the cancellation might need to be made and double check the situation once more before embarking on the trip.

Manage your risk

Austria

Travel insurance has never been more necessary, I’d argue, but read the policy document carefully to see exactly what you are covered for. It’s wise to have decent medical cover and provision for unforeseen expenses should you need to stay longer than planned. Take a close look at those exclusions for cancellations to see if COVID is one of them. You don’t really know if an insurance provider is any good until you need to make a claim, but it’s worth reading their reviews and ratings to see if they help you make a decision on which to use.

Everyone’s different and for some people, it’s still to early to consider travelling beyond their own border. I respect that, though it’s not for me. As visitor numbers haven’t yet fully recovered to 2019 levels, it’s still a great time to see the world, especially those places that typically have attracted large numbers of tourists. Wherever 2022 takes you, happy travels and follow your dreams.

Travels in 2021 and hopes for 2022

Once again it’s been a rollercoaster ride of a year for travel. The beginning of the year was bleak and, just when things started to look up, Omicron showed up and set us all back. Somehow, I managed to escape the UK more than once and 2021’s trips, though tame, were a pleasure. I do miss visiting far-flung, culturally different destinations and hope to achieve some of that kind of travel in 2022. Here’s what I managed this year:

April: Shropshire

Incredibly, we were confined to home until April. Just about as soon as it was permitted I rented a little cottage near Ludlow for a few days. Having persuaded my husband and the dog to join me, we visited some of the prettiest places in Shropshire, including The Stiperstones, Carding Mill Valley and of course Ironbridge. The horses on the Long Mynd gave Edi a bit of a fright and the drive back down such a narrow single-track road was a tad scary. Fortunately the cottage was very comfortable and the llamas up the road were a real treat.

May: Barra and Skye

In May, I took my first flight of the year and touched down on the beach in Barra. This airport in the Outer Hebrides is the only one in the world where scheduled flights land on sand, which was pretty cool. After I returned to Glasgow I picked up my own car again and immediately after arriving at my B&B on the Isle of Skye promptly locked the keys in the boot which I don’t recommend if you want a stress-free (or cheap) holiday. The locksmith had to come out from Inverness but everything turned out alright in the end. Back on the mainland, a Scottish friend of ours suggested I drive the Bealach na Bà (the Pass of the Cattle). It boasts the steepest ascent in the UK and also has lots of single track stretches. I was grateful for my automatic transmission and an early Sunday morning start which meant only light traffic.

June: the Isle of Wight

Somehow hopping on the ferry made it feel a little more like we were going abroad when we headed for the Isle of Wight in June, though when we drove off it, we could have been going back in time. Much of the island was how we remembered it from family holidays in the 1970s, with a few welcome modern additions like WiFi and Costa. Highlights included some fabulous dog-friendly beaches, a ride on the chair lift at Alum Bay, a chance to meet the donkeys at Carisbrooke Castle and a stroll through the delightful Shanklin Chine.

July/August: Iceland

This year’s big trip was, once again, to Iceland. I began the trip by visiting some of the places I hadn’t made time for last summer. In Siglufjörður in the north of the country I thoroughly enjoyed a social history lesson at the Herring Era Museum and on Heimaey in the Westman Islands I was so engrossed in the puffins I almost missed my ferry. I didn’t have much luck again in the Westfjords. Failing to spot the Arctic fox on Hornstrandir I had to be content with a stuffed specimen in a museum. The dramatic eruption of Fagradalsfjall volcano, which at the time was still spewing lava in spectacular fashion, lured me back down south and a friend over from the UK. Lisa and I would recommend a hike to an ice cave and the delicious geothermally baked bread at Laugarvatn Fontana spa. The jury’s out on Elf School.

September: Dundee

Dad and I took a road trip to Dundee in September to visit RRS Discovery. This historic ship took Scott of the Antarctic on his first trip to the icy south, but it also holds special memories for Dad who had some of his own adventures onboard while a Sea Scout in 1951. The visit was fascinating, both for a glimpse into Dad’s childhood and of course the more famous stuff about the South Pole. We also enjoyed a visit to The Kelpies and a spin on the Falkirk Wheel before heading home.

September: Austria and Germany

Though it was touch and go for a while due to the COVID situation, the borders remained open long enough for me to spend a week in Austria and Germany. South of the border, I stayed in Seefeld and sunned myself up several mountains – nursing a dodgy knee I couldn’t do much hiking but did manage one glorious walk through the Leutascher Geisterklamm, a scenic gorge cut by a glacial river. For the first time, I made it to the Swarovski factory and rekindled the joy of an old favourite: the Tyrolean evening, kitsch, clichéd and hilarious fun. The Almbetriebe was scaled right back in Mittenwald, but all of the cable cars were open so I did get to make an ascent of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain.

October: Norfolk

In October we took the dog away again and this time spent a relaxing weekend in Norfolk with family. Splitting the time between woodland walks and lazy hours in the hot tub was the ideal way to unwind. I was more than happy to dogsit while the others went ziplining at Go Ape but sometimes the best things come to you – a muntjac deer strolled right past the deck of our cabin in broad daylight.

October: Menorca

I’d planned to visit Santorini in the autumn but ended up changing my flights to Menorca because of COVID uncertainties. I had a thoroughly enjoyable time based in Ciutadella, the island’s old capital. I stayed in a beautifully renovated mansion right in the heart of the old town and really enjoyed the convivial atmosphere (and abundant ice cream parlours). I hired a car for a couple of days so I could tour the island. Free from the constraints of off season bus timetables, I was able to try out cheese making and watch the sunset from a bar tucked into the side of a cliff. The boat trip I took along the island’s south coast was also well worth doing: the turquoise water in the rocky coves was dazzling.

November: Florida

For the first time since returning from New York in February 2020, I flew to the United States. President Biden finally opened the border on November 8th and a week later we touched down in Miami. Naples was our first stop, a very upmarket enclave on Florida’s Gulf Coast, with probably the most splendid botanical garden I’ve ever visited. We followed it with gorgeous Longboat Key. On the way, we practised the “Sanibel stoop” – shell-hunting is a big deal there – and sank into the icing sugar soft sand of Siesta Key. After seeing manatees and bobcats with some expat friends of ours, we rounded off the trip in Orlando, though I’m relieved to say I didn’t have to set foot in a Disney theme park once.

December: Stockholm

The final trip of the year was to Sweden where I visited the Christmas markets in Sigtuna, its oldest town, and in Stockholm’s Gamla Stan. The weather was dismal – grey skies and drizzle rather than blue skies and snow – but even that couldn’t dampen my spirits. On December 13th I enjoyed a wonderful candlelit Santa Lucia concert in Stockholm cathedral. During the trip, there was also time to hang out with some reindeer in Skansen and have a party for one in the ABBA museum as well as try all the elements of a traditional Christmas dinner thanks to a lovely friend of mine. If you’re planning a trip there soon, the dog pictures at Fotografiska were fabulous fun.

And so to 2022…

This is what I wrote this time last year, and I guess I’ll just carry this over to next year (though perhaps I might hold off on Belarus for the time being?)

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

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

How’s it looking? Well, easyJet have already cancelled my flights to Santorini, booked for April, so that’s a no-go until I can find a suitable alternative. The much-hoped for return to Peru didn’t happen in 2021 but now I’m keen to add a second trip to Colombia too if it seems sensible to revisit South America. I’m still hopeful of that US road trip, so check back next December and see if I managed to pull it off.

Wherever your travels take you in 2022, have fun and stay safe. As ever, do your homework and research the current situation for your proposed destination as requirements and regulations are changing frequently at the moment. Happy New Year!

Christmas isn’t cancelled: a last minute trip to Stockholm

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. That’s not because I haven’t been travelling – I took advantage of the US border opening in November. But as Omicron wreaks havoc and every day brings a new headline of more restrictions, it’s been hard to find the motivation to post.

This winter, I was all set to return to Germany for a visit to Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s Christmas market. It’s a pretty little town (read about my autumn visit a few years ago here) and one which I’m keen to return to. But first Munich’s Christmas market was cancelled and then all markets across Bavaria, and the trip was off. Luckily, thanks to a six hour flight change, I even managed to get a full refund from Ryanair which took just a few days to come through. That sounds impressive though the total fare was just £12 so I’d already written it off as one of those things.

I still wanted to visit a Christmas market this year and settled on Sweden. A Ryanair flight to Västerås, despite the distance from Stockholm, was actually the most convenient direct flight. I left all the other bookings until the day before, crossed my fingers and as luck was on my side, managed to pull it off. First stop was Sigtuna. This is Sweden’s oldest town, founded in the 10th century.

On 13th December, Sweden marks Santa Lucia Day. In the 4th century, Santa Lucia of Syracuse (yes, that’s in Italy) brought food to Christians hiding in the catacombs. She used a crown of candles to see her way in the darkness and this saint’s day has come to represent bringing the Light of Christ into a world of darkness and, more immediately, receiving enough light to get you through a dark Scandinavian winter. These girls sang beautifully beside Sigtuna Museum and then paraded along historic Stora Gatan. The following evening, the candlelit concert in Stockholm’s beautiful cathedral was a feast for the senses.

The following day I planned a visit to a museum that I’d missed last time I was in Sweden through lack of time. Fotografiska is an excellent museum with rotating exhibits on a range of themes. This time, one of them was The Pet Show, a fun collection which featured some entertaining images of dogs, and a colourful and very powerful display centred on the themes of migration and loss of identity.

Back over on Gamla Stan, I pottered around Stockholm’s oldest market. Stalls have been set up in Stortorget since mediaeval times but the Christmas market is all that remains – in summer, this pretty square is filled with cafe tables. Keep an eye out for the straw goats which are called Julbock. Tradition has it that this creature is a gift-giver and a symbol of good luck. If you have time, take a ride out to the city of Gävle (about an hour and a half north of the capital) which puts up a giant one, though it often gets torched.

I was feeling peckish, which was the ideal excuse to indulge in the Swedish tradition of fika. This concept is more than just drinking coffee and eating cake. It’s more of a state of mind, a conscious effort to make time to sit for a while. You’re supposed to do this with friends, but as a solo traveller I made do with a friendly server at the Skeppsbro Bakery, a 100% organic craft bakery that makes its bread and cakes on site. The bun is a traditional Santa Lucia saffron bun. They’re called lussebullar and they’re quite delicious.

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a reindeer, but this far south in Sweden you won’t find any herds. Instead I visited Skansen, an open air museum on the island of Djurgården. Tram #7 from central station stops right outside which is really convenient – it’s also one stop along from the ABBA Museum. I tried to resist, but the music was audible from the street and I couldn’t pass up the chance to sing my way round again. Every Christmas needs some entertainment…

In Skansen, there’s another Christmas market (weekends only) and some wildlife that are winter-hardy. The brown bears had gone into hibernation but I saw European bison, moose and of course the reindeer who were content to nibble lazily on lichen. I was enchanted by a trio of lynx cubs who found out the hard way that play-fighting on a frozen pond is going to leave you feeling a little embarrassed.

Another essential element of a good Christmas is a long walk to compensate for all that excess. I really like the industrial vibe of Södermalm, where there are some repurposed factories and tons of historic buildings along the waterfront to the west of Slussen. I found a route on the Visit Stockholm website that suited the time I had spare. I started on a rocky outcrop called Skinnarviksberget, which has fabulous views overlooking the city.

I followed the path towards Monteliusvägen, which is a super vantage point for taking in Riddarfjärden, the easternmost part of Lake Mälaren. From there, I dropped down the cobblestone street of Blecktornsgränd and made a left onto Hornsgatan. This street has a number of art galleries and independent boutiques selling everything from tea to toys. The window displays are really well done, so I’ll leave you with this bunny, taking his friends for a ride on his wooden sleigh.

Happy Christmas!

How to spend a long weekend in Menorca

I’ve just returned from a warm sunny weekend in Menorca, one of Spain’s Balearic Islands. I’d originally intended to spend a few days doing next to nothing, but the temptation to explore got too much. I rented a car from a local agency close to my hotel in Ciutadella and spent a couple of days touring the island at an unhurried pace. These are some of the highlights I’d like to recommend.

Explore historic Ciutadella

Rather than staying in one of the coastal resort hotels, I opted for a small family-run place in the historic heart of Ciutadella. This, the beautiful cathedral which dates from the 13th century, was just around the corner. The maze of alleyways and cobbled streets was a joy to explore on foot, not least because of the high concentration of tapas bars and ice cream parlours.

Learn how to make cheese

About a 20 minute drive from Ciutadella was Binissuès. This is part farm, part museum, which showed a delightful film about how it would have been in the past, told from a child’s perspective. Each weekend, visitors have the opportunity to watch them make cheese. This particular batch had gone a little wrong and the curds hadn’t sufficiently formed, so it was tricky to squeeze enough of the liquid out and the muslin was leaking in all directions.

Tackle a maze in a quarry

When I first read about the Lithica quarries, I somehow managed to miss the part about the labyrinth that now fills the base of one of the two cavernous spaces. I was also impressed by how straight the sides were: by the 20th century, the limestone was extracted by machine and precision-cut. Surrounding the disused quarries was a botanical garden, serene and peaceful in the early morning. Olive, almond, lemon and fig trees are underplanted with herbs and wildflowers and the overall effect is magical.

Visit a shoe factory

You can’t get very far on Menorca without passing a shoe shop selling avarcas, a traditional leather sandal with a rubber sole. In the town of Ferreries, it’s possible to see the iconic footwear being made. RIA has been in business since 1947, starting out in a small workshop and now producing shoes in a sizeable factory. There’s also an outlet store on site where you can pick up certain styles and colours at a discount.

Discover the island’s prehistoric past

Menorca is littered with ancient monuments but one of the best preserved is the Naveta des Tudons. It’s a type of funerary monument that’s only found on this particular island. More than 100 people and their grave goods once occupied this tomb. Though it’s not possible to step inside, even the outside is impressive. The stones fit perfectly together without the need for mortar, while the name refers to its shape – like an upturned boat.

Take a boat trip

Unless you’re up for some serious hiking, the easiest way to reach many of Menorca’s coves and beaches is from the water. I did a couple of boat trips while I was there. The first, departing from Cala’n Bosch marina, took me to some of the prettiest spots along the scenic south coast, including Cala Gallana, Cala Trebaluger, Cala Turqueta and Cala Macarella. It’s also worth hopping on a harbour tour over in Mahon to visit the Hauser & Wirth gallery on Illa del Rei and to see the impressive Fortalesa de la Mola.

Visit the capital, Mahon

Like Ciutadella, Mahon boasts an attractive old town. Amongst the handful of churches is one whose cloisters now house a market, the Mercat Claustre del Carme. A steep flight of steps or a snazzy elevator gets you down to the waterfront where several boat operators run tours. Regular gin tastings are hosted by the Xoriguer distillery and numerous restaurants make the most of the picturesque harbourside setting.

Enjoy a leisurely lunch in pretty Binibeca

Charming Binibeca Vell is a fraud. At first glance, it appears that this maze of narrow passageways flanked with whitewashed homes and even a chapel has been there for centuries. In fact, it was built in the 1970s to resemble a traditional fishing village. Unsurprisingly, every corner is occupied by someone posing for a photo. I loved it despite all this so if they want to fake somewhere as cute as this, I say good luck to them!

Admire the boats in Fornells harbour

Fornells, in comparison, is an authentic harbour. It’s also lined with whitewashed buildings that overlook the water and rows of traditional wooden fishing boats known as llaüts. Seafood restaurants line the palm-fringed quayside and a gentle breeze keeps off the worst of the sun. I visited on a Sunday afternoon and it was very quiet, which only added to its end of season appeal.

Watch the sun set from a bar halfway up a cliff

Menorca’s best known sunset hangout is Cova d’en Xoroi. This bar and nightclub occupies a natural cave in the cliff. Perched high above the Mediterranean, the views are breathtaking and the chillout music gave it more of an Ibiza vibe than anywhere else I visited on the island. Set over multiple levels and with plenty of tucked-away nooks to enjoy a quiet conversation or party with friends, this was a pretty cool place to unwind.

First impressions were good, but this was my first visit to Menorca. Have you been? What did I miss?