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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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?

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.