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On the trail of Fire Saga in Húsavík

One of the funniest films I’ve seen in a long time is Eurovision Song Contest: the story of Fire Saga. Most of the Icelandic scenes were filmed in October 2019 in Húsavík, in the north of Iceland. While I’m not usually a fan of Will Ferrell, who plays Lars Erickssong in the movie, I do share his love for the insanity of Eurovision. So too, apparently, do Icelanders – according to Visit Húsavík, over 98% of them tune in when the contest is broadcast each May. When I had the opportunity to visit Húsavík this summer, I decided to check out some of the places featured in the movie.

The whales

Húsavík is well known in Iceland as a whale watching village and it’s no surprise that the cetaceans feature in scenes from the movie. Tours depart regularly and head out into Skjálfandi Bay where it’s common to see humpback, minke, white-beaked dolphin, harbour porpoise and blue whales. Occasionally it’s possible to see them from land (try GeoSea) but as Erick Erickssong (Lars’ father) is a fisherman, if you’re really going to experience Húsavík as portrayed in the movie you should get out on a boat.

Lars’ family home

The distinctive two-storey home is easy to find as it sits right near the harbour on the main drag. It’s located on the corner of Héðinsbraut and Hafnarvegur. Built in 1903, it is a wooden structure painted a rather lovely shade of blue. A residential property in real life, the apartment that covers the top two floors of the house was recently put up for sale for 24.5 million ISK, about £140000. Bargain!

Captain’s Galley bar

Named “Skipstjórakráin” in Icelandic, disappointingly, this bar isn’t a real pub. Instead, it’s the home of the Húsavík Academic Center (HAC). The signage was removed for the purposes of filming so the building could be used for the exterior shots. It’s another centrally located building, close to the harbour; the shape and recognisable gables make it simple to identify. But like many things on the big screen, things aren’t exactly what they seem – according to IMDB, the interior scenes were filmed back in the UK at Chobham Rugby Club.

Húsavíkurkirkja

This iconic wooden church was built in 1907 and overlooks the harbour in the centre of Húsavík. In the film, Lars rings the church bell to announce that he and singing partner Sigrit have been chosen as the Icelandic entry to the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s a pretty church and well worth a quick nose inside.

The bus stop

The bus shelter where Lars and Sigrit wait for their ride to Reykjavik isn’t a bus stop at all – it actually sits beside the astro turf pitch belonging to Völsungur’s football team. Hinrik Wöhlers, director of the Húsavík Chamber of Commerce and Tourism was reportedly keen on shifting one of the two shelters to the harbourside location seen in the film. When I visited in August 2020 they were both still at the football ground.

The elf houses

Though it’s common to see elf houses in Iceland, these particular ones were a prop installed specifically for the movie. However, the Cape Hotel were keen to tap into the interest created by the film and faithfully recreated this tiny residential street in the hotel garden. As well they opened a pop-up Ja Ja Ding Dong bar; it’s outside so it’s likely to remain a summer attraction only. I spoke to the manager and asked him whether he was a fan of Eurovision himself. “I am now,” he said with a grin.

The village of Húsavík is one of the prettiest in the country so even if you’re not a Eurovision fan you should really add this to your Iceland itinerary. It’s a great base from which to drive the Diamond Circle route which features Dettifoss waterfall, Ásbyrgi Canyon and Lake Mývatn. But if you do love to watch Eurovision, then find your way to this petition which calls for Swede Molly Sandén aka My Marianne to perform Húsavík (My Hometown) at the contest in 2021:

https://www.thepetitionsite.com/626/164/246/get-husavik-my-hometown-performed-at-eurovision-2021/


Iceland’s thermal baths

Despite the country’s capricious weather, a visit to one of Iceland’s thermal baths is a must, whether you’re a first-timer or on a return visit. There are numerous hot springs and thermal baths dotted around the country, some little more than a hollow in a totally natural settting. In this post, I compare three of the biggest. All offer lockers, smart changing rooms, swim up pool bars and something akin to a spa experience. So how do they stack up?

The Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon by Chris Lawton via Unsplash

First-time visitors, consider this a must. Located close to Keflavik Airport, it offers the chance to tick off a quintessentially Icelandic experience before you’ve even checked in to your hotel. Located in the middle of a lava field on the wild Reykjanes peninsula, nature is raw and rugged here, but dip a toe in and the water is warm and soothing. White silica-rich mud makes an enriching face mask and also reflects light to give the water its beautiful blue colour. It’s gorgeous, with plenty of tucked away spots to create a sense of privacy even when the place is crowded. On site, there’s a fancy spa, restaurant and eye-wateringly expensive accommodation. Book well in advance for your session in the baths, particularly if you want to visit before or after your flight. 

The lava field surrounding the Blue Lagoon

Would I go back?

Definitely yes. It’s touristy, of course, but there is something rather special about the place.

https://www.bluelagoon.com/

Mývatn Nature Baths

The nature baths with the lake in the background

The north of Iceland sees far less traffic than the south. Like the Blue Lagoon, Mývatn Nature Baths water source is linked to a power supplier, this time the National Power Company´s bore hole in Bjarnarflag. The water in the baths has a temperature of between 36 and 40°C and also has a high mineral content. The pool is basically split into two sections, with one slightly cooler than the other – I found the hotter part to be more comfortable. Both overlook the lake itself and the midges which plague the area in summer were absent from the pool itself which was a relief. 

Mývatn Nature Baths

Would I go back?

Probably not. It’s pleasant enough but didn’t have the wow factor.

https://myvatnnaturebaths.is/ 

GeoSea

GeoSea and the bay beyond

Opened in August 2018, GeoSea uses a mix of geothermal heat and seawater pumped from two nearby drillholes to maintain a temperature of 38 to 39°C. Intimate and architecturally sympathetic to its surroundings, it sits on a cliff right on Skjálfandi Bay, meaning that if you are really lucky you might catch sight of the whales that occasionally come right into the bay. The carefully thought out design means that the pool water and that of the bay itself create the illusion of an infinity pool. As it is west facing, it’s perfect for those rare, clear days when you can watch the Icelandic sun set. In the winter, stay after dark and you might also catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. If your visit coincides with an evening such as those, you are in for a real treat.

GeoSea at sunset

Would I go back?

Absolutely. This is surely one of the best views in the whole country.

https://www.geosea.is/


Travel to Iceland during the pandemic

The changing rules

The Icelandic government has acted quickly and effectively throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Regulations have changed fast to address changes in the infection rate and if you’re planning a holiday, you need to do so on a flexible basis to adapt your trip to those varying parameters.

 

When I booked my flights I planned to visit Iceland in September; I’d already had to switch my flights from Gatwick to Luton after easyJet altered their schedules. In June, when I made those arrangements, it was on the understanding that I would need to either quarantine for 14 days or take a single COVID test on arrival and then, so long as my result was negative, continue with my holiday. The test was originally quite expensive but was later reduced to about £50. In the grand scheme of things that wasn’t excessive.

At the end of July, the rules were changed. A second test 4-6 days later would now be required at no extra charge. While testing in the capital was easy to arrange, my itinerary placed me on the other side of the country. The regional health care centres that had been set up had shorter hours and as a consequence, I would need to be a little more flexible. Adding an extra level of inconvenience was the fact that I was due to fly out on a Monday which meant if I couldn’t arrange a test on Day 4, I’d have no way of being tested on day 5 or 6 as weekend appointments weren’t available.

 

Compulsory quarantine

Then late on Friday August 14th came the announcement that from August 19th, all arriving passengers would be given the choice of either a 14 day quarantine or taking a COVID test, quarantining for 5 days and then taking a second test. At the time it was unclear just what the restrictions on movement for those five days would look like. By the time the government website was likely to be updated, I’d probably be stuck with it, or be forced to cancel.

I decided to bring my trip forward to depart in mid-August instead of September and thus avoid the need to quarantine. A few hours on the computer that weekend and a slightly condensed itinerary (to reduce the amount of time in Reykjavik) left me with a ten day trip during which I could pretty much cover the same ground as before.

 

What was the testing process like?

Passengers on our early morning easyJet flight were invited to disembark row by row. Instead of the usual jockeying for position, this staggered approach meant that there was no queuing in the terminal building. Each person, continuing to wear the mask they had worn during the flight, was called in turn to one of a bank of cubicles for their test.

I was invited to sit and to remove my mask for the test to be administered. The throat swab was done first and was relatively comfortable. The second, a swab to the top of the nose, was more intrusive and made my eyes water. But like the vaccinations for tropical diseases I’ve had in the past, such medical procedures are just part and parcel of travel.

 

Awaiting the result

In all I was off the plane and out to the rental car centre in well under an hour. The rental was ready and with paperwork filled in and a socially distanced handover, I was soon on my way. I’d made the decision to avoid Reykjavik this time. Though the number of coronavirus cases in Iceland has been very small, the majority have, not unsurprisingly, been in the capital region. Instead, I headed east. It was within the regulations to stop at a supermarket, though visitors at that time were asked to keep clear of restaurants and other busy places until their test result came through. In most respects my holiday continued as normal and I was free to book tours.

 

I drove on for a socially distanced hike at Seljalandsfoss waterfall. I’d been there on my wedding day in 2014 but it wasn’t practical to visit the almost concealed falls nearby. This site would usually be busy in August as it is one of the few waterfalls you can walk behind. However, this year numbers have been considerably lower. My negative test result came through by text around 4 hours after I had been tested, which was a relief. Despite having no symptoms and being cautious at home, there was still that tiny chance of being asymptomatic.

The problematic second test

Four days into my trip I’d reached the tiny village of Borgarfjörður Eystri down a gravel road and over a mountain pass in the East Fjords. The nearest test centre was at Egilsstaðir, in a temporary structure beside the main supermarket, but as I’d planned to stay the next night in Seyðisfjörður, another village in the same region, that wasn’t a big deal. The test centre was open mornings only, so I could call in and get tested, spend part of the day hiking in Stuðlagil canyon and then head out to Seyðisfjörður by mid-afternoon.

 

There was just one small spanner in the works: the Icelandic authorities suggested it wasn’t possible to take the second test until you had received an official barcode. This would come through late afternoon. By that time, the Egilsstaðir centre would be closed and by the time the next closest testing centre opened, it would be Monday afternoon. By then, I would be somewhere on the road beyond the centre in Akureyri and the remote West Fjords region.

A face to face solution

I decided the best thing to do would be to go to Egilsstaðir anyway and discuss it with them face to face. By then, four days and one hour had elapsed since my first test at Keflavik. At first, I was told it wasn’t possible to test without a barcode. When I explained that the following Wednesday (day 9) would be the next time I’d be close enough to a test centre to avoid a 6 hour round trip drive, they had a look on the computer to see if the system would allow a test to be registered. Fortunately, it could and I was identified via my passport number rather than the missing barcode. Incidentally that barcode eventually came through about 5pm.

 

Holidaying almost as normal

Mostly I’d chosen ensuite hotel rooms for this trip, whereas in normal circumstances I’d have probably opted for guesthouses with shared bathrooms to save money. I decided I would feel more comfortable being the only person to use the shower and toilet facilities and considered the extra cost worth the additional peace of mind.

Different hotels operated slightly different policies for breakfasts; in many cases the breakfast buffet was still put out, but with separate sittings and fewer tables to spread guests as far as possible. Masks were not necessary in public areas, but the use of hand sanitiser and sometimes also gloves was encouraged. I chose to eat picnic lunches most of the time, though the lobster rolls from the van at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon were too tempting to pass up.

 

The sunny and surprisingly warm weather meant I could also eat al fresco most evenings on terraces or outdoor patios. I ate in just a couple of times, once in a restaurant that had just two tables. The absence of North American tourists coupled with the presence of Spanish and Italian tourists meant that when eating early (as is my usual preference), places were largely empty. Given that hand sanitiser was absolutely everywhere (even in remote long drop toilets on nature reserves) and staff were enforcing social distancing, I felt safe all the time.

Sightseeing in a pandemic

One of the big advantages of choosing Iceland over a city break destination is that most of the visitor attractions are out in the countryside and away from people. I did have a couple of disappointments: the Elf School in Reykjavik has closed for the duration of the pandemic and a Eurovision-themed walking tour I’d planned to do in Húsavík was not operating. I also found that several places had shorter than expected seasons, such as the Keldur turf houses, now part of a farm museum. But the ride I booked with Glacier Horses operated as normal, the horses enabling social distancing with no need for masks.

 

I did take two boat trips. The first, a Zodiac excursion out onto Jökulsárlón, required the use of weatherproof gear and lifejackets to be worn throughout the trip. The latter were disinfected after each boatload of passengers returned but I didn’t see similar measures being taken with the suits. In contrast, on the whale watching trip in Húsavík, the company made it clear before payment was taken that no additional gear would be provided. Lifejackets were stored on board and accessible to passengers but no one wore one. As it was relatively mild and calm weather, I was fine in my own winter jacket and waterproof trousers – in fact, I didn’t even need those out of the wind.

 

I also couldn’t resist the geothermal baths that Iceland is so famous for. On previous trips I’d visited the Blue Lagoon but this time it didn’t fit in with my plans. Instead, I enjoyed visits to the Mývatn Nature Baths and also GeoSea in Húsavík. The latter in particular blew me away with its breathtaking location overlooking Skjálfandi Bay and a setting sun reflected in both the baths and the sea.   

 

Would I do it again?

As someone who loves to plan trips meticulously – a hang up from travelling as a teacher when trips had to be scheduled in peak season – it was quite a big deal to be so spontaneous. Iceland once again didn’t disappoint, and to be able to travel in such glorious summer weather minus the usual crowds was a huge privilege.    

 

To keep abreast with current visitor regulations and procedures, visit covid.is where you’ll find more details of testing, what you can and cannot do while in quarantine and up to date case numbers by region.


Horse riding in Iceland: Glacier Horses

A review of Glacier Horses; I booked with them at the very reasonable rate of 11000 ISK (just under £60) for a 1.5 hour ride.

One of my favourite things to do while on holiday is to ride a horse. I’ve ridden a bit, but would still class myself as a novice. That said, seeing the countryside on horseback is well within my capabilities – so long as the ride’s limited to a few hours or so. This was going to be my third trip to Iceland but the first time I’d had the time to ride. Originally, I’d planned a September holiday, but in this new era of viruses and government quarantines, the whole thing was brought forward and the trip shortened by four days. I had thought about riding near Húsavík, in the north of Iceland, but it was looking difficult to fit in all the things I wanted to do up there, not least whale watching.

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I had spent the day hiking in Skaftafell, part of the  Vatnajökull National Park, drawn by a desire to see Svartifoss. This beautiful waterfall was even better in real life than it had looked in the photos I’d seen online, with basalt columns like chubby sticks of charcoal framing the foaming cascade. You can imagine I was in a great mood as I drove back along the ring road towards my hotel, not least as the weather had delivered almost cloudless blue skies.

As I rounded a gentle bend, the glacier on my left, a sign caught my eye: Glacier Horses. That was one of those serendipitous moments that make a holiday special: I had more time to ride during this part of my trip, making this the perfect place to do so if they could fit me in. On reaching the hotel, I had a look at their website and dropped them an email about a ride the following afternoon.

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I was impressed at the speedy response I received from Sophia and the following afternoon parked up in a farmyard at the end of a gravel track. I was greeted by a very friendly dog and very soon after, Sophia who would act as our guide and the other rider who would be coming out with us. Sophia explained how we would saddle up and get acquainted with the horses. Beginners (and those like me who hadn’t ridden for a while) would be especially reassured by this opportunity to test their newly acquired skills within the safe confines of a corral.

Sophia had paired me with a beautiful mare named Fluga. She was definitely a head-turner, a spirited horse but very gentle too. At first she took a little bit of getting used to as she didn’t need as firm handling as the horses I’d ridden back home, but we were soon in sync and ready to really enjoy the ride. One of the reasons I’d been so tempted with this particular location was the incredible backdrop from the glacier itself and riding out with a view such as that was a real treat.

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With Sophia leading the way, we headed out into the countryside, fording a couple of small streams, crossing grassy meadows and even cutting through what South Iceland would call a forest. We would probably term it a thicket, with low-growing birch trees that took on more of a shrub form than a tree, I’m guessing because of high winds and chilly temperatures. Regardless of what you call it, the place was very pretty apart from the occasional darting sheep that had been spooked by our arrival. Nothing fazed Fluga though.

We stopped briefly for Sophia to pick a few berries for us to try. They were delicious and I couldn’t help noticing how much smaller and more flavoursome the wild blueberries were compared to those back home.  The remains of a long-abandoned turf house also made an interesting diversion. And all the while we had that fabulous view in the background of one of the tongues of ice that drop down from Europe’s largest glacier. It really was a magical place.

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One of the reasons I was so keen to add Iceland to the list of places in which I had ridden was because of something called the tölt. This is an extra gait that is peculiar to this breed; there’s another, dubbed “flying pace” that seemed more than a little ambitious for anyone but an expert in the saddle. At home we have horses that walk, trot, canter and gallop. For a beginner, even a trot can feel a bit bumpy. Not so the tölt, described correctly as a four-beat lateral ambling gait. If you’re no equine expert and that doesn’t mean anything to you, it basically equates to “engage armchair mode”. This YouTube video helps explain it:

You shorten the reins a little, sit back in the seat and the horse does the rest. The speed increases, but the ride actually gets smoother than if you are walking. None of the up down, up down that you get when you trot at home. It’s something that Icelandic horses instinctively know how to do, and I was told it was Fluga’s favourite gait. It is so comfy, it rapidly became mine too. Sophia joked that it was the best treatment she knew for a bad back and I have to say, when we finished up, it seemed like she was right. I can’t wait to go back.

If you’re planning a trip to Iceland and want to ride too, here is where you’ll find Glacier Horses:

Address: Sel in Svínafell, 785 Öræfasveit, Iceland (between Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, just south of the ring road.

GPS coordinates: N 63°57´46.0″ W 16°52´39.6″

More information on their website: http://glacierhorses.is/


Trip planning in the Coronavirus Age

It’s less than a month until I plan to be in Iceland. Usually by this point, I’d be a bit excited at the thought of a big trip. This year it’s a little different.

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Iceland will be my first trip since I returned from Russia in March. It’s been decades since I’ve been home for this long. Aside from a scenic drive through the Dedham Vale the other week, I’ve done no exploring at all. Since the UK lockdown restrictions have eased, it’s possible to take a holiday, but I’ve preferred to take a cautious approach, waiting to see what the numbers look like after others have taken their summer holiday.

That may or may not prove to be a good decision. I’ve tried to plan as far as possible to minimise financial risk. As fewer people are travelling at the moment, I don’t think I’m taking too many chances leaving bookings to the last minute. I have almost all my hotels booked on a free cancellation basis which also leaves me free to tweak the itinerary if I want to. I’m holding off on fixing up any tours, concerned that I might not get my money back if I do.

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Iceland as a potential destination was a considered decision. First, the coronavirus numbers there have been low, as you’d expect from a sparsely populated island with  a developed infrastructure. Second, this year would prove a good opportunity to tour at a time when visitor numbers were relatively low again – since my last trip in 2014, the popularity of the country has increased at a rapid rate. Third, the exchange rate has improved slightly on recent years, making this expensive country a little more affordable (and it’s not like I’ve spent much on travel this year!) Fourth, and most importantly of all, it’s a fabulous country but one I’ve not toured extensively, so this is the chance to see the east, north and west of the country, such as Dettifoss, pictured below.

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It was back in June when I booked my flights, choosing easyJet from Gatwick as the closest option. A week or so ago, I was starting to think about car hire and for some reason decided to check the flight times via easyJet’s website rather than from my emails. It was lucky I did, as the schedule had been altered and now flights to Keflavik airport from LGW aren’t starting until October. The website actually reads “no flights available” – the word cancellation isn’t used anywhere.

To date, I haven’t received notification from easyJet that the flights are cancelled. I think this is poor; the situation’s not likely to change and so giving travellers more time to adjust their arrangements would be the right thing to do. I’ve decided to be proactive, while alternative flights are available, though in practice that means travelling from Luton instead. I’m not too happy about that as it’s not a great airport and also parking is more limited. But more significantly, easyJet’s behaviour has knocked my confidence in them as a carrier and I think that will influence me in the future. Given that the Luton parking has to be prepaid, I’ve decided to make the arrangements as late as possible so I don’t end up with a booking I can’t use.

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I have a Plan C: Icelandair from Heathrow – but that’s even further to drive and means I’d be stuck with more expensive parking. In normal circumstances I’d prefer to travel by train to Heathrow but I don’t want to travel by Tube or train unless there’s no alternative. I should add I’m not complaining – after all it’s my choice to travel in these uncertain times.

Government policy has also changed my plans already. I’ve been watching Europe-wide numbers like a hawk, as our quarantine and FCO advice policies are subject to change without notice. But as I work from home and can quarantine with minimal impact, it’s actually Iceland’s policies that might have more of an effect. The rules when I booked my flights were that I would need to pay for a COVID test on arrival at Keflavik Airport. If I were unlucky to test positive, I’d need to go into quarantine for 2 weeks, but this would be at the expense of the Icelandic government.

The policy is now different for those opting for longer trips as I have. 4-6 days after the first on-arrival test, I will need to report for a second one. It’s free, but I will need to take time out of my sightseeing schedule to attend my appointment. Fortunately, this second test doesn’t have to be done at the airport, which is just as well as I plan to be over in the East Fjords by then. I understand why the Icelandic government have taken this step and fully support it.

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Of course I hope that both tests will be negative. I’m not unwell at the moment, I have no symptoms of the virus and for the next few weeks, I intend to remain home unless I really need to go out which should minimise my risk of catching it. I’m fortunate to live in a small village and in a part of the country which at the time of writing (let’s not jinx things) has fewer cases than the England average. But who knows what might happen? My September 2020 trip could well become a September 2021 trip. So I’m trying not to get too excited, in case my plans come crashing down around me. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be desperately disappointed if they do.

 


Loo with a view

Recently, a friend invited me to her beach hut. During the drive to the coast, the subject of toilets came up. A bucket, if you want to know. Ah, she said, I normally warn people before they come that the facilities are what you’d call basic. But you, well, you’ve probably seen much worse, so I didn’t think I’d need to say anything.

She was right, of course. Over the course of my travels I have had more than a few memorable toilet encounters. I’m sure you can say the same if you’re a frequent traveller. But I’m not going to be writing about Montezuma’s revenge and Delhi belly. Those stories don’t need to be shared, for obvious reasons, though unfortunately I’ve experienced both and more besides. Instead, here’s a roundup of a slightly different kind.

Kyrgyzstan

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When it comes to a loo with a view, nothing I’ve ever had the privilege to use beats this basic pit latrine is located at the top of the Kalmak-Ashuu pass leading to Song Kul. Travelling in late May, we were one of the first to drive across the snowy pass, and the only footsteps leading to this most welcome hut were my own.  With beautiful blue skies overhead and a handy packet of tissues in my pocket – it pays to be prepared – surely there are few toilets in this world that compare?

Mongolia

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One of the best glamping experiences I’ve ever had was a stay in a nomad’s yurt in rural Mongolia. It would have been a tranquil spot had it not been for the family’s herd of camels and sizeable herd of semi-wild horses. This was the guest toilet, located further up the meadow. The screen did the job of protecting my modesty from the family members back at camp, but not the curious livestock who popped along to watch me do my business.

Norway

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This toilet, located at the top of Mount Fløyen in Bergen, sticks in my mind for a different reason. There was no view, but who needs one when you and a friend can sit and chat in a loo made for two? It’s located about 400 metres above the town, but there’s a cable car that stops nearby.

Georgia

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Ushguli in the wild Svaneti region was one of the most beautiful places I visited during my trip to Georgia. There wasn’t much in the way of public facilities, particularly toilets, but after the boneshaker of a journey from Mestia on a unpaved and severely potholed road, I didn’t have the luxury of waiting to find something more salubrious. Suffice to say you’ll be pleased you can’t smell this photo, though the cow didn’t seem to mind as he popped his face up through the hole in the floor.

Serbia and Vietnam

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On the face of it, these two countries make unlikely bedfellows, but both trips involved toilet visits that required a great deal more balance than I can usually muster. In Serbia, the bus station toilet was in a right old state, and I had to balance with two rucksacks, one front and one back, whilst trying not to topple into the hole. The Vietnam experience was very similar, but substitute a moving train for a bus station. Balancing on slippery foot panels as the train jerked and jolted was not the easiest thing I’ve ever done.

New Zealand

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Many of us take our toilets for granted, but for a while in Christchurch, New Zealand, after the devastating earthquake in 2011, residents were asked not to use their indoor loo until the sewers could be fixed. Instead, this collection of photographs on the back of the toilet door in the city’s earthquake museum shows just how imaginative Kiwis can be when they have to be.

Japan

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I’ve never been quite as delighted with the toilets as I was in Japan. Aside from the one in Kyoto station, which was a extraordinarily basic squat toilet, they were a veritable cornucopia of surprises. With buttons to heat the seat, spray water, deodorise and even play music to mask the sound of your tinkles, I promise if you go, you’ll be in there a while just as I was.

Chile

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The polar opposite was a pile of stones that masqueraded as a toilet in Chile’s altiplano region. Returning from a bus trip that had taken me to El Tatio, a high altitude gesyer field, I was caught short. Literally, as it turned out, as only someone half my height would have been hidden from view by the pitifully low wall of stones. Instead, what my fellow tourists were treated to was the sight of my naked derrière. Thankfully there’s no picture to record my blushes, which I guess is the advantage of being a solo traveller.

I guess it says something about the kind of traveller I am that I can’t find you a picture of a swanky toilet somewhere all glitzy and glamorous. But where’s the fun in somewhere like that when you can go in a hole?


Travels with Einstein

We recently lost our beautiful Einstein at the grand old age of 13 and almost a half. He was our first dog and we were determined he would share our lives and our love of travel. From the very first time we put him in the car, he was content to be with us – and from that point on, determined to look out of the back window to watch what was going on.

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At home, he was fascinated by traffic, spending hours stock still at our living room window watching the cars go by. When Edison came along a few years later, he was never permitted a front row seat in front of the window – not that he was unhappy with the sofa perch. When we moved to the country, Einstein missed his cars – birds and squirrels just didn’t have the allure of headlights and tail lights, no matter how much fun they were to chase. But on car trips, he got a taste of the life he’d left behind, and even as his arthritis made it harder and harder to sit up for lengthy periods, he’d still try to stay upright as long as he could.

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As an 8 week old puppy, he’d travelled well on his journey to Essex from Cambridgeshire, falling asleep on my lap as we sat in the back seat of the car. But even a small dog needs to be restrained to be safe, so we popped a puppy crate into the boot and started to take him out for drives. Most of the time he was fine, though once, on particularly windy roads heading for Burnham on Crouch, the motion got the better of him and he vomited all over the crate, himself and the boot of my car. Fortunately, such travel sickness was short-lived and we were able to take him on longer journeys.

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Aged 7 months, he had his first holiday, to Cley-next-the-Sea in North Norfolk. We stayed in a pet-friendly room at Cley Windmill and all was going smoothly. Not that we travelled light – by the time we’d packed his food, bed, toys, treats, puppy crate and play pen, there wasn’t much space for our own luggage. But dog-friendly though Cley Windmill was, it had a strict rule that pets weren’t allowed in the breakfast room. We popped him safely in the playpen and nipped out for a bit.

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By this age, Einstein was used to being left for short periods of time, but despite the familiarity of his playpen, the new sights and smells in the room were too tempting not to investigate. As we ate breakfast, we heard woofing and joked that it couldn’t be Einstein, as he didn’t bark. We returned soon afterwards to find a room scattered with chewed up tea bags and individual milk cartons punctured by teeth. He greeted us with a waggy tail and the evidence stuck to his fur.

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It would be the first of many UK holidays with him. He hiked the Dorset coast path to Durdle Door, climbed up to the Cow and Calf rocks in Ilkley and rode steam trains in Somerset. Except for one memorable incident in Boscastle where he tried, lead still attached to a cafe table, to go and say hello to a rather attractive Dalmatian bitch, he was the model traveller.

It was time to broaden our horizons. A trip to the vet and a bit of paperwork rewarded us with a blue pet passport. My parents had a holiday home near the Mosel in Germany so it was the perfect place for a trip. That house became Einstein’s home away from home and we spent many happy days wandering the countryside and villages of this pretty region. There was something about him that turned heads, and we never got very far without someone making cooing noises as they stroked his soft fur. The Germans let him go just about anywhere – even inside the wine shop at Zell, though I held my breath as that swishy tail got frighteningly close to some potentially expensive breakages.

Confidence growing, we booked the overnight ferry to Santander and set our sights on a holiday in Spain’s beautiful Picos de Europa. Most dogs on the route were used to travelling with their owners, many to holiday homes further south. But unlike them, Einstein didn’t relish the thought of being stuck in a kennel while we were downstairs in our cabin. When I arrived on the dog deck with some toys and a blanket to make him more comfortable, I discovered my husband in the kennel and the dog trying to escape it. The outdoor part of the dog deck proved much more to his liking, if a little windy.

The trip would be fun, but not without a few trials. On his first day on Spanish soil, Einstein managed to injure his paw somehow. Milking it for all it was worth (as would be his custom), we spent the week lifting him in and out of the car, yet as soon as a nice beach or meadow walk was on the cards, not to mention the sight of ice cream, the paw was miraculously healed.

Most of the time, Einstein walked nicely, though having crossed a precarious bridge to one side of a river one day decided it was all too scary to walk back again, much to the amusement of the watching crowd. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d die of embarrassment at his antics, though mostly closer to home, like the time when he pulled me over in a very muddy Hockley Woods and I was forced to do the walk of shame across a busy car park.

Probably my favourite trip with Einstein was when we went to Austria. We had a lot of fun walking in the mountains, particularly when we didn’t get lost. Getting there by car was a bit ambitious – when Einstein got the cramp at a motorway service station just outside Munich in the pouring rain I didn’t think we’d get there at all – but all was forgiven when we arrived to much fuss and special treatment, not least from my doting parents.

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I love how dog-friendly Austria is. Einstein behaved really well at the WildPark Tirol where herds of deer and plenty of other wildlife roam unenclosed. When I’d asked were dogs allowed, the cashier had looked bewildered that I’d even needed to ask. The woman manning the cable car near Sankt Johann took a little more persuading to bring the cable car to a stop so Einstein could be lifted on (he got spooked by the movement, bless him) but soon came round when she saw how cute he was.

Trips abroad were a little trickier when we got Edison, logistically speaking and thanks to Edison’s general state of abandon and loss of self-control around any kind of hotel breakfast buffet. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop us from exploring our own country with the pair of them. Einstein’s final holiday was to the beautiful Forest of Dean. He couldn’t walk far by then, but managed to enjoy the view from Symonds Yat, a visit to Goodrich Castle and one final steam train ride. I hope we’ll have many more happy holidays with Edison and who knows, we might even venture across to the continent again one day.

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Rest in peace darling boy and I hope you’re enjoying one big holiday (or watching the traffic) in doggie heaven.

Einstein 11.2.07 to 30.6.20


Unpicking the advice to UK travellers

The unravelling of lockdown continues in the UK and at the end of last week it was the turn of foreign travel to take the spotlight. We had been promised that a series of air bridges (also dubbed air corridors) were being proposed, whereby bilateral agreements would be put in place to avoid the need for quarantine at either end. Imagine: if you had to quarantine for two weeks on arrival in your chosen destination and then a further two weeks on your return to the UK, you’d have wasted a month of your annual leave without even a day’s proper holiday to show for it. Clearly, that was going to be unworkable, hence the plan to pursue air bridges.

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But, as with most things during this coronavirus pandemic, the situation rapidly changed as governments rightly prioritised the health and safety of their own citizens. Some countries, such as Greece, decided that there would be a ban on direct flights from the UK until at least 15 July. Others seemed, not unreasonably, to prefer we didn’t come at all; New Zealand, for example, where the pandemic has been well and truly brought under control, has pretty much closed its borders entirely.

Underpinning all this confusion was the persistence of an FCO advisory against all but essential travel, a blanket ban which had been imposed in March and never lifted. Rumour had it that once the air bridges were announced, that advisory might be partially lifted, but rumours and maybes were unhelpful to airlines, hoteliers and tour operators desperate for clarification as they battled to stay afloat.

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What we have ended up with is a list of countries that the UK government consider, right now, to be low risk in terms of travel. Numbers of coronavirus cases are low or at least deemed to be under control. This is the list – at first it seems there are some bizarre inclusions but these can largely be explained by their links to EU countries (French Polynesia is a French overseas territory for instance). From 10 July, UK passport holders can return from the countries on the list without the need to quarantine for 2 weeks. The majority of them are in Europe or the Caribbean – the USA and much of Latin America and Africa remain off-limits.

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But there are a few other considerations to take into account before you travel:

  1. Will the country you wish to visit accept UK travellers. This is something you absolutely must check – the government’s advice is given only from a UK perspective and not that of the other nation. Just because we deem it safe to visit doesn’t mean they consider us a safe bet as well. Check the entry requirements – such as these for Australia – before making any firm plans.
  2. The situation is still changing fast. At the time of writing, two areas of Spain (in Galicia and Catalonia) have reimposed local lockdown measures after COVID spikes. Think carefully before making a booking about what you’d do if there was a lockdown in the area you were planning to go, particularly in terms of cancellations or postponements.
  3. Insurance policies vary in the cover they provide. Read the small print carefully and if necessary, call your insurer to clarify exactly what you will and won’t be covered for. Mine, for example, would cover me for medical bills associated with me getting coronavirus while abroad in a FCO-approved country but not for cancellation caused by a coronavirus outbreak.
  4. What will your holiday experience be like in the country you plan to visit? Some countries are pretty much back to normal, but in others, bars, restaurants, museums and even beaches could be subject to social distancing, reduced opening hours or management measures such as the requirement to wear a mask. Do your homework and find out whether what’s important to you is currently possible.

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Now is the time to be cautious. I’m holding off travel until September, by which time I think we’ll have a clearer picture of whether international travel has impacted on case numbers. I’ve risked buying flights, but everything else will be arranged on a free cancellation basis or done last minute.

This could be the time you book that staycation you’ve been promising yourself – though be equally careful when committing to a particular location, as the UK has had to reimpose local lockdowns too. Wherever you are and whatever your plans, happy travels and good luck!


I’m tentatively travel planning again – are you?

Over the weekend I booked a flight to Iceland. If I’d written that this time last year it wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. After all, I’ve been twice before – once to get married – and so a return trip would be nothing to shout about. But of course, this year is different.

I might not go.

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I’ve only once in my life booked a flight thinking that there was a very real possibility I wouldn’t use it. It was for a day trip to Germany, and dependent on my husband’s work schedule. It cost less than £20, so when he had to fly off to the US at short notice, I wrote off the trip. This time, whether I get to go or not is most likely going to be out of my control. Right now, the stats for COVID cases in Iceland are looking very promising – a relatively small number of cases and very few deaths. But that’s not the problem.

Cases in East Anglia have now subsided to a low level and my local area is slowly getting back on its feet. I’d hesitate to use the word normal, but most shops are open, cafes are offering takeaway cream teas and the big coffee chains are open for business. I can see my friends, albeit at a distance. But yesterday’s announcement about Leicester having to reintroduce lockdown measures after a spike in cases is a reminder that nothing should be taken for granted. As people become more mobile again and have more reasons to go out within and beyond their local area, it will be interesting to see what happens to the number of cases in the UK. I’ve been out of my own county just once since March – to buy a sofa of all things – and have no immediate plans to do so again.

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The British government is imminently expected to announce a series of air bridges. It imposed a 14 day quarantine period on those entering the UK and travellers arriving from these air bridge countries will be exempt from this. There’s talk of a traffic light system: green for safe countries, amber for caution and red for, well, danger. Many of the countries are thought to be the popular European summer destinations – Spain, France, Italy and so on. If this goes ahead, we should soon see if this has brought the dreaded second wave or if flying and travelling can be considered an acceptable risk once again. I had nothing booked for summer, so haven’t had to think about how I feel about an existing trip. Have you?

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I’m anticipating the FCO advice will broadly follow the traffic light pattern and even though Iceland has not been mentioned when it comes to talk of air bridges, it could well be in the green category. Currently Brits can visit Iceland so long as they take a test on arrival and it’s negative (if not it’s a 14 day quarantine). If that policy holds out, then best case scenario is that my holiday will go ahead as planned; worst case scenario is that I test positive and spend two weeks in quarantine at the Icelandic government’s expense, forfeiting everything I’ve booked. Right now, I’d need to quarantine for 14 days on my return, but as I work from home anyway, that’s not a deal breaker.

Last week I renewed my annual travel policy – surprisingly with no increase in premium – and am covered for medical treatment including that for coronavirus, so long as the government hasn’t advised against travel to the country in which I show symptoms. That FCO advice is crucial. I’m not sure I’d want to take the risk of travelling without insurance, particularly for somewhere that has a high cost of living like Iceland. However, I have done so for brief periods during my trip to the Caucasus, for instance when I spent a couple of days in Abkhazia. It’s really a case of wait and see at the moment.

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In any case, regardless of FCO travel advice, I won’t be covered if I need to cancel because of coronavirus. In practice, that means that the amount I’ve just spent on flights (less than £100) won’t be recoverable if I can’t go, though I’m hopeful I’d get a refund or voucher. Anything else, for now at least, will be reserved on a free cancellation basis and reviewed at regular intervals between now and my September departure date. In the meantime, I’m planning an itinerary that I hope to follow this year – so far it includes the Diamond Circle, Arctic Henge, elf school (yes, it is a thing!) and the sheep roundup known as rettir – but may have to postpone until 2021. Watch this space.


Thoughts turn to travel

As lockdown measures continue to be lifted, my thoughts are straying towards travel again. Technically, it’s not been far from my mind – though work has thinned, I have been writing for clients throughout.

At first, my work focused on Russia. Just back from St Petersburg on assignment for Morning Calm, I crafted the piece that promises to be the most lucrative I’ve ever written; though pay has been delayed until July, I remain hopeful I’ll receive what’s due eventually. But this was never a great time for any in-flight magazine, and Korean Air will leave that special edition in the seat pockets of their aircraft for the remainder of 2020. The fate of the magazine beyond this year is uncertain.

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Some of my regular clients reworked their product, and I needed to adapt with them. I’ve written regularly for The Discoverer for a while now, but instead of round-up pieces on destinations, they sought inspiration in the form of Staycation topics such as cooking and gardening. So I’ve been reliving some of my favourite global dishes writing guides to Yassa Poulet, ceviche, Bouillabaisse and Yassa poulet. Even the humble English roast dinner – as much of the audience is American, to them it’s a travel experience, though to my husband there’s always an uncomfortable wait to see if my Yorkshires have collapsed.

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While I have continued to write and edit content for Mundana’s blog without a break, other clients have started to get back in touch over the last couple of weeks. As COVID numbers fall in many parts of the world, I’ve been asked to refresh web content and create new posts for clients such as Just Go Russia and Hotels.com. That’s encouraging, but dampened by the realisation that for some, the economic bite of the pandemic has been exceptionally nasty. I know that my Caribbean client is holding off for now and hope that the Icelandic businesses I’ve worked for come out the other side now tourism is tentatively resuming.

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All the while I have one eye on the FCO travel advisories. My annual travel insurance is renewed and ready to use. My suitcase has been dusted off (we’re renovating, everything needs dusting off, all the time). And instead of ignoring those flight deals and emails from hotel  PRs, I’m starting to read them again. I’m not quite ready to travel yet, let alone book, but I’m becoming more confident that the end of 2020 won’t be as dismal on the travel front as the middle. How about you?


Top spots for crowd-free travel

As Brits and Europeans tentatively prepare to travel again, governments are formulating plans to manage international holidaymakers. For many of us, a quiet, off the beaten track destination might be the answer to a less stressful trip. So if, like me, busy cities are a big turn off for you right now, what are the top spots for crowd-free travel?

Georgia

This Caucasus nation took decisive action early on to implement lockdown measures. As of the end May it had reported less than 750 cases and just 12 deaths from COVID-19 (source: Worldometer). Its population is 3.7 million. The Georgian government plans to reopen hotels in July as part of a phased relaxation of the country’s lockdown rules. Bilateral travel corridors are being discussed; Israel’s agreement is already in place but it seems likely others will follow. The wide open spaces of mountainous Svaneti will appeal to those wishing to hike Alpine pastures and woodland paths which lead to dramatic glaciers. When I visited the region in June a few years ago, I had many of the trails to myself.

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Iceland

Located in the mid-Atlantic with a tiny population, Iceland was always going to be well placed for post-COVID travel. To date, it has reported 1805 cases and 10 deaths. Its government have seemed keen on welcoming international visitors while remaining alert to the risks they might pose. Current indications are that the country might reopen on June 15th. There’ll no longer be the need to quarantine for 14 days as has previously been the case, but instead there’ll be screening on arrival and contact tracing for those who wish to visit. Away from tourism hotspots such as Reyjkavik, Jökulsárlón and the Golden Circle attractions, there are no shortage of places where you can expect to enjoy Iceland’s breathtaking landscapes without having to share them with too many others.

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Sweden

This Scandinavian country opted to follow a different policy to many of its fellow Europeans, eschewing a lockdown in favour of social distancing. While you may still fear the crowds of Stockholm, the High Coast region, a four hour drive north, is as remote as it is beautiful. Pretty Ulvon, Mjallom and Bonhamn await those who prefer their waterfront to be backed by verdant coniferous forest and dotted with russet red wooden houses. The existing travel ban for foreign travellers (currently in place until June 15th) does not include EU, British and EEA citizens. However, there are advisories in place that suggest the Swedish authorities do not yet consider it wise for tourists to stay overnight in visitor accommodation.

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Malta

While Malta remains closed until at least June 15th, government tourism officials are making all the right signs when it comes to a relaxation of border controls this summer. It looks like bilateral talks with countries that have experienced relatively low rates of coronavirus, such as Luxembourg, Norway, Serbia, Slovakia, Austria, Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania and Israel, are making headway. How soon afterwards citizens of countries such as Italy, France, Spain and the UK might be able to travel is uncertain. But this Mediterranean Island, whose population numbers around 440,000 people, has to date had just 616 cases and 7 deaths. That figure may put many potential visitors’ minds at rest if they have a holiday booked there later in the year.

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“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

A word of caution: those statistics that look so certain on our computer screens might not be as reliable as we think. Countries are gathering data differently, reporting inconsistently and updating figures when new ways of calculating totals are adopted. Dig a little deeper, and that country with an impressively low death total could be reporting only those who test positive in hospital,  for instance, rather than those who have the virus.

Plan to be flexible

If you do plan to holiday abroad later in 2020, do as much research as you can – the situation is changing rapidly and what might look possible and practical now may not be so in a few weeks or months time. As a consequence, many of us will prefer to remain at home or have a holiday within our own country. If we do book travel, we’ll need to be careful not to make plans that are too concrete – cancellation and postponement policies will be scrutinised like never before, as will the financial health of the companies we plan to book with.

That the country you wish to travel to is open for business goes far beyond its border controls. Accommodation, food, retail and activity sectors will all play their part too. There’d be no point in travelling if the kind of holiday you’d expect just isn’t possible once you get there. On top of that, you’ll need to feel confident that the risk you take making the journey is one that’s acceptable to you. Quarantine may also be imposed as well, perhaps by foreign governments, or our own. There may be paperwork involved: COVID passports, negative test results and in time, we hope, vaccination certificates. And of course, the FCO will also need to remove its current ban before British travellers can travel with valid insurance policies. That’s a lot of ducks to get in a row.

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I have no firm plans at present and, like many of us, am in no rush to make any. For a travel writer and someone for whom travel has always been such a big deal, that’s quite a statement. Throughout this pandemic, my feelings have changed as to what kind of travel I’d feel comfortable with and where I’d like to go. So it’s anyone’s guess when and where my next trip will be, though there will be somewhere, some day. Those places on our wish lists will still be there when we’re ready to experience them, so what’s the rush?


How I become a travel writer

One of the questions I’m asked a great deal is how I became a travel writer. The answer is almost by accident, but then sometimes the very best things in life happen serendipitously.

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Austria 1972

I can’t define a moment when I really got hooked on travel. My first trip abroad was at the age of 9 months, a family package holiday to Austria where, I’m told, I charmed everyone. Throughout my childhood, I was fortunate to travel abroad quite a few more times, notching up countries such as Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands instead of the more usual Spain, Italy and Greece (“too hot,” said my parents). I made my first solo trip abroad to northern France at the age of 17, a foreign language exchange organised by the sister of a neighbour. Money put paid to big budget travel ideas while I was a student, but I travelled vicariously to Latin America as a member of various university societies.

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Germany 1990

In 1991, I graduated with a joint honours degree in Geography and History and took a job as a teacher in East London. I spent my days teaching about places and my evenings wielding a red pen in despair over the pitiful knowledge of my charges. When I was promoted to Head of Geography a few years later, I vowed to include as much place-related content as I could alongside National Curriculum staples such as river processes and population dynamics. My line manager once asked why I didn’t share his desire to push the students to ever-higher grades. I told him I judged my success as a Geography teacher on whether my students went travelling after they left school. Many of them did, after they’d got those top grades as well.

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Venezuela 1992

As soon as I was earning a regular wage, I started to travel. I blew my entire first month’s wages on a package holiday to Venezuela put together by Ilkeston Coop Travel in Derbyshire, many miles from my Essex home but too good a price to resist. Splitting my time between Isla de Margarita and the mainland, I danced, sunbathed and saw the sights, indulging a passion for Latin America that’s never gone away.

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Peru 1995

And so it continued, during term time I would teach, pulling long hours to ensure I never had to sacrifice precious holidays for work. The late 1990s saw the boom of the low cost airline, which meant that I could travel more often. Sometimes the places were obscure but they were always interesting. Keen to make sure I didn’t forget my experiences, I wrote articles, taking inspiration from the diaries I kept on the road. It was a hobby and likely to stay that way as my enthusiasm for writing far outweighed my talent.

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Latvia 2006

The internet began to take off and with it, traveller forums such as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree and Wanderlust magazine’s GoWander. I was a regular on all of them. The latter was a budding travel writer’s dream, as it offered the opportunity to upload experiences. Some of my pieces attracted comment and I was surprised and delighted to see that much of it was positive. Encouraged, I began to send off crude pitches to editors of magazines, though I rarely got an answer and never a commission. Once I actually received a reply, telling me that the quality of what I wrote was sufficiently promising, but the content wasn’t needed at that time.

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Japan 2007

One of my fellow GoWanderers (or maybe by then it was My Wanderlust?) posted that she was setting up an online writing club. Members would complete an assignment each month and upload it to a forum to be critiqued. The comments were honest, sometimes brutally so, but they were also incredibly helpful. I learnt more about how to write from Liz and the gang than I had ever done. The trouble with kind comments from well-meaning friends and family members is that they don’t give you the incentive to improve – though they do a sterling job in boosting confidence, which is probably just as important.

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Morocco 2008

Finally, the turning point came. Or, rather, several turning points. I entered a competition organised by Mail Travel, knocking out 300 words during a late night thunderstorm about my sister shoe-shopping in Morocco. I won, the prize being a trip to America’s Deep South and a piece in the newspaper’s travel supplement. I was still teaching, of course, but my understanding senior team allowed me unpaid leave so I could follow my dream.

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USA 2012

I entered a travel writing contest organised by an insurance company and won a Kindle. I answered a shout out from Bradt for bus routes suitable for Bus Pass Britain Rides Again and my piece on the Dengie was considered interesting enough for inclusion. Recounting the tale of a Rasta rescue in Zambia won me highly prized column inches in Wanderlust magazine and a goodie bag. It began to dawn on me that I could do this for a living.

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Zambia 2012

However, the thought of giving up a steady income as a teacher after a career spanning more than 20 years was a scary one. For a while I tried to juggle the two. I set myself up with a profile on a freelance forum called oDesk, now Upwork, and very slowly, jobs trickled into my inbox. I still write for some of those first clients. They took a chance on me and I’m grateful. Work built up and with the support of my husband, who provided a financial safety net in exchange for the promise of hot dinners and ironed clothes whenever I was home, I quit teaching to write full-time.

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Somewhere over the Atlantic 2016

Breaking in to the more well-known publications took some time. I sent off pitch after pitch and received rejection emails in return or, depressingly often, no response at all. Yet to be taken seriously, I needed some big names under my belt. The travel industry’s all about contacts and – most of all – having a killer idea. My break came with a piece I did for Sunday Times Travel Magazine about flying business for economy prices. That was followed by commissions for BBC Travel, The Telegraph, Which?, a few in-flight magazines and more. Now I write for an eclectic mix of travel industry businesses, websites such as The Discoverer and print publications.

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Faroe Islands 2018

Having finally built up a portfolio I was proud of, I decided to apply for membership of the British Guild of Travel Writers. This prestigious organisation counts among its members some of the best travel writers in the country, so it was an ambitious move to say the least, but one which paid off. I’ve found membership invaluable in cementing my status as a trusted freelancer; BGTW membership affords a kind of quality control which reassures potential editors that they won’t be taking too much of a risk. Membership has its privileges too, in the form of useful professional development opportunities and press trips.

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Lithuania 2019

So do I miss teaching? Honestly, no, I’ve never looked back. I loved my job, taught some great kids, but the pressures of targets and paperwork got in the way of enjoyment. Travel writing hasn’t been like that. In fact, it rarely feels like work at all. Right now these are uncertain times for the travel industry, but I don’t regret a thing.


An initiative from Bradt worth supporting

Necessity is the mother of invention.

A sentiment expressed by Plato, but first recorded in the written word by 17th century author Richard Franck, never has it been more true than at this extraordinary time in the world’s existence.

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Faroe Islands: Saksun

In these strange and challenging times, life – and businesses – are having to adapt to cope and survive. The travel industry is one of those affected, of course, and the impact on guidebook publishers is one way that manifests itself. Lonely Planet announced last week that it was shutting down some of its offices, though guidebook production would continue. Once, a Lonely Planet guide would have been my go-to, but increasingly, they’ve not been the best fit. Instead, I’ve used independent publisher Bradt Guides on many occasions when my wanderlust led me to some of the world’s most off the beaten track destinations. I even took one to Iceland, packing it alongside my wedding dress. Some  of those guides are well thumbed; others purchased in anticipation of future trips.

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Uruguay: Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha

Bradt has been offering seriously tempting discounts on its back catalogue. I’ve stocked up with guides that I hope to use when we get exploring again. As someone who has seen her writing feature in a small way in two Bradt anthologies, and has had the privilege of meeting both founder Hilary Bradt and MD Adrian Philips, I’m invested in this beyond consumer level. But even if I wasn’t, it would seem a very worthy initiative to support, beyond a travel writer’s loyalty to a favourite brand. This is the company that produces guides to the more obscure corners of the planet, sometimes the only mainstream publisher to do so. My Bradt pile includes guides to Tajikistan, Haiti, Uganda and Belarus. Along side them sit Iceland, the Azores, Ghana and Uzbekistan. On the wishlist, awaiting the publication of new editions, are Sao Tome & Principe, Suriname and Iran. Right now there are 227 special offers at the Bradt online shop, not just for guidebooks but for some of the best travel writing out there on the shelves.

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Cape Verde: Santa Maria

But that’s not enough. Yesterday, Bradt announced a different strategy, one which is innovative, brave and – I hope – successful. Using the Patreon platform, Bradt are asking travellers to support them by signing up to their new subscription service. For £5 a month, Bradtpackers receive an e-zine with the latest news and travel inspiration together with exclusive discount offers, competitions and pre-publication deals. Opt for Globetrotter level at a cost of £15 a month and on top of that, you receive a free book each month. Choose First Class Traveller tier and as well as that you will be able to benefit from bespoke travel-planning advice for two trips a year from a Bradt author or other expert at a cost of £35 a month.

We still need our guidebooks. This is still a time to dream.

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Uganda: Kibale Forest

I hope that Bradt survives the economic fallout from this horrible virus. But in the meantime I’ve subscribed and, if you’re a keen traveller also, I hope you will too. If so, this is the link you’ll need:

https://www.patreon.com/bradtguides


Travel and lockdown: what I’m missing

Tomorrow marks two weeks of lockdown for the UK. On the face of it, COVID-19 hasn’t impacted my daily life as much as some. I finished a large commission for an in-flight magazine. I’m told they will still pay, though I’m less certain they will publish. The editor has been supportive and communicative, which has been a relief. Although some of my regulars have paused contracts, I still have work from some. I’ve even managed to score a couple of new contracts which should prove to be ongoing. I’m one of the lucky ones; many travel writer colleagues have seen a year’s worth of work vanish overnight.

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Right now, I’d usually be travelling. In previous years, I’ve jetted off in early spring to places as varied as Chile, the Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Argentina, Bolivia and the Bahamas. Tomorrow is my wedding anniversary – six years ago we were in Iceland luxuriating in the Blue Lagoon in anticipation of the big day. I’d have been preparing for late spring trips to the Faroe Islands, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Armenia, New Zealand and Tonga, finalising plans and reserving hotels.

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But over the last few years I have also taken a few months off in the summer, so right now though the seasons are a little mixed up, it feels just like that. The village has become a bubble, a place free of anxiety, when the outside world has become a frightening place. We’re looking out for each other; the Facebook group I set up before this all started has twice as many members now and we’re all doing what we can to help each other.

When the virus first started making its presence felt, I experienced a kind of grief. Border after border closed; tour operators and tour guides reported how it was devastating their businesses. Financially, I’m not significantly affected, with just one BA flight to deal with when the airline officially cancels it. But it’s horrible to think of all those who have lost livelihoods and with them, hope for the future. The human impact of this virus is unbearable, but the economic effect is something we’ll live with for many years.

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A friend has spoken to me about how hard it has already been in Uganda, where I visited last year. Rising food prices and a lack of affordable healthcare will have terrifying consequences. At present there are only 52 confirmed cases, and no deaths. The population is relatively young, though the impact of HIV/AIDS mean many youngsters are looked after by grandparents who fall into the vulnerable category. No matter how hard it is for us, it’s so much worse for the desperately poor.

Though I’ve built a career on discovering new places, I’ve found that the places I most want to go and visit when all this is over are those I’ve already visited. On TV right now in the UK is a BBC series called Race Across the World. In last night’s episode, they travelled from Puno in Peru to Cafayate in Argentina. Along the way, they visited the Salar de Uyuni, La Paz, Salta and San Pedro de Atacama, all places I’ve been and fallen in love with. It was great to escape. Like many, I’m trying to limit the amount of news I’m watching.

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It’s impossible to plan when nobody knows exactly when the travel restrictions will be lifted. I’m getting email after email of impossibly cheap flight deals in my inbox, but the FCO have extended the worldwide travel ban indefinitely. How can you plan a trip when you don’t even know what season it will be? I know they’re first world problems. My job doesn’t put me at the front line and I’m immensely grateful to those working in the NHS and in key worker roles to keep us safe and fed.

I’ve bought myself some new Bradt guides for bedtime reading, though for now they’re shelved as I pore over old photos. Talk in the household is of a US road trip from Washington DC to the Great Smoky Mountains, or a return visit to Iceland or Peru. I know I want to go back Down Under and hike the mountains of the Austrian Tirol again. It’s been interesting to see the different strategies employed by tourist boards and travel companies, some of whom are marketing their destinations almost as normal so that they can remain in people’s imaginations when they are able to book again.

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I really should be using this time to write the book I never finished. But I can’t seem to find the words just yet. In the face of what’s happening, it just doesn’t seem important.


The last trip for a while: Russia’s St Petersburg

Last week I flew back from St Petersburg in Russia and since then, the travel world has pretty much fallen apart. At times it’s felt like those few seconds when you settle back into a chairlift and wait for it to move slowly to the edge of the platform before accelerating away. My inbox and social media feeds are full of stories: airlines laying off staff and grounding flights, governments closing borders; visitor attractions falling like dominoes. Stranded travellers scramble for places in a global game of musical chairs, wishing they had acted more decisively while they still had the opportunity.

In short, it’s not a great time to be a traveller, or a travel writer. It’s not a great time to be a lot of things.

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But who knows, this might finally be the time I write the book I started five years ago, or at the very least finish the Roman blinds I’m making for the spare room. At the time of writing, my commission with an in-flight magazine for a story on Russia’s St Petersburg hasn’t been cancelled, though it still might be. As I wrap up the other articles on my to do list, I thought I’d share some of the photos I took last week. I’m not sure when my next trip will be, so pictures and stories about past adventures are just going to have to do for now.

The Hermitage

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Catherine Palace

Sts Peter & Paul Cathedral

St Isaac’s Cathedral

Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood

Fabergé Museum

Sadko from the Tsar’s box at the Mariinsky Theatre

Museum of the Siege of Leningrad

Vodka tasting at the Museum of Russian Vodka

Museum of Arcade Games

Museum of Street Art

Pyshki (doughnuts)

Nevsky Prospekt and around

Street performers

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How to minimise the impact of coronavirus on your travel plans

The spread of coronavirus continues to dominate the news headlines and my thoughts and sympathies are with those families affected directly. As a writer who makes her living producing articles about tourist destinations, I’m also watching with interest as to how it might impact on travel. The situation is changing so fast it is hard to keep up.

To date, there have been lockdowns and quarantines in locations across the world. Various countries are refusing entry to nationals of a range of countries, and an increasing number are including UK passport holders on that list as the situation worsens here. I was supposed to visit Bergamo in northern Italy in March. Ryanair cancelled my flight with just over two weeks’ notice and I have received a full refund.

So how can you ensure that, as the virus spreads, your upcoming travel plans won’t be affected? In short, you can’t. But you can try to minimise the impact of coronavirus on your travel plans.

Keep abreast of changes and book last minute

Right now, the spread of the virus is hard to predict and as such, booking well ahead isn’t the way to go. Keep a close eye on where cases have been reported and book last minute for a place that seems unaffected. Though even if you do so, as the number of cases increases, you can’t rule out being placed in quarantine unexpectedly, as those held in the Costa Adeje Palace hotel in Tenerife (and many others since) have found:

 

Choose your accommodation carefully

Putting yourself in crowded places is perhaps a greater risk than if you opt for a smaller hotel or self-catering apartment. However, if you are quarantined, eating in replaces eating out and you would need to ensure you could cater for yourself in the place you’ve chosen as your base if you’re self-catering or opt for room-only. In terms of comfort levels, I couldn’t help comparing those confined to inside cabins on the Diamond Princess while it was quarantined in Japan with those waving at news crews from their balconies in Tenerife. At least the latter had access to fresh air and a view whenever they wanted. Nevertheless, ask yourself, would you be better off staying home than risking being stranded for an indefinite period.

Check your travel insurance

Policies vary, but check the small print of your travel insurance to ensure that it has adequate cover for cancellations and disrupted travel arrangements. Some businesses have stopped selling travel insurance altogether and others have altered the terms of their policies. Read the terms and coverage carefully; ask for advice or clarification if unsure.

Booking a package with a firm that is ATOL-protected might help. Some operators, desperate to drum up business, are offering free date changes if the situation changes before your departure date, which brings peace of mind to some extent. Travelling with a package operator would also mean if you couldn’t fly home as expected, there would be someone to help take care of your arrangements.

If you choose to travel to a place that has been designated by the FCO as a no-go, your insurance will be invalid – that’s if you can find an airline that will take you there, of course. Simply deciding that you don’t fancy taking a risk is, unfortunately, not a reason to get your money back, though some airlines are been more helpful than others when it comes to rearranging or rerouting flight bookings. More on your rights here, in this informative BBC roundup.

Pack smart

 

If you are dead set on going, it’s sensible to follow the advice of health professionals about hand-washing routines and pack some anti-bacterial wipes or hand sanitiser. Some sources suggest using wipes to clean shared surfaces such as aeroplane or train tray tables. Liquid or foam hand sanitiser would have the advantage of not leaving you with potentially contaminated wipes to get rid of. According to the WHO, plain old soap and water is likely to be just as effective. If you do use wipes or tissues, remember to dispose of them responsibly, such as in a closed bin. Read advice from a trusted medical source and don’t take the word of bloggers and travel writers – we know travel, but we are not medical professionals.

You may also feel calmer wearing a mask though reports of their efficacy are disputed. Wherever you are planning to travel, think about what might happen if you are quarantined. If you are on regular medication, ensure you take additional supplies to cover an extended stay. If that’s not possible, it’s wise to make sure you know the local brand name of the drug you take. Take a look at this useful website which lists brand names of drugs in different countries.

Take the opportunity to enjoy a staycation

If you’re concerned about the likelihood of getting stranded while travelling, perhaps it’s the perfect time to enjoy a staycation. Take the opportunity to explore the area in which you live with fresh eyes. Take a walk somewhere you’ve never been, visit that museum that’s been on your wishlist for ages or book an activity or experience such as a spa treatment, steam train day out or windsurfing lesson. That just might be the most stress-free way to have a holiday at the moment.

If increasing numbers of people choose not to book an international vacation, then those small-scale independent tourism businesses in your local area might be relying on your support to stay afloat. Reports such as these about France and New Zealand explain why.

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Remember, do your research and make sure you are comfortable with the risks you are taking. It’s your responsibility to look after yourself, so whatever the type of holiday you’re considering, think it through before you book and make the decision that’s right for you.

Updated 12 March 2020


Thoughts on Hudson Yards, New York

The juxtaposition of the traditional brick apartment buildings of W 28th Street with the futuristic glass and steel structures of Hudson Yards behind is a quintessentially New York kind of view. In the soft light of a clear winter morning, Edge and its neighbours looked almost ethereal. Close up, approached from the last stretch of the High Line, they were an imposing sight. Last time I’d been in the area, this was a building site. Today, this privately funded complex is making its bid to become the latest go-to neighbourhood in the city.

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Edge won’t open until mid-March 2020; when it does, it will become the highest outdoor observation deck in the western hemisphere. I had been offered a preview visit by the representing PR but it fell through half an hour before I was due to go up, thanks to unexpected construction work. I had to content myself with a view of the outside from below and the video projected inside the mall. Will it find its place in the already saturated market for high rise observation decks in Manhattan? Time will tell.

In the meantime, in front of it stands Vessel, which opened in 2019. The structure was dreamed up by British designer Thomas Heatherwick, who had a hand in the new Routemaster and the failed Garden Bridge amongst other things. Entry is free, so long as you are happy to be pinned down to a specific date and time. You can get turn up and go up tickets on the day if they’re available, or reserve them up to two weeks in advance. That’s just as well, for a staircase (well, 154 staircases to be precise) is pretty much all it is.

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Clad in a coppery metal (it’s actually Italian steel) which is intended to be weather-resistant, the structure cost an eye-watering $150 million to construct – an extra $50 million more if you factor in the land in was standing on. In the right spot, it might have been worth paying for, but surrounded by high rises, the only real view you get is of the shopping centre and the train yard beside the Hudson River.

If you’re unable to climb steps, it’s even more of a disappointment: the elevator runs only every 15 minutes (“to make sure it doesn’t break down”) and accesses just one of the 80 landings. If stairs are a problem, the sole view you’ll have is that facing The Shed, an event space that looks like it’s been clad in a curious kind of giant bubble wrap. As the surrounding platforms require visitors to tackle multiple steps, they’re out of reach. According to the media, this is being addressed, though there was no sign of any remedial work during my visit.

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Critics have not been kind, dubbing it the “Staircase to Nowhere”. While the architects refer to it as honeycomb, others have taken their foodie inspiration instead from the humble kebab. Still more liken it to a waste paper basket. The name Vessel is temporary. The architects have solicited suggestions from the general public and been inundated with the likes of Staircase McStaircaseface, Meat Tornado, The Rat’s Nest and the Chalice of the Privileged, so it’s likely to call itself Vessel for the foreseeable future.

Even the aim of making this a place where people congregate seems a little fanciful given its less-than-central location.There’s nowhere to sit, and nowhere much that’s under cover, especially at ground level. For a plaza that’s supposedly designed to function as a meeting point, that seems a curious oversight on the part of the developers.

Hudson Yards’ position right up against the Hudson River also makes it an unlikely spot for acting as a meeting point. Though the 7 train is only a short hop from Times Square, if you plan to walk it’s a not especially scenic cross-town stroll. If you planned to meet undercover in the shopping centre instead, that won’t help much: there’s almost no seating there either, save for a few chairs and tables assigned to the cafes inside.

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I couldn’t help thinking how starkly that contrasted with the High Line, where hardwood benches and recliners were factored into the design. But then the High Line began as a community project and from its inception, those planning its regeneration worked hard at making it a place that had a soul. Even on the most miserable of winter days, when the plants are a dessicated brown and the wind bites at your cheeks, you’re surrounded by the stories of the past. 

So, like many who have reviewed the space, I’m afraid I too was underwhelmed with Hudson Yards. It didn’t help that my pre-booked slot for Vessel was for a day when grey skies bled first drizzle and then steady rain. The weather matched my glum mood. I expect I’ll return, to visit Edge, when I’m next in the city, but I can’t see a reason why I’d hang around at Hudson Yards beyond that. Instead, excuse me while I potter off along the High Line and find myself a bench.


How do I tackle trip planning?

One of the questions I’m asked most often is how I choose where to go and then once I’ve settled on a destination, how I set about planning the trip. Of course, it would be much simpler to let someone else take care of the details, but that’s where a lot of the fun is, and who wouldn’t want to create a bespoke trip without the bespoke price tag that comes with it. I’ve saved tens of thousands of pounds over the years going it alone, so I plan to continue travelling independently as much as possible.

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Now I’m writing for a living, I am offered press trips on a regular basis. While I have accepted some of these and am very grateful for the generosity of the tourist boards involved, I don’t like to travel like this all the time. I’m fortunate to have worked with some lovely PRs who have gone out of their way to deliver a tailormade experience within the confines of the programme that’s been agreed. But on a group trip, everyone has to compromise. When I travel solo, I can do as I please and it’s extraordinarily liberating.

How I go about choosing my next destination

Now a big trip for me these days, with family commitments, is just two weeks. This blog won’t be relevant if you’re planning a gap year and need to stretch a budget or find annual insurance cover. (However, you can apply some of the same principles and concentrate on the first and last week of a longer period of travel.) Instead, I’m talking about choosing the destination that’s likely to be your main holiday.

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This is often a fluid concept. I do have a loose wish list of places I’d like to visit. Right now, for instance, Sao Tome & Principe, The Azores and Tobago are on that list, together with Tajikistan, Madagascar, Belarus and Algeria. However, I’ve found that being more flexible enables me to take advantage of better flight deals that might present themselves. Often, flight costs form a large part of a trip, particularly if it’s to a long haul destination. Keeping abreast of flight sales and last minute offers is a good idea. But although I have that list, I almost always end up travelling somewhere else – this year it’s Grenada.

Next steps after I’ve found my flights

Finding a well-priced flight is a start, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to book. But if there’s a chance that the cost of that flight will increase, it’s important to act fast. It is possible with some airlines to pay a small amount to hold the fare. I’ve never needed to do so, but it does quite literally buy you time to get your other arrangements tentatively in place before committing to the full whack.

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A case in point

I recently found a sub £100 return fare from London to Algiers. Algeria is on my travel B list at the moment, a place I expect I would enjoy. The fare was a great deal, far lower than usual, with BA. The dates worked too. A quick scour of accommodation via booking.com indicated that I could find something central and reasonably priced that didn’t look like a dive. Photos from the road from the excellent Simon Urwin via my  Twitter feed only served to fuel my interest.

It all fell apart when it came to the visa. I’ve never been turned down for a visa – and I’ve bought a fair number in my time. Sadly, it would seem the Algerians are hard to please and turn down many applications. As a freelance writer on an unreliable income I might or might not match their criteria – who knows? But to meet the visa criteria I would need to buy the flight and arrange the accommodation in advance. The latter I could achieve with minimal risk on a free cancellation basis, but the former would be an unrefundable outlay. So, I decided not to take the risk and have not applied. Algeria is a destination probably best left for another time.

Back to the drawing board

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Having shortlisted a destination with affordable transport, it’s time to look at geography. Use a guide book such as Lonely Planet or a comprehensive online guide to identify some of the key places and sights that interest you. Don’t over-plan, but also don’t be the person who realises once they return home that they missed out something they’d love to have seen because they didn’t do any research. The trick is to do just enough planning to make sure it’s possible to fit in all your must-dos. Fine tuning can come later.

I sometimes take a look at the itineraries of tour operators such as Explore or Intrepid, as they tend to be balanced and well thought through. Then I weed out the parts that don’t interest me and mentally replace them with what I’d prefer to do. But don’t assume that because an area doesn’t feature on most tours, it isn’t worth bothering with. If I had relied solely on such sources of information, I’d have missed out wild and wonderful Svaneti in Georgia which was the highlight of my time in the country.

Considering open jaw itineraries

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Is a round trip fare to and from the same airport a smart decision or would an open jaw be more sensible, saving unnecessary backtracking? For instance, I’ve used this for a rail holiday in the US, booking Amtrak services to link the two cities at either end. I also looped through a few countries on a longer journey, beginning in Cape Town and ending in Johannesburg but going the long way round via Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Alternatively, I’ve flown into one capital, for example Panama City, and out of its neighbour, San Jose, using the two cities as bases for point and spoke excursions. (That’s when you stay in one place and head out and back in a different direction each day.)

If you are going to opt for an open jaw flight, try flipping the two destinations around. Sometimes when I’ve looked into following the same itinerary but in reverse I have saved a whole heap of money. It’s also worth thinking about whether to avoid somewhere on a particular day of the week. For example, there’s no use planning to be in a city on, say, a Monday if the main reason you are going there is to visit a museum that’s closed on that day. Kick off dates for seasonal attractions might vary from year to year so always check. Finally, if the place you intend to visit stages a big festival of some sort, such as Day of the Dead in Mexico, make sure you’re booking early enough to make sure transport and accommodation isn’t already sold out.

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The overland bit

One final thing to look at is overland transport. If I plan to start and finish in two different cities, I always research what the public transport is like between. I look into whether I can take a bus or train and if so, how far in advance I can book my ticket (many companies have online sites). In some cases, demand outstrips supply, so make sure there’s a plan B before committing to expensive flights.

Don’t rule out domestic flights, which in some places can be cost (and certainly time) effective. I always leave a day clear between any inbound transport and my international flight home, even if that means splitting the sightseeing between the early and later part of my trip. Delays do happen, and you don’t want the added stress of worrying about missed connections. Another thing I’ve learnt the hard way is to reconfirm flights with regional airlines or carriers that you’re not sure you can trust. I didn’t, in Argentina, and had to make hasty arrangements to bus it across the country to make Buenos Aires before my next flight left. Look what I would have missed!

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Now factor in the weather

This one’s important. Once I know that my potential trip is a possibility – the flights are available, the accommodation suits my needs and I have a vague plan of the order in which I’ll see places –  I just double check the weather. It helps that I was a geography teacher for years, so I’m unlikely to make the mistake of unwittingly timing it to arrive right in the middle of hurricane season or the monsoon. Do that, and not only will your triup be a washout, but you might find yourself stranded if public transport on the ground is adversely affected.

Consider how you’re likely to spend your time. Is it still going to be OK if the temperature’s on the chilly side? There’s not a lot of point in booking a beach resort if it’s going to be too cold to swim in the sea or snooze beside the pool. But if you’re keen to explore a city, then those same cooler temperatures will make sightseeing a whole lot more pleasant. Shoulder seasons are a gamble with their promise of cheaper flights but a higher chance of inclement weather. Of course, you can’t predict the weather even in peak season, so there’s always going to be that chance of it scuppering your plans.

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That’s almost it

By the time you’ve got this far, I expect you’ll probably fall into one of two camps. Some of you will be thinking that it would be so much simpler just to let a tour operator take care of all this time-consuming planning stuff. But if like me, you love that kind of thing, just think of the many happy hours you can spend travelling vicariously through blogs and magazine articles while you craft a trip that’s perfect for you. Book those flights, make sure you have insurance from the get go and start making your dream a reality.


How to deal with travel indecision

As we entered a new decade, I found myself in an unusual position. For the first time in many years, I had no trips booked. In my 2019 roundup, I shared several ideas, but  nothing grabbed me sufficiently to book travel. We didn’t get far into January before that changed, but nevertheless I’ve not planned anywhere near as many trips as I would normally do.

Take advantage of sales

Sometimes all it takes to make me more decisive is a deal that’s too good to resist. The flight sale period is coming to an end but there’s still time to grab a discounted flight if you are quick – and can handle the flygskam (flight shame). I took advantage of my husband’s generous offer to dogsit and BA’s generous cabin bag allowance to book an Economy Basic fare to New York for just £259.17. I’ll board last and they’ll allocate me a seat, but given that the taxes and fees component of the fare amounts to £258.17 that’s a pretty good deal in my book. At this time of year accommodation is relatively cheap too (by New York standards at least) so I bagged myself a deal on a comfortable Midtown hotel.

I know air travel is coming in for a lot of criticism at the moment, but at least I work from home so my daily commute is completely CO2 free. If you can square it with your conscience, BA’s not the only airline to be holding a sale at the time of writing, so take a look on your favourite airline’s website and see what discounts you can find.

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February might seem an odd time to go to New York, but it’s a city that I prefer in the winter. There are fewer tourists, which translates to shorter queues, plus the humidity in summer can be unpleasant. If like me you’re up for a return visit – the city’s constantly inventing new ways for you to pass the time – check out this post I wrote on New York for second-timers. I’m looking forward to exploring Staten Island beyond the ferry terminal and also to checking up on progress at Edge, New York’s latest observation deck, which is scheduled to open mid March.

Chat to industry professionals 

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been going to Destinations, a huge travel fair that is held in Manchester and London at this time of year. It’s a great way to find out more about places you are already considering for a visit and to be tempted by those you hadn’t even thought of.

I’ll be there again later this week to say hello to my friends from Lithuania who will be promoting the charms of Neringa and the Curonian Spit. It’s a place I enjoyed very much on a press trip last September and hope to return to. To find out what the area has to offer, read this piece I wrote for them that’s on the British Guild of Travel Writers website or visit them on stand E152 at Olympia from 30th January to 2nd February.

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This year I also went to Adventure Travel Show, also at Olympia. It’s not a fair I’d been to before, as I’m not a fan of extreme sports and, if I’m honest, anything too energetic. I’ve never thought of my preference for independent travel to off the beaten track places as being particularly adventurous, but apparently it is. Anyway, though I was a little disappointed at the scale of the show compared to the much larger Destinations, I did learn plenty about Malawi, Sao Tome & Principe, Madagascar and Tobago. I also picked up a map of Grenada which will come in handy in the spring – I’m booked to spend a week on the island and can’t wait to see what this lush corner of the Caribbean has to offer.

Utilise social media forums

I also get inspiration from the people I chat to on social media. Twitter is a useful source of information, via chats such as The Road Less Travelled, which you can join on Tuesday evenings – look for the hashtag #trlt. I also enjoy reading posts on the Facebook group My Wanderlust Migration and Regroup! page, which transferred from the Wanderlust website a few years ago. I’m sorely tempted by Ethiopia at the moment thanks to some excellent photographs and stories posted by other members. If you’ve a keen interest in travel, this is definitely a group to be involved with. There aren’t many places on the planet that one or other of us hasn’t been to.

Take up travel writing for a living

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Writing for a living gives me the chance to travel vicariously and at the moment I have a number of corporate clients in Iceland who are keeping me especially busy. I’ve created articles for their blogs on topics as diverse as ice cream, traffic laws and the country’s relationship with the EU as well as more mainstream topics like whether you should rent a 4×4 or not and where to stop if you’re planning to drive the country’s ring road.

As for real life travel, I’m still exploring other possibilities, so watch this space to see where else I end up. Happy travels!


How to make your holiday allowance stretch a little further

I’m lucky that I’ve never had to carefully count the days off I’ve been given by an employer. Two decades working as a teacher gave me busy terms full of stress but three months’ holiday a year to recuperate and unwind. Now, as a travel writer, you could say holidays are work, and with that logic I have endless opportunities for days off. That’s not entirely true – particularly on press trips – but more of that another time. If you are someone who needs to make every day of a meagre allowance count, here’s how to make your holiday allowance stretch a little further.

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The advice I give is aimed at UK readers, but the principles can be applied anywhere. It also assumes you work in a profession where you are guaranteed bank holidays off, which I appreciate is not possible for some, such as those working in the retail, health or emergency services sectors.

Book your time off well in advance

You’re going to have to get in well in advance, but if you can nab those precious days either side of the Easter or Christmas bank holidays, you can have a longer holiday without using up all of your holiday entitlement. It’s vital to plan early, both to reserve your time off before your colleagues do and also because travel tends to be more expensive. By booking early you can secure a reasonably priced fare, though it’s still unlikely to be cheap. You need to weigh up what’s more important: having time off which doesn’t eat into your holiday allowance, or achieving the same trip for the lowest price possible.

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Now check your calendar

In 2020, Easter Sunday falls on 12 April. That means in the UK, Good Friday (10 April) and Easter Monday (13 April) are also bank holidays. Already, that gives you a four day break with no need to tap into your holiday entitlement. Now the week before and the week after are four day weeks. Add these days and  factor in weekends and you have a 16 day break in exchange for 8 days’ holiday. You can do something similar over Christmas and New Year. Christmas Day and New Year’s Day fall on a Friday. So, taking off the week in between requires just three days of your allowance, thanks to Monday being a Bank Holiday in lieu of Boxing Day (as it falls on a Saturday).

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Take advantage of something a little unusual

This year, you might be lucky to score a long Bank Holiday weekend without the whopper of a price tag. Check your calendar and chances are, like mine, it has the early May holiday marked as Monday 4 May. That’s what we’d expect. However, the government has declared that this year, 2020, the early May Bank Holiday will be on Friday 8 May. That’s because it is the 75th anniversary of VE Day, which marked the end of World War Two. Get your flights booked before most people notice and you might just get a relatively cheap deal.

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However and wherever you are spending your holidays this year, have fun and happy travels!


Where did I go in 2019 and where’s next?

Once again, 2019 has been a hectic year and I’ve notched up several new countries plus plenty of revisits. In this post I’ll be looking back at some of my favourite moments from another awesome year of travelling.

January

The first trip of the year took us down to Cornwall to see family for a long weekend. To break the journey for elderly doggo, we stopped off on the way, but thanks to husband twisting his knee, we didn’t get to see Salisbury as we had hoped. Fortunately, it improved sufficiently for a couple of walks, including this one on Portwrinkle Beach before the long drive home.

Ed and Ein

February

This year’s biggest trip was the first I took: to Uganda. I spent two weeks in this fascinating but flawed East African nation. The highlights were as varied as they were numerous. I rode a horse beside the River Nile at Jinja, had some close up encounters with the entertaining chimps of Kibale Forest and saw probably the most spectacular sunrise I’ve ever witnessed in Murchison Falls National Park a few hours before helping park rangers free an elderly giraffe trapped in a snare. Visiting Love in Action’s school in Masaka gave me an insight into everyday struggles in the country.

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April

Italy’s always a pleasure to visit and in April I travelled to the far south for the first time. En route to quirky Alberobello, I stopped off in the 2019 European Capital of Culture Matera. In the sunshine, the caves of the sassi were beautifully photogenic, though they were once described as the shame of Italy. Alberobello itself didn’t disappoint. I was lucky enough to stumble upon the characterful Trulli Anti which is one of the loveliest places I’ve stayed. The only downer was the weather, but the cone-shaped dwellings were stunning even in the wet.

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May

A week off in May took me to Central Asia and the delightful country of Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan has been hogging the headlines, thanks to a successful change in tourism strategy, but I felt that its neighbour would be a better fit for me after watching Joanna Lumley’s excellent TV documentary. I travelled just before peak season kicked in. Snow was still thick on the ground as we crossed a mountain pass to a deserted Song Kul, but it was remote Tash Rabat, the Silk Road caravanserai at the end of an almost forgotten valley, that stole my heart.

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May too

A family celebration saw us heading off to Devon to a bungalow by the sea at Saunton Sands. Grandpa dog managed to get himself onto the beach, though a walk along its entire 3.5 mile length was out of the question. It felt a little odd to be going to the West Country and not continuing to Cornwall, but it was a beautiful part of the country nevertheless. Though I didn’t surf, it was fun to watch those who did.

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August

The big celebrations I’d hoped for to mark my 50th birthday had to be scaled back as our  golden retriever Einstein hit old age. No matter: Alaska will wait and in the meantime, my husband stepped up to look after things at home while I spent a few restorative days in Austria. I revisited St Johann in Tirol for some invigorating mountain hikes in the sunshine and plenty of good food. In Kitzbuhel, I was reminded how celebrity is a curious concept, when everyone bar me went wild for a folk singer who was big in Austria – but a complete unknown over here in the UK.

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August – just!

A few days after I returned, we set off, dogs and all, for a week in Gloucestershire, staying in a log cabin in the Forest of Dean. Champagne in our own private hot tub – with two black noses pinned to the glass watching us – marked the Big 5-0. But being able to make a few excursions with Einstein (and Edison of course) was the best birthday present I could have hoped for. We enjoyed a steam railway, a trip to a castle and best of all the spectacular view from Symonds Yat.

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September

The Lithuanian Coast was the much anticipated destination for September, on a press trip with the British Guild of Travel Writers. It had been many years since my first trip to this Baltic country and I was keen to visit some more. Our guide was an absolute gem, feeding us excellent food, informing and entertaining in equal measure as we toured her region and generally giving us a trip we could remember. The highlight for me was our stay on the Curonian Spit, a blend of culture and natural beauty worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage status.

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October

It was back to Italy this month, this time a second visit to Bologna, ostensibly so I could visit San Marino to bump the country count to a nicely rounded 120. I was hosted on an excellent food tour of the Quadrilatero which introduced me to a characterful bar I’d missed the first time round, the Osteria del Sole and the delights of Pignoletto, a fizz not unlike Prosecco. San Marino was very pretty and I was blessed with plenty of sunshine as I explored the cobbled streets of its hilly capital city. There was surprisingly lots to do and I’d be tempted to go back one day.

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November

The trip that almost didn’t happen, thanks to Edison’s (successful) attempt to destroy my passport, was to Italy. This time I spent a few days in Lombardy, but not to Milan. Instead, flying into Bergamo with Ryanair, I explored Mantova, Cremona, Pavia, Crespi d’Adda, Vigevano and more with the hardworking Isabella from Lombardy Tourism and her cheerful driver Luca. It’s a region that, despite being so well connected, is still off the beaten tourist trail and one that rewards with crowd-free sightseeing and good food.

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More from November

Rounding off November was a return visit to Fes in Morocco, the first with my new passport. I stayed in a sumptuous riad in the heart of the medina, near to Place Seffarine, which had been lovingly restored by its architect owner. The old town of Fes was almost exactly as I remembered it from my first visit in 1997. Although some areas of the souks had been smartened up, you still had to listen out for the clatter of horse’s hooves and donkeys hurtling through the narrow alleys with heavy loads. The smell of the tannery hadn’t improved either. New to me was the blue city of Chefchaouen, which was a pleasant place to spend the day.

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December

The last trip of the year, as has become my custom, was to a Christmas market. This year’s choice was the northern German town of Bremen, a city I’d enjoyed twice before. Despite the rain, a mug of Gluhwein and the German sense of humour in the form of a bird feeder tagged “Cat cinema” got me in the Christmas mood.

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So what does 2020 have in store?

For the first time in a very long time, I have no trips booked. I have a few ideas, but nothing firmed up. It probably has a lot to do with Einstein; as his back legs weaken I know I don’t want to be away when the time comes, so last minute bookings juggled with my husband’s work commitments seem the way to go. I’m not complaining; that’s what you sign up for if you have a dog.

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When I do give the new passport an airing, I think Bergamo is on the cards, if only for a day trip. Further afield, I’m keen to visit Tajikistan after such a wonderful trip to Kyrgyzstan in May. Sao Tome & Principe, Comoros, Rwanda and Madagascar are also high up on the bucket list as are Andorra and Belarus, the only two European destinations I’ve never visited. To the west, a return visit to Peru to explore the central cordillera would be the stuff of dreams, as would trips to Alaska and Hawaii.

What trips have you got planned for 2020?


A beginner’s guide to Lombardy beyond Milan

Italy’s one of my favourite countries so when an invitation from Ryanair popped into my inbox to visit some of the less well known towns in the Lombardy region, I jumped at the chance. For those of you who read the whole sorry saga of Edison the dog’s attempts to keep me at home, I’m delighted to report that the string-pulling worked and I was allowed in (and out) of Italy. But what’s there to see in Lombardy? If you’ve already been to Milan, don’t write off the rest of this captivating region. Here’s what you need to know.

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Crespi d’Adda

Getting there

Milan has three airports, but Ryanair’s main hub is Bergamo, under an hour’s drive from the city. At the time of writing there are four flights a day from London Stansted, making this a convenient option for travellers.Well over 6 million passengers have flown the route since its inception in 2002 and local followers, you’ll be pleased to learn that there’s now a route from Southend which is a lovely airport to travel from. (If you’re UK based but not local to me here in Essex, Ryanair also operate flights to Bergamo from East Midlands, Belfast, Bristol, Manchester and Edinburgh.)

However, using an airline’s hub – in this case Stansted – is often advantageous. If things go wrong, for example delays due to bad weather, there are usually plenty of planes and crew members on standby. To be honest, though Ryanair gets a bad reputation for some of its newsworthier policy decisions, its punctuality record is pretty good. Our flights were on time both ways.

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Ryanair’s main northern Italy hub is Bergamo

Tips for using Ryanair’s main London base, Stansted

I’m no fan of London Stansted airport, but have noticed that it helps to take a flight outside the manic early morning slot, when staff are generally more patient and helpful. The 4pm departure got me to Italy in time for dinner, though if I’d have been able to make the 1pm flight after my unscheduled dash to the passport office that would have been even better.

Incidentally, I rarely check in a suitcase, but on this occasion Ryanair had arranged for hold baggage. While I regaled the check in staff with tales of mischievous dogs, a gentleman came to check in but hadn’t paid for hold baggage and was directed to the customer service desk to upgrade his booking. Here’s a pro tip for your next Ryanair flight: if you’re planning to bring a small wheelie case, instead of paying for hold baggage, opt for Priority Boarding instead. You’ll still have to pay, but it will cost you less to bring it on board than if you check it. But remember, the number of priority passengers is capped, so make your choice sooner rather than later. By the time you reach the airport, it’s likely to have sold out, particularly if the flight is full.

Getting around

There’s a direct bus from the airport to Bergamo and to Milan. Though Bergamo airport doesn’t have a train station, the bus connection into Bergamo itself (take the Number 1) takes less than a quarter of an hour. Ryanair also fly to Milan Malpensa, by the way. As this was a press trip, the itinerary was fixed. The old part of Bergamo looked lovely up on the hill and I now have it in my sights for one of my day trips by air.

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My next trip?

Trains run to a number of destinations from Bergamo’s central station. One line runs south east to Brescia; the same line in the opposite direction gets you to Lecco for connections to Como. Read my guide to spending the day in and around Como here. Another line runs west to Seregno and Treviglio to the south is also connected. To book high speed trains in Italy in advance, visit the Trenitalia website.

Regional trains need no advance booking and are relatively cheap. Bergamo is also well served by buses. Most of the destinations featured in this post can be reached by a combination of buses and regional trains from Bergamo, but you might find it easier to make Milan your base if you’re planning a series of day trips. To reach some of the smaller places in the region, consider renting a car from Bergamo Airport. Our itinerary effectively looped Lombardy and was perfect for a week-long trip.

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Bellagio, beside Lake Como

Where to go

Mantova

Also known as Mantua, if I’d have paid more attention in English Literature class at school I’d have known Mantova was the place Romeo bought his poison. The city also featured in The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew. (Verona isn’t far away, though sits just over the border in the Veneto.) Arriving across the bridge which bisects two of the town’s three lakes, you can’t miss the sprawling Palazzo Ducale. This hulking pile was the family seat of the Gonzagas, a noble family who ruled the town for centuries.

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Courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale

The stories our guide told us of the Gonzaga family were at times outlandish, yet always fascinating. Francesco 1 Gonzaga, who ruled from 1382 to 1407, sought to strengthen the  dynasty by marrying Agnese Visconti from Milan. However, it soon became apparent that the alliance wasn’t having the desired effect, so he invented a fake adultery story in order to have theepoor girl beheaded. Her alleged lover, also innocent of any wrong doing, was hanged in the park beside the palace. The obnoxious Gonzaga remarried, this time Margarita Malatesta (from the family that ruled Rimini) but his new wife unwittingly carried the gene for osteomalacia, which was passed down from generation to generation and left various members of the family suffering from joint pain, easily fractured bones and hunched backs. If that’s not karma I don’t know what is!

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The park where you’ll find the memorial to Agnese Visconti

The ceilings are magnificent, with beautiful artwork, gilding and numerous personal flourishes added by various members of the Gonzaga family. One of the highlights of the Palazzo Ducale was the Camera degli Sposi, or the bridal chamber. Elaborate frescoes painted by Antonio Mantegna in the 15th century adorn both walls and ceilings. They’re very clever, using relatively new techniques at the time to create the illusion of a three-dimensional image. To avoid damaging these ancient works of art, visitor time inside the room is strictly limited, but that’s still enough time to notice some of the more humorous details.

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The 3D effect

Mantegna didn’t believe in “photoshopping” and painted his subjects as he saw them. Look carefully and you’ll see one of the women depicted with the ugliest haircut ever to have come out of Italy. At the time, people from all over copied her – she was the Jennifer Aniston of her time.

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Check out that haircut!

Cremona

In Cremona, it was the lack of attention paid in my school music lessons which produced the regret. This charming town was the birthplace of Stradivari, the great violin maker, who was born here in 1644 or thereabouts. He wasn’t the first: Amati and Guaneri came well before him but there was something about Stradivari’s skill that set him apart. Today there are 164 registered violin makers in Cremona, all competing for business. We met one of the most experienced, a Frenchman called Philippe Devanneaux who came to Cremona 38 years ago to learn his craft and never left. With a wry smile, when asked about how much a violin sold for, he joked that selling it was the difficult part. When pushed, he said that depending on the craftsman’s level of experience, they go for anything between 1000 and 25000 euros, averaging at about 8000 euros.

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The maestro at work

We watched as this talented individual walked us through the process of transforming knot-free spruce and much harder maple into a beautiful instrument. It was clear you had to be able to feel the wood to produce something so magnificent. Patience was also important – the wood had to be seasoned for a decade before it woudl be ready to use. We tried, with varying degrees of success, to use a tiny plane to smooth out the rear casing; it was considerably harder than he made it look. You studied the technical part at university, he said, and then after you graduated, you learnt how to make a violin.

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The different shades cater to different tastes

We learnt a lot about the properties of the different woods used, and the skill involved in putting them together. An impressive forty coats of varnish were required to give it the high sheen we associate with such a fine musical instrument. The bow was equally a work of art. Made in part from horse hair, we laughed as Philippe told us that only the tails of the males could be used – for anatomical reasons, as the wee was never directed at the tail as it would be with a mare.

Pavia

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Visconti Castle, Pavia

Italy’s seventh oldest university is that of Pavia. The city’s status as a seat of learning was boosted by the Hapsburg Empire and some of the most elegant buildings in the town are its historic colleges. Painted in an egg yolk yellow shade of paint, they’re easy to find. In one of them, a statue of Alexandro Volta took pride of place in one of the cobbled courtyards. If his name sounds familiar, he was the man created with inventing the battery.

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Statue of Alexandro Volta

In comparison to other Italian university cities, such as Pisa, for instance, Pavia receives few visitors. That’s a shame, as it has a lovely vibe and with plenty of other attractions such as its restored towers and covered bridge, would make a good destination for a day trip. Italy’s high speed rail network has recently linked Pavia to the Genoa and Venice Frecciarossa service (the latter is now only 3 hours away), but should result in an increase in visitor numbers in time.

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Pavia’s covered bridge

The city sits on the banks of the River Ticino, a tributary of the mighty Po. Beside the river are little paths, though in times of heavy rain these flood, sometimes by several metres. Look out for stand up rowers, as it’s a tradition here. One of the best vantage points is from a fine dining restaurant such as Bardelli, on the banks of the river not far from the covered bridge. They serve typical Lombardy fare, such as pumpkin and pancetta pie, pappardelle with hare ragout and ricotta-stuffed squid.

Vigevano

Quaint Vigevano is one of those places that lends itself to strolling aimlessly. Begin in the Sforzesco Castle complex where you’ll find two interesting museums. The Leonardiana, as its name suggests, is devoted to the work of Leonardo da Vinci, who visited the place on several occasions. Though some of the works of art on display are copies, such as the Mona Lisa, it’s interesting to see the diversity of subjects he sketched for his notebooks.

Across the courtyard is something altogether different. Vigevano is an important centre for shoe production, claiming to be the place where the stiletto heel was invented (though it’s not the only town to do so). Inside the palace is an exhibition devoted to shoes, one dated to around 1495 and uncovered by archaeologists that once belonged to the lady of the castle, Beatrice d’Este.

There’s also a green stiletto worn by Marilyn Monroe, tiny shoes worn by Chinese women whose feet were bound and the downright bizarre designs created by Alexander McQueen. Strangest of all is the shoe designed to see off unwanted paparazzi…

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You do not want to mess with the lady who wears this shoe

A short walk away is the delightful Piazza Ducale, laid out in the 15th century. It’s worth travelling to Vigevano just for this. Elegant porticoes frame a square dominated by a historic church. Inlaid into the cobbles are intricate shapes. The walkways shelter boutique shops and a plethora of cafes and bars. Come in the early evening, join the locals for the passeggiata and treat yourself to a glass of fizz and some yummy nibbles in a bar such as Caffè Commercio which boasts an ancient cellar.

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Piazza Ducale

Soncino

Tiny Soncino has a massive fortress built in the 10th century. Such defensive structures would once have been essential in these parts, and many of the towns and cities have fortifications – Sappionneta is another, for example, with a walled city complex that’s drawn the attention of UNESCO. The weather was not kind during our visit and despite umbrellas, it was hard to stay dry as the wind buffeted us around from our precarious position on the ramparts. On a fine day, you’d be able to appreciate not only the architecture of the fortress itself, but the views across Soncino from its ramparts.

A few blocks away, we took refuge from the weather in the town’s printing museum. Housed in what was once a Jewish printers, there were plenty of antique presses to admire and the typesets to create works in both Italian and Hebrew. The young curator will demonstrate for you and allow you to try for yourself. He was keen to practice his English and share his passion for The Beatles. One day, he said, he dreamed of seeing the famous Abbey Road zebra crossing, but in the meantime, he contented himself with playing their music, particularly The White Album, his favourite. I felt almost mean when I had to fess up that I didn’t share his passion for the band but left with a smile on my face.

Crespi d’Adda

My final recommendation for Lombardy beyond Milan is the UNESCO-listed Crespi d’Adda. Like Saltaire or Bourneville in the UK, this village was purpose built by a factory owner for his workers. The planned layout is obvious as soon as you pull in off the main road, with immaculate villas laid out in a grid pattern. A little further down the hill, set back behind a village green, are more spacious properties designed for the management. The owner himself lived in an even bigger home, a mock castle, overlooking one of the two rivers that enclose the triangular shaped site.

The factory itself is derelict. The gates are padlocked and its timepiece has stopped for good, a memorial to clocking off time. The company town was built in the 1920s by the Crespi family who ran a textile mill. The workers benefited not only from decent housing, but also a clinic, a school, a theatre and even a hydro-electric power station. When the factory closed in the 1970s, many of the families who lived in the homes they’d provided stayed on. They’ve had time to get used to their behemoth of a neighbour, but you can’t help feeling the ghosts of times past in this eerie place.

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The derelict factory

Thank you

I’d like to thank Ryanair and the Lombardy Tourism team, particularly our fixer Isabella, driver Gianluca and all of the lovely guides that brought their region to life. Though this was a press trip, all opinions expressed here are my own.


The dog ate my passport

The last couple of days have taught me a lot about unconditional love and even more about where not to leave dog treats.

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I’d been finalising details of a press trip to the Lombardy region of Italy. Everything had finally fallen into place: agreements with Ryanair on commissions, flight bookings and a programme from the PR agency that would take me to four Italian cities that I’d not visited before. The builders had gone home for the day and I’d wrapped up an article I was writing for an Icelandic client. It was late afternoon and already dark.

Einstein, my 12 year old golden retriever, was snoring at the foot of the stairs. Edison, his 8 year old nephew, was lying on the office rug behind my chair.This was the dog we’d nicknamed Ed the Shred on account of his obsession with tearing up paper he retrieved from waste paper baskets. My office, or more specifically its recycling bin, is one of his most favourite places in the whole house, along with the patch of kitchen floor directly beside the fridge and the sofa from which it’s his custom to bark at squirrels.

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I checked in for my flights and tucked the paperwork inside my passport, leaving it beside the keyboard on my desk. Next to it were a few dog treats that had been there all day. Just then, I had a message from my husband to say he’d be home early but had a work call. Would I pop the oven on so he could get a jump on dinner? Distracted, I got up and went downstairs. On autopilot I started to make dinner, tired from all the early starts and late nights and stress that come with a house renovation. Normally, Edison would have been under my feet, keen to be first in line if tasters are handed out, ready to pounce on anything that accidentally finds itself on the floor. I was so tired that I didn’t notice he wasn’t there.

As my husband ate dinner, he commented on Ed’s absence. Not long afterwards, we heard the bump as he jumped off a bed (another of his favourite places) and clattered downstairs. A little later on, I went back up to my office. The dog treats were still where I’d left them, but where the passport had been was a big, fat, empty bit of desk. Slowly I put two and two together. Ed must have smelt the dog treats and then found the temptation of shredding his beloved paper just too much to resist. Entering the bedroom, I spotted the chewed up remains of my passport scattered across the bedspread and my stomach did a back flip. He hadn’t, had he?

He had.

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Hitherto what was on the desk rather than in a bin beneath it had always been left untouched. Until now. Initially speechless, I picked up what remained of my passport, a ragtag collection of slightly soggy pieces, most about the size of a penny. The photo page was largely intact, save for the passport number in the top corner. A couple of visas were still recognisable, though they had chunks missing from the corners.

At first, all I could do was utter the word no, over and over. Google was my next thought, followed by the Passport Office website. At first, things looked hopeful. There was an appointment available in London the following morning, and if I paid for the premium fast track service, it seemed I might be able to get a new passport in just four hours. But as I read on, my heart sank. If the passport was lost, stolen or damaged, the notes said, then I would have to make an appointment for the weekly service.

Hopes dashed, I read and reread the website. Calling the Passport Office hotline, the voice on the other end of the phone was sympathetic but unable to help. Rules were rules, unfortunately, and there was no way I could replace the passport in the 36 hours I had before my flight was due to depart. The earliest available appointment for the service I needed was two hours and ten minutes after I was scheduled to take off.

There was nothing for it but to fess up. Mortified, I called the agency that was managing the press trip and recounted the whole sorry saga to the PR lady’s colleague who happened to be working late. I followed it up with an email to the PR lady herself. Apologising didn’t seem enough. Fortunately, she was very understanding and even offered to see if Ryanair could do anything. I didn’t hold out much hope. Opportunities like this were still a big deal for a second career travel writer like myself and I’d blown it. I was furious with myself for being so careless. Sensing my bleak mood, Ed sat down beside me and offered me his paw. I stroked his head as he looked up at me with big brown eyes and a broad smile. How could I be cross with a face like that?

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The following morning there was a glimmer of hope. While I was out getting a form for a new passport and organising a countersignatory for the photo, we received a phone call. There was a slim chance that I might be able to fly without a passport if I had a colour photocopy, they said. And I did! Two in fact, though one was a bit blurry. I sent them over by email and began the waiting game. All Wednesday afternoon I tried to keep busy. Edison seemed to know something was up, though of course remained blissfully unaware of the trouble he’d caused. I couldn’t stay mad at my goofball fur baby for long, and he stretched out on the office rug while I wrote another article. Throughout the day, I received progress updates from the PR lady telling me that as yet there was no news but Ryanair staff were working on it with border officials in Italy and the UK. I was mortified at the trouble I’d caused. By 5 o’clock, I’d pretty much given up hope.

And then the email came. At first, I didn’t believe what I was seeing, so I read it a second time and then a third. But it was the news I’d hoped for. Both border agencies had accepted Ryanair’s request to let me travel with a colour photocopy and email authorisation. My flight was rearranged so that I could still attend the Passport Office appointment. I was going. Eight hours later than planned, but I was going after all.

Today has been a strange experience. I arrived at the airport car park at about the time I had expected, but instead of going to the check in desk, I left the suitcase in the car and hopped on the Stansted Express instead. By 11am I’d had my replacement passport approved, with delivery confirmed by the middle of next week, and was back on the train. The Ryanair check in staff, wide eyed and slack jawed, admired the photo I showed them of a very innocent looking Edison while a manager confirmed my email authorisation was legit.

On arrival at Bergamo Airport I was whisked into the office (not the first time I’ve had to wait for permission to enter a country, as you might remember if you read my Abkhazia post). The officials were very apologetic for the delay and for me catching them in the middle of their dinner. Smiles all round and the now obligatory laughing at the photos of the dog and passport done, my precious photocopy was stamped and in I was. I did have a bit of a moment when they asked did I need to go to the consulate in Milan, but luckily for me they pretty much changed their minds straightaway.

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And so here I am, in Italy, minus a passport. I’m pretty sure Edison will be curled up beside Einstein, keeping a watchful eye on my husband’s dinner plate lest a small piece of chicken or a stray chip finds its way to the floor.


Why I’m loathe to take the hotel’s airport transfer

One of the more stressful aspects of independent solo travel is the journey from the airport to the hotel. In some cases, the availability of public transport makes this transfer cheap and easy – so long as you’re not carrying too much luggage. I’m a big fan of hopping on the metro or train – as stations don’t move and are usually clearly marked, the chance of jumping off at the wrong place is pretty slim. Buses can be a little more tricky, though using Google maps and tracking my position has helped a lot. It’s frustrating when the bus sails right by where you want to get off – or doesn’t stop anywhere near.

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In others, however, the need to arrange your own transfer can leave you vulnerable to the attentions of hustlers. Taxi drivers in some parts of the world can be notorious for ripping off the newly arrived and unsuspecting traveller. Insisting that the driver uses a meter helps, if it’s working of course, though there’s nothing to stop an unscrupulous driver taking a roundabout route to the city. Even if you know where the airport and the hotel are in relation to each other, traffic jams and other congestion bottlenecks might make the obvious route more time-consuming. The driver might be doing you a favour with that detour – or leading you a merry dance.

Often, there is no meter, and you’re then at the mercy of your haggling skills and the likelihood that the driver will honour the price you agreed. I’ve had drivers pull over in en route – thank you Delhi – to demand a bigger fare. If you agree, you’ve just cost yourself more money; if you don’t you risk being stranded in the middle of nowhere with a pile of heavy luggage.

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In some cities, official taxis operate within the airport. They charge a fixed rate for a transfer to specific neighbourhoods and you pay the desk rather than the driver. Lima is one such airport; I’ve used Taxi Green almost every time I’ve been there, though improvements to public transit were on the cards when I last visited. You’ll pay a little more than if you walk out to the airport perimeter and flag down a taxi yourself, but the cars are in better condition and the drivers have been checked out.

Shared shuttles are a good value compromise where they’re available. In Santiago, the Chilean capital, you can prebook a place on a shuttle for a fraction of the private taxi price. Even if your flight is delayed, they just put you on the next shuttle leaving for your neighbourhood and off you go. Unfortunately, relatively few airports have them – and certainly that’s the case for the kind of offbeat destinations I prefer.

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Which brings me to the hotel transfer. They tend to be the most expensive option, but when they work, the least stressful. A driver will be waiting for you with your name on a board and in theory, there’s no hanging around before you’re safely on your way to the hotel. But things can and do go wrong. I’ve arrived to find there’s no one waiting on more than a handful of occasions. As you wander around looking for where the driver might have disappeared to, other drivers swarm like bees to a pot of honey hoping to pick up a fare. In some cases, I’ve rung the hotel only to be told there’s been a problem and advised to get a taxi instead. Other times, they’ve asked me to wait and I’ve had to spend the next hour fighting off unwanted attention until the driver’s finally arrived.

Morocco donkey cart

Sometimes, taking a hotel’s airport transfer is the only practical option. I’m returning to Fez in Morocco soon, but on a flight that doesn’t get in until almost midnight. My riad, in the heart of the medina, is, I’m told, hard to find without help even in daylight. So I’ve booked their reasonably-priced transfer and shall have to keep my fingers crossed that the driver’s waiting for me when I emerge into the arrivals hall.

Have you had any bad experiences arriving at an airport? Do share your horror stories – but I might just hold off reading them until I’m safely tucked up in my riad…