juliamhammond

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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

Peterhof

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

Cats Republic


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.

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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.

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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…


A day trip to San Marino

When I started planning my trip to San Marino, I knew almost nothing about the country except that it was small. It is also one of only three nations in the world, along with Lesotho and Vatican City, that are totally surrounded by the land of a single other country. You can see the sea from San Marino, but you have to cross Italian territory first.

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To reach San Marino, you need to enter from Italy. There’s a regular bus service which leaves from Rimini station and costs 5 euros. You can find the timetable here. Rather than stay in Rimini off season (Italians have long since fled the beach by mid-October, even though Brits would still consider it warm enough) I chose to base myself in Bologna. You can read about the food tour I did here. It adds a little under an hour to the journey if you travel between Bologna and Rimini by high speed Frecciabianca train. It costs surprisingly little for the train ticket (under 30 euros return for a first class seat, cheaper in second, and cheaper still if you opt for the slower regional train).

The bus from Rimini drops its passengers in one of San Marino’s car parks. The city of San Marino occupies a lofty position on top of Monte Titano, and visitors have to be prepared for its steeply sloping streets. In a few places, there are lifts, which is a boon for those with buggies or aching legs.

My first stop was at the tourist information office, to pick up a visa and a map, though strictly speaking, neither was necessary. For a fee of 5 euros, you can have a stamp in your passport, which seemed to me to be the best souvenir of my visit. That was, until I discovered the San Marino Duck Store later in the day, which had the biggest range of rubber ducks you could imagine, including a Star Wars stormtrooper that lit up when it came into contact with water. That was husband’s present sorted then.

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From there, it was a short stroll uphill to the first of San Marino’s three towers. Called the Guaita, it’s the oldest of the trio, built in the 11th century. There was an interesting series of exhibits which recounted the tower’s history – at one time it was a prison – and a breathtaking view from its ramparts.

Visibility was excellent the day I visited, giving me a glimpse of the Adriatic in one direction and the Apennines the other. I was content with looking at the Second Tower, known as the Cesta, from the Guaita; a path joins the two, but the Cesta located on the tallest peak and if I’m honest I’m not interested enough in weaponry to have made the hike worthwhile. (The Third Tower, the Montale, isn’t open to the public.

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Instead, I headed downhill for a spot of lunch and a visit to the Museum of Curiosities. This museum houses a quirky and eclectic collection of oddities. Amongst other things, you’ll find Venetian platform shoes, designed with flooding in mind, and a German mug with a porcelain half-lid to help moustached men deal with the problem of foam on their facial hair. It’s tacky and voyeuristic, but go with the right mindset and it’s a lot of fun too.

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The last visit of the day was to the San Marino parliament, housed in the Palazzo Pubblico. The Most Serene Republic of San Marino, as it is unofficially called, is the world’s oldest continually operating republic. It also has a claim on the title of world’s smallest republic, depending on whether you measure Nauru by its land mass or include its marine territories as well. The parliament building was grand, with an imposing staircase leading up to the chamber where its government convenes. On the wall at the top of the staircase is a bust of Abraham Lincoln. San Marino conferred dual citizenship on the US President in 1861 in recognition of the “high consideration and fraternity” they felt with the USA.

For a small country, I was pleasantly surprised by the range of things to do – there were plenty more museums that I didn’t choose to look around, including the Museum of Torture which I didn’t have the stomach for. I’m not sure I’d choose to stay overnight, nor visit in the height of summer. But on a sunny October day, it made for an interesting diversion from Bologna and had a lot going for it.

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Footnote

I’m grateful for the complimentary tickets I received for the Guaita and Palazzo Pubblico, as well as the discounted admission I was given at the Museum of Curiosities. All opinions expressed in this piece are my own.


Review of Secret Food Tours Bologna

You know you’re going to like someone when they meet you with a smile and a croissant. Raffaella, our delightful guide from Secret Food Tours, certainly knew how to win us over. Our group of six soon gelled and bonded over a shared love of food – and Bologna.

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We met under the Due Torri. The city that they call La Grassa (the fat one) is known for its food, but climb the 498 steps to the top of its tallest tower, Torre Asinelli, and you’ll go some way to easing the guilt of a glutton. Such towers were built by the residents of Bologna in mediaeval times to provide a safe haven in times of strife – in those days you wouldn’t have found a door at ground level. But interesting though Bologna’s past undoubtedly is, we weren’t on the tour for the history, we were there for the food. It was time to get walking.

Fellow foodies, you could be forgiven for thinking that Bologna is the home of spaghetti bolognese, but ask for this pasta dish and you’d be laughed out of town. Instead, you’ll need to ask for Ragù alla Bolognese, a slow cooked meat sauce tossed through fat strips of fresh pasta. We sampled it in a backstreet trattoria alongside half a plate of tortellini cooked perfectly al dente and they were both exquisite. Having watched a table of nimble-fingered women twist tiny squares of fresh pasta into those tiny tortellini shapes gave us some inkling into the work involved. This is nothing like the pasta you’d buy in the supermarket and definitely a treat for the taste buds.

The Quadrilatero, Bologna’s old market area, is crammed full of delicatessens, food stores and cafés, but it helps to have a guide as knowledgeable as Raffaella to navigate such a maze. As we strolled in and around the streets surrounding the Piazza Maggiore, we learned about mortadella, prosciutto and even balsamic vinegar, even though the best of the latter hails from nearby Modena.

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In a store stocked with huge rounds of Parmigiano Reggiano, we discovered why some have horizontal scratches – these are the ones that fail quality control and are sold off cheap. The very best thing about sampling with a local is you try things you wouldn’t otherwise be tempted to consume. For me, ciccioli was a revelation – the ugliest slice of meat on the plate but – oh my! – also the tastiest.

This was my second visit to Bologna and last time, I’d walked right past its oldest osteria, a place with no signage that’s been serving thirsty Bolognesi since 1465. True osterias, like this one, don’t actually serve food, just alcohol. But Italians like to eat while they imbibe and so it’s the norm to carry in a parcel of cooked meats and cheeses to eat while you drink.

Raffaella had something different for us – a rich, sweet, gooey rice cake that was the ideal accompaniment to a glass or two of Pignoletto. It’s an Italian sparkling wine that to an uneducated palate is not unlike Prosecco. But while 400 million bottles of the latter are produced each year, Pignoletto production amounts to a paltry 11 million. That said, I enjoyed its frothy bubbles so much I pushed my way through the throng outside to pay a return visit the following evening. At two euros a glass (a small one) it was utterly quaffable and decidedly moreish. If word gets out, or if I can find it here in the UK, that figure of 11 million will shoot up.

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It wouldn’t be an Italian food tour if it didn’t include an ice cream stop, and this tour was no exception. We popped into a cute little place not far from where we began to sample some lusciously creamy gelato. I think I may have disgraced the family, however, as I ordered the zabaione flavour, commenting that my Mum used to make this dessert for us when I was a child. Given the alcohol content, that’s probably not something I should have admitted to, but the ice cream was every bit as flavoursome as Mum’s creation.

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Now, you’ll probably have noticed there’s a distinct lack of names and addresses in this blog, but that’s deliberate – it was a secret food tour, after all. If you want to find out exactly where to eat in Bologna, you’ll have to book a place yourself, but I can promise you that if you love your food, you won’t regret it. Buon Appetito!

I’m grateful that I was offered a complimentary ticket for Secret Food Tours’ Bologna walking tour in exchange for a review; the opinions expressed here are mine, however.

https://www.secretfoodtours.com/bologna/


Gainsborough’s House with Greater Anglia

When was the last time you looked at a painting? I don’t mean a casual glance, I mean really study the detail? If, like me, it’s been a while, then you might want to head to Sudbury before October 27th for a visit to Gainsborough’s House, which showcases the largest collection of the artist’s work in the country. No matter how much of an art philistine you might be, you’ll find yourself impressed by the subtleties of form and light and colour in the paintings that are on display.

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However, you’ll need to get your skates on. The house closes for extensive remodelling in just a few weeks’ time. Downstairs is an exhibition on loan from a private collector, featuring works not only by Gainsborough, but also Turner, Constable and Lawrence. For me, surprisingly, the standout was a large painting not by Gainsborough but by John Constable of Salisbury Cathedral surrounded by meadows. When the museum closes its doors, they’ll be returned to their owner and will no longer be on public view. Upstairs, the comprehensive works will go into fine art storage. Some will be temporarily loaned to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, but it’s an awful lot easier – and cheaper – to hop on a Greater Anglia train instead.

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Painting by John Constable © Private collection on loan to Gainsborough’s House, Suffolk

Reached by train via the aptly named Gainsborough Line, Sudbury’s an easy day out by rail from London or East Anglia. This sleepy Suffolk town has surprisingly much to offer the visitor, not least the skull of Simon of Sudbury, hidden in the vestry of St Gregory’s church, and Vanners, one of several working silk mills in the town. Incidentally, when the new gallery is unveiled in 2021, you can expect to see Vanners’ silks adorning the walls.

Nevertheless, the star attraction is the house that acclaimed artist Thomas Gainsborough grew up in. He was born there in 1727 and as a child developed a love of sketching and painting landscapes. One of the obituaries published after Gainsborough’s death said simply: “Nature was his teacher, and the woods of Suffolk his academy.” Travelling by train gives you time to appreciate such leafy views instead of concentrating on the road, something that the team at Greater Anglia would like to remind you with their latest promotion, Room with a View. That said, you’ll travel across rather than beside the imposing Chappel Viaduct. Of course, you could always make a day of it and alight at Chappel & Wakes Colne station for the East Anglian Railway Museum to get the best of both worlds.

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But I digress. Packed off to London at a tender age to hone his skill, Gainsborough’s artistic bent meant that earning a living as a portrait painter was potentially a lucrative profession. But he hated painting people, calling it “the curs’d face business”. Where possible, Gainsborough would pay as much attention as he possibly could to the background, lavishing the setting with what the churlish might describe as superfluous details of flora and fauna. He was less concerned with getting the faces right, and some of his finished pieces have a distinct touch of the wooden artist’s mannequin about them. To be fair, it didn’t seem to bother his clients much. Nor Gainsborough himself – when the work dried up he moved on, plying his trade not only in Sudbury, but also in Bath and London.

Gainsborough’s landscapes are nothing short of magnificent. In “Wooded Landscape with Cattle by a Pool”, first shown in 1782, the light is captured perfectly. The cattle, in shadow, and the crepuscular shafts of light on the pond complement each other perfectly. As a photograph, such a scene would be impressive; as a painting, it blows your mind. In “Wooded Landscape with Old Peasant and Donkeys outside a Barn, Ploughshare and Distant Church”, the peasant slumps onto his staff, donkeys resting at his feet, a little weary from a hard day’s work but pleased with what he’s achieved. It’s such details that create such a strong connection with those who view them today. Let’s face it, we’ve all had days like that peasant.

At Gainsborough House, the garden too is a delight. A 400 year old mulberry tree takes centre stage; think about it – that tree would have been there when Gainsborough was a boy. Although it’s the wrong variety to be used for producing silk (how neat would that have been?) its fruit is used to make jam to gift to the gallery’s patrons. There’s also a quince tree and a medlar; if you want to try those, Wilkins of Tiptree products are sold in the museum shop along with an extensive range of gifts.

To find out about timetables and fares on the Gainsborough Line, visit the Greater Anglia website. For Gainsborough House exhibit details and opening times, click here. While I am grateful for the complimentary train ticket and admission, all views expressed are my own.


A beginner’s guide to the Lithuanian coast

I’ve just returned from my second visit to Lithuania after a gap of 12 years. This time, I was a guest of the tourist boards representing the coastal regions that comprise Klaipeda, Palanga, Kretinga and the Curonian Spit. Since my 2007 trip, Vilnius and Kaunas, Lithuania’s two largest cities, have become increasingly popular with city breakers, but the coast remains overlooked by many. That’s a shame, as it has much to offer the tourist. So let me try to tempt you – here’s my beginner’s guide to the Lithuanian coast.

How to get there from the UK

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Our hosts arranged flights for us from Luton to Palanga-Klaipeda Airport with budget carrier Wizz Air. It departs at 5.55am, the first flight out of the day. It’s a very early start, but that has the advantage of a late morning arrival despite the two-hour time difference, so if you don’t live too far from the airport and want to get a jump on the sightseeing, it might suit. Flights depart once daily on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Alternatively, Ryanair currently fly to Palanga-Klaipeda on Tuesdays and Saturdays, departing Stansted at a similar time of day – 6.10am. Neither airline, therefore, offers a particularly sociable schedule, but you can always catch up on sleep when you get there.

Getting around

We were ferried around with private transfers, but there is a bus connection that serves Palanga-Klaipeda airport. Bus #100 travels south from the airport, stopping in the resort town of Palanga before continuing on to Klaipeda, Lithuania’s third largest city, where it terminates. The airport website provides a very handy route map:

Fares are a very reasonable 1,40 euro to Palanga and 2,50 euro to Klaipeda. The buses are timed to connect with inbound and outbound flights. This is the schedule:

https://www.stops.lt/klaipeda/#bus/100/b-a/en

If you’re heading over to the Curonian Spit, then you’ll need to catch a ferry from Klaipeda. The Old Ferry carries foot passengers and bicycles at a cost of 1 euro each; boats depart on the hour and half hour during the day and less frequently in the evening. Buses connect to Nida, the main settlement, at the other side. If you’ve rented a car, you’ll need to use the New Ferry, which runs every twenty minutes during the day and costs just over 12 euros. Note that there are no public transport connections from the spit’s terminal. Full timetables can be found here.

Where to stay

Our hosts were keen to show us a range of different accommodation, so we spent a night at four hotels.

In Klaipeda, we were based at the contemporary Hotel Dangė, an easy walk from the centre of Klaipeda and its bars and restaurants. Deluxe doubles with balcony come in at around £90-95, but their economy rooms are available for about half that amount in low season (and about £70/night next July). Note that there’s no lift; my room was on the top floor which meant climbing four flights of stairs with luggage.

On the Curonian Spit, we stayed at the lovely Nidus, set in leafy grounds about a fifteen minute stroll to the centre of Nida along a path surrounded by woodland. The double rooms were spacious and had an adjacent sitting room and also a balcony. Booking.com has such rooms for about £55 in low season and about £140/night next summer. There were other hotels closer to the centre of Nida but this would be quieter in summer.

There was an event on in Palanga so we stayed at a resort hotel a few miles out of town, the Atostogų Parkas. In the off season, you can pick up a double here for about £35 and upgrade to include spa access for about £10-12 more. Colleagues spoke highly of the pool and jacuzzi facilities but I found it a bit cut off. Room sizes varied considerably; ask for a larger room if it’s available.

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I was a little unsure of what to expect for our final hotel, located on the edge of the beach resort of Šventojias some of the artwork was squarely aimed at the male market. Décor was strange, with skulls and devils and Americana all rolled into one crazy package. But the staff worked really hard to make us feel welcome and it was a five minute walk to the beach. Most accommodation at the Elija is apartments; hotel rooms start at around £40 in low season and about £15 more next summer.

Things to do: Klaipeda

Klaipeda’s a good starting point for a Lithuanian coastal region tour. There are plenty of attractions in a relatively small area and it’s easy to get to.

The sculpture trail

The compact centre of Klaipeda is littered with quirky sculptures and it’s fun to take a stroll to seek them out. Our guide Diana showed us some of them and told us the tales associated with each. The cutest without doubt is the Thaumaturge Old Town Little Mouse, which bears the inscription “Transform your thoughts into words and words will turn into miracles”.

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Not far away, perched on the roof of a house near the River Danė, is a chimney sweep – touching his clothes or buttons is considered lucky. Fortunately, there’s a separate button on the wall of the house nearer to ground level which offers the same reward. There are plenty more works of art to discover, depicting everything from coins to dragons, but a sure fire winner with the kids will be the Black Ghost that haunts the dockside near the site of Klaipeda’s castle. Legend has it that a ghost appeared to a castle guard warning of grain and timber shortages, before disappearing back into the fog. Whether his prediction came true or not, I don’t know, but younger visitors will love clambering inside and popping their head into the hood of his cloak. Rock fans – this one’s for you too: Alice Cooper raved about the sculpture on his social media feed.

Maritime and historical treasures

Though the warehouse district was largely destroyed in the 1854 fire and the centre of Klaipeda was heavily bombed in the war, you can still get a sense of what the place was like if you take a walk in the reconstructed old town and past the rebuilt warehouses that line the river bank. The 39/45 museum, opened in 2018, is a must for history buffs. Across a series of rooms, visitors can discover what the Nazi occupation meant for the city and its occupants. The exhibit titled “Klaipeda assault” helps visitors visualise the extensive bombing during the siege of the city before the Red Army rolled in.

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In the Blacksmith’s Museum, Dionizos Varkalis showed us the collection of wrought iron crosses rescued from the city’s cemeteries are displayed in a purpose built space resembling a church. Regular jewellery making classes are held on site. Perhaps the most iconic symbol of Klaipeda is the sailing ship Meridianas which is moored beside the Birzos Bridge. Built in Finland in 1948, the vessel was used by the Klaipeda Maritime School for training purposes and has been a popular quayside restaurant since Soviet times – though in these days you had to flash the cash and have the right connections to get in.

Švyturys brewery

Merchant J.W.Reincke opened a brewery in Klaipeda in 1784 – the eagle on his family coat of arms appears today on the bottles of what’s now called Švyturys beer. The brewery makes a range of flavourful stouts, ales and lagers using German methods of  production. Tastings are offered, but book a guide and you can learn not only about how the beer is made but also how food pairings subtly alter the taste. The most popular beer is Švyturys Ekstra; according to our guide, it’s best consumed accompanied by chicken hearts. I’m not so sure about the latter, but a glass of Ekstra certainly slid down a treat! If you haven’t got the stomach for offal either, try Baltijos, an Oktoberfest-style dark lager perfect with carrots, or perhaps a glass of Pale Ale which, I found, goes very well with chick peas. Who knew?

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Things to do: Curonian Spit

Don’t write this off as a strip of featureless sand: Lithuanians liken the Curonian Spit to an outdoor spa. Its close knit community look out for each other – this is the kind of place where you don’t have to lock your doors.

The sand dunes

The sand dunes on the 98km long Curonian Spit aren’t just any old sand dunes, they are UNESCO-listed sand dunes, recognised for their cultural as well as physical importance. Sand transported by Baltic Sea waves piled high to form this barrier island, which was later colonised by grasses and forest. It is simply magnificent, but as an ex-Geography teacher, I am of course biased.

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In the 17th and 18th centuries, logging destabilised the fragile ecosystem, threatening settlements as the sand was no longer anchored down by tree roots. But from the 19th century, the area has been successfully managed so people and nature can co-exist. We walked to the top of the dunes which buried the village of Nagliai over 300 years ago. Taking a hike up the “grey dunes” was made easier by the previous day’s rain – the compacted surface made lighter work of the climb than would have been afforded by dry sand.

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Fun fact (at least for geographers): grey dunes are so-called as they take their name from the carpet of moss, lichen and grasses which bind the fine particles together and prevent them migrating.

Juodkrantė’s Hill of Witches

A pathway leading from the main road in the village of Juodkrantė takes wanderers through a magical forest. This wooded parabolic dune is dubbed the Hill of Witches, taking its name from pagan celebrations which take place here on Midsummer’s Eve.

The path is lined not only by trees but by around a hundred quirky wooden sculptures, benches and elaborately carved arches. The characters you see reflect Lithuania’s rich folk and pagan heritage, depicting an eclectic mix of fairy tale protagonists, devils and monsters. There’s plenty of evidence for the Lithuanian sense of humour, too, not least in the witches’ saggy tits! Though it’s free to wander through the forest alone, taking a guide and hearing those stories will definitely enhance your visit. Our lovely PR Angelina, who grew up on the Spit, regaled us with tales as we snapped away in this photogenic spot.

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The sundial at the Parnidis Dune

Located at the top of the 52m high Parnidis Dune, you’ll find a giant sundial, the only place in Lithuania where the sun rises and sets on the water. The centrepiece is a granite obelisk, from which shadows fall on a series of stone slabs. At noon, the shadow points due north. Each of these steps references a different month, with additional stones for the equinoxes and solstices. The sundial is richly decorated with icons and runes representing holidays and saints. It’s a wild and windswept place, open to the elements, but even on a day when the weather throws everything it has at you, the views along the Spit are breathtaking. Check out the nearby sculpture of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who visited the dunes with his partner Simone de Beauvoir in 1965.

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Nida

The quaint village of Nida, facing the lagoon side of the Spit, is packed with charming cottages. The traditional architecture features a cross or pole on the top of the front gable as well as wooden fretwork adornments. Bold colours are common – and advantageous to fishermen who could spot their homes from out at sea. One houses an amber museum in which you’ll find the largest lump of raw resin in the country, another an ethnographic fishermen’s museum with a-ha style animations projected on the walls and everyday items suspended on strings.

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You’ll soon spot the colourful wooden weather vanes along the waterfront: every fisherman had a mark on his boat to show where he came from. From the weather vanes, you can tell which village a fisherman came from and a little about his wealth and status. A black cross on a white background signified a man from Juodkrantė, for instance. I really liked Nida, and would love to return in the spring, if nothing else, to have another scrumptious piece of cake from Gardumėlis bakery opposite the cottage pictured above.

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Things to do: Kretinga

Kretinga is nicknamed Lithuania’s Vatican, with five functioning monasteries within the district. If the weather’s not playing ball on the coast, it’s worth the short detour inland to see what Kretinga and its surrounds have to offer.

Church of the Annunciation of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary

Built between 1610 and 1617, this church is home to the oldest organ in the country. On a wall near the altar there’s a panel of little silver legs placed there by worshippers as a symbol of thanks and good health. The crypt houses the metal coffins of the Chodkiewicz family whose donations funded the church and Franciscan monastery tasked with the pastoral care of local residents. In a side room, four skulls set into a pedestal to commemorate the 120 souls whose remains were found interred in its walls. Our guide Diana told us that when the monks held their first service after the Soviets left, they emerged from the crypt onto the main altar, marking the dawn of independence. What an emotional moment that would have been for the congregation.

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Dungeons of St Anthony

Under what’s now a school are the dungeons of St Anthony, used as a prison by both the Nazis and the Soviets. In a side room, a now inocuous-looking well was used to torture those held captive. The graffiti on the walls offers a fascinating insight into the mental torment endured by the inmates, with crude calendars, churches, names, dates and places scratched into the plaster. One bears the name of Paul Sansarrat, a French POW who escaped more than once and eventually participated in the Normandy Landings.

Count Tiškevičius manor and winter garden

This museum complex is centred on an impressive manor house, built in the second half of the 19th century, and indoor winter garden. Across the road, a more humble building contains a collection of artefacts that reference everyday life in the past, covering everything from Shrove Tuesday masks to traditional Lowlander dress. There’s even a model of the devil, dressed to impress. They say he’ll offer you gold to get you on side, but when you wake up in the morning, all you’ll have is a pocket full of stones. To uncover his true identity, step on his shoe – if it’s the devil in disguise, there’ll be a cloven hoof where the foot should be.

The Japanese Garden

Located just outside Kretinga is Europe’s largest Japanese garden. It’s the work of Šarunas Kasmauskas, a former military doctor, who doesn’t believe in leisurely retirements. This 16 hectare plot, once open fields, has been transformed into an oasis of calm and colour. The jolly Kasmauskas was quick to point out he hadn’t received an EU handout: “I don’t trust this ‘company’ – I’m Eurosceptic!” he joked. The extensive bonsai collection contains miniature trees that are over 250 years old, specially imported from Japan, each worth thousands of euros. Five hundred or so sakura trees, providing the famous cherry blossom in spring, have been planted with the help of many individual sponsors.

There’s still plenty of work to do, thanks to Kasmauskas’ ambitious vision for the place, but it’s been open to visitors for eight years already and looks set to become better and better as the years pass. And as for upkeep, Kasmauskas had a tip for gardeners that I’m very keen to test out. He said that if you cut grass under a young moon, you’ll have to do so again in five days, but if you wait, you can leave your mower in the shed for two or three weeks.

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Things to do: Palanga

Palanga is Lithuania’s most established tourist resort. A strip of bars and restaurants on J. Basanaviciaus Street leads down to a wooden pier and the Baltic Sea. Rows of benches face the sea, and during our visit most were occupied by old ladies in headscarfs, bringing to mind a bus load of pensioners. But this is a family-friendly resort too, and in season the beaches would be fabulous. In case you weren’t convinced the emphasis is on fun, the motto “Deligas quem diligas” (“Do what you like”) is embedded in the pavement.

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Walking tour

Palanga’s well-heeled have invested their money in property and as a result there’s much to please those with an interest in architecture. From the traditional to the modern, Palanga’s private homes, apartments and hotels span centuries of style. Some wouldn’t have looked out of place in the southern states of the USA. It’s very green, too, with plenty of trees and parkland to enjoy. Our guide Antanas did a great job giving us some context and his sometimes irreverent commentary, particularly where dates were concerned (“1932? Who cares, actually?”), was a treat.

The Count’s Palace

Palanga’s home to the late 19th century Palace of Count Feliks Tyszkiewicz, which is tucked away in the heart of Birute’s Park. The park has both informal and formal planting, with sculptures and eccentric works of art semi-hidden within the trees and shrubs. The beds in front of the palace were a showstopper, a riot of purples, mauves, creams and white that offset the elegant building and its fountains to perfection. Unsurprisingly, it’s a popular choice for couples to stage their wedding photos.

The amber museum

Inside the Count’s palace are several floors devoted to amber. It wasn’t the only amber museum we visited – there was a smaller one in Nida – but this one had the wow factor. Huge chunks of raw and polished amber including the Sun Stone, sizeable pieces with insects suspended in the resin, jewellery and even clocks showcased the versatility of this colourful material.

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A special mention: Šventoji’s beaches

Palanga’s big event did us a favour – instead of staying on the convenient but busy strip, we were a five minute walk from this gorgeous beach. The sun obliged with an appearance just before we were due to leave for the airport – isn’t that typical? – but a walk along the beach was just the thing to blow the cobwebs away and take one last look at this wonderful coastline.

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Thanks Lithuania – and especially to all the witty, entertaining and straight-talking people that helped make this trip fun. I will be back and I won’t leave it 12 years this time.


A dog friendly break in the Forest of Dean

Lots of places market themselves as dog-friendly, but often the reality is more dog-tolerant. When you consider them as part of the family rather than a pet, that’s just not good enough. Our golden retrievers are now 12 and 8, and so we have a lot of experience – both good and bad – to compare with. With an excitable younger dog who cannot be trusted near a breakfast buffet (sorry again Lodge in the Vale), these days we prefer self-catering. So how would Forest Holidays stack up? We hired a cabin at their Forest of Dean site to find out.

The cabins

The cabins at the Forest Holidays sites are marketed as “architect-designed” and they definitely have the wow factor. The epithet “cabin” didn’t seem grand enough to do them justice, but bunglaow and chalet didn’t feel right either, so we reverted to their official title. As a couple, we opted for a two-bedroom Golden Oak cabin to give us a bit more space. There’s the facility to choose the exact cabin location you want, and so we plumped for one at the rear of the site. That was an excellent choice, as it turned out, because this was our view.

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Floor to ceiling picture windows framed stands of conifers, through which dappled sunlight cast a warm glow onto the wooden deck. Despite being flanked by neighbours – and when we arrived, pretty full occupancy given the number of cars about – it felt secluded. The hot tub on the deck was private and unoverlooked. There was a barbecue, which we used a couple of times, and also a log burner which we didn’t need as it was still quite mild. The site was quiet too. We live in a small village and routinely wake to birdsong. Normally, on holiday, we remark on the noise relative to what we are used to. Here, it was like being at home, but with a different view.

First impressions were good: check-in was speedy considering how many new arrivals there were (check-out would later prove to be just as efficient). The location had been easy to find and the well-signed site meant that the last few hundred metres were no different. A ramp from parking space to front door made life easy when it came to unloading the car and the dogs. The entertainment package we’d added was sufficient, and the premium WiFi was reliable and fast. The day-to-day maintenance of our hot tub was efficient and unobtrusive.

Forest Holidays permit up to four dogs per cabin, so there were plenty of other dogs around, all well behaved save for a beagle that wandered off on its own for a bit – the TV messaging service asked everyone to keep an eye out and an update a couple of hours later reassured everyone he’d been found. The shop and cafe was properly pet-friendly, meaning we could take the dogs with us for a coffee or if we wanted to eat out. If you didn’t have a dog with you (or if someone was willing to stay home and watch them) there were lots of family-friendly activities that you could add to your package, including archery, bicycle hire, paddle boarding, ranger-guided walks and much more. We’d come for a relaxing, do very little week so it suited us just fine to hang out at the cabin and read a book.

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So in many respects, it was perfect, but as with anywhere, there were things that could have been improved. I often say that to create successful accommodation you need to stay in it yourself and see it from the visitor’s point of view. The Forest of Dean site had been open a while, so certain issues should have been ironed out long ago. I enjoy curling up on the sofa to digest the contents of a welcome folder and there wasn’t one. Instead, information was provided via the television, which felt impersonal though you could argue better for the environment avoiding the need for all that paper.

In general the kitchen was well-equipped, but it would have been helpful to have provided an oven glove rather than a tea towel. Here too, the eco-credentials were good, with environmentally-friendly detergent and multiple bags. However, there was only one bin in the kitchen to put a bag inside. With two dogs that would have been more than happy to have shredded a bag to get at its contents coupled with minimal counter or cupboard space to put one out of reach, we ended up recycling very little.

The cabins featured underfloor heating, which was pleasant once it had warmed up. But the downside was that there were no radiators as a consequence. Drying soggy towels from the hot tub or bathroom proved really difficult. Though plenty of towels had been provided (four per person, topped up midweek with a curbside delivery but not collected), as the week progressed, we had an ever-increasing pile of damp towels. The delight of taking a dip in the hot tub was tempered by the unpleasant sensation of stepping into a damp swimsuit to do so. We were blessed with fine dry weather for our stay, but had it been rainy, the whole drying thing would have been a bit of a nightmare with wet clothes to deal with as well.

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Internal maintenance, or the lack of it, was another bugbear. It was hard to regulate the temperature of the shower in the en-suite and in the main bathroom, the shower head refused to point downwards for more than a few seconds which flooded the bathroom. The toilet flush was very stiff and in an awkwardly low location, which might explain why we found that it hadn’t been flushed when we first arrived. Over the course of the week, the bathroom sink drained increasingly slowly which was unpleasant after cleaning teeth, for example.

But by far the biggest disappointment was how dirty the cabin was when we arrived. It’s surrounded by forest, so of course without daily cleaning I wouldn’t expect the cabin to stay in pristine condition. But within half an hour of padding around barefoot, the soles of my feet were filthy, indicating that the floor hadn’t been mopped on changeover day. There was a mop and broom in the cupboard, though it would have been helpful to have been left a vacuum cleaner to deal more effectively with the dog fur. (The floors are exclusively wood or tile; we brought our own rug as it makes it easier for the dog to get himself up.)

To be fair on the staff and management, we didn’t make a complaint while we were there to give them the opportunity to fix these issues. Reading the reviews on TripAdvisor, there were plenty of others who had experienced similar issues with either cleanliness or maintenance issues at the Forest of Dean site. After a long drive, who wants to have staff in to fix things that should have been picked up already? Given how pleased we were with the cabin’s location, we decided to put up with the problems and concentrate on the view instead. It didn’t affect our enjoyment of the cabin, but it would certainly make me think twice about returning there until it’s had a refresh – I’d expect one of their newer locations to be better.

The surrounding area

As our elder dog needs plenty of rest, we took it easy during our stay. We enjoyed three dog-friendly days out within a short drive of the cabin.

Goodrich Castle

This English Heritage property scores highly for its warm welcome and home-baked dog biscuits. It was about 400m to walk from the car park to the castle but relatively flat, so our old boy managed it with only a couple of stops. Our younger dog had a lot of fun climbing the ramparts (on lead of course!) and exploring the ruins. For the human visitor, there were plenty of information boards as well as an audio guide (included in the admission price). Though we didn’t eat there, it was good to learn that dogs were permitted in the cafe as well as in the shop.

Adults £8.40 each; dogs free

Dean Forest Railway

The volunteers that run the Dean Forest Railway went out of their way to ensure everyone felt welcome, with plenty of fuss for the dogs and a very tolerant attitude when they sat in the aisle rather than by our feet. The ride was a pleasant one, with steam days operating mostly on weekends and occasionally midweek. The train had plenty of carriages, which meant we could find a quieter compartment; the only carriage off-limits was (understandably) the buffet car. The museum, with plenty of interesting information about the railway, was dog-friendly. The station cafe wasn’t, but there was plenty of outside seating and a full water bowl for “steamed up dogs”.

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Adults £13 for a day rover ticket; dogs £2

Symonds Yat rock

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I hadn’t expected to be able to visit Symonds Yat, as we had read that the rock was way above the river and that would have been too hard for our elderly dog. Fortunately, the car park was on the hill too, so there was a gently sloping and pretty manageable walk for our elder dog and plenty of seating for him to rest. The views from the lookout over the River Wye and its gorge were breathtaking. If you had to climb up from sea level you wouldn’t have been disappointed. There were plenty of walking trails leading off in various directions from the car park (including one that led to the Forest Holidays site). There were also toilet and cafe facilities, the latter with outdoor seating only – plenty of dog-friendly picnic tables.

Adults and dogs free


Review: KindaKafe’s Hidden History tour in Norwich with Greater Anglia

Regular readers of this blog will perhaps remember that earlier this year I visited Norwich with Greater Anglia. I was pleasantly surprised at how fast the journey was from Colchester to Norwich – just over an hour – and blown away by how much there was to see and do in Norfolk’s county town. If you missed it, have a look at what I did here. One of the best parts of that visit was the Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell. The tales of some of the less respectable characters who once lived in the city were compelling. So when Kerri from Greater Anglia suggested I could go back and find out some more of Norwich’s history, I jumped at the chance.

I’m grateful to Greater Anglia for providing me with free train travel and also to KindaKafe for gifting me a complimentary ticket for their Hidden History tour. However, all opinions expressed in this post are my own.

The day I’d chosen to go was a Bank Holiday Sunday, and coincided with Ed Sheeran’s triumphant tour finale in Ipswich. I was prepared to travel early, although extra trains had been laid on so it wasn’t difficult to find a seat. I was a little concerned I might not be able to park easily with the additional passengers but the GA website has a handy feature which provides live data about how many free parking spaces are left. There were over a thousand so I needn’t have worried.

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I could sit back and relax in the spacious seat as well as say a silent thank you that on this very hot day, the carriage was air-conditioned. The train arrived a couple of minutes early at Norwich station, from where it was just a ten minute walk to KindaKafe, located opposite the castle in the building that once housed Ponds shoe shop. This cafe supports the important work of the Missing Kind charity, providing a social space but also raising funds through the events it holds. One such event is the Hidden History Tour which I had come to try out. There was just time for a quick coffee before Lisa, our guide, began her introduction.

The tour began at ground level in what had been the Ponds shoe shop. We learnt that Norwich was once second only to Northampton when it came to shoe production and especially important for ladies and children’s shoes. It was warm in the 19th century building, but soon we would descend below ground where it was a more pleasant 17°C. Things would soon get a little strange as we descended a flight of steep stairs to find ourselves in front of the upstairs window of what was once a weaver’s cottage. That window would once have looked out over the castle. Confused? Bear with me, this will make sense soon.

Norwich Castle was built at the time of the Norman conquest. At the time of its construction, an order was issued for all the buildings in the immediate vicinity – 98 of them – to be demolished. Once they were knocked down, an eight metre ditch was dug by hand. The soil that was excavated is what forms the castle mound today.

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A couple of centuries later, King Edward III formally gave the ditch to the city, while the castle was county property. Lisa told us that this variation in ownership was important, for instance when it came to public hangings. If a murder was committed outside Norwich, the convicted killer would be hanged on Castle Meadow (on county owned land) whereas if the crime had taken place within the city, the place of execution would be Castle Ditch instead – right where we were standing. My mother had already told me that our family was connected to the final public execution:

“Hubbard Lingley was executed outside the Castle on 26th August 1867 for the murder of his Uncle Benjamin Black. Benjamin was the husband of Anna Fickling who was my great great grandfather William Fickling’s sister. They came from Barton Bendish.”

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This extract from Charles Hindley’s book “Curiosities of Street Literature: Comprising ‘Cocks’ or ‘Catchpennies'” tells Lingley’s story:

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I shared this information with Lisa and the other group members – and it turned out that some of the other tour participants were related to Hubbard Lingley. Lisa told us that the reason that this was the last public execution (after this, hangings would take place inside the castle in private, rather than in front of a public crowd) was that there was some dispute as to whether Hubbard Lingley was guilty. Many in the crowd, she said, protested that he was innocent, and vented their anger at the hangman himself. The Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act was passed the following May and from then on, all executions would be carried out behind closed doors (though reporters and the victim’s family could be present at the invitation of the authorities).

After we descended another flight of steps, we learned that some people believe that there are secret tunnels leading to the castle. We could have been standing in one, but in actual fact, it was a former alleyway that had long since been covered over. Never mind about secret tunnels: it’s even more cool to think you are standing in a long lost street. Ponds built their shoe shop right on top of this ancient street and used the “basement” as a storeroom. Look carefully and there’s an odd mix of brick types, with elongated Tudor bricks and even a smoke-blackened section of wall, perhaps from a street fire. Lisa pointed out would could have been some 18th century graffiti featuring the number (or maybe a date?) 1739.

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Looking around, we could have been in Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. A “jetty” that would have been constructed across the street linked two buildings. Behind it was a section of wattle and daub ceiling. In front were two rooms: one had the appearance of a dungeon; the other had a flint wall dating from the late 15th century when Henry VII was on the throne. Opposite was a nook in the wall called an undercroft, a bit like a cellar. Norwich has at least fifty of these accessible undercrofts, more than any other city in the UK, and possibly as many as 250. These cool, dry spaces would be ideal for storing your perishable goods – cool in summer and not too cold in winter.

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The group moved into one of these tunnels/covered alleyways. In the corner was an AUD (an anti-urination device). These, we were reliably informed, can be found all over the city. In the mid 1800s, there was a serious shortage of public toilets for the growing population. Mounds  were installed to discourage men from weeing up the buildings – the design was such that if someone tried to go to the toilet, they’d get wet feet.

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Three flights of steps down from where we started, Lisa led us out onto the street. If you walk along London Street, between Costa Coffee and a chicken place you’ll see an unprepossessing white gate. I’ll bet almost everyone who walks by has no idea of what they’d find if they stepped inside.

Have your own rail adventure

If you’d like to have your own rail adventure, then why not take a look at Greater Anglia’s website? You too could have a day out in Norwich, but there are plenty more places on the network to choose from – why not read my previous blogs on Harwich or Wivenhoe for inspiration?

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KindaKafe’s Hidden History tour costs £10.50 per person and I really recommend it. Advance booking is essential and for more information have a look at their Facebook page or call 01603 850309. All proceeds support the Missing Kind charity’s work.


Sunset along Salcott Creek on the Lady Grace

The creek I look out on from my office window winds its way through the stark beauty of the salt marsh to eventually reach the sea. Walking the dog along the path through Old Hall Marshes is one of the joys of living in this part of Essex. But though I’ve seen the water from the marshes, I’d never seen the marshes from the water. So when Stacey Belbin of Lady Grace Boat Trips invited me to join her for a sunset trip along Salcott Creek, I jumped at the chance.

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Stacey has a passion for what she does

As we chugged steadily into the channel from West Mersea’s crabbing jetty, Stacey told us a bit about how she came to run trips on the Lady Grace. The daughter of a fisherman, she’d grown up on the water. At first, she and her husband bought a boat to take people angling at weekends, but in 2011, Stacey bought the Lady Grace and now works full time on the boat. A passionate ornithologist, her knowledge of the local and migrating birds that make their home in and around Mersea is first rate. But it’s her enthusiasm that’s infectious and even if, like me, you can’t tell a herring gull from a tern, you’ll find yourself getting excited about the birds that you see during the trip.

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The old oyster shed on Packing Marsh Island

We were blessed for our trip with superb weather. On a late August evening, the air was warm and still. As we passed along Mersea Fleet, we had sight of Cobmarsh Island to the left, which acts as a natural barrier protecting Mersea harbour from the larger waves of the North Sea that would make such boat trips as Stacey’s difficult, if not impossible. To our right, there were a few clouds in the sky as we passed the old oyster shed on Packing Marsh Island and the remains of the wooden posts which would have once supported its jetty. As we turned into Salcott Channel, the setting sun lit up the sky in warm shades of ochre and orange behind Old Hall Marshes. Birds flitted overhead, preparing to roost for the night.

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Willow sticks mark where oysters have been dropped to fatten up

Packing Marsh Island is a reminder of just how long a history Mersea shares with its oysters. The Romans famously farmed oysters here and many of those who work in the industry today can trace their connection with the sea back many generations. From time to time, you see a willow stick poking up out of the water. These mark where oysters have been dropped; they’re harvested from deeper waters and then relaid in the tidal waters order for them to grow. The rich nutrients in the silt here mean that Mersea oysters develop into a meaty, more flavoursome product than those farmed on the south coast, and in half the time. The water quality benefits too; oysters filter something like 8 litres of water per hour, cleaning the water for everyone.

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Colours change as the light fades

One of the larger islands in the channel is known as Sunken Island, lying at the mouth of Salcott Channel. On the high spring tides, it is completely submerged. That’s given the island something of a reputation for being a place to stash ill-gotten gains. Smuggling was rife in the old days, and it was common for local churches to be used to hide contraband from the authorities. Loot was hidden in the church itself, usually with the knowledge of the vicar. The labyrinth of channels winding through the salt marsh would be a confusing environment for the revenue men, but locals knew every twist and turn of these waterways, no matter whether the tide was in or out.

I wrote about another tale on my Essexology blog about Salcott:

“One story claims that villagers found an customs boat floating off nearby Sunken Island. The 22-man crew were all dead, their throats slit. The bodies were allegedly buried in the church graveyard and the hull of their boat placed upside down on top of their final resting place.”

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Boats moored in front of Packing Marsh Island

But the most intriguing story wrapped up with the Salcott Channel is that of a bell. Spirits, usually gin or brandy from across the English Channel, were brought in under cover of darkness to avoid excise duty. A bell was stolen. Some accounts identify this bell as that of St Mary’s Salcott, others speak of four bells taken from St Edmunds church in East Mersea. Geographically, it’s the Salcott location that makes the most sense for a bell later dumped near Sunken Island. So the story goes, the vicar was asked to grant permission for storing contraband in the church (the last place the authorities would look for stolen goods) and agreed, so long as a bell was commissioned for the tower in exchange. Made in London, its tone was distinctive, instantly recognisable to the people who lived in the village.

One night, a group of Flemish traders came to deliver their load and were envious of the bell. They decided to come back under cover of darkness on a night windy enough to drown out any sounds they might make. These robbers made off with the bell by sea – in those days Salcott creek was deeper than it is today and in any case, the creek winds behind the church. The bell was dropped and hearing the sound of what could only be their bell, the local villagers gave chase. They gained on the robbers easily, as the villagers were unburdened by the weight of the bell. In the ensuing fracas, the bell tumbled overboard, or the boat sank with it onboard. Whichever version is true, the bells were lost to the silt near Sunken Island. They’ve never been found, though many have looked. I couldn’t help peering overboard, just in case.

Stacey turned the engine back on and cast off from the last buoy. We slipped back into West Mersea through an avenue of yachts. In the blue hour, everything around us was still. After a stressful few days, it was the perfect place to remind myself that no matter what you’re going through, life goes on and there’s peace to be found whatever challenges you face.

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The water was perfectly still, making for some delightful reflections

The lowdown

I’m very grateful to Stacey for offering me a complimentary ride. Though it was a gifted trip, all the opinions expressed here are my own. I was blown away by the beauty right on my doorstep. If you’d like to book a trip yourself, this particular excursion costs £15 per person which is excellent value for a 90 minute trip. You’ll need to book in advance and can check availability here. Other excursions are also available, from 20 minute tasters to picnics at Bradwell on Sea across the Blackwater. Private hire is also possible.

One word of advice: aim to be in West Mersea early; the car park is small and on a warm night, there’ll be plenty of people still around. Roadside parking is available a short distance from the crabbing jetty, but allow yourself a few minutes so you don’t have to rush. On a warm summer evening under a blue sky, I can’t think of a better way to spend your money and strongly recommend you enjoy a ride on the Lady Grace for yourself.