juliamhammond

Airports

Post-pandemic travel: Austria and Germany

Throughout the pandemic, when allowed, I have travelled. I get why some people haven’t felt confident to do so. Official websites are written in complex language and even when you think you understand the rules, there’s a nagging doubt that you’ve got something wrong which will leave your booking high and dry – and unless you’ve got decent insurance, out of pocket too. For amber list countries there’s the slim but present chance that the country you picked might turn red, necessitating expensive hotel quarantine. There’s supposed to be a logic to the classification but even the industry’s so-called experts haven’t guessed correctly prior to the reviews, so what chance have the rest of us got? Then there’s the risk of catching COVID while you’re away and finding yourself stranded or worse, alone in a foreign hospital.

I get it. You’ve got to be travel mad to want to go away. But I am, and I do.

Some of the trips I’ve made have been within the UK – with my husband and the dog to Northumberland, Shropshire and the Isle of Wight, with my Dad to Dundee and Falkirk, and solo to Barra and Skye. They’ve all been great trips, but I’ve always been most excited to travel abroad. With COVID-era trips to Iceland (twice!) and Madeira under my belt, I decided it was time to head over to mainland Europe again. Just to make things complicated, I couldn’t decide between Bavaria and the Austrian Tirol, so I opted to visit both.

Flying to Munich

easyJet have been reliable, affordable and above all, flexible during the pandemic, so once again I chose this budget carrier. It’s too early in the season for their Salzburg flights so a couple of months ago I booked to fly into Munich on the late evening flight. As it would be a late arrival (oh how I miss the old days when you had a full flight schedule to choose from rather than the new normal’s take this flight or leave it offering), I reserved a room at the Novotel just up the road. Having studied the FCDO website for Germany’s entry requirements, I was a little surprised to then receive a reply which basically said we’d love to host you but we might not be able to. At that time, the COVID incidence rates came into play – basically if the rate rose too high, under local regulations, hotels would be forced to close. Things do change quickly in regards to COVID, however, so I figured I’d just wait it out and decide what to do nearer to my departure date. As luck would have it, the rules changed in time and I was able to fulfill my original booking.

Overland to Austria

With six nights to fill, I had already toyed with travelling over the border to Austria and when the country officially opened its doors to UK travellers I decided that would be the way to go. I’ve previously trained it to Salzburg; this time, I decided to make Seefeld-in-Tirol my base. I’d last visited as a child in the 1970s so had few memories of the place. Armed with notes from my Mum about where we’d stayed and visited, I checked in to the Alte Schmiede Hiltpolt, an exceptionally well-run family hotel right in the centre of the resort. I stopped off for a wander around Mittenwald on the Bavarian side of the border – very quaint – and then hopped on a local cross-border train to complete the last few minutes of the journey. Thanks to advice given by both the German and Austrian tourist boards in the UK, I already knew that my Digital Registration on Entry submission for Germany would get me into Austria with no further need for form-filling.

Where 3G has nothing to do with your phone

Both countries currently work on the three G’s principle for many scenarios where you’ll come into contact with other people: geimpftgenesengetestet. To translate, that means you either need to be vaccinated, hold proof recovery or be in receipt of a negative test result. In my case, it was the vaccination certificate that was the documentation that got me on the plane and checked in to the hotels. Some of the cafes I ate at also asked to see it, though some were happy to take my word for it without actually looking at the paperwork. In all other respects, the situation was rather casual. When I walked across the border during a hike along the Leutasch Geisterklamm and from Germany into Austria at the summit of the Zugspitze, no checks or border formalities were made at all – just as you’d expect from two Schengen signatories.

Returning to the UK

For the last time – next time I travel the requirement to test will have been removed – I had to take a lateral flow test to be able to return to the UK. As with my Iceland trip, I’d already sent off for my do-at-home PCR test kit from Randox as the drop box is conveniently located in the next village from my home. Although I’m pleased the result came back negative this weekend, it was the booking reference from the purchase that was the crucial piece of the puzzle – without it, I’d be lacking essential information for the UK government’s Passenger Locator Form. I made sure I arrived at the airport in good time to be able to take a lateral flow test; the negative result came through about 30 minutes later. I will be glad not to have to do one next trip as it’s a bit stressful waiting for the result – even though I was pretty sure I had no COVID symptoms.

In the end, I’m pleased to report that my trip was memorable for the scenery, sunshine, food and entertainment – not for the COVID-related admin and – happily – not for a positive test result. Time to start planning the next one…

Important note

As before, this was the situation at the time of my visit in September 2021. Rules change frequently, so always check carefully before embarking on your own trip to make sure you’re abreast of current regulations when you travel.


Testing, testing

With so many hoops to jump through, it’s little wonder many people in the UK are choosing to holiday at home this year. While back in 2020 we might have thought that being vaccinated would be a ticket to freedom, unfortunately that’s not the case. International travel feels like a minefield of paperwork and regulations, but here’s my experience travelling from the UK to Iceland. Note that regulations change frequently, so check with reliable sources to ensure that you have up to date information.

Prior to departure

Preparations started before departure. As with many countries, Iceland differentiates between vaccinated passengers and those who haven’t been jabbed. You need to be fully vaccinated at least 15 days before – check the Covid.is website for the latest information. The Icelandic authorities will accept the NHS app but once or twice when I’ve gone into it the app has been unreliable – and one time my vaccine details had disappeared completely. I ordered a paper copy of the vaccine record from the NHS website and it came just under a week later through the post. Note that you can’t get this via your GP a surgery.


A green list country, Iceland required a negative test to enter the country but accepted a lateral flow test. You can keep up to date on the Covid.is website which has an up to date record of everything from regional case numbers to current government legislation. I also found it helpful to follow some of the Icelandic news websites on social media such as Iceland Monitor and Iceland Review as they gave an indication of whether the COVID situation was changing. Case numbers were on the rise before my trip so it was helpful to track that.

Which test?

Unlike the more expensive PCR tests, the lateral flow tests are the same as the NHS tests you can pick up from your local pharmacy. But you can’t use those for international travel as you require a certificate that confirms a negative result. I found that there were fewer places offering lateral flow tests in my area (perhaps because many more countries require PCR tests instead). Though I could have used a postal service I was concerned the result wouldn’t come through in time.


In the end I opted for a test with Collinson using their drive-thru testing facility at London Stansted Airport. Unfortunately I was flying from Luton, but the flight was so early I wasn’t able to use the testing facility there. So instead, I made the hour and a half round trip a couple of days ahead of my flight. There was no queue, availability was good and I stayed in my car the whole time – the nasal swabbing was conducted through the car window. The negative result came though via email almost exactly 30 minutes later. With easyJet’s discount, the cost of the test was £32 (regular price £40).


This is also the time to book your Day 2 test. The UK government requires all inbound passengers to complete a detailed Passenger Locator Form and the booking reference for this test is one of the pieces of data you’ll need to add to the form. I opted for a mail-in service this time. I used Randox. They don’t have the best reputation for reliability. Twitter users have reported that their return boxes have been full to overflowing. However, though there are only three drop-off points in Essex one of them is only a short drive from my home it is convenient. The cost of this test was £43.

Outbound

To be able to board the flight, it was necessary to show proof of the lateral flow test to the gate staff. The Icelandic government’s rules had changed just a few days before I flew out and some passengers had been caught out. They were dismayed to learn that they had been denied boarding – hopefully they were able to get a test and a later flight. Rebooking wouldn’t have been an issue in terms of availability as the flight I took was only about a third full. That’s in August, the height of peak season.


On arrival at Keflavik passport control formalities were completed fairly quickly – though of course British passports are now stamped. After that came duty free and baggage claim for those that wanted it before the final test check at the exit. Paperwork was looked at and I was good to go. I understand that there is a hefty fine for those who get caught out, though the airline should pick up any issues long before you get that far.

In Iceland

The UK government requires all inbound passengers to be tested within three days of returning to Britain. There is a testing facility very close to Keflavik Airport (easy to find in a building beside the Courtyard by Marriott hotel). I booked for the afternoon prior to my flight; a text and email reminder were useful. The sign on the door said they were all booked up for that day, so definitely plan well in advance.


I got tested with a friend who has been trained to administer the tests. She was concerned about some of the procedures being followed. Five people were escorted to the testing room at a time. Each was allocated a numbered seat and then the tester conducted each swab in turn. My friend noticed mistakes: the person didn’t swab both nasal cavities, and she squeezed each sample without changing gloves, potentially increasing the risk of cross-contamination. It was certainly a production line affair. The tests came back negative about 20 minutes later – another hurdle jumped. Cost of this test was 6900 ISK (about £41).


Next, the thing that’s so easy to forget: the Passenger Locator Form. This is a detailed document that you have to fill in on the UK Government’s website, so make sure you have WiFi or data roaming as you’ll need to go online to fill it out. Amongst other things you’ll need your flight details (including the arrival time and a seat number, so you will need to have checked in) and also your passport details. This form has been around for some time but the requirement to supply a booking reference for your inbound test wasn’t needed in 2020.

Inbound

Departing Keflavik went smoothly, but it’s important to have all your documentation to hand. Security and passport control were as normal, requiring the boarding pass and passport respectively. The UK government paperwork was checked at the gate. This can be time consuming if your flight is full so it’s wise not to leave it too late. The gate staff asked to see the passport first, then the Passenger Locator Form, then proof of vaccination and finally proof of a negative test result (for the test conducted in Iceland). Once all of those were seen, the boarding pass was scanned and I was free to board.


Arriving at Luton, I used the e-gates and as all the information was electronic and paperwork had been checked in Iceland, no further checks were necessary. I completed the PCR test using the home kit Randox had sent me and drove it over to the drop box in the next village. I had an email later that day to confirm Randox had received the kit and another the day after confirming the test was negative. Now all I have to do is to decide where to go next…


It’s travel, but not as I know it

As more and more of Europe experiences a rise in coronavirus cases, and the weather worsens as we head into winter, my thoughts are inevitably turning to travel further afield. I hate November with a passion. Since I’m no longer tied to school holidays, that means I can escape to far-flung destinations such as Barbados for a bit of autumnal sunshine. But this year’s a little different, of course. After my recent trip to lovely Madeira, tentative hopes to visit perhaps the Azores or Santorini were dashed due to the lack of direct flights and I remain wary of travelling long haul lest the situation worsens and I end up stranded.

I’m not even sure I’d enjoy the experience, if what’s on offer in Cuba and St Lucia becomes the norm. I’ve enjoyed trips to both those Caribbean countries and part of the appeal as an independent traveller is to explore on my own. But right now that wouldn’t be possible. Take St Lucia for example. Travellers of many nationalities including Brits are permitted to fly; BA are operating direct flights and TUI have just followed suit. So long as you can present a recent negative test result, you’re in. But that’s when things get a little more constrained.

The advice on the UK’s FCDO website reads:

“You must remain at your COVID-certified accommodation for the duration of your stay in St Lucia unless you are on an excursion arranged by the hotel. You may not leave the property by vehicle or on foot during your stay.”

To elaborate, St Lucian authorities permit travellers to stay in certain hotels. There are 30 such places on the official list, though not all of them have opened quite yet. No worries there. In fact, the hotel in Rodney Bay I chose before is on the list and I’d be more than happy to stay there again. The issue is what happens when I want to leave the resort. Current regulations state that unless I choose from a predetermined list of excursions with an approved list of operators then I’m legally bound to stay put. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s how you usually travel, but I don’t enjoy holidaying like that. 

The experience in Cuba would, from my perspective, feel equally restrictive. Last time I visited this fabulous country, I split my time between Havana and Trinidad. I explored sugar plantations by day, travelled in style by vintage car and danced late (for me) into the night fuelled by sweet but potent canchancharas. If I were to visit right now, I wouldn’t be landing at Havana Airport – it’s only open for repatriation and humanitarian flights. The situation is a little more relaxed than it was before – visitors are allowed to rent cars and aren’t entirely confined to the beach resorts. And sometimes, as it was for me, it’s cheaper and easier to see the sights on an organised excursion.

Nevertheless, Havana remains off limits, as does Ciego de Avila, Spriritus and Pinar del Rio. Note too that although tourist flights to other parts of the country are operating, the current FCDO advisory states:

“Visitors who fly directly in Jardines del Rey Airport (for holidays in Cayo Coco, Cayo Cruz or Cayo Guillermo) may rent cars, but cannot leave the Cayos.”

I’m not suggesting for one minute that the Cuban or St Lucian governments aren’t doing the right thing. They have a responsibility to take care of their citizens and this is an effective way of balancing that duty with the need to kickstart their economies in a COVID-safe way. Tourism is a major income generator for both islands, as it is across the wider Caribbean region. A number of islands are now deemed safe destinations for British tourists, including Barbados, Antigua and the British Virgin Islands. Each is managing arrivals in their own way. The information’s easy to find and it’s up to you to decide whether you would be able to have the kind of holiday you hope for.

For me, a trip isn’t on the cards until I can travel my way. I guess I’ll just have to be content with Tenerife, but as the UK heads into Lockdown 2.0 even that will probably have to wait until 2021. What about you?


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.


Plane stories

It won’t be long before I take to the air again, to Entebbe, Uganda with a stop in Brussels to pick up some Leonidas chocolates for my mum. (That’s what I’ve told her, anyway. In reality the Brussels Airlines flight was cheap and BA unhelpfully canned direct flights in 2015.) I took my first flight in 1970 aged just nine months, though I remember little about it. I’m told my smiling baby face calmed a few nerves. Some flights in the intervening period have been more memorable.

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My first long haul flight was in 1992, to the Venezuelan island of Margarita. I don’t remember much about it, if I’m honest, but I think I’d have flown with the now defunct VIASA, the Venezuelan flag carrier, to Porlamar. There, I met an Italian and a few months later jumped on a plane to Turin to visit him. I’d flown short haul a few times as a child, but it was still enough of a novelty to be exciting, particularly when the pilot asked if there were any children on board who would like to visit the cockpit. At 23, I wasn’t going to let a small thing like age stand between me and a treat such as that, so I asked the cabin crew if I could go too. I was allowed, though I had to wait until all the children had been first. That turned out to be serendipitous – by the time I got my turn we were over the Alps.

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It was New Year and the Italian’s mother sent me home with a Panettone. Sitting in Turin Airport, I left it as long as possible to say my goodbyes, not realising that there would be no intercom announcements. I was the last to board and did the walk of shame down the aisle towards my seat, trying not to make eye contact with anyone. As I reached my seat, another passenger asked if they might swap with me to be able to join a friend. I agreed, only to find myself on the back row. In those days, smoking was permitted for those seated in the last two rows and I suffered the consequences all the way back to London. It’s hard to imagine a return to a smoke-filled cabin but in those days the dangers of passive smoking were only just being documented.

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I’ve never experienced turbulence severe enough to cause injury, and hopefully never will. The closest I’ve come is on a flight into Juliaca, Peru in 1995. The airport lies at about 3800 metres above sea level and serves the nearby tourist town of Puno and Lake Titicaca. I should have expected a bumpy landing – like Chicago, Juliaca is nicknamed the Windy City because of its location, on the blustery Collao Plateau. I was grateful for a seatbelt and even more grateful when the pilot made a successful landing. At least I didn’t vomit. I remember very little of the Nazca Lines which I flew over that same trip with my head in a sick bag. If you’re planning to make the same flight, I have only one piece of advice: don’t down a bottle of Inca Kola before you take off.

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In 2005, I visited Luang Prabang in Laos and to reach Hanoi, my next destination, I needed to take a flight with Lao Aviation. The airline had a disastrous safety record. Since 1990 it had reported five serious crashes, most with fatalities. Planes had crashed into airport buildings, clipped trees in fog, come down in dense rainforest or onto mountainous hillsides in heavy rain and even crashed on the runway in strong winds. As we took off from Luang Prabang, the fuselage began to shake alarmingly and smoke started to seep into the cabin. I did wonder whether my luck had run out. But we landed safely in Vietnam and the only casualty was a bottle of rice wine that had smashed in the overhead compartment, leaving a pink sticky mess over all my belongings.

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To date, I’ve only missed one flight, excepting those times when a connecting flight’s been late in. At the end of that same trip, I’d finished up in Thailand and arrived at Bangkok airport in what I thought was good time for that evening’s overnight flight back to the UK. Unfortunately my timing left a lot to be desired, and I’d actually arrived 21 hours late rather than 3 hours early. Luckily, a sympathetic check in agent got me on the next flight without charging me extra for my mistake.

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Finding check in was more of a problem when I flew back from Ulan Ude in Siberia to Moscow in 2009. Arriving at the airport, I breezed inside to find I couldn’t see a single check in desk. All the signage was in Russian, using the Cyrillic alphabet, but even with a phrase book I couldn’t match the symbols to anything relevant. I’d managed to get all the way across Russia without incident, yet I couldn’t do something as simple as check in for a flight. My attempts at miming and making hand gestures were met with shrugs from bemused passengers and staff. In the end, I noticed someone go through an unmarked white door in an unmarked white wall. It turned out they’d hidden the check in desks. Behind the wall, as if in a parallel universe, check in procedures were happening as normal. To this day, I have no idea why, nor any clue as to what the purpose of the other hall was and why so many people were queuing in it with their bags.

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Perhaps the most memorable flight of all was the best flight I’ve taken: the time I flew business class with BA to New York in 2016. The experience is already documented on this blog, so I won’t repeat the story. But much as I enjoyed that flight, I have to admit, it makes for a better tale when things go wrong, doesn’t it?


Why I’m not thrilled at Stansted’s expansion plans

A few days ago Uttlesford District Council approved plans that would see Stansted grow its passenger numbers to 43 million a year.  The news comes hot on the heels of a press release announcing that the airport had just experienced its busiest October ever. 2.5 million passengers used the airport, up almost 9% on the same month in 2017, bringing the annual total to over 27 million. It’s good news for the local economy, with an already buoyant job market fuelled by such growth. Stansted claims that 5000 new jobs would be created by the continued expansion of its facilities. An increase in flights, with some long haul routes now offered, increases choice and offers an alternative to driving over an hour further to Heathrow or Gatwick.

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So why am I unhappy?

First, it’s not a case of NIMBY-ism. Though Stansted airport is my nearest, it’s still a forty minute drive away. By the time Stansted’s planes fly over my home, they’re at such an altitude that noise pollution isn’t an issue. I’m not affected by increased traffic, nor am I impacted by any kind of blight on house prices, though I’m sympathetic to those who are.

No, my concerns lie with the airport experience. I travel fairly frequently and time spent at the airport is a necessary evil if I am to do my job. My recent experience of Stansted hasn’t been a positive one, with issues cropping up every time. Parking is the first problem. I remember not so long ago being able to turn up to long term parking without having to pre-book. Clearly that’s not the case anymore, not just at Stansted but elsewhere too, just as you don’t generally have the option to drive up to drop off in front of a terminal free of charge either. But a fair number of my Stansted visits are day stays – and long term parking at Stansted has a minimum three day stay. Mid term is often full, leaving me with a fee of £30 or more to park at short stay. (Living in a small village I don’t have a public transport option.) I appreciate that with increased passengers, rationing spaces by cost is the logical solution. But allowing this day tripper to use the long term parking would reduce my parking cost by a third.

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Inside the terminal, it’s common for the space to be excessively crowded. Once, this Norman Foster designed building was a pleasure to transit. Now, with the security gates shifted from the back of the terminal to the side, it has become a veritable obstacle course. The queues first thing in the morning usually reach the gates, and sometimes extend beyond them. Security staff seem less friendly than in other airports and occasionally rude. Management, to be fair, do listen but there does seem to be a need for training. My luggage “fails” at a disproportionately high rate compared to other airports. I have no idea why. It’s not like I pack differently for those journeys. On one occasion, a staff member moved my coat to cover my iPad, necessitating a manual check “because your items were stacked on top of each other”. On another, I was told that my wheelie case required an additional check because it had been placed “at the wrong side of the bin” – I wasn’t aware there was a wrong side of the bin and neither was the manager I spoke to afterwards.

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Security eventually navigated, the queues funnel through the duty free and shopping area. The space is narrow and littered with passengers and bags. The main holding area is also rammed, partly because gates aren’t announced until late on. Stansted have tried to tackle this, not by clearing out the clutter, but by closing the airport overnight in an attempt to foil travellers who plan to sleep stretched out across several seats. A long term programme of investment to the time of £600m and significant expansion is underway. The sooner that has an impact the better. Right now I feel more stressed waiting for my Ryanair flight to be called than with the boarding process. Yes, you did read that right – Ryanair’s part has generally been the best part of the whole process. If that doesn’t jinx December’s flight, I don’t know what will.

So forgive me if I’m not dancing with delight at the news Stansted is going to get even busier. If by some miracle, Ken O’Toole, Stansted’s CEO, happens to read this, then please think carefully about how you plan for all these additional visitors. The good news is that your airport surely can’t get any worse.


To recline or not to recline?

That is the question that has provoked a storm of impassioned comments this week after the Telegraph announced that British Airways was introducing 35 new planes on its short haul routes with non-reclining seats.  Here’s the original article:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/01/07/british-airways-passengers-will-no-longer-able-recline-relax/

The ensuing headlines screamed that BA was fast turning into a low-cost carrier, but that’s not what people have been arguing about.  A survey by Skyscanner in 2013 claimed that 91% were in favour of banning reclining seats on short haul flights:

https://www.skyscanner.net/news/calling-time-reclined-airline-seats

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Reclining seats on long haul planes are a boon, particularly on overnighters.  Economy class is cramped, and let’s face it, we’d all happily upgrade if funds permitted.  But for many of us, the choice is to fly economy or not fly at all, so we fold up our legs and get on with it.  It’s one of the few times when I wish I was young again.  The ability of millennials to tuck themselves up and nod off to sleep for eight straight hours is something I now struggle to achieve in a full sized double, let alone a tiny aeroplane seat.

But that whole cramped arrangement gets a whole lot worse when someone in front reclines their seat into the space in front of my knees.  I’m not especially tall, but I do have long legs, so a battering to the kneecaps is a real possibility.  I pity 6 footers.  I read this week that one man was left with bleeding knees after someone reclined without warning.  It’s all very well saying that you have the right to use the space – after all, you’ve paid for that seat, recline and all – but if someone is going to get hurt in the process, surely there’s room for some give and take?

In the States, planes have even been forced to divert over legroom wars.  This report from the Telegraph written in 2014 refers to the Knee Defender, a product that’s still on sale, as the trigger for an air rage incident that necessitated an unscheduled landing.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/aviation/11064259/Knee-defender-causing-chaos-on-flights.html

Surely it’s better to put up with a bit of discomfort than to have your travel plans severely disrupted – and even face charges?  It’s a shared space; there has to be a bit of give and take.  I don’t expect someone to turn round and ask my permission to recline, but but I do appreciate it when they do so slowly so I have chance to grab my drink and rearrange my legs first.  Likewise, while it’s perfectly OK in my book to recline on a long haul flight, I don’t expect to be eating my meal with no space for a tray table and so always ask the flight attendant to have a word with the person in front if they haven’t yet reclined.

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But on short haul flights, is it really even necessary to have the facility to recline?  Perhaps I’ve been conditioned after years of flying with Ryanair, but I just don’t even think about it on a short flight.  I’m hopping over to Amsterdam this month and there’ll barely be enough time to sit down, let alone recline.  Even on the longest short haul flights of around four hours, it’s not really a hardship to sit up straight.  If I’m stiff, I can walk around the cabin to stretch my legs.  However, for those hubbing through Heathrow, they’ve already come off one flight and don’t need the discomfort of a cramped second leg.

So this news isn’t a deal breaker for my relationship with BA.  And of course, no one’s forcing anyone to fly BA.  You can choose not to do so and opt for a different carrier.  That said, you probably won’t find yourself sat next to me on BA any time soon, not least on one of their short haul routes.  It’s not the cull on free food or even the IT disasters that have left passengers stranded.  No, it’s price.  The budgets are still usually cheaper, even more so for me when I factor in the additional cost of getting to Heathrow over Stansted.

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But for those banging on about reclining seats, well, I think it’s the shape of things to come.  Airlines have been forced to change to stay in business.  The rise and continued popularity of the low cost carriers prove that people are happy to unpackage their fares and pay only for what they need.  I think BA’s making a smart decision to ditch the reclining seats and make room for additional paying passengers.  But will you be one of them?


Border control queues in Europe – and how to beat them

Today’s news has been full of horror stories of British travellers caught up in excessive queues at some of Europe’s busiest airports.  If you haven’t seen it, try this article from the BBC:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-40824027

Sadly, though changes in legislation have worsened the situation, it’s nothing new. Miss your flight, and you’ll find the airline and the airport pass the blame back and forth, leaving you frustrated and potentially out of pocket. So what can you do?

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Take out a decent insurance policy

Many travel insurance policies will cover you for missed departures, but check the small print in case there are any exclusions. Also check the amount covered – and work out whether this is going to be sufficient to cover a night in a hotel and the cost of a replacement flight.

Get to the airport early – and don’t wait for your gate number to be displayed

Queues for security are going to be lengthy in peak summer season, so you should be aiming to get to the airport in plenty of the time regardless. But once you’re through security, you need to go through passport control too. In some airports, this can be tucked away in a quiet wing of the airport serving just a few gates.

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If your gate isn’t displayed early, by the time you start to line up, you may have cut it too fine. I almost missed a flight from Malaga to London a couple of years ago for this very reason – so don’t risk having to be very un-British and queue jump like I did. And if I pushed in front of you and you’re reading this, I’m very sorry – and hope you made your flight too!

My advice is to go through passport control even if your gate isn’t displayed on the boards – if there are multiple passport controls, in my experience the border control officials will redirect you. Just look suitably apologetic as I did and make sure you head off in the right direction.

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Consider booking a package

If you book a package holiday with an operator with has its own fleet of planes, such as Thomson (other operators are available!), then the same company is responsible for getting you from the hotel to the airport and from the airport to Britain. At the very least this is going to reduce the buck-passing.

Have you any tales to tell? I’d love to hear your experiences.