Fresh air and water are always a good combination. With excellent rail links as well, it made the riverside town of Wivenhoe a good choice for my third outing with Greater Anglia this summer. There’s an easy but very pleasant 4km walk that takes you along the banks of the River Colne from Hythe to Wivenhoe. The really good news is that if you don’t wish to walk it in both directions, the path is easily accessible from Hythe station and leads you straight into the station car park at Wivenhoe. Both the path and the railway line follow the banks of the Colne Estuary, offering splendid views. As a walk, it couldn’t be more convenient if it tried!
If you’ve been following my previous blogs, you’ll know that I’ve enjoyed days out by train to Harwich and to the East Anglian Railway Museum. Greater Anglia have some very affordable advance fares across their network as well as £2 child fares and many other offers. It’s well worth checking out their website if you’re at a loose end this summer.
I set off from Hythe station just before lunchtime and walked along the riverbank towards the University buildings and on towards the new apartments that are springing up. I’d come this route a thousand times – it’s on the way to B&Q and Tesco – but from the car, you just don’t see what’s under your nose. There’s some fantastic artwork to be seen.
Information boards telling a little of the area’s history help provide context. In parts, they form trail markers. You can’t miss them in their steel cages.
Following the river, I passed the iconic lightship and headed off in the direction of Wivenhoe. Urban becomes rural pretty quickly and it’s a pleasant and flat walk past riverside meadows, reed beds and woodland. Even on a weekday, there were plenty of joggers and cyclists using the trail, as well as a man in a wheelchair walking his dog. This is a trail for everyone to share.
Towards Wivenhoe, there’s a board marking the entrance to the Ferry Marsh Colne Local Nature Reserve; the name’s a bit of a mouthful but it’s well worth the diversion. There’s plenty of seating along the river banks on which to sit and watch the birdlife and see what the ebb and flow of the tide reveals. If you’re lucky you could even see otters or water voles.
But it was Wivenhoe that I’d come to see. From its railway station, I found myself on the charming quayside in just a few minutes. Wivenhoe Quay is packed with buildings of historic interest, among them The Nottage, open on weekends, housing a museum with an eclectic collection of nautical items. Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon until September 3rd you can visit to learn more about Captain Nottage, the Victorian army officer and keen yachtsman whose name is on the door.
Next door to The Nottage is the excellent Rose and Crown pub. Its outside tables are perfectly placed to watch the comings and goings along the Quay and the food’s not too shabby either. In the sunshine, there are few places in Essex more attractive for an al-fresco lunch.
I wanted to see something of Wivenhoe and began to explore its quiet streets. Just along Rose Lane, I noticed a blue plaque commemorating the great Miss Marple actress Joan Hickson, who once made her home here. Around the corner, I couldn’t resist browsing the produce on offer in the Village Deli. Owner Mike had an interesting take on the calorie issue presented by the ice cream on sale. According to him, if you use the attached spoon correctly, the calories can be neutralised and thus don’t count. That’ll be a salted caramel tub for me, then, and…
Along the High Street I found the Wivenhoe Bookshop, the kind of place that almost doesn’t exist anymore. Staff member Sue told me they’ve worked hard to create a space that works as a community cultural hub as well as a bookstore. Coming up there are writers’ workshops, book signings, a knitting group and even a philosophy breakfast, reflecting the University of Essex presence on the edge of town. You don’t have to be a local to get a warm welcome. The place has a homely feel – the sofa in the back room was just the kind of sofa you’d want to sink into on a rainy afternoon. I was blessed with blue skies so it was time to move on.
My final port of call was to The Sentinel Gallery, run by the delightful Pru Green whose enthusiasm for art is catching. Inside, work from some of East Anglia’s most talented artists was on display as well as some of the most colourful pottery you’ll find in the county. The modern structure features angular lines and huge panes of glass. It stands in stark contrast with the very traditional buildings that surround it, but it doesn’t jar. And the light which floods into the exhibition space is incredible. Even if you’re no art expert, this place is worth a visit, though don’t come on a Monday or a Tuesday as they’re closed.
Wivenhoe, I decided, had much to recommend it and if you want to see for yourself, there’s a ton of special events still to come this summer. The Sunday, August 20th, sees the Wivenhoe Crabbing Competition, great fun for all the family; register on the Quay from 10.30am. The town hosts its Beer Festival from September 1st to 3rd with the Art Sea Music Festival following close behind on September 9th. Throughout the summer season, a weekend foot ferry links Wivenhoe to Rowhedge and Fingringhoe so long as the tide is high enough. With limited parking in Wivenhoe, it’s a really good idea to take the train.
With thanks to Greater Anglia for providing transport to and from Wivenhoe.
Rail tickets and offers from Greater Anglia
The Nottage Maritime Institute
Rose and Crown pub
The Sentinel Gallery
“Time flies by when I’m the driver of a train, and I ride on the footplate, there and back again.” Chances are, if you’ve just sung this rather than read those words, you grew up on a diet of Chigley and you remember as fondly as I do Lord Belborough and his steam engine Bessie.
But until yesterday, though I’d been on many a steam train, I’d never experienced what it’s like to ride on the footplate. Thanks to train driver Michael and his sidekick Kim, whose role is that of fireman, I got to tick it off my bucket list. Stood between Michael and Kim, I tried to keep my balance and time my barrage of questions to avoid interfering with their safety checks and operational duties. With a carriage-load of passengers on board, even on such a short demonstration trip, it was important that things were done properly.
Teamwork was key, with both volunteers working together to ensure everything ran smoothly. It was hot work. As Kim stoked the firebox with coal, the blast of heat coming from inside was palpable. Kim wiped a smear of coal dust from his nose and grinned as I wiped the sweat from my own forehead. I was glad this was the museum’s 1905 vintage engine when Michael mentioned that had I ridden on the footplate of one of the other two working engines I’d have been much hotter, as the furnace would have been level with our faces instead of by our feet.
Whatever your age, there’s something special about a trip to a railway museum and the chance to see a working steam engine. If you’re reading this and nodding your head in agreement, then I’d recommend you visit the East Anglian Railway Museum at Chappel and Wakes Colne. While riding on the footplate was a special treat, visitors will sometimes be able to take advantage of the museum’s “Taster for a Tenner” promotion where you can learn how to drive a diesel loco for just £10.
This summer, Greater Anglia are making it better than ever to travel by train. For a number of attractions across East Anglia and London, the East Anglian Railway Museum being one of them, presenting your rail ticket gets you 2FOR1 admission. If there’s just two of you, Greater Anglia’s advance fares will also keep your costs down. For larger groups, check out the Group Save tickets, a good deal for families and groups of friends looking for an affordable day out. Even better, Group Save can be used in conjunction with the 2FOR1 offer. With rail tickets for children costing from just £2, arriving at the EARM by train makes a lot of sense. Chappel and Wakes Colne station lies between Sudbury and Marks Tey on the pretty Gainsborough Line. From Marks Tey there are frequent connections to London’s Liverpool Street as well as Ipswich and beyond.
I chose to time my visit to coincide with one of the EARM’s regular special events. The 1940s Vintage Tea Dance marries our nostalgia for the age of steam with a love of music, dance and reminiscing about the war. Headlining the event were the fabulous Fox, Wiggle and Sass. Perfectly co-ordinated in red polka dot dresses, hair coiffed in immaculate victory rolls and lips painted a perfect scarlet, the girls had the Forties look down pat.
Aimee (Fox), Amy (Wiggle) and Gemma (Sass) hail from what they term the Bermuda Triangle of Essex: Layer de la Haye, Finchingfield and Witham. Over the last four years, they’ve been hired for countless weddings and private parties, but coming back to the EARM is special as it was the first gig they ever played. This talented trio made performing the harmonies and melodies of iconic Forties classics like “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” and “It’s a Good Day” as well as swing hits like “Sing Sing Sing” look simple.
Watching them perform was a full house – or rather goods shed – of people, many in 1940s costume themselves. Servicemen danced with WVS volunteers while onlookers sipped tea from vintage china and ate cream teas. Sharon from Swing Jive Sudbury was on hand to teach everyone the basics so even complete beginners could join in the fun.
Also in the goods shed, Bunty Bowring had laid out a fascinating collection of 1940s vintage clothing, showing how in times of rationing, make do and mend were of vital importance. Together with husband Richard, who was dressed as one of the Home Guard, she shares her passion for all things wartime by giving regular talks to various local organisations. Outside the goods shed, meanwhile, members of the Suffolk Regiment Living History Society had brought their rifles, kit bags and even their trucks and The Viaduct mini-pub was open for those wishing to sample the local beer.
The event had been fun, but to leave without exploring the museum’s regular exhibits would have been a travesty. I began at the signal box where a series of colour-coded levers ensured a train couldn’t enter a stretch of track while another was in the way. The blue one shown in use here is pulled to activate a points lock, making sure the points don’t move as the train’s wheels pass over the top. Young kids will love pulling the levers so much it will be hard to drag them away.
Across the footbridge, the restoration shed gives you the chance to see some of the museum’s many engines and carriages being brought back to their former glory. Many of the volunteers work on these projects on Wednesdays, making this a good day to find out about what’s going on. There’s plenty of restored rolling stock to have a look at, including some vintage wooden carriages and recreations of station buildings and platforms.
The exhibitions in the on-site heritage centre explain the impact of Beeching’s cuts on the Gainsborough Line, which once would have continued on to Cambridge. Sudbury’s population grew sufficiently to save the Marks Tey to Sudbury stretch from the same fate. But other long-lost lines are covered too, including the Crab and Winkle Line which ran from nearby Kelvedon to the coast at Tollesbury. Take a walk around Tollesbury Wick and at low tide, you can still see the railway’s wooden sleepers disappearing into the mud.
EARM staff say that visitors often remark on how much there is to see at the museum and I’d have to agree. I made it through the level crossing gates back to the regular platform just in time to catch my train. Whether you time your own visit for an event day or not, you’re sure to have a rewarding and enjoyable day out. The volunteers were without exception keen to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. Best of all, taking the train instead of the car gave me the chance to mull over what I’d seen and done. My verdict: I’m going back – and next time I’m taking a 2FOR1 friend.
With thanks to Greater Anglia for courtesy train travel to and from the museum and to the East Anglian Railway Museum for a great day out.
Greater Anglia’s offers
East Anglian Railway Museum
Fox, Wiggle and Sass
Richard and Bunty Bowring
Suffolk Regiment Living History Society
It’s the people that make a place special. How often have you read that? It’s been written so often it’s a travel cliché. But sometimes it’s also true.
Greater Anglia have a range of offers on rail journeys across the network this summer. To find out more, look at the #lettheadventurebegin video on their website; the address is at the bottom of this blog. They invited me to pick somewhere in the network and in return for a rail ticket, they asked me to blog about my trip. I chose Harwich. I’ll admit that having consulted the timetable, I was a little concerned. To reach Harwich from my starting point necessitated two changes of train and with just a few minutes between each, I anticipated spending half the morning in Manningtree. After all, this wasn’t Switzerland, was it? I needn’t have worried. The trains were punctual, the connections made without even having to power walk and the carriages clean and comfortable. The views as we made our way on the Mayflower Line along the River Stour were the icing on the cake, and I thought what a refreshing change it was not to have to focus on the road and be able to enjoy them.
A ten minute stroll from Harwich Town station and I was already beginning to appreciate the town’s long maritime history. Using a walking trail map I’d found online, I ticked off both the High and Low Lighthouses, the second of three pairs of lighthouses that had been built around here to aid ships’ navigation along the North Sea coast. To ensure they maintained the correct course, the two lights needed to line up, one above the other.
The Treadwell Crane was fascinating too, operated by men walking on the inside of the wheels. I was grateful for the Harwich Society’s comprehensive website, for though an informative sign had been placed near the crane, it had been positioned at the foot of a steep grassy bank. To read it, I’d probably have been best off lying flat on the turf.
Heading along the estuary, I walked past the impressive murals on Wellington Road and doubled back to take a look at the Electric Palace. Built in 1911, there were two entrances, one to access seats costing a shilling, the other a more affordable sixpence. The cinema still holds regular screenings today, though the reminder to patrons to turn off mobile phones is a more recent addition to the signage.
It was time to pop in to The Pier Hotel, right on the quayside. Looking like a little piece of Shoreditch, the hotel was slick, contemporary and on-trend, its staff welcoming. Manager Chris told me that I could find 113 different gins on the NAVYÄRD bar’s drinks menu, and I wondered how long you’d have to stay to work your way through them at what the government would deem an acceptable rate. With the view over the confluence of the Stour and Orwell right in front of the hotel’s terrace, it would be an absolute pleasure, though one which would have to wait for another time. I had a boat to catch, and it wasn’t going to wait.
A foot ferry had connected Harwich to Felixstowe for over a century, but it was under threat of closing for good when Austrian Christian Zemann spotted it was up for sale. Seeing the potential – it’s easily an hour’s drive from Harwich to Felixstowe – he bought the business. Though he’d always dreamed of making his living on the water, he didn’t know Harwich, nor the area which surrounded it. It was a gamble, but one that paid off.
With hard work and a nose for opportunity, Christian has expanded the business, running not only the foot ferry but evening cruises, bicycle rental and seal boat trips as well. In fact, he’s already bought a larger boat, increasing the capacity of the ferry from 12 passengers to 58. The level of commitment Christian has shown is extraordinary. Troubled by the drenching some of his passengers were getting out on deck, he invested £15000 in stabilisers to stop the new boat from tossing and pitching. I’m pleased to report it worked.
Christian’s latest venture, the boat trips to the grey and harbour seals that make their home at nearby Hamford Water, have already proved to be a gold mine. Once down to only a handful in number, there’s now a small but thriving colony of around 70 seals at the reserve. I asked Christian how close he got. “Well, the channel’s pretty narrow, so if I kill the engine, then you can hear them breathe,” he said. That sounded close enough to me.
Back on shore, there was one vessel on the quayside that just couldn’t be ignored, not least because of its scarlet livery. Built in 1958, LV18 was Trinity House’s last manned light vessel before it was retired from service in 1994. But as with the Harbour Ferry, this was a boat that wasn’t going to go quietly, thanks to one man – the ebullient and utterly charming Tony O’Neil. He bought the vessel for a nominal £1 and the Pharos Trust was set up to oversee its restoration. It opened in 2011 as Harwich’s quirkiest visitor attraction.
A musician by trade, Tony has a passion for radio. Visitors to the ship can see some of his extensive collection of antique and vintage radios on board, but with an estimated 1600 in his collection, some remain in storage in the hold. That passion for radio also manifests itself in broadcasting. Tony once worked for Radio Caroline and his enthusiasm for pirate radio is undimmed. The likes of John Peel, Tony Blackburn, Emperor Rosko and Johnnie Walker all broadcast from radio ships anchored just outside UK territorial waters and the tenders that facilitated their commute came from Harwich.
Even the beautiful garden that you see on deck has a musical connection. The scented plants that form part of it are there in homage to John Peel. His 1967 show for pirate station Radio London was named “The Perfumed Garden.” Johnnie Walker is still involved. He’s a patron of the Pharos Trust and will broadcast from LV18 this August.
For anyone keen on maritime history, Tony has preserved some of the cabins on board just as they would have been when the vessel was in use as a lightship. There’s also a chance to see what a pirate radio station would have been like. There’s so much in the way of nautical and radio memorabilia that some have dubbed it a “floating prop shop”. Unsurprisingly, it caught the eye of the production team working on the 2008 movie “The Boat that Rocked” and with a splash of yellow paint for the occasion, doubled as Radio Sunshine.
It is individuals like Christian and Tony that are breathing life into a town that once lay forgotten at the end of the line. Their energy and commitment to this corner of Essex is helping to make Harwich the town that rocks.
Greater Anglia trains:
Harwich Harbour Ferry:
Seal boat trips:
The Pier Hotel:
This, perhaps, wasn’t going to be one of my usual days out. A few days before I was due to fly – out of Stansted at 7am on a Tuesday – an email arrived from Ryanair announcing certain restrictions on the flight.
Amongst other words of caution, it said:
• Customers will not be allowed to carry alcohol on board and all cabin baggage will be searched at the boarding gates.
• Boarding gates will be carefully monitored and customers showing any signs of anti-social behavior or attempting to conceal alcohol will be denied travel without refund or compensation.
For a moment I wondered what I had let myself in for. In the event, though we did have a stag party on board, they were very well behaved and remarkably quiet. The plane was too, empty seats an indication that some of our passengers had fallen victim to one of Stansted’s worst mornings for queues at security I’d ever seen. I’d made the flight in good time and jetted off on time to the hippy isle with a row of three seats to myself.
Arriving slightly ahead of schedule, I picked up a hire car and set off on an itinerary I’d found on the Ibiza Spotlight website. As my main focus of the day was to be a trial of a Sunwise kaftan, I’d originally planned to hole up at one of Ibiza’s stylish beach clubs and chill out all day. In the event, my geographer’s curiosity got in the way and I just couldn’t resist the chance to go exploring, especially up in the north of the island where the agricultural landscape was more verdant and prettier than the south. That said, I needed to be in the sun, so there were going to be plenty of stops.
The first was supposed to be in Santa Eulària des Riu, Ibiza’s third largest resort. Incidentally, road signs are in Catalan, though my map was in Spanish, with this particular resort being Santa Eulalia – mostly the names were similar enough for this not to be confusing. I’d read about an excellent ice cream parlour called Mirreti’s. Reaching the town, I decided it just wasn’t my kind of place: too busy and lacking charm. I drove straight through, headed for Sant Carles de Peralta.
This small village, dominated by a delightful whitewashed church, was the perfect spot for a stroll in the sunshine. There wasn’t much to see, but I’d been tipped off about a cafe called Bar Anita across the road. I spent a pleasant half an hour sipping a cold drink in the warm sunshine, watching the world go by.
Onwards and northwards, as the hire car wound its way around the back lanes following the Cala de Sant Vicenç coast road for a few kilometres before ducking inland across the Serra de la Mala Costa. Turning north at Sant Joan de Labritja, I snaked across country on a tiny lane which led to the resort of Portinatx on the island’s rugged north coast. Smaller than Santa Eulària des Riu but nevertheless a resort, it was more my scene and I had a wander to explore.
Back in the car, I drove back to Sant Joan, this time via the main road and on to my next stop, another village dominated by a magnificent church, Sant Miquel de Balansat. Sited on top of the hill, this whitewashed church is impossible to miss. It’s the second oldest on the island, after the cathedral and like the one in Sant Carles, had three crosses on the front wall, something you’ll see on all the churches on the island, the symbol of Golgotha. The painted chapel walls are very special. This bronze sculpture outside also caught my eye.
But by now, I was getting hungry and so drove the few kilometres to Santa Gertrudis de Fruitera. This was my favourite of all the villages I stopped at, and I feasted on jamon serrano and queso manchego in the sunshine, choosing a spot opposite the church.
Somehow the village managed to hang onto its character despite its popularity with day trippers. I had time to browse in a few boutiques before they closed for a siesta and I hit the road again.
This part of Ibiza is greener than the scrubby south and I drove across the countryside towards Santa Agnès de Corona, known as Santa Ines in Spanish. I passed olive groves, almond trees and orange trees laden with fruit. Ruined windmills completed the agricultural scene.
The road layout here forms a circle, so it as it was such a fine day, I decided to backtrack a bit and go for a short hike. My target was the hidden fishermen’s cove of Es Portitxol, said to be one of the prettiest spots on the island.
The road was in pretty poor shape, so I parked up and picked my way down the lane on foot. When I saw poor shape, it looked like a digger had gone rogue and there were great rifts gouged out of the stones. I wished at that point I’d had on walking boots rather than sandals, as it was hard going. The path did level out for a while and led through a shady forest; alongside were sweeping views over the ocean and towards the cove. Improperly clad, I decided to bail before I ripped my sandal straps, but had I continued, I’d have been rewarded with one of Ibiza’s hidden gems. Ah, next time.
It was time to head into Eivissa, the island’s capital. I’d seen the cathedral and fortifications of its Dalt Vila or old town as I’d passed earlier, and now it was time to explore on foot. Luck was on my side when it came to finding a parking space; yellow spaces reserved for workers become free for anyone who finds them empty after 4pm.
For anyone whose experience of Ibiza is solely the lively mass tourism resorts and club scene, Dalt Vila is the very antithesis: elegant, ancient and impressive. The thick wall and fortifications once protected Eivissa from marauding pirates; now they provide lofty vantage points from which you can admire the Mediterranean and watch the fishing boats bring their catch in, trailing clouds of seagulls in their wake. This defensive settlement dates from the 7th century BC when the Phoenicians founded the city, though the walls themselves are even older.
Today, Dalt Vila is threaded with alleyways and tunnels which, unsigned, invite you to partake of a lucky dip; when you step through the doorway, you might have no idea where you’ll emerge. I popped up in the Plaça d’Espanya for a time. One of the tunnels here was a Civil War refuge; Ibiza was Republican for a time before Franco stepped up his campaign and occupied the island, forcing the Republicans to flee.
In the Plaça d’Espanya traders were setting up a mediaeval fayre which should, according to the road signs, have opened three hours earlier but looked like it was still a while off. From there, I climbed a little further to the cathedral, its fussy architectural details contrasting with the simplicity of the whitewashed churches I’d seen in the villages.
Overlooking the marina, it was a good place to perch on a wall and soak up both the sun and the view. Refreshed, I wandered the streets of the old town for a while before ducking randomly into a tunnel and emerging some considerable way beneath them. I took it as a sign and headed back to the airport.
Outbound: Ryanair STN to IBZ departing 0700 with a scheduled arrival time of 1040 (we were about 20 minutes early)
Inbound: Ryanair IBZ to STN departing 2140 and arriving at 2320 (also early)
Flights available from £19.99 each way.
Car hire with Alamo purchased through the Ryanair website was a little over £30 for the day; airport buses into Eivissa cost 3,50 euros each way.
Have you seen my other blogs on days out by plane? They’re perfect if you are desperate to travel but can’t get the time off you need for a longer trip. You’ll be surprised at how much you can do in a single day. For how to visit Amsterdam, Belfast, Bremen, Budapest, Lisbon, Regensburg and Copenhagen for the day from London, please follow this link:
One of South America’s iconic bucket list activities is to visit the vast Salar de Uyuni. It’s been on my wish list for a while:
This March I finally made it to Uyuni, 22 years after my first trip to Bolivia. On the way, I travelled from Salta along the Quebrada de Humahuaca, one of Argentina’s most attractive areas. A side trip from Tilcara took me to Salinas Grandes, Argentina’s largest salt flat. The two tours were as different as they come, so which was best? Here is my review.
The salt flats
The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. It covers an area over 4000 square miles and sits at an altitude of over 3600 metres above sea level. The crust of what were once prehistoric lakes dries to a thick layer of salt, and the brine which lies underneath it is rich in lithium with something like 50-70% of the world’s known reserves. Even on a day trip, it’s not long before you’ve driven far enough out onto the salt flat to be totally surrounded by a sea of white. Losing your bearings is entirely possible though the position on the horizon of distinctive volcanoes such as Tunupa makes things a little easier.
In contrast, Argentina’s biggest offering is paltry by comparison, though still the second largest in the world. Measuring a little over half the area of its Bolivian neighbour at 2300 square miles, it’s still enormous of course. Like the Salar de Uyuni, it’s a high altitude location, coming in a few hundred metres lower. Salt mining is also a feature of the landscape here and as in Bolivia, you’ll see piles of salt, blocks of dust-striped salt for construction and other industrial activity.
Choosing the tour
Salar de Uyuni tours are big business. It’s firmly on the backpacker trail and the scruffy, dusty town of Uyuni is rammed with operators selling one-day and three-day tours to the flats. I opted for a one-day tour. Having been just across the border in Chile and seen some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, I didn’t feel the need to spend hours in a cramped 4X4 to do the same in Bolivia. Three-day tours offer basic accommodation and rudimentary facilities; the days of cold showers and BYO sleeping bags are long behind me. I opted for a mid-range tour with a respectable outfit called Red Planet Expeditions, booking online via Kanoo Tours at a cost of $83. (It is cheaper to book when you arrive but I didn’t want to have to hang around so was prepared to pay the extra few dollars to arrange my tour in advance.) Even this, one of the better companies, had mixed reviews, so I figured if I had a poor experience for a day I’d be happier than if I’d opted for the longer tour.
The nearest tourist base to the Salinas Grandes is at Tilcara, the other side of a mountain from the salt flats. I found a highly regarded tour operator called Caravana de Llamas which offer a range of llama trekking tours, opting for a tour that spent a few hours walking out to the salt flats. The tour itself was excellent value at $65 per person, minimum two people. However, this doesn’t include transport. You’ll either need a rental car to cross the mountain pass (it’s a good road) or a car with driver. Caravana de Llamas can arrange this for you for 1500 Argentinian pesos per car (rates correct as at March 2017) which is reasonable for a car load but expensive for a solo traveller.
The tour: Bolivia
Choosing to visit in wet season, the Bolivian tours cannot reach Incahuasi Island which is a fair distance across the salt flats (and home to giant cacti). I’d been sent information requesting that I check in to the Red Planet office at 9am for a departure by 10am. On arrival, I was told we’d actually be leaving at 11am. On departure we were a convoy of three vehicles with one guide between us. The car was in good condition; judging from the reviews this isn’t always the case. The driver was pleasant enough, though he spoke no English which may be a problem for some. There were five travellers per car, but this can be six or seven which would have been cramped. Two at least have to sit on the back seat and there, the windows do not open. My fellow travellers were a pleasant bunch, though much younger than me. I wasn’t as keen as the others on having the music turned right up, making it very hard to talk, but everyone else seemed happy. The guide, Carlos, split his time between the three vehicles. I didn’t take to him, finding him obnoxious and arrogant, so I was pleased we didn’t have to have him in the car very much. I had several concerns about his attitude and behaviour (some shared with other members of the group). I contacted Red Planet for their comment but have yet to receive a reply two weeks later. It’s not appropriate to go into details here but I would hesitate to book with this company again if they couldn’t guarantee the guide would be different.
The tour allocated a great deal of time to the train cemetery – which had the potential to be a fantastic place to visit if you don’t time it to coincide with the 30+ 4X4s which stop there on the way to the salt flats each morning. Having woken to clear skies, the clouds had rolled in by the time we arrived which was frustrating given how close the site was to the town. There was also a lengthy stop in the village of Colchani where we visited a salt factory (just a room where not much was going on except for attempts to flog us bags of salt) and where we were given lunch of lukewarm chicken, stone-cold rice or cold potatoes plus a delicious apple pie. Eventually we reached the salt flat itself and the scenery at that point took over. In wet season the reflections in the water are a crowd-pleaser and it wasn’t a disappointment. What was a pity was the lack of thought given to pre-departure information. As requested I’d come prepared with sun cream, but no one had thought to tell us we’d need flip-flops for the salt flats. It wasn’t just a case of getting our feet wet, more that the crust is sharp and uncomfortable to walk on. I ended up in socks which was better than going barefoot but still unpleasant.
Later, we drove to a drier part of the salt flats for the famous perspective photos. These were cheesy, clearly well rehearsed (we did the same poses as every group I’m sure) but a fun souvenir. The guide did take the photos, which was kind of him, so those on their own could participate. Afterwards we had an enforced and quite lengthy stop near a monument. I think it was included to enable us to arrive at the edge of the salt flats in time for sunset, though it felt like time-wasting. Six out of the fifteen travellers in our cars had overnight buses to catch and were very worried they’d miss them. Given we were all filthy dirty and covered in salt, they’d have needed time to clean themselves up before boarding. The rest of us had what turned out to be quite a rushed sunset photo stop. However, we were dropped off at the Colchani salt hotels on the edge of the salt flat. This was a bonus; if we’d have had to return to Uyuni and then take a taxi, this would have added an hour at least as well as the additional cost of transport.
All in all I felt that the wow-factor of the salt flats themselves redeemed the day. The guide was a big negative, but I was told it wasn’t possible to go deep into the salt flat without one. Walking from the salt hotels to the edge of the salt flats wouldn’t have given me the same experience, so although this was one of the worst tours I’ve taken in years, I’m still glad I did it. But even more relieved I didn’t opt for the three-day tour.
The tour: Argentina
I was sent a reconfirmation email the day before my tour to ensure I knew that the driver would be on time; in fact he was early when he arrived at my hotel in Tilcara. The car was almost brand new and spotlessly clean. Another traveller had cancelled so I had a private tour. Jose Luis the driver was friendly, courteous and knowledgeable, as well as being safe over the mountain pass. I was offered several stops at viewpoints to enable me to take some great scenery shots as we climbed above the clouds. Arriving at the tiny village of Pozo Colorado, llama handler and guide Santiago was ready, welcoming and cheerful. Jose Luis joined us for the first part of the trek to ensure I was comfortable leading a llama and then joined us later at the salt flats.
Walking with the llamas was fun. Oso and Paco were well behaved and to my relief didn’t spit. From time to time Santiago told me a bit about the llamas, the scenery and the way of life up there on the Argentine Puna, but he also knew when to let me enjoy the silence and serenity of the place. The trek was easy, over flat terrain, and when we arrived at the edge of the salt flats, there was time for me to wander off and take photos while lunch was prepared. A picnic table had been set up loaded with delicious food: local goats’ cheese, llama meat, ham sandwiches, salad and more. There was plenty to go around. Jose Luis joined us for lunch and the inclusion of a third person made chatting easier as he was bilingual.
After lunch, the llamas had rested and we walked onto the salt flats for some souvenir photos. Afterwards, Jose Luis drove me to some of the industrial workings a short distance away. There wasn’t a lot of activity going on, though as with Bolivia, I did see the piles of salt “bricks” and also heaps of mined salt. By the time we’d driven back over the mountain the tour was a similar length to that taken in Bolivia, arriving in Tilcara late afternoon.
If I’d have visited Bolivia before Argentina, I’d have probably been disappointed with this tour. The scenery just didn’t have that sense of scale that gave it the bucket list wow. However, as an activity, walking with llamas was a lot of fun and I felt that Santiago had gone to a lot of trouble to make me feel comfortable and, despite his basic English, to put the scenery in context. I was left wanting more and would definitely book with Caravana de Llamas again if I returned to the area.
Both tours were worth doing but very different. The Argentinian tour was very civilised and the llamas incredibly cute. Regular readers of this blog will know how much I adore these fluffy creatures. The people involved worked hard to ensure I was well-looked after. In contrast, the Bolivian tour encompassed my worst nightmares with a bossy, inflexible guide and yet – the scenery was so incredible that I’d still do it again.
Expectations are key. In Uyuni, there doesn’t seem to be a single operator winning consistently excellent reviews. In this respect, having a horrible guide but a good driver and a vehicle that didn’t break down was the best option – if there’s a weak link, at least your safety isn’t compromised. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to take a backpacker-style tour, so perhaps I’m out of the habit of being herded around – and it’s no surprise to those readers who know me to hear that I don’t like being told what to do.
Perhaps taking a budget option in Bolivia would have been the way to go: there were day trips for under $40, half the price I paid, and given how poor the guiding and the lunch were, maybe it would make the tour seem better value. However, I certainly wouldn’t recommend taking a basic tour for the three-day option as the mileage covered is considerable and the area remote. I heard good reports about the scenery from a private Dutch group, but having seen similar (better?) in the more accessible Chile a couple of years ago, I don’t regret my choice to cut out the mountain lakes and volcanoes.
So – which tour? Tough decision: I’ll call it a draw! Have you taken either tour? What were your impressions?
Footnote: I paid for both tours myself; all opinions expressed are my own.
What next after the German Christmas markets? Germany’s legendary Christmas markets draw the crowds each winter and rightly so. As I found out when I visited the Bavarian city of Regensburg a couple of weeks ago, they’re atmospheric, colourful and every bit as good as people say they are. You can read about the trip here:
So how do you top that? With a visit to Copenhagen: take the German Christmas market model, swap the Glühwein for a glass of gløgg and add a healthy dash of hygge.
Best of all, if you haven’t the time or the cash to go for longer, it’s possible to visit the Danish capital for the day. It was my second trip to the city. The first was back in the days when the cheapest way to reach Copenhagen was to fly to another country. That wasn’t quite as daft as it sounds, as the airport in question was Malmö’s in nearby Sweden, a fast train ride across the Øresund Bridge. This time, I flew direct to CPH, leaving Luton after watching the sunrise on the 8.40am flight. Ryanair uses satellite terminal F which is a long walk from the main terminals. Factor in a five to ten minute walk just to get across the airport and don’t expect a travelator.
From the airport it’s about a fifteen minute train ride into central station, with plenty of English speaking staff at the airport to help out at the ticket machines. I opted for a 24 hour travelcard (not to be confused with the expensive Copenhagen Card) which cost 80 DKK. As it turned out, I walked more than I’d intended, but had I chosen to cover more ground, the card would have been valid for unlimited journeys in the city centre by train, metro and bus. By just after midday, I was in the city.
Now like I said, I’ve been to Copenhagen before, so this blog isn’t going to be reviewing the Amelienborg Palace or the Little Mermaid. This time, I was focused solely on Christmas. Emerging from the station coffee in hand, the Tivoli theme park was right across the street and impossible to miss. I decided to save it until the end of the day and instead walked the short distance to Axeltorv Square. My first Julemarked of the day was a small affair, a cluster of stalls all bearing the names of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories. It was a little underwhelming, just a few stalls selling items like sheepskin rugs, warm hats and Christmas decorations.
A few minutes from Axeltorv Square, a rather large wooden pig caught my eye. Behind it was a wooden Christmas tree which looked to be made out of broken up pallets or something like that. A few huts made out of the same material formed a crescent around them. This was a Julemarked with a difference, focused on recycling, a statement about the excesses of this festive holiday. But it wasn’t preachy: instead it embraced the spirit of Christmas on the cheap.
The huts all offered a way to help out with the expense of present-buying. There was a Swap Shop where you could leave an unwanted gift and in return got to choose something for yourself. A woodworker’s hut provided tools and off cuts for those who wished to be creative and make a gift. The lady running the plant hut gave me a small packet of tomato seeds which I shall plant when I work out when’s the best time. The largest hut of all was a recycling “factory”. Inside, piles of yarn, card and other craft materials were piled alongside glue guns. Several people were making table top Christmas trees, but what made this unusual was that most of them were adults rather than children. What a great idea!
Next up was a stroll along Strøget to the wonderful department store Illums Bolighus. This amazing store is a mecca for any devotee of Scandi-style and its products, though expensive, are the stuff of envy. Every display could have held its own in a fancy homes and interiors magazine. The question was not whether to buy, but what to leave behind. Illums Bolighus, if you’re reading this, open a store in London won’t you? I promise I’d keep you in profit.
A few doors down from paradise at the end of the street, was another Christmas market. The entrance was marked by a wall of Christmas trees ready to go home and the market itself housed more food and drink stalls than any other market. At the sausage stall, a man munched on a hot sausage in a roll. At his feet was a dog. It sat, as motionless as if it was doing the Mannequin Challenge, eyes fixed on his master’s hand. Tiny drops of saliva dripped from the wet fur around his mouth and puddled on the floor. Finally, the man was finished, save for the last half inch of sausage, which of course the dog had as a reward for his patience.
There was still more to come. Straddling a pathway opposite the beautifully decorated Hotel D’Angleterre, the Kongens Nytorv market was probably the busiest of those I visited. Located between Nyhavn and Strøget, a fat queue of tourists wound its way between stalls selling everything from churros to ham hocks, night lights to sheepskin slippers. There were craft stalls and of course, many more gløgg huts. The crowds were frustrating and as it was still daylight, the life size polar bear models looked tacky. I would return that way after dark, when they were illuminated and looked better for it.
Through Kongens Nytorv and out the other side I breathed a sigh of relief to have wriggled free of the crowd. Fortunately, I was only a stone’s throw from Nyhavn and yet another market. I sat on the quayside enjoying a glass of gløgg – not too fussed on the addition of blanched almonds but the raisins were a welcome find at the bottom of the glass. If you’re not sure if you’ll like it, ask for a free taste.
This time I decided to have a bit of food before exploring the market. I found that the further down the quay I walked, the lower the prices were for comparable dishes. A huge plate of roast pork with crackling with red cabbage and potatoes later, I had a browse round the stalls. Hopefully my husband isn’t reading this but I did come home with a very soft and fluffy cushion cover. (I am kind of banned from buying more cushion covers. It’s become a bit of a thing.) Sunset was spectacular, casting a pretty pink glow over the harbour side buildings.
As night fell, there was one more Julemarked that I wanted to see before I left and one that was worthy of the long queue outside. Yes, the queue was round the block. What did I expect on a Saturday night? Tivoli opened in 1843, making it the world’s second oldest theme park (the other is in Denmark too, but much less famous). Tivoli is expensive, with a hefty entrance fee of around £15 just to get in (the rides are extra) but it is such a charming place during the run up to Christmas that it’s worth it.
There was plenty to see, both in terms of the theme park itself – I loved the carousel – but also in terms of independent retailers and the range of food stalls. The temperature had slumped well below freezing though by this point and with so many people packed into the huts and restaurants, there were very few places where I could escape that intense cold. The lights and decorations kept me going for a while – they were superb – but by 8pm I was really feeling it despite being properly kitted out in thick padded jacket, scarf and gloves. It was time to grab a cup of cocoa from the station cafe and return to the airport in plenty of time for my 10pm flight home.
I ♥ Copenhagen
I’ve washed the smell of wood smoke out of my hair and a couple of Ibuprofen have sorted out the backache, for now at least. My latest day trip was the longest yet, but proof yet again that you don’t need to overnight to enjoy a rewarding experience over in continental Europe. This time, I had my sights set on Germany’s famous Christmas markets.
This month’s destination, hot on the heels of Budapest, Bremen, Belfast, Lisbon and Amsterdam which have previously featured on this blog, took me to Nuremberg. A flash sale on Ryanair’s website netted me return flights to the Bavarian city for the princely sum of £4.08 all in. The offer was one with limited availability, not only in terms of seats but also in validity, solely for flights on Tuesdays or Wednesdays in November. Such offers come up quite often and it’s worth subscribing to Ryanair’s email alerts if you’re within easy reach of Stansted. I also saved money on my airport parking by purchasing it through the Holiday Extras website which saved me over a fiver. My 7.35am flight from Stansted was on time and we touched down shortly after 10.15am.
I made use of the Bayern ticket which I’d learnt about on a trip to Munich. The ticket’s valid for a day from 9am to 3am the next day which gives plenty of time for sightseeing. It offers unlimited travel throughout Bavaria on all trains except ICE, IC and EC (so basically excludes high speed trains) as well as city transport in many of the larger cities. The cost? A flat fare of 23 euros if bought from a ticket machine, 25 euros if bought from a kiosk. Unfortunately there’s no train service from Nuremberg airport which means no DB ticket machines (a U-bahn service operates instead with a fare of 3 euros for a ticket with 90 minutes’ validity) so I had to buy the Bayern ticket at the Airport Information desk for the higher price. As it covers the U-bahn that was still the cheapest way of doing it.
It wasn’t long before I was in Regensburg and my first stop was the Neupfarrplatz Christkindlmarkt. Most German Christmas markets get underway on 25th November this year, but Regensburg’s begin a couple of days earlier. The market was well underway at midday, a mix of traditional market stalls and refreshment huts. Next I checked out the Lucrezia Craft Market, though that was still being set up. There were some stalls that had limited wares on display, the likes of sheepskin clothing, wood carvings and handmade silver jewellery. To reach the third of Regensburg’s markets I needed to cross the old stone bridge at the Spitalgarten. Again, setting up was in progress but the walk was a pretty one and there were sheep waiting in the wings to coo over.
I crossed back over the Danube for a lunch stop at the Regensburg Sausage Kitchen, one of the oldest restaurants in Germany. Prices were reasonable and they did takeaway, though even at the end of November, it was warm enough in the sunshine to eat at one of its picnic tables.
The main focus of my visit was the Christmas market at the Thurn und Taxis Palace. Regensburg’s Old Town has hundreds of listed buildings but this palace and its grounds are the jewel in the crown. The Christmas market is more than just a market, with live music and even visiting alpacas and camels. The latter obviously play a role in the Christmas story but I think the alpacas were just there as a crowd-pleaser; certainly every time I held up the camera, they turned their heads and posed!
But let’s get down to business: this is no ordinary market. Princess Gloria from Thurn und Taxis apparently is pretty hands-on with the organisation of the market and I did see a couple of elegant, well-dressed women who might have been her. The market, less well known outside Germany than the likes of Munich’s markets for instance, attracts a mainly local crowd, though it’s definitely worth making the journey for.
The market attracts artisans not just from Germany, but from surrounding countries such as Austria as well. The man selling delicious hot cheese bread had made the journey from the Voralberg and the journey had done his cheese no harm at all. It was cheap, filling and almost worth the market’s 6,50 entrance fee in itself.
As darkness fell, the market took on a magical atmosphere. Open fires and strings of fairylights added to the romance of the market and there were plenty of stalls to browse. It’s at dusk when you really start to appreciate the attention to detail. Stallholders decorate their huts with freshly cut branches from pines, spruces and firs: the smells as well as the aesthetics are something to savour.
The good thing about not having to pay for accommodation is that there was plenty of cash in the budget that could be used for souvenir shopping instead: I was spoilt for choice amongst a wide selection of products including sheepskin rugs, rustic Christmas ornaments, clothing and handcrafted metal ware.
The palace itself, larger than Buckingham Palace, looked spectacular as the lights came on. At six, a pair of trumpeters heralded the official start to the festivities, followed by a choir and costumed soloists. The balcony overlooking the main courtyard provided the perfect staging.
Eventually, it was time to wander back to the station for a train to take me back to Nuremberg. The seven hours I’d spent in this delightful city was plenty to enjoy it without rushing. My flight departed more or less on time at 10.35pm; I’d landed and cleared immigration well before midnight UK time.
I’m already planning my next day out to a European Christmas market – but this time, I’m off to Copenhagen and I’ll be blogging about it next month.