juliamhammond

Day trips

Gorillas lite: up close with the chimps of Kibale Forest

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in the south west of Uganda is one of the few places in the world that you can see mountain gorillas, the others being just across the border in DR Congo (currently on the FCO no-go list) and Rwanda. These aren’t the gorillas you’ll maybe have seen in zoos – those are lowland gorillas – as mountain gorillas can’t cope in such environments. Less than 800 of these magnificent creatures remain in the wild and about half of them are found in Uganda.

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Lowland gorilla in Port Lympne safari park, Kent

I was really keen to include a primate tracking safari as part of my Uganda itinerary but knew from what I’d read online and from what others had told me that I just wasn’t physically fit enough to do a gorilla trek.  Bwindi Impenetrable Forest truly lives up to its name (well, almost). The hike, which research indicated could take anything from one to seven hours depending on where the gorillas were that day, was likely to involve the thin air of high altitude, steep uphill climbs and trails wet and slippery with mud. Last April, a 63 year old French tourist lost his life after collapsing with a heart attack on the way back. Though Trip Advisor is full of gung-ho reports about porters and assistance, I decided that realistically, it wasn’t for me. Oh, and it would cost $600 in permits, though admittedly that’s a whole lot cheaper than the $1500 you’d pay across the border in Rwanda.

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Grooming

Fortunately for me, Uganda’s primate tourism doesn’t begin and end with gorillas. While I was looking into a gorilla trek, I came across a chimpanzee tracking experience that seemed the perfect fit for me. I’d get to see primates up close but the trek, across the relatively flat forest floor of Kibale Forest, shouldn’t be anywhere near as tough. I put together a customised itinerary with car and driver provided by Roadtrip Uganda and they sourced a permit for me. It’s not wise to leave the purchase of permits until you arrive as they are strictly limited in number and you may be disappointed if they’ve sold out.

Tip: to further minimise the need for a long hike, opt for an afternoon tracking slot.

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Chimps are exceptionally good climbers

As I had opted to stay overnight in Fort Portal and planned to spend the morning driving around the area’s crater lakes, I opted for an afternoon permit which would give us plenty of time to drive south to Kibale Forest. This turned out to be a wise idea. Groups go out in the morning and when the rangers come back to base, they report back on where the troops of chimps have been spotted. There’s no guarantee that they’ll have stayed put, of course, but I was told that there’s usually less walking involved in the afternoon excursions as a result. The downside is that temperatures do increase as the day wears on, though in the shade of the forest this isn’t as big an issue as you might first think.

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Chimps share 98% of our DNA

Our group of six met at the park office for a short briefing before our own drivers took us to the part of the forest that had been chosen as the start point for our tracking experience. Accompanying us were a ranger and also an armed guard; in the event of elephants or buffalo encroaching too close to the group, the latter would fire warning shots in the air. Before we gave our drivers a few hours off, there was another briefing. No one would be allowed to trek if unwell, the group should remain at least 8 metres from the chimps at all times and most important of all, we were told to tuck our trousers into our socks to avoid being bitten by ants. Photography was encouraged but we were to turn off the flash to avoid startling the chimps.

Three whoops of chimps (that’s the collective noun!) in Kibale Forest were habituated, that is, they’re used to being close to humans. Others are left alone. We set off in search of one of them, Benson our ranger encouraging us to hurry so we could reach the spot before they moved deeper into the forest. The pace wasn’t actually too fast, largely because we were picking our way over buttress roots and ducking under forest vegetation. Benson told us that the “hoo hoo hoo” sound we could hear was chimps calling to each other and that they were close.

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The initial group

I was thrilled when we came across the first group of four – three adults and a baby – after only about fifteen minutes of walking. Benson arranged us so that we’d have a clear line of sight to the chimps without getting too close. We were the only group at that point, so the six of us enjoyed an intimate encounter and it was truly a delight. Though the baby had climbed a tree, too unsure to remain on the ground so close to us, the three adults weren’t fazed at all. Two were too focused on grooming each other to acknowledge our existence while the other rolled onto his back and closed his eyes for a snooze.

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Time for a snooze

The chimpanzee tracking permit had cost $150, considerably less than that of the gorilla encounter, but still a significant amount of money. But at that point, it was worth every cent. About five to ten minutes later, another group caught us up. Benson asked us to move on so that the chimps would not be overwhelmed. We did so and and after a few minutes came across a larger group.

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It’s a real privilege to be so close to the chimps

Once again, watching their behaviour was fascinating. These creatures share 98% of our DNA and many of the mannerisms are uncannily similar. We watched, transfixed, as they ate fruit, chased each other in play and swung from the canopy high above our heads. We saw their nests high in the canopy – the chimps overnight in these but prefer to hang out on the forest floor during the day. Generally speaking, it was a pleasure to be so close. The loud chatter and screams as they approached was a bit intimidating – as it was intended to be, I guessed. I think I’d watched too many Planet of the Apes films to have been entirely comfortable at this point, but Benson calmly explained what was happening and pointed out where they were which made me feel safer, particularly when they had us surrounded.

After the initial delight of seeing the chimps, I began to notice how different each were from the others. One was a proper porker – we were told he was vying for the alpha male spot and thought his extra weight might help. Some of the older chimps in the family were going grey, or balding. The youngsters, true to type, were mucking about and being put in their place by their elders. And the baby, well he was just too cute. We saw a female in oestrus, and then a bit of chimp sex up a tree after she parked her baby on the branch next to her while she got it on with her potential baby daddy. Sadly, light levels in the forest weren’t sufficient to get it on film but that’s probably just as well.

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Letting it all hang out!

In all, we spent around an hour with the chimps before Benson led us on a trek out of the forest back to the ranger station. This was at a very leisurely pace, with plenty of stops to point out types of trees, birds, monkeys and butterflies. The tracking activity that I booked in Kibale Forest has about a 95% success rate of spotting chimps. This is nature, of course, and nothing is guaranteed. In all, we saw about 25 chimps. The permit cost me $150, which included entrance to Kibale National Park for 24 hours.

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The adults were well habituated though the babies were a little unnerved by our presence

You can also try your luck spotting chimps at Budongo Forest Reserve in the northwest of the country, those living in the Kyambura Gorge at Queen Elizabeth National Park in te south and also at the Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve near the Congolese border. To spend longer, a chimpanzee habituation experience is offered, where visitors can spend all day in the forest shadowing researchers. This costs $200 for foreign visitors; on the Uganda Wildlife Authority website it does state half-day habituation experiences were available for $100 but I was told this was not the case. For a full price list, including prices for other areas, please use this link:

http://www.ugandawildlife.org/images/pdfs/UWA-Tariff-2018-2019.pdf


Review of Nile Horseback Safaris

“Oli otya!”

My greeting, freshly learned, typically resulted in a surprised face, followed by a torrent of incomprehensible words in Luganda, the language of Uganda. The villagers that responded could have been saying anything. It was as if I was participating in a kind of verbal line dance in which everyone knew the steps except me. I trusted they were repeating the familiar pattern of “hello, how are you?” that I’d been led to expect.

“Cale!” I replied, I’m fine.

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Fortunately, passing astride a horse at a slow but steady pace, by the time I’d uttered the final response I was some way down the trail and thus unlikely to be troubled by a continuation of the conversation. Francis, my guide, was effusive in his praise, commenting on the accuracy of my pronunciation, though obviously not on the extent of my vocabulary. As he’d been the one who’d taught me earlier that morning, I echoed the compliment.

A couple of hours earlier, I’d made the short journey out of Jinja, a pleasant town famed for being at the source of the Nile. English explorer and army officer John Hanning Speke had made his way here in 1863, searching for the beginning of the world’s longest river. Noting a spring that rose from an outlet of Lake Victoria, he staked a claim, sending a telegram that said simply:

“The Nile is settled.”

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The claim was disputed, however, largely due to a lack of corroborating evidence and competing egos. Speke died in 1864, receiving posthumous recognition for his discovery in the latter part of the 1870s after Henry Stanley mounted his own expedition and proved Speke had been right all along. Things are considerably easier in the 21st century, with a memorial to Speke in the grounds of the Living Waters Resort and a blue and white marker located prominently (though inconveniently) in the middle of the river. Disputes over the source of the Nile continue, however, with many differing theories as to which bit of water lies furthest from the Nile Delta over four thousand miles to the north. The very visible spring bubbling up at the outlet from the lake at Jinja adds credibility to this particular claim.

Kitted out for my own, much more modest expedition in helmet and half chaps, I’d set off on a horseback trek. A series of mounting blocks at different heights made it easy to mount JD, a sturdy horse with a calm temperament that boss TJ had selected for me. The path we took soon led us through the village of Naminya. A succession of little children tottered about in the dust, their older siblings busy in the classroom. As we approached, they waved enthusiastically.

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“How are you?” they trilled, giggling with delight at my response, “I’m fine, thank you. How are you?”

“I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine! I’m fine!!!” The singsong chorus was one that would become familiar wherever I went.

The sound of their voices faded to a whisper as the horses continued further along the dirt track. Such small children had much more freedom here. Passing bodas aside, there was little to trouble their safety. In any case, these motorcycle taxis hooted a warning as they passed and even at this tender age, the tots knew to stand back. We continued on, the horses’ hooves kicking up the compacted terracotta earth which passed for a road. The same mud held together by thin branches and topped with rusting sheets of corrugated iron provided rudimentary shelters. Those who could afford it upgraded to brick built dwellings, the uneven blocks fired in crudely constructed kilns that belched acrid smoke.

We passed the village well. Two women chatted idly as they pumped water into faded yellow plastic cans. Effortlessly, they swung the weighty loads onto their heads and strode off in the direction of home. They made it look deceptively easy. A man passed us, carrying a sizeable bunch of green plantains, the staple of the Ugandan dish matooke. What we call a bunch is merely a hand; this was a stalk crammed with the fruit and weighed a ton.

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Soon afterwards, we encountered a woman in a fuchsia pink blouse and skirt making light work of an equally heavy sack on her head, and, more unusually, a lighter bag in her hand. Along the track, three sheep tugged at the ropes that tethered them in a yard shaded by banana trees. Next to them was a roughly constructed wood and rusted iron shelter that in no small measure resembled a bucking bronco.

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The ride took us through plantations and lush countryside. Francis turned and said:

“Julia, if you’d like to pick up the pace tell me and we can trot.”

In the warm sun, though, I was content to walk, the lazy rhythm far too relaxing to interrupt. Out of practice – it had been a year since I was in the saddle – I wriggled uncomfortably in the saddle. The tightly zipped chaps gripped my chunky calves and numbed my feet. JD plodded on, patiently accepting the fidgety novice on his back without complaint. Every so often, I freed a foot from the stirrup and rotated my ankle. Francis continued to lead the way at a steady, manageable pace, glancing over his shoulder at regular intervals to make sure I was OK. I was. Even when his horse spooked a little at some cows beside the road, JD was reassuringly composed.

We looped round, passing verdant fields planted with crops. I was getting stiff, my body unused to the saddle. Ready to return, my interest suddenly piqued as the Nile came into view and all aches and stiffness was forgotten. Across the grass, in a gap between the trees, a glimpse of blue appeared. Francis led us to a clearing, from which the sliver opened up into a broad swathe of water.

“Would you like me to take a photo, Julia?” he asked.

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I nodded, and manoeuvred the horse with some difficulty so that I faced the camera yet avoided coming a cropper down the steep river bank. Photo session concluded, we headed off along the trail following the river bank. So high above the river, one slip would send me tumbling down to the water, crashing through bushes and trees on the way. Once again I was relieved that JD’s calm disposition meant I could trust him not to stumble, leaving me free to enjoy the view from the saddle. Soon, the gate to the property came into view and it was time to dismount.

About Nile Horseback Safaris

Nile Horseback Safaris is an established riding business well run by TJ, an Aussie expat, and his Kiwi partner. A number of rides are offered, the most popular being the 1.5 and 2 hour rides that combine village trails with river views. These suit most riders as the pace is relatively gentle, but complete novices may prefer the one hour ride. Longer safaris are available for more experienced riders.

It’s a very professional set up and one which receives consistently positive reviews. Horses are well looked after, safety is paramount and helmets are provided. To ensure that the horses are as comfortable as their riders, a strict weight limit is enforced – check the website for details if like me, you are on the heavy side. The mounting blocks make it easy to get on and off the horses and TJ’s policy of sending out two guides with each group – one leading and one at the rear – ensures that if a rider was experiencing any difficulties, assistance could be given promptly.

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I’d like to thank TJ for providing a complimentary ride but would hasten to point out that all views expressed are my own. I was very impressed, both with the set up and the scenery, and would happily recommend Nile Horseback Safaris to anyone looking for an alternative way of viewing the Nile and Ugandan countryside. This is slow travel at its best.


A January daycay: just the thing to banish those winter blues

Do you suffer from the winter blues? If you do, this month’s hell. Without Christmas lights to lift the spirits – excepting the neighbour whose outdoor tree will be a beacon of defiant brightness until the temperatures rise in the spring – the long hours of darkness can seem endless. If there’s a rare blue sky to tempt us to take a walk (it’s free and healthy after all!) it’s accompanied by a merciless cold north wind that defies the toughest hat, gloves and winter coat combo. The Arctic has nothing on the damp, seeping cold that whips off the North Sea in January while I’m stood waiting for the dog to finish his interminable sniffing. The sales are on, but there’s no longer anything worth buying, and even if there were, we couldn’t be persuaded to drag ourselves off our sagging sofas to investigate, such is the pervasive lethargy that blights January. Yet throughout this, our TV screens are awash with adverts featuring smiling families in sun-drenched locations having the holiday of a lifetime. It’s like a parallel universe, designed to torment us while we wait for our January paychecks and lament how our less than perfect life fails to measure up to that depicted by TUI.

Yesterday I escaped from all that, just for the day.

Despite living out on the Essex coast, it’s an easy run into London thanks to the swift and reliable service from Greater Anglia trains. This time, in preparation for the day ahead, I made a point of stopping by the Kelvedon station book exchange to pick up some reading material. It’s not often I have the luxury of curling up with a book on a working day, so this would be a real treat.

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It was bliss. I spent the day trialling a new concept, a daycay, and it was just the thing to banish those winter blues. My day stay at the stylish Trafalgar St James in the heart of Central London had been arranged by DayBreak Hotels. They specialise in providing accommodation that would otherwise go to waste. Think about it: occupancy rates are lower than average in the UK at this time of year. Factor in that many people check out early and check in late, and you have hours and hours in between where those beautiful hotel rooms sit empty.

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In the award-winning and recently refurbished Trafalgar St James, I was allocated a junior suite, complete with a comfy sofa looking out over a sunny Trafalgar Square and an even comfier bed promising to help rid my face of the grey skin and black circles that had settled in over Christmas. Watching from above the pillow was a black and white photograph of a youthful looking Mick Jagger, one of many in the hotel to be taken by acclaimed celeb photographer Dave Hogan.

The room was thoughtfully equipped, the attention to detail marking it as one of Hilton’s prestigious Curio Collection properties. Waiting for me, I found a Nespresso coffee machine, a book on London’s curiosities and a selection of glossy magazines, as well as a plate of melt-in-the-mouth macarons beside a welcome note.

There were a selection of Molton Brown toiletries lined up in the spotless bathroom and a couple of inviting dressing gowns hanging in the wardrobe. This was like a home away from home, but unlike home, I didn’t feel guilty that I wasn’t doing the hoovering or clearing away the dishes.

You might expect that as you’ve only checked in for six hours you might not be treated with the same respect as an overnight guest, but you’d be wrong. Every interaction I had with the hotel’s staff, from the receptionist to the restaurant servers, emphasised the close attention paid to customer service. I was offered a tour of the hotel, the highlight of which was enjoying the views from the rooftop terrace. The rooftop spaces make great entertainment venues; if I wasn’t a freelancer I’d already be bombarding my boss with emails about where to hold next year’s Christmas party.

I was also invited to see one of the suites that used to be one of Cunard’s corporate offices. The Landseer Suite was occupied, a minor disappointment as this was the boardroom where Cunard first received word of the sinking of the ill-fated Titanic. Next door, I did get to look around the Barry Suite, its original woodpanelling preserved under a coat of contemporary matt grey paint. It managed to be grand without being stuffy, the kind of place that makes you want to pop in to John Lewis on the way home to buy a few more cushions to spruce up your own place.

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The hotel strives to be innovative – there’s not a hint of a bland, corporate hotel chain here. I found that also to be the case with afternoon tea. The dining room will shortly close for refurnishment, but the untrained eye would never guess. I was presented first with a menu of teas from the Tregothnan Estate in Cornwall. I had no idea that we even grew tea in this country and made a mental note to check that place out next time I was in the West Country. My question – was the rose tea better, or the red berry? – was met with the best possible answer – why not try both? (I did, and they were both a treat.)

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The savoury treats were presented next, each accompanied by the Molton Brown scent that had inspired them. Coastal Cypress & Sea Fennel was represented by a slice of compressed cucumber topped with pieces of fennel crisp. Carpaccio of Denham Vale beef with pink peppercorn gel on sourdough toast exemplified Fiery Red Pepper. Following this were scones with jam and clotted cream, pleasantly warm and surprisingly filling. The patisserie was equally as inventive. A rose and rhubarb pastille was bursting with flavour and a mouthwatering prosecco sabayon with watermelon and berries decidedly moreish. My favourite Molton Brown aroma, orange and bergamot, came in the form of a chocolate and Earl Grey eclair topped with tiny strips of candied orange.

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There was barely a crumb left by the time I’d finished. Had I not been in public, I’d have been tempted to lick the plate. With an hour and a half left on the clock, I chose to return to my room for a profligate nap. London, with its galleries and museums and countless other attractions, would have to wait. After all, it’s not every day a girl can say she fell asleep under the watchful gaze of Mick Jagger, is it?

About DayBreak Hotels

Daybreak Hotels offer a range of properties in destinations across Europe, the Americas, the UAE and Australia. The daycay concept is a clever one, with daytime and evening slots available. Same day and advanced booking as well as special offers can be found on their website:

https://www.daybreakhotels.com/GB/en-GB

There are so many reasons why you might book a hotel for the day instead of the night – perhaps you’re looking for a comfortable place to shower and change before a posh night out on the town or somewhere to relax before an evening at the theatre. Perhaps like me, you’re tempted by the promise of an indulgent afternoon tea or need a winter pick-me-up without the expense of a full-on holiday. Some properties come with spa or pool access, making them a great choice if you’re in need of a little pampering.

Maybe you could make use of a convenient city centre base for a sleepy toddler to have a rest in between seeing the sights? Or how about a place to leave a grumpy husband in the ultimate man crèche while you potter the shops at a leisurely pace? Also, there are plenty of hotels on DayBreak’s books that are conveniently located on or very close to airports, ideal for a lengthy layover – and far nicer than hours spent in an airport lounge. Whatever your reason for booking, the daycay concept is one worth checking out.

Thank you

I was a guest of DayBreak Hotels and benefited from complimentary travel with Greater Anglia. To both: many thanks for your generosity.


Cirque du Soleil’s back in London

Bulging veins riddled the man’s substantial biceps, triceps and quiadriceps like a toddler had been let loose with a crayon and scribbling pad. Beads of sweat trickled into the furrows in his forehead. He was mirrored by another, equally intense, performer who lie supine beneath him. Together, they contorted into ever more fanciful positions, bearing each other’s weight and holding positions that required muscle strength and concentration far beyond that which ordinary mortals could summon. The sight, just a metre or so in front of me, was as hypnotic as it was impressive. I, like everyone around me, was rapt.

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That was my first introduction to Cirque du Soleil, over twenty years ago. Was it Quidam or Alegria? I can’t remember. Nor can I remember whether it was in the Grand Chapiteau or the Royal Albert Hall. But that doesn’t matter. What’s important is the spectacle of it all, the mesmerising performances that truly deserve the overused and rarely accurate epithet breathtaking. That’s what has stuck with me for all these years and that’s what keeps me going back to see Cirque du Soleil time and time again.

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Crystal from TOTEM
Picture credit: OSA Images via the Totem press kit

This week, Made and Greater Anglia supported a complimentary trip to see this year’s show, Totem. It was staged at the Royal Albert Hall – a treat in itself. As the lights dimmed, the compere revealed that it was a Royal premiere also, to raise money for Sentebale, a charity working with HIV-positive children in Lesotho and Botswana. Our seats would face those of Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, who wore a dazzling Roland Mouret gown. I felt underdressed in my wool sweater and scarf dampened by rain. Touching my make up free face, I resolved to make a bit more effort next time. But hey, who cares when the lights dim?

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Diabolo from TOTEM
Picture credit: OSA Images via the Totem press kit

Totem wowed, just as the others had done before. From the moment the covers came off the skeletal turtle shell to the waves and bows of the finale, it was a showstopper. Acrobats, unicyclists, Russian bars and of course the almost obligatory Italian clowns – it had all the elements of the successful shows that I’ve come to love.

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Stand out moments in the evolution-themed show included the flawless work of the Native American ring dancers and a wonderfully romantic rollerskate interlude conducted on a platform too small for any error. Clever choreography lent itself to a neat evolution of man set piece.

If I had one criticism, it would be that the music lacked the impact of, say, Alegria. As I’m writing this, the title song from what’s probably my favourite of all the Cirque du Soleil shows is playing in my head, although I’ve not heard it for years. Yet less than 48 hours after hearing Totem, I can’t recall a single tune. But don’t let that put you off. Whether you’re a die-hard fan or a Cirque du Soleil newbie, this is a show that you should definitely see. You’ve got until February 26th to catch it this time.

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Thanks

Made provided two complimentary tickets to Totem, for which I’m very grateful. I also appreciated the free rail travel provided by Greater Anglia – driving to the Royal Albert Hall at rush hour wouldn’t have been a pleasant trip at all. The train was clean, comfortable and on time, leaving me plenty of time for a pre-show drink. For more on Cirque du Soleil including ticket booking for the current London run of Totem, please visit their website at:

https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/totem

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Finale from TOTEM
Picture credit: OSA Images via Totem press kit


Moldova’s National Wine Day

Moldova celebrates its National Wine Day over the first weekend in October. If you want to sample wines from the country’s many wineries without putting in the legwork, this is your chance. Representatives from the major labels come to the capital Chișinău and set up beside Cathedral Park. The organisers even offer a wine tasting passport with tour guide to provide key background information should you wish to know a little more about what you’re drinking.

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Getting there

From the UK, there are pretty much two direct options: Air Moldova from Stansted and Wizz Air from Luton. (I also found an airline called FlyOne, but it didn’t seem to be operating flights at this time of year.) When I booked, the Wizz Air option was significantly cheaper but did have the disadvantage of flying overnight on the outbound leg. If you’re going to do this one, hope that your hotel will allow you to check in early or prepare to take an afternoon nap. That’s of course if like me you’ve reached the age where staying up all night is no longer a good thing.

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Getting around

There’s a convenient trolley bus which departs from right outside the arrivals terminal door. It takes about half an hour to get into the city centre and costs just 2 lei, about 10p. Look for the number 30 and pay the conductor on the bus. If you need to find change, there are exchange facilities that open early in the morning landside; I bought a cup of coffee which gave me somewhere warm to wait for the bus and the right money to buy a ticket. It was a little disconcerting when the bus stopped and the driver got out; I’d forgotten that trolley buses are a lot of effort when the wires don’t extend the length of the route. What was good, though, was that the buses ran from very early in the morning until late at night, even on Sunday.

Getting a room

I opted for the almost brand new City Center Hostel. It was located just across the road from Cathedral Park and around the corner from the bus stop. My room had twin bunks and for single occupancy cost just £27 for the night. The shared bathrooms were down the hall but were spotless. If you can’t bring yourself to stay in a hostel, next door is the conveniently located Bristol Central Park Hotel and opposite is the Radisson Blu. Both I’m sure are very nice but would set you back a whole lot more.

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Getting your culture fix

I’d read that there was a parade and early signs were promising. There were plenty of people in national costume and in front of the big sound stage, rehearsals were still in full swing just minutes before the action was supposed to kick off. I was able to get close enough to see the dancers, which was fortunate as once the formal proceedings began, some rather surly security personnel did a very good job of keeping everyone right back out of the way. The view was further obstructed by press photographers and cameramen.  There were no programmes in English, but this lady had brought her own from the local newspaper – no help to me, alas:

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Though I did manage to see some of the winery representatives presenting their baskets of grapes, this part of the proceedings was something of a let down. However, later, once all the dignitaries had said their piece, the bands came on and the dancing started – fun to watch and even more fun to join in. The event’s free too, which was even better.

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Getting drunk

With a tasting passport costing just 200 lei (£10), it’s hard to resist the chance to try as many of the wines on offer as you can. I made my way to one of the information kiosks (they’re located at either end of the main drag) and grabbed a place for one of the English speaking tours.

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Our guide was as hipster as they come, but explained the different characteristics of the wine well at first. As the afternoon wore on, he became progressively more tipsy (like the rest of us) and at one point dropped a bottle of wine on the floor in front of him.

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Some of the wines were too dry for my taste but I did enjoy the Cricova sparkling wines. I’m no connoisseur – the sweeter and fizzier the wine, the more I like it. Fortunately, the passport contained an extra token for “your favourite” wine so I had a second glass. It was a pity there are such stringent regulations at airports these days as I’d have liked to buy some to bring back.

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By the way, if you are going to visit one of the wineries outside Chișinău, I’d recommend Mileștii Mici. Its huge underground vault can hold almost 2 million bottles of wine and its subterranean rooms and passageways extend for around 120 miles. They run organised tours so there’s no need to worry about getting lost down there forever.

Getting food

Fortunately, there was plenty of opportunity to taste the local food as well, which helped to soak up a little of the alcohol I’d consumed. Adjacent to the wine stands are the food stalls. Many sold similar fare: succulent pork, tasty sausage, cabbage and potatoes. A lot of the stalls sold by weight; you indicated roughly how much they should pile on your plate and they told you how much you owed them. I had a heaped plate for about 75 lei, which worked out to under £4, and it was delicious. Communal tables mean it’s easy to make friends while you eat.

Getting to see more of the city

As I was visiting Transnistria, my time in Chișinău was limited. I did get to see the city’s smallest statue. Representing the Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella, it took a while to locate, not least because someone I asked for directions Googled it and found an old article which said it was yet to be installed. It’s on the railings lining the lake in Valea Morilor Park – persevere and you’ll find it.

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I also had a wander around an open air museum outside the city centre on the airport road; there was a wedding taking place so I didn’t have the chance to go in the wooden church. I finished up at the Ciuflea Monastery. Despite being close to the main road, it was remarkably peaceful.


How to visit Transnistria from Chisinau

When the Soviet Union broke up, Moldova became an independent country. But the region that’s now Transnistria was home to a high percentage of ethnic Russians and decided it didn’t want to remain part of Moldova. It operates as a country in its own right, with its own government, military, currency and so on, though it’s not widely recognised.
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Many reports suggest it’s very Soviet, but there are plenty of beautiful monasteries, gatehouses and other interesting buildings. But with day excursions from the Moldovan capital Chisinau costing as much as 163 euros for a private tour and no group trips running on the day I was in town, I decided to go it alone. If you want to do the same, here’s what you need to know.

 

 

Getting there
The day before my visit had been National Wine Day. A tasting menu of twelve glasses cost just 200 lei (about £10) and it had been a very enjoyable way to spend the day. It perhaps wasn’t the wisest move to opt to travel to Transnistria by train the morning after, and especially as that train departed before 7am. The train station’s not central either, which pushed the alarm clock back even further. That said, I would still recommend the rail option: trains are much more comfortable than buses or marshrutkas (minibuses).
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To reach the station from the centre of Chisinau, catch a trolley bus costing 2 lei to the main station (numbers 4, 5, 8, 17 and 20). There’s a map on Wikipedia that shows the entire network. You’ll pay the attendant on the bus and the ride takes about 15 minutes. Get off opposite the station and walk under the underpass; when you emerge you’ll see the station building.

 

 

Buying your train ticket is straightforward and you don’t need to pre-book. The train is number 642 and it’s a cross-border train that runs to Odessa in Ukraine. The relatively short hop to Tiraspol, the Transnistrian capital, costs just 21 lei in second class which is just over £1. Your documents may be checked by a station official as most passengers are bound for Ukraine. The train left bang on time at 6.57am and arrived exactly at 8.21am. As you can see I had the fabled seat 61 and was excited* enough to tweet to the man himself!
* as excited as you can be when up before daylight and the worse for wear from all that wine the night before.

 

 

Passport control
You don’t complete border formalities on the train. In fact, once the carriage attendants see that your ticket says Tiraspol, you won’t even need to show your passport. However, you do need to take your passport. While the Moldovan authorities class Transnistria as part of Moldova, the Transnistrian government does not. When you get to Tiraspol station, you need to look for a small booth just to the left of the main exit. An immigration official will hand you a form to complete; you’ll need to fill in both sections. Hand the form in with your passport and it will be checked and one part returned with your passport. Do not lose this piece of paper as you will need to show it in order to exit Transnistria.
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Money
To buy anything in Transnistria you need Transnistrian rubles. Though there is an ATM at the station, there’s no foreign language translation and it doesn’t accept foreign cards. I read on the internet that these ATMs dispense Russian rubles in any case, which themselves need to be exchanged for the local currency. Instead, take cash: US dollars, euros, Russian rubles, Ukrainian hryvnia and of course Moldovan lei are all good. Pounds sterling wasn’t on the list, though it is easy to change into Moldovan lei in Chisinau.
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It’s hard to know how much to change up, and the last thing you want with a currency that’s useless outside its own territory is to be left with a wad of notes. I decided to change 200 lei (about £10), thinking I’d need more but would see how I went. The exchange rate is almost at a parity so I received 190 Transnistrian rubles. In actual fact, it was hard to get rid of it. My biggest expenditure was a hearty brunch costing 60 Transnistrian rubles. I took a bus from the bridge in the centre of Tiraspol to the monastery at Kitskany and that cost 4 rubles. The monastery was free to enter.

 

 

A cramped but otherwise acceptably comfortable minibus departed for Bender from right outside the monastery and cost 10 rubles. It might have even been 8 but I wasn’t sure how many fingers the driver was holding up so gave him 10 just in case. I also visited Bender fortress. I’d read on the internet that there was an entrance fee but there wasn’t. A couple of drinks cost me a further 29 rubles. If you’re adding up as you go, I spent a total of 140 rubles (including the return bus fare) and came home with a 50 ruble note as a souvenir. £7.50 for a day out (£8.60 if you include the train fare from Chisinau) has to be one of my best bargain trips ever.
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Getting away
From Bender to Chisinau cost 37 rubles by marshrutka. I’d have been tempted to catch the train but the first one back from Bender, a Moscow-bound international train, was due to arrive just two and a half hours before my late evening flight departed. Given the strong chance of a delay, and information on the internet indicating that the last bus left around 6.30pm, I decided not to risk getting stranded. The marshrutka was already nearly full when I got in, so I had the back row seat. It was very bumpy – not the most comfortable ride I’ve ever had. Time-wise, it was very similar to the train, though the Moscow train would have been slower.
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What’s there to see
Everything I’d read online said the same thing: Tiraspol is very Soviet. The signage is in Russian, so I had to adjust to using the Cyrillic alphabet again. One thing I’d forgotten to look up was how Chisinau would translate; the Russians call it Kishinev so the “b” on the end threw me a bit. As it was Sunday morning, the place was dead. I strolled down from the railway station and along the main drag, 25 October Street. It was pleasant enough but nothing to write home about with any enthusiasm. I snapped pictures of the Kvint factory and the Kotovsky museum, but the former was closed as it was Sunday and I figured the displays in the latter would be labelled in Russian only.
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I walked across to have a closer look at the monument to Alexander Suvorov, who founded the city. A bunch of young soldiers had gathered there, waiting for a ride, so I didn’t hang around too long with the camera. What I should have done is walk a short distance further to the House of Soviets and Transnistria’s Parliament building.
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Instead, I was distracted by a tank beside the Dniester River and never ticked off Lenin’s statue. It’s listed as one of the must-sees in Tiraspol, but probably that’s due to a lack of anything more interesting. I read one highlights list which extolled the virtues of changing money as one of their “top things to do in Tiraspol”.  Beside the tank, a few bored kids chucked stones into the river and an elderly man made slow, painful circles on his roller blades.

 

 

Not far was a bridge and on the other side, a marshrutka waiting to load up for Kitskany. I decided to cut my losses and hop aboard. Kitskany monastery was a super diversion. It’s a working monastery and there were plenty of monks in black robes wandering about. There was also a service taking place inside the richly decorated main church. Some people had come from Tiraspol as I’d seen them on the bus.

 

 

Noul Neamţ Monastery, as it’s correctly called, also has a bell tower with a frescoed ceiling and, in its lobby, two wooden changing rooms where women can pull on a skirt over their trousers if needed. The golden domes glittered as the sun caught them and women sat in the dappled shade of the monastery’s tranquil garden. I couldn’t help but think that in many countries, you’d have to pay an entrance fee to visit somewhere as special as this.

 

 

Eventually I wandered back to the road. A derelict facade caught my eye and I set off up a lane to see it close up. The lane was sandy, which was a little odd, so far from the sea. As I strode up the lane, a man called out to me. It turned out he was Ukrainian and was trying to show me the house. I don’t understand what he was telling me; he kept referring to “monastery” but pointing at the house. He signalled clearly that I shouldn’t go any further, so I headed back to the bus stop.
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When I bought my ticket, I fully intended to come back and finish my walk along 25 October Street. But outside Kitskany monastery, a minibus came along for Bender and I decided to go there instead, having seen the spectacular fortress from the train. The ride to Bender was a pretty one, past fields and rural dwellings. Hay was stacked in what I call Dalek style, familiar from a previous trip to Romania. The road, by rural standards, was pretty good. Soon we came to an unmanned control point and then into the town itself.

 

 

Bender, once scene of fierce fighting, was delightful. Several pleasant cafes lined the main street. I ducked into a couple but there were no toilets. Finally I found a cafe next to a fake McDonald’s with decent cakes – pastry swans – and an obliging barista who escorted me around the corner into some offices to use the bathroom facilities. Back at the cafe, the coffee was good, the food even better. I saw the #19 trolley bus pull up, which links Bender and Tiraspol – the cheapest way to travel at a fare of something in the region of 2 rubles. Bender also had a wide pedestrian street. I saw a place renting out toy cars for kids, similar to what I’d seen at Sukhumi last year – maybe it’s a Russian thing?
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Across the street from a series of posters in Russian detailing the history of Bender, I spotted the outdoor museum. This amounted to a park which was home to several statues and castings, each representing an event in the town’s history. The information for both was in Russian so I’m none the wiser, but one looked rather like Napoleon Bonaparte. Nearby was an art installation featuring multiple coloured umbrellas – cue lots of people taking selfies.
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The star of the show, however, was Bender’s fortress. There was a special event on and the fortress had been adorned with swags of cheap white satin. Many of the stalls had a mediaeval theme. I was invited to try my hand at firing a crossbow, which I declined as I didn’t want to harm anyone through clumsiness. But I did walk the walls and look out over the Dniester River and surrounding countryside. There were plenty of men barbecuing and people dressed in mediaeval costume, plus a fair number of plastic ducks. No idea why, in case you’re wondering – the frustrations of travelling where you don’t speak the language.

 

 

Was Transnistria worth the visit?
While I wouldn’t make the trip specially, it was a pleasant day out from Chisinau. Lots of reports online, especially older ones, refer to this as a rebel state with border guards taking bribes. It certainly didn’t feel like that to me, though of course on such a short visit I’m no expert. If you are tempted to visit, I’d suggest going on a weekday so that more businesses and museums are open, but having said that, Bender had a really nice family vibe which you possibly wouldn’t get if everyone was at work.
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Would it have been worth 163 euros? No, definitely not. Even the most committed of country counters (which I’m not) would have a hard time justifying that cost. But to do it independently and on a tight budget, definitely yes. In terms of value for money, it was incredibly cheap. It’s hard to find fault with a day out that only cost £8.60!
Postscript
It’s great when you realise other travellers have found a post useful; check this out too if you’re planning a trip:
I’ve also had a couple of comments about why I would use the term Transnistria in this post. I use the English versions of place names on this site, hence Chisinau rather than Chișinău, Kishinev, Kishineu or Кишинэу. Hence, I refer to it as Transnistria for consistency, as do many other UK sources including the highly regarded travel magazine Wanderlust: https://www.wanderlust.co.uk/content/step-by-step-guide-to-transnistria-by-bus/

Have you visited London’s Postal Museum?

Piccadilly, Central, Circle – most of us are very familiar with the London Underground. But there’s another subterranean railway and it links Whitechapel in the east to Paddington in the west. Long before the DLR was operational, it ran without drivers and guards. It carried freight beneath the streets of London and kept an industry efficient despite the capital’s heavily congested streets.

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That railway is MailRail and though it was closed by the Royal Mail in 2003, the good news is that last year, specially adapted, it opened for visitors as part of the new Postal Museum. If you haven’t been, I’d urge you to go. From small children to the elderly, this is a true family attraction with something to interest everyone. Last week I was lucky enough to be offered a complimentary visit courtesy of Made and enjoyed a fun afternoon at the Postal Museum as their guest.

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We began at the Postal Museum Exhibition. I expected to want to rush this part of the visit in my excitement at having the opportunity to ride MailRail. In fact, the exhibits have been very well thought out and I was soon engrossed. Many of us don’t realise that the postal service in Britain began as a private service for Henry VIII. The term “the post” referred to the horses that were used as transport. But the King’s couriers took on covert work to supplement their income and soon the notion of sending something through the post was commonplace – amongst the wealthy at least. Ironically, most of the post boys couldn’t read and letters bore the symbol of a hanged man as a stark warning not to steal the letters’ contents. The advent of the mail coach reduced the risk of robbery and increased reliability.

In the Victorian era, the Royal Mail as we know it was born. Rowland Hill submitted his proposal for postal reform in the 1830s. He suggested the introduction of uniformly low prices based on weights rather than distance, as well as the system of prepayment which we take for granted today. His ideas met with a favourable response. In 1840, the Penny Black was introduced and for weightier letters, the Twopenny Blue.

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The museum features plenty of interactive exhibits. You can dress up in vintage mail uniforms and create your own stamp with your picture on it. There were also plenty of surprises. I learnt that pillar boxes were originally green. They were road tested in the Channel Islands in the 1850s before being rolled out across the UK soon after. But the colour was thought dull and dreary, so red paint was introduced a couple of decades later.

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Blue airmail boxes also existed and on them were lists of last posting times for key cities around the world. The inclusion of Algiers is a reminder that places become more and less important to others as times change. Colonial names like Tanganyika, Persia, Siam and Ceylon can still be seen on this 1930s box. If you’d have wished to send a letter from London to Brisbane at this time, it would have taken 12 days to arrive. With a journey length of 12700 miles (when you take into account the many stops), it was the world’s longest air route at the time it was launched, in 1935.

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Engaging though the museum was, the highlight of the afternoon was to be found across the street: MailRail. The Post Office Railway was rebranded on the occasion of its 60th birthday in 1987 to this catchier brand name, but in actual fact, the idea of a railway for the postal service had been mooted as early as 1909. The route linked the six big sorting offices with two mainline train stations over 6.5 miles of track.

Sacks of mail were transported on these trains and an army of employees manned the platforms unloading the precious cargo. The trains ran for 22 hours a day, six days a week. An estimated 4 million letters passed through the system every day. A series of lifts, chutes, conveyors and elevators were used to avoid “laborious man-handling of bags” which would slow the whole process down. Automatic train control was in operation, leading some employees to comment that it was like having their “own giant train set to run”. With as many as eighteen mail cars speeding around the system at any one time, they needed to keep their wits about them.

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The mail was sent by overground train to the different parts of the UK and postal workers sorted it by destination while on the move in what was called a Travelling Post Office. This part of the museum has a mock up of such an onboard sorting office which you can use to file “mail” – as the carriage rocks it’s not easy to keep your balance if you’re not used to the motion.

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The ride itself lasted about fifteen minutes, completing a loop under the Mount Pleasant section of the railway beginning and ending at what was once the maintenance depot. When operational, express trains would have taken the same amount of time to run between Liverpool Street and Paddington – try doing that on the Tube now! It was well done – from the cramped compartments we listened to an informative commentary and enjoyed some interesting audio-visual projections along the route.

Though you might struggle if you’re claustrophobic, spare a thought for my father. A retired engineer, he once carried out a survey of some of London’s sorting offices and was sent with his bags via MailRail. That would have been a very tight squeeze. At least now you get to leave your stuff in the lockers provided!

Practical information

The Postal Museum and MailRail are open all year except for 24-26th December. Opening hours are 10am to 5pm with the last train departing at 4.35pm. Allow at least a couple of hours for your visit. As you need a timed ticket to ride the railway, it’s best to buy your tickets in advance. Details of ticket prices and other information can be found on the Postal Museum’s website here:

https://www.postalmuseum.org