juliamhammond

Destination information

A day trip to Essaouira

Essaouira is a port on the Moroccan coast that’s been on my travel wish list for many years. While I was in Morocco earlier this month, I figured I could visit the town as a side trip from Marrakesh and ended up spending a very enjoyable day there. Here’s how to do it.

What to see

Essaouira’s location beside the Atlantic Ocean makes it an ideal spot for surfing. On the day I visited, the air was still, with no waves of any use to anyone hoping for more than a swim. The beach was relatively busy – even on this early October day the temperature was in the mid-twenties. I strolled along the seafront to the port, where a mass of pretty blue fishing boats bobbed in the smelly, polluted water.

Essaouira is famous for its sardines and everywhere I looked there were boxes of fish packed in salt. Some were being detached from lines, others placed on grills ready for lunch. Watched by a number of hungry cats, I drew up a faded plastic chair and tucked in to a plate of grilled sardines and fresh bread – it cost me less than £3 and it was utterly delicious.

Next, it was time to explore the medina. Essaouira’s walled old town isn’t as densely packed as those in Marrakesh or Fes. With broader streets, there’s less likelihood of being run over by a motorbike or donkey cart as you browse. Sellers aren’t pushy and you can inspect the merchandise with no more than a laidback greeting. However, it lacks the choice you’ll find in the souks of Marrakesh, so save your purchases of brassware, leather goods and textiles for later – read my tips on how to haggle first.

What I did find fascinating, however, was the quiet back alleys of the Jewish Quarter. The city they used to call Mogador welcomed the Jewish community for their skills as traders. Their part of Essaouira is called the Mellah. Today, this walled ghetto is undergoing change; there is evidence of demolition and renovation all over.

But here and there you’ll find the Star of David carved into a wall, spot a sign indicating a centuries-old hammam or catch a woodworker carving an intricate mirror.During my visit the Slat Lkahal Mogador synagogue was closed, but I was able to duck under arches and wander along narrow derbs to get a feel for the neighbourhood.

Getting there

I was already in Marrakesh, so there were a few choices about how to get there. I could have booked an organised tour, though that isn’t my cup of tea. I could have rented a car and driven, but decided against that so that I could have a nap on the journey if I wanted to. The riad I was staying in suggested taking a grand taxi from Bab Doukkala. Pre-COVID I’d have been fine crammed into a small space with a bunch of strangers but didn’t want to tempt fate. So as the railway doesn’t head that way, the option I was left with was to take the bus.

CTM and Supratours both serve the route, and CTM was cheapest. My ticket cost 72 dirhams each way (about £11.60) and was bookable online. It left from a terminal a few minutes’ walk from the railway station, so I jumped on a city bus, grabbed a coffee at the station’s branch of Starbucks and strolled to the bus station in good time.

The ride

The journey took about three hours each way but the bus was relatively empty so I had a double seat to myself in each direction. The scenery wasn’t great for the first part of the way as the route takes you through featureless desert. As you near the coast, there are more trees. Some were full of goats.

These tree-climbing goats traditionally munched on the leaves of the argan trees but today, it’s a contrived tableau aimed at tourists, who are charged a fee for a photo. This article from National Geographic explains how it isn’t good for the goats or the trees. Such exploitation of wildlife is sadly commonplace in Morocco – in the Djemaa el Fna I saw monkeys on chains being led around the square in the hope of persuading someone to snap a selfie. Such behaviour mars what’s otherwise a super place to visit, though while it’s a necessary source of income, sadly it’s hard to see anything changing.


Visiting a kangaroo orphanage in Coober Pedy

Josephine’s Gallery and Kangaroo Orphanage was one of the Coober Pedy attractions I was most looking forward to. The sale of Aboriginal art and a modest entry charge help support this South Australian outback institution in the rescue and rehabilitation of orphaned joeys.

Animal lovers Josephine and Terry Brennan-Kuss opened their orphanage in 2008 and since then have rescued wildlife in need from an area the size of Germany. Some have been orphaned after their parents died in road traffic accidents. Feeding time kicks off with a chance to interact with the older kangaroos who have a thing for wasabi peas. The spicy taste apparently reminds them of a shrub they eat in the wild.

Next, it was time for Terry to fetch Olly, one of two joeys at the orphanage at the time of my visit. Terry gave him his bottle while we looked on. After Olly had a hop around – and was interrupted from some mischievous munching of potting compost – we got to give him a cuddle. Holding his tail very firmly, he settled back for a rest and plenty of strokes. Unlike the older kangaroos, he hadn’t yet developed a fear of having his ears touched. (When a kangaroo gets into a fight, it throws its head back so its opponent doesn’t gouge out its eyes.)

Olly hopped head first into his bag – mimicking Mum’s pouch – and it was time for us to say goodbye. You can find the orphanage on Coober Pedy’s Hutchison Street. Feeding time is late afternoon.


Off the bucket list: the Neighbours tour

I visited Australia many years ago, and one of the highlights of my trip was doing the Neighbours tour. Since then much has happened. First, the tour was extended to include the outdoor areas of the set, something that wasn’t possible on the original version. Most recently, news broke that Neighbours was coming to an end after being on our screens for 37 years. That was enough incentive for me to book flights to Melbourne and take the Neighbours tour again. If you’re a fan too, here are some photos from the tour. It runs until the end of July 2022; after that the future of the tour is uncertain. 

First up, the street in real life: Pin Oak Court and the houses used for exterior shots.

Just down the road, at the Nunawading studios, you’ll find some of the back gardens plus Karl Kennedy’s greenhouse. In case you were wondering, you can still see one of Sheila’s gnomes even though she moved out.

As you walk in from the main gate and on the set, the first things you see are the cars, including Hermione and an Erinsborough Hospital ambulance, plus the tram.

Next, you pass by some of the less frequently used business sets, including Grease Monkeys, Fitzgerald Motors, the yard owned by Kyle Canning when he ran Dial-a-Kyle and Sonya’s Nursery. There’s an indoor set at the mechanics too, which you can see if you peer through the window.

You might also remember Sonia’s mural, the community centre, these trees and The Hive/Leo’s Backpackers. Also, you can see the university mural featuring a young Toadie (and Harlow) plus a couple of lecture rooms. The sign for the Geography department at Erinsborough High is nearer the entrance to the studios.

However, the main attraction is the Lassiters complex, of course, home to The Waterhole, Harold’s Cafe, the hotel and much more. Some of these businesses have indoor staging too, so for instance you can see the hotel lobby and lift, as well as Jarrod’s office.

That’s all from the set.


Chicago Rising from the Lake

When I reached downtown Chicago last night, several buildings were lit in blue and yellow, the colours of the Ukrainian flag. This morning I took a look at a piece of art that’s also a link to this Eastern European country.

This bronze relief is called Chicago Rising from the Lake and it’s the work of a Ukrainian artist called Milton Horn. Born near Kyiv, he came to the United States as a child. The work was created in 1954 and represents Chicago herself. Lake Michigan’s ripples feature at the bottom, a sheaf of wheat is a reference to the city’s importance to agricultural trade, while a bull is a nod to its stockyards. Even the curved bars have meaning: they’re Chicago’s railways, industry and commerce.

It was displayed for a time on the wall of a garage not far from where I’m staying. But despite the significance of the piece to the Windy City, it was torn down and languished in a warehouse for many years before being lost altogether for a time. Eventually it was discovered by a firefighter and then restored at a cost of $60,000.

Today, you’ll find it on Columbus Drive Bridge on Chicago’s River Walk.


Travels in 2021 and hopes for 2022

Once again it’s been a rollercoaster ride of a year for travel. The beginning of the year was bleak and, just when things started to look up, Omicron showed up and set us all back. Somehow, I managed to escape the UK more than once and 2021’s trips, though tame, were a pleasure. I do miss visiting far-flung, culturally different destinations and hope to achieve some of that kind of travel in 2022. Here’s what I managed this year:

April: Shropshire

Incredibly, we were confined to home until April. Just about as soon as it was permitted I rented a little cottage near Ludlow for a few days. Having persuaded my husband and the dog to join me, we visited some of the prettiest places in Shropshire, including The Stiperstones, Carding Mill Valley and of course Ironbridge. The horses on the Long Mynd gave Edi a bit of a fright and the drive back down such a narrow single-track road was a tad scary. Fortunately the cottage was very comfortable and the llamas up the road were a real treat.

May: Barra and Skye

In May, I took my first flight of the year and touched down on the beach in Barra. This airport in the Outer Hebrides is the only one in the world where scheduled flights land on sand, which was pretty cool. After I returned to Glasgow I picked up my own car again and immediately after arriving at my B&B on the Isle of Skye promptly locked the keys in the boot which I don’t recommend if you want a stress-free (or cheap) holiday. The locksmith had to come out from Inverness but everything turned out alright in the end. Back on the mainland, a Scottish friend of ours suggested I drive the Bealach na Bà (the Pass of the Cattle). It boasts the steepest ascent in the UK and also has lots of single track stretches. I was grateful for my automatic transmission and an early Sunday morning start which meant only light traffic.

June: the Isle of Wight

Somehow hopping on the ferry made it feel a little more like we were going abroad when we headed for the Isle of Wight in June, though when we drove off it, we could have been going back in time. Much of the island was how we remembered it from family holidays in the 1970s, with a few welcome modern additions like WiFi and Costa. Highlights included some fabulous dog-friendly beaches, a ride on the chair lift at Alum Bay, a chance to meet the donkeys at Carisbrooke Castle and a stroll through the delightful Shanklin Chine.

July/August: Iceland

This year’s big trip was, once again, to Iceland. I began the trip by visiting some of the places I hadn’t made time for last summer. In Siglufjörður in the north of the country I thoroughly enjoyed a social history lesson at the Herring Era Museum and on Heimaey in the Westman Islands I was so engrossed in the puffins I almost missed my ferry. I didn’t have much luck again in the Westfjords. Failing to spot the Arctic fox on Hornstrandir I had to be content with a stuffed specimen in a museum. The dramatic eruption of Fagradalsfjall volcano, which at the time was still spewing lava in spectacular fashion, lured me back down south and a friend over from the UK. Lisa and I would recommend a hike to an ice cave and the delicious geothermally baked bread at Laugarvatn Fontana spa. The jury’s out on Elf School.

September: Dundee

Dad and I took a road trip to Dundee in September to visit RRS Discovery. This historic ship took Scott of the Antarctic on his first trip to the icy south, but it also holds special memories for Dad who had some of his own adventures onboard while a Sea Scout in 1951. The visit was fascinating, both for a glimpse into Dad’s childhood and of course the more famous stuff about the South Pole. We also enjoyed a visit to The Kelpies and a spin on the Falkirk Wheel before heading home.

September: Austria and Germany

Though it was touch and go for a while due to the COVID situation, the borders remained open long enough for me to spend a week in Austria and Germany. South of the border, I stayed in Seefeld and sunned myself up several mountains – nursing a dodgy knee I couldn’t do much hiking but did manage one glorious walk through the Leutascher Geisterklamm, a scenic gorge cut by a glacial river. For the first time, I made it to the Swarovski factory and rekindled the joy of an old favourite: the Tyrolean evening, kitsch, clichéd and hilarious fun. The Almbetriebe was scaled right back in Mittenwald, but all of the cable cars were open so I did get to make an ascent of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain.

October: Norfolk

In October we took the dog away again and this time spent a relaxing weekend in Norfolk with family. Splitting the time between woodland walks and lazy hours in the hot tub was the ideal way to unwind. I was more than happy to dogsit while the others went ziplining at Go Ape but sometimes the best things come to you – a muntjac deer strolled right past the deck of our cabin in broad daylight.

October: Menorca

I’d planned to visit Santorini in the autumn but ended up changing my flights to Menorca because of COVID uncertainties. I had a thoroughly enjoyable time based in Ciutadella, the island’s old capital. I stayed in a beautifully renovated mansion right in the heart of the old town and really enjoyed the convivial atmosphere (and abundant ice cream parlours). I hired a car for a couple of days so I could tour the island. Free from the constraints of off season bus timetables, I was able to try out cheese making and watch the sunset from a bar tucked into the side of a cliff. The boat trip I took along the island’s south coast was also well worth doing: the turquoise water in the rocky coves was dazzling.

November: Florida

For the first time since returning from New York in February 2020, I flew to the United States. President Biden finally opened the border on November 8th and a week later we touched down in Miami. Naples was our first stop, a very upmarket enclave on Florida’s Gulf Coast, with probably the most splendid botanical garden I’ve ever visited. We followed it with gorgeous Longboat Key. On the way, we practised the “Sanibel stoop” – shell-hunting is a big deal there – and sank into the icing sugar soft sand of Siesta Key. After seeing manatees and bobcats with some expat friends of ours, we rounded off the trip in Orlando, though I’m relieved to say I didn’t have to set foot in a Disney theme park once.

December: Stockholm

The final trip of the year was to Sweden where I visited the Christmas markets in Sigtuna, its oldest town, and in Stockholm’s Gamla Stan. The weather was dismal – grey skies and drizzle rather than blue skies and snow – but even that couldn’t dampen my spirits. On December 13th I enjoyed a wonderful candlelit Santa Lucia concert in Stockholm cathedral. During the trip, there was also time to hang out with some reindeer in Skansen and have a party for one in the ABBA museum as well as try all the elements of a traditional Christmas dinner thanks to a lovely friend of mine. If you’re planning a trip there soon, the dog pictures at Fotografiska were fabulous fun.

And so to 2022…

This is what I wrote this time last year, and I guess I’ll just carry this over to next year (though perhaps I might hold off on Belarus for the time being?)

So what of next year? If this year has taught me one thing, it’s to seize opportunities to travel while you can. If the pandemic permits, when flights resume I’m keen to visit the Azores for some more wow-factor volcanic scenery having enjoyed Cape Verde and Madeira so much. Santorini is also on my wishlist – I’ve never been but perhaps it won’t be as busy (or expensive) as it normally is. Andorra would be great, though I’d then be tempted to visit Belarus too – they’re the only two countries in Europe I’ve never been.

Who knows when it will be safe and sensible to travel further afield? But if there’s no chance of being stranded and I’ve had the vaccine by then, Peru for its 200th birthday celebrations sounds like a whole lot of fun. Last year I wrote about how I’d love to visit Tajikistan, Comoros, Sao Tome & Principe, Rwanda and Madagascar – all of them are still high on my wishlist. Over in the States, I’d still love to make it to Alaska or Hawaii, though a road trip taking in Washington DC, North Carolina and Dollywood looks more likely. Nothing’s certain right now, but it doesn’t hurt to dream.

How’s it looking? Well, easyJet have already cancelled my flights to Santorini, booked for April, so that’s a no-go until I can find a suitable alternative. The much-hoped for return to Peru didn’t happen in 2021 but now I’m keen to add a second trip to Colombia too if it seems sensible to revisit South America. I’m still hopeful of that US road trip, so check back next December and see if I managed to pull it off.

Wherever your travels take you in 2022, have fun and stay safe. As ever, do your homework and research the current situation for your proposed destination as requirements and regulations are changing frequently at the moment. Happy New Year!


Christmas isn’t cancelled: a last minute trip to Stockholm

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. That’s not because I haven’t been travelling – I took advantage of the US border opening in November. But as Omicron wreaks havoc and every day brings a new headline of more restrictions, it’s been hard to find the motivation to post.

This winter, I was all set to return to Germany for a visit to Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s Christmas market. It’s a pretty little town (read about my autumn visit a few years ago here) and one which I’m keen to return to. But first Munich’s Christmas market was cancelled and then all markets across Bavaria, and the trip was off. Luckily, thanks to a six hour flight change, I even managed to get a full refund from Ryanair which took just a few days to come through. That sounds impressive though the total fare was just £12 so I’d already written it off as one of those things.

I still wanted to visit a Christmas market this year and settled on Sweden. A Ryanair flight to Västerås, despite the distance from Stockholm, was actually the most convenient direct flight. I left all the other bookings until the day before, crossed my fingers and as luck was on my side, managed to pull it off. First stop was Sigtuna. This is Sweden’s oldest town, founded in the 10th century.

On 13th December, Sweden marks Santa Lucia Day. In the 4th century, Santa Lucia of Syracuse (yes, that’s in Italy) brought food to Christians hiding in the catacombs. She used a crown of candles to see her way in the darkness and this saint’s day has come to represent bringing the Light of Christ into a world of darkness and, more immediately, receiving enough light to get you through a dark Scandinavian winter. These girls sang beautifully beside Sigtuna Museum and then paraded along historic Stora Gatan. The following evening, the candlelit concert in Stockholm’s beautiful cathedral was a feast for the senses.

The following day I planned a visit to a museum that I’d missed last time I was in Sweden through lack of time. Fotografiska is an excellent museum with rotating exhibits on a range of themes. This time, one of them was The Pet Show, a fun collection which featured some entertaining images of dogs, and a colourful and very powerful display centred on the themes of migration and loss of identity.

Back over on Gamla Stan, I pottered around Stockholm’s oldest market. Stalls have been set up in Stortorget since mediaeval times but the Christmas market is all that remains – in summer, this pretty square is filled with cafe tables. Keep an eye out for the straw goats which are called Julbock. Tradition has it that this creature is a gift-giver and a symbol of good luck. If you have time, take a ride out to the city of Gävle (about an hour and a half north of the capital) which puts up a giant one, though it often gets torched.

I was feeling peckish, which was the ideal excuse to indulge in the Swedish tradition of fika. This concept is more than just drinking coffee and eating cake. It’s more of a state of mind, a conscious effort to make time to sit for a while. You’re supposed to do this with friends, but as a solo traveller I made do with a friendly server at the Skeppsbro Bakery, a 100% organic craft bakery that makes its bread and cakes on site. The bun is a traditional Santa Lucia saffron bun. They’re called lussebullar and they’re quite delicious.

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a reindeer, but this far south in Sweden you won’t find any herds. Instead I visited Skansen, an open air museum on the island of Djurgården. Tram #7 from central station stops right outside which is really convenient – it’s also one stop along from the ABBA Museum. I tried to resist, but the music was audible from the street and I couldn’t pass up the chance to sing my way round again. Every Christmas needs some entertainment…

In Skansen, there’s another Christmas market (weekends only) and some wildlife that are winter-hardy. The brown bears had gone into hibernation but I saw European bison, moose and of course the reindeer who were content to nibble lazily on lichen. I was enchanted by a trio of lynx cubs who found out the hard way that play-fighting on a frozen pond is going to leave you feeling a little embarrassed.

Another essential element of a good Christmas is a long walk to compensate for all that excess. I really like the industrial vibe of Södermalm, where there are some repurposed factories and tons of historic buildings along the waterfront to the west of Slussen. I found a route on the Visit Stockholm website that suited the time I had spare. I started on a rocky outcrop called Skinnarviksberget, which has fabulous views overlooking the city.

I followed the path towards Monteliusvägen, which is a super vantage point for taking in Riddarfjärden, the easternmost part of Lake Mälaren. From there, I dropped down the cobblestone street of Blecktornsgränd and made a left onto Hornsgatan. This street has a number of art galleries and independent boutiques selling everything from tea to toys. The window displays are really well done, so I’ll leave you with this bunny, taking his friends for a ride on his wooden sleigh.

Happy Christmas!


How to spend a long weekend in Menorca

I’ve just returned from a warm sunny weekend in Menorca, one of Spain’s Balearic Islands. I’d originally intended to spend a few days doing next to nothing, but the temptation to explore got too much. I rented a car from a local agency close to my hotel in Ciutadella and spent a couple of days touring the island at an unhurried pace. These are some of the highlights I’d like to recommend.

Explore historic Ciutadella

Rather than staying in one of the coastal resort hotels, I opted for a small family-run place in the historic heart of Ciutadella. This, the beautiful cathedral which dates from the 13th century, was just around the corner. The maze of alleyways and cobbled streets was a joy to explore on foot, not least because of the high concentration of tapas bars and ice cream parlours.

Learn how to make cheese

About a 20 minute drive from Ciutadella was Binissuès. This is part farm, part museum, which showed a delightful film about how it would have been in the past, told from a child’s perspective. Each weekend, visitors have the opportunity to watch them make cheese. This particular batch had gone a little wrong and the curds hadn’t sufficiently formed, so it was tricky to squeeze enough of the liquid out and the muslin was leaking in all directions.

Tackle a maze in a quarry

When I first read about the Lithica quarries, I somehow managed to miss the part about the labyrinth that now fills the base of one of the two cavernous spaces. I was also impressed by how straight the sides were: by the 20th century, the limestone was extracted by machine and precision-cut. Surrounding the disused quarries was a botanical garden, serene and peaceful in the early morning. Olive, almond, lemon and fig trees are underplanted with herbs and wildflowers and the overall effect is magical.

Visit a shoe factory

You can’t get very far on Menorca without passing a shoe shop selling avarcas, a traditional leather sandal with a rubber sole. In the town of Ferreries, it’s possible to see the iconic footwear being made. RIA has been in business since 1947, starting out in a small workshop and now producing shoes in a sizeable factory. There’s also an outlet store on site where you can pick up certain styles and colours at a discount.

Discover the island’s prehistoric past

Menorca is littered with ancient monuments but one of the best preserved is the Naveta des Tudons. It’s a type of funerary monument that’s only found on this particular island. More than 100 people and their grave goods once occupied this tomb. Though it’s not possible to step inside, even the outside is impressive. The stones fit perfectly together without the need for mortar, while the name refers to its shape – like an upturned boat.

Take a boat trip

Unless you’re up for some serious hiking, the easiest way to reach many of Menorca’s coves and beaches is from the water. I did a couple of boat trips while I was there. The first, departing from Cala’n Bosch marina, took me to some of the prettiest spots along the scenic south coast, including Cala Gallana, Cala Trebaluger, Cala Turqueta and Cala Macarella. It’s also worth hopping on a harbour tour over in Mahon to visit the Hauser & Wirth gallery on Illa del Rei and to see the impressive Fortalesa de la Mola.

Visit the capital, Mahon

Like Ciutadella, Mahon boasts an attractive old town. Amongst the handful of churches is one whose cloisters now house a market, the Mercat Claustre del Carme. A steep flight of steps or a snazzy elevator gets you down to the waterfront where several boat operators run tours. Regular gin tastings are hosted by the Xoriguer distillery and numerous restaurants make the most of the picturesque harbourside setting.

Enjoy a leisurely lunch in pretty Binibeca

Charming Binibeca Vell is a fraud. At first glance, it appears that this maze of narrow passageways flanked with whitewashed homes and even a chapel has been there for centuries. In fact, it was built in the 1970s to resemble a traditional fishing village. Unsurprisingly, every corner is occupied by someone posing for a photo. I loved it despite all this so if they want to fake somewhere as cute as this, I say good luck to them!

Admire the boats in Fornells harbour

Fornells, in comparison, is an authentic harbour. It’s also lined with whitewashed buildings that overlook the water and rows of traditional wooden fishing boats known as llaüts. Seafood restaurants line the palm-fringed quayside and a gentle breeze keeps off the worst of the sun. I visited on a Sunday afternoon and it was very quiet, which only added to its end of season appeal.

Watch the sun set from a bar halfway up a cliff

Menorca’s best known sunset hangout is Cova d’en Xoroi. This bar and nightclub occupies a natural cave in the cliff. Perched high above the Mediterranean, the views are breathtaking and the chillout music gave it more of an Ibiza vibe than anywhere else I visited on the island. Set over multiple levels and with plenty of tucked-away nooks to enjoy a quiet conversation or party with friends, this was a pretty cool place to unwind.

First impressions were good, but this was my first visit to Menorca. Have you been? What did I miss?


A brief guide to visiting the Zugspitze

The Zugspitze is Germany’s highest mountain. By Alpine standards it’s a paltry 2962 metres above sea level, but that’s not to say it isn’t impressive close up. The peak straddles the border between Germany and Austria. If you’re keen to admire the view from the top, here’s how to go about getting up there the easy way. You can hike up, but that’s far too much effort.

First, pick a country. You can reach the summit from either side. Technically, there’s actually nothing to stop you ascending from one country and descending to the other. On the Austrian side, you need to go to the Tirolean resort of Ehrwald. From there you need the Tiroler Zugspitzbahn, a gondola which whisks passengers up the mountain in about ten minutes.

On the German side, many visitors set out from the ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Adjacent to the town’s railway station is the separate station for the train that passes through Grainau en route to Eibsee. Tickets include an ascent of the Zugspitze, though you can get as far as the Eibsee on public transport. There’s also a bus which departs from the main railway station, easily recognisable as it’s bright blue. Here’s the timetable.

The trip costs 61 euros for an adult. Though the train journey is marketed as one ticket, you’ll actually need to change trains along the way at Grainau station. One section has regular rails but look closely and you’ll see the other is designed for a cogwheel train, equipped to tackle steeper gradients. This change is no big deal, as the two trains depart from adjacent platforms and there are no ticket checks or barriers.

Incidentally you can also purchase a 2 Peaks ticket which costs 73 euros and gets you up to the AlpspiX as well. This works out cheaper than two separate tickets. The AlpspiX is a viewing platform that from your approach looks like a pair of alligator jaws. The two viewing platforms extend out from the mountain and though you don’t have the full panorama that you’ll enjoy from the Zugspitze, it’s still a great view on a sunny day.

Back to the Zugspitze train: at Eibsee you have a decision to make: alight and take the gondola to the summit or stay on board and ascend on the train. Part of the route is inside a tunnel, similar to the ascent of the Jungfraujoch I made a few years ago. As I’d already experienced the cogwheel train, I decided to take a stroll along the lakeshore of the Eibsee – it’s gorgeous – and then finish the journey to the top on the cable car, enjoying the scenery on the way. It’s also considerably quicker.

At the top, the viewing platform enables you to appreciate this extraordinary view. The view of the Alpine landscape, with its craggy peaks, forested slopes and winding valleys, is simply lovely. Looking towards Austria, you can admire even taller mountains. There are handy guides to enable you to pinpoint particular peaks but its the bigger picture that makes this so special, whichever way you face.

However, it also reveals that you’re not quite there. The actual summit of the Zugspitze is marked by an ornate gold cross and to reach it there are metal ladders. I’m not great with heights and was perfectly content to admire the view from solid ground.

What was pretty cool was crossing the border – in reality just a narrow walkway between the German side and Austrian side. I didn’t do this just to say I’d been on both sides. There’s an excellent museum in Austrian territory which covers the history of human interaction with the Zugspitze, from the first climbers to the story behind the first cable cars. If you’ve come to the top on a German ticket, it will cost you another 4 euros on top of the price of your ticket but it is worth the money.

To go back down the German side, you also need to make a decision about whether you wish to use the cogwheel train or the gondola as they depart from different places. Either is included in your ticket. To reach the cogwheel train summit station you need to first ride the short Gletscherbahn.

This is a cable car to the glacier on the side of the mountain. You can use this as often as you like so there’s no reason not to pop down to have a look or a drink in the cafe even if you plan to use the gondola to get back down to the Eibsee.

Note though that by the end of the summer season there’s not much ice and snow left up there, as you can see. I understand that when there is, you can go snow tubing. There’s still beauty in this barren landscape, and on a warm day, quite some demand for the deckchairs that face this view.


Testing, testing

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

Prior to departure

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


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

Which test?

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


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


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

Outbound

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


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

In Iceland

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


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


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

Inbound

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


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


What’s it like to drive up one of the UK’s steepest roads?

The Bealach na Bà – Gaelic for Pass of the Cattle – is the UK’s steepest ascent. This road was initially built as a drovers’ road, used by farmers to move their livestock to better pastures or to market. It dates from 1822 and cuts across the Applecross peninsula in the Scottish Highlands. It’s not the highest mountain pass in the country; that honour goes to Scotland’s Cairnwell Pass, the top of which is 670 metres above sea level. However, because the Bealach na Bà starts at sea level and rises to 626 metres, it’s widely considered the UK’s steepest ascent. I drove this historic mountain pass, part of Scotland’s North Coast 500 route, in May 2021 – so what’s it like to drive up one of the UK’s steepest roads?

View from the Bealach na Bà

I’d been tipped off by good friends – thank you Alex and Karen – that the Applecross Inn was worthy of a detour for its king scallops alone. My B&B was actually on the Isle of Skye, but fortuitously I’d opted for the southerly Sleat peninsula. (I’d like to pretend that was deliberate but in truth I just didn’t want to pay Portree prices.) Anyway, thanks to the Skye Bridge, getting back to the mainland wasn’t difficult. From there, while everyone else was still washing up their porridge pots, I followed an almost empty road across the Lochalsh peninsula and around beautiful Loch Carron.

Loch Carron

Not long afterwards, I reached this sign, which was a warning not to underestimate the route ahead. I’ve had to use this picture instead of one of my own as I was so excited to get going on the Bealach na Bà I didn’t think to stop!

Alan Talbot / Tornapress – warnings about Bealach Na Ba road (via Wikipedia)

Fortunately, it’s been a very long time since I was a learner driver and I wasn’t towing a caravan. I’ve also driven an Austrian mountain pass with the dog on board, not to mention some of Iceland’s steepest gravel roads, so I figured this wouldn’t be a big deal. They are both two-lane, however…

As on many of Scotland’s islands, this mainland route has sections that are single-track. We have them here in the north Essex countryside and they are a nightmare in the daytime. Lined with tall hedges or fields of crops, it’s almost impossible to see what’s coming and every bend is accompanied by the threat of a head on collision. At least at night you see approaching headlights. However, in Scotland, I found the narrowest highways considerably better managed. There is signage at regular intervals indicating where the passing places are, and these themselves are a significant step up from the micro-gaps and farm gateways on my local country lanes. Essex Highways, take note.

Passing place on the coastal stretch

As it turned out, I was also lucky that I’d timed my trip just before Scotland’s COVID rules relaxed to permit indoor drinking; the number of visitors was still relatively low which was a bonus when passing through the many narrow stretches. I’d set out fairly early on a Sunday morning on a fine, sunny day. There were cars about, and also the odd cyclist, but traffic was light. This is really helped once I got up on the higher ground and round its hairpin bends. You see, if the traffic can space out, there’s no need for anyone to retreat to the previous passing place. I read that sometimes a dozen or more cars have to engage reverse and creep back to let other motorists through. That wouldn’t have been fun at all.

The biggest issue apart from needing to be aware of oncoming traffic was the distraction caused by the jaw-dropping beauty of the surrounding area. On a clear day the views are incredible. Coming from the east, there’s a significant pullout which gives you a chance to get out and take a look at the road winding upwards ahead of you. After that, it’s not safe to stop until you get to the viewpoint at the top, where there’s a large car park on either side of the road. You can see some of the nearby islands, such as Raasay and Skye, and it’s one of the most fabulous panoramas in the country. Don’t be tempted though to pause in a passing place to snap a photo. You could end up blocking the traffic and that will not go down well with your fellow road users.

View at the top

The descent down into Applecross is less twisty but the scenery is still nothing less than spectacular. By the time I started working my way down it was approaching late morning and the traffic was building. After I’d had lunch (I’m pleased to report it was as good as I’d been told) I decided to take the coast road instead as I didn’t fancy ruining my good mood with the stop-start motoring that would now be likely if I backtracked over the pass. Instead, hugging the shoreline I headed north and then looped south. It added over half an hour to my journey time to postcard-perfect Plockton, my final stop of the day, but it was also very scenic and so definitely a good decision.

Pretty Plockton

Driving tips

  • Avoid winter – if the weather’s bad, the road can be impassable and if the cloud descends, those breathtaking views will disappear which would be a terrible waste.
  • Know your car – if you’re taking your own, you’ll be in familiar territory, but if you’re renting, opt for something slightly smaller than your own vehicle but don’t skimp on the horsepower. Also consider hiring an automatic which will take the hassle out of those hairpin bend gear changes.
  • Consider leaving early in the morning to give yourself the best chance of lighter traffic.
  • Always give way to oncoming traffic where they have right of way. Pull over on your own side of the road at a passing place, regardless of which side the passing place is – oncoming traffic should pull round you rather than drive in a straight line so that both vehicles remain on the correct side of the road.
  • Book ahead for the Applecross Inn as it does get busy. Allow more time than you think to get there – check your Sat Nav or Google maps and then add on a generous amount of stopping time, as you won’t want to rush this drive.
Roadside cairn beside the Bealach na Bà

My conclusion? If you find yourself in this part of Scotland, driving the Bealach na Bà is a must. My only disappointment was that I didn’t see any Highland cattle. According to Visit Scotland, I could have done (perhaps I was too busy concentrating on the road?) I guess I shall just have to try my luck another time, which gives me an ideal excuse to drive this magnificent route again.


Ticket to Ryde: a dog-friendly holiday on the Isle of Wight

It became a familiar conversation. We’d returned to the Isle of Wight after decades – my last holiday there was in 1979 and my husband’s a few years before that. It would seem the pandemic had given many of us the same idea: hop on a ferry and holiday on the island that had been a childhood favourite. And judging from the people we spoke to, we were all up for a bit of nostalgic sightseeing. But what’s it like now and most importantly since we had Edison in tow, how dog-friendly is it?

Dog-friendly attractions

Carisbrooke Castle

Aside from the museum, dogs are welcome across the Carisbrooke Castle site. As with most English Heritage properties, you need to book in advance, but availability was good. We chose to get there when it opened, largely because hot weather was forecast, but actually it only started to get busy around lunchtime. Edison walked the walls with us, though the steps down from the keep were very steep. If he’d been smaller, we might have been tempted to carry him, but instead we were forced to resort to bribes to get him down. Also, he wasn’t too sure about the castle’s famous donkeys, so we made sure he gave them a wide berth – though I couldn’t resist a fuss. Due to social distancing restrictions they aren’t demonstrating the donkeys using the water wheel at present but you can still take a look inside the wheel house.

Shanklin Chine

The term chine is used on the Isle of Wight to refer to a steep, narrow ravine where a river has cut its way down to the sea. Blackgang Chine used to be the largest until a landslip put paid to that; it’s still there and those dinosaurs you might remember are too. But we picked Shanklin Chine instead, which is now the largest. A stepped path leads down beside a waterfall and stream. There’s plenty of trees and shrubs to provide shade, including pretty rhododendrons, dainty ferns and some magnificent gunneras which have grown to giant proportions. On a hot day this was a lovely walk. There are glorious views out over the sea and close to the heritage centre, a cafe serving cream teas where dogs are welcome.

Osborne House

Osborne House itself is off-limits to dogs but that shouldn’t stop you from visiting. If there are two of you, take turns to tour inside and admire the lavish interiors of what was Queen Victoria’s summer palace. Dogs are welcome to explore the grounds – Edison enjoyed plenty of fuss from the gardeners tending the roses. There’s a 1.2km long tree-lined path which leads to the water where you’ll find an old fashioned bathing machine beside the cafe. From there, another ten minutes walk past gorgeous purple rhododendrons gets you to Swiss Cottage, an Alpine-style chalet built for the Royal children. It started to rain just as we were leaving to walk back to the main house. Fortunately, there’s a free minibus to shuttle visitors about and the driver was very keen to have Edison on board even though he was a little damp.

Alum Bay and the Needles

The Needles are the iconic image associated with the island and a must-see. Parking costs a hefty £6 for the day with no short term options available, but you can reach it on one of the two open-top Breezer bus routes. Two dogs are permitted per bus according to the terms and conditions, though we had the car so can’t verify this. You can see the Needles from the car park or walk to the Battery for a closer look. From Alum Bay beach, there are boat trips which head out for a closer look; dogs are permitted. We stuck to the beach itself where dogs are allowed so long as they stay on the lead – pack an extendable or long lead so they can go further out if you don’t fancy going in too. No dogs are permitted on the chair lift, so to see the famous coloured sands you’ll need to take the steps.

Isle of Wight Steam Railway

Steam railways are almost always dog-friendly and this one is no exception. Start your journey at Havenstreet, but get there well ahead of your departure time as there’s a superb museum to explore. Dogs are permitted inside and on the accessible carriages. The museum has some really old rolling stock which has been painstakingly restored, and there’s also a more recent addition – the newly retired carriages that once saw service on the London Underground before becoming the Island Line. The train ride is slow but very relaxing as it passes through unspoilt countryside. It’s especially dog-friendly at present as COVID restrictions mean households get a compartment to themselves – ideal if you have a nervous dog or don’t relish the embarrassment of a barking match. We travelled first class, which was perfect for us, but carpeted – apologies to the person who had to vacuum all that dog fur and sand after we got off.

The beaches

Many of the Isle of Wight’s beaches are dog-friendly year round. One of the best is Yaverland Beach, located just east of the resort of Sandown. At low tide, it’s a huge stretch of sand, so there’s plenty of room to roam – take a ball. As it is backed by cliffs you won’t have to worry about your dog running onto the road. We also liked the beach at Bembridge, close to the lifeboat station. We chose to go at high tide; there wasn’t much beach left but the beach shelves quite steeply so it’s ideal for your dog to swim yet still be close to shore. Another great choice is the walk to Steephill Cove from Ventnor. Park up at La Falaise car park and stroll along the cliff path. It’s steep in places but there are steps. Steephill Cove is privately owned, so it’s dogs on leads until 6pm, but visit the crab shack (closed Mondays and Tuesdays) and you and your pooch can share a delicious crab pasty on the beach.

Getting there

You’ll need to book a ferry or hovercraft if you’re travelling with your dog. We opted for the former as we wanted the convenience of having a car with us, but if you wanted to do a day trip the crossing is just ten minutes. We looked at both Red Funnel and Wightlink ferries. The former links Southampton to East Cowes and the latter crosses from Portsmouth to Fishbourne as well as Lymington to Yarmouth. prices were comparable so we chose the Fishbourne route. We travelled out on Victoria of Wight which had a large, dog-friendly deck as well as interior space. It was on time and a good experience.

A word of caution

Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for the return booking. We’d chosen a sociable 10.40am crossing on the St Clare, but the Victoria of Wight suffered an engine problem two days before we were due to sail. Our crossing – on the unaffected ferry, remember – was bumped to 00.40am with no option to change online. (The text and email we were sent said we could, but our booking had been checked in without our consent making that impossible. I tried calling but it was impossible to get through. Rather than drive through the night to get home and with heavy rain forecast all day (no fun with limited indoor options thanks to the dog), we paid an additional £67 for an 8.40pm booking the day before – ironically also on the St Clare. It wasn’t the best end to a holiday and I shall be making a complaint to Wightlink about it.

Where we stayed

There’s a great deal of dog-friendly accommodation on the island but we were very happy with our choice. Fort Spinney bungalows are located across the road from Yaverland Beach and have off-road parking. They were tastefully renovated in 2020 and represent excellent value for money. We opted for a two-bedroom bungalow sleeping four people which cost us £110 per night in June. It had a spacious living room, spotlessly clean bathroom and well-equipped kitchen with fridge, freezer and washing machine Although we’d liked to have had a coffee machine, the kiosk across the road served good coffee.

Best of all with a dog in tow was the enclosed private garden which was ideal for sitting safely with Edison who found himself a shady nook to stretch out in when we returned home each day. Bungalows 3, 4 and 5 (of ten) are dog-friendly; 5 is tucked away in the corner with only one attached wall. Edison’s not too fond of noise these days as we live in such a quiet village, but the bungalow was well insulated and he only kicked off when a cat had the audacity to come into “his” garden.

The verdict

The island is really dog-friendly and there is a whole lot more to do and see than we experienced during our six day stay. I’d definitely stay at Fort Spinney again too. All in all, it was a fabulous week, although the ferry issues were a reminder that you have limited options if you are stuck on an island when things don’t go according to plan.


Ever wondered what it’s like to take a flight which lands on a beach?

For a long time there have been two aviation-related items on my Scottish bucket list. I will have to wait a little longer to tick off the world’s shortest commercial flight – a 1.7 mile hop from Papa Westray to Westray in the Orkney Islands. But this May I realised a travel ambition: to land on the beach on the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.

Flights to Barra are operated by Loganair. I flew from Glasgow on a Twin Otter. They typically have a capacity of about 19 passengers though there were only 13 of us on board on the outbound leg and just four when we returned to Glasgow. It’s an intimate affair. Two crew members accompany the flight; the pilot is joined by a first officer who doubles as cabin crew for the obligatory safety briefing.

I’d heard that flights could be bumpy and in such a tiny plane I was fully prepared to feel queasy. Luckily for me, the weather was calm and the skies clear – both times. The flight time is about an hour from Glasgow and along the way we had some great views of some of the other islands.

My experience at Glasgow Airport was strange. Thanks to COVID, there were few people around when I arrived. In fact, I was directed down a side passage instead of entering the departure gate area via the duty free shop as was the norm. Even though I’d flown from Glasgow a few times before, it was a bit disconcerting, particularly when passengers were outnumbered by staff by a ratio of about 4:1. And this was for a civilised departure time of 10.15am. Eventually, a few businesses opened – Boots, WHSmiths, the duty free shop and the pub. The fact that everything else remained closed and there were fewer than 20 people waiting to fly in the whole terminal – not to mention seeing just a dozen flights for that day on the departure board – was a real eye-opener to the devastating effect this pandemic has had on airport economies.

Nevertheless, as I boarded the plane I was grinning. It’s always exciting to fly, but this was the first plane I’d boarded since October 2020. Approaching Barra at low altitude, we had a good view of the landing strip and airport. Aside from the beach itself, the airport comprised a few small buildings that housed the terminal, fire service and maintenance operations. Baggage reclaim was a bus shelter, though the bus itself idled in the car park as it waited for passengers.

I had a better chance to see how this airport functioned on the return leg. At high tide, the water is too far in to enable a safe landing. Even at low tide, a reccy is done by Land Rover to check there’s no debris left on the beach by the tide and to make sure the beach is dry enough to permit a safe landing. Whichever direction the plane lands, there’s plenty of room for it to taxi to the “stand” on the part of the beach closest to the terminal.

From my window seat I had a clear view of the landing. As we landed, the water on Traigh Mhor beach created a spray off the wheel. It was a smooth landing though – touching down on soft sand is definitely a lot more comfortable than doing so on the usual runway asphalt. Coupled with the lack of wind, it was one of the smoothest landings I’ve ever experienced.

And of course, being such a tiny plane with so few passengers, disembarkation was fast too. As it is a domestic flight there were no inbound formalities, though on the return leg bags were weighed and all passengers, regardless of whether they were in possession of an electronic boarding pass, were checked in by hand. It takes next to no time, but I’d recommend getting up to the airport well ahead of the departure time.

It is possible to fly in on the early flight and out on the later one, giving you a few hours on Barra. I opted for a two-night stay so I could see more of this charming island. Though Kisimul Castle is currently closed, boat trips to Mingulay to see its ruined village and bird cliffs are running, and there are plenty of excellent hikes to unspoilt beaches. Across the road you won’t want to miss the dune-backed Traigh Eais beach – a short but rewarding walk – and of course you’ll be able to see the incoming flight touch down. The bus driver was happy to let me stay on the bus for some bonus sightseeing as he looped up to Eoligarry to the north of the island.

To check out flight availability, visit the Loganair website.

To watch the videos of the flight landing, check out my Facebook page, Julia Hammond Travel Writing.


A dog friendly break in Shropshire

Aside from a brief visit to Ironbridge many years ago, this was my first visit to Shropshire. I’ve just returned from a few days spent in a converted cow shed – rather lovelier than it sounds – in a sleepy village close to the Shropshire Hills. What follows is by no means a complete guide to the area – for that I recommend the excellent Slow Travel Shropshire by Marie Kreft. As with other guides in this Bradt series, it will equip both first-time and return visitors with all the information they need to get the most out of this beautiful county.

Where we stayed

Edgton’s church

Home for a few days was the delightful Little Drift cottage in Edgton. Convenient for Ludlow and Church Stretton, this cute place was surprisingly spacious. The cottage shares an enclosed courtyard with the owners’ house with a couple of seats perfectly located to enjoy the late afternoon sunshine over a glass of wine. Inside, the comfortable living room and well-equipped kitchen were more than adequate for our needs, while upstairs there were two roomy bedrooms and a modern bathroom. There were enough dog-friendly touches to make this work for Edison as well – dogs allowed upstairs and a hose outside in case he got too muddy – useful for cleaning off hiking boots too.

Dog tired

Where we strayed

Ironbridge

The Iron Bridge

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ironbridge is handily close to Telford and as such barely a detour from our route into Shropshire. It’s the oldest iron bridge in the world, erected in 1779. In nearby Coalbrookdale in 1709, Abraham Darby had worked out how to produce iron on a commercial scale and the area soon attracted industry. With that, access needed to be improved and Thomas Pritchard, a local architect, came up with a groundbreaking design for an iron bridge. He died in 1777 but Darby’s grandson took on the job of overseeing construction. The result was the single span bridge we see today, 30 metres long and boasting five semi-circular ribs. It cost about £6000 to build, almost double the original estimate.

Edi on the bridge

Much Wenlock

Wenlock Priory

This charming place bills itself as instrumental in the establishment of the modern day Olympics, though with the dog in tow (not to mention COVID restrictions) we were confined to outdoor attractions only. There is a museum, however, should you be keen to learn more. Instead, we were content with a stroll through the village to admire the many historic properties and also a visit to Wenlock Priory. Managed by English Heritage, this ruined monastery stands close to fields grazed by sheep and at this time of year, plenty of lambs. It is sufficiently intact for visitors to get a sense of what it would have once been like, particularly if you take advantage of the audio guide provided.

At the priory

Carding Mill Valley

Valley walk

Managed by the National Trust, Carding Mill Valley offers an easy but scenic walk to Lightspout Waterfall. The route is billed as moderate, as there are a few short stretches which involve some minor clambering over rocks. Edison enjoyed the chance to cool his paws in the stream, and have a drink whenever he wanted. The weather had been mostly dry in the weeks before our visit so there wasn’t a lot of water in the falls, but they were pretty nevertheless. We looped back along New Pool Hollow on a trail the National Trust described as “suitable even for children”. It led to a small reservoir before looping back to the tearoom.

Cooling paws

The Long Mynd

View from the Long Mynd

For a longer walk it’s possible to continue from Carding Mill Valley to the Long Mynd on foot. Instead, we chose to drive the Burway – a largely single track road which follows the ridge. There are passing places and as we were early in the season there was barely any traffic but I assume it would get pretty busy in peak season. We parked up near the top and continued on foot – the views were breathtaking and one of the wild ponies that was grazing nearby moved in for a quick lick of the car much to the dog’s surprise. At Pole Bank beside the Triangulation Pillar there’s a signpost which points to local landmarks which is great for getting your bearings.

Wild ponies

The Stiperstones

The Stiperstones

The Stiperstones are a collection of rocky outcrops which are formed from quartzite. Surrounded by heather, smaller rocks litter the slopes beneath. Each has a name: you’ll find Shepherd’s Rock, Cranstone Rock and Nipstone Rock. Manstone Rock is the highest point. The largest is Devil’s Chair. According to legend, the Devil was carrying stones in his apron but one of the strings broke, so he dropped them here. There’s also a ghost that roams here: a Saxon noble called Wild Edric haunts this upland area fighting an endless battle. As with other Shropshire uplands, there are some excellent mini-hikes from convenient car parks as well as longer walks.

Shame about the weather

A trio of castles

Acton Burnell

There’s no shortage of castles in this part of England though we were a little unlucky. During our visit Stokesay Castle and Ludlow Castle were both off-limits as they were being used for filming. Instead, we had to make do with Acton Burnell Castle, a ruined shell of a property built in the 13th century by Bishop Burnell, Edward I’s Lord Chancellor. It’s free to get in and we had the place to ourselves, save for a couple of squirrels. We only stopped for coffee in Shrewsbury but when COVID restrictions on indoor attractions are lifted, it’s good to know that you can take a self-guided tour of Shrewsbury Prison with a dog in tow. Instead, we looped south to another ruin, Clun Castle and a somewhat unimpressive heap of stones which once formed the fortification in the nearby town of Bishop’s Castle.

Clun Castle

If you know this part of the world at all, you’ll be wondering why I’ve omitted Ludlow. This historic town is definitely a must for visitors. We did a drive-through only on this occasion to admire the many historic buildings but I’m keen to go back for the annual food festival which is held in September. Edison will have to stay home for that trip, as will my “I only eat brown food” husband.


Why I can’t wait to go back to New York

It’s been a while since I posted. The constant changes to predictions for summer travel have been wearing and I decided it was easiest to cope with it by simply not thinking about it at all. Nevertheless, my inbox has been flooded with press releases and updates reminding me that while the UK government won’t be updating their guidance until at least May 7th, tourism providers are chomping at the bit to get us to commit our holiday funds. Many of them sound really tempting, most of all a new initiative covering New York City. The “NYC Reawakens” tourism campaign is designed to help promote visitor attractions, hotels and restaurants. Since my last visit in February 2020, there’s a lot to get excited about.

A new observation deck

On May 1st, the Empire State Building celebrates its 90th birthday. Since it opened, other observation decks have followed suit. Last year, Edge launched at Hudson Yards. Frustratingly, my invite to step out onto the glass floor fell through at the last minute as the builders hadn’t vacated in time. Although I was told I’d be welcome next time I was in town, lockdown happened soon afterwards. Now there’s another. This autumn, SUMMIT opens at One Vanderbilt, close to Grand Central station. I’m not sure anything can top (sorry for the pun) the iconic ESB except perhaps Top of the Rock, but everything’s worth a try at least once, right?

Image credit: Related Oxford

TV tie-ins

One of the most fun tours I’ve done in New York City is definitely the movie tour operated by On Location. There have been so many films and TV shows set in New York that many of its buildings feel familiar the first time you set eyes on them in real life. One film in particular was even the reason for one of my earlier trips. After watching the John Cusack movie Serendipity, my husband and I made a repeat visit to NYC just days later – I’ve rarely been as spontaneous. This time, I’m looking forward to sitting on the Central Perk couch at the Friends Experience. I might just be tempted to watch a few more episodes of the Marvelous Mrs Maisel to get more out of the tie-in tour from the seat of her 1957 Studebaker. Harry Potter fans will be interested to learn that a dedicated merchandise shop opens in the Flatiron District at 935 Broadway on June 3rd. On the subject of shopping, the legendary Century 21 department store is set to relaunch too.

Who you gonna call?

Other attractions

Though I love New York in the off season, perhaps this year it won’t be as crowded as usual in summer. In my book, that’s a good reason to time a visit to coincide with the opening of an exhibition of portraits of Barack Obama at Brooklyn Museum. By the time the artwork reaches the Big Apple on August 27th, it’ll have already been seen in Washington and Chicago, as is fitting. The Frick’s collection is temporarily being housed at Madison and 75th while its historic East 70th building opposite Central Park is being renovated. I’ve never been a huge art fan but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed my visit. Somewhere I’ve never got around to touring is the Intrepid, though I know it gets rave reviews from those that have. This year, for the first time in decades, visitors will be able to access the pilot escalators and, it’s hoped, the bomb escalators.

Street Art on the FIT building in Chelsea

That’s plenty to be going on with, though there are also a number of exciting new hotel openings, such as Virgin’s first NYC hotel in NoMad (due this winter) and a Margaritaville Resort in Times Square (accepting bookings from June). I also promised myself I’d stay at the TWA hotel after enjoying a rather sociable visit to Connie Cocktail Lounge for drinks last year. I’m pretty tempted – are you?


The USA on the big screen

It’s getting harder to write about travel plans and look back on past trips. Though the UK vaccination programme proceeds at a decent pace, there’s still a long way to go before I reach the front of the queue and who knows when I’ll be able to travel abroad again. Lockdown has been tough this time, not least because the ground is sodden from one of the wettest winters we’ve had. I’m fortunate to have plenty of work and much to do around the house. But television and film allow me to travel vicariously and get my USA fix until I can get back there in real life. This list is certainly not a critics’ roundup, but instead it represents some of my favourite movies which celebrate the diverse and wonderful country which is the USA.

When Harry Met Sally

Let’s start at the beginning. Over three decades ago, I walked across the Rainbow Bridge to the American side of Niagara Falls; a couple of years later I returned for my first trip to New York City. It was a few years after When Harry Met Sally was released. As on the big screen, I stood beside the arch in Washington Square Park, ate “what she’s having” in Katz’s Deli and strolled through Central Park. I roller-bladed on the Wollman Rink too, though these days you can only skate in winter, on ice.

127 Hours

Fortunately, my experience of Canyonlands National Park was nothing like that of Aron Ralston and this film, recounting the accident he had in which he lost an arm, is a tough watch. It’s set in Bluejohn Canyon, well off the main highway, which was apparently named after an outlaw called John Griffiths who had one blue and one brown eye. I never made it to this photogenic slot canyon, but the colours of the rock under the changing light bring back memories of the other, more accessible parts of the park I visited.

Unstoppable

I do love a good Denzel Washington action thriller and no matter how many times I watch this movie, I never get bored of it. The runaway train scenes are stylishly shot as you’d expect from Tony Scott but I also love how this film has a really strong sense of place as it represents blue collar Pennsylvania. The “Stanton Curve” which is the setting for one of the most tense sequences in the movie, is actually the B & O Railroad Viaduct linking Bellaire, Ohio and Benwood, West Virginia.

The Horse Whisperer

I’m as much a fan of Robert Redford as I am of America’s wide open spaces, so this film is one I’ve watched many times. Southern Montana, specifically the ranch country at the base of the Absaroka Range south of Livingston, provided the breathtaking backdrop for much of the movie. That said, the opening sequence in a wintry upstate New York lane never loses its dramatic punch to the gut.

Ocean’s Eleven

I’m not sure whether it’s the music but the sequence in front of the Bellagio’s fountains is a splendid way to end a film. I’m not alone; apparently when they won the TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice award for top landmark in the United States over a decade later, the film was credited for reminding visitors of their appeal. Las Vegas has grown on me; the first time we visited I took some persuasion to go at all, but having been to the Neon Boneyard and Mob Museum, I’m now a convert.

Wild

It’s rare that both a book and a movie can have the same impact; often we connect with one more than the other. Cheryl Strayed’s hike along the Pacific Crest Trail was an emotional read but translated well to the big screen. Reese Witherspoon did an incredible job but the trail scenery in Oregon and Washington was unquestionably the star.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

This award-winning film wasn’t set in Missouri. But that isn’t really the point. It was shot near Asheville, North Carolina; downtown Sylva, an hour away, became the fictitious Ebbing. It was chosen as it had a quintessentially small town feel and, I read, the buildings in its main street were close enough together to throw something from one into another. I haven’t yet made it to Asheville, but it brings to mind similar places as far apart as Colorado and Maine.

Nights in Rodanthe

My final pick is also for a place I’ve never been, though North Carolina’s Outer Banks have been on my wish list for a while. The herd of wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs that Diane Lane catches sight of do roam the northernmost Currituck Outer Banks, though that’s not where they are in the movie. Another thing that’s moved is the inn itself. Had Richard Gere survived (oh I wish that he had) he’d be surprised to find it in a different location. It was moved 2 years after the film came out to protect it from future storms.

Do you have a favourite movie that’s set in the USA? I’d love you to leave a comment and share your picks.

This blog contains a mix of images; some are my own but those illustrating Unstoppable, Ocean’s Eleven, Wild and Nights in Rodanthe are sourced from Pixabay.


Get a jump on your travel planning – trips that require forward planning

Right now we can’t travel far, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking about it. In fact, some destinations require a lot of forward planning. If you’re keen to tick one of these trips off your wishlist, then you should get started on your research.

The Oberammergau Passion Play, Germany

Oberammergau’s Passion Play only takes place once every ten years and so if you miss out, there’s a long wait before you can try again. In the 17th century, this part of Germany was affected by the plague. The desperate villagers prayed to God and promised to perform the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ every decade, if no one else died. Their prayers were answered and the villagers honoured their word. In 1634 the first Passion Play took place. The promise has been kept every decade, but the 2020 performances, like many events last year, didn’t take place. Fortunately the play was postponed rather than cancelled and the organisers are now taking reservations for 2022. Make sure you buy your tickets from the official website only.

Japan’s cherry blossom

Japan’s dense population makes this a crowded country at the best of times, but in sakura season, things ramp up a notch. The Japanese believe that the delicate flowers symbolise the fragility of life, but also, just as importantly, how beautiful it is. And so everyone wants to go and see it. Cherry blossom forecasts are broadcast on television and hordes descend on some of the country’s most scenic paths, such as Kyoto’s Philospoher’s Path, to catch a glimpse of the pretty blossom. Hotels get booked out and so if you want to plan a trip to coincide with sakura season it’s wise to make some advance bookings. Failing that, ditch the idea and time your visit for autumn to see the fall colours instead.

Day of the Dead, Mexico

Mexico’s annual commemoration of their ancestors takes place countrywide, but some cities cater better to visitors with parades and funfairs. Oaxaca is one of them and to secure a room in the centrally located hotel of your choice you’ll need to reserve a year in advance. A number of hotels, such as Casa de las Bugambilias, put on a special programme of events which includes creating an altar, visiting the cemeteries and watching the fancy dress parades, known as comparsas. When I stayed in Oaxaca I had to be content with a hotel on the edge of the city as that was all that was left. Luckily, I was able to join the Bugambilias team for the excursions even though I wasn’t staying there too.

Inti Raymi, Peru

As with permits for the popular Inca Trail, tickets to the Inca Sun God festival known as Inti Raymi need to be bought well upfront. The parade that passes through Cusco’s Plaza de Armas is free to anyone who can find a piece of pavement, but if you wish to watch the ceremony up at Sacsayhuaman Fortress then you have to pay. The spectacle, which involves a colourful procession and re-enactment of an Inca llama sacrifice, is an unforgettable sight and definitely worth the effort. By booking as early as I could, I managed to get a front row seat. Even then, I nearly missed the start of the proceedings as heavy traffic up to Sacsayhuaman meant I had to jump out of the taxi halfway up and run the rest.

Gorillas, Rwanda and Uganda

When I visited Uganda a couple of years ago I opted to trek to see chimpanzees rather than the much rarer mountain gorillas – just 700 or so remain – that occupy the forests both there and in neighbouring Rwanda and the DRC. Partly, my decision was made on the basis of cost (permits can set you back up to $1500) but also as I didn’t think I was fit enough to cope with the physical side of the excursion (chimpanzees typically hang out much closer to where the trucks can park). Despite what would seem to be a prohibitive cost, permits are strictly limited and do sell out, even in Rwanda where there are more habituated groups of these magnificent primates.

Venice Carnival, Italy

Venice’s carnival is one of the oldest in the world, with a history that dates back to the 12th century (although it did take a break for almost 200 years before being reintroduced in 1979). Today, visitors from all over the world flock to this ancient city for the festivities. Masks are an important part of the costumes, made from leather, porcelain or even glass. Several different styles exist: the white bauta which covers the entire face, the shorter colombina, the medico della peste with its long beak and the volto, heaviest of all. Each has a story to tell. For a conveniently located hotel or a ticket for one of the lavish costume parties, get organised in plenty of time. It goes without saying that the same applies if you’re planning to attend the carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Jacmel, Haiti or Port of Spain, Trinidad.

The Afrosiyob train, Uzbekistan

The Afrosiyob is Central Asia’s first high speed rail service. It currently links the cities of Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara; it’s expected that the train will continue on to Khiva in the near future (slower trains already run this route). Modelled on the Spanish Talgo, train buffs couldn’t wait to get over to Uzbekistan to try it out. Consequently, tickets often sell out (they’re only released 45 days beforehand in any case) and I’ve read that some unfortunate travellers have found that their tour operator has been forced to switch them to a minibus instead. I haven’t yet been, but following a wonderful trip to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan a couple of years ago I would very much like to return to this part of the world. Then, Advantour took care of my arrangements so I expect to entrust them with my tickets when I visit Uzbekistan.

This isn’t a complete list by any stretch of the imagination, but nevertheless I hope that this roundup has given you food for thought. I should also add that only the pictures of Day of the Dead and Inti Raymi were taken by yours truly; thanks to Pixabay for the rest.


A different kind of New Year’s travel resolution?

There’ll be plenty in the travel media over the next week or so about travel resolutions and if last year was anything to go by (who knows after the year we’ve had?) sustainability will feature heavily. I’m not a one for making New Year’s resolutions anymore, having broken so many in the past, but if I’m forced to come up with something I’d say that next year I’d like to learn to speak Icelandic.

Having spent a blissful eleven days in Iceland in the summer, it wasn’t until I returned home that I realised just how little Icelandic I had heard. Many of the hotel and restaurant staff I came into contact with were foreign nationals and those who weren’t spoke almost faultless English. That’s understandable: tourism numbers have grown exponentially in recent years and with such a small population, I guess it was inevitable that they might have to look beyond the border to fill some of the jobs that had been created.

I’m usually more of a fan of unspoilt nature, particularly in a place where the landscape is as ruggedly handsome as in Iceland. But the beautiful East Fjords port of Seyðisfjörður challenged that somewhat. Sadly it’s been in the news the last few days as there has been a terrible landslide which has caused significant damage to property. Luckily the authorities evacuated everyone in good time but they have been left with one hell of a cleanup task.

I thought it was a pretty little place: my guesthouse was right on the water’s edge and I could walk to the church – an Instagrammers’ favourite thanks to the rainbow path that leads up to it – in a couple of minutes. Travelling in August, the village was just busy enough not to feel like a ghost town yet not so overcrowded that it was overrun. I might have had a different opinion about that rainbow path if it had been. Instead, I ambled along it in a very good mood indeed having just purchased a pair of equally colourful knitted-by-nanas socks. I was enticed away only by the thought of a beer in the sunshine; in my defence the temperatures were uncharacteristically warm.

And so I have fond memories of Seyðisfjörður. When I got home, I was itching to watch the exceptional crime drama Trapped, which actually premiered back in 2015 under its Icelandic title Ófærð. The action in the first series centres on Seyðisfjörður and its ferry. So, I was excited to reminisce and “share” the place with my husband, though it turned out a lot of the scenes were shot in the North Iceland village of Siglufjörður which I had bypassed. Honestly, though, if there’s even the slimmest of chances I’d get to see Trapped’s detective Andri Ólafsson, then a repeat visit is most definitely on the cards. Season 3 is currently in production and due to air sometime in 2021.

But I digress. The show is subtitled for international audiences, rather than dubbed, so it was only then that I became aware of what I had missed. Icelandic is a delightfully melodic language and one that I could listen to just for the sake of the sound. But it’s also fiendishly difficult to pronounce, as we found out when the volcano Eyjafjallajökull blew its top a decade ago. It doesn’t help that the Icelandic alphabet has 32 characters: no c, q, w or z but letters like æ, pronounced i and þ, pronounced th.

There are even whole words where we don’t have an equivalent – like dalalæða (valley-sneak fog) or sólarfrí (an unexpected day off when it’s sunny). Others are literal translations that just wouldn’t work in most places. Take Sauðljóst, for instance, which describes the pre-dawn haze as “the time of day when there is just enough light to see your sheep.” There are phrases too, such as Þetta reddast, which strictly speaking means it will all work out fine, but more often is used when the exact opposite is the case.

All is not lost, however. Fortunately for those who intend to stick to their resolutions (not saying whether that will be me), there are similarities between some words. Fiskur means fish, hús can only be house, dóttir is not dissimilar to daughter, fjall and fell (as in our northern hills) are obviously connected and vegur (which you’ll see on numerous road signs) translates as way. And as we quickly learned from Trapped – not to mention another gripping Nordic noir series The Valhalla Murders – there are plenty of English words that Icelanders have adopted. One of these loanwords (þriller) even means thriller.

So check back in next December and see how I’m getting on. After all, it doesn’t look like I’ll be travelling for a while, so I may as well make use of the time.


Travels in 2020 – and what’s in store for 2021

At one point this year I wondered whether I’d even be writing this post. When the UK government imposed its first lockdown in March, the future of travel looked extremely bleak. Day after day I received gloomy notifications on Facebook and Twitter, not to mention countless emails from PRs and tour operators. Borders closed, airlines cancelled flights and festival organisers postponed events. I’d have liked not to have thought about travel at all, but that’s not exactly a smart move for someone who writes about it for a living. 

At first, it seemed like it could all be over in a few months. Respite came in the summer but as autumn set in, numbers began to rise again and lockdowns and travel restrictions once again became the norm. On top of everything comes Brexit. Though in theory Brits should still be able to travel throughout the EU with minimal restrictions, in practice our coronavirus numbers could see us barred for an indeterminate period of time if, as now seems likely, a deal isn’t done. Before I get too depressed, let’s look back at where I escaped to this year.

February: New York City

Hudson Yards

I adore New York. There’s always something new to see or do and this trip was no exception. I paid a visit to Hudson Yards. Though I was underwhelmed with Vessel and let down by the PR who promised to get me onto the Edge observation deck ahead of the public opening but cancelled at the very last minute, I did at least get to wander around the mall. More interesting was my visit to Staten Island. Instead of just doing the classic ferry U-turn, I hopped on a bus and spent some time exploring Historic Richmond Town with a very engaging guide. Amid all the modern skyscrapers on Manhattan it’s easy to forget there’s a lot of old stuff in the city so it’s well worth checking it out and exploring the other boroughs.

March: St Petersburg

Museum of Soviet Arcade Games

It had been a long time since my first visit to Russia when I set out from Moscow on the Trans-Mongolian bound for Ulan Bator. In the intervening years I’ve written many times for Just Go Russia and it was that experience that won me the job with Morning Calm magazine for a feature on St Petersburg. Keen to see as much of this beautiful city as I possibly could, I put together a punishing itinerary crammed with palaces, churches and other visitor attractions. I was blown away by the lavish interiors of the royal palaces (not least because there were so few tourists) but it was the quirkier side to the city that I enjoyed the most, like figuring out how to beat the machine at the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games, meeting the feline residents of a cat cafe and drinking Maverick Bumbles in trendy cafes.

August: Iceland

Svartifoss

By the time we reached August I was going stir crazy but my Iceland itinerary changed so many times I almost didn’t dare to believe I’d actually make it. The reward for all that uncertainty was a trip blessed with unseasonably warm weather and sunny skies. Couple this with the lack of visitors and it’s not hard to understand why this was one of the best trips I’ve had, not just in 2020, but ever. After such a stressful period, hiking in the fresh air was invigorating not just for the body but also for the soul. Some of the driving was a lot more challenging than I expected, but those terrible gravel roads led me to off the beaten track corners for some truly magical moments. I can’t wait to go back to Husavik in particular and watch another sunset from GeoSea.

October: Madeira

Funchal

Nothing would compare to Iceland but I really enjoyed my first visit to Madeira. I thought I’d just relax and do a little bit of walking but there was actually a lot more to do and see than I’d anticipated. From my base in Funchal, I could explore not only the capital – and ride one of those famous wicker toboggans – but head out around the island. I walked a couple of levada trails and saw just how pretty the Madeiran countryside is, though some of the ridiculously steep descents left me hobbling in agony! But the wow factor moment came over lunch in the northern village of Porto Moniz. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the sea was brochure blue as I watched the waves break over the famous lava pools.

With Edi in Northumberland

And that’s about it, save for a holiday to Northumberland with the dog and a lot of local walks. Right now I’d normally be at a Christmas market somewhere in Europe. Most of them have been postponed until 2021, but the thought of being somewhere crowded while case numbers are this high just doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

So what of next year? If this year has taught me one thing, it’s to seize opportunities to travel while you can. If the pandemic permits, when flights resume I’m keen to visit the Azores for some more wow-factor volcanic scenery having enjoyed Cape Verde and Madeira so much. Santorini is also on my wishlist – I’ve never been but perhaps it won’t be as busy (or expensive) as it normally is. Andorra would be great, though I’d then be tempted to visit Belarus too – they’re the only two countries in Europe I’ve never been.

Cape Verde

Who knows when it will be safe and sensible to travel further afield? But if there’s no chance of being stranded and I’ve had the vaccine by then, Peru for its 200th birthday celebrations sounds like a whole lot of fun. Last year I wrote about how I’d love to visit Tajikistan, Comoros, Sao Tome & Principe, Rwanda and Madagascar – all of them are still high on my wishlist. Over in the States, I’d still love to make it to Alaska or Hawaii, though a road trip taking in Washington DC, North Carolina and Dollywood looks more likely. Nothing’s certain right now, but it doesn’t hurt to dream.

Happy travels for 2021, whether you see places in real life or travel vicariously through the words and pictures of others.


Thoughts on the COVID vaccine passport

There’s been some discussion in the press and on social media about a possible COVID vaccine passport. Currently, as you’d expect from an unanticipated pandemic, the response to traveller demand has been inconsistent, with each nation making their own decisions about how to proceed. Some require advance or on arrival COVID testing, others have closed borders and a few have relied on track and trace. Keeping abreast of changes to know what the current situation is can be tricky, as I discovered when I travelled to Iceland in the summer

Now there’s a vaccine on the cards, IATA has put forward its Travel Pass. This will be a digital platform where data on tests, vaccines and other relevant information can be stored securely. The scheme is due to be piloted this December and launched in the first half of 2021. The advantage of a speedy rollout is designed to dovetail with the vaccination programme – in other words the idea is to ensure that if you have a vaccine early in 2021 it would be recognised on this database.

Of course, there can be no assumption that the vaccine will work for everyone, nor will every negative test result ensure that the person sitting next to you on that plane won’t be an asymptomatic carrier. There are no guarantees and with a disease as contagious as COVID-19, even a digital travel pass won’t provide enough reassurance for some.

In the past, other travel vaccinations have been linked to entry requirements. When I visited Panama, I had to carry the yellow fever vaccination booklet to show to border officials if asked; I wasn’t. When applying for a visa to visit Uganda last year, I needed to supply that same proof of a yellow fever vaccine as a condition of receiving it. The WHO has this to say about yellow fever:

“The vaccine provides effective immunity within 10 days for 80-100% of people vaccinated, and within 30 days for more than 99% of people vaccinated. Good supportive treatment in hospitals improves survival rates. There is currently no specific anti-viral drug for yellow fever.”

Right now, results from the coronavirus vaccine trials indicate that they don’t have such a high success rate. But in terms of vaccines being a component of the decision on whether to permit you to travel, there’s obviously a precedent. Many of us can choose whether or not we wish to fly internationally and we can also therefore decide whether we are comfortable with both the risks involved in air travel and also with our personal information being stored in the manner IATA suggests.

As Australia’s relative isolation and sparse population have helped keep cases low during the pandemic, it was no surprise to read that Qantas was the first airline to come out and say they’ll require passengers to be in possession of this kind of travel passport when a vaccine’s been rolled out. Boss Alan Joyce was quoted in the press at the end of November as saying he felt it was a necessity to boost confidence and enable air traffic to get back to some kind of normal. That news didn’t go down well with UK travel agent Tradewinds, who countered with an announcement that they would cease booking their customers on the Australian airline. Their argument? They were pro-choice rather than anti-vaccine, they said. (As far as I can see, they aren’t offering tours to Uganda, which would have been interesting.)

Personally, I’m comfortable with having the vaccine – in the same way I’ve opted for typhoid, hepatitis and even the fairly useless cholera jabs in the past. So long as my personal data’s stored securely, I’m also OK with carrying a health passport. However, I respect that not everyone feels the same way. What about you? 


Product review: Secret London – an unusual guide

Every now and again, the debate over whether counting countries makes someone less of an authentic traveller or not rears its head. I’ll freely admit, I’ve added places to an itinerary simply because I’m going to be just across the border and the urge to explore is strong. But it’s also great to revisit a place and dig a bit deeper. That said, there’s a temptation when you do go back to see yourself as some kind of expert. Usually, that’s not at all true, but what about when it’s your local city?

When I was offered the chance to review Jonglez Publishing’s “Secret London: An Unusual Guide”, I thought it was a chance to see just how well I knew the city. Both my parents were born there and as I’ve lived all my life under an hour from Liverpool Street station, I’ve been a frequent visitor. In that respect, although I’ve never lived in London, I do know it well and think I’m reasonably well qualified to determine whether the places included in the book should be deemed “secret” or not.

The extensive list of contents is zoned into broad geographic areas, such as Marylebone to Shepherd’s or Whitechapel to Woolwich. “Towerbridge” niggles, but the error is fixed in later pages. I’d say you have to know the city already to be able to make sense of the geography, though the flip side of that is that the book is designed for people who wish to get off the beaten track and by definition, they’re more likely to have already visited.

I’d have liked to see neighbourhoods or the more usual East, South, West and North London split to make it easier for readers to get their bearings. Greater London is dealt with in two halves, so you have BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in the same section as God’s Own Junkyard yet they’re 15 miles apart on opposite sides of a congested city.

In this respect, the guide’s more suited to curling up in an armchair than taking it out with you. In many cases, the listings seem to be designed to be sufficiently informative that you don’t need to visit at all, with tons of background and a colourful picture. However, there are helpful maps throughout which enable you to concentrate on a small part of the city and hop from sight to sight should you wish. The inclusion of bus numbers as well as Tube stations is also useful.

Largely, the buildings and curiosities that the authors include are intriguing. One of the guide’s greatest strengths is to gently remind you that many of these things are hidden in plain sight. Some of the attractions featured are a surprise: Brixton is home to London’s last windmill in full working order, while Strand Lane’s Roman Baths are neither Roman nor originally built as a bath.

There’s a lot in here that is already familiar to me, but there’s also a lot which isn’t.Though it’s possible to dip in and out of this guide, it’s the kind of book that rewards those who give it a little more time. There are a few missed opportunities, such as an entry for the Kingsway Tram Subway that makes no mention of the Crossrail project. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, anyone hoping to visit some of these attractions is going to need to check online listings as many of them are currently closed.

Overall, I think it’s a worthy addition to any bookshelf – not to mention its gift potential if you’re stuck for present ideas. I can’t wait to take it up to London with me and see some more bits of our fascinating capital now I know more of the background.

Many thanks to Jonglez for the gift of several of their guides, including the Secret London guide which retails at £12.99. For a full list of titles visit the Jonglez Publishing website.


Essex on foot: walk your way through lockdown

These are stressful times but one of the best ways to find a way through this with your sanity intact is to walk. As you connect with your surroundings, you’ll find yourself using more of your senses – you won’t just see what’s around you but be able to smell, hear and touch it. Slowing down the pace gives you time to appreciate what’s around you in a way that taking a scenic drive cannot. Here in Essex, thanks to our flat topography, walking really is accessible to everyone.

Even before the pandemic, Country Walks magazine was encouraging us to get out and explore on foot to improve our fitness. Its Walk 1000 Mile challenge was as simple as it sounds; walk, record, share. If you walk every day, that’s less than 3 miles in one go each time you lace up those boots. The initiative launched early in January, with a year suggested for covering the 1000 mile target, but there’s no reason you can’t start whenever you like. Use an app such as Map My Walk or Strava (not just for runners and cyclists) to keep track of the distance you’ve covered.

Be mindful of the lockdown rules

Before you head out on a cross-county drive to explore somewhere new, bear in mind the UK government’s lockdown guidance, which currently extends until December 2nd. Walking with members of your household or support bubble is permitted, and it’s also legal to meet with one other person. Plan ahead so you’re abreast of seasonal parking options and road closures.

Give other walkers space; carry a mask for areas which might be busy, such as queuing for a car park ticket or a takeaway coffee. Carry some hand sanitiser to ensure you don’t unwittingly pick up germs from a gate or bench. We might not all agree with the government’s policy, but restrictions will only ease if the numbers come down and we all have a responsibility to try to achieve that.

Where to find information

If you’re looking for a walking book there are a number of good choices, but one of the best is Essex Outstanding Circular Walks by Dennis and Jan Kelsall. Suggested routes are grouped by length, giving you a good idea of how long they might take, and there are clear maps too. Best of all, you’ll conveniently end up where you started.

There’s also a wealth of online content available. If you’re not able to get connected at home, sixteen Essex libraries are open and 45 minute computer sessions are bookable in advance. These are the libraries which remain open during the lockdown: Basildon, Billericay, Braintree, Brentwood, Chelmsford, Clacton, Colchester, Dunmow, Epping, Harlow, Harwich, Maldon, Rayleigh, Rochford, South Benfleet and Witham.

A useful starting point on the internet is the Essex Walks site. It has a useful map search facility which means you can identify walks near to your home. It also splits walks into long and short, allowing you to pick a route which is suitable for your fitness level and the amount of time you can spare. Fellow travel writer Helen Moat wrote a great round-up piece for Wanderlust magazine this summer, which mostly features walk ideas that showcase our varied coastline.

If you’re on Facebook, then I recommend you check out the Rambling Essex group. Largely driven by member-suggested content, this is where you’ll find the local walks and hidden gems that can only come from those who live here. The admin team have been diligently uploading all sorts of walking routes, so if you’re looking for inspiration, this is the place to find it.

Some of my favourite Essex walks

Woodland: Marks Hall Arboretum

We’re blessed with many woodland walks in Essex: well-trodden paths cut through Hockley Woods, Billericay’s Norsey Woods and Belhus Country Park in south Essex. Further north, the county boasts hidden gems such as Blakes Wood near Danbury, Chalkney Wood near Earls Colne and Weeleyhall Wood near Weeley. Let’s not forget Epping Forest, which remains an unspoilt tract of countryside despite its proximity to London.

Marks Hall Arboretum, in my opinion, is in a league of its own. This time, it will stay open during lockdown; the mix of formal planting and natural woodland makes this place a delight to visit at any time of year, but it’s especially lovely in autumn with its palette of ochre, burnt orange and crimson. It’s becoming increasingly popular, so check ahead for opening times and car park information.

Village walks: Thaxted

Inland, there are plenty of walks which loop within and around some of the county’s cutest villages. Coggeshall’s packed with history, not least as you stroll past Grange Barn or Paycocke’s House. A walk from Bradwell-on-Sea soon takes you to England’s oldest chapel, St Peter-on-the-Wall, built in 654AD. Follow St Peter’s Way 40 miles across Essex and you’ll reach another historic place of worship, Greensted Church, the oldest wooden church in the world.

The Essex countryside is also littered with windmills. The oldest, a post mill, stands overlooking the chocolate box village of Finchingfield but as far as walks are concerned, my vote goes to Thaxted. A loop trail reveals not just an early 19th century tower mill but also Dick Turpin’s house, thatched almshouses and the beautiful 15th century Guildhall.

Riverside walks: the Wivenhoe Trail

It’s really hard to pick a riverside favourite as there’s just so many to choose from. The charms of the River Stour at Dedham Vale are well-documented, but it’s also a treat to walk east from Manningtree to Harwich, passing Wrabness and the quirky House for Essex along the way.

The Blackwater at Wickham Bishops reveals an almost hidden wooden trestle railway bridge tucked out of sight in a copse, the last of its kind in the country. Not far away, the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation has a number of highlights, including Paper Mill, Hoe Mill and Beeleigh locks, not to mention Heybridge Basin, of course. The Crouch is pleasant too, particularly the north shore from Fambridge to Burnham-on-Crouch.

I do enjoy the five miles or so from Hythe in Colchester to Wivenhoe. The industrial heritage at the start of the trail is fascinating – you won’t miss the Colne Lightship in its red livery but there are some unusual wooden carvings that are easier to overlook. Wivenhoe, with its pretty historic cottages and colourful boats, is a complete contrast.

Coastal: Walton on the Naze

Surprisingly little of the Essex coastline boasts broad sandy beaches, as the presence of salt marsh creates a buffer between the villages and the sea in places. At RSPB Old Hall Marshes, near Tollesbury, and at Wallasea Island, footpaths make use of the sea walls for hikes that are guaranteed to blow away the cobwebs. That’s not to say we’re short of sand, however, from the busy beaches flanking Southend Pier to the historic iron lighthouses on Dovercourt’s Blue Flag beach.

In my opinion, the stretch of coastline between Jaywick and Hamford Water takes some beating. Though the grassy dunes of Jaywick are photogenic and the greenswards at Clacton and Frinton are ideal for a dog walk, northerly neighbour Walton is head and shoulders above the rest. With an 18th century clifftop tower, wrecked pillboxes, promise of shark’s teeth fossils and a nature reserve that’s home to migratory birds during the winter months, what’s not to love?

One last thing: show respect for local landowners

I’m always saddened to read of conflicts between ramblers and local landowners. Private land is what it says, whether we like it or not. Farmers out in their fields using machinery shouldn’t have to worry about people straying into their path – it’s important to remember that 72% of Essex is agricultural land, so stick to footpaths and marked trails if you’re venturing out into the countryside. 


Funchal’s old town doors

I spent five days exploring Madeira and it wasn’t nearly enough to discover its charms. Based in Funchal, I enjoyed several early morning strolls around the old town while waiting for buses to take me around the island. Those walks revealed a novel art project instigated by local photographer José Maria Zyberchem in 2010, coincidentally about the same time as Instagram began. It’s called the Art of Open Doors – and as it’s evolved, now centres largely on Rua de Santa Maria in the Zona Velha. The first piece of artwork on that street – at number 77 – was commissioned in 2011 and the project’s still growing.

Homes, restaurants and shops combine to form one wonderful outdoor art gallery, as diverse as it is compelling. Some owners were more reluctant than others, particularly at first, but this is the kind of project that snowballs. The more doors they include, the greater the impact of the whole installation. As property changes hands, some of the art is painted over. In one or two cases, vandals have spoiled the original work. But, many of the doors are as they were when the artist packed away their brushes.

The Painted Doors Project, as it’s also known, provides an interesting insight into Madeiran culture, with images of poncha, folk dancing and the island’s colourful flora all making an appearance. Some artists make imaginative use of door knockers and post boxes within the design. Some are modern in style, others contemporary. All of them help to breathe new life into an area that was definitely looking a little rough round the edges.

Do you have a favourite? I’m hard pushed to choose and always a sucker for a dog, but if I had to pick, then perhaps the mermaid.


It’s travel, but not as I know it

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

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

The advice on the UK’s FCDO website reads:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Funchal’s wicker toboggans

Funchal’s wicker toboggans might not give you a rollercoaster-level thrill, but their long history makes riding one a must for any visitor to the Madeiran capital.

I stopped off at The Madeira Story in downtown Funchal for a little background before catching the cable car up to Monte. I learned that people started to use the wicker toboggans, known as “carros de cesto”, back in the 19th century.

Wicker is a big deal in Madeira; the industry is centred on the village of Camacha. Willow grows abundantly on the island, thanks to its humid climate. Once harvested, the willow sticks are boiled to make them flex more easily, an attribute that’s vital if they’re to be crafted into baskets, furniture – and toboggans.

Riding a toboggan provided the means of getting down the very steep hill from Monte to the Livramento neighbourhood in comfort. Having walked down from the end of the toboggan ride I can attest to the painful toll those gradients have on your toes, knees, calves and thigh muscles. But if you look closely at these old photos, you’ll also see the steps in the cobbles, designed to make it easier to walk – but probably resulting in a much bumpier ride than that you’d experience today.

Today’s carreiros wear much the same white uniform and straw boater as their 19th century counterparts. However in some old photos the carreiros wear something akin to a funnel on their head instead. I’d love to know what these peculiar hats were called and when they were phased out.

In pairs, the carreiros drag the wicker cart on ropes to get some momentum, before running to the back ready to steer. Gravity pretty much does the rest – the cart’s greased wooden runners glide surprisingly smoothly on the tarmacked streets.

At junctions (these are proper roads used by cars too), spotters keep an eye out for oncoming traffic and ensure someone gives way. If it’s the toboggan, passengers must rely on the braking power of the carreiros’ shoes. Fortunately, despite reaching speeds of up to 30kph – some say even faster – they seem to be pretty adept at stopping. It’s fun rather than terrifying, but an activity I’d definitely recommend.       

Some sources claim that Ernest Hemingway pronounced the ride “the most exhilarating” of his life during his 1954 stopover on the island. But there are no written accounts penned by the author; instead, it’s likely that the only Hemingway to have experienced the toboggans during that trip was his wife Mary, who wrote about it herself. 

Rain was threatening and so the carreiros were beginning to pack away the wicker toboggans. This involved considerably less effort than a century ago. Back then, if this picture is to be believed, the toboggans were carried downhill on their shoulders.

These days, all that has to be done is to bump the cart down a few steps, using the ropes to guide it. From the bottom, it’s hoisted onto a waiting flatbed truck and piled up neatly for the transfer to the depot.

To ride the toboggans:

The Monte base is a short walk from the top of the Teleférico do Funchal, which departs from the Funchal waterfront near the bus station. A one way adult ticket costs 11 euros. The toboggan ride costs 30 euros for two passengers (solo travellers pay a hefty 25 euros). The ride lasts just a couple of minutes. From the end of the ride at Livramento at the junction between Caminho do Monte and Estrada do Livramento, a taxi will cost you 10 euros back down to the cable car station. Save your money and instead, catch a city bus (#19 departs from across the street and #26 nearby) for a fifth of that cost.