Last week I flew back from St Petersburg in Russia and since then, the travel world has pretty much fallen apart. At times it’s felt like those few seconds when you settle back into a chairlift and wait for it to move slowly to the edge of the platform before accelerating away. My inbox and social media feeds are full of stories: airlines laying off staff and grounding flights, governments closing borders; visitor attractions falling like dominoes. Stranded travellers scramble for places in a global game of musical chairs, wishing they had acted more decisively while they still had the opportunity.
In short, it’s not a great time to be a traveller, or a travel writer. It’s not a great time to be a lot of things.
But who knows, this might finally be the time I write the book I started five years ago, or at the very least finish the Roman blinds I’m making for the spare room. At the time of writing, my commission with an in-flight magazine for a story on Russia’s St Petersburg hasn’t been cancelled, though it still might be. As I wrap up the other articles on my to do list, I thought I’d share some of the photos I took last week. I’m not sure when my next trip will be, so pictures and stories about past adventures are just going to have to do for now.
Sts Peter & Paul Cathedral
St Isaac’s Cathedral
Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood
Sadko from the Tsar’s box at the Mariinsky Theatre
Museum of the Siege of Leningrad
Vodka tasting at the Museum of Russian Vodka
Museum of Arcade Games
Museum of Street Art
Nevsky Prospekt and around
The juxtaposition of the traditional brick apartment buildings of W 28th Street with the futuristic glass and steel structures of Hudson Yards behind is a quintessentially New York kind of view. In the soft light of a clear winter morning, Edge and its neighbours looked almost ethereal. Close up, approached from the last stretch of the High Line, they were an imposing sight. Last time I’d been in the area, this was a building site. Today, this privately funded complex is making its bid to become the latest go-to neighbourhood in the city.
Edge won’t open until mid-March 2020; when it does, it will become the highest outdoor observation deck in the western hemisphere. I had been offered a preview visit by the representing PR but it fell through half an hour before I was due to go up, thanks to unexpected construction work. I had to content myself with a view of the outside from below and the video projected inside the mall. Will it find its place in the already saturated market for high rise observation decks in Manhattan? Time will tell.
In the meantime, in front of it stands Vessel, which opened in 2019. The structure was dreamed up by British designer Thomas Heatherwick, who had a hand in the new Routemaster and the failed Garden Bridge amongst other things. Entry is free, so long as you are happy to be pinned down to a specific date and time. You can get turn up and go up tickets on the day if they’re available, or reserve them up to two weeks in advance. That’s just as well, for a staircase (well, 154 staircases to be precise) is pretty much all it is.
Clad in a coppery metal (it’s actually Italian steel) which is intended to be weather-resistant, the structure cost an eye-watering $150 million to construct – an extra $50 million more if you factor in the land in was standing on. In the right spot, it might have been worth paying for, but surrounded by high rises, the only real view you get is of the shopping centre and the train yard beside the Hudson River.
If you’re unable to climb steps, it’s even more of a disappointment: the elevator runs only every 15 minutes (“to make sure it doesn’t break down”) and accesses just one of the 80 landings. If stairs are a problem, the sole view you’ll have is that facing The Shed, an event space that looks like it’s been clad in a curious kind of giant bubble wrap. As the surrounding platforms require visitors to tackle multiple steps, they’re out of reach. According to the media, this is being addressed, though there was no sign of any remedial work during my visit.
Critics have not been kind, dubbing it the “Staircase to Nowhere”. While the architects refer to it as honeycomb, others have taken their foodie inspiration instead from the humble kebab. Still more liken it to a waste paper basket. The name Vessel is temporary. The architects have solicited suggestions from the general public and been inundated with the likes of Staircase McStaircaseface, Meat Tornado, The Rat’s Nest and the Chalice of the Privileged, so it’s likely to call itself Vessel for the foreseeable future.
Even the aim of making this a place where people congregate seems a little fanciful given its less-than-central location.There’s nowhere to sit, and nowhere much that’s under cover, especially at ground level. For a plaza that’s supposedly designed to function as a meeting point, that seems a curious oversight on the part of the developers.
Hudson Yards’ position right up against the Hudson River also makes it an unlikely spot for acting as a meeting point. Though the 7 train is only a short hop from Times Square, if you plan to walk it’s a not especially scenic cross-town stroll. If you planned to meet undercover in the shopping centre instead, that won’t help much: there’s almost no seating there either, save for a few chairs and tables assigned to the cafes inside.
I couldn’t help thinking how starkly that contrasted with the High Line, where hardwood benches and recliners were factored into the design. But then the High Line began as a community project and from its inception, those planning its regeneration worked hard at making it a place that had a soul. Even on the most miserable of winter days, when the plants are a dessicated brown and the wind bites at your cheeks, you’re surrounded by the stories of the past.
So, like many who have reviewed the space, I’m afraid I too was underwhelmed with Hudson Yards. It didn’t help that my pre-booked slot for Vessel was for a day when grey skies bled first drizzle and then steady rain. The weather matched my glum mood. I expect I’ll return, to visit Edge, when I’m next in the city, but I can’t see a reason why I’d hang around at Hudson Yards beyond that. Instead, excuse me while I potter off along the High Line and find myself a bench.
One of the questions I’m asked most often is how I choose where to go and then once I’ve settled on a destination, how I set about planning the trip. Of course, it would be much simpler to let someone else take care of the details, but that’s where a lot of the fun is, and who wouldn’t want to create a bespoke trip without the bespoke price tag that comes with it. I’ve saved tens of thousands of pounds over the years going it alone, so I plan to continue travelling independently as much as possible.
Now I’m writing for a living, I am offered press trips on a regular basis. While I have accepted some of these and am very grateful for the generosity of the tourist boards involved, I don’t like to travel like this all the time. I’m fortunate to have worked with some lovely PRs who have gone out of their way to deliver a tailormade experience within the confines of the programme that’s been agreed. But on a group trip, everyone has to compromise. When I travel solo, I can do as I please and it’s extraordinarily liberating.
How I go about choosing my next destination
Now a big trip for me these days, with family commitments, is just two weeks. This blog won’t be relevant if you’re planning a gap year and need to stretch a budget or find annual insurance cover. (However, you can apply some of the same principles and concentrate on the first and last week of a longer period of travel.) Instead, I’m talking about choosing the destination that’s likely to be your main holiday.
This is often a fluid concept. I do have a loose wish list of places I’d like to visit. Right now, for instance, Sao Tome & Principe, The Azores and Tobago are on that list, together with Tajikistan, Madagascar, Belarus and Algeria. However, I’ve found that being more flexible enables me to take advantage of better flight deals that might present themselves. Often, flight costs form a large part of a trip, particularly if it’s to a long haul destination. Keeping abreast of flight sales and last minute offers is a good idea. But although I have that list, I almost always end up travelling somewhere else – this year it’s Grenada.
Next steps after I’ve found my flights
Finding a well-priced flight is a start, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to book. But if there’s a chance that the cost of that flight will increase, it’s important to act fast. It is possible with some airlines to pay a small amount to hold the fare. I’ve never needed to do so, but it does quite literally buy you time to get your other arrangements tentatively in place before committing to the full whack.
A case in point
I recently found a sub £100 return fare from London to Algiers. Algeria is on my travel B list at the moment, a place I expect I would enjoy. The fare was a great deal, far lower than usual, with BA. The dates worked too. A quick scour of accommodation via booking.com indicated that I could find something central and reasonably priced that didn’t look like a dive. Photos from the road from the excellent Simon Urwin via my Twitter feed only served to fuel my interest.
It all fell apart when it came to the visa. I’ve never been turned down for a visa – and I’ve bought a fair number in my time. Sadly, it would seem the Algerians are hard to please and turn down many applications. As a freelance writer on an unreliable income I might or might not match their criteria – who knows? But to meet the visa criteria I would need to buy the flight and arrange the accommodation in advance. The latter I could achieve with minimal risk on a free cancellation basis, but the former would be an unrefundable outlay. So, I decided not to take the risk and have not applied. Algeria is a destination probably best left for another time.
Back to the drawing board
Having shortlisted a destination with affordable transport, it’s time to look at geography. Use a guide book such as Lonely Planet or a comprehensive online guide to identify some of the key places and sights that interest you. Don’t over-plan, but also don’t be the person who realises once they return home that they missed out something they’d love to have seen because they didn’t do any research. The trick is to do just enough planning to make sure it’s possible to fit in all your must-dos. Fine tuning can come later.
I sometimes take a look at the itineraries of tour operators such as Explore or Intrepid, as they tend to be balanced and well thought through. Then I weed out the parts that don’t interest me and mentally replace them with what I’d prefer to do. But don’t assume that because an area doesn’t feature on most tours, it isn’t worth bothering with. If I had relied solely on such sources of information, I’d have missed out wild and wonderful Svaneti in Georgia which was the highlight of my time in the country.
Considering open jaw itineraries
Is a round trip fare to and from the same airport a smart decision or would an open jaw be more sensible, saving unnecessary backtracking? For instance, I’ve used this for a rail holiday in the US, booking Amtrak services to link the two cities at either end. I also looped through a few countries on a longer journey, beginning in Cape Town and ending in Johannesburg but going the long way round via Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Alternatively, I’ve flown into one capital, for example Panama City, and out of its neighbour, San Jose, using the two cities as bases for point and spoke excursions. (That’s when you stay in one place and head out and back in a different direction each day.)
If you are going to opt for an open jaw flight, try flipping the two destinations around. Sometimes when I’ve looked into following the same itinerary but in reverse I have saved a whole heap of money. It’s also worth thinking about whether to avoid somewhere on a particular day of the week. For example, there’s no use planning to be in a city on, say, a Monday if the main reason you are going there is to visit a museum that’s closed on that day. Kick off dates for seasonal attractions might vary from year to year so always check. Finally, if the place you intend to visit stages a big festival of some sort, such as Day of the Dead in Mexico, make sure you’re booking early enough to make sure transport and accommodation isn’t already sold out.
The overland bit
One final thing to look at is overland transport. If I plan to start and finish in two different cities, I always research what the public transport is like between. I look into whether I can take a bus or train and if so, how far in advance I can book my ticket (many companies have online sites). In some cases, demand outstrips supply, so make sure there’s a plan B before committing to expensive flights.
Don’t rule out domestic flights, which in some places can be cost (and certainly time) effective. I always leave a day clear between any inbound transport and my international flight home, even if that means splitting the sightseeing between the early and later part of my trip. Delays do happen, and you don’t want the added stress of worrying about missed connections. Another thing I’ve learnt the hard way is to reconfirm flights with regional airlines or carriers that you’re not sure you can trust. I didn’t, in Argentina, and had to make hasty arrangements to bus it across the country to make Buenos Aires before my next flight left. Look what I would have missed!
Now factor in the weather
This one’s important. Once I know that my potential trip is a possibility – the flights are available, the accommodation suits my needs and I have a vague plan of the order in which I’ll see places – I just double check the weather. It helps that I was a geography teacher for years, so I’m unlikely to make the mistake of unwittingly timing it to arrive right in the middle of hurricane season or the monsoon. Do that, and not only will your triup be a washout, but you might find yourself stranded if public transport on the ground is adversely affected.
Consider how you’re likely to spend your time. Is it still going to be OK if the temperature’s on the chilly side? There’s not a lot of point in booking a beach resort if it’s going to be too cold to swim in the sea or snooze beside the pool. But if you’re keen to explore a city, then those same cooler temperatures will make sightseeing a whole lot more pleasant. Shoulder seasons are a gamble with their promise of cheaper flights but a higher chance of inclement weather. Of course, you can’t predict the weather even in peak season, so there’s always going to be that chance of it scuppering your plans.
That’s almost it
By the time you’ve got this far, I expect you’ll probably fall into one of two camps. Some of you will be thinking that it would be so much simpler just to let a tour operator take care of all this time-consuming planning stuff. But if like me, you love that kind of thing, just think of the many happy hours you can spend travelling vicariously through blogs and magazine articles while you craft a trip that’s perfect for you. Book those flights, make sure you have insurance from the get go and start making your dream a reality.
As we entered a new decade, I found myself in an unusual position. For the first time in many years, I had no trips booked. In my 2019 roundup, I shared several ideas, but nothing grabbed me sufficiently to book travel. We didn’t get far into January before that changed, but nevertheless I’ve not planned anywhere near as many trips as I would normally do.
Take advantage of sales
Sometimes all it takes to make me more decisive is a deal that’s too good to resist. The flight sale period is coming to an end but there’s still time to grab a discounted flight if you are quick – and can handle the flygskam (flight shame). I took advantage of my husband’s generous offer to dogsit and BA’s generous cabin bag allowance to book an Economy Basic fare to New York for just £259.17. I’ll board last and they’ll allocate me a seat, but given that the taxes and fees component of the fare amounts to £258.17 that’s a pretty good deal in my book. At this time of year accommodation is relatively cheap too (by New York standards at least) so I bagged myself a deal on a comfortable Midtown hotel.
I know air travel is coming in for a lot of criticism at the moment, but at least I work from home so my daily commute is completely CO2 free. If you can square it with your conscience, BA’s not the only airline to be holding a sale at the time of writing, so take a look on your favourite airline’s website and see what discounts you can find.
February might seem an odd time to go to New York, but it’s a city that I prefer in the winter. There are fewer tourists, which translates to shorter queues, plus the humidity in summer can be unpleasant. If like me you’re up for a return visit – the city’s constantly inventing new ways for you to pass the time – check out this post I wrote on New York for second-timers. I’m looking forward to exploring Staten Island beyond the ferry terminal and also to checking up on progress at Edge, New York’s latest observation deck, which is scheduled to open mid March.
Chat to industry professionals
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been going to Destinations, a huge travel fair that is held in Manchester and London at this time of year. It’s a great way to find out more about places you are already considering for a visit and to be tempted by those you hadn’t even thought of.
I’ll be there again later this week to say hello to my friends from Lithuania who will be promoting the charms of Neringa and the Curonian Spit. It’s a place I enjoyed very much on a press trip last September and hope to return to. To find out what the area has to offer, read this piece I wrote for them that’s on the British Guild of Travel Writers website or visit them on stand E152 at Olympia from 30th January to 2nd February.
This year I also went to Adventure Travel Show, also at Olympia. It’s not a fair I’d been to before, as I’m not a fan of extreme sports and, if I’m honest, anything too energetic. I’ve never thought of my preference for independent travel to off the beaten track places as being particularly adventurous, but apparently it is. Anyway, though I was a little disappointed at the scale of the show compared to the much larger Destinations, I did learn plenty about Malawi, Sao Tome & Principe, Madagascar and Tobago. I also picked up a map of Grenada which will come in handy in the spring – I’m booked to spend a week on the island and can’t wait to see what this lush corner of the Caribbean has to offer.
Utilise social media forums
I also get inspiration from the people I chat to on social media. Twitter is a useful source of information, via chats such as The Road Less Travelled, which you can join on Tuesday evenings – look for the hashtag #trlt. I also enjoy reading posts on the Facebook group My Wanderlust Migration and Regroup! page, which transferred from the Wanderlust website a few years ago. I’m sorely tempted by Ethiopia at the moment thanks to some excellent photographs and stories posted by other members. If you’ve a keen interest in travel, this is definitely a group to be involved with. There aren’t many places on the planet that one or other of us hasn’t been to.
Take up travel writing for a living
Writing for a living gives me the chance to travel vicariously and at the moment I have a number of corporate clients in Iceland who are keeping me especially busy. I’ve created articles for their blogs on topics as diverse as ice cream, traffic laws and the country’s relationship with the EU as well as more mainstream topics like whether you should rent a 4×4 or not and where to stop if you’re planning to drive the country’s ring road.
As for real life travel, I’m still exploring other possibilities, so watch this space to see where else I end up. Happy travels!
Once again, 2019 has been a hectic year and I’ve notched up several new countries plus plenty of revisits. In this post I’ll be looking back at some of my favourite moments from another awesome year of travelling.
The first trip of the year took us down to Cornwall to see family for a long weekend. To break the journey for elderly doggo, we stopped off on the way, but thanks to husband twisting his knee, we didn’t get to see Salisbury as we had hoped. Fortunately, it improved sufficiently for a couple of walks, including this one on Portwrinkle Beach before the long drive home.
This year’s biggest trip was the first I took: to Uganda. I spent two weeks in this fascinating but flawed East African nation. The highlights were as varied as they were numerous. I rode a horse beside the River Nile at Jinja, had some close up encounters with the entertaining chimps of Kibale Forest and saw probably the most spectacular sunrise I’ve ever witnessed in Murchison Falls National Park a few hours before helping park rangers free an elderly giraffe trapped in a snare. Visiting Love in Action’s school in Masaka gave me an insight into everyday struggles in the country.
Italy’s always a pleasure to visit and in April I travelled to the far south for the first time. En route to quirky Alberobello, I stopped off in the 2019 European Capital of Culture Matera. In the sunshine, the caves of the sassi were beautifully photogenic, though they were once described as the shame of Italy. Alberobello itself didn’t disappoint. I was lucky enough to stumble upon the characterful Trulli Anti which is one of the loveliest places I’ve stayed. The only downer was the weather, but the cone-shaped dwellings were stunning even in the wet.
A week off in May took me to Central Asia and the delightful country of Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan has been hogging the headlines, thanks to a successful change in tourism strategy, but I felt that its neighbour would be a better fit for me after watching Joanna Lumley’s excellent TV documentary. I travelled just before peak season kicked in. Snow was still thick on the ground as we crossed a mountain pass to a deserted Song Kul, but it was remote Tash Rabat, the Silk Road caravanserai at the end of an almost forgotten valley, that stole my heart.
A family celebration saw us heading off to Devon to a bungalow by the sea at Saunton Sands. Grandpa dog managed to get himself onto the beach, though a walk along its entire 3.5 mile length was out of the question. It felt a little odd to be going to the West Country and not continuing to Cornwall, but it was a beautiful part of the country nevertheless. Though I didn’t surf, it was fun to watch those who did.
The big celebrations I’d hoped for to mark my 50th birthday had to be scaled back as our golden retriever Einstein hit old age. No matter: Alaska will wait and in the meantime, my husband stepped up to look after things at home while I spent a few restorative days in Austria. I revisited St Johann in Tirol for some invigorating mountain hikes in the sunshine and plenty of good food. In Kitzbuhel, I was reminded how celebrity is a curious concept, when everyone bar me went wild for a folk singer who was big in Austria – but a complete unknown over here in the UK.
August – just!
A few days after I returned, we set off, dogs and all, for a week in Gloucestershire, staying in a log cabin in the Forest of Dean. Champagne in our own private hot tub – with two black noses pinned to the glass watching us – marked the Big 5-0. But being able to make a few excursions with Einstein (and Edison of course) was the best birthday present I could have hoped for. We enjoyed a steam railway, a trip to a castle and best of all the spectacular view from Symonds Yat.
The Lithuanian Coast was the much anticipated destination for September, on a press trip with the British Guild of Travel Writers. It had been many years since my first trip to this Baltic country and I was keen to visit some more. Our guide was an absolute gem, feeding us excellent food, informing and entertaining in equal measure as we toured her region and generally giving us a trip we could remember. The highlight for me was our stay on the Curonian Spit, a blend of culture and natural beauty worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage status.
It was back to Italy this month, this time a second visit to Bologna, ostensibly so I could visit San Marino to bump the country count to a nicely rounded 120. I was hosted on an excellent food tour of the Quadrilatero which introduced me to a characterful bar I’d missed the first time round, the Osteria del Sole and the delights of Pignoletto, a fizz not unlike Prosecco. San Marino was very pretty and I was blessed with plenty of sunshine as I explored the cobbled streets of its hilly capital city. There was surprisingly lots to do and I’d be tempted to go back one day.
The trip that almost didn’t happen, thanks to Edison’s (successful) attempt to destroy my passport, was to Italy. This time I spent a few days in Lombardy, but not to Milan. Instead, flying into Bergamo with Ryanair, I explored Mantova, Cremona, Pavia, Crespi d’Adda, Vigevano and more with the hardworking Isabella from Lombardy Tourism and her cheerful driver Luca. It’s a region that, despite being so well connected, is still off the beaten tourist trail and one that rewards with crowd-free sightseeing and good food.
More from November
Rounding off November was a return visit to Fes in Morocco, the first with my new passport. I stayed in a sumptuous riad in the heart of the medina, near to Place Seffarine, which had been lovingly restored by its architect owner. The old town of Fes was almost exactly as I remembered it from my first visit in 1997. Although some areas of the souks had been smartened up, you still had to listen out for the clatter of horse’s hooves and donkeys hurtling through the narrow alleys with heavy loads. The smell of the tannery hadn’t improved either. New to me was the blue city of Chefchaouen, which was a pleasant place to spend the day.
The last trip of the year, as has become my custom, was to a Christmas market. This year’s choice was the northern German town of Bremen, a city I’d enjoyed twice before. Despite the rain, a mug of Gluhwein and the German sense of humour in the form of a bird feeder tagged “Cat cinema” got me in the Christmas mood.
So what does 2020 have in store?
For the first time in a very long time, I have no trips booked. I have a few ideas, but nothing firmed up. It probably has a lot to do with Einstein; as his back legs weaken I know I don’t want to be away when the time comes, so last minute bookings juggled with my husband’s work commitments seem the way to go. I’m not complaining; that’s what you sign up for if you have a dog.
When I do give the new passport an airing, I think Bergamo is on the cards, if only for a day trip. Further afield, I’m keen to visit Tajikistan after such a wonderful trip to Kyrgyzstan in May. Sao Tome & Principe, Comoros, Rwanda and Madagascar are also high up on the bucket list as are Andorra and Belarus, the only two European destinations I’ve never visited. To the west, a return visit to Peru to explore the central cordillera would be the stuff of dreams, as would trips to Alaska and Hawaii.
What trips have you got planned for 2020?
Italy’s one of my favourite countries so when an invitation from Ryanair popped into my inbox to visit some of the less well known towns in the Lombardy region, I jumped at the chance. For those of you who read the whole sorry saga of Edison the dog’s attempts to keep me at home, I’m delighted to report that the string-pulling worked and I was allowed in (and out) of Italy. But what’s there to see in Lombardy? If you’ve already been to Milan, don’t write off the rest of this captivating region. Here’s what you need to know.
Milan has three airports, but Ryanair’s main hub is Bergamo, under an hour’s drive from the city. At the time of writing there are four flights a day from London Stansted, making this a convenient option for travellers.Well over 6 million passengers have flown the route since its inception in 2002 and local followers, you’ll be pleased to learn that there’s now a route from Southend which is a lovely airport to travel from. (If you’re UK based but not local to me here in Essex, Ryanair also operate flights to Bergamo from East Midlands, Belfast, Bristol, Manchester and Edinburgh.)
However, using an airline’s hub – in this case Stansted – is often advantageous. If things go wrong, for example delays due to bad weather, there are usually plenty of planes and crew members on standby. To be honest, though Ryanair gets a bad reputation for some of its newsworthier policy decisions, its punctuality record is pretty good. Our flights were on time both ways.
Tips for using Ryanair’s main London base, Stansted
I’m no fan of London Stansted airport, but have noticed that it helps to take a flight outside the manic early morning slot, when staff are generally more patient and helpful. The 4pm departure got me to Italy in time for dinner, though if I’d have been able to make the 1pm flight after my unscheduled dash to the passport office that would have been even better.
Incidentally, I rarely check in a suitcase, but on this occasion Ryanair had arranged for hold baggage. While I regaled the check in staff with tales of mischievous dogs, a gentleman came to check in but hadn’t paid for hold baggage and was directed to the customer service desk to upgrade his booking. Here’s a pro tip for your next Ryanair flight: if you’re planning to bring a small wheelie case, instead of paying for hold baggage, opt for Priority Boarding instead. You’ll still have to pay, but it will cost you less to bring it on board than if you check it. But remember, the number of priority passengers is capped, so make your choice sooner rather than later. By the time you reach the airport, it’s likely to have sold out, particularly if the flight is full.
There’s a direct bus from the airport to Bergamo and to Milan. Though Bergamo airport doesn’t have a train station, the bus connection into Bergamo itself (take the Number 1) takes less than a quarter of an hour. Ryanair also fly to Milan Malpensa, by the way. As this was a press trip, the itinerary was fixed. The old part of Bergamo looked lovely up on the hill and I now have it in my sights for one of my day trips by air.
Trains run to a number of destinations from Bergamo’s central station. One line runs south east to Brescia; the same line in the opposite direction gets you to Lecco for connections to Como. Read my guide to spending the day in and around Como here. Another line runs west to Seregno and Treviglio to the south is also connected. To book high speed trains in Italy in advance, visit the Trenitalia website.
Regional trains need no advance booking and are relatively cheap. Bergamo is also well served by buses. Most of the destinations featured in this post can be reached by a combination of buses and regional trains from Bergamo, but you might find it easier to make Milan your base if you’re planning a series of day trips. To reach some of the smaller places in the region, consider renting a car from Bergamo Airport. Our itinerary effectively looped Lombardy and was perfect for a week-long trip.
Where to go
Also known as Mantua, if I’d have paid more attention in English Literature class at school I’d have known Mantova was the place Romeo bought his poison. The city also featured in The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew. (Verona isn’t far away, though sits just over the border in the Veneto.) Arriving across the bridge which bisects two of the town’s three lakes, you can’t miss the sprawling Palazzo Ducale. This hulking pile was the family seat of the Gonzagas, a noble family who ruled the town for centuries.
The stories our guide told us of the Gonzaga family were at times outlandish, yet always fascinating. Francesco 1 Gonzaga, who ruled from 1382 to 1407, sought to strengthen the dynasty by marrying Agnese Visconti from Milan. However, it soon became apparent that the alliance wasn’t having the desired effect, so he invented a fake adultery story in order to have theepoor girl beheaded. Her alleged lover, also innocent of any wrong doing, was hanged in the park beside the palace. The obnoxious Gonzaga remarried, this time Margarita Malatesta (from the family that ruled Rimini) but his new wife unwittingly carried the gene for osteomalacia, which was passed down from generation to generation and left various members of the family suffering from joint pain, easily fractured bones and hunched backs. If that’s not karma I don’t know what is!
The ceilings are magnificent, with beautiful artwork, gilding and numerous personal flourishes added by various members of the Gonzaga family. One of the highlights of the Palazzo Ducale was the Camera degli Sposi, or the bridal chamber. Elaborate frescoes painted by Antonio Mantegna in the 15th century adorn both walls and ceilings. They’re very clever, using relatively new techniques at the time to create the illusion of a three-dimensional image. To avoid damaging these ancient works of art, visitor time inside the room is strictly limited, but that’s still enough time to notice some of the more humorous details.
Mantegna didn’t believe in “photoshopping” and painted his subjects as he saw them. Look carefully and you’ll see one of the women depicted with the ugliest haircut ever to have come out of Italy. At the time, people from all over copied her – she was the Jennifer Aniston of her time.
In Cremona, it was the lack of attention paid in my school music lessons which produced the regret. This charming town was the birthplace of Stradivari, the great violin maker, who was born here in 1644 or thereabouts. He wasn’t the first: Amati and Guaneri came well before him but there was something about Stradivari’s skill that set him apart. Today there are 164 registered violin makers in Cremona, all competing for business. We met one of the most experienced, a Frenchman called Philippe Devanneaux who came to Cremona 38 years ago to learn his craft and never left. With a wry smile, when asked about how much a violin sold for, he joked that selling it was the difficult part. When pushed, he said that depending on the craftsman’s level of experience, they go for anything between 1000 and 25000 euros, averaging at about 8000 euros.
We watched as this talented individual walked us through the process of transforming knot-free spruce and much harder maple into a beautiful instrument. It was clear you had to be able to feel the wood to produce something so magnificent. Patience was also important – the wood had to be seasoned for a decade before it woudl be ready to use. We tried, with varying degrees of success, to use a tiny plane to smooth out the rear casing; it was considerably harder than he made it look. You studied the technical part at university, he said, and then after you graduated, you learnt how to make a violin.
We learnt a lot about the properties of the different woods used, and the skill involved in putting them together. An impressive forty coats of varnish were required to give it the high sheen we associate with such a fine musical instrument. The bow was equally a work of art. Made in part from horse hair, we laughed as Philippe told us that only the tails of the males could be used – for anatomical reasons, as the wee was never directed at the tail as it would be with a mare.
Italy’s seventh oldest university is that of Pavia. The city’s status as a seat of learning was boosted by the Hapsburg Empire and some of the most elegant buildings in the town are its historic colleges. Painted in an egg yolk yellow shade of paint, they’re easy to find. In one of them, a statue of Alexandro Volta took pride of place in one of the cobbled courtyards. If his name sounds familiar, he was the man created with inventing the battery.
In comparison to other Italian university cities, such as Pisa, for instance, Pavia receives few visitors. That’s a shame, as it has a lovely vibe and with plenty of other attractions such as its restored towers and covered bridge, would make a good destination for a day trip. Italy’s high speed rail network has recently linked Pavia to the Genoa and Venice Frecciarossa service (the latter is now only 3 hours away), but should result in an increase in visitor numbers in time.
The city sits on the banks of the River Ticino, a tributary of the mighty Po. Beside the river are little paths, though in times of heavy rain these flood, sometimes by several metres. Look out for stand up rowers, as it’s a tradition here. One of the best vantage points is from a fine dining restaurant such as Bardelli, on the banks of the river not far from the covered bridge. They serve typical Lombardy fare, such as pumpkin and pancetta pie, pappardelle with hare ragout and ricotta-stuffed squid.
Quaint Vigevano is one of those places that lends itself to strolling aimlessly. Begin in the Sforzesco Castle complex where you’ll find two interesting museums. The Leonardiana, as its name suggests, is devoted to the work of Leonardo da Vinci, who visited the place on several occasions. Though some of the works of art on display are copies, such as the Mona Lisa, it’s interesting to see the diversity of subjects he sketched for his notebooks.
Across the courtyard is something altogether different. Vigevano is an important centre for shoe production, claiming to be the place where the stiletto heel was invented (though it’s not the only town to do so). Inside the palace is an exhibition devoted to shoes, one dated to around 1495 and uncovered by archaeologists that once belonged to the lady of the castle, Beatrice d’Este.
There’s also a green stiletto worn by Marilyn Monroe, tiny shoes worn by Chinese women whose feet were bound and the downright bizarre designs created by Alexander McQueen. Strangest of all is the shoe designed to see off unwanted paparazzi…
A short walk away is the delightful Piazza Ducale, laid out in the 15th century. It’s worth travelling to Vigevano just for this. Elegant porticoes frame a square dominated by a historic church. Inlaid into the cobbles are intricate shapes. The walkways shelter boutique shops and a plethora of cafes and bars. Come in the early evening, join the locals for the passeggiata and treat yourself to a glass of fizz and some yummy nibbles in a bar such as Caffè Commercio which boasts an ancient cellar.
Tiny Soncino has a massive fortress built in the 10th century. Such defensive structures would once have been essential in these parts, and many of the towns and cities have fortifications – Sappionneta is another, for example, with a walled city complex that’s drawn the attention of UNESCO. The weather was not kind during our visit and despite umbrellas, it was hard to stay dry as the wind buffeted us around from our precarious position on the ramparts. On a fine day, you’d be able to appreciate not only the architecture of the fortress itself, but the views across Soncino from its ramparts.
A few blocks away, we took refuge from the weather in the town’s printing museum. Housed in what was once a Jewish printers, there were plenty of antique presses to admire and the typesets to create works in both Italian and Hebrew. The young curator will demonstrate for you and allow you to try for yourself. He was keen to practice his English and share his passion for The Beatles. One day, he said, he dreamed of seeing the famous Abbey Road zebra crossing, but in the meantime, he contented himself with playing their music, particularly The White Album, his favourite. I felt almost mean when I had to fess up that I didn’t share his passion for the band but left with a smile on my face.
My final recommendation for Lombardy beyond Milan is the UNESCO-listed Crespi d’Adda. Like Saltaire or Bourneville in the UK, this village was purpose built by a factory owner for his workers. The planned layout is obvious as soon as you pull in off the main road, with immaculate villas laid out in a grid pattern. A little further down the hill, set back behind a village green, are more spacious properties designed for the management. The owner himself lived in an even bigger home, a mock castle, overlooking one of the two rivers that enclose the triangular shaped site.
The factory itself is derelict. The gates are padlocked and its timepiece has stopped for good, a memorial to clocking off time. The company town was built in the 1920s by the Crespi family who ran a textile mill. The workers benefited not only from decent housing, but also a clinic, a school, a theatre and even a hydro-electric power station. When the factory closed in the 1970s, many of the families who lived in the homes they’d provided stayed on. They’ve had time to get used to their behemoth of a neighbour, but you can’t help feeling the ghosts of times past in this eerie place.
I’d like to thank Ryanair and the Lombardy Tourism team, particularly our fixer Isabella, driver Gianluca and all of the lovely guides that brought their region to life. Though this was a press trip, all opinions expressed here are my own.
You know you’re going to like someone when they meet you with a smile and a croissant. Raffaella, our delightful guide from Secret Food Tours, certainly knew how to win us over. Our group of six soon gelled and bonded over a shared love of food – and Bologna.
We met under the Due Torri. The city that they call La Grassa (the fat one) is known for its food, but climb the 498 steps to the top of its tallest tower, Torre Asinelli, and you’ll go some way to easing the guilt of a glutton. Such towers were built by the residents of Bologna in mediaeval times to provide a safe haven in times of strife – in those days you wouldn’t have found a door at ground level. But interesting though Bologna’s past undoubtedly is, we weren’t on the tour for the history, we were there for the food. It was time to get walking.
Fellow foodies, you could be forgiven for thinking that Bologna is the home of spaghetti bolognese, but ask for this pasta dish and you’d be laughed out of town. Instead, you’ll need to ask for Ragù alla Bolognese, a slow cooked meat sauce tossed through fat strips of fresh pasta. We sampled it in a backstreet trattoria alongside half a plate of tortellini cooked perfectly al dente and they were both exquisite. Having watched a table of nimble-fingered women twist tiny squares of fresh pasta into those tiny tortellini shapes gave us some inkling into the work involved. This is nothing like the pasta you’d buy in the supermarket and definitely a treat for the taste buds.
The Quadrilatero, Bologna’s old market area, is crammed full of delicatessens, food stores and cafés, but it helps to have a guide as knowledgeable as Raffaella to navigate such a maze. As we strolled in and around the streets surrounding the Piazza Maggiore, we learned about mortadella, prosciutto and even balsamic vinegar, even though the best of the latter hails from nearby Modena.
In a store stocked with huge rounds of Parmigiano Reggiano, we discovered why some have horizontal scratches – these are the ones that fail quality control and are sold off cheap. The very best thing about sampling with a local is you try things you wouldn’t otherwise be tempted to consume. For me, ciccioli was a revelation – the ugliest slice of meat on the plate but – oh my! – also the tastiest.
This was my second visit to Bologna and last time, I’d walked right past its oldest osteria, a place with no signage that’s been serving thirsty Bolognesi since 1465. True osterias, like this one, don’t actually serve food, just alcohol. But Italians like to eat while they imbibe and so it’s the norm to carry in a parcel of cooked meats and cheeses to eat while you drink.
Raffaella had something different for us – a rich, sweet, gooey rice cake that was the ideal accompaniment to a glass or two of Pignoletto. It’s an Italian sparkling wine that to an uneducated palate is not unlike Prosecco. But while 400 million bottles of the latter are produced each year, Pignoletto production amounts to a paltry 11 million. That said, I enjoyed its frothy bubbles so much I pushed my way through the throng outside to pay a return visit the following evening. At two euros a glass (a small one) it was utterly quaffable and decidedly moreish. If word gets out, or if I can find it here in the UK, that figure of 11 million will shoot up.
It wouldn’t be an Italian food tour if it didn’t include an ice cream stop, and this tour was no exception. We popped into a cute little place not far from where we began to sample some lusciously creamy gelato. I think I may have disgraced the family, however, as I ordered the zabaione flavour, commenting that my Mum used to make this dessert for us when I was a child. Given the alcohol content, that’s probably not something I should have admitted to, but the ice cream was every bit as flavoursome as Mum’s creation.
Now, you’ll probably have noticed there’s a distinct lack of names and addresses in this blog, but that’s deliberate – it was a secret food tour, after all. If you want to find out exactly where to eat in Bologna, you’ll have to book a place yourself, but I can promise you that if you love your food, you won’t regret it. Buon Appetito!
I’m grateful that I was offered a complimentary ticket for Secret Food Tours’ Bologna walking tour in exchange for a review; the opinions expressed here are mine, however.
When was the last time you looked at a painting? I don’t mean a casual glance, I mean really study the detail? If, like me, it’s been a while, then you might want to head to Sudbury before October 27th for a visit to Gainsborough’s House, which showcases the largest collection of the artist’s work in the country. No matter how much of an art philistine you might be, you’ll find yourself impressed by the subtleties of form and light and colour in the paintings that are on display.
However, you’ll need to get your skates on. The house closes for extensive remodelling in just a few weeks’ time. Downstairs is an exhibition on loan from a private collector, featuring works not only by Gainsborough, but also Turner, Constable and Lawrence. For me, surprisingly, the standout was a large painting not by Gainsborough but by John Constable of Salisbury Cathedral surrounded by meadows. When the museum closes its doors, they’ll be returned to their owner and will no longer be on public view. Upstairs, the comprehensive works will go into fine art storage. Some will be temporarily loaned to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, but it’s an awful lot easier – and cheaper – to hop on a Greater Anglia train instead.
Reached by train via the aptly named Gainsborough Line, Sudbury’s an easy day out by rail from London or East Anglia. This sleepy Suffolk town has surprisingly much to offer the visitor, not least the skull of Simon of Sudbury, hidden in the vestry of St Gregory’s church, and Vanners, one of several working silk mills in the town. Incidentally, when the new gallery is unveiled in 2021, you can expect to see Vanners’ silks adorning the walls.
Nevertheless, the star attraction is the house that acclaimed artist Thomas Gainsborough grew up in. He was born there in 1727 and as a child developed a love of sketching and painting landscapes. One of the obituaries published after Gainsborough’s death said simply: “Nature was his teacher, and the woods of Suffolk his academy.” Travelling by train gives you time to appreciate such leafy views instead of concentrating on the road, something that the team at Greater Anglia would like to remind you with their latest promotion, Room with a View. That said, you’ll travel across rather than beside the imposing Chappel Viaduct. Of course, you could always make a day of it and alight at Chappel & Wakes Colne station for the East Anglian Railway Museum to get the best of both worlds.
But I digress. Packed off to London at a tender age to hone his skill, Gainsborough’s artistic bent meant that earning a living as a portrait painter was potentially a lucrative profession. But he hated painting people, calling it “the curs’d face business”. Where possible, Gainsborough would pay as much attention as he possibly could to the background, lavishing the setting with what the churlish might describe as superfluous details of flora and fauna. He was less concerned with getting the faces right, and some of his finished pieces have a distinct touch of the wooden artist’s mannequin about them. To be fair, it didn’t seem to bother his clients much. Nor Gainsborough himself – when the work dried up he moved on, plying his trade not only in Sudbury, but also in Bath and London.
Gainsborough’s landscapes are nothing short of magnificent. In “Wooded Landscape with Cattle by a Pool”, first shown in 1782, the light is captured perfectly. The cattle, in shadow, and the crepuscular shafts of light on the pond complement each other perfectly. As a photograph, such a scene would be impressive; as a painting, it blows your mind. In “Wooded Landscape with Old Peasant and Donkeys outside a Barn, Ploughshare and Distant Church”, the peasant slumps onto his staff, donkeys resting at his feet, a little weary from a hard day’s work but pleased with what he’s achieved. It’s such details that create such a strong connection with those who view them today. Let’s face it, we’ve all had days like that peasant.
At Gainsborough House, the garden too is a delight. A 400 year old mulberry tree takes centre stage; think about it – that tree would have been there when Gainsborough was a boy. Although it’s the wrong variety to be used for producing silk (how neat would that have been?) its fruit is used to make jam to gift to the gallery’s patrons. There’s also a quince tree and a medlar; if you want to try those, Wilkins of Tiptree products are sold in the museum shop along with an extensive range of gifts.
To find out about timetables and fares on the Gainsborough Line, visit the Greater Anglia website. For Gainsborough House exhibit details and opening times, click here. While I am grateful for the complimentary train ticket and admission, all views expressed are my own.
I’ve just returned from my second visit to Lithuania after a gap of 12 years. This time, I was a guest of the tourist boards representing the coastal regions that comprise Klaipeda, Palanga, Kretinga and the Curonian Spit. Since my 2007 trip, Vilnius and Kaunas, Lithuania’s two largest cities, have become increasingly popular with city breakers, but the coast remains overlooked by many. That’s a shame, as it has much to offer the tourist. So let me try to tempt you – here’s my beginner’s guide to the Lithuanian coast.
How to get there from the UK
Our hosts arranged flights for us from Luton to Palanga-Klaipeda Airport with budget carrier Wizz Air. It departs at 5.55am, the first flight out of the day. It’s a very early start, but that has the advantage of a late morning arrival despite the two-hour time difference, so if you don’t live too far from the airport and want to get a jump on the sightseeing, it might suit. Flights depart once daily on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Alternatively, Ryanair currently fly to Palanga-Klaipeda on Tuesdays and Saturdays, departing Stansted at a similar time of day – 6.10am. Neither airline, therefore, offers a particularly sociable schedule, but you can always catch up on sleep when you get there.
We were ferried around with private transfers, but there is a bus connection that serves Palanga-Klaipeda airport. Bus #100 travels south from the airport, stopping in the resort town of Palanga before continuing on to Klaipeda, Lithuania’s third largest city, where it terminates. The airport website provides a very handy route map:
Fares are a very reasonable 1,40 euro to Palanga and 2,50 euro to Klaipeda. The buses are timed to connect with inbound and outbound flights. This is the schedule:
If you’re heading over to the Curonian Spit, then you’ll need to catch a ferry from Klaipeda. The Old Ferry carries foot passengers and bicycles at a cost of 1 euro each; boats depart on the hour and half hour during the day and less frequently in the evening. Buses connect to Nida, the main settlement, at the other side. If you’ve rented a car, you’ll need to use the New Ferry, which runs every twenty minutes during the day and costs just over 12 euros. Note that there are no public transport connections from the spit’s terminal. Full timetables can be found here.
Where to stay
Our hosts were keen to show us a range of different accommodation, so we spent a night at four hotels.
In Klaipeda, we were based at the contemporary Hotel Dangė, an easy walk from the centre of Klaipeda and its bars and restaurants. Deluxe doubles with balcony come in at around £90-95, but their economy rooms are available for about half that amount in low season (and about £70/night next July). Note that there’s no lift; my room was on the top floor which meant climbing four flights of stairs with luggage.
On the Curonian Spit, we stayed at the lovely Nidus, set in leafy grounds about a fifteen minute stroll to the centre of Nida along a path surrounded by woodland. The double rooms were spacious and had an adjacent sitting room and also a balcony. Booking.com has such rooms for about £55 in low season and about £140/night next summer. There were other hotels closer to the centre of Nida but this would be quieter in summer.
There was an event on in Palanga so we stayed at a resort hotel a few miles out of town, the Atostogų Parkas. In the off season, you can pick up a double here for about £35 and upgrade to include spa access for about £10-12 more. Colleagues spoke highly of the pool and jacuzzi facilities but I found it a bit cut off. Room sizes varied considerably; ask for a larger room if it’s available.
I was a little unsure of what to expect for our final hotel, located on the edge of the beach resort of Šventoji, as some of the artwork was squarely aimed at the male market. Décor was strange, with skulls and devils and Americana all rolled into one crazy package. But the staff worked really hard to make us feel welcome and it was a five minute walk to the beach. Most accommodation at the Elija is apartments; hotel rooms start at around £40 in low season and about £15 more next summer.
Things to do: Klaipeda
Klaipeda’s a good starting point for a Lithuanian coastal region tour. There are plenty of attractions in a relatively small area and it’s easy to get to.
The sculpture trail
The compact centre of Klaipeda is littered with quirky sculptures and it’s fun to take a stroll to seek them out. Our guide Diana showed us some of them and told us the tales associated with each. The cutest without doubt is the Thaumaturge Old Town Little Mouse, which bears the inscription “Transform your thoughts into words and words will turn into miracles”.
Not far away, perched on the roof of a house near the River Danė, is a chimney sweep – touching his clothes or buttons is considered lucky. Fortunately, there’s a separate button on the wall of the house nearer to ground level which offers the same reward. There are plenty more works of art to discover, depicting everything from coins to dragons, but a sure fire winner with the kids will be the Black Ghost that haunts the dockside near the site of Klaipeda’s castle. Legend has it that a ghost appeared to a castle guard warning of grain and timber shortages, before disappearing back into the fog. Whether his prediction came true or not, I don’t know, but younger visitors will love clambering inside and popping their head into the hood of his cloak. Rock fans – this one’s for you too: Alice Cooper raved about the sculpture on his social media feed.
Maritime and historical treasures
Though the warehouse district was largely destroyed in the 1854 fire and the centre of Klaipeda was heavily bombed in the war, you can still get a sense of what the place was like if you take a walk in the reconstructed old town and past the rebuilt warehouses that line the river bank. The 39/45 museum, opened in 2018, is a must for history buffs. Across a series of rooms, visitors can discover what the Nazi occupation meant for the city and its occupants. The exhibit titled “Klaipeda assault” helps visitors visualise the extensive bombing during the siege of the city before the Red Army rolled in.
In the Blacksmith’s Museum, Dionizos Varkalis showed us the collection of wrought iron crosses rescued from the city’s cemeteries are displayed in a purpose built space resembling a church. Regular jewellery making classes are held on site. Perhaps the most iconic symbol of Klaipeda is the sailing ship Meridianas which is moored beside the Birzos Bridge. Built in Finland in 1948, the vessel was used by the Klaipeda Maritime School for training purposes and has been a popular quayside restaurant since Soviet times – though in these days you had to flash the cash and have the right connections to get in.
Merchant J.W.Reincke opened a brewery in Klaipeda in 1784 – the eagle on his family coat of arms appears today on the bottles of what’s now called Švyturys beer. The brewery makes a range of flavourful stouts, ales and lagers using German methods of production. Tastings are offered, but book a guide and you can learn not only about how the beer is made but also how food pairings subtly alter the taste. The most popular beer is Švyturys Ekstra; according to our guide, it’s best consumed accompanied by chicken hearts. I’m not so sure about the latter, but a glass of Ekstra certainly slid down a treat! If you haven’t got the stomach for offal either, try Baltijos, an Oktoberfest-style dark lager perfect with carrots, or perhaps a glass of Pale Ale which, I found, goes very well with chick peas. Who knew?
Things to do: Curonian Spit
Don’t write this off as a strip of featureless sand: Lithuanians liken the Curonian Spit to an outdoor spa. Its close knit community look out for each other – this is the kind of place where you don’t have to lock your doors.
The sand dunes
The sand dunes on the 98km long Curonian Spit aren’t just any old sand dunes, they are UNESCO-listed sand dunes, recognised for their cultural as well as physical importance. Sand transported by Baltic Sea waves piled high to form this barrier island, which was later colonised by grasses and forest. It is simply magnificent, but as an ex-Geography teacher, I am of course biased.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, logging destabilised the fragile ecosystem, threatening settlements as the sand was no longer anchored down by tree roots. But from the 19th century, the area has been successfully managed so people and nature can co-exist. We walked to the top of the dunes which buried the village of Nagliai over 300 years ago. Taking a hike up the “grey dunes” was made easier by the previous day’s rain – the compacted surface made lighter work of the climb than would have been afforded by dry sand.
Fun fact (at least for geographers): grey dunes are so-called as they take their name from the carpet of moss, lichen and grasses which bind the fine particles together and prevent them migrating.
Juodkrantė’s Hill of Witches
A pathway leading from the main road in the village of Juodkrantė takes wanderers through a magical forest. This wooded parabolic dune is dubbed the Hill of Witches, taking its name from pagan celebrations which take place here on Midsummer’s Eve.
The path is lined not only by trees but by around a hundred quirky wooden sculptures, benches and elaborately carved arches. The characters you see reflect Lithuania’s rich folk and pagan heritage, depicting an eclectic mix of fairy tale protagonists, devils and monsters. There’s plenty of evidence for the Lithuanian sense of humour, too, not least in the witches’ saggy tits! Though it’s free to wander through the forest alone, taking a guide and hearing those stories will definitely enhance your visit. Our lovely PR Angelina, who grew up on the Spit, regaled us with tales as we snapped away in this photogenic spot.
The sundial at the Parnidis Dune
Located at the top of the 52m high Parnidis Dune, you’ll find a giant sundial, the only place in Lithuania where the sun rises and sets on the water. The centrepiece is a granite obelisk, from which shadows fall on a series of stone slabs. At noon, the shadow points due north. Each of these steps references a different month, with additional stones for the equinoxes and solstices. The sundial is richly decorated with icons and runes representing holidays and saints. It’s a wild and windswept place, open to the elements, but even on a day when the weather throws everything it has at you, the views along the Spit are breathtaking. Check out the nearby sculpture of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who visited the dunes with his partner Simone de Beauvoir in 1965.
The quaint village of Nida, facing the lagoon side of the Spit, is packed with charming cottages. The traditional architecture features a cross or pole on the top of the front gable as well as wooden fretwork adornments. Bold colours are common – and advantageous to fishermen who could spot their homes from out at sea. One houses an amber museum in which you’ll find the largest lump of raw resin in the country, another an ethnographic fishermen’s museum with a-ha style animations projected on the walls and everyday items suspended on strings.
You’ll soon spot the colourful wooden weather vanes along the waterfront: every fisherman had a mark on his boat to show where he came from. From the weather vanes, you can tell which village a fisherman came from and a little about his wealth and status. A black cross on a white background signified a man from Juodkrantė, for instance. I really liked Nida, and would love to return in the spring, if nothing else, to have another scrumptious piece of cake from Gardumėlis bakery opposite the cottage pictured above.
Things to do: Kretinga
Kretinga is nicknamed Lithuania’s Vatican, with five functioning monasteries within the district. If the weather’s not playing ball on the coast, it’s worth the short detour inland to see what Kretinga and its surrounds have to offer.
Church of the Annunciation of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary
Built between 1610 and 1617, this church is home to the oldest organ in the country. On a wall near the altar there’s a panel of little silver legs placed there by worshippers as a symbol of thanks and good health. The crypt houses the metal coffins of the Chodkiewicz family whose donations funded the church and Franciscan monastery tasked with the pastoral care of local residents. In a side room, four skulls set into a pedestal to commemorate the 120 souls whose remains were found interred in its walls. Our guide Diana told us that when the monks held their first service after the Soviets left, they emerged from the crypt onto the main altar, marking the dawn of independence. What an emotional moment that would have been for the congregation.
Dungeons of St Anthony
Under what’s now a school are the dungeons of St Anthony, used as a prison by both the Nazis and the Soviets. In a side room, a now inocuous-looking well was used to torture those held captive. The graffiti on the walls offers a fascinating insight into the mental torment endured by the inmates, with crude calendars, churches, names, dates and places scratched into the plaster. One bears the name of Paul Sansarrat, a French POW who escaped more than once and eventually participated in the Normandy Landings.
Count Tiškevičius manor and winter garden
This museum complex is centred on an impressive manor house, built in the second half of the 19th century, and indoor winter garden. Across the road, a more humble building contains a collection of artefacts that reference everyday life in the past, covering everything from Shrove Tuesday masks to traditional Lowlander dress. There’s even a model of the devil, dressed to impress. They say he’ll offer you gold to get you on side, but when you wake up in the morning, all you’ll have is a pocket full of stones. To uncover his true identity, step on his shoe – if it’s the devil in disguise, there’ll be a cloven hoof where the foot should be.
The Japanese Garden
Located just outside Kretinga is Europe’s largest Japanese garden. It’s the work of Šarunas Kasmauskas, a former military doctor, who doesn’t believe in leisurely retirements. This 16 hectare plot, once open fields, has been transformed into an oasis of calm and colour. The jolly Kasmauskas was quick to point out he hadn’t received an EU handout: “I don’t trust this ‘company’ – I’m Eurosceptic!” he joked. The extensive bonsai collection contains miniature trees that are over 250 years old, specially imported from Japan, each worth thousands of euros. Five hundred or so sakura trees, providing the famous cherry blossom in spring, have been planted with the help of many individual sponsors.
There’s still plenty of work to do, thanks to Kasmauskas’ ambitious vision for the place, but it’s been open to visitors for eight years already and looks set to become better and better as the years pass. And as for upkeep, Kasmauskas had a tip for gardeners that I’m very keen to test out. He said that if you cut grass under a young moon, you’ll have to do so again in five days, but if you wait, you can leave your mower in the shed for two or three weeks.
Things to do: Palanga
Palanga is Lithuania’s most established tourist resort. A strip of bars and restaurants on J. Basanaviciaus Street leads down to a wooden pier and the Baltic Sea. Rows of benches face the sea, and during our visit most were occupied by old ladies in headscarfs, bringing to mind a bus load of pensioners. But this is a family-friendly resort too, and in season the beaches would be fabulous. In case you weren’t convinced the emphasis is on fun, the motto “Deligas quem diligas” (“Do what you like”) is embedded in the pavement.
Palanga’s well-heeled have invested their money in property and as a result there’s much to please those with an interest in architecture. From the traditional to the modern, Palanga’s private homes, apartments and hotels span centuries of style. Some wouldn’t have looked out of place in the southern states of the USA. It’s very green, too, with plenty of trees and parkland to enjoy. Our guide Antanas did a great job giving us some context and his sometimes irreverent commentary, particularly where dates were concerned (“1932? Who cares, actually?”), was a treat.
The Count’s Palace
Palanga’s home to the late 19th century Palace of Count Feliks Tyszkiewicz, which is tucked away in the heart of Birute’s Park. The park has both informal and formal planting, with sculptures and eccentric works of art semi-hidden within the trees and shrubs. The beds in front of the palace were a showstopper, a riot of purples, mauves, creams and white that offset the elegant building and its fountains to perfection. Unsurprisingly, it’s a popular choice for couples to stage their wedding photos.
The amber museum
Inside the Count’s palace are several floors devoted to amber. It wasn’t the only amber museum we visited – there was a smaller one in Nida – but this one had the wow factor. Huge chunks of raw and polished amber including the Sun Stone, sizeable pieces with insects suspended in the resin, jewellery and even clocks showcased the versatility of this colourful material.
A special mention: Šventoji’s beaches
Palanga’s big event did us a favour – instead of staying on the convenient but busy strip, we were a five minute walk from this gorgeous beach. The sun obliged with an appearance just before we were due to leave for the airport – isn’t that typical? – but a walk along the beach was just the thing to blow the cobwebs away and take one last look at this wonderful coastline.
Thanks Lithuania – and especially to all the witty, entertaining and straight-talking people that helped make this trip fun. I will be back and I won’t leave it 12 years this time.
Lots of places market themselves as dog-friendly, but often the reality is more dog-tolerant. When you consider them as part of the family rather than a pet, that’s just not good enough. Our golden retrievers are now 12 and 8, and so we have a lot of experience – both good and bad – to compare with. With an excitable younger dog who cannot be trusted near a breakfast buffet (sorry again Lodge in the Vale), these days we prefer self-catering. So how would Forest Holidays stack up? We hired a cabin at their Forest of Dean site to find out.
The cabins at the Forest Holidays sites are marketed as “architect-designed” and they definitely have the wow factor. The epithet “cabin” didn’t seem grand enough to do them justice, but bunglaow and chalet didn’t feel right either, so we reverted to their official title. As a couple, we opted for a two-bedroom Golden Oak cabin to give us a bit more space. There’s the facility to choose the exact cabin location you want, and so we plumped for one at the rear of the site. That was an excellent choice, as it turned out, because this was our view.
Floor to ceiling picture windows framed stands of conifers, through which dappled sunlight cast a warm glow onto the wooden deck. Despite being flanked by neighbours – and when we arrived, pretty full occupancy given the number of cars about – it felt secluded. The hot tub on the deck was private and unoverlooked. There was a barbecue, which we used a couple of times, and also a log burner which we didn’t need as it was still quite mild. The site was quiet too. We live in a small village and routinely wake to birdsong. Normally, on holiday, we remark on the noise relative to what we are used to. Here, it was like being at home, but with a different view.
First impressions were good: check-in was speedy considering how many new arrivals there were (check-out would later prove to be just as efficient). The location had been easy to find and the well-signed site meant that the last few hundred metres were no different. A ramp from parking space to front door made life easy when it came to unloading the car and the dogs. The entertainment package we’d added was sufficient, and the premium WiFi was reliable and fast. The day-to-day maintenance of our hot tub was efficient and unobtrusive.
Forest Holidays permit up to four dogs per cabin, so there were plenty of other dogs around, all well behaved save for a beagle that wandered off on its own for a bit – the TV messaging service asked everyone to keep an eye out and an update a couple of hours later reassured everyone he’d been found. The shop and cafe was properly pet-friendly, meaning we could take the dogs with us for a coffee or if we wanted to eat out. If you didn’t have a dog with you (or if someone was willing to stay home and watch them) there were lots of family-friendly activities that you could add to your package, including archery, bicycle hire, paddle boarding, ranger-guided walks and much more. We’d come for a relaxing, do very little week so it suited us just fine to hang out at the cabin and read a book.
So in many respects, it was perfect, but as with anywhere, there were things that could have been improved. I often say that to create successful accommodation you need to stay in it yourself and see it from the visitor’s point of view. The Forest of Dean site had been open a while, so certain issues should have been ironed out long ago. I enjoy curling up on the sofa to digest the contents of a welcome folder and there wasn’t one. Instead, information was provided via the television, which felt impersonal though you could argue better for the environment avoiding the need for all that paper.
In general the kitchen was well-equipped, but it would have been helpful to have provided an oven glove rather than a tea towel. Here too, the eco-credentials were good, with environmentally-friendly detergent and multiple bags. However, there was only one bin in the kitchen to put a bag inside. With two dogs that would have been more than happy to have shredded a bag to get at its contents coupled with minimal counter or cupboard space to put one out of reach, we ended up recycling very little.
The cabins featured underfloor heating, which was pleasant once it had warmed up. But the downside was that there were no radiators as a consequence. Drying soggy towels from the hot tub or bathroom proved really difficult. Though plenty of towels had been provided (four per person, topped up midweek with a curbside delivery but not collected), as the week progressed, we had an ever-increasing pile of damp towels. The delight of taking a dip in the hot tub was tempered by the unpleasant sensation of stepping into a damp swimsuit to do so. We were blessed with fine dry weather for our stay, but had it been rainy, the whole drying thing would have been a bit of a nightmare with wet clothes to deal with as well.
Internal maintenance, or the lack of it, was another bugbear. It was hard to regulate the temperature of the shower in the en-suite and in the main bathroom, the shower head refused to point downwards for more than a few seconds which flooded the bathroom. The toilet flush was very stiff and in an awkwardly low location, which might explain why we found that it hadn’t been flushed when we first arrived. Over the course of the week, the bathroom sink drained increasingly slowly which was unpleasant after cleaning teeth, for example.
But by far the biggest disappointment was how dirty the cabin was when we arrived. It’s surrounded by forest, so of course without daily cleaning I wouldn’t expect the cabin to stay in pristine condition. But within half an hour of padding around barefoot, the soles of my feet were filthy, indicating that the floor hadn’t been mopped on changeover day. There was a mop and broom in the cupboard, though it would have been helpful to have been left a vacuum cleaner to deal more effectively with the dog fur. (The floors are exclusively wood or tile; we brought our own rug as it makes it easier for the dog to get himself up.)
To be fair on the staff and management, we didn’t make a complaint while we were there to give them the opportunity to fix these issues. Reading the reviews on TripAdvisor, there were plenty of others who had experienced similar issues with either cleanliness or maintenance issues at the Forest of Dean site. After a long drive, who wants to have staff in to fix things that should have been picked up already? Given how pleased we were with the cabin’s location, we decided to put up with the problems and concentrate on the view instead. It didn’t affect our enjoyment of the cabin, but it would certainly make me think twice about returning there until it’s had a refresh – I’d expect one of their newer locations to be better.
The surrounding area
As our elder dog needs plenty of rest, we took it easy during our stay. We enjoyed three dog-friendly days out within a short drive of the cabin.
This English Heritage property scores highly for its warm welcome and home-baked dog biscuits. It was about 400m to walk from the car park to the castle but relatively flat, so our old boy managed it with only a couple of stops. Our younger dog had a lot of fun climbing the ramparts (on lead of course!) and exploring the ruins. For the human visitor, there were plenty of information boards as well as an audio guide (included in the admission price). Though we didn’t eat there, it was good to learn that dogs were permitted in the cafe as well as in the shop.
Adults £8.40 each; dogs free
Dean Forest Railway
The volunteers that run the Dean Forest Railway went out of their way to ensure everyone felt welcome, with plenty of fuss for the dogs and a very tolerant attitude when they sat in the aisle rather than by our feet. The ride was a pleasant one, with steam days operating mostly on weekends and occasionally midweek. The train had plenty of carriages, which meant we could find a quieter compartment; the only carriage off-limits was (understandably) the buffet car. The museum, with plenty of interesting information about the railway, was dog-friendly. The station cafe wasn’t, but there was plenty of outside seating and a full water bowl for “steamed up dogs”.
Adults £13 for a day rover ticket; dogs £2
Symonds Yat rock
I hadn’t expected to be able to visit Symonds Yat, as we had read that the rock was way above the river and that would have been too hard for our elderly dog. Fortunately, the car park was on the hill too, so there was a gently sloping and pretty manageable walk for our elder dog and plenty of seating for him to rest. The views from the lookout over the River Wye and its gorge were breathtaking. If you had to climb up from sea level you wouldn’t have been disappointed. There were plenty of walking trails leading off in various directions from the car park (including one that led to the Forest Holidays site). There were also toilet and cafe facilities, the latter with outdoor seating only – plenty of dog-friendly picnic tables.
Adults and dogs free
Regular readers of this blog will perhaps remember that earlier this year I visited Norwich with Greater Anglia. I was pleasantly surprised at how fast the journey was from Colchester to Norwich – just over an hour – and blown away by how much there was to see and do in Norfolk’s county town. If you missed it, have a look at what I did here. One of the best parts of that visit was the Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell. The tales of some of the less respectable characters who once lived in the city were compelling. So when Kerri from Greater Anglia suggested I could go back and find out some more of Norwich’s history, I jumped at the chance.
I’m grateful to Greater Anglia for providing me with free train travel and also to KindaKafe for gifting me a complimentary ticket for their Hidden History tour. However, all opinions expressed in this post are my own.
The day I’d chosen to go was a Bank Holiday Sunday, and coincided with Ed Sheeran’s triumphant tour finale in Ipswich. I was prepared to travel early, although extra trains had been laid on so it wasn’t difficult to find a seat. I was a little concerned I might not be able to park easily with the additional passengers but the GA website has a handy feature which provides live data about how many free parking spaces are left. There were over a thousand so I needn’t have worried.
I could sit back and relax in the spacious seat as well as say a silent thank you that on this very hot day, the carriage was air-conditioned. The train arrived a couple of minutes early at Norwich station, from where it was just a ten minute walk to KindaKafe, located opposite the castle in the building that once housed Ponds shoe shop. This cafe supports the important work of the Missing Kind charity, providing a social space but also raising funds through the events it holds. One such event is the Hidden History Tour which I had come to try out. There was just time for a quick coffee before Lisa, our guide, began her introduction.
The tour began at ground level in what had been the Ponds shoe shop. We learnt that Norwich was once second only to Northampton when it came to shoe production and especially important for ladies and children’s shoes. It was warm in the 19th century building, but soon we would descend below ground where it was a more pleasant 17°C. Things would soon get a little strange as we descended a flight of steep stairs to find ourselves in front of the upstairs window of what was once a weaver’s cottage. That window would once have looked out over the castle. Confused? Bear with me, this will make sense soon.
Norwich Castle was built at the time of the Norman conquest. At the time of its construction, an order was issued for all the buildings in the immediate vicinity – 98 of them – to be demolished. Once they were knocked down, an eight metre ditch was dug by hand. The soil that was excavated is what forms the castle mound today.
A couple of centuries later, King Edward III formally gave the ditch to the city, while the castle was county property. Lisa told us that this variation in ownership was important, for instance when it came to public hangings. If a murder was committed outside Norwich, the convicted killer would be hanged on Castle Meadow (on county owned land) whereas if the crime had taken place within the city, the place of execution would be Castle Ditch instead – right where we were standing. My mother had already told me that our family was connected to the final public execution:
“Hubbard Lingley was executed outside the Castle on 26th August 1867 for the murder of his Uncle Benjamin Black. Benjamin was the husband of Anna Fickling who was my great great grandfather William Fickling’s sister. They came from Barton Bendish.”
This extract from Charles Hindley’s book “Curiosities of Street Literature: Comprising ‘Cocks’ or ‘Catchpennies'” tells Lingley’s story:
I shared this information with Lisa and the other group members – and it turned out that some of the other tour participants were related to Hubbard Lingley. Lisa told us that the reason that this was the last public execution (after this, hangings would take place inside the castle in private, rather than in front of a public crowd) was that there was some dispute as to whether Hubbard Lingley was guilty. Many in the crowd, she said, protested that he was innocent, and vented their anger at the hangman himself. The Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act was passed the following May and from then on, all executions would be carried out behind closed doors (though reporters and the victim’s family could be present at the invitation of the authorities).
After we descended another flight of steps, we learned that some people believe that there are secret tunnels leading to the castle. We could have been standing in one, but in actual fact, it was a former alleyway that had long since been covered over. Never mind about secret tunnels: it’s even more cool to think you are standing in a long lost street. Ponds built their shoe shop right on top of this ancient street and used the “basement” as a storeroom. Look carefully and there’s an odd mix of brick types, with elongated Tudor bricks and even a smoke-blackened section of wall, perhaps from a street fire. Lisa pointed out would could have been some 18th century graffiti featuring the number (or maybe a date?) 1739.
Looking around, we could have been in Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. A “jetty” that would have been constructed across the street linked two buildings. Behind it was a section of wattle and daub ceiling. In front were two rooms: one had the appearance of a dungeon; the other had a flint wall dating from the late 15th century when Henry VII was on the throne. Opposite was a nook in the wall called an undercroft, a bit like a cellar. Norwich has at least fifty of these accessible undercrofts, more than any other city in the UK, and possibly as many as 250. These cool, dry spaces would be ideal for storing your perishable goods – cool in summer and not too cold in winter.
The group moved into one of these tunnels/covered alleyways. In the corner was an AUD (an anti-urination device). These, we were reliably informed, can be found all over the city. In the mid 1800s, there was a serious shortage of public toilets for the growing population. Mounds were installed to discourage men from weeing up the buildings – the design was such that if someone tried to go to the toilet, they’d get wet feet.
Three flights of steps down from where we started, Lisa led us out onto the street. If you walk along London Street, between Costa Coffee and a chicken place you’ll see an unprepossessing white gate. I’ll bet almost everyone who walks by has no idea of what they’d find if they stepped inside.
Have your own rail adventure
If you’d like to have your own rail adventure, then why not take a look at Greater Anglia’s website? You too could have a day out in Norwich, but there are plenty more places on the network to choose from – why not read my previous blogs on Harwich or Wivenhoe for inspiration?
KindaKafe’s Hidden History tour costs £10.50 per person and I really recommend it. Advance booking is essential and for more information have a look at their Facebook page or call 01603 850309. All proceeds support the Missing Kind charity’s work.
The creek I look out on from my office window winds its way through the stark beauty of the salt marsh to eventually reach the sea. Walking the dog along the path through Old Hall Marshes is one of the joys of living in this part of Essex. But though I’ve seen the water from the marshes, I’d never seen the marshes from the water. So when Stacey Belbin of Lady Grace Boat Trips invited me to join her for a sunset trip along Salcott Creek, I jumped at the chance.
As we chugged steadily into the channel from West Mersea’s crabbing jetty, Stacey told us a bit about how she came to run trips on the Lady Grace. The daughter of a fisherman, she’d grown up on the water. At first, she and her husband bought a boat to take people angling at weekends, but in 2011, Stacey bought the Lady Grace and now works full time on the boat. A passionate ornithologist, her knowledge of the local and migrating birds that make their home in and around Mersea is first rate. But it’s her enthusiasm that’s infectious and even if, like me, you can’t tell a herring gull from a tern, you’ll find yourself getting excited about the birds that you see during the trip.
We were blessed for our trip with superb weather. On a late August evening, the air was warm and still. As we passed along Mersea Fleet, we had sight of Cobmarsh Island to the left, which acts as a natural barrier protecting Mersea harbour from the larger waves of the North Sea that would make such boat trips as Stacey’s difficult, if not impossible. To our right, there were a few clouds in the sky as we passed the old oyster shed on Packing Marsh Island and the remains of the wooden posts which would have once supported its jetty. As we turned into Salcott Channel, the setting sun lit up the sky in warm shades of ochre and orange behind Old Hall Marshes. Birds flitted overhead, preparing to roost for the night.
Packing Marsh Island is a reminder of just how long a history Mersea shares with its oysters. The Romans famously farmed oysters here and many of those who work in the industry today can trace their connection with the sea back many generations. From time to time, you see a willow stick poking up out of the water. These mark where oysters have been dropped; they’re harvested from deeper waters and then relaid in the tidal waters order for them to grow. The rich nutrients in the silt here mean that Mersea oysters develop into a meaty, more flavoursome product than those farmed on the south coast, and in half the time. The water quality benefits too; oysters filter something like 8 litres of water per hour, cleaning the water for everyone.
One of the larger islands in the channel is known as Sunken Island, lying at the mouth of Salcott Channel. On the high spring tides, it is completely submerged. That’s given the island something of a reputation for being a place to stash ill-gotten gains. Smuggling was rife in the old days, and it was common for local churches to be used to hide contraband from the authorities. Loot was hidden in the church itself, usually with the knowledge of the vicar. The labyrinth of channels winding through the salt marsh would be a confusing environment for the revenue men, but locals knew every twist and turn of these waterways, no matter whether the tide was in or out.
I wrote about another tale on my Essexology blog about Salcott:
“One story claims that villagers found an customs boat floating off nearby Sunken Island. The 22-man crew were all dead, their throats slit. The bodies were allegedly buried in the church graveyard and the hull of their boat placed upside down on top of their final resting place.”
But the most intriguing story wrapped up with the Salcott Channel is that of a bell. Spirits, usually gin or brandy from across the English Channel, were brought in under cover of darkness to avoid excise duty. A bell was stolen. Some accounts identify this bell as that of St Mary’s Salcott, others speak of four bells taken from St Edmunds church in East Mersea. Geographically, it’s the Salcott location that makes the most sense for a bell later dumped near Sunken Island. So the story goes, the vicar was asked to grant permission for storing contraband in the church (the last place the authorities would look for stolen goods) and agreed, so long as a bell was commissioned for the tower in exchange. Made in London, its tone was distinctive, instantly recognisable to the people who lived in the village.
One night, a group of Flemish traders came to deliver their load and were envious of the bell. They decided to come back under cover of darkness on a night windy enough to drown out any sounds they might make. These robbers made off with the bell by sea – in those days Salcott creek was deeper than it is today and in any case, the creek winds behind the church. The bell was dropped and hearing the sound of what could only be their bell, the local villagers gave chase. They gained on the robbers easily, as the villagers were unburdened by the weight of the bell. In the ensuing fracas, the bell tumbled overboard, or the boat sank with it onboard. Whichever version is true, the bells were lost to the silt near Sunken Island. They’ve never been found, though many have looked. I couldn’t help peering overboard, just in case.
Stacey turned the engine back on and cast off from the last buoy. We slipped back into West Mersea through an avenue of yachts. In the blue hour, everything around us was still. After a stressful few days, it was the perfect place to remind myself that no matter what you’re going through, life goes on and there’s peace to be found whatever challenges you face.
I’m very grateful to Stacey for offering me a complimentary ride. Though it was a gifted trip, all the opinions expressed here are my own. I was blown away by the beauty right on my doorstep. If you’d like to book a trip yourself, this particular excursion costs £15 per person which is excellent value for a 90 minute trip. You’ll need to book in advance and can check availability here. Other excursions are also available, from 20 minute tasters to picnics at Bradwell on Sea across the Blackwater. Private hire is also possible.
One word of advice: aim to be in West Mersea early; the car park is small and on a warm night, there’ll be plenty of people still around. Roadside parking is available a short distance from the crabbing jetty, but allow yourself a few minutes so you don’t have to rush. On a warm summer evening under a blue sky, I can’t think of a better way to spend your money and strongly recommend you enjoy a ride on the Lady Grace for yourself.
The secret to successful budget travel is about knowing when to scrimp when travelling. Here are six tried and tested ways of cutting costs without ruining your holiday in the process. I’ll be following this with a blog about when it’s better to splurge – together, you’ve pretty much got the guide to how I travel.
Scrimp 1: Choose your destination with care
The Sun Voyager statue, Reykjavik
Choose a good-value destination – and don’t be sucked in by the promise of a cheap flight if everything else is going to cost you a packet. Some destinations often throw up irresistibly low fares – for example I’ve seen flights ex-London to the Icelandic capital Reykjavik advertised today for under £20pp. But do a quick search online to see how much your accommodation is going to cost and if you have any excursions or must-do experiences in mind, what they’re going to add to the total. That’s not to say you can’t have a holiday in Iceland on a tight budget, but it does mean that you’re going to have to try extra hard to save the pennies and be prepared to skip certain activities on cost grounds. Instead, opt for somewhere much better value (Brits try Turkey, Eastern Europe or North Africa) where you can live like a king on a pauper’s budget.
Scrimp 2: Think carefully about when you want to travel
Travelling in peak season means peak season prices. I know just how much that can hurt: I used to be a teacher. Travelling to destinations when they’re not quite at their best can cut a lot off the cost of flights and shrink hotel bills. But be careful: extreme weather has a habit of slashing prices but also of ruining holidays. Shoulder season trips (that’s spring and autumn for summer-focused places) often come in at lower prices. That’s how I got such good value for my Barbados trip – switching out peak season December and January for the more affordable late November.
Scrimp 3: Use public transport where you can
Airport taxis can be useful but often they’ll significantly eat into your budget. Aim to travel light (or at least with luggage you can wheel and lift) and in many places you can ditch the costly transfers take public transport instead. In cities where there’s a subway, express bus, train or tram connection direct to the centre, this is really straightforward and often quicker than sitting in traffic. Once you’re in the city centre, you can always grab a taxi for the much shorter distance to your hotel if you need to. Public transport is often very cheap and also provides the opportunity to meet local people. Check out day passes (not the expensive attractions passes) if you’re planning a city break and want to cut out the walking.
Scrimp 4: Download walking tour maps
Ditch the transport and walk. It costs nothing and you’ll often see much more than you would from an open top bus or back seat of a taxi. I’ve downloaded walking tour maps and used the suggested route and notes to save on the cost of a guided tour. This one has a good overview of Philadelphia’s historic attractions. GPSmyCity has lots of great maps and themed tours; check out this one on New Orleans architecture for starters. Print off or download before you leave home. Alternatively, borrow a copy of the relevant Lonely Planet from your local library – they often feature self-guided walking routes. I’d also recommend the walking tours offered by Free Tours By Foot; you decide on the tip you wish to give your guide at the end of the tour as I did when I used them in New York’s Lower East Side.
Scrimp 5: Find out what’s free when
Check in advance whether the museums and attractions you plan to visit offer free admission at certain times of the day or week. For instance, Rome’s Sistine Chapel is free to enter on the last Sunday of every month. The Louvre in Paris always offers a free ticket to all under 18s and 18-25 year olds from the EU, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein; on the evening of the first Saturday in the month their generosity is open to all. In New York, regular tickets to both the Bronx Zoo and Botanical Garden up the road won’t cost you a cent on Wednesdays. Many of London’s top museums don’t charge visitors at all. Google where you want to go before you book your trip and plan accordingly.
Scrimp 6: Cut out the middleman
Booking direct and cutting out the middleman can save you a lot of money. If you book an organised tour, you can end up paying a premium (sometimes a hefty one!) for the luxury of leaving someone else to make your bookings and plan a route for you. Instead, browse tours on the web and get ideas for where you want to visit. Customise it to your own needs. If there are areas you’re keen to see that are hard to visit independently, book a group (or even a bespoke) tour for that part of the trip. Local operators can help with this and often you can wait until you arrive before booking anything. For example, when I visited San Pedro de Atacama in Chile a few years ago, I spent an hour on my first afternoon discussing and booking up tours to El Tatio and the altiplano, but during the same trip, opted to visit Easter Island without a package, saving a fortune in the process.
It’s been a busy few weeks for me when it comes to travel. I expect a lot of people think a travel writer is always travelling, but I choose to work part time and limit the number of trips I make so that I can be here for family and my beautiful dogs. Nevertheless, travel is always a privilege. Kyrgyzstan really blew me away, but 16 hours after stepping through the front door it was off to Devon, having written three articles and done five loads of washing – oh how glam! As we drove across the Dartford Bridge, a Eurostar passed beneath us, reminding me that travelling by train really is the best way to travel. So I was very pleased to have a day out in London courtesy of Greater Anglia to look forward to.
One of the most frustrating things about train travel is when there are no trains. The dreaded words “rail replacement bus” strike fear into us all, so I was really pleased when Kerri from Greater Anglia informed me that there is almost no engineering work planned on our lines into Liverpool Street all summer. She told me:
“Network Rail has paused its engineering work on the mainline for the summer with only a couple of exceptions – Sunday 16th June, when all journeys will involve a change at Stratford for the Underground into London, and Sunday 8 September, when there are buses between Colchester and Chelmsford during the morning.”
So if you were thinking of a trip up to London, then this summer’s an excellent time to go. For this week’s visit, I decided to focus on the South Bank. It’s a great area for families as there are a number of kid-friendly attractions. The London Dungeon, Shrek’s Adventure and Namco Funscape are all located close together. I opted for a visit to the SEA LIFE London Aquarium and a ride on the Coca Cola London Eye.
First up: the aquarium. What used to be the London Aquarium, housed in the bowels of County Hall at Westminster Bridge, was bought by Merlin Entertainments in 2008 and reopened a year later with a new look. It receives mixed reviews on Trip Advisor, but I was interested to see what it was like for myself. I’m sorry to report that my visitor experience didn’t get off to a good start. The member of staff who dealt with me on the ticket desk was rude and her manager wasn’t much better. Fortunately the other members of staff I encountered were more helpful and enthusiastic.
The SEA LIFE London Aquarium exhibits are arranged IKEA-style. Once you’re in, there’s no going back and even though I was assured it was a quiet day, there were some bottlenecks. At the penguin enclosure, two large primary school groups meant that it was difficult to see the birds, who’d taken themselves off down to the far end of their space, presumably for a bit of peace and quiet! The huge shark tank was very impressive, however, and I thought that it was well designed as you could get access to the tank’s windows on two different levels. Most impressive were the jellyfish, mesmerising as the lights illuminating them changed colour.
Throughout, there are a lot of opportunities to interact with the exhibits. The kids I saw really enjoyed being able to stick their heads into the perspex domes to get a 360° view of the marine life swimming around their heads. However, it isn’t a cheap day out. Standard tickets cost £27, though families could save a little by purchasing a family ticket. Adults would pay £26, children from 3-15 £22 and under 3s free. To snorkel with sharks for 15 minutes would set you back £150.
Next: the London Eye. This was a completely different kettle of fish if you’ll pardon the pun. I’ve been before and it never disappoints. Their customer service is excellent. Every member of staff I spoke to couldn’t have been more friendly and genuinely wanted to ensure I had the best time. And it wasn’t just because I had a complimentary pass; I listened in on a few other conversations and was delighted that staff were so polite and helpful to everyone. Though they offer a VIP experience, it seemed that those staff managing the queue to board treated everyone like a VIP.
The flight was great, even though the sky was threatening rain with dark thunder clouds in all directions. It brought to mind my first ever visit to the London Eye, not long after it opened, when an elderly lady behind me in the queue was rocking a hat she’d fashioned from a John Lewis carrier bag. This time, the rain held off and visibility was pretty good. We were a mixed bunch in our capsule, with visitors from the USA, Brazil and New Zealand all giving it the thumbs up.
“Best day ever!” one lady said.
Big Ben of course is covered in scaffolding, but it was interesting to see how much the skyline had altered in those almost two decades since my first visit. If you don’t know your Gherkin from your Walkie Talkie, there’s a useful 360 degree map that will cost you £2 on top of the price of your ticket which will help you identify what you’re looking at. Prices are pretty much the same as for the SEA LIFE London Aquarium and there are occasional special events for a similar entrance fee, like Time Out’s smart phone masterclasses. Of course, you can opt for a champagne experience too, for something extra special.
The trouble with London, understandably, is big city prices. Finding somewhere reasonably priced to eat in a city with such high rents can be a challenge. Fish and chips from the wagon on the South Bank would have set me back £10. If the weather’s fine, there’s another option. The Jubilee Gardens Trust work hard to maintain a sizeable patch of green space right next to the London Eye. There’s a play area for young children and the Trust have just purchased what was once a car park and have plans to turn it into an adventure playground for older children. It’s perfectly located for a summer picnic on a dry, sunny day.
Around ten minutes walk further east is one of my favourite spots this side of the river: Gabriel’s Wharf. This eclectic mix of boutiques and eateries has a more local vibe than the tourist traps closer to Westminster Bridge. Spend your £10 here, and it will buy you a delicious sit down lunch rather than an average takeaway. It’s worth checking out some of the independent stores here too. The House of Eunice works with artisans in India to create some unique clothing designs – the owner runs trips to India too if you’re keen to learn about the processes for yourself.
We really are lucky to have such a magnificent city on our doorstep. Thanks to the speedy trains, from my Essex village by the coast I can still be in the City of London in under 70 minutes door to door (as little as 48 minutes on the train). That is always a good feeling, particularly on the way home! The recently launched Norwich in 90 and Ipswich in under 60 services bring East Anglia even closer to the capital.
Need to know
If you buy your train ticket in advance you can travel to London from Colchester or even as far as Norwich for just £10 each way. From Southend, getting to London can cost as little as £6 single if you are flexible with dates and times. You don’t need an Oyster card to score the lowest fares within the capital, as you can tap in and tap out with a contactless debit card in the same way.
You don’t need me to tell you just how many visitor attractions there are in London. Greater Anglia offer a range of 2for1 deals which can add up to some pretty significant savings. Museums, theatre tickets and even bike tours are included in the promotion – dates and specific savings vary so check on Greater Anglia’s website for more details. While the SEA LIFE London Aquarium isn’t participating, their sister attractions in Southend and Yarmouth are. The current London Eye offer with a valid rail ticket is a 2for1 deal for £30.
With thanks to Greater Anglia for my train ticket and to Merlin Entertainments for complimentary passes to SEA LIFE London Aquarium and the Coca Cola London Eye. I appreciate their generosity. All views expressed in this blog are my own.
The love child of Switzerland and Mongolia, blessed with snow-capped mountains and hospitality like you wouldn’t believe, Kyrgyzstan makes an easy introduction into the ‘Stans. If you’re not sure where it is, you’ll find it on China’s western border – go halfway across Russia and then down a bit. The country’s attractions haven’t yet reached the radar of many travellers, and when the Border Force officer quizzed me on where I’d flown in from yesterday, he thought I said Kurdistan. Yet, it scored a mention on the Lonely Planet’s must see countries for 2019. So what can you expect of Kyrgyzstan?
There are no direct flights to the capital Bishkek from London, and in fact the country’s airlines are off limits, featuring on the EU’s “not safe to fly” list. Given that an indirect flight was necessary and Kyrgyzstan was to be my sole Central Asian destination (for now at least!) I flew with Pegasus Airlines via Istanbul. They operate out of Stansted which is convenient as that’s my closest airport. Book well ahead and they’re pretty cheap too. My flight cost £337. Though there are plenty of options for the first leg, flights to and from Bishkek are limited to one a day. Schedules change, as they did for me between booking and date of travel. What had been a three hour layover on the outbound journey changed to a five hour layover.
That had the minor advantage of arriving at a more convenient 7am, but Sabiha Gokcen Airport isn’t close enough to the city for between-flights sightseeing unless you have a seriously long layover, so I holed up in Starbucks instead. If you’ve never been to Istanbul, pick an early flight out of the UK into the city and kill time sightseeing until the second flight departs at 11pm. It takes about an hour on average to get from the airport to the city, but allow time for traffic-related delays.
Another option might be to use Air Astana and combine Kyrgyzstan with a visit to neighbouring Kazakhstan. Bishkek and Almaty are little more than a couple of hundred kilometres apart. Air Astana has direct flights from London for a similar price. Check your visa requirements before you book.
Depending on what you plan to do and how ambitious your itinerary is, you could make use of the country’s network of public minibuses, known as marshrutkas. These bear the name of the destination on the front windscreen but you’ll need to figure out the Cyrillic alphabet. I’ve always found it helpful to memorise the first or last few letters of a place name so that it’s a simpler process to clock which bus is yours. Bishkek for instance shares the same last three letters so look for “kek” at the end of the word. If you plan to loop Issyk-Kul, the country’s largest lake, you shouldn’t have a problem finding transport. Note that these minibuses go when full and won’t stop along the route if they have their full complement of passengers, so plan accordingly.
If like me you want to cover more ground and head a bit further off the beaten track, it’s worth considering a car and driver. I found Advantour to be very helpful at the initial email stage, with prompt responses and useful suggestions about whether what I was planning was doable. Marat and I bounced ideas and refinements back and forth a few times before settling on an itinerary that covered the places I wished to see at a budget I could afford. Including accommodation, I paid about £800 for my week’s activities. You’ll see from the itinerary below that it represented excellent value for money.
Another option, particularly if you have a little more time to play with, is to make use of the CBT organisations that are spread across the country. Community based tourism is a big thing in Kyrgyzstan and these helpful offices can sort you out with somewhere to stay, transport and the full gamut of activities. Each town has its own, and some even have several competing CBTs. They can hook you up with local guides, hiking packages, horse riding treks and more. I also liked the fact that they’re big on interactive experiences and will arrange cooking classes, felt-making demonstrations and more. This casual insight into Kyrgyz culture is great for the first-time visitor. Many of the bookings that Marat made for me were via the CBTs, but it’s useful to know you can cut out the middleman.
How to spend a week in Kyrgyzstan
The advantage of arriving on the night flight is that you have an extra day to play with. The downside of pushing fifty is that sleeping fitfully on a five hour flight doesn’t refresh you enough to permit morning sightseeing. The good news is that many of Kyrgyzstan’s hotels and hostels offer an early check-in for 50% of the room rate. I opted for the budget-friendly Apple Hostel for my first night and a half, which came in at about £30 for an ensuite double for sole occupancy. Its edge of town location was good for a rush hour arrival as we didn’t get caught up in any traffic and took just twenty minutes to get from the airport. The taxi transfer, arranged by the hostel, cost about £7. There’s a cheaper shuttle bus which runs more or less during working hours.
I had a much-needed nap and then had Marat send my driver over for noon. After a brief detour to his office to pay for my tour, Adyl drove me to nearby Ala-Archa National Park. This beautiful park is only about a half hour drive from the city and is centred around a dramatic canyon flanked by mountains. In late May, there was still a slight chill in the air, but blue skies meant that it was perfect hiking weather. A tarmac path takes you along the river bank. That trail ends at an outwash plain where graded cobbles and streams of water can be forded to continue the walk. You can hike for 18km though I settled for a shorter walk. A couple of red squirrels were very friendly when I got to the benches.
I was keen to ride, and had read that one of the best places to do so was in the Chong Kemin valley, a few hours east of the capital. Marat suggested I’d need to get almost as far as Karakol today to be able to complete my wish list, so I opted for a two hour ride. My guide was the chatty Beka, who’d gone to Bishkek to study English and French before returning to his beloved valley. My request for a helmet was an initially misunderstood, as he fetched me a cap to wear. The second attempt was a bicycle helmet which I figured was better than nothing.
The next two hours were a pleasure, taking a leisurely ride through rolling hills and fording occasional streams (more importantly, learning to recognise the signs that your horse is about to take a bath with you on his back). Beka interspersed nuggets of Kyrgyz heritage and history with tales of his own somewhat chequered love life. Aside from my horse almost bolting after being startled by the air brakes of a lorry as we got back to the village, it was a most relaxing ride.
From there, we drove east, doubling back to stop for lunch in the Kyrgyz equivalent of a motorway service station midway through the Boom Gorge. Food’s cheap: you can have a proper meal for about 150 som (£1.50). Following the north shore of Issyk-Kul from a respectable distance, we pulled off the highway at Tamchy for a photo stop on the beach itself. We were a few weeks off main tourist season, so the place was deserted save for one lone paddler. The neighbouring resort of Cholpon-Ata is very popular with Russians in summer. From what I could tell, it had a lot in common with the Black Sea resorts they also favour.
Our overnight stop was at a charming guesthouse, Reina Kerch, not far from Karakol. Set off the main road, it boasted panoramic views of the nearby canyon, but was also a working farm. Herds of sheep and cows pottered in distant fields but it was the horses I was keen to see, as the farm prided itself on thoroughbreds. The best competed in trotting races and I was able to watch one of their most successful stallions impregnate a mare. A tour of the stables followed. Next up was a boorsok-making demonstration. Boorsok is a fried dough cut into ravioli-like pieces. The dough was already made but I helped roll, cut and fry. It was salty and delicious. Dinner was excellent, making good use of the farm’s homegrown produce.
Staying just outside Karakol on a Sunday, it was hard to resist a visit to the animal market on the edge of town. Scotski Bazaar isn’t the country’s largest – that honour goes to Tokmok’s weekly market which we’d passed the day before. The action starts in the middle of the night, but at around nine, it was still busy enough to be worth a visit. Sheep are traded nearest the entrance; those hoping to sell tie them to car bumpers with string leads. Further in are the cows and bulls. I was told a decent cow could go for $700 or $800. At the rear are the horses. I was made to feel very welcome.
Next up was Karakol itself, for a brief visit to the Dungan Mosque, which looks more like a Chinese temple than a regular mosque. That’s no surprise: the Dungans are Chinese Muslims who fled across the border in the 19th century. The colourful timbers and ornate pictures on its exterior were bright and cheerful. I wasn’t allowed in, but was invited to peer through the door. Around the corner was a charming wooden Orthodox Church, which replaced an earlier stone church that was felled by an earthquake in 1890. It didn’t have the glittering domes of other Russian churches I’d seen in Kyrgyzstan and beyond but it was a delightful sight. Mass was taking place, so I contented myself with a glimpse through the door.
From Karakol, we followed the southerly route around Issyk-Kul. The Jety-Oguz valley was a short but worthwhile detour for its beehives as well as the Broken Heart and Seven Bulls rock formations. As we drove out of the valley, the weather took a turn for the worse and we drove through some heavy squalls. The spectacular mountain backdrop was a damp squib, obscured by thick cloud. The foreground scenery was stark also, nowhere near as pretty as the panoramic views I’d enjoyed thus far.
No matter, just after the scruffy town of Bokonbaevo we pulled off the main highway to reach an Alpine meadow, where we had an appointment with an eagle hunter. He produced a magnificent pair of golden eagles from the boot and back seat of his car – they couldn’t travel together as they would fight, he explained. His display was both captivating and, when he produced a live rabbit as bait, horrifying. However, I tried to rationalise the sacrificial bunny as nature’s pecking order. Nothing would be wasted, said the hunter, bundling the kill into a sack to take home. It would feed both eagles for the rest of the week. The thrill of watching a skilful bird such as this home in on its prey was, I reluctantly admitted to myself, impressive. If you’ve no stomach for hunting, you might choose to skip this, but such a tradition has been a part of the Kyrgyz culture for centuries.
Back on the road, through more heavy showers, we reached Kochkor. Late afternoon, I was treated to a shyrdak demonstration. Felt-making is another important Kyrgyz tradition and my tutor was as skilled as she was smiley. Once again, active participation was expected and I found myself making the reed mat and stitching fabric together. A full sized carpet, I was told, takes five people two years to make. A single square can be knocked out in ten days. And I’m pleased to report there was no hard sell for either. Accommodation tonight was at a very plush homestay on the edge of town, affording magnificent views of the Tien Shan Mountains when the sun finally made an appearance.
After the previous day’s storms, a dumping of snow on the mountains wasn’t the best for our ride up and over the Kalmak-Ashu mountain pass (highest point 3447m) to Son-Kul. This lake is smaller than Issyk-Kul by some margin, but its remote location ringed by snowy peaks makes it breathtaking. Late May is very early in the season to be up there at all, and the road had only been open for two weeks.
We climbed steadily above the tree line. The road was wide, but it wasn’t long before we were driving alongside snowdrifts two metres high. The reward at the top for being one of the few to attempt it was a pristine meadow of snow which I left with two long lines of footprints. There was also a snow filled long drop toilet. This far into the tour, it had become something of a joke between Adyl and I that I couldn’t go more than a couple of hours without a toilet break.
The approach to Son-Kul was just as wonderful, descending to emerging spring grass and fields of yellow buttercups. A few yurts were open for business, but at 3016m the lake is a summer destination. After crossing the Chu River, the lake’s only outlet river, we attempted to off-road to the lakeshore but the ground was still too soft for this to be possible.
After a few failed attempts we bailed and drove down the spectacular Thirty Three Parrots Pass. A series of dramatic switchbacks carries you down the pass, and at each hairpin bend I caught my breath. I was glad to be the passenger! It’s surely up there with one of the world’s best drives though, if you have the head for it. A French traveller in a camper van had got cold feet halfway up and was trying to pick up courage to complete his ascent. A family of nomads in a small lorry, yurt in the back, made light work of it and waved enthusiastically.
Before we headed into Naryn, Adyl invited me to try kymys, fermented mare’s milk which has a rather unpleasant sour taste to those unused to it. I managed a couple of sips, which was more than can be said for my attempt to drink a cup of Maksim, another popular sour milk drink which is just about the most vile thing I have ever tasted. Bustling Naryn was a bit of a shock to the system after a day’s solitude but Datka’s Guesthouse was comfortable and clean. At about £18 for an ensuite room with TV and hairdryer, breakfast included, it was a steal. She throws in dinner too for an extra 350 som (£3.50).
A much easier drive of around an hour and a half took us to Tash Rabat. This caravanserai is centuries old – no one knows quite how many – with metre-thick walls and atmosphere in spades. A lady emerged from one of the yurts opposite to unlock and collect the 100 som entrance fee (about £1, a bargain!) I was fortunate to have the place to myself for the first half an hour or so, wandering from room to room trying to imagine what it might have been like to stay in such a place. Some rooms had long benches of rock, others were square. All had skylights open to the elements which let in shafts of light. I emerged from one side chamber to give a recently-arrived Korean tourist the fright of her life (unintentional).
Outside, the way that Tash Rabat was engineered means that it’s pushed right up against the hillside. Climbing onto the roof and gazing down into the skylights is a peculiar sensation. The Korean had hiked up a nearby hill, so once again I had the place to myself until a bus load of Kyrgyz pulled up. The kids in the party scaled the walls with ease, chucking tiny stones down to their parents which, given the tone of voice, earned them a scolding.
My overnight lodging was within sight of Tash Rabat. Sabyzbek, a 62 year old maths teacher turned farmer, had a small guesthouse and a collection of four inviting yurts. Located in the quiet Kara-Kojon gorge, the road crossing the river and enabling access by car had only been built five years ago, transforming tourism in the valley. He was keen to show me both, reminding me several times that at 3200m and with a chill wind barrelling down the valley, the yurts would be cold once the sun set. Temperatures would fall below zero, he said, though I couldn’t pin him down to exactly how far. I decided to risk it for the adventure, figuring that I could pile on the spare bedcovers and every fleece I’d brought to stave off the overnight cold.
Just before lunch, a wander around the farm led to another confronting sight. This time, the local vet was castrating a stallion. Judging by the horse’s wide eyes and blowing nostrils, accompanied by the ropes holding him down, the operation was performed without the use of tranquillisation. Potassium permanganate was used to sterilise the area and a hot poker cauterised the wound. It was uncomfortable to watch, but again, part and parcel of nomad life. Such lack of censorship is both the joy and the pain of visiting somewhere unused to mass tourism. I left as the second patient was being led to his fate.
The afternoon was a pleasant one. Though the wind was biting, once you were out of it, the sun was rather nice. I tucked myself into a natural hollow, two woolly jumpers keeping me snug as I felt the warm sun on my face. Farm life carried on around me: a cow mooed insistently, chickens clucked over and pecked at the discarded balls of the morning’s business and horses pottered about. Every now and then, a car passed, bound for Tash Rabat, but by and large, it was quiet enough to hear birdsong. After dinner, I chatted with Sabyzbek’s daughter Tuzsun about Kyrgyz life, expectations and change. Dusk fell late; a pink sky soon clouded, I didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing when it came to how warm the yurt would be. A fire was lit in the coal burner, started by dung, just in case. I was toasty – so much so that I spent half the night with one leg stick out of the duvet resting against the cold slats of the yurt in an attempt to cool off.
It was a long drive back to Bishkek and an early start was in order. The fire had kept me toasty inside the yurt but there was a frost on the ground outside. A bowl of steaming porridge and a mug of hot tea later, we were on the road again, retracing our steps to the capital. Bishkek’s sultry heat was a shock after several days in the mountains. I took a stroll from my centrally located hotel to Ala-Too Square. Its tall flagpole is no match for those in other Central Asian capitals, but impressive nevertheless. Nearby are several leafy parks offering the temptation of plenty of shade, as well as the presidential palace known as the White House. After a cold drink, a so-so pizza and a chat with a waiter keen to practise his English, it was time to go and pack for the following morning’s flight home.
Would I go back?
Absolutely! Kyrgyzstan was everything I’d hoped it would be and then some. I’d love to stay in a yurt at Son-Kul and revisit the delightful Sabyzbek and his family at Tash Rabat. Osh and the Fergana Valley would also be on my wish list for a second visit. I’d definitely use Advantour again. Marat’s suggestions were invaluable and his organisation faultless, well worth the money I spent!
A few observations
The Kyrgyz are hospitable and go out of their way to make you feel welcome. I asked one hotel owner why. “Simple,” she replied, “many of us can’t afford to travel, so we learn about other countries through the people that come to see us.” I’d suggest learning a few phrases in Russian as many people speak very little English. Having a copy of the Cyrillic alphabet to hand so you can figure out lone words is also a good idea.
Kyrgyzstan is a cheap destination and your money will stretch a long way. Even my smart hotel in Bishkek cost only $95 for a luxurious and very central room. Most comfortable guesthouses come in at around a quarter of that cost. It would have been possible to do the Ala-Archa and Issyk-Kul trips by marshrutka for a fraction of the cost of a car and driver. Likewise public transport to and from Kochkor and Naryn was plentiful.
If you intend to self-drive, the roads are for the most part in excellent condition. Aside from the gravel roads up to and down from Son-Kul, there were none that would challenge an average driver and there were very few potholes. However, road signs are sporadic in places so it’s best to take a good map. Traffic police are everywhere: watch your speed if you don’t want to be flagged down and fined. Watch out for herds of livestock being moved between pastures and the occasional suicidal marmot.
Travelling in the shoulder season, you’ll have many places almost to yourself. I visited in late May and the road to Son-Kul had been open for two weeks, though snow still lined the Kalmak-Ashu pass. By mid-June, there’ll be plenty of yurts set up to receive visitors and off road trails down to the lakeshore will be safe to drive. By September, the season’s pretty much at an end unless you plan to ski.
It’s customary to take off your shoes when entering a house, and the same applies to homestays, guest houses and yurts – in fact the only place where it wasn’t expected was the fancy pants hotel in Bishkek. Do as the locals do and opt for footwear that can be easily slipped on and off, rather than have the bother of unlacing hiking boots each time you want to go inside.
Toilets, save for posh hotels and the airport, are almost universally of the squat variety. Some are much cleaner than others. Those I encountered at the Kalmak-Ashu pass were full of snow. Have a stash of toilet paper handy but note that it needs to go in the bin as Kyrgyzstan’s plumbing can’t cope with paper.
English readers, everything seems to come in Morrison’s carrier bags. It’s very odd receiving a plastic bag featuring the distinctive M from a few years back and even more bizarre when it happens over and over again. I’ve yet to get to the bottom of this mystery (it’s been 12 years since this design has been used in the UK) so if anyone who’s reading this knows why, do leave a comment!
Puglia is Italy’s heel, where a karst landscape makes its presence felt in the form of caves and sinkholes. Somewhere in the middle of all that is Alberobello, a town known for one thing: trulli. These simple circular dwellings are built without mortar and take their name from the Greek word “troullos” meaning dome.
The nearest airports to Alberobello are Brindisi and Bari. The latter’s the most convenient in terms of onward travel, served from London Gatwick, Stansted and Luton by easyJet, Ryanair and Wizz respectively. Flights can be had for a little under £50 return, excellent value for a flight that’s almost 3 hours long.
From Bari, a train takes you direct to Bari Centrale station, taking about 20 minutes. From there you can pick up the FSE train, tucked away on a far-flung platform – ask for assistance if you can’t find it. Even though it’s an FSE train, you can buy a ticket from the Trenitalia ticket machines (Trenitalia bought FSE in 2018). The fastest connection takes about 1 hour 15 minutes, but it’s more usually about an hour and a half. Tickets are cheap at just 5€ and can be used on any train without the need for a reservation. At the moment, until at least 2020, the stretch of track from Putignano to Martina Franca is being renovated, so there are no trains to Alberobello itself. Instead, you need to catch the connecting rail replacement bus – and fortunately it does connect, waiting for the train if the train is running late. It’s part of the same 5€ ticket, so just show the driver. The bus journey takes about half an hour.
On Sundays, things get a little more complicated. FSE trains don’t run at all. Instead there is a bus service that connects Alberobello to Bari Centrale. Though that might sound simple, the bus doesn’t start from the station. Instead, you’ll need to find the stop – tucked around the corner on Viale Bari near Hotel Astoria and the petrol station. Remember to buy your ticket online or at the petrol station; you can’t buy a ticket on the bus from the driver.
To explore the surrounding countryside, it’s most sensible to hire a car. Though public transport does exist, it radiates from Bari and other large towns and there are few cross-country connections. To visit Matera by public transport, for instance, would require a trip from Alberobello to Bari and then out again to Matera – a long detour.
However, it is possible to catch the train (or Sunday bus) to some of the nearby villages. I enjoyed Locorotondo, the next village along, which is a pleasant outing for the afternoon. There aren’t many sights as such, but the hilltop location affords fantastic views across the surrounding countryside and the pretty old town is compact as a result.
Things to see
The big draw when it comes to Alberobello is Rione Monti. This district is packed with trulli and straggles picturesquely up the hillside. One of the best views across from the town centre is at the Belvedere Santa Lucia. It’s also worth checking out the park beside the tourist information centre and, across in Rione Monti itself, several shops that offer free access to their upstairs terraces.
Close up, it’s not quite as quaint, largely because many of the trulli house souvenir shops – some of which is mass produced tat. A few stood out, including La Bottega dei Fischietti which sells not only the traditional ceramic whistles common to Puglia but also some rather lovely ceramic tableaux.
Nearby, Pasteca La Mandragora sells high quality linens and there’s also a store to delight art lovers called Forme e Colori di De Marco Vita crammed full of brightly painted pottery. Be warned, however, some places that purport to be museums house a minimum of exhibits which exist as a honey trap for unwary visitors.
But it’s also in Rione Monti that you’ll find a 20th century trulli church and where you’ll find the curious Trulli Siamesi. This double trulli has one roof. Legend has it that two brothers fell out over a woman but neither would give up the home they had inherited. Instead of moving out, the spurned sibling bricked up the wall and knocked through to make a separate front door.
You’ll also see plenty of trulli with symbols painted on their roofs. Some people will tell you that these symbols have an ancient spiritual or religious meaning. That’s probably true, but I also read on an exhibit tucked away in a corner of the town’s museum that when Mussolini came to visit in 1927 many of the villagers were asked to paint those symbols on their trulli to add a touch of mystery. This seems to be glossed over now in favour of the more politically correct religious imagery line.
Rione Aia Piccola
The only district to rival Rione Monti in terms of the sheer number of trulli is Rione Aia Piccola, which faces off against its nemesis across Largo Martellotta. In contrast to its touristy neighbour, it’s quieter than you’d expect from somewhere on the tour guide route. Many of the trulli here are private dwellings, though a significant number are let to visitors. You’ll see just how many if you wander through in between check out and check in, when they’re marked by vacuum cleaners and mops on their thresholds.
A tourist map I had been given implied that there was a kind of open air museum here, but there was no evidence of that during my stay – perhaps because it was still early in the season? If you are in Alberobello in the height of summer it would be worth checking out just in case.
In the main part of town, there are also more than a scattering of trulli, one of which is worth seeking out as it is two-storey. This is rare: Alberobello’s trulli were originally modelled on the agricultural buildings found across the Puglian countryside and the dry stone wall construction wasn’t strong enough to support an upper floor.
Trulli Sovrano was built in the 17th century by the family of a priest, taking the name Corte di Papa Cataldo and is now a museum, its rooms recreated with antique furniture. In the front bedroom, a notice pinned to the wall states that the slit was useful for seeing who was at the door, or shooting them if they weren’t welcome. It was at one time a warehouse; if you climb the stairs, you’ll see a trapdoor in the floor used for passing goods down to the floor below. Over the years it’s had many uses, including a court, chapel, grocer’s, monastery and the HQ of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sacrament.
Museo del Territorio “Casa Pezzolla”
Much of the town’s history can be learned within the confines of this collection of fifteen or so trulli which now form a museum. It recounts the impact of the Prammatica De Baronibus, an edict of the 15th-century Kingdom of Naples. The Kings wished to impose a tax on permanent dwellings, so under the leadership of nobleman Gian Girolamo II, the residents of Alberobello were forced to live in trulli. Their dry stone construction made it easy to take them down if an inspection was imminent. The tax dodge worked, serving Alberobello well for many years but in the end, the political situation changed and thus these temporary structures became an enduring part of the urban landscape.
One of the sections of the museum explains the significance of the adornments on the roofs of the trulli. What’s called the “pinnacolo” is the only part of the trulli to be purely decorative, a kind of architect’s calling card. The more complex the design of this topper, the more talented was the master trullaro. It was also a good way of finding a particular trullo amongst so many similar constructions; think of it as the design equivalent of a postcode.
Where to stay
If you’re going to stay in Alberobello – and why wouldn’t you, since once the daytrippers have gone home it’s absolutely gorgeous – then I’d suggest you book Trulli Anti.
While there are plenty of trulli scattered across town that can be rented by visitors, many of them cluster in Rione Aia Piccola. Though that district isn’t as plagued by tour groups during the day as Rione Monti, it’s still on the tourist trail. Where Trulli Anti wins is that it’s close to the sights without being in the middle of them. Plus it’s on such a narrow road that it’s almost impossible for cars to drive past. I only saw one car try it and that was the local police.
That peace and quiet, coupled with its stylish and very contemporary design, gives it 10/10 in my books. If you’re thinking that I’m only saying that because I got a freebie, I didn’t. I paid my own way. It wasn’t cheap for a solo traveller, costing about 125€ a night – though it would be much better value if there are three of you. But oh was it worth it!
The trulli has been well thought out and owner Angelo is keen to ensure you have a great time. On a mezzanine, there’s a very inviting double bed under the domed roof. Lighting is good, and the stairs are pretty solid, which is reassuring as the bathroom is downstairs. That bathroom is chic – I especially loved the tiles and having a shower with some oomph to it. I also need to mention the comfortable sofa (so comfortable I fell asleep on it one evening) and that there’s a single room on the ground floor if you need a second bedroom or you’ve had so much vino you don’t trust yourself on the stairs.
If you plan to cook, there’s also a small but well-equipped kitchen with a dining table. When it comes to eating out, Angelo provides many recommendations and there are several excellent restaurants within staggering distance. Call ahead if you want to try La Cantina as it’s tiny and usually booked out. I had better luck geting into Trullo d’Oro and the food there was delicious. Make sure you try burata, a type of mozzarella that is moist and creamy. Breakfast comes in a box from a nearby cafe, with plenty of choice. You simply pick what you’d like off a menu, send it to Angelo via text message or What’s App and tell him what time you’d like it delivered. You can, if you prefer, eat at the same cafe, a ten minute stroll away.
Out back there is a courtyard garden. During my stay the weather was rarely sunny, but if it hadn’t been wet I’d have loved sitting out there. Angelo supplies bikes too and there’s even an outdoor shower. Pots of flowers add colour to the whitewashed trulli and fairylights create a magical feel. I’m probably gushing, but it was just delightful. Trulli delightful, in fact. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
I booked Trulli Anti via booking.com – here is the link if you want to check prices and availability: https://www.booking.com/hotel/it/trulli-anti.en-gb.html
Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve worked with Greater Anglia on several occasions. They sponsor me to go to places in the Greater Anglia network and in return, I share my experiences. This weekend, I took the intercity train to Norwich.
Journey time is only an hour from Colchester station, typically around half an hour quicker than it would be by road, and with standard advance fares costing as little as £8 each way, surprisingly cheap. Factor in Greater Anglia’s offers – accompanied children go for just £2 (just turn up on the day and nab this fare for any off peak journey on the network) and 2for1 deals on many attractions – it’s a tempting prospect.
To be honest, the intercity trains that currently run on the Greater Anglia network look pretty dated from the outside. However, when you step inside, they’ve been refurbished as part of a £12m upgrade. What you get is a very comfortable ride. The seats are like armchairs and there’s plenty of legroom. There’s a choice as you’d expect of table seating, great for families or groups of friends, and airline-style seats. That upgrade has paid for new carpets, seat covers, improved lighting and upgraded toilets. Best of all are the at-seat powerpoints, which came in very handy on the return journey when I needed to use my phone which as always had a woefully low battery. It’s also convenient to have onboard WiFi. The only thing I didn’t like was having to lean out of the window to open the carriage door, but fortunately those waiting on the platform helped when I couldn’t quite reach. It reminded me of the slam door trains in the 1970s, though getting out wasn’t as impossible as it was with that horizontal squeeze – if you travelled by rail back then, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Anyway, I’d got so comfortable it was almost a pity to arrive in Norwich (and I promise I’m not just saying that because Greater Anglia paid my fare) But the sun was shining it was the first really mild day of the year, perfect for a stroll alongside the River Wensum which does a loop of the city centre. The river is almost right in front of the station. Within a couple of minutes, I was walking along a riverbank lined with willow trees. The first landmark I passed was Pull’s Ferry. This flint building was once a watergate and takes its name from John Pull, a ferryman, who ran the boats in the first part of the 19th century. Apparently, the stone that was used to construct Norwich Cathedral came in via this route, having been imported from Normandy.
I strolled further along the river bank until I came to the Red Lion pub. On its slipway, a group of people were stepping into wooden Canadian-style kayaks. Chantal and Nick set up Pub and Paddle a few years ago – this year will be their fourth summer and the business is going from strength to strength. Chantal told me that one of their most popular excursions is also their shortest, suitable for anyone. This four hour rental takes paddlers past the cathedral, football ground and Colman’s mustard factory to the village of Thorpe St Andrew. Most people take a break at one of the riverside pubs before returning to the Red Lion. At only £20 per person, it’s good value. Chantal and Nick make their own kayaks and also have a couple of wooden rowing boats for hire for those wishing to stay in the city centre. I didn’t have time to do this, but it’s definitely a good excuse to return.
My next stop was Cow Tower, a 14th century artillery tower built as a response to the threat posed to Norwich not only by the French but also by local rebel forces. Contrary to what its name suggests, it wasn’t constructed to shelter cows, though this Eastern Daily Press article suggests that might have happened later. Instead, it was named after the surrounding meadow, which was called Cowholm. It was big enough to hold a garrison but now, it’s just a shell, the floors and roof long gone. As a consequence, you can’t go inside. Nevertheless it’s an imposing structure, standing almost 15 metres high, and very photogenic in the spring sunshine, particularly when the daffodils are in bloom. On the other side of the path from the Cow Tower there’s a rather lovely carved wooden seat, its smooth curves perfect for lying back to watch cotton wool clouds scud across a blue sky.
I was reluctant to leave my seat, but wanted to take a look at Norwich Cathedral. Construction began in 1096, using local flint and mortar faced with that limestone imported from Caen. It’s quite a large site – actually two churches and an Anglo-Saxon settlement were knocked down to make room for this new structure, such was its scale. The cathedral close is the largest in England. By 1145, the cathedral was pretty much completed. The same building you see today would have had a wooden spire clad with lead, added in the 1160s. It was struck by lightning in 1169, less than two years after it was finished, so today’s spire dates from 1480.
The cloisters of this very grand church bear a resemblance to the colleges of Oxford or Cambridge and are the second largest in the country after those of Salisbury Cathedral. A quadrangle is bounded by walkways featuring elaborate vaulted ceilings; inside, the cathedral itself is even more impressive.
One of the more interesting modern additions is the copper baptismal font. Formed from two bowls, one upturned, it was donated to the cathedral when it was repurposed from its previous use – making chocolate in the Rowntree’s factory until it closed in 1994. Though a donation is suggested, entry is free. Allow plenty of time as the building warrants more than a quick look.
It was time for lunch and over on Tombland, Cocina caught my eye, two white statues flanking its doorway. Samson and Hercules are Norwich icons, though the figures that you see today are replicas, installed when the originals became too fragile to leave in place. In 1657, the two figures, both symbols of strength, were placed outside the home Christopher Jay, then the Mayor of Norwich.
The statues were removed from their pedestals in 1789 and reinstalled in the rear courtyard of the building; a century later antique dealer George Cubitt moved them back again. At that point, Hercules was in such a bad way he had to be replaced. In the 20th century, the building housed a dance hall and later a nightclub. In 1993, one of Samson’s arms fell off and years of paint were revealed. The two figures you see today might only have been placed there just before the millennium but are a much treasured part of the city’s history.
Taking a circuitous route to take in cobbled Elm Hill, my next target was the Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell. Whether you know a lot about Norwich or like me, embarrasingly little, it’s a fascinating place to spend a few hours. The £5.95 ticket charge is a steal. Originally constructed as the home of a rich merchant in 1325, it became a prison for women and beggars in the late 16th century (that’s what a Bridewell means).
The first inmate was one John Flowers, banged up for being accused of having “a lewd life and to be a counterfeiter of begging licences”. But the most interesting story was that of Jane Sellers. She was the Bridewell’s most persistent offender, serving nine sentences in just eight years in the early 17th century. Her first stint was for “being found idle at Trowse”. Several times she returned, did her time and promised to leave town to find work. But she never did. Instead she was caught stealing numerous times. The burglary she committed at the end of 1631 would be her last. The authorities lost patience with her and she was hanged.
After a pit stop at Jarrold’s for tea, I set off for the Plantation Garden, pausing for a quick look at the city’s Roman Catholic cathedral along the way. The garden is the work of a dedicated team of volunteers. Occupying an abandoned chalk quarry, the garden is Victorian in origin, something you might guess from the many follies and statuary that litter the garden. There’s a gothic fountain, Italianate terrace and mock mediaeval terrace wall, plus delightful woodland walkways and vibrant flower beds. Judging by the many people who’d spread picnic blankets or settled into the benches for a natter, it’s well used by locals and visitors alike. A honesty box is located by the gate for your £2 entrance fee.
Back in the heart of the city, there was time for one last stop before I would catch my train. Norwich Castle occupies a hilltop site overlooking the shopping streets below. There’s a £9.50 entrance fee which is expensive, but I was told that for the final hour each day, you can get in for just £2. Inside, as well as an impressive keep, you’ll find a collection of exhibits, some temporary. Right now, there’s a Viking display which is worth a look, as well as a section telling the story of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni. For me, the museum lacked the emotional connection I got with the Bridewell, but I’m a hard sell, much more interested in social and industrial history than that of early Britain. If you’re local and have kids, I think they might enjoy the castle’s Knight Club or some of the special Easter events that are planned.
Have your own rail adventure
If you’d like to have your own rail adventure, then why not take a look at Greater Anglia’s website? You could visit Norwich, but there are plenty more places that offer a great day out – read my previous blogs on Harwich or Wivenhoe, for instance. I’d also love it if you would answer the simple yes/no review on this survey – being purely selfish, if you’ve been inspired by my day out, I get to do another!
News has broken today that Thomas Cook will close 21 of its High Street stores, one of which is my local branch in Colchester. It’s no surprise. Even Thomas Cook themselves admit that 64% of its UK bookings were made online last year. Their website is bright, colourful and most important of all, easy to navigate. Rationalising a business is the way to keep it afloat, and if you don’t move with the times you become a dinosaur. Thomas Cook led the way in 1841 with its pioneering railway excursions and is a respected player in the industry. Closing its stores isn’t a sign of failure, it’s a savvy move designed to help the company retain its market share.
I haven’t stepped foot inside a travel agency for over two decades. The last time I asked about flights, the assistant hadn’t heard of the place I wanted to fly to, so I left. The rise of budget airlines and the breadth of information available at the click of a mouse means I have no need to pick up the phone and speak to a specialist, much less go to the bother of visiting a High Street store. The rise of the internet made the travel agent the middle man. Online agencies such as Expedia, originally set up by Microsoft in 1996, do a more than satisfactory job. Use an online travel agent and you’re not tied to store opening hours, but you’ll still have the convenience of a one-stop shop for your travel package and the benefit of bulk buying discounts.
But just because I no longer use a travel agent, doesn’t mean I don’t advise others to use one. One of the benefits of the internet is also its biggest drawback – sometimes there’s just too much information. Sifting out what you need to know from the mountain of websites that Google presents can be hard. Travel’s my job – I take for granted that I know which sites will be useful and which are irrelevant to my needs. But for many, navigating through all that information is a minefield. How do you know what you’re reading isn’t misleading or downright inaccurate? Sadly there are many influencers out there who just don’t know as much as they claim to, like the blogger who presented a £1000 indirect flight from London to the US as a bargain, when direct fares are often half that amount or less. How do you whittle down which New York hotel to choose when Expedia presents almost two thousand search results?
In the light of that, it’s not surprising that some High Street travel agents are actually expanding the number of branches. Kuoni’s one of them. Paired with John Lewis, they offer a different experience to Thomas Cook, and aim at a different clientele including the lucrative luxury honeymoon market. Their customers, they say, value quality over cost. Between 2016 and 2017, they reported a 38% increase in the number of appointments made with their in-store experts. 59% of their customers, they reveal, come in with a blank sheet and ask the consultant to help them find their perfect trip. Visit Kuoni’s website, and though you’ll find plenty of tempting images and itineraries, you can’t book them online – instead you have to telephone or book in person. Hays Travel, the UK’s largest independent travel agent, are also expanding, so the trend’s not confined to Kuoni.
Millennials are particularly keen to utilise a travel agent, a trend that’s mirroring what’s going on across the Atlantic. FOMO – that’s the fear of missing out to those of us who are old enough to be their parents – means that they want to ensure that they book the very best when it comes to travel. According to ABTA, 59% of millennials say they’d pay extra for a holiday that’s tailormade to their preferences, good news for agents like Trailfinders with a High Street presence and a strong reputation for bespoke but affordable packages. In Kuoni’s latest worldwide trends report, it notes a rise in bookings of what’s termed “wow experiences”. From dining beside a waterfall in Thailand to staying in a vintage Airstream trailer on the Bolivian salt flats, bespoke just got interesting – and crucially, difficult to pull off without the right connections. ABTA’s annual report backs up this desire to leave the booking process to an expert. They state that 45% of those booking via a travel professional do so because of the confidence it gives them, while Google asserts that 69% of travellers return to companies offering a personalised approach.
While hardened low-budget, intrepidly independent travellers (like me!) will stubbornly continue to find their own way, the age of High Street travel agents isn’t yet over. After all, if you’d call out a plumber to fix a water leak, why not call upon a travel professional to find you the holiday that’s right for you? It will probably cost you more, but if you think it would be worth it, then it’s money well spent.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in the south west of Uganda is one of the few places in the world that you can see mountain gorillas, the others being just across the border in DR Congo (currently on the FCO no-go list) and Rwanda. These aren’t the gorillas you’ll maybe have seen in zoos – those are lowland gorillas – as mountain gorillas can’t cope in such environments. Less than 800 of these magnificent creatures remain in the wild and about half of them are found in Uganda.
I was really keen to include a primate tracking safari as part of my Uganda itinerary but knew from what I’d read online and from what others had told me that I just wasn’t physically fit enough to do a gorilla trek. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest truly lives up to its name (well, almost). The hike, which research indicated could take anything from one to seven hours depending on where the gorillas were that day, was likely to involve the thin air of high altitude, steep uphill climbs and trails wet and slippery with mud. Last April, a 63 year old French tourist lost his life after collapsing with a heart attack on the way back. Though Trip Advisor is full of gung-ho reports about porters and assistance, I decided that realistically, it wasn’t for me. Oh, and it would cost $600 in permits, though admittedly that’s a whole lot cheaper than the $1500 you’d pay across the border in Rwanda.
Fortunately for me, Uganda’s primate tourism doesn’t begin and end with gorillas. While I was looking into a gorilla trek, I came across a chimpanzee tracking experience that seemed the perfect fit for me. I’d get to see primates up close but the trek, across the relatively flat forest floor of Kibale Forest, shouldn’t be anywhere near as tough. I put together a customised itinerary with car and driver provided by Roadtrip Uganda and they sourced a permit for me. It’s not wise to leave the purchase of permits until you arrive as they are strictly limited in number and you may be disappointed if they’ve sold out.
Tip: to further minimise the need for a long hike, opt for an afternoon tracking slot.
As I had opted to stay overnight in Fort Portal and planned to spend the morning driving around the area’s crater lakes, I opted for an afternoon permit which would give us plenty of time to drive south to Kibale Forest. This turned out to be a wise idea. Groups go out in the morning and when the rangers come back to base, they report back on where the troops of chimps have been spotted. There’s no guarantee that they’ll have stayed put, of course, but I was told that there’s usually less walking involved in the afternoon excursions as a result. The downside is that temperatures do increase as the day wears on, though in the shade of the forest this isn’t as big an issue as you might first think.
Our group of six met at the park office for a short briefing before our own drivers took us to the part of the forest that had been chosen as the start point for our tracking experience. Accompanying us were a ranger and also an armed guard; in the event of elephants or buffalo encroaching too close to the group, the latter would fire warning shots in the air. Before we gave our drivers a few hours off, there was another briefing. No one would be allowed to trek if unwell, the group should remain at least 8 metres from the chimps at all times and most important of all, we were told to tuck our trousers into our socks to avoid being bitten by ants. Photography was encouraged but we were to turn off the flash to avoid startling the chimps.
Three whoops of chimps (that’s the collective noun!) in Kibale Forest were habituated, that is, they’re used to being close to humans. Others are left alone. We set off in search of one of them, Benson our ranger encouraging us to hurry so we could reach the spot before they moved deeper into the forest. The pace wasn’t actually too fast, largely because we were picking our way over buttress roots and ducking under forest vegetation. Benson told us that the “hoo hoo hoo” sound we could hear was chimps calling to each other and that they were close.
I was thrilled when we came across the first group of four – three adults and a baby – after only about fifteen minutes of walking. Benson arranged us so that we’d have a clear line of sight to the chimps without getting too close. We were the only group at that point, so the six of us enjoyed an intimate encounter and it was truly a delight. Though the baby had climbed a tree, too unsure to remain on the ground so close to us, the three adults weren’t fazed at all. Two were too focused on grooming each other to acknowledge our existence while the other rolled onto his back and closed his eyes for a snooze.
The chimpanzee tracking permit had cost $150, considerably less than that of the gorilla encounter, but still a significant amount of money. But at that point, it was worth every cent. About five to ten minutes later, another group caught us up. Benson asked us to move on so that the chimps would not be overwhelmed. We did so and and after a few minutes came across a larger group.
Once again, watching their behaviour was fascinating. These creatures share 98% of our DNA and many of the mannerisms are uncannily similar. We watched, transfixed, as they ate fruit, chased each other in play and swung from the canopy high above our heads. We saw their nests high in the canopy – the chimps overnight in these but prefer to hang out on the forest floor during the day. Generally speaking, it was a pleasure to be so close. The loud chatter and screams as they approached was a bit intimidating – as it was intended to be, I guessed. I think I’d watched too many Planet of the Apes films to have been entirely comfortable at this point, but Benson calmly explained what was happening and pointed out where they were which made me feel safer, particularly when they had us surrounded.
After the initial delight of seeing the chimps, I began to notice how different each were from the others. One was a proper porker – we were told he was vying for the alpha male spot and thought his extra weight might help. Some of the older chimps in the family were going grey, or balding. The youngsters, true to type, were mucking about and being put in their place by their elders. And the baby, well he was just too cute. We saw a female in oestrus, and then a bit of chimp sex up a tree after she parked her baby on the branch next to her while she got it on with her potential baby daddy. Sadly, light levels in the forest weren’t sufficient to get it on film but that’s probably just as well.
In all, we spent around an hour with the chimps before Benson led us on a trek out of the forest back to the ranger station. This was at a very leisurely pace, with plenty of stops to point out types of trees, birds, monkeys and butterflies. The tracking activity that I booked in Kibale Forest has about a 95% success rate of spotting chimps. This is nature, of course, and nothing is guaranteed. In all, we saw about 25 chimps. The permit cost me $150, which included entrance to Kibale National Park for 24 hours.
You can also try your luck spotting chimps at Budongo Forest Reserve in the northwest of the country, those living in the Kyambura Gorge at Queen Elizabeth National Park in te south and also at the Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve near the Congolese border. To spend longer, a chimpanzee habituation experience is offered, where visitors can spend all day in the forest shadowing researchers. This costs $200 for foreign visitors; on the Uganda Wildlife Authority website it does state half-day habituation experiences were available for $100 but I was told this was not the case. For a full price list, including prices for other areas, please use this link:
During my trip to Uganda I stayed at the three backpacker hostels in Kampala. Each was very different, so if you’re looking for cheap accommodation in the capital, my reviews might help you decide which is best for you.
Red Chilli Hideaway
The clue’s in the name with this one – it’s tucked away at the end of one of the roads leading south from Kampala’s city centre. It’s as much a resort as it is a hostel, with a sizeable swimming pool as well as two bars. Day guests can pay for the use of its facilities, but it retains a backpacker vibe nonetheless. Staff are helpful and efficient.
The location is both Red Chilli’s biggest plus and its worst drawback. Because it’s so far out of the centre – around 10km from downtown – it’s inconvenient if you intend to visit the city’s sights. Traffic is horrendous, so that 10km journey can easily take an hour or more of frustrating stop-start driving, more in rush hour. If you’re coming into the city on a tourist shuttle such as Pineapple Express, note that drop off will be at the Oasis Mall, still a considerable distance from Red Chilli.
That said, if you’re looking for a place to unwind as part of your Ugandan or East African trip, it’s the perfect spot. Security’s excellent – all cars entering the compound are checked thoroughly, with mirrors used to check the underside of the vehicle. Guards on the gate are also a reassuring presence in this relatively remote location. The views across the valley to the surrounding countryside further distance you from the hubbub of the city and it’s a surprisingly peaceful place. Sunrises are spectacular and well worth rising early for.
The multiple accommodation blocks contain a range of room types, from dorms to private ensuites. The latter are roomy and are equipped with fans and showers that actually deliver hot water. I slept well, cocooned from the noise of those socialising in the bar. The room was basic but clean.
Red Chilli Hideaway is the sister property to Red Chilli Rest Camp up at Murchison Falls. I took the three day budget safari, which costs $320pp in shared tents and about $80 extra if you upgrade to a self contained banda. It was well organised and well thought out, and though the distance travelled was considerable, the two included game drives and boat trip made the package excellent value for money as well. The safari price includes a free dorm bed the evening before – it’s definitely a good idea to stay in order to avoid a ridiculously early start just to reach Red Chilli itself.
Would I stay there again?
Yes, if I was looking for a place to stay put rather than get around.
Cost of a single room with ensuite bathroom $45 with a discount for booking the safari – I paid $33 (note that prices have recently risen)
If you’re looking for a sociable backpackers then this is the pick of the bunch, but I also found it to be the noisiest of the three. Located on busy Acacia Avenue, there’s a constant buzz of traffic as well as considerable noise from the immediate vicinity – bells ringing when people asked to be let in and chatter for instance. My single room was tiny, the bed taking up the whole of the window side of the room, making it difficult to access the window. There was a small hole in the glass, so even with the window shut, it wasn’t remotely soundproof, though mesh and a mosquito net ensured I wasn’t bothered by the bugs.
The showers and toilets were in a room a few doors down the corridor. They were clean and the water was hot. I rented a towel for 4000 shillings (a little less than £1). However, there was no door to the bathroom itself and (unlike the rest of the rooms in my section) my room had mesh above the door rather than a solid wall. The noise from flushing toilets and running water was therefore bothersome. I managed about three hours sleep which wasn’t ideal.
Where Bushpig scored highly was in its food. There was an outdoor bar with tables. An extensive menu sold really tasty food at reasonable prices and it was a popular place to entertain friends as the number of visiting diners indicated. Staff were approachable and helpful. The manager went out of his way to get me connected to the WiFi when my devices were being uncooperative and it proved to be the speediest once I was online. Also, the reception staff helped me figure out the location of the relocated Post Bus service as well as sort me out with a reliable taxi.
Would I stay there again?
Probably not, on account of the noise, though it was a temptingly convenient location. However, I would definitely visit for the food and atmosphere in the bar garden.
Cost of a single room with shared bathroom $25, which represented the best value of the places I stayed
Occupying a site in a quiet side street close to Acacia Mall, this backpackers had the most convenient location. It was the smallest of the three and felt the most basic. My single room was directly off the main dining room, which could have presented a noise issue had there been more guests, but in fact I got a good night’s rest. Staff were efficient, and my driver for the late night airport transfer was waiting for me outside Entebbe Airport. However, I didn’t get the sense that they were especially bothered if I was enjoying myself and came across as a bit bored by the whole customer service thing.
The shower room was very basic. The cubicles were fairly clean but the windows and walls were grubby and there wasn’t much space to hang clothes or a towel while you showered. The water was almost cold, adding to the monastic feel. Though it was dearer than Bushpig, the room was larger, but the facilities were definitely a lot more rundown and in need of modernisation. I only ate breakfast here, and that too was basic. There was a lounge and several traditional hostel noticeboards where you could post requests for shared rides and the like.
I did like the garden area, which was a tranquil spot to sit and enjoy a drink with plenty of shade. You could qualify for a free beer if you went litter picking in the vicinity of the backpackers. Just outside the gate, Uber bodas (motorcycle taxis) congregated and I had no difficulty organising an Uber car and driver when I needed to go into the centre of the city a short distance away.
Would I stay there again?
Possibly. Despite it being the most basic, it functioned well and its proximity to the Acacia Mall and a number of cafes and restaurants helped.
Cost of a single room with shared bathroom $34, a little steep given the quality but admittedly reflecting that it was significantly larger than the room at Bushpig.
My greeting, freshly learned, typically resulted in a surprised face, followed by a torrent of incomprehensible words in Luganda, the language of Uganda. The villagers that responded could have been saying anything. It was as if I was participating in a kind of verbal line dance in which everyone knew the steps except me. I trusted they were repeating the familiar pattern of “hello, how are you?” that I’d been led to expect.
“Cale!” I replied, I’m fine.
Fortunately, passing astride a horse at a slow but steady pace, by the time I’d uttered the final response I was some way down the trail and thus unlikely to be troubled by a continuation of the conversation. Francis, my guide, was effusive in his praise, commenting on the accuracy of my pronunciation, though obviously not on the extent of my vocabulary. As he’d been the one who’d taught me earlier that morning, I echoed the compliment.
A couple of hours earlier, I’d made the short journey out of Jinja, a pleasant town famed for being at the source of the Nile. English explorer and army officer John Hanning Speke had made his way here in 1863, searching for the beginning of the world’s longest river. Noting a spring that rose from an outlet of Lake Victoria, he staked a claim, sending a telegram that said simply:
“The Nile is settled.”
The claim was disputed, however, largely due to a lack of corroborating evidence and competing egos. Speke died in 1864, receiving posthumous recognition for his discovery in the latter part of the 1870s after Henry Stanley mounted his own expedition and proved Speke had been right all along. Things are considerably easier in the 21st century, with a memorial to Speke in the grounds of the Living Waters Resort and a blue and white marker located prominently (though inconveniently) in the middle of the river. Disputes over the source of the Nile continue, however, with many differing theories as to which bit of water lies furthest from the Nile Delta over four thousand miles to the north. The very visible spring bubbling up at the outlet from the lake at Jinja adds credibility to this particular claim.
Kitted out for my own, much more modest expedition in helmet and half chaps, I’d set off on a horseback trek. A series of mounting blocks at different heights made it easy to mount JD, a sturdy horse with a calm temperament that boss TJ had selected for me. The path we took soon led us through the village of Naminya. A succession of little children tottered about in the dust, their older siblings busy in the classroom. As we approached, they waved enthusiastically.
“How are you?” they trilled, giggling with delight at my response, “I’m fine, thank you. How are you?”
“I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine! I’m fine!!!” The singsong chorus was one that would become familiar wherever I went.
The sound of their voices faded to a whisper as the horses continued further along the dirt track. Such small children had much more freedom here. Passing bodas aside, there was little to trouble their safety. In any case, these motorcycle taxis hooted a warning as they passed and even at this tender age, the tots knew to stand back. We continued on, the horses’ hooves kicking up the compacted terracotta earth which passed for a road. The same mud held together by thin branches and topped with rusting sheets of corrugated iron provided rudimentary shelters. Those who could afford it upgraded to brick built dwellings, the uneven blocks fired in crudely constructed kilns that belched acrid smoke.
We passed the village well. Two women chatted idly as they pumped water into faded yellow plastic cans. Effortlessly, they swung the weighty loads onto their heads and strode off in the direction of home. They made it look deceptively easy. A man passed us, carrying a sizeable bunch of green plantains, the staple of the Ugandan dish matooke. What we call a bunch is merely a hand; this was a stalk crammed with the fruit and weighed a ton.
Soon afterwards, we encountered a woman in a fuchsia pink blouse and skirt making light work of an equally heavy sack on her head, and, more unusually, a lighter bag in her hand. Along the track, three sheep tugged at the ropes that tethered them in a yard shaded by banana trees. Next to them was a roughly constructed wood and rusted iron shelter that in no small measure resembled a bucking bronco.
The ride took us through plantations and lush countryside. Francis turned and said:
“Julia, if you’d like to pick up the pace tell me and we can trot.”
In the warm sun, though, I was content to walk, the lazy rhythm far too relaxing to interrupt. Out of practice – it had been a year since I was in the saddle – I wriggled uncomfortably in the saddle. The tightly zipped chaps gripped my chunky calves and numbed my feet. JD plodded on, patiently accepting the fidgety novice on his back without complaint. Every so often, I freed a foot from the stirrup and rotated my ankle. Francis continued to lead the way at a steady, manageable pace, glancing over his shoulder at regular intervals to make sure I was OK. I was. Even when his horse spooked a little at some cows beside the road, JD was reassuringly composed.
We looped round, passing verdant fields planted with crops. I was getting stiff, my body unused to the saddle. Ready to return, my interest suddenly piqued as the Nile came into view and all aches and stiffness was forgotten. Across the grass, in a gap between the trees, a glimpse of blue appeared. Francis led us to a clearing, from which the sliver opened up into a broad swathe of water.
“Would you like me to take a photo, Julia?” he asked.
I nodded, and manoeuvred the horse with some difficulty so that I faced the camera yet avoided coming a cropper down the steep river bank. Photo session concluded, we headed off along the trail following the river bank. So high above the river, one slip would send me tumbling down to the water, crashing through bushes and trees on the way. Once again I was relieved that JD’s calm disposition meant I could trust him not to stumble, leaving me free to enjoy the view from the saddle. Soon, the gate to the property came into view and it was time to dismount.
About Nile Horseback Safaris
Nile Horseback Safaris is an established riding business well run by TJ, an Aussie expat, and his Kiwi partner. A number of rides are offered, the most popular being the 1.5 and 2 hour rides that combine village trails with river views. These suit most riders as the pace is relatively gentle, but complete novices may prefer the one hour ride. Longer safaris are available for more experienced riders.
It’s a very professional set up and one which receives consistently positive reviews. Horses are well looked after, safety is paramount and helmets are provided. To ensure that the horses are as comfortable as their riders, a strict weight limit is enforced – check the website for details if like me, you are on the heavy side. The mounting blocks make it easy to get on and off the horses and TJ’s policy of sending out two guides with each group – one leading and one at the rear – ensures that if a rider was experiencing any difficulties, assistance could be given promptly.
I’d like to thank TJ for providing a complimentary ride but would hasten to point out that all views expressed are my own. I was very impressed, both with the set up and the scenery, and would happily recommend Nile Horseback Safaris to anyone looking for an alternative way of viewing the Nile and Ugandan countryside. This is slow travel at its best.
Reconnecting with a Japanese friend this weekend made me think about the trip I’d made to Honshu and Kyushu in 2007. It got me thinking about countries I’d love to visit again. I’m all for exploring new countries – Uganda and Kyrgyzstan will be new destinations for me this year – but it’s also good to revisit places that made an impression. I’m making another visit to Italy this year, this time to see the trulli of Alberobello in Puglia, which I’m really looking forward to. So which are my top five places I’d love to visit again?
This Asian nation’s unique culture makes it special. Last time, I took a sand bath, soaked in an onsen and watched cormorant fishermen catch fish by firelight. In Kyoto I saw a geisha in Gion and in Tokyo, followed in Bill Murray’s footprints by staying at the hotel which featured in the movie Lost in Translation. Coping with the language barrier and different alphabet wasn’t as challenging as I’d expected thanks to video calls and picture menus. I loved how you could buy practically anything from a vending machine, including beer and hot chicken. Even the trains were a revelation, with slippers to wear and attendants that bowed when they served drinks. Next time, I’d like to head inland to the mountains and north to Hokkaido.
My visit to Nuremberg’s Christmas markets this year made me realise just how much I’d enjoyed my visit to Salzburg the year before. The markets themselves were much more handicraft oriented and in their mountain setting, a delight to explore. It would be hard to choose a season though – Austria’s just as beautiful in summer, if not more so. It’s been nine years since I took our elder dog to St Johann in the Tyrol and I’d love to go back with our younger one. We used to go to that part of Austria when I was a child and it’s a place I always feel a sense of calm. Something about the clean mountain air, perhaps, or the hearty, home-cooked food?
Nicaragua and Guatemala
When I eventually reached Nicaragua, I had been delayed two days, detained by the “Weekend Whiteout” in New York City. Despite the shortened time, I very much enjoyed the city of Granada and its colourful colonial core. Nearby, I explored volcanoes and cloud forest, and took leisurely lunches beside tranquil lakes. I’ve always felt that the trip was a little rushed, though, so it would be great to go back and explore at a more leisurely pace. Guatemala was equally charming, but a disappointing hotel on the edge of Antigua took the edge off my stay there. It would be fun to revisit around the time of Day of the Dead and compare the experience to the wonderful trip I made to Oaxaca a few years back. In a better hotel, of course.
As a die-hard Neighbours fan, boarding the bright blue minibus back in 2005 was a rite of passage. But now, as well as paying a visit to Pin Oak Court, the sets themselves are included in the tour and regular pub nights offer a chance to meet cast members. That in itself is a reason to go back, but I’d also like to spend some time in the north west of the country which is blessed with some stunning scenery. Taking a road trip north from Broome to the Bungle Bungles and beyond would be quite the adventure. (Hey, if Helen Daniels painted it, count me in!) I’d also love to ride the Ghan, Australia’s iconic train linking Adelaide and Darwin, stopping off to see Brolga and his kangaroos in the red centre along the way.
I’ve visited Morocco several times since my first visit in 1997 and there’s still plenty more I’d like to see. A new high speed train service would be a real treat to try out – on that first visit I chugged my way from Tangier to Marrakesh and back again at a snail’s pace. Last trip, I planned to visit the coastal town of Agadir for a day trip and would have done, had I not been laid low with a bout of food poisoning (don’t eat the salad!) The blue city of Chefchaouen looks so photogenic it would be irresistible, another for the wish list. I’m told its cobbled lanes lead to leather workers and weavers. I’m a big fan of Moroccan style when it comes to home furnishings – I know it would be hard to resist a bit of shopping.
Is there somewhere you’ve visited that you’d love to go back to? I’d love to hear about it.
Do you suffer from the winter blues? If you do, this month’s hell. Without Christmas lights to lift the spirits – excepting the neighbour whose outdoor tree will be a beacon of defiant brightness until the temperatures rise in the spring – the long hours of darkness can seem endless. If there’s a rare blue sky to tempt us to take a walk (it’s free and healthy after all!) it’s accompanied by a merciless cold north wind that defies the toughest hat, gloves and winter coat combo. The Arctic has nothing on the damp, seeping cold that whips off the North Sea in January while I’m stood waiting for the dog to finish his interminable sniffing. The sales are on, but there’s no longer anything worth buying, and even if there were, we couldn’t be persuaded to drag ourselves off our sagging sofas to investigate, such is the pervasive lethargy that blights January. Yet throughout this, our TV screens are awash with adverts featuring smiling families in sun-drenched locations having the holiday of a lifetime. It’s like a parallel universe, designed to torment us while we wait for our January paychecks and lament how our less than perfect life fails to measure up to that depicted by TUI.
Yesterday I escaped from all that, just for the day.
Despite living out on the Essex coast, it’s an easy run into London thanks to the swift and reliable service from Greater Anglia trains. This time, in preparation for the day ahead, I made a point of stopping by the Kelvedon station book exchange to pick up some reading material. It’s not often I have the luxury of curling up with a book on a working day, so this would be a real treat.
It was bliss. I spent the day trialling a new concept, a daycay, and it was just the thing to banish those winter blues. My day stay at the stylish Trafalgar St James in the heart of Central London had been arranged by DayBreak Hotels. They specialise in providing accommodation that would otherwise go to waste. Think about it: occupancy rates are lower than average in the UK at this time of year. Factor in that many people check out early and check in late, and you have hours and hours in between where those beautiful hotel rooms sit empty.
In the award-winning and recently refurbished Trafalgar St James, I was allocated a junior suite, complete with a comfy sofa looking out over a sunny Trafalgar Square and an even comfier bed promising to help rid my face of the grey skin and black circles that had settled in over Christmas. Watching from above the pillow was a black and white photograph of a youthful looking Mick Jagger, one of many in the hotel to be taken by acclaimed celeb photographer Dave Hogan.
The room was thoughtfully equipped, the attention to detail marking it as one of Hilton’s prestigious Curio Collection properties. Waiting for me, I found a Nespresso coffee machine, a book on London’s curiosities and a selection of glossy magazines, as well as a plate of melt-in-the-mouth macarons beside a welcome note.
There were a selection of Molton Brown toiletries lined up in the spotless bathroom and a couple of inviting dressing gowns hanging in the wardrobe. This was like a home away from home, but unlike home, I didn’t feel guilty that I wasn’t doing the hoovering or clearing away the dishes.
You might expect that as you’ve only checked in for six hours you might not be treated with the same respect as an overnight guest, but you’d be wrong. Every interaction I had with the hotel’s staff, from the receptionist to the restaurant servers, emphasised the close attention paid to customer service. I was offered a tour of the hotel, the highlight of which was enjoying the views from the rooftop terrace. The rooftop spaces make great entertainment venues; if I wasn’t a freelancer I’d already be bombarding my boss with emails about where to hold next year’s Christmas party.
I was also invited to see one of the suites that used to be one of Cunard’s corporate offices. The Landseer Suite was occupied, a minor disappointment as this was the boardroom where Cunard first received word of the sinking of the ill-fated Titanic. Next door, I did get to look around the Barry Suite, its original woodpanelling preserved under a coat of contemporary matt grey paint. It managed to be grand without being stuffy, the kind of place that makes you want to pop in to John Lewis on the way home to buy a few more cushions to spruce up your own place.
The hotel strives to be innovative – there’s not a hint of a bland, corporate hotel chain here. I found that also to be the case with afternoon tea. The dining room will shortly close for refurnishment, but the untrained eye would never guess. I was presented first with a menu of teas from the Tregothnan Estate in Cornwall. I had no idea that we even grew tea in this country and made a mental note to check that place out next time I was in the West Country. My question – was the rose tea better, or the red berry? – was met with the best possible answer – why not try both? (I did, and they were both a treat.)
The savoury treats were presented next, each accompanied by the Molton Brown scent that had inspired them. Coastal Cypress & Sea Fennel was represented by a slice of compressed cucumber topped with pieces of fennel crisp. Carpaccio of Denham Vale beef with pink peppercorn gel on sourdough toast exemplified Fiery Red Pepper. Following this were scones with jam and clotted cream, pleasantly warm and surprisingly filling. The patisserie was equally as inventive. A rose and rhubarb pastille was bursting with flavour and a mouthwatering prosecco sabayon with watermelon and berries decidedly moreish. My favourite Molton Brown aroma, orange and bergamot, came in the form of a chocolate and Earl Grey eclair topped with tiny strips of candied orange.
There was barely a crumb left by the time I’d finished. Had I not been in public, I’d have been tempted to lick the plate. With an hour and a half left on the clock, I chose to return to my room for a profligate nap. London, with its galleries and museums and countless other attractions, would have to wait. After all, it’s not every day a girl can say she fell asleep under the watchful gaze of Mick Jagger, is it?
About DayBreak Hotels
Daybreak Hotels offer a range of properties in destinations across Europe, the Americas, the UAE and Australia. The daycay concept is a clever one, with daytime and evening slots available. Same day and advanced booking as well as special offers can be found on their website:
There are so many reasons why you might book a hotel for the day instead of the night – perhaps you’re looking for a comfortable place to shower and change before a posh night out on the town or somewhere to relax before an evening at the theatre. Perhaps like me, you’re tempted by the promise of an indulgent afternoon tea or need a winter pick-me-up without the expense of a full-on holiday. Some properties come with spa or pool access, making them a great choice if you’re in need of a little pampering.
Maybe you could make use of a convenient city centre base for a sleepy toddler to have a rest in between seeing the sights? Or how about a place to leave a grumpy husband in the ultimate man crèche while you potter the shops at a leisurely pace? Also, there are plenty of hotels on DayBreak’s books that are conveniently located on or very close to airports, ideal for a lengthy layover – and far nicer than hours spent in an airport lounge. Whatever your reason for booking, the daycay concept is one worth checking out.
I was a guest of DayBreak Hotels and benefited from complimentary travel with Greater Anglia. To both: many thanks for your generosity.