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Gainsborough’s House with Greater Anglia

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.

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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.

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Painting by John Constable © Private collection on loan to Gainsborough’s House, Suffolk

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.

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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.


A beginner’s guide to the Lithuanian coast

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

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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.

Getting around

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:

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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.

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I was a little unsure of what to expect for our final hotel, located on the edge of the beach resort of Šventojias 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”.

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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.

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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.

Švyturys brewery

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Nida

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.

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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.

Nida weather vanes

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.

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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.

Japanese garden

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.

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Walking tour

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.

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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.

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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.


A dog friendly break in the Forest of Dean

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Goodrich Castle

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”.

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Adults £13 for a day rover ticket; dogs £2

Symonds Yat rock

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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


Review: KindaKafe’s Hidden History tour in Norwich with Greater Anglia

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.

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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.

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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.”

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This extract from Charles Hindley’s book “Curiosities of Street Literature: Comprising ‘Cocks’ or ‘Catchpennies'” tells Lingley’s story:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.


Sunset along Salcott Creek on the Lady Grace

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.

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Stacey has a passion for what she does

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.

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The old oyster shed on Packing Marsh Island

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.

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Willow sticks mark where oysters have been dropped to fatten up

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.

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Colours change as the light fades

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.”

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Boats moored in front of Packing Marsh Island

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.

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The water was perfectly still, making for some delightful reflections

The lowdown

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.


When to scrimp while travelling

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

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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

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Barbados – beautiful in the November sunshine

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

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Taxis waiting at Dusseldorf Airport (Pixabay)

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

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French Quarter architecture

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

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Bears playing in the Bronx Zoo

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

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Valle de la Luna, Chile

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.


To London with Greater Anglia

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


A beginner’s guide to Kyrgyzstan

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?

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Getting there

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.

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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.

Getting around

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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.

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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

Day 1

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.

Squirrel

Day 2

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.

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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.

 

Day 3

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.

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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.

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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.

Day 4

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

Drinks

Day 5

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.

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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.

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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.

Day 6

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Toilet

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!

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A beginner’s guide to Alberobello

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.

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Getting there

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.

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Getting around

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.

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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

Rione Monti

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Trulli Sovrano

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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


Why not take the train to Norwich?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!


The end of the High Street travel agent – or is it?

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.


Gorillas lite: up close with the chimps of Kibale Forest

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

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Lowland gorilla in Port Lympne safari park, Kent

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

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Grooming

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

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

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Chimps are exceptionally good climbers

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

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Chimps share 98% of our DNA

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

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

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The initial group

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

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Time for a snooze

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

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

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

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

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Letting it all hang out!

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

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

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

Click to access UWA-Tariff-2018-2019.pdf


Review: Kampala’s backpackers compared

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.

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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)

Bushpig

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

Fat Cat

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.

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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.


Review of Nile Horseback Safaris

“Oli otya!”

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

“Cale!” I replied, I’m fine.

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

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

“The Nile is settled.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Nile Horseback Safaris

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

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

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


The risks of road transport – and how to avoid them

Independent travel brings many rewards, but travel using such means isn’t without its risks. The older I get, the more I factor safety into my plans. If as a traveller I have nine lives when it comes to near misses, I figure I used up a fair few of them when I was young, naive and imperturbable.

Room for one more, Senegal

Rust buckets and fatigued drivers

In the UK, we take it for granted that vehicles are roadworthy but the same can’t be said for some parts of the world. Things have improved somewhat since, but on my first trip to Lima, the taxi that took us to the airport was an ancient Beetle. Its doors had rusted into a beautiful but deadly filigree mesh and were held shut by pieces of ragged string. Even the driver made reference to its poor condition, opting to leave us on the road outside rather than to risk being apprehended by the police or airport authorities in front of the airport terminal. Things are rather different now. Doing the same run on my last visit I had a functioning seat belt and a seat with complete upholstery, though the traffic in Callao was as bad as it had ever been.

Peru Time to feed the llamas in Cusco

Driver fatigue, particularly when it’s coupled with bad roads, can be lethal. In places where driver hours aren’t regulated and drivers aren’t routinely breathtested, you could find yourself in a whole heap of trouble. Sometimes, if it’s the only bus company running the route, you don’t have a choice. The bus I boarded to take me from Chachapoyas to Cajamarca wasn’t in the best of condition (though by no means the worst I’ve encountered) but it was that or a prohibitively expensive private transfer. Safety-wise, I should have opted for the latter. Instead I tried to sleep through a night of switchbacks and squealing brakes, saying a prayer of thanks that we made it one piece when we pulled up at our destination at daybreak. Travelling at night had one big advantage, however – it was easier on the nerves not to see how close we were to the edge of the ravines.

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Often, I’ve taken local buses within cities or out into the surrounding countryside. In Latin America, they’re often repurposed American school buses. The bench seats are uncomfortable: sticky in the heat, the cracked leather slippery and uncomfortable on bare legs. In Haiti, though, I’d have given anything to be travelling in one of these Nicaraguan chicken buses. Instead, I took what was possibly the most uncomfortable ride of my life in an overloaded tap tap. The end justified the means, but you can read here about the journey from hell that took me to Port Salut:

https://juliahammond.blog/2015/02/14/the-best-beach-in-haiti/

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These days I turn away vehicles, though, when I know there’s a choice, refusing a taxi without seat belts and doing some homework about which bus companies have the best safety record. It’s possible to find companies that run services with two drivers so that each can be well rested after a stint at the wheel. If a company states on their website that they routinely screeen for drugs that’s also a plus, though admittedly hard to corroborate. It’s particularly important to be cautious if the road you’re due to travel on is an accident blackspot. Hiring a car and a driver is often a smart choice, though check the condition of the vehicle before agreeing a price – no one wants to break down in the middle of nowhere, as happened to me out in the Senegalese countryside.

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The dangers of walking

It can be tempting, especially in cities, to think that opting for two feet instead of a ride with a crazed minibus driver would be safer. Remember though, that this assumes the driver won’t opt for your bit of pavement. In Nairobi, I needed to get to the central railway station to catch a train to Mombasa. It departed right in the middle of rush hour; my journey took me from the suburbs to the thick of the action.

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Drivers lent on horns to vent their frustration but in the melee, there were vehicles everywhere. Lane discipline was a forgotten art as cars, buses, vans and taxis tried everything they could to get ahead. Not every overtaking manouevre was a successful one. Consequently, some drivers found themselves stranded on the wrong side of the road. My driver was optimistic we would reach the station in time, following a full sized bus packed with commuters up the kerb and along the pavement (which incidentally wasn’t as wide as the car, let alone the bus). Pedestrians scattered and we returned to the carriageway when we reached the junction.

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I’m not saying I was especially safe in the passenger seat, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be a pedestrian on those streets. In China and Vietnam, I’ve found that the solution to crossing roads where there is that much traffic – there, it’s likely to be bicycles and motorbikes – is to team up with other pedestrians and form a kind of Roman testudo, minus the shields. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve put a local person between me and the oncoming traffic. I figure that they’re used to it, plus they speak the lingo should it become necessary to yell obscenities at any driver coming too close. I’ve also learnt that it’s imperative to maintain a steady pace and not to waiver from my course. If the driver or rider knows where you’re going to be, they can swerve to go round you.

It works – if you can hold your nerve. Have you got any other tips?


Five places I’d love to visit again

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?

Japan

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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.

Austria

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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

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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.

Australia

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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.

Morocco

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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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About DayBreak Hotels

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

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

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

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

Thank you

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


Cirque du Soleil’s back in London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thanks

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

https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/totem

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


Expanding my FlagMate collection

In 2018 I became involved with Storyteller and was impressed by their FlagMate product. Founder Bhav Patel set up Storyteller for three reasons: to create high quality travel accessories, to inspire travellers and most important of all, to support projects around the world aimed at helping to fund education programmes for underprivileged kids. This is what you need to know about this worthy project:

https://juliahammond.blog/2018/03/26/will-you-be-adding-flagmate-to-your-backpack/

Bhav kindly sent me a sample, and I chose three flags for my new keyring: Austria, Iceland and Peru. All three countries have a particular significance for me. I began a lifetime of travels visiting Austria at just 9 months old, married my husband in Iceland and fell in love with Peru and its ever-so-slightly loco people right from my first trip in 1995.

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Now Bhav has sent me a gift of three new flags and I chose Australia, Cuba and the United States. Each, of course, has a story. Although, it was tricky whittling it down as so many of the places I’ve visited over the years have given me such fond memories.

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Australia

Of all the countries I could ever see myself living in, it would be Australia (or maybe its neighbour New Zealand!) Though I’ve visited only once, Oz has been part of my daily life, on weekdays at least, since 1986. Guessed why yet? I’m an unashamed fan of Neighbours and though I acknowledge it’s not the most intellectual of viewing experiences, I’ve been following the adventures of Ramsay Street’s residents since I was a sixth-former. I visited the set in 2005 alongside some of the country’s other tourist destinations – Sydney, the Blue Mountains, Kakadu, Katherine Gorge, Port Douglas and Uluru. One day I shall go back – not least because the Neighbours tour has been improved to include an opportunity to meet the actors and a visit to the Lassiters Complex sets.

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Doing the Neighbours Tour, 2005

Cuba

I visited Cuba in January 2018 after a fifteen year absence. Sometimes, when you return to a place, it’s changed immeasurably. Fortunately, though things had altered, I found that they had improved the traveller experience. It is now possible, in an especially convoluted Cuban way, to access the internet, provided you aren’t too bothered about queuing for scratchcards and then perching on a street kerb or park bench. The food is also much improved and I enjoyed some delicious meals in the privately run paladares, even managing to secure a coveted table at La Guarida. Tour highlights included finding out about Trinidad’s sugar industry. I also teamed up with Havana SuperTours for one of the most fascinating tours I’ve ever taken, with the enthusiastic Michael leading me into the seedy world of Mob-era Havana.

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View over the Valle de los Ingenios, near Trinidad

USA

Some travellers look down on the USA as being too tame, others cite political reasons for not wishing to visit at this time. I disagree on both counts. My husband proposed to me at New York’s Top of the Rock and we honeymooned in Utah and Vegas. But what sets this country apart for me is sheer variety. New Orleans, like NYC, is a favourite city; post Katrina it rebuilt and regrouped. Beyond the cities, the scenery’s next level. Many of America’s national parks are breathtaking, particularly Acadia and Glacier. I also found a personal connection via the many tiny villages that bear my name. One day, I’ll find the time to finish writing “Hammond, Me“. Research trips have taken me to the Bronx, where I visited Abijah Hammond’s mansion, built with the proceeds of real estate deals in Greeenwich Village, and also to Wisconsin, where each September the bonkers “Running with the Llamas” festivities take place.

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Running with the Llamas, Hammond WI

Where would you choose for your FlagMate flags? Why not take a look at Bhav’s site and tempt yourself?


How I choose my next destination

Happy New Year, fellow travellers. As we embark on 2019, thoughts inevitably turn to the year ahead and for me, that means thinking about where I’d like to travel in the coming year. One of the questions I’m inevitably asked is how I decide where to go. The answer’s not a simple one, but here’s how I choose my next destination.

Cheap flights

As an independent traveller who likes to pay her own way, the biggest outlay for many of my trips, particularly long haul ones, is the cost of my flights. I’m always on the lookout for a good deal, so I sign up for airline newsletters and that way, I’m the first to know of any special offers. That’s how, on Black Friday 2017, I snagged Air New Zealand’s £399 flight deal to Auckland via LAX. There were only 50 seats on offer at that price, so had I been surfing the net, I’d almost certainly have missed out. Similarly, to make the most of Ryanair’s flash sales it’s important to be ahead of the pack. But with a bit of creativity, it’s possible to save on flight costs by searching for error fares and utilise reward schemes as I did for my recent trip to Barbados.

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Social media

My Twitter feed is full of photographs of exotic locations and every now and again, something stands out from the pack. Georgia (the country) first entered my radar in this way, as did those cute swimming pigs in the Bahamas, and I wasn’t disappointed with either. On Facebook, members of the My Wanderlusters group provide inspiration for destinations through their own holidays snaps. Some are friends in real life and I have the double privilege of seeing their travels via their personal accounts too. I maintain a file of e-clippings (the old-fashioned way, in a folder, rather than via something more creative like Pinterest). This April, Brexit-permitting, I’m off to Alberobello in Italy to stay in a trullo after seeing it on someone’s timeline. I expect Santorini will also feature at some point for the same reason.

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TV

I love watching TV documentaries and travelling without leaving the sofa. Joanna Lumley’s Japan series has been bookmarked for a return trip one day. It’s been over a decade since I visited but seeing the country through her eyes has made me yearn to go back. Levison Wood’s adventures also give me inspiration; I especially enjoyed his Nile walk though it’s way too energetic for this traveller. Chris Tarrant has, in the past, done some incredible rail trips, from the Trans-Sib to some distinctly more adventurous destinations. Sometimes, though, even a venerated presenter can’t entice me: Michael Palin’s recent foray into North Korea was a charm to watch, but the country itself doesn’t appeal to me.

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Magazines and other tourist literature

Whether it’s via a magazine that plops through the letter box or a tourist leaflet picked up at a trade show, there’s always something to tempt me to investigate a place a bit further. During a visit to World Travel Market in autumn 2017, I got chatting to a lady manning the Uganda stall. I’d previously visited other parts of East Africa, notably Kenya and Tanzania, but Uganda is a new one for me. When I mentioned it in passing to a couple of fellow villagers here at home, I discovered they ran a school out there, so I’m now looking forward to a trip in February when I’ll combine a visit to their school with a couple of safaris. No gorillas, but look out for tree-climbing lions if I’m lucky enough to spot them.

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Festivals and other special events

Sometimes it’s not only the destination that’s the attraction, but a particular event that requires a visit at a particular time of year. I visited Mexico long before I managed to schedule a trip to coincide with the Day of the Dead celebrations. That was several years ago now, but it remains one of my favourite trips of all times. Cusco’s Inti Raymi festival was also on my radar long before I was able to time a visit to Peru to experience it. The colourful costumes, dancers and theatrical spectacle made this a memorable holiday too. Most recently, I headed off to Moldova to join Chisinau’s residents for their National Wine Day, which was fun.

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Press trips

As a relative newbie to travel writing with an expanding portfolio, I’ve yet to be inundated with press trips, though I do get offered one now and again. Every so often, an offer comes along that’s too good to resist and that’s how I found myself in the Faroe Islands in May 2018. It was a beautiful country and I’d love to return one day to explore a little further. Without wishing to sound ungrateful, I do struggle with a prescribed itinerary which can be a little stifling, as I’m so used to travelling solo and doing as I please. That said, I’m always delighted to be offered such visits even when I choose not to go.

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How do you choose where to visit? Like me, do you have an ever-growing wish list? I’d love to hear what motivates your travel choices.


Looking back on 2018’s travels

It’s probably an age thing, but the year has flown by and once again it’s time to draw the curtains on another year of rewarding travels.

January: Cuba with a stopover in the Netherlands
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It has been fifteen years since I followed the advice in the travel press to “get there before it changes”. Like many others, I was conned: the headlines still say pretty much the same thing today. Having found a £140 error fare with Aeromexico, the journey was a bit convoluted – though it did win me a day exploring Zaanse Schans and Delft on the way. Havana and Trinidad were as captivating as they were in 2003, though the food was considerably better. I had a front row seat at the Casa de la Trova and scored an invitation to kick on with the trumpet player – if only his intentions had been honourable I might have been tempted. If you’re off tho Cuba, book a Mob Tour with Havana Supertours – guide Michael was excellent. I felt like I’d stepped onto the set of Mad Men when we walked into the Riviera Hotel, once a gangster favourite.

March: Key West and the Bahamas
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With two weeks to kill while the builders demolished the kitchen and rebuilt it into a finished shell, we decamped to the sunshine of Key West and the Bahamas. I especially enjoyed a visit to the Tennessee Williams Exhibit and some of Key West’s other historic attractions, and let’s face it, the margarita culture helped. But it was the Bahamas that won out. Husband is a big fan of cute little piggies – he married one, after all – so we booked a trip to see Big Major Cay’s swimming pigs. They were feisty little (and not so little) creatures, particularly when the food came out and we were warned to steer clear of one fat mama who had a thing for biting tourists’ bums. Fortunately, no one got bitten and it was the highlight of the holiday.

May: Faroe Islands
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I had the opportunity to join a press trip to the Faroes in May which was a chance to explore this northerly Iceland-alternative. A meal at Michelin-starred KOKS was unforgettable thanks to wriggly barnacles, but the home hospitality we enjoyed was just as welcome. The weather was challenging, particularly during our hike at Saksun, but fortunately the sun came out over colourful Torshavn. It doesn’t quite have the scenery to compete with Iceland, but I’d like to go back on my own one day. Being so used to independent travel, I’m not sure if I’m cut out for press trips, but nevertheless it was a fascinating insight into how the world of travel journalism operates.

May: New Zealand and Tonga
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A too good to resist Black Friday deal saw me travel all the way to NZ for under £400, a chance to visit family and see a bit more of North Island. A dawn hike to a deserted Cathedral Cove was delightful and experiencing the hand dug hot tubs of Hot Water Beach was fun. Windy Welly lived up to its name but the gales subsided in time for my flight out. Last time, my South Pacific add-on was Vanuatu, but this time I opted for Tonga. So far it’s not embraced tourism in quite the same way as some of its neighbours. I got lucky with a knowledgable Fijian guide who showed me the highlights of Tongatapu, most memorably dramatic blowholes and fire dancers.

June: Port Lympne
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For husband’s big birthday we were treated to a weekender at Port Lympne with family. Going on safari without leaving the Home Counties seemed a bit bonkers but the place was exceptionally well run and our guide was as good as any I’d had in Africa. Our game drives became a little more interactive than planned when one of the giraffes took a liking to a skip that should have been off limits, though luckily it responded to our treats of hastily grabbed branches full of tasty leaves. The most surreal moment of my travel year was waking up and looking out of the bathroom window to see a rhino pottering about in the back field. In Kent, of all places!

September: New York
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It had been a while since I’d been to New York so I piggybacked off my husband’s business trip to join him for a week in the Big Apple. While the city broiled in an extended heatwave, we sought out the air-con of the Freedom Tower as he’d never been. I had a surprise at the top as the skyline was revealed, a part of the experience that hadn’t been open when I first visited. But it was the Lower East Side and East Village that, once again, I enjoyed the most, with a fascinating LES a food tour with Free Tours By Foot, a one to one tour of the Museum of the American Gangster, a chance meeting with Michael Quinn of Feltman’s of Coney Island and cocktails at PDT. Please don’t tell.

October: Moldova and Transnistria
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I’ve never been much of a wine drinker, but nevertheless headed for the Moldovan capital Chisinau for their National Wine Day celebrations. Twelve samples later, I had rose tinted spectacles when it came to appreciating the city’s other attractions, including a teeny tiny statue that took an age to find. Fortunately this lightweight doesn’t get hangovers which was good news when it came to catching the early morning train for a day out in the breakaway republic of Transnistria the next day. Though Tiraspol was a bit soulless, the border town of Bender with its riverside fortress was not, thanks to a mediaeval fair in the grounds complete with rifle range, dress ups and a liberal scattering of plastic ducks.

November: Barbados
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BA offered a sweet deal whereby its air miles were worth double their usual value – and sweeter still as I’d collected most of them on that sub £400 business class error fare to New York I found a few years back. So I redeemed them to do “Barbados on a Budget” and thanks to a steal of an Airbnb deal, brought in a week’s holiday for under £800 including food. Good job the rum was cheap. I loved chatting all afternoon with Nigel Benn’s Aunty Lucille who not only poured a generous measure but told a tall tale and sorted out the bus timetable as well. Beautiful gardens, plantation houses and a countryside hike with incredible views of the east coast and a working windmill completed the picture.

December: Nuremberg’s Christmas markets

I’ve been working my way through some of Europe’s finest Christmas markets, clocking up trips to Salzburg, Regensburg and Copenhagen. This year, I opted to fly back to Nuremberg and although the fare didn’t match the previous £4.08 deal (sadly I think that was a one off) it was still sufficiently good value to make a day trip viable. I began the day in Bamberg, whose mediaeval heart was delightful. I hopped on and off the train back to Nuremberg, calling in at the markets at Forchheim and Erlangen on the way. The main event was pretty, decorated with twinkly lights for evening, with plenty of Christmas decorations and foodie treats to round off the day.

Where have your travels taken you in 2018? Share your stories, I’d love to read them.


Barbados on a budget

Thanks to celeb haunt Sandy Lanes and the other luxury hotels that line the aptly named Platinum Coast, Barbados is firmly associated with the high end travel market. But what if you can’t afford the eye-wateringly expensive prices of these places? I was determined to visit Barbados but needed to bring the cost of my trip in at a much smaller budget. Here’s how to save money on your holiday and enjoy Barbados on a budget.

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Flights

As with all long haul trips, flight costs make up a large percentage of the total cost. Both BA and Virgin Atlantic fly direct to Barbados, but neither of them are budget airlines. Saving money on the cost of a ticket takes a bit of forward planning. I’d saved a bunch of air miles with BA – what used to be Avios and are now points on their Executive Club scheme. However, these were not sufficient for a return fare to the Caribbean. Fortunately, BA announced a promotion, whereby the number of miles required for a seat halved. Availability was good and I snagged a fare for the last week of November for the price of the taxes, around £270. Virgin, of course, have a similar loyalty scheme.

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If you don’t fly regularly, that doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. I save points regularly with my Nectar card on groceries, petrol and even car servicing. It’s possible to redeem those points with Expedia and as with the airline loyalty schemes, all you need to pay is the taxes. Without points of some kind, full price fares in high season, that’s December through until spring, can be horrendously expensive. Though they’ll be much cheaper in September and October, it’s hurricane season and you run the risk of your vacation being memorable for all the wrong reasons. At best, you’re likely to have a rain shower most days and at worst, a total washout. Instead, look for a seat in the shoulder seasons, with late November and early May more reliable in terms of weather.

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Accommodation

How much will you pay for your accommodation in Barbados? How long is a piece of string?! Many of the resorts here are prohibitively expensive, especially for a solo or budget traveller. Much as I’d have liked to stay at one of the fancy resorts, I’d have hated the huge bill at the end of it. I wanted to keep my accommodation costs as low as possible, but without sacrificing some of the holiday comforts that can make a trip so much easier. I wanted reliable WiFi – needed, even – and hoped to be able to get a pool too. I’m not a sea person when it comes to swimming, but I do enjoy a relaxing dip in the pool. Most important of all, I needed to be well connected in a convenient location without being right in the city.

Fortunately, Airbnb came up with the answer: a studio apartment at Rockley Golf Club. Once fees were factored in, the place cost just under £400 for my seven night stay. Though I had it to myself, it would easily have slept two, and two more on the sofa bed downstairs. The clever layout, with downstairs sitting room and the bed on a mezzanine, meant that it felt much more spacious than the label studio might suggest. The ladder stairs up were a little steep, but manageable, and regardless, the listing made it very clear that’s how they were. The sofa in the living room converted into a bed which was a reassuring back up, had I been too stiff (or too drunk) to get up the ladder. This is the listing, should you wish to have a look:
https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/22558128

I had a small kitchen, bathroom and living room, with hairdryer, cable TV, phone for local calls, beach towels and even a cooler. The hosts, Karen and Mark, were helpfully available at the end of a phone and left me a comprehensive booklet of advice covering everything from which beaches were best to how to do a food shop. Their attention to detail was legendary – there was nothing they hadn’t thought of. The resort itself had a laundry and clubhouse and of course that all important pool. It was safe too, not an insignificant consideration for a single female. Would I recommend the place? Absolutely.

Food and drink

First, the good news: drinking is cheap in Barbados. I drank Banks beer from the characterful John Moore beach bar at Weston for about £1.20 a bottle, rum and Coke with Nigel Benn’s Aunty Lucille in Shorey Village for £2 a pop. Cocktails down at the local Tiki Bar at Rockley Beach were a little over £6, not bad for a tourist joint. Lots of places served up happy hour for more than 60 minutes a day. But actually the nicest drink I had was non-alcoholic, a yummy mango and peach smoothie at the cafe at Holetown’s Chattel Village.

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Food was another matter. Barbados is the kind of place where if you’re on a budget, you need to think about where, and what, you eat. Though it was possible to find affordable restaurants, particularly those aimed at the local market, in general Barbados doesn’t offer good value for money when it comes to eating out, though neither does it pretend to. Of course, being an island means some foods are imported, which adds to the cost. Nevertheless, Oistins’ famous fish fry is a memorable night out for tourists and locals alike and there were plenty of local haunts where a meal didn’t break the bank.

I decided to make the most of having a kitchen and self-catered for some of my meals. I spent about 100 Barbados dollars, roughly £40, stocking up on supplies that sorted me out for breakfast and lunches for the week, plus the makings of a couple of night’s dinners. Massy’s, the island’s biggest supermarket chain, even stocked Waitrose products, though at a premium.

Getting around

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Tours on the island aren’t cheap, a by-product of this being a cruise-ship destination where travellers are cash-rich and time-poor. With more time on my hands, I was able to take advantage of Barbados’ extensive (though Bridgetown-focused) bus network. Plenty of minivans plied their trade along the coast, and it was easy to hail a yellow bus to Bridgetown or Speightstown. The journey times were surprisingly long for such a small island, but a ride afforded a glimpse into local life as well as interesting sightseeing out of the window. If you don’t mind stopping everywhere, it’s a great way to get around. People were happy to chat and travelling this way was a real pleasure.

The official buses of Barbados Transport Board, identified by their blue livery, were fine off peak. At peak times, however, they double as school buses. If you were lucky enough to persuade a driver to let you take up a valuable space – and I was – riding with a bunch of noisy schoolchildren didn’t make for a relaxing holiday experience. The BTB’s website has a useful timetable finder, but note that some buses are likely to be cancelled to act as school buses instead, such as the Boscobelle service that I was told by a driver was “hard to come by”. You can find the timetables here:
https://www.transportboard.com/route-finder/
I found the Moovit site helpful as a planning tool as well:
https://moovit.com

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Whichever you choose, a flat fare of 2 Barbados dollars (about 80p) means that getting around is cheap and straightforward. While minivans and yellow buses would change small notes, for blue buses you require the exact fare in coins which you simply chuck into the slot in front of the driver and wait for him to give you a ticket. On the yellow buses and minivans, you pay the driver on exit, unless a conductor is on board – if so, he or she will ask you for your fare at some point during your journey. To get off, press the bell, pull the cord or if neither is present, call out “bus, stop”. Most will continue on until the next official bus stop. These too are user-friendly: marked “to city” or “out of city” which usually refers to Bridgetown.

Sightseeing

It doesn’t have to cost a lot to see a lot, if you’re prepared to bus it. The highest entrance fee I paid was at St Nicholas Abbey, but for 45 Barbados dollars the ticket included a tour of the historic house (never an abbey), mill and distillery, plus a rum tasting. The family’s movie footage of 1930s Bridgetown was fascinating, though at times it was hard to concentrate as Twinx the cat decided my lap was a lovely warm spot for a nap and a cuddle. I tried to tell him I was a dog person, but he wasn’t at all put out. In the end I had to lift him down or I’d have missed out on the rum.

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For a little less, a tour of Arlington House in Speightstown is well worth the outlay. One of the rooms was themed as a sugar cane field and told the story of the slaves that made Barbados’ plantation owners wealthy. The house itself was made from coral stone and the traditional louvred shutters were hung to good effect in another of its displays. Entrance costs just 25 Barbados dollars for overseas visitors and I thought it helped me gain a better understanding of what shaped Barbados in the past.

Other entrance fees were equally good value: 30 Barbados dollars to visit either Hunte’s Gardens or Andromeda Botanic Garden. The former definitely had the wow factor, the kind of place that inspires you to go home and plant something. The owner, a talented horticulturalist, had turned a natural sinkhole into a verdant muddle of hidden nooks dotted with quirky statuary.

Andromeda, by contrast, was a botanist’s dream, the life’s work of the late Iris Bannochie and a rival of Hunte’s. Managed by the enthusiastic and passionate Sharon Cooke, it was a real pleasure to see someone work so hard to make such a place accessible to all. For a week, Barbadians can enter free of charge. And throughout the year, the entry ticket is valid for three weeks – go early in your stay and you can go back for free.

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I paid the same for a combo of the delightful George Washington House and the Garrison tunnels and as with the gardens, the tour was well worth the outlay. The guide, Martin, was extremely knowledgable and not at all perturbed when one of the country’s senators – and a Sir to boot – delayed us for a long chat about writing, editors and publishing in general. I’m not sure what he was doing in George Washington’s House but thought it impolite to ask. The tunnels were almost a no go thanks to a loss of power, but guide Wilbur was keen to show us anyway so our small group descended by torchlight.

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Some of the best attractions turned out to be free, and I don’t just mean the afternoon I spent with Aunty Lucille. The beaches cost nothing, providing you don’t need a lounger. Watching the jockeys practise at the Garrison racetrack is also free, though you need to be up early as they ride out before the sun gets too hot. Morgan Lewis sugar mill is the only intact windmill in this part of the Caribbean, though it doesn’t actually work – it was struck by lightning a decade or so ago and no one’s got around to fixing it yet. I reached it on foot, taking a gentle half an hour hike downhill enjoying far-reaching views along the east coast on a quiet backroad.

The verdict

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It’s certainly possible to visit Barbados on a budget, though other Caribbean destinations offer better value for money. Would I go back? Not just yet, but if the UK exchange rate improves, then I might just go back for more.

Prices correct November 2018; check the current situation before finalising your travel plans.


What’s it like to visit Oaxaca for Day of the Dead?

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This October I’m teaming up with Lauren of Diary of a Spanglish Girl for a feature on Day of the Dead. It’s one of my favourite festivals so when Lauren posted a shout out on her Twitter feed asking if anyone had been to Mexico for Day of the Dead and would like to share their experience with her, I jumped at the chance. You can read the interview here. By the way, Lauren’s also the person behind an excellent Facebook group for travel bloggers called Share Your Travel Blog Post And Connect With The World. If you have a travel blog, it’s well worth signing up as there are plenty of tips and experiences to inspire your future travels. She also has her own Facebook page which is a helpful resource if you love to visit Spain.

The Day of the Dead, or  Día de Muertos as it’s known locally, is a big deal in Mexico, nowhere more so than in the southern city of Oaxaca.  Celebrated at the end of October and beginning of November each year, the festival focuses on the dead, and the whole town gets involved in some way.  What I didn’t bargain for was how involved I’d get as well.

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Arriving a few days before the main celebrations, work was beginning to get underway on the altars.  Each family creates an altar to tempt their ancestors’ spirits back to earth.  I’d been in touch with Mariana from a small hotel called Las Bugambilias and she’d invited me to join them.  In the courtyard, stood a life-sized model of Catrina, the mascot of the Day of the Dead.  For a century or so, La Calavera Catrina has been associated with Día de Muertos, thanks to a cartoonist by the name of Jose Guadalupe Posada. He was known for satire and drew the rich in fancy hats and feather boas, ridiculing them by implying death was only for the poor.

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Catrina takes the form of a skeleton dressed in elegant clothing, dripping in furs or, in this case, feather boas, strings of beads draped around her neck and an elegant cigarette holder in her hand. She was comical rather than creepy, my first hint that this festival has fun as well as respect at its heart.

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With a small group of fellow tourists and under Mariana’s expert guidance, we set about creating an altar called an ofrenda.  Each of us had been allocated a specific task: some threaded marigold blooms onto strings; others dusted icing sugar skulls in the yard to form a pathway to the altar.  My job was to create a centrepiece cross of white carnations and dot it with tiny purple buds. It was harder than it looked to get the blooms just right. Mariana was a perfectionist, but after her intervention, the cross really did look the business. After several hours of preparation, the ofrenda began to take shape.  Loose marigold petals defined the path, their pungent aroma pervading the tiny courtyard.  The altar itself was decorated with candles, fruit, nuts, incense and brightly coloured bunting.  Sepia photographs of family ancestors peeked out from behind yet more marigolds.

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Finally, we’d finished, and to celebrate, out came a bottle of Mezcal for a toast, to our efforts and to the ancestors we’d honoured.  I’d been asked to bring along family photos and raised a glass to my sorely missed grandparents, their picture wedged between a bicycle candleholder and a lime. I pledged to myself and to them that I would make an effort this time next year to recreate this feeling with my own ofrenda.

The following evening, a group of us headed for the cemetery.  On the night of 31st October, residents and visitors alike flock to the old and new cemeteries in Xoxocotlan, on the outskirts of Oaxaca. They were busy with people tending graves, laying marigolds and other offerings and lighting candles in memory of their deceased relatives.  Many families would stay all night.  I wandered amongst the weathered graves in the packed old cemetery, taking care not to trip over tree roots in the gloom of the candlelight.

Vibrant scarlet gladioli added a splash of colour to the warm amber tones lent by the flickering flames. White canna lilies added grandeur.  Vivid orange cempasuchil dominated the scene through sheer weight of numbers.  Some graves were a hive of activity; at others, the mood of the relatives was more reflective.  Once or twice, a lone mourner wept softly at a graveside, their grief recent and still raw. It was hard not to feel emotional. Yet, I was warmly welcomed, invited to share a spot at several gravesides.

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At the new cemetery, there was a party atmosphere.  The floral colour palette was enhanced by fluorescent wands that poked out of pushchairs. Lovestruck teenagers sneaked a kiss behind their parents’ backs.  Small children munched on sugar skulls and sucked skull lollipops.  The sounds of Michael Jackson’s Thriller boomed from a loudspeaker, almost masking the cries of the many hawkers selling snacks and party treats.  At the edge of the cemetery, a funfair had been set up with the usual stalls and rides.  If it hadn’t been for the tombstones, it would have been easy to forget you were in a cemetery at all.

Comparsas (local groups) parade all night through the streets in costume, celebrating the return of the ancestors with music and dancing.  The following evening, the Las Bugambilias team took us out of town to the village of San Agustin Etla, where I’d heard their Muerteada parade was second to none.  Anticipation mounted as a crowd gathered in the narrow lane.  Eventually the procession reached the village, an eclectic band of ogres, devils and monsters, each with a costume more fantastic than the last.  There were ghouls with terrifyingly realistic make up alongside drag queens with pink hair.

The devil carried his scythe, passing a ‘Panteonero’, someone from the pantheon, whose eyeball was missing.  Somehow because of the crowds, most were freakish rather than scary, but they were all to be commended for their efforts.  As the final performer arrived, in one corner of the village square, a play was being re-enacted.  Many of those in the parade weren’t needed, however, and had planted themselves against walls and on kerbstones to have a much-needed drink. I wandered amongst them exchanging pleasantries as far as my limited Spanish would permit, posing for photos and trying on some of the costumes. I was glad I wasn’t wearing one; the weight was impressively heavy. No wonder they’d sat down!

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As the evening wore on, a chill settled on the air and the Mezcal came out again.  Passing the bottle round, glasses were raised.

“Salud!” Compared to the sombre way we remembered our deceased back home, the Mexicans embraced their spirits, celebrating with them and having fun in the same way they would have done when they were alive.  I decided my grandparents, gregarious even in old age, would have given it the thumbs up.

If you’d like to find out more about my experience of Day of the Dead, make sure you check out Lauren’s blog post. For my take on why I prefer Day of the Dead to Halloween, have a read of an earlier post of mine.


Moldova’s National Wine Day

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

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Getting there

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

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Getting around

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

Getting a room

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

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Getting your culture fix

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

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

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Getting drunk

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

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

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

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

Getting food

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

Getting to see more of the city

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

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