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Essex on foot: walk your way through lockdown

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

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

Be mindful of the lockdown rules

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

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

Where to find information

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

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

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

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

Some of my favourite Essex walks

Woodland: Marks Hall Arboretum

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

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

Village walks: Thaxted

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

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

Riverside walks: the Wivenhoe Trail

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

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

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

Coastal: Walton on the Naze

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

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

One last thing: show respect for local landowners

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


Funchal’s old town doors

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

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

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

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


Funchal’s wicker toboggans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To ride the toboggans:

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


On the trail of Fire Saga in Húsavík

One of the funniest films I’ve seen in a long time is Eurovision Song Contest: the story of Fire Saga. Most of the Icelandic scenes were filmed in October 2019 in Húsavík, in the north of Iceland. While I’m not usually a fan of Will Ferrell, who plays Lars Erickssong in the movie, I do share his love for the insanity of Eurovision. So too, apparently, do Icelanders – according to Visit Húsavík, over 98% of them tune in when the contest is broadcast each May. When I had the opportunity to visit Húsavík this summer, I decided to check out some of the places featured in the movie.

The whales

Húsavík is well known in Iceland as a whale watching village and it’s no surprise that the cetaceans feature in scenes from the movie. Tours depart regularly and head out into Skjálfandi Bay where it’s common to see humpback, minke, white-beaked dolphin, harbour porpoise and blue whales. Occasionally it’s possible to see them from land (try GeoSea) but as Erick Erickssong (Lars’ father) is a fisherman, if you’re really going to experience Húsavík as portrayed in the movie you should get out on a boat.

Lars’ family home

The distinctive two-storey home is easy to find as it sits right near the harbour on the main drag. It’s located on the corner of Héðinsbraut and Hafnarvegur. Built in 1903, it is a wooden structure painted a rather lovely shade of blue. A residential property in real life, the apartment that covers the top two floors of the house was recently put up for sale for 24.5 million ISK, about £140000. Bargain!

Captain’s Galley bar

Named “Skipstjórakráin” in Icelandic, disappointingly, this bar isn’t a real pub. Instead, it’s the home of the Húsavík Academic Center (HAC). The signage was removed for the purposes of filming so the building could be used for the exterior shots. It’s another centrally located building, close to the harbour; the shape and recognisable gables make it simple to identify. But like many things on the big screen, things aren’t exactly what they seem – according to IMDB, the interior scenes were filmed back in the UK at Chobham Rugby Club.

Húsavíkurkirkja

This iconic wooden church was built in 1907 and overlooks the harbour in the centre of Húsavík. In the film, Lars rings the church bell to announce that he and singing partner Sigrit have been chosen as the Icelandic entry to the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s a pretty church and well worth a quick nose inside.

The bus stop

The bus shelter where Lars and Sigrit wait for their ride to Reykjavik isn’t a bus stop at all – it actually sits beside the astro turf pitch belonging to Völsungur’s football team. Hinrik Wöhlers, director of the Húsavík Chamber of Commerce and Tourism was reportedly keen on shifting one of the two shelters to the harbourside location seen in the film. When I visited in August 2020 they were both still at the football ground.

The elf houses

Though it’s common to see elf houses in Iceland, these particular ones were a prop installed specifically for the movie. However, the Cape Hotel were keen to tap into the interest created by the film and faithfully recreated this tiny residential street in the hotel garden. As well they opened a pop-up Ja Ja Ding Dong bar; it’s outside so it’s likely to remain a summer attraction only. I spoke to the manager and asked him whether he was a fan of Eurovision himself. “I am now,” he said with a grin.

The village of Húsavík is one of the prettiest in the country so even if you’re not a Eurovision fan you should really add this to your Iceland itinerary. It’s a great base from which to drive the Diamond Circle route which features Dettifoss waterfall, Ásbyrgi Canyon and Lake Mývatn. But if you do love to watch Eurovision, then find your way to this petition which calls for Swede Molly Sandén aka My Marianne to perform Húsavík (My Hometown) at the contest in 2021:

https://www.thepetitionsite.com/626/164/246/get-husavik-my-hometown-performed-at-eurovision-2021/


Travel to Iceland during the pandemic

The changing rules

The Icelandic government has acted quickly and effectively throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Regulations have changed fast to address changes in the infection rate and if you’re planning a holiday, you need to do so on a flexible basis to adapt your trip to those varying parameters.

 

When I booked my flights I planned to visit Iceland in September; I’d already had to switch my flights from Gatwick to Luton after easyJet altered their schedules. In June, when I made those arrangements, it was on the understanding that I would need to either quarantine for 14 days or take a single COVID test on arrival and then, so long as my result was negative, continue with my holiday. The test was originally quite expensive but was later reduced to about £50. In the grand scheme of things that wasn’t excessive.

At the end of July, the rules were changed. A second test 4-6 days later would now be required at no extra charge. While testing in the capital was easy to arrange, my itinerary placed me on the other side of the country. The regional health care centres that had been set up had shorter hours and as a consequence, I would need to be a little more flexible. Adding an extra level of inconvenience was the fact that I was due to fly out on a Monday which meant if I couldn’t arrange a test on Day 4, I’d have no way of being tested on day 5 or 6 as weekend appointments weren’t available.

 

Compulsory quarantine

Then late on Friday August 14th came the announcement that from August 19th, all arriving passengers would be given the choice of either a 14 day quarantine or taking a COVID test, quarantining for 5 days and then taking a second test. At the time it was unclear just what the restrictions on movement for those five days would look like. By the time the government website was likely to be updated, I’d probably be stuck with it, or be forced to cancel.

I decided to bring my trip forward to depart in mid-August instead of September and thus avoid the need to quarantine. A few hours on the computer that weekend and a slightly condensed itinerary (to reduce the amount of time in Reykjavik) left me with a ten day trip during which I could pretty much cover the same ground as before.

 

What was the testing process like?

Passengers on our early morning easyJet flight were invited to disembark row by row. Instead of the usual jockeying for position, this staggered approach meant that there was no queuing in the terminal building. Each person, continuing to wear the mask they had worn during the flight, was called in turn to one of a bank of cubicles for their test.

I was invited to sit and to remove my mask for the test to be administered. The throat swab was done first and was relatively comfortable. The second, a swab to the top of the nose, was more intrusive and made my eyes water. But like the vaccinations for tropical diseases I’ve had in the past, such medical procedures are just part and parcel of travel.

 

Awaiting the result

In all I was off the plane and out to the rental car centre in well under an hour. The rental was ready and with paperwork filled in and a socially distanced handover, I was soon on my way. I’d made the decision to avoid Reykjavik this time. Though the number of coronavirus cases in Iceland has been very small, the majority have, not unsurprisingly, been in the capital region. Instead, I headed east. It was within the regulations to stop at a supermarket, though visitors at that time were asked to keep clear of restaurants and other busy places until their test result came through. In most respects my holiday continued as normal and I was free to book tours.

 

I drove on for a socially distanced hike at Seljalandsfoss waterfall. I’d been there on my wedding day in 2014 but it wasn’t practical to visit the almost concealed falls nearby. This site would usually be busy in August as it is one of the few waterfalls you can walk behind. However, this year numbers have been considerably lower. My negative test result came through by text around 4 hours after I had been tested, which was a relief. Despite having no symptoms and being cautious at home, there was still that tiny chance of being asymptomatic.

The problematic second test

Four days into my trip I’d reached the tiny village of Borgarfjörður Eystri down a gravel road and over a mountain pass in the East Fjords. The nearest test centre was at Egilsstaðir, in a temporary structure beside the main supermarket, but as I’d planned to stay the next night in Seyðisfjörður, another village in the same region, that wasn’t a big deal. The test centre was open mornings only, so I could call in and get tested, spend part of the day hiking in Stuðlagil canyon and then head out to Seyðisfjörður by mid-afternoon.

 

There was just one small spanner in the works: the Icelandic authorities suggested it wasn’t possible to take the second test until you had received an official barcode. This would come through late afternoon. By that time, the Egilsstaðir centre would be closed and by the time the next closest testing centre opened, it would be Monday afternoon. By then, I would be somewhere on the road beyond the centre in Akureyri and the remote West Fjords region.

A face to face solution

I decided the best thing to do would be to go to Egilsstaðir anyway and discuss it with them face to face. By then, four days and one hour had elapsed since my first test at Keflavik. At first, I was told it wasn’t possible to test without a barcode. When I explained that the following Wednesday (day 9) would be the next time I’d be close enough to a test centre to avoid a 6 hour round trip drive, they had a look on the computer to see if the system would allow a test to be registered. Fortunately, it could and I was identified via my passport number rather than the missing barcode. Incidentally that barcode eventually came through about 5pm.

 

Holidaying almost as normal

Mostly I’d chosen ensuite hotel rooms for this trip, whereas in normal circumstances I’d have probably opted for guesthouses with shared bathrooms to save money. I decided I would feel more comfortable being the only person to use the shower and toilet facilities and considered the extra cost worth the additional peace of mind.

Different hotels operated slightly different policies for breakfasts; in many cases the breakfast buffet was still put out, but with separate sittings and fewer tables to spread guests as far as possible. Masks were not necessary in public areas, but the use of hand sanitiser and sometimes also gloves was encouraged. I chose to eat picnic lunches most of the time, though the lobster rolls from the van at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon were too tempting to pass up.

 

The sunny and surprisingly warm weather meant I could also eat al fresco most evenings on terraces or outdoor patios. I ate in just a couple of times, once in a restaurant that had just two tables. The absence of North American tourists coupled with the presence of Spanish and Italian tourists meant that when eating early (as is my usual preference), places were largely empty. Given that hand sanitiser was absolutely everywhere (even in remote long drop toilets on nature reserves) and staff were enforcing social distancing, I felt safe all the time.

Sightseeing in a pandemic

One of the big advantages of choosing Iceland over a city break destination is that most of the visitor attractions are out in the countryside and away from people. I did have a couple of disappointments: the Elf School in Reykjavik has closed for the duration of the pandemic and a Eurovision-themed walking tour I’d planned to do in Húsavík was not operating. I also found that several places had shorter than expected seasons, such as the Keldur turf houses, now part of a farm museum. But the ride I booked with Glacier Horses operated as normal, the horses enabling social distancing with no need for masks.

 

I did take two boat trips. The first, a Zodiac excursion out onto Jökulsárlón, required the use of weatherproof gear and lifejackets to be worn throughout the trip. The latter were disinfected after each boatload of passengers returned but I didn’t see similar measures being taken with the suits. In contrast, on the whale watching trip in Húsavík, the company made it clear before payment was taken that no additional gear would be provided. Lifejackets were stored on board and accessible to passengers but no one wore one. As it was relatively mild and calm weather, I was fine in my own winter jacket and waterproof trousers – in fact, I didn’t even need those out of the wind.

 

I also couldn’t resist the geothermal baths that Iceland is so famous for. On previous trips I’d visited the Blue Lagoon but this time it didn’t fit in with my plans. Instead, I enjoyed visits to the Mývatn Nature Baths and also GeoSea in Húsavík. The latter in particular blew me away with its breathtaking location overlooking Skjálfandi Bay and a setting sun reflected in both the baths and the sea.   

 

Would I do it again?

As someone who loves to plan trips meticulously – a hang up from travelling as a teacher when trips had to be scheduled in peak season – it was quite a big deal to be so spontaneous. Iceland once again didn’t disappoint, and to be able to travel in such glorious summer weather minus the usual crowds was a huge privilege.    

 

To keep abreast with current visitor regulations and procedures, visit covid.is where you’ll find more details of testing, what you can and cannot do while in quarantine and up to date case numbers by region.


Horse riding in Iceland: Glacier Horses

A review of Glacier Horses; I booked with them at the very reasonable rate of 11000 ISK (just under £60) for a 1.5 hour ride.

One of my favourite things to do while on holiday is to ride a horse. I’ve ridden a bit, but would still class myself as a novice. That said, seeing the countryside on horseback is well within my capabilities – so long as the ride’s limited to a few hours or so. This was going to be my third trip to Iceland but the first time I’d had the time to ride. Originally, I’d planned a September holiday, but in this new era of viruses and government quarantines, the whole thing was brought forward and the trip shortened by four days. I had thought about riding near Húsavík, in the north of Iceland, but it was looking difficult to fit in all the things I wanted to do up there, not least whale watching.

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I had spent the day hiking in Skaftafell, part of the  Vatnajökull National Park, drawn by a desire to see Svartifoss. This beautiful waterfall was even better in real life than it had looked in the photos I’d seen online, with basalt columns like chubby sticks of charcoal framing the foaming cascade. You can imagine I was in a great mood as I drove back along the ring road towards my hotel, not least as the weather had delivered almost cloudless blue skies.

As I rounded a gentle bend, the glacier on my left, a sign caught my eye: Glacier Horses. That was one of those serendipitous moments that make a holiday special: I had more time to ride during this part of my trip, making this the perfect place to do so if they could fit me in. On reaching the hotel, I had a look at their website and dropped them an email about a ride the following afternoon.

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I was impressed at the speedy response I received from Sophia and the following afternoon parked up in a farmyard at the end of a gravel track. I was greeted by a very friendly dog and very soon after, Sophia who would act as our guide and the other rider who would be coming out with us. Sophia explained how we would saddle up and get acquainted with the horses. Beginners (and those like me who hadn’t ridden for a while) would be especially reassured by this opportunity to test their newly acquired skills within the safe confines of a corral.

Sophia had paired me with a beautiful mare named Fluga. She was definitely a head-turner, a spirited horse but very gentle too. At first she took a little bit of getting used to as she didn’t need as firm handling as the horses I’d ridden back home, but we were soon in sync and ready to really enjoy the ride. One of the reasons I’d been so tempted with this particular location was the incredible backdrop from the glacier itself and riding out with a view such as that was a real treat.

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With Sophia leading the way, we headed out into the countryside, fording a couple of small streams, crossing grassy meadows and even cutting through what South Iceland would call a forest. We would probably term it a thicket, with low-growing birch trees that took on more of a shrub form than a tree, I’m guessing because of high winds and chilly temperatures. Regardless of what you call it, the place was very pretty apart from the occasional darting sheep that had been spooked by our arrival. Nothing fazed Fluga though.

We stopped briefly for Sophia to pick a few berries for us to try. They were delicious and I couldn’t help noticing how much smaller and more flavoursome the wild blueberries were compared to those back home.  The remains of a long-abandoned turf house also made an interesting diversion. And all the while we had that fabulous view in the background of one of the tongues of ice that drop down from Europe’s largest glacier. It really was a magical place.

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One of the reasons I was so keen to add Iceland to the list of places in which I had ridden was because of something called the tölt. This is an extra gait that is peculiar to this breed; there’s another, dubbed “flying pace” that seemed more than a little ambitious for anyone but an expert in the saddle. At home we have horses that walk, trot, canter and gallop. For a beginner, even a trot can feel a bit bumpy. Not so the tölt, described correctly as a four-beat lateral ambling gait. If you’re no equine expert and that doesn’t mean anything to you, it basically equates to “engage armchair mode”. This YouTube video helps explain it:

You shorten the reins a little, sit back in the seat and the horse does the rest. The speed increases, but the ride actually gets smoother than if you are walking. None of the up down, up down that you get when you trot at home. It’s something that Icelandic horses instinctively know how to do, and I was told it was Fluga’s favourite gait. It is so comfy, it rapidly became mine too. Sophia joked that it was the best treatment she knew for a bad back and I have to say, when we finished up, it seemed like she was right. I can’t wait to go back.

If you’re planning a trip to Iceland and want to ride too, here is where you’ll find Glacier Horses:

Address: Sel in Svínafell, 785 Öræfasveit, Iceland (between Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, just south of the ring road.

GPS coordinates: N 63°57´46.0″ W 16°52´39.6″

More information on their website: http://glacierhorses.is/


Trip planning in the Coronavirus Age

It’s less than a month until I plan to be in Iceland. Usually by this point, I’d be a bit excited at the thought of a big trip. This year it’s a little different.

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Iceland will be my first trip since I returned from Russia in March. It’s been decades since I’ve been home for this long. Aside from a scenic drive through the Dedham Vale the other week, I’ve done no exploring at all. Since the UK lockdown restrictions have eased, it’s possible to take a holiday, but I’ve preferred to take a cautious approach, waiting to see what the numbers look like after others have taken their summer holiday.

That may or may not prove to be a good decision. I’ve tried to plan as far as possible to minimise financial risk. As fewer people are travelling at the moment, I don’t think I’m taking too many chances leaving bookings to the last minute. I have almost all my hotels booked on a free cancellation basis which also leaves me free to tweak the itinerary if I want to. I’m holding off on fixing up any tours, concerned that I might not get my money back if I do.

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Iceland as a potential destination was a considered decision. First, the coronavirus numbers there have been low, as you’d expect from a sparsely populated island with  a developed infrastructure. Second, this year would prove a good opportunity to tour at a time when visitor numbers were relatively low again – since my last trip in 2014, the popularity of the country has increased at a rapid rate. Third, the exchange rate has improved slightly on recent years, making this expensive country a little more affordable (and it’s not like I’ve spent much on travel this year!) Fourth, and most importantly of all, it’s a fabulous country but one I’ve not toured extensively, so this is the chance to see the east, north and west of the country, such as Dettifoss, pictured below.

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It was back in June when I booked my flights, choosing easyJet from Gatwick as the closest option. A week or so ago, I was starting to think about car hire and for some reason decided to check the flight times via easyJet’s website rather than from my emails. It was lucky I did, as the schedule had been altered and now flights to Keflavik airport from LGW aren’t starting until October. The website actually reads “no flights available” – the word cancellation isn’t used anywhere.

To date, I haven’t received notification from easyJet that the flights are cancelled. I think this is poor; the situation’s not likely to change and so giving travellers more time to adjust their arrangements would be the right thing to do. I’ve decided to be proactive, while alternative flights are available, though in practice that means travelling from Luton instead. I’m not too happy about that as it’s not a great airport and also parking is more limited. But more significantly, easyJet’s behaviour has knocked my confidence in them as a carrier and I think that will influence me in the future. Given that the Luton parking has to be prepaid, I’ve decided to make the arrangements as late as possible so I don’t end up with a booking I can’t use.

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I have a Plan C: Icelandair from Heathrow – but that’s even further to drive and means I’d be stuck with more expensive parking. In normal circumstances I’d prefer to travel by train to Heathrow but I don’t want to travel by Tube or train unless there’s no alternative. I should add I’m not complaining – after all it’s my choice to travel in these uncertain times.

Government policy has also changed my plans already. I’ve been watching Europe-wide numbers like a hawk, as our quarantine and FCO advice policies are subject to change without notice. But as I work from home and can quarantine with minimal impact, it’s actually Iceland’s policies that might have more of an effect. The rules when I booked my flights were that I would need to pay for a COVID test on arrival at Keflavik Airport. If I were unlucky to test positive, I’d need to go into quarantine for 2 weeks, but this would be at the expense of the Icelandic government.

The policy is now different for those opting for longer trips as I have. 4-6 days after the first on-arrival test, I will need to report for a second one. It’s free, but I will need to take time out of my sightseeing schedule to attend my appointment. Fortunately, this second test doesn’t have to be done at the airport, which is just as well as I plan to be over in the East Fjords by then. I understand why the Icelandic government have taken this step and fully support it.

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Of course I hope that both tests will be negative. I’m not unwell at the moment, I have no symptoms of the virus and for the next few weeks, I intend to remain home unless I really need to go out which should minimise my risk of catching it. I’m fortunate to live in a small village and in a part of the country which at the time of writing (let’s not jinx things) has fewer cases than the England average. But who knows what might happen? My September 2020 trip could well become a September 2021 trip. So I’m trying not to get too excited, in case my plans come crashing down around me. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be desperately disappointed if they do.

 


Travels with Einstein

We recently lost our beautiful Einstein at the grand old age of 13 and almost a half. He was our first dog and we were determined he would share our lives and our love of travel. From the very first time we put him in the car, he was content to be with us – and from that point on, determined to look out of the back window to watch what was going on.

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At home, he was fascinated by traffic, spending hours stock still at our living room window watching the cars go by. When Edison came along a few years later, he was never permitted a front row seat in front of the window – not that he was unhappy with the sofa perch. When we moved to the country, Einstein missed his cars – birds and squirrels just didn’t have the allure of headlights and tail lights, no matter how much fun they were to chase. But on car trips, he got a taste of the life he’d left behind, and even as his arthritis made it harder and harder to sit up for lengthy periods, he’d still try to stay upright as long as he could.

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As an 8 week old puppy, he’d travelled well on his journey to Essex from Cambridgeshire, falling asleep on my lap as we sat in the back seat of the car. But even a small dog needs to be restrained to be safe, so we popped a puppy crate into the boot and started to take him out for drives. Most of the time he was fine, though once, on particularly windy roads heading for Burnham on Crouch, the motion got the better of him and he vomited all over the crate, himself and the boot of my car. Fortunately, such travel sickness was short-lived and we were able to take him on longer journeys.

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Aged 7 months, he had his first holiday, to Cley-next-the-Sea in North Norfolk. We stayed in a pet-friendly room at Cley Windmill and all was going smoothly. Not that we travelled light – by the time we’d packed his food, bed, toys, treats, puppy crate and play pen, there wasn’t much space for our own luggage. But dog-friendly though Cley Windmill was, it had a strict rule that pets weren’t allowed in the breakfast room. We popped him safely in the playpen and nipped out for a bit.

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By this age, Einstein was used to being left for short periods of time, but despite the familiarity of his playpen, the new sights and smells in the room were too tempting not to investigate. As we ate breakfast, we heard woofing and joked that it couldn’t be Einstein, as he didn’t bark. We returned soon afterwards to find a room scattered with chewed up tea bags and individual milk cartons punctured by teeth. He greeted us with a waggy tail and the evidence stuck to his fur.

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It would be the first of many UK holidays with him. He hiked the Dorset coast path to Durdle Door, climbed up to the Cow and Calf rocks in Ilkley and rode steam trains in Somerset. Except for one memorable incident in Boscastle where he tried, lead still attached to a cafe table, to go and say hello to a rather attractive Dalmatian bitch, he was the model traveller.

It was time to broaden our horizons. A trip to the vet and a bit of paperwork rewarded us with a blue pet passport. My parents had a holiday home near the Mosel in Germany so it was the perfect place for a trip. That house became Einstein’s home away from home and we spent many happy days wandering the countryside and villages of this pretty region. There was something about him that turned heads, and we never got very far without someone making cooing noises as they stroked his soft fur. The Germans let him go just about anywhere – even inside the wine shop at Zell, though I held my breath as that swishy tail got frighteningly close to some potentially expensive breakages.

Confidence growing, we booked the overnight ferry to Santander and set our sights on a holiday in Spain’s beautiful Picos de Europa. Most dogs on the route were used to travelling with their owners, many to holiday homes further south. But unlike them, Einstein didn’t relish the thought of being stuck in a kennel while we were downstairs in our cabin. When I arrived on the dog deck with some toys and a blanket to make him more comfortable, I discovered my husband in the kennel and the dog trying to escape it. The outdoor part of the dog deck proved much more to his liking, if a little windy.

The trip would be fun, but not without a few trials. On his first day on Spanish soil, Einstein managed to injure his paw somehow. Milking it for all it was worth (as would be his custom), we spent the week lifting him in and out of the car, yet as soon as a nice beach or meadow walk was on the cards, not to mention the sight of ice cream, the paw was miraculously healed.

Most of the time, Einstein walked nicely, though having crossed a precarious bridge to one side of a river one day decided it was all too scary to walk back again, much to the amusement of the watching crowd. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d die of embarrassment at his antics, though mostly closer to home, like the time when he pulled me over in a very muddy Hockley Woods and I was forced to do the walk of shame across a busy car park.

Probably my favourite trip with Einstein was when we went to Austria. We had a lot of fun walking in the mountains, particularly when we didn’t get lost. Getting there by car was a bit ambitious – when Einstein got the cramp at a motorway service station just outside Munich in the pouring rain I didn’t think we’d get there at all – but all was forgiven when we arrived to much fuss and special treatment, not least from my doting parents.

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I love how dog-friendly Austria is. Einstein behaved really well at the WildPark Tirol where herds of deer and plenty of other wildlife roam unenclosed. When I’d asked were dogs allowed, the cashier had looked bewildered that I’d even needed to ask. The woman manning the cable car near Sankt Johann took a little more persuading to bring the cable car to a stop so Einstein could be lifted on (he got spooked by the movement, bless him) but soon came round when she saw how cute he was.

Trips abroad were a little trickier when we got Edison, logistically speaking and thanks to Edison’s general state of abandon and loss of self-control around any kind of hotel breakfast buffet. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop us from exploring our own country with the pair of them. Einstein’s final holiday was to the beautiful Forest of Dean. He couldn’t walk far by then, but managed to enjoy the view from Symonds Yat, a visit to Goodrich Castle and one final steam train ride. I hope we’ll have many more happy holidays with Edison and who knows, we might even venture across to the continent again one day.

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Rest in peace darling boy and I hope you’re enjoying one big holiday (or watching the traffic) in doggie heaven.

Einstein 11.2.07 to 30.6.20


The last trip for a while: Russia’s St Petersburg

Last week I flew back from St Petersburg in Russia and since then, the travel world has pretty much fallen apart. At times it’s felt like those few seconds when you settle back into a chairlift and wait for it to move slowly to the edge of the platform before accelerating away. My inbox and social media feeds are full of stories: airlines laying off staff and grounding flights, governments closing borders; visitor attractions falling like dominoes. Stranded travellers scramble for places in a global game of musical chairs, wishing they had acted more decisively while they still had the opportunity.

In short, it’s not a great time to be a traveller, or a travel writer. It’s not a great time to be a lot of things.

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But who knows, this might finally be the time I write the book I started five years ago, or at the very least finish the Roman blinds I’m making for the spare room. At the time of writing, my commission with an in-flight magazine for a story on Russia’s St Petersburg hasn’t been cancelled, though it still might be. As I wrap up the other articles on my to do list, I thought I’d share some of the photos I took last week. I’m not sure when my next trip will be, so pictures and stories about past adventures are just going to have to do for now.

The Hermitage

Peterhof

Catherine Palace

Sts Peter & Paul Cathedral

St Isaac’s Cathedral

Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood

Fabergé Museum

Sadko from the Tsar’s box at the Mariinsky Theatre

Museum of the Siege of Leningrad

Vodka tasting at the Museum of Russian Vodka

Museum of Arcade Games

Museum of Street Art

Pyshki (doughnuts)

Nevsky Prospekt and around

Street performers

Cats Republic


A beginner’s guide to Lombardy beyond Milan

Italy’s one of my favourite countries so when an invitation from Ryanair popped into my inbox to visit some of the less well known towns in the Lombardy region, I jumped at the chance. For those of you who read the whole sorry saga of Edison the dog’s attempts to keep me at home, I’m delighted to report that the string-pulling worked and I was allowed in (and out) of Italy. But what’s there to see in Lombardy? If you’ve already been to Milan, don’t write off the rest of this captivating region. Here’s what you need to know.

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Crespi d’Adda

Getting there

Milan has three airports, but Ryanair’s main hub is Bergamo, under an hour’s drive from the city. At the time of writing there are four flights a day from London Stansted, making this a convenient option for travellers.Well over 6 million passengers have flown the route since its inception in 2002 and local followers, you’ll be pleased to learn that there’s now a route from Southend which is a lovely airport to travel from. (If you’re UK based but not local to me here in Essex, Ryanair also operate flights to Bergamo from East Midlands, Belfast, Bristol, Manchester and Edinburgh.)

However, using an airline’s hub – in this case Stansted – is often advantageous. If things go wrong, for example delays due to bad weather, there are usually plenty of planes and crew members on standby. To be honest, though Ryanair gets a bad reputation for some of its newsworthier policy decisions, its punctuality record is pretty good. Our flights were on time both ways.

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Ryanair’s main northern Italy hub is Bergamo

Tips for using Ryanair’s main London base, Stansted

I’m no fan of London Stansted airport, but have noticed that it helps to take a flight outside the manic early morning slot, when staff are generally more patient and helpful. The 4pm departure got me to Italy in time for dinner, though if I’d have been able to make the 1pm flight after my unscheduled dash to the passport office that would have been even better.

Incidentally, I rarely check in a suitcase, but on this occasion Ryanair had arranged for hold baggage. While I regaled the check in staff with tales of mischievous dogs, a gentleman came to check in but hadn’t paid for hold baggage and was directed to the customer service desk to upgrade his booking. Here’s a pro tip for your next Ryanair flight: if you’re planning to bring a small wheelie case, instead of paying for hold baggage, opt for Priority Boarding instead. You’ll still have to pay, but it will cost you less to bring it on board than if you check it. But remember, the number of priority passengers is capped, so make your choice sooner rather than later. By the time you reach the airport, it’s likely to have sold out, particularly if the flight is full.

Getting around

There’s a direct bus from the airport to Bergamo and to Milan. Though Bergamo airport doesn’t have a train station, the bus connection into Bergamo itself (take the Number 1) takes less than a quarter of an hour. Ryanair also fly to Milan Malpensa, by the way. As this was a press trip, the itinerary was fixed. The old part of Bergamo looked lovely up on the hill and I now have it in my sights for one of my day trips by air.

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My next trip?

Trains run to a number of destinations from Bergamo’s central station. One line runs south east to Brescia; the same line in the opposite direction gets you to Lecco for connections to Como. Read my guide to spending the day in and around Como here. Another line runs west to Seregno and Treviglio to the south is also connected. To book high speed trains in Italy in advance, visit the Trenitalia website.

Regional trains need no advance booking and are relatively cheap. Bergamo is also well served by buses. Most of the destinations featured in this post can be reached by a combination of buses and regional trains from Bergamo, but you might find it easier to make Milan your base if you’re planning a series of day trips. To reach some of the smaller places in the region, consider renting a car from Bergamo Airport. Our itinerary effectively looped Lombardy and was perfect for a week-long trip.

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Bellagio, beside Lake Como

Where to go

Mantova

Also known as Mantua, if I’d have paid more attention in English Literature class at school I’d have known Mantova was the place Romeo bought his poison. The city also featured in The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew. (Verona isn’t far away, though sits just over the border in the Veneto.) Arriving across the bridge which bisects two of the town’s three lakes, you can’t miss the sprawling Palazzo Ducale. This hulking pile was the family seat of the Gonzagas, a noble family who ruled the town for centuries.

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Courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale

The stories our guide told us of the Gonzaga family were at times outlandish, yet always fascinating. Francesco 1 Gonzaga, who ruled from 1382 to 1407, sought to strengthen the  dynasty by marrying Agnese Visconti from Milan. However, it soon became apparent that the alliance wasn’t having the desired effect, so he invented a fake adultery story in order to have theepoor girl beheaded. Her alleged lover, also innocent of any wrong doing, was hanged in the park beside the palace. The obnoxious Gonzaga remarried, this time Margarita Malatesta (from the family that ruled Rimini) but his new wife unwittingly carried the gene for osteomalacia, which was passed down from generation to generation and left various members of the family suffering from joint pain, easily fractured bones and hunched backs. If that’s not karma I don’t know what is!

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The park where you’ll find the memorial to Agnese Visconti

The ceilings are magnificent, with beautiful artwork, gilding and numerous personal flourishes added by various members of the Gonzaga family. One of the highlights of the Palazzo Ducale was the Camera degli Sposi, or the bridal chamber. Elaborate frescoes painted by Antonio Mantegna in the 15th century adorn both walls and ceilings. They’re very clever, using relatively new techniques at the time to create the illusion of a three-dimensional image. To avoid damaging these ancient works of art, visitor time inside the room is strictly limited, but that’s still enough time to notice some of the more humorous details.

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The 3D effect

Mantegna didn’t believe in “photoshopping” and painted his subjects as he saw them. Look carefully and you’ll see one of the women depicted with the ugliest haircut ever to have come out of Italy. At the time, people from all over copied her – she was the Jennifer Aniston of her time.

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Check out that haircut!

Cremona

In Cremona, it was the lack of attention paid in my school music lessons which produced the regret. This charming town was the birthplace of Stradivari, the great violin maker, who was born here in 1644 or thereabouts. He wasn’t the first: Amati and Guaneri came well before him but there was something about Stradivari’s skill that set him apart. Today there are 164 registered violin makers in Cremona, all competing for business. We met one of the most experienced, a Frenchman called Philippe Devanneaux who came to Cremona 38 years ago to learn his craft and never left. With a wry smile, when asked about how much a violin sold for, he joked that selling it was the difficult part. When pushed, he said that depending on the craftsman’s level of experience, they go for anything between 1000 and 25000 euros, averaging at about 8000 euros.

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The maestro at work

We watched as this talented individual walked us through the process of transforming knot-free spruce and much harder maple into a beautiful instrument. It was clear you had to be able to feel the wood to produce something so magnificent. Patience was also important – the wood had to be seasoned for a decade before it woudl be ready to use. We tried, with varying degrees of success, to use a tiny plane to smooth out the rear casing; it was considerably harder than he made it look. You studied the technical part at university, he said, and then after you graduated, you learnt how to make a violin.

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The different shades cater to different tastes

We learnt a lot about the properties of the different woods used, and the skill involved in putting them together. An impressive forty coats of varnish were required to give it the high sheen we associate with such a fine musical instrument. The bow was equally a work of art. Made in part from horse hair, we laughed as Philippe told us that only the tails of the males could be used – for anatomical reasons, as the wee was never directed at the tail as it would be with a mare.

Pavia

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Visconti Castle, Pavia

Italy’s seventh oldest university is that of Pavia. The city’s status as a seat of learning was boosted by the Hapsburg Empire and some of the most elegant buildings in the town are its historic colleges. Painted in an egg yolk yellow shade of paint, they’re easy to find. In one of them, a statue of Alexandro Volta took pride of place in one of the cobbled courtyards. If his name sounds familiar, he was the man created with inventing the battery.

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Statue of Alexandro Volta

In comparison to other Italian university cities, such as Pisa, for instance, Pavia receives few visitors. That’s a shame, as it has a lovely vibe and with plenty of other attractions such as its restored towers and covered bridge, would make a good destination for a day trip. Italy’s high speed rail network has recently linked Pavia to the Genoa and Venice Frecciarossa service (the latter is now only 3 hours away), but should result in an increase in visitor numbers in time.

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Pavia’s covered bridge

The city sits on the banks of the River Ticino, a tributary of the mighty Po. Beside the river are little paths, though in times of heavy rain these flood, sometimes by several metres. Look out for stand up rowers, as it’s a tradition here. One of the best vantage points is from a fine dining restaurant such as Bardelli, on the banks of the river not far from the covered bridge. They serve typical Lombardy fare, such as pumpkin and pancetta pie, pappardelle with hare ragout and ricotta-stuffed squid.

Vigevano

Quaint Vigevano is one of those places that lends itself to strolling aimlessly. Begin in the Sforzesco Castle complex where you’ll find two interesting museums. The Leonardiana, as its name suggests, is devoted to the work of Leonardo da Vinci, who visited the place on several occasions. Though some of the works of art on display are copies, such as the Mona Lisa, it’s interesting to see the diversity of subjects he sketched for his notebooks.

Across the courtyard is something altogether different. Vigevano is an important centre for shoe production, claiming to be the place where the stiletto heel was invented (though it’s not the only town to do so). Inside the palace is an exhibition devoted to shoes, one dated to around 1495 and uncovered by archaeologists that once belonged to the lady of the castle, Beatrice d’Este.

There’s also a green stiletto worn by Marilyn Monroe, tiny shoes worn by Chinese women whose feet were bound and the downright bizarre designs created by Alexander McQueen. Strangest of all is the shoe designed to see off unwanted paparazzi…

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You do not want to mess with the lady who wears this shoe

A short walk away is the delightful Piazza Ducale, laid out in the 15th century. It’s worth travelling to Vigevano just for this. Elegant porticoes frame a square dominated by a historic church. Inlaid into the cobbles are intricate shapes. The walkways shelter boutique shops and a plethora of cafes and bars. Come in the early evening, join the locals for the passeggiata and treat yourself to a glass of fizz and some yummy nibbles in a bar such as Caffè Commercio which boasts an ancient cellar.

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Piazza Ducale

Soncino

Tiny Soncino has a massive fortress built in the 10th century. Such defensive structures would once have been essential in these parts, and many of the towns and cities have fortifications – Sappionneta is another, for example, with a walled city complex that’s drawn the attention of UNESCO. The weather was not kind during our visit and despite umbrellas, it was hard to stay dry as the wind buffeted us around from our precarious position on the ramparts. On a fine day, you’d be able to appreciate not only the architecture of the fortress itself, but the views across Soncino from its ramparts.

A few blocks away, we took refuge from the weather in the town’s printing museum. Housed in what was once a Jewish printers, there were plenty of antique presses to admire and the typesets to create works in both Italian and Hebrew. The young curator will demonstrate for you and allow you to try for yourself. He was keen to practice his English and share his passion for The Beatles. One day, he said, he dreamed of seeing the famous Abbey Road zebra crossing, but in the meantime, he contented himself with playing their music, particularly The White Album, his favourite. I felt almost mean when I had to fess up that I didn’t share his passion for the band but left with a smile on my face.

Crespi d’Adda

My final recommendation for Lombardy beyond Milan is the UNESCO-listed Crespi d’Adda. Like Saltaire or Bourneville in the UK, this village was purpose built by a factory owner for his workers. The planned layout is obvious as soon as you pull in off the main road, with immaculate villas laid out in a grid pattern. A little further down the hill, set back behind a village green, are more spacious properties designed for the management. The owner himself lived in an even bigger home, a mock castle, overlooking one of the two rivers that enclose the triangular shaped site.

The factory itself is derelict. The gates are padlocked and its timepiece has stopped for good, a memorial to clocking off time. The company town was built in the 1920s by the Crespi family who ran a textile mill. The workers benefited not only from decent housing, but also a clinic, a school, a theatre and even a hydro-electric power station. When the factory closed in the 1970s, many of the families who lived in the homes they’d provided stayed on. They’ve had time to get used to their behemoth of a neighbour, but you can’t help feeling the ghosts of times past in this eerie place.

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The derelict factory

Thank you

I’d like to thank Ryanair and the Lombardy Tourism team, particularly our fixer Isabella, driver Gianluca and all of the lovely guides that brought their region to life. Though this was a press trip, all opinions expressed here are my own.


A day trip to San Marino

When I started planning my trip to San Marino, I knew almost nothing about the country except that it was small. It is also one of only three nations in the world, along with Lesotho and Vatican City, that are totally surrounded by the land of a single other country. You can see the sea from San Marino, but you have to cross Italian territory first.

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To reach San Marino, you need to enter from Italy. There’s a regular bus service which leaves from Rimini station and costs 5 euros. You can find the timetable here. Rather than stay in Rimini off season (Italians have long since fled the beach by mid-October, even though Brits would still consider it warm enough) I chose to base myself in Bologna. You can read about the food tour I did here. It adds a little under an hour to the journey if you travel between Bologna and Rimini by high speed Frecciabianca train. It costs surprisingly little for the train ticket (under 30 euros return for a first class seat, cheaper in second, and cheaper still if you opt for the slower regional train).

The bus from Rimini drops its passengers in one of San Marino’s car parks. The city of San Marino occupies a lofty position on top of Monte Titano, and visitors have to be prepared for its steeply sloping streets. In a few places, there are lifts, which is a boon for those with buggies or aching legs.

My first stop was at the tourist information office, to pick up a visa and a map, though strictly speaking, neither was necessary. For a fee of 5 euros, you can have a stamp in your passport, which seemed to me to be the best souvenir of my visit. That was, until I discovered the San Marino Duck Store later in the day, which had the biggest range of rubber ducks you could imagine, including a Star Wars stormtrooper that lit up when it came into contact with water. That was husband’s present sorted then.

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From there, it was a short stroll uphill to the first of San Marino’s three towers. Called the Guaita, it’s the oldest of the trio, built in the 11th century. There was an interesting series of exhibits which recounted the tower’s history – at one time it was a prison – and a breathtaking view from its ramparts.

Visibility was excellent the day I visited, giving me a glimpse of the Adriatic in one direction and the Apennines the other. I was content with looking at the Second Tower, known as the Cesta, from the Guaita; a path joins the two, but the Cesta located on the tallest peak and if I’m honest I’m not interested enough in weaponry to have made the hike worthwhile. (The Third Tower, the Montale, isn’t open to the public.

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Instead, I headed downhill for a spot of lunch and a visit to the Museum of Curiosities. This museum houses a quirky and eclectic collection of oddities. Amongst other things, you’ll find Venetian platform shoes, designed with flooding in mind, and a German mug with a porcelain half-lid to help moustached men deal with the problem of foam on their facial hair. It’s tacky and voyeuristic, but go with the right mindset and it’s a lot of fun too.

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The last visit of the day was to the San Marino parliament, housed in the Palazzo Pubblico. The Most Serene Republic of San Marino, as it is unofficially called, is the world’s oldest continually operating republic. It also has a claim on the title of world’s smallest republic, depending on whether you measure Nauru by its land mass or include its marine territories as well. The parliament building was grand, with an imposing staircase leading up to the chamber where its government convenes. On the wall at the top of the staircase is a bust of Abraham Lincoln. San Marino conferred dual citizenship on the US President in 1861 in recognition of the “high consideration and fraternity” they felt with the USA.

For a small country, I was pleasantly surprised by the range of things to do – there were plenty more museums that I didn’t choose to look around, including the Museum of Torture which I didn’t have the stomach for. I’m not sure I’d choose to stay overnight, nor visit in the height of summer. But on a sunny October day, it made for an interesting diversion from Bologna and had a lot going for it.

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Footnote

I’m grateful for the complimentary tickets I received for the Guaita and Palazzo Pubblico, as well as the discounted admission I was given at the Museum of Curiosities. All opinions expressed in this piece are my own.


Review of Secret Food Tours Bologna

You know you’re going to like someone when they meet you with a smile and a croissant. Raffaella, our delightful guide from Secret Food Tours, certainly knew how to win us over. Our group of six soon gelled and bonded over a shared love of food – and Bologna.

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We met under the Due Torri. The city that they call La Grassa (the fat one) is known for its food, but climb the 498 steps to the top of its tallest tower, Torre Asinelli, and you’ll go some way to easing the guilt of a glutton. Such towers were built by the residents of Bologna in mediaeval times to provide a safe haven in times of strife – in those days you wouldn’t have found a door at ground level. But interesting though Bologna’s past undoubtedly is, we weren’t on the tour for the history, we were there for the food. It was time to get walking.

Fellow foodies, you could be forgiven for thinking that Bologna is the home of spaghetti bolognese, but ask for this pasta dish and you’d be laughed out of town. Instead, you’ll need to ask for Ragù alla Bolognese, a slow cooked meat sauce tossed through fat strips of fresh pasta. We sampled it in a backstreet trattoria alongside half a plate of tortellini cooked perfectly al dente and they were both exquisite. Having watched a table of nimble-fingered women twist tiny squares of fresh pasta into those tiny tortellini shapes gave us some inkling into the work involved. This is nothing like the pasta you’d buy in the supermarket and definitely a treat for the taste buds.

The Quadrilatero, Bologna’s old market area, is crammed full of delicatessens, food stores and cafés, but it helps to have a guide as knowledgeable as Raffaella to navigate such a maze. As we strolled in and around the streets surrounding the Piazza Maggiore, we learned about mortadella, prosciutto and even balsamic vinegar, even though the best of the latter hails from nearby Modena.

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In a store stocked with huge rounds of Parmigiano Reggiano, we discovered why some have horizontal scratches – these are the ones that fail quality control and are sold off cheap. The very best thing about sampling with a local is you try things you wouldn’t otherwise be tempted to consume. For me, ciccioli was a revelation – the ugliest slice of meat on the plate but – oh my! – also the tastiest.

This was my second visit to Bologna and last time, I’d walked right past its oldest osteria, a place with no signage that’s been serving thirsty Bolognesi since 1465. True osterias, like this one, don’t actually serve food, just alcohol. But Italians like to eat while they imbibe and so it’s the norm to carry in a parcel of cooked meats and cheeses to eat while you drink.

Raffaella had something different for us – a rich, sweet, gooey rice cake that was the ideal accompaniment to a glass or two of Pignoletto. It’s an Italian sparkling wine that to an uneducated palate is not unlike Prosecco. But while 400 million bottles of the latter are produced each year, Pignoletto production amounts to a paltry 11 million. That said, I enjoyed its frothy bubbles so much I pushed my way through the throng outside to pay a return visit the following evening. At two euros a glass (a small one) it was utterly quaffable and decidedly moreish. If word gets out, or if I can find it here in the UK, that figure of 11 million will shoot up.

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It wouldn’t be an Italian food tour if it didn’t include an ice cream stop, and this tour was no exception. We popped into a cute little place not far from where we began to sample some lusciously creamy gelato. I think I may have disgraced the family, however, as I ordered the zabaione flavour, commenting that my Mum used to make this dessert for us when I was a child. Given the alcohol content, that’s probably not something I should have admitted to, but the ice cream was every bit as flavoursome as Mum’s creation.

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Now, you’ll probably have noticed there’s a distinct lack of names and addresses in this blog, but that’s deliberate – it was a secret food tour, after all. If you want to find out exactly where to eat in Bologna, you’ll have to book a place yourself, but I can promise you that if you love your food, you won’t regret it. Buon Appetito!

I’m grateful that I was offered a complimentary ticket for Secret Food Tours’ Bologna walking tour in exchange for a review; the opinions expressed here are mine, however.

https://www.secretfoodtours.com/bologna/


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:

https://www.stops.lt/klaipeda/#bus/100/b-a/en

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.

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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.

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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


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 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!


Cirque du Soleil’s back in London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thanks

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

https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/totem

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


Moldova’s National Wine Day

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

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Getting there

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

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Getting around

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

Getting a room

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

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Getting your culture fix

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

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

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Getting drunk

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

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

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

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

Getting food

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

Getting to see more of the city

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

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


How to visit Transnistria from Chisinau

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

Have you visited London’s Postal Museum?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practical information

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

https://www.postalmuseum.org


On safari in Kent: review of Port Lympne

The thrill of seeing animals in the wild in Africa’s national parks is one of life’s great travel adventures. But sometimes you can’t wait for Africa to get your travel fix. A visit to Port Lympne Reserve in Kent, owned and managed by the Aspinall Foundation, provides an opportunity to go on safari without leaving the UK, but how does it compare to the real thing?

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The organisation’s credentials are good: known for its work breeding rare and endangered species, the park is home to 25 painted dogs, 17 Western lowland gorillas, 15 Eastern black rhinoceros and 5 Rothschild giraffes. The park’s animals are housed in a variety of ways, with some roaming freely across acres of rolling fields and others in purpose built enclosures.

It’s possible to visit for the day but for a special occasion, Port Lympne has a range of overnight accommodation. We chose to rent a cottage, but could equally have spent the night in a glamping tent, hotel or even a treehouse suite. Further accommodation is planned, as is a spa, expected in around 18 months time.

Our cottage slept eight and was very comfortable for our party of six. Each of the four bedrooms was a generous size, in particular the master suite, which had a huge bathroom attached. Attention to detail was evident throughout, such as finding cute little elephant hooks for the bathroom robes. We enjoyed the services of a personal chef who cooked us a three course dinner and came back to serve up a full English the following morning. It was an impressive set up which pleased everyone.

From the windows, we looked down over fields grazed by some of the park’s animals, though admittedly from a distance. If you’re serious about wildlife spotting from your bedroom, you’re going to need to bring binoculars. There was something almost surreal about hearing the shout of “Quick! I can see a rhino from the bathroom window!” when your brain is protesting you are so close to home. Less fun was finding the nieces had hidden the resident oversized gorilla plushy with the spooky eyes in our bath as a joke, though they found my screams hilarious.

But it was the safari experience that set the trip apart. Our guide, Rebecca, was knowledgable without being preachy and supplied enough anecdotes to prevent the whole thing turning into a Biology field trip. She explained about conservation and environmental pressures on creatures in the wild in the context of the animals’ own personal histories. We didn’t see the new born giraffe that was resolutely hiding inside, but we did meet the extended family from our Land Rover vantage point.

Larger safari trucks ferry passengers around Port Lympne’s extensive site, but the advantage of being in a smaller vehicle was that we could go off road from time to time to get a closer look at some of the grazing herds.

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The Bactrian camels looked somewhat scruffy as they were blowing their fur coats, and somehow wildebeest always do, but the small herd of Chapman zebra looked to be in fine condition. Save for the distant view of the English Channel, we could have been on that African safari.The morning safari was shorter, but took us to different parts of the park to see ostrich, eland, baboons and more.

Afterwards, we spent a few more hours wandering the pedestrian paths that looped the animal enclosures, timing our visit to the gorillas to coincide with feeding time and watching a Siberian tiger hunt out meat that had been hidden in her patch.

It felt slightly odd to be seeing primates in cages after our safari, but obviously it wasn’t going to be safe, practical or possible for a silverback to be mingling with the crowd.

How did I feel about the trip? Well I came home and booked a flight to Uganda. I’m going to be taking my third African safari in early 2019.

https://www.aspinallfoundation.org/port-lympne/


A beginner’s guide to the Faroe Islands

One of the most remote and most overlooked corners of Europe, the self-governing Faroe Islands might be part of the kingdom of Denmark but they believe in doing things their way. A long weekend is just sufficient to see why those who find themselves there can’t get enough of the place. In part, it reminds the traveller of Iceland, Norway, Scotland and even the Yorkshire Dales, but in truth it’s all of them and none of them.

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Getting there

Flights are operated by two airlines: Atlantic Airways and SAS. There’s a twice-weekly direct flight from Edinburgh to Vagar Airport. Flight time is around an hour. However, if you have onward connections, particularly on the inbound leg, it’s wise to allow a longer than usual layover because flights are often affected by bad weather. All other flights from the UK are indirect, with the greatest number of connections via Copenhagen as you’d expect.

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Getting around

If you have plenty of time, or are happy to be constrained by public transport routes, it is possible to get around without your own vehicle. An airport bus connects Vagar Airport with the capital Tórshavn. In town, the centre is compact and walking between the main sights is easily doable. In addition, there’s a free bus that links Tórshavn to historic Kirkjubøur. Ferries are as reliable as they can be given the wild weather, but cheap, particularly if you walk on. For instance, foot passengers travelling from Gamlarætt to Skopun on Sandoy Island pay just DKK 40 return (less than £5) while a car costs under £20. Multi-day travel cards might work out cost effective if you are travelling around a lot; they cost DKK 500 for four days and are valid on all buses and most ferries.

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For timetables, visit the Strandfaraskip website:

http://www.ssl.fo/en/timetable/ferry/7-tvoeroyri-torshavn/

Car rental is best if you wish to get off the beaten track. We rented from 62°N which is affiliated to Hertz, Europcar and Sixt, but there are several other agencies. Typically, prices start at around DKK 600 (£70) per day for a small car. In my experience, roads were good quality and drivers courteous, but the buffetting wind can be disconcerting if you’re not used to it. The Visit Faroe Islands website has plenty of sound advice about driving conditions and rules of the road as well as this useful graphic:

Helicopter rides are also possible if the weather is playing ball, which sadly it wasn’t during my trip. A community initiative means that transport is subsidised, meaning you can be airborne for a tenner. A chopper transfer from Vagar to Tórshavn bookable through Atlantic Airways costs DKK 215 (about £25). Fares between other islands cost from DKK 85 to DKK 360. More here: https://www.atlantic.fo/en/book-and-plan/helicopter/fares/

Sheep

What to see

Tórshavn

The Faroese capital is a delightful, quirky little place with much to recommend it. Begin between the twin harbours at Tinganes, seat of the Faroese government. The russet-painted government buildings with their verdant turf roofs are impossibly photogenic and unusually accessible.

Tinganes

The fish market on the quayside is also worth a look, and you may be able to blag a sample or two. There are plenty of cafes and a burgeoning bar scene; I can vouch for the hot chocolate in Kafe Husid and a beer in Mikkeller. There are also a clutch of good eateries in town including the excellent Barbara Fish Restaurant, where the broth for its bouillebaisse is poured from a vintage china teapot and the deconstructed lemon meringue pie is to die for.

KOKS

KOKS, the first Michelin-starred restaurant in the Faroe Islands, deserves its own entry. An evening here doesn’t come cheap – the tasting menu is an eye-watering DKK 1400 (about £165) with the wine pairings another DKK 1100 (approximately £130) on top. It might just be the most memorable and adventurous meal you ever eat, however, and is not to be missed. Your evening begins in a lakeside hjallur, or drying house, with some tasty nibbles of fermented lamb and dried kingfish. Next, you jump on a Land Rover for the short hop up the hill to the restaurant itself (this is not a restaurant for posh heels). From the opener of scallops served in a shell encrusted with live and very wriggly barnacles to the final mouthwatering dulse (red seaweed) and blueberry dessert, it was incredible.

Kirkjubøur

The historic village of Kirkjubøur is home to the ruins of St Magnus Cathedral, the largest mediaeval building in the Faroes. Next door, is the simple but beautiful whitewashed church of St Olav which dates from the early 12th century. It’s still in use today and 17th generation farmer and churchwarden Jóannes Patursson rings the bell to announce a service. Opposite, lies the oldest inhabited wooden house in Europe, the 11th century Roykstovan farmhouse built from stone and logs weatherproofed with black tar. It began its days in Norway, before being dismantled and shipped to its present location. Today it remains the Paturssons’ family home and is fascinating to visit. On the walls hang traditional whaling equipment, now obselete; Jóannes will explain and defend the long tradition of hunting pilot whales if asked. Whatever your personal views, it’s interesting to hear a Faroese take on the practice.