juliamhammond

Events

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


The scary side of Christmas

The bus is packed and tempers are fraying as those who can’t fit are left to wait on the snowy pavement.  On board, spirits are high. Childish excitement is contagious.  At Gnigl station, the bus spews its pasengers onto the street and the pace quickens as I follow the crowd up the street.    A fire engine blocks the road and the scream of labouring engines marks the point where the trolley buses unhook and divert to continue their journey under their own power.  Behind metal barriers, the crowd is already four or five thick.  I squeeze past and make my way along the street until I find a space next to three youngsters of primary age.  I take a few test shots with the camera and the little boy next to me tells me sternly to use the flash.

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Soon, the parade gets underway.  The Krampuslauf has a long history in Austria, its origins in pagan rituals dating from the Middle Ages.  While St Nicolaus rewards good children with sweets, those who have been naughty have to face the consequences of their actions.  Chains and claws set the Krampus apart from the evil Schiachperchten, who are also masked creatures with shaggy pelts and curved horns.  Traditionally, the perchten weren’t seen during Advent, instead being associated with the period between the Winter solstice and Epiphany.  These days the once defined lines between the two have become blurred, though no one seems to mind.

The costumes are elaborate, with no visible trace of the human inside.  Hand carved wooden masks are painted in garish colours.  From head to toe a suit of shaggy sheep wool, plus tail of course, tops shoes hidden behind hooves.  The jarring sound of the bells on their backs marks their arrival.  The children next to me fall silent, their fearful eyes widening.  They’re young enough still to believe.  A six foot beast runs at the barrier and clambers up, rearing over the children’s heads to great effect.  Their shrieks pierce the night and they shrink back, momentarily afraid.  Even as an adult, it’s a frightening moment, and I can’t help myself as I jump back too.

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One child  finds the courage to roar back at the Krampus and the monster ruffles his hair in a good-natured response.  Everyone plays along, and the atmosphere is one of family fun.  But there are more terrifying figures behind him.  As they dart up the street, they twist this way and that.  The cow bells on their backs clank heavily and they swish whips fashioned, I’m told, from a horse’s tail.  I’ve heard that it’s common for them to thrash spectators’ legs and it makes me a little nervous.

From time to time, there’s an injection of humour.  One group stop and perform a dance routine, though they’re as far removed from a boy band as you can get.  Another pair face off as if in a boxing ring, before dropping to the floor and doing press ups.  The children next to me giggle, at least until they jump to their feet.  But St Nicolaus isn’t far behind and their pleading cries gain the desired result: sweets.  They stuff their faces, eyes bright, their fear of Krampus forgotten.

The frigid air bites my cheeks and I wrap my scarf tighter around my face.  The parade’s only about half done, but there’s a gluhwein stand within sight and it’s time to warm up.

Where to see the Krampus in or around Salzburg

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Tonight, 5th December, is St Nicolaus Eve and you can attend the Krampus run in Salzburg’s Altstadt.  There are also many other parades that take place throughout the Salzburg region, from its suburbs to tiny mountain villages, as well as throughout Austria and the neighbouring German state of Bavaria.  The following two links will help you plan which Krampus or Perchten parades coincide with your visit:

https://www.krampuszeit.at/veranstaltungen/salzburg/

https://www.salzburg.info/en/salzburg/advent/krampus-percht

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If you plan to head to Gnigl next year, it’s an easy ride on the #4 trolley bus from Mirabellplatz in the centre of the city.  Alight at Gnigl S-bahn station and follow the crowd a couple of blocks up to Turnerstrasse or Schillinghofstrasse to claim your spot.


A visit to Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fayre

Regular readers of this blog will perhaps remember how I enjoyed a trip to the Christmas markets in Regensburg, Germany last year.  If you’re looking for a German Christmas market destination, then I’d recommend this small city near to Nuremberg as the markets are compact yet very atmospheric, with one located in the grounds of the delightful Thurn und Taxis Palace.  I snagged flights with Ryanair for less than a fiver, making it viable both in terms of time and cost for a day out.

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Copenhagen’s Christmas markets were also well worth the trip, with the Danish capital adding some Scandi style to the proceedings.  This year, I’ll soon be spending the weekend in charming Salzburg, Austria to see how they compare.  In the meantime, you can read more about Regensburg and Copenhagen’s markets here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/11/25/just-back-from-a-day-trip-to-regensburg/

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/12/05/just-back-from-a-day-at-copenhagens-christmas-markets/

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But what about the markets closer to home?  Can the UK compete?  A news feature on BBC Look East about increased security at Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fayre was not only reassuring but perhaps more importantly, brought the event onto my radar.  It took about an hour and a half to drive through some of North Essex and Suffolk’s most scenic countryside to reach the town.  At midday on the Friday of the Fayre, the Park & Ride was full, as were the town’s long stay car parks.  I began to wonder whether I should have taken the train, though it would have involved two changes and an extra hour on the return journey.  Finally, we were given permission to tuck the car into the exhibitors’ car park.  Was it worth the trip?

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The Fayre

With around 300 stalls spread across several locations in the town, there was plenty to hold our attention.  In total, we spent around 5 hours at the Fayre, beginning in the pedestrian streets spanning Cornhill and Buttermarket.  Moyse’s Hall Museum, which focuses on local and social history, is worth making the time for.

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Outside the museum, we found several enticing food stalls, the best of which specialised in salami and sausage.  Purchase one in the bag.  Not far away, Just Our Stall, which has a permanent base in the town on St John’s Street, had a wide selection of sheepskins and farmed reindeer hides.  Prices were very competitive and quality was high.

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From there, a stroll down Abbeygate Street led us via shops and cafes towards the Abbey itself.  Fairground rides and Santa’s Grotto would keep the kids happy.  Inside, we were disappointed at first to find that there weren’t as many seasonally-themed traders as we’d imagined, though once we got to the reindeer pen, things got a lot more Christmassy.  One of the two reindeer wasn’t too keen on remaining in the pen, attempting to climb out when someone produced a carrot.  He was a real character.

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Through the Abbey gate, the concentration of stalls selling Christmas gifts and decorations was higher, making this our favourite part of the Fayre.  Stand out traders, for their sense of humour as well as their product range, included HaGA Lifestyle which enthusiastically embraced the Danish concept of hygge.  Locals will be aware that their regular base in Eastgate Street has an excellent cafe, a deli and also offers dog grooming.

The Once I Was stall also brought to mind the recycling theme I’d seen in action in Copenhagen.  Each of the products had previously been something else before being repurposed for use in the home.  Tealight holders, chopping boards and Christmas decorations had been fashioned from drawer fronts, fence posts and sheets of plywood.  Also worthy of a mention is The Crafty Foxes.  Based in Queens Road, they offer craft workshops.  Here at the Fayre, they had a range of gift bags for sale which made excellent stocking fillers, as well as some rather unique Christmas tree decorations.

Food stalls were in abundance and there were some tempting and very festive offerings from which to choose.  In contrast to the European markets, however, there was a lack of seating nearby, which meant either standing around or walking around with food and drink.  Hopefully, that’s something which St Edmundsbury Council might consider for next year.

As the sun set, the festive atmosphere ramped up a notch.  There hadn’t been time to duck inside the Athenaeum for the indoor stalls or catch one of the cookery demonstrations in the Cathedral Courtyard.  Walking back to the car, we reflected on what an enjoyable afternoon it had been and well worth a return visit.

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A Wicked night out

This week I was fortunate to be invited to a press event to promote Wicked the Musical and The Broadway Collection.  We were treated to a champagne and canapés reception at the splendid Aster restaurant, munching on smoked salmon blinis and bite sized chicken rolls.  I’d been working hard at World Travel Market all day so it was a joy to put my feet up and relax.

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Wicked’s UK Executive Producer Michael McCabe provided a bit of background to this well known tale.  It’s been a while since I saw the movie, I’ve never seen the stage production or read the book, so his contribution was useful in explaining a little more of the story.  In the musical, for instance, the witch is named Elphaba – named for the book’s writer L. Frank Baum, who apparently didn’t like his first name and insisted on being referred to as L. Frank.  But it was the key theme that Michael highlighted that got me thinking: are we born wicked or instead are we shaped by our surroundings and the events that involve us?

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The musical itself was  enjoyable and entertaining.  Wicked compared well to my previous favourites Evita and Les Misérables.  It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and forget the performance is live when it’s as faultless as this.  The characters soon engage and endear themselves, even Elphaba (though of course she’s meant to!) and there was enough humour in the script to stop it from drowning in schmaltz.  And let’s not forget the incredible voices – this is talent that doesn’t rely on audience votes and celebrity endorsement to make you appreciate what you’re listening to.

The highlight of the evening for me, however, came at the end.  We were invited up on stage to handle some of the props and costumes from the show.  I had no idea baby Elphaba would be so heavy or that the witch hat would be so uncomfortable – to my relief I’m not a natural witch after all!  The costumes were weighty too, each reflecting the hours and hours of work that had gone into their design and manufacture.  All credit to the actors who’d be wearing them under the house lights in November, let alone in summer in a city that barely knows what air conditioning is.

Where to catch Wicked

If you are in London, I’d definitely recommend hotfooting it over to the Apollo Victoria to see it.  You’ll follow the millions that have seen it since it began its run in 2006, many of whom have seen it more than once.  In New York, you’ll find it at the Gershwin Theatre right near Broadway on 51st Street.

It forms part of The Broadway Collection, together with favourites like Blue Man Group, The Book of Mormon, Miss Saigon and The Lion King.  You can purchase your tickets in the UK before you leave from a number of tour operators and agents including TUI, Virgin Holidays and Lastminute.com.  There’s more information on their webpage at http://www.broadwaycollection.com or check out the Facebook page at facebook.com/BroadwayInbound and tweet them at @BroadwayInbound.

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I’d like to extend my thanks to Made Travel, particularly to their most welcoming press rep Anthony McNeill, who invited me to the event and took care of the tickets and refreshments during the evening.  Find out more about them at made.travel.


Happy Mexican Independence Day!

September 16 is Mexican Independence Day.  Outside Mexico, it is overshadowed by the Cinco de Mayo celebrations which many confuse with Independence Day.  In fact May 5 is the anniversary of Mexico’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Mexican independence instead was won from the Spanish in 1821 after a war which commenced on September 16 1810.

The fight to extricate Mexico from Spanish rule began with what’s known as the Grito de Dolores, translating as the Cry of Dolores, a rallying cry designed to incite revolt. It was uttered in the small town of Dolores, located a short distance from the colourful city of Guanajuato in central Mexico.  The exact words that marked a new chapter in Mexico’s history have been forgotten, but the man who spoke them has not, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Catholic priest whose statue you’ll find in Guanajuato.  Hidalgo was executed a year later but his country owes its freedom to his bravery.

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Place of Frogs?

I took a bus to Guanajuato a few years back, travelling from the pretty artists’ enclave of San Miguel de Allende.  Arriving in the place they call the “place of frogs” because early residents thought the surrounding hills looked like one, I was struck by the city’s colour.  Looking like a city that has shares in Dulux, almost every building is painted a vibrant shade.  Individually, they’re pretty, but the overall effect is stunning and it’s no surprise to learn that they’ve earned a UNESCO listing.  I took the funicular up to the statue of El Pipila and looked down over the Teatro Juarez immediately below.  It really is a splendid place.

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Overlooking Guanajuato from El Pipila

Once, Guanajuato was a mining town, sitting on vast reserves of silver, making it one of the most productive mining areas in the country.  The La Valenciana mine, located in the village of the same name, brought huge wealth to the Spanish mine owners and provided many labouring jobs, but it was closed down when the Spanish were given their marching orders.  The mine did reopen, but is now permanently shut, though tours are available.  Even if you don’t descend underground, it’s worth heading to La Valenciana to see the ornate San Cayetano church.

Back in Guanajuato, one of the best ways to appreciate the city is on foot, wandering along the many alleyways, including the Callejon del Beso (the alleyway of the kiss) where it’s so narrow it’s possible to kiss your lover from balconies on opposite sides of the street. Cafes are another thing that the city does well, scattered in the plazas that are lined with museums, theatres, churches and historic mansions.

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Bronze sculpture of a musician outside San Diego church

The day is marked with fiestas, flags, parades and partying.  Whether you’re in Mexico or not, I’m sure you’ll join me in raising a glass to that.  Viva Mexico!


Leigh Travel Club enters its tenth year

This January, Leigh Travel Club enters its tenth year.  This remarkable achievement stems from one determined woman and her supportive husband.  Lynda Willens was frustrated by the lack of travel clubs in her Essex area, finding that those that did exist were too formal or too unstructured.  She didn’t want to join a club that took minutes and elected presidents, but neither did she just want to go down the local pub and chat informally about holidays.  Together with husband John, she came up with a plan for a club that would bridge the gap and Leigh Travel Club was born.

Beach on Phi Phi island, Thailand

Beach on Phi Phi island, Thailand, one of John and Lynda’s favourite destinations

The first meeting took place back in January 2006, when Lynda and John delivered a talk on their trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia to a small but keen audience.  Some of those people are still active members of the club today.    I’m proud to be one of them.  Each month since that first meeting, a member of the club or a visiting speaker has given a presentation.  The featured destinations have spanned the globe – from Antigua to Zimbabwe via the Trans-Siberian, luxury cruising and a canoe down the Congo.  It’s as an eclectic a mix as they come.

Russian train on the Trans-Siberian route

Russian train on the Trans-Siberian route

John says he’s hard pushed to pick a favourite talk.  “Sometimes a presentation surprises you, it’s not what you expect,” he says.  “I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed them all.”

Even though the club has grown, its strength is still the warm welcome extended to members old and new.  The monthly meeting sticks to a tried and tested format – Lynda is responsible for front of house operations and John ensures the presentations will run with no technical hitches.  Each meeting is characterised by friendly banter and, occasionally, a good-natured fight for the last Wagon Wheel.  The programme of speakers is taking shape for 2015, with a Californian road trip, cycle holiday in Germany and a taste of Sicily kicking off the year.

Yosemite National Park, an easy drive from the California coast

Yosemite National Park, an easy drive from the California coast

Lynda and John are as enthusiastic now as they’ve ever been and have no intentions of stepping down just yet, though they’d like to pass on the reins to someone else eventually – so long as they remain true to the club’s ethos.  I speak for all of the members when I say a big thank you to them both for all their hard work and wish them the very best for this very special year!

http://www.leightravelclub.com

http://www.facebook.com/leightravelclub

 

 


Bradt/Travellers’ Tales writing seminar

I spent a very productive day yesterday at the writing seminar organised by Bradt Guides and Travellers’ Tales.  Five exceptional speakers led a series of workshops designed to hone our writing skills and ability to get our work published.

Jonathan Lorie, founder of Travellers’ Tales, made the process of constructing a travel article look deceptively easy, whilst Hilary Bradt and Adrian Phillips of Bradt Guides offered nugget after nugget of perceptive and invaluable tips on how to write.  Drilling down to the power of a single sentence and offering alternatives to the well worn clichés that will destroy any chance of getting into print (everything from wet spaniels to cork trees lifting their crop tops), Hilary and Adrian demonstrated why they are at the top of their game.

Ben Ross, Travel Editor at the Telegraph, no less, had many encouraging words and pithy advice for a room full of print-hungry wannabes; I scribbled as fast as my hand would let me and hopefully will be putting to the test Ben’s promise to respond to as many emails as possible.  Last but definitely not least, Alastair McKenzie provided the voice of the future, advising on blogging and marketing, and leaving me with a ton of homework to do.  I can’t wait to get started.

Alastair McKenzie, a wealth of useful information

Alastair McKenzie, a wealth of useful information