Thoughts turn to travel
As lockdown measures continue to be lifted, my thoughts are straying towards travel again. Technically, it’s not been far from my mind – though work has thinned, I have been writing for clients throughout.
At first, my work focused on Russia. Just back from St Petersburg on assignment for Morning Calm, I crafted the piece that promises to be the most lucrative I’ve ever written; though pay has been delayed until July, I remain hopeful I’ll receive what’s due eventually. But this was never a great time for any in-flight magazine, and Korean Air will leave that special edition in the seat pockets of their aircraft for the remainder of 2020. The fate of the magazine beyond this year is uncertain.
Some of my regular clients reworked their product, and I needed to adapt with them. I’ve written regularly for The Discoverer for a while now, but instead of round-up pieces on destinations, they sought inspiration in the form of Staycation topics such as cooking and gardening. So I’ve been reliving some of my favourite global dishes writing guides to Yassa Poulet, ceviche, Bouillabaisse and Yassa poulet. Even the humble English roast dinner – as much of the audience is American, to them it’s a travel experience, though to my husband there’s always an uncomfortable wait to see if my Yorkshires have collapsed.
While I have continued to write and edit content for Mundana’s blog without a break, other clients have started to get back in touch over the last couple of weeks. As COVID numbers fall in many parts of the world, I’ve been asked to refresh web content and create new posts for clients such as Just Go Russia and Hotels.com. That’s encouraging, but dampened by the realisation that for some, the economic bite of the pandemic has been exceptionally nasty. I know that my Caribbean client is holding off for now and hope that the Icelandic businesses I’ve worked for come out the other side now tourism is tentatively resuming.
All the while I have one eye on the FCO travel advisories. My annual travel insurance is renewed and ready to use. My suitcase has been dusted off (we’re renovating, everything needs dusting off, all the time). And instead of ignoring those flight deals and emails from hotel PRs, I’m starting to read them again. I’m not quite ready to travel yet, let alone book, but I’m becoming more confident that the end of 2020 won’t be as dismal on the travel front as the middle. How about you?
Top spots for crowd-free travel
As Brits and Europeans tentatively prepare to travel again, governments are formulating plans to manage international holidaymakers. For many of us, a quiet, off the beaten track destination might be the answer to a less stressful trip. So if, like me, busy cities are a big turn off for you right now, what are the top spots for crowd-free travel?
This Caucasus nation took decisive action early on to implement lockdown measures. As of the end May it had reported less than 750 cases and just 12 deaths from COVID-19 (source: Worldometer). Its population is 3.7 million. The Georgian government plans to reopen hotels in July as part of a phased relaxation of the country’s lockdown rules. Bilateral travel corridors are being discussed; Israel’s agreement is already in place but it seems likely others will follow. The wide open spaces of mountainous Svaneti will appeal to those wishing to hike Alpine pastures and woodland paths which lead to dramatic glaciers. When I visited the region in June a few years ago, I had many of the trails to myself.
Located in the mid-Atlantic with a tiny population, Iceland was always going to be well placed for post-COVID travel. To date, it has reported 1805 cases and 10 deaths. Its government have seemed keen on welcoming international visitors while remaining alert to the risks they might pose. Current indications are that the country might reopen on June 15th. There’ll no longer be the need to quarantine for 14 days as has previously been the case, but instead there’ll be screening on arrival and contact tracing for those who wish to visit. Away from tourism hotspots such as Reyjkavik, Jökulsárlón and the Golden Circle attractions, there are no shortage of places where you can expect to enjoy Iceland’s breathtaking landscapes without having to share them with too many others.
This Scandinavian country opted to follow a different policy to many of its fellow Europeans, eschewing a lockdown in favour of social distancing. While you may still fear the crowds of Stockholm, the High Coast region, a four hour drive north, is as remote as it is beautiful. Pretty Ulvon, Mjallom and Bonhamn await those who prefer their waterfront to be backed by verdant coniferous forest and dotted with russet red wooden houses. The existing travel ban for foreign travellers (currently in place until June 15th) does not include EU, British and EEA citizens. However, there are advisories in place that suggest the Swedish authorities do not yet consider it wise for tourists to stay overnight in visitor accommodation.
While Malta remains closed until at least June 15th, government tourism officials are making all the right signs when it comes to a relaxation of border controls this summer. It looks like bilateral talks with countries that have experienced relatively low rates of coronavirus, such as Luxembourg, Norway, Serbia, Slovakia, Austria, Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania and Israel, are making headway. How soon afterwards citizens of countries such as Italy, France, Spain and the UK might be able to travel is uncertain. But this Mediterranean Island, whose population numbers around 440,000 people, has to date had just 616 cases and 7 deaths. That figure may put many potential visitors’ minds at rest if they have a holiday booked there later in the year.
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
A word of caution: those statistics that look so certain on our computer screens might not be as reliable as we think. Countries are gathering data differently, reporting inconsistently and updating figures when new ways of calculating totals are adopted. Dig a little deeper, and that country with an impressively low death total could be reporting only those who test positive in hospital, for instance, rather than those who have the virus.
Plan to be flexible
If you do plan to holiday abroad later in 2020, do as much research as you can – the situation is changing rapidly and what might look possible and practical now may not be so in a few weeks or months time. As a consequence, many of us will prefer to remain at home or have a holiday within our own country. If we do book travel, we’ll need to be careful not to make plans that are too concrete – cancellation and postponement policies will be scrutinised like never before, as will the financial health of the companies we plan to book with.
That the country you wish to travel to is open for business goes far beyond its border controls. Accommodation, food, retail and activity sectors will all play their part too. There’d be no point in travelling if the kind of holiday you’d expect just isn’t possible once you get there. On top of that, you’ll need to feel confident that the risk you take making the journey is one that’s acceptable to you. Quarantine may also be imposed as well, perhaps by foreign governments, or our own. There may be paperwork involved: COVID passports, negative test results and in time, we hope, vaccination certificates. And of course, the FCO will also need to remove its current ban before British travellers can travel with valid insurance policies. That’s a lot of ducks to get in a row.
I have no firm plans at present and, like many of us, am in no rush to make any. For a travel writer and someone for whom travel has always been such a big deal, that’s quite a statement. Throughout this pandemic, my feelings have changed as to what kind of travel I’d feel comfortable with and where I’d like to go. So it’s anyone’s guess when and where my next trip will be, though there will be somewhere, some day. Those places on our wish lists will still be there when we’re ready to experience them, so what’s the rush?
How I become a travel writer
One of the questions I’m asked a great deal is how I became a travel writer. The answer is almost by accident, but then sometimes the very best things in life happen serendipitously.
I can’t define a moment when I really got hooked on travel. My first trip abroad was at the age of 9 months, a family package holiday to Austria where, I’m told, I charmed everyone. Throughout my childhood, I was fortunate to travel abroad quite a few more times, notching up countries such as Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands instead of the more usual Spain, Italy and Greece (“too hot,” said my parents). I made my first solo trip abroad to northern France at the age of 17, a foreign language exchange organised by the sister of a neighbour. Money put paid to big budget travel ideas while I was a student, but I travelled vicariously to Latin America as a member of various university societies.
In 1991, I graduated with a joint honours degree in Geography and History and took a job as a teacher in East London. I spent my days teaching about places and my evenings wielding a red pen in despair over the pitiful knowledge of my charges. When I was promoted to Head of Geography a few years later, I vowed to include as much place-related content as I could alongside National Curriculum staples such as river processes and population dynamics. My line manager once asked why I didn’t share his desire to push the students to ever-higher grades. I told him I judged my success as a Geography teacher on whether my students went travelling after they left school. Many of them did, after they’d got those top grades as well.
As soon as I was earning a regular wage, I started to travel. I blew my entire first month’s wages on a package holiday to Venezuela put together by Ilkeston Coop Travel in Derbyshire, many miles from my Essex home but too good a price to resist. Splitting my time between Isla de Margarita and the mainland, I danced, sunbathed and saw the sights, indulging a passion for Latin America that’s never gone away.
And so it continued, during term time I would teach, pulling long hours to ensure I never had to sacrifice precious holidays for work. The late 1990s saw the boom of the low cost airline, which meant that I could travel more often. Sometimes the places were obscure but they were always interesting. Keen to make sure I didn’t forget my experiences, I wrote articles, taking inspiration from the diaries I kept on the road. It was a hobby and likely to stay that way as my enthusiasm for writing far outweighed my talent.
The internet began to take off and with it, traveller forums such as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree and Wanderlust magazine’s GoWander. I was a regular on all of them. The latter was a budding travel writer’s dream, as it offered the opportunity to upload experiences. Some of my pieces attracted comment and I was surprised and delighted to see that much of it was positive. Encouraged, I began to send off crude pitches to editors of magazines, though I rarely got an answer and never a commission. Once I actually received a reply, telling me that the quality of what I wrote was sufficiently promising, but the content wasn’t needed at that time.
One of my fellow GoWanderers (or maybe by then it was My Wanderlust?) posted that she was setting up an online writing club. Members would complete an assignment each month and upload it to a forum to be critiqued. The comments were honest, sometimes brutally so, but they were also incredibly helpful. I learnt more about how to write from Liz and the gang than I had ever done. The trouble with kind comments from well-meaning friends and family members is that they don’t give you the incentive to improve – though they do a sterling job in boosting confidence, which is probably just as important.
Finally, the turning point came. Or, rather, several turning points. I entered a competition organised by Mail Travel, knocking out 300 words during a late night thunderstorm about my sister shoe-shopping in Morocco. I won, the prize being a trip to America’s Deep South and a piece in the newspaper’s travel supplement. I was still teaching, of course, but my understanding senior team allowed me unpaid leave so I could follow my dream.
I entered a travel writing contest organised by an insurance company and won a Kindle. I answered a shout out from Bradt for bus routes suitable for Bus Pass Britain Rides Again and my piece on the Dengie was considered interesting enough for inclusion. Recounting the tale of a Rasta rescue in Zambia won me highly prized column inches in Wanderlust magazine and a goodie bag. It began to dawn on me that I could do this for a living.
However, the thought of giving up a steady income as a teacher after a career spanning more than 20 years was a scary one. For a while I tried to juggle the two. I set myself up with a profile on a freelance forum called oDesk, now Upwork, and very slowly, jobs trickled into my inbox. I still write for some of those first clients. They took a chance on me and I’m grateful. Work built up and with the support of my husband, who provided a financial safety net in exchange for the promise of hot dinners and ironed clothes whenever I was home, I quit teaching to write full-time.
Breaking in to the more well-known publications took some time. I sent off pitch after pitch and received rejection emails in return or, depressingly often, no response at all. Yet to be taken seriously, I needed some big names under my belt. The travel industry’s all about contacts and – most of all – having a killer idea. My break came with a piece I did for Sunday Times Travel Magazine about flying business for economy prices. That was followed by commissions for BBC Travel, The Telegraph, Which?, a few in-flight magazines and more. Now I write for an eclectic mix of travel industry businesses, websites such as The Discoverer and print publications.
Having finally built up a portfolio I was proud of, I decided to apply for membership of the British Guild of Travel Writers. This prestigious organisation counts among its members some of the best travel writers in the country, so it was an ambitious move to say the least, but one which paid off. I’ve found membership invaluable in cementing my status as a trusted freelancer; BGTW membership affords a kind of quality control which reassures potential editors that they won’t be taking too much of a risk. Membership has its privileges too, in the form of useful professional development opportunities and press trips.
So do I miss teaching? Honestly, no, I’ve never looked back. I loved my job, taught some great kids, but the pressures of targets and paperwork got in the way of enjoyment. Travel writing hasn’t been like that. In fact, it rarely feels like work at all. Right now these are uncertain times for the travel industry, but I don’t regret a thing.
An initiative from Bradt worth supporting
Necessity is the mother of invention.
A sentiment expressed by Plato, but first recorded in the written word by 17th century author Richard Franck, never has it been more true than at this extraordinary time in the world’s existence.
In these strange and challenging times, life – and businesses – are having to adapt to cope and survive. The travel industry is one of those affected, of course, and the impact on guidebook publishers is one way that manifests itself. Lonely Planet announced last week that it was shutting down some of its offices, though guidebook production would continue. Once, a Lonely Planet guide would have been my go-to, but increasingly, they’ve not been the best fit. Instead, I’ve used independent publisher Bradt Guides on many occasions when my wanderlust led me to some of the world’s most off the beaten track destinations. I even took one to Iceland, packing it alongside my wedding dress. Some of those guides are well thumbed; others purchased in anticipation of future trips.
Uruguay: Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha
Bradt has been offering seriously tempting discounts on its back catalogue. I’ve stocked up with guides that I hope to use when we get exploring again. As someone who has seen her writing feature in a small way in two Bradt anthologies, and has had the privilege of meeting both founder Hilary Bradt and MD Adrian Philips, I’m invested in this beyond consumer level. But even if I wasn’t, it would seem a very worthy initiative to support, beyond a travel writer’s loyalty to a favourite brand. This is the company that produces guides to the more obscure corners of the planet, sometimes the only mainstream publisher to do so. My Bradt pile includes guides to Tajikistan, Haiti, Uganda and Belarus. Along side them sit Iceland, the Azores, Ghana and Uzbekistan. On the wishlist, awaiting the publication of new editions, are Sao Tome & Principe, Suriname and Iran. Right now there are 227 special offers at the Bradt online shop, not just for guidebooks but for some of the best travel writing out there on the shelves.
Cape Verde: Santa Maria
But that’s not enough. Yesterday, Bradt announced a different strategy, one which is innovative, brave and – I hope – successful. Using the Patreon platform, Bradt are asking travellers to support them by signing up to their new subscription service. For £5 a month, Bradtpackers receive an e-zine with the latest news and travel inspiration together with exclusive discount offers, competitions and pre-publication deals. Opt for Globetrotter level at a cost of £15 a month and on top of that, you receive a free book each month. Choose First Class Traveller tier and as well as that you will be able to benefit from bespoke travel-planning advice for two trips a year from a Bradt author or other expert at a cost of £35 a month.
We still need our guidebooks. This is still a time to dream.
I hope that Bradt survives the economic fallout from this horrible virus. But in the meantime I’ve subscribed and, if you’re a keen traveller also, I hope you will too. If so, this is the link you’ll need:
Travel and lockdown: what I’m missing
Tomorrow marks two weeks of lockdown for the UK. On the face of it, COVID-19 hasn’t impacted my daily life as much as some. I finished a large commission for an in-flight magazine. I’m told they will still pay, though I’m less certain they will publish. The editor has been supportive and communicative, which has been a relief. Although some of my regulars have paused contracts, I still have work from some. I’ve even managed to score a couple of new contracts which should prove to be ongoing. I’m one of the lucky ones; many travel writer colleagues have seen a year’s worth of work vanish overnight.
Right now, I’d usually be travelling. In previous years, I’ve jetted off in early spring to places as varied as Chile, the Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Argentina, Bolivia and the Bahamas. Tomorrow is my wedding anniversary – six years ago we were in Iceland luxuriating in the Blue Lagoon in anticipation of the big day. I’d have been preparing for late spring trips to the Faroe Islands, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Armenia, New Zealand and Tonga, finalising plans and reserving hotels.
But over the last few years I have also taken a few months off in the summer, so right now though the seasons are a little mixed up, it feels just like that. The village has become a bubble, a place free of anxiety, when the outside world has become a frightening place. We’re looking out for each other; the Facebook group I set up before this all started has twice as many members now and we’re all doing what we can to help each other.
When the virus first started making its presence felt, I experienced a kind of grief. Border after border closed; tour operators and tour guides reported how it was devastating their businesses. Financially, I’m not significantly affected, with just one BA flight to deal with when the airline officially cancels it. But it’s horrible to think of all those who have lost livelihoods and with them, hope for the future. The human impact of this virus is unbearable, but the economic effect is something we’ll live with for many years.
A friend has spoken to me about how hard it has already been in Uganda, where I visited last year. Rising food prices and a lack of affordable healthcare will have terrifying consequences. At present there are only 52 confirmed cases, and no deaths. The population is relatively young, though the impact of HIV/AIDS mean many youngsters are looked after by grandparents who fall into the vulnerable category. No matter how hard it is for us, it’s so much worse for the desperately poor.
Though I’ve built a career on discovering new places, I’ve found that the places I most want to go and visit when all this is over are those I’ve already visited. On TV right now in the UK is a BBC series called Race Across the World. In last night’s episode, they travelled from Puno in Peru to Cafayate in Argentina. Along the way, they visited the Salar de Uyuni, La Paz, Salta and San Pedro de Atacama, all places I’ve been and fallen in love with. It was great to escape. Like many, I’m trying to limit the amount of news I’m watching.
It’s impossible to plan when nobody knows exactly when the travel restrictions will be lifted. I’m getting email after email of impossibly cheap flight deals in my inbox, but the FCO have extended the worldwide travel ban indefinitely. How can you plan a trip when you don’t even know what season it will be? I know they’re first world problems. My job doesn’t put me at the front line and I’m immensely grateful to those working in the NHS and in key worker roles to keep us safe and fed.
I’ve bought myself some new Bradt guides for bedtime reading, though for now they’re shelved as I pore over old photos. Talk in the household is of a US road trip from Washington DC to the Great Smoky Mountains, or a return visit to Iceland or Peru. I know I want to go back Down Under and hike the mountains of the Austrian Tirol again. It’s been interesting to see the different strategies employed by tourist boards and travel companies, some of whom are marketing their destinations almost as normal so that they can remain in people’s imaginations when they are able to book again.
I really should be using this time to write the book I never finished. But I can’t seem to find the words just yet. In the face of what’s happening, it just doesn’t seem important.
How do I tackle trip planning?
One of the questions I’m asked most often is how I choose where to go and then once I’ve settled on a destination, how I set about planning the trip. Of course, it would be much simpler to let someone else take care of the details, but that’s where a lot of the fun is, and who wouldn’t want to create a bespoke trip without the bespoke price tag that comes with it. I’ve saved tens of thousands of pounds over the years going it alone, so I plan to continue travelling independently as much as possible.
Now I’m writing for a living, I am offered press trips on a regular basis. While I have accepted some of these and am very grateful for the generosity of the tourist boards involved, I don’t like to travel like this all the time. I’m fortunate to have worked with some lovely PRs who have gone out of their way to deliver a tailormade experience within the confines of the programme that’s been agreed. But on a group trip, everyone has to compromise. When I travel solo, I can do as I please and it’s extraordinarily liberating.
How I go about choosing my next destination
Now a big trip for me these days, with family commitments, is just two weeks. This blog won’t be relevant if you’re planning a gap year and need to stretch a budget or find annual insurance cover. (However, you can apply some of the same principles and concentrate on the first and last week of a longer period of travel.) Instead, I’m talking about choosing the destination that’s likely to be your main holiday.
This is often a fluid concept. I do have a loose wish list of places I’d like to visit. Right now, for instance, Sao Tome & Principe, The Azores and Tobago are on that list, together with Tajikistan, Madagascar, Belarus and Algeria. However, I’ve found that being more flexible enables me to take advantage of better flight deals that might present themselves. Often, flight costs form a large part of a trip, particularly if it’s to a long haul destination. Keeping abreast of flight sales and last minute offers is a good idea. But although I have that list, I almost always end up travelling somewhere else – this year it’s Grenada.
Next steps after I’ve found my flights
Finding a well-priced flight is a start, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to book. But if there’s a chance that the cost of that flight will increase, it’s important to act fast. It is possible with some airlines to pay a small amount to hold the fare. I’ve never needed to do so, but it does quite literally buy you time to get your other arrangements tentatively in place before committing to the full whack.
A case in point
I recently found a sub £100 return fare from London to Algiers. Algeria is on my travel B list at the moment, a place I expect I would enjoy. The fare was a great deal, far lower than usual, with BA. The dates worked too. A quick scour of accommodation via booking.com indicated that I could find something central and reasonably priced that didn’t look like a dive. Photos from the road from the excellent Simon Urwin via my Twitter feed only served to fuel my interest.
It all fell apart when it came to the visa. I’ve never been turned down for a visa – and I’ve bought a fair number in my time. Sadly, it would seem the Algerians are hard to please and turn down many applications. As a freelance writer on an unreliable income I might or might not match their criteria – who knows? But to meet the visa criteria I would need to buy the flight and arrange the accommodation in advance. The latter I could achieve with minimal risk on a free cancellation basis, but the former would be an unrefundable outlay. So, I decided not to take the risk and have not applied. Algeria is a destination probably best left for another time.
Back to the drawing board
Having shortlisted a destination with affordable transport, it’s time to look at geography. Use a guide book such as Lonely Planet or a comprehensive online guide to identify some of the key places and sights that interest you. Don’t over-plan, but also don’t be the person who realises once they return home that they missed out something they’d love to have seen because they didn’t do any research. The trick is to do just enough planning to make sure it’s possible to fit in all your must-dos. Fine tuning can come later.
I sometimes take a look at the itineraries of tour operators such as Explore or Intrepid, as they tend to be balanced and well thought through. Then I weed out the parts that don’t interest me and mentally replace them with what I’d prefer to do. But don’t assume that because an area doesn’t feature on most tours, it isn’t worth bothering with. If I had relied solely on such sources of information, I’d have missed out wild and wonderful Svaneti in Georgia which was the highlight of my time in the country.
Considering open jaw itineraries
Is a round trip fare to and from the same airport a smart decision or would an open jaw be more sensible, saving unnecessary backtracking? For instance, I’ve used this for a rail holiday in the US, booking Amtrak services to link the two cities at either end. I also looped through a few countries on a longer journey, beginning in Cape Town and ending in Johannesburg but going the long way round via Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Alternatively, I’ve flown into one capital, for example Panama City, and out of its neighbour, San Jose, using the two cities as bases for point and spoke excursions. (That’s when you stay in one place and head out and back in a different direction each day.)
If you are going to opt for an open jaw flight, try flipping the two destinations around. Sometimes when I’ve looked into following the same itinerary but in reverse I have saved a whole heap of money. It’s also worth thinking about whether to avoid somewhere on a particular day of the week. For example, there’s no use planning to be in a city on, say, a Monday if the main reason you are going there is to visit a museum that’s closed on that day. Kick off dates for seasonal attractions might vary from year to year so always check. Finally, if the place you intend to visit stages a big festival of some sort, such as Day of the Dead in Mexico, make sure you’re booking early enough to make sure transport and accommodation isn’t already sold out.
The overland bit
One final thing to look at is overland transport. If I plan to start and finish in two different cities, I always research what the public transport is like between. I look into whether I can take a bus or train and if so, how far in advance I can book my ticket (many companies have online sites). In some cases, demand outstrips supply, so make sure there’s a plan B before committing to expensive flights.
Don’t rule out domestic flights, which in some places can be cost (and certainly time) effective. I always leave a day clear between any inbound transport and my international flight home, even if that means splitting the sightseeing between the early and later part of my trip. Delays do happen, and you don’t want the added stress of worrying about missed connections. Another thing I’ve learnt the hard way is to reconfirm flights with regional airlines or carriers that you’re not sure you can trust. I didn’t, in Argentina, and had to make hasty arrangements to bus it across the country to make Buenos Aires before my next flight left. Look what I would have missed!
Now factor in the weather
This one’s important. Once I know that my potential trip is a possibility – the flights are available, the accommodation suits my needs and I have a vague plan of the order in which I’ll see places – I just double check the weather. It helps that I was a geography teacher for years, so I’m unlikely to make the mistake of unwittingly timing it to arrive right in the middle of hurricane season or the monsoon. Do that, and not only will your triup be a washout, but you might find yourself stranded if public transport on the ground is adversely affected.
Consider how you’re likely to spend your time. Is it still going to be OK if the temperature’s on the chilly side? There’s not a lot of point in booking a beach resort if it’s going to be too cold to swim in the sea or snooze beside the pool. But if you’re keen to explore a city, then those same cooler temperatures will make sightseeing a whole lot more pleasant. Shoulder seasons are a gamble with their promise of cheaper flights but a higher chance of inclement weather. Of course, you can’t predict the weather even in peak season, so there’s always going to be that chance of it scuppering your plans.
That’s almost it
By the time you’ve got this far, I expect you’ll probably fall into one of two camps. Some of you will be thinking that it would be so much simpler just to let a tour operator take care of all this time-consuming planning stuff. But if like me, you love that kind of thing, just think of the many happy hours you can spend travelling vicariously through blogs and magazine articles while you craft a trip that’s perfect for you. Book those flights, make sure you have insurance from the get go and start making your dream a reality.
How to deal with travel indecision
As we entered a new decade, I found myself in an unusual position. For the first time in many years, I had no trips booked. In my 2019 roundup, I shared several ideas, but nothing grabbed me sufficiently to book travel. We didn’t get far into January before that changed, but nevertheless I’ve not planned anywhere near as many trips as I would normally do.
Take advantage of sales
Sometimes all it takes to make me more decisive is a deal that’s too good to resist. The flight sale period is coming to an end but there’s still time to grab a discounted flight if you are quick – and can handle the flygskam (flight shame). I took advantage of my husband’s generous offer to dogsit and BA’s generous cabin bag allowance to book an Economy Basic fare to New York for just £259.17. I’ll board last and they’ll allocate me a seat, but given that the taxes and fees component of the fare amounts to £258.17 that’s a pretty good deal in my book. At this time of year accommodation is relatively cheap too (by New York standards at least) so I bagged myself a deal on a comfortable Midtown hotel.
I know air travel is coming in for a lot of criticism at the moment, but at least I work from home so my daily commute is completely CO2 free. If you can square it with your conscience, BA’s not the only airline to be holding a sale at the time of writing, so take a look on your favourite airline’s website and see what discounts you can find.
February might seem an odd time to go to New York, but it’s a city that I prefer in the winter. There are fewer tourists, which translates to shorter queues, plus the humidity in summer can be unpleasant. If like me you’re up for a return visit – the city’s constantly inventing new ways for you to pass the time – check out this post I wrote on New York for second-timers. I’m looking forward to exploring Staten Island beyond the ferry terminal and also to checking up on progress at Edge, New York’s latest observation deck, which is scheduled to open mid March.
Chat to industry professionals
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been going to Destinations, a huge travel fair that is held in Manchester and London at this time of year. It’s a great way to find out more about places you are already considering for a visit and to be tempted by those you hadn’t even thought of.
I’ll be there again later this week to say hello to my friends from Lithuania who will be promoting the charms of Neringa and the Curonian Spit. It’s a place I enjoyed very much on a press trip last September and hope to return to. To find out what the area has to offer, read this piece I wrote for them that’s on the British Guild of Travel Writers website or visit them on stand E152 at Olympia from 30th January to 2nd February.
This year I also went to Adventure Travel Show, also at Olympia. It’s not a fair I’d been to before, as I’m not a fan of extreme sports and, if I’m honest, anything too energetic. I’ve never thought of my preference for independent travel to off the beaten track places as being particularly adventurous, but apparently it is. Anyway, though I was a little disappointed at the scale of the show compared to the much larger Destinations, I did learn plenty about Malawi, Sao Tome & Principe, Madagascar and Tobago. I also picked up a map of Grenada which will come in handy in the spring – I’m booked to spend a week on the island and can’t wait to see what this lush corner of the Caribbean has to offer.
Utilise social media forums
I also get inspiration from the people I chat to on social media. Twitter is a useful source of information, via chats such as The Road Less Travelled, which you can join on Tuesday evenings – look for the hashtag #trlt. I also enjoy reading posts on the Facebook group My Wanderlust Migration and Regroup! page, which transferred from the Wanderlust website a few years ago. I’m sorely tempted by Ethiopia at the moment thanks to some excellent photographs and stories posted by other members. If you’ve a keen interest in travel, this is definitely a group to be involved with. There aren’t many places on the planet that one or other of us hasn’t been to.
Take up travel writing for a living
Writing for a living gives me the chance to travel vicariously and at the moment I have a number of corporate clients in Iceland who are keeping me especially busy. I’ve created articles for their blogs on topics as diverse as ice cream, traffic laws and the country’s relationship with the EU as well as more mainstream topics like whether you should rent a 4×4 or not and where to stop if you’re planning to drive the country’s ring road.
As for real life travel, I’m still exploring other possibilities, so watch this space to see where else I end up. Happy travels!
Where did I go in 2019 and where’s next?
Once again, 2019 has been a hectic year and I’ve notched up several new countries plus plenty of revisits. In this post I’ll be looking back at some of my favourite moments from another awesome year of travelling.
The first trip of the year took us down to Cornwall to see family for a long weekend. To break the journey for elderly doggo, we stopped off on the way, but thanks to husband twisting his knee, we didn’t get to see Salisbury as we had hoped. Fortunately, it improved sufficiently for a couple of walks, including this one on Portwrinkle Beach before the long drive home.
This year’s biggest trip was the first I took: to Uganda. I spent two weeks in this fascinating but flawed East African nation. The highlights were as varied as they were numerous. I rode a horse beside the River Nile at Jinja, had some close up encounters with the entertaining chimps of Kibale Forest and saw probably the most spectacular sunrise I’ve ever witnessed in Murchison Falls National Park a few hours before helping park rangers free an elderly giraffe trapped in a snare. Visiting Love in Action’s school in Masaka gave me an insight into everyday struggles in the country.
Italy’s always a pleasure to visit and in April I travelled to the far south for the first time. En route to quirky Alberobello, I stopped off in the 2019 European Capital of Culture Matera. In the sunshine, the caves of the sassi were beautifully photogenic, though they were once described as the shame of Italy. Alberobello itself didn’t disappoint. I was lucky enough to stumble upon the characterful Trulli Anti which is one of the loveliest places I’ve stayed. The only downer was the weather, but the cone-shaped dwellings were stunning even in the wet.
A week off in May took me to Central Asia and the delightful country of Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan has been hogging the headlines, thanks to a successful change in tourism strategy, but I felt that its neighbour would be a better fit for me after watching Joanna Lumley’s excellent TV documentary. I travelled just before peak season kicked in. Snow was still thick on the ground as we crossed a mountain pass to a deserted Song Kul, but it was remote Tash Rabat, the Silk Road caravanserai at the end of an almost forgotten valley, that stole my heart.
A family celebration saw us heading off to Devon to a bungalow by the sea at Saunton Sands. Grandpa dog managed to get himself onto the beach, though a walk along its entire 3.5 mile length was out of the question. It felt a little odd to be going to the West Country and not continuing to Cornwall, but it was a beautiful part of the country nevertheless. Though I didn’t surf, it was fun to watch those who did.
The big celebrations I’d hoped for to mark my 50th birthday had to be scaled back as our golden retriever Einstein hit old age. No matter: Alaska will wait and in the meantime, my husband stepped up to look after things at home while I spent a few restorative days in Austria. I revisited St Johann in Tirol for some invigorating mountain hikes in the sunshine and plenty of good food. In Kitzbuhel, I was reminded how celebrity is a curious concept, when everyone bar me went wild for a folk singer who was big in Austria – but a complete unknown over here in the UK.
August – just!
A few days after I returned, we set off, dogs and all, for a week in Gloucestershire, staying in a log cabin in the Forest of Dean. Champagne in our own private hot tub – with two black noses pinned to the glass watching us – marked the Big 5-0. But being able to make a few excursions with Einstein (and Edison of course) was the best birthday present I could have hoped for. We enjoyed a steam railway, a trip to a castle and best of all the spectacular view from Symonds Yat.
The Lithuanian Coast was the much anticipated destination for September, on a press trip with the British Guild of Travel Writers. It had been many years since my first trip to this Baltic country and I was keen to visit some more. Our guide was an absolute gem, feeding us excellent food, informing and entertaining in equal measure as we toured her region and generally giving us a trip we could remember. The highlight for me was our stay on the Curonian Spit, a blend of culture and natural beauty worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage status.
It was back to Italy this month, this time a second visit to Bologna, ostensibly so I could visit San Marino to bump the country count to a nicely rounded 120. I was hosted on an excellent food tour of the Quadrilatero which introduced me to a characterful bar I’d missed the first time round, the Osteria del Sole and the delights of Pignoletto, a fizz not unlike Prosecco. San Marino was very pretty and I was blessed with plenty of sunshine as I explored the cobbled streets of its hilly capital city. There was surprisingly lots to do and I’d be tempted to go back one day.
The trip that almost didn’t happen, thanks to Edison’s (successful) attempt to destroy my passport, was to Italy. This time I spent a few days in Lombardy, but not to Milan. Instead, flying into Bergamo with Ryanair, I explored Mantova, Cremona, Pavia, Crespi d’Adda, Vigevano and more with the hardworking Isabella from Lombardy Tourism and her cheerful driver Luca. It’s a region that, despite being so well connected, is still off the beaten tourist trail and one that rewards with crowd-free sightseeing and good food.
More from November
Rounding off November was a return visit to Fes in Morocco, the first with my new passport. I stayed in a sumptuous riad in the heart of the medina, near to Place Seffarine, which had been lovingly restored by its architect owner. The old town of Fes was almost exactly as I remembered it from my first visit in 1997. Although some areas of the souks had been smartened up, you still had to listen out for the clatter of horse’s hooves and donkeys hurtling through the narrow alleys with heavy loads. The smell of the tannery hadn’t improved either. New to me was the blue city of Chefchaouen, which was a pleasant place to spend the day.
The last trip of the year, as has become my custom, was to a Christmas market. This year’s choice was the northern German town of Bremen, a city I’d enjoyed twice before. Despite the rain, a mug of Gluhwein and the German sense of humour in the form of a bird feeder tagged “Cat cinema” got me in the Christmas mood.
So what does 2020 have in store?
For the first time in a very long time, I have no trips booked. I have a few ideas, but nothing firmed up. It probably has a lot to do with Einstein; as his back legs weaken I know I don’t want to be away when the time comes, so last minute bookings juggled with my husband’s work commitments seem the way to go. I’m not complaining; that’s what you sign up for if you have a dog.
When I do give the new passport an airing, I think Bergamo is on the cards, if only for a day trip. Further afield, I’m keen to visit Tajikistan after such a wonderful trip to Kyrgyzstan in May. Sao Tome & Principe, Comoros, Rwanda and Madagascar are also high up on the bucket list as are Andorra and Belarus, the only two European destinations I’ve never visited. To the west, a return visit to Peru to explore the central cordillera would be the stuff of dreams, as would trips to Alaska and Hawaii.
What trips have you got planned for 2020?
The dog ate my passport
The last couple of days have taught me a lot about unconditional love and even more about where not to leave dog treats.
I’d been finalising details of a press trip to the Lombardy region of Italy. Everything had finally fallen into place: agreements with Ryanair on commissions, flight bookings and a programme from the PR agency that would take me to four Italian cities that I’d not visited before. The builders had gone home for the day and I’d wrapped up an article I was writing for an Icelandic client. It was late afternoon and already dark.
Einstein, my 12 year old golden retriever, was snoring at the foot of the stairs. Edison, his 8 year old nephew, was lying on the office rug behind my chair.This was the dog we’d nicknamed Ed the Shred on account of his obsession with tearing up paper he retrieved from waste paper baskets. My office, or more specifically its recycling bin, is one of his most favourite places in the whole house, along with the patch of kitchen floor directly beside the fridge and the sofa from which it’s his custom to bark at squirrels.
I checked in for my flights and tucked the paperwork inside my passport, leaving it beside the keyboard on my desk. Next to it were a few dog treats that had been there all day. Just then, I had a message from my husband to say he’d be home early but had a work call. Would I pop the oven on so he could get a jump on dinner? Distracted, I got up and went downstairs. On autopilot I started to make dinner, tired from all the early starts and late nights and stress that come with a house renovation. Normally, Edison would have been under my feet, keen to be first in line if tasters are handed out, ready to pounce on anything that accidentally finds itself on the floor. I was so tired that I didn’t notice he wasn’t there.
As my husband ate dinner, he commented on Ed’s absence. Not long afterwards, we heard the bump as he jumped off a bed (another of his favourite places) and clattered downstairs. A little later on, I went back up to my office. The dog treats were still where I’d left them, but where the passport had been was a big, fat, empty bit of desk. Slowly I put two and two together. Ed must have smelt the dog treats and then found the temptation of shredding his beloved paper just too much to resist. Entering the bedroom, I spotted the chewed up remains of my passport scattered across the bedspread and my stomach did a back flip. He hadn’t, had he?
Hitherto what was on the desk rather than in a bin beneath it had always been left untouched. Until now. Initially speechless, I picked up what remained of my passport, a ragtag collection of slightly soggy pieces, most about the size of a penny. The photo page was largely intact, save for the passport number in the top corner. A couple of visas were still recognisable, though they had chunks missing from the corners.
At first, all I could do was utter the word no, over and over. Google was my next thought, followed by the Passport Office website. At first, things looked hopeful. There was an appointment available in London the following morning, and if I paid for the premium fast track service, it seemed I might be able to get a new passport in just four hours. But as I read on, my heart sank. If the passport was lost, stolen or damaged, the notes said, then I would have to make an appointment for the weekly service.
Hopes dashed, I read and reread the website. Calling the Passport Office hotline, the voice on the other end of the phone was sympathetic but unable to help. Rules were rules, unfortunately, and there was no way I could replace the passport in the 36 hours I had before my flight was due to depart. The earliest available appointment for the service I needed was two hours and ten minutes after I was scheduled to take off.
There was nothing for it but to fess up. Mortified, I called the agency that was managing the press trip and recounted the whole sorry saga to the PR lady’s colleague who happened to be working late. I followed it up with an email to the PR lady herself. Apologising didn’t seem enough. Fortunately, she was very understanding and even offered to see if Ryanair could do anything. I didn’t hold out much hope. Opportunities like this were still a big deal for a second career travel writer like myself and I’d blown it. I was furious with myself for being so careless. Sensing my bleak mood, Ed sat down beside me and offered me his paw. I stroked his head as he looked up at me with big brown eyes and a broad smile. How could I be cross with a face like that?
The following morning there was a glimmer of hope. While I was out getting a form for a new passport and organising a countersignatory for the photo, we received a phone call. There was a slim chance that I might be able to fly without a passport if I had a colour photocopy, they said. And I did! Two in fact, though one was a bit blurry. I sent them over by email and began the waiting game. All Wednesday afternoon I tried to keep busy. Edison seemed to know something was up, though of course remained blissfully unaware of the trouble he’d caused. I couldn’t stay mad at my goofball fur baby for long, and he stretched out on the office rug while I wrote another article. Throughout the day, I received progress updates from the PR lady telling me that as yet there was no news but Ryanair staff were working on it with border officials in Italy and the UK. I was mortified at the trouble I’d caused. By 5 o’clock, I’d pretty much given up hope.
And then the email came. At first, I didn’t believe what I was seeing, so I read it a second time and then a third. But it was the news I’d hoped for. Both border agencies had accepted Ryanair’s request to let me travel with a colour photocopy and email authorisation. My flight was rearranged so that I could still attend the Passport Office appointment. I was going. Eight hours later than planned, but I was going after all.
Today has been a strange experience. I arrived at the airport car park at about the time I had expected, but instead of going to the check in desk, I left the suitcase in the car and hopped on the Stansted Express instead. By 11am I’d had my replacement passport approved, with delivery confirmed by the middle of next week, and was back on the train. The Ryanair check in staff, wide eyed and slack jawed, admired the photo I showed them of a very innocent looking Edison while a manager confirmed my email authorisation was legit.
On arrival at Bergamo Airport I was whisked into the office (not the first time I’ve had to wait for permission to enter a country, as you might remember if you read my Abkhazia post). The officials were very apologetic for the delay and for me catching them in the middle of their dinner. Smiles all round and the now obligatory laughing at the photos of the dog and passport done, my precious photocopy was stamped and in I was. I did have a bit of a moment when they asked did I need to go to the consulate in Milan, but luckily for me they pretty much changed their minds straightaway.
And so here I am, in Italy, minus a passport. I’m pretty sure Edison will be curled up beside Einstein, keeping a watchful eye on my husband’s dinner plate lest a small piece of chicken or a stray chip finds its way to the floor.
Why I’m loathe to take the hotel’s airport transfer
One of the more stressful aspects of independent solo travel is the journey from the airport to the hotel. In some cases, the availability of public transport makes this transfer cheap and easy – so long as you’re not carrying too much luggage. I’m a big fan of hopping on the metro or train – as stations don’t move and are usually clearly marked, the chance of jumping off at the wrong place is pretty slim. Buses can be a little more tricky, though using Google maps and tracking my position has helped a lot. It’s frustrating when the bus sails right by where you want to get off – or doesn’t stop anywhere near.
In others, however, the need to arrange your own transfer can leave you vulnerable to the attentions of hustlers. Taxi drivers in some parts of the world can be notorious for ripping off the newly arrived and unsuspecting traveller. Insisting that the driver uses a meter helps, if it’s working of course, though there’s nothing to stop an unscrupulous driver taking a roundabout route to the city. Even if you know where the airport and the hotel are in relation to each other, traffic jams and other congestion bottlenecks might make the obvious route more time-consuming. The driver might be doing you a favour with that detour – or leading you a merry dance.
Often, there is no meter, and you’re then at the mercy of your haggling skills and the likelihood that the driver will honour the price you agreed. I’ve had drivers pull over in en route – thank you Delhi – to demand a bigger fare. If you agree, you’ve just cost yourself more money; if you don’t you risk being stranded in the middle of nowhere with a pile of heavy luggage.
In some cities, official taxis operate within the airport. They charge a fixed rate for a transfer to specific neighbourhoods and you pay the desk rather than the driver. Lima is one such airport; I’ve used Taxi Green almost every time I’ve been there, though improvements to public transit were on the cards when I last visited. You’ll pay a little more than if you walk out to the airport perimeter and flag down a taxi yourself, but the cars are in better condition and the drivers have been checked out.
Shared shuttles are a good value compromise where they’re available. In Santiago, the Chilean capital, you can prebook a place on a shuttle for a fraction of the private taxi price. Even if your flight is delayed, they just put you on the next shuttle leaving for your neighbourhood and off you go. Unfortunately, relatively few airports have them – and certainly that’s the case for the kind of offbeat destinations I prefer.
Which brings me to the hotel transfer. They tend to be the most expensive option, but when they work, the least stressful. A driver will be waiting for you with your name on a board and in theory, there’s no hanging around before you’re safely on your way to the hotel. But things can and do go wrong. I’ve arrived to find there’s no one waiting on more than a handful of occasions. As you wander around looking for where the driver might have disappeared to, other drivers swarm like bees to a pot of honey hoping to pick up a fare. In some cases, I’ve rung the hotel only to be told there’s been a problem and advised to get a taxi instead. Other times, they’ve asked me to wait and I’ve had to spend the next hour fighting off unwanted attention until the driver’s finally arrived.
Sometimes, taking a hotel’s airport transfer is the only practical option. I’m returning to Fez in Morocco soon, but on a flight that doesn’t get in until almost midnight. My riad, in the heart of the medina, is, I’m told, hard to find without help even in daylight. So I’ve booked their reasonably-priced transfer and shall have to keep my fingers crossed that the driver’s waiting for me when I emerge into the arrivals hall.
Have you had any bad experiences arriving at an airport? Do share your horror stories – but I might just hold off reading them until I’m safely tucked up in my riad…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We met under the Due Torri. The city that they call La Grassa (the fat one) is known for its food, but climb the 498 steps to the top of its tallest tower, Torre Asinelli, and you’ll go some way to easing the guilt of a glutton. Such towers were built by the residents of Bologna in mediaeval times to provide a safe haven in times of strife – in those days you wouldn’t have found a door at ground level. But interesting though Bologna’s past undoubtedly is, we weren’t on the tour for the history, we were there for the food. It was time to get walking.
Fellow foodies, you could be forgiven for thinking that Bologna is the home of spaghetti bolognese, but ask for this pasta dish and you’d be laughed out of town. Instead, you’ll need to ask for Ragù alla Bolognese, a slow cooked meat sauce tossed through fat strips of fresh pasta. We sampled it in a backstreet trattoria alongside half a plate of tortellini cooked perfectly al dente and they were both exquisite. Having watched a table of nimble-fingered women twist tiny squares of fresh pasta into those tiny tortellini shapes gave us some inkling into the work involved. This is nothing like the pasta you’d buy in the supermarket and definitely a treat for the taste buds.
The Quadrilatero, Bologna’s old market area, is crammed full of delicatessens, food stores and cafés, but it helps to have a guide as knowledgeable as Raffaella to navigate such a maze. As we strolled in and around the streets surrounding the Piazza Maggiore, we learned about mortadella, prosciutto and even balsamic vinegar, even though the best of the latter hails from nearby Modena.
In a store stocked with huge rounds of Parmigiano Reggiano, we discovered why some have horizontal scratches – these are the ones that fail quality control and are sold off cheap. The very best thing about sampling with a local is you try things you wouldn’t otherwise be tempted to consume. For me, ciccioli was a revelation – the ugliest slice of meat on the plate but – oh my! – also the tastiest.
This was my second visit to Bologna and last time, I’d walked right past its oldest osteria, a place with no signage that’s been serving thirsty Bolognesi since 1465. True osterias, like this one, don’t actually serve food, just alcohol. But Italians like to eat while they imbibe and so it’s the norm to carry in a parcel of cooked meats and cheeses to eat while you drink.
Raffaella had something different for us – a rich, sweet, gooey rice cake that was the ideal accompaniment to a glass or two of Pignoletto. It’s an Italian sparkling wine that to an uneducated palate is not unlike Prosecco. But while 400 million bottles of the latter are produced each year, Pignoletto production amounts to a paltry 11 million. That said, I enjoyed its frothy bubbles so much I pushed my way through the throng outside to pay a return visit the following evening. At two euros a glass (a small one) it was utterly quaffable and decidedly moreish. If word gets out, or if I can find it here in the UK, that figure of 11 million will shoot up.
It wouldn’t be an Italian food tour if it didn’t include an ice cream stop, and this tour was no exception. We popped into a cute little place not far from where we began to sample some lusciously creamy gelato. I think I may have disgraced the family, however, as I ordered the zabaione flavour, commenting that my Mum used to make this dessert for us when I was a child. Given the alcohol content, that’s probably not something I should have admitted to, but the ice cream was every bit as flavoursome as Mum’s creation.
Now, you’ll probably have noticed there’s a distinct lack of names and addresses in this blog, but that’s deliberate – it was a secret food tour, after all. If you want to find out exactly where to eat in Bologna, you’ll have to book a place yourself, but I can promise you that if you love your food, you won’t regret it. Buon Appetito!
I’m grateful that I was offered a complimentary ticket for Secret Food Tours’ Bologna walking tour in exchange for a review; the opinions expressed here are mine, however.
When to splurge while travelling
Over the years my travel routine has evolved and fits me now like a well worn cardigan. While I’m all for saving money where I can, there are a few things that I never scrimp on – sometimes you just need to splurge when travelling. Here’s where I recommend spending rather than saving.
Insurance is vital. Though I’ve been to some pretty adventurous places, I’m actually quite risk averse, and the thought of travelling without insurance makes me very nervous. You can take all the precautions you possibly can, but no one can predict what’s going to happen, as the photo below shows (a tumble on a hike in Sweden a couple of years back though fortunately nothing serious). Generous medical cover is a must no matter what policy you take out. I don’t worry as much about valuables cover, as the high ticket items are covered by our house insurance policy, but it’s worth checking the small print if you plan to do the same. I have an annual policy which costs around £35 for worldwide cover with American Express (you don’t have to have one of their cards to qualify). Remember, you may need to up the budget if you need winter sports cover, or add-ons like scheduled airline failure, for instance. But however tight your budget, don’t be tempted to ditch the policy completely.
Though we all love a bargain, it just doesn’t sit well for me to haggle hard knowing that the person in front of me needs the money so much more than I do. Play the game, but work out what a reasonable price is before driving that figure down to a level where there’s almost no profit in the transaction for the trader. After all, that money might be needed for school books or much needed medical treatment.
Strictly speaking I guess this isn’t counted as part of the travel budget, but investing in a good pair of shoes or boots before you leave home is so important. There’s surely nothing worse than hobbling along city streets with angry blisters on your heels or trying to focus on the scenery during an amazing hike when all you can think about is the pain around your toes. Pay what it takes to get footwear that is going to be comfortable, supports your feet and isn’t going to fall apart before you come home. Caveat: if I have a pair of boots or shoes that are almost on their last, I don’t bring them home with me. The boots below fell apart on the Bolivian salt flats and ended their days in the salt hotel’s bin.
First and last night’s accommodation
My husband likes to say he has a rule when travelling: “Never stay anywhere that’s not as nice as your own home”. Well if that was the case for me I’d miss out on a whole lot of places through lack of funds. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve stayed in fancy places (and not just when someone else is paying) but for the most part, I’d rather save money on my accommodation to free up that part of the budget for something a lot more fun. But then I’ve never been one for confining myself to a hotel. That said, I do try to book somewhere reasonably nice for at least the first and last night of a longer trip. After a long flight, having somewhere decent to get over any jet lag and rest properly can’t be underestimated. And if you stay somewhere lovely for the last night, that trip’s going to end on a high.
My final suggestion for would-be splurgers is to set aside a healthy chunk of the budget for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I can’t remember the details of the hotel I stayed in when I went to Margarita Island in Venezuela in 1992 except that it might have been pink? But I remember vividly dismissing an excursion to see the world’s tallest waterfall, Angel Falls, by air. It was ridiculously expensive and the decision was probably a sound one given that it was likely to have been cloudy. But a piece of me has always regretted not going. Since then, I’ve tried if at all possible to sieze such opportunities. Hot air ballooning over the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, taking a helicopter ride to the top of a New Zealand glacier and sharing a turquoise sea with the cute swimming pigs in the Bahamas are just three of the many experiences I’ve enjoyed. Those memories will last me a lifetime and I don’t regret a penny of the money I spent.
If you’re now thinking you need to work out where to free up some cash, why not take a look at my last post, When to scrimp while travelling. And don’t forget, I’d love to hear your suggestions for scrimping and saving, as well as when you’ve splashed the cash with good reason.
When to scrimp while travelling
The secret to successful budget travel is about knowing when to scrimp when travelling. Here are six tried and tested ways of cutting costs without ruining your holiday in the process. I’ll be following this with a blog about when it’s better to splurge – together, you’ve pretty much got the guide to how I travel.
Scrimp 1: Choose your destination with care
The Sun Voyager statue, Reykjavik
Choose a good-value destination – and don’t be sucked in by the promise of a cheap flight if everything else is going to cost you a packet. Some destinations often throw up irresistibly low fares – for example I’ve seen flights ex-London to the Icelandic capital Reykjavik advertised today for under £20pp. But do a quick search online to see how much your accommodation is going to cost and if you have any excursions or must-do experiences in mind, what they’re going to add to the total. That’s not to say you can’t have a holiday in Iceland on a tight budget, but it does mean that you’re going to have to try extra hard to save the pennies and be prepared to skip certain activities on cost grounds. Instead, opt for somewhere much better value (Brits try Turkey, Eastern Europe or North Africa) where you can live like a king on a pauper’s budget.
Scrimp 2: Think carefully about when you want to travel
Travelling in peak season means peak season prices. I know just how much that can hurt: I used to be a teacher. Travelling to destinations when they’re not quite at their best can cut a lot off the cost of flights and shrink hotel bills. But be careful: extreme weather has a habit of slashing prices but also of ruining holidays. Shoulder season trips (that’s spring and autumn for summer-focused places) often come in at lower prices. That’s how I got such good value for my Barbados trip – switching out peak season December and January for the more affordable late November.
Scrimp 3: Use public transport where you can
Airport taxis can be useful but often they’ll significantly eat into your budget. Aim to travel light (or at least with luggage you can wheel and lift) and in many places you can ditch the costly transfers take public transport instead. In cities where there’s a subway, express bus, train or tram connection direct to the centre, this is really straightforward and often quicker than sitting in traffic. Once you’re in the city centre, you can always grab a taxi for the much shorter distance to your hotel if you need to. Public transport is often very cheap and also provides the opportunity to meet local people. Check out day passes (not the expensive attractions passes) if you’re planning a city break and want to cut out the walking.
Scrimp 4: Download walking tour maps
Ditch the transport and walk. It costs nothing and you’ll often see much more than you would from an open top bus or back seat of a taxi. I’ve downloaded walking tour maps and used the suggested route and notes to save on the cost of a guided tour. This one has a good overview of Philadelphia’s historic attractions. GPSmyCity has lots of great maps and themed tours; check out this one on New Orleans architecture for starters. Print off or download before you leave home. Alternatively, borrow a copy of the relevant Lonely Planet from your local library – they often feature self-guided walking routes. I’d also recommend the walking tours offered by Free Tours By Foot; you decide on the tip you wish to give your guide at the end of the tour as I did when I used them in New York’s Lower East Side.
Scrimp 5: Find out what’s free when
Check in advance whether the museums and attractions you plan to visit offer free admission at certain times of the day or week. For instance, Rome’s Sistine Chapel is free to enter on the last Sunday of every month. The Louvre in Paris always offers a free ticket to all under 18s and 18-25 year olds from the EU, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein; on the evening of the first Saturday in the month their generosity is open to all. In New York, regular tickets to both the Bronx Zoo and Botanical Garden up the road won’t cost you a cent on Wednesdays. Many of London’s top museums don’t charge visitors at all. Google where you want to go before you book your trip and plan accordingly.
Scrimp 6: Cut out the middleman
Booking direct and cutting out the middleman can save you a lot of money. If you book an organised tour, you can end up paying a premium (sometimes a hefty one!) for the luxury of leaving someone else to make your bookings and plan a route for you. Instead, browse tours on the web and get ideas for where you want to visit. Customise it to your own needs. If there are areas you’re keen to see that are hard to visit independently, book a group (or even a bespoke) tour for that part of the trip. Local operators can help with this and often you can wait until you arrive before booking anything. For example, when I visited San Pedro de Atacama in Chile a few years ago, I spent an hour on my first afternoon discussing and booking up tours to El Tatio and the altiplano, but during the same trip, opted to visit Easter Island without a package, saving a fortune in the process.
Travel in an Instagram world
Is travel about wanting to see the world, or wanting the world to see you?
A couple of weeks ago, Facebook thought I might be interested in something called Shoot My Travel. Intrigued, I visited their website. Basically, the site connects travellers with a photographer and takes them on a tour of the city they’re visiting. The twist? The tour’s curated around spots that are the most photogenic and the traveller is the focus, with the location merely the supporting act. It’s not for me, but the marketing’s pretty savvy for today’s Instagram-obsessed world. In their “How It Works” section, they say:
Experience the city
Once everything is coordinated, it’s time to meet your photographer and start
the photo tour. Your photographer will guide you through the best spots in
the city while taking candid pictures of you along the way. Our photo tours
are a travel experience where you can learn from the culture, language
and hidden gems of your destination!
I’m a bit dubious. I can’t see how much you’ll be learning about the culture, language and hidden gems of a city when there’s a photographer fussing about getting the perfect shot. And of course, that’s going to be important, because client satisfaction depends on it. If you weren’t bothered about how you looked, you’d have signed up for a regular walking tour instead. It’s not cheap, either, with prices for a one location shoot typically between about $200 and $230. Stretch that to two locations and a “tour” lasting two hours, and the price jumps to over $300. Call me picky, but it’s not much of a city tour if you only visit one or two places, is it?
A 2017 article in The Independent stated that finding an Instagram-worthy location was the most important factor in choosing a destination among millennials. The poll was carried about by an insurance company and surveyed 1000 18-33 year olds. Of course, questionnaires can be easy to skew, but the result (over 40%) seems high enough to be significant. A bit more digging and it would seem that hotels might be jumping on the Shoot My Travel bandwagon (or is it the other way round?) This Evening Standard article reports on the “social media butlers” provided by the Conrad Maldives Rangali.
So why does this bug me so much? Surely, a live and live attitude is the way to go? But travel to some of the world’s most famous landmarks has become frustratingly busy, and the queues to get a selfie (or several) a real turn off. Thanks to the internet, the more that post, the more that follow them. I now think twice about even booking somewhere mainstream in peak season – I just don’t have the patience, let alone control over my mouth, for that to be a good idea. It bores me to see numerous copycat versions of the same scene, when all that’s changed is the person in them. Diversity and creativity fall by the wayside in the clamour to be like everyone else. And don’t get me started about those gaze-into-the-distance shots where the person doesn’t even show their face – I can’t see the point of that kind of image at all.
However (and here’s the hypocrisy) it’s a real buzz when I find a spot that I can enjoy by myself, though of course by promoting it in the articles I write and sharing it on my social media feeds I’m part of the problem.
So why take photographs at all? I’ve taken tens of thousands of pictures over the years and looking back through them is a wonderful way of reliving my travels. Memories blur with age and poring over an album from twenty years ago is a reminder of just what we forget. Of course, the really special memories are engraved on your soul, as are those want-to-forget moments, but it’s good to get a refresher of those that fall somewhere in the middle.
So I’ll keep taking snaps while I’m travelling, but the vast majority of them won’t have me in them. And I certainly won’t be paying hundreds of dollars for someone to photograph me while I do. What about you?
All the images in this post were sourced from Pixabay, using the search term “Travel”.
Plastic not so fantastic
I have a confession to make: until now, I’ve not paid much heed to my use of single-use plastic. That’s a very selfish thing to have done – I’ve turned a blind eye to the impact of discarded plastic on wildlife and given little thought to where my waste will end up, beyond sorting plastic bottles for recycling by my local authority. Now I see the words on paper, I’m not proud of that. It’s time for me to change some of my travelling habits and I’ve been thinking hard about what I need to do.
Water in plastic bottles
It’s easy to justify drinking water out of plastic bottles. Some of the places I’ve travelled in have less than satisfactory water systems and having had several nasty bouts of sickness over the years thanks to my consumption of ice, salad and ice cream, I’m careful not to drink water out of the tap like I do at home to protect my health. So what to do? I’m not sure yet about the use of iodine tablets and filter bottles, so I’m trying a halfway house. I’ve invested in a 720°DGREE insulated water bottle that I can fill from reliable sources – such as airport water fountains and filtered water – and plan to test it out in Europe very soon.
I don’t enjoy drinking through a straw, particularly when I’ve ordered a fizzy beverage. But what I haven’t been good at is communicating this to my server, instead waiting until my drink is brought to the table and then discarding the straw. I won’t be buying a stainless steel straw as I’d rather not use a straw at all. But to avoid unnecessary waste I will make a point of asking not to be given a straw when I order a drink.
Much criticism has been given to the wastefulness of travel-sized toiletries. In-room amenities and miniatures at airside stores are two cases in point. I’m a big advocate of downsizing toiletries to save on luggage, and will continue to be. However, the bottles I religiously refill before every trip were bought as Body Shop miniatures in the early 1990s and have served me faithfully ever since. Toothpaste is something I need to consider – currently I use up the little tubes that my husband brings back from business trips or save an almost empty full-size tube to finish off while I’m away.
Airline plastic wrappers
Speaking of on-board amenity kits, I refuse the plastic-wrapped headphones that are handed out. I’m more likely to read or play Scrabble on my Kindle app, but carry my own set of earbuds when I feel like making use of the in-flight entertainment. If I’m organised enough, I have a fleece blanket that packs small enough to fit in hand luggage (bought in response to Norwegian’s policy of charging for blankets but used many times since then).
I’m a huge fan of street food: it’s cheap, tasty and often freshly cooked. But one thing you can’t get around is that many street food vendors serve using plastic plates, cups and cutlery. For once, my husband has led the way on this: he habitually packs what he calls his ice cream spoon so that he can pop into Walgreens when he’s in the States on business and buy himself a large tub instead of the individual serving that comes with a plastic spoon. Yes, greed is good in this instance! I’ve been looking for a set of packable cutlery and have settled on a Joseph Joseph set, which stores in its own silicone case. When I travel with hand luggage only I guess I’ll just have to take the fork and spoon.
Wet wipes have been my go-to travel item for at least a couple of decades. I’ve never flushed them down the toilet, but nevertheless, I wasn’t aware that they contained plastic until I read this article on the BBC website:
I’ve found what I’m hoping to be a suitable alternative in Cheeky Panda’s 100% bamboo baby wipes, which are packaged using a material called PET1 (Polyethylene Terephthalate). Though plastic, it’s said to be 100% recyclable if disposed of appropriately.
Have you any practical suggestions for reducing single-use plastic while travelling? Please feel free to drop your recommendation in the comments.
Note: though I mention specific products in this post, I have not received complimentary samples. I’ll be reviewing how I got on with my attempts to reduce my single-use plastic consumption on my travels in a future blog.
How you can afford to travel more often
Travel has always been my addiction. Family aside, I’m happy to make a whole heap of sacrifices to be able to travel. I don’t smoke, drink only in moderation and have few vices. Let me share with you a few of my tips for how you can afford to travel more often.
I’m a compulsive list maker. Years of being a teacher conditioned me to having a structured day and to do lists enabled me to prioritise my non-teaching periods and knock out the admin efficiently. Since I quit school and turned my attentions to travel writing, that structure has gone out of the window. How I fill my day is no longer dictated by the bell. To an extent, I can do pretty much what I want, when I want. So those same to do lists give me structure. I still run a must, should, could list and ensure I deliver what I’ve promised on time, so that my clients are happy. Applying this method to travel plans also works. Each year I think about where I’d like to visit, formulating a rough list that usually contains one or two long haul destinations plus a number of European trips. I don’t stick rigidly to this plan, but knowing what I want to achieve helps me think ahead.
Do your research
Once I know roughly where I want to go, I start researching what those trips might cost. I’m fortunate that I receive invites for press trips, but there’s nothing better than the flexibility to do what I please, so independent travel is still my preferred option. Usually, the cost of flights is the biggest expense, so I’m always on the lookout for cheap fares. I’ve signed up for email newsletters with a number of airlines and this enables me to get wind of any flash sales before they’re announced to the public. I also follow Secret Flying and FlyNous on social media for their special deal and error fare alerts. Even though I don’t book the majority of these flights, it’s a very useful gauge as to what consitutes a cheap fare for a particular destination. If I do learn of a particularly good deal, I’ve found that you have to snap them up fast. Act decisively and you get a bargain; dither and someone else does. Often, though, a deal too good to resist comes up for somewhere unexpected, such as Uganda for just over £300, for instance.
Fix a budget
Once I have transport sorted, I figure out what my total budget can stretch to. I know what my day to day living expenses are, how much my car costs to run, what purchases I need to factor in. Adult life is a far cry from my early twenties and the girl who blew her first pay packet on a holiday to Venezuela! Instead of being impulsive and extravagant, work out how to downsize your lifestyle – cancel your gym membership and go for a run instead; sell your car and take public transport; watch movies on TV rather than at the cinema. I’ve never been one to spend big on clothes, I rarely wear make-up and I don’t choose to get expensive manicures or facials. You’ve seen my picture; that should be no surprise. When I worked full-time in education, I made a packed lunch every day. Add up what you spend on that takeaway coffee each day – it will surprise you. But also think about what you are and aren’t prepared to give up. It’s all about what’s important to you. I’d rather have a budget weekend away than spend the same money on alcohol, but if the discipline required to save for these trips is taking the joy out of your everyday life, then you’ll need to rein in that travel addicition.
Now see how far that budget can stretch
The same principle applies to the trip itself. Over the years, I’ve saved thousands of pounds because I opt for independent travel over group tours. It’s often been considerably cheaper to go it alone and pay for local guides as and when I’ve felt the need. I enjoy the flexibility and I don’t miss the company. And for me, it’s the destination rather than some luxury accommodation that is the most important element of the holiday. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy fancy hotels as much as the next person, but if switching to a simple homestay or hostel is what I can afford, I’ll book that rather than not go. Ask yourself if you can cope with a dorm bed or if you need a private room, could you manage an overnight sleeper train (surprisingly cheap) or whether you’d accept a shared bathroom down the hall (though always check cleanliness reviews before you book!) Would it work out cheaper to stay slightly out of the centre and jump on the subway each day, or would you sacrifice time and come back a day earlier if it meant you could achieve a city centre hotel within your budget?
Choose your destination with a view to value for money
Some destinations are hard to do on a budget. I spent a week in Barbados last year. I saved money on my flight by using air miles, travelled around by public bus, found a bargain Airbnb studio apartment and did a food shop at the local supermarket to cut the cost of restaurant meals out. (It might not seem like a holiday thing to do, but tot up the cost of seven breakfasts if you eat out and compare that to the cost of a box of cornflakes and a couple of pints of milk.) Even so, that trip cost somewhere in the region of £700 and that was with the many free admissions that come with a wave of my press card. Not expensive by Caribbean standards, but not cheap either. I could have saved on the cost of accommodation by travelling with a like-minded companion, of course, which would have knocked off about £200. In contrast, Kyrgyzstan offered considerably more value for money. In fact, I even brought cash back with me, things were so cheap. Typically, accommodation was a third of the price of the equivalent standard in Barbados, and food was considerably cheaper too.
Explore ways of making your trip pay for itself
As a travel writer, these days I bear in mind whether a destination is likely to be marketable and factor that into my decision-making. While some trips, like the Tonga add-on I did last time I was in New Zealand, are an indulgence, others are much more lucrative. With some timely commissions, I made over £1000 on one week-long trip to New York last year. Iceland, New Zealand, Russia and Italy have worked out well for me too. If there’s a downside to this, it’s that I’m on the go more and relax a whole lot less – I won’t have much to write about if I don’t stray far from the hotel pool all week. If you want to see if you can sell an article, see if you’ve got what it takes and create a profile on a freelancer platform like Upwork. But you don’t have to be a writer to earn money from your travels. Perhaps a TEFL qualification would open some doors, or maybe you could earn money from photography if you’re skilled enough and work hard at pitching your talent. Working as a tour guide, taking on house or pet sitting, taking a job in a ski resort or working on a cruise ship are just some of the ways you can fund your trip.
A beginner’s guide to Kyrgyzstan
The love child of Switzerland and Mongolia, blessed with snow-capped mountains and hospitality like you wouldn’t believe, Kyrgyzstan makes an easy introduction into the ‘Stans. If you’re not sure where it is, you’ll find it on China’s western border – go halfway across Russia and then down a bit. The country’s attractions haven’t yet reached the radar of many travellers, and when the Border Force officer quizzed me on where I’d flown in from yesterday, he thought I said Kurdistan. Yet, it scored a mention on the Lonely Planet’s must see countries for 2019. So what can you expect of Kyrgyzstan?
There are no direct flights to the capital Bishkek from London, and in fact the country’s airlines are off limits, featuring on the EU’s “not safe to fly” list. Given that an indirect flight was necessary and Kyrgyzstan was to be my sole Central Asian destination (for now at least!) I flew with Pegasus Airlines via Istanbul. They operate out of Stansted which is convenient as that’s my closest airport. Book well ahead and they’re pretty cheap too. My flight cost £337. Though there are plenty of options for the first leg, flights to and from Bishkek are limited to one a day. Schedules change, as they did for me between booking and date of travel. What had been a three hour layover on the outbound journey changed to a five hour layover.
That had the minor advantage of arriving at a more convenient 7am, but Sabiha Gokcen Airport isn’t close enough to the city for between-flights sightseeing unless you have a seriously long layover, so I holed up in Starbucks instead. If you’ve never been to Istanbul, pick an early flight out of the UK into the city and kill time sightseeing until the second flight departs at 11pm. It takes about an hour on average to get from the airport to the city, but allow time for traffic-related delays.
Another option might be to use Air Astana and combine Kyrgyzstan with a visit to neighbouring Kazakhstan. Bishkek and Almaty are little more than a couple of hundred kilometres apart. Air Astana has direct flights from London for a similar price. Check your visa requirements before you book.
Depending on what you plan to do and how ambitious your itinerary is, you could make use of the country’s network of public minibuses, known as marshrutkas. These bear the name of the destination on the front windscreen but you’ll need to figure out the Cyrillic alphabet. I’ve always found it helpful to memorise the first or last few letters of a place name so that it’s a simpler process to clock which bus is yours. Bishkek for instance shares the same last three letters so look for “kek” at the end of the word. If you plan to loop Issyk-Kul, the country’s largest lake, you shouldn’t have a problem finding transport. Note that these minibuses go when full and won’t stop along the route if they have their full complement of passengers, so plan accordingly.
If like me you want to cover more ground and head a bit further off the beaten track, it’s worth considering a car and driver. I found Advantour to be very helpful at the initial email stage, with prompt responses and useful suggestions about whether what I was planning was doable. Marat and I bounced ideas and refinements back and forth a few times before settling on an itinerary that covered the places I wished to see at a budget I could afford. Including accommodation, I paid about £800 for my week’s activities. You’ll see from the itinerary below that it represented excellent value for money.
Another option, particularly if you have a little more time to play with, is to make use of the CBT organisations that are spread across the country. Community based tourism is a big thing in Kyrgyzstan and these helpful offices can sort you out with somewhere to stay, transport and the full gamut of activities. Each town has its own, and some even have several competing CBTs. They can hook you up with local guides, hiking packages, horse riding treks and more. I also liked the fact that they’re big on interactive experiences and will arrange cooking classes, felt-making demonstrations and more. This casual insight into Kyrgyz culture is great for the first-time visitor. Many of the bookings that Marat made for me were via the CBTs, but it’s useful to know you can cut out the middleman.
How to spend a week in Kyrgyzstan
The advantage of arriving on the night flight is that you have an extra day to play with. The downside of pushing fifty is that sleeping fitfully on a five hour flight doesn’t refresh you enough to permit morning sightseeing. The good news is that many of Kyrgyzstan’s hotels and hostels offer an early check-in for 50% of the room rate. I opted for the budget-friendly Apple Hostel for my first night and a half, which came in at about £30 for an ensuite double for sole occupancy. Its edge of town location was good for a rush hour arrival as we didn’t get caught up in any traffic and took just twenty minutes to get from the airport. The taxi transfer, arranged by the hostel, cost about £7. There’s a cheaper shuttle bus which runs more or less during working hours.
I had a much-needed nap and then had Marat send my driver over for noon. After a brief detour to his office to pay for my tour, Adyl drove me to nearby Ala-Archa National Park. This beautiful park is only about a half hour drive from the city and is centred around a dramatic canyon flanked by mountains. In late May, there was still a slight chill in the air, but blue skies meant that it was perfect hiking weather. A tarmac path takes you along the river bank. That trail ends at an outwash plain where graded cobbles and streams of water can be forded to continue the walk. You can hike for 18km though I settled for a shorter walk. A couple of red squirrels were very friendly when I got to the benches.
I was keen to ride, and had read that one of the best places to do so was in the Chong Kemin valley, a few hours east of the capital. Marat suggested I’d need to get almost as far as Karakol today to be able to complete my wish list, so I opted for a two hour ride. My guide was the chatty Beka, who’d gone to Bishkek to study English and French before returning to his beloved valley. My request for a helmet was an initially misunderstood, as he fetched me a cap to wear. The second attempt was a bicycle helmet which I figured was better than nothing.
The next two hours were a pleasure, taking a leisurely ride through rolling hills and fording occasional streams (more importantly, learning to recognise the signs that your horse is about to take a bath with you on his back). Beka interspersed nuggets of Kyrgyz heritage and history with tales of his own somewhat chequered love life. Aside from my horse almost bolting after being startled by the air brakes of a lorry as we got back to the village, it was a most relaxing ride.
From there, we drove east, doubling back to stop for lunch in the Kyrgyz equivalent of a motorway service station midway through the Boom Gorge. Food’s cheap: you can have a proper meal for about 150 som (£1.50). Following the north shore of Issyk-Kul from a respectable distance, we pulled off the highway at Tamchy for a photo stop on the beach itself. We were a few weeks off main tourist season, so the place was deserted save for one lone paddler. The neighbouring resort of Cholpon-Ata is very popular with Russians in summer. From what I could tell, it had a lot in common with the Black Sea resorts they also favour.
Our overnight stop was at a charming guesthouse, Reina Kerch, not far from Karakol. Set off the main road, it boasted panoramic views of the nearby canyon, but was also a working farm. Herds of sheep and cows pottered in distant fields but it was the horses I was keen to see, as the farm prided itself on thoroughbreds. The best competed in trotting races and I was able to watch one of their most successful stallions impregnate a mare. A tour of the stables followed. Next up was a boorsok-making demonstration. Boorsok is a fried dough cut into ravioli-like pieces. The dough was already made but I helped roll, cut and fry. It was salty and delicious. Dinner was excellent, making good use of the farm’s homegrown produce.
Staying just outside Karakol on a Sunday, it was hard to resist a visit to the animal market on the edge of town. Scotski Bazaar isn’t the country’s largest – that honour goes to Tokmok’s weekly market which we’d passed the day before. The action starts in the middle of the night, but at around nine, it was still busy enough to be worth a visit. Sheep are traded nearest the entrance; those hoping to sell tie them to car bumpers with string leads. Further in are the cows and bulls. I was told a decent cow could go for $700 or $800. At the rear are the horses. I was made to feel very welcome.
Next up was Karakol itself, for a brief visit to the Dungan Mosque, which looks more like a Chinese temple than a regular mosque. That’s no surprise: the Dungans are Chinese Muslims who fled across the border in the 19th century. The colourful timbers and ornate pictures on its exterior were bright and cheerful. I wasn’t allowed in, but was invited to peer through the door. Around the corner was a charming wooden Orthodox Church, which replaced an earlier stone church that was felled by an earthquake in 1890. It didn’t have the glittering domes of other Russian churches I’d seen in Kyrgyzstan and beyond but it was a delightful sight. Mass was taking place, so I contented myself with a glimpse through the door.
From Karakol, we followed the southerly route around Issyk-Kul. The Jety-Oguz valley was a short but worthwhile detour for its beehives as well as the Broken Heart and Seven Bulls rock formations. As we drove out of the valley, the weather took a turn for the worse and we drove through some heavy squalls. The spectacular mountain backdrop was a damp squib, obscured by thick cloud. The foreground scenery was stark also, nowhere near as pretty as the panoramic views I’d enjoyed thus far.
No matter, just after the scruffy town of Bokonbaevo we pulled off the main highway to reach an Alpine meadow, where we had an appointment with an eagle hunter. He produced a magnificent pair of golden eagles from the boot and back seat of his car – they couldn’t travel together as they would fight, he explained. His display was both captivating and, when he produced a live rabbit as bait, horrifying. However, I tried to rationalise the sacrificial bunny as nature’s pecking order. Nothing would be wasted, said the hunter, bundling the kill into a sack to take home. It would feed both eagles for the rest of the week. The thrill of watching a skilful bird such as this home in on its prey was, I reluctantly admitted to myself, impressive. If you’ve no stomach for hunting, you might choose to skip this, but such a tradition has been a part of the Kyrgyz culture for centuries.
Back on the road, through more heavy showers, we reached Kochkor. Late afternoon, I was treated to a shyrdak demonstration. Felt-making is another important Kyrgyz tradition and my tutor was as skilled as she was smiley. Once again, active participation was expected and I found myself making the reed mat and stitching fabric together. A full sized carpet, I was told, takes five people two years to make. A single square can be knocked out in ten days. And I’m pleased to report there was no hard sell for either. Accommodation tonight was at a very plush homestay on the edge of town, affording magnificent views of the Tien Shan Mountains when the sun finally made an appearance.
After the previous day’s storms, a dumping of snow on the mountains wasn’t the best for our ride up and over the Kalmak-Ashu mountain pass (highest point 3447m) to Son-Kul. This lake is smaller than Issyk-Kul by some margin, but its remote location ringed by snowy peaks makes it breathtaking. Late May is very early in the season to be up there at all, and the road had only been open for two weeks.
We climbed steadily above the tree line. The road was wide, but it wasn’t long before we were driving alongside snowdrifts two metres high. The reward at the top for being one of the few to attempt it was a pristine meadow of snow which I left with two long lines of footprints. There was also a snow filled long drop toilet. This far into the tour, it had become something of a joke between Adyl and I that I couldn’t go more than a couple of hours without a toilet break.
The approach to Son-Kul was just as wonderful, descending to emerging spring grass and fields of yellow buttercups. A few yurts were open for business, but at 3016m the lake is a summer destination. After crossing the Chu River, the lake’s only outlet river, we attempted to off-road to the lakeshore but the ground was still too soft for this to be possible.
After a few failed attempts we bailed and drove down the spectacular Thirty Three Parrots Pass. A series of dramatic switchbacks carries you down the pass, and at each hairpin bend I caught my breath. I was glad to be the passenger! It’s surely up there with one of the world’s best drives though, if you have the head for it. A French traveller in a camper van had got cold feet halfway up and was trying to pick up courage to complete his ascent. A family of nomads in a small lorry, yurt in the back, made light work of it and waved enthusiastically.
Before we headed into Naryn, Adyl invited me to try kymys, fermented mare’s milk which has a rather unpleasant sour taste to those unused to it. I managed a couple of sips, which was more than can be said for my attempt to drink a cup of Maksim, another popular sour milk drink which is just about the most vile thing I have ever tasted. Bustling Naryn was a bit of a shock to the system after a day’s solitude but Datka’s Guesthouse was comfortable and clean. At about £18 for an ensuite room with TV and hairdryer, breakfast included, it was a steal. She throws in dinner too for an extra 350 som (£3.50).
A much easier drive of around an hour and a half took us to Tash Rabat. This caravanserai is centuries old – no one knows quite how many – with metre-thick walls and atmosphere in spades. A lady emerged from one of the yurts opposite to unlock and collect the 100 som entrance fee (about £1, a bargain!) I was fortunate to have the place to myself for the first half an hour or so, wandering from room to room trying to imagine what it might have been like to stay in such a place. Some rooms had long benches of rock, others were square. All had skylights open to the elements which let in shafts of light. I emerged from one side chamber to give a recently-arrived Korean tourist the fright of her life (unintentional).
Outside, the way that Tash Rabat was engineered means that it’s pushed right up against the hillside. Climbing onto the roof and gazing down into the skylights is a peculiar sensation. The Korean had hiked up a nearby hill, so once again I had the place to myself until a bus load of Kyrgyz pulled up. The kids in the party scaled the walls with ease, chucking tiny stones down to their parents which, given the tone of voice, earned them a scolding.
My overnight lodging was within sight of Tash Rabat. Sabyzbek, a 62 year old maths teacher turned farmer, had a small guesthouse and a collection of four inviting yurts. Located in the quiet Kara-Kojon gorge, the road crossing the river and enabling access by car had only been built five years ago, transforming tourism in the valley. He was keen to show me both, reminding me several times that at 3200m and with a chill wind barrelling down the valley, the yurts would be cold once the sun set. Temperatures would fall below zero, he said, though I couldn’t pin him down to exactly how far. I decided to risk it for the adventure, figuring that I could pile on the spare bedcovers and every fleece I’d brought to stave off the overnight cold.
Just before lunch, a wander around the farm led to another confronting sight. This time, the local vet was castrating a stallion. Judging by the horse’s wide eyes and blowing nostrils, accompanied by the ropes holding him down, the operation was performed without the use of tranquillisation. Potassium permanganate was used to sterilise the area and a hot poker cauterised the wound. It was uncomfortable to watch, but again, part and parcel of nomad life. Such lack of censorship is both the joy and the pain of visiting somewhere unused to mass tourism. I left as the second patient was being led to his fate.
The afternoon was a pleasant one. Though the wind was biting, once you were out of it, the sun was rather nice. I tucked myself into a natural hollow, two woolly jumpers keeping me snug as I felt the warm sun on my face. Farm life carried on around me: a cow mooed insistently, chickens clucked over and pecked at the discarded balls of the morning’s business and horses pottered about. Every now and then, a car passed, bound for Tash Rabat, but by and large, it was quiet enough to hear birdsong. After dinner, I chatted with Sabyzbek’s daughter Tuzsun about Kyrgyz life, expectations and change. Dusk fell late; a pink sky soon clouded, I didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing when it came to how warm the yurt would be. A fire was lit in the coal burner, started by dung, just in case. I was toasty – so much so that I spent half the night with one leg stick out of the duvet resting against the cold slats of the yurt in an attempt to cool off.
It was a long drive back to Bishkek and an early start was in order. The fire had kept me toasty inside the yurt but there was a frost on the ground outside. A bowl of steaming porridge and a mug of hot tea later, we were on the road again, retracing our steps to the capital. Bishkek’s sultry heat was a shock after several days in the mountains. I took a stroll from my centrally located hotel to Ala-Too Square. Its tall flagpole is no match for those in other Central Asian capitals, but impressive nevertheless. Nearby are several leafy parks offering the temptation of plenty of shade, as well as the presidential palace known as the White House. After a cold drink, a so-so pizza and a chat with a waiter keen to practise his English, it was time to go and pack for the following morning’s flight home.
Would I go back?
Absolutely! Kyrgyzstan was everything I’d hoped it would be and then some. I’d love to stay in a yurt at Son-Kul and revisit the delightful Sabyzbek and his family at Tash Rabat. Osh and the Fergana Valley would also be on my wish list for a second visit. I’d definitely use Advantour again. Marat’s suggestions were invaluable and his organisation faultless, well worth the money I spent!
A few observations
The Kyrgyz are hospitable and go out of their way to make you feel welcome. I asked one hotel owner why. “Simple,” she replied, “many of us can’t afford to travel, so we learn about other countries through the people that come to see us.” I’d suggest learning a few phrases in Russian as many people speak very little English. Having a copy of the Cyrillic alphabet to hand so you can figure out lone words is also a good idea.
Kyrgyzstan is a cheap destination and your money will stretch a long way. Even my smart hotel in Bishkek cost only $95 for a luxurious and very central room. Most comfortable guesthouses come in at around a quarter of that cost. It would have been possible to do the Ala-Archa and Issyk-Kul trips by marshrutka for a fraction of the cost of a car and driver. Likewise public transport to and from Kochkor and Naryn was plentiful.
If you intend to self-drive, the roads are for the most part in excellent condition. Aside from the gravel roads up to and down from Son-Kul, there were none that would challenge an average driver and there were very few potholes. However, road signs are sporadic in places so it’s best to take a good map. Traffic police are everywhere: watch your speed if you don’t want to be flagged down and fined. Watch out for herds of livestock being moved between pastures and the occasional suicidal marmot.
Travelling in the shoulder season, you’ll have many places almost to yourself. I visited in late May and the road to Son-Kul had been open for two weeks, though snow still lined the Kalmak-Ashu pass. By mid-June, there’ll be plenty of yurts set up to receive visitors and off road trails down to the lakeshore will be safe to drive. By September, the season’s pretty much at an end unless you plan to ski.
It’s customary to take off your shoes when entering a house, and the same applies to homestays, guest houses and yurts – in fact the only place where it wasn’t expected was the fancy pants hotel in Bishkek. Do as the locals do and opt for footwear that can be easily slipped on and off, rather than have the bother of unlacing hiking boots each time you want to go inside.
Toilets, save for posh hotels and the airport, are almost universally of the squat variety. Some are much cleaner than others. Those I encountered at the Kalmak-Ashu pass were full of snow. Have a stash of toilet paper handy but note that it needs to go in the bin as Kyrgyzstan’s plumbing can’t cope with paper.
English readers, everything seems to come in Morrison’s carrier bags. It’s very odd receiving a plastic bag featuring the distinctive M from a few years back and even more bizarre when it happens over and over again. I’ve yet to get to the bottom of this mystery (it’s been 12 years since this design has been used in the UK) so if anyone who’s reading this knows why, do leave a comment!
My pick for Room 101: solo bookers who call themselves solo travellers
Apologies in advance: I’m feeling very grumpy this week. As such, it’s the perfect time for me to pretend I’m a guest on the popular BBC TV show Room 101. If you’ve never seen it, guests get to argue the case for putting something they can’t stand into the proverbial Room 101 and get rid of it for ever. Room 101 is a reference to the torture room in George Orwell’s novel 1984. (Orwell is said to have taken his inspiration from a conference room where he sat through interminable meetings while working for the BBC.)
Items banished to Room 101 include people who call you ‘mate’ when you’ve never met them before, though coming from Essex we are rather used to that and quite honestly I wouldn’t like to see that go. Other observations include the frustration of being saddled with a waiter who pours a little bit of wine into your glass (totally agree with that, utterly pretentious). People who say “have a nice day” (sorry America, I don’t know why that winds some people up) and people who don’t pick up their dog’s poo (can’t argue with that) are two more. Travel-related good riddances include the prohibition of mosquitoes and expensive water in hotels. Yes and yes! The list is as eclectic as it is fascinating.
So here’s mine. I’m a huge fan of solo travel and without wishing to sounding like a travel snob, solo travel by its very definition means travelling alone, without anyone else. The whole point of travelling solo is to get away from everyone else and give yourself space to explore your new surroundings. Google it, if you don’t believe me. I just did and this was the top result:
Solo travel means you’re going somewhere else alone, where you will spend a significant chunk of time alone once you get there.
Thank you Quora.
Now call me thick if you like (though please not to my face, had about enough this week and need a dollop of nice, thank you very much), but how does that sit with someone making a booking for a group tour? My inbox and social media feeds are awash with travel suggestions that involve a solo booker joining a singles holiday or a group tour with other lone travellers.
Let me just stress, I have no problem with anyone who wants to do just that. It’s a great way to make friends and to share the experience of visiting a new country. But there’s a distinction between someone who books a single place on a tour and someone who deliberately seeks to distance themselves from a tour at all costs. The former’s a solo booker. The latter’s a solo traveller.
And they’re two different things.
Do you agree or would you send something entirely different to Room 101? I’d love to find out what your pet peeves are when it comes to travel. But if I’m a little slow in responding, that’s because I’m off to the remote Kyrgyzstan countryside for a week – solo of course.
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.
The nearest airports to Alberobello are Brindisi and Bari. The latter’s the most convenient in terms of onward travel, served from London Gatwick, Stansted and Luton by easyJet, Ryanair and Wizz respectively. Flights can be had for a little under £50 return, excellent value for a flight that’s almost 3 hours long.
From Bari, a train takes you direct to Bari Centrale station, taking about 20 minutes. From there you can pick up the FSE train, tucked away on a far-flung platform – ask for assistance if you can’t find it. Even though it’s an FSE train, you can buy a ticket from the Trenitalia ticket machines (Trenitalia bought FSE in 2018). The fastest connection takes about 1 hour 15 minutes, but it’s more usually about an hour and a half. Tickets are cheap at just 5€ and can be used on any train without the need for a reservation. At the moment, until at least 2020, the stretch of track from Putignano to Martina Franca is being renovated, so there are no trains to Alberobello itself. Instead, you need to catch the connecting rail replacement bus – and fortunately it does connect, waiting for the train if the train is running late. It’s part of the same 5€ ticket, so just show the driver. The bus journey takes about half an hour.
On Sundays, things get a little more complicated. FSE trains don’t run at all. Instead there is a bus service that connects Alberobello to Bari Centrale. Though that might sound simple, the bus doesn’t start from the station. Instead, you’ll need to find the stop – tucked around the corner on Viale Bari near Hotel Astoria and the petrol station. Remember to buy your ticket online or at the petrol station; you can’t buy a ticket on the bus from the driver.
To explore the surrounding countryside, it’s most sensible to hire a car. Though public transport does exist, it radiates from Bari and other large towns and there are few cross-country connections. To visit Matera by public transport, for instance, would require a trip from Alberobello to Bari and then out again to Matera – a long detour.
However, it is possible to catch the train (or Sunday bus) to some of the nearby villages. I enjoyed Locorotondo, the next village along, which is a pleasant outing for the afternoon. There aren’t many sights as such, but the hilltop location affords fantastic views across the surrounding countryside and the pretty old town is compact as a result.
Things to see
The big draw when it comes to Alberobello is Rione Monti. This district is packed with trulli and straggles picturesquely up the hillside. One of the best views across from the town centre is at the Belvedere Santa Lucia. It’s also worth checking out the park beside the tourist information centre and, across in Rione Monti itself, several shops that offer free access to their upstairs terraces.
Close up, it’s not quite as quaint, largely because many of the trulli house souvenir shops – some of which is mass produced tat. A few stood out, including La Bottega dei Fischietti which sells not only the traditional ceramic whistles common to Puglia but also some rather lovely ceramic tableaux.
Nearby, Pasteca La Mandragora sells high quality linens and there’s also a store to delight art lovers called Forme e Colori di De Marco Vita crammed full of brightly painted pottery. Be warned, however, some places that purport to be museums house a minimum of exhibits which exist as a honey trap for unwary visitors.
But it’s also in Rione Monti that you’ll find a 20th century trulli church and where you’ll find the curious Trulli Siamesi. This double trulli has one roof. Legend has it that two brothers fell out over a woman but neither would give up the home they had inherited. Instead of moving out, the spurned sibling bricked up the wall and knocked through to make a separate front door.
You’ll also see plenty of trulli with symbols painted on their roofs. Some people will tell you that these symbols have an ancient spiritual or religious meaning. That’s probably true, but I also read on an exhibit tucked away in a corner of the town’s museum that when Mussolini came to visit in 1927 many of the villagers were asked to paint those symbols on their trulli to add a touch of mystery. This seems to be glossed over now in favour of the more politically correct religious imagery line.
Rione Aia Piccola
The only district to rival Rione Monti in terms of the sheer number of trulli is Rione Aia Piccola, which faces off against its nemesis across Largo Martellotta. In contrast to its touristy neighbour, it’s quieter than you’d expect from somewhere on the tour guide route. Many of the trulli here are private dwellings, though a significant number are let to visitors. You’ll see just how many if you wander through in between check out and check in, when they’re marked by vacuum cleaners and mops on their thresholds.
A tourist map I had been given implied that there was a kind of open air museum here, but there was no evidence of that during my stay – perhaps because it was still early in the season? If you are in Alberobello in the height of summer it would be worth checking out just in case.
In the main part of town, there are also more than a scattering of trulli, one of which is worth seeking out as it is two-storey. This is rare: Alberobello’s trulli were originally modelled on the agricultural buildings found across the Puglian countryside and the dry stone wall construction wasn’t strong enough to support an upper floor.
Trulli Sovrano was built in the 17th century by the family of a priest, taking the name Corte di Papa Cataldo and is now a museum, its rooms recreated with antique furniture. In the front bedroom, a notice pinned to the wall states that the slit was useful for seeing who was at the door, or shooting them if they weren’t welcome. It was at one time a warehouse; if you climb the stairs, you’ll see a trapdoor in the floor used for passing goods down to the floor below. Over the years it’s had many uses, including a court, chapel, grocer’s, monastery and the HQ of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sacrament.
Museo del Territorio “Casa Pezzolla”
Much of the town’s history can be learned within the confines of this collection of fifteen or so trulli which now form a museum. It recounts the impact of the Prammatica De Baronibus, an edict of the 15th-century Kingdom of Naples. The Kings wished to impose a tax on permanent dwellings, so under the leadership of nobleman Gian Girolamo II, the residents of Alberobello were forced to live in trulli. Their dry stone construction made it easy to take them down if an inspection was imminent. The tax dodge worked, serving Alberobello well for many years but in the end, the political situation changed and thus these temporary structures became an enduring part of the urban landscape.
One of the sections of the museum explains the significance of the adornments on the roofs of the trulli. What’s called the “pinnacolo” is the only part of the trulli to be purely decorative, a kind of architect’s calling card. The more complex the design of this topper, the more talented was the master trullaro. It was also a good way of finding a particular trullo amongst so many similar constructions; think of it as the design equivalent of a postcode.
Where to stay
If you’re going to stay in Alberobello – and why wouldn’t you, since once the daytrippers have gone home it’s absolutely gorgeous – then I’d suggest you book Trulli Anti.
While there are plenty of trulli scattered across town that can be rented by visitors, many of them cluster in Rione Aia Piccola. Though that district isn’t as plagued by tour groups during the day as Rione Monti, it’s still on the tourist trail. Where Trulli Anti wins is that it’s close to the sights without being in the middle of them. Plus it’s on such a narrow road that it’s almost impossible for cars to drive past. I only saw one car try it and that was the local police.
That peace and quiet, coupled with its stylish and very contemporary design, gives it 10/10 in my books. If you’re thinking that I’m only saying that because I got a freebie, I didn’t. I paid my own way. It wasn’t cheap for a solo traveller, costing about 125€ a night – though it would be much better value if there are three of you. But oh was it worth it!
The trulli has been well thought out and owner Angelo is keen to ensure you have a great time. On a mezzanine, there’s a very inviting double bed under the domed roof. Lighting is good, and the stairs are pretty solid, which is reassuring as the bathroom is downstairs. That bathroom is chic – I especially loved the tiles and having a shower with some oomph to it. I also need to mention the comfortable sofa (so comfortable I fell asleep on it one evening) and that there’s a single room on the ground floor if you need a second bedroom or you’ve had so much vino you don’t trust yourself on the stairs.
If you plan to cook, there’s also a small but well-equipped kitchen with a dining table. When it comes to eating out, Angelo provides many recommendations and there are several excellent restaurants within staggering distance. Call ahead if you want to try La Cantina as it’s tiny and usually booked out. I had better luck geting into Trullo d’Oro and the food there was delicious. Make sure you try burata, a type of mozzarella that is moist and creamy. Breakfast comes in a box from a nearby cafe, with plenty of choice. You simply pick what you’d like off a menu, send it to Angelo via text message or What’s App and tell him what time you’d like it delivered. You can, if you prefer, eat at the same cafe, a ten minute stroll away.
Out back there is a courtyard garden. During my stay the weather was rarely sunny, but if it hadn’t been wet I’d have loved sitting out there. Angelo supplies bikes too and there’s even an outdoor shower. Pots of flowers add colour to the whitewashed trulli and fairylights create a magical feel. I’m probably gushing, but it was just delightful. Trulli delightful, in fact. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
I booked Trulli Anti via booking.com – here is the link if you want to check prices and availability: https://www.booking.com/hotel/it/trulli-anti.en-gb.html
An unexpected giraffe rescue in Uganda
It was one of those jaw-dropping moments that travel is supposed to be about: sunrise over a flat calm Nile, the water as pink as the sky above it. Staying at the excellent Red Chilli’s Murchison Falls Rest Camp, we were conveniently situated for the earliest ferry crossing. A queue had quickly formed behind us, but our driver was pleased with himself for being first to board the rudimentary, flat bed vessel. We were too busy gazing at the water to care.
However, that morning’s game drive hadn’t lived up to expectations. Save for a bunch of Rothschild’s giraffe, a scattering of Jackson’s hartebeest, the ubiquitous kob and a few distant hippo, we’d been unlucky. Game sightings hadn’t been as prolific as I’d experienced in other East African nations such as Tanzania and big game were conspicuous by their absence. It was looking increasingly likely that we’d be returning to Kampala a little disappointed, the sunrise proving the highlight of the day. Even our ranger seemed to have lost interest after his initial animated commentary.
Suddenly, we pulled over on the dirt track and looked across at a vehicle careering off road across the park. My first thought was that our ranger was about to give them a serve for off-roading, but as they drew closer, we could see that they were uniformed personnel working for the Uganda Wildlife Authority. It turned out that one of a pair of elderly giraffes under a nearby tree had caught his hind leg in a snare.
Sadly, the threat from local poaching, despite efforts to tackle the problem, remains a significant one. The Uganda Conservation Foundation reported that bushmeat poaching, primarily through the setting of snares, continues to pose a significant threat to wildlife in the park:
“In April 2011, 40 rangers did a three day patrol of the Delta to Pakuba area of Murchison Falls, the region most densely populated by animals and a tourism hotspot. Over three days 1154 snares were recovered and destroyed. On February 12, 2013, rangers did a six- hour search in the small part of the Delta and discovered 285 wire snares. Large scale clearance of existing snares and gin traps is ongoing. One large scale sweep by rangers was done in March 2014 that resulted in the recovery of 42 wire snares and 6 metal traps. During the same patrol a warthog was found dead, trapped by a metal snare.”
Our MFNP guide told us that there was a particular problem in this part of the park as the nearby water provided the perfect excuse for poachers to masquerade as fishermen. Though warthog and antelope are the intended targets, other animals are caught in the traps. Fighting back is difficult. The park’s considerable size, coupled with budgetary constraints that hinder ranger employment and low salaries for those in post, combine to form a powerful set of obstacles. This is compounded by the park’s proximity to the DRC which facilitates illegal cross-border arms traffic. Marine rangers regularly patrol the riverbanks to enforce the law but the UWA faces an uphill battle.
Initiatives such as the Michigan State University “Snares to Wares” aim to offer locals an alternative source of income, but such projects are a drop in a very large ocean. Ugandan newspaper The Daily Monitor reported on the issue in January 2016, explaining just how tempting it can be for those living in abject poverty to slip into poaching:
“The scarcity of sustainable livelihoods is also blamed; poverty drives people to make a living from illegal means. For instance, a hippo carcass is worth about Shs1.5m and a kilogramme of buffalo meat costs Shs15,000 on the black market.”
Visitor numbers are down: according to statistics from the organisation Global Conservation, visitor numbers are down to about 50,000 annually (2017 figures), compared to 70,000 a decade ago. The greater the impact of poaching on wildlife numbers, the more likely it will be that visitor numbers will continue to fall as tourists relocate to other countries where wildlife is more abundant. Without revenue generated from park entrance fees, currently worth about $2 million, the outlook becomes even more bleak.
Animals trapped in snares bleed to death if not discovered. “Our” giraffe was one of the lucky ones. The UWA ranger asked if our guide would assist her team in darting the giraffe and removing the snare; when safe, we would be able leave the safari vehicle to watch. The vet prepared the dart and the team set off in pursuit. It took a while to get an unobstructed shot, the giraffe spooked by the presence of humans at such close quarters. Finally, the sedative took hold and the giraffe fell to the floor.
What happened next was almost a blur as events progressed at lightning speed. One ranger covered the giraffe’s head and held down its neck. The snare was cut with wire cutters and the ranger documented each step of the rescue with her camera. It took just a couple of minutes before the elderly creature began to come round, but getting to its feet proved considerably more difficult for the weakened animal.
It was heartbreaking to watch. Time and time again, the animal fought to raise itself, lifting its neck but then crashing down to the ground with a horrifying thud. After the buzz of the rescue, our spirits fell. It was a horrible feeling to be powerless to help. What if the giraffe couldn’t get up? But back in the vehicle, our driver was getting impatient. The ferry left on the hour and we were supposed to be on it. Reluctantly, we clambered back inside our vehicle, craning our necks to see if the giraffe would right itself, and dealing with the enduring disappointment of its repeated, failures as we grew ever more distant.
The following morning, we set off again for our last game drive. As we waited for our vehicle to disembark, we caught sight of the ranger from the day before. She had good news. Eventually, with the help of a sling and a lot of heaving from the team, it staggered to its feet and headed off to join its mate in the bush.
For once, it was a happy ending. But for many, the story is heartbreaking one. I hope that the UWA secures the funding it needs from the impoverished Ugandan government in order to win what seems to be an almost impossible fight.
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.
Journey time is only an hour from Colchester station, typically around half an hour quicker than it would be by road, and with standard advance fares costing as little as £8 each way, surprisingly cheap. Factor in Greater Anglia’s offers – accompanied children go for just £2 (just turn up on the day and nab this fare for any off peak journey on the network) and 2for1 deals on many attractions – it’s a tempting prospect.
To be honest, the intercity trains that currently run on the Greater Anglia network look pretty dated from the outside. However, when you step inside, they’ve been refurbished as part of a £12m upgrade. What you get is a very comfortable ride. The seats are like armchairs and there’s plenty of legroom. There’s a choice as you’d expect of table seating, great for families or groups of friends, and airline-style seats. That upgrade has paid for new carpets, seat covers, improved lighting and upgraded toilets. Best of all are the at-seat powerpoints, which came in very handy on the return journey when I needed to use my phone which as always had a woefully low battery. It’s also convenient to have onboard WiFi. The only thing I didn’t like was having to lean out of the window to open the carriage door, but fortunately those waiting on the platform helped when I couldn’t quite reach. It reminded me of the slam door trains in the 1970s, though getting out wasn’t as impossible as it was with that horizontal squeeze – if you travelled by rail back then, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Anyway, I’d got so comfortable it was almost a pity to arrive in Norwich (and I promise I’m not just saying that because Greater Anglia paid my fare) But the sun was shining it was the first really mild day of the year, perfect for a stroll alongside the River Wensum which does a loop of the city centre. The river is almost right in front of the station. Within a couple of minutes, I was walking along a riverbank lined with willow trees. The first landmark I passed was Pull’s Ferry. This flint building was once a watergate and takes its name from John Pull, a ferryman, who ran the boats in the first part of the 19th century. Apparently, the stone that was used to construct Norwich Cathedral came in via this route, having been imported from Normandy.
I strolled further along the river bank until I came to the Red Lion pub. On its slipway, a group of people were stepping into wooden Canadian-style kayaks. Chantal and Nick set up Pub and Paddle a few years ago – this year will be their fourth summer and the business is going from strength to strength. Chantal told me that one of their most popular excursions is also their shortest, suitable for anyone. This four hour rental takes paddlers past the cathedral, football ground and Colman’s mustard factory to the village of Thorpe St Andrew. Most people take a break at one of the riverside pubs before returning to the Red Lion. At only £20 per person, it’s good value. Chantal and Nick make their own kayaks and also have a couple of wooden rowing boats for hire for those wishing to stay in the city centre. I didn’t have time to do this, but it’s definitely a good excuse to return.
My next stop was Cow Tower, a 14th century artillery tower built as a response to the threat posed to Norwich not only by the French but also by local rebel forces. Contrary to what its name suggests, it wasn’t constructed to shelter cows, though this Eastern Daily Press article suggests that might have happened later. Instead, it was named after the surrounding meadow, which was called Cowholm. It was big enough to hold a garrison but now, it’s just a shell, the floors and roof long gone. As a consequence, you can’t go inside. Nevertheless it’s an imposing structure, standing almost 15 metres high, and very photogenic in the spring sunshine, particularly when the daffodils are in bloom. On the other side of the path from the Cow Tower there’s a rather lovely carved wooden seat, its smooth curves perfect for lying back to watch cotton wool clouds scud across a blue sky.
I was reluctant to leave my seat, but wanted to take a look at Norwich Cathedral. Construction began in 1096, using local flint and mortar faced with that limestone imported from Caen. It’s quite a large site – actually two churches and an Anglo-Saxon settlement were knocked down to make room for this new structure, such was its scale. The cathedral close is the largest in England. By 1145, the cathedral was pretty much completed. The same building you see today would have had a wooden spire clad with lead, added in the 1160s. It was struck by lightning in 1169, less than two years after it was finished, so today’s spire dates from 1480.
The cloisters of this very grand church bear a resemblance to the colleges of Oxford or Cambridge and are the second largest in the country after those of Salisbury Cathedral. A quadrangle is bounded by walkways featuring elaborate vaulted ceilings; inside, the cathedral itself is even more impressive.
One of the more interesting modern additions is the copper baptismal font. Formed from two bowls, one upturned, it was donated to the cathedral when it was repurposed from its previous use – making chocolate in the Rowntree’s factory until it closed in 1994. Though a donation is suggested, entry is free. Allow plenty of time as the building warrants more than a quick look.
It was time for lunch and over on Tombland, Cocina caught my eye, two white statues flanking its doorway. Samson and Hercules are Norwich icons, though the figures that you see today are replicas, installed when the originals became too fragile to leave in place. In 1657, the two figures, both symbols of strength, were placed outside the home Christopher Jay, then the Mayor of Norwich.
The statues were removed from their pedestals in 1789 and reinstalled in the rear courtyard of the building; a century later antique dealer George Cubitt moved them back again. At that point, Hercules was in such a bad way he had to be replaced. In the 20th century, the building housed a dance hall and later a nightclub. In 1993, one of Samson’s arms fell off and years of paint were revealed. The two figures you see today might only have been placed there just before the millennium but are a much treasured part of the city’s history.
Taking a circuitous route to take in cobbled Elm Hill, my next target was the Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell. Whether you know a lot about Norwich or like me, embarrasingly little, it’s a fascinating place to spend a few hours. The £5.95 ticket charge is a steal. Originally constructed as the home of a rich merchant in 1325, it became a prison for women and beggars in the late 16th century (that’s what a Bridewell means).
The first inmate was one John Flowers, banged up for being accused of having “a lewd life and to be a counterfeiter of begging licences”. But the most interesting story was that of Jane Sellers. She was the Bridewell’s most persistent offender, serving nine sentences in just eight years in the early 17th century. Her first stint was for “being found idle at Trowse”. Several times she returned, did her time and promised to leave town to find work. But she never did. Instead she was caught stealing numerous times. The burglary she committed at the end of 1631 would be her last. The authorities lost patience with her and she was hanged.
After a pit stop at Jarrold’s for tea, I set off for the Plantation Garden, pausing for a quick look at the city’s Roman Catholic cathedral along the way. The garden is the work of a dedicated team of volunteers. Occupying an abandoned chalk quarry, the garden is Victorian in origin, something you might guess from the many follies and statuary that litter the garden. There’s a gothic fountain, Italianate terrace and mock mediaeval terrace wall, plus delightful woodland walkways and vibrant flower beds. Judging by the many people who’d spread picnic blankets or settled into the benches for a natter, it’s well used by locals and visitors alike. A honesty box is located by the gate for your £2 entrance fee.
Back in the heart of the city, there was time for one last stop before I would catch my train. Norwich Castle occupies a hilltop site overlooking the shopping streets below. There’s a £9.50 entrance fee which is expensive, but I was told that for the final hour each day, you can get in for just £2. Inside, as well as an impressive keep, you’ll find a collection of exhibits, some temporary. Right now, there’s a Viking display which is worth a look, as well as a section telling the story of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni. For me, the museum lacked the emotional connection I got with the Bridewell, but I’m a hard sell, much more interested in social and industrial history than that of early Britain. If you’re local and have kids, I think they might enjoy the castle’s Knight Club or some of the special Easter events that are planned.
Have your own rail adventure
If you’d like to have your own rail adventure, then why not take a look at Greater Anglia’s website? You could visit Norwich, but there are plenty more places that offer a great day out – read my previous blogs on Harwich or Wivenhoe, for instance. I’d also love it if you would answer the simple yes/no review on this survey – being purely selfish, if you’ve been inspired by my day out, I get to do another!
The end of the High Street travel agent – or is it?
News has broken today that Thomas Cook will close 21 of its High Street stores, one of which is my local branch in Colchester. It’s no surprise. Even Thomas Cook themselves admit that 64% of its UK bookings were made online last year. Their website is bright, colourful and most important of all, easy to navigate. Rationalising a business is the way to keep it afloat, and if you don’t move with the times you become a dinosaur. Thomas Cook led the way in 1841 with its pioneering railway excursions and is a respected player in the industry. Closing its stores isn’t a sign of failure, it’s a savvy move designed to help the company retain its market share.
I haven’t stepped foot inside a travel agency for over two decades. The last time I asked about flights, the assistant hadn’t heard of the place I wanted to fly to, so I left. The rise of budget airlines and the breadth of information available at the click of a mouse means I have no need to pick up the phone and speak to a specialist, much less go to the bother of visiting a High Street store. The rise of the internet made the travel agent the middle man. Online agencies such as Expedia, originally set up by Microsoft in 1996, do a more than satisfactory job. Use an online travel agent and you’re not tied to store opening hours, but you’ll still have the convenience of a one-stop shop for your travel package and the benefit of bulk buying discounts.
But just because I no longer use a travel agent, doesn’t mean I don’t advise others to use one. One of the benefits of the internet is also its biggest drawback – sometimes there’s just too much information. Sifting out what you need to know from the mountain of websites that Google presents can be hard. Travel’s my job – I take for granted that I know which sites will be useful and which are irrelevant to my needs. But for many, navigating through all that information is a minefield. How do you know what you’re reading isn’t misleading or downright inaccurate? Sadly there are many influencers out there who just don’t know as much as they claim to, like the blogger who presented a £1000 indirect flight from London to the US as a bargain, when direct fares are often half that amount or less. How do you whittle down which New York hotel to choose when Expedia presents almost two thousand search results?
In the light of that, it’s not surprising that some High Street travel agents are actually expanding the number of branches. Kuoni’s one of them. Paired with John Lewis, they offer a different experience to Thomas Cook, and aim at a different clientele including the lucrative luxury honeymoon market. Their customers, they say, value quality over cost. Between 2016 and 2017, they reported a 38% increase in the number of appointments made with their in-store experts. 59% of their customers, they reveal, come in with a blank sheet and ask the consultant to help them find their perfect trip. Visit Kuoni’s website, and though you’ll find plenty of tempting images and itineraries, you can’t book them online – instead you have to telephone or book in person. Hays Travel, the UK’s largest independent travel agent, are also expanding, so the trend’s not confined to Kuoni.
Millennials are particularly keen to utilise a travel agent, a trend that’s mirroring what’s going on across the Atlantic. FOMO – that’s the fear of missing out to those of us who are old enough to be their parents – means that they want to ensure that they book the very best when it comes to travel. According to ABTA, 59% of millennials say they’d pay extra for a holiday that’s tailormade to their preferences, good news for agents like Trailfinders with a High Street presence and a strong reputation for bespoke but affordable packages. In Kuoni’s latest worldwide trends report, it notes a rise in bookings of what’s termed “wow experiences”. From dining beside a waterfall in Thailand to staying in a vintage Airstream trailer on the Bolivian salt flats, bespoke just got interesting – and crucially, difficult to pull off without the right connections. ABTA’s annual report backs up this desire to leave the booking process to an expert. They state that 45% of those booking via a travel professional do so because of the confidence it gives them, while Google asserts that 69% of travellers return to companies offering a personalised approach.
While hardened low-budget, intrepidly independent travellers (like me!) will stubbornly continue to find their own way, the age of High Street travel agents isn’t yet over. After all, if you’d call out a plumber to fix a water leak, why not call upon a travel professional to find you the holiday that’s right for you? It will probably cost you more, but if you think it would be worth it, then it’s money well spent.
Gorillas lite: up close with the chimps of Kibale Forest
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in the south west of Uganda is one of the few places in the world that you can see mountain gorillas, the others being just across the border in DR Congo (currently on the FCO no-go list) and Rwanda. These aren’t the gorillas you’ll maybe have seen in zoos – those are lowland gorillas – as mountain gorillas can’t cope in such environments. Less than 800 of these magnificent creatures remain in the wild and about half of them are found in Uganda.
I was really keen to include a primate tracking safari as part of my Uganda itinerary but knew from what I’d read online and from what others had told me that I just wasn’t physically fit enough to do a gorilla trek. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest truly lives up to its name (well, almost). The hike, which research indicated could take anything from one to seven hours depending on where the gorillas were that day, was likely to involve the thin air of high altitude, steep uphill climbs and trails wet and slippery with mud. Last April, a 63 year old French tourist lost his life after collapsing with a heart attack on the way back. Though Trip Advisor is full of gung-ho reports about porters and assistance, I decided that realistically, it wasn’t for me. Oh, and it would cost $600 in permits, though admittedly that’s a whole lot cheaper than the $1500 you’d pay across the border in Rwanda.
Fortunately for me, Uganda’s primate tourism doesn’t begin and end with gorillas. While I was looking into a gorilla trek, I came across a chimpanzee tracking experience that seemed the perfect fit for me. I’d get to see primates up close but the trek, across the relatively flat forest floor of Kibale Forest, shouldn’t be anywhere near as tough. I put together a customised itinerary with car and driver provided by Roadtrip Uganda and they sourced a permit for me. It’s not wise to leave the purchase of permits until you arrive as they are strictly limited in number and you may be disappointed if they’ve sold out.
Tip: to further minimise the need for a long hike, opt for an afternoon tracking slot.
As I had opted to stay overnight in Fort Portal and planned to spend the morning driving around the area’s crater lakes, I opted for an afternoon permit which would give us plenty of time to drive south to Kibale Forest. This turned out to be a wise idea. Groups go out in the morning and when the rangers come back to base, they report back on where the troops of chimps have been spotted. There’s no guarantee that they’ll have stayed put, of course, but I was told that there’s usually less walking involved in the afternoon excursions as a result. The downside is that temperatures do increase as the day wears on, though in the shade of the forest this isn’t as big an issue as you might first think.
Our group of six met at the park office for a short briefing before our own drivers took us to the part of the forest that had been chosen as the start point for our tracking experience. Accompanying us were a ranger and also an armed guard; in the event of elephants or buffalo encroaching too close to the group, the latter would fire warning shots in the air. Before we gave our drivers a few hours off, there was another briefing. No one would be allowed to trek if unwell, the group should remain at least 8 metres from the chimps at all times and most important of all, we were told to tuck our trousers into our socks to avoid being bitten by ants. Photography was encouraged but we were to turn off the flash to avoid startling the chimps.
Three whoops of chimps (that’s the collective noun!) in Kibale Forest were habituated, that is, they’re used to being close to humans. Others are left alone. We set off in search of one of them, Benson our ranger encouraging us to hurry so we could reach the spot before they moved deeper into the forest. The pace wasn’t actually too fast, largely because we were picking our way over buttress roots and ducking under forest vegetation. Benson told us that the “hoo hoo hoo” sound we could hear was chimps calling to each other and that they were close.
I was thrilled when we came across the first group of four – three adults and a baby – after only about fifteen minutes of walking. Benson arranged us so that we’d have a clear line of sight to the chimps without getting too close. We were the only group at that point, so the six of us enjoyed an intimate encounter and it was truly a delight. Though the baby had climbed a tree, too unsure to remain on the ground so close to us, the three adults weren’t fazed at all. Two were too focused on grooming each other to acknowledge our existence while the other rolled onto his back and closed his eyes for a snooze.
The chimpanzee tracking permit had cost $150, considerably less than that of the gorilla encounter, but still a significant amount of money. But at that point, it was worth every cent. About five to ten minutes later, another group caught us up. Benson asked us to move on so that the chimps would not be overwhelmed. We did so and and after a few minutes came across a larger group.
Once again, watching their behaviour was fascinating. These creatures share 98% of our DNA and many of the mannerisms are uncannily similar. We watched, transfixed, as they ate fruit, chased each other in play and swung from the canopy high above our heads. We saw their nests high in the canopy – the chimps overnight in these but prefer to hang out on the forest floor during the day. Generally speaking, it was a pleasure to be so close. The loud chatter and screams as they approached was a bit intimidating – as it was intended to be, I guessed. I think I’d watched too many Planet of the Apes films to have been entirely comfortable at this point, but Benson calmly explained what was happening and pointed out where they were which made me feel safer, particularly when they had us surrounded.
After the initial delight of seeing the chimps, I began to notice how different each were from the others. One was a proper porker – we were told he was vying for the alpha male spot and thought his extra weight might help. Some of the older chimps in the family were going grey, or balding. The youngsters, true to type, were mucking about and being put in their place by their elders. And the baby, well he was just too cute. We saw a female in oestrus, and then a bit of chimp sex up a tree after she parked her baby on the branch next to her while she got it on with her potential baby daddy. Sadly, light levels in the forest weren’t sufficient to get it on film but that’s probably just as well.
In all, we spent around an hour with the chimps before Benson led us on a trek out of the forest back to the ranger station. This was at a very leisurely pace, with plenty of stops to point out types of trees, birds, monkeys and butterflies. The tracking activity that I booked in Kibale Forest has about a 95% success rate of spotting chimps. This is nature, of course, and nothing is guaranteed. In all, we saw about 25 chimps. The permit cost me $150, which included entrance to Kibale National Park for 24 hours.
You can also try your luck spotting chimps at Budongo Forest Reserve in the northwest of the country, those living in the Kyambura Gorge at Queen Elizabeth National Park in te south and also at the Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve near the Congolese border. To spend longer, a chimpanzee habituation experience is offered, where visitors can spend all day in the forest shadowing researchers. This costs $200 for foreign visitors; on the Uganda Wildlife Authority website it does state half-day habituation experiences were available for $100 but I was told this was not the case. For a full price list, including prices for other areas, please use this link: