juliamhammond

Independent travel

Review of Secret Food Tours Bologna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

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Haggling

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.

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Footwear

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.

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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.

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Experiences

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.

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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

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The Sun Voyager statue, Reykjavik

Choose a good-value destination – and don’t be sucked in by the promise of a cheap flight if everything else is going to cost you a packet. Some destinations often throw up irresistibly low fares – for example I’ve seen flights ex-London to the Icelandic capital Reykjavik advertised today for under £20pp. But do a quick search online to see how much your accommodation is going to cost and if you have any excursions or must-do experiences in mind, what they’re going to add to the total. That’s not to say you can’t have a holiday in Iceland on a tight budget, but it does mean that you’re going to have to try extra hard to save the pennies and be prepared to skip certain activities on cost grounds. Instead, opt for somewhere much better value (Brits try Turkey, Eastern Europe or North Africa) where you can live like a king on a pauper’s budget.

Scrimp 2: Think carefully about when you want to travel

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Barbados – beautiful in the November sunshine

Travelling in peak season means peak season prices. I know just how much that can hurt: I used to be a teacher. Travelling to destinations when they’re not quite at their best can cut a lot off the cost of flights and shrink hotel bills. But be careful: extreme weather has a habit of slashing prices but also of ruining holidays. Shoulder season trips (that’s spring and autumn for summer-focused places) often come in at lower prices. That’s how I got such good value for my Barbados trip – switching out peak season December and January for the more affordable late November.

Scrimp 3: Use public transport where you can

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Taxis waiting at Dusseldorf Airport (Pixabay)

Airport taxis can be useful but often they’ll significantly eat into your budget. Aim to travel light (or at least with luggage you can wheel and lift) and in many places you can ditch the costly transfers take public transport instead. In cities where there’s a subway, express bus, train or tram connection direct to the centre, this is really straightforward and often quicker than sitting in traffic. Once you’re in the city centre, you can always grab a taxi for the much shorter distance to your hotel if you need to. Public transport is often very cheap and also provides the opportunity to meet local people. Check out day passes (not the expensive attractions passes) if you’re planning a city break and want to cut out the walking.

Scrimp 4: Download walking tour maps

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French Quarter architecture

Ditch the transport and walk. It costs nothing and you’ll often see much more than you would from an open top bus or back seat of a taxi. I’ve downloaded walking tour maps and used the suggested route and notes to save on the cost of a guided tour. This one has a good overview of Philadelphia’s historic attractions. GPSmyCity has lots of great maps and themed tours; check out this one on New Orleans architecture for starters. Print off or download before you leave home. Alternatively, borrow a copy of the relevant Lonely Planet from your local library – they often feature self-guided walking routes. I’d also recommend the walking tours offered by Free Tours By Foot; you decide on the tip you wish to give your guide at the end of the tour as I did when I used them in New York’s Lower East Side.

Scrimp 5: Find out what’s free when

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Bears playing in the Bronx Zoo

Check in advance whether the museums and attractions you plan to visit offer free admission at certain times of the day or week. For instance, Rome’s Sistine Chapel is free to enter on the last Sunday of every month. The Louvre in Paris always offers a free ticket to all under 18s and 18-25 year olds from the EU, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein; on the evening of the first Saturday in the month their generosity is open to all. In New York, regular tickets to both the Bronx Zoo and Botanical Garden up the road won’t cost you a cent on Wednesdays. Many of London’s top museums don’t charge visitors at all. Google where you want to go before you book your trip and plan accordingly.

Scrimp 6: Cut out the middleman

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Valle de la Luna, Chile

Booking direct and cutting out the middleman can save you a lot of money. If you book an organised tour, you can end up paying a premium (sometimes a hefty one!) for the luxury of leaving someone else to make your bookings and plan a route for you. Instead, browse tours on the web and get ideas for where you want to visit. Customise it to your own needs. If there are areas you’re keen to see that are hard to visit independently, book a group (or even a bespoke) tour for that part of the trip. Local operators can help with this and often you can wait until you arrive before booking anything. For example, when I visited San Pedro de Atacama in Chile a few years ago, I spent an hour on my first afternoon discussing and booking up tours to El Tatio and the altiplano, but during the same trip, opted to visit Easter Island without a package, saving a fortune in the process.


Travel in an Instagram world

Is travel about wanting to see the world, or wanting the world to see you?

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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?

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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.

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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?

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Footnote:

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

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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.

Straws

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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.

Travel-sized toiletries

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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

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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).

Street food 

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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

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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:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/44034025

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.

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Set goals

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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A beginner’s guide to Kyrgyzstan

The love child of Switzerland and Mongolia, blessed with snow-capped mountains and hospitality like you wouldn’t believe, Kyrgyzstan makes an easy introduction into the ‘Stans. If you’re not sure where it is, you’ll find it on China’s western border – go halfway across Russia and then down a bit. The country’s attractions haven’t yet reached the radar of many travellers, and when the Border Force officer quizzed me on where I’d flown in from yesterday, he thought I said Kurdistan. Yet, it scored a mention on the Lonely Planet’s must see countries for 2019. So what can you expect of Kyrgyzstan?

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Getting there

There are no direct flights to the capital Bishkek from London, and in fact the country’s airlines are off limits, featuring on the EU’s “not safe to fly” list. Given that an indirect flight was necessary and Kyrgyzstan was to be my sole Central Asian destination (for now at least!) I flew with Pegasus Airlines via Istanbul. They operate out of Stansted which is convenient as that’s my closest airport. Book well ahead and they’re pretty cheap too. My flight cost £337. Though there are plenty of options for the first leg, flights to and from Bishkek are limited to one a day. Schedules change, as they did for me between booking and date of travel. What had been a three hour layover on the outbound journey changed to a five hour layover.

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That had the minor advantage of arriving at a more convenient 7am, but Sabiha Gokcen Airport isn’t close enough to the city for between-flights sightseeing unless you have a seriously long layover, so I holed up in Starbucks instead. If you’ve never been to Istanbul, pick an early flight out of the UK into the city and kill time sightseeing until the second flight departs at 11pm. It takes about an hour on average to get from the airport to the city, but allow time for traffic-related delays.

Another option might be to use Air Astana and combine Kyrgyzstan with a visit to neighbouring Kazakhstan. Bishkek and Almaty are little more than a couple of hundred kilometres apart. Air Astana has direct flights from London for a similar price. Check your visa requirements before you book.

Getting around

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Depending on what you plan to do and how ambitious your itinerary is, you could make use of the country’s network of public minibuses, known as marshrutkas. These bear the name of the destination on the front windscreen but you’ll need to figure out the Cyrillic alphabet. I’ve always found it helpful to memorise the first or last few letters of a place name so that it’s a simpler process to clock which bus is yours. Bishkek for instance shares the same last three letters so look for “kek” at the end of the word. If you plan to loop Issyk-Kul, the country’s largest lake, you shouldn’t have a problem finding transport. Note that these minibuses go when full and won’t stop along the route if they have their full complement of passengers, so plan accordingly.

If like me you want to cover more ground and head a bit further off the beaten track, it’s worth considering a car and driver. I found Advantour to be very helpful at the initial email stage, with prompt responses and useful suggestions about whether what I was planning was doable. Marat and I bounced ideas and refinements back and forth a few times before settling on an itinerary that covered the places I wished to see at a budget I could afford. Including accommodation, I paid about £800 for my week’s activities. You’ll see from the itinerary below that it represented excellent value for money.

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Another option, particularly if you have a little more time to play with, is to make use of the CBT organisations that are spread across the country. Community based tourism is a big thing in Kyrgyzstan and these helpful offices can sort you out with somewhere to stay, transport and the full gamut of activities. Each town has its own, and some even have several competing CBTs. They can hook you up with local guides, hiking packages, horse riding treks and more. I also liked the fact that they’re big on interactive experiences and will arrange cooking classes, felt-making demonstrations and more. This casual insight into Kyrgyz culture is great for the first-time visitor. Many of the bookings that Marat made for me were via the CBTs, but it’s useful to know you can cut out the middleman.

How to spend a week in Kyrgyzstan

Day 1

The advantage of arriving on the night flight is that you have an extra day to play with. The downside of pushing fifty is that sleeping fitfully on a five hour flight doesn’t refresh you enough to permit morning sightseeing. The good news is that many of Kyrgyzstan’s hotels and hostels offer an early check-in for 50% of the room rate. I opted for the budget-friendly Apple Hostel for my first night and a half, which came in at about £30 for an ensuite double for sole occupancy. Its edge of town location was good for a rush hour arrival as we didn’t get caught up in any traffic and took just twenty minutes to get from the airport. The taxi transfer, arranged by the hostel, cost about £7. There’s a cheaper shuttle bus which runs more or less during working hours.

 

I had a much-needed nap and then had Marat send my driver over for noon. After a brief detour to his office to pay for my tour, Adyl drove me to nearby Ala-Archa National Park. This beautiful park is only about a half hour drive from the city and is centred around a dramatic canyon flanked by mountains. In late May, there was still a slight chill in the air, but blue skies meant that it was perfect hiking weather. A tarmac path takes you along the river bank. That trail ends at an outwash plain where graded cobbles and streams of water can be forded to continue the walk. You can hike for 18km though I settled for a shorter walk. A couple of red squirrels were very friendly when I got to the benches.

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Day 2

I was keen to ride, and had read that one of the best places to do so was in the Chong Kemin valley, a few hours east of the capital. Marat suggested I’d need to get almost as far as Karakol today to be able to complete my wish list, so I opted for a two hour ride. My guide was the chatty Beka, who’d gone to Bishkek to study English and French before returning to his beloved valley. My request for a helmet was an initially misunderstood, as he fetched me a cap to wear. The second attempt was a bicycle helmet which I figured was better than nothing.

 

The next two hours were a pleasure, taking a leisurely ride through rolling hills and fording occasional streams (more importantly, learning to recognise the signs that your horse is about to take a bath with you on his back). Beka interspersed nuggets of Kyrgyz heritage and history with tales of his own somewhat chequered love life. Aside from my horse almost bolting after being startled by the air brakes of a lorry as we got back to the village, it was a most relaxing ride.

 

From there, we drove east, doubling back to stop for lunch in the Kyrgyz equivalent of a motorway service station midway through the Boom Gorge. Food’s cheap: you can have a proper meal for about 150 som (£1.50). Following the north shore of Issyk-Kul from a respectable distance, we pulled off the highway at Tamchy for a photo stop on the beach itself. We were a few weeks off main tourist season, so the place was deserted save for one lone paddler. The neighbouring resort of Cholpon-Ata is very popular with Russians in summer. From what I could tell, it had a lot in common with the Black Sea resorts they also favour.

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Our overnight stop was at a charming guesthouse, Reina Kerch, not far from Karakol. Set off the main road, it boasted panoramic views of the nearby canyon, but was also a working farm. Herds of sheep and cows pottered in distant fields but it was the horses I was keen to see, as the farm prided itself on thoroughbreds. The best competed in trotting races and I was able to watch one of their most successful stallions impregnate a mare. A tour of the stables followed. Next up was a boorsok-making demonstration. Boorsok is a fried dough cut into ravioli-like pieces. The dough was already made but I helped roll, cut and fry. It was salty and delicious. Dinner was excellent, making good use of the farm’s homegrown produce.

 

Day 3

Staying just outside Karakol on a Sunday, it was hard to resist a visit to the animal market on the edge of town. Scotski Bazaar isn’t the country’s largest – that honour goes to Tokmok’s weekly market which we’d passed the day before. The action starts in the middle of the night, but at around nine, it was still busy enough to be worth a visit. Sheep are traded nearest the entrance; those hoping to sell tie them to car bumpers with string leads. Further in are the cows and bulls. I was told a decent cow could go for $700 or $800. At the rear are the horses. I was made to feel very welcome.

 

Next up was Karakol itself, for a brief visit to the Dungan Mosque, which looks more like a Chinese temple than a regular mosque. That’s no surprise: the Dungans are Chinese Muslims who fled across the border in the 19th century. The colourful timbers and ornate pictures on its exterior were bright and cheerful. I wasn’t allowed in, but was invited to peer through the door. Around the corner was a charming wooden Orthodox Church, which replaced an earlier stone church that was felled by an earthquake in 1890. It didn’t have the glittering domes of other Russian churches I’d seen in Kyrgyzstan and beyond but it was a delightful sight. Mass was taking place, so I contented myself with a glimpse through the door.

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From Karakol, we followed the southerly route around Issyk-Kul. The Jety-Oguz valley was a short but worthwhile detour for its beehives as well as the Broken Heart and Seven Bulls rock formations. As we drove out of the valley, the weather took a turn for the worse and we drove through some heavy squalls. The spectacular mountain backdrop was a damp squib, obscured by thick cloud. The foreground scenery was stark also, nowhere near as pretty as the panoramic views I’d enjoyed thus far.

 

No matter, just after the scruffy town of Bokonbaevo we pulled off the main highway to reach an Alpine meadow, where we had an appointment with an eagle hunter. He produced a magnificent pair of golden eagles from the boot and back seat of his car – they couldn’t travel together as they would fight, he explained. His display was both captivating and, when he produced a live rabbit as bait, horrifying. However, I tried to rationalise the sacrificial bunny as nature’s pecking order. Nothing would be wasted, said the hunter, bundling the kill into a sack to take home. It would feed both eagles for the rest of the week. The thrill of watching a skilful bird such as this home in on its prey was, I reluctantly admitted to myself, impressive. If you’ve no stomach for hunting, you might choose to skip this, but such a tradition has been a part of the Kyrgyz culture for centuries.

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Back on the road, through more heavy showers, we reached Kochkor. Late afternoon, I was treated to a shyrdak demonstration. Felt-making is another important Kyrgyz tradition and my tutor was as skilled as she was smiley. Once again, active participation was expected and I found myself making the reed mat and stitching fabric together. A full sized carpet, I was told, takes five people two years to make. A single square can be knocked out in ten days. And I’m pleased to report there was no hard sell for either. Accommodation tonight was at a very plush homestay on the edge of town, affording magnificent views of the Tien Shan Mountains when the sun finally made an appearance.

Day 4

After the previous day’s storms, a dumping of snow on the mountains wasn’t the best for our ride up and over the Kalmak-Ashu mountain pass (highest point 3447m) to Son-Kul. This lake is smaller than Issyk-Kul by some margin, but its remote location ringed by snowy peaks makes it breathtaking. Late May is very early in the season to be up there at all, and the road had only been open for two weeks.

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We climbed steadily above the tree line. The road was wide, but it wasn’t long before we were driving alongside snowdrifts two metres high. The reward at the top for being one of the few to attempt it was a pristine meadow of snow which I left with two long lines of footprints. There was also a snow filled long drop toilet. This far into the tour, it had become something of a joke between Adyl and I that I couldn’t go more than a couple of hours without a toilet break.

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The approach to Son-Kul was just as wonderful, descending to emerging spring grass and fields of yellow buttercups. A few yurts were open for business, but at 3016m the lake is a summer destination. After crossing the Chu River, the lake’s only outlet river, we attempted to off-road to the lakeshore but the ground was still too soft for this to be possible.

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After a few failed attempts we bailed and drove down the spectacular Thirty Three Parrots Pass. A series of dramatic switchbacks carries you down the pass, and at each hairpin bend I caught my breath. I was glad to be the passenger! It’s surely up there with one of the world’s best drives though, if you have the head for it. A French traveller in a camper van had got cold feet halfway up and was trying to pick up courage to complete his ascent. A family of nomads in a small lorry, yurt in the back, made light work of it and waved enthusiastically.

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Before we headed into Naryn, Adyl invited me to try kymys, fermented mare’s milk which has a rather unpleasant sour taste to those unused to it. I managed a couple of sips, which was more than can be said for my attempt to drink a cup of Maksim, another popular sour milk drink which is just about the most vile thing I have ever tasted. Bustling Naryn was a bit of a shock to the system after a day’s solitude but Datka’s Guesthouse was comfortable and clean. At about £18 for an ensuite room with TV and hairdryer, breakfast included, it was a steal. She throws in dinner too for an extra 350 som (£3.50).

Drinks

Day 5

A much easier drive of around an hour and a half took us to Tash Rabat. This caravanserai is centuries old – no one knows quite how many – with metre-thick walls and atmosphere in spades. A lady emerged from one of the yurts opposite to unlock and collect the 100 som entrance fee (about £1, a bargain!) I was fortunate to have the place to myself for the first half an hour or so, wandering from room to room trying to imagine what it might have been like to stay in such a place. Some rooms had long benches of rock, others were square. All had skylights open to the elements which let in shafts of light. I emerged from one side chamber to give a recently-arrived Korean tourist the fright of her life (unintentional).

 

Outside, the way that Tash Rabat was engineered means that it’s pushed right up against the hillside. Climbing onto the roof and gazing down into the skylights is a peculiar sensation. The Korean had hiked up a nearby hill, so once again I had the place to myself until a bus load of Kyrgyz pulled up. The kids in the party scaled the walls with ease, chucking tiny stones down to their parents which, given the tone of voice, earned them a scolding.

 

My overnight lodging was within sight of Tash Rabat. Sabyzbek, a 62 year old maths teacher turned farmer, had a small guesthouse and a collection of four inviting yurts. Located in the quiet Kara-Kojon gorge, the road crossing the river and enabling access by car had only been built five years ago, transforming tourism in the valley. He was keen to show me both, reminding me several times that at 3200m and with a chill wind barrelling down the valley, the yurts would be cold once the sun set. Temperatures would fall below zero, he said, though I couldn’t pin him down to exactly how far. I decided to risk it for the adventure, figuring that I could pile on the spare bedcovers and every fleece I’d brought to stave off the overnight cold.

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Just before lunch, a wander around the farm led to another confronting sight. This time, the local vet was castrating a stallion. Judging by the horse’s wide eyes and blowing nostrils, accompanied by the ropes holding him down, the operation was performed without the use of tranquillisation. Potassium permanganate was used to sterilise the area and a hot poker cauterised the wound. It was uncomfortable to watch, but again, part and parcel of nomad life. Such lack of censorship is both the joy and the pain of visiting somewhere unused to mass tourism. I left as the second patient was being led to his fate.

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The afternoon was a pleasant one. Though the wind was biting, once you were out of it, the sun was rather nice. I tucked myself into a natural hollow, two woolly jumpers keeping me snug as I felt the warm sun on my face. Farm life carried on around me: a cow mooed insistently, chickens clucked over and pecked at the discarded balls of the morning’s business and horses pottered about. Every now and then, a car passed, bound for Tash Rabat, but by and large, it was quiet enough to hear birdsong. After dinner, I chatted with Sabyzbek’s daughter Tuzsun about Kyrgyz life, expectations and change. Dusk fell late; a pink sky soon clouded, I didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing when it came to how warm the yurt would be. A fire was lit in the coal burner, started by dung, just in case. I was toasty – so much so that I spent half the night with one leg stick out of the duvet resting against the cold slats of the yurt in an attempt to cool off.

Day 6

It was a long drive back to Bishkek and an early start was in order. The fire had kept me toasty inside the yurt but there was a frost on the ground outside. A bowl of steaming porridge and a mug of hot tea later, we were on the road again, retracing our steps to the capital. Bishkek’s sultry heat was a shock after several days in the mountains. I took a stroll from my centrally located hotel to Ala-Too Square. Its tall flagpole is no match for those in other Central Asian capitals, but impressive nevertheless. Nearby are several leafy parks offering the temptation of plenty of shade, as well as the presidential palace known as the White House. After a cold drink, a so-so pizza and a chat with a waiter keen to practise his English, it was time to go and pack for the following morning’s flight home.

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Would I go back?

Absolutely! Kyrgyzstan was everything I’d hoped it would be and then some. I’d love to stay in a yurt at Son-Kul and revisit the delightful Sabyzbek and his family at Tash Rabat. Osh and the Fergana Valley would also be on my wish list for a second visit. I’d definitely use Advantour again. Marat’s suggestions were invaluable and his organisation faultless, well worth the money I spent!

A few observations

The Kyrgyz are hospitable and go out of their way to make you feel welcome. I asked one hotel owner why. “Simple,” she replied, “many of us can’t afford to travel, so we learn about other countries through the people that come to see us.” I’d suggest learning a few phrases in Russian as many people speak very little English. Having a copy of the Cyrillic alphabet to hand so you can figure out lone words is also a good idea.

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Kyrgyzstan is a cheap destination and your money will stretch a long way. Even my smart hotel in Bishkek cost only $95 for a luxurious and very central room. Most comfortable guesthouses come in at around a quarter of that cost. It would have been possible to do the Ala-Archa and Issyk-Kul trips by marshrutka for a fraction of the cost of a car and driver. Likewise public transport to and from Kochkor and Naryn was plentiful.

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If you intend to self-drive, the roads are for the most part in excellent condition. Aside from the gravel roads up to and down from Son-Kul, there were none that would challenge an average driver and there were very few potholes. However, road signs are sporadic in places so it’s best to take a good map. Traffic police are everywhere: watch your speed if you don’t want to be flagged down and fined. Watch out for herds of livestock being moved between pastures and the occasional suicidal marmot.

Travelling in the shoulder season, you’ll have many places almost to yourself. I visited in late May and the road to Son-Kul had been open for two weeks, though snow still lined the Kalmak-Ashu pass. By mid-June, there’ll be plenty of yurts set up to receive visitors and off road trails down to the lakeshore will be safe to drive. By September, the season’s pretty much at an end unless you plan to ski.

It’s customary to take off your shoes when entering a house, and the same applies to homestays, guest houses and yurts – in fact the only place where it wasn’t expected was the fancy pants hotel in Bishkek. Do as the locals do and opt for footwear that can be easily slipped on and off, rather than have the bother of unlacing hiking boots each time you want to go inside.

Toilet

Toilets, save for posh hotels and the airport, are almost universally of the squat variety. Some are much cleaner than others. Those I encountered at the Kalmak-Ashu pass were full of snow. Have a stash of toilet paper handy but note that it needs to go in the bin as Kyrgyzstan’s plumbing can’t cope with paper.

English readers, everything seems to come in Morrison’s carrier bags. It’s very odd receiving a plastic bag featuring the distinctive M from a few years back and even more bizarre when it happens over and over again. I’ve yet to get to the bottom of this mystery (it’s been 12 years since this design has been used in the UK) so if anyone who’s reading this knows why, do leave a comment!

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A beginner’s guide to Alberobello

Puglia is Italy’s heel, where a karst landscape makes its presence felt in the form of caves and sinkholes. Somewhere in the middle of all that is Alberobello, a town known for one thing: trulli. These simple circular dwellings are built without mortar and take their name from the Greek word “troullos” meaning dome.

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Getting there

The nearest airports to Alberobello are Brindisi and Bari. The latter’s the most convenient in terms of onward travel, served from London Gatwick, Stansted and Luton by easyJet, Ryanair and Wizz respectively. Flights can be had for a little under £50 return, excellent value for a flight that’s almost 3 hours long.

From Bari, a train takes you direct to Bari Centrale station, taking about 20 minutes. From there you can pick up the FSE train, tucked away on a far-flung platform – ask for assistance if you can’t find it. Even though it’s an FSE train, you can buy a ticket from the Trenitalia ticket machines (Trenitalia bought FSE in 2018). The fastest connection takes about 1 hour 15 minutes, but it’s more usually about an hour and a half. Tickets are cheap at just 5€ and can be used on any train without the need for a reservation. At the moment, until at least 2020, the stretch of track from Putignano to Martina Franca is being renovated, so there are no trains to Alberobello itself. Instead, you need to catch the connecting rail replacement bus – and fortunately it does connect, waiting for the train if the train is running late. It’s part of the same 5€ ticket, so just show the driver. The bus journey takes about half an hour.

On Sundays, things get a little more complicated. FSE trains don’t run at all. Instead there is a bus service that connects Alberobello to Bari Centrale. Though that might sound simple, the bus doesn’t start from the station. Instead, you’ll need to find the stop – tucked around the corner on Viale Bari near Hotel Astoria and the petrol station. Remember to buy your ticket online or at the petrol station; you can’t buy a ticket on the bus from the driver.

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Getting around

To explore the surrounding countryside, it’s most sensible to hire a car. Though public transport does exist, it radiates from Bari and other large towns and there are few cross-country connections. To visit Matera by public transport, for instance, would require a trip from Alberobello to Bari and then out again to Matera – a long detour.

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However, it is possible to catch the train (or Sunday bus) to some of the nearby villages. I enjoyed Locorotondo, the next village along, which is a pleasant outing for the afternoon. There aren’t many sights as such, but the hilltop location affords fantastic views across the surrounding countryside and the pretty old town is compact as a result.

Things to see

Rione Monti

The big draw when it comes to Alberobello is Rione Monti. This district is packed with trulli and straggles picturesquely up the hillside. One of the best views across from the town centre is at the Belvedere Santa Lucia. It’s also worth checking out the park beside the tourist information centre and, across in Rione Monti itself, several shops that offer free access to their upstairs terraces.

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Close up, it’s not quite as quaint, largely because many of the trulli house souvenir shops – some of which is mass produced tat. A few stood out, including La Bottega dei Fischietti which sells not only the traditional ceramic whistles common to Puglia but also some rather lovely ceramic tableaux.

Nearby, Pasteca La Mandragora sells high quality linens and there’s also a store to delight art lovers called Forme e Colori di De Marco Vita crammed full of brightly painted pottery. Be warned, however, some places that purport to be museums house a minimum of exhibits which exist as a honey trap for unwary visitors.

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But it’s also in Rione Monti that you’ll find a 20th century trulli church and where you’ll find the curious Trulli Siamesi. This double trulli has one roof. Legend has it that two brothers fell out over a woman but neither would give up the home they had inherited. Instead of moving out, the spurned sibling bricked up the wall and knocked through to make a separate front door.

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You’ll also see plenty of trulli with symbols painted on their roofs. Some people will tell you that these symbols have an ancient spiritual or religious meaning. That’s probably true, but I also read on an exhibit tucked away in a corner of the town’s museum that when Mussolini came to visit in 1927 many of the villagers were asked to paint those symbols on their trulli to add a touch of mystery. This seems to be glossed over now in favour of the more politically correct religious imagery line.

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Rione Aia Piccola

The only district to rival Rione Monti in terms of the sheer number of trulli is Rione Aia Piccola, which faces off against its nemesis across Largo Martellotta. In contrast to its touristy neighbour, it’s quieter than you’d expect from somewhere on the tour guide route. Many of the trulli here are private dwellings, though a significant number are let to visitors. You’ll see just how many if you wander through in between check out and check in, when they’re marked by vacuum cleaners and mops on their thresholds.

A tourist map I had been given implied that there was a kind of open air museum here, but there was no evidence of that during my stay – perhaps because it was still early in the season? If you are in Alberobello in the height of summer it would be worth checking out just in case.

Trulli Sovrano

In the main part of town, there are also more than a scattering of trulli, one of which is worth seeking out as it is two-storey. This is rare: Alberobello’s trulli were originally modelled on the agricultural buildings found across the Puglian countryside and the dry stone wall construction wasn’t strong enough to support an upper floor.

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Trulli Sovrano was built in the 17th century by the family of a priest, taking the name Corte di Papa Cataldo and is now a museum, its rooms recreated with antique furniture. In the front bedroom, a notice pinned to the wall states that the slit was useful for seeing who was at the door, or shooting them if they weren’t welcome. It was at one time a warehouse; if you climb the stairs, you’ll see a trapdoor in the floor used for passing goods down to the floor below. Over the years it’s had many uses, including a court, chapel, grocer’s, monastery and the HQ of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sacrament.

Museo del Territorio “Casa Pezzolla”

Much of the town’s history can be learned within the confines of this collection of fifteen or so trulli which now form a museum. It recounts the impact of the Prammatica De Baronibus, an edict of the 15th-century Kingdom of Naples. The Kings wished to impose a tax on permanent dwellings, so under the leadership of nobleman Gian Girolamo II, the residents of Alberobello were forced to live in trulli. Their dry stone construction made it easy to take them down if an inspection was imminent. The tax dodge worked, serving Alberobello well for many years but in the end, the political situation changed and thus these temporary structures became an enduring part of the urban landscape.

One of the sections of the museum explains the significance of the adornments on the roofs of the trulli. What’s called the “pinnacolo” is the only part of the trulli to be purely decorative, a kind of architect’s calling card. The more complex the design of this topper, the more talented was the master trullaro. It was also a good way of finding a particular trullo amongst so many similar constructions; think of it as the design equivalent of a postcode.

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Where to stay

If you’re going to stay in Alberobello – and why wouldn’t you, since once the daytrippers have gone home it’s absolutely gorgeous – then I’d suggest you book Trulli Anti.

While there are plenty of trulli scattered across town that can be rented by visitors, many of them cluster in Rione Aia Piccola. Though that district isn’t as plagued by tour groups during the day as Rione Monti, it’s still on the tourist trail. Where Trulli Anti wins is that it’s close to the sights without being in the middle of them. Plus it’s on such a narrow road that it’s almost impossible for cars to drive past. I only saw one car try it and that was the local police.

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That peace and quiet, coupled with its stylish and very contemporary design, gives it 10/10 in my books. If you’re thinking that I’m only saying that because I got a freebie, I didn’t. I paid my own way. It wasn’t cheap for a solo traveller, costing about 125€ a night – though it would be much better value if there are three of you. But oh was it worth it!

The trulli has been well thought out and owner Angelo is keen to ensure you have a great time. On a mezzanine, there’s a very inviting double bed under the domed roof. Lighting is good, and the stairs are pretty solid, which is reassuring as the bathroom is downstairs. That bathroom is chic – I especially loved the tiles and having a shower with some oomph to it. I also need to mention the comfortable sofa (so comfortable I fell asleep on it one evening) and that there’s a single room on the ground floor if you need a second bedroom or you’ve had so much vino you don’t trust yourself on the stairs.

If you plan to cook, there’s also a small but well-equipped kitchen with a dining table. When it comes to eating out, Angelo provides many recommendations and there are several excellent restaurants within staggering distance. Call ahead if you want to try La Cantina as it’s tiny and usually booked out. I had better luck geting into Trullo d’Oro and the food there was delicious. Make sure you try burata, a type of mozzarella that is moist and creamy. Breakfast comes in a box from a nearby cafe, with plenty of choice. You simply pick what you’d like off a menu, send it to Angelo via text message or What’s App and tell him what time you’d like it delivered. You can, if you prefer, eat at the same cafe, a ten minute stroll away.

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Out back there is a courtyard garden. During my stay the weather was rarely sunny, but if it hadn’t been wet I’d have loved sitting out there. Angelo supplies bikes too and there’s even an outdoor shower. Pots of flowers add colour to the whitewashed trulli and fairylights create a magical feel. I’m probably gushing, but it was just delightful. Trulli delightful, in fact. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

I booked Trulli Anti via booking.com – here is the link if you want to check prices and availability: https://www.booking.com/hotel/it/trulli-anti.en-gb.html


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Journey time is only an hour from Colchester station, typically around half an hour quicker than it would be by road, and with standard advance fares costing as little as £8 each way, surprisingly cheap. Factor in Greater Anglia’s offers – accompanied children go for just £2 (just turn up on the day and nab this fare for any off peak journey on the network) and 2for1 deals on many attractions – it’s a tempting prospect.

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To be honest, the intercity trains that currently run on the Greater Anglia network look pretty dated from the outside. However, when you step inside, they’ve been refurbished as part of a £12m upgrade. What you get is a very comfortable ride. The seats are like armchairs and there’s plenty of legroom. There’s a choice as you’d expect of table seating, great for families or groups of friends, and airline-style seats. That upgrade has paid for new carpets, seat covers, improved lighting and upgraded toilets. Best of all are the at-seat powerpoints, which came in very handy on the return journey when I needed to use my phone which as always had a woefully low battery. It’s also convenient to have onboard WiFi. The only thing I didn’t like was having to lean out of the window to open the carriage door, but fortunately those waiting on the platform helped when I couldn’t quite reach. It reminded me of the slam door trains in the 1970s, though getting out wasn’t as impossible as it was with that horizontal squeeze – if you travelled by rail back then, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

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Anyway, I’d got so comfortable it was almost a pity to arrive in Norwich (and I promise I’m not just saying that because Greater Anglia paid my fare) But the sun was shining it was the first really mild day of the year, perfect for a stroll alongside the River Wensum which does a loop of the city centre. The river is almost right in front of the station. Within a couple of minutes, I was walking along a riverbank lined with willow trees. The first landmark I passed was Pull’s Ferry. This flint building was once a watergate and takes its name from John Pull, a ferryman, who ran the boats in the first part of the 19th century. Apparently, the stone that was used to construct Norwich Cathedral came in via this route, having been imported from Normandy.

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I strolled further along the river bank until I came to the Red Lion pub. On its slipway, a group of people were stepping into wooden Canadian-style kayaks. Chantal and Nick set up Pub and Paddle a few years ago – this year will be their fourth summer and the business is going from strength to strength. Chantal told me that one of their most popular excursions is also their shortest, suitable for anyone. This four hour rental takes paddlers past the cathedral, football ground and Colman’s mustard factory to the village of Thorpe St Andrew. Most people take a break at one of the riverside pubs before returning to the Red Lion. At only £20 per person, it’s good value. Chantal and Nick make their own kayaks and also have a couple of wooden rowing boats for hire for those wishing to stay in the city centre. I didn’t have time to do this, but it’s definitely a good excuse to return.

My next stop was Cow Tower, a 14th century artillery tower built as a response to the threat posed to Norwich not only by the French but also by local rebel forces. Contrary to what its name suggests, it wasn’t constructed to shelter cows, though this Eastern Daily Press article suggests that might have happened later. Instead, it was named after the surrounding meadow, which was called Cowholm. It was big enough to hold a garrison but now, it’s just a shell, the floors and roof long gone. As a consequence, you can’t go inside. Nevertheless it’s an imposing structure, standing almost 15 metres high, and very photogenic in the spring sunshine, particularly when the daffodils are in bloom. On the other side of the path from the Cow Tower there’s a rather lovely carved wooden seat, its smooth curves perfect for lying back to watch cotton wool clouds scud across a blue sky.

I was reluctant to leave my seat, but wanted to take a look at Norwich Cathedral. Construction began in 1096, using local flint and mortar faced with that limestone imported from Caen. It’s quite a large site – actually two churches and an Anglo-Saxon settlement were knocked down to make room for this new structure, such was its scale. The cathedral close is the largest in England. By 1145, the cathedral was pretty much completed. The same building you see today would have had a wooden spire clad with lead, added in the 1160s. It was struck by lightning in 1169, less than two years after it was finished, so today’s spire dates from 1480.

The cloisters of this very grand church bear a resemblance to the colleges of Oxford or Cambridge and are the second largest in the country after those of Salisbury Cathedral. A quadrangle is bounded by walkways featuring elaborate vaulted ceilings; inside, the cathedral itself is even more impressive.

One of the more interesting modern additions is the copper baptismal font. Formed from two bowls, one upturned, it was donated to the cathedral when it was repurposed from its previous use – making chocolate in the Rowntree’s factory until it closed in 1994. Though a donation is suggested, entry is free. Allow plenty of time as the building warrants more than a quick look.

It was time for lunch and over on Tombland, Cocina caught my eye, two white statues flanking its doorway. Samson and Hercules are Norwich icons, though the figures that you see today are replicas, installed when the originals became too fragile to leave in place. In 1657, the two figures, both symbols of strength, were placed outside the home Christopher Jay, then the Mayor of Norwich.

The statues were removed from their pedestals in 1789 and reinstalled in the rear courtyard of the building; a century later antique dealer George Cubitt moved them back again. At that point, Hercules was in such a bad way he had to be replaced. In the 20th century, the building housed a dance hall and later a nightclub. In 1993, one of Samson’s arms fell off and years of paint were revealed. The two figures you see today might only have been placed there just before the millennium but are a much treasured part of the city’s history.

Taking a circuitous route to take in cobbled Elm Hill, my next target was the Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell. Whether you know a lot about Norwich or like me, embarrasingly little, it’s a fascinating place to spend a few hours. The £5.95 ticket charge is a steal. Originally constructed as the home of a rich merchant in 1325, it became a prison for women and beggars in the late 16th century (that’s what a Bridewell means).

The first inmate was one John Flowers, banged up for being accused of having “a lewd life and to be a counterfeiter of begging licences”. But the most interesting story was that of Jane Sellers. She was the Bridewell’s most persistent offender, serving nine sentences in just eight years in the early 17th century. Her first stint was for “being found idle at Trowse”. Several times she returned, did her time and promised to leave town to find work. But she never did. Instead she was caught stealing numerous times. The burglary she committed at the end of 1631 would be her last. The authorities lost patience with her and she was hanged.

After a pit stop at Jarrold’s for tea, I set off for the Plantation Garden, pausing for a quick look at the city’s Roman Catholic cathedral along the way. The garden is the work of a dedicated team of volunteers. Occupying an abandoned chalk quarry, the garden is Victorian in origin, something you might guess from the many follies and statuary that litter the garden. There’s a gothic fountain, Italianate terrace and mock mediaeval terrace wall, plus delightful woodland walkways and vibrant flower beds. Judging by the many people who’d spread picnic blankets or settled into the benches for a natter, it’s well used by locals and visitors alike. A honesty box is located by the gate for your £2 entrance fee.

Back in the heart of the city, there was time for one last stop before I would catch my train. Norwich Castle occupies a hilltop site overlooking the shopping streets below. There’s a £9.50 entrance fee which is expensive, but I was told that for the final hour each day, you can get in for just £2. Inside, as well as an impressive keep, you’ll find a collection of exhibits, some temporary. Right now, there’s a Viking display which is worth a look, as well as a section telling the story of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni. For me, the museum lacked the emotional connection I got with the Bridewell, but I’m a hard sell, much more interested in social and industrial history than that of early Britain. If you’re local and have kids, I think they might enjoy the castle’s Knight Club or some of the special Easter events that are planned.

Have your own rail adventure

If you’d like to have your own rail adventure, then why not take a look at Greater Anglia’s website? You could visit Norwich, but there are plenty more places that offer a great day out – read my previous blogs on Harwich or Wivenhoe, for instance. I’d also love it if you would answer the simple yes/no review on this survey – being purely selfish, if you’ve been inspired by my day out, I get to do another!


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

News has broken today that Thomas Cook will close 21 of its High Street stores, one of which is my local branch in Colchester. It’s no surprise. Even Thomas Cook themselves admit that 64% of its UK bookings were made online last year. Their website is bright, colourful and most important of all, easy to navigate. Rationalising a business is the way to keep it afloat, and if you don’t move with the times you become a dinosaur. Thomas Cook led the way in 1841 with its pioneering railway excursions and is a respected player in the industry. Closing its stores isn’t a sign of failure, it’s a savvy move designed to help the company retain its market share.

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I haven’t stepped foot inside a travel agency for over two decades. The last time I asked about flights, the assistant hadn’t heard of the place I wanted to fly to, so I left. The rise of budget airlines and the breadth of information available at the click of a mouse means I have no need to pick up the phone and speak to a specialist, much less go to the bother of visiting a High Street store. The rise of the internet made the travel agent the middle man. Online agencies such as Expedia, originally set up by Microsoft in 1996, do a more than satisfactory job. Use an online travel agent and you’re not tied to store opening hours, but you’ll still have the convenience of a one-stop shop for your travel package and the benefit of bulk buying discounts.

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But just because I no longer use a travel agent, doesn’t mean I don’t advise others to use one. One of the benefits of the internet is also its biggest drawback – sometimes there’s just too much information. Sifting out what you need to know from the mountain of websites that Google presents can be hard. Travel’s my job – I take for granted that I know which sites will be useful and which are irrelevant to my needs. But for many, navigating through all that information is a minefield. How do you know what you’re reading isn’t misleading or downright inaccurate? Sadly there are many influencers out there who just don’t know as much as they claim to, like the blogger who presented a £1000 indirect flight from London to the US as a bargain, when direct fares are often half that amount or less. How do you whittle down which New York hotel to choose when Expedia presents almost two thousand search results?

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In the light of that, it’s not surprising that some High Street travel agents are actually expanding the number of branches. Kuoni’s one of them. Paired with John Lewis, they offer a different experience to Thomas Cook, and aim at a different clientele including the lucrative luxury honeymoon market. Their customers, they say, value quality over cost. Between 2016 and 2017, they reported a 38% increase in the number of appointments made with their in-store experts. 59% of their customers, they reveal, come in with a blank sheet and ask the consultant to help them find their perfect trip. Visit Kuoni’s website, and though you’ll find plenty of tempting images and itineraries, you can’t book them online – instead you have to telephone or book in person. Hays Travel, the UK’s largest independent travel agent, are also expanding, so the trend’s not confined to Kuoni.

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Millennials are particularly keen to utilise a travel agent, a trend that’s mirroring what’s going on across the Atlantic. FOMO – that’s the fear of missing out to those of us who are old enough to be their parents – means that they want to ensure that they book the very best when it comes to travel. According to ABTA, 59% of millennials say they’d pay extra for a holiday that’s tailormade to their preferences, good news for agents like Trailfinders with a High Street presence and a strong reputation for bespoke but affordable packages. In Kuoni’s latest worldwide trends report, it notes a rise in bookings of what’s termed “wow experiences”. From dining beside a waterfall in Thailand to staying in a vintage Airstream trailer on the Bolivian salt flats, bespoke just got interesting – and crucially, difficult to pull off without the right connections. ABTA’s annual report backs up this desire to leave the booking process to an expert. They state that 45% of those booking via a travel professional do so because of the confidence it gives them, while Google asserts that 69% of travellers return to companies offering a personalised approach.

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While hardened low-budget, intrepidly independent travellers (like me!) will stubbornly continue to find their own way, the age of High Street travel agents isn’t yet over. After all, if you’d call out a plumber to fix a water leak, why not call upon a travel professional to find you the holiday that’s right for you? It will probably cost you more, but if you think it would be worth it, then it’s money well spent.


Gorillas lite: up close with the chimps of Kibale Forest

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

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Lowland gorilla in Port Lympne safari park, Kent

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

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Grooming

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

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

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Chimps are exceptionally good climbers

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

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Chimps share 98% of our DNA

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

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

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The initial group

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

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Time for a snooze

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

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

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

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

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Letting it all hang out!

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

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

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

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


Review: Kampala’s backpackers compared

During my trip to Uganda I stayed at the three backpacker hostels in Kampala. Each was very different, so if you’re looking for cheap accommodation in the capital, my reviews might help you decide which is best for you.

Red Chilli Hideaway

The clue’s in the name with this one – it’s tucked away at the end of one of the roads leading south from Kampala’s city centre. It’s as much a resort as it is a hostel, with a sizeable swimming pool as well as two bars. Day guests can pay for the use of its facilities, but it retains a backpacker vibe nonetheless. Staff are helpful and efficient.

The location is both Red Chilli’s biggest plus and its worst drawback. Because it’s so far out of the centre – around 10km from downtown – it’s inconvenient if you intend to visit the city’s sights. Traffic is horrendous, so that 10km journey can easily take an hour or more of frustrating stop-start driving, more in rush hour. If you’re coming into the city on a tourist shuttle such as Pineapple Express, note that drop off will be at the Oasis Mall, still a considerable distance from Red Chilli.

That said, if you’re looking for a place to unwind as part of your Ugandan or East African trip, it’s the perfect spot. Security’s excellent – all cars entering the compound are checked thoroughly, with mirrors used to check the underside of the vehicle. Guards on the gate are also a reassuring presence in this relatively remote location. The views across the valley to the surrounding countryside further distance you from the hubbub of the city and it’s a surprisingly peaceful place. Sunrises are spectacular and well worth rising early for.

The multiple accommodation blocks contain a range of room types, from dorms to private ensuites. The latter are roomy and are equipped with fans and showers that actually deliver hot water. I slept well, cocooned from the noise of those socialising in the bar. The room was basic but clean.

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Red Chilli Hideaway is the sister property to Red Chilli Rest Camp up at Murchison Falls. I took the three day budget safari, which costs $320pp in shared tents and about $80 extra if you upgrade to a self contained banda. It was well organised and well thought out, and though the distance travelled was considerable, the two included game drives and boat trip made the package excellent value for money as well. The safari price includes a free dorm bed the evening before – it’s definitely a good idea to stay in order to avoid a ridiculously early start just to reach Red Chilli itself.

Would I stay there again?

Yes, if I was looking for a place to stay put rather than get around.

Cost of a single room with ensuite bathroom $45 with a discount for booking the safari – I paid $33 (note that prices have recently risen)

Bushpig

If you’re looking for a sociable backpackers then this is the pick of the bunch, but I also found it to be the noisiest of the three. Located on busy Acacia Avenue, there’s a constant buzz of traffic as well as considerable noise from the immediate vicinity – bells ringing when people asked to be let in and chatter for instance. My single room was tiny, the bed taking up the whole of the window side of the room, making it difficult to access the window. There was a small hole in the glass, so even with the window shut, it wasn’t remotely soundproof, though mesh and a mosquito net ensured I wasn’t bothered by the bugs.

The showers and toilets were in a room a few doors down the corridor. They were clean and the water was hot. I rented a towel for 4000 shillings (a little less than £1). However, there was no door to the bathroom itself and (unlike the rest of the rooms in my section) my room had mesh above the door rather than a solid wall. The noise from flushing toilets and running water was therefore bothersome. I managed about three hours sleep which wasn’t ideal.

Where Bushpig scored highly was in its food. There was an outdoor bar with tables. An extensive menu sold really tasty food at reasonable prices and it was a popular place to entertain friends as the number of visiting diners indicated. Staff were approachable and helpful. The manager went out of his way to get me connected to the WiFi when my devices were being uncooperative and it proved to be the speediest once I was online. Also, the reception staff helped me figure out the location of the relocated Post Bus service as well as sort me out with a reliable taxi.

Would I stay there again?

Probably not, on account of the noise, though it was a temptingly convenient location. However, I would definitely visit for the food and atmosphere in the bar garden.

Cost of a single room with shared bathroom $25, which represented the best value of the places I stayed

Fat Cat

Occupying a site in a quiet side street close to Acacia Mall, this backpackers had the most convenient location. It was the smallest of the three and felt the most basic. My single room was directly off the main dining room, which could have presented a noise issue had there been more guests, but in fact I got a good night’s rest. Staff were efficient, and my driver for the late night airport transfer was waiting for me outside Entebbe Airport. However, I didn’t get the sense that they were especially bothered if I was enjoying myself and came across as a bit bored by the whole customer service thing.

The shower room was very basic. The cubicles were fairly clean but the windows and walls were grubby and there wasn’t much space to hang clothes or a towel while you showered. The water was almost cold, adding to the monastic feel. Though it was dearer than Bushpig, the room was larger, but the facilities were definitely a lot more rundown and in need of modernisation. I only ate breakfast here, and that too was basic. There was a lounge and several traditional hostel noticeboards where you could post requests for shared rides and the like.

I did like the garden area, which was a tranquil spot to sit and enjoy a drink with plenty of shade. You could qualify for a free beer if you went litter picking in the vicinity of the backpackers. Just outside the gate, Uber bodas (motorcycle taxis) congregated and I had no difficulty organising an Uber car and driver when I needed to go into the centre of the city a short distance away.

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Would I stay there again?

Possibly. Despite it being the most basic, it functioned well and its proximity to the Acacia Mall and a number of cafes and restaurants helped.

Cost of a single room with shared bathroom $34, a little steep given the quality but admittedly reflecting that it was significantly larger than the room at Bushpig.


Five places I’d love to visit again

Reconnecting with a Japanese friend this weekend made me think about the trip I’d made to Honshu and Kyushu in 2007. It got me thinking about countries I’d love to visit again. I’m all for exploring new countries – Uganda and Kyrgyzstan will be new destinations for me this year – but it’s also good to revisit places that made an impression. I’m making another visit to Italy this year, this time to see the trulli of Alberobello in Puglia, which I’m really looking forward to. So which are my top five places I’d love to visit again?

Japan

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This Asian nation’s unique culture makes it special. Last time, I took a sand bath, soaked in an onsen and watched cormorant fishermen catch fish by firelight. In Kyoto I saw a geisha in Gion and in Tokyo, followed in Bill Murray’s footprints by staying at the hotel which featured in the movie Lost in Translation. Coping with the language barrier and different alphabet wasn’t as challenging as I’d expected thanks to video calls and picture menus. I loved how you could buy practically anything from a vending machine, including beer and hot chicken. Even the trains were a revelation, with slippers to wear and attendants that bowed when they served drinks. Next time, I’d like to head inland to the mountains and north to Hokkaido.

Austria

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My visit to Nuremberg’s Christmas markets this year made me realise just how much I’d enjoyed my visit to Salzburg the year before. The markets themselves were much more handicraft oriented and in their mountain setting, a delight to explore. It would be hard to choose a season though – Austria’s just as beautiful in summer, if not more so. It’s been nine years since I took our elder dog to St Johann in the Tyrol and I’d love to go back with our younger one. We used to go to that part of Austria when I was a child and it’s a place I always feel a sense of calm. Something about the clean mountain air, perhaps, or the hearty, home-cooked food?

Nicaragua and Guatemala

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When I eventually reached Nicaragua, I had been delayed two days, detained by the “Weekend Whiteout” in New York City. Despite the shortened time, I very much enjoyed the city of Granada and its colourful colonial core. Nearby, I explored volcanoes and cloud forest, and took leisurely lunches beside tranquil lakes. I’ve always felt that the trip was a little rushed, though, so it would be great to go back and explore at a more leisurely pace. Guatemala was equally charming, but a disappointing hotel on the edge of Antigua took the edge off my stay there. It would be fun to revisit around the time of Day of the Dead and compare the experience to the wonderful trip I made to Oaxaca a few years back. In a better hotel, of course.

Australia

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As a die-hard Neighbours fan, boarding the bright blue minibus back in 2005 was a rite of passage. But now, as well as paying a visit to Pin Oak Court, the sets themselves are included in the tour and regular pub nights offer a chance to meet cast members. That in itself is a reason to go back, but I’d also like to spend some time in the north west of the country which is blessed with some stunning scenery. Taking a road trip north from Broome to the Bungle Bungles and beyond would be quite the adventure. (Hey, if Helen Daniels painted it, count me in!) I’d also love to ride the Ghan, Australia’s iconic train linking Adelaide and Darwin, stopping off to see Brolga and his kangaroos in the red centre along the way.

Morocco

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I’ve visited Morocco several times since my first visit in 1997 and there’s still plenty more I’d like to see. A new high speed train service would be a real treat to try out – on that first visit I chugged my way from Tangier to Marrakesh and back again at a snail’s pace. Last trip, I planned to visit the coastal town of Agadir for a day trip and would have done, had I not been laid low with a bout of food poisoning (don’t eat the salad!) The blue city of Chefchaouen looks so photogenic it would be irresistible, another for the wish list. I’m told its cobbled lanes lead to leather workers and weavers. I’m a big fan of Moroccan style when it comes to home furnishings – I know it would be hard to resist a bit of shopping.

Is there somewhere you’ve visited that you’d love to go back to? I’d love to hear about it.


How I choose my next destination

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

Cheap flights

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

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Social media

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

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TV

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

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Magazines and other tourist literature

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

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Festivals and other special events

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

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Press trips

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

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


Looking back on 2018’s travels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December: Nuremberg’s Christmas markets

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

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


Barbados on a budget

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

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Flights

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

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

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Accommodation

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

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

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

Food and drink

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

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

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

Getting around

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

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

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

Sightseeing

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

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

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

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

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

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

The verdict

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How to visit Transnistria from Chisinau

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

Why it’s hard for me to choose the best places for solo travel

It’s a popular topic, and one editors are keen to publish. You’ll find a glut of listicles all over the internet touting the places you “must go” if you’re a solo traveller, and a whole bunch more specifically aimed at females missing a plus one. I’ve been travelling on my own for over thirty years and if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that solo travel, by its very nature, is a personal thing. What’s perfect for me is unlikely to be right for someone else. When it comes to choosing a destination, perhaps it’s better to think first about the kind of person you are, where you’re likely to be happiest and what you hope to get from the trip. The decision about where to go will follow on naturally from that.

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Are you truly seeking solitude?
It’s not a smart idea to find yourself on the established tourist trail if what you’re really after is some time out to gather your thoughts. But equally, it can be daunting to be completely on your own. Isolation can bring on acute loneliness very quickly. When I first visited Cuba fifteen years ago, I travelled west from Havana. I had no phone signal and no internet. At the time, I wasn’t ready to be that cut off. I was probably more homesick than I’d ever been before or since. I learnt that although I can quite happily go for days without speaking to people, I draw comfort from the knowledge I can talk to friends and family back at home if I feel like it. If anything, with the increased role social media plays in our lives, that’s even more the case for me today. I enjoy spending time on my own, but I also enjoy posting status updates and sending texts (hey – phoning’s expensive!) which allow me to share photographs and experiences with friends and family. Know yourself, and your limits, and you’ll have a much better trip for it.

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Is it about the company?
I enjoy taking holidays with my husband (and I’m not just saying that because he’ll read this blog). But he’s not an adventurous traveller and there are places that I want to visit that I know will be so far out of his comfort zone that he just won’t be happy. I have no wish to force him to waste his precious annual leave on something or somewhere he’s going to hate, so going it alone is my preference. I could opt to travel with a friend instead, of course. But years of solo travel has, if I’m totally honest, made me quite selfish when it comes to travelling. I have become used to doing whatever I want, whenever I want. It’s the exact opposite of home, where family commitments mean there’s plenty of give and take. So this becomes my reward: a few days of doing whatever I please, whenever I like. I’d describe it as a kind of adult time out. I recharge my “me” batteries and come back to the real world refreshed and ready to join in again.

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Solo travel isn’t the same as a singles holiday
When I talk about travelling solo, I mean just that. I mean jumping on a plane, booking a single room and spending my days and nights largely by myself. I’m not single, and I’m not travelling in the hope of finding a life partner. I already have one, and I’m extremely fortunate that he’s very tolerant of my desire to wander. I like being on my own and I’m comfortable being by myself. I don’t care one iota if I don’t have a meaningful conversation with someone for days on end. I guess that makes me unsociable, but even at home, I often take myself out for the afternoon without asking someone if they’d like to join me. But home or away, if I want to, it’s easy to call a friend or join a group excursion. And that’s pretty nice too.

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How do you know you’re not missing out?
The main drawback for me of not taking a group tour is losing the opportunity to tap into the specialist knowledge of a guide. But being saddled with a tour leader that knows less about the place than I do has frustratingly been a reality on more than one occasion. Researching a destination is as much a delight as seeing the places in real life. I relish the chance to choose the perfect hotel and tailor the itinerary to my needs without the hefty price tag that comes with bespoke travel. Instead of a packaged tour, I tend to book day excursions, particularly if I think I’d get more out of a place if I tap into someone else’s specialist knowledge or when, logistically, it’s the smart thing to do. Booking Envoy Tours’ Enlinking Caucasus tour facilitated sightseeing between Tbilisi and Yerevan without the need to backtrack. And on my most recent visit to New York, I joined the excellent Free Tours by Foot food tour of the Lower East Side – proving that no matter how many times you visit a place, there’s always something new to learn.

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Would you feel constrained on a group tour?
A few years back I won a trip to America’s Deep South. By and large it was a good trip, but going off piste made it better. When it came to spending the alloted five hours at Graceland, I cut it to two and caught a bus back downtown to watch the duck parade at Memphis’ famous Peabody Hotel. There had been some teething problems at the start of the trip in New Orleans as the tour leader was understandably reluctant to let her precious charges out of her sight. Her protests were cut short when I told her that I’d not long returned from El Salvador – on my own of course – and come out unscathed. Let me emphasise at this point, I’ve nothing against group tours. but I do appreciate it when the tour leaders realise that there’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to their clients’ travel experience.

So where’s good for solo travel?
The honest answer: everywhere and nowhere. In the same way that being confined to a trans-Atlantic cruise for days on end would be my idea of holiday hell, solo travel isn’t holiday heaven for everyone. If that’s you, then you’re potentially going to feel uncomfortable wherever you book. Not sure? Challenge yourself. Try a short break and test the water. Fill your days during that first trip with lots of sightseeing, minimising your downtime so that you don’t have time to stop and think that you’re on your own. When you get home, take stock. Be honest about what worked and what didn’t. If you enjoy your new-found freedom, make your next solo trip a longer one. And if you didn’t, there’s no shame at all in accepting that you’re more suited to a group tour or travel with friends or family.

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That said, it’s wise to mitigate against loneliness. It’s easier to meet fellow travellers if you stay in hostels rather than all-inclusives which tend to attract couples and families. Also, pick somewhere where there’s likely to be a lot of singles: the Antipodes, for example, South America’s traveller circuit, the South East Asia backpacker trail or Europe’s big cities. If you’re keen to visit somewhere off the beaten track but don’t know if you can handle being alone, sandwich it in between two places you know you’ll find company or can book excursions. But be prepared to put yourself out there: no one’s going to come knocking at your door if they don’t know you’re there.

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A day with the steppe nomads

My back jarred with every rut.  The small Japanese saloon was poorly suited to Ulan Bator’s potholes, let alone the enormous bumps and holes over which we creaked in the Mongolian countryside.  It was clear that at some point, the arid steppe climate had experienced some rain, and the trucks and 4x4s that had come before us had churned the mud into deep and now rock solid furrows.  Having spent two nights tossing and turning on the train from Irkutsk, and a good nine hours hanging around at the border, I was beginning to wish I’d taken my chances with the pickpockets of UB (the guide book’s judgement, not mine!) and not been in such a hurry to get out of the city.  It had its advantages though.

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A 40-metre high statue of Chinggis Khan an hour or so out of the city posed serenely in the early morning dawn, awaiting its hordes of visitors once they had prepared their picnic lunches.  We paused briefly to admire it by the roadside before moving onwards to tangle with a stray herd of cattle.  After two hours, we reached the Steppe Nomads ger camp, where my Italian travelling companions alighted.  For me, a half an hour jaunt across the fields would take me, jolt by painful jolt, to my nomad hosts, with whom I would stay the night.

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The setting was idyllic.  Enormous blue skies dwarfed the gers, the traditional Mongolian felt tents, perched halfway up the field; scrubby meadows led enticingly to deceptively distant mountains.  I took in my immediate surroundings.  Four gers, a 4×4 and, underneath the latter, three dogs snoozing in the early morning calm.  A short way up the hill was a rustic corral containing a few horses, downhill, a couple of small paddocks for sheep and goats.  In the distance, cows and horses roamed free, down by the River Khergen.  A couple of other gers and a truck back the way I’d come completed the picture.  It seemed wonderfully simple compared to the complicated life I lead back in the west.

The guest ger was beautifully decorated.  Intricately painted designs on orange woodwork contrasted with the faded cream canvas of the ger’s exterior.  Hot pink beds with carpet mattresses were pushed to the edge and a matching dressing table was festooned with family photos and mementoes.  It seemed to me a fairly comfortable introduction to camping!  My driver indicated that the small structure across the field that looked like a British Telecom workmen’s cocoon was actually the toilet.

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On closer inspection, the structure was tall enough to provide sufficient privacy, the boards firm enough to avoid any hapless falls and there was even a shovel and some loose dirt by the side for me to cover my tracks.  Having a wash was going to involve several kilometres of trekking down to the river, but I figured I’d already had two shower-free nights on the train, and, let’s face it, the horses weren’t likely to complain.  I felt very smug.

And then I was served breakfast.

I struggle with a piece of toast some mornings, so my traditional Mongolian breakfast of sick on a plate was hard to stomach.  In actual fact it was some kind of curd cheese, and to some palates, delicious I’m sure, but, for me, that morning, it was sick on a plate, served with small finger shaped pieces of lardy bread.  The cinnamon tea was lovely though, so I drank plenty of that, forced down some bread and sick and finished off with a caramel flavoured boiled sweet which had been thoughtfully provided in a small dish.  I felt terribly guilty for struggling with the food, as it was served by a delightful nomad lady with a squeaky voice and a smile as broad as the Gun Galuut horizon.

After breakfast, I grabbed my camera and headed up to the corral to watch the horses.  I envisaged lounging by the fence, channelling Kristin Scott Thomas in the Horse Whisperer.  Unfortunately, unlike in the States, these poles were not fixed and periodically they would be charged by the horses before they made a break for freedom and hurtled down the field.  Not wishing to be trampled, but still wishing to be close enough to secure some decent shots, I kept one eye on the action and the other on the camera, as poles cascaded down around me.  The young men of the nomad group had the difficult task of roping the horses and fitting their bridles ready for the tourists at Steppe Nomads to ride them later in the day.  It was certainly no easy task.  Even with their dexterity, lassoing the only semi-tame creatures was no easy task, and the animals’ mad eyes and toothy grins only served to add to the humour of it all from the bystander’s point of view.  Many times I watched as the horses bolted and their would-be captors rode expertly after them to herd them back up the field.  I’m not sure I would have neither such patience nor the perseverance, especially whilst being watched.  I was reassured to see that the young girls at the nomad camp thought it was as funny as I did, much to the lads’ embarrassment.  Eventually, to the relief of all those involved, sufficient horses were roped and galloped down the field at an impressively fast pace to meet their excited riders.

Watching the action is all very well, but I felt a bit uncomfortable being the outsider, and so came ten year old Tilly to the rescue.  Her name was something much longer and infinitely more unpronounceable, so Tilly was settled on as a name we both could manage.  Tilly set about making it her mission to teach me to play volleyball.  “Gee-oo-lee-aah!” she would cry, lengthening my name so much that it seemed I had been re-christened especially for Mongolia.  At regular intervals throughout the afternoon, she would call for me, and we would continue with her attempts to refine my awkward technique.  “Yee-ess.  Verrry good!” was the response I hoped for, though more often than not, she just collapsed in a fit of giggles and ran down the field after the stray ball.  It was an ice-breaker, nevertheless, and I was soon adopted as the new friend, someone to show off to (but not to share with!) her younger brothers.  Before I knew what was happening, I was carted off the field to help milk the cows.  The nomad women (and tiny infant children!) made it look simple, but for me, the hardest part was balancing on the tiny wooden milking stool without toppling over and falling into the freshly dropped manure.  Once I’d mastered that, milking was easy – if a little messy.  Much the reverse of volleyball, it seemed.

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By the time the tourists came up to visit on their horses, the latter looking much tamer than they had that morning.  The Italians looked a little uncomfortable and slightly saddle sore.  It seemed like forever since I had left them this morning and I was surprised at how easily I’d settled in to such an alien environment.  Dinner was brought out – a watery but delicious mutton stew – and I savoured every mouthful.  I helped to unload two horses from the nomad’s truck and watched, toddler on hip, as the farmer administered some medication.

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Later we sat, watching the sun set and the stars brighten in the blackening sky, smiling contentedly and watching the animals settle in the paddock for the evening.  It was clear to see that this was a tough life, but the community was close-knit, the scenery was world-class and I had laughed more than I had for a long time.  Shower aside, did I really need any more than this?


Domino Park – New York’s next High Line?

It was once a neglected and semi-derelict disused railway blighting the landscape of block after block that stretched from the Meatpackers District to Chelsea. Rudy Guiliani had signed an order for its demolition, but a determined local community fought to turn that elevated railway into the High Line Park, now one of New York City’s most popular public spaces. Since opening in 2009, visitors and locals alike have flocked to this verdant park. In summer, it’s a victim of its own success, with crowds of people walking through an architecturally rich landscape. In winter, you can still find space to yourself, for now at least.

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But if like me, you find yourself in the city when the temperature’s hot, you’ll be pleased to learn that the team behind the High Line opened a new space this June which looks set to rival its elder brother. That space is called Domino Park, and you’ll find it across the East River in Brooklyn.

Domino Park extends along five blocks of the Williamsburg waterfront. The hulking silhouette of the Williamsburg Bridge looms over its southern edge. Across the East River, Manhattan’s skyscrapers flank the residential towerblocks of the Lower East Side.

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Watching from the back is what’s left of the Domino Sugar Refinery. The brick factory that stands today was constructed in 1882 to replace an earlier building destroyed by fire.

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In the latter years of the 19th century, sugar cane was shipped in from across the globe. The American Sugar Refinery Company was so successful, it was one of the original companies to comprise the Dow Jones index. Other factories followed suit and Brooklyn at that time handled over half of America’s sugar as a result. Prior to using sugar, food had been sweetened with honey or molasses. Refining sugar from cane or beet was difficult and time consuming, but companies like American Sugar Refinery brought it to the masses, A century later, though, demand for cane sugar had fallen dramatically in the face of competition from high-fructose corn syrup and sweeteners.

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It was almost inevitable that the Domino factory would close, just as so many of Brooklyn’s other industrial buildings have. But many of the industrial artefacts, such as the four syrup towers and crane tracks from the original factory, have been repurposed as props in this cleverly designed park.

An elevated walkway maximises the views across to the Empire State Building and down over the park itself. There are fountains, hardwood loungers and bench seating. The wood has been upcycled, taken from the factory which itself will be redeveloped. Planting is yet to become established, but as with the High Line a decade ago, a vibrant show of yellow and green grasses and other structural planting forms the bones of what will become.

This is a park which has its eye firmly on the local population. The playground was popular while I was visiting, as were the fountains. It would seem this is the place to bring your toddlers – or send your nanny. Even the playground’s a nod to the past, designed to resemble the process of sugar refining.

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A lot of thought has gone into this park, and as the rest of the project launches, this is set to become one of Willamsburg’s most popular spaces for visitors as well as locals. It’s just a fifteen minute stroll from trendy Bedford Avenue, itself only a short subway ride from Manhattan’s Union Square. If you’re looking for somewhere to escape the High Line’s crowds without skimping on its achingly-cool design, this could well be it.

https://www.dominopark.com/


Have you visited London’s Postal Museum?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practical information

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

https://www.postalmuseum.org