juliamhammond

Independent travel

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).

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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


In defence of counting countries

The travel press is awash with articles criticising travellers for counting countries. Such actions fly in the face of the spirit of adventure and exploration, they say, and authentic travel experiences cannot be had if all you’re about is notching up another nation. There’s an element of truth in such arguments, of course. There’s surely little value to be had in crossing a border for an afternoon or a making a quick outing from an airport just to claim another scalp. But I’d argue that such a black and white viewpoint is unfair and here’s why.
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In the beginning, when I started travelling, I liked to boast about how many countries I’d visited. I’m OK admitting that. I’m flawed – no one’s perfect. Having spent my childhood happily confined to Europe, there was something thrilling about reaching the Americas and beyond. I wanted to share that excitement and when friends and colleagues asked how many countries I’d visited, they were impressed, which only fuelled the desire to impress some more.
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I worked with a teacher in the mid 1990s who’d been to at least ten more countries than I had. He wasn’t even a Geographer, I inwardly complained. What business had a Physics specialist in beating my total? The fact that he was double my age didn’t matter. I resolved to out-country him and booked a couple of half term Ryanair flights that would help redress the balance. It mattered, back then.
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At some point, things changed. It wasn’t an overnight awakening, more a gradual realisation that I’d been booking trips to countries I’d already visited rather than somewhere new for the sake of boosting my ever-growing total. And as I took those trips, I saw the value in reacquainting myself with an old friend, just as I had when I was a kid. There was something special about rediscovering a former haunt or learning more about a place I thought I knew. Even better, what if I could explore a region of a country I’d already been to but that most would still class as off the beaten track. Peru, thank you: you delivered Kuelap and Cajamarca and the promise that one day I could return to your snow-capped cordilleras.
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But the desire to find new places never went away. As places I once loved became busier, I sought to replicate those early experiences in different locales. It’s the age old problem with tourism, isn’t it? We seek unspoilt destinations, but by going and sharing our experience, others want to go too. So when we return, it’s not the same as we remembered and we look elsewhere. I’m naturally a loner, content for the most part with my own company, and happiest when no one else is around. So that unspoilt beach, empty hiking trail or even a cruise port after the ship’s departed all tick my very particular boxes.
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It’s also a kind of addiction that I need to feed. That thrill of “conquering” a new city, learning what makes it tick, discovering its best corners – I still can’t get enough of that. Will this country become a new favourite? It doesn’t even matter if it doesn’t. I love the fact that I know one way or the other. And if I’m brutally honest, I like being one of that clique who “found” a place before it became fashionable. (Yeah, I told you I was flawed.)
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But why do I record a tally? As I get older, there’s a very practical reason – I like to remember where I’ve been and when. To that end, I keep a very special book, which lists the places I have visited on every trip abroad I’ve ever made. Can it really be so many years since I went to that country, I ask myself each time I open its well-thumbed pages?  And yet it is. As I run my eyes down the list, it brings back what I saw and what I did in those places. I’m grateful for those memories but I’ve got no memory for dates.
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I have a deep respect for those who settle on one place and make it their business to know it inside out. That ‘s not for me, however. I’m soon going to be adding Moldova, Barbados and Uganda to my list. They’ll take my total to 117, if that’s of any interest to you. It doesn’t matter to me if it does or does not. But even so, it’s not simply about adding a country. I want to participate in Moldova’s National Wine Day, discover disused sugar mills in Barbados and spot tree-climbing lions in Uganda. Adding a country and creating a meaningful memory aren’t mutually exclusive.
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Ethiopia, Mali and Yemen are waiting in the wings. On TV, I’ve watched spectacular natural landscapes in Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, I saw pictures in a magazine that made me want to dance with the Dogon in Mali and via the internet I marvelled at the engineering that makes Yemen’s mud skyscrapers possible. Should I be apologetic that seeing those for myself adds three entries to my book? Of course not.
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https://www.flickr.com/photos/achillifamily/10387154385

There’s always going to be somewhere. And while there is, I’m going to want to add it to my list. I make no apologies for that.

How to travel solo without the hefty price tag

An email popped up into my inbox the other day touting an article that promised a selection of holidays this summer for under £600 per person. Intrigued, I clicked – the dreaded click bait! Though there were a couple of holidays that fell within the price range, most required a group of six people to share a villa to achieve the deal. I prefer to travel alone – yes, it’s a choice! – so the thought of spending a week with five other people is not my bag. But it got me thinking and here’s the result – how to travel solo without the hefty price tag.

Be independent
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Singles holidays are often a no when it comes to budget solo travel as they usually slap on a significant single supplement. Even when they don’t, the price of that single supplement has usually been absorbed into the package cost which bumps the price up. Ditch the tour operator (but not the insurance!) and go it alone. You’ll be more in control of what you pay and who you pay it to. If you’re a bit worried about travelling solo, why not read my post about travel hacks for solo travellers which contains tips and tricks learned from years of going it alone.

Consider a hostel


The cheapest option for a solo traveller is a bed in a dorm room, but that’s not going to cut it if you need quiet to sleep and you like to shut the door on the world when you turn in. Instead, consider a private room in a hostel. Check out the cleanliness ratings on a reliable website and if it scores well, don’t rule out a shared bathroom. Try the Acco Hostel in Stockholm’s Södermalm district. £18 will get you a bed in a four-person dorm room but double the budget to £39 and you can have a room of your own. I can also recommend the excellent Adventure Queenstown Hostel in New Zealand. They only have one private double (book well ahead!) but it has a balcony and starts at a budget friendly £59 a night. If that’s too dear, their 6 bed dorm rooms will cost you £17.50 per night.

Seek out accommodation that’s designed for one
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The best way to avoid a single supplement is to find somewhere that isn’t big enough for two. There’s plenty of budget accommodation out there that will keep your costs down. I stayed in the central but basic Pension Vergara in the heart of Seville’s old town for £18 a night. If you think you have to travel off season, you don’t – that price is available this August. It wasn’t a room I intended to use other than to sleep, so the lack of space didn’t bother me, and I really couldn’t have found a more convenient location. Turkey’s also a good option. I travelled to Cappadocia and stayed at the Kelebek Cave Hotel. Their most expensive suites come in at 180 euros per night but stay in one of their atmospheric cave rooms to keep the cost down. The cheapest double is currently £39 per night, including a 20% discount for single occupancy. Yes – you read that right – a discount, not a supplement.

Save money by self-catering
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Renting an apartment doesn’t have to break the bank and if you can find one with a kitchen, you can save money on eating out too. I’m off to Barbados as soon as rainy season ends and have found a studio apartment for just £45 a night by using Airbnb. It’s part of a complex on a golf course near the beach which means I have access to a shared pool too, and the apartment is configured so that the bed is on a mezzanine, leaving the ground floor free for a living room and kitchen. It’s a short stroll to the bus stop so I can get around easily and just 15 minutes’ walk from the beach. On paper it sounds perfect: check back later in the year to read my review.

Grab a flight deal while it lasts
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Unless you’re holidaying close to home, it’s often the cost of travel that represents the biggest outlay. I try to keep an open mind about where I might travel to next and keep my dates flexible. If you’re tied to school holidays, plan well in advance and take full advantage of February and October half terms as they often throw up the best deals. Sign up for email alerts from airlines so you don’t miss out on any flash sales and also from deal spotters such as Secret Flying as they will hunt out the bargains for you. If a bargain flight crops up, grab it while it’s available and worry about booking accommodation later. But don’t believe all you read: I once saw a post from a respected blogger promoting a fare of almost £1000 as a cheap flight to Seattle yet a couple of weeks ago, Secret Flying advertised the same route for £290. Both were on scheduled airlines. Keep an eye on these comparison sites and you’ll soon learn what’s a good price.

Do you have tips for saving money as a solo traveller? Why not share them by leaving a comment?


Is it time you visited Colchester?

Colchester’s been busy – a new advert using the tagline #ifthesewallscouldtalk has popped up on our television screens and sets out to promote the town’s many historic attractions. As England’s oldest recorded town and also its first Roman city, there’s a lot of history to uncover. But while most of us in the region know about Colchester’s castle, some of its more recent history can get overlooked.

As part of Greater Anglia’s summer #railadventure campaign, I set out to rediscover Colchester. The first decision I had to make was which station to use: Colchester has three railway stations. I opted to alight at Colchester Town (formerly known as St Botolph’s) as it is closer to the town centre than Colchester (also known as Colchester North) and Hythe.  From there it was a six minute stroll to my first stop.

Tymperleys is a Tudor mansion tucked away in a courtyard off historic Trinity Street. Building began in the 1490s and over time it was added to and altered as the place changed hands. Among its illustrious owners was William Gilberd, an Elizabethan scientist who, it’s said, came up with the term “electricity”. Later, Colchester businessman Bernard Mason, who owned a successful printing firm, bought the place. His passion was clocks and amassed a collection of over 200 timepieces, one of the largest in Britain. This is what Wikipedia has to say about him:

Mason was a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers and the author of “Clock and Watchmaking in Colchester” (1969) which originally cost four guineas (£4 4s 0d £4.20). He was made an OBE in 1959. Mason claimed that there are 375 known examples of Colchester clocks and he managed to collect 216 of them in his lifetime, travelling far and wide to bring them back “home”.

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After Mason’s death, he bequeathed his collection – and the house – to the people of Colchester. In 1987, the Tymperleys Clock Museum opened and would remain a popular attraction until 2011. But I had another reason to visit. These days, Tymperleys is perhaps (despite stiff competition!) the best cafe in the town centre and it’s especially lovely in the summer when you can eat al fresco in the delightful walled garden. No surprise, therefore, that most customers were sitting outside. With a fierce July sun beating down, I was glad of the shade of a garden umbrella as I enjoyed a tasty lunch surrounded by the pretty floral displays.

These days, not a single clock from Bernard’s collection – I asked – is left in Tymperleys. Before you fret, however, they have been moved. A short stroll across the town centre you’ll find them in the excellent Hollytrees Museum. It’s free to look around and learn something of the Colchester clockmaking industry which, it turns out, was quite something back in the day. Once a centre for baymaking (the manufacture of a felted woollen cloth), Colchester’s industry diversified in the Georgian era and it was then that the town became a centre for clock making.

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Perhaps most productive of these craftsmen was Nathaniel Hedge. The Hedge family set up in business in 1739, running a factory from 1745 until the late 1780s. Other names to look out for include John Smorthwait, who trained up the young Nathaniel. One of the oldest clocks on display is a Thirty Hour Longcase clock made in 1698 by Jeremy Spurgin out of oak. Many of the pendulum clocks on display feature adornment in a style known as Japanning, a lacquered decorative finish involving paint and varnish. It’s an intricate style, a reminder that fashion was as important as function when it came to clockmaking.

By 1800, however, the industry had peaked and went into a steep decline as clocks could be made elsewhere much more cheaply. The industry and its contribution to Colchester’s history would be all but forgotten if it wasn’t for Bernard Mason. Whether you’re local or visiting from outside the region, it’s well worth the detour to take a look at this fascinating collection.

The visitor information centre is housed on the ground floor of Hollytrees Museum; their walking tours of the town provide an insight into the town’s past that you’d be hard pressed to achieve without their knowledgeable guide. For this and more on the town’s historic attractions, check out my previous blog.

The lowdown

Greater Anglia offered me a free train ticket in exchange for writing this review of my #railadventure. Travelling by train is an inexpensive way to travel, particularly off peak. For instance, if booked in advance, tickets from Norwich to London cost just £10, Cambridge to London can be had for £7 and Southend to London only £5 (all fares quoted are one way). Accompanied children travel for just £2 return and you don’t even have to pre-book their ticket – this fare is valid on all off peak trains within the Greater Anglia network. On top of this, GA are offering a 2FOR1 deal on top London attractions; with the summer holidays fast approaching this is great news for families. And don’t forget, the excellent Hollytrees Museum is free. It even has a kid-friendly display of vintage toys and a couple of nursery rhyme surprises, though I’ll leave you to discover those for yourself.

Colchester Town station had one last treat as I was waiting to board my train home. This poem, written by C. E. Benham in 1890 is entitled “A ballad of the Tendring Hundred” and you’ll find it on the station wall. Best read out loud – see how well your North Essex accent turns out!

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Discover destinations and ticket prices at www.greateranglia.co.uk and plan your journey at www.nationalrail.co.uk.

Did you feel inspired to plan your own rail adventure after reading this blog? Why not complete Greater Anglia’s survey using this link:

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/5CG9TGG


On safari in Kent: review of Port Lympne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On the trail of the Witchfinder General

Summer’s here and the skies are blue over my corner of Essex. Our river estuaries are at their most attractive at this time of year with plenty of birdlife making the most of the shallow water. Some of the best walks in the county follow the river banks and many are easy to reach by rail. So when Greater Anglia asked if I would like to help promote this summer’s #railadventure campaign, I jumped at the chance. Many of my favourite North Essex coastal towns and resorts are easily reached by rail, among them delightful Walton-on-the-Naze and Dovercourt’s historic lighthouses and Blue Flag beach. Regular readers of this blog might remember the super Greater Anglia days out I had in Harwich and Wivenhoe last summer – if you’ve never been, I’d definitely recommend them.

This excursion was inspired by a novel I found on a book exchange shelf in a guest house in Cape Verde. My charger wouldn’t function, the Kindle was out of juice and I’d resigned myself to a long flight back with no reading material. It was the only book on the shelf which was in English and when I turned it over to read the blurb, I found it was set in Essex. That book was “The Witch Finder’s Sister”, the debut novel by Beth Underwood which told the unsavoury tale of Matthew Hopkins, who held the position of Witchfinder General in 17th century Essex. Though born in Suffolk, Hopkins was closely associated with Manningtree and Mistley. Nowadays, they’re not only both reachable by train but a half hour walk apart.

L0000660 Portrait of Matthew Hopkins, the celebrated witch-finder.

The journey from Kelvedon required two changes of train but nevertheless ran like clockwork, taking just over half an hour in total. There’s even more opportunity to enjoy the countryside views on the way back – time it right as I did and there’s a direct train from Manningtree to Kelvedon taking just 20 minutes. It’s faster than driving, as well as being much less stressful. We’re wedded to the convenience of our cars, but on the train it’s nice to be able to get up and walk around – or sit back and relax on the comfortable seats. There was even sufficient time on the Colchester to Manningtree train to grab a coffee from the onboard buffet. For a less hurried walk when connecting to the Mistley train via the underpass my tip would be to find a seat nearer to the front of the train.

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Alighting from the train, my first impressions of Mistley were favourable. The port, once centred on the transportation of grain and malt for the brewing industry, is still operational but many of the old buildings that line the quayside have been renovated and repurposed. The malt extract works on the opposite side of the road are still in business and the smell of malt permeated the air as I strolled down towards the village centre.

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I couldn’t resist popping into Cooper’s Gallery to browse the colourful ceramics, paintings and textiles. Next time I shall walk in the opposite direction so that the gallery is my final stop; as it’s just across the road from the station I won’t have to walk far fully laden. This time, however, willpower was required as I wished to walk to Manningtree unencumbered by shopping bags. Liz, the gallery owner, was a mine of useful information about Mistley and the history of the quayside, lending me a calendar of old photographs to browse as I ate lunch at the T House cafe next door.

It was low tide and Liz explained how the partially submerged barge I could see from her window came to be stuck in the mud. Apparently, the sails of the Bijou caught alight during a bombing raid in 1940. So that the fire wouldn’t spread, she was cut free from her moorings and allowed to drift away from the quay. Burnt out, she’s been there ever since, the tide covering and uncovering this century-old vessel and gradually eroding what’s left.

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Across the street was The Mistley Thorn. The present day building was built as a coaching inn about 1723 and is now a restaurant with rooms to stay in. A pub stood on the site in the mid 17th century which was reputedly owned by Matthew Hopkins. He was supposed to have “examined” his first witch at the Thorn in 1644. An information board on the side of the Thorn tells a little of the story that Beth Underwood so cleverly adapted for her novel.

In an age of mistrust and religious upheaval, Hopkins decided there was more money to be made as a witch finder than as a lawyer, switching professions and assuming the role of Witchfinder General by 1645. Witch hunting set in motion a chilling sequence of denunciation, interrogation and finally execution. The trials were a joke. So-called witches were said to bear the Devil’s mark, a part of their body that didn’t feel pain. This could be a mole or a birthmark, which Hopkins prodded with a spike or cut with a blunt knife to see if it bled.

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Another method was to tie the alleged witch to a chair and throw her into a pond. God’s pure water would reject a witch, it was thought, and she would float, but if “proved” to be a witch, she would be hung. Hopkins used to carry out such practices at Mistley’s Hopping Bridge, a short walk from the Thorn. It’s said that his ghost haunts the site and is most likely to be seen when there’s a full moon.

The exact number of women who were targeted by Hopkins is not known, but it is thought that the prolific Hopkins was responsible for several hundred deaths. In less than two years the number of witches he convicted represented about 60% of the total number punished in England from the early 15th to the late 18th century. In 1646, a parson from Huntingdon by the name of John Gaule published a pamphlet exposing Hopkins methods for the nonsense they were. The Witchfinder General wrote back in an attempt to defend himself, but popular support for his actions had begun to wane. Hopkins retired to Manningtree, a rich man. He died in 1647 of tuberculosis and was buried in the churchyard at Mistley Heath; both the graveyard and his body are long gone.

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I headed to Manningtree, passing Mistley Towers, erected as part of a failed scheme in the late 18th century to reinvent Mistley as a saltwater spa town. The twin towers that remain are all that’s left of a grand Georgian church, designed by Robert Adams and eventually demolished in 1870. I walked over the Hopping Bridge – in broad daylight I saw no ghosts. A lone swan glided across the still waters of the pond.

Across the road, following the south bank of the River Stour along what’s known as The Walls, I encountered more of these graceful birds. Mistley has been traditionally associated with a large population of mute swans, which have made their home here since the 18th century. Back then, as barley and other grain was unloaded at the quayside, some would be blown by the wind into the waters of the Stour and its tributary channels. Not surprisingly, the swans hung around to feed off this grain and have done so ever since. These days, those that remain are part of a domesticated herd.

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The sun was out, fittingly for what’s termed the Essex Sunshine Coast, and I couldn’t resist an ice cream as I walked towards Manningtree. In Tudor times a centre for the cloth trade, later a port, Manningtree claims to be England’s smallest town (by area, not population). The town also gets a mention in the Shakespeare play Henry IV Part One, as Falstaff is likened to a “roasted Manningtree ox”. The Witch Finder’s evil reach extended to Manningtree too, for it was here that some of his victims were hanged, and the town sign bears his picture.

With bunting out and kids playing on the town beach, it was hard to imagine such troubled times. As I made my way to the train station, I thought what a pleasant afternoon I’d had on my latest #railadventure.

The lowdown

I received free train travel from Greater Anglia in exchange for writing this review of my #railadventure, but there are some great deals to be had for paying customers, particularly if you travel off peak. For instance, if you book in advance, tickets from Norwich to London are available at just £10, Cambridge to London at £7 and Southend to London at just £5 (all fares quoted are one way). Accompanied children travel for just £2 return and you don’t even have to pre-book for their ticket as this fare is valid on all off peak trains within the Greater Anglia network. On top of this, they are offering  2FOR1 on top London attractions, helping your summer holiday budget stretch further.

Discover destinations and ticket prices at www.greateranglia.co.uk and plan your journey at www.nationalrail.co.uk.

Did you feel inspired to plan your own rail adventure after reading this blog? Why not complete Greater Anglia’s survey using this link:

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/5CG9TGG


A beginner’s guide to the Faroe Islands

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

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Getting there

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

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Getting around

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

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For timetables, visit the Strandfaraskip website:

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

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

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

Sheep

What to see

Tórshavn

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

Tinganes

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

KOKS

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

Kirkjubøur

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

Saksun

To reach the tiny village of Saksun, you’ll need your own transport (or be up for a lengthy hike) but the reward is a super hike alongside a tidal lagoon to the sea. The folk museum within the Dúvugarðar sheep farm is managed by the farmer himself who apparently isn’t too keen on tourists visiting, so don’t plan on gaining access. The setting’s the star here, though, and you won’t be disappointed by the walk along a sheltered, sandy beach hemmed in by steep cliffs. At low tide, and in good weather, it’s surely got to be one of the prettiest spots in the country. I visited in the pouring rain and on a rising tide. Despite the low cloud and the slightly wet feet it was still worth the effort.

Vestmanna

Weather killed my boat trip to the Vestmanna bird cliffs but I’m told the sight of the towering rockfaces crammed with puffins, guillemots and razorbills is an impressive one. If rain stops play as it did for me, the SagaMuseum, housed inside the tourist information centre, is an interesting detour, if a bloodthirsty one. Prepare for some pretty explicit waxworks; the creators didn’t hold back when telling the stories from the sagas of the Faroes’ Viking past. Decapitation, torture and drowning are all depicted in the gruesome exhibits. An audio guide is a must to learn about the fascinating tales behind the exhibits.

And beyond…

Even if you’re only in the Faroes for a long weekend, Sandoy and Streymoy are only a half an hour apart by ferry so it’s a tempting excursion from Tórshavn.

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Vast empty beaches lined with sea stacks and grazed by sheep who munch on the plentiful seaweed are a big draw, even in the shoulder season. Quaint harbours full of colourful fishing boats, yarn-bombed rocks and even the odd art gallery all offer pleasant diversions. With more time you can journey further afield to the other islands. Highlights include Hans Pauli Olsen’s sculpture of the seal woman on Kalsoy, picturesque Gjógv – the most northerly village on the island of Eysturoy – and a solitary hike to the lighthouse at the end of the the islet of Mykineshólmur on Mykines, an island where puffins greatly outnumber people.

Planning

I bought the Bradt guide to the Faroe Islands a month or so before I travelled and as ever, it’s an informative and eminently readable guide. If you are planning an independent visit to the Faroe Islands it will be invaluable to your preparations.

Thanks

I travelled to the Faroe Islands on a press trip as a guest of Atlantic Airways who were efficient, friendly and best of all laid back about seat swaps so we could all grab a window seat. Visit Faroe Islands and Visit Sandoy arranged a diverse and memorable itinerary, so much so that I’m already planning a return visit at some point in the not so distant future. Their accommodation choices, the Hotel Føroyar overlooking Tórshavn and the Hotel Sandavik on Sandoy, were comfortable, contemporary and classically Scandinavian.

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Though I paid for my connecting flight, I’m grateful to Holiday Extras for taking care of my airport parking at London Stansted, particularly as they chose the very convenient Short Stay Premium option.