juliamhammond

Travel advice and guidance

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!

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?


Tips for getting the best out of Salzburg’s Christmas markets

If you’re looking for an alternative to Germany’s excellent Christmas markets, then why not head over the border to Austria?  Salzburg is one of Europe’s most elegant cities, and during the run up to Christmas, it’s bedecked with festive lights and crammed full of stalls.  I spent the weekend exploring its Christmas markets and experienced Advent Austrian-style.  Here are my tips for getting the best out of a pre-Christmas trip.

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Make the most of public transport with a day pass

An extensive network of buses and trolley buses makes getting around easy.  Day passes are available, as is the more expensive Salzburg Card which includes free admission to visitor attractions as well as free transport.  It does cost 24 euros for the day, however, so you need to be sure you’re going to get your money’s worth for the extra 20 euros you’ll be spending per person.  If you’re going to be spending a lot of time at the markets it’s unlikely the Salzburg Card will represent good value for money.

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But if you buy regular, transport-only day passes from a machine they cost just 4 euros a day, compared to 5,70 euros if you purchase them from the driver of the bus.  If you’re arriving in Salzburg by train or plane, you’ll find these machines in the main bus station or at the airport.  They are valid for a complete 24 hour period rather than by calendar days, so you’ll most likely be able to use them the following morning too – good to know if you’re going to be starting your day somewhere there’s no machine.  Print off or download maps before you go to make sense of the network; there’s also an app featuring timetables and mobile ticketing.

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Download from:

https://salzburg-verkehr.at/service/downloads/

There’s an English option available, but if not these are the maps you’ll find most useful:

City: Liniennetzplan Stadt Salzburg              Region: SVV Zonenplan

Wrap up warm

You might not get a dumping of snow as I did, but if you’re visiting Salzburg in December, it is likely to be very cold. Temperatures during my visit hovered just below freezing, but if like me you’re tempted out onto the Wolfgangsee, the wind that blows across the lake is a chill one. Pack accordingly, and layer up with hat, scarf, gloves and thermal underlayers. If all else fails, drink gluhwein!

Plan your market trips

As you might expect, there’s more than just one market in the city, as well as some delightful markets in the surrounding towns and villages.  I took a trip out to St Gilgen and Strobl on the shores of the Wolfgangsee.  Strobl’s market featured livestock in the form of sheep, goats and reindeer and boat trips were possible too between the lakeshore villages.  St Gilgen’s market was bigger and had a lot of character.  A day pass on the #150 bus meant I could hop on and hop off all day for a fare of 17,60 euros.

In the city itself, the largest market is the Christkindlmarkt in Domplatz.  As the name suggests, it’s right by the cathedral in the Old Town.  It has its origins in a market that started in the 15th century, though in its present incarnation it’s been going since 1974.  Just around the corner you’ll find an ice rink.  The Christkindlmarkt had a huge concentration of stalls but as a result was packed; if you’re not so keen on crowds, I’d recommend visiting this one during the day.

There is also a smaller market at Mirabellplatz, which is handy if you need to kill time or grab a hot drink before your bus leaves as it’s right by the stops.  This year the market up at the Hohensalzburg fortress is closed due to renovation work, but well worth checking out next year.

My favourite of all the city markets was that at Hellbrunn, a short ride away by #25 bus and included in the 4 euros day pass.  Nestled in the courtyard of this attractive palace, there are plenty of artisan stalls so a lot of choice if you plan to do some gift-shopping.  The inclusion of hundreds of trees festooned with red baubles and the use of the palace shutters to turn the palace into a huge Advent calendar makes this one extra special.

There is a 3 euros entrance charge at the weekend (it’s free on weekdays) but this is redeemable for a mug of Gluhwein which would have cost 3,50 euros.  If you have kids with you, it’s good to know that this is the place where they have the trick fountains and although they used to be a summer-only attraction, for the last couple of years these have been opened during Advent too.

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To check opening times and other details, this is the link you’ll need:

https://www.austria.info/uk/things-to-do/skiing-and-winter/christmas-markets/christmas-markets-in-salzburg

Don’t just visit the markets

Space them out and punctuate your visits with other activities. There are carol concerts and muscial recitals at many of the markets; you’ll find schedules online, though not all sites are in English. For something completely different, I caught a train out to Oberndorf bei Salzburg to visit the Silent Night chapel, a memorial chapel in the village where schoolmaster Franz Gruber and pastor Josef Mohr composed and performed the popular carol for the first time.  In the company of a band of actors and local dignitaries, I participated in a themed walk that crossed the Salzach River into Laufen, Germany.  there, at the Salzachhalle, watched a play which recounted the tale of the history of those twin villages as well as the story of how Silent Night came to be.  I won’t pretend I understood a lot with my schoolgirl German, but the music was heavenly.

Attending a Krampus run is also good fun and it’s worth checking out where the nearest is during your visit.  If you haven’t already seen the blog I wrote about Gnigl’s Krampus festivities, check out the post here where you’ll also find some useful links if you plan to go yourself:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/12/05/the-scary-side-of-christmas/

Done Salzburg?

If you’ve already been to Salzburg’s Christmas markets and they’ve given you a taste for more, why not try these alternatives?  Last year I blogged about Copenhagen and Regensburg, both of which can be visited in a day from London:

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

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

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Wherever you are this Advent, have a safe and happy time!


How tough is the hike to Chalaadi Glacier?

The older I get and the more my knees creak, the more I need to research possible hikes before setting on to ensure I don’t end up with aching muscles or worse, being stretchered out. But no one, least of all me, wants to find out that they’ve missed out on superb scenery on a hike that would have been perfectly within their capabilities. So when I found out about a glacier accessible from Mestia on foot, I set about reading up. The trouble is, many of those who post are young and fit. Their definition of an easy hike isn’t necessarily what I’d call easy. So here are the facts about hiking to the Chalaadi Glacier.

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You don’t have to walk all the way

Technically, the Svans consider this hike a 25km round trip. The official tourist board literature states the duration of the hike as being eight hours. That’s beginning and ending in Mestia and walking up the road past the airport until it runs out. Well, 25km would take me more than eight hours including collapses, even if much of it is fairly flat.

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Keen not to have to quit before the good bit, I hired a lovely driver called Nodani. I found him in the main square in his adapted Subaru – look for the Subaru sunshield and a disabled badge in his rear windscreen. He agreed to drive me to the suspension bridge that crosses the River Mestiachala. It costs a flat rate of 80 lari (about £26). It’s also possible to rent horses, but they looked pretty frisky and once you pay for the guide too, it’s not a cheap option.

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Allow time to enjoy the hike

Most people book a two hour gap between rides; I made it three so as not to have to rush. I was keen to take the hike at a steady pace and allow enough time to appreciate my surroundings. I thought I’d make an afternoon of it but in actual fact got back thirty minutes ahead of schedule. No biggie: there’s a cafe at the bridge where I waited for Nodani to come and collect me.

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You won’t get lost

A concern if you’re hiking solo, as I was, is getting lost. Most trails are marked but the frequency of such signs can be less than you need. Not so here, where they’ve helpfully painted red and white rectangles on assorted rocks and tree trunks. There was even an arrow cut into the tree trunks in some places. It was very clear which direction you needed to take, so you won’t get lost.

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The uphill bits were a bit of a slog

Remember, I’m no athlete. If you are reasonably fit, then this will be a piece of cake. But the altitude at the river is around 1600 metres above sea level, rising to about 1920 up near the glacier. If like me you live at sea level, the thinner air won’t help either. But it’s shady amid the trees and where the route passes through the forest, you’ll see plenty of pretty flowers and lichen covered rocks.

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The path wasn’t difficult to navigate as the stones formed a natural staircase. I took frequent rests and carried plenty of water. Further up, heavy rains a few days before my hike meant the water was running high and parts of the path had turned into a shallow stream. Luckily it wasn’t deep enough to leave me with wet feet.

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You have to cross a boulder field

About halfway to the glacier, you reach an area where rockfalls have created a big obstacle. Boulders of various sizes lie piled up. Some are steady, others move disconcertingly beneath your feet. I fell foul of such a hazard when I hiked one of Sweden’s High Coast trails last year and ended up with a nasty cut and bruised elbow. There are also deep gaps between some of the stones, meaning a misstep would leave me with a twisted ankle or worse. This was the scariest part of the hike, more so on the way back down as higher up the slope I could hear rocks falling. Fortunately I managed to cross without incident and didn’t end up a casualty of a rock avalanche. You’ll need decent boots though.

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You can cut out the very top part of the hike and still see the glacier

Once you’ve successfully negotiated the boulders, the path is an easy one and leads to a flower strewn meadow by the river. Here, you get a fabulous view of the glacier itself and in its mountain setting, it really is a spectacular view. Turn around, and you’ll see mountains behind you too. Unless you’re really dead set on touching the glacier, you’ll be scrambling over terminal moraine to get any higher. Personally, given the timing of my visit in early summer when the ice is melting and there’s a real possibility of being hit by falling ice or rocks, I didn’t continue. If you carry on, as many do, it’s advisable to use walking poles.

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Is it worth it?

That’s a resounding yes! If the weather’s playing nicely as it was during my visit, it’s hard to imagine a better way of spending an afternoon. But to maximise your time spent at the scenic parts of the trail, I’d definitely advise hiring a driver for that dull airport road.

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What you need to know about the US laptop ban

Much has been written in the press over the past week on the subject of a ban on larger electronics items entering the United States with airline passengers.  Following on from the March policy shift in which inbound flights from certain Middle Eastern and North African destinations, there’s speculation that such a policy could be extended to European destinations.

What’s the current situation?

At present, passengers travelling to the US from ten airports are affected: Queen Alia International Airport (AMM), Cairo International Airport (CAI), Ataturk International Airport (IST), King Abdul-Aziz International Airport (JED), King Khalid International Airport (RUH), Kuwait International Airport (KWI), Mohammed V Airport (CMN), Hamad International Airport (DOH), Dubai International Airport (DXB) and Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH).

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Large electronics items, including laptops but also larger cameras like DSLRs and tablets such as the iPad, must be carried in the hold and cannot be taken on board the flight.  How airlines are implementing this varies, but some are offering gate check in and secure packaging in the form of bubble wrap and cardboard boxes.  This policy doesn’t extend to the return leg; flights departing the US for these ten airports are not subject to the same restrictions.

So why are people getting upset?  Surely they can do without their gadgets for a few hours?

As talk grows about an extension to the ban, so too do certain worrying facts emerge.  Many of these larger items are powered by lithium ion batteries, which up to now have been banned from the hold for safety reasons.  They carry a risk of catching fire, something that could have disastrous consequences if unnoticed.  The FAA itself stated its concerns in 2016:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/lithium-batteries-spark-catastrophic-plane-fires-faa-warns/story?id=36816040

There’s more here, from The Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-uk-flights-usa-america-donald-trump-british-airline-pilots-association-heathrow-a7736076.html

There’s also the issue of sensitive data on company laptops and directives from some businesses to their employees requiring them to keep such equipment on their person whilst travelling.  For the regular tourist, it’s more a case of a lack of insurance.  I might just about be able to cope without my iPad on a long flight if I went back to those old fashioned paperback things I used to lug around, but if the airline then loses my suitcase, my travel insurance policy won’t pay out.  I really can’t afford to replace my DSLR if the lens gets smashed in transit.  So, with a flight to Houston looming on Friday, I’ve been watching the TSA website and Twitter like a stalker.

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So have they made a decision yet?

There were some misleading headlines last week, like this one in NYMag following a piece in The Daily Beast:

http://nymag.com/selectall/2017/05/laptops-banned-in-plane-cabin-on-flights-from-europe-to-u-s.html

Retweeted and quoted to within an inch of its life, The Daily Beast’s article, claiming an announcement would be made Thursday 11 May, sparked an angry reaction.  In part, there was a touch of indignation along the lines of European nations being way too civilised to be lumped together with the Middle East.

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But amidst all the fuss, some serious issues for the Americans began to be raised, not least the impact that it would have to the US economy and its tourism sector.  This article from The Independent explains:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-on-flights-electronic-devices-travel-industry-airlines-travelport-a7737671.html

Yes, you read that right: 1 in 3 potential foreign tourists would think twice about going if this policy becomes a reality.  I’m among them.  I’d be seriously concerned about that fire risk, especially on such a long flight.

Here’s a follow up article, also from The Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-europe-economic-tsunami-travel-industry-electronic-devices-flights-plane-hold-uk-usa-a7740396.html

I’m hoping, as we get closer to my departure date, that even if the electronics ban is widened, the changes won’t take effect until after I’m there.  Getting my valuables back to Blighty in one piece will be, as it has always been, down to me.  But after that, much as it pains me to say given my love of the USA, I’d have to give it a miss, at least until the TSA came to its senses once more.  It was reported that the TSA met with representatives of the US’ major airlines last Friday to see how a ban could be implemented; sources indicate that further meetings were to be held with EU personnel today.  At the time of writing, there’s been no announcement.

Watch this space.

Update 18.5.17

Well as it turned out we didn’t have to wait too long for an update.  Common sense has prevailed and the EU have persuaded the US authorities that widening the ban on larger electronics would be foolish:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-39956968

The ban still exists for the ten Middle Eastern and North African airports, so think about your safety before you opt to fly.  Happy travels!


Best kept secrets? I’ll give you a few of mine…

Sometimes there’s a travel listicle that does the rounds that just makes you laugh out loud.  I’ve just read a piece by Tour Radar claiming to have been written in conjunction with Lonely Planet which puts Prague, Sri Lanka and Goa on a compilation of eight “best kept secrets”.  I’m sorry, but walk into any High Street travel agent and it won’t be hard to find a package to any of those.  I’m shocked that this got through the filter, if I’m honest, so here’s my response.  You want best kept secrets?  I’ll reveal a few of mine.

Karajia, Peru

Everyone goes south from Lima, but head north and leave the crowds behind.  The area around Chachapoyas has some superb sights and you’ll often get them to yourself.  Read more in my guide to Northern Peru’s Chacha circuit here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/northern-peru-the-chacha-circuit/

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The sarcophagi at Karajia

Citadelle Laferriere, Haiti

Haiti’s troubled political history and its penchant for getting right in the way of terrible natural disasters means that tourist infrastructure is severely limited.  Make the effort, though, and there are many wonderful places to be explored.  Aside from Jacmel, I pretty much had everywhere to myself.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/07/05/looking-back-on-my-trip-to-haiti/

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The view from the Citadelle

Copan Ruinas, Honduras

Central America is packed with Mayan ruins but you’ll have a hard time finding space for a bit of quiet reflection if you stick to the beaten track.  Honduras’ reputation as the murder capital of the world keeps the tourists away, but the savvy traveller will know that away from the large cities, the country is as safe as they come.  Saddle up and see for yourself in sleepy Copan Ruinas.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/08/12/the-best-places-to-ride-a-horse-on-holiday/

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Riding with the cowboys up near the border with Guatemala

Obuasi, Ghana

The only other foreigners at the lodge in Obuasi were a bunch of South Africans who partied hard by night and worked the gold mine by day.  Few tourists make it to this part of Ghana but it remains one of my favourite underground experiences.

http://www.gonomad.com/5032-ghana-going-down-a-gold-mine-in-obuasi

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Obuasi miners at shift change

Tanna, Vanuatu

The draw of this South Pacific island is well documented – an active volcano which bred the Prince Philip cult. Its remoteness, however, means that it sees relatively few tourists and those that venture are likely to have little company as they view some of the most spectacular sights on the planet.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/looking-back-on-my-trip-to-tanna-vanuatu/

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Mount Yasur erupts

Bremen, Germany

If you’re looking for somewhere off the beaten track in Europe, you’re going to have to search hard.  Bremen’s northerly location in Germany means it sees relatively few visitors and yet there’s lots to do and see.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/10/03/beautiful-bremen/

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/06/07/just-back-from-a-day-trip-to-bremen/

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Windmill in the park

Extremadura, Spain

Also in a country that sees its fair share of international tourists is the delightful region of Extremadura.  Overlooked in favour of its southerly neighbour Andalusia, yet an easy ride from Madrid, this part of Spain is packed with history and extraordinary scenery.  Get there before everyone else.  No, scratch that – leave this one to me!

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/07/12/a-beginners-guide-to-extremadura/

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The sound of Spanish guitar carries across Cáceres’ Ciudad Monumental


New York for second-timers

OK, so you’ve been to the Big Apple, and during that first trip, you diligently ticked off the essential sights: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State (other towers are available!), the Brooklyn Bridge.  You strolled through Central Park, caught the Staten Island ferry, shopped on 5th Avenue, dined in the neon-lit Times Square and were humbled by your emotions at the 9/11 Memorial.  So that’s it, right?  Wrong.  Here are some great New York City experiences to keep you busy when you return for more.

Bronx Botanical Gardens and Zoo

These two attractions are just a short walk from each other, so combining them on the same day makes sense, especially on a Wednesday when you can get into most exhibits free of charge.  I visited in November, the perfect time to witness the fall colours at their best and watch the animals play without distracting crowds.

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High Line or Lowline?

Both, of course.  The High Line park is now well established on everyone’s must-see list for New York, and won’t disappoint.  I love it in winter; if the sun’s shining and the wind’s absent, there’s no place better to chill out.  But now the elevated railway has a rival, at weekends at least: the Lowline Lab, an experimental space destined to become the city’s first underground park.

Update: the Lowline has now closed.

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Gospel brunch in Harlem

The other great way to spend a Sunday is to savour the tastes and of course the sounds of brunch in Harlem.  You don’t have to be religious – just musical – to appreciate the atmosphere and joy generated in a number of excellent eateries.  Sylvia’s and The Cotton Club have been at it for years, but I opted for a relative newcomer, Ginny’s Supper Club, located in the basement of Red Rooster – and wasn’t disappointed.

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City of New York Museum

You’ll have paid a visit to the Met and the Guggenheim last time, so how about learning a little of the city’s history to give you some context.  Located beyond the Upper East Side facing the north-east corner of Central Park, it’s the perfect place to learn more about the story that whizzed past you as you ascended the elevator to the top of the Freedom Tower.

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Skyscraper Museum

This tiny museum is tucked away around the corner from Battery Park, but is well worth the detour.  It has a mixture of permanent and rotating exhibits, explaining the development of the skyscraper and its contribution to the city’s iconic skyline.  If you’re in the city between now and January, check out the Skyline installation.

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Governors Island

Once known as Nut Island, this tiny haven from the noise of Manhattan was renamed Governors Island by the British in 1699 who occupied it until the time of the American Revolution.  Later a military base for the US Army and home to the Coastguard, it’s now open during the summer months as a city playground.  Once you’ve admired the view of southern Manhattan, rent a bicycle, enjoy a lazy picnic or try out Slide Hill, one of the island’s newest attractions.

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Watch a game

Which sport you watch depends of course on the season in which you visit. In summer or autumn, head up to 161st Street where you’ll find the Yankee Stadium.  In winter, try the ice hockey at a fast-paced Rangers game or watch the Knicks play basketball at Madison Square Garden.  The latter offers an interesting backstage tour as well.  For those of us visiting from outside the US, it’s as much an exercise in people-watching as anything else.  Attention spans are low compared to the intensity of watching the footie back home, for instance, but grab a beer and a hot dog to soak it up anyway.

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Bryant Park Christmas market

Once Thanksgiving has passed, it’s time to focus on Christmas.  My favourite Christmas market in the city is at Bryant Park, an easy hop from Times Square in the heart of Midtown, though the last time I was there heavy rainfall had flooded the paths and many of the stallholders had gone home early.  Union Square also has a market, a little smaller but also worth a look.

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Roosevelt Island tramway

It’s been a while since I rode this, but a ride on the Roosevelt Island tramway is worth it for the views alone.  After the Staten Island ferry, it’s probably the biggest public transport bargain in the city, as you can ride it for a price equivalent to a single subway ride using your MTA card.  If you think it looks familiar, that’s because t’s been featured in many movies, including Scarface, City Slickers, Now You See Me and Spiderman.

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New York Transit Museum

The shops and cafes of Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg are well-documented but a few miles down the road, you’ll find the New York Transit Museum, occupying a decommissioned subway station where Boerum Place meets Schermerhorn Street.  Underground, you’ll find a collection of vintage subway cars, some of which are over a hundred years old.  The best bit: no one minds if you hop on board.

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