juliamhammond

Travel advice and information

Moldova’s National Wine Day

Moldova celebrates its National Wine Day over the first weekend in October. If you want to sample wines from the country’s many wineries without putting in the legwork, this is your chance. Representatives from the major labels come to the capital Chișinău and set up beside Cathedral Park. The organisers even offer a wine tasting passport with tour guide to provide key background information should you wish to know a little more about what you’re drinking.

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Getting there

From the UK, there are pretty much two direct options: Air Moldova from Stansted and Wizz Air from Luton. (I also found an airline called FlyOne, but it didn’t seem to be operating flights at this time of year.) When I booked, the Wizz Air option was significantly cheaper but did have the disadvantage of flying overnight on the outbound leg. If you’re going to do this one, hope that your hotel will allow you to check in early or prepare to take an afternoon nap. That’s of course if like me you’ve reached the age where staying up all night is no longer a good thing.

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Getting around

There’s a convenient trolley bus which departs from right outside the arrivals terminal door. It takes about half an hour to get into the city centre and costs just 2 lei, about 10p. Look for the number 30 and pay the conductor on the bus. If you need to find change, there are exchange facilities that open early in the morning landside; I bought a cup of coffee which gave me somewhere warm to wait for the bus and the right money to buy a ticket. It was a little disconcerting when the bus stopped and the driver got out; I’d forgotten that trolley buses are a lot of effort when the wires don’t extend the length of the route. What was good, though, was that the buses ran from very early in the morning until late at night, even on Sunday.

Getting a room

I opted for the almost brand new City Center Hostel. It was located just across the road from Cathedral Park and around the corner from the bus stop. My room had twin bunks and for single occupancy cost just £27 for the night. The shared bathrooms were down the hall but were spotless. If you can’t bring yourself to stay in a hostel, next door is the conveniently located Bristol Central Park Hotel and opposite is the Radisson Blu. Both I’m sure are very nice but would set you back a whole lot more.

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Getting your culture fix

I’d read that there was a parade and early signs were promising. There were plenty of people in national costume and in front of the big sound stage, rehearsals were still in full swing just minutes before the action was supposed to kick off. I was able to get close enough to see the dancers, which was fortunate as once the formal proceedings began, some rather surly security personnel did a very good job of keeping everyone right back out of the way. The view was further obstructed by press photographers and cameramen.  There were no programmes in English, but this lady had brought her own from the local newspaper – no help to me, alas:

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Though I did manage to see some of the winery representatives presenting their baskets of grapes, this part of the proceedings was something of a let down. However, later, once all the dignitaries had said their piece, the bands came on and the dancing started – fun to watch and even more fun to join in. The event’s free too, which was even better.

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Getting drunk

With a tasting passport costing just 200 lei (£10), it’s hard to resist the chance to try as many of the wines on offer as you can. I made my way to one of the information kiosks (they’re located at either end of the main drag) and grabbed a place for one of the English speaking tours.

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Our guide was as hipster as they come, but explained the different characteristics of the wine well at first. As the afternoon wore on, he became progressively more tipsy (like the rest of us) and at one point dropped a bottle of wine on the floor in front of him.

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Some of the wines were too dry for my taste but I did enjoy the Cricova sparkling wines. I’m no connoisseur – the sweeter and fizzier the wine, the more I like it. Fortunately, the passport contained an extra token for “your favourite” wine so I had a second glass. It was a pity there are such stringent regulations at airports these days as I’d have liked to buy some to bring back.

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By the way, if you are going to visit one of the wineries outside Chișinău, I’d recommend Mileștii Mici. Its huge underground vault can hold almost 2 million bottles of wine and its subterranean rooms and passageways extend for around 120 miles. They run organised tours so there’s no need to worry about getting lost down there forever.

Getting food

Fortunately, there was plenty of opportunity to taste the local food as well, which helped to soak up a little of the alcohol I’d consumed. Adjacent to the wine stands are the food stalls. Many sold similar fare: succulent pork, tasty sausage, cabbage and potatoes. A lot of the stalls sold by weight; you indicated roughly how much they should pile on your plate and they told you how much you owed them. I had a heaped plate for about 75 lei, which worked out to under £4, and it was delicious. Communal tables mean it’s easy to make friends while you eat.

Getting to see more of the city

As I was visiting Transnistria, my time in Chișinău was limited. I did get to see the city’s smallest statue. Representing the Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella, it took a while to locate, not least because someone I asked for directions Googled it and found an old article which said it was yet to be installed. It’s on the railings lining the lake in Valea Morilor Park – persevere and you’ll find it.

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I also had a wander around an open air museum outside the city centre on the airport road; there was a wedding taking place so I didn’t have the chance to go in the wooden church. I finished up at the Ciuflea Monastery. Despite being close to the main road, it was remarkably peaceful.


East vs west: routes to New Zealand compared

I’m just back from my latest trip to New Zealand and this time took a different route, flying west from London to Los Angeles and then on to Auckland instead of the easterly route I followed before which took me via Singapore. Both flights were on a Boeing 777 but how do the routes compare and which do I recommend?

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West: via Los Angeles

I was tempted by an excellent Black Friday deal offered by Air New Zealand. By signing up to email alerts with Secret Flying (you might remember their tip off saw me travel business class from London to New York for under £350), I learned of a special offer. Fifty flights were on offer for just £399, which is exceptional value for a trip that takes 26 hours in the air westbound and 24 coming back. I went online and uploaded my details to the Air New Zealand site in preparation for the offer to go live, saving valuable minutes and ensuring I was one of the lucky recipients.

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In practice, one of the downsides to travelling in this direction is of course having to go through the US immigration process. An ESTA is required for UK passport holders even if they are only in transit; this costs about £10 but is valid for up to 2 years. I’ve just renewed mine and incidentally, it’s a more detailed form than before. On the outbound leg, passengers transiting on NZ1 were fast-tracked to some empty kiosks and desks which saved a fair bit of time on the regular queues. This wasn’t the case on the inbound leg, NZ2, when we were all directed to the main queue, adding about fifteen minutes to the process.

Though it isn’t necessary to fill out a customs form or clear customs, there’s still the requirement to queue through security. This took about fifteen minutes on both legs. NZ1 and NZ2 use the same plane for both legs, with suitcases remaining in the hold. Passengers must alight and take all hand luggage with them while the plane is cleaned and restocked. Some passengers only fly one of the legs. I found that the London to LA (and vice versa) part of the flight was considerably less full than the LA to Auckland segment.

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I had hoped to be seated in a Skycouch row. Air New Zealand’s trio seats on either side of the plane are fitted with pull out, sturdy padded footrests which can be converted into a couch. You have to pay extra for this and not all reports are good, with some travellers saying it’s hard for a couple to get comfortable enough to sleep. For a comprehensive review of Skycouch, why not take a look at this excellent review from etrip.tips?

http://etrip.tips/air-nz-skycouch-flying-cuddle-class-to-san-francisco/

As a solo traveller, to be able to guarantee the use of one of these would have signifcantly increased my fare. On the inbound LA to London leg, the Skycouch adjacent to my centre section aisle seat was vacant. Cabin crew did not permit me to use it, however. Instead they moved a mother and baby there which is fair enough as they were more in need of the space than me. However, this kindness resulted in the family being split on opposite sides of the aircraft. Throughout the flight they came and went, knocking my seat and making sleep difficult for me. The baby slept soundly like, well, a baby.

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The outbound leg was quicker than scheduled, taking 10 hours 30 minutes from London to LA, followed by a layover of 2 hours 5 minutes and then an onward flight of around 12 hours 30 minutes. Auckland Airport was very busy when we touched down around 5.15am and I wasn’t on the bus out of the airport until well after 7am. However, I was fortunate that my hotel room was available and after showering, enjoyed a pleasant day’s sightseeing without the need for a nap. Julia 1 Jetlag 0. Now I’m home, I can report to have been very tired for a few days but not very jetlagged as I was going to bed and waking at normal times.

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Verdict

Though transiting the USA wasn’t an issue and there was no danger of missing the second leg of the journey as it used the same aircraft, the short layover wasn’t enough to stretch my legs properly, take a shower or have a sleep in a proper bed. The food and entertainment were both above average, yet over such a long time in the air I found the time dragged, particularly on the second half of the journey. Also, so many seats required additional payment (for extra legroom, priority boarding or of course the Skycouch option) it meant that the availablity of my preferred aisle seat was very limited. I checked in online immediately the systems opened but even so, only three aisle seats were showing as available and no window seats.

East: via Singapore

I’d call this the classic route for Brits travelling to Australia or New Zealand. Asian stopovers are a popular choice, and especially Singapore as Changi Airport has such a stellar reputation. I used Singapore Airlines in 2013 and wasn’t disappointed.

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Outbound, I opted for an 8.30pm departure with Singapore Airlines, an overnight flight which reached Singapore at 4.30pm the following day. As my second leg flight didn’t depart until after 9pm, there was plenty of time to enjoy an unhurried dinner, a shower in the airport hotel and a stroll around the airport’s orchid garden. I could have visited Changi’s cinema to catch a movie, but figured there’d be plenty of opportunity for that on the flight itself.

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The inbound flight departed Auckland at 12 noon, arriving in the Asian hub at about 7pm. I chose to extend the layover to facilitate a night in a nearby hotel. My second leg thrrefore left Singapore at 9am the following day, reaching London by about 3.30pm that afternoon. This didn’t come at any extra cost, and the chance to stretch out in a full length bed with decent bed linen was very much appreciated. I came back to the airport the following morning considerably more refreshed than I did arriving from LAX.

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On both legs, I was easily able to secure my preferred aisle seat and would have been able to get a window seat if I’d have wished. Meals were good and the inflight entertainment system as good as you’d expect from an airline which regularly secures high approval ratings from travellers.

Where this option falls short, however, is the increased risk of jet lag affecting the first few days of your holiday. Some people swear by a stopover to give them time to adjust. Personally I think that just means you need to put your body clock through two changes in just a few days which isn’t ideal. However, it’s a good way of seeing a bit of Asia if you haven’t visited before. As well as Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok are conveniently located. Hubbing through Dubai is possible but the two legs are pretty uneven and it is hard to psyche yourself up for that second leg from Dubai to the Antipodes as you’ve barely covered a third of your total journey time at that point.

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Verdict

I found the overnight layover with a hotel stay made the Singapore option considerably less arduous. The lengthy outbound layover was also helpful. I’d done something similar with Malaysian Airlines to Sydney, hubbing through KL. That time, however, the jetlag was fierce and I remember stumbling around Sydney as if drunk on the first day before crashing and sleeping it off. I’ve read that for every hour’s difference in the time zones travelled, your body needs a day to recover. In practice, if you keep hydrated and try to sleep on the plane it can be considerably less than that. Arriving in Auckland from Singapore, I expected the jetlag to kick in, but in fact enjoyed a pleasant day pottering about Ponsonby before heading off to bed about 8pm.

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So would I choose east or west next time?

Price would be a deciding factor but unless I got an especially good deal I’d pay a little extra to fly eastbound and a bit more on top to be able to have a night’s sleep en route. As I get older, I really need the rest, though as a twenty something, getting to NZ as fast as possible would rank higher in the list of priorities. I was lucky not to have to suffer a middle seat with Air New Zealand so I’d look for an airline which permitted seat allocations at the time of booking, something which is increasingly being phased out as airlines seek to raise income. What I would say is that the US immigration and security procedures and staff which tend to put a lot of travellers off transiting via an American airport really shouldn’t. I’ve noticed in the last few years that staff attitudes have improved immensely and the norm is now a polite and friendly welcome.

Have you flown from London to Australia or New Zealand? Did you do it in one go? Which route gets your vote?


Why do countries change their name?

This week, I read in the news that the King of Swaziland has decreed that the country’s name will henceforth be known as eSwatini. He’s been referring to it as such for many years but this pronouncement, carefully timed to conicide with the kingdom’s 50th anniversary of independence makes it official.

The name means “land of the Swazis” and you’re probably thinking that it’s not so far removed from “Swaziland”. The king would beg to differ. Allegedly he’s fed up with people confusing his tiny landlocked country with another, larger landlocked country: Switzerland. And the country didn’t change its name on independence, so better late than never, you might say. Regardless, as eSwatini is an absolute monarchy, the name will stay, though it has angered some in the country who say the king should have better things to focus on – like their beleagured economy for instance.

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It brought to mind the announcement from the Czech Republic a couple of years ago that they’d prefer we shortened the country’s name to Czechia. The Czech Republic form would stay, but to make advertising easier, Czechia should be used if people wanted a catchier moniker. But too many people think it sounds like troubled Chechnya and the name isn’t sticking. Hungary tried something similar a few years earlier, in 2012, officially becoming Hungary after being the Hungarian Republic. I’d been calling it by the wrong name all those years.

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Cape Verde officially altered the English version of its name to the Republic of Cabo Verde in 2013, though if you book a holiday to the islands, most UK agents still refer to it as Cape Verde. Changing your name is one thing. Getting others to follow suit is another thing entirely.

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Often, the act of changing a country’s name comes with independence as part of a wider declaration that the country is now in charge of its own affairs. Until 1825, Bolivia was Upper Peru, Dahomey became Benin in 1975 and Upper Volta changed its name to Burkina Faso in 1984. Sri Lanka had been Ceylon until 1972 while Siam became Thailand in 1939 – and save for a short period in the 1940s it’s been Thailand ever since. I could go on.

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Splits and mergers are another common reason for name changes. The island of Zanzibar merged with mainland Tanganika to form Tanzania on independence in 1961. Malaya and Singapore combined with Sabah and Sarawak to become Malaysia in 1963. However, thanks to a memorable ad campaign, it will always be Malaysia Truly Asia to me. In the splits camp, Czechoslovakia divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1990s, spawning Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Slovenia, FYR Macedonia and Montenegro.

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Sometimes the changes can happen so often that people can’t keep pace. Take the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance. It was the Congo Free State in 1884, then Belgian Congo in 1908; the Republic of the Congo in 1960 before adding Democratic in 1964. Then in 1971, it became Zaire under Mobutu before reverting to the Democratic Republic of the Congo once more in 1997. And just to make matters more confusing still, the country next door now calls itself Republic of the Congo.

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Now the Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev has thrown his hat into the ring as well. He suggests that the suffix -stan doesn’t have the best connotations when it comes to attracting investment, thanks to some politically troubled neighbours. He proposes perhaps Kazak Yeli or “country of the Kazakhs”. The country’s ethnic diversity doesn’t make this an easy switch. Only time will tell how that one pans out.


On the trail of the mob in Havana

The classic American automobiles that cruise the Malecón ooze the glamour of bygone days, but 1950s Havana had a seedy alter ego. Mob-run casinos drew a decadent crowd. Vices of all kinds took centre stage. Traces of this era of such excess can still be seen today – if you know where to look.  Curious, I contacted Havana Super Tour and asked guide and founder Michael Rodriguez to let me in on a few of Havana’s dark secrets. Waiting to take us back in time was an immaculate silver grey Pontiac driven by owner Ricardo. Michael joked that Cuban men value their cars more highly than anything else in their lives – even their women. I’m not convinced that’s true of only Cuba.

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We began where the charmingly decrepit mansions of Habana Vieja give way to the boulevards of Centro. Gambling is banned in today’s Cuba, but the old casinos have been repurposed as conference rooms and elegant salons in many of the capital’s most renowned and once notorious hotels. One of them is the historic Hotel Sevilla. I’d stayed there during my first visit to Cuba fifteen years ago and around the corner from the exquisite Moorish-style lobby where I’d once checked in is a rogue’s gallery of past guests – good and bad. This time my focus was on the latter. Michael steered me towards a photograph of Al Capone, perhaps Chicago’s most notorious gangster, who used to book out the entire sixth floor when he was in town. Privacy comes at a price when you need to make sure no one eavesdrops.

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Michael led me across the street to a tiny store selling antiquarian books and other memorabilia from times past. Leafing through a folder of old black and white photos, he showed me how some of the Cuban capital’s hotels would have looked in Batista’s day and in the years immediately following the overthrow of his government. The city was the place to see and be seen. Hollywood’s biggest names came in their droves with Frank Sinatra leading the pack. Scandal was never far away. Michael reckoned that despite rumours that Sinatra’s singing career had initially been financed by the mob, he was clean – in Havana anyway. Some of his associates, however, were not.

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The biggest player of all on the Havana mob scene was an East European Jew who’d come to the USA to reinvent himself. Smart as they came, Meyer Lansky grew up in New York with Lucky Luciano. Lansky was the brains to Luciano’s brawn and together, they made a formidable pair. You messed with them at your peril. Having operated out of the Nacional for years, Lansky had his hands in a number of other businesses, including the successful Montmartre Club which was eventually torched by a revolutionary supporter in the early 1960s.

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Over a Mafia mojito at the Nacional. Michael told me that it was common for a Hollywood name to provide a respectable front for the money laundering, shady deals and violent altercations that were going on behind the scenes. Actor George Raft got his big break in the 1932 gangster movie Scarface. When New York mobster Santa Trafficante Jnr. opened the Capri, he needed someone to be its respectable public face. But though it was commonly held that Raft owned a sizeable stake in the hotel, Nicholas Di Costanzo, Charlie “The Blade” Tourine and Santino “Sonny the Butcher” Masselli operated it. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that many of the regular clientele were anything but legit themselves.

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Lansky himself opened the Riviera Hotel in 1956 as a front for his deals. It was one of many businesses through which he could launder his ill-gotten gains. Though he claimed Cuba ruined him when Castro rolled into Havana, under Batista’s regime he’d lived like a king. Despite decades of ruling the organised crime roost, the only crime the authorities ever managed to pin on him was a charge of illegal gambling.

The Riviera, our last stop, could have been a set from the hit US TV show Mad Men, had US-imposed sanctions not restricted where the studio’s dollars be spent. Mid-century modern might be back in vogue, but you’ll be hard pressed to find somewhere where the fixtures and fittings are as original as the furnishings. Walking through the doors of the Riviera Hotel was like stepping back in time, its 21st century patrons sticking out like a sore thumb in their modern apparel. Its casino was now a meeting room, the showy chandeliers the only clue to its dazzling past.

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Out back the pool had a turquoise diving board that just needed a girl with an hourglass figure and a red halter neck bathing suit to complete the picture postcard shot. Instead, an elderly lady with a white swimming cap and cellulite for thighs glided at a leisurely pace through the sunlit water. Michael suggested I took a closer look at the shape of the pool which had been constructed, aptly macabre, to take the form of an open coffin.

This is a chapter of Cuba’s history that is overshadowed by Che Guevara and Castro’s revolution, but it’s no less compelling. After Batista was kicked out, Havana under Fidel’s leadership cleaned up its act. But there’s still plenty of tangible evidence to make this a fascinating tour and if you want to see a side to Havana many travellers miss, then this is most certainly it.  It’s one thing reading the story, but nothing compares to standing in the same spot of some of the 20th century’s shadiest characters.

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About HST

Havana Super Tour is a rarity in Havana, a privately run enterprise which specialises in subjects as diverse as Art Deco, architecture, African religion, art or Hemingway. Alternatively, work with Michael and the HST team to design a bespoke tour to suit your own interests. Your classic car leaves from Casa 1932 at Campanario 63, a couple of blocks from the Malecón in Centro. The highly recommended Mob tour costs 35 CUCs per person, minimum two people, with transportation in a vintage automobile of course. Contact HST by email at elandarincarvajal@gmail.com or visit their website at:

http://www.campanario63.com/

The views expressed in this piece are my own, though I’m grateful to HST for offering me a private tour for the price of a group outing.


How the cost of attractions compares

I shared a video from BBC Wiltshire this week on my Facebook page. It reported that the cost of visiting Stonehenge is set to increase this April. Individual adult admission will rise from £16.50 to £19.50 while the cost of a family ticket will go up from £42.90 to over £50. Is it worth it, I asked, and the answer was almost universally no. So how does the cost of visiting Stonehenge compare with other world famous attractions?

The Pyramids
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General entrance to the Pyramids complex costs just 120 Egyptian pounds (under £5) but that doesn’t permit you to go inside the pyramids themselves. To get into the Great Pyramid it will cost a further 300 Egyptian pounds – if you’re lucky enough to get one of the 150 permits available each morning or afternoon. Entrance to the smaller pyramids is rotated so only one is open per day; it costs 60 Egyptian pounds on top of the general admission to go in.

Machu Picchu

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Entrance to Machu Picchu is being more tightly regulated by the Peruvian authorities in an attempt to manage visitor numbers. Tickets are timed and cost a foreigner 152 soles, about £33.80. Peruvians can enter for 64 soles (£14.20), as can nationals of the Comunidad Andina – Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia. You’ll need to pay extra if you’re aiming to climb Huayna Picchu. Even with the limits now imposed, it’s still a must-see while you’re in Peru.

Petra
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Tickets cost 50 Jordanian dinars for a one day ticket, though subsequent days are significantly cheaper. Two days will cost you 55JD and three will set you back 60JD. To qualify, you have to be able to prove you are staying overnight in Jordan, or the price becomes 90 JD. £1 will get you around 1 JD, so a visit to Petra makes Stonehenge look cheap. It’s better value, however, as there’s so much more to see, from the iconic Treasury to lesser known sites.

Angkor Wat
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Before you fork out for Cambodia’s premier attraction, you’ll need to decide how many days you’ll need to explore the vast Angkor archaeological complex. Passes are sold in one day ($37/$26.40), three day ($62/£44.30) and seven day ($72/£51.50) blocks that have to be used on consecutive days. You’ll also have to have your photo taken but this is free. Three days is about right to see the main sights.

Empire State Building

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The Empire State Building

Most visitors to the Empire State Building are content with an ascent to the 86th floor viewing platform. Adult tickets for this currently cost $37 (£26.40). To combine the 86th floor with the top deck on the 102nd floor, the price rises to $57. Seeing the sunrise will set you back $100 though you’ll need to snag one of only 100 tickets. A combo ticket for day and night (reentry after 9pm) is $53, so time your visit for sunset to avoid this surcharge.

Taj Mahal
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Getting into India’s most famous visitor attraction, the Taj Mahal, will set back foreign visitors 1000 rupees, the equivalent to about £11.20. Costs are approximately halved for citizens of SAARC countries (Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives and Afghanistan) and BIMSTEC Countries (Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar), while domestic visitors pay 40 rupees (about 45 pence).

Eiffel Tower
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The cost of reaching the top floor of the Eiffel Tower varies according to your energy levels. Take the elevator and it will set you back 25 euros (about £22). You can save 6 euros off this cost if you are prepared to climb the stairs instead. Satisfying yourself with a partial ascent is another way to keep your costs down – 16 euros and 10 euros for lift or steps respectively gets you to the second floor.

Have you visited any of these attractions? Were they worth the price of the entrance fee?


A beginner’s guide to Marrakesh

Its nicknames include the Red City and Daughter of the Desert, but the origin of the name Marrakesh is thought to come from the pairing of two Berber words, mur and akush, which mean Land of God.  You’ll see it written as Marrakech, also, as this is the French spelling.  This beguiling city is an easy weekend destination from the UK and captivates the visitor with its exotic easygoing charm.  Here’s what you need to know if Morocco’s famously intriguing destination is calling.

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Getting there

Many UK travellers head to Marrakesh on a direct flight with easyJet or Ryanair.  Fares can easily be found for as little as £50.  Don’t be concerned about travelling in the British winter as temperatures in the city are relatively mild – perfect sightseeing weather – though the nearby Atlas Mountains will have snow.  Scheduled operators include British Airways and the Moroccan flag carrier Royal Air Maroc.  Flight time from London is about three and a half hours.

Arriving overland can be an adventure in itself – in a good way.  The first time I visited (back in 1997) I caught a ferry from Algeciras in Spain and took the train to Marrakesh. I had a stop in  Fès on the way down and in Rabat to break the journey in the opposite direction.  You can catch a train from Tangier Ville station now and in 9 to 10 hours, arrive in Marrakesh with a change in Sidi Kacem.  Alternatively, there’s a sleeper train overnight which takes about 10 hours.  It’s usually OK to book a day or two ahead once you get to Morocco.

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Getting around

From the airport, most people jump in a taxi or arranging to be met by your hotel.  If you opt for the former, check the rates on the board outside arrivals as a general guide and then agree a price with the driver through the front window.  Only get in when you are happy with how much he’s charging.  If you haven’t much luggage, bus #19 travels between the airport and the Djemaa el Fna via the Sofitel and loops back through the Ville Nouvelle (including a stop at the train station).  It costs 30 dirhams per person single and 50 dirhams return.

For the purpose of sightseeing, the city can be split into two: the old city or Medina and the Ville Nouvelle, also called Guéliz or the French Quarter.  Pretty much the only way to get around the Medina’s souks is on foot, where you’ll need to watch out for men racing donkeys laden with hides, straw and other goods through the narrow passageways.  Within the rest of the old town, mostly it’s compact enough to walk.  To get to the Ville Nouvelle, the easiest way is to flag down a taxi, but there are buses which depart from the Djemaa el Fna and the Koutoubia minaret – easy to spot.  Another useful bus route to know is the #12 which you can use to get to the Jardin Majorelle (Ben Tbib stop).  Tickets cost 3 dirhams.  Check out the bus website for more routes:

http://www.alsa.ma/en/marrakech/itineraire-urbain

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Calèche rides (horse-drawn carriages) are a common sight in the city but you’ll need to bargain with the drivers to take a tour.  Check that the horse looks fit and healthy and then begin negotiations.  Aim for about 150 dirhams per hour.  Make sure you’re clear on whether that price is for everyone or per person as it’s common for there to be some “confusion” when it comes to the time to pay.  It’s a lovely way to see the city, particularly the ramparts and Ville Nouvelle.

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Where to stay

The first time I visited Marrakesh, I stayed at the railway station hotel, now an Ibis.  It was convenient, but lacked soul.  The second time, I decided I wanted to stay in one of the courtyard mansions known as riads and opted for one deep in the souk.  It had character in spades, but trying to find it without a ball of string in the labyrinthine alleyways was a nightmare.  More than once I had to call the hotel for them to talk me in which was funny at first and then enormously embarrassing.

The third time, I got it right.  I found a characterful riad which was a twenty minute stroll from the Djemaa el Fna yet on an easy to find road near the El Badi Palace and Saadian tombs.  Riad Dar Karma was delightful, cosy, chic and quiet – a cocoon from the hustle and bustle of central Marrakesh.  It also has its own hamman.  When I got sick (do not eat salad in Marrakesh no matter how well travelled you are), they brought me chicken soup.  I cannot recommend them highly enough:

http://www.dar-karma.com/en/

What to see

The souks

Plunge in and explore the souks  right away.  Getting lost in the smells, sounds and sights of narrow winding alleys lined with tiny shops piled high with anything from spices to scarves is the quintessential Marrakesh experience.  Don’t try to follow a map.  You’ll get lost regardless, so embrace this lack of control and immerse yourself.  When you’re ready to leave, if you’ve lost your bearings, as is likely, just ask someone to point you in the right direction.  Try not to miss the dyers souk with vibrant skeins of wool hanging from the walls and of course the tanneries on Rue de Bab Debbagh, which you’ll smell long before you see.

Haggling is a must if you wish to purchase anything.  It’s best to make a return visit to the souk when you’re ready to buy; shopping later in the trip, you’ll have a better idea of what things should cost and know what your target should be.  The general principles are that if you make an offer, it’s the honourable thing to pay up if it is accepted, and a final price of 30-40% is usually good going.  Remember, the vendor will need those extra few dirhams more than you so don’t haggle too fiercely.  Read  my tips on how to haggle successfully:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/08/09/five-steps-to-becoming-an-expert-haggler/

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Djemaa el Fna

Though its name loosely translates as the Assembly of the Dead, there is nowhere in Marrakesh that comes alive like its main square, the Djemaa el Fna.  It’s busy by day but really comes into its own at night when it transforms into a night market with row upon row of delicious street food.  You’ll see water sellers posing for photos, snake charmers, acrobats from the Sahara – even street dentists who’ll pull out a molar there and then for a fee.  If it’s your first time out of Europe it’s a veritable assault on the senses but one that you won’t forget.

Koutoubia Mosque

The minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque looms large behind the Djemaa el Fna and is worthy of closer inspection.  So the story goes, when it was constructed, the alignment was wrong and it was knocked down so the builders could start again.  What you see dates from the 12th century and got its name from the booksellers who once congregated around its base.

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El Badi Palace

This ruined palace is a good one to explore and lies within walking distance of the Djemaa el Fna.  Its name means Palace of the Incomparable and there’s certainly nothing like it in the city.  It was built in the 16th century by Sultan Ahmed al-Mansur Dhahbi to celebrate a victory over the Portuguese.  It’s possible to walk within its walls and courtyard.  You’ll frequently see storks nesting there.

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Jardin Majorelle

Yves St Laurent gifted this garden to the city of Marrakesh after lovingly restoring it to its original beauty.  It was designed and created by the French painter Jacques Majorelle; begun in 1924, it was a labour of love and a lifetime’s passion.  The vibrant blues and bold yellows of its walls and pots set off the mature planting to form a breathtaking space that will delight, whether you’re a keen gardener or not.  Be prepared though: it’s a busy place with around 700000 visitors a year so you’re unlikely to have it to yourself.

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Out of town

Captivating though Marrakesh assuredly is, it’s well worth heading out of town if you can.  On the edge of the city you’ll find the Palmeraie, a good place to ride a camel while shaded by around 150000 palm trees.  The Menara Gardens are located close to the airport.  They were laid out in the 12th century and from them you have a tantalising glimpse of the mountains beyond.  A bit further away from Marrakesh and you can visit waterfalls and visit Berber villages and markets.  The surf at Essaouira is a two-hour bus ride away and a visit to the Atlas Mountains is another favourite.  Your hotel or riad can fix you up with an organised tour or a driver/guide.

I took an excursion to Ouarzazate, stopping off along the way at Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO-listed, ruined fortified village which has been the setting for many a film, including The Mummy and Gladiator.  At the Atlas Film Studios, just outside Ouarzazate, you can have a lot of fun re-enacting scenes from those movies and more amidst the sets and props which remain. Check out their website but note, when they say “Famous Shootings” they don’t mean with a gun:

http://www.studiosatlas.com

A final word of advice

Scamming of unsuspecting tourists is a sport in Morocco and although the level of hassle is considerably less than in other cities, it’s wise to be on your guard.  A few key pointers:

Never use a taxi or ride in a calèche without agreeing the price first, the same holds for any services you use e.g. henna tattoos, photos of water sellers and so on

Carry small change to avoid prices being rounded up

Make sure you ask to see your guide’s licence as it is illegal to work without one

Nothing is ever free, even if your new friend says it is

And a scam I’ve never experienced, but is reputedly common: you visit a restuarant and are given a menu with temptingly cheap prices.  When the bill comes, the prices are higher; if queried, a new menu is presented with the more expensive prices clearly shown.  It’s an easy one to prevent: take a photo on your phone of the original menu prices and call their bluff if necessary.

Do you have any tips for Marrakesh or any advice for travellers planning their first trip there?  If so, please leave a comment.


A year of travels: looking back on 2017

2018 is almost here and it’s time to look back at the trips made in 2017.  I’ve been fortunate once again to have the opportunity to make lasting memories in some of the world’s most captivating destinations.  Here’s a round up of my favourite trips from the past year as well as a teaser for what’s to come in 2018.

Puerto Rico

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The first trip of the year took me to Puerto Rico, which by autumn would be left reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in September.  The beauty of this Caribbean island and how diverse it was blew me away.  From the historic cobbled streets of Old San Juan to the dramatic views from its mountains via rainforests, windswept beaches and an enormous telescope, this island fast became one of my favourite in the Caribbean.  I love a sandy beach as much as the next person, but it gets boring after a while and it’s good to know there’s a suckling pig roasting for when you’re ready for a feed.

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Puerto Rico is slowly getting back on its feet again.  There are several posts on this blog which showcase the island’s attractions, but for an insight into recent months, this New York magazine article recounts just how tough it has been:

http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/12/hurricane-maria-man-made-disaster.html

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Scotland

In February I flew up to Glasgow to visit friends.  They recommended a drive over to Falkirk to see the Kelpies.  It’s well worth the effort if you’re planning a trip to Scotland in 2018.  The sculptures are as magnificent up close as they are imposing from a distance.  Despite the inclement weather, I found the story behind the project fascinating and I was lucky to get a guide who was so enthusiastic about his topic.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/02/24/the-kelpies/

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Uruguay and Argentina

In March I returned to Uruguay and Argentina after a ten year gap spent largely salivating over thoughts of the $4 fillet steak I’d eaten in El Calafate – I’m sure we have all had those holiday meals that we remember forever.  But sometimes these memories are not to be repeated.  I had the most amazing crab dinner in St Lucia years ago but the restaurant has closed down.  And what about Argentina?  In the intervening years, costs had risen, particularly in Buenos Aires.  Salta obliged with a decent steak, but at a price.  Fortunately, there, in the form of the haunting face of the Lightning Girl was something to compensate – though it was a chilling insight into the past.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/03/20/saltas-lightning-girl

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I enjoyed seeing more of my favourite continent.  A challenging but rewarding stay on a working ranch in Uruguay tested my riding ability to the limit, with excursions to the Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha providing a welcome injection of fun.  If you’re nervous about trying out a working ranch rather than the more typical dude ranch, don’t be, but read this first:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/06/05/dude-ranch-vs-working-ranch-how-do-you-know-whats-best-for-you/

Bolivia

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After visiting so many countries, it might come as a surprise to learn I still have a bucket list and for many years, a trip to the salt flats at Uyuni has been top of the list.  Crossing overland from Argentina, I timed my visit for the end of rainy season as I’d heard the sight of a flooded salt lake wouldn’t disappoint.  It was phenomenal, and spending the night in a salt hotel was an unusual if slightly uncomfortable experience.  See how Uyuni stacked up when compared to the salt flats of northern Argentina here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/04/03/salt-flat-tours-argentina-vs-bolivia/

Ibiza

When a friend asked could I try out some of his company’s Sunwise UVA clothing, I jumped at the chance and picked Ibiza as my destination.  I product tested a floaty, very feminine kaftan which protected me well from the sun but also was versatile enough for me not to look out of place on the beach and at a city cafe.  I’m more of a T-shirt and trousers kind of girl but it wasn’t too frou-frou to be wearable.  Ibiza was surprising too – much more to it than beach clubs and foam parties.

If you burn easily or are keen to protect your skin from sun damage, then I’d recommend you check out Sunwise UVA’s website.  The link’s in my blog post.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/05/10/product-test-sunwise-uva-clothing/

PS I’m not on commission.

Texas

Next up was a return visit to the USA, but one with a difference, as I explored Texas with Traveleyes, a specialist company which focuses on trips for the visually impaired.  Putting my travel plans into the hands of a company definitely took me out of my comfort zone.  Nevertheless, I made some great friends on the trip and especially enjoyed San Antonio.  After a dull art museum (what was it Elton John was supposed to have said?  I don’t like going to museums because I can’t buy it…) I skipped off with my VI, a charmer nicknamed Smithie (to my Essex).  We wound up at Paris Hatters, one of the city’s oldest stores, and bought him a cowboy hat.  Elton John would have approved.

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As a sighted guide, the experience was a reminder of just how much we take for granted but also made me realise how much my visually impaired companions could access – from horse riding to a lesson in the Texas Two-Step in preparation for Austin’s honky tonks, nothing was off limits.  It was a thought-provoking holiday and I can see why some of the sighted guides go time and time again.  Find out more about Traveleyes here:

https://traveleyes-international.com/

The Caucasus

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Another bucket list trip became a reality as I spent a few glorious summer weeks in the Caucasus.  My focus was on Georgia and Armenia with a couple of side trips to disputed territories to add a frisson of excitement.  (There’s nothing like a morning spent in police custody to make a trip feel that little bit different!  Sorry for the worrying text Mum, won’t do it again.)  This part of the world is a delight.  My personal highlights were the scenic Svaneti region of Georgia with its charming towers and ever so slightly wild people, and a very emotional visit to the genocide memorial in Yerevan which literally moved me to tears.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/07/09/why-you-should-visit-the-armenia-genocide-museum-and-memorial/

Venice

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I’ve made many day trips to European cities by air over the last few years, proving you can still satisfy your city break fix even if you’ve run out of holiday.  This autumn I picked Venice and spent the day leisurely exploring its canals and back streets enjoying some of the city’s off the beaten track sights.  I found a gondola in a book store, a heavenly bar hidden in plain sight near the Rialto Bridge and dresses that started life in a women’s prison.  Off season, this is an engaging destination and far better without the crowds of summer.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/10/13/just-back-from-a-day-trip-to-venice/

Cape Verde

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November’s a horrible month.  Dark evenings signal the start of the long winter season and Christmas lights have yet to migrate from shop to front window.  Grumpy Julia was in need of some sun and jetted off to Cape Verde.  While Sal could have had more soul, Fogo Island with its brooding volcano didn’t disappoint.  My guesthouse set me up with a guide to hike inside the caldera walls, a place known as Chã das Caldeiras.  We walked between villages, the path running alongside the raw edges of the 2014-15 lava flow that engulfed the homes of over 1000 people though luckily claimed no lives.

As the guesthouse owner said, “it’s still Africa, but not as you know it”.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/12/19/a-beginners-guide-to-cape-verde/

Salzburg

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I couldn’t let the year end without a trip to a Christmas market after enjoying those at Copenhagen and Regensburg so much last year.  This year, I chose one of Austria’s most charming cities and flew to Salzburg to get my fix.  Snow covered the ground, but that didn’t deter the crowds or the authorities (take note Lincoln!)  A Krampus run and a train ride to see Silent Night being performed in the village where it was composed rounded off the trip.  If you plan to follow suit in 2018, I’d recommend you take a look at the guide I wrote:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/12/12/tips-for-getting-the-best-out-of-salzburgs-christmas-markets/

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That rounds off my travels in 2017, a bumper year for making memories.  I’ve only just started thinking about where I’ll go in 2018, but it all kicks off in Cuba this January, booked after I learned of a £140 error fare deal from Secret Flying.  If you haven’t yet signed up for their updates, I’d recommend you get over to their website.  I’m also booked to go to New Zealand in May, having taken advantage of Air New Zealand’s fantastic Black Friday deal.  I’m currently toying with the idea of crossing the dateline and spending some time in the Cook Islands while I’m out there.  Watch this space.

Wherever you’re planning for 2018, I’d love to hear about it.  Happy travels!