juliamhammond

Travel advice and information

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.

Morocco Djemaa food vendors

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!


A beginner’s guide to Cape Verde

As the northern hemisphere winter starts to bite, our thoughts turn to warmer climes. But travelling to the Caribbean can be expensive unless you can snag an error fare and the Med’s still a little too chilly.  If you’re looking for winter sun on a post-Christmas budget, why not consider Cape Verde?  Known locally as Cabo Verde, it’s a ten island archipelago, nine of them inhabited.  With a long history and dramatic volcanic landscapes to complement its many glorious beaches, there’s an island to suit everyone.

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The salt pans which gave Sal its name

Getting there

Most Brits jet off to Sal, a largely barren island blessed with a bumper crop of  beaches and enough resorts to leave you spoilt for choice.  The two main operators that win on price are Thomas Cook Airlines and Tui, both of which offer direct flights from the UK.  Depending on which extras you consider essential, you can pick up a flight for between £200 and £400. I recently blogged about my experience with Thomas Cook Airlines. Find my review here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/11/25/review-of-thomas-cook-airlines/

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Thomas Cook plane at Sal airport

No scheduled carriers offering direct flights serve the UK, but you can fly with TAP via the Portuguese capital.  If you’ve never been to Lisbon, it’s possible to add a stopover to your holiday.  Find out what you can do in and around Lisbon here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2014/10/20/just-back-from-a-day-trip-to-lisbon/

View from Mirador Portas do Sol

Lisbon’s Alfama district seen from the Mirador at Portas do Sol

Getting around

There’s recently been an increase in domestic flights between many of the islands, with Binter extending their reach from their Canary Islands base and Icelandair taking over the national airline TACV which could see it become more reliable. These changes have opened up island hopping for those constrained by relatively short holidays, providing a real alternative to the inter-island ferries that are available.  I had a week on Cape Verde, splitting my time between the islands of Sal, Santiago and Fogo.  Ideally you want to spend at least a few days on each.  If I’d have been there for a second week, I’d have flown to São Vicente, home to the island’s cultural hub Mindelo and hopped over to Santo Antão for some hiking.

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Binter, one of the inter-island airlines

What to see

Sal

Sal’s a package tourist hub, but with a little effort, you can venture beyond the horizons of the all-inclusives.  I based myself in Santa Maria, the main resort.  As time was limited – I’d really only added a night here to make sure I didn’t miss my flight – I booked an island tour through my bed and breakfast, the centrally located but basic Pensão Les Alizés.  Costing just 25 euros for the day’s excursion plus a couple of entrance fees, it was a good way of covering some of the main sights on Sal without resorting to expensive taxis.  You’ll notice the currency stated is euros; on Sal, most places will take euros alongside the local Cape Verdean escudos.  It’s also worth visiting Project Bioversity’s turtle project, located on the beach behind the Riu Palace Hotel.  Read about it here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/an-interesting-turtle-project-on-sal-cape-verde/

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Fisherman on Sal Island

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Murdeira, looking over towards Monte Leão

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Shoe rental, Shark Bay

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Salt pans at Pedra de Lume

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Mirage, not water

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The Blue Eye

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Buracona lava pools

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Local fisherman, Palmeira

Fogo

Fogo’s about as far removed from Sal as you can get.  This tiny island is dominated by an active volcano which looms menacingly against the skyline as you approach.  The island’s main town is São Filipe, whose colourful colonial sobrado mansions straggle down the rocky coastline towards the shore.  The pace of life is slow, and tourists are relatively few in number.  I’d recommend a stay at the Colonial Guest House, a restored 19th century sobrado house with a pool and restaurant within walking distance of the Bila Baxo’s historic attractions.  It’s possible to climb the volcano, whose last eruption ended in February 2015, though I settled for an easier guided walk inside the walls of the caldera, along the Chã das Caldeiras.  Book well ahead through your guest house to secure an English-speaking guide, as they are few and far between.

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Bila Baxo

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Sobrado mansion awaiting renovations

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Bringing in the firewood, São Filipe

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Parque Natural do Fogo

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Homes and businesses buried in the 2014-15 lave flows, Portela

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Road to nowhere, Chã das Caldeiras

Santiago

Home to the nation’s capital Praia, Santiago is an interesting destination for visitors.  I based myself in Praia and, like most of its residents, headed out to nearby Cidade Velha on a warm November Sunday.  Once known as Ribeira Grande, it was the country’s capital and focus for 15th century settlers.  There’s a pillory post, left as a reminder to the island’s slave trading history, and a short stroll away you’ll encounter the oldest colonial church in the Tropics, Nossa Senhora do Rosário church.  It’s also worth venturing into the island’s mountainous  interior as the scenery is spectacular.  The local minibuses, known as alaguers, are cheap.  Try to get a front seat spot for the best views.

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Rua de Banana, Cidade Velha

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Nossa Senhora do Rosário church

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Pillory post, Cidade Velha

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Football on the beach

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Sunrise over Praia

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The road to Assomada

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Dramatic peaks of Santiago’s mountainous interior

Tips for travellers

The diverse landscapes and captivating history make Cape Verde a rewarding destination.  The variety of activities on offer make island-hopping a very attractive proposition, and with online booking, simple to arrange without the need for a package.  That said, it is Africa, and travellers need to be prepared for things to occasionally run less smoothly than they’d like.

Transport can be a bit hit and miss, but the friendly Cape Verdeans will help if you find yourself stranded. Alaguers, or minibuses, run on set routes but if you flag down an empty one you’ll be asked if you want it “colectivo” or not – it’s cheaper to share but you’ll spend time waiting for passengers if they’re not full.

Weatherwise, it’s significantly warmer than the more northerly Canary Islands.  During my mid-November trip, temperatures were pushing 30ºC.  However, be prepared for the wind to pick up – if you’re looking for a fly and flop holiday, make sure your accommodation has a decent pool as you’ll often find the sea’s off limits due to dangerously strong tides.


Get to know Royal London

If you’re a lover of all things Royal, then you’ll be looking forward to next May’s Royal wedding which is set to take place at Windsor.  London, a stone’s throw away, is of course a Royal favourite, but where should you visit to follow in the footsteps of the Royal family?  From the obvious locations like Buckingham Palace to places with a less well-known connection to the UK’s best loved family, these excursions will tick all the boxes.

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Fortnum and Mason

Along Piccadilly, you’ll see the distinctive eau de nil façade of the Queen’s grocer, Fortnum and Mason.  The Queen, despite her advancing years, is a frequent entertainer, hosting heads of state and other dignitaries for lavish banquets.  Her annual food bill was recently estimated at around £1.4 million.  Fortnum and Mason receive a chunk of that money but there are plenty of affordable goods to be had for regular customers too.  Don’t miss the food hall and pick up a picnic fit for Royalty.  Time your visit to watch the clock outside chime the hour; Mr Fortnum bows to Mr Mason.

Buckingham Palace

Near to Piccadilly is Green Park, the smallest of the capital’s eight Royal Parks at just 40 acres.  Its tree-lined paths and grassy meadows make for a beautiful picnic spot.  Aim to reach Buckingham Palace by late morning to coincide with the Changing of the Guard ceremony; you can check the exact time at www.changing-guard.com.  For the best view, try to get as close to the Palace gates as possible.  If you’re visiting in August and September, then it is possible to take a guided tour inside the palace itself and that’s well worth the entry fee.

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Queen’s Gallery

At Buckingham Palace, tours of the Queen’s Gallery operate year-round.  Located in what was originally one of John Nash’s conservatories, the structure was destroyed during World War Two.  It was rebuilt at the suggestion of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to house the Royal Collection in 1962.  Exhibits change, but it’s likely you’ll see works of art by an eclectic range of artists including names such as Rembrandt, Hockney, Rubens and da Vinci.

The Royal Mews

The Royal Mews is where you’ll find the Queen’s carriages and it’s found around the corner from the Queen’s Gallery on Buckingham Palace Road.  Guided tours operate between April and October and are included in the price of your admission.  Wardens dressed in a smart navy and red livery will show you the highlights of the collection of vehicles, including the Diamond Jubilee State Coach which is the newest addition to the fleet.  Equally dazzling is the Gold State Coach which dates from the time of George III.  It weighs nearly four tonnes and requires eight horses to pull it.  It’s the coach that has been used to take each monarch to their coronation since the early 19th century.  Animal lovers will also be pleased to learn that you’ll get to meet the horses during the tour.

The Goring Hotel

This exclusive hotel is tucked away a short walk from the Palace in Beeston Place.  It describes itself as “London’s last remaining family-owned luxury hotel – a grand hotel with impeccable manners.”  It’s the hotel in which Kate Middleton’s family stayed on the eve of her wedding to Prince William and this five-star establishment is sure to impress.  If you have the budget, you can stay here too; room rates begin at a little over £300 per night.

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Kensington Palace

Access to Kensington Palace, former home of Diana, Princess of Wales, its gardens and exhibitions is by ticket only.  Inside, you’ll be able to visit the King and Queen’s state apartments, little changed since 1690 when they were built for the then monarchs William and Mary.  Temporary exhibits also feature; the “Diana: her fashion story” collection scheduled to open early in 2017 is sure to be immensely popular.

Diana Memorial Garden

Following the edge of Hyde Park, another of London’s Royal Parks, you’ll come to the Diana Memorial Garden.  Its highlights include a playground, a nod to Diana’s great love of children, featuring as its centrepiece a huge pirate ship.  Also, it’s here you’ll find a memorial fountain built from 545 pieces of Cornish granite.  Water flows in cascades and swirls until it reaches a calm pool at the bottom, symbolising Diana’s sometimes turbulent life.

The Brown Cow, Fulham and the Cross Keys, Chelsea

My final suggestion is to down a drink at one of Prince Harry’s favourite pubs.  The Brown Cow is owned by one of his friends, Mark Dyer, a former officer in the Welsh Guards.  Harry was a regular when in town, before his engagement at least.  It’s the place he chose to toast the birth of his nephew Prince George.  You’ll find it on the Fulham Road.  The Cross Keys in trendy Chelsea is another Mark Dyer establishment.  Originally Chelsea’s oldest pub, Harry celebrated his 31st birthday here.  You’ll find the pub just before you get to the River Thames near Chelsea Embankment.  Cheers!


Why you should do your homework before booking a flight

I had an interesting conversation with a lady the other night about the financial situation of airlines.  A number of airlines have made the news recently for the wrong reasons, including Monarch and its demise.  Her take on things was that it would have been perfectly reasonable to book with them because they’d been around for so long and if you’d travelled with them before, it would be unnecessary to check them out because you would know they were OK.

Monarch

Monarch Airlines plane by Andy Mitchell CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

I had a different opinion.  Monarch’s financial woes over the preceding few years had been well-documented in the press.  Anyone doing even the most rudimentary of Google searches would have thrown up a number of articles filling out a picture of money troubles and the importance of the end of September deadline to renew its ATOL certificate.  But given that hundreds of thousands of travellers were caught out, I’m guessing my expectation that people wouldn’t shell out hundreds of pounds without checking out the robustness of the company was inaccurate.

What’s also interesting is that following the whole Ryanair mismanagement debacle, many people assume that Ryanair is in a difficult position financially.  According to industry business analysts, however, it’s not.  The graphic on this link reveals that they think it’s in the best position of any European airline when it comes to the risk of going bankrupt:

https://www.msn.com/en-gb/money/news/planning-a-europe-trip-the-airlines-that-are-in-financial-trouble-%E2%80%94-in-one-chart/ar-AAtYGw4

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If the Dow Jones researchers are to be believed, then it might be an idea to be think carefully before about booking a flight with Turkish Airlines or Pegasus at the moment.  I’ve flown with both and had excellent experiences but last year business was difficult for both of them. The former posted a 2016 loss of $77 million, the latter $36.1 million.  You can read more at:

http://atwonline.com/airline-financials/turkish-airlines-posts-77-million-net-loss-2016

http://atwonline.com/airline-financials/pegasus-airlines-posts-361-million-loss-2016

But then in the case of Finnair, they seem to be doing significantly better than their position on the chart would suggest.  Though Dow Jones suggest they fall into the “In Trouble” category, this article appears to refute that speculation:

https://yle.fi/uutiset/osasto/news/finnair_announces_best-ever_quarterly_results/9899848

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Norwegian Dreamliner by Juraj Patekar CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Personally, I’m being cautious over booking with Norwegian at the moment.  Their rapid long-haul expansion is, in my book, cause for concern, given the history of low-cost airlines and trans-Atlantic flights in particular.  I also wonder whether it’s a coincidence that after they announce the commencement of a London to Singapore route, Qantas cans their Dubai layover on their London to Sydney route and goes back to making Singapore their stopover destination.

Whatever your own take on the situation (and I’m not advising you to follow my lead), Norwegian Air currently have a lot of new planes to pay for and face plenty of competition.  Norwegian Air’s CEO has been quick to counter that the airline is in good financial health, but this Reuters article also references the potential impact of their CFO quitting in the summer:

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-norwegian-air-strategy-insight/norwegian-air-under-pressure-to-boost-finances-idUSKBN1AA1MR

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I’ll stick to my earlier assertion: if you’re planning on booking a flight, do a little research on your chosen airline first.  Take the sensible precautions: make sure they’re ATOL protected where that applies (charters and packages in general terms), pay using a credit card as your outlay will be protected if the flight is over £100 and consider taking out scheduled airline failure insurance in situations where you wouldn’t be covered if you didn’t.


Vitamin Sea

It’s not long now until my trip to Cape Verde and as an autumn chill lingers on the Essex marshes long after sun up, I’m looking forward to some warmth and sea air.  To keep me going, I’ve been thinking about five of my favourite beaches and where I’ve most enjoyed getting my Vitamin Sea fix.

Anse Source d’Argent, Seychelles

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Anse Source d’Argent

I had high expectations for this glossy magazine favourite but didn’t leave disappointed.  It’s one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen and a pre-dawn walk from my guesthouse meant that I had it to myself at sun up.  There’s something about the size of the granite blocks that makes it feel almost prehistoric.

Pointe Sable, Haiti

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Sunset at Pointe Sable

Solitude is hard to find in the Caribbean, but Haiti’s still off the beaten track and this beach at Port Salut was the prettiest I found during my travels there. It’s popular with aid workers at weekends, so time your visit for midweek to have it to yourself.

Little Hunter’s Beach, USA

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Little Hunter’s Beach

I really enjoyed a few days in the coastal town of Bar Harbor, Maine, the jumping off point for Acadia National Park.  Parking up on the loop road, I found serenity and beauty in this tiny cobbled beach.  Most people drive right by as the beach isn’t signed.

Jökulsárlón Beach, Iceland

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Jökulsárlón beach

Nicknamed the diamond beach, this spot near the outflow of the retreating Oraefajokull glacier is pockmarked with glistening icebergs that have calved and been washed out to sea.  Out of season, when the crowds are thin, it’s one of the country’s most incredible sights.

Elmina Beach, Ghana

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The beach at Elmina, Ghana

No matter which way you walk from the castle at Elmina, you quickly reach unspoilt, almost deserted beaches.  Save for a few hawkers the fine sands and superb views are yours alone.  São Jorge da Mina castle has stood on the spot for over 500 years, built by the Portuguese to use as a trade hub and later part of the Gold Coast slave trade.

I’m looking forward to finding some world class beaches in Cape Verde.  If you’ve been, I’d love to hear your recommendations.


How much do we really know about the countries we visit?

Several news items this week have left me considering just how much we really know about the countries we visit.  Freedom is something which we all too often take for granted here in the UK and wrongly assume the same rights and privileges exist when we travel abroad.

I remember returning from a brief trip to Syria in 2010 and extolling the country’s virtues.  I’d walked down the streets of Old Damascus at two in the morning, I said, and felt safer than I did at home.  Yet a few short months later, the conflict kicked off that has since destroyed this once peaceful nation and truths about how such security was achieved made for unpalatable reading.  It was a wake-up call for me as a traveller.  I’d always felt like I was well prepared.  Now I realise that I didn’t know the half of it.  And still don’t.

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How much do we know about the politics of the countries we holiday in?  Today, a Scot has received an official pardon after being handed down a three month prison sentence in glitzy Dubai for public indecency.  The man’s crime was to have touched a man’s hip in a bar; his defence argued it was to avoid spilling his drink over the stranger.  Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum has exonerated him, yet he still returns home £30,000 out of pocket and without a job as a result of this travesty of justice.  He isn’t the first Brit to fall foul of Dubai’s strict laws.  According to the organisation Detained in Dubai, a married couple were falsely accused of having sex out of wedlock and only escaped jail when they were able to produce their marriage certificate.  Sadly, there are many more stories like the two I’ve mentioned.

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A news item from the US reinforced that even in the Land of the Free all is not what it seems.  I’m not even talking Trump here – though the decisions made by his administration are often hard to comprehend from this side of the Pond.  No, in June of this year, New York banned child marriage under the age of 17.  Though technically the legal age of marriage in most states is 18 (in Nebraska it’s 19 and Mississippi 21), loopholes permit marriage before this – and in 25 states there is no minimum age at all. We’re talking kids as young as 11, children whose life chances are altered irrevocably by the very people that should be most concerned with their welfare.  So while it’s good news for New York’s minors, others in the US aren’t so well protected.

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Closer to home, Spain’s young democracy is being tested by recent events in Catalonia.  Franco’s 20th century repression of Basque and Catalan culture plays some role in shaping current political opinion.  Whatever your views on whether the referendum should have been held and whether the ensuing result holds any weight, it has been hard to watch government-backed violence at the polling stations.  It’s shocking to think that a member of the EU cares so little about freedom of speech.  Such a heavy-handed approach has done little for Spain’s reputation.  Only time will tell how they move forward and whether they can fix what seems, from the outside at least, to be an impossible situation.

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So how much do we really know about a country before we visit?  It would seem, not enough.