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A beginner’s guide to Lombardy beyond Milan

Italy’s one of my favourite countries so when an invitation from Ryanair popped into my inbox to visit some of the less well known towns in the Lombardy region, I jumped at the chance. For those of you who read the whole sorry saga of Edison the dog’s attempts to keep me at home, I’m delighted to report that the string-pulling worked and I was allowed in (and out) of Italy. But what’s there to see in Lombardy? If you’ve already been to Milan, don’t write off the rest of this captivating region. Here’s what you need to know.

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Crespi d’Adda

Getting there

Milan has three airports, but Ryanair’s main hub is Bergamo, under an hour’s drive from the city. At the time of writing there are four flights a day from London Stansted, making this a convenient option for travellers.Well over 6 million passengers have flown the route since its inception in 2002 and local followers, you’ll be pleased to learn that there’s now a route from Southend which is a lovely airport to travel from. (If you’re UK based but not local to me here in Essex, Ryanair also operate flights to Bergamo from East Midlands, Belfast, Bristol, Manchester and Edinburgh.)

However, using an airline’s hub – in this case Stansted – is often advantageous. If things go wrong, for example delays due to bad weather, there are usually plenty of planes and crew members on standby. To be honest, though Ryanair gets a bad reputation for some of its newsworthier policy decisions, its punctuality record is pretty good. Our flights were on time both ways.

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Ryanair’s main northern Italy hub is Bergamo

Tips for using Ryanair’s main London base, Stansted

I’m no fan of London Stansted airport, but have noticed that it helps to take a flight outside the manic early morning slot, when staff are generally more patient and helpful. The 4pm departure got me to Italy in time for dinner, though if I’d have been able to make the 1pm flight after my unscheduled dash to the passport office that would have been even better.

Incidentally, I rarely check in a suitcase, but on this occasion Ryanair had arranged for hold baggage. While I regaled the check in staff with tales of mischievous dogs, a gentleman came to check in but hadn’t paid for hold baggage and was directed to the customer service desk to upgrade his booking. Here’s a pro tip for your next Ryanair flight: if you’re planning to bring a small wheelie case, instead of paying for hold baggage, opt for Priority Boarding instead. You’ll still have to pay, but it will cost you less to bring it on board than if you check it. But remember, the number of priority passengers is capped, so make your choice sooner rather than later. By the time you reach the airport, it’s likely to have sold out, particularly if the flight is full.

Getting around

There’s a direct bus from the airport to Bergamo and to Milan. Though Bergamo airport doesn’t have a train station, the bus connection into Bergamo itself (take the Number 1) takes less than a quarter of an hour. Ryanair also fly to Milan Malpensa, by the way. As this was a press trip, the itinerary was fixed. The old part of Bergamo looked lovely up on the hill and I now have it in my sights for one of my day trips by air.

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My next trip?

Trains run to a number of destinations from Bergamo’s central station. One line runs south east to Brescia; the same line in the opposite direction gets you to Lecco for connections to Como. Read my guide to spending the day in and around Como here. Another line runs west to Seregno and Treviglio to the south is also connected. To book high speed trains in Italy in advance, visit the Trenitalia website.

Regional trains need no advance booking and are relatively cheap. Bergamo is also well served by buses. Most of the destinations featured in this post can be reached by a combination of buses and regional trains from Bergamo, but you might find it easier to make Milan your base if you’re planning a series of day trips. To reach some of the smaller places in the region, consider renting a car from Bergamo Airport. Our itinerary effectively looped Lombardy and was perfect for a week-long trip.

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Bellagio, beside Lake Como

Where to go

Mantova

Also known as Mantua, if I’d have paid more attention in English Literature class at school I’d have known Mantova was the place Romeo bought his poison. The city also featured in The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew. (Verona isn’t far away, though sits just over the border in the Veneto.) Arriving across the bridge which bisects two of the town’s three lakes, you can’t miss the sprawling Palazzo Ducale. This hulking pile was the family seat of the Gonzagas, a noble family who ruled the town for centuries.

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Courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale

The stories our guide told us of the Gonzaga family were at times outlandish, yet always fascinating. Francesco 1 Gonzaga, who ruled from 1382 to 1407, sought to strengthen the  dynasty by marrying Agnese Visconti from Milan. However, it soon became apparent that the alliance wasn’t having the desired effect, so he invented a fake adultery story in order to have theepoor girl beheaded. Her alleged lover, also innocent of any wrong doing, was hanged in the park beside the palace. The obnoxious Gonzaga remarried, this time Margarita Malatesta (from the family that ruled Rimini) but his new wife unwittingly carried the gene for osteomalacia, which was passed down from generation to generation and left various members of the family suffering from joint pain, easily fractured bones and hunched backs. If that’s not karma I don’t know what is!

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The park where you’ll find the memorial to Agnese Visconti

The ceilings are magnificent, with beautiful artwork, gilding and numerous personal flourishes added by various members of the Gonzaga family. One of the highlights of the Palazzo Ducale was the Camera degli Sposi, or the bridal chamber. Elaborate frescoes painted by Antonio Mantegna in the 15th century adorn both walls and ceilings. They’re very clever, using relatively new techniques at the time to create the illusion of a three-dimensional image. To avoid damaging these ancient works of art, visitor time inside the room is strictly limited, but that’s still enough time to notice some of the more humorous details.

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The 3D effect

Mantegna didn’t believe in “photoshopping” and painted his subjects as he saw them. Look carefully and you’ll see one of the women depicted with the ugliest haircut ever to have come out of Italy. At the time, people from all over copied her – she was the Jennifer Aniston of her time.

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Check out that haircut!

Cremona

In Cremona, it was the lack of attention paid in my school music lessons which produced the regret. This charming town was the birthplace of Stradivari, the great violin maker, who was born here in 1644 or thereabouts. He wasn’t the first: Amati and Guaneri came well before him but there was something about Stradivari’s skill that set him apart. Today there are 164 registered violin makers in Cremona, all competing for business. We met one of the most experienced, a Frenchman called Philippe Devanneaux who came to Cremona 38 years ago to learn his craft and never left. With a wry smile, when asked about how much a violin sold for, he joked that selling it was the difficult part. When pushed, he said that depending on the craftsman’s level of experience, they go for anything between 1000 and 25000 euros, averaging at about 8000 euros.

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The maestro at work

We watched as this talented individual walked us through the process of transforming knot-free spruce and much harder maple into a beautiful instrument. It was clear you had to be able to feel the wood to produce something so magnificent. Patience was also important – the wood had to be seasoned for a decade before it woudl be ready to use. We tried, with varying degrees of success, to use a tiny plane to smooth out the rear casing; it was considerably harder than he made it look. You studied the technical part at university, he said, and then after you graduated, you learnt how to make a violin.

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The different shades cater to different tastes

We learnt a lot about the properties of the different woods used, and the skill involved in putting them together. An impressive forty coats of varnish were required to give it the high sheen we associate with such a fine musical instrument. The bow was equally a work of art. Made in part from horse hair, we laughed as Philippe told us that only the tails of the males could be used – for anatomical reasons, as the wee was never directed at the tail as it would be with a mare.

Pavia

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Visconti Castle, Pavia

Italy’s seventh oldest university is that of Pavia. The city’s status as a seat of learning was boosted by the Hapsburg Empire and some of the most elegant buildings in the town are its historic colleges. Painted in an egg yolk yellow shade of paint, they’re easy to find. In one of them, a statue of Alexandro Volta took pride of place in one of the cobbled courtyards. If his name sounds familiar, he was the man created with inventing the battery.

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Statue of Alexandro Volta

In comparison to other Italian university cities, such as Pisa, for instance, Pavia receives few visitors. That’s a shame, as it has a lovely vibe and with plenty of other attractions such as its restored towers and covered bridge, would make a good destination for a day trip. Italy’s high speed rail network has recently linked Pavia to the Genoa and Venice Frecciarossa service (the latter is now only 3 hours away), but should result in an increase in visitor numbers in time.

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Pavia’s covered bridge

The city sits on the banks of the River Ticino, a tributary of the mighty Po. Beside the river are little paths, though in times of heavy rain these flood, sometimes by several metres. Look out for stand up rowers, as it’s a tradition here. One of the best vantage points is from a fine dining restaurant such as Bardelli, on the banks of the river not far from the covered bridge. They serve typical Lombardy fare, such as pumpkin and pancetta pie, pappardelle with hare ragout and ricotta-stuffed squid.

Vigevano

Quaint Vigevano is one of those places that lends itself to strolling aimlessly. Begin in the Sforzesco Castle complex where you’ll find two interesting museums. The Leonardiana, as its name suggests, is devoted to the work of Leonardo da Vinci, who visited the place on several occasions. Though some of the works of art on display are copies, such as the Mona Lisa, it’s interesting to see the diversity of subjects he sketched for his notebooks.

Across the courtyard is something altogether different. Vigevano is an important centre for shoe production, claiming to be the place where the stiletto heel was invented (though it’s not the only town to do so). Inside the palace is an exhibition devoted to shoes, one dated to around 1495 and uncovered by archaeologists that once belonged to the lady of the castle, Beatrice d’Este.

There’s also a green stiletto worn by Marilyn Monroe, tiny shoes worn by Chinese women whose feet were bound and the downright bizarre designs created by Alexander McQueen. Strangest of all is the shoe designed to see off unwanted paparazzi…

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You do not want to mess with the lady who wears this shoe

A short walk away is the delightful Piazza Ducale, laid out in the 15th century. It’s worth travelling to Vigevano just for this. Elegant porticoes frame a square dominated by a historic church. Inlaid into the cobbles are intricate shapes. The walkways shelter boutique shops and a plethora of cafes and bars. Come in the early evening, join the locals for the passeggiata and treat yourself to a glass of fizz and some yummy nibbles in a bar such as Caffè Commercio which boasts an ancient cellar.

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Piazza Ducale

Soncino

Tiny Soncino has a massive fortress built in the 10th century. Such defensive structures would once have been essential in these parts, and many of the towns and cities have fortifications – Sappionneta is another, for example, with a walled city complex that’s drawn the attention of UNESCO. The weather was not kind during our visit and despite umbrellas, it was hard to stay dry as the wind buffeted us around from our precarious position on the ramparts. On a fine day, you’d be able to appreciate not only the architecture of the fortress itself, but the views across Soncino from its ramparts.

A few blocks away, we took refuge from the weather in the town’s printing museum. Housed in what was once a Jewish printers, there were plenty of antique presses to admire and the typesets to create works in both Italian and Hebrew. The young curator will demonstrate for you and allow you to try for yourself. He was keen to practice his English and share his passion for The Beatles. One day, he said, he dreamed of seeing the famous Abbey Road zebra crossing, but in the meantime, he contented himself with playing their music, particularly The White Album, his favourite. I felt almost mean when I had to fess up that I didn’t share his passion for the band but left with a smile on my face.

Crespi d’Adda

My final recommendation for Lombardy beyond Milan is the UNESCO-listed Crespi d’Adda. Like Saltaire or Bourneville in the UK, this village was purpose built by a factory owner for his workers. The planned layout is obvious as soon as you pull in off the main road, with immaculate villas laid out in a grid pattern. A little further down the hill, set back behind a village green, are more spacious properties designed for the management. The owner himself lived in an even bigger home, a mock castle, overlooking one of the two rivers that enclose the triangular shaped site.

The factory itself is derelict. The gates are padlocked and its timepiece has stopped for good, a memorial to clocking off time. The company town was built in the 1920s by the Crespi family who ran a textile mill. The workers benefited not only from decent housing, but also a clinic, a school, a theatre and even a hydro-electric power station. When the factory closed in the 1970s, many of the families who lived in the homes they’d provided stayed on. They’ve had time to get used to their behemoth of a neighbour, but you can’t help feeling the ghosts of times past in this eerie place.

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The derelict factory

Thank you

I’d like to thank Ryanair and the Lombardy Tourism team, particularly our fixer Isabella, driver Gianluca and all of the lovely guides that brought their region to life. Though this was a press trip, all opinions expressed here are my own.


Review of Secret Food Tours Bologna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A beginner’s guide to the Lithuanian coast

I’ve just returned from my second visit to Lithuania after a gap of 12 years. This time, I was a guest of the tourist boards representing the coastal regions that comprise Klaipeda, Palanga, Kretinga and the Curonian Spit. Since my 2007 trip, Vilnius and Kaunas, Lithuania’s two largest cities, have become increasingly popular with city breakers, but the coast remains overlooked by many. That’s a shame, as it has much to offer the tourist. So let me try to tempt you – here’s my beginner’s guide to the Lithuanian coast.

How to get there from the UK

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Our hosts arranged flights for us from Luton to Palanga-Klaipeda Airport with budget carrier Wizz Air. It departs at 5.55am, the first flight out of the day. It’s a very early start, but that has the advantage of a late morning arrival despite the two-hour time difference, so if you don’t live too far from the airport and want to get a jump on the sightseeing, it might suit. Flights depart once daily on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Alternatively, Ryanair currently fly to Palanga-Klaipeda on Tuesdays and Saturdays, departing Stansted at a similar time of day – 6.10am. Neither airline, therefore, offers a particularly sociable schedule, but you can always catch up on sleep when you get there.

Getting around

We were ferried around with private transfers, but there is a bus connection that serves Palanga-Klaipeda airport. Bus #100 travels south from the airport, stopping in the resort town of Palanga before continuing on to Klaipeda, Lithuania’s third largest city, where it terminates. The airport website provides a very handy route map:

Fares are a very reasonable 1,40 euro to Palanga and 2,50 euro to Klaipeda. The buses are timed to connect with inbound and outbound flights. This is the schedule:

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If you’re heading over to the Curonian Spit, then you’ll need to catch a ferry from Klaipeda. The Old Ferry carries foot passengers and bicycles at a cost of 1 euro each; boats depart on the hour and half hour during the day and less frequently in the evening. Buses connect to Nida, the main settlement, at the other side. If you’ve rented a car, you’ll need to use the New Ferry, which runs every twenty minutes during the day and costs just over 12 euros. Note that there are no public transport connections from the spit’s terminal. Full timetables can be found here.

Where to stay

Our hosts were keen to show us a range of different accommodation, so we spent a night at four hotels.

In Klaipeda, we were based at the contemporary Hotel Dangė, an easy walk from the centre of Klaipeda and its bars and restaurants. Deluxe doubles with balcony come in at around £90-95, but their economy rooms are available for about half that amount in low season (and about £70/night next July). Note that there’s no lift; my room was on the top floor which meant climbing four flights of stairs with luggage.

On the Curonian Spit, we stayed at the lovely Nidus, set in leafy grounds about a fifteen minute stroll to the centre of Nida along a path surrounded by woodland. The double rooms were spacious and had an adjacent sitting room and also a balcony. Booking.com has such rooms for about £55 in low season and about £140/night next summer. There were other hotels closer to the centre of Nida but this would be quieter in summer.

There was an event on in Palanga so we stayed at a resort hotel a few miles out of town, the Atostogų Parkas. In the off season, you can pick up a double here for about £35 and upgrade to include spa access for about £10-12 more. Colleagues spoke highly of the pool and jacuzzi facilities but I found it a bit cut off. Room sizes varied considerably; ask for a larger room if it’s available.

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I was a little unsure of what to expect for our final hotel, located on the edge of the beach resort of Šventojias some of the artwork was squarely aimed at the male market. Décor was strange, with skulls and devils and Americana all rolled into one crazy package. But the staff worked really hard to make us feel welcome and it was a five minute walk to the beach. Most accommodation at the Elija is apartments; hotel rooms start at around £40 in low season and about £15 more next summer.

Things to do: Klaipeda

Klaipeda’s a good starting point for a Lithuanian coastal region tour. There are plenty of attractions in a relatively small area and it’s easy to get to.

The sculpture trail

The compact centre of Klaipeda is littered with quirky sculptures and it’s fun to take a stroll to seek them out. Our guide Diana showed us some of them and told us the tales associated with each. The cutest without doubt is the Thaumaturge Old Town Little Mouse, which bears the inscription “Transform your thoughts into words and words will turn into miracles”.

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Not far away, perched on the roof of a house near the River Danė, is a chimney sweep – touching his clothes or buttons is considered lucky. Fortunately, there’s a separate button on the wall of the house nearer to ground level which offers the same reward. There are plenty more works of art to discover, depicting everything from coins to dragons, but a sure fire winner with the kids will be the Black Ghost that haunts the dockside near the site of Klaipeda’s castle. Legend has it that a ghost appeared to a castle guard warning of grain and timber shortages, before disappearing back into the fog. Whether his prediction came true or not, I don’t know, but younger visitors will love clambering inside and popping their head into the hood of his cloak. Rock fans – this one’s for you too: Alice Cooper raved about the sculpture on his social media feed.

Maritime and historical treasures

Though the warehouse district was largely destroyed in the 1854 fire and the centre of Klaipeda was heavily bombed in the war, you can still get a sense of what the place was like if you take a walk in the reconstructed old town and past the rebuilt warehouses that line the river bank. The 39/45 museum, opened in 2018, is a must for history buffs. Across a series of rooms, visitors can discover what the Nazi occupation meant for the city and its occupants. The exhibit titled “Klaipeda assault” helps visitors visualise the extensive bombing during the siege of the city before the Red Army rolled in.

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In the Blacksmith’s Museum, Dionizos Varkalis showed us the collection of wrought iron crosses rescued from the city’s cemeteries are displayed in a purpose built space resembling a church. Regular jewellery making classes are held on site. Perhaps the most iconic symbol of Klaipeda is the sailing ship Meridianas which is moored beside the Birzos Bridge. Built in Finland in 1948, the vessel was used by the Klaipeda Maritime School for training purposes and has been a popular quayside restaurant since Soviet times – though in these days you had to flash the cash and have the right connections to get in.

Švyturys brewery

Merchant J.W.Reincke opened a brewery in Klaipeda in 1784 – the eagle on his family coat of arms appears today on the bottles of what’s now called Švyturys beer. The brewery makes a range of flavourful stouts, ales and lagers using German methods of  production. Tastings are offered, but book a guide and you can learn not only about how the beer is made but also how food pairings subtly alter the taste. The most popular beer is Švyturys Ekstra; according to our guide, it’s best consumed accompanied by chicken hearts. I’m not so sure about the latter, but a glass of Ekstra certainly slid down a treat! If you haven’t got the stomach for offal either, try Baltijos, an Oktoberfest-style dark lager perfect with carrots, or perhaps a glass of Pale Ale which, I found, goes very well with chick peas. Who knew?

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Things to do: Curonian Spit

Don’t write this off as a strip of featureless sand: Lithuanians liken the Curonian Spit to an outdoor spa. Its close knit community look out for each other – this is the kind of place where you don’t have to lock your doors.

The sand dunes

The sand dunes on the 98km long Curonian Spit aren’t just any old sand dunes, they are UNESCO-listed sand dunes, recognised for their cultural as well as physical importance. Sand transported by Baltic Sea waves piled high to form this barrier island, which was later colonised by grasses and forest. It is simply magnificent, but as an ex-Geography teacher, I am of course biased.

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In the 17th and 18th centuries, logging destabilised the fragile ecosystem, threatening settlements as the sand was no longer anchored down by tree roots. But from the 19th century, the area has been successfully managed so people and nature can co-exist. We walked to the top of the dunes which buried the village of Nagliai over 300 years ago. Taking a hike up the “grey dunes” was made easier by the previous day’s rain – the compacted surface made lighter work of the climb than would have been afforded by dry sand.

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Fun fact (at least for geographers): grey dunes are so-called as they take their name from the carpet of moss, lichen and grasses which bind the fine particles together and prevent them migrating.

Juodkrantė’s Hill of Witches

A pathway leading from the main road in the village of Juodkrantė takes wanderers through a magical forest. This wooded parabolic dune is dubbed the Hill of Witches, taking its name from pagan celebrations which take place here on Midsummer’s Eve.

The path is lined not only by trees but by around a hundred quirky wooden sculptures, benches and elaborately carved arches. The characters you see reflect Lithuania’s rich folk and pagan heritage, depicting an eclectic mix of fairy tale protagonists, devils and monsters. There’s plenty of evidence for the Lithuanian sense of humour, too, not least in the witches’ saggy tits! Though it’s free to wander through the forest alone, taking a guide and hearing those stories will definitely enhance your visit. Our lovely PR Angelina, who grew up on the Spit, regaled us with tales as we snapped away in this photogenic spot.

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The sundial at the Parnidis Dune

Located at the top of the 52m high Parnidis Dune, you’ll find a giant sundial, the only place in Lithuania where the sun rises and sets on the water. The centrepiece is a granite obelisk, from which shadows fall on a series of stone slabs. At noon, the shadow points due north. Each of these steps references a different month, with additional stones for the equinoxes and solstices. The sundial is richly decorated with icons and runes representing holidays and saints. It’s a wild and windswept place, open to the elements, but even on a day when the weather throws everything it has at you, the views along the Spit are breathtaking. Check out the nearby sculpture of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who visited the dunes with his partner Simone de Beauvoir in 1965.

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Nida

The quaint village of Nida, facing the lagoon side of the Spit, is packed with charming cottages. The traditional architecture features a cross or pole on the top of the front gable as well as wooden fretwork adornments. Bold colours are common – and advantageous to fishermen who could spot their homes from out at sea. One houses an amber museum in which you’ll find the largest lump of raw resin in the country, another an ethnographic fishermen’s museum with a-ha style animations projected on the walls and everyday items suspended on strings.

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You’ll soon spot the colourful wooden weather vanes along the waterfront: every fisherman had a mark on his boat to show where he came from. From the weather vanes, you can tell which village a fisherman came from and a little about his wealth and status. A black cross on a white background signified a man from Juodkrantė, for instance. I really liked Nida, and would love to return in the spring, if nothing else, to have another scrumptious piece of cake from Gardumėlis bakery opposite the cottage pictured above.

Nida weather vanes

Things to do: Kretinga

Kretinga is nicknamed Lithuania’s Vatican, with five functioning monasteries within the district. If the weather’s not playing ball on the coast, it’s worth the short detour inland to see what Kretinga and its surrounds have to offer.

Church of the Annunciation of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary

Built between 1610 and 1617, this church is home to the oldest organ in the country. On a wall near the altar there’s a panel of little silver legs placed there by worshippers as a symbol of thanks and good health. The crypt houses the metal coffins of the Chodkiewicz family whose donations funded the church and Franciscan monastery tasked with the pastoral care of local residents. In a side room, four skulls set into a pedestal to commemorate the 120 souls whose remains were found interred in its walls. Our guide Diana told us that when the monks held their first service after the Soviets left, they emerged from the crypt onto the main altar, marking the dawn of independence. What an emotional moment that would have been for the congregation.

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Dungeons of St Anthony

Under what’s now a school are the dungeons of St Anthony, used as a prison by both the Nazis and the Soviets. In a side room, a now inocuous-looking well was used to torture those held captive. The graffiti on the walls offers a fascinating insight into the mental torment endured by the inmates, with crude calendars, churches, names, dates and places scratched into the plaster. One bears the name of Paul Sansarrat, a French POW who escaped more than once and eventually participated in the Normandy Landings.

Count Tiškevičius manor and winter garden

This museum complex is centred on an impressive manor house, built in the second half of the 19th century, and indoor winter garden. Across the road, a more humble building contains a collection of artefacts that reference everyday life in the past, covering everything from Shrove Tuesday masks to traditional Lowlander dress. There’s even a model of the devil, dressed to impress. They say he’ll offer you gold to get you on side, but when you wake up in the morning, all you’ll have is a pocket full of stones. To uncover his true identity, step on his shoe – if it’s the devil in disguise, there’ll be a cloven hoof where the foot should be.

The Japanese Garden

Located just outside Kretinga is Europe’s largest Japanese garden. It’s the work of Šarunas Kasmauskas, a former military doctor, who doesn’t believe in leisurely retirements. This 16 hectare plot, once open fields, has been transformed into an oasis of calm and colour. The jolly Kasmauskas was quick to point out he hadn’t received an EU handout: “I don’t trust this ‘company’ – I’m Eurosceptic!” he joked. The extensive bonsai collection contains miniature trees that are over 250 years old, specially imported from Japan, each worth thousands of euros. Five hundred or so sakura trees, providing the famous cherry blossom in spring, have been planted with the help of many individual sponsors.

There’s still plenty of work to do, thanks to Kasmauskas’ ambitious vision for the place, but it’s been open to visitors for eight years already and looks set to become better and better as the years pass. And as for upkeep, Kasmauskas had a tip for gardeners that I’m very keen to test out. He said that if you cut grass under a young moon, you’ll have to do so again in five days, but if you wait, you can leave your mower in the shed for two or three weeks.

Japanese garden

Things to do: Palanga

Palanga is Lithuania’s most established tourist resort. A strip of bars and restaurants on J. Basanaviciaus Street leads down to a wooden pier and the Baltic Sea. Rows of benches face the sea, and during our visit most were occupied by old ladies in headscarfs, bringing to mind a bus load of pensioners. But this is a family-friendly resort too, and in season the beaches would be fabulous. In case you weren’t convinced the emphasis is on fun, the motto “Deligas quem diligas” (“Do what you like”) is embedded in the pavement.

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Walking tour

Palanga’s well-heeled have invested their money in property and as a result there’s much to please those with an interest in architecture. From the traditional to the modern, Palanga’s private homes, apartments and hotels span centuries of style. Some wouldn’t have looked out of place in the southern states of the USA. It’s very green, too, with plenty of trees and parkland to enjoy. Our guide Antanas did a great job giving us some context and his sometimes irreverent commentary, particularly where dates were concerned (“1932? Who cares, actually?”), was a treat.

The Count’s Palace

Palanga’s home to the late 19th century Palace of Count Feliks Tyszkiewicz, which is tucked away in the heart of Birute’s Park. The park has both informal and formal planting, with sculptures and eccentric works of art semi-hidden within the trees and shrubs. The beds in front of the palace were a showstopper, a riot of purples, mauves, creams and white that offset the elegant building and its fountains to perfection. Unsurprisingly, it’s a popular choice for couples to stage their wedding photos.

The amber museum

Inside the Count’s palace are several floors devoted to amber. It wasn’t the only amber museum we visited – there was a smaller one in Nida – but this one had the wow factor. Huge chunks of raw and polished amber including the Sun Stone, sizeable pieces with insects suspended in the resin, jewellery and even clocks showcased the versatility of this colourful material.

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A special mention: Šventoji’s beaches

Palanga’s big event did us a favour – instead of staying on the convenient but busy strip, we were a five minute walk from this gorgeous beach. The sun obliged with an appearance just before we were due to leave for the airport – isn’t that typical? – but a walk along the beach was just the thing to blow the cobwebs away and take one last look at this wonderful coastline.

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Thanks Lithuania – and especially to all the witty, entertaining and straight-talking people that helped make this trip fun. I will be back and I won’t leave it 12 years this time.


A dog friendly break in the Forest of Dean

Lots of places market themselves as dog-friendly, but often the reality is more dog-tolerant. When you consider them as part of the family rather than a pet, that’s just not good enough. Our golden retrievers are now 12 and 8, and so we have a lot of experience – both good and bad – to compare with. With an excitable younger dog who cannot be trusted near a breakfast buffet (sorry again Lodge in the Vale), these days we prefer self-catering. So how would Forest Holidays stack up? We hired a cabin at their Forest of Dean site to find out.

The cabins

The cabins at the Forest Holidays sites are marketed as “architect-designed” and they definitely have the wow factor. The epithet “cabin” didn’t seem grand enough to do them justice, but bunglaow and chalet didn’t feel right either, so we reverted to their official title. As a couple, we opted for a two-bedroom Golden Oak cabin to give us a bit more space. There’s the facility to choose the exact cabin location you want, and so we plumped for one at the rear of the site. That was an excellent choice, as it turned out, because this was our view.

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Floor to ceiling picture windows framed stands of conifers, through which dappled sunlight cast a warm glow onto the wooden deck. Despite being flanked by neighbours – and when we arrived, pretty full occupancy given the number of cars about – it felt secluded. The hot tub on the deck was private and unoverlooked. There was a barbecue, which we used a couple of times, and also a log burner which we didn’t need as it was still quite mild. The site was quiet too. We live in a small village and routinely wake to birdsong. Normally, on holiday, we remark on the noise relative to what we are used to. Here, it was like being at home, but with a different view.

First impressions were good: check-in was speedy considering how many new arrivals there were (check-out would later prove to be just as efficient). The location had been easy to find and the well-signed site meant that the last few hundred metres were no different. A ramp from parking space to front door made life easy when it came to unloading the car and the dogs. The entertainment package we’d added was sufficient, and the premium WiFi was reliable and fast. The day-to-day maintenance of our hot tub was efficient and unobtrusive.

Forest Holidays permit up to four dogs per cabin, so there were plenty of other dogs around, all well behaved save for a beagle that wandered off on its own for a bit – the TV messaging service asked everyone to keep an eye out and an update a couple of hours later reassured everyone he’d been found. The shop and cafe was properly pet-friendly, meaning we could take the dogs with us for a coffee or if we wanted to eat out. If you didn’t have a dog with you (or if someone was willing to stay home and watch them) there were lots of family-friendly activities that you could add to your package, including archery, bicycle hire, paddle boarding, ranger-guided walks and much more. We’d come for a relaxing, do very little week so it suited us just fine to hang out at the cabin and read a book.

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So in many respects, it was perfect, but as with anywhere, there were things that could have been improved. I often say that to create successful accommodation you need to stay in it yourself and see it from the visitor’s point of view. The Forest of Dean site had been open a while, so certain issues should have been ironed out long ago. I enjoy curling up on the sofa to digest the contents of a welcome folder and there wasn’t one. Instead, information was provided via the television, which felt impersonal though you could argue better for the environment avoiding the need for all that paper.

In general the kitchen was well-equipped, but it would have been helpful to have provided an oven glove rather than a tea towel. Here too, the eco-credentials were good, with environmentally-friendly detergent and multiple bags. However, there was only one bin in the kitchen to put a bag inside. With two dogs that would have been more than happy to have shredded a bag to get at its contents coupled with minimal counter or cupboard space to put one out of reach, we ended up recycling very little.

The cabins featured underfloor heating, which was pleasant once it had warmed up. But the downside was that there were no radiators as a consequence. Drying soggy towels from the hot tub or bathroom proved really difficult. Though plenty of towels had been provided (four per person, topped up midweek with a curbside delivery but not collected), as the week progressed, we had an ever-increasing pile of damp towels. The delight of taking a dip in the hot tub was tempered by the unpleasant sensation of stepping into a damp swimsuit to do so. We were blessed with fine dry weather for our stay, but had it been rainy, the whole drying thing would have been a bit of a nightmare with wet clothes to deal with as well.

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Internal maintenance, or the lack of it, was another bugbear. It was hard to regulate the temperature of the shower in the en-suite and in the main bathroom, the shower head refused to point downwards for more than a few seconds which flooded the bathroom. The toilet flush was very stiff and in an awkwardly low location, which might explain why we found that it hadn’t been flushed when we first arrived. Over the course of the week, the bathroom sink drained increasingly slowly which was unpleasant after cleaning teeth, for example.

But by far the biggest disappointment was how dirty the cabin was when we arrived. It’s surrounded by forest, so of course without daily cleaning I wouldn’t expect the cabin to stay in pristine condition. But within half an hour of padding around barefoot, the soles of my feet were filthy, indicating that the floor hadn’t been mopped on changeover day. There was a mop and broom in the cupboard, though it would have been helpful to have been left a vacuum cleaner to deal more effectively with the dog fur. (The floors are exclusively wood or tile; we brought our own rug as it makes it easier for the dog to get himself up.)

To be fair on the staff and management, we didn’t make a complaint while we were there to give them the opportunity to fix these issues. Reading the reviews on TripAdvisor, there were plenty of others who had experienced similar issues with either cleanliness or maintenance issues at the Forest of Dean site. After a long drive, who wants to have staff in to fix things that should have been picked up already? Given how pleased we were with the cabin’s location, we decided to put up with the problems and concentrate on the view instead. It didn’t affect our enjoyment of the cabin, but it would certainly make me think twice about returning there until it’s had a refresh – I’d expect one of their newer locations to be better.

The surrounding area

As our elder dog needs plenty of rest, we took it easy during our stay. We enjoyed three dog-friendly days out within a short drive of the cabin.

Goodrich Castle

This English Heritage property scores highly for its warm welcome and home-baked dog biscuits. It was about 400m to walk from the car park to the castle but relatively flat, so our old boy managed it with only a couple of stops. Our younger dog had a lot of fun climbing the ramparts (on lead of course!) and exploring the ruins. For the human visitor, there were plenty of information boards as well as an audio guide (included in the admission price). Though we didn’t eat there, it was good to learn that dogs were permitted in the cafe as well as in the shop.

Adults £8.40 each; dogs free

Dean Forest Railway

The volunteers that run the Dean Forest Railway went out of their way to ensure everyone felt welcome, with plenty of fuss for the dogs and a very tolerant attitude when they sat in the aisle rather than by our feet. The ride was a pleasant one, with steam days operating mostly on weekends and occasionally midweek. The train had plenty of carriages, which meant we could find a quieter compartment; the only carriage off-limits was (understandably) the buffet car. The museum, with plenty of interesting information about the railway, was dog-friendly. The station cafe wasn’t, but there was plenty of outside seating and a full water bowl for “steamed up dogs”.

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Adults £13 for a day rover ticket; dogs £2

Symonds Yat rock

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I hadn’t expected to be able to visit Symonds Yat, as we had read that the rock was way above the river and that would have been too hard for our elderly dog. Fortunately, the car park was on the hill too, so there was a gently sloping and pretty manageable walk for our elder dog and plenty of seating for him to rest. The views from the lookout over the River Wye and its gorge were breathtaking. If you had to climb up from sea level you wouldn’t have been disappointed. There were plenty of walking trails leading off in various directions from the car park (including one that led to the Forest Holidays site). There were also toilet and cafe facilities, the latter with outdoor seating only – plenty of dog-friendly picnic tables.

Adults and dogs free


A beginner’s guide to Kyrgyzstan

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

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Getting there

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

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

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

Getting around

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

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

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

How to spend a week in Kyrgyzstan

Day 1

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

 

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

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Day 2

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Day 3

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Day 4

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

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

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

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

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

Drinks

Day 5

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Day 6

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

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Would I go back?

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

A few observations

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

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

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

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

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

Toilet

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

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

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A beginner’s guide to Alberobello

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

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Getting there

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

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

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

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Getting around

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

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

Things to see

Rione Monti

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

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

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

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

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

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Rione Aia Piccola

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

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

Trulli Sovrano

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

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

Museo del Territorio “Casa Pezzolla”

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

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

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Where to stay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


An unexpected giraffe rescue in Uganda

It was one of those jaw-dropping moments that travel is supposed to be about: sunrise over a flat calm Nile, the water as pink as the sky above it. Staying at the excellent Red Chilli’s Murchison Falls Rest Camp, we were conveniently situated for the earliest ferry crossing. A queue had quickly formed behind us, but our driver was pleased with himself for being first to board the rudimentary, flat bed vessel. We were too busy gazing at the water to care.

However, that morning’s game drive hadn’t lived up to expectations. Save for a bunch of Rothschild’s giraffe, a scattering of Jackson’s hartebeest, the ubiquitous kob and a few distant hippo, we’d been unlucky. Game sightings hadn’t been as prolific as I’d experienced in other East African nations such as Tanzania and big game were conspicuous by their absence. It was looking increasingly likely that we’d be returning to Kampala a little disappointed, the sunrise proving the highlight of the day. Even our ranger seemed to have lost interest after his initial animated commentary.

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Suddenly, we pulled over on the dirt track and looked across at a vehicle careering off road across the park. My first thought was that our ranger was about to give them a serve for off-roading, but as they drew closer, we could see that they were uniformed personnel working for the Uganda Wildlife Authority. It turned out that one of a pair of elderly giraffes under a nearby tree had caught his hind leg in a snare.

Sadly, the threat from local poaching, despite efforts to tackle the problem, remains a significant one. The Uganda Conservation Foundation reported that bushmeat poaching, primarily through the setting of snares, continues to pose a significant threat to wildlife in the park:

“In April 2011, 40 rangers did a three day patrol of the Delta to Pakuba area of Murchison Falls, the region most densely populated by animals and a tourism hotspot. Over three days 1154 snares were recovered and destroyed. On February 12, 2013, rangers did a six- hour search in the small part of the Delta and discovered 285 wire snares. Large scale clearance of existing snares and gin traps is ongoing. One large scale sweep by rangers was done in March 2014 that resulted in the recovery of 42 wire snares and 6 metal traps. During the same patrol a warthog was found dead, trapped by a metal snare.”

Our MFNP guide told us that there was a particular problem in this part of the park as the nearby water provided the perfect excuse for poachers to masquerade as fishermen. Though warthog and antelope are the intended targets, other animals are caught in the traps. Fighting back is difficult. The park’s considerable size, coupled with budgetary constraints that hinder ranger employment and low salaries for those in post, combine to form a powerful set of obstacles. This is compounded by the park’s proximity to the DRC which facilitates illegal cross-border arms traffic. Marine rangers regularly patrol the riverbanks to enforce the law but the UWA faces an uphill battle.

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Initiatives such as the Michigan State University “Snares to Wares” aim to offer locals an alternative source of income, but such projects are a drop in a very large ocean. Ugandan newspaper The Daily Monitor reported on the issue in January 2016, explaining just how tempting it can be for those living in abject poverty to slip into poaching:

“The scarcity of sustainable livelihoods is also blamed; poverty drives people to make a living from illegal means. For instance, a hippo carcass is worth about Shs1.5m and a kilogramme of buffalo meat costs Shs15,000 on the black market.”

Visitor numbers are down: according to statistics from the organisation Global Conservation, visitor numbers are down to about 50,000 annually (2017 figures), compared to 70,000 a decade ago. The greater the impact of poaching on wildlife numbers, the more likely it will be that visitor numbers will continue to fall as tourists relocate to other countries where wildlife is more abundant. Without revenue generated from park entrance fees, currently worth about $2 million, the outlook becomes even more bleak.

Animals trapped in snares bleed to death if not discovered. “Our” giraffe was one of the lucky ones. The UWA ranger asked if our guide would assist her team in darting the giraffe and removing the snare; when safe, we would be able leave the safari vehicle to watch. The vet prepared the dart and the team set off in pursuit. It took a while to get an unobstructed shot, the giraffe spooked by the presence of humans at such close quarters. Finally, the sedative took hold and the giraffe fell to the floor.

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What happened next was almost a blur as events progressed at lightning speed. One ranger covered the giraffe’s head and held down its neck. The snare was cut with wire cutters and the ranger documented each step of the rescue with her camera. It took just a couple of minutes before the elderly creature began to come round, but getting to its feet proved considerably more difficult for the weakened animal.

It was heartbreaking to watch. Time and time again, the animal fought to raise itself, lifting its neck but then crashing down to the ground with a horrifying thud. After the buzz of the rescue, our spirits fell. It was a horrible feeling to be powerless to help. What if the giraffe couldn’t get up? But back in the vehicle, our driver was getting impatient. The ferry left on the hour and we were supposed to be on it. Reluctantly, we clambered back inside our vehicle, craning our necks to see if the giraffe would right itself, and dealing with the enduring disappointment of its repeated, failures as we grew ever more distant.

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The following morning, we set off again for our last game drive. As we waited for our vehicle to disembark, we caught sight of the ranger from the day before. She had good news. Eventually, with the help of a sling and a lot of heaving from the team, it staggered to its feet and headed off to join its mate in the bush.

For once, it was a happy ending. But for many, the story is heartbreaking one. I hope that the UWA secures the funding it needs from the impoverished Ugandan government in order to win what seems to be an almost impossible fight.