It’s here! The FlagMate arrived today, with my three starter flags attached. Regular readers of this blog may remember my earlier post, in which I described how I became involved in this Storyteller project:
Founder Bhav Patel set up Storyteller for three reasons: to create high quality travel accessories, to inspire travellers and most important of all, to do some good by supporting projects aimed at helping to fund education programmes for underprivileged kids around the world. I received this free sample in exchange for an honest review, so now it’s here, what do I think and should you order one for yourself?
First impressions are very favourable. The product is high quality, from the enamelled flags to the neatness of the stitching on the fob itself. Though it’s faux leather, the material is smooth to the touch and it has a pleasing sheen. As you can see from the photo above, it arrived in a tidy little box and would make a great gift or, if you’ll permit me to use the C-word in July, an ideal Christmas stocking filler. I opted for the fob style, which retails at £10.99, but there’s also one with a clip if that’s your preference for an extra pound. The keyring holds up to 29 flags, each available to purchase for £4.99. It’s not cheap, but I still think it’s suffiicently well made to be worth the price, especially if you view it as a charitable donation as well.
Each takes a bunting of flags – what a wonderful collective noun that is! I decided to narrow it down to just three as fitting 114 flags onto one keyring (one for each country I’ve visited) wasn’t going to work. I thought long and hard about which three flags I wanted to include and opted for a trio that had special significance for me. Now I’m sure you’ll be able to recognise the country from its flag, but in case you can’t, there’s an option to engrave their name – or any other special message, date or initials for that matter – onto the back. I opted for Austria, Peru and Iceland.
My love affair with Austria has a lot to do with deep rooted memories of happy family holidays in the Tyrol and Salzkammergut. My first holiday was to St Anton in May 1970. I was nine months old and remember absolutely nothing of the trip as a result. Mum recalls I helped calm down a nervous flyer on the plane – 21st century babies, take heed – and earned the nickname Little Mausli from the hotel staff on account of a white romper suit. I’ve been back to Austria many times since as an adult and even took the dog.
My first “proper” travel experience was to Peru in 1995 when I spent the entire school summer holidays in the company of a dear friend and his delightful family. I was enchanted with the place and have returned four times since. Its archaeological and historic attractions are of course a huge draw, but it’s the Peruvian zest for life and utterly bonkers attitude which keeps me returning.
I’d like to think I first went to Iceland before it was fashionable. By the time I returned to get married, word was out and Iceland was no longer the under the radar, scarily expensive destination it had once been. Nevertheless, it was April, early in the season, and summer’s crowds had yet to arrive. We shared our wedding photos with Skógafoss and a mere handful of hikers in brightly coloured waterproofs, sufficiently few in number to Photoshop out.
Would I buy FlagMate?
I’m looking forward to hitting the road this autumn and hopefully using my flags as a talking point to get to know fellow travellers. At £4.99 a go, buying additional flags isn’t going to break the bank, so perhaps I’ll add to my keyring story and help underprivileged kids as I do. It’s a great idea on so many levels, not least because I don’t ever need to sew any more badges on my day pack…
What do you think? If you’d like to create your own travel story and help support Storyteller’s work, you can buy your own FlagMate here:
Colchester’s been busy – a new advert using the tagline #ifthesewallscouldtalk has popped up on our television screens and sets out to promote the town’s many historic attractions. As England’s oldest recorded town and also its first Roman city, there’s a lot of history to uncover. But while most of us in the region know about Colchester’s castle, some of its more recent history can get overlooked.
As part of Greater Anglia’s summer #railadventure campaign, I set out to rediscover Colchester. The first decision I had to make was which station to use: Colchester has three railway stations. I opted to alight at Colchester Town (formerly known as St Botolph’s) as it is closer to the town centre than Colchester (also known as Colchester North) and Hythe. From there it was a six minute stroll to my first stop.
Tymperleys is a Tudor mansion tucked away in a courtyard off historic Trinity Street. Building began in the 1490s and over time it was added to and altered as the place changed hands. Among its illustrious owners was William Gilberd, an Elizabethan scientist who, it’s said, came up with the term “electricity”. Later, Colchester businessman Bernard Mason, who owned a successful printing firm, bought the place. His passion was clocks and amassed a collection of over 200 timepieces, one of the largest in Britain. This is what Wikipedia has to say about him:
Mason was a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers and the author of “Clock and Watchmaking in Colchester” (1969) which originally cost four guineas (£4 4s 0d £4.20). He was made an OBE in 1959. Mason claimed that there are 375 known examples of Colchester clocks and he managed to collect 216 of them in his lifetime, travelling far and wide to bring them back “home”.
After Mason’s death, he bequeathed his collection – and the house – to the people of Colchester. In 1987, the Tymperleys Clock Museum opened and would remain a popular attraction until 2011. But I had another reason to visit. These days, Tymperleys is perhaps (despite stiff competition!) the best cafe in the town centre and it’s especially lovely in the summer when you can eat al fresco in the delightful walled garden. No surprise, therefore, that most customers were sitting outside. With a fierce July sun beating down, I was glad of the shade of a garden umbrella as I enjoyed a tasty lunch surrounded by the pretty floral displays.
These days, not a single clock from Bernard’s collection – I asked – is left in Tymperleys. Before you fret, however, they have been moved. A short stroll across the town centre you’ll find them in the excellent Hollytrees Museum. It’s free to look around and learn something of the Colchester clockmaking industry which, it turns out, was quite something back in the day. Once a centre for baymaking (the manufacture of a felted woollen cloth), Colchester’s industry diversified in the Georgian era and it was then that the town became a centre for clock making.
Perhaps most productive of these craftsmen was Nathaniel Hedge. The Hedge family set up in business in 1739, running a factory from 1745 until the late 1780s. Other names to look out for include John Smorthwait, who trained up the young Nathaniel. One of the oldest clocks on display is a Thirty Hour Longcase clock made in 1698 by Jeremy Spurgin out of oak. Many of the pendulum clocks on display feature adornment in a style known as Japanning, a lacquered decorative finish involving paint and varnish. It’s an intricate style, a reminder that fashion was as important as function when it came to clockmaking.
By 1800, however, the industry had peaked and went into a steep decline as clocks could be made elsewhere much more cheaply. The industry and its contribution to Colchester’s history would be all but forgotten if it wasn’t for Bernard Mason. Whether you’re local or visiting from outside the region, it’s well worth the detour to take a look at this fascinating collection.
The visitor information centre is housed on the ground floor of Hollytrees Museum; their walking tours of the town provide an insight into the town’s past that you’d be hard pressed to achieve without their knowledgeable guide. For this and more on the town’s historic attractions, check out my previous blog.
Greater Anglia offered me a free train ticket in exchange for writing this review of my #railadventure. Travelling by train is an inexpensive way to travel, particularly off peak. For instance, if booked in advance, tickets from Norwich to London cost just £10, Cambridge to London can be had for £7 and Southend to London only £5 (all fares quoted are one way). Accompanied children travel for just £2 return and you don’t even have to pre-book their ticket – this fare is valid on all off peak trains within the Greater Anglia network. On top of this, GA are offering a 2FOR1 deal on top London attractions; with the summer holidays fast approaching this is great news for families. And don’t forget, the excellent Hollytrees Museum is free. It even has a kid-friendly display of vintage toys and a couple of nursery rhyme surprises, though I’ll leave you to discover those for yourself.
Colchester Town station had one last treat as I was waiting to board my train home. This poem, written by C. E. Benham in 1890 is entitled “A ballad of the Tendring Hundred” and you’ll find it on the station wall. Best read out loud – see how well your North Essex accent turns out!
Did you feel inspired to plan your own rail adventure after reading this blog? Why not complete Greater Anglia’s survey using this link:
The Bahamas consists of around 700 islands, cays and islets strung out like jewels on a necklace in some of the shallowest, most turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Most of these islands are uninhabited. Those further from Nassau, the country’s capital, are known as the Family Islands or Out Islands. The Exumas draw visitors for snorkelling and watersports as well as film makers – James Bond’s Thunderball was filmed near Staniel Cay and Pirates of the Caribbean on Sandy Cay. Johnny Depp liked the place so much he even bought his own private island nearby. He’s not alone. The Bahamas has a higher number of privately owned islands than anywhere else on the planet.
But when it comes to celebrity residents, even Hollywood stars are eclipsed by the Exumas’ famous porcine residents. No one knows for sure how pigs got to Big Major Cay, but these days they are the Exumas’ biggest draw. Around twenty or so pigs live on the beach, charming the pants off the steady stream of tourists who come here to swim with them. The proximity of Big Major Cay to Nassau makes it possible to visit for the day, even if you’re stopping off as part of a cruise.
It’s a popular trip but doesn’t come cheap. Many operators offer excursions. A flyer from Exuma Escapes in our hotel room offered a day out by boat for a special price of $359 per person, which included a 150 nautical mile round trip by speedboat, plus stops to see not only the pigs but also iguanas and to snorkel with nurse sharks. We ruled this out as it was billed as a bumpy ride and not suitable for those with bad backs. To take a smiliar package by air would have cost $550 per person which pushed it well out of our price range. Though you’d have an hour with the pigs and another with the sharks, the return flight would be at 3pm and so with check-in advised over an hour before, that would cut into the day considerably.
Fortunately, I read about a company that would unpackage the trip. We contacted Staniel Cay Vacations whose website http://www.stanielcayvacations.com/tours/ lists a number of options including a pigs only boat trip for $50 per person (minimum 2 people). Booking flights separately with Flamingo Air at http://flamingoairbah.com/ cost us $240 per person. We flew out of Nassau on the 0800 flight, arriving before 0900 and departed at 1700, with check-in required by 1530. We needed to fund our own transport to the airport and lunch at Staniel Cay, but still didn’t pay what we’d have needed to shell out for a tour.
Our boatman, Mr George, was waiting for us at the airport and pointed out Thunderball Cave as we passed. We didn’t see the iguanas like the tour groups do, of course, but while we were enjoying an al fresco lunch at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club a frenzy of nurse sharks clustered around the boat dock. We ended up with plenty of relaxation time at Staniel Cay – spent lazing under a shady tree on the beach and watching the boats come and go from the marina.
Best of all, we were ahead of the tour groups at Big Major Cay and had the pigs to ourselves for a while before another couple of boats arrived. This in itself made the day. Mr George had brought food along so we were able to feed the pigs while in the water.
Of course, we took a small risk unpackaging the tour but were fortunate that the flights were pretty much on schedule. Monique was responsive and helpful, answering emails promptly and making sure we were all set. Feeding the pigs was fun and watching them swim was a memorable experience. Mr George kept a close eye on us and made sure we gave pregnant mama pig, who had a tendency to bite people’s bums, a wide berth. And the piglets were cute too, the youngest just a couple of weeks old.
Would I recommend the trip? Definitely. It didn’t come cheap, but was an unforgettable experience and worth evey cent.
Cuba’s idiosyncratic monetary system can be daunting for first time visitors but it’s much simpler in practice than it might first seem.
Cuban currency is a closed currency, which means it cannot be purchased outside the country and neither can they be exchanged for other currencies outside Cuba. The government runs a dual system: CUPs (pesos nacionales) for residents and CUCs (pesos convertibles) for visitors. CUC notes have “pesos convertibles” written on them. In practice, most of the time you’ll just use CUCs and prices will be referred to as pesos. In some shops, you may see dual prices displayed, but if in doubt, just ask. Be careful though not to get fobbed off with pesos instead of CUCs as they’re worth a lot less. One of the best ways to avoid being scammed is never to change money on the street. Instead use a Cadeca (exchange bureau) or bank, though you will have to queue on the street to get in. Rates in hotels tend to be lower.
Which currency should you take?
Euros and pounds are easy to change once you arrive. If you’re arriving independently into Havana’s Jose Marti airport, there are two choices. Inside the arrivals hall (but after you’ve cleared immigration and customs) you’ll find a couple of ATMs next to the information kiosk. To find an exchange bureau exit the arrivals hall and turn immediately left once you get outside. Dispense with the taxi touts with a polite “No, gracias”. You can change your currency at the official desk here and will be given a receipt.
What about US dollars?
The dollar isn’t king here like it is elsewhere in Latin America. The uncomfortable relationship between Uncle Sam and Cuba adds a 10% additional commission fee to any exchange transactions, making it very poor value. You also won’t be able to use any credit card issued by an American bank, though MasterCard and Visa issued outside the US are OK. If you’re unsure whether this affects you, check with your issuer before you leave home.
Can you rely on credit cards?
In short, no. It’s wise to keep a store of cash on you just in case you struggle to find an ATM. Few places accept credit cards – this is a cash based economy. If you haven’t prepaid your accommodation, you might find that you can’t pay by card, so double check well before you’re due to check out to avoid any problems. However, if you’ve made an internet booking, you’ll have been able to pay by credit card in advance. Independent travellers should carry proof of this paid reservation as the internet can be unreliable in Cuba – your accommodation provider may not have access to emails or booking systems when you arrive.
Have you seen my blog about using the internet in Cuba?
When I made my first visit to Cuba fifteen years ago, outside Havana I was pretty much incommunicado. My phone didn’t get a signal and internet was non-existent. Travelling as a solo female, it felt pretty isolating. Fortunately, in the intervening period, things have changed. Telephone service is via Cubacel and there is one internet service provider in Cuba – Etecsa.
Etecsa’s often as creaky as an octogenarian’s arthritic knees but that’s all you’ve got. While some hotels will offer WiFi, you’ll still need to log into Etecsa as well to get connected. To do so, first you’ll need a scratch card or “tarjeta” which is issued by Etecsa outlets. You’ll usually find there’s a crowd at the door, with a bouncer strictly controlling who gets to enter and join the smaller queue inside. Be polite and keep your cool unless you want to be sent to the back of the line.
Cards cost 1 CUC, about 70p at current exchange rates. They have a number on the back and a scratch off panel which will reveal a password. Though you can sit in the Etecsa internet lounge, in practice that’s dearer and you should expect to join most people on the street. If you spot a crowd of people sitting on the pavement in a huddle, chances are you’ve just found the Etecsa WiFi hotspot.
Enable your WiFi and select Etecsa. You may have to be patient to get it to connect if it’s busy. When you succeed, a screen will pop up automatically. Enter the card number and the passcode that you’ve scratched to reveal. If you’ve connected, a new screen will show the amount of time you have remaining for that card. They last one hour and you can log in and out to use it on several occasions.
Social media junkies will be relieved to know that Facebook, Twitter and the like are all permitted in Cuba, unlike the situation in some other one-party states. So long as you have a strong enough internet connection you’ll be able to bombard your friends with images and tales regaling your Cuban exploits. In practice my ability to do so varied considerably. Sometimes I had an excellent upload speed, other times I could barely get it to connect. But honestly, that’s probably a good thing – time we thought more carefully about wasting precious holiday time staring at a screen.
Have you seen my blog about Cuba’s dual currency?
That is the question that has provoked a storm of impassioned comments this week after the Telegraph announced that British Airways was introducing 35 new planes on its short haul routes with non-reclining seats. Here’s the original article:
The ensuing headlines screamed that BA was fast turning into a low-cost carrier, but that’s not what people have been arguing about. A survey by Skyscanner in 2013 claimed that 91% were in favour of banning reclining seats on short haul flights:
Reclining seats on long haul planes are a boon, particularly on overnighters. Economy class is cramped, and let’s face it, we’d all happily upgrade if funds permitted. But for many of us, the choice is to fly economy or not fly at all, so we fold up our legs and get on with it. It’s one of the few times when I wish I was young again. The ability of millennials to tuck themselves up and nod off to sleep for eight straight hours is something I now struggle to achieve in a full sized double, let alone a tiny aeroplane seat.
But that whole cramped arrangement gets a whole lot worse when someone in front reclines their seat into the space in front of my knees. I’m not especially tall, but I do have long legs, so a battering to the kneecaps is a real possibility. I pity 6 footers. I read this week that one man was left with bleeding knees after someone reclined without warning. It’s all very well saying that you have the right to use the space – after all, you’ve paid for that seat, recline and all – but if someone is going to get hurt in the process, surely there’s room for some give and take?
In the States, planes have even been forced to divert over legroom wars. This report from the Telegraph written in 2014 refers to the Knee Defender, a product that’s still on sale, as the trigger for an air rage incident that necessitated an unscheduled landing.
Surely it’s better to put up with a bit of discomfort than to have your travel plans severely disrupted – and even face charges? It’s a shared space; there has to be a bit of give and take. I don’t expect someone to turn round and ask my permission to recline, but but I do appreciate it when they do so slowly so I have chance to grab my drink and rearrange my legs first. Likewise, while it’s perfectly OK in my book to recline on a long haul flight, I don’t expect to be eating my meal with no space for a tray table and so always ask the flight attendant to have a word with the person in front if they haven’t yet reclined.
But on short haul flights, is it really even necessary to have the facility to recline? Perhaps I’ve been conditioned after years of flying with Ryanair, but I just don’t even think about it on a short flight. I’m hopping over to Amsterdam this month and there’ll barely be enough time to sit down, let alone recline. Even on the longest short haul flights of around four hours, it’s not really a hardship to sit up straight. If I’m stiff, I can walk around the cabin to stretch my legs. However, for those hubbing through Heathrow, they’ve already come off one flight and don’t need the discomfort of a cramped second leg.
So this news isn’t a deal breaker for my relationship with BA. And of course, no one’s forcing anyone to fly BA. You can choose not to do so and opt for a different carrier. That said, you probably won’t find yourself sat next to me on BA any time soon, not least on one of their short haul routes. It’s not the cull on free food or even the IT disasters that have left passengers stranded. No, it’s price. The budgets are still usually cheaper, even more so for me when I factor in the additional cost of getting to Heathrow over Stansted.
But for those banging on about reclining seats, well, I think it’s the shape of things to come. Airlines have been forced to change to stay in business. The rise and continued popularity of the low cost carriers prove that people are happy to unpackage their fares and pay only for what they need. I think BA’s making a smart decision to ditch the reclining seats and make room for additional paying passengers. But will you be one of them?
Why visit Abkhazia?
Country counters are always on the lookout for opportunities to add to their total, hence a visit to Abkhazia is on many a bucket list. It’s no longer an active conflict zone, though banditry at the border is reportedly still an issue, particularly after dark. Gal, the scruffy border town near the Enguri crossing, still bears the scars of war in the form of burnt out and abandoned homes, but though it does have something of a reputation, I didn’t feel unsafe as I travelled through. Sukhumi, the capital, is also only part way through reconstruction. The hulking Government Palace is the most noticeable landmark to await renovation, overgrown with weeds inside and riddled with concrete cancer. I visited a couple of hours after a summer thunderstorm and the sound of percolating rain water only added to the atmosphere.
But the Botanical Gardens were pleasant and down by the waterfront of this Black Sea resort, you’ll find pavement cafes and ice cream sellers with plenty of family-friendly attractions to keep the kids happy. Many of those who visit Sukhumi are Russians, coming across the border from nearby Sochi. Arriving from Georgia, I was the only visible tourist. Most of those crossing are local. Some are returning to Abkhazia with purchases from Zugdidi – I saw one rotund lady struggling in the heat pushing a trolley loaded with a refrigerator. Others cross daily for work.
Securing a visa
At least a week or so before your planned visit, you’ll need to apply for a visa. No payment will be necessary at this stage. It’s a simple form and can be downloaded from this website:
The only thing to be careful about is specifying exactly which dates you intend to travel as these will be fixed. You don’t get an open-ended month long visa for example. Email off the form together with a scan of your passport. In about a week, you should receive a letter of invitation. You may need to check your spam folder; the email that popped up into my inbox was headed simply “clearance” with the sender’s name in Russian and I almost deleted it. You’ll need to print off a copy of this letter and carry it with you. Some bloggers suggest you might require two copies but I needed only one.
Getting to the border
The easiest route to the Enguri border is by taxi from Zugdidi which should cost you 10 GEL (Georgian Lari, about £3.30 at current exchange rates). It’s also possible to travel by marshrutka. I speak no Georgian or Russian and taxi drivers didn’t see to understand border or even Abkhazia. Drop into the tourist information office on Rustaveli Street and pick up a regional map; you can then point to the border if necessary.
Before you set off, stop at one of the exchange places on Kostava Street to get some rubles. They don’t all stock rubles and again you might have trouble being understood; I ended up taking a photograph of a sign marked “Rub” and showing that. $100 was plenty to cover mid-range accommodation, food and transport for a couple of days. I didn’t see anyone obviously changing rubles at the border and you’ll need small notes (50s and 100s) to pay the marshrutka drivers once you arrive.
At the border
I made the mistake of arriving early, figuring that as I had read online about lengthy waits at both ends of the bridge, I should give myself plenty of time. There was a flaw with this plan and that was that the Georgian police official who could authorise my transit didn’t arrive until 10am. From 8.20am when I arrived, I was given a frosty but polite welcome by the police manning the exit booth. I was held for around an hour and a half. Technically. In practice, what this meant was that they waved me in to sit and wait in their office where they were watching Ultraviolet, a really bad Milla Jojovich vampire movie. Fortunately, they also had unsecured WiFi so the time passed quickly. When the boss arrived, I was processed without a single question and pointing to the door, pronounced good to go.
The walk across the bridge took around 15 minutes, as I had luggage, it was hot and I made frequent photo stops. Mostly no one seemed to mind that I was taking pictures. There are horse and carts which can be hired, but no one seemed to be that bothered about picking up a fare so shanks’ pony it was.
At the other side, a cheery official in army fatigues studied my passport and on learning I spoke no Russian, ushered me to sit down on what looked like it had once been a 1970s British bus seat. Lots of smiles, lots of “Hello, American? ensued” Ten minutes later, another soldier arrived, this time he knew some English. I was asked where I was from, my job, how long I planned to stay in Abkhazia and what I wanted to visit. I made sure I was very positive, smiled a lot and concentrated on the places rather than the politics. Satisfied with my answers, I was passed to the customs hut who processed me with a minimum of fuss.
It was then time to find a marshrutka heading for Sukhumi. I’d read that you could get a direct minibus but the only labelled marshrutka was for Gal. The name is easily recognisable in the Cyrillic: a back to front 7 followed by an A and a 3. The minibus was nearly full and left almost immediately, charging me 50 rubles theoretically but in practice, as I had no change, 100 rubles in practice. It took just half an hour or so, maybe less, to reach Gal and then circle around dropping people off, picking up flour and then, eventually, handing me over to a minibus driver bound for Sukhumi. The ride to the capital took under two hours, by which time the heavens had opened and I stepped out into torrential rain. That ride cost me 200 rubles. I was let out in the centre, saving me the fare from the train station where the marshrutkas terminate.
After the rain eased, and not before I was soaked to the skin waiting for my hotel owner to deign to come to the gate or answer the phone, I headed down to get my visa. For this, I needed to visit 33 Sakharov Street, an easy to find building set in a small but well maintained garden.
Inside, there was a gloomy corridor with a sign for consular services which led to a poky office. I was seen right away. Not only could I process the letter here, but I could also pay. The official asked if I wished to pay with a credit card and the chip and pin machine accepted my British Visa card with no problems. My overnight visa cost 350 rubles, though I’m not sure if a longer stay would necessitate a higher price.
Having thoroughly explored, I caught a taxi to the train station (150 rubles) in time to get me there for 11am, about the time my Lonely Planet said the border-bound marshrutka would leave. In fact, it was scheduled for 12.30pm. A shared taxi took a group of about six of us to the border. The fares were the same, 250 rubles in total. Crossing the border was much quicker than before. A few questions from the Abkhazian authorities about where I’d been and much smiling as I said I’d very much enjoyed Sukhumi and I was on my way. Aside from being asked to turn back and use the pedestrian path rather than the road the other side of the wire fence, it went without a hitch and after a cursory inspection from the Georgian police, I was back in. Another 10 GEL taxi ride took me to the centre of Zugdidi from where I was to catch my overnight train to Tbilisi.
If you’re thinking of visiting Abkhazia yourself and have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment.