Once again, 2019 has been a hectic year and I’ve notched up several new countries plus plenty of revisits. In this post I’ll be looking back at some of my favourite moments from another awesome year of travelling.
The first trip of the year took us down to Cornwall to see family for a long weekend. To break the journey for elderly doggo, we stopped off on the way, but thanks to husband twisting his knee, we didn’t get to see Salisbury as we had hoped. Fortunately, it improved sufficiently for a couple of walks, including this one on Portwrinkle Beach before the long drive home.
This year’s biggest trip was the first I took: to Uganda. I spent two weeks in this fascinating but flawed East African nation. The highlights were as varied as they were numerous. I rode a horse beside the River Nile at Jinja, had some close up encounters with the entertaining chimps of Kibale Forest and saw probably the most spectacular sunrise I’ve ever witnessed in Murchison Falls National Park a few hours before helping park rangers free an elderly giraffe trapped in a snare. Visiting Love in Action’s school in Masaka gave me an insight into everyday struggles in the country.
Italy’s always a pleasure to visit and in April I travelled to the far south for the first time. En route to quirky Alberobello, I stopped off in the 2019 European Capital of Culture Matera. In the sunshine, the caves of the sassi were beautifully photogenic, though they were once described as the shame of Italy. Alberobello itself didn’t disappoint. I was lucky enough to stumble upon the characterful Trulli Anti which is one of the loveliest places I’ve stayed. The only downer was the weather, but the cone-shaped dwellings were stunning even in the wet.
A week off in May took me to Central Asia and the delightful country of Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan has been hogging the headlines, thanks to a successful change in tourism strategy, but I felt that its neighbour would be a better fit for me after watching Joanna Lumley’s excellent TV documentary. I travelled just before peak season kicked in. Snow was still thick on the ground as we crossed a mountain pass to a deserted Song Kul, but it was remote Tash Rabat, the Silk Road caravanserai at the end of an almost forgotten valley, that stole my heart.
A family celebration saw us heading off to Devon to a bungalow by the sea at Saunton Sands. Grandpa dog managed to get himself onto the beach, though a walk along its entire 3.5 mile length was out of the question. It felt a little odd to be going to the West Country and not continuing to Cornwall, but it was a beautiful part of the country nevertheless. Though I didn’t surf, it was fun to watch those who did.
The big celebrations I’d hoped for to mark my 50th birthday had to be scaled back as our golden retriever Einstein hit old age. No matter: Alaska will wait and in the meantime, my husband stepped up to look after things at home while I spent a few restorative days in Austria. I revisited St Johann in Tirol for some invigorating mountain hikes in the sunshine and plenty of good food. In Kitzbuhel, I was reminded how celebrity is a curious concept, when everyone bar me went wild for a folk singer who was big in Austria – but a complete unknown over here in the UK.
August – just!
A few days after I returned, we set off, dogs and all, for a week in Gloucestershire, staying in a log cabin in the Forest of Dean. Champagne in our own private hot tub – with two black noses pinned to the glass watching us – marked the Big 5-0. But being able to make a few excursions with Einstein (and Edison of course) was the best birthday present I could have hoped for. We enjoyed a steam railway, a trip to a castle and best of all the spectacular view from Symonds Yat.
The Lithuanian Coast was the much anticipated destination for September, on a press trip with the British Guild of Travel Writers. It had been many years since my first trip to this Baltic country and I was keen to visit some more. Our guide was an absolute gem, feeding us excellent food, informing and entertaining in equal measure as we toured her region and generally giving us a trip we could remember. The highlight for me was our stay on the Curonian Spit, a blend of culture and natural beauty worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage status.
It was back to Italy this month, this time a second visit to Bologna, ostensibly so I could visit San Marino to bump the country count to a nicely rounded 120. I was hosted on an excellent food tour of the Quadrilatero which introduced me to a characterful bar I’d missed the first time round, the Osteria del Sole and the delights of Pignoletto, a fizz not unlike Prosecco. San Marino was very pretty and I was blessed with plenty of sunshine as I explored the cobbled streets of its hilly capital city. There was surprisingly lots to do and I’d be tempted to go back one day.
The trip that almost didn’t happen, thanks to Edison’s (successful) attempt to destroy my passport, was to Italy. This time I spent a few days in Lombardy, but not to Milan. Instead, flying into Bergamo with Ryanair, I explored Mantova, Cremona, Pavia, Crespi d’Adda, Vigevano and more with the hardworking Isabella from Lombardy Tourism and her cheerful driver Luca. It’s a region that, despite being so well connected, is still off the beaten tourist trail and one that rewards with crowd-free sightseeing and good food.
More from November
Rounding off November was a return visit to Fes in Morocco, the first with my new passport. I stayed in a sumptuous riad in the heart of the medina, near to Place Seffarine, which had been lovingly restored by its architect owner. The old town of Fes was almost exactly as I remembered it from my first visit in 1997. Although some areas of the souks had been smartened up, you still had to listen out for the clatter of horse’s hooves and donkeys hurtling through the narrow alleys with heavy loads. The smell of the tannery hadn’t improved either. New to me was the blue city of Chefchaouen, which was a pleasant place to spend the day.
The last trip of the year, as has become my custom, was to a Christmas market. This year’s choice was the northern German town of Bremen, a city I’d enjoyed twice before. Despite the rain, a mug of Gluhwein and the German sense of humour in the form of a bird feeder tagged “Cat cinema” got me in the Christmas mood.
So what does 2020 have in store?
For the first time in a very long time, I have no trips booked. I have a few ideas, but nothing firmed up. It probably has a lot to do with Einstein; as his back legs weaken I know I don’t want to be away when the time comes, so last minute bookings juggled with my husband’s work commitments seem the way to go. I’m not complaining; that’s what you sign up for if you have a dog.
When I do give the new passport an airing, I think Bergamo is on the cards, if only for a day trip. Further afield, I’m keen to visit Tajikistan after such a wonderful trip to Kyrgyzstan in May. Sao Tome & Principe, Comoros, Rwanda and Madagascar are also high up on the bucket list as are Andorra and Belarus, the only two European destinations I’ve never visited. To the west, a return visit to Peru to explore the central cordillera would be the stuff of dreams, as would trips to Alaska and Hawaii.
What trips have you got planned for 2020?
Bulging veins riddled the man’s substantial biceps, triceps and quiadriceps like a toddler had been let loose with a crayon and scribbling pad. Beads of sweat trickled into the furrows in his forehead. He was mirrored by another, equally intense, performer who lie supine beneath him. Together, they contorted into ever more fanciful positions, bearing each other’s weight and holding positions that required muscle strength and concentration far beyond that which ordinary mortals could summon. The sight, just a metre or so in front of me, was as hypnotic as it was impressive. I, like everyone around me, was rapt.
That was my first introduction to Cirque du Soleil, over twenty years ago. Was it Quidam or Alegria? I can’t remember. Nor can I remember whether it was in the Grand Chapiteau or the Royal Albert Hall. But that doesn’t matter. What’s important is the spectacle of it all, the mesmerising performances that truly deserve the overused and rarely accurate epithet breathtaking. That’s what has stuck with me for all these years and that’s what keeps me going back to see Cirque du Soleil time and time again.
Crystal from TOTEM
Picture credit: OSA Images via the Totem press kit
This week, Made and Greater Anglia supported a complimentary trip to see this year’s show, Totem. It was staged at the Royal Albert Hall – a treat in itself. As the lights dimmed, the compere revealed that it was a Royal premiere also, to raise money for Sentebale, a charity working with HIV-positive children in Lesotho and Botswana. Our seats would face those of Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, who wore a dazzling Roland Mouret gown. I felt underdressed in my wool sweater and scarf dampened by rain. Touching my make up free face, I resolved to make a bit more effort next time. But hey, who cares when the lights dim?
Totem wowed, just as the others had done before. From the moment the covers came off the skeletal turtle shell to the waves and bows of the finale, it was a showstopper. Acrobats, unicyclists, Russian bars and of course the almost obligatory Italian clowns – it had all the elements of the successful shows that I’ve come to love.
Stand out moments in the evolution-themed show included the flawless work of the Native American ring dancers and a wonderfully romantic rollerskate interlude conducted on a platform too small for any error. Clever choreography lent itself to a neat evolution of man set piece.
If I had one criticism, it would be that the music lacked the impact of, say, Alegria. As I’m writing this, the title song from what’s probably my favourite of all the Cirque du Soleil shows is playing in my head, although I’ve not heard it for years. Yet less than 48 hours after hearing Totem, I can’t recall a single tune. But don’t let that put you off. Whether you’re a die-hard fan or a Cirque du Soleil newbie, this is a show that you should definitely see. You’ve got until February 26th to catch it this time.
Made provided two complimentary tickets to Totem, for which I’m very grateful. I also appreciated the free rail travel provided by Greater Anglia – driving to the Royal Albert Hall at rush hour wouldn’t have been a pleasant trip at all. The train was clean, comfortable and on time, leaving me plenty of time for a pre-show drink. For more on Cirque du Soleil including ticket booking for the current London run of Totem, please visit their website at:
Finale from TOTEM
Picture credit: OSA Images via Totem press kit
A few days ago Uttlesford District Council approved plans that would see Stansted grow its passenger numbers to 43 million a year. The news comes hot on the heels of a press release announcing that the airport had just experienced its busiest October ever. 2.5 million passengers used the airport, up almost 9% on the same month in 2017, bringing the annual total to over 27 million. It’s good news for the local economy, with an already buoyant job market fuelled by such growth. Stansted claims that 5000 new jobs would be created by the continued expansion of its facilities. An increase in flights, with some long haul routes now offered, increases choice and offers an alternative to driving over an hour further to Heathrow or Gatwick.
So why am I unhappy?
First, it’s not a case of NIMBY-ism. Though Stansted airport is my nearest, it’s still a forty minute drive away. By the time Stansted’s planes fly over my home, they’re at such an altitude that noise pollution isn’t an issue. I’m not affected by increased traffic, nor am I impacted by any kind of blight on house prices, though I’m sympathetic to those who are.
No, my concerns lie with the airport experience. I travel fairly frequently and time spent at the airport is a necessary evil if I am to do my job. My recent experience of Stansted hasn’t been a positive one, with issues cropping up every time. Parking is the first problem. I remember not so long ago being able to turn up to long term parking without having to pre-book. Clearly that’s not the case anymore, not just at Stansted but elsewhere too, just as you don’t generally have the option to drive up to drop off in front of a terminal free of charge either. But a fair number of my Stansted visits are day stays – and long term parking at Stansted has a minimum three day stay. Mid term is often full, leaving me with a fee of £30 or more to park at short stay. (Living in a small village I don’t have a public transport option.) I appreciate that with increased passengers, rationing spaces by cost is the logical solution. But allowing this day tripper to use the long term parking would reduce my parking cost by a third.
Inside the terminal, it’s common for the space to be excessively crowded. Once, this Norman Foster designed building was a pleasure to transit. Now, with the security gates shifted from the back of the terminal to the side, it has become a veritable obstacle course. The queues first thing in the morning usually reach the gates, and sometimes extend beyond them. Security staff seem less friendly than in other airports and occasionally rude. Management, to be fair, do listen but there does seem to be a need for training. My luggage “fails” at a disproportionately high rate compared to other airports. I have no idea why. It’s not like I pack differently for those journeys. On one occasion, a staff member moved my coat to cover my iPad, necessitating a manual check “because your items were stacked on top of each other”. On another, I was told that my wheelie case required an additional check because it had been placed “at the wrong side of the bin” – I wasn’t aware there was a wrong side of the bin and neither was the manager I spoke to afterwards.
Security eventually navigated, the queues funnel through the duty free and shopping area. The space is narrow and littered with passengers and bags. The main holding area is also rammed, partly because gates aren’t announced until late on. Stansted have tried to tackle this, not by clearing out the clutter, but by closing the airport overnight in an attempt to foil travellers who plan to sleep stretched out across several seats. A long term programme of investment to the time of £600m and significant expansion is underway. The sooner that has an impact the better. Right now I feel more stressed waiting for my Ryanair flight to be called than with the boarding process. Yes, you did read that right – Ryanair’s part has generally been the best part of the whole process. If that doesn’t jinx December’s flight, I don’t know what will.
So forgive me if I’m not dancing with delight at the news Stansted is going to get even busier. If by some miracle, Ken O’Toole, Stansted’s CEO, happens to read this, then please think carefully about how you plan for all these additional visitors. The good news is that your airport surely can’t get any worse.
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 walking companion, Einstein
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.
Llama dinner time, Cusco
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.
The church in which I was married
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!
Discover destinations and ticket prices at www.greateranglia.co.uk and plan your journey at www.nationalrail.co.uk.
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.
The letter will have your date of birth next to your name plus your passport number
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.
Sometimes you need to use your initiative!
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.
Your ride across the bridge – should you need it
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.
Welcome to Abkhazia
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.
Inside the marshrutka
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.
This is the building to look out for
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.
What your visa will look like
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.
First class sleeper to Tbilisi: 8 hours for a bargain 30 GEL!
If you’re thinking of visiting Abkhazia yourself and have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment.
Armenia claims to be the oldest Christian nation on the planet so it’s hardly surprising that you’ll encounter plenty of monasteries. Most feature a “gavit” or entrance hall, where the floor is often spread with graves. A few steps will lead into the church proper. As a woman, covering your head isn’t required as it would be in Georgia. You will see the faithful reverse out of the church so as not to turn their back on God; even those who aren’t regular churchgoers sometimes do this out of respect. Here’s a brief guide to eight of its most commonly visited.
Located in the Debed Canyon, this is for many visitors their first monastery in Armenia as it lies on the way to Yerevan from the Georgian capital Tbilisi. This imposing mediaeval complex was built in the 9th century, a sprawling delight of building added on to building, the grey stone set off perfectly by the terracotta of the roof tiles. Inside, one of the rooms has a series of holes in the floor, once used for storing wine.
Why should you visit?
As it’s quite a distance from Tbilisi to Yerevan, this is a great way of breaking the journey.
Twinned with Haghpat, this one means “older than that one” though it’s not as attractive from the outside. The cavernous interior is fascinating, with plenty of tombstones on the floor. Step on them as it’s commonly held that if you do, you’re freeing the dead of their sins – and fortunately not taking them upon yourself as a burden in the meantime. And you’ll learn how to recognise whether a monastery is a functioning church or not – if it has a curtain that can be pulled across the altar, it still hosts regular services.
Why should you visit?
While you’re in the Debed Canyon, you may as well visit both the monasteries.
A party of schoolchildren were visiting at the same time, so for me, this monastery lacked the serenity that some of the others offered. It was a good opportunity to watch the priest deliver a blessing and to hear the acoustics as the children sang inside the chapel. Look out for the hole in the floor which allows you to peep down into the church from above. There’s also a spring inside which is believed to be holy.
Why should you visit?
If you’re in Yerevan and your time is limited, this is an easy excursion from the city and together with nearby Garni temple, doable in just a few hours.
To reach Sevanavank, located above the shoreline of Lake Sevan, you’ll need to climb a lot of steps: 243 to be precise. The reward, though, is a panoramic view of Armenia’s largest lake and its environs. Again it’s a double church site plus plenty of khatchkhars to admire in its cemetery. Those are the standing stones which you’ll see at all religious sites. The largest concentration can be found further along the lakeshore at Noratus cemetery. But it’s that vast expanse of blue that will draw your attention away time and time again.
Why should you visit?
It’s all about that spectacular view – and the satisfaction of making it up the steps without collapsing.
This monastery, built out of tufa, also lies on Lake Sevan, but this time occupies a less lofty position. Its alternative name is Aghavnavank, meaning “church of the human pigeons”. The connection refers to a legend associated with Tamerlane, whereby the local population were turned into pigeons to keep them safe from the invaders – a deal had been struck that anyone who could fit into the church would be spared and of course birds are smaller than people.
Why should you visit?
If they’ve gone to the trouble of coming up with such a fantastic legend, you’ve really got to see how big the church is from the inside.
This one’s all about the setting, and what a setting. The road curves on approach offering the picture postcard image of the monastery perched to the right of a backdrop of Mount Ararat, the mountain where Noah’s ark came to rest. From the rear of the monastery, you can climb a small hill – look for the cross on top of it – and you’ll have a similar view, but this time the monastery will be on the left. Inside, you’ll see a steady stream of people descending a narrow stairwell at the doorway to the church – it’s a well, and it’s a dark and shaky climb down.
Why should you visit?
The setting is special, but pick a clear day so you get the panorama of Ararat at the same time; you’ll have a better chance of good visibility in the morning.
Tucked away up a narrow canyon, Noravank is another site that feels special as a result of its location. There are some wonderful carvings, including one of Jesus with Peter and Paul. What you’ll remember, though, is the scarily steep and narrow stone block steps that lead up to the second storey of the church. Take it from me, it’s much worse coming down. But from the restored cupola to the view across to the other chapel from up high, it’s worth dealing with the fear. After all, you can always come down on your bum!
Why should you visit?
The vertiginous steps up to the second level of the church might be scary, by the view from the top is splendid.
This one is reached by the world’s longest ropeway (that’s cable car to those of us who speak the Queen’s English). If you don’t believe them, there’s a sign which claims Guinness has officially recognised it as such for their Book of Records. The column allegedly predicts earthquakes and approaching enemy armies.
Why should you visit?
With such an awesome approach, this one’s a must-see.
Of course, that’s not all. But even spreading these across a week, I was beginning to feel monasteried-out by the end of it. My advice would be not to feel like you ought to see every major monastery in the country, just pick a few and enjoy the view. If I had to pick a favourite, I’d probably say Sevanavank, as its lofty position represented not only an impressive feat of engineering but also felt remote despite the visiting tourists. Norovank, with those crazy steps and beautiful carvings, came a close second, though perhaps it was a little too perfectly restored to claim the top spot.
It’s been a long journey involving an overnight train and a four hour ride in a marshrutka, but I’ve finally reached Svaneti. My base is in Mestia and I’m writing this holed up on the hotel balcony overlooking three of the famous towers that dot the village. The birds are chirruping and the neighbour’s dog is letting me know if anyone walks up the rutted and very steep road that joins us to the main drag. The sun is valiantly making an attempt to break through today’s persistent low cloud, but tomorrow’s forecast promises sunshine and blue skies.
I spent yesterday travelling along the Georgian Military Highway, the route linking Tbilisi to the Russian border. The epithet “military” conjures up all manner of images, but you won’t see tanks or soldiers, just great scenery. I travelled with Envoy Tours in the capable hands of their guide Beqa. He was great fun, doing everything he could to ensure my Singaporean travelling companion and I had a fun day. From tour guide to chef to toastmaster, there was nothing he couldn’t turn his hand to.
Our first stop was on the edge of the Zhinvali reservoir built in the 1980s to supply water to Tbilisi. It’s a picturesque addition to the landscape, though one that necessitated drowning several villages. The water level was high enough to conceal them yesterday, but when the water level is low, sometimes the tops of churches can be revealed.
We skirted the edge of the reservoir to reach the fortress complex of Ananuri, where they were selling these fabulous sheepskin hats. Once, there was just a tower here on a hillside; now there’s a cluster of buildings with defensive towers and a 17th century church featuring ornate carvings.
It was the first time I’d been asked to wear a skirt over my trousers as well as the headscarf I’d been expecting. Not the most elegant of looks, of course, but when you’re in someone else’s country you play by their rules. Inside the church walls bear a few faded but interesting frescoes. When Georgia was under Russian rule the frescoes were whitewashed and are slowly being restored.
While the tallest tower was off limits, it was possible to climb the smaller one. I’ve no head for heights, so the narrow, worn steps missing a handrail had my heart missing a beat. With plenty of encouragement, my two younger companions got me to the top. Inside, each level was surprisingly spacious, with a fireplace and plenty of room to live. These towers would have been hiding places when the area was under attack. The castle’s dungeon was quite claustrophobic in comparison.
Heading north from Ananuri, the road took us past the ski resort of Gudauri and over the 2379m Jvari Pass. Next stop was the Georgia-Russia Friendship Balcony.
Our guide, no fan of Russia, was quick to point out that it was built in 1983 when Russia was still in charge and Georgian independence was eight years off. Despite its name, the monument was very tastefully done and its multiple balconies were perfect for capturing a shot of the dramatic mountain scenery which formed its backdrop.
Our last port of call was right near the Russian border near the town of Kazbegi in a little place called Gergeti. Lunch had been arranged: my first experience of a Georgian stupa or feast. First, though, we had to make the local dumplings known as khinkali. Pastry had already been made and rolled; a spicy lamb filling had been preformed. All we had to do was assemble it, which involved lots of pinching of pastry and some rather dodgy looking shapes. Our hostess demonstrated a far higher level of skill, putting together a double decker khinkali quicker than we could pick up our cameras. They were delicious, though I resorted to using a fork instead of eating them the traditional way – bite off the top, drink the juice and then munch on what’s left. Beqa proved to be a good toastmaster too, ordering us to raise our glasses at regular intervals through the meal to God, peace, ancestors and women.
A hike had been planned. The Tsminda Sameba church, also referred to as Holy Trinity, is perched high on the mountain pastures above Kazbegi. Apparently there was once a cable car (those Russians again!) but the locals were none too impressed at having a sacred place defiled so they tore it down. A bumpy road led up to the church, but, said Beqa, it didn’t take much longer to walk up. Yeah right, if you were a goat maybe. The others walked, but told me later – as I’d suspected – that the path was pretty much straight up to the church and not an easy hike.
I took the minibus option, to my later relief, though that in itself was a hair-raising experience. Deep ruts characterised the gravel track for much of its length. In a couple of places the road had fallen away altogether. At the top, heavy rain made the pastures soft. I held my breath as we screamed across the grass, deep in some other vehicle’s tracks. How we didn’t get bogged down I don’t know. That fate was to befall someone else later, much to everyone else’s amusement.
The church was as impressive as its setting, though cloud obscured the 5047m Mount Kazbek which can be seen on a clear day. Inside simple candles stood in sand illuminated the icons and other works of art that adorn this simple church. Despite the constant tramping of tourists’ feet (including mine, of course) it had a spiritual feeling, perhaps not surprising as it is a working church to this day. The forecast rain that had held off all day materialised while we were at the church and so we all headed down by minibus. Come down on foot when it’s slippery like that and you may as well be on a toboggan.
For more information on Envoy Tours and to book this Embracing Georgia tour, please visit their website:
While parts of Central America have been blessed with direct flights from Europe for some time, others have been a bit more disconnected. Honduras is one of those places. But now, with the launch of a weekly flight from Spain, it’s possible to get there a little quicker. When I visited Honduras a few years ago, getting there involved an overnight layover in Houston, adding both considerable time and expense to the journey. Air Europa’s flight from Madrid at first might appear to be less than ideal, arriving shortly before 5am in what was once the world’s worst hotspot for murders. (San Pedro Sula has now passed the Murder Capital of the World crown to the Venezuelan capital Caracas.) But this late departure means that a connecting ticket from the UK is possible and you no longer have to lose a day of your holiday just to get there.
Honduras might not be the first place that springs to mind if you’re looking to holiday in that region, especially in terms of safety. But it’s easy to get straight out of San Pedro Sula and the early arrival means you’ll have plenty of time to reach somewhere both safer and more beautiful well before nightfall. Copan Ruinas is one such place. I spent a pleasant time there in 2014, riding horses out to the Guatemalan border, drinking the excellent locally-grown coffee and exploring some of the least crowded Mayan ruins in the region. Visitors were outnumbered by scarlet macaws by some considerable margin.
While I’d still be loathe to recommend spending any more of your time in San Pedro Sula than is absolutely necessary, the country’s Caribbean coast is as laid back as they come. It’s well worth risking the journey back to San Pedro Sula’s airport after your Copan Ruinas sojourn to make the short hop to Roatan Island. It’s the perfect place to unwind in the sunshine, sink your toes in the sand and sip a cocktail or two.
When are we going?
One of the most fascinating and also morally challenging of the Inca rites is surely the sacrificing of children. Scattered across the high Andean peaks are a number of sacrificial sites that have only been discovered relatively recently. One such site can be found on Mount Llullaillaco, a 6700m high volcano straddling the Argentina-Chile border. Drugged with coca and fermented maize beer called chicha, three children had been led up to a shrine near the volcano’s summit and entombed, a practice known as capacocha. The freezing temperatures inside their mountain dens had not only killed them, it had perfectly preserved their small bodies. There they’d remained, undisturbed, for five centuries. An archaeological team led by Johan Reinhard found what’s now known as the Children of Llullaillaco less than twenty years ago.
Today, the three mummies are rotated, one on display at a time, in MAAM, a museum on the main plaza in the northern Argentinian city of Salta. Three years ago, I’d visited Juanita, a similar mummy found in Peru and displayed in a darkened room a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa. As a consequence, I figured I knew what to expect when I stepped inside MAAM. During my visit, Lightning Girl was the mummy being displayed, possibly the most haunting museum exhibit I’ve ever seen. No photography is permitted; the image above is of a postcard I purchased in the museum shop.
The first thing that struck me was how well preserved this small child was, much more so than Juanita had been. Found entombed with a slightly older girl, her half-sister, and a boy, she looked straight ahead. Her face stared bleakly, as if tensed against intense cold. A dark stain marked her face, thought to have been caused by a lightning strike after she was sacrificed. But it was her teeth that caught my attention, tiny white milk teeth that emphasised just how young this girl would have been when she met her fate. Text beside her indicated that she had been just five years old when she died. There was no escaping that here in front of me, in this darkened room, was a real person.
During Inca times, it was the custom to choose sacrificial children from peasant families, deemed an honour for the family, though surely a heartbreaking one too. Girls such as these were selected as toddlers to be acclas or Sun Virgins, destined later to be royal wives, priestesses or to be sacrificed. It is thought that the elder girl was such a person, the two younger children her attendants. The children were then fed a rich diet of maize and llama meat to fatten them up, nutritionally far better than their previous diet of vegetables would have been. The higher their standing in society, the better the value of this offering to the gods, essential to protecting future good harvests and political stability. The children would not die, it was believed, they joined their ancestors and watched over mortals like angels.
Despite the drugged state induced by the coca and chicha, which in theory led to a painless end, the boy had been tied. Perhaps he’d struggled and had needed to be restrained. The older girl had her head buried between her knees, but Lightning Girl looked straight ahead. Had she been too young to comprehend what was happening to her?
The Big Easy isn’t your usual North American city. Crammed full of French and Spanish creole architecture, hemmed in by Lake Pontchartrain to the north and enclosed by a huge looping meander of the Mississippi to the south, it’s about as unique as they come in this part of the world. It’s laid back, easy going and welcomes visitors like they’re old friends. Here’s what you need to know if you’re planning to visit.
Apartment listings include whether haunted or not
From the UK, getting there just got a whole lot easier. Direct flights with British Airways from Heathrow begin at the end of March. They’re going to be a little more expensive than the indirect options but convenience may be worth paying for, particularly if your travel dates match up (the direct service operates several days a week only). Indirect, flights hubbing via Atlanta with Delta are likely to be the cheapest option, but don’t rule out other carriers. The #202 Airport Express bus (sometimes referred to as the E2) is the cheapest method of transport between the arrivals hall and downtown but of course the use airport shuttles and taxis are available.
Amtrak: a great way to arrive in New Orleans
If you want to arrive overland, then consider one of the Amtrak trains that serve New Orleans. The Crescent takes 30 hours to make its way south west from New York stopping at Philadelphia, Washington and Atlanta, while the City of New Orleans is quicker, taking 19 hours to travel south from Chicago via Memphis. Single travellers will find the roomettes a tight squeeze; I had just a small wheelie and we just about fitted, me and my bag. Book early as this isn’t a cheap option unless you can cope with a reclining seat. The good news is that once you arrive, it’s a quick trolley ride into the French Quarter from the railway station.
Much of the historic downtown area known as the French Quarter is a delight on foot (so long as it’s not raining heavily). But New Orleans also has a very useful public transport network which is convenient to use and budget-friendly. Planning your accommodation so that you stay near to a tram stop can make your holiday a whole lot easier.
There’s plenty of information online including maps:
Trams are fun to ride and simple to find. The shortest, the #2 Riverfront streetcar, links the French Quarter with the Outlet Mall at Riverwalk. The #47 Canal streetcar takes you from the edge of the French Quarter past St Louis Cemetery No. 1 and up as far as Greenwood Cemetery. The #48 follows a similar route and then heads to City Park. The #12 St Charles streetcar is great for the Garden District and Audubon Park. Single tickets are $1.25 but a 1 day Jazzy pass only costs $3 if you’re planning on making a few journeys. Crossing the river is also worth doing. You can take the ferry from Canal Street to Algiers Point for just $2. Check out the schedule here:
Where to stay
Being central to the action is key in New Orleans. It’s the kind of place where you can wander aimlessly, drink in hand, and you don’t want to have to end your evening trying to find a cab. I’ve stayed in a couple of places that are worth recommending. Both are located within staggering distance of the #2 Riverfront streetcar. If you’re on a budget, try Villa Convento. It’s atmospheric and reputedly haunted, a Creole townhouse dating back to about 1933.
My room at the Villa Convento
Some say it’s the House of the Rising Sun, made famous by The Animals in the 1964 song. Renovation work has taken place though some parts of the hotel are a bit shabby – the lift being one of them – but ask for a room with a balcony and you should be fine. It’s website is here:
At the other end of the same streetcar line is the Marriott Downtown at the Convention Center. Ask for a room in the historic half of the hotel which has more style. I like it because you alight at the Julia Street station. Mulate’s restaurant is also nearby though when I went there the food didn’t live up to my admittedly high expectations.
Free walking map leads you round the Garden District
If you’re on a tight budget, there are loads of ways to save money while you’re in the Big Easy. For tips on how to save money on everything from food, drink and attractions to where to find free walking tour maps, check out my previous blog post:
What to see
There’s a ton of places that are worth seeing and doing in New Orleans, so what follows should get you started if it’s your first visit.
The French Quarter
The French Quarter is packed with historic homes
You can’t visit New Orleans and not go to the French Quarter. Amidst its streets, you’ll find the 18th century almost Disney-esque St Louis Cathedral which commands a prominent position on Jackson Square. Opposite, the Cafe du Monde is the place to eat beignets and drink the chicory-rich coffee; it’s tourist central, but a must none the more for that.
Beignets and cafe au lait
Take a horse and carriage ride from here through the surrounding cobblestone streets of the Quarter. You’ll get your bearings as you clip clop through the Vieux Carré past mansions with wrought iron balconies intertwined with trailing plants and hidden courtyards glimpsed through open doorways.
Music on Frenchmen Street
Live music is an essential part of the New Orleans experience
Forget Bourbon Street, which has almost become a caricature of itself. In my opinion, you’re much better off heading to Frenchmen Street. You’ll find it in the nearby Faubourg Marigny neighbourhood. There’s at least twenty or so bars and clubs where you’ll find live music. Although the action kicks off in the late afternoon, the later it gets the better the atmosphere. Some places have cover charges, others require the purchase of food or drink. Others require just a tip for the musicians. My advice is to head down there and check out what’s on during your stay. If you do want to get some advance research in, check out this site:
St Louis Cemetery No. 1
St Louis Cemetery No. 1
One of the most interesting things to do while in New Orleans is to visit at least one of its Catholic cemeteries. Begin with St Louis Cemetery No. 1. This is the oldest, opened in 1789. It is characterised by above ground tombs, a nod to the city’s swampy and flood-prone location. The most notable “resident” is Marie Laveau, Voodoo priestess, a religion very much alive in New Orleans to this day and a fascinating topic to explore. She rests among aristocrats, politicians, engineers and architects. Actor Nic Cage has a plot here; look for the pyramid. Since 2015, independent visiting has been prohibited after vandals spray painted Marie Laveau’s tomb. You’ll need to take a tour. Options include booking via the nonprofit Save Our Cemeteries or Free Tours on Foot; I’d recommend Gray Line, especially if Sandy’s rostered on.
The mansions of the Garden District
Seen on a fence in the Garden District
The Garden District’s wide avenues and huge mansions with even bigger gardens contrasts with the downtown feel of the French Quarter. Many of these mansions have a story to tell, their original owners making their fortunes off cotton and other mercantile activity, and a walk around the area is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. In the midst of the mansions, you’ll find another atmospheric cemetery: Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. The cemetery was first planned out in 1832, making it the oldest of New Orleans’ seven cemeteries, and can be visited without having to book a tour.
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
Mardi Gras World
Last year’s float being recycled at Mardi Gras World
If you can’t get here in February for Mardi Gras, then at the very least you should pay a visit to Mardi Gras World down by the Convention Centre. The building houses an enormous collection (both in scale and number of exhibits) of former floats, props and other carnival-related paraphernalia. Guided tours are possible and will show you around; you’ll get to see some of the costumes and props being made for the next carnival. Many are revamped and recycled. One thing’s for sure: the colours will blow your mind!
Home near Algiers Point
Across the Mississippi lies the sleepy residential neighbourhood known as Old Algiers. It was first settled by Jean Baptiste le Moyne in 1719, who had a plantation here. It has a dark past, site of a slaughterhouse and also an 18th century holding area for African slaves. The ferry you take to get here has operated since 1827, fiercely protected by the Algiers residents from any attempt by the city authorities to close it down on economic grounds. It’s well worth a wander to explore the 19th century homes here, and of course a coffee stop in the corner cafe at the junction of Alix and Verret Streets.
Below decks on the Natchez
The steamboat you’ll see churning up the Mississippi isn’t the first to be named the Natchez. It’s actually the ninth and dates only from 1975. It’s also not modelled on its namesake predecessors, pinching its design instead from steamboats Hudson and Virginia. Her engines came from the steamboat Clairton and were made in 1925; her copper bell came from the SS JD Ayres. So she’s a bit of a mongrel, really. Nevertheless, cruises for lunch and dinner are a popular addition to many people’s itineraries. Even if the food doesn’t impress, the music’s good and it’s interesting to head down to the engine room to have a closer look.
Hurricane Katrina tour
A reminder of how vulnerable low-lying New Orleans is
Despite it being over a decade since Hurricane Katrina blew through the Big Easy with devastating consequences, there are still parts of the city that bear its scars. I took a Gray Line tour in 2012 and was shocked to find so many houses still covered with blue tarpaulins and bearing the red crosses of the search teams on their doors and windows. Returning a few years later in 2015, I was less surprised to see boarded up houses as the train made its final approach into the city. Time may heal the hurt and dissipate the shock, but the economic impacts on an individual scale linger long after the city proclaims it’s open for business again. New Orleans will always be vulnerable to the impacts of hurricanes, and exploring what happened in 2005 will help you understand why.
For more on New Orleans, why not read my article on etrip.tips?
Something interesting popped up in my Twitter feed yesterday evening: the Travel Whispers Blogger Challenge. I had read a blog by Josie Wanders on being a newbie in business class which struck a chord as she sounded as excited as I was when I flew with BA last year. You can compare our experiences here:
Josie had also completed the blogger challenge, which had been set up by another travel blogger, Stephanie Cox. Basically, it’s a great way of getting travel ideas; the travel bloggers that have participated know their stuff and there are some tempting recommendations that I’m definitely going to check out. If you’re interested in joining in, then have a look at Stephanie’s original post here:
What follows are my answers to the Travel Whispers Blogger Challenge. What would yours be?
1. If you had to move to a country that you’ve NEVER been to, and live there for ten years, where would you go?
I read this and I almost gave up there and then. I’m up to 107 countries now, and it’s tempting to think that all the good ones have gone! I can’t pick Peru or Mexico or Australia or Austria or Spain, all of which would have been contenders. I’m spinning my globe here and though there’s some exciting destinations that so far are untrodden by my hiking boots – Rwanda, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia – they’d all be pretty tough to live in, especially for ten years. So I’m going to take the easy route and pick a lovely warm Caribbean island to spend my imaginary decade, and my choice would be Barbados. With direct flights from the UK my friends would be able to come and visit, so I’d have someone to go to the beach with.
2. If you had to live in a hotel for the rest of your life, which hotel would you choose and why?
Now this one is tricky for different reasons: I’ve been fortunate to stay at a lot of hotels and, a lot of good ones to boot. Taking “hotel” literally, it rules out fabulous glamping sites such as Patagonia Camp which is possibly my all time favourite place to wake up. There’s something so special about seeing the sun come up over the lake with the granite towers slowly coming into view as the light increases. But I digress. Hotel, they asked for and hotel, they will get. Now obviously, if I’m going to spend the rest of my life somewhere, I’m going to pop out of the hotel from time to time, so my choice would be the Hotel Plaza de Armas in Cusco. I’ve stayed there twice. The hotel is a comfortable mid-range option, nothing fancy, but the view over the main square is one I’ll never tire of and the city after multiple visits, is one I love more every time.
3. If you could only eat the cuisine of one nationality forever more, which would you choose?
Mexican. That’s an easy one. But not just tour usual tacos and burritos, it would be the dishes of Oaxaca, with the rich mole sauces that make the palate tingle, and the steaming mugs of chocolate served Mayan style.
4. Who has given you ‘holiday envy’ this year, and how?
Each time I browse Twitter, check my Facebook feed or dip into myWanderlust, there’s something that excites me. A few people have posted about Georgia, a country that’s been on my wish list for some time, especially the Svaneti region. I’d be loathe to say I envy them, but I’m keen to copy them!
5. If you had to look at the same sunrise or the same sunset every day, where in the world would you never get bored of seeing? Please don’t say sitting outside Cafe Mambo in Ibiza.
I’m writing this watching the sun come up over the Essex marshes from my desk; since moving here a year ago this has become my favourite sunrise. This morning there’s a hard frost on the ground, the brown reeds look almost yellow where the sun’s weak rays are hitting them, and the tide’s yet to rise. The sky has gone from a blood orange to a delicate peach, punctuated by skeletal trees that won’t see buds until at least March. But it’s cold out there, and if I’m searching for warmth, then it would be seeing the sun set on the Honduran island of Roatan. If there’s ever a place where I’d hum “Sitting on the dock of the bay”, then this is the place.
6. If you were taking a ‘staycation’ in your home town, where would it be and what would you recommend others to do?
I don’t live in a town anymore, but the north Essex countryside is well worth a trip. I’d begin with sunrise at the coast, perhaps on Mersea Island where the sun will illuminate the many oyster shells discarded on the beach. Then, head north across the Colne to wander along the riverbank to the Torrington Tide Mill before meandering north along the country lanes to Dedham Vale, where Constable once painted. If it’s warm, I’d recommend a boat trip along the river, past Flatford Mill and down into Dedham itself, where the cream teas are to die for. Later, a meal in one of my county’s centuries-old pubs before a roaring fire would seem a fitting end to the day. Who’s coming?
7. Describe your perfect travel day of the year?
Lots to choose from, but I think perhaps it would be riding the railway through Sri Lanka’s hill country, past the verdant terraces crammed with tea bushes. Alighting at Nuwara Eliya, my destination was the nearby Heritance Tea Factory, a former workplace now sympathetically converted into a luxury hotel. I had great fun picking tea, tasting tea and having a tea facial. I do like a good cuppa, but I am a Brit, so what did you expect?
8. What have you ticked off your bucket list in 2016?
2016 was the year when I finally made it to the beautiful Seychelles, an Indian Ocean paradise that’s been on my wish list for many years. And it was also my first time flying business class, and what better introduction than with British Airways to New York, one of my favourite cities.
9. What is top of your travel bucket list for 2017?
Top of my list is attending the Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha, a cowboy festival in the Uruguayan town of Tacuarembó. I’ll be there in March, marvelling at the horsemanship, before continuing via Salta in Argentina to the salt flats near Uyuni, Bolivia. It’ll be wet season, and if I’m lucky I’ll get to see the famous mirror effect.
10. Share your favourite Instagram photo of 2016?
I don’t have an Instagram account, but this is one of my favourites from Twitter instead.
Since this is a Whispers challenge, thanks to Vintage Blue Suitcase who has passed this on to me. Now in turn I’ll pass this on; the baton is passed to ILive4Travel. Here are the links:
If you want to get involved join the Facebook group!
Update autumn 2019:
While I’ll leave this post up as some of the issues about travelling long haul on a budget airline are still valid, this route no longer operates. In addition, there have been some concerning reports about the financial health of Norwegian Air in the travel press. Some long haul routes have been cut as the airline makes efforts to return to profitability. This report from the FT gives some background, but for the meantime, it’s a case of buyer beware. If you choose to book, particularly if that’s some time in advance of when you plan to travel, make sure you have adequate travel insurance that covers you for unexpected accommodation bills and new flights, just in case.
It’s one thing to pay a few pounds and hop on a Ryanair flight across the Channel, but what’s it like to travel long haul on one of the budget airlines. I put it to the test using Norwegian to carry me across the Atlantic and here’s what I thought.
Flights: LGW to SJU
Norwegian operates flights twice weekly departing Wednesdays and Saturdays. They offer fares from under £300 return if you book well in advance which compares favourably with scheduled airlines serving other direct flight Caribbean destinations such as Antigua and Barbados.
Unlike their European routes, it’s not possible to check-in online with Norwegian for destinations to the USA and that included our destination, the US territory of Puerto Rico. That’s not such a big deal when you’re departing from a small airport, but I was a little apprehensive as to how long the wait would be to check in at London’s busy Gatwick Airport. In the event, it took less than half an hour to get checked in and proceed to security which wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
Checked baggage comes at a price; £25 for each sector if pre-booked but significantly more if purchased at the airport. Travelling with my husband, we decided to take one full sized case and the rest as carry-on. My much travelled Samsonite wheelie almost exactly matches the dimensions of Norwegian’s permitted carry-on at 55 x 40 x 20cm (Norwegian allows 55 x 40 x 23cm). It’s a light case, which is a factor as it has to be lifted into the overhead bins and doesn’t go over the 10kg weight limit. But it’s also spacious, and easily big enough for a week’s worth of clothes for the Caribbean, though if you were heading further north at this time of year to one of the big US cities served by Norwegian you’d be struggling for space.
Normally, my husband and I wouldn’t bother to pay extra for seat assignment on a short haul flight, but we decided to go ahead as this was a nine hour flight. Each way cost us £25, a total of £100 to sit together. I do think that’s steep. We chose from an online seating plan opting for the back row of the plan (row 40) as this has a 2-3-toilet configuration, meaning we expected to have the section to ourselves. You can see it here at Seatguru:
However, although we were still on a 787 Dreamliner, the plane we ended up travelling on had 42 rows ( though 40 on each of the side sections) and they were 3-3-3. This was what we got:
So we ended up with someone next to us which was a bit of a disappointment. Fortunately, few people seemed to be using the rear toilets so it wasn’t too disruptive.
On the outward leg, we found the space to be really cramped. Neither of us are exceptionally tall, but we do have long-ish legs. When I checked I was surprised to find that the legroom at 31-32 inches was similar to most long haul airlines. The width also compared to the norm at about 17 inches, though this would have been more comfortable if we’d have had window and aisle as we expected rather than window and middle which is what we got. We could have opted to pay extra for Premium Economy which offered a seat pitch of 46 inches.
Neither of us felt it would be a good use of our funds to pay for the in-flight meals, opting instead to have a meal before we left and take snacks on board and pay for drinks airside. We were happy with this decision; the trays of those fellow passengers opting for meal service looked OK but not over-generous and we didn’t feel we’d missed out. A lot of people had done the same as us. It was an even better decision on the return journey when we had a shorter journey (thanks to a speedy tailwind) and of course, being an overnight flight, we slept for a significant portion of the journey.
The choice of entertainment was perfectly reasonable though I had a good book to read so didn’t end up watching any of the content. There were recent films I hadn’t seen. You should be aware that you either need to purchase headphones or bring your own. Also it’s worth noting that the WiFi that you find on some European flights with Norwegian isn’t available on their Trans-Atlantic routes.
Blankets and pillows
These aren’t given out free of charge as you’d find with a full service airline. You can buy a blanket at a cost of $5 but we found bigger, fleecier and warmer ones in Walmart for $3 a pop. Since we unpacked, they’ve been appropriated by the dogs!
This was my second time on a Dreamliner after flying from Easter Island to Santiago de Chile on one in 2015. They make a big deal about cabin pressure, mood lighting and windows that have sunglasses mode, and claim this helps to alleviate the issues with jet lag. I’m not sure this had an effect, though as there’s only a 4 hour time difference the effects of jet lag would be minimal anyway.
Would I fly Norwegian Trans-Atlantic again? Yes, I’d definitely consider it. I was happy with the experience overall though I’d see if I could upgrade to an extra legroom seat next time. In the interests of marital harmony I’d probably be best not to comment on whether sitting with my husband was worth £100!
Update May 2017
At the time of writing it’s unclear whether Norwegian will be flying the LGW-SJU route this autumn. The airline is considering whether it will fly to Puerto Rico at all, but if it does, the London route will probably be the only one to survive the cull, managing 81% occupancy last season. Watch the press for details.
One of the great joys of travelling alone is the freedom to go where you please, when you please. Unfortunately, I was going nowhere, stranded by a set of circumstances out of my control and, thanks to a woefully inadequate command of the local lingo, completely at a loss as to why.
I’d been in Jacmel for a few days celebrating Kanaval. Carnival festivities took place each February a week before the rest of the country. A flamboyant parade of colourful floats, larger than life papier mâché characters and enthusiastic dancing, it was a raucous, deafening and utterly captivating event. In short, it was anything but a warm-up for the revelry which took place a week later in the Haitian capital, Port au Prince.
I say I’d been in town. More accurately, I’d been staying just out of town. Prices at that time of year were hiked by the few desperate hoteliers that managed somehow to stay in business. Haiti’s tourism industry is precarious at best, battered by a hideous earthquake in 2010 and several devastating hurricanes. Those extra gourdes would likely mean the difference between staying open until the following year and closing their doors for good. Today was the day the visitors left and those who remained counted their takings to determine their fate.
But things were not going to plan that morning. A taxi had dropped me off at the petrol station forecourt that served as a bus station, though there was no petrol at the pumps and nothing in the vicinity that you’d call a bus. Instead, a gaggle of decrepit minibuses were parked in an untidy line as their drivers slouched against the concrete fence drawing on cigarettes and lazily passing the time of day. Inside one minibus there were a handful of patient passengers. Assuming that it would leave when full, I approached the driver to ask if he was headed to Port au Prince. To my surprise he replied in the negative. My schoolgirl French wasn’t up to the ensuing conversation but the gist of it, as far as I could work out, was that there were no buses leaving for the Haitian capital at all.
“Pas de bus?” I asked, exaggerating a French accent for effect while pointing at the minibus.
“Pas de transport?” I tried, hanging onto the hope that he’d misunderstood.
That, I understood.
A knot began to tighten in my stomach. A veteran of many a solo trip, had I bitten off more than I could chew? With private transport back to the capital well outside my budget, if there was no bus, any chance I had of making my flight home was dwindling fast. What I still couldn’t understand, however, was why, if all transport was suspended, his bus still had passengers inside. I decided that as we were so close to the Dominican border, I’d try speaking Spanish. From what I’d read, there was no love lost between the Haitians and their wealthier neighbours – a few days earlier a cross-border bus had been set alight in a tit for tat incident – but I was running out of options.
Fortunately, the driver spoke a bit of Spanish too. I managed to ascertain that there was a protest just out of town. A blockade had been hastily erected on the road which wound through the hills that cocooned sleepy Jacmel from what otherwise might have been the contagious noise and chaos of the capital. This roadblock of burning tyres and angry protesters had stymied public transport for the foreseeable future. Something to do with the government increasing the price of fuel, he said vaguely, and out of his hands. Until the roadblock was lifted, no one was going anywhere. Those few passengers inside his vehicle were either blindly optimistic of their government’s ability to resolve the situation or had nowhere else to go.
Luckily, I did have somewhere. As of today, hotels were back to offering post-carnival rates, so I schlepped my wheelie back into town. The Hotel Florita was a Jacmel landmark, its elegant balconies and huge wooden doors a giveaway to its former life as a coffee warehouse. Built in 1888, it had been spruced up post-earthquake with a coat of whitewash, its myriad architectural features accentuated in baby blue. I’d read about the place when I’d been planning the trip and fallen in love with the idea of staying there.
The hotel’s own website proudly boasted that the place was “not in catastrophic condition” and that the main house had “not been hijacked by conditioned air”. The management’s description of the New Yorker who converted the place into a hotel was just as entertaining, recounting that the man had first seen it when drunk before “thoughtlessly and fecklessly” purchasing it. The paragraph concluded: “Why he did it remains a mystery and his decision to turn it into a hotel a decade later unfathomable. It is still there limping along.” The Florita had seemed like my kind of place and now it seemed I might get to stay there after all. Happily what had been the old courtyard kitchen now contained a four poster bed that had seen better days. Its most recent occupants had checked out just this morning, leaving my path clear to snagging the cheapest room in the house.
Installed on one of the Florita’s sofas, I logged on to what surely had to be the slowest WiFi connection in the western hemisphere and attempted to trawl Twitter for information. News was sparse but universally bad. The latest fuel hike was one in a long line of unacceptable actions by an unpopular government and people had had enough. I sympathised up to a point but their timing couldn’t have been worse.
While the townsfolk of Jacmel battled their hangovers to begin the big clean up, I spent the morning researching an alternative route home. The blocked road over the mountains to Port au Prince was the only one in that direction. To the west, a torturous mountain track lead to the tiny towns and villages of Haiti’s southern claw – effectively a dead end. Jacmel had an airport, just outside the town, but it was no longer in use. There was a coast road which might have taken me east into the Dominican Republic, but I had no wish to be the next victim of a retaliatory arson attack.
I snapped the lid of the laptop shut and ordered a beer. I might not be free to go where I pleased, but the whole point of travelling was to embrace your surroundings and anything they threw at you. There were worse places to be stranded, I decided. The sun was shining and it was nearly time for lunch. Solving the problem of how I was going to get home could wait.
What next after the German Christmas markets? Germany’s legendary Christmas markets draw the crowds each winter and rightly so. As I found out when I visited the Bavarian city of Regensburg a couple of weeks ago, they’re atmospheric, colourful and every bit as good as people say they are. You can read about the trip here:
So how do you top that? With a visit to Copenhagen: take the German Christmas market model, swap the Glühwein for a glass of gløgg and add a healthy dash of hygge.
Best of all, if you haven’t the time or the cash to go for longer, it’s possible to visit the Danish capital for the day. It was my second trip to the city. The first was back in the days when the cheapest way to reach Copenhagen was to fly to another country. That wasn’t quite as daft as it sounds, as the airport in question was Malmö’s in nearby Sweden, a fast train ride across the Øresund Bridge. This time, I flew direct to CPH, leaving Luton after watching the sunrise on the 8.40am flight. Ryanair uses satellite terminal F which is a long walk from the main terminals. Factor in a five to ten minute walk just to get across the airport and don’t expect a travelator.
From the airport it’s about a fifteen minute train ride into central station, with plenty of English speaking staff at the airport to help out at the ticket machines. I opted for a 24 hour travelcard (not to be confused with the expensive Copenhagen Card) which cost 80 DKK. As it turned out, I walked more than I’d intended, but had I chosen to cover more ground, the card would have been valid for unlimited journeys in the city centre by train, metro and bus. By just after midday, I was in the city.
Now like I said, I’ve been to Copenhagen before, so this blog isn’t going to be reviewing the Amelienborg Palace or the Little Mermaid. This time, I was focused solely on Christmas. Emerging from the station coffee in hand, the Tivoli theme park was right across the street and impossible to miss. I decided to save it until the end of the day and instead walked the short distance to Axeltorv Square. My first Julemarked of the day was a small affair, a cluster of stalls all bearing the names of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories. It was a little underwhelming, just a few stalls selling items like sheepskin rugs, warm hats and Christmas decorations.
A few minutes from Axeltorv Square, a rather large wooden pig caught my eye. Behind it was a wooden Christmas tree which looked to be made out of broken up pallets or something like that. A few huts made out of the same material formed a crescent around them. This was a Julemarked with a difference, focused on recycling, a statement about the excesses of this festive holiday. But it wasn’t preachy: instead it embraced the spirit of Christmas on the cheap.
The huts all offered a way to help out with the expense of present-buying. There was a Swap Shop where you could leave an unwanted gift and in return got to choose something for yourself. A woodworker’s hut provided tools and off cuts for those who wished to be creative and make a gift. The lady running the plant hut gave me a small packet of tomato seeds which I shall plant when I work out when’s the best time. The largest hut of all was a recycling “factory”. Inside, piles of yarn, card and other craft materials were piled alongside glue guns. Several people were making table top Christmas trees, but what made this unusual was that most of them were adults rather than children. What a great idea!
Next up was a stroll along Strøget to the wonderful department store Illums Bolighus. This amazing store is a mecca for any devotee of Scandi-style and its products, though expensive, are the stuff of envy. Every display could have held its own in a fancy homes and interiors magazine. The question was not whether to buy, but what to leave behind. Illums Bolighus, if you’re reading this, open a store in London won’t you? I promise I’d keep you in profit.
A few doors down from paradise at the end of the street, was another Christmas market. The entrance was marked by a wall of Christmas trees ready to go home and the market itself housed more food and drink stalls than any other market. At the sausage stall, a man munched on a hot sausage in a roll. At his feet was a dog. It sat, as motionless as if it was doing the Mannequin Challenge, eyes fixed on his master’s hand. Tiny drops of saliva dripped from the wet fur around his mouth and puddled on the floor. Finally, the man was finished, save for the last half inch of sausage, which of course the dog had as a reward for his patience.
There was still more to come. Straddling a pathway opposite the beautifully decorated Hotel D’Angleterre, the Kongens Nytorv market was probably the busiest of those I visited. Located between Nyhavn and Strøget, a fat queue of tourists wound its way between stalls selling everything from churros to ham hocks, night lights to sheepskin slippers. There were craft stalls and of course, many more gløgg huts. The crowds were frustrating and as it was still daylight, the life size polar bear models looked tacky. I would return that way after dark, when they were illuminated and looked better for it.
Through Kongens Nytorv and out the other side I breathed a sigh of relief to have wriggled free of the crowd. Fortunately, I was only a stone’s throw from Nyhavn and yet another market. I sat on the quayside enjoying a glass of gløgg – not too fussed on the addition of blanched almonds but the raisins were a welcome find at the bottom of the glass. If you’re not sure if you’ll like it, ask for a free taste.
This time I decided to have a bit of food before exploring the market. I found that the further down the quay I walked, the lower the prices were for comparable dishes. A huge plate of roast pork with crackling with red cabbage and potatoes later, I had a browse round the stalls. Hopefully my husband isn’t reading this but I did come home with a very soft and fluffy cushion cover. (I am kind of banned from buying more cushion covers. It’s become a bit of a thing.) Sunset was spectacular, casting a pretty pink glow over the harbour side buildings.
As night fell, there was one more Julemarked that I wanted to see before I left and one that was worthy of the long queue outside. Yes, the queue was round the block. What did I expect on a Saturday night? Tivoli opened in 1843, making it the world’s second oldest theme park (the other is in Denmark too, but much less famous). Tivoli is expensive, with a hefty entrance fee of around £15 just to get in (the rides are extra) but it is such a charming place during the run up to Christmas that it’s worth it.
There was plenty to see, both in terms of the theme park itself – I loved the carousel – but also in terms of independent retailers and the range of food stalls. The temperature had slumped well below freezing though by this point and with so many people packed into the huts and restaurants, there were very few places where I could escape that intense cold. The lights and decorations kept me going for a while – they were superb – but by 8pm I was really feeling it despite being properly kitted out in thick padded jacket, scarf and gloves. It was time to grab a cup of cocoa from the station cafe and return to the airport in plenty of time for my 10pm flight home.
I ♥ Copenhagen
I stood, motionless, in the middle of the crowded space. People came and went around me. Some queued, others waited patiently next to piles of luggage, still more hugged relatives in emotional goodbyes. For all the world, it looked like a regular airport, going about regular airport business. I reckon I’ve been to thousands of airports in my time, striding confidently across halls, dealing with airport officials, polite on the outside even if seething on the inside at petty officiousness and stupid rules. I’m no fan of airports, you understand, but they are a necessary evil to get me to somewhere exotic and exciting.
But this one had me stumped. For the first time, I couldn’t find check-in.
How do you lose check-in? How is it possible not to see row upon row of impersonal white desks and grubby baggage belts, with their maze of retractable queue barriers that make you pace this way and that like a caged lion? How do you lose the planeloads of people that must have got to the airport before you as your flight is going out late afternoon?
Like a detective, I scoured the room for clues. The space was devoid of signage, even in Russian. I couldn’t see anyone holding a boarding card and most people still had large suitcases. Was I in arrivals, I wondered? I headed back outside. The sign read “Departures”.
Back inside, I started to ask fellow passengers but drew only blank looks. Pointing at my suitcase and shrugging my shoulders in a kind of a “what do I do with this?” mime wasn’t working. Pointing at the airport page in my phrase book and again at my suitcase wasn’t working. I glanced at my watch. At this rate I’d miss my plane.
Half an hour before, I’d been so relaxed. Russia, so daunting at first, had lost its ability to intimidate. My vocabulary was still limited to a dozen words (and only then if “Big Mac Meal” counts) but I’d learnt to match the Cyrillic alphabet to their Latin translation which was enough to make a quiz game out of most days’ activities. The people I’d met on the numerous trains and buses that had transported me 3500 miles across the Russian steppe to Ulan-Ude had, without exception, been helpful and charming. For three days, Aleksandr, the Russian Army officer headed for Chita, had fed me omul for breakfast on the slow train to Irkutsk, asking nothing in return save for a compliment about his red-haired wife in the photo album he carried in his kit bag. That same smoked fish hung in the market in Listvyanka, a tumbledown village on the shores of Lake Baikal. An elderly woman, head covered with a colourful babushka, pointed out the sights from the bus and used my phrase book to explain she was off to buy crystals.
I thought about her, in the airport terminal, and cursed my phrase book. What editor would include the word for crystal but not check-in? It was hot in the hall, and I wiped my brow with the back of my hand. I was starting to panic. The voice inside my head told me to calm down. I still had twenty minutes before check-in closed. There was a queue forming at the far side of the room and I joined the end of it. My question about whether this was the check-in queue leapfrogged up the queue like a Chinese whisper. Back came the answer – no.
I turned away from the queue and the mutterings of its occupants. I was running out of ideas. Now I started to mentally re-plan my journey home. If I couldn’t fly back to Moscow, I’d have to take the train, a four or five day trip. I’d miss my Moscow connection and have to pay for a new flight. More than that, I’d have to suffer the humiliation of telling friends and family the reason I’d missed my flight and suffer months of good natured ridicule.
Indignant, I thought to myself that no airport was going to beat me. I scanned the hall again. Along one side, there was a blank white wall. It looked like a recently-erected partition, free of scuffs and scratches, though I couldn’t be sure. I wheeled my case over for a closer look. On inspection, there appeared to be a concealed doorway. I knocked and waited. A businessman in a hurry pushed his way past me and through the door. I looked through, of course, to find out what was behind it.
There before me stood row upon row of impersonal white desks and grubby baggage belts. I made check-in with five minutes to spare.
While novice backpackers cut their teeth on the well-trodden route from South East Asia to Oz, Africa outside the beach resorts and luxury safari camps can be challenging even for the most experienced traveller. Fortunately for the world of travel literature, this is good news. Challenges make for gripping tales. These books are my favourites from this enchanting, maddening and diverse continent. What are yours?
In the footsteps of Mr Kurtz by Michela Wrong
You could be forgiven for thinking that some of the topics chosen by Michela Wrong as suitable book material might be a chore to read but she has a talent for observation as well as insight and thus her work is hard to put down. This vivid account of Mobutu Sese Seko opens with the words:
“At 3 a.m. on Saturday morning, a group of guests who had just staggered back to their rooms after a heavy drinking session in L’Atmosphere, the nightclub hidden in the bowels of Kinshasa’s best hotel, heard something of a fracas taking place outside. Peering from their balconies… they witnessed a scene calculated to sober them up.”
I’ll forgive her following a.m. with morning. That’s one great opening paragraph.
The Congo isn’t somewhere I’ve been, though it is somewhere that fascinates me. This book, tackling the subject of how good leaders turn bad, is one to be devoured, one that will keep you turning the pages long after you should be asleep and one that is essential reading for any traveller to Africa, Congo or otherwise.
Blood River by Tim Butcher
Another Congo account, entirely different but equally enthralling, is Butcher’s tale of his journey along the Congo River. Such were the dangers likely to be encountered en route, you’d be forgiven for thinking at the outset that the author was a complete lunatic. It’s one of those narratives where you find yourself holding your breath so often that you wonder whether such behaviour could be good for you. He writes beautifully:
“The heat began to grow, so I shed my fleece, but not the feeling of torpor.”
He’s economical with words, yet is wonderfully evocative at the same time:
“I stirred in the pre-dawn chill, my legs pedalling for bedclothes.”
It’s such a casual phrase but one with an imagery with which you identify instantly, a delight to read right from the get-go.
The Lost Kingdoms of Africa by Jeffrey Tayler
This guy is great too and through this book, you get to accompany him on a journey westwards across the Sahel from Chad to Senegal. These days, much of the region would be challenging to visit, some on the no-go list through risk of kidnap or terrorism. He sums up Dakar:
“Women dressed in elaborate banana headscarves and tight-waisted floral dresses strolled the sidewalks. The wind set loose clothes flapping, but it carried no dust; it was pure, coming from the Atlantic, intoxicatingly fresh.”
I spent my holiday in Senegal by the ocean, from its capital Dakar to St Louis in the north, but having visited the Sahara, I can imagine how refreshing it must have been to have finally reached the sea after so long travelling through that desiccated region. I can also identify with his impatience to get out there and engage with the city:
“We soon slowed and got stuck in a traffic jam. I was too excited to sit still. With my bag on my shoulder, I jumped out…”
Isn’t that why you should always travel light?
The Last Resort by Douglas Rogers
Douglas Rogers’ poignant memoir about his family’s struggles in Zimbabwe is one of the most heart-rending works on Africa I’ve read. It’s a timely reminder that issues surrounding land ownership and race in African nations are hugely complex. There are no easy solutions but there are always victims. Rogers deals with the subject tactfully and with empathy for both sides:
“Other farming families stayed longer, determined to fight to get their property or livestock back, or simply because this was home. They were Zimbabweans. There was nowhere else to go.”
Swahili for the Broken-hearted by Peter Moore
Sometimes you just want to read something a little less serious, and Peter Moore has a light touch and a sense of humour that hits the spot. Each chapter begins with an African proverb, which is an education in itself, but it’s his witty turn of phrase and wry observations as he travels from Cape Town to Cairo that make the book such a gem. He’s the kind of person you’d love to go travelling with despite deep down knowing you’d be led astray, as with this account from the Zim side of Victoria Falls:
“Perhaps the most astounding thing about the falls is that there are no guard rails along the rim to stop visitors from falling in. Back home they stick up signs screaming ‘Danger!’ even if it’s a 1-metre drop onto a bed of spongy moss. Here you can get as close to a 107-metre drop as you want… As I crept towards the edge to peer at the river 100 metres below I lost my footing and slipped on the wet rocks.”
Peter, if you’re reading, where shall we go?
Strictly speaking, I’m not “just back” from this one, but having recently visited Budapest for the day, I realised that some of my earlier days out by plane haven’t yet made it to the blog, so watch out for Berlin hot on the heels of this one.
Although I’ve been to the Republic of Ireland a couple of times, I’d never been to Northern Ireland and given how many countries I have travelled in, that seemed to be an omission I really needed to put right. With two dogs to consider and a husband not up for multiple day dog sitting, we met in the middle at a day out and I booked my flights. At the time, my closest airport was London Southend and I scored a cheap outbound flight with easyJet at 0715 arriving 0830, returning on the 2055 which landed at 2215. This route isn’t offered anymore, but you can still take advantage of multiple flights from London Gatwick, for instance, if you’re hoping to do this trip yourself.
With 12 hours to make use of, I decided to rent a car and tour the province. A sub-compact doesn’t break the bank and it gave me the opportunity to see some of Northern Ireland’s most well-known sights. First stop was Dunluce Castle. I’m no Game of Thrones fan but it is one of the filming locations. The picture gives you an idea of the drama of its setting and despite being a warm day in late May, the place was deserted.
Next up, a short drive along the coast, was the famous Giant’s Causeway. One of the major beefs with this is the exorbitant cost of entry. Adult admission costs a whopping £9 and I do think the National Trust are pushing their luck. However, as basalt scenery goes, it is impressive, though perhaps less so if you’ve seen some of Iceland’s towering columns. In any case, pre-booking tickets can save you £1.50pp and there are also deals to be had if you do Park and Ride or just take the regular bus. Anyway, I had a very pleasant few hours there strolling around the beach, clambering up nature’s natural staircases and even watching a lone piper play.
The other National Trust must-see in this part of the world is Carrick-a-Rede, about nine miles along the coast. It’s a bit cheaper than the Giant’s Causeway at £5.90 but for that you get the chance to traverse a rope bridge over the water – a scary but unmissable experience.
On the day I visited, the wind was negligible, but when the wind picks up… I figured there was a reason you bought your ticket before you caught sight of the bridge – just imagine the revenue they’d miss out on! I’m not too keen on heights if I don’t feel my feet are firmly on the ground, so this would have been a terrifying place if there had been more than just a slight breeze. The scenery, as with the first two locations, was fabulous, leaving me to wonder why I’d left it so long to visit this beautiful part of the United Kingdom.
All this coastal exploring was making me hungry and so I drove down to Ballintoy Harbour (another G of T location) for a late lunch at Roark’s Kitchen. The stone cottage which it occupies looks like it’s been there for many centuries and the place offered the chance for me to try out some of the local specialities. In the end, though, I was tempted with the Ulster Fry, like a full English but with potato bread.
Back on the road, I enjoyed the pretty scenery in the sunshine, the blue sky giving me a chance to see the coastline at its best. Cushendun was very quaint – that’s the village in the first picture of this blog. Glenarm was also charming, straddling the water. It has a stately home in the shape of Glenarm Castle which I didn’t visit, but I might have been tempted with its tearooms had I not overdosed on good hearty food at lunch.
Instead, I decided to head back to the city. Now, by then it was late afternoon, so I didn’t have a huge amount of time. I decided to visit the docks area, seeing the massive yellow Harland and Wolff cranes before parking up at Titanic Belfast. Even the building itself was a stunner, but the exhibits really brought to life that ill-fated voyage. That was my last stop of the day and a very interesting one; the museum was well worth a visit.
That was May 2013 and I promised myself a return visit to this enchanting province and of course, to explore more of Belfast. I haven’t yet, but I do intend to one day.
September 16 is Mexican Independence Day. Outside Mexico, it is overshadowed by the Cinco de Mayo celebrations which many confuse with Independence Day. In fact May 5 is the anniversary of Mexico’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Mexican independence instead was won from the Spanish in 1821 after a war which commenced on September 16 1810.
The fight to extricate Mexico from Spanish rule began with what’s known as the Grito de Dolores, translating as the Cry of Dolores, a rallying cry designed to incite revolt. It was uttered in the small town of Dolores, located a short distance from the colourful city of Guanajuato in central Mexico. The exact words that marked a new chapter in Mexico’s history have been forgotten, but the man who spoke them has not, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Catholic priest whose statue you’ll find in Guanajuato. Hidalgo was executed a year later but his country owes its freedom to his bravery.
Place of Frogs?
I took a bus to Guanajuato a few years back, travelling from the pretty artists’ enclave of San Miguel de Allende. Arriving in the place they call the “place of frogs” because early residents thought the surrounding hills looked like one, I was struck by the city’s colour. Looking like a city that has shares in Dulux, almost every building is painted a vibrant shade. Individually, they’re pretty, but the overall effect is stunning and it’s no surprise to learn that they’ve earned a UNESCO listing. I took the funicular up to the statue of El Pipila and looked down over the Teatro Juarez immediately below. It really is a splendid place.
Overlooking Guanajuato from El Pipila
Once, Guanajuato was a mining town, sitting on vast reserves of silver, making it one of the most productive mining areas in the country. The La Valenciana mine, located in the village of the same name, brought huge wealth to the Spanish mine owners and provided many labouring jobs, but it was closed down when the Spanish were given their marching orders. The mine did reopen, but is now permanently shut, though tours are available. Even if you don’t descend underground, it’s worth heading to La Valenciana to see the ornate San Cayetano church.
Back in Guanajuato, one of the best ways to appreciate the city is on foot, wandering along the many alleyways, including the Callejon del Beso (the alleyway of the kiss) where it’s so narrow it’s possible to kiss your lover from balconies on opposite sides of the street. Cafes are another thing that the city does well, scattered in the plazas that are lined with museums, theatres, churches and historic mansions.
Bronze sculpture of a musician outside San Diego church
The day is marked with fiestas, flags, parades and partying. Whether you’re in Mexico or not, I’m sure you’ll join me in raising a glass to that. Viva Mexico!
Thanks to myWanderlust, I recently became aware of a fantastic blog by Rachelle – better known to those on the forum as Moose on the Loose – called http://www.stoneanddust.com. With her blessing, I’ve decided to blog this week about my own favourite cemetery visits. It may seem odd or macabre, but they are fascinating places with more than a single story to tell. And if you’ve been to any on your travels, I’d love to hear about them.
Xoxocotlan old cemetery
I visited Oaxaca’s old and new cemeteries when I visited for the Day of the Dead festivities. Each year, at the end of October, preparations are made to welcome the ancestors back for a celebration. Graves are decorated, food prepared and the Mezcal bottle drained to toast the gone but never forgotten. Lit by candles and adorned with more marigolds than I’ve ever seen in my life, Xoxocotlan’s old cemetery was the more atmospheric. In Xoxocotlan’s new cemetery, glow sticks and candy floss were the order of the day against a soundtrack of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Read about the festival and find more photos here:
Port au Prince
The cemetery, like the city, was damaged in the 2010 quake
My companions in the ageing cemetery in Haiti’s capital weren’t mourners – they weren’t even human. Instead of the expected hustlers, I was tailed by a goat and several chickens. Locally known as the Grand Cimetière, it’s an important focal point for followers of vodou. Parts of the Haitian capital aren’t very safe and this was reputedly one of them, so I lingered only long enough to absorb my surroundings and explore some of the more accessible graves, concerned that if I strayed too far from the main paths I might find myself the victim of a mugging.
If you’re in NOLA and need a guide, Sandy comes highly recommended
During my first visit to the Big Easy, I’d been fascinated to learn about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath by one of the most interesting guides I’ve ever had the fortune to meet. On my return, I found out that Sandy was guiding a tour of St Louis Cemetery Number One. It’s the site of vodou queen Marie Laveau’s tomb, and after some vandalism, tours are only possible with a guide. Sandy regaled us with tales of the dead and the city that swallowed them up, with her distinctive humour and deadpan delivery. Who knew that temperatures inside those tombs were so high they acted like a mini crematorium?
The Duarte family tomb, La Recoleta cemetery
Another cemetery where tombs are largely located above ground rather than the below ground graves I’m used to in the UK is La Recoleta in the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires. Located in an upscale neighbourhood, it’s home to many of the city’s rich or famous former inhabitants, including of course Eva Peron. When I went to pay my respects at her tomb, I was touched by a man holding his own personal vigil to the iconic former first lady, proof that the cult of Evita lives on.
Canine hero Barry the St Bernard
This time, it’s a cemetery for dogs, a short metro ride from the centre of Paris. To give the place its full name, Le Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques has an eclectic mix of graves of much loved pets and canine heroes. Rin Tin Tin, the German Shepherd star of many Hollywood movies, was brought here to be buried after his death in 1932. Perhaps the most poignant of the inscriptions relates to a canine hero, a St Bernard called Barry, who saved 40 human lives before dying as he tried to save the 41st.
John Harrison’s tomb
Highgate is well known as the place where Karl Marx is interred, but my favourite of the UK capital’s graveyards is that of the church of St John at Hampstead. Inside, you’ll find two tombs of note. The first is of John Harrison, the clock maker credited with inventing a timepiece that could roll with the waves without losing time and thus enabling us to accurately define lines of longitude. The other is that of another John, Constable, whose paintings of the Essex and Suffolk borders sum up the beauty that can still be seen in my home county today. For a walking itinerary in Hampstead, plus others in Notting Hill and Marylebone, why not have a look at my Unanchor guide, available on Amazon here: