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Cirque du Soleil’s back in London

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.

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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.

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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?

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Diabolo from TOTEM
Picture credit: OSA Images via the Totem press kit

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.

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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.

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Thanks

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:

https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/totem

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Finale from TOTEM
Picture credit: OSA Images via Totem press kit


Why I’m not thrilled at Stansted’s expansion plans

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


The FlagMate has landed!

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:

https://juliahammond.blog/2018/03/26/will-you-be-adding-flagmate-to-your-backpack/

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?

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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.

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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.

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The stories

Austria

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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.

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Peru Time to feed the llamas in Cusco

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.

Iceland

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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:

https://www.storytellertravel.co.uk/storyteller-shop/


Is it time you visited Colchester?

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”.

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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.

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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.

The lowdown

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!

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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:

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/5CG9TGG


How to see the Bahamas’ famous swimming pigs

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


Making sense of Cuba’s currency

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.

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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?
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2018/02/08/cuba-internet-101


Cuba: Internet 101

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2018/02/08/making-sense-of-cubas-currency/