As we entered a new decade, I found myself in an unusual position. For the first time in many years, I had no trips booked. In my 2019 roundup, I shared several ideas, but nothing grabbed me sufficiently to book travel. We didn’t get far into January before that changed, but nevertheless I’ve not planned anywhere near as many trips as I would normally do.
Take advantage of sales
Sometimes all it takes to make me more decisive is a deal that’s too good to resist. The flight sale period is coming to an end but there’s still time to grab a discounted flight if you are quick – and can handle the flygskam (flight shame). I took advantage of my husband’s generous offer to dogsit and BA’s generous cabin bag allowance to book an Economy Basic fare to New York for just £259.17. I’ll board last and they’ll allocate me a seat, but given that the taxes and fees component of the fare amounts to £258.17 that’s a pretty good deal in my book. At this time of year accommodation is relatively cheap too (by New York standards at least) so I bagged myself a deal on a comfortable Midtown hotel.
I know air travel is coming in for a lot of criticism at the moment, but at least I work from home so my daily commute is completely CO2 free. If you can square it with your conscience, BA’s not the only airline to be holding a sale at the time of writing, so take a look on your favourite airline’s website and see what discounts you can find.
February might seem an odd time to go to New York, but it’s a city that I prefer in the winter. There are fewer tourists, which translates to shorter queues, plus the humidity in summer can be unpleasant. If like me you’re up for a return visit – the city’s constantly inventing new ways for you to pass the time – check out this post I wrote on New York for second-timers. I’m looking forward to exploring Staten Island beyond the ferry terminal and also to checking up on progress at Edge, New York’s latest observation deck, which is scheduled to open mid March.
Chat to industry professionals
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been going to Destinations, a huge travel fair that is held in Manchester and London at this time of year. It’s a great way to find out more about places you are already considering for a visit and to be tempted by those you hadn’t even thought of.
I’ll be there again later this week to say hello to my friends from Lithuania who will be promoting the charms of Neringa and the Curonian Spit. It’s a place I enjoyed very much on a press trip last September and hope to return to. To find out what the area has to offer, read this piece I wrote for them that’s on the British Guild of Travel Writers website or visit them on stand E152 at Olympia from 30th January to 2nd February.
This year I also went to Adventure Travel Show, also at Olympia. It’s not a fair I’d been to before, as I’m not a fan of extreme sports and, if I’m honest, anything too energetic. I’ve never thought of my preference for independent travel to off the beaten track places as being particularly adventurous, but apparently it is. Anyway, though I was a little disappointed at the scale of the show compared to the much larger Destinations, I did learn plenty about Malawi, Sao Tome & Principe, Madagascar and Tobago. I also picked up a map of Grenada which will come in handy in the spring – I’m booked to spend a week on the island and can’t wait to see what this lush corner of the Caribbean has to offer.
Utilise social media forums
I also get inspiration from the people I chat to on social media. Twitter is a useful source of information, via chats such as The Road Less Travelled, which you can join on Tuesday evenings – look for the hashtag #trlt. I also enjoy reading posts on the Facebook group My Wanderlust Migration and Regroup! page, which transferred from the Wanderlust website a few years ago. I’m sorely tempted by Ethiopia at the moment thanks to some excellent photographs and stories posted by other members. If you’ve a keen interest in travel, this is definitely a group to be involved with. There aren’t many places on the planet that one or other of us hasn’t been to.
Take up travel writing for a living
Writing for a living gives me the chance to travel vicariously and at the moment I have a number of corporate clients in Iceland who are keeping me especially busy. I’ve created articles for their blogs on topics as diverse as ice cream, traffic laws and the country’s relationship with the EU as well as more mainstream topics like whether you should rent a 4×4 or not and where to stop if you’re planning to drive the country’s ring road.
As for real life travel, I’m still exploring other possibilities, so watch this space to see where else I end up. Happy travels!
I wouldn’t class myself as a jaded traveller. I still get excited as I pack my wheelie and I even still love dragging myself out of bed in the pitch black to make an early flight. But there are places that I’ve tired of, places where I find myself wondering why they’re so hyped. If I never got to go to Paris or Amsterdam again, I wouldn’t be concerned. (But let’s not include New York in there because I’d be gutted to think I could ever be done with that incredible city.)
Increasingly, though, I’m keen to seek out places without crowds, not so much out of some kind of snobbish one upmanship but more out of a desire to be completely unsociable. We introverts need our space, you know. So which alternative destinations do I recommend if you’re looking for an off the beaten track experience?
Been there: Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Now what: Chachapoyas
The wealth of Inca sites in and around the Peruvian city of Cusco makes the area one of the country’s most visited. From Sacsayhuaman to Machu Picchu, this splendid heritage makes for fascinating viewing, but year on year visitor numbers have soared and you’ll be hard pushed to find space for quiet reflection unless you seek out some of the lesser-known places like Poroy and Chinchero.
Trailblazers should ditch the crowds and fly north from the Peruvian capital Lima instead of south. Basing yourself in the charming town of Chachapoyas, you’ll be well placed to visit the intriguing hilltop fortress of Kuelap as well as the sarcophagi at Karajia. Find out everything you need to know about arranging your trip here:
Been there: Dominican Republic
Now what: Haiti
Not for the faint hearted, a trip to Haiti’s going to require you to keep your wits about you. Compared to its Hispaniolan neighbour, the Dominican Republic, package tourism is in its infancy and largely confined to Labadee in the north of the island. Instead of all-inclusives and the hard sell at the end of a rum factory tour, head over the border and make for the sleepy beach at Port Salut.
You won’t find a bustling resort, rowdy beach bars or pestering hawkers who won’t leave you alone until they’ve made a sale. At weekends, a steady stream of ex-pat aid workers from Port au Prince gives the place some life, but if all you want is pristine white sand, crystal clear turquoise waters and a cold beer, then come on a weekday and you’ll have the place to yourself. See why I liked it here:
Been there: Andalusia
Now what: Extremadura
I’m a big fan of Andalusia, from the tranquil elegance of the Mezquita in Cordoba to the bustling alleyways of the Jewish quarter in Seville. The delightfully atmospheric hamman in Jerez offered welcome respite from scorching afternoon sun and the towers of Cadiz offered a glimpse into that city’s fascinating maritime past. This year, though, for the first time, I dragged myself away from Andalusia’s comforting familiarity and ventured north to Extremadura.
This overlooked region still has its pueblos blancos, like Zafra. It offers the gourmand such a choice in unmissable foodie experiences that stay too long and you’ll need to pay for an extra seat on the plane to accommodate a vastly enlarged belly. And the scenery, both natural and built, is as transfixing as its more popular neighbour. My favourites? Monfragüe National Park’s showstopping scenery and Trujillo’s atmospheric back street bakeries selling yummy yemas. Find out what else you shouldn’t miss here:
Been there: Vienna, Budapest and Prague
Now what: Lviv
Given the political situation in parts of Ukraine, you could be forgiven for thinking I’ve lost my mind in recommending one of its cities instead of the other gems of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But Lviv was annexed by Austria in 1772 and, known as Lemburg, had more in common with west than east. Belle Epoque mansions and public buildings built in Viennese style still characterise today’s Lviv. It’s a very rewarding place to explore on foot, safe and not at all what you’d expect from an ex-Soviet bloc city. I’ll have my coffee and cake here, thanks.
Any other suggestions?
Of course, there’s a good reason why some parts of the planet attract so many of us. But if you venture off on your own, the rewards are limitless. Where have you been that improves upon one of the world’s top rated destinations?
For much of my adult travelling life, I’ve been keen to seek out new destinations, craving the buzz which comes from taming the unfamiliar and discovering what makes a place tick. As the country count has increased, some have commented that I’m only interested in the number, but that’s really not the case. In fact, over the past two years I’ve cut back on visiting the new to revisit old haunts. Nostalgia is harder to fight the older you get.
After a fourteen year gap, exploring the incredible landscapes around San Pedro de Atacama in Chile helped to reinforce just how spectacular that country is – and this time I came armed with a better camera:
As well as Chile, I returned to Salzburg in Austria, a city which I last visited as a child. Participating in the Fraulein Maria Cycling Tour enabled me to create new memories – although I think my dream of belting out Lonely Goatherd at the top of my voice was probably someone else’s nightmare. Perhaps that’s the key – to try something new in a familiar environment and add another page to your personal guide book for that place.
There’s more here:
There’s a risk, though, and that’s the place will have changed from the rose-tinted picture that takes pride of place in your holiday album. Accept the reality: it moved on, and it moved on without you. I remember heading back to Lake Titicaca after an eleven year gap to find the Uros Islands that had held such rustic charm now sported satellite dishes and solar panels. The quality of life for the islanders had measurably improved and I had to adjust my perception accordingly. Why should people forgo education and health care just so we can get our daily dose of quaint?
However, on balance, returning has been a largely satisfactory experience. Seville, New York, Saigon and Cusco are amongst the cities which have garnered renewed attention from me over the past couple of years, and none of them disappointed. In a few weeks, I’ll head to Budapest for a second visit. It will be a day trip (joining Belfast, Lisbon, Amsterdam and Bremen on this blog once I return) but I’m already excited at the thought of luxuriating in one of the city’s hot springs and having a post-dip coffee and cake at Gerbeaud’s Cafe. If you’ve been, send me your tips for how I should spend my day.
My next big solo trip will be back to South America; I plan to return to Uruguay, Argentina and Bolivia but many of the destinations I’ll stop at en route from Montevideo to La Paz will be new to me. And I’ve still got a few new countries on my wish list – Ethiopia, Cape Verde and Moldova spring to mind – but for now, they’ll just have to get in line.
What’s your take? Do you love to return to the familiar or prefer seek out new places?
As the theme tune from “Gladiator” filled the arena, I felt the hairs on my arm stand to attention.
I’d come to watch a spectacle. Jerash’s RACE project had both impressive credentials and great reviews. Ticket clutched in sweaty palm, I hurried into the auditorium, eager to secure a good seat. A Roman soldier adjusted his strap under a stubble-pocked chin, bristle-brush helmet conferring stature, scarlet tunic incongruous under masculine armour. An air of anticipation rippled through the crowd.
A small group of legionaries arrived, interrupting excited chatter, and took their place in the sand of the legendary Hippodrome. Though few in number, they were a formidable sight behind their flag bearer.
Known as the Legion VI Ferrata, “the ironclads”, they treated us to an impressive demonstration of battle tactics and formation marching. As they recreated the classic Roman two-sided shield barrier, it was clear how effective this would have been in war. Not a finger or stray hem was visible outside the shield.
The music played, unashamedly tongue in cheek. A diverse band of gladiators entered the arena ready to fight, clad in robes and armed with assorted weapons: net, shield, trident. All were muscle-bound and postured aggressively. Once they might have been slaves or criminals facing the death penalty, but today they had the best job in Jerash.
“Ave, imperator, morituri te salutant!”
“We who are about to die salute you!”
Passive spectating wasn’t allowed; thumbs up or thumbs horizontal – we had to vote. The loser kept his life with thumbs up. Caught up in the moment, I voted thumbs horizontal, before realising, embarrassed, that everyone else had pardoned him. Feeling audience pressure, next time I voted thumbs up.
A Roman general tore into the stadium in a horse-drawn chariot. Two others followed, kicking up clouds of dust. Their wheels angled outwards, giving the impression of imminent collapse every time their horses tackled the tight turns. The centre of the track was marked by a fragile wooden fence which didn’t seem at all like it might withstand a misjudged move.
Leaning forward over the barrier, I urged the racers on ever more enthusiastically, reminiscent of ‘My Fair Lady’ though with slightly more ladylike language. I cheered myself hoarse for a bearded driver clad in an emerald tunic, who threw himself into the job with gusto and wasn’t going to let anyone pass under any circumstances. My favourite strode to a clear win after the regulation seven laps. I whooped unashamedly and thought it was a pity I couldn’t have put a bet on.
As the winner received his prize and our respect, it was time to clamber down to the track for some photos. Not allowed to take a chariot for a spin (clearly my reputation for a lack of hand-eye-wheel coordination had preceded me) my hero had been swallowed up within a crowd of well wishers. I had to settle for a picture with the runner up – same beard, same tunic but, alas, a lot less balls.
“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
London born writer Gilbert K. Chesterton wrote this oft quoted phrase about Battersea in his essay “The Riddle of the Ivy”. It’s an idea I’m embracing while out and about in my home county of Essex.
Often overlooked in favour of neighbouring Suffolk or Kent, the greatest pleasure for me of travelling in my local area is the lack of visitors in all but the most obvious of destinations.
Researching for Countryside Dog Walks, I’ve quite literally walked for miles without seeing a soul. It’s taken me to parts of the county I’ve never visited and to my delight, I’ve had as much enjoyment discovering new sights in my own backyard as I’ve had anywhere in the world.
Part of the joy of independent solo travel for me is to unpick somewhere new, to learn how it’s constructed and to find out how it ticks. Realising I can still do this in Essex has been a satisfying revelation. Another great British writer, Lawrence Durrell, famously wrote:
“Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.”
Walking along the Essex coastline and through its surprisingly empty countryside, the lack of specific sights and attractions makes it perfect for pondering while wandering. Life’s full of things to be done and these walks feel deliciously self-indulgent, yet unlike a big trip, they only require me to take a few hours off.
Being alone makes me more in tune with my surroundings. Sounds that are concealed by conversations push their way in to a solo walk. The salt marsh fizzing, the wind vibrating the rushes, the stream trickling – all lost unless you really listen. For me, one of the biggest distractions from the landscape is my camera. It can be hard to give up the search for the perfect shot and just look without a lens. But when I force myself to do so, it’s more than worth it.
To find out more about the hidden corners of Essex, why not visit my Essexology blog? You’ll find it at http://www.essexology.com
American intellectual Clifton Fadiman is quoted as saying:
When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.
They’re wise words. On the road, it’s all too easy to become indignant when things aren’t going your way. Two decades ago, I got somewhat cross when barred entry to what I hazily remember as a fort in Old Delhi (though it could well have been a mosque). I wanted to climb a tower to take in a view, arguing that my gender shouldn’t influence where I could and couldn’t go. Did I have the right to do that, if it wasn’t my country? Probably not, though such misogynistic attitudes have put me off returning.
Despite such a poor experience travelling around India as a solo traveller, I’ve tried to challenge myself as I’ve ventured further afield. Weaning myself off package tours was as much a case of economic necessity as anything else, but choosing countries and regions off the beaten track where tourists are as rare as a white moose has kept me on my toes. Buying a train ticket in Ukraine via sign language? Check. Getting to grips with riots and a transport strike in Haiti? Check. Overnighting in the world’s most dangerous city without being shot? Check. That’s San Pedro Sula in Honduras if you’re wondering and yes, the barbed wire barricade at the end of the street was a little off putting when it came to sleeping soundly in my bed.
I’m soon off to Sri Lanka. Everyone I know who’s been says it’s wonderful and the pictures of the hill country through which I hope to journey by train look idyllic. But someone reviewing a train trip on a web forum was complaining that a Sri Lankan man ignored her reservation and threw her bag off the seat, forcing her to stand for the entire journey. If that story is true, Clifton Fadiman’s words take on a whole new truth. And there’s just that nagging voice in my head that reminds me that we just wouldn’t stand for that kind of treatment in Britain. Wish me luck!
Every travel magazine and major publisher is full of persuasive suggestions at this time of year about places you must not miss if you are to keep up with the in crowd. But which recommendations should you ignore? Here’s my pick of places and attractions that don’t live up to the buzz that surrounds them.
New York’s Freedom Tower
New York’s my favourite city, but even the best of us has a few flaws. Don’t bother with the New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square; you won’t see much unless you watch it on TV and the weather’s often so cold everyone rushes indoors straight after midnight. Its latest high rise has been open a while now, but is still being touted as a must visit attraction for 2016. The elevator ride to the top, speeding through centuries of the city’s development in under a minute, is impressive, but the reflections and fingerprints on the glass windows of the observation deck aren’t. Ascend the Top of the Rock instead for the best views of the city, putting the Empire State Building in pride of place in what’s arguably the world’s most iconic skyline. Read my comparison of the two towers and how they stack up to the Empire State here:
I don’t have anything against Haiti, per se, more the marketing surrounding this impoverished Caribbean nation. 2015’s lists were full of how this was the next up and coming destination, but when I visited in February, I quickly learned that infrastructure lags way behind potential. We’re not just talking about punctuality here: there were tyres being set alight in the capital’s streets in protest about rising fuel prices, a luxury bus set alight and a terrible tragedy caused by a live cable at carnival. Give it a few years more for the country to recover from the 2010 earthquake and preceding flood damage, but don’t put it out of your mind entirely – this is one to watch.
Now this one’s a tricky one. I visited this fascinating country in 2003, a year in which the travel experts suggested you “go before it changes”. For perhaps every year since, that same advice has been trotted out, with thousands of tourists dutifully doing as asked. Go, by all means, but go because you want to, not because you are worried this charming country won’t wait for you.
Northern Lights in Iceland
Iceland is one of my most favourite destinations on the planet; I loved it so much when I first visited I went back to get married there. A multitude of incredible sights awaits, from the iceberg-strewn Jokulsarlon beach to the gushing geysers and impossibly scenic waterfalls of the Golden Circle. But the one thing you can guarantee with Iceland is that you can’t guarantee the weather and there’s nothing like a cloudy sky to ruin your chances of spotting the Aurora Borealis. If you want to see the Northern Lights, try Norway instead.
The new cable car to Kuelap, Peru
2016 looks like a good year for Peru, especially seeing as British Airways are introducing direct flights after what seems an interminable wait. Machu Picchu is getting more and more crowded, so in an effort to entice people away, the northern fortress of Kuelap is being pushed as an alternative. A cable car is set to open later in 2016, but some reports are incorrectly suggesting it will shave four hours off the hike to get there. It won’t. The current hike from the main visitor centre car park is an easy one; what the cable car cuts short is the drive there along some so-so roads. Be aware that Kuelap’s no match for Machu Picchu, but the area has many as yet unspoilt attractions for intrepid visitors. Don’t believe the hype and wait. Go now, before the cable car opens and the hordes arrive.
A headline on the news section of the BBC’s website caught my eye this morning. It read: “Iranian dual citizens fight new US visa rules”. I’ve never been to Iran but reading on, this article could have directly affected me, but for a few months. The article explained that any British citizen that had been to Syria in the last five years would no longer qualify for the visa waiver program; in other words, they couldn’t travel on an ESTA and would now have to apply for a visa.
I’ve checked my travel diary, in which I keep a list of the places I’ve been and the dates I visited. One of those is Syria. Now, the country is a no-go zone, but just a few short years ago, it was a different place, largely undiscovered by tourists. I wandered the souks of Aleppo and Damascus, travelling between them across the beautiful countryside on a modern train. I enjoyed a wonderful walk through Hama to a soundtrack of creaking norias. You can find out more about them here:
I went to Syria and neighbouring Jordan in Spring 2010 and the new regulations stipulate a cut off date of March 2011. That means I’m still good to go to one of my most favourite cities, New York, next May. I was worried, though I don’t regret visiting Syria back then for a moment. Nor do I condemn the US government for passing such legislation; countries have a right to determine their own security and their own rules.
It’s not just Brits and it’s not just Syria. The Wall Street Journal wrote: “Coming up with a comprehensive plan has been challenging. Instead, a piece-by-piece approach appears to be emerging. The initial step was legislation to put some restrictions on the visa-waiver program, which allows travelers from the 38 mostly European and Asian nations to enter the U.S. without obtaining a visa. The measure would ban people from those nations who had traveled to places including Iraq or Syria since March 2011 without first getting a visa. The bill, which passed 407-19, is supported by the White House and is expected to be wrapped into a must-pass spending bill and become law by year’s end.”
You can read the exact wording of the bill here:
A list of visa waiver countries can be found here:
Currently, the restrictions affect those who have travelled since 1 March 2011 to Iraq, Syria and “any other country or area of concern designated by the Secretary of Homeland Security” (to be determined within 60 days). If, like me, you’re a fan of visiting unusual destinations, it looks like it’s going to be important to double check you still qualify to travel on an ESTA if you wish to visit the USA.
Nothing much happened in a hurry in Port Salut.
The village sprawled beside the soft white sands of Pointe Sable, on Haiti’s southern coast about a half hour from the noisy bustle of Les Cayes. It was no small relief to arrive. My coccyx was numb after a ride in the most cramped and overloaded tap tap I’d had the misfortune to flag down. Not for the first time this trip, I wondered whether my days of travelling like this, eschewing comfort for a more authentic experience, were numbered.
The half-hour ride had stretched to five times that, delayed by the need to fill the vehicle to three times a sensible capacity, then tie and retie a large assortment of sacks and packages to the roof. Finally, the driver turned over the engine but instead of leaving, we waited while he carried out urgent mechanical work with much tutting coming from under the rusty bonnet. All the while we sweated under a relentless sun, listening to the football on someone’s portable radio. There wasn’t a murmur of complaint; such delays were clearly the norm. These tap taps had once been shiny new pick up trucks, but were now zombified skeletons, shadows of their former selves. Bereft of various body panels they were held together with frayed bits of rope that disintegrated and wafted fibres into my eyes, . Eventually we had left the goats and stray dogs to scavenge in the filthy depot, only to stop a few kilometres down the road at the edge of a rice paddy while the driver acquired sufficient water to cool the already overheated engine and finish the journey.
Missing the unmarked turn off from the main road, I’d been dropped at the far end of the beach road. I told the conductor I needed to find my lodgings.
“Is it far?” I asked in schoolgirl French, unsure if I’d been understood.
“Combien de kilometres?” I tried again. The conductor glanced at his other passengers.
“Cinq, je pense,” came the collective reply.
Inwardly cursing that I’d relied on my own inadequate observation rather than asking the conductor a little earlier, I resigned myself to a long (albeit scenic) trudge laden with luggage. A young man pulled alongside me on a motorbike and offered me a ride. Asking how much, he’d shaken his head and told me he was offering out of kindness. Gratefully, I accepted. Such a willingness to help was common amongst Haitians, I’d found, one of the delights of visiting a place where tourism was at an embryonic stage.
In the end, it was less than a kilometre. Bathed in the soft peach of late afternoon, the Auberge du Rayon Vert – the Inn of the Green Ray – looked as if it had been transported straight from rural France. Dumping my bags, I watched the sun settle languidly into the horizon and headed to the terrace to eat. The menu, chalked carelessly on a board, gave no inkling that the food served was to be the most delicious I’d have anywhere in the country. I feasted on creamy goat’s cheese enclosed by an exquisitely pink fillet of beef. The sky turned to blood orange before I sank into a deep slumber under crisp sheets.
The following morning, I awoke to the sound of the Caribbean lapping at the shore and set off to explore Port Salut. Popular with Haitians from Port au Prince as a weekend retreat, I wasn’t surprised to see half-built houses strung out along the main road which I presumed to be holiday homes in the making. Hot pink bougainvillea made a welcome change from the ubiquitous grey concrete of the building plots and beach shacks.
Changing some dollars at the hardware store, I doubled back to the beach. Crudely fashioned dugouts on the sand didn’t look seaworthy. The flaking turquoise paint was photogenically shabby but didn’t appear to my untrained eye to be watertight. Piles of netting heaped in their bows indicated otherwise. A group of fishermen dragged a gnarled wooden boat out of the sea, their scant catch inadequate recompense for their labour.
A little further on, a cluster of beach bars catered to a largely local population. At this hour their plastic chairs and tables were deserted save for a group of men idly chatting into mobile phones. They looked up briefly to say hello. An old man slept soundly on a concrete bench, his forehead deeply lined and his feet calloused. Children giggled and pointed, “Blan, blan!” I smiled back. One of the bars was painted with a colourful mural of tourists waterskiing, which struck me as just about as far removed from reality in this backwater as you could get. Opposite, a six-point guide to cholera prevention on a painted billboard seemed a whole lot more relevant.
Opposite the auberge, another catch was being landed. A group of villagers were hauling in their net, dragging its colourful floats into a horseshoe to corral the fish into an ever diminishing trap. But for all their toil, the results were meagre, a few fish the size of sprats tossed into a wicker basket guarded by a small child.
By far the best thing to do, or more accurately, not do, as it involved very little effort at all, was to relax on one of the hotel’s beach chairs and watch the world go by. This wasn’t an arduous task; there wasn’t much world to go by. The palms that edged the beach swayed almost imperceptibly in the breeze, fidgeting the shade. From my vantage point, I watched as delicate ghost crabs scuttled about their business before retreating from the heat into burrows drilled deep into the damp sand. A trio of avocets tapped away at the water’s edge while a lone pelican cruised overhead.
The sun was now high in the sky. A single wisp of cloud hung like a vapid crescent moon. Traffic was limited to a few motos and the odd 4×4 – the auberge was a popular weekend hangout for the UN police and NGO personnel working in the area. Out towards the horizon, a small boat with tattered sails bobbed on a sea pricked with diamonds. The voice of an occasional hawker interrupted the sound of the waves’ ebb and flow, offering straw hats and fresh coconuts. They approached gently as they offered their wares; there was no need to be pushy. A young girl wandered up, carrying a large straw bag.
“Would you like mamba, ma’am?”
For a minute, I was alarmed, fearful she might produce a snake. It turned out mamba was a kind of peanut butter. The large jar being proffered would have been a tempting purchase had it not been made of heavy glass clearly unsuited to moto rides. Eventually, I dozed off under the shade of a tree, its dense bunches of fat leaves creating a natural sun umbrella. After all, nothing much happened in a hurry in Port Salut, so how else was I going to kill time before dinner?
Dalmatia is the region of the Adriatic extending from the Croatian town of Zadar in the north down to Kotor, Montenegro in the south. Rising sea levels once drowned the lower parts of glacial valleys leaving a string of islands reminiscent of the spots and splodges on the backs of the dogs which share the region’s name. Long a favourite of the Italians, this beautiful stretch of coastline has become increasingly popular with UK visitors over the past few years, with those in the know finding a Mediterranean holiday at a fraction of the price of more established destinations. The most scenic part of the region links the historic cities of Split and Dubrovnik, so this blog will focus on making a journey between the two.
The region is much better connected than it was a decade ago, emphasising the area’s tourist resurgence. British Airways has direct summer season flights to both Split and Dubrovnik, flying to the latter a couple of times a week in winter. The budget airline easyJet flies to Split and Dubrovnik offering flights to the region from Luton, Gatwick, Stansted, Manchester, Newcastle and Bristol. Ryanair serves Zadar. Other airlines operating flights to Split and/or Dubrovnik include Wizz Air, Thomsonfly, Norwegian, Monarch and Jet2. As with BA, there are considerably more flights in summer. To get to the area with Croatia Airlines you’ll need to hub through Zagreb and change planes. For an up to date list of flight schedules, try http://www.visit-croatia.co.uk/index.php/getting-to-croatia/flights-to-croatia-from-the-uk-ireland/.
If you’re beginning your trip in the Croatian capital, a train service links Zagreb to Split but even the fast train takes almost six hours – strictly a journey for aficionados. A convenient bus network links the mainland towns. The Visit Croatia website is invaluable and lists the bus companies here http://www.visit-croatia.co.uk/index.php/travelling-around-croatia/bus-travel-in-croatia/. Autotrans offer the facility to make online bookings. A fleet of ferries facilitates island hopping. Taxis are cheap in the region but where the old towns are characterised by labyrinthine alleyways, it’s best to explore on foot.
What to see
Split is the Adriatic’s main ferry port, its quayside thronging with workers as well as tourists. The city’s residents are always on the go and business is conducted frenetically and noisily. The mild and sunny climate makes for an outdoor cafe culture in all but the depths of winter.
Undisputedly, the jewel of Split’s crown is Diocletian’s Palace. Roman emperor Diocletian came here to retire, commissioning an elaborate fortified palace which is now a UNESCO world heritage site. Some time after Diocletian’s death, the palace fell into a state of disrepair, but was seized upon by refugees fleeing from the town of Salona, five kilometres inland and a Roman stronghold thought to be the birthplace of the emperor himself. These new residents added their own fortifications to the palace, building on the original two-metre thick walls, towers and keeps of the original design. Split grew steadily, forging trading links with the interior and was eventually absorbed into the Hungaro-Croatian empire in the eleventh century.
Now, Diocletian’s Palace blends almost seamlessly with the mediaeval buildings that crowd its western flank. The narrow alleyways beg to be explored at a snail’s pace before heading back to the waterfront Riva to while away the afternoon over a glass or two of wine.
It’s worth making a detour inland to the town of Mostar in neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina. A three and a half hour bus ride from the coast (see timetables here http://www.buscroatia.com/split-mostar/), pockmarked buildings still bear the scars of the bullets that so recently ripped out its heart. The conflict in 1993 saw the destruction of the town’s iconic Stari Most bridge, a sixteenth century structure spanning the Nevetna River. In peace time, the town’s young daredevils once dived from its ledge outdoing each other in bravado and skill. The bridge was blown up by the Croats. Some say it was destroyed for strategic reasons, but others believe that it was a deliberate act of vandalism intended to enrage.
Today, the bridge has been rebuilt, a simple engraved stone acting as a reminder to the futility of war. The streets it connects are lined with souvenir shops, selling tin hats and bullets alongside postcards and nick nacks. This old town district was originally settled by Ottomans and the area has a distinctly Turkish feel. Many of Mostar’s mansions were severely damaged by the shelling, but it’s worth checking out the Muslibegovic House which was miraculously untouched. Owner Tadz, will show you round and offer you a room in this museum-guest house hybrid. Book through online agencies such as booking.com or visit the website http://www.muslibegovichouse.com/.
The mountains that hem the coastal strip from the interior force the focus out to sea and it’s hard to spend any length of time looking out at the sparkling Adriatic without resisting the urge to hop on a boat. There’s an island for everyone. Šolta, close to Split, is a sleepy place characterised by quiet lanes and yachts bobbing serenely in tiny inlets. Base yourself near the harbour in Maslinica. Neighbouring Brač is perfect for beach lovers; try those at Zlatni Rat, Bol and Supetar. Better known Hvar has a fashionable old town packed with bars and clubs, palaces and chapels, a kind of offshore mini-Dubrovnik without the cruise ships. Known for its olive groves, Korčula offers a similar variety to Hvar but on a smaller scale. Further off the beaten track, if you want to escape the crowds, try the island of Vis, popular with urban escapees from the Croatian capital, Zagreb.
If you’re based in Dubrovnik, the islands of Koločep, Lopud and Šipanhen are all within easy reach. Sold to the city of Dubrovnik in 1333 by the kings of Bosnia, Mljet is do-able as a day trip, but those staying for longer are rewarded with beautiful countryside and much sought after peace and quiet. The west of the island has been designated a national park, the highlights of which are two saltwater lakes framed by pristine woodland. You could even spot a mongoose, imported from India in an attempt to rid Mljet of its persistent snake problems.
Get Dubrovnik wrong, and you battle hordes of cruise ship passengers clogging the narrow streets of the Old Town, tacky souvenirs and unappetising food. That’s not to say don’t visit, just do your homework first. Best in spring or summer (avoid January when many business owners take the month off) the crowds ease when the day trippers leave in late afternoon. Restaurants offering al fresco dining tout for custom, but get off the main drag to avoid inflated prices.
The city has a long history. Originally settled in the seventh century, it became an important trading post, a neutral port between the Ottomans and the West. The money generated by sales of wool, hides, wheat and even slaves underpinned the city’s cultural development. The Sponza Palace, Rector’s Palace and the fountains designed by Onofrio della Cava are evidence of this building boom.
Climb the walls of the fortified Old Town for stunning views across terracotta rooftops to the Adriatic, hidden courtyards revealing themselves to those high enough to peer over their walls. The sea pounds away but is no match for the thick stone that Michelozzo Michelozzi and Juraj Dalmatinac designed to protect the city from the waves. After 1995, war damage was repaired speedily and you’d be forgiven for thinking the city was spared; only newer tiles and patched walls give it away.
The compact Old Town is a delight to wander aimlessly, but accommodation is expensive. It’s worth considering renting an apartment or staying just outside the city walls to achieve better value for money. Some people stay in the resorts of Cavtat or Župa Dubrovačka and visit Dubrovnik just for the day, but it’s worth basing yourself in the city for at least part of your stay.
The pretty town of Kotor to the south of Dubrovnik across the border in Montenegro lies at the head of a fjord. Like Dubrovnik, it has a sprawling Old Town and a thriving cafe culture.
It’s worth taking a boat trip out on the fjord if the weather is fine; there are some pretty churches at the water’s edge. Also, make the effort to climb to the castle at the top of the hill – the views are spectacular on a clear day.
As a beginner’s guide, this blog post isn’t intended to be complete, but there are lots more resources on the web to help you plan a trip. Try the Croatia traveller site here: http://www.croatiatraveller.com/Dalmatia.htm
For Northern Dalmatia, fly into Zadar and then head out from there. Rough Guides have a comprehensive description on their website here: http://www.roughguides.com/destinations/europe/croatia/northern-dalmatia/
For specific attractions, the Lonely Planet is a good bet. Find the relevant Croatia section here: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/croatia
Finally, for accommodation, I find http://www.booking.com reliable and the reviews generally accurate.
With a two thousand year history and a vibrant culture, it’s no wonder the Mediterranean city of Barcelona is the UK’s undisputed favourite when it comes to Spanish city break destinations. As well as having its own ample stretches of sand, the city is perfectly situated to combine some sightseeing with a beach holiday to the Costa Brava or Costa Dorada. But what should you see on a first visit? Follow my beginner’s guide to this captivating Catalan gem.
A number of airlines fly from the UK to Barcelona, from regional airports as well as London. To give you an idea of the choice available, there are almost 200 direct flights a week from London, on airlines such as British Airways, Iberia, easyJet, Monarch and Vueling. It’s not difficult to pick up a return ticket for as little as £50 (flying with easyJet from Southend at the end of February, price correct at time of writing) but book well in advance for a summer trip as demand is obviously higher.
Getting from the airport
Most flights arrive at Barcelona’s El Prat airport (some Ryanair services fly into Girona) and there is a train service direct into the city. Take the RENFE R2 Cercanias service (the local stopping train, sometimes referred to as Rodalies in Catalan) as far as Passeig de Gracia. Tickets cost 4,10 euros and there’s no need to buy a ticket in advance. Alternatively there’s an airport bus costing 5,90 euros which takes on average about a half hour to reach the city centre. You can buy tickets online in advance here http://www.aerobusbcn.com/en/buy-tickets or just pay cash to the driver. Expect to pay up to 40 euros for a taxi from the airport to the city centre.
The Barcelona metro is extensive and easy to use, though as with any busy city, take care of your belongings and ensure bags are zipped or fastened securely.
A single ride on the metro (or bus) costs 2,15 euros but if you are planning on taking five or more journeys then you could buy a T10 card costing 9,95 euros which covers you for ten journeys over a year (i.e. there’s no need to use all ten on the same day). If you make a journey and change lines without exiting the metro, then that counts as one ride, so long as your total journey time is under 75 minutes. Multi-day travel cards are available, giving you two days’ unlimited travel for 14 euros for instance. 3, 4 and 5 day cards are also offered. Check current prices here:
Alternatively, you might consider the Barcelona card. This is a tourist pass offering free transport (including the airport train but not the express airport bus), free or discounted admission to some tourist attractions and discounts in some restaurants and shops. It costs 45 euros for a three-day pass. Examples of free attractions (correct at the time of writing but check on arrival) include the Botanical Gardens and Museum of Modernism. Do your homework; work out what you might like to see and total up the cost – as with all these cards, you need to use it a lot to make it worth your while. A full list of discounts is found here:
For a first-time visitor who perhaps is less confident about using public transport, I’d recommend a hop on, hop off sightseeing bus. Barcelona is a city of over 4 million people and therefore its sights are scattered over a wide area. Although there is a lot to see in a fairly small downtown area, if you wish to see some of the more far-flung attractions it’s easier to catch the sightseeing bus. It’s more expensive than public transport, with a one day ticket costing 24,30 euros if purchased online and a two day ticket about 10 euros more. Their informative website can be found here: https://www.barcelonabusturistic.cat/en/home and provides details of routes, prices and current schedules.
Where to stay
I stayed at the Hotel Duquesa de Cardona, a luxury boutique hotel on the waterfront close to the Columbus statue at the end of La Rambla and a short walk from the aquarium. Its beautifully appointed rooms can cost as little as £75 a night for a double in low season, but the convenient location and excellent service mean that it does sell out in peak periods. The W chain are represented in Barcelona at Plaça de la Rosa dels Vents by Barceloneta beach. The hotel’s 473 rooms feature funky décor and both its pool terrace and 26th floor Eclipse bar afford stunning views of the Mediterranean Sea. On a tighter budget, try the Chic and Basic Ramblas, under £50 per night but only a stone’s throw from La Rambla, or for around £20 more, the Hotel Sant Agustí, a converted convent near to the Plaça Reial. The building dates from 1720 and has been a hotel since 1840, making it one of the city’s oldest.
What to see
Antoni Gaudi’s work
If there’s one name that is synonymous with Barcelona, it’s that of Antoni Gaudi, the architect responsible for the as yet unfinished Sagrada Familia church. This elaborately constructed church was begun in 1882, consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 but is unlikely to be complete until at least 2026. George Orwell was not a fan, branding it one of the world’s most hideous buildings, but millions of impressed visitors beg to differ. It’s definitely worth a look.
Gaudi’s architecture can be found elsewhere in the city. Slightly north of Barcelona’s city centre in the Gràcia district, it’s worth making a special effort to pay a visit to Parc Güell. Another of Antoni Gaudi’s bonkers creations, as you’d expect its planting is interspersed by wacky benches, columns and platforms featuring the architect’s trademark mosaic tiling. The extraordinary Parc Güell now charges admission, but is a must-see.
Casa Milà, better known as La Pedrera, is another building bearing the hallmarks of the architect’s unique style. Its odd chimneys are classic Gaudi. I also loved Casa Batlló which Gaudi redesigned in 1904. Once a family home and now a UNESCO world heritage sight, it’s unique, quirky and delightful, both inside and out. The entrance fee is a bit steep but looking at the exterior is free.
This single street is possibly the most famous in the city. For this reason, it has to figure in your itinerary but be warned, it’s also a popular stomping ground for pickpockets and scammers. This pedestrian thoroughfare is crammed with souvenir vendors, street performers, human statues and, at night, prostitutes. It features a mosaic created by the artist Joan Miró, located near the Liceu metro station. If you look closely, you’ll be able to spot his signature on one of the tiles. A museum dedicated to his work can be found at Montjuïc. The street also has a selection of restaurants but you’d do better heading off the street and away from the crowds.
This hill overlooking the city literally translates as “the hill of the Jews”. Getting up there is half the fun. Head up by funicular and then take the Port Vell aerial tramway back down to the waterfront at Barceloneta. At the top, there’s a whole load of things to do. As well as the Fundació Miró, Montjuïc
is also home to the Museu d’Arqueologia, the Museu Etnològic and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya-MNAC, housed in the impressive Palau Nacional. In addition you’ll find the Magic Fountain and the artisan village at Poble Espanyol, both built for the 1929 International Exhibition.
Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter is its old town, linking La Rambla to the Mediterranean seafront. Many of the buildings of this area date from mediaeval times, though there was extensive modernisation and renovation in the 19th and early 20th century. One of the area’s most popular attractions is the Picasso Museum. Suggested by the artist himself back in 1960, Barcelona is a fitting choice for the museum; although Picasso was born in Malaga, he spent his teenage years in the city before moving to Paris in his twenties. The five buildings that house a collection of 3500 of his earlier works are as much an attraction as the art itself – Palau Aguilar, Palau del Baró de Castellet and Palau Meca date back to the 14th century.
The Barri Gòtic is a fabulous area in which to wander, with alleyways linking attractive squares, my favourite being the Plaça Reial. This palm-filled square provides respite from the heat of the summer sun; in my opinion there’s no better place in the whole of the city to sip a coffee and people-watch. As with other touristy areas, keep a close eye on your belongings.
For football fans, there’s only one unmissable attraction in the city – Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium, home to Futbol Club Barcelona, or Barça to its adoring fans. It is possible to take tours of the stadium. Visit the FCB Museum, walk down the players’ tunnel and out onto the pitch, stand in the dressing room and see behind the scenes in areas such as the press room.
Something for the evening
Cava is to Spain as champagne is to France, and the most atmospheric place in town to drink the stuff is at El Xampanyet. This small bar has a take me as you find me vibe, with a mixed clientele of locals and visitors. The tiled walls and tasty tapas have barely changed since the place opened back in 1929. Its location on Carrer de Montcada in El Born district, is within an easy stroll of the cathedral and Parc de la Ciutadella, and perfect for a few glasses before dinner in the Old Town.
Is an Amsterdam day trip viable? In the second of an occasional series, I test whether it’s really worth making the effort for just a single day’s visit to this popular Dutch city. Would I regret not paying for a hotel room as I dashed from attraction to attraction?
I chose to fly from London’s Southend airport, around an hour from Central London but only a short drive from my Essex home. Southend, though expanding, is still a small airport, making it possible to transit the airport in just a few minutes – none of the long queues for security or marathon hikes to the gate that characterise Britain’s larger airports. easyJet fly out to Amsterdam at 7.30am and back at 6pm, making a short day out a cheap possibility. It’s wise to note that easyJet fly into a satellite terminal at Schipol, making for a tidy walk to the gate for your return flight. But they have a good track record for punctuality and my outbound flight was on time. On the return leg, we landed early and thanks to the time difference, I was back in my kitchen feeding the dogs their dinner almost before I should have left Schipol. (Don’t worry about them, we have doggie day care for such occasions.)
Getting into the city
Having made it across the airport without getting distracted by the many shops and even a branch of the Rijksmuseum (Schipol has got to be the best airport in Europe, don’t you think?) I exited through self-service passport control leaving the tulip bulb purchases for my return. Keep straight on as you exit customs for the train station, the quickest way into central Amsterdam. Directly in front of you are bright yellow ticket machines which take cash and cards. A single ticket into the city costs 5,10 euros with a 0,50 euro surcharge for using a credit card; UK issued cards work fine. It’s worth noting, though, that they take coins and not notes if you wish to pay cash. Make a left and head for the train; it’s a quick fifteen minute ride into the city. Trains leave frequently for Amsterdam Centraal Station immediately to the north of the main city. I waited one minute for a train and was walking Amsterdam’s streets by 10am.
The city centre of Amsterdam is compact and unless it’s raining, it’s a pleasant experience to wander the back streets and canal side paths on foot. You’ll need eyes in the back of your head, though, to avoid being run over by a bicycle. The city has dedicated cycle lanes but it’s all too easy to forget where the pavement ends if you’re trying to take a photo. If you hire a bike yourself, it’s customary to ring your bell rather than mutter profanities at wayward pedestrians obsessed with getting the perfect selfie.
For longer distances, the easiest method of getting around the city is by tram. Single rides cost 2,90 euros and the ticket is valid for an hour. Tap the ticket on the reader as you are given it to activate it. If you are likely to make more than three journeys, it’s worth your while buying a day pass, costing 7,50 euros. Tap in and out each time you ride.
What did I do?
I’ve been to Amsterdam before, so decided to give the big museums and the Anne Frank House a miss this time. If you are making a first visit then you should really consider staying a few days to give you time to do the sights justice. Queues for the Anne Frank house are frequently long (even on a Monday in January!) so if you do want to go, and you should, plan to make this first on your day’s agenda when you visit.
I made for the Begijnhof instead. It’s an easy walk from Centraal Station – cross over the canal and head down Damrak, the main drag. Damrak is tourist central, but you can arrange everything from canal boats to bicycle hire here and buy souvenirs tackier than you’ve ever imagined. From Dam Square, continue down Kalverstraat (almost as bad as Damrak) until you get to Spui.
Accessed through a wooden door, a passageway with impressive vaulted ceilings leads through to an enclosed square, the Begijnhof. Women have lived on this site since 1150, primarily to care for the sick. By the fourteenth century, the place had become a nunnery, the women referred to as “beguines”. Taking pride of place in this inner courtyard is the church. The Begijnhof is also the site of one of only two surviving timber buildings in the city, this one dating from 1528. Visitors can access half the square, so long as they keep off the well-manicured lawns; the rest is for residents only. Entrance is free, though donations to the church are welcomed.
The Begijnhof is around the corner from the Bloemenmarkt, on the Singel, which claims to be the only floating flower market in the world. Don’t worry if you haven’t timed your visit for spring, even in winter the stalls are a riot of colour, selling cut flowers and bulbs. The packaged bulbs are aimed squarely at the tourist market – locals make a beeline for the loose bulbs as they’re considerably cheaper.
Next, I set about exploring the area known as “De Negen Straatjes” – the nine streets. This is an area bisected by canals from the Singel to the Prinsengracht and gentrification has resulted in a wealth of designer boutiques, gift shops and art galleries that lend themselves to ambling. This is not a district to walk with a purpose, more an area in which to potter and dither before recharging your batteries in a cafe. Forget Starbucks – though there are plenty – a canal side coffee shop is the way to go. I recommend the Koffee Huis “De Hoek”, a far cry from the smoky cannabis cafes for which Amsterdam is better known. Try their cheese and ham pancake washed down with proper freshly- squeezed orange juice and bag a window seat for brunch with a view.
Continuing along Prinsengracht, and just past Westermarkt I passed the long queue for the Anne Frank House. Further along on the opposite side of the canal is an interesting little museum devoted to tulips. Behind the extensive gift shop and down a steep flight of steps, a series of small interconnecting rooms tell the history of this iconic Dutch flower, which you’ll soon learn, isn’t Dutch at all. In fact, it is native to Asia (who knew?) and it was the Ottomans who introduced the flower to the Netherlands in the sixteenth century. They soon became fashionable, with growers competing to see who could produce the most sought after bloom. Speculators moved in on the industry and soon bulbs with the right “pedigree” were changing hands for crazy sums of money, with some selling for twenty times the annual salary of the average Amsterdam resident at the time. Out of control, the market crashed in 1637 and it was to take a further 200 years to steadily rebuild it. Fortunately, the prices of tulips are far more reasonable today, as is the 5 euro entrance fee.
Back at the Westerkerk, I jumped on a number 14 tram heading east to my second museum of the day – the Dutch Resistance Museum. This absorbing museum recounts the experiences of the Netherlands from 14 May 1940 to 5 May 1945, the period when the country was occupied by Nazi Germany. As well as resistance, the museum explains how people chose different paths in coping with the invasion – some collaborated, some fought back. The exhibition covers all forms of resistance: going on strike, forging documents, helping people to go into hiding, publishing underground newspapers, maintaining escape routes, and even armed resistance and espionage. Entrance costs 10 euros which I thought was good value for money. Take the free audio set that’s offered as it unlocks a series of explanations in English; the exhibits are all signed in dual language but some of the text is on the small size. A short film puts the museum in context, in kid-friendly language, and there’s a special children’s section to the museum as well. Families, this is your part of town – Artis zoo’s just across the street.
All that history had made me thirsty (and my back ache) so sinking into a chair in the Cafe Koosje on the corner of Kerklaan and Plantage Middenlaan came as a welcome relief. The hot chocolate topped, of course, with a generous dollop of cream and the friendly wait staff made this a good place to take a break.
It was time to head back to the centre for some shopping and my mind was on food. Taking the number 14 tram back to Waterlooplein, I walked to Staalstraat where I’d read about a foodie’s paradise at number 20. Het Hanze Huis is crammed full of European foods, from syrups to flavoured tea, chocolate to tasty biscuits. Mouth already watering, I decided to continue by number 24 tram (tram-hopping like a local!) to the market on Albert Cuypstraat. A mix of market tat, food trucks and cheese stalls, this place is definitely worth a visit. I stocked up on Stroopwafels, a family favourite, from a charming man who posed happily for a photo. Bag full, I had to pass on the Gouda cheese, but figured I could at least get that in Sainsbury’s.
Heading back to the centre on the number 4 tram, my final stop was to a pub with no bar. I’d come across De Pilsener Club, located on Begijnensteeg, via several bloggers on the net. The pub’s nickname is De Engelse Reet, which apparently translates as “The English Ass”. Perfect, I thought. After all today’s walking I need a seat for my own ass. According to what I read, the pub has been in business since the end of the nineteenth century. It’s been in the current owner’s family for four generations (I read that they all share the same first name, so that’s four men called Tuen Van Veen) and they don’t like change. Stepping over the threshold is like travelling back in time, with sanded floorboards and tables pockmarked through years of use. Given the early hour (for a pub, anyway) I expected to have to drink alone, but two tables were occupied when I walked in and by the time I left, it was full. It seems it’s a very popular meeting place in the late afternoon for Amsterdam’s over 60s.
As with Lisbon, I pre-planned my itinerary in order to minimise the chances of wasting time arriving somewhere that’s not yet opened up for the day or unnecessarily backtracking across town. Both times I’ve been fully prepared to ditch things as the day goes on, but was once again surprised by how much I ended up doing. I’ll admit, Amsterdam has never been one of my favourite cities, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could find a city I love within a tourist city I really don’t. A bit of extra research this time uncovered parts of Amsterdam that were a whole lot more rewarding than the Red Light District, tacky souvenir shops and mainstream museums I might otherwise have felt obliged to visit.
I also made good use of the Travel Telegraph’s app, and grew increasingly fond of its “favourites” capability and very functional zoomable map – particularly helpful as my paper map began to disintegrate in the drizzle. Because of the shorter flight time and the exceptionally quick train connection, having a later outbound flight and earlier inbound flight wasn’t an issue, though I could quite happily have holed up in De Engelse Reet and made a night of it. Next time that’s where you’ll find me, though perhaps I’ll get Tuen Van Veen to serve me up a couple of hard boiled eggs to soak up the Heineken.
Updated September 2020
Iceland’s fortunes are looking up. Years have passed since the volcanic eruption that resulted in flight chaos throughout the northern hemisphere. Post-economic crash and coping admirably with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, Iceland is fully open for business. Prices are stable and right now you can have a good value holiday. At present there’s a mandatory five day quarantine for all arriving travellers but choose your accommodation carefully and it could be the perfect base to relax, unwind and perhaps even see the Northern Lights before you continue on with your trip.
How to get there from the UK
Flights with Icelandair, the national carrier, depart from London Heathrow to Keflavik (KEF) the airport nearest to the Icelandic capital Reykjavik. Budget airlines also serve Keflavik. easyJet offer a good service from London Luton and may return to offering flights from London Gatwick as it did before. A non-stop flight takes a little over 3 hours from London. It has also been possible to use Reykjavik as a stopover destination on your way to North America, making it possible to combine an Icelandic break with a trip to New York, for example, though such routings aren’t currently an option.
Getting from Keflavik airport into the city centre
The simplest and cheapest way to get to Reykjavik is to use the FlyBus. This bus will take you from the airport to either the bus station or to some hotels. To find out whether yours is served, there’s a list on the FlyBus website – check Google maps if yours isn’t listed to identify which listed hotel is closest. Single fares to the bus station are 3499 ISK (about £19) and to your hotel 4599 ISK (about £25). The journey takes 45 minutes, there’s free Wi-Fi on board and tickets are flexible, so if your plane is late, you just take the next available bus. Departures are a little less frequent than usual due to the pandemic but the good news is that the service isn’t categorised as a public bus so it is permissable to use it if you are on your way to your quarantine accommodation.
If you are travelling as a larger group or further afield, you may prefer to hire a car. It is within the quarantine guidelines to travel a longer distance the day you arrive in order to reach the accommodation where you’ll serve out your five days. The easiest way to do this is to book with one of several car hire companies based at the airport. I’ve used Thrifty a couple of times now. They’re not the cheapest but the cars are reasonably new and the rates are competitive. Note that you’ll need special insurance if you plan to drive off road or on some of the interior’s gravel roads (the latter are closed during the winter anyway). It’s also advisable to take out an insurance policy that covers you for damage caused by sand or gravel. You might plan to drive carefully but there’s nothing you can do to mitigate against those travelling at speed who pass you from the opposite direction.
If you’ve chosen not to hire a car, it is possible to use public buses to travel between some parts of the country. Check schedules carefully as it can be a long wait between buses. Consult this useful map of the main long distance routes in Iceland to see at a glance whether the places you plan to visit are connected or not. Alternatively, use a company such as Reykjavik Excursions which can offer day or multi-day tours.
The Icelandic capital is charming and a good base for the first time visitor. Pay a visit to the unusual Hallgrímskirkja church; it’s only 1000 ISK to go up it and take in the views of the city. Also great for the views though a little out of the centre is Perlan; it features an excellent Áróra Northern Lights planetarium show. The area around Tjörnin lake is worth a stroll if the weather’s good; it’s not far from the main drag and is popular with joggers. Down by the harbour there’s a cool structure known as Sun Voyager or ‘Sólfar’ which is worth making the effort to visit; walk past Harpa, the city’s concert hall and along to the Old Harbour for a pleasant walk. In the opposite direction, you’ll come to Höfði House where Reagan and Gorbachev met in 1986 to begin the process of ending the Cold War.
Must-see attractions beyond the capital
The Blue Lagoon is a world-renowned spa consisting of a large pool fed by geothermally-heated water. It’s possible to book massages and other treatments; even if you just want a dip you’ll need to pre-book (evening slots are cheapest). There’s also a bar if you’d like a drink whilst relaxing in the warm water. Pots of white silica-rich mud are yours to try out – spread it on your face and body for an enriching treatment. Tip: in cold weather, turn left on your way out and enter the pool indoors before swimming out – it’s warmer than making a run for it from the main door. It’s possible to visit the Blue Lagoon on your way to or from Keflavik airport and lockers large enough to take a suitcase are available. The Blue Lagoon is the main attraction on the Reykjanes peninsula where the North American and European plates meet. With your own transport you can stand on Leif the Lucky’s bridge that straddles the two – but be warned, it’s one of the windiest places in the country.
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle comprises three of Iceland’s most awe-inspiring attractions: Gullfoss waterfall, Haukadalur and Þingvellir, the site of the original Icelandic parliament. One of Iceland’s many dramatic waterfalls, Gullfoss is the spot where the Hvítá river rushes south and plunges into a chasm where the water explodes into a maelstrom of white water and eroded rock. At nearby Haukadalur, the original geyser, Geysir, has long since given up erupting, but the plume of water that spurts from nearby Strokkur is impressive and conveniently frequent. The Alþingi, or parliament, met at Þingvellir from 930 to 1798 and thus the site is important culturally and historically in addition to its stunning physical characteristics. The three sites are usually combined into a morning or afternoon tour departing from Reykjavik, but it is worth spending more time at each than the tour allows.
The Snæfellsnes peninsula
The Snæfellsnes peninsula is ignored by many but is a worthwhile day out. It’s a remote peninsula with a dramatic coastline perfect for a scenic drive. Its expanses of countryside are punctuated by small fishing villages including the charming Olafsvik. The Hollywood film “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was filmed here, focusing on the village of Stykkishólmur whose centre is crammed with historic buildings. Another highlight is the Shark Museum at Bjarnarhöfn. There you can find out how the Icelandic delicacy of hákarl is created and, if you’re brave enough, try a cube of this dried rotted shark flesh for yourself. It’s a bargain at 1200 ISK per person.
The south coast
Take the southern ring road towards Vik and you will come across two impressive waterfalls. Skógafoss waterfall has an impressive 60 metre drop, but for sheer drama, my choice is the beautiful Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Climb up the wooden staircase to the right of the falls as you face them and the path takes you behind the curtain of water. You will get wet but it’s a lot of fun. In Skaftafell, don’t miss the glorious sight of Svartifoss, an impressive waterfall flanked by basalt columns. To ride nearby, see my post about Glacier Horses. On a secluded ash-grey beach (once accessible by 4×4 but now accessed only on foot) is the wreck of a plane. Near Vik, the DC3 crashed back in 1973 with no loss of life, and the plane has been there, abandoned, ever since. It’s worth the five mile round trip walk over the volcanic sand to see this curious and fascinating wreck but allow plenty of time to return before sunset.
Situated on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park, itself a fun destination if you’d like to try out snowmobiling on Europe’s largest glacier, Jökulsárlón is a large glacial lake in the south west of Iceland. As the Breiðamerkurjökull calves into the lake, icebergs travel the short distance to the Atlantic Ocean where they bob about on the waves, washed on and off the beach until they finally melt. It’s a magical place; though both the beach and the lagoon itself can get crowded. In summer, it’s possible to take a tour on an amphibious vehicle on the lake amidst the icebergs, but you’ll get closer to the glacier if you pay a little more for the Zodiac tour. Just west is the sometimes overlooked Fjallsárlón. It too has icebergs and boat trips though it’s not quite as impressive as its more famous neighbour.
East Iceland receives far fewer visitors than the popular south, but there are some breathtaking sights there too. A couple of the coastal villages stand out. You might recognise Seyðisfjörður for the rainbow path leading to its pretty church; it’s accessed by a tarmac road as this is also the place to jump on a ferry to Denmark or the Faroe Islands. In contrast the road to Borgarfjörður eystri, another of the area’s spectacular fjords, winds up and over a mountain pass. For an off the beaten track retreat, the Blabjorg Guesthouse with its open air hot tubs overlooking the water is a great choice. The east’s most unmissable sight is a relative newcomer: until a nearby hydro-electric plant was built which held back the water, the breathtaking Stuðlagil Canyon was hidden to the world.
The Diamond Circle
North Iceland’s answer to the well-established Golden Circle launched officially as a marketing concept in September 2020 but travellers have been drawn to its attractions for much longer. Base yourself in the delightful port town of Húsavík, where you can visit the excellent whale museum (2000 ISK) and then head out into Skjálfandi bay to see if you can spot them for yourself with a company such as North Sailing. They offer tours for a reasonable 10690 ISK with a 98% chance of a sighting. The other four stops on the Diamond Circle are Goðafoss waterfall, Mývatn (Midge Lake – in summer it lives up to its name!), Ásbyrgi canyon and last but not least Dettifoss waterfall, the largest in Europe. This part of Iceland is geothermal; take advantage of that naturally occurring hot water with a dip at GeoSea in Húsavík or the Mývatn Nature Baths. Both require pre-booking.
The north west
The north west of Iceland and in particular the remote Westfjords are often missed by visitors. From Akureyri, Iceland’s second city, the road east is relatively quiet. The old turf buildings at Glaumbær are interesting to explore and well priced at 1700 ISK. Make a detour to visit the Icelandic Seal Center in Hvammstangi (admission 1100 ISK, closed during the winter) and then head north to see if you can spot seals at Illugastaðir or Hvítserkur – the latter is also worth a stop for its magnificent sea stack. Ísafjörður is the capital of the sparsely populated Westfjords and even has its own brewery but to feel like you’ve reached the end of the world try Patreksfjörður, a fish processing settlement within easy reach of the attractive Rauðasandur – a distinctive red sand beach – and the Látrabjarg bird cliffs. It’s also handy for the ferry to Stykkishólmur in Snæfellsnes.
It’s possible to loop the ring road in about a week but you’ll be pleased that you allowed more time, at least ten days and two weeks if you can manage. Roads outside the mountainous interior still vary a lot; the ring road is tarmacked and aside from the occasional blind hill and many one-lane bridges, you’ll have no issues at all in fine weather. Keep abreast of local weather conditions online and don’t underestimate the impact of wind speeds. Another invaluable website is that showing road surfaces; gravel roads are generally simple to drive unless they are very steep, though you’ll appreciate the extra grip of a 4×4. The interior shuts in the autumn and doesn’t reopen until late spring; most of its F roads require a high clearance 4×4.
There’s so much to see in the Big Apple so making sense of it all as a first time visitor can be daunting. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Use the subway
Getting around in New York’s traffic can be hell so why waste your precious time sitting in traffic? Instead take the subway. A one week MetroCard costs $30 plus a $1 fee to buy the card. Tip: save your card and take it with you on your next holiday – the card is reusable. Standard fare per journey is $2.75 so you don’t have to use it much over a week to get your money’s worth. Check out the MTA tourist’s guide here: http://web.mta.info/metrocard/tourism/index.html.
Both JFK and Newark airports, serving UK carriers, are located out of Manhattan – JFK is out in Queens and Newark is over in New Jersey. Both take a similar amount of time to reach. If you are offered a coach or shuttle connection to the airport as part of a package, think carefully as to whether to take it – journey times are often double that of the subway or Long Island Rail Road, especially at rush hour. Note that if you take the subway or LIRR to JFK you’ll need to connect to the AirTrain which requires an extra ticket (a $5 fare). In the city, look to see whether you can take an express train; for longer journeys (e.g. Upper West Side to Battery Park) these can be considerably quicker. But at busy periods, you might have a better chance of getting a seat (or even getting on!) if you take the local. Print off a map from http://web.mta.info/maps/submap.html or download a free app so that you can ensure you don’t go whizzing past your stop.
See NYC’s museums and attractions free of charge
Time your visit right and you could save a ton of money. Many of New York’s premier attractions offer free entry at particular times of the week, so before you consider buying a tourist pass, work out which attractions you want to visit and when you can see them for nothing. For example, up in the Bronx, the Zoo offers free entry on a Wednesday, though some exhibits charge an additional fee, such as the excellent Congo Gorilla Forest.
The nearby Botanical Gardens offers free entry on the same day, so combining the two makes sense. The city’s top museums are also free some of the time – try the 9/11 Memorial and Museum on Tuesdays after 5pm (reservations recommended) and the Museum of Modern Art between 4 and 8pm every Friday. For a fuller list, check out http://www.nycgo.com/articles/free-nyc-museums and double check things haven’t changed just prior to your visit.
Go local and eat at a food cart
Some of the best food in New York can be found at the city’s food trucks. Famous burger chain Shake Shack started from a cart in Madison Square Park back in 2000.
No matter what your favourite type of food, there’s a truck to suit. Try Calexico, a Cal-Mex eatery with a range of restaurant locations and carts scattered across lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, including the Flat Iron and SoHo. Schnitzel and Things brings an American twist to German food and again shifts from place to place; follow them at http://www.schnitzelandthings.com/ to find out whether they’ll be near you. If you’d rather try something from the US, then I have a couple of recommendations. Shorty’s on Wheels is the mobile offering from Philly cheesesteak provider Shorty’s – check out its website http://www.shortysnyc.com/truck-schedule.php for the week’s locations as the vehicle moves on a daily basis. Luke’s Lobster have a number of restaurants scattered across the city bringing a taste of New England (think clam chowder, crab and lobster rolls) but they go mobile via the Nauti Mobile. Find them here: http://lukeslobster.com/nauti and check out their scrumptious menu.
Get off Manhattan
There’s so much to do and see that it is tempting to limit yourself to Manhattan, but that would be a pity. On a summer’s weekend, there are few places better than Governor’s Island. Take the ferry from southern Manhattan, rent a bicycle and enjoy fabulous views of the New York skyline from two wheels without having to worry about traffic. Over in Brooklyn, the neighbourhood of Williamsburg contains a clutch of great shops (and eateries) centred on Bedford Avenue including the Goorin Bros. hat shop, the Bedford Cheese Shop and the delightful Red Pearl, a boutique selling clothes, jewellery and gifts: http://shop.redpearlbrooklyn.com/. If you have enough time to venture further afield, take a Metro North train out of Grand Central and visit the quaint town of Rye or, a little further on, Old Greenwich, one of Connecticut’s prettiest little towns and home to the Sweet Pea’s Baking Company: http://sweetpeasct.com/.
Begin at Canal Street. Head along Canal and into Chinatown. My favourite parts are around Mott and Mulberry but the whole area is interesting just to see how different it is from other nearby areas. I can never suppress a snigger when I pass Mei Dick barbers. Vietnamese businesses are slowly colonising parts of Chinatown and of course it has Starbucks et al, but it remains a very Chinese neighbourhood. It’s also a great place to pick up a bargain I ♥ NY T-shirt or Hoodie. Haggle hard!
Next, take the J or Z subway (brown) to Essex and Delancey. Head across the street to Orchard Street and visit the Lower East Side Tenement museum. By European standards this isn’t old, but it is for Manhattan and the room sets give a clear picture of what life would have been like for garment workers in this district back in the 19th Century. Architecturally it’s very interesting inside too as some of the rooms are in their original condition complete with years of peeling wallpaper. You can book in advance at www.tenement.org and there are various tours you can book onto which give you a themed talk into an aspect of tenement life that appeals. It really does bring history to life and helps you understand the context of the buildings.
Cross the street and head for 205 East Houston Street, in particular Katz’s deli. This old Jewish deli has been there for years; it’s a New York institution. The food is amazing; the setting is humble. I can recommend the pastrami on rye and you should also taste the knish. Wash it down with an egg cream. This was the setting for the famous fake orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally but as you’ll see from the many pictures that adorn the walls, this is a favourite of many celebrities and politicians as well as the NYPD and FDNY.
Two of my favourite squares are a short walk from each other. Take the subway to Union Square which has a thriving farmers’ market every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. It began in 1976 with a few farmers and the number of stallholders has grown steadily to around 140 today. North of Union Square at 23rd Street is Madison Square Park, alongside which you’ll find the triangular Flat Iron Building which dates from 1902.
North via the subway again at 42nd Street is what’s been termed the greatest railway terminal in the world: Grand Central station. It certainly outshines Liverpool Street at rush hour. This building is spectacular on a sunny day when the light shafts in through the windows, rivalling nature’s crepuscular rays. Walk across 42nd Street and pass the Chrysler Building. You can’t go up, but the building is worth a look nevertheless.
Keep heading towards the river for a look at the United Nations Building (44th Street and 1st Avenue). You can book guided tours which are interesting, with the disarmament exhibits particularly poignant. It is necessary to pre-book tickets at http://visit.un.org/wcm/content/site/visitors/home/plan and as with the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State you do have security screening for which you need to allow time.
At 59th Street and Lexington, you’ll find Bloomingdales. Buy a Little Brown Bag and walk a block up to 60th Street. Serendipity 3 is a cute cafe featuring as its signature drink frozen hot chocolate, located at 225 East 60th Street. From there, head for the Roosevelt Island tramway. There isn’t a lot to see on Roosevelt Island itself but this tiny cable car is worth a ride in itself for the view back to Manhattan. Metro cards are accepted. Website http://rioc.ny.gov/tramtransportation.htm has the schedule.
Museum Mile is an integral part of the Upper East Side and my two favourites are both alongside Central Park. The Guggenheim is an amazing building for its architecture, all white curves of loveliness. Frank Lloyd Wright designed this building; if I’m honest, it fascinates me more than the exhibits inside but this is a must-see on your itinerary. Find out about the current exhibits at http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york. Up at 103rd Street is the Museum of the City of New York. Overlooked by many visitors, it tells the story of New York’s growth over time via a must-see film. Exhibits change, but will stay in your mind. A permanent fixture is the Activist New York display, featuring campaigns that range from anti-slavery to the suffragette movement, artefacts such as the Gay Bob doll and changing attitudes to the preservation of historic buildings. While you’re up here, it’s worth crossing the road into Central Park to see its only formal space, the Conservatory Garden, and Harlem Meer.
For dinner, head into Spanish Harlem. A block north of Tito Puente Way, a street named in honour of the outstanding Latino musician though I couldn’t find a plaque, I dined at Amor Cubano. It’s Cuban, obviously, though much around it is Puerto Rican. The food is delicious, the welcome familial and the atmosphere enhanced by live music. Camaradas el Barrio, a couple of blocks away, offers the best Puerto Rican food in the area and again has live music most evenings. But if you want to follow in the footsteps of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Tony Bennett, then there’s only one place to go. Patsy’s Pizzeria has been a favourite since it first opened its First Avenue doors back in 1933.
Part 2 of my guide to the Big Apple covers Manhattan’s west side from Washington Square to Central Park.
This route begins in Washington Square, where Harry left Sally after their road trip from Chicago. This landmark square has also featured in the Will Smith film I am Legend and is worth a visit for a picture of the arch. Head north along West 4th Street, through the attractive residential area of Greenwich Village. Turn left into Grove Street and a couple of blocks further on you’ll come to the building that featured as the apartment building in the hit TV show Friends. Backtrack a block and head north along Bleecker Street. There are plenty of boutiques and cafes, but the one that may well have a queue outside is the original branch of the Magnolia Bakery, whose melt-in-the-mouth cupcakes featured in the HBO show Sex and the City.
One of my favourite things about New York is its capacity for change so today I’d recommend you then have a wander in what was once the heart of New York’s butchery area. Today the Meatpackers’ District is home to cute cafes and designer clothes stores, where warehouses have been turned into cutting edge businesses.
To get to the heart of the Meatpackers District, continue north along Hudson Street and right into Gansevoort Street. In the area bounded by Gansevoort and West 14th Street, you’ll pass enough boutiques and outlets to get a feel for the area. Turn down Washington Street and at the corner with West 13th Street is the Hogs and Heifers bar from the film Coyote Ugly. One block south is the start of the High Line, a fantastic community-driven renovation that showcases the architecture of the area whilst turning an overground railway into a recreational facility for locals and tourists alike. It’s heaving in the summer but in the winter, pick a clear day and you’ll be able to wander in peace and really appreciate your surroundings. Wrap up warm against the wind though – when a cold wind blows across the Hudson, it bites into your face like a swarm of angry mosquitoes. One of the architectural highlights is The Standard Hotel which straddles the High Line. Nip down for a Fat Witch brownie from the Fat Witch Bakery in Chelsea Market at 9th Avenue. Go online to www.fatwitch.com to see what might tempt you.
Back on the High Line, continue north; the park narrows and widens, offering vistas over art installations and views across to skyline landmarks like the Empire State. There are plenty of cosy nooks and crannies to snuggle up and you’ll have some of these pretty much to yourself in winter.
Follow the High Line right up to 30th Street and then head east past the Post Office (don’t stand too close to the building or you might get an unwelcome souvenir from the pigeons). It’s a fair walk across so you might wish to hail a yellow cab, but the walk will take you to 6th Avenue. Make a left and walk three (shorter) blocks to Herald Square at the back of Macys – the largest department store in the world, allegedly. Plenty of cafes and food outlets are located in this area as this is the heart of Midtown.
Just a block over, on 5th Avenue, is the Empire State Building. You may wish to reserve in advance as it can be pretty busy; go online at www.esbnyc.com. This Art Deco structure is one of the world’s most iconic buildings and definitely worth a visit. Don’t let them upsell you to the Skyride – it’s not worth the time or the money. The views from the 86th floor on a clear day are excellent, but the wind can be strong on at least one side of the viewing platform. Prepare yourself with a photogenic hat or plenty of hairspray.
North along 5th Avenue takes you to Bryant Park, where there’s a good Christmas market and, when the weather’s warm, al fresco eateries. Cut back west to Times Square and note the location. It’s tourist central, of course, emblazoned with neon and awash with comic book characters just dying to pose for a photo. If you like what you see, come back after dark. From Times Square, head for the subway and take the red line to 72nd Street (it’s an express stop, so the 1, 2 and 3 are all fine). If you’re hungry, try a hot dog from Gray’s Papaya and walk a couple of blocks over to the park.
Central Park is a must and from the west, you’ll follow a trail of pampered pooches heading into the park. If you have your own back home, pick up a canine-friendly gift from the New York Dog Shop on 73rd Street – purple squeaky Empire State toy, anyone? Enter the park at the 72nd Street Traverse and look for the memorial to John Lennon, the legendary musician shot on December 8th 1980 outside the Dakota Building which stands across the street. The Imagine mosaic forms part of a tribute area known as Strawberry Fields, funded by a $1 million donation from John’s widow Yoko Ono. Continue through the park. In summer, you might rent a boat from the Loeb Boathouse; in winter, perhaps try your luck at ice-skating on the Wollman rink.
The days of one Central Park attraction might be numbered, however. Despite Mayor de Blasio’s intention to ban them, at the time of writing it is still possible to take a horse and carriage ride through the park; they congregate along 59th Street at the southern edge of the park. They’ve been a part of the Park since the day it opened back in 1858 and Hollywood stars such as Liam Neeson and Danny Glover have made no secret of their opposition to the Mayor’s plans, along with an estimated 67% of New Yorkers. Find out more about the issue at www.savenychorsecarriages.com.
When you’re done, make your way back to see the lights of Times Square. You may wish to eat at Ellen’s Stardust Diner. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but those that love it enjoy the singing wait staff and its 1950s retro diner decor. You’ll find it at Broadway and 51st, or if you can’t see it, listen out for a song. To round off the evening, pay a visit to the observatory platform at the Top of the Rock. This offers unrivalled views of Manhattan for one reason – your view will include the Empire State Building. Depending on the season, this after-dinner slot may coincide with sunset, and it’s certainly an impressive vista after dark, although you may not wish to ascend this and the ESB in the same trip, especially if your time is limited. Pre-book your ticket at http://www.topoftherocknyc.com to avoid having to wait in line.
Here’s my guide for the first-time visitor to Lower Manhattan.
Begin at the southern tip of Manhattan, on the reclaimed land known as Battery Park City. Walk across Battery Park until you see Castle Clinton (the large circular fort) and get tickets for the Statue of Liberty – I’d advise an early start as the queues can be long, even out of season. Take the Circle Line cruise, get off at Liberty Island and have a close-up shot with the Statue. You can go up inside the crown but you need to pre-book tickets which have limited availability. When I last visited, the exhibition inside explained the technology behind creating the structure. Book tickets ahead of time at www.statuecruises.com
The second stop on the Circle Line cruise is Ellis Island. Temporarily closed after damage sustained by Storm Sandy’s flooding, it has now reopened. This fascinating museum tells the story of immigration to the USA, focused on the migrants that came through Ellis Island. You can imagine how scared some of them would have been as they stood in the hall with its huge arched windows. Some of the pictures are haunting and it’s definitely worth hiring an audio guide to hear the stories. Allow at least a couple of hours to absorb the information – more if you’re a history buff or genealogy fan.
If you’re not bothered about seeing Lady Liberty close up, you can take the Staten Island ferry from right next to the South Ferry subway building. It’s free and runs every 15 to 30 minutes. You get the same amazing view of southern Manhattan and Battery Park from the back of the ferry without having to pay, or queue. The platform at the rear of the ferry is small, so wait by it when you board to be sure of a good spot on the left as you look back to Manhattan and across to the Statue of Liberty.
On your return to Battery Park, walk across the park to the Skyscraper Museum, tucked away opposite the Museum of Jewish Heritage on its western side. Lots of people don’t know about this place but it has some interesting exhibits of skyscrapers within Manhattan and a main exhibit that changes regularly. Check for current exhibit details at www.skyscraper.org
Head over to Bowling Green subway (green line) back towards the South Ferry station – you’ll see a sculpture crafted from 9/11 debris. Walk north up Broadway and you’ll soon come across the Charging Bull sculpture the centre of the street – worth a brief photo and you sometimes get street performers or musicians hanging out here.
Carry on up the street until you get to Wall Street and take the obligatory pictures of the New York Stock Exchange and opposite, Federal Hall. You get a cool view standing next to the statue of George Washington and looking out over the street. Now head north towards Fulton Street and turn down the street heading for South Street Seaport. It’s worth noting that there’s a TKTS booth here which often has shorter queues than its better known counterpart in Times Square. The old fish market has closed and relocated to the Bronx. The seaport buildings were hit badly by Storm Sandy in 2012 but renovations have been extensive. Pier 17 has reopened and there are a range of pleasant eateries in and around this area which makes a good spot for a lazy lunch. If you want something quick and on the run, I love Ruben’s Empanadas – a little taste of Latin America right on Fulton Street.
Stroll off lunch with a walk along the East River boardwalk until you are just short of the Brooklyn Bridge – it makes for a good view. You may wish to head up onto the bridge itself – you need to walk at least halfway across to you get a true feel for the bridge’s amazing architectural quality. Alternative views can be had by taking a yellow water taxi across to Brooklyn and view Manhattan’s skyscrapers from the east. Note that water taxi fares in summer are cheaper because in winter you have to buy a day pass.
Backtrack along Fulton Street and head for the tiny church of St Paul’s Chapel at 209 Broadway. You’ll find the 9/11 Chapel of Remembrance here and if you walk around the back, you find the Liberty Bell in the churchyard. Take the road to the right of the church and cut across to the junction of Liberty and West Streets for the entrance to the 9/11 memorial. There’s no need to pre-book tickets anymore now that the museum is open – all the security checks now take place inside the museum, which is worth a visit. You can also ascend New York’s tallest building, the Freedom Tower. Your final stop just a few steps up from the memorial site at 233 Broadway is the Woolworth Building; built in 1913 and once the tallest building in the world.
My choice of dining in Lower Manhattan is at Fraunces Tavern, located at 54 Pearl Street. Hop on the subway and travel a few stops to go back in time – this is the place where George Washington bade his farewells to his officers back in 1783. Fittingly, there is now a museum of American Revolutionary War history in the building. The bar has an extensive menu of over 130 craft beers and ciders, hosts live music at weekends and the food is good too.
I’m pleased to announce that my latest Kindle guide is now available to download. It’s a five day itinerary covering the best of Cusco and the Sacred Valley and you can purchase it now on Unanchor’s website here:
It is also available on Amazon here:
There’s a free sample on Amazon, so why not download it and perhaps write a review?
Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, is Peru’s top visitor destination. Around two million foreign visitors travel to this part of South America annually, with numbers steadily growing year on year. Aside from nearby Machu Picchu, the jewel in Peru’s tourist crown by some considerable margin, there are enough historic and cultural attractions in the Cusco area to keep visitors occupied for weeks.
Cusco, with its colonial architecture set around characterful squares, warrants a whole trip in itself. The historic city is centred on the bustling Plaza de Armas. The imposing cathedral and its tiny neighbour, the Iglesia del Triunfo, face off against the Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, built by the Jesuits to rival their Catholic counterpart. The most important temple of the Inca Empire, Koricancha, occupies a prime location on Avenida El Sol, just a short walk from the plaza. Neighbourhoods such as San Blas, with steep cobbled streets packed with cafes, bars and galleries, have much to delight tourists. Higher still, exploring the Inca fortress of Sacsayhuaman, with its enormous blocks of stone and impressive Inca engineering, is a must on every visitor’s itinerary.
But that’s not all. Cusco is a short drive away from the Sacred Valley, crammed full of Inca archaeological sites amidst stunning highland scenery. The agricultural terraces and storehouses of Ollantaytambo offer a fascinating glimpse into the everyday life of the Incas. The valley is settled and farmed to this day and the bustling markets at Pisac and Chinchero draw thousands seeking the perfect souvenir to take home.
Therein lies the problem: there’s so much to see that careful planning is essential. Knowing what to leave out and what not to miss is crucial to making the best of your time here. Lesser known attractions such as the circular terraces of the Inca’s agricultural laboratory at Moray or the incredible salt pans, the Salineras de Maras, are often overlooked as the tour buses hurtle past on their way to the big attractions.
That’s where this guide comes in. I’ve visited Cusco and the Sacred Valley on numerous occasions spanning a period of twenty years, most recently in 2014. This tailor-made itinerary explains how to dodge the crowds and see the best of the area without relying on expensive tours. It offers recommendations for accommodation options to suit all tastes and budgets as well as detailing the best places to eat. Day by day plans with clear maps and photographs make navigating on foot and by public transport simple, giving you the confidence to step out on your own.
“You walked from the subway? Did you come with a SWAT team?”
Jack was trying to be funny, I think, playing on the reputation of the South Bronx as dangerous. I was in his shop, DeCicco Brothers, on Arthur Avenue, where in true Italian style I had been embraced and welcomed as part of the family within about fifteen minutes of rocking up. There was no mistaking he was proud of his Italian heritage: the shop was packed with the distinctive blue of the national team’s football kit and piles of T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “I’m Italian, I can’t keep calm”. Low rise and lined with trees, this characterful street at the heart of Little Italy had more in common with leafy Greenwich Village than a gang-infested no-go zone.
The Bronx has had a hard time shaking off its bad boy reputation. “The Bronx is burning” was a phrase coined in 1977 by the media (rather than sports commentator Howard Cosell to whom the phrased is wrongly credited). It referred to the many fires that burned that summer when ageing housing stock combined with closures of firehouses had horrific consequences. The closure in 1973 of the 3rd Avenue El, New York City’s last elevated railway, and the completion of urban planner Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway a year earlier, had fractured a community. The social and economic problems that were to follow resulted in a reputation that’s been difficult to shift.
New York has a long history of Italian immigration. Between the 1870s and the 1920s, around 5 million Italians, the majority from the Mezzogiorno, came to the USA and around a third never made it any further than New York’s five boroughs. Little Italy in Manhattan, now a shadow of its former self, retains a smattering of restaurants that fool only the most gullible of tourists into thinking they are in a genuine Italian-American neighbourhood. In truth, the Italians have long since moved away and the area is gradually being assimilated into Chinatown. According to some reports, the 2010 census doesn’t record a single Italian-born individual living in this part of the city.
Little Italy in the Bronx, in contrast, is thriving, a tiny oasis of cor-fee and mozzarella and prosciutto packed into a few streets of the Belmont district. At Tino’s Delicatessen I sipped a cinnamon-scented cappuccino in the company of four elderly gentlemen, their faces lined and puffy from years of pasta and hard living. Despite the warm November sunshine, they were heavily wrapped up against the elements. Pausing occasionally to apologise for the profanities which escaped their lips, they put the world to rights as they probably did every morning. I’m not sure what they made of me, an outsider.
A few doors further down Arthur Avenue, Jack DeCicco’s father Tony wandered in off the street and was keen to share his story. Together with his wife, he had arrived from Napoli in 1969 and had been in Little Italy ever since. He was immensely proud of his neighbourhood and took me to some of his favourite haunts: the Casa Della Mozzarella around the block on 187th Street, described by one Brooklynite as “oral dairy porn” and Vincent’s Meat Market, where row upon row of sausage and salami hang like chandeliers from the ceiling. The area is a foodie’s paradise, where everything from salt cod to handmade ravioli can be bought today just as it has been for decades.
In a city that likes to reinvent itself and in a borough where so much was destroyed, there’s something comforting about the number of businesses that were founded at turn of the last century rather than the current one. Go and see for yourself – no SWAT team required.
Today is the last day of Dia de Muertos, the Mexican festival that commemorates the ancestors. The festivities stretch across three days, though the preparations begin in earnest in the last week of October. The Day of the Dead officially begins on October 31st. On November 1st, the souls of departed children are remembered and on the 2nd, it’s the turn of adult family members.
Here’s my guide to getting the best out of a Day of the Dead trip.
Choose where to go
Dia de Muertos is celebrated everywhere in Mexico, but some places have a wider range of events in which to participate than others. I’d recommend heading for Oaxaca, a day’s bus ride or a one hour flight out of Mexico City. The city plays host to a packed programme of things to experience and also has a lot of accommodation options.
Plan well ahead
It’s possible to get a room pretty much up to the last minute and of course, wandering down to the parades takes no planning at all. There are a lot of organised packages to experience Day of the Dead but these tend to be very expensive. Book early to stay somewhere intimate that will offer you the opportunity to participate rather than spectate: I chose Las Bugambilias right in the centre of town. They can be found online at http://lasbugambilias.com/ This wonderful boutique hotel books up fast but don’t worry if you are too late to get a room – they’ll let you participate in their Day of the Dead activities if you email them in advance.
Decorate the altar
Preparations for Day of the Dead begin a few days ahead of the main festival. Each family decorates an altar in the hope of attracting their ancestors back to earth for a party. Garlands of marigolds are strung, crosses of flowers are painstakingly created and decorative bunting is hung. On the altar, gifts are laid out for the deceased: their favourite fruits, perhaps, and definitely a bottle or toast of Mezcal.
Visit the cemetery
Cemetery visits are an integral part of the Dia de Muertos experience. If that sounds a little morbid, or maudlin, don’t be alarmed. While some locals will be sat next to the graves of their ancestors in quiet reflection, others will be hosting the mother of all parties, with music, eating and drinking all playing a big part. Tourists are welcome, so take your cue and join in if you’re asked. On October 31st, head for Xoxocotlan old cemetery first, where stems of red gladioli and vases of pungent marigolds are lit up by white church candles before heading to the sound stage and buzz of the new cemetery next door where the party will be in full swing.
The after party
Comparsas, or parades, are at times raucous and always entertaining. Participants clad themselves in wildly extravagant costumes and parade through the streets of Oaxaca and neighbouring villages such as San Agustin Etla. Some are dressed as the grim reaper, others panteoneros. These are the living dead – missing eyes or wearing terrible wounds, they are a scary sight as they mingle with the crowd afterwards. The parade becomes a party as everyone drinks and dances into the small hours. It’s worth going on an organised tour if you choose the November 1st San Agustin Etla parade as arranging transport back to Oaxaca can be tricky.
Don’t rush off
Allow at least another few days to get to know Oaxaca. As well as the many souvenir shops and markets selling Dia de Muertos themed sweets – think candy skulls and lollipops – the city has a beautiful historic core packed with pretty colonial era buildings and interesting museums. It’s also a foodie’s dream: try exotic dishes like deep fried grasshoppers or delicate courgette flowers or hang out in one of the many cafes watching the world go by.
I thought I’d experiment. Since launching in March of this year, BA have been pushing Day Tripper fares out of Heathrow to destinations such as Munich, Vienna and Rome. The initiative has proved so popular that they have rolled out more destinations including Lisbon, Stockholm and Barcelona. The fares are only available on Saturdays and Sundays but are a reasonably priced way of getting a change of scenery if you’re out of holiday or your budget won’t stretch to a hotel as well. It got me thinking about where I could go and what I’d have time to do, and then of course, could I beat BA in terms of price and hours spent? I could, and settled on a return fare with easyJet from Luton to Lisbon.
I flew from Luton on the 6.40am flight scheduled to arrive in Lisbon at 9.30am. The flight was delayed by about forty minutes due to fog in Lisbon, still beating the 7.40am BA flight which was scheduled for a 10.15am arrival. No baggage made for a very quick transit through Lisbon’s airport and a direct connection to the city centre by metro meant I was in the city for mid-morning coffee. My return flight was due to leave at 9.00pm meaning I left the city centre at around 7.30pm. This again compared favourably to BA’s schedule where the last flight out departs at 6.50pm. Having said that, a half-hour delay from Lisbon (no reason given) meant that we didn’t touch down at Luton until almost midnight, making it a very long day.
What is there to see?
Having been to Lisbon before, I was able to take in the sights of Sintra instead, a forty minute train journey from Lisbon’s Rossio station. There are plenty of tours available but as the return train fare is just over four euros it seemed a better option. In Sintra, the sights are spread out up a very steep hill, but the local bus 434 offers a round trip hop-on hop-off fare for five euros. I enjoyed wandering the streets of Sintra’s historic town centre, in particular looking at the peculiar bulging chimneys of the fifteenth century National Palace and the ornate interior of St Martin’s Church. There are enough beautiful buildings to forgive it the tourist tat shops and there are plenty of places to eat a tasty lunch.
The bus then chugged up to the Moorish Castle, its driver becoming increasingly exasperated by the inconsiderate parking shown by many visitors and local residents. At one point the bus got wedged between a house and the stone wall opposite on a particularly tight turn, but a local dog walker came to the rescue and helped him make the most of every inch of the road. After the castle, I headed up again (thank goodness for the bus) to the Pena Palace. With its odd shapes and eclectic colour scheme, it looks for all the world like it has been transplanted from a Disney theme park. It’s actually a nineteenth century Royal Palace set within the attractive Parque de Pena.
Returning to Lisbon late afternoon, I still had time to ride the Number 28 tram up to the Portas do Sol viewpoint, one of my favourite spots in the city. From its terrace cafes, you have a fantastic view across the Alfama District of terracotta rooftops and pastel-painted homes dotted with fabulous churches overlooking the River Tejo. The tram is an attraction in itself, dating from the 1930s with its distinctive yellow livery and its wooden benches and old levers. Be careful of the pickpockets that ride the tram; warnings are clearly signed on the inside of the trams yet an elderly German man on my tram lost a wallet to them which he’d unwittingly left in his back pocket.
So what’s the verdict?
Obviously, with time so limited, it’s best to choose either Sintra or Lisbon, and if you’ve never been before, I’d say Lisbon. Take a seven minute train ride along to Belem, where you can photograph the Monument to the Discoveries and visit the Belem Tower.
Next to the park, Jeronimos Monastery is the final resting place of Vasco de Gama, the famous Portuguese explorer. The Pasteis de Belem bakery, dating from 1837, does a roaring trade in the tiny tarts for which Lisbon is well known, but you will have to queue – they sell around 50,000 on a normal day.
Back in the city, hang out in the many squares, such as the Praça do Comércio, rebuilt after the great earthquake of 1755. Wander the lanes of the Alfama and take in the views of St George Castle. Enjoy the view of the River Tejo from the many miradors that dot the city. Built over seven hills, you either need strong leg muscles or a day pass for the trams, elevators and metros which make getting about so much more pleasant under a hot sun. It was 33°C yesterday.
So, I’d say it was definitely worth doing. It was a long day, but Lisbon is a great choice for a Day Tripper city break.
Over the last couple of decades, I’ve lost count of the times people have labelled me ‘brave’ for travelling without the safety net of a group tour or package holiday. For me, travelling independently fits as comfortably as a well-worn slipper. Throwing my lot in with someone else, for me, is stressful and worrisome. Here are my top five reasons for travelling alone:
Don’t get me wrong, I have a blessed life at home, where I love my role of wife, daughter and general slave to my canine offspring. But for a few weeks each year, I get the precious reward of time with myself when I don’t have to compromise. I can do what I want, when I want. The freedom I get from solitude is one of the prizes of travel. The map becomes my play thing, a border ripe for a crossing, an obscure country my next must-see destination. I can cram my days with sightseeing or laze in a hammock and do nothing. I can stay up all night or hit the sack before dinnertime. I can experiment with new foods or eat at the same cafe for the fifth night running. No negotiation, no justification – just pure unadulterated selfishness.
Travelling as a couple or within a group acts like a cocoon from the outside world. Travel alone, and the level of interaction you’re going to get depends on the effort you make to reach out to people. It forces you to form relationships and invest in conversations. Hiring a guide or a driver just for yourself is extravagant but also a window into the soul of the place you’re exploring. But it’s the everyday encounters that can be the most memorable. Sometimes, it will begin with the offer of a sweet from a neighbour on a park bench, a helping hand up a rocky path or a casual conversation on the back seat of a local minibus. Always, it will be rewarding.
No one can talk you out of danger
At home, I’m generally risk averse but that seems to dissolve once I step foot on foreign soil. In some cases, it’s unavoidable. I wouldn’t dream of backing off my driveway at home without fastening my seatbelt, but necessity has forced me to ride beltless for hour after bumpy hour in vehicles that haven’t seen a mechanic in decades. Over the years, I’ve developed a fatalistic outlook on life, rationalising that I could just as easily be killed on the roads at home. Sometimes, the activities I’ve done have involved a calculated risk – walking with lions, hiking to the crater of a very active volcano, overnighting in the murder capital of the world – but the memories I’ve created have been worth it.
It hones your skills
One of the biggest fears people have of travelling solo is what would happen if things were to go wrong. Without a travelling companion, you are forced to rely on yourself for a solution. I’ve only ever missed two flights. Once in Posadas, near the Argentina-Paraguay border, the whole airport was shut by the time I arrived as the airline had omitted to tell me they’d moved the flight forward by five hours. In Bangkok, it was my own fault. I muddled a midnight flight and turned up three hours early only to find I was almost a day late. Both problems had a solution, a very comfortable cama-bus in Argentina and an extremely understanding check-in agent in Thailand. The only time I really thought my problem-solving skills weren’t up to the job was in Ulan Ude in Russia, where they had unhelpfully hidden check-in behind a signless whitewashed wall. I tried miming and pointing at words in my phrase book – all to no avail. Eventually someone slipped through the well concealed door and I figured it out in the nick of time.
I couldn’t do the amount of travelling I’ve done at the prices charged by most tour operators. I can shop around for the best flight deals, find a hotel room which doesn’t penalise the single traveller with a jaw-dropping supplement and can opt out of the parts of itineraries that just don’t interest me. Local transport is invariably cheaper than a seat on a tour bus and I don’t pay entrance fees for attractions that I don’t want to visit. It can occasionally go wrong, of course, but that’s what good insurance is for.
Photos and words: Julia Hammond