My latest blog post for Go4Travel is now live. Check out what I have to say about visiting Tauranga, on New Zealand’s North Island. Here’s the link:
“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.
It’s not long now until my latest Unanchor guide is published. It’s a two-day itinerary for anyone travelling to Arequipa in southern Peru for the first time.
It follows on from my previous guides: to North Norfolk which I’ve recently updated, to Cape Town if you want inspiration for this South African gem and to London’s Villages – walking tours of three of the most fascinating of the capital’s neighbourhoods, Hampstead, Marylebone and Notting Hill.
The Arequipa guide, like the rest, will be available for sale on Unanchor’s website http://www.unanchor.com and through Amazon, http://www.amazon.co.uk and http://www.amazon.com. Watch out for more details coming soon.
This guide is now live. Buy it here at http://www.unanchor.com/itinerary/view/498 – I’d love to hear what you think.
My latest blog for Go4Travel is now live. Find out what happened when I climbed to the crater of Mount Yasur on Vanuatu’s Tanna Island, one of the scariest but most memorable places I’ve ever visited.
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