Regular readers of this blog will perhaps remember how I enjoyed a trip to the Christmas markets in Regensburg, Germany last year. If you’re looking for a German Christmas market destination, then I’d recommend this small city near to Nuremberg as the markets are compact yet very atmospheric, with one located in the grounds of the delightful Thurn und Taxis Palace. I snagged flights with Ryanair for less than a fiver, making it viable both in terms of time and cost for a day out.
Copenhagen’s Christmas markets were also well worth the trip, with the Danish capital adding some Scandi style to the proceedings. This year, I’ll soon be spending the weekend in charming Salzburg, Austria to see how they compare. In the meantime, you can read more about Regensburg and Copenhagen’s markets here:
But what about the markets closer to home? Can the UK compete? A news feature on BBC Look East about increased security at Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fayre was not only reassuring but perhaps more importantly, brought the event onto my radar. It took about an hour and a half to drive through some of North Essex and Suffolk’s most scenic countryside to reach the town. At midday on the Friday of the Fayre, the Park & Ride was full, as were the town’s long stay car parks. I began to wonder whether I should have taken the train, though it would have involved two changes and an extra hour on the return journey. Finally, we were given permission to tuck the car into the exhibitors’ car park. Was it worth the trip?
With around 300 stalls spread across several locations in the town, there was plenty to hold our attention. In total, we spent around 5 hours at the Fayre, beginning in the pedestrian streets spanning Cornhill and Buttermarket. Moyse’s Hall Museum, which focuses on local and social history, is worth making the time for.
Outside the museum, we found several enticing food stalls, the best of which specialised in salami and sausage. Purchase one in the bag. Not far away, Just Our Stall, which has a permanent base in the town on St John’s Street, had a wide selection of sheepskins and farmed reindeer hides. Prices were very competitive and quality was high.
From there, a stroll down Abbeygate Street led us via shops and cafes towards the Abbey itself. Fairground rides and Santa’s Grotto would keep the kids happy. Inside, we were disappointed at first to find that there weren’t as many seasonally-themed traders as we’d imagined, though once we got to the reindeer pen, things got a lot more Christmassy. One of the two reindeer wasn’t too keen on remaining in the pen, attempting to climb out when someone produced a carrot. He was a real character.
Through the Abbey gate, the concentration of stalls selling Christmas gifts and decorations was higher, making this our favourite part of the Fayre. Stand out traders, for their sense of humour as well as their product range, included HaGA Lifestyle which enthusiastically embraced the Danish concept of hygge. Locals will be aware that their regular base in Eastgate Street has an excellent cafe, a deli and also offers dog grooming.
The Once I Was stall also brought to mind the recycling theme I’d seen in action in Copenhagen. Each of the products had previously been something else before being repurposed for use in the home. Tealight holders, chopping boards and Christmas decorations had been fashioned from drawer fronts, fence posts and sheets of plywood. Also worthy of a mention is The Crafty Foxes. Based in Queens Road, they offer craft workshops. Here at the Fayre, they had a range of gift bags for sale which made excellent stocking fillers, as well as some rather unique Christmas tree decorations.
Food stalls were in abundance and there were some tempting and very festive offerings from which to choose. In contrast to the European markets, however, there was a lack of seating nearby, which meant either standing around or walking around with food and drink. Hopefully, that’s something which St Edmundsbury Council might consider for next year.
As the sun set, the festive atmosphere ramped up a notch. There hadn’t been time to duck inside the Athenaeum for the indoor stalls or catch one of the cookery demonstrations in the Cathedral Courtyard. Walking back to the car, we reflected on what an enjoyable afternoon it had been and well worth a return visit.
Regular readers of this blog will know how I’ve made a number of day trips by air to some of Europe’s most captivating cities. Yesterday saw me jet off to Venice, in perhaps my most ambitious trip yet.
You’ll find a full list of the others on my Index page here:
While I’m not suggesting for a minute you’re going to truly get under the skin of your chosen destination in such a short space of time, it is great when you have little or no holiday left but still have that pressing need to travel. Or in my case, a desire to keep two dogs out of kennels and into Daddy Day Care which is always a priority. If you believe those predicting Brexit will put an end to cheap European flights from the UK, time could be running out to snap up a bargain. Here’s the how, where, when and what of Venice in a day.
My local airport is Stansted, the main UK base of Ryanair, and once again it was to the controversial budget carrier that I looked for my cheap fare. Normally, Ryanair flies in to Treviso airport, but while the airport has been closed for essential runway maintenance, flights are being rerouted to Marco Polo instead. Marco Polo also has the advantage of being closer to the city and well connected by both boat and bus. The current closure lasts until 18 October, but it’s worth keeping an eye out as it’s not the first time I’ve read flights have been diverted. My flight departed on time from Stansted at 0620 and touched down ten minutes ahead of schedule at 0910. The return left a few minutes after its scheduled departure time of 2230 and taxied to the terminal to unload us at 2355, about 15 minutes late. Total ticket cost this time was £34 return. I should also add, as per usual I didn’t bother with a seat reservation and got a randomly allocated window seat on the outbound flight and an aisle on the return leg.
To reach Venice from Marco Polo it’s possible to catch a bus. An express service takes around 20 minutes to make the journey to Piazzale Roma, near the top end of the Grand Canal and the city’s Santa Lucia station. Return tickets cost 15 euros. But to arrive in style, I figured I needed to arrive by boat, though my budget most certainly doesn’t stretch to water taxis. There are, however, direct transfers from the airport with Alilaguna who offer a reliable service on one of three routes. This is double the price of the bus at 30 euros for a return, but in my mind well worth the cost. However, I should mention you do sit low in the boat, which isn’t great for sightseeing if you aren’t tall.
I opted for the orange route as it takes you via Cannaregio and then down the Grand Canal. Journey time to the Rialto Bridge was just under an hour. From there, the boat continues down to Santa Maria del Giglio, just short of St Mark’s. It was busy, and I had to wait for one boat to leave before getting on the second one, which added about a 30 minute delay to my journey. However, the boats serving the blue route were bigger and there wasn’t a wait. They loop via Murano and Giudecca instead, and calling at San Marco on the way. This is a really convenient option if seeing Murano’s famous glass is on your wishlist. However, it does take about 90 minutes to get to San Marco and it doesn’t transit the Grand Canal. The way I see it is that this transfer is part of your day out rather than just transport, but if time is the priority then the bus is a no-brainer.
Note: From Treviso, an airport bus scheduled to coincide with arrivals takes around 70 minutes to reach Piazzale Roma. Make sure that you’re on the ATVO bus and not the Barzi bus as the latter calls at Mestre station rather than Santa Lucia (requiring a second train journey to get to the city) and also Tronchetto Island which is again inconvenient for Venice’s top attractions.
The links you’ll need (including timetables, fares and maps):
ACTV bus and city boats: http://actv.avmspa.it/en
Ailaguna boat: http://www.alilaguna.it/en
Venice is time-consuming to get around, which is why I refer to this as my most ambitious day trip to date. Because of the lack of roads, you either have to walk or take to the city’s canals. It’s a pleasure to wander on foot, but the downside is that many alleyways are dead ends leading to canals or courtyards. Without a good map (or even with one) you’re likely to get lost. I relied on a combination of paper map, Google map navigation on my phone and a general sense of direction.
Those of you who know me will realise the latter is pretty much non-existent. Narrow streets and a maze of densely packed buildings mean that sometimes Google maps don’t quite have your location right. I also struggled with night mode, as the canals and alleys have almost no contrast – the waterways are such an essential aid to navigation that I switched it back to day mode. Fortunately even with very limited Italian, people were helpful to my pitiful “Scusi, dove Rialto Bridge?” attempts at conversation and pointed me in the right direction with a smile.
There has been a lot in the press about how residents are fed up with the city being overrun by tourists; the historic centre’s residential population numbers only 55,000 now, compared to an estimated 28 million visitors annually. Do the maths: that’s more tourists per day than the number who actually live there. Whether it was because I visited in the quieter shoulder season or whether such irritation has been exaggerated in the press, I didn’t see any indication of frustration with tourists invading locals’ space. But it’s certainly not an issue to brush under the carpet.
Due to the unhappy marriage of being time-poor and totally incompetent at map reading, I decided to splurge on a day pass for the city’s ACTV boats. This cost 20 euros and can be purchased at the many ticket booths near the jetties. (The jetties themselves are easy to spot being a) near the bigger canals and b) on account of their bright yellow livery as in the photo below.) You do have to validate the pass before you step onto a floating jetty, or risk a hefty fine. Look for a white oval terminal as you step off dry land and tap the card against it. I got my money’s worth hopping on and off, but you’ll need to make several journeys to cover your outlay.
Things to do
With so many sights to choose from, whittling down what’s easily a month’s worth of sightseeing into the nine hours I had in central Venice was tricky to say the least. It helped that this was my third trip to Venice, so I’d already seen the main attractions and (fortunately for me) years ago, well before selfie sticks had been invented. I was also keen to test out the new policy of the Venice authorities which is to encourage people to explore off the beaten track. You’ll find a wide choice of suggestions here (when they first pop up, you might think they’re written only in Italian but they’re actually dual language with English too):
I began my day by alighting at the Rialto Bridge boat jetty and crossing the bridge itself to the adjacent market. Originally the market moved to this location in 1097, but a 16th century fire destroyed almost everything in the vicinity. The market was rebuilt and depsite being a stone’s throw from the tourist crap which lines the bridge and its environs, manages to retain more than a little of its charm. There’s plenty to see, including more varieties of mushrooms than you could ever expect to see back home, capsicums done up like posies of flowers plus of course a pungent but vibrant fish market.
There’s a treat tucked around the back of the market in a hard to find alley (even with the address, Sestiere San Polo 429, it was concealed so well it took me a while to find either of its two doors) What I’m referring to is Cantina do Mori, the bacaro which claims to be the oldest in Venice. This tiny bar whose ceiling is hung with dozens of copper pots still retains a customer base who are happy to share their local with tourists like me. It’s been around since 1462 and once counted the infamous lothario Casanova among its clientele. Today, it’s still a popular place to go and have an ombra (Venetian slang for glass of wine) and soak up the alcohol with some cicheti (or in English, cicchetti), the Venetian equivalent to Spanish tapas.
Eventually, I prised myself away from the bar and its surroundings. I decided first to take a stroll in search of Venice’s narrowest street. Calle Varisco is just 53cm at the little end, though mercifully for pedestrian flow, it widens as you walk down. If I’m honest, I was a little underwhelmed; several properties off the street were having work done and there was a fair bit of rubbish around as a result. Forget what you’ve read: it’s not the narrowest street in the world (that’s a German one) and it’s not even close to being the slimmest in Italy.
Moving on, I headed north and picked up a boat which looped around the Castello district to bring me to the San Zaccaria stop. I was hoping to see if the church’s flooded crypt was underwater, but it closes from 12 noon until 4pm each afternoon so was out of luck. Nearby though, I passed Banco-Lotto No. 10 which sells clothing made by inmates at the women’s penitentiary on Giudecca Island. Sadly, that too was closed, though it shouldn’t have been according to the sign on its doorway. The clothes looked fabulous, even for someone with my limited fashionista skills.
Next up was a bookstore, and one which proves that Amazon can’t provide everything. The Libreria Alta Acqua is a treasure. Books stacked in precarious piles fill every inch of available space. Balanced on shelves, filling redundant gondolas and bath tubs, they represent what a bookstore should be.
This is a place to be savoured, to potter and to forget the time or anything else on your mind. The store owner wandered about, leaving the rather scary looking cat to mind the till while he wheezed and tutted to himself looking for items unspecified but clearly important. I think I could have watched him all day too. Out back was the tinest of courtyards with a sign imploring people to climb up some wobbly stairs made of old books to see the view over the canal.
I couldn’t resist walking south via St Mark’s Square. This might sound odd as I really hate the crowds and the tourist paraphernalia but I think I wanted to see just how bad it was. On the way, in Calle del Mondo Novo, my nose caught the aroma of a cheese and ham store as my eye was drawn to a pig in the pizza shop window opposite. Incidentally, I read that you should never eat pizza in Venice as wood-fired ovens are banned with just a tiny handful of exceptions. The store, Prosciutto e Parmigiano, is known locally as Latteria Senigaglia (that was the name of the original family-run dairy produce store which was set up in 1940).
In St Mark’s Square, I navigated a sea of people who couldn’t have been more synchronised in pointing their mobile phones towards whatever their guide was pointing out had a musical soundtrack been in place. Pausing only to recreate the famous shot of the gondolas lined up facing out across the lagoon, I hopped on another vaporetto. This one was bound for the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. From the top of its belltower, or campanile as they’re called, the views across the city are splendid and of course you look out over the campanile in St Mark’s Square rather than from it. It costs 6 euros to ascend, but for that they provide a lift, and free entertainment when the bells chime the hour, frightening unsuspecting visitors. Best of all – no queues.
It was mid-afternoon and I wanted to explore a little more before I left, so I took a boat a short way up Canale della Giudecca, jumping off at Spirito Santo church to cut back through to the Grand Canal near the Peggy Guggenheim art collection. Another vaporetto took me to Venice Casino from where I could cut through to the district of Cannaregio. This is on the Venice authorities’ recommendations list and is where you’ll find the Jewish Ghetto. It lacked the crowds of St Mark’s and it’s probably very uncharitable of me to hope that the city’s campaign is unsuccessful and it stays that way.
I had planned to have an early dinner in Osteria al Bacco, which is one of the area’s most highly rated restaurants, but got sidetracked by the wonderful Al Timon instead. You do need to book ahead for dinner reservations, though they don’t always serve what they display in the window. Get there right on the dot of six when they open to grab a table for cicheti and a Spritz – for something classically Venetian, swap the fashionable Aperol for Campari.
Time was ticking on so I took a last vaporetto ride along the Grand Canal and then bought a ticket for the boat back to the airport. I’d definitely recommend a visit outside of summer and most importantly, away from the crowd. Venice is never going to be one of my favourite cities, but it’s growing on me.
Fresh air and water are always a good combination. With excellent rail links as well, it made the riverside town of Wivenhoe a good choice for my third outing with Greater Anglia this summer. There’s an easy but very pleasant 4km walk that takes you along the banks of the River Colne from Hythe to Wivenhoe. The really good news is that if you don’t wish to walk it in both directions, the path is easily accessible from Hythe station and leads you straight into the station car park at Wivenhoe. Both the path and the railway line follow the banks of the Colne Estuary, offering splendid views. As a walk, it couldn’t be more convenient if it tried!
If you’ve been following my previous blogs, you’ll know that I’ve enjoyed days out by train to Harwich and to the East Anglian Railway Museum. Greater Anglia have some very affordable advance fares across their network as well as £2 child fares and many other offers. It’s well worth checking out their website if you’re at a loose end this summer.
I set off from Hythe station just before lunchtime and walked along the riverbank towards the University buildings and on towards the new apartments that are springing up. I’d come this route a thousand times – it’s on the way to B&Q and Tesco – but from the car, you just don’t see what’s under your nose. There’s some fantastic artwork to be seen.
Information boards telling a little of the area’s history help provide context. In parts, they form trail markers. You can’t miss them in their steel cages.
Following the river, I passed the iconic lightship and headed off in the direction of Wivenhoe. Urban becomes rural pretty quickly and it’s a pleasant and flat walk past riverside meadows, reed beds and woodland. Even on a weekday, there were plenty of joggers and cyclists using the trail, as well as a man in a wheelchair walking his dog. This is a trail for everyone to share.
Towards Wivenhoe, there’s a board marking the entrance to the Ferry Marsh Colne Local Nature Reserve; the name’s a bit of a mouthful but it’s well worth the diversion. There’s plenty of seating along the river banks on which to sit and watch the birdlife and see what the ebb and flow of the tide reveals. If you’re lucky you could even see otters or water voles.
But it was Wivenhoe that I’d come to see. From its railway station, I found myself on the charming quayside in just a few minutes. Wivenhoe Quay is packed with buildings of historic interest, among them The Nottage, open on weekends, housing a museum with an eclectic collection of nautical items. Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon until September 3rd you can visit to learn more about Captain Nottage, the Victorian army officer and keen yachtsman whose name is on the door.
Next door to The Nottage is the excellent Rose and Crown pub. Its outside tables are perfectly placed to watch the comings and goings along the Quay and the food’s not too shabby either. In the sunshine, there are few places in Essex more attractive for an al-fresco lunch.
I wanted to see something of Wivenhoe and began to explore its quiet streets. Just along Rose Lane, I noticed a blue plaque commemorating the great Miss Marple actress Joan Hickson, who once made her home here. Around the corner, I couldn’t resist browsing the produce on offer in the Village Deli. Owner Mike had an interesting take on the calorie issue presented by the ice cream on sale. According to him, if you use the attached spoon correctly, the calories can be neutralised and thus don’t count. That’ll be a salted caramel tub for me, then, and…
Along the High Street I found the Wivenhoe Bookshop, the kind of place that almost doesn’t exist anymore. Staff member Sue told me they’ve worked hard to create a space that works as a community cultural hub as well as a bookstore. Coming up there are writers’ workshops, book signings, a knitting group and even a philosophy breakfast, reflecting the University of Essex presence on the edge of town. You don’t have to be a local to get a warm welcome. The place has a homely feel – the sofa in the back room was just the kind of sofa you’d want to sink into on a rainy afternoon. I was blessed with blue skies so it was time to move on.
My final port of call was to The Sentinel Gallery, run by the delightful Pru Green whose enthusiasm for art is catching. Inside, work from some of East Anglia’s most talented artists was on display as well as some of the most colourful pottery you’ll find in the county. The modern structure features angular lines and huge panes of glass. It stands in stark contrast with the very traditional buildings that surround it, but it doesn’t jar. And the light which floods into the exhibition space is incredible. Even if you’re no art expert, this place is worth a visit, though don’t come on a Monday or a Tuesday as they’re closed.
Wivenhoe, I decided, had much to recommend it and if you want to see for yourself, there’s a ton of special events still to come this summer. The Sunday, August 20th, sees the Wivenhoe Crabbing Competition, great fun for all the family; register on the Quay from 10.30am. The town hosts its Beer Festival from September 1st to 3rd with the Art Sea Music Festival following close behind on September 9th. Throughout the summer season, a weekend foot ferry links Wivenhoe to Rowhedge and Fingringhoe so long as the tide is high enough. With limited parking in Wivenhoe, it’s a really good idea to take the train.
With thanks to Greater Anglia for providing transport to and from Wivenhoe.
Rail tickets and offers from Greater Anglia
The Nottage Maritime Institute
Rose and Crown pub
The Sentinel Gallery
“Time flies by when I’m the driver of a train, and I ride on the footplate, there and back again.” Chances are, if you’ve just sung this rather than read those words, you grew up on a diet of Chigley and you remember as fondly as I do Lord Belborough and his steam engine Bessie.
But until yesterday, though I’d been on many a steam train, I’d never experienced what it’s like to ride on the footplate. Thanks to train driver Michael and his sidekick Kim, whose role is that of fireman, I got to tick it off my bucket list. Stood between Michael and Kim, I tried to keep my balance and time my barrage of questions to avoid interfering with their safety checks and operational duties. With a carriage-load of passengers on board, even on such a short demonstration trip, it was important that things were done properly.
Teamwork was key, with both volunteers working together to ensure everything ran smoothly. It was hot work. As Kim stoked the firebox with coal, the blast of heat coming from inside was palpable. Kim wiped a smear of coal dust from his nose and grinned as I wiped the sweat from my own forehead. I was glad this was the museum’s 1905 vintage engine when Michael mentioned that had I ridden on the footplate of one of the other two working engines I’d have been much hotter, as the furnace would have been level with our faces instead of by our feet.
Whatever your age, there’s something special about a trip to a railway museum and the chance to see a working steam engine. If you’re reading this and nodding your head in agreement, then I’d recommend you visit the East Anglian Railway Museum at Chappel and Wakes Colne. While riding on the footplate was a special treat, visitors will sometimes be able to take advantage of the museum’s “Taster for a Tenner” promotion where you can learn how to drive a diesel loco for just £10.
This summer, Greater Anglia are making it better than ever to travel by train. For a number of attractions across East Anglia and London, the East Anglian Railway Museum being one of them, presenting your rail ticket gets you 2FOR1 admission. If there’s just two of you, Greater Anglia’s advance fares will also keep your costs down. For larger groups, check out the Group Save tickets, a good deal for families and groups of friends looking for an affordable day out. Even better, Group Save can be used in conjunction with the 2FOR1 offer. With rail tickets for children costing from just £2, arriving at the EARM by train makes a lot of sense. Chappel and Wakes Colne station lies between Sudbury and Marks Tey on the pretty Gainsborough Line. From Marks Tey there are frequent connections to London’s Liverpool Street as well as Ipswich and beyond.
I chose to time my visit to coincide with one of the EARM’s regular special events. The 1940s Vintage Tea Dance marries our nostalgia for the age of steam with a love of music, dance and reminiscing about the war. Headlining the event were the fabulous Fox, Wiggle and Sass. Perfectly co-ordinated in red polka dot dresses, hair coiffed in immaculate victory rolls and lips painted a perfect scarlet, the girls had the Forties look down pat.
Aimee (Fox), Amy (Wiggle) and Gemma (Sass) hail from what they term the Bermuda Triangle of Essex: Layer de la Haye, Finchingfield and Witham. Over the last four years, they’ve been hired for countless weddings and private parties, but coming back to the EARM is special as it was the first gig they ever played. This talented trio made performing the harmonies and melodies of iconic Forties classics like “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” and “It’s a Good Day” as well as swing hits like “Sing Sing Sing” look simple.
Watching them perform was a full house – or rather goods shed – of people, many in 1940s costume themselves. Servicemen danced with WVS volunteers while onlookers sipped tea from vintage china and ate cream teas. Sharon from Swing Jive Sudbury was on hand to teach everyone the basics so even complete beginners could join in the fun.
Also in the goods shed, Bunty Bowring had laid out a fascinating collection of 1940s vintage clothing, showing how in times of rationing, make do and mend were of vital importance. Together with husband Richard, who was dressed as one of the Home Guard, she shares her passion for all things wartime by giving regular talks to various local organisations. Outside the goods shed, meanwhile, members of the Suffolk Regiment Living History Society had brought their rifles, kit bags and even their trucks and The Viaduct mini-pub was open for those wishing to sample the local beer.
The event had been fun, but to leave without exploring the museum’s regular exhibits would have been a travesty. I began at the signal box where a series of colour-coded levers ensured a train couldn’t enter a stretch of track while another was in the way. The blue one shown in use here is pulled to activate a points lock, making sure the points don’t move as the train’s wheels pass over the top. Young kids will love pulling the levers so much it will be hard to drag them away.
Across the footbridge, the restoration shed gives you the chance to see some of the museum’s many engines and carriages being brought back to their former glory. Many of the volunteers work on these projects on Wednesdays, making this a good day to find out about what’s going on. There’s plenty of restored rolling stock to have a look at, including some vintage wooden carriages and recreations of station buildings and platforms.
The exhibitions in the on-site heritage centre explain the impact of Beeching’s cuts on the Gainsborough Line, which once would have continued on to Cambridge. Sudbury’s population grew sufficiently to save the Marks Tey to Sudbury stretch from the same fate. But other long-lost lines are covered too, including the Crab and Winkle Line which ran from nearby Kelvedon to the coast at Tollesbury. Take a walk around Tollesbury Wick and at low tide, you can still see the railway’s wooden sleepers disappearing into the mud.
EARM staff say that visitors often remark on how much there is to see at the museum and I’d have to agree. I made it through the level crossing gates back to the regular platform just in time to catch my train. Whether you time your own visit for an event day or not, you’re sure to have a rewarding and enjoyable day out. The volunteers were without exception keen to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. Best of all, taking the train instead of the car gave me the chance to mull over what I’d seen and done. My verdict: I’m going back – and next time I’m taking a 2FOR1 friend.
With thanks to Greater Anglia for courtesy train travel to and from the museum and to the East Anglian Railway Museum for a great day out.
Greater Anglia’s offers
East Anglian Railway Museum
Fox, Wiggle and Sass
Richard and Bunty Bowring
Suffolk Regiment Living History Society
It’s the people that make a place special. How often have you read that? It’s been written so often it’s a travel cliché. But sometimes it’s also true.
Greater Anglia have a range of offers on rail journeys across the network this summer. To find out more, look at the #lettheadventurebegin video on their website; the address is at the bottom of this blog. They invited me to pick somewhere in the network and in return for a rail ticket, they asked me to blog about my trip. I chose Harwich. I’ll admit that having consulted the timetable, I was a little concerned. To reach Harwich from my starting point necessitated two changes of train and with just a few minutes between each, I anticipated spending half the morning in Manningtree. After all, this wasn’t Switzerland, was it? I needn’t have worried. The trains were punctual, the connections made without even having to power walk and the carriages clean and comfortable. The views as we made our way on the Mayflower Line along the River Stour were the icing on the cake, and I thought what a refreshing change it was not to have to focus on the road and be able to enjoy them.
A ten minute stroll from Harwich Town station and I was already beginning to appreciate the town’s long maritime history. Using a walking trail map I’d found online, I ticked off both the High and Low Lighthouses, the second of three pairs of lighthouses that had been built around here to aid ships’ navigation along the North Sea coast. To ensure they maintained the correct course, the two lights needed to line up, one above the other.
The Treadwell Crane was fascinating too, operated by men walking on the inside of the wheels. I was grateful for the Harwich Society’s comprehensive website, for though an informative sign had been placed near the crane, it had been positioned at the foot of a steep grassy bank. To read it, I’d probably have been best off lying flat on the turf.
Heading along the estuary, I walked past the impressive murals on Wellington Road and doubled back to take a look at the Electric Palace. Built in 1911, there were two entrances, one to access seats costing a shilling, the other a more affordable sixpence. The cinema still holds regular screenings today, though the reminder to patrons to turn off mobile phones is a more recent addition to the signage.
It was time to pop in to The Pier Hotel, right on the quayside. Looking like a little piece of Shoreditch, the hotel was slick, contemporary and on-trend, its staff welcoming. Manager Chris told me that I could find 113 different gins on the NAVYÄRD bar’s drinks menu, and I wondered how long you’d have to stay to work your way through them at what the government would deem an acceptable rate. With the view over the confluence of the Stour and Orwell right in front of the hotel’s terrace, it would be an absolute pleasure, though one which would have to wait for another time. I had a boat to catch, and it wasn’t going to wait.
A foot ferry had connected Harwich to Felixstowe for over a century, but it was under threat of closing for good when Austrian Christian Zemann spotted it was up for sale. Seeing the potential – it’s easily an hour’s drive from Harwich to Felixstowe – he bought the business. Though he’d always dreamed of making his living on the water, he didn’t know Harwich, nor the area which surrounded it. It was a gamble, but one that paid off.
With hard work and a nose for opportunity, Christian has expanded the business, running not only the foot ferry but evening cruises, bicycle rental and seal boat trips as well. In fact, he’s already bought a larger boat, increasing the capacity of the ferry from 12 passengers to 58. The level of commitment Christian has shown is extraordinary. Troubled by the drenching some of his passengers were getting out on deck, he invested £15000 in stabilisers to stop the new boat from tossing and pitching. I’m pleased to report it worked.
Christian’s latest venture, the boat trips to the grey and harbour seals that make their home at nearby Hamford Water, have already proved to be a gold mine. Once down to only a handful in number, there’s now a small but thriving colony of around 70 seals at the reserve. I asked Christian how close he got. “Well, the channel’s pretty narrow, so if I kill the engine, then you can hear them breathe,” he said. That sounded close enough to me.
Back on shore, there was one vessel on the quayside that just couldn’t be ignored, not least because of its scarlet livery. Built in 1958, LV18 was Trinity House’s last manned light vessel before it was retired from service in 1994. But as with the Harbour Ferry, this was a boat that wasn’t going to go quietly, thanks to one man – the ebullient and utterly charming Tony O’Neil. He bought the vessel for a nominal £1 and the Pharos Trust was set up to oversee its restoration. It opened in 2011 as Harwich’s quirkiest visitor attraction.
A musician by trade, Tony has a passion for radio. Visitors to the ship can see some of his extensive collection of antique and vintage radios on board, but with an estimated 1600 in his collection, some remain in storage in the hold. That passion for radio also manifests itself in broadcasting. Tony once worked for Radio Caroline and his enthusiasm for pirate radio is undimmed. The likes of John Peel, Tony Blackburn, Emperor Rosko and Johnnie Walker all broadcast from radio ships anchored just outside UK territorial waters and the tenders that facilitated their commute came from Harwich.
Even the beautiful garden that you see on deck has a musical connection. The scented plants that form part of it are there in homage to John Peel. His 1967 show for pirate station Radio London was named “The Perfumed Garden.” Johnnie Walker is still involved. He’s a patron of the Pharos Trust and will broadcast from LV18 this August.
For anyone keen on maritime history, Tony has preserved some of the cabins on board just as they would have been when the vessel was in use as a lightship. There’s also a chance to see what a pirate radio station would have been like. There’s so much in the way of nautical and radio memorabilia that some have dubbed it a “floating prop shop”. Unsurprisingly, it caught the eye of the production team working on the 2008 movie “The Boat that Rocked” and with a splash of yellow paint for the occasion, doubled as Radio Sunshine.
It is individuals like Christian and Tony that are breathing life into a town that once lay forgotten at the end of the line. Their energy and commitment to this corner of Essex is helping to make Harwich the town that rocks.
Greater Anglia trains:
Harwich Harbour Ferry:
Seal boat trips:
The Pier Hotel:
This, perhaps, wasn’t going to be one of my usual days out. A few days before I was due to fly – out of Stansted at 7am on a Tuesday – an email arrived from Ryanair announcing certain restrictions on the flight.
Amongst other words of caution, it said:
• Customers will not be allowed to carry alcohol on board and all cabin baggage will be searched at the boarding gates.
• Boarding gates will be carefully monitored and customers showing any signs of anti-social behavior or attempting to conceal alcohol will be denied travel without refund or compensation.
For a moment I wondered what I had let myself in for. In the event, though we did have a stag party on board, they were very well behaved and remarkably quiet. The plane was too, empty seats an indication that some of our passengers had fallen victim to one of Stansted’s worst mornings for queues at security I’d ever seen. I’d made the flight in good time and jetted off on time to the hippy isle with a row of three seats to myself.
Arriving slightly ahead of schedule, I picked up a hire car and set off on an itinerary I’d found on the Ibiza Spotlight website. As my main focus of the day was to be a trial of a Sunwise kaftan, I’d originally planned to hole up at one of Ibiza’s stylish beach clubs and chill out all day. In the event, my geographer’s curiosity got in the way and I just couldn’t resist the chance to go exploring, especially up in the north of the island where the agricultural landscape was more verdant and prettier than the south. That said, I needed to be in the sun, so there were going to be plenty of stops.
The first was supposed to be in Santa Eulària des Riu, Ibiza’s third largest resort. Incidentally, road signs are in Catalan, though my map was in Spanish, with this particular resort being Santa Eulalia – mostly the names were similar enough for this not to be confusing. I’d read about an excellent ice cream parlour called Mirreti’s. Reaching the town, I decided it just wasn’t my kind of place: too busy and lacking charm. I drove straight through, headed for Sant Carles de Peralta.
This small village, dominated by a delightful whitewashed church, was the perfect spot for a stroll in the sunshine. There wasn’t much to see, but I’d been tipped off about a cafe called Bar Anita across the road. I spent a pleasant half an hour sipping a cold drink in the warm sunshine, watching the world go by.
Onwards and northwards, as the hire car wound its way around the back lanes following the Cala de Sant Vicenç coast road for a few kilometres before ducking inland across the Serra de la Mala Costa. Turning north at Sant Joan de Labritja, I snaked across country on a tiny lane which led to the resort of Portinatx on the island’s rugged north coast. Smaller than Santa Eulària des Riu but nevertheless a resort, it was more my scene and I had a wander to explore.
Back in the car, I drove back to Sant Joan, this time via the main road and on to my next stop, another village dominated by a magnificent church, Sant Miquel de Balansat. Sited on top of the hill, this whitewashed church is impossible to miss. It’s the second oldest on the island, after the cathedral and like the one in Sant Carles, had three crosses on the front wall, something you’ll see on all the churches on the island, the symbol of Golgotha. The painted chapel walls are very special. This bronze sculpture outside also caught my eye.
But by now, I was getting hungry and so drove the few kilometres to Santa Gertrudis de Fruitera. This was my favourite of all the villages I stopped at, and I feasted on jamon serrano and queso manchego in the sunshine, choosing a spot opposite the church.
Somehow the village managed to hang onto its character despite its popularity with day trippers. I had time to browse in a few boutiques before they closed for a siesta and I hit the road again.
This part of Ibiza is greener than the scrubby south and I drove across the countryside towards Santa Agnès de Corona, known as Santa Ines in Spanish. I passed olive groves, almond trees and orange trees laden with fruit. Ruined windmills completed the agricultural scene.
The road layout here forms a circle, so it as it was such a fine day, I decided to backtrack a bit and go for a short hike. My target was the hidden fishermen’s cove of Es Portitxol, said to be one of the prettiest spots on the island.
The road was in pretty poor shape, so I parked up and picked my way down the lane on foot. When I saw poor shape, it looked like a digger had gone rogue and there were great rifts gouged out of the stones. I wished at that point I’d had on walking boots rather than sandals, as it was hard going. The path did level out for a while and led through a shady forest; alongside were sweeping views over the ocean and towards the cove. Improperly clad, I decided to bail before I ripped my sandal straps, but had I continued, I’d have been rewarded with one of Ibiza’s hidden gems. Ah, next time.
It was time to head into Eivissa, the island’s capital. I’d seen the cathedral and fortifications of its Dalt Vila or old town as I’d passed earlier, and now it was time to explore on foot. Luck was on my side when it came to finding a parking space; yellow spaces reserved for workers become free for anyone who finds them empty after 4pm.
For anyone whose experience of Ibiza is solely the lively mass tourism resorts and club scene, Dalt Vila is the very antithesis: elegant, ancient and impressive. The thick wall and fortifications once protected Eivissa from marauding pirates; now they provide lofty vantage points from which you can admire the Mediterranean and watch the fishing boats bring their catch in, trailing clouds of seagulls in their wake. This defensive settlement dates from the 7th century BC when the Phoenicians founded the city, though the walls themselves are even older.
Today, Dalt Vila is threaded with alleyways and tunnels which, unsigned, invite you to partake of a lucky dip; when you step through the doorway, you might have no idea where you’ll emerge. I popped up in the Plaça d’Espanya for a time. One of the tunnels here was a Civil War refuge; Ibiza was Republican for a time before Franco stepped up his campaign and occupied the island, forcing the Republicans to flee.
In the Plaça d’Espanya traders were setting up a mediaeval fayre which should, according to the road signs, have opened three hours earlier but looked like it was still a while off. From there, I climbed a little further to the cathedral, its fussy architectural details contrasting with the simplicity of the whitewashed churches I’d seen in the villages.
Overlooking the marina, it was a good place to perch on a wall and soak up both the sun and the view. Refreshed, I wandered the streets of the old town for a while before ducking randomly into a tunnel and emerging some considerable way beneath them. I took it as a sign and headed back to the airport.
Outbound: Ryanair STN to IBZ departing 0700 with a scheduled arrival time of 1040 (we were about 20 minutes early)
Inbound: Ryanair IBZ to STN departing 2140 and arriving at 2320 (also early)
Flights available from £19.99 each way.
Car hire with Alamo purchased through the Ryanair website was a little over £30 for the day; airport buses into Eivissa cost 3,50 euros each way.
Have you seen my other blogs on days out by plane? They’re perfect if you are desperate to travel but can’t get the time off you need for a longer trip. You’ll be surprised at how much you can do in a single day. For how to visit Amsterdam, Belfast, Bremen, Budapest, Lisbon, Regensburg and Copenhagen for the day from London, please follow this link:
One of South America’s iconic bucket list activities is to visit the vast Salar de Uyuni. It’s been on my wish list for a while:
This March I finally made it to Uyuni, 22 years after my first trip to Bolivia. On the way, I travelled from Salta along the Quebrada de Humahuaca, one of Argentina’s most attractive areas. A side trip from Tilcara took me to Salinas Grandes, Argentina’s largest salt flat. The two tours were as different as they come, so which was best? Here is my review.
The salt flats
The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. It covers an area over 4000 square miles and sits at an altitude of over 3600 metres above sea level. The crust of what were once prehistoric lakes dries to a thick layer of salt, and the brine which lies underneath it is rich in lithium with something like 50-70% of the world’s known reserves. Even on a day trip, it’s not long before you’ve driven far enough out onto the salt flat to be totally surrounded by a sea of white. Losing your bearings is entirely possible though the position on the horizon of distinctive volcanoes such as Tunupa makes things a little easier.
In contrast, Argentina’s biggest offering is paltry by comparison, though still the second largest in the world. Measuring a little over half the area of its Bolivian neighbour at 2300 square miles, it’s still enormous of course. Like the Salar de Uyuni, it’s a high altitude location, coming in a few hundred metres lower. Salt mining is also a feature of the landscape here and as in Bolivia, you’ll see piles of salt, blocks of dust-striped salt for construction and other industrial activity.
Choosing the tour
Salar de Uyuni tours are big business. It’s firmly on the backpacker trail and the scruffy, dusty town of Uyuni is rammed with operators selling one-day and three-day tours to the flats. I opted for a one-day tour. Having been just across the border in Chile and seen some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, I didn’t feel the need to spend hours in a cramped 4X4 to do the same in Bolivia. Three-day tours offer basic accommodation and rudimentary facilities; the days of cold showers and BYO sleeping bags are long behind me. I opted for a mid-range tour with a respectable outfit called Red Planet Expeditions, booking online via Kanoo Tours at a cost of $83. (It is cheaper to book when you arrive but I didn’t want to have to hang around so was prepared to pay the extra few dollars to arrange my tour in advance.) Even this, one of the better companies, had mixed reviews, so I figured if I had a poor experience for a day I’d be happier than if I’d opted for the longer tour.
The nearest tourist base to the Salinas Grandes is at Tilcara, the other side of a mountain from the salt flats. I found a highly regarded tour operator called Caravana de Llamas which offer a range of llama trekking tours, opting for a tour that spent a few hours walking out to the salt flats. The tour itself was excellent value at $65 per person, minimum two people. However, this doesn’t include transport. You’ll either need a rental car to cross the mountain pass (it’s a good road) or a car with driver. Caravana de Llamas can arrange this for you for 1500 Argentinian pesos per car (rates correct as at March 2017) which is reasonable for a car load but expensive for a solo traveller.
The tour: Bolivia
Choosing to visit in wet season, the Bolivian tours cannot reach Incahuasi Island which is a fair distance across the salt flats (and home to giant cacti). I’d been sent information requesting that I check in to the Red Planet office at 9am for a departure by 10am. On arrival, I was told we’d actually be leaving at 11am. On departure we were a convoy of three vehicles with one guide between us. The car was in good condition; judging from the reviews this isn’t always the case. The driver was pleasant enough, though he spoke no English which may be a problem for some. There were five travellers per car, but this can be six or seven which would have been cramped. Two at least have to sit on the back seat and there, the windows do not open. My fellow travellers were a pleasant bunch, though much younger than me. I wasn’t as keen as the others on having the music turned right up, making it very hard to talk, but everyone else seemed happy. The guide, Carlos, split his time between the three vehicles. I didn’t take to him, finding him obnoxious and arrogant, so I was pleased we didn’t have to have him in the car very much. I had several concerns about his attitude and behaviour (some shared with other members of the group). I contacted Red Planet for their comment but have yet to receive a reply two weeks later. It’s not appropriate to go into details here but I would hesitate to book with this company again if they couldn’t guarantee the guide would be different.
The tour allocated a great deal of time to the train cemetery – which had the potential to be a fantastic place to visit if you don’t time it to coincide with the 30+ 4X4s which stop there on the way to the salt flats each morning. Having woken to clear skies, the clouds had rolled in by the time we arrived which was frustrating given how close the site was to the town. There was also a lengthy stop in the village of Colchani where we visited a salt factory (just a room where not much was going on except for attempts to flog us bags of salt) and where we were given lunch of lukewarm chicken, stone-cold rice or cold potatoes plus a delicious apple pie. Eventually we reached the salt flat itself and the scenery at that point took over. In wet season the reflections in the water are a crowd-pleaser and it wasn’t a disappointment. What was a pity was the lack of thought given to pre-departure information. As requested I’d come prepared with sun cream, but no one had thought to tell us we’d need flip-flops for the salt flats. It wasn’t just a case of getting our feet wet, more that the crust is sharp and uncomfortable to walk on. I ended up in socks which was better than going barefoot but still unpleasant.
Later, we drove to a drier part of the salt flats for the famous perspective photos. These were cheesy, clearly well rehearsed (we did the same poses as every group I’m sure) but a fun souvenir. The guide did take the photos, which was kind of him, so those on their own could participate. Afterwards we had an enforced and quite lengthy stop near a monument. I think it was included to enable us to arrive at the edge of the salt flats in time for sunset, though it felt like time-wasting. Six out of the fifteen travellers in our cars had overnight buses to catch and were very worried they’d miss them. Given we were all filthy dirty and covered in salt, they’d have needed time to clean themselves up before boarding. The rest of us had what turned out to be quite a rushed sunset photo stop. However, we were dropped off at the Colchani salt hotels on the edge of the salt flat. This was a bonus; if we’d have had to return to Uyuni and then take a taxi, this would have added an hour at least as well as the additional cost of transport.
All in all I felt that the wow-factor of the salt flats themselves redeemed the day. The guide was a big negative, but I was told it wasn’t possible to go deep into the salt flat without one. Walking from the salt hotels to the edge of the salt flats wouldn’t have given me the same experience, so although this was one of the worst tours I’ve taken in years, I’m still glad I did it. But even more relieved I didn’t opt for the three-day tour.
The tour: Argentina
I was sent a reconfirmation email the day before my tour to ensure I knew that the driver would be on time; in fact he was early when he arrived at my hotel in Tilcara. The car was almost brand new and spotlessly clean. Another traveller had cancelled so I had a private tour. Jose Luis the driver was friendly, courteous and knowledgeable, as well as being safe over the mountain pass. I was offered several stops at viewpoints to enable me to take some great scenery shots as we climbed above the clouds. Arriving at the tiny village of Pozo Colorado, llama handler and guide Santiago was ready, welcoming and cheerful. Jose Luis joined us for the first part of the trek to ensure I was comfortable leading a llama and then joined us later at the salt flats.
Walking with the llamas was fun. Oso and Paco were well behaved and to my relief didn’t spit. From time to time Santiago told me a bit about the llamas, the scenery and the way of life up there on the Argentine Puna, but he also knew when to let me enjoy the silence and serenity of the place. The trek was easy, over flat terrain, and when we arrived at the edge of the salt flats, there was time for me to wander off and take photos while lunch was prepared. A picnic table had been set up loaded with delicious food: local goats’ cheese, llama meat, ham sandwiches, salad and more. There was plenty to go around. Jose Luis joined us for lunch and the inclusion of a third person made chatting easier as he was bilingual.
After lunch, the llamas had rested and we walked onto the salt flats for some souvenir photos. Afterwards, Jose Luis drove me to some of the industrial workings a short distance away. There wasn’t a lot of activity going on, though as with Bolivia, I did see the piles of salt “bricks” and also heaps of mined salt. By the time we’d driven back over the mountain the tour was a similar length to that taken in Bolivia, arriving in Tilcara late afternoon.
If I’d have visited Bolivia before Argentina, I’d have probably been disappointed with this tour. The scenery just didn’t have that sense of scale that gave it the bucket list wow. However, as an activity, walking with llamas was a lot of fun and I felt that Santiago had gone to a lot of trouble to make me feel comfortable and, despite his basic English, to put the scenery in context. I was left wanting more and would definitely book with Caravana de Llamas again if I returned to the area.
Both tours were worth doing but very different. The Argentinian tour was very civilised and the llamas incredibly cute. Regular readers of this blog will know how much I adore these fluffy creatures. The people involved worked hard to ensure I was well-looked after. In contrast, the Bolivian tour encompassed my worst nightmares with a bossy, inflexible guide and yet – the scenery was so incredible that I’d still do it again.
Expectations are key. In Uyuni, there doesn’t seem to be a single operator winning consistently excellent reviews. In this respect, having a horrible guide but a good driver and a vehicle that didn’t break down was the best option – if there’s a weak link, at least your safety isn’t compromised. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to take a backpacker-style tour, so perhaps I’m out of the habit of being herded around – and it’s no surprise to those readers who know me to hear that I don’t like being told what to do.
Perhaps taking a budget option in Bolivia would have been the way to go: there were day trips for under $40, half the price I paid, and given how poor the guiding and the lunch were, maybe it would make the tour seem better value. However, I certainly wouldn’t recommend taking a basic tour for the three-day option as the mileage covered is considerable and the area remote. I heard good reports about the scenery from a private Dutch group, but having seen similar (better?) in the more accessible Chile a couple of years ago, I don’t regret my choice to cut out the mountain lakes and volcanoes.
So – which tour? Tough decision: I’ll call it a draw! Have you taken either tour? What were your impressions?
Footnote: I paid for both tours myself; all opinions expressed are my own.