juliamhammond

Day trips

Just back from: a day in Ibiza

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The details

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:
http://juliahammond.co.uk/Travel/BLOG.html


Salt flat tours: Argentina vs Bolivia

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:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/after-104-countries-can-i-still-have-a-bucket-list/

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Salar de Uyuni

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.

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Argentina’s Salinas Grandes

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.

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Wet season reflections, Bolivia

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.

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On the salt flats with Oso, Paco and their handler Santiago

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.

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Tunupa Volcano 

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.

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Ouch! Bring flip flops!

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.

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Sunset on the Salar de Uyuni, a beautiful thing to behold

Conclusion: Bolivia

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.

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Santiago getting Paco ready

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.

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Oso carrying the lunch table

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.

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Paco having a siesta on the lakeshore

Conclusion: Argentina

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.

Overall conclusion

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.

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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?

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Footnote: I paid for both tours myself; all opinions expressed are my own.


Just back from – a day at Copenhagen’s Christmas markets

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What next after the German Christmas markets?  Germany’s legendary Christmas markets draw the crowds each winter and rightly so.  As I found out when I visited the Bavarian city of Regensburg a couple of weeks ago, they’re atmospheric, colourful and every bit as good as people say they are.  You can read about the trip here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/11/25/just-back-from-a-day-trip-to-regensburg/

So how do you top that?  With a visit to Copenhagen: take the German Christmas market model, swap the Glühwein for a glass of gløgg and add a healthy dash of hygge.

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Best of all, if you haven’t the time or the cash to go for longer, it’s possible to visit the Danish capital for the day.  It was my second trip to the city.  The first was back in the days when the cheapest way to reach Copenhagen was to fly to another country.  That wasn’t quite as daft as it sounds, as the airport in question was Malmö’s in nearby Sweden, a fast train ride across the Øresund Bridge.  This time, I flew direct to CPH, leaving Luton after watching the sunrise on the 8.40am flight.  Ryanair uses satellite terminal F which is a long walk from the main terminals.  Factor in a five to ten minute walk just to get across the airport and don’t expect a travelator.

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From the airport it’s about a fifteen minute train ride into central station, with plenty of English speaking staff at the airport to help out at the ticket machines.  I opted for a 24 hour travelcard (not to be confused with the expensive Copenhagen Card) which cost 80 DKK.  As it turned out, I walked more than I’d intended, but had I chosen to cover more ground, the card would have been valid for unlimited journeys in the city centre by train, metro and bus.  By just after midday, I was in the city.

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Now like I said, I’ve been to Copenhagen before, so this blog isn’t going to be reviewing the Amelienborg Palace or the Little Mermaid.  This time, I was focused solely on Christmas.  Emerging from the station coffee in hand, the Tivoli theme park was right across the street and impossible to miss.  I decided to save it until the end of the day and instead walked the short distance to Axeltorv Square.  My first Julemarked of the day was a small affair, a cluster of stalls all bearing the names of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories.  It was a little underwhelming, just a few stalls selling items like sheepskin rugs, warm hats and Christmas decorations.

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A few minutes from Axeltorv Square, a rather large wooden pig caught my eye.  Behind it was a wooden Christmas tree which looked to be made out of broken up pallets or something like that.  A few huts made out of the same material formed a crescent around them.  This was a Julemarked with a difference, focused on recycling, a statement about the excesses of this festive holiday.  But it wasn’t preachy: instead it embraced the spirit of Christmas on the cheap.

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The huts all offered a way to help out with the expense of present-buying.  There was a Swap Shop where you could leave an unwanted gift and in return got to choose something for yourself.  A woodworker’s hut provided tools and off cuts for those who wished to be creative and make a gift.  The lady running the plant hut gave me a small packet of tomato seeds which I shall plant when I work out when’s the best time.  The largest hut of all was a recycling “factory”.  Inside, piles of yarn, card and other craft materials were piled alongside glue guns.  Several people were making table top Christmas trees, but what made this unusual was that most of them were adults rather than children.  What a great idea!

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Next up was a stroll along Strøget to the wonderful department store Illums Bolighus.  This amazing store is a mecca for any devotee of Scandi-style and its products, though expensive, are the stuff of envy.  Every display could have held its own in a fancy homes and interiors magazine.  The question was not whether to buy, but what to leave behind.  Illums Bolighus, if you’re reading this, open a store in London won’t you?  I promise I’d keep you in profit.

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A few doors down from paradise at the end of the street, was another Christmas market.  The entrance was marked by a wall of Christmas trees ready to go home and the market itself housed more food and drink stalls than any other market.  At the sausage stall, a man munched on a hot sausage in a roll.  At his feet was a dog.  It sat, as motionless as if it was doing the Mannequin Challenge, eyes fixed on his master’s hand.  Tiny drops of saliva dripped from the wet fur around his mouth and puddled on the floor.  Finally, the man was finished, save for the last half inch of sausage, which of course the dog had as a reward for his patience.

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There was still more to come.  Straddling a pathway opposite the beautifully decorated Hotel D’Angleterre, the Kongens Nytorv market was probably the busiest of those I visited.  Located between Nyhavn and Strøget, a fat queue of tourists wound its way between stalls selling everything from churros to ham hocks, night lights to sheepskin slippers.  There were craft stalls and of course, many more gløgg huts.  The crowds were frustrating and as it was still daylight, the life size polar bear models looked tacky.  I would return that way after dark, when they were illuminated and looked better for it.

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Through Kongens Nytorv and out the other side I breathed a sigh of relief to have wriggled free of the crowd.  Fortunately, I was only a stone’s throw from Nyhavn and yet another market.  I sat on the quayside enjoying a glass of gløgg – not too fussed on the addition of blanched almonds but the raisins were a welcome find at the bottom of the glass.  If you’re not sure if you’ll like it, ask for a free taste.

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This time I decided to have a bit of food before exploring the market.  I found that the further down the quay I walked, the lower the prices were for comparable dishes.  A huge plate of roast pork with crackling with red cabbage and potatoes later, I had a browse round the stalls.  Hopefully my husband isn’t reading this but I did come home with a very soft and fluffy cushion cover.  (I am kind of banned from buying more cushion covers.  It’s become a bit of a thing.)  Sunset was spectacular, casting a pretty pink glow over the harbour side buildings.

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As night fell, there was one more Julemarked that I wanted to see before I left and one that was worthy of the long queue outside.  Yes, the queue was round the block.  What did I expect on a Saturday night?  Tivoli opened in 1843, making it the world’s second oldest theme park (the other is in Denmark too, but much less famous).  Tivoli is expensive, with a hefty entrance fee of around £15 just to get in (the rides are extra) but it is such a charming place during the run up to Christmas that it’s worth it.

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There was plenty to see, both in terms of the theme park itself – I loved the carousel – but also in terms of independent retailers and the range of food stalls.  The temperature had slumped well below freezing though by this point and with so many people packed into the huts and restaurants, there were very few places where I could escape that intense cold.  The lights and decorations kept me going for a while – they were superb – but by 8pm I was really feeling it despite being properly kitted out in thick padded jacket, scarf and gloves.  It was time to grab a cup of cocoa from the station cafe and return to the airport in plenty of time for my 10pm flight home.

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I ♥ Copenhagen


Just back from – a day trip to Regensburg

I’ve washed the smell of wood smoke out of my hair and a couple of Ibuprofen have sorted out the backache, for now at least.  My latest day trip was the longest yet, but proof yet again that you don’t need to overnight to enjoy a rewarding experience over in continental Europe.  This time, I had my sights set on Germany’s famous Christmas markets.

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This month’s destination, hot on the heels of Budapest, Bremen, Belfast, Lisbon and Amsterdam which have previously featured on this blog, took me to Nuremberg.  A flash sale on Ryanair’s website netted me return flights to the Bavarian city for the princely sum of £4.08 all in.  The offer was one with limited availability, not only in terms of seats but also in validity, solely for flights on Tuesdays or Wednesdays in November.  Such offers come up quite often and it’s worth subscribing to Ryanair’s email alerts if you’re within easy reach of Stansted.  I also saved money on my airport parking by purchasing it through the Holiday Extras website which saved me over a fiver.  My 7.35am flight from Stansted was on time and we touched down shortly after 10.15am.

I made use of the Bayern ticket which I’d learnt about on a trip to Munich.  The ticket’s valid for a day from 9am to 3am the next day which gives plenty of time for sightseeing.  It offers unlimited travel throughout Bavaria on all trains except ICE, IC and EC (so basically excludes high speed trains) as well as city transport in many of the larger cities.  The cost?  A flat fare of 23 euros if bought from a ticket machine, 25 euros if bought from a kiosk.  Unfortunately there’s no train service from Nuremberg airport which means no DB ticket machines (a U-bahn service operates instead with a fare of 3 euros for a ticket with 90 minutes’ validity) so I had to buy the Bayern ticket at the Airport Information desk for the higher price.  As it covers the U-bahn that was still the cheapest way of doing it.

It wasn’t long before I was in Regensburg and my first stop was the Neupfarrplatz Christkindlmarkt.  Most German Christmas markets get underway on 25th November this year, but Regensburg’s begin a couple of days earlier.  The market was well underway at midday, a mix of traditional market stalls and refreshment huts.  Next I checked out the Lucrezia Craft Market, though that was still being set up.  There were some stalls that had limited wares on display, the likes of sheepskin clothing, wood carvings and handmade silver jewellery.  To reach the third of Regensburg’s markets I needed to cross the old stone bridge at the Spitalgarten.  Again, setting up was in progress but the walk was a pretty one and there were sheep waiting in the wings to coo over.

I crossed back over the Danube for a lunch stop at the Regensburg Sausage Kitchen, one of the oldest restaurants in Germany.  Prices were reasonable and they did takeaway, though even at the end of November, it was warm enough in the sunshine to eat at one of its picnic tables.

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The main focus of my visit was the Christmas market at the Thurn und Taxis Palace.  Regensburg’s Old Town has hundreds of listed buildings but this palace and its grounds are the jewel in the crown.  The Christmas market is more than just a market, with live music and even visiting alpacas and camels.  The latter obviously play a role in the Christmas story but I think the alpacas were just there as a crowd-pleaser; certainly every time I held up the camera, they turned their heads and posed!

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But let’s get down to business: this is no ordinary market.  Princess Gloria from Thurn und Taxis apparently is pretty hands-on with the organisation of the market and I did see a couple of elegant, well-dressed women who might have been her.  The market, less well known outside Germany than the likes of Munich’s markets for instance, attracts a mainly local crowd, though it’s definitely worth making the journey for.

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The market attracts artisans not just from Germany, but from surrounding countries such as Austria as well.  The man selling delicious hot cheese bread had made the journey from the Voralberg and the journey had done his cheese no harm at all.  It was cheap, filling and almost worth the market’s 6,50 entrance fee in itself.

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As darkness fell, the market took on a magical atmosphere.  Open fires and strings of fairylights added to the romance of the market and there were plenty of stalls to browse.  It’s at dusk when you really start to appreciate the attention to detail.  Stallholders decorate their huts with freshly cut branches from pines, spruces and firs: the smells as well as the aesthetics are something to savour.

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The good thing about not having to pay for accommodation is that there was plenty of cash in the budget that could be used for souvenir shopping instead: I was spoilt for choice amongst a wide selection of products including sheepskin rugs, rustic Christmas ornaments, clothing and handcrafted metal ware.

The palace itself, larger than Buckingham Palace, looked spectacular as the lights came on.  At six, a pair of trumpeters heralded the official start to the festivities, followed by a choir and costumed soloists.  The balcony overlooking the main courtyard provided the perfect staging.

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Eventually, it was time to wander back to the station for a train to take me back to Nuremberg.  The seven hours I’d spent in this delightful city was plenty to enjoy it without rushing.  My flight departed more or less on time at 10.35pm; I’d landed and cleared immigration well before midnight UK time.

I’m already planning my next day out to a European Christmas market – but this time, I’m off to Copenhagen and I’ll be blogging about it next month.


Just back from – a day trip to Belfast

Strictly speaking, I’m not “just back” from this one, but having recently visited Budapest for the day, I realised that some of my earlier days out by plane haven’t yet made it to the blog, so watch out for Berlin hot on the heels of this one.

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Although I’ve been to the Republic of Ireland a couple of times, I’d never been to Northern Ireland and given how many countries I have travelled in, that seemed to be an omission I really needed to put right.  With two dogs to consider and a husband not up for multiple day dog sitting, we met in the middle at a day out and I booked my flights.  At the time, my closest airport was London Southend and I scored a cheap outbound flight with easyJet at 0715 arriving 0830, returning on the 2055 which landed at 2215.  This route isn’t offered anymore, but you can still take advantage of multiple flights from London Gatwick, for instance, if you’re hoping to do this trip yourself.

With 12 hours to make use of, I decided to rent a car and tour the province.  A sub-compact doesn’t break the bank and it gave me the opportunity to see some of Northern Ireland’s most well-known sights.  First stop was Dunluce Castle.  I’m no Game of Thrones fan but it is one of the filming locations.  The picture gives you an idea of the drama of its setting and despite being a warm day in late May, the place was deserted.

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Next up, a short drive along the coast, was the famous Giant’s Causeway.  One of the major beefs with this is the exorbitant cost of entry.  Adult admission costs a whopping £9 and I do think the National Trust are pushing their luck.  However, as basalt scenery goes, it is impressive, though perhaps less so if you’ve seen some of Iceland’s towering columns.  In any case, pre-booking tickets can save you £1.50pp and there are also deals to be had if you do Park and Ride or just take the regular bus.  Anyway, I had a very pleasant few hours there strolling around the beach, clambering up nature’s natural staircases and even watching a lone piper play.

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The other National Trust must-see in this part of the world is Carrick-a-Rede, about nine miles along the coast.  It’s a bit cheaper than the Giant’s Causeway at £5.90 but for that you get the chance to traverse a rope bridge over the water – a scary but unmissable experience.

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On the day I visited, the wind was negligible, but when the wind picks up…  I figured there was a reason you bought your ticket before you caught sight of the bridge – just imagine the revenue they’d miss out on!  I’m not too keen on heights if I don’t feel my feet are firmly on the ground, so this would have been a terrifying place if there had been more than just a slight breeze.  The scenery, as with the first two locations, was fabulous, leaving me to wonder why I’d left it so long to visit this beautiful part of the United Kingdom.

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All this coastal exploring was making me hungry and so I drove down to Ballintoy Harbour (another G of T location) for a late lunch at Roark’s Kitchen.  The stone cottage which it occupies looks like it’s been there for many centuries and the place offered the chance for me to try out some of the local specialities.  In the end, though, I was tempted with the Ulster Fry, like a full English but with potato bread.

Back on the road, I enjoyed the pretty scenery in the sunshine, the blue sky giving me a chance to see the coastline at its best.  Cushendun was very quaint – that’s the village in the first picture of this blog.  Glenarm was also charming, straddling the water.  It has a stately home in the shape of Glenarm Castle which I didn’t visit, but I might have been tempted with its tearooms had I not overdosed on good hearty food at lunch.

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Instead, I decided to head back to the city.  Now, by then it was late afternoon, so I didn’t have a huge amount of time.  I decided to visit the docks area, seeing the massive yellow Harland and Wolff cranes before parking up at Titanic Belfast.  Even the building itself was a stunner, but the exhibits really brought to life that ill-fated voyage.  That was my last stop of the day and a very interesting one; the museum was well worth a visit.

That was May 2013 and I promised myself a return visit to this enchanting province and of course, to explore more of Belfast.  I haven’t yet, but I do intend to one day.


Just back from – a day in Budapest

If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you’ll know it’s perfectly possible to have a day out in Europe, so long as you don’t live too far away from the airport and the flight schedules permit an early out, late back pairing.  Following on from my days out in Amsterdam, Belfast, Bremen and Lisbon, the latest trip saw me heading to the Hungarian capital Budapest.  The links to those previous day trips can be found at the end of this post.  As with the others, I’ve been to Budapest before, but well over a decade ago, so I was keen to revisit what had been an enjoyable destination.

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Budapest straddles the Danube

Arriving at midday local time after a civilised 8.30am flight, it was good to hear the famous Ryanair on time hurrah and even better to find that Hungary’s border police valued speed over anything else.  An easy bus and metro ride got me into the centre of Budapest, giving me about six and a half hours in the city after the commute to and from the airport had been factored in.  Once again, having waited for a flash sale, I paid less for my flight than I would have done for a train ticket into London, with my time equating to less than £5 per hour of sightseeing.  I thought that was good value.  The one day travel card, good for bus, tram and metro, was also excellent value at 1650 forints, about £5.

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Cafe Gerbeaud has been found at its present location in Vörösmarty tér since 1870

First stop was an old haunt: Cafe Gerbeaud.  Located in Pest, this famous coffee house has been a fixture for well over a century and still knows how to put on the style.  A cappuccino and some delicious biscuits topped up the massive breakfast of huevos rancheros I’d wolfed down at Stansted.  The sun was pleasantly warm for October and so I decided to take a stroll along the banks of the Danube and over the city’s famous Chain Bridge.

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On the waterfront

With skies blue and visibility good, it was too tempting to take the funicular up Buda’s Castle Hill.  The ticket wasn’t included in the travel card, more’s the pity, but it was 1200 forints for a single ride – hardly break the bank rates.  The views from the top were as fine as any in Europe, with landmarks like Pest’s parliament building easy to spot.

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View across to Pest as I ascended the funicular

The castle occupies a prominent position, as you might expect.  There are wine tastings to sample and museums to explore, but one of the great pleasures is just to sit in the sunshine and admire that view over Pest.  As luck would have it, the changing of the guard ceremony was about to start in front of the Presidential Palace just as I reached the top.  A forest of cameras, phones, selfie sticks and mobile phones recorded the occasion, but there was plenty of room for everyone to get their shot.

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Changing of the guard, a tradition reinstated in 2003

The weather was just too good to resist and so I continued my stroll through Buda’s castle district to picture postcard Fishermen’s Bastion.  It’s not a place to hurry, unless an out of control Segway rider is heading your way.  There are loads of museums and plenty of cobbled streets, and as access to traffic is limited it’s easy to wander around.

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Castle District

The white domes of Fishermen’s Bastion have a touch of the Sacre Coeur about them.  The place was constructed between 1901 and 1903, designed to complement the Church of Our Lady which dominates the square adjacent to it.  There’s no need to pay to enter for the view, or to have a coffee in the expensive cafe in the ramparts, though, as you can enjoy the same splendid vistas for nothing if you walk a little further along.

Back on the bus, I headed down to the river to search out an old Turkish Bath I’d read about.  Instead, I found what looked like an abandoned sanatorium but what was actually a working thermal baths.  It turned out to be the Lukács baths, whose website provided a bit of background missing from other web posts about Budapest’s baths:

“The Lukács Thermal Bath has a rich historical background: monastery baths were built in this area as early as the 12th century, the first spa hotel was built in the 1880’s, a drinking cure hall was added in 1937, and a daytime hospital was established in 1979. At the end of the 20th century, the thermal bath was thoroughly renovated and all facilities were modernised.”

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A surprise find

Budapest has loads of them dotted about the city, including the swanky baths at the Gellert Hotel and the famous Széchenyi Baths in City Park.  These were less well known, perhaps off the tourist track because it looked like no one had maintained them for an age.  Undeniably atmospheric, I decided against a dip in case the building fell on me and in any case, it was late afternoon and getting a little chilly.  Instead, I decided to go back to Pest instead for a stroll through City Park.  The lake had been drained for cleaning, alas, so I cut my losses and caught a bus to the market.

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Paprika in the market

I could wander around a market all day, and Budapest’s, housed in a glorious building down by the river, is no exception.  Ropes of paprika hung like Christmas decorations from greengrocery stalls and rows of salamis adorned the butchers.  I’d been tipped off about a cheese pastry, a kind of crispy rolled croissant filled with cream cheese and dipped in finely grated cheese.  It was deliciously more-ish.

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The Whale at dusk

Temptation would have to be resisted though, for almost next door was one of Budapest’s newer architectural efforts.  Known as Bálna or the whale, this modern structure connects several old warehouses with a confection of glass and steel.  It opened, I read, in November 2013 after protracted disputes between the city and the developer, but not all of the units inside had been filled – a mix of shops, bars and restaurants – leading to some commentators renaming it the white elephant.

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Sunset over the Danube

It was getting late.  The sun had cast a pink hue over the Gellert and left the faintest of reflections in the Danube.  There was just time for a light supper before heading back to the airport for my 9.35pm flight back home.

Previous day trips…

Bremen

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/06/07/just-back-from-a-day-trip-to-bremen/

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The four budding musicians

Lisbon

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2014/10/20/just-back-from-a-day-trip-to-lisbon/

View from Mirador Portas do Sol

The Alfama district seen from the Mirador at Portas do Sol

Amsterdam

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/01/26/just-back-from-a-day-trip-to-amsterdam/

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The Stroopwafel man


More from Extremadura: the Roman ruins of Mérida

Spain probably isn’t the first country that springs to mind if you’re planning to explore the legacy of the Romans, but their empire encircled the Mediterranean (and beyond).  In Spain, in addition to better known sights like Segovia’s aqueduct and Cordoba’s old bridge, Mérida is one of the best places to see some of the structures left from that age.

The modern city of Mérida has developed around and on top of the Roman colony of Augusta Emerita.  It was built around 25BC and was the capital of Lusitana, located the furthest west of the Roman provinces.   I began my exploration at the amphitheatre.

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Passageway leading to the main arena

Though not as well preserved as others I’d visited – Tunisia’s El Djem, Nîmes in France and of course Rome’s Colosseum spring to mind – it had a certain charm.  Being a weekday in the height of summer, visitors were thin on the ground, giving me a place free of tour groups to savour at a leisurely pace.

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The amphitheatre viewed from the top of the stands

The amphitheatre itself was built about 8BC, designed to stage gladiatorial fights and other such spectacles.  It would have had a capacity of around 15000 people, making it considerably smaller than the Colosseum which could seat almost four times that number.  Adjacent to the amphitheatre is the theatre.  More impressive, in my opinion, it’s a few years older than its neighbour, though back then, it wouldn’t have been nearly as popular.  Give the Romans a choice between a bloodthirsty fight and a stage play and the fight would win every time.

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The headless statues behind the stage

Six thousand people would have been able to watch the proceedings.  These days, the theatre is still in use; the Festival de Mérida takes full advantage of the atmospheric setting for a summer of plays.  My schedule didn’t coincide, so I had to content myself with sitting on the front row in front of an empty stage gazing up at statues of deified emperors.

Perhaps the most impressive structure in the city is that of the Temple of Diana.

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The Temple of Diana

Its Corinthian columns make it an impressive sight.  Behind, lies the Palace of the Duke of Corbis, into which the temple was absorbed in the 16th Century.  The temple lies on one of Mérida’s main streets and there’s a cafe next to it, which makes it a surreal sight.  Nearby, is the Forum, again surrounded by the town’s modern buildings.

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Mérida’s Forum

Strolling downhill, it’s not long before you reach the Guadiana river and there, you find the old bridge.  Built in two sections, it links the river’s banks via an island.  Sixty of its original sixty two spans still exist, and wisely the bridge was pedestrianised over two decades ago.

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The Roman bridge at Mérida

Following the river bank from the bridge, after exploring the 9th Century Moorish Alcazaba that abuts its western bank, I headed to the Casa del Mitreo.  There, Mérida’s most beautiful mosaics can be found.  Best known is the mosaico cosmológico, laid in the 3rd Century and partially intact today.

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Parts of the mosaic can be seen to this day

The city also has a Hippodrome, but I made a conscious decision not to go.  I could blame the weather – who wants to do such a walk when the temperature is still 40°C at six in the evening – but actually it was to avoid comparisons with the excellent experience I had at Jerash in Jordan.  Its Hippodrome is used for the wonderfully entertaining RACE project.

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You can read about it here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/07/25/gladiators-we-salute-you/