juliamhammond

Europe

Just back from: a day trip to Venice

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.

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You’ll find a full list of the others on my Index page here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/index/

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.

Getting there

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Getting around

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.

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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.

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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.

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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):

http://www.veneziaunica.it/en/content/itineraries

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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What to do if you’re impacted by Ryanair’s cancellations

If you’re affected by Ryanair’s announcement that they are cancelling many hundreds of flights over the next six weeks, you’re going to need to know your rights.  This is how the news broke:

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/sep/16/ryanair-cancels-up-to-50-flights-a-day-to-improve-punctuality

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If your outbound flight has been cancelled at short notice:

First, see if you can rebook. According to Ryanair’s website, this should be possible online. People are reporting on social media that the Ryanair helplines are overwhelmed and they’re not able to complete a rebooking over the phone.  Obviously with so many people chasing so few seats at short notice, many are going to be disappointed.  So what then?

If you cannot find a satisfactory rebooking (e.g. your flight is being rebooked but so late into your holiday to make it as good as useless) then you’ll need to apply for a refund.  You may also be entitled to compensation. These are your rights under EU law if the destination is within the EU or if it’s an EU carrier like Ryanair:

Flight cancellation
Flights under 1500km – 250 euros compensation
Flights over 1500km – 400 euros compensation

Note: this only covers you if your cancellation occurs 14 days or less before your flight.  If you are due to travel in more than 14 days’ time and your flight is cancelled, this will be treated by the airline as a rebooking or rerouting.  You still have the right to cancel with a full refund of what you paid for the flights, but will not be eligible for additional compensation.

Delayed arrival whether with Ryanair or alternative carrier
Flights under 1500km – 2 hours
Flights over 1500km – 3 hours

If you are delayed, you are also entitled to food and accommodation vouchers.  Full details here:

http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=LEGISSUM:l24173

Note that it can take many months to secure this compensation, despite EU regulations stating refunds must be paid within a week.  Remember you will need to keep all receipts and boarding passes. It’s also a good idea to send letters recorded delivery if you are getting nowhere by email.

If you decide not to travel, have a look at what expenses you’ll incur, such as accommodation that cannot be cancelled at short notice.  The airline is not liable for this.  It will need to be claimed back from your travel insurance company.  Making a claim such as this doesn’t affect your right to EU compensation if applicable.

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If you’re abroad and your inbound flight has been cancelled:

The above applies but you’ll also have to factor in whether you need to be back home as a matter of urgency or can afford the time and money (up front at least) to extend your trip.  You might find it easier to  deal with staff face to face at the airport though this can add to your stress as there will be a lot of other angry passengers there which isn’t going to make you feel better.

You can try to persuade the airline that rebooking you with an alternative carrier e.g. a seat on a rival airline is a better idea.  You’ll have more bargaining power if the airline itself is very tight for space and is struggling to get you somewhere, especially if you’re stranded and they’re having to pay for your overnight accommodation.  Remember if you pay for your own alternative flights, you’re out of pocket.

It can be very hard to get them to pay, as I found out with CityJet a few years ago.  CityJet refunded their own flight (that they cancelled fifteen minutes before departure) but because I didn’t want to wait for an alternative with CityJet or spend another night in Paris even at their expense, I paid for the Eurostar alternative.  I eventually funded it out of the compensation I received eight months later.  Read the full story here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/finally-a-win-against-cityjet/

If you can get through on a helpline, that is often better, but you will need to be patient.  Be as calm, polite and flexible as you can, particularly if you need to get back home in a hurry.  Remember the person on the phone isn’t directly to blame and venting your frustration isn’t going to get you anywhere.

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If you’ve a flight coming up which is currently unaffected:

This currently is where most Ryanair passengers are, fortunately, and the social media furore should calm down for the most part now that people know where they stand.  Nevertheless:

Have a Plan B.  Research alternative airlines or other means of transport on the inbound leg.  Check your email on a regular basis so that if your flight is next to be affected, you’re amongst the first to know – and fight for the seats that might be available on alternative flights.

Print out or save to your phone a copy of the EU regulations (see link above) so that there can be no dispute with airline staff about your rights – it will be in black and white.

Double check your travel insurance, especially the limits and excesses for flight delays and flight cancellations.  Again, keep all receipts and boarding passes as you’ll need them to make a claim.  Keep proof of the cancellation.

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What now?

Ryanair’s lack of consideration for their customers, though not a surprise, is still a concern.  They won’t be the first and last airline to do this.  I’ve had similar late in the day cancellations from American Airlines (weather related issues leading to a 48 hour delay in New York when I should have been in Nicaragua) and as mentioned, with CityJet (who didn’t even inform us the flight was cancelled, just checked us in as normal and quietly removed our flight from the departures board).  But for the record, Ryanair, you need to remember who keeps your staff in a job and your planes in the air.

Update 17 September from the excellent Simon Calder at The Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/ryanair-rights-400000-passengers-cancelled-flights-compensation-hotels-meals-caa-a7949916.html

Update 18 September of full list of cancellations on the Ryanair website:

https://www.ryanair.com/ie/en/useful-info/help-centre/travel-updates/flight-cancellations7


Ten of the best European cities

Recently I posted a blog about my ten favourite American cities; you can read it here if you missed it.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/08/31/ten-of-the-best-american-cities/

Among the comments was a good-natured challenge from Andrew Petcher of Have Bag, Will Travel, suggesting that Europe’s cities have a lot more to offer the visitor.  It got me thinking about which would make my Top Ten and after some deliberation, here are my choices.

Cáceres, Spain

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In the heart of beautiful Extremadura, Cáceres is one of those finds that you agonise over telling others about for fear of drawing the crowds.  This is the kind of place you’ll want to keep for yourself.  The labyrinthine Ciudad Monumental, crammed full of mediaeval mansions and delightful churches, absorbs as much time as you’re prepared to give it.  I’d have still been there were it not for the promise of the tastiest suckling pig in the region and late night drinks in the palm-lined Plaza Mayor.

Lisbon, Portugal

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Over the border, the Portuguese capital is one of the most absorbing on the continent.  Its rich maritime history is proudly remembered across the city such as in Belém’s Monument to the Discoveries.  The #28 tram ride linking the lower and upper towns might be touristy, but it’s still a must for its heritage wooden cars and the views along the way.  But again, it’s food that is my fondest memory, particularly the delicious Pastéis de Belém warm out of the box – you’ll have to queue, but it’ll be worth it.

Stockholm, Sweden

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The reason I’m so taken with the Swedish capital is that it doesn’t have to be a city break at all, if you don’t want it to be.  The Feather Islands are just a thirty minute boat ride away, but a tranquil spot for lunch and a short stroll if you’re fed up with city traffic and noise.  Skeppsholmen Island reveals a collection of historic boats and Benny from ABBA’s recording studio, while Djurgården Island is where you’ll find the ABBA museum and the astonishingly well-preserved 17th century Vasa ship.

Bremen, Germany

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Of Germany’s cities, Bremen stands out.  The Schnoor quarter is packed with timber-framed houses once occupied by fishermen but now home to a plethora of boutique shops selling artisan crafts.  The city’s historic heart is eclectic, its Flemish-style Schütting, a 16th century guild hall, and the windmill in Wallenlagen Park a reminder of how close you are to the Netherlands.  But it’s four small creatures that were the reason for my trip – donkey, dog, cat and rooster from the Grimm’s fairytale.

Krakow, Poland

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Krakow is one of those cities that no matter how many times you visit, you’ll never tire of it. Nowhere is this more true than in the Old Town’s largest square, Rynek Glowny. It’s dominated by the centuries-old Cloth Hall; duck under its arches to find shops selling amber and other local wares. I enjoy it best at night, when huts selling pierogis and tender ham hocks draw people away from the many souvenir stalls of the market.

Salzburg, Austria

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I first squealed with delight at Hellbrunn’s trick fountains as a small child.  Years later, I returned to find I wasn’t too old to have the exact same reaction.  Just as much fun was a bicycle tour of the main sights featured in The Sound of Music – yes I know Mozart was born there but I’d much rather be yodelling with a lonely goatherd.  This December I’m visiting the city’s Christmas markets for the first time.  Can. Not. Wait.

Bologna, Italy

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Give me a choice of Italy’s large cities, and this would be my choice, rather than Rome or Florence or Milan or Venice.  Why?  This is a city that is focused on food, from the delis that cram into its narrow alleyways to the platefuls of snacks laid out to soak up the Aperol Spritz at passeggiata hour.  Thoughtfully, they even built a tower to climb so you can work off some of the calories; it’s 498 steps to the top of Torre Asinelli.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

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To see Dubrovnik at its best you’ve got to time it so that the cruise ships aren’t in dock, and that takes some planning – or at least an overnight stay.  You’ll be rewarded with empty city walls to walk, piazzas and cobbled streets lined with cafes and restaurants and a host of other sights that are far better without the crush.

Riga

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When it comes to the Baltics, it was a tough decision for me to choose between the Latvian capital Riga and its Estonian counterpart Tallinn.  In the end, I opted for the former.  Don’t miss the Three Brothers, the oldest buildings in the city, and the House of the Blackheads which houses Parliament.  Both are a must for architecture fans.  They also have some innovative ideas to help you avoid putting a dent in your bumper.

Budapest

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Bisected by the River Danube, this is a city with a split personality, so whatever mood you’re in, you’ll find half the city to suit.  Fishermen’s Bastion in Buda is a good place to get your bearings, and admire the Gothic architecture of Parliament across the water.  After coffee in Cafe Gerbeaud, the market hall in Pest is perfect for stocking up for a riverside picnic.  And don’t forget the city’s many thermal baths for when your muscles begin to ache.

So there you have it.  Apologies if you were looking for Amsterdam or Paris, Berlin or Barcelona.  While I enjoyed the latter pair, the first two still fail to wow me.  And I’ve deliberately stuck to mainland Europe, hence the lack of London, York, Bath or Leeds.  What would you have included on your list of Top Ten European cities?


Ryanair’s baggage changes penalise those already booked

Today Ryanair have announced that from 1st November, their policy on cabin baggage will change.  Currently, up to two bags can be taken on board, one of standard dimensions (55cm x 40cm x 20cm) and one smaller item (35cm x 20cm x 20cm).  Currently, a small wheelie fits and can be stowed in the overhead bins, while the smaller bag, perhaps a day sack, can be placed under the seat in front.  On busy routes, some passengers are asked to place their larger bag in the hold free of charge.

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Today Ryanair have announced changes to their policy.  Basically, customers opting not to pay for Priority Boarding will lose the right to take some of their carry on with them as they board the plane, instead handing it to staff to put it in the hold.

I have two Ryanair flights coming up, one in October to Venice and one in December to Salzburg.  My Salzburg flight will be affected by the changes.  I was planning to take a bag that was smaller than their maximum dimensions but slightly larger than those of a smaller item.  Now, I have to either rethink the size of that bag or pay a £6 priority boarding fee for each leg to be able to take the luggage I planned.  The Ryanair website states that the policy will be introduced on 1st November for all travellers, regardless of when they’ve booked.

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That’s not playing fair.  We took out the contract and now the details are unilaterally being changed.  If I take the bag I planned, and the policy is implemented as per the rules, I’ll either have to check it at the gate free of charge and incur a delay when I arrive waiting for luggage, or risk being denied boarding.  So effectively, my flight has gone up by £12 if I wish to take the luggage I planned.  Had I paid for Priority Boarding at the time of booking, it would have cost £5 each way; to do so retrospectively it will be £6 each way.

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I understand why Ryanair have taken this step.  The amount of luggage being dragged on board is reaching ridiculous levels and boarding is a much slower process because of it.  But it does seem underhand to introduce a change to existing bookings without notice. Will this be the end of my love affair with Ryanair?  Probably not.  Do I feel like I’ve been cheated out of £12?  Yes.  The Ryanair haters are going to have a field day with this, and for once, rightly so.

Are you affected?  Full details from Ryanair’s website here:

http://corporate.ryanair.com/news/ryanair-to-lower-checked-bag-fees/


Welcome to the Wiviera!

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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With thanks to Greater Anglia for providing transport to and from Wivenhoe.

Links

Rail tickets and offers from Greater Anglia

https://www.greateranglia.co.uk/

The Nottage Maritime Institute

http://www.nottagemaritimeinstitute.org.uk/

Rose and Crown pub

https://www.facebook.com/Rose-Crown-Wivenhoe-173216156080059/

Village Deli

http://www.wivdeli.co.uk/

Wivenhoe Bookshop

http://www.wivenhoebooks.com

The Sentinel Gallery

http://www.thesentinelgallery.co.uk/


Stepping back in time at the East Anglian Railway Museum

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Links

Greater Anglia’s offers

https://www.greateranglia.co.uk/offers/offers-in-east-anglia

East Anglian Railway Museum

http://www.earm.co.uk/

Fox, Wiggle and Sass

https://www.facebook.com/foxwiggleandsass/

Swing-jive Sudbury

http://www.swingjive-sudbury.co.uk/

Richard and Bunty Bowring

Email: bowring40s_talks@hotmail.co.uk

Suffolk Regiment Living History Society

https://www.suffolklhs.com/


Border control queues in Europe – and how to beat them

Today’s news has been full of horror stories of British travellers caught up in excessive queues at some of Europe’s busiest airports.  If you haven’t seen it, try this article from the BBC:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-40824027

Sadly, though changes in legislation have worsened the situation, it’s nothing new. Miss your flight, and you’ll find the airline and the airport pass the blame back and forth, leaving you frustrated and potentially out of pocket. So what can you do?

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Take out a decent insurance policy

Many travel insurance policies will cover you for missed departures, but check the small print in case there are any exclusions. Also check the amount covered – and work out whether this is going to be sufficient to cover a night in a hotel and the cost of a replacement flight.

Get to the airport early – and don’t wait for your gate number to be displayed

Queues for security are going to be lengthy in peak summer season, so you should be aiming to get to the airport in plenty of the time regardless. But once you’re through security, you need to go through passport control too. In some airports, this can be tucked away in a quiet wing of the airport serving just a few gates.

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If your gate isn’t displayed early, by the time you start to line up, you may have cut it too fine. I almost missed a flight from Malaga to London a couple of years ago for this very reason – so don’t risk having to be very un-British and queue jump like I did. And if I pushed in front of you and you’re reading this, I’m very sorry – and hope you made your flight too!

My advice is to go through passport control even if your gate isn’t displayed on the boards – if there are multiple passport controls, in my experience the border control officials will redirect you. Just look suitably apologetic as I did and make sure you head off in the right direction.

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Consider booking a package

If you book a package holiday with an operator with has its own fleet of planes, such as Thomson (other operators are available!), then the same company is responsible for getting you from the hotel to the airport and from the airport to Britain. At the very least this is going to reduce the buck-passing.

Have you any tales to tell? I’d love to hear your experiences.