juliamhammond

Independent travel

Book review: Europe by Rail

I was thrilled when an opportunity arose to review the latest edition of Europe by Rail in exchange for a complimentary copy.  This guide, now in its fifteenth incarnation, is to print what the Man in Seat 61’s website is to the internet – the definitive guide.  But with so much information freely available on the internet, should you buy this book at all?

Europe by Rail

A task of epic proportions

Covering all the railways of all the European countries in a book light enough to carry onto a train is a huge undertaking.  As a consequence this book acts as an overview.  While it’s definitive, it doesn’t claim to be comprehensive.  The guide is designed to be used together with the European Rail Timetable – or in these times of data roaming, in conjunction with the websites of national rail providers in the countries it covers.  The authors, Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, have updated the guide once more, expanding coverage of the Baltics and the Balkans, as well as providing current information about rail travel across the continent.  Schedules change frequently, and I was sad to learn that the excellent CityNightLine service which I enjoyed in 2015 ceased operations between Munich and Berlin last year.

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CityNightLine

An inspiring guide

The authors wanted to take the guide in a different direction and as such, set out to inspire as well as inform.  So although there are factual sections in the guide, its greatest strength is in the persuasiveness of the descriptions that comprise the bulk of its pages.  Underpinning this erudite prose is a fundamental belief that train journeys are fun and, most crucial of all, to be savoured.  While acknowledging the important role Europe’s high speed trains have to play, Gardner and Kries put the case for slow travel, yet never come across as preachy.  If you need to zip across the continent in a hurry, then so be it, but for those with more time, there are routes to be savoured on local stopping trains, with tempting sidetracks built in as well.

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Crossing the Landwasser Viaduct in Switzerland

Punctuating the narrative are frank insights into the realities of each trip: “It’s an easy run south to Barcelona.  The railway enters the Catalan city through its unexciting northern suburbs and terminates in the subterranean gloom at the Estació de Sants.”  Nuggets of advice are also in abundance, such as this on Italy’s fabulous Cinque Terre: “A long sequence of tunnels means that you’ll see little of the area from the train, but take time to stop and explore.  Vernazza is a good base; it’s the prettiest of the villages.”  Gardner and Kries have put the hours in and travelled these routes, which makes them authoritative as well as engaging.

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The Cinque Terre

What could be improved?

Numbers rather than names refer to each of the fifty routes covered by the guide once you get past each one’s title.  Though this system takes a bit of getting used to, many of them cross international borders so it’s hard to see how they could be referred to in any other way.  It doesn’t help, however, that some of the subtitles within each section, specifically those of the major cities en route, are in the same sized font, making it confusing as to whether you’ve reached the end of a route or not.  It takes a bit of time to get your head around, but once you’ve got into a rhythm, you won’t be bothered by it.

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Spain’s high speed AVE

Each route features a map.  The presentation is simple, with a table attached that shows the journey time, frequency and cross-reference for the European Rail Timetable.  While I could see that the authors were aiming for clarity, I thought it was a shame that these maps couldn’t have been illustrated to showcase some of the key attractions along the way.  This would have added to the temptation to jump on a train and follow in their footsteps.  I’m guessing publishing constraints required the photographs to be grouped in their own section, as is the way with most guidebooks, but it’s again a pity that these couldn’t have been integrated with the text.  Instead, I wanted to skim over them, impatient to get to the routes themselves.

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Sintra station’s exquisite ticket office

There’s a lot of page turning, back and forth, which breaks into reveries and brings the reader back to reality.  I appreciate that logic dictates a section entitled “Before you leave” should be placed at the beginning of a guide, but perhaps the parts detailing rail passes, ticket classes and the like would have been just as at home in an appendix.  These are minor criticisms, more a measure of how keen I was to get stuck in than any fault with the guide.

The verdict: would I buy this guide?

For anyone planning to embark on a rail holiday in Europe, this guide is an invaluable companion.  Even if you’ve travelled extensively by rail across the continent, things change regularly and it’s an easy way to bring yourself up to date.  Don’t wait until you leave to buy it.  The suggestions for stopovers and detours will help with your planning and you’ll have information at your fingertips about rail passes, supplements, connections and the like.  If you’re like me, it won’t help you make a decision, as there are so many tempting routes from which to choose, but it will give you hours of pleasure as you take a virtual journey on some of Europe’s most scenic tracks.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to go back to that chapter on Arctic Norway…

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An interesting turtle project on Sal, Cape Verde

While in Sal last month I was fortunate to be able to meet with a couple of volunteers working for Project Biodiversity.  Established two years ago, it’s a non-profit organisation which works tirelessly to protect the turtle population on Sal, one of the Cape Verdean islands most afflicted with the negative impacts of mass tourism.

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Sal has a significant number of loggerhead turtles yet the species is globally endangered.  The rapid development of tourist infrastructure and large scale hotels on Sal is threatening this species alongside historic threats like poaching and pollution.  A team of local rangers, field biologists and volunteers donate their time and expertise to ensuring that these creatures have the best chance of survival.  They also run an education programme in local schools to ensure that children get the message about how important turtle conservation is, not just to Sal but also to the global community.

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I visited the project, located at the top of the beach near the Rui Palace hotel, to find out more about the organisation’s work.  During the nesting season, roughly from June to November, volunteers patrol some of the beaches on Sal Island.  They’re looking for hatchlings and if these tiny creatures aren’t heading in the right direction – that’s straight for the sea – then they rescue them and take them back to their base for some TLC prior to release.

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Something like 7500 nests have been monitored this year, and at the time of my visit, 984 nests had been rescued and brought to the main hatchery, with several hundred more rescued to other locations.  Female turtles typically lay between fifty and a hundred eggs at a time, up to seven times a season.  Incubation is between 50 to 60 days.  But then, explained volunteers Cristina and Marisol, comes the heartbreaking statistic: they don’t all hatch and on average only one in a thousand hatchlings makes it to adulthood.  It’s a tough life being a baby turtle!

The work that Project Biodiversity is carrying out aims to help conserve this species.  Each of the hatchlings is counted, the time of birth recorded and also that of their release.  The number of eggs per nest is recorded too in an attempt to monitor the health of the species.  But despite the non-profit’s efforts, they estimate that  many turtles were still killed this year.  Volunteers go out with locals knowledgeable about the island’s beaches and also with military assistance, not because of any particular perceived threat but because their presence helps to ramp up the deterrent factor.

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Yet even with the best efforts of Project Biodiversity to educate, there’s also an issue with misplaced kindness. One Riu Palace tourist I spoke to explained that he’d seen hatchlings being taken from their holding pen while the Project Biodiversity centre was unmanned and released directly into the sea.  But this interferes with their ability to imprint to their natal beach.  The hatchlings need to make their own way down to the sea across the sand – that way they’ll be able to find their way back to nest as adults.  In addition, hands that are contaminated with sunscreen or other oily substances like handcream can also interfere with the imprinting process.  Sal has one other threat to hatchlings taken right to the shore.  The waves are huge!

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To find out more about the project, visit their website:

https://www.projectbiodiversity.org/sal-turtle-conservation

During nesting season, it’s possible to visit the project in the afternoons around 5pm.  Note that if you aren’t staying at the Riu Palace, you won’t be allowed in the hotel grounds; take the path around the side of the hotel instead.  You’ll be able to witness the newest hatchlings make their way to the sea and learn first-hand about Project Biodiversity’s work.  If you wish, there’s also the chance to adopt a nest or make a donation to the project, but there’s no hard sell.

With thanks to Project Biodiversity for their time and also for permission to use of the images in this post.


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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Monarch’s collapse: your rights

Sadly, this morning’s headlines that Monarch has collapsed wasn’t shock news. The company had been in trouble for years, with several bailouts brinking it back from the brink of collapse on more than one occasion. Once, it cleaned up on routes to Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt, but had been badly hit by the slump in tourist numbers to those destinations in the face of terrorist attacks. Its Greek business was hit by the economic crisis and in response, it turned to the saturated markets of Spain to try to balance the budget.

It’s the largest UK airline ever to fail.  That’s no consolation for the estimated 110,000 people stranded or left with their holiday plans in tatters.  This collapse affects at least a  further 300,000 people who are due to fly, perhaps more.

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What to do if you’re on holiday with Monarch right now

Sit tight.  For those booked with Monarch Holidays, the CAA are negotiating with hotels so that you can stay.  If you are asked to pay a bill, keep receipts.  The CAA are saying they will reimburse you, though the end date for this is uncertain as yet.  If you are due to fly home, the CAA are putting on flights to get you home.

A webpage has been set up by the CAA to provide information to travellers.  Find it here:

https://monarch.caa.co.uk/

On this website there are details of flight rebookings.  Click on the airport you are travelling back from and it will open up the flight number and timing of your new flight.  At present, just today’s flights are up, so if you’re due to travel in the next few days, you’ll have to check back later.

If you’re in the UK but have a future Monarch flight or package holiday booked

The CAA’s advice is repeated here:

Flights booked directly with Monarch Airlines from 15 December 2016 onward

Customers with these bookings are not ATOL protected and are not entitled to make a claim to the CAA. You are advised to contact your card issuer, insurer or PayPal for advice on how to claim a refund.

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I add: if you have booked using a credit card and the cost of your flight is £100 or more, you are covered.  (If you book a return flight, the cost of the total must be over £100, i.e. each leg can be under £100 so long as when combined they’re over.)  The credit card company will reimburse you.  If you have booked with a debit card, you might be able to get your money back via something called Chargeback; contact your issuing bank for details.  If you have specific cover for airline failure in your travel insurance policy, this is also a route for recovering your money.  Note that this isn’t a standard clause on many insurance policies.

Back to the CAA:

Flights booked on or before 14 December 2016 directly with First Aviation Ltd trading as Monarch Airlines

If your flight was booked with Monarch Airlines on or before 14 December 2016 and you received an ATOL Certificate stating that your flight is protected with First Aviation, you are ATOL protected. We are making arrangements for refunds to be made as soon as possible to these UK customers.

We will be providing more information on how you should claim shortly. You will be able to submit a claim when we make the Monarch claim form available. Please do not submit a claim until advised to do so.

Bookings made directly with Monarch Airlines from 15 December 2016 onward are not protected by ATOL.

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I add: ATOL protection refers to the Air Travel Organiser’s Licence.  Basically it ensures you don’t lose your money or get stranded abroad if the company responsible for getting you home goes bust.  You receive an ATOL certificate with your holiday paperwork.  What happens is that companies lodge money with the CAA in case the CAA has to step in and get their passengers home.  Monarch’s ATOL licence ran out on September 30th and as they couldn’t afford to renew it, they were forced to call in the liquidators.

If the ATOL-bonded company goes bust, you apply directly to ATOL for your refund.  The CAA website explains what to do, as reproduced here:

Holidays booked directly with Monarch Holidays

Customers booked directly with Monarch Holidays are ATOL protected and will have received an ATOL Certificate when they made their booking. We are making arrangements for refunds to be made on these bookings as soon as possible, and we aim to complete this by the end of 2017 at the latest. We will be providing more information on how you should claim shortly. You will be able to submit a claim when we make the Monarch claim form available. Please do not submit a claim until you are advised to do so.

Monarch flights and Monarch Holidays booked through another travel company or travel agent

If you booked a flight or holiday with another travel company or travel agent you should contact them directly about your arrangements.


A beginner’s guide to Central America

The seven countries of Central America – Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize – fill an ancient land bridge joining the continents of North and South America.  Volcanic, verdant and vibrant, they offer the traveller some of the best tourist experiences in Latin America.  The difficulty is not in deciding to go, it’s working out what to leave out from your itinerary when there’s just so much to see and do.  This guide is designed to get you started.

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Antigua’s famous arch frames Volcan de Agua perfectly

Getting there

For many years, getting to Central America from the UK generally meant an indirect flight, and often the cheapest flights are still those which hub through the USA.  Try looking for flights with United via Houston, American via Miami or Delta via Atlanta.  Some tour operators also offer flights without the need to buy one of their packages as well. Thomson (Tui) for example fly direct to Liberia in Costa Rica and they often have deals available last minute for around £300.  Schedules are less flexible, however and the once a week flight might not suit your needs.

If you’re looking for a European-based airline, British Airways can get you to Costa Rica non-stop and recently, Air Europa commenced the first ever direct trans-Atlantic flight to Honduras, departing from Madrid.  Another alternative is to combine Central America with Mexico – you’ll find plenty of deals via Cancun which is easily combined with Belize and Guatemala.  Similarly, you could combine Panama with delightful Colombian city of Cartagena.  Shop around.  You should be able to pick up return flights from Europe for under £400.

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Shop around for a good deal

Getting around

Depoending on your budget, you’re either going to be seeing a lot of airports or taking a long-distance bus.  Try Avianca El Salvador, formerly branded as Taca, and Copa Airlines, both of which have extensive networks across the region.  if your time is relatively short, this is a good way of freeing up time for sightseeing.  Book well in advance to secure the best deals.

As with elsewhere in Latin America, many companies offer relatively comfortable “luxury” coach services but you’ll also find plenty of chicken buses knocking around on the shorter routes which make up for what they lack in comfort with bucketfuls of character.  The big name in the bus world is Tica, kind of a Central American version of Greyhound.  I’ve also had good experiences with Hedman Alas in Honduras and King Quality.  At peak times you’re best to reserve your ticket a few days in advance.

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Local buses in Nicaragua

Check out point to point transfers too.  For instance, Gray Line offer hotel to hotel transfers at reasonable prices in Costa Rica and similar tourist shuttles are also easy to find between Guatemala’s main hubs.

One thing to note is safety.  In some parts of Central America, buses can be held up by armed gangs.  Opt for a better company who videos passengers on entry and screens luggage and pick a day bus rather than overnight travel on the most notorious routes.  Keep up to date with safety by monitoring the FCO’s travel advice by country.

https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice

What to see

There’s way to much for me to cover here, so you should consider these itineraries just a start and delve into one of the many online resources or good guide books on the region to help you make your own detailed plans.

A week in Panama

Begin in Panama City and spend at least a day absorbing the atmosphere of the Casco Viejo, the city’s old town.  Some compare it to Old Havana and whether you agree or not, if you like Cuba you’ll like this too.

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Casco Viejo

The canal zone is a worthwhile day trip, easily accessed from the capital.  You’ll pass through the Gaillard Cut, where the Chagres River flows into the canal as well as several locks before returning to the city.  I booked this through my accommodation La Estancia B&B, which has since closed, but the company they used is still very much in business and takes direct bookings.

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Panama Canal

Another excellent day trip is to Emberá Puru.  Guide Anne de Barrigon will take you into the rainforest to meet the Emberá tribe and learn a little of their way of life.  She knows her stuff – she married a villager!  Part of the journey involves travelling upriver in a dugout canoe which is sure to prove a memorable experience as well.

THE VILLAGE KIDS POSE FOR A PICTURE

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Extend your trip either by spending more time in Panama City or by kicking back and relaxing on one of Panama’s beautiful islands, in the Bocas del Toro archipelago or in San Blas.

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Isla Diablo, San Blas

Panama links:

Embera Puru:

http://www.emberavillagetours.com/

Canal transits:

http://www.panoramicpanama.com/en/panamacanaltransit

A week in Costa Rica

With so many national parks to choose from, it’s hard to whittle them down.  If you only have a week, I’d recommend splitting it into two.  Focus on Tortuguero for a two night stay.  I based myself at Laguna Lodge which from July to November can offer turtle watching walks.  The beach and surrounding canals offer a chance to see plenty of birdlife and just unwind.

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Tortuguero

Then move on to La Fortuna, a pleasant little town which is the jumping off point for Volcan Arenal.  There are hot springs, nature walks, horseback rides and of course, the chance to watch for any activity coming from this active volcano.  The Arenal Observatory Lodge makes a great base, especially if you choose one of the rooms directly facing the volcano.  Nearby, they can also offer activities such as ziplining and whitewater rafting if the volcano isn’t making your adrenaline pump enough.

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La Fortuna with Arenal in the background

Costa Rica links:

Tortuguero:

http://www.lagunatortuguero.com/

Arenal:

https://www.arenalobservatorylodge.com/

A week in Nicaragua

My suggestion for a week in Nicaragua would be to base yourself in the charming city of Granada.  It sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua and has a wealth of delightful streets to lose yourself in, crammed with historic buildings including the egg yolk yellow cathedral.  Tourist infrastructure is good and there are plenty of hotels and restaurants to choose from.

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Granada

From the city, there are plenty of day trips to keep you absorbed.  Head up Volcan Mombacho where a truck will drive you up into the cloud forest.  Alternatively, stand on the crater rim of the active Volcan Masaya and sniff the sulphur.  It’s currently more active than it was when I visited; take a guide for a night tour and you might be able to see the lava lake that’s filled the crater.  Check conditions locally before you go.

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Masaya volcano

Laguna del Apoyo is another option.  This crater lake is now a nature reserve and there are plenty of activities that can be arranged here such as kayaking, swimming and boating.  Extend your trip by visiting Ometepe Island with its twin volcanic peaks.

Nicaragua links:

Volcan Mombacho:

http://www.mombacho.org/en/

Volcan Masaya activity:

https://www.volcanodiscovery.com/masaya.html

A week in Honduras

Getting around Honduras can be a little worrying as there are serious safety concerns within and between its two largest cities, San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa.  Persevere and base yourself in the safe and sleepy town of Copan Ruinas.  The nearby ruins are free of the crowds that plague other Mayan sites in the region and you’ll see plenty of raucous scarlet macaws to boot.

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Scarlet macaw at Copan’s ruins

It’s easy to arrange a trip to the nearby Finca el Cisne, which focuses on Criollo chocolate and coffee growing.  Day trips give you the opportunity to explore the plantation and take a scenic horseback ride in the surrounding countryside; it’s also possible to extend your stay overnight.

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Preparing the horses at Finca el Cisne

If you can drag yourself away, extend your stay with a trip to Roatan.  Honduras boasts a lengthy Caribbean coastline, but it’s the Bay Islands which draw the tourists.  The usual water-based activities are available and the sunsets are a spectacle.  If you’re looking for a guide to help you explore the island, then Cleve Bodden comes highly recommended.  He’s warm, funny and above all, knowledgeable about his island home.

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Roatan sunset

Honduras links:

Finca el Cisne:

http://www.fincaelcisne.com/

Cleve Bodden:

https://www.facebook.com/clevestoursandadventures/

A week in El Salvador

Beginning from San Salvador, the country’s capital, take a drive to Lake Coatapeque, popular on weekends as a family hangout.  Continue towards the picturesque Ruta de las Flores.  This 36km road winds through village after village adorned with flowers, dotted with art galleries and sprinkled with more cafes than you could ask for.  From Juayua to Ataco via Apaneca, there’s much to keep you busy.

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Ataco

Suchitoto should be your base for the rest of your week.  Team up with El Gringo, who can provide accommodation as well as tour guiding services.  Together, we visited Project Moje, a gang rehabilitation project, as well as the arts and crafts centres of Ilobasco and San Sebastian.

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Textile weaving in San Sebastian

El Salvador links:

El Gringo:

http://www.elgringosuchitoto.com/

Project Moje:

http://www.mojelsalvador.com/

A week in Guatemala

The obvious base to begin your week in Guatemala is the pretty town of Antigua.  There’s a wide choice of hotels, restaurants and cafes and a well-developed tourist infrastructure.  The town has lots of attractions in its own right, including the chance to make your own chocolate, but also makes a convenient base for side trips to the atmospheric market at Chichicastenango and beautiful Lake Atitlan.

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Doing the washing, Antigua-style

If you’re looking for the other must-see, then it has to be Tikal.  Of all the Mayan sites in the country, this is the stand out attraction. Deep in the jungle, it was abandoned over a thousand years ago, but its iconic ruins make this a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Don’t miss the Lost World Pyramid and the Temple of the Grand Jaguar.  There have been issues with tourist safety in and on the way to Tikal so as with Honduras, it’s especially important to keep abreast of government advice.

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Tikal

Guatemala links:

Chocolate making:

https://www.chocomuseo.com/english/our-locations/antigua-gua/

Tourist shuttle service:

https://www.graylinecostarica.com/costa-rica-shuttle-services-and-tourist-bus

A week in Belize

Belize was known as British Honduras until 1981 and English is its official language.  I think this more Caribbean, less Latino feel is why it was my least favourite of the seven countries.  That’s not to write it off though.  Transferring at the airport onto a little plane to head out to Ambergris Caye was laid back and fun, but the views down to the water were spectacular.  The diving’s great, with access to the famous Blue Hole a possibility.

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Looking down on the islands from the air

It’s worth heading back to the mainland as Belize has some interesting Mayan sites to visit.  I visited Lamanai on a day trip from Ambergris Caye, heading inland on an old American school us and then up the New River by boat.  There’s a Mennonite community living in Shipyard, not far from the ruins, and you might get a glimpse of them going about their business as you pass by.  There are other worthwhile Mayan ruins to see in Belize, among them Caracol and Altun-Ha.

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Head upriver to Lamanai, whose name means “submerged crocodile”

If you want to extend your time in Belize, Placencia gets a good write up as a place to chill out and recharge the batteries.

Belize links:

Lamanai tours:

http://www.lamanaitour.com/lamanai-tour-ambergris-caye/

Ambergris Caye information:

https://ambergriscaye.com/

In summary

You’ll need several months to do justice to all seven countries in the same trip, but it’s easy to combine a couple of neighbouring nations and concentrate on one part of the region.  For me, the countries that are least developed are the ones I’m drawn to revisit – El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.  But each one rewards the traveller, so whichever you choose, I’m sure you’ll have a great trip!


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

View from Mirador Portas do Sol

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/