juliamhammond

Travel advice and information

Tourism on my doorstep: Colchester’s Bourne Mill

Eighteen months ago, I moved to a village close to Britain’s oldest recorded town.  Colchester was mentioned by Pliny the Elder in 77 AD; it was then known as the Roman settlement of Camulodunum.  After much time spent doing DIY and decorating the house, I decided it was time to get out and explore the town on my doorstep.  Today that took me to the delightful Bourne Mill, a National Trust property just outside Colchester town centre.

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Bourne Mill with the stream running beneath it

If you live in East Anglia, you might be interested to know that Greater Anglia are running a promotion this summer called Let the Adventure Begin.  There’s also a competition running until mid-August in which you could win first-class train tickets to any station on their network:

https://www.greateranglia.co.uk/about-us/news-desk/news-articles/win-free-rail-tickets-greater-anglia-summer

Win that, and you too could be exploring Colchester.  Visitors today can see plenty of evidence of the town’s long history, from the Roman Berryfield mosaic at Firstsite to surviving groundworks of the Roman theatre which can be seen in Maidenburgh Street in the town’s Dutch Quarter.  The Tourist Information Centre run a superb bi-weekly walking tour which I highly recommend.

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Colchester Castle

Now, look closely at the photo above and in particular, the materials used to build the castle.  The structure that you see is Norman.  Construction began in 1076, similar to the Tower of London, but all is not what it seems.  The foundations stand on what was the Temple of Claudius dating from about 55-60 AD and many of the building materials were recycled from Roman Colchester.  In particular, look at the red stones that form the cornerstones – they look almost like roof tiles.  These crop up elsewhere too, for example, in the remains of the fortifications that once encircled the town (you can make them out about halfway up the original wall to the left of the picture below):

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Roman wall near St Botolph’s Priory

I shouldn’t have been surprised, therefore, to see the same materials plundered to build Bourne Mill, located about a 20 minute walk away.  This National Trust property was originally a fishing lodge used by the monks of St John’s Abbey.  A stream, the Bourne, emerges a short distance north of the site and spills out to form a large pond, thought to have been created artificially as there appears to be no geological reason for the water to widen.

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The pond at Bourne Mill

After the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII, St John’s Abbey passed to the Lucas family and later, they began to demolish it.  Seeking to improve on the monks’ fishing hut, they constructed what’s now Bourne Mill.  The stones were cannibalised and together with those Roman bricks, pieces of flint and some Walton-on-the-Naze septaria to hold it all together, this wonderful building was the result.

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Bourne Mill

Well actually, not quite.

What Sir Thomas Lucas built was a single story dwelling, thought to be a place where he could go with his well-heeled mates to fish and then hang out over dinner.  On the ground floor, there are two fireplaces which lend credence to this theory.  Carp, pike and wildfowl would have been plentiful so it seems likely that this story is true.  This beautiful banner, stitched by the Colne and Colchester Embroiderers Guild, tells the story.

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Wall hanging at Bourne Mill

But that story doesn’t end there, of course.  Now that Britain was Protestant, it became a haven for those fleeing religious persecution in Catholic Europe.  Granted refuge by Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1565, they boosted the town’s population, congregating in what would later become known as Colchester’s Dutch Quarter.  Though they kept themselves separate when it came to socialising and marriage, they did have a profound effect on the north Essex landscape and economy, bringing their weaving industry skills and breathing new life into a flagging industry.

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Bourne Mill prior to its use as a corn mill

The Dutch introduced new worsted draperies, known as bays and says.  They were lighter and cheaper, and not surprisingly proved very popular.  A method of quality control was introduced in 1631, immediately raising the status of Colchester cloth.  That Dutch seal automatically meant that your cloth fetched a higher price; faulty workmanship, on the other hand, would lead to fines (called rawboots) being levied.

Bourne Mill grew an upper storey, recognisable by the gable ends that are also commonly found in the Netherlands and Belgium.  It became a fulling mill,  a place where cloth was softened to make it more wearable.  A waterwheel would have made the process of hammering the fabric much less labour-intensive.  Initially urine, collected from the poorhouse, would have been used in the process; the ammonia it contained helped to clean and whiten the cloth.  Later, Fuller’s earth would have been used instead.  Afterwards, the cloth was stretched on frames known as tenters to dry – attached by tenterhooks.

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Part of the wheel mechanism

After a while, the Essex cloth industry fell into decline once more.  The cloth industry, bay especially, was vulnerable in the 18th century to disruption by wars, competition from rival manufacturers, and the import of cotton.  As the cloth industry declined, the fulling mills were converted to grind corn or grain, competing with the many windmills that dotted the landscape.  By around 1840, Bourne Mill was no longer in use as a fulling mill. It was converted to a corn mill by 1860 and it’s for this purpose that the uppermost floor and sack hoist would have been installed.  Later, it was steam driven, but the last miller hung up his apron in 1935.

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Bourne Mill today

Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised at just how much there was to see and learn at Bourne Mill, expecting only to see a waterwheel and not a lot more.  The team of volunteers work hard to bring the Mill’s history to life and succeed in communicating their enthusiasm.  I’d especially like to thank Liz Mullen and Joan Orme for their insights and for not burdening me with more historical detail than I could cope with.

Acknowledgements and practical information

I’d like to say thanks to the National Trust who provided me with a free pass to visit Bourne Mill.  If you’d like to do the same, entrance costs £3.75 for adults and £1.90 for children.  The place is open from Wednesday to Sunday inclusive, from 10am to 5pm.  Dogs are welcome on a lead, though there’s a steep ladder-like staircase to the upper storey which they won’t be able to access.  There’s a small cafe too and plenty of picnic tables perfect for sitting and watching the ducks, including Joan’s favourite with the quiff.

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Check out that fluffy head!

There are plenty of things to do with the kids, including free use of the Mill’s pond dipping equipment, making this a good choice now that the school summer holidays are upon us:

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/bourne-mill/features/things-to-see-and-do-at-bourne-mill

The National Trust website also has a guided walk which you can follow to get a better grasp of your surroundings.  I shall be back soon to try it out.

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/bourne-mill/trails/bourne-mill-a-wee-wander

If you’d like to begin with the Camulodunum to Colchester walking tour, then this takes place at 11am on Saturdays year-round, with additional walks on Wednesdays at the same time throughout the summer.  Walks need to be pre-booked as they do fill up; adults cost £4.30 and children £3.10.  Find out more here:

http://www.visitcolchester.com/things-to-do/tours-sightseeing.aspx

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At Bourne Mill, parking is limited on site – Sir Thomas Lucas didn’t plan ahead – but you should be able to find roadside parking nearby.  Better still, take the train.  Greater Anglia’s nearest station is Colchester Town.  It’s about a 20 minute walk from the town centre to the Mill, but you can catch a bus to Mersea Road from outside the station if your feet have had enough.

The fastest connections from London Liverpool Street to Colchester’s main station take just 46 minutes and just over an hour to the Colchester Town station right in the centre of town.  More details can be found on the Greater Anglia website:

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

#lettheadventurebegin


Everything you need to know about flying

The title’s a bit of an exaggeration – at the very least a work in progress – but I’m in the process of creating an index for my blog posts. Here’s the first instalment. With years of independent travel under my belt there’s a lot of advice I can share about airlines and air travel. From finding business class flights at fares lower than economy to what to do if your flight is cancelled, there’s a blog to help.
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Tips for saving money on flights
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/nine-tips-to-save-money-on-flights-and-one-to-avoid/
Cabin baggage charges
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/07/22/the-increasingly-thorny-issue-of-cabin-baggage/
What to do if you miss your flight
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/07/27/what-to-do-if-you-miss-your-flight/
How to travel business class for the price of economy
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/07/18/how-to-fly-business-class-for-the-price-of-economy/
Are business class flights really worth the extra?
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/06/14/are-business-class-flights-really-worth-the-extra/
How to survive a long haul flight
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/05/03/how-to-survive-a-long-haul-flight/
What’s it like to travel long haul on a budget airline?
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/01/19/whats-it-like-to-travel-long-haul-on-a-budget-airline/
Thoughts on airports
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/05/24/its-almost-time-to-go-to-the-airport/
Transport options from Heathrow to London
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/12/07/how-to-get-the-best-out-of-a-heathrow-layover/
How to get the best from a Heathrow layover
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/how-to-get-the-best-out-of-a-heathrow-layover-part-2/
Getting your money back if your flight is cancelled
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/finally-a-win-against-cityjet/


The increasingly thorny issue of cabin baggage

Airline Jet2 are in the news this weekend, with an article in the Daily Mail highlighting their new policy of charging for guaranteed cabin baggage.  You can read the article here:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4719308/Now-airlines-charge-bring-HAND-LUGGAGE.html

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I was a little suspicious, given the propensity of the Daily Mail to be economical with the truth, so I did some fact checking.  Buried within the Jet2 website, and revealed as far as I could see only after you have reserved flights and are well into the booking process, is the opportunity to pay extra to keep your bag with you:

Subject to availability, you can pre-book “guaranteed cabin baggage” for an extra charge, and if you have purchased this service, you will not be asked to put your hand baggage in the hold (unless it exceeds the weight and size requirements detailed above or operational requirements apply).  If we require your guaranteed cabin baggage to go into the hold for operational requirements, you can contact customer services to arrange a refund for any charges which you have paid for this service.

I tried a sample booking of a flight from Stansted to Dubrovnik.  The cost of ensuring your cabin baggage made it into the cabin with you (subject to those operational requirements not being necessary, of course) was £3 per person per leg, a little more than the £2.59 quoted in the Mail’s article.

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Would you pay it?

I’m not sure I would.  But then I’ve rarely taken a suitcase on board and instead prefer to check it or, better still, leave it behind.  I find it irritating to wait while wheelie after wheelie bangs its way down the aisle, though with airlines charging to put such luggage in the hold, I can hardly blame those doing so.  But this not only slows boarding, it often means that there’s too much luggage to fit.  I’ve taken many a Ryanair flight – the airline guarantees only the first 90 carry on bags will make it on board – and watched it all kick off as people are asked (or not) to hand over their bags.  My fairly small day pack has always made it on board, I presume because it can fit between my feet and wouldn’t have to be placed in the overhead bins.

Wizz Air, it would seem, have had to backtrack on their plans to charge for guaranteed larger sized cabin baggage.  You can take on a bag of up to 42x32x25cm free of charge, but to carry on an item up to the maximum dimensions (55x40x23cm) there’s a price to pay.  Until 29th October 2017, this can be anything from 10 to 20 euros according to the small print on their website (35 euros if you take care of business at the airport), but this add-on disappears after that date, supposedly incorporated into the price of your seat.  Have Wizz caved under the pressure of customer complaints, I wonder?

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At this point, you’re likely to be muttering things about budget airlines, but they’re not the only offenders.  Increasingly, scheduled, so-called full service airlines are supplementing their fares with extra fees and charges.  And when it comes to revenue “earned” by such add-ons, you might be surprised to learn who the worst offenders are:

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Some airlines are worryingly reliant on additional revenue as a share of their total earnings.  You can read the full report here:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/airlines-that-rely-most-on-extra-charges/

So, even on a scheduled airline, if I want to select my seat in advance (and even as a solo traveller I might, or risk being stuck in that middle seat that no one wants) I’m likely to have to pay for the privilege.  At the moment at least, I’m not likely to have to hand over my carry on luggage but who knows how long that might last?

I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this.  As travellers, if we’re determined to do so on as low a budget as possible, we’re going to have to think hard about what we really need to take with us.  I shared my packing tips here:
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/02/28/packing-tips-from-someone-who-learnt-the-hard-way-2/

Taking large suitcases will perhaps become a luxury rather than the norm.  It will certainly be interesting to see if Jet2’s new policy lasts the distance, and if it does, whether other airlines will follow suit.

What are your views?  Would you pay to ensure your bag comes on board with you or do you think it’s one rip-off too many?  I’d love to hear what you think.


Photos from Ushguli

During my recent trip to Georgia, I spent a day in the hotch-potch straggle of villages collectively known as Ushguli.

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One of the best preserved Svan towers

They’re reached by an apology of a road from Mestia, the main focal point of tourism in Svaneti.  I shared a taxi with a couple of Germans to bounce and slide over gravel, in and out of potholes and scarily close to sections of road which had just fallen away.  The road’s in the process of being rebuilt, so don’t let that put you off.

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The view is worth the effort

Ushguli translates as “fearless heart” which matches the reputation of the Svans historically being a fearsome people suspicious of incomers.  Five villages form the settlement of Ushguli: Murkmeli which you pass as you go in, Chazhashi where your driver will park, and then higher up Chvibiani, Zhibiani and Lamjurishi, the highest of which claims to be the highest permanently settled village in Europe.  It’s a slightly dubious claim, though, not least because geographers and other experts can’t even decide whether Georgia is European or Asian.  (I’ll save that one for a later blog post.)

So what is it about Ushguli that makes it worth the arduous journey?  Mostly, it’s the setting.  Reached at the dead end of this rural road, all that stretches ahead of you are the few clusters of homes and Svan towers that constitute the villages and then meadows framed by the mountain peaks of the Great Caucasus.  UNESCO have had Chazhashi on their list since 1996.  Part of the attraction is just to find a quiet corner and sit.  There’s also an ethnographic museum in one of the towers which is far more interesting than it sounds.  Honestly.  I’m no great fan of museums but it was good.

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12th century cross in the ethnographic museum

In Mestia, the person to find is the lady that sells the marshrutka tickets from her agency next to the bakery in the centre of town.  She manages more of the drivers and you’ll wait for less time.  A return ticket in a shared taxi costs 20 lari.  Be prepared to negotiate how long a wait you’ll have in Ushguli with your driver.  Tip: if you wish to spend more than a couple of hours, it’s worth popping into the restaurant he’s likely to have holed up in to make sure he’s not been knocking back too many beers.

Some of my favourite shots from the day:

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Chazhashi’s riverside setting

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View from inside the ethnographic museum over Chazhashi

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Sheepdog guarding the ethnographic museum

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Young tearaway on a lively horse

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Grandma takes a rest

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Scratching post

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Cow under the public toilet

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Piglets feeding

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Tower and current occupant!

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Cow wandering through the village

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Looking down over Ushguli

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Monastery dwarfed by mountain

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Transport home? “You can go faster but I can go everywhere.”

If you’re planning a trip to Georgia – and you should – make sure you don’t miss Svaneti. You can stay in Ushguli and you can even do a three day hike there from Mestia in the short summer season. Or you can do as I did and base yourself in Mestia and visit Ushguli for the day.


Why you should visit the Armenia Genocide Museum and Memorial

On Tsitsernakaberd Hill, overlooking the city of Yerevan, you’ll find a pilgrimage site dedicated to the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide.  Their harrowing story cannot fail to move you, as it did me.

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I sit, alone. The music haunts every inch of stone and every speck of dust. The sound of violins, melancholic yet soothing, permeates the soul. I feel it. It seeps into my heart and as I focus on the flickering flame, I raise a hand to my cheek, wiping a persistent tear. A few sorry bunches of carnations have wilted where they were placed. Tall slabs of basalt crush the sunlight. The sky is obstinately blue but in here, inside the stone circle, it’s a place of shadows and ghosts. I’m shocked at the strength of my feelings. Until yesterday, I hadn’t been aware an Armenian genocide had taken place. And I’m ashamed of that.

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A cleaner arrives with her broom and sweeps, rhythmically, until my attention is forced out of its sad reverie. She busies herself collecting dead blooms and rearranging those that will stay. A young man follows her with a camera, framing and reframing his shots. He clicks repeatedly but then he too is still. A family of five arrive, speaking Armenian, and pose in endless configurations for snapshots beside the flame. The emotion I felt is lost and I glance at my watch. The museum is open. I head inside.

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I read, missing nothing, trying to make sense of what happened. In the late 19th century, Armenia was a divided country. The Persians had ceded territories to the Russians, who occupied what was then known as Eastern Armenia. Strategically important Western Armenia had fallen to the Ottomans in 1555 and over four centuries later, they retained control. War between the Russian and Ottoman Empires had torn Armenia apart. Armenians living under Turkish rule looked to the Russians for protection but though the 1878 Treaty of Berlin set out basic rights for Armenians they were not honoured. Amidst growing calls for independence, Sultan Abdul Hamid, the leader of the Ottoman Empire, tightened his grip on the dissenters. Words were banned: Armenia, rights, freedom.

To ban the word freedom is an alien concept.  From my privileged life in a stable democracy, how could I understand?

Compelled, I read on. In 1895, 300,000 protesters were massacred in Constantinople in an attempt by Hamid to shut down the Armenian Question for good. It didn’t work. Nine years later, there was another uprising. The stability of the Ottoman Empire was under threat. In 1908, a political party called the Young Turks seized power. Their policy of the “salvation of the Turkish homeland” could only be achieved, they held, by the liquidation of the Christian population. Under their watch, anti-Armenian atrocities continued unpunished. A further 30,000 were killed in a market in Adana in 1909. Their treatment was horrific. Many were set alight or stabbed repeatedly. The backs of children’s legs were gored with cotton hooks leaving gaping holes. A series of photographs documented the horror.

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I’m struck by the eyes.  They stare, vacantly, yet implore those watching to act. But it’s too late. I’m a century too late.

World War One was to provide cover for the vilest act of all. A secret treaty was signed, allying the Ottomans with the Germans. Needing the support of its largely Islamic population to survive, the Turks proclaimed Jihad in an attempt to demonstrate their religious credentials. In October 1914, 60,000 Armenians were called up to fight, joining others already conscripted. They fought, bravely, at Sarikamish on the Caucasian Front under Enver Pasha, but were no match for the wintry conditions. The Ottomans suffered huge losses and 70,000 lost their lives. A scapegoat was required. The Armenians were that scapegoat. Soldiers who had fought alongside Pasha were killed on his orders. Afterwards, the Young Turks turned their attention to civilians, murdering politicians, clergy, intellectuals and other eminent Armenians. Mass arrests followed, in Western Armenia and Constantinople.

The Armenian family I saw at the memorial see that I’m making notes. It’s diaspora season and they’re from LA, bringing their children to the home of their ancestors for the first time. They ask if I’m a writer and if I’m going to write about this. I promise them I will, emotion choking my words. The mother hugs me, an unspoken thank you.

Unarmed Armenians in Ottoman territory were rounded up to be sent to the deserts of Mesopotamia and Syria, their property looted as they left. Men were separated and stabbed. Women, children and the elderly were spared, but instead driven south. On the way, their police and army escorts stood by and did nothing as bands of Kurds and Turks kidnapped and murdered the helpless. Those who did complete the journey ended up in concentration camps. In Rakka, Bab, Deir Ez-Zor, Ras Ul-Ain and Meskene, 600,000 endured horrendous atrocities. They were subjected to medical experiments, pregnant women were used for target practice, bare feet were shod as if they were horses’ hooves, children were burned alive or dragged behind horses until they died from their injuries. Rape was common. An estimated 600,000 lost their lives.

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It’s hard to reconcile what I’m reading with the gentle and welcoming Turks I’ve met on my travels. I’m shocked to find I’m upset, not because I think it’s not worth getting upset about, but because at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, I haven’t been. Sobered, desperately sad, but not upset like this. The tragedy that befell the Armenians feels worse, somehow, because I wasn’t aware it had happened. I feel that in some way that means I’ve betrayed them.

On May 24 1915 France, Britain and Russia issued a joint statement condemning and declaring the Turkish government responsible for a “crime against humanity and civilisation”. After the war, the Young Turks were brought to trial. The key perpetrators – Mehmed Talat, Ismail Enver and Ahmed Djemal – were brought to justice and punished for what they’d done. Yet today, the mass extermination of Armenians isn’t acknowledged by all countries. Britain views what happened as a war crime and doesn’t recognise it as genocide.

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I climb, slowly, from the bowels of the museum back up into the sunshine of the plaza, legs and heart heavy. Another tear escapes from my eye but this time, I let it fall.

Practical matters

To visit the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial it’s easiest to take a taxi.  From Republic Square I paid 700 drams, just over £1.  The museum is free to enter.  Leaving, the unofficial taxis in the car park were asking for 2000 drams for the same ride.  I walked down the hill and across the footbridge to the Dalma Garden Mall, from where I caught the #27 marshrutka back to Mashtots Avenue for a 100 dram fare.  The bus stops right outside the Blue Mosque, also worth a visit.

http://www.genocide-museum.am


Dude ranch vs. working ranch – how do you know what’s best for you?

Yee-ha!  There’s still some kind of magic associated with the cowboy lifestyle, isn’t there?  I don’t know about you, but seeing a man in chaps astride a horse is enough to get me all of a tizzy.  Back home (and I’m not referring to my husband here) men can seem just a little too in touch with their feminine side.  Out on the ranch, though, as they gallop off leaving a trail of dust behind them, well, it’s work for real men…

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Yep, a ranch holiday is for me.  But whether to spend my holiday on a dude ranch or on a working ranch was too difficult a choice – so I booked both.  How did they compare?

The activities

Panagea Ranch, located an hour outside Tacuarembó in Uruguay, accepts visitors but expects them to get involved in ranch life.  Juan inherited the ranch that his grandfather bought and has an emotional commitment as well as financial to the place which is obvious almost as soon as you arrive.

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During my stay, getting involved meant riding out to check on the progress of a sick sheep (and finding it incredibly quickly considering there are 1800 of them!), rounding up some of the 1100 head of cattle to move them to new pasture and herding them into the dip so that they could be treated for ticks.  It was hard work for a novice rider (though they don’t require any prior riding ability, it helps to have spent at least a bit of time in the saddle) but there was also a huge sense of accomplishment.

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In contrast, the Dixie Dude Ranch, on the outskirts of the Cowboy Capital of the World (that’s Bandera, Texas if you didn’t know) offered more of a vacation experience.  It has been welcoming visitors since 1937 and offers sedate trail rides, hiking and a huge pool with hot tub.  There’s evening entertainment too.  On the first night, we were treated to a ride in a hay cart to feed the couple of dozen longhorn cattle that can be found on the ranch.

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The next, we were treated to a show by a trick roper who was in town for the Bandera rodeo before heading off to Morgan Freeman’s 80th birthday party.  Marshmallows were also provided to toast over the campfire.  I travelled as part of a group and so we enjoyed relaxing by the fire in the evening – it’s a great place to head with a group of friends, though you may wish to stop off at Walmart on the way in as no alcohol is provided.  They’re fine with BYOB.

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The staff

In Uruguay, Juan Manuel was a little gruff at first but has a heart of gold and a genuine desire to both learn more about his guests and teach them how his ranch works.  The sole female in a group of men on the first night, things were a bit macho at the start, but I did warm to Juan and have a huge respect for what he does.  Susana makes you feel like one of the family from the get-go.

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A warm Southern welcome was just what you’d expect from Texas and the staff made you feel like a VIP rather than any old guest.  On the rides, at both ranches I felt safe and well looked after.  The horses at both ranches were well looked after and their welfare a high priority.

The accommodation

Accommodation provided by Panagea is, by their own admission, fairly basic.  Rooms were comfortable but when the ranch is full, single travellers might need to share.  The beds were firm and everything spotlessly clean.  Hot water is usually available but electricity is only available for a couple of hours each evening. There’s no WiFi.  To be honest, I enjoyed that.  It made me focus on the outdoors and I slept more soundly as a result.  I also thought it was excellent value at US$65 per person per night full board including activities.

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Dixie Dude Ranch is more akin to holiday accommodation with a range of chalets for guests and WiFi near the main building (though guests are asked to limit data usage due to restrictions outside the control of the ranch).  I stayed in one of the oldest cabins, which was a little more basic than the newer ones.  The latter were spacious enough to contain armchairs and even a fireplace.  Water is sourced from the property’s well which was temporarily down one morning during our stay; service was resumed rapidly.  My only niggle was the noise from the air conditioner which interrupted my sleep!  As you’d expect, accommodation in the States is more expensive than in South America.  Dixie Dude Ranch charges $165pppn for single occupancy and $145pppn if you share.

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The food

Both ranches welcomed guests on a full board basis.  At Panagea, Juan’s wife Susana was an incredible cook and the food was in equal parts tasty and plentiful.  When Susana’s in town, Juan cooks, and he does a mean barbecue.  Dinner is when everyone’s back and the fire’s going; preparing, setting the table and eating is a communal affair with the family.  Juan loves to promote Uruguayan wine and will happily toast to that with his guests.  In the mornings, everyone helps themselves to what’s there; the wood-fired range was somewhat different to the induction hob at home but a fun challenge to master.  The food at Dixie Dude Ranch was good too (though not quite to Susana’s standards) and there was plenty for second helpings.  Service there was attentive and sincere.

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The verdict

Which ranch stay would I recommend?  I enjoyed both of them immensely, but in terms of the experience, it will be Panagea which I’ll more fondly remember.  I think it’s probably because I felt a real sense of achievement there.  As a novice rider who’s just about mastered a trot, I didn’t have the confidence to think I could help to herd cattle until Juan showed me I could.  He is a great fan of making people step outside their comfort zone!  Juan claims he can teach even a beginner in just a few days but I was glad I’d had a few lessons back home to learn the basics.

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But I think if I’d never been on a horse before, Panagea might have been a bit too ambitious.  Being able to mix riding with other activities (such as lazing by the pool or watching the hummingbirds come and go on the front porch) made Dixie Dude Ranch a great choice for a relaxing holiday.  But get those riding lessons booked so like me, you can make it to Uruguay one day!


Is Austin weird?

The Texan city of Austin would like to think so. Proud of its alternative culture and buzzing music scene, the city’s slogan is “Keep Austin weird”. The dictionary definition of weird has the word’s meaning as “suggesting something supernatural; unearthly” or more informally “very strange; bizarre”.Compared to America’s many identikit cities, some parts of Austin have an indy feel, but is this enough to warrant the label?

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Google “weird Austin” and there’s no end of blogs and e-zine articles trying to justify the term. From watching bats leave their roost under South Congress bridge to playing Chicken Shit Bingo at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, there are no end of suggestions.

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But read a little more carefully and you’ll perhaps find such writers are a little economical with the facts. There are suggestions that drinking a particular cocktail or watching a band play live in a bar is weird. Given that you can do that in any major city, I don’t see how that qualifies as weird.

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There’s a whole load of street murals which are a common sight in many a city these days and a cathedral of junk – but isn’t that just someone’s interpretation of art? Someone even went so far as to suggest the local propensity for eating tacos qualified the place as weird. Seriously?

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I didn’t take to Austin. In its defence, I was there for the weekend – and Memorial Day weekend at that. Entertainment venues were heaving, the restaurants were packed and added to the mix was a bunch of thunderstorms that brought unusually high humidity for the time of year.

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The music was pumping, the bass was thumping. If you’re 21, you’d have loved it, but for this middle-aged traveller, it wasn’t ideal. Ginny’s had a classic car show on its forecourt and was even more rammed than the regulars said it should be. The bats left it so late to come out from their hiding place it was too dark to see them when they did. Disappointing it was, weird it was not.

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And I’m not alone. Google “Austin is overrated” and you’ll also find plenty of results. For those of us that like to sightsee as well as socialise, there’s a relatively limited number of sights to see. OK it has the State Capitol, which as you’d expect from Texas is bigger than everyone else’s and impressive inside. There’s a couple of good museums, including the LBJ Library and Museum dedicated to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The riverfront is pleasant, but nothing to write home about. There’s a certain charm to SoCo, with its quirky shops and the excellent Jo’s for coffee, but it’s bisected by the busy road which gives the district its name.

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Amidst the noise, the many panhandlers that were just a stone’s throw from 6th Street and the Saturday night vomit on the pavement, one place stood out. The Broken Spoke had an excellent band, Two Tons of Steel, and a comfortable family vibe.

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Sure, people were drinking, but there were also granddads dancing with their granddaughters and young couples deep in conversation in between masterful circuits of the dance floor. (Yes, the music wasn’t so loud as to drown out their voices.) My brief Texas Two Step lesson wasn’t sufficient to give me the confidence to join them but it was fun to watch. From the moment we stepped through the door to be greeted by an elderly cowboy in a rhinestone studded shirt, we were welcomed. By the time the charming Ben Rogers doffed his Stetson and took a break from propping up the bar to call us a cab home, we were made to feel like we came every weekend.

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You see, what made Austin special was its residents. It’s that Southern hospitality thing kicking in again. In every venue and on every street corner, locals were keen to share their city. You don’t need a guidebook in Austin, you just need to hang around and chat. There’ll be no end of people to talk to.

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We were given recommendations for places to eat, drink and shop without soliciting for information. What’s more, they turned out to be good. I’d have not known about the Iced Turbo coffee at Jo’s in SoCo if the friendly gent at the lights hadn’t passed the time of day, nor would I have found Easy Tiger, its yummy bratwurst a welcome change from the ubiquitous (but tasty) Mexican fare.

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So, no, Austin’s not weird, no matter how much it would like to be, and as a tourist destination it’s a little dull, but its welcome is possibly the best you’ll get in the Lone Star state.