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How to visit Abkhazia from Georgia

Why visit Abkhazia?

Country counters are always on the lookout for opportunities to add to their total, hence a visit to Abkhazia is on many a bucket list. It’s no longer an active conflict zone, though banditry at the border is reportedly still an issue, particularly after dark. Gal, the scruffy border town near the Enguri crossing, still bears the scars of war in the form of burnt out and abandoned homes, but though it does have something of a reputation, I didn’t feel unsafe as I travelled through. Sukhumi, the capital, is also only part way through reconstruction. The hulking Government Palace is the most noticeable landmark to await renovation, overgrown with weeds inside and riddled with concrete cancer. I visited a couple of hours after a summer thunderstorm and the sound of percolating rain water only added to the atmosphere.

But the Botanical Gardens were pleasant and down by the waterfront of this Black Sea resort, you’ll find pavement cafes and ice cream sellers with plenty of family-friendly attractions to keep the kids happy. Many of those who visit Sukhumi are Russians, coming across the border from nearby Sochi. Arriving from Georgia, I was the only visible tourist. Most of those crossing are local. Some are returning to Abkhazia with purchases from Zugdidi – I saw one rotund lady struggling in the heat pushing a trolley loaded with a refrigerator. Others cross daily for work.

Securing a visa

At least a week or so before your planned visit, you’ll need to apply for a visa. No payment will be necessary at this stage. It’s a simple form and can be downloaded from this website:

http://mfaapsny.org/en/council/visa.php

The only thing to be careful about is specifying exactly which dates you intend to travel as these will be fixed. You don’t get an open-ended month long visa for example. Email off the form together with a scan of your passport. In about a week, you should receive a letter of invitation. You may need to check your spam folder; the email that popped up into my inbox was headed simply “clearance” with the sender’s name in Russian and I almost deleted it. You’ll need to print off a copy of this letter and carry it with you. Some bloggers suggest you might require two copies but I needed only one.

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The letter will have your date of birth next to your name plus your passport number

Getting to the border

The easiest route to the Enguri border is by taxi from Zugdidi which should cost you 10 GEL (Georgian Lari, about £3.30 at current exchange rates). It’s also possible to travel by marshrutka. I speak no Georgian or Russian and taxi drivers didn’t see to understand border or even Abkhazia. Drop into the tourist information office on Rustaveli Street and pick up a regional map; you can then point to the border if necessary.

Money

Before you set off, stop at one of the exchange places on Kostava Street to get some rubles. They don’t all stock rubles and again you might have trouble being understood; I ended up taking a photograph of a sign marked “Rub” and showing that. $100 was plenty to cover mid-range accommodation, food and transport for a couple of days. I didn’t see anyone obviously changing rubles at the border and you’ll need small notes (50s and 100s) to pay the marshrutka drivers once you arrive.

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Sometimes you need to use your initiative!

At the border

I made the mistake of arriving early, figuring that as I had read online about lengthy waits at both ends of the bridge, I should give myself plenty of time. There was a flaw with this plan and that was that the Georgian police official who could authorise my transit didn’t arrive until 10am. From 8.20am when I arrived, I was given a frosty but polite welcome by the police manning the exit booth. I was held for around an hour and a half. Technically. In practice, what this meant was that they waved me in to sit and wait in their office where they were watching Ultraviolet, a really bad Milla Jojovich vampire movie. Fortunately, they also had unsecured WiFi so the time passed quickly. When the boss arrived, I was processed without a single question and pointing to the door, pronounced good to go.

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Your ride across the bridge – should you need it

The walk across the bridge took around 15 minutes, as I had luggage, it was hot and I made frequent photo stops. Mostly no one seemed to mind that I was taking pictures. There are horse and carts which can be hired, but no one seemed to be that bothered about picking up a fare so shanks’ pony it was.

At the other side, a cheery official in army fatigues studied my passport and on learning I spoke no Russian, ushered me to sit down on what looked like it had once been a 1970s British bus seat. Lots of smiles, lots of “Hello, American? ensued” Ten minutes later, another soldier arrived, this time he knew some English. I was asked where I was from, my job, how long I planned to stay in Abkhazia and what I wanted to visit.   I made sure I was very positive, smiled a lot and concentrated on the places rather than the politics.  Satisfied with my answers, I was passed to the customs hut who processed me with a minimum of fuss.

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Welcome to Abkhazia

It was then time to find a marshrutka heading for Sukhumi. I’d read that you could get a direct minibus but the only labelled marshrutka was for Gal. The name is easily recognisable in the Cyrillic: a back to front 7 followed by an A and a 3. The minibus was nearly full and left almost immediately, charging me 50 rubles theoretically but in practice, as I had no change, 100 rubles in practice. It took just half an hour or so, maybe less, to reach Gal and then circle around dropping people off, picking up flour and then, eventually, handing me over to a minibus driver bound for Sukhumi. The ride to the capital took under two hours, by which time the heavens had opened and I stepped out into torrential rain. That ride cost me 200 rubles. I was let out in the centre, saving me the fare from the train station where the marshrutkas terminate.

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Inside the marshrutka

After the rain eased, and not before I was soaked to the skin waiting for my hotel owner to deign to come to the gate or answer the phone, I headed down to get my visa. For this, I needed to visit 33 Sakharov Street, an easy to find building set in a small but well maintained garden.

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This is the building to look out for

Inside, there was a gloomy corridor with a sign for consular services which led to a poky office. I was seen right away. Not only could I process the letter here, but I could also pay. The official asked if I wished to pay with a credit card and the chip and pin machine accepted my British Visa card with no problems. My overnight visa cost 350 rubles, though I’m not sure if a longer stay would necessitate a higher price.

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What your visa will look like

Having thoroughly explored, I caught a taxi to the train station (150 rubles) in time to get me there for 11am, about the time my Lonely Planet said the border-bound marshrutka would leave. In fact, it was scheduled for 12.30pm. A shared taxi took a group of about six of us to the border. The fares were the same, 250 rubles in total. Crossing the border was much quicker than before. A few questions from the Abkhazian authorities about where I’d been and much smiling as I said I’d very much enjoyed Sukhumi and I was on my way. Aside from being asked to turn back and use the pedestrian path rather than the road the other side of the wire fence, it went without a hitch and after a cursory inspection from the Georgian police, I was back in. Another 10 GEL taxi ride took me to the centre of Zugdidi from where I was to catch my overnight train to Tbilisi.

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First class sleeper to Tbilisi: 8 hours for a bargain 30 GEL!

If you’re thinking of visiting Abkhazia yourself and have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment.


Monastery-hopping in Armenia

Armenia claims to be the oldest Christian nation on the planet so it’s hardly surprising that you’ll encounter plenty of monasteries. Most feature a “gavit” or entrance hall, where the floor is often spread with graves. A few steps will lead into the church proper. As a woman, covering your head isn’t required as it would be in Georgia. You will see the faithful reverse out of the church so as not to turn their back on God; even those who aren’t regular churchgoers sometimes do this out of respect. Here’s a brief guide to eight of its most commonly visited.

Haghpat

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Located in the Debed Canyon, this is for many visitors their first monastery in Armenia as it lies on the way to Yerevan from the Georgian capital Tbilisi. This imposing mediaeval complex was built in the 9th century, a sprawling delight of building added on to building, the grey stone set off perfectly by the terracotta of the roof tiles. Inside, one of the rooms has a series of holes in the floor, once used for storing wine.

Why should you visit?
As it’s quite a distance from Tbilisi to Yerevan, this is a great way of breaking the journey.

Sanahin

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Twinned with Haghpat, this one means “older than that one” though it’s not as attractive from the outside. The cavernous interior is fascinating, with plenty of tombstones on the floor. Step on them as it’s commonly held that if you do, you’re freeing the dead of their sins – and fortunately not taking them upon yourself as a burden in the meantime. And you’ll learn how to recognise whether a monastery is a functioning church or not – if it has a curtain that can be pulled across the altar, it still hosts regular services.

Why should you visit?
While you’re in the Debed Canyon, you may as well visit both the monasteries.

Geghard

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A party of schoolchildren were visiting at the same time, so for me, this monastery lacked the serenity that some of the others offered. It was a good opportunity to watch the priest deliver a blessing and to hear the acoustics as the children sang inside the chapel. Look out for the whole in the floor which allows you to peep down into the church from above. There’s also a spring inside which is believed to be holy.

Why should you visit?
If you’re in Yerevan and your time is limited, this is an easy excursion from the city and together with nearby Garni temple, doable in just a few hours.

Sevanavank

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To reach Sevanavank, located above the shoreline of Lake Sevan, you’ll need to climb a lot of steps: 243 to be precise. The reward, though, is a panoramic view of Armenia’s largest lake and its environs. Again it’s a double church site plus plenty of khatchkhars to admire in its cemetery. Those are the standing stones which you’ll see at all religious sites. The largest concentration can be found further along the lakeshore at Noratus cemetery. But it’s that vast expanse of blue that will draw your attention away time and time again.

Why should you visit?
It’s all about that spectacular view – and the satisfaction of making it up the steps without collapsing.

Hayravank

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This monastery, built out of tufa, also lies on Lake Sevan, but this time occupies a less lofty position. Its alternative name is Aghavnavank, meaning “church of the human pigeons”. The connection refers to a legend associated with Tamerlane, whereby the local population were turned into pigeons to keep them safe from the invaders – a deal had been struck that anyone who could fit into the church would be spared and of course birds are smaller than people.

Why should you visit?
If they’ve gone to the trouble of coming up with such a fantastic legend, you’ve really got to see how big the church is from the inside.

Khor Virap

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This one’s all about the setting, and what a setting. The road curves on approach offering the picture postcard image of the monastery perched to the right of a backdrop of Mount Ararat, the mountain where Noah’s ark came to rest. From the rear of the monastery, you can climb a small hill – look for the cross on top of it – and you’ll have a similar view, but this time the monastery will be on the left. Inside, you’ll see a steady stream of people descending a narrow stairwell at the doorway to the church – it’s a well, and it’s a dark and shaky climb down.

Why should you visit?
The setting is special, but pick a clear day so you get the panorama of Ararat at the same time; you’ll have a better chance of good visibility in the morning.

Noravank

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Tucked away up a narrow canyon, Noravank is another site that feels special as a result of its location. There are some wonderful carvings, including one of Jesus with Peter and Paul. What you’ll remember, though, is the scarily steep and narrow stone block steps that lead up to the second storey of the church. Take it from me, it’s much worse coming down. But from the restored cupola to the view across to the other chapel from up high, it’s worth dealing with the fear. After all, you can always come down on your bum!

Why should you visit?
The vertiginous steps up to the second level of the church might be scary, by the view from the top is splendid.

Tatev

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This one is reached by the world’s longest ropeway (that’s cable car to those of us who speak the Queen’s English). If you don’t believe them, there’s a sign which claims Guinness has officially recognised it as such for their Book of Records.  The column allegedly predicts earthquakes and approaching enemy armies.

Why should you visit?
With such an awesome approach, this one’s a must-see.

The verdict

Of course, that’s not all. But even spreading these across a week, I was beginning to feel monasteried-out by the end of it. My advice would be not to feel like you ought to see every major monastery in the country, just pick a few and enjoy the view. If I had to pick a favourite, I’d probably say Sevanavank, as its lofty position represented not only an impressive feat of engineering but also felt remote despite the visiting tourists. Norovank, with those crazy steps and beautiful carvings, came a close second, though perhaps it was a little too perfectly restored to claim the top spot.


Travelling the Georgian Military Highway

It’s been a long journey involving an overnight train and a four hour ride in a marshrutka, but I’ve finally reached Svaneti.  My base is in Mestia and I’m writing this holed up on the hotel balcony overlooking three of the famous towers that dot the village.  The birds are chirruping and the neighbour’s dog is letting me know if anyone walks up the rutted and very steep road that joins us to the main drag.  The sun is valiantly making an attempt to break through today’s persistent low cloud, but tomorrow’s forecast promises sunshine and blue skies.

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I spent yesterday travelling along the Georgian Military Highway, the route linking Tbilisi to the Russian border.  The epithet “military” conjures up all manner of images, but you won’t see tanks or soldiers, just great scenery.  I travelled with Envoy Tours in the capable hands of their guide Beqa.  He was great fun, doing everything he could to ensure my Singaporean travelling companion and I had a fun day.  From tour guide to chef to toastmaster, there was nothing he couldn’t turn his hand to.

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Our first stop was on the edge of the Zhinvali reservoir built in the 1980s to supply water to Tbilisi.  It’s a picturesque addition to the landscape, though one that necessitated drowning several villages.  The water level was high enough to conceal them yesterday, but when the water level is low, sometimes the tops of churches can be revealed.

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We skirted the edge of the reservoir to reach the fortress complex of Ananuri, where they were selling these fabulous sheepskin hats.  Once, there was just a tower here on a hillside; now there’s a cluster of buildings with defensive towers and a 17th century church featuring ornate carvings.

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It was the first time I’d been asked to wear a skirt over my trousers as well as the headscarf I’d been expecting.  Not the most elegant of looks, of course, but when you’re in someone else’s country you play by their rules.  Inside the church walls bear a few faded but interesting frescoes.  When Georgia was under Russian rule the frescoes were whitewashed and are slowly being restored.

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While the tallest tower was off limits, it was possible to climb the smaller one.  I’ve no head for heights, so the narrow, worn steps missing a handrail had my heart missing a beat.  With plenty of encouragement, my two younger companions got me to the top.  Inside, each level was surprisingly spacious, with a fireplace and plenty of room to live.  These towers would have been hiding places when the area was under attack.  The castle’s dungeon was quite claustrophobic in comparison.

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Heading north from Ananuri, the road took us past the ski resort of Gudauri and over the 2379m Jvari Pass.  Next stop was the Georgia-Russia Friendship Balcony.

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Our guide, no fan of Russia, was quick to point out that it was built in 1983 when Russia was still in charge and Georgian independence was eight years off.  Despite its name, the monument was very tastefully done and its multiple balconies were perfect for capturing a shot of the dramatic mountain scenery which formed its backdrop.

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Our last port of call was right near the Russian border near the town of Kazbegi in a little place called Gergeti.  Lunch had been arranged: my first experience of a Georgian stupa or feast.  First, though, we had to make the local dumplings known as khinkali.  Pastry had already been made and rolled; a spicy lamb filling had been preformed.  All we had to do was assemble it, which involved lots of pinching of pastry and some rather dodgy looking shapes.  Our hostess demonstrated a far higher level of skill, putting together a double decker khinkali quicker than we could pick up our cameras.  They were delicious, though I resorted to using a fork instead of eating them the traditional way – bite off the top, drink the juice and then munch on what’s left.  Beqa proved to be a good toastmaster too, ordering us to raise our glasses at regular intervals through the meal to God, peace, ancestors and women.

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A hike had been planned.  The Tsminda Sameba church, also referred to as Holy Trinity, is perched high on the mountain pastures above Kazbegi.  Apparently there was once a cable car (those Russians again!) but the locals were none too impressed at having a sacred place defiled so they tore it down.  A bumpy road led up to the church, but, said Beqa, it didn’t take much longer to walk up.  Yeah right, if you were a goat maybe.  The others walked, but told me later – as I’d suspected – that the path was pretty much straight up to the church and not an easy hike.

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I took the minibus option, to my later relief, though that in itself was a hair-raising experience.  Deep ruts characterised the gravel track for much of its length.  In a couple of places the road had fallen away altogether.  At the top, heavy rain made the pastures soft.  I held my breath as we screamed across the grass, deep in some other vehicle’s tracks.  How we didn’t get bogged down I don’t know.  That fate was to befall someone else later, much to everyone else’s amusement.

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The church was as impressive as its setting, though cloud obscured the 5047m Mount Kazbek which can be seen on a clear day.  Inside simple candles stood in sand illuminated the icons and other works of art that adorn this simple church.  Despite the constant tramping of tourists’ feet (including mine, of course) it had a spiritual feeling, perhaps not surprising as it is a working church to this day.  The forecast rain that had held off all day materialised while we were at the church and so we all headed down by minibus.  Come down on foot when it’s slippery like that and you may as well be on a toboggan.

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For more information on Envoy Tours and to book this Embracing Georgia tour, please visit their website:

http://www.envoytours.com/tours/embracing-georgia/


Flight news: Honduras

While parts of Central America have been blessed with direct flights from Europe for some time, others have been a bit more disconnected.  Honduras is one of those places.  But now, with the launch of a weekly flight from Spain, it’s possible to get there a little quicker.  When I visited Honduras a few years ago, getting there involved an overnight layover in Houston, adding both considerable time and expense to the journey.  Air Europa’s flight from Madrid at first might appear to be less than ideal, arriving shortly before 5am in what was once the world’s worst hotspot for murders.  (San Pedro Sula has now passed the Murder Capital of the World crown to the Venezuelan capital Caracas.)  But this late departure means that a connecting ticket from the UK is possible and you no longer have to lose a day of your holiday just to get there.

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Honduras might not be the first place that springs to mind if you’re looking to holiday in that region, especially in terms of safety.  But it’s easy to get straight out of San Pedro Sula and the early arrival means you’ll have plenty of time to reach somewhere both safer and more beautiful well before nightfall.  Copan Ruinas is one such place.  I spent a pleasant time there in 2014, riding horses out to the Guatemalan border, drinking the excellent locally-grown coffee and exploring some of the least crowded Mayan ruins in the region.  Visitors were outnumbered by scarlet macaws by some considerable margin.

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While I’d still be loathe to recommend spending any more of your time in San Pedro Sula than is absolutely necessary, the country’s Caribbean coast is as laid back as they come.  It’s well worth risking the journey back to San Pedro Sula’s airport after your Copan Ruinas sojourn to make the short hop to Roatan Island.  It’s the perfect place to unwind in the sunshine, sink your toes in the sand and sip a cocktail or two.

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When are we going?

 


Salta’s Lightning Girl

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One of the most fascinating and also morally challenging of the Inca rites is surely the sacrificing of children. Scattered across the high Andean peaks are a number of sacrificial sites that have only been discovered relatively recently. One such site can be found on Mount Llullaillaco, a 6700m high volcano straddling the Argentina-Chile border. Drugged with coca and fermented maize beer called chicha, three children had been led up to a shrine near the volcano’s summit and entombed, a practice known as capacocha. The freezing temperatures inside their mountain dens had not only killed them, it had perfectly preserved their small bodies. There they’d remained, undisturbed, for five centuries. An archaeological team led by Johan Reinhard found what’s now known as the Children of Llullaillaco less than twenty years ago.

Today, the three mummies are rotated, one on display at a time, in MAAM, a museum on the main plaza in the northern Argentinian city of Salta. Three years ago, I’d visited Juanita, a similar mummy found in Peru and displayed in a darkened room a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa. As a consequence, I figured I knew what to expect when I stepped inside MAAM. During my visit, Lightning Girl was the mummy being displayed, possibly the most haunting museum exhibit I’ve ever seen.  No photography is permitted; the image above is of a postcard I purchased in the museum shop.

The first thing that struck me was how well preserved this small child was, much more so than Juanita had been. Found entombed with a slightly older girl, her half-sister, and a boy, she looked straight ahead. Her face stared bleakly, as if tensed against intense cold. A dark stain marked her face, thought to have been caused by a lightning strike after she was sacrificed. But it was her teeth that caught my attention, tiny white milk teeth that emphasised just how young this girl would have been when she met her fate. Text beside her indicated that she had been just five years old when she died. There was no escaping that here in front of me, in this darkened room, was a real person.

During Inca times, it was the custom to choose sacrificial children from peasant families, deemed an honour for the family, though surely a heartbreaking one too. Girls such as these were selected as toddlers to be acclas or Sun Virgins, destined later to be royal wives, priestesses or to be sacrificed. It is thought that the elder girl was such a person, the two younger children her attendants. The children were then fed a rich diet of maize and llama meat to fatten them up, nutritionally far better than their previous diet of vegetables would have been. The higher their standing in society, the better the value of this offering to the gods, essential to protecting future good harvests and political stability. The children would not die, it was believed, they joined their ancestors and watched over mortals like angels.

Despite the drugged state induced by the coca and chicha, which in theory led to a painless end, the boy had been tied. Perhaps he’d struggled and had needed to be restrained. The older girl had her head buried between her knees, but Lightning Girl looked straight ahead. Had she been too young to comprehend what was happening to her?


A beginner’s guide to New Orleans

The Big Easy isn’t your usual North American city.  Crammed full of French and Spanish creole architecture, hemmed in by Lake Pontchartrain to the north and enclosed by a huge looping meander of the Mississippi to the south, it’s about as unique as they come in this part of the world.  It’s laid back, easy going and welcomes visitors like they’re old friends.  Here’s what you need to know if you’re planning to visit.

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Apartment listings include whether haunted or not

Getting there

From the UK, getting there just got a whole lot easier.  Direct flights with British Airways from Heathrow begin at the end of March.  They’re going to be a little more expensive than the indirect options but convenience may be worth paying for, particularly if your travel dates match up (the direct service operates several days a week only).  Indirect, flights hubbing via Atlanta with Delta are likely to be the cheapest option, but don’t rule out other carriers.  The #202 Airport Express bus (sometimes referred to as the E2) is the cheapest method of transport between the arrivals hall and downtown but of course the use airport shuttles and taxis are available.

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Amtrak: a great way to arrive in New Orleans

If you want to arrive overland, then consider one of the Amtrak trains that serve New Orleans.  The Crescent takes 30 hours to make its way south west from New York stopping at Philadelphia, Washington and Atlanta, while the City of New Orleans is quicker, taking 19 hours to travel south from Chicago via Memphis.  Single travellers will find the roomettes a tight squeeze; I had just a small wheelie and we just about fitted, me and my bag.  Book early as this isn’t a cheap option unless you can cope with a reclining seat.  The good news is that once you arrive, it’s a quick trolley ride into the French Quarter from the railway station.

Getting around

Much of the historic downtown area known as the French Quarter is a delight on foot (so long as it’s not raining heavily).  But New Orleans also has a very useful public transport network which is convenient to use and budget-friendly.  Planning your accommodation so that you stay near to a tram stop can make your holiday a whole lot easier.

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Riverfront tram

There’s plenty of information online including maps:

http://www.norta.com/Getting-Around/Overview

Trams are fun to ride and simple to find.  The shortest, the #2 Riverfront streetcar, links the French Quarter with the Outlet Mall at Riverwalk.  The #47 Canal streetcar takes you from the edge of the French Quarter past St Louis Cemetery No. 1 and up as far as Greenwood Cemetery.  The #48 follows a similar route and then heads to City Park.  The #12 St Charles streetcar is great for the Garden District and Audubon Park.  Single tickets are $1.25 but a 1 day Jazzy pass only costs $3 if you’re planning on making a few journeys.  Crossing the river is also worth doing.  You can take the ferry from Canal Street to Algiers Point for just $2.  Check out the schedule here:

http://nolaferries.com/

Where to stay

Being central to the action is key in New Orleans.  It’s the kind of place where you can wander aimlessly, drink in hand, and you don’t want to have to end your evening trying to find a cab.  I’ve stayed in a couple of places that are worth recommending.  Both are located within staggering distance of the #2 Riverfront streetcar.  If you’re on a budget, try Villa Convento.  It’s atmospheric and reputedly haunted, a Creole townhouse dating back to about 1933.

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My room at the Villa Convento

Some say it’s the House of the Rising Sun, made famous by The Animals in the 1964 song.  Renovation work has taken place though some parts of the hotel are a bit shabby – the lift being one of them – but ask for a room with a balcony and you should be fine.  It’s website is here:

http://www.villaconvento.com/

At the other end of the same streetcar line is the Marriott Downtown at the Convention Center.  Ask for a room in the historic half of the hotel which has more style.  I like it because you alight at the Julia Street station.  Mulate’s restaurant is also nearby though when I went there the food didn’t live up to my admittedly high expectations.

Money-saving tips

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Free walking map leads you round the Garden District

If you’re on a tight budget, there are loads of ways to save money while you’re in the Big Easy.  For tips on how to save money on everything from food, drink and attractions to where to find free walking tour maps, check out my previous blog post:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/how-to-save-money-on-your-nawlins-vacation/

What to see

There’s a ton of places that are worth seeing and doing in New Orleans, so what follows should get you started if it’s your first visit.

The French Quarter

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The French Quarter is packed with historic homes

You can’t visit New Orleans and not go to the French Quarter.  Amidst its streets, you’ll find the 18th century almost Disney-esque St Louis Cathedral which commands a prominent position on Jackson Square.  Opposite, the Cafe du Monde is the place to eat beignets and drink the chicory-rich coffee; it’s tourist central, but a must none the more for that.

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Beignets and cafe au lait

Take a horse and carriage ride from here through the surrounding cobblestone streets of the Quarter.  You’ll get your bearings as you clip clop through the Vieux Carré past mansions with wrought iron balconies intertwined with trailing plants and hidden courtyards glimpsed through open doorways.

Music on Frenchmen Street

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Live music is an essential part of the New Orleans experience

Forget Bourbon Street, which has almost become a caricature of itself.  In my opinion, you’re much better off heading to Frenchmen Street.  You’ll find it in the nearby Faubourg Marigny neighbourhood.  There’s at least twenty or so bars and clubs where you’ll find live music.  Although the action kicks off in the late afternoon, the later it gets the better the atmosphere.  Some places have cover charges, others require the purchase of food or drink.  Others require just a tip for the musicians.  My advice is to head down there and check out what’s on during your stay.  If you do want to get some advance research in, check out this site:

http://www.frenchmenstreetlive.com/

St Louis Cemetery No. 1

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St Louis Cemetery No. 1

One of the most interesting things to do while in New Orleans is to visit at least one of its Catholic cemeteries.  Begin with St Louis Cemetery No. 1.  This is the oldest, opened in 1789.  It is characterised by above ground tombs, a nod to the city’s swampy and flood-prone location.  The most notable “resident” is Marie Laveau, Voodoo priestess, a religion very much alive in New Orleans to this day and a fascinating topic to explore.   She rests among aristocrats, politicians, engineers and architects.  Actor Nic Cage has a plot here; look for the pyramid.  Since 2015, independent visiting has been prohibited after vandals spray painted Marie Laveau’s tomb.  You’ll need to take a tour.  Options include booking via the nonprofit Save Our Cemeteries or Free Tours on Foot; I’d recommend Gray Line, especially if Sandy’s rostered on.

The mansions of the Garden District

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Seen on a fence in the Garden District

The Garden District’s wide avenues and huge mansions with even bigger gardens contrasts with the downtown feel of the French Quarter.  Many of these mansions have a story to tell, their original owners making their fortunes off cotton and other mercantile activity, and a walk around the area is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.  In the midst of the mansions, you’ll find another atmospheric cemetery: Lafayette Cemetery No. 1.  The cemetery was first planned out in 1832, making it the oldest of New Orleans’ seven cemeteries, and can be visited without having to book a tour.

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Lafayette Cemetery No. 1

Mardi Gras World

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Last year’s float being recycled at Mardi Gras World

If you can’t get here in February for Mardi Gras, then at the very least you should pay a visit to Mardi Gras World down by the Convention Centre.  The building houses an enormous collection (both in scale and number of exhibits) of former floats, props and other carnival-related paraphernalia.  Guided tours are possible and will show you around; you’ll get to see some of the costumes and props being made for the next carnival.  Many are revamped and recycled.  One thing’s for sure: the colours will blow your mind!

Old Algiers

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Home near Algiers Point

Across the Mississippi lies the sleepy residential neighbourhood known as Old Algiers.  It was first settled by Jean Baptiste le Moyne in 1719, who had a plantation here.  It has a dark past, site of a slaughterhouse and also an 18th century holding area for African slaves.  The ferry you take to get here has operated since 1827, fiercely protected by the Algiers residents from any attempt by the city authorities to close it down on economic grounds.  It’s well worth a wander to explore the 19th century homes here, and of course a coffee stop in the corner cafe at the junction of Alix and Verret Streets.

Steamboat Natchez

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Below decks on the Natchez

The steamboat you’ll see churning up the Mississippi isn’t the first to be named the Natchez.  It’s actually the ninth and dates only from 1975.  It’s also not modelled on its namesake predecessors, pinching its design instead from steamboats Hudson and Virginia.  Her engines came from the steamboat Clairton and were made in 1925; her copper bell came from the SS JD Ayres.  So she’s a bit of a mongrel, really.  Nevertheless, cruises for lunch and dinner are a popular addition to many people’s itineraries.  Even if the food doesn’t impress, the music’s good and it’s interesting to head down to the engine room to have a closer look.

Hurricane Katrina tour

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A reminder of how vulnerable low-lying New Orleans is

Despite it being over a decade since Hurricane Katrina blew through the Big Easy with devastating consequences, there are still parts of the city that bear its scars.  I took a Gray Line tour in 2012 and was shocked to find so many houses still covered with blue tarpaulins and bearing the red crosses of the search teams on their doors and windows.  Returning a few years later in 2015, I was less surprised to see boarded up houses as the train made its final approach into the city.  Time may heal the hurt and dissipate the shock, but the economic impacts on an individual scale linger long after the city proclaims it’s open for business again.  New Orleans will always be vulnerable to the impacts of hurricanes, and exploring what happened in 2005 will help you understand why.

For more on New Orleans, why not read my article on etrip.tips?

http://etrip.tips/return-to-new-orleans/


The Travel Whispers Blogger Challenge

Something interesting popped up in my Twitter feed yesterday evening: the Travel Whispers Blogger Challenge.  I had read a blog by Josie Wanders on being a newbie in business class which struck a chord as she sounded as excited as I was when I flew with BA last year.  You can compare our experiences here:

http://josiewanders.com/newbie-flying-business-class/

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/06/14/are-business-class-flights-really-worth-the-extra/

Josie had also completed the blogger challenge, which had been set up by another travel blogger, Stephanie Cox.  Basically, it’s a great way of getting travel ideas; the travel bloggers that have participated know their stuff and there are some tempting recommendations that I’m definitely going to check out.  If you’re interested in joining in, then have a look at Stephanie’s original post here:

http://www.stephaniefox.co.uk/travel-whispers-blogger-challenge/

What follows are my answers to the Travel Whispers Blogger Challenge.  What would yours be?

1. If you had to move to a country that you’ve NEVER been to, and live there for ten years, where would you go?

I read this and I almost gave up there and then.  I’m up to 107 countries now, and it’s tempting to think that all the good ones have gone!  I can’t pick Peru or Mexico or Australia or Austria or Spain, all of which would have been contenders.  I’m spinning my globe here and though there’s some exciting destinations that so far are untrodden by my hiking boots – Rwanda, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia – they’d all be pretty tough to live in, especially for ten years.  So I’m going to take the easy route and pick a lovely warm Caribbean island to spend my imaginary decade, and my choice would be Barbados.  With direct flights from the UK my friends would be able to come and visit, so I’d have someone to go to the beach with.

2. If you had to live in a hotel for the rest of your life, which hotel would you choose and why?

Now this one is tricky for different reasons: I’ve been fortunate to stay at a lot of hotels and, a lot of good ones to boot.  Taking “hotel” literally, it rules out fabulous glamping sites such as Patagonia Camp which is possibly my all time favourite place to wake up.  There’s something so special about seeing the sun come up over the lake with the granite towers slowly coming into view as the light increases.  But I digress.  Hotel, they asked for and hotel, they will get.  Now obviously, if I’m going to spend the rest of my life somewhere, I’m going to pop out of the hotel from time to time, so my choice would be the Hotel Plaza de Armas in Cusco.  I’ve stayed there twice.  The hotel is a comfortable mid-range option, nothing fancy, but the view over the main square is one I’ll never tire of and the city after multiple visits, is one I love more every time.

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3. If you could only eat the cuisine of one nationality forever more, which would you choose?

Mexican.  That’s an easy one.  But not just tour usual tacos and burritos, it would be the dishes of Oaxaca, with the rich mole sauces that make the palate tingle, and the steaming mugs of chocolate served Mayan style.

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4. Who has given you ‘holiday envy’ this year, and how?

Each time I browse Twitter, check my Facebook feed or dip into myWanderlust, there’s something that excites me.  A few people have posted about Georgia, a country that’s been on my wish list for some time, especially the Svaneti region.  I’d be loathe to say I envy them, but I’m keen to copy them!

5. If you had to look at the same sunrise or the same sunset every day, where in the world would you never get bored of seeing? Please don’t say sitting outside Cafe Mambo in Ibiza.

I’m writing this watching the sun come up over the Essex marshes from my desk; since moving here a year ago this has become my favourite sunrise.  This morning there’s a hard frost on the ground, the brown reeds look almost yellow where the sun’s weak rays are hitting them, and the tide’s yet to rise.  The sky has gone from a blood orange to a delicate peach, punctuated by skeletal trees that won’t see buds until at least March.  But it’s cold out there, and if I’m searching for warmth, then it would be seeing the sun set on the Honduran island of Roatan.  If there’s ever a place where I’d hum “Sitting on the dock of the bay”, then this is the place.

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6. If you were taking a ‘staycation’ in your home town, where would it be and what would you recommend others to do?

I don’t live in a town anymore, but the north Essex countryside is well worth a trip.  I’d begin with sunrise at the coast, perhaps on Mersea Island where the sun will illuminate the many oyster shells discarded on the beach.  Then, head north across the Colne to wander along the riverbank to the Torrington Tide Mill before meandering north along the country lanes to Dedham Vale, where Constable once painted.  If it’s warm, I’d recommend a boat trip along the river, past Flatford Mill and down into Dedham itself, where the cream teas are to die for.  Later, a meal in one of my county’s centuries-old pubs before a roaring fire would seem a fitting end to the day.  Who’s coming?

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7. Describe your perfect travel day of the year?

Lots to choose from, but I think perhaps it would be riding the railway through Sri Lanka’s hill country, past the verdant terraces crammed with tea bushes.  Alighting at Nuwara Eliya, my destination was the nearby Heritance Tea Factory, a former workplace now sympathetically converted into a luxury hotel.  I had great fun picking tea, tasting tea and having a tea facial.  I do like a good cuppa, but I am a Brit, so what did you expect?

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8. What have you ticked off your bucket list in 2016?

2016 was the year when I finally made it to the beautiful Seychelles, an Indian Ocean paradise that’s been on my wish list for many years.  And it was also my first time flying business class, and what better introduction than with British Airways to New York, one of my favourite cities.

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9. What is top of your travel bucket list for 2017?

Top of my list is attending the Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha, a cowboy festival in the Uruguayan town of Tacuarembó.  I’ll be there in March, marvelling at the horsemanship, before continuing via Salta in Argentina to the salt flats near Uyuni, Bolivia.  It’ll be wet season, and if I’m lucky I’ll get to see the famous mirror effect.

10. Share your favourite Instagram photo of 2016?

I don’t have an Instagram account, but this is one of my favourites from Twitter instead.

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Since this is a Whispers challenge, thanks to Vintage Blue Suitcase who has passed this on to me. Now in turn I’ll pass this on; the baton is passed to ILive4Travel.  Here are the links:

http://www.vintagebluesuitcase.ca/2017/01/the-travel-whispers-blogger-challenge.html

http://www.ilive4travel.com/travel-whispers-blogger-challenge/

If you want to get involved join the Facebook group!