"Happy Christmas everybody"
Richard
TRAVEL_ADVICE

I wrote an advice column in the Sunday Times for six years, in which I answered reader questions on travel. Thanks to my own trips, my time working for the airlines and selling travel at Trailfinders, I've always genuinely enjoyed helping friends and readers get the most from their holidays.

So here are items of travel news - sometimes small, but still significant, with travel advice weaved into them. A little preparation before a trip helps you go a long way...












TV/FILM QUIRK
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Oscar Homolka, who's homely KGB colonel was a highlight of two Harry Palmer spy films...
posted by Richard Green on 31/03/2017
 

I have a picture of Oscar Homolka and Michael Caine on my real bathroom wall because of the impact he made in the bizarrely bonkers 1967 film 'The Billion Dollar Brain'.

When I was a kid, the film would be repeated every so often, and I just couldn't get enough of Homolka's presence in the film, and especially the way he kept calling Caine's character in the film - Harry Palmer in fact - 'English'.

Despite me thinking Homolka a shoe in for any BBC Central Casting call for any Soviet part in any film, he was actually Austrian. Born in 1898 he fought in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War. He graduated from the Imperial Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna and worked in the Munich theater during the 1920s.

He made many silent pictures in Germany, and worked in early cinema there into the 1930's. He wasn't Jewish, but nevertheless decided to move to the UK, where he starred in popular British films of the period, before moving on the the USA.

In 1936 he starred in Alfred's Hitchcock's 'Sabotage' opposite Sylvia Sidney. In the following decades he starred with Ingrid Bergman in ' Rage in Heaven', with Marilyn Monroe in the 'Seven Year Itch', and with Katherine Hepburn in 'The Madwoman of Chaillot'.

In the mid 1960s he returned to the UK to play the KGB Colonel Stok in 'Funeral in Berlin' and 'Billion Dollar Brain'. His last film was the Blake Edwards romantic filming of 'The Tamarind Seed'.

Homolka's private life was marred by tragedy. Grete Mosheim was his first wife, a German actress who he married in 1928, and divorced in 1937. His second wife was the Hungarian actress Baroness Vally Hatvany, but she died four months after the ceremony. Next was socialite Florence Meyer, after the divorce to whom he married for the fourth time, to American actress Joan Tetzel, in 1949. Tetzel died in 1977.

Homolka lived in England from 1966 until his death from pneumonia on the 27th January 1978 - just three months after the death of his fourth wife. He is buried in Christ Church Churchyard, Fairwarp, East Sussex, England.

Joan Tetzel and Oscar Homolka's headstone in Christ Church, Fairwarp, East Sussex. Photo Ian McFarlaine


STATUES LARGE AND SMALL
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A bust of the Cook Islands first premier, Sir Albert Royle Henry, with shell necklace, petal headgear and spectacles...
posted by Richard Green on 29/03/2017
 

The bust of Albert Royle Henry is always fondly accessorised. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The person: Albert Royle Henry was the first premier of the Cook Islands, and a much loved local figure. He became leader of the island nation in 1965, aged 58, after living for some years in New Zealand. It's common for the islanders to be drawn to the bright lights of Auckland, and while the population of the Cook's is about 20,000, the number if islanders living in New Zealand is estimated at around 60,000.

The gold painted inscription on his funeral plaque has him as 'Sir Albert Royle Henry', as he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974 - the Cooks being a member of the Commonwealth.

There was a snag though. The 1978 election was the first in which the Cook Islanders living in New Zealand weren't allowed to vote in the home elections. Things got murky, as his CIP party used money from the sale of postage stamps to charter Air New Zealand aircraft to fly a select few hundred islanders back home to Raratonga for a free holiday.

As it happens, the day of the trip was the day of the election, and the happy holidaymakers went to vote, overwhelmingly for the CIP and Albert Royle Henry.

The coral built Avarua CICC church; the main church in the capital of the Cook Islands.

The fraud was unearthed and the election was eventually handed to the opposition. Later Henry was taken to court and found guilty of electoral fraud, and robbed of his knighthood in 1980.

His health suffered after the scandal and the loss of his title, and he died on the 1st of January 1981, aged 73.

The peaceful and tropical graveyard by the CIC Church in Avarua. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The Statue: the bust of him is in the cemetery beside the Avarua Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC). The CICC's roots go back to the arrival of the London Missionary Society in 1821, and are said to include almost half of the Cook's population.

It's endearing to see the respect in which Henry is held. You'll usually find glasses on his head and shell necklaces over his coat lapels.

If you are on Raratonga, it is well worth stopping by the church on a Sunday morning, when islanders arrive in their Sunday best and sing Pacific Island harmonies like you've never heard before.

Filing out of church in their finest, one Sunday morning in Avarua. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The place: 15 islands cover a land area of just 240 square kilometres in the South Pacific between Tahiti and Tonga. The capital is Avarua, a small seafront cluster of buildings with a population of just 5,000. The main island of Raratonga is where all international flights land, so many people holiday here for a few days before flying to the northern group of islands and the famous Bora Bora like loveliness of Aitutaki.

One more thing: the Cook Islands are a great introduction to the super friendly and laid back Pacific Island lifestyle. Though there's only really one road on Raratonga, which circumnavigates the island in about 30 kilometres of tarmac, if visitors want to hire a moped and aren't licenced to do so in their home countries, they need to get a local licence. I did this, which meant a cursory written test, and then being watched by a smiling police woman as I put-putted from the Police Headquarters about 150 metres to the country's only traffic island and back. I didn't fall off and so I passed. 

Go with the island flow and the Cooks are sure to warm your heart. On one occasion I went to a political rally by mistake, which was low key on politics and high octane on alcohol. Another evening a night time knock at the guest house door was a couple of blokes with a pick up who asked if I could help them look for an escaped prisoner. I sat in the back with a torch unsuccessfully scanning the foliage for felons, received ebullient thanks, and went back to bed. 

The Banana Court Bar, built in 1905, and still the best place for Pacific nightlife. Photo Tobias Kreuzlinger

And everyone's stay on Raratonga should include a night at one of the South Pacific legendary nightsopts - the wonderful Banana Court Bar. Apparently a spring behind the building was a traditional gathering place for the early inhabitants. The first building on the site was a clinic, which then became the island's first hotel, before its current incarnation as a club. When I was there is was customary for local girls to present blokes that caught their eye with a lei of hibiscus flowers. I'll swerve the obvious puns, but I left extremely drunk and not without several lei's of white and yellow flowers around my neck. 

Getting there: Raratonga International Airport has flights Air New Zealand to Auckland, Los Angeles and Sydney, Air Tahiti to Papeete, Jetstar to Auckland, and Virgin Australia to Auckland. Air Raratonga flies domestically to Aitutaki, Aitu, Mangaia, and Mauke.

An Air New Zealand 777 on the tarmac at Raratonga International Airport. Photo Robert Linsdell

Further information: see My Bathroom Wall's guide to the South Pacific, and the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation

 


CITY BREAKS
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Fez is fabulous; one of the largest car free medeival cities in the world, it's authentic, exotic, and superb for shopping...
posted by Richard Green on 29/03/2017
 

Move over Marrakech: Fez has entered the league of city breaks that are short haul and super-exotic. Before British Airways launched its new non-stop flights from Gatwick, reaching it was a mission, but now Morocco’s most Arab feeling imperial city is just 3 1/2 hours away.

It will take time to for the allure of Fez to become as polished as it’s illustrious neighbour, but that’s an advantage. Visit there now and you’ll be catching it at just the right time - with its magnificent and authentic Medina packed with history and culture (the largest inhabited mediaeval city in the world), a sprinkling of tastefully restored and decorated raids and restaurants, and amazingly few tourists.

To walk into the car free Medina is to step back in time - back to sights and sounds straight from the Tales of the Arabian Nights. There are dozens of exotic souks, each for a specific commodity, like spice, henna, or jewellery. In each, under the shade of reed mats slung high above, is the marvellous commotion of daily life, just as it’s been for 11 centuries. And each of the 186 micro districts within the walls has a mosque, a drinking fountain and a communal bakery, all in constant use.

Wandering through the Medina is a thrill in itself, and you soon get used to peeking through doorways at every chance. The hustle and bustle of the alleys evaporates behind modest doorways, through which you’ll spy brilliant mosaic floors of a Madersa (or Islamic school), peer into the clattering gloom of a woodcarving workshop, or step into one of the meticulously restored emporiums or raid hotels. The latter is the perfect opportunity for a relaxing mint tea by the courtyard fountain or high up on the roof terrace.

You don’t need to be intrepid to enjoy Fez, but being prepared for the culture shock and being open to becoming lost does help. With almost 10,000 alleyways inside the ramparts - enough to madden a Minator – it’s a cert that you’ll be lost within minutes. And this is part of the city’s magic. Trust in serendipity, relax, and go with the exotic flow.

Local knowledge

Fez has three distinct sections: to the east is the vast 9th Century Medina of Fes el-Bali (Old Fez); five kilometres south west is the administrative quarter of the Ville nouvelle, constructed by the French in colonial era; and in the middle is Fes el Jedid (Fez the New), the first stab at a new town, built in the 14th Century and home to the giant Royal Palace and Mellah (Jewish area).

The best views of the Medina are from the decayed footsteps of the Merinid Tombs or from the Borj Nord, which houses the Arms Museum and a vast collection of weaponry. From either vantage point, particularly at dawn or dusk, it’s mesmerising to gaze down over the pell-mell of houses and minarets. The tall minaret above the expanse of green tiled roofs is the Karaouyine Mosque, capable of holding 20,000 worshippers and built in 859.

The Fes el-Bali is where you’ll spend most of your daytimes, but most restaurants not attached to hotels close at night, which is the best time to head over to the Ville nouveau and its busy streets and cafes.

Sightseeing: The best idea is to hire a guide for your first morning at least. They can be booked through your hotel or the tourist office (055 62 34 60), for about £7.50 for a half day, regardless of the size of your party. It’s also worth highlighting what you want to see before you set off, as unchecked many guides will gleefully take you to emporiums all day long.

Apart from the Medina itself, the tanneries are the most arresting sight in the city. It’s a scene that’s changed little over the centuries - mud-walled vats are filled with coloured dye, as youths, up to their waists in liquid, tread pigment into the hides. Stuck onto the surrounding buildings are dozens of hides, curling as they dry in the heat and looking like a rash of giant’s shaving cuts. The smells can be powerful (from pigeon poo powered dyes, amongst other things), as can the twinge at seeing such hard labour. The best views are from the leather emporiums, which have terraces looking over the sites.

The Najjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts is housed in a meticulously restored caravanserai, or merchant hostel. The collection of woodcarvings ranges from ornate shelves to elaborately carved and painted children’s cots. Also don’t miss the excellent display of cobalt blue ceramics in the Dar Batha Museum of Arts and Crafts (Place de L’Istiqlal), which has a large peaceful courtyard and collections of carpets, jewellery, and some fine antique astrological devices.

Fez El-Jedid contains the 80-acre private Royal Palace, but it’s worth a visit just to look at the front door – a grand gateway of many arches with intricate inlays and mosaics. Next to it is the Mella, or Jewish quarter, where there’s a cemetery, finely decorated windows, and the little Ibn Danan synagogue, recently restored.

Shopping: even if you don’t fancy yourself as a carpetbagger, it’s a good idea to visit some of the tourist craft shops: they are set in beautifully restored buildings and there’s always a preamble on the history and techniques involved.

Fez remains an important centre for craftsmanship and its wares are exported all over Morocco and the World. Good buys include; clothing, leather, woodcarving, jewellery and carpets. A little south of the Borg Sud is the Quartier de Poterie (32, Ain Nobki route Sidi Hrazem), where you be given a tour of the small pottery and massive shop, selling excellent plates, jugs and mosaics.

Out of town: under an hour’s drive away is the imperial city of Menkes, known as the Versailles of Morocco for it’s super showy monuments built by Sultan Moulay Ismail in the 17th century. It also has an excellent Medina, and is easily combined with Volubilis 30 km to the, where there’s a ruined Roman city, set stark against an expansive valley and wooded hills.

Nightlife: most of the hotels and raids have an alcohol licence and make great havens for a gentle tipple. Otherwise do as the locals do and promenade the Avenue Hassan II in the early evening – this tree-lined boulevard is alive with activity and has many cafés and a few bars.

The Son et Lumiere show takes place on a hill overlooking the southern bastion and the trowel-shaped curve of the Medina. As well as sound and light, the 45-minute show uses lasers, fountains, and projects slides onto the walls of the Borj Sud. At one point, the entire Medina is arc-lit, which alone is worth the price of the ticket, £6. Closed December to March.

Getting around: inside the Medina the only option is walking. Bright red petit taxis are metered and cheap – about £1 between the old and new town. Note that fares increase at night by about 50%.

Where to stay: the Raid Louna has six lovely rooms and a splendid terrace. More conventional is the Hotel Batha, with a good-sized pool and two restaurants. Small rooms, but great value. Ryad Mabrouka is an excellent eight-roomed property, with a delightful little garden, pool, courtyard and terrace, and friendly staff. Riad Zamane occupies an 1860’s house. The courtyard is idyllic, the rooms simply and stylishly decorated, and there’s a nice terrace. The Palaise Jamai is a grand luxury hotel. Formerly a sultan’s palace, it has an excellent pool, superb gardens, and sumptuous decor in the public spaces, restaurants, and old wing rooms.

The most romantic place in town is Raid Maison Bleue, the six roomed sister house of the original La Maison Bleue. The courtyard has tangled greenery and a small pool, the rooms are eclectically decorated and there’s a tranquil rooftop terrace.

Places to eat and drink: the Fassi cuisine speciality is “TFAÏA”, made from lamb and mild spices, onions, eggs and roasted almonds. And finish off your meal with a mint tea and a Moroccan pastry like “corne de gazelle” - a crescent-shaped crimp of pastry dough with an orange water and almond paste filling.

La Kasbah is just outside Bab Bou Jeloud, where there are also a clutch of eateries; either grab a kebab for about 10 from one of the tiny alley stalls, or climb the narrow stairs of La Kasbah for a good meeting place and excellent views, mains from £2. Café Restaurant La Noria (Fes el-jedid) is a quiet spot in the Bou Jeloud Gardens, next to one of the cities original 12 waterwheels, a limited selection of mains, mostly Tagines, from £2.50.

Inside the Medina are many Palace Restaurants in restored houses. Restaurant Asmae (4 Derb Jeniara) is less fussy than most and serves good set menus on two floors. Or try the Restaurant Zagora (5 Blvd Mohammed V) in the ville nouveau, which is a modern French Moroccan place serving a wide variety of dishes. The sautéed veal kidneys are particularly good. Mains from £4.

La Maison Bleue is the place for a romantic fine dining experience. Tables are set into little alcoves in the courtyard and the atmosphere is quite magical. Set menus from £30 and it’s essential to book ahead.

Restaurant Al Fassia occupies a series of sumptuously carved and decorated spaces, dating from 1879. The setting is exquisite and there’s musical accompaniment and belly dancing. Set menu from £25.

***

One more thing...It's impossible not to buy something when in Fez, as the cottage craft industry here makes some terrific stuff. You'll for sure be enticed into an emporium or two by a sweet smile and a sweet tea. Just relax and enjoy feeling like a king while the wares are displayed for you. Not buying anything won't cause offence, but not bargaining if you do likely will. It's a way of life in these parts - as a rule of thumb make your first offer half of their first sensible asking price, then expect to bargain to reach a price that's about 60%.

If you are in the Medina and want a break from the bustle, head for the Najjerine Museum, where there are seats by a fountain and a quiet rooftop café.

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Reasons to be cheerful: Fez is a wonderful assault on the senses. It's romantic, exotic and authentic, and it sees just a small fraction of the tourist numbers that visit Marrakech. There is a good choice of riads in the city, many of them moderately priced, and still with lovely shady courtyards and rooftop areas to watch the sunset from.

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You can't always get what you want: the city is uncompromising to tourists, which is one of its draws, but this does mean spending much of your time hopelessly lost in its maze of alleyways, walking past butchers with dripping sheep heads hanging on display, and making way for delivery carts and donkeys often. Plus the touts trying to take you to a carpet emporium can be unpleasantly tenacious. Just be firm, and 'la' is no in Arabic.

puzzle

Fitting Fez into a holiday: Fez makes about the most exotically different weekend break there is - especially so considering that it's only 2-3 hours flying time from much of Europe. If you are at all nervous about a first trip to the country though, it does represent diving in at the deep end somewhat. It's easy to travel by car or train from Fez, so you could combine it with Tangier and Marrakech say too.

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Getting there:Getting there: the small Fez Sais Airport is served by Air Arabia Maroc to Bordeaux, Montpellier, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Toulouse, Barcelona, Brussels, London Gatwick, Lyon, Marrakech, Rome and Strasbourg. Other airlines are Royal Air Maroc, Ryanair, Transavia, TUI fly Belgium, and Vueling.

weather

When to visit: best is Spring (April and May) and Autumn (September and October), when temperatures are in the mid 20’s and the skies are clear. Remember that winter nights can be cold and summer days are regularly over 40 degrees.

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More info: for a good upmarket selection of riads and tailor made options there's Lawrence of Morocco. Other good UK based tour operators include Complete Morocco, Fleewinter, and for good touring trips, On the Go Tours. Or Medina Tours is based in Fez. Also see Visit Morocco

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Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.


FLYING NEED TO KNOWS
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Some travel jargon explained; codeshare, seat pitch, private transfers...
posted by Richard Green on 28/03/2017
 

Is this the preamble to a pleasant flight, or a codeshare slot-delayed drudge with trim problems? Photo Richard Green

The travel industry is particularly prone to using jargon. Some of it is innocent enough, but some is downright misleading. It pays to be aware of some of the key phrases: it could make the difference between holiday heaven and holiday hell. Here's a look at some of travel’s most commonly used — and commonly misunderstood — jargon terms.

CODESHARE

Codesharing is a marketing ruse where two airlines agree to sell seats on each other's planes. It's all well and good, but does mean that you may book with one airline and end up flying with another. Your frequent flyer points will still add up as though you were flying on the airlines who's flight number is on your booking, and you will be told the operating carrier at the booking stage, but all the same it is very possible to overlook.

Randomly looking at the Heathrow airport departures screens this morning for example, and I can see that Aer Lingus flight EI8328 left for Dublin half an hour late from Terminal Five, as did Japan Air Lines flight JL823, American Airlines flight AA6391, and Qatar Airways flight QR5884. These are all the same flight; it was actually a British Airways plane and crew and its BA flight number was BA828.

This might seem fair enough, as long as you know what is going on, and are happy to fly with BA even though you booked with Qatar Airways.

But then again, you might not be — and for good reason: there are some strange bedfellows out there. You could, for instance, shell out for a flight on Air France from Paris to Moscow, only to find yourself actually flying with Aeroflot, or book from Heathrow to Atlanta with Virgin Atlantic only to find yourself on the far inferior Delta Air Lines.

DIRECT FLIGHT

In the bizarre language of the travel industry, a direct flight from A to B might stop for an hour in city C, then D and (if you’re really unlucky) E. This is because, in travelspeak, direct is completely different from nonstop: the former simply means you’re on the same plane from start to finish, no matter how many times it stops on the way; the latter means you genuinely go direct from departure to destination, with no messing around with extra landings and take-offs in-between.

SEAT PITCH

This is the distance from one point on an aircraft seat to exactly the same point on the seat in front. It doesn’t take a physics professor to work out that this isn’t the amount of room that’s available to the passenger: after all, the seat itself takes up a fair amount of space. Thus the seat pitch on an airline in economy may be 34", but since the seat is 3" thick, you’ll only have 31" to squeeze into.

Nevertheless, the airlines use this as the standard measurement, rather than giving us the more useful passenger- space figure — the distance from the front of the base of one seat to the back of the base of the seat in front.

GRATUITY

A gratuity implies a spontaneous expression of gratitude for a service, right? Well not if you plan to go on a cruise. In the arcane system of shipboard tipping, leaving that bit (or lot) extra is sometimes all but compulsory.

Carnival, for instance has a list of “recommended” gratuities, including £3.50 per day to restaurant staff, £2.25 per day to maids and 15% on your bar bill. Tips to the maître d’ and head waiter are, apparently, 'at your discretion'.

Some cruise ships will actually expect you to prepay gratuities (hardly a reward for good service, then); others will automatically charge them to your account. Of course, you can object, and refuse to pay the tips: but apart from being rough on the staff — who, on some ships, rely on tips for the bulk of their income — you’ll find yourself being frowned upon so hard it hurts.

Some cruise operators do charge an all-in price, pay staff a fair wage, and make it clear that tipping is welcome but not expected. If only they all did.

OPEN JAW

Unusually, here’s a much- misunderstood term that can actually work to your advantage. It simply means that, and usually for no extra cost, you fly into one city and fly back from another. So instead of flying to Los Angeles, and driving the super-scenic 620 kilometres of the Pacific Highway up to San Francisco, and then backtracking to LA for your flight home, you can do the drive one way, drop the car off and fly home direct from San Francisco.

Other good open-jaw options include Johannesburg/Cape Town; Auckland/Christchurch; Kuala Lumpur/Bangkok, and Buenos Aires/Montevideo.

PRIVATE TRANSFER

If you think that a private transfer from the airport to your hotel means you’ll be whisked away in a chauffeured limousine — just the two of you, bottle of champagne in the glove box — think again. 'Private' in tour-operator parlance can refer to any means of transport where you don’t have to scrum down with the locals: in the worst case, that could mean boarding a crowded coach doing a loop of several hotels, and scrumming down with fellow holidaymakers instead.

I was on a 'private' transfer booked as part of a holiday to Saipan and found myself on a 50-seater coach. The flustered tour rep asked a young bloke sitting at the front if he could help her out and count the number of passengers - to make sure he had got everyone presumably. "We are looking for 37," she said. So this fellow diligently counted us while walking to the back of the bus. Once there, he turned to the front and bellowed, "Yep, that’s it — 36 and a bald guy." Not exactly private.

REGIONAL ADD-ONS/ REGIONAL DEPARTURES

These terms crop up in holiday brochures all the time; they sound similar, but there’s an important difference. For an add-on flight, you pay an extra amount to fly from a regional airport to another airport (in UK terms that's often Heathrow) to connect with a long-haul departure. For example, with a flight from Heathrow to Mauritius, you may be able to pay about £60 extra for a return flight from Manchester to Heathrow: better than driving it, and your bags will be checked through to Mauritius, but still a fuss.

Regional departures are a better option if there are other airports with nonstop flights to your destination: this is when you can fly from your local airport direct to your destination without having to wander around Heathrow en route. There may be a supplement above the basic cost, but it’s usually small — £10 to £50 return.

SLOT TIME

This sounds like the ultimate in nonsense jargon, up there with leaves on the line: “Sorry for the four-hour delay,” announces the aircraft’s captain, “but we’ve missed our slot.”

It didn't go down well as an explanation for a long delay when I said it Baroness Floella Benjamin OBE, formerly a UK children's TV presenter on a programme called 'Play School'. I was working at Gatwick, she was flying off on holiday, and told me to 'F**k off!'  

What passengers (especially those who turn up late at the gate) often don’t realise is that an aircraft needs to book a slot for its entire journey. That means it needs a slot on the runway to take off; a slot through every segment of air space en route, a safe distance from other aircraft; and finally a slot on the runway to land and one at the arrival terminal.

All these fit together if the aircraft takes off at the allotted time. But if that bloke in the Hawaiian shirt spends too long in duty free and the plane misses its slot, you could be waiting several hours till the jigsaw fits together and air-traffic control gives the green light. All the more reason to get that preflight drink in early.

TRIM

It's unlikely that you'll hear this in the normal course of a flight, but the people dispatching the plane keep trim in mind when deciding where to load the bags and cargo. If you get the right trim then the plane will fly along happily without the need for the pilot to apply any outside forces to make it stay that way. It's like an overall balance for the plane.

Different planes - especially smaller ones - have different trim requirements. So for example when I worked at East Midlands in the 80s, I knew that the Fokker F-27 was front heavy, the Shorts 360 rear heavy, and the Vickers Viscount already pretty much in balance.

I say I knew this, but I found out the hard way. I checked in a Fokker F-27 British Midland Airways flight from East Midlands to Amsterdam and for neatness - I think - I decided to fill the seats roughly from the front backwards. I then boarded the passengers (it was a small airport) and got a huge bollocking from the dispatcher. Even putting all the bags in the rear luggage hold wouldn't be enough to get the aircraft in trim apparently, so I had to make a cringe-worthy announcement and apology asking all passengers to please move backwards four rows. Oops!

 

 


DESTINATIONS
   8633 views   
Salalah is a low key resort town where many from the Gulf go on their summer holidays. Here's why...
posted by Richard Green on 27/03/2017
 

Beach in front of the Salalah Rotana. Photo Rotana Hotels

‘Salalah’ might sound like a magician’s command from the Arabian Nights, but in fact it’s an historic city in the south of Oman with a tropical climate and super beaches. What’s more, it’s tipped as the next holiday hotspot, with a recently opened top-notch resort and a shiny new airport. So I went to check it out. 

On my flight from Muscat the desert blazed orange for a full hour before the captain announced ‘10-minutes to landing’. This prompted the local lad next to me to point out miraculous-looking green hilltops, and by the time the wheels hit the runway Mohammed had shown me a picture of his Mustang and offered to drive me wherever I needed to go.

I encountered more eccentric hospitality at the Taqa Fort museum next day. It’s as cute and crenellated a castle as you could imagine, with sand coloured walls, heavy wooden doors, and a governor’s quarters with bright cushions and a four-poster bed. In the middle of the guided tour, the curator lifted a 19th century rifle from its display brackets and handed it to me so he might take my picture holding it.

Living quarters in Taqa Fort. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Even the air is welcoming in Salalah – much gentler than the nostril scorching heat of Dubai or Muscat. Temperatures here seldom reach more than 30°C the humidity stays mild. Plus every lobby, shop or restaurant, has a heady perfume - sweet and rich, a curious fragrance suggesting wood, honey, lemon, and even caramel.

I breathed deeply and trailed like a Bisto Kid towards the source of the smell - a small earthenware burner containing yellowy-orange globules. 

The Rotana Resort pool area. Photo My Bathroom Wall

My guide Hamed revealed that it was frankincense. “Salalah was once the centre of the world’s frankincense trade, when it was more valuable than gold or silver,” he said. “I burn it at home at least three times day.” Like all local men, Hamed wore an immaculate dishdasha – a plain robe that shades the wearer from neck to toe. And like most Omanis, he was educated and courteous.

Hamed the guide, and friend who walked out of the desert. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The marble lobby of the new Rotana Resort & Spa was especially strong smelling – I passed through again on my way to the bar (serving alcohol, incidentally) and sat outside for dinner at the Silk Road Restaurant. The resort softens the desert starkness with man-made canals, arched footbridges and palm trees. At night it feels extra exotic with the moon’s flickering reflection on the water, a warm reviving breeze and arabesque silhouettes.

Pool and Rotana resort at night. Photo Rotana Hotels

Salalah town centre, about 18 miles away, is less attractive. There is a small souk, but it’s a little forlorn, though the Land of Frankincense Museum pluckily reveals the history of the commodity that made the area rich with maps and wooden models. Along the beach is the fabled city of Sumhuram, once home to the Queen of Sheba’s palace. It’s a shadow of any former glory, ruined to little more than head height.  On some roadsides are wizened Frankincense trees with twisted branches.

Past the imposing wall of mountains that curtains the town are green hills that can look more like South Africa than Arabia, and a simple white and green tomb - one of several contenders for the burial place of that biblical prince of patience, Job.

The entirely undeveloped Mughsail Beach, and a wild frankincense tree. Photos My Bathroom Wall

Arab tourists from the Gulf region come to experience the hills in bloom during a mini monsoon season known as the Khareef. This modest southeast monsoon lasts from July to September and creates hazy skies and drizzle. The earth erupts in grasses and wildflowers and temperatures dip ten degrees below those in Muscat or Dubai.

Most western tourists however want to drive the other way, into the largest sand desert in the world. It begins a couple of hours inland from Salalah and is called The Empty Quarter, famously traversed by the British explorer, Wilfred Thessiger, with Bedouin companions in the 1940s.

The Rotana can organise a night at a desert camp here, or you can hire a 4WD from a company like Safari Drive, who’ll kit you out with a rooftop tent-box, a satellite phone and a Bedouin guide for the trickiest bits of off-roading.

Self driving the Empty Quarter; Wilfred Thesiger would be loping in his grave. Photo My Bathroom Wall

With the Landcruiser perched atop a 400ft dune and the sand cooling swiftly in the evening, the utter stillness made me conscious of my hearing, like when emerging from a nightclub. The sun setting behind miles of rolling dunes was a magnificent sight.

Oman’s gentleness can make your home country feel a bit on the fast and loose side. During my drive I had two flat tyres fixed free of charge, was handed ice from some fishermen, and more than one driver led me to the nearest petrol station so I didn’t miss it.

The low key and low rise skyline of Taqa, 35 kilometres east of Salalah. Photo My Bathroom Wall

I was pondering this while swimming from a speedboat in the bay off Taqa on my last day. A dolphin broke the water about 20 feet away and breathed out with a noise like a cough through a snorkel - then another half a dozen of them arched by gracefully. I gazed at the blue sky, pale green water and purple mountains. The Taqa seafront was a line of palm trees and houses shimmering in the noonday sun; its fort sat squat and reassuring in the distance.

Salalah is a real place alright – yet there’s no shortage of Arabian magic.

***

One more thing: Salalah is famed across the Middle East for the 'Khareef', a colloquial term for the most unlikely of monsoons. Called rather drearily the 'Southeastern Monsoon', winds draw colder water from the Indian Ocean, which in turn cool the air above. The moisture-ladened air then is blown up the side of the Jibal Dhofar mountains to cause the extraordinary phenomenon of a dependable drizzle in the desert.   

I visited during the Khareef some years ago and drove up into the mountains. It was amazing to see everywhere carpeted in grasses and wildflowers. I had a simple chicken byriani sitting on a misty mountain terrace and took in the strange sight of Arab men wearing their long flowing dishdashas not with a backdrop of a fiery sun and parched desert, but instead amongst the verdant hillsides.

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Reasons to be cheerful: the Salalah area is delightfully low key and genuine. Yet with a new airport and several new resort hotels, the region is improving tourist options. 

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You can't always get what you want: choosing the right resort here is essential, as you'll be spending most of your time there. The town is pleasant enough, but a bit scruffy, and certainly not somewhere you'll be heading to look for diversions or nightlife.

puzzle

Fitting Salalah into a holiday: the resorts of Salalah make for great winter sun fly and flop options for northern Europeans, while GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) tourists tend to arrive specifically to experience the Khareef - some even driving their families off-road through the desert to reach it. A short trip into the Empty Quarter is easy to organise locally, or it is possible to make longer driving holidays from Salalah up to Muscat.

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Getting there: Salalah Airport opened a swish new terminal in November 2015, with flights from Dubai with FlyDubai and Oman Air, from Doha with Qatar Airways, from Muscat with Oman Air and Salam Air, and from Sharjah with Air Arabia.

weather

When to visit: the somewhat surreal Khareef effects the coastal fringe of the Dhofar region - including the mountain behind Salalah - between June and September.

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More info: UK based tour operators featuring Salalah resorts include Steppes Travel and Original Travel, and Safari Drive can organise self-driving into the Empty Quarter, and throughout Oman. Or there's the locally based Al Fawaz Tours. For more info on the resort see Salalah Rotana Resort and for country info there's Oman Tourism

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Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.


LEARNING HOLIDAYS
   5905 views   
Learning to paint on holiday is a great way to slow down and breathe in your surroundings...
posted by Richard Green on 27/03/2017
 

For me, school art lessons were an ideal cloak for messing about, so I wasn't really sure what to expect a few years back when I enrolled on a watercolour painting holiday in rural Andalusia. It was an assignment to write an article for the Sunday Times, and after a little research online I spotted the website of expat Scots Eddie and Gill Lange, and got in touch.

I confess to enjoying “Paint along with Nancy” as a kid. It was a television series in which Italian-American and ever blue-smocked Nancy Kominsky revealed the secrets of oil painting with a trowel. I remember producing a set of still life's that looked like polychrome grouting, but I hadn't picked up a trowel, or brush, since.

The school was in the beautiful mountain village of Ojen; itself a learning environment, with snaking lanes, whitewashed walls and terracotta pots billowing with blooms. There’s an Arabian echo in the streets, the people and their pace of life, and everyone really does say “Hola” as they pass by.

Eddie and Gill were from Dundee, and pitched up by accident on a Mediterranean driving holiday. Eddie is a professional artist, and provided the tuition while Gill organised the trips. Their approach is supremely informal, and Eddie has a light touch — suggestions and tips rather than must-dos and mantras. Lunches were in village tapas bars, dinners at a clutch of simple local restaurants - with outstanding seafood paella, fried fish and crisp local wines.

We stayed at the delightful Posada Del Angel, its rooms, around a tranquil courtyard, decorated in spare Andalusian style. The hotel was peaceful, yet still felt part of the village, with views of washing drying on the rooftops and the sounds of family life below.

Eddie puts me at my easel from the word go. I thought I’d be embarrassed sitting with palette in direct line of titters from passers-by, but it wasn’t so. The locals were supportive even, and painting in their village made me feel (temporarily at least) part of their community.

My first painting took a couple of hours. It was of a sagging housefront on a steep lane, and I soon learnt that it doesn’t matter if you think you can’t paint — because Eddie knows that you can. Each session produced a painting and each rather surprisingly left me itching for the next one. Groups were kept to fewer than 10 people, and while some students can paint well, it was ideal for beginners.

It’s a scenic drive up to Ronda, made famous by its dramatic gorge. Avoiding the tourist ruck in the town, we pitched our easels in a silent, flower-scented field far below. Had I been walking here, I’d probably have stopped just long enough to snap a photo — so it was a treat, instead of winding on, to unwind and absorb the view properly.

On the final evening, Eddie assessed our work. It was fun and uplifting that everyone had achieved their goals, and I came away with unique mementos of the week and a new way to interpret my surroundings.

I bought paints on returning to London, and had a stab at rendering the East End skyline, but it was never quite the same as Ojen, and soon after the paper and paints went the way of all things and I lost them. But that's fine - I imagine only a small percentage of people who take learning holidays actually carry it on properly on returning home. Mostly it's just another way to enjoy a new place, meet new people, and enjoy learning a new skill.

***

Ediie and Gill are no longer in Ojen, but Eddie is still giving courses in his native Dundee. See Lange Art Studios.

There are so many painting holidays to choose from, but here are a few starting points. Try Authentic Adventures, Paint Andalucia or Painting in Spain. Art Courses has a list of UK, European painting course and holiday ideas.


GETTING AROUND
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Lisbon's tram 28 is the best damn tram ride in Europe...
posted by Richard Green on 27/03/2017
 

There are more than 200 European cities with tram networks – everything from wooden carriage heritage lines in Innsbruck, Turin and Malmo, to futuristically curvacious trams in Tours, Le Mans and Bordeaux.

However, none is more fabulous than Tram #28 in Lisbon, which trundles over four of the city’s seven summits and is by far the best ride in the city. The cute wooden carriages were built in the 1930’s and seat just 20 people, and with a wheelbase little longer than a family car, its progress is decidedly fidgety.

If there was such a thing as a clear run on Lisbon’s cramped and twisting streets, then the entire length of route 28 would take about 45 minutes, but unplanned halts are frequent. Once I was riding the tram when the driver stopped to help a lady retrieve her house keys from the groove of the track.

The Start: wait by the yellow tram stop sign in front of the monumental white facade of the Carmelite Estrelo Basilica. Then board the next tram #28 heading for ‘M. Moniz’, and you’re off.

It’s a straight run past faded shop-fronts until the tramcar swerves down a far narrower street - look to the right for glimpses of the Tagus River and the Bica funicular falling away towards it. Next you cross Bario Alto (Lisbon’s best bar hopping district) and Chiado (for upmarket shopping), before Portugal’s parliament on the left is cue for wheel screeching around a sharp left hand bend and a steep descent to the flat grid-patterned streets of Baixa.

First Stop: the geometrical discipline of Baixa comes courtesy the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1775, after which the whole area was demolished and redesigned. Unless you want to ride the route nonstop, get off at the first stop on the flat and walk through the triumphal arch into Praca do Comercio – Lisbon’s most impressive square.

Second stop: back aboard tram #28 and it’s uphill past Lisbon Cathedral (the huge-doored building on the right) until you see the vine-tousled trellises of Miradouro de Santa Luzia. Jump off here for fabulous views over the ramshackle roofs of the Moorish-influenced Alfama district, then follow the walking signs up to the Castelo de Sao Jorge. The esplanade of cannons commands fine views over the city, and an outside table at the castle restaurant makes a good coffee stop. 

Third stop: sunset views from the castle are terrific, but from the higher elevation of Graça they are even better. So walk back to Santa Luzia and catch another #28. The hillside is steep here and after a vertiginous section of sagging road it’s a sharp left turn and an uphill slog to Graça. Leap off when you see a triangle of trees on the left and walk through to the Miradouro da Graça. The two great little café’s here are where laid back Lisboetas come for sunset views crowned by the castle’s silhouette. Or opt for a romantic meal by the panoramic windows of swish Via Graça restaurant.

Last stop: time to board your last tram #28 for the gentle downhill slope to its terminus at Martim Moniz square. Round off your day with a liqueur at Ginjinha Sem Rival (Rua das Portas de Santo Antão, 7), one of several hole-in-the-wall bars - only found in this small area - that sell the bittersweet and sticky-as-cough-mixture cherry liqueur called Ginjinha. ‘Com’ means you want your small glass of it with cherries in it and ‘Sem’ means without; either way, it’s only $1.50 and enormously potent.

Getting there: Lisbon Airport has good connections across Europe and globally. TAP Portugal routes include most European capitals, plus Belem, Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Fortaleza, Natal, Recife, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador de Bahia, and Sao Paulo in Brazil, plus Abidjan, Accra, Bissau, Dakar, Lome, Luanda, Maputo, Praia, Sao Tome, and Sao Vincente in Africa. Other useful routes include Athens with Aegean Airlines; Dublin with Aer Lingus; London with British Airways, Monarch and Ryanair; Dubai with Emirates,  and Istanbul with Turkish Airlines.

Getting around: a single ticket costs €2.90 or a one-day Lisbon Card is €18.50, including unlimited public transport use and free/discounted attraction admission.

More information: on public transport see Carris, and for general city info Visit Lisbon

***

Five other fab European tram rides

Amsterdam: narrow blue and white trams fan out from the city’s elaborate Centraal Station, but line #2 is the best for connecting the sights. Its route passes the Royal Palace, the Begijnhof courtyard of historic houses and Bloemenmarkt floating flower market. After that it beelines down the Leidsestraat shopping street and skirts the grassy Museumplein – home to the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum and Stedelijk Museum of modern art. A few stops further is Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s largest green space. See the public transport operator, GVB

Prague: tram #22 has a super scenic section between Peace Square and Prague Castle. Start at the 60-metre spires of Prague’s St Ludmila church and board an ageing red and cream tram towards Pohorelec. You’ll pass Charles Square, the New Town Hall and National Theatre, before crossing the river to Queen Anne’s Summer Royal Palace, Prague Castle and your final stop outside the Strahov Monastery’s Baroque library. See the Prague Prague Public Transport Company

Istanbul: the gleaming new T1 line scythes through the traffic chaos, stopping at the Grand Bazaar, Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque and Basilica Cistern. But the streetcars of the Taksim-Tünel Nostalgia Tramway are more fun. They are 100 years old and proceed at little more than walking speed along the pedestrianised Istiklal shopping street. Inside the red and white carriages it’s dim lighting and a semi-constant clang of the driver’s bell to shoo away shoppers. See iETT

Budapest: tram #2 makes a lovely 20-minute ride along the Pest’s bank of the River Danube. Start at Jászai Mari Square (sit on the right for the best views) and head in the direction of Közvágóhíd Square. You’ll pass the Gothic Parliament Building, Art Nouveau Gresham Palace and the iconic Chain Bridge - all the way with views across the river to Buda’s hilltop Castle District. Alight at the fabulously grand Central Market Hall for its cornucopia of comestibles. See BKK

Vienna: the cities showpiece circular boulevard is the ‘Ringstrasse’, which follows the course of mediaeval city walls knocked down in 1860. A stress-free alternative to making the loop by changing from public tram #1 to tram #2 half way round is a ride on the yellow Vienna Ring Tram, which includes commentary. It makes the loop every 30 minutes from Schwedenplatz, takes 25 minutes, and passes the Museum Quarter, Hofburg Palace, Parliament and Opera House.


FILM INSPIRED TRAVEL
   6887 views   
Eerilly overgrown Ta Prohm in Cambodia is now known as the Tomb Raider Temple. Angelina Jolie's sweaty black leotard has a lot to answer for...
posted by Richard Green on 24/03/2017
 

'Tomb Raider Tree' where Lara Croft picked a jasmine flower and fell through the earth back to Pinewood Studios. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The temple of Ta Prohm has that perfect 'lost' temple look. It's a surreal place, with trees and vegetation growing in and around its semi ruined stone corridors and courtyard. In places the tree roots seem to have the temple smothered in an octopus like grip.

A visit to semi ruined and overgrown Ta Prohm feels like an adventure. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Your guide or guidebook will tell you that the Ta Prohm temple was built in the late 12th century as a Buddhist monastery and university. He or she will say that Jayavarman VII modelled the temple's main image on his mother, and that the temple was home to about 12,500 people, and so on....But chances are the vast majority of the temple's visitors will already be looking over the guide's shoulders and beginning to tune out. Because Ta Prohm is known the world over as the 'Tomb Raider Temple', the place where Lara Croft plucked a jasmine flower and fell through the earth.

The power of film to associate a place with a purely fictitious person or scene is immense, and much like TV adverts are able to hijack classical and pop tunes for decades - think British Airways and the Flower Duet - the temple complex here will be associated with Lara Croft; Tomb Raider.

Unless you are extremely lucky, don't expect to find yourself alone at Ta Prohm, as its secret is definitely out. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The film was a massive hit back in 2001, despite the best efforts of the critics, and starred Angelina Jolie, Jon Voight, Daniel Craig and Leslie Phillips.

It's become accepted practise for hostels to show any famous film that was shot or is associated with their locale, and of course here is no exception. If you happen to be staying somewhere posh then you could watch it on your own download, or if not places like the The Siem Reap Hostel, which is a super hostel set away from the rather noisy main drag, has good room, a small pool, and a cinema that regularly shows Tomb Raider and The Killing Fields.

 

The giant aptly named Strangler Figs hold the temple stones in their grip. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The entrance to Wat Tom. Lara Croft drove through it in a Land Rover. Photo My Bathroom Wall

One more thing...

As well as Tomb Raider, the temples of Angkor Wat have also been used as a location for Living in the Age of Airplanes (2015), Two Brothers (2004), In the Mood for Love (2000), Baraka (1992), Carl Sagan's Cosmos (1980), Lord Jim (1965), Mistress of the World (1960), and Beyond Shanghai (1935).

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Reasons to be cheerful: despite Ta Prohm's lost temple look, you won't need to hack through the jungle to find it. The temple is a 15-minute drive from the city of Siem Reap along smooth tarmacked roads - and all of the local guides know where to find it. 

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You can't always get what you want: word is out about Ta Prohm and it gets busy. The best time to visit early morning, before the heat, the rain, and the first coach parties arrive. It's good for photography too; avoiding the strong contrasts of the overhead sun. For any hope of being alone, arrive before 7am-ish. As with Angkor as a whole, the best plan is morning sightseeing, lunch and a swim, then a siesta and lazy afternoon.

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Fitting Angkor into a holiday: fabulous though the temples of Angkor are, touring them gets tiring, and even the most avid history/architecture buff will eventually get templed out. Best to balance a holiday here with a few days in Phnom Penh, or at the Cambodian beaches. And thanks to proximity and plenty of flight options, Siem Reap is easy to combine with Thailand, or with other countries in the region.

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Getting there: Siem Reap International Airport is 10 kilometres northwest of the city. It handled 3.5 million passengers in 2016;  useful routes include Bangkok with Bangkok Airways, Cambodia Angkor Air, Air Asia and Thai Airways; Hong Kong with Cathay Dragon and HK Express; Singapore with Jetstar Asia Airways and Silk Air; and Kuala Lumpur with Air Asia and Malaysia Airlines.   

weather

When to visit: Cambodia has a tropical climate and is warm year round, with average daily temperatures of 28°. However the best season is from November to April, which avoid the May-October rainy season. Almost 75% of rain falls July-September, when it can rain two out of three days - though in downpours rather than constant rain. 

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More info: Ta Prohm Temple is in the 400 acre Angkor Wat temple complex, and about eight kilometres from the most famous site at Angkor, or 13 kilometres from the city of Siem Reap. UK-bases tour operators include Bamboo Travel, Abercrombie & Kent, and Wild Frontiers. Or About Asia Travel is based in Siem Reap. See Tourism Cambodia

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Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.


TRAVEL NEWS
   8486 views   
The writing's on My Bathroom Wall: March 24th travel news
posted by Richard Green on 24/03/2017
 
33 British Airways throws in the towel while snatching away free food and decent legroom

Once upon a time it seemed that legacy carriers could co-exist with the bare bones service concept offered by Ryanair, Easyjet and the like. But no more - BA, and other traditional airlines, have been busy cutting service and adding seats to compete with them.

Norwegian, Scoot and 'Air Asia X' have shown that long haul low cost works too and have forced BA to salami slice the long haul flying experience too - adding in 10 seats to the Boeing 777, charging for hold luggage in economy, and even cancelling an amuse-bouche with First Class passenger's first drink for heavens sake!

Via its parent company IAG, which owns BA, Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus, it's latest airline venture is a new if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them airline called 'Level'. It will fly long haul and low cost from Barcelona.

  Level launches in June with flights from Barcelona to Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Punta Cana and San Francisco (Oakland), with fares from USD149 one-way.
33 Nordic Cuisine sees Michelin stars

Iceland has received its first ever Michelin star, with the awarding of the award to Reykjavik's Dill restaurant. In the heart of the city and founded by chefs Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason and Sommelier Olafur Orn Olafsson, the restaurant seeks to rediscover Nordic culinary roots. Focussing on Icelandic produce Dill offers a new seven course menu each week, for 13,900 Icelandic Krona (£100). 

And the same goes for the Faro Islands. Ten kilometers across the tip of the peninsula from the cute Faroe-ese capital of Tórshavn is KOKS restaurant, an airy hillside venue with great sea views that specialises in seafood and offers a 17-course tasting menu for 1,400 Danish Krone (£162).

  See Dill and Inspired by Iceland Inspired by Iceland. And Koks KOKS and Visit Faroe Islands
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MTV supercharges Gibraltar's festival

MTV is partnering the Government of Gibraltar to rebrand the music festival formerly known as the 'Gibraltar Music Festival'. MTV's youthful brand reaches about 785 million households, and promotion of the inelegantly named 'MTV Presents Gibraltar Calling' is expected to boost the number of festival goers over the weekend of the 2nd and 3rd of September. Headliners include Clean Bandit, Craig David and Steve Aoki, plus  Bananarama, Midge Ure and Village People.

 

Gibraltar is often overlooked by visitors to Spain's south coast, but the Rock itself is reason enough to visit - for it's caves, battlements museum, monkeys and cable car - plus there's history and querk galore. As Brexit looms expect the territory to regain the limelight for many of the wrong reasons, so visit now to experince the new airport terminal and hassle free border with Spain. Buy festival tickets via Gibraltar Calling. For general Gib info, see Visit Gibraltar


33 Kong's Skull Island new location tours
The much anticipated - that is what they say isn't it - Skull Island slice of the King Kong story was filmed in Vietnam. The sweeping scenery has inspired tour operators to concoct trips to the area pegged to old hairy shoulders latest outing. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts visited Iceland, Hawaii, Australia and Thailand before plumping on Vietnam; and shot in Halong Bay and the Tam Coc Caves.
 

The Experience Travel Group have a two-week Skull Island Location Holiday from £3,557, including flights from London with Vietnam Airlines, accommodation, guiding, transport and some meals. At the budget end of the scale, just grab a flight to Hanoi and take the bus to Halong Bay - there is a good backpacking scene, which surely will include nightly showings of the film in al fresco bars, and locals offering cheap local tours to filming locations. 


34 London's Westminster attack & laptop ban

The terrorist attack near to the Houses of Parliament is a shock for London, but ignore the scare-mongering coming out of the USA. One tube station and several roads adjascent to it were closed for a few hours, but the city carries on as normal. See Visit London to learn more about why London attracted 36.7 million overseas visitors last year.

Banning electronic devices from the cabins of flights heading from Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia to the UK appears at first sight ill conceived. The measures are likely to last for some months, so check the rules before flying to the US or UK from the Middle East and be sure to pack you devices in a secure hold bag before you reach the airport - as there will likely be confusion at check in and through security.

And in the interim, check with your insurer to see if laptops and tablets are covered from loss or theft whilst flying, as Allianz Global Assistance UK does.

 


FAVOURITE HOTELS
   8481 views   
Lisbon has some of the best budget accommodation in Europe - its Living Lounge is hostelling refined for the wheelie bag generation...
posted by Richard Green on 23/03/2017
 

A Chez Long, suspended table and art; the Living Lounge is not your average hostel. Photo HostelWorld

Lisbon always places well in the annual Hoscars - awards voted for by more than 1m users of the booking website Hostelworld.com - and I went to check out a former winner in the “best character” category.

I know, I know: anyone above a certain age will be thinking plywood furniture, chores, lockouts and nights without sleep. But then the Living Lounge really isn’t like any hostel you’ve seen before. For starters, the designer lounge area had a vintage barber’s chair and chaise longue, both reupholstered in snazzy red fabric. Towards the rear of the room a couple of thirtysomethings were playing chess at a tabletop suspended from the ceiling. Light streamed through the windows; jazz wafted from the speakers; and a 1950s sideboard held a carafe of port on a silver tray.

Free port? In a hostel? Isn’t that a recipe for semi-naked drinking games for the few and sleep deprivation for the many? Not here. It's true that when I checked in there was a knot of young people drinking beer in the bar area, but the mood was more beau monde than vagabond. And one especially striking guy in a white shirt and designer jeans even raised his bottle in salutation.

Looking from the dining table to the reception area at the Living Lounge. Photo HostelWorld

I looked into the spotless communal kitchen, the smart Internet lounge and the funky, fake-turfed sitting room upstairs, but found no backpacks. Where were the dreadlocked travel junkies in Thai fishermen’s trousers and batik ponchos that had peppered my own earlier backpacking days?

Clearly the hostel set had smartened themselves up alongside the new generation of crackingly modern and trendy hostels.

The warm welcome and smart surroundings would knock spots off a lot of pricey hotels, but a dorm room is a dorm room, however smartly you tart it up. Like at most hostels these days though, you can rise above that. Here for example there are 10 twin rooms, costing just €56 a night, B&B.

Mine was bright, fun and, like all the rooms, dedicated to an aspect of Portuguese culture — in my case, the poet Fernando Pessoa. His quotes were painted on the walls, one of his trademark black trilbies hung from coat hooks made of umbrella handles and a see-through wastepaper-basket lamp shade, full of shredded paper, diffused the light and made a wry comment on his workaday office life.

Living Lounge is not the only winning hostel in Lisbon, although it is my favourite, and I've visited a good few. But importantly, the others charge about the same rates and are similarly smart, cosy and friendly.

One of the Living Lounge's 10 private rooms. Photo HostelWorld

Like Living Lounge, they are all located right in the middle of town, can organise fado evenings or pub crawls, and dispense tips and advice with genuine enthusiasm.

If, however, you really can’t face the fraternal feel of the hostels — and shame on you — then Lisbon is awash with good-value hotel rooms. The Trivago index, which measures the average price of double rooms by city, has Lisbon as the cheapest capital in western Europe, at £90 a night; by comparison, Amsterdam's average is £131, Copenhagen's £149, and London’s is £155 (as at November 2016) .

And you don’t have to do dingy to get a good deal in Lisbon. Even a double at the supersmart boutique hotels of the Heritage group can be had from €143. And if you simply can’t be without your Four Seasons, then Lisbon’s is the cheapest in Europe (that I can find), still up at €540 a night — it’s €1,190 in Paris.

Lisbon's Old Belem Lighthouse, Discoveries Monument, and '25 de Abril Bridge'. Photo My Bathroom Wall

So much for sleeping. You are unlikely to break the bank eating out here, either. Lisbon is a frugal foodie’s Shangri-la (though the glam Asian chain is yet to open a property here themselves). Even the city’s speciality is just 80p a go. Okay, so it is only a custard tart. Grab a paper tube containing several of them from the Antiga Confeitaria de Belem (Rua de Belem 84), sit out by the River Tagus and polish it off while still warm, all crispy pastry and topped with cinnamon— a divine little treat.

Back at the Living Lounge, I ate a three-course dinner with wine for €10, downed several €1 bottles of local beer, said goodnight to the gang and went to bed. On the opposite wall were the words of Fernando Pessoa, embossed in red enamel: “I know not what tomorrow will bring.” True enough. But, whenever I wake up in Lisbon, at least I know I’ll be able to afford it.

I travelled as a guest of Hostelworld

Getting there: Lisbon airport handled 20 million passengers in 2015, with direct connections across Europe, North and South America. Cities served by national carrier TAP include Boston, London Gatwick, London Heathrow, Manchester, Miami, Rio de Janeiro, Stockholm and Toronto. Plus Emirates flies to Dubai, British Airways flies to London Heathrow, Turkish Airlines to Istanbul, and as from July 2017, Capital Airlines to Beijing.

Where to stay: other great Lisbon hostels include the Travellers House, Rossio (Calçada do Carmo 6), Living Lounge and Lisbon Lounge, and Lisboa Central. All can be booked through Hostelworld; or try Hostel Bookers

Further information: see Visit Lisbon


UNUSUAL HOTELS
   7176 views   
On a bend in a river in remote western Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains, there is a floating hotel...
posted by Richard Green on 22/03/2017
 

I dived into the water from the decking in front of my room and enjoyed the refreshing treat of a swim on a hot, sunny day. The water was glass-surfaced, slow-flowing, the temperature perfect; and time spread out before me like a childhood summer break. Looking back to the room was a dreamy sight, too. It was safari-style and posh, a khaki tent on a bend in the river below the Cardamom Mountains. And the real revelation was that I was so utterly relaxed — in Cambodia.

Cambodia is a wonderful country to visit — enthralling, moving and fascinating — but relaxing it is not. Now, though, for the first time, there’s a perfect place for a restful finale.

The country’s two must-see sights are hardly chillout zones. The vast complex of temples at Angkor is stupendous, but you need to make an early start to avoid the hottest sun or sharpest downpours, and there’s lots of walking. It’s tiring and sweaty going; and, although three or four days is about right to cover the best bits; weighty guilt awaits anyone tempted to truant by the hotel pool.

The tents are private enough for honey-mooners, the bar is informal enough for anyone in the mood to make friends Then there’s the capital, Phnom Penh, with its colonial-era facades and pretty palaces. These are truly lovely, but it’s a noisy and chaotic city, and the Khmer Rouge relics are harrowing.

The appalling cruelty of the former Tuol Sleng prison and the callous brutality of the killing fields aren’t easily brushed off. So the savviest travellers catch planes to Thai or Vietnamese beaches before their journeys home. It’s a big deal that, at last, Cambodia can offer a luxury hideaway within its own borders.

Enter the 4 Rivers Floating Lodge — a 12-room river lodge with no temple temptations and no killing fields. So roll on swimming, reading and relaxing in the sun — all guilt-free.

That may sound a world away from civilisation, but 4 Rivers is only a 30-minute slow-boat ride from the Tatai bridge. The bridge is part of the main road between Phnom Penh (3-4 hours’ drive away) and Ko Kong, near the Thai border (less than half an hour away). The Thai city of Trat, from where you can take a short flight to Bangkok, is 90 minutes further on.

The tented rooms each cover 500 sq ft, with a bedroom/lounge area, and a large bathroom off to one side, where there’s a double washbasin and a Japanese-style wood-barrel shower with hot water. Each has coconut-tree furniture, a rattan chaise longue, Vietnamese silk rugs and Finnish glassware. The tents come from South Africa and were designed for posh safari lodges. There’s no phone signal, but you will find free wi-fi and a flat-screen television.

This inventive scheme is the brainchild of Valantin Pawlik, a no-nonsense marine engineer from Romania. When I asked him how a Romanian came to build a floating hotel in the middle of the Cambodian jungle, he sipped his cold beer from the can and said: “Like all Romanians, I wanted to work in Paris. I got a job there, and the company asked me to run ferryboats on the Mekong River, in Cambodia. ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Where’s Cambodia?’”

He now lives in Phnom Penh and is proud of his project. It feels four-star and boutique. The tents are private enough for honeymooners, while the decked common area, with a rattan-furnished restaurant/bar, is informal enough for anyone in the mood to make friends.

It isn’t a wilderness lodge in a pure sense, though — after all, people do live in Cambodia’s remote southwestern corner. The islet of Ko Andet, opposite the lodge, is home to several families — their houses are hidden behind thick forest, but they use a rickety single-file jetty in plain view. The night-time soundscape includes the odd plop of a briefly airborne fish, gecko calls and an exotic cacophony of crickets, but also the thrump-thrump from the engine of a passing sampan, and always the distant hum of a generator. That may make eco-warriors bristle, but it’s fine for your average eco-whittler, like me.

True, the generator and the lodge sampans are fuelled by dirty diesel, but 10% of the lodge’s power comes from solar panels, the toilets feed into underwater cisterns and much of the furniture is made from local materials. Fourteen of the 21 staff come from local villages, too.

You don’t want to be too fidgety in a place like this, as there isn’t much to do, or much space for walking, come to that. There is a little library of books and DVDs, but it’s the restaurant and bar that are the real focus beyond your room. The chef caters to most palates. Breakfast is chosen from a small à la carte menu, with dishes such as spicy chicken noodles and poached eggs, lunch is light and sundowners start at £3.40. Evening meals include local dishes such as amok (lightly curried fish) with green mango sauce and rice, or beef fillet with whisky sauce.

The lodge’s romantic, bayou-style seclusion and super-friendly staff make it feel homely, and to interrupt the routine of reading, swimming and sunbathing feels like an effort.

It’s worth it on occasion, though. I took a boat trip to a large waterfall, kayaked to a nearby colony of fireflies and joined my fellow guests for a voyage to Ko Sra Lau, a fishing village on stilts 45 minutes downstream. Weaving through the shallows on the way — the banks crowded by pristine forest, the scent of hibiscus and salt hanging in the breeze — I asked Allan and Margaret, a couple of Aussies, what they thought of the lodge. “Ah, look,” said Allan, the sunnily disposed owner of a construction company in Adelaide, “this place has turned our holiday around. Before here, we were at a wedding in Ireland, on a driving holiday in France, and then sightseeing here in Cambodia — and they felt like a bit of a chore by comparison.”

Two British honeymooners, Cat and Jamie, said it was “pretty much perfect”.

We moored at the village and clambered out. It was intimate — with rough wooden planks connecting some of the houses, and many of the doors and windows open to look through. I padded through the lanes warily, as if I had woken early after staying over at a friend’s place. We needn’t have worried. Soon, children ran out to say hello, and the kindly smiles from the women mending the fishing nets melted any discomfort.

When the time came to leave the lodge for good, I splashed out of the river, dried off and left my tent as late as I possibly could. Allan was right: walking along the decking in shoes for the first time in four days did feel like a chore. I said my goodbyes to the staff, and to Valantin; and, as my sampan chugged upriver, I stared back, watching the lodge grow smaller and smaller until it was obscured by lush green forest.

I’ve been to Cambodia before, but this time I departed more relaxed, more revived — and reluctantly.

***

I travelled as a guest of Ampersand Travel. Other tour operators featuring the hotel include Silk Steps Silk Steps and Abercrombie & Kent

04 Reasons to be cheerful:
   
30 Always check your government's travel advice before booking, and check that your travel insurance is valid in this country. See here for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice.
   
31 Getting there: the floating lodge is 278 kilometers from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, but it's a fairly grueling 4-5 hour drive. The eastern Thai city of Trat is 157 kilometers away, which is about a 90 minute drive, not including the time it takes to cross the border.
   

Further information: see 4 Rivers Floating Lodge, and for general country info see Tourism Cambodia


CITY BREAKS
   8698 views   
City Break Tirana, the cheap, quirky and rewarding capital of Albania...
posted by Richard Green on 22/03/2017
 

Why go? If you’d like to try somewhere decidedly different, the Albanian capital has friendly locals, fascinating history, quirk galore and jaw-droppingly low prices: half a litre of beer costs £1, museum entry £1.25 — the opera is only £1.75, for heaven’s sake. It’s not the prettiest of cities, but it has Ottoman, Italian and communist-era highlights, and there are several fabulous day-trip options.

By day: the giant Skanderbeg Square, started by the Italians and finished by the communists, belongs in a far larger city. In a non-monumentalist corner is the little Et’hem Bey Mosque, a real treat with a gorgeous prayer room. And there’s a tremendous collection of socialist-realist art at the National Gallery of Arts (Bulevardi Deshmoret e Kombit; gka.al; £1.25) — look out for the statues of Lenin and Stalin at the back.

For lunch, you could opt for traditional Albanian cuisine in a shaded courtyard at Sarajet (Rruga Abdi Toptani 7; sarajet.com; mains £3.50). Or, for more sophisticated food, decor and service, try Vila Alehandro (Rruga Asim Zeneli 2; vilaalehandro.com; mains from £4.50). It’s in a grand white mansion that was formerly the Romanian ambassador’s residence.

Now head up to the mountain fortress of Kruja, where the weavers are making a kilim. The smooth-stoned main alleyway leads past dozens of carpet and souvenir shops, where you can haggle rugs down to about £30 and Hoxha mugs to 50p. Beyond, you enter the 5th-century castle walls that the national hero, Skanderbeg, defended stoically against the Turks — there’s a reverent museum dedicated to him (£1.25). Get to Kruja, 20 miles north of Tirana, by taxi (£25 return) or bus (90p). Or make for the ancient seaside capital, Durres, which sees Albanians in beach mode — it’s a £14 taxi ride.

By night: the Blloku neighbourhood shows a metaphorical two fingers to the former dictator. Albanians were barred from the area in his day, but now it’s as good a nightlife centre as any in the Balkans, with boutique shops, restaurants, pavement bars and clubs surrounding the 17 oversized villas where Hoxha and his coterie once slept. The incongruous Sherlock Holmes bar (Bulevardi Bajram Curri) is trendy, with white furniture, arty lighting and a beau monde clientele. Radio (Rruga Ismail Qemali 29/1) is a cracking bar with a very happy ambience and marvellous cocktails. In low-rise Tirana, the 15th floor feels giddying, but that’s where you’ll find the revolving restaurant Sky Club (skyhotel-al.com), with great views, cheap beer and a comically hesitant rotation.

One more thing...Enver Hoxha was the dictator of Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985. His legacy includes a pyramid structure built as a museum to him (now derelict) and, on Ishmail Omera street, a one-man concrete bunker — a reminder of his pet 'Bunkerisation' project that saw the country pebbledashed with perhaps 200,000 pillboxes.

They were - and thanks to their robust design and construction - in many cases still are evident throughout the country. They were prefabricated dome-topped bunkers set into the ground and with slits for firing weapons out of, and from the late 60s to the late 80s became a part of life for ordinary Albanians. People knew where their nearest bunker was, and even youngters were trained in how to defend the homeland from inside of them.  

Some of the bunkers were on a much larger scale though, and two new projects have opened in the city since I visited, which have opened up larger bunkers used by the Hoxa regime. Bunk'Art2 opened in November 2016 and reveals the murky history of Albanian Ministry of Internal Affair from 1912 to the fall of Communism in 1991. Sister project Bunk'Art1 is also sited underground, but on the outskirts of Tirana. It was the shelter in which the government planned to hole up in after a nuclear attack, and contains many rooms exhibiting the history of the Communist period of Albania, plus the room readied for the use of Enver Hoxha himself.

***

puzzle

Fitting Tirana into a holiday: Tirana is a great and refreshing city break, especially if you like somewhere unusual, yet welcoming and with lots going on. There aren't as many 'sights' as in some larger Balkan cities, but the quirky history and proud independence make it a very rewarding destination. Holidays to the Albanian mountains or coast are growing in popularity, and it's easy to travel on to other Balkan nations.  

31

Getting there: Tirana Airport saw about two million passengers in 2016. Useful direct routes include from Athens with Aegean Airlines, from Rome with Alitalia, from Vienna with Austrian Airlines , from London Gatwick with British Airways, from Frankfurt with Lufthansa, from Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, and from Budpest with Wizz.

weather

When to visit: Albania is a relatively mountainous country in the southern Balkans. The best time to visit is June_September, when days are long, warm or hot and sunny. The atmosphere on the streets is great in summer too. Hiking is good in Spring and Autumn, before winter temperatures fall and sporadic snows arrive.

35

More info: I travelled as a guest of Cox and Kings. Or try Regent Holidays, or the locally based Albanian Holidays. For general info on the city see Visit Tirana, and for country info Albania Tourism

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Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.


LEARNING HOLIDAYS
   5786 views   
Immersion language schools seem to work, though the first few days are a killer...
posted by Richard Green on 22/03/2017
 

There was a time when my flat fluttered with Post It notes like bunting at a street party. Each scrap was scrawled on with the Italian word for the item it was attached to – tavolo, sedia, insalata and so on.

I was hopelessly in love of course, and believed that learning their mother tongue would seal the romance – even though I’d flunked all attempts to learn a foreign language before. They however, spoke perfect English; wrote poetry, went to Morrissey concerts and used the word maudlin, witheringly. It was like I was dating a racing driver and obsessively playing Scalextric – although at least Scalextric would have been fun.

The school: Scuola Italia is a small unfussy language school, which occupies the first floor of a 19th century townhouse in the intriguing La Marche town of Urbania. The style is relaxed and informal and morning and afternoon lessons add up to about 4-5 hours a day.

I chose it because Urbania looked an interesting little town away from the main tourist trail. In the group of 16 was a giant pony-tailed student baritone from the Carlsruhe conservatory, a Swiss couple, a Dutch classics teacher, some Danes and Germans, a Turkish girl wanting to be a Bollywood star and an older Singaporean lady who’s garrulousness was breathtaking.

The course: On the first morning I was somewhat phased to have all the teachers speaking Italian at me straight away. They seemed nice people: warm, friendly and enthusiastic, but I couldn't understand what they were saying. My smile slipped into an absent grin.

Next we headed off with our teacher Carina for a brief tour of the town – in Italian. I understand from Carina pointing that River must be Fiume and church must be Chiese, but that’s about it.

We filed shyly into the trattoria, where Doddo the owner says 'Caio'; to the butchers for a 'Come stai' from Frederico, to the Internet café, the wine shop, the pottery, and even have a roadside brush with old Massimo the undertaker.

It’s lovely how genuinely friendly everyone was, and how nobody seemed to speak English, but only hearing Italian made me feel disorientated and downhearted. It’s as though it was wartime and we were evacuee children being introduced to our new home.

I sloped off at lunch and chewed on a ciabatta. Maybe the afternoon will be better?

It wasn't. We watched 'Pane e Tilipane' with no subtitles. It was something about a housewife on holiday with her family who goes AWOL and hitchhikes to Venice. I understood little of what was going on, even though Barbara, another teacher, was sitting behind us and serenely interjected simplifications of the plot and explanations of dialect words – but she does this only in Italian.

I was feeling very frustrated and started to wonder how long it might take me to hitchhike to Venice.

Day 2 – in the morning we were split into three groups – myself Sonia, Lucas and Laurice were lumped together as the least able. In the morning Greta took us through grammar. She’s explaining the conjugation of the verb to teach, when my frustration boils over. Coldly, and in English of course, I explain that I don’t speak Italian and therefore don’t understand what is going on. It verges on a tantrum.

Greta smiles sweetly and the précis my points back to me and the other students, in Italian!

Day 3 - our planned excursion to Gubbio fell apart when Barbara explained that the man who was taking us had injured himself by falling off the back of a donkey. She then suggested that as an alternative she would take us to Urbino for a tour of the famous Ducal Palace. Lucas kindly translated this into English for me, or else I may have hit someone.

We piled out of the cars and walked up to the base of the unusual double towered palace. Barbara used to be a tour guide here and like all of the teachers spoke slowly and very clearly, but only in effing Italian still!

Apparently, the 'FC' inscribed on the lower balcony refers to Frederico’s period as Count, while above the large 'FD' meant the this part of the building dated from after 1474, when he became Duke. He wasn’t a handsome man, accentuated by his not having a bridge to his nose – apparently either chipped away during a duel, or so the story goes, self inflicted to enable him to see approaching assassins whilst lying in bed.

Hang on. Barbara has bee talking now for at least 10 minutes and I understand everything. I’ve no idea how, but I do. I’m now nodding like a madman and Barbara, catching my eye and expression, winks at me.

Day 4-6: like the sun coming out at Allan Sherman's 'Camp Granada', the epiphanic comprehension changes everything, and I spent the next two days soaking up more vocab and grammar. Unlike before though, I was now totally engaged and am enjoying every minute.

By the end of the week, I felt confident enough to approach anyone and blurt out my newly learned words. It was rough and awkward sounding I’m sure, and strewn with dreadful guffaws no doubt, but it’s a long way from a few days ago, when a ‘how are you?’ was all I could manage.

After school I drove through the exquisite countryside and visited nearby hilltop villages, like Peglio and Sassocorvaro; each with a fortress, winding lanes and laid back atmosphere. The dry grasses in the fields glowed peach-coloured in the sunsets and I returned to Urbania to eat.

In one restaurant I was humorously, yet strongly prevailed upon to change my order for a beer, the waitress explaining with a smile that I must have meant wine. The next night a waiter sat at the table and we drank into the night while talking about the European Union, the Middle East, and kids driving too fast over the cobbles outside. Of course my phrasing and pronunciation would have been hilarious to overhear, but I didn't really care, as it was fun, and it was all in Italian, with healthy doses of alcohol-fuelled mime and mimicry.

The verdict: this was the no nonsense school in a genuine Italian town was what I was looking for. Urbania’s lack of tourists, and the it's relatively few English speakers is a huge plus it turns out. The teacher’s sunny dispositions and spectacular patience win out in the end, just as they knew would happen. Another week would have been even better.

***

The splendid isolation of the Parco Ducale, yet just a ten minute walk to Urbino. Photo Parco Ducale

The details: Scuola Italia in Urbania offers a one week course and arranges stays with local families, or in apartments. The best hotel option is Parco Ducale. It’s a new hotel in a converted 19th century building next to a beautiful imposing Renaissance hunting lodge. The property is surrounded by fields and is a 15 min walk to the school, and there’s a pool.

Getting there: Rimini is the closest airport - 70 kilometres away - but it has very few year round flights. Ancona is 100 kilometres away and has flights with Ryanair to Stansted, Alitalia to Rome, and Lufthansa to Munich. 

Others language schools worth a look at are the Babilonia language school in Taormina, Sicily, which is a very slick small language school with a roof terrace overlooking Mount Etna. Or try the LINGUA IT Institute of Language and Culture in Verona.


GHOST TOWNS
   7459 views   
Once a gateway to India, now ghost ruins reachable only by driving through water...
posted by Richard Green on 21/03/2017
 

If you should find yourself in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu - famous for the beach temples of Mamallapuram, the temple cities of Madurai and Thanjavur, and the former French colonial enclave of Pondicherry - then an interesting detour is to the island city of Ramaswaram. About 170 kilometres southeast of the temple city of Madurai, Ramaswaram is located at the start of what's known as Adam's Bridge - a 50 kilometre long spit of land and chain of islands that curves in the Bay of Bengal towards Sri Lanka.

The bridge is made up of limestone shoals and sandbanks that arc over a very shallow sea between India and Sri Lanka.  

India and Sri Lanka were connected by ferry until 1964, when a cyclone destroyed the town of Dhanushkodi

The villages along the spit were once connected by a narrow gauge railway, but the track and large xx bridge, as well as many buildings and lives were lost on December the 23rd, 1964, when a cyclone struck the area. The resulting devastation was so bad that the main settlement of Dhanushkodi had to be abandoned.

Today it is possible to visit the ruins of what was once a thriving town, by catching the bus along the spit until the road stops and tourist jeeps and minibuses begin.

The greeny blue water is gorgeous, but the air hangs heavy with a supercharged humidity, and the oppressive heat and desolation make the place feel somewhat apocalyptic. The shamble of wooden huts and dirt paths from where the the busses set off from is about as forlorn a sport as I've ever seen in India.

But once you have negotiated the price - about a couple of pounds for a seat on the bus - a more holiday atmosphere takes hold. This is an extremely important pilgrimage site for Hindus, and there is an air of expectation as the vehicles set off along the beach in the direction of Sri Lanka.

The driver will no doubt point out the old railways line and a long deserted station, but from there on it's a strange journey across the sand, weaving through the dunes, and crossing the shallow water of the bay.

The little town of Dhanushkodi had a church, post office, railways station, hotels and a ferry jetty. The destruction from the cyclone was severe, leaving the facade of the church in tact, plus some other bluff brick buildings, but little else.

It's a sad spot really, bleak even on the sunniest of days. But the scene is livened up a little by local fishermen who live in wooden huts around the ruins and moor their brightly painted small boats on the beach. There are a few rudimentary tables put out by the fishing families selling shells and other modest souvenirs, but apart from roaming amongst the ruins and taking the place in, there isn't a cafe or place to get any shelter of food.

Then after about an hour it's all aboard the bus for the surreal journey back to the drop off point for the busses back to Ramaswaram.

***

One more thing...the beach at Ramashwaram is an important pilgrimage site, where Hindus travel to from all over India. I got talking to one of the bathers, a young lad from a small village far inland. He was having a nice time with his family, but surprised me when he told me his name was Stalin. Oh dear, his reaction was about the same as mine, but he said his parent were both Communists and so decided to call him after one of the most brutal tyrants in history.

Bathers in Ramashwaram, on of the most important pilgrimage sites in India. Photo My Bathroom Wall

It was a fun chat, and I was mentally adding 'Stalin' to the other unusually named people I had met in my travels - 'Pepsi', Typewriter' and 'English' among them. Then after we had covered the complications of growing up with such a notorious name, he gave me a cheeky smile and said "Well, now you should meet my brother too; he is there beside my mother".

He cupped a hand around his mouth to amplify his shout, and then called out "Trotsky". Oh dear oh dear...his brother sauntered over and I enjoyed a few more minutes chatting with my new comrades. 

A local family, with brothers Trotsky and Stalin at the back. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Getting there: Madurai is the nearest airport to Ramashwaram and has flights to Bangalore, Chennai, Colombo, Delhi, Dubai, Hyderabad, and Mumbai. Alternatively Chennai acts as the gateway city for many international tourists heading to the far south of India. Airlines flying to Chennai include British Airways from Heathrow, Emirates from Dubai, Singapore Airlines from Singapore and Thai Airways Thai Airways from Bangkok.

30

Always check your government's travel advice before booking, and check that your travel insurance is valid in this country. See here for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice.

   

YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED
   8568 views   
Frequently flyer clubs are still worth joining, even if you don't fly frequently...
posted by Richard Green on 15/03/2017
 

An Air Mauritius Airbus A340 arriving at at it's home airport; a popular destination for freebie flights. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Airline frequent flyer schemes get a pretty bad press these days, largely as they have got less generous and more pernickety over the years. But the fundamental point is that you can still get something for nothing, and when the prize is flights and upgrades, they remain worth joining.

Even if you rarely take a flight or always buy the cheapest tickets, you should enrol now. Choosing which scheme is best for you and figuring out how to make the most of the points is fiendishly complicated - I know as I've joined more than a dozen of the clubs in order to figure it out.

Distilled from my experience, here are 10 points to help you get the most from frequent flyer schemes…

1: Concentrate on one club to maximise your collecting speed. Airlines are grouped into alliances – where you can earn and spend across all members of one alliance by being in a single club - so join a club from each of the biggest two alliances – Star and OneWorld - so that you’ll be covered for most of your flying, whichever airline you choose.

2: Get an affiliated credit card to earn points whenever you spend, and look out for enrolment bonuses, which can be up to 20,000 points - providing you use the card in the months after getting it.

3: Double dip to get twice the points on purchases. Over half of all frequent flyer points are earned on the ground, by shopping with airline ‘partner’ shops or spending on an affiliated credit card. For example, link a Woolworths Everyday Rewards card to your Qantas frequent flyer club and earn Qantas points from both the Qantas credit card and the Woolworth’s Everyday Rewards on each purchase. 

4: Pool family spending so that other family members’ flying and spending go into one pot, helping the points to accumulate faster. You can pool points in the schemes of Virgin Australia, British Airways, Japan Airlines and others. Qantas allows transfers between family members up to four times a year.

5: Booking strategy: think of booking flights with points just as you would with cash. That means, try to book early, avoid holiday periods and, if you can, stretch a weekend break to miss flying out on Friday and back on Sunday – the busiest days. And if you don’t have enough points for a flight, there is usually the option to spend fewer points to get an upgrade, or on hotels, hire cars, and also general online shopping with many high street brands.

6: Ask about partner airline flights – many schemes only show their own airline flights on the Website booking page. Call the scheme reservations centre and the agent will give you more options on other alliance member airlines. It doesn’t cost more points to change planes en route to your destination, and looking at other airlines can mean getting seats even when direct flights are already booked up.

7: Rather than spending points on short flights where everyday fares are kept low with competition from budget airlines, save them for trips further afield where you’ll save more. And whichever airline scheme you are in, open jaw trips generally don’t cost extra points, so you can fly, say, into Auckland and back from Christchurch.

8: Find which schemes are best. Figuring out how the schemes differ is a mammoth chore, but webflyer.com has done it for you. It rates different clubs across lots of criteria and gives points out of 10 for club member rating and ‘our rating’. The Freddie Awards (freddieawards.com) are member generated and give a good idea as to the current best clubs: Virgin’s Velocity scheme came top in all five award categories in the Middle East & Asia/Oceania region.

9: Don’t forget budget airline schemes. If you fly budget airlines overseas you needn’t miss out either, as some have frequent flyer programmes too. They are generally admirably simple and easy to use. Budget airlines with schemes include Air Asia, Air Baltic, Cebu Pacific, Norwegian, Southwest and Vueling.

10: It’s no nest egg. If you have a stash of points, don’t view them as you would with money and save them for your retirement. The generosity of the schemes is likely to keep reducing over time. So if you have a wodge of points saved up, do yourself a favour – spend them!


TRAVEL NEWS
   8897 views   
The writing's on My Bathroom Wall - March 14th travel news
posted by Richard Green on 14/03/2017
 
33 Iran Air gets new planes, at last
American-lead sanctions meant that Iran Air was restricted in what new aircraft it could buy – practically none in fact - and importantly too, in the spare parts it could get hold of in order to keep its aged fleet flying. I steered clear of flying Iran Air for this reason, but a new 100 plane order means that the carrier will at last have some new jets. The new A330 was the first widebodied jet delivered as part of the Airbus order.  Iran Air
33 UK's FCO lifts travel ban for Lamu Island
Both are best reached via the Manda Airstrip, served by Air Kenya, Safarilink, Fly 540 and Jambojet from Nairobi, and Mombasa Air Safari from Mombasa. So the unspoilt coastline, and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lamu Old Town are back on the radar.  See the FCO advice for Kenya https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/kenya, and Visit Kenya
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First ever Bangladesh call by a cruise liner
Silversea’s Silver Discoverer expedition ship visited Maheshkhali Island - close to Cox’s Bazar in southeast Bangladesh - where passengers were greeted by a fleet of rickshaws and local school kids performing traditional songs. Part of a three- day stopover in Bangladesh on a two-week cruise from Colombo to Kolkata, nearby attractions include Hiron Point, Charaputia, Harbaria, Kokilmon, and the Sundarbans mangrove forest. Silversea has two further Bangladesh calls this year. Silver Sea
33 New swim-up-to-suites open in the Caribbean
Long since daydreaming material for holiday makers thinking of going to the Maldives or Tahiti, until now there haven’t been any seriously upmarket over water villas on a Caribbean Island. Sandals
34 Eight bodies of Bahamian swimming pigs found on beach
The self-plunging pigs of Big Major Cay have been a tourist attraction and pin ups for the tourist board for years, but eight of the animals have recently been found dead. Once again it is the indirect affects of tourism that has done for the phenomenon; as visitors have been throwing treats to them. The food lands in the sand and the pigs ingest too much sand when foraging for them on their beaches, and die. See Tourism Bahamas

 


JOURNEYS
   6413 views   
Where train turns mountain goat; Ecuador's extraordinary 'Nariz del Diablo' railway...
posted by Richard Green on 12/03/2017
 

Ecuador’s main railway line runs from its Andean capital Quito, along the high plateau Avenue of the Volcano’s, to the busy Pacific port city of Guayaquil - from a high point of 3,600m to sea level, along 280 miles of track. The project to connect Ecuador's major port city of Guayaquil with the capital, Quito, was launched in 1885, and while the line down the Avenue of the Volcanos presented relatively few problems, and the same for the route inland from Guayaquil, the engineers hot a mountain-sized snag 130 kilometres inland at the neck of a valley where a rock face rises called the 'Nariz del Diablo', or Devil's Nose.

The ingenious solution was to have the track ascend the mountainside using a 12-kilometre zig-zag route, so that the train twice reaches a precarious dead end before reversing direction for the next section of the ascent or descent. From a distance the ledges cut to lay the train track on make the shape of a Zorro like slashes on the side of the mountain.                                                                                                                                                                                 

After years of neglect, the line has re-opened using smart new Train Cruise carriages with comfy seats and an open sided viewing car at the rear. The whole length takes four days with sightseeing stops, but it’s the spectacular section from the little railhead town of Alausi, 170 miles south of Quito, that you should aim for if you are pressed for time.

It’s here that the railway engineers almost met their match – as a precipitous dead-end valley blocked the way. The bold and bonkers solution was to carve a zigzagging ledge down the 800m side of the semi-sheer mountain dubbed the Devil’s Nose; along which the whole train moves forwards, then backwards, then forwards again.

The fussy gait of the little locomotive and its wooden carriages is amusing for the first part of the ride, not unlike riding a pleasure railways anywhere else in the world. But it's not long before the ground falls away on the right hand side of the train, and gives way to a steep valley that very soon becomes worryingly steep and deep.

The decent of the Devil’s Nose is astonishing: more suited to mountain goats than to trains. The carriages shuffle alarmingly in their tracks and after one especially alarming jolt, I scuttled to the other side of the carriage - away from the precipice - and tried to calm my vertigo by sitting tight by the solid rock face side of the train, where I opened the window fully and scanned the passing bushes for branches strong enough to jump out and cling onto in case the train plummeted down the gorge. 

04 Reasons to be cheerful: the return trip from Alausí to the bottom of the gorge takes 2 ½ hours, including a 30-minute stop at the bottom. There are three trips daily, costing £15pp. The cute little station and museum in Alausí is well-run and efficient. And though there isn't much to see in the town, it's a pleasant enough place for a coffee or snack if you happen to arrive there early.
24 You can't always get what you want: it's hard to believe, but not so long ago the draw for many people to ride on the Devil's Nose railway was in order to sit on its roof. This became very popular, especially - but not only - amongst the backpacking fraternity, but a fatal accident in 2007 when two tourists were killed by hanging telephone wires while standing up, put an end to the practise.
puzzle Fitting the Devil's Nose into a holiday: the vast majority of tourists visiting Ecuador head straight to the Galapagos Islands - which are parked about 1,000 kilometres off the Ecuadorian coast in the Pacific Ocean. However, the mainland has high mountains, volcanos, Amazon jungle, and surf beaches. It's a brilliant destination in itself, or can easily be combined with Galapagos.
31 Getting there: There are several buses a day from Alausí to Riobamba and Cuenca. 
weather When to go: Cuenca enjoys fairly Spring-like weather year round, with daytime temperatures averaging 21°C. It's up at about 2,500 metres above sea level, so days are warm rather than hot, and nights are often a tad chilly. There's a nominal rainy season March-June, but the rain happens late in the afternoon, or overnight.
35 Further information: on the train see Tren Ecuador, and for the country in general there is Ecuador Travel
30 Always check your government's travel advice before booking, and check that your travel insurance is valid in this country. See here for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice.

ALL AT SEA
   8128 views   
Tafifa to Tangier, and Europe's other fabulous little ferry routes...
posted by Richard Green on 11/03/2017
 

The Tangier ferry looms over the old castle of Tarifa

Europe’s collage of countries and assortment of seas support hundreds of ferry routes. These handy sailings can be pretty cheap too, and Europeans think nothing of hopping on a ferry to holiday, save a long drive, or simply buy cheap booze for the weekend.

My favourite ferry route is from Tarifa in southern Spain to Tangier in Morocco. It takes less than an hour, costs under £50 return, and is about the most exotic little sea crossing I know.

I started in Tarifa on the Costa de la Luz in Andalucía. It has a 10th century castle and fine city walls, but is neglected by most tourists who pass without stopping on their way to Cadiz, Jerez and Seville.

Cantering into a tangle of Kitesurfers on the beach at Tarifa

That’s not true for wind and kitesurfers, who flock here for the dependable winds that lick along the Strait of Gibraltar and across the town’s seven-kilometre beach. The constant buffeting isn’t ideal for a landlubbing beach break, but step inside the city walls and you’ll find that the ancient alleyways are aligned to create an uncanny stillness. So I mooch around the hole-in-the-wall boutiques, stand outside a tiny tapas bar, and even unfold a map – an act of folly anywhere else in Tarifa.

Next morning I check out of my hotel and walk through the main city gate to the small ferry terminal. It’s 100m away and dominated by a Tasmanian-made red and white fast catamaran.

The motly and magnificent jumble of Tangier's Kasbah 

Spain and Morocco are just 14 kilometres apart at the narrowest stretch of the Mediterranean. It means that once I set sail, there’s just enough time for a cold beer and a walk on deck before the glistening skyline of Tangier appears - like a genie from a bottle. I watch the whitewashed walls of the Medina (walled old town) become distinct, followed by the hilltop Kasbah (fortress) and beach-fronted corniche.

The ferry docks to the whoops of Moroccan larrikins showing off their dives from the stone breakwater. There’s a lot more commotion in the port than in Tarifa’s, but soon enough I’m in a beat-up Peugeot speeding past packed shisha cafes and streets full of families and youngsters preening and promenading.

One of the entrances to the Kasbah in Tangier

The bifocaled man on the reception desk of the Continental Hotel handles my passport with immense respect – and then an extremely tall bloke shows me to my 2nd floor room and hesitates to leave. He’s not hanging out for a tip though, and gestures to the window. Happy with my reaction to the smashing vista of the harbour and the Mediterranean, he bows and goes.

The marvellous Hotel Continental, as seen in The Sheltering Sky

The hotel’s antique shop, like the hotel itself, is theatrical, and on the terrace a waistcoated waiter makes an outlandish twirl of the silver platter on delivering my mint tea. With similar flourish, he leaves me to gingerly sip tea from the hot glass and breathe in the warm-scented African air.

Later, the evening sky flames crimson and tangerine (a word given to the mini oranges that first arrived in Europe from here) and the city lights flicker weakly into life.

There’s no alcohol in the Medina, so I make for the city’s most famous hotel, just outside the walls. A fez-wearing doorman ushers me into the El Minzah. Built in 1930, it dates from Tangiers’s heyday as an International Zone, when the city was run by seven squabbling European powers and gained a reputation for intrigue.

The Al Minzah is opulent and calm, and probably the best hotel in Tangier

Spies were apparently rife and Rick’s Cafe in the movie ‘Casablanca’ is said to be based on the Al Minzah’s. Cue vast maroon drapes, high ceiling grandeur, and a raised piano area. After cocktails I cross the moonlit courtyard, where another doorman in calf-length baggy britches opens a door to the best restaurant in town.

I certainly feel as though I’m on a movie set. White robed musicians play on traditional Berber instruments as mounds of grilled sardines and lamb Tagine arrives, and a green-veiled belly dancer gyrates discreetly in the distance. I lift a glass of wine and consider that with a simple ferry crossing, I’ve traded countries and continents for a location that feels part fable, part fantasy.

***

04 Reasons to be cheerful: I've been to Tangier many times, and the short ferry ride across the Straits of Gibraltar never fails in getting the trip off to a great start. FRS sails from Tarifa to Tangier up to eight times a day and has impressive fast catamarans that make the journey to the atmospheric old port in Tangier (Tangier Ville) in under an hour. FRS runs a free bus service for its passengers from Algeciras to Tarifa port and vs. vs.

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You can't always get what you want: it used to be the case that all the crossings docked at the lovely old port of Tangier, but now a new port - Tangier Med - has been built 40 kilometres to the east. That's fine for drivers heading straight to the south, but for day trippers it's far less romantic, eats away at the amount of time you'll have in the city, and will involve a haggle over the taxi fare to Tangier city

puzzle Fitting Quilalea into a holiday: Gibraltar is the closest airport to Tarifa, about 30 minutes away by taxi, or under an hour by bus with a change in Algeciras. Or try Malaga, which also has busses to Algeciras. Tangier makes a great city break destination, but thanks to handy overnight train services from the city, it's also a good entry point from which to begin a journey around Morocco. The nightly train to Marrakech stops in Sidi Kacem, Meknes, Kenitra, Sale, Rabat, Casablanca, Oasis and Settat. Trains depart Tangier at 9pm and arrive at Marrakech at about 8am.
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Getting thereFRS runs ferries from Tarifa to Tangier Ville, as does Inter Shipping Inter Shipping. Both companies also operate crossings from Algeciras (22 kilometres west of Gibraltar) to Tangier Med, and FRS also crosses to Gibraltar and Motril (between Malage, Granada and Almeria). 

weather

When to visit: the humid equatorial climate here means temperatures change little across the year - and average around 30°C. There is hardly any rainfal between May and December, which are the best months to visit. The rainy season here is a proper one, with over 120mm of rainfall in each of the wet season months.

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More info: there's a super little boutique hotel in Tarifa old town, called La Sacristia. And in Tangier, Le Royal el Minzah Hotel is in a good central location. For more country information see Visit Morocco

 

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Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance and passport are valid, plus if you need a visa. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice for Spain and Morocco.

Europe's other great short ferry journeys

Helsinki - Tallinn

Ferries crossing the Gulf of Finland between the Finnish and Estonian capitals are prone to party. Finns love Tallinn’s mediaeval Old Town, and they like a drink too. The bars are great and are a lot cheaper than home. Linda Line has a dozen sailings per day with a journey time of 1h:40m.

Athens - Santorini

Arriving at the Greek island of Santorini by ship involves steaming into a patch of sea that, until an apocalyptic eruption in about 1640 BC, was the centre of a volcano. Ferries dock at the base of a 260m cliff topped by the whitewashed capital, Thira, reached by taxi, cable car or donkey. SeaJets has three sailing daily with journey times under five hours.

Dover - Calais

There are swish Eurostar trains between Paris and London, but for anyone looking to dally across northwest France or Kent, the ferry is best. It takes 90 minutes to cross the English Channel, and on a clear day you’ll see the White Cliffs of Dover before leaving Calais. P&O Ferries has up to 23 crossings per day.

Rovinj - Venice

You don’t have to stump up a fortune for a fancy cruise to arrive in Venice by sea. Ferry routes criss-cross the Adriatic Sea and the most beautiful departure port for Venice is the red-roofed Croatian town of Rovinj - built on a rocky headland with an 18th Century belfry modelled on St Mark’s in Venice. The 2h:30m crossing sails along the Guidecca Canal and passes St Mark’s Square. Book with Venezia Lines


DESTINATIONS
   7873 views   
A man, a plan, a canal, and a hat named after entirely the wrong country...
posted by Richard Green on 09/03/2017
 

A display cabinet in the Homero Ortega 'factory' shop. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Imagine if Swiss Rolls actually came from Croatia or Turkish baths from France. Well it irks Ecuadorians that their most famous contribution to the world of hatmaking is associated with an entirely different country - Panama. In fact the Paja Toquilla, as it is known locally, is made in Ecuador by Ecuadorians from a plant indigenous to Ecuador's coastal areas.

So how did the traditional straw hat of Ecuador become the eponymous headwear of Panama? Well the most colourful story I heard on this was that early photographs showing the digging of the Panama Canal showed workers (likely to have been of Ecuadorian origin) wearing and waving them. But it's more likely that the necessity of transhipping most Latin American goods in former times, through to the better sea routes from Panama, lead to the hats being named after the last port they were shipped from rather than their town, region or country of manufacture.

Theodore Roosevelt visits the Panama Canal construction in 1906 and wears a 'Panama Hat'

Lightweight, light in colour, flexible, durable and breathable, Panama hats were popular in Ecuador as early as the 1600's, and then their use grew more widespread via the North American gold rush of 1848, when may prospectors headed from the east of the USA to the west via what was then the safest and cheapest way, the Panama Canal. In 1855 at the Paris World Fair they were introduced as 'Panama Hats' - and Ecuador wasn't a participant country at the fair - and then in 1906 US president Theodore Roosevelt sealed the misconception when he visited the construction site of the Panama Canal and was frequently pictured wearing a 'Panama Hat' (above).

Another Roosevelt (this time Franklin Delanor), but the same canal and the same type of hat, in 1932 

Hollywood popularised the hats further still, and they appeared as influential wardrobe for Clarke Gable in Gone with the Wind, Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo, Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mocking Bid and Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca. Indeed in the late 1940's it is said that the hats were Ecuador's most important export by value. And yet even with the 'fabrique en Ecuador' inside every hat, the misnomer was beyond correcting. 

And the winner of the best Panama hat in a starring role might go to the hat worn by Dirk Bogard in Visconti’s 1971 film, Death in Venice. The ageing composer, Gustav von Aschenbach, and his young obsession, the Polish boy Tadzio, both wore the Panama in the film. It's no spoiler to say that when Mahler's 5th symphony soars and Bogard's make-up runs at the film's finale, he's wearing a Panama. 

There are many places to buy Panama hats across Ecuador, but an important historical manufacturing centre is the city of Cuenca, at the southern end of the Route of the Volcanos, about 440 kilometres south from Quito.

Homero Ortega has a good little museum and an excellent shop. If you are lucky, as I was, your tour will be given by the charming and urbane xxx xxxx, who's family the business has been in since xxxx.

Raw hats are stacked before being finished in the Cuenca factory. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The hats are still woven in the coastal areas, done as a cottage industry before being shipped to highland towns like Cuenca for finishing. The Toquilla plant grows up to six metres tall, but the best leaves are picked from around the base in monthly cycles. As each hat is handwoven - usually taking a couple of days to make - it means that each Panama hat is unique.

Actually the finest woven and poshest hats can take several months to weave, and originate from the small town of Montecristi.

The hat weaving process, often done by moolight. Photo Homero Ortega

Apparently the weaving process is best done when the air is at its most humid, and so the weavers generally avoid working in the heat of the day and instead plait their fronds in the early morning, during cloudy skies, or by moonlight.

As well as seeing how the hat is woven and shaped, you'll pass a wall of fame showing some of the famous people who have visited the 'factory. The list of the great and good runs from Prince Charles to Geoff Goldbloom, via Peter Falk and Judith Chalmers. But the one that caught my eye was a certain Councillor Dolling from Luton, who passed this way in 2005.

The Homero Ortega wall of fame. Jeff Goldblum, Julian Sands, Peter Falk, and friends. Photo My Bathroom Wall

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Further information: see Homero Ortega for information on how and when to visit the hat factory. Serrano Hat also makes Panama's in Cuenca. For general tourist information see Visit Cuenca and Ecuador Travel

31

 

Getting there: the small airport of Cuenca has Avianca Ecuador flights to Quito, LATAM Ecuador flights to Quito, and TAME flights to Guayaquil and Quito.

30

 

Always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.


YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED
   5129 views   
How to avoid the Calcutta-splutter...
posted by Richard Green on 07/03/2017
 

Inspecting the finer points of Calcutta. Photo My Bathroom Wall

I've never been one to obsess over travel hygiene, in the sense that the usual hygiene you'd use at home tends to suffice. In fact I bristle at the sight of tourists brushing their teeth in bottled water, or refusing to eat food offered on a train by compartment compadres.

Yet there are a few sensible points that can keep you healthy whilst away from home. Not least is eating Indian food in India, Indonesian in Indonesia, and unless you go very posh indeed, avoiding filet mignon at small shack restaurants.

I've often been asked how to avoid getting food poisoning while travelling, especially in India. There are different attitudes to hygienic travel about the place, with some tourists eating bananas as their 'street food' and only brushing their teeth in bottled water.

One reader even asked me if they could contract 'Delhi-belly' by handling money, and so wondered if it was possible to sterilise their bank notes? Well it's true that bank notes get into flimsy and filthy states after prolonged use anywhere, but it's impractical to sterilise them or to avoid handling them. 

Here are some more sensible precautions...

1) I'd say that the best thing to do when travelling in India – or others countries like it – is always to wash your hands before eating. This is easily done as you are falling in line with local custom. Even the most modest roadside shack will have a tap and sink to one side of it, and locals use it religiously prior to eating a meal.

2) Ice and salads were the bogeymen, but most ice is made from treated water these days, especially in hotels, and salads are generally washed in treated water too.

3) It makes sense to eat at busy restaurants (the high turnover means food is more likely to have been freshly cooked) and avoid ordering off piste – I’d always steer clear of bolognaise or goulash on what is otherwise an Indian menu.

4) Street food gets more than its fair share of blame, but it’s a crying shame to miss out, and if something is sizzling right in front of you should be ok.

5) Drinking bottled water is the best way forward, but it's not at all wise to buy a bottle stored in the open down a dusty side street and then put your mouth around the opening. If you can. do as the locals do and perfect a way of drinking from the bottle without your lips touching the bottle.


FLYING NEED TO KNOWS
   5335 views   
How to combat the fear of flying...
posted by Richard Green on 07/03/2017
 

Almost a quarter of people experience anxiety whilst flying, and around 10% of us suffer a more terrifying fear of flight called Aviaphobia. And with a record 3.6billion passengers forecast to fly this year, it’s a problem that affects a huge and growing number of people, so here is our guide to minimising the nerves and overcoming the fear.  

Get a little knowledge

If you do feel nervous about flying, then learning a little about the process of flight before your next flight can help. Phobia fighting expert Lawrence Leyton – who participates on ‘Fearless Flying’ courses run by easyJet – says that “our brain is designed to fill in the gaps, so when you are on the plane and you hear those funny noises and see wings flapping up and down, your brain fills in those gaps and will crate brilliant misconceptions”.

Some research will plug the misconceptions with facts. Even speaking to someone who flies a lot, or someone who works as cabin crew is a good idea. You’ll see how calm they are about flying, and specifically you can ask about the cause of some thuds and thumps that you’ll hear on-board a plane. A thud from the aircraft’s underbelly before taxiing is the cargo doors closing; the whirring sound after take off is the flaps retracting to become flush with the wing again; and the bang you may hear and feel on final approach is the undercarriage locking into position, for example.

Choose a suitable seat

A plane’s centre of gravity is just behind the front of the wing, so if you sit in the over-wing area you’ll experience less movement during turbulence, because the fuselage pivots on this point. The rear of the plane is the worst place for movement during turbulence – especially on a large aircraft – where seats are a long way from the centre of gravity and yawing (side to side movement) and pitching (up and down) are magnified.

If you feel that the vertigo aspect of sitting near a window plays a part in your case, then chose an aisle seat, or in a double aisled aircraft sit in the middle bank of seats. You might also want to avoid sitting by an emergency exit or close to the galley (where small bangs and whollops from crew preparing the food and drinks trolleys are inevitable).

Distract yourself

Being mindful of your breathing will help you feel calm. Take a deep breath through your nose and exhale through you mouth while counting to 10 slowly. Repeat this four or five times.

Think about good or exciting things that are happening in your life beyond the flight. Listen to your favourite music, play a video game, watch a favourite TV series or film, and bring along a book and magazines. Use headphones too, as they block out more extraneous noise than earplugs, or buy some noise-cancelling headphones.   

Declare your fear to the crew when you board as they are trained to help. Get support when travelling with a loved one by telling them what triggers your fear most and getting them to distract you where possible. It may help to declare you are frightened about flying to the stranger sitting next to you too. Their conversation might help. Taking off from the Cayman Islands an extremely nervous flyer declared her fear to me and we chatted enough to reach a point where she suddenly noticed that she’d forgot she was actually in the air.

Take a course

When a British Airways 747 pilot says that ‘The wings enable aircraft to fly, not the engines’, and that ‘A commercial aircraft flying at 30,000ft can glide for 100 miles even if all the engines fail’, we listen. When he’s Steve Allright giving a talk on BA’s Flying with Confidence course, it could well change the way feel about flying altogether.

BA has been running its Flying with Confidence courses for 30 years, with a 98% success rate. It’s made up of classroom sessions and culminates in a 45-minute familiarisation flight on a BA aircraft. The one-day course costs from £215pp from Heathrow, Gatwick, Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Alternatively, easyJet offers a two-day Fearless Flyer course that includes a talk from Lawrence Leyton and a flight on the second day from £189pp, available from 10 UK airports. Or Virgin has its Flying without Fear Flying Without Fear.  

Booking your next flight

To minimise the fear factor you should choose an airline that flies to your destination nonstop. Avoid night flights (which are even more removed from the everyday), and arrive at the airport in good time to avoid last-minute rushing. You may even want to visit the airport ahead of time to familiarise yourself with the atmosphere and layout.  

 


AIRPORTS
   8406 views   
London's inner city airport is it's best, and not only for bankers either...
posted by Richard Green on 07/03/2017
 

A CityJet Avro RJ85 taxiing with the O2 Arena and Canary Wharf financial district in the background. Photo My Bathroom Wall

London City Airport often gets overlooked, even by Londoners. But it's my favourite of London's six airports by far, and If you've never flown from or into it, then you've missed out on an airport with a 20-minute minimum check-in time, flights to 10 UK cities from £60 return, and 40 or so European destinations with returns from £79.

You may think that London City a purely pinstripe preserve, and it's true that two in three of its 4.3m yearly passengers are travelling for work. Yet businessmen tend to know when they're on to a good thing - and it's a good thing that can suit holidaymakers, too, especially as the list of destinations has long since broadened to include some great city break, skiing and beach destinations, like Amsterdam, Berlin, Faro, Florence, Geneva, Granada, Ibiza, Lisbon, Malaga, Mykonos, Palma, Prague, Reykjavik, Rome, Santorini, Skiathos and Venice.

Here's how to make the most of London's inner city airport...

Getting there
Canary Wharf is less than five kilometers away, as is the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. And London City is just 13 kimoeters from Trafalgar Square and the West End (compared to 27 kilometers for Heathrow, 47 for Gatwick and Luton, and 68 for Southend), so it's the cheapest airport to get to from central London.

From Zone 1, a single to London City Airport, by Tube and Docklands Light Railway, starts at £2.60 with an Oyster card (£4.30 without): use the maps at tfl.gov.uk to plan your route. Taxi fares start at about £30.

In contrast, a single Tube ride from Zone 1 to Heathrow costs £2.90/£5.30, while the Heathrow Express from Paddington is generally £34 return - though lookout for special offers from £5.50 one-way. The Gatwick Express is £27.90, the Stansted Express from £29.50 and the train to Luton or Southend is from £25. Taxi fares to any will be upwards of £40.

A BA Embraer and on the runway, a TAP Embraer inbound from Lisbon. Photo My Bathroom Wall

At the airport
There's no traipsing along endless corridors to the departure lounge here either. The escalator to security is right by the check-in desks, and spare security channels are opened if passengers queue for more than four minutes. They also use time-saving mini x-ray machines for shoes, keys, belts, watches and wallets.

All of which means that London City can get away with a minimum check-in time of just 20 minutes. If you only have cabin baggage, they can make that 15 minutes, depending on the airline. That's from airline desk to plane door, and is the lowest in the country.

It's quick on the arrivals side, too. The last time I landed at City, I emerged from the terminal blinking in the light and within 10 minutes of the plane's the wheels touching the tarmac I was on the DLR platform. Compared to Heathrow it can be delightfully discombobulating.

And, because London City is compact and efficient, delays are kept to a minimum and lost bags are a relative rarity. In fact it's the most punctual airport in Britain, with the latest figures showing that 87% of flights were on time in the first quarter of 2012. On average, five bags are misplaced a week - and like other airports and airlines, they are usually redelivered within 24 hours.

A British Airways A318 landing from New York. Photo My Bathroom Wall

If you're not in a rush, the relatively bijou departure lounge has a duty-free shop, a Pret A Manger, Cafe Nero, a Panopolis pastry and sandwich shop, Pilots Bar & Kitchen, a Brick Lane Brews bar, and then there's the City Bar & Grill that overlooks the runway. There are far worse places to consume some smoked salmon and bubbly, and for anyone who likes an airport bar with a view - there are plenty of windows overlooking the runway. It doesn't take even 10 minutes to walk from the lounge to the furthest gate.

On the plane

And flying from London City gives you a chance to try a smaller plane than you might be used to. BA uses new Brazilian-made Embraer twinjets that can carry up 98 passengers, and a 50-seater turboprop for trips to the Isle of Man. In fact, only BA flights to New York and CityJet flights to Dublin have a seat confguration of three-aisle-three - all the other flights are two-aisle-two or less, so that everyone gets an aisle or a window seat.

It means that boarding and disembarking is far quicker, and like the other airlines operating from the airport, BA offers a complimentary drink (including beer) and snack in economy, online check-in with seat free selection up to 24 hours before departure, and frequent-flyer points.

A Flybe Dash 400 boarding at London City Airport. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Take off and landing
The runway experience is memorable too. There's just the one, which incidentally less than half the length of those at Heathrow or Gatwick. And it's squeezed between two old docks and has water on three sides. And the final approach can be very scenic.

If the wind is blowing from the west, you'll get a low-level fly-by of the Thames Barrier. But if it's coming from the east, you'll skim over central London at an altitude of just 2,000ft - making a sharp right turn by the London Eye before overflying the Embankment, the Shard and the City.

To avoid the tower of Canary Wharf, planes descend at a steep-feeling six degrees from the horizontal, rather than the usual three degrees. It doesn't sound much of a difference, but it is noticable and means that last-moment pull-up can be a little unnerving.

Skimming over the UK's second tallest building (236m) on final approach to London City Airport. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Where can you fly to?
British Airway is the largest operator at London City, and flies to Amsterdam, Bergerac, Berlin, Billund, Chambery, Dublin, Dusseldorf, Edinburgh, Faro, Florence, Frankfurt, Geneva, Glasgow, Granada, Ibiza, Isle of Man, Menorca, Malaga, Manchester, Milan Linate, Mykonos, Nice, Palma, Prague, Quimper, Reykjavik, Rotterdam, Santorini, Skiathos, Venice, with one-way fares from £45. It also offers all-business-class services to New York, daily to JFK; return fares start at about £2,935. See British Airways

A couple of Alitalia Embraer's at London City, with nifty two-aisle-two cabins. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The other airlines currently serving London City areAlitalia to Milan Linate and Rome; Flybe to Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Belfast, Dusseldorf, Edinburgh, Exeter and Jersey; KLM to Amsterdam; Lufthansa to Frankfurt; Luxair to Luxembourg; Skywork Airlines to Bern; and Swiss International Airlines to Geneva and Zurich, TAP to Lisbon and Porto, and VLM to Antwerp.

From airports such as Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt, Lisbon, Rome and Zurich, you can connect to hundreds more onward destinations - often already checked in for your next flight, with your luggage on its way to your final arrival airport.

The downsides
It isn't all Lilliputian loveliness. Because the planes are small and yes the primary market is still business people, if you miss out on the cheap fares, prices after that rocket up quickly. And it's no good for snagging a cheap flight to New York either, as the BA flights only offer Business Class on board.

The airport has no boarding jetties either, so passengers have to make the (admitedly extremely short) walk out to the aircraft in all weathers. And while the car park is a three-minute walk from the terminal, but all 800 spaces are short-term, and cost £35 for 12-24 hours.

Plus there are no flights from 1pm on Saturday until 1pm on Sunday, which is great - and maybe even unique for local residents to be given a break from aircraft noise in this way by an airport - but it can stymie plans for a weekend getaway.

Finally, at peak times the departure lounge can resemble a sharp suit conference, and some of the seating areas in the departure lounge at times feature scrums of city boys, which isn't to everyon's taste.

For more information, see London City Airport


DARK TOURISM
   6047 views   
A brush with life on a Soviet era housing district in Kaunas, Lithuania...
posted by Richard Green on 05/03/2017
 

The centre of Kaunas, Lithuania's second city, is pleasant enough, with a handsome main street and a smattering of historic buildings. Yet drive past the marching seemingly identikit towers of Šilainiai (pronounced Shalaney as in Dalaney) - a Soviet era planned suburb plonked onto the western outskirts of Kaunas - and you may feel an urge to put your foot down and look the other way.

But some 50,000 of the city's 300,000 inhabitants live here, and I was curious to see what a huge Soviet planned housing district looks and feels like from the inside, and so I went to have a look.

But inside the at first drab-appearing and greyed-out estates real people are living their lives, and after you have gorged on the pastel colours and cobbles of the old town, a wander around Šilainiai can make for a fascinating insight into the Soviet mindset and the spirit of the Lithuanians to make do, and more. 

In the company of local artist and activist Evelina Simkute, I took an informal tour of the estate and block where she grew up, and after 12 years in London working as an artist on projects involving some of London's more challenging estates, she has chosen to return and take creative inspiration from where she grew up.

As the rain streams down the windscreen Evelina explains that the suburb was built in 1985 in seven sections, and although there were plans to build four swimming pools, and many other places for people to meet and socialise, in fact only one pool ever opened. This is why the giant Soviet era estates are called 'sleeping districts' in these parts, owing to the fact that they contain so little in the way of community centres or diversions for people in the way of stadia, sport complexes or libraries.

This may be why the local architect Saulius Lukošius is so reluctant to return. He won the prize from Moscow to carry out his design, yet fears - according to Evelina - that the locals who actually have to live in his incomplete project wouldn't take kindly to him.

Turning left into the small car park of a cute little building painted bright yellow, we pass a hollowed out complex of mustard coloured brick that looks like it's fallen into disrepair. In fact though, it was another of the unfinished centres - probably for shops and restaurants.

But the Ukrainian restaurant is strewn with handicrafts and serves a mean borsch for €2.90. Over lunch Evelina tells me of her return to the estate and of her art projects and photo walks. She wants the estate and its people to be celebrated, rather than awkwardly ignored, as is so often the case with once 'Brave New World' developments that are now unfashionable and unfathomable. 

After eating we brave the chill and wet to walk to the centre of one of its sections. Here there is a statue referred to by the locals as 'The Elephant', where kids meet to play. It's a rather brutish piece of art, long since covered in graffiti. The swimming pool is nearby, as is the school that Evelina went to. And on a wall adjacent is graffiti art of a small boy done by a local who also went to the school and who is now famous in Lithuania for his art. Alas his poignant lonely looking figure is rather crowded out by ugly tag signatures.

It feels nicer to be out of the car for sure, from which any clump of tower blocks always ten to look worse than they are. And standing in the middle of it does challenge your perceptions somewhat - helped by Evelina enthusiastically telling of her childhood spent playing in the wide open spaces in between the tower block clusters. She says it was safe because there were no cars in the park areas, there were basketball hoops and children's swings and slides - known as 'wellness objects' to the Soviet planners apparently. Plus Evelina adds, that with all the rows and columns of windows facing the central park areas, it was a very safe place to play too.

We moved on to the block where Evelina grew up in and lives now. Outside is a wellness object in the form of a small yellow slide emptying into a square block sand pit. The block numbers jut out in what once would have felt like a futuristic sign telling which number flats were inside which block. The blocks themselves are numbered too, using large lettering as though an LED display from an early digital watch.

See Evelina's Website at Šilainiai Photo. And although you won't find information on Šilainiai there, see Visit Kaunas for more general information on the city.

 


UNUSUAL HOTELS
   5173 views   
Five magnificently minimalist hotel bars...
posted by Richard Green on 01/03/2017
 

American Bar, Sofitel Vienna

On the banks of the Danube Canal in central Vienna is the arresting 18-story architectural triumph of the city’s Sofitel. And prominent and dazzling – even from the streets below – is Le Loft, a rooftop structure containing the restaurant and bar. Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, this avant guard space has wrap-around 10 meter high floor to ceiling windows. The space mixes minimalism with a vast painted and illuminated, multi coloured ceiling by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist. It contrasts wildly with the monochromatic guest rooms and the dark colours and simple raised platform of the American Bar. ‘Le Loft’ signature cocktail is Cîroc Vodka, Midori liqueur, Rose´s Lime Juice, and Champagne. See Sofitel Vienna

Le Bar Long, Le Royal Monceau, Paris

Off the Champs-Elysees and nearby the Arc de Triomphe, Philippe Starck has designed interiors that hark back to the 1930’s and the French ‘art de vivre’. The hotel boasts an acoustic guitar in every room, a private cinema and the cities first Art Concierge. In the bar are white linen curtains and on mode lamps and chandeliers. The conventional bar top is enlarged with a long luminous bar jutting perpendicularly into the room - barmen taking orders and serving drinks from behind. New in February 2015 is a celebration of chocolate with Pierre Herme, who has created indulgent hot chocolates with corn foam, Chantilly cream and South American spices. Le Royal Monceau

Bamboo Bar, Armani Hotel, Milan

In the heart of Milan’s ‘quadrilateral of fashion’, the Armani Hotel is topped off dramatically the Bamboo Bar. It’s in the 7th floor ‘glass hat’ - a two-story rooftop structure with floor to ceiling glass-panelled walls that reveal terrific views of the city’s Duomo and skyline. The traditional array of bottles is pruned back in favour of a bottles spread along two sleek shelves. Backlit onyx walls and cream coloured box table lamps infuse a gentle light over the white leather sofas and black marble floor. Drinks include a Blue Cheese Daiquiri, Tiramisu Martini, and the signature Caprese Mary – a Bloody Mary with mozzarella foam, fresh basil and tomatoes. Armani Hotel Milan

Café Gray Deluxe Bar, Upper House, Hong Kong
Walk through the candle lit colonnade into this chic 49th floor bar and relax and slink into a semi private window side curved banquettes for superb sunset views over Hong Kong Harbour. Or be entertained by the skilled moves of the mixologists behind the 14m long white marble bar. Alternatively, sink into one of the low leather green tea and mineral blue coloured armchairs in the high ceilinged lounge. Champagne cocktails are the forte here, like the Hong Kong Highball made with Belvedere vodka, ginger, honey, cassis, pomegranate and champagne.Upper House

Upstairs Bar, Ace Hotel, Downtown Los Angeles

Opened in 2014 in Downtown LA’s unmistakable Spanish Gothic style United Artists building, the Ace Hotel is a solid new addition to the up and coming hipster enclave here. The rooftop ‘Upstairs’ bar attracts an in crowd to its bare concrete floored bar – décor is sparse, save for a large faux industrial chandelier made from chains, hoists and movie lights. Outside of the bar are two large outdoor patios – one with a small pool. Bar bites are Moroccan inspired, specialty cocktails are frozen, although not the potent Wing Wing – mescal, green chartreuse, pineapple, lime and angostura. Ace Hotel
 


 
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