Author Archives: sian

What’s your dream Europe trip?

In a dream world, right now I’d ignore my emails, pack a weekend bag and skip to the airport. My dream Europe trip? If money wasn’t an issue, a little bit of this:

Sipping cocktails in a London hotel (and perhaps playing tourists for a couple of days), before getting a taxi to the airport and hopping on a plane to Northern Italy. The catching a train through the countryside. Hopping on an off trains as I see fit. Parma, Verona, Milan. Maybe visiting my ol’ friend Florence for the day. Stopping in little hotels, just because they’re pretty, trying little trattoria’s for lunch. That’ll keep me happy for about a week. Trains are so cheap in Italy that I’ll be able to keep on the move.

Europe trip

Florence, Tuscany, Italy

Then hopping over to the West of Sicily on the ferry (for such a small Island there’s an awful lot that I haven’t explored), Off I go to eat arancina and drink unusual spirits. There’s plenty of exploring to be done, most of it best done by car – those little villages all need visiting (in my imaginary dream holiday, I can also drive). Seafood will definitely have to be eaten by the sea.

Then? A short flight to Croatia, to go and play on my very own private island. There are so many dotted around the place, and not at all expensive. Some for playing on for the day, some with lighthouses that your can rent out. I’ve never been to Croatia, so I’ll walk around, taking lots of photos. I’m not really a beach dweller, and get bored after an hour or so. I need some thing to do, and Croatia seems like the perfect place to keep me busy.

Europe trip

Rovinj, Croatia

Oh, what’s that? It’s nearly time to come home? I don’t really want to, so I’m going to fly back to Paris instead. I’ve been to Paris a couple of times, but the catacombs were being restored after (terrible) vandalism, and I didn’t get to go. I’ve also never been to the Sacre Coure, and despite visiting the Louvre, I want to see some of the art inside too.

Europe trip

Pyramids at the Louvre, Paris

Obviously I’ll eat all the cake too. And maybe stay at One by The Five Hotel Paris.

Oh, it really is time to come home now? Oh, that’s sad. Can I go first class on the Eurostar? Actually, it’s my Holiday, so I’m allowed on the Orient Express. That’ll do nicely for my dream Europe trip.

For more travel inspiration read the Europe a la Carte Dream European Travel Itinerary, compiled as part of the Blog’s 4th birthday celebrations.

What do you think of service abroad?

I had a chat with someone yesterday who said that tourists coming to London have a bad experience when it comes to service. I thought about this (we were in fact talking about the Barbican Lounge, where I’d had the worst service of my life) and it occurred to me that sometimes I’ve had absolutely terrible service in other countries. And you just accept it, because the guidebooks tell you that it’s the norm.

That’s the strangest thing. It’s normal to be treated rudely.

When I was in Tallin in Estonia last year, we found ourselves on a boat restaurant, with decidedly average food. Despite the restaurant being beautiful (we were on a little boat for cryin’ out loud, we couldn’t have been happier), the service was so slow there was a point when we nearly fell asleep in the sun. We thought it had just been a dodgy choice of restaurant, and didn’t mind so much because we got to look out at a little harbour and it was all fun and cute. The service in Estonia didn’t really get any better. Polite, yes. But slow beyond belief everywhere we went. We were having a lazy holiday, we didn’t mind. But it surprised me that that’s the standard.

Some countries are said to be rude, others nothing but friendly. Everyone seems to be have different experiences, and there are always different rules when it comes to tipping. Service is one thing that can make or break a restaurant experience for me, yet when I’m abroad I seem to let is pass me by. Except for the man in Sicily who practically threw my (overcooked) food at me and then rolled my eyes when I asked to see the dessert menu. We didn’t stay. There are always exceptions to the rule, and that man took on his role with gusto.

I don’t think service in the UK is awful, but our service industry doesn’t rely on tips (and in some cases staff don’t even receive them) and I’m curious about what people visiting think of it.

Are there some European  countries you’ve been to that have excellent service? Or perhaps somewhere you’ve consistently bad experiences? What makes service stand out for you? Would love to hear what you think in the comments.

Flickr image from besighyawn‘s photostream.

What do you think of the UK holiday?

Later this month, I’m off to Devon for the weekend (to stay here, I can’t wait). In May I’m off to Cornwall.I’ve never been to any of these places, and I’m just as excited as I would be if I was going abroad. I can’t wait to walk along a freezing cold beach in February. I love a UK holiday. I get excited about being a tourist in my own city and I really enjoy travelling in the UK.

But some people will balk at the idea of staying home. If the sun isn’t shining, if the sangria isn’t flowing, somehow it just doesn’t feel like a real trip. For some (quite understandably) if you don’t get on a plane it’s not a real holiday. It’s no secret that I like hopping on trains on a whim, but planning a UK holiday is so much less stressful than going abroad. Decide to go, book, pack, go. It’s rarely more complicated than that. One of the best things about staying in the country on your holidays is that you don’t get the travelling stress.

I hate airports. Absolutely hate that them. Not flying, I’m a huge fan of that. But airports in general stress me out. Security, getting lost, lots of waiting, making sure I have my passport, delays, waking up at 4am because I’m too cheap to get a sensibly timed flight. I usually lose half the first day of my holiday to sleep. Travelling can be horrible. Sure there are fun parts (inflight magazines, free gin, looking out of the window of your plane and seeing little houses), but most of the time it’s horrible. Especially if you’re travelling with other people. Those other people always tend to have different schedules to you. I always end up going away with someone who’s relaxed about the whole thing and wants to spend hours playing about before going through security. It’s the easiest way to drive me crazy. And it’s exactly the same on the way home. Which can ruin two weeks of relaxing before you know it.

The staycation or UK break takes that away. It gives you the exciting bits of travel. The relaxing, the exploring, the good food. The good bits. Without very much of the stress. I like travelling abroad, but with so much of the UK to explore, I can get just as excited about popping down to the coast for a couple of days as I can about travelling to a country far far away.

How do you feel about UK holidays? Lots of fun, or not nearly exciting enough?

Flickr image from AndyRob‘s photostream.

Six Tips on Making Time for Travel

When I talk to people about travelling, time is a big issue. I’m lucky that I can work anywhere with a wifi connection and a plug socket. But if you’ve got a nine-to-five, and a family, spontaneous trips aren’t as easy as they could be. So if you’re short on time, how to do make sure you get a regular travel fix?

Flickr image from Spixey

Go somewhere new each month. My housemate does this. So far she’s taken herself on a day trip to Paris, popped to Oxford. She’s off to Brighton next month. You don’t have to go on holiday to be travelling. A day trip somewhere can be just as exciting.

Stay local. When we think of travelling, we of course thing of curious countries and faraway places. But I’ve never been to Dulwich before, and that’s half an hour away from me. If you’ve always wondered what’s down the road, why not go?

Go and visit friends. Visiting friends is an excellent way of travelling if you’re busy. You’ll get to see people you like, potentially even get a babysitter as well so you can do some exploring on your own.

Take your holiday! Did you take every day of your paid leave last year? So many people don’t these days, there’s always a few days left over. But your boss will cope without you. Take your holiday, it’s yours and you deserve it.

Get off the train. Want to do more exploring? Hop off the train or bus a couple of stops earlier than planned. You’ll still get to your destination, but you might just discover something exciting along the way.

Just book! With so many great deals on flights, and advance train fares, booking on a whim is a great idea. Granted, something might happen which means you absolutely can’t get away, but if you can? You’ve got a sneaky flight to Italy booked and it only cost you a tenner.

Do you have any tips on making time for travel?

What type of holiday leaves you cold?

As open as I am to different travel experiences, and going to all countries I can, there is one kind of holiday that even the idea of leaves me cold: The skiing holiday, it’s my nightmare trip.

image by Rhys’s Piece Is. He looks like he’s having fun, doesn’t he?

I don’t know if it’s the expense (chalet, ski lift pass, pricey food and drink, ski hire, air fare, whole specific outfit you’ll never wear any other time of the year, lessons so I don’t fall over, do I need to go on?) or the fact that it seems strange to go on holiday and do exercise in the cold, but I can’t think of anything worse. Yet I know people who love skiing holidays. People who go every year. Sometimes more than once. It’s a sense of occasion, get a whole bunch of people together (you might not even know half of them), hire a chalet somewhere and whoosh down hills of snow all day.

Of all the holiday experiences I’m willing to try (and these have varied from trekking the Great Wall to going on safari), the Alps and Europe’s snowy hills have been largely ignored by me. I just can’t put my finger on what I don’t like about the idea. When I talk to people about why they enjoy it so much, they get excited and tell me I’m missing out. I just stare at them a bit blankly.

I want to experience new things. I’d happily go on a walking holiday, a painting holiday, heck I’d make snowmen and snow angels on the Alps if I could. But ski down them? Nope, not a chance.

So if I’m so against skiing (not the people who think it’s fun, different horses and all that), I’m curious about what other types of activity trip people don’t like. Hate the beach? Don’t fancy walking anywhere? What type of holiday would leave you ‘checking your diary’ and forgetting to get back to someone? Share your nightmare trip theme in the comments. Or, you could even try convince me to go skiing.

How do you spot the good restaurants abroad?

Finding an excellent new restaurant when you’re on holiday is so much fun. That little bistro tucked down a side street, the place on the corner that does the great coffee, the ice cream in the little shop. For most people travelling, food plays a huge part in a trip and discovering somewhere new. So how do you find the best places and avoid the tourist traps?

Look for the busy restaurants: This isn’t easy if you’re in a touristy area, as everywhere will be busy. But look for the places that have a buzz. Not the ones that are busy but waiters are trying to coerce you in (they’ll ship you out as soon as you’ve got your bill). A gentle vibe that people are enjoying themselves and the staff are happy to be there will generally find you in a decent eaterie.

Look for locals: If you’re abroad, look for somewhere locals go to eat. Even in the most built up of areas, you’ll find them. Follow the accents and you’ll find the best food in the area.

Ask for recommendations: Everywhere you go. Whenever you get talking to someone, ask where the best place for dinner is. When you buy stamps for your postcards (people still send those, right? We’re not all about emails are we?), ask what the cafe next door is like. Talk to people and you’ll find some real treats.

Get online: Talking to people is great if you speak the lingo, but if you’re somewhere with a bit of online coverage or have wifi in your hotel room, have a bit of a scout around. Ask for recommendations on Twitter or Facebook. You’ll find the places that people take the time recommend, and that’s no bad thing. *Ahem* Read blogs like Europe a la Carte before you go too.

Go where you can see the food: If you can see food being prepared, it’s usually a good sign. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad meal that was cooked and served in front of me. It shows a sense of pride in what they’re doing and usually, it pays off.

Don’t be afraid to leave: This is something that I’m always insistent on. If after sitting down, the menu doesn’t appeal, or the food being carried out of the kitchen doesn’t look great, you don’t have to stay. Pay the cover charge if there is one and for any drinks you’ve ordered and leave. A few pounds lost is better than a night in a bad restaurant, or perhaps something even worse.

Watch people as they leave: If they’re happy and saying nice things, you’re probably standing outside a real gem.

Take a guide book: I know, I know. Everyone says don’t take a guide book if you want to explore the ‘real country’. But they’ve changed. They’re more about hidden places and cheap eats now, as long as you buy the right one of course. But don’t ignore them, you’ll still find some places off the beaten track. If you rely on your instinct every day, you might find that you wind up both lost and hungry for a lot of your trip.

How do you make sure you find the best places to eat and drink on holiday?

(That’s a picture of some cake, from a little cafe in Estonia that I was told about on Twitter, and in my guidebook, and then wrote about here.)

What are your 2011 travel resolutions?

I try to only make fun resolutions in the New Year. Anything that involves giving up things I like, or not eating chips will be ignored by the 2nd (rightly so, January is cold and dull already). But when it comes to travel, there are a few resolutions that I do want to keep. Here are a few of them:

Turn up at the train station and just GO. Not cost efficient, I’ll grant you. But haven’t you ever wondered where those trains go? One early morning this year, I’m going to rock up at a train station and hop on the most appealing train leaving within a half an hour window. Or, I’ll get down with the kids and use the new Trainline phone app to buy my tickets on my way out of the door. Exploring is the best thing about travel, and the UK is an excellent place to start.

Fly business class. OK, so this one depends on a lot of other factors (like not having any money because I spent it all on presents last month), but I’ve never done posh air travel and well… who wouldn’t want to? I’m usually a budget-conscious traveller, but just once, it might be fun to push the boat (plane) out.

Go somewhere with a name I have to learn. There are probably lots of places I can’t say properly or spell (Ljubljana is just one of them) so I’d like to visit one, and find out more about it. I can practise my pronunciation on the flight.

Try even the scary looking foods. I try different things when I’m away anyway, but I do still wuss out of the very scary things. That’s why I never had chicken feet when I was in China. Kinda regret it now (but not a huge amount, I’m not silly). But I will try more things, even the weird looking stuff.

That should keep me busy for at least the first half of the year – what are your travel resolutions for 2011? Tell us in the comments!

Flickr image from James Cridland‘s photostream.

London’s Christmas Markets on the Southbank

London can’t rival it’s European friends in the Christmas market stakes, but every year, the Christmas Market in Southbank is just festive enough to be worth the trip. It’s a little bit pretty, a little bit festive and a little bit tacky. All of those things make Christmas excellent and for a couple of weeks of the year, Southbank has them in abundance.

You won’t find anything new here, you’ll find sweet stalls and mulled wine and Christmas decorations and people selling Stollen. You’ll even find Santa. Original it isn’t. But it’s everything about Christmas that you want.

It’s not too expensive either, of course it’s geared towards you spending your pennies, but not on big purchases. You’ll go back for another mulled wine, and you might decide that you really need that fudge, but you won’t break the bank here. Unless of course you have more than one go on the carousel.

The market also has Santa’s Secret Village this weekend, so you can meet the guy himself (probably not the real one, but let’s pretend) and explore his grotto. He’ll even tell you some stories if you ask nicely.

This weekend also sees the Real Food Festival, which is one of the best foodie havens in London. This is where you should pick up all your last-minute festive treats. Expect organic meats, cheeses and some really excellent gifts. You probably won’t leave without picking up some chutney.

OK, so Christmas markets are always going to be a little bit tacky, but that’s half the fun. Besides, it’s snowing. Get a paper cup of mulled wine in you and start feeling festive.

Flickr images from renaissancechambara and Rev Stan.

More European Christmas Markets

Discover another 24 Christmas Markets in Europe in our collation post.

Best of London Tips

Read our Best of London Travel Tips, to help you get the most from your visit to the city.

Click here for the lowest prices on London hotels

How to be a considerate passenger

I actually enjoy the travelling part of travelling. I get a couple of hours to sit on my own and have a bit of a think about my travel plans, or read a book or do… nothing. But there’s always someone around to ruin it. That’s right: The annoying passenger. No one likes the annoying passenger (except the loud snoring guy, everyone thinks he’s hilarious). Here are my tips for being a considerate passenger:

1. Turn your phone onto vibrate. I am an avid train texter and tweeter. I get bored, I’m looking out of the window, I take a photo of the snow, I send silly messages. I pester people to entertain me. But I always turn the little bleepy noises off. No one cares that you’re popular, no one wants to hear your bleeping. And don’t even think about answering your phone in the quiet carriage.

2. Ask before you push your seat back. I hate this. Hate hate hate. People don’t ask to push their seat back, suddenly my water goes flying and the rest of my journey is not comfy. Just because the seat goes back very very far, that doesn’t mean you have to be rude. Ask, at least wait until I’ve finished my wine.

3. Don’t eat stinky food. Unless you’re on the last drunky train of the evening, you really have no excuse. Buy some crisps like everyone else.

4. Don’t sit next to me! OK, for whatever reason, I maybe feel a little bit like sitting on my own. There’s lots of other seats, I’m not being rude. I just want a little space today. Please sit somewhere else if you can – read the signs and the look on my face. Asking someone to move their bag if you don’t have to isn’t rude, of course it’s not, but by not making them shift their stuff, you’re making someone’s journey a little better. If you can sit somewhere else, do. You’ll get good travel karma, honest.

5. Don’t push in front of me, shove me out of the way or think your journey is more important than anyone else’s. The flight is delayed. Not you. The flight. Your journey isn’t more vital than anyone else on that flight. Pushing won’t get you there any quicker if you’re not in the pilot’s seat (he’s probably allowed to push if he likes). If you have to push me out of the way to get to where you’re going, you’re the one in the wrong. Simple.

Got a bugbear about other passengers? Tell us what you think makes a considerate passenger in the comments!

Flickr image from iamjon*‘s photostream.

How has the UK snow affected your travel plans?

Snow is lovely, isn’t it? Powdery, fun, pretty. Except if you want to get anywhere. And then it’s a nightmare. I can’t even imagine what it must be like at the airports at the moment. Chaos doesn’t quite cover it. Because if one flight is cancelled, it’s not like you can squish everyone onto the next flight over, is it?

And then there’s the trains. And they’ve been a nightmare. Despite the London underground and the DLR working pretty OK, the rest of London’s train services (and seemingly the UK) has come to a standstill leaving people stranded all over the place. Two hour journeys are taking almost an entire day, some people are getting stuck on tracks overnight.

So what have you done? Driven to your destination? Camped out at the airport? Braved the trains and decided to get to your destination no matter how long it takes and how many trains you have to get on? (I’m most impressed if you’ve done that!) When the unpredictable winter weather arrives, how do you make sure you get to where you want to go? Are you stubborn enough to stick it out, or are you ready to cancel everything you’ve planned for another time?

The worst thing about snow is that there’s nothing we can do about it. Whether we like the way our transport is run, it’s out of our hands unless we’ve got four wheels of our own (and they’re unlikely to get us somewhere sunny). This is the one time we don’t have other options. We can’t just jump on another flight, or pick another option. It’s unsurprising that so many people decide to stay at home.

You can see just how many people are being affected in the UK on Twitter using the hashtag #uksnow.

Which is what I’m doing. After a narrow escape to the Cotswolds last weekend, I think I’m set for snowy travelling. It started snowing badly the day after I returned, but what was an hour journey could have been much worse. I’ve decided unless I need to, I’m staying home. It’s far to icy outside for safe journeys.

Wherever you’re trying to get to in the snow, be safe. It’s dangerous out there and no journey is worth hurting yourself for.

How are you getting to your destination? Tell us in the comments!

Flickr image from roberthunt1987‘s photostream.