Travel in the age of Covid-19

I’m not advocating that travel is a thing to be undertaken lightly during a pandemic, but hopefully this will be useful to you if you do have/want to travel.  This is my experience of flying from the UK (my home country) to Spain (where I’m going to be living for at least the next five months).

I’d been pretty apprehensive about what travel would be like, but actually it was all rather straightforward in the end.

Manchester Airport the night before our early morning flight was quite a surreal experience. Only one of the terminals is open, and that was operating at a fraction of its normal capacity. I’ve never seen an airport as deserted as this.

One last thing to do in preparation – to fill in the contact and health form for the Spanish authorities. This can be done from 48 hours before departure, and only took a few minutes to do, before we were sent QR codes to be scanned on arrival.  It was a lot simpler than I’d thought.

Bag drop was really quiet, which was a good job as we’re travelling with a bit more than usual – I like to travel with just one cabin bag, but need more than that for five months! We flew through security and were soon in the lounge areas, which much quieter than usual, with whole rows of empty seats.

Our flight itself was about a third full, and we had whole rows of empty seats opposite and in front of us.  Everyone had to wear face masks, and it was made clear that unless we were eating or drinking they had to stay on – movement around the plane was also discouraged.

I’d taken some cleaning wipes in my hand luggage, and as a precautionary measure we wiped down the hard surfaces we were likely to touch – seat buckle, arm rests and tray.

I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed flying until I saw this view –

Landing in Alicante, going through the security passport scanners was much faster than usual due to the low number of travellers. On the way to baggage reclaim our QR codes were scanned, and we passed a thermal camera, manned by a member of airport security and a doctor.  All very efficient and unobtrusive.

Baggage reclaim was exceptionally quiet as well, and it took no time at all before we were on our way.  Here’s to the next few months!

A side trip from Berlin : Potsdam

Berlin is a wonderful city, but if the hustle and bustle gets too much, than there is a much quieter and very pretty place just a short train ride away – perfect for a short visit.

Potsdam is actually the capital city of Brandenburg, but you’ll see from the photos below how peaceful it is – these were all taken on a cold but fine day in November.

Coming out of the station we followed the flow of people over a couple of bridges to the historic centre.  One of the first sights we saw was a church dome – when we headed towards it we found ourselves in a very open and quiet square.

Straight in front is St Nicholas’ Church, which is open to the public, and to one side is the old town hall, which now houses a museum.

The main thing that struck me about Potsdam is that it was very clean and tidy, and the buildings looked well cared for.

This is especially true in the Dutch Quarter, which is a lovely area full of cafes and interesting small shops.  These houses were built in the 18th century to attract Dutch craftsmen to expand the city garrison.

Just next to this area is the Nauener Tor, city gates which were built in the 18th century and look pristine.  This is quite a busy area – you can see tram tracks running between the towers.

Potsdam even has its own Brandenburg Gate – which was actually built 20 years before the one in Berlin!

Potsdam is most famous for Sansoucci Palace, which was built by Frederick the Great as a summer residence.

As well as the original palace, there are quite a few other places in the grounds that you can visit.  If you’re going in the summer, when it’s busy, and want to see the inside of the buildings then I’d recommend booking online – and giving yourself plenty of time to look round!

The surrounding parkland is free to wander round, and looked stunning when I was there in early winter.  It’s signposted Park Sansoucci, and is open during daylight hours.

Sadly I didn’t have time to visit the Russian Village, as it was beginning to get dark after a walk round the park – which gives me a good excuse to make a return visit.

 

Brave Traveller Tips

There’s no need to take a special coach tour to Potsdam – catch the S9 from Berlin (there’s one every 10 minutes), making sure that you have an ABC ticket, as it lies right on the edge of Berlin’s transport network.   If you buy a day pass, you can also use it on local buses – aren’t integrated transport systems wonderful?  The buses have a display showing what the next stop is, so they’re very user-friendly.

The city centre itself is compact, flat and very walkable.

There is quite a lot to see, so I’d recommend spending a full day here – I only had an afternoon and it felt a bit rushed.

Meininger Hotel, Brussels

Why did I choose this hotel?

I wanted to be somewhere within easy walking distance of the centre, where I didn’t have to rely on transport.  This hotel is about 10 minutes walk from Grand-Place.  The area was quiet at night, and not at all seedy.

It offered a good price to comfort ratio; as I get older I like the hostel vibe but really need my sleep, so somewhere which offered a mix of rooms was preferable.  Having a guest kitchen means I could eat in if I wanted to, after a busy day I don’t always want to go out to find somewhere to eat.

I booked online through the chain’s own website.

It was easy to find, even arriving after a long day travelling and surprised by an unexpected heatwave.

First impressions?

The Meininger Brussels is an old brewery building, and they’ve used the size and scale of the building to their advantage.  It’s certainly hard to miss!

The staff were helpful and check-in was straightforward.

There are a lot of rooms here, but there is still a lot of open space – even the corridors felt spacious.

What was the room like?

I was travelling with my teenage daughter, so had chosen a twin room.  The room was much bigger than I’d expected, and even had a sitting area.

We had a window – with decent light-blocking curtains, thankfully – which was good because the room lighting, while relaxing, wasn’t that bright.

The shower and toilet were in separate little rooms, while the sink was open to the room.

The room was simple, but had a nice stylish feel.

The beds weren’t fancy but they were comfortable, and the bedding (and the whole room) was nice and fresh.

What about shared areas?

The hotel served breakfast, which I had a couple of times and thought was pretty good value.

One of the things that attracted me to this hotel was the guest kitchen, as we could choose whether to go out to eat or make something instead – especially handy when travelling with a teenager likes a lie-in but still wants breakfast!

The kitchen itself was a good size, and a very well-organised fridge – guests had to put food in a bag marked with their room number and the date, so it was easy to find your own things, instead of trying to work out if that’s your yoghurt or someone else’s.

There was a good amount – and variety – of seating to eat at, or just to use as extra space to relax in.

Looking down from there I could see the bar, which seemed pretty busy in the evenings – it’s nicely tucked away from the bedrooms so I wasn’t aware of any noise issues.

Overall thoughts?

This was a really good base for a stay in Brussels – close to everything but quiet at night.

For a budget hotel there were some nice design touches which really paid off.  And the staff were really nice, which always helps, and speak impeccable English.

Any tips for a stay?

The kitchen is really well organised, so don’t be hesitant to use it.

Just down the road from the hotel is a metro stop, which is really handy if you want to go further afield.

 

Please note – this is not a sponsored post, I stayed here at my own expense, and the opinions written here are purely my own.

 

 

 

Apps to enhance a stay in Venice, Italy

We all have our favourite apps on our phones to enhance our travels – here are some I found particularly useful on my recent trip to Venice.

Venice Travel Guide by Ulmon

Venice is a terrific place to explore, and is full of enticing side streets to wander through.  Who wouldn’t want to see what’s down an alley like this?

However, sometimes you do want to find your way, and paper maps can be unwieldy, not to mention confusing when the map is in Italian and the street signs are in the Venetian dialect.

Because of it’s unique geography, it can be difficult to get a reliable phone signal to follow an online map – Ulmon can be used a combination map and travel guide.

CheBateo?

This is one of the most useful apps I’ve ever used, and was invaluable while using vaporetto (waterbuses) for transport – all you have to do is type in your starting point and where you want to end up and it will tell you which boat to catch and how long the journey will take.

There are vaporetto stops all over Venice – they look like this –

I highly recommend buying a pass and making use of this transport system, it’s effective, scenic, and saves your feet!

Hi!Tide – High Tide Venice

Depending on the time of year and the tides, this could be a very useful app indeed to have installed.

It tells you the times and heights of the tides for the next three days, and will also help you navigate your way around any flooding.

I hope you find these useful, and enjoy Venice as much as I did – there’s nowhere quite like it!

 

 

 

A trip to the North Yorkshire coast

If you think of the North East of England as being nothing but heavy industry, or North Yorkshire as being unbroken moorland, then Saltburn-by-the-Sea should come as a pleasant surprise.  On the North East coast, just above the North Yorkshire national park, Saltburn still has the feel of a genteel victorian resort.

Originally a fishing hamlet (with a reputation for smuggling), it was much extended during the Victorian era, and has the feel of somewhere that was purposefully planned, rather than haphazardly developed.

We stayed at the Spa Hotel, as it seemed like a good mid-point between the town and the sea, and it was really nice.  They host a lot of weddings there, but the bedrooms are nicely tucked away so it’s quiet at night.  They also have an outdoor seating area with great views, as seen below.

It’s not only the town buildings which have been planned, there’s a large park with an Italian Garden, a little railway, and a children’s play area – though when we were there several kids preferred to play in the stream that runs through the gardens.

If you’re feeling more energetic, then there are clifftop walks with a sculpture trail to follow.

The big attraction for me, though was the pier, which stretches out into the North Sea.  I know they’re old fashioned, but I do like them!

There is the usual collection of family-friendly video games at the entrance, and then you walk through to the pier itself.

If the sea is out, there’s a decent amount of sand to walk along, or there’s a path along the front, with a brightly painted row of modern beach huts for hire.

What really drew me to Saltburn, though, was the cliff tramway, a water powered little funicular running from the beach area to the main town.

There are other ways up of course, by road or steps, but none as unique or as much fun!

Sitting in a very cute little cabin, the journey takes less than a minute, and the ride is really smooth.

I absolutely loved the cliff tramway – a great experience on a really enjoyable seaside trip!  To see the tramway in action, have a look at the video on my instagram account, brave_traveller_photos

Brave Traveller tips for Saltburn-by-the-Sea

There is a decent sized (paid) car park between the beach and the park, which seemed to fill up pretty quickly – there’s also quite a lot of free on-street parking before the big hill down to the beach.

Do try the cliff tramway – as well as being fun, it’s by far the quickest and easiest way to move between the beach area and the town centre.

 

 

How to visit Venice, Italy, without breaking the bank

Arriving at the airport

Venice is served by two airports – Marco Polo, which is close to the city, and Treviso Canova, which is a few miles away in a neighbouring town.

Treviso is a Ryanair hub, so a lot of cheaper flights will arrive and depart from there.  Though it is a few miles away, it is really well served by an ACTV bus service, so it’s not a huge inconvenience.  I actually really liked it as an airport, it’s small so getting through security is fast, and the cafeteria sells very reasonably priced (and freshly made) pasta and pizza.

Arriving at Marco Polo, you have several transport options.

The cheapest one is to take the bus, which will take you to the mainland bus station on the edge of Venice.  The most expensive is water taxi, which costs (in 2019) about 120 Euros!  There is a third option, which is the one I’d recommend – taking the Alilaguna boat service.  It only costs (at 15 Euros) slightly more than the bus, and you still have the magical experience of seeing Venice for the first time from the water.  Just follow the signs for water transport from the arrivals area.

Getting Around

Venice is incredibly walkable, but there are a lot of bridges and it’s very easy to get lost.

Do consider using the vaparetto service, as there are several routes which will take you all over the place, including to the outlying islands (Murano and Burano are especially worth visiting, if you have time).  It can be expensive to use, but you can get a travel pass – the Venezia Unica – which reduces the cost considerably.  Under 30s can buy the Rolling Venice card, which is cheaper.

Just remember to validate your card at the scanner before you get on the boat, as tickets can be inspected.

I used the app CheBateo which is incredibly easy to use – you put your starting point and destination in, and it tells you which boat to catch, what time it arrives, and how long the journey takes.

This is what the stops look like –

vaparetto stop

Lines 1 and 2 will take you from one end of the Grand Canal to the other.  I was lucky enough to get one of the outside seats at the front of the boat, and the views were incredible.

Visit other islands

As well as the centre of Venice, your travel pass will take you to the neighbouring islands – Murano is famous for glass making, and Burano for it’s lacework and striking coloured houses.

It’s also possible to escape the crowds on a trip to Venice Lido, which is a classy resort.  Follow the path straight down the main thoroughfare from the vaparetto stop, and you reach the beaches, which are wonderfully sandy.  Most of these beaches are private, and entry can be expensive, but by turning to the left and following the arrows for a short way, you’ll reach a free public beach.

Toilets, changing rooms and lockers for any valuables are available for a small fee, and there’s also a small beach bar.

free beach on the Lido

Free viewpoints

You could join the endless queue and pay to go up the clock tower in St Marks Square – or you could take a vaparetto over to the small island of San Maggiore and go to the top of the tower there, which is crowd-free and won’t cost you anything.

If you want a view of the Grand Canal, then head to the Rialto Bridge area, and go to the fourth floor of the new T Fondaco dei Tedeschi shopping centre.  You do need to book a time slot, which can be done online or on the tablet between the lift and the viewing area.

You’ll be rewarded with panoramic views in all directions.

Grand Canal view from T Fondaco viewpoint

Watch out for tourist traps

It’s surprising how much prices can drop just by turning down a side street.  Cafe Florian is both historic and beautiful, but with a 6 Euro charge per person for music and an inflated menu cost, why not turn the corner to a quieter cafe, where prices are normal (and you can still hear the music!)

Cafe Florian, St Marks Square

However if you’ve always dreamed of floating down canals in a gondola, then remember that prices are set by the city, agree the duration upfront, and then relax and enjoy – after all, you are in Venice!

A (wet) afternoon in Sedbergh

Sedbergh, a small English market town, is just inside the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

This means it’s surrounded by some spectacular scenery, which unfortunately I couldn’t explore on my visit as it was raining.

However, as it’s also England’s official Book Town, and home to a fair number of cafes, it was still a very pleasant place for a potter round.

Only a few miles from the M6 motorway, it feels pretty rural – it’s the only place I’ve gone where I’ve had to drive over cattle grids on the slip lane of the motorway!

There isn’t much on-street parking, but it has has two clearly marked and decent-sized car parks.  The one we used is just behind the tourist information, which is in the building pictured below.

This information office had a fair number of leaflets with directions for local walks – for use on a sunnier day!

It’s still an attractive place in the rain though, with a main street and some interesting looking  little alleys.

Home to a fair few places to buy books – if that’s your thing I can recommend Clutterbooks which has a good selection and is inexpensive – it also has a Book Shelter where you can swap books.

It’s a good place for a lunch out as well, with a good selection of cafes and pubs to choose from – we went to Smatt’s Duo as we wanted something fairly light, and the food was homemade and tasty.

A little further on we came to St Andrew’s Church, which you go through an attractive wooden gate to reach.

The church was open, in great condition, and is obviously well used by the community, as there was a table of toys and games for children.  There is a path all the way round and really well looked after and nicely planted grounds.

Unfortunately the rain was showing no sign of letting up, so we called it a day shortly after.

I’d very much like to return and explore the area, as it looked like there were some really interesting places within easy walking distance of the town centre.

 

 

Tried and tested apps for travel

When I first went abroad, smartphones weren’t a thing.  Paper maps were about as technological as it got, and any kind of travel involved finding the tourist information office to find out about the local area.

Thankfully, things have moved on since then, and it’s now easier than ever to use technology to plan trips. The days of sticking out like a sore thumb while wrestling with an map which just wouldn’t fold back up are long gone!

Here are the apps which I always use while travelling. It should go without saying that if you’re using airlines or train companies, then it’s best to download their specific apps as you can then keep track of any delays or changes to your journey.

All the apps I’ve listed are free.

TripIt
This is a great travel itinerary app which is especially useful if you have several transport and hotel bookings to keep track of. It can pull information in from your emails and organised them in date and time order, and is much handier than having to refer to individual sources.

Google Maps
I’ve tried other mapping apps but Google Maps seems to be the most reliable in both urban and rural areas. Especially useful for directing you from one place to another, though it doesn’t always seem to show the most direct route. An alternative, which I’ve also used, is Citymapper.

Google Translate
Really handy if your knowledge of the local language is limited – and also for working out what menus say.

XE Currency Converter
Because there’s only so much maths you want to do on holiday.

Rome2Rio
Gives travel directions from one point to another by all available transport options, and includes the likely cost of transportation. I’ve found the timings this app gives for journeys to be very accurate.  It’s so much easier to be a brave traveller when you can confidently use public transport rather than have to take taxis.

HappyCow
I often travel with my son, who is vegan, and finding somewhere where he can eat can be tricky in an unfamiliar place. This app is great for finding vegan-friendly restaurants, cafes and food stores.

All of these apps have helped me to be a brave traveller, and I hope you’ll find them useful too.

My travel essentials

I’ve already posted about what not to pack – here are some things that I wouldn’t travel without.

1. Organised paperwork

Boring, I know, but I don’t want to be the person fumbling through my bag trying trying to find something which may or may not be there. So I check I’ve got everything I need and organise it in order of when it’s going to be needed, split into outward and return journeys.

2. Comfortable shoes

I’m not as young as I used to be, and my days of suffering for fashion are long over! If I’m going to explore a destination throughly, then my feet are going to be comfortable. If you travel with more than one pair, then wear the ones which will take up the most room rather than put them in your case.

3. A daypack

It could be a small backpack or a big shoulder bag, but I don’t want to be walking around with everything I need stuffed into my pockets – both for security and for comfort.

4, Travel adaptor

I forgot this once, and as a result had to spend the best part of a morning in Brussels trying to find an electrical store that would stock a UK – EU adaptor.  I did find one, and explored a part of town that was well off the tourist trail, so it wasn’t all bad, but it wasn’t the most relaxing way to start a holiday.

5. Teabags

Well, I am British, after all! I love European coffee, but at the beginning and end of the day I really like a cuppa.

And one more, which is not something to pack, but essential nonetheless : Travel Insurance

I’ve never had to claim on travel insurance, but I wouldn’t travel without it, especially without some form of health insurance. Being brave doesn’t mean being foolhardy, and who wants to return from holiday with a huge medical bill? As I take several trips a year, annual insurance works out better financially. I don’t automatically renew with the same insurer each year, but shop around for the best deal every time.

 

Overnight from London to Fort William

I’d always wanted to take the overnight train from London to the Highlands – it always seemed such a romantic way to travel. So I was thrilled to actually take the journey – would it live up to my expectations?

Starting at London Euston, the first surprise was the sheer length of the train. It took us quite a while to walk along to the section where out compartment was.

The first thing I noticed was how narrow the corridors were. It was only wide enough for one person to walk along at a time, and would have been pretty tricky to negotiate with a lot of luggage. This is presumably to give maximum room for the sleeping compartments.

The staff are really good, welcoming passengers onboard giving everyone clear directions.

The sleeper compartments are compact, with narrow bunks.  The beds are actually really comfortable, and the bedding was lovely and fresh.  In fact, the whole carriage was really clean.

To get to the top bunk you have to climb up a small ladder which hooks onto the base of the bed.

The photo above was taken from the door, so you can see how compact the carriage is.

Part of the shelf under the window lifts up to reveal a sink, and there’s a bin underneath.

There was a little welcome pack in the compartment, with information about the train and the journey.

There aren’t any showers on board, and the old trains have toilets at the end of each corridor – there are also disabled/accessible toilets onboard.

It was now evening and after getting ourselves organised, time to head to the lounge car for dinner.  Access to this can be restricted to First Class passengers at busy times, but the rush was over and there was plenty of room.

The menu was traditionally based, and despite the space restrictions the staff were working under was really good, much better then I’d expected.  Service was friendly and very good.

After dinner it was dark and time to settle for the night.  The bunks were actually really comfortable and it felt pretty cosy.

I could feel the movement of the train, but that was quite soporific, and there was no noise at all from the corridor or other compartments.

The main movement was when the train separated during the night – it splits into three when it reaches Edinburgh, with parts heading towards Fort William, Inverness and Aberdeen.

We’d chosen to go to Fort William, as the countryside around there is pretty spectacular.

I slept soundly through the night, waking up as we reached Crianlarich.  Time for another visit to the lounge car to fetch breakfast – bacon rolls and orange juice, eaten in our compartment while looking through the window at the scenery.

 

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