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Postcard from…the Amazon Rainforest

Longer read

When I took this photo I remember thinking that it was like we were gazing out of a window, from one powerful life source onto another. We were in remote Yasuní National Park, a protected corner of Amazonian Ecuador and we were looking out onto one of the mighty Amazon River’s tributaries, the Río Napo.

It was 9.17 in the morning and we’d soon be lost in the Amazon Rainforest.

But before I get onto that…

Adventure

The most adventurous day of our Amazon Rainforest trip began at 5am, stirred awake in our cabins by a marching band of howler monkeys. Their sound is often likened to the roar of an oncoming train. I would go further and say they sound like an entire Clapham Junction station of oncoming trains.

We had arrived less than 24 hours before at our temporary home of Sacha Lodge, one of a number of smart rainforest lodges that are popular with those who can properly afford them (i.e. retired groups) and a few youthful chancers, like us. ‘Sacha’ in the Quecha Indian language means ‘forest’ and this ‘Forest Lodge’ was launched in 1992 by a Swiss man named Benny, who had visited Amazonian Ecuador in the 1970s.

In its launch year, Sacha Lodge comprised 1,200 acres of land and six guest rooms. Benny kept the land purchases going, and today the lodge sits within 5,000 acres of land. Nearby Napo River runs at over 1,000km in length, crossing the entire length of Amazonian Ecuador and beyond, finally feeding in to the Amazon River in neighbouring Peru.

Waterways

Travel between Sacha Lodge and the Napo River is by traditional dugout canoe, carved from tree trunks in the traditional way. Still very early, we crossed inky Pilchicocha Lake – mosquito free because of the tannins in the water – with our keen naturalist guide and Quito native, Gus.

Retracing our steps along the forest-edge boardwalk, we encountered more red howler monkeys (this time launching between trees above our heads) and some almond-scented armoured millipedes. A beautiful arthropod, just going about its day.

Transferred now into an electric canoe, we coasted down the vastness of the Napo, stopping on the Yasuní boundary at a riverbank ‘clay lick’. Many birds, as well as mammals, rely so much on the abundance of nutrients and minerals in cliffs of clay like this. We saw Mealy Amazon and Blue-headed parrots, Dusky-headed parakeet and Chestnut-fronted macaws. A skittish sea of green above a silty ribbon of river.

We had made it as far along the Napo as we would be going, now within the protection of Yasuní National Park. The park became a biosphere in 1979 and later a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Pristine, in part, but also staring into a dangerous future.

Under threat

Traces of the oil industry and illegal logging weren’t too hard to spot on our travels. The gateway city of Coca along the Napo River grew out of the oil business, and we saw shady signs of industry dotted about on the riverbanks on our way to Sacha Lodge.

Fast forwarding to spring 2020, huge levels of erosion and oil spills have been reported along the Napo and Coca rivers. Bound to this sad story of erosion, Ecuador’s largest waterfall, San Rafael, disappeared in February.

Among the people most affected by a trio of threats – climate change, oil and illegal logging – are Amazonian tribes, including the Waorani. In 1990 they won the right to a reserve of land that overlaps with Yasuní, but have had to fight hard in recent years in particular to halt the government’s oil drilling agenda.

There is hope though.

Last year Waorani from Pastaza, south of Yasuní, won a landmark legal victory which means that half a million acres of land are protected from oil exploitation.

Around the same time we visited, cameraman and naturalist Gordon Buchanan lived with a group of Yasuní Waorani who venerate anaconda snakes. Despite the dangers, they search for green (aka common) anacondas, catching and releasing them (humanely) in a show of strength but also affection. With them, Buchanan uncovered one of the biggest anacondas on record, a whopping 5.3m long!

A silent race

What struck me most as we left our boat and set off walking was how varied all the plants and trees were. Sounds obvious but it immediately felt different to the ground-eye view at the more accessible Sacha Lodge. You could feel a remoteness attached to every step.

Pointy fronds, pencil thin many-trunked trees and spotty leaves, stencilled by leaf cutter ants. Trees with spindly, twisty vine-like branches or giant jagged leaves. The occasional fiery stem of a bromeliad flower, poking out among 1,000 shades of green. Casual flypasts of large butterflies like the lustrous Menalaus blue morpho butterfly, impressive and bird-like in size. Or the Brown owl moth, so called for the huge eyespots on their wings.

The further we walked, the closer together and taller everything got, embraced in a silent race to reach the canopy first. Some of the loftiest were the gigantic Kapok, or Ceiba, trees. Even the younger ones had roots the size of marquees. Immense and Jurassic, their bases looked to me like a series of dinosaur claws.

And always the hum of insects.

Creatures small and great

All four of us were covered in all manner of insect repellent, almost as if taking part in a laboratory trial. I wore Avon’s Skin So Soft spray, which features natural repellent citronello, completely coincidentally. The Royal Marines are rumoured to use it.

Mosquitoes can seem to either like or dislike your natural scent – even your blood type. I don’t think they liked either of mine much, I was barely bitten. Two of my friends, however, seemed to be top prize. Manu in particular was under constant attack from dive-bombing females (the ones who actually bite), his bloodied and ripped shirt a testament to their tenacity. Not all the wildlife was trying to eat us though.

We saw and heard four species of monkey – Poepigg’s woolly, Red howler, Golden and Black-mantled tamarin – and we caught the whisper of a highly venomous Fer-de-lance pit snake as it slinked off to even quieter depths. Spiders sometimes spotted clambering over leaves.

We crossed ways with a Yellow-spotted river turtle and False coral snake, non-venomous despite their alarming, neony colours. Meanwhile, we learned a big story about tiny ‘Lemon’ ants.

An hour into our walk we came upon a strange clearing known as a Devil’s Garden, so-called because in the mythology of the Amazon Rainforest it’s thought that evil forest spirits called Chullachaki or Chuyathaqi inhabit them, killing the plant life around them.

A clearing without trees might not seem odd, but in such dense rainforest, it is. The scientific answer? Those Lemon ants. They use their own herbicidal poison on plants and trees they don’t eat, only leaving the species they savour. Some Devils’ Gardens have been known to grow to the size of hundreds of trees with millions of ants and thousands of queens.

Although these local superstitions mean that tribes would be wary of coming into such clearings, we huddled round a colony and took turns to try a couple of the ants. Mine tasted just like sherbet.

There and back again

Enjoying such awesome encounters with wildlife, and happily ambling along as we had been for hours, we jumped down onto a shallow, rocky riverbed. One that looked a bit familiar.

With a dread realisation that trickled over us in turn, we knew we had crossed this river already, I’d even taken a group photo hours before. A hut along the trail was meant to mark a turning point but we’d missed it somehow. Our guides had suspected as much before the river, they just hadn’t let on. The four of us assumed we’d been advancing in the right direction, but here we were off-trail, having gone in the wrong kind of circle for who knew how long.

I wasn’t too worried at first. We were with experienced guides, one of whom lived in the rainforest. They had marked our route using their machetes, and we could surely retrace our steps and look again for the turning. It wasn’t too late in the afternoon.

But rainforests are fickle friends, unwilling to let you go in a hurry. And as the name suggests, they don’t really stay dry for long.

The weather was changing and sounds of thunder in the distance poked at our ears – a very unwelcome storm was approaching. We couldn’t tell how big, but we knew enough about the risk to visualise our tracks washing away in heavy rain, perhaps a night spent sheltering beside a giant tree.

When you realise you’ve ‘gone wrong’ somewhere remote, certain thoughts can seem to run around your mind carousel-like, over and over. Our water bottles no longer looked sufficient. Our last meal had been a few lemon ants. No-one outside of our group knew our exact location. Our guides weren’t smiling any more.

And rain, heavy and warm, had arrived.

But it sprang our tired limbs into action. No, it was too risky to aim to find the missed turning. Yes, it was much safer to follow our steps back and hope the storm was brief. We forgot our hunger and our encroaching thirst. We hastened to follow our guides, feeling apprehensive and increasingly soggy, but determined to walk fast and find our way back.

Found

The next few hours were a bit of a blur, as return journeys sometimes are. Nerves were jangling, hoping the weather would clear, looking for signs we had rejoined the trail, wondering if we’d retraced earlier movements yet.

Looking at all my photos from the day, there is a gap of over two hours where I took nothing, camera stowed away from the rain. It rained on us for a while, we heard thunder, perhaps even saw some lightening, but the storm worked out to be the kind that passes over quite swiftly, leaving you clothed in mist and humidity. Praise be.

By a certain point I was quite sure we’d landed back on the trail. Spotting the eerie ’Devil’s Garden’ clearing gave me a kick of adrenaline. My friend Preeti took some convincing, but, finally, at 2pm, after 5.5 hours exploring and getting lost in Yasuní National Park, we came upon a view that everyone could agree on.

We were back at the rainforest window among the trees.

Which meant we were 45 minutes from our canoe. Looking out from that window a little more wisely, and a little more thankful.

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Postcard from…the Venetian Lagoon

‘Kim, do you think we’ve got time to see Igor Stravinsky before we go?’

No, my friend and I hadn’t travelled back in time to meet the 20th century Russian composer of The Rite of Spring. We were on Isola di San Michele, Venice’s cemetery island out in the lagoon. And time was running out to explore it before the last water bus of the day departed.

You could describe the island – which is actually two islands linked by canal – as a symbol of Napoleon’s military might. He invaded and dissolved the Republic of Venice in 1797, sanctioning a few years later for burials to take place away from the oft-flooded centre of Venice. Even despots can possess a regard for hygiene, then.

In any case, the history of the island predates Napoleonic upheaval. It is named after the church of St Michael that was built there, the first Renaissance church in Venice. A monastery was home to a branch of Benedictine monks and there was even a prison on the island for a time. Different kind of home I expect.

If you look at a picture of the island from the sky everything looks so ordered, like scaled up vegetable patches. But on the ground, once through the entrance it doesn’t feel that way, and you really forget you’re surrounded by water. A very thoughtful place.

We had time to visit Stravinsky’s grave in the end, and those of his neighbours: expat American poet Ezra Pound, Ballet Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev, writer Joseph Brodsky – and Venetians from all walks of life. It’s less starry than Père Lachaise Cemetery and the map isn’t entirely accurate, but it adds to the casual glamour of the place.

As you’d expect from a working cemetary, you can’t take photos within the walls, though if you’re lucky as we were to catch a sunset on the way back, you’ll find it compensation enough.

And what if we had missed the last water bus? Well, we would have been in good company.

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Postcard from… Banff Town

Idyllic even in the rain. I loved everything about Banff National Park, from the springing deer crisscrossing our campsite to the piping sounds of golden-mantled ground squirrels all around. The misty mountains, the endless trees, even the heart-thumping thrill that a grizzly might be round any corner, searching for berries (or worse).

Banff was Canada’s first national park, established 135 years ago in 1885. Not long after, Chateau Lake Louise was built and the park’s renown with tourists was secured.

What I most loved about Banff wasn’t really the famous Lake Louise, thousands-of-selfies part though. The adventure and wilderness were the highlights, but the warm, buzzy atmosphere of Banff Town was just as memorable.

We were far away from home, but feeling at home.

We’d pass through the town on our way out to explore a lake or we’d return, exhausted and a bit muddy, from hiking a mountain trail and it would just feel like the town was giving us a big hug. A feeling that’s not easy to pin down.

The only exception to its charms? That would have to be the random late afternoon ‘lunch breaks’ all the bus drivers would take, seemingly at exactly the time we wanted to catch a lift.

But that’s the great thing about staying in any friendly country – hitchhiking!

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Travel hack: beat the heat

The news continues to stream out of Japan of the unprecedented heatwave, and it makes for sombre reading. The longest and deadliest heatwave since the 19th Century!

I visited this wonderful country in the first half of July, knowing it would be hot, but astounded by just how all-consuming and furious the heat was.

I thought that this was somewhat normal for Japan, having never experienced a summer there, but as the death toll and hospitalisations have shown, it’s anything but normal.

The epidemic of heatwaves and wildfires around the world shows more than ever before the reality of a warming planet and the consequences of the throwaway lifestyle many countries have adopted over the decades. I wrote recently about small changes you can make when you travel, to help reduce your carbon footprint.

But how to deal with the matter at hand, the heat?!

If you’re travelling somewhere in the coming weeks, and the forecast is HOT, I’ve got ten top tips to cool you down. Yes, some of them are total common sense, but, honestly, I didn’t follow half my own advice when I first arrived…

1. Drink up

Eating Dim Sum in a restaurant in Hong Kong

Easy. Except, it’s amazing how often you end up traipsing about from one sight to another, without stopping to grab a drink, or to refill your bottle. I must have tried about 30 different vending machine drinks in Japan. It was level pegging between Fanta grape and Orangina for the title of most thirst-quenching drink…

2. Pack an umbrella

Umbrella in the sun

I was inseparable from my umbrella for most of the trip.

The biggest mistake I made when I first arrived was forgetting to take my umbrella out with me on day one, but when I did use, it was a major life saver. Not only are you shielded and don’t have to keep applying lotion to your face, if you’re somewhere like Japan in summer, it’ll help you when the typhoon hits too.

3. Wear a damn hat

Butterfly on my straw hat in the Japal Alps
A butterfly landed on my straw hat while I was out walking in the Japan Alps. If you don’t use an umbrella, a hat is even more essential.

4. Spread it

Good quality sun lotion, that is. It’s taken me a while to find my favourite, but I’m a big fan of Ambre Solaire sun cream. It absorbs really well and any slight greasiness disappears very quickly. Not a fan of their mist spray lotion though, that stuff sucks!

5. Number one fan

My electric hand held fan in Hong Kong
I bought this hand-held electric fan in a shop on the Peak in Hong Kong.

You cannot beat a fan on a crowded train, it can be almost unbearable otherwise. Whether you opt for traditional or electric, I recommend combining it with number nine!

6. Freeze stuff

A Dominique Ansel creation, filled with salted caramel ice cream
A Dominique Ansel creation, filled with salted caramel ice cream, from his bakery in Tokyo’s Harajuku district.

If you’re staying in hostels or self catering then you may have access to a freezer. My brother and I went our whole holiday without the brainwave to freeze some of our water overnight. I say brainwave, we used to do it all the time at school, it’s hardly new!

7. Head indoors

Inside the Kyoto Museum
I felt a bit underdressed in this gallery in the Kyoto Museum.

It doesn’t always work out, but for that chunk of time in the afternoon when you might as well be in a 100% humidity sauna, get into the nearest good museum of choice. In Japan most museums have lockers and heavy duty air con. For us they were always a nirvana away from sweltering sunshine.

8. Shop, don’t drop

Talking of air con, the best I came across was in the Landmark shopping mall in central Hong Kong (not pictured). It was North Pole cool. However, I always found, no matter how cold the air con was, it would soon lose its edge after too long, so a quick walk through was enough.

9. And spritz!

Take a water spray bottle with you. Easily found in Boots, Superdrug etc. Spritz and fan, spritz and fan, spritz and fan… in Japan they go one step further and have sprinklers. Not for plants or emergencies, but for perspiring humans!

10. Relax

A bench on an island on Lake Akan

After a few days of insane heat, you do get used to it. But, still, the best thing you can do if you’re struggling is relax and not pack so much into your itinerary… less rush = less thirst.

With these top ten tips in hand, happy humidity!

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WiFi at 30,000 feet

I haven’t posted in a while. Wedded to the new job and all that.

What has spurred me to get back to writing? I suppose you could say altitude has!

I’m writing this to you from seat 8A on SAS flight SK526, heading to Stockholm where I will change planes and continue on to Hong Kong and Japan.

Having never visited these mighty destinations before, I’m excited for what the next 18 days have in store.

Daytime flights in the sunshine are without doubt the best way to fly, and I could be forgiven for wanting only to spend the flight gazing out of the window.

However, like everyone else with a smart phone (that would be 1.91 billion of us), I’m on it far too much and it would be inconceivable on a flight to let it run out of battery and not use it for music, browsing apps or even writing lists to pass the time (it’s a great time waster if you haven’t tried it!)

Is that a bad thing? Should I spend more time looking away from my screen?

Perhaps.

With on board WiFi (and a window seat) I’m finding it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

So far we’ve flown over a patchwork pattern of Greater London towns, yachts frolicking in the sunny sea, wind farms, mere specks in the distance, and perhaps even orderly oil rigs. And now a glut of coastlines, sandy beaches and puzzle piece archipelago islands. Glorious!

Not only am I enjoying seeing it all with my own eyes, I get to share the view with others too. The best of both worlds, you could say.

So wherever you are and whatever device you’re reading this on, happy travels from up high!

View over south west London
Wind farm off the coast of Norway
The Scandinavian coast line
Flying to Stockholm
Islands off the coast of Norway
Beautiful clouds over Sweden
Forests outside Stockholm
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New kid on the block: Primera Air

A Primera Aircraft used on the transatlantic route.
© Primera Air

Have you heard of Primera Air? No? Neither had I, until I looked up flights to New York on Black Friday last year.

Lured by the £325 price tag but unsure of their pedigree, I found an article written by Simon Calder about their air fares being cheaper than WOW Air, despite claims by the latter of £99 flights each way. If they were recommended by an esteemed travel writer, that was validation enough – I booked flights for a May trip to New York, my first time in the city.

Let me say first, it was a good experience. Plenty to work on to truly compete with Norwegian and the heavyweight carriers, but for what I paid, I was happy.

One thing that stood out was that the flight out to Newark wasn’t actually really Primera at all. The flight was in a slightly noisy old Boeing 757 plane and run by National Airlines – whose crew was one of the friendliest I’ve ever met it must be said!

It was obvious that Primera Air’s new planes hadn’t materialised yet, but they had made the crossing work. If I’d been stuck in the UK without a flight, that would have been a different experience altogether.

Interestingly, this has happened with another route they’ve launched. Calder has written again about Primera, and this time it’s the news that four days ago they cancelled their maiden flight between London Stansted and Toronto.

Ouch!

The reason? A ‘delay of aircraft delivery from the manufacturer’. It would seem, then, that the only plane or planes they do have are sustaining the New York route.

If you’re tempted to try out the great value London – New York route, here’s my super quick low down:

Who are Primera Air?

As they say on their website:

‘Ever since starting out in 2003 as a charter provider, we’ve strived towards one thing – excellent air travel services. Our constant attention to detail, innovative spirit and lookout for improvement’ etc etc.

What they don’t say is that they’re owned by an Icelandic company and started out as JetX. They operate out of Scandinavia mostly, as well as Latvia, where they have an operating licence. Toronto appears to be on ice at the moment, but they’ve also launched routes to Boston and Washington DC, competing with Norwegian, and WOW.

Oh, and they like emojis.

The price
You can’t really fault it – I paid £334. That’s with all fees included and a £50 upgrade each way to choose my seat, have a hot meal and throw my luggage in the hold. If I’d chosen to bring my own food and brought only a cabin bag, it would have cost me £234.

Booking and online communications
The actual booking of the flights was pretty standard, albeit I couldn’t choose a meal apart from beef so I had to sort that out with a chat bot before I flew (modern life, eh).

Online communications were pretty spartan, in my first email confirmation for example it didn’t tell me which terminal I’d be flying into, only where I’d fly out from. I googled it, fine, but the whole point of a confirmation is to confirm all the details. Emailing out an FAQ might have been handy.

As I neared 27th April, emails increased, so I’m assuming they hired some more people!

Customer service
The credit here for the great customer service doesn’t really go to Primera Air but to Swiss Air who pretty much ran their check in desk (helping hyperventilating passengers who hadn’t got their ESTAs) and to the National Airlines crew on the way out.

The crew are normally based in Florida and you could tell by their effervescent, faultless, sunny dispositions. Anyone who has ever been served by Tom from National Airlines will know how great Tom is. Case in point: I asked for a herbal tea with my meal which they didn’t have, so he got me a freebie he’d picked up at a hotel!

Coming back we were in an actual Primera Air plane with a Primera Air crew. They were nice, though dinner was served crazy late. With plenty of people asleep, I could have had almost the whole bread basket if I’d wanted.

Inflight entertainment – make your own
I was one of those people who didn’t organise myself well enough on the way out, and I hadn’t downloaded anything to watch. Why would you need to? Well, unlike Norwegian, Primera doesn’t offer inflight entertainment. Coming back I was much better prepared. I highly recommend Bobby Kennedy for President on Netflix.

The £50 upgrade – is it worth it?
I love plane food, I make no apologies for it, so that was enough to tempt me to upgrade. And the small matter of a giant four wheeled chambray purple hold case I wanted to try out…and choosing my own seat felt like a real luxury. I’m sick of Ryanair’s terrible ‘random middle seat for any single passenger’ routine, and it was nice to have an aisle seat for once.

In terms of whether to upgrade, I would say let it be dictated by whether you need extra luggage. Paying for more luggage at the airport is eyewateringly expensive, as I overheard in Newark.

Flight route and flight times                                                                                                           

I don’t know what all the fuss is about Heathrow, I actually rank Stansted as my favourite, followed by Gatwick. Great, then, that Primera fly from Stansted and land at New York’s Newark airport. It’s comparable to Stansted as you can get a train to Penn Station which only takes around 35 mins including the initial shuttle train.

How long in the air? Outward it was about 8 hours, longer than expected because of headwinds. But coming back it was 5 hours 55, which more than made up for the outward time.

You leave Stansted at 5.55pm (arrive 9.20pm all being well) and you depart Newark at 10.50pm (arrive 10.55am if you’re lucky!)

Overall verdict?

Unlike the Stansted – Toronto route, the Stansted to Newark route seems guaranteed to fly, so don’t be put off by the slightly rocky start! If you love Norwegian, you’ll get along just fine with Primera and save yourself plenty of spending money.

Let me know what you think if you choose Primera Air, and don’t forget to say hi to Tom if you meet him…

Update: on 1st October 2018 Primera Air ceased trading and Norwegian and others had to step in to help stranded passengers. The course of air travel never did run smooth…

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Climate change and travel

6 – 7 min read

I am travelling to New York for the very first time next week. The prospect of hopping across the pond on a 7 hour flight to visit friends and explore a whole new city is very exciting.

But something is weighing on me. My carbon footprint.

In addition to my transatlantic travels this year, I will be flying to Vienna and Stockholm for long weekends. And there’s the small matter of a big trip to Hong Kong and Japan, via Stockholm, alone racking up eight separate flights. I’m also travelling to Amsterdam (but with less carbon guilt – more on that later).

FACT: By the end of the year I’ll have travelled at least 25,126 miles by plane. To put that into perspective, the Earth’s circumference clocks in at 24,901 miles. 2018 will be the furthest I’ve ever travelled in one year of my life.

Meeting this landmark comes at a carbon cost. If you think about it, given that the fossil fuels we use are the chemicals from hundreds of millions of years’ worth of carbon-rich animal and plant remains, that’s a lot of carbon that humans are releasing into the atmosphere in a short space of time!

We have a long way to go to combat climate change and the growing impact humans have on the planet. So, where to start on a personal level? How can we do our bit and still enjoy world travel?

1. How big is yours?

WWF environmental footprint questionnaire results - feet
The amount I travel takes my environmental footprint above the UK average according to WWF. It is three times the world average. © WWF

To find out how big your footprint actually is, there are plenty of calculators out there, but I recommend taking the WWF Environmental Footprint Questionnaire. How I compare to the UK average and to the world average is pictured above.

Knowing that mine is only going to grow in the next few months makes me even more determined to reduce the impact I have on the planet while I’m trying to explore it.

2. Training

The Glacier Express in Switzerland
Travelling on the Glacier Express in Switzerland to St Moritz, 2013 © Kate Crowther

Think about your route, is that internal flight really much cheaper than a train, could you mix up what transport you use? I’m looking forward to taking the recently launched Eurostar to Amsterdam in May – we will enjoy seeing some of the countryside as we roll through, and 80% less carbon is produced compared to the alternative flight.

Japan’s train services are legendary and I’d be mad not to get a rail pass while I’m out there. Money and time always comes into it though. A bullet train now links Tokyo with Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. However, I’m using airmiles to fly me speedily between the two regions. The return flights are costing me £3.60!

Eurostar (yes, they are pro-trains!) did the maths to show that taking the train to Paris as opposed to flying cut carbon emissions by a staggering 90%. Since 2007 Eurostar has been making every journey their passengers take carbon neutral. That gets a gold star from me.

Hopefully all travel companies and airlines will offset all their emissions in the future, getting air travel closer to carbon neutral.

3. Going neutral

The Jungfrau summit in the Swiss Bernese Alps © Kate Crowther
The Jungfrau summit in the Swiss Bernese Alps © Kate Crowther

If Eurostar has made my trip to Amsterdam with them in May carbon neutral, how much would it take/ cost for me to do the same? First thing’s first though – how much CO2 would the flights be responsible for?

FACT: The CO2 emissions from all my 2018 flights weighs in at a whopping 6.26 tonnes. That’s 447kg on average per flight that I take this year*. Yikes.

This is the first time I’ve ever put a number to the amount of carbon produced to get me from A-Z on my travels. If someone dropped 447kg of plain flour all over my garden every time I flew somewhere, I’d see it and I’d want it cleaned it up!

And that’s a big part of the problem, a disconnect between what we do and what we see. What if Earth treated us the way we treat Earth?

4. Go plant some trees

Amazon Rainforest tree canopy
Amazon Rainforest tree canopy at Sacha Lodge near Yasuni National Park

With all of this in mind, what can we all do to get a little closer to being carbon neutral?

Pay your way

Climatecare has a simple to use calculator for assessing the CO2 impact of flights and other activities and the money you donate to offset your travel goes towards green projects around the world, from water purification in Kenya and providing solar energy in India to fuelling efficient cooking practices in countries such as Honduras, Vietnam and Uganda.

My flight to Stockholm cost 0.43 tonnes in CO2 and the amount Climatecare suggests paying towards offsetting that is £3.22*. I will be donating every time I fly to a new destination, in turn helping someone in need around the world gain better access to a way of living that is also sustainable.

Green searches

Make those hours spent searching stuff online do some good somewhere. Search engine Ecosia uses the profit made from searches on their site to plant trees. And to date that amounts to over 26 million across the world. On average it takes about 45 searches to plant a tree. I’m working on it!

Economise

Because first class and business class seats are roomier and less people take up that space, CO2 emissions go up considerably per person. Breathe a sigh of relief as you turn right.

#Plasticfree

While the act of travelling from one country to another is carbon costly, so too of course is simply doing your weekly shop. Blue Planet has reignited the debate around the shocking environmental impact our love of plastic is having on the environment. High levels of carbon go into the production of plastic, and so choosing to go plastic free whenever you can is only going to be good for your footprint. Why zero-waste supermarkets are the new, old way to shop.

Try before you buy

The atmosfair Airline Index 2017 compares and ranks the carbon efficiency of the world’s 200 largest airlines. The rankings on their website are only in PDF form (way to go) but ThePointsGuy.com has picked them apart.

So, I’m making a promise. I’m going to search green wherever I can, support green projects whenever I can and offset my carbon use by any means possible, including paying cold hard cash. I choose green, not greenhouse.

Will you do the same?

————

*Figures an estimate based on where I’m flying to and from in 2018, using the Climatecare calculator: London Stansted – Stockholm Skavsta 0.43 tonnes / £3.22 to offset. London Stansted – New York Newark 1.53 tonnes / £11.50 to offset. London Gatwick – Vienna 0.41 tonnes / £3.10 to offset. London Heathrow – Hong Kong Intl via Stockgolm Arlanda 2.73 tonnes / £20.50 to offset. Hong Kong – Tokyo Haneda one way 0.48 tonnes / £3.59 to offset. Tokyo – Asahikawa, returning from Sapporo 0.27 tonnes / £2.03 to offset. Osaka – Hong Kong 0.41 / £3.07. A total of 6.26 tonnes. Phew.
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Africa on film: Makala

Kabwita Kasongo in the hills around his village in the south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Kabwita Kasongo in Kolwezi with the remainder of his bags of charcoal to sell

3 – 4 min read

How do you get your travel kicks when you’re not travelling?

I’ve written before about travelling and musicbut my heart lies somewhere else when I’m seeking adventure on my own doorstep  – with cinema!

Documentaries, films based on books, films not based on books – as long as they take me away from where I am at that very moment, the feeling of exploration and understanding is hard to beat. I like nothing more than to peruse the back streets of a village I’d never heard of just 5 minutes before.

And, recently, that was Walemba, a remote village in the Lualaba region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, featuring in French filmmaker Emmanuel Gras’s documentary Makala. The film won the Grand Prix at the Semaine de la Critique at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, deservedly so.

Walemba is home to 28 year old Kabwita Kasongo and his young family. Kabwita wants more for his family and the incredible level of toil he endures to make, transport and sell charcoal (makala means charcoal in Swahili) in the nearest city Kolwezi, is the beginning, middle and end of this understated and touching documentary.

Setting it apart from many documentaries of a similar nature, there’s no narration and no direct interaction with the subject.

At the beginning of the film you’re with him as he hacks a big tree down, heaving all the logs into place and tilling mounds of earth on top before he creates a fire inside the mound, the product of days and days of hard graft.

You’re with him as he loads all the huge bags of charcoal onto a bike and you follow him along his 50km route to Kolwezi, avoiding cars as he inches closer to the city, sleeping outdoors by night. During a short break, disaster happens and his bike is knocked over by a lorry, contents splayed everywhere.

One of the few times Kabwita isn’t directly in your gaze is on the outskirts of sprawling Kolwezi; the camera moves to a distance as he negotiates with bullies chancing on traders to give up money or charcoal in order to pass. But that doesn’t stop you wanting to race in and tell them to sod off.

There are hints at the personal struggle the family faces. Visiting his wife’s family en route, Kabwita brings with him some little shoes for one of his daughters who lives with them, out of necessity. He appears to have arrived deliberately while she’s asleep because if she sees him they’ll both cry.

Sounds as well as sights play their part. With little or no dialogue at the beginning, we hear only the thud thud of the machete as it hits the tree and as Kabwita criss-crosses out of his village, he encounters only the occasional fellow traveller.

But it gradually gets noisier as he wends his way closer to Kolwezi, the frequent dusty drive bys of cars and trucks slowing progress. The city at night is a frenzied kaleidoscope that you want to pull your eyes away from but can’t.

The selling of the charcoal presents its own thankless challenges, and having seen all the hard work undertaken to make it, haggling from the would-be buyers is unwelcome. The film ends after a rapturous, climactic night time church service Kabwita attends, uttering hopeful prayers for a better life out loud, as he only briefly delays his tiring journey back home.

Despite all that hard work, judging by the number of roof panels he cannot yet afford, it isn’t over any time soon, even if for us as viewers, it is.

Kabwita’s journey has been described by Picturehouse as Sisyphean, after King Sisyphus who was doomed for all eternity to roll a huge rock up a mountain, only for it to roll back down again.

I prefer to think of Kabwita’s efforts as being somewhere between Hercules’s labours and Odysseus’s 10 year journey – but far more backbreaking! It’s not fiction we’re dealing with after all, this is one man’s daily struggle for a better future and his story is one we can all learn a lesson from.

Watch the trailer here.

It’s dropped out of most UK cinemas, but if you live in Inverness you’re in luck! It’s  showing from 13th April. Look out for a DVD release from Dogwoof in the near future.

Have you seen Makala? If so, what did you think?!

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Travel hack #1: when to book flights

Screen grab from the Skyscanner best time to book article

I spend a lot of my time umming and ahhhring about when to book flights for trips – none more so than this year so far, planning a summer trip around Japan, via Hong Kong.

They say that the best bit about a holiday is the journey, and for me that journey truly starts when the flights are booked – you’re not going until you pay up!

Whether to stick or switch, go for it or wait is a common conundrum among travellers browsing flights, especially when sticking to a budget.

A while back Skyscanner produced some stats about the best times to fly, including a somewhat limited selection of routes. It was interesting but didn’t have enough clout.

Momondo dazzle with pie charts and bright colours and I enjoy looking at their insights but the cost of flights they quote always seems steep – they show averages which skews perceptions. I’m flying to New York for £325 return, but Momondo quotes £790 as the cheapest average flight.

I really like Kayak but they haven’t really jumped on the stats bandwagon in the same way as Skyscanner.

So Skyscanner published their most recent update on the best times to flyon 24th January and it’s really handy!

There are far more locations to search than there ever have been (from Amman and Auckland to Seoul and Singapore) and a brand new interactive tool helps you better see at a glance the best weeks in advance to book AND the cheapest months to fly.

It’s based on two years of data and, while a few more years would increase the accuracy, is convincing enough for me that I’m not going to wait around any more – it’s time to book my flights to Hong Kong and Japan!

Bon voyage!

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Look out London: The Photographers’ Gallery

New York by Wim Wenders

Tucked away down Ramillies Street on the edge of Oxford Street, The Photographers’ Gallery is London’s best showcase for photographic talent. That is, until stiff competition arrives from Stockholm’s Fotografiska.

As shoppers jam past each other on the streets outside, a special kind of jostling takes place in this Mecca to photography, as necks crane to see what’s on display.

What’s the big deal?

The last show I went to see there was Polaroids by film director Wim Wenders. It was everything a great Photographers’ Gallery show delivers well – multiple galleries of work from a fascinating auteur, behind the scenes insight and a chance to get lost in someone else’s world. There is always something to discover, something that delights.

‘Taking polaroids was the act of making an instant memory’

The best bits?

If you go before midday any day of the week, it’s completely free and only £2/£4 any other time.

I said it’s a Mecca and I wasn’t kidding. Bring along a camera and let the work of brilliant photographers inspire you to get snappy. I ended up looking down more than I looked up:

A pair of Kickers in the Photographer's Gallery in London
Old school shoes in the Photographer's Gallery in London

Group of shoes in the Photographer’s Gallery in London

What’s on now?

On until 3rd June – two 4 star shows and some bloke called Grayson Perry:

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross – Dressers

Grayson Perry’s Photo Album

The gallery is a destination in its own right, boasting a bustling shop with easily 100 types of film on its shelves and a Café that you can while away in.

Happy snapping!

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Eat for less in Stockholm

Radish light at the Fotografiska Bar and Cafe in Stockholm

Stockholm, like the rest of Scandinavia, is really expensive, isn’t it? Well, no, it doesn’t have to be!

Fresh from a long weekend in Stockholm, I’ve researched (eaten) some of the best food on offer in Stockholm right now, and none of it breaks the bank.

Read on for my top 5 places in Stockholm for great food at pocket money prices.

A double cheese falafel pita from Falafelbaren

Fabulous falafel

Prepare to stuff yourself silly with the best falafel in Stockholm.

Falafelbaren offer plenty of ways to enjoy falafel, but the ultimate choice has to be the gut-busting falafel-zilla that is the ‘Double Cheese’ pita, crammed with freshly-made falafel, goat’s cheese, a thick wedge of halloumi and a moreish mix of pickles and red cabbage, hummus and saucy salad.

They also make their own delicious baklava, sold in great big squares, perfect for sharing with no-one…

How much? Double Cheese pita 85kr (£7.70), baklava 25kr (£2.50), organic juice 35kr (£3.15).

Where? Falafelbaren, Hornsgaten 39, 118 49.

A table of tacos, tostadas and chips at La Neta Mexican restaurant
© La Neta

The hottest tacos in town

Stockholm isn’t famed for its Mexican food and, believe me, I’ve eaten my worse ever burrito there (you can keep your gross slaw, Zócalo).

But taqueria La Neta atones for the sins of others with its cool vibe and a menu of tacos and quesadillas worth guzzling in full.

There are plenty of carnivorous fillings – try the Choriqueso quesadilla – but also lots of veggie choices from frijole beans to pumpkin flowers. The freshly-made green sauce is addictive, or test your mettle with tree chilli.

How much? Five tacos for 95kr (£8.60) or mix and match from 22-52kr (£2-£4.60) per item.

Where? La Neta Barnhusgatan 2, 111 23 or Östgötagatan 12B, 116 25.

Cinnamon bun and mocha at Fabrique in Stockholm
Semla bun in Vete-Katten in Stockholm

The art of Fika

A Swedish favourite pastime, particularly in the afternoon. It’s simply the act of having coffee and cake but it’s more than that in reality – it’s something Swedes make time for.

Head to Fabrique and have that kanelbulle (cinnamon bun) you know you want, or give a kardemummabullar (cardamom bun) a go.

Or, if you’re lucky enough to be in Stockholm before Easter, gorge on semla buns in Vete-Katten, a café that’s been open since the 1920s. Go for vanilla for a gorgeous bun packed with vanilla bean-flecked custard and cream.

How much? A cinnamon bun and coffee at Fabrique, 31kr (£2.80) and 44kr (£3.95) / large Semla bun at Vete-Katten, 46kr (£4.15).

Where? Fabrique has locations all over the city / Vete-Katten, Kungsgatan 55, 111 22.

An Alpine hot dog at Östermalms Korvarspecialist

Get your hotdogs!

Scandinavians love their hot dogs and, at hotdog stand Östermalms Korvarspecialist, they don’t come much better, or more varied.

There are 28 different types to try, from Polish, Alpine and vegetarian to Italian and Turkish, large, small and double.

Try the Alpenwurst – a meaty sausage with sauerkraut, salad and special sauce in a soft, toasty ‘baguette’ or a normal bun.

How much? A simple hot dog is 25kr (£2.20) or the Alpenwurst is 60kr (£5.40).

Where? Östermalms Korvarspecialist, Nybrogatan 55, 114 44

A fried herring burger with onions

Fried fish for under a fiver

Visit Nystekt Strömming and order the fried herring burger (strömming hambugare), dressed with pickled onion, slaw, special sauce and lettuce. I’m not the world’s biggest advocate of herring but the Scandinavians swear by it, and there’s no better, cheaper place to try it for yourself, tiny bones and all.

How much? The herring hambugare, 55kr (£4.93).

Where? Nystekt Strömming, Södermalmstorg 1, 116 46.


Know somewhere else in Stockholm with great food at great prices? Let me know and I’ll try it out next time!

You can also read my post about beautiful things to do in Stockholm.

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New in London – Aman Mojadidi: Remembering a Future

Afghan-American artist Aman Mojadidi inside his performance space
© Imperial War Museums

‘We call these fenced migrant camps “jungles”, as if they are all savages, when what they are doing is trying to escape savagery’.

I wobbled, eyes stinging in an attempt to hold back tears. Though physcially I was sat down in a performance space at Imperial War Museum London, my mind was inside what I could see projected on the wall. I was standing on a jetty, looking out to Britain from Calais, joining the thousands of refugees thinking the same thing: what do I call home and what does it mean to me now?

Remembering a Future is an intimate, collaborative performance from Afghan-American artist Aman Mojadidi taking place this weekend at the museum.

Carefully challenging his audience to express what home means to them in a ‘post-9/11’ world, Aman leads them down the path of his own experiences – racism as a kid in Florida, visiting his uncle leading the battle for Jalalabad in 1990, moving to Kabul in 2003.

Blurring fact with fiction, he presents postcards of real sites of American drone strikes – some of them beautiful landscapes that he urges us we may wish to one day see – alongside objects he has created to serve a purpose. Prayer beads from a fictitious ‘Tigers of Allah’ group, mud brick, a series of child-like drawings depicting war gradually tearing a family apart.

The performance culminates in a literal ripping apart of what we identify ‘home’ to be, in order that a new home might be built, one that we can all identify with and share.

As Aman says: ‘either voluntarily or involuntarily, because they don’t have a choice, people are trying to find their place in the world…no-one’s first choice is to leave their country, leave their home…the whole notion of “home” has changed for a lot of people’.


Aman Mojadidi: Remembering a Future takes place 10-11 February at Imperial War Museum London at 11am, 2pm and 4pm. The performances are part of the event programme for major show Age of Terror: Art since 9/11.

Tickets £6 adults or £5 concessions and exhibition ticket holders. After the performances have ended, the end result is free to view from 16 February – 27 May.


A blackboard featuring a timeline of events, part of Aman Mojadidi: Remembering a Future

© Imperial War Museums

A table featuring postcards created by the artist of areas hit in drone strikes, part of Aman Mojadidi: Remembering a Future
© Imperial War Museums
Aman Mojadidi builds a structure using mortar with audience thoughts on paper included in the mix
In a culmination of the performance, Aman uses mortar mixed with ripped up paper written on by audience members to create a new sense of ‘home’.

——-

Full disclosure, I work for Imperial War Museums in the Marketing team on campaigns including our current major show Age of Terror: Art since 9/11, on until 28 May.

I’d love to hear from you if you managed to make it along to meet Aman Mojadidi over the weekend, or would like to share where or what you identify ‘home’ to be.

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My pick of the pistes: ski resorts in Europe

The scene before us as we skied on the Smuggler's Run between Ischgl and Samnaun

Ski Sunday is on, there’s a new champion at Kitzbühel and the Winter Olympics are around the corner. The ski season is well under way and if you want some serious snow, now’s the time to plan your winter holiday.

Not sure where to go? Whether it’s a short break or a week long adventure you’re after, the best ski resort in Europe or you want to ski under the radar, read on for my piste picks.

And coming soon, look out for my review of Stockholm’s city slope Hammarbybacken, where I’ll be on Saturday.

Ischgl, Austria

Skiers heading out on the Smuggler's Run from Ischgl to Samnaun in Switzerland
A mountain in Ischgl

Catch this Austrian resort on a blue sky day and nothing beats it. Ischgl is pretty damn big, with 238km of pistes, 45 cable cars and, right now, up to 170cm of snow. It’s perfect for all levels with an excellent Ski School.

Smuggler’s Run down to Samnaun in Switzerland is loads of fun with glorious scenery all the way as you cross between the countries. It was called the Duty Free Run back when I skied it as you can bring a rucksack and stock up on cheaper alcohol and gifts in the Swiss shops six days a week.

Tempted? A week’s lift pass will cost you €278.50 and BA, easyJet and Thomas Cook fly from London to Innsbruck, from £90 return.

Hlíðarfjall Akureyri, Iceland

Dusky hues in the distance on a piste at Hlíðarfjall Akureyri ski resort
Dusk on the chair lift at Hlíðarfjall ski resort

Ski with 360° Icelandic snow views, marked only by Akureyri, the country’s second city. There are 24 ski trails, all easily toured on a day trip and the resort is at its best in the evening as snow and sky alike turn all shades of blue.

Easily the best snack wherever you are in Iceland, refuel with hot dogs to keep you going at this neat little resort.

Tempted? A day pass is 4,900 ISK (about £34) and the resort is easily reachable by car or bus from Akureyri city centre, and the drive from Reykjavik is long but stunning. Short of time? Return flights from Reykjavik start at £158.

Méribel, French Alps

On a chair lift at the Méribel ski resort in the Tarentaise Valley of the French Alps
© Annabelle Dawson

Prices are high but it’s worth it for those wooden chalets as far as the eye can see at this French Alps resort. 3 Vallées is the biggest ski resort in the world, with over 600km of pistes and 166 lifts. Méribel turns 80 this year, so expect events and activities throughout 2018.

In true Alpine style one of the activities you can try out is a ride in a TéléFondue©, a gondola fully equipped to serve fondue. Only in France!

Tempted? A Méribel-only lift pass is €282 for seven days, so you’d be mad not to go for the 3 Vallées six day €300 pass. You can reach Méribel via Lyon or Geneva, by plane or Eurostar. Flights from £40 return and Eurostar from £45 one way.

Piani di Bobbio, Italy

Piani di Bobbio at the end of the 2017 ski season
Piani di Bobbio piste at the end of the 2017 ski season

Who says you can’t combine a busy city break with some skiing on the side? Piani di Bobbio is an hour outside of Milan and looks out to the jagged belt of rock that is the Lake Como mountains.

Small but perfectly formed, the resort has 17 slopes covering 35km. The resort attracts a healthy number of snowboarders and you can also try your feet at Nordic skiing and snowshoeing.

Tempted? A day pass costs €27 (or €35 during holidays) and the best way to reach the resort is by car from Milan. Flights to Milan from London are frequent, from £40.

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Look out: Lumiere London

LAMPOUNETTE web ready

Newsflash: Lumiere London is back. And whether you know much about it or not, if you so much as stray into King’s Cross, Piccadilly, Southbank or Mayfair, you’re bound to trip into some lights fantastic.

2018’s Lumiere London is bigger, brighter and brasher (light up candy floss, anyone?) than previous years, and it remains one of the best free activities you can enjoy all year.

It’s also only on until Sunday 21st January so you’ll need to be snappy if you want in. All those electricity bills I expect.

Tempted? Download the Visit London app to plan your route and don’t forget to wrap up warm, it’s cold work enjoying good art.

Scroll for my pick of some of the loveliest Lumiere has to offer:

Frogs, part of NIGHTLIFE by Lantern Company with Jo Pocock
A hare, part of NIGHTLIFE by Lantern Company with Jo Pocock
Nightlife by Lantern with Jo Pocock. A menagerie of lit up animals in Leicester Square was always going to be incredibly popular, so bang goes the aim of this ‘secret garden’ to be a space for ‘quiet reflection’. It’s lovely though, and who doesn’t love lovely?
AETHER by the Architecture Social Club
AETHER by the Architecture Social Club. The forecourt of the huge Waitrose in King’s Cross has never seen so much action. A beautiful soundscape accompanies the installation. Elbow your way into the centre for the best view.
The Light of the Spirit (Chapter 2) detail by Patrice Warrener
The Light of the Spirit (Chapter 2) by Patrice Warrener
The Light of the Spirit (Chapter 2) by Patrice Warrener. Back at Westminster Abbey after two years and bigger and brighter than ever, the colourful imagination of digital artist Warrener has been let loose on the Great West Gate. A must see.
LAMPOUNETTE by TILT
LAMPOUNETTE by TILT. If, like me, you once bought a Tiny Tim Booklight so you could feel like a giant next to it, well now you get to feel like a Borrower in King’s Cross! Head to King’s Boulevard for your time to shine.
Harmonic Portal by Chris Plant at St James's Church
Harmonic Portal by Chris Plant. St James’s Church is usually viewed from just one angle, Piccadilly street. Plant’s work takes you to the walls of the churchyard on Jermyn Street.
DOT by Philippe Morvan in King's Cross
DOT by Philippe Morvan. Warm. Pulsing. Dotty. Streams of light set to a surprisingly spine-tingly soundtrack composed especially for Lumiere by composers Solomon Grey.
Love Motion by Rhys Coren at the Royal Academy
Love Motion by Rhys Coren. As if you needed an excuse to have a gander round the Royal Academy courtyard. A delightful animated film played on on the façade of Burlington House.
Child Hood (lion close) by Collectif Coin in Trafalgar Square
Child Hood by Collectif Coin. The best way to end your Lumiere tour. The sight of Trafalgar Square packed with luminous balloons, lit up at intervals to a throb of sounds.
Child Hood by Collectif Coin in Trafalgar Square
Child Hood by Collectif Coin, re-imagined as an abstract landscape by me.
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New in London: the Bloomberg SPACE

Another View from Nowhen by Isabel Nolan at the Bloomberg SPACE

It opened back in November so if you’re eagle eyed you’ll have beaten me to it but I visited London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE last weekend and I left seriously impressed. When even the loos are remarkable, you know you’re onto something.

Part contemporary art space and part reconstructed Roman temple, there’s a lot more to this place than appears on entering, starting with the beautifully displayed excavated Roman artefacts that you can explore via tablets (of the Samsung, not ancient, variety).

Walking literally down through history, you’ll hear the soothing sounds of Joanna Lumley introducing experts as you wait for the transfixing experience of the temple’s big reveal – the details of which I won’t spoil!

The 2,000 year old Roman temple was dedicated to the god Mithras who had a mysterious cult following and archaeologists uncovered it in the 1950s.

It was moved off site, but with the building and recent reopening of Bloomberg’s European headquarters on Walbrook street (the world’s most sustainable office), the temple has been returned to almost exactly the same space it occupied in the 3rd century AD.

It’s absolutely wonderful. And, guess what, it’s free! Make sure you book your tickets before everyone gets the memo.

Excavation finds from the Temple of Mithras
The ruins of the Temple of Mithras on display at the Bloomberg SPACE
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Happy travels!

The globes on display in Stanfords, the world's biggest travel bookshop

The midnight fever of fireworks out of the way for another year, it’s time to focus on forgetting those rubbish resolutions and plan for the important stuff instead – where you’ll be travelling.

What do I have planned?

I’ll be hoping for snow, glorious snow in early February as I visit my brother Stephen in Stockholm, checking out what the local pistes have to offer.

For the rest of the year I’ll be ticking off some big names; I’ll be taking a bite out of the Big Apple when I head to New York in late April early May for nine days, visiting friends.

I’ll spend a June weekend in Vienna, enjoying living locally in a friend’s family apartment.

Later in the year I head out to Hong Kong to meet my brother (fresh from his travels around the Himalayas and China) and together we’ll explore Japan.

Have you experienced New York, Hong Kong or Japan off the beaten track or shared experiences with locals? I’d love to hear from you!

The best way to keep up to date with my travels is to follow this blog and join me on Instagram and Twitter.

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My 2017 travel highlights

Getting ready to head up on a goldola at Piani di Bobbio

Day 365 is nearly over, but before thoughts turn to far flung travel in 2018 I thought I’d look back over some 2017 highlights.

Read on for some of my favourite photos from my travels and top tips if you’re planning your own city break in 2018.

Paris

Inside the Dior show at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Having last walked the streets of Paris eight years ago, I found myself in the city of chic twice this year and I wrote about living like a local in May.

I only made it halfway round the Christian Dior show at Musée des Arts Décoratifs and it remains one of the best shows I’ve seen all year anywhere. Catch it before it closes on 7th January.

Milan

A quiet Piani di Bobbio in April 2017

I have friends who live in Milan which means we do the things the Milanese love to do – like getting out of the city!

In the same Alpine valley that produces Bresaola air-dried beef, haul yourself and your skis up to the Piani di Bobbio, a small resort an hour outside Milan by car and perfect for a day trip.

You’ll find more tips in my blog post from April.

Porto

Looking up at the houses in the narrow back streets of Porto

Porto is a city best viewed on foot so get lost in its back streets, and don’t forget to look up!

I walked my socks off round the compact city back in May, read my recommendations for 72 hours in Porto.

Venice

Sunset over Venice from the island of San Michele

Venice was a big highlight of the year for me. We dodged tourists, jumped on water buses whenever we could and explored the canals in the midnight mist; we glided out to islands in the lagoon at sunset, found food worthy of both carnivores and herbivores and, naturally, sampled the odd cocktail or two (forget negronis, ask for ‘uno spritz’).

For the absolute best breakfast ritual (and the best crockery in town), head to Pasticceria Tonolo. Long and narrow, you might have to scuffle to find space, but it’ll have been worth it when you sink your teeth into any of their pastries.

Copenhagen

Inside the Louisiana Museum

Getting cosy with culture was easy in Copenhagen and I recently wrote about my top five art experiences in the Danish capital. A must-see if you have the time, travel 29 miles north of Copenhagen for the modern art gallery on a cliff edge, the Louisiana.

Once you’ve got a fill of great art, head back into the city centre to Hallernes in Nørreport for fully loaded Smørrebrød.

Stockholm

Cycling on Svartsö in the archipelago

I’ll be heading out to my favourite Scandinavian capital in February for some ski action and I was there last in spring, a lovely season for getting out to the archipelago islands.

Enjoy a leisurely cycle across the lengths of Utö and Ålö or challenge yourself and your bike on the rugged tracks of Svartsö.

Read more about getting out and about in Stockholm in my blog post from April.

Dublin

Inside the Guinness Storehouse cinema

It may not be so sunny in Dublin at this time of year but that doesn’t matter, Guinness doesn’t need it!

From the Bompas & Parr-designed tasting rooms and rooftop bar to the surround sound cinema and colourful brand gallery, the Guinness Storehouse doesn’t put a pint-sized foot wrong. Oh, and the stout isn’t bad either.

Sláinte and happy new year!

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An art lover’s guide to Copenhagen

A sculpture by François Rude in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket

Copenhagen, the achingly cool capital of Denmark. Home of cycling, great design, hygge and, as I recently found out, full of wonderful art.

Whether you like yours ancient or modern, Copenhagen knows how to house it, leaving even the least interested spectator impressed. If art is all about experiences, these are my pick of the top five you should have.

A sculpture of Jason and his golden fleece inside the Thorvaldsens Museum

Thorvaldsen’s Museum

A must-do for fans of classical sculpture that also happens to be non-stop Instagrammable. You may not have heard of him but Thorvaldsen’s sculptures adorn many major cities across Europe.

Look out for Jason (above), the Alexander frieze, Ganymede with Zeus’s eagle and endless colourful corridors of rooms – making for a marvellous treat of a museum. (2 Bertel Thorvaldsens Plads. Adult 70 DKK, about £8, or free on Wednesdays. Closed Mondays).

Photoraphy on the walls of the glass-lined corridors of the Louisiana Museum north of Copenhagen, Denmark

Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

This international art gallery makes for a great day trip by train along a scenic route that also takes you to Kronborg castle, of Hamlet fame. The gallery is set in lush sculpture-speckled gardens looking out to sea and a series of wood and glass corridors bring the outdoors in, the indoors out.

Big names including Ernst, Hockney and Giacometti form their rotating permanent collection on display alongside enviable blockbusters, most recently 100 works by Marina Abramović. (Follow signs from Humlebæk station. Adult 125 DKK, about £15. Closed Mondays)

The stairs inside The David Collection museum in Copenhagen, Denmark

The David Collection

A labyrinth of beautiful interiors full of art amassed by one man, lawyer C. L. David. It’s no surprise that the gallery is free entry; as well as leaving one of the world’s most important collections of Islamic art behind, David also left a huge fortune on his death in 1960.

Over 12 centuries of Islamic art means you would need to devote most of a day to examining it all, so look out for special exhibitions and temporary photographic displays to pick out highlights. (30-32 Kronprinsessegade. Free admission. Closed Mondays).

Inside the botanical gardens of the atrium in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket, Copenhagen, Denmark

Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket

A museum owned by Carlsberg is probably going to be the best in the world, right? Well, not quite, but its grand botanical garden of an atrium and collection of 19th Century French art, housed in a modern wing, make it worthwhile for any art fan. Save and go when it’s free entry on Tuesdays.

On now, head to the Café for Danish artist HuskMitNavn’s cartoon take on people just like you. (Dantes Plads 7. Adult 95 DKK, about £11 or free on Tuesdays. Closed Mondays).

A painting in the SMK permanent collection in Copenhagen, Denmark

National Gallery of Denmark (SMK)

Growing up as I did with London’s National Gallery on my doorstep, other European cities have a hard act to follow. But I fell in love with SMK’s sensational French art gallery and their temporary exhibition programme is a refreshing mix of blockbuster shows and homegrown talent.

On until 7 January, Family Stories from Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing. (Sølvgade 48-50. Adult 110 DKK, about £13 or save on entry to five museums with a Parkmuseerne card. Closed Mondays).

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Adventure in Iceland: following the lights

Map of Iceland showing the route taken from Reykjavik to a farmhouse near Akureyri in northern Iceland

‘How long do your hands have to be this cold, before you get frostbite and they fall off?’

Night had fallen on a glacial February day, 493km into our journey north from Reykjavik by car. 1km to go and we were tantalisingly close to our X on the map, our remote Airbnb farmhouse in Öxnadalur, northern Iceland. But our tiny Suzuki Jimny 4×4 (world’s smallest 4×4, surely?) could take us no further.

Alone against a backdrop of darkness. Going uphill. In a snow drift. On foot. Hands so cold I thought I might need to ‘do a Ranulph Fiennes‘. But we’d found our adventure in Iceland and it was time to follow the lights.

1. A journey begunThe tiny town of Varmahlíð, western IcelandWe said goodbye to Reykjavik that morning, disappointed that we’d not seen any sign of Aurora Borealis four nights in to our week long trip. We were confident that we’d have better luck staying outside Iceland’s second largest city, Akureyri.

On a clear day it should have taken us 3.5 hours to travel the 294km to Varmahlíð, above. It took us closer to 5 hours, with no toilet breaks and few snacks. In a 4×4 the size of a large wheelbarrow, we began to experience cabin fever. This little petrol station saved lives that day.

The road past Varmahlíð, western IcelandIt really was what I imagined snow blindness to be like, hours of endless scenes like this.

2. Some luckOn our way up through north western IcelandImagine our elation when we entered into some good luck, and sunshine! Everything looked brighter and more wonderful. Our adventure up north was back on track.

DSCN5555We’d already decided (well, some of us had) that after Varmahlíð we would take the long way round to our farmhouse, via the Siglufjörður peninsula. Drunk on sunshine and photo opportunities, we decided to take a further detour, to see Hólar Cathedral. Hólar was, for 700 years, the capital of the north. Worth the extra mileage but it did cost us precious daylight driving…

3. High up near the ArcticPast Hofsós on a peninsula in northern Iceland, near the Arctic Circle‘Like driving on glass’ was the assessment of road conditions throughout the whole trip, especially true of this completely deserted peninsula route. We followed it past Hofsós (one of the oldest ports in northern Iceland) and Fell, towards our pitstop of Siglufjörður.

Sunset on a peninsula in northern Iceland, near the Arctic CircleMe making the most of the light on a peninsula in northern Iceland, near the Arctic CircleStephen making the most of the light on a peninsula in northern Iceland, near the Arctic CircleA beautifully rosy sunset heralded us as we looked out towards the Arctic Circle, so close we could almost pinch it and the furthest north we’ve ever been. For now.

4. A pitstopTower in the town of SiglufjörðurLeaving the town of SiglufjörðurWe could escape the night no longer. Finally reaching Siglufjörður, we stocked up on the essentials every adventurer and northern lights seeker needs: meatballs, sauce, chips, birthday cake.

We were still 93km away from our X on the map, and by this point running on empty. A routine loo stop on the side of a road became a rescue mission to push our 4×4 out of a snow drift ditch.

5. The last kmThe moon behind our farmhouse near Akureyri in northern Iceland.Our traumatised Suzuki Jimny parked up and luggage weighing heavily on our backs, we began the farmhouse ascent. A pair of inner gloves between me and certain chilblains.

But the moon! Everything was so ethereal and I could just make out faint shapes in the sky behind me, dancing every so often.

At the same time I didn’t have a clue where I was going and got separated from everyone else, clawing my way through a wooded area that we later discovered was way off the main track, so deep was the snow drift.

Our arrival through the snow drift to our farmhouse in northern IcelandAfter lots of clumsy phone torch holding and stabbing in the dark to find the hidden keys for the main door, we’d finally arrived at our farmhouse. Adventure complete.

But, hang on, those dancing shapes…

6. Aurora BorealisNorthern lights show as viewed from the door of our farmhouseNorthern lights from our farmhouse near Akureyri in northern Iceland.The sight of northern lights from our farmhouse near Akureyri in northern Iceland.The magic spectacle of the northern lights as they pranced and shimmered in the sky above us, rippling and darting about in every which way.

It had such a hold over us as we stood shivering in the snow. It was 3am before we could tear ourselves away.

Northern lights behind the mountain range near Akureyri in northern Iceland.Sometimes the lights would swirl over our heads and other times the luminescent colour appeared like huge spotlights from behind the distinctive mountain range ahead.

Common as the sight is in northern Iceland, seeing them in winter is never guaranteed. As some scientific opinion suggests, we may be headed for a ‘Solar Minimum’ in 2019 and the chance of seeing Aurora Borealis could reduce.

7. Was it a dream?DSCN5653 2At dawn, a completely different scene before us and, as we wiped the sleep from our eyes, we worried we may never see a show like that again. Had we actually seen them for real the night before?!

We had, and we would enjoy more shows before we left Iceland.

Catch them while you can!

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Lucky to be last: hiking in the Andes

The view from Rumiñahui volcano with one of our walking guides

Acute mountain sickness isn’t fun. Dominating the peaks of South America was going to be harder than I foresaw. As I stumbled steeply upwards at the back of the pack, our local walking guide Henry an ever-smaller speck in the distance, I asked myself: could I cut it?

We had arrived at the Secret Garden hostel in the Ecuadorian Andes less than 24 hours earlier from the country’s capital Quito, recommended by the friends we were visiting in Ecuador. Unrivalled views of Cotopaxi volcano by day and a tapestry of billions of stars by night. We had found our gateway to adventure within this most sweeping of mountain ranges.

The 4,721ft Rumiñahui volcano was the first of three hikes we would take on in this corner of the Andes. Even with the luxury of time to acclimatise to altitude, it isn’t an easy climb.

Henry’s girlfriend – second in command – did her best to chivvy me along, but my body could go no faster setting than ‘glacial’. As I inched along, frustrated that I wasn’t going to make the peak like everyone else, I turned around and it dawned on me. The view! Everyone else focused on toppling Rumiñahui but my end goal had shifted.

The Andean panorama that surrounded me deserved to be ogled at and ruminated over, its great plains and rocky crags defiant against blue skies and clumps of cloud.

Yes, I was cut out for this.

Pausing for a breather on Rumiñahui volcano
How it felt not to have to climb any higher at altitude. Until Cotopaxi the next day!
Preparing for the descent on Rumiñahui volcano
That view.
Relaxing after the ascent Rumiñahui volcano, before the steep descent
Other backpackers, most had been in South America for months, far more acclimatised than me!
Sliding down Rumiñahui volcano
What comes up must come down. Our reward for climbing so high was to then hurl ourselves wacky races style down near vertical sandy paths.
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Travel the music world

A view of Cotopaxi volcano

The clocks have gone back. An extra hour in bed was good while it lasted, but pretty soon winter will properly set in and sunshine will seem soft and distant.

With my next pay cheques already spent on Christmas presents and nothing left in the piggy bank, hopes of a new year spent on the banks of the river Ganges are dashed. So I’ve decided there’s only one thing for it – put my headphones on, close my eyes, and travel ten times around the world – in music.

And I thought I’d share with you my efforts. I’ve curated two Spotify playlists:

Upbeat music to travel to

Relaxing music to travel to

Happy listening!

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Awesome island getaways

Megalo Seitani beach on the island of Samos

Would you rather be sat where you are right now, or on some small island far, far away? It’s a no-brainer, right?

Sailing away from the mainland towards a speck of rock in the distance and the promise of laid-back island life is about as different from the daily grind and the crowded pollution of city life as you can get.

Take five and try one of these memorable islands out for size:

Samos, Greece

A view of the island of Samos from its roads

What to know… Samos is actually closer to Turkey, lying 2km from the Turkish mainland. In the North Aegean group of islands, it’s bigger than its neighbours Patmos, Icaria and Fournoi. Claim to fame? It was the birthplace of mathematician Pythagoras.

Don’t miss… freshly-baked baklava at bargain prices, a hike to the secluded Megalo Seitani beach (pictured at the top – don’t forget your water!) and scenic sunset drives to the ends of the island.

Getting there… Ferries run 3-4 times weekly from Athens’s Piraeus port to Karlovassi and Vathy on Samos. Blue Star Ferries early bird fares start from €20 one way.

Staying there… Pantheon apartments are situated in the pretty little fishing village of Ormos, south west on the island, close to the beach (and all that baklava).

Ischia, Italy

Sorgeto hot springs on the island of Ischia

What to know… Ischia, in the Bay of Naples, starred in The Talented Mr Ripley. Though its director Anthony Minghella called Ischia and nearby Procida the ‘less admired sisters of glamorous Capri’, I’d take Ischia’s laid-back charm over Dolce & Gabbana any day.

Don’t miss… a night time dip – drink in hand – at the Sorgeto hot springs, a wander around the oasis of La Mortella gardens, or take your pick of wonderful beaches and fantastic swimming spots such as Chiaia beach.

Getting there… the most frequent sailings from Naples are with Caremar, taking 90 minutes. Return tickets start at €31.20 for a return on foot.

Staying there… Paolo’s panoramic apartment in the north western town of Forio lives up to its name, you can almost see the sunbathers stretched out on Chiaia beach.

Mull, Scotland

Sunset on the island of Mull

What to know… Mull is the second largest island in the inner Hebrides, nicknamed Eagle Island for the white-tailed and golden eagles successfully reintroduced there.

Don’t miss… a wildlife tour of the island (so many eagles!) with Pam and Arthur from Discover Mull, fish and chips on the pier of Tobermory’s colourful harbour, stargazing.

Getting there… Caledonian MacBrayne ferries have a monopoly on the Hebrides – choose island hopping with a Hopscotch ticket or a return car journey from Oban on the mainland to Craignure port will cost £33.

Staying there… On a quiet stretch of road west of Tobermory, Clachan Cottage has stunning sunset views over Loch Cuin, just the right level of remote but accessible.

The Stockholm Archipelago

The archipelago island of Utö

What to know… For those times when you just can’t decide on one, the Stockholm Archipelago has 30,000 islands! Bustling Vaxholm is the unofficial capital, with defences built in the 1500s by King Gustav Vasa (they’ve lasted a bit longer than his sunken ship.)

Don’t miss… exploring the islands by bike. Tour quiet island Svartsö, sampling the local drinking water at Storträsk lake, or challenge yourself on steep forest paths. Visit Utö Bageri for its famous bread or chill on Vaxholm, grabbing lunch at Boulangerie.

Getting around… Waxholmsbolaget ferries will take you to most major islands, and you can pay by card or use a regular travelcard. Don’t get left behind on the jetty – some have signposts that captains look out for, or if it’s dark, use a flashlight.

Isla de la Plata from Puerto López, Ecuador

Towards Isla de la Plata of the coast of Puerto López

What to know… Colloquially known as the Poor Man’s Galapagos, Ecuador’s Isla de la Plata is a little easier to get to, only 20 miles from the coast. The island teems with remarkable birds including red and blue-footed boobies and albatrosses.

Don’t miss… a chance to witness majestic migrating humpback whales around the island from June – September. If venturing from Puerto López, keep your eyes peeled for vultures on the beaches making the most of the fresh catches of fish brought in on boats.

Getting there… This uninhabited ‘Island of Silver’ is best reached from Puerto López, where there are many operators – have a wander and don’t be afraid to barter. You can choose to day trip to the island or go wildlife watching off its coast, with optional extras including snorkelling.

EXPLORE MORE ISLAND PHOTOGRAPHY

 

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72 hours in Porto

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If you’re still looking for a long weekend destination, consider visiting Porto, the gem of northern Portugal and home of all things Port.

Three days is plenty of time to enjoy this compact city with its Port tastings, bling cathedrals and high quality tours. Sample lipsmacking seafood and tapas, relax in a bar to the sounds of live music with the locals or sail along the river with its six bridges.

Follow my 72 hour guide of the best things to do, see, eat and drink.

Day one

As soon as you arrive, head across the impressive Ponte de Dom Luís I bridge for the Vila Nova da Gaia waterfront. If it looks similar to the Eiffel Tower, that’s because it was designed by Téophile Seyrig who worked with Gustave Eiffel before the Parisian tower went into construction.

Stroll among the stalls and grab a traditional Portuguese pastry or get cracking on the Port sampling and head for Sandeman’s Port terrace. Relax with an ice cream from the nearby gelateria (from €2) or take the cable car up to the Monastery, Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar for excellent views over the Douro river (€6 one way, with free Port tasting token).

Overlooking the Douro river from Vila Nova da Gaia waterfront

Cross back over the river and make a beeline for the historical and lively Ribeira Quarter, designated a UNESCO world heritage site. Wander round the imposing Sé Cathedral, dating from the 12th century, or gawp at what 100kg of gold leaf looks like inside the Gothic Igreja de São Francisco.

Port and bruchetta at 'Cal' bar in the Ribeira district
Cal bar, a cool little hangout in Ribeira

Stick with Ribeira and head to fledgling bar Cal on Avenida Vimara Peres for expertly-chosen Ports, wines and beers from a brother-sister team.Their food offering is minimalist, but the herby feta bruschetta is delicious (€6).

While away the rest of the evening in any of the bars along Galeria de Paris, lively even on a Sunday evening. A good place to start is Alma for experimental cocktails at low prices, and live music into the night.

Day two

Start your second day in Porto the only way anyone should, and devour a few pastel de nata Portuguese custard tarts. I tried three different types and although Nata Lisboa on Rua das Flores is the most popular, they are so heavy with filling that the bottoms can fall off! Instead I recommend good value Pastelaria Bela Torre on Rua Carmelitas for their crispy, moreish versions.

Inside Livraria Lello
Swarms of tourists inside Livraria Lello

Bela Torre is next to the famous Livraria Lello bookshop, frequented by J.K. Rowling when she lived in Porto and said to have inspired her writing. If you must go, be prepared to queue twice and pay €4 to get in (redeemable against a book purchase).

It’s hellish inside, with hardly any room to move, although they do sell branded water should you start to waiver.

Far more satisfying is a trip to the Palácio da Bolsa, site of Porto’s stock exchange, back when Portugal had two! You can only visit by joining a tour. They’re incredibly popular and many tours sell out hours in advance, so try queueing when they open to guarantee tickets. For €12.50 you can get a combination ticket including the Clérigos Tower and museum.

Inside Palácio da Bolsa's Hall of Nations
Palácio da Bolsa’s Hall of Nations

Don’t leave Porto without trying a Portuguese prego steak sandwich. Prégar on Largo São Domingos does them beautifully, the ladies running the kitchen working non-stop to prepare mountains of beef for hungry customers. There are seven options on the menu but you don’t need to look much further than the Clássico (€8.20). Herbivores don’t miss out, the Vegetariano is stuffed full of cheese, mushrooms, honey and walnuts (€7).

Day three

On the steps of Casa Musica

Having conquered most of central Porto, get out into the suburbs to Boavista and start your final day with a tour around the impressive Casa da Música.

The twice-daily €7.50 tour is really well guided around lots of fantastic architectural spaces, quirky rooms and concert spaces complete with interactive instruments that you can try out.

Take some time out to explore nearby Jardim do Palácio de Cristal, a lovely botanical garden overlooking the Douro river, where peacocks roam and palm trees loom tall. Or, make your way to the water’s edge of Ribeira Quay and book places on a six bridges boat tour. There are plenty of operators offering tours in old Rabelo cargo boats, taking you up and down the Douro, under the bridges in 50 minutes, for €15.

A peacock among leaves in the Jardim do Palácio de Cristal park               Palm trees in the Jardim do Palácio de Cristal

Leaving the best till last, make your way over the Dom Luís I bridge for the last time, and indulge in an afternoon at  the Taylor’s cellars, followed by a Port tasting.

Sporting one of the oldest Port houses, the Taylor’s audio tour is fascinating and full of information, the rows and rows of barrels make for great photos and the shop and tasting bar are set amidst beautiful gardens, the perfect location to taste Taylor’s magnificent selection of Ports. The best value package is the €12 tour and tasting of their Chip Dry white and Ruby Ports, both magnificent.

Taylor's Port tasting in the lodge's rose gardens

Inside the Taylor's Port cellars

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Live like a local in Paris

Chez Alain Miam Miam in Marché des Enfants Rouges

Sense has prevailed and Emmanuel Macron is President of France instead of rotten to the core Marine Le Pen. Whether you’ve been to Paris before or not, celebrate this election near miss with a weekend of eating, drinking, shopping and culture à Paris.

Eating

There’s only one way to start a weekend in Paris, get your quality croissants from the boulangerie Maison Marnay, situated on rue Saint-Martin, near the Marais and Les Halles.

While away the rest of your morning in the Marais with a wander round Marché des Enfants Rouges, taking its name from an old orphanage where all the kids wore red, and which is the oldest covered market in Paris.

Fresh produce on offer at Marché des Enfants Rouges

Head to the Chez Mario stall for garlic bulbs as big as your head and other beautiful veg, loiter round the pretty as a picture flower stalls, or do as Parisians do and head to Chez Alain Miam Miam (miam means yum) to queue for an hour for a huge à la carte toasted sandwich. It’s torturous when you’re so hungry, but it’s worth it for the tongue in cheek chat from the owner, and for the oozing, melty sandwichy results.

In the queue at Chez Alain Miam Miam for a toasted sandwich

I love Ladurée, originally wooed by their beautifully colourful pâtisserie creations in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette

However, the infamous queen would never have sampled their dainty macarons as the patisserie was founded in 1862. Try royal fave Stohrer on rue Montorgueil instead, located there since 1730.

Drinking

The Green Linnet Irish pub

For fantastic company and colourful characters, make the Green Linnet Irish pub your new favourite local, before heading out and propping up any one of the many wonderful wine bars in town. I recommend La Belle Hortense, Le Baron Rouge and L’Art Brut for starters.

Shopping

Stroll along rue des Archives, wandering in and out of cloistered buildings, and make a beeline for Pierre Caron Bijoux, a very pretty jewellery shop with prices that will surprise you. There are also jewellery stalls nearby worth checking out for great bargains on lace-like, intricate designs and patterns.

Inside concept store Merci in the Marais

Concept store Merci on Boulevard Beaumarchais is filled with beautifully designed stuff, from clothes and homeware to art materials, garden gifts and cookbooks. Similar to Anthropologie but…more French.

Culture

Open since 1977, the Pompidou Centre is a must-do, stuffed full as its permanent collection is with works by Duchamps, Picassos, Matisses and Warhols, and with stunning views over the rooftops of Paris from its terraces and tubulur escalators.

Over the rooftops of Paris looking towards Sacrew Coeur

Less well-known, don’t miss the far more beguiling Atelier Brancusi, the studio of sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

Constantin Brancusi's studio next to the Pompidou Centre

Kept as he left it when he died in 1957, it’s now housed in a Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers-designed building next to its Pompidou mothership. It’s a quiet haven away from the daily grind, and it’s free!

If you know one thing about the Musée de l’Orangerie it’s that it’s all about Monet, right? Wrong! The basement galleries are choc full with Impressionist artworks, the best being three paintings by Amedeo Modigliani.

The famous water lillies by Claude Monet, on display at Musée de l'Orangerie
The famous waterlilly paintings by Monet…

The lower ground floor galleries at Musée de l'Orangerie
… but don’t miss the lower ground floor galleries

Bon voyage!

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Stockholm’s beauty

Rosendals Trädgård biodynamic farm

Stockholm is easily one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Made up of 14 islands, and surrounded by an archipelago of thousands more, the world-class museums, parks and activities mean you’ll never be short of things to do.

Find Stockholm’s beauty everywhere you go with my top five recommendations:

1. Djurgården island

Of central Stockholm’s 14 islands, Djurgården is the loveliest, and it also packs serious cultural clout, housing the famous Vasa museum and the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen. For something less touristy visit the Prins Eugens Waldermarsudde house for pretty as a picture interiors and a peek at the prince’s art collection. Stroll around biodynamic farm Rosendals Trädgård and discover lovingly kept vegetable fields, rose and flower gardens, and go for lunch in the greenhouse café, serving produce from the farm.

Rosendals-crops 400x266

2. Moderna Museet

Stockholm’s museums put other cities to shame, and for constantly world-class offerings, head straight to the Moderna Museet. Recent shows have featured the fabulous Japanese artist Yayoi Kasuma, Olafur Eliasson and Georg Baselitz among others. Go before 21st May for performance artist Marina Abramović’s show The Cleaner.

The Yayoi Kasuma show at the Moderna Museet

3. Cinnamon buns at Fabrique

The city wouldn’t be the same without wafts of cinnamon and other majestic spices hovering around its bakeries. The consensus as to who makes the best cinnamon buns in town is an easy one – Fabrique! There are currently 16 branches across Stockholm, make a beeline for bustling Drottninggatan, or stop by in historic Gamla Stan.

Cinnamon and cardomom buns at Fabrique

4. Utö island

Ok, so of all the thousands of islands that make up Stockholm’s archipelago, there are easier ones to reach than Utö, but this 13km long beauty is big enough that you could spend the whole day on it and not get bored. Rent bikes and cruise through woods and round lakes as you seek out the island’s windmill and beaches or take life at a more tranquil pace and take a stroll via the island bakery. Travelling is about the journey and the 55 minute ferry trip to and from the island is almost worth it alone.

Utö island

Travelling at sunset back through the archipelago

5. Gamla Stan’s main square

Historic Gamla Stan is rightfully a magnet for all first time visitors, and with beautiful buildings like these, it’s no wonder. Pick up a Dala wooden horse (or pretty much anything you could want, embossed with horses) from the Wooden Horse Museum and shop, Runstenen. Boff up on the history of the Nobel Prize in Stortorget square (free Tuesday evenings) or watch life go by from the comfort of Chokladkoppen with a kaffe.

Skål!

The colourful buildings in Gamla Stan

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Live like a local in Milan

MonzaStreets400x266Milan is known as Italy’s fashion, shopping and finance capital. It’s so much more than that, but over a weekend it can be hard to scratch beneath its glittering surface and experience more than the unmissable stuff – Leonardo’s Last Supper, the Galleria shopping mall, Duomo and La Scala. And that gelato for that Instagram post.

Having ticked off all but La Scala on my first visit, I was keen this year to explore what else Milan has to offer, letting friends who live there show me its more authentic side, and surrounds.

First thing to know is that the Milanese love Monza, 15km outside of Milan. Famous for its Grand Prix, it’s also a gem of wonderful eateries and bars, with a picturesque duomo of its own, a modern-meets-medieval vibe and the lovely Seveso river winding through it.

Aperitivo at Turnè in Monza

After wandering its beautiful streets, take the ceremony of aperitivo seriously and head to Turnè for as much pasta, antipasti and chichetti (small plates) as you can manage, all free when you buy drinks.

Hosteria L’angolo del Beato, a Sardinian family restaurant in Monza, served up one of the best meals I’ve ever had in Italy – speared meat cooked on an open grill and glistening antipasti that bowled over even our native Milanese friend. Pastas in gorgeous sauces of wild boar and fragrant fennel sausage, all paired with an expertly chosen Sardinian red wine. It was hands down phenomenal.

Breakfast 'brioche' and cappuccinos at My Cake Café

The neighbourhood of Lissone may not make Milan’s front row any time soon but it’s got some of the best brioche and cappucino breakfast joints in town. Falconieri offers theirs for a steal at €1.50, while at My Cake Café try a huge pistachio brioche. Don’t let the name confuse you, they are more like croissants, but with added sugar and mess.

It’s pretty hard to avoid the tourist crowds at lunchtime in the centre of Milan but Hosteria Della Musica is peaceful, with a mix of locals and good service. I had the perfect Risotto Milanese, oozing with saffron, cream and cheese. Or at lunch you can sneak in to Napoli pizzerias like Maruzzella, normally crowded at dinner.

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April might seem too late for a spot of skiing but at Piani di Bobbio, with discounts on lift passes and ski rental, you can still have an enjoyable afternoon in the sunshine (skiing past cowpats), costing only €32.50.

If relaxing is more you thing, get out into the hills and check in to the Monticello spa. Treat yourself afterwards at the local’s favourite gelateria, Pinetta.

Inside Bar Frida

Good clubs, if you don’t pay to get in, can seem hard to find. Atomic is everyone’s go-to, but it’s currently closed at the time of writing. If you have the willpower to wait for late-running Milanese clubbers to crowd in for better atmosphere, Q21 is fun, or if you prefer to headbang to your music, try Rock’n’Roll.

Venues like Bar Frida could be straight out of east London, except they’re cooler, more laidback. Bar Frida has a sort of jungle-warehouse look about it, and as you get in many Italian bars, you pay for what you want with a cashier, then bartenders make your drinks, which I guess works. Get a Campari spritz with Prosecco for €5.

Before you leave Milan, don’t forget to stock up on some Lombardy produce from popular supermarket Esselunga. Make a beeline for air-dried Brasaola beef,  the genuine article is only made nearby in the mountains.

The vegetables in one of Milan's Esselunga supermarket

Cheeses in one of Milan's Esselunga supermarket

 

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Broken heart? Let London be the cure

‘Pity the selfishness of lovers: it is brief, a forlorn hope; it is impossible.’ – Elizabeth Bowen

Break-ups are never fun, and in London they can be pretty lonely too. The holding-back-tears-in-the-office days are inevitable, but it doesn’t mean you have to be a hermit in your own city.

If you’ve just had your heart broken, I prescribe you hold back those tears and let London be your distraction and your cure. There’s a millions ways to sing the blues, and here are 12 ways to beat them….

1.    Find some blossom

Blossom tree

Plum, cherry and magnolia blossom trees are on every corner at the moment. Start your day with breakfast al fresco under the nearest blossom.

2.    Take in Christopher Wren’s greatest achievement

St Paul's Cathedral

There are contemplative spots all around St Paul’s Cathedral in its churchyard and courtyards, as well as lots of quiet gardens across the City itself.

3.    Lose yourself around Tate Modern

Tate Modern

Monumental inside and out. Wander round the Wolfgang Tillmans show, featuring a vast array of his photography, from beautiful starry nights and still life close-ups to nights out, nudity and political works, documents and news clippings. £12.50 inc donation, until 11th June.

4.    Catch a film

French film Elle

I never need an excuse in life to go to the cinema, and neither should you. Lose yourself in the suspenseful but comedic Elle, out now starring Isabelle Huppert. Next on my list, The Handmaiden.

5.    Stumble on art

Swallow mosaic on the Thames Path

Finding artworks in surprising places is easy to take for granted in London. If discovering hidden street art is your thing, head to Shoreditch and enjoy a free street art tour with Strawberry tours. From 3.30pm each on selected days, donation expected.

6.    Colour something in

Colouring in on an Apple MacBook

Colouring stuff in is a bonafide way to distract yourself. Pop into any Apple store, open up a colouring book on a MacBook or iPad and indulge in decisions no harder than choosing what your next shade of pastel green will be. Oh Bambi.

7.    Incoming at Barbican

Inside a

The Brutalist architecture isn’t for everyone, but I love Barbican for its Monday Madness cheap films, marvellous conservatory and for unique exhibitions, like Richard Mosse’s five star show Incoming, on right now in the Curve Gallery. Mosse used military thermal surveillance technology to uncover the everyday lives of refugees living on the margins of society in overcrowded, makeshift camps. Free, until 23rd April.

8.    Dinner at Ducksoup

A meal at Ducksoup

There are hundreds of restaurants and bars in Soho, but Ducksoup is worth singling out for its lovely atmosphere as well as delightful food and drink. Recent deliciousness included a rhubarb and cardamom ‘shrub’ cocktail, hake with Tokyo turnips, fresh gnocchi fritters with wild garlic butter and thick labneh yoghurt with dukkah and sourdough bread. 41 Dean Street. Takes booking for 3+ people.

9.    Chinatown

Dim Sum from Loon Fung supermarket in Chinatown

You can’t fail to notice the vibrancy of Chinatown, its bustling streets, food smells everywhere and the sounds of buskers. After soaking up the street vibes, visit Chinese supermarket Loon Fung and stock up on a magnificent array of teas, sauces, snacks, dim sum and ingredients. Or head into Chinatown Bakery on Newport Place for some of their famous custard fish.

10.  Cook!

Thai vegetables and herbs

With spring creeping in, load up with fresh ingredients and make something new. I had a go at making a Thai coconut fish curry recently, using fresh chilli, lemongrass and coriander.

11.  Buy yourself flowers

Columbia Road flower market

Columbia Road is the flower market everyone goes to and even on a drizzly day it’s rammed at lunchtime. Beautiful as it is, they know their popularity and charge accordingly so I’ll be lining up in Vauxhall instead at the New Covent Garden flower market which recently opened. From 4-10am on weekends.

12.  See your favourite band

Cat Power on stage in Islington

Cat Power. Always wanted to see her but missed lots of chances over the years. The minute I saw she was performing in Islington in March I snapped up a ticket. I went by myself which was a bit daunting but she was marvellous and nailed it.

Proof you don’t need someone holding your hand to have a good time in London.