Monday, 8 July 2019

A Shrinking World



I have been plotting our 2020 trips for several months. Next year, all being well, we will have two long haul vacations.  Mexico City next summer will be one of them. The other? I have been looking at a map of the world to have a looky-see, hoping for inspiration. Yet the options are diminishing every year. A few dozen countries are now categorised 'Been There, Done That', although a repeat trip to Sri Lanka one day is not off the cards. It's a fabulous place and I'm sure Mrs P would love it.

An increasing number of countries are a little bit too 'Head Choppy Offy' or just plain too confrontational for my liking. Which is a shame. I'd love to see Libya and Iran. A growing number of places just have too many people and too much pollution. Mumbai is an absolute non-starter. In fact, that applies to much of India. And, for next year at least, a trip to South America is not on the cards. It's an expensive trek, one that will have to wait for a year when we do just the one long haul holiday. 

I have been considering Uzbekistan, and possibly Kazakhstan. They are both opening up to the idea of tourism. But ultimately, our second long haul trip this year will be defined by cost and ease. So China and Cambodia it is. It is possible to nab a multi stop ticket from London to Beijing (two or three night stop over), on to Cambodia and then back to London for little over £400. That sounds like a winner. Not least because I'd like to see the Forbidden City and a bit of the Great Wall, but have never been inclined to spend a fortune in time and money on a Chinese visa. Which won't be a problem with this trip. So I think we may well have a winner...

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Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Guernsey



I have a range of options to choose from when looking to flee the country. The two most common departure points are Heathrow and Gatwick airports. At about 2 hours and 3 hours respectively, they don't make for a quick getaway, but they do provide the widest choices of destination, particularly if one is looking to  go to far flung shores. Stansted and Luton airports are a good four hours away, but as the likes of RyanAir and EasyJet use them, they are good for ultra cheap fares. I've made use of all these options more than once.

The most local airport is Bournemouth International which offers some cracking fares courtesy of RyanAir, to some pretty decent places. Malaga, Krakow, Prague, Dublin and Malta to name but a few. Indeed, I could continue to reel off some desirable European destinations. But it's a small airport, so if I did continue, I wouldn't add an awful many more words to this paragraph. We've used Bournemouth airport plenty though.



But living on the coast means there's more than one way to leave the UK behind. Docks at Southampton provide the escape route for the cruise liner set. Portsmouth is the place to go for most cross channel ferries. But Poole also has a port, just a fifteen minute drive from home. A giant ferry transports cars and passengers to Cherbourg in France. Condor Ferries operate a high speed trimaran between Poole and the Channel Islands.

Mrs P and I have used the ferry to Cherbourg. But I had refrained from jumping aboard Condor's Liberation. It might be new. It might be quick. But it also has a terrible reputation for emptying the stomachs of its passengers when crossing on waters that are anything other than dead calm. I've been sea sick before, on a small fishing boat nine miles into the English Channel. It's a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Not something one would want to repeat.



But a half price offer is hard to refuse. So, with a certain degree of trepidation, I bought a pair of day return tickets for the pair of us. And prayed to a god I don't believe in to provide us with seas that resembled a mirror. The non-existant god obliged, bless him. Very pleasant sailing conditions. Almost as good as they get. But regardless, we both felt a little bit queasy on the way over. Less so on the way back. Perhaps our stomachs were too full and too tired to be queasy.

Guernsey is a small, quaint little island. And much like the Channel Islands currency, it is immediately identifiable as British, and yet not British. One feels a little like Alice as one wanders through the streets of St Peters Port, as things become curiouser and curiouser. I was convinced I'd turn a corner and be greeted by a grinning Cheshire cat. Not that Lewis Carroll spent any time in Guernsey as far as I know. The most famous author to have spent time here was the French writer, Victor Hugo, who penned Les Miserables during his stay.



As with most of these sea faring day trips, one spends more time aboard than abroad. The ferry whisked us there in little more than three hours, but that totals six hours bobbing on the waves, and a paltry three hours walking and dining. Should you ever make it there yourself, I can recommend Le Nautique. It's a conveniently located restaurant, with reasonably priced two and three course lunch deals and excellent service.

Will we ever return? Never say never. But probably not. I'm still a cautious sea traveller and don't want to push my luck too far.

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Saturday, 22 June 2019

Bus 81 to Marsaxlokk



Shall I rate the four Maltese locations visited by Mrs P and yours truly? Scores out of ten, as is the normal practice. Rabat and Mdina score an easy 9 for its beauty and tranquility. The capital, Valletta, gets a 7.5 for its blend of history and shabby chic aesthetics. The Blue Lagoon on the Island of Comino also scores 7.5. If there'd been a thousand people fewer, I'd have given an extra point. If there'd been no one but Mrs P and I, it'd score a perfect 10.

The final destination on our whirlwind tour of Malta took us to Marsaxlokk, a small fishing village tucked away on the south eastern tip of the mainland. I'd seen pictures of the colourful fishing boats bobbing gently on the mirror like waters in the bay. It looked magical. Up close and personal, in the flesh, it's less so. The brochure doesn't show the cranes, tankers and other items of industry that lie in the background across those tranquil waters. But that's not to say that the place doesn't have its charm. The seafood is good. It's a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Marsaxlokk scores a decent 7.



Marsaxlokk presented us with two difficulties. The first was in the pronunciation of the name. I think I've got it now. Maybe. The second issue was getting there from Valletta. I rely, perhaps too much, on Google Maps. Google swore blind that we needed to walk the final mile, a thirty minute stroll down a road with no pavement. Google lied. There is a bus, no. 81, which runs to and fro between Valletta and Marsaxlokk all day and late into the evening. 

We discovered Google's treachery whilst feasting on a fish dinner, and armed with this new information we were spared a long walk back. The fish dinner took an alarming turn. We had several scaley creatures to choose from. Our waitress recommended the n****r. I looked confused. She repeated the word. I felt obliged to walk into the kitchen to inspect this fish. It was a Meagre. Much to my relief. Marsaxlokk retained its decent rating of 7. And my recommendation to pay the place a visit.
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Friday, 21 June 2019

The Alleys of Rabat and Mdina

First impressions count. The first impression one gets of a city is from the window of your aeroplane as you fly in. The first sight I had of Mexico City was a breathtaking view of the mountains silhouetted by the setting sun with the vast metropolis in the foreground twinkling as the lights came on. My first sight of Malta was less majestic.

We flew over a yellowish landscape that was largely rural, with small towns and villages dotting the lanscape. And I wondered aloud if we were overflying Syria. So many half built shacks. Or were they half destroyed? It's tough to tell from 10,000 feet in the air. But it looked a bit of a mess. 

We stayed in Rabat, with Mdina just a short walk away. One could argue that this area has a look of Syria about it, but from a decade or two ago, before the bombs and shells did their work. The names Rabat and Mdina certainly have an Arabic ring to them. It seems that everyone and their mother have been through Malta at some stage. Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, the French and British have all left their mark.

Rabat is effectively a suburb of Mdina. Rabat does of course mean 'suburb', which you'd be aware of if you knew a little Arabic. Or had just browsed the relevant wiki page. Both towns are pristine. And quiet. And the labyrinth of narrow alleys leading to tea rooms, museums, restaurants and little shops make for a wonderful few days exploring.

The stand out architectural feature of Malta are the balconies. Throughout Mdina, Rabat, Valletta and elsewhere, the honey coloured limestone brickwork is speckled with colourful balconies jutting out into the air above the heads of passers-by. They become addictive to the casual photographer. I have several dozen shots of balconies. I will bore you with just one of them.


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Thursday, 20 June 2019

Monzo in Malta



Our trip to the Blue Lagoon on the tiny island of Comino was a highlight of our short trip. The water is postcard perfect, is it not? Alas, the island has one tiny issue. People. Lots of people. Boat loads. If you want to pitch yourself on the tiny strip of sand, you'll need to be there at the break of dawn. By early morning, even the rocky bits are occupied. You're best of doing what we did and stroll over to Santa Marija Bay. It's a 20 to 30 minute walk, or a few minutes in a shuttle jeep at €3 each way. 

But unless you have a physical impediment, go for the walk. It's a very pleasant and scenic stroll. And Santa Marija Bay will be far less crowded. It's not quite so dazzlingly beautiful. But it's good enough. There are a couple of dozen sun loungers for rent, and half were empty. But this will at least in part be due to their cost, €10 each. We went for towels on sand. There's a couple of huts there serving up food and drink, and a small hotel with a bar and patio overlooking the bay.

 

But enough of what we paid, or didn't. And more of how we paid. A couple of months ago I opened a new bank account with Monzo. It's a new bank, one of the so-called challenger banks and you can only sign up with the iOS or Android apps. The bank has two big selling points, for me anyway. Firstly, transactions show up instantly. No waiting around for two or three days before a purchase shows up on my balance. 

Secondly, it's great for travelling. There's no commission or fees charged when you use it to buy things abroad. And the exchange rate is at Mastercard wholesale rates. Which are good. We'd bought some euros before leaving the UK at €1.09 to the £. The average rate on our cards worked out at about €1.12 to the £, as you can see from the summary above - #winning!
 


Are you a UK resident and fancy some of those Monzo benefits? Sign up via the link below and you'll earn an extra £5. As will I. We can both be winners.



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Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Malta

Mrs P and I have been to experience the delights of Malta, the tiny island in the middle of the Mediterranean, just south of Sicily. And why not? It's the perfect short getaway for a resident Bournemouth. Flights from the local airport, just a ten minute drive from home, are cheap - from £60 to £100 return - and it's just three hours away. We set off early on a Thursday morning, enjoyed two full days in the sun and flew back mid-morning on Sunday, lightly bronzed and thoroughly relaxed.

What did I know of Malta before I went? It's small and rocky. The islanders bravely fended off the Nazis in WW2 - the Maltese flag features the St George cross, awarded by their then imperial master, the British. There's a bit of an issue with organised crime and suppression of the press. There's the Maltese dog. That was about it. Mrs P and I argued over just how small Malta is. I said smaller than the Isle of Wight. She disagreed. I have checked. And I was right. 

What didn't I know about Malta that I am now better informed of? Maltese is the only recognised semitic language in the European Union. It's a confusing tongue. Half the words are of Italian origin. English makes up anything from 10 to 20% of the vocabulary, with whole phrases abruptly interrupting an otherwise unintelligible stream of chatter. And a Tunisian would be able to understand about 30 to 40 per cent of an average Maltese conversation. Indeed, Malta seemed in many regards - language, food and architecture - to have something of a confused sense of identity. It doesn't, of course. Cultural blends are to be found in every land. It was I who was confused.

We also discovered that Malta itself isn't the cheapest European destination once landed. Buses are good value when getting around, at €2 for two hours travel. Food and accommodation are a little pricey. Not extravagantly so. But closer to what one would pay in Paris than in Budapest or Sofia. But for a long weekend, Malta is worthy of consideration. We may well return, particularly when we are in need of a little bit of southern  European sunshine. 




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Wednesday, 5 June 2019

The Secret Garden


We Brits have few nice things to say about our weather. We do not receive the amount of sunshine that we would like. But it's not just about the gross amount of solar rays that reach our little island. It's the useable quantity. Let me give an example. Last week we set off on a day trip, deep into rural Wiltshire. It had been sunny all week, so why not make the most of it? Needless to say, the sun disappeared the moment we departed. And stubbornly refused to to reappear until the moment we returned home. We Brits have been playing this game of galactic hide and seek for millenia. It's a game that we are handsomely losing.

The garden? It's a strenuous half hour walk from the nearest train station at Avoncliff, up and down a steep hill. But that is all I can say. Mrs P has declared it a 'secret garden', just for us.
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