Like millions of other travel snobs, I used to be totally down on Spain’s Costa del Sol…until I discovered its hidden depths. And soaring peaks. For beyond the beaches, the Brit bars and the cheap booze, this part of Andalusia is home to a great range of natural attractions and historical wonders that, for me, make this area of the country its most interesting. For architecture and history fans the Moorish architecture that spans the region from rocky Ronda in the west to lofty Salobreña in the east, via the beguiling Granada and the pretty mountain-set pueblos blancos, is utterly breathtaking. For art fans, Malaga has the best contemporary art galleries in Spain, among them a colourful Pompidou Centre and the challenging CAC (Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Malaga). But it’s perhaps in its natural beauty that the Costa beyond the beaches really shines, particularly across the Alpujarras range on the southern flanks of the Sierra Nevada. Here hair-raising switchback roads criss-cross the region, offering hundreds of hiking and walking opportunities and plenty of spots to overnight, from hamlets famous for mineral baths to cosmopolitan towns like Órgiva; all set amid stunning gorges and soaring peaks dropping to riverside valleys interspersed with placid reservoirs and glacial lakes. Find out more by reading my article for Boundless magazine.
Luckily, given that most of my writing is travel-related, I truly love travelling. From the research to the packing to the journey to the arrival, it fills me with gleeful wonder and happiness. I even like airports – particularly mainland European ones which are so often so much better designed than British ones, and teeny tiny ones where the luggage belt is a porter with a large flatbed truck who just dumps all the bags in the arrivals hall. Years of experience have taught me how to minimise the downsides of travelling, so in the first of a possibly occasional series, I thought I’d share some of my tips with you.
- It’s tedious, but a packing list really is worth the effort. You can buy cute printed ones, just keep one as a note on your phone, download apps (I like Triplist for iOS and PackPoint for both iOS and Android) or print out one from various sites. They’re particularly useful for travelling light, and my next tip…
- Don’t overpack. On a recent 3-week trip to India we only had 90 minutes to make a connecting flight in Mumbai so decided to just take hand luggage. It was totally liberating, and meant that we could justify lots of shopping to fill the fold-up hold bags we’d taken with us.
- But always take flip flops! They’re light, incredibly versatile and very useful if you’re staying in questionable hotel rooms. And recyclable too, thanks to innovative organisations like Terracycle.
- Avoid airport car parks; they’re expensive and a rip-off. Far better is to use a small company like I Love Meet and Greet, a personal favourite because its drivers are always courteous and professional and I’ve never had to wait more than a few minutes for my car to be collected or returned. They provide valet parking at Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted, and prices for a week’s parking start from £58. Plus, if you register you can sign up to get regular discount codes.
- Swimming trunks make very acceptable underwear, and even daywear. And you don’t even need to wash them as the sea does that for you.
- Be careful when planning a ‘local experience’. I love train rides, but have often come a cropper on them – in places as far afield as Goa, Chicago and Folkstone, where very lengthy delays meant we lost a precious day of holiday (Goa to Kerala), went through the Rockies by night rather than day (Chicago to Grand Junction Colorado) and had to navigate an unfamiliar 350 miles in the dark through rural rainy France (Folkstone to Mayenne). And that overnight train from Luxor to Cairo didn’t show up at all when we first tried to catch it…though it might have been better not to have gone back for it the following night…
- Do your research… the idea of an overnight train from Luxor to Cairo felt like a fun, spontaneous thing to do, but it turned out to be the train from hell. Hard benches for seven hours are one thing, but toilets that made the one in Trainspotting look like a Japanese Washlet were something else – especially with a rare bout of Delhi Belly en route. The return journey, on a comfortable coach through the eerie night-time Sahara desert, was just as fast and much nicer. Especially with our towels to keep us warm.
- Always pack a technical towel. As Douglas Adams so wisely opined in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, ‘a towel is about the most massively useful thing [an interstellar hitchhiker can have], with great practical value and immense psychological value.’ And a technical one weighs nothing and is as versatile as they come.
Don’t plan everything to the nth degree. Being unexpectedly stranded on the Pico do Fogo in Cape Verde by a minibus driver who told us he’d be returning to São Filipe that evening but then disappeared led us to one of the loveliest travel experiences imaginable. Hospitable locals lent us warm clothes as night descended, and led us to food and shelter a bed in a house with no running water or electricity, but the kind of warmth that reaffirms your faith in humanity when things like Brexit and Trump make you seriously wonder about people.
- Things that are worth planning are silly little things like checking if the hotels you’re staying in have kettles. If they don’t, think about taking a travel one; they’re good not just for tea but also boiling water if you’re unsure about drinking the tap stuff, and even cooking basic meals. On a road trip through the national parks of Utah to LA, our trusty kettle meant we could load up and eat great Japanese Pot Noodles instead of the crap, overpriced food that were often the only things on offer along the otherwise stunning route.
- If you can afford it, book a tour with a knowledgeable local near the start of your stay. If you’re interested in a particular style of architecture, or gastronomy, or craft beers, or locally made arts and crafts, there’ll almost certainly be a local offering a tour of it via sites like Vayable.com. That’s how we found the amazing Judit Szöllősi (pictured above) in Budapest, who as well as a fab art and design tour of Kerepesi cemetery also gave us top tips on places to eat and drink both before our trip and after our tour at a lovely social enterprise café. All for $70 for up to 10 people. Bargainsville!
- Don’t poo-poo package trips. ‘Travellers’ often turn their noses up at them, but they can be cheap, cheerful and, often, a great way of seeing a country for a fraction of the cost of the DIY option. On one memorable package trip to Luxor (£149 for two weeks, including a ‘Nile Cruise’), we made the most of the airport transfers, free breakfast, pool, access to money exchange, rep etc, while merrily pootling off on our own every day to explore the sights, eat locally, meet an amazing family who took us to a relative’s wedding, and even visit Cairo on an overnight train…
- Always take your driving license (good for ID, and means you don’t have to carry your passport around) and a foreign money wallet. Recently robbed in Spain, we thanked our lucky stars that back at the hotel was a wallet containing some £40 in cash, a debit card, a credit card and important contact numbers. And our passports.
- If you’re staying at an AirBnB place because you like hanging out with locals, or are hoping to improve your Spanish/Italian/Vietnamese, make sure your host in on-site and likely to be around. My brilliantly adventurous 80-year-old mother-in-law (right in the picture) visited Venice hoping for a few days of amiable Italian practice with her hosts, and instead found they’d gone away for the weekend, leaving her with not so much as a painkiller – which meant she spent a Sunday in agony after taking a bad tumble in the street.
And that’s quite enough to be going on with. Feel free to add more. I probably will when I’ve next got a spare hour.
Earlier this year we took our first trip to India, visiting Goa, Kerala and Mumbai. We were blown away by all three, and even though our first night was spent in a barely there beach hut with barely there water, electricity and no AC or screens (wouldn’t have been much point to either, given the fact that the open bathroom didn’t have a roof) I totally loved it. Hopefully the feature I wrote for Boundless, the Civil Servants’ Leisure Club magazine, shows how much. Kerala and Mumbai were pretty incredible too.
Download the Goa PDF feature here.
I recently realised that I’ve been lucky enough to have visited 16 of Italy’s 20 regions, which obviously means I’ve still got four left to discover (Liguria, Trentino, Reggio Calabria and Friuli-Venezia, if anyone would like to send me to any of them). But it’s very hard to get to new regions of this wonderful country when the old ones are always worth return trips. This week I went back to Emilia-Romagna, which remains in my top five Italian regions list because it’s where my dad was born and raised, and I still have many happy memories of it. Lots of nice relatives too, who of course as locals know all the best places to eat and drink.
They steered me right when I wrote this piece on Bologna four years ago, leading me to the best tortellini and mortadella in the city, and this time round I discovered some equally great gastronomical treats with them. In return I took one of them to the brilliant V&A David Bowie Is exhibition, which is on at the excellent MAMbo (Museum of Modern Art Bologna) until November and made me cry while others around me air-guitared along to ‘Diamond Dogs’ or stood rapt as they listened to the music.
I cheered myself up with another return visit, this time to one of my favourite museums in the city, the very old-school Museo Geologico Giovanni Capellini. It’s one of those totally non-interactive and (supposedly) non-child-friendly museums filled with dusty vitrines housing millions of prehistoric bits and bobs like the exotic-looking 2.2-3 million-year-old scomber japonicus below. That’s a mackerel to me and you. The one child who was in there with his mum seemed to be enjoying it as much as I was. Which says something about not underestimating kids.
An unexpected parcel arrived yesterday, filled with books. Turns out they were my books. The second edition of ‘Skylines’, in fact, co-written with my friends and fellow-writer Jan Fuscoe. The books came complete with a jazzy new midnight blue cover and a much more, ahem, compact, slimline feel. I thought they’d just used thinner paper until P pointed out that the 50 essays accompanying each skyline have been removed, making the book half its original size.
One assumes our publishers had intel on what readers like and don’t like, to have made such a bold decision. We of course feel slightly sad about the removal of the essays, especially as we believe they gave each of Jenny Seddon’s lovely illustrated skylines a meaningful context. Still, it still looks utterly fab, and will now cost Amazon a lot less in postage. Should you want to buy a copy, get in touch and you can have one for a tenner, p&p included.
I’ve been writing about train travel recently, which has led me to thinking how much nicer trains are than planes. And as everyone loves a listical, here’s mine on why.
- You don’t have to get to the station two hours before your train departs.
- You don’t have to spend huge amounts of money getting to the airport.
- You don’t have long queues for security.
- You don’t have to squeeze all your toiletries into a tiny plastic bag that will almost certainly burst open just as you put it into the plastic tray.
- You don’t have the ignominy of showing the world your mankey holey socks at security.
- Water, food and drink at the station – and indeed on the train – is usually fairly priced instead of costing an arm and a leg.
- You can move around at will between train carriages.
- You get a proper table on a train.
- You’re not breathing other people’s recycled farts on a train.
- If no-one’s looking, you can pop into First Class and ‘borrow’ some quality reading material on a train.
- You can use your phone and wifi on a train.
- You don’t have to pay shedloads to reserve seats with your travelling companions.
- You can charge up phones and other electronic devices.
- Trains tend to have more than two working toilets on them.
- Marmalade and jams, condiments, booze and pepper sauce are all allowed on board.
- You get to see scenes like the one above (of a pooch in Yorkshire).
- And the one below (of a church in St Kitts).
Feel free to send more reasons to let the train take the strain, as British Rail’s slogan from 1970 so winningly put it. I’ll add them to the list. And if it’s inspired you and you’d like some ideas for great train journeys, toot-toot your across to the Boundless website for my article on great train journeys of the world.