Saturday, 25 June 2016

Brexit vote pushes up travel costs

Touring France - cost rises
Holidays in the immediate future look certain to be more expensive in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. And the choice of flights from the UK could shrink as airlines forecast the number of Britons travelling abroad by air could drop severely. The £ was down approximately 4.6% against the euro today compared with its value on on Thursday and 7.4% against the US dollar. So far the impact has been significant, though not quite as severe as that feared by the investor George Soros shortly before the referendum. Nobody can predict how sterling will move in the longer term, but it can be predicted confidently that for those on tight budgets travel costs will remain very uncertain for some time. Visitors to this website leaving on holiday in the next few days should have no difficulty working out the immediate effect. But I'll do the sums anyway. If you were driving to France, for example, and had been expecting to spend, say, £2500 for two while there , the cost will be a minimum of £115 more than if the country had voted remain. The increase on a holiday to the US with the same amount of spending on the ground envisaged will be a little higher at £185. What's not immediately clear is the impact on tour operators' prices. Unless there is some unexpected early recovery in sterling their costs will also rise. But many operators - and certainly the larger ones - will have bought some or all of the currency they need to pay for hotels rooms, for example, on the forward markets. So they should not need to up their package prices unless they gambled that a vote to remain would prompt a significant jump in the value of sterling. The International Air Transport Association, whose membership includes the world's major carriers , warns the number of UK passengers could fall by 3% - 5% by 2020. Carriers including easyJet have moved to reassure customers that there will be no short term effect but have urged the Government to treat the future of open skies in Europe as a priority. I must repeat earlier warnings that unless the present agreement survives - and EU airlines are still able to operate between any of the countries covered, choice of destinations will shrink. The same will inevitably happen if stopping the free movement of labour means passenger traffic is reduced. This could affect routes to central and eastern Europe in particular. The eventual effect of such shrinkage could also be a time in fares - but that threat is some way off. One key question is whether EHIC (the European Health Insurance Card) will survive Brexit. For the time being there will be no change. It's always advisable to buy private insurance in any cases EHIC doesn't cover all costs- such as that of an ambulance to hospital. Protection for package travellers against the collapse of tour operators will also remain in place and, because of the massive weight of work now necessary to renegotiate more important arrangements with Europe, may survive in its present form for some years.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Lost in Translation

El Corte Ingles is, roughly speaking, the Spanish equivalent of John Lewis. Though it was probably not the best place to start looking, I went to the department store chain's Bilbao branch in search of some authentic rope soled espadrilles. A helpful man in the men's shoe department looked a little confused, then directed me to the third floor, saying I should ask for espadenyes. Espadenyes is the Catalan for espadrilles. Use of the name in Catalunya was first recorded nearly 700 years ago but they are also traditional footwear in the Basque country. When I inquired on the third floor, a woman server looked blank. So I asked the receptionist at a hotel where I had been staying. He also looked blank. What goes on, I wondered. Hadn't these shoes - once worn by peasants - been made by some shops in the Spanish Basque region for a century or more. Surely they hadn't yielded entirely to the trainer and the flip flop? The receptionist went to ask a colleague. Enlightenment dawned. I should ask for alpargatas, he explained, and Googled a shop in the old town where I could get them. Now, the briefest of research after the event reveals that Basque emigrants to Argentina took the shoes with them and it was there that the third alternative name was coined. The shopkeeper on the Calle Somera knew exactly what I wanted, prodding them a range of colours. These days the rope soles are reinforced using some synthetic material but they are as near as damn it to the real thing. Sometimes, of course, they are kept on with lacing around the ankle. I read that these were made fashionable by Lauren Bacall, who wore them in the 1948 movie Key Largo, and enjoyed a revival in New York in the 1980s, after Don Johnson sported them in Miami Vice, when a pair could fetch nearly $500. Now one of my sons tells me they're "on trend" again. Call them what you like, mine are just for slopping around in. I bought one pair in black pair and a second in cream and they cost me, at the current exchange rate, the extremely unfashionable total of £16.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Air travel technology preferred to human contact says survey

We may curse technology when it lets us down – but once they’ve tried it air travellers prefer to use it than deal with human beings, according to new research. And that holds good even if they have had a bad experience – at an airport check in machine, for example. The survey, by the international airiine communications and information technology company SITA found that 55% of passengers use some self service technology but using it for the entire journey was not yet widespread.” Three quarters booked via the internet and 16% used mobile phone apps. The overwhelming majority (92%) said checking in on mobiles was an easy process but they indicated they wanted more mobile services, with baggage notifications a top priority.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Six reasons to visit Alsace

Alsace, its seems reasonable to assume, is not as familiar to UK tourists as the likes of Normandy, Brittany, Provence or the Dordogne. Maybe this is the result of the region's personality, apparently part German, with German style wines and recipes. At first acquaintance this seems hardly surprising. The dark outlines of Black Forest are visible across the Rhine to the east. On further reflection you sense a certain contradiction, for this is territory fought over and twice annexed by Germany in under 80 years and on the second occasion, when the Nazis were responsible, its resolutely French  inhabitant were forced to speak German, an obligation clearly destined to produce a reaction. So perhaps the surprise is that its personality remains seemingly unchanged - and it's all the more fascinating as a result:. 


The wine
All right, I know we’ve been warned against drinking all but a few thimblefuls per night but you’ve got to make an exception in a region where vines stretch almost as far as the eye can see. In the village of Itterwiller, for example, where they were strung across the main street, I could find no boulangerie or shop to buy other standard provisions – but I lost count of the number of wine “caves”. Excellent Gewürztraminers and dry Rieslings can be had for very reasonable prices. And Cremant d’Alsace makes a very pleasant sparkling alternative to Champagne.

The villages

With their half timbered buildings, renaissance bay windows, window boxes spilling over with vivid flowers and chimneys topped with storks’ nests they’re unfeasibly, almost cloyingly, beautiful. If you visit in summer, don’t expect to be alone. Villages such as Riquewihr and Kaysersberg, with its ancient, fortified bridge can be very crowded. But those lesser known can be much quieter – such as Andlau, seat of a great abbey founded by Charlemagne’s wife in the 9th century and even lovely Eguisiheim, in whose narrow, cobbled streets after dark, you may imagine yourself transported to an earlier age.

The eating
The cooking is perfect for those with big appetites. With Germany so close, German influences are prevalent. There's what you might call the Alsatian national dish, choucroute garni, which is Sauerkraut, usually with sausage, ham and pork. White asparagus is often served with ham. One night for pudding I ate portion of wonderful Kougelhopf, a cake with a hole in the centre, soaked in rum and topped with crème fraiche.


Take a guided ride in a put through the narrow waterways of Petite Venise (Little Venice); stroll through streets and squares full of handsome old buildings. The star attraction in the regional capital is the 16thC Isenheim altarpiece, one of the greatest examples of religious art. Now back in the expanded Unterlinden Museum it was painted by Matthias Grünewald, with sculpture by Niclaus of Hagenau. The work was commissioned for the hospital chapel of St Antony’s monastery at Isenheim, not far away. The monks there specialised in treating St Anthony’s Fire, a sickness caused by eating bread made infected grain, which explains The harrowing appearance of Christ’s flesh. Grünewald’s masterpiece illustrates the power with extraordinary clarity of such art to warn and educate the receptive viewer.

Walking and cycling
Lovely, gentle routes meandering from village to village through vineyards. For something more energetic, hikers should arm themselves with an IGN map and head up the steep scarp to the west, into the Parc Naturel des Ballons des Vosges. Park on the Col de la Schlucht perhaps, where you may head out through woodland, emerging on open ridges that run on the rims of great natural amphitheatres, hollowed out by the movement of ice age glaciers.

The weather
It depends when you go, of course, but don’t imagine that summers are dull and rainy. During my last visit June temperatures rocketed to over 36C.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

On the trail of asparagus

Green and white asparagus - image courtesy German National Tourist Office

What’s green in England and white in Germany? The answer, most commonly at least, is asparagus. Both are excellent, their taste enhanced by the brevity of the season, which acts as a sort of asparagus interruptus. In Germany much more is made of it. Chalk written notices outside restaurants trumpet that der Spargelsaison has arrived. Roadside kiosks selling it open all over the place. It’s not unusual to find, on a menu, a dish incorporating a whole kilo of it, sometimes eaten with ham. There’s still time to drive over for the current season, which ends officially on midsummer’s day, June 24, or Johannistag –said also to be the birthday of St John the Baptist – sometimes called Spargelweihnachten or Spargelsylvester (asparagus Christmas or New Year’s Eve). The popularity of the vegetable was given a big leg up by French King Louis X1V, though there’s no record of him saying “let them eat asparagus”. It became established on princely tables in what is now Germany after the Elector of Palatine developed a taste for it around the end the 18th century. The German National Tourist Office is now promoting two “asparagus trails”. One in Baden, the other in Lower Saxony.

Lower Saxony trail - image courtesy German National Tourist Office

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Airline boss warns on Brexit fares risk

Gdansk, Poland - choice of such destinations could be hit by Brexit
Good to hear easyJet boss Carolyn McCall on Radio 4's Today programme, confirming my earlier warnings about the threat to low air fares in Europe if the UK votes to leave the EU. Though she was careful not to state unequivocally that fares would rise she made it plain that conditions would be such that they might. Under the EU Open Skies regime easyJet could fly where it liked without facing obstructions. EasyJet, for example, can establish bases at airports in other EU countries. Outside it life would become much more complicated. UK airlines would need to negotiate rights, perhaps to maintain such bases, perhaps operate on individual routes, for which there might be a price. As I have already noted on this site, civil aviation, has long been a political football. Just look at the row over low cost carrier Norwegian's efforts to launch budget flights from Cork using an Irish - and therefore EU - registered - subsidiary. And on top of all that the free movement of workers in Europe has clearly benefited leisure travellers by widening the choice of destinations served by low cost airlines. Witness the huge range of cities in central and eastern Europe that you may now explore without breaking the bank.

Friday, 20 May 2016

On location in the Welsh marches

Chirk Castle topiary
Conrad Hilton famously professed that the three most important ingredients of a successful hotel were location, location and location. That may explain why, in the tiny North Wales village of of Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog, there are two places to stay - the West Arms and The Hand. The setting would be hard to beat. There are few places that keep drawing me back so frequently. This time it was just a one night stop, a diversion on the way to the Lancashire fells, so there was no time to enjoy some of the Ceiriog Valley's superb walking (you may read my account of a longer visit here - including the story of how, but for the intervention of Lloyd George, the village might have been submerged long ago to provide water for brewing in Warrington). But there was time to explore Chirk Castle, at the eastern end of the valley, and to walk for a while cross and beyond Thomas Telford's astounding aqueduct that carries the Llangollen canal high above green meadows below.

Aqueduct with 19th century rail viaduct alongside

All along the valley road the verges were splashed with daffodils - as were the castle gardens.

We ambled around the castle through the extensive woods, a medieval hunting park, past a birdwatching hide above a leafy slope where a nuthatch, its underparts somewhere between pale brown obliged by putting in a brief appearance. The castle is one of that defensive chain of border strongholds built when Edward I was battling to subdue the Welsh in the hills to the west. Captured rebel leaders were incarcerated in its dungeons.

It was built at the end of the 13th century by Roger Mortimer, who had become captain of the English army. After that a chequered period saw five of its owners executed for treason until the Myddleton family made it their home in 1595 - and stayed put for 400 years. Much later the castle was rented by the de Walden family. Lord "Tommy" de Walden was involved in the development of first world war tanks. He was a supporter of Dylan Thomas. I lingered over the guest book in the Bow drawing room, spotting the signatures of Rudyard Kipling and Hilaire Belloc. Those of King George V and Queen Mary and also there - and that of George Bernard Shaw. In a room nearby jerky black and white cine film plays, taken by and of the de Waldens and their guests, riding, skating. Pugin had a hand in some of the interior design. The gardens, with their sweeping views over the surrounding landscape, are magnificent. They stretch down to a ha-ha, a short, steep drop designed to keep animals out without breaking the line of sight. But it's perhaps the topiary that gives the sharpest insight into a world where the rich and powerful could afford armies of labour. Even today it takes six weeks to trim the sculpted yew introduced in 1873 by Richard Myddleton Biddulph. Imagine how long it must have taken back then.

And so, after strolling on the castle lawns for a while, to the The Hand, with its eponymous wooden sculpture by the front entrance. The sculpture reflects symbol, in evidence at the castle, that has given birth to several colourful myths. The truth, according to the National Trust, is that baronetcies that funded King James I's campaigns in Ireland were allowed to incorporate the "red hand of Ulster" in their arms. Though these days it has a spa, The Hand is essentially a pub with a restaurant and rooms. It sits at the feet to the Berwyn mountains, whose sometimes bitter weather imposed untold misery on King Edward's mercenaries from balmy southern Europe. The main restaurant was quiet, so we ate Welsh lamb and beef in the bar and ignored the lure of wine in favour of cask bitter. In the morning, taking a run in defiance of pittering rain under chilly grey skies, the silence was broken only by the occasional care or bus, the bleating of 
sheep - and the rush of river water.

Double rooms with a full breakfast range from £95 to £135. Roast rump of lamb, with broccoli puree, broccoli crumbs & a redcurrant reduction costs £16.50. You might not have room for anything else. And they'e honest enough to tell you on the menu that they serve pies from McCardle's, and excellent butcher's in Chirk. If you're on your way home, don't miss the can ce to go shopping there.