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.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

BA confirms free shortfall economy food may go

British Airways' new chief executive has confirmed that the airline is considering whether to axe free food in economy on short haul flights. Quoted in an interview with Travel Weekly he promises that if it does happen, BA's meals will be the best on offer. It was also possible passengers would be able to order their choices in advance. According to one report it might provide snacks bought in from Waitress. Would paying on board be such a bad thing? Not in my opinion. The airline's current snacks aren't enough if you're starving and are redundant if you're heading home for dinner. If I was really hungry I would certainly be happy to pay for one of those very acceptable curries that the airline offers on longer flights, for example, though that's probably a wish too far. Behind the speculation lies the impact of low fare airlines, whose services have been going through a period of mushroom growth (see earlier report here). It has not been lost on observers that BA's newly installed chief executive came from one of those carriers - the Spanish airline Vueling. Making passengers pay for their gin and tonics would be one way of shaving costs and helping it to compete more effectively on fares.

Friday, 13 May 2016

These shoes are made for walking - in the right direction

Shoes that tell you in which direction to walks have been tested by low cost airline easyJet. They are connected by Bluetooth to the satnav in your smart phone, which sends them a signal triggering a sensor in the appropriate shoe, which vibrates when you need to turn left or right. All users need to do is tap in their destination before setting off. easyJet says this latest example of wearable technology would allow sightseers to walk to museums or other attractions without the inconvenience of having to look at maps or even consult their phones. The airline calls the shoes "Sneakairs". It says it has already tried them outing Barcelona and could eventually be developed for passengers to buy on board.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Buy the sofa that softens the delay

Time was the airports were just places where you caught flights but the days when you couldn't get much more than a paperback and a some duty free booze or smokes are long gone. Now they're shopping malls. For passengers in search of new armchair, sofa, bookcase or coffee table, Amsterdam's Schiphol has pushed the boundaries of retail diversity by turning part of its terminal into a furniture showroom. Travellers passing through Piers H or will be able to check out the look and comfort designs of which is creating several "living rooms". Gideon Ruig, the airport's commercial development manager says it "must always remain innovative and adopt a pioneering role". The living rooms "give passengers a contemporary waiting area, with the opportunity to immediately order online all the products they are seeing and using".

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Equations in flight - don't do the maths

Airline security is like motherhood and apple pie: above criticism. But it shouldn't be. Is it any wonder that tighter inspections at US airports are causing thousands of passengers miss their flights (see my full story under news at when such an atmosphere of paranoia prevails? It's reported today from the US that an Italian university economics professor was taken off a domestic flight in Philadelphia after a fellow passenger became suspicious of his scribblings. Turns out he was writing down a differential equation. The mind, as they say, boggles. Couldn't a member of the crew have made an instant judgement on whether this man was a threat? Daft incidents should not just be dismissed as aberrations. They have the cumulative effect of making travellers take really useful security measures less seriously.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Budget flights to Canada launched

WestJet has launched new budget flights between London's Gatwick Airport and five Canadian cities. The airline is operating a total of 28 non stop round trips services to Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and St.John's (Newfoundland). Calgary and Toronto flights will operate all year, respectively five time a week and daily. Flights to Calgary will represent a cost saving option for skiers heading to Rocky Mountain resorts such as Banff and Lake Louise. Services to the other destinations will run until various dates in October. Most of the flights are on the airline's Boeing 767-300 jets, which are equipped with wi fi technology. Access costs between about £2.70 for 30 minutes and £8.50 for the whole journey. Passengers may also pay extra for premium seats. Sample fares at the time of writing: a return trip to Toronto in economy, departing on Saturday May 28 and returning one week later was showing at a touch under £469. A return ticket to Vancouver was approximately £535.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Warsaw set for new tourist upsurge


Krakow may have a more prominent tourist profile but this image, captured on a summer day of grey skies, illustrates why Warsaw should not be overlooked. It shows three layers of the Polish capital's history. In the foreground is a surviving section of the wall which penned the city's Jews in one of two ghettos created by the Nazis. In the background is the massive Palace of Culture of Culture and Science, built during the Soviet domination - known as Stalin's gift. And leaning out between those two layers is a modern building, a symbol of the Polish capital's more recent, post Communist vibrancy. You can read more about the city here or in my blogs to here and here. Meanwhile Warsaw may be heading for another tourist upsurge with the launch later this year of new flights by Ryanair from no fewer than five UK provincial airports. In time for next winter the low cost airline will start operating there from Newcastle, Leeds-Bradford, Belfast, Edinburgh and Birmingham.

Friday, 6 May 2016

US passport move - storm in a teacup?

Image copyright White
Tens of thousands of travellers risk being turned away from flights to the US because they don't have passports incorporating microchips. So claims one newspaper today. The number looks worldly inflated. I warned about this possibility at in March. According the BBC reports at the time, no old style passports were issued after August 31, 2006. UK passports are valid for ten years. So while it may be m mighty inconvenient for them, the only travellers likely to be affected are those who received new passports in the five months between April 1, 2006 (that was the date this year that the US starting requiring e-passports) and August 31, 2006. Correct me, someone, if I have the dates wrong. If I'm right, the number at risk will have been shrunk for another reason: isome of them were issued with microchip passports in any case. However, none of this alters the fact that the requirement has been extremely poorly publicised and that Washington might take a leaf from the Canadian book. Since March 15 travellers to Canada have needed electronic travel authorisation - the broad equivalent of the US ESTA. But the Canadian Government, mindful that visitors might be caught unawares, decreed a period of grace until autumn, instructing border services officers to let travellers in provided they meet all other requirements. That said it would be a good idea to go online and get eTA before departure. It costs only CAN$7.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Cheap holiday online deposits - could they come back to bite?

Have online travel agents made rods for their own backs in by battling to offer the lowest holiday deposits? In a fascinating interview published today by the trade publication Travel Weekly, Barclays head to travel Chris Lee questions whether customers paying deposits as low as £49 may be more relaxed about cancelling than those asked the shell out a sizeable amount in advance. On line companies can't be sure what level of cancellations they will get . On the positive side he notes that the market for holidays is strong - Lee is quoted as saying that without the security threat he UK travel sector would be having "a brilliant year - and that the agents involved have held back from offering low deposits on trips to destinations that have seen booking hit by anxiety over security, such as Turkey. One factor not covered in the report of the interview is the potential threat of Brexit. A serious slump n the value of sterling - something some economists are in any case calling for as a way of tackling the UK's trade deficit - could clearly be a trigger for wide scale cancellations.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Docklands to Dordogne - new flights

Medieval Limeuil on the Dordogne river (image courtesy
British Airways has launched summer services between London City Airport and the Dordogne with hand baggage only fares starting at £57 one way. Flights depart from Docklands to Bergerac on Mondays, Fridays and Sundays at 11.15am, 9.30a, and 5.10pm respectively. Between June 23 and September 1 the airline will also operate a round trip each Thursday, with an 11.15am departure. Bergerac Airport has a choice of six car hire operators.

Chateau de Bergerac image