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Deals, or no deals?

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Somewhere in Europe… but we’re going to the country next door!

It’s Black Friday and despite all of the emails, television coverage and advertising, we have proved that resistance isn’t futile.

Yes, there is money to be spent today, but that’s going to be at the farm shop, newsagent, supermarket and petrol station.

I’ve had deal information on hotel bookings, electrical stuff and a load of other gubbins, but most of it has come in far too late for yours truly.

And that because the deed is done – the next trip has been planned, largely booked and paid for because I found our own deals for our visit to Andalucia by delving into the search engines of Skyscanner, Expedia and Booking.com last week.

The end result is a trip that’s a day longer than originally planned so we can make full use of our time in Spain and one that is currently running under budget, despite that extra day!.

Although a fair bit of research had been carried out using both the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet books on Andalucia and Spain, the time taken to book the flights, overnights and the bus travel between the destinations on our trip took a little over 24 hours.

Whilst that 24 hours also includes sleeping, eating and the other things that make up a day, it also reflects that there’s been some due diligence in checking out the various elements being used to put the trip together.

The flights we’ve chosen aren’t at silly times of the day or night (but there was a £46 premium paid for choosing our own seats and taking advantage of an ‘offer’ on priority boarding).

The hotels, guest houses and hostels we’re using are all highly rated whilst the bus travel is more cost effective than using trains – the only time we’ve paid full price for a bus ride is for our travel between Seville and Cordoba, largely because that journey is on a Saturday and no discounts are available.

With airport transfers being paid on the ground when we get to Spain, all we have left to book in advance now are the rail tickets to Manchester Airport (cheaper to get to by rail than it is to drive and park the car for the duration) and for two tickets for the Alhambra in Granada.

Will we do these bookings on Cyber Monday?

Might do…

No brainers…

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Sometimes you just have to roll the dice to see this…

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Or this…

One of the ‘joys’ of looking at travel forums on a regular basis is spotting the number of posters who have done their research using guidebooks, Google, Yahoo, Bing or even travelogues to plan, loosely plan or even not plan their break, holiday or journey.

There are some who want fellow forum users to suggest where they should go or even plan out their trip for them.

Others want so much validation for their plans that by the time they’ve made multiple posts on a similar theme that forum members either ignore them or become sarcastic after offering the same advice again and again and again.

Those who haven’t done their research are easy to spot because they’re so vague in their requests for places to go or for someone to do their planning for them that they can’t even be bothered to include basic information such as their budget, their time frame, their interests or passions or whether they have specific dietary needs or accommodation preferences.

And the usual answer to this lot?

Suggestions to buy at least one guidebook for where they’re going – my response is normally to get hold of both a Lonely Planet guidebook AND a Rough Guide book to whatever country or area they’re visiting or to point them in the direction of either the forum’s own search function or the search engines mentioned above.

There isn’t any excuse for such laziness when you’re heading off somewhere. It’s your trip and I take the view that it’s up to you to do due diligence and do your own research into where you’re going.

Do the research and you have a good idea about what to expect.

Don’t do the research or let others point you towards sights, places, areas or countries and there’s a fairly good probability that the brown stuff could hit the fan, leaving you to scream and scream and scream when in fact there’s only one person to blame…

You!

At the other end of the scale are those who plan everything to the nth degree and want so much validation that they become a pain in the butt…

Even when they’ve been told by several posters that the weather may not be in their favour, that their choice of clothing for walking is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard, or that they should loosen up, relax and go with the flow rather than ticking off every box on their long list of things to see and do.

Then there’s the lot who want to see as much of an area, country or even Europe in a few days rather than taking time to immerse oneself in one area or just one country as a means of exploring what’s on offer.

To those posters, I’ll invoke memories of a popular 1980’s t-shirt slogan:

“Frankie says RELAX!”

Don’t do it…

One year – September 2015 part X

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Nowt like this in the University of Sunderland

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Or this!

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Or this…

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Was like this on many an occasion though!

The song that’s just finished on iTunes was the Status Quo version of The Wanderer, a tune that couldn’t be more appropriate when writing about Coimbra, because wandering around is the way to appreciate the city.

First ports of call on our first full day in Coimbra were all university related.

Velha Universidade is a mix of 16th-18th century buildings with its Clock Tower, Biblioteca Joanina library and sweeping views over the city. Caroline spent more time exploring the buildings than I as I went in search of things that I could relate to.

The surroundings were much grander than those at my alma mater and it was interesting to look down into lecture rooms which were steeped in history rather than concrete and plasterboard.

The student cafe wasn’t posh by any means and there wasn’t a barista in sight as I ordered um bica to top up caffeine levels.

This was one aspect of life in Portugal that I’d come to appreciate – that the simpler places were more relevant to me than those aimed at foodies, hipster beardies and those who like to pay over the odds for a cup of milky coffee with a chocolate topping or a fancy design marked out on the top of the milk.

Whilst I’d been sampling the coffee, Caroline had been heading to the heights around the top floor of the University and then the Clock Tower.

Once we caught up with each other, it was time to head back into the student cafe for a very cost effective lunch. Students, lecturers and tourists mixed together in the queue and whilst Caroline ordered a salad, I ordered some good old fashioned comfort food – the Portuguese take on sausage and mash and a bottle of Sagres Radler.

Although the dining area was a bit crowded, we managed to grab a table on the balcony/sun trap behind the serving area…

Once lunched out, it was time for our time in Biblioteca Joanina. It was impressive in several ways, but the overall experience didn’t do much for me.

Heathen tendencies? Quite possibly, even though I have studied history.

I’ve slowly, but surely become more interested in the history that we didn’t learn about at school – 1900 onwards, the political intrigue of the 1950’s and 1960’s, technology and the stuff that’s now coming to light about Thatcher’s Britain on so many different levels.

But I digress. Once back outside, we started to wander around Coimbra via its back streets and alleyways. A few bits and pieces were picked up along the way, along with a couple of pairs of ear rings for Caroline.

Our second full day saw more of the same as we had a restful day doing nothing more than mooching around the centre and down by the riverside.

Cafes in squares or near the Tourist Information Centre provided food and refreshment and the Science Museum the last piece of brain fodder before we headed back to Casa Pombal for a siesta, shower and our last evening meal in Coimbra before we went to Lisbon for the flight home.

And we went back to the scene of the Great Pig Cheek Encounter. The same guy spotted us and pointed us in the direction of a good table overlooking the Jardim da Manga fountain and handed us the menu.

If memory serves me right, Caroline stayed away from the pork stew by having a fish course whilst I went for an identifiable meat course (details are hazy as I don’t have the receipt to refer to), but on this occasion there weren’t any problems with either choices main course.

With wine, beer, desserts, Moscadet and coffee rounding off the meal, we didn’t need any energy drinks to give us wings to get back to our digs for our last night in Casa Pombal.

Packing up didn’t take long after breakfast, but as we’d booked a lunchtime train back to Lisbon, we had time to kill. A little bit of mooching time gave way to coffee and a read of a Brit newspaper before more coffee, a light lunch and a wander back to the railway station.

With Lonely Planet Portugal quoting rail fares between the cities as €20 each, we were happy to book advance first class tickets for €15 each.

Yes, the advance bookings for travel and digs had limited us a couple of times and this was one of those times. Three nights in Coimbra had been one night too many and we should have headed back to Lisbon sooner.

Our last night in Portugal was spent at Casa Oliver, but on a room only basis. The wander into Lisbon centre stretched the legs a bit more as we negotiated quite a few people heading out for a stroll, something to eat or a family night out.

Ristorante da Vinci beckoned once more for a meal, dessert and drinks before the walk back to Casa Oliver. Only we didn’t walk it all as we had a few euros left to use on our Viva Viagem travel cards, so we hitched a lift on Elevador da Gloria.

We’d walked past Elevador da Gloria on several occasions, but had never got onboard. It was Saturday night and busy as many headed from one area to another to bars, clubs or their hotels. We didn’t have an early night, but we needed to pack in readiness for our Metro ride to Lisbon Airport for the flight home.

Sunday morning came around all too quickly and after checking out of Casa Oliver, it was time to find breakfast. Fortunately the cafe we’d visited the previous day opened at 8am, so that was the destination for a breakfast of coffee and a couple of pasteis de nata each.

Coming up – home thoughts on Portugal

One year – September 2015 II

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Yes, this was the calm after the storm in Porto

We’d got a good deal on our rail tickets from Lisbon to Porto by booking in advance on http://www.cp.pt, but that wasn’t the only deal we’d taken up.

The price quoted in Lonely Planet Portugal for standard class tickets between Lisbon and Porto was €24, but we travelled in First Class for €22. Yes, we were tied to one train and one train only, but given the quieter nature of the carriage, the comfy reclining chairs and the close proximity of the bar, we weren’t complaining.

The air-con was also appreciated as we headed out of Lisbon. Airfields, towns and farms were all visible through the carriage windows too as the seats hadn’t been crammed in, so we sat back, relaxed, dozed off, ate or read over the course of the three hour trip to Porto.

Once in Porto, the route from Sao Bento station to Rivoli Cinema Hostel was an easy one, so much so that I didn’t bother keeping the guidebook to hand as we wandered up there.

Caroline and I had been allocated the Blade Runner themed room. The framed film poster on the wall was familiar as I’d had the same poster on the wall in my student digs back in the 1990’s.

The Blade Runner room was minimalist, a feature that we also saw as we passed other theme rooms which were being cleaned or vacated over the few days we were in Porto.

We had the use of the kitchen/dining/breakfast room, a roomy lounge complete with one of the biggest TV screens I’ve ever seen, a very comprehensive choice of DVDs to watch plus a row of Internet connected computers for you could check your email on, watch football matches or find out what the latest weather forecast was.

This was something that we were quite interested in as we’d spotted that the weather had the potential to be somewhat inclement for the first few days of our stay in Portugal. So much so that we’d both brought very good waterproofs with us, just in case.

When I’d checked out what the latest BBC forecast was for Porto, I turned to Caroline and let her know what the prognosis was – a red weather warning for rain and plenty of it.

At this point, one of the cinema buffs who owned Rivoli Cinema Hostel chipped in with a comment about the fact that he’d never heard or seen a red weather warning before, so it sounded like things were going to be bad…

Once this was done, we headed out to stock up on food, beer, wine and fruit juice. There may have been plenty of salted cod in the shop’s freezers, but we didn’t see any wabbits (or putty tats…).

Bread, salad, cheese, cooked chicken, fruit, local fizzy pop and a couple of bottles of mineral water hit the basket and we found out the hard way that we should have packed a couple of shopping bags as yes, we were charged for plastic carrier bags…

We did have an early night after our evening meal, but sleep wasn’t an option for the whole of the night as a nearby dance club cranked up the volume after midnight and stopped around 4am.

Was I like a bear with a sore head the following morning? Oh yes!

Fortunately I had some sachets of the old student hangover cure in my meds bag and one sachet plus a few cups of coffee helped to resolve the situation. As did the yoghurt, bread, cheese, hazelnut spread and orange juice that was served up for the hostel breakfast.

Did I mention that it had started to rain? It had and boy, did we know about it!

After a couple of hours of mooching around in the hostel lounge, Caroline and I decided to make a break for it rather than being indoors all day.

Wallets and loose change was stuffed into pockets as our cameras and day bags were left behind, jackets were zipped up and hoods pulled in tight as we went in search of Centro Portugues de Fotographia.

Given that maps were useless, it took longer than we thought to find the Centro Portugues de Fotographia, a former prison that’s now dedicated to exhibitions of photographs and camera equipment.

As we were now soaked from the waist down, it was a good thing that there was a cloakroom for our jackets and that we’d both decided to wear quick drying travel trousers.

Once we’d made our way around, had hot chocolate and retrieved our coats, these trousers and the rest of our clothing were much drier, but we were squelching as neither of us were wearing shoes with a Gore-Tex or other waterproof lining given the weather we’d experienced before in Portugal.

The rain had eased off a bit, but only like a racing car does as it goes into a corner before a flat-out straight. It was well past lunchtime and we were hungry, so we hit the first cafe we saw and became their only customers for the next hour or so.

Caroline had a chicken salad, but I tried one of Porto’s specialities.

Middlesbrough has the parmo, Scotland the deep fried chocolate bar, France has the joy of frogs legs, but Porto has the Francesinha, a hefty sandwich containing steak, sausage and ham which is covered in melted cheese and given a slurp of peppery tomato and beer sauce over the top…

Tasty? Yes. Filling? Definitely! Did I have another? Yes, but two days later as a means of keeping any cholesterol at a sensible  level!

Once lunch was over, we pledged back to Rivoli Cinema Hostel for showers, dry clothes, reading, a light tea and another early night.

Or so we thought as that bloody club started up at midnight again!!!

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More about this on Friday!

Technology – loving it?

Now I’ve mentioned the love/hate relationship that I have with technology before, but it’s worth bringing it up again.

First of all, the iPad Mini 2.

It went with me on the recent visit to Fremlington near Reeth in Swaledale and it came in handy as there was no television available to keep up with news, forecasts or travel reports.

It also helped in checking emails, logging onto wisepacking and checking out forums too. And by ‘eck it came in useful to watch the copy of Cinema Paradiso that I’d bought from the iTunes store.

But I also found that I was falling into the same trap as many people that I’d seen in bars, cafes, pubs and restaurants – constantly looking at the iPad’s screen and stabbing at whatever caught my attention rather than say having breakfast and talking to Caroline or fellow temporary residents at said hostel.

So it didn’t go with me when we headed off for Fishguard and another hostel as we embarked on part two of our break after one night at home.

Yes, there was good wifi at the Fishguard hostel, so much so that the owner looked to be using his full sized iPad for just about everything connected with the hostel, but I didn’t miss my own variation on the iPad theme.

It has however come back into its own since heading back home as emails needed to be checked, news stories read and comments made on one or three sections of the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree travel forums.

The other part of the technology equation was the upgrading of computers when we got back home. Software only in each case as security upgrades were sorted out on both Mac Minis and the iPad Mini 2.

An easy task? Oh yes in each case and one that was relished rather than grunted at as it used to be in the many years of having to use another proprietary operating system that I could mention.

The latest Mac Mini was set up just before we went away, but gave me no trouble at all, even though I am to computers what deep fried chocolate bars are to healthy eating…

The couple of tweaks to the installation of Microsoft’s Office:Mac and a cleaning up of the Dock task bar have made things lean and meaner than they were. Next up is the installation of a cost-effective Canon Laser Printer (£40 from Ryman via Amazon) and Bob’s your uncle, I’m as happy as I am when a good bacon sandwich is put in front of me!

The new system is part of a plan to up the ante here on wisepacking.

Posts will be more regular and there’s going to be a mix of trip accounts and kit reviews.

Along with some anecdotes and the potential for what New Musical Express used to call ‘Smart-ass one liners’ around the time I first started to buy said paper back in the early 1970’s.

First up? Some good places to stay…

Poshpacking…

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The cloisters at Pousada Convento da Graca, Tavira

Keith Rickaby, Nikon Coolpix S3100

It all began in October last year when Caroline’s workplace approved a week away in March and then Expedia came up with an offer that we couldn’t refuse – flights from our local airport, private transfers from and to Faro airport and a week in a hotel in Tavira on the Algarve.

Not just any hotel you understand, but one that Berlitz Algarve described as “one of the most desirable places to stay on the entire coast”Pousada Convento da Graca, a converted 16th century convent complete with cloisters and its own church.

We knew that Pousadas had special rates for those of us who are over 55, but as the offer we were made beat a few of the prices we had last year for stays in guest houses or boutique hotels, it would have been madness to turn it down…

Which left a couple of problems.

The first was what to wear during our stay, given that Lonely Planet Portugal‘s comments on the Pousada started with “If you can get past the front door (there’s a bit of an attitude here)”

The second was packing to cope with any potential dress code, given that we were flying with hand luggage and that our airline – Monarch – had a 10kg weight restriction on hand luggage.

In the end, we needn’t have worried, even though the temperatures encountered during the first full week of March were below expectations after reading the ten day forecasts for Faro and Tavira.

We packed by taking our cue from these forecasts and perceptions based on looking through the photos in the Pousada Convento da Graca section of the website dedicated to the Portuguese Pousadas.

I ended up packing virtually all Rohan kit once more. Four Progress polo shirts, a couple of Stratum long sleeved polos, two Merino t-shirts, two pairs of 2015 Goa trousers, a selection of Cool Silver trunks and a few pairs of M&S silver containing socks.

Wash kit had the usual contents – factor 30 Nivea suncream, disposable razor, King of Shaves shaving oil, Via Sonic battery toothbrush, travel size toothpaste, Lush shower gel, and Sanex roll-on anti-perspirant. Spare shoes? One pair of espadrilles.

Caroline’s choices were somewhat similar and yes, most of it was also from Rohan. Ultra Silver camisoles and briefs, a couple of Serene vests, a brace of Malay tops, a pair of travel linen trousers, a pair of Trailblazer trousers bought during the Rohan sale at Trek & Trail Saltaire and a Malay dress – just in case. Oh, and a couple of Stria long sleeved tops, again just in case.

Our choices coped admirably with both the expected dress codes and the changeable weather conditions encountered. We’d layered up in readiness for the early start to the airport (3am departure from the house with a car thermometer reading – 1C), so these warm layers (Rohan, Peter Storm, Lowe Alpine) came into their own on the cooler nights during our trip.

We didn’t have any problems once we checked into the Pousada or in fitting in whilst wandering around Tavira, eating in family run restaurants such as Bica, Casa Simao and Churrasqueira O Manel or on the local buses and trains used to get us around the Algarve and the ferry used to have a few hours in Spain.

Yes, there was a bit of washing and wearing going on during the week to keep things sweet, but we stayed smart and our bags came in at 8kg each so no worries on the plane!

And we weren’t the only ones using Rohan in the Pousada either as fellow Brits were sporting Rohan trousers or shirts in and around the hotel.

An account of our visit to Tavira will be posted here soon!

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Caroline, Sunday morning, 7.15 am, waiting for the car to Faro Airport.

Keith Rickaby, Nikon Coolpix S3100

http://www.rohan.co.uk

http://www.pousadas.pt

Reading matters II

It’s not often that I’ll dive in and take advantage of an offer regarding cheaper guidebooks on Lonely Planet’s website, but after seeing one of their emails a few minutes ago, I just have.

There’s been a few offers on recently, the latest being a 30% off promotion, but when a 45% off promotion rears it’s head, it’s very, very tempting to take advantage of it, especially when it’s also got a free postage offer attached to it as well (providing that you spend over £25 of course). And yes, I have ordered paper guidebooks again!

The books in question are the Lonely Planet guides to Andalucia, India and The Trans-Siberian Railway and guess what? They’re all the latest editions of these guides and they’ve been chosen because each one relates to places of interest.

At the top, this collection of titles should have cost me £50.97

What did I pay? £28.02… a saving of £22.95 which effectively meant that the India guide was free as it normally retails at a full price of £20.99 here in the UK.

And the moral of the story – it’s worth signing up to company newsletters and emails as the news that sometimes comes your way can sometimes be to your advantage!

Especially when it’s a secret deal and it comes just one day after Caroline and I took advantage of some substantial savings on Rohan kit thanks to their email about final sale reductions.

The Rohan sale finishes on Sunday 24th January by the way…