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After a few months off (that turned into almost four years), I've got back into the swing of things... concentrating mostly on travel reviews this time around.

Reviews written

since 28/07/2000


Travelodge London Docklands, London 24/02/2012

Convenient and cheap but in need of some TLC

Travelodge London Docklands, London Whilst planning a weekend trip to London recently, the Travelodge London Docklands hotel seemed to tick all the right boxes: at 40 pounds per room, per night (thanks to one of Travelodge’s frequent online promotions) the price was certainly right and as we would be arriving from the Channel Tunnel, the hotel’s location looked ideal for easy road access from the M25 or the Blackwall Tunnel. This hotel is certainly larger than many other Travelodges that I have stayed at in the past, but the building is dwarfed by its surroundings - although it’s not right next to Canary Wharf, the scale of most buildings in the general Docklands area means that the Travelodge is almost hidden away behind the office blocks. However, once you find the right turning off of the A13 and pass the security entrance to the estate in which the hotel is located, there is at least the luxury of car parking right in front of the building. The car park is run by another company but there is a heavily discounted rate for hotel guests (5GBP per day instead of the usual 20GBP). To ensure that the car park staff don’t slap a ticket on your car for underpayment, you have to get a token from the hotel reception and display that alongside the parking ticket in the car. You can’t buy a parking ticket from reception though: to do that, you have to use one of two ticket machines in the car park (one was broken when I visited). The entry and exit barriers were missing as well when I was there, but security ...

The Settlement Exhibition, Reykjavik 19/10/2009

Star Trek comes to Reykjavik

The Settlement Exhibition, Reykjavik The Settlement Exhibition is a relatively new addition to the cultural landscape in Reykjavik, having only been opened to the public for a couple of years. It is situated on Aðalstræti in the centre of the oldest district of the city, and the remains of the Viking settlement that form the focus of the display were uncovered during construction work for a new hotel in 2003. Public interest in the discovery was so great that the government decided to preserve the integrity of the site and the archaeological research conducted there has provided a wealth of information about how the earliest settlers lived, all of which has been carefully preserved and beautifully presented in this fascinating museum. The centrepiece of the exhibition is the site of a Viking longhouse that was inhabited from the early 10th century, and to the north of this dwelling, archaeologists also excavated the remains of a wall, which has been dated to two years either side of the year 871 and is thus regarded as the oldest evidence of human settlement to have been found on Iceland. That it is possible to date the remains this accurately is remarkable enough, and part of the exhibition details how it was possible - layers of sediment and volcanic material (known as tephra) produced by the regular eruptions on Iceland helped to preserve this site, and scientists were also able to count back through the layers of tephra preserved in Iceland's glaciers and match that layer to the material found on the ...

Rica Oslo Hotel, Oslo 24/08/2009

Location, location, location

Rica Oslo Hotel, Oslo Finding an affordable hotel in most Scandinavian cities tends to be a challenge, and this certainly proved to be the case on a recent business trip to Oslo. Norway is an expensive country for most overseas visitors and while the global economic downturn has depressed many European economies and driven prices down, Oslo seems to have remained largely unaffected - with the result that most hotels were well out of my price range. Still, the website for the Rica Oslo seemed promising and the hotel itself looked pretty smart, which in some cities is not always a given for accommodation so close to the main station. The location of this hotel is without doubt its greatest asset: no more than 5 minutes' walk separate the platforms for the Flytoget (Oslo airport express train) from the Rica Oslo reception desk. You head out of the front of the train station, cross the tram tracks and the hotel is on your left as you enter Europaraadets Plass. As it happened, I arrived in Oslo during the celebrations for midsummer, so the square outside the station was full of people heading to and from various celebrations, with the attendant police presence, so once I had negotiated my way past the police horses, I was relieved to see the hotel was so close. The disadvantage of this was that the area around the station was pretty noisy until the early hours of the morning (and the sun was still shining of course) but that's going to be the exception rather than the rule as Oslo, and Norway in ...

La Rochelle (France) 30/12/2008

Gateway to the Île de Ré

La Rochelle (France) For years, La Rochelle was a place only known to me from hours spent poring over the 'Tricolore' workbook in French class at school. For some reason, most of the people featured in that book were residents of this port on the Atlantic coast, and it has stuck in my mind ever since. However, La Rochelle was added to Ryanair's ever-growing list of French destinations a few years ago, which (coupled with the steady stream of British tourists and emigrants to the central regions of Poitou-Charentes and Charente-Maritime) has seen a rise in tourism to this underrated destination. The construction of a high-speed TGV link direct from Paris in 1993 also now means that it is possible to reach the beach in three hours (and in comfort) from the capital city, and La Rochelle is also easily reached by car, with good road connections leading to the A10 and A83 motorways. The town itself has a few sights to offer, and I can recommend taking a stroll around the Vieux Port to see the three famous towers that guard the old harbour. It is possible to climb the steps inside the towers for some great views across the port district and the town centre, and there are plenty of restaurants along the waterfront offering local specialities such as crêpes or choucroute-de-mer (seafood sauerkraut, which tastes a hell of a lot better than it might sound), and not at tourist-trap prices either. However, for many people the main reason for visiting La Rochelle is to get to the Île de Ré. This ...

General: Nova Scotia (Canada) 29/11/2008

Canada's Ocean Playground

General: Nova Scotia (Canada) The idea of a holiday in Canada was one that had crossed my mind a few times in the past, without me ever getting past the vague planning stage. It always seemed too far away, too expensive, or just too much like hard work... but then back in early 2008, I happened to see a mail from Condor offering cheap flights to destinations all over the world. Normally I wouldn't bother clicking on any of the links, but one line in particular caught my eye: "Fly to Halifax, Nova Scotia, for €99 per person". And there really were still seats available at that price - not during high season of course, but we'd heard that autumn on the eastern seaboard really is a great time to visit, so this was an offer we couldn't refuse. Should you be considering a visit to Nova Scotia, don't be put off by the idea of travelling outside of the traditional summer season. We had a fantastic time, enjoyed the brilliant scenery with warm and sunny weather in relative peace and quiet, and had the bonus of seeing the full palette of gorgeous autumn colours in the province's extensive woodlands as well. In fact, there is a huge amount of stuff to see and do all over Nova Scotia, far more than we had time to fit in during our stay and it is now right up there at the top of the list of places to go back to, to try and fill in the gaps! It is the second smallest province in Canada but enjoys a pleasant cultural diversity, thanks largely to a history rich in upheaval and conflict. After the first Europeans ...

Salt: A World History - Mark Kurlansky 14/11/2008

No need to take this with a pinch of salt!

Salt: A World History - Mark Kurlansky Mark Kurlansky seems to delight in devoting himself to subjects that other authors shy away from - how else can you explain his eclectic choice of subject matter that ranges from the social history of various European peoples (The Chosen Few: The Resurrection of European Jewry; The Basque History of the World) to the role that cod has played down the centuries (Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World)? However, on closer inspection the logic of his writings starts to take shape - the Basques, who live in close proximity to the Atlantic, were and are a people renowned for their proud history of deep-sea fishing, and Altantic cod has been a mainstay of the European diet for centuries... but without the use of salt to preserve fish, this simply would not have been the case. It therefore seems perfectly logical for Kurlansky to turn his attention to something that is now ubiquitous, but was once considered the preserve of the privileged and a conspicuous mark of wealth: salt. From start to finish, this is a book that surprises and informs - you might think you know a lot about salt, but the history of this element (as the blurb on the back flap says, it is 'the only rock we eat'... I certainly hadn't seen it in that light before) is intertwined with the rise and fall of societies across the globe. Not only that, but it played a crucial role in the development of trade and centuries ago it was already being used to represent fertility (as can still be seen in the ...

General: Prince Edward Island (Canada) 06/11/2008

Red sand and Green Gables

General: Prince Edward Island (Canada) Prince Edward Island (PEI) is an oasis of peace and tranquillity nestling just off the northern shore of Nova Scotia; it is also the smallest of Canada's provinces, but the 130,000 or so resident Islanders are justifiably proud of their home. It is with good reason that their island is known as 'The Garden of the Gulf' - the rolling hills and green fields that still cover much of it confirm that agriculture still plays an important role in the local economy, while lending a relaxed, bucolic air to just about every corner and the pace of life is very laid-back. You have the impression that nothing is rushed. There's always tomorrow... Anyway, the island (like many other parts of the Canadian East) is named after a member of the British royal family: in this case the namesake was Prince Edward Augustus, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, the fourth son of King George III and the father of Queen Victoria. His title was actually the third name given to the island, as it was known by other monikers when still in the possession of the native Miq'maq people, and then called Île Saint-Jean by French settlers, until the redcoats came along claimed the island for King and Country (as was common practice back in those days!). Prince Edward Island in fact then proceeded to play a pivotal role in the foundation of the Canadian state - its capital city, Charlottetown, hosted the 1864 conference that led to the Articles of Confederation - despite not actually joining the new nation right at ...

Fredericton (Canada) 31/10/2008

A quite quiet capital city

Fredericton (Canada) While driving across from Nova Scotia to Quebec, we paid a brief visit to the capital of the state of New Brunswick. I have to admit that I'd never heard of Fredericton before but the official website and the guidebooks we got for this area of Canada assured us that there would be enough in the town and surrounding areas to keep us amused for a day or two. In any case, it seemed ideally-placed as a stop-off point between Halifax and Quebec City on the Trans-Canada Highway, although to get there you really do need to have a car (there is no longer a train connection to Fredericton, despite it being the state capital!). You can get the bus as Fredericton is an important stop on many routes run by Acadian, but this is not a cheap way of getting around Canada. Your only other option is to fly, as Air Canada offers services from all major Canadian cities direct to Fredericton airport. The town itself does boast an attractive and calm centre along the southern bank of the St. John River, and Fredericton is also well-placed on an extensive system of tracks and trails that you can explore on foot, or on rented bicycles. However, in common with modern development in many towns across North America, the outskirts and suburbs of Fredericton appear to have merged into a flat urban sprawl - residential areas, strip malls and commercial zones dominate the scenery from the highway into the centre of town. It would be unfair to judge the town purely on the basis of this first impression ...

Best Western Ritz, Arhus 25/09/2008


Best Western Ritz, Arhus Returning to Aarhus, there was no chance I was ever going to check back into the Hotel Mercur (see my review from April 2008 to read just why you should steer well clear) so I had to get searching for somewhere else. Denmark's second city seems to suffer from a lack of hotel accommodation and even when booking well in advance, the choice is somewhat restricted, especially if you're travelling on a budget that doesn't allow you to spend more than 130EUR per night. In most countries, that wouldn't be a problem but Denmark is a very expensive place to visit and it can be a bit of a struggle to find rooms under this price limit. The only hotel I could find with rooms available at the price required was the Best Western Ritz - the name sounds great but a colleague of mine had stayed here a couple of years ago and didn't give it a glowing recommendation. The name suggests a mix of old glamour and modern chain marketing, and indeed that seems to be the case. The Ritz is located very centrally, housed in an imposing four-storey building on Banegaardspladsen, just a minute's walk away from the central train station in Aarhus. Although this hotel has long since been part of the Best Western group, the facade and main entrance still hark back to better days and you might half-expect a concierge to be waiting to take your bags as you step out of the taxi and approach the building. The reception area is well-appointed with marble floors and leather sofas, and you are welcomed by ...

Speyer, Germany 11/09/2008

City of emperors

Speyer, Germany Who's heard of Speyer? Anyone know where it is, without checking on Google Maps first? It seems to me that such a well-preserved town, which played a central role in much of German medieval history, is deserving of more recognition. However, Speyer suffers from its proximity to Heidelberg, which is one of the most well-known and most visited destinations for visitors to Germany. I have been as guilty as anyone of overlooking the attractions on offer in Speyer - despite living just 20 miles or so from this beautiful town for the last nine years, it's only recently that I've started to pay it the attention it deserves. The history of Speyer can be traced back 5,000 years to the first settlement appearing on the banks of the Rhine, and Nemetum (as it was then known) became an important border post during the Roman era, before the borders in Germania were given up and the legions retreated south, allowing the conquering tribes to take possession of the fortified town and change the name to Spira. Over time, this town became the centre of religious and secular power in the region - the bishops accumulated riches through levying tolls on trade crossing the Rhine and the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV placed Speyer and its bishopric under the direct protection of the empire. This increasing importance and wealth was reflected in the construction of the cathedral, which was completed in the year 1111 and serves as the place of burial for no less than eight emperors and kings, and ...

Konigstuhl Funicular (Bergbahn), Heidelberg 07/08/2008

Moving on up

Konigstuhl Funicular (Bergbahn), Heidelberg As the hordes of tourist coaches blocking the roads every summer prove, Heidelberg is one of the most popular destinations in Germany for visitors from all over the globe and anyone who lives there would probably agree that the Hauptstrasse is only rivalled by the Tower of Babel for the variety of languages that you hear when strolling along towards the old town and the castle. Perhaps it is unfair to say that the Bergbahn (funicular railway) is not a well-known attraction in Heidelberg, but the many passengers who do use it to take the easy way up to the castle and beyond are probably unaware of the unique nature of the service that they are using. The Bergbahn is the longest funicular railway in Germany, with a track length of 1.5km, and odd though it sounds, this is simultaneously the most modern and the oldest funicular railway in the country… which is true but only if you regard it as one line, as it is in fact split into two distinct sections. The lower railway runs from the Kornmarkt, in the heart of the old town, up to the famous Heidelberger Schloss and thence to the Molkenkur station further on up the slopes behind the castle. This stretch of track opened in 1890 and was completely overhauled between 2003-2004 and entirely new rolling stock was introduced to meet stringent new safety standards. Although the Heidelberg funicular had run for decades without any mishaps, various accidents on similar railways in the Alps led to the tightening of safety ...

Abba Burgos Hotel, Burgos 23/07/2008

Affordable luxury

Abba Burgos Hotel, Burgos When we visited northern Spain a couple of years ago, Burgos was right at the top of the list of places to visit. This beautifully preserved medieval town is a fascinating destination, and not just for the many pilgrims who visit the imposing cathedral on their way to Santiago de Compostela along the Way of St. James (wandering around the old town, you will notice many of the scallop symbols set into the pavement or into the walls of houses to guide the faithful along the right path). Our stay at the Abba Burgos hotel was without doubt a highlight of the three days we spent in Burgos - it's not often that I would say that about a hotel but this one really was excellent. I had booked on the internet without knowing anything much about the hotel - in fact, Abba Hoteles run a number of establishments across Spain and have also opened one in London now as well. The Abba Burgos is a four-star hotel, housed in beautifully restored building that formerly housed the Seminario Mayor, and is just a few hundred metres from the cathedral. We arrived in Burgos on the train from Santander, just as night was falling. I had been wondering how to find the hotel - the tourist information was surely going to have closed for the evening and all I had was a print-out of the map from the website… but as the train pulled into Burgos station, you could clearly see the words 'ABBA BURGOS' picked out in blue lettering atop the white building on the high ground in the centre of town. It's about ...

Juno Beach Centre, France 22/07/2008

Remembrance and Renewal at Juno Beach

Juno Beach Centre, France Thanks to the vital role that the landings played in determining the outcome of World War II, the D-Day beaches on the Normandy coast have long been a magnet for tourists from Europe and beyond. I remember visiting one of the museums with my parents sometime in the 1980s, I think it must have been the Utah Beach Museum that commemorates the deeds of the US forces in 1944. Indeed, many of the museums and monuments are dedicated to American and British troops, but it was only in 2003 that a museum dedicated specifically to the Canadian soldiers was inaugurated. The Juno Beach Centre is housed in a strikingly modern building, a curved silver structure that rises above the dunes behind the beach on western side of Courseulles-sur-Mer. This otherwise unspectacular coastal town is about 20km to the west of Caen-Ouistreham, one of the Allied forces' prime targets in the D-Day landings - and still a busy commercial port today. Bayeux is about the same distance away in the opposite direction, so this section of the coast is ideally placed as a stop-off point if you're travelling to or from the ferry at Caen or the Bayeux Tapestry. There are plenty of parking spaces within a couple of minutes' walk of the museum, all clearly signposted from the centre of town - there is no parking directly outside the museum itself, presumably to preserve the view out onto the dunes and the beach. There is also a very striking sculpture outside the main entrance, entitled 'Remembrance and ...

Museum of the Bayeux Tapestry (Musee de la Tapisserie de Bayeux), Bayeux, Basse- 15/07/2008

The fabric of history

Museum of the Bayeux Tapestry (Musee de la Tapisserie de Bayeux), Bayeux, Basse- According to my parents, I had seen the Bayeux tapestry on a family holiday to France many years ago, but I was too young for it to have made any impression on me. So, when on a trip to Normandy and Brittany earlier this summer, I had to take the opportunity to visit Bayeux to have a look at this piece of artwork that plays such an important role in the basic history taught at British schools. Well, I assume it still does - you read so much in papers these days about the 'dumbing down' of the educational system that I do wonder how many of today's students have more than a vague idea of the events and the story behind the tapestry… but I digress - that's a topic for discussion elsewhere. So, back to the tapestry - if you're travelling to the picturesque town of Bayeux by car, the museum is signposted from all approaches ('Tapisserie') and you are guided to one of the public car parks that are placed around the town centre. From there, just follow the pedestrian signs and you will find the museum easily enough, and this is also the case if you arrive on the train (Bayeux station is on the Paris St Lazare - Cherbourg line). If you've got time after viewing the tapestry, I also recommend that you take the time to explore a bit of Bayeux on foot, as it has a well-preserved old town and the cathedral is also worth a visit. The entrance to the museum itself is housed in an imposing stone edifice that was previously the Bayeux Seminary, which itself was constructed upon the ...

Stadion Wals-Siezenheim, Salzburg (Austria) 23/06/2008

Nowt special

Stadion Wals-Siezenheim, Salzburg (Austria) The Wals-Siezenheim stadium in Salzburg, to give it its full name, hosted three games at the Euro 2008 tournament this summer and I was lucky enough to get hold of a ticket for the final one, Greece vs. Spain in Group D. Unfortunately, this game was a dead rubber - the defending European champions Greece were already out (having lost their first two games), while Spain had topped the group with two wins and were guaranteed a quarter-final berth. This did little to affect the atmosphere in the stadium though, as both sets of fans got into the spirit of things and kept up noisy and good-natured support throughout the 90 minutes. The stadium had been extended specially for the tournament, and the addition of a second tier of seats on all four sides increased its capacity from 18,000 to just over 30,000 for these three games to ensure that UEFA's minimum requirements were met. Austrian league matches for Red Bull Salzburg, the local team, rarely attracted a full house in the lower-capacity stadium but the team's owners nonetheless would like to keep the expanded stadium as it is. However, legal proceedings are currently ongoing as local residents originally only accepted the stadium expansion on the understanding that it would return to the original size after the tournament. From the outside, the stadium looks fairly nondescript - in common with many new stadia, the floodlights are now integrated into the roofing of the stands, which means that there are no floodlight ...
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