Saturday 24 December 2011

Advent 2011: Door 24

Door 24 - Christmas Eve!  I'm writing this in the kitchen of the small 'ouse, on a break from making Danish pastries (for breakfast tomorrow) and dulce de leche caramel squares.  Meanwhile, Lady Traveller's Little Sister is making the Buche de Noel.  There's chocolate everywhere, it smells like heaven and we're listening to an eclectic playlist that includes Wachet Auf, The Nutcracker and Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride.

I have no hint, just the hope that your Christmas - whether at home or abroad - is happy and warm (in spirit if not in weather) as mine.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Friday 23 December 2011

Advent 2011: Door 23

Christmas came a little bit early: through the letterbox today I got a 1944 Travel Club edition of Cruises and Caravans by the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart.

Just a glance of the index gives a taste of her adventures: Causcasus, Ceylon, Charlottenburg, Constantinople, Corsica, Crete, Crimea ...  In between time she competed in the Olympics, skied and wrote.  

I'm looking forward to holing up over Christmas and getting better acquainted with Ms Maillart, but a quick flick to the end offers the following - not a hint, but I suppose what we all hope might be the result of our travels:
To-day I feel at home anywhere, and though I live by myself, I can nevermore suffer from loneliness.    
(Ella Maillart, Cruises and Caravans, p154.)

Thursday 22 December 2011

Advent 2011: Door 22

According to Lonely Planet, one of the hot travel trends for 2012 is 'collaborative travel' - or, as they put it, the kindness of strangers.  I have commented on this before, but my travels have been greatly enriched by the kindness shown to me by strangers all over the world, many of whom became friends in the process.

Today's hint is to point you to two examples of collaborative travel:
The City of a Thousand Welcomes project matches visitors to Dublin with locals happy to have a cup of tea or a pint with them and introduce them to the city.
Vayable gives locals an opportunity to market an experience (a Vespa tour of Paris by night, for example) to travellers, offering a unique insider's perspective.

Apart from these examples of organised collaboration, when travelling it is always worth asking friends and family if they know anyone at your destination.  The letter of introduction (even if it's an email instead of paper and ink) is a great institution - like the visiting card, I think it should be brought back into fashion.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Advent 2011: Door 21

I had these pictures in my head today for some reason and I thought I'd post them, apropos of not very much.  Is there a hint to go with them?  Perhaps the hint is to remember to stop on your travels to smell the roses - or the hollyhocks, as the case may be.

These flowers were blooming outside the little church of St Antoine in the village of Fixin, in Burgundy.


Tuesday 20 December 2011

Advent 2011: Door 20

The new edition of British Vogue (January 2012) is themed on escapism and has a delightful article about how (and where) Vogue travelled, back in the day.

(I have been dreaming about this outfit all week.)

The piece is full of hints from the archives like, "You may indulge in pyjamas and evening dress in your off moments, but on occasions of stern necessity you will thank heaven for shorts and shirt."

But I think the real lesson is that we could all travel a bit more elegantly - even if today's long haul travel is the shorts and shirt alternative to the more glamorous pyjamas of the past.  (Did I kill that metaphor completely dead, d'you think?)  This lady (Mrs Norman Parkinson in a photo by Norman Parkinson entitled The Art of Travel) is my new role model.

(The Art of Travel by Norman Parkinson, via

Monday 19 December 2011

Advent 2011: Door 19

Yoopee! - as The Adorable Nephew would say.  I've finally caught up on myself and have the right door for the right Advent day.

Today's hint comes courtesy of Martha Gellhorn, who not only survived numerous conflicts as a female war correspondent, but also survived marriage to Hemingway.  As well as these, she is a worthy member of the Pantheon of Lady Travellers.  Her hint relates to travellers' tales - and it is very good advice indeed...
Upon our return, no one willingly listens to our travellers' tales.  'How was the trip?' they say.  'Marvellous,' we say.  'In Tbilisi, I saw...'  Eyes glaze.  [...] 
The only aspect of our travels that is guaranteed to hold an audience is disaster.  'The camel threw you at the Great Pyramid and you broke your leg?'  'Chased the pickpocket through the Galeria and across Naples and lost all your travellers' cheques and your passport?'  'Locked and forgotten in a sauna in Viipuri?'  'Ptomaine from eating sheep's eyes at a Druze feast?'  That's what they like.  They can hardly wait for us to finish before they launch into stories of their suffering in foreign lands.  The fact is, we cherish our disasters and here we are one up on the great travellers who have every impressive qualification for the job but lack jokes.   
Martha Gellhorn, Travels with Myself and Another.
 (image of Martha Gellhorn - and yes, Mr Martha Gellhorn - 
from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library via Wikimedia Commons)

Advent 2011: Door 18

Another gem from Ms Davidson:
The choice of apartments, like that of a partner for life, should not be lightly taken in hand and entered into. 
I think there are some travellers to whom accommodation matters little (all they require is a roof over their heads and the most basic of facilities) but I can't say I'm one of them.  It's not that I need luxury - but feeling happy in my home, however temporary, is key to my feeling happy in my explorations.  The basics: a bed, a bath, something for making coffee, a window to look out of while drinking my coffee.  It's worth putting the time and effort in to finding a decent place to stay and making it yours (hello Ikea, charity shops) even if it's just for a few weeks.  A blanket/shawl/scarf makes a good throw; books always brighten up a room; a cheerful coffee cup; a few flowers in a jar ... none of them cost much and all of them will make you feel more at home in your new surroundings.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Advent 2011: Door 17

Yesterday's hint: when funds are low and a Lady Traveller can't afford a plane fare, may I recommend the mini break chez les parents?

Since returning to live in Dublin (after not really living here since I was 19), I now have the luxury of being a 20 minute walk from my parents' home.  A couple of weekends ago, I went to visit my parents on a Friday evening and ended up staying until Sunday night.

My papa went to New York on Saturday morning, but my mama and I spent time going to the local farmers' market, moving furniture (this was actually quite fun), reading the weekend papers, listening to the Met opera broadcast, drinking wine.  On Sunday afternoon we went to watch West Side Story on the big screen (excellent), preceded by a little gentle Christmas shopping.

When we weren't doing these things we were eating - delicious fish on Friday evening, croissants on Saturday morning, roast chicken on Saturday evening, scrambled egg on Sunday morning.

The revelation to me was that I appreciate a weekend at home as much as I did when actually getting home involved at least one flight, and, more recently, two or three or four.

Advent 2011: Door 16

An overdue (sorry) hint for December 16th courtesy of Lady Traveller's mama:

Here's a hint/observation which  neatly illustrates an obscure (note the double entendre!) rule of French grammar for those not familiar with the signs affixed to level crossings throughout France

'Un oeuf

 peut en cacher un autre'

Thursday 15 December 2011

Advent 2011: Door 15

Yesterday's hint was SING.  Today's hint is - write.  Am I a Lady Traveller because I write, or do I write because I'm a Lady Traveller?

I have had days and seasons when I really wanted to pack in this blog.  The effort - particularly when juggling multiple work projects or when (and the irony doesn't escape it) the actual travel left me too tired to face my computer - sometimes seemed to outweigh the reward.

But every time I planned to end it, I would find myself re-reading older entries.  Hours would pass as I relived my adventures.  I may never again find myself having spray-painting lessons from a 'professional' tagger / street artist, or jumping off a cliff into a Zimbabwean river, or taking the Shimabara Choo-choo, or seeing wild brumbies at dawn - but I can always read about it.

Worried you have nothing to say?  The hardest part is the blank page.  Start writing, even if it's drivel and the ideas usually follow.

And take inspiration from your fellow travel writers.  I've mentioned before (but it's worth mentioning again) a book that provided endless hours of comfort and inspiration on my travels.  So much so that I cried when I realised I'd left my first copy on a plane in Japan.  The book (I'm currently still on copy #2) is Unsuitable for Ladies, an anthology of travel writing by women, edited by Jane Robinson.

Unsuitable for Ladies introduced me to Lillias Campbell Davidson, whom I like to think of as a kind of guardian - or concierge - of this blog.  The words on the banner at the top of this page come from (where else) her Hints to Lady Travellers.  The full passage is:
Emancipated womanhood is a term too often of ridicule and reproach, and – alas! That it should be said – is not always undeservedly so.  Women may abuse the privileges too long withheld from them, in the first bewilderment of feeling a new power in their hands.  But none, perhaps is less open to abuse, and surely none is more excellent in itself and its results, than the power which has become the right of every woman who has the means to achieve it – of becoming her own unescorted and independent person, a lady traveller. 
To many the power thus obtained fails to bring with it the pleasure it would otherwise bestow; since lack of experience or ignorance of the comforts and conveniences to indispensable to the real enjoyment of travelling form an actual drawback to their thorough appreciation of its joys and benefits.  To such persons the experience of others may be a great help, and save them from many disagreeable bars to the full pleasure of their journeyings at home and abroad. 
And so I continue to write - so that my experience may be a great help to others, yes, but also because my experiences are a great source of comfort and inspiration to myself.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Advent 2011: Door 14

The hint for today, December 14th is ... sing.  Singing along has got me through some challenging moments on my travels.

Singing Let It Snow got me to the top of Mount Kosciuszko.
My Baby Just Cares For Me helped my nerves the first time I had to drive a car up the ramp onto a ferry (don't laugh - one lady traveller's challenges are not another's.)
Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa got me round the scary hairpin bends on the road to Queenstown, NZ.
I Whistle a Happy Tune was a regular anthem for me as I walked the streets of Cape Town (and an homage to Anna Leonowens, an excellent Lady Traveller role model).

Distant Sun and The Long and Winding Road (reminding me that the miles will eventually pass) have got me through some long nights in the air.

In short, I have a song for every occasion and it really does help.  I don't know if it's because it regulates your breathing or calms your mind but next time you have to touchdown in Harare Airport with the tumbleweeds blowing by [insert similar situation of panic], you should try a verse or two of The Lonely Goatherd.   (I find it's not necessarily the coolest of songs that spring to mind when I'm nervous.)

Works like a charm.  Sing!

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Advent 2011: Door 13

Today's hint: Prosecco at lunchtime makes you too sleepy to blog in the evening.

I know, I know - poor excuse.  Alternatively, here is the very first hint I posted: wear warm clothes in French supermarkets. 

Seriously, they keep those hypermarchés super chilled - to protect the fromage, perhaps.

Monday 12 December 2011

Advent 2011: Doors 10, 11 & 12

Oopsie.  This is the second weekend in a row I've forgotten that Advent includes Saturdays and Sundays!  I'll try to remember next weekend.

By way of apology, here are three festive stories and a hint.

#1 Thanksgiving
... I preside over a whirlwind group effort to make a Thanksgiving stuffing, as best as I can remember the recipe, made from the crumbs of some high-end Italian bread, with necessary cultural substitutions (dates instead of apricots; fennel instead of celery.)  Somehow it comes out great.  Luca had been worried about how the conversation would proceed tonight, given that half the guests can't speak English and the other half can't speak Italian (and only Sofie can speak Swedish), but it seems to be one of those miracle evenings where everyone can understand each other perfectly, or at least your neighbour can help translate when the odd word gets lost. (Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love)

#2 Christmas
It was the last week in December, and Dr. Macdonough together with Lieutenant Douglas, the only other white resident at Isiolo, pooled with us on Christmas Day, and on our community table there appeared an amazing assortment of tinned delicacies, some that had been sent only recently from England to this forsaken outpost and treasured for association as well as contents.  In addition to game we had fine, juicy steer steaks, we introduced our British friends to hominy grits - and the royal feast wound up with English plum pudding ablaze with brandy. (Osa Johnson, I Married Adventure)

#3 St Stephen's Day
The day after Christmas (which, true to my Irish roots, I refuse to call Boxing Day – it’s St Stephen’s Day, that is all) Robbie and I set off on our road trip to the Eastern Highlands. We were headed for Nyanga, just over three hours from Harare, going east towards Mozambique. We were equipped with banana bread, mince pies, Christmas cake, wine, beer, baked beans, coffee, eggs, lots of water and a few other bits and pieces ... The landscape was very Swallows and Amazons, in a surreally African way. We were in a cottage called Mpunguzungu (say that 10 times fast), overlooking a beautiful waterfall.
The first night we were in Nyanga, we went for dinner with some friends of Robbie’s, the Calders. To get there we drove along a very bumpy track, me balancing a plate of melba toast and paté on my knee. I managed to hang on to all but one tiny piece of toast and subsequently decided it should be a new Olympic Sport – one in which I would excel. The Calders were lovely (incidentally, my only New Year’s Resolution is to find a good alternative to ‘lovely’ – please help) and we had a great time. We went to bed by candlelight because Mpunguzungu has no electricity. (We had a dishwasher though - his name was George. This is what I call the Zimbabwean paradox.)  The next morning, we had breakfast outside: coffee made in AJ’s thermos, toast with honeycomb, fried eggs. We were joined by some cows with bells – this made it a strangely Alpine interlude. (Hints to Lady Travellers, December 2009)
Oh, you'd like a hint?  After careful consideration, I can offer this: the likelihood of travel disrupting your favourite festive traditions is great.  The ingredients, the facilities, the climate will conspire to change things.  But this isn't a bad thing.  However much you're convinced that it is the details that make the holiday, if you're lucky you'll discover that the spirit of the holiday is bigger than any one detail.  

Friday 9 December 2011

Advent 2011: Door 9

Hints to Lady Travellers is busy preparing for the five mile run she has rashly undertaken to go on tomorrow.  But that doesn't mean the day will pass without a hint, oh no.  I wanted to take the opportunity to flashback to the cautionary tale of woe first posted here by Lady Traveller's Little Sister: the sad story of the (imaginary) bedbugs.  In a nutshell, the hint is: do bring plastic bags with you if your travels include budget accommodation; don't bring bedbugs home with you - it can be expensive.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Advent 2011: Door 8

Today's hint comes from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, writer, traveller and all-round broad-minded person.  In the early 18th century she accompanied her husband, ambassador for the Court of St James to the Ottoman Empire, to Constantinople.  Her stories - of hammams, smallpox parties and cultural differences - are fascinating and funny.  

Her hint - well, less of a hint and more of an observation - is this:
"We travellers are in very hard circumstances. If we say nothing but what has been said before us, we are dull and have observed nothing. If we tell anything new, we are laughed at as fabulous and romantic."
But I think she and I would agree: better to be thought a fabulous and romantic Lady Traveller than a dull and unobservant one.

(Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by Charles Jervas; painting at the National Gallery of Ireland)

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Advent 2011: Door 7

Welcome to Door 7!

Magazines are always running features on what to carry on board to make your long-haul flight more bearable.  (They tend to interview supermodels and so the answers run to cashmere scarves, rose water,  own spoon for the 1st class caviar - that kind of thing.)

A while back I posted about my top tip for long flights - a thick pair of socks.  But I'd like to add to the list.

First of all, the best carry-on bags have wheels.  I own a lovely soft weekend bag but fill it up with all of the things I need for 24 hours and it gets uncomfortably heavy to lug around airports.  Also, bags with wheels tend to be sturdier and can go in the hold if necessary.

In my carry-on I pack all my gadgets (camera, laptop, phone), a change of clothes and these essentials:
  1. Thick socks
  2. A scarf or blanket of some kind (cashmere is nice, but not necessary.  Bear in mind that you may well want to wash it after it's been wrapped around you for the duration of the flight.)
  3. Eye mask and ear plugs (no longer standard issue in economy; make all the difference when trying to sleep on a noisy plane)
  4. A kindle / e-reader 
  5. A trashy magazine to read when your e-reader has to be switched off at take-off and landing - bonus is you can leave this on the plane
  6. A water bottle (bring it through security empty, then fill it up from a water fountain - most airports have these.  Alternatively - but less eco-friendly - just buy a bottle once through security.  You will be grateful for your own water when you wake from a fitful sleep with your tongue glued to the roof of your mouth and find egress is barred by the enormous - sleeping - man sitting in the aisle seat.)
  7. Some paw paw ointment (works as moisturiser, lip balm and first aid for all owies.)
  8. Make-up or baby wipes

Obviously you will include any other must-haves like glasses, contact lens cases, medicines - but toiletries can be kept to a minimum since airlines do stock the basics like toothbrushes.

I realise this list is sadly unglamorous.  But, then, the sad truth is that flying is DEEPLY unglamorous for most of us.  All you can do is lie back, watch trashy movies and dream of your destination.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Advent 2011: Door 6

Because today is the feast of St Nicholas, today's hint features sage advice, not just for Lady Travellers, but for all the boys and girls.

You'd better watch out, you'd better not cry, you'd better not pout, I'm telling you why - Santa Claus is coming to town.

If you've been a VERY good (lady) traveller this year, Santa might bring you a vintage Hermes steamer trunk and a handsome porter to carry it around.

(image via

Monday 5 December 2011

Advent 2011: Door 5

Behind Door 5 is not just a hint, but a handy service: a universal postcard template.  Let's face it, nobody really wants to read a blow-by-blow account of everything you've been doing on your travels.  The point of postcards is usually either to rub it in or to sweeten your welcome when you return.  And yes, occasionally because you want someone to know you were thinking of them.

With this in mind, I have devised two templates, each conforming to the short and sweet(ish) model.  All you have to do is to fill in your own text in the square brackets.  Fun!

Template 1: Wish you were here!
[Place A] reminds me of you.  Do you remember when we watched the [sunset/sunrise/rain] in [Place A/entirely unconnected Place B]?  Partir, c'est mourir un peu.*

Template 2:  Ha ha!  I'm here and you're not!
Eating delicious [place-appropriate food] [in the sunshine/by the fire].  {HTLT note: Who cares if the fire is imaginary?  Your correspondent will never know.}  The [wine/gluhwein/local grog] is flowing.  [Santé/Prosit/Skål/toast in language of host country]!**

*You can't go wrong with a pretentious quote in French.  
** People are always signing off postcards this way.  Don't argue with tradition.

Need some more inspiration?  You might find it in this song, which is almost enough for me to renounce my cynical attitude to postcards.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Advent 2011: Door 4

Sea bathing
After a course of sea-bathing it is a good plan to have the hair well washed with the yolk of an egg, which should afterwards be thoroughly well rinsed out in clear tepid water.  Avoid hot water, which will cook the egg, with most unpleasing results.  (p185, Hints to Lady Travellers, Lillias Campbell Davidson.)

Advent 2011: Door 3

Courtesy of Ms Davidson, some to-the-point advice from Hints to Lady Travellers.

xl. Ladies Maids
A great nuisance, as a rule, in travelling (p134)

Friday 2 December 2011

The Cote d'Azur Express

The TGV slows down on the Riviera so that the train journey from Nice to Aix is actually relatively slow.  But this means you have all the more opportunity to admire the view.

As advertised, I was in 1st class, the main benefit of which is the wider seats and quieter carriages.  I had a lovely time.

The train leaves Nice,

passing the Hippodrome de la Cote d'Azure,

many beach clubs and palm trees,

not to mention yachts.

It calls at Antibes, Cannes,

and St Raphael.  The coast gets rockier (fewer yachts),

then the train curves inland for a while, leaving the sea for the colour-saturated hills and fields of Provence and a stop in Les Arcs Draguignan.

Back to the sea for sunset near Toulon and on round the coast to Marseille.

It's dark for the last quick push to Aix, but when you get out the air smells of smoke and winter and your sister and two small boys come to meet you and a warm home awaits with hugs and wine and food.

That's the train from Nice to Aix.