Monday, 18 July 2011

Budget flights: the secret joys of airport towns

Picture the scene: your feet, already in holiday sandals, are nearly frozen by the plane's air-conditioning and your skin is scented with factor 35. You have a busy trip ahead of you, all the major landmarks, every cafe recommended by Lonely Planet, and some well-deserved R&R on the beach. When the plane hits the tarmac, and you step out onto the runway into the blissfully warm air, your heart leaps because you've finally arrived!

Or have you? A quick scan of the airport reveals a shuttle bus that takes you to the city centre, but what's this? A 90-minute journey? There's nothing quite like a lengthy roadtrip in an overcrowded coach to ruin the exciting momentum of a holiday, or chip away precious hours from a mini-break. You blame yourself for trusting that budget airline with its nonchalant parentheses: Paris (Beauvais), Barcelona (Girona)... or rather, Your Destination (Somewhere Hundreds of Miles Away).

One of Ryanair's most irritating features (for the uninitiated) is that it takes you to a smaller airport often quite far from your intended destination. It's not Paris, but nearly-Paris. (Like ordering a steak in a restaurant and having the waiter point out a field of cows, advising that "it's nearly-steak".) After more than an hour on a sweaty coach, having coughed up another ten euro for the privilege, and you might start wondering how great a saving you actually made with those low, low flight prices.

There's one simple solution to "Ryanair Regret", and that is, don't get on that coach. Bid goodbye to the rest of the rabble from your flight, as they crowd towards the shuttle bus to Milan, the crown jewel of Italian chic. You, my friend, are not rushing onwards to the overpriced, fashion-forward cultural mecca, but remaining in the smaller medieval town of Bergamo, where Ryanair so gracelessly left you. Bergamo, nestled in the foothills of the Alps, with a beautiful old town and a ruined castle, is a gem of the Lombardy region. Overlooking it for its more snobbish neighbour would be a great shame.

One of my happiest discoveries was through a Ryanair flight to "Hamburg (Lubeck)". I had booked this with the intention of seeing Hamburg's beautiful main square, Christmas markets (and, by sobering contrast, the terribly sad rose garden memorial for children who died in medical experiments during World War II). I made it to Hamburg, but only after a lengthy detour in stunning Lubeck, famous for its city walls, waterside views, marzipan and mulled wine. Years later, Lubeck has opened up as an international tourist destination, presumably with tonnes of marzipan hearts being created for the influx of visitors.

Love it or hate it, Ryanair has done some interesting things for travel. It has prompted hundreds of budget-conscious holidaymakers to pore over the Ryanair destinations map and say, "Fancy Szczecin, dear?" or "How about having the stag-do in Bydgoszcz?" Michael O'Leary may not be an ambassador for tourism off the beaten track, but his out-of-the-way airports have certainly broadend my horizons.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Gone fission: the giant catfish of Chernobyl

I was half-expecting to see the three-eyed fish from The Simpsons when we approached the River Prypiat flowing through Chernobyl, Ukraine. You could hardly be blamed for imagining that wildlife in the shadow of the sarcophagus, the huge concrete structure enclosing the nuclear waste of the 1986 disaster, might have suffered some graphic mutations. But the only unusual thing about the catfish was their enormous size. Watching them thrash around in the water, in the spring sunshine, felt like being on a day trip to the zoo rather than the world’s most famous fall-out zone.

Abandoned bumper car in the Chernobyl fallout zone.
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Many column inches have been spent debating “disaster tourism”, the practice of visiting the sites of terrible past events, like Chernobyl. There is an uncomfortable line between sincere respects paid to a dark moment in history, and clumsily clicking a camera at infamous sights like the Auschwitz museum’s room full of hair. The pull to confront the sites of man’s greatest inhumanity is usually coupled with the dilemma of visitor etiquette. Does it cheapen the victims’ memory to photograph the Nazi gas chambers? Is treading the bone-studded soil of Choeung Ek a step too far? Sometimes the atrocities are so geographically removed from your own experience that you wonder uneasily whether commemorating these events falls under the important banner of “Never forget”, or is sheer indulgence in a sorrow not your own.

Gigantic thrashing Chernobyl catfish.
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
The Chernobyl fall-out zone, the area evacuated and largely left fallow after the nuclear accident, has largely been preserved from rubber-necking. Fenced off from the public since the area was evacuated, the town of Prypiat and the surrounding countryside have been left to grow wild. The Ukrainian government announced late last year that they were opening up the area to tourism, but guides have been taking curious travellers on fiercely controlled tours through the fall-out zone for years, usually arranged through hostels like this one in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
The strange beauty of overgrown buildings in the fallout zone.
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
The surprise to me was that Prypiat wasn't a dead town, but a living museum surrounded by greenery, flowers and fish. While the countryside has remained undisturbed since the accident, claims that this area’s freedom from human influence has created a wildlife sanctuary have been strongly contested. We may not get a full picture of the effect on local wildlife for many years to come, but it's certain that tour guides will praise it as a nature reserve, while encouraging you to feed the fish.
Peopled by grafitti, if not by real people.
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Which brings us to why the catfish are so big. Much as we'd like to imagine they've gained superpowers from the reactor, the prosaic explanation is overfeeding by visitors, and by the workers who commute into the highly guarded zone to work on fully decommissioning the plant. Workers on their lunchbreaks throwing crumbs to catfish on a sunlit riverbank is hardly the image we get from the word "Chernobyl" but perhaps it's time to strip away the gothic menace and see both light and dark, tragic and flourishing, concrete and catfish.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Gnome and Away: the fairy folk of Iceland

“Nearly all Icelanders believe in the hidden folk,” teased our tour guide, driving us smoothly around the Golden Circle’s geysirs and waterfalls. Wandering through Iceland’s martian landscape (the land of fire and ice, symbolised by the country’s flag), I almost want to believe in them myself. But despite surveys confirming the belief prevails, I’m straining to imagine that it’s widespread among glacially intellectual Icelanders. It’s like discovering that a sardonic friend believes sincerely in the power of crystals: you wonder if the joke is on you, some higher irony you haven’t grasped.

Since Iceland’s economic meltdown, more travellers have been tempted to test whether the stratospheric prices still exist, but bad press from volcanic ash clouds and failing banks have deterred many. The draw of Iceland’s natural wonders will bring the tourists back, and the rich folklore itself – Icelandic School of Elves, anyone? – will ensure a steady stream of curious visitors. The isolation is enticing too, as the sparse population and empty acres of land give an otherworldly feeling to the countryside. And being at the cutting-edge of technology and communications hasn’t eroded Iceland’s connection to the old Icelandic sagas, still read by schoolchildren today. The ancient and the modern, the internet and the elves, all cohabit happily on the island.

Certainly, if there’s any place you can imagine dotted with elves, it’s surely Iceland, with its waterfalls, stunning rocky outcrops and spitting hot pools. But I have to wonder where the fairy folk are hiding, in a landscape devoid of forest shelter. (Riffing on Iceland’s alcoholic nightlife and the bare horizons, our guide jokes: How do you get out of an Icelandic forest? Put down the vodka and stand up.) It seems hidden folk are only revealed to the knowledgeable eye: the lichen spatters on the rocks are the dashed brains of a fallen elven hero, we are told. The coast shelters shoals of mermen. And the rocks themselves must not be moved, for fear of offending a hidden stranger underneath.

“Iceland receives packages every year from tourists returning the rocks they took as souvenirs,” the guide warns. “Nothing but bad luck comes from disturbing the rocks of the hidden folk.” And this delightful disincentive seems to work: the members of our group eyeing the parched volcanic rock fragments pocket nothing. Perhaps generations of Icelandic children have been similarly deterred, and what could be a more colourful way to encourage preservation of the natural environment? For Iceland’s untouched geological wonders, perhaps we should thank the vengeful gnomes.