Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Five signs you don't know when to quit the piste

I'm writing from Obergurgl, a village so lovely I feel like I'm inside a snowglobe. Tiny Obergurgl only has a few hundred inhabitants but as the highest parish in Austria (topping in at 1930m) winter sports fans flock here. The high altitude brings dramatic weather, with snow storms that can bring total whiteout or blow a snowboard straight off the cable car.

With the phenomenal snow quality here, it can be hard to admit to yourself when it's time to stow the skis and sit out the storm. Don't be the only idiot on the piste when Mother Nature is trying to blast you off a cliff face. Here are five signs your snow addiction is getting the better of you.

1. The ski boot rack is full


Shh, they're sleeping. Full boot rack means you're either an early riser or do-or-die snowhead.
Image © Anita Isalska

The lifts opened half an hour ago and yours is the only pair of boots missing from the rack. There's your first clue you're the only nutbag to head out in heavy wind and thick snow. But hey, the ski lifts are running, how bad can it be?

2. The ski lifts are empty


An empty ski lift. Functioning only because the lift operator is snowed in to his cabin (maybe).
Image © Anita Isalska

The mysterious lack of skis dangling from chair lifts means down in the village, all the sensible folk are watching whipped cream slowly dissolve into their mugs of hot chocolate. More fool them: you have an empty piste to enjoy, and the screaming wind adds a certain intensity when you're skiing those moguls.

3. That usually bustling mountain-top cafe is empty


Who needs friends when you have a piste map? Image © Anita Isalska

The cafe owner nearly spits out his schnapps when you stagger through the door, clad in a thick frosting of snow. No fighting for a table today, though you might have to persuade someone to get the chip fryer going.

4. You can't tell where sky ends and snow begins


Stopping for a selfie in a whiteout: great way to lose your camera.
Image © Anita Isalska

In a whiteout, difficulty seeing contours in the snow is the least of your problems. Cloud and snow meet, those craggy mountain vistas are blanked from view, and piste markers even 10 feet away are hard to spot. It really might be time to seek out that hot chocolate.

5. You're eating a lot of snow


I'm totally fine yeah, I actually meant to fall like this. Image © Anita Isalska
No visibility, swirling snowstorm and now a face full of powder. It might be early, but it's time to call it quits and take your tales of survival to the apres-ski hut. Hey, there's always tomorrow.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Top things to do in Barnes, southwest London

Why not be a tourist in your own neighbourhood? I decided to look at my local area with fresh eyes and came up with this ultimate guide to the best sights and attractions in Barnes.

WHY GO?


Each year this peaceful Thameside neighbourhood seizes the world’s attention for the conclusion of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. Barnes’ distinctive iron bridge is one of the final landmarks for rowers in the annual race, and riverside pubs fill with carousers clinking their glasses of Pimm’s. But even if you’re not wielding oars, there are plenty of reasons to cheer as you arrive in Barnes. This leafy corner of southwest London combines city sophistication with all the cosiness of a country village. There are places to muddy your boots, with the London Wetland Centre to Barnes’ north and Richmond Park in the south. Pubs with huge beer gardens make it one of Greater London’s best neighbourhoods to quench a thirst. And Barnes’ smattering of cultural sights, in between cream teas and jazz evenings, will occupy a very pleasant couple of days.

HISTORY


Though listed in the Domesday Book as far back as 1086, Barnes was little more than a cluster of inns and houses until the 19th century. Railway connections and the building of grand Hammersmith Bridge prompted a boom, and frazzled city folk were soon buying Barnes’ riverside properties as holiday homes. Artists and writers followed, finding Barnes a quiet spot to pen a symphony or verse (Henry Fielding and Gustav Holst both spent time here). Barnes maintains a well-heeled reputation, with London’s actors and politicians snaffling the area’s flower-wreathed cottages. But a thriving university and overspill from lively Clapham have sustained Barnes’ sense of fun.

SIGHTS


London Wetland Centre WILDLIFE PARK / TOP CHOICE / ECO-FRIENDLY
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust has transformed four former Victorian reservoirs into a 100-acre reserve threaded with walking trails, marshlands and secluded gardens. The park’s 140 species of birdlife will have wildlife lovers scrambling for their binoculars. For close encounters, crouch in one of the centre’s hides (the three-storey Peacock Tower has the best views) or simply unfold a picnic and watch grebes float past, to a soundtrack of chattering parakeets. Make time for the otter feedings at 11am and 2pm and quiz the knowledgeable wardens about where best to spot kingfishers. Book ahead for evening bat walks during the summer.
(www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/london; Queen Elizabeth's Walk; adult/child £10.11/5.64;  9.30am-6pm 29 Mar-24 Oct, 9.30am-5pm 26 Oct-28 Mar)

Olympic Studios NOTABLE BUILDING
The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin all recorded albums in this unassuming spot, soon followed by David Bowie, Madonna, Prince and U2. Psychedelic sounds have since been replaced by the chatter of Barnes residents doing their Saturday shopping, and the Olympic Studios now house a cinema and restaurant. There’s nothing rock n’ roll about art-house movies followed by salmon and kale, but they’re great reasons to hang out in this piece of musical history.
(www.olympiccinema.co.uk; 117-123 Church Road; free; bar/restaurant 8am-11pm Sun-Thu, 8am-12am Fri & Sat)

Tomb of Sir Richard Burton CEMETERY
Legendary explorer Sir Richard Burton’s resting place in St Mary Magdalen churchyard is as splendidly uncompromising as his life of travel, scandal and masterful disguises. The mausoleum takes the shape of a large desert tent. Walk around the back and climb the rusty ladder; through a small window, you can peer at the tombs of Burton and his wife Isabel Arundell, surrounded by religious miscellany. The mausoleum is the main attraction, but the dazzling 20th-century stained glass windows of St Mary Magdalen church (dating to 1852) are worth a peek.
(www.stmarymags.org.uk; free; 61 North Worple Way; Mon-Wed, Fri, Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 9am-7.30pm, closed Thu)

ACTIVITIES


Parkcycle bike hire CYCLING
Approach from Barnes and you’re perfectly positioned to explore Richmond Park by bike. At 2,360 acres, this is the largest of London’s royal parks and is most famous for its population of more than 600 red and fallow deer (keep your distance, especially in September and October when they lock horns). From Barnes train station, Parkcycle is a 20-minute walk up Priory Lane until you reach Richmond Park’s Roehampton Gate. Baby seats, helmets and locks also available for hire.
(www.parkcycle.co.uk; park entry free, bike hire from adult/child £7.50/5.50 per hour; Roehampton Gate Car Park, Richmond Park; low season 10am-4pm, mid-season 10am-6pm, high-season 10am-7pm - see website for details, closed 25-26 Dec)

SLEEPING


The Lodge Hotel TOP END / WIFI
Tranquillity isn’t easily found in Greater London, but this sleek hotel manages to balance a zen setting with access to great sights. The pricier suites in this Victorian building boast wood-beamed ceilings and mood lighting, and the basic rooms are elegantly turned out. Make time for the restaurant (and save room for butternut squash brulee).
(020 8874 1598; www.thelodgehotellondon.com; 52-54 Upper Richmond Road; s/d rooms from £92/120)

Premier Inn London Putney Bridge BUDGET / WIFI
This hotel lacks character but is hard to beat on price. It’s perched by the riverside just a short walk from Putney’s bars and restaurants, with easy bus connections to Barnes from Upper Richmond Road. This hotel chain offers a good night’s sleep guarantee, so speak up if you’re disturbed during your stay.
(0871 527 8674; www.premierinn.com; 3 Putney Bridge Approach; rooms from £72)

Barnes Bed and Breakfast BUDGET
A set of micro B&Bs rather than a single location, Barnes Bed and Breakfast offers bright, airy rooms across Barnes, Putney and nearby Hammersmith. Pick and choose from cheap loft stays or grand Edwardian houses; enjoying your hosts’ local knowledge is part of the fun. Ring or email ahead.
(01485 576 087; enquiry@barnesbedandbreakfast.co.uk; www.barnesbedandbreakfast.co.uk; rooms from s/d £57/76)

EATING


Annie’s MODERN BRITISH / TOP CHOICE
Flowers, feathers and Grecian urns adorn this whimsical eatery. Whether you love or loathe the magenta-heavy decor, the food is as fabulous as the hosts are eccentric. Whether you’re stopping for champagne cocktails, hollandaise-drizzled brunch or a wine-fuelled roast dinner, Annie’s cheek and cheer will win you over.
(020 8878 2020; www.anniesrestaurant.co.uk; 36-38 White Hart Lane; mains £10.95-16.95; daily 10am-10pm)

Munal Tandoori NEPALESE / VEGETARIAN
If you want a quiet dinner for two, back away slowly. But if you’re craving something spicy, served to the clatter of dinner plates and bellowing locals giddy on Cobra beer, then Munal Tandoori is the place. Portions of their chilli-flecked masalas are large enough to please an army of Gurkhas, so order side dishes with caution. Takeaway available.
(020 8876 3083; www.munaltandoori.co.uk; 393 Upper Richmond Road; mains £6.10-11.60; Mon-Thu 5pm-11pm, Fri 5pm-12am, Sat 12pm-2.30pm & 5pm-12am, Sun 12pm-2.30pm & 5pm-10.30pm)

Orange Pekoe TEA ROOM
Extend your pinkie finger for hundreds of tea varieties to wash down scones, macarons and dainty sandwiches. Lunches are served from 12pm and afternoon teas from 2pm.
(020 8876 6070; www.orangepekoeteas.com; 3 White Hart Lane; cream teas from £8.95; Mon-Fri 7.30am-5pm, Sat & Sun 9am-5pm)

DRINKING


The Idle Hour TOP CHOICE / WINE BAR / WIFI
Hidden away in Barnes’ ivy-wreathed back alleys, this wine bar will make good on its promise to idle away a few hours of your time. The walls are covered in stopped clocks but it’s the effusive staff and laid-back atmosphere that ensure you’ll linger until last orders.
(www.theidlehour.co.uk; 62 Railway Side; glass of wine from £3.60; Mon-Thu 5pm-11pm, Fri & Sat 12.30pm-1am, Sun 12pm-10pm)


The White Hart PUB
Dating to 1622, this is possibly the area’s oldest pub. It has lost character to repeated refurbishments but there’s simply no beating the river views. Bag an outdoor seat to watch rowers cruise past or seat yourself on the upper floor for a panorama over Barnes Railway Bridge. The ground in the lower garden gets boggy at high tide, so watch your shoes.
(www.whitehartbarnes.co.uk; The Terrace, Riverside; pints from £3.80, main meals from £16; Mon-Thu 11am-11pm, Fri & Sat 11am-12am, Sun 12pm-11pm)


ENTERTAINMENT


Revellers usually roam to nightclubs in nearby Putney or Clapham. But Barnes has a small, pub-focused nightlife to keep your toes tapping for a weekend.

Halfway House LIVE MUSIC / PUB / WIFI
Pint glasses have been emptied here since the 19th century and some of the regulars seem to have been here nearly as long. As a newcomer, you’re sure to attract a curious glance. But in this casual boozer, you’ll soon be chewing the fat over one of the excellent cask ales. The weekend’s live performances create a raucous atmosphere, but they vary in quality. Attend open-mic night at your own risk.
(020 8876 5472; www.halfwayhousebarnes.co.uk; 24 Priests Bridge; daily 12pm-12am; free (incl live music))

The Bull’s Head LIVE MUSIC / PUB
A changing calendar of jazz, blues and folk music keeps this riverside inn buzzing. What this franchise pub lacks in charisma, it compensates for in enthusiasm: there’s a different performer almost every night and the bar has a decent range of craft beers. Tickets are usually available on the door. Check the website for the latest event listings.
(020 8876 5241; www.geronimo-inns.co.uk/london-the-bulls-head; 373 Lonsdale Rd; gig tickets from £8)

SHOPPING


Barnes Farmers Market MARKET
Suppliers including Dorset fishmongers, Italian delis and artisan bakers arrive each Saturday to ply their trade to a clientele of yummy mummies and gourmands. Younger folk soothe their hangovers with dry-cured bacon butties and speciality coffee. Vendors vary, but at time of writing the hand-rolled sushi and Greek feta stand were firm favourites.
(www.barnesfarmersmarket.co.uk; Essex House Surgery, Station Road (opposite the duck pond); Sat 10am-2pm)

Totally Swedish GIFTS
This tiny shop is an altar to Swedish flavours and designs. The shelves are lined with pickled herrings, rye crackers and tempting cinnamon cookies, plus a heart-melting range of children’s books and comics. Gleaming cookery ware and designer oven gloves promise to bring order to unruly kitchens. Just don’t mention Ikea.
(www.totallyswedish.com; 66 Barnes High Street; Mon-Sat 9am-5.30pm, closed Sun)

INFORMATION



  • Barclays Bank (15 Church Road) 24-hour ATM accepting most cards. At time of writing the bank was being refurbished but the ATM was operating as normal. 
  • Internet access. Coffee chains Caffè Nero (248 Upper Richmond Rd West) and Costa Coffee (389 Upper Richmond Rd West) offer free wifi with drinks purchases. 
  • NatWest bank (341 Upper Richmond Road West; Mon-Fri 9am-6pm, Sat 9am-2pm, closed Sun) 24-hour ATM accepting most cards.
  • Post office (234 Upper Richmond Road West; Mon-Sat 9am-5.30pm, closed Sun) Currency exchange available. 24-hour ATM. 
  • Queen Mary’s Hospital (020 8487 6000; Roehampton Lane) Minor injuries department. Take bus 72 from Barnes train station, direction Roehampton.
  • Tourist information (Barnes Community Association, Rose House, 70 Barnes High Street) The noticeboard outside the Community Association is regularly updated with local events, live music, language classes and seasonal festivities.  


GETTING THERE & AWAY


Bus

Find bus connections between Barnes and central London at Hammersmith Bus Station. Take bus 72 (direction Roehampton) to alight at Barnes station or bus 283 for Barnes Pond or Queen Elizabeth’s Walk for the Wetland Centre. Buses run every 7 minutes until 7pm when they run every 15 minutes. Cash is not accepted on buses, buy a reusable Oyster card from a Tube, train or bus station, top it up with cash and scan it onboard the bus (£1.45 per journey). Contactless payment credit cards can also be scanned on buses.

Train

Regular trains on London’s Overground network connect Barnes and Barnes Bridge with London Waterloo and you can use your Oyster card (19min; peak/offpeak £3.20/£2.70). Paper tickets for the same journey cost more (£4.70).

GETTING AROUND


Compact Barnes is best explored on foot but buses 33 and 337 (every 7 min) are the quickest ways to get up and down the main drag of Upper Richmond Road.

What is the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race?


This annual race pits the boat clubs of rival universities Oxford and Cambridge against each other, along the River Thames from Putney to Chiswick Bridge. The Boat Race was first held in 1829, and a public thrashing between these pillars of excellence proved irresistible. The contest has been held annually since 1856 on the last weekend in March or the first in April. So far Cambridge has enjoyed 81 victories to Oxford’s 78, a narrow enough margin to add bite to proceedings. Over the years there have been sinkings, a dead heat, even mutiny.

All this chest-puffing between two bastions of Britain’s elite attracts cynicism. But when Australian protester Trenton Oldfield swam out to disrupt 2012’s race, his anti-elitist message was largely ignored. As for many long-standing British institutions, it will be a while before political correctness is allowed to chisel away at a jolly good excuse for a party.

Barnes Bridge is the last major landmark for rowers in the Boat Race. By the time boats pass beneath it the victor is usually decided. So choose your colours (Cambridge is light blue, Oxford navy) raise a buck’s fizz in a Barnes pub, and see what the fuss is about.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Falling in love with the Auvergne, France

Volcanoes are becoming a bit of a theme in my travels. Iceland, Sicily, and now France's underrated Auvergne. I jumped at the chance to explore this rugged region and it really worked its magic on me.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Spellbound in western Greenland

Some might be wondering whether I did anything except fend off mosquitoes during my trip to Greenland. While it took a fair bit of effort to fend off the bitey blighters, that was just an itchy blip during an otherwise magical trip. Here's a round-up of glaciers conquered, foodstuffs sampled and muskoxen well and truly stalked.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Advanced mosquito protection in the Arctic Circle

Mosquitoes aren't the first things that come to mind when you hear the word Greenland. But the summer's 24-hour sunlight and pools of glacial meltwater bring mozzies by the million.

No one could claim to be indifferent to buzzing biting things but my loathing for these tiny bugs is intense. So what happens when a mozzie-hating traveller with OCD tendencies hits the outdoors in Greenland? Why, extreme mosquito measures of course! Here's how I'm winning against insects right now in Western Greenland.

Mosquito protection - stylin' at Greenland's Eqi glacier. 

1. Apply DEET liberally. Again. And again.

Think of your DEET tropical mosquito repellent as a bottle of exquisite Chanel No. 5. Only instead of dabbing it everywhere you want to be kissed (as the wisdom goes), slosh it on every part of your body you don't want to see blow up Elephant Man style with bulging red mosquito welts. Feeling itchy and paranoid at the very thought? Exactly the right mindset.

2. Prepare to look seriously stylish

You don't need me to advise you to cover up in the land of mosquitoes. Burkini-level coverage is the absolute minimum. Long sleeves, long trousers, high neckline. You will need every scrap of fabric (bonus points if it's mosquito-repellent fabric) and you will rock that look.

Greenland's mosquitoes are persistent. These tiny winged demons will zoom into any chink in your armour. Tucking trousers into socks or hiking boots is the equivalent of boarding up your windows ahead of a zombie attack - people might look at you as though you're crazy, but who cares? You, for all your uncool appearance, can soon kick back and congratulate yourself on your forward thinking (while everyone else gets chewed to pieces).

3. Time to accessorise

So you didn't think you could look any more awesome? Meet the head-net, the bastard child of a dinner lady's hairnet and an executioner's hood. I bought my fine-mesh head gear last summer in Iceland, near the famously bug-ridden Lake Myvatn, so it felt like good value to whip it out for this trip too. Tighten the toggle at your neckline enough to close the gap, allowing the net to sit baggily around your face. Bugs will land on it, giving you a disconcerting close-up of their mouth jabbing angrily through the mesh (you'll get used to it, promise).

4. Every kill counts

You will see plenty of travellers too laidback to flinch at the mozzies helicoptering around their heads. Don't let their pretend cool put you off the serious business of splatting mosquitoes whenever they come near you. Get over your squeamishness now - every mozzie you squish between your hands is a victory. For each one dead, you have prevented itchy bites on yourself or some other hapless traveller. You're basically a hero. You will know you're a pro when you hit them with exactly enough speed and strength to have them fall dead to the ground without wings and bug innards being streaked across your hands. Yeuch.

5. Perfect your loo moves

We know mozzies are found by pools of stagnant water, and alas - that includes your camp toilet. Yep, you have to drop trousers in front of a humming audience of voracious insects and risk bites in places that Savlon should never have to go. Some travellers swear by "the windmill", an advanced anti-mozzie arm movement performed to baffle the blighters and give you enough time to pee and flee. Personally I'm a fan of bring DEET along with me and giving my legs a quick spray. Whatever you opt for, your toilet breaks are about to get very, very quick.

6. Net up

A mosquito net hung over your bed is essential if your accommodation opens directly into the outdoors, like my hut at Glacier Camp Eqi. Sleeping under a net means you can give your skin a break from malodorous mozzie repellent at night - but make sure you tuck the net in such a way it won't work loose in the night. Use ear plugs if their high-pitched battle cry is audible - you've earned this sleep, and the battle starts anew in the morning.

I did more than get bitten on my research trip to Greenland, honest. 

Monday, 24 February 2014

Recovering from snow rash in the Austrian Alps

It takes a hell of a view to distract you when your face is on fire.

Snow, blue skies and empty pistes. Bliss.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
I just got back from my second visit to Ski Amade. Less than an hour from Salzburg, it's a winter sports paradise that miraculously manages to retain a relaxing, local feel. Anyone who has queued for 20 minutes to get on a Swiss ski lift or been sniffed at by a harassed waiter in an overcrowded Alpine brasserie knows how precious this is.

It only took a day or two of hitting the slopes for me to develop a curious case of snow face. A little more extreme than the usual giveaway ski mask tan line, I blew up in red itchy swellings where my face used to be. Whether it was wind burn, an extreme reaction to the cold or a combination of the two, I can't be sure. All I know is that I was glad for the excuse to wear a balaclava against the constant snowfall.
Dramatic views worth itching for...from the top of the piste in Flachau.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
That the Austrian Alps are untarnished in my memory, despite my having spent my nights slathering my scarlet face in balm, can only be a compliment. That said, I'm not sure the Austrian tourist board will be rushing to adopt a new slogan any time soon: "Austria - so good, you'll forget your face rash".

Sunday, 19 January 2014

A photo journey through cosy Copenhagen

Cosiness central, Venice of the north, style mecca or simply Scandinavia's quirkiest capital city? The second time was the charm for my trip to Copenhagen last month. The first time I went (years ago), I was flat broke, endured a disastrous hostel experience and broke my camera. This time around I absorbed the city's fun-loving atmosphere and took some time to rediscover Copenhagen's charms. Here are some of the sights I found along the way.

Not for the faint-hearted - the first stop for many visitors is a stomach-somersaulting
rollercoaster ride at Tivoli amusement park.
Image 
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.


HC Andersens Boulevard, bordering Tivoli amusement park, is named for
the prolific fairytale author and poet.
Image 
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.

Chillier than Venice but just as colourful, Copenhagen boasts canalside sights
 galore, like this bouquet of bright canoes, seen from Nyhavn.
Image 
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.


Copenhagen's most famous sight, the Little Mermaid, is tiny but she sure
cuts a folorn figure gazing out across the harbour.
Image 
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.

What could be a better way to warm up from the cold? Chocolate, raspberry, mascarpone 
and caramelised pumpkin seed gateau at La Glace in central Copenhagen.
Image 
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.


Inside La Glace, a coffee and cake parlour dating back to 1870, and
epitomising the Danish love of all things cosy (hygge)
Image 
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
I chanced on this atmospheric sight, hundreds of smoking candles to
mark World Aids Day on 1st December.
Image 
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.

It's cold outside, but glowing hearts and sparkly winter lights line every shopping
street and signal the entrance to every swanky cocktail bar.
Image 
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page. 

And the morning after? An open-sandwich and strong coffee are the
perfect hangover cures,ideally with marinated herring and sour cream.
Image 
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.