Saturday, 10 June 2017

Douro River Cruise, Portugal

The Douro River in Portugal ©Solange Hando

The Douro takes its source in northern Spain but only the 130 km section from the Portuguese border to the estuary is navigable.

Starting in Porto, the river promises one of the most scenic cruises in Europe, a great way to relax and a spot of excitement when you sail under low bridges or through one of the deepest locks on the continent. The return journey follows the same route but offers a different perspective.




Clear waters on the Douro ©Solange Hando

The scenery is for ever changing as beyond the wooded slopes of the lower reaches, the river meanders towards the rolling hills, the red-roofed villages sprinkled here and there and vineyards stretching as far as you can see.

The Douro has many moods,widening out like a lake, narrowing like a fjord to squeeze through a towering gorge, skirting an island or two or ochre-coloured rocks. Emerald or blue, the water is clear with lovely reflections of land and sky.



A Chance to Taste in the Vineyards©Solange Hando

Wine lovers couldn't dream of a better place to sample Portuguese wine, be it the ubiquitous Porto, red or white, the Mateus rosé, the sparkling Vino Verdhe and many more. Every cruise includes optional visits to wineries with tasting and buying if you wish.

A few vineyards still plunge straight down to the river but today most follow the curve of the hills, on horizontal terraces retained by stone walls. Put them end to end, they say, and you could build two Great Walls of China.



Pinhoa in the Douro Valley ©Solange Hando

There are daily opportunities to visit some of the pretty villages in the valley or up in the hills, with  ample time to sample the local gastronomy, and seek out a cultural site or two, such as the Lamego shrine or over the Spanish border, the Unesco city of Salamanca.

As this is a linear journey, most boats will schedule different opportunities on the return trip.


Sunset on the Douro in Barca d'Alva ©Solange Hando

Close to the Spanish border, Barca d'Alva is the last port of call on the Douro before the journey back to Porto and new places to explore along the way.

From the river to the villages and vine-covered hills, the unique landscape of the Douro is protected by Unesco.



All aboard, enjoy! ©Solange Hando








Saturday, 27 May 2017

Lisbon, City Attractions

Lisbon, the Belem Tower ©Solange Hando

First built in the 16th century to guard the estuary of the river Tagus, the tower was strengthened over time and fully restored in the 1990s. Listed by Unesco, it remains an iconic gateway to the Portuguese capital.
The tower gives its name to the nearby pastry shop where some 20,000 traditional custard tarts are baked every day.



Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon ©Solange Hando

Across the road, this former monastery is also a Unesco site, built on a grand scale in the early 16th century and funded through taxes, raised from the maritime trade and paid in gold.
It is one of the finest examples of late Gothic Manueline architecture and hosts major events and exhibitions.


Rossio Square, Central Lisbon ©Solange Hando

Lisbon loves its squares, from small secluded plazas tucked under the trees to spectacular open spaces where tourists pose for the camera and locals gather to put the world to rights.
The elegant Comercio Square leads down to the river, with cool arcades and gourmet restaurants, while Rossio is known for its statues, Baroque fountains and cobblestones arranged in wave patterns.




Traditional Transport in Lisbon ©Solange Hando

In this city of seven hills, quaint old-fashioned trams add plenty of charm and nostalgia. The network in and around town includes 93 lines and covers 76km.
Number 28 allows you to hop on and off at all main tourist sites but it can be very crowded. Start early to avoid the queues.



Sao Jorge Castle ©Solange Hando

The largely rebuilt medieval citadel rises on a hilltop right in the town centre. It's a lovely place to explore, picnic under a tree or stroll along the ramparts with superb views of the old city and the river Tagus.



Discoveries Monument ©Solange Hando

Inaugurated in 1958 and shaped like the prow of a caravelle, this 52 metre high monument celebrates the early navigators and explorers who set sail from this spot, under the patronage of Prince Henry the Navigator.






Saturday, 29 April 2017

Images of Devon, Torquay Riviera

Paignton in Torbay ©Solange Hando

Paignton is all you would expect from a traditional seaside resort, fine sands, a pier and a lovely little marina, at its best when the tide is in.
In the rolling hills of southern Devon, Paignton has plenty of flat land, appreciated by families and  seniors, and a quaint Victorian shopping arcade with an old bus shelter to match and tall façades across the green.



Paignton for Families ©Solange Hando


Playground, amusements, lawns to run around, picnic tables and plenty of affordable eating venues, there's lots to keep the little ones happy besides the sea.



Torquay, Queen of the English Riviera ©Solange Hando

Just around the bay to the north,Torquay is different, hilly, slightly upmarket with its seafront promenade, its pier to breathe in the sea air and a vast beach which all but disappears at high tide.
There's a pleasant marina with a lifting pedestrian bridge, cliffside gardens and a waterfront park where you will find the Princess Theatre and the Big Wheel,offering superb views of the bay, all the way to the cliffs at the southern end glowing red and gold in the sunset. 



Cockington near Torquay ©Solange Hando

A short drive up a hill above Torquay, this small thatched village is truly delightful, even though most of its colourful cottages are now tea rooms or craft shops. It's a picture postcard sort of place and probably at its best when the crowds have left.
You will find a watermill, a thatched forge and a mansion set in parklands twittering with birds. Next to the mansion are a rose garden and a craft centre where in the former stables, you can watch blacksmiths, glassblowers and other artisans at work.



Goodrington Sands ©Solange Hando


South of Paignton over a panoramic headland, you reach the colourful sands of Goodrington fringed by exotic cliff gardens and red rocks.
It's a great place to paddle, build castles or look for devil crab or pipe fish in the rock pools. Most commercial outlets are set well back from the beach and only the whistle of the steam train breaks the peace now and then on its way to Kingswear.



Beach Huts, Goodrington ©Solange Hando


Goodrington likes to be on the wild side but Goodrington loves colour, red sand and rocks, gardens in all shades of green and pristine beach huts in pastel colours neatly tucked below the cliff.
They lend Goodrington that special little touch which lingers in your mind long after you have left.




Brixham Harbour ©Solange Hando

Brixham may come last on the English Riviera coast but you can't beat it for charm, scenery and character. See the fishing harbour packed with crab and lobster pots, the long breakwater sheltering a glistening marina, the picturesque lanes climbing up the hill and right by the quay the statue of William of Orange and the replica (above) of the Golden Hind.


 Devon Coast from Berry Head ©Solange Hando


Beyond Brixham harbour, a trail leads up through the woods to Berry Head, a windswept headland with superb views of Torbay and the red cliffs to the north and to the south the ever meandering limestone cliffs, the wild meadows and rocks and islands sprinkled into the sea.





Saturday, 1 April 2017

Travel Writing? Three Easy Steps to Perfect Pitch

Taxi Ride Cuba Style ©Solange Hando

LESS IS MORE

What do editors want?
Original ideas
How do you do that?
Focus
Exotic or at home, the tighter the angle the more unique it's likely to be
It also means you can sell several features on a single destination

Examples:
Cuban taxis or London cabs
Free attractions in Paris
A day on the river
Quirky hotel / restaurant
Climbing Ben Nevis, 3 generations to the top

What about the city breaks, the best beaches, the paradise islands, the walking holidays?
Fine but you will have to make it pretty special to compete with staff writers



 Fit for Purpose ©Solange Hando

MAKE IT FIT

Just like these monks sheltering from the sun
Now what's your purpose?
Sell your work?

How?
Right idea, right market
What sort of readers would this appeal to?
Consider budget, age, interest, social status
Find the perfect fit
Before you pitch

But sometimes...
You might need to think laterally
Example: 
Chinese embroidery
No luck with obvious markets?
Favourite design?
Cats, sold to Cat magazine



Tenerife, Shepherd's Leap ©Solange Hando

PERFECT PITCH

This shepherd says it all
Check before you jump
One chance, no room for error

Top tips
Spend time on your query
Check correct editor's name, contact by email
Get straight to the point
Grab the editor's attention
Keep it brief
Offer images
Show you are familiar with the publication
Use similar style and term of address


Would you like to read more?

 'Succeed in the best job in the world' (endorsed by Hilary Bradt)















Saturday, 18 March 2017

Mexico San Cristobal de las Casas, Hotel Casavieja

San Cristobal de las Casas ©Solange Hando

In the highlands of Mexico south of the Yucatan peninsula, San Cristobal de las Casas is an attractive prosperous town with an impressive cathedral, stylish colonial buildings and quiet lanes, such as this one, where character hotels are tucked away behind traditional colourful façades.



Casavieja, Cool Arcade in Inner Courtyard ©Solange Hando

One would never guess what hides beyond the plain entrance of Casavieja, the 18th century building converted into a boutique hotel with rooms to suit a range of budgets. Character aside, the hotel top attraction is its central location in a quiet lane, just five minutes walk from the cathedral and downtown pedestrian area.



Standard Room in Casavieja ©Solange Hando

Guests can choose from 4 suites and 36 rooms furnished in colonial style with a few artefacts from the Chiapas region. Room size and facilities range from basic to luxurious according to price. 
Accommodation is on two levels around the inner courtyard. Heaters are provided in the rooms and free coffee is available in the lobby.



Quiet Corner in Casavieja ©Solange Hando

Brightened up with flowers and plants, reading areas and cosy corners are scattered around the building so guests can relax, meet friends and enjoy quiet times away from the hustle and bustle of downtown.
It's a little haven and even conference guests appreciate the peace.




Cool escape in the Courtyard, Casavieja ©Solange Hando

The courtyard is definitely a bonus filled with flowers and greenery, decorative features and convivial seating in the shade. Warm colours befit the traditional character of the hotel.
The Casavieja has a well-stocked wine cellar and two restaurants serving Spanish and Chiapas specialities.



Casavieja, Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico ©Solange Hando





Saturday, 4 March 2017

San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

San Cristobal de las Casas, Cathedral ©Solange Hando

In the central highlands of southern Mexico, this stunning cathedral in San Cristobal de las Casas draws locals and visitors alike from morning to night. With its warm colours and slender minaret-like turrets, it's the most striking legacy of colonial times in the ancient capital of the Chiapas state.



Weaving in Chiapas State ©Solange Hando

But alongside the Catholic faith, the indigenous culture is alive and well and the tourist market outside Santo Domingo's church is a great place to bargain for local craft. Chiapas is known for hand-made textiles -head for the villages to see weavers at work-, amber and jade but you will also find the usual assortment of tourist trinkets from hats and gloves to dolls or water bottles.



Southern Mexico Central Highlands ©Solange Hando

At 2,200 metres, Cristobal de las Casas nestles in a valley framed by pine-covered hills where streams,waterfalls and springs babble in fragrant greenery. Up in the mountains indigenous communities often live in isolation, following their own set of rules and even laws. 
Chiapas may be part of Mexico but as proved by its turbulent past and frequent unrest, the descendants of the Maya are their own boss and do not appreciate any kind of interference.


Market Day in San Juan Chamula ©Solange Hando

Up in the hills, roughly 10 km from San Critobal de las Casas,  the weekly market of San Juan Chamula attracts a fair number of visitors keen to enjoy the bright local colour and have a look in the unique temple-church. There, families who gather to pray sit around candles on a floor covered in pine needles; no pews or chairs, only indigenous gods and Catholic saints jostling side by side along the aisles.

As long as you are prepared to respect the rules, it is well worth a visit. No photos in the church or market except from one specific spot on the square. Don't try it on, you will be caught, shamed in public and unless your guide has untold patience and connections, you can say goodbye to your camera. Same applies to most of the of nearby villages.


Colonial Style, San Cristobal de las Casas ©Solange Hando

Back in town, the atmosphere is far more relaxed as you wander past elegant villas and cool arcades or head down the pedestrian street with its enticing restaurants and café-terrace, its food vendors and balloon sellers, giggling children and Maya women who do not shy away as long as you're prepared to bargain and buy.
On the town square, elders and weary-eyed tourists doze under the trees while the hypnotic notes of a traditional xylophone -played by three pairs of hands- drift in the evening air.



  San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico ©Solange Hando

Meanwhile in the back lanes just minutes away, lovely character hotels hide among the colourful local dwellings which line the paved alleyways, heading straight as arrows towards the wooded highlands. 
Cristobal may be a city these days but it is still called 'the most magical village' and in the fresh mountain air, it truly feels like it.










Saturday, 18 February 2017

French Château in the Ardennes, Review Domaine du Faucon

Château Domaine du Faucon in French Ardennes ©Solange Hando

Ever dreamt of staying in a French château? Try this one in northern France, dating back originally  to the 14th century and now a four star hotel with gourmet restaurant and stable facilities.
You will find it in rural surroundings near the village of Donchéry, not far from Charleville-Mézières and just an hour from the illustrious wine cellars of Champagne.


Standard Room in the Chàteau ©Solange Hando

Domaine du Faucon has a total of 30 rooms spread through the castle and annexes. In this stylish boutique hotel, every room boasts an individual colour scheme and design. 
In a secluded annex, the top floor honeymoon suite comes in warm orangy-peach shades with fine drapes over the bed and a luxurious bathroom.


Cosy Corner at the Domaine ©Solange Hando

The hotel does not have a lift but staff will help with luggage. It is beautifully warm in winter and much of the charms lies in the small convivial salons where friends can enjoy a pre-dinner drink by a glowing fire. There are marble fireplaces and plenty of artefacts to admire.
The château has a small fitness centre and spa, well-kept lawns and facilities for wedding receptions.



Ready for a Dinner Party ©Solange Hando

Besides relaxation, the domaine prides itself in its gastronomy which guests can enjoy over a leisurely dinner or a Sunday brunch.
Savoury or sweet, the cuisine is based on seasonal local products, prepared and presented with an original twist, such as beetroot gaspacho with apple and cream, game with lentils, local cheese, pastries and wines to match.


Parkland at Domaine du Faucon ©Solange Hando

The château is set in wooded parklands with walking trails and gurgling streams while nearer to the house you can play tennis and golf cross, a game imported from New-Zealand and played with an oval ball and a net.






Saturday, 4 February 2017

Mexico, Cancun and Yucatan Highlights

Caribbean Beach in Cancun, Mexico ©Solange Hando

Tucked in the north-east corner of the Yucatan peninsula, Cancun enjoys a privileged location, Caribbean Sea on one side. lagoon on the other, and between them a thin strip of land where luxury hotels line pristine white sands sprinkled with swaying palms.

There are no private beaches in Mexico but many hotels have secured private access to the beach, so if you want to mix with the locals, head downtown, browse casual stalls and gleaming stores and enjoy some true Mexican fare.



Chichen Itza near Cancun ©Solange Hando

If you're looking for just one day trip from Cancun and a bit of culture, this is it, the amazing Maya and Toltec site of Chichen Itza set inland, half-way between the east and west coasts. The Kukulcan pyramid (above) is the most impressive monument but dozens more are scattered around from game courts, temples and shrines to the sacred well where the 'lucky' Mayas were sacrificed.

There is much talk of high priests and gods, sacred jaguars and snakes but it's pretty safe to wander around and bargain for silver trinkets, Maya masks  or colourful hammocks. Stalls are kept to the main alleyway and although Chichen Itza is a hugely popular site, it is so extensive it rarely feels crowded.


Tulum South of Cancun ©Solange Hando

While Chichen Itza is undoubtedly the most impressive site, Tulum has the best of both worlds: beach and ancient ruins. An easy drive from Cancun along the east coast, you discover the final retreat of the Mayas and the Toltecs, their successors, as they fled internal wars.

There are ruins to explore, including a temple to the God of the Wind but be prepared to share the site with beach lovers, cruise ship visitors and oversized iguanas.


Seafront Restaurants in Campeche, Yucatan ©Solange Hando

The Yucatan has some lovely resorts beyond Cancun such as this one, Campeche, nestling in the Gulf of Mexico with broad beach and quiet coves, thatched restaurants and a 5km long promenade dotted here and there with striking works of modern art.

The town has an attractive historic centre with pristine streets festooned in wrought iron balconies, flower pots and cottages in pastel colours from sky blue and mint green to yellow or ochre red. There are musical fountains and stylish colonial buildings beautifully lit up after dark.


Pelicans on the West Coast ©Solange Hando

Pelicans are frequent visitors along the coast, fabulous to watch as they dive from great heights, as fast as arrows, vanish underwater then emerge triumphant before rejoining the flock. See them, hear them and feel the vibes as they swoop around inches from your head.

Inland, look out for coati, members of the raccoon family, highly inquisitive, greedy and never taking 'no' for an answer. Snakes are rarely seen, even though Cancun means 'snakes nest'. That was
long before the hotels laid their claims to the land.


Golden Sunset in Cancun ©Solange Hando

Sunset over the lagoon, sunrise over the sea, you can't beat the amazing Cancun sky.











Saturday, 21 January 2017

Images of Venice, Perfect Valentine, Romantic Year round

Iconic Venice ©Solange Hando

Here's the heart of Venice, looking across the water to St Mark's Square, the Doge's Palace and the free-standing bell tower.



Venice Rialto Bridge ©Solange Hando

Rebuilt in the late 16th century, Rialto is the oldest bridge over the Grand Canal with rows of covered shops leading up to the central portico. The original bridge was made of wood.



The Grand Canal in Venice ©Solange Hando

It's 3.8 km long and up to 90m wide, lined with 170 buildings ranging from the 13th to the 18th century. Tightly-packed colourful façades dip their toes in the water.



St Mark's Square ©Solange Hando

Made up of two connecting piazza, this is the best known square in town, leading down to the canal past some of the finest buildings, the basilica, campanile and the irresistible café-terrace basking in the sun.



Gondolas at rest ©Solange Hando

However busy the city may be, there is no shortage of gondolas to explore the lagoon, from humble to luxurious crafts with plush cushions, Persian rugs and singing gondolier.



View from the Top of the Bell Tower ©Solange Hando

You can't beat the top of the bell tower for the most romantic view of Venice, red roofs, domes, canals and just a few of over 100 islands which make up the archipelago.



Venice Historical Regatta ©Solange Hando

Spring brings a joyful carnival and alluring masks, autumn brings the colourful Historical Regatta  with its dazzling pageant followed by the traditional race on the Grand Canal.