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When asked where we were going for our family holiday and we replied Istanbul and then Azerbaijan, there followed the inevitable question - where (and they didn't mean Istanbul)?
So, in case you don't know, Azerbaijan is a former member of the Soviet Union, and is situated on the Caspian Sea with Russia to the North, Iran to the South and Georgia to the West.
Baku is the Capital, and is located on the Absheron Peninsula - a fat finger like piece of land that juts out into the Caspian Sea, and has a population of some 2 million people.
The first taste of Baku we got was the Airport and immigration. This provides a clue to bureaucracy in Azerbaijan. First we queued for the immigration check, and then turned back and headed for the visa where we queued again and handed over the $110 before rejoining the immigration queue for a stamp in our passports. Overall it took nearly two hours. This may be avoided as VISA regulations have changed - details below.
Then once that is done and you've collected your luggage you may well be asked to demonstrate it is your luggage - so keep the ticket you're given on leaving the UK. We didn't and had a brief moment of uncertainty before our lack of Azeri, and the official's lack of English got us through.
Once away from the airport, the road into the city from the airport is a new multi-lane road, which we discovered was largely due to the President, who lives towards the airport, who likes the best of everything, roads included.
New is an apt word for much of Baku. Oil money is paying for a huge construction boom - everywhere you look new buildings are going up, and old ones being prettified. The prettifying involves a new impressive front and side cladding (often with the windows behind not quite matching up) and the back left as it was - which makes for an interest architectural mix, not all of it to the highest standards.
Baku spreads over quite a large area and we didn't find it much of a culture shock. There were some seriously expensive shops and many of the top brands - oil pays well, and numerous hotels and restaurants.
Baku Boulevard borders the Caspian Sea, and is a popular place for locals to meet. Every night we were there, the square in front of the Government House, or Dom Soviet, would fill up with hundreds of cars, and people would cross the road - risking their lives - to get to the Boulevard (we stayed with my brother and his apartment overlooked the square).
The highlight on the Boulevard is a musical fountain, which 'played' for us at about 10pm and lasted for about 30 minutes. Multiple fountains rise, fall and change colour in time with the music. A small part of the appeal is the cooling of the air around the fountain. Fire eruptions are part of the performance for added drama. It is quite impressive. It is not on every night, and it is bit pot luck as to when it's on, but we saw the display on a Friday and Saturday night.
While in the city we visited the Modern Art Museum, which showcases modern Azeri artists, and we both found the art and the building interesting. The Carpet Museum was also recommended, but best if you have a genuine interest in carpets. As we don't and time was limited we gave that a miss.
Baku's historic centre is tiny in comparison to the city's size, but it is of genuine historic interest and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the only part of that could be described as touristy and that is being generous. The day we were there we didn't see a single tourist.
The old city is a maze of old cobbled streets and tiny walkways encompassed within a largely complete stone wall. Key sights include the Shirvanshah Palace, dating from the 15th Century, and the Maidens Tower, built in the 12th Century. There also carpet sellers, and other antique and specialist shops.
We were with three small children so we didn't go inside the Shirvanshah Palace, though you can still get a good sense of the place from walking around and from the top of Maidens Tower.
Entrance to Maidens Tower is cheap and after paying to enter you work your way up a narrow steep spiral staircase passing three floors with various exhibits. They haven't really got the idea of added value for tourists and the exhibits are not that interesting. Once at the top you get great views of the old city, so it is well worth the effort. We only really found it an effort because of the 40 degree temperatures!
If you do find yourself in Baku, do make the effort to see the old city. It is also a good place to escape from the noise elsewhere.
We mostly ate at my brothers, but we did go and eat at 'Georgian Home' which we all thought was excellent. We chose beer as wne is quite expensive, but Georgian wine is much better than Azeri wine, so you won't be disappointed. Beer's good too. The restaurant is not to be confused with the similar named 'Georgian House'.
There is a good choice of restaurants and many are listed here - http://www.azerb.com/az-food.html. Reviews can be found on various opinion sites.
There are luxury hotels going up quickly - one was being built on the plot next to my brothers' apartment, and there is reasonable choice in the top budget range but you pay top prices too. There are good numbers of mid bracket hotels, but I can't advise on quality, but can only direct you to sites like Trip Advisor. Details of many can be found here - http://www.azerb.com/az-hote.html.
South of Baku are the Gobustan mud volcanoes (there are others elsewhere). The journey took us about 1½ hours and the last part is cross country so my brothers' four-wheel drive came in handy. There are no tourist facilities at all and signage is limited. You can get a bus to Gobustan and taxis will take you from there. They won't be four-wheel drive.
What came to my mind was the landscape in 'The Clangers'. That dates me a bit and, if the reference is lost on you, lunar-like works too. Cold mud erupts from the volcanoes and the whole experience is slightly surreal; all very interesting. Eruptions can occasionally be severe but most time there is no danger, and I am sure that before long officials will realise money can be made from making it a proper secure tourist site.
Also close to Gobustan is the Gobustan State Reserve. This is signposted and has a tourist infrastructure (small museum, loos, food, parking etc). Here a short walkway will give you a taste of the thousands of rock carvings of hunters and various animals within the reserve. Dating back to the Stone Age, the reserve is well worth a visit, especially in conjunction with the mud volcanoes.
OIL - CASPIAN GOLD
They have been drilling for oil in and around Baku and the Caspian Sea since the mid 1800's, and you don't have to go far to see the current evidence of drilling. We saw hundreds of Nodding Donkeys (or pumpjacks officially) on our trip south, and near the mud volcanoes we even saw oil seeping out of the ground. The prevalence of oil means Baku's beaches are largely polluted and people don't swim from them. You can also see rigs in the Caspian Sea. Money has only really started to flow into Azeri coffers since the pipeline to Turkey was completed.
If the wind is blowing in the right direction, which it did during our stay, you can smell the oil in the air. My brother assured me the wind usually blows in the opposite directions.
Corruption is endemic. Ministers have huge fortunes and own many of the organisations that wind major contracts. This has an impact on everyone. My brother told me about a secondary qualified teacher that couldn't afford the bribe to get a secondary job (exam results pay well in bribes which pushes up the appointment bribe), so has had to settle for a primary job. Not only did she pay a bribe to get the job, but she has to pay a bribe to her boss to keep it. She then has to get bribes for those reporting to her to compensate.
The Police also regularly stop drivers for any innocuous reason. We saw plenty of this but were saved from hassle ourselves as thankfully we were in car with diplomatic plates.
THE GREAT LEADER
Heydar Aliyev was leader of Azerbaijan in Soviet times, and when Azerbiajan gained independence became the first leader. His son succeeded him, and has honoured his father with posters, statues and building names across the country. The airport is also named after him: 'Heydar Aliyev International Airport'.
Most Azeri's are Shia Muslim as in Iran (where some 20 million of Northern and Eastern Iranians see themselves as Azeri). However Azerbaijan itself is secular and you'll see very little evidence of any religion.
Azeri is widely spoken - a language closely linked to Turkish. Russian is also widely spoken but English less so, especially once you are outside Baku.
A BIT OF HISTORY
It since had good times under Shrivan rulers and bad times under Mongol Invaders until 1723 when it was then taken by Russia. Russia and Persia each had periods of control until 1828 when Russia finally gained control. Much more can be found out here http://azerbaijanhistory.net/ - and here http://www.azerb.com/az-hist.html
We arrived via Istanbul and returned direct to Heathrow. You can fly direct from Heathrow with BMI and AZAL (the Azeri Airline). AZAL tends to be cheaper but you can't book that far in advance.
We were collected from the airport, but minibuses are available as are taxis. It is always worth getting a price from a taxi or you could pay way over the odds. Currently the cost should be around 15 AZN.
As mentioned at the beginning of the review you will need a visa. We got this on arrival and forms were available at the Visa desk. It seems that as from the 15th October 2010 this is no longer possible for stays over a week, and visas will need to be got in advance from their Embassy In London. The Visa currently costs £55.
Details for UK and other nationalities can be found here: http://www.azembassy.org.uk/sehife.php?lang=eng&page=0501
Best times to go weather wise are spring and autumn as it can be very hot in summer, and cold in the winter.
This is just reflects my experience of the city. Ultimately it isn't a tourist city in the sense of Istanbul or Paris for example, but there are things to see and do (more on what can be found on the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Azerbaijan's website - www.tourism.az., and the Embassy's webpage - http://www.azembassy.org.uk/ ); but does provide an interesting contrast to your usual destinations. More can also be found on travel websites - for example www.lonelyplanet.com/azerbaijan
Thanks for reading
A few years back I travelled to the States regularly and had decided that the in-ear headphones I had to be replaced. My inner ears didn't appreciate them for a 10 hour flight, and I didn't appreciate the engine noise, so I decided to invest in some over the head noise cancelling phones.
I decided on Phillips SHN9500 headphones. I was already at the airport so choice was limited, and my budget didn't stretch to the Bose version, so these seemed like the best bet.
The sound, without applying the noise cancelling is, in my view, excellent. It delivers a very strong bass and the treble is clear. Overall a great lively clean sound.
When you turn on the noise cancelling option, there is a little bit of distortion noticeable when there is no noise about at all, but on a plane or train there is a significant reduction in overall noise, and the sound quality still sounds good.
How it compares to other headphones (Bose for example) I can't say, but I am very happy with what it delivers.
They don't feel too heavy, they sit comfortably over the head and the ear cups are amazingly comfortable - even after hours of listening. The headband is adjustable so should cater for most head sizes. It is made mostly of plastic and has a padded top for comfort. The plastic is reasonably sturdy.
The headphones come in a compact strong easy to carry case - about the size of a standard Frisbee. The headphones fit as the earpieces can be turned to lie flat. A small removable inner case holds the cable and connection adapters.
Where and for what cost
Most electronic retailers stock them. Shop around though as prices vary, (for example, currently close to £140 from Curry's, and about £85 from Amazon.
The cable feeds into the left ear piece which also has a mute button, which is very useful when someone talks to you, as you don't have to stop your music. The right ear phone has the control switch for the noise reduction which is powered by an AAA battery (that doesn't last for long if used a lot, so I recommend using one that is rechargeable).
Do I recommend them? Yes. While not completely noise free on a plane they cut out most noises, and are fantastic in normal mode.
Thanks for reading
My previous car, a Volvo S40, was frighteningly expensive to keep, so thanks to rising house prices (anyone remember?) I had withdrawn equity for home improvements and fortunately had some left over for a car. My key priority this time around was one that was less expensive to run.
After a fair amount of research I settled on 2005 (55) Citroen C4 VTR+ 1.6HDi, and after doing the rounds to see what could be done I settled on one being sold on eBay. I made an offer subject to seeing the car and then set off to Mansfield to get it.
It's a good looking car with alloy wheels and enticing lines. I bought it when it was 18 months old with 19,000 miles on the clock. Now it is 5 years old with 72,000 miles. So how has it done? Does it have style and substance?
In a driving position it is very comfortable - plenty of leg room, an adjustable steering wheel and adjustable lumbar support. The passenger seat is equally comfortable. The back seats are spacious enough to accommodate a travel cage for our dog, and he seems to appreciate the comfort when in it, but as with many cars the back seats lack leg room for adults and are best for children. All seats have a head restraint.
It's mostly a pleasure. The car has 5 gears which work smoothly, and engine and tyre noise is ok. It has excellent acceleration and is happy at all speeds I've achieved - a 70 mile speed is very comfortable and it has no trouble going faster. Of course your pocket will be happiest if kept to the economy high point of about 50 mph. The power steering is light and responsive.
The steering wheel gives me quite a lot of pleasure (sad I know), as the central part doesn't move which makes it easy to access controls, and the instrument panel is displayed on the consul - all of which is pleasingly different.
The car has cruise control and a speed limiter, which is handy if you find it difficult to keep to variable speed limits on the Motorways. There is a drink holder and a central sliding arm rest in which you can store CD's and the like, and it has 2 lighter points, which I find helpful as I can charge my SATNAV and mobile phone at the same time. Air conditioning comes as standard which is useful on the occasional summer, and there is a good remote control key which also enables you to turn the headlights on. Useful if you are returning to your car late at night.
The Citroen has an airbag for driver and passenger, and an ABS linked Electronic Stability Programme as standard, all of which helps if you lose control of the vehicle. This hasn't happened to me so I can't judge their effectiveness. I can report that the ABS really works. The wipers have an automatic rain setting, and they go operate from centre outward which gives you good front visibility. Windows and mirrors are electric and all round visibility is good. The headlights lights have a setting so that they come on automatically when it gets dark (or you are in a tunnel), or rains. All of which adds to a safe driving experience.
Generally it is good. I've had no major problems, however there are niggles. The fan system does not always work which affects the air conditioning and my ability to clear the windscreen when you get that sudden change in weather. Another disappointment is the glove box. I had to have a warranty repair as it got stuck shut, and it still occasionally gets caught - a very poor flimsy piece. Lots of the internal components in the car are on the flimsy side. The windscreen washer unit has also had to be replaced.
Costs overall have not been too bad. I get it serviced at a local garage rather than a Citroen dealer which saves considerably, and it has been much cheaper to run that the Volvo. A service usually costs around £150. Road tax has even decreased to £90 a year, thanks to the 125 CO2 rating. With my previous Volvo a regularly taken trip from Shropshire to Sussex took one full tank of petrol. The Citroen gets there and back with one 60 litre tank. It currently costs over £70 to fill the tank and fuel economy is a good 50-60 miles a gallon. I paid £8,600 for it when it was 18 months old, and there is currently a similar 54 registered car for sale on eBay for £4750 so on that basis I have lost about £1100 a year in depreciation. Ouch.
Other bits I like
- It's a hatchback - so the seats go down creating lots of extra room
- My 15 year old nephew thought it was a cool car. That's as close as I get to cool.
- It has somewhere to keep coins
Other bits I don't like
- The boot is a bit too small
- It's almost impossible to change front light bulbs - you need child sized hands
- It is difficult to get access to the battery - so helping anyone out with a charge is not on
Style over substance? Not quite. There is enough to impress but build quality could certainly be better. So, who might buy this car? Anyone who likes a car that is slightly different with a few added frills for its cost. Or someone that wants a car that is economical to run and has a low road tax. It would be ok for a family with 2 children, but if you also have a dog, and / or carry sports equipment and the like it will be a bit tight inside.
Thanks for reading
Before reaching Fernando de Noronha we'd mentioned it was one of our planned destinations to Brazilians we met and invariably they would sigh, and remark on how beautiful it was - paradise even... such wonderful beaches. Now, if asked I would not describe myself as a beach person, but then the beaches on Fernando do Noronha are not just like any beaches.
If you are going to Brazil and want to treat yourself, or are just looking for a destination that is a little bit special then this could be the place.
The island is small. If you are energetic, or training for a marathon, you'd easily cover all the roads. About 6 miles long and 2 wide it has no towns as such, just the small villages of Vila dos Remedios, Bosque de Flamboyant, Vila do Trinta, Floresta Velha and Floresta Nova, and then the odd pousada elsewhere. Beach buggies outnumber cars.
You won't be coming to Fernando for culture. It is all about the sea and the beaches. The water is amazing - crystal clear in aquamarine colours, the most beautiful beaches, quite possibly anywhere. There are 26 in all, and we got to see a good many of them.
We had booked ahead for 3 nights and 4 days, and were keen to make as much of the island as possible. With two full days, we chose a boat trip on one day and a buggy tour the next. These are very popular as due to park restrictions is not easy to see a lot of the island on your own (though you can see most of the best beaches).
The boat trip, which costs about R$85 a person, lasts for three hours and takes in a few of the uninhabited islands as well as the north coast line. I recommend it as it gives you a different perspective of the island. The boat took us to Baia do Sancho, and on the way we saw turtles, fish and dolphins, and lovely deserted beaches. Stopping at the bay (another gem of a beach) we had a snorkelling stop where we swam over the coral and among the fish. The coral itself was not as beautiful as you can find elsewhere (Ras Mohammed in Egypt for example) but the variety and colour of the fish and the wonderfully clear water had everyone buzzing afterwards.
The second day we did a day's Island Tour (cost approx R$80 pp) which took us to Praia do Sueste to swim with turtles. We had to wear life jackets as (I guess) it was on the rougher south coast, which had the unexpected result of making me feel seasick after about an hour in the water. Still, we did swim with one or two turtles, which was the main aim. As interesting were large numbers of crabs leaving the water and climbing up small cliffs. For the rest of the day we visited a number of different beaches for snorkelling; the harbour for investigating a sunken ship, (supposedly Greek but I have no idea why a Greek ship would have been there); visited the shark museum (there are 5 different sharks occupying local waters, but fortunately they have no record of showing interest in humans. Must the island vibe, as off the coast of Recife the same sharks are not so fussy!); and finished walking along the cliff tops and watching the sun set while drinking beer.
We were limited in time but if you have it to spare, you can walk to many of the best beaches in a day. Starting from Vila dos Remedios you can walk down to Cachorro beach and then head west to Meio (where there is a beach front restaurant that we found expensive with very limited light meals) and onto Conceicao which is perhaps the island's most beautiful beach, nestling under the Morro do Pico, a volcanic rock that you can see from most parts of the island. This is as far as we walked, though you can carry on all the way to the Baia dos Porcos. We covered the beaches in between during the buggy trip.
Other activities available include kayaking, surfing, and scuba diving, all bookable on the island with one of the many operators that will meet you at the airport, or in advance.
Most people on the island earn their money through tourism, so if they are not providing activities they have turned their home into a pousada or simple eatery.
We stayed in a very basic pousada that we booked a long time in advance via an American tour operator. Called Tartarugas Marinhas (sea turtles) it was a private house with three rooms turned over for tourists. It was comfortable enough but lacked anywhere nice to sit outside. In hindsight we might have spent a bit more on somewhere a little bit nicer but with 4 weeks to budget for in Brazil we economised on accommodation here.
There is a good range of basic pousadas though none are cheap (over priced even) and only a few have a touch of luxury. Over 100 in total they are graded according to standards. If going on a honeymoon or another special occasion Pousada Maravilha and Pousada Ze Maria are the best, though the latter has a better location. Details of accommodation and food can be found on the Island web site detailed at the end of this review.
The food standards we experienced were fairly average, and there isn't a huge choice. Also we didn't want to walk too far from our Pousada. We ate at a per kilo restaurant (which are all over Brazil -you pay by weight of food you eat) in Bosque de Flamboyant called imaginatively Flamboyant (food was good, but my wife suffered with a bad stomach the next day); a soup and pastel bar in Flamboyant that was very simple but tasty (soup was all my wife could tolerate after the last place); a set priced buffet called Restuarante do Biu (food good, though I guess less good when it has sat for a while) and a Creperie called Arte and Sabor (tasty and unusual - recommended), both in Floresta Nova.
Shopping is not something you would come to the island for, but if you need to you can buy clothes, food and diving equipment. There is also a post office and bank, though I recommend you take the cash you need. You don't need to worry about having anything stolen as the island is probably one of the safest places in Brazil.
We walked everywhere but if your feet need a rest there are numerous taxis (beach buggies) and buses that run from Vila dos Romedios to the harbour, and to the airport. You can also hire buggies for around R$100 a day.
Seeing as there is no culture on Fernando do Norohna I'll finish with a very brief bit of history.
Fernando do Norohna is an archipelago consisting of 21 islands, although only one is inhabited. The English, French and Dutch all had a go at occupying it before the Portuguese finally got control of it in the mid 1700's. Like so many islands it was used as a prison, though one thing they can't have complained about was their surroundings. It used to be covered in trees but it seems prisoners were adept at making rafts, so they had to come down.
In 1988, a national park was created covering 70% of the archipelago and a third of the island. It has a population of around 2,500 people and there are restrictions on who can live on the island and on who can own businesses.
How to Get There
We flew to the Island from Recife, courtesy of Varig for US$375 per person, which was £187 back in August. There are also daily flights available with Trip from Recife and Natal. You can get to Recife and Natal on a variety of European airlines.
Forewarned by our guidebook we'd got seats on the left side of the plane, and we were rewarded with a wonderful view of the islands and beaches.
Useful Bits and Pieces
On arrival you have to pay a tourist tax based on the number of days you stay. We stayed for 3 nights and had to pay R$99.29 per person. For the first 4 days the rate is R$33.09, then it reduces slightly.
Visit Fernando do Norohna's web page at http://www.noronha.com.br/english/tourism.htm for more information.
We pre-booked our trip which without flights cost US$1000 in total for three nights B&B and the 2 tours. You can easily do it yourself, just turning up and booking accommodation on arrival though be aware it can fill up at busy times.
The Brazilian currency is the Real ($R). At the time of writing you get 3.35 to the pound.
UK Residents do not need a visa to visit Brazil.
Fernando do Noronha is worth visiting. It is an undeveloped and beautiful place with gorgeous deserted beaches. Certainly the best I have ever seen. However it is expensive and accommodation and food is mostly average at prices which would buy you luxury on the mainland. A place to chill, not party.
Thanks for reading.
In September 2005 my wife and I went to see the Stereophonics play in Cardiff and, wanting to be able to take some time to look around Cardiff (recommended to all), we decided to book a hotel for a Friday and Saturday night. After a quick Internet search we settled on MacDonald Holland House, a four star hotel close to Cardiff City Centre.
We were quoted £98 for the Friday and £126 for the Saturday for a Superior Room with breakfast included. The Superior room is in fact the starting room, if you want a little more luxury you can choose from a Club Room, a Kings Suite or even the Presidential Suite. There are 160 rooms in total.
The Hotel was very easy to find, taking Junction 29 off the M4 if coming from the East (as we were) or Junction 33 from the West, and is very close to the City Centre on the Newport Road. We arrived at about 9.30pm and were warmly welcomed. Our car was quickly whisked away to the underground car park, at a cost of £8 per 24 hours.
The lobby of the hotel was spotless and designed to impress. We were greeted warmly by the reception desk staff only to be told we had arrived on the wrong day. Knowing this was wrong we persisted and were given a room without much fuss. A fair bit of toing and froing later and it turned out someone with the same name had booked in through a third party and Id been booked in with a name that wasnt quite mine. They were very apologetic and offered us a bottle of wine as compensation which we accepted.
Our room was lovely; very spacious, tidy and clean, with great views towards Newport and the hills to the North. We had a very comfortable queen sized bed along with chairs and a table to rest at and standard facilities such as a TV, trouser press, tea maker and hairdryer. Wardrobe space was adequate and there was a safe if required. Pluses for me were an iron and ironing board (for some unexplained reason I always need to iron something, so when there isnt one the offending hotel takes a rapid step down in my estimation), a good sounding CD system which we put to good use after a reckless hour in Virgin and a blissful shower that should be standard in all hotels. In addition there was a well stocked and somewhat unusually reasonably priced mini bar, though we still managed to avoid the temptation.
We were situated right next to the lift system but didnt hear it or any other residents at all. Occasionally traffic could be heard but it certainly didnt affect our sleeping.
The bar, next to the restaurant, is large and in my view somewhat impersonal. We didnt use it so I cant comment further, however we did walk through it to get to the restaurant. This was also a little on the impersonal side with tables too close together but the food and service were excellent, especially for dinner, which we had on Friday night at a cost of about £30 per head with wine.
The hotel has a leisure club with a well equipped gym and swimming pool but sadly we came unprepared and had to forego exercise. My wife consoled her self by booking some of the available pampering instead (a massage and pedicure which cost about £60). There are business facilities, internet availability (you buy cards from the front desk) and, if youre in the market, full conference facilities.
Check out was quick and easy. We were left an express check out option but as the desk was clear we thanked the staff, were apologised to again, and left happy.
The hotel is a short 10 minute walk from Queens Street which is where youll find many of Cardiffs largest and best known shops.
I recommend this hotel full heartedly and will definitely use it again myself.
For more information: www.hollandhousehotel.co.uk
The smugglers have long gone and Alfriston is now firmly on the tourist trail.
The village is nestled in foothills of the South Downs in East Sussex and is a gateway to the stunning scenery to be found within the Cuckmere Valley, an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a Heritage Coast and a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
But why go (in case the above isnt enough)?
Because its an easy place to stroll around with interesting specialty shops, welcoming pubs and comfortable hotels, wonderful walks and, for the energetic, biking trails. The village is picturesque and compact with narrow pavements and shops squeezed into old buildings. Almost all the village attractions are found on or within short walking distance of the High Street, which is the road through to Seaford from the A27.
The shops are perfect for window shopping - interesting and with real quality to tempt you. Especially if you are after hiking and biking gear, musical miscellany, hats, dresses, herbal remedies, out-of-print and antiquarian books, antiques, furniture, kitchen ware ( Steamer Trading is a place I still buy from), chocolate, original paintings and the ideal garden present with a difference - an original Sussex trug. I have bought something from most shops in Alfriston over the years and service has always been friendly and efficient.
If shopping is not to your taste and if even if it is the village can occasionally get over run with tourists and cars, especially in the summer - there are some excellent alternatives.
The Alfriston Clergy house is a 14th century thatched Wealden Wall House that was the first building to be acquired by the National Trust in 1896. The house has features local to Sussex, is in lovely gardens and beautifully situated. Entrance costs for adults are £3.10 and £1.55 for a child.
The 14th century church, sometimes called the cathedral of the Downs, stands in a graveyard within a circular wall and on a mound which is often thought to be an indication of Saxon use. If coming from Eastbourne the church gives you your first beautiful glimpse of Alfriston, and is a view often found in paintings.
Drusillas, just outside the village, is regarded by some as the best small zoo in England. There are over 100 animal species in naturalistic environments; including meerkats, otters, monkeys, lemurs, penguins, snakes, bats the list goes on. It is a wonderful place to take children with a great range of activities and distractions. It is a long time since I have been but I loved it as a child and it has gone from strength to strength. Prices for adults range from £10 to £11.75 and children (2 to 12) from £9 to £10.75. The zoo is totally accessible to buggies and wheelchair users.
The English Wine Centre, next to Drusillas, was established to enable visitors with the opportunity to taste English wines. There is also a museum telling the story of English wine. If you like your wine which I do - and want to try the very best English wine (which I have) then the centre is well worth a visit. There is also a shop (of course).
Maybe you just want to chill - to drink, eat or even sleep. Happily Alfriston can cater for those needs too.
The Star Inn, built in 1345, is reputedly one of England oldest Inns, and besides drink, you can eat and sleep there are 37 rooms with prices starting at £34. Besides the Star, there is the George Inn, the Smugglers Inn and the Wingrove Inn (which still stands after recent proposals to turn it into residential flats were refused). All offer accommodation.
The Smugglers Inn (then Market Cross House) was once owned by a notorious smuggler called Stanton Collins. The house was designed to confuse customs and excise with 21 rooms, 47 doors, 6 staircases and secret hiding places in the cellars and the roof. Collinss gang was very efficient for despite being renowned they were not caught for smuggling. Revenge was had when Collins was caught for an unrelated crime and transported to Australia.
I digress. I have drunk and eaten in all these pubs and while the Wingrove was rather neglected the others all have a great atmosphere and serve good food, though some can be a bit busy for food at weekends. There is a well regarded restaurant (The Tudor House) I have not tried.
Old county houses accommodate two of Alfristons Hotels, the White Lodge with 19 rooms (prices from £90) and Deans Place Hotel with 36 rooms (prices from £65). A B&B option is Rose Cottage, a restored Georgian property that welcomes walkers. For those on a tighter budget or with a basic comfort requirement there is a Youth Hostel a mile outside the village. It has 68 beds and costs £12.50, or £9 if under 18.
I have only stayed at Deans Place once having, amazingly for me, won a raffle ticket for a weekends accommodation with dinner. The room was very comfortable and the service good.
If you want to venture further for food (but all within 5 miles) I can recommend Crossways Restaurant at Wilmington for their exceptional food (my mouth waters with the memory), Sillets Cottage Restaurant at Selmeston, the Rose Cottage Pub at Alciston and the Sussex Ox at Milton Street for great food and the Cricketers at Berwick for its pub food and Harveys Beer.
For the energetic you could walk or bike the many trails within the Cuckmere Valley itself. It is an area of breathtaking beauty, of a more gentle version than say Mid Wales where I have lived, but all the same well worth discovering.
One of Alfristons greatest assets is the South Downs Way which passes the village and is just a short walk (uphill) from the High Street. If walking Alfriston is on day one from Eastbourne and day 5 (and final) if starting from Winchester. This final section (heading towards Eastbourne) is one that many people consider to be the most attractive part of the walk. If biking, a friend who attempted the route would recommend you were very fit, and that you only attempt it in dryer conditions. He failed to complete the route at his first attempt (and he is fit), and covered the journey in 3 days at his second go.
If you are in the area in early December it is well worth experiencing the Dickensian night, when the road is closed and music, parades and the odd person drinking alcohol take the place of cars. A great festival atmosphere, with Dickensian characters ever present, is created and though I have only experienced it once I can say it is great fun. For summer visitors there is a Summer Festival out on the Tye, by the Clergy House, on the August Bank Holiday. I have never been but friends and their children who live in the village enjoy it.
I have been to the village at all times of the year, and it is definitely quieter out of the summer period. The traffic running through the village can be a problem because of the narrow High Street (room for one car only) and the narrow pavements but overall it is a lovely place. So, if you are looking to stay somewhere different for a few days Alfriston would certainly be an excellent place to choose. .
How to find it:
Alfriston is situated on a few miles south of the A27 on the Berwick to Seaford Road, and is roughly mid way between Lewes and Eastbourne in Sussex (6 to 8 miles). From either direction you follow the signs to Alfriston upon reaching the Drusillas roundabout.
If you want to go by train there is a station at Berwick, about three miles away. Berwick is on the London Victoria to Eastbourne / Hastings line.
Places to visit nearby (all within 7 miles)
Middle Farm (Cider, organic produce, animals)
Charleston Farmhouse (home to the Bloomsbury Set)
Glynde Place (16th Century home to the rich)
Firle Place (Tudor home to the rich)
Glyndebourne (Famous opera house)
Useful web pages:
For the village: www.alfriston-village.co.uk/
For Drusillas Zoo: www.drusillas.co.uk/ or members.dooyoo.co.uk/theme-parks-zoos-international/drusillas-park/1002958/ for a good opinion (not mine!).
For the Wine Centre: www.englishwine.co.uk/
For Finding it: www.multimap.com/
Thanks for reading.
Before I moved from the South East, the border towns of Shrewsbury, Chester, Ludlow were just names on a map. If this is the case for you it needs putting right. All three are worth visiting and here I am going try and tempt you to consider Shrewsbury.
So is it worth it?
YES. It's a charming market town nestled on a hill and virtually surrounded by the River Severn. Picturesque was a word made for Shrewsbury and it is a lovely place to wander around at a leisurely pace. Ideal for a weekend break, it is also a great place to start from if discovering Mid Wales and the South Shropshire Hills. I give details of how to get to Shrewsbury below ('how to find it').
The centre of Shrewsbury, thanks to the river, has been largely protected from the character assassination that many towns have had to endure. Sure it has its malls with the names you'll all recognise, but it also has small alleyways (some called shuts as they were closed at night), abundant old black and white houses, medieval streets, independent shops and, of course, the river.
It is (within the river horseshoe) a small compact town that is best seen on foot, and that is the best way of getting around. I always park to the west of the town, in the Frankwell car park, as it is cheap and gives easy access to the town centre. The downside is that you have to cross a bouncy bridge and you enter from the Riverside Shopping Centre, a rather tatty and unattractive first view.
Wherever you start from, if shopping is your thing the place to head for is Pride Hill, a pedestrianised street that, along with its two shopping malls - the Darwin Centre and Pride Hill (which both lead out to the Riverside Shopping Centre), has many of the favourite household names. Like all towns it has suffered from store closures and though the Woolworths store was quickly snapped up by H&M, others in Pride Hill remain empty.
That said, as Shrewsbury is an affluent town in a largely affluent county there remain plenty of shops that will enhance any window shopping experience. There are shops selling designer clothes (for ladies - The Dresser or Carol Grants, men - Pockets), trendy clothes (never visited any myself!), delicatessants (try Appleyard's - a foodies heaven), art galleries (Callaghan's - beautiful but very expensive art; Bear Steps Gallery - local and affordable), organic food shops, wine merchants (Tanners - award winning), antiques, haberdasheries...the list goes on and even includes a specialist chocolate shop (make for the Chocolate Gourmet). Much of the independent choices can be found in Butchers Row, Wyle Cop, Grope Lane, St. Alkmunds Place, Dogpole and Mardol streets (great names aren't they).
There are more shops in and around the Market Square, which is dominated by the Old Market Hall. Built in 1596 it now houses a film and digital media centre and is the backdrop to some occasional and rather average market stalls.
After all that shopping food and drink might be on your mind. There are plenty of pubs to choose from, many of them with a good range of beers and comfortable atmospheres. If you like a smoke free environment try the Three Fishes Inn in Fish Street, one of the oldest streets in Shrewsbury (and worth a visit in its own right).
For food, I recommend the Armoury down near the river on Victoria Avenue (good pub food in comfortable surroundings); the Bellstone Hotel on Barker Street (brasserie with wide choice) is good for lunches; Franks Café Bar on the Welsh Bridge (great atmosphere at night) and Draper's Hall, St, Mary's Street (quality food set in an old medieval building). Loch Fyne has been a welcome addition. There are many more to choose from that cover a range of international cuisines, and the Shrewsbury Guide link below is a good place to start.
Should you want to walk off lunch then a great place to head is the aforementioned Quarry Park, a large (29 acres) riverside park that includes formal gardens (the Dingle - made famous by Percy Thrower) and a fitness centre - if walking isn't enough.
Events are also held in the park, including the annual Shrewsbury flower show, which according to Guinness World Records the world's longest running horticultural show. It is held over 2 days in August and has a huge range of flowers, vegetables, garden designs, entertainment (this year's included horse jumping, quad bike tricks and Katherine Jenkins singing - all in the pouring rain) and to cap it all fireworks.
The park also hosts various events. Jools Holland and guests, Will Young, Travis and others have performed over the years. Always a open bring your own picnic type of event.
If music or theatre is of interest then the new Shrewsbury theatre, The Severn Theatre, opened in 2009. It has a 650 seat main auditorium and a 250 seat studio theatre for more experimental performances. The range of shows has got better since its opening year, and the auditorium is comfortable with good views and acousitics. For film, there is a cinema which is walkable from the centre on Old Potts Way (outside the horseshoe) for mainstream films or for more 'arty' films the Old Market Hall mentioned above. The Old Music Hall, which used to be the towns' theatre is bing re-furbished and will re-open in 2012 as a musem and art gallery.
It could be you are after some late night dancing and there are a number of clubs - Diva for over 25's, Liquid, Flairs, Ministry, The Butterworth with lots of events - though my night clubbing days are now just a distant memory so I can't comment on the quality.
There are of course a few places to visit that don't include shops or alcohol for those trying to avoid temptation.
Castles can be found all along the English / Welsh border, and Shrewsbury is no exception. With parts dating from the 11th Century it has had many alterations and additions and now houses the collections of the Shropshire Regimental Museum - so if military history is for you the castle is a must see. Views aren't too bad either. Being an old town there are a number of medieval churches; The Abbey (which survived Henry VIII's destructive phase), St. Mary's (the best example of an original medieval church), St. Alkmund's Church, and the rebuilt St. Chad's, all of which are worth a quick visit.
If you want to take things really slowly you can take boat trips on the river - they leave from the Victoria Quay, next to the Welsh Bridge or alternatively head back to your hotel room and sleep.
Places to Stay include B&B's from around £20pp upto Hotels for £175 per room. Most fall somewhere in between £40 and £100. The best hotel is the Prince Rupert, the former home of Prince Rupert, James I's grandson. Parts of the hotel are very old, so rooms vary in size but it has a certain charm and service is good.
If you have exhausted the town itself, nearby (not all inclusive) there are the National Trust properties of Attingham Park and Powis Castle, Acton Burnell Castle (English Heritage), Llangollen Canal and Weston Park (where they hold the annual V festival).
How to find it.
Shrewsbury is situated on the English / Welsh border and is approximately 70 miles west of Birmingham. It is easily accessible by car with dual carriage way (A5) / motorway (M54) from the M6. Trains come from all directions and it is in easy reach of Birmingham, Chester, Liverpool and Manchester. Coach is also an option with National Express
If you drive, park and ride locations are signed from all main directions (cost £1), though I recommend that anyone heading from the North, West or South heads for the Frankwell car park which is on the Welsh side of town, just before the unsurprisingly named Welsh Bridge. Only £3 for all day parking is a rare bargain. If coming from the East a good parking choice is Shrewsbury Football club's ground (make sure they are playing away from home!) which is just before the English Bridge.
Park and Ride Parking: Oxon (West) - Off A458 Welshpool Road, Meole Brace (South) Off A5112 Hereford Road, Harlescott (North East) - Off A5112 Whitchurch Road
Bits and pieces of Other
If you need to do food shopping there is a Sainsbury's, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons in the town.
The Tourist Information Centre is located within the Music Hall which is on the Market Square
The Welsh Bridges and English bridges are the only way into the centre of the town (unless you count a single lane toll bridge) and they date from the 18th century.
Previous names for Shrewsbury: Pengwern (Briton), Scrobbes-brig (Saxon), Salopesberia (Norman)
You can gaze up at the Statue of 'Clive of India' in Market Square or that of Charles Darwin at the town library. Other famous locals include Wilfred Owen, Percy Thrower, Mary Webb and the fictional Brother Cadfael.
Not so good
Castle Street, High Street and Mardol would be better pedestrianised.
It's on a hill and there are cobbled streets which isn't so good for wheelchairs.
Useful web links
Food info: www.shrewsburyguide.info/shrewsbury_food.html
The Theatre Severn: www.theatresevern.co.uk/
The Old Market Hall: www.oldmarkethall.co.uk/
The Music Hall: www.musichall.co.uk
Thanks for reading.
I was given a 2000 (W) Volvo S40 1.8 (122bhp) XS when my car was written off (a long story) so I am not sure what I would have had to pay for this model which now has 85,000 miles. Looking at Glasss Guide values, I would get something like £2,000 to £2,300 for trade, and I would have to pay up to £4,700 for one in perfect condition at retail.
Would I have chosen a Volvo? Probably not. However, I have now had the car for 9 months and would now at least consider one. Its a pleasure to drive, but not perfect.
From outside the car has a reasonably attractive design along with alloy wheels to give a sense of quality. Like your average looking person that cares about what they wear perhaps but nowhere near your catwalking model!
Of course looks arent everything. Thats true, isnt it? So, also to be considered is comfort, how it drives, whether its reliable, how safe it is, how much it will hurt your pocket etc..
I am quite tall but the car is easy to get into whether drivers or passenger side. In the rear leg room is quite limited, especially if Im driving, but bearable. Three people in the back is a squeeze but for three small children a breeze. Head room is good in the front and back.
From a drivers perspective controls on the seat allow height and lumbar to be altered and I have managed to make the seat very comfortable. The steering wheel is a good size and can also be altered up and down depending on your driving position and all the controls are in easy reach. The pedals are well placed and have a comfortable space for your left foot when not in use.
On the downside it is not too comfortable for sleeping in I wont be doing that again. I didnt however consider the boot which is of a good size and might have worked. The seats also come down.
My car doesnt like the cold very much, so it can take two turns of the key to start and then has a tendency to stall in the first five minutes of driving off during winter. At other times there are no problems.
Once I get going, the gears (all five of them) work smoothly without glitches and engine and tyre noise isnt too bad. For general driving acceleration is ok, and in forth gear it can seem sprightly. It is not however powerful. Despite it having a 1.8 petrol engine I can struggle going up a steep hill, especially with a passenger and around where I live there are a lot of hills.
Like most cars it is happy going at 70 miles an hour, even 80 (I guess) and you can get sufficient acceleration to overtake in most situations. Not though around blind corners which seems to be popular local method of overtaking.
The steering is power assisted and quite responsive. So parking and going round corners is easy on your arms and the car goes in the direction you intend it to. One of the big plusses is the way the car sticks to the road, considerably better than the now dead old car - a Peugeot 306, which certainly increases the pleasure of driving.
Its not bad, but it has been slightly disappointing. Since I have had it there have been no major problems, but my indicators have failed twice and the bonnet developed a problem and wouldnt shut. This isnt good when compared to my similar aged Peugeot 306 - which had no problems at all in three years of ownership.
Volvos are renowned for their safety (four-star Euro NCAP rating); and the clunk of the doors, the air bags (driver and passenger) and ABS all help to make me feel safe. Fortunately I have not tested its strength against crashes so the doors and air bags have remained in place, but the breaking system is fantastic smooth and responsive. It also has an alarm which should hopefully deter opportunistic crime.
A minus on the safety side in my view is that the horn (situated on the steering wheel) is very difficult to apply and on occasions I have not been able to make it work quick enough or at all. While back on the steering wheel - the audio equipment has no controls on it which means I have to take my eyes off the road for a second to turn up the volume or change the channel if listening to the radio.
The wing mirrors are controlled electrically and the controls are responsive which all helps to improve safe driving conditions. As do the headlights which are always on.
Once you have paid for the car (not that good for your pocket in the first place) the cost just keeps on rising. Depreciation puts in the biggest dent, Volvos occupying the top spaces in the depreciation ladder. So never pay the top retail price if you can help it. But it does mean you can get some good value deals if you look around.
Going from a diesel car to one that runs on unleaded has increased my fuel bill by up to £20 a week. Fuel economy is, for a petrol car, a reasonable 30 odd miles the gallon, but when youre coming down from diesel returns it still hurts. It cost about £50 to fill the tank with prices around 90 something pence a litre.
Servicing costs are comparable to other makes (i.e. Peugeot, Rover) and will always be cheaper at a non franchised garage. When mileage is as high as mine it is not worth maintaining a Volvo stamp in the service book. That said my previous service was at the Volvo dealership and cost £200 odd.
Other bits I like
- The remote works from a generous distance which means that you can find the car if you have forgotten where it is parked.
- There are two cup holders set between the driver and passenger
- The CD player. Never again will I buy a car without one as it has guaranteed I listen to all of my music collection.
Other bits I dont like
-It has no rear wiper. Why cant saloons have rear wipers?
-The front wipers arent rain sensitive. I know, big deal. But when youve been spoilt
Other bits that have no place else to go
-Mines green (when visible under the mud) but Volvos come in a range of colours.
-It is an American Owned Swedish Car built in the Netherlands (the S40 range). Some S40s even have Japanese (Mitsubishi) engines. Hence the confused Swedish model.
-There are no technical comparisons or the like as I know next to nothing about that side of cars.
-The car has air conditioning, which cools everything but your pocket.
So, who might buy this car? Anyone who isnt too image conscious, wants a car that is good value, has children or various pieces of equipment to carry, and wants a comfortable car for longer distances, wont do too badly with a used Volvo S40 1.8 SX
Thanks for reading
Amsterdam is a difficult place to find accommodation as it doesnt really have enough beds for all the people who want to visit, so if you can it pays to book early.
I found the Golden Tulip through www.bookings.nl and it (and its sister sites elsewhere) is a good site to use for searching hotel availability. I stayed from Wednesday till Saturday and the room cost 150 on the Friday night and 110 on the others. Breakfast cost an additional 14 and is a mix of cooked and continental. Id say it was better to ignore the breakfast and get a better quality, cheaper bite to eat near by.
The hotel, which is 4 starred (not that I can tell you what that means as often in the UK it is rather subjective), is within walking distance from the train station (less than a mile) and is situated on the Kolkplein, a quiet pedestrian area. It is close to Dam Square and within easy reach of all central Amsterdam, including the coffee shops and red light district if that is your goal.
There is no greeting (as you might expect from a genuine 4*) when you arrive but the staff are friendly and efficient. On the downside check-in time is frustratingly late (3 pm), especially when you arrive at 9.30 am. They were however more than happy to store luggage, and you get the choice of smoking or non-smoking rooms which I always appreciate.
The reception area is small and difficult to pass through when people are checking in and out, and Id describe it as more functional than plush. The bar area is similar, small and not open late. Within the bar area there are two computer terminals with free internet access for those in need of a Dooyoo fix.
On the bedroom floors (5 of them with 236 rooms) the hotel is clean and there are four room standards: standard, superior, executive and deluxe. Mine was the superior and the room itself was tidy, with a musical (humming) air conditioning system, a large double bed that was firm and comfortable, a bathroom that was compact with a decent bath/shower (the bath was sufficient for me, at 6 ft 1, rather than grand), a room safe, a mini bar fridge that I resisted (you need a key), a TV with full satellite listings and pay channels that cost 12. There is also a basket with soft drinks and chocolate (which did tempt me, despite its price tag of 2.50) for sale. There isnt an iron in the room, but you can borrow one from reception.
I like to use a hotel's staircase (any exercise being good for me..?) and unlike many (often plusher) hotels the staircase was decorated and clean.
Next door to the hotel you can eat good food with generous portions at Bon Ton or eat out at Humphreys restaurant. You can put Bon Ton bills on your room bill, but I didnt eat at Humphreys so I am unsure about that one.
Checking out was as easy and efficient as checking in had been.
As a final thought, although I don't have children yet, while I think this hotel would make children welcome there didn't seem to be much for them to do - as far as my unpracticed eyes could see.
Overall I would recommend the hotel. I didnt pay for my bill (work) but I would say it was of average value, in an excellent location. More function than luxury but the staff worked hard to make you feel welcome.
Update: This was originally written in late 2003 for ciao, and prices for rooms seem to have been fairly static, but breakfast is now even better value it seems - 17.50.
Thank you for reading.
For more info: http://www.goldentulipamsterdamcentre.com
If you havent been to Mid Wales yet you should start making plans now. It is surely one of the most beautiful and uncrowded areas in the UK.
And the gateway is a pool. Or to be precise, a Welsh pool. On any map its known and as Welshpool and can be found just three miles from the English border, and 19 miles west of Shrewsbury. To a number of locals it is known as Y Trallym, and it used to be known by all as Pool until 1835. However, the rise in popularity of Poole in Dorset persuaded the town that it should be known as Welshpool to avoid the inevitable confusion (the lack of a nearby sea should have been enough of a hint in my mind).
There must be a pool somewhere but I havent found it yet. Water is abundant though as the river Severn runs past the town.
So why stop at Welshpool?
It is one of those rare townss that has managed to retain a sense of charm and individuality. Admittedly this is because its size (about 6,000) and its proximity to Oswestry (16 miles) and Shrewsbury.
The attraction youd be hard pushed to miss is Powis Castle. If you do, youd be missing an excellent place to pass some quality time - a great place for walkers, garden lovers, for historians and lovers of grand / old buildings. I have been three times now as it proves to be an excellent choice for entertaining guests. If Im honest I probably dont need to do another castle tour but I will never get bored of the garden or park. For more detail the following review (not mine) is recommended: www.dooyoo.co.uk/sightseeing-national/powis-castle/354658/
There are even a number of events held in the grounds of Powis Castle. The largest and most popular is the Country and Western Music Festival in July. The town fills with people dressed in full western gear and the pubs (weather allowing) lay on straw bales for seating. Its fair to say youd have to be keen on Country and Western, but if youre not I can recommend the Powys Wood Fair, showcasing local crafts and art, in September.
There are a number of restaurants in the town, though the only one Id go out of my way to recommend is the Corn Store. Id avoid the Chinese take aways as they are all pretty poor in my opinion. There are also plenty of pubs to choose from, though they are far better for drinking in than eating in. There are none I am a dedicated fan of. That could be an age thing of course. The Grapes on Salop Road is probably the most interesting the pub that time forgot. There are some great village pubs in nearby villages the Lion in Berriew a good one for food.
If staying overnight there is one hotel, the Royal Oak an old coaching house which has a comfortable bar and okay food, and numerous B&Bs. I have never stayed locally and cannot make a recommendation.
The town itself flanks the castle grounds and it is laid out over two main crossing streets although most of what is to be found is in Broad Street. In the centre it still has shops that are small local businesses, which makes the town something of a museum piece (the National Milk Bar helps with that). WH smiths and Woolworths are the only names that might be recognized in a modern town unless of course you think of food shopping and then you have the quality choices of Morrisons, Summerfields, Kwik Save and Spar!
I am going to take a wild guess and assume that those shops arent going to tempt you to Welshpool. In fact the shopping on offer wont tempt you, but if you get here there are some shops worth looking into: Gwythers Shoes is one of my wifes favourites, some good antique and jewellery shops, a wine shop that knows what they are talking about (the Welshpool Wine Company), a shop for all things Welsh (the Celtic Company) and for those that like lace and quality clothes from a bygone era then Ashmans is somewhere to bookmark.
On Mondays and Saturday there is an indoor market, and you can get some good produce but otherwise it is full of your usual tack.
On the edge of town wine lovers have more options with Tanners Wine Merchants warehouse on the Severn Farm Enterprise Park. Its headquarters are in Shrewsbury but it has a genuine UK wide reputation. The best Picture Framing service (Kingswood Frames and Mirrors) I have ever come across is on the edge of town in the Offas Dyke Business Park.
After persuading you to stop in Welshpool Im now going to recommend you leave (youll have to come back for your car at least) on the Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway (www.wllr.org.uk), which takes you on a beautiful journey through the Banwy Valley to Llanfair Caereinion. The countryside around Welshpool in general is stunning.
If you want to go at an even slower pace then Welshpool is an excellent base for walking the long distance Offas Dyke, Glyndwrs Way or Severn Way paths, all of which pass through the town. Easier walking is to be had along the Montgomery Canal tow path its flat! You can go all the way to Newtown heading West
More interesting bits and pieces:
Every Monday there is a livestock market in Welshpool, the largest in Wales
There are some quality garden in nearby villages
There is culture! Head for Andrew Logans museum in Berriew (www.andrewlogan.com)
Not so good
The pavements are too narrow.
There is too much traffic A bypass runs to the south taking which has succeeded in reducing the amount of traffic passing through en-route to Newtown or Aberystwyth, but unfortunately all traffic heading to Dollgellau (considerable in summer) still has to come through part of the town which does often clog up centre.
For more info:
Powis Castle: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hbcache/property146.htm
Welshpool in detail: www.welshpool.org / www.welshpool.com
Thanks for reading.
No sign of murder when we arrived, just a glorious sunset. (Nor was there a sign of a National Park, so ignore the 'National Parks International' product element).
It wouldnt surprise me if Californians decided to keep Mendocino to themselves. It is a gem of a place.
I had only heard of Mendocino in the vaguest sense being aware of Willie Nelsons song the Mendocino County Line but when my partner and I were planning our summer holiday in 2004, and had decided on San Francisco our attention was drawn to a place temptingly described by our handy travel guides.
The town is surrounded by headlands and the Pacific Ocean beyond, and when it can be seen clearly as we did for a moment its setting is beautiful. While we were there the fog rolled in and obscured many of the views. This is apparently quite common, but it brought with it a hazy pastel look to the town which was seductively appealing.
An immediate attraction is the ocean, which you can smell and hear as soon as you get out of the car. We walked around the headlands, which gave great views of the town and the coast.
The town, filled with an interesting mix of Victorian and New England architecture, flowers and white fences, oozes charm and bits of it may seem familiar to you as it was where the TV series Murder She Wrote was filmed. Despite having seen some of the show no bells rang for me.
Mendocino is the type of town where you can lose hours just by wondering and window shopping, as there a plenty of interesting shops to discover including those selling art, antiques and jewellery
We ate dinner at the MacCallum House (where we also stayed) both nights as the food was exceptionally good and varied. We had good lunches at the Bay View Café - which has great views, and the Mendocino Bakery and Café. There are more to choose from, of which 955 Ukiah, Cafe Beaujolais or the Moose Cafe were recommended by our hotel staff
There are a few choices but our helpful hotel mentioned Pattersons pub the obligatory bit of Ireland in every corner; and Dicks place a place for serious drinkers. Far too serious for us that weekend.
Once you arrive there is an excellent choice of accommodation to choose from, though it may at times be worth booking ahead as it can get quite full. We were in Mendocino in August and tried 4 places before striking lucky.
But boy did we strike lucky.
We stayed at MacCallum House (http://www.maccallumhouse.com), which was originally a wedding present lucky bride! Our room was gorgeous - very stylish, and had a bath to die for. Okay dying might be a bit rash perhaps, but it was a real luxury. I read from my book while drinking red wine in complete comfort.
Prices range from $135 to $375 though we got it cheaper by taking an empty room on the night. I feel sure they could be open to negotiation most times.
We had originally booked into the Mendocino Hotel, which is full of character but the room we were taken to didnt really match up to the promise so we left not something I do very often. There may well have been better rooms but turning up without a booking did not allow us choice.
There are plenty of alternative choices, with a number of B&Bs, self catering and camping options.
THINGS TO DO
Walk, and hike on the many trails
Watch Whales if your timing is right
First step is getting to San Francisco, and from there you can take the quicker route (4 hours) on Highway 101, turning west on to the 128 or the slower alternatively Highway One - which Id recommend as it is infinitely prettier. It took us about 6 or even 7 hours, though we did stop for lunch along the way.
SOME NOT SO GOOD THINGS
Bad weather - Being on the California coast Mendocino can be hit , which we thankfully missed.
Not particularly cheap - though with the pound as it is it you may not notice.
Busy - Iit is advisable to book ahead during summer weekends. Not that we paid attention to that advise ourselves.
OTHER BITS AND PIECES
There is one cash machine
There a redwoods nearby magnificent trees
There is a music festival in July - http://www.mendocinomusic.com/
If you are looking for night life dont look here.
Take some warmer clothes it can be quite cold
For more information try http://www.destinationmendocino.com/ or http://www.gomendo.com/
And a few closing lines from Willie Nelson:
Counted the stars on the 4th of July
Wishing we were rockets bursting in the sky
Talking about redemption and leaving things behind
As the sun sank west of the Mendocino County line
Thanks for reading.
A similar version of this has appeared elsewhere.
The first view of Cape Town and the surrounding Cape lands was from the air. It was one heck of a view. The wild coastline views gave way to the City sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and Table Mountain; truly impressive even from the height I was at. That bit of fortune was due to the KLM Captain being ahead of schedule and in a good enough mood to offer flying us around the coastline. The whole plane mumbled its improvement. Of course if that was his flight path anyway he fooled us all well.
This was the beginning of a three-week holiday with a friend, which took in Cape Town, Cape Point, the Garden Route to Knysna, the Little Karoo and the Winelands region. Although only a fraction of the Western Cape is covered, this, I hope, will give you a feel for the region. Tempt a little.
Once on the ground things were a little more hectic, but no less eye catching for it. Cape Town has that appeal. It draws you in. We stayed at the The Backpack, which was very comfortable and secure with dormitories, and individual rooms available. It is on the corner of Military Road & New Church Street and very close to Long Street.
Long Street, as its name may suggest, is one of Cape Town's longest streets. It is also one of its most beguiling streets, full of (the end I was at) bars, restaurants, hostels, shops, hotels, mosques...and more. It is safe to walk along in the day and at night and it is well worth the effort as the street is an experience in itself. It is perhaps better to be with company, although there was visible security on the streets.
Another honey pot for the tourist is the Victoria and Albert Waterfront. It is full of classy restaurants and hotels and designer label shops. At least, that is the impression it made on me. A distinctly European feel. From here, you can catch a boat to Robben Island, one time 'home' for Nelson Mandela. The trip takes half an hour, and includes a tour of the prison, which will be led by a former inmate. The island and prison are rather bleak, as you might expect, but the insight gained from the guide is interesting and the views of Cape Town and Table Mountain exceptional.
If you want to get a glimpse of life for poorer people in Cape Town you can take a tour of townships on the Cape Flats. I didn't have time to do this, but a friend strongly recommends it. They could have told me before I went!
We hired a car (very cheap to hire and feed) and took the road South to Cape Point, where you get great views of the sea. It is an attractive ragged coastline, and your car might well get vandalised by Baboons.
The Garden Route on towards Knysna has a number of tempting stops. Simons Town has penguins (I found that out after I had gone, so how cute they are I can't say), Hermanus has Whales (they are truly impressive, and worth the stop even in winter when everything seems shut. They kept us amused for hours) and Wilderness. Heart stopping views on the approach to Wilderness more than made up for the lack of flora (not much garden in winter). We stayed at the Fairy Knowe Backpacker, which had a good atmosphere, enviable surroundings and excellent access to Wilderness National Park. We hired a kayak - or is it a canoe - and paddled up the Touw River. If you don't like water, there are a number of attractive looking walks and if you are doing the Garden Route I strongly recommend you break your journey here, as it is a truly wonderful area.
Our next stop was Knysna, which has an Oyster festival every year in winter. It was in full swing when we got there and as a result accommodation was difficult to find, forcing us to stay in a rather poor hostel, which didn't persuade us to stay in the town for long, especially as neither of us likes Oysters. But if you do... Although, I do vaguely remember pushing my friend around in a shopping trolley, so we must have had some fun.
Most people who do this ruote carry on to Port Elizabeth. However, we headed over the Swartberg pass (where the views are simply breathtaking) on a gravel road into the Little Karoo, a semi arid region and an area that attracts walkers, cyclists and other outdoor enthusiasts. Our last stop of note (besides a wonderful B&B in Barrydale - the Tradouw Guest House - fantastic welcome with exceptional service) was Stellenbosch. Stellenbosch has one of South Africa's top Universities and, as you might therefore expect, it has heaps of bars and restaurants - and a rather refined feel to it. It is also an excellent base from which you can explore its surrounding vineyards, and those in Franschoek and Paarl. We stayed in the Stumble Inn Backpackers, a comfortable and friendly place.
Despite being winter when I went it was sunny and surprisingly warm, although at times warm clothes were appreciated. In spring you will get the full flowering benefit of the Garden Route. There are about 12 Rand to the pound at the moment, so everything will seem of exceptional value. There is so much more to see and do than I have described, no visa is required, the flight only takes 12 hours and there is no jet lag. I never felt in danger or in the least bit uncomfortable. So what's stopping you?
Getting there: Virgin, BA and South African fly direct and non-stop from London Heathrow. Although not, it appears, all year round. KLM is still a good choice. Typically flights will cost between £500 and £700 (economy class).
For more information try www.capetourism.org
Thanks for reading
Ok - not true, not unless you inhabit the world imagined by Malcolm Pryce in his two amusing and excellent books (Aberystwyth Mon Amour and Last Tango in Aberystwyth).
The town I know is more mainstream but is definitely a town with beguiling charm. It is heavily dependent on the University for its livelihood, but its presence has blessed the town with more assets than you might expect - for one so small and remote (approx 12,000 people).
So why visit when it takes forever to get to, whether by train or car?
For the journey as a starter. The road into Aberystwyth from Llangurig is arguably one of the most beautiful in the UK, as it winds its way through the Cambrian Mountains - truly dramatic - before giving you a glimpse of the Irish Sea and descending towards the town. Alternatively the train teeters on the River Dovey's banks and then heads towards the estuary at Ynyslas, Borth and then Aberystwyth.
If arriving by train you may well arrive late, and feasibly have been standing for an hour, so you may wish to have a drink at the pub on the station. It's a Wetherspoons - do I need to say more?
The town is full of hotels and B&B's of varied quality. They do get busy at certain times (the start of University terms for example) but finding a bed is not generally difficult. I have stayed in a couple of indifferent B&B's but general consensus among friends is that the Marine Hotel on the promenade is top of the pile. There are no luxury hotels.
Once you have found a bed a good point to head for is the top of Constitution Hill, from where you get spectacular views of the bay, Snowdon National Park and the town itself. For a close up view there is a Camera Obscura from which you can identify buildings in the town with pinpoint precision. There is also a fairly basic café at the top, which you may be glad of if you have walked. If energy levels are low you can take the electric cliff railway, Britain's longest - and an experience in itself.
For lunch my favourite place is the Blue Creek Café near the Castle, with wonderful wraps, cakes and coffee. It's a true gem of a place, but it doesn't have much space, so you may have to wait, or be disappointed.
Other possibilities include Corners, in Chalybeate Street, or for an organic meal the Treehouse in Baker Street, which also has a good organic food shop. Both do excellent food. If, on the other hand, you are just peckish, there is a Sandwich shop at the bottom of Great Darkgate Street that has sublime chocolate doughnuts.
After all that food you may wish to walk it off, and if you head for the promenade via Terrace Road pop in to the Ceredigion Museum, which has fascinating historical objects and displays. And, according to the blurb, it is 'probably the most beautiful Museum in Britain'. It is impressive, but I'll leave you to make your own mind up. Next door is the Tourist Information Centre which is full of pamphlets and maps giving details of all local attractions. Staff are very helpful and friendly too.
I got distracted - the walk. You would join the promenade by a café that sells coffee and ice cream. It is only open in the summer and is a great favourite of the bikers who regularly congregate on the promenade. Walking for about a mile, away from Constitution Hill, take in the colourful hotels and B&B's, the pier, the castle and the harbour. The pier is a popular place, with amusement arcades, a snooker club, pub, pizza restaurant and nightclub. Unfortunately you cannot walk around it and it is not as impressive as in some towns (Eastbourne, Brighton for example).
The castle is a ruin, but it is in lovely surroundings and can have quite a daunting atmosphere to it, especially when the wind is blowing in hard off the Irish Sea.
Shopping in the town is limited. However its remoteness and size has kept many of the typical high street shops away so you do get some interesting individual ones. Siop y Pethe in Great Darkgate Street is a good place for all things Welsh. There is also a regular, although not exceptional, market on Saturday's. Better is the occasional farmers market, which has interesting local products. Some of the shops give very poor service, knowing you are a captive market, but most places you will go to as tourist have very helpful and friendly staff.
The council has recently worked to improve the shopping experience by widening the pavements in Great Darkgate Street - a success, and limiting parking in Terrace Road - not such a success, not least for wheelchair users who now find it difficult to cross the roads due to unhelpful dips between the pavement and the road.
For night entertainment, most of the pubs are geared for the student market and are usually lively in term time. Rummers (a great atmosphere), Scholars (nice surroundings, not too crowded) and Yr Cwps (more traditional, friendly local) are three that I particularly liked. For restaurants, Gannets Bistro has exceptional food and service, and at Figaro's there are good meat and fish dishes, and you can watch your food being cooked. Others I like are Little Italy, Serendipity and Harry's. There is nowhere I have had a bad meal.
Cultural needs are met by the Aberystwyth Arts Centre, which is half way up Penglais Hill at the University. Excellent films, exhibitions and shows are put on here, the quality of which puts many larger towns to shame. The centre also has an excellent café (generous helpings), a craft/gift shop and a Waterstones bookshop.
Further down the hill, back towards the town is Wales' National Library which puts on excellent exhibitions, and has the right to a free copy of every printed work in the UK, so good for research.
Near by it is well worth going to Ynyslas for its wonderful sandy beach and dunes. You can walk from Aberystwyth. It takes about two hours and if you are extremely lucky, as I was, you may see a family of Pole Cats along the way. The path does hug the cliff, so if you suffer from severe vertigo, this may not be such a good idea.
Further out, Devils Bridge looks down over an impressive gorge and has an excellent walk in the surrounding woods. You can get there from Aberystwyth by the Vale of Rheidol steam train. It takes about an hour (return cost - £11) and gives wonderful views of the Rheidol valley.
If you want action, mid Wales has some of the UK's best mountain bike tracks at Nant yr Arian, about 8 miles east of the Town. Close by you can watch Red Kites being fed - there is a pay and display car park off the A44 - and there are good short walks.
It is true that at times Aber can be crowded, with students and holiday makers competing for pavement space, and it can rain quite a bit. But it is a charming beautiful town that once visited would not be forgotten
For more information try: http://www.aberystwyth-online.co.uk/
Ok - I have finally got off my proverbial backside and responded to Malu's challenge. 1 : what is your favourite genre? A: I don't think of myself as having a favourite genre. I go into a bookshop and read a page in the first half of a book. If it pulls me in, I'll buy it, whatever the genre. That said, the majority come from Modern Fiction _____________________ 2: do you read the classics, i.e., the great authors of the 18th and 19th century? A: I have read a few of them, but I associated classics with school and therefore a bit of a chore. The only ones I have read in recent years are Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (wonderful) and Thomas Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge (ok). I'm not inspired to read my way through them systematically. ______________________ 3: are you interested in thrillers? A: This depends on whether they 'pull me in' as with Q1. _______________________ 4: What about horror stories? A: This is not really my thing at all! _______________________ 5: Do you read Science Fiction? A: I read more what I'd think of as fantasy - books by Jasper Ffforde and Malcolm Pryce for example. I've read 1984 if that counts. ______________________ 6: How many Harry Potter books have you read? A: I have read all of them. I was disappointed with the last, which was very laboured, but otherwise, despite the standard of writing (which I think is very average), JK Rowling tells a good story. _______________________ 7: Have you ever read and enjoyed biographies or autobiographies? A: I have read some - I enjoyed David Niven's, and would read more if it is by, or on, someone who interests me enough. Someone from a political, legal or journalistic career is most likely to interest me. ________________________ 8: Do you rememb
er any of the books you read and loved as a child? A: The Narnia books, Whinnie the Pooh, the Hobbit, Swallows and Amazons, The Yearling by Marjory Rawlings and Forever Free by Joy Adamson. I also read all of Malcolm Savile's books, who had been a favourite of my mum?s as a child. ________________________ 9: Have you reread these books as a grown-up? A: No. I think it would spoil the memories I have of them. ________________________ 10: Is there a book of which you can say it has influenced you? A: No particular book has influenced me specifically but certainly as a whole, with a few exceptions, those I have read have enriched my life enormously. _______________________ 11: Which are your favourite authors? A: Particular favourites at the moment include Tim Winton, Paula Sharpe, E Annie Proulx, Peter Carey, Malcolm Pryce, Tom Wolfe, Jasper Fforde to name a few. I love discovering new authors. ________________________ 12: Which book would you take with you on a desert island? A: To Kill a Mockingbird - the only book I studied for school exams that I really enjoyed. I intend to read it again. Of course, if there is such a book called 'The definitive guide to survival on a desert island', I'd better take that. _________________________ 13: What is your attitude towards translations? A: How would I get to read the wonderful books written in other languages in any other way? ________________________ 14: Do you buy your books/get them from the library/borrow them from friends/steal them? A: I buy nearly all my book. I found two that I thoroughly enjoyed (The Perfect Storm - good - by Sebastian Junger and Monday's Warriers - excellent - by Maurice Shadbolt) on the roadside when on a long distance cycling touring trip. They were well and truly appreciated. _______________________
_ 15: When you buy b ooks, do you prefer hardcover editions or pocket books? A: I prefer the soft cover books. For me they are reading not for profit or display. If someone gives me a hardcover though, I am not going to complain. ________________________ 16: Have you ever tried Audio Books? A: Just once. I can see that a few books work well this way and would be good on long journeys, but generally I prefer the radio. ================================= Thanks for the challenge Malu. This is not in the correct category, so my apologies to The Duke. Thanks for reading.
Eastbourne's a town for old people! Sure it is, but it is also very much a town for everybody else too. If you haven't considered visiting, read on... perhaps I can persuade you. I must confess some bias. I grew up nearby, lived in the town for a long time and return regularly. It is true that the town is not perfect and that it has some problems but which town could say otherwise. What it does have is plenty going for it There can't be many large towns blessed with Eastbourne's surroundings, if you approach the town from Seaford on the A259 it is well worth stopping and taking in the view. If you arrive by car, in all likelihood from the A22, car parks are well signed and are the easiest option. Eastbourne has a delightful one way system that could entrap you if you spend time looking for free parking. If on the other hand you let the train take the stress, you'll arrive at the station, and for the purposes of this opinion, that is where I shall start. Don't linger in the train station too long, as there is not much to keep you (unless you are desperate for a drink - there is a pub). Instead the nearest attraction is the Enterprise Centre, which you can reach directly from the station. Inside there are over 50 small and interesting shops. Whether you are after crafts, fancy dress, gifts, cheese, sausages, a meal or just a coffee, you should find something here. Opposite the Enterprise Centre and past the library is Grove Road. This road, and South Street provide the backbone to an area known as 'Little Chelsea'. This is Eastbourne's most appealing shopping area and is where to look for antiques, old books, furniture - and for something a bit different, undertakers. If you need a break from shopping there are sandwich shops, bars and restaurants. The centre of Eastbourne 'shopping wise' is found in the area bordered by Terminus Road (household n
ames) , Cornfield Terrace (mostly estate agents, banks and restaurants - and the Tourist Information Centre!), South Street and Gildredge Road (mostly accountants and solicitors) and includes the Arndale centre (more well known retail shops). Terminus Road stretches all the way to the Seafront. That's enough on shops... If the weather is being kind (and there is a very good chance it will be as Eastbourne is consistently one of the sunniest places in the UK) and as you have just arrived at the seafront, the promenade is an excellent place be. It is 5 miles long and is perfect for a romantic stroll, running and rollerblading (although the occasional storm can make this difficult - stones cover the promenade and even the road alongside from time to time). There is a weather station half way along which I have always found interesting. If it's warm, what about swimming in the sea? I have never found anything unpleasant in the water, and although the beaches are stony once the tide is out there is sand for your feet to recover on. When the tide is in it does gets deep quite quickly. If that's all too much, buy an ice cream (in summer) and join the older tourists who like sit on the benches, and watch the world go by. Or perhaps listen to music at the bandstand. The pier is worth a walk around too, as you get to look back at Eastbourne's sea front which being free of any shops can look quite grand. The pier itself has small souvenir type shops, games, a burger king and, at the end, a pub and nightclub. At dusk you can watch the starlings flock to their roosts underneath the pier, surprisingly beautiful. If you hanker after a little culture, Eastbourne has a number of museums. The Towner Art Gallery and Local History Museum is fascinating and well worth the walk to Gildredge Park in Old Town. Alternatively you can see How We Lived Then, an interesting privately run museum that gives you a glimps
e of how shops were in the Victorian era. In addition you could choose to learn more about puppets (at the Wish Tower) or the military collections of the Royal Irish Hussars and the Royal Sussex Regiment at the Redoubt Fortress Museum on Royal Parade (Eastern seafront). For nights out there is great choice. There are four theatres catering for all tastes. The Congress and the Devonshire Park have the main touring shows, the Winter Garden is on a Comedy Club circuit - usually funny - and then there are traditional shows in the towns oldest, (120 years old) the Royal Hippodrome. The Winter Gardens is a good place to book tickets for any show. All this activity will no doubt have you in desperate need of good food. Don't worry. There are a wide range of choices to tempt you. My favourites include Yankee Doodles in Seaside for its Mexican food, Sereecha's in the same road for Thai or Solo Pasta in Cornfield Terrace for Italian. There are so many more than this, many of which do excellent food, and most of them are within easy walking distance of the town centre. For the special occasion try Mr. Hau's (Chinese) in Terminus Road or the Mirabelle at the Grand Hotel, both good with excellent food. Bonnicks, a new restaurant in Grove Road has quickly developed a reputation for quality. I haven't been a regular clubber for a few years (if I ever was) but I have been at times during the last 18 years and do know there are now five nightclubs. The largest is Atlantis on the end of the pier and is a fairly standard club. It takes a hardy soul to walk to it along the pier in bleak midwinter. Another, Tuxedo Junction (my favourite) has two floors, one which is more happening and one more for chilling. The others are much as you would expect. They do student nights during the week for the University of Brighton students (Eastbourne campus) who help to bring down the average age in the town. (As do the hordes of foreign students
who arrive in summer). Out and about for this long and I am sure you will be in need of a bed. I haven't stayed in any hotels so don't feel able to make recommendations, but there are hundreds of beds in hotels, B&B's and guest houses to choose from so nobody should be without. The Tourist Information Centre can help or just walk along the seafront and take your pick. If you are looking for sport or leisure activities there is plenty to choose from. There are facilities that can cater for most tastes including three golf courses (none of them public), a golf driving range, tennis courts, a 33 metre swimming pool and one for kids, a David Lloyd centre (which has a ten pin bowling and laser quest site) and more. For the less energetic spectator sports include a top international tennis tournament, three semi-professional football clubs, a rugby club and (nearby) a speedway team. In the summer Eastbourne has two major events that are well worth seeing, Airbourne, which usually has a Red Arrows display, and Skate, an event for rollerblade addicts and novices alike. You probably won't want to shop for food if you are on holiday, but should you have to there are large Tesco's, Sainsbury's and Asda stores nearby and in the town itself a Sainsbury's and Safeway's. The larger stores have a good range of products and fruit and veg which is fresh and of good quality. While I'm back on the subject of shopping it is fair to say that Eastbourne is not the best place to for the quality retail shopping experience. As already mentioned there are some interesting individual shops, but most are 'any town' shops with standard product ranges. If you need to shop, Brighton and Tunbridge Wells are much better. Beyond the town boundaries and within easy reach there are a number of excellent activities or attractions to tempt. Walks up on to the South Downs and beyond along t
he Severn Sisters (seven white cliff peaks) to Exceat, a walk of two to three hours in beautiful surroundings There is a pub called the Golden Galleon at the end which does reasonable food. There are also mountain bike tracks for those with more energy, and while not up to the technical demands of tracks in Wales, still fun. Close by in Pevensey, there is Pevensey Castle, where you will find William's Norman castle inside remains of old Roman walls. Although a ruin it is in an interesting site to visit for history aficionados. I am sure I have missed bits out, both good and bad. One thing is certain, Eastbourne has plenty going for it, and it won't be as retirement orientated as you may have thought. There is nowhere in the town that is dangerous to walk around, so if I have succeeded in persuading you to visit I hope you enjoy it. For more information and maps try: http:// www.eastbourne.org or www.eastbourne-web.co.uk This is opinion is developed from a version I originally posted on Ciao. Thanks for reading ******************************************************************* If you want to take part, please include MY HOMETOWN in the title and include the following paragraph: This review is part of the HOMETOWN challenge where members are asked to write about any aspect of their hometown - or a town they'd like/not like to be their hometown. You can find all the participants by going to: http://members.dooyoo.co.uk/servlets/OpinionConnector?template=prd_opn_main&op inionID=426988&action=&action=removeSessio nID