Almost fifty years ago I booked a package holiday to Austria. I was young, impressionable and thought that by having everything organised I could play the quintessential Englishman abroad. How wrong I was. The “family guest house or pension” was owned by “mad hans the heel clicker,” who hadn’t quite got over being on the losing side in 1945; this was bad but paled into insignificance against a travel rep, who had the sole aim of fleecing the gullible with the banal. A fifty-mile trek into ze mountains with assorted bingo-biddies to witness Fritz on the zither was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was also the last time I succumbed to being a herded tourist.
There is something almost liberating about organising travel for yourself; researching places to visit, working out how to get there and how to make the most of the opportunities available.
In the early days I spent a considerable amount of time in libraries, pouring over travelogues and drinking in the information to be found in early Michelin guides. As a result I have travelled on scheduled airlines, organised my own means of transport from the airport and stayed in some beautiful hotels. I have also got to meet an array of incredible local people who are much more willing to adopt an independent traveller.
Of course today the whole business is made much easier. The advent of the internet has made getting around a relative breeze and Google Earth and Google Maps have made it all the more difficult to get well and truly lost. Having hit the Bohemia of old Vienna, climbed to monasteries in Armenia and dined in a restaurant tube set in a Roman pottery rubbish dump, it always amazes me that more people don’t go it alone. There is so much more to see than what package holidays are prepared to show you.
I am inclined to the conclusion that most Brits are actually afraid of foreign travel, will eschew any possibility that they may have to converse with a foreigner and view any attempt at social contact as an anathema. They are also convinced that Johnny foreigner will try to poison them or murder them at the slightest provocation.
It is also true that the female of the species is pushed forward to deal with anything that the male is too afraid to deal with. If you doubt the veracity of this statement try taking a bus from Benidorm to Altea and see how many men buy the bus ticket against how many women are given the job.
My first trip proper as an independent traveller was to Hong Kong.
I booked the hotel room by phone and was informed by a man with a very thick accent that,
“No deposit, all good, booking on compootah, see soon!”
I booked a flight through British Airways (when they were cheap) and learned that there was a taxi system with a set price from Kai Tak airport to all hotels. I also found that nothing will ever compare to the approach into the old Kai Tak or indeed the taxi transfer, where speeds of 75 miles an hour were recorded and Tiki the driver could go from 60 mph to stop in less than a second.
At the hotel my best friend was the breakfast waiter who in shaky English told me to visit the island:
“See market island, going west til meet street shops all same, all best Chinese you like.”
I did the Star Ferry, had a quick venture up the mount to see the absolutely stunning views of Hong Kong harbour before seeking out the market where the fish had hearts beating externally on their scales to show just how fresh they were. I also found the old Chinese quarter where tourists do not venture. It was made up of streets dedicated by profession, the street of the potters, the street of the instrument makers, the street of the lantern makers and on into the street of the undertakers and the street of jade, where prices were half of what was being charged at the tourist markets in Kowloon.
With the help of my mentor, I also had an early morning tai chi or qi gong lesson in a park that was heavy with the mesmerising aroma of jasmine and was taken to see a mahjong club to watch masters play in the intense atmosphere laid heavy with nicotine and something that definitely wasn’t nicotine. I also drank black tea in a tiny little cafe by the harbour, went to the best dim-sum restaurant in Kowloon and had a suit made in under 24 hours.
I am pleased to say that my sister is also an independent traveller and tells an amusing story about a visit to Hawaii. Apparently the shops selling local made artefacts change all their stock to tourist tat at given times. When enquiring why my sister was told:
“The American cruise boats are coming in, they are bused in here and get disappointed if they can’t buy absolute rubbish!”
With newfound wings I next turned west to the capital of consumer hedonism under the guise of Disney at Orlando. Having researched the whole thing thoroughly it turned out that booking a flight, transfer and hotel worked out cheaper by using Virgin than doing it independently. I am afraid this is the case when going west unless your name is Clinton and you are on route to a Caribbean island.
Nonetheless, the hotel receptionist was rather miffed to discover I did not want his lovely room on the twelfth floor, preferring instead a room by the pool.
“But, but, but, those rooms are for people on short stays and they can be noisy. You will be much more comfortable in room 1236!”
I won! I also had the immense satisfaction of hearing my name paged as I made my way out to the bus for MGM studio. Apparently I was the missing guest holding up the travel representatives from fleecing the gullible. I boarded the bus and went into the blue beyond, secure in the knowledge that I was a one-man rep free zone.
I have to admit that I actually take joy in annoying anyone who herds Brits around on package holidays. For a few seasons I travelled by Thomas Cook (flight only) to Xania, Crete. On each occasion I was stopped by an airport rep to be asked which hotel I was staying at. It was fabulous to watch them search for a villa that I had not booked with them and even funnier to have them offer me a coach transfer to the town for only £43 per person each way. I declined, crossed the carpark outside the airport to take a bus to Xania bus station (€1-40) where I changed for a bus to Hersonissos (€1-40) and was sat by the pool on my second beer before the Thomas Cook coach arrived in town. I also amusingly remember a fat Karen telling me that I would only get lost if I did not book a transfer with her. How I laughed.
The other thing I find totally abhorrent is the habit reps have of herding 50 people into a typical tourist restaurant and pretending that it somehow offers authentic cuisine. I once witnessed a three-course meal, served to a coach party in Salzburg in under thirty-six minutes, starter: zuppen, main course: schweinerbraten mit fries and a dessert which looked like blancmange with a ring of tinned pineapple and a glacé cherry. I almost felt sorry for them.
By comparison, the best meal I ever had was in Sicily where we drank ice-cold white wine for an hour waiting for the day’s catch to be delivered directly from a fishing boat to the restaurant.
With the advent of hotel booking sites, more are more people are being independent about their travel arrangements. This does not mean they have escaped the curse of the “add-on” which is usually far more expensive than doing it for yourself and much less fun.
A seemingly reputable booking site was recently offering a day’s walking tour of Alicante, Spain. The itinerary included a visit to the Castille de Santa Barbara (admission included) a visit to a bodega, a tapas lunch and a visit to the cathedral. The cost for this exciting extravaganza was an eye-watering €175.
The entrance to the Castille de Santa Barbara is free if you walk up Benacantil and a lift from the playa is €3-70 for adults & half price for pensioners. Bodegas are free to browse & offer tasting events at €10 including tapas. A tapas lunch with drinks in the best bar is only €30 per head. The cathedral is free, a map from the tourist board is free and a city guide is €10.
The difference between an organised tour and a do-it-yourself tour is an incredible €121-30 or to put it into context the equivalent of 30 bottles of supermarket tempranillo. Sometimes decisions really aren’t that hard to make.
Another money spinner, especially popular in Italy but prevalent in many European cities, is a beat the queue special. The first time I encountered this phenomenon was while queuing up against the perimeter wall of the Vatican. (Yes, they have a wall.) On the left is the regular lane, on the right the fast priority lane making the whole experience like a flight with Ryanair. Pre-booked ticket holders paying anything up to €90 are given the impression that they will be admitted considerably quicker than the plebs on the left.
In truth the queuing time when I visited in May was 45 minutes for the “suck it and see brigade” & 38 minutes for the “I just paid to get in quicker merchants.” I will however give you a top tip if you ever visit the Vatican. Your last point of call is the Sistine Chapel, where security will gladly confiscate your phone if you so much as think about taking a photo. The exit on the left takes you out to the square, the exit on the right is for tour parties and leads directly to St Peter’s Basilica. Stick close to the right and join up with a tour party. It saves you having to queue up separately for St Peter’s.
Being free from the crowd gives you the opportunity to go where you like, when you like. It lets you eat in local restaurants and to visit the sites you want to visit. It frees up the mind and introduces you to people you might never have met.
In October 2020 I had the good fortune of escaping covid lockdown by taking one of the first Alsa buses from Valencia to Granada.
The Alhambra, so typically deluged by the Japanese with their selfie sticks, was empty. A time slot to see the Nazarene Palace would normally be restricted to 250 visitors, this time there were eight of us. Without the package tourists you could feel the place like never before and take pictures without the herd getting in shot. It was a magical, almost ethereal experience.
I also climbed the hill in Albaicin to watch the sunset over the Alhambra where, by some mystical alchemy, the walls turn from red to pink. The pilgrimage to watch this phenomenon would normally attract a thousand people. On this occasion I was totally on my own and the stars came out and in the distance it had begun to snow on the sierra nevada.
And so to the itinerary for the next few trips, all by plane, bus and train and completely without the aid of a “safety rep!”
- Transylvania, Romania: because it has intrigued me since I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
- Sevilla, Córdoba and Jerez de la Frontera: because I love history, tapas and have always wanted to visit the Andalucian riding school.
- Segovia, Spain: because of the best preserved Roman aqueduct in the world plus the town is renowned for having the best suckling pig.
- Herculaneum and Naples, Italy: because I have a long-time invitation to visit an old friend I met in Venice who has opened a bar in Naples.
- Hawaii, United States: because my sister raves about it and I would love to see the hometown of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.
- The Yorkshire Dales, England: because it is stunningly beautiful and the people are not afraid to call a spade a spade.
To be honest the list is endless, just as long as someone is not trying to fleece me!
© text & images AÑO NUEVO 2023