I have been very remiss in not posting on here. It’s been almost two years. I have no excuse other than it’s always one of those “tomorrow” jobs which just gets pushed further and further away.

Well, not much excuse right now.

Someone summed up the current period as one of “unprecedented uncertainty” and that seems true – never have billions of people around the world been told not to travel and just stay indoors.

Last weekend I had the lead article in the Sunday Times travel section – about swapping your usual favourite Italian spots for “equivalents”  (tongue somewhat in cheek) in Britain. (Did you know Birmingham has more canals than Venice?) Even that seems optimistic now, but we can all dream about better times ahead and about those bucket list trips we want to do when we can travel freely again.

You can go to the article if you click HERE

Till then I will try and be better at posting on here, so we can armchair travel together. Where’s on your to-go list?

Stay safe folks. And WASH YOUR HANDS.

 

I have been extremely lucky and travelled a fair bit in 2013. So here are my random awards – THE WILLIES – for the year

BEST LONG HAUL AIRLINE: BRITISH AIRWAYS

No airline gets everything right all the time, but I think BA gets it right more often than most, and I don’t agree with those who think it’s fashionable to bash it just because it’s a national symbol. After a dip a few years ago – my goodness some of those crew could be right battle axes – I have had some great flights this year with very friendly staff. And on their re-vamped fleet (A380s, 787s and some 777s – sadly only those) the inflight entertainment is pretty much there with the best in the industry.

BA A380

BA A380

Best short haul airline: easyJet

Again, for me this comes down to crew. I have had several easyJet flights this year where the crew seem to have remembered that flying can be fun and went above and beyond in customer service.

easyJet airbus

easyJet airbus

Surprise hit – long haul: Bermuda

If I had a penny for every time someone said “oh you won’t like it, it’s boring” before I set off for Bermuda, well I’d have around 7 pence by now. But guess what? I loved it. Laid back, great people, awesome beaches. The only major negative points are on cost (not cheap!) and not be able to rent a hire car, although I do understand that the island would be one great big car park if that was allowed.

Sunny Bermuda

Sunny Bermuda

 

Surprise hit – short haul: Italian Dolomites

I was fortunate enough to travel to this part of Italy twice this year – once for skiing and once in summer. It is an incredibly stunning region and I think the Dolomites knock the Alps into a cocked hat. Add in the mix of mouth-watering Italian/Austrian cooking and it is somewhere I would highly recommend whether for skiing, hiking or just eating!

 

IMG_3885

Back-country touring near Cortina d’Ampezzo

 

Surprise hit – mid haul: Marrakech

I went to Marrakech in the 1980s and just remember the hassle so I was somewhat hesitant when I went back in November. I’d heard things were less ‘aggressive’ now and it was true. Maybe it was the 27 degrees while Britain was shivering in Autumn, or evening cocktails on the roof of Riad El Fenn, wandering around the souk or looking in the more modern shops of Gueliz, but this time round it was an altogether much, much more positive experience.

Marrakech

Marrakech

 

Pool of the Year: Espace Henri Chenot, Merano, Italy

I know I have an incredibly tough job (cough cough, splutter, choke) but honestly, sometimes, you can only get free wifi around the pool. Well, that’s what I tell the other half.

Espace Henri Chenot. Merano

Espace Henri Chenot. Merano

 

Breakfast of the year: Caravan, Kings Cross

I do like my breakfasts and for me, Caravan, behind Kings Cross is consistently good and my regular go-to. I hope to discover plenty of new breakfast/brunch places in London next year.

Caravan

Caravan

Gratuitous pic of the year for dreaming of travel on a rainy, winter day in London: Ipanema beach, Rio de Janeiro

This was Ipanema on a Sunday afternoon last February. But are they happy? (!)

Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro

Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro

Thank you to everyone who has made my travels possible in 2013, not least my long-suffering other half who puts up with 4 weeks’ holiday-days a year while I trot off all over the place, and never once complains.

 

Here’s my report on a long weekend I took in Moscow last month that appeared in the Mail on Sunday (24th Feb) ahead of new easyJet flights that are launching there from Gatwick and Moscow, with a few added photos that I took.

There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Remember that when it's -30 in Moscow

Tatiana likes Vladimir Putin and fur coats but thinks Napoleon is a total wimp. ‘Everyone talks about the harsh winter finishing off his army in 1812, but they only made it as far as October,’ says my Moscow guide. ‘Pathetic!’

As I stared across the frozen Moskva river, the sun glinting off the golden roof of the Archangel Cathedral in the Kremlin, I had a trickle of sympathy with the diminutive Frenchman. At least I was bundled up under half a dozen layers, thermal gloves, thick socks and a bobble hat of which Benny from Crossroads would have been proud.

Come appropriately dressed and the Russian capital can be a year-round destination. On my visit, temperatures never climbed above minus 11C during the day, but fresh snow added a charming dimension to my long weekend.

From next month (March 2013) Moscow will be easier and cheaper to get to as easyJet launches flights from Gatwick and Manchester which should bring down prices on a route historically dominated by BA and Aeroflot.

I was a student when the Soviet Union collapsed. I visited Russia twice in the Nineties – on one occasion I was pickpocketed by a drunken train guard on the St Petersburg Express; the next time I danced in Red Square at dawn with a mysterious brunette after a vodka-fuelled night.

Since then, companies such as Costa Coffee, TopShop and M&S have sprung up in Moscow, but the city and its inhabitants remain undeniably different, defiant and proud, more sure of themselves and of the future than at any time in the past few decades.

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square

I spent my time with Tatiana in Red Square and at the Kremlin, which is an absolute must. You can easily spend a day at the latter, but arrive early to get a timed ticket for the fabulous exhibits housed in the Armoury.

My guide, Tatiana

We also explored quirkier sites such as Novodevichy cemetery, where Sergei Prokofiev, Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva and Boris Yeltsin are all buried. ‘You English love cemeteries,’ said Tatiana as she tried to hurry me along. ‘I find that very strange.’

Novodevichy cemetery

In the afternoon I was let loose on my own and tackled the city’s famous metro system, with its ornate stations bedecked with chandeliers, mosaics, stained glass, frescoes, murals and tributes to glorious Soviet workers who, history eventually showed, weren’t quite so glorious after all.

Moscow metro - it's quite a revolution

One trip cost me just 28 roubles (60p) and trains arrived at least every three minutes. Prepare to get lost unless you can read the Cyrillic alphabet, although after the first few trips it becomes easier.

Park Kultury (ie Gorky Park) station

Eventually I found my way back to my hotel, the imposing Radisson Royal which, in the Fifties, was the tallest hotel in the world.

The Radisson hotel (formerly the Ukraine - in the 1950s it was the world's tallest hotel)

Later, I met up with 24-year-old Maria Motyleva. Last year, she and several advertising industry colleagues set up It’s Sooo Russian to guide visitors around unusual sides of the capital. The team organises everything from jam sessions with local musicians to trips to suburban flea markets, and are busy organising their own music festival this autumn.

My guide Maria Motyleva in Zvenigorod

Like many young Russians, Maria speaks excellent English and has travelled widely. She helped me buy a ticket at Moscow’s Belorussky station and we set out for a 75-minute trip to the town of Zvenigorod.

Our journey took us past endless rows of functional Seventies-built tower blocks, before the scenery changed to fields and then birch forests.

After arriving in Zvenigorod, Maria and I hopped on a bus that took us to the spectacular 14th Century Savvino-Storozhevsky Monastery and – even more jaw-dropping – the golden Rozhdestvensky Cathedral.

Zvenigorod

Inside, bearded monks went about their business while groups of fur-clad babushkas prayed in silence.

A nearby cafe served cheap and delicious borscht with sour cream, and we bought bread and pastries from the bakery next door for the return journey. That evening, back in Moscow, we met up with Maria’s friend Lena to visit an exhibition on Soviet life during the Fifties and Sixties.

Most of the paintings were of women with mournful eyes, while political posters revealed that Russians were as paranoid about the US as Americans were about communists. We ended up in Kam­chatka, a retro bar on Ulitsa Kuz­netsky Most, serving nostalgic snacks, beer and Soviet ‘champagne’ from behind a canteen-­style counter.

It was packed to the raft­ers with youngsters singing along to Russian pop music from 20 years ago, the kind of cheesy stuff that would water the eyes of even the most ardent Eurovision fans. My eyes welled up too. The Nineties? Retro? Already? Moscow is a city that seems proud of its past, increasingly confident about its future but still uncertain about how it should reflect on a turbulent 20th Century – all in all, plenty to keep you going for a weekend.

The arrival of easyJet doesn’t just mean we’ll be unleashing groups of stag party lads dressed as Bat­ man and Robin on unsuspecting Muscovites. It also means we get to welcome more ordinary Russians to Britain with the lure of Primark, Marmite, Boris bikes, baked beans and One Direction.

I’m not quite sure what Tatiana’s going to make of that lot.

Me and a snowy statue of Tolstoy

Regent Holidays offers three nights on a B&B basis at Hotel Izmailovo Gamma-Delta from £360pp including easyJet flights from Gatwick or Manchester. There’s a £220pp supplement to stay at the Radisson Royal. It’s Sooo Russian offers tailor-made guiding in Moscow from £85 per day for up to three people. EasyJet flies to Moscow’s Domodedovo airport. Aeroexpress trains run frequently from there to Paveletsky station in about 40 minutes, from where you can transfer to the metro. A one-way ticket is £7. A tourist visa for Russia costs £75

(I suppose I should legally say copywrite on this is with Associated Newspapers, but as I wrote it……..)