Friday, 25 May 2018

Hotels and bottled water - cutting down on waste

Why don't more hotels provide refillable, reusable plastic bottles? Hilton hotels in Finland do. So does Novotel Century Hong Kong.

Monday, 21 May 2018

One day in Edinburgh - for free

Avoid the crowds, noisy guides, selfie-snappers, tourists coaches and the like. These activities are free as well.
For a great overview of the city and environs, climb Arthur's Seat in Holyrood Park (at the east end of the Royal Mile).
Trails start near the car park, there is a visitors centre with free maps

Free guide with map

View from the summit, 252 metres above sea level
The Museum of Edinburgh (Canongate, close to Holyrood Park) has rooms of fascinating exhibits (don't miss Greyfriars Bobby's dog collar and bowl) in a historic house.

Visit Greyfriars Kirk (off Grassmarket).

The National Galleries of Scotland comprises 3 galleries - all free, except special exhibitions.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Russian high speed trains

The "Sapsan" takes three and a half hours to travel from Moscow to St Petersburg (over 700 km away). For the cheapest ticket, book with the Russian Railways (RZD) website, 60 days in advance. Avoid third-party ticket sellers (you will pay at least double the price).
"Allegro" (travelling between Helsinki and St Petersburg) is jointly run by Finnish Railways (VR) and RZD. Ticket prices are the same, whether you book with VR or RZD. As of May 2018, prices were as low as 29 Euros (Fri-Sun period).

Comfortable restaurant car on Allegro (St Petersburg - Helsinski

Second Class on Allegro - Why pay double for First Class (Business Class)?

Helsinki's 5 Euro travel bargain - Suomenlinna Sea Fortress by public ferry

Take the Suomenlinna ferry for Helsinki's 5 Euro travel bargain. Allow at least 2 hours to explore the historic sea fortress and township spread six islands. A free map is available at the ferry terminal ticket office. This means you can take a self-guided tour at your leisure.
The return ticket has a 12 hour travel period

Departs from ferry terminal on Market Square 

Suomenlinna - 18th century sea fortress

Thursday, 3 May 2018

10 euros bargain - Ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn

Book on Eckero Line website. 10 euros one -way for 9:00 a.m. departure. Return trip is cheaper!
Print out ticket - no queuing at terminal, just register barcode at turnstile.

A tram (No 7) drops you off at the terminal door.
The morning ferry seemed to be full of 55+ year olds ready to shop, party and buy cheap booze. Nice crowd, though. There was a convivial atmosphere onboard.

Tourist tip: wait near the gates pre-boarding, when ferry is docked (you enter on Level 6), dash upstairs, head for the huge bar area at the bow (Level 8) so you can relax in a comfortable booth (enough room under table for luggage). Free entertainment.
Eckero Line's "Finlandia"

Live band and dancing . Note: the seating booths have plenty of room for you and your luggage.

TV style game show with host celebrity
The bar opens straight after departure (9.00 am.). Cheap booze.

Tourist tips for avoiding the queues at State Heritage Museum, St Petersburg - self-guided

There are a bank of tickets machines (marked with red "T" on map) on the left and right after you pass through the archways into the main courtyard from Palace Square. The machines are in English and Russian. Admission: 700 roubles, change given.
We went both in the morning and afternoon (early May) and the wait at the machines was only a few minutes. You can then proceed straight to main entrance - we choose the left side, avoiding the long, slow-moving queues. The long queues are for Russian citizens who can claim ticket concessions. At the front of the gate there is a sign saying entry for pre-bought tickets.
Buying tickets from the museum website is much more expensive, plus you will still have to queue to show your printed-out ticket (at a separate entrance on Millionnaya Street).
Don't forget to visit the General Staff Building (across Palace Square). Entry is covered by your ticket. Priceless 19th century masterpieces on the 4th floor - Monet, Manet, Degas, Gauguin, Picasso, Van Gogh, Lautrec, Cezanne, Renoir - self-guided, allow 1-2 hours.

Other tips:

  • After you enter, use the free cloakrooms - for coats, umbrellas, backpacks - or you will have to queue up twice when you are sent back.
  • Wednesdays and Fridays hours are extended to 21:00. 
  • Arrive in the afternoons (after 16:00 if you want to avoid more crowds), this allows you 5 hours of viewing if you visit on those 2 days.
  • The first Thursday in each month is free, if you don't mind the queues. On free-Thursday there are 3 other Hermitage Museums that offer free entry. We found no queues for these: Winter Palace of Peter I, Menshikov Palace and the Museum of Imperial Porcelain.
  • Frees are available near turnstiles, make a note of the number of the room show above doorways (from 11 to 400), mark off with a pen so you don't miss a room - the place is a maze.
  • The Middle Floor will take the longest amount of time.
  • This is crucial if you have a 60 year old bladder....there only 2 toilets inside the museum (both hidden on the Ground Level). The other toilets are near Cloakrooms but you will have to exit, so this is a problem.
  • Closed on Mondays.
  • The Summer period is the busiest.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Tallinn Airport, Estonia Best little airport in Europe?

Tallinn Airport was a pleasant surprise.  Can you name another domestic and international airport that is 3 km from the centre of a capital city? Pay 2 euros to travel on a modern tram that takes you from the CBD right to the terminal door.
The airport bag security area is smoothly run; thanks to a nifty system where carry-on luggage/laptops/coats, etc. are placed in trays that are a magically returned (by underground conveyor system) to the front of the queue for next passenger.
Many terminal gates are sponsored by a particular company. One gate has comfy sofas, book shelves, armchairs as it is sponsored by a book store. Another gate has gym equipment and machines as it is sponsored by a fitness company. You are never bored or idle while waiting for your flight. Fast free wifi also.
Imagine a mini-Changi. 
Gate 1 - a relaxing library

Tram link, direct to terminal

Friday, 20 April 2018

"Chicago" A new novel by David Mamet (2018)

I nearly gave up - the first 40 odd pages are interminable Mamet-babble. However, verbal virtuosity becomes more meaty story-telling by Chapter 5. Chicago in the mid 1920's - the bustling newsroom of the Chicago Tribune, florists, funerals, gun-running, speakeasies, bordellos and nightclubs - is evocatively captured. Mamet co-wrote the screenplay for De Palma's "The Untouchables".

Mike Hodge is the guilt-ridden, Great War-obsessed central character; Parlow, the cynical friend and fellow-reporter. Peekaboo is the wise madam and confidante to Mike. There is a fascinating account of aviator Bessie Colman. Colourful minor characters - con artists, burglars, police officers - give the story more substance.
About two-thirds in, it loses pace again.
If you are expecting mob violence and gangland machinations a la "Boardwalk Empire", you will be sorely disappointed. Much like the New York reporter's long-winded anecdote about adultery and a hunting rifle - the resolution, when it finally comes, is a bit of a fizzer.
Though interesting, I was perplexed by the insertion of a lengthy anecdote concerning Darrow and the Leopold & Loeb court case in the final chapter.