Giles Woods looks on jealously as his gung-ho friends clock up not only ski holidays but also trips to Lamu. Even with the travel bans lifted, he can't get out of Wiltshire
None of the tropical travellers seemed to mind that the majority went down with Omicron on arrival in Lamu and most of the skiers shrugged off catching it on the plane back from Switzerland. It was just ‘par for the course’, they said.
Green with envy, I am desperate for a change of scene. For professional reasons, a four-day Eurostar break (with the family) is the only possibility – but something is preventing lift-off.
It’s the planning. Mary and her spad (as she calls her young secretary) refuse to help me since it’s ‘my project’ and they are too busy with Mary’s projects. Even though Mary will be coming too, I have to do the spadework.
The first obstacle is the tyranny of choice. Then, each time I settle on a destination, I’m put off it by betterinformed naysayers’ warnings: ‘Paris is over’; ‘Don’t imagine southern Europe will deliver warmth and sun at this time of year. I once went to Puglia in March and it snowed.’
One savvy traveller volunteered, ‘Only Fuerteventura, four hours from Bristol Airport, can offer guaranteed, year-round sun.’
‘That will do!’
‘The problem is,’ continued this naysayer, ‘it’s very windy, and there is no vegetation to speak of because of past deforestation and the multitudes of goats. In short, it’s a dump.’
Utrecht in Holland, which some aver is as beautiful a canal-side location as Venice, had met my stipulation for a city with a tower, good for panoramic views as well as orienteering.
But then a Dutchman of my acquaintance told me, ‘Going to Utrecht Country Mouse is a little bit like going to Birmingham, although Birmingham might have more going for it. The city centre has been torn to pieces for nearly ten years now and there’s almost nothing to do except stroll along a few canals – and the restaurants are particularly poor.’
Finally this armchair traveller discovered Trieste. It was Lonely Planet’s most underrated destination of 2012, and I like to root for the underdog. It was good enough for James Joyce in his exile, and this year is the 100th anniversary of its becoming an Italian – rather than Austrian – city. There might be some attendant excitement.
‘The buildings in Trieste have stones on their roofs to prevent the tiles from being blown off by the infamous Bora local wind,’ I read to Mary from a website.
But as I described how ropes and chains are stretched along the pavement to facilitate the progress of foot travellers and prevent them from being blown over, Mary, who recently had her first fall, interrupted my flow.
‘I don’t want to go there.’
Even after you have settled on a destination, it appears that you ‘just have to go through’ whatever hoops and obstacles the powers that be have in store for you. The very idea of a passenger locator form fills me with dread, as does the scope for cock-ups with the COVID-compliance admin.
Then there are the stealth obstacles. One family we know set off for a fastidiously planned week in Rome which was to include an audience with the Pope and access to private art collections. It was going to be the highlight of the decade for them. Their secretary did all the COVID-compliance admin for them. Yet when they reached Heathrow, it emerged that one of the party had less than six months on her passport. Who knew that, since Brexit, a six-month passport surplus is mandatory for Euro-travelling Britons?
Three years ago, we, as a family, had a most rewarding and singular jaunt to Antwerp. ‘Why Antwerp?’ friends scoffed on our return.
They changed their tune when we told them that we had stayed in Boulevard Leopold, the only intact 19th-century house in the middle of the Jewish quarter. The owner, Martin Willems, a sympathetic man with perfect taste, had repurposed himself as a bed-and-breakfast host.
In winter, with fewer tourists, there were more mussels, uncrowded museums, waffles, beer and hot chocolate than we could stomach. And there was the fascination of the endless Hasidim, in their 17th-century clothes and wigs outnumbering non-Hasidim by a hundred to one.
‘Why not?’ came my satisfied answer.
We had made the right decision – purely because we had been advised by close friends who had made the same journey and stayed in the same B&B. The more I think about it, hard-won local knowledge is the most precious commodity for the traveller.
And so it was when a friend told us that a trip to Ghent would be precisely the Euro city break to suit us. She recommended the historic hotel 1898 The Post in the centre of the city. It was perfect for access to the Ghent Altarpiece including The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. We could go by Eurostar and avoid airport stress. I went for it.
At this point, Mary’s spad went online to make the booking. ‘You’ll have to quarantine for 48 hours on arrival,’ she told me. ‘Is it worth it for a four-day trip?’
We remain in Wiltshire.