Travels through Egypt, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey and India
Some travel notes of possible interest to Australians and others intending to visit Egypt, the Spanish and French Rivieras, Florence and Rome, Athens, Istanbul and Gallipoli, Delhi, Goa and Kerala. How to do it, not what to see. Recommended services - contacts and links.
IntroductionSome years ago my wife and I travelled through Egypt, Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Greece, Turkey and India. We'd like to share some of our observations and experiences with other Australians planning on visiting any of these countries, mainly from the "how to do it" angle rather than the fabulous sight-seeing and the overall holiday experience. In particular we want to recommend a few people in the travel industry, organisations, modes of travel and places to stay that have helped make for a memorable trip within a very reasonable budget.
We are both fairly experienced travellers, recently retired and in our 60's, and while we certainly enjoy a bit of luxury we are also well accustomed to the grime and hassles of countries like India. Our journey was, as usual, one of extremes, and we always look forward to this kind of variety. However, we don't take pleasure in those occasions when we find ourselves having to pay through the nose for inferior services and accommodation. On the other hand, when we get wonderful service for a modest outlay we are only too eager to let other travellers know. Although we've travelled through France, Italy and India before, in these countries we planned our route to take us through areas we had not previously visited. Our exact route was: Brisbane, Singapore, Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Cairo, Madrid (via Frankfurt), Toledo, Zaragoza, Barcelona, Arles, St Remy, Aix-en-Provence, Grimaud, St Tropez, Ste Maxime, Cannes, Nice, Eze, Monte Carlo, Pisa, Montechatini, Florence, Rome, Bari, Patras, Athens, 3 Greek Islands, Delphi, Athens, Istanbul, Gallipoli, Canakkale, Istanbul, Delhi (via Frankfurt), Vasco da Gama (via Agra, Bhopal, Pune, Belgaum, Kulem), Panaji (Panjim, via Udupi, Cannanore, Calicut, Trichur), Madgoan, Ernakulam, Kochi (Cochin), Chennai (Madras), Singapore, Brisbane.
Brisbane agents (air travel component)
I tried to arrange as much of the trip as possible over the internet. This was very time consuming, some things worked very well, others did not. In particular it proved too difficult to arrange the air travel component of such a complicated itinerary over the net. (Note: be very careful using sites that claim to find the cheapest fares. Many do not. It might be better to visit all the relevant airlines' sites separately.) In the end I took my troubles to the local travel agents, visiting about seven before I struck one that came up with a sensible solution (two never came up with any answers, two needed a good shove and all had different ideas about how to do it). It was Jan Angus of Brisbane's Travel Market who plucked the rabbit out of the hat. Her answer - the Lufthansa/Singapore Airlines European Pathway fare, which not only allowed us to visit all the cities we wanted to at the lowest cost, but also minimised the backtracking to "home-base" airports (in this case, the vast, soulless, security-mad Frankfurt airport). Jan's knowledge of the industry was in general very good, but fell down when it came to India. She had never heard of Kochi (Cochin) in south India, so, obviously, did not know it boasts an international airport served by Silk Air, a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines. I think she could have saved us a train journey to Chennai to fly out to Singapore had she known there was a direct flight from Kochi.
Insurance, safety, money and security
"You can't not travel because it's risky, nor can you travel and ignore the risks" (Andrea Corcoran)
As far as I'm aware, apart from the free limited insurance obtainable with some credit cards, by far the cheapest travel insurance available to Australians is that offered by the Atlas Travel Club (now defunct). Membership of the club is free, and can be arranged instantly at their website. The cost for world travel is only 75 AUD for up to six months! Sums insured (especially medical costs) are lower than most other travel insurances, otherwise the policy stacks up well. For a policy that's comparable to those offered by travel agents, you could try Worldcare, a Brisbane-based company, Onlinetravelinsurance or, for under-65s, Columbus Direct (the last two can be exceptionally competitive for certain trips). I've used Atlas when travelling to India, and Worldcare for more complicated trips, like this one. Compare the cost with insurance purchased from travel agents (AUD, worldwide travel for a couple for three months with an excess of 0-50 AUD on most claims:
Atlas (internet) 150
(This data is long out of date. Currently we rely on insurance available with some credit cards. Cover has generally improved, but it is important to compare cards.)
These days, before leaving home, many travellers overseas seem to think that safety is synonymous with terrorism-avoidance. Despite recent events, I'm inclined to think terrorist activities are a relatively low risk to the individual traveller (in any except the most disturbed countries). Police and/or military security is generally excellent where it's needed. You're more likely to get knocked down in indescribably chaotic traffic, break your ankle in a pothole or be taken for a life-threatening ride by a lunatic taxi driver. In some countries there's a danger of getting trapped in a corrupt, unethical legal system, especially if you're caught with drugs that someone has hidden in your baggage. But this is a danger that exists even in Australia (see notes, including the footnote, about our trip to Ayers Rock). We've always thought that if we worried too much about safety we'd never go anywhere or see and do the things we want to see and do. However, we did take time to read the relevant stuff on the Department of Foreign Affairs website, and also registered with various consulates using the Department's online registration service.
Security of personal belongings is a different matter, because there are simple steps you can take to guard your money and valuables. Just follow the advice offered in travel brochures and on various internet sites. Personally, I carry all my travel documents, most cash, travellers cheques and cards in money belts, plus a little cash and one card in a small wallet in a front pocket. I have once come close to losing the wallet, but never anything in the belts. Note - you will need to enclose the money belt stuff in plastic holders to prevent it getting soaked in sweat. A word of warning to the ladies - never ever carry any valuables in your handbag, especially not your passport, and especially not if you are travelling alone. You'll be inviting trouble, as handbags are a prime target for theft.
At least two weeks before leaving home make sure your cards will work in overseas ATMs (your bank will advise you) and tell your bank which countries you are visiting. Always carry a spare card, preferably from another bank, and some US dollars or Euros (depending on where you're going). Australian dollars are not widely accepted in the Americas. Travellers cheques are fast becoming obsolete. We sometimes had considerable difficulty finding some-one who would change our travellers cheques, but generally no trouble finding ATMs everywhere we went, even in India (where, only a few years ago, ATMs were rare outside posh hotels). Furthermore all the ATMs we used had an English language option and were easier to use than many Australian ATMs. In India most ATMs were housed in guarded cubicles, so security was not an issue. Note that in some countries ATMs go by a different name and it can be hard to make people understand you when you want to know where the nearest ATM is. For example, in Argentina they're called cajeros automaticos. Although there were certainly a couple of occasions when our travellers cheques came in handy, we ended up carting most of them back home. (10 years after writing this, travellers' cheques have almost completely disappeared as they are so inconvenient.)
Vaccinations and medications
Find out what vaccinations you really need several weeks before departure. You can buy them at reduced prices through internet pharmacies such as epharmacy (Brisbane), Pharmacy Direct (Sydney) or Pharmacy Online (Sydney). Pharmaceuticals are expensive in parts of Europe (on a previous visit to Europe the Netherlands gave me the biggest shock), but cheap in Asia. In India you can get anything you want without a prescription and at a fraction of the cost in Australia. For antimalarials and other medications, if you're not going to the USA or the wealthier countries of Europe, I'd suggest taking only the amount of medication you need to start the course, then buy the rest when you arrive. You may not need anti-malarials even in countries where the disease is prevalent. Egypt and north-western Turkey appeared to be virtually free from mosquitoes in September/October, but in southern India there were a few. The possibility of contracting malaria should not be taken lightly: it is an extremely debiltating disease with the potential to kill.
In my experience, stomach upsets and bad coughs are more likely to be caught in aircraft than at your destination. I have always managed to avoid the runs in Asia and the Middle East by sticking to the rules (drink only bottled or boiled water, don't eat salads, no ice in drinks, use purified water for cleaning your teeth).
This was our first port of call and undoubtedly the highlight of the entire trip. The amazingly well preserved relics of the ancient Egyptian dynasties are unquestionably one of the most astonishing inheritances left by our forebears, possibly exceeded in importance only by the records from Mesopotamia. Australian travel brochures quoted prices in the region of $2500 for 8 days sight-seeing and Nile-cruising, using 4-star accommodation. This seemed exorbitant, so I set about finding alternatives on the net. Jimmy Dunn's fantastic touregypt website (official website of the Ministry of Tourism of Egypt and the Egyptian Tourist Authority) came to the rescue. Here you can relay your needs to every approved Egyptian travel agent on the web. We soon received a heap of replies and it was not difficult to sort out the agents who provided real value for money. We then narrowed these down to three - Nobles, Mena and Orbit - based on price, helpfulness and how close their itineraries were to what we wanted. All three were extremely flexible and made a number of changes to their standard offerings. However, you need to double check any advice you receive from all travel agents or you may be given a bum steer. If an agent tells you something is impossible, check with others before accepting the information.
In the end we chose Nobles Tours because their representative, Farid, went to enormous trouble to provide exactly what we wanted when we wanted - personally guided tours of Cairo, Memphis and the pyramids, a 5-days, 4-nights Nile cruise aboard the Oberoi Shehrazad in a deluxe cabin with loads of guided sight-seeing along the way and all meals included, one night with breakfast at the Helnan Shepheard in down-town Cairo and 4 nights with breakfast at the 5-star Oberoi Mena House next to the Pyramids, all transfers and domestic flights Cairo/Luxor and Aswan/Cairo, all for the incredible price of approximately 1260 AUD per person (680 USD - this was shoulder season, 6-15 September). We were pleased with their service - the meet-and-greet person got us swiftly and smoothly through customs and on and off planes, the personal guide in Cairo, a young lady by the name of Samah Massoud (see contact details below), was efficient, knew her stuff and spoke clear English (she could also do it in German) and the service provided by staff aboard the Shehrazad was immaculate. Much to our complete surprise, the Shehrazad crew also helped us celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in style. We only hit one snag - a cancelled domestic flight which upset our program slightly, but Nobles fixed things up quite politically and we didn't miss out on any of the scheduled sight-seeing.
Incidentally the Helnan Shepheard stands on the site of the once famous Shepheard's Hotel, which, along with some important antiquities, was destroyed by fire in 1952 during the Suez fiasco. The even more famous Oberoi Mena House, dating from 1869, was formerly a royal lodge, converted to a hotel in the 1880's and further extended in the 1970's. Its guests include many celebrated personalities and it has hosted a number of important conventions.
Let me say now (in 2013!) that I would never return to Egypt - it is simply uncivilised and its governments increasingly regressive. But if I were to do it again I wouldn't change much. The first half of September is a good time to go because the heat is bearable, the tourist crowds have not started to build up and the boats are less than half-full. I'd probably stay longer in down-town Cairo (though now I'd feel less safe there) and spend less time at the Mena House, which is a bit isolated and it's too expensive to eat there every night - we found a nice kebab restaurant not far away where we ate all we wanted for less than 10 AUD/head (but something tells me the locals were getting it cheaper than that - ours was a negotiated price). The temples of Luxor (especially the Karnak) and the tombs of the Valley of the Kings provided stupefying experiences, the Nile cruise was completely relaxing, but it's not necessary to see every temple along the Nile route. Too many temples can become tedious and the guides have one-track minds. I'd like to see some non-archaeological activities included, such as wildlife watching. Finally, the optional light and sound show at the Karnak temple in Luxor was abysmal, and very tiring after walking the same route during the day (Karnak, of course, is essential sight-seeing).
Incidentally many visitors to Egypt also include the Temple of Ramses II in their itinerary, and I'm told on good authority that most of them consider this to be the highlight of their tour. This temple is at Abu Simbel in the extreme south of the country, so it involves another flight.
Don't go to Egypt without having read some of Jimmy Dunn's fantastic reviews and advice for travellers. Do use an Egyptian agent such as Nobles Tours, whom I can highly recommend - they can buy accommodation at much better rates than you can and they'll take all the hassles out of your holiday. For example the cost of a standard (4-star, Garden Wing) double room at the Mena House in September was 180 USD (about 330 AUD). At that rate it would have accounted for well over half of our total account with Nobles Tours! On the other hand don't listen to Australian travel agents who would put you off trying to organise everything yourself, if you feel that way inclined. Apart from some of the Cairo taxi drivers, hasslers are not a huge problem in Egypt and you should be able to handle them quite easily. You could reduce your budget by opting not to have a guide show you through temples, tombs and museums, and just paying your own entrance fees and for transport to the sites. After all you probably won't remember a word of the guide's spiel. Whatever you do, avoid large group tours and the high season (winter) - you'll take much longer getting around. Unless you can't stand the heat, it's better to go in late spring or early autumn and see things at your own pace. You'll get much better deals from agents and other suppliers at this time of year too. Incidentally, I was persuaded by Australian travel agents to obtain our Egypt visas before leaving the country. This might have saved time at the port of arrival, but was probably unnecessary, as it appeared to be easy (and less expensive) to get them whilst going through immigration at Cairo airport.
One or two other tips: If you intend to take a video camera with you, it will have to be registered at the airport. Look out for the registration desk. Signs at Cairo airport are mainly in Arabic. Be careful if you're considering a Nile cruise of more than 3 days and nights - most such cruises cover no new ground. There are security guards almost everywhere you go in Egypt - no need to worry about safety (this no longer applies! - see above), but suggest you read the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs web site before you go. You'll probably find there's no printed information or maps in your hotel room. If you're staying in downtown Cairo, it might be a good idea to head for the bookshop in the Nile Hilton shopping mall, which stocks a good range of reasonably priced guides. When purchasing souvenirs, avoid busy tourist spots and always bargain strongly. Start with about one third of their asking price.
Finally, I can hardly leave Egypt without mentioning that, to my palate, Egyptian beer is heaps better than Australian beer! Surprising for a predominantly muslim country, don't you think?
Spain, France, Italy coach tour (Madrid to Rome via Barcelona, French Riviera, Florence)
I will not name this well known tour operator as many of my remarks will be uncomplimentary and I've no reason to believe that any other tour operator would provide a better service. Having done a tour like this before, I suspect many of my gripes apply to European coach tour operators as a class. Still, I think my first tour, a good many years ago, with Cosmos, was less problematic. That's not to say we didn't enjoy the later tour - on the contrary it was spectacular, as we saw such a lot in a short time with the minimum hassle. Coach tours in theory provide you with all your transport, accommodation, porterage, breakfasts and some other meals, entrance fees and tolls, guides and, most of all, a well-planned itinerary. They take all the worry out of travel, but, unfortunately, they also take away a lot of the fun and freedom. Leaving the coach tour in Rome felt a bit like getting out of gaol (not that I've ever had that experience, other than in Monopoly!). Here's why.
Coach. Considering the many long hours we spent ensconced in the coach, I thought it was below standard. It didn't have fold-down tables or video and food was not allowed on board. The seats were closer together than on an aeroplane or any of the other coaches we travelled on (excepting those in India). I wouldn't advise anybody taller than about 5ft 10in (178cm) to go on one of these tours. I am 6ft 3in (190cm), and consequently had to sit at an angle with one leg stuck out in the aisle. If the person in front decided to recline their seat, the situation became excruciating. On our previous coach tour I didn't have to put up with this because the guide immediately noticed my problem and allocated me a permanent home in the centre back seat, which of course has plenty of leg room. (Normally there's a rotational system that gives every one a different seat every day).
Hotels. All the hotels were clean and comfortable, even if not of a very high standard. Food was generally only of a moderate standard, especially in comparison to the luxurious spreads we had experienced in Egypt. An exception was the Crown Plaza at St Peter's in Rome, which was quite the best of the European bunch. Most of the hotels (including the Crown Plaza) were located well out of city centres, which meant that shops, ATMs and other facilities were often hard to find. The main problem with the hotel accommodation, however, was the breakfast arrangements (see paragraph below). From memory, only one hotel had in-room tea-making facilities. Most had an in-room safe deposit box and air conditioning, which was usually difficult to adjust.
Cost - all those optional extras!
The most devastating feature of this tour was the extra money you had to fork out to cover the optional extras. The basic tour cost was 2380 AUD for 12 nights and 13 (nominal) days, obtained by paying in full several months in advance. At that price, you'd expect a tour of this kind to take you to all the essential sights en route. Who would go to the French Riviera without passing along the principal sight-seeing route or visiting St Paul de Vence, or to Florence without seeing the (genuine) statue of David, or to Rome without visiting the Parthenon or St Paul's and the Vatican with Michelangelo's fabled ceiling in the Sistine Chapel?. Incredibly, all these were "optional" extras on this tour, charged at inflated prices and adding approximately 300 AUD to the cost. There were also other optional extras. I'm sure we were right to stay away from most of them, particularly the optional meals, which seemed to represent very poor value. For example, at our Montechatini stop-over, where about half the group went for dinner in Florence at a cost of about 100 AUD/head, we walked into town and had a top-class meal in pleasant company at the Corsaro Verde for less than half that price. More about these options later (see Guides).
We did not get a free transfer either on arrival or on leaving the tour, the first because we arrived at the "wrong" time, the second because we wanted to go to the "wrong" place (the railway station). The tour operator only provided two transfers from Madrid airport, working on the most unreasonable assumption that everyone would arrive at those times.
The most farcical aspect of this tour was what should have been the simple pleasure of eating breakfast. You'd think, after the countless years these tours have been operating, the organisers would have got their act together and learnt how to deal with the hotels. But no! A very limited time was allocated for breakfast, usually 30-45 minutes, and much of that was usually taken up with queuing - more like brawling - in a self-service system that invariably had all the items in the wrong order. I'm one of those people who likes to start my day in a relaxed manner and who needs plenty of time to eat, not to mention a little time after breakfast to complete ablutions and what-have-you. So breakfast for me, on this trip, was a dreadful experience. And not only breakfast. One of the dinners was almost as bad, and at one of the road-side lunch-stops in Italy the tour director incited us to behave like the locals, i.e. push and shove our way to the service counter. This merely had us scuffling among ourselves, as there were relatively few locals present and they behaved with a lot more decorum than we did. So, these rushed meals only brought out the animal in us, and encouraged many of us to behave with a similar degree of disrespect in other crowded situations.
Tour Director. The tour director's most important job was to sell us the optional extras, or "excursions", as she called them - as if to make us feel they were neither optional nor extra. This she did extremely well, if somewhat undisguisedly, by means of a long soliloquy on the very first morning of intercity travel. She tried to convince us that if we didn't participate in every one of her wonderful "excursions" (1) we would be missing out on something vital and (2) we would not feel one of the group and not be entering into the spirit of things. I've never come across any one who exudes such an overwhelming air of presumptuousness - obviously she had been well trained to wheedle out her commission!. Of course, we had to decide then and there whether to take any of these excursions. Traveller be warned! Choose wisely. Some of them really are wonderful, others are costly garbage.
Another important task of the tour director was to inform us about what was coming up - options, times, procedures etc. This she did very thoroughly but gave out far too much information in one go, usually early in the morning. It was impossible to absorb all this stuff and most people fell asleep.
Despite these shortcomings, I kind of admired this person. She had a lot on her plate and handled it efficiently and diplomatically. We tipped her the same as the indefatigable bus driver.
Local tour guides. An average bunch, often difficult to understand, especially when you couldn't hear them properly. A notable exception was a guy called Carlos, who showed us around that most remarkable city, Toledo, the former capital of Spain. His commentary on the famous El Greco (The Burial of the Count of Orgaz) in la Iglesia de Santo Tome was a work of art in itself. I'd have given him ten out of ten, if it weren't for the fact that he turned up about 20 minutes late.
Did we get what we were promised?
In general the answer to this is "Yes", but at a very rushed pace. I did think we were short-changed in Barcelona, where we saw only two churches - one from the outside only. The tour itinerary promised us the cathedral and "Gaudi's Sagrada Familia plus many of his other masterpieces, the Columbus Monument and the Ramblas". In many other places, too, there was little opportunity to see inside buildings. The tour director often suggested it wasn't worth going in, or that it would take too long queuing. Those who disregarded this advice, however, invariably said it was well worth the effort.
For me, the highlights of the tour were the Vatican, the trip along the Cote d'Azure and especially the remarkable mediaeval villages of Les Beaux and St Paul de Vence. There are many other stunning hilltop villages like this, such as Gassin, Callian, Bonnieux and Vezalay in France, and San Oreste and Cottanello in Italy. Next time I go to southern Europe I'll make sure some of these are on the agenda.
I am really glad we did not do this tour in the high season (July-August). From all accounts it would have been one hell of a crush, especially getting into places like St Tropez and standing in the queues for places like the Vatican, the Santa Croce Basilica and the Palace of the Grimaldis. At other times of the year, however, you take your chances with the weather: we were lucky, and this helped to make the overall experience not only chock-a-block with interest and splendour but a festival of colour and enchantment. Well worth putting up with the little maddening administrative idiosyncrasies of the organisers.
One of the most surprising and exasperating features of the busy European tourist destinations is the lack of public toilet facilities everywhere. You have to use the facilities in cafes: having paid an exorbitant sum for a cup of coffee, you then have to fork out to go to the dunny. It's unbelievable and downright disgraceful that the local authorities haven't provided adequate facilities for the wealth-supplying hordes that come to admire their antiquities or bask in their sunshine. It tells you something about the local people, I think, and it's not very pleasant.
Athens, Delphi, Greek islands
To get from Rome to Athens we travelled first class on a Eurostar Italia (Trenitalia) tilt train to Bari, then by Superfast Ferry to Patras and Superfast coach to Athens. Following the regimentation of the Madrid/Rome coach tour, the whole journey seemed liberating and exhilarating, although by this time my wife had developed a persistent dry cough, which was to last until we reached Istanbul. I had booked the train tickets through Jan, our fastidious travel agent in Brisbane (who used the CIT reservation service), but the ferry tickets were booked over the internet (we chose to reserve a cabin, which was just as well considering my wife's condition). Booking them was easy, but paying for them was not, as the only possible way to pay from Australia is with a visa card (mastercards are not accepted). As it turned out, we could pay by mastercard on arrival at the port, although the Superfast brochure clearly indicates that prior payment is necessary. It took several emails to sort this out, as the Athens-based agent's ability to communicate in English was not good. In the end, though, some one phoned me, which I thought was extremely kind of them. Of course, in the low season booking is unnecessary. Nor is it really necessary to book the train tickets in Australia - and much less expensive if you don't - but we knew we wouldn't have time to do it in Rome. The train and ferry journey was a critical part of a tight schedule, so we had to make sure this was all organised ahead. I can thoroughly recommend this method of getting from Rome to Athens, especially the Superfast ferry service which receives full marks from us. The only snag is the 10-minute journey from Bari Centrale station to the ferry terminal. My suggestion is - avoid the taxis and take a number N:20 bus (for about 2 EUR or 3 AUD). If you must go by cab, try to find a driver who will agree to a reasonable price (you may need an interpreter). At Patras, you can walk straight onto a Superfast bus (which can be booked on the ferry). The three-and-a-half-hour journey to Athens is intensely scenic. The coach dropped us quite close to our hotel at Sintagma Square.
We had pre-booked only our hotel in Athens, and indeed we found tours were readily bookable on arrival from travel agencies. There was no need to do a city tour as everywhere of importance was within walking distance of our hotel, and generally easy to find (although I had some difficulty locating Socrates' place of imprisonment!). Nor was an airport transfer needed as there is an excellent 24-hour bus service (about 5 AUD city to airport). I can thoroughly recommend the hotel we stayed at - if only because of its ideal location combined with relatively low cost. Just off Sintagma Square, the Arethusa Hotel was handy to just about everything - cafes, shops, the Acropolis and other sight-seeing, internet, ATMs, travel agencies, bus and metro.
The three-island cruise, which uses any of the four vessels Hermes, John P., Aegean Glory or Giorgis, was a congested affair which took us to Aegina, Poros and Hydra - all very attractive places but by no means the best of the Greek islands. Probably only worth doing if you're not going to other more distant islands. Some optional tours are offered in Aegina: I'd suggest doing the "Panoramic Tour", which does sight-seeing plus local food and ouzo. A better option might be to go to the appropriate dock in Piraeus and find alternative transport to the islands. You can then hire a motor bike and go around Aegina at leisure.
The tour to Delphi is well worthwhile, for scenery as well as the archaeological sights, and if ever you want to stay there, the Hotel Amalia is first class and commands spectacular views. We did this trip with G.O. tours, getting a discount price from an agent across the road from the hotel.
We found Athens to be quite the untidiest European capital we had ever visited: many important monuments were covered in scaffolding and earthworks were going on everywhere in preparation for the 2004 Olympics. We wondered how they were going to be ready in time, and how they were going to deal with the slow-moving traffic.
Istanbul, Gallipoli, TroyGiven plenty of time, the best way to visit Turkey from Greece is probably via the Greek Islands, using a combination of hydrofoil and ferry services. Ports of entry are Bodrum from Kos and Kusadesi from Samos. Alternatively you might find a cruise ship that calls in at Istanbul, or you could do a relatively inexpensive island hopping tour such as that offered by Think! Adventure (brochure available from travel agents). As we were short of time we flew direct to Istanbul, where, after obtaining our entry visas in one minute flat, we were shortly met by a transfer guide. This transfer, arranged with Tempo Holidays by our Brisbane agent, was quite unnecessary - a bus or cab would have done just as well. English is widely spoken (and often spoken extremely well) so there are no problems asking for directions. The only initial problem we found was the currency. We had done very little research on Turkey before setting out and were somewhat under the impression that US dollars would be widely acceptable. No! You need Turkish lira - there are almost a million of them to the AUD (1.66 million to one USD). Trouble is, the notes look a bit similar and it's easy to make a tenfold mistake. Fortunately most Turks appear to be honest and you will not be deliberately overcharged and short-changed all the time (as you might be in Indonesia, for example, or even in Italy, for that matter).
We had pre-booked our first two nights in Sultanahmet, old Istanbul and just one day-tour arranged by Tempo (Bosphorus and Byzantine Treasures). Our choice of hotel, the Ferhat, at the lower end of the Australian brochure hotel market, was pretty good. Facilities and service were quite adequate and the hotel was close to all the main sights and bazaars and Divan Yolu, the main shopping/café street where the tramway runs. We walked to all these places and therefore did not need a city sight-seeing tour. The Topkapi Palace museum is not to be missed. Architecturally it is quite the most magnificent museum I have ever visited, though not the best stocked. Entrance fees are unreasonably high (compared to other museums throughout the world). You might consider doing Topkapi as part of a tour. A Bosphorus cruise is also a must, drawing out the splendid character of old Istanbul and beyond. What a lively waterway this is! After our time was up at the Ferhat we decided to move to another place, the Paris Hostel and Hotel, just as central but less than half the price (the official tariff at the Ferhat was 80 USD/double, the under-the-counter rate was 55 USD). Not quite up to Ferhat standard, with its cramped washing facilities approaching the messy norm of middle-of the-road hotels in India, but otherwise clean, comfortable and graced with courteous service and hospitality. Only a typical Turkish breakfast of bread, fettah cheese, olives, tomatoes etc. The Anzacs
By air from overseas you will probably arrive in Delhi without any rupees, as they are hard to get outside India (strictly speaking it's illegal to bring them into the country). So the first thing you do at the airport is buy some rupees. You should have plenty of time to do this while waiting for your baggage, as Delhi's baggage offloading system is often painfully slow. Although the airport has recently undergone improvements in both physical and organisational terms, once outside the door you're likely to be plagued by porters and taxi drivers or their agents. Probably wisest to disregard them all and head for the window where they sell fixed fare vouchers: you tell them where you want to go and they tell you the fare, sell you a voucher (if you agree to the price) and give you a taxi number, which you then have to match to a taxi, but some-one will show you anyway. (Keep hanging on to your baggage unless you really need a porter). So you need to know where you're going, so it's best if you've already booked at least the first night's accommodation from back home. Our usual choice is the YWCA International Guesthouse, 10 Sansad Marg. It can be booked by email (see below), then when they reply all you have to do is send an international money order in US dollars to cover the first night in the accommodation of your choice. The rooms are fine, and fully westernised, but over the years I've noticed a slight decline in friendliness (even though some of the staff have been there for up to 30 years), a sharp increase in prices (to about 52 AUD /double) and, unfortunately, the original cosy, efficient restaurant has been replaced by an independently run modern affair, where the service is pretty dreadful. Still, you'll get a free breakfast there, and for other snacks there are fast food stalls just outside the YWCA gate. Although there are numerous hotels near Connaught Place offering good rooms at a similar price to the YWCA, I'm still inclined to recommend the latter. All service charges are included and you'll get no hanky-panky there.
From Delhi (where we stopped off only to see old friends) we took a train ride by the slow route (about 40 hours) to Goa. We had pre-booked all our rail journeys over the internet, using India Travelite (Top Communications), an agency I can thoroughly recommend. Although Mumbai-based, it was the only site I could find that worked properly, yielded prompt replies and all the help I needed and provided an easy and secure credit card payment system. Full marks to the marketing manager, Bhavin Toprani: he has a huge range of travel products available throughout India, he can find you accommodation at "Indian" rather than tourist prices and he can get tickets delivered to anywhere. However, after the trouble he went to, he must be disappointed that I did not make more use of his services. In the end I decided not to book accommodation and tours ahead, and, as things turned out, I'm very glad I made that decision, because our itinerary was delayed almost a full day by monsoonal flooding. Furthermore, by not booking ahead you can find better deals and avoid booking charges. Certainly, in early October, there was no need at all for forward bookings. Except for India Rail. To get any degree of comfort and security on the trains you need to travel First or Second Class Air-conditioned Sleeper. On most trains these classes sell out very quickly. Therefore you need to book your berth, if possible, on the first or second day after the bookings open, which is generally 60 days before the journey. You're supposed to book only through an approved travel agent, which is where India Travelite comes in. First, of course, you need to know where you're going. You can then get advice from Bhavin about how to get there, or you can go to the wonderful Indian Railways website and work it out for yourself. Once you've done your booking, you can ask for your ticket numbers and confirm that everything is in order on the website. However, there are various ways of booking and various kinds of ticket (such as Indrail passes) and you should read all the rules, especially those applying to international travellers (or let somebody who knows all about it, like Bhavin Toprani, work it all out for you).
Of course if you're in a hurry you can fly. India's air services are as good as their trains, but don't come cheap, especially for tourists. Rail travel is as cheap as chips, normally includes all meals and during the daylight hours you get to see the countryside. On this holiday we spent a total of eighty nine (that's right, 89) hours on India's trains and enjoyed every minute (well, apart from the visits to the inevitably disgusting loo) - even the eighteen hours standing in Cannanore station when we were held up by floods. On the advice of a pompous official, amid many conflicting opinions, most people departed the train at this stage and piled onto crowded buses, where they apparently fared little better, but we stayed with the train and never regretted it. We took the stationmaster's advice and it proved correct. The train moved willingly on to its destination once the line had been re-bedded and checked. Sighs of relief from the few remaining passengers!
It's strange, the permanent imprint that a long train journey in India leaves on the mind - a kind of nostalgia. Time and time again I return to this journey and others just as memorable - The Palace on Wheels, for instance, in the days when it was affordable and before they made the inexcusable error of modernising the carriages with airconditioning, p.a. systems and other trash. The whole pleasure of the original train was the quaint old coaches, and being able to sit in the doorway with your feet on the steps as the train crawled up through the hills under a reddening sky. Speed and enclosure, the hallmarks of modern transport, are the leisurely tourist's curse, isolating you from the very world you've come to explore.
We left the train at Vasco da Gama and took a cab to the main city, Panaji (Panjim), about 30 minutes away. Here we booked into the busy Hotel Rajdhani, which I can recommend - value for money, centrally located and comfortable, although, as one comes to expect in all middle-of-the-road hotels in India, there was the usual horrible compromise between Indian and Western in the bathroom. These bathrooms have the toilet, shower and washbasin all in the same area, plus a tap and bucket next to the toilet. Consequently the entire area is perpetually wet, and almost certainly unhygienic as well. This set-up is what you normally get when you ask for "Western facilities". If you forget to ask, you may end up with an Indian-style toilet - the squatting kind like those that used to prevail (and are still sometimes found) in France and other parts of Europe. I have to mention that we arrived at the Rajdhani on a morning when the receptionist was besieged with problems, ranging from plumbing faults to impatient customers to mud emanating from roadworks outside the main entrance. I stand in awe of his calm handling of the situation and thank him for the undivided attention he nevertheless gave us.
We did two full-day tours of Goa, one north and one south. The "south" tour includes Old Goa with its beautiful churches. You can book these tours with the Tourist Office in the main square (where the Municipal Gardens are located), but that's a slightly unsatisfactory business, and we booked ours with Mandovi Tours & Travels instead. We made the booking at a friendly café (air-conditioned upstairs) very close to the Tourist Office. The cost was about 5 AUD for each tour.
We came to Goa with high expectations and were somewhat disappointed. Goa is a holiday mecca for Indians: its countryside is lush and serene but its churches and temples are over-rated and its world famous beaches are abysmal compared with Australia's. In fact some of them are nothing but appalling rubbish dumps, the haunt of crows and dogs instead of seagulls; well-dressed Indians flock there in coach loads almost all year round and line the shores, very rarely venturing into the turbid water.
Speaking of rubbish, in India it's simply everywhere. If India introduced rules similar to Singapore's, the boon for tourism would be inestimable. Goa appeared to be one of the worst offenders. We were quite happy to leave and head for the considerably cleaner environment of Kerala.
By the way, the evening or nighttime cruise on the Mandovi estuary is hardly worth thinking about. Although it attracts hundreds of Indian tourists daily, it simply does not live up to the description in the promotion leaflet.
The train for Ernakulam, the station for Kochi (Cochin) in the south-western state of Kerala, left from Madgaon (Margoa) station, where we were dropped off after completing the South Goa sight-seeing tour. (The coach had lugged our voluminous luggage around the whole tour route). This was the rail journey where we got stuck in the rain. On arrival at Ernakulam Junction we headed for the Hotel Metropolitan, only a short walk from the station. A station porter carried most of our baggage the whole way (for about 60 Australian cents). We had to remove our shoes in one spot to negotiate the puddles after the recent heavy rain. I haven't the slightest hesitation in thoroughly recommending the Metropolitan. For a hotel in that price bracket (53 AUD/double) everything about it was superb. Even the Indo-western bathroom system worked better than most. My only reservation is the person at the travel desk. I don't know whether she works for the hotel or not, but her advice was bad and misleading. We should have disregarded it and used our own judgment. Tip 1: Instead of doing an expensive personal car tour of the city sights (which are few and far between), take the "public" cruise tour, which will show you more at a fraction of the cost. Tip 2: Instead of booking a two-day personal houseboat trip from the hotel, consider other options. Either do a one-day cruise of the backwaters, or perhaps go down to Alappuzha (Alleppey) and get a better deal on a houseboat trip at one of the wharfside agencies. Oh, the houseboat cruise was absolutely wonderful and relaxing (it might not have been so had the rain not stayed away), but it didn't go where we expected, food on board was indifferent and the cost was certainly no Indian price. You could see where the money was going - even at ground level there were the agent, the organiser, the car driver, the cook, the oarsman, the odd jobs man and the guide. At least seven people were involved, four of whom stayed on board to look after the two of us. Full marks to the guide, however: Suresh Kumar, a graduate in zoology, was an unusually pleasant character and he knew his stuff, including the wildlife that abounded in the region.
Well, Kerala is a big and varied state, and what little we saw of it we enjoyed enough to vow to return some day for a much longer stay. Hope we can keep that promise.
The overnight train to Chennai (Madras) left from the other station serving Cochin - Ernakulam Town. Given more time, we'd have preferred to travel through this countryside in daylight hours. Chennai arrived almost before we were awake. We've been to Chennai before and nothing has improved. While it has a number of beautiful and historic buildings and a pleasant seafront, the city itself must surely now be the most polluted and congested in India. This time around I felt even more sorrow for the people, especially the children, who live there, and wondered how many of them would ever experience anything different from this tough urban environment.
If you need an inexpensive hotel very close to Central Station, the Old Picnic Hotel in Poonamallee High Road should suit you at 15 AUD/double. Two railway porters carried our baggage there for about 2 AUD. The rooms are a bit rough but very spacious and I can recommend it if only because of convenience and value for money. You can walk out of the door and pick up an autorickshaw or cab to anywhere. Be sure to agree on the fare before you leave (there will still be an argument when you arrive, but at least you will start with the advantage!). Chennai is as good a place as any to go hunting for jewellery, gold, clothes of all kinds and souvenirs. Just ask which is the best street for your particular requirements. Most of the shopping is about twenty minutes from Central Station. As for the airport, allow heaps of time for the journey. There's no rush-hour in Chennai - only a four-hour period of ultra-slow motion and almost blinding smog between about 5 and 9 p.m.
Country cost comparison
For once I kept careful records of expenses on this trip and was able to work out the following average daily cost of staying in each country (Spain, France and Italy combined). These costs include visas, medication, food, accommodation, local fares, guides, entry fees, tips and most personal expenses, but exclude gifts and international fares (e.g. Cairo-Madrid, Rome-Athens). All costs have been converted to Australian dollars and are for two people.
Coach tour of Spain, France, Italy, 3-4 star accom - $490/day
Contact numbers of some recommended services
Travelmarket (Brisbane) 07 3210 0323
While to the best of my knowledge the facts were correct at the time of recording them, I cannot accept responsibility for inaccuracies. All opinions expressed are mine alone and would-be travellers should make their own enquiries.
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