Tag Archives: tom hall

Online Travel Journalist of the Year

Funnily enough I was awarded Online Travel Journalist of the Year at last night’s Travel Press Awards.


This is me getting a nice big paperweight from Francine Sheridan, LAX Los Angeles World Airports.

It was quite noisy so I couldn’t hear what they said, but the judges (thanks judges) liked my work with the Guardian, especially a special live Q&A for travellers stranded by the eruption of the Ejyafjallajökull volcano, as well as blog posts and use of social media.

The event was at Paramount at the top of Centre Point, one of London’s most iconic buildings. The views of London at night, especially St Paul’s and the City, were magnificent.

By the way, if you’re not in the US, you may have missed my recent appearance on Entertainment Tonight, talking about my specialist subject, the upcoming Royal Wedding.

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The doomed ducks of the Tsiribinha River

This article originally appeared in Zine Magazine, translated into Norwegian.

Who would be a duck on a river safari in Madagascar?

Animal lovers, look away now.  The story I am about to tell you is a sad tale. As many of you will already know, once you get outside of Europe, North America and Australasia the world’s culinary tastes change quickly. Food becomes spicier and ingredients get more exotic. Unusual beasties get coated in batter and deep fried. Eating sometimes becomes less about fine dining and more about winning the battle of mind over stomach.

Not that any of this is usually a problem in Madagascar. Here you find the best possible colonial legacy: a fusion of French recipes combined with rich tropical flavours and a dash of Asian invention. The Malagasy people, after all, trace their roots to South-east Asia rather than Africa. Nowhere else on earth are fresh baguettes baked in straw-roofed huts in the shade of Baobab trees.

This wasn’t the only reason my wife and I had decided to come here on honeymoon. We’d long dreamed of visiting and with flights proving expensive and the world’s fourth largest island needing several weeks to see properly this seemed the perfect opportunity. While researching the trip we ended up, somewhat unusually for a honeymoon, throwing out any ideas of luxury resorts and opting to tackle one tough adventurous journey after another. My wife has yet to fully forgive me. A week in a five-star resort, however, would not have come close to being as memorable as what we ended up doing.

After a visit to the idyllic Ile aux Nattes, where during summer months you can stand on a golden beach and watch whales breaching from the shore, we flew back to the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo. We took a bus on to the country town of Antsirabe, and then another on to Miandrivazo, a quiet riverside town. From here three-day rafting trips down the Tsiribinha River begin, passing through seriously remote areas, rural villages and troops of lemurs drinking at the waterside. Which all sounds very idyllic. It was, unless you were a duck.

Our party numbered six, twelve if you count our guide, cook, two paddlers and two random ladies who’d been invited along for the ride. In this way, Madagascar was very much like Africa. Our rafts groaned with our backpacks, people and supplies, and the low water meant that we kept getting grounded. It didn’t matter much, cruising on the river was serene, camping on the beach at night under an incredibly starry sky was a wonder and there were lots of lemurs and the odd crocodile to look at.

Unfortunately it soon became apparent that our guide had never organised a river trip before and had underestimated how long it was going to take and how much food we’d need. This information had not been received well. On the third morning, when it had just been announced that it was not to be our last morning and there was nothing for breakfast, I noticed something moving in our boat. I poked the object with my paddle. A duck poked his head above the pile of bags it appeared to have been snoozing under since we left Miandrivazo. This nice duck was not long for the world. In a bid to soothe the anger of a group of tired tourists who had not washed for the best part of a week and had just been told that not only were they late, but that they would not see several of the promised sunset at Baobab Alley at the end of the expedition, he was unceremoniously cooked up that night and served in a Canard du Tsiribinha stew. And jolly nice he was too. Sorry, Donald.

Desole, Donald

A day and a half later we limped into Morondava, way behind schedule, and sat down to what was probably the best meal of my life: chicken in a coconut sauce served with very French pomme frites. The next day my wife was taken ill with food poisoning, as were several other people on the trip. The duck, or possibly the river water used to cook him, had his revenge. The trip then went from bad to worse: our guide had offered by way of compensation to pay for us all to stay at a fine hotel in Morondava, which we had accepted. He had then, it seemed, skipped town without paying the bill. On a search for medicine for my wife in the back-streets of the town I bumped into him, and marched him back to the hotel to settle up, which he did under protest.

Baobab Alley near Morondava

We spent a few more days in town and moved on to elsewhere in Madagascar. We ate some more fine meals, saw many more lemurs including the Indri, the biggest of the lot, and even stayed in a top-end hotel or two. Madagascar remains one of my favourite places, but I tend to pass on the duck cooked in river-water stew.

Old St Paul’s Cathedral

The greatest wonder of the internet is how it has brought long-lost books back to life. Far from displacing the printed word, the web in fact makes more of it accessible. Old St Paul’s Cathedral by Canon William Denham is one long-lost wonder which anyone can find and enjoy via the Gutenberg Project.

The frontispiece of the book is a lovely illustration of Old St Paul’s, complete with spire, with Three Cranes Wharf in the foreground.

Old St Paul’s stood for nearly 600 years (1087 – 1666) and was the most famous victim of the Great Fire of London. It was falling into disrepair in the decades before the fire and it is a little-known fact that Sir Christopher Wren had been commissioned to supervise renovations before the fire. the wooden scaffolding built to facilitate repairs helped seal the Cathedral’s fate.

The spire was destroyed by lightning in 1561, which is why illustrations of the Great Fire show St Paul’s in its rather truncated form.

Denham’s book in its physical form is well worth seeking out. The original was an outsized hardback with dozens of illustrations by Wenceslaus Hollar, who surveyed St Paul’s in 1658. Packed with long-lost detail, the book lifts the lid on the life of what, along with the Crystal Palace and Ranelagh Gardens is one London’s greatest lost buildings. Here’s one snippet:

At one of these Whitsun festivals (it was in 1327) another procession was held, no doubt to the delight of many spectators. A roguish baker had a hole made in his table with a door to it, which could be opened and shut at pleasure. When his customers brought dough to be baked he had a confederate under the table who craftily withdrew great pieces. He and some other roguish bakers were tried at the Guildhall, and ordered to be set in the pillory, in Cheapside, with lumps of dough round their necks, and there to remain till vespers at St. Paul’s were ended.

The long way round – London to Oslo overland

This article appears in a translated form in the May 2010 edition of ZINE magazine.

It isn’t just due to Iceland’s newest and noisiest volcano that we’re doing more overland travel. More and more of us are choosing to make the journey part of the holiday, or take a road, rail or sea trip to see more along the way.

Can you stop wafting that smoke in my direction please?

My own experience is that while the idea is very nice you should be prepared for a few adventures along the way. A few years ago I was asked to speak at a conference in Oslo. I was pleased about this as at the time I hadn’t been to Norway, and thought this was a good chance to see somewhere new. I walked into the office of my boss and asked him what he thought. ‘You can go…’ he said. I paused, knowing something else was coming ‘but you’re not allowed to fly. I want you to get there without flying and write an article about your experiences’.

I breathed in, both excited and slightly worried. The conference was a week away and I realised I had little idea how I was going to get there. I quickly worked out a route. The ferry was too slow and too expensive – this being the last days of the Newcastle to Bergen boat service – but trains, it seemed, would work just fine. I made bookings where I could and packed my bags for a big adventure.

The route was far from simple and I had planned some tight connections. Nine minutes in Brussels, an hour in Hamburg, half that in Copenhagen and half that again in Gothenburg. The railways of mainland Europe have a formidable reputation in Britain compared to our own frequently late and overcrowded trains, so I figured if I could somehow arrive on time heading from London to Brussels that everything else would go like clockwork.

Eurostars at St Pancras

The Eurostar pulled in a few minutes ahead of schedule and I sprinted to the platform for my sleeper service to be greeted with a sign saying the sleeper to Hamburg was four hours late. There was no explanation and no-one to speak to. I had no choice but to join the small band of night-train refugees huddled together for protection from the perils of Brussels-Zuid station at night. In an instant, I had missed every connection on my journey and had no idea what time I would get to Oslo. I lay down on a bench and cursed my boss in his comfy bed, oblivious to the chaos he had indirectly caused.

Handsome Hamburg

On boarding the sleeper I found another obstacle in my path. My travelling companion, a French businessman, had locked the door of my compartment and would not let me in. I knocked, rattled and shouted and eventually gave up. There was no guard in sight. I lay down in the corridor and tried to sleep before being woken two hours late by the same man heading to the toilet, then by the guard who threw me off the train at Dortmund aiming for a faster connection to Cologne. It appeared to be a smoking-only service. Things admittedly got better from there on in: trains improved in standard in Germany and Denmark, the ferry journey between the two was a marvellous journey where the train drove on and off the boat, and I even made a three-minute connection in the Danish capital. I added Hamburg to my list of great underrated European cities after a brief wander around town between trains. Crossing the Oresundsbron ticked another travel ambition off the list.

Øresundsbron

It was eleven o’clock at night before I arrived in Gothenburg, where I checked into the kind of small and depressing business hotel that becomes the refuge of the desperate and sleep-deprived and lay down for a few hours. The only train that would get me to Oslo in time was a 6am departure. I reached journeys end unwashed, exhausted and more than a little wired after such a long and strange journey. It had taken just over 40 hours from door-to-door.

Olso's new opera house

At the conference, which funnily enough was about ecotourism, I became something of a celebrity. I was ‘the guy who came by train’ and, rather than finding the hardships of the trip grimly fascinating  found everyone I spoke to was jealous. Many told me they would gladly have swapped another flight in a metal tube for seeing some new places and having an adventure. There were limits though and not many volunteers for dozing on a Brussels train station bench.

While this trip doesn’t compare with Amundsen or Heyerdahl’s adventures, it does suggest that ditching the plane sometimes can lead to something different, meeting new people and picking up a story or two. Maybe that’s why we all delight in tales of unusual journeys whether caused by a volcano or a mildly sadistic boss. With just a small but different decision, there’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored.

I took the plane home, in case you’re wondering.

Logistics

I booked my tickets through a combination of sources, arranging Eurostar direct, then using Deutsche Bahn‘s helpful UK booking office to get to Copenhagen. From there I could have booked as I went, but I made advance reservations through Trainseurope. The journey was a couple of years ago but cost in the region of £300 total. I flew back for considerably less than that with British Airways.

Behind the scenes at Talking Travel: Lonely Planet & PRI The World’s podcast

The latest Talking Travel podcast went live today, talking about the World Cup, South Africa and, just to broaden the appeal, the Houston Rodeo.

Bush House - from London to the world

Recording the podcast is always fun, and requires a trip deep into the labyrinth of studios and corridors of Bush House, the iconic home of the BBC World Service. The inscription above the door of this wonderful building reads ‘Dedicated to the friendship of English-speaking peoples’.

Bush House is on Aldwych (definitive articles need not apply), the oddly-positioned buffer between the Strand and River Thames beyond and Holborn and Covent Garden to the north and west. Best known to older Londoners as giving the name to a disused stub of Piccadilly Line, the area is also home to the London School of Economics, the Indian and Australian High Commissions. Two superb churches, St Clement Danes (with Samuel Johnson lurking round the back) and St Mary-le-Strand, marooned in the middle of the busy road, can be found close by. Robert records from BBC America’s studios in midtown Manhattan, while Clark drives from PRIs HQ in Boston, Massachusetts, from whence sprang musical genius Jonathan Richman.

The podcast is a joint effort between Public Radio International’s The World programme and Lonely Planet, and contributors reflect this. Here’s a little more about the voices on the recording:

Clark Boyd

Clark Boyd in Hungary

Location: Boston, Massachusetts USA

Favourite destination(s): Edinburgh, Scotland, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain, Bryce Canyon, Utah, US

Next destination: Moving to Brussels, Belgium

What I like about recording the podcast: I normally cover technology for the show, so hosting Talking Travel gives me a chance to explore something new and different. I feel like I’m learning loads about one of my favourite things to do: travel.

Robert Reid

Robert Reid in Mexico

Location: New York City

Favourite destination: Home after a long trip, when curiosity radar is still activated and you see familiar things in new light; or Mexico

Next destination: A hobo convention in Mississippi, seriously

What you like about recording the podcast: It is simply a pleasure to be a part of, and I enjoy listening to the result – and learning from Tom and Clark – as much as making it.

Tom Hall

Tom Hall in X-Ray Machine, Manchester Airport

Location: London

Favourite destination: Paris, Rome or anywhere in Africa

Next destination: Cardiff, Wales

What you like about recording the podcast: having a chance to explore themes and destinations in detail, and the transatlantic banter.

We’d welcome your comments and suggestions for what you’d like to hear on Talking Travel, so get in touch if you have any thoughts.