Discover beautiful Bruges

The Belgian city of Bruges is an interesting destination for a city break. It is within easy distance of Calais, being under an hour and a half by car, or you can get a Eurostar train from London St Pancras International station.

Historic buildings
Bruges, or Brugge, is Belgium’s, and perhaps Europe’s, most well-preserved medieval city. Almost every street consists of pristine and attractive houses built in the distinct Flemish style with ornate gables. Popular destinations in the historic city centre are the Markt (Market Square), and the Stadhuis (City Hall).

Ponies, waffles, chocolate, and canals
The city centre is a good place to sample the sugary waffles for which Bruges is renowned, or take a drive through the city streets in one of the many horse-drawn carriages that are for hire.

There are numerous gift shops where you can buy Belgian lace and chocolates. The best chocolate shop we have found, from personal experience on repeated trips, is Dumon, located in a very quaint building on a street called Eiermarkt. We managed to smuggle out a huge 1 kilogram block of pure chocolate from there, but they seemed a little reluctant to sell it, it was an under-the-counter job! Fellow gluttons who knew we were visiting Bruges asked us to bring back chocolates from Dumon too, so that’s a high recommendation! If you like your chocolate, that’s the place!

Bruges is also famous for its maze of canals – in fact, it has often been referred to as the ‘Venice of the North’ and a boat ride is an enjoyable and relaxing way of viewing the architecture from a different perspective. As with Venice, the houses look their best when viewed from the water, and it’s a good chance to escape the crowds of tourists.

Bruges is also a city that is extremely bicycle-friendly, and it is easier to cycle the streets than it is to drive. Hiring a bicycle is another good way of escaping the crowds and getting to experience the real Bruges.

Some rainy days
The weather in Bruges is mild, but it does attract more rain and cold weather than other North European cities of a similar latitude. In the summer months, the weather rarely exceeds 21C/70F. You can expect cloudy skies and damp drizzle.

You might be lucky and experience some sunshine, but visitors to Bruges would be well-advised to pack plenty of waterproofs and warm clothing. On a positive note, the cooler climate is ideal for walking around the city on foot.

Summer Events in Bruges
There are many interesting events happening this summer, such as the free summer festival in Benenwerk, 13 August, with music and dancing.

The KookEet food festival on 24th September 2016, which showcases the work of the best chefs in Belgium, is a great way to get to know the country’s cuisine.

Those interested in history might be fascinated by a two-hour guided walk through Bruges’ inner town, which offers the chance to learn what life was like in Bruges during World War One when the city was occupied. From 1st August to end of December 2016, leaving from Belfort (the 12th century Belfry), Markt.

TripAdvisor and travel guide apps

In the last issue of this newsletter we started a new series looking at travel gadgets and travel apps. Last time we looked at airline apps, and this month, Ian from our technical team takes a look at TripAdvisor and some of its lesser-known features, and sees if it can replace a traditional guide book.

Tripadvisor is one of the biggest apps out there, and you’ve probably used it, or at least heard of it. The basic premise is that people review places they’ve been to, including restaurants and hotels, both here in the UK and worldwide.

Here’s how to find TripAdvisor:
TripAdvisor Website
TripAdvisor app for iPhone
TripAdvisor app for Android

What’s wrong with review sites?
This approach of what’s known as “crowd-sourced” reviews has a few flaws. Firstly, someone else’s taste might not be the same as yours. They might prefer different things to you, or have a different opinion to you as to what constitutes high or low quality.

Secondly, there is the issue of fraudulent reviews. TripAdvisor acknowledges this phenomenon, attempts to take action to prevent it, and even publishes a Fraud Detection policy on its website.

Fraudulent reviews can include people reviewing their own restaurants and hotels (presumably favourably!), submitting artificially negative review of a competitor’s business, and incentivising customers to write overly-glowing reviews. There are even companies that try to boost an establishment up the TripAdvisor rankings for a fee!

How to avoid fraudulent reviews
The best thing you can do to avoid falling foul of this is to look for places that have lots of reviews. The more reviews a place has, the more likely most reviews are to be genuine, and the more likely that people with similar tastes to yours will have left a review.

From my own experience, if a place is ranked bad it usually is pretty bad, but if it’s ranked very good you’ve got a 50/50 chance of it being worth a visit. Having said this, some of my favourite restaurants are indeed ranked as Excellent by TripAdvisor reviews, so it almost feels like pot luck!

Careful of the location of places you visit!
Also, reviews don’t tend to focus on where the place is located, so you need to be careful. I once went to what TripAdvisor claimed was a great American barbecue restaurant in Las Vegas, which involved us walking down a very poorly lit, seedy back street, with no proper pavement, and ending up outside a neon-lit horror of a place! We pretty much fled for our lives!

I had another faux pax on a trip to Bath, where we ended up walking miles out of our way to a place that was apparently great, but was like some kind of crazy uncontrolled riot when we got through the doors! And the menu was rubbish too!

Fortunately, TripAdvisor gives you the website for many restaurants and hotels, and many places publish their menu on the web. So you can either research some places before you go on holiday, or use your phone or iPad with the wifi in your hotel or in a coffee shop to figure out where to eat next.

A great TripAdvisor feature: downloadable city guides
One of the lesser-known features of the TripAdvisor app is probably more useful than the reviews: you can download an entire city guide. This puts all the information directly onto your phone, so you don’t need to be connected to the internet in order to read it. This is great because quite often when you’re overseas you can’t use the data connection on your phone for fear of racking up a huge bill!

I usually just put my phone into flight mode when I’m away, unless I’m using the wifi. Bonus tip: don’t forget to turn off data roaming on your phone. This means that when you’re away from the UK, your phone will not use the internet unless you’re on a wifi network, so you won’t get charged for it (overseas data charges can be extortionate!).

If you’re not sure how to turn off data roaming for your phone, just search Google for “turn off data roaming on iPhone“, or “turn off data roaming on Android“.

We’ve just come back from a few days in Vienna, and the downloadable city guide proved to be very useful. Here’s why:

Your download includes a map, and your phone can show you where you are. You can then find a place you want to go to, read a review, then see where the place is on the map compared to where you are right now. The little blue dot that represents you will start to move as you walk, so you can check you’re heading in the right direction.

Does this replace a traditional guide book?
In my opinion, no, you still need a traditional guide book (or its modern digital equivalent). I personally find the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Travel books very good, with lots of illustrations (although they are printed on high-quality heavy paper, which makes them quite weighty to tuck in your bag).

A good guide book will give the historical context of the place you are visiting, and will give you a much better understanding of what you are looking at, which routes to take, how to use public transport, etc.

Of course, in this modern age, you can download many travel guides onto your phone or iPad too. Amazon Kindle is particularly good for this.

Alongside the standard publishers, such as Dorling Kindersley, Rough Guide, Time Out, and Lonely Planet, there is a rising trend of non-professional publishing on Kindle, where short travel guides are written by people who live in the city they are writing about. These are often surprisingly good, and often very cheap, costing only a pound or two. I like to read them before I go on holiday, or on the plane, so I don’t waste time when I arrive.

Something a lot of people don’t realise is that you can also download travel guides for a specific city directly from your phone’s app store. For example, bringing up the Apple app store on my iPhone and searching for “Vienna travel” brings up several guides, including audio and video, and detailed transport maps. Some of these are free to download too.

Foreign Office Travel Advice
With the recent security alerts and fears in some destinations, the UK government’sForeign Office travel advice has information for every country you’re ever likely to visit. It’s kept up to date, and it is always a useful guide to check before you travel.

For example, the page on Turkey contains sections on terrorism, safety and security, local laws and customs, entry requirements, health, natural disasters, and money.

Without wishing to sound too grim, if you are ever overseas and find yourself in an unstable situation, you should check the Foreign Office website first, and then check with your airline, who will also publish advice on what to do.

Airlines often have problems contacting passengers who are overseas on holiday, because the passengers’ mobile phones either don’t work, or they don’t have your correct number, and they may be laying on emergency flights for you to return home.

Don’t forget YouTube
I don’t want to end on a downbeat note, so let’s take a look at one last thing this month! A useful source of information for your trip can also be YouTube.

Just search for the place you’re visiting, or a landmark within that city that you want to visit, and you can often find lots of interesting videos. Some videos will be from other travellers, some from professional publishers, and others from official sources such as the tourist board or the owner of the attraction.

Videos can give you a good feeling for whether or not something will appeal to you, how crowded a place can be, and any particular things to see or avoid.

Hopefully that’s given you a few new ideas to get the best out of your next holiday. Oh, and if you’re going to Vienna, go to Figlmüller and order the Schnitzel!

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The Big Beach of Ulcinj is Montenegro’s hidden treasure

Although its near neighbour Croatia attracts the lion’s share of attention when it comes to resorts facing the blue Adriatic, the more modest coastline of Montenegro, to the south, should not be overlooked. One of the most stunning beaches in this part of Europe can be found in this former Yugoslav state.

Montenegro is a delightful destination for British tourists with easy access to euros from cash machines and most restaurant meals costing somewhere between £15 and £20 before drinks. In the predominantly Albanian area of Ulcinj, prices can be even more competitive for accommodation and dining out, although tourism is picking up led, in the main part, by German and Italian visitors.

Ulcinj – An Overview
Ulcinj is pronounced “Ult-SING”. What marks Ulcinj out from some of the other municipalities of Montenegro is the high quality of its beaches. There is a small pebble beach near to the town which is said to possess fertility qualities.

Then there is the so-called Small Beach, which is more diminutive in size, but is situated close to the town centre, making it popular among visitors and locals alike. The Old Town is full of restaurants and bars with an impressive fort overlooking the sea.

The Big Beach
Nevertheless, it is the Big Beach of Ulcinj which is most likely to attract visitors with a serious hunger for top-quality sand. The longest stretch of sand to be found anywhere on the Adriatic, Ulcinj’s Big Beach, or Velika Plaza as it is known locally, offers around 8 miles of soft, flour-like sand. It is around 60 metres (196 feet) wide and it sits on a shallow south-west facing bay that is easy to reach from Uclinj via the R17 coast road.

There are a couple of beach bars and eateries at the most westerly end of the beach, but the further east you progress the less developed it becomes. The beach continues all the way to Bojana Island where the R17 ends, and which itself has a further stretch of beach facing the Adriatic.

When to Travel
July and August are the hottest months with average highs of 29ºC (84F). For holidaymakers considering Montenegro as a destination outside of the school holidays, when it is generally more peaceful, then September is the best month to opt for. September has 252 hours of sunshine on average, and a very respectable mean temperature of 26C (79F).

Podgorica airport, in Montenegro, is the nearest airport with direct services to the UK, served by Ryanair.