Jane, a Londoner, was highly sceptical when I suggested this tour. We piled on clothes (it was November) so stayed warm enough to appreciate the birds’ eye view from the upper deck. Over several hours we learned an eclectic mix of history, celebrity, and the macabre: Trafalgar Square’s lions were cast from melted French cannons; a City company insures Tina Turner’s legs for £millions; Green Park was a swampy, medieval graveyard for lepers. You can hop on and off along any of the three routes and the ticket includes a river cruise and guided walks. Commentary is live on one route; on the others it’s taped, in seven languages, plus an extra-gruesome one (in English) for kids. The ticket, normally valid 24 hours, is extended to 48 in winter, so the next day I used it to get to the museums in Kensington, hearing about the humble origins of Harrods and Harvey Nichols along the way. Jane confessed that next time she has out of town visitors, she might do it again.
www.theoriginaltour.com; from £23 adult, £11 under 16s.
Last December I took my teenage niece to Krakow. For under £100 we had three nights in a clean, warm, twin room with our own bathroom. Even breakfast was included; it was pretty basic but who cared? We were surrounded by cheap and wonderful eateries and fun bars. Our hostel (better than hotels for meeting other young people) overlooked Rynek Główny, Europe’s largest medieval town square, with its massive underground museum (advance booking recommended) and a lovely Xmas market. Between us we bought loads of interesting presents: parents, boyfriend, grandparents, toddlers, school friends. There was some rubbishy tat, but not much, and Kay still had change from her Saturday job money. And on one day we went to Auschwitz. The tour was very informative and, of course, harrowing. It certainly put the commercial pressures of Christmas into perspective and, as Kay put it: “Made me so grateful to be born when I was, into the life I have.”
Tebay: a diamond in what’s otherwise the slag heap of British motorway service [sic] stations. Both sides of the M6, in Cumbria between junctions 38/39, it’s independently owned and run by Westmorland Ltd and the cafes serve local food as much as possible, including lamb and beef from their own farm. Two extensive shops carry mostly artisan and organic produce including fresh bread and a butcher’s counter. I can’t resist stocking up on their Gloucester Old Spot pork pies and recently bought a wedding present from a display of hand thrown pottery. They have all the usual necessary facilities, plus large kids play areas, views of the hills rather than the traffic, dedicated dog walks, and a proper campsite which is great if you need to break the journey to/from Scotland. My only slight grouse is that it’s become quite pricey lately, but I guess no more so than the incomparably inferior chains. Roll on their new place on the M5 (due 2013).
A French friend recommended this village when I needed somewhere to overnight before sailing from Dieppe. I arrived in time for the night market and bought delicious local foods and bread to die for. In the morning I wandered the miles of beach; there was a yoga class beneath the Dover-style white cliffs, and in the sea oyster beds and people shrimp fishing, apparently oblivious to being fully dressed as they pushed their nets through chest deep water. Colonised by Russian artists in the late nineteenth century, there's a fantastic range of galleries wherever you turn. Much of the ancient architecture has survived fires, storms and WWII bombardment. La Veule is France's shortest river, with cress beds and flowers galore. I wish I'd given myself longer in this little gem.
250km north of the Arctic Circle, Abisko Mountain Station is an up-market hostel with fantastic food, a glorious location and comfortable, reasonably priced accommodation (including a self-caterring option). It's a short walk to the 20 minute chair lift to the Aurora Sky Station near the top of Mt Nuolja, the driest spot in Sweden and one of the world's best places to see the Aurora Borealis. There's a good chance you'll have a 360 degree show right over your head. One legend has it that the shimmering lights are swans frozen to the sky, struggling to break free. Duck into the sky station cafe every so often for a warm up by the wood stove, hot chocolate and the aurora exhibition. There are guided tours and it's possible to stay up there overnight. By day there are many cross-country ski trails, as well as snow shoeing, ice climbing and the chance to learn about Sami culture and the local flora and fauna.
Details of Abisko Mountain Station on www.abisko.nu/vinter/englishpages/index.asp
www.auroraskystation.se/ for the Aurora Sky Station.
There is a dedicated railway station, 19 hours from Stockholm or one hour from Kiruna.
Google map: tinyurl.com/ylks5b4
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