Mass transit in the sky

This short article showcases the magnificent La Paz cable car system, and how it has made a huge difference to the city. Don’t miss the sublime video at the end!

La Paz cable car
La Paz cable car, Bolivia

It sounds like something from a futuristic fantasy book. People floating above the city on their way to work, or to go shopping, or for a night out. Even though Medellรญn, Colombia was the first city to use cable cars for mass transit, it’s La Paz in Bolivia which has made them the backbone of the city’s public transport system.

Plus รงa change

I first visited La Paz in the year 2000. At the turn of the century the city was heavily reliant on buses to whisk people around the city. ‘Whisk’, however, is probably the wrong word for commutes which could take up to 3 hours, one way.

View from La Paz cable car system Mi Telefรฉrico
View from Mi Telefรฉrico

The La Paz metropolitan area has sprawled so far that it has absorbed the city of El Alto. Formed in 1903 and with a population approaching one million people – almost all of whom are Amerindian -, El Alto is La Paz’s poorer cousin. A strongly socialist president (Evo Morales) decided to help the people of El Alto feel more of a part of La Paz. And so, in 2014, Mi Telefรฉrico was opened.

Returning to La Paz in 2018 I noticed that the city hadn’t changed all that much. Ladies in bowler hats still sold piles of produce in Mercado Rodrรญguez. The 18th century Basรญlica de San Francisco still stood grandly over Plaza San Francisco. Poverty was still apparent. But some things had changed.

It was no longer possible to take an unofficial tour of San Pedro prison. A hideously ugly new presidential palace in the form of a glass skyscraper had sprouted above the historic centre. And cable cars had appeared. Everywhere.

Flying high

When you’re in La Paz you’re already standing pretty high up in the air. 3,640 metres, to be precise. El Alto is even higher. At 4,000 metres it’s the highest major city in the world. If the altitude doesn’t take your breath away, then the views from the cable cars certainly will.

There are 11 La Paz cable car lines stringing together the various parts of the city. My favourites were the Sky Blue, Green and Purple lines. First the Sky Blue line lifted me from the bustle of Prado and between the downtown skyscrapers. Below the pollution-choked Choqueyapu River glooped through the city.

La Paz cable car passengers
People in traditional dress on cable car

12 minutes later, at Chuqui Apu (which is also the Aymara name for La Paz), I switched to the Green Line. The station names have both Spanish and Aymara names (Chuqui Apu station is called ‘Libertador’ in Spanish) and are modern and shiny new. In fact, this modernity provides a wonderful juxtaposition to the locals in traditional dress

The Green Line sails over some small hills, on which are spread large houses and mansions. Apparently many of the wealthy inhabitants of these properties have moved out, not wanting to be looked down on by the travelling public. For me, the view into luscious lawns and azul pools was part of the attraction of this line (sorry, wealthy La Pazians).

La Paz cable car
View of one of the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods

From the highest point of the Green Line I could see beyond the city, where the desert takes over. At the end of this line is Irpawi station. I hadn’t intended to come here to see anything in particular, and the fact that the military museum here was closed helped that endeavour. For me the main attraction was the cable car system itself, or rather the views from it. And I had saved the best ’til last.

A near miss

Back in the centre of the city I sought out Lรญnea Morada, or the Purple Line, which departed from Utjawi station. This was the line which connected El Alto to La Paz, and was perhaps partly responsible for El Alto’s growth. With around 250,000 people/day travelling by cable car, the Purple Line has certainly prevented road congestion from getting much worse and has reduced the commute to minutes for people living away from the centre.

La Paz is clustered in a canyon, and El Alto is on the rim. It is spread out along the altiplano and it’s where you’ll find the international airport, although the cable car system sadly doesn’t go there. From Utjawi the gondola is hoisted up and up and up out of the canyon. Below you can see Mercado Rodrรญguez, then the prison, then the blocks of housing clinging onto cliffs. You can also see all the way across La Paz to the point where the city disappears around a distant canyon corner.

Not having any plans today for fully exploring El Alto, I disembarked at Tiquira station. It had been one of the most dramatic public transport journeys I’ve ever taken, and it cost me only about $0.30. In fact, I enjoyed the journey so much that I wanted to see what the view was like at night.

View over La Paz from a cable car at night
La Paz cable car at night

Beneath a full moon I returned to the Purple Line. I paid my 3 Bolivianos and boarded the gondola. These little cabins can accommodate about 6 people comfortably, but I was always able to find one all to myself. At night the city takes on a fascinating new look from above. The constellation above is mimicked by myriad artificial lights below. Down there is a football match being played under floodlights, or someone struggling up steep steps lit orange by streetlights.

At Tiquira station I realised that I had made a mistake. I had just stepped off of the last cable car of the night. It was only 9pm, but at that time on a Sunday night (in 2018, at least), this particular line stopped for the day. Thankfully the lovely station staff agreed to run one more car down and, relieved, I enjoyed the view all over again. This experience did, however, make me face the prospect of an hours-long bus journey back to the centre, and it was only then that I fully appreciated how important this amazing cable car network was to the population far beyond the centre.


Take 5 minutes out of your day to watch this surprisingly relaxing footage I took of the Mi Telefรฉrico system during both the day and night, and featuring several of its lines.


With the launch of the Gold Line Mi Telefรฉrico is now complete. You can experience this incredible car car system as part of this FREE 14 day Bolivia itinerary

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I stayed at the wonderful Loki Boutique. La Paz has a great choice of accommodation, view deals by clicking the button

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Fly to El Alto International Airport and either take a bus downtown to Prado, or a cheap taxi


The witch of Triglav

A 3-minute story about my adventures in Triglav National Park, Slovenia, along with tips on how to experience this for yourself.

Triglav National Park - Lake Bohinj
Lake Bohinj

Being on the path of Romans, Franks, Slavs, and possibly even Dracula, Bled in Slovenia has some fascinating myths and legends baked into its churches and castles. But have you ever heard of the witch of Triglav?

Into the wild

Encompassing a large part of the Julian Alps, Triglav National Park is named after this mountain range’s largest peak (which reaches 2,864m/9,396ft). On the edge of both the park and the mountains, Ribฤev Laz can be reached by direct bus from Ljubljana in just under two hours. When the bus passed through Bled I dialled a number I’d been given by the National Park. Franci spoke just enough English to tell me where to meet him and, sure enough, he was waiting for me in Ribฤev Laz beside his 4×4.

Triglav National Park's Vogar Hut
Vogar Hut

Minutes later it became obvious why a 4×4 was necessary. Franci was a National Park ranger, and he’d been tasked with driving me up to the mountain hut I’d rented in the tiny hamlet of Vogar. To get there required a drive up a very steep track which twisted through a huge pine forest. When at last we emerged into a clearing we passed a few simple wood huts.

‘If you want dinner then knock on that door.’
‘OK. Who lives there?’
‘A witch.’

Now I hadn’t been in Slovenia long enough to assess the local sense of humour, but I wasn’t entirely certain that Franci was joking. When he drove away, leaving me beside my hut, irrational thoughts began to seep into my head, in the way they can do when you’re standing in a remote mountain clearing by a lonely hut.

The hike

My mood wasn’t improved when I discovered a scorpion in the bathroom (it was subsequently yeeted far into the twilight). Grateful for the daylight which appeared the next morning, I embarked on a long hike which I thought I had planned carefully. However, good plans don’t necessarily mix well with poor maps.

I had bought the best map of the park that I could find in Stanfords, but even this didn’t provide sufficient detail. Although there weren’t many paths to follow, when the one I was on split in two I went the wrong way and ended up, miles later, at the top of some very high cliffs. Hundreds of metres below me were the frigid waters of Lake Bohinj. A stunning view, but one I couldn’t enjoy due to having to follow a particularly precarious route (I refused to give up and turn back).

Triglav National Park
Triglav National Park

Fortunately the path eventually turned away from the cliffs and I was rewarded with a view of snow-capped mountains. A little further on was a small collection of rustic mountain huts, all of which appeared to be uninhabited. When planning this hike I knew that at some point I had to get down to the lake. My hopes that it would be a nice sedate descent were dashed when I saw a series of ladders and narrow metal steps screwed into the rock.

View of the Julian Alps in Triglav National Park
The Julian Alps

Managing to not look down once, I white-knuckle climbed down and down and down. It was an impressive via ferrata, which I managed to fully appreciate once I was back on terra firma. Here was my sedate path which led to the lake shore. Relieved to be on flat ground, I walked a little over 2km along Lake Bohinj, before turning uphill to return to Vogar.

A magical dinner

The one eatery in the vicinity was closed for the season, hence why Franci had pointed out the witch’s home. Hence why, that evening, I found myself timidly knocking on her wooden door. I was welcomed in by an attractive lady in her 40s, as well as two handsome men who were sat at a rustic table inside.

‘Dinner?’ she asked.
‘Ja, hvala,’ I replied.

She smiled and shooed the men away into another room. From the ceiling hung a cornucopia of drying herbs, on shelves were jars of pickles and jams and chutneys. My host quickly put together a wooden board overflowing with cheeses, salamis, bread, vegetables and herbs. This was accompanied with a mug of delicious herbal brew.

Lake Bohinj in Triglav National Park
Lake Bohinj from the cliffs

We conversed in that awkward way that two people with barely any shared language do, but she (and the men who had crept back in) was excellent, friendly company. With a full belly, topped off by a fiery home-brewed spirit, I found my way back to my hut through the dark.

If my host really had been a witch (and I did spy a cauldron, although I expect it was used for cooking something considerably more palatable than eye of newt), she was one who knew how to expertly concoct a delicious meal from local delicacies. Besides, I always thought that witches got a bad rap. If anyone can pull the tastiest food from the earth, they surely can.

Under the spell of being well-fed, I slept the satisfying sleep of someone who survived perilous cliffs, and who had been bewitched by Triglav’s wild beauty.


Visit Triglav as part of this 12-day Slovenia & Croatia itinerary (for Budget, Mid-range, and Luxury travellers)

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I stayed at Vogar Hut, which can be booked via the National Park site. In Lake Bled I stayed in Hotel Astoria, and in Ljubljana I stayed in the Central Hotel.

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Fly to Ljubljana, take the airport bus into the city to connect with buses/train to the rest of the country.

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Buses to Lake Bohinj run hourly between 05:18 and 21:03 from Ljubljana Tivoli.


Norfolk (B)roads

A 4-minute read about my challenging experience of cycling around the Norfolk Broads.

The river at Potters Heigham

I had come to Norfolk for two reasons: to look at potential holiday home investments, and to enjoy myself. Norfolk is blessed with the Norfolk Broads – a large area which in medieval times was dug for peat, the resultant hollows in the land subsequently becoming flooded to create a landscape of rivers and lakes (the Broads).

Because this is such an aquatic area, perhaps the best way to see it is by boat along the many, many navigable channels. I, foolishly, thought that, because the area is notoriously flat, it would be a good idea to see it by bicycle. This was a mistake.

Hickling, Horsey, and Sea Palling

The train to Norwich, and then to the Norfolk town of Acle, took 2.5 hours. In the UK you have to book ahead to get a place on the train for your bike, which proved a fairly smooth process. Once in Acle I began the pedal into the countryside, and it was then that I realised this may have been a mistake

Despite being known as a cycling destination, the Norfolk Broads are severely lacking in cycling infrastructure. My routes often took me along dangerously fast A roads, as well as B roads full of traffic. I was glad to make it to the little village of Martham, and then on to Hickling Broad

It was a relief to get to Hickling. Here was a view I associated with the Broads: an old windmill by a watercourse full of boats. It was peaceful here and I was tempted a little way along a path beside the waterway. But I had another sight to see today.

The UK is a severely nature depleted country. It’s therefore a rare pleasure to come across the sort of scene that greeted me at Horsey Beach. Only in the Galapagos have I seen this many seals in one place. They were flopped in a large group on the sandy beach (which would be a lovely place to be in warmer weather), or splashing around playfully in the sea.

Miles along that same beach is the village of Sea Palling. There isn’t much human habitation in this area and so the beach – and dunes behind – feel particularly wild. Sea Palling provided a shop, a few eateries, and a sea rescue centre…everything the visitor could need.


Thurne, Potters Heigham, Ludham and Coltishall

After a long cycle through a heavy rain storm to see a house we didn’t get, we cycled a long way back to where we had originally intended to go – Thurne, which is a very small village at the end of a Broad. It has a cute pub, but not much else going for it. Onwards to Potters Heigham, which felt as though it were the main centre of the Broads.

The bridge at Potters Heigham is believed to date back to 1385. Its aesthetic is somewhat ruined by the traffic lights which are necessary to control the flow of traffic (traffic which doesn’t fit on the adjacent more modern bridge that carries a noisy A road). This strange little hamlet has a large marina and dozens of boatyard buildings. Little shacks stretch either side of the river, the occupants of the furthest must walk 20 minutes from the car park. A factory-like tearoom serves dry scones and meager cream portions. Onwards!

Along a thankfully quieter road I cycled on to Ludham. This is a village that has everything; a marina, a butcher, a good local shop, and (most importantly) a pub. There are many sights to see around Ludham, including How Hill, where you’ll find a formal garden, well-preserved mills, a millkeeper’s cottage, and wildlife trails. Also close to Ludham are the ruins of St Benet’s Abbey, which had the rare honour of being spared by Cromwell. It was once a massive and impressive place, but now just the gatehouse survives, and even that has in years past had a mill built into it.

Unfortunately we didn’t have much time to explore Coltishall. The one thing I can say about this village is that it’s surrounded by roads that are actually quiet and pleasant to cycle along. Oh, and it has a great pub called The Recruiting Sergeant which serves excellent food.


Wroxham, Stokesby and Reedham

St Benet’s Abbey

Although Potters Heigham is busy with boats, Wroxham is considered the actual centre of the Norfolk Broads. Here there are dozens of boat yards, and lots of different types of boats to hire for hours or days. I opted to hire a canoe for a couple of hours, to see what all this river fuss was about. Several minutes after leaving the dock I was in a wonderland of tree-fringed river. So THIS is what it’s all about.

The watercourse somehow reminded me of the Amazon, perhaps because the trees at the water’s edge dipped their branches into the river. I paddled into a gap through the trees and into a broad. On this large lake were sailing yachts and people fishing. I wondered what type of fish there were in those murky depths – here the water was fresh, but at some point the river turned salty where it met the sea.

My final stop in the Broads was Stokesby, which really is off the beaten path. Unfortunately I only saw the place at night, but its delightful pub sits right on a river and I imagine it’s a wonderful place to be in the summer. The same can be said of Reedham, which I did manage to see during daylight. This village has a waterfront with pubs and cafes, a swing bridge to let through large boats, and a ferry further upriver.


Norwich

Before returning to London I spent a night in Norwich. The cathedral here is almost one thousand years old, and has the second-largest spire in the UK. Norwich also has a castle (closed when I tried to visit), as well as many charming pedestrianised streets.

A river runs through this city and the waterfront varies from modern malls, to tree-lined footpaths. All around town are plaques informing visitors about historic events which took place in the city. I liked it, but one day felt about right to see the place.

Norwich Cathedral

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I stayed at, and can recommend, the Dairy Barns in Hickling, the Recruiting Sergeant in Coltishall, and the Barn Apartment in Stokesby. I also stayed in the Nelson Premier Inn in Norwich, which I absolutely do not recommend.

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Take a Greater Anglie direct from London Liverpool Street to Norwich, and then you have a choice of destinations in and around the Broads, including Acle, Reedham, and Hoveton & Wroxham.


Antwerp

A 3-minute read featuring the highlights of Antwerp, with personal recommendations and travel tips

The Guild buildings on Antwerp's Grote Markt
The gilded Guild building’s on Antwerp’s Grote Markt

I’m going to start this post by throwing some Antwerp facts at you. In the 16th century this indomitable city was the richest in Europe, thanks to pepper, silver, and textile booms, and attracted merchants from across the continent. At the beginning of the century 40% of world trade passed through here.

Reformation, riots, and revolt spurred the city’s decline. Napoleon had plans to reinvigorate the city’s harbour, but Waterloo put paid to those. Amidst the wars that Europe suffered in the last century, Antwerp hosted the Summer Olympics, and then in the 90’s became a major fashion centre.

Drunk man’s lock

Door in a 16th century stone arch, and with a lock that has two metal strips leading to a keyhole
Antwerp door, with 16th century lock at bottom-left

Antwerp’s history is writ large on the city’s impressive architecture. In fact, many of the buildings reflect the characters who once lived here.

Take this 16th century lock. See how it has a wiggly ‘V’ of metal lines pointing towards the keyhole? This design allowed the owner to return home from a drunken night out and easily locate the hole with his key.

But this little reflection of character pales into comparison with what can be found in the Zurenborg district.


Art Deco wonderland

In Zurenborg’s “golden triangle” of Transvaalstraat, Waterloostraat, and Cogels Osylei streets you’ll be treated to a huge variety of architecture. Although you’ll find in this Zurenborg district Gothic Revival, Neoclassical, and other styles, it’s Art Deco architecture which prevails.

The buildings here reflect Antwerp’s growing wealth and were mainly constructed between 1896-1904.

Various large homes with a range of architectural styles
Selection of interesting architecture in Antwerp’s Zurenborg district

They’re in Fashion

Five storey rounded building with red brick and stone, and wrought iron balconies
Het Modepaleis, the flagship store of Dries Van Noten (one of the Antwerp Six)

In the early 80s a group of fashion designers graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. They went on to become hugely influential in the fashion world and are known as “The Antwerp Six”.

Thanks in no small part to this group, the city has a thriving fashion district, in which some of the six set up shop. Here you’ll find a plethora of places to go on a spending spree, all centered on Nationalestraat, and with gorgeous shop fronts that are a feast for the eyes.


Cafรฉ culture

Antwerp is well-known for its “brown cafรฉs”, allegedly named due to the cigarette smoke which once filled the cafes and leaving the walls stained brown. It’s this slightly rough-at-the-edges, very relaxed feel which make these cafรฉs so appealing.

Inside you’ll find friendly staff, locals, and a large choice of delicious beers (try the Trappist brews, but don’t expect to walk straight afterwards).

Interior of the Den Engel brown cafe, with dark wood walls and marble-top tables
Interior of Den Engel brown cafรฉ, on the corner of Grote Markt

More must-sees

White stone statue of a small boy lying down and hugging his dog. The cobblestone paving has been fashioned to look like a blanket
Statue of Nello and Patrasche – a sad tale of a boy and his dog
Large, ornate train station entrance with fanned window and a clock
Antwerpen Centraal’s impressive entrance

In addition to the locations mentioned above, when you’re in Antwerp you shouldn’t miss:

  • Antwerpen Centraal train station, built in 1895 – an architectural marvel
  • Cathedral of Our Lady, completed in 1521 (although the south tower was never fully finished) and with impressive stained-glass windows
  • MAS Museum. This museum is bursting with Belgian history, and has a free-to-visit roof terrace with breathtaking views
  • St Anna’s Tunnel. This pedestrian tunnel – opened in 1933 – links the two sides of the city

Visit Antwerp as part of this 8-day Belgium itinerary (for Budget, Mid-range, and Luxury travellers)

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I stayed at the Hotel Indigo, which has stylish rooms and an excellent breakfast

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I recommend flying to Brussels and then taking the 31-minute train direct from the airport to Antwerpen Centraal

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Take Eurostar direct from London to Brussels, and then the 46min train from the same station to Antwerpen Centraal