Having spent a few consecutive summers exploring Ireland in a campervan in the 1990s at a time before the Good Friday Agreement initiated the peace process in the north of the country, it was great to be back last summer for the Daily Telegraph.
So much had changed: in the 1990s the border between the province, which then was punctuated with checkpoints and watchtowers, is now completely open, and the only hint that we’d crossed between the North and the Republic was the miles turning to kilometres on the road signs.
Our campervan had changed too, but one thing remained the same – the soundtrack to our trip, never more apt than in his own country: the great Van Morrison.
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I’ve lived in Oxford over 25 years, and have loved it ever since I first visited it as a teenager from my parents’ home in the neighbouring county of Buckinghamshire. So it was a delight to be asked to write a comprehensive guide to the city for the Telegraph, which appeared in 2011 (see this earlier post). The Telegraph asked me to produce a compact version of this guide, which appears here. This was harder than you’d think, as there are so many lovely paces to choose from – and every Oxford resident has their own particular favourites (which might not be the same ones as mine). But as a travel journalist I had to write the guide for visitors rather than residents, which meant missing out a few of my personal favourites that are too far off the beaten track, or difficult to find. Despite this challenge, it was fun seeing my own city through the eyes of a first-time tourist!
In march I travelled to the UAE to write about the history of polo, a game which (probably) originated in the Central Asian Steppes or in Persia (modern-day Iran). From here it migrated to China, Japan and India, where it was adopted by the British and brought back to the UK. When British farmers bought estancias in Argentina the game took off in this already horse-mad country, and in recent years it’s come ‘home’ to the Gulf, where it’s popular amongst the equally horse-mad Emiratis. I was luck enough to attend the Polo Gold Cup in Dubai, which forms the opening of my story…
A polo game in 18C India (Bridgeman Art Library)
It was spring last year when I visited Gozo for a few day’s walking its empty coastal paths, exploring its ancient megaliths and ‘chillaxing‘ David-Cameron style at cafés in villages where life has remained pretty much unchanged for aeons. Finally, this weekend, my feature about it appeared in the Sunday Telegraph. Normally I avoid re-reading my published pieces but this time I did – and found myself reliving the trip all over again, longing to return to this beautiful, peaceful island.
Cat ‘chillaxing’ on Gozo © Gail Simmons
As one of TIME’s regular travel contributors I was asked to write a small piece on a well-kept travel secret. I suggested a few of the more exotic and remote places I’d been, including Wahiba Sands in Oman, Bardsey Island in North Wales and Ta Cenc in Gozo. But the idea they liked best was one closer to home: a quirky cricket ground on the lawns of a country house picturesquely set in the Howardian Hills in North Yorkshire. Scroll to the third one down in the article to read it.
Hovingham Hall, North Yorkshire, with a cricket match on the lawn
In June last year I spent a few days in Hebron, Palestine, meeting some of the extraordinary glassblowers who work in searing temperatures to practice their craft in the centuries-old way. Hebron, lying on a crossroads of ancient caravan routes, and with the necessary minerals nearby, is famed for its glass – as well as its ceramics and leatherwork. With the occupation – and virtual strangulation – of the city by extremist Israeli settlers life has become very difficult for these craftsmen, whose ancestors for centuries exported their wares throughout the world.
With me on the trip was the photographer and film-maker George Azar who took some gorgeous photos of the glassmakers, their wares and the old city of Hebron (recently nominated for UNESCO World Heritage Status). Here’s our story about them.
Traditional glassblowing in Hebron © George Azar
I was very pleased to be asked by TIME Magazine to write a piece on Christmas in the Holy Land (Palestine and Israel), based on interviews with prominent citizens there. My priority was to talk to people representing the three Abrahamic faiths, each of whom in some capacity work at bringing the different religions and communities together.
After much research and avid networking I managed to find five such individuals, from Nazareth (in Israel) and Bethlehem, East Jerusalem and Ramallah (in Palestine) including the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and the first female mayor of Bethlehem, Vera Baboun, who were kind enough to give me some of their precious time despite being hugely busy with national and international commitments. I really hope you enjoy reading their thoughts.
And here’s the PDF version, which has better photos.
Sunset in Bethlehem, from the roof of the convent of Brigettine Sisters
© Gail Simmons