What to see and do in Pisa this Christmas

Pisa is a popular tourist haunt at any time of year, with even the least clued-up traveller sure to have heard of attractions like the Leaning Tower. But it’s even more impressive at Christmas, when decorations adorn the streets and various special events are held.

Located in the central Italian region of Tuscany, Pisa is undoubtedly one of our favourite Italian cities to visit in the run-up to the festive period. Milan may have its shopping and Venice its canals, but it’s hard to beat Pisa’s traditional Christmas markets, beautiful illuminations and cheerful seasonal atmosphere. If you’re planning a visit to Pisa this Christmas, our top tips will fill you in on the best sights to see and events to attend in the city…

Check out the Christmas lights

For the best possible view of festive Pisa, head to Corso Italia and Borgo Stretto, where the colourful lights of the Christmas decorations are sure to fill you with seasonal spirit.

Borgo Stretto is widely considered to be the most elegant street in the city. If you want to combine seeing the decorations with the chance to pick up an elegant and memorable present for a loved one, you’ll be in the right place, as it’s lined with high-end shops and boutiques. A small square on Borgo Stretto also hosts a Christmas market, where you can browse a wide array of decorations and more.

All shopped out? Recharge your batteries with a well-earned drink in one of the street’s many picturesque bars, or head to Salza, which is arguably the city’s best loved pastry shop.

Earn your Christmas dinner by running the Pisa Marathon

Christmas has become a time of excess, with people doing their best to eat their body weight in turkey, pigs in blankets and mince pies. So what better way to prepare for this year’s seasonal overindulgence than running a marathon?

The 2012 Pisa Marathon will take place on December 16th and boasts a spectacular route that sets off from one of the most beautiful squares in the world.

It combines plenty of flat stretches and long straights, so if you’re an experienced runner, there’s every chance of beating your personal best, while relative newcomers should find the race isn’t too demanding.

If you’re not feeling up to tackling the full 26-mile course, there are also half marathon and family run events that may prove a little more appealing.

Enough exercise, bring on the chocolate

Okay, so running a marathon isn’t for everyone. If you’d prefer to spend your Christmas in Pisa exercising your sweet tooth, head to the factory of luxury chocolatier Amedei.

Situated in Pontedera, about half an hour’s drive from the city centre (you should easily be able to find car hire in Pisa), the Amedei factory offers tours all year round, giving visitors an insight into the world of chocolate.

The factory opens its doors to the public from Monday to Friday, with tours lasting for around an hour and a half. Tickets are priced at €50 (£40) per person.

See the Scuola Normale of Pisa in concert

Founded back in 1810, the Scuola Normale is an elite school that gives regular musical performances in and around the city.

Culture vultures eager to enjoy some classical favourites this Christmas can head to the Teatro Verdi, where the Scuola Normale will give their tribute to Rameau, Mozart and Beethoven on December 11th and play music from Von Weber and Mendelssohn-Bartholdy on December 18th.

Coach Travel an Alternative to UK Christmas Train Disruption

National Express, a UK based road transport company, is laying on a number of extra coaches to cope with an expected Christmas rush.

The train operator is offering around 10,000 extra seats on December 23 and 24, 2012, for those travellers that might be inconvenienced by delays caused by maintenance work on the West Coast Main Line rail service.

For the two days before Christmas, rail passengers could suffer disruption due to their being no direct train services between London and Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool or Glasgow. Passengers who have already booked confirmed tickets on these train routes might opt for a cancellation, or opt to travel by National Express coaches with guaranteed reservations for the said dates.

The maintenance work will impact on services from Euston to Milton Keynes, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool or Glasgow, with no traffic on these routes. Services will resume on December 27, 2012, while two of the four lines will remain closed.

Robin Gisby, the Network Rail network operations managing director, said, ‘Services on the West Coast on December 23 and 24 will be severely affected.

We understand and regret the impact this will have on passengers and freight services, but believe it is necessary to achieve the long-term benefits.’

Chris Gibb, the chief operating officer of Virgin Trains, said, ‘We are working hard with industry colleagues to ensure customers have as much advance information as possible, irrespective of who will actually be running long distance services on the West Coast Main Line by this time.’

Christmas Market Trips Increase in 2012

Many more British travellers are booking special Christmas Market packages offered by travel agents, according to the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), a UK-based travel agency association.

There has been a 20 percent increase in bookings for overseas Christmas markets, compared to the same time last year, ABTA has reported.

Christmas markets are traditionally featured in Northern Europe and begin in mid to late November, with many continuing to remain open all through December and into the New Year. In recent years, many cities in the UK have started hosting these markets, which have become popular with UK holidaymakers wanting to experience an authentic and traditional Christmas.

Victoria Bacon, the head of communications at ABTA, said, ‘Christmas shopping can often be a chore but Christmas markets take you back to a time when everything about this time of year was magical. The growth in popularity of the markets also supports the wider trend we are seeing of holidaymakers seeking out more authentic and local experiences.

The markets, both here and overseas, are a wonderful opportunity for people to enjoy an early winter break, with many travel companies offering packages by air, rail, coach or even on a river cruise.’

Dresden, in Germany, hosts Germany’s oldest Christmas market, with stores selling the country’s traditional Christmas cake, Stollen. Prague, in the Czech Republic, has Christmas markets near the old town square. In Vienna, Austria, Christmas markets claim to offer the best coffee and cakes in Europe, at the Wurstelprater fairground.

Heidelburg, in Germany, is hosting a Christmas market in the centre of the medieval town, as does Birmingham in the UK, and Paris, France.


Brits Expect a Tight Christmas

Although the economy in the UK has recently seen a slight upswing, this Christmas may be tough on business as British residents brace themselves to spend less during the holidays.

Travelodge Hotels, a UK-based company that owns and operates hotel properties, has reported that the UK economy will suffer by around £514m in this year’s festive season, as British travellers decided to have a low cost Christmas.

A recent survey conducted by the hotel chain, said that only around 15 percent of respondents felt like they were out of recession. Around 48 percent of respondents said that they are feeling the financial squeeze more in 2012, compared to previous periods of recession. British holidaymakers are likely to spend an average of £481.88 this festive season, £19.53 less than Christmas 2011, and around £100 less than Christmas 2007.

Britons are expected to travel around 99 miles to spend Christmas with a family member, said the survey, with around 25 percent of respondents having already finalised their festive dinner destination, around seven weeks before Christmas day.

Shakila Ahmed, the spokesperson for Travelodge, said, ‘Our findings have revealed encountering the hardship of the recession has certainly turned us into a savvy nation of smart shoppers.

This year, Britons are definitely planning their Christmas way in advance. Since the summer we have seen a surge in room bookings across the UK for the festive season. Savvy Britons who are spending Christmas with family and friends have taken advantage of our great deals on cheap hotels with rooms from £19, so that they have more money to spend on presents.

Britons are certainly shopping much smarter and it’s evident that getting value for money is top of the shopping list.’

Extra Rail Services for UK Sales Shoppers

The UK government has announced additional trains for Boxing Day rail services.

The additional services are being laid on to assist shoppers with gaining easy access to major shopping areas in London, Stratford and Kent.

Announcing the new services, transport minister, Norman Baker, said, ‘We have devised a unique agreement to enable Southeastern and HS1 to make it easier for their passengers to get to the sales following Christmas, which will provide more services at no cost to the Government.

Southeastern ran some very successful services on High Speed 1 during the Olympics and the train operator has shown there is sufficient demand for these services so we were happy to consider allowing them to adjust their timetables. This is an excellent example of the Government, infrastructure owners and train operators working innovatively together to improve services for passengers.’

The rail services are being offered by a collaboration between the UK’s Department for Transport; rail company, Southeastern; and HS1 Ltd. The half-hourly service will run between Ashford International, Ebbsfleet International, Stratford International and St Pancras International.

The managing director of Southeastern, Charles Horton, said, ‘We’re really pleased to offer this trial Boxing Day service for our passengers thanks to the collaboration with HS1 and the DfT. Our high speed Javelin service will transport people from Ashford to St Pancras International in just 37 minutes, and19 minutes from Ebbsfleet. We’re also pleased to offer free parking at these two stations for Boxing Day so everyone has a little bit extra to spend in the sales.’

Southeastern has also announced a sale of off-peak, high-speed and mainline train fares, just in time for the Christmas season. The fares are available for travel up to December 24, 2012, at 25 percent discount on mainline and high-speed tickets bought online.

Sarah Boundy, the head of customer services for Southeastern, said, ‘We’re offering this special discount in time for the Christmas party and shopping season. Our high speed services will whisk passengers directly to the Westfield Shopping Centre at Stratford in just 30 minutes from Ashford and our mainline services offer a really convenient way to get to the heart of Central London’s West End.’

UK Rail Passengers Will Not Be Affected By Development Work during Christmas

The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), the central agency for passenger rail operators in the UK, has reported that most rail passengers will be unaffected by a series of planned improvement works that are expected to be carried out between the Christmas and New Year holiday period.

As the upcoming holiday period is going to see a slow down in passenger traffic, new statistics from the agency show that number of replacement buses will be much less than the same period last year. The majority of rail routes in the UK will stay open despite the planned improvement work.

Michael Roberts, the chief executive of ATOC, said, ‘A great deal of effort and planning goes into making sure that work to improve stations and make journeys faster and more reliable goes on while minimising disruption for our passengers.

This year, we have again been able to reduce the number of people who will have to get on to a replacement bus. Once again train companies have been working closely with Network Rail to make sure that we keep people on trains wherever we can.’

Network Rail, a company that operates the railway network in the UK, has announced that its engineers will be working all through the holiday period to improve signalling, place tracks, renovate bridges and refurbish rail stations to improve its passenger experience.

Robin Gisby, the Network Rail managing director for network operations, said, ‘We’re doing a lot of work this year to improve Britain’s railway and there will be some disruption to passengers over the Christmas period, but the overall effect on passengers is much lower than in previous years.

Passengers will see fewer buses and a better service this Christmas holiday period as our vital improvement work uses new techniques and equipment that reduces the impact on train services. This will be the model for the years ahead as we invest heavily to build a bigger, better railway and support Britain’s economic growth.’

Rail Companies Advise Book Christmas Train Journeys Now

Train companies are asking passengers to book their rail travel early for the upcoming festive season.

Rail passengers in the UK are being asked to book their Christmas tickets as early as possible by Virgin Trains, a UK-based train company, to benefit from the best prices and ensure reserved seating for the busiest travel period of the year.

Currently, the price for a single ticket for advance travel from London Euston to Birmingham is around GBP7.50; GBP12.00 from London Euston to Liverpool or Manchester; and GBP40.50 from London Euston to Glasgow.

Although there is still some political uncertainty over which rail company will ultimately be operating the West Coast franchise, as the current operators of the rail network, Virgin Trains are offering tickets for the Christmas season from December 9, 2012. The company has reported that tickets purchased before December 9, 2012, will be valid for travel on the journey dates.

While there will be no train services on December 25 and 26, all stations will remain open for the entire holiday period, with some alterations to train services due to routine maintenance work.

UK Transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, has earlier announced the cancellation of the contract awarding the West Coast mainline rail franchise to First Group, a Scotland-based transport company. The government has scrapped the contract after an investigation by the UK Department for Transport discovered major flaws in the franchise process. Three civil servants were also suspended following public pressure to revisit the franchise contract.

Virgin Trains, the current operator, has commenced court proceedings against a decision by the UK’s Department of Transport to award the West Coast Main Line franchise to FirstGroup.


St Barths already preparing for Christmas revelry

Caribbean island, St. Barths, is being decked up to receive the rich and famous for this year’s Christmas holidays, as it has become one of the must-visit holiday destinations for the elite, according to elitetraveller.com.

The tiny island claims to be blessed with all of the natural assets that make it a tourist’s haven. A green-blue harbour and landing strips for private jets are just some of the many facilities that attract celebrities and the well to do.

St. Barths has villas, hotels, spas, restaurants, and numerous recreation options for those who have enough time and money on their hands. The island is especially attractive to migratory tourists intent on escaping the harsh winters in parts of Europe.

The island has ambitious plans to celebrate this year’s festive season, as it sets out to provide its Christmas visitors with a holiday to remember.

St. Barth’s Christmas celebrations will start on December 12, with ‘The Colours of Christmas in St. Barths,’ an annual two-and-half week competition that involves businesses vying with one another to create the best storefront window decorations. A panel of 10 judges will decide on the winners of the competition, and they will be announced at a December 30 cocktail party on Quai General de Gaulle in Gustavia.

The Port of Gustavia will host the St. Barths Christmas Village from December 12 to 23, providing ample opportunities for shoppers to choose from the European-style market’s merchandise.

The island also hosts the annual New Year’s Eve Regatta, beginning on December 31st. It is during the Regatta that yacht owners visit the harbours for fun and friendly nautical competitions. Once the competitions come to an end, visitors are treated to live music, dance and a fireworks display.


Wintry and unsettled weather for Christmas weekend

There is increasing confidence that an Atlantic storm will now move along the south coast of England, bringing the risk of snow to Wales, the Midlands and parts of southern and southeast England from the early hours of Friday morning.

The snow is likely to accumulate even at low levels for a time with the risk of up to 10 cm lying over higher ground on Friday.

Heavy rain will also feature across the south of the UK as the storm passes through, bringing a risk of surface water flooding, with winds of up to 60 mph in the far southeast overnight into Friday.

However, there is still a small chance that the low will move further north, with the risk of strong winds affecting a larger area of the south of England.

Colder than average temperatures will then carry on through Friday and the weekend, continuing the risk of icy conditions.

Andy Page, Chief Forecaster at the Met Office, said: “Snow, heavy rain and strong winds are all expected to affect parts of the UK over the next day or so, bringing hazardous conditions at times.

“We’re working closely with government agencies and the resilience community to keep them up to date with the latest information. We’d advise the public to regularly check our latest forecasts and warnings to stay up-to-date with the situation.”

Jason Glasson, the Highways Agency’s National Winter & Severe Weather Team Leader, said: “I advise drivers to plan ahead before setting out tomorrow morning. Check the Met Office weather forecast and  road conditions and allow extra time if travel conditions are poor or delay the journey if conditions are really severe.”