Travel: Simon Calder column

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SUPPOSE YOU are booked to take a holiday with Britain's second- biggest tour operator, Airtours, three weeks from now. If the company decides to cancel the booking, it will compensate you with the princely sum of pounds 30. But if you decide to cancel, Airtours will keep every penny of your money - even if it re-sells the holiday, which any half-decent operator should be able to do in July.

For the consumer, this is a dismal state of affairs, and exactly the sort of unfair contract likely to interest the Office of Fair Trading. It is an open secret in the industry that investigating travel is a priority for the OFT's director-general, John Bridgeman.

Sources at the trade journal Travel Weekly tell me that the holiday companies are trying to put their house in order before the OFT starts feeling their corporate collars.

It is to be hoped they will also clean up their act on changes in charter flight times, which some operators reserve the right to change by as much as 12 hours without compensation; and offer passengers facing a flight delay of six hours more than the "light refreshment" currently offered.

TO TRAVEL hopefully is a better thing than to arrive at Norwich - that may be the ungracious but not altogether unreasonable conclusion for the visitor who turns up by train at East Anglia's largest city.

The stranger emerges into a melee of building work, and searches in vain for a map. Never mind, I concluded on Monday last, when I arrived with my bicycle. Lurking behind the wire fences was a squadron of taxi drivers. A friendly cabbie can always, in my experience, be relied upon to dispense sound advice on direction.

My destination was the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, on the campus of the University of East Anglia. It turns out that this is on the south- western side of the city. A taxi driver gave me copious directions - to Wroxham, some miles north east.

His performance was so convincing - incorporating a studied contemplation of the angle of the dwindling sun and an injunction about the course I should steer by it - that I set off as he prescribed, in the general direction of Norway.

The cartographically challenged visitor in any strange city welcomes visual clues in the form of signposts, but some in Norwich are plain unkind. One points towards a shambles of Sixties concrete. It begins "Multi-storey Car Park", and continues with the blunt "Tourists". None indicates where the university might be.

After half an hour of cycling in a diametrically inappropriate direction, I began to suspect that not all might be quite right. I asked a passing local: "Is this the right way to the university?"

"No," he said.

Conventionally, this sort of conversation continues with a discussion of how best to resolve the error of trajectory. Not in Norfolk. As I opened my mouth to say, "so where should I be heading?", he continued to pass by without a break in step or another word.

Eventually, I found a citizen who was prepared to reveal the location of the campus. The reason for my journey was to see a new exhibition about travels of the mind and body, entitled Be Moved. And what a treat it was. Well worth a detour, as the Michelin guides say. Using objects fetched from near (Wisbech Museum, home of some fascinating vestiges of slavery) and far (zoological samples collected by Darwin in the South Pacific), it explores human journeys, both real and imaginary. My favourite exhibit is a combination of the two: a superb Soviet globe of the moon, made in Moscow in 1961. A good slice of the surface is as blank as a Siberian winter - or, indeed, my mental map of Norwich. I paid particular attention to the section of the exhibition devoted to navigation and mapping.

THOSE WHOSE applications for renewed passports are at present stuck in the long queue at the issuing office need not resign themselves to journeys of the imagination. Last week I wondered why the Passport Agency was not repeating the simple solution adopted a decade ago during an industrial dispute: renewing the passports of personal callers with a simple extension stamp.

It turns out that the agency is offering exactly this courtesy; it's just not advertising the fact. An unusually reliable source, my father, joined the queue at Petty France in London last Tuesday morning. He was told the wait would be several hours - and was offered, instead, an instant and free two-year extension to his existing travel document.

It happens that he has a old-style passport. The new EU version was introduced in about 1990. His chunky document is now valid until the summer of 2001. Without wishing to get into a "My dad's passport is lasting longer than yours"-type debate, can anyone boast a later expiry date than that, for a passport that pre-dates EU uniformity?

ANOTHER QUESTION: is this the strangest flight in the world? You can fly non-stop from New York's Kennedy airport to about 100 large cities - plus the small town of Satu Mare, in the Carpathian wilderness, 15 miles south of the point where Ukraine, Hungary and Romania meet. The local airport may be modest in size, but it is a high achiever in intercontinental aviation. Besides Manhattan, you can also fly direct to Chicago and, from this month, Montreal. Satu Mare translates as Big Village. Honest.

THE RESPONSE to the quiz about the most proximate pair of European capitals has been slick and fast; the results will be published next week, along with the stories of travel scams that have alternately alarmed and amused us in the past fortnight.

You will also see some great improvements, too - the biggest, best travel section that The Independent has ever produced. We are expanding our coverage to a pull-out, 12-page section that will give you even more excellent writing and even better briefings.