São Miguel – An Island Adventure – Part 2

Day three started much like day two, with a hearty breakfast and too many clouds in the sky. This time there was no rain and the forecast intimated that the cloud would clear before eleven. With so much to see, we decided to brave the elements and hit the road, anyway. First stop: Lagoa do fogo – The lagoon of fire!

Like most places on the island from Ponta Delgada, it was only a short drive of about twenty-five minutes up to the top of Lagoa do Fogo and, as we left the highway and began to drive around the winding roads leading up to the viewpoints at the top, some workmen who were doing some forestry work looked at us in disbelief as we went. We didn’t really realise why until we started to make the final ascent, pulled over and were presented with this view:

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Yes, there was the first of what were to be many rainbows that day, but besides that, visibility was near zero. There was dense fog and we were inside a cloud. So far, not so very good. Feeling a little disappointed, we checked the weather in the Sete Cidades lagoon, further to the west  (our pre-planned second stop of the day anyway) and saw that the sky was a bit clearer. So we decided to head out and miss Lagoa do Fogo. As we careened round the winding road that hugs the side of this mountain the sky began to clear and we saw a park entrance up ahead and decided to stop and go in to check it out. Right in front of us as we parked, we realised that we now had a stunning view out over a patch of farmland to the coast and another rainbow.

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The park itself was a really interesting place, with more hot spring-fed pools that you could bathe in (alas, we hadn’t brought swimming gear!) as well as a wonderful lush forest, channels where the spring ran through the park and a visitor information centre with information in a variety of languages about the volcanic activity of the islands and the rock formations found there. Sadly, the path to the source of the spring, which was said to be very interesting, had been closed off due to the heavy rain, but it was a beautiful place to explore for half an hour, nonetheless and only cost two euros to get in. There was even a caldeira you could get really close to, to watch it bubbling. Though not too lose – a warning side advised us that the water could reach 100 degrees and more.

From here, it was back on the road to Sete Cidades, the place I was most looking forward to seeing on the whole trip. It was only around twenty minutes from Lagoa do Fogo, so very easy to get too and, as we were driving, the weather gradually cleared up. As was becoming completely the norm in the Azores, I didn’t really take my eyes off the scenery as we drove, you see something amazing that often.

Before long, we were off the motorway and heading up to a miradouro – a viewpoint – called the “Miradouro do Rei” the king’s viewpoint. Before that, though, we’d heard about an abandoned hotel from some friends of mine, where the views over the Sete Cidades lagoon was even better. Suddenly, it appeared at the side of the road and we pulled in to the car park, still somewhat unaware of just how beautiful the spectacle awaiting us would be. We climbed the still-carpeted and very smelly stairs, ducking under jutting out pieces of metal and made our way to roof, to behold a view that I can honestly say filled me with awe.

After twenty minutes of just standing and appreciating perhaps the most stunning view of my life to date, we got back in the car and drove in to the lagoon itself, across the narrow road that runs across the water. We were about to stop and jump out for a closer look when the rain returned with a vengeance, fat raindrops pounding the roof of the Clio. We decided to look for somewhere for lunch but, curiously, there didn’t seem to be anywhere besides a pizzeria and the missus was fully against pizza in the Azores, so we looked up the next town over, and decided to take a look at the seaside town on the north-western tip of the island – Mosteiros.

Arriving there, we’d found a restaurant on google maps that was highly recommended for its seafood – something we’d yet to really try on Sao Miguel. We parked up, now bathed in sunshine, and went inside. The dish of the day, roasted octopus looked incredible, but the restaurant had run out, completely. From the options left, we both decided to try lapas – limpets – for the first time. Here they were grilled in the shell. First we had a bean and pasta soup which was excellent, and I tried the local beer Especial, for the first time. It was perfectly drinkable, if not memorable. Then the lapas arrived. So many people in the restaurant were commenting on how great they were today, which made us feel quite anxious to try them. In the end though, they came out, wonderfully presented, smelling strongly of the sea, but neither of us really liked them, the texture quite rubbery and the insides exploding onto the plate in an alarming fashion. From the opinions around the restaurant though, it was strictly that we didn’t like them, not that they weren’t great.

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It being distinctly low season, Mosteiros had the feel of a sleepy town. Few tourists besides us were wandering the streets and the local people were relaxing over lunch or outside the cafe kiosk in the small town square. The town was quite pretty though, with a church much in the style of the one in Ponta Delgada, and a curved harbour, with a black volcanic sand beach at one side. Beyond this there were some rocky outcrops with some seating where we stopped to watch the setting sun descend towards the water for a while.

After our walk, we decided to head back along the coast road to Ponta Delgada, so we could relax a little before our final dinner on the island. On the way we were to stop off at Europe’s only tea plantation. Not far from the tea place though, we saw a lookout point over the sea and decided to pull over to take in the breathtaking views.

It was only when I got back in to the car that I realised there had been about ten thousand midges waiting for an idiot like me in the air. They were biting my neck, my face, my arms. Dreadful. We spent some ten minutes killing them before driving on. We stopped in the tea place, as planned and tried the only tea made in Europe – for free! It was quite delicious, so we bought some to bring home and some more to take as a gift for Ana’s mum. Sadly it was very dark and I got no pictures. Then we arrived at the hotel and, as the Azores is such a reasonably priced place, we decided to do something we’d never done before. We booked a table at the number one restaurant on the island on Trip Advisor.

Called Quinta Dos Sabores, the restaurant is a concept restaurant and can cater for vegetarians and vegans as well as omnivores like us. You call and book – it’s the only way you can get a table and they ask you a few questions about what you like. Then they design a menu for you. The dinner menu is six courses of some of the best food I’ve had in my life. The lady who runs the place is extremely welcoming and has an interesting back story, having lived previously in Recife in Brazil, Lisbon and Alentejo. Besides wines and spirits everything is sourced from within a kilometre or so of the restaurant and the quality of the ingredients shines through in everything they put in front of you.

You can read about the restaurant here. I have to say that every word of praise is justified and it ranks among the very best meals of my life. I won’t bore you with a description of everything we ate, but I will say that the steak course was not accompanied by a steak knife, because the meat was so tender that I could easily cut it with a butter knife. And I will also mention that the baby carrots that came with the fish course were perhaps 1.5 centimetres long, but still had more flavour than any carrot I’ve ever eaten before. It was the best way I could possibly imagine to finish my trip to the Azores and I sincerely hope I have the chance to return.

After dinner it was off to bed, then breakfast, then returning the car, then the short flight back to Lisbon. If you are living in mainland Portugal or even the UK (direct flights from Stansted) I implore you to visit the Azores before tourism really takes hold. As yet, there is still so much that is untouched and such natural beauty I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in Europe on such a scale. Food is outstanding wherever you go and, best of all, it’s so affordable. I will certainly be going back!

São Miguel – An Island Adventure – Part 1

When my girlfriend asked me if I’d prefer a gift or an experience, this Christmas, I didn’t even really feel I had to give her an answer. When she told me, six weeks before Christmas that she simply had to tell me what the surprise was, ahead of time, I relented. And so, she revealed we were going to the Azores. Now the Azores has been one of those places that I remembered hearing about as a young boy, and thinking of as something exotic – almost otherworldly – and certainly somewhere I’d never have the chance to visit. They are a volcanic archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the largest of which, and the one we were to visit, is São Miguel.

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The possibility of visiting the place has really opened up over the past couple of years, beginning with TAP starting to offer low cost flights both to São Miguel and to Terceira island. Following on from that, Azores Airlines, part of SATA, and Ryanair both jumped on the Lisbon-to-the-Azores-for-not-much-money bandwagon and tourism to the islands has skyrocketed, particularly during the summer months. But we were travelling in December. Would it be a wash out? We would find out!

We arrived on December 28th, after the obligatory Christmas festivities had reached an end. We arrived at about 11:00am on the Ryanair flight from Lisbon, which ran remarkably smoothly and suffered from surprisingly little turbulence for a winter flight that was almost exclusively over the ocean. Having left Lisbon in bright winter sunshine, we arrived to thick fog. But we weren’t to be deterred by that. And so we went to the Ilha Verde desk and claimed out silver Renault Clio, which was to be our wheels for the weekend. I strongly recommend booking this in advance, online. We got a slightly cheaper price and a much cheaper deal on reducing our insurance excess to zero. It’s worth shopping around online before you arrive.

From the airport, both complete strangers to the islands, Ana asked me to switch on the GPS to find directions for our hotel. I did so and then, within about three minutes, we were pulling in to the covered car park of the Azoris Royal Garden. We checked in within about five minutes and were in our fourth floor room in less than ten. From leaving home to dropping our bags, we had taken around five hours. Highly impressive. We dropped our stuff, took rain proof gear from our bags (as the sky looked a little angry) and headed out to explore the town of Ponta Delgada on foot.

Looking out to sea from the sea front, you can really begin to appreciate that you’re in the middle of the ocean. All you can see is the expanse of water, rolling away from you seemingly endlessly. The sea front also had a seating area, a small sort of shopping and restaurant area which hugged the edges of the water and the old gate, which is little more than a ruin, but still retains pride of place in a square in the city centre. The wind was also formidably strong, creating waves that relentlessly battered the sea walls and nearly took my head off at the top of the seating area.

After being blown around like that for around half an hour, we decided to grab some lunch and made a beeline for a restaurant we’d had recommended to us by one of Ana’s friends. So we strolled over to Tasca. Tasca, as anyone who’s been to a Portuguese or Spanish speaking country will know, means simply a small, informal, local restaurant. They’re everywhere in Portugal, and so the name is fairly uninspired. But the moment you walk in, you know this is not going to be just any old Tasca. Famous for its petiscos – Portuguese tapas – we were too hungry to go for that, so we decided to order a starter and a main course each. Which might have been an error. I had the selection of local sausages to start, which involved chourico, alheira, morcella (black pudding) and a dollop of migas (dissolved bread with herbs) and a slice of cassava. To follow, I’d already ordered a steak, with a side of fries. As you can see from the pictures, neither was in any way small.

Both dishes were beautifully cooked and the quality of the meat, in particular was really striking. They were washed down with a glass of terra de lava wine from one of the other Azorean islands, which lacked the delicacy of continental Portuguese wine, but was still a lovely drop. Ana ate plumas for her main dish, a fatty and delicious cut of pork. She faltered before finishing, while I just about managed to demolish both plates. But after a coffee, we decided we were in very definite need of a stroll back to the hotel.

As we went back, we passed the fortaleza of Sao Bras, which is also now the island’s military museum. We didn’t go inside, but it has impressive views from outside. We also tried to find a whale watching company who would be interested in taking us out, but learned that there would be no days with good enough sea conditions until the Saturday – the day we were to leave. This is certainly something to consider for those hoping to visit the Azores and something we will think about when we return. Finally, we returned to the hotel for a night of relaxation ahead of the many miles we would cover in the coming days.

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Fortaleza of Sao Bras, along with military museum, Ponta Delgada

We woke up at about half past eight the next day and ventured down into our hotel’s ground floor to find breakfast. We were not disappointed at the range of plentiful hot and cold food offerings, including a large amount of local produce in the form of cheeses, cakes and more. A look out to the outdoor pool – which we were definitely in the wrong season to be using – told us that the weather had improved, but not by much. Nonetheless, we ate up and went back to the room to prepare for our first road trip, to Furnas.

We started up the car, then the GPS and we were off towards Furnas. What immediately impressed us was how easy the road network on Sao Miguel seemed to be. I don’t know if it;s the same on other islands of the Azores, but there is a very efficient circular road, with highway standard surfaces and multiple lanes, with arterial routes criss-crossing the island to connect the main settlements and places of natural beauty. It means that even if someone is not an overtly confident driver, they ought not be deterred from hiring a car to explore the island (especially as local transport appears infrequent). The hotel we stayed at, too, was under a kilometre from the entrance to the highway, so in spite of the 40km between us and Furnas, we were there remarkably quickly, spotting some beautiful countryside along the way and also encountering at least six separate weather systems en route.

Once in the general area of Furnas, we passed a number of ‘Caldeiras,’ places where volcanic gas is emitted from below the ground, often accompanied by plumes of smoke and a strong smell of sulphur, as we would find out at close quarters sometime later. But first we headed for Parque Terra Nostra, where we were planning to take a dip in a pool whose water was rich in iron – and so was coloured a shocking orange brown – and also to walk around the extensive and beautiful gardens. First we came to the pool. We paid our 6 euro entrance fee, and an additional five each for towel hire (though we were reimbursed two euros each on returning our towels) and changed our clothes before descending into the water. It was gloriously warm, especially at the points where it poured into the pool from the underground piping system. It was extremely peaceful sitting in the warm, brown water, watching the steam rise into what was a rather chilly day by comparison, at 15 degrees centigrade. The water is as hot as 39 degrees when it enters the pool and so feels very warm against the skin. The iron is said to have therapeutic properties, but who knows if that’s correct or not. It was a fun experience.

After the pools, we dried off, changed and explored some of the gardens. We would have needed a huge amount of time to see all of them, but we felt we got our money’s worth as we tramped around for an hour or so. Some of it looks positively other worldly.

From here, we drove around to the nearest Caldeira, where we saw volcanic vents with names of saints, demons and more besides. We met a friendly stray cat and we became nauseated by the overbearing fragrance of sulphur. But it was fascinating to see. Some of the signs warned us of water temperatures of up to 100 degrees C. Definitely not for bathing, then.

After this, the plan had been to go a restaurant nearby and to try the famous cozido a portuguesa, which is cooked using geothermal heat, in one of the thermal vents. But, having breathed far too much horrid smelling sulphur in already, we decided instead to follow up another restaurant recommendation that we’d both been very excited about before coming to the island, The Associacao Agricola. It was something of a drive from where we were and we were both starving, but we hoped it would be worth it. And we were right. The restaurant’s plan is to provide locally raised, grass fed beef, with high welfare and an altogether humane approach to farming. The results are supposed to speak for themselves. And so it was. I had the house steak with three pepper cream sauce and my missus went for the same steak with mustard sauce. We took a half bottle of fruity Dao wine to accompany it. The steak was honestly the smoothest, most tender steak I’ve ever eaten in my life. It was like silk. If you are a lover of steak and you haven’t eaten here, I’d dare say your life is as yet incomplete.

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Desserts were also simple and deliciously made. We considered coming back to the restaurant again, even though we had only one more night on the island. We ultimately didn’t, but I would have had no regrets if we had done. It was genuinely stunning how good the steak was and, a month on, I still find myself thinking about it on a nearly daily basis.

After the steak, it was time to drive back to the hotel, in the company of a rather lovely sunset. Once we got back, we took a bath and then went to the hotel’s bar for what were really rather excellent cocktails, for a good price, from an excellent barman. After that, it was time for bed, for the next day promised trips to the fire lagoon, the seven cities lagoon and some seaside towns, too.

Castles in Alentejo – Part 3 – Évora Monte

Hardly settled back in to Lisbon life after a relatively traumatic, but necessary, work stint in not-so-jolly old England, we found ourselves presented with a public holiday. This meant that both I and my lady would be free, together on a day that wasn’t a Sunday. Not wishing to look this near miraculous gift horse in the mouth, I was delighted when she suggested we go to see the castle at Évora Monte.This was proof positive that, if you go on about something often enough for long enough, someone will eventually listen to you. So we hopped in the car and hit the road.

En route, I decided to have a look for restaurant recommendations in the town. We soon discovered there were pretty well none at all – it’s just that small – so we decided to eat in Arraiolos. This time though, with my lady in charge, she selected a restaurant on the edge of town, called ‘O Alpendre’ – The Porch, in English. We arrived starving, a state in which we would not be permitted to leave. We waited for a few moments for our table to be readied and then sat, immediately presented with boiled quails eggs in oil and vinegar with onions and herbs, a delicious molten local with a cloth bag full of freshly baked, warm bread, some presunto ham and some olives. Looking back, this might well have sufficed, but still feeling famished, we ordered a steak and a portion of lamb, each served with various ‘migas’ – bread softened and mashed into a sort of terrine, with herbs, vegetables and seasoning.

The whole meal was delicious but, as I really ought to have learned by now, the Alentejan portions were enough to cause even a particularly hungry lion to need a power nap. This was perhaps, not the best fuel for a hike to a castle mount!

Leaving the restaurant, it was little more than a ten minute drive onward to Évora Monte. This I knew, having been somewhat amazed by the completeness of the structure, as I headed back from Estremoz on my previous castle trip. On the way, we did run in to one surprise though, in the form of Azaruja, a train station which had been abandoned and borded up, probably on the old Évora to Estremoz line. It seemed remarkably well preserved, compared with the tired, rusted looking rails in the road. The platforms were totally overgrown with the dry long grasses of the area and we saw no examples of any civilization in the immediate vicinity.

But it wasn’t long before we were pulling up at the bottom of the castle mount. I reassured Ana that it’d be much more fun if we climbed the whole castle hill from the bottom. She would come to regret listening to me on this matter, but never mind. As you arrive in Évora Monte there is a café, a bus stop and a mini roundabout with an old mill stone fastened to it. That really is about it. It’s a tiny village, which serves to make the grandiose nature of the castle all the more imposing as it looks down on you.

There was nothing left to do but to climb to the top. We walked past the handful of residential properties which cling to the hillside, stopping occasionally to take in the browns and golds of the Alentejo countryside from the many viewpoints on the way to the top. When we arrived at the level of the castle itself, we noted that there were adverts for both an adega, selling local wine, and a store with locals handcrafts. We didn’t stop off in either though and instead strode on up to the castle gates.

Then we walked inside. What I was immediately struck by was that this castle, much like Estremoz, a few weeks earlier, was still very much home to a living, even thriving community. But, unlike Estremoz, which was really quite a large city and had a lot of the main municpal functions of a city nestled around the castle walls, there was almost nothing here. People must actually live in quite extreme isolation – the roads out of Évora Monte’s castle certainly aren’t anything to shout about. As a place to visit, it was great. We walked half the length of the city walls, from the front gate to the rear, stepping down next to the city’s clearly active cemetery. Walking back across to the exit of the castle, we saw livestock, a local society of some kind and then simply houses. Even the castle keep seems still to be occupied as a residence. I’d certainly recommend Évora Monte as a place to visit, but cannot imagine how odd it must be to live there!

Castles in Alentejo – Part 2 – Estremoz

Fresh from a long and well earned sleep, after our previous day’s exertions, wandering around the high, hill top castle of Arraiolos, we wandered over to the other side of the road, where our hostel had its breakfast laid out. Hostel breakfasts can range from out-of-this-world to get-out-of-my-life, so it was good to arrive and find a range of fruit juice, a coffee capsule mahine for REAL cofffee, breads, cheeses, ham, sausage, jam, butter, cereal and more besides. We sat in the little courtyard outside and thoroughly stuffed our faces, preparing as we were for a much heavier day, in terms of walking, that day. Faces filled, it was time for a quick shower and then off to the bus station and, in fact, the same stop even, to wait for the bus to Estremoz.

The city is a fair bit further from Évora than Arraiolos, sitting some 51 kilometres away and is a mere twenty from the Spanish border. While all of the castles in the region had a role in protecting Portugal from the Spanish at various points in time, we had a feeling that this one might have been more significant. The bus rolled out of the station more or less exactly on time and we were again amongst a huge group of about six total passengers on board. The route followed the Arraiolos route and then veered off, following signs, mainly, for Espanha.

A fairly rapid fifty-five minutes later, we were hopping off the bus and in Estremoz. Rather than the castle dominating the skyline where we disembarked, instead was a towering cement factory. Luckily, that seemed to be nowhere near where we were going, so we jumped off the bus and crossed the road to find an interesting and unusual looking square building, adorned with beautiful azulejos and the name of the city. It took us a few minutes to realise that this was an old train station. A cursory look at Portuguese wikipedia told us that the station had been built in 1902, and had been in use until 2011, when it was decommissioned. It was pleasing, though, to see that they’ve kept it in such great condition since.

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After taking in the building, it was down the road towards the town and a quick stop off to get more coffee and a cake. While in Alentejo it’s always a good idea to get a queijada. Though it literally means cheesecake, it’s nothing like a cheesecake, at all. It’s simply a cake, heavily egg based (naturally, in Portugal!), with the quark from cheese added. It’s light, sits in a firm pastry case and is quite delicious.

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Turning the corner from the street with the bus station at the end, you come to a large square. There’s a section in the middle with a water feature, a small garden and a café with terraces. To the left though is an historic building which has been converted into a science centre, with sections for astronomy, natural history and more. We decided to take a look. The brilliant thing is that it’s been preserved so well, so the old features are really present and a part of the experience of visiting the place, including a lush courtyard in the interior of the museum and really cool medieval gargoyles. Almost superimposed on top of it, there are star charts, dinosaur skeletons and lots of other exciting science and nature-based elements. It must be a fantastic place to take kids, as there are lots of interactive exhibits, too. We didn’t have time to see the museum, so we decided not to go into the main exhibit, but I’ve definitely mde a mental note to return. You can find out about it here (in Portuguese).

Walking across the street, we saw a small food market, selling locally grown produce. I didn’t want to take any photos, as I wasn’t buying, but all of it looked terrific. Across the road was the town hall and now also town museum. In keeping with the spirit of the interior part of the Alentejo in mid summer, the sign on the door, in Portuguese and English, advised that in summer afternoon opening would be “erratic”. The building itself was quite attractive and had a fabulous coat of arms on the wall and more azulejos on the portal to the building next door.

After this, we only had to walk across one more square before we were standing at the edge of the castle walls. Where Arraiolos had been a town that had developed twenty metres or so below the old castle, Estremoz was something entirely different, in fact being a city that still lived and breathed within the castle and then nestling right up against the towering castle walls, too. As we approached the city walls, passing another local produce market, we came out alongside the defences, with a drop down to the farmland stretching out from the edge of the city and running all the way to the horizon. We stopped for a few photos and then went in to the castle through one of the arched gates.

Once inside the castle walls, we walked up the narrow street past the 700-year-old buildings – including the old prison, which has been turned in to a bar restuarant with a roof terrace – and then arrived at a huge, imposing tower, connected to a courtyard, with a wall facing out towards the countryside. In the middle of the square is a statue to the saint, queen isabel. In the tower there is now a pousada, one of the traditional hotels, originally set up for coachmen crossing the country in the middle ages. The pousada hotel looked wonderful and has rooms in the main tower which have what must be quite staggering views over the city. I made a note to stay there some time in the future. The castle keep is in remarkable condition and the surrounding buildings, too, look incredible for their age. There is even an adega with a huge collection of wines within the inner walls. Opposite is one part of the castle which has been allowed to decay, but it looks dramatic, nonetheless.

We decided to walk out of the inner gate and go to the viewpoint at the other extremity of the outer walls. When we got there there we found a beautiful church and stopped to take in the views. Walking back from here, we discovered a group of men and women sitting at a snack bar, drinking beer and sheltering from the sun in the shade. We decided it wasn’t a bad idea and went inside to join them.

The castle is quite amazing, largely because so many people actually still live their lives within the city walls. This is not unique in Portugal and, of course, Obidos is the most famous other example of such a place, but the big difference here is that this really doesn’t feel so much like a touristy place. It’s strange when you consider that the fortress had an important role in Portuguese history, with Vasco Da Gama himself once stationed here as a general in the defence against the Spanish.

After visiting all areas of the castle and having our beers to cool off, we decided it was about time for lunch. We took a walk around and found a sign, just outside the main gate, for a traditional restaurant offering local specialties. We decided to give it a try and were very glad that we did. My friend ate a bean soup, which came with what looked like a whole loaf of bread, while I had an açorda alentejana, with cod and egg. It’s a kind of thin soup with lots of herbs, a huge slab of bacalhau floating in it and a poached egg to keep it company. Again, there was abundant bread, olives and we picked up a half litre of local white wine. With coffees to follow, we managed to spend 16 euros, which was phenomenal value. Afterwards, as I paid the lady in charge, I asked if we was the chef and she replied that she was in fact the owner and had been running the place for more than 30 years. If you find yourself in Estremoz and needing something to eat, I would strongly recommend the Casa do Pixanegra.

With lunch eaten, there was little more than an hour to wander around the city before our bus back to Évora. So we wandered the narrow streets, my friend looked for a souvenir and, finally, we whiled away some time in a café in the town square, where I found a most disturbing looking statue of what looked like a young boy.

All in all, Estremoz had been a really worthwhile place to visit, packed with history and, more importantly perhaps, living history, as so many people were still living out their daily lives within the castle walls. I think, because of the isolation, it’s not somewhere I’d want to live, but it’s a really exciting and beautiful place to visit. Finally, on the way home, we spotted something we’d not seen too clearly on the way out on the bus, that being another castle, this time at a place called Évoramonte. So that one is on the list for the next time, along with Marvão and more besides. Watch this space for when I make it to them. For those readers who have made it over to Portugal but haven’t been to Alentejo, I implore you to take a look. It’s my absolute favourite and the slightly lower levels of tourism to the Lisboa region and the Algarve make such a difference.

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Castles in Alentejo – Part 1 – Arraiolos

Imagine my situation. I’m on holiday from school but my girlfriend isn’t. My friend visits from Poland and she is more or less fanatical about Portugal in general, but especially about seeing new places and castles in particular. So I did the only thing I could do. I went castle hunting.

The question now was where to go, particularly as Portugal has more castles that most people have hot dinners in a six month period. A quick bit of scouting on the internet turned up this article. The trick then was to pick two castles that were sufficiently close together to make a 2 night, 2 castle trip possible. To make things more complicated, I’m not a driver, and we weren’t on the kind of budget to be able to hire a car. So we searched and scoured google maps and various local bus service websites and eventually decided upon Arraiolos and Estremoz. We booked accommodation in Évora, sandwiched between the two, booked return trains there and we were off.

The train ride to Évora is just over an hour and a quarter out of Lisbon. As you head south first, into Setúbal, it has the added bonus of the train cruising over the Tejo river inside the 25th April bridge, providing wonderful views over the river, the wider city and across to the Cristo Rei monument. Booking online with Portuguese railways anything more than a week in advance ensures some crazy prices, in this case, we paid 15 euros return, including a reserved seat (which you can select) in an air conditioned 2nd class carriage. It’s really a bargain.

We jumped on the train early on Tuesday morning and found ourselves in Évora at just before 10:30. We took the short walk in to the old town and our hostel, the Old Évora Hostel. Based within the old city walls, it’s a good place to stay. We’d chosen a twin room with a shared bathroom and, conveniently, the private rooms are located across the road from the dormitories, ensuring peace and quiet when you want to sleep. Breakfast is served in the main hostel building between 8 and 10:30 every day and is decent. The beds were cosy enough, there were abundant bathrooms and a fan is provided in each room – necessary with the Alentejo summer heat. The brother and sister team who run the place are extremely friendly and helpful and, though our room was still being cleaned at such an early hour, we were still able to drop our bags in our room and head back out.

From there we decided to head straight to the bus station, a mere 15 minute walk, just outside the walls of the old city. We arrived and found the ticket office, with the time now around 11:15. We asked about our bus and the assistant confirmed that it was leaving at 12:20 and that we should pay on the bus. So we decided we’d take this opportunity to grab a bite to eat, having not really had much of a breakfast. Opposite the bus station is a classic little Portuguese snack bar. Far from fancy, the owner was a kind enough fellow and he quickly made us a couple of bifanas, which we washed down with a cold coke, with the mercury already rising to over 35 degrees centigrade.

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With the snack demolished along with a coffee chaser, we were at the bus stand, with just 10 minutes to go before our bus left. We jumped on board as it arrived, paying a remarkably small EUR 3.05 for what ended up being a 25km journey. The route took us out of Évora, along the line of the city’s ancient aquaduct and between fields of alternating furry Alentejan cows and cork trees, with their distinctive bright under bark and the number emblazoned on the trunk, denoting when they were last harvested. The journey was pretty uneventful, aside from one particularly tight turn in a small village where I was made to feel decidedly glad not to be an Alentejo bus driver. After what seemed like miles of the same countryside, we suddenly spotted the walls of the castle and the keep at the top of a hill. We got ever closer until we pulled off the main road and the bus driver let us off in the middle of the small town. After a short stop at a Mini Preco market to buy extra water, we set off through the town, and finally between two beds of brightly flowering cacti up towards the castle on the hill top.

Once at the castle itself, we first took a look around the keep, which is largely ruined. Still, it remains mighty impressive, and has helpful plaques telling you when the different parts were constructed and by whom. The city was founded at the very beginning of the 13th century and gained some renown for its tapestries and carpet weaving (more on that later). The castle was constructed in its current shape and size around a hundred years later, and extended throughout the 14th century.

The real reason people come to see the castle at Arraiolos though, is not for the keep. The real reason is the wall and the church. The wall is more or less 100% intact, including an impressive gate tower. Walking around the perimeter and looking out over what I’m not ashamed to admit is my favourite area of Portugal is quite magical. Standing between the battlements and getting an idea of just how far you can see and just how far down the surrounding lands are, you get a real sense of the imposing defensive position this must once have been. It also helps you to understand how it remains in such good condition so much later. The second item of interest is the church. A classic whitewashed building, it’s quite large, despite its dwarfed look in the middle of the sprawling castle walls. It’s still in use and kept in very good condition. The vaulted ceilings are beautifully kept, in particular. Some children who were doing some work in the church, manning the souvenir stalls in their school holidays were very helpful and keen to show off their English to us obvious foreigners. They sold me yet more cold water and my friend picked upa  fridge magnet of locally produced, handmade Arraiolos carpet work. Quite a unique souvenir.

We spent a full hour wandering around the walls, taking in the views and occasionally diving for the cover of the one tree, when the sun got too hot for us. After that it was back down through the town. As on the way up, the streets were more or less silent, locals far too smart to be out wandering around in such bright, hot midday sun. But our stomachs were rumbling, lunch was needed. I noticed on the way down that their bottle banks are all individually painted with colourful flower patterns. A lovely touch.

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As we were heading back in to the town, we recalled that we had passed a café that looked intriguing. It turned out to be a good bet as, even though the kitchen was all but closed, we were able to order the traveller’s friend in the form of the tosta mista. They also had some delightful, chilled local white wine. As we were ordering, I also noticed that they sold homemade jams, made of local fruit and helped myself to a jar of fig jam. All that, with 2 coffees added came to all of about 20 euros, and was delivered with genuinely great service from the staff. If you find yourself in Arraiolos and in need of a snack, you really should take yourself off to Teresa Alves.

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With lunch sating our appetites (my friend actually had to take two chunks of her sandwich for the road), we decided that, with more than an hour to go until our bus, we’d have a bit of an explore. We wandered through the old town and saw that some of it is a little run down, outside of the centre. Even that, though, lent the place a kind of rustic beauty. I’m not sure the occupants of the buildings would agree on winter nights, but it made for some interesting scenery. After we ran out of town (quite quickly, in fact!) we decided to keep walking along the country road. Without any pavement we made sure to make ourselves visible to the oncoming traffic and, just as I was beginning to think it had been a bad idea, we came across one of the many drinking fountains for travellers installed by the Portuguese royal family. Still with running water (I have to say I didn’t drink any), these things really are magnificent and you will find them all over Portugal, particularly on roads between historically important cities. They were installed to make traversing the country in the searing heat of summer a little more bearable for travellers and their horses.

We followed the meandering road back around to the town centre and stopped for a cold drink under the shade of some trees in the park, near the bus station until time to travel. The journey back, with tired legs and a different route, had a real glow about it. The afternoon sun setting behind the trees, birds of prey gliding over the fields and, at one point, a field of sunflowers that seemed to go on forever.

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Arriving back to Évora in the late afternoon allowed us a little time to relax in our hostel room before heading back out for a walk around the city and a bite to eat. I’ve already covered much of what there is to do in Évora in a different post, but here are a few pics.

Once dinner was done with though, we decided that it was time for bed. We anticipated (quite rightly) that the next day in Estremoz would involve a lot more walking. So it was back to the hostel and alarms were set for 8am. Then it was off to sleep.

Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 9 – Galle & The End of my Trip

For anyone who missed the previous episode of my tour of Sri Lanka, I was starting my trip to Galle anything but fresh. Standing on Colombo’s Fort station after perhaps 90 minutes’ sleep during a 14-hour journey where I had been folded into the shape of a tetris block, I was eternally grateful for two things. First of all, the strong, milky tea and the tea bhanis that I was eating as a sort of makeshift breakfast and second the advice of a really kind fellow who directed me to the best place to stand to get a seat for the ride down the coast to Galle. I didn’t have too long to wait and, before long, I was sitting at a seat with enough leg room in front of me to not be crippled and looking out of the windows as the outskirts of the city gave way to dense forests with the occasional house on my left and the endless Indian Ocean coastline to my right, the calm water lapping at the sand as high tide approached. It was around 7am and the train was little more than half full.

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Even with so little sleep, it’s hard not to appreciate views like this

The ride to Galle was mercifully short and, on arriving, I managed to stumble upon some Australians who were also staying inside the huge fort complex and were more than happy to split the tuk tuk fare. I zombie staggered my way to my hostel and asked the fellow in charge if I might leave my bag there until later when it was time for me to check in. He was kind enough to allow me to do it and also to tell me where I could get coffee, a stone’s throw away. The coffee was expensive, but it was real filter coffee and iced coffee at that. The temperature was already high, the humidity ahead of the coming storm which you can see in the photo above, just making it worse. Even at a cost of about £2, a cold, strong coffee was too good to resist.

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After a short period of sitting in an extremely comfy armchair, checking the highlights of the cricket on the big screens, and having allowed caffeine to course through my veins for a bit, I was ready to take a walk around the fort. What a beautiful place it is. If you’ve read my other blogs about Sri Lanka, it will be a familiar history. Founded by the Portuguese, the fort was taken over by the Dutch and expanded, and then finally occupied by the British until independence. This one being so far south, though, meant that it had remained largely unscathed by the civil war. The result is that it’s one of the best preserved forts in the country, so much so, that the vast majority of life – tourist life, at least – takes place within the old stone walls. Despite some negative experiences – more on that later – it means that Galle really is somewhere that travellers to Sri Lanka should see.

If you think the sky has a foreboding look about it in these images, you’d be dead right. Just after this period of wandering about, I approached the lighthouse that juts out on the rocky coastline and watched as a storm swept in, remarkably quickly too. Most people dashed for cover ahead of time, but a handful of us decided to watch as the driving rain rolled in with the tide. The air held its balmy warmth and the chill of the rain was very welcome. It also came just before noon and presented a chance for a quick nap to recover some energy from the previous night.

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Refreshed by the power nap, there was only one thing on my mind and, of course, it was food. So I approached the extremely helpful folk in the hostel for some guidance. I walked around the corner to a recommended small restaurant and picked up the menu. Then I abruptly nearly swallowed my tongue in shock. The prices were exorbitant. A sandwich would set me back about £11. There was no rice and curry after 3, and I’d slept a little longer than planned. I scanned the menu for a spicy vegetable stuffed roti. I found it but, while everywhere else on the island I’d paid between RS70 and RS200, they wanted RS1600 for it. I was pretty shocked. But I ordered one, regardless. It was on the ‘main dishes’ list, so perhaps it was bigger than usual. Then it arrived. And no, it was not bigger. If anything, it was a little smaller than elsewhere on the island. I ate it and it was fine, but considering it was something like a 1000% mark up on every other place, it’s fair to say I was disappointed. The rain still thumping down, as it would for the next 18 hours or so, I went back to my hostel to ask the host why things were so expensive here. He explained that pretty much only tourists go into the fort centre to eat. Even worse was to hear that the servers and chefs in the restaurants here earned no more than their compatriots in other cities. They all had to take their meals outside the fort near the train station, like the other Sri Lankan folk. This left quite the bad taste in the mouth and showed the fort up to be really the worst kind of rip off, with just a handful of rich western owners creaming a fortune off of the guests and passing none of it on to their staff. I vowed not to eat there in the evening.

The rain kept beating down and so I elected to write postcards and generally relax a bit. The next morning I was going to have a hectic day seeing a tea plantation. When the evening came I walked across to the train station in between bouts of torrential rain. A really interesting chap who was a former Sri Lankan olympian, who had played field hockey at four olympic games joined me for the walk. He proudly carried around his tokens of participation and cheered me up on my way to grab a steaming plate of kottu for the somewhat more reasonable price of RS140 or £1 to me. With the rain bucketing down as it was, there was no option but a taxi back. I fell asleep with my book still in my hand, the soothing rhythm of the rain on the sheet metal roof overhead lulling me into dreamland.

Waking up to the smell of frying eggs and tea, not to mention a clear, blue sky, did wonders for my mood. I sat at one of the hippyish tables and ate my two fried eggs on fluffy white toast and drank two long mugs of delicious, strong tea, one after the other, then waited for the taxi driver from the night before, to see if he’d remembered our arrangement.

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Right on the strike of ten o’clock the buzz of the tuk tuk neared and sure enough, my taxi man was outside, beaming a smile. Just at that moment, two dutch brothers – both seriously strapping young lads – asked me where I was going. I tolkd them I was off to see the tea plantation and they asked if they could join. Miraculously, the taxi driver didn’t even try to hike the price, so we all squeezed aboard and were off.

Twenty five minutes down the main road, after surprisingly few close calls for any Sri Lankan road experience, we were bouncing up the humped gravel track to the small tea plantation, nestled into the hills above the south east road. Our tuk tuk pulled up and the manager of the tea plantation was there to greet us in a matter of moments. He was already showing some others around the plantation and urged us to join immediately. He was an extremely warm chap and clearly knew his stuff, imparting countless tidbits of information just on the way to the house before the grand tour. Our driver came with us, but told us he’d been many times before. I wondered why, until I saw that he, too, got a free cup of tea and a generous slice of cake. A great deal for any visitor.

With cake scoffing behind us, our driver went to catch forty winks in the back of the tuk tuk while we embarked on our tour. We learned about the different processes involved in the white, green and black tea production, something I’d had little to no awareness of previously. He took pride in showing us machines made in London, Dublin and beyond at the early part of the twentieth century and which remained in remarkable working order. He introduced us to the tea picking ladies, using tweezers in their latex gloved hands to protect the tiny tips of white tea from even the tiniest amount of moisture. No wonder, we though, as we learned that this tea is imported to places like France at around 200 euros per kilo. As a Brit and a person who appreciates a good brew, it was a fascinating visit.

After the tour, it was time for the most exciting bit – the tasting. I was curious to taste the white tea, supposedly harbouring more anti oxidants and good stuff than any other tea on earth. I assumed it would, as such, taste vile, but it didn’t. It was delicate and a bit floral and certainly wouldn’t work with milk, but was quite tasty none the less. I tried a host of varieties and bought some as gifts for a few of my friends and family. If you are interested in finding more information about the tea plantation and visiting, which I would highly recommend, you can consult their Facebook page here.

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Yes, there were 48 teas. Yes, I did try them all. Yes, I did have to go to the toilet before I went back to Galle.

After this it was back down the coast road to Galle. Arriving refreshed and invigorated fro my tea education, I remembered one authentic and not so overpriced restaurant I’d heard about, called Mama’s. It offers only a narrow range of curries, but all very traditional and with a god range of seasonal fruit curries. After my experiences of fruit cury in Polonnaruwa and Jaffna, I was excited to hear this! I arrived and answered the usual questions about being able to handle my spice, in spite of my Britishness and was soon tucking in to an excellent curry with a variety of chicken, vegetables and fruits. The lassi to wash it down was also most welcome.

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With lunch done, I grabbed my last opportunity for a bit of beach time, before grabbing my things and heading to the train station to get back to Colombo, ahead of my flight. On the way to the station, I met what must have been Galle’s friendliest and most well kempt cat.

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The train ride to Colombo was swift and, in no time, I was wandering around the city, waiting to meet the person who’d been my guide when I first arrived in the country for a final afternoon on the galle face green, watching the kids fly their kites and people eating street food, which I naturally indulged in. Some hours later and it was time for the big off.

After the best part of a month in Sri Lanka, I was exhausted and feeling somewhat strange about the whole trip. Perhaps folk that have been to this part of the world before will understand me when I say that I enjoyed the trip, in many ways, more after I had left. I saw so much, enjoyed so many wonderful tastes, sounds, smells and so on and these memories remain, even now, almost a year later, utterly vivid. But as you try to walk in countries like this, the curiosity of people, while almost always friendly and with good intentions, can be exhausting. I answered questions about my marital status and city of origin more ties during these 26 days than perhaps in the rest of my life put together. But that’s not to detract from a country that has a huge amount to offer the traveller. I would certainly say that I enjoyed my time in the north a good deal more than in the south and that’s as much to do with the calmness of the people and the lack of a rip off mentality that comes where tourism is embryonic or non-existant. I don’t know if I will ever go back to this magical island at the base of India, but whether I do or not, I will definitely say that I have no regrets and would recommend anyone to visit.

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Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 8 – Jaffna – The Capital of the North

This being a holiday, I had no desire to get up early, so, after going to a local hotel to fetch breakfast, coming back and packing my things, I found myself on a bus around midday. I boarded more or less alone and so realised I’d have a bit of a wait before we set off, so I stuck my head in my book and read a bit more about what was awaiting me in Jaffna. Just before we left, a pile of boys came in, wearing sports gear with someone that appeared to be their father. They made a beeline for me and the older chap introduced himself as in fact their uncle. He was taking them to a football match, where they play in the national league. Premier League this was not. I could not imagine the likes of Mesut Ozil or Sergio Aguero on a clapped out old bus to the match. But anyway, they spoke English and we had a chat about the league there, their prospects for the game today. It almost made me forget about the state of the road, which was pretty miserable. As I mentioned in my post about the road to Mannar, it seemed that the further north you went, the worse it got.

About half way along the two hour journey to Mannar, the football players got off at their pitch and I wished them well. At that moment, a small, cheerful looking man waved me over to sit with him and so I did. He informed me that the football players – when making asides in Tamil, which they had been doing regularly – had been saying extremely rude and abusive things, to and about the other passengers. I was pretty horrified and told him that I’d had no idea. He then told me that he was a priest from the reform church on the edge of Mannar and that he was finding it very difficult to provide support to the widows and orphans created by the civil war. He showed me photos of families with husbands, fathers, brothers and so on missing or killed. It was a tragic tale, but he also explained how many of the families are finding ways to get past it and continue with their lives. I gave him a few football shirts that my uncle had given me, to give out to some of the boys and young men in his care. So, once we arrived into Jaffna, he said he’d show me a great place to grab lunch, right next to the bus station. Sure enough, he took me to a great place, where we managed to get rice and curry for about one and a half euros and which was delicious. They charged extra for an unordered little plate of grilled, spiced fish, chicken and crab claws. I would have been angry, had it not been so delicious.

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With lunch taken care of, I wished my companion well in his endeavours and gave him my email address, in case I could be of more help to his cause after my return to Europe. Then I had a couple hours to take a walk around the city before finding my host in Jaffna.

As the capital of the north, I’d anticipated that Jaffna might be a bit busier than the sleepy places I’d been spending time in, since leaving Kandy a couple of weeks before. And so it was. The main thoroughfare, running from the train station, past the shopping mall and the bus station to the old town centre, was heaving most of the time. In the middle of the road, near the mall, was a parking zone for the tuk tuk taxi drivers, which perpetually seemed full and sporting every colour of tuk tuk that money could buy.

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After a bit of a snoop around the city and a stop off for a cake, it was time to meet my host. A fellow called Martin, whom I’d shown around Lisbon after seeing a request for a bit of tour guiding on couchsurfing.com, had offered to host me at his house in Jaffna during my stay, which was extremely kind of him. He is an English language teacher just like myself, but was working at the British Council in the are at the time. So I took the gentle walk down to his school to wait. I’d waited no more than five minutes when he poked his head around the door and told me to hail a taxi. We did so and the taxi driver took us the short trip to his house. The house was a wonderful old colonial building. I almost cried when he told me how much it cost – a lot of money in Sri Lanka, of course, but peanuts in Europe, even in Portugal. As soon as we arrived he showed me to what would be my room for the following three nights, warned me about dangerous snakes climbing in the back door, near the bathroom, during the nights an then suggested we go to the balcony and have a gin and tonic. If ever there was music to my ears.

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We sat and caught up on life, work and everything for a couple of hours, looking out at this lush canopy of tropical trees. Fruits of various types were dotted around all over the place, chipmunks climbed the trees and, a couple times, on to the terrace itself and, as night drew in, bats began swooping in and taking their share of the fruit. Once the gin had dried up, we went downstairs and ate the Greek chicken recipe that Martin had cooked up with a glass of chilled white wine (he’d previously lived and worked in Greece). After slumming it for the past seventeen days or so, this whole evening felt positively decadent. Before too long I was in bed sleeping the sleep of the dead. I didn’t encounter any snakes.

The next morning, we’d decided to take a walk around the city, starting with the fort. As with most of the forts in the country, this one had been built by the Portuguese, stormed by the Dutch and reinforced and eventually ended up in the hands of the British until independence. It was a huge structure and had, at one time, been the best preserved of all the forts in the country. Sadly, during the latter stages of the civil war, at one stage the Tamil Tigers had holed up in the fort for a time and had been bombed out, leaving no small measure of destruction behind. Nevertheless, it’s a great place to walk around, with excellent views out to the small islands beyond the mainland.

From here, we walked back in to the centre, past a Buddhist monument of some kind, a fish market, and the great library, which has been lovingly and beautifully reconstructed after sustaining damage during the war. It was the city’s first priority when funds for renovation were released and you can see the pride with which people treat the place.

I also went to the post office and managed to post 3 postcards to Europe, by airmail, for less than a Euro. My mind was boggled by the price, but I didn’t complain. After all this walking and listening to Martin explaining some of what he knew about the city, finding ourselves back in the centre, it was time for lunch and I had read very good things about a place called The Malayan Café. Described in the Lonely Planet guide as the place to pick up dosas, it was high on my list of places to try. We arrived at the middle of the lunch time rush, but quickly managed to get a table. I ordered a vegetarian dosa and it very soon arrived, served on an open banana leaf, filled with medium spiced chunks of potato, onion, cauliflower and other vegetable and was quite delicious. The coconut sauce on the side was terrific.

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From here, we took our time and mooched around the market, looking at the silks, fruit & vegetables and other bits and pieces. We were casually accosted by stall owners, but none of them with any real vigour. Martin’s knowledge of Tamil was a big help in informing them that we were only looking.

From here, there was just one thing left to see – the city mall. On our way there, I was informed that this place had the only escalator in the north of the country. That’s not a misprint. There is just one. The escalator only goes up. To come back down, you have to take the stairs or a lift. The story gets stranger when I learned that a great many people come to the mall from all around the city, simply to have their photo taken on the escalator. I decided that, when in Rome…

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After the thrill of that – and the puzzle of trying to find the stairs to get back down, we went home to relax a bit before the puja. Near to the house was the largest temple in the area, the Nallur Kanduswamy Kovil. A tower of burnished red and gold images of the Hindu pantheon above a large temple complex, with a side pool for ritual purification and a courtyard, around which the procession would take place. We wandered in, shirts off, as is the rule and stood near the back, observing as sacred fires were lit in various corners of the temple. Some local people were urging us to take part but, in true British fashion, we declined and stayed near the back. But the matter was taken from our hands when the priests finally came to us and gave us the sacred buttermilk to drink and pressed blessed ash to our foreheads. The locals who had been encouraging us looked pleased and, honestly, it felt nice to be included, despite our obviously being outsiders. The detail on each effigy from each shrine was magnificent and the whole feeling of being at the temple for the puja, with the pipe and drum music and the chanting of some of the more energetic pilgrims quite intoxicating.

With the puja over, we decided to go around to a little guest house nearby for a refreshing beer. We sat and had a drink and chatted for about an hour, before finally stirring to go and find some dinner. Dinner was to be at another of Jaffna’s most highly rated restaurants, again just around the corner from the house, this time at Mango’s, a vegetarian restaurant serving South Indian cuisine. I had something like a dosa, the name of which escapes me, but this was more smashed together, something like an omelette, served with 3 lightly spiced, vegetable-rich accompaniments. We also some of the parathas which were perhaps the fluffiest I’ve ever seen. Everything was washed down with fresh, local fruit juices and cost very little. It’s certainly a place I would recommend. With dinner washed down with a cup of milky tea, I went home to my still-snake-free bedroom and slept to be ready for the trip of the following morning.

Waking up the next day, I stepped out of my bedroom and could swear I could smell coffee. And eggs. And toast. And so it was, the miracle had been performed and I tucked in to two fried eggs on fluffy white toast and a cup of milky filter coffee. There are things that you miss and I didn’t feel even a little ashamed to enjoy the breakfast as much as I did. My host had a lot of errands to run that day, so I made my way into town, to the bus station and found myself a bus out to Point Pedro. It’s the northern tip of the Sri Lankan mainland, was a major stronghold of the Tamil resistance (thus is now contains a heavy military presence) and it was also one of the worst affected areas in the 2004 tsunami. With it being a relatively small settlement, the bus journey was a long, bumpy one, even with a distance of just 40km or so, from Jaffna. Finally, as you edge towards Point Pedro itself, the bus cruises along the beautiful oceanside before stopping here:

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One of the oh-so-many houses, shops and other buildings whihch are ruins of their former selves. It’s depressingly difficult to tell, for the most part, whether they are victim to the war or to the tsunami, but damage is everywhere. I wandered into the town square which was pleasingly well restored. A three storey blue building sits at the centre and acts as the hub for buses heading out of the city. It’s surrounded by shops, markets and other places of trade. It has a real hustle and bustle to it. From here there are just two ways to go, out to the sea, or inland, along a line of businesses running south. I decided that the best place to find lunch might be there, so I wandered down until I came to a cute looking little local restaurant. All vegetarian, and offering a simple rice and curry lunch, it seemed like a good bet. Dimly lit, even in the searing midday sun, I went to the desk and asked the elderly proprieter if he spoke English. As happens so often in this part of the world, he answered by telling me a story of his living in Putney, south west London, for 5 years. I took a seat and, within a couple minutes, a steaming plate of rice arrived. Then there came another waiter with 5 buckets on a tray. He served up a scoop of the contents of each and then some dried chillies on the side of my plate. Despite being so opposite to anything we might think of as gourmet, the food was terrific.

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With my stomach no longer talking to me, I decided to stroll up to the coastline and see what was there. With the sand reaching far out into the shallows, fishing boats moored up here and there, Point Pedro’s waterfront is a real picture postcard location. The golden sand snakes in and out and around, with clumps of palms dotted here and there. Just a few metres back from the shoreline though, stands row after row of building s that were ripped up and, amongst them, still last year, more than a decade after the tsunami, fully populated temporary housing from United Nations charities, full of displaced people. It’s all quite sobering. As I considered this, it was brought home when some young kids came running to me, asking me the usual questions, but finishing off by asking for money and telling me “Dad gone. Mum have no job.” I gave them some sweets and toys that I had prepared with me for just this kind of occasion and they seemed happy enough, running off to a little ruined shack to check through their spoils.

From here, it’s a short walk up the coastline in baking hot sunshine, to the fishing area. You can see fisherman setting out or returning with their catch more or less perpetually and, once in, you can see the fish, gutted and opened up, on nets, to dry in the sun, flies abundantly inspecting what’s there. It was here that I had one of the oddest experiences in Sri Lanka. A group of fishermen, sitting around at the waterside, called me over. Not wanting to be rude, I went and joined them, only to discover that they were all seriously drunk and drinking super strength Lion lager. They offered me one, but I declined. I spoke to them for a short time, then tried to make my excuses, claiming I had a bus to catch. At this point, one of them told me he would give me a ride on his motorcycle. Being, as he was, almost completely unable to even stand, I was alarmed at the prospect and managed to talk my way out of it, hurrying back along the road in case he changed his mind.

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My last stop in Point Pedro was to look at the lighthouse. Built in 1916, the lighthouse is, as you might expect, on the very edge of the land and so was hit by the full force of the tsunami in 2004, but it remains completely undamaged.

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Right next to the lighthouse is a huge, rebuilt church and the priest was standing outside and invited me to have a look around the building. It’s a coral coloured structure, quite simple, with a single tower to one side and a large, rectangular hall. The priest filled me in a little bit on the reconstruction project, the damage to the city and the ongoing recovery work with the UN, helping with education, and more.

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After this it was the short walk back to the bus and the long, bumpy ride back into Jaffna. This time, I spotted that the bus went past the temple, very close to the house, so I jumped out a little early and went to the very famous Rio’s Ice Cream Parlour. Even though it was well into the early evening, the air was still warm and an ice cream was most welcome, though the level of sweetness meant I will never dare to tell my dentist about it. I had a huge sundae, though in truth this was something like the tenth largest on the extensive menu. There were many kinds of ice cream, wafers, fruit, smarties, gummy sweets and more inside. It was just what I needed. After that it was home to a dinner of home made tarka dahl, and a few glasses of wine on my last night there.

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The next morning (still no snakes!) was met with some cereal for breakfast and then heading out a little early, as my host was back at work after the weekend. I was able to leave my bag at his school during the day, to collect before the evening train. My first port of call was the train station, to try to buy a sleeper ticket to Colombo. I managed to get one of the last few 1st class sleeper tickets for the journey down to Colombo, from where I would head on to Galle. At a cost of some 1250 rupees (about 10 euros) it was a lot, but I understood it would be worth it on the fourteen hour journey. I could not have been more wrong, but more on that later.

I wandered back into town to have a last look around the market, picking up a few provisions for the overnight journey and then deciding to get myself a haircut and shave from a barber there who turned out to do a great job and also to be a very good conversationalist, with his friend who simply seemed to lurk in his shop most of the time.

There was just time for a king coconut by the huge reservoir in the middle of town, known simply as the tank, before heading to the school, to say my grateful farewells to Martin and then to go to the station and jump on my train.

Then came the train. It rolled in an hour early, and a polite Sri Lankan family I’d been talking to told me it was a good idea to jump on immediately, to grab your bunk before someone else did, which could result in quite a bit of hassle. So I did so. Except that there were no bunks. I was quite confused. I asked the guard where the bunks were. He told me simply that the sleeper carriages had not been available that day, but that my ticket would be valid for a reclining seat in one of the additional regular first class carriages. He gave me a crappy little blanket to put over myself. I got to the seat which had been reserved for me in the carriage and discovered that the reclining seats were very comfortable, if you were shorter than 5’4″. Despite not being a giant at 5’10”, I can honestly say that it was the most uncomfortable night of my life to date. As if the cramped space was not bad enough, the air conditioner switched on with some fury during the early hours, dropping the temperature in the carriage to what must have been about 10 degrees centigrade. Not something any of us were prepared for and I spent the next three hours or more until arriving in Colombo shivering with my fellow passengers. The gentleman next to me was a regular traveller on the route and he said that this fiasco with the non-existent sleeper carriage happened a couple times a week. There would be no partial refunds. I would strongly advise against using the sleeper services in Sri Lanka, unless you are a particularly short person. They are longer, slower, and infinitely less comfortable than the day services (unless you’re lucky enough to get a bed). After a quick breakfast in Colombo’s fort station, I made my sleepy way on to the train onward to Galle. My last city stop.