Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 7 – Mannar Island

From the same spot I’d arrived at a couple days earlier, my bus trundled off, bound for Mannar, after not much more than a few minutes wait. Stocked up with a few snacks form the shop across the road, even on a Sri Lankan bus, I anticipated that this would be a fairly easy journey. Weighing in at just 90 minutes to two hours, with a good seat and an early morning departure, I was feeling pretty good. If Vavuniya had been my first real taste of northern culture, Mannar was to ratchet it up a notch. This started almost immediately that we left the city limits. The roads quickly degenerated into pot hole filled messes. A brief chat with one of my fellow passengers, who saw the tension in my face as the bus tipped to perhaps 30 degrees, revealed that, at the end of the war, the government in Colombo had promised much in terms of infrastructure repairs for the decimated northern province, but that little had been forthcoming. This explained why the journey of only 45 kilometres or so, on a relatively straight road, took such a long time. Suspension testing discomfort notwithstanding, we arrived in Mannar without incident fairly quickly.

Mannar is referred to by just about everyone as an island. Strictly, it’s a peninsula. Access is allowed to rail and road by two parallel causeways, which give quite remarkable views over the sparkling blue of the Indian Ocean, though the city itself is not the jewel you might hope to see, when you arrive at the other side.

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As you leave the causeway – pictured above – you turn straight on, leaving the old, ruined Dutch fortress to your right and head on to the bus terminal, situated next to a series of markets and across the road from a bunch of eateries, that I would come to know well. Not having booked accommodation and unsure whether there might be vacancies int he limited range of places mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide, I had a walk around the market, asking people if they knew of any accommodation.

Disappointingly, no-one could suggest anywhere beyond the places that were mentioned in the book, so I decided to take a chance. I wandered down the main east-west road towards the post office where I found the most highly recommended guest houses in the town. I also found that it was full. Across the road though, a man was pulling up on a scooter and asked me if I was looking for accommodation. He showed me into his accommodation which was just across the road and, while it didn’t look as nice as the lavishly gardened place I had been looking at, it was certainly clean and offered a large room with a double bed for me to sleep on. At 1500 rupees per night, the price was also right. I accepted his offer, paid for my room and dropped my things. Walking with my bags in the midday sun had left me rather clammy, so I took a quick shower and headed out for lunch and then to explore the island a little. In a turn of events that beggared belief, the café next to my accommodation didn’t have rice and curry for lunch. So, it was fried rice, with chicken and then a walk.

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The first thing you notice in Mannar, just walking around, is donkeys. Donkeys are everywhere. Sadly, they’re often not in tremendous shape and even more often eating in piles of rubbish, which might explain why they’re not in good shape. When you ask local people where they came from, the best story I managed to get was that someone brought them a long time ago. Some investigation via google and various blogs seemed to suggest that they had been used by a wealthy family group who had had lucrative linen washing business on the island. When the business dried up, the donkeys were left free to roam. Not sure I buy it, but it’s the best I can do.

Anyway, once outside the centre of Mannar town, you quickly find yourself on the rocky/sandy water’s edge, which is not hard or time consuming to reach in any direction. As I mentioned before the litter is a great shame and really stark against the pale blue of the shallow water, but nonetheless, it’s prettier than you think on first arriving in the town.

Returning to my accommodation after a few hours of walking around the coastline and talking to/scaring donkeys, I heard a commotion, with someone speaking over a loud speaker. Of course, it was a cricket match. So I grabbed a cold chocolate milk from a corner tea house and went and sat in the stands until dinner.

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After the match and a short nap, I decided to walk in to the town to grab something to eat. At the bottom of town were a row of eateries, opposite the bus station, as I mentioned earlier. I was tipped off about one of them and went inside to get something to eat. They had kottu ready to go, so a steaming plate of beef and cheese kottu was ordered and devoured shortly after it arrived. Hot with great chunks of chopped red chilli, the gravy was also particularly fiery. I made a note to come back here often.

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Food was quickly followed by sleep, as the next morning I was going for a change to my regular programme, as far as Sri Lanka was concerned – a trip to a Christian pilgrimage site!

Waking up in the morning, I realised I needed to get breakfast before heading off, as I ddn’t know when I’d eat again. So I dashed downtown to the restaurant I’d been to the night before. I asked, more from hope than expectation, if they had anything special for breakfast and, to my huge surprise, the manager told me that they had hoppers with eggs and gravy. Tea would be fifteen minutes or more though, as they had run out. Realising you can’t have it all, I ordered a plate of the hoppers with eggs and gravy and a ginger beer. It was so nice to have something different for breakfast from the other meals I was used to eating – we were getting into the later part of my second week in Sri Lanka by now. I ate, felt thoroughly satisfied, then jumped into a tuk tuk taxi to the station.

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Arriving at the station, I still had plenty of time to get my train. I bought my ticket and waited, noting that I was the only foreigner there. I strolled down to a nearby store to buy some water for my day and began to look at my guide for details of what was to be found at Madhu Junction. As with most Catholic pilgrimage sites, Madhu was a place where people witnessed a miraculous appearance of the holy virgin. It is also the place where a small statue of the virgin is kept safe. Boarding the train, I sat down in a third class seat. Diagonally opposite me was a Sri Lankan fellow, curious at seeing a foreigner on this train, he struck up a conversation. It turned out that he was from Colombo and had been working at the Mannar branch of a finance company. He was very honest about his country, expressing his frustration about the state of the government and the need for a lot of change to improve the country. He was also extremely candid about the underinvestment in the north and about his experiences of working with good people there who deserve better. We had such a good chat that we exchanged contact details and are still in touch, though he’s now been relocated back to Colombo, which is great news for his wife and young child.

Arriving at Madhu had positively comic results. As I hopped off, the station manager approached me and told me that I was at the wrong station. I told him that I wanted Madhu Road and showed him my ticket. First he smiled. Then he pulled a confused expression, and then he stopped. He asked me again just to make sure and then finally set about asking me why I was there. I told him I was there to visit the church of our lady of Madhu and he became positively excited. He asked if I had booked a taxi ahead. I said that I hadn’t and so he called his friend who was equally excited, once he arrived. We negotiated a price for the trip and set off. It was a very bumpy 30 minutes, way off from the main road into the countryside. I was beginning to think the fellow was lost – particularly when we stopped to pick up his niece from school – but we arrived soon enough, without any detours. I jumped out to see what was a huge complex. The site was one of the most important Christian sites on the island for a very long time and, with its position at the very heart of the conflict during the civil war, the church and its grounds found itself home to many thousands of refugees at various points during the war. It has received a great deal of renovation in recent years, largely owing to the visit of Pope Francis in 2014. You can find more information about the site from wikipedia here.

Now it was time to go in and see the lady of Madhu for myself. There was a sign outside saying “no photography” which was disappointing but, once inside I noticed that none of the pilgrims were paying any mind to it, so I swiftly grabbed my phone camera and grabbed a quick snap. It was a very small effigy but really nicely presented. It was interesting that some of the pilgrims there were not Christian, but in fact Hindu or Buddhist yet they were still offering up prayers to her.

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After seeing our lady of Maddhu and having a walk around the grounds, looking at the dramatic, almost life-sized dark wood sculptures of the stations of the cross and chatting to a few pilgrims, I had just an hour or so to try to find some lunch before my tuk tuk driver returned to take me back to the main road. I strolled across the wonderfully peaceful gardens of the church to the canteen and stepped inside. The smiling man behind the almost surgically clean stainless steel serving counter greeted me and then looked somewhat dumbfounded when I asked him if there was still rice and curry for lunch – it was after two o’clock. Eventually, he told me apologetically that they didn’t get foreign tourists there. I told him that now they had one and pressed him on the rice and curry. He told me it was too hot for me. I smiled and told him that I’d like some anyway. So he started spooning it out for me and gave me just three dishes. first just a spoon of each on a small plate to try. I tasted each one and told him they were all delicious. He looked half confused and half delighted and so decided that I really ought to try everything. So I ended up with a mountain of rice and no less than six of the little silver pots full of curry and the associated sides. I can confidently say that this was in the top three meals I had in all my time in Sri Lanka and I made sure the extremely courteous and friendly staff knew as much. There was also, of course, ginger beer to wash it down and a mug of hot milky tea to finish. I left the restaurant with an extremely full and satisfied belly and left the staff with a generous tip. I strongly recommend this restaurant to anyone who finds themselves in the area.

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This left me with about twenty minutes to sit in the shade on the edge of the church garden and wait for my ride. The tuk tuk driver arrived and was quite apologetic about being a few minutes late. I hadn’t even noticed and told him as much. We hurtled back down the long straight road to the main highway in to Mannar. There, I asked him to let me off, as I knew that the train was a good hour and a half away. I stopped at a roadside café for a drink and to read for a bit. So I sat almost under the gate to the Maddhu complex for the next hour in the café, where the waiter told me that the bus back into town was a better option than to wait for the train. I followed his advice and found myself – via a typically bumpy journey, back in Mannar in time for a nap.

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The next day was a chance to explore Mannar itself and that started, after more eggs hoppers, with the fortress. I found myself at eight o’clock in the morning, competing with a family of donkeys to enter the old ruin. As with so many of these fortresses, it had been founded by the portuguese, reinforced about a century later by the Dutch and then finally used by the British until the end of the colonial period. Also like many of the other fortresses – particularly those in the north – it had remained in fairly good shape until the later parts of the civil war whereupon it had become a base for Tamil forces and had been bombed out by government troops. In spite of this eventful life, it still made an interesting place to visit, almost entirely deserted but for the aforementioned donkeys and a huge number of crows.

With the fortress explored and photographed, it was time to cross the the northern tip of the island. There, I would find the Baobab tree. These trees are native to the Arabian peninsula and were thought to have been brought to Sri Lanka by Arabic merchants as early as seven hundred years earlier. The one here in Mannar is treated with some reverence and has a Buddhist temple attached to it. Having never seen one before and reading that they were particularly unusual looking, I decided I had to take a look. After about forty five minutes of walking in the midday sun, I found it and, if I was looking for something strange, I certainly wouldn’t be disappointed here! As you can see from the plaque, the trunk of this gigantic plant is close to twenty metres around, while it also stretches up to seven and a half metres above the ground. It’s quite impressive. The pockmarks and wrinkles on the bark are also quite bizarre.

From here I was near to the northern edge of the island, so I decided I would keep on walking and see some of the small fishing communities, even further detached from anything resembling tourism. Once up there, I found myself bombarded with the smell of fish in the air. Turning a corner to the narrow street running parallel to the shore line, it quickly became apparent why. The fishermen had laid out their catches in the sun to dry. It made for quite a sight, the sun reflecting off the silvery skin. I continued walking around the coastal road until I was struck by something that strongly reminded me of home. By home, of course, I nowadays mean Portugal. For here was a traditional Portuguese church.

At first I just spied the silvery dome over the walls and immediately I decided to go to investigate further. Coming round, finally to the front of the church, it was unmistakeably Portuguese and I will admit to feeling a little pang of homesickness. I wandered inside and the pastor of the church came to meet me and gave me a little tour, with his niece. They explained that they were Portuguese burghers, the man having one great grandparent who was Portuguese. They were also delighted to meet someone with some connection to Portugal, even if only as a foreigner who lived there. They implored me to tell my Portuguese friends to visit. I of course said that I would. Walking outside the church, I ran into more Portuguese burghers and, for the first time on my trip, they were asking me about football rather than cricket. A sign of the Portuguese influence if ever there was one!

After saying goodbye to the displaced Portuguese and having seen a very distinct cultural difference from the more British influenced folk I had met throughout the island thus far I took the slow meandering walk back inland to where I was staying. I washed a few things back at the accommodation and then popped back to what had become one of my real favourite eateries for one last meal. This time, they had something new for me. Roti bread served with a pile of fried chicken and vegetables in batter that you rolled up and ate like a burrito. Needless to say it was top stuff. After that, it was time for bed before the next morning’s bus ride on to Jaffna, the capital of the north!

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Throughout my travels in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily on the Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can buy yours, here:

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Christmas With an Old Friend

When considering somewhere to take your Southern European girlfriend between Christmas and New Year, there are a couple of approaches which are possible. As I’ve noted on my other blog, Lisbon is a surprisingly chilly place to be in winter, so I’m increasingly tempted to head south, in search of a bit of warmth. But this year, for better or worse, I thought it might be nice for her to experience the frost and cold of a northern European festive period. It didn’t take long looking at the myriad low cost flights available through skyscanner to settle on a place that is dear to me and one that I felt I knew sufficiently well to be able to show her around. We were off to Hamburg, Germany.

So it was that on Boxing day, we found ourselves at Lisbon’s terminal 2, waiting for a gently scheduled afternoon flight with the masters of all things cheap and nasty and cheerful – Ryanair. Due to a French ban on flights going over its airspace if they weren’t scheduled to land in France, it was a long, three hour flight, but nonetheless pretty much eventless. We landed and, this being Germany’s second largest city, we were quickly and seamlessly onto the metro system. Our hotel was located next door to the  Lohmühlenstraße metro station on the U1 line, so within 15 minutes, we were looking up at the hotel – the Novotel Suites Hamburg City, which I’d managed to get a quite ludicrous 45% off of, by booking direct with accorhotels.com . The walk from the metro stop to the hotel – all of 3 minutes – was enough to remind us that this place was going to be A LOT colder than back home in Lisbon. We ducked inside, checked in, found our room, wrapped up VERY warmly and dashed back out to find some food. We were famished!

I was staying in much the same neighbourhood as I had on previous visits, just beyond the Turkish quarter. This is huge in Hamburg, as a great many Turks moved to Hamburg as part of the rebuilding project, after the destruction of the city towards the end of World War II – more on that later. I’ve always found this quarter to be a lot of fun, with mini markets packed with interesting exotic produce, great Turkish restaurants with excellent value food, and Turkish barbers – something I greatly miss from my time living in Turkey. We walked through all of this, looking for something to eat. Ana was not especially feeling like a Turkish meal, so we ended up arriving at the Hauptbahnhof – the main train station. We ummed and ahhed about this restaurant and that, before realising that many kitchens were already closed. When we found that the pizza restaurant was still cooking, we decided to take a seat. It ended up being a great decision, and I quickly found myself with a top class pizza, covered in anchovies and a mug of Duckstein beer – one of my favourites in the north of Germany.

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After this, it was pretty late and many things were closing up, but we decided to see what was left of the city’s extensive Christmas markets. As it turned out, it was really quite a lot! In front of the ‘new’ town hall, there was a small market area, as well as a few others, only selling food on the way there from the station. At the Alster lake, there was a huge expanse of market, draped in eye catching white tents, which we were pleased to find was to remain open for another week. So we could come back later in our visit.

After the brief look around, the travelling – and the cold – were taking their toll and we strolled back to our hotel for a good night’s sleep. It’s worth mentioning at this stage that the Novotel Suites are really well kitted out. The standard of the rooms is very high, particularly for a chain hotel and the breakfast – while it takes place in a somewhat cramped area for the number of guests – is a really good offering. It sets you up really well for the day, even with the harsh weather of a north German winter. With breakfast done, we again dressed up as Arctic explorers before hitting the road. The first stop on the first day proper of our trip was a harbour tour. Hamburg’s harbour is a huge place and still remains on of the main centres for shipping of goods in Europe. We had decided on a particular tour company to use, from our city guide map. When we arrived at the harbour, however, we were already too late. So, seeing that there were hundreds of boats doing similar tours, we began to walk up and down the harbour front. We eventually settled for one which was just a little more pricey than the original idea and off we went.

If I had to choose 2 adjectives to describe the harbour experience from a boat they would be ‘enormous’ and ‘bloody freezing’. It was an interesting trip, nonetheless and seeing the cargo ships up close can actually feel pretty daunting. You only have to imagine the effect of a container slipping from one of the cranes and crashing into the water to feel pretty unsettled. The tour also involves a good look at some of the architecture, new and old, as well as the beach section at the edge of the harbour, with its luxuriant houses facing the water.

After the trip, we decided to walk back in to the city to find some lunch. We were grateful to be off the water, away from the biting winds it brought with it and sheltered by the huge buildings of the centre. As we walked down Willy-Brandt Strasse, I realised we were close to perhaps the most poignant monument in Hamburg, the St Nikolai church monument. At the end of July of 1943, the Allied forces began the bombing of Hamburg in what was called ‘Operation Gomorrah.’ The St Nikolai church, which sat at the heart of one of the largest residential areas in the city, was caught in the bombings and all but one tower was destroyed. The monument to this horrific event is the tower, standing amidst the ruins of the church. Underneath, in the crypt, there is a small collection of artefacts, such as stained glass windows, which were removed prior to the bombing, as well as a fascinating permanent exhibition explaining the effects of the operation on the city, as well as the enormous rebuilding projects. I sadly don’t have any photos, as cameras are not allowed in the permanent exhibition below, and the tower, which you can go to the top of in a glass elevator, is being renovated and so the spectacular views of the city are currently obscured. Nevertheless, this is something that I feel no visitor to Hamburg should miss. You can find more information here.

Despite this altogether sobering experience, it was time for lunch and so we meandered our way back into the city centre and happened upon, by total coincidence, a local burger joint, with good quality ingredients and a seriously intriguing menu. So we went in and for the price of just about 8 euros each, we got seriously well fed. I had a bacon and cheese burger, smothered in jalapenos and barbecue sauce with a side of thick cut, home made chips. They had Fritz cola too, which made for a great combination. If you’re in town and feel like a bite, check them out.

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From here, the light was rapidly fading, such is winter in the north, so we decided the last thing to do for the day was to go to the town hall. There was an English tour for us to take in the rooms in what is still the active parliament building for the city state of Hamburg. We had an hour to kill before the tour started, so we wandered around, catching a glimpse of this masterpiece in the city’s main department store:

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One tall glass of delightfully warming gluhwein (mulled wine) later and we were back at the town hall where we found out some interesting facts about the construction, the smart plan to cut the lights across the neighbourhood during the aforementioned bombing campaign that preserved the building from destruction during the war and the fact that the UK’s own Queen Elizabeth II has been the only person to date who has been met on the ground floor and shown up the stairs by the city’s president. Everyone has to climb them alone, to find him! Ana wanted to take one of the chandeliers home until she realised that they weigh four and a half tons each.

After this, still feeling bloated from the burger we decided to call it a night and head back to the hotel to shelter from the cold with a bottle in bed, so as to be ready for our next day.

The next morning, after another hearty breakfast, we were off to find out if there were English language tours of the Chocoversum chocolate factory tour. As luck would have it – indeed there were! But we had to wait for an hour and a half. So we took the opportunity to visit the city’s largest Lutheran church – the Cathedral of St Michael. It had a beautiful whitewashed interior, and some very interesting artistic features.

A steaming cup of coffee and a cake later and it was time to go and learn about chocolate. If it sounds like a highly compelling area of study, it’s because it is. It’s a fabulous museum, set up in such a way that you get to see, touch, smell and, yes, taste every stage of chocolate production from the slightly odd, chewy texture of the cocoa bean scraped fresh from the husk to the rough textured but delicious cocoa solid and sugar paste, right the way through to a freshly pressed bar of high quality plain chocolate. You also learn about just how little chocolate is involved in many high street ‘chocolate’ brands, and of course you have the chance to set your own chocolate bar, decorated – in my case badly – with a wealth of ingredients, such as fruit, coffee beans, nuts and more. What really made the event for us though, was our guide. Her English was superb throughout, she dealt with the kids in the group expertly and she clearly had a passion for her work and communicated it to her audience highly effectively.

We left the factory armed with a heavy bag of spoils to take back to Portugal for family and friends and then headed over to the Christmas market for a light snack. We picked up crepes from a stall and strolled back to our hotel to get ready for dinner.

Dinner was a set menu affair at a rather swanky restaurant called the Nordlicht. It’s located across the river in a dockland area called Harburg. As we arrived on the metro, everything was a little bit deserted and it didn’t look like the nicest neighbourhood. But we had a reservation, thanks to a rather excellent deal with http://www.groupon.de whereby we got a 100 euro fine dining set menu for half the price. I’m not sure I would’ve paid 100 euros for it, but at 50 euros for two people, it was a bargain. There was an amuse bouche of beetroot foam with artisan bread and baby tomatoes, followed by a creamed pumpkin soup with toasted pumpkin seeds on the top and then a main course of seared rare beef, with vegetables and potato dumplings. Dessert was also excellent as was the accompanying wine. Coffee came with petit fours which we just about managed to get through after eating so much delicious rich food. It’s a place I’d definitely recommend looking up, if you’re in the city.

The next morning was a bi more hurried, with breakfast closely followed by checkout. We’d decided to head off to the botanical gardens for our last morning in the city, so we headed on on the metro towards the neighbourhood known as St Georg. We stepped off the train and found ourselves immediately in the shadow of the Orthodox church, with its highly distinctive architecture. Across the other side of the road, in the direction we were going, was the TV broadcasting tower, dominating the skyline.

A few minutes later and we found ourselves in the huge park in the middle of this neighbourhood. Before heading off to the botanical gardens, we had a walk round the Japanese garden and its lake. It was beautifully laid out. We would have stayed much longer, were it not for the bitter cold.

Arriving at the botanical garden meant a glorious blast of heat as the temperatures are elevated to keep the many exotic plants alive. So we managed to take off our coats for the first time (besides bed time and meal times) during the whole trip. The collection was not the most impressive I’d ever seen, but it certainly had its moments.

And just like that, the trip was over and we were on our way back to the airport. There was just time for a quick movenpick ice cream in the terminal before flying back out to Lisbon. By no means is this everything that Hamburg has to offer, as we missed out the famous reeperbahn and it’s crazy, heady mix of drinking, partying and go-go dancers and more, but if you are considering a place to visit for a long weekend, you could do a lot worse than check out Germany’s second city!

Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 6 – Vavuniya

Leaving Trinco on a bus, and facing the prospect of a five hour or more journey across the island to my next major stop in Mannar was just too much to handle. So, book in hand, I elected to stop at more or less the mid point on the way, Vavuniya. Vavuniya is famous for… well, just about nothing, actually. But the Lonely Planet guide assured me it would be a perfectly interesting place to put myself for a couple days. And so it proved.

Boarding the bus at the beginning was a great move. There were rows of free seats and I found myself a comfy one by a window, not far from the front and managed even to put my smaller rucksack on the almost empty overhead. In no time, we were on the road. We retraced the route I had taken in to Trinco to Habarana at first and then, soon after our path turned a little more northerly and the humidity in the coastal air gave way to a dustier area. It was all very sparse and under populated.

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Pleasingly, the bus never really filled up and I managed the whole trip in relative comfort, without incident and arrived at the stop in Vavuniya by late morning. I descended from the bus and quickly consulted the map to ensure I was headed in the right direction. The right direction was for the Nelly Star hotel. The book described it as a place with a good balance between price and quality. It even boasted a swimming pool which, at 1500 rupees a night, was a bargain. I arrived at reception and asked for a room for two nights, before my onward journey to Mannar. The receptionist looked flustered. He searched this clipboard and that, before finally telling me that I could stay in one room that night and a different one the night after. I was infinitely less flustered at this prospect. I went to my room and grabbed a quick – hot(!) – shower to get all the dust off, from the journey. After that, I decided to take a walk. The Nelly Star is on one of the East-West arterial roads of Vavuniya. It’s a tiny place and there’s not a huge amount to see, but this meant that I was one of… well… one western tourists in the city at this point. I was pleased, as it meant that hassle was less and certainly less pushy. The first thing I had to do was get some lunch. I walked down the main shopping street, past countless trucks making deliveries, an unfortunately named alcohol store, and then a somewhat odd looking Catholic Church, before finally settling in to a café for a portion of the day’s rice and curry set menu.

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“Bubees” – seriously?

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I started tucking in to my food right away, of course, and it was a fair few minutes before I realised that the day’s rice and curry was, in fact vegetarian. I hadn’t thought about it before, but this was the first place I’d been where there was a Hindu majority. Nevertheless, the food was excellent and spicy. I drank the last of my ginger beer and walked across the road to find a baker’s. The place was awash with pleasantly decorated little cakes, the first such things I’d seen since Colombo, and probably the first I’d seen at all in non-tourist-oriented establishments. Feeling my sweet tooth, after the hot lunch, I went inside and ordered a milky tea and an iced slice.

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As I sat to eat my colourful little cake, a young man of about 20 who was doing something with the deliveries came in and sat opposite me. He first asked if he could join me and then where I was from, if I was married before – a new question – was I a Christian. I told him that I was, in fact, an atheist and he looked not so much upset as worried. He asked me if I’d seen the mosque, which I had and then proceeded to tell me that he wished no ill will to me and that, rather, he hoped that I might find the right girl and, if god finds me, that I might find religion. This was a jolly polite approach and one that seemed more concerned about what he felt was best for me, rather than any god smiting anger or revenge, which I hear from religious people of many backgrounds these days. I decided to make the best of this opportunity and ask him for some information about the mosque and whether I could see it. He told me that I could, outside of prayer times and gave me a piece of paper with his phone number, in case I should need anything while in the town. What a nice fellow.

After this, I decided to walk back across town and, with the heat beating down, I thought I might get myself a haircut and a shave. Just ahead, at the end of the road, I spotted ‘The New Barber Saloon’ – with air conditioning, no less. It seemed like a good bet. I took a seat in the waiting area alongside two guys in their late teens while the two barbers worked on their current customers. One of the men waiting started talking to me and told me that they were in fact Norwegians of Sri Lankan descent on their first visit to their ancestral homeland and so we had a good chat while we waited. They also told the barber what I wanted before they left. This resulted in a nice haircut, an extremely close shave and then an ‘exfoliation and massage’ which seemed a lot like a really severe beating to the head, but did leave both my skin and my joints feeling a lot better, so I suppose he must have known what he was doing.

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With my beard and hair trimmed and the temperature now sitting around 42⁰C, enough was enough and I decided to go for a beer. Except that Vavuniya isn’t a tourist town. So you can only buy beer in the supermarket, or the shady-looking Bubees, seen above. So I decided to head to Cargill’s. It was here that I realised that beer is really quite the taboo thing in Sri Lanka. Speaking to some locals over the remaining weeks of my trip, it seems that this is because of a perceived problem with alcoholism in the country. Anyway, the process for buying alcohol from the supermarket is that you pay for your regular goods at the normal till, before going to a very small window and ordering your alcohol, while a security guard stands near you, giving you looks of shame. I was buying one beer, so I didn’t really feel any shame, but the bloke still tried his best. It was all terribly strange. Most importantly, I found the shelter of my room and got my beer. This time Lion stout, a really nice dark lager, but beware – it’s 8.1% by volume! Very strong stuff!

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In what seemed like no time, the sun had set and I had the glamorous task of handwashing some underwear and socks to occupy my evening.

Waking up the next day, I found my washing all but dry in the early morning heat, which was already pushing the mercury up to the heights of 38 degrees at 8:15 am. All apart from the t-shirt that had blown off the balcony and was now lost on the wall of a half collapsed building across the street. A three euro Primark t-shirt was not going to reduce me to tears though, and neither was it going to lead me to climb a barbed wire fence into a collapsed house to retrieve it. I walked downstairs to enquire about breakfast. The receptionist was waiting for me. First, he told me that breakfast was not included, though I’d been told the day before that it would be. Then he told me that I would not need to change rooms today, but in fact to move to their other hotel, which was of the same standard and was on the parallel street. I was a bit disappointed, but I went upstairs to pack my things, regardless. When I came back down, the porter was waiting for me and he told me he would show me to the new hotel, but that he didn’t have time to walk. So, rather, I would have to pay for us to take a tuk tuk. When we arrived at the hotel, it was the same price, but the standard was much lower. There was a hole in my wall to the corridor, my door didn’t lock, and the water was cold. I protested, but there were no other rooms available and more or less no other hotels in Vavuniya. I would strongly recommend against staying here for anyone that visits. There was no breakfast here either, so I decided to go to the café next door to the new hovel hotel.

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With the Sri Lankan equivalent of two paninis (stuffed with vegetable curry, obviously) in my belly, I was feeling a lot more optimistic about the day, which was to start at the mosque. With its blue poster paint walls and minarets and its onion-shaped golden domes, it’s a beautiful sight, that you notice the moment you turn into the street.

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I decided to see if I could get inside to have a look around. I went to the door and asked some men who were just putting their shoes back on after praying. They called a young boy of about 12, as he spoke English quite well and he offered to show me around. He showed me all the chambers and translated some of the inscriptions into English for me, even introducing me to some pilgrims who were visiting from another city and showing me the kitchen where food was prepared for people, to be eaten after midday prayers. I was offered some food, which I declined and, when I tried to give the boy a small tip for showing me around, he refused, telling me it was an honour to show an outsider their temple. I was pretty surprised. Now it was on to the most famous Hindu temple in the city.

To reach the Hindu temple, you have to walk down the side of the railway tracks. When I arrived at the track, there was a stray cow wandering about. It had big enough horns that I wanted to keep my distance from it. Finally, I reached the tracks, checked there was no train approaching and dashed across.

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Inside the temple, no photos were allowed, but there was a group of women singing a Hindu hymn, and I circumambulated (in the right direction!)  looking at the many shrines of the different gods worshipped in this temple and the offerings left by worshippers. Leaving the temple, I took the longer road back into town, which took me past a different Hindu temple, which I hadn’t been aware of, with an incredible thatched structure. A puja was taking place at the time and, though I couldn’t take photos, the priests welcomed me inside to witness the ceremony.

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Further down the road, past the mosque again, I came to the lake on which the city was built. It had a pleasingly small amount of rubbish and pollution, by Sri Lankan standards.

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It was getting on for time to eat, and I’d been strongly recommended to go past the lake, near to the church and to try the Royal Garden restaurant. So I thought I’d give it a go. The restaurant is made up of a banqueting hall which is extremely lavish and is used for weddings or, as on the evening when I was there, a university or school occasion of some kind. The area I was looking for was behind the hall, in an open garden area, and had the appearance of an upmarket fast food restaurant. I looked at the menu and thought I would try one of the vegetarian dishes, and in the end I plumped for “devilled paneer”. The food took a while to arrive, so I befriended a cat (naturally) in the meantime. When it arrived though, it was one probably the best meals I’d eaten on my trip to date.

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With dinner done with (washed down with Elephant ginger beer, of course), it was time for bed before the next leg of the journey the next morning, on to Mannar, the sandy peninsula of the north west.

Throughout my travels in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily on the Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can buy your copy here:

SriLanka

Nazaré – Home of BIG Waves

This adventure should be prefixed by a little credit to my flatmate, Ricardo. Oceanographer, surfer, extraordinaire. Since we started living together in March, he’d been telling me about Nazaré and the waves. I’d read a couple of articles he’d sent me. I was impressed, but just not all that moved. Then I woke up one Sunday with an almighty hangover. Seeing me as a sliver of a shadow of a man with a headache, he made his move and put on the film about Garrett McNamara’s first trip to Praia do Norte and the North Canyon surf area. Since then, I haven’t shut up about wanting to go there. Fast forward about three months and I was in my girlfriend’s car passenger seat, excitedly anticipating seeing it for real. I should point out at this stage that I was not going to surf, owing to the fact that I swim ever so slightly less effectively than a brick, but with equal downward momentum.

The road to Nazaré from home, in Lisbon, is remarkably easy. You find the I-8 road and you keep on going. It has its sweeping turns, but is generally a straight road, and has some lovely countryside either side, dotted with windmills (the old and the new kinds), rivers and streams, and so on.

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On such a clear day, after less than ninety minute on the road, including a few minutes getting fuel, we were coming in to Nazaré itself. I had my google map at the ready, to tell us how to get to the hotel. We wound around tight little seaside streets, stopping to let the old folks of the town pass by as we did. Then, 2 streets from our hotel, we realised that Google were sending us on a path that involved going the wrong way on a one way street. We stopped for a moment, gathered our thoughts, and decided to approach from the sea road, to the south. That was all going swimmingly, when we found that the road was closed to accommodate a Christmas market. Finally, we called the hotel and received some advice. First, that we should just ignore the one way streets and go the wrong way and secondly, that the hotel’s parking area was attached to a partner hotel, which we’d already driven past twice. Fortunately, it’s such a small space, that this entire process took us only 10 minutes, so we laughed to ourselves and dropped the car off for the night. We arrived at our hotel, the Mar Bravo, which ended up being a lovely place to stay and very reasonable, considering its location and their rather good breakfast (more on that later). As we went up in the lift on very much the wrong side of the building, we wondered to ourselves how on earth we might get our partial sea view, and then I opened our window to be greeted by this:

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As partial sea views go, this was about as good as it gets.

With night falling rapidly – it is early December, after all, I managed to persuade Ana to take the funicular to the top of the cliffs and to walk down to the lighthouse to see the waves, even if in the dark. The funicular was open until midnight, even at this time of the year and we arrived with just 4 minutes until the next departure. We paid our 2.40 euros for the return journey and found a seat (after the ticket seller finished his cigarette). Priorities, you know? The ride to the top takes only about 3 minutes, and the view gets more impressive as you go up, but getting a photo is quite impossible, owing to the reed bed, growing alongside the car.

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Once at the top, at this time of the year at least, you are greeted by a slightly insane looking nativity set up. This is made slightly better by the abundance of country folk, who are essentially cowboys in this context. It feels a bit like a Playmobil acid trip, but is at least more joyful than a lot of the more sombre nativity set ups.

 

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But after leaving this technicolour model Bethlehem, the view down to the equally bright Nazaré seafront was quite spectacular.

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Walking on around from the miradouro, we found ourselves in the square of the church of our lady of Nazaré. It’s beautifully illuminated at night, and so we stopped to grab a few photos.

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Checking my google map, I could see that it was not very far from here to the lighthouse so, in spite of the now pitch darkness, I led my lady on the winding path down, alongside what we were later to realise was the steep slope to Praia do Norte on one side and a sheer cliff drop on the other. I used my phone as a torch, so that we weren’t mown down by the occasional cars speeding up the road. When we arrived at the lighthouse, we could see pretty much nothing apart from this sign, affirming the danger there, should we stray too far from the roadway.

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We stood for a few minutes, trying to make out the waves that we could hear so strongly thumping against the rock face below. But it became clear that we weren’t going to see anything that night and so we started to walk back up the hill to the funicular station. It was time for dinner. The hill up to the station was a lot steeper than I’d perhaps realised on the way down, so I was getting pretty out of breath. The cold air burned our lungs a bit and we were glad to arrive and head back down to the level of the south beach. We strolled along and stopped for an aperitif drink at a café while we checked out Trip Advisor recommendations for somewhere to eat. After some discussion, we agreed on the no 5 rated restaurant of the city, “A Tasquinha.” What an excellent decision it would prove to be.

We arrived, fifty metres up one of the streets running perpendicular from the beach front and found the place half full. Seemingly all of the clientele were Portuguese. A cheerful waiter showed us a few empty tables and we chose a spot in the window. In the menu they had a crudely taped photograph of an “arroz de tamboril” – monkfish rice in English. Both of us widened our eyes at the sight of it and we ordered two of them from the waiter, as he arrived with some bread, olives, butters and cheeses. He stopped us in our tracks, and recommended that, instead, we ordered one monkfish rice pot and a portion of fried king prawns, which were served around a portion of homemade Russian, as they call it here (essentially cubed boiled potatoes, coleslaw-ish vegetables and a creamy mayonnaise-based sauce). His suggestion sounded sensible and also worked out cheaper. We had munched our way through about 80% of the bread and the exquisitely marinated olives, and made a start on our drinks (white wine from Alentejo for me, 7up for her, as not much of a wine lover) when the mains arrived.

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The monkfish rice was full of king prawns, mussels, clams as well as the aforementioned monkfish and rice. The flavouring was tomato based, with fresh coriander leaf and black pepper giving it an edge. The flavours blended really well and even I refused the offer of piri piri when the waiter brought it over. That never happens. The service was exactly what we wanted it to be, attentive when required, but also gave us our space to enjoy the food. When we came to dessert, we were thoroughly full, so settled for just a couple pieces of fruit and a coffee. As we were leaving, fully intending to head back to the hotel, the waiter got chatting to us and asked us why we were there, how we’d got together and I explained that I was now rather rooted here in Portugal and planning to stick around. He then offered to tell us of a bar we’d enjoy, both for decor and music and directed us to the Trombone Voador – the Flying Trombone, in English. So we decided we could manage a drink before heading back.

It was only a couple of streets over and as soon as we walked in, we could see that it was a place that had been together with no small amount of love. There were musical instruments mounted all over the ceilings, the lighting was low without straining the eyes, and the bottle collection was impressive. Feeling incredibly British, we ordered two very different gins and relaxed at a comfy table. The barman took extreme care, as he added fresh fruit and herb leaves to skewers, tailored to the taste of the gins we had ordered, mine stronger and hers a little more delicate and fruity. On the tv and super high quality sound system we had a semi acoustic session video by the Goo Goo Dolls, followed by various acts from Jools Holland, which created a really nice ambience. Our one drink lasted over 90 minutes and I’d certainly go back and recommend it to anyone who visits.

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With our drinks done, though, it was a 5 minute walk back to our hotel, and for a good night’s sleep, ready to wake up early the next morning and go to see some waves. The rooms in the Hotel Mar Bravo were very comfortable, and we slept right through, starting our day with breakfast. It was a pretty good spread, with a variety of cold meats, hot scrambled eggs, cheeses, yoghurts and the usual breakfast fare. Astoundingly though, for Portugal, the coffee was from a diabolical Nescafé machine, and tasted as crap as you might imagine it did. Not to mention that it had no caffeine or awakening potency.

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Fortunately, though, my infantile excitement saw us through, and so we set off after breakfast, first to pick up the car and then to head back up to the lighthouse where we’d been the night before.

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Arriving at the lighthouse, we were delighted to see that the small museum there was open and so we were able to get some really nice views on to the ocean, both sides of the rock that juts out, holding the lighthouse in place between praia do sul and praia do norte. It was just 1 euro to get in and the exhibits there are very nicely put together, with displays on the history of Nazaré, as well as its more recent fame as a hot spot for tow in surfing and huge waves. While we didn’t see any of the monsters that made Garett McNamara so famous around these parts, the waves were still substantial, and the force you could see, hear and feel as the water crashed into the land was quite intense. In the pictures the waves look so small, but the smallest of them was around three metres, the average sized ones around six metres and the biggest we saw in excess of 10 metres. This video will perhaps do them more justice. The real shame was that there was no surfing happening, as I really wanted to see people, ant like in perspective, riding these monstrous waves.

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As time wore on, I had to return to Lisbon for work so, after a tactical stop in a café for a real cup of coffee after that dreadful nescafé rubbish, we were on our way. Just as my break seemed that it couldn’t have got any better, we realised that we were driving through Alfeizerão, the place where one of Portugal’s most famous cakes – Pão de ló – is very famously made. I told Ana to look out for any places selling homemade Pão de ló and, just as we were about to leave the town, we found one, so I managed to bring one back, undercooked, and creamy in the centre, for my colleagues to try. My first visit to Nazaré – but surely not my last – had been a great success!

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Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 5 – Trincomalee

When preparing for my trip to Sri Lanka, one of the things that cropped up, not only in my guide book, but also in every internet resource I could find, anywhere, was the mention of countless long, white stretches of beach, with the warm Indian ocean waters lapping at the sand. That sounded pretty good to me and, after lots of historical and cultural tourism, now seemed like a very good time to check it out.

After my excellent host from Polonnaruwa had left me on the bus to Habarana, I had a fairly comfy seat for an hour. The only other passengers, in fact, were a group of nuns. As you might imagine, they were not terribly noisy. The bus was also relatively new, by Sri Lankan standards so, somewhat surreally, this was almost what I’d call a pleasant bus journey. Without incident, I was off the bus at Habarana and went in to a local shop to ask where the bus to Trincomalee went from and to buy some water. The owner cheerfully gestured down the road and so I took a walk of about 500m, crossed the road and waited with a fairly large group of people.

The bus arrived after, perhaps half an hour and I immediately realised why the other bus had been so empty. It was to prepare me for the squash of my life. The driver saw my bag and motioned for the money collector to go to the back of the bus and open the luggage compartment. I didn’t even know these buses had one. It was just behind the engine, and so was radiating heat like crazy. I stuffed my rucksack in and jumped onto the bus, standing next the driver, holding a piece of leather hanging from above my head for dear life, while the bus swung around corners, the door – as always – wide open. This was going to be a fun two hours.

Then my luck changed. At some seriously insignificant looking hamlet, a whole host of people jumped off and then some eastern European looking people jumped on and asked, in broken English, for tickets to Trincomalee. By this stage of my journey, I was no longer bothering to book accommodation ahead, so I asked them where they were from. They were a couple from Kiev, in Ukraine and they’d been to Trincomalee at the beginning of their break and had a recommendation for a hotel. We spent the remaining hour of the journey talking about what we’d seen in Sri Lanka thus far, and then we found ourselves on the water’s edge entering the city.

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Trincomalee is an east-facing city, spread out along the Indian Ocean coast. It has a harbour in the south, where there is still a large fishing community and then stretches north, through tourist areas littered with beautiful beaches and hotels and, finally, a nature reserve which is mainly made up of mangroves. The harbour area, as we arrived, was quite polluted but, generally speaking, it’s a very beautiful place. We hopped out of the bus and the ticket inspector swung open the luggage compartment for me to fetch my rucksack. As he did so, he took a huge chunk of flesh out of my arm. I was immediately bleeding all over the place. For now, I covered it up with some antiseptic gel and tissues and followed the Ukranian couple to a tuk tuk. 15 minutes and 600 rupees later, we were at a buddhist community centre hostel, part of the Sarvodaya group who have been doing some excellent work to provide relief to those affected by the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. It was not the most attractive place I stayed in, but it was located right next to the Uppaveli beach and the prices were very reasonable. We found our rooms, signed the paperwork and then we decided to hit the beach for a swim. I didn’t have my camera with me, but here’s a picture of the beach from Wikipedia:

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It’s so beautiful as to be almost unrealistic. The water is also so warm, it’s like stepping in to a bath. The tide here is quite strong, and it was great fun to lie back and be battered by the waves and occasionally completely sucked in by one. As the high season had not yet started, there were perhaps only fifty people on this two kilometre stretch of white sand, a mixture of westerners and Sri Lankans. After an hour splashing around, I got out and dried off in the heat of the setting sun. After a while, the Ukrainian couple also dragged themselves out of the water and invited me to join them for dinner at a restaurant on the beach. I accepted and we went and sat. I ate devilled cuttlefish with rice, which was terrific, and had a delicious spicy zing to it. Sadly though, as dinner progressed, I heard more and more casual racism from them, talking about how it was good to come here, but they didn’t like having to get too close to brown people. Having lived in Poland I was disappointed by this, but not overly surprised, so I retired to my room after dinner and decided it might be best not to spend to much time with them thereafter.

Not to be put off by my bad experience of the night before, I woke up and jumped into the shower, having missed the VERY early breakfast slot of 7:00 – 8:30. While showering myself in the not-especially-clean communal bathrooms, I noticed that my wound from the previous day’s bus had gone quite bright yellow. This probably wasn’t a good sign. Dying of an infection or septicaemia was really low on my to do list, so I vowed to keep an eye on it. Unperturbed, I got dressed, daubed myself in sun block as it was already 38 degrees, at just before 9am, and left the hostel complex. I approached the first tuk tuk I could find, on the other side of the road and asked him how much it would be to go to Swami rock. He had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. So we rode down the main road and then into a small residential neighbourhood, where he found an older fella who spoke immaculate English and sorted out the whole confusion. We agreed a very reasonable price of 350 rupees and were on our way.

Swami rock is a large peninsula, jutting out from just above Trincomalee’s harbour. It is mainly made up of the expansive Fort Frederick, a fortress first built by the Portuguese in 1624, then occupied by the Dutch, then the British, before finally becoming perhaps the most important combined army and navy base in Sri Lanka. Most of it is fenced off to visitors, but you can still get some impressive views of the colonial era buildings. Before all that though, I wanted to see the temple of Shiva at the very tip of the rock. Just before it, you walk through a market which sells, almost exclusively, cheap and useless tat. It felt seedy and unpleasant and the hawkers here were particularly in your face. I had a really bad feeling about the place but, rounding the last corner, I saw this and all the bad feeling ebbed away:

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I’d always been impressed by the clean lines & tranquillity of the Buddhist complexes I’d seen all over the country to date, but this was my first Hindu temple experience of note. The lurid, technicolour madness of it was a delight. Looking at the photo now, some months later, it all seems a bit over the top, but it all fits perfectly, when you’re there. Before entering, I decided to have a walk around the rock garden to the right of the temple, where many statuettes of deities are stationed. It’s also from here where you can supposedly see sperm and blue whales at almost all times of the year.

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It was an amazing experience, to be inside the temple, with the smell of incense filling the air and a throng of pilgrims circumambulating, leaving offerings at the many shrines and chanting. There were no whales to be seen around Swami Rock, but still, the views were quite marvellous. It was only on leaving the temple that I realised, some 4 hours after waking up, I’d yet to have breakfast. I grabbed a king coconut, to drink as I made my way back down the rock towards Fort Frederick. At the bottom of a hill, I found an army café with my now firm favourite Sri Lankan snack: toasted, spiced vegetable stuffed roti triangles. So I bought two and a cup of milky (and, frustratingly very sugary) tea. It made a good breakfast and set me back a grand total of 80 rupees (about 60 euro cents).

From here, I walked down to the harbour front, where lifeguards were giving kids sea safety lessons on the beach and a large number of fallow deer were tamely relaxing under the shade of whatever trees they could find. The temperature was now in the low to mid forties. I grabbed an ice cream and went to sit by the water for a while.

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Across the road from the water, there was a fairly serious looking game of cricket going on. There were a lot of military vehicles around the makeshift stadium and so I decided to walk in to the Buddhist temple next door instead. As I did so, I discovered that the temple was connected to the Cricket pitch and, in front of me, under a gazebo, a handful of men in uniform were watching the game and cheering. Perhaps foolishly, I decided to approach and see if I could watch the game. One of the men stood up and explained that this was the officer’s area and it was an All Sri Lanka inter-regimental armed forces tournament. He then asked me if I would be their guest in the officer’s area. So, in spite of my slightly muddy shorts, trainers and t-shirt, I joined the men and was told a lot about the best players, the different parts of the country that the regiments were all from and, from my main host, about his family too. The cricket was played ten overs each way, so the batting was frenetic, making for quite high scores and also quick wickets. It was very exciting. The funniest part, though, was the waiter who was there to look after the officers and insisted on bringing me glass after glass of cold orangeade, on a red velvet cushion with gilt edges. He must have been baking hot in his uniform, complete with waistcoat and more!

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After a couple hours, which comprised some 4 games of cricket, I decided to take myself off for some lunch, after thanking the officers for their lovely hospitality. I had read about a restaurant, in the Lonely Planet guide, not far from a smaller Hindu temple, near the railway station which was excellent and decided to check it out, for lunch. It was all vegetarian, but this is a part of the world where I find vegetarian food is king, most of the time. I helped myself to a mustard seed-laden potato curry dosa, a portion of mixed vegetable curry, some kind of doughnut shaped, gram flour based snack and, because I didn’t have five rupees in change, the lady gave me a small chocolate square which, by some miracle, hadn’t melted in the heat of the day. Of course, I also took an Elephant ginger beer. It was delicious and, once again, came in at some ridiculous price, like 160 rupees, or about 1.10 Euros. The temple was also quite attractive, but too crowded, due to an early afternoon puja, so I couldn’t go inside.

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The rest of the afternoon was a quiet reading session on the beach, recharging my batteries. At nightfall, I decided that I would commit the sin of going in search of western food. I’d seen a huge billboard for “Trincomalee’s First Pizza Restaurant” in the first tuk tuk on the way to the hostel on the first day. I decided to go up the nilaveli road and find it. When I arrived, I was astonished to see a real stone oven in the corner. The (brand new) door was nearly falling off its hinges and the handle was like a fairly dull blade, but the sight of the oven and the smell of ‘real’ pizza was encouraging. Encouraging enough for me to overlook the inflated prices. The small few tables in the place were all occupied, but the waiter gestured for me to sit with two middle aged gentleman, one of whom looked like an academic on holiday and the other looked like a slightly portly Crocodile Dundee type. He had 4 or 5 teeth and a long, grey pony tail, while he was balding at the front. He was wearing a leather waistcoat, with no t-shirt.

I sat down and said hello. The holidaying academic turned out to be a holidaying academic. A social scientist, to be precise, who was there on holiday after completing a PhD on social integration (or the lack of) in the wake of the Sri Lankan civil war. The other fella was a resident. They had been friends in the anthropology department of a university in the Netherlands and made very interesting dining company. They told me a lot about the war, how Trincomalee had been quite badly affected, with the now local man told me of how he had a number of bullet holes in the wall of his house as a reminder. They also told me about Portuguese and Dutch burghers in Sri Lanka – something which I’d learn more about in Mannar. All importantly, the pizza was excellent. Afterwards, I headed back to the hostel, ready for a trip to Pulmoddai, the next day.

Pulmoddai is a miniscule village in a clearing in the aforementioned giant mangrove forest. Why was I going here you may ask? Certainly every person I encountered in Pulmoddai asked me that. Well, it was mainly because it was accessed by a very picturesque bus route through the mangroves, over rivers and so on and secondly because the guide book told me there were no tourists there, almost ever, so you could have a more authentic experience. So off I went.

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No more than half a kilometre beyond the side by side hotels of upmarket (too upmarket for my budget!) Nilaveli and you cross this bridge over the startlingly blue water, from where pleasure boats go out for snorkelling trips to Pigeon island. After this it’s into the dense forest, with various hamlets appearing and disappearing with increasing speed. The road seems to be poker straight. From nowhere the forest opened and suddenly we were hurtling along through rapidly changing scenery. First pasture, heavily populated with animals, then salt mines, with the occasional lady walking with a parasol to protect her from the sun, then natural harbours with more motorboats moored up and then more mangroves. Then we arrived in Pulmoddai.

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At first glance Pulmoddai is a single crossroads. A single crossroads with heavy roadworks going on at one end when I arrived. This is not ideal. I decide to take a look at Google maps. It showed me a rather intriguing path, through one of the narrower streets, near the road works, to the ocean, so I decided to follow it. I walked past countless carts being pulled by cattle, highly confused children going home from school, and a surprising number of girls in their late teens who seemed compelled to stop and talk to me, probably more in disbelief than anything. At the top of the road, I happened upon a rust coloured, dusty cricket pitch. Before I was anywhere near it, the gathered teenage boys started running towards me, clutching bats and ball. They demanded I play with them, so I dropped my camera and my water in their pavilion and played a few overs with them. Then we got a few snaps.

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We chatted a little about their city, what there was to see, which premier league football team I supported – a surprise in this cricket dominated world – and what I thought about all things Sri Lanka. They were a really nice bunch of lads and they pointed me in the direction of a nice river walk and told me of a great place to grab lunch time rice and curry, near my bus stop.

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It wasn’t until I was on my way back to the main street to get lunch that I realised that the water here didn’t smell. It wasn’t stagnant and there were a lot of fish swimming about. This was a wonderful change from the inland water I’d found in most of the rest of the country. I cheerfully ambled to the inappropriately named City Hotel and asked for a rice and curry lunch. It took a few moments for the proprieter to get over the shock of me being there, but he then offered me the choice of chicken and fish and so, remembering the clean looking water (I hoped) I plumped for fish. When it showed up, it was terrific and came served with drumstick curry, spiced beans, waday – more on that later – and dhal. Everything was wrapped in newspaper, but the owner went out to the kitchen and fetched me a spoon, I suppose psychically knowing that I was utterly useless at eating rice with my fingers!

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I snoozed on the mid afternoon bus back to Upaveli and got an early night ahead of my next stage of my journey. Another normally unvisited place was next, in the shape of Vavuniya. I checked out of the hostel the next morning and stopped off at the unfortunately named City Hotel and Cream House for a bit of breakfast and then waved goodbye to the Indian Ocean, at least for now.

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Throughout my travels in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily upon the Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can get your copy, here:

SriLanka

Évora – History, Bones and Gastronomy

The end of my first full month in Portugal had arrived and with it, my first pay cheque. Time then, for an adventure. One of the great things about living in the heart of Lisbon, is that it’s so very easy to get out of the city, via one of its many transport hubs. Thanks to some of the spending that went on in the 2000’s, the Portuguese rail network is a fast, clean and broadly efficient one, meaning that the 100 or so kilometres to Évora is quickly and easily traversed in no small degree of comfort and, all importantly, at very little cost.

Something terribly exciting about that is that this presented me with my first opportunity to cross the Tejo on the mighty 25th April bridge. Sadly, many of the photos didn’t come out as well as they might have, due to the huge girders that make up the bridge, but you can still get a sense of the scale of the Tejo estuary and the spectacular views of it from the bridge, here. Not to mention the great figure of Jesus, overlooking the city from Almada.

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Leaving at 5pm after the clocks had changed for daylight saving to Western European Time meant that, as the train rolled in to Évora at 6:30 or so, it was quite dark. The first thing we noticed after Lisbon was the quiet. Évora is a small city and, compared to the nation’s capital, there was an almost eerie silence as we edged away from the train station. We followed my google map to our hotel and dumped our stuff, before heading out for a look at the city by night. As I’m told is often the case here, there was a throng of students in the centre, chanting and generally having fun. We walked down a side street to a sprawling, vaulted bar in one of the old buildings called Bar Amoeda. It’s a really nice place, with interesting, locally carved furniture in the shape of livestock. Odd, but it had a really nice atmosphere and was playing decent music. They also sold Sagres preta – the South of Portugal’s only black beer and a very good one.

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After a drink here and a walk around the old town, we stopped in a café for a quick bite to eat and, as the city seemed to be winding down, we headed back to the hotel for a sleep. In the morning, we woke up to this view:

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The Hotel Dom Fernando is a 1970s-built hotel which, at the time, was probably a very grand place indeed. Before booking it, I noted a lot of guests complaining on Trip Advisor about its style, harking back as it does to former days of splendour, while seeming a little bit run down in modern terms. This was absolutely what appealed to me and you really had this sense of the hotel in its heyday and, at the same time, far less “sterility” than you might have in one of today’s foremost hotels. The pool looked lovely, but it was far too cold to go in. Breakfast was also top notch – a very important feature of any lodging. Do look it up if you’re in Évora.

With breakfast demolished, it was time to get a look at this historic city by day. As it was opposite, the Parque de Liberdade seemed like a good place to start. Essentially a palatial garden on the edge of the medieval city wall, it was still alive with flowers, even on the first weekend in November. How spectacular it must be in summer. But the thing that really strikes you is the style of the architecture. Évora had been a stronghold during the period of Moorish occupation in Portugal and it was in evidence right from the off in the obvious influence the Arabs had on the architecture here. The band stand, the park office, both bearing classic Arabic style.

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But for the crosses etched into the balcony facade, this would be equally at home in Tunis.

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Walking round from here towards the northern edge of the park, you come to a partially collapsed fortification from the times when the city walls were more about defence than tourism. While looking at this crumbling structure though, I was taken aback to find at least 4 pairs of peacocks just going about their business in the park and, beside their play area, a full-to-busting lemon tree. This was one of those moments where the difference in the climate in my new home country really makes itself abundantly clear.

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Out of the park and across an entirely unspectacular car park, I found myself under the archess of the quite incredible church of St Sebastiao. Disappointingly it was undergoing intensive renovation (which will likely take some years) but from this one side, you could get a decent glimpse of the splendour underneath the covers.

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From here we wound our way through the maze of narrow streets, through the sprawling town square – formerly the place where more people were publicly executed than anywhere else in all of Portugal in the middle ages (yuk!) – and on to the Temple of Diana, as it’s called.

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Al fresco dining: more appealing than hangings.
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Very bright, old, quaint post boxes.

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Before the temple though, the imposing sandstone structure of the cathedral greets you. It’s a curious sensation wandering out of one of a sequence of narrow residential streets, with their small town white-with-yellow-trim colour scheme and suddenly being met by a small square and a 100m+ tall edifice, battlements creeping away to one side. In front of it stands a testament to the medieval past of the city in the form of a well, complete with an original bronze seal.

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Around the corner and you come to another square, with a magnificent walled garden, looking over the Alentejan countryside. In front of it stands the temple of Diana. It’s called this because the city was indeed home to a small cult of Diana during the roman period. The origins of the temple are murky though and rumours abound about it actually being dedicated to the emperor at the time or Jupiter, or both. Regardless, it is quite a building and the pillars, in particular are in remarkable condition.

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Just peeking out from behind the temple, as you look here, is the top of a very ornate church. While we chose not to enter, we did climb the tower of the neighbouring Palacio and the view was quite remarkable. The position is at the very edge of the city wall and, at the tower’s summit, you are stationed around 40 metres above the ground beyond the city walls. Thus you end up with vistas like this:

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All this walking, looking and photographing was making me hungry, so it was time for a snack. In Portugal, a snack almost always means cake. This time was to be no different, and we decided we ought to try a few Alentejan specialties. When in Rome and all that. So, walking down one of the many narrow streets, we happened upon a little café with some outside tables, ordering a curd cheese cake, an almond and egg bite (with what seemed to be near-raw egg inside) and a slice of caramel(ish) tart, with layered orchard fruits inside. Washed down with a couple of galaos (milky long coffees), they were all quite delicious.

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After our short break, it was time for more strolling, but this time with a little more purpose, we were off to the bone chapel. So we meandered through the streets in the general direction of the cathedral, where our day had more or less started.

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No trip is complete without meeting a cat

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The Chapel of Bones is a very different kind of place to anywhere I’ve been before. Constructed in the 16th century by the monks who used the church of Sao Sebastiao as their place of worship, the idea of the room is as a commentary on the human condition, mortality and more. The plaque as you enter, in Latin, advises you that “We, the bones that lie here, await yours.” It seems like grim reading, but you can in a sense appreciate what they were trying to say about human existence. It’s a very powerful and, in a way, even a beautiful structure. The morbidity is contrasted with the golden altar at the heart of the chapel and the ornate tiling of the perimeters. I won’t say more about it, but this place is really worth visiting if you’re in the area.

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Perversely, perhaps, I left the chapel feeling intensely hungry. So it was off to my first of two quite excellent meals on my full day in Évora. Having eaten really well far too much the previous day, we didn’t want anything too heavy and so, opposite the café where we’d enjoyed our cake earlier, we remember a small, boutique tapas – or petiscos – restaurant.

Disappointingly, I can’t remember the name and nor can I find it on google maps, but it had the most wonderfully unpushy staff and, despite being really nothing more than a small room with a few tables outside, the menu was super. The waiter made some recommendations based on our need for something not too filling and we ended up with roasted sheep’s cheese with fresh oregano leaves, cod (not bacalhau!) sliced thinly, battered and fried and a mixture of scrambled egg and thistle, which was very accurately described as tasting like a more intense asparagus. He brought out two white wines for us to try and the birthday girl selected a quite stunning Chardonnay. The wine and food, we were reliably informed, all came from within a 30 km radius. And it was all excellent. And it cost less than 40 euros in total. A bargain.

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After a quick trip back to the Dom Fernando to freshen up, all that was left was a dusk/night time walk around the city before dinner.

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The city wall is really quite imposing at night and you can easily see why it’s ranked as a UNESCO heritage site. After our walk, it was time for one more meal at Momentos restaurant. This was one I’d read about before we began our visit, where the chef is famous for his use of all local, all organic ingredients and working with blending flavours. First he brought out a trial plate for each of us, of a shot glass of his special recipe tomato soup, accompanied by a poached quail egg on mini toast. It was all terribly indulgent. We once again were presented with a couple of white wines to try and settled on a great one (though not as fabulous as the afternoon’s Chardonnay) and my main course, which exemplified perfectly the owner’s philosophy – a fresh anchovy and grilled pear salad, with strawberries, spinach and rocket. It was stunning.

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After our meal, it was a gentle walk back to the hotel, accompanied by a friendly stray dog. I felt terrible leaving him outside the hotel, but there was nothing we could do for him. With an early start beckoning, we retired for the night. In the morning, after an early breakfast, we made the short walk back to the train station and wove our way through the countryside back to Lisbon.

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Finally, Évora is a charming place, with history in abundance and an immense amount of delightful gastronomy. We wondered whether it might be a lot busier in the summer months, as it did seem there was not too much going on in the evenings, besides for students. Nevertheless, it was an appetising first taste of the Alentejo and it is certainly a region we will return to.

An Alternative Look at Berlin

One of the worst things about living in Bydgoszcz, Poland is that the easiest way to leave the country each summer is via Bydgoszcz airport. I’m fairly sure that I had lunchboxes at school larger than this place. Worse still, the only airline running scheduled flights from here to Britain is the god-awful Ryanair. So when I see an opportunity to take a different exit route back to the UK, I generally jump on it. This year, it was via Berlin. This meant a 2 hour journey on the big red Polskibus to Poznan, to start off with. As has been the tradition in recent weeks, it was a gloomy ride. 120 minutes of heavy-looking, grey skies and intermittent rainfall but, arriving in the city centre, the sun peeked out and I found my way to a last karkówka (pork shoulder, Polish style) and all the trimmings and a delicious Polish beer to wash it down. After eating that and saying goodbye to Poland, it was off to the other bus station in the city to the second leg of the Polskibus journey, onward to Berlin.

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I should point out at this stage that the entire journey with Polskibus – booked only 6 weeks in advance – cost me a total of 37 zloty. That’s about £7.50. It’s a ludicrous sum of money for 7 hours on a very comfortable bus, with Wi-Fi for free throughout the Polish leg of the journey. Well worth a look, if you’re travelling within or to Poland from most of the major cities around it.

Anyway, the coach arrived into Berlin via Schonefeld airport. After that it ran in through the main arterial roads in the east of Berlin, across to the ZOB bus station. Climbing out of the bus, a blast of information in oh-so-official German informed me that I had indeed arrived in my destination country/city. Now it was time to find the Kaiserdamm U-bahn and my train across town to Kreuzberg – my home for the next couple of days. How well did I remember my German?

 Not well was, sadly, the answer. But I got myself together and asked a man in a corner shop and he pointed me on my way. So, with all my bags, in the now baking-hot sunshine, I staggered down the road to the underground. After the relatively easy process of buying my metro ticket, I climbed down the stairs to the platform. Despite being the capital, Berlin is by no means the richest of German cities and I was given a stark reminder of this when the ancient-looking rolling stock that was my train came thundering in to the platform. I waddled on and put down my bags. To other passengers, I must have looked like a sweaty tramp, but there we are.

After one change, I was on the U1 line into Kreuzberg, home for the next 2 days or so. The U1 is an elevated metro line, so I could look down over the buildings, seeing an increasingly diverse range of restaurants, convenience stores and so on. Schlesisches Tor, where I needed to hop off, was of course a stairs-only station, but also one full of the aged charm of the area. 

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As I made my way down Gorlitzer strasse and so on, towards my hostel, I walked past fragrant and, seemingly, authentic restaurants with origins as diverse as Iraq, Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico, Goa, various African nations and much more besides. It was a delight to be there and there was a real buzz about the street, as people milled from place to place. I turned the corner at the end of the street, next to Gorlitzer park, which has been beautifully renovated lately, and along to the Jetpak alternative hostel. I checked in with a very helpful chap and was shown to my dorm, so that I could get a much needed shower. Once showering was done, I was left to have a look at the various “alternative” tours they do in the city. I settled on the street art and graffiti tour – done in collaboration with real artists. But that was for the following day – more on that later.

The Jetpak Alternative, which I mentioned previously was in a great location, was also a really pleasant, friendly place. At the point of booking, they make it very clear that the location is not the cleanest and, certainly, there are a lot of people who would be very happy to sell you any amount of any mood-enhancing substances you may care for in the vicinity, but if – like me – you’re not really into all that, it’s a fascinating place to be and the residents of the hostel, certainly when I was there, seem to be a really open minded bunch. So after fixing up my locker and choosing which bed I would sleep in collapse on later, I barely had a moment before one of the lads asked if I wanted to come into the lounge and watch the evening’s world cup game. I dashed out to fetch some noodles from a Vietnamese place – divine and 3 Euros for a bowl big enough to fill even me – I made use of the hostel’s excellent honesty policy, whereby you help yourself to locally brewed Berliner beer and put a single euro coin in the pot for the privilege. After the game and a lot more chat with the guys, I turned in, ready for the next morning’s tour.

Before any talk of the tour itself, I have to mention the breakfast, in the morning. This is the first hostel I’ve been to in my life where the list of spreads is near endless. So when you get your toast, you can layer it up with the usual, but also a choice of smooth or crunchy peanut butter, marmite or vegimite, and the list goes on. Add to this that, when I started looking around like a sheep who can hear a wolf approaching, failing to see coffee, the duty staff person informed me that they were all barista trained and that he’d be happy to make me a pro-standard cappucino. I could have cried tears of happiness.

Anyway, by the time I’d finished being happy about all that, it was off to Alexanderplatz and the tour. One look outside and it was clear to see that it was going to be a very British kind of day. It was raining cats, dogs, and possibly llamas, or something else much bigger than a dog, too. But as this was my only full day, I was not to be deterred! And arriving at the meeting point for the tour, it became abundantly clear that I was not alone in my spirit of adventure. About 8 or 9 others had showed up, from as far and wide as England, the Czech Republic, Australia and Spain. They all seemed remarkably jolly, despite their washed-outness. The tour guide – herself a street artist, as well as a conventional, fine artist, was a walking, talking bundle of energy, hailing from San Francisco, California and had lived in Berlin for some time. She had bundles of character, charm and knowledge about her subject – she also had a penchant for asking “you dig it?!” after she finished each explanation, which I didn’t think any real people ever actually said, but this just made me like her even more. So, after some fumbling around with ticket machines, we were off!

First we walked to some railway arches , just around the corner, in the heart of the area known as “mitte” – the centre. We were quickly told that this was the heart of the eastern part of Berlin, during the cold war. Here, we saw just how much graffiti and street art there can be in any one place in Berlin. We were given the definitions of what is graffiti and what is street art, the difference being that graffiti is anything which is primarily text whereas street art is… anything else! Here are a few examples:

Anywhere you see the executed cat...
Anywhere you see the executed cat…
... Little Lucy, the cat's nemesis, will never be far behind.
… Little Lucy, the cat’s nemesis, will never be far behind.

So first for a bit of history. As it turns out, perhaps a reason that graffiti pervades so strongly in Berlin, is that this was the first place it landed in Europe, after it had emerged in New York City in the 1970s, after the invention of the spray paint can. The west Berliners, despite having a better time of it than their kin folk in the east, took to the wall to protest against the harsh treatment of people in the east. In what might be the most spectacular error of judgement in human history, the East German government began to show graffiti, punk rock and smoking in public service videos, to deter young people from the “horrors” of the west. Of course, this likely speeded up the downfall of the system! Once the wall did start to come down and reunification began to happen, the graffiti and street art movement really took hold, as a way to make the wall – the symbol of something so terrible, for so long, would be made beautiful by the, now free, populace.

Of course, with the likes of Banksy, the lines between street art and fine art are becoming ever more blurred. But here are a few memorable pieces from the tour:

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A curious street art sculpture
A curious street art sculpture

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Lil Lucy with a surprise for the kitty
Lil Lucy with a surprise for the kitty
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Once we arrived at Warschauer Strasse and were really out into the east, we began to see huge pieces like this, where the artist has obviously got permission for the work.
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This was a piece commissioned for a building which is being totally rebuilt. The artist is a Spanish guy, Rallitox. This piece, featuring one of his Freudian “id monsters” represents the bankers, excreting euros, with the cheerful phrase “Greetings from Spain and Greece, Portugal, Italy”. A bold piece in Germany, and the irony of it being in a place that is becoming increasingly gentrified in Berlin is lost on no-one.
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This one focuses on the city type, with the man in the suit. But notice, the only gold items are the watches. A commentary on time, perhaps?
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Finally – as one we are all the monster. the monster only exists, only works if everyone works together in the system that makes it. The real power here comes from the question it begs. Will the little guy survive?

   It was an enthralling walk and, as someone who knew less than nothing about street art beforehand, I’ve genuinely found myself looking up and around me wherever I’ve been since, trying to make sense of the art that may be lurking. I’d recommend it to anyone in Berlin, whether you’re a fan of the street art movement, or not.

After an hour’s break to drop off my umbrella and to dry myself through in the hostel, it was back out. The first port of call, just along on Oranien Strasse, was Santa Maria – allegedly the most authentic Mexican restaurant in Berlin, with a friendly price tag to boot. I arrived to find 2 bar stools available in the 80 or so seater restaurant. On a Wednesday evening. It’s that kind of place. I ordered my food and was swiftly served these rather excellent tacos and a cold pint of Berliner beer.

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As if the beef and chorizo filling wasn’t enough, someone needs to tell me how they make those pink pickled onions!

 After feeding myself and supping my beer, I decided to check out some rock bars. First, it was across the road to the Franken Bar. This is a classic, dingy German rock bar. Everything a rock bar should be. I don’t know why they haven’t quite figured it out in the UK yet, but there we go. I met some friendly folk here too, who told me if I’d been there the night before, I could’ve seen a fun band, the members of which were all 50+ and still crazy. Sounds like it would’ve been a laugh.

This kind of dirt is built up over years!
This kind of dirt is built up over years!
Obligatory outrageous toilet graffiti - special love for "Sunshine and Lollipops" in the black metal style! :)
Obligatory outrageous toilet graffiti – special love for “Sunshine and Lollipops” in the black metal style! 🙂
Grimy.
Grimy.

From here, it was across the road to the SO36 bar and the “alternative night market”. This actually made me a bit sad, as the whole set up reminded me of better times in the English alternative scene, where there was a similar market, open on Kensington High Street, daily. Once again though, a host of friendly people stopped to chat to me and I spent the rest of the time people watching with a pint of Berliner.

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Finally, with midnight rolling around and a lunchtime flight from Tegel the next day, I sauntered off to my hostel, in full knowledge that I would simply have to come back. I think Berlin is one of those places. In the morning, right on cue, we were back to glorious summer sun ready for me to carry my huge bags to the airport. I arrived on a very efficient U-bahn/bus link and had time for a nice ice coffee after check in, before British Airways sent me on my way. So after my second visit to Berlin, looking at a completely different side of the city to my first, more straightforwardly touristy trip, I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the place. If you haven’t been – go. If you’ve been – go again! It’s really that simple.

2 Capitals, 4 Days – Part 2 – Lisbon

Waking up to grey skies in London is something that feels kind of different to everywhere else, particularly where we were staying, in the heart of the city. It was a Monday morning, so at least everything had come to life, with suits walking hither and thither, trying to look important (or just awake – it was 7am!) I was not short of sympathy as, at 7:05, with our train tickets to the airport bought, we trudged to the Sainsbury’s Local and grabbed a couple of cinnamon danishes and coffees. Then it was back to City Thameslink, under the ground and onto the platform to wait for the train to Luton. The 10 minute wait gave us time to ingest breakfast and generally wake up/stop feeling sorry for ourselves.

The train rumbled in, and we boarded, still toting the dregs of our coffees. Sitting down at the table, I realised I had managed to cut my hand open on something and was dripping blood on our table. This was not a stupendous start to the next stage of our journey. As luck would have it, the ticket inspector of all people showed up fully armed with plasters and, with a cheerful bit of chit chat, I was patched up and feeling so much the better for a bit of customer service – and on a British railway service, too! Exiting the tunnel under the city, speeding north towards Luton, it immediately started raining. That classic, British spitting, which looks like nothing, but renders everything soaking in a matter of minutes. Lisbon could not come soon enough.

The train journey was swift and eventless and, before long, we were on the bus chugging up the hill to Luton Airport, with all of its hideous orange livery, as the home of Easyjet. Of course, the orange livery is the only thing not to like about Easyjet, especially when you are as unfortunate as myself to be more accustomed to flying Ryanair these days. With a couple hours to wait, on arrival, we opted to head to the observation deck and watch the planes defying the drizzle, trying to second guess where the bronzed passengers, clinging to their coats for dear life might have been a couple of hours ago. After that, it was time for a sandwich and then time to fly. The flight was smooth and short and before long we landed in Lisbon. Clambering down from the plane onto the Lisbon tarmac, my Polish winter coat felt immediately superfluous. Damn.

Lisbon is one of those airports where you have to wait for a bus to take you to the terminal building. Nothing annoys me more than when the bus journey takes 3 minutes, when a walk would have taken… 3 minutes… so it was nice when we realised that the landing area for low cost airlines is actually about 3km from the terminal. The driver sped around the roadway on the bendy bus, with all the passengers standing in varying states of calm and alarm. But everyone made it in one piece and the passport control process was mercifully swift. From here, there was a surprisingly common sense connection to the metro, ticket machines which spoke English and, in half a jiff, we were speeding down the metro track to the centre.

Like most things in Lisbon, the metro is a beautiful set up. The lines have colours and names, just as they do in London, Paris, or anywhere else, but they also have beautiful symbols associated with each:

The interior of the metro stations is also often quite ornate, as well as modern and practical. After a quick change from red to green, we arrived at our destination in Baixa-Chiado, right in the heart of the Lisboa district. We jumped out and found ourselves in a bustling street, full of people and the temperature at a happy 14 degrees. A welcome change from blustery 5s and 6s in London and Bydgoszcz’s minus 10!

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From here it was a remarkably short walk to our hotel: Duas Nacoes (2 nations) themed around the partnership of Brazil and Portugal. It was a simple place, but in a truly excellent location and they did a mean breakfast, too. We had a small juilet balcony, looking out to the street.

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Putting our bags down reminded us that we’d barely eaten at all so far that day, so it was time to find something to eat. The sandwich place opposite seemed pretty easy to negotiate and so, to get something fast, we walked in. I managed to ask the lady behind the counter in Portuguese if she spoke English. The response was laughter from her and her colleague and a flat “no”. I ordered a chicken sandwich (chicken is ‘frango’ in Portuguese – where the hell does  that come from?!) and a drink and sat and waited. Food showed up promptly, was cheap and really tasty, so we evidently made the right choice. Then it was time to explore! Turning left at the end of our street, we could see an enormous arch at the end of the road, so we decided to investigate. We were really unprepared for the grandeur that awaited us there.

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After this quite spectacular triumphal arch, you find yourself in a truly enormous square, facing out to the river Tejo, in front of you. And of course, Lisbon is the gaping mouth of this huge river, flowing out into the Atlantic, beyond. It’s quite a sight. I was also impressed by the signs for “The world’s sexiest toilet” – but I didn’t have go. Sorry.

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In spite of the menacing-looking grey skies in these images, it was a warm day, with a gentle breeze coming in off the river. It felt most un-February-like for a pair of northern Europeans. After marvelling at the square, the monuments and the water for a while, we decided to head back inland and to explore the city a bit.

I was told two things about Lisbon before going there. The first is that you really should explore without a map, as it’s an excellent place to get lost. This is absolutely true. We stumbled upon countless gardens, artworks, pieces of remarkable architecture, without ever really trying. The other thing I was told about was that when people say Lisbon is built on 7 hills, they are SERIOUS hills. This is also absolutely true. I cannot imagine how slippery some of them would be in the rain. If you come here, prepare for a leg workout!

Walking up Avenida de Liberdade (freedom avenue to you and me) we walked past some fountains, museums and hotels. Lost of which was very grand. Then, over to our left, we spotted a stone stairway, tucked away, leading up to one of these famous hills. We decided it was worth investigating.

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Once at the top of these stairs, the only way to go was up. So, 10 minutes later and we had walked perhaps 200 metres up this oppressively sheer hill. Once at the top though, we were on the edge of one of the nicest neighbourhoods in the city – Principe Real. We walked around the large church there and then up to the very top of the hill and to the Jardim de Principe Real (a public garden). Not only was the garden itself quite beautiful, it also had a spectacular view out across the city to the hill of Alfama, and St George’s castle.

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And a picture without my mug stinking the place up.

From here we walked past the historic hill climbing tram, the undercarriage and support stilts of which may give you some idea of just how steep these hills really are.

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From here, we walked down Avenida de Liberdade, back into the city for cake and then a short rest and freshen up in our hotel. In the evening, we went for a walk to find dinner and happened upon a quite huge seafood specialist restaurant. Tragically I can’t remember its name, but all they seemed to sell was seafood and I ate a quite sublime whole sea bream, washed down with a cold beer. After that, we decided to turn in.

The next morning started with my real reason for being here – a job interview. So, shortly after breakfast, I donned my smart clothes and left Ania to do some additional sleeping – she’s a professional, where this is concerned – and trudged back up Avenida de Liberdade to Cambridge School, where I was hoping to get my next teaching job. Situated next to a huge cinema, it was quite a grand building. The security guard waved me in and I went to reception, where I was to fill in a formal application form and some other papers. Then the interview started. A 4 man panel of interviewers took turns to ask me questions and it seemed to be going ok, if not spectacularly. Then they started talking about contracts, which confused me. Finally, all became clear when they offered me a position for the next school year. I was delighted, accepted the position and left with a huge smile on my face.

When I got back to the hotel, Ania was still asleep, so I crept into the room and changed out of my smart clothes, before waking her up and telling her we were going to see the castle. We left our hotel and turned right, walking up to the ominous hill of Alfama. But all was far less ominous when we realised there was a completely free of charge glass elevator up to near the top of the hill. We shuffled in with an old woman ahead of us, who was sure to speak to us in rambling Portuguese, which we naturally understood none of. We waved her off and began walking in the direction of the castle itself. Walking through the gate, you begin to get some idea of how old this place is!

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The weather was really nice, despite some threatening clouds approaching across the horizon and, with little time to explore the inside of the castle, we simply made our way around the perimeter, taking in the sights of the narrow streets, some of which are about 800 years old.

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After much meandering around the streets, we turned a corner and a great vista opened out in front of us. We were standing above rooftops, as the steep slope led out in front of us to the water. We were at the portas do sol (gates of the sun). This is supposedly the most breathtaking of all the views in this city of landscapes and, even with all the cloud cover, it didn’t disappoint. I can only imagine how glorious this will be with the full glare of the summer sun.

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After stopping to take in the spectacular views – and rest our hill weary legs – we wound our way round the hilly road and began to feel very hungry. We must have walked past 30 coffee shops and closed Angolan restaurants, orange trees, schools, dodgy old electronics shops, but nothing passing for a restaurant. Then, as all hope was fading and we rounded yet another winding cobbled hill street, we saw the Cantinho do Fatima. It really looked just like any other small, inconspicuous restaurant, but we were starving and went in.

Once inside we were presented with the options for the EUR 7.50 per person lunch menu of the day. I ordered something with veal and Ania something with turkey in a cream sauce. I was relieved to speak French, as the lady serving us knew no English at all. We sat and were presented with our starter of soup and bread along with a half litre jug of wine. The soup was a simple garden vegetable affair, but quite tasty; the bread soft and fresh. The wine too was quite palatable and the main course, when it came was enormous, comprising a large portion of meat with sauce, chips and rice. We eventually turned down our dessert and simply had the coffee. But for 15 Euros, we’d eaten more than we could (or probably should) have at an ordinary lunch. The fact that the place was rammed with locals when we arrived, I always like to think, is a sign of a quality place.

From there we descended from the hilltops of Alfama back down to sea level and walked along to one of the main train terminals of the city Santa Apollonia. Also one of the main hubs for metro connections, it was a big, grand old place.

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And that’s when it started raining. And when I say raining, I come qualified to identify serious rain, as a Brit. This was serious rain, the kind of rain where you could barely see about 15 metres in front of you. The only positive we could find was that this was an excellent excuse to dive into a café opposite the station and try our first tarte de natas. It was a custardy masterpiece, with the café owner handing us a cinnamon shaker to sprinkle the spice to our tastes. 

We decided to wait until the rain stopped. Then until the rain simply slowed down. Then we realised we were going to get soaked, and so we went out into it and tried to hug the walls, and canopies of grocers and cafés, all the way back to the hotel. Unfortunately, there are days like this in February, and the rain didn’t let up until we had gone to bed in the evening. It was a shame not to see more of the city, but there would be more opportunities for that. In the morning, after a quick breakfast, we were greeted by sunshine as we headed down to the metro for our return to the airport. The 4 hours of flights and 6 hours of transfer time at Stansted ahead of us was not very appealing, but it had been an excellent trip.

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2 Capitals, 4 Days – Part 1 – London

Travelling, as a tourist, to 2 capital cities in 4 days is, some would say, stupid. How can you possibly aim to see anything of such places in such a short time? Bear in mind, also, that we’re not talking about the capitals of Liechtenstein and [insert name of small country here] either. We’re talking about jolly old London and Lisbon. Big places. The two trips had to happen together though, for reasons that will become clear later, and so set off we did to my former home, and capital of my home nation, London.

“Can a trip to a city you lived in for nigh on half a decade actually be called an adventure?” you may also ask. Well, in this case, yes, for a couple of reasons. The first of these is that I wanted to see family and friends in a short space of time. The second is that I was taking my Polish girlfriend who had as yet never set foot in the UK.

So, after a huge kerfuffle of a last day of work, a further nuisance with a delayed bus to Poznan, in a very snowy, breezy -8 degree evening, and finally a heavily interrupted night’s sleep, at the hands of some monstrously whiney student person, I found myself sitting at Poznan airport at 9am, staring into this beautiful object, which was the only thing keeping me going at the time:

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Once the caffeine was roaring it’s way through my veins, my good lady and I headed to our departure gate and waited for our flying bus, or Ryanair plane, to board. In no time at all, we were boarded and airbourne. The views of a frozen Poznan were quite delightful, too.

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After a couple of hours broken up by attempts to nod off and catch up with sleep, we arrived at London Stansted, perhaps the most boring airport of its size on planet Earth. While making our way from disembarking the flight, we noticed lots of new posters from the UK Border Force, threatening that we may be kept waiting longer than usual, due to Britain’s increasingly unpleasant attempts to reassure foreign types that they are unwanted. Or something. And so it transpired that we were left standing in a closed corridor – more of a doorway between corridors really – for about 15 minutes. After this delightful experience, we were allowed to join the queue for passport control. Naturally, at midday on a Saturday, this was pretty hectic, and we had to wait for another 45 minutes here.

But once that dreadfulness was over, we were swiftly led around to the waiting column of National Express coaches, heading far and wide across the country. We immediately hopped onto one and were whisked into London, via the East. We swept past the Olympic village from the 2012 games and the great stadia, still waiting for their conversion. Past the new shopping leviathan of Westfield Stratford and finally into London Liverpool street. Famished, we walked over to Shoreditch and walked into the first restaurant we found (in this case a “Las Iguanas” – yes I know!) and stuffed our faces. After the meal, we decided to go straight to our hostel and ditch our bags.

Taking the tube to St Paul’s, from Liverpool Street, took a matter of minutes and, as a Saturday afternoon tends to be in this part of the city, all was fairly quiet. When we arrived at the hostel (YHA St Pauls, strongly recommended), we realised just how close to it we were. This was the view from the end of our road, about 50 metres from the front door:

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We were really in the heart of the city, which was great news. The view from our room was somewhat more modest:

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Still, I couldn’t have expected anything else from a room that cost less than 23 quid each, per night, in this part of town.

After a bit of a rest and a drink, we headed out into the early evening, deciding to stroll down the north bank of the Thames towards the London Eye. Walking down the Thames at night for the first time in a long time reminded me of just how blessed the centre of town is for remarkable architecture.Of course the view from the riverside paled in comparison to the views from up in the Eye. As luck would have it, my sister works for the folk who run the London Eye so, having met her outside, we were all able to have a ride on it for free. I’ve been on it a couple of times before, but not for about a decade. It was amazing how much the skyline had changed since then.

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After the jaunt on the wheel, it was time to get some food and, first of all I suggested visiting a tiny French restaurant next to Embankment tube station. So we wandered along the South Bank and then up over Charing Cross bridge. Except, when we arrived, we realised that the restaurant had closed. A great shame. I’d had some of my favourite ever pancakes and delicious tarte tatin in there. But in an effort not to dwell on it, we realised that, as we were very close to the Strand, we would take a walk and find something appetising soon enough. After a few hundred yards, we happened upon the Strand’s branch of Leon. Something that was very much in its infancy when I lived in London and now seems to have popped up just about everywhere. We strolled in and sat down, my sister and I getting through a couple of their burgers, while Ania chose an aloo gobi with rice (after I’d explained what ‘aloo’ and ‘gobi’ were). It was a great meal, washed down with Sagres (Portuguese beer – ominous!) for us and a hard vodka cocktail for my hardcore sister.

After a meal and a chat, the lack of sleep and travel-based exhaustion was getting to us and so we said our goodbyes to Fi and returned to our hostel and were asleep very quickly.

Morning broke in what seemed like a few seconds and we leapt out of bed, eager to begin the new day (and positively starving). We rushed out to the main street, wondering where we might find breakfast on a Sunday in the heart of the city. Almost nowhere, it seemed. Pretty much every restaurant and café was closed. We walked up the road until we stumbled upon the master of evil – McDonald’s. We went inside and ordered breakfast and I rapidly began to realise that while McDonald’s is never a particularly fantastic option, Ania was experiencing the opposite of what British people experience when they visit a McD’s abroad. Namely that the menu is less expansive, less imaginative and generally less good. Anyway, the coffee was decent enough and it didn’t cost us much. So we ate our underwhelming breakfasts and set off for the day.

Thanks to my sister’s working for the Merlin group who run almost everything in London, tourism-wise, we were able to go and ask for a Thames sightseeing cruise free of charge. Not bad at all. We crossed the river at the Millennium footbridge and walked down the embankment towards Waterloo and the boarding point for the cruise. Once again, somewhat miraculously, the weather was pretty excellent. We took in some lovely views as we made our way.

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We didn’t have to wait very long for our boat. It came along, moored up and some VIPs boarded before the rest of us. We made a bee-line for the front/back rows and took our seats. We quickly set sail and were entertained by spectacular views of the ever changing Thames landscape and also by a quite witty guide, who pointed out titbits of information I’d never heard as a resident of London, such as the origin of the boat on top of the Royal Festival Hall and a few other things. Ania also pointed out that the VIPs were none other than Penelope Cruz, her husband and children. I was largely unmoved by this information, but there we go. The boat basically sailed all the way down to the Tower and back again. these were some of the highlights:

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Once the cruise had come to an end, we disembarked and I asked Ania what she wanted to see on this, our last day of her first visit to London. The first mission was the Queen’s house, Buckingham Palace. From Waterloo, there’s no better way to get to it than going right through the heart of Westminster, so we set off across Westminster bridge, taking in a variety of sights on the way.

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What the devil is the London Necrobus? Anyone?

 

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He was a friendly little fella. Though my lack of nuts (no pun intended) curtailed his interest.

 

Walking through St James’ Park on a crisp, sunny winter’s morning reminded me strongly of the time, as an 8-year-old that my brother and I were chased on multiple laps of the pond by a small army of violent geese, hell-bent on our destruction. Fortunately, this day was much calmer and we instead enjoyed the sound of the non-goose birds chattering around the place and small squirrels begging for peanuts from passers by (and often getting them). As we came to the edge of the park, the splendour of Buckingham Palace appeared in front of us and, in spite of its rather ugly architecture, it was a treat for Ania to see it in the flesh. We stopped to take some photos and then headed out across Green Park to take in Piccadilly Circus, the next stop on our tour. A short stop on the way in Pret for a sandwich lunch, led to the discovery of a new addiction for my girlfriend – ginger beer. That most British of drinks which is totally unavailable, at least in our region of Poland was a bit of a mind blowing experience – and rightly so!

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After Piccadilly and so on, we headed past the Sherlock Holmes Museum and London Zoo over to Camden, where I used to live a few years back. Here we met a friend of mine at the ever busy lock. At the 3rd attempt we managed to happen upon a bar with a free table where we could sit and drink a coffee and have a good catch up (after about 3 years!). The final stop on our long and winding route was, mercifully, taken on a London bus. From Euston station out to Stoke Newington, where we were greeted by one of my closest friends who led us off for a top class fish and chip supper (with ginger beer). We stuck around, laughing and joking on Stoke Newington High Street, having a pint – Ania trying her first “real” cider and being quizzed by the locals about why we live in Poland, and so on. After a couple hours there, it was back to our hotel and to bed before the next day’s early flight to Lisbon.

Waking up at 5 is always a horrible task, never more so than on holiday. Luckily for me, as there’s no hope for my face, I don’t need make up or anything like that, so I slept for an extra hour while Ania got ready. But at 7, bleary eyed, we went out to the mini market on the edge of the City Thameslink station and bought some cinnamon whirls and coffee to sustain us through the pleasant train journey to Luton. Almost the instant the train left London though, the rain started. It was going to be a seriously grey day. Still, we arrived at Luton with 2 hours to wait for our flight. We sat. We watched. We talked and, finally, we boarded and took off to our next destination.

Adventures in Greece Part 3 – Naxos and Back

As the ferry began to dock in the port at Naxos, we made our way down the series of steel stairs to the disembarkation platform. We walked out into what was now scorching sunshine and took in the vista of the Sanctuary of Apollo on a hillock to the left, the castle and old town straight ahead and the beaches, sweeping off into the distance to the right. But before any of that, there was a huge hubbub of people coming to meet loved ones and friends, pension owners coming to greet those without accommodation with offers, and traders, here to collect things brought over from the mainland. The day before we left Athens, I’d received an email from Stavros – the proprieter of our hotel – offering to come and meet us at the port, so we looked out for signs for “Pension Irene”. We couldn’t see him anywhere. We found some space to one side of the throng and put our bags down for a moment. About to take out my phone to call him, I suddenly spotted a very neat feature of the harbour – a WiFi enabled covered area, with touchscreens that you could use to find the addresses, phone numbers and photos of the huge range of accommodation on the island. Not only that, you could make a free skype call from the booth. I was seriously impressed. I called through to Stavros and he answered quickly, asking where I was. I explained that I was in the Skype booth and he was, naturally, 2 metres behind me. I turned, walked over and shook his hand, introducing myself and Ania. We walked over to his mini van and dumped our bags on the rows of seats at the back. We hopped in and sat down. We moved perhaps 5 metres before he turned to us and said “you may as well walk. In this traffic, it could take an hour to drive to the hotel. I’ll bring your things to you later.” He gave us directions and a leaflet, complete with a map and off we went. We walked through a gap in the gleaming white buildings and along a winding road in the direction he had pointed us. Here, on the map, there were 2 roads. In reality there were 4. It was about to get a bit sketchy.

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We consulted the map and, eventually, agreed on a route. Readers of previous posts to this blog will know that this was the wrong direction. It did however, allow us to get a good look at this side of the island. We found the football stadium (not premier league standard) and the general hospital, which looked like a not particularly impressive shed and made a mental note to avoid injury and illness at all costs, while here. We also saw countless classic Greek island picture postcard views, like this:

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After stopping in a couple of shops and asking for directions with our quite misleading map, we found our hotel’s sister hotel and then were driven around to our home for the next 3 days by the kindly owner, who found our confusion quite amusing. As soon as we arrived, I left Ania to organise herself in the room and went off to pay for our stay. Immediately after I had, the hotel owner’s mother came after me with some cold ice creams for Ania and I. It was a really nice touch and we ate them right away, after so long out in the sun trying to find the place.

After we had gathered our thoughts and taken the weight off of our feet for a while, we decided to go out and explore the local area. Our hotel was on a road which backed straight onto St George beach. This is the second most beautiful on the island, according to Trip Advisor, so we decided to go and take a look while we still had the afternoon sun. It was quite busy, with a variety of watersports and sunbathers covering the soft sand, in front of a line of fairly low-key bars and restaurants, creating a relaxing, welcoming atmosphere.

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From here, we had already decided we would walk back into the town and across the port to the “Portare” – the gate of the Sanctuary of Apollo, which was said to be wonderful at sunset. So we walked back along the beach towards the old city. On the way we saw some interesting sights, starting with this strange fellow.

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After this, we walked along a wide stretch of bars and cafés, brimming with mainly Greek tourists enjoying beers or freddos and chatting with their family and friends in front of the harbour, still crammed full of active fishing boats, the fishermen hanging up octopi to dry and carrying bulging nets of fish to the awaiting restaurants. We continued past the port and on to the stretch of land where the Portare was. Before you arrive at the Portare itself, you have to walk across a thin strip of land at the edge of the port. You can get right down by the rocks at the edge of the water and there is an ancient statue of someone. Sadly, there’s not much of its face left intact, so you can only try to identify it by virtue of its boobs. I had no idea.

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After this and walking past several bathers enjoying the water, you get up close to the great doorway and see what an impressive sight it is, as is the view back to the town and the port. We spent a good hour sitting on the rocks, watching the sea crashing in and the boats coming and going, as the sun sank lower and lower toward the horizon.

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From here, it was time to finally grab something to eat, as we were starving, so we stopped off at a relaxed little pizzeria on the harbour’s edge and ate pizza and drank Mythos as the sun went down. It was a great first afternoon and evening on the island.

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The next day began late, after a breakfast of pastries and coffee in bed (I went to the cafe at the end of the road, like a true gentleman). After this, we decided it was time to check out the best beach – again, according to trip advisor – on the island. So off we set on the bus journey, 15 minutes or so, through Saint Anne’s beach, Paradiso beach to Plaka. As soon as we arrived we could see that it was, indeed, more beautiful than the others. Finer sand, more space, calmer sea, it was a beautiful place for us to relax.

We claimed a spot, got out the suncream and got on with the business of sunbaking (thank you Australian students for this wonderful term!). We alternated between sitting, some light swimming and the obligatory burial of the girlfriend in the sand. She kept smiling and didn’t kill me afterwards, so it must have been fine.

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After a few hours of mucking about there, we were a little peckish, so we walked up to a nice little café opposite the beach and ate some Greek salads with feta and Naxian sour cheeses. Both were superb and washed down with a bottle of coke. After we ate, we decided to explore a little further down the beach, where it was a bit quieter. So we did just that. We found a beautiful spot and sat down on our towels. Just at that moment, Ania gave me a sideways glance and smirk crossed her face as she said “can you see that?”. She was referring to the naked man to our right. This part of the beach was a nude area. Gripped at first by a wave of my Britishness and almost gesturing to go back down to where we were previously, I took a hold of myself (not literally) and decided we should take a “when in Rome” approach. So we stripped off and made sure everything was suitably protected from the sun and, pretty soon, realised that there was less gawping here, than there had been in the bikinis and shorts area. It was all quite comfortable. So we spent an enjoyable time in our first nudist experience and, after a few more hours of bronzing, dressed and headed back to find a bus. It was at this stage that I remembered I had not really put any sunblock on the tops of my feet. This in a place where the sun had been blazing down all day long at temperatures of around 38 degrees. Already I could feel the skin tightening and it was only going to get worse. Nevertheless, I got on the bus smiling from a day well spent.

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The next morning, I realised that my feet were in fact like 2 giant red steaks. I was sure they would drop off at any moment, at which point I would have to sell them to a restaurant and spend the rest of my life hopping around on my ankle ends. This was not something I was looking forward to.

When I woke up the next day though, it turned out that I had been exaggerating, which is most out of character for me. But cheerfully, my feet were burned and suffering a bit, but not beyond repair. As Naxos is an island with an awful lot of beach and not an awful lot of anything else, and our plans for these 3 days revolved relaxation together, we went to the beach. This time St George beach, opposite our hotel. I worked out an ingenious way of protecting my burnt feet from getting worse:

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I’m sure I looked positively hilarious to all passers by, or like I had some kind of utterly unfathomable form of OCD, but the important thing was I didn’t burn and began to feel better.

The following day though, I really didn’t feel like spending time sunbathing. 2 days was quite enough for me, so I picked up my camera and did some climbing on the rocks, while Ania stretched out on a secluded stretch of beach. We only had 5 hours until our boat was due to leave, but I still managed to see some terrific sights.

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After all this wandering, there was only time for a quick souvlaki back at the Relax restaurant and an ice cream in the shade before we got back on the boat. This time, rather than the “every man for himself” experience we’d had on the way to Naxos, we’d been forced to pay an extra 3 euros for airline seats, due to a lack of availability of economy seats. When we found our seats, we wondered why the premium was so small. Row after row of lazy-boy-like faux leather armchairs, fully reclinable and with deck windows, this was going to be a much more comfortable journey.

This was just as well, as when we arrived back into the port of Piraeus at 11:30, we had been unable to rebook our fabulous hotel from our first stay there. No, we had had to book another, similarly rated hotel, on the other side of the marina. ‘How different could it be?’ we thought, as we crossed the road and began to walk slightly uphill, along the marina walk. We took a left and then a right onto the street where our hotel was located and there, before us were two not-particularly-upmarket looking prostitutes. Fortunately, you could smell their perfume from so far away that it wasn’t hard to avoid them. They walked towards us, as we carried our bags, with fully drunken smiles on their faces. I felt pretty sorry for them, if I’m honest. We found the hotel quickly enough and walked inside. The place seemed ok, and we bundled our things into the lift and went up to our room on the 3rd floor.

While Ania was smoking on the balcony of our room, she noticed a titty bar across the way, which looked as run down and depressed as the hookers in the street. It was a surprise, as it was so close to where we had stayed before, where everything had seemed so pleasant. We decided it didn’t really matter as we were here only to sleep before our flight the next day. In the morning we rose, got breakfast at a nearby store and then jumped on our bus back to the airport. There had been so much to take in, so many things we had seen and experiences we’d had. It was a truly fantastic week and Greece is certainly a place we’d return to. Now though, our minds were already turning to the next adventure.

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