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:

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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:

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Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 4 – Kandy to Polonnaruwa

I woke up on that final day in Kandy, not because of the gentle guitar music of my phone’s alarm, but because of a profoundly disturbing wrenching in my stomach. Here I was on day four of my Sri Lankan adventure and, somehow, I had managed to get an upset stomach. After twenty minutes in the bathroom wondering whether last night’s admittedly delicious biryani had in fact been worth it, I ventured down to the kitchen, first to have some tea. That stayed down ok, so I made some dry toast, which didn’t stay down ok at all. So today was too be a non-eating day then. Four hours on a public bus meant that trips to the bathroom were a total impossibility. I took an Immodium pill and a quick shower and crossed my fingers. I jumped into a tuk tuk and enjoyed one last look at the lake, as we tore around the bends to the Goods Shed bus station. This was to be my first Sri Lankan bus ride and, having seen them drive, I’ll admit that I was more than a little apprehensive.

Sign writing, even in this tourist centre of Kandy was limited and, mainly, in Sinhala, so I decided to walk up the first bus I could find and ask him where the bus for Polonnaruwa was. He told me I needed to go to Habarana and change, and gave me the number of the bus and the general area in which I’d find it. He didn’t even ask me for money. Perhaps, stomach problems aside, the day was going to work out well. I found my bus and dropped my rucksack in the large luggage holding rack, next to the driver and then dashed to the most disgusting public toilet I had ever encountered before the long ride. I came back, took my seat, paid the conductor a very reasonable 170 rupees for the 3 hour journey to Habarana and, armed with only a bottle of water and a book, we set off.

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As with the trip to the botanical gardens the day before, I was really struck by the urban sprawl of Kandy. I’d say it was more than an hour before we were beyond the suburbs and out on the open road, slicing through the mountains of the hill country in a north-easterly direction. The really disappointing thing was the level of rubbish. One thing that I really can’t overstate about travelling in Sri Lankan cities, in particular, is the level of rubbish. Every river and stream, every patch of grass or copse, is absolutely full to bursting with plastic bags, cans, bottles, clothes and more. The acrid smell hangs in the air above every waterway and in and around the city, naturally, it’s worse than anywhere else. Who is to blame for this is open to debate. Of course, people should be more careful with their rubbish disposal but, as someone who didn’t want to add to this problem, even in city centres of metropolises like Kandy, I often found myself walking around for upwards of two hours with rubbish in my hand or my pocket before finding a bin to put it in. There is certainly a lot of blame to be left at the door of the government.

After that hour had passed though, we were out on to the main road towards Dambulla, somewhere I’d have liked to have stopped, given more time on this trip. The scenery at the roadside is stunning and I barely switched off my camera for the majority of the three hours. Aside from the roaring 8 litre diesel engine of my bus and the beeping of the horn as we passed other traffic, the hill country surroundings were beautifully quiet, the views spectacular. I was bitterly disappointed as we tore past the golden Buddha in Dambulla, that I was unable to get a decent shot with my camera. We stopped just after the midpoint of the journey at a place for buying refreshments. I took the opportunity to wash my face of the sweat and exhaust fumes that had been blasting me through the open window decided to risk something to eat, as my stomach was positively growling. As we left, I scoffed my tea banis and, mercifully, my stomach had no bad reaction. The Immodium had done the trick, it seemed! Another hour on the road and we rolled up in Habarana.

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At Habarana, I left the bus and had to wait all of about three minutes before the connecting bus to Polonnaruwa showed up. While I had boarded the bus from Kandy at the starts point and had thus got a comfy window seat, near the front, this time I was boarding a bus from Mannar, with 75% of its journey complete. I had no choice but to stand. The fact that I, as well as five or six other people, were standing did not change the driving methods of the driver at all. I quickly realised that the best place for my camera and my water bottle was on top of the narrow luggage rack along the top of the cabin and that my best chance of not falling out of the open door, just a metre away, was to hold on with both hands, and perhaps pray to the Hindu pantheon, classily lit with the equivalent of Christmas lights in the panel above the driver’s head.

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Evidently, my prayers were answered and just one hour of holding on for dear life later, I clambered off of the bus, feeling awake and invigorated by the ride. Possibly also with a couple more grey hairs. Clambering down from the bus with my rucksack, I was immediately approached by a local fellow. He thrust a card under my nose and asked if I had accommodation for the night. I didn’t. But I had a guidebook with a lot of recommendations I was planning to follow up before I decided on anything. The guy said all the right things, a good price, breakfast included, double rooms, he would drive me to the guest house in his tuk tuk, arrange bike rental for the temple the following day and, crucially, that if I wasn’t happy, he’d drive me back to the bus stop to find another place. My instincts were acutely bombarding me with warnings, but I decided to go and take a look. I was totally winging this leg of my trip, anyway!

The best guest house I stayed in Sri Lanka for so many reasons!
The best guest house I stayed in Sri Lanka for so many reasons!

To say this decision was vindicated is like the saying the invention air travel was ‘quite important’. The owner was an absolute hero. Contrary to every other paid accomodation experience I had, before or after, on this trip, he didn’t try to rip me off at any time and was genuinely helpful. Arriving at the guest house, just under a kilometre from the bus pickup, he showed me to my room which was immaculate. It had a ceiling fan and a large standing fan, as well as an adjoining bathroom with – shock horror – hot water. I could have cried. There were just four rooms, all of which had wooden doors one side and glass doors the other, covered by a curtain and with simple patio furniture outside facing on to a huge rice paddy, opposite. My next door neighbours were a Slovenian couple, who had already been there for a night and who were going on a bike ride around the lake, just up the road. The owner offered me the use of a bike for free, should I promise to pay for the rent of the bike for the day, the following day, when I went to the temple. As I was planning to do that anyway, I happily agreed. Before he drove the three of us back to the main road to collect the bikes, he informed me that he was cooking a range of food, with mango curry as the centre piece, including a cooking demonstration, for four hundred rupees per person (about 2.50 euros) and asked if I would be interested. Seeing as the cost of such an experience elsewhere was reasonably priced if under 50 euros, I happily accepted his offer.

Back at the main road, I jumped on a fairly well maintained, if ancient, bicycle and followed my new Slovenian companions round a corner to the left and up a shallow incline to the edge of the lake. I make no exaggeration in saying the lake is huge. Large enough to have pretty strong waves, which some brave or mad locals were rowing through in long, overcrowded canoes, in spite of the signs all around in English, Sinhala and Tamil warning of death if you go into the water. We passed a group of kids and teens swimming in a canal, while the older women of their families washed their clothes in the water. It looked like a lot of fun. We rode around the lake perimeter, stopping at a beach that originally looked to be made of shale, but which was in fact just thousands of empty snail shells. Following this we came to an unguarded section of the ancient temple complex – giving me a taste of what I was to see the next day – the bath houses. These were very ornate and still in remarkably good condition for their age. Finally, we rested by the water’s edge and watched the sunset before returning to the guest house.

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Being this far south, by the time we got back to the guest house, the golden sunlight had almost given way completely to darkness. We retreated to our respective rooms for a quick shower and returned to find the owner waiting to start the cooking. With a huge stick, designed for exactly this purpose, he reached up to the tree hanging over the terrace of the guest house and picked three green, under-ripe mangoes, explaining that they had to be at this stage in their development to cook them. We went to the small kitchen at the end of the hotel, where we were furnished with the familiar, large 600ml bottles of Lion lager and watched as he prepared a mango curry, cooling green beans in a milk sauce – a recipe I’ve been making myself as a curry accompaniment for years! – and a mustard heavy potato curry. He had already prepared rice and dhal. My companions and I were a little bit alarmed at the quantities of salt and sugar going into the dishes. At one stage, we even asked if it was perhaps too much. The owner flatly denied it, of course. The proof of any meal is always in the eating and, too much sugar and salt or not, it was some of the best food I’d eaten on the trip at this stage. Not to mention the kind of huge portion where I could only just finish the lot.

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After we finished stuffing our faces, we briefly chatted about where we live, where we were going next in Sri Lanka and, before long, we were all exhausted and ready for some sleep. The real beauty of the vegetarian menu was that, even though I’d eaten bucket loads of food, I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all and was soon in a deep sleep in my extremely comfortable double(!) bed. We’d agreed to wake up at 8:30 for breakfast and so my alarm was buzzing in my ear at 8:15, after a solid 8 hours of completely uninterrupted sleep. Evidently, the free breakfast was never going to be as good as the dinner which we’d paid 30% on top of our accommodation for, but it was always good to get a free, hot breakfast, especially just before a long day’s cycling around a huge temple complex. Sometimes, it’s great to be wrong. As soon as I opened the wooden door of my room, the smell of spicy coconut hit me and, sitting at the table, I was presented with freshly brewed coffee and asked if I wanted rice or hoppers. In my 5 days in the country so far, I’d yet to experience hoppers, so hoppers it was. Hoppers are bowl shaped rice pancakes. They are somewhat gelatinous in texture, and the idea is that you spoon whatever your filling is into them, roll them and then eat them with your hands. We had more of the previous evenings dhal and minced coconut infused with chilli as our fillings. I tried both fillings alone and finally together, deciding that the combination of the two was the best option. It was about as terrific a breakfast as I’d have in Sri Lanka. Once breakfast was done, I said my goodbyes to my Slovenian neighbours, took a shower and then grabbed my bike.

The ride from the guest house to the temple involved quite a lot more time on the main road, after picking up one’s ticket near the lake I’d visited the evening before. Riding down the margins of a single lane road while huge, diesel fume spitting buses and trucks roar past you and each other for even a kilometre is quite a daunting experience, I can tell you. Even though the sand made it tough going, I decided it was best t be well into what narrow hard shoulder there was. Curving around a right hand bend, I waited patiently to turn across the traffic and into the entrance of the temple complex. The first thing you come to is a shrine, where pilgrims still make offerings today. Indeed, this is the case through much of the temple.

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From the first shrine, I leapt back on my bike and rode perhaps another 500 metres before finding a much more large scale set of sites. Here, there was a large offering temple, still signposted by the Buddhist authorities as a sacred place and, again, still very much a centre for offerings. Next to this was a chamber which once housed the ancient kings of the site and a large circular structure with highly detailed, beautiful elephant carvings at all entrances, along with beautiful Buddha statues throughout. Making the whole experience even more entertaining was the huge family of monkeys invading the site and generally causing a commotion. There was also a group of Sri Lankan architecture students who were studying the historic architecture of the nation here.

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After clearing this little section and reading countless plaques, well translated into English, about the site, I realised two things. Firstly, that I’d been here for 45 minutes and seen perhaps only 10-15% of the site so far. It really was a huge place. The second thing was that I really needed to get something to drink, as my water bottle, which I’d brought with me from the village, was running out fast. Fortunately for me, between every major group of remains here in Polonnaruwa, there is a small encampment of resourceful food and drink sellers, as you’d expect. So I stopped at the next one, parked up my bike and went and sat in the shade, where I polished off a king coconut to rehydrate and grabbed another water bottle to take on the next stage of the journey. It was quite a stage. I cycled for about ten minutes, before coming to a turn off to the right, that most people seemed to cycle right past on their way to the next big site. The result of that was that I had a small offering temple, with a small, stupa style domed roof to myself. I can’t say I was disappointed. Less than half a kilometre from the main track, the blanket of trees between this and the rest of the tourists meant that it was absolutely silent. Around the back, there were also more offerings. It was a really beautiful shrine.

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This small hole in the gate, so you could view the offerings, had a lovely effect.

I jumped back on my bike and rode back up the shallow incline to, probably the most impressive area of the temple complex. Next was the area with the towering stupas. Nothing could really have prepared me for this. As you ride down the slope into the area where the stupas are found,to your left there is a grassy area filled with the foundation level remains of the cells in which the Buddhist monks of the site would have slept. They are small and numerous and it’s very interesting to walk around and see just how little they were concerned for their own comfort. After wandering here, you reach the bottom of the hill and then next 40 minutes or so is just one stupa after another, of a scale you can’t really appreciate until you stand next to it. Pilgrims abound, circumambulating in a clockwise direction and stopping off in the many shrines to lay flowers, or to pour and light oil in one of the many offering lamps here. The final stupa you come to is an enormous whitewashed one, which is so eyecatching against the bright blue Sri Lankan sky. It’s hard to imagine that these structures have been here for 900 years and more.

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After the stupas, there’s just one more, very interesting double wall, behind all along which, on both sides, there are beautiful carvings. It’s very ornate and very well preserved.

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Despite looking seriously crappy, this bike served me pretty well all day long.
Despite looking seriously crappy, this bike served me pretty well all day long.

For the final stage of the temple site, I rode along the pink bricked road, around to the left until I came to a path beside a lake and here, I saw a trail of people snaking off into a green pasture. I followed and, having had my last portion of ticket checked and ripped by a tourist police woman, I saw the reclining Buddha appearing in front of me. Once again, countless offerings of flowers and burning oil had been made. It’s a very impressive sight and, despite my gripless shoes, I climbed up on to nearby rocks to get a good shot.

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From here, I made the bicycle trip back, perhaps a kilometre and a half along the main road to my guest house. I paid my host an unfeasibly small amount of money, when I considered the standard of the accommodation, the food, and the help he had given me along the way. As if to make the point even more clearly, he dropped me off at the bus stop in his tuk tuk and helped me load my luggage on to the bus as it arrived. From here, it was back to Habarana and then another change to take myself off to Trincomalee and a bit of beach time. Polonnaruwa, though, would live long in the memory.

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

SriLanka

Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 3 – Kandy Part 2

One of the best feelings in the world is waking up in a warm place, with a cool breeze, and just a hint of the morning sun kissing your face. So it was, in my corner bed in the Kandy City Hostel, with the fan above me keeping me cool. I peered through the veil of my mosquito net to see that my room mates were already awake and tapping away on their phones. It was time for breakfast. My suggestion was greeted with universal agreement and we headed off downstairs in our pyjamas to eat. Breakfast here was a more than substantial mix of boiled eggs, toast with a variety of jam and/or chocolate spread, fresh pineapples and bananas from the garden and tea or coffee. The coffee was pretty suspect looking, so I stuck to the tea. We sat around, eating, drinking and chatting about what today would bring. As luck would have it, Tom, my Australian room mate, was also keen to go to the botanical gardens, which was my plan. We were also both curious about the tea museum which the Lonely Planet guide had (unreliably, it would turn out – more on that later!) informed us, was very close by.

So, after a shower and dressing, we asked Anthony, the excellent housekeeper of the hostel, to get us a tuktuk to the botanical gardens with one of his friends, to ensure we got a reasonable price. Within 10 minutes, we were hurtling through the long, sprawling suburbs of Kandy, towards the main road to the south west. Some 30 minutes passed, we paid the man a very reasonable 600 rupees and went to find the entrance to the botanical gardens. We were charged a somewhat steep tourist price of 1100 rupees. The ticket seller handed us each a ticket and a colour brochure with information about the species in the garden and a map to the main attractions. The first of these that we found, though, was not on the map. About 300 metres into the garden along the winding path to the left, was a simple line of evergreen trees. But, in their competition for the sun, they had begun to grow in completely crazy, zig zag patterns. It made for a really dramatic sight.

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Just beyond these remarkably competitive trees, there was an attraction that WAS in the guide. A huge, sprawling fig tree. Supposedly one of the biggest in the region. Maybe the world. On the map it looked like a great monster. In reality, it looked less monstrous and, actually, decidedly uninteresting. It was a big tree, don’t get me wrong. But it was not the breath taking goliath we had been anticipating.

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After looking at the fig tree for a few moments and stopping for a quick drink break at a café, we decided to press on deeper in to the park. At the other side of the huge expanse of grass where the fig tree is located, there is a path fringed with huge, towering trees. Moving closer, we noticed the trees were heavy with huge, black, shadowy birds. Every branch holding 20, 30 or more. One took off and, as it swooped across the horizon, I said to Tom:

“Look at the wings of that bird. They’re just like a bat’s!”

After a short pause, and listening to the cacophonous screeching, I piped up again:

“Oh. They’re bats.”

Not my brightest moment in life. But sure enough, there were perhaps 10,000 of these huge fruit bats, hanging in the trees and taking turns to swoop from one side of the horizon to the other, creating a huge din. It was quite amazing to watch.

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Strolling on from here, we passed a wedding, with a truly stunning bride, dressed in an ornate red dress and then came to, botanically speaking, the most interesting thing in the garden. It was a collection of trees which were all part of one organism, with roots growing from various parts of a single trunk. The whole thing was very low to the ground and people were sitting on it, all around. From here, the path curled right to the river, where a flimsy, but quite fun, suspension bridge lurched out over the fast flowing water. The view along it one of trees as far as you could see. A welcome change from the extremely built up surroundings of Kandy itself.

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Back on the path back down the other side of the park, through the palmyra walk and so on, we walked past: first, a group of monkeys, playing. Next we saw huge cows, relaxing in the pasture and then a variety of wild dogs. Finally a host of couples, snatching a moment for a date in a shaded part of the park, away from the supposedly ever watchful eyes of parents, and so on.

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Finally, we went into the orchid house, where they had a quite impressive display of different types of orchids. Finally, we filed out of the garden and went to negotiate a price for a tuktuk to the tea museum. We went to the first guy and he quoted us 1000 rupees each way. We explained that it was nearby and that we had only paid 600 to get there, all the way from Kandy. After asking a second driver for a price, we realised something was up. Were we just being ripped off? They kept saying we had to go in to Kandy, then back out to the museum. But our book told us different. Finally, running out of options and totally lacking understanding of the situation, we resorted to Google maps. And there we saw it. The museum was the other side of the city, in a completely different location to that suggested by the book. Lonely Planet had let us down. With the huge increase in price, coupled with the cost of entering the museum and then getting back to Kandy, we decided to give the tea museum a miss and head back to the city.

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Arriving in the north part of the city, we were pretty starving, so as we walked past, I led Tom back to the Kandyan Muslim hotel, where he had the kottu and I tried something called beef Kabul. This is a roti bread, filled with stir fried spicy meat and vegetables. It is then toasted and covered in cheese, before finally being fried. If it sounds like a heart attack on a plate, it’s because it is. It is, however, delicious.

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With lunch dealt with and Tom heading off to see a man about some elephants, I decided to go for a walk around the large, open-air fruit and vegetable market. Halfway there, I walked past the fire station, where someone started calling out to me. A fireman beckoned me in and proceeded to show me all of the machines and engines, before finally trying to sell me a t-shirt from the fire station’s uniform cupboard, after his boss had gone home. It was a really nice design and I was tempted, but I realised that the replacement would likely come from tax payers’ money, so I thought better of it. After this I took a trip to the fruit market, which had a lovely courtyard in the middle, before sitting down in a café for something sweet – namely another soursop juice and a sweet ball, the name of which I don’t recall. Whatever it was called, it was delicious.

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With my sweet tooth sated, it was almost time for the Kandyan dancing show, so I made my way around the lake, to the Red Cross Centre. As I arrived, there were already a lot of people there, so I made my way to my reserved seat in the third row and waited for the show to begin. As I mentioned in my previous post, this is undoubtedly a show for tourists. But, as the man who presents the show points out, this show, in fact, preserves a number of dances which would otherwise have disappeared altogether from Sri Lankan culture. The shows inc=volved quite acrobatic dances of various kinds, with extremely elaborate costumes, and props involving spinning plates, weapons, masks and were all accompanied by live music. Afterwards, there was a fire show where men first showed their immunity to its power by rubbing burning objects on their skin and ultimately in their mouths.As a finale, the men also walked on burning hot coals. We in the audience were invited to gather round and, throughout the fire performance, you could feel the heat of the flames and the coals very intensely. It was all quite impressive.

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After this I went and met up with my hostel mates at a bar overlooking the lake for a few beers and to watch a bit of the ashes cricket. Pleasingly, in my Australian company, it was the first test in Cardiff and England were really taking the game to Australia, so I wasn’t open to too much abuse. After a pit stop for a biryani in the Garden Café – a really excellent biryani, at that – it was back to the bar for a few more beers, a good deal of chat with a whole bunch of travellers from far and wide and then bed, before leaving Kandy in the morning.

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

SriLanka

Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 2 – Kandy Day 1

It was 10:00 and with a sweet bread roll, called a tea banis in a bag and all of my other bags, I was standing on the platform at Colombo Fort station, waiting for my train to pull in and then to lead me up in to the hill country to Kandy, the former capital and still the religious capital of the buddhist contingent of Sri Lanka. I bumped into a couple of Australian girls who asked me where I was from, where I was going and how I had found Colombo. They were also kind enough to grab a photo of me before I set off.

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Within a matter of seconds of this photo being taken, a station manager came striding down the platform, telling us we should move to where our train was now waiting. We half jogged, in spite of all our belongings and I lost the Aussie girls in the crowd but, all importantly found my carriage and my seat. The train looked like it had been built in the 1990s – a huge leap ahead of what I had anticipated would be the norm on Sri Lankan trains. It had electric doors and, in my first class carriage, even air conditioning! I had paid for the first class ticket the previous day, simply so that I would have huge panoramic windows, as I’d been advised that this route was quite spectacular. The alarm for the doors beeped and it was time for me to find out. We chugged first through the suburbs of Colombo, of which there are many and the views were really quite unspectacular but, once we had started to ascend into the mountains, I was suddenly bombarded with visions of lush plains dotted with palm trees, mountains shrouded in forest canopies, and all this broken up with terracotta painted rural stations, with huge, full flowerbeds. I really started to feel I had got my value for money.

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After these stunning views and the interruption of a fair few tunnels carved almost two centuries ago through the mountains, we pulled in to Kandy’s train station and I collected my things to disembark. The station itself is a quiet, tranquil place and stepping outside in to the cacophonous chaos of the main road up to the city’s Goods Shed bus station is something of an assault on the senses. Hundreds of buses fly here and there in front of your face, mixed in with the usual floods of tuk tuks and the occasional ordinary car, while people stand on corners, peddling lottery tickets and fruit and passers by and tourists try to beat a safe path through it all. You definitely know you have arrived in Kandy. After soaking it all up for a moment, I managed to find a reasonably priced tuk tuk to zip me around the lake – the centrepiece of the city – to my hostel.

The Kandy City Hostel is located at the south east corner of Kandy’s lake on Ampitya road. It’s a really great place to stay and meet people. Beds are comfortable and clean, and showers are solar powered and so there is hot water – not something that is particularly common in budget accommodation in Sri Lanka! There’s also a really good breakfast of eggs, fruit, toast and jam, tea and coffee, etc. The lady that runs it is very friendly and knowledgeable and her housekeeper, Anthony, is one of the nicest people you can meet. He constantly tries to help you, be that by advising you on must sees in the area, or calling his friends with tuk tuks to make sure you get the best price for travelling around the city. There’s also a chocolate Labrador there, who is absolutely gorgeous. At this moment though, I simply ditched my stuff and went out to explore the city. First things first though – a man needs his lunch! Walking down the winding road to the lake, I saw what looked like the perfect place – a miniscule curry shack, very much not geared up for tourists. It was getting on bit – something like 2pm, so I wondered if they had any rice and curry left. Sure enough, they did, so I ordered one and the obligatory ginger beer. The price came in at a whopping 210 rupees – around 1.30 Euros. This was what I got for my money:

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This was a huge pile of rice, some kind of salad at the bottom left, which I never identified on this trip, but is delicious and surprisingly hot, delicious dhal with lemongrass, mustard seed infused potato curry, seeni onion sambal and a singular piece of fish curry crowning the whole thing. It was terrific and genuinely fiery. I ate the lot (without cutlery, this resulted in me having seriously messy hands!) and drained my ginger beer, before thanking the smiling proprieter and heading out to explore.

Stepping down from the bustling road to the lakeside in Kandy is a genuinely transformative experience. In a matter of moments, the roar of the traffic and the smoke from those dirty diesel bus engines is left behind and you find yourself wrapped up in the tranquility of the still water.

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From this corner of the lake, there was a path stretching up on to one of the hills above the city. I decided this would be a good chance to find a better vantage point. The path led steeply away from the lakeside and very quickly there was a hush, and the only sound was the wind in the tree branches all around – and the occasional tuk tuk whining its way up the hill past me. Reaching the top, I decided to stop off at a restaurant for a cold drink. With this view:

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With my  ginger beer – yes another one – finished, it was time to walk back down to the lakeside and see more of the city. On my way down though, I was stopped in my tracks by a gang of furry mischief makers. A whole family of monkeys were crossing the path, some carrying babies. I stopped to take a couple of snaps, but then quickly darted out of their way, not really wanting to give them the impression I was confronting them.I was later to see the same family of monkeys robbing the fruit traders in the market, which is a hilarious sight!

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Back at lake level, I continued around the perimeter, exchanging occasional conversation with locals who were out for a walk, or just reading at the lakeside. Eventually, I came to the red cross hall, where I was accosted about a Kandyan dancing show. I was in two minds about this. The guidebook had told me that these shows are very much tourist traps and prices are quite steep, but at the same time that this may indeed be the only way in which the dances, from all over the island, and carrying with them centuries of tradition, might be preserved in the long term. I decided to buy a ticket to return the following day. After the red cross hall, you come to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – a temple which is supposed to contain an original tooth of the buddha himself and, as such, a highly revered place. I was about to walk in and have a tour, when I was stopped by someone who told me to come back a little later, as, for the same price, I could go in to watch the evening “puja” offering ceremony. It seemed like good advice, so I kept on walking and noted the time.

On my way, I spied the iconic roundabout with the British colonial clocktower at the corner and my first sight of a Hindu temple in the country, with its highly detailed gate and the red and white candy cane colour scheme which would become such a mainstay of my time in the north of the country.

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With time ticking by, it was time to retrace my steps to the temple of the tooth. Arriving at the gate, I saw a man with a huge rooster sitting on the bench next to him. To this day, I have no idea what that was about. I paid my entrance fee and began to walk in to the gardens of the temple. the first monumental column outside the temple details the case of a Buddhist saint who was put to death at age nine and who didn’t even scream as she was struck with the sword, in order to show to her brother how to accept this awful fate with honour. A sad reminder of the violence that people have done, wrongly, in the name of their faith(s).

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I went to the internal gatehouse, showed my ticket and handed over my shoes at the “foreign shoes” counter. After that I was led inside by temple ushers. At first, you are bombarded by the sound of the drums, played by the ceremonial drumming monks, as they begin the puja. The atmosphere is extremely intense, with incense burning throughout the temple, and the noise of the drums echoing through the temple, the only light from hundreds of candles. After a few moments of watching the drummers, temple ushers motioned for me to join a queue on the stairs to go and witness the offering of flowers at a great long temple and then to have a brief look inside the chamber where the tooth relic is kept. Upstairs, the atmosphere was even more electric, with people chanting, placing flowers, oil and other things on to the offering table and everyone patiently waiting to have a look inside at the relic. This, sadly, is where the process became a bit disappointing. People in immaculate white clothing kept being ushered in before the patiently queuing people – a seeming express lane to view the relic. After this happened for the fifth time, I asked a Sri Lankan pilgrim next to me what was happening and why we had been waiting for so long without moving. He explained that wealthy Sri Lankan people were allowed to be fast tracked in to see the relic, rather than having to queue with the little people. The irony was not lost on me, of this happening in a temple to a religion which so specifically chastises the cults of wealth and possessions. So, while the temple was indeed beautiful and the ceremony, for the majority, a deeply, palpably spiritual experience, this information really did leave me with a bad taste in my mouth.

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Fortunately, my guide book had given me an excellent idea to remove that bad taste, and that was to try out the Kandyan Muslim Hotel. To say this place looks a bit crappy is a huge understatement. But the food here – and particularly the kottu – is exceptional. This was the first time I’d been here, and indeed the first time I’d ordered kottu, so while I knew what it was, I wasn’t really sure how it would actually work. Kottu is pieces of chopped roti bread, fried on a hot plate with whatever filling you ask for and a variety of fresh vegetables and spices. I asked for the beef and cheese and it was a great choice. Steaming chunks of spiced beef, with melted cheese oozing all over the place, amongst spring onions, chillis and other vegetables. On the side, I had a cup of milky tea. It was excellent, cheap and largely made me forget the odd set up in the temple. With the clock ticking towards 10 I returned to the hostel, where I bumped in to some other guests: Tom, an Australian on his big Asian trip and Grace, a British Sri Lankan girl exploring the country of her father. They were great people and some that I’d spend considerable time with over the coming days. But for now, it was time for bed.

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

SriLanka

Adventures in Sri Lanka Part 1 – London – Doha – Colombo

So, back in November last year, as my birthday arrived and I found myself at 35 years of age (physically, if not mentally) I started to do a bit of introspection. One of the first things that popped into my head was that, of all my travels, which have taken me around much of Europe and a fair few places in the northern part of Africa, none have ever taken me into Asia proper. Sure I’d been to Anatolia in Turkey, but it’s a distinctly European nation, particularly until you go into the more Kurdish areas in the east, which I’ve yet to see. And, with my love of the spicy cuisines of much of south Asia, it seemed pretty silly and like something I should correct as soon as possible.

The result of this was sitting at 4pm, inside a Qatar Airways Boeing 777 at Heathrow’s terminal 4, waiting for the off. My journey – as it was the cheapest route – was an afternoon flight to Doha, a quick overnight in a hotel there and then a lunch time flight the following day, in to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. After the usual Heathrow delay of about 40 minutes, we were off. The flight was remarkably calm and I’d been told to expect a lot of Qatar airways’ service and they didn’t disappoint. Even back in the terminal, they’d had porters to do the job of taking my rucksack to oversize baggage, so that I didn’t have to carry it myself. The food on the flight was excellent and the selection of film and TV was above par.

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Landing at Qatar’s relatively new Hamad International was quite the sight. The runway juts out into the water, with it’s amazingly clean lines of glass and steel everywhere making it into a hugely aesthetically pleasing place. The service culture was in evidence again as, almost every 10 steps you took, there was a Qatar Airways staff member waiting to help you, should you get lost or need help. I went through security, quickly got my transit visa and jumped in a cab to the centre, where my hotel was. My cab driver was from Kathmandu, Nepal and spoke quite openly. First he mentioned the recent earthquake, in which he had luckily not lost any family members and then he went on to speak about life in Qatar. He pointed out that, as a migrant worker, he doesn’t have the same rights as Qataris in the country, but that he still feels his life is much improved relative to how it was in Nepal, and also that he has a sense that the current mood, amongst Qatari people as much as the millions of migrant workers in the country, is one with an appetite to change that and to make life better for them. I hope he’s right. Arriving at my hotel at just after 1am, I found my room and went straight to sleep.

I woke up with a spring in my step, partly because of the excellent sleep I’d had and partly because I knew I had an Arabic breakfast waiting for me downstairs. Sure enough, it was an excellent combination of flat bread, poultry sausages, omelettes, fried vegetables and a really terrific bean stew. There was also a few olives and a bit of white cheese. If it doesn’t sound like breakfast, then you really need to change your breakfast priorities. It’s terrific.

The Arabs know how to do breakfast
The Arabs know how to do breakfast

After breakfast, I decided to take a bit of a wander around my neighbourhood to see what was around. I also needed to get some Qatari rials for the reutn taxi ride in to the airport.Walking outside the air conditioned solace of my hotel, I soon realised that it was indeed 44 degrees centigrade at 9:20am. Ouch. So my walking around involved looking at some things outside, then finding anything I could that was inside to make use of the air con and alternating between the two. Sadly, as it was the height of Ramadan, it was all rather quiet and there wasn’t much to see.

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So with my money changed, it was back in one of the beautifully bright, air conditioned cabs to the airport. The road out of the city, which I hadn’t noticed the night before, runs right alongside the coast, and planes landing at Hamad International fly remarkably closely overhead.

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Once checked in, there was just time to see this dinosaur and then to board another 777 for another 4 hours in the sky.

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Service continued as it left off and, for airline food, my meal was once again quite excellent.

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So, at something after 10pm, local time, we landed in Colombo. Immediately everything was different. The tranquillity of Doha and the flight in was gone, the smells in the air were different and the sales models were questionable.

How do they make any money?!
How do they make any money?!

Also unusual was that duty free was crammed with white goods. Sure, there was a stand full of whiskeys and the like, but the majority of travellers were flocking to duty free fridges and washing machines. A new one for me. Passport control clearance was mercifully rapid though and, within a few minutes, I was outside and immediately bombarded by taxi drivers, tuktuk drivers, people selling tat and general crowds of people moving all over the place. My book – The Lonely Planet guide to Sri Lanka 2015 – had told me previously that buses to the city centre ran throughout the night. A good thing I’d checked as every taxi driver to whom I said I was taking a bus tried to tell me there were no buses at that time of night. Finally happening upon a military policeman, after several minutes of aimless wandering, I was shown to a bus – with air con, no less – which would take me to the city centre for less than 200 rupees – 1/6th of what the rather unscrupulous taxi drivers were asking for. I said goodbye to the airport’s statue of the Buddha and jumped on board.

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The 32km between the airport and central Colombo is completely consumed by urban sprawl from the capital. So the journey took a full hour and thirty minutes, stopping every 500m or so to let people on and off the bus. In the meantime we were treated to a video of a Sri Lankan stadium rock band, who played a mixture of their own songs and those of 80s rock bands like Queen, Europe and others. It was a surreal experience, but refreshingly other worldly, so I just sat back and took it in. It certainly made the time pass more quickly. Jumping out of the bus, I negotiated simultaneously with about 6 taxi drivers until one of them offered to drive me to Narahenpita and my hostel for less than 500 rupees. Once there I was, once again, dying for my bed and so just got my head down after brushing my teeth.

I’d managed to arrange with a really nice local lady to show me around the city. She would drive me around and give me the benefit of her local knowledge and I’d buy the food and drinks. It seemed like a good deal. So I ate my breakfast of toast and surprisingly decent coffee at my hostel and then went outside to meet her opposite the cricket ground. Within a couple minutes I was in her car and delighted that she had basically perfect English and already had places in mind to take me. The first stop was Independence Square, a monument created after Sri Lanka gained freedom from the British Empire. It’s an impressive monument, even if it does need some renovation and it is situated in a quite lovely park, which is remarkably calm, in spite of its city centre location.

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Behind the monument is an old colonial building. Originally built by the original British governor and later extended and converted, it’s since been turned into a luxury shopping and dining facility with high quality designer clothing and hi-fi stores, Sri Lankan and Indian restaurants and… Burger King. But it really has been kitted out very nicely with antiques and simple decor.

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After this small glimpse of modernity and colonial history in one hit, it was time to see something spiritual. Not Burger King, but the Gangaramaya Temple. It was a very short drive and, within a few minutes we were parked up outside and leaving our shoes with a shoe monitoring person, for a small fee. Here there’s no charge for locals and that for tourists is pretty small and it’s really worth a look around. My guide told me that the head monk collects any old stuff he can find to display there and it’s not hard to believe, looking at some of the display cases. Nonetheless, the complex is a fascinating place, with some beautiful stupas and a wall of seated Buddhas at the rear, mostly donated by Thai benefactors, I’m told. It’s an open, airy space, which you can walk around in freely, and likewise, birds and insects too fly around freely inside. There are also countless monks working on the upkeep of the temple and adding new fixtures, new effigies and so on and one we saw had a working elephant with him, carrying some logs.

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With the temple covered, I was starting to get hungry, so we decided to head across to the fort for a snack. Near the fort and the financial centre is an old Dutch Hospital which has been renovated into restaurants, cafés and the like. One such place was a tea room with a difference, offering sublime cakes and fruit juice and tea mixes that sounded really intriguing. I didn’t take much persuading. Parking up in the car park of the Kingsbury hotel where, strictly, we were not guests, we put on our best “posh folk” faces and walked through the foyer and up along to the old lighthouse and further to the hospital complex. I ordered a black tea and soursop soda. I didn’t even know what soursop was. I also ordered a red velvet cupcake, while my tour guide ordered a slice of death by chocolate and an ice tea with some interesting fruit elements. It was a little pricey by Sri Lankan standards, but my god it was good. The setting was also just about perfect, with big, comfy blue leather sofas, low tables and huge flat screen TVs showing – what else? – cricket.

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From here, it was a walk down the historic streets towards the fort train station. We passed the financial district, with it’s huge, cylindrical towers of the Bank of Ceylon and others, various huge British era warehouses, converted into hotels and restaurants and, just on the edge of the Islamic quarter, the place we’d decided on for lunch – The Pagoda Tea Room, the place where Duran Duran recorded the video for Hungry Like the Wolf, back when I was a fresh faced young lad. The place has hardly changed, but I resisted the temptation to flip the tables on to the floor, unlike Simon LeBon, and I was grateful for the lack of snake charmers. We asked what was left of lunch, as it was getting a bit late, and were offered vegetarian curry or chicken lamprais. The lamprais was recommended to me and so I plumped for it. It arrived and was a huge portion of diced chicken, some vegetables and rice, wrapped in a banana leaf. It smelled fantastic. I asked if the small portions of red, onion rich paste dotted around were spicy, as I put a little into my mouth and discovered that yes, seeni sambal is indeed very spicy. It was an excellent meal and I was staggered to be charged only about five euros for both dishes, along with soft drinks and cups of tea afterwards.

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Looks dreadful, but tastes delicious!

With tea gone, we strolled down the old shopping street, stopping off at the famous Cargill’s food mart to buy some essentials for my trip – toothpaste and the like. The buildings are wonderfully preserved and there are some hilarious placards with messages that are entirely other worldly on them.

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With the toothpaste bought and the early sunset – 6:30pm, as it’s so close to the equator in Colombo – we decided that all that was left to do was to walk back along to the Kingsbury and get a seat and a cocktail in the sky bar and to watch the sun go down over the famous Galle Face. Which is exactly what we did, before I hurried back home, to be ready for the morning train to Kandy.

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Throughout my stay in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily on my Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can get hold of your copy, here:

SriLanka

A First Taste of the North (and then a second, third, etc)

It’s probably clear from the various contents of these pages that I have what you might call a healthy interest in food. Some might call it a gluttonous obsession, but let’s save the character assassination for another day. While scrolling down my Facebook feed a few months ago, there was a list of “Pages you might be interested in.” Typically, the majority of these were for mail order Russian brides, some god awful musicians that would make me feel quite ill and there, shining like a beacon on the right hand side, was Street food fest. It’s a new concept here in Portugal, but one which I expect will expand rapidly, if this first example is anything to go by. Of course, on any of the big bustling street corners of downtown Lisbon,you can find stalls selling churros or farturas, but this idea of a whole festival devoted to street food is something new. I immediately decided I would go and clicked the little ‘like’ button.

Being someone who takes a half cocked over enthusiastic approach to things, I naturally didn’t bother to look into exactly where the festival was until much closer to the date, whereupon I discovered it was up near a port city called Figueira da Foz. A bit of quick research taught me that it was easily accessible from Lisbon and that a coach departed at a convenient time, right after my colleagues and I finished our Saturday morning work. Ideal. Accommodation was booked opposite the festival, bus tickets were reserved, and I – along with a couple of food appreciating colleagues – were to be off.

The day came and, speeding from my school on the metro to the bus station at Lisbon’s Sete Rios (opposite the zoo), we boarded the very comfortable Rede Express bus, and off we went.

REDE Express

The route north out of Lisbon was lovely. The roads relatively new and tolled, meaning that there was little traffic and I was able to nap for much of the journey. The rest of the time was spent looking at the lush green countryside passing by, birds of prey soaring in circular patterns, and the interesting looking medieval town of Leiria, where we made a brief stop off. After a few hours, we were dropped off at Figueira’s bus and train station. We were almost there.

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Leiria and its medieval ruins. I'll be back here, for sure.
Leiria and its medieval ruins and old town. I’ll be back here, for sure.

At home, I had been sufficiently convinced by google maps that the destination for the festival, Quiaios beach, was within about 3 – 5km of Figueira itself. So we took out some cash at a petrol station and hurriedly hailed a cab. Some 20 minutes of speedy cab ride later, and we were rounding the last corner into the dusty drive of the Quiaios parque campismo. We walked in to the park and found people busily cleaning up reception. A lady called Sofia was extremely helpful in humouring our ill-formed Portuguese, before deftly changing to English as we were about to hit a brick wall. She showed us to our rooms, in a narrow hotel block which were unglamorous, but perfectly good for the asking price of 25 euros for a twin for the night. Across the way there were some odd looking toy town style houses, which we all admitted we’d rather be staying, but such is life.

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With our bags dropped and our faces freshened, it was time to walk back down the dirt road to the food festival itself. Inevitably taking a wrong turn, we ended up on a long stretch of road alongside the beach, where we realised just how close to the mountain range Serra da Boa Viagem we were. Very close indeed.

Serra da Boa Viagem

After a bit of self-correction and a couple of turns, we found ourselves at the fest. It was already quite busy with people and a brass and drum band was playing pop songs in an upbeat and amusing way. The ambience was right, now time for the food. We started off with what turned out to be my favourite stall of the weekend – Sustainable Street Food. These guys were all about making high quality, fast food, with a limited menu, but providing a balanced meal in each case. Between us, we got through the vegetable fava – a curried twist on a famous, old fashioned Portuguese meat and bean stew, a deluxe prego, which involved marinated steak, rocket leaves, homemade chutney and shave parmesan on artisan bread and the veal rib sandwich, which involved chilli, rocket leaves, marinated veal met from between the ribs – extra tender, creme fraiche and a good squirt of extra hot pepper sauce. All three were excellent. This was all washed down with very cheaply priced Super Bock beer or a morangoska in the lady in the party’s case.

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After a pause to gather our thoughts, it was time to find out what was next. We considered a burger. We thought about a wrap. We even looked longingly at Porto chips. But then we came across a hot dog stand with a sign saying “cachorro francesinha.” The francesinha is a Portuguese sandwich that involves steak, ham, sausage, chorizo, cheese, bread, beer and meat or fish based sauce, a fried egg on the top and a second plate for chips. It’s so much that I generally only allow myself one every three months or so. So I had to ask what was in it. It was:

A hot dog, chopped chorizo, chopped bacon. The bun was then forced to close in a panini press, before cheese, and francesinha sauce were added. Finally, there was a tray with a space for crispy onions and finger chips. Clearly, we had to eat it. It was delicious, and made me feel like I would certainly live a few days less for the experience.

Francesinha hot dog - a beautiful way to die.
Francesinha hot dog – a beautiful way to die.

After that beast, it was time for a break from the eating, so we took a walk, with some more beers, down to the beach. It was a little cloudy, but it was clearly a really beautiful stretch of sand. The proximity of the mountains to the sea meant that cloud was constantly rolling down from the peaks to the beach so that, even on a fairly warm summer’s day, you could find yourself walking in cloud on the beach.

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Returning to the food fest, without our appetites restored, we stood by and watched as a local man proposed to his girlfriend with the help of the band (she said yes) and prompted uproarious applause and joyfulness, which coincided rather nicely with the opening of a stall ran by a man called Master Gin. Not wanting to take claims of mastery for granted, we dashed over to see what he could do. We each had a different gin, with a different accompaniment and all three of us were very happy. It was very dark by now, and we sat, listening to the music from the DJ, talking, sipping our gin drinks and eating chocolate iced orange love cakes from a vegetarian bakery until it was time for sleep. More accurately, it was time to listen to the mating call of frogs in the area for about an hour and then sleep.

In spite of the frog orgy, I managed to get an excellent night’s sleep and woke up to find a cool, crisp, but sunnier day, and we quickly sped off to the festival site to find some breakfast. The festival was closed til 11 though and, an hour short of that time, we decided to stop in the nearby café bar and deal with our breakfast needs. Galãos were drunk, pastries were eaten and time was passed until the festival gradually came back to life. After a brief hiatus, we returned to have a go at the gourmet burger van, Mister Pig. We scoffed our way through a burger with cheese, bacon, ketchup, mustard, excellent bread and some salad. After that, we decided to go back to the beach for a walk in the sunshine, after the previous day had been fairly gloomy.

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After a good hour of walking down this lovely, deserted beach, we moseyed back for one final meal, me going for a country chicken taco from the first van of the weekend, while my companions opted for the oat based cheesecake. After that, it was time to head back, so we called a cab and made the journey back down to Figueira da Foz. Once there, there was an hour before the guys got their bus, so we stopped in the station café for a beer, where the lovely barmaid was really helpful. Then, after the guys left, I went for a look around the town. I got the impression it’s quite an industrial town, from the heavy machinery in the port and from the real absence of people walking around on a Sunday. It took me half n hour to find somewhere to buy a sandwich!

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With my sandwich eaten and time winding down until my bus back to Lisbon, I had time to think about the weekend as a whole. One of the guys who was running the street food event had told us that 3 stalls had had to leave on the first day, as they had completely underestimated demand and sold out of everything. In spite of the quite remote location, it had turned out to be a really great event and, one can imagine, it would only get bigger for the second iteration in 2016. There is also a sister festival, with a lot of the same sellers, which takes place in Estoril, very close to Lisbon. Whichever venue, it’s a really nice day out and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on next year’s program. You can find more information about the festival (in Portuguese) Street Food Fest.

And, just as I was about to close this adventure without seeing a single cat, I ran into this little beauty (left) and was then photobombed by his friend.

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Tavira – The ‘Other’ Algarve

My first weekend off work in almost four months, so what on Earth was I doing not just out of bed, but in a train station at 8:00 on a Friday morning. Of course, it was time for another adventure. I don’t know how it happens with my readers, but whenever I go to a train station and need to buy my ticket from a human being, I invariably have to wait for my 50 second transaction by people who take so unfeasibly long to get through their business, that I imagine them asking questions like: “so this train, what’s that?” or “which is quicker..?” and then producing a list of 40 or 50 different options for their journey. But anyway, with a couple of minutes to spare, I made my way to the front of the line, submitted my simple request – to the salesman’s relief – and headed up to platform four or Entrecampos station to wait for my train.

More or less bang on time, the Alfa Pendular to Faro rolled in. It was to be my first time on this, the flagship train of the Portuguese network. Even at that ungodly hour and with limited coffee propping my eyelids open, I was fairly excited to jump on board. I pretty swiftly found my seat, got settled with my magazine and we were off. The train took off, speedily charging through Alcantara and sweeping out across the 25th April bridge. I gave Lisbon a wave goodbye and by a quarter to nine, we were speeding through Setubal and onward to the south.

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Owing to the raft of people who didn’t know how to interface with a ticket office, I’d been unable to buy any refreshments for my journey before boarding and my experience of such disasters on British trains had taught me that I was in store for an unpleasant and expensive pseudo coffee and water which cost more per millilitre than molten gold. Thankfully, this is Portugal and for only 3 Euros, I returned to my seat equipped with a decent cup of coffee, an orange juice and a bottle of water for later. I got comfy and read my magazine, occasionally glancing out at the countryside roaring past my window or left, up to the LED speedometer, informing me of our rapid rate of advance – often around 235kph. In what seemed like a very short time, we rolled in to Albufeira and, finally, Faro.

The last time I’d been here, I was 9 years old. On my first family holiday abroad, landing at the then still quite new Faro airport and staying in the British micro colony of Praia da Rocha. It had been lovely as a 9 year old boy, sunshine, scorpions (which I cruelly poked with sticks at every opportunity) and warm(ish) sea. But in retrospect, it was something of a hellish vision. For all the beauty of the beach, with it’s starkly cut rock-grandeur and the mildness of the climate, it was exactly the kind of Brits-abroad chicken burger fest I was hoping to avoid. So this time, I jumped off the train and took my extra 26 years of wisdom on to a train east. To Tavira.

Inifinitely less finessed and filled to bursting with (mainly) Portuguese tourists, our ageing little train pulled out of Faro station within a matter of minutes and started the gentle stroll along the coast, hugging the water as it went. As if a metaphor for the slower pace at which every element of life chugs along here, in the heart of the Algarve region, no-one – myself included – seemed to mind the trains slow and steady progression through Olhao, and other places, finally stopping off at Tavira. A large handful of us jumped off and, with a quick consultation of my map, I was off down a street named after a doctor, towards the heart of town. A leisurely 10 minute stroll, and a couple of beautifully flowered squares later, and I was buzzing my way in to the Tavira B&B.

A quick chat with the owner, a quicker change out of my jeans – it was a full 10 degrees hotter than Lisbon – and I was out and off to a recommended local restaurant to try some fish. I was, after all, on the Mediterranean/Atlantic coast. I found myself in the Avenida restaurant. Described to me as being just like it was 30 years ago, it seemed like it was a restaurant from 30 years ago, whcih was just fine with me. I ordered some bread and olives to start and my travelling companion ordered a plate of mixed grilled fish, while I had octopus and vegetable stuffed pancakes, simply because I’d never even heard of such a combination before. The olives were obviously local, the main courses excellent and the bill, considering we were now well and truly in tourist country, during the Easter weekend no less, was more than acceptable.

With lunch done, it was time to wander a bit. Tavira is a really tiny place and consists of just a small few streets on one side of the river, with a further few across the other side. With much of the old town on the side nearest the station, I decided that was the best place to explore first. At the bottom of the main road into town, you are abruptly stopped by a pedestrian zone, which backs on to the river. In the middle is a column, with a water feature to one side with cafés and restaurants dotted around. It’s from here that, if you bear left, you can walk up one of the oldest streets and find the old castle.

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Beyond the stairs, you end up at a community culture centre, where an enthusiastic woman came out to tell me, in beautiful English, about the programme of culture and music they had for the weekend. I thanked her for the information and walked on up a narrow street of near identical whitewashed buildings, but for one with a door with a cute piece of street art on it. Every now and then a glorious view would peek at you from between the buildings on the left, as you got higher up over the city.

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Reaching the top of the hill, I saw that there was a camera obscura here. While unable to take any photos inside, for obvious reasons, it was a really nice thing to do, especially as I’d never been in one before. I found myself regularly forgetting it was a live picture of the city, projected onto the lens in front of me and then, as a person moved, the realisation hit me squarely in the face again. The lady giving the tour also a slightly vicious way with the cane she was using to point to different landmarks, so I made sure not to make too much eye contact. The other really nice thing about it was that it was set up inside the old water tower. A great way of utilising architectural heritage in an effective way.

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From here, I wandered the streets at the upper end of the city, looking for the way in to the castle. When I eventually found it, I was quite amazed to see that the entire centre coutryard had been turned into a beautiful flower garden. There were several men at work even as I walked around, keeping everything pristine, and I’m really not sure that any of my photos do any of the flower beds justice. I was also able to climb up various sections of the battlements – no British-style health and safety here, folks – and the rugged nature of the ruined parts, destroyed like so much in Portugal in the great earthquake and tsunami of 1755, was quite a sight.

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Love the sentiment, but that grammar... yuck!
Love the sentiment, but that grammar… yuck!

With the castle fully inspected, it was time to cross the Roman Bridge over the river and to take in the views from the tallest building in the city, the only high rise hotel, which had been recommended to me by the cane wielding woman in the camera obscura. As the only multi storey building in a city of duplexes and bungalows, you might fear that the Porta Nova hotel would be something of a monstrosity, but happily enough, it’s quite elegantly put together and sits behing much of the riverfront property, on a little plateau, so it doesn’t look too bad at all. I walked in and sat at the pool garden bar out the back and had a beer before the cocktail bar on the roof opened. When it did, I jumped in the lift and made my way to the 10th floor, for a quite breathtaking view over the city.

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After a few minutes of staring out over the horizon, I went back down and walked through the town, past the Roman bridge and the huge Irish bar opposite, past some really interesting architecture, including one huge, arched building, of which all but the facade has completely caved in.

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After the walk, I was beaten. So, suffering with a cold – always during the holidays!!! – and having woken up stupidly early, I retired for a nap. In the evening, I went to a Portuguese Goan restaurant, ordered the firiest thing on the menu to chase away my running nose and beat a hasty retreat back to bed.

Friday started with two pieces of excellent news. The forecast cloud cover existed only in my weather app’s imagination and my cold had indeed been beaten into submission by the brute force of chilli and ginger. I went out onto the B&B’s lovely terrace for breakfast with a smile on my face and tucked into my melée of cheeses, hams and breads, washed down with Algarve orange juice and powerful coffee. After a quick shower and remembering to put my swimming shorts under my regular shorts, it was off to the town and the trip to the beach. A quick covering of sunblock, making sure my book was in my bag and I was off.

Tavira is a city where the beach is actually somewhat disconnected from the city itself. The river flows all the way down to a small inlet of water that sits behind a small ‘island’ which separates it from the sea. The easiest way to get there is to board a ferryboat at a pier, just along from the Roman bridge, next to the old fish market, now a food hall for artisan local cuisine. But as I arrived, there was some commotion. The boat, it seemed, was not running, other than every 2 to 3 hours, as it was not yet high season. So it was a 2km walk down to the jetty, where boats still left every 15 minutes or so, even at this time of the year. At first it seemed like a hardship, but the pleasant weather, sea breeze and the chance to get a closer look at the thing that Tavira was originally founded for – salt mines – made it quite an enjoyable walk.

Salt has been mined here using much the same methods for a couple thousand years
Salt has been mined here using much the same methods for a couple thousand years

Arriving at the jetty, after a 30 minute walk, I bought my ticket for the unbelievably low price of 1.50 Euros and boarded the waiting boat. I watched a crab acrobatically climb along a wooden pillar belonging to the pier at water level while the boat filled up with other tourists and then we were off. The short glide across the still water to the island was quick and before long we were at the huge beach island, dotted with huts and small houses which people from far away evidently used as holiday homes.

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Jumping off the boat and wandering through scrubby pathways among the trees, I saw a huge number of these little holidays homes and, after a few minutes, passed by a row of restaurants and cafés, before coming to a huge stretch of beach. Way down to the right was the beginning of the national park – the Ria Formosa – home to a huge number of northern Europe’s migratory birds during the cold season – but before that was an enormous stretch of beautiful sand. I put down my towel, read my book and relaxed, just what was needed. I also afforded myself a wander, a very brief splash in the freezing cold Atlantic water and a lunch at one of the grill restaurants – at less than 20 Euros, including a huge caneca (mug) of beer, not bad for a resort town. There are also a couple of attractively painted lighthouses, dotted along the coastline. Despite the fabulous weather, there were surprisingly few people on the beaches. The lady who owns my B&B told me that the resort has become really choked during July and August in recent years, but in April, it’s just perfect for a relaxing break.

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After catching the boat back and finding something for dinner, I had a few drinks in a couple of different bars, mostly half full and not holding any tourists, due to the season. Eventually, I found a hugely lively place, full of locals, playing Pink Floyd loudly and filling glasses with whatever you wanted for very little money. It was a great, friendly atmosphere, in spite of my limited Portuguese. I sadly can’t recall seeing any sign for the name of the place, but it was just along from the bridge, on the castle side and was certainly the night life highlight. Before I knew where I was, it was 3am and I was just 7 hours away from my bus to Faro, to connect with my train home and it was time for bed. But for Tavira and I, it was definitely not good bye, but more “See you later”.