Castles in Alentejo – Part 2 – Estremoz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If you’re planning your own trip to the Alentejo region, take a look at the Rough Guide to the area for Kindle, here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christmas With an Old Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 6 – Vavuniya

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

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

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

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“Bubees” – seriously?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

Tomar – The Last Templar City

When my friend told me he was visiting from Poland for a weekend, at the beginning of March, I was delighted. When he went on to tell me that he would be spending a day and a half of the 4 day visit at a teaching conference and that I would have to entertain his girlfriend -not like that! – I felt inspired to think of something interesting for us to do. So, after a bit of brain work, and remembering that she is from a wonderful medieval city, in which I used to live, Torun, Poland, I decided it would be pretty nice to take us off to one of Portugal’s many well-preserved medieval cities, Tomar.

So, with the sun blazing in the sky and the clock moving gently towards 10:00am, we found ourselves gazing out along the tracks at Lisboa Oriente station, waiting for the train to Tomar.

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Within a few minutes, we were comfortably sat inside one of the large carriages of the inter cidades train and heading north, along the banks of the Tejo, upstream and out of the Lisboa region into the area called Ribatejo. We passed a number of towns I’d heard of, but was unsure of the location of, such as Vila Franca de Xira and Santarem. And lots and lots of agricultural land. A relatively short hour and fifty minutes later and we rolled gently in to the tiny station at Tomar.

Tomar Station

Looking around the station, it looked pretty unremarkable. Like any other sleepy small town, bathed in sunshine on such a nice day. There were cafés and cake shops, as per any Portuguese high street, but no signs of the rich history I was anticipating. Luckily, the moment we walked around the side of the station building, we caught a glimpse of what awaited us. The palely coloured stone walls of the castle gleaming down from high on the hill above the town. It was time to investigate!

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We crossed the road and then made our way along the gently inclined, dusty streets and past the match museum (at the time I thought it was strange, but matches were a nationalised and protected industry in Portugal until the 70s!). As our path snaked around to the left, we found ourselves at a small roundabout. To our right were 2 different paths, one leading up to the castle and one leading in to the heart of the old town below. But we decided to take the gate to our left. Here there was a beautifully topiaried park, guarded by a bronze statue of one of the prior rulers of the area. We decided to go inside and take a look around.

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The park had a real air of spring about it and we took a walk along side the hedged area to the next enclosure, where we spotted a route to the right, climbing up the hill which, we suspected, might lead us to the castle. It also had a sign saying “fonte de sangue” – fountain of blood – which was sure to be interesting. So we set off along the dirt track, between the trees on one side and lower ground to our right. We began to feel very pleased with ourselves when we came up to the castle walls and we continued walking alongside them, waiting for the entrance to appear.

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Except it didn’t. Instead, we found ourselves at a dead end and needing to find a way to cut across from the raised castle mount, down in to the old town. Defeated, at least for now, we decided to have lunch first and then make a renewed attack on the fortress after lunch.

So, descending the tree covered track to the road, we wove between the higgledy-piggledy old buildings until we came to the main market square of the old town. there were cafés and restaurants scattered around, but first, we had to take a look at the old church. It was a quite stunning building, with a very interesting clock.

We ran into this little fellow on the way down to the square
We ran into this little fellow on the way down to the square

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Coming out of the church, we couldn’t help but be struck by the impressive and overbearing view of the castle, high above the town square. So it was time for one more picture and then to try out the medieval restaurant.

Tomar Square

I’d read some reviews of the Taverna Antiqua restaurant and, it seemed they were producing local food in alignment with medieval recipes from the region, in a medieval themed restaurant. As this was a thoroughly medieval day out, we decided to give it a go. Arriving and finding that the weekday lunch menu costed only 8 euros for olives & bread, a main course, a drink and a coffee, we were happy with our decision. Everything was served in earthenware and the staff were very helpful, and even assisted me with some Portuguese phrases. We ate açorda with fish. It’s a dish that’s very traditional to the region – and Alicja was very keen to try local specialties – where bread is torn and reduced to a thick liquid-ish kind of thing. Vinegar and coriander are added, along with the meat or, in this case, fish. It’s very much a love it or hate it dish. I love it and, fortunately, so did she!

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With the caffeine rush of a café pingado invigorating our minds after lunch, we decided it was time to make the climb up the castle mount and to take a look at this, the last home of the templars, before they were declared heretics by the Vatican and unceremoniously removed.

The whole town has an atmospheric feeling about it, with narrow streets, orange trees adorning even the most modest gardens and terraces and stone stairs, unevenly cut, acting as cut-throughs from one level to the next. Within a few minutes, we were most of the way up to the castle track.

Tomar Stairs Tomar Castle Entrance

Walking through the gate, we found ourselves in the front courtyard. A wide, open space of gravel, with the stern wall of the first battlements to our right, broken up only by a single orange tree and then a pattern of elegantly cut trees to our left. Tiled benches were dotted around, adding to the decoration and providing a spot to enjoy the gardens and the first spring flowers were blooming along the line of the wall, overlooking the lower level with defensive features, to protect the castle from attacks from the south west.

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From here, we walked down to the pentagonal tower, where the entrance to the castle is now situated. We paid our very reasonable 6 euros to get in and began to look around. Almost around the first corner, just after the laundry courtyard, we were confronted by a wall of tiled arches, in absolutely perfect symmetry, the afternoon sun shining in between them. This was followed by an interesting burial stone, marking the tomb of one of the great people to have lived here in the castle.

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After this, we turned back inwards, towards the heart of the castle and the holy area, known as the “Convent of Christ”. Amongst the Templar knights, guarding the castle and it’s treasures, lived a whole order of monks, with two entire floors of dormitory rooms, for different levels of status. The main worship area was the Convent of Christ. Even as an atheist, it was hard not to be impressed by the fine artwork at the heart of this place. First you walk into a hall, full of calm, and from there, around into the throne room, where the highest ranking knight in the castle would have sat with his lady and then, directly opposite, was the immaculately painted and sculpted, pillared image of the crucifixion, surrounded by saints and with kings and nobles around the outside. All this set below some truly spectacular vaulted ceilings. It’s certainly one of the finest examples of Christian art I’ve seen on my travels.

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After this, we walked out on to the roof area, where we could glimpse the famous madeline window and the views from the castle roof, as well as the extraordinary detail on the roofing and towers.

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From here, we made our way to the exit, stopping at the castle’s café for coffee and cakes and then we made our way down the curved hill to the centre of town. We stopped for a brief moment to see the hermitage, which was once a particularly isolated part of the castle community. It seemed quite isolated in one sense, but held perhaps the best view out over the town. From here, looking down over the city, we decided to head to the park and to take in the last remnants of the sunshine with a cold beer. So we strolled down, found a supermarket and made ourselves comfortable on a bench.

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After a beer and a good chat in the park, and after the sun had finally gone down, we decided to take a final stroll along the old medieval bridge, and then back through the old town to the train station, where we picked up a pao de chouricou for the journey and jumped on to the train. It was a really worthwhile day out and definitely somewhere I’d recommend seeing if you find yourself with time in the Lisboa or Ribatejo regions of Portugal.

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An Alternative Look at Berlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A curious street art sculpture
A curious street art sculpture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To England! (via Kraków)

The school year has ended which, for the European EFL teacher, tends to mean that there is a need to go back to Blighty. This is part will to see family and friends, part the culmination of a whole academic year of withdrawal symptoms from “proper” bacon, and the largest part, because you have to work in a UK based international summer school to make your modest salary stretch for the year. It ain’t glamorous, but it’s the reality. Now, as those of you familiar with the city of Bydgoszcz will know, the city is a simple, short Ryanair sardine can flight away from London. But, on this occasion, I decided the best route was via the overnight train to Kraków. This is not simply because I’m a madman, but rather because I wanted to see a band who were playing there, and catch up with a friend.

So it was that on the 28th of June, I packed up all my worldly junk (that I couldn’t leave behind) and climbed aboard the late running 7:30pm, 9 hour train to the old capital of Poland, Kraków. Spotting the sleeping cars as the train pulled in, I jogged to the front of the train with my 20Kg of personal affects. Of course, there was another sleeping car at the back, where my bunk was located. After a brisk walk past 17 carriages of TLK express train, I finally found myself at coach 41 (don’t ask about the numbering, the coach adjacent to it was number 4!). I climbed on and fished out my printout with my berth number on it. I got to the door of my bunk, popped my head in and found a 40 something Polish lady. “Dzień dobry!” I greeted her. She looked a little flustered and asked me if I was aware that I’d be sharing my cabin with 2 women. I was pretty confused. During the online booking process I had been asked 3 times to state my gender, to ensure that exactly this kind of thing couldn’t happen. I used my best Polish and my most emphatically apologetic facial expression to tell her that I was sure this was not supposed to happen, but that if they didn’t mind, I wouldn’t make a fuss, or be any trouble to them. With a big smile, she assured me it was no problem and I hefted my luggage onto the shelf near the ceiling of the cabin.

Within moments a small train attendant had appeared behind me and began speaking to me in lightning fast Polish, advising me that I was to sleep in a different cabin. I said ok and began to fetch down my bag. “Deutsch?” he asked me. “Nie, jestem Anglikiem” (I’m English) I replied. Nevertheless, he had decided the way forward was to talk to me in German from here on in. He showed me to a cabin, with an older gentleman, who was settling down with a huge sandwich and a can of beer on the pre-bed-arrangement sofa of my new cabin. As I walked into the cabin with my rucksack, the two forty-something women made crying and kiss blowing actions in my direction – perhaps it had been a lucky escape after all! I greeted my travelling companion, ditched my bag on the same roof-level shelf, and then went to the window to wave goodbye to my lady.

We set off quickly and the old fella began to explain to me, in Polish, with gestures (this guy could definitely be a language teacher!) how to assemble the bed, how to use the magical sink in the cupboard and that I got one free cup of tea or coffee, to be taken at the time of my choice. He also thrust into my hand a pre sealed bag with a complimentary towel, soap, ear buds (I can’t use these any more – doctor’s orders!) and some other general looking-after-yourself paraphernalia. ‘This is alright,’ I thought to myself, sitting down and tucking in to my own large sandwich. After my sandwich, rueing my decision not to grab a beer, as the old fella supped his cold Kasztelan Niepastoryzowany, I ordered a tea from the efficient little train man, which came with a strange toffee croissant. Naturally I ate it, in spite of the strangeness. After a few hours, not long before the train was due to arrive at Łodż, around 11pm, my companion helped me fashion the sofa back into a second bed. We unrolled our ingenious roll-mats with pre-prepared bedding and each went off to different bathrooms to brush our teeth. We came back, got into our beds and switched out the lights. The bed was remarkably comfortable and I remarked to myself internally that I would be able to get a good amount of sleep. And then he started snoring. In my life, I have known and shared hostel dorms with a variety of snorers, some relatively quiet, some louder than a brown bear with no lunch. This fellow beat them all, and also beat the sound of the train engine as it whistled through level crossings in the Polish countryside. If I said I had slept for 2 hours, I would be hugely exaggerating.

When the knock on my door came at 4:45am and the still-cheerful conductor put his head round the door to tell me we were approaching Kraków, I felt like I had been at a festival for 3 days. Sleepless and with zero motivation to move myself anywhere. But, not wanting to end up in some distant mountain village, I dragged myself up and out to the door, with my belongings. It was an overcast, fresh morning in Kraków, but I decided that the first priority had to be finding a coffee. Standing, gleaming in the booking hall of Kraków Głowny was a Lavazza machine. I ordered an extra strong cappucino from the machine and went to sit in the waiting area with 4 travellers and about 35 tramps. I sipped my coffee while I watched successive security guards walk around in circles, tapping sleeping homeless people every time they dropped off to sleep, to wake them up, occasionally asking if they were train travellers, to which they of course gave the pre-planned lie “yes, of course.”

Once the coffee was gone, it was time to dump my things at my hostel. I wandered across the square in front of the big, old station through a haze of fine rain and then through the underpass to ul. Westerplatte, where my hostel was located. I walked in and helped the sleepy attendant find my booking on his computer. He advised me that my bed would not be available until at least 12pm, so I duly left my belongings and, with only my camera, I crossed the road to the walled garden park and decided to attempt to find breakfast.

On arriving in the main square, I found the place almost totally deserted. I passed a group of German or Austrian guys who were on their way from a club to a kebab shop, in a stagger and then, naturally, I heard – from a full 80m or so away – the British party troop striking up with a verse of “God Save the Queen.” I can’t help but think that Liz would not have been impressed. Finding that nowhere was open for breakfast, I tried to focus on the positive thing, that I was all but alone in Krakow’s main square on a Saturday in mid-summer. So I decided to make the most of the opportunity and took some tourist-free photos.Image

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Finally, when I thought I was just going to have to join the pigeons and sleep in the giant head sculpture, the scourge of modern food – McDonalds – opened its golden arched doors and I rushed in to request still more coffee and any kind of bread-filled-with-pork-products that they saw fit to give me. I stuffed my face thoroughly and read the day’s news on my phone. By the time I was finished, it was 9am. I had wasted a lot of time, very effectively. But I still had 3 hours before I could get my head down for a nap. So I wandered some more, happening upon new sights (as you always tend to in a city as littered with them as Kraków is!) One of the most beautiful was the coutryard at the front of this convent. Strangely located amongst a whole raft of basement dancing clubs, it still managed to have a certain order and peace about it.

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From here, I went back into the old town and found a cafe where I could order a vat of coffee and charge my telephone, which I would need later on. I sat and quietly read, and drank and forcibly held my eyes open. At 11:30, I returned to my hostel, paid for my stay, put myself in a horizontal position and had a very deep 2 hours of sleep.

I woke up fresh and decided that the best thing for it was a late lunch/early dinner at my favourite burger restaurant on earth: Moaburger. Those who know me in real life will know that I am on the mailing list for their burgers of the week, even though I live 600km from the nearest restaurant. It’s fair to say that I like this place. I went inside and had the week’s special burger – beef tandoori, with a spiced patty, Indian salad, a slice of fresh fried onion bhaji and a side (bucket) of chips. I filled my face and drank an ice tea and, finally, felt ready to go to the concert venue. I went to see Solefald – a truly insane Norwegian avant garde metal band. They didn’t disappoint, in excellence or weirdness. I met a couple of really nice and interesting people from a tiny town in the mountains, who were at the show and spent time with a friend. All in all, a great night. I meandered back to my hostel at about 1:30am and crashed into a deep, satisfying sleep.

Waking up on Sunday morning was one of those glorious times where, after a sustained period of shattering tiredness, you finally feel rested again. I got out of bed, showered, shaved and felt like a human being, as I sat down to breakfast in the hostel. I decided that today I was really going to do some exploring of the city, in particular the eclectic, eccentric Jewish quarter. So, after breakfast, I packed away my things and left the hostel with my camera. I had been looking at the map and realised that one of the places I had never seen properly in my previous visits to Kraków was the huge Wawel castle. Time to correct this situation. So I walked to the end of ul Westerplatte and veered right to the huge red brick building. As I came down the side of the entrance and main tower, I managed to get a few photos.

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Just around the corner from this tower (beyond the 24 hour fast food joints, opposite) is the mighty Wisła river (Vistula). This river really is everywhere in Poland and here it strikes a great curve along the edge of the castle itself. On the riverbank, next to the Tourist Information Centre, are some advertising hoardings but, in keeping with the castle theme, they’re all in the shape of turrets, of various colours. It’s a nice effect.

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A little further along the bank, past a market of touristy junk stalls is a “rock dragon”. It really does look quite authentic and potentially quite scary but, on this occasion, the toddler climbing on it detracted from the fear factor.

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After the dragon and passing the southernmost turret of the castle structure, I walked on down the main path to the boundary of the Jewish quarter. As you turn in, you realise that the polish of the old town is absent here. Everything is a little more run down, but the place feels so much the better for it. The view that greets you as you enter via one of the main streets is a great example:

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But once you’re here, you find yourself in a world of interesting graffiti, quaint antique cafes, people with stupid hair (I’m a fine one to talk!), communist relic cars, and so much more. It’s a vibrant lively place and, despite the sense you get that things are in a state of some disrepair, you can’t help but be moved by the charm of the place. You’ll also find some of the best food and coffee in the city. So it was that I parked myself at this cute little cafe (that seemingly has no name).

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What a great, atmospheric place it was; piping out French 1920’s cabaret music with a host of interesting pieces of (unmatching) antique furniture. The coffee was also excellent. From here, I just wandered, taking snaps where I could, trying to capture some of the essence of this fascinating place.

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I had decided to resist the extraordinarily tasty zapiekanka in the Jewish quarter this time. This Polish classic – simply cheese and mushrooms on sliced, baked bread, with a variety of mouthwatering toppings – is a real specialty here. I had tried it on my last visit and been left salivating about it in my dreams for weeks. But this time, I wanted to go somewhere different. So it was that, opposite the New Square, amongst all the hubbub of the secondhand clothing market, I found a window spot in the intriguingly library-esque Alchemia. Specialising in street food, I ordered some meatballs with a flatbread, salad and tatziki and a cold glass of Książęce Ciemne Łagodne, for me one of the best black beers around. I sat and watched the goings on at the market while I ate.

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The food and drink were superb and I decided, after this, to head back into the city. As always seems to happen when I’m going anywhere, I found this little fellow watching me from a window.

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Just as I was nearing the old city, my phone buzzed and one of my colleagues from Toruń had got in touch to tell me she’d be arriving in Kraków that afternoon. So I hurried back to my hotel to get in touch and arrange to meet.

By the time I got hold of her, she was already ordering food at a restaurant. As a bit of time had passed by since lunch, I decided it would be a good idea to join. So I went along to Sioux and ordered some kind of chicken and bacon kebab thing. The important thing here was the inclusion of two different types of dead thing. Delicious. There was also some salad.

So we sat on the edge of the rynek, ate well and discussed life, her time in her new job in Opole (just north of Kraków) and her impending CELTYL training, which was starting the following day. Having done it the previous September, I felt able to pass on warnings and scaremongering about mountains of work and relearning everything you though you knew, etc.

From here, we moved on to the House of Beer, one of my favourite pubs in Kraków. I like this place, not only because of the exhaustive selection of beers, but also because it’s 2 streets back from the rynek and yet manages to have a beer of the day (Piwo dnia) for 5 złoty, which really is an extraordinarily small amount of money and it will usually be something great. I also felt, as Ann was to spend 2 weeks here, it might be best if she know about this great beer emporium. After another hour or so of chit chat and a couple of swift pints, we decided that we should probably head back to our respective accomodation. She was up early for training and I was up early for the airport. I headed back to the hostel, feeling like I’d had a great day and seen a lot more of the city. Within 15 minutes, I was snoozing.

The alarm started buzzing in my ear a little too soon for my liking and the four beers of the previous night had left my head feeling a little heavy. But, surprisingly quietly, I got my things together, showered and disappeared off towards the station, picking up a pastry and a coffee on the way. I got on the futuristic (by Polish standards) train to Kraków Balice (where the airport is) and sat down ingesting pastry and caffeine. I immediately started to feel much better. On arrival at the airport, after just 20 minutes of super smooth travel on one of PESA’s finest locamotives, I grabbed a bottle of water and joined the huge queue for Easyjet’s bag drop. It seemed that I was travelling to London on the same day as the “indoor hard court bicycle polo” squad. Apparently that’s a thing. It was too early to either attempt to figure out, or ask what the hell that meant.

I got aboard the plane with the relative luxury of a pre-reserved seat (a new time saving policy by Easyjet, which is just brilliant!) which had me near the back of the plane, by the window. Once in the air, I switched my phone on, opened my Kindle app and started reading. I had a cup of tea from the in-flight service people and was having a great flight. As we came in towards Southend to land, I even spotted the offshore windfarm, which made for quite a sight.

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Sadly, this was where it all went a bit wrong. The “Fasten Seatbelt” signs came on for landing, so I belted up and waited. We came down over the sharp coastline and all was well until, just after the captain had said “Cabin crew, seats for landing,” we began to climb at a rapid rate. Lots of tannoy announcements about how normal this was followed, until finally the captain came back on, to announce that a flock of birds had been spotted seconds before landing, which could have caused critical damage to the aircraft. He hoped they would move. Evidently I and all the other passengers hoped so too. Eventually, we landed smoothly and escaped unscathed, but I admit to feeling a little unnerved by the experience. What unnerved me all the more though, was stepping off the plane into a Great Britain soaked with… summer sunshine!

Summer 2012 – Adventures in Croatia – Part 3 – Adventures in Istria

Another early start greeted me and my companion but, as had been the case right from the off in Croatia, it was all made easier by the glorious blue sky and hot sunshine from dawn. We got up and headed to the bus station in Sibenik. We quickly found a bus and were back on our way up the coastal road to Zadar. I spent much of the journey giving Dave some tips about Zadar while we watched as another fire plane scraped gallons of water from the surface of the Dalmatian sea, to douse yet more forest fires which were raging inland. When we finally arrived, I walked with him to the heart of the city and used my google map to direct him on to his hostel. We shook hands and wished each other well, realising that it was a genuine shame that our paths had to diverge here. I looked at the boat schedule and found that I had a good three hours before my ship across to Pula. I looked around the city for a moment and decided that it was a good time to buy some postcards, and write them over a cold beer in the church square. I took one last walk down the main tourist shopping street, hoping to find a boutique with decent postcards. I quickly happened upon one and negotiated my way to a free tacky tourist pen, as I didn’t have one with me. I then traversed my way back up the street to the square, ordered my beer and wrote. DSC_0034DSC_0059   So, my postcards written and my beer drunk, I settled up my bill and wandered down to the port. There, ready and waiting, was my boat. I showed the guard my ticket and jumped on board. I found a seat quickly and took out my book and began to read. We left the harbour of Zadar just as that famous sunset was starting to creep in again and travelled smoothly through the Dalmatian Sea, with countless islands either side of us. People boarded and disembarked at the paradise island of Mali Losinj, just before nightfall. After that we sped up and headed for the jutting Istrian coast. Under a blanket of darkness, we finally began to see the bright harbour lights of Pula. The boat docked and, after disembarking, I walked – map in hand – along the curved harbour front to find my hostel. It wasn’t hard to find and I was soon inside. But sadly, there was a problem. The lady at the front desk told me that my bed had been double booked, but that a bed had been kept available for me at their sister hostel, across town. I could come back here, the next night. Now, as it was around 9pm, and Pula was self evidently an earthy, industrial port city, I’ll admit to feeling a little perturbed at the idea of the walk across the city. I took the map that the lady gave me and felt my way across the city, stopping people pretty frequently, as I struggled to find anything like a road sign. After a couple of brief wrong turns and a lot of dodgy looking back roads, I found my place for the night. I walked in and was immediately greeted by the 70-something owner of the chain. A very sweet old lady called Ivona, who quickly brought me tea, irrespective of whether I wanted it and began to explain to me the history of the place. She introduced me to Mark, a paramedic from Huddersfield who was on an NHS exchange programme to share his expertise and learn about different medical processes, performed in Istrian Croatia. I’d had no idea such things existed before. Ivona went to her flat and I got into bed, to read up on my planned itinerary for Pula – days 5 – 7 of my 8 day trip. After a few minutes, her daughter came in to take over the night shift in the hostel. She was a real hippy type and began chatting to me about why I was there, where I was from and whether I’d be interested in going to the nude beach with her the following day. After spitting out some of my tea, I made a comment about how much my girlfriend would like such a place, and she backed down. I was hit by a wave of tiredness and decided it was time to get my head down for some sleep. Morning came exceptionally quickly, and I realised I had slept like a stone. Of the 4 gentlemen sharing my dormitory, I was the only one left and I hadn’t heard a soul stirring. I looked at the time and was pleasantly surprised to see it was only 9:40 am.  Time for breakfast. I leapt from my bed and quickly got myself showered and changed. As I did so, the owner came in and told me that I could take my things over to my original hostel right away. Things were definitely looking up. I wandered along the wide street from the hostel straight to a shallow hill down to a pretty little square. It was not in any way how I had remembered it from the night before, but never mind. Just in front of me was a cafe on a sunny terrace, with the smell of strong, good coffee wafting out onto the light sea breeze. I almost instinctively took a seat. A rotund, but cheerful waitress in her 50’s came out quickly and greeted me “English?” Was I so painfully obvious? Anyway, I negotiated my way to a vat of robust coffee and an “open omelette”, as she called it. Quite simply, beaten eggs, set around a handful of tomatoes, onions, sheep’s cheese and spinach leaves. This was accompanied by some fresh bread and a small price tag. My good start to the day had just got much better. After wolfing down my breakfast, I took a side road on the waitress’ advice and ended up very quickly on the main port road, where my hostel was located. Here I found myself gazing up at the largest container ship I have ever seen, something that I had somehow missed the night before. It was docked for maintenance, painting and general refurbishment, but the scale of it blew me away. I’m not sure the photos communicate the enormity of the thing. DSC_0236 I continued around the edge of the harbour, my neck still craning to see this gargantuan boat and almost missed my hostel. When I got inside, the owner’s son was there and he offered me a share of his breakfast, along with more apologies about the mess over my bed. I assured him that it had all been of minimal inconvenience, dumped my rucksack in a locker and headed off to explore the city. As you walk into the centre of the Pula, the first thing that strikes you in the main square is the Temple of Augustus. This was dedicated to Augustus Caesar during his reign and, when you consider its age, the condition it’s in is phenomenal. To have something like this at the heart of what is a really earthy, lively city is quite astonishing. DSC_0238 DSC_0235 In the middle of the square here, you are aware of the presence of tourists, constantly but, at the same time, you have a sense that this is a real, live city, in a way that perhaps the gleaming white tourist spots of Dalmatia aren’t. It’s not as clean, it’s not as shiny and there are many more “local” bars and restaurants, but for me this added to the charm of the place and I immediately felt more at home there. Moving on through the square, a narrow stone pedestrianised thoroughfare takes you to a roman gate. What used to keep out marauding vandals now of course acts as a tourist photo opportunity or a seat for buskers, but it’s no less impressive for it. DSC_0274 After passing through the gate, I found a sign, pointing the other way, saying “monastery”. Intrigued, I decided to retrace my steps back into the heart of the city and take a look. About half way between the gate and the square, there was another small sign pointing up one of the steep side roads. I followed and was unprepared for what greeted me at the top. Fronted by an extraordinarily beautiful garden, with a view over the city below, was a small but active monastery. I decided to go in and take a look around. The whole place was built, as so much of its era, around a central courtyard that stayed cool, even in the blistering heat of summer. Here, there were plants, an image of the virgin and even the monastery cat. Around the outside, there were small chambers, a chapel, kitchen and various items of religious art. It was an interesting place to spend half an hour. DSC_0261 DSC_0240 DSC_0244 DSC_0252 I now wanted to see more in this historic city, so I wandered back to the gate and then out along the perimeter road to the old castle. This area had been first founded during Roman times, and had since been used as a means of defense from many threats faced by the port. At the bottom of the castle, where it meets the road, there is a Roman style theatre, located beneath a huge wall, with intricate arches, many of which have fallen apart over the many years that they’ve stood there. DSC_0283 DSC_0278 DSC_0279 DSC_0280 DSC_0282 As you walk to the top of the castle from here, you can see quite clearly that it’s not been in active service for quite a while. Grass has grown over the taller parts of the structure and, but for a few monuments pointing to its defensive past, the place has become a pleasant park almost in the centre of town and with great views down over the harbour and out into the bay of Istria. DSC_0296 DSC_0285 DSC_0290

From the vantage point atop the castle, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, what had been described to me by the hostel owner as “the little colloseum”. It didn’t look so little from here. Behind the castle was a well worn old stairway down to a narrow residential street. I descended and began to walk down the hill, to where the amphitheatre was located. On the way down, I saw one of the cutest cats I’ve ever seen, sleeping on a windowsill. He opened one eye and watched me walking by, without moving a muscle. Adorable.

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As the narrow road opened up, I suddenly saw the scale of the amphitheatre. I decided to walk around the perimeter and get a better look. All around it there were the usual trappings of such a tourist attraction – ice cream stalls, gift shops with tacky models and little coffee shops with a few al fresco tables. It was a really beautiful place, just 20 metres or so from  the water’s edge too.

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After all this exploring, I was dusty and hungry, so I decided to go back to my hostel for a shower and then out for some food. On the road where I’d seen the orange cat, I’d noticed an amazing smelling pizzeria and decided that was where I was going to go. After my shower, I went along and was served an incredible anchovy and spinach pizza, straight from a roaring wood oven. It was delicious and just what I needed.
After eating, I decided to check out a rock bar I’d read about and see if I could meet any interesting locals to chat to.  So I wandered up to the Rock Caffe in the balmy summer air and took a stool at the bar. The barman had an interesting selection and I took a dark beer. I’d been sitting at the bar for only about three minutes when a tall fellow approached me and asked me if I was foreign (again – so obvious!?). I explained to the chap that I was British, but lived in Poland, which started up a very interesting new thread of conversation. It turned out that he was a vet, who looked after large and dangerous wild animals and that he had done some of his training in the Białystok area, taking care of żubr (or bison, to you and I). As anyone who knows me will know, I love bison and animals in general, so this prompted a lengthy and entertaining conversation about the character of the bison and the array of large, wild animals roaming the plains of Istria. We got through a couple of beers, before he announced he had to leave as he had to work the next day. No sooner had he left, then the couple at the other end of the bar had come down and asked me what part of England I was from. I got chatting to them about bands for a while and finished my beer, but then decided it was time to head back and get some sleep. I walked along the harbour front all the way to my hostel and was asleep within minutes of finding my bed.

I woke up on my last day in Pula with one thing in mind: the beach. I had heard from the hippy hostel girl that there were some great beaches nearby (not all of them nude) so took out my map and picked one of them at random. I ate a quick breakfast at the cafe opposite my hotel, in my swimming shorts and t-shirt and headed down one of the city’s sideroads, towards the beach. When I arrived, I found a near deserted, rocky beach with clear, shallow water. I had picked up water shoes at Krka and was grateful to have brought them, as I could see sea urchins and their spines attached to the rocks. In the deeper water were some floating inflatable towers, which some of the small number of children were playing on. At first, I decided, I was going to simply lay back, read a few pages of my book and catch some rays. So I stripped to my shorts and found a comfortable patch of rock. After toasting in the sun for half an hour, I decided a dip was in order and put my water shoes back on. It was like getting in to a warm bath, the water temperature was so pleasant. With so much space on the beach, I had ample room to wade and swim around freely and really relax. It was a lovely spot. After a couple hours of lounging, swimming and chasing young crabs around a rock pool, I decided to head back to get cleaned up and then to catch my coach on to Rijeka, the final stop on my journey.

Once again, the coach was gleaming, on time, cheap and hugged the beautiful coastal road, showing off the more jagged nature of the cliffs of Istria, relative to Dalmatia’s low lying beach views. After half an hour though, I had drifted off into a deep sleep. It was only when the driver called out “Rijeka” on the tannoy that I woke and quickly grabbed my bag and jumped off, zombie like. The coach station was a pretty seedy looking place, the first time I’d really seen this in Croatia. But I didn’t let this put me off. I went to a cafe in the bus station and ordered a cevepi. Starving, I wolfed it down with a big coffee and, feeling much more alive, I walked across the road to my hostel. The stairs to the 4th floor felt pretty draining, but when I came out on to the balcony outside, the view across the road to the old town and out to sea over the docks were worth it. I spent a minute taking it in, before ringing the doorbell and being taken care of by a very efficient lady. I had paid, ditched my bag, acquired a map & key and left again within about 90 seconds. Time for a look around.

Directly opposite the hostel and bus station, there was a pretty unusual looking church, which seemed like a good place to start. It was dedicated to a monk, who had evidently been one of Rijeka’s more pious and charitable citizens. On the inside and out it was worth looking at.

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After the church, it quickly became apparent that Rijeka is a single line of shops, bars and restaurants, making up the old town, surrounded by the docks on one side and a steep hill on the other. As such, there is little in the centre. What’s there is quite picturesque, but there isn’t really enough space and certainly not enough exploited space, to make it into a tourist attraction, in spite of the convenient budget airline-served airport on neighbouring Krk island. But no matter how small, it was certainly worth a look around. At the very far end of the road, on the left side is one of the oldest structures in Rijeka, an old guard tower. Scrawled with graffiti on many sides now, it’s still quite a sight.

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From here, it was back on to the main street and a stop in a friendly looking cafe bar, to try to figure out what o do with my last night in Croatia. Because of the suntrap nature of the main street, Rijeka felt even hotter than the rest of the coast had for the past week. Even the pigeons were taking emergency action:

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After a cold beer while watching the pigeons cool off, I picked myself up and grabbed an ice cream from a kiosk and began walking down the main street towards my hostel. The streets were pretty quiet and I wondered what would await me that night in this sleepy town.

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Getting back to my hostel, I was in dire need of a shower. I had reinvented sweating in the 4 short hours I’d spent in the centre of Rijeka. After cleaning myself off, I went back to my dorm to find new clothes and the like. Added to the 2 French lads who had been there when I arrived there were 7 English guys. They were all from Manchester and were only 18 – 19 years old. I asked them what they were doing and they informed me that they had decided to spend their first summer after going to uni travelling up from Dubrovnik to Pula. I was impressed, with such an adventurous idea at such a young age. They told me they were going out for food and beers and asked if I’d like to join.

So I spent the next 3 and a half hours eating an anchovy topped hamburger that changed my life, drinking cold Karlovackos and listening to the stories of these kids almost getting robbed in a classic “gas and rob” raid on the train from Split to Knin that I thought only happened in the past and in spy novels, one of them getting overcharged to the tune of nearly 200 euros in a strip bar in Dubrovnik and various other things. It was a very funny night. When sleep came, it was like a heavy, impermeable blanket.

The next morning I awoke to the sound of my alarm, feeling remarkably good considering the beer I’d consumed. I quickly showered and dressed and headed to the bus stop. I picked up a cheese and spinach borek to munch and jumped on to the bus to the airport. There was just time for one last photo, as we left the city roads and got on to the winding path to the airport on Krk island.

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As I sat watching this beautiful horizon fade from view as we crossed the bridge to the airport, I contemplated my experience of Croatia as a whole. Its coastal regions were a starkly beautiful, inspiring place with a genuinely welcoming people. The scars of the war of the 1990s were still easily visible, sometimes on the very surface, but the relaxing pace of life and the warmth of the population gave it a sense of real peace. For an area of such outstanding natural beauty and delicious cuisine, it was also a very cheap place to spend time. With the whole stretch of coast to the south, from Split to Dubrovnik completely unknown to me, I felt quite sure that I would come back, too. So it wasn’t goodbye, but see you later.