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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Castles in Alentejo – Part 1 – Arraiolos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 9 – Galle & The End of my Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 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:

SriLanka

 

Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 6 – Vavuniya

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

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

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

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“Bubees” – seriously?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SriLanka

Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 5 – Trincomalee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SriLanka

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

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.

 

Summer 2012 – Adventures in Croatia – Part 2 – The Most Beautiful Sunset, Sibenik & Krka

After another 40 minutes on the lovely coach, I was back in Zadar. I jumped off at the bus station and began heading straight into town. It was just after 4pm and the sunset was due around 6:30. I made the short walk down the now familiar streets pretty swiftly, and arrived in the old town with more than an hour until the sunset started. I decided this might be a good time to have a look around at some of the narrow backstreets. Much of the city was destroyed during the civil war in the 90’s and the mixture of original and renovated stonework makes for some very interesting sights.

ImageImageImageHaving meandered for perhaps 45 minutes around the cramped alleyways of the old town, I decided to find myself a spot to have a beer and to read some of my book, while I waited for the sunset to arrive. I found the perfect location, diagonally opposite the southern corner of the harbour, well within the sound range of the sea organ. It provided a relaxing, whale call-like soundtrack, as I sat back in the sunshine and took a first sip of my Karlovačko. I picked up my book and found my page. Before I had chance to digest even a single word, someone had blocked out my sunshine. I looked up and there was an Asian girl. She asked me if I was travelling alone and if I felt like some company. I said that would be nice and we began to chat. She told me that she was a Chinese student, studying medicine in Germany, and that she had decided to spend her summer seeing Croatia. She also let on that she had been in Zadar for 3 days and that she was about to embark on a boat to some islands, nearby. I asked her about the sunset and she told me that I absolutely must see it and that I must also not miss the sun salutation, after the sun had gone down. I had no idea what she was on about – I only knew of the sun salutation from yoga. She explained all about it, and then left for her boat.

By this time, the small crowd of sunbathers near the sea organ had multiplied into something of a throng, looking out to the sea, where the sun had begun its descent and was already colouring the sky beautifully. I paid for my beverage and headed down to join them.

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I found a nice place to sit and, surrounded by at least a couple hundred more tourists, watch as the sun painted the sky in one palette after another. All the while, the gentle hum of the sea organ and the lapping of the Sea of Dalmatia provided a calming soundtrack.

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Finally the sun had retreated beneath the horizon. It honestly was the most spectacular, beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. The atmosphere was charged all the more by all the people, of so many different ages and backgrounds, all gathered together to watch it. It was a magical time. Little did I know, that the magic was only just beginning. It was time for the sun salutation.

As I had been instructed, I had moved myself to the blue, electronic-circuit-hatched glass disc of the sun salutation as the sun was dipping below the horizon. I was told that, as soon as the last rays of the sun left the surface, it would light up. I sat down in the middle and waited. After around a minute of held breath on the part of me and many in the crowd, the first lights came on.

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The Sun Salutation is an art installation, made of dancing LED lights, designed to start working as soon as the sun has set. It creates a really amazing, atmospheric effect. The patterns appear to be quite random, with colours phasing from red to blue to purple and much more. It just adds to what is already an unforgettable experience.

ImageAfter almost an hour soaking up the atmosphere at the sun salutation, I decided it was time to head off. I stopped in a few bars on the way out of the city and met a few more travellers. the Garden and The Old Arsenal being particularly memorable. I decided to grab a swift bite to eat and get my head down, for in the morning I was off to Sibenik for a definite change of pace.

In the morning I was greeted, once again, by glorious sunshine and heat that permeated my hostel bed, in spite of the always-on air conditioning. I got myself up and quietly removed myself from the dorm, where everyone else was still sleeping. After a quick shower and, all importantly, putting on some sun block, I was back at the bus station, getting my ticket to Sibenik. It was a route I was very familiar with, as it was just an hour on from Beograd Na Moru, so I settled into my seat and took out my book. This time, I had chosen to sit on the mountain side of the bus, so that I could watch the rugged landscape, opposite the sea. What I didn’t expect, was that after we had passed Beograd and begun the route on the motorway down towards Sibenik, there would be small forest fires, dotted around. Huge plumes of smoke rose up into the cloudless sky, making for quite a dramatic effect. Imagine my excitement then, as I began to see two water planes, dipping down into the sea and dousing the flames. It was amazing watching the precise angles of the pilots and the whole process of putting out the fire. Time flew as I watched this display and, in no time, the bus pulled across the bridge over the stunning bay of Sibenik.

The bus station was a fairly dirty place but, mercifully, almost directly opposite my hostel. I walked up the steep steps and checked in. After ditching my bag, it was straight across the road to the harbour and the old town.

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As you walk around the curving harbourside, you see immediately, that Sibenik is one of these cities built into the cliffs opposite. Almost nothing is on ground level. Looking up, you can see the church for which the city is so famous (more on that later) and the enormous medieval fortress, still standing, in reasonably good condition, at the very top. Between it and the sea, was a maze of narrow alleyways and staircases. Time to explore, I thought.

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ImageAbout two thirds of the way up, I began to realise just how steep a climb this was (and perhaps just how unfit I was!). My calves were aching and I was short of breath. I guess the 35 degrees of close, warm sun did not really help. But I pressed on and when I reached the top of the city, just beneath the fortress, I immediately remarked to myself that it had been more than worth it. The views were simply stunning.

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It took me a full five minutes of staring in awe at the view over the harbour and sprawling old town below me, before I even glanced up at the gleaming white fortress, which defended the city in days gone by from the Turks and various other would-be invaders. Once I’d seen how solid a structure it remained though, I had to complete the climb and take a look. It clearly sustained very little damage in the bloody civil war of the 90s and one suspects the condition the fortress is in has not changed for some centuries. There is no roof, but the main external wall exists on 2 levels and you can walk around all of it, taking in an even more incredible view of the seascape and islands below. A solitary flag of St George smiting the dragon flies at the northmost tip of the castle.

DSC_0180 DSC_0172 DSC_0185After this, I began to realise how tiring such a steep climb, in such hot weather had been. Parched, I decided to descend and find a cafe. So back I went, this time taking a different route through the narrow, old stone streets. I quickly came upon a monastic garden, which had been converted into a cafe. It was beautifully tended and had a foutain right in the middle, sending a spray of fine mist into the air, which was cooling as soon as I walked in. I sat down for the very short time it took me to drain a litre of mineral water.

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My next, and final stop, on the way back to the hostel was the iconic church, in the heart of the old city. It was designed by one of the most famous architects in Croatia during the medieval period. Venetian lions can be spotted on the facade, evidencing the patronage of the great city state at this Dalmatian trading partner city of old. The roof, and shape of the building is very distinctive and, despite its small size, it makes a strong impression on you, the moment you see it.

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Finally, feeling like my 3 hours exploring had sucked most of the life out of me, I decided to go back to the hostel, grab my things and hit the beach to get some colour on my pale skin. Arriving back in the dorm, a tall fellow was sat on the bunk below. We introduced ourselves, and it turned out that Dave, as he was called, had just done a more or less identical whistle stop tour of the sights of Sibenik, and was also feeling like stretching out on the beach. So we each got changed, grabbed our towels and headed down to the really nicely designed purpose-built beach, at the end of the harbour. We laid on the beach as the afternoon sun roasted everyone and everything and had a long chat about where we were from, what we did, and what we were doing in Croatia. Dave, a Canadian/Lebanese physiotherapist who was about to go and retrain as a doctor, had the same plans as me for the next day – a trip to Krka national park.  We quickly agreed that dinner that night, followed by some beers, and the early morning bus to Krka was the plan.

We met some German Swiss girls in our hostel, after the sun had gone down and discussed possibly meeting them for a beer later, before heading to an awesome restaurant, right across from the hostel, on the edge of the old town. We went in and asked for the local specialty – shark, with salad and potatoes. It was delicious. The waiter also fetched us some excellent dark beer, quite different from the usual Croatian fare. Finally, he gave us a shot of a traditional Croat liqueur and asked us what we thought it was made from,. We drank it – it was delicious and I was quite sure it came from honey. He assured me, however, that it was made from snake’s urine. (This turned out not to be true and it was in fact honey – the cheeky monkey!) From here, we walked to the strip of clubs, where one of Croatia’s most famous punk/rock bands were giving a free outdoor concert. Their music was dire, so we crept away, discovered our Swiss German friends, and settled in by the water side for a couple of beers. Before long we were back in the hostel and off to sleep, ahead of the next day’s park trip.

The bus ride to the tourist-fuelled village which nestles alongside Krka were 20 of the sweatiest minutes of my life. Absolutely crammed in mid-August high season, and with primitive air-con, to be generous, my t-shirt was pretty moist before we arrived. We walked down to the harbour side, to wait for the boat to the main park area. The boat came quickly and then sailed steadily through the algae green water of the lake, surrounded by trees and small mountains. After arrival, we went to the ticket office and paid our outrageously cheap entry fee and we were in. From the first moment, you are struck by what a treasure the place is, as scores of people splash and swim amongst the stunning natural waterfalls.

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As you walk into the park proper, the beauty, not just of the water features themselves, but of the balance between light and shade and the different land and water life this promotes, is striking. Also of note is the amazing water turbine, set up by the great Tesla himself. Krka, it turns out, was the first place on earth to have a town with lights powered by hydroelectric power. The displaying of the original equipment is a really nice touch.

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At the end of the day, after walking around almost the entire lake complex, we went for a swim in the beautiful fresh water, amongst the fish, at the bottom of the lowest waterfall. It was an incredible experience, and I can honestly say I’ve never swum anywhere so atmospheric, even with so many people around. We walked back to our bus stop and got a slightly less sweaty bus back to the city. Once we were back at the hostel, we realised that the staff were having a party, so Dave and myself, along with 2 Croat girls who were really funny, hung out with the guys, and chatted about everything and nothing, while emptying too many bottles of beer. The next day, Dave was heading to Zadar, as was I, to take the ferry across to Istria and the industrial port of Pula, with its extensive Roman remains!

 

 

Summer 2012 – Adventures in Croatia – Part 1 – Zadar & Around

So, many months after the event, I decided that it might be a nice idea (as I originally planned) to blog about my Croatia trip from August of 2012. So here goes:

It was the 15th of August. The United Kingdom was, predictably, spattered with a light covering of irritating rain; everyone was in a foul mood. Thankfully, I was leaving! I boarded the Ryanair flight from Stansted Airport at ten past five in the evening to the warm, exotic port city of Zadar, in Croatia, after a cheeky pint in Stansted’s soulless airport lounge. The flight was uneventful. I read my travel guide and gleaned precisely no information from it, as I was too excited about visiting a new place. I constantly peered out of the window, unnerving my neighbour until, finally, we began to descend over the bay of Istria.

As we queued in the fading sunlight of dusk in the small, clearly-not-built-for-tourist-use airport at Zadar, I was refreshed by the lack of obvious idiocy from the British passengers. I came to security, smiled (but not too much) and went to find out how the buses worked.

After a 20 minute wait and a number of “jokes” with the bus driver, where I had no idea what he was on about,  we were on our way. During the 20 minute ride, I was positively permeated by the heat of the place. After spending the past 6 weeks in the rain-sodden UK, it was a welcome and very distinct change.  The bus arrived at the main bus station and I took the opportunity to venture into a cafe and ask for directions. Thanks to the utterly atrocious nature of my Croatian, I was quickly moved on to a very accomplished English speaker. She quickly pointed me in the direction of my hostel and off I went.

Amongst the palm trees, which I was familiar with from the previous summer in Turkey, were the classic eastern European buildings that have become my home in Poland. An eccentric combination of pre 90’s cuboid concrete and the all-new walls of glass and steel. It’s fair to say the area around the bus station lacked any real identity. I could be anywhere, I thought. This was all to change, I was about to realise.

I found myself meandering around a residential area which reminded me more of the Turkish backstreets of Fethiye than anywhere else I’d been. When I got to the point on the map where my hostel ought to have been, there was nothing of note to be seen. Only residential gardens, a chemist and a few barking dogs. I walked further, up to the main road and then back again. Finally, I noticed some teenagers outside one of the houses. I approached them and asked them if any of them spoke English. A couple of them did, so I asked them if they knew about this hostel. Predictably, this WAS the hostel. A girl quickly put down her drink, and led me to a bedroom/dormitory conversion and told me which bed would be mine. She told me I would have to pay right away and offered me a map of the city. I paid her, dropped my stuff and immediately headed out to Zadar’s old town. Apart from anything else, I needed to eat!

Within 5 minutes of the unremarkable residential zone, I arrived at the edge of the harbour. Immediately I was struck by the grandeur of the place. To the left are the high city walls, restored from their original medieval splendour, still some 8-10 metres tall, housing a myriad of tourist-focussed restaurants, bars, cafes, clubs and museums. To the right are an array of boats, large and small, as well as the highly decorative, illuminated bridge to the other side of Zadar’s harbour and its many hotels.

 

I walked through one of the gates into the old city and was overwhelmed by street sellers, entertainers, musicians and a swathe of tourists walking in all directions. I walked along the main path, taking it all in and was finally lured to a wonderful smelling pizza restaurant. I ordered a slice and a beer and sat at a table near another guy who was by himself, watching the football. The game was Croatia vs Switzerland; the inaugural game for the Croats’ new stadium in Split. “You like the Croatian national team?” he asked me, in perfect English. “Yes,” I replied. “They play really attractive football.” “We are losing 4-0 to the f*@%ing Swiss!” he said. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but luckily he started chuckling so I followed his lead. We toasted to the next time these teams would meet and he (Ivan) started to tell me what I should make sure I see, while in Dalmatia. I love such meetings. Once the pizza, beer and conversation had dried up, I walked down the old streets of Zadar, back to the harbour side, and made my way back to my hostel. I hit my bed and was immediately overrun by a powerful wave of sleep.

At 9am my alarm shook me, and, with Ivan’s advice, I was heading back to the bus station within an hour, with a plan to visit Sveti Filip i Jakov. A tiny town on the coast, some 30km South east of Zadar, Sv. Filip i Jakov is known for a busy harbour in summer, beautiful surroundings, a religious festival in August & very little else. Time to check it out and get some photos, I decided.

Once inside the bus station, I found a wide selection of bakeries from which to choose my breakfast. After negotiating my way to a cheese and spinach filled croissant, I meandered around to the ticket office with my camera and my money and quickly and easily purchased a ticket to Sveti Filip i Jakov for 9 kunas – about £1.15 or 6 Złoty. Excellent. I went to the appropriate bay and found a modern, attractive, air conditioned bus waiting. “Sveti Filip i Jakov?” I said to the bus driver, in my best questioning tone. “Yes, yeeeees,” the driver replied. “Can you tell me when we are there?” I asked further. “Yes, yeeeeees,” he replied again. Evidently, he had very little idea of what I was talking about.

As those that know me well will be aware, I am a great advocate of the train as the best way to travel to take in the scenery of a place. But the Dalmatian coast is a place where the roads are so well knitted in to the coastline that you invariably have a deep blue ocean on one side, dotted with beaches, coves, harbours, fishing villages and islands; while on the other side there is a combination of towns, cities, mountains, lakes, and more. It’s really a wonderful way to travel there and the standards and kitting out of the coaches really makes it as comfortable as a coach trip is ever going to be (thank god for the air con!). The moment you leave Zadar and get on the southern road to Split, you begin to see the islands for which Dalmatia is famed and the magnificent coastline. Every kilometre or so, you will find a family or couple, parked up in their cars at some space in the trees, taking a dip in the deep blue, fishing, perhaps sunbathing, or some combination of the above. It’s really very appealing to simply stop and join the party. But continue down the coast I did, gawping at the views from the window. ‘Sveti Filip I Jakov’, said one of the signs, as we sped past. Shit. I had missed my stop.

 

Luckily, I didn’t have to wait too long for the next one. About another 7 km down the coast road the bus lurched at a roundabout and began a slow descent along a shady, tree-lined, quite steep lane. At the side of the road, leather-skinned flat owners sat in garden chairs with handwritten cardboard signs, detailing their spare rooms and how many Euros they wanted for them. After a few moments, we had arrived at the bus station of Beograd Na Moru. Time for me to get off. The first thing I saw, after leaving the tiny, island-like bus station was a man with an ox-pulled plough, made of straw. No, really.

 

DSC_0014From here though, it wasn’t far across the road and over a small wall to find the breathtakingly blue sea. I walked down to the water’s edge and marvelled at the azure water gently lapping at the rocks and – even at 9:45am – the hustle and bustle of small boat traffic, gathering for island tours, fishing trips and, in one case, even a submarine voyage. This idyllic view is one that you can easily get used to in Dalmatia, as I would come to learn, but by no means should it ever get boring.

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Realising that it was mid-morning, and I’d yet to imbibe any caffeine whatsoever, I decided to rectify the situation and took a seat at a harbourside cafe bar. A waiter quickly attended to me and brought me a strong cappucino and a long glass of iced water to follow and I just sat back and people watched for a while, soaking up my first real sunshine in 11 months.

Once suitably caffeinated, I paid my bill and decided to have a walk through the old town of Beograd, away from the harbour. What I found were lots of irregularly shaped houses, awkwardly, but beautifully packed in together, with ornate flower gardens, wrought iron balconies and aromatic wafts of coffee, bread, cakes and other foods, almost visibly drawing you in, like the vapours in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. As I approached the small, old church in the heart of the town, I came upon a beautiful square, furnished with someone’s unattended bicycle, which was to be one of my favourite scenes of the whole adventure.

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After wandering around, I realised that time was getting on and that I still had to get back to Sv Filip i Jakov and then to Zadar for its fabled sunset. So back to the bus station it was. A bus was handily ready and waiting to take me back up the coast road, so I paid my money, boarded and we set off. Within 10 minutes, I was dropped at the sign on the main road for my target village. I descended from the bus, and it sped off, throwing up a great cloud of dust. As it cleared, I looked around. Where on Earth WAS this village?! I walked up to the crossroads and took a punt that it might be down the hill, towards the sea. Fortunately, I was right.

Here was an even steeper slope, under a denser canopy of trees. As the miniscule turn off to the village had threatened, it was a seemingly very small place and eerily quiet. At least it was, until I got to the water’s edge. There, as far as I could see to the left and the right were scores of cafe bars, restaurants and rows of beach side camping plots, with young people, families and couples, all mingling in the glorious morning sun, overlooking the Sea of Dalmatia. I had a really good feeling about exploring this place, but decided that I could really not do anything until I’d had some lunch. I found a grill in a plush spot and pitched up at a table. The waiter addressed me in Croat, then German, then Polish (which I responded to with little skill) and finally in English. I asked what he recommended for a hungry carnivore who has just arrived in Croatia. He had no doubt, it was time for my first Cevapi.

One thing I had managed to take in about Croatia, was just how much of the folklore was focussed on their successful spurning of any attempts by the Turks to invade during the early expansion of the Ottoman Empire. So, imagine my surprise when the Cevapi turned up and was, quite clearly, a reworked kofte. Regardless, it was delicious, freshly grilled, accompanied by fresh balloon bread and a variety of delicious salads and olives. You can find more information about this highly recommended meal here.

After eating, I decided to explore a bit. Once again, the main sights of note were the wonderful sea and a small old town, in which I found a beautiful, humble church. Here are a few images of the place.

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Finally, as the afternoon wore on, I decided I ought to head back to Zadar and find a spot for this sunset. For the next day I’d be on my way down to Sibenik and a quite different backdrop for adventures.