Castles in Alentejo – Part 2 – Estremoz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 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 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Évora – History, Bones and Gastronomy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No trip is complete without meeting a cat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adventures in Greece – Part 1 – Athens (Piraeus) via Warsaw

Just hours after arriving back in Poland from a 4 week stint at an international summer school, I was packing my things again and heading off to the cradle of our civilisation – Athens, in Greece. This time with my girlfriend in tow, I was really excited about this, as well as a little apprehensive, after hearing of a few pretty serious horror stories about Greece’s ancient capital in recent times.

Waking up at a leisurely 8:30am, after my first sleep in my new flat, I trudged around like a zombie, preparing myself for the fun of the Polskibus to Warsaw at 11:20. Polskibus is a relatively new venture in Poland and is ran by a Polish fellow, who has spent a fair bit of time working in transport companies in the UK. The result is a fleet of brand new, clean, comfortable buses, with free Wi-Fi(!) toilets and extremely low prices. In a country where some long distance buses are close to my age, it is a very welcome thing. So, after 4 hours of cruising Polish highways, ducking to use the hobbit-sized toilet and consuming a nutritious road diet of lemon ice tea and Cheetos pizzerinis, we arrived into Warsaw’s Młociny bus station.

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The brilliant thing about arriving at Młociny, is that it is right next to the metro station. Getting to Warsaw’s Frederic Chopin airport is (theoretically) easy, as you can travel by bus, train, or SKM (fast urban train). We asked the lady at the information kiosk, and she told us the best way was to go to the central rail station by Metro and then onward by bus No. 175. Ania and I remarked to ourselves about how helpful and easy this had all been (having been hugely frustrated by using public transport in Warsaw before). We boarded the metro and off we went. Then after 4 stops, the wheels came off. Not literally, thankfully. Due to the work on laying the track for the new second line of the Warsaw Metro, the Metro would miss not just our stop, but a stop or two either side, as well. Nice of the info lady NOT to tell us. We followed the signs for diverted passengers and ended up on a tram. After waiting just a couple of minutes the tram sped us to Centrum and we disembarked and headed across the park beneath the majestic Palace of Science and Culture to the main train station.

Walking inside the station, we found the usual scene in Warsaw. Scores of people queuing for the woefully insufficient one person in the ticket office and no information points open. Signposts to the airport trains, buses and so on were all lacking, aside for the mention of a slow train, leaving in almost an hour’s time. We asked a few people and finally an old lady from the train company pointed us to the area where we could find the bus. Feeling a little stressed, and with time left to check in ticking away, we hurried into the subway, looking for signs to the airport bus. Naturally, there were none. Finally finding our stop, via the wrong side of the huge road, we then went to the ticket machine. It advised me that it was not accepting change and then proceeded to spit out my pristine 10 Zloty note, like it was a used tissue. Beginning to suffer from serious rage by this point, I jumped onto the bus and pleaded with the driver to sell me some tickets to the airport. Thankfully, he was merciful and 2 child tickets each were issued. We stood, squished into a corner of the bus, for 25 minutes, relieved that another completely haphazard transport experience in Warsaw was all but over!

Arriving at Wawa’s airport, I was struck, right away, by the feeling that a bit of money has been spent here, on modernising. With a towering glass facade at the departures entrance and cloudy daylight pouring in from above, it was a lovely place. We joined a queue crammed with Polish-Greek couples at the Aegean airlines desk. After a short few minutes we were checked in, given window seats near the emergency exits – hello legroom! – and my rucksack, almost always sent to oversized baggage, was allowed straight into the hold on the conveyor belt. I was positively delighted and the endeavour required to survive Warsaw’s information-deprivation scheme was all but forgotten. After a quick sandwich and a last swig of the ice tea, we headed for security. Also mercifully efficient, we were sat looking at the nose of our plane with more than 30 minutes before boarding was due to begin.

Resisting the temptation to go and try on all 100 or so of the designer watches in the boutique opposite our gate, instead I waited patiently for boarding. When the time came, we filed on and took our seats.

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Being, as we were, on a flag carrier for the first time in ages, I was looking forward to free food and beers. My seat was pretty comfy, I could stretch my legs in front of me, and we got settled pretty quickly. We took off into the greying skies. Food was soon served. Now, while I never anticipate gourmet cuisine on an aircraft, the infants’ portion of dried pasta with meatballs the size of ball bearings was not inspired. Luckily the accompanying bread, crackers, chocolate bar and beer were far more palatable. After the rubbish had been cleared away, dusk began to wash over the sky, as we drank our coffee. Later thunderstorms ripped through the night sky below us to the right. It was quite a show.

ImageAt just after 10, local time, we cruised over the Greek peninsula and marvelled at the orange dotted pathway of what we later learned was the Athenian central highway. The plane descended gently and landed with barely a bump. Ania and I were first off the plane and set off to find our baggage. Once we gathered our things, we immediately headed for an ATM – I hadn’t had any time to get currency sorted, post summer school. We drew some cash, picked up a bottle of water and were directed by highly efficient signs to the X96 express bus to Piraeus. With a fair number of others from our flight, we ditched our luggage and watched the dark city streets go by as we sped through night time Athens. It was fairly quiet and the bus barely stopped at all. After around 40 minutes, we realised that we didn’t really know exactly where we were supposed to get off. The people from our hotel had sent a map, but hadn’t been clear about whether it was from the last stop or some other, beforehand. So, when a huge German family (seriously – there were about 10 of them!) decided to get off the bus on one of the many busy streets in Piraeus, we jumped off too. Immediately we began to regret our decision. None of the streets from the map were near us and, with the clock already well past midnight, we were feeling pretty fed up. Then, as we were starting to despair, we saw a small souvlaki place, “Gr… Eat” (see what they did there?), and so I wandered in to find out whether anyone spoke English and whether they knew where our hotel was.

The chef, who was unoccupied, came straight over to me and asked if he could help (in Greek). “Do you speak English?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. By which he meant that someone else in his restaurant did, as he looked blankly at me, while I pointed to places on my map and asked if he knew where they were. Finally his colleague, a very enthusiastic waiter, and a slightly less enthusiastic waitress led me to a huge map mounted on the wall and began arguing with each other about the best way to get to our hotel.

Quite the contrary from this being irritating though, they were all just so keen to help us find our way. I was pretty touched. After we established the best route, they shouted after us “You’re Italian?” I confirmed that I was in fact British, but it’s nice not to be recognised as a British tourist. We made a mental note to return here to eat, later on in our visit, which we did, and enjoyed it immensely. After a few minutes more of walking and a quick check in a different hotel, that we were on the right track, we finally came to the Hotel Phidias/Piraeus Inn which turned out to be a superb & quite bargain-priced place to stay. The receptionist was bright and cheery, in spite of the late hour and told us, quite unexpectedly, that we had breakfast included. I’m a big fan of breakfast. We jumped into the lift and headed to our room for some much needed sleep.

Waking up in the morning and stepping on to our balcony, we couldn’t decide, in the shade, whether it was actually all that warm. Just moments after breakfast though, stepping down to the street and into the full glare of the sun, it quickly became apparent that it was roasting. We decided to take a walk around the marina, which was just a few steps from our hotel, down one of the many steep streets. The place is a hive of activity, with cafes, bars, restaurants, fishing boats and a variety of shops, combined with the considerable traffic ferrying people from the port to the city and airport.

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After following the curve of the marina to it’s limit, passing under numerous cafe parasols, we found ourselves at another steep hill, this time curving around to a recreation area and a crowded, small beach. The water was positively glinting in the morning sun and we decided to head down and dip our feet in the water. It was surprisingly cold and I began to make sounds like a young girl, pretty swiftly. Once we had enjoyed a little paddle, it was time to continue round the path, past some intriguing buildings (and obligatory churches) to find somewhere to get one of these cappucino freddo things that every man and his dog – no really – seemed to be drinking. We happened upon Riva cafe, a delightful place, with comfy sofas, a view of the marina, complimentary water and delicious cake and first class cold coffees.

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So now, refreshed after the gentle pace of the morning and the fabulously brutal nature of Greek coffee, we were feeling ready to move on to the next stage of the adventure – to the Acropolis!