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 7 – Mannar Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 6 – Vavuniya

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

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

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

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“Bubees” – seriously?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Adventures in Greece Part 3 – Naxos and Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Adventures in Greece Part 2 – The Acropolis & on to Naxos

Having explored our local area of Piraeus, we decided it was time to go to what was our real reason for coming to Athens – to see the Acropolis. First we had to find the metro. We walked away from the marina area towards what looked like a denser part of the suburb and decided we would walk for a few minutes and then, if we hadn’t seen anything, we’d ask someone for the way to the metro. So we walked past umpteen cafés, purveying wide varieties of cappucino freddos and then, at the end of the road, we saw the metro line. We crossed the city highway via the footbridge to the metro side and had a choice: to turn left or right and to follow the track to the next station. Inevitably turning left was completely the wrong decision and the one that we took. So we walked, and walked… and walked some more and eventually found ourselves in the very heart of Piraeus. We walked past a busy street market and came, finally, to the statue, next to the port. ImageImage We went to one of the many ferry offices, and asked how we might find the metro station. We were directed across a bridge to a huge yellow building. When we arrived, we finally saw the tiny sign for the metro, that was inside. We went in,  bought day tickets and boarded the train that was sitting in the station. The metro was quite modern and comfortable and there were only a small few people onboard. Quickly though, as its departure time approached, more and more people boarded and it became quite cramped. I ended up surrendering my seat to a heavily shopping laden elderly woman. Before coming to Athens, I had read a lot about crimes like robbery, pick-pocketing (and worse) on the metro, even during the day, so I had a fierce determination to keep my wits about me and a strong hand on my camera. But as we set off in the direction of the city, there was seemingly nothing untoward happening. The first stop (agonizingly close to where we had initially started tracing the metro route on foot) was at the impressive stadium of Olympiacos, one of Athens’ 3 top flight football teams. At this stop though, the atmosphere became quite different onboard. 2 young roma children boarded the train, one with a violin-like musical instrument. Immediately an old man (the husband of the woman I had given my seat to) rushed over to him and scolded him through gritted teeth. People were visibly uncomfortable, all around, but no-one seemed to do anything. The situation didn’t escalate further, thankfully, but the atmosphere lasted right until we arrived at the central station: Monastiraki. DSC_0058 DSC_0160 As we walked out of the station, into the bustling market place, with art, jewelry and touristy crap being sold in every available square metre, I began to ask Ania where we might find the Acropolis. She simply pointed over to the right hand side and there, above us, was the mountain platform with the parthenon and other assorted ancient buildings on. It was quite a sight! It was also quite a way up and, as yet, we had only eaten breakfast and a cake. With the time approaching 3pm, we decided to go for lunch. We wandered around the narrow streets on the way up to the summit for a few moments, before finding a quiet place offering gyros in pitta, that had a few tables free. We started off with some fresh bread and tatziki and then were surprised when our “light lunch” arrived. N.B. there is no such thing as a light lunch in Greece. These people REALLY feed you. DSC_0059 So, with our faces royally stuffed, it was time to make the ascent. We wandered first past Hadrian’s library – a long, fenced off area that is still being excavated by the looks of things. No more than 30 metres from the town square, people selling their wares almost completely block your view of it. But I managed to get a couple of shots of it on my way past. DSC_0062 DSC_0060 Next, we happened upon a restaurant with a truly wonderful view up to the mountain, as well as into a nearby historical site which was largely unmarked. DSC_0065 DSC_0066 DSC_0069 DSC_0070 From here, we followed the signs, as the slender road wound its way around the hillside up to the Acropolis plateau itself. We stopped off briefly to buy some water and postcards from a small shop, and to take in the ever more impressive view during the ascent. Then, finally, we had arrived at the gate. We bought our tickets and were instructed to finish our drinks before we went inside the Acropolis complex. So we found our way to a shady bench, not far from a line of sleeping dogs, who must have been roasting in the heat. Once we had finished off our water bottles, we went in. As you enter the Acropolis gate, while your view is dominated by the huge, busy outcrop above you, your attention is soon diverted to the right where a large theatre – still in occasional active use today – sits below you. With the light rigs still mounted for summer performances, it’s easy to imagine yourself sitting in there watching a concert or a play. DSC_0079 After staring down at the detail here for a few moments, we went on up to the main Acropolis area. DSC_0081 DSC_0082 DSC_0084 DSC_0085 DSC_0087

Once on top of the plateau, besides the phenomenal ancient structures all around the place, I was struck by two things: first, just how high above the city you are and secondly that it’s really very windy up there (I realise these issues are connected). As I left the stairs up onto the plateau, to your right you see the really quite enormous structure of the Parthenon. As is to be expected, it’s in an almost constant state of renovation, but in spite of all of the scaffolding, you cannot help but be struck dumb by the enormity of it and to feel the ages that it has borne witness to atop the lookout point over Athens and the Mediterranean beyond.

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From here, your view is drawn left, to the “old” temple of Athena, with its extraordinarily detailed pillars, in the shape of the temple maidens. This is a far smaller structure than the Parthenon but, hugging the cliff edge as it does and with the fine detail of its construction, no less impressive.

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Once you’ve taken in these wonderful sights and the Museum, located behind the Parthenon itself, there is a wonderful lookout point, with a huge Greek flag flying. At any given time a swarming mass of people sits up there, gazing out across the sprawling city below and to the other 2 significant peaks in this mountainous landscape. Even with the wind trying to blow you away, it’s something of a must-do while up here.

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Amazing what you can see through a hole in an ancient wall
Amazing what you can see through a hole in an ancient wall

After wandering, sitting, and staring for a good hour or more, we decided it was time to descend back down to the street. We tread carefully on our way down as the huge, ancient stones – worn down by countless millions of feet – are really quite slippery. We stopped in at the same little store for more water – all this walking is thirsty work – and then continued to Monastiraki square. On arriving back down to ground level, we realised that what our day was crucially missing was ice cream. Imagine our surprise then, when we found it particularly difficult to find anywhere selling the stuff. This was, in fact, a huge blessing in disguise, as central Athens (and seemingly all of the touristic areas of Greece) are currently awash with frozen yogurt bars. We found one such place and I served myself a huge portion of strawberry frozen yogurt and then covered it in fresh, ripe blackberries and flaked almonds. So we sat on a step, outside the station, watching the last art and craft sales of the day, in the marketplace, while we ate our delicious frozen yogurt, hardly speaking as we mulled over the things  we’d seen up on the mountain. After we finished, we realised that we needed to head back to our hotel in Piraeus, as Ania’s friend Dmitris – an Athenian native – was returning from his holiday that night and had offered to take us out.

After the short metro hop, and a mercifully more straightforward route back to our hotel, we quickly showered, changed and rested for a short time. At around 9pm, Dmitris showed up in his compact Citroen car and told us he would take us somewhere “with a view”. We drove across the city’s impressive, efficient central highway and quickly found ourselves back in central Athens. We took some turns into one suburb or another and eventually found ourselves on a near sheer hill street. During the journey, I had quite an interesting conversation with Dmitris – a business owner himself – about the living situation in Greece at this time. Of course, you read about it on the news, but to hear from a local that the minimum wage of the nation has tumbled from around 800 Euros per month to 450 in two years is a stark reminder of just how difficult it is to live in Greece right now. The sparkling lights of the city were a good ten minutes behind us now, and an air of quiet and natural darkness was descending. We parked up in a large car park and jumped out. I looked up at the stars, shimmering brightly in the sky above, such was the lack of artificial light pollution here. As I remarked and gestured towards them, Dmitris assured me that I hadn’t seen anything yet. And boy was he right. As we walked into the quite exclusive looking bar and found a table with an open air view looking out to the city, I just stopped being able to talk and stared for a few moments. The music wasn’t especially to my taste, the bar was perhaps a bit swanky for me, and I was disappointed with the lack of Greek beer, but the view truly made up for all of that. With my camera sadly lacking at taking photos in darkness, I feel the need to direct you here to get some idea of the view from our table. All of Athens is laid out in front of you, with the bulging orange orbs dotted through the middle, signalling the route of the central highway. It’s a place I would recommend to any and everyone. We chatted over a cold bottle of beer and the now typical complimentary mineral water and snacks, about life in Greece, Poland, Britain, and Scandinavia. About Dmitris’ business and his ability to keep afloat in difficult times, but the obvious hard work that he has to put in to achieve this. After a time here, we decided that we really ought to eat something. So we drove down to a spot where, we were reliably informed, restaurants opened at lunch time and stayed open until breakfast (along with accompanying bars, too). Here we managed to get some Greek beer (Alfa – the least good of the 3 main beers of the nation, in my humble opinion) and probably the best souvlaki I ate in the whole of my stay in Greece. And all for about 15 euros, for 3 of us. Quite remarkable. As we finished eating, I looked at my watch and was utterly flabbergasted to see the time was approaching 3am. Always the sign of a fine evening. So, once we had all drained our beers, we got back into the car and made the drive back to Piraeus. We thanked Dmitris sincerely for what had been a great night and promised ourselves two things: a lie-in the following morning and a relaxing day.

So it was that a lazy day was spent, interrupted by lunch at the waterfront, and a lot of time around Piraeus’ fine beach. After hardly stopping still for the past month, it was most welcome. The highlight of the day was watching this cat trying his very best to catch a bird in a tree.

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We wandered back to our hotel at the end of the day, stopping off at the Blue Star Ferries terminal, on the way, to pick up our tickets for our ferry the next morning. After this we headed early to our beds, so that we could be up and ready for breakfast at 6:30 and climbing aboard our ferry for the 7:25 departure.

Arriving at the port on the Tuesday morning, there was no shortage of hustle and bustle as, along with the multitude of foreign tourists, Athenians were setting sail for their summer holidays. With money for foreign expeditions drying up, we were told that the vast majority of city dwellers were also taking advantage of the relaxed and beautiful islands scattered off the coast and down into the Aegean and Ionian seas. The biggest of the ferries travelling every day, in-season, to the Cyclades, the Blue Star Delos is bloody enormous. We climbed aboard and dragged our bags to the topmost decks, set out with scores of (but not enough) seats for the “economy” ticket passengers. After some fruitless wandering, we realised that we were not going to get a seat, so we were staring down the barrel at five and a half hours of standing, or sitting on one of the outside decks. The sun was, predictably, shining brightly though and it didn’t feel like any sort of hardship, as the ship began to pull out of Piraeus’ harbour.

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We stood, we sat, we watched the sea drift by, along with other boats and smaller, often uninhabited islands. We drank water, we listened to music, we laughed at elegant, well behaved dogs and aggressive, irritable little ones. Becoming acclimatised, as we were, to the Greek summer culture, I dashed to the bar at the half way point to pick up Cappucino freddos for us both. The spray from the sea was pleasantly cooling, as we sped across the water in the full glare of the sun. With little more than an hour to go until our arrival time at Naxos, we saw the first larger islands and rocky outcrops and finally, the ship descended on Paros. Significantly smaller than the place we were to call home for the coming days, Paros had a bustling harbour, which was a flurry of activity as our ship landed. Dotted with historic buildings and with a typically cycladian backdrop of brown, earthy mountains, it looked like a nice place.

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Perhaps more crucially than anything though, some of our neighbours on deck disembarked here, freeing up some chairs to us for the remaining hour or so of our journey. So we sat in comfort and shade, as the trajectory had somewhat changed, as we made the final leg of the trip towards Naxos. Feeling the 6:30 wake up call now, I was pleased to remember that the proprietor of our hotel had offered to meet us at the port and take our luggage on to our hotel. After a short while we had arrived.

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!

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.