A Travellerspoint blog

Sri Lanka an amazing land of vast natural beauty.

... spicy sambol, steep steps, safari, sun and surf.

sunny 28 °C

We touched down at Colombo Airport at around 3.30am and were quickly through customs. There is an official taxi desk inside the airport so we arranged for a driver to take us to Colombo Fort railway station at a cost of 2500 rupees. We watched the day dawn as we raced through the traffic for our 7am departure. Much like the other countries we have visited in SE Asia, the general rule on the road is that the biggest vehicle wins. We spent a fair amount of the time driving around tuk tuks by utilising the oncoming traffic's lane, ducking back for cover to avoid collisions. There is much tooting of horns but it's not aggressive, it's simply to let people know that you are passing so as to avoid any sudden moves.

In the brightness, and heat, of the morning, we arrived at the railway station. Jen had pre-booked tickets and had wisely chosen first class travel, which meant we would have some air conditioned comfort after flying overnight. We found the Expo ticket office and got our tickets without any problem.

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First class was a small single carriage behind the engine. We climbed aboard and found our seats. Before too long we embarked on the journey to Kandy, Sri Lanka's second largest city. The porters kindly brought us hot face towels so we were able to freshen up before receiving a morning cup of tea. we relaxed and watched the countryside as we passed. Lunch was served - a savoury roll and more tea. In a couple of hours we arrived at Kandy railway station.

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As we exited the station we were eagerly approached by taxi and tuktuk drivers. We declined and headed for the main road, trying to clear our fatigued heads and get away from the pressure of the drivers touting for business. We walked for about ten minutes before agreeing a price with a tuktuk driver and heading to our guesthouse. The tuk tuk battled it's way up the hill. At times, we all inadvertently leaned forward in our seats, so steep was the road. The journey seemed to take an age. We passed a woman and a driver trying desperately to shove a large goat into a tuk tuk, we took this as a good omen and shortly thereafter arrived at the gate of our guesthouse.

The Paradise Kandy is a lovely, Dutch style, guesthouse nestled high on Richmond Hill overlooking the town of Kandy. We were greeted by the manager, Nayagam, and his staff. Our bags were taken up to our suite and we were invited to take a seat and have some tea. The view was really lovely and the location was blissfully quiet. We had a quick chat and explained that we had not slept since the previous day. Nayagam suggested we have a short nap. He said he would have lunch ready for us when we woke, and that he would arrange for a driver to take us into town later in the afternoon for a look at some of the sights. We agreed, excused ourselves, and went for a shower and some much needed sleep. We woke at about 1pm and came downstairs. It was apparant that we were the only guests so it felt much more like we were staying in a home rather than a guesthouse. Nayagam is not only an excellent host but also a talented cook. He asked what we would like for dinner that night. We said we were most interested in trying traditional Sri Lankan cuisine. He told us of his many years as a cook and suggested he prepare a range of traditional dishes. Naturally we agreed.

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At 2pm our tuktuk, and driver Cyril, collected us and first took us to the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. He left us to enjoy a couple of relaxing hours, strolling through the grounds. We found an amazing array of plants set amongst the palms, coco de mer, huge pines, and our favourite mara trees. We saw our first palm squirrels, very cute and twitchy little creatures. We relaxed with a drink, sitting in the sunshine, on the great lawn before returning to the main gate.

Cyril collected us and we drove to see some traditional Kandyan dancing. The performance was about 45 minutes long and featured a number of drummers playing waist-slung double headed hand drums, and tamborine. They were accompanied by a horanava, which looks a bit like a clarinet (in size and shape) and has a very similar sound to the wind instruments played in Thailand, or areas in the Middle East. The dancers were clad in traditional costumes. The men danced in pairs mostly, and each would appear adorned in a different style of dress. They wore various traditional costumes and the Sri Lankan masks we had seen in our guidebook and in many of the shops. They featured peacock feathers, snakes, and flames, beautifully and colourfully painted. The female dancers were very graceful and used very subtle gestures of the hands and head. The men were very energetic, and leapt around the stage, the performance culminating in a series of acrobatic back flips across the length of the stage. The event was capped off by some fire walking. The performance was attended exclusively by tourists, and while the constant camera flashes, and movement in or out of seats, was distracting and annoying, it is of genuine cultural value and very much worth attending. That said, I am sure it would be a more authentic experience as part of a festival.

We walked back towards the centre of town, and visited Sri Dalada Maligawa - The Temple of the Relic. Dusk was upon us and the temple looked splendid all lit up. It has many ornate rooms, across two levels. On the upper level, a long line of visitors waited to pass the entrance to the Tooth Relic chamber. The chamber is said to house one of the Buddha's teeth, rescued from his remains after his cremation in India. We walked from the temple back to town and found Cyril. When we returned to the guesthouse we were treated to the delicious tastes of Sri Lanka - chicken curry, sambal, eggplant, long beans in garlic, finely shredded and spiced cabbage, and fresh chillies. Nayagam, and his two colleagues looked after us brilliantly well. At the end of our meal we were just about dead on our feet. We slept very soundly that night.

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We rose early and sat on the balcony watching the day begin, staggered by the beauty of the view. Mornings bring a cool breeze up from the valley and as the early morning fog lifts, Kandy is revealed to the eyes and the ears. Bird calls fill the air and dogs bark morning greetings to each other. We were greeted by the staff and were invited down for breakfast. We discovered a beautiful table, bathed in sunlight, and set with fresh juice, fruits, curry, sambol, and polroti (coconut roti) with butter and jam. It looked amazing. We had never eaten curry for breakfast before but after the first bite we were eager converts. We felt really pampered as we sat quietly in the cool breeze, on our first Kandy morning. We spent the day visiting the sights which interested us most, namely a tea factory, the Bahiravakanda temple, and the Millennium Elephant foundation. We had arranged a tuk tuk and, before long, we were weaving our way in and out of traffic, and gasping for fresh air. On our way to see the elephants, we stopped occasionally to take a photo. We encountered Macacque monkeys by the roadside, hundreds of bats hanging in trees in the bright morning sun, and even some porcupines.

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We arrived at the Millennium Elephant Foundation and paid 2000 rupees for a basic package which included a short ride. We had previously spent time at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, in Lampang, Thailand. It is a huge natural forest where the Elephants are well looked after. We thoroughly enjoyed our time there. Sadly, the moment we were rushed through the main entrance, dragged through the museum, and virtually thrown on the back of an elephant, which had just returned two other tourists from a ride, we realised this was the polar opposite of the Thailand experience. We immediately felt uncomfortable, even guilty, participating in this zoo like farce. The elephant, it's ears covered in open sores, was constantly poked and prodded by the mahout as it automatically walked the short circuit around the facility. We had a guide imploring us to smile as he took photos but we felt terrible sitting on the back of this majestic creature in such an awful circumstance. Thankfully, after about 10 minutes, we climbed off the elephant. We were then confronted by both the demand of the mahout for a tip, and the touting of an east end londoner to feed the elephant a pre prepared plate of fruit, at a cost of 200 rupee. We gave the mahout a tip to stop him harassing us and asked the cockney if tourists constantly feed the elephant all day. We asked if food intake was monitored and the diet was balanced and appropriate. He assured us that all the food was weighed and recorded against each animal. We didn't feel convinced. The facility felt like a circus sideshow. Using animals inappropriately to fleece tourists from dawn to dusk. We watched one of the animals walked down to a section of water where it was commanded to lie on one side, before being placed on a short chain which tethered it to a point which kept it lying down. A tourist then waded into the water and washed the elephant. We left.

Our driver kept trying to convince us that we wanted to go to a gem museum. We kept trying to convince him that we had no interest. We told him we would like to go to a tea factory and off we went. After a few minutes we turned off the main road and into the carpark of. you guessed it, the gem museum! A man greeted us and invited us in, our flat refusal to exit the vehicle seemed to end any further debate.

Happily, our next stop was a Tea factory. A very pleasant and informative young woman took us through the facility, explaining the various stages of production. The machinery was very old but in excellent order. We learned a little about the different types of tea produced there and were invited to sample some. We were left to look at the gift shop but there was no pressure what-so-ever to buy. We picked up a couple of really lovely items.

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Next stop was wood carving. We learned about the different types of wood and what type of carving each was best suited to. We were also shown the natural colours used for painting items, like the traditional masks. We took a slow walk around the shop floor and were amazed at the quality of the workmanship. There were some magnificent pieces, most far too large to even consider taking back home on the plane, we decided on a Peacock Mask, an elephant and a meditating Buddha. The mask symbolises peace and harmony so we thought it an excellent item to hang at home. Our last stop for the day was one we had been most looking forward to. From almost anywhere in town you can see a large white, meditating Buddha sitting high on a hill, as if watching over Kandy. The Bahiravakanda Buddha is more than 80 feet high and sits atop 'Gnome Mountain'. Legend tells of hundreds of sacrifices made, by the Kings of Kandy, to appease a wicked gnome which lived here. Now the site offers a peaceful place to take in the remarkable views over Kandy Town.

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We had a final delicious breakfast at the Paridise before heading off for our next leg. We thanked Nayagam and his staff for looking after us so well and took off towards Dalhousie, our next destination. Our driver, from the first day in Kandy, had swapped his Tuk Tuk for a small car and for an agreed price of 7000 rupee we were again weaving left and right as we avoided buses, trucks, motorbikes, Tuk tuks, people, and dogs. Once we escaped the noise and congestion of Kandy, and surrounds, the air was free of smog and the countryside spectacular. We climbed higher up into the hills and entered the tea plantation areas. Tea bushes marked endless straight horizontal lines across the hillsides. The valleys peppered with coconut palm, mara, and bright orange/red African tulips. We passed workers toiling either in the field or carrying bags, or tools, along the roadside. Always offering a nod of the head or a smile. We have become increasingly conscious of the fact that we have been born into an easy life while others are, in all likelihood, going to spend theirs in slogging manual work.

We stopped occasionally to take a photo of the incredible views across the valleys. The last 25km became slower, harder work for our driver due to the poor condition of the tight winding roads. At about midday we arrived at the Slightly Chilled Guesthouse. We invited Cyril to join us for some tea. He accepted, but I think only out of obligation. Our intent was to be courteous but we suspect it only served to cause a delay in his return journey.

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We checked in to our room and found it had a balcony from which we could sit facing the challenge which awaited us, Siri Padaya and the 5500 steps which lead to it's peak. We took a walk to familiarise ourselves with the starting point of the trail in the hope that we would find it in the dark that night. about 100 metres up from our hotel we met a very friendly dog who decided to take the walk with us.The town consists of one main, unpacked, road and an open square car parking area. We stopped in at one of the shops and had a cold drink. The dog sat outside until we were done and then we all walked down the hill to the river. As with everywhere we had been so far, everyone we passed smiled broadly and greeted us with an energetic "Hello" we returned the greetings in kind. We crossed the bridge and found what looked like the start of the trail. Our four legged friend wandered off up a hill pausing to look back at us every few steps. Unconvinced that we had located the start point we decided to retreat to the hotel and check our guidebook and consult with the staff. The dog caught up with us and walked as far as his house, and went back to sleep where we had first found him. Sitting back in our room we read about the climb, and how all the local dogs know the route and will often accompany travellers and pilgrims up Siri Padaya. We had not gone quite far enough to reach the well marked start point. Had we followed our canine companion he would have shown us. That evening we set out our boots coats, chocolate, torches, had a hearty meal of curries and rice, and got some sleep.

At 1am the alarm went off. We rose without hesitation and donned our gear. The staff were up and saw us off wishing us good luck. We kept an eye out for our little mate, but there was no sign of him. We didn't see anyone else on our way to the start point. The pilgrimage doesn't occur until January so the trail was absent of any light, or the many tea stalls and activity which makes the climb so vibrant during the peak period. Much as we would have loved to witness the festivities, we loved the solitude and silence, the darkness and nervousness.

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We crossed the bridge and rounded the corner until we came upon the start of the trail to Adam's Peak (Siri Padaya). We paused, took a deep breath, and began the climb. We were feeling really energised and excited but were careful not to adopt an unsustainable pace. The ground was uneven and tree roots, and wet season rains, had taken areas of the path away. We could see about 4 feet ahead of us as we climbed in single file. About 15 mins into the trail we came to a large reclining Buddha, we lit some incense before continuing on. Shortly thereafter, two monks stopped us and tied orange string bands onto our wrists. As they were tying the bands they recited a short sutra to bestow good blessings upon us.

Over the next couple of kilometres we started to see a few other climbers. We would pass, and in turn be passed, like leapfrogging up the mountain. It was gratifying to know that the embarrassment we felt at being passed as we stood motionless, trying to get our breath back and heart rates down, would be experienced in the reverse somewhere further up the track. What was of lasting shame was being passed by a sprightly little dog, who stopped to say hello before he flew past us, on three legs!

About 90 minutes in, we were well above the cloud line. The sound of the river had faded away. The trail was bathed in the light of a full moon, and the sky shimmered with stars. We checked our Garmins and were really pleased with our pace. In fact, we were well ahead of schedule and thinking we had it in the bag. We spoke too soon. The steps were very deep and high, the gradient so steep we had to pull ourselves up each step with the help of the handrail. Our lungs burned dry and cold, but our legs went to jelly if we paused too long. We kept a very slow, steady pace. At this stage the trail was narrow and we were conscious of the fact that we were unable to set too slow a pace without holding someone up, so we all pushed on until we reached a clearing whereupon about twelve of us stood in silence, sipping water or eating some chocolate, while we recovered some energy.

We continued on up the steps, at a slow and steady pace. The steps were divided, and narrow, which offerred us the opportunity to grab a rail with each hand and pull ourselves upward. We saw what looked like a tea stall ahead, there were several people seated there, eating or drinking. As we drew closer we could see the temple in front of us. We were finally at the end of the climb. The wind was strong and very cold, so we put all our extra layers on. We drank and ate as we waited for the sun to appear. Happily, the people were very quiet. I suspect we were all just taking in the experience silently.

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We took an occasional photo and before long, the sky, just above the horizon, began to glow with the first hints of sunrise. We watched the sun rise into the morning sky, revealing the landscape as it did.

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The temple gates were opened and we made out way to the three bells which are mounted on the NW corner of the temple. We paused and reflected on this experience, on how fortunate we were to have the opportunity to travel to this beautiful part of the world. It is customary to strike the bell the number of times you have made the journey.

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We each sounded the bell once and there was beauty in the strong, even tone, ringing out from the mountain top. We spent a considerable time taking in the view. In the morning sun, Siri Padaya cast a huge, perfectly triangular shadow across the land to the West. We took photographs and then started the journey home.

About a minute into the return journey, I felt a sharp pain in my right knee. I stopped and stretched, and massaged, the area, but with little effect. We had barely started down the mountain and I was in trouble. I was able to use the handrail to take most of my weight, like a single crutch, and this helped me in the steepest sections. I did however develop a somewhat ridiculous, but almost pain free, style of descent which I employed whenever possible. We christened it the 'Demented Cowboy' and it basically required that I adopt a very wide stance and run down the steps, straight-legged. My joy at having a break from the pain was only matched by our collective fear that I would slip and tumble to my ultimate end! Suffice it to say that the technique was a great success and eventually, we found ourselves on the relatively even ground at the base of the mountain.

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As we trod the path along the river toward the tea plantations, we felt what we thought was rain starting to fall. It wasn't rain though, it was a family of very cheeky Macaque monkeys pelting us with twigs and seeds. They followed us in the trees for a while before descending to the path and walking just ahead, or behind us. They were curious and confident enough to come within only a few feet of us. We parted company when they headed into the forest and down to the river. We found some spring in our step as we passed the now familiar buildings on the approach to our accommodation. We stopped for photos at the end of the trail before heading to our room for well earned sleep.

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When we woke, later that afternoon, we sat on the balcony and gazed at the mountain. Hardly able to believe we had just made the trek there and back again. We sat in the warm sun with the sound of the river drifting up from the valley. Sri Lanka was proving a vast, beautiful country, and we were only five days into our trip. We ate dinner and got to sleep early. At 05:30 we bid farewell to Dalhousie and made to journey East to our next destination, Kataragama.

The Gem River Edge Eco Lodge is situated in Kataragama, about 250km South East of Colombo. It sits beside the Gem River and is located close to Yala National Park. It is only a short tuk tuk ride to the centre of Kataragama and a large multi-faith Temple.

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It is an eco friendly place which provides a really relaxing experience in harmony with the natural surroundings. The rooms are cosy and comfortable, with mosquito nets, and ceiling fan. The cold water shower was not an issue as we were generally feeling hot and sticky at day's end anyway.
The Gem River Edge has plenty of space to sit and watch the palm squirrels, birds, butterflies and monkeys. There are three dogs who live at the guesthouse (all vegetarians) and they have to vigilantly guard their food because every time they wander off, one or more monkeys quickly climb down and start furiously helping themselves to the rice in their feed bowls.The setting is one of natural beauty and the cuisine is worthy of specific mention. Every meal was prepared from fresh, organic ingredients and 'Uncle' cooked them in the traditional Sri Lankan style, using terracotta pots. Carla, Muna and the staff were helpful and informative. On our first evening we travelled into Kataragama town centre. We walked around looking at the various stalls and shops. They were filled with floral, or fruit filled, offerings for the devotees visiting the Temple for Puja.

As it neared the time for the evening Puja, we joined the crowds heading towards the temple with their offerings of fruit and flowers, dressed mainly in all white. Small children noticed us quickly and we even saw one girl actually stop, point at us from about 2 meters away and call out to her brother who was walking behind, to show him the foreigners on their way to the Puja, before they both laughed loudly. People stopped us to tell us the direction of the temples (the way we were already heading), or to just find out where we were from. Children often asked for bon-bons, chocolate or money, but this time it actually seemed more a chance to practice some English rather than actually wanting anything from us.

We walked around the inside of the temple area, watching some of the rituals take place and offerings being given. We lit some incense and received a blessing inside the Buddhist temple. We have been to many Buddhist Temples, but this was the first place we had seen a ritual whereby a devotee lights a coconut on fire, holds it like a candle while praying, then makes a circular movement above the head before smashing it into a small fenced area when the flame went out. We caught up with the only other couple staying at Gem River Edge, a Belgian couple named Cedric & Sophie. We spoke with a few locals keen to share some information about our respective lives, shared some fresh fruit, and observed the various rituals undertaken at each of the small temples.

A group of teenage boys arrived, dressed in similar costumes to those worn by the dancers we had seen in Kandy. Their families proudly photographed them before the drummers started up and the dancing began. Kataragama doesn't seem to be a very large town but there were many people at the temple. The puja happens each and every night, at dusk, and there is no shortage of dancers, offerings made, and prayer. We wandered back to town and got a tuk tuk to the guesthouse.

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The next morning we rose at 05:00, showered and lathered ourselves in mosquito repellent. A four wheel drive arrived to take ourselves, along with Cedric & Sophie, on a wildlife safari in Yala National Park. Gelath, from the guesthouse, accompanied us as guide and cook for the day. We entered the park via the East gate, rather than the common route through the main gate. It turned out to be fortunate because within only about 20 mins Cedric quietly, but excitedly, called out "Leopard...leopard" we stopped the vehicle and slowly reversed back about 10 metres. There, through the lush green underbrush we saw Yala's prized inhabitant. A single leopard stood and stared right at us. Too proud to flee, it matched our gaze before very slowly walking off through the jungle. We could hardly believe our good fortune. Gelath informed us that it was becoming very rare to see the leopards. Only six live in the whole of Yala and to see one so close was quite incredible.

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As we drove on we saw peacock and pea hen, water buffalo, crocodile, iguana, and deer. We were excited and hungry when we made a stop at a stretch of beach for breakfast. Chairs and a table were unpacked and Gelath served us 'Hoppers' for breakfast. A sort of bowl shaped, paper thin, pancake. Made from coconut milk and rice flour, we had them with some strawberry jam and a small sugar banana. They were a huge hit with all of us.

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We chatted about the wildlife we had seen and Cedric reminded us how lucky we were to have him, and his leopard spotting expertise, on our safari. After breakfast we piled back into the jeep and went off in search of more wildlife. We were hoping to see some elephants up close, and were hoping we might even spot a bear. Before long we got our first wish as we came upon a large female elephant with her young calf in tow. We sat and watched them feeding for a few minutes before they were joined by a large male who came along side our vehicle. We thought he might take issue with our presence at any moment, but the trio trod past us and continued into the jungle. The road was rough and very bumpy. We bounced around in the back of the jeep as it raced and strained through the deep mud puddles and rocky ridges which marked the roads after the monsoon season. We took some time out for a break beside the river. We relaxed in the shade of the huge trees, and watched the water flowing past. The river was full and flowed quickly as the rainy season had only recently ended. We returned to the beach for our lunch and had a walk along the sand, soaked our feet in the warm water, and even took a short nap. We woke refreshed and ready for more safari. As the light started to disappear, we reluctantly gave up any hope of seeing a bear. We saw many more animals after the heat of the day had disappeared. Many elephants and water buffalo took to the lush green plains to graze. We saw flamingo, hornbill, black faced monkeys, dozens of crocodile, mongoose, deer and peacock before our day drew to a close.

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As dusk decended we drove to the ancient Sithulpawwa Rock Temple. We climbed to the top of the structure and gazed out over the thick jungle of Yala. We tried to trace out some of the spots we had been earlier in the day. A large group of monkeys were seated on the steps down from the temple. They were unfussed by our presence and sat quietly in small groups looking out over the forest and enjoying the cool breeze. At the base of the temple we visited a large reclining Buddha before heading back to the jeep and making our way back home. We soaked in the cold shower and scrubbed off the thick base layer of dirt and dust accumulated on safari.

That evening we dined on fresh vegetable curry, coconut sambol, chutney, and fresh fruit. I took the opportunity to taste the buffalo curd, served with local honey, for my desert. It tasted much like a very strong, quite tart, yoghurt. At 10:00 the following morning we said farewell to the staff and started the drive to the South coast of Sri Lanka and our next destination, Unawatuna.

We arrived in Thalpe (just out of Unawatuna) in the early afternoon, and checked in to what we thought would be our last accommodation of the trip. It was a little bit of luxury, not the sort of accommodation we would normally choose, but at the time of booking it seemed like a nice treat to stay somewhere where we could pamper ourselves before the long flight home. After checking in we sat on the balcony, overlooking the beach, eating dips and bread and sipping on some icy drinks. The room was nice and the balcony provided a fine view of the ocean.

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That night we ate in the restaurant, our first selections were not available and the prices were a little unreasonable. The following morning we decided to look for somewhere else to stay, even though we had pre-paid for a couple of nights. Whilst their website looks very impressive, this resort style, luxury hotel had very little to offer, their 'private beach' did not actually exist (it was more of a rocky wave barrier and a red flag indicated it was not safe to enter the water), the 'pool' was the size of a jacuzzi and was located virtually in the restaurant. The very average restaurant charged three times London prices, in addition to adding a service charge, VAT and then expected a tip. We could have managed most of those things (even the 80s style decor and Russian mob boss clientele) but, for two Australians, living in London for nearly 7 years, being so close to the sea and sun and not being able to swim (safely) was pure torture. Sadly, the hotel had no local flavour at all, and like many of the hotels in the Thalpe end of Unawatuna, it was foreign owned. The very next day, we relocated to a beautiful, Dutch Colonial guesthouse, less than 10 meters from the sandy white beach at Unawatuna, which was run by some super friendly local people and had all the Sri Lankan style which the former place had lacked.

We spent the following days ambling between our balcony, various restaurants and cafes, and the sandy beaches. We were lucky to be there right before the start of the tourist rush. The impact of the 2004 Tsunami was not immediately noticeable but walking a little further towards the temple on the point it became very apparent. There are remnants of many buildings which were washed away or reduced to rubble, memorials to people lost, and it was impossible not to stop and imagine the sheer terror endured here that Boxing Day morning. An elderly local man, who was walking along the beach near us, was unable to speak, but managed to communicate his experience that day, and how he ran to the temple and prayed. He pointed out business after business, house after house, holding up the number of fingers to represent the people lost to the Tsunami at each place.

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Whilst in Unawatuna we thought we should make the journey into the fortified city of Galle, which is about 5km away. While inside the European world heritage site itself (within the walls), we had a rather peaceful time, walking around the streets and looking out across the water. Once we left the fort walls, and night fell, it was not quite so peaceful. We had an endless number of people giving us their scripts for the same con, over and over again... "My wife is in the hospital and I need to collect a prescription...there is an ATM right there...." ..."Hello! Do you remember me? I am the chef from your hotel, I need to borrow some money until later when I can give it back to you"... and our favourite "We will take you to the official Government souvenir shop...". The delivery of these lines by the experienced conmen around the bus station area was perfectly executed, if a little unoriginal. It was the only time, since we arrived in Sri Lanka, that we actually felt worn out by the need to be constantly on guard. Our plan to have a lazy evening wandering around the markets of Galle town was abandoned as we jumped in the first tuk-tuk we saw and headed back to Unawatuna for some dinner and a sleep.

After a couple of glorious days, relaxing on the beach, the last thing we wanted to do was spend our remaining time in Sri Lanka, in a big city. We decided against a return to Colombo for our last night, and instead stayed on in Unawatuna. The staff at the hotel arranged for a driver to take us to Colombo airport on our final day. The drive from Unawatuna to Colombo is now quite quick and easy (about 4 hours), courtesy of the new motorway. The first half of the journey was a breeze and, when we reached the outskirts of Colombo, our driver's expert road skills, though terrifying, ensured we made it to the airport right on time. He had prefaced the white knuckled inner-city driving with the statement "If you followed the driving rules... you would catch your flight... next week!!". He got us there on time and we are alive to tell the story.

The flight home was long and depressing, as it usually is after such an amazing adventure, and the lengthy stop at Abu Dhabi did not make the home leg any easier. Within hours of arriving back in the cold and rain of London, we started looking at houses for sale in Sri Lanka... well, never say never eh?

Posted by StephenJen 10:04 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged beaches animals temples trekking safari Comments (0)

Reykjavic, Iceland.

Beards, big wheels and bun day ...

all seasons in one day 0 °C

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As we made the descent into Keflavic airport, Iceland resembled a winter moonscape. There was a notable absence of trees and the landscape was a series of random changes in ground level, blanketted in snow. Reykjavic airport is very well designed, having won best European airport 2009, and the transfer from plane to arrivals was quick and easy. In no time at all we were through customs and collecting our tickets for an Iceland Excursions/Gray lines bus for our accommodation. It was blowing a gale and we were relieved to escape the face lacerating snow and take our seats in the warmth of the bus. The relief was short lived though, as a strong fragrance of vomit dominated the rear half of the bus. We shallow breathed all the way to the centre of Reykjavic. The bus was too large to enter the narrow city streets so, thankfully, we transferred to a minibus which delivered us safely to Vitastigur 11.

We arrived at Alfred's apartments and were met by a very polite and attentive, somewhat Mr Burns like, gentleman, we assume to be Alfred himself. He showed us to our apartment and gave us a quick run down of the surrounding area. The place was just what we had wanted, a reasonably sized, recently built, apartment with a well set up kitchen (cook top, fridge, microwave, even a coffee machine) and a nice modern bathroom. The water pressure was great and there was an endless supply of super hot water, courtesy of the geothermal hot water which services Reykjavic. We can only imagine the sheer bliss of a world without boilers, lime scale, and the issues which accompany them. We unpacked before taking a walk around the immediate area.

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The shopping district boasts some really lovely retail shops and some very hip coffee bars and eateries. The bus station, supermarket and harbour are within easy walking distance from Alfreds. That evening we cooked ourselves some dinner and set to the task of planning our activities for the week.

We rose just before sunrise (about 08:40) and took a morning walk, along saebraut, to the harbour area. IMG_8446_2.jpgIMG_8441.jpg

You quickly notice a couple of things in Reykjavic. The guys sport some of the most impressive beards you will ever see, there are some seriously big wheels on vehicles, and lots of locals like to wear those Christmas style jumpers with snowflake motifs. We also became big fans of 66° North, one of Iceland's oldest design and manufacturing companys (1926).

For a couple of weeks we had been tracking the strength of the Northern lights online and that night's forecast was for strong activity. We had looked at many of the reviws on trip advisor and found one company which had received outstanding feedback. We were doubtful about getting a place on a trip for that evening, as generally you need to call at least 24 hours in advance, but we were thrilled when we were able to book our places for the evening. We double checked our cold weather gear, photographic kit, and charged up our batteries ahead of the trek into the dark snow covered hills. We filled the rest of the day with a wander around central Reykjavic. The apartment is only a couple of blocks from Hallgrímskirkja Church.

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It has a tower, which stands 6 stories high, and offers a stunning 360 degree view of Reykjavic.

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In front of the church stands a statue of Leif Erriksonn, the son of Eric the Red, and regarded as the first European to reach North America.

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We paid our respects before heading into town for a coffee. Concerned about the impending evening cold, and keen to make a purchase, we bought face warmers at a shop called Cintamani on the main street. At dusk we returned to our apartment and cooked a hot dinner. At around 6pm we received word that the clouds had closed in, and that poor visibilitiy had caused the Northern lights tour to be postponed. We decided to self medicate with snacks so went to the local Bonus supermarket. There was no shortage of options and we left with chocolate covered bananas, half a kilo of Californiu choc raisins, and a packet of, somewhat politically incorrect, Sambo brand choc fudge licorice. First we felt so much better... then we felt so much worse.

We spent out anniversary at the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa . We had managed to get the entry fee and bus there combined for a great price booking online through Netbus, saving us about £15. When we arrived it was cold, windy and wet - hardly the sort of day you would normally be considering popping on the old bathers and going for an outdoor swim. We checked in and hired our robes and towels, proceeding to our respective changing rooms for a mandatory shower (they do not chlorinate so, rightly, tend to be a bit particular about people being clean before they bathe). We met up again the other side of the bathrooms and stood discussing whether to enter the lagoon via the small portion that is undercover or to brave the cold in our bathers in a dash for the water. There were no hooks left for our robes inside so we hung them outside, and sprinted for the water.

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Its a wierd sensation swimming outside in a bright blue lagoon which at parts has water around 39 degrees, when your head knows exactly how cold it is outside above the water line. Before we arrived we were not sure how long we would be able to spend in the water before getting bored or turning into prunes. We managed to rack up a few hours in the water, moving from hot pocket to hot pocket around the lagoon. It is a very sizeable lagoon with ample space to allow a degree of solitude.

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Upon entering the spa guests receive a wristband, which allows you to swim up to the bar and grab a drink. You simply swipe your wristband, take your drink, or icecream, and it goes on your account for payment on exit. We chose to have a Skyr Smoothie (like frozen yoghurt and a local favourite) and plastered on a Lagoon Silica Facial mask, before deciding it was time to take a break from the water. We leapt out of the warm water up the, somewhat slippery, steps and quickly grabbed out towels and raced inside. Once you hit the cold air your swimwear quickly becomes an ice pack, so we towelled off, wrapped up in our robes, and got something to eat and drink. There are reclining sun loungers on the upper section overlooking the lagoon. We spent about 30 mins just taking in the experience before deciding it was time to head back into town. The Blue Lagoon was a genuinely unique experience and we left feeling very relaxed and pampered. It wasn't too expensive and was a perfect way to spend an otherwise rainy/snowy day.

We thought it only appropriate to celebrate our anniversary with dinner at a nice restaurant and, after reading excellent reviews online, decided to try out the new GrillMarket which, although initially impossible to find, was worth the hassle! We inadvertantly walked past it, numerous times, before discovering it was set in off the street and very easy to miss (ithe entrance faces a different street altogether). We were seated and after much deliberation, and indecision, made our choices from the impressive menu. Though we do try our best to sample the local foods when travelling, we struggled with the thought of trying some of the Icelandic specialities which included Puffin and Minke Whale, in this establishment (Rotting Shark and Horsemeat elsewhere). We did, however, try the seafood, duck, lamb and beef, which were accompanied by perfectly matching salads and followed up by extremely delicious desserts.

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The GrillMarket is not a cheap eat, but well worth trying if you have a special occasion whilst in Reykjavik, the food was great and the service without fault. Coffee lovers will appreciate the perfect espresso to finish also.

We made a late night stop at the 24 hour supermarket to get some supplies. We had read about a couple of local traditions that were to take place over the coming days. Firstly Bun Day (the Monday before Shrove Tuesday), a 19th century Danish tradition, where children wake their parents up with shouts of “Bolla, bolla, bolla,” and whack them with homemade paddles. Their kids decorate their Bun Day paddles at school. The tradition is that they get one cream-filled bun for every time they manage to whack their parents before they leap out of bed. We decided to skip the paddle making and just eat the buns until we were full. Shrove Tuesday in Iceland is called Sprengidagur. It means “Bursting Day” and the aim is to eat traditional stew until you burst. Then comes Öskudagur, on Ash Wednesday, when the kids wear fancy dress costumes and sing for candy in shops. On Öskudagur we saw an abundance of witches, ghosts and even a teenage mutant ninja turtle... old school, baby.

When we woke up, the snow outside had mostly melted and the town looked entirely different. We had some difficulty recognising streets and things around us without it! It was a drizzly day so we made regular pit stops to cafes as we ambled around Reykjavic. We found a warm, cosy and very stylish place, with perfect coffee, called Hemmi & Valdi.

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It had lots of seating, with comfy sofas in one window section, and live music several evenings. We refuelled and recharged there before hitting the pavement again. Immediately adjacent to the cafe is an area which boasts some great street art. Jen spent some time adding to her collection of street art photos from around the world.

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After a talk about the reality of expectation and dissappointment, we finally gave up the daily anguish of hoping the Northern lights tour would go ahead. We got back to the apartment that afternoon resigned to the fact that the weather was not going to allow us to experience the Northern lights, and decided we would concentrate on some of the other amazing sights. Early that evening we received a phone call from Amazing Tours, as expected, only this time it was to tell us that, although the sky was still quite cloudy, they were going to head out and hunt for areas of clear sky. We were told there was no guarantee, but that the clouds were going east, and they thought they knew a couple of potential viewing spots. We leapt about the place with excitement and got our kit together.

At about 8.30pm a big wheel 4x4 pulled up at our apartment and we climbed the steps up into the vehicle. Our guide, Palli, introduced himself and told us he was hopeful we would enjoy some success. We collected our companions for the evening - Cathy, Nadia, Helena & Marcella - we were all excited about the impending hunt for the lights, and were staggered by the size of the vehicle. We were about 25 minutes out of Reykjavic when Palli suddenly announced that he could see the lights, changed plan and took a left turn off the road and down a snow covered path. Away from the light of vehicles he pointed out the white haze in the distance. As he explained what we were looking for, a curtain of translucent white light draped above the horizon, and slowly moved towards us. We quickly deployed our cameras and tripods.

We had read as much as we could about the best settings for photographing the lights, but were still holding our breath until we viewed the first image. The tell tale green haze was clear in the shot and we were thrilled. We spent a short time in that spot but the clouds moved in so we jumped back into the 4x4 and sped to our second veiwing spot. On our approach we saw several buses, with loads of people stretched out in a line taking photos, and we very happy when we drove past them, off the road, and up the hill across the fresh snow. Palli found a great spot with no light pollution and we spent about an hour and a half in awe of this amazing natural phenomenon. When we finally got home we immediately loaded our photos onto the iPad in the hope that we had got some decent results. We were very happy... and relieved.

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The following morning we were collected by a 15 seater Iceland Horizons tour bus for our trip around the golden circle. Our driver/guide was a very nice and very knowledgeable guy named David. He had an incredible knowledge of the many aspects of Icelandic life and landscape. He has been living and working in Iceland for many years, having married a local girl and started a family there. We felt especially lucky as In addition to the fabulous sights we received a free lesson in the history, culture, economics and aspirations of Iceland. The roads were quite difficult in parts, particularly icy on higher ground, so we slowly made our way to the major sights on the golden circle. First stop was to see Kerid crater, a volcanic crater lake located in the Grímsnes area.

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Next was a visit to the geysers in the geothermal area southeast of Reykjavik. The most widely known geyser, called... Geysir, obviously gave its name to this phenomenon. However, it only jumps into action about once every two weeks. Luckily Geysir has a neighbour, a smaller geyser called Strokkur, It erupts about every 4-6 minutes and the fountain shoots 15 - 20 m high, sometimes even up to 40 m high. We saw Strokkur spouting several times, and like the rest of the crowd, particularly enjoyed the hot shower it gave one selfish tourist who set himself up right in the middle of everyone else's photos.

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Next stop was the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall. We rugged up and braced ourselves against the strong, freezing wind as we carefully negotiated the icy steps down to view the falls. There is little to say about these beautiful falls. The photos speak for themselves.

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We retreated into the visitor centre and had a piping hot lamb & veg soup for lunch. At Thingvellir National Park, we saw the home of the Viking parliament. Iceland's parliament (Althingi in Icelandic) is the oldest parliamentary institution in the world. It was originally established as an outdoor assembly which was held in Thingvellir in about 930 AD. The clan leaders met to decide on laws and dispense justice. There is an elevated area, the Lögberg, or Law Rock. It has a cliff face running along behind, creating a natural ampitheatre. The Lawspeaker (lögsögumaður) presided over the assembly. He would read aloud the laws, which had been agreed for the coming year, to the assembled crowd. The scenery is breathtaking.

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The following morning was spent at Islenski Hesturinn (The Icelandic Horse) on a riding tour. It was a drizzly day and others had cancelled, which left just the two of us for the morning ride. We were collected by Sveinn and within around 25 minutes we arrived at the stables. We met Begga (pronounced Becca) she got us coffee and asked us about our experience levels. We (like most Aussies I expect) are very comfortable on horses but we were, very rightly, taken through all the safety issues first. Begga told us what we could expect from the horses and more importantly, what the horses would expect from us. She explained that the Icelandic horses have five gaits. They have an additional natural gait, present from birth, called the tölt. In technical terms it is a four-beat lateral ambling gait. The footfall pattern is the same as the walk - left hind, left front, right hind, right front. It is incredibly comfortable and can be maintained at the speed of a normal trot up to that of a canter. Begga was very keen for us to experience the tolt, as were we.

We were supplied with wet weather gear, helmets and gloves before heading outside to meet the horses. Icelandic horses only average 13 and 14 hands (52 and 56 inches, 132 and 142 cm) in height, and would normally be classed as a pony. I, at 6 feet tall, felt almost cruel asking one of them to carry me around. These are a really stocky, muscular, sturdy types though and it posed no problem for them. Jen was introduced to her mount a horse named Vafi (roughly translates as Braid or Weave). I was introduced to Ljosbrau (Bright Eyes). P1020057.jpg
Along with Begga and Sveinn, we saddled up and headed out. The horses have a gentle, friendly nature and were very responsive to us. They are easy to ride and switched between gaits with simple voice commands and posture changes. We ambled through the red volcanic landscape. It's dotted with what resembled self raising puddings which stood 20 - 30 feet tall. There were sunken areas of land, with frozen pools of water and snowy patches. It was like nothing we could ever have imagined seeing, let alone riding through on horseback. The rider is required to do a couple of specific things which send a clear message to the horse that you want it to tolt. Sveinn and Begga helped us get the technique down in order to successfully achieve the gait. It is quite different to anything we had previously experienced. Very quick acceleration, a very comfortable, quiet gait (as only one foot is on the ground at any time) and a perfectly steady lateral movement with almost no vertical movement. We were out for about 90 minutes and Begga happily took photographs which she later emailed to us.

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Our guides were incredibly energetic, attentive and helpful. This is a fairly new family business. Begga, Sveinn, and thier two children have only been operating for just over a year. I think they will be very very busy going forward. They gave us a wonderful experience for our last morning in Iceland.
We spent the afternoon in town. That evening we stopped in at Reykjavic's world famous hotdog stand, Bæjarins beztu pylsur (best hot dog in town).

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It's a small stand on Pósthússtræti, close to the harbour. To put it in perspective, it was a rainy Thursday night, without any shelter, and we had to join a queue. People were stopping cars and darting out for a dog, so were knew we were onto something special. We had been told that the dogs in Iceland were made from lamb, but when we ordered the guy told us they also contained pork. We ordered two with everything - mayo, mustard and crispy fried diced onions - washed down with a coke. They were very tasty, and affordable. I don't know whether they are the world's best (we still find a Berlin currywurst unbeatable) bet we'll leave that judgement to others. Hell... we were eating them on the last night of our anniversary trip in Iceland, so they tasted pretty damn good to us!

We had a great time in Iceland and can't wait to visit again. The people are genuinely friendly and helpful. The landscape is unique and strikingly beautiful. The Northern lights unforgetable. The food is lovely and, despite all you read, the prices were not extortionate. An amazing country and it's only a 3 hour flight from London. See you in summer Reykjavic!

Posted by StephenJen 10:01 Archived in Iceland Tagged northern_lights golden_circle reykjavic icelandic_horseriding Comments (0)

Spring Roadtrip

London - Luxembourg - Strasbourg - Nancy - Verdun - Villers-bretonneux - London

all seasons in one day 20 °C

Our journey began after work on the Friday evening. Dave, Liz, Jen and I loaded up the car and drove, for about 2 1/2 hours, through Kent, to our accommodation in Folkstone, near Dover. We stayed in a small bed and breakfast called the Rob Roy. We had a big day of driving ahead of us, so we quickly got to bed, eager to get as much rest as possible. Next morning we woke early and had a quick breakfast before driving the short distance to Dover, where the ferry terminal is located. We had booked a SeaFrance ferry to Calais. The car and all four passengers only cost £27.00 which we thought was a real bargain. We drove into the car deck and went upstairs where we watched the white cliffs of Dover slowly disappear in the distance as we sailed towards France. The trip across the English Channel took about 90 minutes so before too long we caught sight of the French coast. We headed back to the car deck and soon our tyres hit French bitumen. The first few minutes of driving on the continent is always a bit tense because, of course, they drive on the opposite side of the road to us. I really needed to have my wits about me and I encouraged Jen to remind me which way to check for oncoming traffic as often as she wanted. I drove a large part of the day and we passed through towns, large and small, in France and Belgium before entering our destination for day one - Luxembourg. We stayed in a nice quiet, treed, campground in the outskirts of the city called Kockelscheuer (in Bettemberg). We spent a couple of days looking around Luxembourg. It is a beautiful place with a wonderful blend of old and new with some magnificent buildings and bridges, cathederals and alleys, cafes and parkland.

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On Monday morning we packed up camp and embarked on the journey South-East from Luxembourg through France again and eventually to our next camping spot in a town called Kehl, in Germany. Our campsite was next to the river Seine and the beautiful city of Strasbourg lay just on the opposite side of the water. We spent two nights in Kehl and each day we travelled into Strasbourg. We took every opportunity to stop for a coffee in one of the cafes. We had a picnic on the riverbank but got rained out, and we took a river cruise on our last night. The city looked beautiful all lit up at night.

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From Kehl we travelled West through the hills of the national parks to Nancy. We only spent a couple of hours there but we were impressed by the magnificent main square - Place Stanislas. It has beautiful and ornate gates and fountains surrounding a staue of the man himself.

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From Nancy we continued West. We spent a night camped a few kilometres from Verdun. Verdun was the site of a major battle of the First World War. One of the costliest battles of the war, Verdun exemplified the policy of the 'war of attrition' pursued by both sides, which led to an enormous loss of life. We took a walk around the town and visited an underground fortress, used during the war. From Verdun we went on to Reims. We were ready for a night in a proper bed again so we took rooms at a hotel in the town centre. Reims boasts a magnificent cathedral, another Notre Dame (Our Lady).

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It is also home to the building used by Eisenhower as the Allied war rooms. We visited the building, which is now a museum. The maps still cover the walls and the table and chairs where the surrender was signed by the Germans still stands in place.

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From Reims we travelled to Laon. This beautiful town is perched at the top of a hilly region about 100 metres above the plains of Picardy. It dates back to the time of Julius Ceasar and has an impressive cathedral at it's centre. We had a delicious lunch before driving on to La Fabrique, and our campground for the night.
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Saturday we drove to the forest of Compiègne which was the site of the Armistice between the Allies and Germany which ended World War I on 11 November 1918. The Armistice clearing has a large statue of an allied sword pinning down an imperial German eagle. We made our own retreat from the site when a large bus loaded with tourists arrived. We drove through alternating blue and grey skies as we dissected the open expanses of French countryside, headed for Villers-bretonneux. Jen and I had been to this town previously but we were keen to bring Dave and Liz there as it holds special significance for all Australians.


(from Wikipedia) In the First World War, on 24 April 1918, the small town of Villers-Bretonneux was the site of the world's first battle between two tank forces: three British Mark IVsagainst three German A7Vs. The Germans took the town, but that night and the next day it was recaptured by 4th and 5th Division of the AIF at a cost of over twelve hundred Australian lives. The people of Villers-Bretonneux remain indebted to Australia for this feat. The town's mayor spoke of the Australian troops on 14 July 1919 when unveiling a memorial in their honour: "The first inhabitants of Villers-Bretonneux to re-establish themselves in the ruins of what was once a flourishing little town have, by means of donations, shown a desire to thank the valorous Australian Armies, who with the spontaneous enthusiasm and characteristic dash of their race, in a few hours drove out an enemy ten times their number...They offer a memorial tablet, a gift which is but the least expression of their gratitude, compared with the brilliant feat which was accomplished by the sons of Australia...Soldiers of Australia, whose brothers lie here in French soil, be assured that your memory will always be kept alive, and that the burial places of your dead will always be respected and cared for..."
The Australian War Memorial in France is located in Villers-Bretonneux and in front of it lie the graves of over 770 Australian soldiers, as well as those of other British Empire soldiers involved in the campaign. The school in Villers-Bretonneux was rebuilt using donations from school children of Victoria, Australia (many of whom had relatives perish in the town's liberation), and above every blackboard is the inscription "N'oublions jamais l'Australie" (Never forget Australia).[1][2] The annual ANZAC Day ceremony is held at this village on Anzac Day, 25 April, each year.

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We took a good look around town, including a coffee at a cafe on Melbourne St, before driving a short distance to the Australian National Memorial. It is a very emotional experience, as I am sure you can imagine, to see the resting place of so many young men who perished so very far from home. There is comfort in the knowledge that they are held in such high esteem by the inhabitants of this little French town which they protected. Australian flags decorate the town in every direction and also stands proudly beside the French flag at the front of the council chambers. Our last night was spent in a town just outside of Amiens. We fell asleep very easily that night, exhausted from such a busy travel schedule. The next morning we rose and drove the last leg of French road to Calais. We played some cards on the ferry before driving home to London.

Posted by StephenJen 12:40 Archived in Luxembourg Tagged luxembourg roadtrip nancy strasbourg verdun villers-bretonneux Comments (0)

Amazing Morocco

from Marrakech to the Sands

sunny 20 °C

Saturday:
We arrived in Marrakech ready to undertake the usual negotiations with the touts and taxi drivers. After declining a few unrealistic prices, and unsuccessfully trying to negotiate the fare suggested by our research, we were finally chased down as we were about to board the bus and ushered back to the cabs. We were given a reasonable price for the taxi ride to our hotel, in the Gueliz (new town), and the driver seemed more than happy to have the fare. He thanked us, 6 minutes later, when we arrived.

After a quick pit stop, to grab a shower and unpack, we walked through the centre of the new town and down Ave Mohummad V towards the main square, Jemaa el-Fna.

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We stopped at a cafe in front of Koutoubia Mosque and had a coffee and water before heading to the square. We had a little wander around the market stalls and shops bordering the square before enjoying a delicious dinner at restaurant Agana - chicken tagine for Jen and veggie couscous for me. We sat on the balcony overlooking the square, which was filled with rows and rows of restaurants and stalls selling fresh orange juice, figs, nuts and dates. Musicians, kids selling novelty items, performing chickens, monkeys and even snake charmers filled Jemaa el-Fna.

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We walked back through all the activity, past a well lit Koutoubia and home for the night.

Sunday we woke early, walked into town, and did the obligatory hop on hop off bus. It's a good means of getting an overview of the layout and distances between the various areas of the city. We eventually disembarked at Bab Agnaou - a beautiful 15th century archway to the royal kasbah in the southern part of the medina - in search of the Saadian tombs... without success. We ended up having a very lengthy walk through some beautiful alleys in the old Jewish quarter. Wandering around without even a vague idea where we were, or where we were headed, became somewhat of a theme on this holiday. It always delivered some wonderful sights and surprises though, so we learned to embrace the concept of 'Optimistic Disorientation'.

We usually like to be self directed when holidaying but on this occasion we chose to book a tour, as we thought it would be the most effective way to travel to number of areas in a relatively short period of time. We checked for feedback about the various tour operators and one group had consistently good feedback. Our decision made, we chose to take a four day adventure starting in Marrakech then travelling across the High, middle & Anti Atlas Mountains, ride camels into the Sahara before returning back to Marrakech.

Monday:
We were packed and ready for collection from our hotel at 8:30a.m. We were met by our guide, Essalah, and went to collect the other couple who were joining us for the tour. We had our fingers crossed that they would not be stand offish or awkward to get along with. We were very pleased to hear a confident "G'day" as they climbed into the Landcruiser. Adam & Lauren are an Australian couple, living and teaching at an international school in Switzerland. We began the journey from Marrakech, towards the High Atlas mountains via Tizi nTichka pass. We chatted about our various travels and Essalah explained the history of the region, we stopped occasionally to photograph the amazing landscapes.

Looking from the road to the Atlas mountains

Looking from the road to the Atlas mountains

Roadside seller in the High Atlas

Roadside seller in the High Atlas

The High Atlas

The High Atlas

Berber Village

Berber Village

We spent the afternoon visiting the World Heritage Site of Ait Benhaddou. This village of clustered kasbahs has been used as a backdrop for more than 20 films and was one of the most important fortress strongholds on the old Salt Road where caravans brought slaves, gold, ivory and salt from Saharan Africa to Marrakech and beyond.

View of Ait Benhaddou

View of Ait Benhaddou

World Heritage Site of Ait Benhaddou

World Heritage Site of Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Jen and Essalah

Jen and Essalah

We passed through Ouarzazate, and the Valley of the Rose, famous for soft Persian rose oil. Our next destination was the Dades valley. We passed through a variety of villages and watched the colours of the country change as we travelled.
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Our first night was spent in a beautiful auberge in the Dades valley which overlooked the gorge. We had a delicious tagine and hit the hay
Our hotel in the high Atlas mountains

Our hotel in the high Atlas mountains

Tuesday:
After breakfast we jumped in the prado and drove through the Saghro mountains before stopping in Rissani for lunch. The restaurant was beautiful and we started with some fresh carrots which were sweet and full of flavour. We had forgotton what good natural food tasted like. The main course was a delicious traditional dish followed by fresh orange with cinnamon. After eating (too much) we were invited to take a tour of the town. "Have you ever seen a donkey park?" our guide asked. "No but I assume it's a big park where donkeys live" we answered. "Well no... you have car parks, we have a donkey park" he told us. We turned the corner and arrived at the edge of a huge flat lot filled with carts and eeaawing donkeys of every size and colour. The air was filled with the sounds, and smells, of all things donkey.

Donkey parking lot

Donkey parking lot

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Donkey parking

Donkey parking

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We walked through the park to the livestock market, then through stalls of fresh fruit, vegetables, spices and other items. The vivid colours of the Saffron, Paprika, Cumin, Cinnamon were so rich. Indigo and Henna, fresh beans, carrots and oranges were there in abundance. The market was a hive of activity.
Livestock market

Livestock market


Spice market

Spice market

Spices

Spices

Next we visited a carpet store and saw a variety of designs perculiar to individual Berber families. All were prefixed with the word 'Ait' (meaning of or from) then the family name. After much deliberation, they were all so beautiful, we bought a small carpet to take home.

Back in the car, we drove further until the landscape gave way to a flat expanse of barron land. We drove for several kilometers across the corrugated dirt roads. Essalah expertly avoiding potholes and rocks. In the distance we could see the Erg Chebbi dunes appear on the horizon. Our destination was the Jasmina auberge, about 30km from Merzouga. We signed the hotel register, donned our recently purchased head scarves and went to meet our camels. This was the part of the holiday we were most looking forward to. The camels were all saddled up and sitting down in a line. The saddles were made with a rolled up carpet which made a U shape around the hump (single humped dromedary camels here) then a couple of thick carpet blankets over the top. Our guide, Ibrahim, told us to climb aboard and hold on very tightly.

The camels stand up by first straightening the back legs, so you almost feel you are about to go flying over its head and land face first in the sand, then it straightens its front legs and often lets out a low toned kind of growl of discontent. Once we were all sitting tall in the saddle (or on the hump as it were) we farewelled Essalah and began our ride into the dunes. The camels had a slow gait and, if you loosened your hips, were quite comfortable to ride. The saddles were surprisingly comfortable too.. apart from some slight 'hump breakthrough' towards the end of the journey. The sun was setting as we approached the bivouac (camp) so we dismounted and began climbing a huge dune to capture the beautiful sunset. Jen, Lauren and I made it about halfway before collapsing and resigning to watch from where we fell. Only Adam made it to the summit, he must have premium quality lungs and legs!

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After watching the sunset we carefully managed our way down the steep side of the dune and into camp. It was set up with a circle of large nomad wool tents surrounding a central fire. Half a dozen long cussions were layed around the fire with small tables. We drank mint tea and ate lamb tagine for our dinner. After our meal Ibrahim and the other guide built up the fire and brought out some sheepskin drums and iron castanets (of the Gnawa people). They tightened the skins by the fire and then played and sang for us as we lay on the cussions gazing at the almost full moon and the blanket of brilliantly shining stars which filled the sky. We were invited to join in and I leapt at the chance to play the drums with the guys. We retired to our tent for the night, under the almost crushing weight of four heavy blankets, the desert was freezing cold but we slept well.
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Wednesday:
About an hour before sunrise we were gently woken by the guides. We quickly washed and packed before mounting the camels and riding towards the Algerian border. As the sun slowly rose, the colour and patterns of the dunes changed. We stopped shortly before sunrise and found a quiet place to witness the first rays across the sands. The view was simply breathtaking. It was a most beautiful scene and we had the silence to take it all in. As we rode we looked west and could see Algeria. When we arrived back to the auberge, we farewelled our faithfull 'ships of the desert' and washed before taking breakfast on the terrace. We gazed out to the dunes and chatted about our adventure, each of us feeling very lucky to have had such an opportunity.

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Essalah found us and we jumped back into the 4 wheel drive and headed to Tinerhir. Along the way we stopped and wandered across the expansive rock slabs filled with fossils. The density of fossils in the rocks of this region was astounding. The area had once been part of the Mediterranean and, as a result of the slow shrink of the water mass, left an abundance of sea life which became fossilised. We also stopped to visit a fossil workshop and made a couple of small purchases as momentos. Later we took a walk through Todra Gorge, where sheer limestone walls rise to 300m in its narrowest part. We asked Essalah if we could have lunch somewhere that the locals would eat. It was shortly after that we experienced what Adam rightly described as "The best servo food ever". We pulled into a petrol station and as the car was filled and washed, we followed Essalah to a window at one side of the building. It was a butcher shop. We ordered lamb chops and kefta (lean meat combined with garlic, onions, cumin, coriander and turmeric) the butcher passed it through a window to a guy who immediately threw it onto the charcoal barbeque. It arrived with more mint tea and was, quite possibly, the best BBQ ever.

After lunch we drove to our final accomodation - Hotel Tomboctou, an old kasbah in Tinerhir. We showered off the sand from the previous day and then joined a guide for a wander through the local palmeries, villages and gardens. We visited the old kasbah quarter and saw how traditional Berber carpets are woven. After yet more mint tea we made the late afternoon walk back to the kasbah for dinner in the Caidal Tent.

Thursday:
After breakfast the bulk of the day was spent driving back toward Ouarzazate, where we visited the old Glaoui Kasbah Taouirt.

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We crossed the High Atlas again, stopping for lunch in a local roadside restaurant. We were all a bit sad knowing this would be our last meal together. We presented Essalah with a toy koala and a genuine Aussie stubbie holder, with indigenous art designs, and toasted our mutual good health and happiness. We drove the final leg down the Tizi nTichka pass before arriving in Marrakech. We dropped off Adam & Lauren and thanked them for being such wonderful travelling companions. Essalah dropped us at our hotel and we thanked him for taking us on such a wonderful trip. We also promised to return again soon.

We spent Fridaylooking at areas of the town we had previously not explored and found ourselves again indulging in 'Optimistic Disorientation'. We bought some items at the market stalls and ate in Jemaa el-Fna.

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Saturday we took a taxi to the previously elusive Saadian Tombs. We had managed to walk past it twice during previous attempts to visit.

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We ate in a little place on the footpath in the new town. We had regular visits from people wanting to sell us everything from carpets to pens, watches and whiteboards. We also witnessed the generosity of the locals who did not hesitate in giving a portion of thier meal to the passing beggers. We gave change and food to the beggars and... bought another carpet!

Sunday we walked through the new town and visited the jardin Marjorelle, a somewhat overhyped ornate garden designed by a dead Frenchman.
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We continued walking to the old town medina and came across a large group of protestors. Unable to read the signs or understand the chants we asked one of those attending what was happening. "It's just some people asking for some people to give them some things because they are not happy about some things" he said. His vagueness was quite deliberate and he was very keen to assure us that this was nothing like what had been occuring in some other countries. The group began marching as we headed into the medina. We had a map of the alleys and souks, and were very keen to locate the 'dyers souk' where traditional wool dying still takes place.

Cue the 'Optimistic Disorientation'... the map was of no earthly help whatsoever. A number of men offered to help us find the main square (for a tip) but we explained we were just wandering around having a general look. We had one very persistent fellow spend a great deal of time trying to convince us that we wanted to go to the main square. He seemed genuinely crazy so I only spoke to him in Mandarin Chinese... he looked confused and left us alone. We walked in circles for another hour or so before stopping for a coke. The shop owner suggested that we should go left and take a look at the dyers souk. We were very thankful for the suggestion. He didn't even want a tip! We eventually arrived at the old souks and found one of the dyers. He was busy soaking wool in indigo before fixing the colour with salt and vinegar. It was the warmest day so far and he was working very hard. He invited us to take some photos and we thanked him for his time, and information, with a cold drink and a bounty bar.

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By the time we reached Jemaa el-Fna, the protestors had arrived and were in full voice. The number had swelled so we felt it best to sit for a while until things quietened down. When we made the journey home we saw the trail of discontent which the protest had left. Oranges had been plucked from the trees which line the main road and had been thrown at the windows of some of the businesses. BMC bank, a telephone company and, in particular, the McDonalds were targetted. We spoke to a group of young men who explained that they were unhappy about the divide between the rich and poor, the rising price of staples and thier dislike of the local McDonalds, which they saw as an icon of the wealth gap and something out of the reach of average citizens.

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That night we dined close to our hotel. Things were a little difficult because the waitress spoke only French and our French is very limited, but we managed to decode the menu and order. We were the only customers in the place and shortly after the food arrived there was a rush of staff to the front of the restaurant. There was much conversation before the lights were abruptly turned off. The staff hurriedly dragged all the furniture, and the grill and gas bottles, from the sidewalk into the back of the restaurant. We jumped to our feet and offered to help but they insisted that we sit and enjoy our meals. We were left in the dark wondering what was going on, as the roller shutter came down. We could hear the protesters chanting in the distance as the manager urged staff to be silent. The waitress kept coming past and shooting a reassuring smile in our direction. After about 15 minutes things calmed down a little. A single light was turned on and, in it's dim glow, we could again vaguely see our food. As the shutter slowly raised we finished and paid for our meal. The waitress asked if we enjoyed our food, we assured her it was 'Parfait' and that "l'ambiance était très très bon" she laughed and we left.

The next morning we reluctantly headed to the airport and flew home.
Morocco is one of the most beautiful countries we have visited and we were so pleased to have shared some time with Adam & Lauren, and with our wonderful guide Essalah. We WILL return soon.

Posted by StephenJen 13:18 Archived in Morocco Tagged landscapes mountains buildings trekking camel sand_dunes souks Comments (0)

A Long Weekend in Lisbon

Portugese Pastries, Pickpockets and Plonk...

sunny 35 °C

We were really excited about visiting Lisbon, having never set foot in Portugal before and having heard so many wonderful things about it.

We were staying in a self catering studio room right in the hub of Lisbon, and just steps from Praça dos Restauradores metro station. We arrived early morning but could not check in until the afternoon so had five hours to kill before we could do so. We dropped out bags in the hotel's luggage store and then headed out to explore the city.
IMG_4852.jpg Our Hotel/Apartment

The hop on-hop off bus left from right outside so, after a quick cold drink at a neighbouring cafe, we jumped onboard and enjoyed a comfortable drive through the city, making a mental note of the sights we would add to the list of things to take a closer look at in the coming days. Our first stop came soon after getting on the bus, when we saw the amazing views from the Parque Eduardo VII and resident Gelati seller. With the heat of the day descending upon us it was a perfect place to stop.
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After our pitstop we continued our trip around the main tourist sights of the city, before returning to check-in at the hotel. The room was very nice and we were pleased to have a view of the square from our window, and a fantastic view of the city from the pool on the roof.

The following day we headed by tram to Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (The Jerónimos Monastery) in the district of Belem, which has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Sight since 1983. It is an amazing building, and a great area to explore, but unfortunately the sheer number of tour groups, we saw going inside, robbed us of the motivation to check out the interior which is, by all accounts, absolutely spectacular.
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We were lucky enough to have the Elevador da Glória (Funicular) a stones throw from our base, and this made the 265 metre climb to Barrio Alton (High Quarter) much more pleasant, and achievable, in the heat of the day. The temperature averaged 36 degrees. Upon reaching the top we stopped at the bar to drink some local beer in the shade, enjoy the cool breeze and take in the spectacular views across the city to the river behind.
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One of the highlights of any visit to Lisbon is, without any doubt, a stop at the bakery Pasteis de Belem where, in 1837, the baking of these tasty pastries, which bear it's name, began. Needless to say, we had been talking about a visit here since before we left London, and still talk about our visit even now, mouths watering with the memory alone. We sat and ordered 3 each, which quickly arrived - still warm from the ovens, along with some strong coffees to balance out the sweetness of the pastries. It was only after we had actully tasted these amazing snacks that we truly understood why people were queuing outside and, once inside, buying boxes and boxes, from the counter at the front, to take away with them.

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Another bit of tasty goodness worth indulging in can be enjoyed with a brief stop at The Ginjinha of the Praça de São Domingos (Lisbon) - which was the first establishment in the city to commercialize the drink that gives the establishment its name. Ginjinha (or AKA Ginja) is a potent liqueur made from infusing Ginja (Sour Cherries) with alcohol sugar and other stuff. This bar is so easy to miss, as it is tiny, there is only enough room to go in to order. Once you have your small shot of Ginja, with a cherry at the bottom, you have to walk out into the square in front to drink it. There is no room inside! We enjoyed the drink, and went back for a few bottles the next day to bring back to London with us.

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We rose really early one morning and climbed, in the dark, up to the high quarter. We watched the sun slowly rise, shooting fingers of sunlight across the walls of Castillo de Sau Jorge. The city was still and silent and looked beautiful bathed in the morning light. In the afternoon on the following day, we headed to Baixa and jumped on one of the rackety cable trams bound for the castle. The trams are wooden and essentially uncomfortable, but they are authentic and completely appropriate for the long, jerky, journey up and down steep alleys, through 18th century architecture. At times they hurtle downhill at such a pace that it seems impossible that the brakes will prevail. However, the tram drivers, much like local taxi drivers, know every inch of track and drive with great expertise,... if little margin for error. We saw an amazing sunset atop the Castillo de Sau Jorge de Lisboa (Castle of Sao Jorge or, roughly translated "George's place"). It sits up high on a hill overlooking the city of Lisbon, and provided the best views of the city, during our stay. It was particularly lovely and romantic being there to share the sunset. We can highly recommend that anyone visiting Lisbon visit the castle in time for the sunset as we did.
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Portugal is famous for is Fado - a haunting, mournful style of music which has traditionally included lyrics about life on the sea or life spent in poverty. We did not pay to see any professional Fado, as it was quite expensive and a bit touristy, but we were lucky enough to hear a blind, seemingly homeless, man singing Fado in an underroad walkway near Belem. We sat for ages listening to him and even took some video, tipping him for busking such an amazing voice.

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We have never been anywhere with such a high concentration of active pickpockets. We stopped and shouted at several pickpockets who were going for the bags and pockets of people around us whilst we sat of an evening, having a drink or something to eat. This was especially prevalent around Rossio Metro and the cafes which surround Praça de D. Pedro IV. We were lucky to avoid falling victim this time, but were shocked to see so many people coming so close to having their holidays ruined by a thief!

We made a rookie error on our last day in Lisbon, by deciding to make the train journey out to Sintra. Sintra is a town approximatey 50 minutes by train away from Lisbon, and is a Unesco World Heritage Site due to its 19th century 'Romantic' architecture. We walked from the train station up the hill and into the old town for a closer look. We used the last of our cash on breakfast at a cafe beside Sintra Palace before deciding it best we find an ATM. We needed about €10 in order to get the bus around the various sights we were keen to see. We found three ATM's... none of which was working, even the one in the tourism office (the staff there informed us that it was out of money). Hmm. Interesting predicament, given that there was no way of buying tickets for the bus with a card and that the next nearest ATM was some distance away, up a rather large mountain/huge hill.

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After sitting on the curb for a bit and trying to think about how much time we had, we debated whether we should risk the walk up, bearing in mind the time we had before needing to be back at the airport in Lisbon. We set out on foot... up aforementioned 'mountain' in the mid thirty degree heat. After a short time walking, and the tense silence which accompanied it, we agreed that when we reached the top we would be really proud of ourselves for having acheived such a climb (we also agreed that Adam and Megs probably would have done the walk as first option and would not have even considered the bus, so - more determined, we headed on.
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It took some time to reach the small town where the ATM was, and success! We soon had cash. Thankfully, there was a small cafe so we recovered with some icecreams and a tall frosty drink before heading for our number one destination on the list - the walk up, past the Church of Santa Maria, to the Moorish Castle. After about 1.5 hours walking, we got to the top and sat in the shade of the gate, playing with a stray kitten. We recovered before realising we did not have enough time to go in and explore the castle AND catch our return flight to London. We walked briskly and caught the bus back to Sintra rail station, then on to Lisbon, before flying back to London.

Key lessons learnt:

1. DONT head out of town on the day you are due to fly
2. ALWAYS get cash when you have loads of options... BEFORE catching train out of town
3. Sometimes the walk can be nicer than you expect it to be, and a reward in itself... with some amazing views you dont get on the bus

Highly recommend Lisbon as a city break, and definitely plan to go back.... For more pictures - visit our Portugal Gallery here

Posted by StephenJen 10:28 Archived in Portugal Tagged portugal_lisbon_sintra_holiday_ Comments (0)

Spanish Roadtrip 2009 - part two

Tapas, toros & tomatina

sunny 39 °C
View Spain Roadtrip - Huesca to Salamanca on StephenJen's travel map.

After an enjoyable evening at Fiesta San Lorenzo in Huesca. We rose early and hit the road. We were heading to San Sebastian via Pamplona. First stop though was about 40 km NW in the town of Loarre, where another ancient castle stands, reputed to be Spain's best preserved Roman fortress. Castillo de Loarre was built in the 11th century by King Sancho III of Navarra and later expanded by Sancho Ramirez of Aragon. It's position allowed control over the expansive plains of Hoya de Huesca and was used to launch advances into the Muslim lands. It also featured in Ridley Scott's film 'Kingdom of Heaven'.

IMGP4321.jpg Morning at Castle Loarre
IMG_2405.jpg Castle WallsIMG_2445.jpg Views from The Castle

As we approached the entrance to the site, an englishmans voice came from behind a tree. My Australian flag shorts were met with the expected distain, given that we were mid-way through the ashes series at the time. Further inspection revealed a man of about 50 seated under a tree and behind a telescope. It was a friendly Englishman called Gary. A self confessed 'twitcher' (Noun - Brit informal a bird-watcher), Gary was able to tell us about the various birds which inhabit the area and identify the large birds of prey, circling the castle and surrounds, as 'Griffin Vultures' with a wing span of around 15 feet in larger specimens.

IMGP4324.jpg Griffin Vulture - These things are huge

Gary has set himself an amazing challenge for 2010. He is spending the year cycling all over the UK in an attempt to see an estimated 250 bird species. He aims to draw attention to the issue of climate change and to increase awareness of the Eco Schools Programme, whilst raising money for some excellent charities.
You can follow his progress here http://www.bikingbirder.co.uk/index.html

Gary joined us for a coffee after we had explored the ruins. Jen was almost comatose as she sat listening to two music nerds discussing every band, album and gig they had ever seen or heard. After what seemed like several hours, Gary and I had a 50 pence bet on the outcome of the cricket before Jen and I departed in search of the coast. Jen pointed out a rash which had developed on her neck and shoulders. She claimed it was due to exposure to dangerously high levels of boredom. I still believe it was a result of eating several kilos of cheese during the previous days.

In retrospect, we think we did the most beautiful part of our trip in the first week. The mountainous high lands provided castles, rivers, spectacular views and the changing colours of the landscape. As we drove over the highest peak of our route we saw a 10 minute period where the clear blue sky clouded over, grey and gloomy, and it rained. The temperature fell from 38 degrees down to 22 and then back to 39.

As we made our way toward Pamplona the road wound alongside lakes, through mountain tunnels, over long dry river beds, and areas of lush green trees. Pamplona is most famous for the 'Running of the bulls' however we made only a brief stop as we were eager to reach the Northern coast and the beaches of San Sebastian. Upon arrival, however, San Seb was choked with holiday makers and the streets were filled with people celebrating the fiesta. Almost every town we visited, in our first week, was celebrating a Fiesta in the name of their town's Saint. This presented us with some difficulty though, our Dos Tom would plot a route through the town but we would invariably find the city centre blocked to traffic. We did several laps around the centre of San Sebastian before deciding to push on along the coast in search of a quieter spot. The motorway runs several kilometers inland, but we decided to hug the coastline. After all, time was not an issue and the scenic route delivered some beautiful views. We drove to several camping grounds in the towns we passed through but they were all completo (full).

In **** we stumbled upon a sea of tents perched high on a heavily sloping hill overlooking the sea. We took the drive uphill to find a handfull of eastern European guys running check-in from a small portable office on the side of the road. The price was good but they insisted we could not pay cash up front and that they would need to hold our passports. We decided WE needed to hold our passports and kept driving. The sunset over the water was simply stunning and the cool of the evening had arrived, courtesy of a light breeze from across the water. We were resigned to a night spent sleeping in the car or on the beach, when we noticed the presence of small brown signs, featuring a tent icon, that indicated a campground a few kilometres up the road. Just inside the boundary of the town of Mutriku, and set on a hill just off the coast road, we found 'Camping Aitzeta' and set up for the night. We had a pitch set high on the top of the site which provided a lovely view of the water. We ate our standard fare, fresh bread with chorizo and cheese, before sitting outside at the restaurant for a coffee as the sun slowly disappeared.

The following morning, just before dawn, we walked to the water's edge and then along the coast into town. We have become fans of photos taken in the soft, even light of sunrise. The water was calm and the town silent as we ambled through the streets and back to camp. We packed our gear and hit the road. We had read about a place called Mundaka, which boasts the best waves in Europe.

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Dos Tom indicated a campgound on top of a hill just inland a few kilometers. It was dark when we arrived and we were doubtful they would have a pitch for us. We were wrong. We set up camp and headed for the cafe for Cervesa and dinner. The cook, a heavy-set man of around 60, limped over to the bar to take our order. We looked at the menu and ordered the paella...no paella. We ordered the Quesadilla... no quesadilla. He suggested an alternative but niether of us understood a word he said. Once again we simply nodded and said "Si. Gracias". The beer arrived courtesy of the skinny waiter... with a limp. The beer tasted especially good after a long drive. Our food arrived. It was egg and chips. We laughed quietly and joked that it was probably standard procedure to serve English speakers traditional English food. Mind you, part of the reason we travel is to escape the bland, stodgy, english fare. We ate what we could and then hit the sack.

9IMGP4485.jpg The Picos

Next morning we left the coast and headed inland. We decided to plot a route through the Picos de Europa, a lush green mountain range that extends from *** to ***. As was the case in Aragon, the altitude of the Picos delivered respite from the heat, and some breathtaking scenery. IN about *** minutes we reached Onions and the *** year old Roman bridge which sits above the river ***.

IMG_2563.jpg Puente de Romano

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From de Onis we slowly climbed along the winding road, stopping often to take in the views. We broke for lunch at *** and enjoyed possibly the largest lunch Stephen has ever eaten. We confidently ordered the set menu lunch and some water. Now into our second week, we were getting into our groove when it came to ordering food or drinks in Spanish. We were suprised, however, when the food arrived. Jen's pasta was delicious but I found myself a little bewildered when my pork came in the form of a large silver soup turrine filled with tiny green peas swimming in a watery, spiced stock with little cubes of ham. Oh well... I do like peas, I thought. I ate as much as I could so as not to appear dissatisfied with the dish. I simultaneously pondered what the likely result of eating a copious amount of peas might have later in the day. The waitress arrived and removed the dishes. I indicated that the peas were delicious and that I simply couldn't squeeze any more in. Shortly after that she returned with my Pork fillet and what looked like a smallish round steak for Jen. In my effort not to appear ungrateful, I think I had probably simply ensured that I appeared to be at the very least a lover of green peas, or at worst, a relative of Mr Creosote from Monty Python's 'Meaning of Life'. We again ate what we could and smiled graciously as the plates were cleared. The waitress returned with ice-cream for desert and we managed to oblige. We paid the bill and waddled out to the car.

We left Salamanca early in the morning and headed for Madrid. We travelled on the secondary roads in preference to the motorway and as a result we discovered a number of smaller towns, rich in character and often possessing beautiful churches and plazas. We stopped for coffee at a bar in a tiny town. It was just after 9.00am when we entered the smoke filled bar. There were about 35 men sitting at tables, at poker machines, or at the bar. Jen was well received... as you might imagine. I wondered if these guys were relatives of the guys in Fraga. We passed on breakfast and drank our coffees and water without much conversation. We returned to the drive and soon found ourselves on a lengthy detour which took us off our route by a considerable distance. I did the smart thing and followed the cars in front, turning where and when they turned. Eventually we got back onto the bitumen and Dos Tom plotted a course. We travelled through some really beautiful little towns. The people would stop and stare as we passed through, sometimes they would smile and wave. We stopped and took some photos in *** after returning to the car an old man approached and tapped on the window. We rolled it down and he began to tell us, in Spanish, that his town was the best in all of Spain. We agreed and he continued on his way laughing and saying "Adios". We had heard that Segovia, about *km north of Madrid, was particularly lovely, so we made our way there for a late breakfast. Segovia is yet another beautiful town with a lengthy stretch of arched, Roman aquaduct as the town centre's main feature. The main Plaza was bathed in the mid-morning sunlight as we enjoyed a cafe con leche and watched the locals going about their business.

We had advised a friend, in Madrid, that we would arrive shortly after lunch and were on schedule as we reached Las Rozas. We had not planned, however, on the 90 minute search for our hotel. Neither the map, dos Tom or the locals were able to help us locate it. After circling the area, with eyes peeled, and a great deal of frustration, we pulled in at a petrol station where Jen asked the attendant for her help. She indicated that the hotel was a few kilometers further down the motor-way. We finally checked in at about 3:30pm and called Mike. He arrived about 45 minutes later to treat us to a quick tour of Madrid. Whilst i had spent a great many hours talking to Mike as a language partner, we had not met before. It was strange sitting beside him in the car because his voice was so familiar. We agreed the only thing missing was a headset and Skype. Considering we had never met, Mike went out of his way to help us experience Madrid. We started with a guided tour of some of the landmarks by car, followed by a walking tour, which included the central bull ring, elaborate council chambers, central park and the main train station. The station houses an amazing palm tree garden and a large pond filled with tortoises. We stopped regularly for water or an ice cream. At about 11pm we had dinner at VIPS (pronounced Bips), a great cafe/restaurant with a book store, wine store and grocery attached. We talked about our trip thus far and the road ahead before heading to a Terrace for drinks. It was so enjoyable to be sitting in the heart of Spain, with a new friend, watching the night life with a cocktail. Mike delivered us back to the hotel at around 4am. I think i fell asleep in the car - we were so exhausted. We all shook hands and said "see you on skype!".

Next morning we checked out, bleary eyed, and headed East via Tarancon to the town of Cuenca. We found a camping park set on huge, well treed, grounds which had a large swimming pool with an expansive shaded lawn area surrounding it. We set up, which took about 5 minutes now we'd had some practice, showered and hit the pool. We spent the rest of the afternoon reading and sleeping on the lawn. We turned in early in an attempt to catch up on the last night's lost sleep. I woke at dawn to the sound of a deep cowbell, and when I peered out from the tent I met the gaze of a very large black bull. I had a moment of panic, as would any matador with all but his head zipped inside a pegged tent, before it registered that we had pitched just inside the perimeter fence. When I started to climb out of the tent El toro was was panicked and did a sort of stiff jump on the spot, much like a dog does in a thunder storm, before heading away through the sunflowers. As we walked through the park, later that morning, I expected to hear the sound of trumpets and have the other campers throw flowers to note my bravery. It didn't happen. Whilst reading on the lawn we had discoved we were near the Don Quixote trail. Inspired by the story we decided to go in search of the windmills.

We rose early on the last Wednesday of August, the day of the annual La Tomatina festival.
Click here to read the La Tomatina blog

The balance of our time in Valencia was spent eating and doing a little sightseeing. At 04.00am on Friday morning we embarked on the final leg of our roadtrip, along the motorway to Barcelona. The roads were great, if expensive, and we were able to watch the sun rise as we drove. We had the car back at the airport by 10.30, as agreed, and we jumped on a train to our hotel on Las Ramblas. We spent our last evening in Spain wandering along the maze of alleys, looking in shops, watching buskers and con artist scams. We ate paella and enjoyed one last turron icecream.

Our travels in Spain were wonderful. Having a vehicle allowed us to make and change plans on a whim, and our trusty Quecha 2 second tent was perfect for setting up camp, even in the dark. We saw the contrasting colours and landscape of Spain, and learned more about it's history, language, festivals and people. From the endless open expanses of the mountainous North to the arid stretches of Spain's center, we enjoyed every moment of this trip. We can't wait to return... soon!

Posted by StephenJen 13:20 Archived in Spain Comments (2)

La Tomatina

...surviving a drive by fruiting.

sunny 35 °C
View La Tomatina on StephenJen's travel map.

We rose early on the last Wednesday of August, the day of the annual La Tomatina festival. In preparation for the event, we had hit the local carrefour to buy a couple of cheap t-shirts and some eye protection.

The traffic grew heavy as we approached Bunol. As we hit the outskirts of the town we saw hundreds of 'free-campers' who had set up on just about every square inch of space available on roadsides, vacant lots, car parks and parkland. We parked the car and started to walk into the centre of town. The air was filled with the smell of the hot breakfasts being sold by local street vendors, and the cries of "beer... one Euro!". There were thousands of people sporting all manner of outfits. We observed various national flags, a couple of guys with watermelon helmets, a group of guys painted in 'Braveheart' theme (complete with tiny plastic swords and shields), a group of girls dressed in Aussie Swimming Caps (Members of the Fanatics), an excellent volleyball helmet, and a rowdy bunch of Portuguese men chanting "Por-tu-gal!..Por-tu-gal!..." as they forced their way through the crowd towards the Plaza Mayor.

We managed to reach the halfway point along one of the avenues approaching the Plaza. We found a bit of wall to lean against and started watching the proceedings. Local home and shop owners had covered the facades of thier premises with boards and sheets of plastic. They hid on the balconies of the upper floors and darted out from cover occassionally in order to hose or bombard the crowd with buckets of water. A group of about 8 local men and women had set up a large dining table in front of their shop. The sat in suits and ate morning tea determined to withstand the constant targeting by water bombers on the upper floors. They remained there, chatting calmly, until just before the start of the event and refused to react as the crowd roared it's approval with each drenching from above.

The event starts with an open challenge to climb a greased pole and retrieve a large ham which is attached to the top. We were some distance from the main plaza, where this takes place, so were unable to witness the activity. We were alerted, however, to it's successful completion by the sounding of an air horn. This blast of the horn also announces the beginning of La Tomatina. Before too long the already packed avenue was further compressed to allow the first of the tomato trucks slow passage, and our first supply of fresh fruit with which to pelt each other senseless. The width of the vehicle was significant and, as a result, people were pressed against either side of the avenue with substantial force. For the few minutes that the truck was in front of us, it had become difficult to take a deep breath and I was fearful of receiving a future paternity suit from the girl in front of me. It was a tad embarrassing, very uncomfortable, and a little distressing for shorter folk. The wall to wall armpit reminded us that we would soon be climbing aboard the London Underground again. However this crush, unlike the peak hour tube journey, had a pay off. It allowed you to vent your aggravation through the use of controlled violence, courtesy of the drive by fruiting. Each truck contained tons of ripe red tomatoes and several people in the tilt back of the vehicle. They stopped periodically and tipped a heap of fruit on the ground and as the crowd raced to get to the bounty, the men and women perched on the sides would fire off a volley of red missiles at those below.

Most of us had equipped ourselves with eye protection, swimming or safety goggles, but they soon steamed up and became impossible to see through. This left us without any peripheral vision and open to easy attack. We soon had a combination of whole and mushed tomatoes bouncing off, or splatting against, every side of our heads. T-Shirts were also soaked in the river of tomato juice on the street and flung with venom. This had the added effect on temporarily mummifying you as it wrapped around your face and head. We had not forgotten the early attacks from the residents and took aim for the gaps between their protective plastic sheeting. They returned fire with buckets and hoses. The whole tomatoes ran out and the fight would abate for a while, until trucks arrived with fresh ammunition. They did so on 3 or 4 occasions and, after about an hour, a final series of blasts of the air horns signalled the ceassation of the day's hostilities.

We took the opportunity to remove our steam and tomato filled eyewear and survey the area. Everyone was covered from head to toe with seeds, skin and tomato flesh. A river of juice and pulp flowed along the avenues as we embarked on the challenge of getting out again. We saw a break in the sea of people and joined the exiting throng. BAD IDEA... there was a crush of drunken men pushing from every side. Jen was constantly shoved around and was only just managing to keep her feet. I pity anyone who fell because they would have been trampled. A girl next to us was very distressed and looked ready to pass out. We had worked our way to the edge of the crowd when a couple, seeing our predicament, reached in and grabbed us, and the distressed girl. They pulled us to the safety of the wall, much like being rescued from a river torrent. It was a relief to only be taking soggy T-shirts to the head again. What a debarcle. We caught our breath and then started laughing, with relief, before stockpiling knotted, soggy shirts for a revenge fuelled volley at the next group of drunken louts. Our stress levels abated with every successful face shot. The rest of the crowd joined in and one loud, muscle bound, moron was pelted mercilessly... ahhh, rough justice never tasted better. I could hear Robert Duvall in my mind "I love the smell of tomato in the morning".

Our next challenge was to find somewhere to clean ourselves up and change into some clean clothes for the drive back to our hotel. We had rented a Seat Ibiza and assumed Europcar would prefer it returned without the bolognaise. It had quietened down considerably when we tagged onto the crowd leaving the avenue for the main square. People were splashing, jumping, sliding and sitting in the river of tomato juice. Many people were heading down a hill towards a narrow stream in order to rinse off. We joined them and, after a trecherous climb down the slippery bank, were washing off the morning's ripe red coating. It was only then that we detected the faint smell of sewerage. We looked in horror at those immersing their heads in the water and decided that, as we had escaped death by tomato, it would be a shame to subsequently die of hepatitis. We scrambled up the hill and joined the end of a long line which had an old couple, with garden hoses, at the other end. Mrs Gardenhose was giving everyone a powerful spray of water from head to toe. She had an excellent technique and was very efficient. She was obviously a veteran and was racing through eager participants. Her husband was somewhat less efficient. He was far more laboured and took his work very seriously indeed. Particularly long female legs and bikini tops. I drew the short straw and received only a cursory squirt from Mr garden hose. Whilst showering later at the hotel, I flushed a large chunk of tomato from the inside of my left ear. I should have worn a bikini top!

We had intended to clean up our clothes and shoes but it was clearly not going to be possible. Our Keens and Salomons, along with clothing, was confined to the garbage bin. We were certain we smelt strongly of Tomato, but later surmised that we had bolognaise sinusitis. Our skin was perfect though... because we're worth it.

La Tomatina is held annually, on the last Wednesday of August, in Bunol. You can find reasonably priced accommodation around Valencia and it is easy to travel to Bunol for the event. There are a host of activities on the preceding night and also the day/night of the event. Live entertainment and plenty of food and souvenir stalls. It is intense, a real challenge to those who need some personal space, and enormously enjoyable. Give it a go if you ever get the chance, but wear shoes you are happy to throw away afterwards and bring eye protection. We had a blast and hope to do it all again some day.

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Pre-fight Bravado

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Volleyball Helmet = Stylish and Protective

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The locals are protected by plastic Sheeting...

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...and they attack the crowd with a barrage of water bombs

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The calm before the storm

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The tomato truck arrives

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We survive the first volley

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The sea of tomato pulp

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The guy in front of us takes a soggy T-shirt to the head

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The crowd prepares for the next wave

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Trouble starts as a real fight breaks out

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The first re-supply truck arrives

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...and the food fight continues

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El hombre está en la sopa de tomate

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Clean... almost.

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Climbing down to the El Stinko river

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Mr & Mrs Gardenhose (note: Mr GH is far less interested in his current male client and prefers to gaze at the bikini he just hosed)

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The post fight street party begins

The First Truck Arrives

La Tomatina 2009-The Worlds Biggest Tomato Fight

Post Tomatina Street Party feat. The Coolest Dancer In The World

Posted by StephenJen 06:00 Archived in Spain Tagged events Comments (0)

Spanish Roadtrip August 2009 - Part One

The Cranes in Spain lie mainly in the Frame

sunny 39 °C

We loved some stretches of road so much, we did 'em twice!

Our trip started with a 0350 minicab ride to Stansted Airport. It was the usual white knuckled trip as our sub-continental driver battled to keep his eyes open at 85mph up the motorway. Through the grace of God (or Vishnu or Shiva) we arrived safely, checked in and in 1 hour 50 mins we were landing in Barcelona. We collected our hire car, a Seat Ibiza, and prepared to meet our first challenge. Driving on the opposite side of the car... on the opposite side of the road. Jen put her hand up for the challenge and before very long we were zipping down the road without any worry. Suffice it to say we brought our TomTom with us and had it set to remind us to drive on the right hand side of the road. After about 20mins driving we reached The Hotel Alimara. It's a nice, NH style place and we were in a spacious double room on the 2nd floor. It is a 3 minute walk to the metro station and about 15 mins by train to the city centre.

Streets_of_Barcelona.jpg Streets of BarcelonaArch_de_Triomf.jpg

That afternoon we took the metro to Diagonal station and then walked for about 15 minutes to our first stop, Sagrada Familia. We were instantly struck by the beauty of Barcelona the moment we emerged from the station. This is a city where function is not valued over form. The buildings are absolutely amazing, so ornate, a mix of modern and gothic architecture. Every couple of blocks we found ourselves stopping in awe of one of the building designs, ornate facades, or Gaudi-esqe edifices.Sagrada Familia is an iconic site designed by Gaudi in 1882. It was not completed in his lifetime and work continues still in an effort to finish his design.

Sagrada_Familia.jpg Sagrada Familia... and the cranes Sagrada_Familia_2.jpg

The heat was just starting to make its impression on us when we arrived so we were thankful for the shade trees and park benches opposite this beautiful church. It was every bit as wonderous as the images we had seen in books. It also maintained the European trend of constant maintenance or reconstruction. We soon came to the realisation that ‘The cranes in Spain lie mainly in the frame’ it was almost impossible to take a photograph without a crane or some scaffold in the shot. It didn’t prevent us taking a few shots though, nor the hundreds of other visitors there.

We walked South toward the city for a while before stopping for a drink and a bite to eat at a taverna. We had been assured, by several people, that everyone in the major cities spoke english and would in fact PREFER to speak in english, rather than endure our struggle with limited Spanish. When the proprietor brought over a menu we found that he spoke absolutely no English whatsoever. However, with the help of some very animated gesticulation, he said “Tu leer' (paused) "me habla” (you read then come and talk to me). 'Sin problema' I thought. Jen chose grilled ham and cheese (called a bikini) and a coke. Great... I can pronounce that. I went for a fritata Espanol and a latte. I approached the counter, practicing the dialogue under my breath and he approached, grinning. “Por favour Senor” I said (off to a good start) “Una bikini...” he put his hand up and stopped me. He was shaking his head slowly and took a short pause before telling me that what I really wanted was the chicken and indicated to the dish on his right. I politely declined but he insisted that was what I wanted. I patted my stomach and indicated that it would be too much. He insisted that what I wanted was the chicken. "Bien, bien" he said kissing his finger tips like an Italian. I ended up saying “Si” to the chicken and several of his other suggestions. It was that or starve. I was singularly unarmed for a conversational battle over a bikini. When I returned to the table Jen asked me how it went. I explained that I had ordered food but had only a vague idea exactly what food I had ordered. We had our drinks and waited for the food to arrive. A variety of small dishes arrived and we immediately went for the chicken. He was right. It was delicious, as was everything else. We were a little anxious about the ‘eat first-get the bill later’ approach and were hoping we were not going to be scammed, but the bill was very reasonable. When we went inside to pay we explained we were Australian. He and his wife seemed thrilled and immediately assured us that they were aware of the fact that Australia is very bad at soccer. He praised our national basketball team before pouring four shots of something which he described as 'little bit alcohol'. Salud! It was like rocket fuel. We smiled broadly as the contents of the glass ripped the flesh from our throats. His wife necked the contents and grinned. Jen later admitted to thinking we were being poisoned for initially baulking at the chicken suggestion. We figured if he made the wife drink it then we should be alright. We thanked them for everything. There was hand shaking all round and I politely said ‘adios senor’... to his wife! Oops.. I meant senora. I blame the alcohol.

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Casa Mila La Pridera - Classic Gaudi Architecture

IMGP4034.jpg Barcelona Marina
The next day we took the metro to Gracia station and walked to Gaudi park. We had brought a baguette, chorizo and cheese so ate a picnic breakfast seated on a bench in the shade. After eating, we walked around the park before heading back to the hotel for siesta. That afternoon we took the train to the city and walked to Barcelonetta beach. We sat and had an ice-cream and drink. An old lady had a wee in the sand in front of us so we quickly decided to take a walk along boardwalk then stop at a cafe for cervesa, bocadillo and agua. The food was great but the beer was enough to put us to sleep after a long day in the sun.

Day 3 we took the metro to Place de Catalunya. We exited the metro and found a large plaza with statues and fountains. A girl approached us with tickets for the Bus Turistic. We are fans of the hop on, hop off buses. They are a great way to see the big ticket sights when you don't have a great deal of time. We started on the red line which took us to Casa les Punxes, Sagrada Familia, Sarria, Pavellons Guell and FC Barcelona's ground. After a break we did two laps of the blue line. We visited Placa d'Espanya, Poble Espanyol, Port Vell, Museu d'Historia de Catalunya and Catedral.
After finishing the busride we sat in the shade eating a maxibon and sipping on a diet coke (irony). We headed home, baked from the sun, and relaxed. We were comparing our 3 day tans and applying our moisturising regime when a middle aged English woman suddenly burst into our room. Jen said ‘Excuse me!’ in her gruffest voice, but it’s hard to be intimidating when you’re sitting on the floor in your singlet and nicks!

Wednesday morning we hit the road early, excited to be behind the wheel and making a start on our roadtrip proper. We headed for our next destination, Zaragoza. The roads were good and we saw the space open up as we left Barcelona. The morning revealed the colours which would dominate the Spanish landscape. We had taken the time to burn 2 roadtrip soundtrack cds. We were relaxed and comfortable on the right hand lane and pressed play. We sank into the seats a little more and contemplated the long road ahead. We felt like we were in a Cameron Crowe movie... and it felt really, really good.

IMGP4163.jpg On the RoadIMGP4174.jpgIMGP4160.jpg

We arrived in Zaragoza and 'dos Tom' found a carpark. Again we had packed a picnic breakfast so we found a shady spot by the river and ate. The town is dominated by an impressive cathederal and has a lovely main plaza. We had a coffee and plotted the course to our hotel. We had booked a nights accommodation in a town named Fraga. It sounded ideal, positioned within easy reach of Zaragoza and our next stop Huesca, or so the website said. In reality Fraga meant backtracking for an hour and a quarter. Hey, we didn't mind. We like a drive.

IMGP4149.jpg Zaragoza

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Zaragoza Cathedral - with our shady picnic spot in the foreground.

IMG_2298.jpg Zaragoza Plaza

We arrived in Fraga and accidently drove through it whilst looking for a place to make a U-turn. We pulled in at the hotel and the 10 or so old guys seated out the front gazed, un-blinkingly, as we walked to the front door. We checked in and showered before joining the blokes out the front. We placed our order with the heavily intoxicated waiter and waited for our drinks. All the time, feeling the constant stare of the locals. We drank our drinks still under scrutiny. We wondered if anyone from out of town had ever arrived here before. Jen has a theory that the guys out front had arrived, as teenagers, after getting lost in a terrible storm. Having never found a way out of town again, they now found themselves in their 70s. We took a walk around the town and settled on an early night. We left at dawn the next day. The drive took us through some beautiful areas. Fields of sunflowers with a mountain backdrop and flocks of cranes taking flight as we passed. The roads became almost non existent. We found ourselves having to crawl along in 1st gear, negotiating our way around the potholes. This only added fuel to our theory that Fraga was designed to be inescapable. We resolved to push on for fear of returning to the hotel to live out our lives. Sitting with the old guys, staring at poor souls who stumbled into town in error, and learning to play the banjo. We climbed hill after hill until, finally, we found the bitumen road again. We set 'dos tom' for Barbosa and put the hammer down.

We stopped for a coffee at a bar in Barbastro, bought breakfast items at the Carrefour and then hit the road. We headed to Monzon to see the impressive Castle. The town of Monzon is fairly small and full of character. We climbed along the cobbled lanes, flanked by scores of ladies sweeping and chatting to each other or sitting in the shade in front of their houses. A long narrow road snakes its way from the town to the castle.

IMG_2313.jpg Streets of Monzon

The day was heating up as we arrived and the climb was taxing, but the views were stunning. We could see for miles in all directions and the large statue of Christ stood watching over the town of Monzon.

IMG_2306.jpg Jesus Looking Over MonzonIMG_2329.jpg View from Castillo de Monzon

Areas of Castillo de Monzon date back to the 9th and 10th centuries. The Knights Templar received the castle in 1143 and it remained one of the great feudal commanderies in the lands that formed the border between the Christian and Muslim worlds. We loved Monzon and now had our 'castle in the mountains' mojo working. We set out for our next destination... Alquezar.

Alquezar is perched high in the mountains. The area hosts many adventure tourists who engage in activities such as canyoning, kayaking and climbing. We, however, chose the adventure that can only be found in trying to find a toilet after a long drive. That achieved, we sat and had a cold drink at a cafe on the edge of the mountainside. We gazed down at the massive vultures which prowled the sky above the canyons. Refreshed we walked up towards the town. As we approached the main gate we could hear music and much activity. We entered through the gate and were greeted by a gentleman with a glass caraffe with a thin pouring spout set about half way up, filled with red wine. He was laughing loudly as he demonstrated his expert aim. He held the wine high and guided a thin stream of wine through the air and into his mouth. He gave me the wine and told me to give it a try. I did. It was good wine!

IMGP4255.jpg We are all about getting into local customsIMGP4261.jpg Fiesta Time

As we continued through the streets, towards the castle, a number of brass and guitar bands performed. They walked through the lanes, surrounded by the crowd singing and playing. Everyone had a sprig of local flora behind their ears. The whole town was gripped by a fiesta mood. Click Here to see our video of Alquezar.

We reached the castle and, again, the view was simply amazing. We felt like we had stepped back in time. The town structure had changed so little through the years that we could imagine life here centuries earlier. Alquezar not only sounds magic... it was.

IMGP4273.jpg Views down from AlquezarIMGP4279.jpg AlquezarIMG_2359.jpg Alquezar

The afternoon was drawing to a close when we returned to the road. We drove towards Huesca, a provincial town in North Central Aragon, and a gateway to the Aragonese Pyrenees. We decided to spend the first night in our trusty tent, at Camping San Jorge. When we had entered the town we noticed the vast majority of people were dressed in white pants and shirt with a green bandana and sash-belt. It turned out we had arrived in time for one night of a week long celebration for the festival of San Lorenzo. Click here to see our video of the Fiesta. We joined the masses in the centre of the old town for traditional singing & dancing, complete with traditional costume and castanets! There was also lengthy stretches of market stalls and a firework show to cap off the evening. We also had the first of what would become a regular treat throughout the rest of the trip. Rich ice-cream in a cone. Flavour... turron (Spanish Nougat). We felt pretty lucky to have stumbled across two festivals in one day.

4_Huesca_Festival.jpg Fiestas De San Lorenzo

We didn't get much sleep on our first night camping. It was only as we put our heads down to sleep that we realised two significant issues. The slow leaks in our sleeping mats and the fact we had no pillows, and nothing to use as a pillow other than a towel and a couple of somewhat fragrant T-shirts.

Dont Miss the Next Exciting Installment - Huesca to Leon (Coming Soon)

Be FASCINATED by Gary the Twitcher (Birdwatcher)....

Be THRILLED by the Crazy Spanish Drivers

Be AMAZED by the single Australian Gum Tree of Celorio

(Voiceover) IF YOU ONLY READ ONE BLOG THIS YEAR, MAKE SURE IT'S "SPANISH ROADTRIP"

Posted by StephenJen 23:16 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Spinal Tap at Wembley Arena

... Hello Wimbledon!

sunny 28 °C

London has seen the Majesty of Rock that is... Spinal Tap.

In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Mocumentary 'This is Spinal Tap', and the release of the new album 'Back from the dead', the lads kicked off their one night only world tour with a single show at Wembley Arena. There was a great array of classic heavy metal t-shirts on display. Tour shirts from the 70s & 80s featuring the usual suspects. I imagine middle aged men all over Britain had entered the secret code to the unlock the rock merchandise draw, removed the ADCD, Led Zeppelin or Metalica T-shirt from it's protective plastic sleeve and stretched it over the beer belly. This was not a night for half measures. An array of cardboard or inflatable guitars, fake Derek Smalls moustashes, long blonde wigs and a sea of black clothing prevailed. Looking around the crowd, It was a little like combining a Star Trek convention and a public funeral.

Tap were in good company with American folk legends 'The Folksmen' as the support act. This slick trio were note perfect, as you would expect. They had the audience cheering and clapping along to their self styled 'Eclectrified Folk". The stand out songs were their 1962 top 70 hit 'Old Joe's Place' and the sombre 'Blood on the coal' "Over the years we have noticed that about 50% of folk songs are about terrible tragedies" said Bassist Marta Shubb (until recently Mark) " The other 50% are about mediocre tragedies. Most involve either a coal mine disaster or a train wreck. I think this is the first song, however, to feature both". They took the audience on a rambling tour of hits including "Loco Man" and "Never did no wanderin'". The Folksmen - Jerry Palter, Alan Barrows and Marta Shubb -performed expertly with smooth vocal harmony and masterful guitar and mandolin playing. Displaying the musical savvy that has seen them become America's "most popular late addition to folk festivals within a day’s auto travel of their homes".

After a short interval, the house lights dropped and a roar went out accross the arena. We could hear the stage manager calling Tap to the stage but there was no sign of them. "Tap, Tap , Tap..." the crowd chanted, but still no sign of the band. A greenroom camera revealed David and Nigel playing Xbox, oblivious to the fact that it was showtime. The stage manager threw to a clip of "The Magesty of Rock" and shortly after the arena erupted up as Spinal Tap took to the stage. "Hello Wimbledon, we are Spinal Tap". They opened with the powerful "Tonight I'm gonna rock you tonight" and the crowd went crazy. What followed was a journey through the back catalogue of hits including "Gimme Some Money", "All the Way Home", "Cups and Cakes", "(Listen to the) Flower People" and a reworked, funk version of the classic hit "Sex Farm". It sounded sounded slick and the skull motif on the screen behind the band was now sporting an afro and 'Bootsy Collins' star shaped sunglasses. Could this be a preview of their new direction?
The crowd was on it's feet for the whole show and obediently thrust fists in the air as they called out the choruses of "Hell Hole" and "Heavy Duty". London was treated to the genius of David St Hubbins in the form of the completed work "Saucy Jack" the definitive musical exploration of the infamous East End serial killer, Jack 'the ripper'. The band also played more recent offerrings like "Warmer than Hell" and "Rock and Roll Nightmare" "Do you want to go back... right back to the very beginning"? asked David St Hubbins, the lights dimmed and Nigel stepped to the mic. "In the beginning.." a roar went up from the crowd as the band played the immortal 'Stonehenge" halfway though the song a huge inflatable replica of the monolith slowly rose on stage left. A little too slowly actually. As the two dwarves, dressed in medievil costume, arrived on stage, Nigel emplored them to 'Push it up... push it up" eventually it stood tall... Stonehenge. The dwarves did a kind of Morriss Dance around the statue until it toppled over, trapping them underneath. When the song was over the arena thundered with applause. Tap did 3 encores the last of which was "Big Bottom" and featured, among others, Frankie Poullain (the Darkness) & Andy Scott (Sweet) on bass. "Goodnight London, We love you" and it was over. Almost as soon as the World Tour had begun, it was over. Spinal Tap had again rocked the house and silenced those who would consign them to the 'Where are they now?" file.

History had been made, and history will show that anytime Spinal Tap sound the call to their fans, 5000 overweight, middle-aged man in poorly fitting shirts will answer. I should know... I was one of them.

Posted by StephenJen 23:18 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged events Comments (0)

Parkour Demonstration & Skatepark at London's Southbank

sunny 25 °C

Yesterday we took a trip to Southbank, in London, to check out a Parkour demonstration by the Urban Playground Group. It featured Charles Perrière and Malik Diouf - two of the original members of Parkour founder David Belle's 'Yamakazi' group.

Parkour is also known as PK or l'art du déplacement (the art of movement) and first appeared in France. It focuses on moving from one point to another as smoothly, efficiently and quickly as possible using the abilities of the human body. It is built on the philosophical premise that any obstacle, physical or mental, can be surpassed. Parkour practitioners are often called traceurs (males) or traceuses (females).

The demonstration was impressive and, as a result, we are now unable to look at the urban landscape without imagining ourselves leaping, climbing and balancing our way through, over and accross it. I would encourage anyone young and fit enough to give it a try to do so.
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We also discovered a skatepark along Southbank (East of the London Eye).
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Ahhh... takes my mind back to Nicole Kidman's mad skills in 'BMX Bandits'.

Posted by StephenJen 15:48 Archived in England Tagged events Comments (1)

The East Finchley Festival

community spirit complete with songs, sausages & squirrels.

semi-overcast 25 °C

Sunday saw the celebration of our beautiful town with the yearly East Finchley festival. It is held on the common at Cherry Tree Wood and is a real community celebration. Stalls are set up by the local community groups, schools and charities with all the usual fare available - books, clothes, trinkets and collectables. An array of culinary options from Caribbean jerk chicken to Indian curries and healthy salads were on offer. We chose the barbequed snag in bread (Aussie Aussie Aussie).
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The entertainment was housed on two stages, one at each end of the common. A series of bands played on the larger and a series of nervous school children danced on the smaller. Nothing says 'Community' like a group of 25 badly co-ordinated, terrified primary school kids who have been forced, by their parents, to flail around on a little stage whilst being filmed for future humiliation on their 21st birthday!

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We sat on the grass and listened to a couple of the bands before walking through the treed area in search of some squirrels to feed. We thought they might have gone to visit relatives for the day, but neither the noise of the bands or the East Finchley Primary School choreography had driven them away. The sun was filtered through the pale green canopy of leaves and the squirrels were in fine form.

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After a couple of hours at the festival we were sporting 'I Love N2' badges and T-Shirts, had full tummies and no more peanuts. Next year we will do it all again... talk about living life on the edge!

Posted by StephenJen 22:39 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged events Comments (1)

Yikes! Bikes and dykes (it's not mardi gras) it's Amsterdam!

or... Hey, Big man. Business?

sunny 27 °C

There's just no place like Amsterdam for a lost weekend. It has all the ingredients for an escape from routine for a couple of days.

Amsterdam is only a 45 minute flight from London. The moment we reached cruising altitude, the cabin crew raced out the trolleys, threw us a ham roll and coffee, and then scurried away again because it was time to start preparing for landing.

We arrived at Schipol airport and jumped on a train to Centraal. A tram from there to Zuid and a short walk to the hotel. At least that's how it was meant to go. On the train into town we tried to retrieve the email detailing the name and address of our accommodation. No luck. We couldn't connect. I knew that it was one of the NH hotels and I had looked on Google maps before we left and worked out where we needed to go in relation to the hotel we stayed at last trip. We got to Zuid station and headed in the direction of the Hotel. We were confident we would find it. I mean, it's a hotel. It's big right? We saw an equally confused couple of guys about 50 metres ahead of us. They made every turn that we were going to take and so we figured that they must be looking for the same hotel. As we had neither a name or address for the hotel, we basically followed them for a while until we came to a little cafe and decided it would be handy to know where we were supposed to be going. We started searching the list of NH hotels in Amsterdam but none of the names were familiar. We decided upon the one closest to our current position and headed off... in the direction we had come from. After a very healthy walk we arrived and checked in. The room was really nice. We gave ourselves a 30 minute pit stop before heading to town.

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NH Musica hotel room

We took a tram to centraal and looked for somewhere for coffee and coke. No folks... the drink!
It was a beautiful sunny day and we enjoyed the stroll around the streets and waterways of the city.

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We ate lunch at the world's best burger joint before surrendering to fatigue (we had left home at 03.00 to catch 2 buses and a train to the airport). Back to the hotel and a nanna nap until the evening.

Saturday night we woke refreshed and ready for a big night out in the Dam. We headed into town and got ourselves some dinner. We spent the rest of the night between the red light district, the coffee shop and the waffle shop. It is always cheap entertainment after midnight in town. We sat with our legs dangling over the waterways just people watching.

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Amsterdam at night

At about 02.00 am we hailed a taxi and headed for the hotel. After several minutes driving in, seemingly every direction the driver pulled over and said he wanted to check the address. He started asking us if it was near places we had never heard of. I told him we figured that he was a taxi driver so it may be reasonable to assume that he would have a better idea of the town than someone who had only arrived that morning. He reassured us he had worked it out and off we went again. We went back past several of the streets we had just travelled before stopping again. This time he wanted to check his map. Again we asked if he had any idea what he was doing. Again he assured us he had it sorted and off we went again. On the fourth occasion we politely explained that we would like to make it home before morning and left the vehicle. We walked up to the next major road and luckily another taxi eventually came past. This guy had no idea where we wanted to go, despite having the address. Happily, he called his controller and about 15 minutes later we were home. It seems that nobody from the Netherlands drives a taxi... only Egyptians! We now fully expect to find only Dutch taxi drivers in Egypt.

Sunday was another lovely day and we spent it wandering about, taking photos and eating. We shared a meal with a guy named Aaron who was over from New Zealand to compete in the Laser fleet racing. He was really nice and interesting to talk to. As you might imagine hauling your gear around the world is expensive and Aaron would benefit enormously from sponsorship, so if anyone has appropriate business connections in NZ send them the link please.
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We took a walk, about 15 minutes south of Dam Square, to the flower market. The Amsterdam flower market is a long stretch of stalls beside a waterway where you can find beautiful fresh cut flowers, in a wide variety of rich colours, as well as plants and a huge number of bulbs. You can also buy your Grandma a canabis starter kit for Christmas (it helps with the arthritis).

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We stopped for lunch and, as Jen and I are learning Spanish for our next trip, started testing each other with dialogue from our course. We did pretty well but too much time in the coffeeshop had taken the edge of our Spanish language skills... and our English language skills to be honest. Anyway, I was struggling to translate "The bag is not brown, it is black" because I had forgotten the Spanish word for 'Black'. "Don't tell me...Don't tell me... I'll get it" I told Jen. After several minutes of agony trying to remember it came to me "Ahhh... NEGRO" I shouted.
The black family just entering the establishment seemed happy that I was so excited to see them. Not my best moment. Jen looked at me in horror and we laughed ourselves to tears for the next half hour.

One of the most apparent differences between Amsterdam and many other cities in the world is the extent to which the general public use bicycles rather than cars. The Dutch seem to have succeeded in establishing a safe and effective network of bicycle paths and the default mode for getting sround appears to be bikes and public transport.

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Multistory bike park

The rail system is efficient although we found that services ceased too early on weekends. We hasten to point out that, in Amsterdam, we found two things we can never find in London... public transport with personal space and SUNSHINE! Mmmmm, it makes me feel like a kip.
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On our last day we had breakfast in town and then walked to Centraal station for our train to the airport. On the way I realised that a conversation I could hear in the background was actually a twitchy gentleman walking beside me saying "Hey... big man... business?" I told him we were fine thanks and were not interested. "You want some coke" he said "I have some great coke" I smiled and said "Thanks, but no thanks" he asked "Are you keeping your woman happy?" I assured him Jen was happy, he smiled broadly, laughed a bit, shook my hand and said "Stay strong big man, stay strong man". We laughed and headed to the station.

All in all, Amsterdam makes an ideal getaway for a few days. It is a well designed city with all the essential ingredients for the visitor. Uniquely Dutch offering like clogs, dykes and tons of tulips. Architecture, museums, galleries and other sights worth photographing. The stranger than fiction red light district, complete with touts outside sex clubs, working girls in shop windows, and dodgy gents around every corner asking if you want to do 'Business'. Not forgetting the famous coffeeshops for an Amsterdam style chill out. The people are relaxed and friendly and we found we could walk around at any time of the day or night without feeling the slightest nervousness. We loved it and give it our *Five Clog* rating.

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Posted by StephenJen 00:21 Archived in Netherlands Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Anzac Day

remembering the Anzacs in Melbourne.

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On April 25th Australia and New Zealand observes Anzac Day. In remembrance of those sons and daughters who have fallen in all conflicts. Foremost in our minds though, are the Anzacs, those who fell at Gallipoli, in Turkey. Over 8,000 Australian and 2,700 New Zealand soldiers died. For Australians and New Zealanders at home the 25th of April became the day on which they remember the sacrifice of those who died in war.

This year I found myself back in Melbourne for Anzac Day, whilst Jen remained in London. We each attended remembrance services. Myself, with Adam, at the Shrine in Melbourne and Jen on Whitehall in London.

I feel somewhat ashamed to say that this year was the first occasion I have attended the dawn service at the Shrine of Remembrance. I would encourage all Victorians to make the trip at some stage. In the 1920s, after the First World War, returned soldiers sought the comradeship they felt in the quiet, peaceful moments before dawn. With a symbolic link to the dawn landing at Gallipoli, the dawn service became the common form of remembrance on Anzac day.

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Dawn service at the shrine of remembrance

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It is with a sombre national pride that we pause to reflect on the sacrifice of war. Strange indeed that from this most brutal theatre, spring stories which speak of honour, decency, courage and mateship almost lost in the modern era. Many of the young men who were shipped to Europe went through a commitment to our Commonwealth, many through a sense of adventure. Only to fall on the beaches, on the Western front, or in the fields of places like Villers-Bretonneux.

Jen and I, along with Adam and Meaghan, visited France and Belgium in 2007. We visited the town of Villers-Bretonneaux, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villers-Bretonneux the location of the Australian War Memorial in France. It is a sombre place that imbued us with a sense of both sadness and national pride.

I detest war. Nobody celebrates the loss of life in conflict and this is not a day of celebration. Anzac day gives our nations time to pause and reflect on the huge number of young people who lost there lives overseas. I remember when I was 20 years old. I felt grown up and invincible. In reality I was a kid, just starting out on my life beyond childhood. Think of the 18 and 19 year old soldiers who left in droves from the cities and rural communities, bound for the war in Europe. Swapping a school uniform for a military one. Kids, prevailed upon by the Commonwealth to commit themselves to war. They should have been at home in their communities, with thier families. Instead, they gave their lives in support of families in France and Belgium.

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The Australian War Memorial
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In Villers-Bretonneux there is a sign which reads 'Do not forget Australia'. The people of this town know the courage and sacrifice of Australia's sons. They have their bodies in the fields which stretch out from the town. They honour them in remembrance. On April 25th join these grateful families in saying

Lest we forget.

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The eternal flame

Posted by StephenJen 07:18 Archived in Australia Tagged events Comments (1)

ZSL London Zoo

Prairie Dogs & Primates

sunny 19 °C
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It was an unusually sunny day in London today and with Stephen in Australia, i thought i needed to do something to occupy my mind and get me out of the house.

I jumped on the tube and headed towards Camden, before doing the ten minute walk from Camden Town to Regents Park - and to the London Zoo. The London Zoo is the worlds oldest scientific zoo, and opened in 1828.

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Toucan

Though it is the last weekend of the school half term holidays, and the sunniest day in weeks - the lines and crowds were manageable (much to my surprise). The entry into the Zoo is not cheap however once in, i was able to wander around in my own time checking out what London Zoo has to offer.

The London Zoo was a far smaller than i expected it to be. I have not been to a zoo in a few years however i do strongly feel that Melbourne Zoo in Australia is much much bigger that this was today. Some of the bigger animals like the Rhinos and Elephants, i am pleased to say, have been moved out of London Zoo to a bigger one in Bedfordshire (Whipsnade Zoo)

There were a wide range of animals on display - some stranger than others, and i managed to get around to see most of them. The lack of clear signposting and route planning within the zoo makes it easy to miss areas altogether - so i never did manage to find the otters or meerkats (shame - I love Meerkats).

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Red Panda - my favourites!

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Monkeying around

I enjoyed wandering around the Zoo, it was a great day out in the sunshine and an opportunity to check out another London sight i had never done before...

Posted by StephenJen 11:56 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

Wednesday Night Football... live from Wembley

"Who are ya?... Who are ya?... Who are ya?"...

semi-overcast 5 °C

Wednesday night brought our first ever World Cup Qualifier - in the magnificant new Wembley Stadium.

Over the past few weeks more and more people we know were slipping into conversation that they had tickets to see Ukraine vs England in this World Cup Qualifier, and we started to wonder why the heck we had not tried to get tickets for this. Anyway, the final straw came two days before the match, and Jen logged on, went through the process to become an Englandfan (the only way left to get tickets) and puchased two for us to go for our first ever major game at Wembley.

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Walking from the Tube Station towards Wembley

The walk down from the Tube to the Stadium was insane, a sea of football fans singing and kicking footballs, loading up on overpriced pizza slices and hotdogs (just like at home!) on the walk towards this massive stadium.

Our seats were quite high but allowed us to see the entire ground clearly, even if we couldnt see the players sweat covered faces! Just like playing on Playstation - we could clearly see the passages of play - all we needed were our controllers. The atmosphere was amazing, we learnt a few new football chants during the course of the game and its impossible not to get caught up in the emotion of an international match.

Ukraine and England Teams enter the Ground

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Stephen Checks Out the View of the Ground

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The Flags Come Out

God Save The Queen

England looked very sharp early on, and were rewarded with a goal by Paul Crouch at around the 40 minute mark. Then they switched off. It appears that the English play football much like a workday... A bit at the start, not much through the day, and then a bit at the end. Suffice it to say, as they were relaxing in the middle, Ukraine managed to steal a goal to equalise (we could tell they had scored by the deafening silence of the crowd). Instantly, England switched on again. They brought Beckham on, without about 20 minutes left in the match, his impact was felt immediately. A couple of free kicks gave us the chance to see him Bend it Like.... well... him. He delivered a corner from the far side and John Terry sent it into the back of the net. the crowd sang "two-one.....two-one....." followed by a standing rendition of "You're not Singing Anymore" whilst pointing at the small section of Ukraine Supporters.

Chanting Crowd

Game Play

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A few minutes later the referee signalled the end of the game and we began the crush back towards the Tube Station. Lines of Mounted Police prevented too may people getting into the station at one time, and it actually went quite smoothly. We were home by 11:30 and are now dedicated followers of the World Game.

Posted by StephenJen 03:30 Archived in England Tagged events Comments (3)

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