Category Archives: Travel

Ride ’em, gaucho!

A long held ambition of mine has been to visit South America, in particular the city of Buenos Aires, so this Spring I did exactly that. First stop was Santiago, Chile. The capital was disappointing – very polluted and, to my mind, just not that attractive. On the other hand, Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, on the Chilean coast were a delight. Valparaíso is where you will find La Sebastiana, sitting atop a steep hill and looking out to sea – this is the quirky house which belonged to the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Now a museum, it’s everything you’d expect from an eccentric artist. His portrait on a wall near the house announces its presence

The Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda

Pablo, by all accounts, loved the sea so he positioned his splendid abode in the best place to appreciate it!

Valparaíso has around 16 functioning ‘elevators’ – more akin to funiculars than lifts, as they rise on an angle, rather than vertically. They help you up the steep slopes which the town is built on. The traditional dwellings look very precarious but, as our guide explained, Chile suffers 2,000 earthquakes and tremors a year so rebuilding is far easier if your house didn’t take long to erect in the first place!! What they lack in architectural sturdiness they make up for in decoration – the street art is something to behold – skilful, unapologetic – a joyous blast of colour.

The other thing that struck me about Valparaíso was the ‘tinglado de alambres’ , as my father in law would say, that chaotic overhead ‘tangle’ of electricity cables which just add another layer to the haphazard nature of the place.

Our visit to Valparaíso was fleeting. It was March – the seasons are topsy turvy – our Spring is their Autumn so they were heading towards the end of the tourist season – it was fairly quiet, much nicer for us. We had lunch by the sea in Viña del Mar, a bit further along the coast, and next day we were packing our bags again and boarding a coach to Mendoza, in Argentina – just a hop across the Andes! Again, the town itself was unremarkable and there seemed to be a lot of building work going on which didn’t help. But the journey across the Andes was anything but unremarkable! There was a geologist in our party who was in seventh heaven, studying the rock formations and strata, which even to the untrained eye like mine was fascinating.

Winding slowly up the mountain side

Of course, as every wine drinker knows, Mendoza’s claim to fame is its wine production, especially Malbec. And we were not short of opportunities to sample it! Our hotels laid on wine tastings and there were also excursions to local wineries to sample their wares – we were spoilt for choice. I made a pleasant discovery – a locally produced port called Malamado – inky black and velvety smooth – easily the best port I have ever tasted (sorry, Portugal!!) Needless to say, I brought some samples home with me!

Some Malamado port from Mendoza to go with my Stilton and cashews

The highlight of this trip turned out to be, not Buenos Aires, though that came a close second, but the Iguazú Falls on the border between Brazil and Argentina. The river Iguazú forms a natural border between the two countries, with Paraguay to the north. There are around 275 separate waterfalls – and many islands dotted about – and together they are a truly awesome sight. The most impressive is the Devil’s Throat, a huge chasm in the middle of the horse shoe shape fault line, the volume of water tumbling down into it over the rocks just takes your breath away – and the noise is thunderous!

IguazúFalls lookout point

Boat trip to the Iguazú Falls

Don’t forget your rain poncho! You get drenched by spray here
The beautiful – and refreshing! – pool at our accommodation in Iguazú

Our accommodation in Iguazú was a beautiful two storey hotel with a lovely pool where you could relax with a cocktail and watch the sun go down.- a welcome change from the high rise modern hotels we stayed in most of the time with a ‘bird bath’ on the roof. The town of Iguazú itself is nothing to write home about and had we stayed any longer my time would have been spent in the swimming pool – or very near it!!

We had the opportunity to see the falls from both the Argentinian and the Brazilian side. Overkill you might think, but not a bit of it – they are very different experiences. Personally, I preferred the Brazilian side. Not being a sun worshipper, I found the long, exposed walkways over the river in the blistering heat on the Argentinian side very tiring – no shade at all and a lot of walking. It was a relief to get back to the train for the ride home that day. The set up on the Brazilian side was quite different. Yes, there were lots of steps to go down to get to different walkways and viewpoints but we had the luxury of a lift to get back up to the exit. There was also a lot of lush vegetation providing welcome shade, so the whole experience was a lot more pleasant. There was a certain amount of queuing involved but, as with everything else we did, our guides used their experience to time our visits to minimize time spent hanging around – and for the most part it worked! Food outlets were geared up to cater for all tastes – the food, mostly burgers, chips, pizza and the ubiquitous empanada – was mediocre, as it tends to be when large numbers of people are being catered for quickly, but the system they had in place was slick and we were dispatched efficiently. BUT – we weren’t there for the food!! The critters we came across, however, WERE! In the UK you might see the odd squirrel or gull but here the animals were a bit more exotic: – coatíes (a type of racoon), marmoset monkeys and even a resident family of capibarras (those giant rodents that to me look like a cross between a guinea pig and a beaver), grazing contentedly for us to admire!

Gissa doughnut!!
Family group of capibarras grazing

Marmoset monkey at Sugar Loaf mountain

Apparently, there are jaguars in the forest but this was the only one we saw!

Entrance to the Iguazú Falls Park

From Iguazú it was on to Buenos Aires. We hit town the day a political demonstration was in full swing so had to wait till the next day to fully appreciate the ‘Pink Palace’ where Eva Perón made her emotive speeches. Of course, you have to visit La Boca, that colourful ‘barrio’ first colonized by immigrant Italians and now an artists’ colony and – it has to be said – a tourist trap. Even so , it’s pleasant wandering around the stalls and bars, watching the couples dance the tango to entice the punters to stay and spend their money – it wasn’t a difficult decision – shall we sit in the warm sunshine with a drink and soak up the atmosphere of this unique little patch of Buenos Aires or go back to the hotel?

La Boca – Buenos Aires
El tango argentino en el llamativo barrio de La Boca
Reflections in a modern office block in Buenos Aires

It’s true what they say, Buenos Aires does have the feel of a European city about it – small wonder it’s called the Paris of South America. Some beautiful buildings, some fancy shops, lots of good eateries and, of course – more tango! We were treated to dinner and a tango show at a theatre near our hotel. Dinner was, of course, more steak and more red wine – I wasn’t complaining! Delicious – both!

Another highlight of this tour was the gaucho ranch – we glimpsed a bygone era when we looked round the old farmstead, now a museum, but still fully furnished with all the trappings of family life.

But best of all were the horsemanship of the gauchos – and the fantastic barbecue: steak – I think the best I’ve ever tasted anywhere – and also chicken, homemade sausages, morcilla and salad, all washed down with more red wine.

Our superb barbecued steak

Gaucho skills have evolved to wow the tourists – at least on this showcase ranch, so instead of using the traditional bolas to lasso a steer, they now spear rings dangling from a cross beam and then propose to the first attractive girl they see in the crowd. It’s still pretty impressive stuff!

There were five brothers on this ranch, all equally adept riders
Will you marry me?

Our final destination was Río! And what better place to end our tour! Our hotel was directly opposite Copacabana Beach – we’ve all heard of Río’s famous attractions – the Sugar Loaf, that other beach – made famous by the sixties ballad ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, the Christ the Redeemer statue, visible from practically everywhere! We visited all these and they did not disappoint. I will definitely be going back!

Copacabana Beach from our hotel
Brazil was hot and steamy
Cristo el Redentor
One of the many stunning views from Sugar Loaf Mountain, Río
View back down to the first cable car station from the second on Sugar Loaf, Río
A reflection of the weird and wonderful exterior of Río Cathedral
Copacabana Beach with a magnificent sandcastle of the Christ the Redeemer statue!

Istria – or Slovenia and Croatia to you and me.

I’ve just returned from a trip to the Istrian Peninsula – and learnt a lot!  The Peninsula looks like a triangular pennant suspended in the Adriatic just below Trieste.  A horizontal strip of land at the top of the triangle now forms part of Slovenia and the rest belongs to Croatia. Our visit included some of the towns along the West coast of Istria from  Portorož down to Pula, with its stunning amphitheatre,  at the southern tip of the triangle.
istriamap
So first  stop – Portorož (Port of Roses) This turned out to be an attractive strip of  hotels stretching in a ribbon along the seafront – no ‘beach’ as such, more pebbles and ladders straight down into the water – would bathers disappear without trace?  Well, no, the water only seemed to be waist deep in most places so perfectly safe, if a bit chilly!
Portorož has been established as a health spa since the late 19th century and boasts some fine architecture – one example of this is the Palace Hotel, built around 1912 in what was known then as the Austrian Riviera. It was extensively renovated around 2008 but retains its magnificent facade and is testimony to the popularity of the area as a health resort back in the day.  There is a real Art Deco vibe about the place and lots of magnificent black and white photographs on the hotel walls illustrate the grandeur of a bygone era, which inspired me to take some sepia photos on my walk along the sea front towards Piran.





Every hotel in Istria has a Wellness Centre, indeed Slovenians and Croatians place a lot of emphasis on healthy living. On our tour I struck lucky every time – my room was right next door to the Wellness Centre! This meant that, unlike other guests who had to make their way along endless hotel corridors and into and out of lifts dressed in their fluffy white hotel robes to get to these facilities, I only had to pop out of my room and round the corner and there it all was – the plunge pool, the sun terrace, the jacuzzi, the  salt water swimming pool and all the wondrous treatments on offer – like mud baths, Thai massage with myriad combinations of lovely infused oils, facials – etc!!
As a linguist I was also interested in trying to pick up some phrases in Slovenian and Croatian – and was encouraged by the fact that all the road signs were in Slovenian or Croatian first and then Italian, and sometimes German too.  As I speak Spanish, the hop over to Italian is not so far – but the next hop over to Slovenian proved more of a chasm – didn’t get much of a toe hold, although the girl welcoming us in to dinner tried to teach me a few things – ‘dobro jutro’ (good morning) ‘dobra večer’ (good evening) ‘volim te’ (I love you !! – that should come in handy!) ‘hvala ti’ (thank you)  ‘molim’ (please) ‘račun molim’ (the bill please) and on the hotel television I even caught an episode of Gardeners’ World with Monty Don dubbed in Croatian.  Even so, progress was slow!!
Back to being a tourist.
Piran is a small town at the top of the Istrian Peninsula. Its links with Italy through the salt trade are evident. On the walk into the town we came across some curious buildings which turned out to be disused salt warehouses, now being used as exhibition spaces and the like.  
Views out to sea from the city walls were beautiful and the town itself is very picturesque.

 
 
 
 
 


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We were taken on a trip to the salt pans and a museum where we learnt how the salt panners lived and worked.
           
         


Our next trip was to Groznjan, which is inland. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t very good but we could still appreciate the beauty of the countryside and sample some delicious truffles and mistletoe brandy – not sure about the brandy! We also learned that Istria has several symbols – one is the goat, one is the dolphin and ……the other will come to me in a second!
 



The climate as you go further south turns more Mediterranean, with lots of vineyards and olive trees and for the first week of our holiday the weather was pleasantly warm – around 25º. But things changed dramatically en route to our second destination of Poreč – in fact, there was a terrific storm and when we got to the hotel they were busy mopping up – leaks had sprung everywhere – outside the main entrance a little man in waterproofs was standing knee deep in water, pumping out and inside they were juggling guests whose rooms had water running down the walls – mops and buckets everywhere!
Built along the lines of a giant Butlins holiday camp – I don’t think these hotels will stand the test of time – more ‘Lego’ in construction – definitely the cheap and cheerful end of the market.  This conglomeration was built around several lagoons just outside the town of Poreč, which, once the hordes of weekend visitors had died down, felt much more welcoming. As luck would have it, the storm (which was bad enough to make the national television news) had abated by the next day and we were able to see a  medieval fair which they had postponed – so ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ as they say.

Pula, in the far south of the peninsula, boasts a magnificent amphitheatre, with the usual gruesome history of gladiators and blood and gore. Nowadays, the arena is used as an open air concert venue, attracting the greats of the musical world such as Andrea Bocelli, Norah Jones, Tom Jones and José Carreras.  Personally, I found the Roman artifacts in the museum below the arena every bit as interesting as the arena itself.
We barely had time to see Pula and even in late September, towards the end of the holiday season it was very busy. The Venetian influence is evident in its buildings and I loved the little alley ways down to the water’s edge which seemed to drop straight into the sea. Definitely a place to go back to.


    


Edinburgh – city of castles, kilts and whisky.

Just back from an action packed few days in the Scottish capital. This tourist malarkey is exhausting!
Now, I know a lot of people are a bit funny about getting on ‘the tourist bus’ but, as far as I’m concerned, there is no better way to get your bearings in a city you don’t know. A couple of circuits round the main streets and some helpful commentary from the guide and you can make a much more sensible decision about where to alight for a more leisurely gander at the ‘places of interest’ you are actually interested in.
Of course,  nobody visits Edinburgh without going to the castle, perched atop the Mound, just beyond one of the main thoroughfares, Princes Street.
armour2 bars
beams
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And the other attraction, if that’s the right word for it, which is ‘de rigeur’ is the Royal Mile, The taxi driver who took us from the airport to our accommodation in Newhaven Harbour advised us to do the ‘Royal Mile’ from top to bottom, i.e. walk from Edinburgh Castle downhill to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The lady we rented our excellent accommodation from said the same thing and when you see it you quickly realise why!  It is very steep and as the name indicates – it’s a mile long – exhausting! even if you have had your porridge!
By far the most obviously touristy place was the area around the castle  where you find ‘The Scotch Whisky Experience’ and the ‘Tartan Weaving Mill’ and also magnificently turned out pipers playing those haunting laments on the bagpipes. There are myriad tartan shops sellingall sorts of garments, mostly in the familiar red plaid  (it put me in mind of the old joke – you can have any colour as long as it’s red! )  and lastly, black double deckers which will take you on a Ghost Tour. The icing on the cake was a sighting of Braveheart! He was having some fun with some young lads and I thought he hadn’t spotted me but … I was wrong!

 

 
       
The Royal Mile is full of shops, bars, cafés and beautiful traditional buildings. At the bottom end is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where I believe the Queen is in residence for a week or so every year, performing official duties. Behind the Palace is Holyrood Park – again, if you’re feeling energetic you can walk up to Arthur’s Seat, an old volcano where – I’m told! – you get some great views across the city.
HolyroodPark1   ParkPan1
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You can take tea at the Palace Café and, suitably refreshed, wander round Queen’s Gallery or marvel at the interesting Scottish Parliament Building. Designed by catalán architect, Enric Miralles in 1999 and opened by the Queen in 2004, it caused some controversy when it was built. Personally, I loved the design but it differed radically from the traditional buildings around it so I can understand why opinion was split.


       

The weather in Edinburgh wasn’t brilliant – quite cold and damp, so we decided to spend a couple of hours on the wettest day at the National Museum. As it turned out, it was quite interesting because the Scots were an enterprising bunch of engineers and industrialists – it’s not every museum that boasts a full size locomotive or a whisky still!
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The other iconic structure that is definitely worth going to see is the Forth Bridge – as emblematic of Scotland as the kilt or the bagpipes. We took the short train ride  to see this familiar sight close up – everyone has seen it in photos or on television, even if they have never been to Scotland – it is legendary as the bridge that never stopped having to be painted! Of course, then someone invented a special striking red coloured coating that didn’t have to be continually replaced – so that was a relief! The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is the same colour so they must use the same stuff!


We discovered that there are in fact three Forth Bridges –  a road bridge (suspension design) and a rail bridge (cantilever design) and now a third – a new road bridge, still under construction, which will be a cable stayed design (don’t ask me, I don’t know the difference!)
The bridges span the Forth estuary and are indeed an impressive sight. The little town of South Queensferry lies between them, with its toy boats and life boat station – reminiscent of small Welsh seaside towns on a drizzly, damp weekend.

   


I enjoyed my trip to Edinburgh and will go back some day to see more of Scotland. By sheer coincidence another iconic piece of engineering was passing through our local railway station on the day I travelled north –  the Flying Scotsman!!