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!

Barcelona

The people of Barcelona are in turmoil in more ways than one.  Leaving aside the independence issue which remains unresolved, the permanent residents of the city have had enough of the huge numbers of visitors. The city is awash with foreign workers and tourists. You can’t blame people for wanting to experience this unique city – wacky buildings, art galleries, nightlife – it even boasts a beach, although there are much better ones along the Costa Brava – a stone’s throw away by train. But there is a limit.

June, July and August are murder! You can hardly walk along the pavements, there are that many people. Best to leave it till earlier or later in the year when the temperature is kinder and the bars and shops are not brimming to capacity.

A lot of people think Barcelona is quite a dangerous city – muggings and attacks are common, although you have to question the common sense of some tourists! Bars, clubs, restaurants and taxi drivers have no qualms about over charging you but  I suspect this is true of any large city anywhere in the world.  We tourists are like lambs to the slaughter!

All that said, I go there a lot and have never had a problem. I also go to other parts of Spain, but no other Spanish city has its architecture, and atmosphere  – it’s a real culture vulture’s paradise.  Also, its balmy sub tropical climate means it never gets really cold, unlike the Pyrenees or Madrid, and when you want some ‘me time’  there are parks like  Montjuic, beaches close by and some lovely gardens – we visited the Marimurtra Jardín Botánico in Blanes last Spring – probably a tad early in the season, but still worth the trip and just a short train ride along the coast.

 

Of course, the city’s architecture draws many people to Barcelona – along almost every street you will see beautiful balconies and façades or wobbly reflections of the buildings opposite.  You can see why artists (and there are hordes of street artists along Las Ramblas, vying for your custom)  find inspiration here – the light is magical.

Music is also an important part of the experience: – there is the incredible Modernist concert venue – el Palau de la Música – the building itself is a work of art and whatever time of day you go past there are people photographing it, but inside is where the real magic happens! There are street musicians plying their trade in lots of the squares around town, even classical musicians and opera singers.  The Opera House just off the main Rambla is also worth a visit for the building alone; Spaniards are known for their tardiness but the opera is one thing that starts on time!! Also on the main Rambla is the famous Boquería food market.

Visit one of myriad art galleries, celebrating the works of well known artists such as Picasso, Joan Miró and the wackiest catalán of them all, Salvador Dalí, although a better place to see his work is in the town of his birth, Figueres – just up the coast.

There are many temporary exhibitions to enjoy too.

    

I’ll leave you with a picture of the interior of a recently refurbished restaurant – guess what their speciality is!

Maybe Freddy Mercury said it best. In this duet he is performing with fabulous world renowned soprano, Montserrat Caballé, who was born in Barcelona and died only recently, on October 6, 2018,  at the age of 85.

 

'When it's Spring again, I'll bring again tulips from Amsterdam.'

When it’s Spring again I’ll bring again
Tulips from Amsterdam
With a heart that’s true I’ll give to you
Tulips from Amsterdam
I can’t wait until the day you fill
These eager arms of mine
Like the windmill keeps on turning
That’s how my heart keeps on yearning
For the day I know we can
Share these tulips from Amsterdam
Ah……  Max Bygraves knew the way to a woman’s heart!
Tulips…….they herald the spring time  like no other flower – with their beautiful forms and colours, unmistakeable bowl shaped petals and bright primary colours.
These days growers have developed so many varieties the choice is dizzying, and even the ‘not very horticulturally minded’ recognise a tulip! It has become a favourite in English gardens, parks and floral displays up and down the land. Of course, tulips are synonymous with Holland and horticulture there is big business:
A few wikifacts:

  • Holland has a 44% share of the worldwide trade in floricultural products, making it the dominant global supplier of flowers and flower products. Some 77% of all flower bulbs traded worldwide come from the Netherlands, the majority of which are tulips. 40% of the trade in 2015 was cut flowers and flower buds.
  • The sector is the number 1 exporter to the world for live trees, plants, bulbs, roots and cut flowers.
  • The sector is the number 3 exporter in nutritional horticulture products.
  • Of the approximately 1,800 new plant varieties that enter the European market each year, 65% originate in the Netherlands. In addition, Dutch breeders account for more than 35% of all applications for community plant variety rights.
  • The Dutch are one of the world’s largest exporter of seeds: the exports of seeds amounted to € 3.1 billion in 2014.
  • In 2014 the Netherlands was the world’s second largest exporter (in value) of fresh vegetables. The Netherlands exported vegetables with a market value of € 7 billion.


       


The Keukenhof gardens in the Netherlands are a paradise for tulip  lovers – as their website boasts: ‘Keukenhof, the best day out among the flowers! There are more than 7 million bulbs in bloom this spring, with a total of 800 varieties of tulips. A unique and unforgettable experience!
Besides the spacious 32 hectares of flowers you can enjoy the spectacular flower shows, surprising inspirational gardens, unique artwork and wonderful events. Do not miss the Tulpomania exhibition in the Juliana Pavilion.’
At Keukenhof they recognise the importance of engaging with the next generation. Their website states:
‘Keukenhof is also one big party for children. They will have a blast with the treasure hunt, petting farm, maze and the playground.’
Who can resist? Don’t forget your camera!