A Travellerspoint blog

One famous little Red mill at the centre of everything

Montmarte, Mussels and Moulin Rouge

sunny -24 °C
View Paris 2015 on david.byne's travel map.

Can you believe it’s only 30 minutes flying time and, for me, just 200 miles from home. Even Manchester is further!! Paris, the French capital and London’s nearest rival for best European city. But did you know that Paris is considerably smaller than London, and in fact you can fit Paris into the land area of London’s parks when they are added together. However, Paris still feels like a big city and certainly crams a lot in to its modest size.
We visited for five full days, taking an early Monday flight and returning home late on the Friday. The taxi took about 40 minutes from Charles de Gaulle airport to our hotel brilliantly located between Sacre Coeur and Place de Clichy. So, safely installed in our room before lunchtime we headed for the terrace bar at the hotel to decide what we would hit first. Taking the easy option we walked to Montmartre, through the main thoroughfare and onwards and upwards to Sacre Coeur.

The final bit, up to the church, was made easier by the convenient funicular that quickly transported us to the bottom of the steps that led to the main door. Inside, precisely what you would expect. Nice enough but for me not amazing in the way that St.Marks Basilica in Venice and Haghia Sophia in Istanbul are. Having said that it is still a ‘must see’.

Wandering back through Montmartre is a treat with the various Patisseries, Bars, Cafes and Restaurants just waiting to tempt you in. And to be honest our willpower to simply walk past was never going to be adequate. Macaroons, Coffee, Chocolate, Cakes, Biscuits, Beer, whatever ……. you know you want to! Later we wandered for our first view of Moulin Rouge which turned out to be less than five minutes walk from the hotel; ideal as we had tickets for Tuesday’s late show. We were back to Montmartre a few hours later for dinner when, at night, the area looks different again with all the bars, cafes and restaurants all lit up.

As in many other cities, Paris offers a ‘Big Bus’ to help get around the city and we bought a two day ticket so for the Tuesday and Wednesday we planned our days around the route that the bus would take us. But first we made our way to the area around the Assembly Building and Pont Alexandra III via the Metro, getting off at Invalides and walking through to the Eifel Tower which by now was easy to spot and follow.
Paris so far had appeared relatively quiet compared to what we were used to in the UK but, of course, we soon discovered that the majority of people had homed in on the tower, Notre Dame and the Palace of Versailles. This, combined with many Parisians taking their holidays away from the city in August meant that apart from the main attractions it was relatively easy going around the city.
Paris_Aug15-104

Paris_Aug15-104


Back on the Big Bus we decided to simply sit there and take in the full route for an hour and then make decisions on where to get off second time around. Notre Dame got the vote but rather than battle the lengthy queues to get in the church we walked over the bridge and along the river before heading to the Latin Quarter where we found a café to break the day.
Paris_Aug15-200

Paris_Aug15-200


A few of the bridges along the Seine have become targets for couples wanting to attach padlocks as a symbol of their relationship and this has applied sufficient stress to the bridges to require the padlocks to be moved off the Pont de l'Archevêché and relocated along the side of the bridge thus taking the weight away from the main span.
Paris_Aug15-201

Paris_Aug15-201


Back on the bus, our next stop was the Eifel Tower where we lingered a bit longer on this occasion, taking photos and walking among the hundreds of people that were visiting this iconic landmark. There’s plenty to see even if you are just passing rather than stopping, with numerous views of the River Seine, the bridges, the monuments and the buildings with their classic architecture and contrasting roof colours and styles. For example, the Obelisk in the Place de Concorde - surrounded by fountains, ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’ stands centrally at one of the highest points in the city having been donated to the French by Egypt many years ago.
Paris_Aug15-315

Paris_Aug15-315


One of the most impressive, architecturally – both outside and inside, is Opera, the National Academy of Music which we decided to make a point of visiting before the end of our stay. Similarly, we decided that going up the Arc de Triomphe for views over the city would be preferable to the Eifel Tower as the queues for the Arc were significantly smaller and also it would be good to see the tower from that particular viewpoint.
Paris_Aug15-250

Paris_Aug15-250


It felt like whenever we walked for a while there would be either a café or restaurant luring us inside or to a table just outside. But why not?
Paris_Aug15-274

Paris_Aug15-274


Tuesday evening was set aside for finding another nice restaurant  before changing and walking to the Moulin Rouge for the late show at 11 pm. It’s really worth seeing. We were a group of four as we had a couple of friends with us on the trip. Three of us were really keen on the trip but the fourth would not have come had we not already bought the tickets before mentioning it too him. But, as it turned out, he announced at the end of the week that his number one highlight from Paris was the Ferie Show at Moulin Rouge. And it really was. Two bottles of champagne on the table was enough for an after-dinner show which lasted for about 85 minutes. A mixture of tradition plus one or two new international acts made for a fabulous spectacle and night out, worth every penny. Recommended.

The following day, our middle day of five, we still had our Big Bus ticket to get around with so it was back to Cite and Notre Dame for a proper visit. This obviously meant queuing but to be fair the lines of people were moving fairly quickly and within 45 minutes you can get in, around and out again to find a restaurant a few roads back for lunch.
Paris_Aug15-290

Paris_Aug15-290


With lunch out of the way we jumped back on the bus to the Arc de Triomphe to buy tickets and join the very short queue to get to the top. There are also things to see around the base of the Arc including the eternal flame but don’t dismiss the views from the top as these are fairly unique with the main Parisian avenues including the Champs Elysee all extending from the Arc de Triomphe like spokes on a wheel.
Paris_Aug15-335

Paris_Aug15-335


The drive down the Champs Elysee is predictable; lots of very nice shops, restaurants, cafes, apartments, Ferrari’s and the occasional Lamborghini. However, don’t be put off. We had lunch on the Champs Elysee close to the Arc and the price wasn’t any more than anywhere else that we had eaten in Paris.

Having now ticked off Sacre Coeur, Montmartre, Eifel Tower, Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe we now looked towards the Louvre as our next port of call. Obviously, you can venture inside (no queues) but we chose not to as we still had plenty we wanted to see and do before Friday evening. The Louvre is sat in an amazing space in the centre of Paris. The area is very photogenic and the walk through the gardens down towards Place de Concorde has a few surprises along the way.
Paris_Aug15-380

Paris_Aug15-380


It was getting towards dusk and after dinner we wanted to take a night-boat trip on the Seine from near to the Eifel Tower, giving us a great opportunity to see the tower lit up at the same time. So, we took a taxi from the Louvre to Invalides and then walked towards the Eifel Tower which, by the time we got close, was fully lit and, on the hour every hour, bursts into sparkling lights for a couple of minutes.
Paris_Aug15-413

Paris_Aug15-413


Some of the night-cruises finish at 9 or 9:30 but we fortunately, after letting time run away from us, managed to get to the dock next to the Eifel Tower to get the 10 o’clock cruise. Unsurprisingly, it was full and we weren’t in ideal seats but it was still a nice way to spend an hour at the end of a day.

By Day 4 we had properly worked out central Paris and realised that we could in fact walk down to Opera to have a look round the old theatre. It turned out to be a real highlight despite the change in the weather. The Opera House is a fantastic building both inside and out and should really be added to the ‘must see’ list.
Paris_Aug15-471

Paris_Aug15-471


Our intention after (another) lunch was to visit the Paris Catacombs to see the underground system that the Resistance developed and used during the war. Shouldn’t be a problem I thought. Get a taxi, buy a ticket from the office and walk around under ground for a while, seeing how it all worked. WRONG! There was a slow moving longish queue around the entire roundabout upon which the main office and entrance stands. Just outside the ticket office is a cross-section model of a part of the system and only then did I appreciate why there would be so much interest in visiting the Catacombs. It’s not just about a few tombs and a couple of thousand bones, it’s much more than that, including a railway system and two miles of tunnels. The time required to first queue and then enjoy this attraction proved too much for us in the end which was a real disappointment and I’m sure it would have been a highlight if we had been able to do it. Maybe another time.
Paris_Aug15-548

Paris_Aug15-548


Our alternative destination became the Pompidou Centre which was a short ride on the Metro from the Catacombs. The area around the Pompidou Centre, like the centre itself, is very ‘arty’. I was more interested in the outside of the centre than venturing inside for an hour and that was in no small part due to the surrounding exhibits and square and, of course, one of the bars that eventually proved too welcoming to walk past without stopping. It was all very ‘laid back’ which, in the middle of a busy city, is good to find every now and then. The church that sits along one side of the square is a very imposing building and draws you inside the open door, if only for a couple of minutes. It’s large, for the area, and would have been quite impressive in its heyday but right now it’s looking tired and in need of some TLC. Onward.

With one day remaining of our Paris adventure we had the pre-booked visit to the Palace of Versailles to look forward to on our last morning plus a ‘pencilled-in’ look around the Basilica St. Denis in the afternoon; said to be the first ever church (although in all honesty I think there are a few claiming that honour around the world). But, before all of that, we had dinner in Montmartre to take care of.
Paris_Aug15-607

Paris_Aug15-607


It was an enforced early start for the journey to Versailles which would get us there before opening time. Not much more than a half hour bus ride through Paris took us to the gates of the Palace but not before hundreds of others who were already in line to get in. And therein lies the problem with the Palace of Versailles. It is a fact that it is immense both in structure and the grounds it resides in but there are no controls on the numbers of people allowed to visit. So, there were three main things that made this part of our trip to Paris a real low point of the trip. The sheer numbers (and rudeness) of the people in and around the Palace; the total cost of the visit, and the fact that none of the numerous and impressive fountains were functioning. In hindsight, we wouldn’t have bothered. The gardens would have been ok although without the fountains quite ordinary really but the fact that it was a further seven and a half Euros to get around the huge area took the experience well below the average. The Palace itself was simply disorganised chaos with ‘selfie sticks’ proving to be the weapon of choice for many.
Paris_Aug15-637

Paris_Aug15-637


[Selfie Sticks have now become a pet hate since our Parisian city break and I fully endorse the banning of them in certain popular attractions/places].
Back to the hotel to check out and find lunch nearby. The Basilica of St. Denis would be our final destination before travelling to the airport for our very short flight home, or at least that’s what we thought. The Basilica, claimed by some to be the first ever church, is at the end of the line on the Metro but the station information explained that the station was unavailable today. Typical. Oh well, jump in a taxi instead. Seconds after pulling away the taxi driver informs us that the church will not be open as it is market day and did we still want to go. Well, quite frankly, we didn’t, but what’s the alternative? Trying to make a quick decision as the taxi fare racked up we decided on going back to Notre Dame and seeing the other end of the isle of Cite upon which the Gothic cathedral sits.
Paris_Aug15-670

Paris_Aug15-670


This took us to the Palace of Justice and the Conciergerie. In particular, the Conciergerie proved to be an interesting find as it is the old royal prison where Marie Antoinette was held so the afternoon, along the River Seine for the last time, proved to be well spent with lunch taken just outside the Palace of Justice in a really nice ‘art deco’ café/restaurant called Les Deux Palais.
Paris_Aug15-700

Paris_Aug15-700


Then, it was back to Place de Clichy in time for the taxi to the airport. Paris had been great. If you ever go there, don’t miss Moulin Rouge or Opera but don’t stress too much if you don’t see the Palace of Versailles, seriously.

Posted by david.byne 13:56 Archived in France Tagged bridges churches buildings trees night architecture rivers city Comments (0)

Black Sand and Green Lights

7 days in Iceland

all seasons in one day 0 °C

Fly North for three hours from London and you arrive in Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland. In a country of just over 300,000 people, around 125,000 Icelanders live in the city.

We landed late afternoon at what felt like an empty Keflavik Airport. Quickly through Passport Control and then Baggage Reclaim we were soon on the bus that would transfer us to the Reykjavik Centrum Hotel in the middle of Reykjavik.
Snow had fallen during the previous week but the relative warmth of April had cleared the majority of it by the time we arrived. However, it was still cold, especially so as a result of the almost constant breeze that whipped around the country from various directions. It was Easter Saturday and for the rest of the day plus Easter Sunday the time was our own. Everything we planned to do during our stay had been arranged prior to arrival and this certainly took a lot of the hassle away and also saved us time.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (2)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (2)

A quick look around the centre, close to the hotel, plus something to eat and drink in the hotel bar effectively took care of what remained of Saturday although we were booked for the Northern Lights Tour that first night but due to weather conditions this had been cancelled so was re-booked for the following night. Then on Sunday there was plenty of time to explore further and find out what the city had to offer. A mental note was taken of any bars and restaurants that could be useful during the week.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (30)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (30)

For a small city (medium sized town maybe) the locals do like a bit of public art;…..urban art;…. graffiti;…… call it what you like. There is a lot about and like anywhere else, some of it is good and some it is quite simply untidy and far removed from art. Personally, I quite like a lot of it.
The reviews that we had read beforehand stressed how well located the hotel was and this soon became apparent. It took very little effort or time to reach The Old Harbour, The Harpa Concert Hall, The Cathedral or the shops, bars and restaurants. We also quickly realised how expensive Iceland is. It wasn’t exactly a surprise but it’s only when you start paying the bills for teas, coffees, lunches, dinners and alcohol that it really hits home.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (6)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (6)

The weather in Iceland is definitely challenging, even in the relatively calm season that, for us in the UK, is Spring. The often strong winds around the North Atlantic mean that the weather can change quite frequently and quite dramatically. Without exaggeration we could be in bland dry greyness one minute and then twenty minutes later it could be clear blue skies and sunshine followed twenty minutes after that by a snow storm and then the same period later we would be battling with hail and/or rain. The locals claimed that it had been the toughest Winter in 20 years. It had started snowing on and off from the November and was still snowing on and off while we were there in April. And when it snows it really snows!

So, back to the hotel after a day strolling around Reykjavik and generally getting our bearings, it was time to take advantage of the happy hour (two hours actually) which on a 2 for 1 basis at least brought the price of drinks back to something like UK prices. And to be honest, the bar at the hotel was such a nice environment to spend time in that it was something that we made a point of doing on every day except one while we were there.
For dinner that night we ventured out (having eaten at the hotel on our first night) but we didn’t have to go far as Restaurant Uno looked good and was probably only 200 yards away from the hotel. The food was always good, wherever we ate, and fish (Including Whale!), lamb, chicken and even Puffin were easy to find on a menu. Back at the hotel we discovered that the Northern Lights Tour had again been cancelled so was re-booked (again) for the following night, the Monday.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (35)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (35)

Our first proper day out seeing what there was to see was on the Monday when we were touring the Golden Circle. It’s a 7 to 8 hour tour and takes in Pingvellir National Park, Gulfoss, Geyser and a Geo-Thermal Power Plant. The weather played its part, as expected. At Pingvellir, the site of the first ever Parliament – The Althing – you can also see the tectonic plates and the North Atlantic Ridge. It’s a great area for scenery with waterfalls and a river running through the valley, surrounded by snowy mountains.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (44)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (44)

The weather changed by the time we reached Gulfoss but cleared again before we left the area. Gulfoss is Iceland’s largest waterfall and has at its peak more water rushing over it than Niagara Falls. Much of it was frozen when we saw it which made the landscape and resulting photographs a little bit different to anything we had seen before. By the time we had had lunch at the site the weather had changed yet again and we had transitioned from driving hail to relatively clear and back to driving hail.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (52)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (52)

Onward to Geysir, the only Icelandic word that has made its name in an international sense. Geysir is the name of the town where there are a predominance of Hot Springs that have, in turn, become known and referred to as ‘Geysers’. There were outlets everywhere with funnels of steam plus the strong smell of sulphur drifting into the air all across the landscape. They spout quite irregularly although Geysir has its own fairly reliable Hot Spring that manages to satisfy the tourists at reasonably consistent intervals of 4 to 5 minutes. But remember, what goes up also comes down, and the water is hot! Photographically the eruption is fairly easy to capture as there is a noticeable build-up of pressure before the water rises slowly before being fired into the air and then ultimately soaking those below that haven’t bothered checking the wind direction before taking up their place around the edge of the Hot Spring.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (65)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (65)

From Geysir we continued around the circle to the Hellisheidi Geo-Thermal Power Plant where we stopped briefly for a video presentation and a quick look around the plant. 95% of the heating in Iceland is now provided free to the people and geo-thermal activity also contributes to subsidised electricity for the country.

It had been a long day by the time we were back in Reykjavik but a really good one and we were in the hotel to take advantage of Happy Hour! In a way it was also good news that after the day we had just had the Northern Lights Tour had again been cancelled. You know the routine by now; rebooked for Tuesday night!

Iceland_0415_LowRes (245)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (245)

The following day was a free day for us so we had a chance to plan what we wanted to do. This included visits to the Old Harbour, the Viking Museum (why you might ask!!), the Whales Iceland Exhibition, shopping and lunch in the centre of town plus a proper look at both the Cathedral and the Harpa Concert Hall. And it was cold with a mixture of that bland dry greyness, clear blue skies and sunshine and a snow storm that I referred to previously. The timing of the snow storm coincided with us being at the midpoint of walking from the hotel to our furthest destination, the Viking Museum, just past the Old Harbour. We got battered for a while and were grateful to be able to seek refuge at the first available opportunity which happened to be the Viking Museum. Around half an hour spent in the museum was followed by a short but cold walk (it was clear and sunny by now by the way!) to the Whales Iceland Exhibition which was worth a visit (although quite pricey!). From there we walked back through the Old Harbour past all the Whale Watching Boat companies and then back towards the centre for lunch. The afternoon was spent down by the Harpa Centre where we took advantage of the clearer skies for photos of the mountains across the bay and then back among the shops and cafes before heading back to the hotel. The Northern Lights Tour had already again been cancelled so maybe tomorrow (Wednesday) night??
Wednesday was a big, long day.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (85)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (85)

We had booked a day (approx. ten hours) in a Superjeep. This would take us further afield and to places not easily (if at all) accessible by ‘normal’ road transport. Sitting high off the ground with huge wheels and large clearances we were plunged down into and across rivers, over lava beds, up snowy hills, through breaking waves on the beaches and occasionally on normal roads. The seat belts would occasionally tighten fiercely as you were thrown left, right, backwards, forwards and upwards as your body reacted to the stresses being placed on the Jeep. Our first stop was the site of the lava flow from E15, the volcano that erupted violently in 2010 and disrupted so much air traffic (including almost diverting us to Paris as we returned from Cuba into London Heathrow). The lava flow melted a huge glacier and initially flooded the valley that we had just driven through before coming to rest as high up the freshly snowed mountain as we could reach. The mountain had also suffered fresh cracking in the 2010 eruption and these were clearly visible. And despite the stillness of the landscape, the constantly changing light and cloud cover altered the view sufficiently enough to overwork the camera before we made our way back through the snow in the jeep. Bouncing through the rivers provided a free car wash (including the roof!) on several occasions as we not so slowly worked our way back to genuine tarmac.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (98)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (98)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (109)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (109)

It was a day of contrasts and from the stark whiteness of fresh snow we moved on to the somehow clean and pure blackness of the sand on Iceland’s beaches. The Superjeep was in its element, throwing itself into and over the dunes, flirting with the waves as they crashed onto the sand and creating patterns with its oversized but absolutely invaluable tyres. In slightly surreal fashion we drove past the unexpected sight of the wreck of an old United States aircraft that was slowly deteriorating on the highest part of the beach. But the real interest lay in the remains of a Whale, beached and at one time buried under the sands but since uncovered during the recent Winter by the storms that had hit the country.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (169)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (169)

Our next stop was at a series of waterfalls in the valley, the first of which was only properly visible through a small opening in the rock, creating an open-topped cavern that, with a bit of care, you could access via stepping stones in the stream leading from the fall. This took you right up to the waterfall where getting wet was an inevitability but it was still worth a look. From here you could walk alongside the side of the rock past several other falls to the next big one and there follow a path behind the fall and out the other side.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (127)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (127)

Back on the road and the weather changed again. From blue skies at the falls we were suddenly back in the grips of another blizzard and by the time we stopped again there was a fresh dusting of snow covering the surrounding countryside. We pulled in alongside a shallow river that was being fed by another fall about 350 metres from where we had parked. There were routes to walk up to the top or alternatively you could get as close to the bottom of the fall as possible; and this was the option we took. Initially, with the snow falling and visibility being less than ideal, I settled for a few quick photographs before we ventured inside the café for a drink in the hope that the weather would again change as quickly as it just had. Fifteen minutes later and sure enough we had blue skies again. What a difference that made to what we were now able to see. The photos taken previously would have been good enough as memories but now, with the contrast of the blue skies, the fresh snow, the clear water from the fall, the sunshine and now also a rainbow the scenery was even more impressive. We took our time walking to the waterfall and then back again before climbing back into the jeep to begin our journey back to Reykjavik. It had been a really good day.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (192)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (192)

On the road back our driver was in contact with his boss who confirmed that he would be running the Northern Lights tour that evening and so, although we were booked with a different company, it appeared that we could be in for a very late night. On arrival back at the Centrum Hotel, confirmation that our Northern Lights tour was indeed ON could be found on the main desk in reception. So, for the one and only time we missed out on Happy Hour and headed out for something to eat. The closest restaurant was The Fish Market, literally a few yards walk, and it was somewhere we thought we might try one evening although looked like it would be slightly more expensive than the average, And it was!! Lovely place, nice menu and great food but we did pay for it.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (31)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (31)

The Northern Lights tours start with a pickup at the hotel at 9 o’clock and then the object is to head out of the city and ‘hunt’ for the lights. It has to be clear (no clouds) and very dark and there also has to be the required level of activity. It was certainly clear, albeit a little patchy, darkness (even at 9 pm) wasn’t quite what it needed to be yet and as for activity, that would also hopefully come later. We drove for over an hour towards The Althing (the site of the first Parliament and the North Atlantic Ridge) that we had visited two days previously. We were one of several coaches arriving at this particular venue but it had the real advantage of the café/restaurant staying open for the time we were there and this at least gave us somewhere to occasionally warm up in-between standing in almost pitch-black on the snow trying to spot the slightest movement or hint of Green, Red or Purple in the night sky. The clock ticked by as we all diligently stared skywards in complete silence (almost as if too much noise may frighten the lights away!). 11 o’clock arrived – nothing; Midnight arrived – still nothing. Time to get inside for a while and warm up a bit; it was around two degrees below freezing and just standing around doing nothing was taking its toll on everybody. We certainly weren’t in the minority when we got into the room and there was no sitting room and to be honest little standing room but at least it was warm. Then, a knock on the window resulted in everybody stirring into action with a rush for the doors similar to that when the New Year sales open on Oxford Street! So, out we went again and found somewhere reasonable to stand where a view in a northerly direction would be largely unobstructed by others. The faintest hint of Green light was visible over the top of the facing mountain and this moved and altered slightly before disappearing. And that was pretty much it. Half an hour later the coaches were starting their engines and on the snow covered road back towards Reykjavik. We had all received the “can’t control nature’ and ‘no guarantees’ speech on the way out from the city and the fact that this was at the back end of the season for seeing the Northern Lights meant that nobody was too surprised at the weak display of lights on this particular occasion. But we were soon to receive an unexpected bonus. No more than twenty minutes into our drive back to the city and the coach was pulling over alongside two or three others in a parking area on the top of a hill. The driver had noticed some activity and before allowing everybody off the coach had stopped to check if it was something worth stopping for. And it was. Suddenly, a rush of passengers squeezed towards the coach door and we made our way out into the cold air again and took up a position from where we could say a strong line of Green colouring the outline edge of the mountain in front of us. This was a much stronger light than the one previously and it then changed, displaying upward streams of light from the arc of green created by the shadow outline of the mountain. It fluttered and faded for a while before totally disappearing but generally we all felt a lot better about justifiably claiming to have now seen the Northern Lights. It certainly wasn’t the most spectacular display you would ever see but at least we saw something.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (218)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (218)

It was 2 o’clock by the time we reached our hotel but we had nothing planned for the following morning (Thursday) so we could at least get what had been a very long day out of our system before starting again tomorrow.

To hell with the expense, we had breakfast at the hotel next morning. It was a slow start to the day following the ‘big day’ yesterday. We had the morning free until 11 o’clock when we were heading off to the Blue Lagoon for a few hours so we spent a bit more time around the centre. It was snowing (again)!

Iceland_0415_LowRes (237)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (237)

Swimming gear organised, we made our way to the bus that would take us to the Blue Lagoon. The lagoon was a natural hot spa on a lava field and had become a very popular destination for both locals and tourists. It was close to the airport and Keflavik and took about an hour to reach it - you could see the steam from the facility in the distance as we approached. The smell of sulphur was again strong as we walked to the entrance and showed our tickets at the reception area. We hired robes and towels and found our way towards the changing areas where the benefits of a very clever and secure locker system made life easier when you want to take a few photos and then put your camera away for a while. It’s a natural lagoon so don’t anticipate it being kind to your feet. The bottom is invisible as the water is a milky blue colour and it’s also very uneven; smooth in some areas, sharp in others and consistently undulating. But it’s a lot warmer in the water than it is out and the water temperature varies as you move around as some areas are much hotter than others. As with most things in Iceland, it’s an expensive experience but fairly unique and not something you have the chance to do every day. We used the café while we were there (more money!!) and suddenly it started snowing again, this time heavily. Visibility diminished dramatically and all but a few remained in the water. Jan decided she wanted to be one of them, which was fine. Then, showered and changed we paid our bill (Ouch!) and walked through the snow back to the bus that would be leaving for Reykjavik at 3 o’clock.
Back in the city around 4 o’clock we wandered from the bus station to the hotel via the Café Paris which we had found and liked a few days before, getting back in time for Happy Hour. Later we decided to return to Restaurant Uno for our evening meal and made plans for the following morning which we again had free to do as we wanted.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (230)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (230)

Plans for our last full day, such as they were, included shopping and a visit to the Cathedral to go up the tower for views and photos over the city.
We woke to a lovely day; still some snow around but the sky was clear and the sun was shining; perfect for the tower so that would now have to be our priority – just in case the weather changed! Everything in Reykjavik was easily walkable and once you’d got your bearings it took very little time to get anywhere so we aimed for the Cathedral as soon as we were up and ready. We timed it well as a queue seemed to build just after we bought our tickets and waited to go up in the elevator. At the top you have to climb a few steps to get to the highest point but the views from there are great. Iceland, in general, is a fairly Black and White country with the dark lava fighting with the ice and snow for dominance. To add colour, the Icelanders make their homes and other buildings as colourful as possible and, from the top of the Cathedral Tower, the view looks like a model village made from Lego bricks with all the various coloured roofs taking centre stage. In the distance the bay and harbour and behind that the mountains looked in immaculate condition on what for us was the clearest day we had seen in the capital city.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (254)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (254)

Back down the hill from the Cathedral we shopped for one or two items and generally took our time before a coffee break at The Laundromat Café, close to the hotel. Time was pushing on and we had a pickup at 1 o’clock from the hotel to get us down to the Old Harbour to get the boat and go out Whale Watching. It was a three hour excursion around the bay and would be the last real event of our trip to Iceland. It was cold but still clear and after getting our tickets and boarding the boat we were all offered thick overalls as protection against the wind. We accepted!! We sat outside on the middle deck and one of the crew sat on the top deck looking for whatever he could see and then pointing it out to us. Unfortunately, on the day there was very little activity in the water around Reykjavik other than a small pod of Porpoises which from our side of the boat we didn’t really see in any case. Being April, we were at the very end of the Northern Lights season and the very beginning of the Whale Watching season so we came with low expectations of seeing either. I suppose one out of two isn’t bad. So, out of the overalls and back on Terra Firma we walked around the Old Harbour and headed back towards the centre where we had promised ourselves one of the local Hot Dogs available from the kiosk in the Main Square. It was just after 4:30 so was closing in on that time again ……….. Happy Hour! A couple of hours and drinks in the hotel bar and we got ready and ventured out to Bistro Geysir for our final meal in Iceland.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (277)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (277)

The morning call for transfer to the airport was an early one – 0300, so a late night was off the agenda. A bleary eyed ride to Keflavik Airport came around all too quickly but it had been a good week. It had snowed again through the night and Iceland was White once again. Our flight was the first one out that morning and we arrived back in the UK before 11 o’clock (Local Time) with lighter wallets but a few photos and memories to make up for it.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (250)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (250)

Posted by david.byne 09:51 Archived in Iceland Tagged landscapes waterfalls mountains lakes beaches churches art buildings sky snow night planes boats Comments (0)

Living the high life in NYC

Seven Nights in The Big Apple

sunny -19 °C
View New York 2014 on david.byne's travel map.

We landed at JFK around 2:30 in the afternoon on Saturday 25th October and by 4:30 we were at our hotel; The Roosevelt on the corner of East 45th Street and Madison Avenue. We hadn’t planned much on our first evening but after unpacking and changing we ventured out across Madison towards 5th Avenue and then on to Times Square where we found a table at Ruby Foo’s restaurant. Great start to the week.

NYC1014 (1)

NYC1014 (1)

Sunday 26th October

The week was planned in a very general fashion with various things already booked and paid for. Some offered flexibility on timing whereas others were fairly fixed. On our first morning we went out and found a place for breakfast across from the hotel and then headed up to the southern edge of Central Park (60th Street) where we picked up our tickets for a Horse & Carriage Ride and made our way to where there were a line of carriages waiting for work. Ours was specifically marked with the name of the company that we had booked with and so we made our way down the line until we saw the logo. It took just under an hour to work our way around the lower half of the park where we saw the New York Zoo, Lincoln Centre, Strawberry Fields, Dakota Building, the Lake and Tavern on the Green where we would eat later in the week. It’s a great time of year (October) to visit New York (and Central Park in particular) as the trees are all turning their different shades of Gold, Red, Brown and Green and it creates some nice colour for photos. Out of the carriage we found ourselves with others watching a group of local ‘entertainers’ setting up what quickly transpired to be a bit of a scam so with money slowly being coerced from innocent passers-by we escaped across the road to The Plaza Hotel where, underneath, they have shops and restaurants so we had lunch. It wasn’t cheap and here we were introduced to the New York (maybe even American) system of paying a restaurant or bar bill. The bill carries three options for the service charge (or tip); 15%, 17.5% or 20% and the three values, based obviously on the total cost of what you have had, are shown on the bottom of the receipt. I knew that tipping was the ‘done thing’ so I rounded the bill up to what I thought was reasonable (which came to just over 11%). This brought the waiter retreating quickly back to our table to challenge whether the service was o.k. or not. We said it was fine and with a slightly confused look on his face he went to great trouble to explain that what happens in New York is that we choose one of the three options and pay accordingly. Wow, what an introduction, we had been educated!!!! And whether you believe it or not, we were informed that the restaurant staff in NYC get around $1.20 per hour which disappears in tax and therefore they rely totally on tips for an income.

NYC1014 (49)

NYC1014 (49)

So, feeling like we had been very politely chastised we left The Plaza Hotel and made our way past Carnegie Hall and back towards Times Square and Broadway where we had a drink in one of the many diners – the first of a few that boast celebrities among their customers, as evidenced by the rows of named plaques lining the walls alongside the tables.

Next stop was the Museum of Modern Art or MOMA as New Yorkers know it. We had pre-booked the tickets so went straight in and encountered the first of many bag searches on the trip. There is security almost everywhere in the city but to be honest it’s really not a problem. As museums go, MOMA was decent and carried some famous work by the likes of Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh and Andy Warhol to name just a few and we probably spent around an hour and a half inside before making our way back to the hotel.

On our walk back towards The Roosevelt we detoured to take a look at the New York Public Library (location for several movie scenes) but on route stumbled across Bryant Park. Bryant Park was a great surprise. We didn’t expect the ice skating rink and we didn’t expect the market either. Browsing around several of the small shops and stopping for a drink killed quite a bit of time before we were back at The Roosevelt with more potential shopping in mind for the next few days.

NYC1014 (106)

NYC1014 (106)

It had been a relatively busy day exploring the city so we settled for a snack and a drink in the hotel bar that evening. The bar at the restaurant has a good atmosphere and some nice, comfortable seating areas where you can collapse after a long day walking the city.

Monday 27th October

Slightly crazy in a major city but we struggled on Monday morning to find (or more probably agree) on where to go for breakfast. Anyway, eventually we did and then made our way to Radio City Music Hall where we had a booking for the tour of one of the oldest entertainment venues in NYC. On the way we passed Rockefeller Plaza and the NBC Studios where they were in the middle of their ‘USA Today’ breakfast programme, a venue that would over the next few days hold outside broadcasts with Jim Carrey, Lewis Hamilton and Prince; hence the regular crowds that gather daily around the swiftly erected barriers outside the building in the plaza. But for now, it was on to the music hall. Established in 1932, Radio City Music Hall has hosted so many different types of shows and artists and many are mentioned or displayed during the tour. It went through a few lean years but managed to stay open with public support and is now once again a thriving venue. The tour takes you through some of the history and you see the foyer, the main reception areas, separate ‘lounges’ for men and women and some of the displayed costumes from a variety of shows including those of The Rockettes. You also get to meet a Rockette before settling briefly in the theatre itself where we were fortunate to catch some of the rehearsal for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Artists that have appeared regularly are also recognised with personalised mirrors hung around the corridors alongside photos and posters from the various events staged at Radio City. It’s a good tour and worth spending the hour or so.

NYC1014 (4)

NYC1014 (4)

Our week in New York City had really kicked into gear on our second full day. From Radio City we headed back around the corner to Rockefeller Plaza where NBC’s programming had moved from the ground floor to the first floor. The Plaza itself; the numerous and impressive buildings, ice rink and the outside space within the plaza provide an indication of the influence that Rockefeller has had on the city. It’s a huge complex. Inside the main Rockefeller building it is equally impressive. We were headed for the Top of the Rock Observation Deck for which we already had tickets. This helped reduce the queuing time so gradually we made our way up the 70 floors to the top platform where the views of Manhattan, across to New Jersey and over to Central Park are predictably outstanding. The Chrysler Building is close by, as is the Empire State Building, although the Empire State does get in the way of the view down to Wall Street, the new World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty a bit. To solve that problem simply get yourself up the Empire State Building for views all the way down to the financial district. It’s worth doing both in my opinion.

NYC1014 (70)

NYC1014 (70)

After Rockefeller, we crossed the road to St Patrick’s Cathedral and had a walk around there before getting a shopping ‘fix’ in Saks of 5th Avenue. It’s huge – and so are the prices!!!!! Wallet intact, we had lunch at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, great for milkshakes. You also get entertained by the waiters and waitresses who take time out from serving tables to do a number on the microphone from one of the Broadway shows. And it’s not karaoke, they can all really sing! Topped up with food, milk shakes and musicals we walked to Grand Central Station, literally a couple of minutes from our hotel. Amazingly, there are 117 tracks running out of Grand Central. It also has a number of shops and a Prosecco and Oyster Bar which was where we killed a couple of hours with a few glasses.

Tuesday 28th October

On Tuesday morning we decided to walk straight down from East 45th Street to Union Square which sits between 14th and 17th streets. It took us via Bryant Park again so turned into a bit of a shopping trip too. Union Square was a different part of the city for us and based on what we were told; that to walk between streets takes about one minute each and to walk between avenues takes about five minutes each, it shouldn’t take more than half an hour. The weather so far in New York City had been perfect and today and tomorrow were forecast to be exceptional with temperatures hitting 74 degrees so we walked whenever we could afford the time. However, after seeing the Flatiron Building and having coffee we jumped in a cab and travelled directly west to the Meatpacking District and picked up the beginning of the High Line walk which runs alongside the Hudson River for two or three kilometres. A new part of it has only just opened and in some ways the walk still has to mature a bit but it was a great way to get another angle on another part of the city from up above the traffic. At the end of the High Line you emerge in West 34th Street and we quickly found the Skyline Deli to grab something to eat and drink. No evidence of celebrities this time!!

NYC1014 (283)

NYC1014 (283)

Back in central Manhattan we found Macy’s which apparently we couldn’t just walk past but again the wallet survived and we made our way back to the hotel to get ready for our Broadway experience. We were running a bit late and had to get to the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway by 7 p.m. to see Jersey Boys so we were back in a Yellow cab again. Traffic was heavy and at one stage it looked like it would be quicker to walk (which it often is in New York City) but I think the driver sensed the urgency and we were there in good time. Jersey Boys was brilliant! We needed a show that would keep the four of us happy and this one ticked the box. We were out of there by 9:30 and that allowed us time to stroll back through Times Square again.

NYC1014 (573)

NYC1014 (573)

Wednesday 29th October

The Wednesday was always going to be a big day for us with what we had planned and booked. First on the agenda was the Big Apple Helicopter Flight which I had confirmed for 11:45 and we needed to be down at the Heliport in Downtown Manhattan by 11:15. With that in mind we headed for Grand Central Station and had breakfast in the café there. Not the cheapest but very busy and very good. From here we took the subway for the first time; Subway 5 took us from Grand Central to Wall Street in about 20 minutes. We climbed the stairs out of the subway right by Trinity Church and close to the large Bull sculpture that stands in the centre of the financial district. We briefly entered Trinity Church, took some photos around “Bully”, chatted with an NYPD officer and then walked down Wall Street and passed by the New York Stock Exchange and onward towards the heliport at Pier 6.

NYC1014 (308)

NYC1014 (308)

The Helicopter took 6 people and flew us from Downtown Manhattan right up to the Yankee Stadium in The Bronx, passing New Jersey City on the left and all of New York City on the right and back down the Hudson River where we passed over the top of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island before landing back at Pier 6. It was our first time in a helicopter, what a great way to travel. I want one!

The Heliport was located almost in the shadow of Brooklyn Bridge and walking New York’s best known route over East River was on my list of things to do so we jumped in a cab from Pier 6 which took us to the Brooklyn side. It was a warm day so we bought some drinks in a small supermarket and started the walk back from Brooklyn across to Manhattan. The views from the helicopter had been amazing and these too, from the bridge, were great. The new World Trade Center stood proud among the financial district as it prepared for its official opening just days after our visit. The walk across probably took the best part of an hour as we stopped to take a number of photographs both of the bridge itself and the views.

NYC1014 (341)

NYC1014 (341)

On the other side we passed City Hall undergoing some kind of repair or renovation and briefly rested with a coffee as we pondered our next move. We had tickets for 5 p.m. at the new 9/11 Museum and Memorial so had two or three hours to grab something to eat and make our way from the bridge to the World Trade Centre site. It gave us a chance to walk to Battery Park which we had seen earlier near to the heliport. From the park you get a great view of The Statue of Liberty and although there was some work underway with planting and repairing pathways it was a nice outside space with things happening such as musicians and breakdancers to entertain the public.

It had turned a bit colder but we were still ok for time so walked to the 9/11 site, stopping at whatever on route. There is still a lot of work going on around the World Trade Center and it really will look fantastic when it is all completed. The main building, replacing the two destroyed in September 2001, is a lovely looking construction and stands alongside the large square footprints of the two previous World Trade Center Towers which have now been converted into a very impressive memorial, incorporating water seemingly falling into infinity and the names of the 3,500 people who died on that day engraved around the edge of the two huge pools.

NYC1014 (383)

NYC1014 (383)

It was approaching 5 p.m. so we made our way into the museum. Opened earlier this year, the museum has received outstanding reviews and was a personal ‘must see’ of mine. After clearing security you enter a hall with videos and references that start to remind you of how the events unfolded. Through to the other side of this and you overlook a larger, deeper area that contains some of the artefacts; sections of the original building that appear to have taken the full force of the impact. You descend to floor level of the hall via a curved walkway thinking that possibly this is the extent of the exhibits and the museum itself. I was wrong and soon realised that this was the top floor of six that sat underneath ground level of the World Trade Center and we had merely seen the introduction to what the museum had in store. For the next hour and a half or so we worked our way through the exhibits as it told the story. From the first ‘Breaking News’ segment that interrupted the normal programming on NBC and CBS to the period of recovery over the past thirteen years including the development of the new site. The presentation was faultless. Video accounts from local witnesses, artefacts both small and large including a fire engine displaying the visible damage resulting from the extreme heat generated by the explosions that took place. The ladders on the roof even showed the signs of turning to molten metal on the back end of the fire truck. There were of course areas dedicated to the fallen including a dark, almost enclosed quiet space with seating that projected a different name every minute onto a black screen at the front of the room with that person’s name being announced amid the silence as it appeared. Very nicely done.

NYC1014 (391)

NYC1014 (391)

I had been keeping half an eye on my watch because I was conscious of the 8 p.m. tip-off time at Madison Square Garden where we had tickets for the Season Opener in the NBA between the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls. All four of us had become immersed in the 9/11 Museum and even after more than an hour and a half it was difficult to drag ourselves away. In the end we had to speed up and work through the final areas a little quicker than we otherwise would have liked but we needed to hail a cab and get back up to 34th Street in what was likely to be heavy traffic. Again, it sometimes felt we would get there quicker walking but again the driver did his stuff and got us there in good time. Another security check and a hot dog later and we were in our seats just 13 rows from the front. MSG is a great arena and appeared full for this first match-up of the season. Pre-match and half-time entertainment included Joan Jett (Remember her??) and The Blue Man Group. Celebrity supporters included John McEnroe, Heidi Klum and Taylor Swift. As for the game itself; we logically attached ourselves in support of the home team which appeared to work at the start but only briefly. The Bulls gradually assumed control and proved over the course of the four quarters to be the better side by quite a distance, running out 104-80 winners. We couldn’t quite claim ‘lucky charm’ status for the Knicks but it had been a great occasion and a fantastic, memorable day.

NYC1014 (424)

NYC1014 (424)

Despite the long day we walked from 34th Street back to The Roosevelt Hotel on East 45th. It was a nice enough evening and we had plenty to reflect on. Back at the hotel there was just time for a drink at the bar before bed.

Thursday 30th October

Thursday morning was intended for the Harbour Cruise down the Hudson River to the Statue of Liberty and back again. We arrived at Pier 83 at around 10:30 to catch our boat only to find that the cruise that we had booked only sailed once each day and left at 10 a.m. Unfortunately, our information hadn’t told us this and with Friday already booked up it would have to be Saturday morning or not at all.

Instead, we caught a taxi down to Tribeca, getting out at Canal Street and walking around the area until we came across ‘8 Hook and Ladder’; otherwise famous as the Ghostbusters Fire Station. The Tribeca area generally is quite well used for movie locations and is also the venue for the Robert de Nero founded Tribeca Film Festival so it was nice to wander around the area that seemed to be dominated by the traditional houses and fire escapes so often seen on TV and at the cinema.

NYC1014 (441)

NYC1014 (441)

Feeling ‘movie inspired’ we walked all the way across town to Katz’s Deli, the location of that famous scene from ‘When Harry met Sally’ involving Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal. It’s also well known for it’s food and I had been warned that we would have to queue for some time if we wanted to get inside to eat and/or drink. Having deliberately had our one and only hotel breakfast that morning (and made the most of it!) following our busy day the day before, it didn’t really matter whether or not we could get a table as hunger was far from setting in. So, when we got there to find that we could walk straight in and get seated we were challenged to order something which of course we did. An hour or so later and feeling heavy we left Katz’s to walk off the Pastrami Sandwich and Milk Shake. However, it was worth the visit. The owner, photographed with a never ending list of celebrities as displayed on the walls, stopped at each table to ask where people were from and to make sure they were happy with what they were having. It had been a good experience.

NYC1014 (492)

NYC1014 (492)

Chinatown, Little Italy and Greenwich Village were next in line. All were within reach on foot and we literally walked through each area ending at Washington Square Park where it was nice to rest a while before moving on. We still had to get to the Empire State Building (where we could also collect the tickets for the postponed Harbour Cruise) and it was already mid-afternoon. We also had a booking for dinner at Tavern on the Green in Central Park which was in the back of my mind. It would be a challenge to do both the Empire State and also be back at the hotel to get ready and get up to Central Park for the 8 p.m. reservation UNLESS the queues at Empire State were in our favour. The other thing was we didn’t want to be on the Observation Deck too early as, having been ‘Top of the Rock’ during daylight hours, we wanted to get the other view at dusk, as the lights in the city start to come on. We were basically pushing our luck trying to do everything we wanted when we wanted but we got lucky. Queuing was minimal and the timing was almost perfect, reaching the top just before 6 p.m. This gave us almost an hour to take our photos and enjoy the views. As it happened that was more than enough, especially with a cold breeze dragging the air temperature down to new lows for the week.

We quickly made our way back to The Roosevelt to get showered and changed before eventually attracting the attention of a cab that could get us to Central Park. We got to Tavern on the Green for our 8 o’clock reservation almost to the minute. Recently reopened after a long time closed, the refurbishment has resulted in a very classy restaurant with bar and live entertainment. The moment that you walk in you know it’s not going to be cheap but you pay for what you get at Tavern on the Green. We had a great evening with great food and it was an ideal venue for one of our last evening meals in NYC.

While the girls grabbed a cab to get back to the hotel, Matt and I decided to walk from Central Park, pick up Broadway and work our way back taking photographs as we went. We didn’t rush and it was good to be able to people watch along the way.

The girls got up early for their trip to the Woodbury Designer Outlets just outside the city on the New Jersey side, and Matt and I left the hotel in the opposite direction to pick up tickets for our Hip Hop Tour of Harlem and The Bronx. We had to walk from East 45th down to 31st Street to redeem the tickets and then back up to East 59th Street to catch the bus. 31st Street turned out to be a wasted journey as the store where we were redeeming the tickets was boarded up. Our only option was to go straight to East 59th and plead our case as we got on the bus. It wasn’t a problem and before we knew it we were on the bus being introduced to our ‘Guest’ Guide for the day; Grandmaster Caz (Remember Rapper’s Delight? He wrote it). Caz took us into Harlem where ‘Mouse’ showed us his Breakdancing skills, we moved on to Rucker Park, Apollo Theatre, Yankee Stadium and other places of interest, pointing out the homes of various celebrities from the Hip Hop and acting worlds plus some of the more significant Graffiti around both Harlem and The Bronx. We also had lunch in Harlem and saw the Walk of Fame in The Bronx that includes a plaque with Grandmaster Caz’s name on it. Four hours after leaving we returned to East 59th at the same time as the girls were finishing their shopping. Like us, they had seen different ‘stuff’ too including some of the natural Autumn colours on display in the trees around New Jersey.

NYC1014 (595)

NYC1014 (595)

We all met up again in the hotel bar for a drink and in the end decided against going out to the Halloween parade down at 16th Street as a combination of tiredness and comfort in the bar kicked in. So that was it for the day.

Saturday 1st November

Saturday, our final day in New York City, was planned as our ‘free’ day. Do anything we want! This wasn’t the way it turned out because we still had our Harbour Cruise tickets to use, Bloomingdales to visit and also had half an eye on using the Roosevelt Tram which was basically a cable car that took you across to the small island that sits near to Queensborough Bridge on the East River. So it was a ‘free’ day …. but not quite.
Packing also had to be considered although we had gained an extra hour on check out from the hotel which helped. We had our room until 1 p.m. at which time we could leave our bags until around 7:30 p.m. when we would get in a taxi for the airport.

Opposite the hotel there was a convenient café that proved handy on our first morning for breakfast and then again on our last. Our boat from Pier 83 left at 10 o’clock so it was a matter of walking until we could get a cab which would take us straight across town to the west side of New York. The weather had unfortunately turned a little and was cold and a bit blowy with rain at times but we honestly couldn’t complain after the week we had just had.

On board our Liberty Cruise the trip lasted about 75 minutes which was plenty, taking us down as far as the Statue of Liberty (her nose is 4 feet long by the way!) and Ellis Island with a glimpse of Brooklyn Bridge and then back up to Pier 83 past New Jersey City on the left and the financial district on the right, plus World Trade Center, Chelsea Harbour, the Meatpacking District, Central Manhattan across to the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and the Rockefeller Centre all squeezed in-between the numerous other high-rises like the Metlife Building and Trump Towers. Back at Pier 83 you could see on the dockside next door the British Airways Concorde that they now have on display plus the Space Shuttle that sits in a hanger on the front of the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Intrepid which is now part of a museum.

NYC1014 (646)

NYC1014 (646)

It had become cold on the boat so we headed straight for the nearest cab to get us back close to the hotel where we needed to think about finishing our packing and checking out. Then, with bags safe for the afternoon we headed back out to East 59th and Park Avenue where Bloomingdales can be found. If the weather had been a little kinder I think it would have been nice to wander around Central Park for a while but it just wasn’t to be so the wallet had to be ‘prepped’ for the purchase of the inevitable ‘Little Brown Bags’ from Bloomingdales. We thought about stopping for a snack inside the store but couldn’t decide on which of the five places to stop and, after walking around five of the seven levels and resisting a bauble for the Christmas Tree at $129 (!!!!) we opted for lunch at ‘Burger Heaven’ where the burgers were cooked how we wanted and the milkshakes were great. We were further entertained with origami by our waiter before taking a quick trip on the Roosevelt Tram which was just around the corner on 59th and 2nd. We got off, briefly, at Roosevelt Island. And when I say briefly I mean briefly. It was wetter, windier and colder than earlier and whilst it would have been ok to wander the tiny island on a nice day this wasn’t one of them. So, back on the cable car to get the final few photos of the Manhattan skyline and Queensborough Bridge.

Time was slowly creeping towards the end of our stay but we apparently had one final stop to make on our stroll back to The Roosevelt Hotel …………………………….. Bloomingdales again! To be fair you couldn’t say that the purchase of this ‘exclusive to Bloomingdales’ item had been rushed. It had been carefully pondered over several hours which, coupled with a good sales pitch, proved irresistible and my daughter’s luggage for the journey home was now weighed down by several ounces more, probably balanced by an equally lighter bank balance.

Back at the hotel there was time enough for a final drink and a chat at the bar before collecting and reorganising our luggage for the trip home. That final visit to Bloomingdales, probably as much as anything, sums up our experience in The Big Apple. New York is somewhere that is almost unavoidable, you have to go and when you get there much of what it has to offer proves irresistibly tempting. And although you feel ultimately drained both physically and financially at the end of it you can’t help but smile and reflect on the time spent and hope that one day you may get to do it all over again. It had been a great week.

Posted by david.byne 09:57 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises bridges churches art buildings skylines people trees sky night boats Comments (0)

Extraordinary India and Wonderful Nepal (1)

Part 1 - India

sunny -38 °C

It’s just over 4,000 miles to Delhi from London; a mere eight and a half hours before you are plunged into a country of extremes which will eventually leave you exhausted and fascinated in equal measure. Whether it is the weather, the number of people, the traffic, the noise, the dust, the colours, India has it in truckloads. They have over 800 different languages shared around the 22 provinces and 22 religions with Hindu being the dominant force. Politically, India was just starting its General Election process as we arrived with the BJP attempting to wrestle power away from Congress.
The airport in New Delhi is recent, modern and thankfully efficient. We obtained our Visas prior to travelling although India will soon switch to a ‘visa on arrival’ system which may or may not be an advantage. Anyway, landed safely, reunited with baggage and met by our rep, we were soon on our way to the first hotel on our tour of Northern India and Nepal.
Delhi, like Istanbul and Cairo, is simply one of those cities that you shouldn’t even consider hiring a car. Our driver battled through the lunchtime traffic negotiating the five or six lanes of vehicles that evolved from the three that were marked on the road and the never-ending mash-up of cars, lorries, vans, tuk-tuk’s, bicycle rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles and cattle created a chaos that was audibly reinforced by the constant use of the horn as the drivers battled with one another.
A_Delhi_001 (120)

A_Delhi_001 (120)


It was warm , very warm, but protected by the air conditioning in the Hotel Suryaa for most of the first day we didn’t really notice just how warm India was until we met up with Vinod (guide) the following morning and stepped into 37 degrees. Vinod, along with Rajesh (driver) would keep us company for the next five days as we toured Delhi, Jaipur and Agra.
Our visit to Delhi took us to the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid (one of Asia’s largest mosques), Raj Ghat (a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi and the place where he was cremated in 1948), Qutub Minar, Humayan’s Tomb, India Gate, the Parliament building, Rastrapathi Bhawan (the President’s residence), the old Viceroy’s Palace (the last viceroy being Lord Louis Mountbatten) and the very new Akshardham Temples. Looking up, the sky was full of large black birds that we eventually learned were Black Kites and they were everywhere to be found during our tour of India and Nepal. We travelled between the Jama Masjid and the Red Fort on a bicycle rickshaw through the streets of old Delhi dodging tuk-tuks, carts and cattle as we went. The narrow streets and large tangled knots of exposed electrical cables draped high across the roads were reminiscent of old Hanoi in Vietnam. Bicycle rickshaw driving is obviously a tough way to earn a living but our driver saw fit to regularly remind us as he pedalled us to the fort (not hinting for a tip then!!). Delhi and its noise, colour, heat, traffic and architecture had introduced us to India and given us a taste of what was to follow.
A_Delhi_001 (18)

A_Delhi_001 (18)


From Delhi we moved on to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, nicknamed The Pink City. It was a six hour drive but with so much to see that was new to us the time passed easily. You really do see a lot of life from the passenger seat of a car in some countries. No motorways as such so the main and minor roads had a lot to offer and gave us an insight into everyday life for rural India. On route to Jaipur we saw our first ‘working’ camel trudging along the road pulling its load, a sight that I probably didn’t expect to see. We also had our first sighting of a wild monkey taking shade under a tree followed soon after by an elephant, as we approached the outskirts of Jaipur, heavily lumbering its way up a hill in the mid afternoon heat. Camels, Monkeys and Elephants are commonplace in Jaipur as we soon discovered. The detailed facade of Hawa Mahal, built in 1799 as a royal grandstand for the palace women, stands out as you drive through the centre of town and from there it was a short journey to the Marriott Hotel.
B_DelhiJaipur_001 (12)

B_DelhiJaipur_001 (12)


The following morning we were to see the Amber Fort Palace but first we were going for an elephant ride which was great. Elephant and owner had been together for 26 years and clearly had an understanding which was more than I could say for me and the stalking photographer who busied himself as we left on our short ride and met us with a set of ten photographs on our return. Why I would want ten photographs of us on an elephant I will never know – especially at 2,500 Rupees (£25) for the set. I offered him 100 Rupees for one and to cut a very long story short left with all ten for 200 Rupees after a protracted discussion.
The Amber Fort Palace in Jaipur is a main attraction in the city and was a real highlight. A snake charmer sits outside and usually pulls in a crowd before you climb the hill and enter the main gate. Musicians lurk around another corner and street vendors with musical instruments and beads home in on you as you walk. Everywhere you go In India there seems to be somebody appearing from nowhere to sell something but a polite ‘No thank you’ generally worked. Failing that we had to resort to Vinod’s advice and that was to simply ignore them. There is a lot to see and appreciate at the Amber Fort but beware, there’s not much shade!
C_Jaipur_001 (39)

C_Jaipur_001 (39)


City Palace was our next stop as the sun really started to warm things up. It’s a huge complex covering approximately one seventh of the walled city of Jaipur and combines Mughal (Mongol) and Indian architecture. Men in costume playing traditional instruments and women in sari’s hang around the most photogenic backdrops; some deliberately to pose for a photo for a small tip while the highly detailed and coloured architecture also keeps the camera busy and without the need for money to change hands! One of the palace buildings has an amazing room decorated in silver and glass while the general architecture, the doorways and interiors of the other rooms were equally impressive including one doorway decorated with a stunning peacock design that drew a lot of attention from visitors. We had lunch inside the grounds of the City Palace and found enough shade to be able to sit outside and eat while a musician provided some background music before we headed off to see Jantar Mantar.
C_Jaipur_001 (85)

C_Jaipur_001 (85)


Jantar Mantar is Jaipur’s observatory park containing oversized astronomical instruments – one of five such observatories around India and said to be the largest and best preserved. It is still in use and while originally less appealing on our itinerary it was actually worth the visit. In addition to having huge instruments designed and built for telling the time to a high degree of accuracy there are astrological constructions for each of the star signs. However, the area is totally exposed to the sun and while you could have spent hours wandering around the park and understanding everything that was there the appeal of the air conditioned car and a couple of lazy hours at the hotel convinced us otherwise.
From the first few days it became apparent that Jan was something of an attraction to the local people. People would randomly at will stand behind her while a friend took their picture or one would simple walk up, take the shot and walk away again. Some even asked to have their photo taken with her. This happened throughout our time in India.
C_Jaipur_001 (106)

C_Jaipur_001 (106)


We had eaten at one of the various restaurants available in the hotels so far on the trip but for our last night in Jaipur we had the option of eating out at a restaurant in a village resort called Chowki Dhani. It seemed a good idea at the time as we washed our hands and took our places, seated on the floor around small individual tables. Plates made from leaves and clay cups were handed out before the food and drink was brought around. It was impossible to try everything as it just kept on coming and some of the drink provided was a bit challenging. Nonetheless, we had as much as we wanted and headed back to the hotel to collapse after a long day.
From Jaipur, we hit the road again, this time heading for Agra and the Taj Mahal. The landscape during the journey was punctuated by the tall brick chimneys attached to brick factories and also three overturned vehicles in the middle of the road. If they are guilty of nothing else then Indians are certainly at fault for overloading their commercial vehicles to an extreme. Having navigated around the ‘dead’ trucks we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri, a great mosque built in the 17th century and located about an hour outside of Agra. Now empty, it was another huge sandstone fortress.
We reached the Wyndham Grand hotel in Agra late afternoon. As we drove into the centre of town and bumped tentatively along the road that desperately needed some kind of even surface Rajesh announced sarcastically “Welcome to Agra!” The immediate impression was that living in Agra would be especially tough and maybe the town relied exclusively on the benefit derived from having the Taj Mahal close by. As we turned off the main road into the hotel drive it was like entering a different world.
D_Agra_001 (4)

D_Agra_001 (4)


We had an early start the following morning with the aim of getting in to the Taj Mahal for sunrise but before that we were going out in the evening for a show. It was just over an hour long and in a colourful Bollywood style production it told the story of Shah Jahan and the events that led up to the building of the great memorial to his wife Mumtaz Mahal.
Vinod picked us up at 5 a.m. for the short but slow drive to the Taj followed by a fairly swift horse and carriage ride that got us to the main gate in time to be relatively near the front of the queue waiting for the area to open. There is a security presence everywhere in India and here was no exception with the separate lines for men and women being kept in check as the queue gradually lengthened ahead of the 6 a.m. opening time. On the dot we filed through for the regulatory bag check and frisking before being freed to wander up the wide path to the large arched gate through which you see the Taj Mahal at the far end of the complex. Between the gate and the Taj the area is landscaped as a large garden with a spine of water leading up to the main building flanked either side by identical smaller buildings. Tourists gather around the ‘Princess Diana’ seat rendering it virtually impossible to photograph from there even if you wanted to. The Taj was bigger than I expected and when we reached the steps we were given plastic coverings for our shoes prior to entering. The early morning temperatures were already rising steadily, and even at 6:30 in the morning it was good to escape into the shade of what is a marble masterpiece. Inside, the Taj is fairly ordinary compared to the amazing detail on the outside. With everything seen that there is to see and all photos taken, it was time to stroll back taking a slightly different route through the garden to where Vinod was waiting for us ‘in the shade!’.
D_Agra_001 (26)

D_Agra_001 (26)


Back to the hotel for breakfast before venturing out again. I was starting to struggle on our way out from the Taj Mahal and I was soon thinking that eating out in the way that we did at Chowki Dhani was possibly not a great idea. Regardless, we went on to see the Baby Taj which was where I finally conceded defeat. Agra Fort was next on the itinerary but not feeling so great plus the intense midday heat finally got the better of me and so I left Jan and Vinod to see the Agra Fort while I stayed in the relative cool of the car. Rajesh did his best by moving the car in the congested car park to a spot under a tree as soon as it became available. Unfortunately, I was a bit of a sitting target for any hawkers trying to sell whatever it was they were trying to sell but apart from muttering a feeble “No thanks” I had no idea what they were doing or offering at the time.
Feeling as I did, the prospect of an overnight train to Amritsar was more daunting than it would have been otherwise but later that afternoon we had to be back in the car and leaving the hotel for Agra Railway Station and at the same time saying goodbye to both Vinod and Rajesh who had looked after us so well. Vinod walked us on to the extremely busy Platform 1 and stayed until he knew we would be ok. He was a nice guy and really good company.
The train journey was 16 hours and would get us to Amritsar at around 8 am. Amritsar was the end of the line so at least there were no worries about missing the station. The train itself was in the middle of a 3 day journey. We joined at the end of day 2 and found our compartment before settling down. Three hours into the journey we were bluntly interrupted by one of the train attendants who told us we were on the wrong side of the compartment. We were in a 4-berth compartment, 2 on each side, and had taken the two bunks that we were told only to then be told to move. We started to move and after watching us do most of the work he informed us that he meant we were in the wrong compartment!! A fairly predictable communication breakdown!! Eventually we settled down again in the compartment next door and, feeling as I did, simply set the bed up and crashed for the night.
E_AgraAmritsarTrain_001 (4)

E_AgraAmritsarTrain_001 (4)


Any hopes we had of having the compartment to ourselves were dashed around 8 p.m. when a family boarded and took their places on the two beds opposite. Not ideal but the disturbed rest helped a bit and one or two stops before Amritsar the family left the train which gave us the time and space to sort ourselves out. At Amritsar we were met by another rep who took us to the Hyatt Hotel where we had breakfast and met Anil who would show us the sights of the city.
F_Amritsar_001 (9)

F_Amritsar_001 (9)


The Golden Temple at Amritsar was something I was really looking forward to seeing. Amritsar is in the Punjab and is the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion. Around 100,000 people wash their feet and cover their heads before entering to visit the Golden Temple every day. Originally constructed of white marble the temple now has much of its outer walls covered in a thick layer of gold; something which is added to as and when funds/donations allow. The temple is surrounded almost entirely by water and sits inside a complex that has entrances on all four sides. Followers of all faiths are allowed inside although the queue to see the holy book can be hours long which for us was prohibitive so we settled for walking around the outside of the temple before venturing inside some of the surrounding buildings. Anil also took us to see, as he described it, the largest kitchen in the world. Still within the Golden Temple complex, the kitchen serves 80,000 free meals each day and is manned by volunteers who prepare, cook, serve and wash up from 8 a.m. each morning until late at night.
F_Amritsar_001 (44)

F_Amritsar_001 (44)


Still barefooted, we walked through the different kitchen areas to watch the ingredients being prepared, mixed and then cooked. Dough was being rolled to make bread and the silver metal plates and cutlery were spotlessly clean and piled high ready for use. Anil explained that we would be welcome to join in and have food but we declined and made our way back into the temple complex after washing our feet again and rinsing the cauliflower from between our toes!!
After a couple of hours looking around the Golden Temple it was time to set off for Wagah, the border with Pakistan. Daily at 6 pm there is a ceremonial opening and closing of the gates between India and Pakistan which is watched by thousands of people on both sides. We arrived at around 5:30 pm and had seats in the ‘foreigners only’ section of the stand. A kind of pre-match entertainment kept our attention with M.C.’s either side of the gate whipping up the crowd in a competitive manner followed by music, dancing and some patriotic flag waving up to the border gate and back by privileged volunteers. Then, on the dot at 6 pm the main feature began with ceremonial foot stamping, fast marching and fist pumping aimed at the opposition.
G_Wagah_001 (17)

G_Wagah_001 (17)


A group of eight soldiers took their turn to perform the ritual, each ending at the gates facing across the border. The gates are opened and this is then followed by the national flags being crossed as if to signify unity between the two nations followed by a lowering and then more high kicks and stomping of feet before the gates are ultimately slammed shut as if to conclude a failure to agree by both parties. The crowd disperses, buying ice creams and snacks from street vendors as they make their way home and 24 hours later it all happens again. A brilliant end to an amazing day.
Amritsar had a slightly different feel about it. It was still very typically India and looked generally like everywhere else that we had visited but the Punjab is a comparatively affluent area with many wealthy farming families and maybe this had something to do with what we saw as a difference in attitudes of some of the people.
The following morning we had free time and lazed around the hotel pool. After lunch we visited a small summer palace of the Maharajah Ranjit Singh which is now a museum and garden and then drove to the site of the Amritsar Massacre (Jalian Walah Bagh in the local language). The bullet holes from the events on 13th April 1919 (basically 85 years to the day when we visited) are still visible in the brickwork that surrounds the now neatly landscaped garden. An eternal flame burns in memory and at the bottom of the garden stands a large memorial sculpture. Anil had been keen to take photos of us at many of the locations we had been together (to show his mother) and was genuinely very attentive and enthusiastic about what he had shown us during our two days in Amritsar and when the time came to leave for the evening train to Delhi he kindly helped with our bags through to the station platform.
H_Amritsar_001 (43)

H_Amritsar_001 (43)


The train to Delhi would take 6 hours, arriving at 11 o’clock at night. Hopefully, our rep would be there to meet us. He was, although hanging around Delhi Railway Station late at night fending off eager porters keen to earn a dollar could have become problematic had he been much more than five minutes late. Understandably in Delhi, the traffic had been the problem.
Half an hour later we were back in the Suryaa Hotel (one of our favourites) for a few hours before setting off to the airport after breakfast for our flight to Varanasi. We were met and transferred to the Gateway Ganges Hotel which was a fabulous hotel in huge grounds with a lovely pool. Overhead, the Black Kites ruled the skies once again! We settled in before Shaquil arrived with the driver to take us to Sarnath, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the world where Buddha is said to have preached his first sermon in 500 BC. Every year in January the Dalai Lama, now exiled in the hills of Northern India, visits Sarnath. Unsurprisingly, prayer wheels, prayer flags and bells take centre stage, providing the colour for more photos and in a way making it feel a little less like the India that we had so far become accustomed to.
J_Varanasi_001 (31)

J_Varanasi_001 (31)


Varanasi is a very old city with a strong university sub-culture. Taking its name from a combination of the two rivers, the Varuna and the Assi that still flow in the north of the city, Varanasi is today most famous for its location on the banks of the Ganges. And it was the Ganges that we had really come to see. Probably one of the most polluted rivers in the world it still manages to entice people into its murky but holy waters. Our evening would be taken up on Daswamedh Ghat, one of several ghats (basically a series of steps down to the river) along the Ganges at Varanasi to watch the Aarti Ceremony at sunset. This is a daily ceremony where up to nine holy men offer prayers to the River Ganges by way of thanks for the day just passed. We paid a donation to take two seats on an upper terrace so that we could get a good view as the ceremony unfolded. People attend in large numbers each evening and take their place on the ghats or in boats to listen and watch as the ceremony is performed on the nine platforms. A mix of music, fire, chanting and incense burning takes place during the hour long ceremony before the crowd funnels itself back down the main Varanasi high street, again dodging the street vendors and tuk-tuks.
J_Varanasi_001 (124)

J_Varanasi_001 (124)


Twelve hours later and we were back at the same ghat but this time to board a boat and to be on the Ganges for sunrise. We were rowed several hundred yards each way from the ghat where the AARTI Ceremony took place the night before. Again, there were lots of people already descending on the area with many locals dipping and washing in the holy water. Along the river there were other ghats each with their own theme including a laundry ghat from where the dhobi wallah’s and their ‘runners’ operate businesses providing a laundry service for locals. The dhobi wallah’s persistently thrash the clothes against a flat slab of rock before rinsing them clean and hurling them on the banks to dry. They then get returned to their owners. A bit further downstream and a very advanced looking yoga class is underway on the steps of another ghat. It was so still, calm and peaceful on the river.
J_Varanasi_001 (159)

J_Varanasi_001 (159)


A few hundred yards in the opposite direction and you reach the cremation ghat. The smell of burning sandalwood fills the air as you approach the ghat and see the smoke from several small pyres. There is a constant supply of wood being brought to the scene on bikes and boats to be stacked in readiness to meet the bodies carried in under a shroud on a stretcher from the centre of town. As a backdrop to the various ghats the Ganges offers a number of temples and palaces that together form a unique waterfront at Varanasi.
J_Varanasi_001 (171)

J_Varanasi_001 (171)


We got off our boat here and tipped the boatman before following Shaquil up the steps, past the stocks of sandalwood and through the narrow alleys behind the cremation ghat. Our path was soon blocked by a cow but nervously squeezing past its rear end we continued on our way through the old and tatty but colourful alleyways. Two dogs suddenly went to war which broke the silence and this quickly attracted others from all directions to join the fight. With the dogfight well underway but thankfully behind us we eventually reached the main street again and returned to the hotel for breakfast. Shaquil arranged to collect us later that morning to see more of Varanasi including the Bharat Mata (Mother India) Temple, the Durga Temple (known locally as Monkey Temple for obvious reasons) and the University, an important part of the city, currently with 65,000 students.
Varanasi, like almost everything else we had seen in India, was amazing and this was to be our final sightseeing in the country before we took the flight to Nepal the following day.
B_DelhiJaipur_001 (5)

B_DelhiJaipur_001 (5)

Posted by david.byne 12:58 Archived in India Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises buildings people animals birds boats trains religion Comments (0)

Extraordinary India and Wonderful Nepal (2)

Part 2 - Nepal

sunny -27 °C

The flight from Varanasi to Kathmandu is less than an hour and after the slightly painful form filling and queuing required to obtain the entry visa at Nepal’s main airport we were met by Buddish and his driver Sunit. It was April 15th and yesterday was New Year’s Day in Nepal ………………….. in the year 2071!!!!!
Our hotel was the Soaltee Crowne Plaza in Kathmandu and the facilities were perfect for the next three nights. Nepal already had a less chaotic feel to it and we were glad that we had seen India first followed by Nepal rather than the other way around. It had been an extraordinary twelve days so far and we were able to relax and enjoy free time for the rest of the day but tomorrow we would start to explore the three cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur and some of the seven UNESCO World heritage sites located in the valley.
K_Kathmandu_001 (23)

K_Kathmandu_001 (23)


Our first full day in Kathmandu was day 13 of our trip. Buddish met us in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza and before lunch we would have a good look around Kathmandu city. The first stop was Durbar Square which is full of temples and palaces and was the seat of royalty before Nepal ceased to be a kingdom in 2008. The architecture is amazing and while the square was busy it was much calmer and more orderly than what we had become used to in India. We visited Kumari Che, the temple where the current Kumari (Living Goddess) lives during her time in the position. Basically, a young girl of appropriate background and free from any scars or other physical blemishes is selected to be Kumari at the age of 4 and given up willingly by her family until she reaches puberty when a new Kumari is selected for the position. During the 8 years or so that she fills the role she stays inside the Kumari Che on all but 13 days of the year when she is seen outside as a goddess at the different festivals that take place. That apart, she is occasionally seen for a few seconds only each day at the small window in the courtyard of Kumari Che in Durbar Square. We were fortunate to arrive at the right time to see her appear for probably no more than 30 seconds - strictly no photographs allowed!
K_Kathmandu_001 (12)

K_Kathmandu_001 (12)


The Kumari temple is old with very ornate wooden balconies and window screens, not untypical of many of the buildings in the city which tend to be of wood and brick compared to India where marble and sandstone are mainly used. After climbing the 9-story pagoda and having great views of central Kathmadu from the top we were driven to the temples and stupa at Swayambhunath which is situated on the top of a hill just on the edge of the city. Locally known as the monkey temple (another one!) there is a large tribe of monkeys which you need to be wary of if you visit. We visited in the afternoon when they tend to be a bit quieter and less hungry and although we saw a few they weren’t any bother at all. The temples and stupa at Swayambhunath were well worth the visit and also provided more views of Kathmandu city.
K_Kathmandu_001 (213)

K_Kathmandu_001 (213)


We had another early start the following day to catch a short flight around the Himalayas to see Mount Everest before breakfast. We left at 5 a.m. and headed for the Domestic Terminal at Kathmandu Airport. The previous day all mountain flights had been cancelled because of heavy snow and poor visibility but our flight was called and we boarded the small bus that took us to the steps of the Buddha Air plane. We then sat on the bus and were told that there would be a delay of 15 minutes but this only put off the inevitable “All Mountain Flights Cancelled” announcement. It was a blow but once again for the right reasons; heavy snow and poor visibility. The following day the news filtered through about 16 Sherpa’s losing their lives following an avalanche just above Base Camp on Mount Everest.
So we headed back to the hotel for breakfast minus our Mount Everest experience but we still had more to look forward too over the coming days. Buddish explained that today we would visit the giant stupa of Bouddhanath, the centre of Tibetan Buddhism throughout the world, then Pashupatinath (Temple of Lord Shiva) and Bhasmeshvar Ghat on the Bagmati River followed by the cities of Patan and Bhaktapur.
K_Kathmandu_001 (251)

K_Kathmandu_001 (251)


The giant stupa of Bouddhanath was massive. One of the largest in the world it is surrounded by a circular parade of temples and traders selling different Nepali and Tibetan products. Rows and rows of colourful prayer flags angle down from the top of the stupa to its base while the many visitors walked clockwise around the base or explored the different levels of the giant white structure. We entered a temple, located between the traders on the perimeter, and watched as two children struggled to get a massive prayer wheel turning. Inside the temple two tourists were being blessed by one of the Buddhist Monks, no doubt for a fee; something that is generally frowned upon by the Buddhist community. It was hot around the stupa and with little shade outside we took brief respite inside one of the shops and then sat for a demonstration of Tibetan artwork inside a Thangka House.
K_Kathmandu_001 (348)

K_Kathmandu_001 (348)


Still in Kathmandu we moved on to Pashupatinath, a Hindu temple on the Bagmati River which is considered by some to be the holiest in the world. It is also the site of Kathmandu’s equivalent of the cremation ghat on India’s River Ganges that we had seen a few days earlier at Varanasi. Holy Men, long hair, faces daubed with colour sit outside a temple willing to have their photos taken - but again only for a few Rupees. Compared to the ghat at Varanasi, this one on the Bagmati River is more enclosed and as a result arguably more intimate. It felt more ‘purpose built’ as a place of cremation with many separate platforms for the public funerals. But like at Varanasi, there was a steady activity both on the platforms and on the ghat with a body being carried in to the area from the town while another was being prepared for cremation while a family looked on and as we walked around.
Separated only by a river from Kathmandu, Patan is full of Hindu temples and Buddhist monuments and it was here that we bought a Singing Bowl as our single momento of Nepal. Buddish, our guide, was doing a great job showing us around the valley. His English was excellent and he was good company and he found us a lovely place for lunch, on a rooftop terrace overlooking the main square and temples. Having missed out on our flight to the mountain a bottle of Everest beer was as close to the world’s highest mountain as I would get.
K_Kathmandu_001 (388)

K_Kathmandu_001 (388)


At the small medieval town of Bhaktapur we parked the car at the bottom of the hill and slowly climbed to the main square where we found what appeared to be the entire town out in force and celebrating one of their many festivals. Groups of women dressed in colourful and different costumes queued to make offerings and bands played while ice cream men did a good trade under the afternoon sun and two balloon sellers argued over their ‘turf’. More photos! It’s difficult to work out where (of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur) one stops and another starts as they almost merge seamlessly into one city but each had its own style and were worth seeing.
L_Pokhara_001 (21)

L_Pokhara_001 (21)


Our three nights in and around Kathmandu had been great. More relaxing than India and perfect as we edged towards the last few days of the holiday. Our final stop in Nepal would be Pokhara, a short hop by plane from Kathmandu. Buddish and Sunit dropped us off at the airport where the 25 minute flight took us along the edge of the Himalayas which in itself was a trip worth taking. At Pokhara airport we were met by Dipak and taken to Fishtail Lodge; literally a five minute drive by car. The lodge is on the edge of a lake and only accessible by rope-pull raft which meant it was secluded and quiet and perfect for the final couple of days. More tropical than anywhere in India that we had been or Kathmandu, Pokhara town is a tidy place with Tibetan influences and sits right on the edge of the Himalayas with the Annapurna range looking down on it but with the skyline dominated by the slightly smaller but closer Machupuchre (Fishtail Mountain).
L_Pokhara_001 (43)

L_Pokhara_001 (43)


Dipak would be picking us up at 5:15 the following morning to go and watch the sunrise over the Annapurna range from Sarangkot but before then there was a lake to explore. We paid for a boat that afternoon and this took us halfway up the lake to a small island with a temple on it. Quite an attraction for locals and the few tourists that were about, the island was quite busy but worth a brief stop before our boatman rowed us back to the lodge. The noise coming from those visiting the island was in stark contrast to the general environment and as we slowly made our way back down the lake to the hotel it was noticeable how suddenly peace had been restored. On the previous day a storm had broken in late afternoon – something fairly typical in April we were told - and some of the boats had capsized, so we were keen to do the trip and get back as early as possible to avoid something similar. As it happened the day remained fairly still and hazy but at the same time the visibility in the direction of the Himalayas wasn’t great to be honest.
L_Pokhara_001 (131)

L_Pokhara_001 (131)


The Fishtail Lodge is a lovely relaxing environment and something that we now wanted to take advantage of at the end of the trip so when we met up with Dipak early the following morning and he explained the itinerary for the day and we agreed that with everything so close together we could see it all before breakfast and thus have the entire day by the pool. Buddish (in Kathmandu) had already told us that the sightseeing in Pokhara would take two hours maximum and so it proved. We reached Sarangkot before 6 a.m. and acquired best seats on the terrace for the view across to Annapurna’s 1 to 4 plus Machupuchre. Gradually, the skyline lit up and the range came into view and it was then just a simple matter of taking in the view and watching it change with the light as the sun appeared over the ridge. More photos, move on.
L_Pokhara_001 (76)

L_Pokhara_001 (76)


A quick tour of Pokhara town revealed a comfortably populated, neat little town in a lovely location in the valley with decent facilities and a Tibetan refugee community residing in their own camp. We visited Devi’s Fall, Mahendra Cave and also Bindhyabasubu Temple. Devi’s Fall and Mahendra Cave were on opposite sides of the main high street in the centre of town. We were in the dry season so Devi’s Fall wasn’t falling too rapidly. In fact it was almost totally dry but the shapes carved in the rocks by the water in the rainy season were amazing and gave an indication of the power of the water when in full flow. From Devi’s Fall, the water travels underground again, literally under the main road, and appears across the road in Mahendra Cave. Inside the cave the air is very humid as you descend to the lowest point where you can see through to daylight at Devi’s Fall.
Bindhyabasubu Temple was the next and final stop. Basically this was another small temple in the centre of town but a very active one with queues waiting to make offerings to Shiva as a very pungent incense filled the air. These were by now common sights for us on this trip so the real highlight here was the terrific view across town and down through the valley towards the snow-capped Himalayas. Then, it was back in the car for the drive back to the lodge. On route Dipak showed us a bit more of the town including the Tibetan Refugee Camp and some of the oldest houses that have so far escaped modernisation.
L_Pokhara_001 (123)

L_Pokhara_001 (123)


As planned we were back at Fishtail Lodge in time for breakfast and already you could tell that it was going to be a hot, sunny day and the prospect of doing absolutely nothing for almost the first time in three weeks was perfect. By late afternoon we had had enough sun. We could also see clouds rolling in and before long the sky was a blend of grey and black and stormy. The occasional flash of lightning was quickly followed by thunder as the clouds did battle around the valley. We had almost no rain but watched it all happen over the Himalayas and, apart from dinner, the day was effectively over but the benefit of the storm was spectacularly there to see when we woke up the next morning. The sky was cloudless and for the first time we had a clear view from our room of the Himalayas. We grabbed one of the last outside tables for breakfast and enjoyed the view for the one and only time. It was a great way to end our stay.
L_Pokhara_001 (157)

L_Pokhara_001 (157)


Within the hour we were back at Pokhara Airport and boarding the flight back to Kathmandu. Again, the storm had done us a favour and we took Buddish’s advice and got seats on the left hand side of the plane towards the back for outstanding views of the mountain range on the 25 minute flight back to the Nepali capital.
M_PokharaKathmanduFlight_001 (15)

M_PokharaKathmanduFlight_001 (15)


Buddish was there to meet us (on his day off) with our main luggage and we went for a coffee with him before saying our farewells and flying back to Delhi. Tomorrow we would be heading home and leaving behind the difficult but fascinating country that is India where everything seems to be in extremes and Nepal, the quieter neighbour next door where life and the people are slightly less frantic.
L_Pokhara_001 (163)

L_Pokhara_001 (163)

Posted by david.byne 12:57 Archived in Nepal Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains lakes buildings skylines people snow planes religion Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 15) Page [1] 2 3 »