A Travellerspoint blog

Peru – East and West of the Andes

Jungle, Mountains, Lakes, Volcanoes & Desert all in one trip

all seasons in one day 22 °C

Having never been to South America before it took a while before deciding that Peru would be our destination. Ultimately, it became a straight choice between the land of the Incas and Argentina but a closer look revealed that the sheer size and diversity of Argentina plus the fact that a British summer was not the time to travel to that particular country meant that the necessary four weeks to see everything from Iguaza Falls to Tierra del Fuego would not be possible until the constraints of school holidays weren’t a factor. So Peru it would be!!

The trip eventually worked out to be a total of 22 days including travelling and it was very early one morning in August that we drove to Heathrow Airport Terminal 4 to make the short hop across to Amsterdam to connect with our KLM flight to Lima, the Peruvian capital. And twelve hours after taking off from Schiphol Airport we were touching down early evening in the arid coastal city on the Pacific coast.

Lima is far from the most attractive city in the world and its image isn’t helped by the fact that it appears for much of the time beneath a grey and overcast sky. Visually, aside from the main square (the Plaza de Armas) the city fails to inspire. Its suburbs seem awash with glitzy (tacky actually) casinos offering a financially struggling populace life-changing opportunities. It does however have its fair share of museums including a Gold Museum and if you walk down to the coast from the centre, probably no more than fifteen minutes, Lima has an interesting coastline and a few cliff top parks one of which resembles Park Guell in Barcelona. So it’s not all bad and, after all, cities are always good for shopping!!!

13_Lima (11)

13_Lima (11)

Lima was to be the start and finish of our South American adventure and after the initial two days and nights seeing the main historical sites and hearing all about Pizarro and those nasty Spanish we prepared for the next stage of our Peruvian trip; the Amazon Jungle!!

The flight from Lima to Puerto Maldonado on the eastern side of the Andes took just over an hour including a quick stop at Cusco. As we approached Maldonado the meandering tan shapes of the Amazon tributaries came into view surrounded by jungle for as far as the eye could see. Expecting a significant increase in temperature compared to dull, overcast Lima, we were surprised to find it only warm. The reason became clear a little later.

We were met at the airport by Erick, our Peruvian guide who had lived all of his life in Puerto Maldonado and for the past ten years had spent most of his time on the river, living and based at the Refugio Amazonas lodge, approximately three hours upstream from Maldonado. We boarded our bus for the short trip to the office where we would leave the majority of our luggage, taking only a small bag for the jungle for the 3 days and nights that we would be there. Outside the office a Sloth was busily lazing on the branch of a tree – our first wildlife. We were told that the previous day had seen strong winds and heavy, unexpected rain (this was the dry season). Trees had come down and a lorry turned over blocking the road to the port that we would usually have left from. As a result, we had to travel further down river to another port which would mean our journey to the lodge would take four hours rather than three. Oh well.

02_Jungle (7)

02_Jungle (7)

Back on the bus for the short ride to the port we soon tested our balance for the first time on the trip, walking the narrow gangplank to carefully take our places on the long, slim boat that would take us to Refugio Amazonas. One at a time; one to the left, one to the right, next to the left etc; so as not to upset the balance of the boat. All on board we settled down in our summer clothes unaware of how cold it would get by the half way stage of the journey. Our skipper was clearly trying to make up for lost time and with his local knowledge steered the boat at speed from right to left as we travelled the Rio Tambopata, avoiding whatever lay just beneath the surface of the muddy looking Amazonian waters. A floating tree – another victim of the previous day’s storm – almost got the better of us as, caught in an undercurrent, it suddenly moved towards us and with limited room to manoeuvre, we had to take a blow to the right hand side of the boats canopy just above the head of the person sitting in front of me. Instinctively we all ducked!

Daylight hours are roughly from 6 am till 6 pm in this part of the world. We were due to arrive at the lodge at around 7 pm and it was now dark as well as cold, quite different to what we had anticipated but with light pollution set to zero it was great to see a full array of stars in the night sky.

Because of our late arrival, we were ushered straight into dinner – the allocation of rooms could wait. The lodge itself was very eco-friendly, constructed with natural materials about ten years earlier. Miguel was the Manager and his introductory speech to us outlined the strict regime for breakfast, lunch and dinner and the fact there was no electricity in the rooms and that basically the place closed down for the night at 9:30 pm. Early starts would be the norm.

The rooms, for obvious reasons perched ten feet off the jungle floor on stilts, were divided up by walls of wooden logs with curtains acting as a front door and another between the bedroom and bathroom. The bed was covered with a box style mosquito net and the far side of the room completely open and facing the jungle. Sleeping, maybe surprisingly, wasn’t a problem although the cold (luke warm at best) shower in the morning ensured you were soon wide awake for the day ahead.

02_Jungle (13)

02_Jungle (13)

Miguel promised to solve the problem with the water temperature in Room No. 29 while we were out with Erick and Enzo for the morning. Enzo had joined Erick to share the workload and both were knowledgeable and spoke very good English. Straight after breakfast they gathered us together and led us off on the first trail. A Tarantula had been pointed out by one of the guides as we made our way from the boat to the lodge when we arrived the previous night. This morning, as well as the numerous birds and sounds it was the Capuchin Monkeys and Dusky Titi Monkeys that took centre stage. Watching one Brown Capuchin Monkey trying to crack a coconut against a branch high up in the canopy was a real highlight.

The butterflies, the birds and the jungle sounds were memorable. In particular, the sound of the Oro Pendula bird, conveniently nesting in a tree at eye level from the upstairs lounge at the lodge, entertained us for ages as we recovered with a drink at the end of a morning walk.

Add to that, (1) a medicinal trail where we learned about the various plants that were used as medicines in the jungle, (2) a night boat excursion looking for Caymans and Capybaras, (3) a visit to a fruit farm where we tried star fruit, oranges and bitter tomatoes among other things, (4) bird and piranha watching from a boat on a lake which also contained Electric Eels, Giant Otter, Catfish and Anaconda, (5) climbing a tower to view over the top of the jungle canopy and (6) some light trekking (avoiding Leaf Cutter Ants along the way) to see the Toucans, Parrots, Macaws and Peccary’s at two different clay licks and it gives a flavour of the three days that we spent in the Amazon Jungle.

The jungle had begun to seriously warm up by the time we left with humidity noticeably rising. Consequently, the cooling breeze as we raced back down the amazon towards Puerto Maldonado was a lot more welcome than it had been on that much cooler evening when we arrived. At Maldonado we were reunited with the rest of our luggage and, leaving Erick and Enzo behind us, took the 45 minute bus ride to the small airport for the flight to Cusco for our next challenge – altitude!!

Cusco sits at somewhere around 10,500 feet above sea level and it’s here that you first start noticing the effects. As a visual reminder hotels are equipped with Oxygen in the Reception areas for people in need. “Drink the Coca Tea” was the general rule and take it easy while you acclimatise.

03_Cusco (15)

03_Cusco (15)

We had six nights to enjoy Cusco and a suite at the Casa Andina Hotel, just a ten minute walk from the Main Square, the Plaza de Armas (all the main squares in Peru seem to be called the Plaza de Armas!). Having arrived late afternoon we did nothing more than stroll and test ourselves with the altitude prior to dinner. The old streets and the main square left a good early impression and the two free days that we had at the end of our stay (on Saturday and Sunday) would be a great chance to wander.

On our first full day in Cusco we met our guide, Gladys, and she took us to visit a number of the Inca sites that surround it including Tambomachay and Sacsayhuaman. The 11,500 feet altitude induced a mild and temporary headache and slight congestion but others were already feeling breathless as we walked the final stretch from the bus to the sites. In the evening we found a recommended restaurant just around the corner from the hotel and decided that we would try Cuy (Guinea Pig). Cuy is cooked in several different ways and while ours tasted ok it was hard work finding anything worthwhile and neither of us tried Guinea Pig again during the trip.

Day Two in Cusco and we ventured outside the city with a new guide, David, into the Sacred Valley to visit Chinchero and Ollantaytambo. Chinchero is a typical small Peruvian village with a community that live by traditional ways and means in an attempt to remain as self-sufficient as possible. The women work as weavers and spin the Alpaca wool into thread before dying it using natural materials and then weaving it into fabric. ‘Head Girl’ Olga gave a brief talk in her best English to entertain the group and get them into buying mode. And then, in the courtyard of the house the women offered for sale the various products that each had made. In the corner was a cage full of squeaking Guinea Pigs destined for the pot!

03_Cusco (117)

03_Cusco (117)

Ollantaytambo is a main stop on the railway line through the Sacred Valley en route to Machu Picchu and is also the location of the main archaeological site in the area. It was a hot day and getting to the top would have been challenging enough without the impact of altitude so it was no surprise when some, given the option to finish at one or two lower levels, chose to do precisely that. At the top, the view over the back provided a landscape of snow-capped mountains which made the effort worthwhile.

From Ollantaytambo we travelled to Pisac, another village in the valley but one with more than a hint of the touristic about it. The market, I am sure, has been operating for a long, long time but this was a scene geared very much towards the foreign visitors, as were the shops, bars and restaurants that lined the square on one side. Having said that, it was an opportunity to pick up one or two predictable presents and in any case, everywhere we went, there were photo opportunities.

Back in Cusco we had very little inclination to do much more than eat in the hotel and get some sleep ahead of the 5 o’clock departure for Machu Picchu the following day. The train left Poroy Station – about 45 minutes outside of Cusco – at 06:40. Perurail are a part of the Orient Express group and we were treated to a Peruvian version of the famous service with breakfast and drinks being served during the three hour journey that followed the line of the Urubamba River. It was a very classy trip with great scenery all the way to Aguas Calientes, the town at the end of the line that sits below Machu Picchu. From Aguas Calientes it was a twenty minute bumpy ride on the shuttle buses that compete for the narrow road all the way up the mountain. Once there, make use of the toilets (there are none inside!), get your passport stamped with the Machu Picchu stamp and enter through the turnstile, past the Hiram Bingham plaques and up the slope for your first sight of the Machu Picchu landscape.

04_MachuPicchu (8)

04_MachuPicchu (8)

When you enter the site there are three levels and you enter at the middle on a long terrace facing Machu Picchu (Old Mountain). Below, the classic photo of the site appears and it is from down there that you can start the 45-minute walk up to the summit of the old mountain. Above us is the Guard House and the Sun Gate from where the ‘calendar shot’ is actually taken. It’s a huge area and quite a challenge on the uneven Incan stone steps. The views around the bowl of mountains in which Machu Picchu stands are many and varied and supplemented by clouds that cling to the top of the landscape and threaten to engulf it, potentially ruining the view that you have travelled thousands of miles to see. Chinchillas laze on the enormous stones and Llamas roam the site but thankfully without the colourfully dressed peasant women asking tourists for ‘un Sol’ in exchange for a photograph. Machu Picchu is a relatively well controlled World Heritage site. Limits on the number of visitors were imposed a few years ago as a condition of its status and this is supposed to prevent more than 2,500 people visit each day – but then money talks doesn’t it. We were fortunate to see most of the ruins with few other people around and credit for that was due to David, our guide, who knew how to get around the site and avoid the crowds. However, the constant stream of shuttle buses travelling up and down the mountain all day long at ten minute intervals makes it hard to believe that the 2,500 limit isn’t being exceeded.

Back in Cusco after the return train journey, complete again with food and refreshments and on-board fashion show by the Perurail employees (they work very hard for their money!) we reflected on a great day. We didn’t reach the hotel until 9:15 in the evening but the next two days were totally free time and so we made our own plans for the weekend. There is plenty to see and do in Cusco. The main square is easy to get to and everything is within touching distance from there; the Cathedral, Santa Catalina Convent, the theatre, Son Blas, restaurants, bars and the main shops.

Son Blas is a small district a few roads back from the Plaza de Armas at the end of a matrix of some attractive narrow streets, opening out into a plaza with an impressive water feature at the top end. The square was dotted with table-top vendors but it has a very relaxed atmosphere with no pressure to buy anything that was on offer. There are also one or two shops and the usual bars – it was a nice way to spend an hour or so on another hot day. With the boxes ticked for this, the Cathedral and Santa Catalina Convent we headed back to the hotel. The Sunday was to be a totally random kind of a day; so much so that I decided to have a day out without the camera. After all, it was day six in Cusco and what could I possibly take photos of that I hadn’t taken already? By the time we had walked from the hotel to the main square again that question had been answered. We walked straight into the middle of a parade with what appeared to be numerous schools presenting themselves in colourful costumes to dignitaries sat on a V.I.P podium just in front of the main cathedral doors. Bands played and the kids from the schools (possibly dance schools) danced and they were eventually followed by what was effectively a Carnival Queen. Needless to say, all of this warranted a walk back to the hotel to get the camera!! More photos!! It was great to have the two days in the middle of the trip doing exactly what we wanted and we even managed to get the washing done locally.

We were now moving on to Puno and in particular Lake Titicaca. Our transport was to be the Andean Explorer train, again run by Perurail in their own Orient Express kind of way. The journey would take ten hours but travelling across the picturesque Altiplano, the high plains, it was unlikely ever to drag. The train had an observation car at the back which gave complete views of the surrounding countryside as we cruised at 25 miles per hour at between 11,000 and 14,000 feet above sea level with the edges of the Andes Mountains visible on both sides. Alpacas, Llamas, Vicunas and Guanacos plus sheep, bulls, cows and numerous birds complemented the landscape. The occasional town offered a brief but chaotic contrast to the calm, unspoiled Altiplano with trackside markets and tuk-tuk’s dominating the scene and children running behind the train waving. Perurail help the time pass easily by providing food and drink intervals, another fashion show, musicians, the bar and, of course, the observation carriage and scenery. And by late afternoon we were approaching Juliaca, the final stop before Puno. Juliaca is a marmite town which a lot of people wouldn’t like but others, including me, loved the experience of passing through it and taking photographs from the back of the train. Juliaca has an edge to it. It isn’t attractive, doesn’t look very clean and certainly doesn’t appear prosperous. The long straight train track through the centre of town was under severe pressure on both sides from the trackside market stalls. It seemed you could buy anything and some goods such as books and oranges were even being displayed on the ground between the tracks while the trains run over the top! Expressions on faces varied, some happy, some sad, some looked angry or simply worn down by life and others simply looked focussed on what they were doing; trying to earn a living. But regardless, almost all of the children were entertaining and happy to run with the train and along the track, calling and waving as we trundled through their town. As soon as the back of the train passed by, the track evolved a series of its own crossings with animals, cars, bikes, tuk-tuk’s (imported into Peru from India in the 1990’s) and people all busily moving across the track. For me Juliaca was a memorable part of our Peruvian experience.

06_Altiplano_AndeanExplorer (85)

06_Altiplano_AndeanExplorer (85)

Having already said that Juliaca had an edge to it, much the same could be said for Puno where our journey on the Andean Explorer ended. As the train eased its way into the station a welcoming stone was hurled at the window by one of the locals. Significantly larger than Juliaca, Puno sits on the south west corner of Lake Titicaca but other than the lake itself there is little felt worthy of advertising for visitors to see. On the other hand, Lake Titicaca really is worth spending time on. At 13,000 feet it ranks as the highest lake in the world and is huge. Our hotel had its own pier which was surrounded by reeds and marshes which were home to numerous species of birds as I discovered on an early morning walk along the frost covered boards of the pier. We spent a day on the lake visiting first the floating Uros Islands and then Taquile Island. The Uros Islands are about sixty strong and are home to Aymara speaking families, approximately 2,500 people in total. The people construct and maintain their own islands and the houses that they live in using the reeds from the lake. Anchored to the bottom of the lake the islands are visited in rotation to ease the pressure on the families and also to share any income gained from tourism. The one that we visited was called San Miguel and six families (around 42 people ) lived there. Life unsurprisingly is basic with the women doing the usual weaving and other craft work while the men do whatever they do including maintaining the island, the property and the boat (also made from the reeds from Titicaca - as Thor Heyerdahl did for his Kontiki expedition). We spent about an hour learning about how the islands are maintained and looked inside the houses before predictably being asked if we wanted to buy anything. Equally predictably, we did!

07_LakeTiticaca (30)

07_LakeTiticaca (30)

By contrast, Taquile Island is on solid ground and home to small farming communities. From here it’s easy to see the mountains of Bolivia on the far eastern shore of Titicaca. Mount Illimani, acts as a landmark for La Paz. It’s not an easy walk from one side of the island to the other but we had the motivation of a drink and lunch at the top before we descended down the other side to meet up with our boat again for the journey back to Puno. Again, the views had been spectacular.

The hotel was out on a bit of a limb as far as the town was concerned so we didn’t venture any further than the hotel restaurant in the evening. We had the following morning free and then we went off to visit the Sillustani Funerary Towers that lie about an hour outside of Puno alongside another very photogenic lake. In the centre of the lake is an island that is now a reserve for Vicunas. The lakeside location and the general landscape far exceeded my interest in the history of the towers themselves and while it was a particularly hot day for and the effort required to climb to the top was considerable it was worth it for the views alone.

We had a flight to catch from Juliaca Airport to Arequipa later that afternoon and the trip to Sillustani is conveniently on the way. The joys of Juliaca came quickly flooding back as we briefly flirted with the traffic, the market and the railway line again in the centre of town before squeezing our way through and out of the chaos to the airport located on the outskirts. Inside the terminal building was almost as chaotic and disorganised as the town centre but we made our way through their very different and not totally convincing security process before finding the departure lounge.

From Juliaca, the flight to Arequipa is just under one hour and we were met by Alberto who would be our guide in the area for a couple of days. Our hotel, the Somesta del Posada, was right in the middle of town on one side of the main square, the Plaza de Armas!! Surrounded by Volcanoes, some currently active, Arequipa represents Peru’s second city after Lima. Arequipenos are proud of their city to the extent that they are making what could only be described as a whispered and tentative claim for independence from the rest of Peru. However, apart from promoting Arequipa in every conceivable way possible including their own beer – Arequipena (a direct competitor to Cuzquena in Cuzco) – it is difficult to imagine such claims ever being taken seriously enough to get their campaign off the ground. Our main points of interest whilst in Arequipa were the town itself and in particular the museum where ‘Juanita’ is on show, Santa Catalina Convent, and Colca Valley and Canyon to watch the Condors fly.

First stop was to see Juanita in a museum just around the corner from the hotel. Also known as the Inca Ice Maiden and Lady of Ampato, ‘Juanita’ is the well-preserved frozen body of an Inca girl who was killed as an offering to the Inca gods sometime between 1450 and 1480, at approximately 11–15 years old. She was discovered on Mount Ampato (part of the Andes cordillera) near Arequipa in 1995 by anthropologist Johan Reinhard and his Peruvian climbing partner, Miguel Zárate. Today, she is on display in the city, preserved in a temperature controlled glass casing and is the highlight of the museum visit.

Arequipa is a typical bustling city overwhelmed by people and traffic. It also has its fair share of earthquakes - on average there is one every two hours in Peru!!). The most common car in Peru is by far and away the Daewoo Tico and you see these everywhere, often in coincidental convoy in a variety of colours but predominantly yellow. Most taxis are yellow Daewoo Tico’s. A couple of roads back from the main square you will find the large covered market which sells almost everything you can think of and around the corner from here is the Santa Catalina Convent, probably Arequipa’s main tourist attraction. Described as a ‘city within a city’ Santa Catalina is well worth a visit and the guided tour lasting about an hour explains the history of the multi-coloured buildings. But both Juanita and Santa Catalina Convent were added bonuses as far as we were concerned. The main purpose of being based in Arequipa was to be within reach of Colca Canyon to take the opportunity of seeing the Condors fly. It meant that we transferred from Arequipa to the Colca valley, a journey across the highlands of almost four hours passing Llamas, Alpacas and Vicunas again as we drove for a while on the new road that stretches from the Atlantic Coast starting in Brazil through Bolivia and Peru before finishing on the Pacific Coast in Chile. We stopped for lunch at Chivay and then stayed overnight at Colca Lodge, a spa resort deep in the valley with natural hot springs within its list of facilities. We arrived late afternoon and it was a lovely sunny evening that provided enough light to stroll to the Alpaca Farm on the other side of the river. Photographically the light was as good as it had been so far on the entire trip so there was little respite for the camera but as the light dimmed the prospect of a Pisco Sour by the hot springs began to emerge as the next favourite pastime. And we were still there after the sun had set.

It was another early start the following morning as we headed off for the canyon with the hope but no guarantee of seeing the Condors rise up from the valley and pose for photos. Colca Canyon is a popular venue for this particular ‘sport’ and others had clearly started closer or left earlier than us but it was a large viewing area and easy to find space to wait and watch. Hundreds of eyes scanned in various directions until high above the peak behind the canyon the first Condor was spotted but it was a long way away and, for me, I wanted to see one much closer to feel satisfied with the morning’s effort. We only had just over an hour before starting a short trek across the top of the valley to get back to our bus and whilst we saw a second and then a third Condor flying high above us it still didn’t tick the box as far as I was concerned. Time ticked away and I was literally about to change lenses on the camera and concentrate on other things away from giant birds when below us as we looked down the valley we spotted outspread wings gliding in a circular and gradually upward motion towards where we were standing. Within seconds it had soared on the thermals up to our eye level and then did a fly-past from right to left in front of us. It was a real wow moment and I just hoped that from first sighting to last I had captured enough quality on camera to do justice to what would be a lasting memory. We continued watching ‘our Condor’ as it soared and climbed until it disappeared over the next ridge before we joined Alberto and the others for the short trek back to the bus. The walk took us along the edge of the top of the valley which gave us an infinite number more viewing points to hopefully see more Condors or even other birds in the area. And we did. Probably the largest Condor that we saw flew above us as we continued walking. It was big and black and with a huge wingspan and if it had been closer would surely have eclipsed our earlier sighting. The valley floor was over one mile beneath us at this point although the maximum drop in the Colca Valley reaches two miles at one point. We walked past a dead donkey and a dead cow on our way back to the bus; surely these wouldn’t go to waste up here!!! Alberto spotted a Humming Bird flying around a cactus and then said that he could hear Parakeets before pointing them out as they flew into trees on the side of the mountain.

10_ColcaValley&Canyon (61)

10_ColcaValley&Canyon (61)

We had seen eleven condors, our fair share, and it was time to go. We had a four hour journey back to Arequipa passing the lodge on the way and stopping at Chivay for a quick break before moving on down the mountains. What came next was totally unexpected. We remembered Alberto mentioning earlier that he thought he had seen a snowflake falling. Within half an hour of us being on the road from Chivay that solitary snowflake had turned into a full blown blizzard and one that would ultimately make national and even international news!!

Within another half an hour the entire area was white and the roads were very dicey. Our driver did brilliantly, taking no risks as we made our way down, passing again the Llamas, Alpaca and Vicunas who were understandably looking far less lively than they did in the earlier sunshine. We weren’t to know at this stage that within a couple of days the news would break that over 5,000 people had been made homeless as a result of this snowstorm and over 20,000 animals including Llamas, Alpacas and Vicunas had died.

We arrived back around sunset which was around 6:30 pm and agreed with several others to meet later and go out for dinner on our last evening in Arequipa with the aim of finding more Alpaca – to eat this time – which we did.

The flight from Arequipa the following day reunited us with the capital city of Lima within one hour but from the airport we drove straight to Paracas, around three hours down the coast by car. Our outbound flight from Arequipa had been delayed so we were late into Lima and therefore later getting to Paracas. Lima was its usual overcast self with barely a hint of breaking sunshine and by the time we reached Paracas it was dark and we couldn’t properly see what awaited us until we checked in and reached our room. Everything was coated in up to 5mm of sand; the result of a sandstorm during the afternoon. Paracas literally translates as Sandstorm and each storm lasted usually for three days and day two had just passed. The cleaning staff at the hotel were already working their way around the rooms and after a quick word at reception ours was moved up the list. Within an hour and after a free Pisco Sour we were able to occupy the suite that we had for two nights to see first the Nasca Lines and then on the following day pay a visit to the Ballestas Islands. Would our room survive day three of the sandstorm? We covered everything that we could just in case.

We travelled on the Pan-Pacific Highway to reach the Nasca Lines. The highway stretches 27,000 kms down the west coast of the Americas from Alaska to Argentina and 3,000 of those kms are in Peru. Peru’s coastline is entirely desert. On the way to Nasca we stopped at Ica to visit a cultural museum. I’m not a massive fan of museums but this was as good as I’ve seen with the usual artefacts being spiced up with mummy’s and the techniques used by the nobility to deliberately deform skulls as a sign of superiority. Amazing.

Nasca is located on the open road with the Pan-Pacific Highway actually constructed through one of the Nasca Lines thus decapitating ‘the lizard’. We had already decided on UK Government advice not to take one of the flights over the lines and instead chose to observe what we could from the viewing towers alongside. As it turned out, the imminent sandstorm ended any prospect of flights being made on the day we were there and the view from the tower was good enough to see two of the Nasca Lines to justify the trip.

On the way back to Paracas we could see day three of the storm in the distance. We stopped to visit yet another archaeological site before stopping again at Ica, this time for lunch and then it was back on the road with fingers crossed over the state of the rooms at the Doubletree Resort. It really was a lovely hotel which under different circumstances would be a luxury. Located on the beach it has lovely swimming pools and outdoor lounging and bar areas but we had little time until the morning before we departed to enjoy the facilities to any extent.

Our very last excursion on this holiday was to the Ballestas Islands. Approximately half an hour out to sea from Paracas the islands are home to almost one million birds plus Sea Lions and Penguins and you can see Dolphins a little nearer to the coast. Just before you reach the islands the boat pulls in and drifts off of a smaller island. The island is basically a massive sandstone rock and on it, in the same way as the Nasca Lines have been etched, is the outline of what looks like a candelabra. It has become a bit of a tourist attraction in its own right although it’s really only a warm-up act for the Ballestas Islands.

As we approached the islands the sharp-eyed among the passengers on the boat spotted one or two inquisitive Sea Lions poking their heads out of the water. The number of birds in the sky at this point was striking and as we got closer to land the number was simply unbelievable. It was easy to understand the importance placed on the gathering and exporting of the Guano from this place! Nobody is permitted to set foot on the islands other than the three Rangers that look after the environment and supervise the farming of the Guano. Our boat switched its engines off and we drifted closer and closer to shore to initially view the Booby Birds, Cormorants, Pelicans, Terns and Penguins.

12_Paracas (80)

12_Paracas (80)

The rock formations, colours and natural windows in the rocks were an attraction on their own and our captain skilfully manoeuvred the boat around the islands to the various inlets to try and see as much as possible. Around one such corner we reached and saw for the first time the Sea Lions, lazing heavily upon the rocks and occasionally throwing themselves back into the water as it crashed against the rocks that they call home. Territorial instincts surfaced as a rival ventured too far into another’s personal space while others were playing. The Sea Lions were a highlight and it would have been easy to have drifted on the Pacific for longer observing both them and the birds but we soon had to start the journey back to the pier but not before cruising nearer to shore to see the Dolphins. Once back in Paracas we disembarked and received a gift from the boat as a memento; nice touch.

It was still only 10:30 am which was nice as we had already done so much and now had several hours to enjoy the beach and the hotel facilities before we caught the bus back to the capital in preparation for our return flight to the UK. The pool bar and lounge had just been cleaned following the previous days rush of sand from the desert so we took advantage and sat there with a drink for a while. The lazy chairs looking from the beach out to sea were another brief refuge before we finished our stay with a walk up and down the long stretch of sand, counting the jellyfish that had washed up onto the beach and were by now in various stages of decomposition. A couple of small boats were anchored just offshore and these had been commandeered by groups of birds, predominantly Pelicans, that perched lazily on the edges of each boat, occasionally taking off and briefly exercising their wings before resting on the ocean for a while and then returning to the boat.

Packed for the final time we made our way to the local Bus Station; in fact, a hut. Inside, best attempts had been made to make the whole operation (run by the Cruz del Sur bus company) look as professional as possible. There was a waiting area and some vending available with drinks and ice creams but best of all there was an information desk and an airport style check in where somebody took your bags, stapled a yellow ticket to them and gave you the matching half of each ticket as a receipt. The bags were then put on the floor behind him in a heap until all of the passengers had been checked in. The same operative then began phase two of the process moving the bags from the floor onto the shelf on the outside wall. From here, unemployment among others in the room fell and two more became operational, moving the bags from the shelf to the waiting transport. While this was underway we were ushered into an orderly line to board what was a double decker luxury coach bedecked in Cruz del Sur livery, something that I then realised I had seen many times during our stay in Peru. At the point of boarding we were greeted at the bottom of the stairs ‘airline style’ by an immaculately dressed hostess who checked our tickets and directed us to our seats upstairs. The coach had all modern conveniences including the usual airline-style onboard services and entertainment. Pillows and blankets were provided for the four hour journey which would get us to Lima for 7 pm. It was all very well done but having said all of that the four hours spent on the coach were more than enough for me and confirmed my preference for smaller vehicles, trains and planes.

Back in Lima, we stayed at the same hotel as that when we arrived and it was nice to be on familiar ground in that respect. No time to venture out so plans were laid for last-minute shopping in the city the following morning plus a walk to the coast for a drink. The Gold Museum is supposed to be worth seeing but its location wasn’t convenient and time simply ran out.

Lima Airport was more challenging than on arrival as a result of the two British girls that had been arrested for drug smuggling. Sniffer dogs were everywhere as we queued to check-in and drop our bags for the hold. Thankfully, the flight was on time and 8 pm in Lima on Wednesday very quickly became 3 pm in Amsterdam and then 6 pm in the UK. Home again.

Peru had been a great choice for our first South American journey. Our expectations were more than met particularly towards the end where the itinerary, on paper at least, felt to be tailing off but that was far from the case. The cities, the jungle, the mountains, the lakes, the desert, the ocean, the animals, the birds and the people all combined to make this a fantastic holiday.

Posted by david.byne 29.09.2013 01:33 Archived in Peru Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains lakes beaches bridges churches buildings skylines people children trees animals birds sky snow boats trains ani Comments (0)

Victory for Semana Santa and Malaga CF

Andalucia : Easter 2012

all seasons in one day -20 °C
View Malaga : Easter 2012 on david.byne's travel map.

Andalucia has long been familiar territory for us but for this trip it was important to make it different – to make it feel new. So, the plan was to see some snow in Sierra Nevada, get some sun (the easy bit), attend the Semana Santa celebrations in Malaga and also go to a La Liga football match for the first time.

It was a ten day visit and we flew into Malaga airport just a few days before Good Friday. This gave us a few days to do local things before heading into the city on the Friday. So, after lazing around for 24 hours we had a quick wander around Nerja and also Frigiliana before, on the Thursday, taking the drive towards Granada and up to Sierra Nevada.

Early April is very much the end of the season as far as Winter sports are concerned but it was worth a try and there were still a few ‘runs’ open with skiing and boarding enthusiasts making the most of the last of the snow. For our part, after taking a few photographs it was time to find somewhere for churros and chocolate – our only excuse being that it was cold!!

From Sierra Nevada we drove on up to the peak at Veleta but as we neared the top it became obvious that the clouds were going to win on this particular day as visibility became suddenly limited. It broke occasionally but really wasn’t worth getting out of the car on this occasion so we free-wheeled back down the mountain and took the road back to Vinuela via the coast at Salobrena. This makes a nice change from the sometimes difficult and windy country road between Vinuela and Granada via Alhama de Granada. The Granada to Motril (Salobrena) road is fairly new and offers great views over the newly contructed and very impressive dam and reservoir on route. And there are some other lovely landscapes as you skirt the western side of the Sierra Nevada range with the Alpujarras on the other side as you drive.

Good Friday soon arrived and the plan was to get to El Palo in late afternoon before heading into Malaga city for the Easter processions. This gave us enough time to pay a quick visit to Comares in the morning where a walk and a drink at the small bar in the square kills time in the nicest possible way. Comares has undergone some improvements and general tidying up over the last few years and the ceramic footprints lead you in a circular route around the village and past a row of houses where you need to be lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view) to avoid the elderly ladies who insist on hijacking your stroll and inviting you into their homes where they will show off their home-grown or home-made produce in the hope of a sale of olives, almonds, sherry and similar.
Frigiliana

Frigiliana


It’s an easy drive to El Palo, just on the eastern edge of Malaga, where we would be staying over on Good Friday after the Semana Santa processions. Just half an hour drive, door-to-door, and we were soon getting organised for taking the bus into the city – parking the car would not be a sensible option!! In the centre of Malaga, temporary seating was being arranged along the prescribed routes with extra-comfort being provided for various dignitaries and officials at various key points of the procession. The weather was a little unpredictable and had been this way since we landed on Monday but the general consensus seemed to be that the weather was never great in Malaga for Semana Santa – but nobody seemed bothered by the threat of the very heavy and fast moving clouds above and the already damp looking streets; evidence presumably of an earlier shower.

Semana Santa, Malaga

Semana Santa, Malaga

Having arrived in Malaga, and not being worthy of a pre-booked seat, we joined the ever-growing throngs of people that were simply wandering the streets, occasionally stopping at cafes or bars in couples, groups of friends or family gatherings. And eventually, the seemingly aimless dawdling paid off as the sounds of trumpet and drum became audible in the distance. But from which direction??

We didn’t have to wait long to catch a glimpse of our first Semana Santa procession as it made its way through an unlikely part of the city on its journey to the cathedral. The procession itself was a very stop-start affair as members of the brotherhood took responsibility for keeping the various role-players the correct distance apart and at the same time moving at a slow but steady pace in time to the rather gloomy music being poured out by the accompanying band.

Semana Santa, Malaga

Semana Santa, Malaga

At first sight the conical, face-covering hoods of the brotherhoods present a fairly sinister image and immediately conjure up thoughts of the KKK as the wearers of the costumes peer spookily through the eyeholes of either the black or white material.

Semana Santa, Malaga

Semana Santa, Malaga

From the very young to the very old, each procession (and we eventually saw five) involved an impressive number of people. Brotherhood members, band members, the numerous carriers of the extremely heavy-looking religious floats, incense carriers, candle bearers etc, etc. And the young among the watching general public had their own way of participating as it soon became apparent that children, rushing forward to greet those in the procession carrying the huge lit candles, were in fact approaching with a small ball of tin foil which they then proceeded to collect the dripping candle wax on, thus slowly accumulating an ever-growing wax ball as their souvenir of Semana Santa 2012.

As the sun and light disappeared for the day we interrupted our procession hunting for a while with firstly a visit to Bar El Pimpi to share a bottle of Malaga Dulce and then a little later we found another bar where we enjoyed beer and tapas. It can be a tough life at times!!

Our final procession of the day (although not THE final procession which started around 10:45 pm and finished around 4 am!!) required us to follow the crowd and get as close as possible to the cathedral which we did and from here we were able to see the entire procession file past and somehow, with what seemed like millimetres to spare either side, squeeze the processional float through the main doors of the cathedral and inside.

With this done, and the photos taken, we made our way back through the crowds and to the nearest taxi which could take us quickly back to El Palo. It had been a really good evening and very different to anything we had seen before.

Twelve hours later and we were back on the bus into the centre of Malaga. Not for anything specific, just a mooch around the shops and the occasional coffee stop before having lunch in the newly opened port area where shops, stalls, bars and restaurants now sit alongside modern walkways and gardens overlooking the sea and the expensive looking private yachts (and on this occasion the new and massive Aviva super-yacht).
Central Malaga

Central Malaga


From here, we said goodbye to Malaga and returned to our base at Vinuela where Sunday would Easter Sunday be reserved for doing very little ahead of our return to Malaga on Monday for the La Liga match between Malaga CF and Racing Santander.

With kick-off not being until 9 p.m. on Easter Monday we had plenty of time to do stuff during the day. We needed to park in the centre in good time before the match so after spending time locally around Vinuela in the morning we headed back along the Mediterraneo and found the El Agujero Dam and Reservoir to the North of the city after stopping for lunch at a nearby Pantano (El Tunel). The Botanical Gardens were unfortunately closed (Monday) but it was probably a good move to head straight into the city to La Rosaleda and park in readiness for the match.

The area started getting busy around 7 p.m. and we were in a short queue to get into the stadium about fifteen minutes before the gates opened at 8 p.m. The stadium, recently improved and updated with significant money having been spent, is impressive and by kick-off time was full with the Malagunenos hoping to see their side push on with a victory that would bring Champions League football next season a little bit closer to reality.
Malaga CF, La Rosaleda

Malaga CF, La Rosaleda


Within two minutes, Malaga are awarded a penalty and nearly relegated Racing Santander are reduced to ten men. Moments later and the penalty has been saved and the home side have to wait another twenty minutes to break the deadlock and give them a half-time 1-0 lead. The second half saw further pressure on the visitors goal with just the occasional breakaway interrupting the inevitable. The second and third goals preceeded the final whistle and the 3-0 win strengthened Malaga’s position in La Liga, moving them above Valencia into third.

I thoroughly enjoyed my first experience of an overseas football match and, with Malaga being my adopted team in Spain, it was good to at least see them play. Quickly back to the car, we picked our way through the traffic and out of the city and back to Vinuela.
Vinuela

Vinuela


Our flight back to the UK was early on Thursday morning so that left us with two full days to spend locally. Various ‘domestics’ took care of some of the time and before we knew it we were packing for our return to journey.

This had been a good trip and despite our familiarity with the area and several previous visits (mainly in July and August which will in future be avoided!) we achieved the aim of filling our time with doing things that we hadn’t done before. It was also good to see the landscape in Green rather than its usual summer hue of Brown and enjoy comfortable daytime temperatures instead of spending so much time protecting ourselves against the searing heat of Southern Spain in August. Until the next time ................................................

Posted by david.byne 15.04.2012 09:51 Archived in Spain Tagged landscapes mountains lakes beaches churches buildings people sky snow night boats religion Comments (0)

Kiss & Fly - The Cote D'Azur

Nice and Monaco

sunny -22 °C
View Nice & Monte Carlo 2011 on david.byne's travel map.

The Cote d’Azur occupies the northern Mediterranean coast with famous locations such as St.Tropez and Cannes being favoured by tourists and sunseekers. For our trip in October 2011 we based ourselves in Nice, with the intention of visiting both Monaco and the hilltop mediaeval village of Eze.

Advance weather information told us that the Tuesday (after arriving on the Monday) would be wet with heavy rain being 90% guaranteed. The rest of our time in the south of France should be fine. We landed in Nice amidst average temperatures but at least it was dry. Quickly through Passport Control and the luggage was soon collected and we found our way to the public bus which would take us to the Promenade du Anglais and finding our hotel from there should be easy. And it was.

Nice_Monaco_Oct11 (2)

Nice_Monaco_Oct11 (2)

The Hotel du Suede was just one road back from the Promenade and located centrally as far as access to restaurants, shops and public transport were concerned. And by mid afternoon we were exploring the local part of the city and getting our bearings. The weather on our first afternoon (Monday) was being kinder to us than the forecast had predicted so we wandered around the city and in a circle, sussing out the buses, trams and trains for the next few days and taking in the occasional cafe stop. Eventually, we found the old quarter, at the other side of Place Massena and made a mental note to return later in the week to spend longer, Heading back towards the sea we stumbled upon Cours Saleya. Today there was a flea market but as we discovered later in the week, Cours Saleya appears to hold a different market, flowers, fruit and vegetables, meat etc; almost every day of the week.

Nice_Monaco_Oct11 (23)

Nice_Monaco_Oct11 (23)

Promenade du Anglais covers a huge stretch of coastline and we made our way back along the prom towards the hotel. Finding somewhere to eat wasn’t much of a challenge as there were restaurants and bars everywhere. The prices? Well, not as bad as I thought they would be – maybe Switzerland in August had helped make the Cote D’Azur feel comparably cheap (?). All in all, it was an encouraging first few hours in the South of France but in one way at least we knew it was the calm before the storm; literally!

And Tuesday morning it hit!! The forecasters got it right. Heavy rain and strongish winds all day. And when this type of thing happens, you have a choice although in reality there is only one thing to do : carry on regardless. We had a list of things to do and see so we changed the plans a little to try and do the indoor stuff while the heavens opened. Decent plan you may think but we discovered that most of the public places to visit are closed one day each week .................... on a Tuesday!!!!! Exceptions to this were the Russian Orthodox Cathedral and the Modern Arts Museum, both were on our “to see” list. However, the French authorities weren’t to be beaten. We headed off to the Cathedral only to be greeted by a notice that, due to an administrative dispute between the Russian and French administrations in Nice the Cathedral had had to be closed until further notice’. It’s supposed to be spectacular inside; I can only confirm that it’s a lovely building from the outside!
Stiff upper lip and onward!! We briefly took refuge in the Office de Tourisme near the railway station and dried off a bit before catching a tram to the Modern Arts Museum. And it was open!!!! I’m not massively into museums but for anyone that is there are museums dedicated to Chagalle and Matisse. I don’t mind a bit of modern art and the museum in Nice was good with lots of different themes. Apart from that, it helped us dry off more before we faced the elements again an hour or so later.

Nice_Monaco_Oct11 (34)

Nice_Monaco_Oct11 (34)

Day two had been a test of endurance but we came through with the added assistance of a couple of cafe stops. The hotel was a welcome sight when we eventually got back. At last we could dry out properly before finding a very (very) local restaurant to eat in that evening. And after eating, because the rain had ceased, we walked the promenade again and watched the sea crashing up the beach.
Wednesday was earmarked as the day we would visit Monaco. The skies had cleared with the heavy thick clouds of Tuesday having been blown away by the strong Mediterranean winds. The receptionist at the hotel had convinced us against taking the cheaper bus option (1 Euro) to Monaco in favour of the train (3 ½ Euros). The buses are small and always full and can take over an hour to get there whereas the train, although slightly further away from the hotel, would be the more comfortable option – so that’s what we did. We walked to Place Massena and, caught a tram to the station and waited for the next train (they run every half an hour).

Nice_Monaco_Oct11 (45)

Nice_Monaco_Oct11 (45)

Monaco, and Monte Carlo in particular, is very cool. Amazingly, the land area of Monaco is just two square kilometres. And they have crammed am awful lot of classy (and very expensive) stuff into such a small area. Even the railway station feels a bit special as you get off of the train somewhere inside the mountain upon which Monaco has been developed. Escalators take you in one of two directions, depending on where you want to begin your visit. We had decided to buy the Daily Bus Ticket which would allow us to hop on and hop off at one of the regular stops around the principality; in this way we were able to get around to everything we wanted to see easily and without wasting time. The Royal Palace, The Oceanographic Museum, The Casino, Cafe du Paris, Hotel du Paris, Port Hercule etc, were all soon ticked off, and during the various bus trips around Monaco you also get to experience the Formula 1 Race Track, albeit travelling in the opposite direction. I really enjoyed the place and yes it could be expensive but we managed to eat and drink for the day without spending an unreasonable amount of cash. And if I had been the possessor of unlimited cash then perhaps I could have been tempted with one of the fantastic boats that were in Port Hercule or even one of the new quayside apartments that had starting prices of 5 Million Euros!!!

Nice_Monaco_Oct11 (49)

Nice_Monaco_Oct11 (49)

We travelled back on the train to Nice in the early evening and made our way back from the station to Place Massena where we hunted down somewhere different to eat. In stark contrast to the previous day when we got saturated, our day in Monaco had been glorious despite the threatening black cloud that hung over the mountain all day but thankfully without obscuring the Cote D’Azur sunshine.

Between Nice and Monaco, resting on a mountain top, is the mediaeval village of Eze. We headed there on the bus on the Thursday and once again the weather was being kind. Eze, along with Paris and Grasse, was the home of Fragonard, a premier perfume factory. We took the free tour which took no more than 20 minutes and had as much time as we wanted wandering around the mazy lanes of the village, stopping at one of the few cafes before heading back to the bus stop for the next bus back to Nice.

Nice_Monaco_Oct11 (192)

Nice_Monaco_Oct11 (192)

We got off of the bus near to the old quarter which was a decent walk from the hotel but, after a snack and a drink, decided to walk up to the ruin of the Colline du Chateau which overlooked Nice marina on one side and the main bay of Nice on the other. The walk back to the hotel was conveniently interrupted by rest stops along the Promenade du Anglais to watch the fishermen being attacked by the sea crashing against the rocks that they were fishing from, and the crazy swimmers who I guess still found the sea temperature tolerable at the end of October.

Nice_Monaco_Oct11 (249)

Nice_Monaco_Oct11 (249)

On our last evening we ate at VIP’s restaurant, just around the corner from the hotel. Slightly more expensive than what we had had previously but worth it, especially on the final night in Nice.

One day left and we still wanted to see some of the north part of the city and so on Friday, after enjoying the final breakfast at the small cafe/restaurant that was literally a few steps across the road from our hotel (and where we had taken breakfast every morning for half the price of that being asked at the hotel), we headed off for the bus stop to catch the bus that would take us to the Monastery and also the Matisse Museum (if we had time). It was good to see another part of the city but after seeing the Monastery we chose to get back to the Promenade at Nice and enjoy as much of that as we could prior to leaving for the airport in the afternoon.

Part of Nice’s appeal turned out to be the ease and relatively small cost of the public transport. Getting to and from the airport cost 4 Euros each on the public bus which was conveniently just two minutes walk from the hotel. And getting around the various parts of the city and also outside of the city to Monaco and Eze (and others that we didn’t have time to visit) was equally as simple.

Nice_Monaco_Oct11 (366)

Nice_Monaco_Oct11 (366)

The Cote D’Azur left a favourable impression. It’s a lovely part of the Mediterranean with lots to see and it’s also close to the Italian border which potentially adds another dimension. It would be nice to think that we may return one day.

Footnote : Kiss and Fly – Nice Airport, like most if not all airports, has its short stay and long stay car parks, its departures and arrivals areas and, a quick dropping-off area. At Nice they call it “Kiss and Fly”, and this is precisely how it is written on the signposts around the airport.

Posted by david.byne 04.11.2011 11:42 Archived in France Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains beaches churches art buildings skylines trees sky boats trains Comments (0)

From San Siro to the Lakes

Milan and Lake Lugano

sunny -32 °C

Milan - as far as I was concerned the city of A.C. and Internazionale and the San Siro. However, a little research prior to travelling helped me realise there were other things to see and that there were probably two full days worth spending. So, we flew into Milan’s Linate Airport and caught the shuttle bus to Milano Centrale Station which we knew was reasonably close to the Zurigo Hotel where we were booked in for three nights.

2_Milan_Central_Aug11 (95)

2_Milan_Central_Aug11 (95)

Milano Centrale is a bit like Waterloo (with shops!!) until you take a look at the destinations and arrivals boards. And it makes you appreciate that travelling by train is a real alternative to flying for people living in mainland Europe. Our intention was to spend three days and nights in Milan before catching the train to Lugano in Switzerland and spending a week there. In comparison to some of the journeys taking place in and out of Milano Centrale this is no distance at all. Zurich, Paris, Venice, Munich etc; they were all there.
Anyway, for the time being and whilst we were at the station, we decided to buy our return tickets to Lugano before finding our way to our hotel in Corsa d’Italia. A quick journey on the Milano Metro – five stops – took us to Missori and, with the help of a very kind lady, we quickly found Corsa d’Italia and the Hotel Zurigo.

It was late afternoon when we arrived and, for a major city, Milan seemed so quiet. Not much on the roads, the occasional tram and a few people wandering around. We knew we were within walking distance of the Duomo, Milan’s Cathedral and the focal point of central Milano and surely that would be much busier when we eventually got there.
For our first evening we didn’t venture far. It was almost time to eat and had been a long day. We were recommended the Manhattan Restaurant which was just around the corner from the hotel and this turned out to be fine for two of the three nights that we stayed in the city.

We had planned what to see and had already booked and paid for a Milano Card (to get us around the city on public transport) and tickets to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’. So, first thing on the Friday morning we made our way to the Castello to find the office to collect the Milano Card. With this in hand we would then be able to work our way down the list, starting with the San Siro!! But getting the Milano Card turned out to be more difficult than we had hoped. We got it eventually but only after convincing the Agent that the Voucher we had been provided with to exchange for the Milano Card was correct and valid. He wasn’t 100% happy but we got the cards and off we went to find the No.16 tram to get to the stadium.

1_Milan_San Siro

1_Milan_San Siro

As football stadiums go, the San Siro is probably as famous as most. It is also different in that two of Europe’s most successful teams share it and so there are three changing rooms (one for Milan, one for Internazionale and one for the visiting team), the seating is segregated in certain areas for the two sets of ‘home’ fans, and the stadium museum and the shop are segregated right down the middle with Milan on one side and Inter on the other. And Silvio Berlusconi’s influence as owner of ‘A.C.’ Milan was plain to see compared to the more conservative nature of everything ‘Inter’.

1_Milan_San Siro (11)

1_Milan_San Siro (11)

Back on tram No.16, we returned to Castello and spent some time in the grounds of Sforza Castle and Sempione Park leading up to the Arch of Peace. There was also somewhere convenient to have lunch in a shaded café in the middle of the park so we sat and fended off the small birds that were intent on stealing every falling crumb.

2_Milan_Central_Aug11 (24)

2_Milan_Central_Aug11 (24)

We walked back down Via Dante towards Duomo and took refuge inside, out of the heat of the day. It’s a huge cathedral and has been recently cleaned so it stands out, gleaming White at the end of Milan’s main Piazza. Alongside is the Galleria Vittoria Emanuelle II – an ornate shopping centre which has some very impressive architecture but fewer shops than you would expect (although all quite exclusive – except McDonald’s, cheapest bottled water in town by the way!!) and which basically serves as a crossroads to four directions from central Milano.
From Duomo, it was about a ten minute walk back to the hotel or one Metro stop. We took the Metro. It had been a hot, energy sapping day and it was time to freshen up before hitting the Manhattan restaurant again and the free pizza bread with olive oil and the complementary bottle of Limoncello at the end of the meal.

2_Milan_Central_Aug11 (64)

2_Milan_Central_Aug11 (64)

2_Milan_Central_Aug11 (55)

2_Milan_Central_Aug11 (55)

After breakfast on Saturday morning we had already pre-booked to go and see Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”. Tucked away a short distance from the centre of Milan in the Santa Maria della Grazie church, in a temperature controlled room, you pass through an air lock before being permitted inside in small groups. You are then allowed a very strict fifteen minutes to look at Da Vinci’s work.
Back out in the heat of the city we made use of our Milano cards to once again get back to Duomo from where we could walk through the centre and out to the opposite side of Galleria Vittoria Emanuelle II where we would easily find La Scala, one of the world’s premier opera houses. When we arrived we discovered that it was shut and wouldn’t reopen for about another hour so we killed some time by looking round the Brera Art Gallery. Back at La Scala, entry to the Opera House was via the Museum where the route took you into some of the boxes where we could see people busy at work around the stage, presumably preparing for whatever the next performance may be – La Boheme, Romeo & Juliet, La Traviata etc.

2_Milan_Central_Aug11 (60)

2_Milan_Central_Aug11 (60)

Once we had stocked up on our daily dose of culture we returned to McDonald’s for more water and another stroll around the Galleria.
Saturday evening was our final evening in Milan and we wanted to go back to Duomo to see the square lit up so we decided to forego the Manhattan Restaurant and find somewhere to eat in Via Dante. It wasn’t difficult!! In fact, we were almost dragged off of the precinct to a hurriedly prepared table with two ‘soon to arrive’ chairs. All of the restaurants in Via Dante were busy and the Head Waiter in ours appeared determined to fight off any competition. Anyway, we had a laugh, a meal and a bottle of wine and, compared to what was to follow in Switzerland, the price was reasonable.

Sunday morning and we had to get ready for our 1:30 train from Milano Centrale to Lugano. We made certain to have a good breakfast and gave ourselves plenty of time after seeing one of the local churches to get the Metro to the station. Milano Centrale is not just a railway and bus station; it’s also a shopping mall so it was easy to spend time there and also spend money!! We both ended up buying something in Zara before climbing aboard the train which, without any air conditioning doubled as a sauna for the thirty minutes that we had to wait before departure. When we did leave, the air conditioning made very little impact on the tropical environment that we had found ourselves trapped in. Thankfully, we were asked to change trains at Chiasso (on the Italian/Swiss border) and we were grateful that we could as the replacement train was both newer and an awful lot cooler and made the second half of the journey a lot nicer.
Lugano, Switzerland (21st to 28th August).

3_Lugano_Aug11 (2)

3_Lugano_Aug11 (2)

On arrival in Lugano, finding the Continental Parkhotel couldn’t have been simpler. A 250 yard walk across the car park and it was right in front of us. The town of Lugano and the lake sat below us at the bottom of the hill with either the funicular or a ten minute walk (twenty coming back up!) being the options.

The sudden realisation that I booked the hotel when the exchange rate was 1.6 Swiss Francs to the £1 and that I would be paying after it had dropped to 1.1 was balanced at least a little by the surprise upgrade that we received to our room. Key 54 opened a room on the third floor that had a good sized bedroom with fridge, t.v., sofa, chairs, double French doors and a double balcony overlooking the lake and the mountains plus a bath, separate shower and a separate room with toilet and wash basin plus. It was worth in the region of £550 more for the week than we were paying although some of that benefit would disappear from my wallet thanks to the exchange rate having dropped so much in a short space of time.

We ate at the hotel on the first night, not knowing much about the town and without the energy or inclination to venture down the hill and back up again until the following day. So, after stocking the fridge with one or two things from the supermarket by the station and having a look around the hotel grounds we sorted ourselves out in the room and headed for dinner. The potential financial damage that was to ensue over the next seven days was starting to hit home. Menu of the Day = 35 CHF …….. or about £32!! Further experience would also soon tell us that a portion of chips would be £8, a beer £8, a bottle of water £4 and a donut £3. Oh well, we were here now and it was too nice a place not to enjoy it.

3_Lugano_Aug11 (188)

3_Lugano_Aug11 (188)

Our original plan was to buy a Regional Lugano Pass that would provide us with all of our transport both in and around the lake. However, the cost of this was now a bit prohibitive so we compromised on a 3-day Lake Pass plus a day at Monte Generoso. Having bought the Boat Pass we immediately made plans to visit both Gandria and Morcote with a boat leaving early in the afternoon. Just like in Milan, the sky was cloudless and the sun shone brightly with temperatures creeping into the 30’s and to an extent it had already turned into a bit of a race to find the shade on the boat.

3_Lugano_Aug11 (10)

3_Lugano_Aug11 (10)

Gandria was just around the first corner on the lake from Lugano but every boat that we were to use during our stay headed first for Paradiso (Lugano’s other port) to collect passengers before setting off for Gandria or any other destination. Gandria was both pretty and hot. Perched on the mountainside we walked to the top of the village only to be denied a drink and a seat by the only café being closed. So, we walked back down again and found a lakeside bar where we watched a few more small, fearless birds in search of crumbs. Half an hour later we boarded the next boat and this took us to Morcote which was back past Lugano and under the railway/road bridge that crosses Lake Lugano near Campione d’Italia, a small Italian enclave surrounded by Swiss territory that has become famous for its large but architecturally disastrous Casino. Morcote is another pretty, lakeside village but unlike Gandria, Morcote has a proper waterfront with a road running along it. This makes it easier in some ways to walk around but doesn’t disguise the fact that it is still perched on the mountainside and once you drop back behind the lakeside road it’s a steady climb to see the rest of the village – but it’s worth it.

3_Lugano_Aug11 (13)

3_Lugano_Aug11 (13)

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3_Lugano_Aug11 (70)

It takes about an hour to get back from Morcote to Lugano, stopping at the various villages along the way on each side of the lake. This gave us time to think about how to plan the rest of the week and when to do what. Tuesday could be spent in the town and by the pool, then on Wednesday we could get a ticket for Monte Generoso, Thursday we could be back on the lake and by the pool, on Friday there is a free trip to Monte Bre (and anything ‘free’ has to be grabbed with both hands in Switzerland!!), and then on Saturday we could spend some time at the hotel by the pool and also get back on the lake and go to Porlezza for the market. That was the plan. Unfortunately, a stomach bug prevented me doing much at all on the Tuesday so Jan ventured down on the funicular in the morning and did the walking tour of Lugano (She said that I would have been bored and I think she was right). In the afternoon she spent time reading by the pool while I struggled to move, eventually getting up late afternoon to join her. Food was definitely off of the agenda on the Tuesday evening apart from some bread and cheese which in hindsight may also have been a mistake! However, energy levels were low and I needed to eat something if we were to get to Monte Generoso the following day – which we were – and we did.

I really wanted to get up into the mountains while we were in Switzerland and the trip to Monte Generoso gave us the chance. The boat from Lugano took us to the far end of one stretch of the lake to the town of Capo Lago. From here we took the Cog Railway and climbed the 5,500 feet to the top of Monte Generoso. The views stretched as far as the Alps and you could see Lakes Lugano, Maggiore and Como from the top. We had a couple of hours at the top of the mountain; enough time to climb to the very top and then walk back and have lunch. Prices again dictated things and we ended up having a drink each and sharing a sandwich. The journey each way by cog railway took about 45 minutes and at the bottom we made our way to the main station platform at Capo Lago to get the train back to Lugano and our hotel. I was pleased to have survived the trip after the experiences of the previous day.

3_Lugano_Aug11 (89)

3_Lugano_Aug11 (89)

By now the camera was becoming fairly well loaded with images although obviously not to the extent that I captured in Vietnam. The views across the mountains had been fantastic even with the slight haze that the sun had created – it would have been colder but better in April or November – but we would have some decent photographs to look back on.

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3_Lugano_Aug11 (120)

We self catered in the evening and bought a bottle of wine from the supermarket which meant that we could eat in and, if we had the energy, go down into town for a couple of hours. We didn’t.

Thursday was going to be an easy day. Time spent around the pool reading and then a boat trip around the lake, taking in all of the other sections of the lake that we hadn’t yet visited with the exception of Porlezza which we would do on Saturday. We were aboard for about three hours on another very hot day so the breeze as we sailed plus any shade that was on offer were more than welcome. And the sky was broken up with a few clouds which made it much better for photographs than it had been earlier in the week.
Back on land at Lugano we wandered through the old town and bought an ice cream before eventually setting back off up the funicular to the station and then the hotel. Later that evening we headed back down into town and found a restaurant to eat at prior to the start of the Lugano ‘Blues to Bop’ 2011 Music Festival. Five or six stages had been set up at various points in the town and from 21:00 until 00:30 bands would be playing on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It was good to see the town filled with people; eating drinking, and listening to the bands. Probably because of the exchange rate, tourist numbers were down (which suited us) so it was nice that the locals came out to support the festival. Food and drink was available from stalls and was marginally cheaper than elsewhere so eating there either Friday or Saturday night was probably an option.

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3_Lugano_Aug11 (180)

Friday was set aside for our freebie (!) - the trip up Monte Bre and to see the village; supposedly fairly exclusive and home to a number of famous but unnamed people. We had to meet at the foot of Monte Bre by the funicular so this gave us the opportunity to walk along the promenade in Lugano and through the park where we found yet another stage that had been set up for the music festival. It took about twenty minutes to get there and we then had a few minutes wait until the guide arrived to organise the tickets. We were clearly in the new part of Lugano as it felt much more like a modern residential town than a lakeside holiday retreat. Monte Bre is around 900 metres high and the funicular is in two parts. When you arrive at the top there is a short walk to the attractive and very quiet village of Bre and you are surrounded by views of Lake Lugano. The village of Gandria sits immediately below Bre at the base of the mountain but isn’t visible from the village. It’s easy to see the appeal of a place like Bre if you need or prefer somewhere a little isolated but at the same time its very classy and civilised.

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3_Lugano_Aug11 (152)


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3_Lugano_Aug11 (159)

We met Nathan and Sarah Rowe (a couple from Glastonbury) while we were in Bre and started talking about travelling so when we got back down the mountain to Lugano we stopped and had a drink before going our separate ways. The plan that evening was to get back to the hotel, spend some time by the pool and then change before going back into town for the festival again. It didn’t work out that way. By the time we had got back to the hotel having called in at the supermarket to buy a few things the thought of going out again was just too much so we stayed around, got ourselves something to eat and drank wine on the balcony watching the lights come on around the lake. Oh and counting the trains of course. It had become a bit of a hobby – train-spotting almost ….but not quite that sad! Jan had taken a liking for counting the number of commercial trains that were being pulled by the front engines. I think we got up to 32. And you couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor motorist who reached the rail crossing just as the gates were coming down because they stayed down for an awful long time as one but more often two and occasionally three separate trains made their way through busy Lugano railway station.

Saturday was our last full day of our stay in Lugano and also the holiday; Sunday would be spent almost entirely on the move making our way home. We had one day left on our Lake Pass and had already decided to walk down the hill and catch the boat that would take us to Porlezza at the far end of the lake. Porlezza was officially in Italy and held a market every Saturday so we caught the boat from Lugano knowing that it stopped for about an hour before starting the return journey to Lugano. As it turned out, an hour was plenty. Porlezza is nice enough but the market consisted of five or six waterfront stalls selling very little of what we would even think of buying so instead of browsing we headed off to a café for coffee and cake. It was the cheapest café-stop that we had for the whole ten days. Just over 6 Euros felt very cheap!

Back on the boat we hid from the sun again as best we could but spending time on the lake was a lovely thing to do and a great way of seeing some of the surrounding villages and countryside.

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3_Lugano_Aug11 (127)

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3_Lugano_Aug11 (169)

It was about 5:30 when we arrived back at the waterfront in Lugano so, after a quick wander around town and an ice cream, we headed back to the funicular and up to the hotel again. Tonight we would eat in town at the festival. We chose to walk down to town again and planned on getting one of the late funiculars back up. The bands had already started by the time we got down into the square and, with it being the weekend, it was already busy. I quickly found somewhere to grab something to drink and then to eat as I was starving after not eating much during the previous three or four days. We spent time around the different stages and also a while around the waterfront where the road had been closed to traffic. It was a really nice time to be in Lugano and at that precise moment not very expensive either!
It was a good ten days. Not as cheap as I would have liked and certainly the trip cost more than we had estimated (thanks to the exchange rate) but we enjoyed both Milan and Lugano. Milan was a typical city break and you know what you’re going to get from most cities whereas Lugano was as relaxing as any holiday we’ve had recently, even though we saw and did a lot. Switzerland is a very pretty country but for the Brits it simply isn’t good value for money at the moment and generally there were fewer tourists around than you would expect in August. As for the weather, I always expected Milan to be hot but didn’t anticipate the same for Lake Lugano - it was regularly between 30 and 35 degrees. I should imagine that March/April and October/November could be really nice. Colder but clearer days with great visibility across the mountain ranges.

3_Lugano_Aug11 (187)

3_Lugano_Aug11 (187)

Posted by david.byne 25.09.2011 07:50 Archived in Italy Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains lakes buildings trees sky boats trains Comments (0)

The Fishermen of Galata

Mosques, Minarets and Bazaars

sunny -20 °C

The short holiday in Istanbul in April 2009 was my sixth visit to Turkey’s number one city. Ankara remains the capital of the country but it’s in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) that the main sights can be found.

All of my previous trips to Istanbul had been with work – there and back in 18 hours, that sort of thing. But those visits were enough to convince me that the city had enough to warrant a proper look around.

Ataturk Airport has in recent years been modernised but can still be a challenge if you aren’t used to it. Many people have spent a considerable time queuing to get through immigration only to be told at the desk that before they can pass through Passport Control they have to first go and queue and pay for their entry visa. It’s useful to know beforehand.

The fee for the entry visa is $15 or £10 and for that you gain a decorative sticker that then gets pummelled with a rubber stamp when you eventually get back to the desk at Passport Control. The good news is : that’s the difficult bit over with. Baggage Reclaim is reasonably efficient and getting a taxi is also a simple process provided you agree the fare before you get in and you get a taxi driver that actually knows his way around his city. Ours wasn’t overly confident and even resorted to winding his window down and asking passers-by where the Centrum Hotel in Sirkeci could be found. I could have hired a car and done that I thought; but at least I didn’t have to contend with the traffic from behind the wheel.

We arrived at our hotel in mid afternoon which gave us just enough time to settle in and then talk to the hotel receptionist before taking a walk to get our bearings. The Hotel Centrum was within easy reach of Sultanahmet and both the Blue Mosque and Haghia Sophia so that’s where we headed in late afternoon. The two buildings are either end of what is effectively a city centre garden; albeit split down the middle by a narrow road that taxi’s use. Haghia Sophia was nearest but the queues to get in were long so we continued walking towards the massive structure of the Blue Mosque with its six minarets.

Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

Shoes off and bagged, we were permitted to go inside. It is huge and made to feel this way more so by the lack of clutter. No pews, no statues, just a massive carpeted area with its appeal lying mainly in the domes and pillars of the building itself.

Shoes back on; the exterior of the Blue Mosque is equally impressive with its curves and angles and towers creating an architectural blend that reflects its location on the border of Europe and Asia. There is a row of open plan cubicles with taps for the traditional washing of feet for those wishing to enter for prayer. And around the back, the inner courtyard acts as an efficient suntrap even in April.

Between the two mosques the area is basically a well tended garden with fountains. And Springtime is the perfect season to visit Istanbul as the city shows off its passion for flowers and in particular tulips which it claims to be the originator of.

We walked back towards Haghia Sophia and it soon became obvious that the decision not to join the queue earlier had turned out to be a good one – this time we paid and went straight in. Blue Mosque probably has the edge over Haghia Sophia from the outside but the inside of the latter is possibly even more impressive than its younger neighbour. The full impact was diluted a little by the inevitable scaffolding that nine times out of ten will mar the appearance of at least one attraction on every holiday. Years ago in Moscow it was St.Basil’s Cathedral, here in Istanbul it was Haghia Sophia. Oh well.

Haghia Sophia Interior #1

Haghia Sophia Interior #1

The building, now a museum, started life as a cathedral and was then converted into the solid and far from delicate structure that it is today as a mosque. Nevertheless, it is an impressive and imposing sight and the interior restoration work is uncovering colours and designs that reflect its unusual evolution.

The Hotel Centrum was on a pedestrianised crossroads on a hill in Sirkeci between Sultanahmet and the port at Galata Bridge. And on two of those corners were competing restaurants both trying to win us over for our first meal but we had already decided which one we would choose that evening and so a promise was made to the other that we would go there at some point over the next few days.

The food was good – lots of fish – and the wine also surprisingly decent although we avoided the bottles without labels that were offered as part of the wine list. The restaurant was convenient to the extreme; possibly eight to ten steps between the table that we sat at and the hotel entrance. Perfect for the first evening.

The first day had been an interesting one and the early hours of day two were equally as entertaining when, after being woken up suddenly at around 2 a.m., I investigated the noise that I could hear outside of our hotel and discovered some of the locals having a go at each other. Some of the staff at the restaurants were involved and one had his hand covered in a blood stained towel. More shouting and then the group started running down the road amidst what sounded like three gun shots. I'll never know if it really was a gun but the incident had certainly put an end to any prospect of getting back to sleep. While lying there wide awake I could hear the sound of glass being swept up and by the time we investigated the area next morning everything had been tidied away. Peace had been restored following just another ordinary night in Istanbul.

The breakfast room at the hotel was on the top of the building with views across to The Golden Horn and Galata and also to the Topkapi Palace which was almost within touching distance. After breakfast we headed straight to Topkapi Palace, located just five minutes stroll away from the hotel and just over halfway along the walk to Sultanahmet. Security is unsurprisingly tight in Istanbul and we had to put bags through scanners before we were allowed entry to buy tickets for the Palace and the Harem. I had taken a small tripod with me as a part of my photography kit but this was promptly confiscated for the duration of our visit to Topkapi. The grounds of the Palace were extremely well kept and the spring flowers added a colourful border to the pathways that led from the entrance up to the main palace gates. Inside the main area you soon realise how big the palace is and it was clear that to see it all properly was going to take some time. The main rooms, the armoury, the treasury etc all took a while to get around with many visitors taking their time especially in the treasury, gawping at the sizeable precious stones and the bejewelled turbans, swords and daggers belonging to the Sultan. And when that was all done, there was still the Harem to see.

Topkapi_11

Topkapi_11

Entrance to the Harem required a separate ticket to gain entry. Not sure why. Perhaps some people simply choose not to see it or maybe others only want to see the Harem and nothing else. Whatever, we did both anyway (why wouldn’t you??) and walking around the corridors and through the rooms of the Harem listening to stories of eunuchs and the Sultan’s lifestyle certainly created an image or two. And by the end of the tour at Topkapi it was clear that it was the Sultan’s mother who was the all-powerful one at the Palace and the Sultan played second fiddle. On the way out I retrieved my tripod from security and we made our way out and back to the hotel..

In the evening we found The Pudding Shop, a restaurant close to Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque that has gained a decent reputation for its food in Istanbul.

The Bosporous runs from Istanbul all the way up to The Black Sea; ferries operate up and down stopping at three or four points on route on both the European and Asian sides. It takes just over two hours to get from the port at Eminonu up to Anadolu Kavagi on the Asian side at the furthest point North on the Bosporous where the massive expanse of The Black Sea suddenly opens up in front of you. We decided to get the 10:30 ferry and were queuing up to buy tickets by 9:30 as suggested. Ten minutes later, tickets in hand, we were stuck with what to do for the next 35 minutes until the boat arrived. Being so close to Galata Bridge it was an obvious decision to walk the bridge - and I challenge anybody to cross that bridge when there are no fishermen on it. No matter what time of day or night, whenever I have been across Galata Bridge there have been many, many rods being wielded in the hope of either catching the big one or, more likely than that, catching enough of anything to take some pressure off of the weekly family food bill. But it wasn’t only fishermen busying themselves on Galata Bridge. A shoe shiner dashed past me and without stopping dropped one of his brushes. I called him back to return his brush and he, in turn, insisted on shining my shoes despite my insistence that he needn’t bother. Thinking that this was simply the return of a favour (silly me!) he started conversation by asking where I was from and swiftly moved on to telling me how many children he had, how poor they were and how unwell he was. By this time, I was suspecting the inevitable - this wasn’t going to be a freebie!! And sure enough, moments later, with hand outstretched and without looking me in the eyes, “35 Lira sir”. At around 2 Lira to the £1, it would have been cheaper to buy a new pair! Anyway, he got ‘5’ which was unfortunately the smallest that I had at the time.

We joined the queue to board the rusty white ferry. Travelling up the Bosporous from the city, the properties slowly become larger and more detached as you leave behind busy Istanbul and its estimated fifteen million inhabitants. And it would have been nice to be able to get off at each stop and explore but we decided to go to the ‘end of the line’ and at least be able to say that we had been to Asia and crossed two continents during our trip.

The ferry stops at Anadolu Kavagi for two hours before returning to Istanbul; just enough time to walk around the village and find somewhere for lunch. We were lucky; it was a lovely sunny day and, sheltered from the strong breeze that was coming back at us from the Black Sea, we found a restaurant and a table right by the water. Anadolu Kavagi is a small fishing village which gave the camera some exercise and the handily placed market stalls close to the ferry dock also gave the wallet an airing.

Mending Nets

Mending Nets

The journey back was downstream and therefore quite a bit quicker and we had already decided to get off at Dolmabahce rather than carry on to the main port in Istanbul. The Dolmabahce Palace was the main residence of the old Sultan’s and was somewhere that we had listed to visit. Unfortunately, by the time we got there it was five minutes from closing and therefore, to see it properly, we decided to return the following day. Instead, we started walking towards Taksim Square and the main shopping area. Taxi’s are always an option but for whatever reason we just carried on walking and within a relatively short time had arrived at the square and quickly found a place to sit down for a drink.

Taksim_03

Taksim_03

Taksim is at the top of Istiklal Caddesi which, to the rest of us, is the “commercial road” in Istanbul. A long, straight and mainly pedestrianised thoroughfare with the occasional vintage tram to compete with as you zigzag between shops among the hundreds of other people out spending their hard earned Lira. At the bottom of Istiklal Caddesi is Galata Tower which was another of our targets but not today. So, we carried on down the hill to Galata Bridge - a great location for it crosses the Golden Horn at the point where the Sea of Marmara meets and then veers off alternatively up the Bosporous. And you can also glimpse the corner of Topkapi Palace and the tops of both Haghia Sophia and Blue Mosque on one side, Galata Tower on the other and the typically sturdy New Mosque that guards the bridge at roadside on the Sultanahmet side.

Seeing the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar during our visit was a must as far as we were concerned. They were close but not close enough to get there without using public transport so we worked out how to use the trams and found our nearest tram stop was Chemberlitas. We then walked conspicuously through the crowded side streets that eventually wound their way down to one of the arched entrances to the bazaar. It was great fun wandering around the 4,000 shops, fending off the friendly advances of the carpet sellers. And whereas the colour and sheer volume of the shops in Grand Bazaar was impressive it was the colours and smells that hit you at the Spice Bazaar.

Spice Bazaar #3

Spice Bazaar #3

Sulimaniye Mosque is regarded as one of the most significant buildings in Istanbul and so we decided to again take the local tram to Beyazit. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the mosque much of it was closed to the public due to refurbishment (here we go again!!) but what we saw of the building and the surrounding area was worth the trip.

An opportunity to go and watch the Sufi Dancers (or Whirling Dervishes) presented itself on our last night in Istanbul and conveniently it was an easy walk from the hotel, at the Hodjapasha which was a small mosque, no longer used as a mosque but as a setting for the Sufi shows. The show itself was only just over an hour long which made it even more appealing as far as I was concerned. We arrived in good time and found good seats from which to take photographs and not bother other people whilst doing it. Eventually the place filled up and the musicians arrived and started playing and this was followed by four Sufi mystics entering the small arena who then over the course of the hour went through a traditional ritual in four parts involving spinning and moving in pre-determined poses and patterns; all the time with their eyes closed which, to me, was the clever bit because I would surely have lost balance and ended up on the floor. It was unusual, strange and a spectacle and it was good to see ……………… but an hour was enough!

Sufi_11

Sufi_11

We had eaten well in Istanbul but really wanted to try a dedicated fish restaurant so that is what we did on our final evening. Again, we didn’t have to venture far from the hotel to find one.

On our final morning we decided that there was enough time to go and see the Basilica Cistern (in Sultanahmet, near Blue Mosque). The Basilica Cistern is an underground water system that dates back to the year 532 and it provided a water filtration facility for Constantinople.

We also paid a second visit to a small café in Sultanahmet that sold Baclava. We wanted to take some home and so spent some time choosing enough to fill one of the boxes that were then packed in for the journey.

Having emerged from the underground Basilica Cistern we squeezed in another visit to the Blue Mosque ……………. and it could easily have caused us to miss our flight home!! The day of our departure had coincided with a major national cycling event and Istanbul was at the centre of it. Not only that, the Turkish Prime Minister was arriving to start the race and security was at its most prominent. Automatic Rifles, Armoured Patrol Vehicles, Water Cannons, they definitely know how to have a good time!! Race Marshalls and Stewards were placing barriers around the roads and, with the help of the police, were creating the track along which the cyclists would race. In doing so they were also making it more difficult for the general public to walk freely around Sultanahmet but were, at various points, allowing people to cross the cordoned off road to get to the Blue Mosque and Haghia Sophia. So, we negotiated the restrictions and made our way into the central garden area for one last look around Blue Mosque before we prepared to go home. We realised that our time was limited and so spent a relatively short period of time looking around before heading back to the hotel. However, things had moved on as far as the race preparation was concerned and we (and others, including locals) suddenly found ourselves unable to get back across the race track because the police had now closed off the small gaps in the barriers where they were once allowing people to cross. Help! We had to get back to the hotel because we had a taxi booked for the airport but we weren’t having much success in explaining to the Istanbul police our predicament. However, after several attempts we made enough of the right noises to be allowed across. This temporarily opened the public floodgates as we were followed through a relatively small gap in the barriers by a number of others keen to get across to the other side.

After hurrying back to the hotel to get ready in time for our taxi we were greeted by the Hotel Receptionist with a message that the taxi had cancelled because it couldn’t negotiate the chaos in the City Centre that was being created by the cycle race. “What do we do now!?”

Trams to the airport would normally be an option but not today and Taxi’s were proving difficult. The Receptionist offered to dive us in his ‘Private Taxi’ for the same price as we had been quoted by our originally booked taxi; however, he didn’t finish work until half an hour after we needed to check in at the airport!!

Eventually, with the assistance of the Receptionist, we found a taxi firm willing to take us. But that wasn’t the end of it. Suspecting that, due to circumstances, we may end up paying a premium for this ride I kept an eye on the clock in the cab as the Lira slowly mounted up. I had expected to pay around 30 to 35 Turkish Lira which is what it cost for the half an hour journey when we arrived and also what the Hotel Receptionist said we would be charged (although he did say, “maybe 40”) - and about a mile outside of the airport I noticed that the fare had just passed the 29 Lira mark so it looked about right. It was therefore a surprise when, about two minutes later, the clock read 56 Lira!!!! Not being willing to go down without at least a bit of a fight I challenged the fare in English as the driver argued in Turkish. We were down to our last 60 or so Lira anyway and we needed some spare for the airport so no way was he getting his 56. Eventually I got our luggage and parted with 45 Turkish Lira which left us with a small amount of currency to spend in departures. Taxi drivers – don’t you love ‘em!!

Istanbul is a fantastic city. It’s attractive without being pretty. It never sleeps but then with 15 million or more inhabitants it probably doesn’t get an opportunity. Historically, few places can boast more and with its location straddling two continents it can claim to be fairly unique among the world’s cities. It is a culturally fascinating place and its people appeared generally friendly and helpful – with the possible exception of one or two taxi drivers!

Posted by david.byne 27.06.2011 13:00 Archived in Turkey Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises bridges churches art buildings people Comments (0)

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