A Travellerspoint blog

SICILY

FOUR DAYS IN THE LAND OF ‘THE GODFATHER

The island of Sicily, sat just off the foot of Italy, is bigger than I thought and the first challenge was to see if a short visit would be able to do it justice.
We based ourselves in Catania, approximately midway down the Eastern coast of the island. Flying into Catania Airport we collected a hire car and with the aid of the satnav found our hotel in the city centre within thirty minutes of leaving the airport. It was late, not helped by the two hour delay in the car hiring process caused by their system failure. However, apart from being tired we at least hadn’t lost any real time as far as seeing some of the island was concerned.
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We stayed at the Liberty Hotel in the centre of Catania which, when inside, was a really lovely place for us to stay and base ourselves from. Car Parking felt like it was going to be a problem as the surrounding streets were either full or the empty spaces were restricted to disabled or permit holders but after stopping outside and dashing in to speak to the Concierge the problem was easily solved, for a small daily fee. “Sir, we have one available parking space in the back garden if you would like that for the duration of your stay”. This was a real bonus, off the road and behind secure electronic gates and parked on site. Ideal.
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A good night sleep was in order; it had been a long day. With that plus breakfast out of the way we set off southbound to Noto, a baroque town a little beyond Siracuse which would be our second stop. We had planned what we wanted to do and see well in advance of travelling and basically we would cover the entire East coast of Sicily over the three full days.
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Noto was busy but eventually we managed to park and spend a couple of hours walking around the town and visiting one or two places of interest with the compulsory coffee (or beer) stop thrown in for good measure. It was building into a hot day in Sicily following two days of rain prior to our arrival but it was nice to be able to extend our summer slightly having left behind some gloomy days in the UK at the beginning of September.
Noto was less than half an hour south of the coastal town of Siracuse which is where we headed next. It was a lovely day and good to be by the Mediterranean. Siracuse is a fishing port with also a marina and was generally prettier than Noto without feeling of as much historical interest. Having said that, there were one or two places of historical interest and the castle by the sea and, all in all, Siracuse had a really nice, relaxed feel to it and one where you could easily spend two or three days wandering round at leisure. There were plenty of places to stop for a drink and eat and car parking was easy too.
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Siracuse was less than an hour from our hotel in Catania so it allowed us to stay as late as we wanted before driving back. The intercom service on the wall at the back of the hotel opened the gates for us to drive our car in to what felt like a privileged space, despite paying for that privilege!
Our second full day included a booked trip to Mount Etna for half of the day. A small group of 7 of us, Etna sits right on the periphery of Catania so can be seen close-by but with the drive up and around the mountain it took us about one hour from the hotel to reach the eastern side of the volcano passing through one or two small villages on route including Fleri and Zafferana, both damaged by the December 2018 earthquake. One village that we drove through is now completely deserted following the quake with all the houses and businesses beyond economic repair.
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From having a really clear view of Etna from Catania on what was described as a perfect day to visit the volcano, the weather changed and by the time we reached ‘base camp’ Etna was shrouded in cloud with a threat of rain. Not untypical we were then told. It wasn’t a problem as such as visibility was still good enough for seeing what we were there to see but it would have been nice to have had a full panoramic view of the volcano to take ‘the photo’ from a distance. After a brief comfort break at the café/restaurant area we set off on our short hike on Etna. The hike took no more than an hour and with knowledge from our Italian guide explaining about Effusive Eruptions and Explosive Eruptions and the different events involving Etna it was a half day well spent.
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We were back at our hotel in Catania by about 2 pm and this gave us good time to explore Catania for the rest of the day. It’s quite an edgy, working-class city with its share of history and places of reasonable interest to wander around – and of course plenty of coffee/beer stops and places to eat. We walked aimlessly in many ways for quite some time and chanced upon an ‘arty’ bar area being washed down with hoses ready for what you could guess would be a regular nightly onslaught. The main square is a prominent hub in Catania with its cathedral, busking musicians and restaurants and during our time there it was filled for a few hours by a rally of a Fiat 500’s club, all the cars immaculately maintained by their owners.
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After a full day of walking we collapsed at a restaurant just off the main square before walking more back to our hotel and recovery time before a final full day in Sicily.
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Day three we ventured North from Catania and headed for Savoca. Again, this involved driving just over an hour and the landscape was noticeably different; more mountainous with the lava flow from Etna’s more epic eruptions visible even at this distance.
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Without knowing beforehand, Savoca was one of the locations for the filming of The Godfather with the church and Bar Vitalli both featuring in memorable scenes. It certainly added interest to what is a small hilltop village that takes little time to see although the views are definitely also worth the effort.
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We made a quick visit to Castelmola from Savoca. I say quick; the mountain roads slow you down quite a bit but the research told us that the views of the coast and of Taormina, our next destination, were fantastic. To be honest, they were ok but nothing more and probably if I had the time again I wouldn’t bother. I would instead got to nearby Forza da Agro which played the role of the Corleone village in The Godfather.
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Before we travelled to Sicily, people that I spoke to that had already been to the island all spoke about Taormina, a resort town just south of Savoca and Castelmola. We would spend the rest of the day and evening at Taormina.
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A short drive back down the mountain from Castelmola, Taormina was clearly a busy place when we arrived. This was confirmed when we found the multi-storey car park and needed to go to the top of seven levels before we found a space to leave the car. One of the main attractions of the town is the Greek amphitheatre. Amphitheatres, or at least the remains of one, can be found in many of the towns but Taormina’s is probably the best preserved and is still used for concerts today, as evidenced by the stage being constructed and sound equipment being set up while we were on the site. The views of the coast and surrounding hills from the amphitheatre site are also very photogenic.
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Away from the historic site it is a buzz of artists, bars, restaurants and a variety of nice shops. The artists frequent the main square close to the church from where you can catch views over the bay and from there the main artery of a precinct takes you through the shops and eateries with side streets both up the hill and down to explore and get a drink or something to eat. Whilst undoubtedly a resort, Taormina has a really nice atmosphere and it is easy to understand its appeal and its position in the minds of people who have visited Sicily.
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With one day more I think I would have wanted to visit Palermo but on this occasion I think we pitched it just about right and I wouldn’t change anything given the time that we had.
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The following day, our last, would be dominated by thoughts of getting to the airport and home but we had the morning left to wander locally around Catania and reasonably close to the hotel. The final few photographs in what for me was always largely a photographic journey.
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I don’t know if we will ever go back to Sicily to fill in the gaps. There are so many other places and if we never return it certainly won’t be because the island isn’t worthy. It had been a relatively short visit to somewhere I felt was distinctly different to its mainland but one I am pleased that we did. But be wary of the driving there. From a mainland Italian who has been living in Sicily for four years, “The driving here is crazy, utter madness!”.

Posted by david.byne 07:08 Comments (0)

JORDAN 2019

“WE ARE THE SWITZERLAND OF THE MIDDLE EAST”

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View Jordan - March 2019 on david.byne's travel map.

An eight day visit to the Middle East in the spring.
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Jordan was our destination which, given the lack of stability in so much of that region of the world, may be stating the obvious to some.

Flying into Amman, Jordan’s capital city, we were to then move on to The Dead Sea, Petra, Wadi Rum and Aqaba before flying back to Amman to fly home.
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So, Amman was our first stop. Introduced to our guide, Ibrahim, he would stay with us for the journey from Amman to Aqaba and in-between before leaving us to our own devices in Aqaba which would effectively be a couple of beach/pool days for us at the end of the trip. Ibrahim was a priceless source of information.

Amman is an interesting city. No high-rise as such so a bit of a sprawl in many ways but containing so much history within it. We took a city tour and visited their Blue Mosque and the ancient amphitheatre as well as seeing much of the everyday life going about its business.
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When considering whether to go to the Middle East or not and then planning the trip it was difficult to rid ourselves completely of a slight apprehension in venturing to a part of the world that is almost landlocked within territories that have and still are experiencing such turbulent times. A couple of days in Amman helped remove that last lingering element of apprehension.

The people are friendly and so too is the climate ….. in March and April. But beware, temperatures a month or wo later can reach 50 degrees in the shade.
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On our second day in Jordan’s capital city we travelled about one hour outside to the town of Jerash. Comparable to The Forum in Rome, Jerash presents an impressive area of Roman ruins that once formed the old town. Substantially complete roads and pillars leave slightly less to the imagination than does The Forum when trying to cast the mind back to what it may have looked like in its heyday.
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Photographically, much of the landscape around the ruins was awash with Rapeseed when we were there, adding colour to the scenery.
Back in the city for the night we prepared to travel the following morning down to The Dead Sea. On route we stopped at Mount Nebo to take in the view. Jordan and Israel were originally combined as The Holy Land before separation and Mount Nebo is a memorial to where Moses stood looking across The Dead Sea to Israel on the other side as he neared his goal of reaching Jerusalem.
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It was a short drive from here to our hotel on The Dead Sea where we spent just a single night. This was still time enough to experience floating in the water, taking in the view across to Israel and covering ourselves in the mud; you know, healing properties and all that!!
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Fully rinsed, showered and dressed for dinner, the temperature was gradually warming up as we worked our way south from northerly Amman.

After breakfast on day four the road to Petra, many people’s highlight of a visit to Jordan, beckoned. It was a longish journey with a few stops (including a Crusader’s Castle at Qalat Ash Shawbak and an ancient church mosaic in Madaba) en route and Ibrahim came into his own with the history of Petra and the surrounding areas proving both informative and interesting. There was just enough time to visit Little Petra before finding our next hotel where we would stay for two nights.
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The hotel in Petra was in the design of a walled village consisting of individual chalets plus the obligatory reception, dining area, pool etc etc and it made a change from the slightly more expected and predicable designs of 4 and 5 star hotels around the world.

We made an early start following an even earlier breakfast for the very short trip to Petra - deliberately early to beat the anticipated convoy of coaches that tend to arrive at a given time each day. The distance to The Registry from the main entrance is a good 25 minute walk although reined horse and horse & carriage alternatives are options for those wanting a slightly faster arrival.
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To be honest, the walk is worth it if it’s not too hot because the landscape builds and sets you up for what is at The Registry and beyond. Petra is a huge site and in seven hours we didn’t see anything close to all of it but we at least felt that we did it justice in that time. Again, Ibrahim supplied the narrative to the city as we walked its roads and entered the various tombs and palaces.
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There are also places to eat and drink and even a few shops to pacify most of us. Throw in a few camels (that can be hired) and one or two other surprises and Petra doesn’t disappoint; it is so much more than the photograph we have all seen.
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By the time we were strolling back to the exit the temperature at Petra had warmed significantly and even at 3 pm there were visitors entering the site which closed at 5. After seven hours we had probably seen approximately 50% of what Petra had to offer.

Our next stop exploring Jordan was the movie set that is Wadi Rum. In effect a dried-up river bed with geological features seen in films such as ‘The Planet of the Apes’, ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ and ‘Star Wars’.

Along the road towards Wadi Rum we stopped at the train featured in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, another film shot in this area, and also a ranch keeping Arab horses.
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We were then back on the road to our hotel at Aqaba, the Red Sea resort, for a couple of day’s relaxation. Apart from the hotel, the pool and the beach there was also the town of Aqaba itself, within easy walking distance of where we were staying. And so the Souk would be our first target. Several shops and Dinars later and a café stop was well-earned. The Intercontinental Hotel matched the consistently good quality of the other hotels we had stayed in while in Jordan.
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The Jordanian food and drink was very good although alcohol is predictably expensive. The people were very friendly and the service we received was also very good. And we found the country to generally be a very neat and tidy place, regarded by many Jordanians as ‘the Switzerland of the Middle East’. Not for its snow-capped mountains (obviously) and lakes, nor for its economy but more for the fact that they sit in neutral isolation among the countries around it simply because it is a country without oil; a fairly unique position in the area. They feel safer as a result as, to their mind, they have little of what anybody else wants and evidence to-date would appear to support that belief.
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What they do have however is a rising sense of tourism with 2018 being a record year for tourists and 2019 looking almost certain to beat it. Visiting Jordan certainly ticked our Middle East box and without massive expense. The eight days that we had and enjoyed were probably just about right. It is doubtful it will make our list of places that we want to return to but we are so pleased that we did it the once.
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Posted by david.byne 12:06 Archived in Jordan Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises beaches churches buildings people birds trains architecture religion city Comments (1)

Ticking those 'Must See' boxes in Rome

Seven Hills and so much more

sunny
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Our hotel, the Hotel Teatro Pace 33, was located just off Piazza Navona and our pre-booked taxi took us direct to the door. The hotel was a Cardinal’s house before becoming accommodation in what transpired to be a prime location in central Rome.
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Our visit to the historical centre was 5 days and upon arrival in the early afternoon of the first day we walked to Piazza Navona and then as far as the Pantheon. I knew little of Piazza Navona before researching and booking this trip but it really is the centre of the city and puts you within easy walking distance of almost everything you would want to see.

Surrounded on its perimeter mainly by bars and restaurants the Piazza is lively from morning till night and has a welcoming atmosphere that makes it a pleasurable place to spend time. At night, the three fountains and the surrounding properties are nicely lit and the street entertainers, artists and traders provide added interest.

We would become very familiar with Piazza Navona as, from our hotel, it was often on route to many of our destinations in Rome. The Pantheon is my first example of this. We knew it was close to where we were staying but like so much else in the city it turned out to be closer than we thought. Literally straight across the square and about five minutes’ walk and we were there.

The Pantheon is old, ridiculously old. Its good condition is incredible and the interior contains the tombs of some of the early Kings and Queens of Italy.
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Our plan was soon to walk everywhere, despite the heat. There are plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants in Rome without mentioning the on-street water vendors so the draining Roman heat can be alleviated whenever it suits you.

We already had timed tickets for the Vatican the following day and, after all the travelling, the prospect of an evening meal and then bed was beginning to gain favour as we walked back towards the hotel from the Pantheon. Finding somewhere to eat is only difficult because of the number of eateries and the choice. It’s a bit like driving into a car park with lots of spaces and struggling to settle on where is best to stop!

Breakfast in the Teatro Pace 33 is taken in your room. There is no dining area but you chose your breakfast the day before, nominate a time that you want it and the staff deliver it to your room accordingly. It works.

After breakfast on our first morning in Rome we took a slow walk in the direction of Castel St.Angelo (also known as Hadrian’s Tomb). We weren’t on this occasion intending to enter and see the Castel but you cross the bridge of St.Angelo and pass the Castel to reach Vatican City, located just beyond.
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Our ticket for entry into the Museum was timed at 11:30. Entry into St.Peter’s is Free but the queue was about 3 to 4 hours long at the time we arrived so decided to give it a miss but possibly return later. The advice from one of the staff marshalling the venue was that it got quiet after 5 pm and up to closing at 6:30.

We had to walk around the perimeter of the Vatican City, following the walls, to our entry point where we went straight in. The voucher that we bought in the UK needed converting to tickets at the first security check and from there we were into the museum.

Vatican City is vast, the smallest country in the world apparently. The entire place is a museum with paintings, relics and sculptures segregated into the different Roman eras, lining long corridors and rooms that in themselves are a work of art with their decorated walls, floors and ceilings.

The number of visitors each day is enormous but the size of the place copes with it comfortably most of the time. Outside, there are gardens at the back to wander in and both before and after your visit it is possible to spend time in St.Peter’s Square with plenty of room all year round EXCEPT EASTER!
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The Vatican is on the South side of the River Tiber and after leaving St.Peter’s Square and stopping for coffee we walked on, following the river in the direction of Tiber Island. A bit before the island appears I planned on turning into the residential area of Trastavere. The research that I had undertaken had highlighted Trastavere as a photogenic area filled with narrow lanes, plants, flowers, cafes and bars. I think that with a little more time we would have gained more from the diversion but the evidence was there to support the claim of it being an attractive and not yet commercialised area of the city of Rome.
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From Trastavere it was a simple walk across the Bridge at Tiber Island, a left turn and a stroll back towards Piazza Navona and the hotel. It had been a long but enjoyable day with a couple of boxes ticked on our ‘to do’ list. We had no plans as such for dinner but after wandering aimlessly not too far from the hotel we settled at a quiet restaurant where the owner, sensing our uncertainty over the menu, offered to prepare something ‘off menu’. We agreed and he brought us a platter of meats, cheeses, breads, pickles, and salad to share. Perfect.
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Day 3 we planned to see the Trevi fountain and the Spanish Steps. An easy walk past the Pantheon, continuing North East to the Trevi. It’s busy, it’s always busy. It’s free. However, bide your time and you can gradually work your way to the bottom level and somewhere at least close to the centre from where you can take the photos. It’s the same at the Spanish Steps but climb to the church at the top for the views over the city rooftops.
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Both the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps are obviously two of the ‘must sees’ on the list when anybody visits Rome although in truth there are more worthwhile things to spend time on, such as the Domus Romane di Palazzo Valentini. The Domus Romane is an incredible Roman site found underneath the 16th century villa Palazzo Valentini, and located close to Trajan's Forum in the heart of what was once the centre of Imperial Rome.
This relatively new ancient site opened to the public in 2010 and is located close to Rome’s Piazza Venezia. It contains the remains of a Roman era house - or ‘Domus’ - dating to the imperial era and probably belonging to the wealthier elements of Roman society.

Visitors can explore all aspects of the ancient house, including the structure itself, the various chambers, living areas, bathrooms, kitchens, mosaics and even decorative wall frescoes - with the additional option of seeing it all brought back to life through a virtual journey. As well as the archaeological ruins themselves, the Domus Romane comes alive through a series of sophisticated light shows that recreate what the villas would have looked like.

For me, the Domus was the highlight of the day even though photographs weren’t allowed.

The Domus is situated close to the Vittorio Emanuele monument, a massive monolith named after the first king of united Italy. Look at it, admire it, photograph it, and move on. We ended up seeing it from several different vantage points without even trying; it’s that huge. As a bonus we still had time to revisit St.Peter's Church at the Vatican and, as suggested, the queues were minimal and we saw everything we wanted to without much of a wait.

Another evening, another restaurant. This time, a risotto restaurant run by a family for the past 33 years and who grow their own rice and also make their own wine.
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Day 4 of 5 had to be The Colosseum. We bought timed tickets at the hotel the day before and had a slot at 11:10. It is amazing how many people don’ buy in advance and who are prepared to queue for hours to buy their tickets before then queuing a bit longer with the tickets to get in.

Before making our way to the Colisseum we decided to take in the local market at Campo di Fiori. A matter of ten minutes from the hotel the market opens every morning and is predominantly Flowers, Fruit, Vegetables, Nuts, Cheeses and Condiments.
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It was a really hot day and the Colosseum is a fairly unforgiving place when it comes to exposure to the elements but the arena is another example of the astonishing history that makes up the city of Rome. It can be a bit of a procession walking around the levels from the top down to the bottom level but this world famous slice of roman history is another ‘must see’.
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Next door to the Colosseum are Palatine Hill and The Forum. Our tickets covered all three and on this occasion we decided to opt for The Forum as we could make it a part of the walk back towards Piazza Navona. Palatine Hill is supposed to be worth the time but we knew we couldn’t get all three banked so we made our way to and through The Forum. The history here is amazing but you need to take the time to realise it by reading the various information boards or taking an audio guide at the entrance. Aside from the buildings there are points of interest such as the place that Caesar was cremated (The place where Caesar was stabbed is close to Campo di Fiori).
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The weather took a turn while we were in The Forum. The sky gradually blackened, the lightning flashed and the thunder rolled around the seven hills. Accompanying the light show was a brief period of steady rain which we took cover from and then continued our walk past the Vittorio Emanuele monument (again!) and to the nearest coffee shop.
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We started the day at Campo di Fiori and before returning to the hotel we returned to the site of the morning market which was in the final stage of being cleaned up for the evening restaurant trade; a transformation that Campo di Fiori undergoes each and every day. There, we found a bar which happened to be showing the opening match of the 2018 World Cup. The bar wasn’t overly busy so two hours later ……………………………

In the evening we walked as far as Castel St.Angelo again to see it at night before turning back and finding a restaurant for our final evening meal of the trip.
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Our flight on the last day was a late one so we had an almost full day left to spend in Rome. The ‘to do’ list was almost fully ticked but we wanted to try and see the Capuchin Monks at the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto near Piazza Barberini and then if we have time the Church of San Clemente near the Colisseum.

The museum for the Capuchin Monks is quite bizarre, some would say macabre or even disturbing. The bones of Franciscan monks are arranged in forms of artwork along with some reconstructed as complete skeletons wearing the cloak of the order. I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy seeing it simply because it was so unusual.

With time running out and after a coffee we decided to get a taxi to the Church of San Clemente. Not realising that it would close for lunch we arrived with only about five minutes to spare. This was a shame because apart from the church being extremely old the existing church sits on top of an earlier church which has been opened up to the public. Unfortunately, the lunch break ran until 3 o’clock in the afternoon which was too late even for us o try and return later in the day.

Our walk back to Piazza Navona took us via the Pantheon where, close by, there is an ice cream shop to kill some time at, so we did. And so with ice cream suitably demolished we had a final look around the Pantheon and then took our time getting back to the Piazza and our hotel to collect the bags for the taxi journey to the airport.

It had been a really busy five days. Feet were hurting and wallet was aching - the cost of ticking that ‘to do’ list off!

Posted by david.byne 13:19 Archived in Italy Tagged bridges churches art buildings skylines night architecture rivers religion city Comments (0)

The Maldives - 2017

Baros, a little bit perfect

sunny 32 °C
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Our flight from Colombo in Sri Lanka to Male Maldives took less than ninety minutes. From Male we would then transit by speedboat to the island of Baros for four nights and days of unprecedented luxury following a busy 12 days touring Sri Lanka.

Met upon arrival at the airport our bags were swiftly removed from our keeping and placed invisibly on board our boat. All on board, we left the quayside at Male and moved towards the empty horizon. Quickly, it became apparent that all was not well and the pilot of our speedboat explained that he wasn’t happy with the gearbox and that we would be provided with a better vessel for our journey to Baros.
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Baros Maldives20170004


Within a few minutes a gleaming white boat with BAROS in Gold lettering on the side arrived and we transferred mid’ Indian Ocean to resume the 30 minute transfer. This time the boat purred and gradually accelerated to propel us through the water at speed until, with the jetty at Baros in clear view, we slowed to a sedate cruise until we pulled in and tied up.

Two members of the Baros staff were there to meet and greet us by name and escort us to Reception for check-in and a glass of ‘bubbles’. Our bags remained invisible until we reached our room a little later on.
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Baros Maldives20170091


With the arrival formalities completed we were then taken on a short tour of the facility by Fee (our Room Host) and by the time we reached our pre-selected water villa we knew precisely where the three restaurants were, where the pool was, where the gym, the spa, the marine centre, the boutique, the Sails Bar and the Palm Court area were. And we were in no doubt that nothing would be too much trouble.
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Baros Maldives20170158


At full occupancy Baros only accepts 150 guests to occupy the 300 staff. For our stay occupancy was at 50% (not high season). Everything was in our favour. The water villa was everything we had hoped for and, as we discovered, was constantly refreshed with fruit, water, tea, coffee and cookies.
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Baros Maldives20170252


The air conditioning in the room was very effective. Baros is as close as we had ever been to the Equator, just 4 degrees above, and it was very hot, even when cloudy but it didn’t matter as we literally had nothing to do for four days. Maybe a bit of reading, a visit to the Spa or the Gym, a Yoga Session or two, maybe some snorkelling and walks around the perimeter of the island; this took around ten minutes each time. Beyond all of that it was all about the relaxation, the food, the drink and the service.
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Baros Maldives20170198


The room appeared to be tidied almost every time we left it for a while, even to the extent that the towels were changed as many times as you used them during the day but the staff never interrupted your privacy to get their work done. Only at around 6 pm would you hear a knock on your villa door and it was the member of the service staff responsible for your villa asking if you needed your room tidied and checking that everything was ok.
Baros Maldives20170093

Baros Maldives20170093


Our third day on Baros was also our wedding anniversary (37th) and we started the day with a glass of sparkling wine with breakfast. Jan tried snorkelling and saw many fish including two bright Blue in colour that we were later told were Jack Fish. We walked clockwise around the island and took photos before stopping for a beer around lunchtime; something that had slotted nicely into our daily routine. We found no need for any lunch because breakfast was so good, as was the food in the evening. And with fruit in the room we simply didn’t need any more than half board in The Maldives.
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Baros Maldives20170258


Later that day we attended a Cocktail Party hosted by the management team on the island. This preceded dinner which we took at The Lighthouse Restaurant. All three restaurants are very good but The Lighthouse offers Gourmet Dining and scores just that bit higher than the other two. During the meal (which was fantastic) we were presented with a cake to mark our anniversary and a couple on the next table (whom we had spoken with very briefly) wanted to buy us a drink and a small bottle of champagne was delivered to our table. One of the starters that we ordered was cooked and flambéed at the table and while we ate our main courses an Eagle Ray swam past, then a smaller Ray followed by two small Black-Tipped Reef Sharks. Brilliant!!
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Baros Maldives20170269


It was a good day and a great evening and on return to the water villa the staff had been into the room again, delivered the cake back to the room, tidied up and decorated the bed with a ‘Happy Anniversary’ message written in palm leaves and flowers.

The following day was our final full day on Baros. It was very hot but after breakfast we decided to walk around the island again. We walked anti-clockwise this time, just to make it a bit different and we saw crabs, a chameleon-like lizard and some water fowl. We also saw Fruit Bats flying around the trees in the middle of the day. At the Marina Centre we stopped and chatted to one of the management team who had worked in Fiji, The Seychelles and The Maldives and as we stood there talking a small shark appeared close-by in the water.

Jan wanted to go snorkelling again and also spend some time in the pool. She also took some underwater video and saw lots of different shapes and colours of coral, a sea cucumber, lots of very tiny coloured fish plus some larger bright Blue and multi-coloured ones. We finished drying off by the Pool at The Lime Restaurant with a beer and spent time enjoying one of our final few hours looking at the colours of the reef and the Indian ocean.
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Baros Maldives20170151


A Fish BBQ was being held at the Palm Court area in the evening so we booked to attend that as an alternative to an evening meal at one of the restaurants. It turned out to be a lovely way to spend our final evening despite the threat of some rain. We had one or two brief downpours during our stay but it held off for the majority of this evening and when it did finally rain we had the Sails Bar to run to for cover. The food from the BBQ was really good and the candlelit setting under the palm trees made it special. We finished the night with a drink while chatting to Grenville (Thynne) and Raha (Saber) who had travelled from Dubai and who had bought us the champagne at our anniversary meal the night before.
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Baros Maldives20170096


It had been an outstanding few days on Baros and from being very much a one-off treat when we left the UK it has now been added to the ‘must go back’ list of destinations. Added to what was a busy couple of weeks in Sri Lanka the entire trip sits among the best holidays that we have ever had. Better start saving!!

Posted by david.byne 12:46 Archived in Maldives Republic Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises beaches trees animals birds night boats Comments (0)

Sri Lanka - 2017

It’s definitely not like India.

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Having spent an amazing holiday in Northern India back in 2014 thoughts for future trips had touched on Kerala in Southern India but we had a curiosity for the island of Sri Lanka and when it came to making a final decision we decided that Sri Lanka would probably offer us at least some of what we would experience in Kerala while at the same time tick another country off the bucket list.
So, with August being our only option for taking almost three weeks holiday, we climbed aboard the Sri Lankan Airlines plane at Heathrow bound for Colombo. Approximately 10 ½ hours later we were met and transferred on the very short journey to Negombo where we spent the rest of the day and our first night. Colombo and Negombo are both coastal and our hotel was right on the beach with the Indian Ocean crashing the life out of itself onto the rocks and sand. With time for a walk by the sea and another along the main road, stopping at a convenient bar along the way, it was a nice introduction to the island even though there really wasn’t sufficient time to unpack or even consider the hotel pool, despite the 30 degree heat.
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SriLanka20170005


After being extremely well fed at both dinner and then the following morning at breakfast we checked out and were met in the hotel lobby by Charma who was to be our driver and guide for the next 12 days.

Charma drove us to Habarana which took us several hours from the coast towards the centre of the island. On route we passed through areas farming rice, tobacco, mangos, coconuts, bananas and papayas while the landscape changed noticeably; something that would become a feature whenever we drove for two hours or more on Sri Lanka.

At Habarana, Cinammon Lodge would be our base for the next four nights. Set alongside a lake the grounds were extensive with the rooms being in separate units among trees and away from the Reception, Dining and Pool areas of the hotel. There is a nice walk alongside the lake and a cartload of Grey Monkeys are never too far away, often passing through the grounds ‘en masse’.
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SriLanka20170583


Charma did his best to point out anything of interest when we were driving between places and often stopped if he sensed our interest in anything particular. We stopped at both a Buddhist and Hindu temple but merely passed through the area at Kadjugama where the farmers were selling their Cashew Nuts at the roadside.

It was difficult not to start comparing our experience of India with what we were seeing in Sri Lanka but we soon decided that the two are very different and in no way did it ever feel like we were repeating something from three years before. It is true that there are as many Tuk-Tuk’s as there are in India but most look newer and in better condition. Also, the roads are better, life generally feels more orderly and organised, the towns and cities feel tidier and the climate slightly friendlier.

Charma was taking us to Polonnaruwa and as he drove pointed out two Jackals running across the road and he then pulled over to show us a couple of large Water Monitor’s, one of which emerged from a drain cover! Polonnaruwa is Sri Lanka’s answer to Angkor Wat in Cambodia; a huge site with numerous palaces, temples and other buildings and this was to be one of our first proper sightseeing stops of the holiday. It was hot but some of the buildings are well preserved and worth seeing despite the ongoing requirement to keep removing shoes before entering each temple.
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SriLanka20170323


You generally see and hear three languages written and spoken in Sri Lanka; Sinhala, Tamil and English. 70% of the population are Buddhist, 12% Hindu. 12% Christian and 6% Muslim and this is reflected in what you see as you drive around this country of varying landscapes. Sri Lanka has been described as a ‘flat country with hills’ and I understand why but there is still so much variety in both the hills and the valleys if you travel just for a few hours by car.

A key attraction for us in Sri Lanka was the opportunity to see Elephants in their natural habitat so we planned to visit two wildlife parks while we were there and the first was at Kaudulla. The Jeep picked us up from Cinammon Lodge at 1 o’clock in the afternoon and after about 45 minutes’ drive we entered the park. It was another half an hour or more before we arrived at the water hole which we reached by crossing a riverbed. We had seen several birds plus a number of water buffalo, monkeys, a chameleon and a crocodile before we had sight of our first elephant but once across the riverbed we soon reached the main herd grazing in the open land near the water hole. There were probably twenty or thirty in the group and then several more appeared from out of the jungle, close to our jeep. A fight broke out between two of the elephants in the first group with one or two more supporting the aggressor in seeing-off the offending elephant, leaving it isolated from the herd. The elephants nearest our jeep were simply munching their way through the grass towards the others at the water hole but without really ever getting there. One or two jeeps got a little too close to one of the infant elephants and this brought a reaction with the adult elephants closing ranks around the infant and one or two of the remaining adults making their presence and anger known audibly as they walked toward the vehicles. The drivers reversed ……… quickly!
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SriLanka20170682-2


It had been a great experience getting up close (but not too close) to these huge animals but we didn’t outstay our welcome and turned to make our way out of the park. But first we had to cross that riverbed. We were one of the first to leave to exit the park …… but not the first. And by the time we reached the point at which to cross the riverbed there were already two other jeeps well and truly STUCK! Continually trying to reverse and move forward made their plight obviously worse and before long more than half the wheels on their jeeps were invisible and buried in the soft mud. Our driver was confident however. After all, we had a 4-wheel drive jeep and those already stuck didn’t so we would just fly across and be back to the hotel before we knew it. Wrong! Despite the determination ours suffered the same fate and before long there were 5 or 6, maybe 7 jeeps dormant at different points, all seeking to conjure up a way of escaping before sunset. Fortune was eventually forthcoming when after a few failed attempts by others, another jeep arrived with a motorised cable winch onboard and gradually the vehicles were all recovered with the exception of the very first victim which stayed buried until the following morning.
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SriLanka20170734


The food and service at Cinammon Lodge was excellent and breakfast the following day set us up for the challenge of Sigiriya, the Lion Rock - once made famous by Duran Duran (remember them?). It’s 1,200 steps to the top although there is a halfway point where you can have a second thought if you wish. Having said that, when you get halfway the remaining climb doesn’t look so bad and the curiosity of what the views are like at the top can prove too much – and it did. It was worth it. You can see for miles and miles, a flat country with hills!
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SriLanka20170153


Adjacent to Cinammon Lodge is the entrance to trails that lead to villages and a large lake and what is being sold as a ‘village safari’ so we didn’t have far to travel from our hotel when Charma took us to spend around three hours sampling village and jungle life. We began with a tuk-tuk ride that went off-road and delivered us to a Bullock and Cart ride that carried us uncomfortably further into the jungle to a river. There we got into a canoe that merely took us to the other side of the river. From here we walked to the village and sampled freshly made Coconut Roti before moving on to another boat trip, this time onto a large lake full of water lilies and from where you could see Sigiriya in the distance. From the boat we walked further to another village and had lunch of Lentil Curry, Banana Flower Curry and Water before ending the visit back where we began, just around the corner from Cinammon Lodge.

It had been a busy few days so far in Habarana and we still had the Dambulla Cave and Golden Temple to see and this turned out to be another highlight of our holiday in Sri Lanka. Without knowing much about Dambulla before we left the UK we had been assured that it was well worth the steps that you have to climb to see it. The Golden Temple is at the bottom and you can see this from the roadside but the steps to the cave are accessed via a car park. We had seen some rain during the morning and it was threatening more as we started to climb. The weather was consistently warm but with the change in terrain there was often a hint of possible showers during the day and of course when it does decide to rain in these parts of the world, it really rains! Maybe not for long but it certainly lets you know it.
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SriLanka20170471


Grey Monkeys lined the wall of the steps as we made our way up to the cave. At the top it was fairly busy with Sri Lankan people queuing to make offerings to the priest. Others lit the Coconut Oil candles while some made their way to each of the accessible cave areas. It was still raining which made the removal of shoes at the entrance to the area suddenly more uncomfortable than usual. Regardless, we made our way to the series of caves. Each one was created in a different age but all depicted Buddha in a number of poses. The first cave was by far the oldest and the best. It was also the one that Sri Lankan people focussed primarily on to worship and pray.

Dambulla was clearly an important religious site for Sri Lankan Buddhists and our visit signalled the end of our stay in Habarana apart from an evening meal, a good night sleep and a breakfast. The following morning we travelled to Kandy where the weather is slightly cooler.

Kandy is a nice city in a picturesque valley which has at its focal point a large lake around which everything revolves. Our hotel was the Earls Regency, just outside Kandy but still within view of the lake. The Sri Lankan Cricket Team were staying at the same hotel and training there ahead of two One Day Internationals against India. Our prime objective when visiting Kandy was to see a bit of the city and the lake but also to visit the Temple of the Tooth. However, before that we attended a cultural show in the early evening, close to the temple.

As with similar shows all around the world the core of the event is singing and dancing and local musical instruments. Here in Kandy we also had ‘fire walking’ added to the programme. We had front row seats and on a day that had been warmed enough already by the sun the addition of petrol to the burning embers on the path of fire almost took your breath away. From the theatre we took the short walk to the Temple of the Tooth. It looked especially dramatic at night, lit up by both spotlights and also rows of Coconut Oil candles.

Shoes off again we ventured inside to where the ceremony was just beginning. People kept arriving and soon we were in the midst of quite a crowd albeit well placed near the front. Much drumming ensued and the participants including orange-clad Buddhist monks made their approach up a few steps to the large solid silver doors that confined the ornate box containing Buddha’s tooth. There is quite a story surrounding the tooth and a nationally famous elephant called Rajah for those that want to research it.
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SriLanka20170965


Once the various participants are inside and the doors are closed the focus switches to upstairs where all attendees file past a viewing point from where to view the tooth, making offerings as they so wish to the officials lined nearby to receive them. Filing past involved quite a bit of jostling for position and basically standing ones ground as everybody fought for a better view in the brief moment that you get as you are carried along on a constantly moving human tide.

Eventually we were out the other end to retrieve our shoes and take a slow walk through the exterior of the temple and back to the car. Our evenings in Sri Lanka were all ‘free time’ and the hotels were all very comfortable and relaxing environments to spend time in with a drink before resting for the following day. The Earls Regency Hotel was one of my favourites during the trip.

The next morning, after breakfast, we had a late start and then went back to the city to visit the Peredeniya Botanical Gardens. Not necessarily at the top of my own ‘must see’ lists I must say that these gardens were as good as I have ever seen anywhere. It will also be remembered for one of the most unexpected moments during the holiday. The weather was a bit unpredictable and it started to rain while we were in the Orchid House. After standing and trying to decide on the driest route through the gardens we agreed on a pathway and started walking. A few minutes later an English voice called out “Will you stop running away from us!”. We turned around and it was a couple (John and Megan) who we had spent time with on a holiday in China 12 months previously. It really can be a small world.
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SriLanka20171041


After spending an hour catching up with past acquaintances we met up again with Charma who declared that the rest of the day was ours and we could enjoy the pool at the hotel or basically do whatever we wanted. So, back at the hotel the Sri Lankan Cricket Team were in mid-training session in the pool so a book and a beer became the order of the day for a couple of hours while the Parakeets flew shuttle runs between the palm trees around the grounds of the hotel.

Nuwara Eliya and the Tea Plantations were our next destination. The town is the highest on the island and again, probably more predictably this time, the landscape and climate changed as we drove the two or three hours from Kandy. Gradually you climb higher and higher until you can literally be in the clouds. The area is dominated by tea with numerous plantations including substantial ones owned by the likes of Rothschild although the majority are now Sri Lankan owned. On the way we passed through various Hill Villages, saw many waterfalls including Ramboda Falls and stopped at one of the Tea Factories. It’s an interesting process and reminded us of the low quality ‘dust’ that we rely on in tea bags at home. Back outside and on the hills the female tea pluckers are busy at work accumulating the 10kgs of leaves that they need in their sack each day to satisfy their employers. Often from the North of the country the women have accommodation as part of their remuneration which obviously lasts for as long as they stay in work.
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SriLanka20171157


Our hotel in Nuwara Eliya was the Heritance Tea Factory; literally a converted Tea Factory which still had some of the original features and working machinery. Set high in the hills, the views from the hotel are impressive and acted as the backdrop to a spectacular electric storm on our second night there. It still operates a small tea processing factory in a separate building and produces the tea served in the hotel from the leaves plucked from its own fields. Occasionally during the day we would hear a tune moving through the area. It turned out to be a larger version of a tuc-tuc selling breads and rolls from the local bakery.

Being slightly isolated at the Tea Factory, you really have to drive into the town for any activity and this is what we did. Charma drove us and we spent an hour or so just looking around the shops and the market. In addition to tea a huge quantity of vegetables is grown in this area and that was evident. Some of the buildings have more than a hint of British Colonialism about them, especially the Post Office and two large hotels at the back of the town. And judging by the amount of construction work underway Nuwara Eliya gives the impression of being a currently prosperous and upwardly mobile part of Sri Lanka.

We also spent an hour at Gregory Lake, a popular spot with locals who queue up for rides on a jetski. There was also a fair in place when we were there so it was generally quite busy despite the low cloud that suddenly engulfed the area and marked the end of our walk and time there. So, back to the hotel we went.

Following the storm the previous night the sky was much clearer and brighter when we woke up next morning - a relief as we had a long drive to Yala with an important stop along the way. We aimed to be at the Elephant Transit Centre at Udawalawe by midday to see the elephants being fed. This meant that Charma had to put his foot down a little while also allowing for the occasional photo stop. Through changing terrain and scenery we descended from the mountains toward what are the dry plains of the south. In some areas the hills, mountains and forests were reminiscent of Germany before the landscape changed again to a dry, sandy colour that made you think more of parts of Africa.

The transit centre was supported by the Born Free Foundation which kind of validated it in our minds. We arrived with about ten minutes to spare; well done Charma!! A purpose made platform was already well-filled with spectators (almost all Sri Lankan people) but we found a position from where we could see the elephants and take our photos. The elephants were allowed in to the feeding area in threes or fours. The first to be fed was an adult elephant that had featured on a BBC documentary just months before our visit. He had injured his foot and eventually had to have it amputated but had been given an artificial one that enabled him to walk around. Because of his condition he would never, unlike the others at the transit home, be eventually released back to the wild and he would spend the majority of his time in relative isolation away from the group simply for his own protection.
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SriLanka20171447-2


More and more were slowly moved through the feeding area. One over-enthusiastic baby elephant threw himself over the feeding gate in his frenzy to get at the milk being issued through a hose into their mouths. Lying in a heap on the wrong side of the feeding shed the greedy little ‘elly’ picked himself up and was ushered towards the water hole where those that had been suitably topped-up went next to wallow in the water and mud. It was a highly entertaining hour and by the end there must have been around 40 elephants in the area.

Moving on, we still had a little way to go before arriving at Cinammon Wild, our next hotel inside the Yala Wildlife Park. The rooms are small chalets scattered around an area in the park a little way from the main reception, dining and pool areas. You really are in the animals’ backyard at Cinammon Wild and one of the first things you see is the warning about crocodiles living in the vicinity. When checking-in you are also told that after dark you must not walk between the main hotel building and your room without an escort from the hotel. All of this focuses the mind on the dangers from not just the crocodiles but also the wild boar, the elephants, the monkeys and the water buffalo.
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SriLanka20171535


We were at Yala for two nights and had booked a half-day safari during our stay. The pool area looked out onto a large water hole which contained a few dead-looking trees and some large boulders (a feature of Sri Lanka it seemed). The water levels weren’t especially high and this created a currently arid water-bed around what was the water hole, allowing the brave or foolhardy that chose to ignore the crocodile warning the opportunity to get a bit closer to whatever was residing in and around the water. We saw Grey Monkeys, Chipmunks, Water Buffalo, Wild Boar, Crocodiles, Pelicans, and more, all without leaving the hotel. On one occasion the monkeys temporarily took over the pool area, scavenging whatever they could from the visitors.

We survived the night without incident or intrusion from the wildlife and had the morning free again to explore the nearby water hole. Four crocodiles basking on an island in the water hole, several water buffalo nearby and numerous birds either flying around or lazing on the water. All of this plus a chapter or two of a book by the pool took us through to lunch, then, it was time for the safari.

We at least didn’t have to travel far. Our Jeep picked us up from the hotel and we drove for 40 minutes or so and turned onto a long straight road, across a bridge over water, past an elephant posing for visitors and into the rough, uneven roads that mark the start of the wildlife park. Again, we chose the later safari rather than the sunrise option. This was on the advice that the majority of the animals stay well-hidden until the day warms up. Certainly we couldn’t complain about the numbers we had so far seen.
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SriLanka20171559


We had around three hours in the park and left as the sun was setting and the shadows were long. More crocodiles, mongoose, monkeys, buffalo, deer, lots of elephants and many different birds including both Blue and Green Bee Eaters and the Asian Paradise Fly Catcher. Our driver received a message about a leopard at a water hole and sped along the dusty track to get there but alas we were five minutes too late. We stayed for around 20 minutes at the hole to see if the big cat would return but of course he didn’t. However, it had been a really good day.
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SriLanka20171652


We had one more area to visit on our trip around Sri Lanka; namely Galle. Different again, Galle is on the coast and a key area for fishing. It was hot, around 37 degrees with 70% humidity. Our hotel, The Fortress, was possibly my favourite during our trip to Sri Lanka. Located in Koggala, just outside Galle, we arrived early afternoon and checked in to one of just 53 rooms in what is a huge building in a lovely location. In some ways, the trip had gone full circle with the Indian Ocean once again, as it did in Negombo, crashing against the rocks and sand to the rear of the hotel. We had some free time and made the most of the facilities with the pool and sunbeds complemented by being able to watch the turtles swimming and feeding close to shore on the seaweed between the rocks. The weather was changeable but it made for nice sunsets against which the silhouette of a single stilt fisherman stood out in the near distance.
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SriLanka20171796


After breakfast the following day Charma drove us to Galle where we did some sightseeing around Galle Fort and the adjacent lanes. We visited the Dutch Church, walked the ramparts and stopped on a couple of occasions for a drink over the space of a couple of hours. Back at The Fortress Hotel we enjoyed yet another great meal and sat watching the Indian Ocean again while the largest Bat (a Fruit Bat) either of us had ever seen flew over our heads. It marked the beginning of the end to our Sri Lankan holiday.
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SriLanka20171866


Charma had been great for us during our stay and while in the area stopped at another temple, a Sri Lankan boatyard, Weligama Bay to see the stilt fisherman and an area that had suffered during the 2004 tsunami where we saw a memorial to those that had died as a result. He had also had a tough time personally during our 12 days together with his 3-year old son first breaking his arm falling from his bike and requiring an operation and then being diagnosed with Dengue Fever. He was worried for several days and took a couple of bus rides back to Colombo during the evenings from wherever we were to be with his family but he was always back promptly the following morning to help us enjoy our day. He also had to quickly break to avoid a pedestrian suddenly walking in front of the car as we headed south towards the end of our stay. Two policeman on motorbikes happened to be nearby and had they not seen that he was totally not to blame for the incident he could have suffered an automatic 14 days in prison, regardless of nobody being hurt in any way. He was quite shaken up and equally relieved at the outcome. Charma was a big part of what had been a really top holiday on the island of Sri Lanka.
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SriLanka20171758


Charma’s final task was to drive us the following morning along the new and very impressive Southern Expressway to Colombo Airport from where we were due to catch a flight to Male and The Maldives for a few days. The Expressway left a good impression of the country as had the previous 11 or 12 days. And it definitely isn’t India.

Posted by david.byne 12:23 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged landscapes waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises mountains lakes beaches churches buildings trees animals birds sky boats architecture city Comments (0)

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