A Travellerspoint blog

June 2011

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 13:00 Archived in Turkey Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises bridges churches art buildings people Comments (0)

Che, Cigars & Salsa

Caribbean Culture

all seasons in one day -28 °C
View Cuba 2010 on david.byne's travel map.

It’s a 9 hour flight from London to Havana and we landed at 4:30 in the afternoon at Jose Marti International Airport. Entry into Cuba was interesting and had similarities with Passport Control at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport many years ago. But after much examination of the passport, the door into Havana was opened and then quickly slammed shut as each individual passed through, leaving whomever you were travelling with to take their turn out of both sight and earshot. Eventually, the door opens again, thankfully to admit the face you were expecting rather than a stranger which, in such an unfortunate event, would beg the question, “Where the hell…..?”

Luggage Reclaim was more of a challenge than at many other places. Firstly, identifying the correct carousel for your flight was more intuitive. Secondly, a baggage handler was busily removing bags and creating a random pile alongside. And, if you took your eye away from the bags as they entered the scene on one of two separate carousels, yours could easily be ‘selected’ for removal onto the airport floor. Anyway, we got lucky and were soon off to find the Travel Rep and then the air conditioned coach as the temperature quickly felt Caribbean.

The journey from the airport to our hotel took 30 minutes. The Parque Central Hotel in the middle of Havana was to be our home for the first five nights before travelling four hours further down the island to the coastal city of Trinidad – a world heritage site - for the second half of the holiday.

There was little left of the day on the Sunday but we walked as far as the Capitolio and then back to stroll down the Boulevard Prado to El Malecon. And despite more ambitious ideas earlier, our evening meal turned out to be little more than a pizza on the roof of the hotel!

Most of what we wanted to do we knew in advance. Tuesday became fully booked with Vinales Valley taking up the day and the Buena Vista Social Club providing the entertainment in the evening. We decided that Tropicana would be a good place to eat and spend our last evening in Havana, on the Thursday.

With all of the planning and organising taken care of we headed off in a taxi to Revolution Square to see a huge memorial to that man Jose Marti as well as the distinct outlines of both Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on the buildings at the far side of the Plaza. Plaza de la Revolucion is basically a huge square where thousands of people can gather for whatever reason Cuba sees fit and it exposed us for the first time to the heat of the day. Having seen all there was to see in Revolution Square we slumped into one of Cuba’s novelty Coco-Taxi’s to get ourselves back to the Capitolio, the focal point building in central Havana. Looking very much like Cuba’s own version of the White House the Capitolio provided us with a backdrop to our first real sight of the classic old American cars whose lives have somehow been extended by a combination of the favourable climate and the resourcefulness of Cuban mechanics. A walk around the perimeter of the Capitolio uncovered what looked like an old train scrap yard. There was also one of Havana’s premier cigar factory’s (El Partegas), a fairly major bus stop, and the edge of downtown Havana and its Chinatown district.

Cuba_SF__20100405_007

Cuba_SF__20100405_007

And it was here, close to the entrance to Chinatown, that we stopped for a drink ….. and also where we met Fernando. The bar was very ‘local’ and a drink was all we wanted but our waiter who spoke excellent English engaged us in conversation for the next half an hour and concluded with an offer of dinner with him (Fernando) and his wife that evening. Having researched Cuba I knew of the likelihood of this kind of offer as Cubans, some legally and some illegally (i.e. licensed and unlicensed), trade their hospitality for extra cash to try and bridge the economic gap between the real cost of an average living and the combination of state rations and a low personal income. So, we agreed that at 7 o’clock that evening we would get a taxi the short distance to Fernando’s home.

But before that, we headed for the streets and sights of Old Havana to see the old squares - Plazas Vieja, San Francisco and de las Armas. We set off on foot through the city in the direction of the port, passing La Floridita (one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bars). A glimpse inside the door showed it was far too busy – “we’ll come back” we thought.

The streets of Havana, with a few exceptions, are very rundown and in much need of repair and renovation. This process is happening but slowly. In its own modest way it’s a busy, bustling city but, with the equivalent of the population of London spread out over an island almost equal in size to the UK, the volumes of both people and traffic make life comfortable almost all of the time. Money is scarce and, with government controls being the way they are, Cuba has by default become a comparatively eco-friendly country with horses and bicycles used for private and public transport. Coco Taxis, powered by what is basically a small motor bike, exist mainly for the benefit of tourists whilst almost every car that you see can double as a taxi (official or unofficial) if required. Cuba is a third world country and with it comes a few idiosyncrasies that the eager tourist must make allowances for. It strikes me that it’s similar to Spain maybe forty years ago when you couldn’t guarantee running water every day and the shelves in the shops displayed little variety and were half-empty. So don’t be surprised if sometimes things fall short of your usual expectations.

Accepting the invitation to Fernando’s house for dinner was maybe a gamble but in hindsight it was nothing other than a safe decision. We spent around two hours talking about things Cuban over dinner and drinks. It was fun to talk football, basketball, education and life in general although Fernando’s wife spoke no English and so her contribution was mainly culinary but we left with a gift of three cigars plus a simple, unplanned and memorable experience in exchange for a financial donation that was gratefully received by our hosts. Fernando’s subtle reluctance to see us out as far as the street confirmed my suspicions that his was of the ‘unlicensed’ type of Casa Particular. Our relatively short walk back to Parque Central was easy and uneventful; in stark contrast to what had been a busy first full day in Havana.

It was an early start for us on the Tuesday. We needed to be ready for the journey to Vinales Valley by 7:30. With the Buena Vista Social Club already pencilled in for the evening it was going to be a long day. Vinales was a 2 ½ hour bus ride and on route we stopped to see a Cigar Factory, Tobacco Farm and the local caves as well as the Valley of Vinales. And contrary to what some of the guidebooks had said about the food in Cuba, we found the standards to be more than acceptable. The visit to Vinales included a lunch and being so early in the holiday we were slightly dubious about what would be set before us but there was no need to worry; and that proved to be the case for the rest of our stay in Cuba.

Cuba_SF__20100406_073

Cuba_SF__20100406_073

Back in Havana we found ourselves on a strict deadline to get to the Havana Club Bar and Museum in Old Havana, close to the commercial port. The Buena Vista Social Club was founded in the thirties and has gained a worldwide reputation for its brand of Cuban music and song. The original members have almost all since passed away but the existing participants have managed to maintain the high standards set by their predecessors. A couple of Cuban dancers added a touch of Salsa to the ongoing efforts of the various singers and musicians until midnight when after several Mojito’s we exited the door of the Havana Club Bar straight into an always available and very reasonable taxi that took us back to Parque Central for one more drink before bed.

The following morning we wanted to take the small ferry across Havana Bay. Another taxi ride down to the port, we managed to find the ferry ‘terminal’, bought our tickets, had our bags searched and stepped onto the boat. The rusty, flat-bottomed boat eventually chugged into action for the short ten minute crossing. Two places separated by even the smallest stretch of water can have a totally different feel and atmosphere. We had left behind the busyness of the city and disembarked on the eastern side of the bay in an area of almost total peace and quiet. But the sun was relentless as we walked up the hill to the fortress area and to Che Guevara’s house, now a museum. Perched high, next to the large statue of Christ, Che's house overlooked the bay and old Havana. The chance to see the various Che artefacts, photographs and personal belongings were well worth the effort and Che Guevara, as you quickly discover, is a hugely significant figure in Cuba - for an Argentinian!

Cuba_SF__20100407_118

Cuba_SF__20100407_118

Che’s house was a ten minute walk from the fortress which was then a further ten minutes to the lighthouse. We laboured in the heat around the old military fort which covered a large area on this eastern side of the bay and walking around the lanes within the grounds soon became quite draining so eventually we found the one and only place where we could buy a drink and, amazingly, we were the only customers. One Buccanero beer later and then another and we decided to get back over to the main part of the city. Could we find a taxi? It’s simple in Cuba, speak to anybody and they will get you a taxi. Whether it’s a proper taxi or more likely a friend with a car who will give you a lift for a fee often remains to be seen. This time, it was definitely a friend with a car; an old American car, a knackered old American car with a crack across half of its windscreen but then this is Cuba, the land of MoT’s and regular servicing, I think not!

The car took us back across and we had a short walk from where we got out to Plaza de San Francisco. From here, we ventured into Plaza Vieja, Plaza de las Armas and also the Cathedral. Lunch and Mojito’s were taken at La Bodeguita del Medio and we poked our noses into the Hotel Ambos Mundo (another Hemingway favourite).

The stroll back towards Parque Central somehow seemed longer due to the heat of the day. And by the time we La Floridita it was time for a drink and this time there was plenty of room at the bar. Two Daquiri’s each and an hour later we made our way back to the hotel, having decided by then that we would eat that evening in the Restaurante del Oriente down in Plaza de San Francisco. The remainder of the afternoon was spent on the roof of the hotel by the pool with a book and in the hot tub.

The Restaurante del Oriente was one of Havana’s more upmarket eateries. We knew in advance so were well prepared for the expense but it’s nice to do it at least once each holiday. And so we did. Afterwards we walked around some of Old Havana at night before finishing in the bar at the hotel with yet another different cocktail.

The following day, Thursday, was our last full day in Havana and there were still a few places to see. First was the the city’s cemetery. It is huge and worth stopping for half an hour or so. The Cementario Colon contained a mixture of the small and regular at one end of the scale and the huge and ornate at the other end. Tombs belonging to famous Spanish and Cuban families with their own security systems sit alongside, as an example, a pyramid (resembling a small model of those in Giza, Egypt). Much visited is La Milagrosa, the grave of Senora Amelia Goyra who died in childbirth at the beginning of 20th century. Mother and Child are said to have been buried side by side but when the coffin was subsequently opened the baby’s body was found in its mother’s arms. [In Havana, the bodies of the poor are allowed to be buried in the most prominent area of the cemetery for two years and they are then removed and reburied in smaller concrete ‘municipal’ caskets in a secluded and largely unvisited part of the grounds.]

From here, we hailed one of Havana’s smarter looking taxi’s which took us to the Callejon de Hammel - a tiny side street that has been given over by the Cuban government to artists and sculptors and the entire street is a work of art. It is very much ‘downtown’ Havana and far from a typical tourist destination. Because of that were a curiosity but never felt threatened in any way so we took our photographs and moved on. From here, we headed for the El Malecon promenade and on to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a huge edifice and one of Havana’s top hotels. It overlooks the sea from its raised position and whilst the location isn’t ideal for getting about easily and sightseeing, the facilities in the hotel are first class so a drink in the garden overlooking the Caribbean was well in order.

Cuba_SF__20100408_216

Cuba_SF__20100408_216

The Cuban sun was on maximum again and Plaza de San Francisco was simply too far to contemplate walking. Therefore, our contribution to the Taxi Driver’s Fund continued to increase. Next on the list was the covered Craft Market down by the waterfront. This was further away than we thought and we needed the help of a member of staff at the nearby Hotel Santander to locate it.

I rarely expect much from local markets aside from the chance to exercise the camera but the Havana craft market solved a few 'Gift' problems and we spent some of our Convertible Cuban Pesos (CUC).

On our way back towards Old Havana we stopped at the Hotel Santander for a drink; our way of repaying the assistance given earlier which helped us find the craft market. From here it was an easy stroll back through Old Havana – in my opinion the most relaxing area in the city, full of colour and easy on both the eyes and the senses. Clearly, this is where most of the investment has been made to-date in the huge refurbishment project that exists.

We stopped for lunch at the Café El Escorial in Plaza Vieja and then set about finding one of the old casa’s that are open to the public in this part of the city, La Casa de Africa. Essentially, this is an example of a large traditional Cuban residence that has been transformed into a museum. The exhibits majored on Santeria, a religion estimated to still being practised by up to 65% of the population, and walking around the casa for a while certainly added another piece to the Cuban cultural jigsaw that we were slowly piecing together.

Cuba_SF__20100408_248

Cuba_SF__20100408_248

This was to be our last experience of the sights and sounds of Old Havana and we made our way back up through the distressed backstreets including the now familiar “O’Reilly”, a street that we almost always found on our way back to without even trying. And we knew that if we kept walking we would eventually see the dome of El Capitolio before arriving at the junction close to La Floridita, a stones throw from our hotel.

The pool and the hot tub on the roof of the Hotel Parque Central now seemed a good fit for the rest of the afternoon.

We had booked an evening meal at Tropicana Club before the 2 hour show. Tropicana has been operating since 1939 and is located on the south western outskirts of the city so we allowed time for the 30-minute taxi ride. Our taxi driver, Javier, offered to be outside waiting for us after the show had ended and did so without payment in advance so we readily agreed. Isn't trust a great thing!!??

The show at Tropicana was something else that simply had to be done. And I’m pleased to say that it was more classy and traditional than typically tourist and splashing out on both the meal beforehand and front row seats proved to be money well spent.

Cuba_SF__20100409_276

Cuba_SF__20100409_276

Afterwards, as promised, Javier was outside waiting for us and half an hour later we were back at the bar in the Parque Central with the free cigar and the remains of the bottle of Havana Club Rum that came as part of the ticket at Tropicana.

With each day full to bursting, getting a good night’s sleep was never a problem in Havana but there were still a few boxes to tick on Friday morning before we checked out and set off for Trinidad. So, with breakfast regretfully finished for the final time we targeted the Revolution Museum which was within easy walking distance of the hotel. We loitered around what we thought was marked as the entry gate until the published opening time of 10 a.m. before being chased away by a taxi driver for taking photographs of his shiny black Cadillac! We then walked around the opposite side of the building and found a small queue of people that looked promisingly like they were buying tickets – and they were. Inside the building there were various posters confirming the past relationship between Cuba and Russia; caricatures of George Bush I, Ronald Reagan and Batista in what translated to be ‘Cretins Corner’, and a mock-up of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos thrashing through the jungle on a mission. Outside, there was an area given over to former military aircraft (well, bits of it anyway), vessels and vehicles used in conflict plus the actual boat with the slightly strange name “Granma” which Fidel used to journey into Cuba and kick-start the revolution. Next to all of this was an eternal flame, now a fairly common worldwide symbol used in memory of those lost in major battles.

Aware of our 2 o’clock taxi ride, we still had time to call in at the Hotel Sevilla for a drink. The Sevilla has a bit of history including being a base location for the film ‘Our man in Havana’. But we had time only for a drink and a snack; we sat in the courtyard café area and listened to yet another Cuban band. Around us, the walls had framed photographs of their celebrity visitors including Al Capone who apparently occupied the entire 6th Floor during his stays.

The journey down to Trinidad was largely uneventful with much of the four hour journey being undertaken on a long, straight concrete road that I guess would be regarded as a motorway if you ignore the fact that people stand in the slow lane waving and hoping either to sell you something or alternatively to hitch a ride. The occasional bush growing through the concrete in the middle lane also presented an interesting challenge.

Cars, or rather powered transport generally, are owned usually by necessity or not at all in Cuba. Fuel is relatively expensive and the Cuban people rely heavily on each other for many things and this includes stopping to help those that need to get from A to B. Consequently, spare seats in any vehicle are regarded as a waste and it was difficult not to feel slightly guilty about the extra space that we enjoyed on our journey from Havana to Trinidad.

On route we travelled through the outskirts of Cienfuegos, a major city compared to the various towns that quickly came and went along the way as we exited the motorway and found rural Cuba. We switched from the foothills on one side of the Escambray mountains to the other and soon we could see the sea. And after precisely four hours travelling we arrived at Las Brisas del Mar.

Saturday was to be our first real day of relaxation. Nothing to do, precisely as planned! After tolerating breakfast we made our way to the beach to try and lay claim to a small square of sand to call our own for the day and, the best surprise ever, we had it just about all to ourselves. Did I pay extra for this? It was magic! Yard upon yard of Caribbean coastline with barely another soul in sight. And that was it until lunchtime when there was little fear about losing our place under the three palms that now felt almost legally ours!

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Cuba_SF__20100410_339

More beach time after lunch before dinner and then tomorrow we head for the mountains!

Just like the journey down from Havana to Trinidad, the two hour drive into the mountains provided an insight into Cuban life and how tough things are for the people. The roads in places were close to impassable but weren’t regarded as a problem by Eduardo, our driver, who incidentally had flown MIG 21’s during the Bay of Pigs conflict. Oscar did his best to point out certain things along the way including the comon Turkey Vulture. They quite simply dominate the skies in rural Cuba, their large wingspan enabling them to glide lazily to the extent that they can apparently go without food for up to three weeks.

The attractive skies over Cuba had been a feature since our arrival. Rarely cloudless, for all of its sunshine and warmth, the Cuban countryside remains Green and gets its fair share of rain at almost anytime of the year. We finally reached our destination high up in the Escambray Mountains where we had an hour walking with Oscar followed by lunch in a small restaurant. Along the way Oscar pointed out the various birds and trees that were around and explained some of the ways in which the Cuban people make use of the natural resources available. Cuban people are especially resourceful; they have to be.

At the highest point of the walk we reached a series of waterfalls and relaxed until the idea of lunch slowly became increasingly attractive and our small group - the two of us, Oscar and a family of three also from the UK – made their way back down the narrow, stepped pathway until we eventually returned to the restaurant area.

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Cuba_SF__20100411_356

Don’t kid yourself that the choice of food in these circumstances is endless. Far from it, but it is certainly acceptable and better than we were led to believe before we arrived in Cuba. Us five Brits sat together and compared notes on Cuba in general until it was time to move on again. But we didn’t have to go far before Oscar pointed us in the general direction of more waterfalls and said that we only had forty minutes because the weather was starting to close in and it would be dangerous to travel back along the mountain roads to Trinidad in bad weather. Forty minutes turned out to be just enough time to walk to the bottom, take photographs and then retreat before being totally eaten alive by over-attentive mosquitoes.

The clouds certainly looked as if they were warming up to deliver something big but we travelled back safely to Trinidad and only met with the rain as we were passing through the City on our way back to Las Brisas. We had organised with Oscar that he would take us on a walking tour of Trinidad the following morning and promised that we would give him some of the things that we had brought to Cuba for the children that we had seen during our trip into the mountains.

We met Oscar as planned in the lobby of the Las Brisas at 8:30. He had bad news. He was unable to do the walking tour of Trinidad because he was required for a trip back into the mountains again. It was a shame but he explained that we should meet Juan Carlos at a hotel in the centre of Trinidad and there we were introduced to Lazaro who was to be our guide for the morning tour. Lazaro was a totally different character to Oscar. More quietly spoken but like Oscar very good with English (and four other languages) and we stood in the square outside the hotel listening to him explain some of the early history of Trinidad before we set off on the walk.

It took about two hours as we strolled through the aged streets that still showed the scars of past hurricane damage. You could feel the stresses and strains of living in somewhere like Trinidad, even compared to Havana which, because of its city status, has benefits that the more rural parts of Cuba don’t.

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Cuba_SF__20100412_381

We stopped for a drink with Lazaro and watched a Cuban band and dancers for half an hour and then visited the History Museum. We also stopped at an Art Museum and met the Artist who happened to be at home. Some of her work was really different and I could have been tempted if the price and logistics of getting something like that home safely had been right, but they weren’t.

We ended the tour, tipped Lazaro and thanked him for his time and then it was back for lunch before heading to the beach and 'our' palm tree.

The following day, our last in Trinidad, was set aside to do absolutely nothing other than read and lie under our tree drinking. Only Santa Clara had so far eluded us. This would have been a bit of a shame really because it was the scene of a significant action led by Che Guevara that was key to victory and as a result the city of Santa Clara is dominated by Che’s influence. With the help of our local rep Juan Carlos we were luckily still able to get there.

Juan Carlos had been organising our transfer back to Havana Airport and suggested that if we still wanted to see Santa Clara then we could instead leave earlier and divert to Santa Clara on route to Havana – so this is what we agreed to do.

A part of me was hoping we might see a storm during our time in Cuba. It’s usually really good for photographs and midway through the afternoon, we noticed that the peaks of the not too distant Escambray Mountains had partially disappeared. Soon after, the skies over Trinidad city darkened significantly as a band of heavy cloud rolled over towards the coast – and towards us.

The cloud cover was slowly working its way towards us, creating this ‘half dark-half light’ effect over the area, but eventually we conceded defeat and left our tree for the final time. By the time we got back to the room it had started to rain and within five minutes our balcony was flooded. The “all-weather” Turkey Vultures continued to glide their way around the resort looking down on those who had less durability but the interruption provided us with a chance to think about packing.

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Cuba_SF__20100412_409

Organised for the journey home as much as we could be, it was time for either a cocktail or a beer before our evening meal. On our final night we decided to splash out on the lobster. There was a small price to pay for those who wanted it but it was the final proper meal of the holiday so we decided to have it.

The final day; we had breakfast early before checking out and meeting the taxi for the journey back to Havana airport via Santa Clara. Different roads and different scenery. Our driver for the day was the same one that had taken us into Trinidad for our walking tour and delivered us back to Las Brisas on Monday. His English was verging on non-existent so a little bit of Spanish helped break the silence along the way.

We then encountered one of those ‘National Geographic moments that you simply don’t see every day. Playa Ancon was fast disappearing behind us and following the coastline the road ahead gradually changed from sunlit Grey to a mottled Red colour. And for the next two or three kilometres the tarmac had literally become a pedestrian crossing for Red Crabs, crawling in both directions from and to the beach which was on our left hand side with trees and countryside on our right. There must have been hundreds of thousands of them braving the walk and some stopping defiantly (or maybe in surrender), raising their front claws as the car slowly approached.

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Cuba_SF__20100414_415

Despite our driver taking as much care with both speed and direction to avoid them, you couldn’t miss the sound of crunching shell under the wheels of our taxi. Not that the Turkey Vultures were complaining! He explained that this happens during one week in every year, usually in April. This crustacean massacre was soon behind us and we pushed on to Santa Clara.

As you get nearer and nearer to Santa Clara, images of Che become more prominent and more regular. On billboards, hand-drawn on walls, and also in more general references to the Argentinian revolutionary who died in Bolivia on a mission in 1967; Che Guevara was Santa Clara’s claim to fame.

The floodlights of what looked like a sports stadium turned out to be the lights around the Plaza de la Revolucion which was to be our first stop of the day. Che’s statue stood at the top of the square looking over the marble seating area used by Fidel, Raul and other dignitaries during national parade’s and similar such occasions.

The area directly behind the statue led to the museum and also the room where Che was buried. We were limited on time as we had another stop to make in Santa Clara before we aimed for the airport but we made the most of what there was to see in the museum. And the tomb with Che, his colleagues and the eternal flame was a fairly quick walkthrough; in one door and out of another.

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Cuba_SF__20100414_424

We finally persuaded our driver to take us to the site where Che derailed the enemy train and its carriages; something regarded as a significant action in the war effort and a major contributor to ultimate victory. It's in an open area on a main road and by a railway crossing of the still used railway track and it didn't take long to look around. And before leaving I went and bought two bottles of water; one for us and one for our driver who was visibly struggling with the heat. It was important to look after him – we still had a three hour journey to make.

We drove through the centre of Santa Clara on our way out of the city and, as far as seeing Cuba was concerned, we were effectively at the end of our holiday. We arrived at Jose Marti Airport in good time but only to find that our flight had already been delayed by a couple of hours. The delay soon became four hours and our plane took off at 11 o’clock that evening rather than 7.

We were woken at about 11 am UK time (we originally should have landed at 09:30) by the Captain’s announcement apologising for the extra time that the flight was taking. The reason – a volcanic ash cloud that was drifting over the UK from Iceland. It turned out to be genuine. Our pilot was still ‘hoping’ to be able to land in the UK and was going as quickly as he could but there was a chance that we could be diverted. As it happened, we got down just before the UK airports were closed.

Cuba was just about everything we expected and maybe even a little more. I don’t think that I fully appreciated the extent of disrepair and poverty that we would encounter on the trip. But like in many other countries around the world that have similar and sometimes worse living conditions and quality of life, the people in Cuba put on a brave face and rise above their ‘below average’ situation, making the most of what they have, accepting that they cannot as individuals change things, and instead simply try to enjoy life in the best way that they can. Their enthusiasm to help others has been fine tuned now that tourism, a feature of Cuban life only since 1992, has become a vital part of the island’s economy.

Posted by david.byne 11:31 Archived in Cuba Tagged waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises mountains beaches bridges buildings people trees birds sky planes boats Comments (0)

Hardships and Smiles

The Green Country

all seasons in one day -32 °C
View Vietnam & Cambodia 2011 on david.byne's travel map.

South East Asia was definitely new territory for us. We arrived in Hanoi (6 hours ahead of British time) at around 1 o’clock on the Saturday lunchtime to be greeted by the first of the excellent guides supplied by ‘Live Vietnam’. His name was Chung and he would look after us until we departed for Sapa.

Vietnam_1_Hanoi (3)

Vietnam_1_Hanoi (3)

Chung’s main task of this first day was to get us to our hotel, the Flower Garden in the old quarter of Hanoi. Dominated by scooters and mopeds, Hanoi is a busy, bustling city and the hotel bar offered our first street-side view of life in Vietnam as the camera clicked into action for the first time. We didn't venture far on our first day but in the time we had spare after arriving we took our lives in our own hands and walked to the end of the road and around the corner of what was an amazingly busy part of the city. But in that short walk you suddenly started to feel the culture and the way of life in this part of the world. Street traders - some on foot carrying baskets of fruit or vegetables hanging off either end of a length of bamboo slung over one shoulder and some perched on tiny plastic stools leaning over small cookers preparing various street foods for regular customers and passers-by. Almost all of these customers and passers-by appeared alongside on either a bike or a scooter and whose numbers overwhelmed the city, outnumbering cars by what appeared to be 40 or 50 to 1. With them came the obvious noise and feeling of a place that never rests. The sound and movement were constant features of our time in the cities as was the constant reminder of how Health & Safety conscious we have become in the UK - to an extreme. As an example, motor cyclists; either those wearing no crash helmet at all or the conformists who have been out and bought the flimsiest looking protective helmet that they then proceed to wear over the top of their baseball cap. Often two to a bike, or three, or even four! Young children at the front with hands firmly on the handlebars, Dad sitting right behind and in control (presumably!) and then, between him and Mum will be another child, to complete the family ride through the busy streets of Hanoi; and indeed the same would apply to Hue or Ho Chi Minh City as we would later discover. Some Vietnamese, both women and some men, cover their faces when out in the traffic to greater and lesser extents and we found out that this wasn't so much in fear of pollution but more to protect the skin or - "to protect the beauty" - as it was described to us. Looking up from the uneven pavement alongside the busy road you could also see clearly visible, draped along and across the street from building to building, a spaghetti-like mass of electricity and telephone cables. Welcome to Vietnam!!

Ho Chi Minh is the national hero in Vietnam and it was fitting that our first stop was to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum where he lies in Lenin-esque fashion inside a soviet looking building on one side of the city’s huge open square. The queues looked depressingly long but we moved swiftly to the entrance and passed quietly round the preserved figure of Ho before exiting the other side. Ho died in 1969 although his death was kept a secret from everybody until 1974!! Chung explained the relationship between the Vietnamese people and ‘Uncle Ho’ before walking us around to see the official residence of the late leader and also his ‘actual’ residence. But Ho Chi Minh preferred instead to live in a very modest house nearby from where he was able to properly connect with the people on many levels. We saw workers in Cooley hats busily labouring on the garden as we moved on to the Ho Chi Minh Museum and followed that with a visit to the One Pillar Pagoda and the impressive Temple of Literature. Later we experienced – and survived! – walking across the busy Hanoi main street thanks to Chung’s help and also that of an elderly Vietnamese lady who helped us across (!). The trick was to just walk slowly and the countless lanes of traffic would see you and go around you. Simple, but it was a leap of faith.

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Vietnam_1_Hanoi (61)

The heat had now kicked in and lunch offered some respite for a while. The afternoon was filled with more museums and another Pagoda and China’s cultural influence on Vietnam’s history was becoming clearer by the second. We also asked Chung if we could squeeze in a visit to Hanoi’s Prison (known as the Hanoi Hilton by the Americans during the war) so we made our way across the city but unfortunately found that it had just closed so our only view was of the outside and so made our way to Hanoi Railway Station to catch the night train to Lao Cai in the North of the country, close to the Chinese Border. From here we would transfer to Sapa for a night in the Chau Long Sapa Hotel and two days amongst the minority tribes of the area; notably the Black Hmong and Red Dzao. Chung had looked after us well during our time in Hanoi but we would be met by a new guide at the other end of the line.

The ‘sleeping compartment’ just about justified its name but at least we had a cabin to ourselves and the ‘Happy Room’ wasn’t far down the corridor. Drinks and snacks had also been provided so all in all it was a fun way to spend the second night of our Asian adventure. The train pulled in to Lao Cai at 5:15 on the Monday morning - slightly earlier than anticipated and caught a few people by surprise. However, it was the end of the line so little real cause for panic and after dragging our luggage across the tracks we were met by Thoun, our guide for the Sapa area. Breakfast was had in the ‘Bordeaux’ restaurant just across the square from the station and the occasionally hostile border that Vietnam share with China was literally just one mile further down the road. After breakfast, we made our way to Sapa, just 35 kms away but almost an hour on the roads of North Vietnam.

The journey to Sapa was a steady climb through proper countryside; the town sits about 3,500 feet above sea level. On route we stopped for our driver and guide to help an elderly member of the Black Hmong who, riding a scooter weighed down with ‘whatever’, had hit a pothole and parted company with her bike. She seemed ok – probably happens all the time!! – and she soon went on her way and so did we. Shortly afterwards, we came across a lorry that had somehow ended up in the mountainside ditch. It’s driver and passengers were busy trying to move it. It was clear that Sapa and the area had had some wet weather and this had caused small rockslides as well as the problems that we had seen first hand.

It was still early and Thoun had arranged for us to visit Tavan village (pop.2,500), where the Black Mhong and Red Dzao live. The minority tribes are well practised in dealing with the arrival of ‘fresh’ tourists and as the car approached we were met by around 12 or maybe more tribeswomen who surrounded the vehicle in a bid to have first bite as we got out. In truth they were harmless and simply wanted to be first to be heard with their bid. “You buy from me today” had obviously been the first line of English that had been taught to most of them!! And so on to my first mistake. “Maybe later” I replied. This gave them enough hope of a sale and justified them walking with us and talking to us for as long as we were still walking and talking. Their stamina had no bounds!!! “Lily” latched on to Jan as her new friend and helped her over the slippery parts of the track that we were walking on. And so, having shared our lives with these people over the course of around an hour and a half, it was time to be strong and resist buying too much of the items that the Black Hmong and Red Dzao had made to sell to earn a living. However, I weakened and bought from one but then the remaining members of the group also wanted a piece of the action. So, we asked our guide to explain that we simply couldn’t buy from every single one of them, even if we wanted to (which we didn’t). Disappointed faces all round and the group started to thin out a little and we were left with those who were determined to persevere with us. In the end, I made them an offer of a donation in return for a group photograph and they eventually agreed although in truth they wanted to sell us something that they had made. It was a great experience and good fun and, compared to the timeshare touts of the Canary Islands you could never consider the determination and persistence of the minority tribes of North Vietnam to be hassle. And when it was time to leave them, the few who had endured our visit to the very end for little or no reward were still good enough to wave us goodbye with a smile.

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Vietnam_2_Sapa (8)

We arrived at the hotel and had some free time until dinner. Thoun arrived to walk us to the restaurant at the top of Sapa town. It was a damp, misty day and so we carefully took note of the route as we knew we would have to make our own way back to the hotel after the meal in the dark. We did.

The following day we woke up to the low cloud and damp atmosphere that I think we will remember Sapa by. Day two was to be equally as eventful as the first day with a visit to Cat Cat village - was located in a valley between Sapa and Mount Fansipan. It was different to Tavan and the steps down took us through village properties and down to a waterfall. We took photographs with Thoun before being tempted into a small theatre where we sat and watched a local dance show where Jan was persuaded to take part in the Bamboo Dance. It turned out to be a private show as we were the only ones there at the time (with five local children also watching) and, typical of our experience with people we were meeting on the trip, the performers all lined up at the door after the show to wave us goodbye. The friendliness of the Vietnamese people was definitely starting to leave its mark.

After lunch, we spent a little time in the town as we made our way back to the hotel. We wandered through the market and met more friendly faces and took photographs as we went. Thoun was picking us up at 3:30 to begin our journey back to Hanoi. But first we had another village to see. It was raining but that didn’t really matter as we walked through the lovely countryside that surrounded Ta Phin (pop. 300).

Vietnam is Green, very Green. If it isn’t the national colour of the country then it should be. The rice fields and the forest areas all boast the most vivid shades of Green that you can imagine and the rain on this particular day simply enhanced the colours. We were met at Ta Phin, as we were previously at Tavan, by a number of tribeswomen as we got out of the car but our experience with the people of both Tavan and Cat Cat had taken the fear factor away. We walked with Thoun along the roads – some of which were solid marble- and up through to the top of the village accompanied by several new friends. One pointed out her house and invited us in but we declined due to lack of time. This apart, it was the same routine as before. The usual questions and answers in the hope of being able to sell you something but without any real pressure and then a friendly goodbye. Basically, they are just nice people trying to survive.

We walked back through the village in the rain – the scenery in this valley was fantastic - and met up with the car again at the end of the road. From here, it was simply a case of heading back to the train station and back to Hanoi.

Back in Lao Cai, we had our evening meal at the now familiar Bordeaux Restaurant, the only restaurant we visited twice in the entire trip, and then said our goodbyes to Thoun. The train was due to leave at 7:30 and arrive in Hanoi at the unsociable time of 4:15 in the morning. Sleeping would be a real challenge. Having said that, the cabins were comfortable enough for two – we were grateful we didn’t have to share.

We were met in Hanoi by Windy, our new guide. We were driven straight to the Flower Market which trades from around 2 a.m. to 8 a.m. I would never have anticipated seeing so many people in a market at 4:30 in the morning. However, it was colourful and busy and passed some time prior to breakfast at the state run Trade Union Hotel. From here, we set off to Halong City where we would be boarding a Junk for the cruise around Halong Bay.

The Halong Bay cruise was earmarked as a highlight of our trip to South East Asia. We boarded at midday and received the keys to our cabin. After sorting luggage out we were met by the crew on deck who provided ‘welcome’ drinks as we set off towards the limestone rocks that dominate the Bay of Tonkin. It was a misty and hazy start to the trip but gradually the scenery unfolded and the mist and haze cleared. There were sunbeds on the top deck which were soon ‘owned’ by those on board and the friendly crew were working hard to prepare for dinner while the cameras of our small group of six sightseers went into overdrive. We cruised for about two hours which took us as far as Titov Island where we all got off via a small sampan and those that wanted the beach and to swim were able to. I decided to walk to the top of the island for the views over the small bay and to take more photographs.

Vietnam_5_HalongBay (54)

Vietnam_5_HalongBay (54)

It was a long climb and one that wasn’t helped by the constant stop-start of those directly in front in what was a conga-like procession going in both directions. I clambered to the top from where I could take more photographs before joining the trail of people on their way back down. At the bottom it was almost time to get back on board but I just found enough time to wander around the corner of the bay with the camera and take a few more from ground level. The two other couples; Stefan and Edith (German) and Ricardo (Italian) and Pauline (French) were good company and by the time we got back to the Junk from Titov Beach we had been joined by four others; a couple from Australia and another couple from Canada.

The scenery at Halong Bay was spectacular and during dinner we cruised further around the bay and then anchored for the night. The evening ended with drinks and a chat while fishing off of the end of the boat which we all tried and spectacularly failed at. The Captain soon explained that he would be turning the engines off soon after 10 p.m. and therefore we would lose the electricity and obviously the lighting in the cabins so thoughts turned to bed.

Breakfast was at 7 o’clock so another nice early start – not untypical in this part of the world. But to be honest, it really is the best part of the day and before long we were on another Sampan heading for Monkey Island and then Luon Cave. Then, it was back to the Junk for lunch which, scheduled for 10:30, we decided was much too early so politely declined. The Captain kindly brought us some fresh fruit which was more than enough to eat mid-morning. We were due back at the port at 11:45 so the rest of the time was spent leisurely chugging back through the rocks past Mans Head Island to Halong City. We eventually said our goodbyes to the others and waited for Windy and the driver to pick us up.

It was very hot and after tracking the driver down we found Windy who decided that we had time that we could use before driving back to Hanoi for the flight to Hue. A massage was suggested and we both agreed so within minutes were being treated to 90 minutes of occasional agony – all in the interests of relaxation!! To be fair, it was good fun and we had a laugh with the two tiny Vietnamese girls who were taking pleasure in inflicting the pain. Suitably refreshed we headed for the airport but not before an obligatory stop at a Craft Factory.

Dinner – a massive dinner – was had at Hanoi Airport where we said goodbye to Windy. Hanoi to Hue was the first of three ‘internal’ flights if you count Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap (Cambodia) as internal. The flight was just 45 minutes so barely time to do your seat belt up and listen to the Safety Briefing. At Hue, we were met by Dung (pronounced ‘dyoong’) who took us to the excellent Saigon Morin Hotel which would be our base for two nights.

In the morning (Friday), Dung took us to see the Imperial City which was very impressive despite there being areas in need of renovation. The Chinese influence was again clear to see in both the architecture and written language. From here, we went to the Thien Mu Pagoda which sits alongside the Perfume River and where 80 Buddhist Monks live. One of the monks was on walkabout, meeting and greeting visitors and having photos taken with them. He seemed very happy and friendly and we were secretly quite keen to have the experience of talking to him and taking a photo or two but our luck was out on this occasion as his route took him away from our direction. The Pagoda was well worth seeing even in the heat of the day which made the cooling boat trip back down the river even more welcome. The ‘dragon’ boats on the river are small and privately owned and are basically house boats. The couple that ran the one that Dung had hired for us lived on it with their young son and tried to make a living from the runs up and down the river together with money made from selling small items on the boat to tourists. We bought a drink and some bamboo book marks. It must be a hard life. After lunch, Dung took us to the Tu Duc Tomb. It was a hot day and very humid but the site was worth seeing with its small lake and moat.

Vietnam_6_Hue (33)

Vietnam_6_Hue (33)

Our evening meal was just a walk from the Saigon Morin. Dung met us to take us to the restaurant and he arrived on his motorbike, allowing him to go straight home after we were seated. I jokingly asked for a lift, he jokingly said ‘Why not!’. I carried on walking but Jan hopped on the back, much to Dung’s surprise. They briefly disappeared up the road in the direction of the restaurant, doing battle with the scores of other bikes and scooters. Eventually, I caught up just outside the restaurant and we thanked Dung for his time and bid farewell to him as we were moving on (again) the next day and he wasn’t able to be with us for our final morning in Hue which was a shame. We sat down in the restaurant, ordered drinks and then realised that my wallet was back in the hotel. I had no choice but to walk back and get it. The restaurant manager was concerned when he saw me stand up to leave but I explained the situation and Jan stayed while I went back. It took me about 25 minutes to walk to the Saigon Morin and back and during that time I had an opportunity to enjoy a ‘close and special friendship with a beautiful lady’ on four occasions. I declined (I didn’t have my wallet!) and eventually returned to the restaurant where we enjoyed our meal before walking back to the hotel for a drink.

After breakfast the following day, we had to sadly depart the Saigon Morin and were greeted at reception by Nie or was it Nai (which sounded like Nee but to which Nie or Nai said, “No, not Knee, it’s Nie (or Nai)”, which still sounded like Nee or even Knee!!).

Nie/Nai was going to escort us to Hoi An which was about a three hour journey from Hue but before reaching our destination we went to see the tomb of the 12th king, Khai Dinh and then drove on and took lunch at Lang Co Beach, still trying to solve the problem of how to pronounce Nie’s/Nai’s name.

We were hugging the coast now on our way to Hoi An and we drove via Danang (and China Beach) which was the base for the American’s during their involvement in Vietnam in the early 70’s. It also happened to be Nie’s/Nai’s home town. Danang was undergoing a serious transformation with both Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie putting their name to golf developments along the coast. There were also numerous classy residential developments in progress which gave the area an affluent feel. It would be interesting to see what the town looks like in ten to fifteen years time.

We arrived at Hoi An late afternoon and settled in for a well earned three night stay (3 whole nights in the same place!!!). We didn’t see the old town of Hoi An until the following morning, by which time we had endured a tremendous thunderstorm and tropical downpour which brought frogs of varying sizes leaping onto the pathways around the resort.

The old town of Hoi An was an unexpected highlight. Nie/Nai took us to an old Cantonese House and an Ancient Commercial House before showing us the Thien Hau Pagoda with its strong smell of incense. We also saw the small, covered Japanese Bridge but it was the lantern filled streets and riverside that made Hoi An so attractive and we made a promise to ourselves to return in the evening before we left in a couple of days time for Ho Chi Minh City.

Hoi An at night is a lovely place to be. A friendly atmosphere with lots of colour provided by the brightly coloured lanterns in the streets and also those being floated on the river. The riverside was very busy and it was as though it was a public holiday or a special occasion in Hoi An with small groups taking part in different events and with giant lanterns on small pontoons on the river on both sides of the main bridge. We had already eaten so it was nice to just walk aimlessly around the streets and watch everything going on. We paid 1,000 Dong (about 3p) for a paper lantern and Jan placed it among numerous others to float on the river. We retraced our steps and headed back up the street we had walked down earlier and then found our way to the Hoi An Hotel to catch the Shuttle Bus. Back at the resort, there was time to kill at the bar.

Vietnam_8_HoiAn (29)

Vietnam_8_HoiAn (29)

Originally, the plan had been to spend at least a little time on the beach. However, the storm of the previous day and the overcast skies that greeted us this morning really didn’t encourage any sort of beach activity. However, we also had to get back into town to the dressmaker’s so decided rather than wait for the Shuttle Bus to take a taxi before lunch so that we could try the clothes we were having made. The staff at the shop had made the entire shopping experience a fun one, even for me who had been largely a spectator during the measuring and trying-on process. As for the clothes, with one or two small adjustments which took about fifteen minutes, they were fine. All I had to do was pay for them and grab my half-price tie of course. This presented a minor problem for the cashier and, despite various explanations from her colleagues, the complexity of the transaction appeared to be a bridge too far for her mathematical ability. Eventually the penny dropped leaving an elderly member of staff (who had so far said nothing but had stood alongside listening intently) to look at me, raise her eyebrows, nod in the cashier’s direction and say, “Idiot” in perfect English before breaking into a laugh.

We left the shop poorer financially but with another great travelling experience behind us. Outside it was raining again but we still had a bit more shopping to do and, just around the corner from the dressmaker’s, was a series of small shops selling T-Shirts, Scarves, Table Runner’s etc., and we had promised one of the vendors that we would return. So, not wanting to break a promise, we went back to the shop that we had briefly stopped at the day before - and we were remembered. The previous day we had been her first customer of the day when we bought a T-Shirt for Matthew, and she gave us a gift claiming that we would bring her luck for the rest of the day. On our return this day she said that she had had a good day after our previous visit and, as she expected, we had brought her luck. We proceeded to buy two more T-Shirts and a Table Runner for a special price (although not THAT special!!). But whatever, she was good fun and we had returned as we promised. It was still raining so we threw ourselves and our bags somehow into a convenient bicycle rickshaw and asked him to get us to the Hoi An Hotel where we could have a drink and then catch the next Shuttle Bus back to the resort.

We had a lazy afternoon but it had been another good day and Hoi An had left a good impression on us and we still had some time the following morning for, weather permitting, an hour or so on the beach. But before that, we had booked a meal in the hotel restaurant that evening to watch the lanterns being floated on the river. It was a nice way to finish our stay in Hoi An and although we woke up next morning to heavy overcast skies we did venture over to the beach for a while before we left.

Nie/Nai arrived with our driver to take us back to Danang where we would catch a flight to Ho Chi Minh City (still known and referred to as Saigon by those born before the mid 1970’s). We were warned of possible delays out of Danang and, sure enough, for the first time in the entire trip, we had to hang around for an hour or so. Danang Airport isn’t the biggest and really isn’t the best equipped airport to be delayed for any period of time but we survived the boredom of the delay and eventually got airborne and landed at Ho Chi Minh City about an hour later than originally scheduled.

We were met by Lu who, like the other guides that had looked after us, was really friendly and good company. After getting through the rush hour traffic we reached and settled into the Palace Hotel, in the centre of the city. Lu collected us for our evening meal which would be taken cruising on the Saigon River. It was a nice way to see some of the city at night and the food was again different but as usual good. Lu had switched the itinerary around a little because he had an interview to attend on what was to be our second morning in HCMC. The interview would decide whether he would get an opportunity to go to the USA for four months in the Summer and where he would be able to visit his Mum who he hadn’t seen for three years.

So, for our first day in HCMC, Lu would take us to the town of My Tho on the Mekong Delta. He also employed some local help for when we got there and the three of us were joined by Mai, a lovely lady who knew the area well and who also spoke perfect English. Lu was happy because he could now sit back and enjoy the trip in the same way that we would. Mai took us on a boat on the Mekong and we visited an island where we had a lunch of Elephant’s Ear Fish, watched the local girls flee on sight of a large centipede (eventually caught in a bottle by one of the local lads), had the chance to have our photograph taken with as large a python as you would ever want to see, tasted various new sweets and fruits and then clambered aboard a Sampan for a ride down a palm-shaded tributary of the Mekong River. The Sampan was ‘powered’ by the efforts of two women, one at the front and one at the back, and whose role in life was to take tourists on the ride and then row themselves back up river before waiting their turn to start again. Lu had earlier given us some advice : Don’t tip the musicians that come and play for you while you are having lunch but think about tipping people like these women who have a tough, physical existence and put a lot of effort into ensuring that you have a good time. I took his advice and tipped our two Sampan ‘drivers’ and they responded with repeated smiles and waves of gratitude as they made their way back up the river. I got the impression that it was a good tip.

Vietnam_9_Saigon_Mekong (17)

Vietnam_9_Saigon_Mekong (17)

Mai had been good company on the trip and explained a lot about local life in this part of the world. It was a good move on Lu’s part to ask her along. We boarded the boat again and this took us back to port at My Tho, a neat and tidy town on the Mekong, where we thanked Mai and said goodbye before starting the journey back to Ho Chi Minh City.

Back in HCMC, we returned to the Palace Hotel prior to dinner. Lu again collected us and delivered us to another good restaurant and also explained that Sylvia, a friend of his, would meet us in the morning and take us to the Cu Chi Tunnels which were about an hour and a half outside the City. Lu had his interview to prepare for.

Sylvia arrived at The Palace Hotel just after 8 a.m., called for the driver and we set off for the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Vietnamese had dug over 200 kms of tunnels to help combat the American attacks in the mid 70’s. We were shown an assortment of traps, many made from bamboo, that the Vietnamese had made and used with great success. We also saw bomb craters and some of the U.S. equipment that was captured and some of the weaponry used by the U.S. during the war. And we also had an opportunity to go down into the tunnels which was quite a claustrophobic experience. I know that they are smaller people but these tunnels had been enlarged to allow tourists to be able to go into them!! It’s quite amazing that they used the tunnels in the way that they did and to such a great effect! Anyway, it was a good trip and worth seeing. We stopped for lunch on route back to the City before linking up again with Lu who was a very happy boy after successfully getting the Green light to go to the USA in August for four months. As if to celebrate, Lu bought ice creams for us all including Sylvia who soon afterwards said goodbye and went on her way as we then made our way to the Reunification Palace.

Vietnam_9_Saigon_Mekong (49)

Vietnam_9_Saigon_Mekong (49)

In many ways, the Reunification Palace was ‘something and nothing’ although the Control Room housed in the basement was interesting. Coinciding with our own arrival at the Reunification Palace was the arrival of several hundred school children on an outing. English is now being taught as a second language in Vietnam (until 1992 it was Russian) and one or two of the children, upon seeing some English people (namely us) wanted to say ‘Hello’ and get a reaction which they did. I said Hello back and the one or two voices soon became five or six which soon became fifteen or twenty and so on. And whenever they caught sight of us as we toured the Palace they would repeat the exercise all over again. But it was all good fun.

From the Reunification Palace we saw the Notre Dame Cathedral and then the impressive Post Office before finishing the day with a visit to the History Museum and Ben Thanh Indoor Market.

We weren’t really in the mood for (another) large meal so we asked Lu to cancel the main meal and replace it with just a drink and a snack which he did. The restaurant (occasionally revolving but not today!!) was in the middle of the City and had interesting views below of ‘the battle of the bikes’ at rush hour. With our drink and snack – cake in fact – out of the way, it was time to pick our way through the rush hour traffic to Ho Chi Minh City Airport where we would catch a flight out of Vietnam to Cambodia. Negotiating the predominantly two-wheeled traffic in a 7-seater people mover when you are outnumbered by thirty or forty to one was a real challenge for Ming, our driver in HCMC. Thankfully, his years of practice eventually paid off and we emerged from the whirlpool of metal onto some comparatively empty, open road which within minutes brought us to the airport. Lu had been good fun to be with and he was one of a few that it had been sad to say goodbye to. The people really had been a highlight of the entire trip.

Posted by david.byne 08:40 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes waterfalls mountains beaches bridges art buildings people children trees animals boats trains Comments (0)

Venice - That Sinking Feeling

Behind the Masks

all seasons in one day -10 °C
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People told me that Venice is a tatty, dirty, smelly place and that it was over-rated. But the Venice that I first visited in August 2005 is a magical place that I can’t ever imagine getting tired of walking around.

It’s a bit tatty, Yes, but therein lies some of its appeal. Dirty? Well, no more than anywhere else. And smelly? No, not when I’ve been there although I understand that the canals had been dredged and therefore if you were unfortunate enough to visit just prior to this exercise then perhaps the overall impression could have been different. But to generalise and describe Venice as tatty, dirty and smelly is not appropriate.

It was only when sat on the aircraft at Gatwick waiting to take off that I realised that we were only just over an hour and a half away from Venice. It’s just 700 miles away!! No wonder the Americans regard us as lucky; they would hardly clear there own state lines by travelling 700 miles!

On arrival at Marco Polo Airport, you can choose to enter Venice by road, rail or water. It’s a simple decision to make; you have to enter Venice on the water to experience it properly in my opinion. Somehow I can’t imagine arriving at the railway station or the car park on the western side of the islands and immediately being gripped by the atmosphere of the place in the same way as you do when you travel from the airport by boat and it skirts around the southern edges of Murano and Burano, before turning on to the Grand Canal and dropping you off just outside your hotel in one of the smaller side waterways. Magic!

The 2005 visit was for 5 nights, a Friday to a Wednesday, but it turned out to not be long enough to see everything even just once and so a second visit was probably subconsciously being planned even before we finished the first.

Our hotel, the Giorgiano (lovely hotel by the way!), was between the Rialto and the Ca D’Oro and possibly ten minutes walk over numerous bridges to reach St. Mark’s Square.

We had already decided to buy a 72-hour pass for the Vaporetto boat service which would enable us to get around easily to what we wanted to see. So, once settled into the Giorgiano, we set off to get the boat pass and continue the walk past Rialto and on to St. Mark’s Square. The entire landscape in Venice is like a film set and wherever you turn and look there is another photograph to be taken.

Our first stop turned out to be the Doge’s Palace, next to St. Mark’s Basilica. A fantastic building from the outside and full of Venetian art and style inside. It also provided our first real viewpoint of the entrance to the Grand Canal with San Salute on the left and St.Mark’s Square on the right. It’s a view that, like so many in Venice, has become so famous and familiar over the years that it feels quite surreal to see it properly for the first time.

Across the square from the Doge’s Palace and around the corner, canal side, can be found Harry’s Bar, one of many Ernest Hemingway haunts that appear to be dotted around the world (Pamplona, Havana, Venice etc). Said to serve the best Bellini Cocktail’s you can get, we couldn’t confirm as we managed no more than a passing glance from the outside because inside it was impossible to move. Maybe next time.

Having given up on Harry’s Bar, the walk back through St.Marks Square took us past the three exclusive café’s that have also become very much a part of Venice and its culture. The Quadri, the Floriana and the Llevana all compete for trade on both a gastronomic and musical level from their prime locations on the square. Each has its own orchestra that sits outside and, in turn and equal measure, plays for those that sit in the café and others that simply stand to watch and listen. The Llevana is possibly (and very marginally) the more reasonably priced of the three but don’t fool yourself because it’s still very expensive and a charge for the musicians is listed on the bill at all three. But you have to do it!

Eating out on the first evening was the next challenge. Like many hotels in Venice, the Giorgiano served only Breakfast so we had to venture out and find somewhere to have dinner. Venice is one of those places where you can choose to spend little or lots and that includes eating. We already had one expensive day and evening planned so this one had to be reasonable if not cheap. The good thing was, whatever you wanted and whatever you were prepared to pay, it wasn’t too difficult to find.

We had so much to see that we had to plan our days as much as possible. We decided that we wanted to see Murano, Burano and Torcello and we would set aside a day for it, hopping from one to the other and then returning to Venice when we had had enough. We knew that Torcello wouldn’t take long and so it proved whereas both Murano and Burano were larger and had a lot more to keep you interested. Murano = Venetian glass and canals; Burano = colourful houses and canals; both are worth seeing.

The queues to enter St.Mark’s Basilica, one of the prime focal point buildings in Venice, can be long and when we arrived in St.Mark’s Square on Saturday afternoon it was precisely that. So we decided to return on Sunday morning and be there as it opened. This worked out well and we joined a very short queue of people waiting for the Basilica to open. But to be perfectly honest, queuing in St.Mark’s Square for a while isn’t really a hardship!!

Inside the Basilica, the interior takes your breath away. I’m really not into seeing the inside of churches and cathedrals because apart from very rare occasions they all look very similar to me. And if anything, seeing St.Mark’s Basilica has made me feel even less inclined to bother with looking at others because I can’t imagine seeing any church or cathedral more impressive.

Having said all of that, you can’t really visit Venice without going over from St.Mark’s Square to see San Salute, the white-domed church that is seen in half of the photographs ever taken of Venice – it’s location being at the mouth of the Grand Canal.

Back across the water at St. Mark’s we walked east past the Doge’s Palace and over the bridge from where you can see the Bridge of Sighs. Continuing our walk we eventually came to Arsenale where boats and weapons used to be made. How much you can see is limited as today it is a Miltary Base and isn’t open to the public but it took us to another part of Venice which was worth seeing. Beyond Arsenale is Venice’s park area and football stadium but it was another area that we would have to save for another visit as there were other things that we wanted to see first.

We were soon treated to the consistently variable weather that Italy tends to offer. The heavens opened, lightning flashed, thunder cracked and the umbrella sellers appeared efficiently from nowhere. For just a couple of hours people dashed inside to shelter in hotels, cafes, and shops while ‘the American’ continued to hog the hotel computer to lose himself in the Internet. “Venice was great” he probably told friends back in the USA. For our part, we waited ten minutes and then decided that regardless of the weather we weren’t staying in the hotel so we hit the streets again, declining the advances of numerous umbrella sellers along the way. And I’m glad we didn’t stay in because the colours of the buildings, dampened by the mid morning rain, were suddenly even more vivid and spectacular than they were before. It was a brilliant time for taking photographs.

Venice soon recovered from the downpour - the sun returned, everything dried quickly and the streets were once again filled with busy tourists. August in Venice is a busy month but I’m told that September is the month to avoid.

Market day in Venice and the Rialto Market sits on the western side of the Rialto Bridge. We spent some time wandering around before looking in the various shops on the bridge itself.

The Grand Canal itself and its various smaller branches are often as busy as a main road in rush hour with its own version of buses, taxis, postmen, police, ambulances etc, and of course the Gondolers. There are still over 400 Gondoliers licensed to work in Venice – you have to be Venetian to qualify – and despite it being disproportionately expensive, much like the café’s in St.Mark’s Square, you have to do it! And we did – after wandering around for a while getting an idea of how many Euros it would cost for either a 30-minute or 60-minute ride we eventually found one. August 30th 2005 was always going to be an expensive day. Our Gondolier turned out to be a nice guy and from our start point we travelled out onto the Grand Canal as far as the Rialto Bridge where we turned and came back. The restaurant (recommended by our hotel) was already booked and it wasn’t going to be cheap but it was all worth it, and it was next door to the hotel which was convenient. After dinner, we walked back to St.Mark’s Square at midnight and watched/listened as the café orchestra’s continued to play under the lights that surrounded the square. Nice.

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Venice2010 355

The next day we were back in St. Marks Square again. One of the dominant features of square is the Campanile, the eye-catching tower that stands opposite the Basilica on one corner. To get to the top there is again likely to be queuing involved but it’s worth the wait for the fantastic, photogenic views of the area.

Venice has more than its fair share of Art Galleries and Museums and it’s impossible to get around all of them (even if you wanted to! ……………. and I didn’t! ……. and still don’t!). But we did a few including the Accademia Gallery.

You get another classic view of the Grand Canal from the wooden bridge that spans it at Accademia where you can see all the way down to San Salute.

La Fenice is Venice’s main theatre/opera house. Burned down a few years ago La Fenice has now been restored and we spent an hour there listening to the story of its history and looking around before moving on. The cost of seeing an Opera or even an Operetta at La Fenice was very prohibitive but we found a reasonable compromise at another theatre in Venice where they were putting on performances lasting no more than 75 minutes covering a sort of ‘Best of Opera’. It was affordable so we bought tickets and the performance was something else that added to the whole Venetian experience. And 75 minutes was plenty as far as I was concerned.

We took a boat over to Lido, the venue every August for the Venice Film Festival, about 20 minutes directly across the lagoon from St.Mark’s Square. It suddenly felt not like Venice at all but more like a Mediterranean resort with palm trees and directions to the casino and the beach ……………………… and cars! You suddenly realise that you haven’t seen a single car since you set foot in Venice. To be honest I couldn’t wait to get the boat back to the car-free zones of the real Venice.

Just around the corner from the hotel at Sant Apostoli sees the start of a long walkway with shops and restaurants and the occasional church. This runs all the way up to and past the Jewish Ghetto and is one of two former canals that Napoleon ordered to be filled in and concreted during his brief time in control of Venice. His plan was to get rid of all of the canals and thus create just a single island but fortunately he was driven out before he got too far.

The Jewish area in Venice is said to be the site of the world’s very first ghetto. Venice is made up of seven separate islands joined together by around 600 bridges. One of the islands is the ghetto; maintained separately years ago to segregate the Jewish community from the rest of the venetian population. The locked gates that fitted the entrance arch to the ghetto have long since gone and it’s now an open area with synagogues and apartments that have been squeezed together by deliberately lowering the ceilings in the apartment block in order to maximise the number of people that could live there.

There were times during our stay where we just walked in a general direction and randomly turned corners to see where it took us. Getting lost in Venice is nothing to be frightened of. In fact, it’s one of the best ways to see it. Sometimes we would reach a dead end and other times we would be walking down a narrow lane, possibly not more than two feet wide and suddenly the canal would prevent you going any further. And other times you would turn a corner and find an area that you could never have planned to find. Great fun. And it will soon be time to do it all over again.

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Venice2010 742

Our second visit was at the end of October 2010 and we were booked into the Hotel Columbina, on the same canal as the Bridge of Sighs – a fortunate upgrade since our original accommodation could not, due to unforeseen circumstances, honour our reservation. We arrived at Marco Polo Airport in mid-morning in the rain which was expected from our studying the forecasts during the previous few days. If the forecast for the rest of the week were as accurate we would be ok.

I had booked a Water Taxi from the airport and after an hour long leisurely tour of the islands we arrived at San Zaccaria next to St.Mark’s Square. I already knew the approximate vicinity of the Hotel Colombina - on the same canal as the Bridge of Sighs - but how to get there? I’ll just say that it took a while; mainly because parts of Venice were flooded by the Autumn High Tide and we were consistently diverted in our attempts to reach the hotel. And the fact that we were dragging suitcases and hand luggage didn’t really speed up the process but eventually we made it.

The hotel was very nice and not one that we would have afforded without the free upgrade! Our room had a balcony (padded!) overlooking the canal and down to the Bridge of Sighs which was probably about 100 metres away. A great location once we had found our bearings.

After unpacking we made our way to St. Mark’s Square. The hotel should be easy to find from there and therefore if we ever get lost we can just get to the square and walk from St. Marks (good theory). I was hoping that, compared to August, Venice would be much, much quieter. I was wrong. The square was packed and with people queuing to get into the Basilica on temporary ‘high boards’ to avoid the flood waters that were seeping up through the various outlets in the square. Getting about needed some thought as you couldn’t simply walk in a straight line without getting wet. Some paths were flooded, others weren’t. We had to make a decision about how we were going to spend our first afternoon back in Venice.

Lunch was a priority so we quickly found somewhere and started to get used to paying a lot for not much. That’s the way it is in Venice, especially with the Euro exchange rate being so mean. But we had what we wanted and decided to head for the Correr Museum (in the corner of St. Mark’s Square) and then the Doge’s Palace. The Correr Museum turned out to be the first of a few museums that we would see but we didn’t get around to it previously and its location does make it stand out as being one of the main museums. In contrast, we had walked around the Doge’s Palace before (in 2005) but it was one of the places that was worth doing again even though one side of the Bridge of Sighs was covered to obscure the restoration and cleaning work that was being undertaken. [It doesn’t matter where you go, there is nearly always something of interest covered up by scaffolding or tarpaulin]. There were no real surprises although I can’t honestly admit to remembering it all from the first visit but what we did find out was that there is a separate ‘Secret’ tour that you can take, for a price, and you get to see other things such as Casanova’s Cell. Noted for a future visit maybe.

Anyway, with the Doge’s Palace ticked off again we headed back in the direction of our hotel. At least, we thought we did. We walked in circles and zig-zags for ages and ages before finding it - and in truth St.Mark’s Square is about a five minute walk from the Colombina! The two are separated by just two corners and one long shopping ‘street’; it really is that simple but having been caught out once and with it being the end of a very long day we chose a nearby restaurant for our evening meal - one so close to the hotel that we couldn’t possibly get lost ……………… could we? Actually, we didn’t I’m pleased to say.

First night in a hotel room can often be a bit of a challenge (Thinks - Istanbul!!) and despite the relative tranquillity that Venice offers, it is surprising how noisy the canals can be at night. The ‘traffic’ does its best to be as quiet as possible but if you’re a light sleeper then the chances are that you will either take a while to nod off or, as in my case, be woken by the first motor launch or barge of the day before the sun rises. Probably the milkman!!

My curiosity over what we would get for breakfast was now setting in and apart from that there was the urge to get out and get doing what it was we wanted to do while we were here. Breakfast was good and I instantly made friends with the Custard Croissants – and we remained very close throughout the week!

Back we went to St. Mark’s taking careful note of the route. The Basilica opened at a quarter to ten and tends to be easier to get into if you get there either first thing or last thing before it closes. We queued for a while but it really does move quite fast. And unlike the Doge’s Palace, the interior of St. Mark’s Basilica was a familiar sight. The place made quite an impression first time around - it really is a fantastic work of art.

Venice2010 114

Venice2010 114

The view of the Square from the balcony wasn’t so good this time as the area around the Campanile was cordoned off with high boards to obscure work going on behind. Maybe next time (if there is a next time) the remedial and cleaning work in and around the main attractions of Venice will have been completed.

We hade made the decision to again buy a 3-day Pass for the Vaporetto’s to get us around the islands including another trip to both Murano and Burano. So, on Tuesday lunchtime we walked to Rialto and bought the Passes which would then last us until Friday lunchtime. I seem to remember paying 22 Euros each in 2005; this time they were 33 Euros each. Having said that, they easily pay for themselves, especially if you take in some of the other islands (Lido, Murano, Burano, San Michele, Torcello etc).

We took advantage of the Passes straight away by heading off up the Grand Canal to the Jewish District and the Ghetto area. We had an independent look around last time but decided this time to take the tour. One Museum and three Synagogues later we sat down and had lunch at the Museum Café before heading off on foot from the ghetto down through one of the two canals that Napoleon decided to fill in and what now resembles a pedestrianised shopping precinct like many others you will see around the world. Thank goodness he was forced out of Venice before he did any more damage! At the end of the ‘precinct’ you pass the Ca D’Oro area and reach water once again at Sant Apostoli which is where the Hotel Giorgione is located; our hotel in 2005. From here we made our way to Rialto and then back to St.Mark’s before tracking down the hotel again.

Evening meals were a challenge; but not to find something to eat, that was easy. The challenge was to find somewhere different each day but one which didn’t (at least openly!) rip the customer off by charging both a Cover Charge and a Service Charge on top of the menu prices. Cover Charges were around 2.50 Euros per head and Service was either 10% or more often 12.5%. So for our second evening we decided to leave the hotel and rather than turn left and head directly towards St Marks we turned right and walked ‘somewhere inland a bit’. We were again on new territory and discovered upon the Natural History Museum and one or two other parts of Venice that we hadn’t seen before, including the small restaurant that we chose to have our Tuesday evening meal in. It was in a very quiet square, probably north east of St Marks, very few people about anywhere and just two others in the restaurant. As a result we weren’t hanging around long before being served and it turned out to be probably the best evening meal that we had during our stay in Venice – and not the most expensive either. Not only that but we also managed to remember the route back to the hotel!!

Wednesday morning – and following two more custard croissants we made plans to get the Vaporetto to Murano and then Burano. So we walked to the north of the island to Fondamente Nuovo from where the boat runs to Murano. Famous for its glass production, Murano attracts tourists in large numbers. None of it was new to us so it was nice to just wander around the island and have a drink in the sunshine away from the madness of St Marks Square. And as we strolled towards the small dock to get the boat to Burano we noticed a sign to a small glass factory so we ventured down the alleyway and stood for a while watching three of Murano’s craftsmen toiling over the furnace.

Burano is even smaller than Murano but slightly more attractive due to the bright colours of the houses. Again, this was a return visit for us so we could stroll without feeling like we were missing out on anything. Seeing the two islands again was a nice way to spend half a day of our 4/5 day trip.

On the return boat trip to the main islands we decided to stop off at the eastern point of Venice to have a look at the public gardens. Close to Venezia’s football stadium (Yes, there is a football stadium in Venice!) the gardens are one of just a few green areas that the Venetians can enjoy unless they are lucky enough to have their own garden at home. It is close to Arsenale and to get back to St.Marks we picked our way in the general direction of the square while at the same time trying to use roads and paths that we had never been down before. Eventually, we were back in familiar territory.

Venice is overloaded with old palaces in various states of repair. Ca Rezonnico is open to the public and represents a typical old Venetian house. It sits on the Grand Canal and, even better, the Vaporetto’s stop right outside so we jumped on one that took us from St.Mark’s. It made a change from the usual museums although steps and stairs in one form or another are unavoidable in Venice. From here we walked the short distance to the Plaza San Barnaba. At one time, San Barnaba was regarded as the poorest part of the city but it really does have a nice feel about it and has recently been used in movies such as Indian Jones (& The Last Crusade) and also Quantum of Solace. We stopped for a drink in the plaza, to rest ankles and knees mainly and after the very wet day on Monday when we arrived the weather had been kind to us and now we were enjoying the sunshine. We sat down at a café on one of the outside tables and immediately realised that we were in the shade so quickly moved our drinks and things so we could sit in the sun. Plaza San Barnaba was a busy square with a canal running down one of its sides and, like so many Italian squares, it was dominated by a church. Temporarily, this had been given over to an exhibition of Leonardo Da Vinci’s work, mainly in the form of reproductions of his engineering models. Anyway, it looked different so we paid the admission fee and spent 45 minutes looking at and playing with the models.

Our route from here took us back towards San Marco (St Marks) and the hotel. We wanted to have a drink in Harry’s Bar (near St Marks Square) and that turned out to be the plan for Wednesday evening, prior to finding a restaurant. We knew that Harry’s would be expensive but just wanted to do it – if only the once! And expensive it definitely was. Said to make the best Bellini Cocktails that you can buy, we ignored every other drink on the list and bought two at the princely sum of 15 Euros each. Described on the drinks list under the heading of ‘Long Drinks’, they turned out to be not really that long and not really that wide either. In fact, the glasses were more like swollen test tubes with flat bottoms but what the hell we made them last and enjoyed our hour in Harry’s Bar.

Venice2010 357

Venice2010 357

Giudecca tends to be forgotten by most visiting Venice. Geographically, it underscores the rest of the Venetian islands but sits slightly isolated from the main historical centre. Two of Venice’s most prestigious hotels can be found on Giudecca; namely the Cipriani and the Hilton Molina Stucky, one at either end of the long, slim island. So, on Thursday we decided to take a Vaporetto to the far end of Giudecca and walk from the Hilton back towards the Cipriani where we would get a boat across to San Giorgio Maggiore; a small islet that almost but not quite joins with Giudecca. The Hilton Molina Stucky boasts a rooftop bar that has great views across to St.Marks but alas it was closed when we asked at Reception so we settled for a comfort break and a general poke around the ground floor of what felt like a very nice hotel.

We walked inland when we left the Hilton, away from the waterfront. Giudecca has a Gondola Museum (apparently) and if we happened upon it then we would have a look around. However, not once on our casual stroll around the island did we see a sign or any other indication that such a museum exists. We may never find out. Giudecca is largely residential and also has a University Campus that you simply can’t avoid walking through if you go from one end to the other on foot. Its side canals are picturesque as you would expect whilst the southern edge of the island looks out onto open sea with just one or two small islands for company. The weather was good; warm and sunny but having failed to track down the Gondola Museum and after being ejected from a café for only wanting a drink we made our way to catch the Vaporetto to San Giorgio Maggiore.

Just a stones throw from Giudecca, San Giorgio has a church, a tower and a marina – not much more than that really. However, it’s still worth a visit for the view back to St Marks and the entrance to the Grand Canal, especially from the top of the tower from where you can see the length of Giudecca plus the few, small surrounding islands.

A place that we never found in 2005 when we were in Venice was the Palazzo Bovolo. Famous to tourists for its unique spiral staircase, the Palazzo Bovolo isn’t the easiest place to find. However, having missed it the first time around, we made a point of finding it this time, eventually discovering it tucked away down a small alleyway behind La Fenice Theatre. It was little more than a photo opportunity and the fact that we could say that we had seen it – and we now have.

In the evening, we ate near Rialto and just before settling at a restaurant dashed back to the bridge to catch a wonderful sunset that was unfolding.

Venice2010 694

Venice2010 694

Friday, our final day in Venice but with our flight not being until 20:10 we had almost all day to do something. Check out at the Colombina and the expiry of our Vaporetto Pass was midday so we organised ourselves around that.

It was another lovely day so, having organised our luggage as best we could, we had breakfast and headed for St Marks again. I wanted to take a photograph near Arsenale and we then thought that we could get the Vaporetto to San Salute and then get a Traghetto back across.

San Salute is the church with the prominent dome at the entrance to the Grand Canal and unlike in 2005 it was now possible to walk right around the point of the island and look back across to St.Marks in one direction and both San Giorgio Maggiore and Giudecca in the other. In 2005, access was prohibited with works of some sort being undertaken. These ‘works’ may have included the completion of a slightly bizarre and random statue of a boy holding a frog at arms length. Whatever, the sun was shining and it was warm and made for a nice way to spend some of what time we had left of this trip to Venice.

We queued with others for the Traghetto at the sign marked ‘Gondola Service’. Affording a Gondola as we did in 2005 was out of the question but by using the Traghetto service, basically a communal Gondola from one side of the Grand Canal to the other, we could at least say that we had been in one again!

With knees and ankles in desperate need of recovery time we had almost reached the end of our stay in Venice. We would catch the Alilaguna service from St Marks back to the Airport which was a half-hourly service that took just over the hour to complete the trip. We earmarked the 16:20 which meant that we were back at the Hotel Colombina to collect our luggage by about 15:45 before dragging it all through the hordes of people down to the Alilaguna dock.

The boat delivered us to the airport via both Lido and Murano as we left behind one of our most favourite places, thinking of perhaps coming back for Carnavale in another five years. Maybe.

Venice2010 732

Venice2010 732

Posted by david.byne 08:10 Archived in Italy Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises bridges churches art buildings people planes boats Comments (0)

A little time in Singapore

A flying visit

sunny -32 °C
View Vietnam & Cambodia 2011 on david.byne's travel map.

Singapore_1_Changi (9)

Singapore_1_Changi (9)

This was the final leg of our first trip to South East Asia. Our flight to Singapore from Cambodia was due to get us to Changi Airport at around 16:30 but we took off slightly earlier than scheduled and the flight took less time than expected. As a result, we were landed by 16:00 and soon in a taxi and on our way to Raffles Hotel and the Long Bar. One Singapore Sling plus one Royal Martini equals an empty wallet!! The most expensive drinks I had ever bought – even dearer than Harry’s Bar in Venice. Realistically it wasn’t a complete surprise but we still wanted to do it. We then wandered around the hotel and its shops for a little while before setting off in the general direction of Marina Bay. We passed several queues for taxis and decided to keep walking until we eventually found an air conditioned shopping mall with a taxi stop conveniently outside. We took turns to cool off in the mall while the other queued for the taxi which could take us to the Skypark on top of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel.

Singapore_3_Raffles (16)

Singapore_3_Raffles (16)

Singapore is compact, neat and tidy – and the taxi journey took just a few minutes. The Marina Bay Sands is a hotel built in three 56-storey towers with the Skypark sitting like a table top across the three. We queued at the bottom to buy tickets at 20 Singapore Dollars each (about £10 each) and then took our place in the queue for the elevator which lifted us the 56 floors (200 metres) in just 30 ear-popping seconds. At the top, the view over Marina Bay and the rest of Singapore towards Malaysia from the Observation Area is astonishing. There is also a restaurant, bar, café, garden area and an infinity pool but we settled on enjoying the views for over an hour until the sun had set and the lights of Singapore had been switched on. Then, it was back in the lift to be dropped the 56 floors to where we picked up another taxi for the airport. We perhaps could have squeezed somewhere else in but we decided to head back to Changi and have a wander around there and get something to eat before getting ready for the plane. And I’m glad that we did because the time passed quickly and we were soon boarding the Airbus A-380.

Our flight left Changi at 23:30 and would arrive at London Heathrow just before 6 am on Easter Monday. It was the end of a great holiday. We’d seen so much and it had all been different to anything we had experienced before. The highlight was probably the people who were as nice as you will probably find anywhere in the world and the cameras were full of around 2,000 memories that would now keep me occupied for some weeks.

Singapore_4_SkyPark (41)

Singapore_4_SkyPark (41)

Posted by david.byne 11:37 Archived in Singapore Tagged landscapes buildings skylines night Comments (0)

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