A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: david.byne

Norway 2022

Living Daylight

all seasons in one day 10 °C
View Norway 2022 on david.byne's travel map.

This was a trip that we had waited three years for. Booked in 2019. We eventually packed our cases in June 2022 for the taxi ride to Gatwick and a short flight to Bergen in Norway.

The cute port of Bryggen in Bergen is a World Heritage site and having been there with work some years before I can confirm that it is certainly worth a day or two if you have the time. However, we were straight out of the airport on this occasion and onto the shuttle bus that would take us to the Hurtigruten Terminal where we would be organised for boarding our ship, the MS Nordkapp.

The MS Nordkapp is one of a fleet of ships operated by Hurtigruten and their trip described as “The world’s most beautiful voyage” was our choice of holiday. The ship would take us from Bergen all the way North, inside the Arctic Circle, to the port of Kirkenes, a border town with Russia. It stops at 34 ports on the Northbound journey and the same 34 on the Southbound journey. Invariably, those that you see during your waking hours while travelling North will be the places that the ship stops at while passengers sleep on the Southbound leg and vice versa,
This voyage is undertaken by the Hurtigruten fleet on almost every day of the year. Aside from being a ship used for the benefit of a few tourists, it is also the Post Boat i.e it delivers the post up and down the Norwegian Coast; additionally, it is effectively a Cargo Vessel (delivering whatever supplies need to be moved up and down the country) and also provides a bus/ferry service for both car and foot passengers.

The MS Nordkapp carries a maximum of 400 people and for hardened cruise lovers would probably be regarded as a bit basic whereas for others, like us, it was a luxury ferry without the entertainment and formality of the large cruise ships. Having said that, the excellent crew and staff on board busy themselves in such a well-rehearsed manner that there are often many things to do during any downtime that may occur – should you need much more than the amazing scenery that is (?).
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The time of year is significant with this trip. Visiting as we were in June we found ourselves (knowingly I may add) in the middle of their two-month period of total daylight (which runs from the end of May to the end of July). From the end of November until the end of January nature balances its books and you can enjoy 24 hours of total darkness. As grim as this may sound you would of course benefit from having the greatest chance to see the Northern Lights.

It doesn’t take long on board to forget what day it is – and this is almost encouraged by constant reference to it being Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 etc rather than Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or whatever.

Our cabin was more than adequate. We had an Arctic Superior cabin on Deck 6 and this gave us easy access to the Sun Deck, viewing lounge, Explorer Bar and also the ship’s cafe (all on Deck 7). Deck 5 is the only deck that we could walk all the way around the ship (useful for photographs) while Deck 4 had the restaurants, kitchen, shop and lecture rooms.

The food is prepared on board by a group of very capable chefs and the extremely fresh ingredients are all locally sourced, often from the ports of call during the voyage. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all excellent with salmon and other fish being a predictable feature on the menu along with Reindeer!

Right, on with the trip. We departed Bergen around 20:30 by which time dinner had been taken and we were settled into our cabin. Permanent daylight can of course be misleading but the wet weather as we departed Bergen detracted from the obvious scenery as we headed towards midnight.

By the time we woke from our first night the ship had visited and departed three of the thirty-four ports. The fourth, Alesund, was reached during breakfast but we stayed for a mere 15 minutes before sailing on towards Gerainger.

As a part of our booking, we had chosen several excursions from the boat. The first of these on Day 2 happened to be the longest. We would disembark the ship at Gerainger at 14:30 and meet up with it again in Molde, approximately seven hours later.

Trips off of the boat either involve walking or a coach ride (or very occasionally a small boat). Today for us would be a coach ride with several stops. Primarily, we wanted to see the Gerainger Fjord and the surrounding viewpoints plus the Trollstigen Pass. It was a terrific day with an unexpected highlight of several metres of snow still occupying the higher land of the Pass.
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As we were late back, dinner was supplied at a restaurant during the excursion. However, with it still as light as midday the Sun Deck and the Explorer Bar would soon become a regular place to relax until common sense determined that it really was time to get some sleep.
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On Day 3 we would reach Trondheim via, in the middle of the night, a stop at Kristiansund. The ship stops for three hours in Trondheim and, although we had no excursions booked, it was an opportunity to spend some time off the boat and walk into town independently. The ship can usually supply a tear-off map of the towns so, using that, we found our way to the centre for a stroll, a coffee and a visit to the Cathedral. The walk back took us a different route back over the river and views of the colourful warehouses on the waterfront.
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Four more ports came and went during the night and before we took breakfast on Day 4. We had another excursion booked when we docked at Bodo. Again, the weather wasn’t being at all generous and, maybe as a result, the sight-seeing tour of Bodo was a bit uninspiring. However, it was the visit to Saltstraumen that was the real motivation for this excursion. The strait of Saltstraumen is the site of a convergence of several different currents which has, on occasions, seen small boats consumed by its whirlpool effect.
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The ship left Bodo mid-afternoon and headed for Stamsund and Svolvaer (the Lofoten Islands). The Lofoten Islands were a ‘must see’ for me but we would wait for this treat until the Southbpund leg of the journey. Day 4 was also the day when we crossed into the Arctic Circle. The ship’s crew don’t let you forget it and hold am entirely voluntary ceremony on Deck & to mark the event,
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Five more ports later and we arrived at Tromso (on Day 5). With a population of 75,000 people Tromso is effectively the capital of the Arctic Circle. Sightseeing in the city took in the Cablecar, the Cathedral and the Polar Museum and Aquarium. Tromso is a place that I really enjoyed and felt it was somewhere that I could live.
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That evening we witnessed the “land of the Midnight Sun” for the first time. It was the best day we had had in terms of weather and the light at midnight and beyond was magical. It coincided with our short diversion into the Trollfjorden. It was here that the Captain of the ship ‘showed off’ a bit by turning the ship 360 degrees three times at the end of the fjord (which was little wider than the ship itself) to allow passengers to take the photos they wanted.
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Day 6: Skjervay, Oksfjord, Hammerfest and Havoysund preceded our arrival at the port of Honningsvag. Honningsvag also gave us our first close-up of Reindeer as a herd ran through the town as we were disembarking the ship. Regarded as a nuisance in town the Reindeer numbers have to be controlled but, of course, that is hardly an issue with them being such a key source of food in Norway.

We took the excursion and were on our way to the North Cape. Basically, the North Cape is the last accessible point in a Northerly direction before you reach the North Pole. It is marked by an iron globe monument and has a visitor centre with a café and one or two other attractions including a tiny chapel and museum.

Whale spotting isn’t unheard of in this part of the world and while the ports of Kjollefjord, Mehamn, Berlevag, Batsfjord, Vardo and Vadso were ticked off we had our first sight, albeit distant, of a pod of Orcas. However, a flashing dorsal fin gave us hope of further sightings during the rest of the voyage.

The sight of Fish Farming was now a regular feature, Visible on a regular basis, the circular and square containers were just visible on the surface of the water, marked usually by small floats . Predominantly Salmon but occasionally Haddock these farms helped ensure that the fish we were enjoying on-board was always super-fresh.

The final destination on the Northbound half of the voyage is the town of Kirkenes. We reached Kirkenes on Day 7. A border town with Russia, 10% of the population are indeed of Russian descent and our stop of three hours allowed us the time to find our own way around the town while others took the excursion to the Border or the alternative hike to the higher points locally. We headed once again for the centre of town and the nearest coffee shop and inevitable church. At times it’s just enjoyable to walk independently and relatively aimlessly for a while and see what we find, especially as the weather had been much kinder since the first two days of the trip.

After Kirkenes, the boat turns and begins to travel South and returns to Vardo in late afternoon, having only been there at 03:30 that morning. With no time to get off and see the small fishing villages we were quickly on our way to and from Batsfjord, Berlevag, Mehamn, Kjollefjord, Honningsvag and Havoysund en route to Hammerfest once again on what was now Day 8.

Hammerfest is defined as the Northern most town in the world. On approach to Hammerfest you will see the most expensive project in Northern Norway. The construction of the large liquefied natural gas site on Melkøya island has resulted in an economic boom and new optimism in Hammerfest in recent years, a stark contrast to the economic downhill and negative population growth most other municipalities in the area are experiencing.
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Rumours were flying around among passengers about a sighting of a couple of Hump-Back Whales but I have no firm evidence to confirm the claim. However, it wasn’t long before the Ship’s Expedition Team were announcing that Minke Whales could be seen on the Starboard Right-hand side of the ship. At last, a proper sighting as the Whale rose and fell in the water, arching its back around 300 metres away from the ship.

Our stop at Hammerfest was just under two hours and then we were sailing once more; this time towards Oksfjord, Skjervoy and Tromso where we would arrive around midnight on Day 8. Having seen Tromso on the Northbound voyage we were keen to see it at the time of the midnight sun. We wouldn’t disembark but the Arctic city is quite attractive with it’s Cathedral and bridge being the focal points against a background of steep snow-capped mountains. It was another lovely evening with a few more photos capturing more memories of a great trip.
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During the voyage we attended several of the lectures given by the on-board Expedition Team. These included sessions on Whales, Seabirds, the Fishing Industry and also the Politics related to the Norwegian Oil and Gas industries. The Expedition Team also gave daily updates on the weather and forthcoming points of interest and the excursions available.

I can’t speak highly enough of those working on the ship. They were all friendly, helpful and very good at what they do.

Finnsnes and Harstad were two small villages that passed us by in both directions on the voyage. Both were very quick stops and both were at inconvenient times but even dockings such as these can be fun to witness from the deck as various things are unloaded and loaded onto the ship. On one occasion, about a dozen high-performance cars were driven on-board. Of various makes and colours and all with equal shine the cars and their owners were annual regulars on the trip. They travel for around 24 hours and then disembark to undertake whatever tour they have decided upon ‘in convoy’. Ferraris, Porsches, and Lamborghinis all made their way as we pushed off towards our next port of call.
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Day 9 and we were heading back towards the Lofoten Islands calling first at Risoyhamn, Sortland and Stokmarknes before reaching Svolvaer at 18:30 in the evening. We had decided to take the tour and were really pleased we did as the Lofoten Islands were a highlight. On a global scale they represent a tiny dot on the map but they have an excess of outstanding scenery, assisted at last by the weather which also was lovely, The fish racks were becoming a fairly regular sight as we sailed North on the voyage. You do see them before you smell them – but only just. Our transport for the tour took us to Stamsund to meet up with the ship again some 4 hours later. The evening meal had been supplied as a part of the excursion at a restaurant and again the quality of both the food and the hospitality were high.
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We had only spent two full days on-board and Day 10 was also quite a quiet day for us. However, after brief stops at Bodo, Ornes, Nesna and Sandnessjoen we would return to Bronnoysund where the ship would dock for two and a half hours. So, with tear-off map in hand, we made our way into the small but very tidy town on a lovely bright Norwegian day, By now you can probably guess the routine: Stroll, Town Centre, Church, Coffee Shop. Having said that, Bronnoysund had the addition of a lovely decked promenade so we completed a circular walk by following the prom back to the ship with the busy harbour and numerous small but nearby islands adding to the scene.
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With just ten ports including Bergen to call at we were already reflecting on what we had done and seen and how this trip had been more than worthwhile. The tenth day ended with a 9 p.m. stop at Rorvik before a nine hour sail to Trondheim, a town that we enjoyed on the Northbound voyage. We stayed in Trondheim again for three hours but between 06:30 and 09:30 it was a bit early this time around and clashed with breakfast. Furthermore, we knew we were getting off at the next port of Kristiansund and it was from here that we took our Day 11 excursion to the Atlantic Road. We would meet up with the ship again in Molde some four hours later.
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The Atlantic Road has recently become better known for its part at the end of the latest James Bond movie “No time to die”. The road joins a number of small islands over a 9 km stretch and the scenery is breath-taking although nothing unusual for the outstandingly attractive Norwegian Coastline.

Again, we had our evening meal off the ship at a nice fish restaurant before heading for Molde and a quick tour of the city before getting back on the ship.

We stopped at Alesund late on Day 11 and left in the early hours of Day 12. Alesund looks a nice town but was one that got away in terms of only ever seeing it from Deck 7 on the ship. The villages of Torvik, Maloy and Flora would get us to breakfast on the final day – Day 12. Thereafter, it’s a straight run of 6 hours at sea to our destination of Bergen.
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We docked in Bergen at 14:45 with some initially disappointing news. Our flight back to the UK at 7 o’clock that evening had been cancelled due to a Technician’s strike at the airline. Hurtigruten are generally a very impressive company and they immediately stepped up to the plate and sorted out a hotel for the night in Bergen plus new flights the following day. The disappointment of not getting home when expected soon became an opportunity for us to spend some time in Bergen. Our hotel was walking distance from the airport and Hurtigruten organised the transfer there for us. For there we got ourselves to the Bryggen in Bergen and enjoyed a few hours there which we didn’t expect to have. A small bonus.
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We eventually arrived back in the UK at 3 pm the following day on a flight from Bergen that took us first to Stockholm to pick up the flight to London. A bit of an inconvenience? Maybe, but nothing could detract from the pleasure gained from the world’s most beautiful voyage. I can recommend it, so much so that we have already spoken about taking the same trip in a few years’ time in the Winter, probably November, to enjoy the different things that the opposite season can offer. We will see.

Posted by david.byne 11:00 Archived in Norway Tagged landscapes waterfalls mountains bridges churches buildings skylines animals birds sky snow boats architecture Comments (0)

SICILY

FOUR DAYS IN THE LAND OF ‘THE GODFATHER

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

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

JORDAN 2019

“WE ARE THE SWITZERLAND OF THE MIDDLE EAST”

sunny 25 °C
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An eight day visit to the Middle East in the spring.
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Jordan was our destination which, given the lack of stability in so much of that region of the world, may be stating the obvious to some.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ticking those 'Must See' boxes in Rome

Seven Hills and so much more

sunny
View Rome 2018 on david.byne's travel map.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Maldives - 2017

Baros, a little bit perfect

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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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