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Norway 2022

Living Daylight

all seasons in one day 10 °C
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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)

Ticking those 'Must See' boxes in Rome

Seven Hills and so much more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And no you can't see it from outer space (China)

A tour of China and Hong Kong

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Beijing in 1989 was in a small way the inspiration behind taking this trip. Not so much because of the student uprising that took place and the subsequent events that unfolded in and around Tiananmen Square at the time but because we, had our own circumstances permitted, could easily have been in Beijing at that very time. With my parents posted to Beijing in the Foreign Office the opportunity was certainly there, had it not been for the birth of our second child. So China was sort of unfinished business.

London to Shanghai is just short of 10,000 kilometres and eleven hours flying time from Heathrow to Pu Dong. The much modernised Shanghai was our starting point on a tour of China which would end in Hong Kong.

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China&HK2016 (1)

Our first real sight of the city after landing took us to the waterfront with its modern and futuristic buildings on one side of the Huangpu River and the old and more traditional Bund on the other. We took a harbour cruise that evening which was a great way to start to see it. It’s slightly chaotic as you would expect and the inability of the Chinese to queue for anything was something that we would have to come to terms with over the next 19 days; hopefully without causing an international incident. Anyway, tickets bought and place secured on the boat we enjoyed an hour watching the multi-coloured lights of Shanghai dance around the buildings as if showing off its latest outfit.

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China&HK2016 (20)

We spent time walking the promenade on the Bund side of the river the following day. The sun had ramped the temperature up to around 35 degrees and, with humidity being high, China in August was clearly going to be a challenge and it didn’t take long for us to instinctively seek out any shade.

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China&HK2016 (34)

Shanghai is an exciting city and, away from the waterfront, Nanjing Road in the traditional old town, with its ancient Hu Xin Ting Teahouse, and the classic Yu Yuan Gardens is the place to shop. We also saw the beautiful Jade Buddha Temple, just about the only place that I wasn’t allowed to take photographs in the entire three weeks.

Just outside the city is a town called Suzhou, well known for its gardens. This beautiful 2,500-year-old city is famous for its landscaped gardens, narrow channels and traditional Chinese architecture. Built on a network of interlocking canals, Suzhou's waters feed the series of classical gardens. These date back as far as the 10th century, and have been restored to their former glory with a few listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
On route from Shanghai to Suzhou our coach was trundling along quite happily when an alarm sounded inside the bus. The problem turned out to be an air-con failure. Beyond swift roadside repair, we waited patiently in whatever shade we could find while a new coach was sent to pick us up and complete the remaining 35 or 40 minutes driving to Suzhou.

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China&HK2016 (67)

We eventually visited both the ‘Lingering Garden’ and the ‘Humble Administrators Garden’, both very classically oriental with ornate walkways, bridges, ponds and Lotus flowers being a feature. In between the gardens we took a trip on the local canal which gave us our first real sight of everyday life in China. Modest canal side houses with small extensions or terraces on the back which teetered on bamboo stilts overhanging the canal, many decorated with plants and Chinese lanterns but which failed to disguise the damp looking walls on each of the properties. It was an interesting insight and in stark contrast, just one road back, was a very smart-looking commercial shopping street visible between some of the houses that could have been a part of any city in the UK.

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China&HK2016 (76)

Back in Shanghai we went out for dinner. So far the food had been very good although very much a case of “what would you like with your sticky rice today??” Green or Jasmine Tea were also regularly on the agenda with beer offered rather than wine.

From Shanghai we took a short flight to Wuhan before catching a train to Yichang where we would board a boat for our 4 days and nights of cruising on the Yangtse River. We took an upgrade on the boat which gave us a cabin on the Promenade Deck, all our meals in the Executive Dining Room, free soft drinks, tea and coffee throughout the day and a free happy hour every evening. It turned out to be well worth it.

The cruise from Yichang to Chongqing routed us through the massive Three Gorges Dam project. On board, there were all kinds of presentations including Chinese medicine, Mah Jong, Acupuncture, Snuff Bottle Painting and Tai Chi to name a few while in the evenings there were cultural fashion and dance shows all included. It was all good fun and added to the variety of the trip. It’s typical “confined living’ as you would expect on a river cruise but for sleeping and the occasional use of the balcony the space in the cabin was fine. The gorges themselves, namely Xiling Gorge, Wuxia and Qutang make for some lovely scenery and we were lucky with the weather. Along the way we stopped at Badong, took a ride up the Shennong Stream tributary, and visited the Shibaozhai Pagoda and Temple.

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China&HK2016 (84)

We docked at Badong and those of us that didn’t choose to take the optional excursion had time to wander into the town and explore a little. It was more a village than a town and while it didn’t look or feel like the most prosperous of places to live there was evidence of work going on to smarten the place up, especially riverside where a new walk was being laid which would link the village and the piers by way of steps up from the river to an adjoining square and then up further to the main high street. It was an overcast day which took some of the ferocity of the sun away and eventually the first drops of rain were felt. We continued our walk through the village a bit further and found a small local market where fruit, vegetables, rice and more general household goods were being sold and where a shopkeeper was making tofu which was then transported around the village and surrounding areas on the back of a scooter-cart to be marketed to the locals. The people seemed friendly and certainly weren’t shy of the camera but we couldn’t really go too much further and the rain was getting slightly heavier so we turned and headed back to the boat for the onward journey.

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China&HK2016 (99)

The Shennong Stream is a narrow tributary of the Yangtse for which we transferred on to a smaller boat. It is lovely scenery and after about 45 minutes of cruising we pulled in and climbed numerous steps to reach a small square surrounded by buildings that included a shop, a small museum and a theatre. The theatre was putting on free cultural shows and with one just about to begin we followed the introductory drumbeat, pulled back the tarpaulin-like curtains acting as doors and also screens from the sun and found ourselves at the back of the theatre with standing-room only. It was absolutely boiling in there but was still a preferred option in order to firstly see the show and secondly to be out of the direct sunshine for a while. The show lasted half an hour or so and the various songs told a story which could be followed to an extent with the scenery supplemented by acting at stages right and left as a related sideshow to the singers and musicians but was obviously lost on us as far as the language was concerned.

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China&HK2016 (106)

We also stopped at Shibaozhai and walked up the hill and down through the main street to the ‘Drunken Bridge’ which led to the Shibaozhai Temple. The bridge was safe enough but was constructed using wooden boards on secured cables and this allowed a flexibility so as people walked over the bridge it moved with the pressure of each and everybody’s footsteps creating a wobble underfoot and a few laughs as we struggled across. The pagoda has 12 floors and again the heat made it more challenging but there’s an ‘out’ at the ninth level that most of us took to see the inside of the small temple before going back down via some outside steps. There were some good views from the temple and the bridge with the low level of the estuary being highlighted by a couple of boats stranded on higher, dry ground that would have to now wait for the water level to rise before being capable of floating once again.

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China&HK2016 (115)

Back on the boat, as we exited the third gorge the scenery faded away from the picturesque and imposing mountainside to the flatter and more industrial sights as we approached Chongqing.

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China&HK2016 (158)

Chongqing is China’s largest city, emerging over the past 20 years from a medium sized town to a population of 34 million people. It wouldn’t be top of the list for sight-seeing but was a conduit for us reaching Chengdu and, among other things, seeing the Pandas!! However, before leaving the city we did at least do it some justice by spending some time in Erling Park watching people having their ears cleaned (seriously!), getting massaged and playing Mah Jong (not all at the same time) while we sat, chatted and drank Green Tea. We also saw Chiang Kai Shek’s house and went for a stroll in Qicikou Old Town before continuing the journey by high-speed train to Chengdu.

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China&HK2016 (166)

Chengdu is a tidy city with a newly-modernised feel to it, like much of the China we had so far seen. But our first morning in Chengdu would be spent at the Panda Breeding Centre. On arrival in Chengdu we had been greeted by rain but that was a blessing in disguise as the cooler weather that followed greatly improved our chances of the Pandas spending more time outside of their houses. The Breeding Centre is a fantastic environment for the Pandas – basically a forest of Bamboo and other trees and greenery – with the required medical and care enclosures as the staff work to proliferate the numbers of Pandas in existence. It was a fun morning despite the fighting for space with the over-excited Chinese. The Pandas performed for us and it was great to see them from basically birth through to adult in the different rooms and enclosures.

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China&HK2016 (170)

It was always going to be difficult to top seeing the animals on this particular day but we still had time to have a wander around Jinli Sreet. It’s very commercial but also very colourful and representative of Chinese traditions. Of course there are shops and stalls selling toy pandas and chopsticks but you get the feeling that these would be there even if tourists weren’t permitted. The food and drink outlets are interesting as you rarely see a menu or pricelist in English so it really is a case of point and hope, with the food anyway. We bought a Panda by the way!

Having spent a massive 20 Yuan (£2.40) in Jinli Street we moved on to a local park where we drank more tea - Jasmine Tea this time. Back to the hotel with just enough time to freshen up and eat before going out to the theatre where we had tickets for the Chengdu Face-Changing Show. The show was around ninety minutes of music, comedy, Chinese opera and the Face Changing act; quite challenging at times as you can probably imagine but still good fun and very cultural and colourful PLUS we had more Green Tea!!!!

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China&HK2016 (179)

A good night sleep was needed after a busy couple of days and before we jetted off the following day from Chengdu Airport to Xian. Almost everything, coach breakdown aside, had so far moved along like clockwork but the Chengdu to Xian transfer kind of spoiled things a bit, temporarily. The flight, ours plus a few others to different destinations, had an indefinite delay. With a variable like that it’s difficult to know precisely what the best course of action is but our Tour Manager (who was excellent throughout) gathered as much information as possible and then arranged for us to be checked into a hotel close to the airport and given lunch while we awaited further news. We lost four hours that day but thankfully (a) didn’t have to stay the night in the hotel, and (b) didn’t have to eat any more of their food there. So, all was well. The delay meant that we couldn’t visit the Han Tombs after arriving at Xian as originally planned but a small rescheduling resulted in the visit remaining on the itinerary. Instead, we visited the city walls and, similarly constructed to the Great Wall, it was possible to walk or cycle along the top of the walls if you wanted to. We took a tandem and travelled from the South Gate to the East Gate which took about 25 minutes allowing for a few stops to take some photos as the sun set. It was a fun way to end what had been a disrupted day.

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China&HK2016 (205)

Xian used to be the Capital of China but its international appeal now is really due to the worldwide exposure and acclaim received for the finding of the Terracotta Warriors so, after dinner and a restful night we set off for Li Shan Mountain to see the 6,000 soldiers, horses and chariots found by a farmer digging a well in 1974. For me, whilst it was still great to see and an amazing story, the sight of the Terracotta Warriors probably had less of a visual impact on me than anything else on this trip to the Far East. It was basically everything I expected and had seen in photos and on T.V.; nothing more, nothing less.

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China&HK2016 (212)

From the air-conditioned hangars of the Terracotta Army we made our way back to the city to see the Small Wild Goose Pagoda and also see some Calligraphy. The pagoda is located in a small park/garden and is in the classic style but the idea of climbing to the top simply didn’t appeal at the end of what had been a very hot day in Xian. So, a few photos later we were heading for what turned out to be a lesson in Calligraphy. Under the enthusiastic instruction of our teacher we were all challenged to copy some Chinese characters using the Calligraphy Brush on Rice Paper. There was also a marketing element to the exercise with various artwork and calligraphy on sale including the opportunity to have family or friends names written in calligraphy and taken home as presents, which we did.

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China&HK2016 (208)

We still had the Han Tombs to fit in before we left Xian so it was decided that we would get up an hour earlier the following day and, on the way to the airport for our flight to Beijing, China’s Capital, we would arrive at the tombs as they opened for the day and see the artefacts that had been found. Similar to the Terracotta Army but a more recent find, the Han Tombs revealed numerous smaller but less detailed ceramic figures along with farm animals, carts, cartwheels and pots. It was good to see, especially as we soon realised it was something that we had heard and read about for the first time shortly before we left the UK. So that was Xian, a nice city in my opinion and probably my favourite on the trip. Next stop Beijing!

The Chinese Capital carried an added interest for me as my parents lived and worked in the city for a year back in 1989 so I was keen to see roughly the area where they lived and the location of where they worked. Whether they would recognise much now, 27 years later, is doubtful as the city has developed enormously since then. For example, back in 1989 Beijing had just two Ring Roads. In 2008, when they held the Olympic Games there were four. Today they are finishing off Ring Road number seven! Having said that I am sure that the centre of the city remains largely unchanged.
The weather intervened on arrival in Beijing so our plans were tweaked again and rather than visit the Summer Palace which, by definition, didn’t align with the rain, we diverted to the Temple of Heaven where decent weather mattered less. The approach is made on foot through a neat and tidy park with many trees and ornate covered walkways leading to the steps from which you reach the large circular arena that holds in its centre the Temple of Heaven.

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China&HK2016 (1322)

The surrounding buildings and the temple itself are typically attractive and in keeping with all other similar buildings that we have seen in China. Their use of colour, detail and design is a very attractive aspect of the Chinese culture.

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China&HK2016 (1325)

The Chinese, primarily the women, love an umbrella and, it seems, regardless of the weather. They love an umbrella when it rains and they love an umbrella equally when the sun is out. Personally, I’m the wrong height to be anywhere near one umbrella let alone several hundred. However, it does make for some interesting photographs and that was certainly the case at the Temple of Heaven where the rain hadn’t put any visitors off.
Before heading to the hotel we stopped close to Tiananmen Square in Tiananmen Street to simply spend some time walking one of the main thoroughfares, stopping at shops as we pleased until we reached the top end of the street, nearest the square. Tiananmen Street gave the impression of recent refurbishment with many smart shops and a series of sculptures/statues dotted along the street on both sides depicting various Chinese Trades such as Calligraphy and Paper Making.

The modern architecture in Beijing, like in the other cities, had a touch of Feng Shue about them and none more so than the building shaped like a twisted lowercase “n” that the Chinese refer to as ‘the underpants’.

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China&HK2016 (1354)

I suppose many peoples highlight of a trip to China would be a visit to The Great Wall and I expected it to be one of mine. Whether it would simply be just another of those iconic sights that are exactly as you expect them to be remained to be seen as we left our hotel after breakfast the following day and headed for the Badaling entrance to The Great Wall.

It took us just under a couple of hours to get from the centre of Beijing to Badaling and although we were there early, we weren’t the first – by a long way!!

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China&HK2016 (223)

We were presented with two options; the easy route or the harder route and after thinking about it and looking at the crowds we decided on the harder route which was far less populated and, as pointed out by our Tour Manager, the first three sections on the difficult side weren’t too bad in any case – and as we weren’t contemplating going as far as completing three sections then we should be ok.

It was another hot day but to balance it out a bit the location of the Great Wall, atop the mountain range, attracted a nice breeze which, when coupled with some rare shade, was really welcome during our hour and a half or so on the Wall. So, with the first of the steps in front of us we set off. Varying gradients, inconsistent step heights, uneven cobbles, and people simply ‘getting in the way’ one way or another added to the challenge and the fun. Railings on either side of the wall certainly helped if walking in the middle started to become a struggle. We completed the first section which was our original target but decided to press on as far as we could. There turned out to be a convenient platform, half way up the second section, where an nicely positioned tree on the mountainside also provided the shade required to match with the cooling breeze. We stood there for about twenty minutes before beginning our walk down.

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China&HK2016 (220)

The Great Wall more than met my expectations and despite me having seen many photographs and a lot of video footage of it the sheer size (as far as you could see) coupled with some of the extreme terrain and the gradients, curves and corners that had to be constructed makes it a far more impressive achievement (and sight) than I had given it credit for. Amazing. And here’s a statistic; the complete length of the Great Wall is 500 miles longer than the distance between London and Beijing!

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China&HK2016 (232)

After lunch we headed back towards the city via the Sacred Way (Avenue of Statues). The path, which (like others we have seen on the trip) is slightly curved to fool evil spirits, is lined on either side with willows and carved stone statues of both warriors and animals. It’s the best part of one mile long but is a short respite away from the crowds.

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China&HK2016 (228)

Despite everything that we had so far seen and done there was still a gap or two in our Chinese experience as far as I was concerned. And one of those gaps was to be filled by Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City on the following day.

1989 sticks in the memory for me not just because of the iconic photograph of the student and the tank but for the fact that my parents were working for the UK Government at the time and, along with others, suffered several days of angst while safe passage to Beijing Airport was negotiated, allowing them to fly out to Hong Kong and, as it transpired, never return to China. It was an interesting few days for us and, unable at the time to visit them on post, Beijing felt like unfinished business for me.

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China&HK2016 (246)

Tiananmen Square is huge and in way a little bit soulless with its buildings on each side of the square being so far apart. Tiananmen Tower and the Gate of Heavenly Peace are on the north side of Tiananmen Square, the National Museum of China on the east side of the Square, the Great Hall of the People on the west side and Zhengyangmen Gate Tower marking the south end. In its centre, a Monument to the People’s Heroes.

After walking to the centre of the square, past the huge queue that had already formed to see the embalmed body of Chairman Mao (Zedong) we proceeded towards the Gate of Heavenly Peace over which Chairman Mao still presides as if still alive and in power. This gate forms the entrance to the Forbidden City. All I can say is that the Chinese public are certainly making up for lost time as this turned out to be as crowded as anywhere we had been in China. At times, our attempt to admire the buildings that house the Imperial Palace was a real test of both temperament and patience but we persisted and prevailed, enjoying the occasion more on reflection than in the moment. It is such a vast area and living in such an environment would have obviously been in extreme contrast to that of the general population. I am glad that we saw it.

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China&HK2016 (258)

Away from the hordes and back on the bus in air conditioned heaven we drove to another part of the city to see the residential alleyways and houses of Old Beijing known as the Hutongs. The best way to see these is on a Bicycle Rickshaw so this is what we did. The calf muscles on our Rickshaw driver were testament to the years of hard graft that had been put in to scrape a living and he must have been hoping for two short and very light people than the one very short and light person plus me that clambered into his Rickshaw that afternoon. Regardless, he drove us through the lanes where we stopped at a family home and were shown around – another insight into regular Chinese living. The owners had a pet Cricket in a tiny cage, a couple of pet birds and three cages containing White fluffy rabbits. I instantly worried more for the future of the rabbits than I did both the birds and the cricket.

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China&HK2016 (288)

Our route back to the hotel took us via the Olympic Stadium (we call it ‘The Birds Nest’; the Chinese call it ‘The Toilet Seat’). It still sits alongside the National Aquatics centre (‘The Water Cube’) but according to locals neither is extensively used any more.

And that was that. We drove past the British Embassy as darkness started to fall and after dinner collapsed into bed ahead of a very early start the following morning and the final ‘independent’ leg of our Far East tour – four nights in Hong Kong.

It is a three hour flight from Beijing to Hong Kong, now almost twenty years under Chinese control but with a further forty years until the former British colony is a fully-fledged member of the People’s Republic of China. It had been an early start but this meant that we had at least half a day still to explore once we had checked into the Harbour Grand on Kowloon. The hotel had a free shuttle-bus that operated in both directions every twenty minutes between the hotel and Tsim Sha Tsui (next to The Peninsula Hotel near to the waterfront and the ferry) and this turned out to be a massive benefit over the four days.

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China&HK2016 (299)

Without any kind of plan for our first few hours we jumped on the Shuttle Bus and headed for the waterfront. We wandered around, got our bearings, skirted around a noisy but passive protest about organ harvesting, researched the Star Ferry and then found a restaurant for some pasta - anything really that didn’t include sticky rice!!!! After that, we enjoyed watching the lights of Hong Kong come on from our hotel room overlooking the harbour.

After breakfast the following day we boarded a minibus for a half day tour of Hong Kong Island. It included the funicular up to The Peak, a boat trip around the floating village in Aberdeen Harbour and a visit to Stanley Market so a few boxes would get firmly ticked as far as Hong Kong is concerned and that would leave the remaining three days to do exactly what we wanted and without any definite plans.
Having said that we had an idea of possibly going to Kowloon Walled City Park, Ladies Market, Old Hong Kong, Temple Street Market and Lantau Island so we made a conscious effort to get to these places but didn’t know either how or when at this stage.

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China&HK2016 (307)

The view from The Peak is a ‘must see’ and one of those iconic images that are associated with a specific place. Now regarded by many as the richest city in the world nobody can doubt its other claim of having the greatest number of skyscrapers on the planet. It was then a fairly short drive, past Repulse Bay, to Aberdeen Harbour where a combination of Sampans, Junks and Luxury Boats live in close quarters. We took a Sampan ride through the harbour and between the house boats that make up the floating village, home to thousands. As a backdrop to the harbour, the high rise ‘Pigeon Houses’ stand imposingly as evidence of the extent of the confined living that exists in this part of the world.

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China&HK2016 (314)

By way of their behaviours the people of Hong Kong place themselves somewhere between those of China (with its strict discipline) and the UK (with its democratic freedom). Not that surprising really as the former British colony is almost 20 years into a 60 year transition from British governorship to total Chinese control. It will be interesting how the next forty years pans out, both in Hong Kong and on mainland China where surely there will be some ‘give’ as well as ‘take’.

Free from the organised touring we were now on ‘free time’ so needed to decide our next move. We made a decision over lunch to buy an ‘Octopus Card’ (similar to London’s Oyster Card) and immediately tested it by using the Underground to get over to Hong Kong Island and the area there which is typically ‘Old’ Hong Kong. And it does have a different feel to it - with its market stalls selling antiques, the narrow streets, older traditional trades, colourful shop fronts and advertising extended in competition with one another over and above the road. We wandered around Hollywood Road and its adjoining streets and alleys taking photos while at the same time looking for the Buddhist Man Mo Temple.

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China&HK2016 (322)

The temple was a good find with so much colour inside being enhanced to the extreme by strong beams of sunlight arrowing diagonally through the interior but the influence of Buddhism certainly felt stronger in China than it did in Hong Kong which given its history is probably not that surprising.
Leaving the temple we made our way back down in a general direction of where we felt we had arrived on the Underground. Along the way there were numerous market stalls, many selling antiques, some selling posters of Mao and copies of his Little Red Book and others trading more general items. We also came upon a really nice Coffee Shop called The Roaster (not a Starbucks!! Yippee!!) being run by a couple of local girls who took great pride in their work and the quality of what they were offering (and rightly proud of the press reviews that had been written and that they displayed on a part of the café window). A friendly man and his young daughter waved and said goodbye as we sat having ordered our Cappuccino and Hot Chocolate; both drinks noticeably missing from the diet of the previous two and a bit weeks.

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China&HK2016 (329)

Rested and refreshed we carried on with our walk back to the Underground Station we passed a ladder, totally made of Bamboo, leaning against a wall …… in Ladder Street! Eventually, back on the main street the narrow trams were busy going about their business. We had reached the underground station and decided to walk on down to the Star Ferry terminal and catch the ferry back across the harbour to Kowloon BUT it was still daylight and what we wanted to do was travel across with Victoria Harbour lit up for the evening. So, we noticed that the ferry terminals also had eateries within them and therefore took the decision to take a table in Watermark, a nice looking restaurant that overlooked the harbour. It wasn’t the cheapest – it wouldn’t be would it – but it was a really good decision. We had two courses plus drinks and in addition to watching the lights come on over at Kowloon we had also bought ourselves enough time to guarantee that on our Star Ferry crossing we would be able to see all of the lights of both Hong Kong and Kowloon (known as The Symphony of Lights) plus the start of the PULSE 3D Light Show that was being presented two or three times each night during the Summer from the Kowloon clock tower. It effectively saved us the cost of taking the harbour cruise at night.
Back on Kowloon and leaving the Star Ferry behind we made our way to the raised area from where PULSE was being played out. We waited the ten minutes until the start of the next show and then enjoyed it and the music at close quarters.

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China&HK2016 (337)

From here it was a short stroll back to The Peninsula where we could get our Shuttle Bus back to the Harbour Grand. It had been a really good day.
After breakfast the following morning we decided to use the public transport again and find our own way to Lantau Island. Not only was this good fun but we also saved a lot of money compared to the cost of an excursion and also some time. We took the Shuttle Bus again down to Tsim Sha Tsui as usual and walked the short distance to catch the Star Ferry over to Pier 7 on Hong Kong Island. The Lantau ferry used Pier 6 so it was an easy walk by foot to disembark the Star Ferry and take our seats on the Lantau Ferry with the cost still being covered by our Octopus Card.

A visit to Lantau Island appealed because it was different to what we had so far seen in China and Hong Kong. It also had the Po Lin Monastery, the big Bronze Buddha, and Tai-O stilt village to sight-see. The boat from Pier 6 to Lantau took about 45 minutes and drops you by the bus station from where the bus (No.2) to Ngong Ping runs regularly. The journey of about another 30 or 40 minutes takes you through scenery reminiscent of a Caribbean island and there is surprisingly little traffic to prevent our bus driver from tearing round corners as if he was pushing for an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

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China&HK2016 (347)

Ngong Ping is the location of both the Po Lin Monastery and the big Bronze Buddha. With little real knowledge of either we headed for the Monastery before taking on the 210 steps leading up to the Giant Buddha.

Po Lin was a great surprise. The smell of incense gradually wafts into your life as you walk the long path towards the entrance where there are several large burners spreading their jasmine scent or whatever else was smouldering and smoking. A series of steps lead up to the doors of the first temple room in a building with fantastic symmetry and colour. Inside, more vivid colour, more artwork and in pride of place, three golden Buddha’s. The space on the left side of the room was dedicated to worship and prayer with a number of rows of square kneeling pads and beyond here and behind the main screen that provided the backdrop to the three Buddha’s was a rear entrance/exit that led to another large building fronted by more steps and even more colourful and attractive detail that framed the front doors to one of the most opulent rooms of its kind that you could expect to see. Five large Golden Buddha’s were the focal point at the back of a room dominated by the colour gold but with multi-coloured patterning on the ceiling beams and the walls and platforms. This had been an unexpected highlight – and now for the Giant Buddha.
There really isn’t a choice. The steps may look daunting but once you are there it simply has to be done. Slightly more than 200 steps - there are convenient platforms that break up their flow and offer the chance of a breather if you need it. And it doesn’t take long. Once at the top the size of the Buddha is impressive as are the views, especially if you climb the extra few steps to the elevated walkway around the statue.

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China&HK2016 (352)

We couldn’t find a bus stop at the top like we had been originally told so after spending some time we made our way back down the steps, past the group of stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs plus the more tempting cold drinks and ice cream, and back through the main entrance to the bus stops where we arrived. Our next destination during our short visit to Lantau Island was the stilt village of Tai-O. It didn’t take long for the next bus to arrive; far quicker in fact than the timetable suggested and the ride to Tai-O was equally as frenetic as the first up to Ngong Ping. Having taken the local transport rather than an organised tourist bus we found ourselves ‘downtown’ in terms of being nearer to the local market than anything remotely ‘touristy’. This actually suited us and to wander through the local market and to see what was being bought as general produce rather than us simply being processed through a network of stalls geared to foreigners looking for souvenirs or ‘original fakes’ was a lot more interesting. Exiting the market we found ourselves in the streets and alleys of Tai-O with the harbour immediately behind the properties on the left side. We continued walking, searching out shade at every opportunity as it was so hot, until we found a side alley that led towards the water. From the water’s edge the stilt village was immediately visible. Wooden properties propped up over the water on slim and fairly fragile looking wooden piles that had been driven into the bed of the harbour, providing an elevated foundation for their homes. The numerous houses were effectively conjoined, no doubt providing an added strength and stability during difficult weathers and at times when repairs must be required. The entire stilt community was linked to the more permanent looking residences on ‘the mainland’ and their market and public buses by a bridge across the water to the nearest stilt house. I found it fascinating and seeing it reminded me of the experience that we had at Lake Titicaca in Peru when we saw the Aymara people and how they lived on the Reed Islands.

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China&HK2016 (374)

We caught a bus back up to Ngong Ping to then walk through the village to the Cable Car which would take us on a 25 minute ride down to the main town, Tung Chung, where we could then get the Underground back to Tsim Sha Tsui after stopping for a late lunch.

Back at the hotel we had a few spare hours and then we went out in the evening in Kowloon, local to the Harbour Grand, for something to eat. This time we found a German Restaurant (still avoiding Sticky Rice!!) just a couple of roads from the hotel which made for an easy circuit of the area including the Whampoa ship that sat bizarrely a long way from any water between high rise residential blocks. This turned out to be a leisure facility including a restaurant but we had no time to explore it further unfortunately.

We were now just one night of sleep away from our final full day tomorrow. The list of things that we wanted to do was now down to Kowloon Walled City Park, Ladies Market, The Avenue of Stars and Temple Street Night Market. Disappointingly, the Avenue of Stars was closed for refurbishment but there was plenty that we could do if we needed to fill time.

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China&HK2016 (382)

The breakfast at the Harbour Grand was fantastic so it made sense to make the most of it both today and before we leave for the airport tomorrow. So, we planned a route via the Underground to the area where Kowloon Walled City Park was. It was also the location of the Hau Wong Temple which we now had time to visit before we went to see the Park.

The temple was quite tiny and had a couple of attendants who presumably opened it and closed it each day and made sure that things were as they should be in-between. It’s a Grade 1 historical building built about 300 years ago and certainly worth spending a little time. Literally over the road is Kowloon Walled City Park.

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China&HK2016 (378)

The site was used by Chinese imperial officials since the 16th century. In 1841, when Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain, Kowloon Walled City was already a garrison and was reinforced by the Chinese Government. The fort’s fate changed in 1898 when the New Territories were leased to Britain for 99 years. Although the walled city remained Chinese territory by treaty, their troops and officials were forced to vacate the site just one year later. This left a power vacuum that was filled by criminals, and the garrison became a city within a city and fugitives and other criminal elements flocked to the lawless enclave from that day forward. Beyond the reach of the law, the area mushroomed into a squalid maze of illegally constructed buildings, where everything from drug trafficking and prostitution to unlicensed dentistry flourished in a labyrinth of dank, dark alleyways.

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China&HK2016 (380)

In 1987, with the agreement of China, the colonial government finally took control of the no-go area, resettled its inhabitants, and replaced the slum with a park. Today, the Chinese-style Park preserves traces of the walled city including the imperial government administrative building (known as a “yamen”). The garden–style of the park now offers visitors a chance to appreciate nature in a place where the darker side of life once flourished.
Not far from the Walled City Park is the Mong Kok business district and the Ladies Market. This and Temple Street Night Market would be our final opportunities to pick up any last minute gifts to take home the following day.

Mong Kok is an amazing looking area with its colourful advertising suspended above the road from both sides of the main street. It’s very busy and very commercial but was typical of what I expected from Hong Kong. Ladies Market is one road back from the main street and offers no more and no less than you could guess would be available from a market that primarily (but not exclusively) targets female shoppers and their children.
It was early-afternoon by the time we got back to our room and decided on some time in and around the rooftop pool followed by a snack in the hotel, before heading out in the evening.

China&HK2016 (387)

China&HK2016 (387)

It was dark by 6:30 to 7 pm every day while we were in China and Hong Kong so it would easily be getting dark by the time we got to Temple Street. The route was easy; we just had to get on the underground and find Jordan station which was just one stop on the line from Tsim Sha Tsui where the hotel’s Shuttle Bus stops and picks up.

Emerging back at street level the area around Jordan station was predictably lively and we asked a friendly face where Temple Street was. About a 2 or 3 minute walk as it happened so again it couldn’t have been easier. And you can’t miss it because it has its own ‘Temple Street’ gateway over the road. It’s very much a conventional market but with a focus also on street food being offered by vendors on the corners of the roads near the main entrance. And by the time we exited the market, having bought various bits and pieces to take home as presents, the street was crammed full of people sat eating and drinking with barely a spare seat or table in sight. However, we did find a table where we rested for a while with the largest and cheapest beer we had had during the entire trip. It was a nice way to end.

China&HK2016 (399)

China&HK2016 (399)

China and Hong Kong had been eventful and memorable in equal measure and not even the four hour delay to our taking off at Hong Kong airport (after boarding the plane for the journey home) could detract from the great experience and memories that we took back to the UK with us. The sheer numbers of people, the quite different behaviours, the extreme weather and of course the visual impact of some of the things that we saw will long stay in the memory. 2,400 photographs had been accumulated over the three weeks and for the next few months there would be time spent sorting, deleting and cropping these while at the same time reliving it all.

Posted by david.byne 12:48 Archived in China Tagged landscapes mountains lakes bridges art buildings skylines people trees animals sky night boats trains architecture rivers religion city Comments (1)

One famous little mill at the centre of everything (Paris)

Montmarte, Mussels and Moulin Rouge

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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

Living the high life in NYC

Seven Nights in The Big Apple

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

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

NYC1014 (1)

NYC1014 (1)

Sunday 26th October

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

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NYC1014 (49)

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

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

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

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NYC1014 (106)

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

Monday 27th October

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

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NYC1014 (4)

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

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NYC1014 (70)

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

Tuesday 28th October

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

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NYC1014 (283)

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

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NYC1014 (573)

Wednesday 29th October

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

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NYC1014 (308)

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

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

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NYC1014 (341)

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

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

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NYC1014 (383)

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

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NYC1014 (391)

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

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NYC1014 (424)

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

Thursday 30th October

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

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

NYC1014 (441)

NYC1014 (441)

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

NYC1014 (492)

NYC1014 (492)

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

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

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

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

NYC1014 (595)

NYC1014 (595)

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

Saturday 1st November

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

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

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

NYC1014 (646)

NYC1014 (646)

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

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

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

Posted by david.byne 09:57 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises bridges churches art buildings skylines people trees sky night boats Comments (1)

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