Three Rough Blokes on the Amazon January – February 2015

Three rough blokes were having a beer one day and Roger was saying how he’d like to do the other half of the Amazon from Manaus to the coast. The other two didn’t take much persuading so in January 2015 we met in Manaus, Cam flying in from a week in Guatemala, AJ arriving after a few days in Panama and Roger after the shot show in Vegas and a few days in Panama.

Check out the full story below.

Amazon 2015

Screen Capture by Snagit

Silk Road: Bukhara, Uzbekistan – October 2019

Wednesday 9 October 2019: Sylvia

We left Khiva at 9am this morning to drive the ~480kms to Bukhara. The first part of the trip was quite interesting, driving through the city of Urgench and passing areas of intensive agriculture with rice paddies and fields of corn, carrots and cotton. There is an incredible irrigation system with water from the Amu Darya river being fed via large and then small canals into the fields. Most of these canals were developed during the Soviet era when the focus was on maximising agricultural output but the earliest canals were developed in this area over 2,000 years ago. We crossed over the largest canal at one point but were not allowed to take photos. We did get a reasonable photo of the river though.

At one point we stopped to take photos of some people picking cotton. Three men, the bosses, wandered over to chat to us. Apparently the harvest has gone well and they have already exceeded their target. They are having a big party at midday to celebrate and invited us to join – but unfortunately we had a long way to go and couldn’t join in.

After about 90 minutes we hit the Kyzylkum desert. Like the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan it stretches on for miles – two thirds of Uzbekistan is desert. There is a fairly new, good quality road for most of the way and we trundled along quite comfortably at about 120kmph. At one point we came across a big area of pipeworks. Apparently this is part of the pipeline the Chinese are building to get the gas from Turkmenistan to China.

A little further on we stopped at a large lake that forms part of the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. According to Nazira we were lucky today as the soldier on duty let us take photographs. I must admit I wonder sometimes about the things we are not allowed to photograph! The lake is formed by one of the seventeen dams on the Amu Darya river that provide 21% of the electricity in Uzbekistan. The rest is provided by gas.

We passed a convoy of five trucks carrying massive cylindrical vessels, nearly blocking both lanes of the road. We were told they were reactors but were not convinced.

We also drove through the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan. Apparently this region has its own government and president but open borders with Uzbekistan. It doesn’t show up in our world map as a separate state so must not be officially recognised outside of Uzbekistan.

About halfway into the trip we stopped for shashlik along with many other tourists at a roadside restaurant. I was again reminded never to book a bus tour as hordes of European tourists took a table at the back of the garden and unpacked their sandwiches while we feasted on fresh salads, freshly baked bread and cooked skewers of lamb.

One hundred or so kilometres out of Bukhara the good road ran out and we were back onto a narrow, bumpy, potholed road at a much slower speed. The scenery though stayed the same – scrubby desert on both sides of the road as far as we could see. At least we were in a comfortable air-conditioned car. Back in the day they did this trip on the back of a camel!

As we got closer to Bukhara the irrigation and agriculture started again with small towns dotted around. Groves of apricot and pomegranate trees broke up the cotton plantations.

On arrival in Bukhara we checked into Hotel Volida and set out to stretch our legs and explore a bit of the city. Not far from our hotel we came across Lyabi Hauz, a charming area built around a reservoir and surrounded by old mulberry trees. It is full of character and both locals and tourists frequent the bars and restaurants flanking the reservoir.

Nearby there are enticing bazaars, madrassas, and loads of old domed, brick buildings. We enjoyed wandering around and getting a general sense of the area.

Eventually we headed back to Lyabi Hauz for drinks and dinner, while being entertained by the many cats scavenging around the tables.


Thursday 10 October 2019: Roger

After an as expected not too flash but better than yesterday’s breakfast, Nazira picked us up at 0900 and we drove to the start point of our tour for today,  a few kms from our hotel, the plan being to walk back and look at the many many buildings of interest. Arriving at the start point, the Ismail Samoniy Mausoleum, we discovered that we were not the only people with this plan. Originally built in the 9th to 10th century the mausoleum has survived well as by the time Genghis Khan rocked up in the 12th century it had been buried, either deliberately or by the elements. It survived his rampage through the area relatively unscathed and, when uncovered in 1934, it was restored with a new dome.

Most of the buildings in this city are restored to some extent or another. Many are, I think, completely rebuilt, not surprisingly as over the last 50 years they have had 3 earthquakes of over 7 magnitude and numerous ones of 4+. I did notice on our drive that new buildings being built, of which there are many, have concrete columns and beams, the voids filled with brick.

 

Picking up the pace we headed off through the park to get a bit ahead of the crowd. We stopped to have a look at some coppersmiths making rather picturesque and well-crafted trays and bowls, a craft the area is apparently famous for.

In a kind of cot or bassinet on display was a doll with an ingenious wooden device designed to fit on the baby boy’s penis and another device for the baby girls that had a tube attached to drain the urine into a vessel under the mattress.

Then we came to the Chashma Ayub Mausoleum, built in the 12th century and added to in the 16th century. It now houses a museum telling the story of water in the district. Interestingly for centuries there were 114 water points or small basins around the city for people to collect water from, fed by the many canals. In the 1920’s under Soviet rule people started contracting bilharzia (a long worm that eventually pops out through the shin and has to be sort of wound out of the body leaving an infected wound), hence the Soviets had all the basins filled in. In the late 20’s piped water was put into the city, fed by a large tank on a tower.

The other interesting piece of info here was about the Aral Sea. In 1960 water in the sea covered 68,900 km2, by 2017 it had dropped to 8,600 km2. During the Soviet era in the 60’s and 70‘s thousands more kilometres of canals were put in. Unfortunately these are soft-sided canals so large amounts of water seeped into the ground before even making it to irrigating the fields.

Next was the Boloi Hovus Mosque, built in the  19th century and dedicated to the last Emir (leader of the region) mostly restored with its miniature minaret.

Next was the observation tower, which once held the water tank I spoke of earlier until it was destroyed by fire in 1975. Once again, like most old cities, the old part is quite small so as one looks from the tower the real city extends as far as one can see. There are great views of the new and the old from here.

Across the road is the Ark  Citadel, the last photo above. I don’t really think anyone has a real idea of the history of this place but as best as we can establish it has been around in many forms for some 1500 years, built and razed numerous times. Some say the mound it sits on has been created from the remnants of what has been destroyed in the past. Prior to the Russians bombing it in the 3-day war of September 1920 the whole 3.9 hectares had buildings on it. Most were destroyed and, since the forming of Uzbekistan in 1991, part has been restored or rebuilt. The brick outer walls are a new feature, only being added in the past few years. Prior to that it was just dirt with a wall around the top and entrance gates. Back in the day it contained dungeons, stables, a mosque, reception rooms and all the other things that went with a king type leader. Now different parts are different little museums with some artefacts going back to 5000 BC dug up in the area.

One can see by the locks on this door that the practice of cutting off hands for theft has now been banned.

The Kalon Mosque built in 1514 was next. This huge indoor – outdoor building is quite impressive with hundreds of columns with small domes on top.  It is built around a courtyard with an area at one end where the imam would say his bit from. Nazira told us that the acoustics were so good that even the person in the far corner could hear the words. “Not quite sure I believe that one!” The well in the small building in the second photo is where Genghis used to throw the bodies of the people that he didn’t like and the mosque was built around it as a mark of respect to those that died during his rule, apparently many thousand. As far as we could establish when Genghis arrived he destroyed everything in the area but for some reason the minaret, also in the second photo, survived. This was one of the few buildings we went into that was not full of stalls.

Across the courtyard is the Mir Arab Madrassa (university) built in the 14th century and still operational so we were only allowed a look in the entrance.

Just down the road we were lead into a carpet or rug shop. Sabine, with her perfect English and great knowledge of rug making, gave us a run down on the process with a helper holding up different rugs as she explained the quality, material and how long it took to make. The cheapest wool rug started at about 300 USD and they went up from there. A double knotted silk magic carpet with a different pattern each side was around 12k and took over a year for two people to make. The big 4x5m ones on the wall ran to 78k. The really interesting bit was when she took us out the back where a number of women sat making rugs, some on the floor, some on chairs, some even with head phones on and music videos playing on their phone as they worked. She showed us the difference between a double and a single knotted rug and how the maker picks up the back and front thread with a fine tool then knots the fine silk she has in her hand around it. We really got to appreciate the time and effort that goes into one small rug, which one girl may work on for over a year. In Uzbekistan nowadays everyone must attend school from 8 to 18 years and in the rug business people usually stop working when they reach 40 as their eyes fail and the flexibility goes from their fingers. There is no child labour used here as in Afghanistan and some other places.

After a nice lunch at one of the many local restaurants, where a guy strummed or picked away on a rubob, we headed off to look at Abdulazizkhan Madrassa, built in the 15th century. This one was very interesting as it is only partially restored and a look around the side gave me a good appreciation of how these were built. Nazria insisted that all the buildings were built of mud bricks made with mud and straw. I wasn’t convinced. With the unrestored part of the building revealed it seems that they were very similar in style to Rome, where concrete is laid with stone and other rubble. This appeared to be the same although I am not sure if it was concrete but it looked similar. Basically a pile of stones finished with a veneer of brick stone, or in some cases a plaster made from mud and straw. A stroll down a back street the previous evening had also revealed that some local houses are built in a similar way.

One last Madrassa, where a very serious couple in wedding garb were strutting around, as just now it’s wedding season for the locals, then we left our guide and headed to the  Chashmai Mirob Bar overlooking the Kalon minaret and mosque, where we enjoyed a drink as the sun went down.

Warning: Do not trust the compass in your iPhone. As we were sitting chatting I decided to check the compass in my phone as I had been a bit suspicious a couple of days ago that it wasn’t correct, As the sun was setting we knew where west was and the phone was 180 degrees out. Despite waving it around a bit nothing changed. Checking Sylvia’s phone, hers was right.


Friday 11 October 2019: Sylvia

We met Nazira at about 10am and headed about 15km outside the city to the huge complex of Bahauddin Nakshbandi, a great Sufi saint. This vast area contains several mosques, a Madrassah, a higher education centre and the mausoleum of the man himself, as well as those of many other prominent religious leaders. A separate area has his mother’s tomb and those of other family members. He founded the Naqshbandi Brotherhood, a religious order that encourages followers to become diligent farmers, artisans, traders and politicians. This area attracts huge numbers of pilgrims every year and despite encountering many while we were here it still seems a fairly peaceful place. Many people come to pray and pay their respects.

During our visit I reflected that it was probably good today was my day to write and not Roger’s although he did manage to maintain a fairly neutral expression throughout. I imagined he was wondering how he could attract so many visitors to see him once he has been buried in his stainless steel coffin.

Our next stop was the Sitorai Mohi-Khiva, the Palace of the Moon and Stars, which was the Summer Palace of the last emir of this area. He lived the rest of the year in the Ark Citadel that we visited yesterday. The place is immense and ornately decorated. It was built in the late 19th century by teams of architects from Russia and Europe as well as locals. The emir, Abdulahad Khan, really wanted to ensure his great wealth would be on display and no expense was spared. During Soviet times much of the palace was used as a sanitarium, but the main area was kept as a museum so is still in it’s natural state and has not been restored. Many of the valuables were taken to Russia and are apparently now in the Hermitage museum but there are still many large Japanese and Chinese vases on display.

What was the guest house now holds a small museum dedicated to clothing and shoes for the everyday locals and for the emir himself. The robes of the latter are all embroidered with real gold and weighed up to 10kg.

The old harem is now a museum showcasing the traditional suzani, or embroidery, which is one of the items most commonly for sale in all the small stalls around the tourist areas. There were many such stalls in the grounds of the palace and one group of tourists was making several purchases as we passed through.

Just after midday we stopped at Chor Bakr, a large mosque and necropolis dating back to the 16th century, where a number of religious leaders are buried. Today, being Friday, the mosque was in session. While Roger was allowed to roam freely, Nazira and I had to hold back. We decided not to wait for the preaching to finish to look inside. By now Roger is nearly as done with mosques as he was with Ethiopian churches last year.

Our last official stop for the day was Chor Minor, a charming Madrassah built in 1806. Most of the small chambers have since been destroyed and all that remains is the small central building with its four turquoise domed mini minarets. We were able to climb up on to the roof for a look around the surrounding area.

After dropping our things back in the hotel we headed out again through the bazaars to get some lunch and then wandered through some of the back streets of this incredible city finding more old Madrassahs and mosques in various stages of renovation.

Later in the afternoon Roger visited the local Bozori Kord Hammam, dating from the 15th century, for a massage. He wrapped himself in a cloth, headed into a tunnel and was directed into a steam dome with granite slabs to sit on in the alcoves. He sat for about 10 minutes, then stood for about 10 minutes to work up a good sweat. Then he went into the main room and sat on a slab while a guy threw water on him, washed his hair and and then gave him a massage. Then a combination of honey and ginger was rubbed into his body. He went to another dome and lay on a marble slab, wondering why he was getting so warm and then realised it was the ginger seeping into his body and working its magic. Then the guy came back and threw more water over him, after which he headed to another dome to dry off, get dressed and enjoy some tea. Apparently it was a great experience.

 

Silk Road: Khiva, Uzbekistan – October 2019

Monday 7 October 2019: Sylvia

Slavl picked us up from the hotel about 8am this morning for the short drive to the airport. I had hoped to get a glimpse of rush hour in this near-deserted town but it was a holiday so potentially even less traffic around than we had seen during the weekend. Women swept the road with twig brooms and polished the railings that run alongside. A young man was busy polishing one of the statues. I have never seen such a clean place.

Arriving at the airport we went through the usual security rigmarole three separate times but although the people seemed to have no concept of queuing politely, and were in fact quite pushy, the process was pretty smooth and it seemed no time at all before we were landing in Dashoguz after a brief 40 minute flight. Unfortunately there are no direct flights from Turkmenistan so we had to fly to Dashoguz and cross into Uzbekistan by land.

It is desert all the way from Ashgabat until the last few kilometres around Dashoguz where there is irrigation and agriculture, particularly cotton. There is a significant canal infrastructure providing very effective irrigation but it has resulted in the Aral Sea nearly completely drying up. As we landed at the airport we saw rows of biplane last, apparently used as crop dusters for fertilisers and to spray the cotton plants to remove the foliage before harvest.

As in Ashgabat there are large marble buildings and monuments in Dashoguz but not to the same scale. There are also a lot more older Soviet era buildings and as we neared the Uzbekistan border more stand alone homes.

This more than made up for the simple immigration process on arrival. We passed through the Turkmenistan emigration process reasonably easily – luckily Slavl stayed with us as we had to complete forms with no English. We then walked about 50 metres and passed another checkpoint into the neutral zone. There it was chaos. We watched as a crowd of people tried to board a dilapidated bus to cross the kilometre or so to Uzbekistan with lots of yelling. Eventually that bus left and Slavl spoke to the guards. Apparently tourists around here get some sort of priority. After waiting in the scorching sun for about 25 minutes the old bus returned, disgorging its passengers making the trip to Turkmenistan. We were then ushered onto the bus and sat in the back seats with our bags on our knees while I reckon about 100+ more people climbed on (it was at most a 20 seat bus), pushing and shoving until every inch of space was taken. The driver yelled loudly and obviously quite aggravate fly to get people to stop climbing aboard and we headed off. On the Uzbekistan border side things were a little smoother. We were again ushered to the front of the queue and once our passports were stamped walked the rest of the way to be met by Nazira, who will be our guide for the 10 days we are here in Uzbekistan.

As much as I found Turkmenistan interesting it was also somewhat unsettling and in many ways I am happy to be somewhere different now.  Having said that, a significant degradation in the road conditions was apparent. We drove through some fairly ramshackle villages and past a lot of fields of cotton and rice, eventually arriving at Khiva, where our hotel is right in the heart of the old city.

It is immediately inspiring with towering mud brick walls, tall minarets and turquoise domes. After checking in to our hotel, Malika Khevat, we headed out to explore, stopping first for a bite of lunch at an outdoor restaurant. It is always unnerving when looking at a menu in local currency for the first time – we both ordered a beef kebab dish for 45,000. I was relieved to check the conversion and find that was less than US$5. And I found out later we had picked the most expensive place in town!

We wandered around and took loads of photos. Tomorrow we have a proper tour so I will leave it to Roger to explain the details. However I am completely charmed by this place. There is something almost magical about it and I feel like I have been transported back in time.


Tuesday 8 October 2019: Roger

Thank you to all of you who write comments on our blog they are very much appreciated.

After a lazy start and a breakfast that was to the standard we were expecting (a bit less than tasty) we were met by Nazira who was full of enthusiasm and eager to overload us with every bit of information she had ever absorbed. It only took Sylvia about three polite goes at getting her to tone it down a bit – we really didn’t need to know who drew every flower on every mosaic tile in the fort.

Like the rest of this region the area has been fought over, captured, conquered, traded and ruled by all the great ancient rulers and leaders. Alexander the Great, the Arabs, led by Outabyba Ibn Muslim, Genghis Khan, Amir Timur and many others including the Russians and finally the Soviets, until 1991 when the country of Uzbekistan was formed. To give you the full run down I would have to first go to university and learn it all by which time, as there is so much to learn, I would have expired.

But here are a couple of interesting bits we discovered: the first is in this area around 400BC the Khorezmian occupied the area for a couple of hundred years. They developed farming, handicrafts and trade as the economy grew. On the right bank of the Amu Darya river they constructed the Koi-Kirilgan and DJjanbaskala canals, which irrigated some 3.5 million hectares.As a result there were many fortified towns in the area to keep both the products and the traders safe. Until 1598 Khiva was just a small town but then the Amu Darya river changed course destroying the then capital Kunya-Urgench. Khiva then developed into a small but well-fortified city.

Our first stop was the Kuhna Ark, the residence of the king, containing the summer mosque, the winter palace and a watch tower.  First we entered the summer mosque with a large stage area decorated with glazed tiles where the the Iman would have given his sermon as the selected disciples listened intently from the courtyard. Out the back of the stage was a large, again ornately tiled room where the Iman would have held court. At the back of this area was also the royal mint which is now a museum with a collection of coins and notes.

Back in the main courtyard was a well, supposedly found by Shem, the son of Noah way back – not quite sure about that one! We headed through a door and up some steep stairs to the watch tower where we looked back over the whole 2 hectares of the fort. It is really hard to know what is original and what has been rebuilt whether from battles or just the passage of time. I am sure most of it has at some stage been rebuilt. There are good views along the northern walls, most of which have been rebuilt over the past few decades.

Back down the steep stairs and down a passage we entered the kings reception hall with another mosaic stage area but this time a built up area in the courtyard where a yurt would be erected for the king’s guests to await his audience.

Exiting the palace we headed across the street to one of the many madrassas in town. These are like a university where people received a higher education. This one is now a kind of museum with a bit of history on some of the many rulers.

Back out on the street we walked back past the large what looked like a chimney but was in fact supposed to be a 150m high minaret that was never completed.

At a stall I got to try on an old herders hat, made of sheeps wool to keep the heat and dust away from ones face. It also had a lining designed to absorb the sweat and keep one’s head moist and cool. Now I know why I never grew my hair long!

Stopping for a brew at an outdoor cafe we were entertained by a group of countrymen and women who had come to town for a wedding, complete with TV type camera. They danced on the street for some time, the men cutting some slick moves.

There are hundreds of stalls around the main restored or rebuilt area of the fort. The keepers are friendly and not pushy like they are in many parts of the world. Some sit hand painting fridge magnets that they fire and sell for a couple of dollars. In one stall a guy sat hammering out copper and brass vessels.

A bit further down the street we visited the Stone (summer) Palace, not even a km away from the winter one. It had the same same stage area as the winter palace for the king to hold court with a room to the side for the scribe to record the wisdom of the king and disciples. A passageway lead us to a room containing old wagon wheels, carved wooden columns and a camel driven mill for extracting oil from seeds such as sunflower.

 

We also discovered here that a lot of the tiles in this building had been nailed on. By now you may have noticed that a plumb bob and a level did not come into play when it came to putting in windows and doors, even one of the minarets is on a lean.

Next stop was the Djuma (Friday) mosque, the roof held up by a hundred-plus carved wooden columns, each mounted on a stone base. This too has been rebuilt, at least twice. When the Persians invaded here a thousand or so years ago all the locals headed into the mosque assuming Allah would protect them. The Persians simply burnt the place down killing all inside, or so the story goes. Genghis Khan also razed the place when he invaded.

Next to the main minaret is the madrasa Kutlug-Murad Inaka which was originally an university of art with individual rooms for the students. Cuts have been made into the thick walls that would have separated the rooms and a passageway runs through what is now a fine art museum.

The last stop with Nazira was the mausoleum built between 1810 and 1830 in memory of Pakhlavan Makhmud (1247 to 1326), an undefeated wrestler. Looking at the place wrestling must have been well paid back in those days. He was also a poet and philosopher, and well respected through the region.

“It is easy for me to smash 300 mountains
It is easy for me to paint the sky with blood from my heart
It is easy for me to be in prison for a 100 years
But it’s difficult for me to spend a moment with a stupid man.”

At the end of the courtyard is, I presume, a tomb, which is covered floor to ceiling in glazed tiles of various patterns and colours. Off to the left and right are two more tombs, where other rulers from the region are laid to rest. On the west side of the courtyard a two-storey building is also decorated partially with glazed tiles.

 

We headed of to the Bir Gazum restaurant, enjoying a dish of lagman and shashlik, and me some Uzbekistan Chardonnay. We waited for the sun to get around to the west to go back up the watch tower and take some more photos across the town, after which we walked around the inside of the fort wall, eventually finding some steps to the top.
Looking out across the outer city we realised that we have only had a glimps of Khiva and the tourist part at that.

We walked the wide walkway round the top of the wall, which has mostly been rebuilt and, in parts, the walkway cobbled. Where it is not cobbled it is starting to deteriorate quite badly. The inner and outer walls are I think encased in brick and plastered over with a plaster made of mud and straw in the traditional manner, as are a number of buildings in the town. In places the plaster has washed away.

There are thousands of people living in the many residences within these walls with many small hotels spread among the houses. We strolled through the back streets the short distance to our hotel noticing that each house or dwelling had a very nice door. Door making is obviously a real craft in this part of the world.

In the evening we were sitting in the hotel restaurant when a voice behind us said “you sound like kiwis”. Margaret from Wellington and Leslie from Auckland, who lives about 400m from us, are on a long 3-4 month annual holiday having rented their houses out and spent time in Turkey, now here, then Germany and on to Sri Lanka before heading home mid January.

A point of interest. back in the day none of the buildings here had locks on the doors. it was pretty simple – if you stole you lost your right hand, if you stole again you lost your left hand – bit cruel but it worked!!

The Silk Road: Turkmenistan October2019

Saturday 5 October – Sylvia
We landed in Ashgabat at about 2am in the morning after transiting through Istanbul. I had read horror stories about long waits at the visa queue but for us it was a remarkably painless process. We handed over our passports and letter of invitation, the passports were stamped and we were sent to the bank next door to pay, then returned to collect our passports. There was very little queue at immigration itself and the staff were all friendly and returned our smiles brightly. I wish the immigration staff everywhere else were as friendly.
As we had come in to land we had great views of this city of huge white buildings and coloured lights. The airport itself was a huge shiny white building – about two years old with stylised falcon wings for the roof. Inside it was immaculate and spacious with high ceilings and lots of marbles decoration.

We were met by our guide, Slavl, and driver for the twenty minute transfer to our hotel, The Yyldyz. What we had seen from the air was even more impressive in the ground. Huge, wide streets dotted about with large marble buildings, decorated with different coloured neon lights. Lots of monuments and fountains stand imposingly in their spots. We can see our hotel, which is shaped somewhat like the Burj in Dubai, from quite a distance but we have to pass the most incredible looking building first – apparently a wedding hall!
Our hotel is just as impressive inside with huge marble columns and friendly service. In no time at all we are in our large suite and settling in for the rest of the night.

After a decent sleep we were picked up again just before midday and driven to the museum. Another incredibly imposing building that was built about three years after Turkmenistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in the early nineties. There are three museums in one but we focused on the history section. I was struck again by how much of a baby New Zealand is. This part of the world has had human habitation in some for for nearly 100,000 years – NZ for only about 3,000. The exhibits were well laid out with clear and detailed explanations in multiple languages including English.
Next we headed into the older part of the city for lunch in a traditional Turkmenistan yurt restaurant, where we try some traditional dishes including a mutton soup, a type of mutton pie, pumpkin pastie and spinach dumplings.
It is generally pretty quiet out – I don’t know where the million inhabitants of this city spend their time. At many of the bus stops around the city we see groups of young women in long red dresses and young men wearing suits – apparently the university uniform. They all have an embroidered type of skull cap on their heads. Further on we see younger people, the boys dressed the same and the girls in green dresses, school uniforms.
In 1948 a massive earthquake devastated the city. It measured 7.3 on the Richter scale but had a Mercalli intensity of X and completely destroyed the city. Over 100,000 people lost their lives. The Soviets repopulated and rebuilt the city which in part explains how it is so well laid out. Since gaining independence as a country in 1991 there has been a concerted effort to upgrade. All new buildings are completely clad in white marble. The wide roads have been planted with trees creating a significant green belt, and there are ornate lampposts and other decorations. It also seems to be the city of monuments with many massive monuments dotted about the city commemorating different historic events. The scale of everything is extremely impressive. The eight-sided star features heavily in the decoration, one of the main symbols adopted but the state. The Kopet Dag mountains provide a fitting backdrop for the city and act as the key border between Turkmenistan’s and Iran, only about 30km away. It is definitely the most different city I have ever been to and it is really hard to describe it adequately – either in words or pictures.
We headed out towards the desert, as we go t further from the city centre the houses got bigger but all the houses in any area are identical: row upon row all with neat tidy lawns, and all in white.
We left the city completely behind and drove for mile after mile with only sand dunes and scrubby bush for scenery. The Karakum desert extends for miles. The road is wide but it entirely smooth and we hurtled along at about 90mph. In some places thick straw has been ‘planted’ in clumps to prevent sand blowing back on to the road.
After about 270kms we reached our destination, the Darvaza Gas crater. In 1978 the Soviet geologists were drilling for gas. Unfortunately the underground water in this region made the drilling unstable and the ground collapsed creating a massive crater and swallowing the rig. In order to avoid an ecological issue due to the gas they set a fire expecting it to burn out in a couple of days. Forty years later it is still burning and is now attracting tourists from all over the world, many of whom camp out in yurts overnight.

Our driver prepared a BBQ meal with the local shepherd’s family while we explored the area. The crater is really quite impressive with temperatures inside apparently reaching 400 degrees. You could certainly feel the heat up on the surface. It was impressive enough in broad daylight but after dinner when it was nearly dark it was really at its best.

We were not staying though and had to make the return drive to our hotel in Ashgabat. All in all a long day but a good day.

Sunday 6 October 2019 – Roger
Breakfast on the 4th floor of the hotel was a bit of a slow affair as the bloke that was making the omlets had done a runner. While they were trying to find him I decided to go out onto the deck to take a couple of pictures. I got as far as opening the door when intercepted by the waitress. She spoke not a word of English and me even less than of the local language but it was obvious that no way was I stepping out that door. We had had a notice not to open any windows before noon in the hotel!! The English speaking waiter came over and explained that it was Memorial Day and the president was at the local memorial and no one was allowed to open the windows or go onto the decks overlooking the memorial some 500m away.
At 10.30am our guide, Slavl, was waiting to take us on a tour of the city. I remembered that 61 years ago today this city with a population then 198,000 lost 110,000 of its people to a 7.3 earthquake – hence the Memorial Day. The city, then built mainly of brick and mud block houses, was basically flattened. The Soviets sent people from Russia to rebuild the city with a promise of a free house if they settled here. The city was rebuilt and over the next 40 years various styles of buildings were constructed, often known by the Soviet leader of the time, Stalin, Gorbachev, etc. In 1991 when independence was granted apparently a bunch of Turks visiting the new leader and government made a persuasive suggestion that future buildings in the city should be clad in white marble from Turkey. They must have been bloody good salesmen as that is exactly what happened.
Interestingly this whole part of the world, until formed into states by the Soviets a in 1924, was just known as Turkistan. It was only when the Soviet block collapsed that they kept the names given by the Soviets and became independent countries.
We headed off from the hotel along the wide streets, past the wedding hotel, which two night’s ago changed colour several times as we drove from the airport. There is definitely no shortage of electricity or water around here as this city has more lights and fountains per head of population than any I have seen. In fact the whole place makes Las Vegas look somewhat of a beginner when it comes to space, fountains and lighting. The electricity is gas powered and with large reserves of natural gas in the country is partially funded by the sale of such to neighbouring countries like Afghanistan and Russia, and also to China.
Across town the first stop was the Turkmenbasy Ruhy Mosque, built as a memorial to the first post-Soviet president,. He and his family are laid to rest here in a mausoleum which is part of the complex. The main mosque with its 60m gold dome has a massive carpet covering the whole floor with a space or prayer mat marked out for each of the 7000 worshipers. There are another 3000 such spaces upstairs on the balcony where the woman sit and pray. The complex is surrounded by water features, paved areas, trees and gardens.
Heading off to the outskirts of the city, still on wide roads, we eventually headed down a side road past a small market and some trucks loaded with hay. I am sure my mate George back home in the South Island could get much more hay on his Mac truck if he stacked it like this.
We arrived at the local horse stud farm to be offered tea and bickies and a parade of nags brought from the stables, mostly one at a time. On the occasion a mare and a stallion were brought out together there was a bit of a scrap, maybe part of the show.
The Ashyr stud has been around for 300 years and was one of the few to survive the Soviet area as most were taken over by the government. The horses, although very thin in the forequarters, are used for mainly racing, some dressage and a bit of showing. It is illegal to export them from Turkmenistan although some have been given as gifts to various world leaders. One nag presented to us was apparently valued at US$100k. The last came at the gallop from the stables, rider on board, did a couple of circuits then stopped in front of us the rider leaping from the saddle. This one Sylvia was supposed to take for a ride, but I think having seen the previous stallion roll around in the dirt it was all I could do to get her to sit on it, although she did look the part in the costume provided.
Next stop was the Saparmurat Haji Mosque. which was built as a memorial to the 12,000 people who were massacred here by the Russians in 1881 when they took over this part of the world. Back then Russia was wanting to invade India and take it from the British but were stopped in Crimea. They still took over this part of area, which then was not a seperate country . The Russians didn’t really invade but the area became a protectorate and it was the objection to the building of the railway line linking Russia that sparked off the war and siege of Gokdepe where the massacre took place. Until recently there was a memorial day for this event every year but now not wanting to offend Moscow it has been shelved.
A drive back across town took us to Old Nisa, a fortress that was occupied around 200AD and discovered by a Russian general in the late 1800’s who recognised the shape of the area as a fended area. It is now a UNESCO Heritage site and parts are being reconstructed as the excavation takes place.
Just over the hills in the background about 30ks away is the border to Iran – “yes tempting”, but not this trip.
History in this part of the world is long and complicated but for those interested we did manage to extract a summary from our very helpful and knowledgeable guide.
  • 6-3c BC: Part of the Persian Empire
  • 3c BC – 3c AD: Part of the Greek Empire
  • 3c AD: Part of the Parthian Empire (This is the era Nisa is from)
  • 3-7c AD – Part of the Sasanian Empire (Persian)
  • 7-10c AD – Part of the Arabian Empre
  • 10-13c AD – Part of the Seljuk Empire (which  became the Ottoman Empire)
  • 13-15c AD – Part of the Mongolian Empire
  • 15-16c AD – Salor Confederation – Large Tribal Union
  • 16-18c AD – Ruled by Khiva and Bhukara (Now part of Uzbekistan)
  • 1800’s – Russian leadership
  • 1920-1991 – Part of the USSR
We stopped for lunch at the local Nusay Restaurant, enjoying some nice local food. I had the sturgeon, which is rather tasty but actually not local.
As we headed back into town our hotel stood out from lots of locations and on the hill nearby was the local TV mast that looked more like a monument than a transmitter.

As we headed down Bitarap Turkmenistan Avenue, which with 4 lanes plus another two lanes off to the side in each direction, is the main street, but not the only one this big. Five water tankers head down the road in a staggered formation cleaning the already clean street. We cut down the side lanes to pass them. This, our guide explains, is also part of the green belt where they are planting millions of trees. From what we saw the green belt runs through the whole city.
Each ministry has its own large marble and often domed building, as do universities, medical centres and more. Below in the background  is the Ministry of Culture and the University of Gas and Petroleum exploration.
Our next stop was the Monument of Independence with large grounds and many water features, plus the ceremonial guards on duty as with all of these sites.
Passing many more marble buildings and apartments Slavl explained that a government worker stays in the job for ten years and then qualifies to get an apartment at half price. No shortage of workers in the government here. Apartments start at two bedrooms of about 100sqm and go up in size from there.
Last stop of the day was the Memorial of Neutrality. As you have gathered by now they are big into statues and memorials around here, which include a statue of the first president. I think the current president is only the second one since independence.
Its quite hard to do this place justice with a few words and pictures but I have added in a few more photos from around the town to help give one an idea of the grandness of this place.

 

 

The Fortress of Morans and Surprising Arles – October 2019

Tuesday 1 October 2019

We dropped into Marseille around midday Sunday having flown from Singapore via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, who have the best food in the sky. And I really mean dropped in – I think the pilot of the Airbus  321-200 came in a little fast and missed the normal touch down spot. I reckon to save the embarrassment of pushing on the power and going around again he went for option two “throw it on the ground”. That worked to the point that when we hit the ground the cockpit door flew open. Full reverse thrust and lots of brakes and we were taxiing.

We headed to Nimes, to the Vatel Hotel as the service in the Pulman hotel in Montpellier is so bad. Our room was not yet ready so we drove to Sommières for a late lunch, then back to the hotel and checked in.

Sylvia’s daughter, Beka, and boyfriend, Tom, and their two dogs, Daisy and Turtle, had arrived in Amsterdam last week and bought a van to embark on a two year European rock climbing gig. They were driving south so we headed to a small town called Bollene to meet them and drop off some extra kit we had brought with us for them.

Just south of Bollene Is the town of Mornas, which has a huge cliff behind it with a fort on top. It inspired me on Sunday when driving past so today I thought it was time to check it out.

I headed up a narrow road “luckily no one was coming the other way” past the large church to a car park. There I dismounted, headed up a steep concrete road to the fort, where I was greeted by a friendly lady, and paid the 5euro fee.

No-one seems to know when this first became a fort. It was however pre-Roman times and was occupied by them. In the Middle Ages it may well have been a wooden structure. By the 20th century Mornas was owned by the Earl of Toulouse and over the next 300 years the Earl along with the Archbishop of Arles and the King of France all claimed and scrapped over Mornas. The Papacy got hold of it and did it up to ward off vagrants who roamed the area. In the 16th century the Catholics and Protestants fought over it. By the French Revolution (1789) it was abandoned.

I always look at these places and appreciate just how hard it must have been to get all the stones up there, let alone make them into walls.

 

A path between the walls takes one up to the east side where the parapet walls have been built right on the cliff top. It’s always hard to get the perception of depth when photographing down the side of a cliff but no one was going to come up the east side in a hurry.

A tower had a spiral staircase which leads to a room complete with throne.

Some more stairs, then a ladder take one onto the roof with stunning views.

A chapel has a stairway which leads to what maybe was once a secret passage.

Some of the signs were amusing.

Again I was lucky on the drive down not to meet another car.


Wednesday 2 October 2019

After dropping Sylvia off at the Royal Canin head office and factory, where she has meetings all week, I headed south to Pic Saint Loup. At 658M its the only hill in the area.

I parked up at the bottom of the track on the east side, near the quaint little town of Cazevieille. The track starts at 300m so its a fairly easy stroll to the top. Yes I have written about this place before but it’s always nice to come back for a bit of exercise and the good views from the top.

After a good look at the views from the top and a look in the church I decided to take the track back along the east ridge which runs along the top with the vertical drop on the south side making for a good walk. The track however, although on the map, petered out where a rock slide had interrupted it. I cut down through the bush to the track I had come up on in the process losing a hearing aid, bugger!


Thursday 3 October 2019

About 40ks back toward Marseille is a town called Arles, which we pass every time we come here. Having been to just about every village and town in this part of France I wasn’t expecting anything special. Crossing the river Rhone I turned off the N113 with the road taking me to the centre of town. Heading down Boulevard des Lices, suddenly in front of me was the worlds ugliest building.

Obviously the person that designed it and a few on the local council like it. Tour Luma Ales is in fact the local tourist office and a new experimental art centre. I parked the car took a pic and walked away from it – nothing inspired me to go inside.

Just down the road back towards the motorway I saw what must have been a fortress wall so headed down that street, eventually finding some stone steps that took me up and around the back. I headed along a street to an open area with great views over the city.

I walked around the corner and there in front of me was the local Amphitheater.  I shouldn’t have been surprised as back in the day these things were built like soccer stadiums are today; every even not very large town having one to entertain the locals.

Built in the 1st century AD it has had many uses over the last two thousand years. After its use by the Romans for feeding the lions, among other things it became a stone quarry -hence all the upper stone seating has gone. Then during the Middle Ages a town was built on site with four fortress towers being built into the surrounding walls, 3 of which still remain. Now scaffolding type seating has been placed in the upper galleries and it is apparently used for bull fighting among other things.

Just up the road is a half amphitheater, built a little early and without the sophistication of  internal rooms and passages.

Next I came across the Cryptopotrigues. This, set under a building on the edge of the town square, is basically the foundations of a building built around a square in order to level uo the ground. Two 90 meter tunnels and a 60m cross tunnel at the end make up the foundations of the buildings above. Over the centuries they have been used as storage, bazaar markets, air aid shelters and many other things. These towns were built by the Romans with amazing attention to detail and great engineering.

From here I wandered the streets realising again why I like these old towns so much, as each street or alley, although it is just a street or alley, but in these places each one has something unique about it. Captured in a time capsule and although now occupied by people of this day and age, they will always hold the secrets of the often long and interesting past.

 

Singapore Grand Prix – September 2019

Our good mate, Mitch, very kindly gave us a couple of tickets to the race. The first were walk about tickets which allowed us to walk the track edge in the green area.

Arriving at the Marina Square Shopping centre we followed rather a lot of signs through the shopping centre, up escalators and over bridges, finally ending up beside the track. The whole track is surrounded by concrete median barriers with steel posts about 3m high set into them and a heavy wire mesh between the posts to protect spectators from debris should cars collide. Set back from that is another barrier so spectators can’t get close to the mesh.

We arrived as the Porsche racing got underway. The cars raced by and in what seemed like no time at all they had completed the 5.063km loop and were back again. We wandered around watching the race from various spots, always through the barriers.

There is lots going on: just the number of people in some sort of uniform helping out is overwhelming plus there are thousands of spectators roaming around. In typical Singapore style everything works and flows smoothly.

Our second set of tickets are yellow and give us access to a lounge at the base of the Singapore Flyer. We make our way through the purple area with the thousands of people on the move. One thing that often amuses us about Singapore is which side of the path one should walk on. They drive on the left here like in Japan, Malaysia and a number of Asian countries. In the shopping centres they often have arrows to stay left but then some escalators will be on the right. Around the track most of the barriers had signs up directing one to the left but every now and again there would be one putting the foot traffic on the right. Not to worry, when I first visited London in the 80’s everyone kept left on the footpath, now with the influx of Europeans it’s also just a shambles.

After a good wander around we headed to the lounge, with food and drinks provided and a large deck from which to watch the racing. Being quite high up we got an unobstructed view of the track in a couple of places. We were overlooking the last straight, about 400m long with the cars slowing down before heading around the final bend either to the pits, or the finishing straight.

We watched a bit more racing as the sun went down, hidden largely by the smog, which has been really bad this week as the Indonesians do their annual forest and vegetation burn.

The Grand Prix final started just after 8pm and is run at night so people in London can watch it in the middle of the day. Around 7pm the drivers are driven round the track in old cars to give the crowd a good look.

A buffet dinner was served at 7.30 in the lounge, after which we headed out onto the deck to watch the racing get underway.

After a couple of warm-up laps to get the tyres and cars warmed up the race gets underway. Over the PA they give us a few stats on what is about to take place. I once drove a cat at 260km on a long straight road in a country I won’t name. I thought that was quite fast. These guys are hitting over 300k on some of these short straights. The temperature in the cockpit apparently reaches over 60 degrees. They change gear thousands of time. The fastest lap of the night is Kevin Magnussen at 1.42 with an average speed of 178.168km/h, not bad as there are 23 corners on the course. It costs around $150 million to put this show on with about a 100,000 tickets being sold.

As the racing is underway the Gardens By the Bay light up with their nightly light show, Our friends Frank, Deb, Natasha and Keir, who are visiting from NZ, are over there watching the show with the noise from the track no doubt interrupting their evening.

The 61 laps totalling 308.965km is over in around 2 hours. Photo taking was a bit tricky as there was only a small gap where the cars were not obstructed by the fence or poles. It was also a bit hard to work out who was in front especially as cars stopped in the pits to change tyres and refuel and towards the end the field was very spread out.

Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari won the race in 1.58.33.667. 1.58.33 would be close enough surely!!!

 

 

A weekend in Nikko, Japan

Friday 2 August 2019

After Sylvia finished her busy day we strolled to the local metro station at Takanawadai and caught the metro to Asakusa station. There we mounted the Limited Express and in a couple of hours we dismounted at Shimoimaichi station where we caught a taxi for the last 35kms to our ryokan,  Hoshin, KAI Nikko. The drive was interesting to say the least. Cautious would be a somewhat under description of the driver, however his caution did pay off as we had a couple of close encounters with deer on the very windy roads.

Arriving at the Kai Nikko Hotel we were treated by a number of very polite staff and escorted to our room. This hotel is very traditional old style Japan ryokan with passageways matted in tatami mats, traditional garments to wear to meals and of course footwear left at the entrance to the matted areas. With a foyer, a huge bath in the bath room, the standard Japanese lots of buttons on the toilet, a little dressing room off the main room and a couple of low chairs with a half view of  Lake Chuzenji as the paper doors only slid over each other, it was surprisingly comfortable with almost full sized beds rather than futons.

 


Saturday 3 August 2019

Dressing in our Yulara and slippers we headed off to breakfast. The hotel is quite large, but being the off season it seams a little quiet just now. We were seated in a cubicle with a somewhat overwhelming menu placed on the table in front of us. Soon the food turned up, lots of dishes very well presented and fortunately each portion quite small.

 

 

Feeling rather full we headed off to catch the bus over the bush-clad hill to visit a bridge and a couple of temples in the Nikko Unesco World Heritage area. Reaching the top of the hill on the bus we then headed down probably one of the most well maintained switch back routes I have ever seen, dropping 400m over about one kilometre there were lots of corners. At times one could look out the window and see three or four legs of the road below you. The road is one way and in places two lane so the cars can pass the slow bus.

Soon we were at the Shinkyo Bridge. Crossingg the Daiya River it is one of the 3 most beautiful bridges in Japan. The original bridge was a myth where a 10ft tall character appears with a couple of snakes wrapped around his arm so a priest and his mates could cross the fast flowing river. Anyway the bridge has been rebuilt many times but in the same style since 1636.

From there we strolled up the road alongside the river stopping at  a coffee shop to be greeted by some very friendly staff. A nice old, hunched over lady came out from the back and gave me a fan to keep cool while we had a kind of sign language chat.

Along the road a little we headed up some steps and paths to the Toshogu Shrine, the most ornate shrine in Japan. With its 5 story pagoda (with what looks like a radio mast on top), lots of gold leaf carvings and statues, it’s a pretty impressive place built on the side of a hill with lots of steps and many levels. Build initially in 1617 but enlarged later, the third Shogun Leyasu is entombed there. Statues in various forms guard each entrance way as one enters different compounds or temples.

We had a good look around between heavy showers and ducking from building to building to avoid getting drenched. Some steps lead up to a stone walkway at the end of which some 200 steps lead up to the inner sanctum.

There are also many ornate carvings of birds and animals among other things One  particularly famous one is the three moneys famous  “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. It’s interesting as our poorly run government in NZ has adopted something similar. “Speak Lots, See Nothing, Do Nothing”

On the short walk back to the river we stopped at a nice cafe before heading up stream alongside the river and through some nice parks to the Kanmangafuchi Abyss created many years ago by a volcanic eruption. Along the path in the rather picturesque forest are around 70 Jizo statues, most of them with a red knitted had and red bib. I couldn’t establish when or how these got here but did discover that back many years ago the Japanese used to put red hats and bibs on their kids when they had measles, also red bibs and hats were put on statues to protect kids in after life who had died before their parents. Whatever the reason they are certainly quite intriguing.

We walked back up to the main road and caught the bus back to the lake, hoping to stop at the cable car on top of the hill but were too late as it was closed for the day.

Alighting the bus at the lake a short walk took us to a complex and into a lift that took us down a 100 meters to a viewing deck. Lake Chuzenji was formed when a volcano erupted many years ago and blocked up the gorge that the river ran through. As a result the lake was formed and the water exiting the lake runs over the blockage for nearly a kilometre then drops over the edge, creating a pretty magnificent waterfall. Two huge lifts drop down into a tunnel that leads to the deck. A meter at the entrance tells one how much water is coming over the falls – today 2.5 tons a second. We are lucky to be here in the quiet season as during the fall this place is apparently packed.

Back at the hotel we dressed in our yakutas again to visit the Onsen (hot baths in the basement of the hotel).  A large lounge served as the entrance to the two separate male nd female bathing areas, well set up with large changing rooms leading through into the bathhouse, which had rows of sit down shower stalls to clean in before entering the large baths, one indoor and one outdoor. The water was quite warm but not really hot. I lay and soaked for a while having the place to myself and wondering if I was receiving all the minerals that were going to make me feel (according to the blurb in the room) super recharged when I got out. Relaxing it was – the rest of it I missed out on feeling just the same as before as I dried and put on my Yakutia for the stroll back to the room.

Dinner was another feast experience with Suzuki, our waiter, having prepared some of the food. He entered the room at one point with what looked like a concrete block which he lifted the lid off to review a fire box, which he threw some wagyu steak in to cook, which was superb. Once again great attention had been paid to the presentation of the many courses. Interestingly at the end of the meal in spite of all the courses one doesn’t feel overfull.


Sunday 4 August 2019.

After another 10 course breakfast we headed off around the lake to the ferry and took a ride around the lake. Going on on the beach was an archery competition, which I found out later is part of a annual festival that happens every year here. Not only do they compete on the beach with the targets on boats a few meters off shore but there is also another competition done on horseback, which I am sure would be fun to watch.

The lake is quite picturesque with the bush clad hills running down to the shoreline all the way around. There was a bit of yacht racing going on in one bay and a few people fishing in the odd place. One bay has a camp site and a couple of what had been embassy houses. The ferry stopped a couple of times at well kept jetties to pick up and drop off a few people.

All too soon the weekend waste and we were on the bus heading back over the windy hill to Nikko where we caught the train back to Tokyo and our flight to Taiwan.

A Glimpse of Sumo training in Tokyo

Wednesday 31 July 2019

At 0745 I met the guide at the local metro station along with about 25 others. We strolled off not far down the street to the Oguruma Sumo Stable. Outside we were given a rundown on the rules: shoes off, do not sit with legs out straight so the players can see soles of your feet, no talking, no video, no flash etc.

We filed in and took a seat. Along with several others I had a chair provided as I had a back operation about 3 weeks ago. Everyone else took a seat on the floor surrounding the training area. Another tour group filed in with around 50  spectators looking on as the players went through their morning training session which was already underway when we arrived.

The first part of the session, which went on for a good 20-plus minutes, consisted of leg lifts to the left and right, each player counting out 10 of these before moving on to the next one. Not everyone did the whole 10 each time. Every now and then a few of them would wonder off to the back room reappearing a few minutes later.

Leg lifting over they then moved on to pushing each other across the ring. The guy being pushed just stood with this legs straight and leaned forward so a big effort was required.

That phase over they then practiced some throws on each other, once again taking it in turns.

Then the circle was swept and the real fun began with some full on fighting underway. Squatting in the centre of the ring they exploded into each other with a loud thud as the two rather immovable forces impacted. A struggle then went on with one trying to get hold of the other’s belt (mawashi) to try and control the opponent, or simply use force, pushing the other guy out of the ring or even tripping the other guy up. Once any part of the body other than the foot touches the ground or the foot goes outside the circle it is all over. Each bout only lasted a few seconds followed by lots of heavy breathing.

One poor chap must have either done something wrong or was privileged to get a bit of extra training as he had to fight several people one after the other and the biggest bloke several times. All this time the coach sat in his armchair looking on and only occasionally giving the odd instruction while keeping up to date on social media.

The fighting over a few of them took turns to do a shuffle around the edge of the ring followed by a few pushups and a bit of stretching.

The training over these guys head off and eat a mass of grub  (about 10,000 calories) then sleep for a few hours before doing an individual training session later in the day.

This is followed by another 10,000 calorie meal.

Only the top 10% of the players get paid, the rest pay their own way hoping to make it into to the payroll one day. Apparently sums wrestler’s have a life span of only 65-70 years – very short in Japan.

I left the stable feeling quite skinny!!!

 

A brief stay in charming Slovenia: Ljubljana, Lake Bovinj, Lake Bled (Sylvia)

Saturday 13 July 2019

I had spent last week in Russia, including a visit to the Royal Canin branch in Nizhni Novgorod, on the banks of the Volga River. These photos show the kremlin (walled city) over-looking the confluence of the Volga and Oka rivers. Unfortunately it was very cold and wet in the evening after our branch visit so we cut the planned city tour short.
After spending the week in Russia I flew on Friday evening (via Munich) to the charming capital city of Slovenia, Ljubljana.
This morning I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in my hotel, Hotel Cubo, before heading out to explore the city. Ljubljana has been given the title the Green Capital of Europe, having put a lot of effort into building a sustainable city, including making the centre vehicle free. This makes it particularly easy to get around. The city is fairly compact with a population of about 290,000 (total population of Slovenia is about 2.8 million) and my hotel was centrally located so I explored entirely on foot. I had expected it to be overrun with tourists like so many European cities but while there were plenty of tourists about I was pleasantly surprised by how spacious it seemed.
I started with a quick stroll to Preseren Square, which is pretty much the centre of the city. It is dominated by the imposing Baroque Franciscan Church, known as the pink church, although it was apparently originally red and now faded. The city straddles the Ljubljana river and there are many bridges. Just beside the Preseren Square is the first of these, the triple bridge, so called because it is actually three bridges; the original central bridge became too small and so pedestrian bridges were added on each side in 1930.
Across the bridge is the area known as the Old Town and another smaller square with an impressive fountain. This is also where the Central Market, an open area filled with stalls selling various fruits, vegetables and general merchandise, sits.
Next I wandered up the hill to the Ljubljana Castle, which dominates the skyline. There is an impressive looking funicular option but I was definitely in need of some exercise and enjoyed the walk up. The medieval castle dates back to the 15th century and has been incredibly well restored. It is the only castle I can remember being in that actually has glass in the windows. I enjoyed the informative audio guide and wandering around the immaculate site. The views from the observation tower were particularly impressive. Apparently you can see 80% of Slovenia on a fine, clear day and we certainly had great views today.
There were plenty of historical exhibitions on the grounds including one highlighting some of the incredible costume designs of Hranitelj. He has designed numerous costumes for the theatre and there was also a room filled with a variety of pieces of clothing displayed against similarly coloured backgrounds. It was extremely impressive.
After leaving the castle I wandered back down the hill and crossed the river again at the famous and well-photographed Dragon bridge, aptly named for the dragon statues guarding each end. It seems there are many legends and myths about dragons in Slovenia, perhaps related to the jagged mountain chains that could – with a lot of imagination – look like the spikes on a dragon’s back. The area around the river is filled with cafes and shops and makes for some great people watching.
Next I wandered to Tivoli Park, a huge expanse of green within the centre of the city. It was a fantastic place to get away from the crowds. There are statues dotted about and people resting and picnicking in the grounds. I followed a 3km path, which was all I could make out from the Slovenian writing on the map, and barely saw another person. All I could hear was the bird song and it was hard to believe I was in a capital city.
I headed back to the river where I enjoyed a very decadent ice cream sundae, while being entertained by a bunch of tourists doing antics on stand up paddle boards in the river. I then headed to Metelkova, an alternative cultural centre show-casing all sorts of unusual art installations. It was pretty quiet but well worth wandering through. I think it probably buzzes at night. I had been sad to see a lot of graffiti all around the city so it was great to see a place for street artists to call their own.


Sunday 14 July 2019

Having seen most of the sights described in 2-3 day guides for Ljubljana (albeit quickly and without stops for shopping) I decided today to see as much of some of the other key parts of Slovenia as possible. I had arranged a driver for the day and was picked up at 8am in a very comfortable Mercedes with a driver who spoke perfect English. We headed off for our first location, Lake Bohinj, about an hour away. We were very quickly out of the city, driving along a wide four-lane, very smooth highway, passing rural areas, dotted about with lovely chalet style homes, all bedecked in pink and red flowered window boxes, and with mountains towering in the background. It is certainly picturesque country.
I had done a bit of reading about the area last night so first stop was Savica Waterfall, well worth the twenty minute walk up a very well maintained track, through stunning beech forest. I was reminded of parts of the South Island but the beech here have larger leaves. Having arrived early I had the path to myself so was really able to enjoy the peace and quiet. At one point there was even a view back over Lake Bohinj in the distance. The falls themselves are fairly small but nonetheless impressive.
After a quick photoshop I headed back and we drove a few minutes back to the base of the gondola. A quick four minute trip in a very packed gondola (I now know how sardines feel!) had me at the top with stunning views over Lake Bohinj. The viewing platforms were metal grids metres high so there were some nervous people around but the views were well worth it. A few minutes up the hill I found a chairlift which took me further up into the mountains, which are a ski resort in the winter, with what look like some long gentle runs. There is loads of hiking in this area during the summer but I only had time for a quick clamber up a hill to the whistle bell and cross. Heading back down in the gondola I was a relieved that it was much less crowded and I got a great spot at the front window as we zipped down the mountainside to Lake Bohinj itself.
We headed back to Lake Bled,  truly a little fairy tale lake complete with a castle on the mountain overlooking it and a beautiful church on an island in the centre. I had read that the best viewpoint was ojstrich so headed up the steep path and was not disappointed by the views. There was another lookout even further up but I was short on time so had to make do.
Next stop was Vintgar Gorge, an absolutely stunning spot, despite the crowds. It reminded me somewhat of the Plitvice Lakes area in Croatia with its turquoise clear water and wooden paths. There is really only one main way in and out and the paths are fairly narrow so it can get a bit crowded at times. Somehow when I headed back again it was much quieter and I had long periods where I had the track nearly to myself.
I had intended a quick visit to the castle where I hoped to try the famous Bled Cream Cake but unfortunately the castle was closed so I headed into the town and found a lovely terrace overlooking the lake where I enjoyed a lunch of goulash, finished off with said cake – a huge slice of deliciousness, somewhat like a very light custard square.
Unfortunately my time in Slovenia was running out and we headed to the airport for my flight to Munich and then to Marseille. I have a meeting in Aix en Provence next week. I hope one day to come back when I have time to do a bit more hiking and explore a bit more in depth but at least I feel like I got to see a fair bit in my two short days here.

Lisbon for the Weekend: 1-2 June 2019

The previous few days we had spent in Montpellier where Sylvia was attending meetings. I got on the net and watched a few tutorials about our camera and then set off to get some practice wandering the streets of old Montpellier and also coming across a sports festival being held on the Lez River, which runs through the city.

I also drove out to my favourer little town in this part of the world called Sommières. There I had lunch in the local square and a good chat to a retired French couple, formerly from Paris, now living locally, who assisted me getting fed and wined as there was no way my one French word, or even my point and pay, was going to work too well in this lovely little town. After lunch I wandered up to the castle (Chateau de Sommières on the hill) then wandered the streets taking a few pictures.


Friday 31 May 2019

We drove to Marseille mid-afternoon catching a Portuguese Airlines flight to Lisbon arriving in the evening. We were picked up by a driver who was keen to tell a little about the history of Lisbon. As we passed a large statue he explained it was in honour of the mayor who had rebuilt the city after a massive earthquake in 1755. At that stage most of the houses were made of wood and a large fire ensued causing the people to race down to the Tagus River, where many were killed by the huge tsunami that engulfed the river. Lisbon had also suffered major earthquakes in 1321 and 1531. It was after the event in 1755 that all buildings were rebuilt in stone.

Arriving at the Palacio Belmonte Hotel the very friendly chap on the reception took us on a tour of the building. Formerly a palace, it has a maze of formal rooms including a library, ballroom, lounges, a terrace with great views over the lowers slopes of the city and the vast estuary of the Tagus River, and a small garden area and swimming pool. Tiles are a big deal in this part of the world and are placed on walls ceilings and even on the outside of some buildings.

After settling into our room we adjourned to the court yard for an evening drink. Interestingly the courtyard is also a public walkway where there is a constant stream of people heading to and from the city below; they do close it off at midnight.


Saturday 1 June 2019

We enjoyed breakfast on the terrace overlooking the city while enjoying the sunshine and views.

Just up the street, past a rather interesting urinal, is the Castle of Sao Jorge. This is by far the best place to go to get a great view over the city which is no doubt why, in the 11th century, the castle was first built although the area had been inhabited since 700BC. Conquered by the christians in the 12th century it became a royal palace from the 13 to 17th century and then a military barracks or garrison until becoming a national monument in the 20th century. With nice surrounding grounds, a disused moat and lots of high walls ,which one can walk around and view the city through arrow slits and turrets, it’s a great experience to wander around.

As we left the castle we realised that our decision to go early had paid off as we didn’t have to queue. The queue to buy a ticket was now over a 100 meters long,

We strolled down the hill through the narrow, steep streets that somehow the small electric trams seem to be able to make their way up and down. Lots of the streets have bollards at the entrance allowing only locals to enter with a code that lowers the bollard. There is a spring festival going on just now; cheap decorations have been hung up above the streets, somewhat spoiling the look. There is also lots of graffiti and rubbish laying around taking the edge off what is probably one of the world’s nicest cities.

As we neared the centre of the city the place was a lot tidier. Like most old cities in the world now they rely on tourism to support the local economy and with two large cruise ships in port the streets in town are packed with people like us here to enjoy the experience. Not surprisingly there are lots of statues and memorials around the city. Portugal was once an empire that ruled a large part of the world and claimed responsibility for being the founder of the Silk Road. We enjoyed lunch in the main boulevard, which is pedestrian only with me ensuring that the camera strap was attached at all times as the place has a reputation for pick pockets and thieves, just like many European cities. There are lots of street acts here with people dressed in various costumes. There is a tall, rather ugly tower in the middle of town that is a viewing platform. Lots of trendy shops with all the major brand names line the streets in this part of town. Sardines are a big deal here with one shop having a huge variety in colourful cans on display; funny I always though sardines were something my mother put in our sandwiches when she ran out of ideas.

We wandered up the hill to a square and past a military museum and an old church with views back over the city.

Heading down the hill towards the river we walked along a rather nice pink street with a nice arch under the road heading up the hill. From there we caught a cab to the Belem tower which is situated on the rivers edge. Built between 1514 and 1521 to defend the city it is in surprisingly good repair having had bits added over the centuries and with a dungeon below the water level, which of course held political prisoners at one stage. There is a great outlook over the river from the top floor, which is accessed via a narrow spiral staircase that has lights to indicate when one can go up or down. I was a bit surprised at one stage to see not one, but three busses heading down the river. It’s going to be a long ride across the Atlantic to New York.

We strolled from there across and down the road to the Mosterio dos Jeronimos, a rather grand monastery that has been around since the early 1400s, with a large gothic type church attached to many large buildings. Although we only saw a small part it was well worth a visit.

I waited in a park while Sylvia went off to the famous Pasties de Belem shop, which had a hundred plus people queued up waiting for a table. The takeaway queue was somewhat shorter so soon we were sitting on a park bench eating a couple of small, relatively cheap, nothing to rave about, but famous Portuguese pasties.

The day almost over we taxied back to our hotel and headed to the courtyard for some refreshments with the intention of maybe heading down into town for dinner. As it turned out there is a cafe and a restaurant in the courtyard that both share the space. After a couple of drinks the cafe closed and the restaurant opened; we were moved to the middle of the courtyard by the waiter, Quentin, and sat enjoying not only watching the people go by but also chatting to a few. Last night we had received outstanding service here and tonight was no different. We dined and the food was better than fantastic. As the night wore on we chatted to Quentin and discovered that he and his mate the chef, both from Paris, had only recently opened the restaurant of which the premises are part of the hotel. We spent a great evening chatting and enjoying the friendly environment, finishing the night with a celebratory Taylor’s Tawny 325 Anniversary port and a cigar. Grenache, the restaurant comes highly recommended by us.


Sunday 2 June 2019

We had decided to head to Sintra this morning. Sintra is a Unesco World Heritage site about 40 kilometres away from Lisbon. It has a unique beauty, set in a forested mountain dotted with amazing castles. We had a flight to Barcelona this afternoon so packed up, left out bags at the hotel and caught an Uber to the first attraction we planned to visit, the Moorish Castle. All was going well with our very friendly Uber driver until we reached Sintra and he started muttering. Eventually we reached a point where a policeman was standing and found out that the road up the hill was closed – open to buses only.

We joined the line for the bus with multitudes of other tourists and made our way up the steep winding road, eventually arriving at the castle of the Moors. Set 412m above sea level the ramparts of this 10th century castle stretch across the mountains and past giant, mss covered boulders that reminded me of something out of Lord of the Rings. I fully expected some goblin or hobbit to appear around a corner. Despite it’s incredible beauty and remarkably unspoiled feel it seems to attract relatively few visitors and it was great to walk along the ramparts with sweeping views over the surrounding landscape including back to Lisbon and the Atlantic Ocean.

At one point our next attraction, the multi-coloured fairytale Pena Palace comes into view, perched atop the next ridge. After finishing our exploration of the Moorish Castle we headed over, catching the tourist bus again to reach the top. This utterly bizarre and eclectic palace was built in the 1840s. We, along with hundreds of other guests enjoyed exploring the multiple levels of the multi-coloured and well-embellished palace. The interior was equally lavish with decoration ranging from the magnificent to the bizarre to the downright ugly. In my opinion there is no accounting for taste – although Roger appreciated the stag room, bedecked with the skulls of multiple stags and other animals.

We headed back down by bus to the pretty town of Sintra. There is a new sight around every bend and tourists to go with it.

We stopped for a gelato and then arranged for an uber to pick us up to take us back to the hotel to collect our bags and meet our driver to take us to the airport. Initially the waiting time of 19 minutes made me glad I’d allowed plenty of time but thirty minutes later the car was not moving on the map. Several phone calls to the driver and a wee bit of stress later we were eventually picked up but by now no time. A quick call to the very helpful people at Palacio Belmonte and our bags were on their way in our chauffeur driven car to meet us at the airport. Raphael, the chauffeur rang me twice to confirm arrangements and could not have been more helpful.

A quick and painless flight has is in Barcelona where I have a meeting for the next three days before we head back to Singapore.


Monday to Thursday 3-6 June 2019

Having been in Barcelona a couple of times before I have just added a few photos from around the place taken over the past few days.

The forever nearly finished Sagrada Familia

The markets next to the Bullet where the best view is the reflection in the polished ceilings.

Park central Del Poblenou

Beaches go on for over 4ms here. Yep its beach after beach after beach where thousands of people enjoy the sun, some completely naked.

Cascada de Parc de la Ciutadella

Castell dels Tres Dragons

More from Park de la Ciutadella

University Library

Gothic Quarter

 

 

Greek Islands on Cudu – May 2019

Friday 17 May 2019: Roger

Our meeting place in Athens is St George Lycabettus Hotel on the edge of Mount Lycabettus. I had flown From NZ via Singapore and Istanbul arriving at the hotel around 10am

Sylvia’s sister, Debbie, and her husband, Dave, had flown in from NZ via Hong Kong and Rome, arriving yesterday.

Joel, Debbie’s son also arrived yesterday having visited Amsterdam, Prague, Budapest and Belgrave over the past two weeks.

Sam and Hannah, Debbie’s son and his fiancee, arrived in the afternoon having been on the road for the past four-plus months, travelling through Hong Kong, Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, Rome, Poland, the Check Republic, Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, Germany, Austria, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro.

Sylvia arrived around 5pm, having flown Singapore to New York last Sunday, then to St Louis, back to New York all for meetings, and finally direct New York to Athens.

Hayley and Chris, who currently live in London, where Chris is the NZ Defence Attache, arrived via Warsaw and Monte Cassino, where they had attended the 75th anniversary of the WWII battle there.

On arrival I contacted Joel and after checking in headed off to meet them at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. They had headed off early and visited the Acropolis, well and truly visible from our hotel that hosts the best views in Athens.

We strolled the streets, which were pretty crowded in places, passing the odd arch and ending up in the Place, a nice little restaurant area, where we dined on the local food in a rather expensive part of town in the shadow of the Acropolis.

After lunch we headed back to the hotel to meet Sam and Hannah, strolling past the parliament building where the two soldiers are dressed in a quite unusual costume, including pom poms on the end of their boots and equiped with WWII M1 Garand rifles.

It was decided to take a stroll up Mount Lycabettus. We asked the Lilya, the customer service manager in the hotel, what the weather was going to do. “I am not god” she laughed, “but expect rain in 30 minutes”. Off we we went and half way up the hill it pissed down. Soaked we returned to the hotel saw the lady in the foyer and she cracked up laughing.

We dined in the restaurant on the 6th floor taking in the stunning views over Athens as the sun set. Interestingly the city itself is not particularly pretty as you drive and walk the streets. Apart from the odd bit of really old stuff the buildings are really drab.


Saturday 18 May 2019

We all met for breakfast at 9am to enjoy the view and introduce Chris and Hayley to everyone.

At 1100am a van turned up to take us to the boat, a 30 min drive. Arriving at a part finished marina we were impressed by the number of large and very flash boats. Luggage loaded and a quick brief from the Captain and we were underway.

A chat to the captain  revealed  a few details on Cudu, the boat Sylvia had chartered for out trip. She is 28.2m or 92ft, powered by two 1800 horse power Catterpila Motors, carries 11,000L of fuel giving her a range of 500 Nautical miles. with a top speed of 24 Knots. She carries a tender, which is under a cover that lifts up near the bow, and a jet ski. With four cabins on the lower deck, all with ensuites, and a lounge and bridge on the main deck, the upper deck has a dining table and lots of seats to relax.

Heading southeast at 18 knots, everyone chatting and catching up on the different journeys we had taken to get here and consuming the odd beer, it seemed in no time we had covered the 80kms and arrived at Kythnos Island and moored in a little bay. Kythnos was first inhabited in1300BC and at one point had a large temple, which was plundered and rebuilt many times over many years, just like every place in this part of the world. It now makes its income from tourism.

Here we swam and went on a stroll up the hill above the bay revealing great views of arid landscape, dotted with pretty white buildings and stone walls. Dave and Joel stayed behind and tried to master the stand up jet ski. The ski circled them each time they fell off; that ski performed a huge number of circles that afternoon.

Chris and I went a little further into the island discovering a shepherd’s hut complete with a stone fenced yard to keep the sheep at night. A few sheep and goats wandered the hills.

A chap and his wife from Austria came swimming past at one point and I invited them on board for a beer. They informed us of a hot pool on the beach to add to the swimming experience.

We finished the day with a delicious dinner, served on the upper deck. The sunset and then a moon providing a pleasant backdrop to the banter and general camaraderie of the group.


Sunday 19 May 2019 – Sylvia

Today is Joel’s 25th birthday. We have somehow made a habit of celebrating his big birthday’s with him. He had joined Roger and I in Norway for his 21st, 4 years ago.

We had leisurely morning, enjoying a huge breakfast on the top deck and then motoring about 90-minutes to Serifos. The wind had come up a bit and most of us didn’t feel like swimming so we decided to walk over the island to the port and main village – leaving Sam and Joel behind to carry on their jet ski adventures. They are becoming quite proficient.

We climbed up over the hills and enjoyed a pleasant stroll around the island with magnificent views out over the arid countryside and ocean. I particularly appreciated the scatterings of poppies, adding a bright dash of colour to the environment. We arrived at the Port town just as Cudu pulled in. After a brief stop for an ice-cream we headed up to the top of the village passing some lovely old churches and lots of white-washed buildings. As Roger said – owning a white paint shop around these parts would be good business. Wending our way around the narrow streets and up the steps between the buildings it seems it would be easy to get lost but I guess you are either going up or coming down so not too difficult really.

Once back on board we headed to the nearby island of Sifnos and moored at the dock. After a quick stroll through the village we returned back on board for another delicious meal (tomato and mozzarella, mushrooms with bacon and parmesan, lamb and chocolate brownies).

I retired to bed almost immediately after dinner – the jet lag was taking its toll. most of the others partied on on the upper deck to celebrate Joel’s birthday in style.


Monday 20 May 2019: Roger

We headed off at 8am to make room for the arrival of a ferry. I was the only one up – we had celebrated Joel’s 25th birthday last night. I must say he handled it a lot better than when I took him out in Bergen, Norway, for his 21st where he failed to keep down a small amount of red wine!!

We left behind another bay of white and blue houses, although they had broken tradition here and there was the odd place with brown or green trimmings. The white paint shop owner in this part of the world must be pretty well off.

Heading south and around the bottom of Sifnos we then headed east, passing Despotiko island and heading into a canal between it and Antiparos. The water was calm and only a few meters deep. The front of the boat lifted up and the crane lowered both the tender and the jet ski into the water. Water skis came out and the fun began with various people demonstrating a range of abilities or in my case lack thereof. By now Joel, Sam and Dave had mastered the stand up Jet ski and soon Chris was up and away as well. I have a bit of work to do on that one too. A fun morning was over all too soon. Dave, Chris, Haley and I had all done a individual watercraft course to qualify to ride a jet ski over here. We were expecting a sit-on type of easy-to-ride jet ski but it turned out the boat only has a stand up pole ski.

At around 1pm we were ferried over to the small settlement of Agios Georgios on Antiparos Island, the plan being to explore the Cave of Antiparos, a walk of about 6 kms, then carry on and meet the boat at the port further up the coast. A big deal in this part of the world are windmill towers, originating in the 1600’s and now a trendy building on the islands. With large spines, originally fitted with sails to drive the mills inside that ground the wheat up until the mid-20th century, they are a neat looking building – all round with a cone shape roof.

Buildings in this part of the world are pretty solid with thick concrete columns and beams which are then filled in with mainly brick, plastered and, you got it, painted white with blue trimmings.

Unfortunately my knees were a bit uncomfortable so I decided to skip the cave and 400 steps inside and just stroll the 12km to meet the boat at Port Antiparos. The others turned up a couple of hours later having visited the caves, which Sylvia will tell you about.

Sylvia: We meandered up the hill, realising halfway up that we needed to boost it as the cave would shut at 3pm and last entry would be 2:30pm. I raced on ahead and bought tickets, promising the woman behind the counter that we would be in and out quick smart. There was a lovely little church just outside the huge cavernous entrance. We proceeded to climb down passing loads of stalactites and stalagmites. It was very impressive. I have been in several different caves and this would be up there with the best of them. The engineering feat of the steps was quite incredible. We made it to the bottom, had a bit of an explore around and then headed back up – exiting with about 5 minutes to spare.

We then meandered our way towards the town of Antiparos, about 7km away, passing many farms and lots of arid countryside dotted about with wildflowers and the occasional church.

Roger: The evening was a relaxing one with Joel and Chris making a trip to the local laundromat to be told to leave the washing here, we will do it, pick it up tomorrow at 8am.

Dinner tonight was seafood with the main course being large shrimps. The chef really knows how to put great food on the table from the boat’s small galley. We have three dining areas on the boat, one on the top deck, one in the main cabin and one aft, which we chose tonight. Nicole, our waitress, is very obliging always providing us with outstanding service.

We were surprised by the continuous coming and going of ferries, dropping off and picking up both passengers and cars, all of which entered by the ramp lowered to the wharf. The ferry then backs out and spins around in a tight circle before steaming off to the next stop. Many of them just make the short journey between this and the close by Paros Island.


Tuesday 22 May 2019: Sylvia

Today was a pretty lazy day. The weather was a bit grey with occasional showers and that may have contributed to our lower energy. After a late leisurely breakfast we departed Antiparos for Naousa on the nearby island of Paros. On the way a pod of dolphins played in our wake.

Naousa is a picturesque town with little narrow alleys filled with quaint little tourist shops, bars and restaurants. A half ruined, and now almost submerged Venetian castle, originally built in the late 13th/early 14th century makes up part of the sea wall. Bright fishing boats line the rest of the sea walls adding to the colour of the area with octopi hanging over their stays to dry.

We wandered around the streets for a while and then Roger, Chris, Hayley, Debbie and I decided to rent a car and explore the island. We drove the perimeter, passing through the main port town of Parikos to the end of the island opposite where we were moored last night on Antiparos. Around the other side of the island we headed inland to Lefkos. From there Chris ran back to the boat while the rest of us stopped for a light bite over-looking this quaint village nestled into the nook of a hill, originally built so high up to avoid the marauding pirates.

Returning to Naousa we meandered through the narrow streets and headed back onboard Cudu where a raucous game of Cucumber (a card game) kept most of us amused for several hours. Eventually we headed back into town for dinner onshore at a little Tapas cafe next to the port.


Wednesday 23 May 2019: Roger

A few of us stayed up a little late last night fixing the world so it was a fairly leisurely start this morning.

It was around nine when we rose, enjoying a leisurely breakfast and a chat with an American couple, John and Elyse, on the boat next door, who are planning a trip to NZ later this year. We left Naousa around 11am and cruised to Delos, an island famous for its ancient Archaeological Site.  Mooring in the channel we set off in the tender to investigate the ruins. A strange male figure is in the water as if guarding the island. It turns out that this and many other steel statues are part of an exhibition by an English artist.

Landing, we followed the route as laid out on the map passing the sacred port, then along the sacred way, passing the lions then through what was once the marketplace out to the stadium, back to the museum then up the hill to the sanctuary of a few gods, with a great view across to Mykonos, past the theatre and back to the entry point.  It was at the theatre when we were looking at some green water in a large tank with arches over it that a chap explained that this was a cistern to provide water for the 6500 seat theatre.

He then went on to explain that every building had a cistern under it and lots were connected. As there was no fresh water on the island every drop of rain that fell in the winter was collected and what was not used was stored to get them through the summer. Most of the surviving statues and other important artifacts are now on display in the museum on the island.

The city was developed rapidly after 167BC . The buildings were built of stacked stone, which was then plastered and painted. Features such as pillars, window frames and door ways were made of marble gathered from a nearby island. Delos became the trading capital of the world with its port and large markets. Merchants and bankers moved there from all over the world building stately homes. It was attacked by various forces in 88 and 66BC and abandoned.  Like many ruins worldwide tourism is funding the restoration of what must be like a large jigsaw puzzle with many of the pieces having been removed for construction material over the centuries until it was rediscovered in the 1700s.

Cats are a big deal in Greece and seem to roam the streets everywhere.

I finally found out Whyte houses here are wile and blue! When the Turks invaded Greece way back, they were not allowed to fly their flag so they painted their houses white and blue, the colours of the flag.

The afternoon we spent relaxing and I had another go with the pole ski manging to get on my knees at one point.

Around 5 we set off, heading north to Mykonos, which is quite close and which we had observed from the top of the hill earlier in the day. This place is a popular tourist spot with a couple of large cruse ships moored in the outer harbour, the passengers being ferried to town. Established in the 11th century BC by the Ionians, one of four major Greek tribes, it is now a tourist mecca renown for its nightlife.

We wandered the streets, exploring the quaint and sometimes very narrow alleys. with lots of shops and restaurants tucked away in many places. Lots of windmills are placed around the city, which rises steeply into the surrounding hills. The well kept white and blue buildings, with the odd bit of red thrown in, make it a clean and tidy city; even the paved paths through the town make claim to white painted lines. Best only described by photographs.

Interesting Place Mykonos: Religious Iconography on one side of the alley and canabis on the other…

 

Our great Cudu Crew


Thursday 23 May 2019: Sylvia

Mykonos is renown for its nightlife and for many on board it was true to form with Joel. Sam, Hayley and several of the crew not returning on board until the wee small hours. Based on their stories it sounded like a great night had by all – I was quite content to get some good sleep.

We opted to take another stroll in the morning only this time Debbie and I detoured into a jewellery store and made a few purchases!

Afterwards we headed out and moored in a stunning bay off the small uninhabited island of Rinea to enjoy a day of sun and watersports. The toys on board got a great workout today. I personally had several failed attempts at waterskiing but was very happy to manage the pole ski (even if only on my knees). Roger managed to get upright on both.

This is definitely what real relaxing is all about. Lie around in the sun, get warm, dunk in the ocean to cool off, have a go on one of the toys, rinse and repeat.

After several hours we headed off to the nearby island of Syros with its Venetian style buildings. It looks quite different from many of the other islands we have visited with much bigger domed churches and buildings in pinks, yellows and oranges dotting the hillside. We spread in all directions to explore the little city before convening again and heading ashore for dinner at a lovely gyros and souvlaki restaurant, polished off by some nice gelato.


Friday 24 May 2019: Roger

Prior to breakfast we took a stroll up the hilltop to the Greek Orthodox Church, which dominates the skyline from the city below.

This town has a different flavour than the others we have visited with a Venetian style and surrounded by lots of industry, including a dry dock and large oil tanks on the hill nearby. Some of the narrow streets are paved in marble and others in stone. It’s mostly tidy and the buildings well kept apart from the odd ruin, yet to be restored, along with the odd set of disused steps. We came to the conclusion you would need lots of friends to live in some of the houses as getting furniture up to many of them would be a major task. I got chatting to the old priest who told us he had worked in a fish and chip shop in Manly, Sydney for 14 years before moving back here to become a priest, which he has been for the last 43 years. Sylvia and Debbie headed across to investigate the other church on the next hill – a catholic one. The priest took Dave, Hayley and I in to show off his church which, although very grand, seemed to have few seats for the parishioners.

Sylvia and Debbie found there was a bit of up and down to reach the other church. We made our way down the hill by different routes admiring the fantastic views as we went.

Syros has a population of around 24,000. Inhabited by various conquerors over the centuries, it became part of Greece in 1829. It boasted the first post office of Greece, commercial law courts and a public school. Until WWII its main industry was textiles. It now has an airport, a casino, a hospital and frequent ferries making it an all year round tourist centre.

After a leisurely breakfast we steamed north to the island of Kea. Rounding a headland we entered a calm bay with lots of unfinished houses looking almost like bunkers. Construction started prior to the recent and ongoing financial crisis and has yet to be completed. On the beach there is a resort, which appeared unoccupied, whilst waiting for the tourist season to get underway. At the other end of the beach a large truck had dumped builders mix, which was being carted in sacks up to a nearby house under construction by a bunch of mules, which when task was complete were loaded onto a truck and carted away.

The holiday nearly over we decided to relax for the afternoon and enjoy this beautiful spot. Sylvia mastered the pole ski getting to the standing pose without falling off, making it all look quite easy. Dave, Chris, Joel and Sam really got it preforming, doing sharp turns and demonstrating some great spills. The captain mentioned that we were the first group he had had on the boat to water ski and pole ski as the water at 20 degrees is far too cold for most people, who tend to just stay on the boat and relax.

The food on the boat was simply outstanding with a huge variety of food on offer at each meal. Captain Panov and his crew have been outstanding, with a special mention to Calypso, who waited on us with nothing ever being a problem and always sporting a great smile.


Saturday 25 May 2019: Sylvia

We were all very sad this morning that our time on board was coming to an end. After a final breakfast on board – an unbelievable spread of yoghurt, muesli, hams, cheeses, fruits, pastries, toast, omelettes etc, the captain started up the boat and headed for Athens, about a 2-hour cruise away. Those of us who hadn’t already packed had to sort through and pack everything up ready for our departure. The rest of us lazed about making the most of our opportunity to soak up some sun.

All too soon we arrived in Athens and farewelled Dave, Debbie, Sam, Hannah and Joel, who were heading to the airport to catch their flights. Roger and I returned to the St George Lycabettus Hotel and Chris and Hayley headed to another hotel in Athens.

Roger and I spent a very quiet afternoon relaxing and enjoying a massage in the hotel spa before catching up with Chris and Hayley again for a last G&T and a lovely dinner over-looking the Acropolis from the roof top bar.

All in all it has been a fantastic week.


Sunday 26 May 2019: Sylvia

We decided to get up early and beat the crowds to the Acropolis – and boy I am glad we did. We arrived at the ticket booth not long after opening at 8am. There were many groups of tourists from the cruise ships already milling around as we headed up to explore the ancient ruins. It is quite impressive although as Roger pointed out most of it has been restored now; the most real bits are the scattered bits of marble lying around, and the buttress walls which date from around the 5th century BC.  Nonetheless it is very inspiring. I am sure not much of our current civilisation will still be lying around in 2,500 years.

After wandering around the Acropolis area we headed back down the hill and through the beautiful Botanic Gardens, past the guards outside the Presidential Palace and into the Olympic Stadium. This is the only fully marble stadium in the world and is really impressive. We picked up the audio tour and enjoyed meandering around the structure listening to the commentary. The climb to the top of the seating area is quite steep in parts and I wondered what it must have been like during the 2004 Olympic ceremony when it was full of people. We even had the opportunity to explore the underground tunnels which now house the changing rooms and a gift shop, but was once where young women danced naked before the gods in the hope of finding a suitable husband!

In all too short a time we had to head back to the hotel, then on to the airport for our flight – first to Paris and then on to Montpellier, where I have to work for the next week…