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

A weekend in Strasbourg: Nov 11-13 2022

We attended the fun bull-fighting at Lunel last weekend, after being given tickets by Hadrien who owns the Le Cartel Restaurant at Vauvert and also runs the bull fighting. We popped along for a rather entertaining couple of hours. At this event no bulls die and the blokes in the ring with the bull are very agile and very quick to jump over the fence as the bull runs after them after they have tried to tag it with their hand between its horns. It can be best described by the short video below.

Thursday 10 November 2022

Late afternoon we drove to Lyon, about 3 hours north of us. We had decided to stop the night here to make a stop on the way to Strasbourg. We hit heavy traffic on the way into the city and somehow ended up driving through a bus depot on the way to the hotel L’ Abbaye in the old city. Once again the car parking was some 800m from the hotel. It is a comfortable boutique hotel with a two star Michelin restaurant, which we had not booked for.

Friday 11 November 2022

After what was definitely not a Michelin star breakfast at the hotel we headed off north to Strasbourg. Once again the the roads were great and as we headed north past Grenoble the land became very flat, opening out into a wide plain which was extensively farmed.

Our first stop was Colmar, a pretty little town just south of Strasbourg. It’s another place that just makes great photos, especially with its waterways and half-timbered buildings, some of which look like they have sagged a little over the years.

Arriving at Strasbourg we checked into Hotel Leonore in the old area – this time the car park was only 200m away. It’s quite a big hotel, at some stage converted from someone’s mansion.

Like all the old cities of Europe, Strasbourg dates back to pre Roman times, originally being a Celtic Village renamed Argentoratum by the Romans. In the 5th century, well after the Romans, it was captured by the Franks who called it Strateburgum. They held onto it for 300 odd years. In 842 Charles II of West Franks and Louis II of East Franks took an oath of alliance, the Serment of Strasbourg, the text of which is the oldest written document in Old French. In the Middle Ages it became a city of the Holy Roman Empire. It, like most places in Europe, went through the 30 year war of the 1618-48. In 1870 it was captured by the Germans and returned to France after WWI.

After checking in, we went for a wander into the town centre and enjoyed a drink and some people watching in the square by the cathedral. It was dark by 5pm and a mist settled over the city so we headed back to the hotel for a drink. The restaurant was booked out so we enjoyed a meal at the Sofitel Hotel’s restaurant behind the church across the road before settling in for an early night.

Saturday 12 November 2022

After a good breakfast at the hotel, we took a wander around the old city, heading first along one of the many canals to the area, known as Petite France, which still has some of the old towers standing. Originally there were some 30 of these surrounding the city in a defensive wall. Stone buttresses at the bottom of the towers had canon ports in them, just above the water level. The L’ILL River surrounds the old town making it into an island. They had also built a dam (barrage) that still exists, with some 17 gates that could be opened to flood the areas when under attack. Not only did this river make for a good barrier if the city was attacked but also the water was used to power much of the industry that sprung up in the town. Large tanneries, abattoirs and factories existed along the banks of the river. Like most old cities, many of the factories have been turned into accommodation and office buildings. We popped into the church of Notre Dame, with its large Pipe Organ, which blurted out something I think they call music but to me sounded more like a cat screaming when gripped tightly around the neck by a large dog. Bodies were buried in the floor plus in the odd cask sitting in alcoves.

Arriving back at the main square, the spire of the cathedral was covered in fog on this wintry day when the still waters gave off reflections of the colourful buildings situated along the river and canals. We had arranged to meet Marlyn at the Gurtlerhoft, a restaurant situated in a basement,on the edge of the square. There we enjoyed a lovely lunch and a good chat. I had met Marlyn on a walking tour of Berlin in early 2020 while there watching my daughter race in the track cycling world champs. She lives in the nearby German city of Karlsruhe. Thanks for the lunch Marlyn we look forward to meeting again soon.

After lunch we headed down to the river to catch a boat cruise around the city. The boat headed up river to a lock not too far from the bund. Dozens of people watched as the gate opened and our boat headed in, the gate closing and the water flowing in until we reached the height of the upper river level. We then motored up to the bund then headed down the other side of the island after going through another lock to drop us back down to the river level. Passing the end of the island and the old city we headed a couple of kms down river, passing some nice old buildings with the commentary telling us about several of them as we went.

One included a large church, built to accomodate the 1300 soldiers of a previous army so they could pray together. Reaching a fork in the river, we were informed the a building on its bank was the home of the European Court of Human Rights along with some other administrative type buildings. Then we turned around and headed back to the start point. We had planned to do the climb up the cathedral spire but it was still clagged in with fog. We went into the main building which is very grand and also looked at the astronomical clock, situated down the back on the right-hand side. By this stage night was setting in so we wandered back to the hotel.

Sunday 13 November 2022

On the drive up we had spotted, on a rise near the motorway, what looked like a large old fort, which turned out to Belfort. The town is relatively young only occupied since Roman times. Once in Austrian possession, it was handed back to France as part of the treaty at the end of the 30 year war in 1648. After this the fortifications were extended, and in the 1870s it held out against the Franco-Prussians and survived a 3 month seige. The place is impressive with a moat and walls around the old town and the large hill to the to the east. With the Savoureuse River looping around the west side it was a pretty magnificent fort for its day. We had planned to stop in the fort cafe at the top of the structure but it was closed, as was the museum, despite Google saying it would be open. The whole town was covered in mist making it not a very good day for photos. After checking out the tunnels that were open and taking a look at the large lion sculpture on the side of the hill we continued on our journey home.

A weekend in Toulouse: 5-7 Nov 2022

Monday 31 October 2022

Having arrived back from Washington DC in the US yesterday, and with Tuesday being a holiday and Sylvia having today off, we decided to revisit Toulouse.

We set off early for the 250km drive to Toulouse following the toll roads for the 3+ hour journey.

Stopping at the old town fortress of Carcassonne for lunch, on what was a rather windy and overcast day, we tried the local dish, cassoulet, which we both decided would not go on our favourite list.

I know I have said it before, all the main roads here are smooth, wide and easy to drive on with the 130km/h speed limit only reducing at interchanges and for the odd patch of road works. When road works are being undertaken they paint the road markings with yellow paint and usually put up concrete barriers to protect the workers. Very few road cones are seen.

Arriving in Toulouse, we checked into the very nice Hotel Soclo, a short stroll from the town centre. Car parking is always a bit of a problem in these old town centres. The parking was some 800m from the hotel.

After settling in we took a stroll into the town centre. Toulouse is a very pretty city with mainly old red brick buildings. It dates back to well before the arrival of the Romans with the town being established around 800 BC. People originally settled in the hills around 9kms from today’s town centre. Originally called Tolosa, pre 200BC it was a trading post with access to the Atlantic, the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean. Occupied by the Romans for around 500 years from 118 BC; from then until 877 it was part of various kingdoms. In 877 it became the country of Toulouse. At the end of the 11th century Count Raymond IV headed off to the Crusades and wars of succession followed. In 1229 The Treaty of Paris introduced a university. For a time it was the capital of the south of France and in the 17th Century it came under the rule of the French King. Like just about every city in France it has survived many wars, plagues and famines, even being invaded by the British in 1814, just after Napoleon abdicated and headed off to Saint Helena for a long, and probably undeserved, holiday.

We had briefly called in here last year on the way home from a trip down the west coast of France and were struck by its beauty hence the return visit. After strolling around a few streets we took a seat in the square which was full of activity including a group dance competition, which seemed to go on forever. The local rugby team had a stand also in the square. As the sun set the square was nicely lit up and being Haloween lots of people were wearing costumes.

Toulouse City Hall

We wandered the 300 meters back to the hotel through the busy streets to for a quiet night.

Tuesday 1 November 2022

We headed down to an excellent late breakfast in the courtyard behind the hotel. This place is well set up with a nice outdoor are including a pool. It was good to relax as the week before we had been in Washington DC, where Sylvia attended a Mars Senior Leadership Meeting, plus she has been working really hard with her additional role as VP Enterprise Effectiveness.

Breakfast over, we woadered the picturesque streets; this is a city where there is a photograph around every corner.

We headed into the Cathedral Saint-Etienne

Leaving the cathedral we headed back to the square, passing Saint Sernin which is quite deceptive from the street, with a narrow tower perched above what look like the normal street buildings with a large church hall behind it.

We headed through the square as there is another square behind City Hall, which has a row of nice tents set up in it as a market selling a great variety of food from pork to cheeses.

As we carried on wandering the streets we admired the variety of buildings and the way they have been built in various shapes to fit every spare piece of land. There is even a reasonably new carpark building looking like a ship. There are many more churches and administration type buildings along with some very well presented retail shops. The Garonne River runs through the town with a number of house boats parked up in places.

The city tour over we checked out of the hotel and got on the road, taking the long way home through the pretty farmland of south central France. Even though we are away from the toll roads the surfaces are smooth and the lanes wide. We made our way northwest, soon arriving at the city of Albi, another old city with evidence of human habitation dating back to 3000 BC. It was fought over by various clans and religions over the centuries and hit by plagues and other tragedies. In 1282 the Palace de la Berbie was completed, looking more like a fort than a palace. Bishop Castanent started work on the Cathedral of Saint-Cecile. From a distance it almost looks like a grain silo with its rounded walls, each of which houses a crypt of to the side of the main church hall. We parked and wandered into the central square which houses shops, the palace and cathedral.

We lunched at the La Boussole restaurant, which with its slow service, tough streak and bad wine I can highly not recommend. We then wandered through the palace grounds as the building itself was closed. The grounds are impressive with views over the Tarn river holding the reflections of the surrounding buildings on this clear blue sky calm day. Here even the rubbish bins have imitation stone like wrapping on them, which looked good. The rest can only be described through photos.

The drive home was an uneventful one through more farmland and crossing the Millau Viaduct over the river Tarn, until, reaching more arid lands as we approached Montpellier.

We took the Grey route to Toulouse and the blue rout back.

Eastern Europe Part 3

Monday 17 October 2022

There was a clear blue sky as I headed out of Tirana, with the misty haze in the distance. There were some nice buildings along the way, plus what looked like a large gas processing plant up on the hill. Albania has gas and oil reserves in the Caspian Sea. The road was quite good and two lanes each way; often people stood on the side of the motorway like they were waiting for a bus. One thing I have noticed in this part of the world are a large number of dogs wandering the streets and roads; one had been run over recently. The road made its way alongside a river with some nice houses alongside. As we headed up into the hills the road had been cut into the hard rock. Eventually it turned into a toll road with a five euro fee at the gate. Eventually the motorway headed alongside the huge Black Drin Lake, which has a power station at the lower end and was covered in mist. The motorway had a gap in it at one point, where a bit is still under construction with a massive steel structure set up as part of the construction. The motorway cut through rock and, rising through the hills, carried on up to the Kosovo border, where the crossing was easy. The whole trip on this road I had not seen one truck.

Entering Kosovo the road dropped down into a large basin, which was almost like a different world, having a wealthy feel about it with nice houses and green fields, despite there being lots of small, old tractors around.

Speed, as in how fast one should be going, is a bit hard to work out here especially as google maps doesn’t show the speed. At one point I was cruising down a double lane highway at 120 kph and must have missed a 60kph sign. Heading over a hill under an overpass and bugger, there were two cops there with their radar gun. Pulling over, they showed me the speed 121kph. Their English was just better than my French. I said ‘that’s only 1km over the limit; they explained that this was a 60kph area and you lose your licence for 6 months for going twice the speed limit. They asked where I was from and where I was going and why. I explained that I was from NZ and just swanning around checking out their nice country. I gave them each one of our little ‘going places’ cards. They told me that Kosovo people are very nice and friendly. I can vouch for that as they sent me on my way with a smile and not even a fine.

As I headed towards the hills of Montenegro, I stopped at a cafe attached to a petrol station for a coffee. The guy behind the counter had not a word of english, then out of nowhere a kid of about 8 appeared and did the interpretation. He had been sitting outside with his father. More friendly Kosovo people.

There were lots of stalls selling stones in this area. As I headed through the village there were lots of little tractors about. The road then wound its way up the hill on a switchback road to the border checkpoint, where the friendly guy said the Montenegro border is 8kms further on. I presume the bit in between is no-man’s land. There were good views back over Kosovo, blurred by the mist or smog.

The crossing at the border was easy and the winding road headed down into a valley, then wound through valleys with lots of small villages then up over hills. It is a pretty country with lots of rocky hills and colourful bush. Here and there are lots of little tractors and in places bigger machines were parked up in people’s front yards. In several places there was a guy with a wheelbarrow clearing out the gutters on the roadside; no cones just some high vis gear.

I stopped for a bite to eat at a roadside restaurant on a cliff above a river. The woman got out a gas burner to brew my coffee and make me an omelet. Despite the lack of facilities, there were quite a few people sitting around outside, drinking beer. Just about every town has cops with speed detectors pulling drivers over. People were in the fields hand raking cut grass to stack to feed stock in the winter. In spite of it looking like a place of subsistence farming, the houses are nice and it looks like the people have a good standard of living. A couple of towns had old abandoned factories but I never saw any evidence of manufacturing. There were more colourful beehives on display in front of houses. The road wound up a valley alongside a railway line, then up a hill. Driving through a medium sized village, I arrived at the Bianca Resort, which is a rustic type hotel with side by sides for hire and lots of old stuff on display. After enjoying a wine, I headed to the restaurant, where laid out on a large table was one of the best smorgasbord meals I have ever seen. At 130.00 NZD for the night, including breakfast it is good value.

Tuesday 18 October 2022

There is ice on the car windows as I reach the carpark ready to set off on today’s journey. Heading back down the valley, visibility is impaired by thick mist. Heading up a hill takes me above it for a while, then it is back down into the gorges as the road cut into the rock winds its way up to the border with Serbia.

The border crossing is easy and the road winds its way down the gully into a narrow valley. As the road headed alongside the river I stopped for a coffee at a log-house place alongside the river. The rather gruff guy sent me around the back after I had explained what sort of coffee I wanted. Around the back there were a few tables with a couple of women sitting at one of them. I said hello and they asked me to join them. Kristina and her daughter Mia were on their way to an event Kristina, an event organiser, was running. Mia, an architect student, was tagging along for the three day event. We chatted about the economy in Montenegro; I had said how the parts I had seen looked like they were quite well off. Kristina explained that all the people in the country basically make most of their living off the land in an almost subsistence farming manner, selling off the little they can produce, a lot of it on the roadside. Kristina said they were going to stop at a 13th century monastery about 20 mins off the main road and invited me to join them. I said yes and followed along arriving at this beautiful complex; apparently people can come and stay there a bit like a hotel. We entered the chapel with the white angel, which is quite renown in this area, painted on one wall. After the chapel, we looked around the grounds, then to the gift shop, where they brought me some gifts for Sylvia. After that we headed on our respective journeys.

A railway line ran along the rocky face above the road, with many tunnels punching out through the rock. There was a water point on the side of the road; in other places I have often seen people queueing to get water at these. The road took me along a valley to a hydro-power plant then on to the town of Priboj, with what was once the largest truck factory in Yugoslavia, employing 8,000 people. Not sure what it is making now but from what I can gather it is struggling. From there, the road continued to the Bosnian Border.

Crossing the border, the road wound up a valley with farm houses spread through it. Heading over the top it was down another valley. This went on for a while until finally the land opened out into a plain with fenced paddocks and stock in the fields. I love the way everyone in this part of the world stacks their firewood; some people were even working on log splitters, splitting and stacking the recently delivered logs. The last stretch towards Sarajevo was through a gorge with lots of tunnels cut through the rock. Over the past week I have seen many steel nets draped over the rocky cliffs with concrete weights at the bottom, I presume to stop them lifting in the wind.

Arriving in the town I managed to park the car and find the not-too-flash Old Sarajevo Hotel, with poor wifi but a very helpful receptionist. A wander around the town revealed a large area dedicated to tourists with lots of souvenir shops, bars and restaurants. People sat in many bars puffing on sheesha, men and woman included. There are quite a few woman here in the full faced niqaab. I enjoyed a good streak at a local restaurant and sampled some local wine, which was quite nice.

Some friends of mine were here during the war in the late 90’s; one described the place as basically a bomb-hole, with terrible coffee. There is now no obvious sign that a war took place as it has all been rebuilt. Something the poor people of eastern Ukraine will have to undergo some time in the future.

Bianca Resort Montenegro to Sarajevo

Wednesday 19 October 2022

The traffic was light as I left Sarajevo; the city is quite spread out with farmland, commercial buildings, houses and apartments intermingled.

I hit a mist covered motorway, which ran for around 100kms north, at a town with what looked like a large coal-powered electrical generation plant and some other factories. The road then led through various valleys with the new motorway still under construction. There is lots of farming here similar to the other countries in this part of the world.

Then finally it was onto another motorway and then to a small town and through some back streets to the border. The crossing into Croatia was uneventful and a secondary road lead to the motorway that ran all the way to the Slovenian border. There, there were hundreds of trucks queueing up, stretching out over 2 plus kilometres. The motorway continued right through Slovenia with the turn off only 3 kms from my destination.

Checking into the Hotel Centre in the town of Postojna I took a stroll down to Costilna Pizzeria, where I enjoyed a great pizza and a couple of glasses of the local wine. Strolling back to the hotel afterwards, I saw a barber shop still open and popped in to see if I could get a bit unscruffy. The guy said he was finishing after the customer he had, could I come back in the morning. I said no and then he said Ava (a young woman there) could do the job but does not speak english. I said ok and Ava got a haircut underway, plus I was offered a glass of whiskey, which was a new experience during a haircut. Luca explained that this was the oldest barber shop in Slovenia, having opened in 1926. They were friendly and nice people and as I was leaving he showed me the little museum out the back, displaying the history of the shop.

Sarajevo to Postojna Solivena

Thursday 20 October 2022

After breakfast I headed out to take a look at the Predjama Castle, which is about 10kms from the town. The knees not liking stairs very much just now, I just had a look from the outside. This place has been there for around 800 years. In the maze of tunnels behind the castle, Knight Earzem of Predjama used to store his plunder, uplifted from raids he carried out from the castle. In a cave under the castle is a colony of bats.

Heading back to town I joined the tour of the Predjama caves. People queued up by signs with the language they wanted the tour done in: English, Dutch, German, Italian, Slovak and a few more. We were then lead through to the station. Yep! they run trains into the caves. In 1868 Thomas Cook, while visiting the caves, said they were big enough to have rail tracks laid in them. Four years later 1500m of railway tracks were laid with 2 seater carriages called pheatons, being pushed along by the cave guides. Back then, the cave was lit by some 17,000 candles – the richest man in town was the local candle maker. During WWI Russian POWs were used to do work in the caves, including building a bridge between two different caves. Italian miners also dug various connecting tunnels through the rock and limestone. In 1925 the tracks were redone and a gasoline engine was used to tow the carriages. Over the years more modifications have been done. The English group was eventually called forward and we headed to the rail platform and mounted the many carriages, now powered by a battery-powered loco. The place is double tracked as as we journeyed the 3.7km into the cave. The sights were really spectacular with thousands of stalactites, stalacmites and columns above us and to the left and right. Eventually we stopped at a platform, then followed the guide up a 40m concrete path incline. He stopped every now and then and took a microphone from a stainless steel post and gave us a run down on the caves. There are 3 layers that the Pivka river has carved out over millions of years. We are on the second layer and the current third layer is where the river now runs. The river pops out of the ground by the cave entrance and eventually becomes the Sava river that runs through Ljubljana (the capital of Slovenia), through Croatia Bosnia and Serbia, where it then joins the Danube, which eventually flows through Ukraine into the Black Sea.

The tour took us on a 1.5km walk through caverns and tunnels, across a bridge, then through more caverns with lots of different formations, some looking like blinds others like spaghetti. Then we got to see some salamander housed in a kind of fish tank; there are a few thousand of these living in the caves. Finally we got to a big cavern that has an amazing echo. We then hopped on another train and were driven out of the caves.

After a sandwich and a coffee at one of the many cafe’s around the cave entrance, I hit the road to Turin. Joining a motorway not far from the caves I basically stayed on the same road for the next 500 plus kms. There is no hard border between Slovenia and Italy, just a road toll gate. There were two tolls on this stretch of road totalling about 60 euros. For the whole journey I averaged 108kph, never exceeding the speed limit of 130kph I hope.

It was dark when I arrived into Turin and checked into the Hotel Gran Mogol in the old city. Parking was a bit of a problem so I parked in a driveway and went to the reception, who said their parking was full and sent me to a private carpark just down the road, where a very friendly chap took the car and stored it overnight for me. Having checked into the hotel I found a nearby restaurant and enjoyed a nice Italian steak dinner.

Predjama Slovenia to Turin Italy

Friday 21 October 2022

I woke up at 0100 hrs sweating to discover the air conditioning was not going. Playing around with the switches, I could not get it to spark up. After breakfast I asked about it at reception and was told it is the law here now – they are not allowed to use it unless it gets over 25 degrees. Bloody Putin!!!

I took a stroll around the old town on a rather grey morning and was impressed by the size of the buildings and the covered footpaths with huge columns holding up the building above. Even in the rain you could walk all around the city without getting wet. Everything is huge and chunky in this town and with the normal statues, museums, university and government administrations buildings. Large squares are full of tables and chairs serviced by the local cafes and restaurants as are the many tables and chairs in the streets. The Po river runs around the edge of the old city making its way across the top of Italy into the Adriatic Sea. With a population of around 900,000 I was surprised at how light the traffic was as I exited the city. Even out towards the edge of town they have maintained the same style of buildings.

On the drive home I struck really heavy rain most of the way. Most of the journey was on toll roads with the traffic only slowing a little under the 130 kpm speed limit in spite of the rain. Arriving home, I checked the odometer to find since leaving Cassis, nearly 3 weeks ago, the car had traveled 8,125 kilometres with a driving time of 110 hours. It has been a really interesting trip, checking out what was once part of the USSR and to see how the countries in the north and west of Europe are definitely better off than those in the southeast. In saying that though, they all look like they are making progress with new roads and infrastructure underway. The drive through the former Yugoslavia gave a good appreciation of how countries can recover and rebuild after a devastating conflict like the one there just over 20 years ago. Katrina and her daughter, who I met in Serbia, told me how their borders in Montenegro were closed for more than 10 years during the conflict. All the way through the journey the people were nice and friendly and full marks go to the two cops from Kosovo who let me off what could have been a very difficult speeding ticket.

Turin to Home in France
the old Yugoslavia
Eastern Europe trip

Exploring Eastern Europe Part Two

Monday 10 October 2022 – Vienna

Rising early, I headed to the rather basic gym and then a rather good breakfast. I caught the local tram the seven or so kms into town and opted for a coffee while I waited for the Information centre to open. There I was able to purchase a day pass for the public transport and get some directions on things to do. I headed up to the Spanish Horse Stables to book a look at a training session for tomorrow morning. The buildings around town are quite outstanding. Statues: well I thought Budapest had a lot but Vienna has outdone them by far. Horses and big strong men feature predominantly. Stone masons and sculptures must have made a fortune when they built this place.

From the stables I took a stroll down to the Danube River, which, with its high, man-made narrow sides, is flowing very fast. There are a bunch of boats parked up just below a bridge, some of which will eventually make their way to Amsterdam.

Looking at the brochure the nice lady at the information office has given me I saw the Sigmund Freud museum was close by. Pushing the boundaries and getting outside my comfort zone I decided to take a look. A 20 minute walk later I arrived at the door to find it was closed due to sickness. I strolled up the hill and caught the number one tram back towards town. Not far along the route we passed pretty magnificent looking building so I dismounted to investigate. It was in actual fact the local parliament building, closed to the public but covered with massive statues and other ornaments. The road was busy with trams, cars and the odd horse and carriage.

Back on the tram we passed another large building. Once again I dismounted to investigate. It turned out to be the Museum of Natural History. As I entered there was a Ukrainian family getting tickets. I asked them how they were getting on to be informed that their town, near the western Polish border had been rocked this morning. The museum was as good as I have seen with a large area on the first floor dedicated to geology including some rocks from the moon. The next floor was full of prehistoric creatures, including the largest petrified turtle ever found. There are a huge amount of dinosaurs and other strange creatures from the past including the not too long extinct moas from New Zealand. One recreated dinosaur-type monster started moving and growling every now and again to the great amusement especially of the children.

Moon Rocks

Boarding the tram again, I ended up back in the city centre and enjoyed a bite to eat and a glass of wine in the street seating of the Sluka Restaurant, established 1891. As I sat there hundreds of people passed by and the service was excelent.

Finally I decided to check out the Albertina Museum, which turned out to be an art gallery, some parts with large rooms sparsely but expensively furnished with large chandeliers and parquas floors. Other parts were full of various art objects in many different styles. The lower floor was dedicated to graffiti. I have trued to capture some of what I saw but the photos don’t do it justice.

After a great day out in Vienna, I took the tram back to the hotel to plan out the next few days of travel. Last night I had looked and marked a hotel to stay at tomorrow night in Kosice, Slovakia, not too far from the border of Ukraine. Looking again tonight every hotel in that town, and the towns around it, are booked out. Looks like Putin has caused another mass exodus from Ukraine.

Tuesday 11 October 2022

I enjoyed another good breakfast at the hotel, despite the lights not working, apparently a common problem. Funny thing, when I got back last night I asked what time the bar opened; the receptionist said “soon”. I said ‘how soon’, thinking I might come down for a drink; ’maybe a couple of weeks’ was the reply.

I drove into town, finding a carpark near the Spanish riding stables and headed to the show, where I had a seat in the front row at one end of the stadium. I got seated next to a nice US couple from Pennsylvania to be told by the woman seating me “no photos allowed while the horses are in the arena”. Bugger, it did not say that in the info when I researched the place. The show got underway as six strong stallions and there male riders entered the stadium. They put the horses through their, for want of a better word, dance moves. Normally a horse has four gaits: walking, trotting, cantering and galloping. These had added many into their repertoire which are a little hard to describe. The riders, from time to time, reached into the back of their jackets to produce a sugar cube as a reward for their excellent footwork. They were kept on a tight rein with the neck bent so the top of the head (the pole) was below the neck, something my father hated me doing with my horse when I was a kid. After 30 minutes the horses lined up, the riders dismounted and orderlies came in and put halters on the horses and lead them out as the riders wandered off, job done. The next five stallions entered, four mounted by women riders, one in a helmet rather than the Spanish hats the other’s wore; she was a trainee. There are no instructors as such in the school as the skills are passed on from rider to rider. We did not get to see the horses rear up like you see in the movies; apparently that stuff is kept for the real show. The horsmanship and the condition of the horses was impressive; at one stage one of the stallions shied at something, jumping sideways – the rider, unphased, didn’t even move in the saddle.

The show over, I headed to a local restaurant for some lunch before hitting the road. Checking out the history of Austria I discovered that from 1945 to 1955 it was mostly controlled by the USSR with some 450 german companies owned by the germans and taken over by the Russians. Most went broke giving the Austrians the opportunity to to exit the USSR and become independent and aligned to Western Europe. It certainly now has the feeling of a very wealthy country.

Heading southeast out of the city, the traffic was light and on one side of the motorway was a large curved wall, which I have seen a lot in this part of the world, to stop the sound of the traffic upsetting the locals. As I headed further east towards the border with Slovakia the land was flat and farmed like so much of this part of the world. There were areas of large wind farms with their red and white tipped blades, a few turning in the wind and some under construction. Crossing the border and heading to Bratislava, I expected the motorway to go around the city but it went through the centre at 120kpm speed limit. I was lucky, as now heading for Demonava instead of Kosice a little further east and south, the road took me into the hills. Still a magnificent E (European road funded by the EU) road, it was an easy drive. At one point I encountered a 100-plus vehicle convoy of military trucks, fortunately heading in the opposite direction.

Eventually leaving the E road, I headed up into the mountains on an ordinary road in excellent repair. Again I was surprised by the number of large factories situated near small, remote towns. At one point I could see the evaporating towers of the Elektraren Nuclear power plant. Arriving at the top of a pass I encountered a large, I presume, ski resort with cable cars heading up into the surrounding hills. Heading down the other side I eventually arrived at the industrial town of Rozomberok with large steam pipes running along side of the road to power a massive minerals factory called Mondi SCP. There I struck a traffic jam. Fortunately a truck driver let me in and we headed along the single lane, to find 10kms of mainly trucks waiting on the other side of the road to get through.

After heading alongside Lake Lptovska I finally reached the turn off to Demanova. It too had a large manufacturing plant and some Russian style appartments on the west side. The town is now mainly a resort town with lots of nice houses and tidy streets. Checking into the Hotel Demanova, which is only a couple of years old, I was very pleasantly surprised – at 125NZD I wasn’t expecting much. The place is outstanding. From the receptionist, who welcomed me with perfect english (learnt at school), to the very comfortable cigar bar and restaurant with great food and wine, it has to be the best value for money place I have ever encountered.

Wednesday 12 October 2022

Departing the hotel at 0800 I headed southeast towards Kosice, which is which is about 80kms from Ukraine. From there the road took me southwest past a castle under restoration and though some nice farmland. Snow drift fencing is stacked next to the road and in places already up to protect the road from snow drifts come winter. They must take it down for the summer so the farmers can tend the paddocks.

Crossing the border into Hungary and on to Miskclc, then southeast to the border of Roumania. This was a manned boarder. I pulled up to the kiosk and handed over my passport, which the guy had for a while then took it to the next booth where another guy and a woman asked for the car registration. Handing those over they asked where I was heading and were a little surprised when I told them. They were all friendly and wished me a good journey.

As I headed south on the still 3 lane each way E road with a kilometre plus of trucks waiting to go north across the border, I am quite glad I am not driving a truck here. I was curious as to why why google maps was telling me it was going to take 4-hours to cover the remaining 200kms and soon found out as the E road ended and it was onto a well-patched two way country road. It was a bit like going back in time, especially after spending the last 10 or so days in what felt like really wealthy countries with great roads, big tractors and nice houses. Here, the tractors are much older and smaller; they still use horses to tow carts and cultivate in places and the houses are nowhere near as smart.

The road took me up into some small hills, which are not something one experiences in the plains of Hungary, then down and alongside Lacul (lake) de Acumulare Lugasu, part of which has a long dam wall running in a large horseshoe and a small hydro power plant. The road improved a little from here, but was still one lane each way but in better condition and called highway 1, passing through lots of small towns, one with a number of almost chateau-style houses that have not been finished. In one valley there were hand-stacked hay stacks and, alongside the run down houses, some nice looking restaurants; of course all the churches were in good repair. In places stock grazed in the fields, something I have not seen much of in this part of the world.

Finally reaching Cluj-Napoca, a city of some four hundred thousand and dating back to the Roman days. I was not too impressed as I drove along alongside the river, lined with old soviet styled apartments. Eventually, arriving at the hotel on top of a hill in the middle of a park, I checked in. It looked a bit rough from the outside and old but tidy on the inside. The room is okay with clean linen and a great view from the 6th floor. I dropped my bags and headed down to the restaurant but the lights were not on. The friendly maitre’d said ‘come in, we are open’. I decided to have a drink in the bar first and was presented the worst glass of wine ever. I couldn’t finish it and went to the reception and asked if there were any good restaurants in town. After, with stops, nearly 9 hours on the road I was thirsty. She said ‘lots, just follow the steps down through the park’. Arriving at the bottom of the hill I was pleasantly surprised to find a stunning old city, bustling with people and lots of bars and restaurants. I popped into a busy bar and enjoyed a couple of glasses of very nice Romanian Chardonnay, after which I headed to a restaurant close by. There were three people sitting at the next table conversing in English. I asked them where they were from and it turned out they were here at medical school, training to be doctors, two from Germany and one from France. We had a nice chat and I enjoyed a very nice New York style steak. It had rained when I first got down to the old city but luckily it had stopped as I went back up the hill to the hotel.

Thursday 13 October 2022

I woke to heavy rain, which fortunately had eased as I got on the road at 0800. The traffic wasn’t too bad on the way out of town and soon the route took me onto a good motorway with the traffic steady at 130km/h. Passing lots of farmland and every now and again a large factory or distribution centre in the middle of nowhere, there were a large number of huge, high-voltage powerlines running across this country often with sub stations in the middle of nowhere.

The motorway ended after a couple of hundred kms and it was back onto a one lane each way road that lead into some really nice hill country running alongside a river. There were lots of hold ups as the retaining wall on the river bank was being replaced and the road was down to one lane. There are lots of rather derelict looking buildings through the valley and, in places, large areas of still water held back by dams, of which there were many along this (I think) Prahova Piver. At one point, a couple of fishermen squatted at the edge of the water trying their luck. Shops often had their wares displayed on the footpath in well-presented displays. Another thing I have seen a lot here are the old style kilometre markers on the road side. Every now and again there was a nice resort-type town with nice apartments and, in some cases, high-rise buildings. At one point there was a large, I think, conference centre, built of brick in the shape of large oil tanks. In places the mist hung low in the hills but the rain held off. I was glad the motorway does not go all the way as this was really nice country and a good change from the flat and sometimes rolling farm land.

Leaving the hills the road lead onto another 130kph motorway. Closing on Bucharest there are large distribution centres on the roadside and many factories, all serviced by this nice road. The motorway ended and the last 20 odd kms were through the city, where the traffic mostly flowed well. Arriving at the rough-on-the-outside but nice-on-the-inside Christina Hotel, the street was packed with cars. I turned down a dead-end side street and a woman parked on the foot path on the corner vacated so I took her spot. Heading in to the hotel I asked the very helpful good English-speaking guy if it was ok to park there – he came and took a look and said it would be fine.

After settling into the room I took a stroll into the old town, a couple of kms away, with a large tree-lined avenue leading to it. Not as nice as the area in Cluj-Napoca, it was a lot more spread out with the many streets lined with tables and chairs and lots of people around. There was a big police presence, all armed with pistols and big pepper-spray canisters. There was a group of soccer type fans in town but I am not sure if this was the reason or whether it was just normal. I stopped at Beer O’clock and enjoyed a local IPA before wandering on and stopping for a Romanian Steak at one of the many restaurants. The Romanian steak turned out to be exactly the same as the New York steak I had had last night, even served on the same style wooden board. The service was great, as was the food and wine. A good end to another long but interesting day of driving.

Cluj-Napoca to Bucharest

Friday 14 October 2022

After a bit later than usual start and a good breakfast at the hotel, I headed down the road, purchased a day pass for the metro at 8 locals (2.84 NZD) and headed off to the Parliament Buildings. I had read about these a couple of years ago – they were built between 1984 and 1997. Construction was ordered by Nicolae Ceausescu, the second of two long-ruling heads of state since WWII, who was executed after the uprising in 1989. Reaching a height of 84 meters with a floor area of 365000 sqm and weighing in at 409,850,000 kgs it is the heaviest building in the world. I think also after the Pentagon it is the second largest. It is the largest and most expensive admin building in the world, valued recently at 4B Euros. Arriving at the gate a friendly young policeman said it was closed for a conference this month. He also told me that when it is open there are only parts of two floors open to visitors. He said to walk around the outside and have a look at the large church at the back. I bet, looking at the size of the place, there are bureaucrats that have occupied the same office since it was built and nobody knows who they are or what they do.

Across the road to the east are large apartment buildings that mirror each other. To the south is a large Academic building. I strolled the almost 2km along the south wall to the entrance to the church on the west side. It too was closed, by the look of it, for a rebuild. There was a small crypt part that was open, where priests moved around and people lit candles and prayed. By the look of the concrete rot in the surrounding walls it looks like there will be some hefty maintenance bills coming up sometime soon.

That part over I headed back on the metro to the old city and enjoyed a nice cottage pie lunch at Kilkenny’s Bar – yes there is an Irish bar in just about every place I have been. The staff were very friendly and I enjoyed a couple of local Grivita IPA beres (local spelling). Back on the train, I headed to Primaverii Palace. This was the home of Nicolae Ceausescu. His pad is still pretty much in its original state, complete with peacocks, which are descendants of the original ones donated by the Japanese emperor back in the 70s. I arrived just in time to be added to a guided tour that was about to take place. Joanna, the very informative guide, took us from room to room, but not all of them as there are some 88 rooms in this 4500 sqm mansion, with lots of carved walnut walls. From the eldest son’s apartment we went through the main rooms used for meetings and other stuff. Then to the wife’s day room, then their apartment, complete with gold bathroom, reported some years ago as solid gold but that was not the case. Apparently the marble in the passage way from India cost much more than the gold used in the palace. There were lots of tapestries and ornaments gifted by just about every world leader at the time. Then came the winter garden complete with mosaics. We looked in the dress-making room and the wardrobe with its collection of dozens of animal skins such as foxes, lynx , sable and more. Then it was down some stairs to the 3m deep and 14m long pool complete with wave machine, heating etc. A million plus peace mosaics covered the walls, completed by local artists over 3 years.

Back in the day no-one knew how they lived as the place was totally off limits to the people. As Joanne said, they lived in this while the rest of the people lived in apartments smaller than their bathrooms. In a corridor, as we exited, there were pictures of all the world leaders in meetings with Ceausescu during their visits to this place. All the leaders of the time are pictured there.

Tour over, I headed back to the hotel and then off to the old city for some dinner and a drink. The place was rather busy and as I wandered about looking for something different to eat it became obvious that in spite of their being hundreds of restaurants they pretty much all sell the same stuff. I settled on salmon and salad in the end, which came out with chips and no salad and a rather bad glass on wine.

Saturday 15 October 2022

Heading out of town at around 0800, the traffic was light as I headed southwest to the border. Prior to reaching the border, which runs down the centre of the Danube River, there is the Romanian border control. The process was efficient and quick and shortly I crossed the bridge by the Bulgarian city of Ruse Pyce, a small industrial city with a large power plant and other industry. Reaching the Bulgarian check point there was a large queue, but after about 90 minutes I reached the booth and had my passport stamped and car ownership papers checked and was on my way south. The land was mainly flat and rolling for the first 150kms, then there were some bush covered hills. I passed another industrial type city and a few villages here and there. The tractors and farm machinery were bigger and newer than in Romania but the roads were a bit basic most of the way – all sealed but one lane each way and a little rough in lots of places. The last 80ks into Sofia was a double lane highway with a good surface. Entering the city the traffic was light with quite a few new, large commercial buildings along the roadside.

I checked into the COOP Xoten Hotel, which is a little old but ok. From there I took a wander into the old city centre. The footpaths along the way were quite rough. Reaching the centre square there are a couple of large buildings facing each other. A tall Saint Sofia Statue is at one end, some steps take one down into what looks like an old archaeological area. From there an under pass goes under the road and leads eventually to a large mall area with lots of shops and eating areas. There are many large restored buildings around the area and some nice parks and a fountain. Eventually I spotted a Thai massage place called Arsanta and wandered in. I was greeted by a really friendly Bulgarian lady behind the counter and had a massage by a lady called Sudani, who had moved here from Bali. It turned out she and the lady from the reception had set the place up a year ago. I had one of the better Thai massages I have had, especially after having stiffened up from the many days of driving.

Bucharest to Sofia Bulgeria

Sunday 16 October 2022

As I left town the traffic was quiet as I drove through the main square, past the statue of Sofia. There are lots of old Soviet-style apartments along the way plus some new and better looking ones. Heading out on to a not-too bad motorway, I passed a couple of large manufacturing towns and a coal fired power station. The scenery was nice especially as I approached the border.

There I pulled up to a booth but no one appeared so I started to back up when I heard a whistle. A rather rotund guy had come out of the booth, asked for my documents and wanted to look in the boot. When I lifted the boot he spotted a open shopping type bag I had some food in and rummaged through it. He pulled out an open box of energy bars asking if they were nice. I said “a bit average” as he slipped one into his palm. “You can have one if you want’ I smiled as he did. He then went off and stamped my passport. I then moved to the North Macedonia booth where things were pretty straight forward.

Heading down a gorge, which was pretty rough going, a new road is under construction to one side. The countryside was quite nice with lots of small villages and people selling stuff on the side of the road, including the motorway, grapes in one area, then honey in another. As I passed Skopje Ckonge (the capital) cops were there giving out speeding tickets. I missed out this time, having being warned that they make tourists pay cash and I didn’t have any locals on me. There are lots of mosques throughout this country, although at one point the mosques stopped and churches were present, then it went back to mosques. Heading up over some nice hills on my right there is a new motorway being constructed with massage earthworks going high up the hills in the form of retaining walls, some impressive engineering. Further down a valley the motorway was sort of half finished with two-way traffic using one side.

Heading out into a large valley to Lake Mavrovo the road runs on around the lake and up to the Albanian border, where another of the, often-seen, large North Macedonia flags flew on a tall pole.

Something I have forgotten to mention, is the almost smog-like mist that I have experienced right through eastern Europe – it’s quite hard to define exactly what it is.

The border crossing was pretty easy with a bit of a queue. The road went along a ridge and then down a valley to a small city that had lots of piles of bricks on the roadside, even though the local, once brick factory, looked like it had been closed for some time. At one point a large truck, some distance in front of me, just stopped, the driver disembarking and going into a local shop to get some food. The traffic just waited until he came out and got going again. The road wound its way through a valley with a rail line to the right. Passing through lots of villages, many with roadside stalls, I eventually arrived on the outskirts of Tirana. It is quite a pretty city with lots of striking white buildings. As I drove into town the traffic was quite light, which made things easy, especially as Google maps had the hotel on the other side of the road and way further down the street. As Vodafone doesn’t have a deal in this country I had my data turned off, hence one can put the map in and use it for directions but you can’t put in any new routes, hence it can be a bit tricky. There is lots of high rise construction going on around the city centre.

Beside the Hotel Colosseo is a barricade to a private street, manned by a guy with a pistol. I pulled up and said I was going to stay at the hotel and he went and got the concierge, who came out and showed me where to park. Checking in to the hotel, I then headed down to the local square to check it out. What struck me was on the street leading to the square most shops were closed being a Sunday I presume, but over the next 500m there were some 15+ cell phone shops ,some selling E scooters as well, all open and trading. In the Square, where lots of people gathered, many were sitting glued to their Phones. I was amused by three blokes, obviously mates, sitting together all engrossed in their phones, maybe they were chatting by phone!!

Heading back to the hotel, I enjoyed some nice wine before heading to the restaurant for a meal of sea bass, which the waiter not only brought to the table, but also removed all the bones for me. The service here is top notch and the staff really friendly.

Sofia Bulgaria to Tirane Algeria

Exploring eastern Europe. Part One.

Saturday 1 October 2022

Two years ago my friend Steve and I were supposed to head to Vienna, then through Slovakia, Ukraine, Moldova and a few other countries in that area, then along came Covid and put paid to that idea. With what’s going on in Ukraine just now, one wonders what will happen over the next year or so. Hence its time to go take a look, although not at Ukraine. Sylvia and I headed to, Cassis a nice little town just east of Marseille. Arriving around midday, we headed to the rather picturesque harbour, full of small boats and surrounded by restaurants. We wandered around to the northeast side of the port and enjoyed a snack and a bit of rather relaxing people watching before heading up to the La Demeure Insoupconnee, a B&B place we had booked for a couple of nights. It turned out to be a really nice place with great views of the Sliabh Liag cliffs, the highest sea cliffs in Europe. After settling in we headed back down to the town and enjoyed a meal at one of the many wharf-side restaurants.

Sunday 2 October 2022

After watching the sun rise over the cliffs, and enjoying a nice french breakfast, we headed over to Sainte-Maxime, from there following the coast around as much as we could. In this part of France all the beaches are shingle with some having the luxury of imported sand, often held in place by sea walls to stop the sea washing it away.

Arriving at Bandol we strolled around the corner away from the main, rather busy harbour area, where we discovered a restaurant overlooking the beach. There we sat and chatted, enjoying some great food and the local wine. The service was, in good French style, a little slow and inaccurate but that was well and truly offset by the location.

After a long lunch we headed up to the cliff tops, enjoying the view from the windy road along the way. Lots of people are out and about enjoying the weather and the views, many on motorbikes. There are also some on push bikes and the odd classic car.

The day nearly gone, Sylvia headed back to Nimes to ready herself for a busy week of work. I stopped another night, ready for an early start for the 800km drive northeast to Liechtenstein in the morning.

Monday 3 October 2022

I was on the road at 6am. Having seen most of the country around here on previous trips, heading off in the dark was not a problem. The first hour of the journey along the coast went well until I hit the morning traffic which slowed to a crawl. Once past Nice things sped up again. Crossing into Italy, I was impressed with the roading as they have built the road not far back off the coast and it consists of continuous bridges over the valleys and tunnels through the ridges. Towns fill the gullies and are often built up into the hills. One area had many glasshouses scattered along the hillsides. They certainly are good at getting buildings to stick to rock. Little towns, all with a church steeple, are perched up in the hills.

At Genoa the road headed north, eventually by-passing Milano, and then up the east side of Como and then leading up a valley to the San Bernardino Tunnel, which is 6596 meters long. The road winds sharply on the way up with many bridges and avalanche shelters along the way. There are the remains of a castle along the way with churches and monuments stuck on hills, where one wouldn’t expect them. The traffic was very slow over the last 150kms of the journey stretching the trip out to 10.5 hours to cover around 800kms. The reward of the scenery in the Swiss hills was well worth it, with little huts and towns dotted high in the rather green hills.

Arriving in Liechtenstein I checked into the Kommond Hotel, where the service is great and the food tasty. Liechtenstein is the fourth smallest country in Europe with a population of around 38 thousand people. At 25km long and some 160 square km in area, there is not a whole lot of room left to run around, although one does not get that impression when driving through it.

Tuesday 4 October 2022

Last night, while planning todays route, initially google maps suggested I head to Graz in Austria via Munich and Salzburg, places I will be going later on in the week when I pick Sylvia up in Munich and head to Salzburg for the weekend. When I first joined the army at 16 we had two corporals as our barrack commanders – to us they were really old (probably 22). Both Bob and Wally had been to Vietnam and were great instructors, very willing and eager to pass on their knowledge and experience to us. One of the lessons I remember Bob giving us was on planning a route. He had us in hysterics, and without going into detail, one thing he enphasied was to break the route down into sections and look at the detail. Bob went on to become the Regimental Sergeant Major of the Army and is now the patron of the Regular Force Cadet Association. I have a theory that Google is in bed with the oil companies and alway adds a bit to the route.

Up early, I headed off at first light, driving south back through part of Liechtenstein to get a feel for the place before turning north and heading across the boarder into Switzerland. It looks like a wealthy country with nice homes and well-kept streets. The barman last night was telling me how they sell off citizenships on a ballot basis, where some 20,000 people pay 10,000 euros to go into a draw for a dozen or so places. If you miss out hard luck – no money back. Apart from that 45% of their income is from manufacturing, 54% is from financial services, agriculture accounts for a small amount as do other bits and pieces. The average income is around $72k USD per annum.

Heading east down a valley, as the sun rose lots of little villages came into view with farm houses high in the hills all surrounded by green fields. Some of the paddocks are so steep the sheep dogs must wear spikes on their feet to muster the stock. The roads are really smooth and none of them wind there way up and down steep hills – they have avoided that by just digging a tunnel from one valley to the next. One tunnel I passed through was over 10kms long and many over 5. Most are two lanes in the same direction with a separate tunnel for the traffic going the other way. Large rocky faces were present in places along with churches and statues situated way up high in places they just don’t belong. There must have been some very fit and strong disciples back in the day. Nowadays all the priest has to do is recruit the local helo pilot.

As the autumn gold and copper colours are just starting to appear, the sun is shining and it’s still shorts and t-shirt weather. The other impressive thing I see here are the large number of manufacturing plants along the way. Often just one in a medium sized town, obviously providing employment and a good standard of living for the people in the town. There is also lots of farming including cropping and horticulture. At one point I was glad that I wasn’t going west as there were over a hundred trucks in a jam.

Heading through the town of Natz-schabs and continuing east I crossed into Austria at Oberpirkack, not that one would know as there is no sign of any border or check point anymore. The countryside and the buildings were very similar and towns still had their manufacturing plants although there seemed to be a bit more farming activity. Churches and monuments were still on the high ground. There is a large castle on the high ground above Lake Ossiach near the town of Landskron. At one stage I pulled over to at an SOS rest area to take some photos when a road patrol vehicle pulled in behind me to see if I was broken down. I checked into the Amedia Hotel, near the Graz Airport, (to be greeted by a very friendly guy on the reception and bar) a bit after 4pm and over 650km of really enjoyable driving and taking in the spectacular views along the way.

Wednesday 5 October 2022

Once again I was on the road early, heading east into the sunrise and the wild skies criss-crossed with jet streams. The roads are good, all two or three lanes in each direction. As the dawn lightened up I got to appreciate the vast farmlands stretching as far as the eye could see were well tended fields with a variety of crops and some grasslands with patches of bush here and there. On most of the trip the traffic flowed freely making for an easy drive. I stopped at a couple of road side service stations for coffee and fuel. Most of the staff had enough command of english, assisted with a bit of point and pay, that there was never a problem when it came to buying fuel and coffee. They were all friendly and helpful.

Arriving in Budapest I headed to the Danubius Hotel Helia, up river from the city centre and opposite argit-Sziget, an island in the middle of the Danube River. At 1000hrs it was too early to check in so I asked the staff if I could leave the car in the carpark and go for a wander. They were friendly and ok with my request. Strolling up the river I crossed over to the island on the Arpad bridge. The island is big with a few buildings, sports grounds, statues and concrete paths running through the trees. One can hire pedal cars to get around on and there are a number of food stalls and coffee stands. At the bottom end, near where the Margaret bridge crosses the river and and adjoins the island, there is a large fountain. This bridge carries trams, cars and pedestrians. Large blocks of apartments line the sides of the river in places among the many old buildings. There are many boats tied up along the river bank. Some years ago Sylvia and her family took a boat from here to Amsterdam. Buda is on the east side of the river and Pest on the west hence the name Budapest.

Budapest is famous for its Statues and Parliament buildings which are situated on the Pest side of the river. I am sure I haven’t seen all the statues but I have lumped the ones I have seen together along with the parliament buildings.

Crossing to the Buda (west) side, I strolled along the riverbank until I found a Metro line. There I bought a day pass for the public transport and caught the red line up to Magyar Jakobinosok, the end of the line. Taking a tram a few stops, I ended up on the hill behind the Buda Castle. I strolled through some back streets, then through a tunnel ending up at the river below the castle. I found some steps and headed up, soon crossing a bridge across to the castle. Looking over the bridge I discovered a cable car that ran up to the castle, which I made a mental note to take back down as the knees don’t like steps too much these days. The castle is now an art gallery and museum. First built in 1265, but like most of these things rebuilt, and the site as it stands was built between 1749 and 1769. It was mostly demolished in WWII and rebuilt in a simplified Stalinist Baroque style during the Kadar era. Kadar was the first secretary of the Hungarian working peoples party during the USSR days. On the north side of the castle there is a large white building with an orange tiled roof. I could not establish what it is; the doors were closed and a couple of soldiers stood on duty outside. There are great views from up here across the river to the Pest side. There are also some nice houses set in the hills to the southeast.

Catching the red train under the river, I ended up in the nicest part of town with lots of bars, restaurants and little town squares. I wandered around looking at the sights, eventually settling in a chair outside Rick’s Restaurant, where I enjoyed a couple of wines and a cigar. A very friendly waitress called Krisztina had a great eye for detail as every time someone walked past and dropped a credit card receipt on the pavement she raced over and picked it up depositing it in the bin. With a Hungarian mother and a Russian father she was born in Budapest. She maintains to this day that the people were much better off under the old USSR system as she says that back then they all got looked after. At 40 years old she must have been about 10 when it all ended so I could not quite figure out where she was coming from. As the light was fading I headed down the road and caught the train on the yellow line a few stops then walked the last couple of kms back to the hotel. They still run trolley buses here and my pass allowed me to catch one but after a few days of sitting in the car I needed the walk. It was nearing 7pm when I walked past some workmen still hard at it, sorting out the local foot path.

Thursday 6 October 2022

Having had a good look at the city, I thought a train trip southeast to look at the countryside would be a good thing to do. I headed down to the gym on the ground floor, which lead me through a long passage full of rooms with people sitting in them – it all looked like doctor or medical stuff. They even have an indoor pool and the gym wasn’t too bad either. Exercise complete, I want down to the local train station to find that it was closed. There was a bus running in its place so headed into town and then found another train that took me to another bus and eventually took me to the Budapest Nyugati Railway Station. Finding a ticket machine that had an english button I set out to buy a ticket to Cegled, a town about 65k southeast of here. All went well until the screen went blank. Roger and technology! I moved to the next machine to find they had all gone blank. The station is quite big with 20-odd platforms. I typed into Google translate what I wanted and headed to the counter. A very nice lady said in perfect english with a big smile ”this is a government office, go around the corner to the ticket office”. I headed around the corner and queued up. Arriving at the counter I held up my phone with the translation; the woman, somewhat less friendly, waved her hands around and said something like I cant help you! Back to the ticket machine, which was working again, I managed to purchase a ticket and found they even have a reduced fair for antiques over 65. Tickets in hand I boarded the train, which was at the platform but not leaving for an hour. Eventually underway we traveled through the city suburbs then into the countryside. Trees and hedges along the rail corridor blocked a lot of the view but I got a good feel for the place with its very flat land, no fences and most of the ground cultivated, growing crops and various vegetables. The train stopped at every little platform along the way. The line was double tracked and lots of freight trains passed us heading into the city. The housing in the villages all looked tidy and in good repair. Each station had its own ticket machine. Even though the odd train looks pretty old, the one I was on was a double-decker and all the rail is electric. The place looks very prosperous.

Arriving at Cegled there were some 12 platforms and an old steam engine on display. A town of around 38,000, it’s quite tidy. I strolled down a nice tree-lined avenue, passing parks and the odd shop amongst the mainly one-storey dwellings with the odd multi-storey Soviet-styled apartment. A couple of kms later I arrived at the town centre with a nice park, a couple of churches and the odd statue. On the edge of the square is the Delibab Kavezo, a restaurant with a friendly chap standing at the door. He spoke really good english, which he said he had learned at school. There I enjoyed a coffee and a caesar salad before strolling back to the station. There are a number of buildings being restored in the town and a number of new apartment buildings under construction.

I managed to get a more direct train back to Budapest, which was a lot older and the window cleaner had not got around to cleaning the windows so I couldn’t take any photos on the way back. Arriving back in town I got the bus back into the city and headed to Rick’s cafe for a wine and some goulash soup and a rather tasty Hungarian steak. I had a chat to an old bloke from Norway that sat opposite me, who at 79 was here on holiday with his wife, who had gone shopping. Krisztina was there greeting all the customers. A young guy called Josh was also working there. Originally from Iran, he is trying to move to Germany as it is impossible to get citizenship in Hungary.

Dinner over, I wandered the busy streets bustling with bikes, scooters and even a kid in a toy car mingling amongst the pedestrians. I caught the bus back to the hotel, battery almost flat as I followed the route on the map but for some reason it didn’t stop at the stop near the hotel and carried on for a km or so, which made for a nice evening stroll. I have to give them full marks for the public transport here as it is easy to use and runs at convenient intervals.

Friday 7 October 2022

At 0700 hrs I departed the hotel for Munich. The traffic out of Budapest was light and the motorway heading to Austria well maintained and mostly three lanes in each direction. Continuous convoys of trucks headed south towards Budapest, almost in places looking like a a train of trucks. A smoggy like mist hung over the valleys, sometimes reducing visibility to a couple of hundred meters.

Arriving at the Austrian border the traffic slowed to a crawl as it proceeded through what once was border control. As I proceeded through the once checkpoint there were a couple of woman standing on the side of the road in high vis jackets. I waved to them and one of the woman put her hand out in what I interpreted to be a low wave. As I drove through their expressions changed to a rather aggressive look, oops maybe that wave was meant to be a stop signal. I drove past the deserted booth and pulled over as one of the woman ran after me ,hand on pistol. I lowered the window and smiled. She held her hand out in the wave position and said this means stop. “Passport!” I said its in the boot and got out and produced my passport, apologising for the misunderstanding. Checking the passport out, she said “you can go now” in a very serious manner. I got the message “don’t mess with us, we are the police”

Having travelled through the flat northern parts of Hungary, the Austrian countryside had a bit of form to it with rolling hills and lots of cropping, with each little town having a large manufacturing plant. At one point there was a huge monastery-type building on the edge of a village, which looked like it could accomodate hundreds of people. The road cut to the south of Vienna. I stopped every few hundred kms at a roadside service centre, where I found the people very friendly and tolerating of my point and pay with a smile. In a couple of places they spoke good english and enquired as to where I was from and were very chatty. For part of the journey the road, not a motorway, took me through some stunning farmland with large sheds alongside the houses to accomodate the stock in the harsh winters. There are many large rivers flowing through the lands and lots of harvesting of the many crops along the way.

At one point I passed a convoy of military amphibious armoured vehicles.

Sylvia had booked us into the Munich Airport Hilton for the night as she is flying in to join me. Arriving at the check in and showing the booking number to the rather serious guy at the check in, he said I had to wait until Sylvia arrived to check in as I need her consent to check in. Sylvia was at the Marseille airport waiting for her flight so I rang her and she spoke to Mr Serious and all was sorted. After having sorted that I headed out to find a carwash to clean my rather dirty car. Along the way I spotted an Aircraft museum with a Junkers Ju 88 on display. Unfortunately it closed before I had time to take a look. Next time! There is a rather unique coffee cart at the airport outside the terminal.

Saturday 8 October 2022

After a leisurely breakfast we headed up the Autobahn in the direction of Salzburg. In this part of the country there are speed limits on the road varying from 80km during roadworks to 130km in places, but they are not consistent and one has to concentrate as they change often. As we neared the border of Austria Sylvia said we had better check out the toll road rules. She discovered that one was supposed to display a toll sticker on the windscreen or one can collect a 120 euro fine. We pulled into a service station and got one. Crossing the boarder into Austria, we turned off the motorway not far down the road to be confronted by a roadblock where the guys were checking toll stickers. Well done Sylvia! Bit of luck that I had driven a lot of Austria over the past few days without one and not got caught. Along the way the scenery had been really nice with colourful houses and stock sheds amongst the green fields.

Not far up the road we crossed back into Germany, following a green, glacier-fed river for a while before heading up the hill to the bus station below the Eagle’s Nest. High on the hill above, one could make out the building that was built for Hitler in 1938. Three thousand eight hundred workers built the narrow, winding road up to the carpark below the building, built the 300m long tunnel, the 124m vertical elevator shaft and constructed the building on top over an 18-month period. A cable car system was put in place to bring the heavy materials up the side of the hill but many workers perished as they fell off the side of the mountain. At a cost of 30 million Reichsmark, this was funded by the royalties from the sale of Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf. (It must be quite good to write a book and then make it a compulsory purchase for most of the population).

Boarding one of three buses, we headed in convoy up the road, passing through the five tunnels built by the workers back in the day. The road is pretty much one-way all the way and only these buses are allowed to transport people up to the carpark. Arriving at the carpark, we dismounted and walked through the 300m tunnel into the dome room and joined the queue waiting for the brass-lined elevator, which was much bigger than expected – but felt pretty small with about 30 people crammed into it – for the 124m journey to the building above. Around the area there used to be several other buildings including homes for Hitler, Goerring, Boerman and others, but these were all destroyed at the end of the war.

Hitler only visited the Eagle’s Nest 14 times – one drawback was that they didn’t put any heating into the building, despite the elevator shaft being heated. It was mainly used for entertaining dignitaries. We looked through the building before wandering up the hill behind it to enjoy the views, then enjoying a pleasant lunch at the restaurant inside the building before reversing the journey and catching the bus back down the hill.

This still remains the most visited tourism site in Germany.

Just after our traffic stop we had noticed a cable car running up a high feature. We headed there, bought a ticket and climbed aboard the Der Untersberg cable car for the 8.5 minute ~1330m climb to the top of the Untersberg range. We just had time to see the views at the top before the clouds rolled in. We enjoyed a cup of coffee and some apple strudel before heading back down again.

From there we drove the ~10km into Salzburg, where we had been instructed to park in the carpark and walk ten minutes to the Hotel Goldgasse. It turned out the carpark had been built inside the mountain, carved out of solid rock. A tunnel led us through into the old city, which is absolutely stunning. Originally settled in 796 the fortress above the city dates from the 11th century. We checked into the hotel and headed out to check out some more of the city, to be met with pouring rain. We headed to a nice Italian restaurant, where we enjoyed some great pizza. Hopefully we will get to check out the town properly tomorrow morning.

Sunday 9 October 2022

After an enjoyable breakfast at the Hotel Goldgasse, we strolled over to the funicular to take the ride up to the Salzburg Castle on the hill. Near the funicular there is a still functioning waterwheel, which runs a mill in the building adjoining it. Every direction one looks in this town there is a photograph. Unfortunately we did not have much time as Sylvia was catching the noon train to Munich to get her flight back to Nimes.

Mounting the funicular, we headed up to the castle grounds. The place is huge and I am sure, like in most such places, we would only get a glimpse of it. A ramp led into an internal tower, which used to hold the water to run the original funicular. More than a hundred years ago this operated by each vehicle having a large water tank attached to it. The tank was filled on the top car, the weight dragging the bottom car up as it descended; the water then emptied and the process repeated. I am not sure how they got the water up the hill to the tank. Nowadays, a lift has been installed to take us to the upper level. Next stop was the armoury which had mainly replicas of armour and an original on a revolving platform.

The grounds are huge, there are many restaurants and shops – most at the moment, being the tourist off season, are closed. It was nice as we almost had the place to ourselves. We wandered up the many steps into the main museum, which took one through the local history, with many weapons medals and other items on display.

At one point there was a great slide show giving the history of the castle that started off as a watchtower on the hill in 370 AD and evolved from there over the years.

From the museum we had noticed, through a window, some people on a tower, which we just had enough time left to check out. Exiting the museum part through a hall where a kid wound a handle activating some trumpets, we headed up the tower via a number of spiral stairs and passageways. The views from the top were well worth it.

As I write this Sylvia is now on the train to Munich. I will now hit the road for Vienna.

One day we will come back and spend a little more time here. Maybe even take the horse and cart tour.

Another Bangkok stop September 2022

Saturday 24 September 2022

Late evening I headed to the Auckland Airport to catch the Air NZ flight to Hong Kong. The airport, unlike others in the world, is still eerily quiet with many shops still closed. Only a few flights a day are arriving and leaving Auckland compared with the pre Covid days. As soon as we were airborne and the seat belt sign was off I flagged the drinks and dinner and put my bed down to get some sleep.

Flights are a lot harder to organise and much more expensive these days. When booking this flight I was trying to use up some Thai Air credits we had owing to us. After many hours of looking and finally a phone call to Thai Air (yes someone actually answered the phone) the best and really only practical route was through Hong Kong.

Sunday 25 September 2022

Landing in Hong Kong after breakfast I was surprised to find another hermit kingdom, although I should have known as people still have to isolate to go to Hong Kong. I was wrong thinking I would spend the six-hour stopover in the lounge. The only lounge open was Cathay Pacific. Star Alliance is not open and the other airline lounges don’t open until noon, the time my flight left. Hong Kong airport is another ghost airport and most of the shops are still closed, apart from the odd coffee place. The restaurants etc, that are open don’t open till noon. I spent the next six hours sitting at the gate looking out the window and watching the activity going on around the aircraft as they came and went, fortunately something I enjoy. The flight was delayed an hour or so and Sylvia had planned to meet me at the Bangkok airport and travel into town together however her driver would not wait so on landing I went to a counter and organised another vehicle and just after 4 pm arrived at the Pullman King Power hotel to be reunited with Sylvia after six weeks apart.

Monday 26 September 2022

Sylvia was here to do a market visit with the Royal Canin team today and sponsor a development program for up and coming leaders on Tuesday and Wednesday.

I had seen something about the so-called floating markets a little way out and to the southwest of Bangkok. A quick chat with the very helpful concierge and a taxi was organised to take me there and to the market railway and back again for 2500 locals ($118 NZD). Soon we were on the road and moving relatively quickly across the elevated motorways. Although the traffic is not too bad here just now, as the Chinese tourists have yet to return, they still have around 10-million people to move around and have done some smart things by building motorways on top of each other, in some places 3-high, or straight across the top of houses with both road and rail on pylons . Like in most big cities they are still building them.

The views from these roads are quite good and in spite of the rather gloomy weather I got a good appreciation of just how big this city is, while appreciating that the whole area is one big swamp full of channels and waterways; in many places the water table is just below ground level.

We headed south then east through mainly built up areas. There are many large factories and some universities along the way; one area is rather grey and dreary with non-stop grey-water fish farms. At Puak Camp, where the driver waited, I headed over and looked at the many options including shooting various pistols and some rifles, a croc show and an elephant ride. I opted for the floating water market tour and the elephant ride. I was taken to the canal edge and quite quickly a wooden boat turned up with its 6-cylinder engine propped on the stern and the long propellor shaft heading into the water at a slight angle. Off we went to see these floating markets. Well not quite, the markets situated in various places along the canals are on concrete piles and not floating anywhere. Each little market has a number of stalls with large doors, or in some cases covers, that open out to the water. The boatman slows as we pass each stall and the stall person smiles and looks at you with pleading eyes, hoping one will stop and spend some coin. Many of the stalls are closed, I understand still suffering from the Covid effects and lack of tourists. Stopping at one stand the lady with the pleading eyes said “your driver is my brother”. That worked! Soon I was handing over locals for some souvenirs for the grandchildren. As we continued on a number of large monitor lizards swan about in the canal, one sticking his head over the kerb and poking his tongue in our direction before slithering off in a hurry.

Next stop was the local temple with its gold paint and bright colours; there a bunch of monks worked away digging a drain and doing other manual labour. Some parts of the many structures were still undergoing restoration, I presume a never-ending process. As we went through various parts of the markets people in boats sold fruit and vegetables; some were cooking meals on gas cookers, which they sold to both the locals and the odd tourist.

Arriving back at the start point the boat driver left me with the elephant woman, who scooped up a few of us and lead us to the mounting station, where she skimmed each person for 100 locals for a small basket of bananas to feed the elephant along the way. Mounting the basket, off we went at a slow amble around the well-used concrete path, the mahout using his hooked stick on the odd occasion the elephant wanted to stray off the track. Every now and then the jockey asked for a bunch of bananas, which he then held out and the trunk came, up grabbed them and into the mouth they went. Eventually we entered some water, which was deep enough to immerse most of the elephant’s belly, then up some steps and back to the start line, the ride over in 10 minutes. The mahout opened this silver box and offered to sell me some elephant teeth for 100 locals to “help pay for the elephants food”. I declined the teeth thinking it might be a ‘go to jail job’ if i arrive back in NZ with those. The eyes went sad as he put the box away so I gave him the money anyway. Dismounting the stairs, the elephant woman holds up two photos taken on the ride in frames ready to go for 500 locals. I must be getting soft!

Leaving the elephant compound I crossed a bridge back to the start line to find the cab driver waiting patiently. We headed off down the road and soon arrived at the small town of Samut Sangkhram. We parked in a carpark where we were handed some little bags of fresh fruit for free. The driver lead me down a busy street to the railway line. “The train is coming in 15 minutes – I will wait for you at the car. »

Amongst the stalls there was indeed a railway line, and a well used one at that. I wandered along the line through the stalls and then the was an announcement in, i presume Thai and maybe one other languge, then english: “Here comes the train”. Stock was moved off the tracks, awnings pulled back and there was the train. “Stand behind the red line” was another announcement. Eventually I saw some red on a stone as the train approached and brushed past. Leaving the markets and crossing the street, it pulled into the station. By the time it had stopped awnings were up, stock was back in place, and the traders were trading. I paused at a local cafe by the station to eat some lunch as many tourists got their photos taken with the train. It all seemed to work quite well. No-one got injured or died and this has been going on for years. I can’t imagine it working too well in NZ. It would take a week just to put out the road cones, let alone anything else.

The return journey was a little quicker than on the way down and I was back at the hotel by 5pm in good time to catch Sylvia when she got back from her day out, as she had a night free from functions. In all a great way to spend a day out of Bangkok.

Tuesday 26 September 2022

To have a further look around the city I got an all day train pass for 140 locals (6.47 NZD). First I took the train several stops towards the airport. Up high on pylons once again, I got a good view across the city. After 6 stops I got off, crossed over, and headed back to town, getting off near China town.

I wandered the streets looking for a good Thai massage place, which I had had recommended to me. I couldn’t find the place so asked a guy standing on the street. He said the place had closed and the other places around here were not too good. For 80 locals he could take me to a really nice place. I made it very clear I just wanted a massage no extras!! He assured me that was the case and off we went, eventually arriving at a carpark inside what looked like an apartment building. He walked me over to the door and a well dressed guy escorted me inside to a large auditorium style room with lots of couches and a few girls sitting around. “I know whats going on here I thought” as the guy scribbled 5000 locals on a pad. Immediately turning and walking to the door thinking the driver is waiting for his cut, I asked the doorman if the driver was still here. He pointed to where his car was and I strolled briskly over. Seeing me coming he went to drive off but I grabbed the door handle, opened his door and made him very aware of the error in his ways. He offered to take me to a proper place at no charge. There I enjoyed a really good 2 hour massage.

Jumping on the train again I headed to a cigar bar in a shopping mall, which was a little hard to find. I enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine and a nice cuban cigar.

Jumping off the train a stop early to walk back to the hotel and taking what I thought was a short cut, I wandered down a street full of Thai massage places and lots of food outlets. At the end of the street I hit some on-the-ground railway lines. Across from them there was a door open to a building site, which I hoped would lead to the street by the hotel. I had only got a few yards when a guy came running after me telling me I wasn’t allowed to go that way. Being a friendly chap, he lead me back to the railway line and said head down there. He and his mates were dining under the trees next to their shack, all having a good laugh at the dumb tourist. The scrub and bushes alongside the tracks were full of shacks, some just made of plastic.

Arriving back at the hotel I headed up to the lounge on the 20th floor for a drink and a snack as Sylvia was at a function. There I got chatting to a nice chap called Ron, who works for the UN in the disaster and crisis side of things. Originally from Jamaica, he now lives in Geneva and travels frequently.

Wednesday 27 September 2022

While having breakfast I get a message from my good friend Micheal. Formally ‘SureFire Mike’, then ‘Aimpoint Mike’ and now working for Knight’s Armaments selling guns to the good guys to make the world a safer place. “Are you in Bangkok?” the message read. Yes, I replied. We have met up in many countries over the years but it’s normally prearranged so this was a nice suprise. He was staying at the Hilton on the other side of the river. I bought another train ticket and headed over to catch up for a coffee. He was traveling with his boss and had only arrived last night and was off to Singapore later in the day.

After a brew with Mike I headed out to the end of the train line. Out to the west side of the Chao Phraya River there are some quite nice areas, but even here the water table is only just below ground level with lots of canals and waterways.

Mid afternoon I headed back to the cigar bar and then wandered over to Soi Phetchaburi, the street where I had seen all the massage places last night ,and enjoyed another good massage before heading back to the hotel. Heading to the 20th floor bar I caught up with Ron again before heading to the bar downstairs to meet Chadon, who is the general manager for the Royal Canin Thai business. Chadon is a reall good bloke I have known for a few years now. It was good of him to give up his time to come and have a yarn before we departed.

A driver picked us up at 8.40pm and we headed to the airport for the flight to Amsterdam on KLM. Arriving there things had improved a bit as more of the security carrousels were operating, speeding up that process. After a couple of hours in the lounge we headed to the gate to be told there was a strike in France and that the Air France flight would not leave till noon. Back to the lounge for another couple of hours wait then back to the gate and after boarding we sat in the plane for an hour or so before departing more strike stuff.

A weekend in the Dordogne: More on the story of Josephine Baker…singer, dancer, spy

Saturday 23 July 2022

Saturday afternoon we embarked on a journey to Chateau des Milandes, the chateau Josephine Baker (see our Morocco blog) had rented prior to the war from 1937 (and later purchased in 1947). She unfortunately lost it towards the end of her life, in 1968 after going broke.

Situated in the Dordogne region, some six hours from Nimes, the chateau was originally built in 1489 by the wife of Claude Caumont when she got bored of her other chateau and wanted to live somewhere new. The château remained in the Caumont family until the French Revolution. It was purchased by the Labarre family in 2001 and restoration started. It has hosted an exhibition about Josephine Baker since then. In 2012 it was awarded the label ‘Maison des Illustres’ a French heritage cultural classification, due to its association with ‘one of the most exceptional women of the 20th century’.

The GPS took us off the toll roads through some French countryside made up of forests and farmland dotted about with numerous picturesque castles, ruins and small towns. We eventually arrived at the town of La Roque Gageac, one of the most stunning towns we have seen in France, built into the cliffs alongside the Dordogne river. We checked into the Manoir de la Malartrie, a bed & breakfast sited in a stunning old manor across the road from the river at the east end of the town. With a swimming pool, tables and chairs set among the trees in the well-tended gardens, it is a very picturesque place.

We headed back into the town looking for a pizza and a glass of wine but the town was full of tourists and the service was typically french (as in lacking!). We headed down the road and back across the river to Cenac et St Julien, but no luck there either. We eventually settled for an ice cream and headed back to the Manoir, admiring the dozen-or-so hot air balloons that had popped up from over the hill.


Sunday 24 July 2022

We enjoyed an excellent home-made breakfast, with a wide variety of fabulous dishes including a tomato tart, orange cake and apricot flan as well as a great selection of breads, cheeses etc, in the garden, along with the delightful service of the lady of the house, originally from Morocco. We then followed the GPS along the river, crossing the river below the Chateau Castlenau, and continued up the hill, and through a lovely wooded area, eventually arriving at Le Chateau des Milandes, which over the last 20 years has undergone a restoration and has magnificent gardens.

Our tour through the castle itself (no photos allowed) showcased different periods of Josephine’s life in the many different rooms, including her marriage to Jo Bouillon during which she adopted twelve children (two girls and one boy) of varying nationalities and religions. She referred to them as her ‘Rainbow Tribe’.

A world-famous entertainer, singer and dancer, Josephine seems to have been quite a character. At the fall of Paris she located herself at the chateau, working with the French resistance, eventually smuggling from France a large amount of secret documents about the German activities. She secreted these documents, written in invisible ink, into the large trunks she traveled with as part of her performances, and was able to get them into the hands of the British Intelligence services.

During her tenure in the chateau she turned the village into a tourist attraction with her brother running the petrol station and her sister running a hotel, but unfortunately, despite being a gifted performer, she wasn’t fiscally wise. Some tradesmen sent her several duplicate bills, all of which she paid, eventually sending her broke, eventually losing the chateau to creditors. She barricaded herself in the kitchen for three days but was eventually evicted.

Having been a spy, she thought for the Free French and De Gaulle, but it later transpired she had been working for the British Intelligence services. While in Morocco in the early part of the wars, she and her handler and lover,Jaques Abtey, played a large part in the success of Operation Torch, where an armada of some 70,000 troops sailed from the US and another 30,000 from British, landing in both Algeria and Morocco in 1942. For a large part of this time she was hospitalised with peritonitis in Casablanca but even though on death’s door, her hospital room was a safe place for the meeting of various people to meet and share information, hiding from both Nazi and Vichy French spies.

After the invasion she was offered a contract from the US to entertain the troops but turned it down on the basis that she wanted to give her services for free – not only to the US but to all the allies who were fighting Naziism. She continued to gather and pass on information to the SIS during this time.

In the chateau was a cabinet full of the numerous awards she received from the Free French, the British and the Americans, including the French Legion of Honour.

After the war, she became an active crusader for the Civil rights movement, especially in her native US, where she was the speaker immediately before Martin Luther King gave his historic « I have a dream » speech.

Outside the chateau we enjoyed a raptor show, put on by some of the staff in the castle, showcasing a number of bords including a Giant African Eagle Owl and a Bald Eagle. At one point a man walked around showing a ferret, that is used to get the rabbits out of their holes so the birds can pounce. A motorised rabbit was pounced on by a large hawk.

Spotted Eagle Owl

Barn Owl

Eurasian Eagle Owl

Caracara

Bald Eagle (f)

While we enjoyed lunch at the chateau brasserie they played songs from Josephine in the background. We enjoyed the magnificent gardens before heading back to the car for the long drive home.

Once again, we avoided the toll roads, taking a route along a ridge line, which gave us extensive views over some of the best scenery we’ve seen in France. All in all a great weekend…

A Taste of Morocco… July 2022

Wednesday 13 July

Another trip to the Marseilles airport – we boarded a Royal Air Maroc flight to Casablanca. The idea of visiting Morocco came about from a book I listed to recently called “the Flame of the Resistance’, about a woman from the southern states of the US, who went to New York to make it as a singer/dancer but couldn’t make it there so went to Paris. There she became a sensation in the nightlife scene. During her time in Paris, she became friendly with a couple of ex-Navy Commanders, both from well-heeled families, one called Dunbar and the other Fleming. Both worked for British Intelligence. When the war came along, now living at Chateau des Milandes, situated just north of Toulouse, she worked as a spy with the French Resistance, helping downed Allied pilots to escape from France. Eventually she had to escape herself because the Gestapo was on to her, first to Spain, and then establishing herself in Morocco, which was then under the rule of the  French, who’d signed a deal with the Nazis. There, from both Casablanca and Marrakech, she supplied information to the Allies, especially in regard to Operation Torch, where a combined US and British Invasion of Morocco took place.

Landing in Casablanca we had a bit of trouble finding the driver that the hotel had sent to pick us up, but after a few phone calls to the hotel we located him and proceeded in a very comfortable car for the journey to the Hotel Casablanca. This Art Deco style hotel has rooms leading off a square atrium with a massive chandelier hanging in the middle from the fifth floor – I was sorely tempted to leap out to it and slide down.


Thursday 14 July

We had a lazy start to the day, enjoying the hotel breakfast (Sylvia especially enjoyed the variety of cakes on offer) and appreciating the fabulous Art Deco decor in the hotel.

We had booked a driver to show us around Casablanca. First we headed to the Quartier Habous, which is an area several hundred years old with lots of quaint stone buildings and many archways. Unlike in some countries the shopkeepers were very polite. When we said no, they said ‘enjoy your stay in Morocco’ with none of the hassle we have experienced in other parts of the world.

Next we headed to the Sqala restaurant situated behind an old fortress with muzzle-loaded canons still on display. As we walked in there were rows of tagines on each side, sitting over troughs filled with hot embers. Looking through the menu, just about everything that had meat in it was bloody lamb shanks. As a child, being raised on a number of farms, when we killed a sheep for house mutton we fed the shanks to the dogs. I ordered a lamb tagine, which turned up with a bloody shank in it and it didn’t taste any good cooked that way either (although Sylvia enjoyed it). We enjoyed a wander through the streets behind the restaurant.

After lunch we drove to the city’s main mosque, Hassan II. Opened in 1993, 10,000 labourers and 6,000 craftsmen built it over a period of six years. It’s the third largest mosque in the world. After we bought our ticket we were grouped together with other English speakers and a guide with a straw hat and his sunglasses on backwards, who spoke 7-8 languages, proceeded to tell us that underneath the large area we were walking on was parking for 4000 cars. During Ramadan, some 80,000 people kneel ont he carpets laid out on this area and another 25,000 pray inside the mosque. We entered the mosque through one of the many titanium clad doors, through into the main foyer where we removed our shoes and put them into the little bag we were given. The hall is about 200m long and about 100m long with concrete mezzanines clad in hand-carved cedar with piles going some 60m into the sea-bed and columns extending up to the 65m high roof clad in marble and hand carved stucco, made with granite dust and egg whites. Water flows down troughs through the centre of the mosque. We strolled down to the end facing Mecca with its red lines on the carpet to ensure everyone is lined up properly. The guide pointed out a portion of the ceiling, some 3,000 sq. meters that opens up to let air in as it can get a bit stuffy with 25,000 people in there.  He also pointed out a large chair where the teacher sits. Then we headed into the minaret which is some 200m tall, where we descended some steps that took us into the washrooms downstairs. With some 400 fountains, this is where the worshippers come to clean themselves before prayer.

 

I don’t have the vocabulary to describe the vastness of this place and the photographs don’t do it justice. It is an all-year round active mosque where people come to pray at various times of the day and tourists are fitted in at various times in between.

The mosque visit over we jumped in the car and we headed south along the coast (the Corniche) giving us a good idea of the expanse of this city of some 3 million people. All the way along there were thousands of people bathing in the warm waters of the Atlantic and a continuous number of bars, restaurants and takeaway joints, with the drive finishing at the enormous Morocco Mall. It was quite interesting to see the colours in the city with child care centres and junior schools painted in bright colours. Bougainvillea grew in a variety of colours in both manicured and un manicured hedges around the city.

Like most large cities in the world there is a massive amount of construction going on. Lots of the older parts of the city are in Art Deco style from the 30’s and 40’s.

On returning to the hotel we enjoyed a very good massage before settling in for an early night.


Friday 15 July

We rose early to another fantastic breakfast. At 8am we were on the road again with our driver, heading southeast to Marrakech, which has changed considerably since the 1940’s. Now a two-lane highway, as good as any European road, with a speed limit of 120kph links the two cities. As we headed away from the city we noticed huge areas that had been cultivated though nothing is yet growing. Periodically there would be a mob of sheep, goats and cattle with their herder close by, often sitting under a tree in the shade. The odd donkey dragged a cart around the place. The hay had been cut and stacked, mostly in neat stacks, often covered with canvas or plastic. The further south we went the more arid the land became – it still appeared that every bit of land that could be cultivated had been although there was still no sign of anything growing. There was a large tractor in one place towing a large tank of water. A few fields had people working in them but we couldn’t tell from the car exactly what they were doing.

 

 

Leaving Casablanca it was a cool 26 degrees. Jut over two hours later arriving in Marrakech it was well over 30. Our driver dropped us at a cafe just outside the Medina (old city), near to the Bahia Palace. After a coffee, we headed into the palace, which with its tiled walls and floors and no furniture appeared more like a massive bath-house than a palace, albeit ornate. In one of the rooms a man sat carving mosaic tiles with a little hammer.

After touring through the many rooms in the palace, and, after a bit of negotiation we caught a horse and cart. This took us on a good look around the Medina, past the Royal place areas and the Koutoubia gardens to the main Jamma el Fna square. This square was much quieter than we had expected but there was still a lot of activity with music playing and snake charmers charming. After stepping off the carriage the first person to approach us was a bloody snake charmer who insisted on putting a water snake around my neck and getting Sylvia to take photos. Of course at the end of that he wanted money… he had a number of snakes there including a cobra, a few bavard vipers and several pythons. I asked him if they removed the fangs and he said no – that’s not good for them. We throw them in a sack and pour water on them and that keeps them nice and calm!

Moving on from there we passed many other stalls avoiding the henna artists and people trying to get us to take photos with their monkeys. We climbed some stairs to a terrace cafe where we enjoyed lunch and a drink with a view over the square.

After lunch we carried on out of the square and into the Medina with many of the stalls closing up for the Friday prayers. Wanting to explore some of the time alley-like streets we headed into a narrow passageway and had only gone 30-40 metres when a guy stopped me and said it’s closed. We later worked out this means it’s a dead end. He insisted we should head in the other direction to see the Berber markets as they stay open on Fridays. He took us back onto the Main Street and was pointing us in the direction when ‘broken leg’ went past sitting on a motorcycle without the engine running, using his left leg to push it along like a scooter. The man stopped ‘broken leg’ and told us to follow him to the Berber markets. We followed him for some time, twisting and turning through small alleys and streets.

I noticed several men walking along with small rugs on their heads. I thought that was a good way to keep the sun off their heads as it was getting quite warm. Shortly we rounded a corner to find a whole lot of men praying on their little rugs on straw mats on the street – they were prayer mats they had been carrying. No one seemed to mind as we continued along past them. There were literally hundred and hundreds of men praying on the streets surrounding the mosque which was obviously fill to overflowing.

At this point, ‘Broken leg’ abandoned his motorbike and took us to see Bab Debagh (The Tannery Gate). Then he said, come on and I’ll show you a tannery. A couple more alleys later and he introduces ‘Smooth Dude’, with his slicked back hair and bunches of mint which he crushes up and gives to each of us to eliminate the stench of the tannery. ‘Smooth Dude’ guided us around the tannery explaining how the Berber people come down from the mountains. Some tan the skins, some make cloth from the hair and in this area there were hundreds of little ponds covered in rugs and skins where the tanning process was taking place. Lots of little locked rooms stood around the tannery. The door was ajar in one, which ‘Smooth Dude’ led us into, where a man was stripping the hair off a camel skin. The tour over and ‘Smooth Dude’ led us around the corner and into a shop, saying something (probably ‘here’s some more suckers for you’) to the proprietor. We were taken to one room and shown leather pouffs made of different types of hide. He explained that in the summer they keep their winter clothes in them and vice versa. Next stop was the rug room where a man laid out rug after rug at the instruction of our super salesman. Eventually we saw one made of camel hair that we both liked and, after some negotiation and some pretty hefty wrapping, super salesman was a bit richer and we were a bit poorer. We rang the driver who met us outside the Bab Debagh.

The above photo is how the tanneries look at a different time of year.

Next stop was the Yves Saint Laurent museum. Apparently he hung out here a bit in his early days. It had a range of garments and materials made famous by YSL but unfortunately no pictures were allowed, which was pointed out to me by the security guard as I raised the camera.

As we left town at about 3:30 in the afternoon, the outside temperature was showing as 44.5 degrees. It cooled considerably as we headed northwest back to Casablanca, where it was a comfortable 22 degrees when we arrived.

We spent the evening sitting on the balcony overlooking the pool enjoying a pizza and a glass of wine.


Saturday 16 July

At 8am our driver was waiting ready to take us northeast this time to the city of Fes. We headed about 100kms up the coast to Rabat before heading inland. The country in this part of Morocco is a lot more arable. The whole ~300km journey consisted of nice arable farmland and big forests of olive trees, some up to 10km long. (Too big to be olive groves). There’s also lots of horticulture in this part of the country, very different to the arid land to the south.

Arriving in Fes we drove down the Main Street with it’s wide median adorned with palm trees, water features and large green walkways. Soldiers armed with assault rifles were dotted along the avenue, something we hadn’t seen anywhere else. Perhaps someone important was coming to town?

We were dropped off at the Blue Gate and headed into the Medina. As we walked through the gate we were approached by about half a dozen people holding up cards and offering to be our guide. We politely declined, except for one particularly persistent bloke that I had to impolitely decline. Lined with shops this, I presume, the main alley meandered downhill. After exploring a few side streets we stopped at Cafe Clock, which was well down a narrow alley, opening out into what was once a courtyard with a large set of trumpets suspended in the middle. This place is famous for its camel burgers but it was too early for lunch so we climbed the narrow stairways, with arms brushing each side, to the level below the top where we enjoyed a cup of coffee. Then we wandered up to the roof for its amazing views over the Medina. The staff were really friendly.

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Back on the main alley, we continued our downward journey and were stopped by a man with a donkey who wanted us to take his photo. I took the photo, smiled at him and continued walking. Sylvia then noticed he was following us and asking for money. I was a bit over that trick having learned the lesson from Snake Charmer. We ducked down a few side-alleys to avoid him, declining numerous offers of visits to a tannery.

Eventually we came across the metalwork area with numerous shops selling brass, silver and copper ware.Soon we were seated in a shop where Sylvia purchased a copper tray and a copper, silver and brass teapot.

We continued to wander the alleys heading for the nearest gate, Bab Rcif. A young man approached us offering to show us the way back to the Gate. Sylvia made it quite clear to him that we didn’t want to pay him any money and that we were very happy wandering on our own. We went up and down alleys, around in circles, up and down more steps and then he explained he was taking us to the Blue Gate. Eventually we left him, but not until he had demanded money because he had helped us. The old tourist con didn’t work this time… we held our ground and headed to the Ruined Garden Restaurant where we enjoyed a nice lunch.

Looking at the map we were very close to the Blue Gate so we arranged for our driver to meet us there. When we got into the car the temperature was showing 42.5 degrees!

We headed back out through the town aiming for Meknes, one of Morocco’s old imperial cities, on the way back to Casablanca. As we made our way towards the old town we passed several areas walled off with embattlement type walls. Arriving at the Medina we found, disappointingly, that the whole thing was closed and under reconstruction. Once again the mighty tourist dollar is reflected in the reconstruction of these historic cities.I am sure in a few years it will be a stunning place to visit.

We relaxed in the back of the car as the driver took us back to the oasis of our hotel. It was interesting to see along the way that there are whole towns being built along the way with hundreds of buildings, many painted in the bright colours so present in this part of the world, that don’t yet look to be inhabited. Our driver for the three days was excellent – a very polite and considerate driver, consistently cruising along at 125 mph in his very comfortable Merc. This made for a very comfortable trip for us.

Back at the hotel we enjoyed another excellent massage.


Sunday 17 July

We enjoyed a relaxing breakfast before checking around midday out and heading to the airport for our return flight to Marseilles. Hotel Casablanca made for an excellent stay with fantastic staff and outstanding service.

Overall we have found the people in Morocco to be very friendly and welcoming and in general terms apart from a few exceptions have been very polite and courteous. It has been a really great place to visit – Sylvia in particular has been entranced by all the different doors.

Southeast Asia – June 2022

As I sit down to start writing this in a hotel room in Jakarta, the year is not quite half over and already I have spent nearly 200 hours on aeroplanes and Sylvia probably even more. As yet I have been lucky not to catch Covid, well not that I have noticed anyway. Sylvia caught it, she thinks while at a meeting in Dubai, and as a result ended up spending seven days in a hotel room in South Africa. At the time I was back in NZ.  As I have mentioned before, travel has become a lot more complicated with various countries having different apps or forms to fill out before entering so as to track you if covid has come near you. There are still massive shortages of staff at airports so everything takes a lot longer and is more complicated and expensive that it used to be. Most airports still have planes parked up with red plugs in their  engines.


Sunday 12 June 2022

Having flown from Marseilles we are in a queue at Charles De Gaule Airport in Paris waiting to go through immigration when a police-type person sees our passports and says “I thought the hermit kingdom of New Zealand was all locked up – How did you manage to escape!” A few more queues and a bus ride followed by more queues and we were finally on our Air France flight with the captain announcing that due to “I am not quite sure what” we are delayed.   Interestingly, Air France owns KLM, previously the Dutch national airline. KLM is much better to fly with better seats and service.


Monday 13 June 2022

Flying into Bangkok we pass over large areas all in crops, with villages often hosting large commercial buildings. Many of the towns look well laid out and there seems to be water everywhere, if not on the fields, in large holding ponds, I presume for irrigation and flooding of the rice fields. Close to the city the land gives way to large industrial areas.

We land at Bangkok’s main airport a couple of hours late. The original plan was that Sylvia would have a couple of hours spare to go to the hotel and freshen up before going into a day of meetings. A driver picked us up and drove us to the Sindhorne Kempinski Hotel in the city centre, about 40 minutes from the airport. There seems to be a lot less traffic on the roads here than we have experienced in previous visits, apparently as a result of no Chinese tourists I discovered later.We head to our room and Sylvia hurriedly showers, gets changed and in 15 minutes is whisked off by Chadon, the country manager, for a day of meetings.

One thing about hotels in this part of the world is the service is normally excellent and the rooms large and nicely fitted out. I fill in the day with a look around the hotel and local nearby shops and restaurants and  a trip to the gym followed by a massage. The hotel is quite new as are the nearby shops and grounds. There are lots of SAMS and SAWS here (stand around men/woman). One lady spends all day in the grounds pouncing on every leaf that falls from the many trees,  all of which are held up by steel or bamboo frames as they have been recently moved there. On the 5th floor there is an infinity pool with views out across the city.

At 4pm a van arrives to pick me up and take me to a bar/restaurant on the edge of the Chao Phraya River. Chadon and Sylvia are there with the Thai management team. We make our way up a number of spiral stairways to the rooftop bar, where we relax and watch the sunset across the river on the large Wat Arun Rajwararam Temple. As darkness moved in we headed back down the stairs into a restaurant where we enjoyed a variety of the local food and good conversation.

Dinner over we headed back to our hotel. A few weeks ago I was chatting on the phone to Kirstie,  my youngest daughter. She and husband Michael, along with oldest daughter Victoria, her partner Beau and our granddaughter, Mackenzie, are all coming to France to visit us. Kirstie mentioned that she had got a room in Bangkok for $75. I enquired the date and it turned out to be the night we were there. We organised a room at our hotel for them. On returning from dinner I caught up with them in the bar. Kirstie said rather excitedly “wow dad, thanks for getting us a room here – it’s nearly as big as our house”.


Tuesday 14 June 2022 

Sylvia had a breakfast meeting so I joined Kirstie and Micheal for breakfast, after which we had organised a driver to take us on a quick tour of the city sites, all of which I had seen before. They, like us, were departing later in the day.

Our first stop was the the Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit. It weighs in at 5.4 tons and has an interesting history: covered in ceramics, it was brought from the old capital in the first part of last century and sat around for some time before a place was build to put it. While craning it into position a rope broke and it hit the ground, breaking off some of the ceramics exposing the gold.  In 1767 the old capital of Siam, Ayutthaya, was attacked by Buddhists from Burma and burnt to the ground. While under threat the locals had clad this Buddha in ceramics to hide its value. After the attack the capital was moved to Bangkok and at some stage later the Buddha followed. That’s around 31 million dollars of gold sitting out in the open. Originally made in India in 5 pieces there is a key somewhere so it can be broken down to transport.  I bet they don’t leave that lying around. There is a school and a bunch of monks based here. People come here to pray and make offerings such as uniforms for the monks.

Next stop was the Royal Palace, which is a large compound containing many buildings, which our guide insisted on trying to give a rundown of each one along with each statue. From a distance everything looks very glamorous with its gold paint, ceramics and cut glass; up close the attention to detail is not as good as it could be. Around many of the statues are figures with their arms swept back as though holding on and leaning out. These are made of a metal frame with plaster giving the the shape and  paint and ceramics added. Some were being restored as we toured the palace. There are many temple-type building where people sit and pray – often no photos allowed. There is even a crocodile pond which nowadays hosts no crocodiles.

In a hall is a large lying gold-painted Buddha which we all filed past to take a look at. The grounds are large and contain many buildings, many of which are not open to the public, as with many such sights around the world. Last time I was here the country was in mourning with the passing of the last king; thousands of people queued up to walk past his body and pay their respects.

From here we headed back to the hotel, passing along a street designed to look like the Champs Elysees in Paris, after an earlier king took a trip there some years ago. Every government building and many intersections along the way have photos of the current King and Queen taken some years ago. Apparently the current queen served in the army and held the rank of general. Purple and white ribbons adorn the fences surrounding government building also.

It is quite common for young people at the end of their teen years to go and spend 3 months practicing as a monk before heading to university or into the workforce.

The guide explained to us that the reason there is so much street food in Bangkok is because most of the apartments don’t have kitchens.

Back at the hotel we headed out to a local restaurant where we enjoyed a late lunch as a couple of rather fluffy dogs suffered in the afternoon heat trying to catch the breeze from a fan to bring them some relief.

Not long after our late lunch, a van with armchair seats turned up to take me to the Royal Canin office where we picked up Sylvia and headed to the airport. As we approached the airport I happened to ask Sylvia what time we were flying as I had not been sent the details of the Asian flights. She said 5.15pm it was just on 5 and we were not yet at the airport. Someone had made a bit of a mistake as the flight times had changed a few times. After a few phone calls another flight was secured but from a different airport. The driver was contacted and returned to drive us across town about 60 minutes to a different airport where we caught a flight to Kuala Lumpur. Arriving a few hours later than originally  planned it was well after midnight when we arrived at the hotel.


Wednesday 15 June 2022

Sylvia headed off to a meeting at 9am. As we were in a hotel out of the city near the Royal Canin office there was not a lot to do and as I have explored the city many times before I spent the day catching up on some work back in NZ along with a visit to the gym before joining Sylvia and the local team for a meal that night. We had a nice dinner with local food and the team were great, making me, the intruder, feel very welcome.


Thursday 16 June 2022

Sylvia headed off to a breakfast meeting again. After a good breakfast I headed off to explore the huge shopping centre, which is part of the hotel complex. I am not a shopper but it is interesting to see just how massive these places are, with several floors and new shopping centres joined to the old one and new buildings under construction. This place seems to go on forever with thousands of people browsing the hundreds of stores on each side of massive passageways. The One World Hotel about 10kms from the city centre, caters for hundreds of people with new office towers under construction all around it.

Mid-afternoon a taxi picked me up for the short drive to the Royal Canin office, where we picked Sylvia up and headed to the airport to catch a flight ot Langkawi Island for a break over the weekend. This was my fourth trip to the island, having attend the bi-annual air show there on three previous occasions with my friend and colleague Glen. We arrived when it was still light and a driver picked us up for the forty minute drive to the Datai Resort. The first trip here, Glen and Ihad stayed at the Andaman Hotel nearby. It was a really nice hotel with a number of large  swimming pools all linked. Unfortunately the place was destroyed by fire in 2020.

The Datai Resort is very nice, with several dining areas and a large reflective pool beside the bar and breakfast area. There are stone steps leading down to the jungle below and paths through the trees and past bungalows to the beach, where there is another pool, restaurant and a gym right next to the beach, with its raked white sand and deck chairs. After a rather busy week, we spent the evening relaxing and enjoying the view.


Friday 17 June 2022 

We enjoyed a relaxing breakfast by the pool, then Sylvia had a day interviewing for a vacant role in Spain. I headed off for a walk through the local jungle ending up at the gym by the beach. At the end of my work-out the attendant at the gym offered to stretch me, which was great. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and listening to a great book ‘Churchill’s Secret Warriers’, a bunch of special forces guys, who made life rather uncomfortable for both the German and Italian soldiers during WWII.


Saturday 17 June 2022

We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and checked out the frogs in the pond before being picked up by a driver for our journey to the northwest corner of the island.

In 2009 my mate Glen and I had driven up to this part of the island and on the beach we had found a guy with a boat who took us on a trip through the waterways, which was very interesting and enjoyable. I thought it would be a good idea for Sylvia to enjoy the experience. As we drove across the island there had been quite a few changes in the last 13 years including several new schools and a number of other government-type buildings that I don’t recall being there last time. There is a large cement works and wharf that looks like it has been added too.

Last time we had just found a guy on the beach and bargained with him for a ride; things have changed a bit since then. We headed down a road on the opposite side of the peninsular to what is now a large group of piers full of boats, some of them for fishing but most for taking tourists on journeys through the waterways. Stepping over obstacles, we made our way to the floating jetty and then rocked our way along it to the awaiting boat. Heading out into the main inlet we were passed by lots of boats going both ways. This whole area is a UNESCO geopark.

It was low tide so our first stop was to and watch a bunch of crabs crabbing their way accross the mud and in and out of holes, dropping a lid of mud on top of the hole to stop the birds getting them.  Mud skippers with their blue spots lay around the waters edge ready to skip into the water at the first sight of a predator. Both play an important role, feeding on the bacteria on the mud and reducing any odour.

Next stop was to see the eagles swoop down for pieces chicken thrown into the water by people on some of the other boats. Not something our boatie believed in doing. Many boats had gathered to watch this but back in 2009 we were the only boat.

From here we headed up a narrow channel, often having to move over to let other boats pass. Monkeys played in the trees, waiting for the passing boats to throw them food. One even jumped into a boat to help himself ,much to the annoyance of the passengers who reacted with shrieks and screams.

The rain arrived but luckily there was a canopy on our boat. A boat passed us with a guy very proudly photographing his woman; she was sitting up the front of the boat getting soaked as he sat back under the canopy. As we headed into a cave with sleeping bats hanging from the roof a large monitor lizard swam past.

The next stop was a fish farm where various fish were on display in nets hanging down into the sea. A guy took delight in pulling out a large house-shoe crab that had been swimming amongst a bunch of sea slugs. Last time we had stopped at one of these we had picked a fish from a tank and enjoyed a really nice meal. Too many people here to even think of such a thing on this trip.

Leaving the fish farm we headed past a number of yachts in for repair at a local workshop before rounding out into the ocean and looking back towards a  cliff with big letters advertising the Kilim Geoforest Park. More boats sped past us as we made our way back through the ocean to an inlet near the boat ramp.  From there we headed back to the Datai where we enjoyed a rather late lunch at beach.


Sunday 18 June 2022

After breakfast we headed to the airport for a disjointed flight to Manila in the Phillipines. On Firefly airways we flew to the old KL airport, where a taxi picked us up and took us on the hour plus drive to the new or main airport, but to a different terminal where mainly Air Asia flies out of. There we met one of Sylvia’s colleagues for the flight to Manila. Once again arriving very late in the evening we headed off to our room to get some sleep. There is definitely a difference in the standard of workmanship between Thailand and here as the finishes in the rooms are all a bit rough.


Monday 19 June 2022

We headed down to breakfast reasonably early as Sylvia had meetings to attend. After breakfast I took a stroll around the local area. This area, once a large military base, is now new office blocks and even includes a large hospital that looks like an office block. There seems to be a cop-type person with a gun on every corner. Large armoured trucks with a guy riding shotgun pull up outside banks and money machines. Not only do they have guys riding shotgun here but in places there are standing shotgun guys, often with shiny stainless steel guns but often just standing in front of an empty lot. They also cary a 1911 colt pistol; with their large 200g plus bullets they are going to rip a large hole in one of these generally not very big people. The shops don’t open until 10 here but even at 9.30 there were people queueing up outside the local mall as people at the open air market next to the mall pulled the covers off their stands ready for a days trading.  By 10 there must have been 500 people queued up ready to rush into the mall. As the morning progressed, the humidity rose as did the temperature. Eventually I found a professional looking massage place and enjoyed a good hard massage. There wasn’t really a lot to see apart from shops and office towers so eventually I made my way back to the hotel and spent a bit of time in the gym.


Tuesday 20 June 2022

After breakfast, Sylvia headed off to the office with the other management people on the visit. Mid-morning a driver turned up to collect me for a tour of the city. We drove to the edge of the new city (old military base) to take a look at the US War Cemetery. Like the rest of these all over the world it is well laid out with the war graves of those whose bodies were found and identified laid in a circular fashion around a memorial where the name of every soldier that perished is etched into the stone – some fifty thousand of them.

The Phillipines  were under Spanish rule for around 300 years until the US invaded them in 1898. Apart from wanting to have an empire like the UK and other European countries had, they saw the Spanish were weak so after one of the new US steel shops exploded in Cuba they blamed the Spanish and went to war. 200 thousand Philippines people perished in the war – only one in ten of those being a soldier. After the Spanish surrendered, a fight went on for a few more years as rebels sprang up against the US.   Just prior to WWII the US was in the process of granting independence. This finally happened on the 4 June 1946. Since then there has been a bit of turmoil and fighting still goes on with rebels in the southern islands from time to time. President Marcos was a dictator here for a number of years but eventually overthrown by the people. He and his family went into exile – Mrs Marcos famous for her collection of shoes. After he (Marcos) died, the family was allowed back into the country and were supposed to face corruption charges; this never happened and the son went into politics and thirty years later has just been sworn in as president.

Next we headed towards Manila City with its small population of 1.8 million. The metropolitan area, which covers over 1800 sq km, has a population of around 24 million. Along the way the driver pointed out walled off areas where the rich and famous along with a few diplomats live. As we got closer to Manila the driver took great delight in pointing out the Jeepneys, which are a cross between a bus and a taxi. They came about after WWII when there were lots of US Army jeeps left behind. Some smart person bought some of these, extended the chassis and turned them into public transport. Apparently the way they work is one jumps in the back and hands payment to the person next to you who hands it up the line to the driver who stows it between his fingers so as one drives past you see notes sticking out like a fan on the drivers hand. Many have bars or mesh on the driver’s door. From what I can gather they are now made in Japan with a diesel motor.

We drove through narrow streets and around various parts of the city, where motorbikes with sidecars are used as taxis. Apparently they can carry 5 plus the driver, 3 in the sidecar and two on the back of the bike. The driver looks at me and says “not people like you though, most of us are quite small!”

Next stop was a park dedicated to a Philippino hero who had lead an uprising against the Spanish before eventually being captured imprisoned and executed. A fee was charged to enter the park and all had to sanitise hands and wear a mask, as is the case everywhere here, even outdoors. Banners flew, welcoming the new president, and walls, fences etc were being given a fresh coat of paint in preparation for the coming ordination. Men and woman sat on little stools to tidy up the gardens on the roadside.

Next we paid a visit to a steel church which was showing the odd patch of rust as if to prove it was made of steel.

Finally we entered the old city of Manila, originally surrounded by a wall and a large moat which the US filled in and turned into a golf course. I took a stroll along part of the remaining wall, which in its day was some 5 kms long. Some rusty old cannons had been put in some of the old gun emplacements. A guy in a striped uniform complete with Sam Brown belt, the holster not containing the revolver, approached me. This is the uniform of the Spanish guards back in the 1800’s still worn to carry on a tradition as the Spanish had this fortified city a few hundred years ago. Here the sidecars were attached to a bicycle; the driver warned me not to take a ride as they will say the price is 20 pesos, then at the end ask for 20 USD. Similar thing happened to me in Saigon with a rickshaw driver!!  Some of the walls still showed the pock marks where bullets had smashed against them in years past.

The old fort was open to the public so I took a wander around its old buildings, including what had started as underground storage rooms, but the river seeped in and ruined the goods so they built new stores and used these spaces as a prison-come-torture-chamber. This was carried on by the Japanese during WWII; many of the prisoners drowned before they were executed.

On the way out of the old city we passed what has become known as the lucky church as it was the only building in this area not to be hit by bombs or shells when the US chased out the Japanese in 1945. At one point a couple of people rode past on bamboo-framed bikes.

As we started our journey back to the hotel the driver apologised as he was going to take a short cut through the slums. I assured him I didn’t mind in the least. The more I see of these places the more I admire the people that live in them, often carving out an existence on nothing – they are really resourceful with their ability to survive on no handouts from their governments. Interestingly the western world has, over the last 50 years, cut defence budgets to put more into welfare to avoid raising taxes. The Russian attack on Ukraine has been a massive wake up call to us all. As in most slums the shacks are built of leftovers, the power and phone cables are a tangled web of wires. At one stage I saw, I presume a fault-finding guy actually walking along the tangled web of wires. Much of the land the new cities are built on are reclaimed land from what were once swamps. The area is called Makati; the driver explained the word means itchy as originally it was a mosquito infested swamp.

Arriving back at the hotel a driver picked me up and we headed to Royal Canin to pick up the others, then the airport for our flight to Jakarta.


Wednesday 21 June 2022

Sylvia went off to meetings. I had a wander around the shopping centre, which is attached to the Intercontinental hotel where we were staying. It is huge with aisles of shops in the halls that cross over the main road to join another set of shops on the other side. I saw a number of prominent  signs saying METRO, so presuming there must be a metro station nearby I followed the signs only to find out that Metro is a brand of shops over here.


Thursday 23 June 2022

Having had a bit of a hunt around the net and talking to the concierge I took a taxi to the Military Museum. It appears the Indonesian  archipelago has been inhabited for some 1.5 million years. The Austronesian people, who form the majority of today’s population, are thought to have come from Taiwan about 2000 BC. The first evidence of the Islamic populations is in northern Sumatra in the 13th century. By the 16th century it had spread through most of the 17,000 or 18,000 islands. The Portuguese rocked up in the 1500’s and in 1602 the Dutch established the Dutch East Indies Company, that lasted until 1800 and went broke, being run under government control.  In 1942 they were invaded by the Japanese who were defeated in 1945. The day after the defeat Nationalist leader Sukarno declared independence and became the leader. The Dutch were not too keen on that idea and a war of independence went on until 1949 when international pressure caused the Dutch to back down and allow independence. In 1965 an army-lead anti-communist purge killed half a million people. General Suharto politically outmanoeuvred Sukarno and became the president. Since Suharto resigned in 1998 the country has become more democratic and in 2004 held its first presidential election.

The museum looks like it is struggling for funds, with many of the firearms on display quite rusty. There are many models set behind glass depicting various battles and surrenders; these are particularly prominent for the independence war. There are a number of aircraft displayed including a trusty old DC3. It is from one of these I did my first military parachute jump – owned by the NZ Airforce it used to often break down. These planes played a big role in WWII, transporting troops and supplies all over the world. There is still the odd one flying nowadays.

Next stop was the natural history museum with its large statue commemorating the 2001 Tsunami out the front, which looks like people are caught up in the waves. This is a reasonably big museum with a range of artifacts dating back thousands of years including the skeletal remains of a woman from some 7000 years ago.

From here I decided to try and catch the bus back to the hotel to get an elevated view of the town. After a bit of pointing and google translate I boarded a bus, minding the gap between the platform and the bus, which at times was up to half a meter – I think it depended on how the driver was feeling. The bus stops are raised up like a railway platform and in most places the bus has its own lane which it cruises slowly along. Mounting the bus, turning right and sitting down a woman glared at me pointing to the other passengers and saying “woman only”. Oops, I had not seen the sign! Jumping to my feet I fled to the back end of the bus. Getting off at the next stop again with a bit of pointing and google translate I found the next bus. It headed west across town through an area which I hade marked on my map as dangerous from my last visit here. These areas are a bit rough with lots of shacks thrown up in any spare space as a shop and often a place to live, where people make a living selling stuff. Heading west for a few kilometres the bus then turned south into its bus lane. The roads here are quite wide and even after giving up a lane for busses there are still three lanes for the cars. The traffic here also appears to be less than on my last visit. As we go further south the buildings improve with the odd shack here and there amongst the large office blocks and shopping centres.


Friday 24 June 2022

After breakfast and a trip to the gym, I caught the bus north a few stops to where a railway station is situated. Using the card I bought yesterday, I headed up to the platform area where it failed to work. The security guy held onto my driver’s licence while I went to a shop in the station and put 5000 locals on the card. Licence back, I headed down to the platform for the trains going south and soon was on board. I had really wanted to see the countryside here and this seemed to be the best way to do it.

Alongside the railway track there are almost a continuous line of shacks, many of them shops selling all sorts of things and in some cases only a couple of metres between the railway line and the shopfront or shack front. Lots of people milled around and at every level crossing there’s a queue of new motorbikes and the odd car waiting for the train to pass. As we get about 10 or 15 km south of the city the housing thins out and we started passing rice paddies and other cropping areas.

As the city spread out even more there was the odd large apartment building in amongst the shacks. In the odd area it was being dug out, obviously to be developed. People worked in the rice paddies, even in the rain, up to their knees in water planting their crops. A few sheep and the odd cattle beast  are also around. At about the 20 km mark the train pulled up to a platform and everybody dismounted. Some more pointing and a bit of Google translate and I found the platform with the next train going further south.

Now we were getting a little more into the countryside with more paddock. Some of the houses on some of the small farms look quite good. The trains are really clean with no sign of graffiti inside or out. Cleaners go through the carriages, one throwing a liquid on the floor and the other mopping it up. Interestingly there are police security people here that don’t seem to carry guns. I found that the people that I engaged with were generally polite and friendly.  Standing by the door on the left hand side of the carriage I got a good view of the countryside.

Eventually, at a place called Tenjo, I hopped off onto what looked like a temporary steel platform, crossed the tracks and waited for a train to go back the other way. After some 2 1/2 hours I was still only about 40 km south of the city. The platform on the northbound side was quite low so everyone had to haul themselves up into the carriage. Not knowing the train timetable I thought it was probably time to wait for a train going north and hoped it would take me back to where I started from. Standing on the left side of the carriage again I got to see what was on the other side. With a bit of good luck, a few hours later I ended up at the station from which the journey had begun.


Saturday 25 June 2022

As Sylvia had skype meetings until late Friday we had to wait until Saturday evening to catch the flight to France, the rest of her accompanying team having left last night. It rained heavily most of the day, which we spent reading and chatting in our room on the 21st floor with a view across the city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Weekend in Ireland

Saturday 4 June 2022

We had managed to get a Ryan Air flight out of the local Garons Airport, which is about 3kms to the southeast of us. It also seems to be a good spot to keep a few redundant aircraft, both military and civilian.

We took off and climbed out to the east before heading northwest to Irsland. We were both really surprised at the variety of farming and horticulture that surrounds us in this part of France. There are large areas of flooding irrigation, using the water from the many canals that run through the area, mostly from the Rhone River. There are huge areas of salt farms, some with their bright pink ponds caused by a lichen in the water. One lot of paddocks was laid out like slices of pizza. We will have to hire a light aircraft one day and have a good look at the area from the air.

On the approach into Dublin we were greeted with large industrial plants and well laid out new housing developments on the city fringe.

Landing in Dublin the hostess opened the door on the Boeing 737.800. With no ladder there she pushed a couple of buttons and a ladder slid out from the fuselage; up came the hand rails and with a few bits and pieces added we were able to alight the aircraft and walk into the terminal and through immigration. After a long walk we reached the rental car counter, and from there a van took us to the rental car compound. Interestingly Sylvia usually books with Hertz but they wanted a thousand euros a day for a medium sized car. We shopped around and got a nice car for that price for 3 days.

Arriving in Dublin via the tunnel that is 10 euros during rush hour and 3 euros the rest of the time, we checked into the Marker hotel on the edge of one of the many canals. Having checked into the hotel and it still being early afternoon we took a stroll and along the way decided we should try out a hop on hop of bus. Booking one online we waited at the stop for the next arrival in 15 mins. Now the thing about these buses is you have to be able to hop on in order to hop off. Eventually along came the bus but the bugger didn’t even stop for us so we never did get to experience the hop on hop off bit. Sylvia made a phone call and got the normal ‘the driver should not have done that; if you want a refund you have to email us!!’ The next one was an hour away so we decided to take a walk.

There are some really nice buildings in Dublin, built from both brick and stone. Whilst many have a nice conforming kind of uniformity about them some really stand out. We passed the university and took a brief look inside. It is across the road from the Bank Of Ireland building, which is rather grand.

Not too far down the road we entered the local castle, formerly the home of the Viceroy of Ireland when it was ruled by the British.  On the 3 May 1921 the country was divided into two self-governing polities. After a war in 1922 southern Ireland became an  independent country while Northern Ireland decided to stay part of the UK.

It is thought that the in 10500BC  first of an early version of humans set foot in Ireland. Since then there has been a lot of water under a lot of bridges and many wars over territory going back hundreds of years with Henery VIII declaring himself king of Ireland back in 1541. Like many European countries they have had lots of wars including the first Desmond rebellion, the second Desmond rebellion and the nine year war just to mention a few.

The state rooms of the castle (which was all we were allowed to see) were quite grand with large rooms, one in particular displaying the flags of the Knights of St Patrick, of which there were quite a few.  Like many castles they had lots of old religious art on the walls and ceilings. In a couple of rooms they must have been a bit short of old paintings so they have some rather bad modern art in them. The castle is built around a courtyard with a nice clock or watch tower off to one side, and attached is a cathedral.

We taxied back to the hotel and spent a quiet relaxing evening.


Sunday 5 June 2022.

We headed north on the M1 motorway for a while but, like many motorways, they have planted trees along each side to stop people like me looking at the scenery and not concentrating on the road. After 20 minutes we took an off ramp and headed out into the country, initially only to strike hawthorn hedges growing on each side of the well-kept narrow roads. Things improved and we were treated to some nice scenery and the odd glimpse of the ocean as we headed north up the coast to the town of Carlingford. There we met up with Lorraine, whom we had met while she was holidaying in Singapore a few years ago. We enjoyed a nice lunch at the Bay Tree Restaurant.

Carlingford was originally a fishing village being on the Carlingford Lough, which is deep enough for large ships to navigate up to a port at Warrenpoint at the top of the Lough. At one point we were talking about the IRA troubles in Northern Ireland as Lorraine live sin the North. She said she was really too young to remember the “troubles” as they are referred to here.  We had noted both in Dublin and on the way here that many buildings are painted different and bright colours. Blocks of brick buildings all seem to have different coloured doors. Probably quite handy if you have a falling out with your girlfriend, just paint your door a different colour so they can’t find your house again!

 

After a very nice lunch we continued our journey north heading up the lough and back onto the M1 towards Belfast. My cousin Molly in London, who we visited recently, had informed me that in Ireland in their mother’s house had been a sword and a Gurkha knife that had belonged to my grand father. She and her sister Anne had recently sold the house and the people that had bought it were holding onto the items if I wanted to pick them up. They lived in a little village on the coast just northeast of Belfast, now our destination.

There is no sign of a border between the north and the south any more. However as we cruised along at the speed limit of 120kph, the little circle on the navigation system changed to 70. Sylvia pointed out that I was going a little fast, as was the rest of the traffic. I suggested that it may be miles an hour it was meaning and after Sylvia checked with google sure enough it was. We continued for some time, passing through Belfast. The roads are really clearly marked and well maintained.

Soon we were in Carrickfergus and collecting the sword that these nice people had kept for me. There was a lighthouse further down the coast so we went to check it out along with some brightly coloured buildings at the waterfront. Many Union Jack Flags were on display int he north celebrating the Queen’s Jubilee.

The trip back to Dublin was an easy one. Avoiding the tunnel we passed some interesting buildings and lots of different coloured doors.


Monday 6  June 2022

Waking early to a leak coming through the ceiling in the bathroom, we called reception and left them to it, heading down for another great breakfast. Soon we were on the motorway heading west. The trees once again obscured the view of the surroundings apart from the odd glance of some very green and prosperous-looking farmland.

A couple of hours down the road we saw a turn off to Limerick so we turned off to check it out. There was not a lot to see, just another little town.

We continued out of the town towards the cliffs of Moher it wasn’t too long before we arrived, passing a rugged looking  golf course and some small villages where the surrounding paddocks were divided up by stone walls. We pulled into the car park, paying a small fee to see the most visited place in Ireland. A short walk from the carpark we came across a group of shops dug into the hillside. Alongside, also in the hill, is an information centre. We headed inside and had a look through. The exit lead us to a track up to the cliffs.

The cliffs are indeed well worth a look; the rock seems like it is stacked like shist or slate. There is a small, castle-type building, which serves as a lookout with its narrow spiral staircase. We climbed up and had a look. A large charolais bull grazed in the paddock nearby. Hundreds of people were spread out along the cliff tops enjoying the views. There are a a couple of islands in the distance and some lighthouse-type buildings on the peninsular to the right.

I saw a sign on one of the slab stone walls saying the buskers here have to make their instrument’s out of wood as the salt air rusts metal parts. A man sat against the wall sheltering from the wind playing an accordion. I am not sure it was all wood; it looked like some plastic had gone into its construction.

Back in the car, we followed the coast north on a narrow, well-maintained country road, passing many recently build holiday houses and the odd village along the way. At one point to our right were hills made of what looked like solid rock but with stone fences dividing them into paddocks; maybe there is a rare breed of rock-eating sheep in this part of the world. Just east of Galway we hit the M6 motorway, which made for a steady, easy drive back to Dublin.

Arriving back at the hotel they relocated us to another nice room where we spent the rest of the evening relaxing.


Tuesday 7 June 2022. 

We woke at 4am to an almost cold shower, needing to be at the airport early to catch our Ryan Air flight back to France. Reflecting on Ireland we got the impression that is is one of the more prosperous countries in Europe with nice cars on good roads and no sign of beggars in the streets or people at the traffic lights with old bits of cardboard asking for money.