Monday, 16 May 2016

Myanmar April 2016

Myanmar April 2016

On 3rd April 2016, I was amongst a group of Travel Department tourists who departed Dublin Airport on an Etihad ticket bound via Abu Dhabi and Bangkok to Yangon, largest city and old capital of Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. 

It’s a country I had for some time hoped to visit, inspired by its lack of a presence on the tourism beat. In preceding years travel was deeply discouraged by pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but things were changing. She came into a position of quasi-power virtually the day we arrived, following elections and agreements, and the birth of a new democracy had taken place with all the potential which this brought. The military was still to be a part of the government, at least for the time being.

As the airplane approached the runway at Yangon we flew close to an impressive golden pagoda, the first of many I would see during the trip. At the airport we were met by Moh Moh, our guide who turned out to be a very caring individual, a mother hen who went beyond the call of duty when it came to looking after our needs. Our bus had a picture of comical Mr. Bean in the driver’s window, giving the impression that Bean himself was driving the vehicle.

It soon became apparent that traffic congestion is an enormous problem in Yangon, and that it takes considerable time and patience to drive even a short distance. There are no yellow boxes, so jams occur everywhere, and traffic lights are ridiculously biased in many places such that vehicles are at a virtual standstill. It amazed me that all the cars I saw were unblemished by evidence of any collision dents.

After a journey short in distance but long in time, our group of 19 arrived in the impressive modern Sedona Yangon Hotel.  A morning snooze was followed by an afternoon trip to see the glittering gold complex of the Shwedagon Pagoda, which simply breath-taking. At its heart is the immense golden stupa which is surrounded by an array of diverse gilded shrines where statues of Buddha are venerated by the legions of the faithful. Devotees busy themselves by presenting flowers, lighting candles and incense sticks, inserting money in the large glass boxes in almsgiving, and pouring water over Buddha in veneration. Some chant in prayer whilst every now and then a line of young folk sweep the floor with a brush six people wide. Everybody is barefoot, and we were soon to realise that half our holiday would be spent shoeless in the multitude of pagodas and temples we were to visit. Shwedagon is the holiest place in Myanmar, and is to the nation of Buddhists as Mecca is to Muslims. At a nearby shrine we saw one of the country’s giant reclining buddhas.

At some shrines a selection of the Buddha statues are crowned by haloes of glittering multi-coloured lights, which brought to mind slot machine arcades that one might find at Las Vegas, or back at home in the amusement arcades of Bray. To my European mind these looked quite undignified, quite unholy, but these gaudy flashing haloes symbolise Buddha’s enlightenment and are very meaningful to the faithful.

The Sedona, as most of the hotels on this trip, provided a large well-appointed room with a large bed for a great night’s sleep. Breakfast was impressive too, featuring a great selection of dishes from fluffy omelettes, to croissants and pastries. I discovered that marmalade is quite a tradition in Myanmar, dating from the days of British rule. Great tasting baked beans featured in several hotels, produced in Myanmar. This morning the hotel offered an assortment of breakfast items from Korea, and I tucked into these straight after the omelette, bacon and beans. A nice belly full to start the day of touring the most populous city in the country.

The morning was started by a by-pass of golden Sule Pagoda which is rather ignominiously encircled by a “basement” of shops. We stopped by City Hall and the High Court, from where I took a walk in the main city park.  I was amazed by the performance of the conductors of the city buses, who would literally hang out from the door and frenetically scream out the names of the various stops ahead on the route. They would then pull the passengers on board in an effort to speed up the process.
Guided by Moh Moh, we walked the streets of old Yangon, passing by various street food sellers, including a couple of stands where roasted crickets were on offer. The old British colonial centre has some grand old buildings, in various states of disrepair. Not easy on the olfactory senses, the whole city has a characteristic stench of sewage, fragranced by the fermented fish condiment which figures in the local diet. We stopped by to visit the Scott Market, which specialised in stalls selling mainly fabrics, items of dress and jewellery. What caught my particular attention were the colossal fire extinguishers placed at intervals along the main beat.

Our bus journeyed further through the city, and around one of the city’s two major lakes. The Bogyoke Aung San Museum is the house where Aung San Suu Kyi grew up, and we saw her wooden bed where she slept next to her siblings as a child. Her father, Major General Aung San, was responsible for ridding Burma of British rule, but he was assassinated for his efforts. His book collection remains on view in the house, and features plenty of English literary volumes, including works by Shaw. We stopped by the lake shore where a magnificent vista was enjoyed by all, from the rickety wooden lakeshore walk. The sun was setting over silhouettes of pagodas and palms in the distance, and a superbly impressive golden dragon-boat shaped restaurant took pride of place in the foreground, enveloped by beautiful purple jacaranda trees.

After the two nights in Yangon we were obliged to be up and ready for departure by 5am for our domestic flight to Bagan. It was a simple matter of leaving our luggage outside the bedroom to door, from where it was transported for us, to appear again in the bedroom of the next hotel. This was done most efficiently throughout our trip. There was no check-in at the airport, simply a KBZ sticker to apply to our clothing to identify us as passengers as we were waived through and on to the modern ATR turboprop. KBZ is a bank in Myanmar which owns one of the domestic airlines. The safety cards are huge, almost the width of the seat. During the very short flight we were served a breakfast of pastries, a chocolate, orange juice and tea. Obviously they haven’t attended Michael O’Leary’s school of airline operation.

Bagan isn’t a city or even a town, rather an area of over 10,000 ancient temples and stupas which remain in pretty perfect condition. There is a small modern town located in the region, but the airport mainly serves those interested in visiting this extraordinary place which is peppered with an extraordinary medley of places of worship, most within metres of one another. It’s a spectacle the likes of which I’ve never seen before, so many are the monuments. Some are great and elaborate, some miniscule and humble. Some are white, others terracotta, some gilded. The sheer landscape of pagodas and trees is exceptional. Balloon flights are offered, but unfortunately there was no time to avail due to the ever busy schedule.
Our first port of call was the impressive stone temple of Ananda Pahto with its vertiginous steps which I avoided. We also visited the beautiful temples of Gubyauknge and Htilominlo Pahto. The sheer amount of styles and rural landscape surrounding these buildings added to their eminence.
Our hotel for the next few nights was Aye Yare River View Resort, a most lovely establishment spread out over a number of buildings, with a lovely freeform pool. On reflection I think this was probably my favourite accommodation during the tour. It had the cosiness of a small spread of grounds combined with the impression of the seclusion of the various buildings and curving pathways ornamented by plants and trees. Food was excellent which featured delightful fillets of river fish wrapped in banana leaves.
One of my favourite aspects of the holiday was the visit to a farming village community, where the houses are made of bamboo. Each one has a yard where gentle white oxen shelter under bamboo awnings, and chickens roam freely. The oxen are employed in various tasks, one of them being to turn a peanut oil millstone. Everything in these communities is made by hand and labour, with everybody busied with the tasks of living a simple dignified life. We enjoyed the hospitality of one of these houses with a nice cup of tea and roast peanuts grown on the farm.

It’s not exactly the most arable land, but supports the groundnuts, cotton, and some delicious small bananas, fruits and vegetables are grown in the area and sold in the local market. Tobacco is grown and crafted into charoots which are popular with the ladies. We watched the villagers at work on the various crafts, including that of producing the fast fermented and distilled toddy. In order to produce this men climb up the coconut palms, retrieve the fruits, collect the liquid and ferment it overnight for a quick distillation process. It is pure fire-water!

The local bamboo library had no computers, but children were avidly reading their books as I peeped in. It’s quite a different scenario from the libraries I work in, and I don’t think my young customers would put up with books alone to entertain them.

Then there was a visit to a lacquer workshop, where ribbons of paper are formed into the shapes of bowls, small and large, and the most fanciful of urns. They are skilfully dipped and painted in layer after layer of lacquer, with the final product a true work of art.
We partook of an evening sunset cruise on board a very dodgy vessel which was accessed across a narrow plank, with a helping hand from the boatmen. Health and safety is not yet a feature of this developing country, especially in the matter of boating, but I guess this might change for the better within the coming years. It was nice sailing down the Irrawaddy, with a low cliff bank to one said dotted with stupas here and there. We stopped off to visit a cave pagoda, and then turned around the face the setting sun.

The following morning we left Bagan by coach in the direction of Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar. On the way we stopped at a major place of Buddhist pilgrimage, the great Mount Popa which is a flat topped volcanic plug upon which a monastery buildings were constructed. A large number of steps winds around the steep sides, with shrines placed along the way, rather like a “stations of the cross”. Below the mountain there is a medley of some quite fancy buildings, some of them serving as overnight accommodation for pilgrims. We saw a busload of young nuns arrive. These children can decide whether they wish to continue dedicated religious life when they reach adulthood, or like the majority, lead a secular life. Same goes for the monks, who begin their novitiate as children. Like most religions, the males are considered more important than the females.

It came time for lunch. Climbing the hills through a sandalwood forest we dined at the beautifully tranquil, luxurious and elevated Mount Popa Resort, the most deluxe of our lunch stops. Located on an elevation, we had a view across to the fine conical mountain of Mount Popa, upon which top lies the monastery. It is a magnificent sight. At the entrance to the resort are some fanciful carved teak tables featuring the shapes of snakes and dragons. We dined at more practical tables on the veranda.
Roads are improving in places, and we continued our journey on a dual-carriageway. Driving conditions are generally somewhat better than, say, in India. Arriving in Mandalay we were accommodated in the Sedona Hotel, equally as impressive as its counterpart in Yangon, having sizeable rooms, and a capacious pool which I took advantage of no sooner than I had arrived. As darkness had fallen and the pool was illuminated I enjoyed a swim without the scorching sun. Attentive staff handed me towels to dry off afterwards.

Next day the temperature was at its highest during the entire trip, a high dry 45c. I was surprised by the way I coped with the heat, but this was helped by plentiful opportunity for shade in the workshops and temples. During our city tour we stopped on a street where hundreds of white Buddhas occupy the sidewalks in their various stages of completion. Women and men were busy at work chipping the blocks of stone into Buddhas for which there is an infinite market.

A remarkable pagoda we visited is Mahamuni Paya, where sits the most revered and extraordinary Buddha image in Myanmar. Only the menfolk are allowed to go near it, the ladies amongst us had to contend with viewing it by cctv. The tradition is that the men buy an affordable patch of gold leaf and apply it to the great statue as a mark of reverence. This figure has so many patches of gold applied to it that it is ridiculously knobbly in appearance, which in my view renders it comical and extracts from its dignity.

Late afternoon we proceeded in the direction of Mandalay Hill, which could be seen from the hotel. Just below the peak is Kudothaw Pagoda, wherein lies the World’s Largest Book with over 1.400 pages , each set in a marble tablet, every one measuring over five feet tall and enclosed in a little white stupa-like edifice. It all reminded me of rows of bright white mausoleums in a cemetery. At the heart of the “cemetery” is the great golden stupa of the Pagoda.

Stepping out of our tour bus, we boarded small rough vehicles which took us up the steep and narrow winding road with plenty of hairpin bends. At the top was were two towers, one with a lift, the other with a set of moving stairs to bring us up to the crown which is occupied by none other than (you’ve guessed it) a monastery . A floor of shiny hot tiles scorched our feet and reflected the dipping sun. There were great views looking out over the nearby Kudothaw Pagoda and the city beyond. We watched as the sun blazed red and dipped below the horizon.

The morning brought more searing heat, but it was nice and cooling to be on board a nice solid boat which brought us down the Irrawaddy to the ancient town of Mingun. Ox carts brought us to the various antiquities beginning with the unfinished temple which stands as a huge square lump of rock. An astrologer predicted that King Bodawpaya would die upon the completion of the structure, so advised him that it should not be finished. The king also had an enormous bell constructed to go with the temple, and it stands today as the largest ringing bell in the world. Close by stands the delicate and ornamental snow white Myatheindan Pagoda

Later, a tiny passenger ferry brought us across a small tributary of the Irrawaddy to the remains of the old imperial city of Ava, which is now mostly a rural village with some nice remains. In pairs we stepped on board canopied carts drawn by a single small horse. We trekked past the village and out through some of the most delightful and bountiful countryside. Sunflowers, cabbages, sweetcorn, aubergines, coconut palms, oranges, banana trees, tamarind trees, and the most vividly green little rice paddies appeared to either side as the horses clip-clopped through the most intimate little earthen tracks. It was like a magical mystery tour through somebody’s private garden.  Here and there we stopped off by a stupa, the remains of an old bathing pool of the royal estate, and the funny little “leaning tower of Ava”. Our good-humoured cart-driver chuckled with mirth at the comparison with the more famous one in Pisa. Our last stop in Ava was at a great elaborate stone monastery guarded by a pair of stone lions at the gate.

Back on board the tour bus we made the final stop of the day at U Bein Bridge, which is the longest teak bridge in the world. Purely a footbridge it is fairly narrow and has no rails, but the off great wooden post punctuates the vacuum and provides some sense of reassurance of there being “something to hold onto” if needs be.  The bridge is always quite crowded, especially with tourists who often stop in pairs and groups such that one has to negotiate one’s way precariously around them. The riverside provides an interesting scene with boats and shacks on one side and a farm of geese on the other, with hives of activity peppering the serene waters.
Next morning we departed Mandalay on board a very brief flight. Touching down at Heho Airport, we had arrived in Shan state. At some elevation, the area felt that bit cooler, and was a blessed relief from the intense heat of Mandalay. The red soil is so much more fertile here in the undulating landscape.

Our first stop was at the Shwe Oo Min natural cave pagoda at Pindaya. The cave is in a great hill, with a very high key entrance complete with giant spider effigy. It looks more like the entrance to a theme park than a religious shrine! But we’d been there before several times with the “arcade buddhas”.  Over 4000 gold Buddha statues occupied the fascinating labyrinth of passages in this sizeable cave system, with various hues of lighting in in each cavern.

The area has several ethnically distinct tribes which live in harmony among one another. It was fascinating watching the various homesteads as we passed by on the coach, with virtually every home having its collection of livestock, and features of their own ethnicity. On our way to our mountain retreat for the night we passed by the old British railway post of Kalaw with its very English style railway station.
The Hill Top Villa Hotel was our stop for one night, where we were accommodated in simple but pleasant bungalows with beautiful views over the floral gardens to the verdant hills. I enjoyed sipping some locally bought and produced rose wine on my veranda, watching the evening fall on the verdant hills whilst the lights in the hotel gardens lit up and sparkled.

After a simple al fresco breakfast of omelette, juice, breads and marmalade we travelled down towards tranquil Inle Lake. We visited a Shan paper and umbrella making craft centre. Also we called into a pair of monasteries side by side, one stone and one wooden, the latter featuring a couple of delightfully friendly cat families who resided within. Mother cats and their beloved kitten occupied pride of place, being cared for by the monks.

Drawing up to a canal by Inle Lake I was slightly nervous when I saw the narrow motorised canoe-like boats we were obliged to step aboard. Watching others stepping onto their wobbly vessel, I observed how swiftly it departed down the narrow canal. However I soon became confident when I was comfortably seated, as the boat sprinted and harmlessly bounced off another as it paced towards the open lake. Floating gardens appeared either side of us, with water-lilies aplenty, and bird life manifest. I felt elated as the boat entered the broad waters of Inle Lake. At times the spray became extreme on one side, but the solution was right beside me as I picked up and opened the umbrella which was located at each seat. Looking back with an eye to common sense I think it would have been wise for each of us to don the life vests which were provided on every seat.
Now and then we would speed past clusters of purple water-lilies. In the distance I could see the local fisherman performing their ballet. As my boat drew closer I could clearly see one fisherman standing at the stern of his narrow little boat and tip over with his bell-shaped fishnet as he rowed the vessel with one leg. That’s why I describe it as a ballet; it is quite an extraordinary performance, a local tradition confined to this lake. Many such ballet-fishermen were performing on the leg.
We stopped off for lunch at one of the many restaurants which stand on stilts over the water. Crisp fried flatbread, crispy little baby vegetable tempura, pumpkin soup, an array of meat and fish curries, stir fried daintily cut veg, and rice covered with gold leaf. A typical Myanmar luncheon feast, but the edible gold leaf was a first.

Back on board the boats we were brought to some fascinating craft workshops. The most expensive fabric of all, we watched lotus thread weavers producing from start to finish the strong and enduring product. It is an incredibly painstaking process, especially the retrieval of the incredibly fine threads from the stems of the aquatic plant which thrives in the lake.

Returning to the waterside we saw a small pig being transported upside down with legs tied to a pole, from a boat to a nice sun-sheltered canopy where he would be reared for fattening, I managed to get tickling the snouts of some friendly swarthy piglets who were guzzling noisily from troughs under ample shelter.

As we entered the narrow channel through the vast reed beds towards our final hotel, Pristine Lotus Spa Resort, our boat’s propeller got tangled in some reeds and we came to a halt. With a little assistance from another vessel this situation was remedied and our engine once more fired into life, bringing us to the enclosed mooring harbour of our resort-style hotel. The bedrooms here are most interesting. Each one is built in the shape of a wooden “boat” with the bow end forming a balcony with a seated deck overlooking a canal toward the lake, with an ample bedroom with feature sunken bath, a settee, a large bed with mosquito nets, and an open bathroom area with curtained toilet. Reception building is separate to the bar/restaurant buildings and pool area. Another part of the campus is across the reasonably busy marrow road.
Today was the beginning of the Buddhist New Year and the tradition is to throw water over other (“willing”) “participants”. In effect The staff and residents of the Pristine Lotus took part in throwing buckets of water over any passing motorist passing on the road between the two sections of the resort. I enjoyed a swim in the pool, followed by a cocktail and delicious dinner in the restaurant.

Last day, we took a short trip by bus to the nearest village where many people bathed in a lake inlet; a walking tour via a linear sheltered market brought us to a place of a myriad ancient mini temples and cemetery. Another motorised canoe trip took us to lunch. The final afternoon was at leisure with a visit to the natural hot rock spa. In the evening, all I, and practically everybody else, could face was a place of delicious crispy chips with ketchup and mayonnaise. Myanmar can do simple fries as well as the best in the world.

The journey homewards started with a morning domestic flight to Yangon. The airport at Yangon, a work in progress, has just a few stalls which sell souvenirs to take home, a whiskey shop and one café. Surprisingly this café served me the best coffee I have ever enjoyed in my life, and the food on offer looked absolutely delicious. Coffee is grown in Myanmar and packaged as a souvenir which boasted "Italian coffee from Myanmar” in an effort to reassure the consumer that it was a quality product. Some hours later we boarded the Bangkok Airways flight to Bangkok to join the Etihad flight to Dubai. Another Etihad flight brought us back home to Dublin, where I wished my bright pink case off the carousel and out into the perishing cold outdoors of Ireland.


Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Scotland June 2015

I just love going to Scotland on holiday, yet there is more often than not one has to make a sacrifice in the weather. Why have I this enduring fondness for returning to the Highlands and Islands? One aspect was answered for me in an episode of the geographical TV series “Coast”, which described Scotland as the second most intricate coastline in the world after Norway, another favourite place of mine. There is a lot about Scotland that reminds me of home: the Gaelic language, areas of desolation, the ever changing weather, the hospitality, and a lot of quirkiness. But what’s familiar always has a twist, like the backwards fadas of the Scots Gaelic as opposed to the forward accents of Irish. The areas of wilderness are far greater in Scotland, there is a wealth of islands great and small to explore. There is a lot more travelling to be done there!

On this escapade my main focus was to see the Isle of Colonsay, an island about ten miles long, which I’d seen in a television documentary a good few years back. I knew it had a fairly large estate house and garden, a famous golden beach, and a smaller island of Oronsay to the south which is accessible at low tide and which features a monastery that predates Iona.

I took the Aer Lingus/Stobart flight from Dublin to Glasgow, and caught a Citylink Bus from Buchanan Bus Station to Oban, where my bed for the night was the Royal hotel. A fairly basic hotel, and I mightn’t want to stay here for more than a night. At least it has single rooms, staff are friendly, and breakfast is decent, and it is very central. Typical of a Scottish lower to mid- range hotel the décor featured tartan, which at least affirmed I was in Scotland.

The journey from Glasgow to Oban is a lovely one, going via some lovely Argyll countryside by way of Loch Lomond, Rest and Be Thankful, Inveraray, and Dalmally. Oban itself is a very likeable town, set in a bay with hills rising behind and dominated by the Colosseum-like structure of McCaig’s Tower, a folly built by a wealthy banker as a tribute to himself and his blood relatives. He died before completion, so it is only a shell of what it might be.

Oban claims to be the seafood capital of Scotland, and pertinent to this is the al fresco seafood bar which serves the freshest of produce at a reasonable cost, to be enjoyed at a long outdoor bench and table to be shared by fellow fish-lovers. Indeed there was another such alfresco outlet with outdoor tables and umbrellas. Several indoor restaurants specialise in seafood and there are two gourmet fish and chips shops where one can eat at tables or take away.

I had more than half a day to spare before my ferry to Colonsay, so I started out by taking a one hour boat trip to see the local seal colony. The seals had pups and they all seemed to blend in with the local rocks. We passed by a large fish farm which supplies salmon to a lot of supermarket stores in Britain. I remember doing this little boat trip during the 1980s when I spent a sunny week in Oban. It is a superb holiday base, with so many ferry trips available to other islands as well as bus routes and roads to so many interesting places.

I walked down the Corran Esplanade, the hotel-lined promenade which leads onto the road out to the nearest beach at Ganavan Sands, under two miles away. I dropped into the Oban Chocolate Shop and Café, a gorgeous place which was unfortunately packed full with customers. The chocolates are amongst the most delicious I’ve ever tasted.

In the evening I checked in for the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Colonsay. A requirement of the crossings is that you give your name, your next of kin and their phone number on a slip before you embark, and hand over the duplicate as you disembark. I guess it is to do with a problem with suicide or drunks falling overboard. On all ferry crossings the initial welcome aboard message by the Captain is in the Scottish Gaelic language. On board these modern Calmac ferries are excellent facilities, such as a good coffee shop, a restaurant serving decent food, and a comfortable observation room. On this very smooth 2 ½ crossing to Colonsay  the ferry was uncrowded and made for a most pleasant crossing. The scenery en route was delightful, with lovely views of the islands of Kerrera, Mull, Jura and Islay.

Arriving at Colonsay pier, I had just started the uphill walk towards the only hotel on the island when a local driver gave me a lift. At The Colonsay Hotel I was shown to my little square single room, named Port Lobh after one of the bays on the island. The un-shared bathroom was down the corridor. At 8.30pm I was just in time to enjoy a nice meal in the dining room, fish with a garden salad from Colonsay House Garden. The hotel has a typical small Scottish country house feel, with nice little spaces in which to get comfortable, such as the Log Room or the Library.

In the morning I took my first walk on Colonsay. Today my goal was to see the famous golden beach at Kiloran Bay, via the grounds of Colonsay House.  So I traipsed the hilly single track road which swung inland from the coastal “capital” village of Scalasaig. This settlement has a grocery / post office, a café, a tiny brewery and a book publisher / bookshop.

Through Scalasaig and beyond, the corncrake sounded his scratchy voice loud and clear. On the islands he is thankfully thriving and I am always glad to hear that distinct sound on my insular travels.

Along the way I encountered many sheep as they scarpered up the roadside rocks to avoid me. Using a fairly basic map I had printed out for myself I followed a track through the wooded outer gardens of Colonsay House. Unfortunately it wasn’t a Wednesday when the inner garden and tea room are open – I had not been careful enough to time my visit. Yet I got glimpses of this garden where part of my previous night’s dinner had been grown. The day was grey but mild and calm, making for nice walking conditions. Some of the pathways proved very muddy and full of animal droppings, not doing my shoes any good. The woodland was ablaze with colourful rhododendrons and dripping fuchsia, with carpets of green fernery and spikes of flourishing foxgloves.

I wandered past hidden cottages which serve as self-catering accommodation managed by the Colonsay Estate. The Colonsay Hotel serves as the administrative centre for the self-catering houses which can be found in several areas of the isle. The modestly proportioned Colonsay House came into view as I came across a crucial junction where I was to take the wrong turn. Instead of heading for the glorious golden beach I convinced myself the circular road to the west was the correct route to take.

Walking for what felt like miles, I passed a school, a quirky house with somewhat scary sculptured heads in the windows, a field with standing stones, a church, a graveyard., a little weather station, more self-catering cottages and a bicycle rental shop. I could see the ocean ahead, with a rocky bay pounded by waves. Where was my golden beach? Opening a gate, I made my way across private grassy land full of black Hebridean sheep and a mobile home, and ended up at the edge of a cliff. No sign of a beach anywhere, just a rocky, boulder strewn shore.

I retraced my steps back to my hotel, and it was only until my second and last evening on the island when I conceded to buy a proper ordnance survey map from the island bookshop that I realised I should have taken the first road out from Colonsay House and Gardens. It would have been so much shorter a journey into the bargain!

On my second day on the island I had plans to visit the neighbouring island of Oronsay, which has very fine monastic remains from Columba’s era, predating Iona. To reach Oronsay one has to time the tides with precision, as the island is reached across a very wide stretch of sand at low tide. I walked the couple of miles south to The Strand, where many cars had been parked by folk doing the inter-island walk. It was a brilliant sunny day and I set out across the fairly wet sands, following the tracks of cars, and people. A post office van passed me on its way back to Colonsay. After a while I stepped onto land in the wheel tracks of other vehicles, and other people followed me suit. I came to an abrupt stop by a house which was backing onto a steep hillside which forced me to re-trace my steps. A couple who followed in my footsteps suggested that maybe we take another ill-defined route through the grass.

Failing to find any trace of a monastery we found a charming wild spot overlooking the open sea. Having spent a while exploring various direction and coming to dead ends  I decided it was time to cross back over the sands before the tide beat me to it. The couple continued their explorations  to try and find the vanished ruins. On my way back to Scalasaig I took a diversionary path to a very pleasant remote area of the isle. The sun shone brightly and warmly for most of my day’s walking.
It was only back in Scalasaig after I conceded to purchase a proper Ordnance Survey map in the bookshop that I discovered for certain that a):- Yesterday I had taken the wrong road in error of the one to Kiloran Bay, and b):- Today I had never set foot on Oronsay, having followed the wrong route over the sand. I should have veered towards the right side of the sands. Instead I had stepped onto an isolated corner of Colonsay. My overall mistake was being too mean to make an online purchase of the map to study the routes in advance.

Next morning I took the Calmac ferry back to Oban where I stayed for the final three nights at the upmarket boutique-style Manor Hotel.  A small Georgian building with beautiful views of Oban from the rear garden, it has several very beautiful lounges with antique furniture and a fine dining room. Dinner was a lovely affair and I enjoyed the seafood grill with several kinds of fish cooked to perfection and beautifully presented with fondant potatoes and fennel. For desert I chose “Chocolate and Orange”, a delightful and delicate medley of miniature helpings of orange ice cream, chocolate brownie, caramelised orange wedge and chocolate fondant. Coffee and petits fours were served in the lounge. My room was modestly proportioned, with cosy décor and a supremely comfortable bed.

The plan for my first day back in Oban was a boat trip with Turas Mara to see the isles of Staffa and Lunga. Initially I took the first ferry of the day to Craignure on the Isle of Mull. After a 45 minute crossing I boarded the West Coast Motors bus to the very picturesque and colourful capital town of Tobermory which is set around a beautiful wooded hilly bay. At the marina, I stepped onto the sturdy little Turas Mara boat which set out past a beautiful four-sailed cruise ship over to the remote Ardnamurchan peninsula to pick up extra passengers. After that the boat sailed south to the small Isle of Staffa, world famous as the location of Fingal’s Cave, where Mendelssohn got the inspiration to compose his Hebrides Overture, from the sound the sea makes at the entrance to the huge cavern. We stopped for an hour on the island. The volcanic formations here are identical to those on the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.

Leaving Staffa, the boat sailed for about 15 minutes to the wee Isle of Lunga, renowned for its puffin colony. At low tide it was quite a feat disembarking. A floating pontoon allowed us access to a wide beach of slippery boulders which we had to scramble over, sometimes on all fours, to gain access to the grassy area. Then it was up a steep hilly path to the puffins, which are incredibly tame. We were told that they like the human presence because we put off the approach of their predators. A two hour stop allowed us to lie down on the grass very close to the birds and capture countless photographic images. One of the puffins came up from the sea with a beak full of fish, such as I’d seen in wildlife photography, but the second I clicked my camera he was gone out of sight. Fortunately I captured many other delightful images of the birds.

Sailing back towards Tobermory our boat was followed by a delightful pod of playful dolphins. Back In Tobermory I really enjoyed sitting by the delightful harbour-front with picture postcard buildings reflecting in the water. I got the Tobermory Topper back to Craignure, for the Calmac sailing back to Oban.

Plans for my second day in Oban involved a walk around the nearby island of Kerrera.  A lovely twenty-five minute walk from the hotel brought me to the seven minute ferry crossing to Kerrera, which is about 7 kilometres long and two wide, but feels a hell of a lot larger once you start walking it. Near to the ferry slip[way is the island’s telephone box, and a single track road leads south by the east side of the island. It is a lush green place, with good farm land, with plenty of wild foxgloves. I passed Horseshoe Bay which has a wrecked boat lying onto the shore. A few cottages face onto the bay and a very friendly lady waved hello to me. A parrot sanctuary, which is not open to the public, is located here. Passing through a gate on the roadway, there was a fork in the road. In followed left down to a farm house in a hollow, and then climbed a grassy path left through sheep fields with a magnificent view of Gylen castle which is located on the south coast of the island. The weather was turning warmer by the minute ; it was a brilliant day for Scotland. I tried to take a short cut back to the main circular route of the island but I was frustratedby  boggy areas, hills, and every type of obstacle. In fact I was rather lost for a while and in miniature panic. Still the views over the castle and the southern isles was magnificent.

I managed eventually to retrace my steps and continued on the island s=circular route to the idyllic Tea Garden. A notice invited one to sit in either in the garden or the byre, should the weather be inclement. The heat of the day made me well thirsty and I ordered a coke, a cloudy lemonade, and “builder’s tea” as stated on the menu, plus soup and one of the delicious home-made cakes on offer. The island’s public toilet stood in a square shed, a “loo with a view” close by the tea garden. It sported a hanging basket of flowers.

Onwards I walked along a path which effectively became a stream of water. A horse box provided an honesty box for sale of island souvenirs. The coast had rocky escarpments beyond this point, and the path was very boggy in places. Numerous gates had to be opened and locked again.
I made my way down to rocky Slatrach Bay, where the low tide had exposed a nice sandy area. The sun was blazing hot, I needed a cool-down, so I made my way through a mucky sheep field to get a dip in the cold refreshing water. The sea was un-rippled as silk, and there was a lovely clear area of decent depth to swim in. There was not a soul for miles, and not a sound save for the bleating of  sheep.
From here I reckoned by my print-out map it was not so far to the ferry. Alas the journey seemed like miles and miles, and I even turned back at one point thinking I had taken the wrong route. It was a very hilly point on the island circuit, which made it seem longer, and eventually I found myself back at the ferry slip and onwards back to my hotel in Oban.

On the morning of my departure I made haste to get to the nearby train station in time for the 9am departure for Glasgow. It was going to be tight enough a connection for my flight to Dublin. On entering the station I was told “the train is off” and that a bus would be provided instead. Anyone who asked why the train was off was told “the driver didn’t bother turning up”, which was a complete” porky-pie” designed to wind up the customers. I checked the internet and found that a train travelling to Oban the day before had been hit by a landslide, which was now blocking the track. Thankfully nobody was injured. It reminded me of my last visit to Scotland when the road at Rest and Be Thankful was blocked by a landslide which was cleared just in time for my bus back to Glasgow.
Arriving in Glasgow city centre there was a massive traffic hold-up due to an Orange parade which was due to take place. Traffic had been diverted and I was let off the bus in a city that I was not familiar with. My next task was to get transport to the airport, and I had originally planned to get a bus, but this plan was now off. Finding a taxi was a difficult task in a city centre which had been cleared of traffic.

Having got to Glasgow Airport I was starving, as I had not enough time to eat breakfast. The airport was crazy with crowds and queues for food were impossible, given that the airport is ill-equipped in the catering department.

It was not until I arrived home in the evening that I could indulge my by then enormous appetite!

Monday, 13 July 2015

South Africa May 2015

South Africa May 2015

My 2 week trip to South Africa with Travel Department began with British Airways flights to Cape Town via Heathrow. From the day of arrival to day of departure our group of 26 were blessed by fair weather and moderate temperatures, with not a drop of rain.

Arriving at Cape Town airport we were greeted by our guide Denise, a mature and very well spoken mature lady best described by one of our travellers as “The Countess”. We were led onto our plush leather-seated coach which had served as the South African Soccer Team bus during the 2010 World Cup.  Immediately we were transported to the renowned Table Mountain, only to find that wind was too strong to permit the cable car to travel. Instead our driver, Malcom, brought us up Signal Hill, a lesser mountain, for a lovely view across the city and bays.

We stopped for about two hours at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, an upmarket and very beautiful harbour-side leisure area characterised by a shopping centre, hotels, heliport and waterside facilities. One of our group chose a Malay curry for lunch, which was served in a frying pan!
Cape Town proved to be a very beautiful city, among the loveliest I have seen, with both modern and historic buildings, and fairly free from graffiti and vandalism. In my opinion, it should be one of the loveliest cities on earth to live. The air is exceptionally clean and clear.

The salubrious 4 star Winchester Mansions Hotel was our base for the first 3 nights. Located on the lovely grassy Seapoint promenade, it was interesting to watch the comings and goings of joggers, dog-walkers and children having fun by the sea. Being autumn the sun went down all of a sudden at 6pm, affording precious little time to enjoy the hotel’s beautiful location.

Our first day’s excursion was to the Winelands, and we started by enjoying a 7 sample tasting at the beautiful Nederburg Estate, with historic buildings amid a vineyard on flatlands beneath sharply rising mountains in the distance. The samples, being South African, were standard measures as we know at home! A lovely al fresco buffet in the sun lunch interrupted our further five wine tasting at another vineyard!

Following our wine-lands tour Malcolm drove us back to Table Mountain, where the winds had died down, allowing our ascent by cable-car to the 3000ft plateau overlooking Cape Town. Apart from the magnificent views of the city and beaches, the first thing I encountered were the hyraxes, delightful little furry animals about the size of a rabbit. Flying close by was the hyrax’s enemy, the Black Eagle. A black lizard scuppered along the rocks as I watched the hungry avian circle around in wait for dinner.

Our second day in Cape Town featured a splendid tour of the Cape Peninsula. Blue skies accompanied us for most of our holiday, adding great joy and light to our experience. Temperatures were generally a very comfortable average of 22C in the autumn of the southern hemisphere. The first small seaside we passed by was Bantry Bay, named after the very different bay in Ireland. A lot of South African places feature Irish place names:- Athlone is a suburb of Cape Town, Killarney is a suburb of Johannesburg, Belfast is a tiny town between Johannesburg and Kruger. Further along the coast we passed by Camps Bay, a spectacular beach washed by Atlantic waves and backed by steeply rising mountains. We stopped at calm Houts Bay for a coffee and a strolls by souvenir stands. A spectacular road brought us onwards to Llandudno which bared a little, but little resemblance to its Welsh counterpart. We veered inland past some thatched cottages which would sit well along the west coast of Ireland, to the Cape of Good Hope, the most south-westerly point in Africa. It was a photographic “must-stop”.

Retreating northwards we stopped for lunch at a lovely al-fresco fish restaurant where we sampled some lovely seafood, eating in the company of well-behaved, well cared-for cats, which were to be a theme of the South African trip. After lunch we stopped to see one of the colonies of African Penguins, with a lovely boardwalk over a sandy and rocky beach where the relatively small flightless birds thrive.

Northwards our trip continued through Simonstown, a navy base where a statue to a famous Great Dane is located. This canine, the only dog to be officially enlisted in the Royal Navy, used to travel by train to Simonstown, making a “nuisance” of himself, so to be named “Just Nuisance”.

With all this lovely scenery and seafood on board, it made for a good sleep which was to be followed by a visit to a more thought provoking place, and the start of our journey eastwards.

A heavy sea mist set a sombre note on our visit to Robben Island. There is not much beauty about this little isle (apart from a pleasant little church in the small village) nor its infamous prison where Nelson Mandela spent so much of his life. The guides are all ex-prisoners themselves, and the one who guided my sub-group suffered from painful eye problems like Mandela, whom he had known well. Setting foot in the great man’s tiny cell, I pressed myself into a corner on top of a large doormat to try and help accommodate the other folk. The guide asked me politely would I mind stepping off Mandela’s bed!

Returning to Cape Town by boat, we set off in the coach eastwards for a single night’s stay by the coast. Passing by Betty’s Bay and some dramatically scenic wave-lashed beaches with steep jagged mountains rising up beyond, we made a stop at the modestly proportioned Harold Porter Botanic Gardens. Sadly most of the native bushes or “fynbos” as they are called locally, were not in bloom but the magnificent national flower, the pink Protea, was. It was a peaceful garden in which to relax a while, and had a very nice bar/café with al fresco tables.

Denise warned us that the Windsor hotel in Hermanus might seem a little downbeat after our first hotel. In reality I actually preferred this simple 3 star hotel, which is located on a rocky seafront which has a reputation as a whale watching centre. Timelessly old-fashioned and simple, it reminded me a little of Benners’ Hotel in Tralee. As we arrived a piano was being beautifully played in residents’ lounge, which featured an enormous roaring log fire, surrounded by aged leather sofas. It was very homely and convivial. My bedroom was modern, bright and simple, with beautiful views from my terrace of the wild sea, and whale shaped chocolates awaiting me at the coffee making facilities.

It was a nice late start in the morning, with a leisurely drive through pleasant Cape Dutch style villages and mountains. Arriving in the quaint town of Montagu, the first thing I noticed was a red bordered triangular road sign with the silhouette of a domestic cat in the centre. This was put in place years ago when a lady had just settled into town with her cats and the local authority obliged to make safe the favourite crossing area of the new feline residents! Our stop for the night was the utterly delightful Montagu Country House hotel, a little piece of the 1930s set in lush gardens full of patios and water features. Fluffy Coco-Cat was happily wandering the gardens and made her way into some of the ground floor rooms. All rooms in this hotel are different, and I was lucky enough to have an enormous, lavishly decorated one set on a corner overlooking one of the wee swimming pools. Later our group enjoyed a candle-lit dinner in the elegant dining room to the accompaniment of the piano playing of one of the hotel owners.

I was sorry not to have seen more of Montagu, but we had to depart in the morning, stopping at Oudtshoorn for lunch, the ostrich capital of the world. We journeyed on through the Outeniqua Mountain pass to reach the Garden Route, the very lovely hill, Lakeland and wooded coastal area by the Indian Ocean.

Our hotel for the next 2 nights was the most pleasant 3 star Knysna Hollows Country Estate, a modern establishment with bedrooms set in mainly thatched bungalows within the  gardens around a couple of swimming pools. Charlie was the resident cat, a beautifully behaved feline with long honey coloured hair and a head like a miniature lion. He joined us at the table for evening meals, but did not beg for food, and accompanied us on walks back to our rooms in the grounds. I enjoyed a couple of swims in the pool nearest my lovely bungalow bedroom.

Our day in the Knysna area started with a very pleasant cruise across the lagoon to the Featherbed Wildlife Park on the peninsula across the water from the town. A jeep took us up the hill to a point where we could walk downhill back to the open air roofed-restaurant where a terrific buffet was served, including an “ostrich shepherds’ pie”. There was not that much wildlife, but wonderful views over the narrow mouth of the lagoon which opened out unto the Indian Ocean. I did see a bushbuck which clambered from the walking path up through the shrubbery.

Leaving Knysna our first stop was, not on the schedule, but by request of a majority of us to Knysna Elephant Sanctuary where, at a very small cost, we enjoyed close encounters and petting sessions with much cared-for formerly-abused elephants. Onwards we stopped as per schedule at the very beautiful wooded coastal Tsitsikamma National Park, where we were able to walk a boarded coastal path as far as the exit of the Storms River. Onwards we travelled to the historic industrial and fairly gritty town (with potential) of Port Elizabeth, where we stayed at the wooden chalet style Kelway Hotel overlooking a lovely beachside coastal resort area.

Next morning we said goodbye to out lovely coach and driver Malcom at port Elizabeth Airport, where we departed for our next stop, Johanessburg, one and a half hours flight time.

After landing in Johannesburg Airport we boarded a new bus driven by the multi-lingual Joseph who could switch in a second from his native African language to either English or Afrikaans, He drove us to Soweto, the huge township working-class suburb where the modern history of South Africa has its beginnings as the community, along with Nelson Mandela and his compatriots, wrought the changes from the apartheid system to a modern democracy. It is a gritty sprawling place, but full of welcoming people and waving children.

We were shown the largest hospital in the world, the Baragwanath, which at first I had assumed was named after a native. Not so, the name is Welsh, from a settler. Passing by the house of Bishop Desmond Tutu, we stopped by a house formerly occupied by Nelson Mandela, to take a peek. After our tour of Soweto we stopped at a home restaurant run by a local lady and her family, who are pillars of the community and who do an awful lot of work to make everyone’s lives better.                                                                                                                                                                     One of the famous power-cuts was in operation and the family unsuccessfully tried for hours to start a stubborn generator, but we enjoyed a most fabulous buffet home-cooked dinner by candlelight, which was followed by a Zulu dance performed by local children in traditional grass dress.

Arriving fairly late at the ultra-modern and comfortable Sandton Park Inn Hotel, I made my way to my assigned bedroom only to find evidence of occupation, such as a finished bottle of wine. This was soon rectified with apology from reception.

The next morning we faced a very early start for a 12 hour coach journey to the final destination of our trip, the Kruger National Park, renowned for the Big 5 wild animals, as well as many more fascinating smaller animals and birds. We stopped at three places of interest along the way, and it was these that took us a long way around to Kruger. The first was to Bourke’s Luck Potholes, a remarkable formation in the rock bed at the start of the Blyde River Canyon in the Drakensberg mountains. The second stop was at the edge of the canyon itself, which reminded me very much of the Blue Mountains in Australia with the wooded flat topped mountains. There was a bus-full of South African schoolchildren who all wanted to take plenty of photographs of the Irish people on their phones. Our final stop was at the Lisbon Falls, an impressive set of cascades.

Our hotel for the next 3 nights, the Pestana Kruger, proved to be the only somewhat unsatisfactory hotel on the trip. In its favour the location was excellent, beside the entrance to the Kruger National Park, and the views from the terrace overlooking the Crocodile River are unsurpassed. The food was very good, the dining room and bar lovely. Staff were very pleasant, and there was a delightful pool in the beautiful parkland grounds. It fell down mainly in the bedrooms which are located in one and two storey buildings which are mostly quite some walk in the pitch black of the evening from the reception/bar/dining room. The rooms were ok but very ordinary for a four star hotel, but each guest found something lacking in the maintenance or housekeeping department. I fared well in merely lacking hand soap and tv reception. I improvised with shampoo. Others had major plumbing problems, floods, electrical failures. The rooms were quite noisy at night with the activities of the monkeys in the surrounding trees!

We were booked on 2 safari trips over 2 days. The first trip was for a half day, with leisure time by the lovely hotel pool in the afternoon, and the second was a full day game viewing. Both trips started at 6 in the morning, and we entered Kruger just in time for the beautiful sunrise. Our group was divided among 3 open-top 4WD safari vehicles which afforded both protection from danger and great views of the animals and birds.

The first animals we encountered in Kruger were the deer-like bushbuck and kudu, which are the most numerous creatures in the park. But soon afterwards we had a very fortunate sighting of a rare black rhino, which was very close to our vehicle, albeit amid the bushes.

I closed my eyes when I heard that a dead baby monkey had been spotted, freshly killed by a speeding car. Later I heard that the guide in another of our vehicles had spotted the incident happening and reported the driver to the authorities. The driver in question denied knowledge of having hit the baby monkey who was following his mother across the road.

Another sad sight was a lone lioness, who was very close to the road, and obviously with not much life left in her. She was walking around slowly, so malnourished her ribs were clearly visible, as was a semi-healed great hole in her side.

Not long after that we saw a plethora of vultures wheeling around, where obviously a corpse lay in the vicinity. It may have been the baby monkey, but could have been the remains of any recent kill.
But the remainder of the game sightings were absolutely thrilling. Lots of zebras, a close-up cheetah, a leopard hiding in bushes, distant lions, lots of elephants and white rhinos, 2 chameleons crossing the road, warthogs, various eagles, hornbills, guinea fowls, crocodiles, bright blue starlings, giraffes, tree squirrels, wild dogs, buffalo, an abundance of kudu, bushbucks, impalas, a tiny steenbok; and blue wildebeest – not quite the “herds of” mentioned by a certain Basil Fawtly to the deaf lady who booked into the infamous hotel in Torquay.

I had to put out my hand to stop the traffic when the second chameleon slowly crossed the road, and the driver/guide of one of our convoy wondered at why I cried halt until he looked down and saw the tiny thing changing colour in front of ours eyes.

The coach direct to Johannesburg Airport took a mere 5 hours or so, compared with the ponderous lengthy outward journey. We broke our journey firstly at an upmarket old-fashioned country food store with several adjoining outlets for food and refreshments, and for lunch we stopped at an extremely well-run motorway service centre with several quality fast-food outlets-you could call it the Rolls Royce of McDonalds!

The flight back to Heathrow was aboard an A380, the largest passenger aircraft in the world. Boarding this 500+ seater aircraft was most orderly and accomplished faster than it took to rush on board a Ryanair before they allocated seats. It was my first time on this twin deck aircraft, but alas it was just like any other wide-body with a cramped up layout. The only difference at all I noticed was that the engines made a muffled deep “boom” sound as they started up. We got off right on time and arrived to Heathrow 10 minutes early. I didn’t even have to change terminals as my flight back to Dublin took off from Terminal 5, arriving back about 8am in Dublin, with the day ahead of me to do the tedious unpacking and washing!

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Albania April 205

Albania April 2015

I had intended to report on my Easter weekend in Albania at a much earlier date, but was rudely interrupted by my hospitalisation with Clostridium Difficile. Now on the road to recovery I recall my 3 nights in Tirana, capital city of this country once out of bounds and even forgotten by the rest of the world, thanks to its communist dictator Enver Hoxha.

During its time in isolation I once considered joining a guided trip to it, which was formidably restrictive and very expensive in the 1980s. I think I was too intimidated to take the plunge, as nobody else fancied joining me on this endeavour.

Today Albania remains one of the poorest countries in Europe, but is in the queue to join the European Union within the forthcoming years. It is doing much to overcome the corruption which beset it in the intervening years following the great communist downfall. I had read that the capital Tirana, is looking up and outward and joining the rest of Europe in pursuing a modern way of life. The language is Albanian, an Indo-European language in a class of its own in the same way that Greek is.

My route to Tirana was with likeable Turkish Airlines via their hub at Istanbul. On Good Friday a four hour flight took me to the Turkish capital, with plenty of feeding and watering along the way, maybe not quite of the gourmet kind, but enough to make the time pass well. A one and a half hour connection took me to Mother Teresa Airport at Tirana. The weather had been perishing in Istanbul and my hand almost froze to the stair rail up to my connecting flight, as the rain poured down. During the flight the captain came through the first class curtains to use the bathroom at the rear, and my immediate thoughts reflected upon the recent Germanwings atrocity. Fortunately this captain got back up front very quickly.

By about 9pm I was travelling by taxi from the airport to my ethnic style accommodation, Hotel & Restaurant Bujtina e Gjelit, or translated into English, the Rooster Inn. I had been expecting massive potholes along the road, as depicted in an interesting Albanian trip by the Top Gear team, but the road from the airport to the city centre was smooth enough. The driver spoke no English, except for “no problem”, but was of cheerful disposition. He didn’t quite know where we was going, and stopped the car with engine running, and me still in it, to run into another hotel to ask directions. I worried slightly about being hi-jacked, but thankfully no such thing happened and I soon arrived to my hotel.

Greeting me at the attractive entrance patio were a pair of geese who honked to alert the staff to the new arrival. The premises were as atmospheric and ethnic as it appeared on the website, built in relatively modern times in vernacular Albanian style. My bedroom was traditional, with a comfortable bed, albeit that it was mounted on a wide wooden box which allowed little space at the sides for manoeuvring oneself to and from it. Switching on the TV I was amazed to find Albania has 4 television channels, with its own seemingly competent take on Sky News. The hotel bedrooms are arranged around a leafy quadrangle which has a swimming pool at its centre.

In the morning after breakfast I set out on my walk of Tirana. Located on Don Bosko Street, a spanking new Roman Catholic church of same name is located close to the hotel, and I wandered through the great big gleaming campus into it. Close by a man was searching through the rubbish bins outside on the crumbling pavement. It was quite clear where the wealth say here. Inside the church was of the highest architectural standards with very attractive modern stained glass windows.

On my 20 minute walk into the heart of the city I passed a host of modern gleaming pharmacies with white-coated staff-they seemed to sell medicinal drugs only rather than cosmetic products. Many fruit stalls lined the streets, selling the likes of oranges with their leaves still attached. Fruit and vegetables are by default organic as the cost of pesticides is prohibitive. I also saw that plant and flower shops are popular with the locals.

The appalling crumbling pavements and missing manhole covers require constant vigilance lest one come a cropper. It really is the worst suchlike I have ever seen anywhere, and adds a real third world flavour to the city.

In the city centre I came across some interesting buildings, which I learned are of Italian design construction, Italy being on the far side of the Adriatic Sea. I dropped into one of the lovely coffee shops and was shown great hospitality by the English speaking waiter. A top rate American was served in my lovely surroundings, accompanied by a delicious little complimentary cake. It cost less than a third of what it would at home.

Very close by I came across a fine crowing rooster with its leg attached to the pole of a bus stop. It drew quite a lot of attention, so I presume it’s not an everyday sight, even here. It was the property of one of the street traders and presumably was for purchase.

I wandered into a warren of alleyways behind, where a major city clothes and craft market was taking place. It reminded me of the old Dandelion Market in the Dublin of my teenage years. There was a nice laid back atmosphere, without hawkers pestering you to buy their wares, and a few worthwhile items for sale.

Aside from some real poverty evident in the city, most of the citizens appeared to me to portray a sense of being middle class, and I saw a distinct number of extremely well dressed, mainly middle-aged people. Dog ownership is in its infancy, but a number of pure bred specimens were on leads, and indeed I saw a young Pomeranian puppy which wasn’t on a lead, but with his owner walking with two hands over him ready to grasp him to safety. I guess leads are probably more difficult to get than the animals on which to put them.

I wandered into the most sophisticated part of the city, the Blloku area where all the fancy retail outlets, restaurants and apartments are located. This is the part of the city where Enver hoxha and all his ruling compatriots lived, and where the rest of the citizens were once kept out. The city’s most attractive boulevard borders this locale and two lanes of traffic run either side of the city’s small river which here runs in a straight channel. On one of the bridges over the river are an array of outdoor bookshops, reminiscent of those by the Seine in Paris.

Just before Blloku is the magnificent modern Orthodox Cathedral, a symbol of wealth in the city, and to the side of it is the main city centre Rinia Park, full of statues of literary and other fugures in history.

Beyond Blloku, and at the limit of the city I took a stroll through the city’s largest, the Grand Park, which covers a few hills bordering on a reservoir. It was full of families with children, all queueing up at the various candyfloss stands and pouring into and out of the various cafes and restaurants on its perimeter.

Coming from the park I made my way to the nearby communist style Mother Teresa Square, which is effectively a quiet coach park. Close by stands the Sheraton Hotel, and on the city’s main boulevard which stretches north from the square is the sophisticated 5 star Austrian-run Rogner Hotel which is reputed to be the most luxurious in the city and lies in a setting of parkland.

On the boulevard by the river I came upon St. Paul’s Roman Catholic cathedral, another ultra-modern church of sophisticated design and with fine stained glass windows featuring Albanian favourite, Mother Teresa. A painting of her stands to one side of the interior. Most religious buildings are modern as they were not allowed to exist during communist rule.

Close by the cathedral stands, Tanner’s Bridge, one of the few remaining Ottoman structures in the city, and a beautiful site indeed. A pedestrian walkway, funded by the European Union, links the old bridge area to the centre of the city, and passes by the remains of the old castle of the city, the Justinian Fort. Even this walkway is a bit hazardous, as there are no funds for maintaining it.

Crossing the road in Tirana requires a deal of courage, although there are some pedestrian lights. I tended to cross “with the crowd” and always waited until at least one other pedestrian took to the road.

Skenderbeg Square is the dead centre of Tirana, and a monument of national hero Kastrati (Skenderbeg) riding a horse stands in the centre of the large oval grass area. To one side is the city’s most glorious building, Et’hem Bey Mosque with its beautiful murals both inside and out. This was allowed to stand by Hoxha, due to its cultural historic importance. Just behind it is the city’s iconic old clock tower.  Surrounding the square are communist buildings, including the Opera House and National History Museum, which is noted for its communist realist mural over the door.

In spite of some streets displaying considerable poverty, well dressed people wander all over the city, and it is not a place of no-go areas. I felt very safe in the city, and apart from looking out for potholes it was an easy experience. If people want money they beg outside the churches or else set up a stall selling something.

Evening dinner at my hotel was a rewarding experience. In the centre of the dining room is an open oven with chimney, and a delicious spit roast of tender young pig was on the go. First I took some delicious items from the salad bar, including plump juicy olives and little home-baked savoury tartlets. The most delicious imaginable herby hot flatbread was delivered to my table from the oven and I devoured a whole basketful. The starters and hog were washed down with a carafe of good dry white Albanian wine, and I finished off with a herby sweet woodruff sorbet and coffee. All the produce comes from the hotel’s own organic Gjeli farm, located in the countryside outside Tirana. A video of the animals and farm production plays in the corner of the dining room, and all the animals are of rare breed variety, such as Gloucester Old Spot pig.

I had intended to visit the interior of some of the museums on Easter Sunday, but God had other plans. The morning had started out on a nice note when the staff presented me with a red coloured hot boiled “Catholic egg”. The weather had turned atrocious, with constant thunder and lightning flashing all over the place. Dressed in my toughest raincoat, I set out in hope, but was saturated to the core by the time I reached Skanderbeg Square. I had my sights set on the National history Museum, but to my disappointment it was closed to the general public and only opened to pre-booked groups. This was after dodging huge flashes of lightning across the square!

I retreated into a nice coffee shop for warmth, and it was crowded with people all trying to escape the elements. Being so badly soaked, and starting to shiver, I retreated back to the hotel for a hot shower and to listen to the rain and thunder outside. That evening I enjoyed an equally delicious meal of glorious vegetable soup, a different hot bread, and roast lamb.

On Monday morning I flew from Tirana to Istanbul and onwards to Dublin and arrived home in great form altogether. Next day was a busy one as not alone was it a work day, but I brought my cousin’s cat to and from a post-op vet visit. That evening I suddenly started to shiver and shake with a high temperature, and was unwell in the stomach all night, with a deal of internal bleeding. I knew it was time to make my way to the Beacon Hospital which has my medical record. I ended up 9 days in the hospital on the edge of surgery. A simple antibiotic taken 2 weeks earlier for a moderate chest infection had set up a severe case of Clostridium Difficile superinfection.

At the moment I look forward to my next trip on 5th May, 2 weeks in South Africa.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Svalbard August 2014

Longyearbyen, capital of the Svalbard archipelago, is the world’s northernmost town. It has been on my mind to pay a visit ever since I saw it on a map, God knows how long ago. I think most people will somehow have heard to Spitsbergen, the largest island of the group, named by a Dutch explorer, Barents, who also gave his name to the local sea. 78 degrees north, you cannot go any further as an ordinary tourist. 
 The domain of the polar bear, the walrus and the beluga whale, I failed to see any of these animals on my short 3 night trip. To see bears and walrus I would probably have needed to go on a specialised small ship cruise to the icy eastern areas, but this would have been a very expensive prospect, and maybe one day I will undertake such an adventure. My own trip was self-organised, whereby I arranged air travel from Dublin via Oslo with Scandinavian Airways. I had a choice of spending 3 or 6 nights and for expense’ sake I decided on the former. To venture outside the 2000 person centre of Longyearbyen involves the expense of an organised trip with a guide with a gun and flares because of the ever present danger of the polar bear. Accommodation is at the higher end of Scandinavian prices, so I had determined to see Svalbard on a budget, if one could ever called it so.
A couple of interesting facts about Svalbard; In the hill above the airport is located the world’s seed vault, which is housed in a building above the airport. In the case of Armageddon, hopefully the current main crops and flowers of the world can be recreated from this repository. The infamous Spanish Influenza killed more people than the traumas of WW1. Its make-up was discovered from the bodies of coal miners who died here during the epidemic and were buried the permafrost which preserves so much after death. Svalbard used to be located in the tropical latitudes and the burial of generations of rain forests has created the organic compound known to us as coal, creating a mining community founded by the American John Munro Longyear. There is no such thing as an indigenous community, and Longyearbyen is international place where English is the lingua franca, comprised mostly by Norwegians and Swedes, with Thai people forming the third most common community.
I had a choice of accommodation. I could have stayed at the Radisson Blu, which is a very nice place, but has a reputation for “tired” rooms. I could have opted for the guest house, or camp site, or the hostel-like hotel of character “Mary Ann’s Polarigg”, but I was attracted by the web pictures to "Basecamp Trappers’ Hotel", one of a collection of small rustic hotels located in places like the African bush. The cheapest option happened, for me, to be to book through Venere.
SAS offers free coffee on its flights, and I was already well caffeinated by the time I arrived in Oslo. A 6 hour wait in that airport had to be endured, complete with fire alarm and airport evacuation. I ended up going through security twice, which in Oslo thankfully only takes a couple of minutes. With Scandinavian prices for basic food options it’s not a cheap airport to kill time and I was might relieved to get on board my onward flight to Longyearbyen, leaving behind a dull and wet Oslo.
Strategically I had chosen a window seat in front of the wing at check-in the night before. For most of the way there was complete cloud between me and the sea below. Then came a break and I peeked my first glimpse of Svalbard at the top of the descent. I was truly excited and well rewarded for my midnight check-in! This has been my best ever view from an airline window, as the pilot guided us through stark treeless valleys with borders of snow-topped mountains and here and there a glacier pouring its melt-water seawards. It was midnight and the sun was bright and rising. The 737 was guided gently as possible onto the rough permafrost runway and I stepped out in my summer tee-shirt to a quite bearable 11 degrees C. This is polar tropicality! A stuffed polar bear greeted us at the luggage belt, and soon I was onboard the Flybussen coach service to nearby Longyearbyen and my lodgings, Basecamp Trappers’ Hotel.
Outside the front door to this unique hotel was the friendly resident German Shepherd dog as he stood guard by his kennel, complete with curtained window. The cheerful receptionist handed me my room key, which was attached to a dog’s bone. I made a mental note not to flash it in front of the hotel’s or any other doggy lest I lose it. My room was as tiny as one could imagine, but just perfect in character for me as a solo traveller. The cosy bathroom sported an arctic theme, and a few old books lay on the bookshelf beside window. I could see straight up the valley, and I pulled the venetian blinds to secure a couple of hours sleep. An 8.30 appointment awaited me next morning.
Breakfast was a very nice affair, with a simple choice of good quality items, including some nice cuts of ham, smoked salmon, chunks of grainy bread, fruits, and self-made waffles which are ever-popular in Norway.
A Viking-like man stepped off the blue coach and I came forward to take my place. Beside me, a stunningly beautiful and smiling 92 year old lady introduced herself and her son and daughter to me. They were from the east coast US. She said she was an O’Shiels of Irish origin. Between them, they had been everywhere in the world, including Antarctica and there was nothing they did not know, though this had to be extracted from them by careful questioning.
Back near the airport we all boarded MS Billefjord, a fine comfortable little ship which accommodated its small crowd very well.2 zodiac life rafts were at our disposal plus what seemed like an infinite number of life-jackets. With a German Captain and Thai crew we steamed over Isfjord to the most impressive Esmark glacier. The scenery here is absolutely stunning. All the time I was on the lookout for polar bears, walrus and whales (including the arctic beluga), yet all I saw were fulmars and puffins. I was informed that I would likely have to take a long cruise towards the icy north and west coasts to glimpse the more exotic fauna, though anything could appear anywhere here at any time. Only in 2011 was English schoolboy Horatio Chapple killed by a polar bear on a camping trip in the hills beyond Longyearbyen. There is always a risk, and anyone venturing out beyond the confines of Longyearbyen must be accompanied by a licensed guide with a suitable gun and flares to distract a bear.
One of our Thai Able-Seamen took a chunk of ice from the sea and cut it up whilst the Viking poured out decent glasses of Grants whisky into which to put it. We all delighted in the wonderful whisky with genuine polar ice. The 92 year old lady was able to sprint down the incredibly steep ship’s stairs to partake of same! As we all supped our whisky the Thai seamen barbecued whale and salmon on deck and soon we were all tucking into ample helpings of delicious meat with rice and salad.
After lunch by the glacier we set sail for the Russian coal mining town of Barentsburg across the wide fjord.  Sea was calm, wind was low, and on deck it was nothing as cold as I’ve experienced elsewhere whilst nicely clothed with good waterproof coat and light woollen jumper. Svalbard has a lot of coal mines, some exhausted and some still working today. John Munro Longyear, an American coal mining magnate, gave his name to the capital, Longyearbyen. Barentsburg is the second largest settlement with just a 500 citizens of Russian and Ukrainian origin. A flight of over 200 steps leads up from the quay to the main part of town, and climbing them was good for my muscles even if I was temporarily out of breath in my state of unfitness. A young Russian guide showed us around the rather depressing but sheltered hillside settlement, and described the hotel as having 5 star comfort. I took a look inside this establishment which also housed the post office. It did sort of remind me of a poor relation to a basic Russian hotel in which I stayed in Moscow in 1979. A statue of Lenin still stands in the centre of town as a mark of Russian heritage. I’m glad they did not tear it down because it is part of history. I peeped inside the tiny Orthodox church where a lady was praying; hence I did not take any photographs of the beautiful interior. This church was built in memory of those who perished in a Russian aircraft on its approach to Longyearbyen in 1996. The coal produced here has always been of very poor quality, but the Russians maintained a strategic position here for espionage during the Cold War and they don’t feel like going home any time soon, this time I suspect for business reasons.
Having left Barentsburg our boat voyaged past the most majestic cliffs draped in rare greenery, courtesy of the nourishing droppings of the thousands of birds that nest here. Later we passed by the airport, and soon were back at Longyearbyen. That was a trip not to be forgotten.
That evening I dined at the lovely high-ceilinged panoramic dining room of the Radisson Blu Hotel. There was the offering of a limited four course menu or an all-you-can-eat buffet. Either was an expensive affair. I decided on the buffet which, appropriate to my trip, had an Arctic theme tonight. Generally I do not like strong flavours now in the way I did as a youngster. In fact I shy well away from them. This evening I decided to be brave and try tiny bits of everything on the buffet. Besides, like all dining in Scandinavia, it cost a fair buck and I was going to get my penny’s worth out of it. There were a number of reindeer salamis and smoked and dried meats; there was smoked salmon, subtle-flavoured caviar, and the strongest of all the flavours on the buffet-the prized red king crab. I found the flavour overpowering, but I do appreciate how gourmet’s might treasure the creamy flesh. The freshest and fluffiest of breads were available, including a wonderfully thin and crispy rye wafer. The hot selection featured whale, with which I am familiar and which tastes  like a slightly oily tender beef with the slightest whiff of cod-liver oil. It’s an excellent and very healthy meat. There was venison, chicken, lamb, salmon and seal, with trimmings of lemon wedges, lingonberry sauce, mustard and other condiments. I had read about seal tasting somewhat like the taste in the throat when one has a bleeding nose, and hating the taste of blood, I sure did not fancy this idea at all. I picked out the smallest piece of bearded seal I could find, and scooped plenty of delicious saffron flavoured chicken drumsticks as an antidote which worked well. Yes. The seal tasted as described, very irony, and I swallowed it whole to hastily get rid of the taste.
Next morning I had an appointment with Svalbard Husky for a Dog Wagon trip on wheels. The jeep picked me up, with a mature Dutch couple already on board. We drove inland through Adventdalen, past a compacted strip which at one time served as the airfield. When we entered their compound all 50 huskies were a-howl, with one particular girl making the most noise. We were advised that all dogs were safe to handle. They were all on long chains, each with a kennel and bowl of water. I went straight to the noisy one and was given a tremendous greeting. Likewise with all the dogs. At least I knew all had received rabies shots recently. The arctic fox is a carrier of rabies in this region and the threat has to be taken seriously. The dogs were all Alaskan Huskies, which are a mixed breed incorporating various husky breeds and all are bred for temperament and performance, and socialised with multiple humans at an early stage.
Our guide selected 12 dogs and persuaded them into the enclosed trailer with our help. The dogs didn’t mind in the least being held by the collar and persuaded to move by perfect strangers. Each and every one of them had a very tolerant nature. We drove back past Longyearbyen and upwards to a hill where a coal mining train of transport buckets begins. The jeep was parked and the 12 dogs harnessed to the wagon. We passengers were asked to help in the harnessing, and being a dog-lover I was delighted to assist.
Starting up on a height the beautiful dogs worked away enthusiastically to bring us gradually downhill towards the airport. It was wonderful sitting in a cart with 3 other people being driven by dog power, and it was at the doggies’ discretion where’re we would go. Our guide had at his disposal a brake and words of command. We came to very sharp turning point by the airport where the guide had to negotiate with the dogs for about 8 minutes as they tried several times to tow us downhill across a little ledge which would have resulted in a turnover. It was a sharp right turn and the dogs wanted to commence it a bit early. The guide shouted “left” several times, and the dogs would initially move left before moving right again. Of course he wanted them to move left AND forward a bit, but the mutts didn’t quite comprehend. 10 minutes elapsed before they “got it” and we were on our way once again. The guide made a refreshment stop for us and the dogs. We distributed one drinking bowl to each pair of huskies whilst the guide went down to a freshwater lake on a bird reserve to collect the water in a bucket. He was attacked on the head by arctic terns protecting their chicks. As the dogs took their turn to guzzle the water through mouths foaming with perspiration, we sipped coffee from a flask and enjoyed a chocolate biscuit. After a well deserved thirst quench we set off back uphill and back to the jeep where we all helped with getting the dogs back in the trailer.
In the afternoon I acquainted myself with the town, visiting the world’s northernmost shopping mall and supermarket which stocked an amazing variety of foods. Some excellent clothes shops stocked top quality arctic gear. Gun cabinets are provided for the safe keeping of weapons-a notice in one shop states that “all the polar bears in this shop are already dead”. Prices were expensive, but at least they were duty free, making them cheaper than mainland Norway. I bought myself a little silver pendant in the shape of a map of Svalbard. The only thing resembling sweets from Svalbard were boxes of Belgian chocolates in a sleeve decorated with a polar bear, which I brought back to my place of work. The local library was staff-less and featured 2 internet computers and a small shelf of books. There were coffee shops and Thai and Japanese restaurants as well as a gourmet restaurant called Huset or “The House”. A statue of a coal miner stands in the main street of the town, which is pedestrianised.
I paid a visit to the museum, which features most of the information you might want to know about Svalbard. Like most places in Longyearbyen you are asked to leave your shoes in the hall and go around in your stockinged feet.  A room is dedicated to the international aspect of the archipelago’s current population, and I learned that one Irish person is resident. Long ago there used only be a male community comprised mainly of coal miners, but now plenty of families live in Longyearbyen and a couple of schools provide education. The main floor of the museum features simulated landscapes with stuffed native animals including a polar bear specimen.
There is an Airship Museum, dedicated to the airship exploration of the North Pole, but and I was sorry not to have enough time to visit it. My flight was due to leave at 4.30am, so I had to seek an early evening repast and get sleeping in good time to wake up before 2am. I enjoyed a very tasty bar meal of fine burger and the crispiest fries I have ever tasted at the Svalbar right beside my hotel, washed down by a nice Belgian beer.
There was nobody at reception to pay my hotel bill, so I had to leave my key attached to its dog-bone on the desk. My mobile phone rang after I arrived in Oslo Airport - I didn’t have to guess they were looking for payment, but they were most pleasant about it. Had I been better organised I would have settled the bill the afternoon before. I had just settled down with a nice breakfast of bacon and eggs when the airport fire alarm sounded. I wasn’t best pleased, having paid Norwegian price for my meal, but I was asked to leave the building. Thankfully it was still in situ when the alarm was over, but it had lost its warmth.
I endured another 6 hour wait before my short connecting flight to Copenhagen. Another 2 hour wait in Copenhagen awaited me before my final flight back to Dublin. I arrived home at 7pm, full of memories.