Category Archives: General

Travelogue Eastern Cape 3: Grahamstown & Colchester

GRAHAMSTOWN & COLCHESTER
30 Nov - 02 Dec 2020

Leaving Bathurst we travelled along R67 for a quick stop-in at Grahamstown en route to Colchester, where we'd be staying for the next couple of nights. It was just a short hop down the road and held the promise of lunch at the end of the journey.

Pulling into town, we paused at the 1820 Settlers Monuments, which we were expecting to be a single statue but turned out to be a conference centre with a few statues, a small locked-up fort, a sundial and a very solid lay-of-the-land viewpoint for the town below.

Leaving the monument, we drove down and parked outside one of the many red brick buildings we assumed to be part of the Rhodes University campus, intending to explore the town on foot. It appeared that most of the campus was locked up with occasional signage stating the obvious, 2020 measures in place. 

We walked down High Street, noting the contrast of the elegant brocaded buildings with the modern street level experience, the usual collection of brands every town has (no matter the size) and how relatively easily reversible the neglect could be, to restore some of the town's lost charm. 

When we'd asked a Grahamstown local we happened to meet in the Pig and Whistle in Bathurst the night before what he recommended for our sightseeing, he'd responded enthusiastically that his hometown highlight is the new curry den. On our loop back up New Street we spotted the very same. The Curry House. Large as life and definitely, by the smells of things, worth a try.

We ordered a pair of bunny chows with a giant samoosa to start and since Covid rules prevented the eatery from seating customers, we walked back to get the car, thinking we would drive to the Botanical Gardens and have a picnic of sorts.

Obviously, it turned out that the Botanical Gardens were right by where we'd parked the car so we drove to get our food and then back again (probably no more than a kilometre or two roundtrip). 

Botanical Garden is a bit of an oversell of a name - lest it create mental images of rollong manicured lawns or structured flowerbeds - but let's say that 'lunch in the park' was a success.

We ticked off the last sight on the list, conveniently (and coincidentally) next door to where we were. The old Grahamstown Prison which now serves as a cafe and bakery. With only a handful of cells, the little prison has been delightfully converted with a themed private dining room in each of the cells, several tables in the open courtyard that served as an open exercise area for the inmates and the kitchen and (self-)service area in what was the guard house. Very quaint. And worth a visit for a meal from what we saw on display.

Having whipped around Grahamstown quicker than expected, Christian suggested that we overshoot our day's destination to pay a visit to Port Elizabeth for a stroll along the promenade and an early sundowner.

Less than half an hour added onto our journey, it was a splendid idea and we were soon wandering along the beachfront in PE, with the bright sunshine balancing the chilly bluster for which the Windy City is famous.

Chris had spent some time in PE for work so was able to give a vague lay of the land and point out some landmarks. A lovely little big city indeed. Hard to believe we hadn't visited before.

We rounded the tour with a quick toot at Barney's beach bar, which was already buzzing with patrons even though it was mid-Monday afternoon.

Back in the car we retraced our footsteps to our next home, in Colchester. We'd been attracted to this sleepy little town since 2020 and it's pandemic had robbed us of our plans to visit Colchester in the UK for a wedding in July.
We were wowed by our accommodation; a brand spanking new, immaculate and tastefully decorated studio that had the best of everything you'd expect - and all sorts of things you wouldn't (like a sandwich press, a humidifier, an electric beater, Netflix etc etc). We also had a private walled garden (good for keeping the wind out) and a pretty little plunge pool.

We took a wander around our neighbourhood, knowing from the map on the booking site that we were on the Sundays River but not much more than that. Houses were built far from the riverbank with open pedestrian access so we were able to walk alongside the wide, sparkling waters that stretched and slowly ambled from the nature reserve on the right to the sea on the left. 

Being in a secured estate our explore was hampered by the electric fence perimeter, which was our cue to get the car and take a drive to view the other wildlife, at the local pub, Grunter's. 

It was very quiet (it was a Monday evening after all) but we were pleased with our surf n turf dinner and happy to call an early night since we had an early morning ahead of us.

Our early morning was to get into the Addo National Park while it was still cool enough to favour good animal sightings. With our nest literally across the road from the Southern entrance of the Park, we'd saved ourselves any additional early rising or unneeded car time. 

We were able to fashion a modest breakfast with our patchwork of supplies and the amply equipped kitchen and rolled into the park, determined that we wouldn't leave until we saw at least an elephant.

The park issues a map with a checklist of animals each with a points allocation. Christian was thrilled when the first sighting for the day was his; a Dungbeetle scoring him 8 points. Things got tense when he then spotted zebra for an additional point. But, turning a bend that saw the brush give way to an open veld, I evened the scoreboard with not one but two elephants!

From there it was a landslide; kudo, elephants, eland, zebra, elephants, warthogs, elephants, buffalo, camels. It's a very rewarding game drive experience, getting saturation point of sightings within a couple of hours!

Smug from a very successful morning in the park, we retired to our studio where we enjoyed the rest of the day lounging around, able to relax because there was nothing else unseen or undone in this sleepy little enclave. What a great day.

Travelogue South Africa: Paternoster

CAPE TOWN & PATERNOSTER
21-24 March 2019

When one’s favourite band is paying one’s country a visit and their second show is not only in Cape Town, but also on a public holiday that can easily create a long weekend opportunity, one must jump at the chance! And so it was we found ourselves plotting, planning and booking a trip to the Mother City for the Rock on the Lawns 2019 festival.

With the mass emigration of Joburgers to Cape Town, we were never going to be short of playmates or offers of accommodation, but we decided it made more sense to book an Airbnb close to the venue rather than having to compete with a stadium full of people to get an Uber home. We were very fortunate to find a B&B easy walking distance from the stadium and so booked 3 rooms for the Joburg contingent; for us, Mich & Ian and Anna.
Since they had arrived the day before us and had a rental car, we were very fortunate to have a welcome party to collect us on Thursday morning when we landed.

We headed straight to the B&B in the hopes we could check in and dump bags. Although it was close to midday already, we had no idea if they would allow the early arrival – or in fact we’re expecting us at all – as since the initial booking a couple of months earlier, the host has gone quiet and not responded to any of my messages asking for early check in, then – thinking that maybe they felt awkward declining – asking if we could just drop our bags, and finally just asking for confirmation they were expecting us. We had only paid the R749 required from Airbnb and had asked for 3 rooms, so were fully anticipating being turned away or (possibly worse) having 5 of us share a double room!

But there was no cause for concern. When we finally found the place (the original Wetton Road had been split by the construction of a fly-over and some brightspark had duplicated house numbers on either side sending us on a wild goose chase), they were expecting us (although repeatedly asked if I was sure I’m not “Melissa with the 2 room booking”) and we were issued 3 rooms.

The digs was an old Cape Town home with the original wooden floors and pressed ceilings. And unfortunately also the old original single bathroom to service the entire house, consisting of our 5 and Melissa’s 5. A lot of people for one bathroom!

Nonetheless, the rooms were big, the linen clean and the location perfect.
We did some Googling to find a close restaurant to meet the rest of the gang and decided on Fat Harry’s “Burgers, Beers and Bones”. We spread the word, dropped a pin and hit the road, eager for lunch.

It was a spirited reunion with our friends and a solid carbo-loading with hungerbuster 200g burgers and loads of fries. I was cautious about the beer bit of the bargain, needing to go the distance with a long night ahead and also concerned about ‘breaking the seal’ with portable toilets being my future reality.

Still walking distance from the stadium, we all hit the road on foot at around 5 to make our merry way to the concert. The set up was very similar to the one we’d attended a few days earlier in Joburg, so we repeated the process, established a meeting point in the Golden Circle Beer Garden and allowed our cats to wander blissfully unherded between the bars, portaloos and occasional friend or acquaintance spotted. All while live bands entertained us from the stage.

At around 8, we moved into the crowds to get ready for the main act. We had a decent vantage point and again there was a lump in my throat as the lights dimmed, the spotlights came up, the backing music started and Robert Smith made his way into view.

The better part of 60, he still has masterful stage presence and puts on a helluva show. Almost 3 hours of vigorous guitar and album-perfect renditions of scores of their songs, both hits and a few more obscure numbers.

My experience was marred a bit by being pickpocketed and relieved of my cell phone… But still overall wouldn’t have missed the concert for the world.

We were fortunate that in the couple of blocks between the venue and our B&B there were 2 garages and – bliss! – a McDonald’s “walk-through” (the restaurant was closed but we were able to do the drive through on foot) and a midnight feast was had by all.

We were FINISHED by the time we got home at 1-ish. But not out soundly enough to sleep through the hubbub at 4am when we heard our front-of-house slash security man, Chance, yelling and screaming and throwing what turned out to be a coffee cup at some local entrepreneurs who had smashed a car window to relieve the vehicle of its contents and were proceeding to attempt to break into our house! Their attempts were thwarted and they ran off into the night. And we drifted off back to sleep.

On Friday morning we split into teams to get our communal admin sorted. Christian had a work telecon so he stayed at the house; Anna and I went to the bank to get me a new SIM card, restore my online banking (which has to be suspended when a phone is stolen) and to order me a new credit card (my old one had been in my phone cover) and Mich and Ian went to shower at her dad’s place which was just around the corner.

By 11 we were all done and ready to hit the road for our roadtrip to Paternoster.

Our first stop was, as planned, lunch at Darling Brew. Known for their award-winning craft beer, the innovative people at the brewery have also concocted a very refreshing range of ciders (very welcome after an onslaught of beer the previous day) as well as a menu that cleverly incorporates some of their by-products, an example of which was the beer chips used for the pulled pork nachos we ordered. As an easy hop from Cape Town, it’s a recommendable excursion.

It’s a very pretty drive along the coast up to Paternoster; no more than a couple of hours in total and through the grasslands famous for the Namaqualand Daisies (which weren’t in season, but one could imagine the awe of the expanse when they would be). 

We bypassed the few stops we’d toyed with making (Saldanha, Langebaan etc), keen to get to our destination. We did stop in Vredenburg for supplies though, forewarned that this was the last mall on our route.

Arriving in Paternoster, it was even sweeter than we’d imagined. A smattering of little white houses hugging a curved cove with perfect ocean lapping on perfect beach. Making our way in as it approached sunset, we were greeted with a glowing horizon and a golden sea.

Our host was waiting at the Airbnb we’d rented, which turned out to be a luxury 4 bedroom house, quite in contrast to our humble digs from the previous night! In the bulb of a cul de sac, we were in prime location across the road from the beachfront with a perfect view from our front patio.

The host showed us around and prepared us for our stay, which was mostly how to turn on and off the beams, alarms and other security measures. Sad but true, Paternoster too has become a haven for crime; although mostly opportunistic theft of valuables left in plain sight by carefree tourists leisuring on open patios, appreciating the view of the beach and forgetting that they in turn are providing a spectacle for petty thieves.

We each chose our rooms, made ourselves at home and settled on the front stoep to watch the day go by. 

Not one for sitting still for very long, Christian suggested a quick trot to get a lay of the land so the two of us and Anna hit the beach, turned left, walked to the very end, cut into the main road and returned home through town. Very easy to get one’s bearings when the two main concourses are parallel and sand and tar respectively!

With 2 restaurants on the beach and several in town, we surmised we were going to have a fun Saturday exploring. Friday’s plan was a braai at home though so we happily returned to our stoep and the slowly setting sun.
The sun takes ages to set and throws off all sense of time so we ended up having a late dinner of braaied steaks, salad and our favourite side, mac ‘n cheese.

Saturday morning began with a flex of good behaviour; we woke up to load-shedding so Christian and I took a morning run. Wanting to get our 30 minutes exercise to satisfy our Vitality requirement, we struggled to get the requisite 5km out of the little town. We ran to the far edge and then darted down every cul de sac on the way back to make up time – and still had to overshoot the house to meet the goal!

Fortunately the load-shedding in the Cape is a fraction of the length of Joburg’s so we were soon able to make a massive fry-up with the supplies we’d bought on our way in, to fuel our day of sightseeing.

This began with a drive to the lighthouse, which is in the nature reserve in Tietiesbaai (named after some chap, Jacob Titus, who drowned there) and was disappointingly closed. We got a few snaps from the outside though and went to a rustic beachfront pub called Seekombuis, known for its novel tables in empty rowboats, since proverbial planes had by now flown overhead.

Returning to Paternoster town, we did some shopping in the handful of gift shops on the main drag, walking away with t-shirts, scarves and olives.
Back to our lovely house for a couple of hours of relaxing and watching the ocean – which is all you want to do really since it’s too bloody cold to swim in – before our evening pub crawl.

Another hour of load-shedding ensured we really relaxed, by now well accustomed to whiling time on our front stoep, and we were soon off to the first stop on our evening adventure: Voorstrandt restaurant; a big red building a few doors down on the beachfront.

Ambitious to just rock up without a booking, we were lucky that the gracious host allowed us a quick half hour sundowner at a table that they were holding for a reservation. We managed to squeeze a bottle of wine (spritzered) and a plate of delicious snoek samoosas in and were soon back on the beach and on our merry way to the next stop.

The Paternoster Lodge claimed to have the best view in town so was a natural next setting for our Sundowners Part II. The view was good… But could hardly compete with Voorstrandt, on the beach. 

One more drink – at Benguela Blue, a couple of doors up from Paternoster Lodge – and we were ready to hit Blikkie Pizzeria for dinner and then last stop at the pub in the Paternoster Hotel (known as the Panty Bar for the rows and rows of panties hanging from the ceiling) before making our way back to our house. All in all we can’t have done more than a kilometre or a kilometre and a half, tops.

We retired to our back stoep, determined to enjoy every inch of our amazing rental home, and happily discussed our successful weekend.

Sunday morning saw us up for another quick run around town, this time peppered with our reviews of our experiences as we passed the places we’d visited the night before. Having to check out at 10, it left little more time than to have a quick shower, snack on our leftovers in the fridge, pack the car and make our way out of town.

With our homebound flight only at 7pm, we’d planned a roadtrip down the coast through the afternoon and then to meet some of Anna’s friends in Cape Town later in the afternoon.

We had scratched Saldanha off the list based on feedback from a restauranteur the previous afternoon, so first stop was brunch at Langebaan. We committed to the coastal experience and ordered an array of seafood from a busy pub and restaurant called Driftwoods, right on the Main Beach. We ate way too much and felt quite dozy getting back in the car for the second leg of the trip.

Arriving in Cape Town, we stopped for a leg-stretch and photo opps in Blouberg, happily snapping pics of the famous mountain from across the bay. It was a wonderfully sunny afternoon, with a bit of a chill in the breeze but otherwise a quick tonic for the time spent cooped up in the car.

Last stop was Forester’s Arms, a legendary pub in Newlands established in 1852 and still going strong. They serve a magnificent carvery on a Sunday and we were all very sorry that there was no space for another feast so soon after lunch. 

Still, it was a festive venue to pass a couple of hours to close our fabulous long weekend. Too soon we were off to the airport to catch our respective planes home and get back to the grind that makes these holiday hiatuses as valuable as they are to us.

Travelogue Italy 6: Pompeii & Vesuvius

POMPEII & VESUVIUS
22 June 2017

Even though Mount Vesuvius is only a few miles out of Naples, we had decided upfront in the itinerary planning to rather double-bill it with Pompeii on the Sorrento leg of our journey.

We’d done little research from home, thinking it would be an easy one to arrange from our homebase when we arrived, but the receptionist at our hotel pipped it on check-in when she said (unprompted) that we needn’t book a tour as the local train service delivers you to the entrance to the ruins, where you can join a tour or get an audio guide.

This corresponded with what our friends from home – who had been there only a few weeks earlier – had told us, adding that the Rick Steves audio guide app was essential, so we’d already downloaded it in prep for our self-guided tour.

The hardest part of the whole plan was getting out of bed (it had been a very busy holiday with the very taxing Amalfi cruise the day before) and tearing ourselves away from the buffet – although Continental, it was a good spread of cheeses, cold meats and cakes, with a stunning view over a little orchard next door (lemons of course; there lemon trees on every inch of uninhabited land in this neck of the woods!)

We compromised and caught a later train, jumping on the 10.20 Express train, which had us in Pompeii in just over half an hour.

True to form on what we’d read, touts were hanging about at the gate, “helping” tourists to make the most of their visit; to access things that they wouldn’t get in normal tickets, to avoid the hours of standing in the queues at the gate, to save them loads of money with added-value packages. You know what they say about things that sound too good to be true.

We deftly sidestepped them all and headed straight for the gate – which couldn’t have been more than 50m away – booking tickets online as we moved in order to avoid the “hours-long queue” we’d be warned about.

There were no such queues but, with our shrewd last-minute purchase, we did go to the front of the Online Booking queue and were in the main gate minutes later.

We switched on the audio tour and let Rick Steves and his sidekick Lisa tell us all about Pompeii and how it had come to be.

Now inland, Pompeii (established in about 600BC by the Greeks) had previously (prior to the Vesuvius eruptions) been a coastal town, and a busy port in the early ADs since Rome controlled the Mediterranean so it was essentially one big trade zone. It was a strongly middle class town, that epitomised Roman life in its time.

We walked through the town, marvelling at the simple genius that the Romans applied so very long ago. Basic things like using broken pottery to make pavements that not only hid the plumbing that lay beneath and was functional recycling, but was also studded with chips of white marble that reflected like cats’ eyes at night to light the way.

They had stepping stone crosswalks so that pedestrians didn’t have to walk on the wet roads after they were flushed clean with running water each day (can you imagine that kind of municipal service now??) and the number of stepping stones also indicated the classification of the road with 1, 2 and 3 signifying one-way, dual carriageway and major road respectively. So practical!

Moving onto the Forum – the central town square – was the first real immersion into the fact that this was a town, living and breathing in the shadow of Vesuvius, the backdrop only 5 miles away.

Vesuvius had erupted in August 79AD, to the utter astonishment of a town that had no idea they were living on a volcano since it hadn’t erupted in 1200 years!

There must have been pandemonium as the volcano shot smoke, rocks and dust 12 miles into the air and the wind swept ash right over the town, falling like rain or snowflakes until it buried the whole place, with 2,000 of its 20,000 population along with it.

Oddly, it was the fact that the city was covered in ash that helped to preserve it, saving it from the various plunderers that ravaged the region as battles were had and empires rose and fell around it.

The tour was eerily “everyday life” and took us through a couple of homes, a bakery, a brothel and even a take-away outlet. Life didn’t seem quite so bad back then, especially the steam baths, with their heated floors and the aquaduct and pumps to ensure they had satisfactory  a water pressure. The Romans were very clever engineers and seemed to focus a lot of their energy on convenience and creature comforts!

The tour ended off with the set of amphitheatres – a small intimate one and another grander one that had a stage and scaffolding set up so is clearly still in use.

The Pompeii complex of ruins, being an entire town, can take as long as you want it to. We’d really enjoyed the commentary on the audio guide – we fully intended to use Rick Steves’ relevant chapters for our Rome sightseeing! – and found it quite comprehensive in covering all the things we wanted to see in a couple of hours.

This left us the afternoon for Vesuvius.

Easier said than done. The Pompeii tour had ejected us into (the modern) Pompeii town, so we were at a loss as to next steps. Googling didn’t help as the info we got all seemed quite contraditory, so we picked a side and headed off in the direction that corresponded with the McDonald’s golden arches signs, figuring that if we got lost, we could have a tactical burger and a regroup.

We didn’t get that far. We spotted an info desk a few blocks down and when we asked the chap for directions, he pointed at his van that was about to leave for Vesuvius and, since he had 3 seats left and it was about to leave, he lobbed off €5 each, which sealed the deal and we were packed in with the other 10 or so people headed on the same adventure.

Arriving at the park, we were set free and given time to climb the path alongside the crater to get to its peak to peer inside and get panoramic views outwards. There are a few pitstop points along the way, where you can catch free guides that talk you through what you’re seeing. When we got to the first pitstop, the Italian group was just leaving and a German group was being gathered. Too impatient to wait, we started up the trail ourselves.

It’s quite a trek, but just because it’s unrelenting uphill, not requiring any skill or abnormal level of fitness. We managed to catch up with an English tour and the guide was a wealth of knowledge.

He told us that Vesuvius is said to be the most dangerous volcano in the world because it’s so close to so many people – with a couple of million people in Naples which is only 9km away and more than 600,000 people living in the 18 towns in the Red Zone (within 12km) of the volcano that will certainly be destroyed in the next eruption.

The threat is not just the volcanic ash, as was the cause of the devastation in Pompeii, but also the lava, heat and gasses that could have catastrophic consequences. The day after the Pompeii disaster the volcano erupted again, this time creating a cloud of ash, pumice and gas, which sped down the hillside so fast that nothing in its way stood any chance of escape. It was when this flow reached water and exploded that it decimated the people of neighbouring Herculaneum, and the resultant hot mudslide buried the town, turning to stone as it cooled.

Scientists watch everything very closely, checking temperatures, gasses, seismic activity, all the indicators and early warning signs so that they can give as much advance notice for evacuation, which is estimated at 72 hours (not accounting for the inevitable hysteria).

Fortunately though, Vesuvius didn’t erupt the day we were there. We were able to climb to the full 1200m tip and peer into the crater, where you don’t see the swirling cauldron of molten lava you might expect in movie. It’s a massive hole, with grey and black streaks where lava has solidified and, most scarily, steam coming out of crevasses to remind you that Vesuvius is still alive, well and will inevitably erupt again.

Also bear in mind that the cone of the volcano as we know it today is only a fraction of the original. From Pompeii we’d seen more clearly how mammoth the original volcano was; when it erupted it literally blew its top and left behind the active cone we were now standing on as well as a smaller one to the right hand side that is part of the caldera (the large cauldron-like depression formed  by the collapse of the volcano). Following the escalation of the outsides of the two to complete the full cone, you got a rough idea of how enormous that volcano was – and how scary that eruption must have been for all those people in 79AD!

Not that that was its last show. It’s erupted dozens of times since then, and had a handful of notable episodes in the last century, including a spectacular display in 1944 in full view of the Allied armies who had taken Naples a few months earlier and whose bomber planes were rendered useless. Mother Nature pulling rank, no doubt.

Our session with the guide had really brought the experience to life, but it was only when he gave specific instructions to rest of his audience that we realised we’d unwittingly joined a paid tour!

Nobody seemed to mind though, so we were on our merry way (in the opposite direction to the group) and headed down the trail to get back to our bus.

It turned out to be a good thing that we had the tour bus as the driver was good enough to take us all the way to the train station after he’d dropped off the full-price planned group at their respective hotels. It saved us another “where in the world are we? And where do we need to be??” situation!

The train we caught back was clearly not the Express as it stopped many times along the way and, although it did seem intent on attempting a landspeed record in the tunnels, took over an hour. Which was OK really as we had seats and we didn’t have to drive so after a long day’s trekking it was kinda nice to just sit for a bit.

And book dinner.

There was no way we could wait until Italy-o-clock to eat an elegant late-night Mediterranean dinner, so we threw caution to the wind and booked a 7pm at the lovely resturant we’d designated as our last hurrah.

A flash through the shower and a fresh set of clothes and we were ready for action again.

A bit too ready possibly, as we jetted down the Corsa Italia (the main road that ran in front of our hotel, the length of town and which our restaurant was at the end of) so hastily that, in fact, we were running early for our super-early dinner.

Fortunately, when life throws you lemons, you’re likely to be in Sorrento where lemons are plentiful. There was a little lemon orchard just before our restaurant and it was not only open for a looksee, but also offering limoncello tasting.

The orchard was, as you’d expect, rows and rows of lemon trees and a few mandarin trees for good measure. Not a blade of grass though. It was weird; Sorrento had been much greener than any of the other places we’d been that were paved end-to-end, but it was all lemon trees on sandy patches. But the trees were full of fruit and the lemons grow HUGE so maybe they’ve got it right with doing the one thing properly.

The tasting was a little less successful with a mouthful of very strong limoncello, mandarincello and a nasty strong liquorish liqueur. All those on an empty stomach (yes, we hadn’t eaten since breakfast!) was enough to make me a trifle giddy!

By now it was dinnertime and we were relieved to see that another couple had beaten us to the restaurant so they were ready and serving. The pizza oven wasn’t hot yet though so we switched up our usual and had our pasta first and the pizza to follow. This was no time to be stuck on pomp and ceremony – we were starving.

Having eaten, we couldn’t help but stop in at the pub across the road… And Irish Pub called Shannon’s, to log our Guinness Index and review our day and plan the next.

En route home, we detoured past the market for Christian to buy the Italian leather work shoes we’d seen on the first night. I should have put money on it – he bought all 3 pairs!!

Travelogue Brazil 2: Iguassu Falls

FOZ DO IGUASSU

26-28 April 2017

Being devout about the pronunciation of my own often-mispronounced name, I’ve many times had the debate (with myself) about whether to refer to countries by their English name or the name that the country’s people themselves go by. For example, are we in Brazil or, rather, Brasil?

You can imagine how traumatised I became when visiting a place like The Triple Frontier, that sits at the meeting place of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, where two major rivers converge with magnificent Falls.

So where am I? Iguazu? Iguaçu?? Iguassu?!

In Portuguese, it is Iguaçu (with a c-cedilla and no accent on the second “u”, though putting an acute one on it is apparently a very common spelling mistake even among Brazilians themselves). In Spanish, it is Iguazú, with an acute accent (that is, slanted to the right; “ù” apparently does not currently exist in either Portuguese or Spanish). The Portuguese c-cedilla is to be pronounced as an “s”. Likewise, Spanish, with the letter “z” also pronounced as an “s”. There are 2 Spanish-speaking countries versus 1 Portuguese… but Brazil is the biggest. And we’re staying on the Brazilian side, but intend to visit both other countries while we’re here.

So, should the English spelling (or at least my spelling) be with a “z” to mirror the Brazilian spelling? Or with an “s” to make it more phonetic?

In my hour of turmoil I did the grown-up thing. I turned to Google for help.

Apparently, it is commonly felt that “Iguassu” would be the most appropriate spelling for English, according to Wikipedia. In fact, allegedly there’s even mention that the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu is considering changing its official name to “Foz do Iguassu” because of the foreign tourists who come to see the falls, but is meeting some opposition from upstream towns with no tourist traffic which don’t want to change for the sake of tourism efficiencies. Proper battle of wills between pragmatism and patriotism… but it would be kinda convenient if there was a standard.

So, all that aside, we landed in… um… Foz. Stopped in at the travel agent to book our Falls tours (a half day for the Brazilian side and full day for the Argentinian side). And caught a taxi to our hotel.

From the taxi ride alone we could see that Foz is *nothing* like Rio de Janeiro. It’s got a far more obvious “developing economy” feel to it (bearing in mind that we were fortunate enough to be staying on Copacabana when we were in Rio). There was little pretty about our entrance into town nor the streets through the centre that took us across town to our hotel. And, bizarrely, everything looked shut, which is odd for midday midweek when you’d expect restaurants and shops to be in full swing.

Our hotel was nice though; our first foray into booking with Emirates Rocketmiles where you get Skywards miles bonuses on top of discounted prices for your booking. We’d paid half the rate published in the reception AND got 1000 miles for the pleasure! And we were even more pleased to see that our room had a lovely view of the pool area, which had to be better than our Rio hotel which looked onto the central service quad that obviously housed the kitchen’s extractor fan since our room had been teased with the aroma of baking bread and frying bacon from 5am!

We’d decided in our travel agent session that since we were in Brazil and putting aside a whole day for Argentina, it would only be right to nip across the border to Paraguay for the afternoon while we were in the neighbourhood. A few enquiries and some polite and guarded responses later, we were confident that the right plan was to catch a bus across the border since the Friendship Bridge that connects Brazil and Paraguay is apparently not safe for pedestrians, who frequently fall foul to muggers.

All was told to be hunky-dory on the other side though, where Brazilians often go to shop in the mega mall complexes infamous for their brand name goods, the legitimacy of which we didn’t question seeing as this was not our intended mission. We planned to grab some lunch, hit Mclaren’s for a quick Guinness (for sake of completeness on our Index) and get back on the bus and be home in Brazil well before the sun went down.

We walked down to where we were told to catch the bus, conveniently a few blocks down on our road. The landmark was the bus terminus, although we were told that we’d not be catching the bus from in the terminus, but rather just outside it. Marked with a big pen squiggle on the map had been all the encouragement we’d needed to head off… but as we got closer we realised we had no idea what a bus stop looked like!

We overshot the terminus by a block and saw nothing so crossed the street and u-turned back up the way we’d come, seeing something that looked like it had potential, but that turned out to be a taxi stop.

Turning around again we saw a bus paused in the side road we’d just crossed that looked different to the ones in the terminus – white instead of yellow – and caught the “Cuidad Del Este” on the sign in the window. Our bus!

Hurtling down the road towards the bus, we screeched to a grinding halt as a police van – siren wailing – did the same in front of the bus, blocking its path. Three armed policemen jumped out of the car and onto the bus as another police vehicle pulled up alongside the bus to surround it.

We were frozen in our spot, metres away from the excitement.

The bus driver looked nonplussed with his arms folded above his head while the policemen moved up and down the central aisle looking for who knows what. We couldn’t see beyond to how the passengers were reacting, but can’t imagine they were having much fun (for the inconvenience of the delay if nothing else).

The police got off the bus, back in their cars and screeched off again. We wordlessly turned around and headed back the way we’d came. Paraguay was not going to happen for us.

Rounding the next corner we spotted not one but two kebab shops. Exactly we needed to stave hunger, process what we’d just experienced and make a new plan for the arvie.

A lovely crunchy, juicy chicken kebab later, we decided to take a turn past the main bar street to assess its potential and then walk back to the hotel to get our stuff  (we’d stripped all jewellery and left wallets and bags behind for our trip over the border) to head out for the evening.

Bar Street was dead. As was almost everything else we walked past. There were a number of clubs, bars and foodtrucks that all indicated opening time of 6pm and mostly open through the night.

Made the choice simpler. We grabbed a taxi and went to Marco Das Tres Fronteiras – the place where the borders of the 3 countries meet on the crossing of the Parãna and Iguassu Rivers.

Having received a pamphlet about the Frontier Crossing, we anticipated a whole complex of things to do there. It was not so. With a massive mock castle entrance, you emerge at the Frontier to a green and yellow monolith monument in a fountain marking the Brazilian Frontier, a restaurant and a few stands selling popcorn, ice-cream and knick-knacks. Over the rivers you can see Argentina’s matching blue and white monument across the Iguassu and Paraguay’s red, white and blue one across the Parãna.

With little else to do but sit and take in the sunset, we ordered a couple of Brahmas and did just that.

THURSDAY – Iguaçu Falls from the Brazilian side

Normally we would have done a single visit to something like a waterfall, but in this case had been advised that it was imperative to visit the Falls from both Argentina (where we’d always intended to tour the Falls) and Brazil.

We had planned on using Thursday, our only full day – for the Argentinian side, but the travel agent convinced us to move the full day to Friday so that the driver could drop us straight at the airport, relieving us of a homeless afternoon having already checked out of the hotel as well as the time and expense of another taxi to the airport. Hard to fault her logic; we signed our lives away and booked the half day to Brazilian falls for Thursday and full day in Argentina for Friday.

Our driver,  Claudio, collected us at our hotel at 08h30 and welcomed us into the van with our only other travel mates, a couple from Cuba (who didn’t look as though they’d be anywhere near as amusing as the Peruvian Princesses).

Claudio shared the planned sequence of events for the morning, advising we’d be visiting the Bird Park en route to the Falls to give the morning mist (it was pretty nippy) a chance to lift. After the Falls tour was an optional add-on to the Itaipu dam and hydro-electric plant, which we passed on, not even vaguely tempted.

Once on the road, Claudio pointed out landmarks of interest – mostly hotels and turnoffs to other places, like Argentina and the airport – and was nice enough to stop at the “best and most inexpensive souvenir shop in town”, should we wish to buy keepsakes to remind us of the day we’d not yet had.

Empty-handed, we were back on the bus 15 minutes later and at the Parque Das Aves 10 minutes after that. Dubbed the most spectacular bird park in Latin America, the park houses birds from the Atlantic Rainforest in their natural habitat alongside species from around the world, many endangered and most rescued from mistreatment or animal trafficking. Those that are rehabilitated to the point of release are returned to the wild; the rest homed in large enclosures in the park where they can be used for reproduction and the funds from entrance fees used to develop conservation projects and efforts in the wild including reforestation and environmental education. Helping over 1100 animals, 140+ species and preserving 16,5 hectares of rainforest, they really are making a meaningful difference.

Our highlight was a very sociable Toucan who swooped down from his perch high in the enclosure as we passed on the path below and fidgeted up and down the handrail, almost willing us to take a photo with him. Unfortunately our flash was on so we freaked him out a bit and he may reconsider a repeat performance for other people.

The tour progressed from the bird park to the main event. The largest waterfall system in the world; higher than Niagara Falls and twice as wide, most of the Iguassu Falls are located in Argentina but provide a better view from the Brazilian side.

They are located in Parque Nacional do Iguaçu, which was opened in 1939 and been a UNESCO Heritage site since 1989. The park is also home to over 300 species of birds, 40000 types of butterfly and 40 species of mammals including Jaguars and pumas in the subtropical jungle. With who know what other creepy-crawly and slithery friends. Claudio told us that there is option to walk / cycle through the jungle to the Falls, but that seems a bit too close to nature for my liking.

The viewing for the Falls is a 1.5km trail that winds from the road down along the riverbank to the water, with viewing decks protruding way into the water so you can see up and down the length of the river that catches the falls. It is an awesome sight as mammoth amounts of water throws itself over cliffs and create curtains of mist that dissipate into the jungle!

Expecting to get soaked, we kept to the outer edge of the metal jetty and moved as quickly as we could, using the slothing poncho’ed tourists as human shields against the water that misted or pelted towards us depending on the wind. It wasn’t so bad and we ended up with spectacular views, lifetime pics and little more than dripping faces and damp shirts for our trouble.

Ironically, what they don’t tell you is that the best pictures are to be had from the walkway away from the viewing decks and back towards the road. With most of the visitors waiting in the long queue for the lift to avoid the alternative couple of hundred stairs, we had relative solitude at the landing half way up which had unimpeded view of the major bowl where most of the Falls action is, was really close to the heaviest part of the Falls and allowed a host of photo opps sans plastic hunchbacks (what backpacks under ponchos look like) photobombing.

The Cubans were a ways behind us (no surprise there; we are very efficient tourists) so we had time to laze and dry in the sun.

A quick look around the hospitality options had told us that we would rather return to town than spend an hour in the overpriced restaurant that didn’t even have a view of the Falls and fortunately Claudio and the Cubans were amenable to we made our way back to Foz. The Cubans were going to see the Itaipu hydro-electric station from there so we parted ways as soon as we got back to town.

Being mid-afternoon following a rather athletic morning, we were quite peckish so went up to the local mall to forage at the food court before spending well-earned leisure time at the hotel.

Rested and ready for action, we went out around 6pm to see if the town had come to life.

It had.

The roads were busy, the restaurants opening (only just, as in still setting up and pulling chairs off tables) and there were hawkers flogging all sorts of stuff from tables on the pavements.

We made our way down the few blocks to a pub that Claudio had pointed out as we drove and, as the first to arrive, took a non-commital cocktail table at the entrance so we could beat an easy retreat if we chose not to stay.

Once again, nobody spoke any English (hardly surprising since Spanish, as spoken by the rest of their continent, is their second language and we’d encountered very few English speakers through our stay) so we muddled through a drinks order and got the wrong size beers.

The place started to fill up quickly and by the time we finished our first beer we were engaged enough in our people-watching to need to stay for another. By the third, we’d seen enough people eating to want to try some of the food ourselves, so we got a table and ordered the pork barbecue.

Served on a hot skillet mounted on top of a bunsen flame, succulent pork strips were nestled on a bed of boiled potatoes that were sizzling on the skillet. Served with toasted herby slices of baguettes and salsa, it was delicious! And a bargain at R$28 (ZAR140) compared to the food prices we’d experienced so far.

As we made our way back to the hotel, we were pleased to see that the restaurants were open and trading. The clubs though, had turned their neon signage on but still weren’t yet open for the evening. There must be a hell of a nightlife in Foz that we were missing out on!

FRIDAY – Iguazu Falls from Argentinian side

Claudio fetched us from our hotel at 8am. It was – for a holiday day – very early! And barely enough time to get through our usual multi-course breakfast, with fruit (we’ve eaten more this week than all of last year!), cold meats and cheese, hot buffet (scrambles and a variety of sausages) and pastries and cakes (how can you not have chocolate cake when it’s served with breakfast?!)

First order of business was to make sure our group (6 of us, with a French couple and 2 girls from London) had admin in order. We obviously had passports with us since we were taking everything to be dropped at the airport directly after the tour, but were caught a little short with the revelation that we needed 500 pesos to enter the Argentinian park and 25 pesos to pay our tourist tax on the return journey. And all had to be cash.

Claudio took us past a Cambio to change cash but, stupidly, the exchange desk didn’t accept credit cards (?!) and we were 41 Reals short of what we needed, with not an ATM in sight (or that we could recall seeing anywhere, now that the thought arose). Kindly, Claudio lent us a 50 so we were back in business.

The border between Brazil and Argentina is in the centre of the Iguassu River so the only indication of change of country as you drive over the bridge is the colour of the bollards on either side transitioning from green and yellow to blue and white.

We entered the Parque Nacional Iguazú  – all 67000 hectares of it – and set off on the eco train that took us from the entrance to the first walking trail, 1.7km to Devil’s Throat to view the top of the waterfall that we were at the bottom of the day before. Most of the walk was on a steel grating catwalk so you could see the water beneath you, babbling excitedly and hurrying off to throw itself over the cliff like a sort of liquid Thelma and Louise.

Again we walked into the mist, applying skills from the day before to prevent getting drenched in the name of the perfect view and a great photo. It was well worth it. A magnificently fierce river and explosive waterfall, showing off the power that has earned the Falls its place in the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

Having gained some perspective relative to the experience the day before, we were ready to take on the Upper and Lower circuits that provide contrasting and often up-close Falls along a trail circuit almost 10km long.

The Upper circuit gave us panoramic views of the giant arc of the 200+ waterfalls that make up the curtain and following the catwalk all the way around allowed all different angles, from in front of, within and behind the Falls and the tributary river – or sometimes rivulets – that feed them.

The Lower circuit is an even more integrated experience with 1.7km of catwalks leading through the jungle forest and viewing points that are as close to the water as is safe and manageable.

The Lower circuits also leads to a jetty for adventure boat rides that take passengers right up to the Falls in the water. Judging by the shrieks of delight carrying across the water, it was a thrilling experience!

Claudio walked us around and talked us through everything we were seeing, including some birds and trees of interest. My interest was more captivated by the Coaties; racoon-like furry creatures that were so used to people that they’d walk freely on the catwalks, unperturbed by us. Scavengers, they are known to dig in or steal handbags in their search for food and while they look cute and cuddly, if the warning signs were anything to go by, they had a mean bite!

We rounded off the day with a visit to the market near the park exit. It’s a pity we didn’t have the Peruvian Princesses from Rio with us – they’d have had a ball with the wide selection of tops with bedazzled logos and felt fur patches in the shape of animals!

Guinness Index

Irish pubs are like seasand in a bikini – you find them EVERYWHERE! – so we’ve started compiling a comparative pricing index of what we’ve paid for a pint of Guinness around the world.

  1. ZAR 265.85: Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, Copacabana (The Lucky Screw; Apr 2017) R$56
  2. ZAR 172.09: South Korea, Seoul, Gangnam (Dublin Irish Pub; Sep 2019) KRW 13800
  3. ZAR 168.66: Dubai Intl Airport (McGettigan’s; Apr 2017) AED45
  4. ZAR 156.12: Denmark, Copenhagen (The Dubliner; Jun 2016) – Kr65
  5. ZAR 155.13: Reunion, Saint Gilles (Chez Nous; Dec 2018) – €9 Adjusted from bottles at €6 for 33cl.
  6. ZAR 140.53: Japan, Sapporo (Brian’s Brew; Sep 2019) – ¥970
  7. ZAR 139.78: Sweden, Stockholm (Skeppsbar; Jun 2016) – Kr74
  8. ZAR 133.50: St Tropez, France (Kelly’s La Grotto; Jun 2019) – €8
  9. ZAR 130.55: Iceland, Reykjavik (The Dubliner; Oct 2015) – 1200ISK.
  10. ZAR 129.70: Finland, Helsinki (Molly Malone’s; Jun 2016) – €7.60
  11. ZAR 126.54: Japan, Hamamatsu (The Lord Nelson; October 2019) ¥900
  12. ZAR 117.41: Kowloon (PJ Murphy’s; Mar 2014) – HK$83
  13. ZAR 116.79: Spain, Toledo (O’Brien’s; Sep 2013 ) – €8.50
  14. ZAR 114.32: France, Nice (Paddy’s Pub; Jun 2019) – €7
  15. ZAR 113.55: Ireland, Dublin (Oliver St John Gogarty, Nov 2017) – €6.50
  16. ZAR 112.90: Australia, Sydney Circular Quay (PJ Gallagher’s; Feb 2016) – AUS$10
  17. ZAR 110.96: USA, Santa Monica CA (Ye Old King’s Head; Oct 2016) – US$8
  18. ZAR 106.09: France, Reims (The Sherlock; Aug 2015) – €6.90
  19. ZAR 103.84: Italy (Sicily), Taormina (O’Seven; Jun 2017) – €7
  20. ZAR 103.20: New Zealand, Auckland (Carpe Diem; Feb 2016) – NZ$9.60
  21. ZAR 102.51: Holland, Amsterdam (Slainte; Jun 2018) – €6.50
  22. ZAR 97.83: Ireland, Dublin (Bad Bob’s; Nov 2017) – €5.60
  23. ZAR 97.07: USA, Napa CA (Bounty Hunter; Oct 2016) – $6.48 *and a 2-4-1!!
  24. ZAR 96.99: Italy, Rome (Scholars Lounge; Jun 2017) – €6.50
  25. ZAR 96.85: Ireland, Dublin (Guinness Storehouse and Brazen Head; Nov 2017) – €5.50
  26. ZAR 92.95: Japan, Tokyo (End of The World; Jan 2015) – ¥905
  27. ZAR92.60: Ireland, Dublin (O’Neill’s; Nov 2017) – €5.30
  28. ZAR92.45: France, Cannes (Morrison’s; Jun 2019) – €5.40 *happy hour special, usually €6.90
  29. ZAR 90.85: Ireland, Dublin (Mulligan’s; Nov 2017) – €5.20
  30. ZAR 90.32: Australia, Port Douglas (Paddy’s; Jan 2016) – AUS$8
  31. ZAR 90.16: Italy, Sorrento (Shannon ; June 2017 ) – € 6
  32. ZAR 88.42: USA, San Francisco (Larocca’s; Oct 2016) – $6
  33. ZAR 87.14: Italy, Naples (Les Belles Choses; Jun 2017) – €6
  34. ZAR 83.69: Latvia, Riga (Egle; Jun 2016) – €4.90
  35. ZAR 82.23: Ireland, Limerick (Flannery’s; Nov 2017) – €4.80
  36. ZAR 82.11: Ireland, Kilkenny (Tynan Bridge House Bar; Nov 2017) – €4.70
  37. ZAR 81.98: Ireland, Cork (Corner House; Nov 2017) – €4.80
  38. ZAR 80.09: Ireland, Limerick (The Locke; Nov 2017) – €4.70
  39. ZAR 79.40: Ireland, Kilkenny (Hibernian; Nov 2017) – €4.60
  40. ZAR 78.40: Ireland, Limerick (Nancy Blake’s; Nov 2017) – €4.60
  41. ZAR 76.76: Ireland, Galway (Tig Coili; Nov 2017) – €4.50
  42. ZAR 74.20: Ireland, Killarney (O’Connors, Reidy’s and Laurel’s; Nov 2017) – €4.60
  43. ZAR 73.39: Ireland, Galway (Sally Long’s; Nov 2017) – €4.30
  44. ZAR 73.04: Ireland, Doolin (Gus O’Connor’s; Nov 2017) – €4.30
  45. ZAR 70.98: Ireland, Killarney (Murphy’s; Nov 2017) – €4.40
  46. ZAR 68.95: Estonia, Tallinn (Albion; Jun 2016) – €4
  47. ZAR 68.09: UK, Newcastle Upon Tyne (Copperfields; Oct 2015) – £3.20
  48. ZAR 65.24: Malta, Valetta (The Pub; Jun 2017) – €4.50
  49. ZAR 57.19: Malta, Gozo (Gleneagle, Mgarr; Jun 2017) – €4
  50. ZAR 44.00: South Africa, Somerset West (Old Bridge; Dec 2017)
  51. ZAR 43.00: South Africa, Robertson (Bourbon Street; Nov 2021)
  52. ZAR 40.00: South Africa, Umhlanga (Lucky Shaker; Oct 2017)
  53. ZAR 36.00: South Africa, Johannesburg (The Baron on Witkoppen; often)
  54. ZAR 35.00: South Africa, Bathurst (The Pig & Whistle; Nov 2020)
  55. ZAR 34.00: South Africa, Durban (The George; Aug 2016)
  56. ZAR 32.83: Bali, Gili Trawangan (Tir Na Nog; Jun 2015) – 36,000Rp
  57. ZAR 32.05: Poland, Krakow (Mbassy; Jun 2014) – 10zls
  58. ZAR 30.00: South Africa, Johannesburg (Rand Club; Nov 2018) 440ml cans

PS: The index is ordered from highest to lowest in South African Rands, our home currency, at the time that the pint was procured. Bar tabs are used for local currency amounts and credit card billings are used where possible for ZAR amounts, so that both are actuals. Our currency is a highly volatile (mostly in a depreciating direction), so it makes for a wild ride on the index.

GUEST INDEXING

Australia, Melbourne: AU$11 (Casino; Jul 2016)

Travelogue Baltic 6: St Petersburg – City Tour

BALTIC: ST PETERSBURG – CITY TOUR

21 June 2016

Our second day in St Petersburg started quite the opposite to the first. Both of us had a restless night, fearing we’d oversleep… and got up half an hour earlier than planned (which was *early* seeing as we had to be on the bus by 7 15!)

Fortunately, on this cruise there was no such thing as too early for breakfast and, in fact, the main dining room was ready and waiting to serve us. The main dining room offers a combination of buffet and table services, with waiters at the ready to bring you a plate of your own design. That seemed – even after the opulence of St Petersburg – a bit too decadent to be practical when there was a buffet right there, so we dished for ourselves and were soon happily munching our gravlax/bacon/eggs/sausage etc, at leisure with plenty of time to spare. As is typical, people at the table complained at how long their food was taking (no more than a few minutes), but they were damned if they’d get up and serve themselves!

Passport Control was even quicker than the previous day as they just checked the existing stamps, and we were among the first to meet on the platform, before the coach had even arrived.

The drive into town seemed that much quicker the second time around; possibly because more familiar so we were anticipating the destination with some sense of the route (you know how the way home always seems quicker than the way to a new place).

Our first familiar sight was the Neva River, the main waterway in the 6 islands that make up St Petersburg. We’d passed over it yesterday; today we stopped alongside it to cash in a wish by rubbing the brass gryphon heads that sit alongside the Egyptian sphinx statues.

This was also an ideal vantage point to get a good look up and down the wide river. It’s obvious to see why it is called the City of 1000 Palaces. St Petersburg is nothing short of magnificent with the grandiose facades along the riverfront of a bygone era where bigger was better and detail essential. No cost was spared in the elaborate designs and adornments that distinguished one mansion from the next in the single continuous row. Even the exterior paint job is meticulous, with a pretty consistent palette of dusky pastel colours with the slatted columns painted white.

We made another roadside stop further down the river at the Rostrums. These are tall terracotta twin columns with ships’ props embedded. At the base of each is a huge statue of a Poseidon/Neptune type chap. This section of the river was even wider (apparently it’s a kilometre wide – in the middle of town! – at some points) and the row of riverfront palaces as grand and consistent, side-by-side, as far as the eye can see in every direction. This city is nothing short of magnificent, in every conceivable sense of the word!

Even the roads are broad, which is unusual for an olden times city. Bearing in mind it was by now around 08h30 on a workday, traffic was thick, but not unmanageable (especially for us, long-suffering Jo’burg drivers). I suppose everything is relative though because even in the 1800s there was considered to be too much carriage traffic… but then the solution was simple: only nobleman could use the roads. That wouldn’t fly nowadays where it’s all for one and one for all and the parking is even free to be fair to everyone.

The next stop was St Isaac’s Church. The previous day’s tour had ended with a visit to a souvenir shop. We’d been assigned 20 minutes to shop but since Uda had flippantly pointed out some pretty notable sights through the window a few blocks earlier, we sprinted down the street retracing our bussteps to get a photo of the church, Palace and statue she’d printed out. Little did we know that we were returning to these the next morning!

The Church is a behemoth of a building, able to seat (well, stand, since Russians stand while worshipping) 14,000 people! It is adorned within an inch of its life and surrounded by the more of the same massive mansion block buildings in every direction. Words cannot describe the scale of everying in this city to the point that your imagination can form a true picture from my words!

The statue across the road from the church is of Nicholas I, Catherine the Great’s grandson. The (magnificent) palace behind it was built for his granddaughter, Maria, who refused to live in it because she couldn’t bear the thought of the view being her grandfather’s ass. Proper First World problems.

The big excursion for the morning was a visit to the Hermitage Museum. It kicked off with a bang when even the entrance Baroque staircase was a sight to behold. The decoration accent colour is gold. As in gold leaf, not golden coloured paint. Not my idea of a good time, but gives you an idea of the reckless abandon with which construction and decorating was undertaken. It was mostly the Empresses (Catherine I, Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great) that are credited with the elaborateness and, as Christian said, it was easier back then when the Csar/ina had complete control over all the wealth and could spend on whatever they chose. He further said it was a good thing too because otherwise we wouldn’t have these magnificent things to admire now, in a world that’s a lot more selective in its opulence.

The Hermitage tour kicks off with the Winter Palace, built for Elizabeth but used first by Catherine the Great. Catherine ceded to Alexander I, her favourite grandson. Then his brother Nicholas (from the statue) became Emperor. It’s a tricky story to follow.

“Hermitage” literally means “place for solitude” since the buildings were never meant to be public. Ironic for a building now this busy – as in queues out the door, down the street, around the corner, across the road and through the park! Fortunately we were there as it opened and had a pre-arranged group ticket so were just ahead of the rush.

The Small Hermitage is 2 buildings running parallel with a garden between them. This is where Catherine housed her art, which she was known to have never liked (but collected because collecting was fashionable). Since the art was hung as her private collection in her place of solitude, she is known to have said “only me and the rats can see it. And I think the rats like it more”

It is a formidable collection of legendary artists – so legendary that even I know them and I know less than nothing about art!

The first masterpiece I recognised was Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”, which he is credited as painting in 1669, the year he died, but had etched 30 year’s prior so really was a life work. This painting was in a whole section of tens of Rembrandt originals… and I’ve now got an appreciation for his talent. While I’m sure one is supposed to appreciate brushstrokes, paint texture and whatnot, the ones that appeal to me are where the paint is smooth and the likeness so good the painting could be a photograph.

The Hermitage also houses 2 of the only 14 Da Vinci originals that can be found outside of Italy, both of Madonna and Child (the religious icon lady, not the singer).

The full tour was about 2 hours and took us through the Winter Palace, Small / Old / New Hermitages and the Hermitage Theatre. We also saw some of Rafael’s paintings and a Michaelangelo sculpture, so were only a Donatello short of a set of turtles!

The next stop wasn’t far from the Hermitage, but took some effort for a bus in the traffic. We found a good drop off point outside Michael’s Palace – another magnificent hunk of building, which cost 7 million Roubles to build in a time when the entire social budget was 700k!

Our destination was the Church on Spilled Blood, which is located on the spot of assassination of Alexander II (son of Nicholas I). He was very popular because he abolished serfdom and made military conscription compulsory for all (previously noblemen were exempt). He also encouraged Finland’s autonomy, liberated Bulgaria and sold Alaska to the USA. Obviously though you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs and thus this was the 8th attempt on his life – and was aimed at overthrowing monarchy. Terrorists threw a bomb under his carriage. He wasn’t injured but the General next to him died immediately. The Csar – being the good guy he was – got off his carriage to see if anyone was hurt or needed help and the assassins got him with a second bomb. He was badly injured and died 2 hours later in the Winter Palace.

Alexander’s son commissioned the church at the place of his death in his honour. He was so popular that the nobles donated a million Roubles and the common people another half bar. 700 square metres of mosaics don’t come cheap! … Although they do save a fortune on pews since Russians pray standing.

We were running a bit ahead of schedule so Uda called ahead to see if we could go straight to lunch. We were initially batted, but the host venue called back about 5 minutes later saying we could come in 15, so we took a walk down to Nevsky Prospekt (the main shopping street) to get better photos of the big church monument thing that commemorated the victory in the 1812 Napoleonic Wars.

Lunch was served at the Museum of Fine Arts. Based on how particular they were about our time of arrival and the fact that we were served at tables in the middle of the foyer, I surmise this to be a limited offer for which they close the museum over lunch.

Salad was already plated at our place settings, with caviar canapés and bread on the table for self-service. Then followed a bowl of borscht and a plate of chicken stroganoff. Strawberry sorbet to close. It probably was a treat of a meal… but we’ve been spoilt by the restaurants on the cruise ship. We may never be able to eat normally again!

Last on the itinerary was the Cathedral of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, another baroque construction, consecrated in 1733. This was the first main cathedral built in St Petersburg, as a memorial to their 18th century military glory and is the burial place for the Imperial House of Russia.

Peter the Great’s daughter Catherine had been buried in 1708 in the wooden church that stood on this spot and which laid foundation for the creation of this Cathedral to house the Royal tombs of the Romanov Imperial House, and which is currently the final resting place of 46 members of the dynasty.

We were starting to piece together the story and from what we could tell it was:
Peter the Great (unified Russia, moved capital to St Petersburg)
Catherine I (Cinderella
Peter II (Peter the Great’s grandson, last of the male direct line of Romanovs)
Anna (Peter the Great’s niece)
Ivan (Anna’s niece’s infant son, ruled for a year… as an infant)
Elizabeth (seized throne from Ivan; Peter the Great’s daughter)
Peter III (Anna’s nephew; assassinated within 6 months by his wife, Catherine the Great)
Catherine II (Catherine the Great, ruled 34 years)
Paul I (Catherine’s son; ruled 4 years, 4 months, 4 days, strangled in his bed)
Alexander I (Paul’s son, ruled 24 years and died of typhus)
Nicholas I (Alexander’s brother, ruled 30 years and died of pneumonia)
Alexander II (Nicholas’s son, assassinated at Church on Spilled Blood)
Alexander III (Alexander II’s son)
Nicholas II (Alexander III’s son, married to Alexandra)

The Romanov line ended with the October Revolution where the Bolsheviks murdered Nicholas and his family so that there was no chance of returning to a Csarist regime. The whole family were buried unceremoniously at the time, but much later disinterred and brought to their own designated tomb in the Cathedral.

Quite a maudlin end to the day, but reaffirms St Petersburg as a place rich in history and stories of great victories and great tragedies.

Driving out of the city once again, it’s such a contrast of the beautiful elegant mansions built in the age of opulence versus the functional-to-a-fault grey compounds so obviously built by the Communists. Still enormous though, which seems to just be the St Petersburg way.

It was with regret that we said our goodbyes to St Petersburg as it grew smaller on what should have been the sunset, but of course wasn’t seeing as it was the longest day of the year, with darkness of less than 40 minutes so the sun was still high in the sky at 8 o’clock at night!

Travelogue Japan 3: Hiroshima

HIROSHIMA
09 January 2015

When we’d first started planning the trip, we’d debated spending a night in Hiroshima, thinking it to be such a noteworthy city in world history that it would be unmissable. Very watery reviews from a good proportion of travellers + Lix and RoRo’s lack of motivation to go there + an already decided-upon unlimited travel Japan Rail pass made the decision that much easier: Christian, Michele and I would daytrip it from Kyoto.

This turned out to be really easy as our house’s local subway station was 2 stops from Kyoto main station, from where we would catch a Shinkansen bullet train to Hiroshima. We didn’t have to pre-book anything, just up and out by 7.30, through the morning peak hour subway chaos and into the supreme calm that is the big and beautiful Kyoto Station.

The building is all stone and metal inside and even though it’s all grey, it’s neither cold physically nor perceptually. It’s only 4 floors, but the central hall is quadruple volume and each upper level is reached by a set of escalators, which run almost end-to-end up to an open-air roof garden terrace so look a bit like a metallic waterfall climbing upwards to the heavens when viewed from the bottom.

Our tickets required a train change in Osaka, but the lady at the ticket office had told us which platforms we needed for each departure and arrival so it was easy-peasy getting to the right train. It’s all such a well-oiled process and the trains are so clean and comfortable (seats similarly sized to aeroplanes, but with triple the legroom) that all 3 of us slept…

… through…

… and miraculously woke each other up in time for our arrival in Hiroshima.

The station was a bit smaller and a lot easier to navigate than the previous had been – and the tourist office were very proactive in guiding us to all the freebies that were included in our Japan Rail passes, including the hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus and the ferry to Miyajima Island, home to Torii Shrine just off the mainland.

The tourist bus was a great place to start, so we hitched a ride in it to Hiroshima Castle.

Established in 1589, the castle tower was destroyed in the atomic bombing and rebuilt in 1958. Inside the tower is a museum of Samurai culture. We were relieved to discover all of this after we thought we’d failed epically after having to remove shoes and don house slippers to view 2 very average exhibitions. Fortunately these were just the entry compound and there was more beyond when we entered the Castle complex beyond.

There still wasn’t much of interest to us so, after a wander past the shrine and tower, we walked through the gardens to the castle complex rear exit.

The most effective walking tour route fortuitously meant we had to tackle an early lunch as next item on the agenda. An easy call since we already knew we had to have the local speciality in the area which had made its name.

We walked through Hondori Street (a long shopping arcade) to reach Okonomu-mura village for our okonomiyaki (described in the guide as “flat cake of unsweetened batter fried with various ingredients”).

We were very pleased that there was an okonomiyaka restaurant directly under the “Welcome to Okonomu-mura” sign. Done.

We were ushered into the restaurant and chose a booth opposite the now-standard counter alongside the kitchen which, in this case, was a wall-to-wall flatbed silver fry counter.

There were 3 guys manning the kitchen, working from the far end to our side: First guy stacks raw cabbage, onion and pork onto a pancake. Next guy flips it over to cook the pork, while he has noodles and specified ingredients frying on the side. Then he pops the ingredients onto the noodles and flips the pancake et al on top of the noodle pile. Then he cracks 2 eggs onto the flatbed grill, loosely scrambles them and shifts the noodle pile on top. The whole pile then sits for a minute while the egg cooks, he flips it to reheat the pancake and deftly chops the pancake-noodle-stirfry-omelette into 6 edible portions using cross-swipes of the flat scraper-lifter tool in each hand and deposits the whole lot on a cast iron skillet. The server brushes the top with basting, adds cheese and seasoning and serves!

Really yummy! AND we managed to double-bill with a deep-fried oyster starter (important as the city is equally known for eating inexpensive oysters in casual setting “oyster huts”).

Our restaurant was close to the historical sites, so we walked the few blocks along the river front. Everything is named Peace -Something so we walked along Peace Promenade to get to Peace Park where there are Peace Memorials and a Peace Museum.

The first sight is the A-Bomb Dome. The building was first built in 1915 as a government office of sorts and was popular for its distinctive – and considered attractive – dome. The building now is relevant as it was the only building left standing near the hypocentre (the epicentre of the blast) from the notorious A-bomb drop on 6 August 1945.

The building soon became commonly called the Genbaku (“A-Bomb”) Dome, due to the exposed metal dome framework at its apex (all the roof tiles and outer casings had burnt instantly in the blast). The structure was scheduled to be demolished with the rest of the ruins, but the majority of the building was intact, delaying the demolition plans. The Dome became a subject of controversy, with some locals wanting it torn down, while others wanted to preserve it as a memorial of the bombing and a symbol of peace. Ultimately, when the reconstruction of Hiroshima began, the skeletal remains of the building were preserved and now serve as a tangible icon of what happened and place where people come to honour the lost and commit to peace.

Over the bridge is the Cenotaph memorial for A-Bomb victims. Quite austere with the eternal candle, giant flagpole, dedications and lots and lots of fresh flowers on display, the monument is the central element in a big quad and park with water features and smaller monuments dotted about.

Behind the cenotaph is the Peace Memorial Museum, offering bargain entry price of 50 Yen (R5).

The museum is a small but well structured collection of photos, exhibitions and artefacts from the fateful day, explaining how it all came to be, what happened and – refreshingly – educating on what’s happened subsequent with nuclear armament and why we need to sustain peace and avoid such an awful thing from happening again. To anyone.

Sure, we learn what happened in history at school, but it’s so “day and date” that you lose the perspective on the human element. The displays really drove home for me how utterly devastating that bomb was. A fireball a million degrees Celsius at its core, reached maximum diameter of 280m in a second. Fierce heat rays and radiation burst out in every direction, flattening buildings within a 2 km radius and burning hundreds of thousands of people to death instantly. 85%of Hiroshima’s buildings were within 3km of where the bomb exploded, so the damage extended to virtually the entire city with 90% of all buildings destroyed beyond repair.

And yet, despite getting the magnitude of the destruction, the display that hit me the most is one of the steps of a bank that have been lifted to be displayed as they were in situ, and you can see how the stones on the wall and steps have been whitened from the heat… except the grey patch where someone had been sitting. The remnant shadow of where someone literally instantly melted.

Our little tour of the peace sights vindicated our decision to daytrip to Hiroshima. Otherwise, it’s a lovely city anyway. Beautifully laid out and pleasing on the eye. Apparently at a British junket in Hiroshima a few years ago the mayor was asked why Hiroshima is so neatly grid-style unlike other major Japanese mazes and he was quoted as saying “We had some help from the Americans.”

I would have liked to catch the ferry across to Miyajima Island to see the famous torii gate at Itsukushima Shrine, but with a 20 minute streetcar + 20 minute train + 10 minute ferry, we’d left it a bit late. Oh well, next time.

Travelogue Japan 2: Yuzawa

YUZAWA, NIIGATA
03-07 January 2015

After our exuberant last night in Tokyo, we overslept and missed our intended 10am departure for Niigata and subsequently ended up on the 12h16 train to Yuzawa (they run more or less every half hour).

The Shinkansen bullet trains are incredible – so fast, yet so solid that you don’t feel like you’re hurtling across Japan. Which is exactly what we did. East to West coast in an hour! I had slept soundly the whole way (having woken with the lurgy that had stricken RoRo on New Years Day) but am told that there was nothing to see as the train is parenthesesed by barriers, blocking the view completely.

Arriving in the sleepy winter wonderland valley of Yuzawa in Niigata, we were instantly in love. Beautiful thick snow everywhere; mountain rising up directly in front of us as we exited the station. We caught a taxi to our accommodation, mainly because it would be too hard to negotiate our bags in the snow (and we didn’t realise the journey would be so short).

We’d been told that what we’d booked was previously a hotel – and we had the whole hotel to ourselves! Our arrival confirmed it: we were to be the sole guests of 3 storeys of slopeside hotel. Quite a contrast to our Tokyo home – which could fit into our Yuzawa lounge – it was big, airy and comfortably furnished with plus-sized couches and king-size beds. The hotel has an unassuming roadside entrance, but the living area has wall-to-wall windows facing the ski slope, which serves as very entertaining live TV!

We got a quick tour of the facilities – including the 2 private basement onsen baths and a detailed review of the remote control panel to operate the heated toilet with all sorts of spray options to rinse and blowdry your bits – and settled into our rooms. Michele had been allocated a first floor room (which was described as 2nd floor because Japanese start counting from Ground), but ended up sleeping in the lounge in the living area adjacent to our room because her heater wasn’t working properly and she said the uninhabited hotel reminded her too much of The Shining. And with The World’s Most Comfortable Couch as an alternative, she was spoilt for choice.

It was a bit late (mid-afternoon) by this point to fuss with ski rentals etc, so we took a walk along our road instead to see what there was, get some supplies, scout a spot for dinner and whatnot. Even with the inordinate amount of snow everywhere, the kilometre walk to the Station was easy enough, assisted enormously by the jets of water spurting out from the middle lane of the road and running from side feeder roads, keeping the road clear of the enormous amount of snow. Our host, Gabriel, had explained that the source of this water was the underground spring – same one that fed the onsen. Very clever.

Our initial preview of Yuzawa revealed that it was different to the ski resort towns we’d previously encountered in that there wasn’t an apres ski bar anywhere to be found. Most other resort towns we’d been to had put equal energy into entertainment on and off the slopes. Also, while everything we’d read pointed to Yuzawa being a tourist town, nothing had indicated that it’s very definitely only a Japanese tourist town since the restaurants we passed were all Japanese menu only.

On returning to the house, Gabriel warned us that we’d be well advised to get to dinner early as everything filled up when the slopes close at 5pm and since the restaurants are all small with only a handful of tables, short of waiting (outside, in the snow) the next easy-access sitting wouldn’t be until around 9 o’clock.

Just after 5pm already, he and his family were on their way out for dinner and he offered for us to walk with them so he could point out his recommendations of restaurants and shops.

We were already too late for the tonkatsu restaurant he had suggested to us but, based on the queue of people waiting in the cold for a table, we assumed it must be as good as Gabriel said and noted to return there the next day, early enough to avoid the queue.

We took our chances and went into the first restaurant without a waiting list, which turned out to be a tempura restaurant. What a luck!

We ordered the set menu, which was an awful lot of food! A miso soup, big wedge of tofu, small plate of pickled veg (no idea what it was), bowl of rice and a mountain of tempura veg (including an enormous shitake mushroom), fish, calamari and prawns (each easily 20cm long). Everything is served at once and makes for a very busy table! There are always soy sauce and chilli flakes on the table and often another condiment or two, in this case a cellar of sesame seeds. Salt and pepper aren’t standard table items as they are in the Western world.

Our feast behind us, we returned home for an onsen and a quiet night in, enjoying the comfort of our new home with its warm and inviting living room (and the simple luxury of being able to speak out loud after being repressed in Tokyo!)

The onsen isn’t what I expected. I’d thought it would be a sort of warm swimming pool, Turkish Bath style, but its more a hot bath suited to shorter dipping. Our house had 2 onsen – one “personal” one about a metre by a metre and a half and a group one about twice the size (and the perfect width to sit back against the wall and toes touching the other side). Both follow the same format with a small reception room with wooden shelves to undress and redress, hand showers in the onsen room to clean off before entering the onsen, and the onsen itself a simple rectangular bath like the swimming pools of yesteryear when they were still tiled.

Each bath is fed by a continuous trickle of hot spring water and the bath simply overflows like an infinity pool when it’s filled to capacity, draining from the bathroom floor (probably on to somewhere useful if the cistern-basin idea is anything to go by). The onsen also has a plug, so can be emptied if the water gets icky (which shouldn’t be too often since the rules are strict about showering beforehand and there is a constant flow of clean spring water entering the bath). It is very hot so, contrary to our expectation that we’d spend hours languishing in it like a Jacuzzi, we only lasted about 10 minutes.

The next morning we went to the ski hire shop, conveniently just across the road from our hotel. We were pleasantly surprised at the rates – R420 for 2 days equipment hire! – and were soon on our way with skis, poles, boot and for Christian and Michele pants and goggles too. I went to secure a ski pass (R700 for 2 full days) while the others went to find an intructor to give them a private lesson.

As promised on our “ski in/out” hotel’s write-up, there was a ski chair lift right outside our door and our pass covered not only our slope, but the whole mountain including the gondola that ran from the Ropeway Station a few hundred metres down the street to midway up the slope which had a few restaurants and shops.

Having snowed all through the night before, the powder was perfect! The slopes aren’t busy at all – not like the mayhem in Europe when I’d learned to ski – so it’s an ideal training ground and a pleasure for the already initiated.

Alex was having her turn at being ill that day so had, wisely and with remarkable restraint, stayed in for the day. I took on the mountain as a solo mission and worked out a run from the gondola station to the very top of the mountain that had me entertained for an hour at a time through a variety of green, red, black and blue routes.

By the end of the day, we’d all fallen in love with Yuzawa and asked Gabriel if we could stay 2 extra nights (conveniently, he was our landlord for our intended next stop so we simply traded properties). I guess we’ll never know what Hakone would have been like but since its main attraction was its private onsen and we had two at Yuzawa anyway, we were very motivated to stay at our lovely hotel.

After a brilliant full day’s skiing, we were at the restaurant for 5 o’clock… and were still second in the queue! Fortunately the wait wasn’t very long though and since they had taken our order while we waited, the food was served to us as we sat down. It was another set menu type thing with the standard miso soup, pickled veg, tofu and rice and the most incredible tonkatsu, which is a breaded pork fillet along the lines of a schnitzel but thick and tender and juicy, served with a mountain of shredded cabbage, carrot and watercress. Its partner condiment was a sticky sweetish barbecue sauce which matched perfectly and there was a creamy light sauce that we only realised afterwards was likely a sort of salad dressing to make a coleslaw type effect with the veg.
Since Alex was still quarantining herself, we made short work of dinner and picked up some beers and sake from the bottle shop to take home for a quiet night in. Made for a really nice evening.

Day 2 of skiing was even better because I had Lixi with me – and it was a great feeling just knowing we’d extended our stay so there would be no mad panic to pack and leave later on.

We made arrangements to all meet at the Alpine restaurant at the top gondola station for lunch and each spent our morning making the proverbial hay while the sun shone.

The slopes were brilliant, so much snow, wide and long runs and, with relatively few people, no queues at any of the chairlifts. Alex and I managed all the runs before lunch, including her first go on a (steep and narrow!) black run ever!

We were pooped by lunchtime so had a lovely long and lingering pizza/pasta lunch at Alpine, comparing notes on who had done what in the morning and watching Ski TV through the big window (although we witnessed far fewer and less spectacular bails than our house’s view).

Alex and I skiied for about another hour and caught the gondola down rather than risking the long black slope in the failing light.

Our onsen awaited and was practically a religious experience for our tired bones and aching muscles! The water was 44 degrees so it took little more than 10 minutes to get to watershed invigoration.

Lovely and clean and toasty – and in no hurry for dinner after our leisurely lunch – we settled around our lounge table, with its traditional floor cushions on 2 sides and The Most Comfy Couch in The World on the other 2, and got stuck into the bottles of local sake we’d bought at the shop Gabriel recommended.

Michele was having her turn at the flu, so decided not to brave the cold for dinner. The four of us wandered up the road heading for a restaurant called Yoshi Toshi (one of the few restaurants with English signage) which Christian had spotted and wanted to try. Unfortunately it was closed, but there was another restaurant directly opposite and a peek through the door showed it was quite full – always a good sign – so we gave it a bash.

Much like the other traditional restaurants we’d been to, it was very small with only 4 low tables and a counter of about 10 chairs facing the open kitchen. We were seated at one of the 4 low tables and given menus… all in Japanese. There was one picture, which looked like a set menu so, since we’d done well with those so far, we ordered 4.

We ordered sake too, which was served the traditional way into a small cup to the point that it overflowed and filled the saucer below. This apparently symbolises the welcoming from the restaurant and the generosity that they will display in looking after you.

The meal was excellent! Tasty miso soup and superb chicken katsu breaded cutlets.

We celebrated our success with a visit to Swing Bar, which still appeared to be the only bar in town and advertised on its signage that its operating hours were 8pm to 3am daily. How odd.

We soon made friends – or rather, in this case, were made friends with – a trio of young US Marines. They told us that their deal is 5 years in the Corps and in return the Marines pay for 3 years university education for them. Seems like a great system. Must rack up since there are apparently 5000 marines on their ship alone!

A couple of rounds of beers and Jagers (the killer mammoth tumbler “shots”) and it was hometime. It was so awesome surfacing to the crisp night air, with all the pretty snow and mountain backdrop for the short walk back to the hotel. Such simple pleasures we miss out on at home.

Our last day was taken very slowly with all efforts concentrated on relaxing. It was raining lightly so nobody was keen on skiing and it was an indulgent day of napping, chatting, slothing and of course onsen, all set to the rhythmic “bing-bong” warning chime that the ski station outside our window made every few seconds as each chair arrived.

The first time anyone left the house was close on 6pm, to return ski equipment, do a spot of souvenir shopping and source a place for dinner.

The first 2 were easy, the third not as much so. We wanted to try something that we hadn’t yet eaten and the task is harder than you might think when the display menus are Japanese only and the 1000 words that the accompanying pictures speak are clearly Japanese as well!

The answer came to us in the form of a glowing billboard opposite the station: Kenchin Soup.

The restaurant looked like such a good find. With a charmingly rustic entrance complete with the traditional sliding paper doors, the inside was warm and comfortable but more ‘functional’ than a lot of the places we’d been to. With wooden floors and normal chairs and tables, we surmised this to be more of a canteen for the locals.

As with most places we’d been to, there was only 1 person working the floor (doorman, waiter and bussing functions) with 2 people in the kitchen. Our server was an old man, who was delighted to see us and ushered us into the back into a private dining room with traditional straw mat floors, low tables and cushions. As had been our lure, he pointed excitedly at the picture of the Kenchin soup in the menu, clearly recommending it to us.

Unique to the local area, Kenchin is a thick Japanese stew containing more than 10 different vegetables, soy sauce and miso paste. The picture on the board looked like a hearty beef or lamb stew but, even though all veg, Kenchin is just as hearty and delicious and there are some of the more exotic veg that you’d swear are meat from their texture and flavour.

We had ordered some side dishes too, including tempura prawns (as big as the monster ones we’d had the first night), hire-katsu (crumbed pork cutlets) and negitoro (minced tuna sashimi served as a tartare-style meatball in a bed of Japanese spring onion). Everything is so tasty; really fresh with sharp and defined flavours.

It was snowing properly by the time we left and we all looked like snowmen by the time we got home.

Our evening round-up (“clearing the stocks from the fridge that would be too cumbersome to carry”) had us in complete agreement that staying in Yuzawa had been a genius move that might just have ruined all future possible skiing holidays for us!

Travelogue Poland 3: Warsaw

WARSAW 
11-12 June 2014

We’d done the right thing booking the first flight out from Katowice to Warsaw because, while it was a mission to get up early after the NIN concert festivities, it meant that – even with commute and transfers – we had a full day in the nation’s capital.

We caught a taxi from the airport for about R200 that dropped us almost at our lodgings, unable to drop us at our door as we’d booked to stay right on the Old Town Main Square (Stare Miasto Rynek), which was pedestrian-only for a few blocks around it. 

Our apartment was a bit like the one we had in Zagreb; quaint, perfectly appointed, huge wooden bay windows, translucent curtains… but minus the unexpected old lady live-in landlord (and hopefully minus the church bells at dawn!). The building must’ve been super old, with its entrance a mere tunnel off the Square, the wide and winding staircase (we were on the 4th floor; no lift!) in the original bare wood, the front door thick, heavy and solid with the original brass key (and a collection of deadbolts that the door had obviously collected over the various periods of strife it’d lived through).

We were an hour early, so literally bumped into the caretaker and his wife (as they were coming up the stairs and me careening down the stairs to tell Christian the bad news, that there was nobody to let us in). They were more than happy to let us deposit our bags as long as we got out of their hair to make up the flat. Not that we needed any encouragement on that front; we were out the door in a flash!

As luck would have it, there was a Tourist Information office right beneath our apartment, so we grabbed a free map… and were almost immediately able to tick off number 10 (The Old Town Square), 11 (The Warsaw Mermaid Statue), 12 (The Historical Museum of Warsaw) and 13 (The Museum of Literature) of the Top 30 Things To See in Warsaw!

Founded in the 13th century as a prince’s headquarters and a fortified settlement, the Old Town is an exceptional place. Almost entirely destroyed during World War lI, it was restored so faithfully to the original that UNESCO still listed it as a World Heritage Site. The Square is a constant hub of activity, with cafés and restaurants on the fringe spilling out umbrella’ed decks and beer gardens, artists exhibiting sculptures and paintings, children playing in the fountain, and buskers creating a continuous melodious soundtrack making every moment a memory. 

In the centre of the Square is the Warsaw Mermaid Statue, paying homage as the mermaid is Warsaw’s symbol and on its coat of arms. Legend has it that a mermaid swimming in from sea stopped to rest near the Old Town and liked it so much that she stayed. The local fishermen thought she was interfering with their hauls so intended to catch her, but fell in love with her instead when they heard her sing. Along came a baddy rich merchant and actually did capture her, so when a young fisherman mobilised his mates to free her, she took arms with sword and shield and vowed to protect the city and its people. 

Our walking tour next took us one block down to an even bigger square, Plac Zamkowy, in front of the Royal Castle. This had been the headquarters of kings and authorities since the 16th century, was the place where the Constitution – the first in Europe and second in the world – was adopted, and is now a museum. It was almost completely destroyed in the war, but was rebuilt using the parts that survived. 

Again the Square was there to be enjoyed and people were darting in and out of purposefully-placed sprinklers to soothe the seating heat. There was a lively atmosphere and the resonance of people enjoying themselves – in the restaurants as well as just hanging out, walking or cycling. Not entirely sure why so many people were free on a Wednesday afternoon, but that’s a different discussion entirely. 

We walked past the Waza Column – erected in 1644 by King Wladyslav in honour of his father who’d moved the capital to Warsaw from Krakow – and down the road. While there weren’t any places of interest according to the tourist map, the road and its buildings are still surreal and breathtaking. Double lane wide pavements on either side of a double lane road, everything immaculately paved and cobbled, dotted with neat street lamps and flower boxes. Grandiose buildings on either side hosting all sorts of things, arbitrary and otherwise. And ice-cream shops. Lots and lots of ice-cream shops. 

Every second person has a varigated chocolate and vanilla softserve cone, with the ice-cream spiralled gravity-defyingly taller than the depth of the cone below it. Ice-cream is a big business in Warsaw, it seems. Apparently it’s all year round too; obviously in the blazing summers, but also in winter where people bundle up so much that they get hot in all their thermals and buy ice-cream to regulate their body heat!

By now it was lunchtime and so stumbling across a Molly Malone’s was all the serendipity we needed to get a grazing happening. We still went local though, sharing a wicked but delicious chleb (lard with bacon bits served with slices of sourdough and rye to smear it on), a bigos (sour stew made from cabbage, sausage and mushrooms) and a plate of pierogi (mushroom and cabbage). Polish food is really tasty – and of course agrees with me since their main food groups being sausage, potato, cabbage and mushroom!

Lunch gave us quite a bit to work off! Luckily all the sites are walking distance, in a convenient loop and – like Krakow and Katowice – Warsaw is completely flat, making walking a pleasure.

We tackled the inland sights first, heading for the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier where, fortuitously, we caught some sort of military parade with loads of soldiers dressed in different types of uniforms were marching with all the usual pomp and regalia. 

On the road again, we headed through the Barbican and curtain walls into the New Town, which is not so new now having been around since the 14th century. Until the 18th century it was a completely separate town, with its own town admin, city hall and church. Its Rynek (Square) doesn’t hold a candle to Old Town though, being a fraction of the size and – besides living up to the by now quite passé breathtaking beauty of the buildings in general – quite unremarkable, with its only piece of interest being a cast iron well adorned with a virgin and a unicorn.

We’d long-since gotten church fatigue, which is a pity because, of course, all of them are magnificent. They stand out even among the rest of the picture-perfect city… but there are just too many to make any stand out as of consequence. We did however pop our heads into the St Francis Seraphic Church as it is famed for its original 17th century baroque interior escaping the fires ensuing from the War’s bombings. And we were walking past. And it was open. And it was free. And there was no queue. 

That was the farthest point on our plan, so we changed direction toward the Vistula on a road that junctioned at a panoramic viewing deck. Sadly, Warsaw has opted to put a double lane freeway along the bank of the river, so it’s not as pretty or serene as Krakow’s. They do however have a Multimedia Fountain Park on the riverside, with literally hundreds of fountain nozzles ejecting water in sequence for a constant show, which apparently is accompanied with lights and music on Friday and Saturday nights. The fountains are all housed in pools the size of Durban’s paddling ponds, but swimming is not allowed, just dipping of feet, made comfortable by a thick flat lip around the pools for people to sit on.

We of course were on a mission, so no time to dillydally in the fountains! We had a few last things to see before sundowners at the oldest pub in Warsaw (not that there was any danger of the sun going down for hours yet, just that our body clocks are preprogrammed on SA time and you can’t mess with that!)

The most notable stop was a turn through Kanonia, a small triangular square behind the cathedral where the canons (priests) had been housed in the 17th century. Besides being charming in its crude rickety cobbledness, it also houses a large gunmetal bell, which was never hung. Apparently, going round it 3 times brings luck so, never one to turn back on a superstition (as Granny said, just in case), that’s what we did.

We also saw the narrowest house in Warsaw, which is only one window wide. This shrewd builder avoided taxes as back in the day land tax was based on the width of your facade, just like in Hanoi). Still, more scientific than our dear City of Joburg who seem to do property valuation using ouija boards and bingo balls!!

Sights done and dusted – and probably a good 10km of tread clocked – we crossed the river to the oldest pub, Pod Barnlka, for a Guinness. We thanked our lucky stars that we booked the apartment we did as we’d very nearly booked one on this Square (almost expressly for its reference to the oldest pub!). While still ok and still an easy walk into the Old Town – everything is after all walking distance from everything – it didn’t hold a candle to where we were based, right in the thick of things! 

Having seen everywhere on our walking tour, we’d pinpointed New Town for our dinner so wound our way slowly back there, taking time to stop at some of the sights that had been busy earlier when there had been lots of tour groups (refreshingly seemingly mostly young Poles) out. The most notable was the Little Insurgent Monument – a statue of a little boy wearing a helmet way too big for him and carrying a big machine gun, commemorative of the contribution made by the heroic children who took part in the Warsaw Uprising. Scary that times were so awful that small children were actively fighting wars.

The day had provided lots of good fodder for dinnertime conversation at our chosen destination, Podwale Piwo Kompania, which we’d chosen for the setting, the atmosphere and – most importantly – gabolki on the menu… which turned out to be so delicious that we contemplated ordering a second round!

But we didn’t, and rather went for a second round of sundowners outside the Palace. Very confusing with the sun only setting so late and throwing everything out of sequence! 

When we were finally en route back home we considered stopping for a finale at the beer garden outside our apartment, but were lured into the Shamrock underground (literally) pub. With a normal (but small) entrance on rhe road level you enter onto a landing and then veer down some steps, snaking to the tunnels below, where the pub itself is housed. They reckon some of the cellars date back to the 13th century and are naturally the best preserved because they’re underground so they avoided all the chaos of the wars and whatnot. 

The tunnel we were in was semi-circular and only just high enough at it’s highest point for Christian to stand upright with a smidge to spare. Couches were built into the low part on the one side and a well-stocked bar ran the length of the other. Not a window in sight! Moving to the end of the bar we saw a few steps down, which opened into a full blown (big!) undeground tavern, with the only natural air or light coming from a small delivery chute at the far end. What a wonderfully weird and wicked place to conclude our trip!

Travelogue Poland 2: Katowice

KATOWICE
09-11 June 2014

The train from Krakow was supposed to be 2 hours (for the 70 km journey), but took almost 3 thanks to some indeterminable delays en route. It was hot as Hades on the train which, although spotlessly clean, looked like it had survived a bygone minimalist era with its maroon springy cushioned benches and spartan finishes.

The station is far grander though, with double volume ceilings, shiny floors and lots of shops, restaurants and cafés. Apparently this is a relatively new thing, with this sparkly new building only replacing its drab communist predecessor in late 2012.

Exiting the Station (at what we were later to discover was the worst possible exit) we found ourselves on a main road, with no clues as to where we were or where we needed to go. We ended up circumnavigating the block and ending up at the other end of the Station… and conceded and jumped in a taxi, showing him our hotel booking form for direction. 

We’d – cleverly, we thought – based ourselves at the hotel closest to the stadium hosting the concert we’d come all this way for, but started to have doubts about this wisdom as the timer ticked over in the taxi as we inched through the evening’s 5 o’clock traffic. Twenty minutes later we were checking in at the Olympic Spodek and not too concerned about anything, having laid eyes on the magnificent oddity that is the Spodek Arena. 

Built between 1964 and 1971 and weighing in at some 246 thousand square metres of circular arena with space for 11000 people, the building was nicknamed the “Latajacy Spodek” for its striking resemblance to a flying saucer. Our hotel was nestled in just behind the arena, and was very comfortable as a single storey of identical rooms laid out around a long central lounge area with several poof leather couches, a bizarre indoor putt putt course and a handful of gym machines, with the whole lot in the searing spotlight of a skylight that ran the length of the room.

The hotel provided us with a tourist map and Katowice guide, which we took to the only shaded couch to study, fearing we were to hell and gone from everywhere and everything would be a mission. Au contraire! Our location was not as dire as it had seemed. As can happen, the taxi had had to go the long way round, where we as pedestrians had the option to walk across the Square in front of the arena and through the spaghetti of tunnels that ran under the big traffic circle (of cars and train tracks) that separated our side from the main town.

It wasn’t much of a walk for us and we were at the station no more than 10 or 15 minutes later. Amazing how different – and much easier – the town looked when we had a map… and no luggage.

The Pocket Guide tourist map we’d been given was really self-deprecating on poor Katowice, apologising for its newness, its stem primarily functional in the industrial age. Not to say it didn’t have a long history before that – the area having been chronicled as inhabited by Silesians in 1299, changing hands a few times, and settling with the Prussians under the name Karolina in 1942 – just that, while it had suffered mercifully little comparatively during WII, it had been shamelessly and primitively exploited of natural resources following the war and all the ensuing Communist complications. Now, with many clunky bronze statues dotted around the city to commemorate their crawl toward a market economy, Katowice is only now starting to embrace the possibility of a bright future.

This is all gone into at great length in the guide as a prequel to stating that there is little to see and do in this city. 

While it does lack the textbook palace / Old Town / ruins / bohemian district, as long as you’re keen to eat/drink/shop in wide café-lined pedestrian streets then Katowice is not so bad! And  we’re always keen to do all 3 or any combo thereof, so had a lovely wander through a mall and around the town and then set about tracking down Bar Pod Siodemka (Bar 7), which had been recommended for its local fare.

While we were disappointed that they were out of golabki (meat parcels wrapped in cabbage and baked in tomato sauce), this gave opportunity to try other exciting things and, despite the temperature still being over 30 degrees in the evening, we had soup to start – zurek (sour rye soup with sausages and potatoes) and garlic broth with soaked croutons. For main course we shared 2 quite different things: placki (potato pancakes, served thick like flapjacks but crunchy on the outside like hashbrowns) stuffed with chicken and wild mushrooms, and a Silesian speciality called rolada slaska (rolled beef filled with onion, bacon and pickles, sort of like a beef olive) served with kluski slaska (pillowy potato flour doughballs – essentially a Pierogi without filling – like big gnocchi). All washed down with the local Tyskie beer (although our other favourite, Zywiec, is also from Katowice). Delicious! 

Having been solidly on the go for days and with the reason for the whole trip – the Nine Inch Nails concert – that night,  Tuesday was scheduled as a “go easy” day. We slept in, had a lingering and leisurely feast of a breakfast (watching the band busses and trucks buzzing around, preparing for the show), wandered into town, ambled through the mall,  grabbed some lunch, and retired to the hotel in mid afternoon to relax and prepare ourselves. But the excitement got too much and at about 4 we headed out to see what was happening at the Arena. There was already quite a crowd gathered on the steps at the entrance, but not enough to hold our attention, so we went into town for a sundowner.  

Much better idea! A good proportion of people were wearing NIN (or comparative bands’) merchandise and there was a lot of excited energy in the pubs and restaurants. It was all like one big pre-party!

Arriving at the Arena first order of business was, of course, the merchandise stand. Their prices were, as always, heinous. But one must do what one must do and I’m super stoked to have my most expensive to shirt yet!!

We stocked up with a tray of Tyskie only to find out on entry to the grandstands that no drinks – alcoholic or otherwise – was allowed in the stands (unlike home, where that is the point of decanting into plastic cups). Worked out to our benefit though as we were allowed to stand at the back of the landing and finish them and this turned out to be the best vantage point – and an excellent private dancefloor! So we sloooowly sipped our drinks to make our exile last well into the performance. And by time we were caught for having finished, the show was so far in and we were so immersed that there was no quieting us! We simply got more beers and moved to the next landing!!

The show was brilliant; truly worth travelling for and a quite lifeline landmark for me, as a lifelong fan! The venue was excellent; full of energy, but not too crowded. The set list was great – a good mix of crowdpleasers and unanticipateds with the usual emotional rollercoaster of cutting between the manic and the depressive tracks. And we’ve been in presence of (and probably quite close to, seeing as his tour bus was right outside our hotel window) our heroes – truly a legendary musical genius of our time.

We went into town afterwards to grab a much-spoken-of post-concert kebab, which was lifesaving… and it turns out shrewd as well, since the band was still packing up and weren’t allowed in until the talent had left the building. No mind though. After all that excitement, who could sleep?!?