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Nepalese Adventure 2014 – The Kathmandu Valley and Pokhara

 

 

 

The World Peace Pagoda , Pokhara

The World Peace Pagoda , Pokhara

If you just want the complete photo archive there is a link to the album at the end.

The post includes some photos most relevant to the text also, rather than fill the post with a host of details, I have inserted links to the relevant websites for the hotels and all the major attractions we visited. There are also some reviews on tripadvisor. Read on, or skip to the photo link!

My 70th birthday holiday was planned to fulfill two aim:  the first to visit the homeland of the Gurkhas, with whom I served in Borneo in ’65/’66, and their Museum in Pokhara and, secondly, to go paragliding from Sarangkot. We abandoned a guided tour option and decided to to see how things would pan out flying to Kathmandu for a few days and then on to Pokhara and finally back to Kathmandu.

We flew Turkish Airlines from Dublin, via Istanbul and I would recommend them for service and efficiency.  We arrived at 6.15 a.m. but it was nearly two hours clearing passport control and immigration.

Getting your visa is wild – Make sure you have two passport photos (there is a guy there who will take them on the spot – at a price), the right fee (preferably in US dollars)  and are in the right queue for the period that you intend to stay in Nepal.  Any deviation will mean joining another seemingly interminable line of travelers!

Having finally negotiated the carousel we were accosted by a taxi agent who, having commandeered a car, escorted us to the hotel, keeping up a barrage of information and  insisting that he could arrange our whole stay in Nepal.  Having arrived at the hotel,  the Tibet International, we told him to come back that evening with a proposal.

Of course it being early morning we were unable to get a room and the manager suggested we visit the Boudhanath near the hotel, First though we visited the roof top restaurant for breakfast.

Boudhanath stupa

The great stupa of Boudhanath

Our friendly tour guy returned in the evening with his boss Dinesh and we were driven to Thamel, the tourist hub of Kathmandu, to  their offices, Osho VisionTrecks.  Dinesh went through the various options and we finally agreed a programme for the whole of our stay including taxi excursions each day to the many historic sites, flight to view Everest, air transfers to and from Pokhara, paragliding from Sarangkot and final transfer back to Kathmandu international at the end – all in £800.  It proved to be money very well spent.

Driving around the Kathmandu valley is like being conducted through a building site.  With a few exceptions there doesn’t seem to be more than 500 metres of paved road before it becomes a bone rattling cart track and there are buildings in various states of renovation everywhere.

two man shovel

Two man shovel filling a one man “doko”

Our second day started at the World Heritage Site of Pashupatinath a Temple complex dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva and the venue for Hindu cremations which are conducted on a 24 hour, seven day week basis.

Hindu cremation, scattering blooms on the body

Hindu cremation, scattering blooms on the body

We spent some time touring the complex with the help of an unofficial guide who insisted that she was “just talking to us”. Only licensed guides are  officially allowed on the site.  The tour included visiting the old peoples home where some local dancers were entertaining the residents.

Entertaining the elderly

Entertaining the elderly

From here we moved on to Rudravarna Mahavihar, one of the oldest monasteries in Patan (Official name Lalitpur), the city of fine arts, and one of the three Royal Cities in Nepal.  Reputedly over 1500 years old It was one of the most striking of the many buildings in Patan.

Statues and prayer wheels at Rudravarna Mahavihar

Statues and prayer wheels at Rudravarna Mahavihar

Just round the corner from this is a terracotta temple dating from 1585, the Mahabouddha, which has thousands of images of Buddha engraved into its surface. It was rebuilt in 1934 after being ruined in an earthquake but there were no original plans and there were enough bricks left over to build a small shrine to Maya Devi, Buddha’s mother.

 

Mahabouddha, temple of a thousand Buddhas

Mahabouddha temple of a thousand Buddhas

From here it is a short journey to Patan Durbar Square, the hub of the city, full of ancient shrines, temples and monuments as well as the many local shops. We stopped for lunch at a local restaurant overlooking the entrance to the square and then acquired ourselves one of the official guides to take us round.

At Patan Durbar Square

At Patan Durbar Square

This was the last stop of the day and we returned to the hotel for dinner and a well earned rest.

The next morning we were collected at 6.30 a.m. for the short journey to the domestic airport for our excursion on the “Mountain Flyer”, an 19 seat  Beechcraft 1900C, the flight along the Himalaya to view Everest from a unique angle. A really wonderful experience and for Josephine possibly the highlight of the whole trip.

Everest flight certificate

Everest flight certificate

After this experience we returned to the hotel for breakfast and a couple of hours recuperation and the we were off again to visit the Narayanhiti Palace Museum. It wasn’t until we were almost at the end that we discovered that, in 2001, the whole of the Nepalese royal family were murdered by the heir apparent after a family dispute.  No photography is allowed in this modern relic of Nepalese politics.

From here we moved on to see the Buddha Park, a haven of peace,

Buddha Park

Buddha Park

before moving on to the  “Monkey Temple” or Swayambhunath, a hilltop complex which, as you may gather from the name, is alive with holy monkeys.  Do not attempt to eat ice cream anywhere in their vicinity  as you will have it snatched from your hand as soon as you are distracted.

Monkey business

Monkey business

Of course being a temple there are a lot of steps, 365 to be exact, to negotiate! Apart from the central Stupa there are many smaller ones, the Herati Devi being dedicated to the goddess of smallpox and epidemics!

 

Herati Devi Temple

Herati Devi Temple

We took a late lunch and returned to the hotel to recuperate.

Next morning, my birthday, started with the staff at breakfast presenting me with a cake and ritual white scarf. Today was booked for Bhaktapur, about 15 kilometers from Kathmandu. It is the largest of the Newa towns and was capital of Nepal during the latter half of the 15th century ,

The drive to get there was somewhat interesting as, apparently the direct route was closed so we had to make a detour

Going by the scenic route

Going by the scenic route

Our taxi driver had organised his younger brother, a registered tourist guide, to escort us.  He was not only knowledgeable but spoke perfect English which mad the whole experience more enjoyable.

Bhaktapur is similar to Patan but on a much larger scale and it was as much the people,

Local Spinner

Local Spinner

local businesses

Potters Wheel

Potters Wheel

and shops

Pot shop

Pot shop

that provided some of the most memorable experiences.

Water is still drawn form wells.

Pulling water from the well

Pulling water from the well

Animals are still sacrificed to the Hindu Gods in Nepal and entrails may be hung on the temple.

Intestines from sacrificed bull on the Dattatreya Temple

Intestines from sacrificed bull on the Dattatreya Temple

A custom that would definitely be frowned upon in the west is the practice of covering a baby in mustard oil and putting he, or she, out in the sun to darken the skin.

Darkening the baby with mustard oil

Darkening the baby with mustard oil

Apparently the more modern mothers now us baby oil instead of mustard oil!!

Whilst in Bhaktapur we visited a Thanka Painting school and ended up buying a Mandala, or Circle of Life painting. I have admired them for years in various parts of the Far East but watching them being painted finally convinced me I needed one!

Thanka Art School

Thanka Art School

We finally left the wonders of this amazing town and headed for hilltop village of Nagarkot for a late lunch. The clouds made getting a good photo difficult but the views across the valleys were worth the journey, as was the lunch.

Nagarkot

Nagarkot

And that was another day over.

Our last day in Kathmandu was spent in the city area.  We passed some terrace housing on our way the Hanuman Dhoka 
situated on the Eastern side of

Terrace Housing

Terrace Housing

the Kathmandu Durbar square. This is the gateway to the Royal Palaces which house the Kathmandu museum.

Hanuman Dhoka

Hanuman Dhoka

The square itself has the usual collection of temples and a large statue of Kala Bhairav or the Lord Shiva in his frightening aspect

 

Kala Bhairava

Kala Bhairava

And thus ended the first phase of our holiday

Next morning we took the Simrik Airlines Beech 1900 flight to Pokhara.

Flight deck - Pokhara here we come

Flight deck – Pokhara here we come

This is a half hour flight which can be a little bumpy at times, but one hardly notices it as there are some spectacular views out of the windows.

Welcome to Pokhara

Welcome to Pokhara

Having landed and collected our baggage we were met by our taxi man who would be our guide for this stage of the holiday.

We drove off to our hotel, or so we thought. Thirty five minutes later we arrived at a parking area alongside a couple of fairly shabby hotels. Josephine’s comment was, “what have you brought me to!!” However, it turned out to be the way to the Begnas Lake mooring point where our ferry was waiting to take us to the resort.

Begnas Lake Ferry point

Begnas Lake Ferry point

Twenty five minutes later we had our first view of the Begnas Lake Resort.

 

First view of the Begnas lake Resort

Begnas Lake Resort – the first view

What nobody had told us and did not seem to appear anywhere on TripAdvisor is that  there are 109 steps up from the landing stage to the Reception.  Nor did it mention that from Reception to the road there are 274 steps up!!  Do not let this deter you, the service and the food are beyond reproach.

Our room, number 33,  had a large bath,

Now that's what you call a bath

Now that’s what you call a bath

and a large bed

King size bed

King size bed

and not a bad view from the balcony

View form the balcony

View form the balcony

After settling in we thought we would try the steps up to the top road which turned out to take us thirty minutes with stops for breath at each bench, about 50 steps apart. By the time we left we had it down to 10 minutes!!

View at the the top gate (333 steps up)

View at the the top gate (333 steps up)

That was enough for one day so we repaired to the bar for a well earned beer.

 

Begnas Lake Resort - Bar

Begnas Lake Resort – Bar

The bar boy turned out to be a Liverpool supporter – not that you’d ever guess!

Suitably exhausted we retired for the night.

Day seven was scheduled to take in the Gurkha museum and to go paragliding from Sarangkot and our ferry back to Begnas Bazaar and our taxi was booked for 7.30 am.

We visited a Hindu shrine on the way

Pokhara Hindu shrine

Pokhara Hindu shrine

and then the land rover picked me up for the trip to Sarangkot.  They did not mention a this point that the last 750 metres to the take off zone had to be made on foot.  This was a near vertical climb which, even if I had had a camera with me, I would have been too knackered to use!!

My reply to the “flight marshal’s” query, ” Are you sure you are OK?” was ” I made it didn’t I!”

And so my pilot,  connected me up and we took off

 

Going up!

Going up!

It was a pity that the weather was not better as we did not get the stunning views of the mountains as a backdrop but the climb up to 2400 metres into the cloud base was something else. As was the descent. As seen on the video which follows:

And we landed safely without incident.

soft landing

soft landing

From here we drove back into Pokhara and visited the Gurkha Memorial Museum.

Gurkha Museum

Gurkha Museum

This is really worth a visit even if you do not have the interest that I have. The section on the Borneo campaign was particularly relevant to me.

Borneo Operations

Borneo Operations

From here we went to a Nepalese fast food restaurant where the order of the day is a Thali Set, which is a combination plate for which one can get unlimited refills.  Meal for three at less that £5.00!

And so back to the resort.

The next day we visited the world peace pagoda, see the first picture. As usual this involved climbing a long way up and even longer down.

We decided that, given the state of the approach road it would be better to walk down to where the tarmac started!

Better than by car

Better than by car

Having negotiated this we called in at a local supermarket and picked up a couple of bottles of wine and then had lunch at another establishment that served the Thali.

Thali lunch with our driver

Thali lunch with our driver

From here we went to the Devi Falls.  As a tourist attraction I found it a little disconcerting to discover that the name is derived from the fact that a girl of this name drowned whilst swimming on one of the pools.

Devi's Falls

Devi’s Falls

From here we visited the Tibetan refugee reservation where, amongst other enterprises,  they have a carpet weaving workshop.  Needless to say we now have a hand made runner on our landing.

The following day was planned for the paragliding experience and

The next day,  sitting on the breakfast terrace, the morning view of Annapurna appearing out of the mist was an experience not to be missed.

Annapurna from the breakfast terrace

Annapurna from the breakfast terrace

The view changes from minute to minute and occasionally one get the reflected view in the lake.

 

Annapurna reflections

Annapurna reflections

We then decided that we would spend the rest of our time at the resort walking in the surrounding area rather than bouncing around in a taxi.  Also, although the weather was pleasant at around 23º – 25ºC the cloud base was too low to provide classic sunrise/sunset views from Sarangkot.

We had some stunning views and also some insight into local life.

One - choose your boulder

One – choose your boulder

Two - lift your boulder

Two – lift your boulder

Three - Drop it in the doko

Three – Drop it in thedoko

 

The three pictures here are of one of two girls who spent each day moving boulders about 60 yards to a building site.  They carried about three boulders per load! The loader varied between this woman and a man. When not carrying their loads they could be seen chatting away on their mobile phones.

 

The came across all sorts of occupations as we went along:

 

 

road gangs.

Road builders

Road builders

 

 

Shepherdesses

 

an arm full of goats

an arm full of goats

 

 

Linemen for the county!

Linemen for the county!

National Grid engineers

 

 

 

 

Sweetcorn de huskers

sweetcorn

sweetcorn

 

 

 

And of course there is the local Co-op

The local Co-Op

The local Co-Op

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also encountered some of the smaller local life

An ant and his house

An ant and his house

Taking in the sun

Taking in the sun

A puddle full of frogs

A puddle full of frogs

A friendly beetle

A friendly beetle

 

 

 

 

On our final day in Pokhara we took the paddle boat to the Tal Barahi Temple on Lake Fewa

 

 

It is great spot for just sitting and watching the world go by

Watching the world go by

Watching the world go by

 

We flew back to Kathmandu to spend our last two days at the Gokrana Forest Resort, a complex a few kilometers out of the city and, as the name suggest, set a Forest reserve. there is a championship golf course attached but I did not take up the challenge.

 

Monkey at Gokrana

Monkey at Gokrana

Some stump

Some stump

In fact we spent the two days lounging around in the grounds watching the monkeys and getting a massage prior to the flight home.  It is an excellent hotel with helpful staff and wonderful food. The security guards carry catapults rather than guns!!

And so ended two great weeks of exotic sights, sounds and smells.

See the photos at Google + The header picture for the post is the 15th century carved wooden Peacock Window in Bhaktapur, known locally as the Mona Lisa of Nepal.

Ölüdeniz experience – October 2013

Just the place to relax. Apart from the taxi not being at Dalaman airport which was a bit of a letdown we had a pretty uneventful journey to this beautiful bay to the south of Fethiye.

The bay

The bay

ü

Ölüdeniz has most things one could want.  A plethora of restaurants and bars, sunshine and friendly local populace.

chilies drying in Üzümlü

chilies drying in Üzümlü

Our idea was to laze about and take a few excursions and meet up with an old friend who has a apartment in Üzümlü, a pretty mountain village about 40 minutes on the bus from Fethiye.

We duly booked to visit The Saklikent Gorge and Tlos, an ancient Lycian Citadel on one day and also a two day excursion to Ephesus, the Roman capital of Asia Minor, and Pamukkale where Cleopatra was reputed to have taken the hot springs and St Philip was martyred.

The great thing about Turkey, apart from the weather and the food,  is it’s wealth of history.

 

Of course there had to be another distraction! Ölüdeniz is a centre for paragliding, due to a 2000 metre mountain directly behind the town and reputedly the best thermals in Europe.

The sky is full of parachutes from dawn to dusk. Needless to say I got hooked on the idea and had to give it a try.  The most hair-raising part of the whole adventure was the ride to the take off platform in a minibus.  Once that was over the walking off the the edge of the mountain was a doddle!! The 25 minute descent was just mind blowing.  Click the photo for the video experience.

Flying high with Alibaba

Flying high with Alibaba

 

 

 

Christmas Letter 2013

10 December 2013

Another fairly short missive this year.  It has been as eventful as ever but once again I have failed miserably to allow for the fact that it has been a lot shorter than last year.  This has resulted in December taking me by surprise and leaving me little time to marshal facts and figures.

I am also trying to work out how, having reduced my working week to Mondays, Wednesdays & Thursdays, I seem to have less time to do all the things that, in previous years, I managed to get done over the weekend.

The most notable event of the year was probably our youngest son, Peter, finally managing to climb onto the housing ladder and moving into his apartment in May.  It is quite amazing that, from a constantly full washing machine we now are lucky to make up a couple of loads a week.

On the recommendation of a dear friend, whom I first met in Corfu whilst on the Greek Interpreters Course in ‘73, and had only met up with once since, we went to Marmaris for a week in April.  Barbarra bussed up from Fethiye for a day and persuaded us to visit Ölüdeniz which, she assured us, was a much better place to holiday. We dutifully took the 4 bus day excursion and were so impressed we booked for ten days in October. In the meantime I signed up for a basic Turkish course.  Never thought I’d see the day!!  It is also the best place to sample Doner Kebabs since I was in the Old City in Famag’.

It turned out that Ölüdeniz is one of the most popular centres for paragliding in Europe and watching them glide down and land along the esplanade  gave me one of those; “I could do that, couldn’t I?” moments.
DCIM100GOPRO

Josephine told me if I wanted to just stop talking about it to go and do it… so I did!  It was an unbelievable experience, walking of a 2200 metre mountain and spending half an hour floating above the sand and sea. Definitely hooked and will be up again at the earliest opportunity.

Apart from this we found Turkey to be most hospitable with friendly people and a wealth of history and all at a remarkably economic price.

We took a two day trip to Ephesus and Pamukkale, famous for the salt springs and Cleopatra’s bath amongst other things.

 

Old Shanklin

In June we made another duty trip to the Isle of Wight.  The last time we were there was in 2000 to scatter my mother’s ashes on the downs at St Catherine’s.  This time it was to scatter my last remaining relative’s ashes in Niton Churchyard.  The one thing one can guarantee about the IOW is that nothing will have changed and it will remain firmly planted in the ‘50s. My Brother in Law had never been so we did the whole tourist thing. Picture is Old Shanklin.

 

with king puck

With King Puck in Killorglin

This August was the 400th anniversary of the oldest Fair in Ireland.  With a couple of exceptions it has been held every year in Killorglin, Co Kerry.  The format is that on day one a Goat is crowned King of the Town and put high above the main square where he reigns for three days whilst the townsfolk indulge in a horse fair, cattle fair, and a myriad of street events.  The Bars licensed for music until 4a.m. On the third day the goat is brought down and de-crowned and it is all wrapped up with a huge firework display

Apart from this Josephine has been busy with her walking groups and beading classes and I have continued to attempt to maintain my handicap at the same level. Even playing twice a week this is becoming ever more difficult.  Still it keeps the joints moving.

And so another year draws to a close and we are still in the land of the living and in relatively good health so we wish you a very happy Christmas and all the best for 2014

Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, Oct 2012

The Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Naples is the ideal take off for a trip to far south of Italy.  Just over three hours in the air and one is an hour and a quarter bus ride from the centre of Sorrento.  This is the Curreri Viaggi bus which stops right next to the airport and runs every hour provides a  pleasant ride around the Bay of Naples with some wonderful views and all for €10 a head.

We arrived at Sorrento station with the sun shining and 24ºC.  The most important thing on our minds was food as an early start had precluded a proper breakfast!

Jhonny’s Pizza & Sfizi

We set off down the road and just around the first corner we happened on Jhonny Pizza & Sfizi House. Definitely a find with lots of locals, great Pizzas and Peroni beer at very reasonable prices

Our hotel has a regular shuttle bus but as we had no real idea where it ran from in relation to the station we decided to take a taxi.  How much will it cost I asked.  It’s on the meter said the driver.  It was! 3km for €22.50!  Well we should have known – this is Italy.

We arrived at the Grand Hotel Aminta, perched high above the town, and booked in.  Our room, as we had requested, looked out over the bay to Capri although the island remained shrouded in mist during our whole stay.

Room with a view, Capri

Whilst out on the balcony I got into conversation with our neighbours, only to discover that they were from Hillsborough. They gave us the low-down on the path that runs from the hotel down into the town, originally the main road.

Harbour from the old road

Having had a bit of a rest we decided to try it and set off down the path.  It takes about twenty minutes using the stairways which cut off the U Bends.  better than waiting on buses although a bit heavy on the knees.

 

A picturesque town

We would recommend the town to anyone who like pottering about.  There is a wealth of architecture, shops of every sort from  tatty to ultra chic, innumerable restaurants and bars which cater for every taste and pocket and generally an ambiance of  pleasant indolence.

We had been recommended to dine at the Ristorante Sorrento and, whilst the food was excellent, it took 45 minutes to arrive.  In this period we engaged a couple at the next table in conversation and found them to be teachers of English as a Foreign Language to Chinese students in Milan!! To cap it all the  gent was from the Donegal Road in Belfast and had attended Inst in the 70s.

After dinner we discovered that we had missed the 9.30 shuttle to the hotel and there was not another until 11.30 so we decided to retrace the path back to the hotel. This turned out to be a bad idea!!  Not only were there no lights and it was easy to miss the short cuts but it was a lot steeper than we remembered.  When we finally made it and told the receptionist she was horrified and ordered us never to try it again.  We had no intention of so doing!!

Circuvesuviana

After an excellent breakfast with proper Italian coffee (Josephine is now converted to latte when in Italy) we  caught the shuttle to town and thence to sample the delights of the Circumvesuviana, the local narrow gauge train that serves all the stations between Sorrento and Naples, and which stops at Pompeii, our destination for the day. About €4.20 each return. It is quite an experience being packed with not only tourists but people going about their daily business.  It is reminiscent of the London Tube with the exception that one gets to hear peoples life stories and a host of other interesting, and not so interesting, facts about life as the passengers babble on to one another.

Arriving at Pompeii it is a short walk along to the site.  Unfortunately we had forgotten our passports as, at all national monuments in Italy, EU pensioners get free entry!!  There are plenty of guides about if you wish to hire one but we decided to buy a guide book and do it ourselves.  There are various recommended tours, broken down by the amount of time one intends to allot to the experience,from 2 hours to 5 hours.

“Zebra crossing”

Thermopoleum (Fast food shop)

I do not intend to dwell on all the sights as it is perfectly well documented elsewhere.  It is an experience not to be missed and we found the simple things like the “Zebra Crossings” to allow people to cross the road without stepping in the muck whilst allowing carts etc.  to pass by were as interesting as some of the more spectacular relics. One can listen to guides  as one goes about and some of the patter leaves one wondering if they really do know what they are talking about.  I would hasten to add that some of others are obviously very well versed.

Happy Snappers

Brothel advertisment

One of the most amusing episodes was the appearance of  a Japanese film crew, the ultimate in Happy Snappers, complete with the ubiquitous face mask.

There is a very good self service restaurant on the site and it provided a welcome break after about 3 hours of walking.

At the forum

Temple of Jupiter

Overall we spent about 5 hours exploring and then made our way back to the station and thence to the hotel for a wash and brush up before venturing into the town for dinner.

This time we made sure we caught the shuttle bus.

Octopus Salad

We decided to try a different restaurant rather than risk another prolonged wait to be served and settled for the Taverna dell’ 800 on the Via de 11′ accademia. Their Octopus Salad starter was a masterpiece. The rest of the meal lived up to this standard as did the wine of the region which we had discovered on the previous evening; Lacryma Christi, literally Tears of Christ. Have not seen it outside the Neapolitan area, but if you do come across it it is worth a try.

For our second day we decided to just potter about the town and to this end we took a leisurely walk down the harbour and discovered that there is a “Mini Cruise” which leaves Sorrento harbour around ten in the morning and calls at Capri, to go swimming for an hour, Positano and Amalfi and, at €24 each, this seemed a pleasant way to have a relatively stress free and restful day.

San Antonino Abbate

Taking it easy under the carving

Cold cuts

Tickets are only available on the morning from 9.00 so we took the lift (€1 each) back up to the main part of the town. We shuttled it back to the hotel for the afternoon and then braved the town again for dinner.

This time we were railroaded into the Blu Water on Via P R Giuliani by a vigilant maître d’hotel.  It turned out very well and I can recommend the affetato misto (cold cuts) as a good way to start.  Josephine took the spaghetti i mare and I had pan fried anchovies, all topped off with another bottle of Lacryma Christi.

Great craic in the restaurant with the head waiter chasing people who sat down got a menu and then one goes to the loo and on return they both try to disappear up the street.

We were getting used to our evening routine and were back on the 11.30 to the hotel, thus ending another day.

We were up early in the morning for breakfast to prepare for our cruise.

We had checked the times of the local bus as the shuttle did not make its first run until 9 a.m., however, due to either the vagaries of the timetable, or incompetence of the receptionist to read it correctly, nothing had appeared by 8.30 and once again we ended up taking the footpath down to the harbour.

Cruise ship

The “ship” would not be much competition to Royal Caribbean but proved to be adequate for the purpose.  There was a choice of polypropylene or traditional deck chairs on the top deck. We cast off and headed for Capri.

Capri coast

The request for numbers who wished to go swimming returned a null so we sailed around the northern tip and then headed off along the coast towards Positano.  It is a pleasant run up the coast with villages and farms dotted along the cliffs.  One has a choice of disembarking at Positano or continuing on to Amalfi, the latter being our choice.  Quite a few passengers boarded for this leg of the journey. We finally arrived and went off to explore the town.  It is hard to believe that around 1000 AD it was a major maritime garrison with around 70,000 inhabitants.  In 1343 it was more or less wiped out by a tsunami that caused a huge landslip which slid most of the town into the sea  and it never recovered.

Alamfi Cathedral

It is a picturesque town with an imposing clock tower on the cathedral and, really, one main shopping street that winds it’s way up through the centre.

Main street

Street scene

There  was the inevitable wedding in the town and, as is the Italian custom, the bride and groom paraded up and down the street.

happy couple on walkabout

We were not persuaded to actually buy anything except for some locally made gelati.  Then it was time to reembark and head back to Sorrento.

At least they can get Sky

By this time the breeze had a chill edge to it so we found a corner of the deck under the lee of the superstructure.  The sun continued to shine and we had a pleasant run back along the coast picking up the Positano group on the way.

We finally arrived back in the harbour at about 5.30 and caught the shuttle bus to the hotel for a session in the Jacuzzi and change of clothes.

Once more into town for dinner and we returned to the Blu Water as the previous evening had been such a success.  We were not disappointed.

For our last day we planned to go to Vesuvius and possibly Herculaneum.  This involved taking the Circumvesuviana once again , this time to Ercolano.   One can buy a ticket for the bus transfer from the station to Vesuvius at the ticket office in Sorrento so we dully opted for this.  The all in price for the two of us was €28.  The train was as crowded and noisy as our previous trip, but this time buskers hopped on and off at various stations along the way.

The long walk up

Pandemonium reined at the destination.  We were told we had to “change” our transfer tickets for the bus at the little office in the square and were also asked to pay an additional €8 each for entry into the Vesuvius National Park! There were two organised tours and many more freelancers like ourselves, around 50 in total, but no buses.  Then a 12 seater arrived and there was much jostling for position.  You may guess how much as there were Italians and Germans amongst the throng, neither of whom has a reputation for understanding the principal of queues!! A 27 seater then appeared, followed by another minibus and again there was much rushing about until we all managed to get aboard. Our 10 seater had 13 squashed in but I was lucky enough to get the front passenger seat to myself.  The driver explained that the previous day they didn’t fill one minibus from that train so had not bothered to bring all the drivers in.

The crater at last

The drive up to the crater is quite spectacular with wonderful views over Naples and also the lava path from the 1944 eruption.

One does not get to the crater by bus; one gets to a shack selling drinks and various knick knacks and a stall hiring sticks intended to help one on ones way up the 800 metre lava dust track to the final destination. We did not invest in the sticks considering them more a hindrance than a help.

We made it eventually and Josephine’s comment on looking into the depths was, “is that what we struggled all the way up here for!!” Well there wasn’t any fire and brimstone to view!! Needless to say we did not circumnavigate the rim of the crater which is an option for the more intrepid walkers.

The buses allow just over an hour and a half to make the pilgrimage and this worked out about right;  35 minutes to get up, including rests on the strategically placed benches at the hairpins, and 25 down, avoiding ending up on ones backside on the volcanic shale, plus time for a well earned Peroni.

We were duly returned to the station where the driver informed us that the site of Herculaneum is only about a ten minute walk down the hill.

This time we had ensured that we had our passports and so saved ourselves the €11 each entry fee.

Mosaic decoration in the Neptune & Amphirite House

Taverna di Priapo

It is amazing to walk onto the site at roof top level and look down and see the ancient town laid out below.  It is nowhere near the size of Pompeii but, due to the manner of its submersion in a mud slide, two and three storey buildings remain standing as they were. The interiors are also better preserved and one can see the evidence of restoration work which was in progress from a previous earthquake.

One could have spent a day there but exhaustion set in after a couple of hours and I think we had covered the major works so we climbed our way back up to the station and train back to Sorrento.

For our last evening we went up market for dinner and settled on the Sedil Dominova where we ate inside and actually had tablecloths. The service and food were exceptional and we were serenaded by an Italian guitarist. An altogether well spent day.

Serenade

Next morning we were up and away and on the but to Naples and our flight back to Dublin.  The last view of the bay!!

Quick link to all the Photos

Grand Hotel Aminta, Serrento

We selected the Grand Hotel Aminta as appearing to be the the best value for money, its general rating on TripAdvisor and the fact that that one could get a sunset view room across the bay towards Capri.

We arrived mid afternoon and one could not fault the welcome we received in reception, having got over the shock of a €22.50 taxi bill for the 3 kilometre drive from Tasso Square (it’s on the meter the driver had told us – and it was).

The promise of  a stunning view from our balcony out across the Bay of Naples was fulfilled, everything was clean and tidy and the double bed extremely comfortable.

Room with a View

The hotel have a free shuttle bus that runs every hour into the town centre starting at 9 am with a last run back at 11.30 pm. It misses a couple of hours at lunch time and again thre is no 10.00 p.m. down or return.

It is also possible to walk down the old road into town which takes about 20 minutes if one utilizes the steps which cut off many of the hairpins. Coming back up is a bit of an effort and it it easy to miss the turn off to the hotel .  The staff were horrified that we had done it after dark and advised against a repeat performance.

The Breakfast Room

Breakfast is buffet style although it is possible to order from the waiters who circulate with coffee and tea.  Personally I preferred to mix and match continental and crispy bacon.

We did not eat in the restaurant as there was such a good choice in the town at exceptionally reasonable rates.

The bar was comfortable and it prides itself in the number of whiskeys available – apparently over a hundred including a number of Islay malts. They also have an enviable selection of Grappa without which no Italian holiday is complete.

Cons?  We could hear the television in the next room even when the volume was turned down.  They have them back to back on wall mounts and I suspect that the power boxes are shared between the rooms.  Also any movement in the corridor was clearly audible. We had to request additional shower gel twice before it appeared and our towels were removed but not replaced on one occasion.

Pros?? Spotlessly clean and pleasant helpful staff . Beautiful views from the 2nd and 3rd third floors at least.

There were a number of regulars, who had been returning for a number of years, staying  so it  obviously has a great appeal for some.

Perhaps we are too picky but we will return to Sorrento but not the Aminta.

Jun 8, 2012 - Around the World    No Comments

China Tour – Shanghai to Beijing with Wendy Wu

Rogues gallery at Tienanmen Square

Shanghai is closer than you may imagine; only 10 hours from Heathrow and the entry point to another world! Easy immigration procedures and in no time we were met by our Wendy Wu local tour guide, Troy, and whisked away to the An Ting Villa Hotel.

Shanghai first impression

The journey in by coach gave a foretaste of what was to come, with vast highways and skyscrapers and a generally very 21st century look.

It was a free afternoon and we met up with more of our group with who turned out to be a mix of Aussies and English. We were assembled for dinner in a local Shopping mall restaurant having had, at about three hours, the longest free time we would get for the rest of the tour.

Old City Street

The whole group assembled next morning 14 Aussies, 8 English and 2 Irish with job specs covering Cheltenham Ladies, trailer relocation across Oz, to NHS administrator amongst many others.

Breakfasts throughout the tour varied greatly but attempted to appeal to both oriental and western tastes.  Personally I gave up on the western menus on day one as I found that the Chinese offerings were by far the most appetizing.  I achieved my aim of not using a knife and fork for the whole of the tour.

Yu Gardens – Rock art

Day Two took us first to the Old Town and the Yuan Bazaar and the Yu Gardens.

The place bustles with life and the buildings are from another era but, as we found throughout our tour, the dress is definitely western.

The Maglev

The only place one sees traditional local costume is in the Museum of Arts.

This was part of our afternoon itinerary and was to say the least most impressive.  From there we went to the station to try a round trip on the MagLev;  the Magnetic Levitation train that links the city to the International airport at a maximum speed of 430kph. They have to slow down to 340 when the trains pass in opposite directions. The 30km journey takes 7 minutes! For the techies click here.

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View from Jin Mao observatory

Back onto the bus and off to the Jin Mao Tower, not by any means the tallest building in Shanghai but the only one that has an 88th floor observation room. The lift up is awesome and coming down more so.

Shanghai Riverscape

To show the speed the guide put a small coin just off the floor and it hovered there!

One would have thought this would have been enough for one day but no, off we went to the river for an evening excursion along the Huangpu River.  The transition from dusk to dark is quite spectacular and the illuminations on the riverside blocks makes a wonderful nightscape.

From the river to dinner and then bed and another early morning.

Silk spinning

Day three started with a visit to a local silk museum, a euphemism for somewhere that spins silk and is clever enough to  to sell you a pure silk filled duvet.  Having used it since we came home it was well worth the £60 as it is light and warm and is non washable – they are just shaken and hung out to air.  A pure silk double duvet cover, however, would set you back £250 and upward. My westies would not appreciate it!

From here we made our way to the airport for the flight to Yichang and the Yangtze river. Shanghai Photo link

The flight was eventful only in as much as we had to land at a military airport in the middle of nowhere due to fog at Yichang. Rick, our tour comedian, managed to produce beer from the galley whilst we sat and waited for clearance so all was not lost!

Dinner at the Yan Sha

After about an hour we were in the air again.

We finally arrived and, after another 45 minute bus journey, were whisked into the Yan Sha, one of the top restaurants in the city. Definately good food and a local choral group to boot.

We finally embarked on our cruise ship, the Century Sky, late that evening.

The Century Sky (Dockside)

This turned out to be really smart with comfortable, if  fairly compact cabins, and pleasant restaurant and public rooms. There was quite a variety of tour groups collected at various stages of their itinerary, Chinese, Australian, American, et al.

The next morning we were off to see the Three Gorges Dam Project which is the worlds largest hydroelectric power station. It is impressive but has been immersed in controversy, displacing 1.2 million people and submerging 13 cities, 140 towns and over 1,000 villages.  The party line from all the guides is that everybody was rehoused and all are far better off in their new homes.  With their reverence of ancestors one wonders how many of the “relocated” really feel now that their forbears are left below the water line. As the boat sails along one is concious of the waterline which marks the high and low marks as the water is controlled through the dam.

view of 3 gorges dam

The Three Gorges Project

On board entertainment today included a cooking demonstration on Chongqing Hot-Pot which included a host of chillies, which were evident when we got to taste the result.  Josephine was having problems with her knees and, following a demonstration of Chinese Medicine, signed up with Dr Death (Really Dr Ryan, but his manner of speech got him the nickname) for a course of Acupuncture.  This proved to be the next best thing to a miracle cure and she had no problems for the rest of the tour.

There was a Cabaret that evening featuring the members of the crew and very good it was to.

All together on the Daning River

Day two and on the move again with a trip, involving two changes of boat, to the “Lesser Three Gorges” on the Daning river.  These are named the Dragon-Gate, Misty and Dicui (Emerald) gorges.  The views, when the mists associated with the area lift, are quite spectacular.  It is one place where some of the ancient culture is evident, with ancient coffins somehow installed into caves in the sheer cliff face and plank walkways suspended over the river.

Perspective – note the “high rise” mark on the banks

The small boat in which we made the tour of the upper reaches of the gorges added to the ambiance and of course everybody had to take a turn in dressing up as an ancient Chinese boatman!

We returned to start rehearsals for the “Guests Cabaret” in the evening.  Rick, our group “entertainer”, devised a routine in which everybody, including our tour guide Bruce,  would wear pigtails made from toilet paper by the ladies, and perform the “do re me” song from A Sound of Music.

Shibaozhai Pagoda

Fortunately there is no footage of the on stage performance.  The group came second to a group of children who were very good and were always tipped to win!!

Kites above the Yangtze

The Karaoke which followed was memorable for the number of people who should have known better than to attempt to sing!!

And so to the last day of the cruise and a visit to the Shibaozhai Pagoda. The original temple was built on the side of the cliff, about 200 metres (700 feet) tall and it was reached by a series of chains and pulleys, however, in the 1700’s a nine platform pavilion was built to assist people to reach it  and a further three tiers were added later. The base is now surrounded by a coffer dam to protect it from the river which since the completion of the three Gorges Project would have engulfed the base.  The village through which one approaches the pagoda is a product of the relocation of a community above the original water line.

Of course a trip to China would not be complete without kite flying and the afternoon was spent on the sun deck with a multitude of kites, provided by the organizers.  A great way to relax.

Zhongxian – I think!

Whilst we were busy with the kites we passed a concrete jungle which turned out to be Zhongxian.  It is really difficult to find places on maps of China.  If you Google Zhongxian you get a general view of the county and there does not seem to be an actual city named as Zhohgxian!! The population density must be scary and it is difficult to get perspective on what it is like to live there.  It was also interesting to see the number of people doing their laundry on the rivers edge.  Reminiscent of India and Vietnam without the high rise!

The Captains Farewell Dinner was on my birthday so, following a menu which included jellyfish, steamed catfish with soy sauce and mustard goose in a clay pot to name but a few of the courses, I was shepherded out with two other birthday spirits to receive our cakes and the accolades of the gathering.

The final stop and disembarkation point was Chongqing, recently in the news for it’s association with the murder of a Brit businessman and the downfall of a Chinese politician and his wife, later to be found guilty of the murder. Not a lot going for it as far as we could see although it is the industrial centre of SW China and Sichuan Province.  Regimented blocks of concrete towers and the Opera House resembled the outline of a T54 Tank!

Yangtze Cruise Photo link

 

Chengdu - Girls about town

Chengdu – Girls about town

Another couple of hours flying and bus journey and we arrived in Chengdu.  This was the only stop where the standard of the hotel left quite a bit to be desired.  Not that the food was too bad but the general impression was that it was dated and tired.  The rationale for using it is that it offered the experience of city centre China rather than in the multinationals which  have no “local feel” whatsoever.

Chengdu Centre, like Saigon, has wide boulevards and shopping precincts boasting Macdonalds, Häagen-Dazs and all the usual outlets. Prices are paltry for locally produced fare and exorbitant for anything genuinely imported.  Dress sense is also ultra us/eu as far as the younger generation at least is concerned.

We spent the first afternoon wandering around the city and getting lost.  Everywhere looks the same and even the card with the hotel name and address on it elicited absolutely blank looks or completely meaningless directions.  We even elicited the help of a group of teenage girls who rang round on their mobiles and finally pointed us in the right direction  and even then we were hand led round by the security guard at the Crowne Plaza Hotel who took pity on our lost look. We must have walked past the end of the road a number of times without recognizing it.

Josephine and the panda

Panda country

Of Course the main reason for being in Chengdu was to visit the Panda Sanctuary and the next morning we were duly bussed  out of the city.  Apparently it is not particularly popular with the local population but there were school parties and visiting groups from other Chinese provinces.

pandas tug of war

Tug of War

It is exceptionally well run and the enclosures are spacious and adapted completely for the needs of these quaint creatures.   Pandas are bears that were carnivores and, for some reason, evolved into vegetarians and again it a species that is reliant on one particular strain of bamboo  which they are ill equipped to digest. Realistically they are at the end of the evolutionary cycle and are past their sell by date.  This is not a view that would be particularly popular if broadcast in the earshot of the officials at the breeding centre.  One must admit that they are, what’s the word, “cute”.  For a mere £130 one can be photographed holding a baby panda.  What they do not tell you before relieving you of your money is that you have to wear a rubber overall, rubber gauntlets and a protective hat.  This is to make sure the baby pandas do not catch anything.  We gave it a miss!

After lunch in the reserve restaurant, where I bought fried rice (approx £1.00), rather than eat the rather dubious sandwiches provided, we set off for a visit to a brocade factory.  Very impressive, but as usual the really worth while products were at the top end of the price bracket and were not really suited to a western suburban environment.

Chengdu & the pandas photos link 

From here we were en route to the airport, once again, for the next leg to Xi’an and the home of the Terracotta Army.

We landed in a cold, wet and windy city, which was a bit of a shock having had, on the whole, pretty clement conditions up till this point.

Duck dumplings, the shape=the filling

This evening, following a dinner of many varied dumpling which are a local specialty, we were entertained at a festival of music and dance from the Tang Dynasty, 618-709 AD, when Xi’an was the capital of China.

Xi’an, translated as Western Peace, was the starting point of the fabulous trade routes, The Silk Road, which were followed by caravans from the 2nd century BC and carried silks, spices etc. out of China and brought back most famously, or otherwise, Buddhism and the Black Death.

The Terracotta Army, was discovered by farmers digging a well back in 1974 and is part of a necropolis dating back to around 246 BC.  This is now the main attraction of Xi’an and has spawned an industry in firing copies of the artifacts.

Replica Chariot & Horses

Our tour started in a pottery producing replicas which are manufactured using the same techniques as the originals.  These were handmade and, as each of the artisans had their own particular molds and models,  no two of the thousands of full size figures cast were exactly the same.  The whole enterprise is a masterclass in pottery but, unless one is a fanatic about the history, a replica warrior, horse, or even the Imperial coach and horses, would look pretty out of place at home.

The real thing – the infantry

Having seen the spin off it was time to go to visit the  real thing.  Now housed in specialist halls with controlled lighting and access points it is, to say the very least, impressive and certainly not to be missed.  In a way it rivals the Egypt’s Valley of the Kings for this is not the resting place of many rulers but a whole army and city for just one emperor.  Due to restrictions on flash photography the standard of photos from here .is pretty poor. It is a shame that the colours have been lost due to time.  It was found that they faded and flaked off within 4 minutes of exposure to air and for this reason, amongst others, further sections of the site have yet to be excavated.

Tea Tasting

And so another landmark on our tour was completed and we were duly deposited in the Xi’an Art Ceramics and Lacquer Exhibition, a rather swish gift shop, and invited to a tea tasting. All very formalized and the tea was, for the most part quite familiar. This fazed the demonstrator who did not seem to expect anyone to  know the difference between pu erh and oolong teas.

Tower in the mist

She made me a very acceptable jasmine tea but the price of a packet was about double that on my specialist tea website.

From here to a rather chilly exploration of the 500 year old city walls, or rather a small section of them.  People actually jog round them though there was little  evidence of this whilst we were there. They are pretty impressive and would be even more so in the sunshine!! There is also the inevitable gift shop housed on the upper level.

Xi’an & the Terracotta Warriors photos link

 

And so to the final city on our tour, Beijing, latterly known as Peking and world famous for it’s Roast Duck dish.  The weather was a real improvement on Xi’an with lots of blue sky.  This was considered to be due to the pollution having been cleared by snow storms a couple of days before our arrival.

 

Changing the Guard at Tienanmen Square

Queuing to see Mao

Our first outing was to Tienanmen Square, infamous for the  June 4 massacre of protesters in 1989.  We arrived on some particular date associated with Mao Zedong and there were huge queues of Chinese outside his Mausoleum. It is a huge expanse and bustling with activity.  The police being very much in evidence though low key.

Next stop the Forbidden City, covering an are of 1/3 square mile this was built as the Imperial Palace by  Zhu di over 15 years starting in 1402.

Forbidden City – courtyard

It is daunting complex of just under a thousand existing buildings and would really need more than the few hours we were allotted to do it true justice. Many of the rooms are closed and one has to peer through rather dingy windows to get a glimpse of the interiors.

Amazing roof art

 

Temple of Heaven

Follow this and a short break for lunch we were off to the the Temple of Heaven. A Ming (circa 1400) architectural masterpiece in the centre of a large park with four large gates set at each point of the compass.  The park is full of tai chi classes, joggers and card players, of which there were many schools.  The ladies were prominent in this pastime.

The card school

From here we went back to the hotel to prepare for the acrobatic show, the Legend of Kung Fu, in the evening.  This show, at the Red Theatre, is a real action extravaganza, with a story as well.  A spectacle well worth seeing.

And so ended our penultimate sight seeing day.

Another early start and we were on to the coach for thetwo hour drive to the Great Wall.  This passed the site of Disneyland China which was about a quarter built when the developer felll foul of the local farmers and the whole project has been on hold for the past four years or so.  Just the towers in view!

The Great Wall is quite impressive, very impressive even and a trip to China would be much poorer for missing it  It is thronged by tourists of whom the majority are Chinese; I hesitate to say local as they could well have come from any corner of this vast country.

View from the first watchtower

The Great Wall

Climbing it is not the easiest exercise as every step is a different height and depth and the gradient would be classed as Diff in mountaineering! I did succeeded in getting to the top of the first watchtower which was my goal.  Some of the party made it to the third level.

 

From here we moved on to a jade factory to see how it is carved and sculpted.  Of course there is a large shop adjacent.  We let the girls do the looking whilst we sat at the bar where they served local beer at an amazingly cheap rate.

The Marble Boat

And so on to the the last of our cultural sites, the fabulous Summer Palace, built in 1750 as a retreat for the Imperial families it was originally named ‘Qingyi Garden’ (Garden of Clear Ripples). It was destroyed twice, once by the Anglo/French invasion and secondly buy the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. Rebuilt in classic style, with funds embezzled from the from the Chines Naval Fund, it is a beautiful setting.

Little princess

Once again there were crowds of tourists but this did not detract from the overall experience.  The only downside was that one of the party got conned by the “money exchange trick” where you end up with worthless Taiwanese money instead of real Yuan.  Something to remember – always travel with small denomination notes and check your change before the seller disappears of the face of the earth!   Josephine bought an excellent “genuine fake” Gucci bag for a fiver!!

Our farewell dinner was, of course, Peking duck, and it was a fitting finale to what was a fantastic fortnight.

Beijing Photo Link

China Portraits Photo Link – Pictures of people who seemed memorable just for being there.

Bruce & Family

Peking Duck

This tour is not for the faint hearted but it certainly gives one an overview of the country and some of it’s most memorable attractions.  The guides were all superb and knowledgeable and the Tour Guide, Bruce, who stayed with us for the whole journey could not be faulted on any count.

Our group was eclectic to say the least and everybody joined in and contributed to the overall enjoyment.  Thank you all.

Will we go back to China?  Probably not; but this is not a reflection on the tour, just that we have a lot of other Asian countries and cultures to explore whilst we still able.

 

Dublin

Another call from the wild so down to Dublin for a meeting with project architects for Tullamore Arts Centre.

Early start to catch the 8 am Enterprise using our Senior citizens passes.  Unfortunately they don’t fund 1st Class so, in order to get breakfast had to cough up £18 for the privilege of comfy seats, orange juice, papers and waiter service.

The Enterprise gets a lot of flak but the one thing they do pretty well is breakfast, so all in all a pretty stress free journey.

My destination was not far from the Jervis Centre which is a mere three stops on the Luas from Connolly Station. This provided somewhere for Josephine to pass away an hour or so whilst I pondered the intricacies of retractable seating with the architect.

Brambles - Jervis Centre

We met up again and had the most amazing cream bun in Brambles cafe Good service as well!

Josephine had found an Italian bag (hand) shop but whilst trying to navigate back to it came across a hair salon so settled on a wash and blow dry to lift her spirits.

Boston Hair and Beauty

That done we found the bag shop and she added a smart little number to her collection.

Around the corner a  very large gentleman sporting Celtic warrior garb disappeared behind his sandwich board at the sight of my camera. We walked over the Halfpenny Bridge and through Temple Bar to Grafton Street.  There was the usual buzz, Hari Krishna’s, Leprechauns and the other usual suspects.

Molly Malone and the Leprechauns

A trip to Dublin would not be complete without lunch in Pacino’s, a nice little Italian Bistro tucked round the corner in Suffolk Street, just at the bottom of Grafton Street. They have a great lunch menu and the meatballs and carbonara with gubben ham are at the top of my list. House white of the day was a Riesling and, at €5 a large glass was not to be missed.  Usual excellent service.

Best Italian in Dublin

We walked a little of it off past Trinity College,on to O’Connell Street and so back to Connolly and our train home.

A satisfying day!

 

 

 

Killorglin – not just a small town in Kerry

Only in Count Kerry would you find a town that has been crowning a goat king for for the past 399 years.

It’s not too often that one gets a call to visit Kerry on business and even less often for it to be in Killorglin, home of the Puck Fair. Unfortunately this three day event doesn’t take place until August and not even I could hope to hang out a visit for that length of time.

With the chance of a contract in the offing Josephine and I set off to revisit the town that we last set foot in together around 15 years ago.  The drive from Belfast now takes under 5 hours as opposed to the seven in those days.

Our hosts, the committee of Killorglin CYMS, had kindly organised accommodation for us and I had asked John and his wife, Catherine, to meet us in the town for dinner.   I left it to him to book a table at a convenient hostelry as Nick’s Place now shuts up shop from October to Easter.

We arrived at Laune Bridge House around seven and were made truly welcome by Tina with pots of tea and coffee and slices of coffee cake.

River Laune from the Bridge

We had plenty of time to spruce up before meandering up the road to the Bianconi Inn not five minutes away.  This is a another family owned affair and was fairly buzzing with activity when we arrived.  John and Catherine followed shortly after and we were shown to our table.

The Bianconi

Drinks were ordered and we tried to decide on food. I cannot resist Crab claws in garlic butter so was the only one to have a starter. Surprise, surprise! The rest chose variously warm smoked salmon salad, a vegetarian salad and a large sirloin. Just to be different I had a kilo of mussels in wine and cream sauce.  For wine we went with a merlot which would have been hard to fault.  The food was par excellence!  The smoked salmon was to wonder at and everybody got a taste. The service was friendly and efficient and the prices reasonable – under €150 for 4 people with drinks and coffee cannot be bad.

Good friends already

Apparently the rooms have all been refurbished which would have been nice if they had had any unoccupied.

John then enticed us to visit his local, Falvey’s, for a nightcap.

Never ones to refuse we tripped round the corner and were met with a “traditional” Irish bar.

The Local

Full of the local football team completing their midweek training and various other characters including Pat Healy the chairman of the committee and motor sport enthusiast. As always happens in this sort of environment “a nightcap” consists of more than one over a couple of hours and we finally made our farewells and floated back to the lodgings around 1a.m.

After a good nights sleep we were treated to an excellent breakfast:  forwent the “full irish” in favour of scrambled local free range eggs, bacon and Clontakilty pudding.

CYMS Hall

Then it was off to the CYMS hall to do some work. After some couple of hours or so we decided coffee was in order and we sat out on the pavement in the sun for half an hour or so.  Of course the lass serving us was also family.

It was a pleasure doing business with people who made one feel welcome and a part of the project.  Especially Maura who wanted answers to everything and then some:  that’s engineers for you!!

All too soon it was time to depart, having promised to return for the 400th Puck Fair – if not sooner, on the seemingly longer journey back – with a short mandatory stopover in Adare for some shopping – but that’s another story

Sharm el Sheikh New Year 2011/12

Sun on the Alps

Now I know why we avoid travelling during the school holidays! Falcon flight Dublin to Sharm el Sheikh bit like a sardine can and, can you believe, it no bar service at all!!

Arrived in one piece and flew through immigration with no problems which is quite an achievement for Egypt.  There was a taxi awaiting us and we were whisked away to the Savoy. As one would expect reception was efficient, our luggage disappeared and we were escorted to our room.  The sea view from the balcony was not apparent; it being around 10.30 local so we made straight for the bar. It is a strange feature of Egypt, or Sharm in particular, that nowhere seems to serve dry ginger. Still we managed without. My one complaint is that the smoking ban has not caught on and although they have a no smoking area the fans ensure that the offending cloud is spread evenly around.

Soho Square

We left after one and walked up to Soho Square, the hub of the complex; dancing fountains and music ice rink, bazaar etc. etc.  Of course there has to be a bar called “the Queen Vic” with the mandatory English menu!  We found a small “cafe” and indulged in an Egyptian kebab and Lebanese spicy cheese salad washed down with the local beer.  Good choice.

The long day caught up with us and we returned to take a nightcap in our room. Discover that there is a “pillow menu” offering six different styles and fillings. Settled for what was already on the bed!

Friday morning and we looked out over the bay with the sun shining – intermittently it must be said – and the temperature a pleasant 24⁰. Breakfast was as good as one would expect.  In this part of the world it best to avoid bacon and sausages! Fresh dates, figs, oranges, all the eggs cooked while you wait and lots of those nice little pastries…yum!

The pools

We wandered past the pools and down to the beach and then back up to book our table for the New Years Eve Dinner.  It’s split up so that you can be at home in a Tux or with the kids in casual. We were in the Egypt Hall; all adults in DJs.

Josephine booked her wash and blow dry for the next day and I had a manicure. There was a bookies widow called Elaine from Glasgow having a pedicure and her first question was “Are you a Celtic or a Rangers supporter”.  Oh well, nothing much changes. We exchanged life stories whilst the girls worked away at our nether bits.

Would you believe it we are sitting next to the pool having a burger and a beer and it has started raining.  Well a couple of small spots.  They put the electric awning over the tables so no problem!

It's this big - Honest

Saturday, New Years Eve and all’s well. We spent a lazy day doing not a lot. Lunch at the Seafood Island restaurant and the rest of the afternoon on the beach couture watching. Then back to get Josephine to the hairdressers ready for the evening’s festivities.

The New Year party was a great success.  To serve a buffet to 450 without having to queue  takes a bit of organising! The star cabaret act was the Chinese circus with Egyptian dancers being a close second. New Year was heralded in for the Russians at 10.00 and for the rest of us with a Brazilian combo at midnight local. The Disco proved too much and we bailed out about 1am.

Teppanyaki!

They were serving breakfast until 3pm so we did not hurry and spent the day on the beach. We had booked the Teppanyaki for dinner and shared it with a Dutch couple and a Russian woman with her young daughter; later joined by an intensely English guy from Sussex with his American wife and with whom we were finally asked to leave so that they could start the second sitting. We decamped into the bar for another bottle of wine and to put the world to rights: as one does.

Finally got round to snorkelling along the reef on Monday: stunning corals and fish.  No underwater camera unfortunately: will have to get one of those waterproof cases for the compact. Life on the beach nearly as interesting.

We spent the evening in Soho Square.  There is food hall with various outlets and a cabaret.  Unfortunately neither the food or the cabaret lived up to expectations, still it was an inexpensive way of making a mistake! We went back into the main square and indulged in an Irish and Mexican coffee, which were as good as one gets, and enjoyed the girl band.

Sun worship

Tuesday and it is back to the beach people watching.  A bit windier today and only 22⁰! Just finished my second book of the holiday, Cold Comfort Farm, a real scream if you like parodies. The first was Evelyn Waugh’s “Handful of Dust”: I’m getting very literary!!

Contemplation

In fact the rest of the holiday was spent not doing a lot and soaking up as much sun as possible.  As the News of the World used to advertise “All Human Life is Here” and there was an amazing cross section of it at the beach and around the pools hailing from Ukraine to Yorkshire and Baltimore to Bangor.  Quite mesmerising in a number of ways.

There are a number of shots of the male form but it is sad to relate that they were in no way able to compete, either in number or esoteric form,  with the ladies. They did prove interesting though.

All too quickly it was over

Our taxi was booked for 5am Thursday morning but, in typical Egyptian fashion, it did not appear and my attempts at nonchalant indifference finally left me at 6 when the Desk was unable to raise any cab at all.  We ended up being taken to the main road in a buggy and the ever efficient Security Guard network finally trapped one.  Shouldn’t have worried we ended up in the check in queue three behind a couple who had been bundled into a coach at 4.30!

We will be back!

Christmas Letter 2011

This time last year we were under nearly a foot of snow and now we are in the middle of a deep depression but, as I have said many times before, in Norn Iron we are constantly in a state of depression; sometimes it’s a good one and sometimes it’s not so good. Nothing worth getting one down anyway.

 

So how’s our year been since I last put fingers to keyboard for the annual missive.

 

It started off well with a cruise round the Med with the MSC line.  First time we’ve been on a “proper liner” and very nice it was too. The ship was superb having been in for a refit only a year before and the service and food were perfection. Our dinner table was shared with an Afrikaner business couple and a white Zimbabwean doctor and his wife who now live in the US. It made for interesting conversations especially in relation to their attitudes to modern Africa. Did I agree? I couldn’t possibly comment! Especially with the RRB looking over ones shoulder.

 

We sailed out of Venice to Bari, on to Rhodes, Alexandria; New Year at sea on the way to Olympia and from there to Dubrovnik and back to Venice.  Highlight of the trip, apart from the New Year’s Eve Party, definitely Dubrovnik. The old city, within the walls, is really picturesque.

On the political scene January saw a Sin Fein special Ard Fheis finally support the devolvement of policing to the Assembly.  Of course there were the usual ifs and buts on both sides. Well there would be; wouldn’t there

 

Later in the month we spent a weekend in London to take in “The Lion King”; technically brilliant and generally much better than I had expected, and to catch up with Les and Dot Jones over a real curry at Veeraswamys, the oldest Indian Restaurant in UK. I was last there in the ‘60s and it is still as opulent.

Of course we had to be caught by a fire alarm at the Cavendish Hotel at 5a.m. on Sunday morning.  Positive – nobody hurt: Negative – didn’t get hold of the prat who set off the smoke alarm in their room.

 

 

I had to go to County Limerick in February to survey a community hall in the middle of nowhere.  Luckily not too far away, still in the middle of nowhere, there is a country house hotel with a gourmet restaurant attached; The Mustard Seed at Echo Lodge.  I took Josephine down for the ride and we had a very pleasant couple of days. It says something that, on a Tuesday night, the restaurant was nearly full.

 

Peter and Martin, our erstwhile joint leaders, took off to New York (on the taxpayer of course) for Paddy’s day and: Martin was quoted, in a speech to US businessmen, “Ireland is renowned for its culture, its creativity and art. Every corner of the island is alive with enterprise, art and creative thinking” (and perpetuating sectarian incompatibility).

 

Belfast celebrated Holi, the Indian Festival of Colours, in style with a extravaganza in St Georges Market, organised by ArtsEkta. It included bands, dancers, stalls etc. and culminated in everybody throwing coloured powder at each other, which is intended to break down social barriers.  Orhan and Leah loved it and it really does work!

 

We went down to Wexford for the Association of Community and Comprehensive Colleges annual conference in March. Always a good gathering and a round of golf at Rosslare to boot! Whites Hotel is definitely the place to stay.  The town is certainly more vibrant than last time I was there with lots of boutique shops and a couple of great restaurants. From a business point of view it was quite productive as well.

 

The fact that there are still a lunatic fringe alive and well was brought home in April with the murder of a young police constable in Omagh, where else. At least now all sides condemn these acts of petty terrorism.  Personally I object to labelling the perpetrators as dissidents, which gives them a degree of notoriety, whereas they are just mindless criminal thugs.

 

We joined up with friends for a week in Jersey at the end of May. Hour and a half flight from Belfast so no hassles.  It was a Pleasure to be back at the Greenhills Hotel with its old world courtesy. We spent the week pottering around the sights and were lucky enough to pick up a couple of bargains at an antique fair. No comments please! The Eric Young Orchid foundation, where they breed hybrids as well as preserve known species, is a must if you are contemplating a stay on the island.

It was a restful week in the sunshine (for the main part).

 

June is the month that the Irish Steam Railway Society run the Jazz trains.  The idea is that you get a party together and bring your picnic hamper filled with good wine and some solid sustenance and board the train at one station or another. Dressing up for the occasion is optional. Eat drink and be merry and, at various stations along the route the train stops,  the Apex Jazz Band alights and everybody dances on the platform for half an hour or so. The dancing improves in direct proportion to the wine drunk!

This was also the month that Rory McIlroy proved that he could really stand the pressure and won the US Open thus shutting up the detractors who saw his demise at the Masters, after having it in the bag, as proof that he had no resilience.

 

 

Once again violence hit the streets with two nights of rioting involving up to 400 hooligans along the Short Strand interface. This time it was pretty much unanimously blamed on the Loyalist paramilitaries (another posh name for another bunch of mindless thugs).

 

As is normal in “Norn Iron” BBQ’s are held in the wet and ours was no exception. The advantage is that “the ladies” retire indoors and leave us to get on with it!

 

We fitted a bit of culture by taking the grandchildren to Navan Fort, the site of the ancient capital of Ulster.  One of the attractions is an Iron Age settlement, complete with peasants,  who explained to the kids the way of life that was the norm in those days. Seemed like an improvement on our civilisation if you ask me! I wasn’t around at the time.

 

July saw the marching season swing into action with a few more riots and the water cannon out on the streets, but nothing really serious; hyped up by the media as per usual. Didn’t do our international reputation any good – Did I really say that?

 

Josephine took off with Orhan, Leah and our daughter on the annual pilgrimage to Portrush in August. This is guaranteed to bring rain, hail and pestilence to the North Coast. Luckily St Patrick banished all the snakes or they would have had a field day as well.Whilst she was away I attended the Golf club Garden Party, complete with the Downshire Brass Band and prizes for the best hat (ladies).  For once I did not attempt a drag act.

 

My golf society Annual Outing took us to Enniskillen  to play Lough Erne, the Faldo designed course, of which Rory McIlroy is the tour professional. It’s big and long and quite a challenge. It would not be one of my favourites but it was certainly worth it as a one off.

 

September’s local highlight was Rihanna’s failure to impress a Presbyterian farmer who had let her use his field to film. He was trundling past on his tractor when we saw that she had her gear off and asked her to leave, intimating that nobody was going to do that sort of thing in his fields. Obviously not a beef farmer then! She later put everybody’s back up by appearing on stage two hours late.

 

Trevi Fountain

We went to Rome for a long weekend at the beginning of October. The weather was perfect and we had a great hotel near the central station.  We walked the length and breadth of the classical part of the city: there was bus strike on one of the days and, having tried the tour bus, decided that walking was by far the best mode of transport anyway.  Downside – cameras stolen from our room on the first night. The saga of getting it reported to the Carabinieri would make a novel!

The highlight was the tour of the Vatican Museum. We were hijacked by a Sligo girl who got us to sign up for a guided tour and it was the best thing we did. Our guide was a diminutive Roman lass called Ava who led the group; a Danish couple, a Dutchman with his Columbian girlfriend and a couple of young Israelis, with infectious enthusiasm. The tour takes about two and a half hours and even then there is quite a lot missed out. The Sistine chapel is much smaller than I expected and so crowded that it loses a bit of its impact.  Still impressive though.

 

I had two devastating pieces of news in October. My old Army friend, Sandy McKinnon, died at his home in Bangkok and, within a week of hearing this; another friend emailed me to say that her husband had died suddenly at their apartment in Turkey.

I went to Penicuik to Sandy’s funeral and found it hard to believe that we had been playing golf together in Thailand only 18 months previously. The officiating pastor was in the army with Sandy and left to join the church, not that the two events were connected.

 

November turned out to be a really busy month with two reunions over a weekend in the Cotswolds. The first in Stow-on-the-Wold on the Friday evening was the second held by the ex REME Junior Leaders who were in Arborfield between 1958 and 1967.  A quite excellent affair impeccably organised by Barry Johnson yet again. It is also a credit to his persistence that two couples travelled from Australia specifically to attend.

I survived the evening to be collected by Eric Ross and whisked away to Cheltenham for a bash with the Intelligence Corps AN(SI) retired discriminators. It centred round those who were posted to Birgelen around ’62 – ’64 and was a sounding board for the group to return to Effeld next year to celebrate 50 years since we first descended on Elie’s Bar  – Gasthof Buchen.  Eric and Christine kindly provided the accommodation for, not only me, but John Bax and Mike Cadwgan as well.  There was much old shop jargon talked in the Royal Union that night.

 

The Golf club annual formal took up another Saturday evening which did not leave much of the month to do anything else.

 

Did I mention that Belfast hosted the MTV Music awards this month as well and there was not a hint of trouble! Never did get to see Lady Ga Ga though: sigh! I remember the days when I could have dressed like that!

 

So now we are into December and Rory has won the Hong Kong Open, the Irish economy is nonexistent and we are just about holding our own at the factory. The Sin Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast has got himself into trouble by refusing to present the Duke of Edinburg’s Award certificate to a girl who is a member of the Army Cadet Force and Sammy Wilson, our Finance Minister, is in trouble for making “Dirty Protest” jokes at a function about the legacy of the Maze.

 

Some things never change! All good fun and all things considered the year could have been a lot worse.

Happy Christmas and may 2012 bring you all you could wish for.

Michael & Josephine