Category: Travel

Unusual sights in Prague

 

Making the climb up to Prague Castle, we learned that “Good King Wenceslas” of Christmas carol fame wasn’t a king but a price, but was also a saint.  Not many saints have a vineyard, though!

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The Germany embassy has this unusual statue (you have to nip round the back and peer through the fence!)

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WTF?

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No, seriously, WHY????

And a Cuban moment…

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And I’ll never cease to be amazed at what some people do for art!

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The “Dancing building” is a bit like me – only dances when drunk!

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And I can always find a brewery with something interesting to drink!

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Something of a contrast from the snow

Less than 48 hours from being in this snow, I took this picture from the 33rd floor "Skybar" at the Traders Hotel in Kuala Lumpur.  

petronas

Until recently the tallest buildings in the world, the Petronas Towers are spectacular both by day, when the sunlight gleams off the stainless steel finish, and by night.

Kerala

“Where’s that?” has been one of the most common replies from people learning of our latest holiday destination. Kerala is the smallest state of southern India, and is a popular holiday destination for hippie types and package tourists from the UK.

10 hours flight from London Gatwick gets you to the state capital, Trivandrum. The airport was the usual tedium, and we emerged at about 7am local time and got our first shock of the holiday, in finding out that the coach transfer to the start of our tour was going to take FIVE hours.

With a brief breakfast stop en route, we arrived in Kumarakom for two nights there. This turned into a not-so-free upgrade to the Radisson, since our expected hotel was full. “not-so-free” because our bill for two lunches and dinners was about three times what it would have been at the Backwater Ripples.

It was rather nice, though.

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The tour included a so-called “sunset cruise” on the lake, but we were back before the sun actually set. At least it gave me a stationary position to take some sunset pictures from!

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Yvonne’s review of the hotel, and the others on the trip, can be found on Trip Advisor – essential reading for any trip!

This stop was our introduction to the bizarre alcohol licensing that exists in Kerala.

Officially it’s a “dry” state.

The bottle shops are run by the government.

It’s very difficult for hotels and restaurants to get a liquor licence – hence even at the Radisson the bill showed “Open Food” for the drinks. Other places had the beer bottles left on the floor under the tables wrapped in newspaper, beer served in coffee mugs, and even brought to the table in teapots! Various bills showed “Special Soft Drinks”, “Pop”, or something similar. Suffice to say it wasn’t a problem getting a few beers with dinner!

Once we’d recovered from the travelling, we get back on the coach for another five hour journey, heading east into the foothills of the Western Ghats, the mountain range that marks the boundary between Kerala and the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu.

The destination was Thekkady, and after some impressive driving (I wouldn’t like to drive a 50 seater bus up those narrow roads), we arrived safely at the Cardamon County Hotel. From here we visited the spice gardens, rode an elephant, and went to the Periyar Tiger Sanctuary.

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We didn’t see any tigers – there are just 43 of them in the reserve, and they’re largely nocturnal. But we did see wild elephant, lots of birds, and a playful otter family.

 

The next leg of the trip was possibly the slowest – taking 2 hours to travel the first 40km (25 miles or so) over the hills from Thekkady to Munnar.  At an altitude of 6,000 ft with rolling hills, Munnar is called the “Scotland of India”.

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Not much of the Scottish glens are covered with tea trees, though!  The taller trees dotted around are white oaks – which provide shade and a natural windbreak for the crop.

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Yvonne surrounded by tea – some might say a tea-drinkers paradise.  Personally I can’t stand the stuff!

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Tea picking is still a largely manual activity.  These fields are owned by TATA, a huge Indian company who own Tetley tea in the UK.  It might be hard work, but 80% of the profits go to the workers.

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After Munnar, we drove back to the coast to the city ofCochin, home to the oldest Jewish Synagogue in the Commonwealth, and got treated (and I use that word in its widest sense!) to a display of Kathakali dancing.  It might be an ancient tradition, but it bored me silly and the dancers looked like pantomime dames!

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The highlight of Cochin for me was the Chinese fishing nets on the beach there – some of these have been handed down through the same family for 500 years, though I suspect a few running repairs might have been made in that time!

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We also saw a snake charmer on the streets of Cochin.  While Trivandrum is the capital, Cochin is the more cosmopolitan city and more industry oriented. The legacy of the spice trade is clearly visible – it’s still the home of the Pepper Exchange, where the world price of this valuable commodity, known as the King of Spices, is still set.

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The shortest day’s travel took us to Alleppy to board our houseboat for the next night.  15 years ago, some enterprising soul converted three rice barges to houseboats to take tourists around the backwaters.  There are now 650 of them, and another 200 in construction – my advice is to get there before they build too many more!

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One slightly bizarre sight on the route was this duck farm – thousands of them covering the waterway from bank to bank!

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Sunset over the backwaters was stunning!

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The final leg of the trip was down to Kovalam for our stay at the Leela Kempinski hotel there. The beaches at Kovalam were something of a disappointment after the clean golden sand of Goa – here they were covered in dirty-looking black mineral deposits and not as welcoming.  The weather was also something of a disappointment during this week – it rained every single day, sometimes for as much as 7 hours without stopping.  At one point it was raining so hard we walked back to our room in our swimwear!

The weather did break enough to allow us to venture out to the restaurants along Lighthouse Beach – excellent dinners and decent toasties for lunch, and a fraction of the price of the hotel food.

 

 

A tale of two airlines

In the first tale, despite a 90 minute delay I get a complimentary hot meal, whisked across the airport to make the connection, and generally made to feel like I was welcome on board.

In the second tale, I hand over my passport with the boarding card in the photo page.  The stroppy cow on the gate pulls out the boarding card, and gives the passport back to me and asks me to open it at the photo page because “it’s quicker for her”, then yells at the rest of the queue to open their passports to the photo page.  I point out that I’d left the boarding card in the right place, but this was obviously too much effort for her.  The same airline proceeds to charge me for a cup of mediocre coffee in a penny pinching exercise that would have warmed what little heart Ebeneezer Scrooge had.

Now, one of these airlines was Kingfisher Airlines, a new airline in India that knows how to look after their customers.  The other was Aer Lingus, a sad and sorry excuse for an airline whose raison d’etre seems to be to compete with Ryan Air on the grounds of poor service and customer abuse, and who I only fly with because there isn’t really an alternative and if I could get the ferry to Ireland in future, I would.

Can you guess which is which?

India Trip and Photos, Part II

After Agra, the trip on to Jaipur seemed never ending, and even the chaos of the Indian roads failed to keep our attention and most of us dozed for some part of the trip. We arrived at our hotel, and decided we just wanted a quick bite to eat before calling it a day.

The following morning we rose bright and early to get up and visit the Ambar fort. A fleet of 100 elephants make 4 trips each to take the first 800 visitors up to the fort on elephant back: the rest of the days visitors have to go up in the local rattly 4x4s (which is how everyone comes back down).

The fort is spectacular, and the mountainous terrain makes the view more impressive after the flat country of the last few days. From there we travel through the city of Jaipur to visit a carpet factory, a jewellers, and the astronomical observatory including the biggest sundials I’ve ever seen. The carpet factory offered a chance to buy a rather unusual souvenir in the form of a hand made woollen carpet. Much of the city of Jaipur is built from the local red sandstone, and what isn’t, is painted pink leading to it’s tagline: the pink city.

After the day in Jaipur we back our bags and head back down to Goa, and our final hotel of the trip, the Ronil Beach Resort in Baga Beach. The rooms prove to be basic but mostly clean, but the aircon works, and the restaurants and beach are an easy stroll. You kind of have two choices when staying in Goa: either the north, which we went for, with more basic hotels, but with restaurants, bars and nightlife on the doorstep, or the south, with the big all-inclusive hotels and have to take a taxi if you want to go anywhere.

The resort towns of Baga, Calangute and Candolim run into one another along this part of the coast, with a continuous run of shacks along the beach providing sunbeds, drinks, and excellent food, all very cheaply.

The system on the beach is excellent: all the shacks have sunbeds available, which will be set out with sunshades to your desires. They’re all free, as long as you’re buying from their bar, so we were kept topped up with drinks, and had a convenient sport for lunch each day. We picked one called “The Buzz” largely because it was the first one away from the cluster of noise and watersports as we came onto the beach. I recommend their toasted sandwiches as well as the Indian offerings on their menu!

We tended to migrate from there back up the beach for a sunset drink before freshening up and finding dinner.

The food choices in Baga were excellent. We can highly recommend Kim Faa (Chinese) and Fiesta (Italian) if you want a change from Indian food. But the Indian food was the highlight for us, with excellent meals everywhere. A couple of specific mentions:

  • East meets West – great setting, fantastic food, but slow service, and wouldn’t move us to a table away from the music despite being half empty.
  • O Pescadoro – lovely courtyard setting, superb food.
  • Salt and Pepper – more basic setting, but the food and service were great.

The prices were unbelievable – typically 75p to a pound for a beer, and a whole dinner for both of us, including drinks, for about GBP7.50!
One of the features of the beach at Baga is the steady stream of hawkers selling … well, just about everything. Sunglasses, sun-hats, sunglass cleaning, fruit, jewellery, various forms of tat as souvenirs, massages, and even ear-cleaning. Unlike in the north, most of them weren’t too pushy and actually understood the word “no”!

We did two day-trips from the beach. The first was to the Dudhsagar waterfalls on the eastern extreme of Goa. Wonderful view, though it was somewhat spoiled by the crowds of noisy tourists around the pool. The second was a half day dolphin watching around the estuary of the Mandovi river. Both made a nice change from the beach.

All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed the trip: an interesting tour, a great beach, fantastic food. Highly recommended.

Oh, more photos in the gallery!