Category Archives: Travel

Festa Major in Sitges 2012

Before the memory fades I must tell you about Sitges (with a see not an it) a small ex fishing village just south of Barcelona. A London friend recommended it and the hotel to stay at, so being in rather fast track mode I called, spoke to the Eve lady and all was booked, easy. We dumped the rentacar at the airport and took the Monbus down the coast accompanied by hoards of fellow revellers, all men. You see Sitges has a certain reputation, if you get my drift, in fact, out with it, it’s the Gay Capital of Europe. This of course is a very good thing, it keeps the worst elements of drunken Northern Europeans out, period. Hooray hooray.
The sister had a pleasant room at the front with a tiny balcony while I enjoyed a larger room at the back with a sitting room and almost a deck, oh, and the hotel’s a/c equipment. Up early the next morning, about five, I was wandering the street side restaurant when I was “good morninged” in American by two guys, I responded in like fashion and we chatted along until they saw through my charade, I was invited to join them and we had breakfast every morning for the rest of the stay. Hi Gary, hi Jack and Bill from Fort Myers Florida. Such gentlemen, we had lots of laughs, even over breakfasts.
Holiday stupor kicked in, beach, lunch, beach, siesta, beach, wine o’clock, walk the town, dinner, sleep, no complaints, yet. Leaving the beach late one afternoon we saw evidence of the impending mayhem, a stage twixt hotel and sand some twenty five feet from sister’s balcony with the most enormous speaker stack being prepared. This bodes badly thought we, and bad it got. This was the kickoff concert for Festa Major or FM12, or the town’s big annual Fiesta. Starting at about eleven thirty the sister was thrown about her room by the pounding sound waves of electronic dance music (EDM), not a tune could she discern, not a word could she understand, not a beat she could follow, not a wink of sleep could she achieve until five am. I didn’t hear a thing!
“You’ve seen nothing yet” we were advised over breakfast the next morning, sister’s crest fell a bit.
Undeterred we continued our strolls around town until one evening, the last one for us, we discerned the sound of approaching merriment, crowds gathering in the narrow streets, distant explosions, loud traditional music echoing up the alleyways and there he was, shaking and weaving his way toward us Saint Bartholomew himself. A twelve foot characature supported by one individual, hugely heavy, followed by, dunno, a female characature, they danced, span, spinned, wove, weaved, all most impressive. But then…….we were showered with fire, big fireworks, intense in the alleys, sparks on our clothes, in our hair, cowering in doorways as we were bombarded with flying flames, shooting out of passing dragons. My my, health and safety would have had a field day, but this was Spain. The alleys were packed, fifty to a hundred people deep and we were, remarkably, at the front, ducking and diving, avoiding a fiery fate. Small holes began to appear in Sister’s shirt. The noise, intense, loud bangs, kids, masked, warning us to step back, it’s dangerous, I broke my toenail, again, ouch, first busted in Laos on a rock. Just about everyone was wearing a hat, straw, to prevent their hair catching alight, yep, I left mine in the hotel, frantic pawing of head to put the sparks out. Hope you can divine the scene, it was one of those occasions which I think I can describe, without fear of hyperbole, as, “I have never seen anything like it.” I have to admire her, the sister was, I think, bemused.
So we survived that and self congratulating made our way back to the hotel for dinner. Ali, our trusty waiter, drove out a squatting drinker from our table and we avoided the ninety minute wait for dinner. Then there was more, a really really spectacular fire works display over the Church. Imagine a pristine bay with a couple of sail boats, maybe the odd pedal boat during the day. Late that night the water was alive with the lights of many many boats, craft, yachts, gin palaces, as far as the eye could see. Where did they all come from, where did they all go….We adjourned to sister’s tiny balcony to enjoy the show, one white wine one red, and excellent it was.
An aside here, anyone seen the July Fourth 2012 fireworks display in San Diego ? Half a million people gathered to watch and because of a computer malfunction the whole lot went up in thirty seconds. Oops. It’s on YouTube, of course.
Off the next morning to Barcelona with a bit of a bad head, the hi speed train to Madrid, ripped off as we transferred from station A to station B by the cab driver, typical, and another fast ride to Segovia. Before I go I I have to tell you that arriving at Madrid’s Atocha train station is somewhat like docking at an Arthur C Clarke space station, super modern, moving sidewalks, left field sculptures, most impressive.
Written at 39,000 feet over Reykjavik, Iceland.

The Fire Storm approaches

Revelers reveling

I’m sure you get the idea.

Take the rough with the smooth

After a somewhat whirlwind tour of northern Spain we are now back in the UK.
Had hoped to be welcoming the Seattleites tonight but alas their flight out last night was cancelled so we shall see them for breakfast instead. Fly well Cap’ Hill persons.
They did arrive, only twenty hours late, very tired but enthusiastic.
Something went wrong with my blogging abilities, sorry about that. I think I posted the same blog twice, deleted the wrong thing and the Ortuella post vanished.
Here it is again !

Don’t laugh but we are in Ortuella or to be more exact in the industrial estate of Ortuella which is a small town about twenty minutes outside of Bilbao. Our GPS on the phone guided us to another hotel with the same name in the middle of a housing development (council estate) set on a very steep hillside with exceptionally narrow streets, we received some very strange looks. Undaunted we continued into Bilbao driving up and down Bilbao Avenue looking for our booked hotel, for about an hour. Finally resorted to stopping at the Novotel block for advice to be advised that the best solution would be to hire a taxi and follow it to our lodging. Poo Baa said our pilot, we are better than that, so back out of town we cruised. There had been a mention of a fuel station, we saw one, turned in and there was the hotel, the hotel Ortuella. Brand new, restaurant, bar, tables and chairs outside with charming views of……….the industrial estate. Abandoning bags and car we caught a cab to the Guggenheim, what a treat, but more of that in a little bit. We did the tour, pottered in the Old Town and got a cab back to Ortuella.
Oh look, it’s all closed up, shutters over the bar door, shutters over the restaurant, oh deleted expletive. Hmm. Ok, back into town to find the supermarket, great idea except, we had no clue where to find same. Drove about a bit, parked, walked around, found all sorts of unsuitable retailers, bead merchant, dress shops, toy shops, but no food, wine nor beer. Finally found a fruit shop where we splurged on four bottles of wine, two of water and some bananas all for the sum of five pounds (seven fifty US). Knowing we would then find the supermarket we did, fifty yards from where we parked. Sigh.
Returned to hotel where we will enjoy the bread and cheese we bought in Santander earlier.
No major sense of humour failures and we are quite content with our bananas, bread, cheese, wine and the enchanting view of the industrial estate !

Our hotel

A few days in the sun.

Pisa was better than I imagined, sure, it was bursting at the seams with tourists, but there was a certain underlying levity all around. There is this huge tower dominating the historical center and at the top it is twelve feet off, it’s like a joke passed down from the twelfth century. Many many people taking antic photos, you know, where one pretends to be holding up the tower, yes we indulged also, and I took a very good one of a solo Brazilian woman. Our hotel was immediately outside the Piazza Duomo, so the walk was all of a minute and I enjoyed the early morning walk at dawn.
An early departure from the train station landed us at Monterossa al Mare on the coast, the town being one of the five in the area known as Cinque Terre. Yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. How to do it justice ? It was small, very small, an amble from the sea front to the back of the town took all of five minutes, and from side to side, even less. The main street, Via Roma, lined with tempting restaurants, shady bars and clothes shops for those inclined. Narrow alleys streamed off into the shade from side to side with the usual shutters and washing hung out to dry. Immediately behind the beach the railway line bursts out of a tunnel in the cliff before disappearing again two hundred yards later into another tunnel in the opposite cliff. Funnily enough it wasn’t the least bit disruptive, in fact watching the high speed Eurostar trains streak through for all of fifteen seconds was quite stimulating ! Even sitting outside in a bar, beer in hand, watching a train go by five feet away wasn’t in the least an irritation. The beach was the focal point of the town during the day, packed with holidaying Italians, the water was warm, the beach cafe was more than adequate. Small children splashed, moms and dads looked on proudly, teenagers played ball, grandparents sat and enjoyed the sun, it was all very charming. There was opera on a stage set into the cliffs by the quay, there was techno music outside the backpackers bar on the main street. The food was flavorful and plentiful catering to the tourists who were all, fortunately, Italian. Wine was good too, half a carafe of house red cost less than a bottle of water.
A Limoncella is an excellent night cap.
Unless you pay very very close attention to news events you may not know that in October 2011 the whole region suffered catastrophic floods. In Monterossa the hillside in back of town slid all the way down Via Roma, ripping out the roadway and burying the whole town in ten or more feet of mud and debris. Lives were lost. People were stranded for days with no power and little or no food or water. The first relief teams to arrive, by sea, forgot to bring shovels. Outside every business there is a picture of what that premises looked like on the morning after the overnight flood. A miracle it is to see what has been accomplished since then, the aftermath is barely evident, the road surface of the main thoroughfare is made of wooden planks. We asked a restauranteur how business was looking, ” well its August the Second and we are still here” he replied, looking a bit exhausted. I think that probably goes for the rest of the populace, they must have worked furiously for months to prepare the town for the holiday season. Well done them and if you have a chance, pay them a visit, I’m sure they would appreciate it.
Too soon after two nights it was time to move on again, to Lucca. The train journey had its unexpected events, like an hour detour on a bus through the Tuscan hills, studiously avoiding the direct route on the AutoStrade. Why? Never did find out. Lucca. Another of those medieval Tuscan towns, like Florence and Sienna, it has an intact wall around the old town left over from the eleventh/twelfth centuries and within it is a historical marvel. High clock towers, complete with clock, ancient villas of the merchants, fantastic churches and cathedrals, bell towers, dark alleys, illuminated arches, vast piazzas and best of all the amphitheater, now residential, but still just about circular. Much walking, much aching feet, much putting on of the sun screen, much collapsing in bars for another aqua or lemon soda.
Back to Pisa and the airport I am now rocking and bumping my way back over the Alps to London. I wonder if they have recovered from Andy’s gold in the tennis or Moe in the ten thousand meters, plus Ennis, Hoy and the others who we tried to learn about watching Italian tv coverage of the Olympics. We shall see.
Thanks Italy.


Reflecting after a RTW trip

I have been back in California for a month. I cannot even begin to tell you how difficult it has been to get back in the swing of it all. I seem to have been surrounded by an enormous, blanketing fog, a fug even. I can’t see anything, I can’t do anything, everything just seems different, a blur.
After I had been back in Ca for just about a week I was driving down Sir Francis Drake Blvd into our small town when it struck me, where are the ladies collecting cow dung to fire up the cooking for their evening meal, where are the endless smells, some good, some really really bad, where are the bright colored clothes, saris, turbans, where is the endless din, traffic, horns, shouts, where are the tuk tuks, where are the Holy cows? Why is there nothing to see, no jaw dropping forts, no endless vistas stretching away to the horizon, no sand, no dirt, no dust, no crowds and crowds, ha, no heat even? There is not a pot hole within miles. There is hardly even a decent curry, unless I go to Berkeley. I can park easily, I can walk into a shop and know where everything is and what it costs. I am not the remotest bit scared. There is no chanting, there are no bells, there are no Temples to marvel at, no Muezzins calling the Faithful to prayer, there isn’t even a train whistle. There is no new town, city or village for me to explore tomorrow, not even a new street. I know what is going to happen next with crashing certainty, I even know where the next meal is coming from. I am not anxious about talking to people, or even not talking to people. I am not fixated with Internet accessibility concerns for emails, Skype or blog posting. I just about know where close family members are and what they are doing, up to the point where I need or want to know.
Did I really ride a tuk tuk into downtown Vientiane, did I really take an hour’s ride in a sampan on the Mekong river in Phnom Penh, is it possible that I spent a week roaming the Western Ghats without seeing or speaking to another Westerner, did I really stand on the walls of the forts at Jaiselmer, Jodhpur or Udaipur, was that really Ankor Wat, Hong Kong ?
But yes, I guess I did those things and more besides and now I am back, I know I am back as I just went on a lengthy walk (hike) with son the younger, he told me I was back ! Thank you Sebastian.
People said very kind words about my blog posts and now that the fog is clearing I may take it up again, blogging that is. It is also interesting to note that my site is still getting some twenty or so hits a day, from all over the world, they can’t all be from my Mother!
There are a number of events missing in my posts, I may try and cover them before the memory fades. Notably getting sick as a dog in London, of all places, after all that, I get sick in London, it was quite unpleasant and most embarrassing, I didn’t eat for a week and felt dreadful. There was a night in Lincolnshire that was uproarious, my thanks for the hospitality.
Today, July 27th 2012.
I’m reviewing a number of posts that I wrote for my blog after returning to the West Coast, or the Edge as its sometimes known, but you know what, they all seem a bit whiney, wingeing even. Hope the above does not fall into that category. It’s been three months now since I returned and quite honestly I can’t sit still. Jump up every time a plane flies over, where is it, where’s it going, who is on it ? Why am I not on it ? Saw a lady in town yesterday in full sari regalia, it’s the little things. Here I am, on the day that everyone seems to be planning to watch the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, OFF, outa here. In twenty four hours I hope to be checking into a(n) hotel in NAPLES. Wow. See you there or en route.

Out and about in Jaisalmer

On the phone.

Atop the wall.

An average alley, wide enough for four warriors side by side.

A mysterious alleyway.

A Jain Temple in the town.

Jain Temple detail.

Street scene.

Just strolling about.

A school outing.

One of the three gates into the city.

Such a fortress.

Far out in the desert the sandstorm rages on.


Ok, I finally succumbed, stopping at the two hundred kms marker to take a photo, three tiny children sidled up and began cooing, rupees, chocolate. There we were, absolutely in the middle of nowhere, crazy Westerner is taking photos of a mile marker, I just had to, yes, I gave them money. Everywhere, absolutely everywhere you are told not to, it’s bad for them, it’s not PC, they will not go to school and instead end up hustling for chocolate and rupees at the mile marker. Well, I haven’t seen a building for an hour, well not one that you could call a house, so the chances of those little ones ever going to school is remote. Do I feel bad ? Yes of course I feel bad, for them, and a system that lets me ride around in a car, with a driver, and gives them nothing whatsoever. Oh the life of a bleeding heart, tree hugging, pinko liberal. Desperately searching for a reason to go on living I will say I raised big smiles on the faces of three children who live close to the two hundred km marker from Jaisalmer and maybe tonight they will be able to tell funny stories about the Westerner who took photos of mile marker.
Last night’s hotel was a great success, I had a quick walk around the closed fort, looked in some shops, failed to find the craft market, had dinner and went to bed. At about four thirty I discovered the disadvantage of staying in a room on the top floor, it was just about adjacent to the towers of the Buddhist Temples of the city, consequently, when the amplified prayers began I almost fell out of bed. I don’t wish to sound disrespectful, it was very melodic, it’s just there were three temples in my immediate vicinity and others in the distance and they were not, shall we say, in sync. The prayers went on for about an hour and then the calls to prayer from the towers of the Mosques started. It was not exactly a restful night.
Undeterred, I was up early, grabbed a handful of breakfast and off on the high road through the desert to Jaisalmer. It is not quite like the archetypal desert, yet, it is sandy, yes, but trees manage to grow, goat herds survive, there are buffalo, cows and bullocks of course, camels and donkeys, and the occasional village. Desert colored, a bit drab to my eyes, dusty and isolated there is something remarkable to see in each and every one. The women ! Well their clothes anyway, you cannot see any part of them, they are so heavily covered and veiled, it’s the colors, the colours. Every color of the rainbow, and a few more besides, no two can possibly be alike, or even similar. Bright blues, yellows, pinks, turquoise, purples, orange, they stand out like beacons of light against the harshness.
It’s odd you know, every time I see Rajasthan written on the side of a truck I say to myself, oh yes, right, Rajasthan, but even now I still half expect to see an Attenborough pop out from behind a tree, microphone in hand, proving that this is in fact a movie. There is another thing, Pakistan is just a few miles away. I received some concerned comments about the proximity of the border but I have to say we are in good hands. We have just passed through a tank convoy, seen the Border Guard HQ and a massive camouflaged encampment. Santosh also just commented that we are passing through an old nuclear testing ground. I am sure everything will be alright even if India did beat Pakistan in the cricket last night. We just passed a large number of anti aircraft guns lined up alongside the road, seemingly ready for action.
One more thing, there was a sign inside the gate at the Bikaner hotel that read “Please do not ask for a commission”,puzzled I asked Santosh what it meant. He shrugged and feigned ignorance or lack of understanding. We stopped for lunch at a nasty place aimed solely at Western tourists,mine was so revolting I refused to eat it, how can a vegi samosa be disgusting! The daal and rice was ok, but to serve samosas with ketchup, in India, really people. The point of the story: I remarked to Santosh that my lunch was inedible, and he said, I know, then looked very sheepish and started talking very fast about something else, incomprehensibly. The penny dropped, he rakes in a percentage of everything I spend, hence my lunch at the most expensive caff in the whole Thar Desert. What a hick I am, I won’t even start on the story about his friend who wanted us to come for tea, who just happened to own a silversmith shop. I just maintained my happy smiley face, but how many no thank yous do I need to say before I make my point.
On to Jaisalmer, what a treat for the senses, the fort, containing the old town completely, dominates the surrounding plain, it burst into view ten kms out and is everything I could have imagined, maybe more so, it dwarfs last night’s fort in Bikaner. Fabulous sandstone walls, some crenellations, turrets, Havelis, little decks, verandas and terraces, some falling down bits and of course the occasional a/c unit and satellite dish. My hotel, for two nights, is ok thanks, my room faces the fort, it has a rooftop bar, restaurant, hangout space gaily done out in multi colored covered lounging big benches, more like beds in fact. It has the wifi. It has the chill techno music. It doesn’t appear to have any people. The walls of the fort soar up in front and the desert stretches out infinitely behind.
I am here, I made it, my ultimate Rajasthan fantasy come true and it’s better than I ever could have envisioned.

The road ahead.

My spot on the roof.

The right end of the fort.

The left end. There is a bit in the middle which you can see behind “my spot”.

The Three Little Ones.

The road was quite crowded sometimes.


Jaipur to Bikaner

Last time I shall do this I suppose, how vexing. Bag packed, check, camera, phone and tablet charged and in clothing, check, passport and green card, check, zippers done up, check. So many things on the check list as I get ready, it’s second nature now. Am wearing gifts from family, Seb’s good luck Eagle charm, Nat’s restaurant t shirt, J’s bug bracelet, I am good to go, good to go. Mount up and away we go in in our Ambasador, an Indian classic car, with new pal, Santosh Mina. Uh oh, he is already talking about his caste, this might prove interesting. Good roads out of city, there is even a bus lane, big direction signs, like on the freeway, mostly squiggly Hindi, but some in English. A big overpass, not exactly Dallas style, but worthy of a photo. Two road blocks as we pass out of the city, waved thro both, and to first gas station. Alright, I don’t have to pay like I did in Kerala, also I did check on Santosh’s sleeping arrangements, it’s sorted, he won’t have to ask to sleep with me !
Villages again, enlivened by the colorful clothing, just passed a dirty dun colored bus that positively exploded with the lady’s clothing, like a bright light had been turned on inside. There are camels on the road side and huge bullocks on the central divide making eye contact as we pass. An hour out of Jaipur and the roads are still good, two lanes in each direction with a central divide, tho for some reason we keep meeting autos coming the wrong way on our side. We are thundering along at 90 kph, for three minutes, then more construction and our speed halves. The wheat is being harvested on either side, acres and acres of it, destined for chapatis I guess, I wonder how many are consumed each day.
Stopped three hours into the drive for food and water at Sikar, a busy looking town. Looked it up in book and it seems there are over two million people here, it has gaily painted tuk tuks too. Had a half of a very good samosa, pastries and a bottle of water in the Madras Sweet Shop. After Sikar the landscape has changed, no more wheat fields, it’s a kind of scrub, stark looking trees, the goat herds are larger and there are more of them, it’s beginning to get sandy. The road is good, I think we are making good time, one seventy five kms to Bikaner.
Another stop at Fatehpur, which looked like the proverbial one horse town, and I was reluctantly sent off with a boy. Come come he cried, oh no, not more shopping. A few steps away I stepped back five centuries, the palaces of the nawabs , rich traders from the Fifteenth Century, are still there, all four hundred of them. Fantastic painted scenes, of gods, of legends, of the nawabs, Mr and Mrs Nawab and their little nawab children. There were so many of them, we walked round what one could describe as a block, and saw ten or twelve in various states of repair.It was a bit like how one images Merry Auld England back in the Middle Ages, perhaps being on the set of Shakespeare in Love, do i have my era correct? Fortunately some of the Havelis have been restored and are occupied, by rich people, others, not restored and falling down, are also occupied, by families. I loved it, I smiled, I gaped, I gave the boy two dollars. I asked some small children how they were, I’m fine they replied. Back into the car and on into the desert, we are not really there yet, I have seen dunes, there is a minimum of vegetation, trucks lumber past the restaurant where we have stopped for lunch. I am the only one here and got the perfect curry, another one, conveying the level of spiciness with, yes spicy please and putting my figures in my ears saying, no steam! It raises a laugh and seems to work. On to Bikaner.
We arrived, at about five in the afternoon, was shown to room, up and up, then further up, until, what a view. The bannister is too hot to hold on to, and the stairs are very steep. I chose the hotel quite randomly, Bikanar (rhymes with beak) was not on my original schedule, it’s called the Bhairon Villas, and sounded quite inauspicious, but it looks just fine. Everyone is watching the cricket, India vs Pakistan, so big rivalry, I can’t get a cup of tea ! There seems to be a restaurant and a bar, so far so good. Oh, and there is a ’34 Chevy in the garage, keen car collectors the Indian hoteliers.
Will post this, go explore, then see how the photos are looking. Will add them later after a quick wander.

An unoccupied Haveli in Fatehpur.

An occupied Haveli in Fatehpur.

Three Havelis in Fatehpur.

The view of the Fort at Bikaner from my room.

It is not all photos of buildings here !

How we hit a flood I have no idea.

Local color and Haveli.