Hiroshima- not what you thought

Of course Hiroshima was high on my list of places when I planned a trip to Japan. The sombre heavy thought of what happened on that terrible day , August 6, 1945, is etched in the memory of anyone born in my generation.But what was it really like to have been there? What did the eyewitnesses feel and see? And how did the city rebuild itself? I had only ever seen pictures of the famous dome, and never seen anything else about the city. So armed with this lack of knowledge, and many questions we boarded our train from Kyoto to Hiroshima, changing at Shin-Osaka. As we arrived in Hiroshima it began to rain. I had found that our hotel, The Park Side Peace Park, was, logically enough a short walk from the Museum and Peace Park, which is served by a loop bus which circles all the main tourist sites, beginning and ending at the  Shinkansen Train station, and is free with the JR pass. Perfect! After asking at tourist information we easily found the bus and scrambled on board. It did indeed stop at the Art Museum, the Castle, the Atomic Dome and somewhere else I forget before stopping at the Peace Park. The hotel was one block away from the river which runs right by the Peace Park. We checked in and walked around a bit (in the rain) to get a feel for the place. My first impression was of a wide boulevard (called the Peace Boulevard) tons of tourists swarming around the museum and park, and lots of groups of uniformed schoolkids (like at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem) but also of a city with a positively calm vibe to it. There was bustle but not like Tokyo. There were crowds, but not like in Kyoto. WE immediately loved the place, but it was hard to define exactly why. There were trams clanging around, pedestrian streets with a food festival being set up right at the back of the hotel, and all in all a feeling of a city just getting on with the business of living.

Next day of course we started off by visiting the Peace Park and Memorial Museum. These were as sombre as one would expect but we felt that the emphasis was less on “oh how poor we are and how terrible it all was” but more on “Let’s achieve world peace by making sure nobody has nuclear weapons”. In other words it was less about the Japanese and more about humanity. Outside the museum we were interviewed by some kids for their school work and we also saw the folded paper cranes that are sent to Hiroshima from all over the world as a committment to world peace. Everywhere in Hiroshima people give you folded paper cranes.  From the museum we went walking right along the Peace boulevard up to Fujimidai Observation point, which I had noticed on the map and thought would be fun. The layout of the city is such that you are always walking along near the river, as the island on which the Museum is built is between the Kyobashi River and the Motoyasu River, so you continually see bridges, something which I had not known. The walk was most enjoyable and the views at the top of the hill very nice, also enhanced by a can of hot coffee from a vending machine. This is something great about Japan, that wherever you are you can get a hot can of coffee from a machine for 130 yen. Heaven!

From there we walked on to the Shukkien Gardens which were simply superb. I will probably put in too many pictures because the fall leaves there were just so spectacular, as was the walk along the river bank to get there.

img_20191119_160558.jpg

Shukkien Gardens

img_20191119_160444

img_20191119_153304

Bamboo grove in the gardens

img_20191119_150956

img_20191119_144635

Some nice ladies who took our photo

img_20191119_144654

img_20191119_121523

Walk up to observation point

img_20191119_131457

Next day we took a day trip out of Hiroshima to visit Miyajima Island which had been recommended to us by pretty much everyone who had visited Japan. Even though the famous “floating torii” gate was being repaired and under scaffolding we were assured that the island was still worth the trip . And anyway it was a short train and ferry ride from town, all included in our JR Pass. We got on the train and about 30 minutes later reached the port. It was easy to see where to go, just follow the crowds. The 10 minute ferry ride was pleasant and the sun was shining. After we disembarked, most of the tourists ran off to climb the peak and take the cable car. So we ambled slowly through the small port town, enjoying the sunshine, the beach and the many deer that wandered around hoping to snitch an ice cream cone or some chips off the tourists, and occasionally succeeding. It was all very pleasant. Climbing up the peak to the ropeway was also pleasant as the foliage was really at its best. WE opted not to do the ropeway as it was expensive, crowded and we felt the view was fine just as it was. (but who knows,maybe it would have been amazing). After eating something in a tortilla (egg?) we wandered around some more, talked to some Japanese girls on a day trip just like us, and returned to the city, to wander around some more.

At night we walked once again along the Peace Boulevard, where a long row of illuminations had been placed, mostly fairytale characters, witches, pirate ships and castles, but so many we could not photograph all of them. We departed the next day, feeling that Hiroshima, like the Phoenix, has risen beautifully from its ashes and is doing a good job of showing the world how to live peacefully.

Japan Jaunt Part 2 – Kyoto- gets its own section

Right, before we continue our tour let us take a moment to consider culture shock. Because, of course, a journey is not just a geographical jaunt but also a cultural one. This is especially true when you live in the Middle East and you go to the Far East. How shall I put this? The Japanese are good at respect. They love order. The Israelis…. less so. Order and respect are not high on the list of adjectives that spring to mind in the Middle East. It seems that everything in Japan was designed to make you feel respected, or at least  comfortable. This applies to the uncanny quiet on a crowded subway train, where nobody speaks in a loud voice on their mobile phone. They don’t walk and eat. There are designated places in the food market where you should eat (because … no trash cans anywhere). Similarly  the orderly lines of people waiting to cross at a busy intersection and being careful not to knock into anyone. And in the  ubiquitous  convenience stores (konbini) where there are footprints and arrows on the floor showing you where to line up. Wherever we went locals were quick to come to our assistance whenever we paused to examine Google Maps. They bowed profusely when addressing us.  The station guards, bowing, are happy to direct you politely and not ignore you. The newsreaders bowed on TV. And the toilets! Oh my god, the TOILETS are just awesome. They play music so as you won’t feel embarrassed by your bodily noises. They are heated and they squirt water at you from all angles. All of this was a cause of constant wonder. And so to Kyoto.

We got a fast train to Kyoto, but not the fast train we were meant to get. We had a short connection at Nagoya and I was so worried we would miss it that we belted on to the platform, stood at the correct place (marked so you know which carriage you are boarding) and hurried to our seats that were occupied by two Japanese gentlemen. I showed them my tickets and one shook his head sadly and said “Wrong train”. Aha. But this train IS going to Kyoto, right? I asked nervously. Yes he said, Nozomi. The Nozomi is the SUPER fast train not covered in our JR Pass because it is faster than the REGULAR fast train. A young guard hurried up when he saw our confusion and said that we could just walk through the carriages to the first one where the non reserved seats are, but by the time we found a seat we were arriving in Kyoto, 20 minutes before we were supposed to. Never mind. I learned a new thing, that the trains have names ( Sakura, Hikari etc) and that it was not enough to know the time, the platform, the carriage and seat number but one also has to check the name of the arriving train before boarding.

Our arrival in Kyoto was D’s birthday and to celebrate we went up the top of the Kyoto tower at night which was quite a lot of fun. We then repaired to a nearby izakaya and ate stuff.

 

Kyoto is a bit difficult to tackle because it has become a victim of its own success. By that I mean that it has hundreds of temples, but the really popular and famous ones are overrun with tourists so if you want to see them you have to get there at the crack of dawn. And Gion, the geisha area, is totally overrun with tourists at any time of the day or night. WE only tackled a few of the popular temples because after a while one gets pretty overwhelmed. SO we first picked Kiyomizu-dera which was pretty bearable when we arrived and totally packed by the time we left. It was nevertheless very impressive, even when swamped with tourists and school children.

WE then walked along the river bank up to Gion Corner, where we met an Israeli tour guide called Shimrit, from Kfar Saba, who is  married to a Japanese guy and lives somewhere near Kyoto. She directed us to the Geisha area, where we observed NO geishas. Moreover there are now signs up barring photography ,since the geishas are fed up with rowdy tourists shoving cameras in their faces when they try to enter a tea house or a taxi.There are countless police and guards trying to maintain order. The main street of Gion was so stuffed with tourists that you can hardly move and is not an enjoyable place in my opinion.  We beat a hasty retreat and set off for Nishiki Market which was utterly wonderful, and full of all manner of exciting things, both edible and whimsical.

Our next touristy site was next morning,Fushimi Inari, a short train ride from the train station near our guest house. This site, I had been warned, is highly popular with the Instagram brigade, so if you want to see it in its glory, be there early in the morning. We arrived there at around 8 am, which seemed to be early enough. The instagrammers, however were there and snapping away, with and without selfie sticks. There were also some school kids who asked us some questions. We then visited Tofukuji where the entrance to the gardens cost money but as you see was well worthwhile.

Another “must see” I had read about is called Arashiyama and it boasts a very widely instagrammed bamboo forest, a river with a “romantic train and cruise” and numerous temples. Again we set off early to avoid the hordes. Arashiyama was my first experience of being underwhelmed in Japan. Since Japan is such a highly tourist destination, there are many “must sees” and not all of them are what they are touted to be. For us Arashiyama was one such. There is a bamboo “forest” but it is more of a grove and no great shakes. The “romantic train” was packed and we could not get on it until 3pm ,so we gave it a miss. The area was ok but not wildly exciting. We returned to Kyoto city and decided to give Gion another try, but on the way we found Maruyama Park which was far more rewarding.

Day 5 of Kyoto (we allocated it 6 days because there is such a lot there) we headed for Nijo castle. Not overly crowded and rather lovely. Shoes were removed and photography not allowed inside, but the beautifully landscaped gardens were certainly worth a shot or three. Thankfully not the instagrammers were not in abundance.

We rounded off our time in Kyoto with a far less touristy site, in fact we were totally alone there. It was a rather quirky place, quite a long way from all the hot spots, mentioned online as “Monster Street”. There were not a whole lot of monsters, but hardly any people either which was a blessing. We rather liked it there.

And so to Hiroshima…. stay tuned.

At last- wacky Japan, the trip that finally was.

img_20191120_122233

Part One- Tokyo, Kanazawa , Takayama and Shirakawa-go

After much planning and three postponements for various reasons, this actually happened. With so much anticipation I was afraid we might be disappointed, but far from it. Japan turned out to exceed our expectations, and certainly was weirder than I thought in some ways. The weirdness expresses itself in an obsession with technology, and lifesize doll mascots for everything amongst other things.  It was definitely cleaner, ( ah Japanese toilets!) , incredibly organized and efficient.  So buckle up and prepare for the (probably long) ride. A 24 day trip to multiple cities will need a lot of words. Please feel free to skip the boring bits. If you are not actually researching your own trip you may find some of the practical info not to your liking, so I shall not be offended if you ignore those bits.

We specifically picked November to see the autumn leaves about which we had heard a lot. They did not disappoint and the timing of the route worked out perfectly. We were rewarded with mostly crisp warmish days and blue skies, with cooler evenings and only a couple of days of rain towards the end. On arriving back in Tokyo for the last few days trees were already bare, and rain falling, so I felt the timing was great. Our route was as follows: 4 days in Tokyo, then fast train to Kanazawa for 3 nights, bus to Takayama for 2 nights, then a long train ride to Kyoto (5 nights) , a 3 night stay in Hiroshima, 2 nights in Hakone (another VERY long trip) and return to Tokyo for a final 5 nights . Here we go!

WE flew LOT Polish airlines via Warsaw. Not much to report except that they  inaugurated the direct flight Warsaw to Sri Lanka that day, and were giving out free Indian food at the press opening with the Sri Lankan Ambassador! Yay for free food.

On arrival at Narita Airport Tokyo at 8.30 am we traded in our Japan Rail voucher for our wonderful JR pass, which would give us free rides on the JR railways for 21 days. Since our trip was 24 days we activated it from day 4 , as the first 4 days we would remain in Tokyo. This worked out very well. The whole process took 5 minutes, and we got our first taste of Japanese politeness and efficiency. We then hopped on a Keisei bus which took us to Tokyo central station. To say that the station is huge would be an understatement. It is massive and you could easily get lost in it for a week or so. Anyway we  eventually got out and walked to a subway that took us to our wonderful Red Planet Hotel Asakusa. This  fabulous place is located in the heart of Asakusa neighbourhood (not to be confused with Akasaka) near  the famous Senso-ji Temple  the oldest and most important temple in Tokyo. The little pedestrian streets around the temple are full of tourists and locals coming to pray, and also with little shops and restaurants.You can  also go to an owl cafe, or rent a kimono for the day.  At night the neighbourhood was quiet and had an old world charm.

The next day we walked to the Sumida River and got on a cruise down to Hamarikyu Gardens. On the boat with us were a whole class of school kids and their teachers. A guy started talking to us, and turned out to be the school principal. Talking to the kids was a lot more interesting than the cruise as the buildings along the way were mostly pretty boxy and modern. There were a lot of nondescript bridges. We all got off at the gardens which were quite lovely.

 

 

After that we took the metro to another neighbourhood called Akihabara, known as Electric Town or Geek central. This is where all the gamers and punks hang out, streets of gaming parlours. There are also the famed Maid Cafes, which are rather hard to describe. Let’s say they are where the very formal Japanese businessmen can let their hair down and indulge their fantasies. There are girls all along the street advertising these establishments, so it isn’t hard to find one. The waitresses are dressed as maids, and do all kinds of odd things like miaowing and singing in high pitched voices. On the spur of the moment we decided it was an “Only in Japan” moment, so for 500 Yen we entered the weird world of Maid dreaming   Let’s say it was a one time experience. Most of the time we had no clue what was going on, and we just laughed at it. It was simultaneously hilarious and disturbing.  We went home both amused and baffled.

img_20191105_174418

Next day we had arranged to meet Nobuaki Fujii, a friend from Servas, who said he would pick us up at our hotel and take us around the neighbourhood. We had a fantastic day with him as follows. First he took us to a Japanese pharmacy full of all kinds of weird and wonderful “natural” treatments some of which we got to taste (hmmm). Next we went walking around Kappabashi, the centre of kitchenware. That may sound kind of boring, but was in fact fascinating. Firstly the Japanese take their knives very seriously (think Samurai swords). Secondly, most restaurants and hotels display plastic versions of the food so you know exactly what you are getting (down to the correct number of peas) So there are shops that specialize in this stuff.

 

 

Next Aki took us to a massive upscale department store ( quick glance at a temple and the public library) where we each bought a bento box for lunch which we would eat at his office. There we met his partner Mayumi who is a jewellery designer and adorable person. Aki is a  freelance graphic designer. He then taught us how to make tea, did some calligraphy and we ate our bento. Then he announced we were going to a fire walking ceremony. This was simply amazing, as it was a neighborhood thing which we would never have come across if he hadn’t taken us there. The people gathered outside the temple, some priests built a fire, beat a path through it and then everyone (including small kids) walked through it, including Aki and Mayumi. We declined. It was all fascinating. They then walked us back to our hotel and we said goodnight , promising to be in touch when we returned to Tokyo at the end of our trip.

The last day in Tokyo (for this section) we got on a very weird monorail to visit Odaiba, an artificial island part of Tokyo known for its hi tech and robotic amusements, as well as various entertainments. It all felt like being in Blade Runner.  We passed over lots of impressive bridges and highways, and got off next to the Statue of Liberty and the giant Gundam robot. I can’t explain so I will just show you a picture. We wandered around stupefied for a few hours, and also talked to a scarily real robot information lady. ( apparently I can’t post that as it’s a video)

In the evening we walked back to see Sensoji at night and found it enchanting, even though the streets were deserted as the stalls and restaurants had already closed.

And so to Kanazawa, a city rightly famous for its wonderful Kenrokuen Gardens, and Castle, as well as for its Edo period Samurai houses and Geisha district. We stayed in the amazing Emblem Stay, a cross between a hostel and guest house, which had a bar. This turned out to be most fortuitous as the night we arrived there was a meetup in said bar, where we made the acquaintance of a lovely Portuguese couple Tiago and Isabella  and their daughter Madalena, who all spoke perfect idiomatic English. They run a museum in a place called Caramulo. After chatting with them for a while, we then sat with some local Japanese who came along to practise their English. All great fun.

Kanazawa Castle and Gardens were nothing short of stunning. I will leave it to you to judge.

 

We continued to tour the Samurai district of old preserved houses and the Geisha quarter before going off in search of dinner, which we found in a stunning Chinese restaurant  called Mei Mei with a huge log fire, in which we were the only customers to devour a massive, delicious plate of something cooked inside a clay pot (chicken and rice?) Kanazawa also has tons of other things to see such as the Omicho Fish market , the 21st Century art museum (too packed and hot) and the wonderful Noh Theatre Museum which we visited the next day. Much hilarity ensued.

And so on to Takayama. The original plan had been to stop between Kanazawa and Takayama to visit the UNESCO heritage village of Shirakawa-go. But I could not get a bus ticket from there on to Takayama, so we took a bus directly to Takayama and bought bus tickets to see Shirakawa as a day trip from Takayama the next day. I was very excited to see the village as I had heard it was special, with thatched rooves and a traditional way of life and with wonderful autumn foliage. It was overrun with tourists but big enough to be able to stroll pleasantly around the carless village and get a sense of calm. It was indeed very beautiful. There were a few houses that you could go inside and see how the traditional lifestyle has been preserved here.

I now need to explain a Japanese phenomenon called the Onsen. Apparently the Japanese have a thing about nude bathing with strangers. They do it all over the place, in hot or cold water, outside or inside, and in any season. We were not really crazy about this idea .But I found a wonderful alternative. Some places do “family onsens” meaning you are not with a bunch of strangers. Our hotel, the Wat Hotel and Spa in Takayama had public onsens, but also 4 such private onsens where one can bathe in the open air (on the roof) in private with one’s significant other, or one’s children . People with tattoos cannot enter the public onsen, so this is also a good solution for them. We went in this onsen twice and it really was a relaxing experience after a long day of touring. Takayama was a nice small town which also had an old district full of little restaurants and shops. It was here that we met the Ramen Lady. We went into her tiny shop and she asked us where we are from. When we said Israel she immediately put on an Israeli song called Naomi’s Song  by Hedva and David, which was apparently super popular in Japan in the 1980’s .She played it in Japanese and then in Hebrew! What fun.

Let’s take a break here. We still have 15 days of the trip left! So will leave them for Part 2.

 

A quick hop and a skip to Paphos

This short holiday was completely not in keeping with our usual style of travel. Those who are looking for cultural insights, history, archaeology etc can safely skip this post. It really was a bit unprepared and me trying to be spontaneous, especially considering that we are off to Japan for the Big Japanese Adventure in less than a month! But the fact that friends kept posting about Cyprus and especially Paphos , and the cheap deal that sprang up in my face are the only defenses I can make. In any case, we bought a cheapo package deal (another thing I never do) to Paphos from Friday to Monday. It was $456 for both of us, which included bed and breakfast at the *3 Hotel Veronica  and transfers to and from the airport. This was all very novel for me, as those who know me know that I love to go it alone, including all the stuff like how to get around and am not one for boarding a/c buses with lots of other Israelis. Anyway that is what we did. I apologize to my serious travel buddies that we skipped all the usual stuff like the Paphos mosaics and archeological park etc as we only got back from Sicily in July and had done there all that stuff (Tomb of Kings, Villa Romana etc) and were too hot and lazy this time to trudge around more antiquities. Mea culpa.

IMG_20191004_114844

The flight to Paphos took 45 minutes or so, the sky was blue and the views as we descended into the airport , perched rather close to the sea I thought, were lovely. We exited the airport (Exodos in Greek, of course) and immediately found our lovely clean blue bus that deposited us within 15 minutes outside our hotel. There we discovered that , as per their website check in was only at 2pm. ( it was 10 am when we arrived) . Anyway the nice man on the desk said we could dump our stuff in the lobby and come back at 13.45 and we were welcome to use the pool. Instead we walked off down the promenade next to the beach and checked out which beach we might want to frequent. The promenade was gorgeous and so were the views.  After eating our sandwiches and apple  from home, we had a quick ice cream and then returned to get our room.

IMG_20191004_105849

Little road from hotel down to beach

 

The room was reasonable and clean not luxurious. For those of you wishing to be pampered skip this hotel. But the front desk were most helpful. I shan’t go into great details about the room, but let’s say no hooks in bathroom , extra charge required for use of fridge and safe, and NO ELECTRIC KETTLE! If there is one thing hubby likes it is to sit on the balcony with his cup of coffee and read a book or doze. So no kettle is a biggie for us. Anyway the view pretty much made up for it.

IMG_20191004_160201

Hotel Pool

 

We rested a bit and then went out again to explore. A brisk walk up the promenade from one end to the other, as far as the harbour took about 45 minutes, during which we checked out restaurant menus for the evening. We were frequently assailed by touts trying to get us to patronise their establishment. We discovered that the predominant language of Paphos is Mancunian, and that there is a preponderance of fish and chip establishments and pubs with massive LCD TV screens broadcasting all manner of sporting events. None of this is particularly our cup of tea (although I have been known to eat a good English breakfast) .

Obligatory holiday sunset

IMG_20191004_182933

Sunset on Promenade

Dinner was a wonderful swordfish served with baked vegetables and chips at Romantica Restaurant with a nice bottle of Neo beer each. All in all a good first day.

Next day we got up and had the Hotel Veronica version of an English breakfast (buffet) but with added bits, olives, yoghurt, cereal etc. It was ok but hardly anything to write home about. Some things seemed to have a weird after taste (coffee, juice) and most of it was pretty cold. But hey, three stars, people. We also made some nice sandwiches for our lunch. We then walked up in the direction of the harbour but didn’t make it all the way as it was too hot. So instead we got ourselves a couple of sunbeds and umbrellas (2.50 Euro each item) and installed ourselves on Sodap beach. Here we discovered that since we usually do very active holidays and not  tummy- back as the Israelis so charmingly describe it, we had omitted to bring our kindles. So we had to just read annoying articles on the internet, and do nothing. The sea was beautifully clean and transparent, and rather bracing.

IMG_20191005_093232

view from promenade

When we got too tired of this exhausting activity we returned to the hotel and tried doing the same thing by the hotel pool (also freezing but quite invigorating). After a rest we went out again to look for dinner. This time we had most fantastic meal at a place called Viva Cyprus, where D had the swordfish again (even better than the first) and I had a lovely Beef Stifado with tons of spices and wine . Very satisfactory. Then having to walk off dinner we continued in the direction of Old Paphos. At the recommendation of the lovely Claire from Brighton whom I had met at the hotel pool, we went off to Demokritos tavern, where she said there would be live Cypriot dancing and a belly dancer. She was not wrong. The place was not that full when we arrived and indeed was not as crowded as I had expected. But the dancing and music were a lot of fun and the belly dancer extremely talented. We enjoyed this free show very much (cover charge 4 Euro, so one beer each consumed). Sorry pic is blurred but she wouldn’t keep still.

 

The best part was at the end of the show when we joined in the dancing and then they sang some Israeli and Jewish stuff. We discovered how many Israelis were there (tons). Apparently the owner of the place, Dina, is rather keen on us. And she also sings very well. WE are of course the nation that loves Ari San and Glykeria. Anyway it was lots of fun, we staggered back home quite happily.

belly dancer at Demokritos

Next day being Sunday most shops appeared to be closed, although the restaurants were open. On our way up to the harbour I noticed how weirdly English Cyprus is. Pillar boxes (yellow) , belisha beacons, the aforementioned fish and chips and driving on the wrong (right?) side of the road.

 

At the harbour there are lots more restaurants, some nice statues and lots of people hawking tours to see turtles, snorkelling and similar aquatic things. As I am not too keen on boats generally, and the sea being rather stormy we passed on all these activities.

 

Fake pirate ship

IMG_20191006_093231

IMG_20191005_101639

 

 

 

Statue- Sol Alter, by Yiota Ioannidou

IMG_20191005_094538

Boy holding a fish, same artist.

We had another go in the pool and retired to rest before dinner. We had intended to go back up near the night club to look for dinner, but were checking out a place called Michael’s tavern when next door we found a lovely Indian place called Maharaja. Being rather deprived of decent curries here in Israel I was tempted and succumbed. And rightly so. This place does the real Mc.Coy. A fantastic chicken biryani with accompanying chutneys , poppadums and nans such as I remember from London, and all for the princely sum of 25 Euro for two including large bottle of beer! How excellent.

IMG_20191006_185318 (1)

 

 

With that we retired to bed as our bus was picking us up bright and early the next day at 7.10 for our 9.50 flight home. The nice man in the reception said that we would be able to quickly have some breakfast before that even though it was supposed to open only at 7.00. Which we did. And were given packed lunches of a sandwich and apple as an extra.

 

The flight home took a ridiculously quick 37 minutes and we passed through passport control in a record 2 minutes. So all was well.

Stay tuned for Japan in November!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sizzling Sicily part 2

We arrived in Trapani to our best stay of the whole trip. As we drove up to the Air bnb I was a bit nervous. The area of the city looked a little run down and slummy. It was about 15 minutes drive from the historic centre and did not look promising. The actual street was narrow, but I had already checked with our hostess that free street parking was available (always a big issue in Sicily). I had Whatsapped the hostess 30 minutes before arrival and she was outside waving at us and showing us where to park. What was hidden behind the modest exterior was astounding. The spacious apartment with fully equipped kitchen was quite lovely. But the glorious garden with fruit trees and tortoises roaming around was just delightful.

Teresa showed us how to use the a/c , the hot water boiler, the mosquito zapper,and directed us to the nearest minimarket, 5 minutes walk away. Everything was perfect. And all this was achieved through Google translate, she didn’t know a word of English.

After settling in and walking round to the store to get stuff for supper and breakfast we went into Trapani centre to have a mosey around. The centre was about 15 minutes from the air bnb, and there was paid parking on the main square. We found a lovely little , mostly pedestrianized old city full of lovely churches and surrounded by sea views. It was very quiet but there was a long main street with restaurants and coffee bars, and it was all much less touristy than the other cities we had visited. We enjoyed it very much.

 

The following day we drove to the interesting Salt Museum about 20 minutes drive south along the coast from Trapani. It was quite interesting, with a good English guide who described the process of anicent salt harvesting and transportation to the mill. It was staggering to think that workers had to transport the salt in baskets on their heads in sweltering heat. We could hardly stand up it was so hot!

img_20190626_103415-effects

Salt fields

img_20190626_104535-effects-1

Salt Museum

 

The next day we walked to the Funivia station (about 20 minutes away ) to take the Cable car up to visit Erice, a medieval town which is on the hill overlooking Trapani.

The views were wonderful, and despite the heat , a short walk around Erice and the gardens was quite lovely.Not surprisingly, considering the heat, the place was almost deserted. The most impressive part was the view of Trapani from the Gardens and the view of the castle, which didn’t look worth visiting inside, but the outside was great.

 

In the evening we went back to walk around Trapani again and said it farewell, as the next day we were continuing ( a little regretfully) on to Palermo.

To say that I was disappointed in Palermo would be an understatement. The capital of the island, a city full of history, and beautiful buildings, I found it to be dirty beyond belief. We had seen mounds of plastic bags full of garbage strewn all along the highways, especially in the rest areas, all around Sicily. But driving in to Palermo we felt the pollution reached a new high. After walking around the streets for one day, my sandals were covered in mud, and I really don’t know where it came from. The buildings down town were indeed beautiful, but the overall feel of the city was not overly welcoming. I don’t know why this was exactly, but it felt as we had felt in Catania but there we had not spent a lot of time. I did enjoy the area around the Cathedral, but otherwise I don’t feel that my photos really convey how I felt about the city. We took a one hour tourist train around and saw little of interest. The main pedestrian drag also was not overly fascinating, despite being packed with great architecture and tons of churches. Maybe in the winter time it has more to offer. The Norman Palace (we did not venture inside) is of course a wonderful building. The Catacombs were gruesomely fascinating. These are my main impressions of Palermo, where we spent only two nights.

After two nights in Palermo we continued on to another faboulous stay at Villa Rosa b and b in the village of Castelbuono. This place was maybe even more wonderful than Trapani. The view reminded us a lot of the Galilee or the Jerusalem hills. Lots of olive trees and vines dotted the hillsides. The house itself was divine, with a hill view and a beautiful garden where we had the most amazing breakfast of our 18 day stay. Rosanna ( who spoke French) made us home made croissants, with home made lemon and pumpkin jam, omelettes with home grown herbs and everything was just perfectly serene.

In the evening we drove into the village of Castelbuono to have a pizza. Big mistake. The thing that had worried me was finding the turning back into Villa Rosa at night. I took a screenshot, I noted it on the map etc. The thing I had not foreseen was that driving out of Castelbuono was impossible! The Google Map navigation took us around and around the village and twice took us into a no entry street. The second time a woman who was trying to drive out of the street, stopped and, despite having no English attempted to help us find the way home. She called someone on the phone who spoke English. He directed me to the highway by way of the cemetery. Apparently because of the one way system and the narrow alleyways you have to drive below the village to then drive above the village, if you see what I mean. Anyway we eventually made it back.

After only one night at this wonderful place we continued on to the last leg of our trip, Milazzo.

I had booked 3 nights at Milazzo because one full day was intended to be a trip to the active volcano of Stromboli, on the island nearby, which is reached by taking a full day boat trip (until at least 11pm) . I booked a place with a pool so we could also relax after the walking we had done in the heat. On the way to Milazzo we passed stunning coastal scenery, including the town of Cefalu and the amazing vistas at Castellamare Del Golfo.

IMG_20190628_135558

Castellamare del Golfo

In the event, we decided that 70 Euro a head for the day trip to schlepp around some other islands in 35 C to wait for Stromboli to erupt was not really what we felt like doing. Imagine my amazement when after returning home, my friend informed me that the exact day we had intended to go (there was only one possible day available) was the day of a huge eruption which killed one climber, and caused vacationers to jump into the sea to escape the steaming lava!  I am so happy that we decided to spend that day lounging by a pool (with no other guests) eating and reading. So we concluded our Sicily tour without seeing either Etna or Stromboli in all their glory, but with many fine experiences and memories. Hope you enjoyed this. Stay tuned for Japan in November!

Sizzling Sicily Part 1

To be honest I possibly would not have booked this trip if I had realized just  how hot it was going to be. We travelled between 16 June until 4 July and most days it was over 30 and really hard to walk around. But, hey, you have a/c in your car and in your hotel so not so bad right? What we started to do was to rest between 12 and around 5pm and then go out at night, just as the locals do.

But let’s go back to the beginning. This trip only happened because D’s leg was good enough to be able to walk a bit before we left, and being unsure of how much walking he would actually be able to do, we planned it as mainly touring by car with bits of walking. In the event, by the end he was walking a good 7km a day so that was really fantastic. Had we known, we might have decided to ditch the car hire and travel by public transportation. Not sure how good it is, didn’t check it out. Car hire has its advantages of course, but also many diasadvantages. More of this later.

But having said that, it meant that he did a lot of driving (we did about 1,500 km over the 18 days) and that made it less enjoyable for him, especially because driving in Sicily is not at all straighforward. The roads are often extremely narrow, the one way system in the medieval towns is horrific, and parking is an added headache. But no matter! We did it and we enjoyed what we saw.

A circular, clockwise tour of the island, starting and finishing at Catania, gave us rather a good route, I think, with a few days at each base, (except for Ragusa) so as not to have to pack/unpack endlessly.

Route map

sicily map

Both the main cities of Palermo and Catania we found totally underwhelming. Despite having beautiful architecture, the centres felt run down and dirty and sometimes a little edgy at night. If you look at the photos it looks actually stunning, but we saw far more beautiful places- particularly Siracusa, which I think was one of my favourite places. Catania has the ancient Roman amphitheatre in its centre, but the rest of the downtown didn’t feel so inspiring. We did two day trips from Catania- one to the beautiful Taormina and its sister Giardini Naxos, and another to Etna.  Taormina, despite being something of a tourist trap, just screams to be photographed, and even the hordes of tourists cannot tarnish its beauty. Giardini Naxos at the bottom of the mountain has a gorgeous beach and harbour and is really quite a charming place.

Etna turned out to be a bit of a disappointment because although the drive up was beautiful, we didn’t go right up to the crater because it was horrendously expensive. At the bottom they said you can pay to do the final bit at the top, without adding it would cost double the price. We didn’t feel it was something we HAD to see, so we decided to forgo.

From Catania, we continued on to Siracusa, which is an absolute gem. The island of Ortigia is where most people stay, but it means not driving your car onto the island, where only residents can drive. This was in fact wonderful. We parked our car for 3 days in the Talete car park and spent three glorious days wandering around the little alleyways and courtyards and finding a wonderful sea view at every turn. The newly discovered Hebrew writing at the mikve underneath the Church of St Felipe was an added bonus. There is a great Jewish quarter with lots of wonderful stuff. Actually we saw two mikves, and the guide told us that there are probably many more that have not yet been excavated.

 

Apart from the Jewish quarter, we also enjoyed the Castle, the main Piazza Duomo area, the Fontana Diana and Fontana Aretusa area. The whole island is not that big, but wandering around the maze of little streets is just a delight.

Before leaving Siracusa we checked out the Archeological park in the other part of the city (not Ortigia Island) and saw the cave known as Dionysios’ Ear, with its amazing echo. We continued on to spend one night in Ragusa, the strange city on two hills connected by a very long staircase of over 200 steps. On the way there we stopped at the amazing mosaics at the Villa Romana in the city of Piazza Armerina.

 

Mosaics at Piazza Armerina

img_20190623_123352-1

Mosaics at Piazza Armerina

From Ragusa we continued on to Agrigento, famous for its Valley of the Temples. First we wandered a little around the old town of Agrigento which was pretty much deserted and absolutely charming. In the evening we went to visit the archeological site of the Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO Heritage site and quite splendid. This was a wise move because we saw the temples in the evening when it was still hot but bearable. There is a main concourse with temples all the way along, from Temple of Juno (misnamed) at one end and Temple of Vulcan at the other end, and various others along the way. It is a very impressive place if you enjoy history.

After two splendid days in Agrigento we continued on along the south coast towards Trapani but not without stopping at a couple of points on the way. The first was the amazing view of the Turkish Steps  ( nothing to do with the Turks) . The second was the little town of Sciacca to have a sandwich and gaze at the sea. We did not descend the white cliffs at the Turkish steps to the beach, but we saw people swimming down there (a long way down!)

I will continue the journey on to Trapani in the next entry.

Eastern Fjords and North.. Iceland continued

After the drive along the south coast from Reykjavik we continued our journey from Höfn, where we spent the night after the Glacier Lagoon trip, up the East coast towards the North. There are parts of the Ring Road at this point that are a bit challenging- the road follows the coastline which you will see is very winding, and climbs along the edges of the deep fjords. The views are breathtaking, but the journey takes much longer than you might think, and there are few places to stop and look at the view. Also at some points we were driving in mist and low cloud so be very careful.

The fields were covered in blue lupins, and we saw many sheep and goats, often in the middle of the road. There were very few villages, sometimes just an isolated farmhouse. Nothing more. Eventually we reached the  twin towns of Egilsstaðir and Fellabær, on either sides of the fjord.  Before continuing on our way we made a small detour for a very important purpose. I had read that  at the tiny village of Borgarfjörður Eystri there is a place where you can view puffins. The only other option to see them was to take a boat trip from Reykjavik, and I preferred to try this land option, as it was only an hour drive from Egilsstaðir , albeit on a somewhat bumpy and extremely winding road. We were rewarded with the sight of hundreds of puffins flying in from the sea to nest in the rocks. It was a fantastic sight!

Then we continued our drive inland, towards the area of Lake Mývatn. As you approach the area of the lake the scenery changes again dramatically. It becomes almost like a desert. There are strange stone formations, and the land looks vast and barren. No trees, bushes, animals or fjords. Everything looks like another planet again. The drive is long and there are hardly any places to stop, no settlement and no gas stations. Eventually we reached the area of the lake, which was characterized by huge swarms of midges. I had been warned about these and had considered buying a special hat with netting on it, but had not bothered. At the first available stopping point I got out at the toilets, and got mobbed by these pesky little flies which fortunately do not bite. Then the actual area of the lake is another weird volcanic area, full of strange georthermal manifestations. There are sulfur pools bubbling with boiling water, a strong smell and steam pouring out of the earth! It really is a most incredible sight!

The drive around the lake itself has several interesting places, one is Dimmuborgir, a park with strange lava formations arranged along lovely paths,and the second Grjotagja caves. We then continued to our place for the night, in the little village of Laugar, which proved idyllic as it had its own private hot tub with lovely warm water straight out of the mountain! We had a fabulous soak and went to bed, surrounded by amazing scenery.

The next day was a little rainy so our plan to hang around the town of Akyreyri (capital of the North, population 19,000) was not so successful. Took a few shots of downtown area (uninspiring) and of the church (closed) and sat in the car to eat our sandwiches. Generally I would say that towns in Iceland are not the thing- the thing is the countryside.

 

From there we continued on in intermittent rain to our next stop for the day Blönduós ( population 865) Very funny little place. Guest house was having the parking lot repaved, so we had to park outside the (deserted) church. View of the sea, right across the way. The only other guests there were a family of three from Givat Massua, Jerusalem! We sat with them in the shared kitchen and discussed our routes. The lady at the guest house also directed us to the supermarket where we stocked up with milk, orange juice, yoghurt and bread, and we made couscous with tuna for supper.

 

From Blönduós we had a day of mostly driving (fortunately it was raining) to reach the West coast and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. This part of the country was less impressive but still beautiful. You become accustomed to endless waterfalls, snowy hills, tiny villages, sheep and horses. Eventually we reached our place for the night the small village of Grundarfjörður. Our apartment was supposed to be very fancy, but also shared kitchen and bathroom. On arrival we found a note with my name on and a phone number. When I called they said they had overbooked but not to worry they would show me to another apartment (better position in the village, with a view of the fjord). It turned out to be very nice, private bathroom and kitchen. After checking in we set out to explore the peninsula, and particularly the impressive Kirkjufell Mountain and waterfall.

The last leg of the trip, from Snaefellsnes Peninsula back to Reykjavik was the least interesting part of the Ring Road, with very little to see. We were happy to have done the Ring Road in the anticlockwise direction and seen the South coast first. In Reyjavik we did a free walking tour which was fun. But we did not really find it to be that impressive. The architecture is extremely minimalist and there is not a whole lot to do. Not sure why people love the town that much. The Hallgrimskirkja, Harpa Concert Hall and the Sun Voyager statue were less impressive than I was expecting. It is not classical European architecture.So maybe just not my cup of tea. The last day of the trip before our flight home we went to chill out at the rather splurgy and touristy Blue Lagoon since we really didn’t have anything else to do and we were exhausted. This turned out to be an inspired ending to the trip and we thoroughly enjoyed it! Stay posted for next trip… Japan!