The Splendor of Andalusia Part 2

On the way from Granada to Cordoba we stopped off at the town of Antequera to see the dolmens. This is a megalithic site featuring three monuments, Dolmen of Menga, Dolmen of Viera and Tholos of El Romeral. WE only saw two, but the brand new (free) little museum at the entrance to the site, explaining the discovery and explanation of the megaliths was really rather splendid. We very much enjoyed our brief stop.

Then we continued on our way to Granada. After the laid back seaside feeling of Malaga Granada had an altogether different feel to it. It seemed a bit like driving from Tel Aviv (happy, colourful beach city) to Jerusalem (heavy on tradition and history). We had rented an air bnb in the outskirts, about 30 minutes walk from downtown. But we had not counted on the intense heatwave, which made the walk there and back rather taxing. We strolled around the old part of town, the tiny streets around the Cathedral area, with the magnificent Alhambra and Generalife towering over us. We were suddenly very hungry and then discovered that between around 2pm and 8pm it is impossible to find a soul in the street, let alone an open restaurant. The siesta is sacred. Fortunately just as we were getting desperate, we found the wonderful Vega’s cafe serving the best fresh sandwiches and drinks, everything full of lovely vegetables and fresh fruits, the likes of which we had not seen since arriving in Spain. The bread was fresh and the service welcoming.

There seems to be nothing left of the Jewish presence in Granada, except a museum and a statue of Judah ben Saul ibn Tibon (much like the rest of Andalusia).

After walking around town a lot, we felt the need for some nature so the next day we drove up to the Sierra Nevada, where you can see snow all the year round, despite the crushing heat. The drive up to the small ski town was gorgeous and we stopped off at the Hoya de Pedraza Botanical gardens on the way. The view was stunning. On arrival at the actual town of Sierra Nevada we discovered it to be deserted. Apparently when it is not the season there are no people there whatsoever, let alone any coffee bars or restaurants open. We met a bewildered Singaporean couple also looking for a bite to eat. We gave up and on the way back down the mountain to the city we found a delicious cafe frequented by passing cyclists, where the surly waiter produced a perfect oven cooked pizza with all the toppings.

The following day we had booked a tour of the Alhambra, which I thought was guided but turned out not to be. We got up early and left at 6.30am hotfoot to the meeting point, up a massively steep hill of course. You really need a whole day to experience the wonder of the Alhambra and Generalife complex as it is enormous and stunning. I think my favourite part was the gardens of the Generalife which were just fantastic. I don’t have the words to do justice to the place, and the photos certainly don’t either.

Our last day in Granada we arranged to meet up with my very good friend’s son Guy, who has been living in Granada for a year to study flamenco guitar. He very kindly agreed to show us around Albaicin, the ancient neighbourhood where he lives, which is right beneath the Alhambra and has spectacular views over the city. Since we were feeling somewhat exhausted from the tour, and the walk into town is long (and Guy had warned us of the hilly nature of Albaicin) we opted to get a bus down from our apartment, which turned out to be quite easy, until the bus failed to follow the route on my app. Various kind ladies helped us get off at a convenient spot, and from there we puffed up (another) extremely steep hill to meet him. Albaicin really is very splendid and we enjoyed walking around there very much. There were several groups of school kids having historical tours of it too.

Our penultimate Andalusian city, Cordoba was I think my favourite. I was expecting to be blown away by Granada (and I was) but somehow when we arrived in Cordoba I felt that I was home. I just don’t know how to explain it but somehow a place just makes you feel that you belong, and that is exactly how I felt about Cordoba. We only had two days there, as opposed to 4 in Granada. But for me it was possibly the highlight. I knew that the guided tour of the Mezquita would be wonderful, but just hanging out in Cordoba was a joy and not just because there was a feria (or fiesta) going on there. The streets felt wonderful, the general ambience of the place was just spectacular. This was the only place that we stayed in a hotel (because all the places were booked up months in advance for the feria) but it was fine, as Hotel Oasis was clean and comfortable and only a 15 minute walk from the stunning Roman Bridge which I instantly fell in love with.

In Cordoba we wandered the old Jewish quarter, found a statue of Maimonides (the Rambam) who was born in Cordoba, and the old synagogue which is beautifully restored, and the Casa de Sefarad, containing a nice little museum of the Sephardic Jews before the Inquisition. It was all so wonderful.

The tour of the Cathedral Mosque known as the Mezquita was just spectacular. We booked an English speaking tour with Viator, fortunately for 4pm , when it was already not so sweltering. The guide, Angel was both knowledgeable and charming, and did not stop the tour after an hour but was available to answer more questions after the end. We were also able to remain inside the mosque until it closed at 7pm and get more of a relaxed impression of the place than is possible while you are following your guide around. It was just breathtaking. I think it is possibly one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen and it was clear that Angel loved it too. Again it’s impossible to take a decent picture of it. Even videos hardly do it justice.

On the way from Cordoba to Carmona , our final stop, we spied an imposing castle right on top of a hill . The signpost said Castillo de Almodovar so of course we had to check that out. After sweating up a steep hill we discovered we could have driven up the top. We didn’t really have time to explore inside but the castle outside and the surrounding views were quite splendid.

The historic town of Carmona, 20 km from Sevilla airport, was where would spend our last two days. Here we stayed in a wonderful apartment Casa en la Juderia at the brilliant address of 1, Jewish neighbourhood street (Calle de la Juderia). We had a slight problem getting the key when we arrived but the host answered us promptly on Whatsapp and we were soon ensconced inside and free to wander around the town, which is chock -a -block with historical wonders, amongst others a Roman Necropolis and theatre ( lovely little free museum) and a lovely old town wall with ancient gates that reminded us of Jerusalem.

The visit to the Roman Necropolis and theatre , a 15 minute walk from the Juderia ,was lots of fun as there were several groups of schoolkids on trips there, dressed as Romans reenacting various historical scenes with explanations by guides dressed as centurions. It was all rather endearing and the museum guides were extremely helpful too. WE thoroughly enjoyed our days in Carmona, and finished our trip with wonderful tapas at Bar Goya next to the main square of the Juderia. And with this our amazing time in Andalusia drew to an end. Our sense of the sheer amount of heritage and history in this area was incredible. Now I feel I need to do some more reading up to absorb what we have seen. Stay tuned for next adventure!

The splendor of Andalusia Part 1

Plaza de Espana, Seville

This trip was something of a dream, as the places we visited had been on my mind for some time, and originally I had wanted to visit them by train from Madrid. However, with concerns of Covid 19, we opted for a road trip of 16 days, to give each place its due. We flew into Seville, with an 8 hour layover in Zurich (which became a feature not a bug, as our son would say) and spent 4 days there sans car, then picked up the car, and continued on to El Gastor, Malaga, Granada, Cordoba and finished off in Carmona. The timing worked out very well. All these destinations are well worth a few days. So onward!

Seville was charming and everything that we had hoped for, despite (or maybe because of) being invaded by hordes of Scottish and German football fans. The Scots, who at first seemed belligerent, turned out to be harmless, nay friendly! We high fived them and cheered them and it was all good fun.

Scots fan encountered on top of Las Setas

One morning we couldn’t get out of our apartment door for the never ending stream of fans passing by in the narrow street. The only way was to join and march along with them, cheering. It was a fun experience. So in Seville apart from ambling around the ancient streets we visited the impressive Alcazar with its splendid gardens, the not so impressive Triana market, the lovely promenade along the river with the Torre de Oro, Plaza de Espana and gardens, the Metropol Parasol, otherwise known as the Setas (Mushrooms), best viewed towards nightfall for a wonderful panorama over the city. We also attended the obligatory flamenco show (most enjoyable) and sampled our first amazing tapas. Our trip was off to a splendid start and the Air bnb we picked was well placed in walking distance of the Setas.

We then headed for the Santa Justa train station full of dejected Rangers fans, and picked up our car (was supposed to be a tiny Fiat 500) . The car rental people insisted we could not have that car as our luggage would not fit in the boot, and this would result in a fine from the police if stopped. Never mind, we said we will risk it. The upgrade was too expensive. When we went down to the lot to pick up the car we were presented with a massive VW. No, I said that isn’t our car. Yes it is, she said. We don’t want to pay for an upgrade, we insisted. Mismo precio (same price) she said. She phoned the office and repeated this. Okay we said. Got in said car and drove off for our next wonderful destination- El Gastor.

Now I am sure you have never heard of this one. Neither had I till I researched the area around Ronda. I knew I wanted to visit the “pueblos blancos” , the famous white towns clustered around Ronda, of which there are many. It was hard to know which one to pick as a base. Until I came across Lesley and Terry’s “Casa de las Flores“. That had to be the one. You see why.

The lovely Lesley and Terry from the UK met us outside the local church in the tiny two street town, after having sent a map to show us where to park. The place was perfect as was El Gastor, quiet and gorgeous and with friendly people who smile and say good morning. It was the best place to tour around the white towns. I had planned to do some hiking in the gorgeous countryside around, but the temperatures of 35C and over did not really suit. We did visit aforementioned Ronda, as well as Zahara de la Sierra and the incredible Setenil de las Bodegas too. But really there are many options for interesting tours around the region.

It is hard to capture the stunning beauty of each of these places. There are so many white towns you just have to pick a few.

After the three lovely nights in El Gastor we continued on to our next stop, two nights in Malaga. Here we were lucky enough to stay with Pablo de Michael, the charming host at Patio de Arance. Fortunate in that when I was pickpocketed , losing the key to the apartment he came to our rescue in a short time and all was well. He also gave us a lovely map of the city and some recommendations of what to see and do. Despite the theft we had a great couple of days walking along the promenade and wandering in downtown which felt a bit like a Spanish version of Tel Aviv. The beach did not overly impress but we did eat a marvellous curry one night. The highlight was a visit to the Picasso museum of Malaga. Very little remains of the Jewish “Juderia” but there are a few pretty streets of boutiques and restaurants you can wander around.

I think this is the place to take a breather before we continue on our way to Granada, Cordoba and Carmona, all historical heavyweights. Stay tuned!

A Fascinating and special visit

I had read something about this Botanical Gardens online but never met anyone who had actually been there. It was only a 20 minute drive away so when the sun came out we decided it looked like a cool place to visit. Called the Emek Hefer Ornamental Gardens, I would say this is a bit of a misnomer in English because “ornamental” suggests something more tame and cultivated. These gardens were created in 1949 to make a large collection and storage area for every kind of tree and plant that might be suitable to grow in the country. At that time the pioneers and early settlers coming to the Holy Land knew very little about the soil and climate of this area, and did not really know which plants would succeed here and which were unsuitable. So they made this place as a sort of lab to research which trees and flowers would thrive here. On arrival at the gardens we got a free introduction to the place with Tomer, one of the volunteers, who gave us a short history and then presented us with a large folder of information, and told us to go around on our own. We had his phone number if we should need any other help. The place is pretty large and divided into different areas according to different varieties of plant- succulents, deciduous etc, but there are also areas like little allotments where local students grow seedlings and herbs. Also many workshops on plant identification and growing techniques are conducted here.

Entry to the place is free of charge.

The place was beautiful and very varied. We loved the massive cacti and the extremely old trees too.

Some of the trees were very ancient. Here is the most ancient tree in the country,Prosopis Alba , the Argentine Mesquite

Argentine Mesquite

We meandered around the 50 dunams of the park, enjoying the solitude and quiet, and saw only a few other visitors. I think we will be back there soon, especially as D is thinking about volunteering there.

I can’t identify all the flowers and plants, maybe you can.

I think it’s a highly recommended visit if you are in the area. The gardens are open every day from 9-13 and on Saturdays till 14.00 and entrance and parking are free of charge.

Austria Part 3- the last leg

Splendid Graz

There is always a point at the beginning of the trip when you feel like it stretches endlessly ahead of you, and then you blink and it’s nearly over. This happened as we sadly left our wonderful guesthouse in Kirschberg and headed towards Graz. We would spend two nights in Graz before spending the last night near the airport, as we had an early flight. Another consideration was getting our PCR test 72 hours prior to the flight home; I figured that being in a city would make that easier to achieve.

Another consideration for staying in Graz was a chance to meet a Facebook friend. Marjorie and I somehow became friends, through mutual acquaintances in the FB English teachers’ community and I thought that having a local show us around would be fun. So we would spend our first day exploring alone and the second day we would meet her. How exciting to meet someone you have only chatted to on the Internet, right? Anyway we arrived in Graz and headed to my first address for getting the free PCR. There was nothing at the address.. nada.. zilch. Ok we’ll head for the next one- a shopping mall called Murpark. After finding the way in to the parking lot we easily found the testing centre. Sadly, though, and contrary to my information, this test was only free for locals, not for tourists. There was a free testing centre, the nice lad said, but it was somewhere downtown, where we would need to pay for parking. Never mind, we decided to get the stupid test done, despite the cost and get it over with. I really wanted to get the result back before we left Graz. The lad very kindly escorted us to the pharmacy where we had to pay, which was in another part of the mall, and waited with us to take us back again. A half hour later it was done and dusted so we headed back to the car park and thence to the wonderful NH City Graz, recommended by Marjorie. Slap bang in the centre of old Graz, and with a half price parking arrangement.

We settled in to our room and then went out to explore the town. A few minutes’ walk from the hotel we found what D was to refer to as “hot dog square”, the main Hauptplatz, with all the wonderful historic buildings and little alleyways. We found a splendid place to eat dinner too- a little Italian place where we had excellent pizza and pasta, and a fine glass of wine. I don’t remember the name but there are lots of lovely little restaurants just off the main square. It was even warm enough to sit outside.

The next morning we were going to explore some more, before meeting Marjorie for the afternoon, to get our insiders’ view of Graz. We kicked off with a splendid breakfast in the park right behind our hotel, at a splendid place called Das Promenade

Breakfast at Das Promenade

We then decided to head towards the river, which is always a good thing to do in a city. So we walked gradually in that direction, admiring the wonderful buildings all around, till we reached the river, and crossed over a bridge, past the very strange Art museum building, to the area near the Mariahilferkirche. We enjoyed the walk, the views and the whole ambiance. There was lots to see and enjoy- the area across the bridge felt more laid-back, studenty and offbeat than the downtown area near the hotel. We also enjoyed walking across the Murinsel, a strange floating structure in the middle of the river.

We found a little market square and then as we turned back to the river direction again, we saw the incredible sight of the Uhrturm, the medieval clock tower perched up above the town, and knew we had to climb up. Well, it’s only 260 steps up after all, not much to get a splendid view of the town on such a beautiful day, right?

The climb was really not bad at all, with lots of places to pause and revel in the fantastic view.

We had just reached the top when Marjorie texted to say she was on her way over. Perfect timing. We made our way back down (it seemed a lot easier than up) and in 10 minutes we were back at the hotel- D even managed to get his sought after hotdog, in “hotdog square” of course. He pronounced it “okay, but not as good as the Viennese one”.

We met up with Marjorie in the hotel lobby and she then very kindly took us to see some interesting spots around town. First we saw an inscription in Hebrew of a 14th century tombstone ( of the the merchant Rabbi Nissim bar Aharon who died in 1387 ) on the wall of the federal government building.

Tombstone

Next we saw the famous double staircase in the municipal buildings. And then we stepped inside the magnificent Graz cathedral with its baroque interior.

Then we took a lovely walk through the park, which was really lovely, stepping in to a few lovely courtyards along the way. We really enjoyed Graz very much, and can totally see why Marjorie enjoys living there.

We had a short walk around town again the next morning before departing to our extremely odd airport hotel, the Moxy which was more like a cross between a youth hostel and a “house of ill repute” than an airport hotel. I understand it was trying to cater to the young, hispter crowd. I found it loud,both in volume and decor, and the room had some kind of weird mauve disco lights on the side tables and even under the bed, with a huge screen tv, but no telephone, complimentary soap or kettle. In the morning at 6am when we departed, one lift had a “do not use sign ” on it but refused to stop going up and down, whilst the other one refused to move at all. Despite all these faults, it was 800 m walk to the airport terminal, so that was fine.I omitted to mention a slight scare we had on returning our car to the extremely patient Gabor. First we could not find how to drive into the hotel car park where we had arranged to meet him, so I texted him that we would deliver the car in the Billa supermarket parking lot. Then after we found him, D seemed to think he had lost his mobile phone, only to discover after a frantic 30 minute search (in which we BOTH failed to see it) , it was retrieved lurking under the dashboard all along. All’s well that ends well, eh?

Going home

Haifa on the Hill

View of the city from upper balcony of the Bahai Shrine

I have always had a soft spot for this city, which seems to me to combine the best of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It has plenty of history, with a downtown German colony built by the Templars to rival the Jerusalem one; it has a reputation for being a city of cultural harmony, where Jews and Arabs live peacefully side by side, and where lots of intercultural events are put on (The Haifa Film Festival, the Festival of Festivals), it’s the only Israeli city with a subway, the Carmelit, ( actually more a funicular than a proper subway) and it has wonderful views of the sea from the top of the Carmel. Haifa is a city with very distinct parts- the downtown port area, the middle level of the Carmel and the very top – Yefe Nof (literally beautiful view) , where the houses perched on the summit of the Carmel mountain look down over the bay. Bear in mind that walking around the city would involve a lot of going up and down the mountain, hence the subway, which is built on the slope. Now there are also two cable cars to make going up and down less arduous.

We had visited Haifa some years ago right after the terrible fires that raged on the Carmel, when our travel organisation Servas.org hosted a walking tour during the Christmas/Hanuka period. At this time Jews, Christians and Muslims in Haifa celebrate together and there are usually lots of activities going on all over town. It was great fun, ( especially the Santa Claus parade through Wadi Nisnas and the ensuing hummus in the local restaurants) and it left me with a feeling that we would return to the city again. As the summer heat, mostly over 35C during the day, means no hiking for the moment, a quick look at the blissfully air- conditioned Haifa Art Museum seemed in order.

We arrived before the museum opened so we went for a quick look around the Wadi Nisnas neighbourhood right behind the museum. I had remembered that it was an area where there were various art projects encouraging coexistence, and we saw something called Poetry Lane, and found various art projects on the walls.

The Art museum now open, we returned to take a look. Although rather unimpressive from the outside, the three storey building originally the site of an Anglican Girls’ school, was packed with interesting stuff, and you could use an audio guide (in several languages) from your phone by scanning a QR code. In any case the exhibits were very clearly labelled in Hebrew and English. Some rooms had works by famous artists, such as Yehiel Shemi and Yair Garbuz, and there was even one by Diego Rivera. The current exhibition commemorates 70 years of the museum’s existence, and all artists are in some way connected to Haifa and the North.

Work by Yair Garbuz
Another work I liked, although I forgot the artist’s name

After we had finished at the museum we went up to the top of the Carmel to look at the famous Bahai Shrine and its gardens. Unfortunately the gardens were closed, as it appears it is necessary to register for an organized tour, but the view from the top was as always, spectacular and there was a lovely breeze.

Interesting gate on the way to the Shrine
View of the gardens and the bay

So from the Shrine we zipped up to the top of Stella Maris, another place we love in Haifa. Stella Maris has a 19th century church and Carmelite monastery. The church can be visited ( and even boasts a cave said to be that of Elijah underneath its altar) but we skipped it this time and just strolled around outside looking at the view of the bay and Haifa port. The Madonna statue outside the monastery ,erected by the people of Chile, is rather fine. From here there is a cable car going down the mountainside to Bat Galim seaside promenade.

Madonna statue
The wild boar wandering around are no joke

We finished our fun day by driving to Hof Dor Habonim beach, which is the most amazing beach inside a Nature Reserve, which we had visited before. We were not looking for a walk this time, due to the heat, but just wanted to chill out and have a quick dip in the sea, which was extremely rough. The beach is extremely beautiful and highly recommended. In the winter we will return to walk along the shore and revisit the beauty of the coastline here.

Habonim beach

An explosion of colour

This week’s walk was very different from our previous hikes in nature. We finally made it into the city- Tel Aviv, which we have not frequented for over a year. It is now opening up and as we are double vaxxed we decided to head off to do a self-guided graffiti tour of the Florentin neighbourhood, squeezed between hip, gentrified Neve Zedek and multicultural picturesque Yaffo. Florentin is famous for grunge, garages and carpentry. It is inhabited by many young people, and is well known as the graffiti hub of Tel Aviv. So we signed up for a tour which one can follow on a mobile phone, and comes with maps, audio and video explanations, and walking directions. You can do it at your own pace and you only need one for your group. It was great, as it took us to places that we had never heard of, and would have had difficulty finding alone.

We started off at a park called the Tractor Park,which I had never heard of before. Here we sat on a bench and heard an introductory video about what graffiti is, and what is the difference between graffiti and street art. We were also reminded that as graffiti is dynamic and changing, it was possible that we would find different paintings in some locations. I was amazed not just by the sheer quantity of the paintings, but also the quality and variety of them. As a friend remarked, it’s like being in a free outdoor gallery. It is hard to choose which paintings to show with you ,as there were so many wonderful ones.

Some places had recurring names of artists, which we started to identify. One artist incorporates braille in her paintings, stating that the blind cannot see the paintings, and the seeing cannot mostly read the braille…

Braille above the graffiti

Some areas had more poems and words incorporated into the painting, and some were more visual . At one square, we came to a huge wall painting reminiscent of San Francisco in the 1960s, complete with flower painted cars, and people lounging around listening to music next to a fountain. There were other places where the synagogue had wall paintings with stars of David blended into the works.

We finished off our tour with a meal in a Vietnamese restaurant called Kanu, right next to the wall of the largest wall painting by an artist called Dede and his partner. This work is made of recycled bits of lumber from furniture and is dedicated to women murdered during 2020. From there it was a short walk back our beloved beach promenade, for a quick look at the sea before we headed home. I would happily do another of these self guided tours. WE saw people in groups doing a regular guided tour, and of course the advantage of our tour was that we could stop wherever we wanted and take our time to look at the paintings. You can also do the tour several times during the 14 days it is available, if you like. The company has similar tours in other locations, which I would like to check out. So stay tuned for more walking adventures…

Huge wall art by Dede and Nitzan Mintz, in memory of women murdered during 2020

Winter walking at Banias

I must have previously visited the waterfall at Banias, otherwise known as Panias and Hermon stream , possibly on my first visit to Israel as a kid, but I really couldn’t remember much about it. So after the first rains we decided to head up north and check it out. It really is a wonderful place and we enjoyed our day there very much. We had planned to see both sites,the waterfall and the spring, Saar Waterfall and also the Monument to the Helicopter disaster victims, and end up at the Kinneret. This, it turned out, was too ambitious, but we had a great day nonetheless.

There are two entrances to the national park ( both of which require an advance booking during this Covid 19 period) one at the Waterfall parking lot and one at the Banias Spring parking lot. The two sites are connected and you can hike from one to the other.

The Waterfall one has the circular red suspended path trail which takes about 45 minutes, and the blue trail which takes you to the Banias spring entrance and is about 60 minutes from the Waterfall so the whole thing would take you over an hour and a half each way.

As we got out of the car we discovered there was an incredibly high wind, which nearly blew us over. At the ticket booth the guy said to be very careful. It was kind of exhilarating as we made our way down to the falls. The air was fresh and everything was green around us, and best of all, there were no people. We breathed in the fresh scent of pine and figs, and enjoyed the stunning view over the Golan. The most wonderful thing about Israeli winter is that the sun is shining, the sky is blue but you are not so hot that you can’t walk, as in the summer. All in all, it’s a fantastic time of year to go hiking.

The path down to the falls was fantastic, and the suspended path was just a wonderful viewing point for the gushing water. I didn’t remember this bridge from previous visits, so I think it must be newish. In any case the view is really stunning. From the here you continue on till you reach the Falls themselves which are just breathtakingly beautiful.

From the Falls you can continue on foot on the blue trail to the Banias Springs, or you can return to the parking lot and drive there. WE thought we were driving to the Saar Falls so we went to the car. After reaching the Saar Falls and discovering them to be still dry, (albeit with a wonderful view) we went back to the entrance of the Springs which were very close by.

Saar Falls were dry

The Springs site is pretty interesting and has the Roman remains of the shrine dedicated to Pan (hence the name Banias) and the city Caesarea Philippi. This is currently being restored but there are some archeological remains to see, and also a cave. Also it’s an excellent place to eat a sandwich and have an ice cream.

We didn’t make it to the Helicopter Memorial because we wanted to buy some wonderful fresh trout at the Kibbutz Dan fish shop before catching the sunset at the Kinneret. The only disadvantage of travelling in the winter is that it gets dark so early. So we popped in to the shop and got 5 huge pink trout which the lady put in a refrigerated box, and told us it would be good for 6-8 hours. We then drove down to the Kinneret and caught a great sunset at Nof Ginnosar (too early, not even 5 pm) . We then drove home and put said fish in the freezer for tomorrow.

Stepping out (finally)

This blog began as a way to  document  our travels, starting with early retirement and our sojourn in China, and continuing to other trips around the world. Those who know me  know that my obsession is travel, and that I am always travelling  or planning a trip. Nothing makes me happier than  having  one or  preferably two flight tickets in my email box.

But something has happened, namely the big C. Since we are distinguished members of that exclusive club known as the high risk category of so called “elderly” people  all that has changed. We  are now in the “Age of Corona” – apparently not yet “post Corona”  so with that in mind I shall carry on from the previous  blog post , a Traveller at home. I have to admit that we, my friends and I, who are all used to hopping on and off planes to distant climes, have never seen ourselves as elderly or at risk. It is a very strange situation to find ourselves in. But it is what it is, and all we can do for now is discover places closer to home. And wonder of wonders, we have found a few.

So far we have really only ventured up to an hour’s drive from home, but in this radius we have found some truly beautiful sights. We discovered plants, fruits, and fields. We discovered the simple enjoyment of fresh air, and walking through strawberry fields and citrus groves. We discovered the exhilaration of walking along the beach early in the morning to avoid the crowds. WE are fortunate in that we can get out and about and enjoy such simple pleasures. We are fortunate in that we live only about 20 minutes drive from the Marina in Herzliya, and only about 25 minutes from the beaches of south Netanya. We have found a couple of these that we really love, and try to go there early, to avoid crowds, and so far we have had these beaches to ourselves.

In addition, we have found that we really enjoy walking in the fields in the villages and farms (communal farms called “moshavim” in Hebrew) and seeing all the fruits and plants that grow there. Occasionally a truckload of Thai workers pass by and we wave and say “Sawadika ” to them.

So this is our daily routine for the foreseeable future. We really don’t have any illusions that we will be flying anywhere in the near future, at least maybe we can make a trip to the beautiful north of our country before the streams and waterfalls dry up. We should have been in Uzbekistan in May but there it is. We count our blessings and look forward to every day, the lovely sunshine on our balcony, the food that we make together, and most of all the relationships we have together and with our lovely friends and family.

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Australia Part 2-Beautiful Brizzy

I continue with our drive up from Sydney to Cairns, which mostly consisted of stunning beaches one after another, and I apologize that I didn’t note down the names of all the beaches. We tried stopping off at a couple of points where locals assured us we would see whales, one of these was Woolgoola Headland, and you could just about see them with binoculars. But this just whetted our appetite – see Whale- watching later on.The one place that we spent a couple of days in and enjoyed immensely was Yamba at the mouth of the Clarence River Estuary. We stayed in the cute Yamba Beach Motel, which had everything that one needs for a comfortable stay and was reasonably priced by Australian standards. We then just wandered around the tiny town (lots of huge hills leading to the lighthouse) and took a book to read on the various beaches( one was called Pippi beach). Highly recommended. WE also had a very nice pint at the Pacific hotel, which has a splendid bar  overlooking the sea, and touts itself as “Australia’s best sited hotel”. Could not argue with them.

One final place I would like to mention that we enjoyed on the Central coast before we reached Brisbane was Dorrigo National Park. 

This lovely place is a short drive from Coffs Harbour and we spent a few happy hours strolling through the forest paths which are clearly signposted and not overly taxing. There is a short boardwalk at the beginning of the park and then a  few circular paths of varying  lengths, with waterfalls and so on. There is also a visitor centre where you can watch a short movie on the flora and fauna in the park. Our only problem was discovering that our car battery was flat when we returned from the walk (and of course it was a Sunday, our phone had no reception, which is common in isolated areas of Australia, and there was no internet reception either.) Fortunately a lovely couple in the car park came to our aid with jump leads and got us started up again.

It is really hard to get a sense of the rainforest from the photos, because the trees tower above and all around, so the photos really don’t capture the vastness of the experience.

On the way back to Coffs Harbour, the motel owner had suggested we stop at a quaint little town called Bellingen which we were passing through anyway. He specifically used the word “quaint”, adding that since I am from the UK I will understand. The town,set in farm land, with lots of horses and cows dotted around, was indeed quaint, with many interesting old buildings, and a museum, which sadly we did not manage to check out.

 

From Yamba we continued up the Pacific Highway to Brisbane. We had expectations of Melbourne and of Sydney, but Brisbane was a city about which we had heard very little. And we were blown away by it. Since we saw that we had plenty of days of our trip to make it up to Cairns, and had decided not to continue driving but to get there by plane, we decided to extend our stay in Brisbane and chill out a bit there, as moving every one or two days gets tiresome. As soon as we walked around in central Brisbane we felt at home. It’s hard to say exactly why. Our air bnb was in a wonderful quiet neighbourhood called Hawthorne, and came with a kitchen, garden, a swimming pool and a dog called Oscar. It was also 5 minutes walk from the Hawthorne Citycat Stop. Citycat is a ferryboat service that plies up and down the Brisbane river and is a far more useful form of transport than the bus.It runs frequently, and up until after midnight 7 days a week. All you need to use it is an electronic  Go Card that you top up with money as you go. It is the same card for buses, trains, ferries and trams. You can just get on it and go all the way up one end of the line and then back again for about $6.

We immediately bought our Go card and started exploring. The first part of the city that we discovered was the central area of the Queen Street Mall which we returned to many times during our stay. It was both relaxed and buzzing, full of life and great for people-watching but not in the way that large cities are. It was always fun to sit on a bench and watch people, and we also took a tour later on with a Brisbane Greeter, (volunteer guide) who introduced us to some less well-known corners of the city.

There are lots of things to see in Brisbane- we particularly enjoyed the Southbank area and the Parklands- a long riverbank promenade that was built after the World Expo of 1988 and consists of a cultural precinct (Museums, art galleries, concert halls, theatres) a Nepali Peace Pagoda, grassy areas and free public swimming pools. There is also an Epicurious garden, where fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers are grown by volunteers, and distributed free to people. The Southbank was the location from which we watched the fantastic Riverfire firework display at the end of the Riverfire festival which happily coincided with our stay in Brisbane. This display was preceded by air displays by army helicopters and jets. It was a great day, no less impressive in that the crowds dispersed in a quiet and orderly fashion at the end. The festival also included lots of free performances all over the place, which added to our stay. We also enjoyed walking around Roma Street Parklands, another park area near to the second place we stayed Spring Hill Apartments. We wanted to add more days at the Airbnb but it was no longer available, so we took the apartment for a week, which was a bit pricy but also included a washing machine and dryer! The only drawback to this accommodation was that it was indeed at the top of a hill. But there was a free bus that stopped right outside the apartments, and deposited us in the city centre in less than 15 minutes. So as the Ozzies say “No worries”.

Other places we loved in Brisbane were the Botanical Gardens and the old Regent Theatre which is now a tourist office, but part of the interior of the old theatre has been preserved. Just travelling on the ferries up and down the river and looking at the iconic Story Bridge from different angles was great fun. WE were continually amazed that every time we went down town something was going on- one day they were distributing free ice cream in Queen Street; another day there was a farmers’ market next to Victoria Bridge; there were lots of free performances in the Mall area too- one day we saw a display of Aboriginal dancing there. Our stay was also enhanced by meeting up with our friend Steve from Virtual Tourist, and then Gary and Roger from Servas, all of whom came out for dinner with us. WE also made new friends in Vera and Paul, a lovely couple we met on a Saturday morning when we went to the Farmers’ Market at the PowerHouse  and who also met us for dinner another evening. All of these meetings impressed on me that nice as sightseeing may be, the really memorable parts of our travels are always the personal contacts we make with locals. The openness and warmth we received from all the Australians that we met was just phenomenal. So thanks Ozzies!

Then there was one of the highlights of our whole trip- whale watching at Redcliffe. After a lot of humming and ha-ing we decided to go for it. It’s after all one of those “once in a lifetime” things right? It’s expensive but definitely something to remember. I checked out various companies and found that the most highly recommended one was called, strangely enough, Brisbane Whale Watching , and it had tons of recommendations on Tripadvisor. They guaranteed that we would see whales. But I was not prepared for how many! We bought a package which included a pickup from a location near where we were staying, transfer by minibus to the cruise jetty, the hour or so  trip out to the bay near Moreton Island and a buffet lunch. We even had a brief look at Beegees Alley before boarding our boat.

Very soon after reaching the bay we immediately started seeing humpback whales and some even jumped up right near the boat.It was truly amazing, and it was important to stop taking pictures (most of which missed the whales jumping) and just look at these lovely creatures. I still did manage to get a few good shots though! Each time there was a sighting, the crew shouted 11 o’clock, or 3 o’clock, and everyone rushed to the appropriate location of the ship to see the whales. There was even a mum and baby but I didn’t manage to get a picture.

Finally it was time to leave wonderful Brisbane- so I will just leave you with a few more pictures before we head for our last stop in the trip- tropical Cairns, and the Great Barrier Reef.

Six weeks Down Under- from Melbourne to Cairns

Things I loved about Australia:

Friendliest and most open people in the world -Amazing scenery –  Ease of getting about -Clean and convenient ( never had to wait for a bathroom!)- the noise the traffic lights make (kind of like the spaceship doors on Star Trek) Cosmopolitan – you can get lots of different kinds of food like Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian in the cities – Everything is safe- trails are clearly labelled, information is freely available, nothing is mysterious or confusing

Things I liked less:

Prices- Everything is ridiculously expensive :The package tourist trips are ridiculously priced.  ( unlike Mexico for example)  Transportation is also not cheap  You can’t eat out cheaply like in Asia    Local  is not so healthy (everything seemed to be fried/ hamburgers – we missed a good Israeli salad and fresh fruits)  There are Chinese EVERYWHERE (more than we saw in China?)    I couldn’t get Uber to work (ok,not Oz’ fault)

We have just returned from what had seemed to be the “dream trip” for many people, and in many ways it was miraculous, and marvelous. and was certainly different from many other trips we have done. For a start it took us to the furthest eastern and southern point on the globe we have ever been, and was the longest flight we have done. It took over 24 hours, with one flight from Tel Aviv to Hong Kong and the second from Hong Kong to Melbourne (with a return from Cairns through the amazing Cathay Pacific).

Having said that, I was not expecting Australia to be “exotic” or “alien” in the same way that our Asian trips have been. The culture in Australia is so familiar, that for the first few days in Melbourne it felt like England- the sky and fields of Victoria looked like England, the houses in the city looked English and the roads and signage were the same. There were pubs called “Sherlock Holmes” and “The Charles Dickens” and of course many of the citizens are of British or Irish descent. WE could read everything written and understand everything said to us. So coming to Australia was physically but not culturally far.

I will divide the blog into sections, because of course a trip of 6 weeks is going to make for a very long blog post. So first, to Melbourne.

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Part One Melbourne  and Sydney ( and a bit further north!)

WE spent 6 days in Melbourne. The first day we arrived at night and the next day we spent having brunch with family, and that was really great. They gave us a few pointers about what to see around town. So we began by walking along the Southbank (a bit like the London South Bank) cultural area and this was indeed the part of Melbourne we enjoyed the most. It has a lovely walk along the river, with cafes and restaurants, and some cool statues. I didn’t think much of Federation Square, which was not as lively as I was expecting. Neither did I find the alleyways with the graffiti in Hosier Lane that impressive- the ones in Mexico were far more colourful and artistic. We did enjoy the colonial architecture of the buildings, the Victorian shopping arcades,  the fascinating Immigration Museum and thoroughly enjoyed the Old Melbourne Gaol House  experience, during which you go  through what a prisoner in Victorian times would have felt on being admitted to the Jail – it was fantastic, and the lady sergeant who “processed” us was deliciously scary.

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Southbank sculpture

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