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!

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

A bit of culture in Old Jaffa

view from the Promenade

After a couple of months of not going anywhere or doing any hiking, due to the extreme heat (over 30C most days) and it being school holidays in July and August, and overcrowded everywhere, I finally decided it would be a good idea to check out a nice air conditioned museum. Many museums are popular with families making them not ideal when trying to avoid people,( found this out while visiting the new Steinhardt Natural History museum in Tel Aviv a couple of years ago), but I eventually hit on the perfect solution.

We went off to Jaffa, parking in our favourite place right opposite the Etzel Museum and Neve Zedek. From there it’s only a 15 minute walk down to Old Jaffa. Walking along the Charles Clore Promenade there is a wonderful breeze from the sea, and I was only sorry I had not thought of doing this weeks ago. Anyway Jaffa turned out to be just as charming as I remembered, surely a place one can visit again and again.

After walking around a bit in the beautiful winding alleys of Old Jaffa we arrived at the Ilana Goor Museum, right next to the Uri Geller Museum (which I had never heard of before). The main entrance appeared to be closed, but a nice man let us in through the back door, which led us through the almost overwhelmingly packed gift shop. For the princely sum of 25 shekel each we were then treated to a leisurely wander through a magnificent collection of sculptures and paintings, some by Ilana Goor herself and some from her very eclectic collection of artworks, including portraits of her by other artists, and even one Henry Moore.

Suddenly the lady herself appeared from behind a private door, and we had a short chat with her. She was an elegant 85 year old, very gracious and interesting.

Young Ilana Goor Portrait

Many of the exhibits were examples of the way the artist incorporates unusual elements such as animal hides and skulls into her work. The furniture was particularly unusual. I am not sure it was all to my taste but it was certainly interesting. There are several floors and the open balconies and the roof sculpture garden with the view to the sea were especially lovely. You can sit in the roof garden and eat your sandwiches to admire the view. The artist has lovingly restored the old house (one of the oldest houses in Jaffa, which originally served as a hostel to Jewish pilgrims ) and now lives there herself. The kitchen is particularly striking, with its blend of old samovars and modern fridge and sink. I must admit to having taken far too many pictures, which makes it hard to select the ones I will post here.

The views from the window and the roof garden

After enjoying the gallery we went for a little mosey around Jaffa and rounded off the morning with a quick delicious hummus and falafel at Yfrach restaurant.

Highly recommend this area, and I am sure we will be coming back again soon.

Going all Crusader

This trip was supposed to be a long hike from Montfort castle down to Nahal Kziv and back again and then on to Yehiam Fortress. But I underestimated the difficulty of the hike down into the wadi and also it turned out to be an 8 or 9 km round trip. So we ended up doing only the hike down from Mitzpe Hila Car Park to Montfort and back up again. This, although only about 3 km took us an inordinately long time, but we still had time to press on to Yehiam for lunch and then catch the (early winter) sunset on the new promenade at Nahariya before we headed home. In any case there was no water in the stream so we will leave it for next time.

Montfort is really quite impressive as you suddenly glimpse it from the descending trail, as it is surrounded by lovely wooded hills and the Mediterranean sea can just be glimpsed on the horizon. They really knew where to put their castles in those days. The trail down to the castle is a bit steep and strewn with rocks, tricky for those of us with knee concerns but fine for the younguns. The path is gorgeous and with every twist and turn we see the ruins from another angle. If you do continue down toNahal Kziv you can apparently climb back up on a circular route by following the black trail. But all along the way we met fellow hikers who wanted to know how far it was and how steep the path was. So we were not the only people who hesitated whether to press on or go back up. In any case the views were just stunning and the air perfumed with pine and fig.

After a bit of clambering around on the ruins, and ascending to the top part,where you get a stunning view all around, we headed back up to the parking lot and thence to our next stop Yehiam castle, next to Kibbutz Yehiam. This is a national park so requires preregistration and payment if you don’t have a membership. It has a lovely picnic area with lots of tables where you can consume your sandwiches. The lady at the ticket booth told us there is a short video at a quarter to of each hour.

Actually Yehiam is chock full of history, because as well as being a Crusader, Ottoman castle it is also the site where battles were fought by the first pioneers who inhabited the fledgling kibbutz at the establishment of the state in 1948, 42 of whom were killed while defending the place during the War of Independence. The short video was nothing to write home about but maybe good for kids..

We then drove the 20 minutes to the city of Nahariya which boasts a splendid Tayelet or Promenade along the sea front complete with fishermen and ice cream shops, the restaurants and bars being unfortunately closed due to covid. The ice cream was great as was the sunset.

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

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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!

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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Oaxaca

The last day in San Cristóbal, after eating out at a fancy restaurant (not at a street tacos stall) I was visited by Montezuma’s Revenge. This is something that happens to every traveller who spends any time at all in Mexico,, at some point or another. It happened to me the day before we were due to take another long, 12 hour bus journey from San Cris to Oaxaca City. Fortunately for me, after a couple of pills of Immodium, I was fine, and actually the bus ride to Oaxaca was pretty enjoyable. We left San Cris at 10.30 am and arrived in Oaxaca about 22.15 to be met at the bus station by our Air Bnb hosts!

I have to say that I love this website more and more. We got to stay in cheap, self-catering places and we met charming, kind local hosts, and found it that much more pleasant than staying in impersonal hotels. So if you are not familiar, go ahead and sign up! You can use this referral to join.

Anyway so the lovely couple at our place picked us up in their car so we would not get lost late at night, and drove us to the apartment, which was small, clean and had everything we needed including a small kitchen, charming patio where we ate breakfast every day, and a parrot (in their place not ours) which continually shouted “Hola!”

Next morning we got up to explore Oaxaca, and by lunchtime we had decided that we really liked it a lot and were going to extend our stay there. We had intended to go on to Puebla after Oaxaca, on the way to Mexico City. But we decided to skip Puebla and stay in Oaxaca for another week. There seemed to be so much to see and do there, but the pace of the place made us feel like we wanted to just relax and “be” there,, not necessarily charging around from site to site. Since our friends Renee and Barry had recommended the place, we started to see the charm of it right away.

If San Cristobal had been the “musicians’ city” , Oaxaca was the artists’ city. Everywhere we saw beautiful artwork, galleries, museums, and street art. The vibe felt relaxed, despite the fact that Oaxaca was about the most political place we went in Mexico. And when I say that, I mean that there were armed police everywhere downtown, and the Zócalo had at least 3 demos or political gatherings going on at any given time. Nevertheless, the place had a distinctly artistic feel to it and we enjoyed it a lot. As to what we did there, mostly just hang out, walk around and photograph the beautiful buildings and squares and eat and drink  the delicious Mexican chocolate. We did take one tour from Oaxaca, which was to Monte Alban, the Pre- Columbian Zapotec site, which was wonderful. The tour was combined with a place where they demonstrated weaving and dying yarn with natural colours, Mitla, another important Zapotec archeological site, and with Hierve el Agua , an incredible rock formation that looks like a frozen waterfall. We also got to see how the local liquor, called mezcal,  is produced from the agave plant, and of course to taste several varieties of it.

But every day we walked down town from our apartment we felt relaxed, whilst never quite knowing what we would see. One day, there was a wedding with huge puppets representing the bride and groom, and all the guests dancing in the street; another day a load of parades (political demos?), another day we came across some kind of municipal festival in a huge open air amphitheatre, with lots of stalls, and free tastings of food, and local dances. One day, as advised by our “Oaxaca guru” Renee, we went to the public lending library for a language exchange, where I tested the limits of my Spanish, and D met a man whose mother tongue was not Spanish but the Zapotec minority language. It was all great fun. Oaxaca is a city where you can walk around and continually be surprised.

Oaxaca is such a pleasant city that  it’s hard to really sum it up. I can say that the market is a great place to eat and sample the special cuisine they have, and that there are many lovely squares where you can sit, eat, drink and people watch. It is highly recommended to try the local chocolate, which is not like any other chocolate I have ever tasted. You can pop into art galleries and chat to the artists everywhere you go. And in the evening there is (as in everywhere else we went in Mexico) live music of all kinds to go with your beer or mezcal. We found a lovely restaurant-bar called Praga, which had live jazz every evening, and lovely quotations from poets all over the walls.

Of course there were also many churches, museums and galleries to see in Oaxaca. But just hanging out there was really the thing I will remember most about our stay there.

One day on one of the main parks, El Llano, we saw a VW bus painted like the Magic Bus, from which a woman,a  blond girl and two dogs emerged. They were from Patagonia, in Argentina, and were travelling from Patagonia to ALASKA in this bus. The girl had been born on the road. They were financing the trip by selling a book and T shirts. When we asked them when they would get to Alaska, the woman said, “It doesn’t really matter, but it won’t be this year!”.

As hard as it was to drag ourselves away from Oaxaca, we knew we had to be in Mexico City by a certain date to fly home, and we didn’t want to miss the main sites in the capital, so we gave ourselves a week to be in DF, as it is called, before our flight, so eventually we had to book our Airbnb in Mexico city and buy a bus ticket, for our final ADO bus to the capital, a mere 8 hour trip. So stay tuned for the Mexican finale, DF, the Mexico City bit….

The (B) itch is back! (sorry Elton)

As you can see I have not written for some time. I was recovering from my foot injury (which seemed to take forever) and then once I could walk normally again juggling with various travel destinations in my head, and possible courses of action. It’s not that I don’t enjoy life in our new home (Kfar Saba) – actually it’s great- clean, green, small enough to walk around but not so small that it is boring. There are tons of cultural events on here all the time and if we want to pop over to Tel Aviv for music, drinking, theatre etc, it’s only 30 minutes away. But as a travel- obsessed individual, the travel itch is never far from the surface of my skin. So I am constantly scanning  Dave’s   or the Esl Teachers Board and looking into various volunteering websites to plan our next getaway. I discovered that most volunteering sites demand a TON of money to get you a position, and often it doesn’t include flights, and usually just very basic accommodation, which in any case in those locations is dirt cheap (Vietnam, Myanmar, Central and South America).Also, most volunteering websites seem to be geared to very young gap year travellers, and not so many grey nomads, so I don’t know if it would really be appropriate for us to go on one of those things. So then I thought why shouldn’t I just go somewhere that we fancy,  and if we get a volunteering opportunity whilst we are there, then good, and if not we will just hang out. We often travel using Couchsurfing or Servas , since we don’t really enjoy staying in expensive hotels, and we prefer to meet locals and hang out with them.

I have mentioned Servas before- I think it’s an amazing way to travel if you have time. It’s so much more interesting than being a tourist, to spend time in the company of a local who can tell you so much more about a place than the guide book.

So I can’t exactly explain how this happened. I juggled more and more destinations in my head. Realizing that we have seen a lot of Asia and Europe but having  never been to Central or South America, three places kept popping into my mind: Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico. I know that technically Mexico is North America, but everyone thinks it isn’t. Anyhow I went to hear a lecture on Costa Rica and far from convincing me to go there, it put me off. I am not sure how this happened, ( maybe it was the pictures of the huge spiders and the swaying jungle rope bridges in the Cloud Forest) but when I see a lot of pictures of a place it either turns me on or off. Somehow, the latter occurred. But Mexico suddenly became a more attractive destination and as I started reading about it, it became more so- beaches, delicious food, Maya and Aztec sites, colonial architecture, cheap and accessible.  We initially thought to combine it with North America, but as often happens with me less seems better than more. I don’t want to gallop around the places on my itinerary I want to “hang around” in them for a long time and get to know them. So Mexico it is! Booked for February and planned to take about 6 weeks, to do it at a leisurely pace. So we will fly into the Yucatan peninsula, and work our way south through Chiapas and then fly out of Mexico City. I already have about 5 Servas hosts scattered around. And otherwise guest houses or Air BnB look to be about $20. Stay tuned for trip report on our return!