Monday, 22 May 2017

Havana great time in Cuba... it was a Che-me to leave

First off, I'll apologise for not just one but two terrible puns in the title of this blog post, it's just unacceptable. It's the kind of thing that happens when you let me loose without an editor.

Dodgy headline writing aside, Cuba was brilliant. Such a colourful, noisy, vibrant, sunny place with much better food than I'd been expecting and some damn fine mojitos too. We started in Havana, went up to Viñales, down to Cienfuegos, a bit further down to Trinidad and then back up to Havana. All in about 12 days.

Cuba is a destination that gives you a lot to think about. They're so proud of the revolution all these years later and they know they achieved something great and lasting during those five years of conflict that ended in January 1959. Despite not being the richest country in the world, the Cuban state really looks after people; they have brilliant hospitals and some of the highest literacy rates in the world.

It's a country and socialist ethos that seems to work for the most part, which is not necessarily how Cuba is always represented to the rest of the world. That's not to say it's perfect. The roads outside of the big towns and cities have some formidable potholes and there are a lot of crumbling buildings in need of serious repair. 

Then there's the bizarre two-currency system, which seems to be creating a two-tiered society. Basically, if you're Cuban you pay for everything with Cuban Pesos (CUP). They're worth 1/25 of a Convertible Peso (CUC), which is what tourists use to pay for everything. So if you work in the tourist industry you have a way of making way more money than your regular Cuban. There are doctors driving taxis in the evening because otherwise they earn maybe US$25-30 a month. So hey, Cuba's not perfect but where is? 

The internet hasn't really reached Cuban society in any big way yet either, which is nice for a tourist like me wanting to disconnect for a couple of weeks but probably quite frustrating for Cubans. You can get the internet on your phone by buying a card for an hour's wi-fi time, but then you've got to find a public wi-fi spot by looking out for a street corner or square where everybody is on their phone. Basically it's a faff and so we decided not to bother and have a couple of weeks internet free.

Having learned a bit of Spanish came in very handy, I'll tell you that for nada. Without it, we would have struggled to talk to the owners of the casas we stayed in about basic things like breakfast and how much rooms cost. My Spanish is very basic but if you can hold a conversation I reckon you could really venture off the beaten track in Cuba and go the places not many tourists get to.

All in all, Cuba was superb and I'd really recommend it to anyone. Some places are changing pretty quickly though (since Fidel handed over power to his younger brother Raul about six years ago), so go sooner rather than later!

Now I've bored the arse off you trying to prove I paid attention in Cuba, revive yourself with some photos.

First night in Havana. After landing in Cuba we managed a half hour walk round the old town of Havana before tiredness from a day's flying set in. We did have our first mojito, although I was so tired I nearly fell off a bar stool. Classy.

Street art in Havana's old town.

I like to know I'm being watched over by Jesus at all times and a massive statue helps to reassure me of that point. This guy's called the Christ of Havana and he looks out over the bay.

View of Havana from the fort over the other side of the bay. Every night at 9pm they have a military ceremony which ends with firing a huge canon. It was LOUD. And there's a hell of a lot of build up with drums and guys marching in 19th century military uniforms with flaming torches for about an hour before they actually fire the damn thing. Stop marching about and get on with it!

Waxwork re-enactment of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos arriving in Cuba at the beginning of the revolution. In the Museum of the Revolution.

Rincon de los cretinos translates as Cretins Corner. From left to right: Fulgencio Batista (the overthrown ex-Cuban President); Ronald Reagan, George Bush Senior; and little Georgey W. The plaque next to each says "thank you cretin" for their parts in the revolution or the rise of socialism in Cuba. It's safe to say some of the more meddlesome American presidents aren't that popular in Cuba, especially after they tried (and failed) to assassinate Fidel so many times.

Brightly coloured buildings next to the Cuban Art Museum in central Havana. Cubans do like a splash of colour here and there.

Behind me is a statue of a naked woman riding a giant chicken while holding a huge dinner fork. There was no plaque explaining it but a bit of internet research tells me it was by a Cuban artist called Roberto Fabelo, who includes naked women and large birds in a lot of his art. So that clears that up, then.

How many cats can you spot among this scaffolding in Havana?

Tiny pineapples in a very cool botanical garden in Viñales.

Dusty red road leading to a ranch in Viñales (in northern Cuba), where the soil is very fertile and they do a lot of farming.

The Santo Tomas Caves, Viñales. Massive network of caves that we went on a tour around. The second biggest cave network in the Americas, so fairly vast. Tourists are only allowed to explore levels 6 and 7 because they close off levels 1-5 for conservation.

A cool old Chevrolet just off the main high street in Viñales, near our casa. You can stay in 'casa particulares' all through Cuba, they're a bit like B&Bs. The quality varies but the good ones are really comfy and homely and much better value than staying in hotels, many of which are (apparently) very basic compared to the casas.

Tobacco drying in a tobacco farm just outside Viñales. They have to give 90 per cent of what they grow to the state. Imagine being a farmer in the UK and getting taxed 90 per cent of what you grow and getting to keep the rest. But that's how Cuba works. Plus, the farmer can make a bit extra by selling his cigars to gullible tourists like us who think we're getting a good deal.

Said tobacco farmer, rolling a cigar and easing gently into his sales pitch. We did buy some cigars, obviously, but there are occasional moments in Cuba where you feel like you're being given the hard sell and this was one of them.

Horse riding near Viñales. The town itself was an odd place because tourists outnumbered Cubans. There's so much to see and do in the areas surrounding Viñales (like horse riding), that what was a small town has kind of grown into a hub of tourism over the last five years. In another five years I don't know what that place will look like but I hope it doesn't embrace tourism so completely that it loses the charm that drew people there in the first place.

The Best Mojitos In Cuba. Hands down. From Casa del Mojito in Viñales. Just thinking about them now makes me want to drink about five. These were mango and papaya variants of the classic mojito.

To break up the journey from Viñales to Trinidad, we stopped for a day in Cienfuegos. I'd say Lonely Planet exaggerates quite how much amazing architecture there is in Cienfuegos but I still enjoyed having a look round. When we were having dinner, there was a bicycle-taxi guy who kept going past and playing Nothing Compares To You by Sinead O'Connor on his bike speakers, which became slightly surreal.

Cienfuegos' own version of the French Arc de Triomphe, called similarly, the Arco de Triunfo.

From Cienfuegos it was on to Trinidad, which was probably my favourite bit of the trip along with Havana. Trinidad is pretty photogenic whichever way you look and the whole town is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Inside Trinidad's big town square at night. Pretty sure I had a mojito on the go at this moment in time.

Cuban pottery shop. Trinidad is well known for its ceramic pottery. Bought a couple of things myself. I think Harriet was surprised/impressed by my sudden, unexpected interest in ceramic pottery. I'm a man of many surprises.

Window-bars like these in Trinidad open at night and serve drinks out of a window to a busy square of thirsty people. Bar on the right says 'Best mojitos in Cuba'. Bar on the left says 'Best mojitos in the world'. We tested both to see which was best and I'd say the best in Cuba won.

We spent a couple of days on a beach called Playa Ancon, near Trinidad. On the first day, the sun made this circular rainbow thing which I'd never seen before. Probably what made me forget to put on sufficient sun cream and get a good British sunburn going.

When you're laying on the beach, locals come around offering various food and drink, including gert huge coconuts to drink out of. Then, when we were finished drinking the coconut water, the fella chopped it in half with a machete so we could eat the pulp.

Went snorkelling and got this photo of some coral. I thought I'd got loads of photos of brightly coloured fish too, but my underwater photography skills are a bit rubbish, it turns out. 

This is the open top, double decker bus that takes you from Trinidad to Playa Ancon. Only problem is that most of the streets in Trinidad have telephone and electrical wires criss-crossing the streets at a height barely high enough for a double decker bus to pass under. I'm surprised no one has been decapitated yet. The lingering threat of electrocution gives a bus journey an added edge though.

Some locals who may have been at the start of a big night out, judging by the mini party going on inside their car as they cruised along. Seeing these kind of cars all over Cuba never gets boring.

We had a cracking sunset on our last night in Trinidad, as I think you'll agree.

Cathedral on the corner of Plaza del Cristo, back in Havana. We had a couple of days in Havana at the end of the trip before flying home so we made a beeline for a bar near this cathedral, called El Dandy. (Top mojitos, very lemony lemonade and good sweet potato fries.) We were introduced to it by none other than regular guest of this blog Alastair (aka The Notorious IGT). He was at the end of two weeks in Cuba when we were at the start and our trips overlapped by a day.

Castillo de la Real Fuerza, Havana. A cool old 16th century fort with a moat. Also a museum inside but was closed when we got there or we didn't have time to go in, I forget which.

Che Guevara lit up and 50 feet high on the side of a building next to the Plaza de la Revolucion. This trip to Cuba only reinforced my previous belief that he was a really f*cking cool guy who died way before his time. (He was shot by firing squad aged 39.)

Trying to be arty, getting a shot of Harriet enjoying the view as we went all touristy and paid for a drive around Havana at sunset in a big old American car. It was well worth it though, we saw loads of the city as the sun went down.

A short film of Havana from the back of a big old American car. You can even see our reflection in the rear-view mirror.

You can't see much in this photo but I like the colour and the sunset feeling it has as we rolled along on our tour of Havana.

Our driver and his ride. Not sure what type of car it was, might have been another Chevy.

Gran Teatro de La Habana lit up at night. It's something to behold by day but is even more beholdier at night.

Band playing in a bar called Cafe Taberna, which always had live music every time we walked past, day or night. So we thought we should go in and check it out. They know how to bash out a tune, the Cubans.

A cracked mausoleum in the Necropolis, Havana's sprawling cemetery. I guess the two bits of the archway are just leaning against each other at this point. There were a lot of graves and mausoleums in need of some repair work in the cemetery but then there's a lot of all kinds of buildings in need of repair all over Cuba. When you don't have much money, it takes a while to get round to these things, I guess.

Street art showing Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara. Cienfuegos is always shown smiling or laughing - apparently Guevara was a more serious man but they spent a lot of time together like a revolutionary double-act.

Me imitating art.

Last photo I took before we had to head off to the airport. Local kids playing football in Plaza Vieja. I'd say football and baseball were about level pegging in popularity in Cuba.

The next installment will probably be my trip to LA, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon in October but if anything exciting and travely happens before then I'll blog it, you can be sure of that.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Up some mountains and stalked by goats in Bulgaria

Hello there. I went to Bulgaria for 10 days at the beginning of October to do a bit of exploring and now I'm going to tell you what I found.

It was odd arriving in Sofia and getting on the metro system, only to see a poster for a snooker match between Ronnie O'Sullivan and Mark Selby but that's how the trip started. I found myself in a few places with snooker on the TV too, so there's a fact for you about modern Bulgarians: they like a bit of snooker.

Another fun Bulgaria fact is that if you go into a restaurant expecting attentive service with a smile, the majority of the time you ain't getting it. That's not to say waiters are grumpy exactly, but they just care less than you might expect and aren't so fussed about getting a tip. It's oddly refreshing in some way, and was the same in Romania when I went there six years ago.

A lot of people (including Bulgarians) asked me: "why did you choose Bulgaria for a holiday?" Most of the time I said something along the lines of I'd enjoyed Romania so thought I'd give Bulgaria a go or it was a cheap place to visit from the UK or I wanted to do some hiking in the mountains. All of which were true but it's also fun to go to a country where there's a bit of a challenge involved. Bulgaria doesn't have a big tourist industry so you've got to do things for yourself and hope you'll be able to find someone who speaks English at the bus station to point you in the right direction. Which you can, most of the time.

Anyway, enough jibber-jabber, onto the photos...

Sunset from the airplane, as I was flying to Bulgaria. Something Ryanair haven't figured out a way to charge extra for yet.

Rila Monastery was built in 927 AD so it's pretty damn old. I stayed there overnight before heading off into the mountains the next day and it was one of the most peaceful places I've ever stayed at. As you'd expect from a monastery built by a hermit, I guess. They close the gates at 8pm so you have to be done in the restaurant next door before then or the monks might not let you back in.

Luckily I didn't have to set off into the mountains alone but found a couple of  guys from Israel going the same way. Autumn was in full effect at the lower altitudes, as you can see here.

(Some of the photos have a time-stamp on them because I was trying out a new Olfi camera and didn't realise the time-stamp was turned on until it was too late...)

After a mostly ascending six-hour trek up Ivan Vazov, we came to the house we would be staying in for the night. I don't think I've ever stayed somewhere so remote. The only way they could get building materials there was by horse, coming up from the valley below. The menu there was concise - bean soup, bean soup or bean soup. When it snowed and clouded over the next day, visibility out the front door was about 10 metres.

Our shoes (and my socks) were a bit damp but soon warmed up next to the wood burning stove. We thought our six hours was pretty good going until a Kiwi named Scott arrived just before dark, having powered through in about 4.5 hours. Bloody show off. He joined us on the next leg of the trip the following day. 

We weren't sure if the weather was going to let us leave the house the next day but we wanted to get to the Seven Lakes, so off we went. There was still a fair bit of snow on the ground up there but it wasn't too cold as long as we kept moving. 

When we got near the top of a mountain pass it was pretty windy. Enough for the snow on this signpost to be frozen horizontally.

Oh yes, it's an eight-second video. Hit play and be transported to the Rila Mountains. Kind of.

The sight that awaited us when we came down out of the clouds to see the Seven lakes was incredible. Makes a long walk worthwhile.

Ofri, me and Itamal, celebrating reaching the Seven Lakes. You'll notice they look a lot better equipped for mountain hiking than me. That's because they were a lot better equipped. Big thanks to Ofri and Itamal for letting me join them for a couple of days and avoiding freezing in the mountains like Jack Nicholson in the hedge maze at the end of The Shining.

Striking a manly pose on top of a mountain is what I do best.

The day after the mountains, it was on to Koprivshtitsa, a small town but a crucial one in the April Uprising of 1876. You're all familiar with that uprising, I'm sure. In case you're not, it was the one when Bulgaria decided it had had enough of Ottoman rule and kicked off, with the help of Russia.

A Roman amphitheatre in the old town area of Plovdiv. Built in around 97 AD and still used today.  I liked Plovdiv, friendly place. After watching Bulgaria get hammered 4-1 by France in the football, I played table football with some locals and helped them drown their sporting sorrows.

I painting of Plovdiv that I liked in the city's art gallery. Not sure what drew me to it, maybe all the pretty colours. Probably wasn't meant to be taking photos in there but that's the kind of loose cannon, reckless, don't play by the rules, maverick I am.

A lion guards the gates of Tsarevets Fortess in Veliko Tarnovo, northern Bulgaria. This was the next destination after Plovdiv and was a cool little mountain town/city. The fortress was built in the 12th century and was the "tsars medieval stronghold" according to history-types.

A sign on the wall of Tsarverets Fortress. No sitting forwards, no sitting backwards and no ballerinas.

The day after the fortress I went on a hike to Arbanasi. Just a few hours this time and no snowy mountains involved. This photo was taken from a bridge that was roughly the starting point on the walk. Although it took me a while to figure that out because the signposting was a bit sparse. Ended up getting a bit lost and charged at by a massive junkyard dog which was luckily on a leash.

On the way to Arbanasi I got stalked by goats, as the title of this blog so intriguingly hints at. A herd of them decided to follow me. I was a bit worried that I would take them away from their shepherds so had to keep stopping, facing them and sort of waving my arms at them. Which made them stop following for a moment. Then I would turn my back and keep walking and they would follow again. It was a bit like a game of musical statues, but with goats.

Decent view of Veliko Tarnovo from the window of a pizza restaurant called Ego on the high street. The city is built around the Yantra River, which snakes around a bit so there are quite a few dramatic backdrops like this if you have a wander.

On my last night in Veliko Tarnovo I went to a bar called Melon Live Music Club with a couple of guys from the hostel I was staying in. I drank some pretty good beer, the name of which now eludes me, and watched some guys play jazz. Bulgarian jazz is much like English jazz, except you can't understand what they're saying between songs.

I used to love the sitcom Allo Allo when I was a kid, so it pleased me to discover a theatre was doing stage version of it in Sofia. Didn't get to see it, unfortunately, but did discover that the sitcom is a still-popular favourite in Bulgaria. 

Ivan Vazov Theatre in Sofia. Same name as the mountain I climbed, named after a popular Bulgarian poet, novelist and playwright.

An imposing looking statue of Tsar Samuil in Sofia. He ruled Bulgaria in the 10th century and at night the eyes of this statue glow in the dark, which is probably how all great leaders wish to be commemorated.

For the last couple of days of my trip, I was joined in Sofia by none other than Alastair aka The International Gentleman Traveller (IGT for short). Some say if there's a country he hasn't been to then it's probably not really a country at all. Either way, he was excellent company to end my holiday with and we went to a restaurant where there were things like 'Hooded Pheasant' and 'Rabbit killed with gun with expired shooting license' on the menu. I guess they were trying to be a bit whacky but the food was damn fine.

And that was Bulgaria.