Thursday, 28 July 2016

Scotland: Hanging out in Cromarty and hiking Ben Nevis


This holiday came just a day after my trip to Seville. Now that may sound a bit flash but I had two weeks booked off work and decided to squeeze in two holidays. That doesn't really make it sound any less flash and neither will the photo below of Cromarty House, where we stayed. But I promise you I haven't become some kind of extravagant double holidaying, champagne swigging bastard. 

After five days of Spanish heat, I needed reminding what rain looked like and Scotland duly obliged. Not that it rained a lot, but the weather was definitely more Scottish than Spanish - as you might expect.

Cromarty is a small coastal town an hour's drive from Inverness, with a population of about 800. The pace of life is pretty relaxed and the average age of the population somewhere towards the greyer end of the scale. The coastal scenery and surrounding countryside is very pretty and there's a restaurant in the town called Sutor Creek (the only restaurant in the town) that has won all sorts of awards for its amazing food. 

But it wasn't all relaxing strolls around Cromarty, eating delicious things and generally taking it easy. Oh no. We rented a car, headed south and climbed Ben Nevis. And much like when I climbed Scafell Pike with Tom a few years ago, the weather was decent on ground level but very wet and very cold once you get about halfway up and disappear into the clouds. I expect the views from the top are amazing, but as you'll see from a couple of the photos, visibility was not so good. A wall of grey in every direction, so thick in some places that you just follow what you hope is the path in a straight line until you see the next marker for walkers. 

The next day, after a very solid night's sleep in an Airbnb in Gairlochy with an incredible Hollywood Boulevard style bathroom (should have taken a photo but didn't), we headed back to Cromarty via Loch Ness to see if we could spot the monster. No monster appeared but we did visit the Loch Ness Exhibition, which takes you through all the expeditions down the years to find Nessie and all the people who have supposedly caught a glimpse. Some were more convincing than others...

So, that was Scotland. You may look at the photos now.

Cromarty House. Quite big. Quite old. Very different to the hostels I'd been staying at in Spain.

The peacocks at Cromarty House seem to enjoy sitting on the window ledges outside. I don't know if this is normal peacock behaviour.

A trial was taking place in Cromarty Courthouse when I arrived. Turns out Harriet had been disturbing the peace outside the local pub after a wee dram too many.

Ever wondered what I'd look like delivering a church sermon? Like this.

The gate of East Church in Cromarty, the exterior of the church in the previous photo.

A fallen tree in the Fairy Glen, Rosemarkie, covered in rusting coins that have all been pushed into the soft damp wood over the years. It makes the log look like it has scales.

The Fairy Glen again with some waterfall action included in the shot.

Harriet took this photo from the shore of Cromarty. Not a bad sunset as they go. Probably better than any of my photos too, which is obviously quite annoying.

The view from the lower half of Ben Nevis before we disappeared into the clouds and there was no more view.

There was still snow on Ben Nevis in July, which we had to walk through. I'm gazing thoughtfully off into the distance, preparing to manfully pick my way through the rocks and ice. 

We reached the top! Didn't stop for long though as it was bloody freezing up there. Just long enough to eat some sandwiches and Jelly Babies.
On our way back down the Ben, with feeling returning to my fingers and the left side of my face after some frostier moments at the top.
A panorama of Loch Ness. No monster in sight.

BUT WAIT, WHAT IS THIS?!? Maybe the stories are true after all...
(Or a hotel on the loch has built a big fibreglass Nessie for the tourists, you decide.)
And a thistle because it's Scotland

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Five days in Andalucia: a tapas odyssey in Seville and Cadiz

A couple of years ago I joined an evening class to learn Spanish, in an attempt to learn a second language. The ability to speak a second, third or fourth language is something I've always been immensely impressed by and envious of in others.

However, I only managed a couple of months worth of lessons and then decided not to continue, fool that I am. Instead I started to use handy little apps like Duolingo. So, predictably, I still can't speak fluent Spanish but enough to get by, I reckon. Time to try it out with a tapas odyssey to Seville and Cadiz, in southwest Spain. Delicioso = delicious. Mas, por favor = more please. Easy, what more would I need?

The idea to visit Seville came along when I was writing an article about filming locations for Game of Thrones around Europe. Seville has one, called the Alcazar of Seville, which was the setting of Dorne, tropical-looking home of House Martell. An incredibly impressive palace and gardens dating from somewhere around the 12th century. But obviously even more significant now it's a Game of Thrones location.

Seville was a bit hot for an Englishman, it hit the high 30s while I was there. So it made sense to escape to the cooler coastal town of Cadiz for a few days in the middle of the trip. Hit the beach, amble round the town, eat tapas, check out cool old historical buildings and generally do whatever I felt like doing. Oh, and occasionally apologise to European people for my country and that whole EU referendum thing. 

On to the photos then...


One of the most impressive areas of the Alcazar. It's got a shallow pool running through the middle of the courtyard.
An underground cellar in the Alcazar gardens, which stays cool even when it's hot outside. Handy considering it was really bloody hot. 

Big fountain statue of Neptune in the gardens of the Alcazar.

An artist paints the scene in the Alcazar's meticulously kept gardens

It's me in the gardens of the Alcazar. And for comparison, below is Jamie Lannister in a similar location. 
"Come on back to King's Landing with me, where nothing bad ever happens because your mum is definitely not psychotic" (or something like that).
The Metropol Parasol in the middle of Seville's shopping district. Big curvy wooden structure that looks out over the city. Great views up there and a free glass of  sangria flavoured lemonade in a cafe at the top included in the ticket price. Can't sniff at that.
Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de CaballerĂ­a de Sevilla aka Seville's bullring. Now, I am definitely not endorsing bullfighting. It is pointless and barbaric. But the bullring is still an impressive building.

A panorama of the bullring interior
Again, not endorsing bullfighting but it's got a lot of history. The most successful matadors are local legends. It's a rare occurrence, but every now and then a bull is deemed to have fought so well it can live out the rest of its life in a field and be used for breeding. 
One of the larger town squares in Cadiz at night, with multicoloured fountain in the foreground.

Cadiz Cathedral at night

Went to see some flamenco in Cadiz. Intimate (sweaty) little venue by the sea, but this guitarist and singer had the crowd enraptured by their moving music. 

Simple, delicious tapas. So much of this in Spain that I had to crack and take a food photo eventually. 

View over Cadiz from the top of Cadiz Cathedral

Mad looking old tree near the northern tip of Cadiz

The faded grandeur of a large wooden door in Cadiz with bunting hanging next to it

My incredibly successful (or completely inept) first attempt at sandboarding. Like snowboarding, but on sand. I can't do either. No balance, you see. All limbs.

Bolonia beach, a couple of hours south of Cadiz

The tomb of Christopher Columbus in Seville Cathedral
Massive gold alter in Seville Cathedral. They like their shiny gold things, those Catholics
View from somewhere up the Giralda, a big tower that's part of Seville Cathedral.

Plaza de Espana, Seville. Used as a filming location for Lawrence of Arabia and one of the rubbish Star Wars prequels that we don't like to talk about.




So, there you go, Seville and Cadiz. To anyone thinking of a trip to Seville, I'd recommend avoiding the stifling heat of the summer months and go during spring/autumn. Cadiz is probably good all year round and is a bit more relaxed than Seville.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Maastricht and Rotterdam: everyone loves a 'Kiss & Ride'


This is a bit of a catch-up post, written months after the actual trip in March but dated March so you would never know if I hadn't told you. (I offer a thousand grovelling apologies for my bad blogging). But I felt Rotterdam needed a mention because it's such a great little weekend break. The one thing I inexplicably took no photos of was the pancake boat - a boat tour along the river during which you can eat as many pancakes as humanly possible. I managed a disappointing three, but they were pretty big so that's more like six, if you ask me.

I also spent a day wandering around Maastricht before we headed to Rotterdam. Last time I was in Maastricht, it was on the 'Euro Man Voyage' in 2011, staying on the Botel (boat hotel). 

Only one reason I took this photo. A bit of cheap, smutty humour. 

Some of the sights around Maastricht

Skeleton of massive dinosaur fish thing local to the region, back when they were roaming the earth. In Maastricht's very impressive Natural History Museum. Managed to blag a discount with my very old and tired looking student card. 
I might have been a couple of delicious Dutch beers into the evening when this photo was taken.

Markthall in the centre of Rotterdam. Impressive from the outside...

... but even more impressive from the inside, with it's huge ceiling covered in food. Lots of stands selling all sorts of culinary delights.

We were probably more entertained than we should have been - a coat rack that you operate with a pulley system in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (an art museum)

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

It's all Greek to me: Naxos, Koufounissia, Amorgos and Athens

Welcome and yia-su (that's Greek for hello) to an installment of my travel blog where Greece is the word.

It turns out late September is an excellent time of year to visit Greece. The busy July to August tourist season has ended, so rooms and quadbikes (and other rentable things) are cheaper, it's still sunny and warm in the mid to high twenties centigrade and the islands are much quieter.

But, you may ask, was everything in total disarray after the financial problems and recent influx of refugees? No, not really. The Cyclades islands, which is the group of islands Naxos, Koufounissia and Amorgos belong to, are fine as long as they have tourists to bring in money during the summer months. Which they do because they are all fantastic places to visit.

Athens looked a bit worn around the edges because they've had to cut so many public services, but was still functioning just fine. So don't let any negative news coverage put you off visiting. I never had any problems withdrawing money from cash machines and the Greeks are their usual friendly, hospitable selves.

Oddly for for me, considering my aversion to early starts, I saw two sunrises on this trip. Not out of choice, mind, but out of a need to catch a couple of early ferries to and from the islands. Sure the sunrises were pretty, but give me a sunset any day. It's a more civilised time of day and you can watch it with a beer. Technically you could watch a sunrise with a beer but that seems like a slippery slope. 

The Cyclades

The slow pace of life on the islands was perfect for a relaxed holiday, the beaches were sandy and the waters turquoise. Some great food too, including octopus, calamari, moussaka and enormous Greek salads with a slab of feta cheese and full of fresh tomatoes that tasted like nothing you get in UK supermarkets 

With the islands being quieter, I didn't need to book any accommodation during the trip, apart from the two nights in Athens at the start and end. I just arrived on the ferry and there would be a gaggle of small, elderly Greek women holding placards with the names of their hotels and pictures, asking me if I needed a room. And I managed to get some pretty nice places for €20-25 a night. Big rooftop apartment on Naxos, idyllic beach-side room on Koufounissia and large room overlooking the bay on Amorgos. 

The trip to Amorgos also managed to put my never being seasick powers to the test with a very choppy ferry ride. Huge waves slapping into the side of the small ferry, covering us all with sea spray and making quite a few people look slightly ill.  

The three islands I visited all had their own distinct personality, as do most of the Greek islands, but I think my favourite was the smallest, Koufounissia. You could walk from one end to the other in about an hour and by taking a walk around the coast you discover beautiful beach after beautiful beach. As well as little coves and rocky outcrops.

Some of the coves are almost hidden from view. Almost but not quite, as one Italian couple demonstrated when I nearly disturbed what can be politely described as the girlfriend carrying out an act of male relief. Luckily, I diverted in time to only see a bobbing male Italian arse and they didn't see me. 

But how did I know they were Italian? Because when I went for dinner they came in and sat on the next table. They didn't know what I knew, but I knew.   

Athens

I rounded off the trip with a day and a half in Athens, checking out all the ancient wonders it has to offer. Which is a lot, so I didn't see them all, but did go past the Theatre of Dionysus, up the Acropolis, wander round the Parthenon, through the Ancient Agora, spend a few hours in the Acropolis museum and amble over to the Temple of Zeus. 

The Acropolis museum wasn't too polite about old Lord Elgin and his marble stealing antics in 1801 and why would they be? He used his position of influence as a diplomat to make a rather undiplomatic getaway with some ancient statues of great cultural significance to the Greek people. 

If you find yourself in Athens, make sure you have walk up Mount Lycabettus, which is higher up than the Acropolis and means you can get panoramic photos of Athens that include the Parthenon. This is starting to sound like proper travel advice now so I'd better end there and point you towards the marvelous photos below. 

Naxos


Dimitra's Temple on Naxos.

A little white church atop a bloody great mountain on Naxos.

The view from the cave of Zeus. Which was about a third of the way up Mount Zeus. There was the option to climb the whole thing but the cave was a good stopping off point. Just me and the occasional mountain goat.

My ride for the day on Naxos.

Rear view of the Church of Droisani.

A typical smaller Greek Orthodox church on the edge of the town square in Naxos.
"You know what I really need is a hat that casually advertises my love of cocaine" said NOBODY EVER.

The Portara by the harbour is Naxos' most famous landmark and is a mere 2,500 years old. It was the entrance to an unfinished temple.

The Naxos equivalent of Tooting Bec lido I suppose. A few steps lead down to clear waters sheltered from the sea by rocks. In the middle right of the picture you can just about see the head of an old Greek man who was having a long swim and belting out a few traditional sounding Greek songs as he did so.

Some octopus, just hanging out.

Koufounnissia


View from my room on Koufounnissia by the port and the beach. 

I think this was meant to be a mini-museum of tools used on the island over the years. The tools weren't on a particular theme - there was a plough, a sewing machine, some irons. Just a mish mash of old stuff. 

Beachy shot: oh look how clear the water was bla bla bla, isn't it lovely etc

You can see a lot of lines and colours in the rocky outcrop on the other side of the water, which I liked so I took a photo of it and hope you like it too. 

Sunset fishing in Koufounnissia. 

These windmills were scattered all over the islands, some in better condition than others.

"Oooh look at that artfully shot fishing net with the sea in the background and the soft evening light." That's what you're thinking right now.

Amorgos


Each of the islands has a main town (or Hora) and this is that of Amorgos with all its whitewashed houses.

Another one of them windmills I was talking about earlier with a bunch of others in the background.

Monastery of Hozoviotissa on Amorgos. Built into the cliff edge in the 11th century. Fairly impressive.

Cats lazing about like cats do in the shade of the Monastery of Hozoviotissa.

Striking entrance to the Monastery with the long name. Once you get in, they have a strict trousers for men and long skirts for women policy. Women HAVE to wear long skirts too, they can't wear trousers instead. Which seems a bit ridiculous but I guess they make the rules.

Very cool grey sand beach on Amorgos, just around the corner from the monastery.

When I got to Paradise Beach on Amorgos, there was no one else around so I decided to build my own castle in Paradise. Note the drawbridge over the moat to the castle. Proper detail, that.

Vivid pinky red sunset on Amorgos.

Mountain-top shot of the sunset. Both Naxos and Amorgos have very mountainous interiors which are great fun to drive around and provide some amazing views.

Sunrise as I left Amorgos for Athens on the Blue Star Delos ferry.

Athens


Ancient ruins in the foreground, can't remember what the church in the middle ground was, and then the Parthenon sits stop the Acropolis in the background.

Parthenon illuminated at night. Photo taken from Mount Lycabettus, overlooking the whole city.

Theatre of Dionysus on the south entrance to the Acropolis. 

This photo demonstrates why people love 'selfies' so much. Because if you ask a passer-by to take your photo, it could end up looking like this. Eyes closed, cut off at the waist. I'm sure the guy had an SLR camera, so I thought he'd manage something better. I was wrong.

As you'd expect, the Parthenon is a bit of a tourist hotspot and was a bit of a change for me after seven days of meandering about half-empty islands 
Slightly better shot of yours truly in front of the Parthenon. Lady who took this photo didn't have a flashy camera but a much better eye for a photo.

The Temple of Zeus, taken from the Acropolis.


A couple of striking Athenian buildings.

I thought they were 'armless but then they got completely legless and lost their heads. At the Stoa of Attalos.

The Temple of Hephaestus. Much smaller than the Parthenon but far more intact and less crowded.

At the Temple of Zeus with the Parthenon visible in the background.

Graffiti in Athens suggesting that the Greeks can laugh about their economic situation.