Bruce Stainsby's Blog: Muttering from the mo

Does Kosovo really exist?

May 25th, 2019

February 24, 2019. Skopje, Macedonia to Priština, Kosovo. 

All the family went to the airport for flights to various destinations and we were there to pick up our drive to Priština, in Kosovo.

Hayden and Andrea were heading back to Berlin. While Steph was extending her time away with a trip to France. This was to see her friends from the days of her exchange there. Ev was returning to New York – work called.

All didn’t go according to plan as Ev’s flight to NYC, via Istanbul, was cancelled due to bad weather in Turkey.

As it turned out he got an extra 24 hours in Skopje, courtesy of Turkish Airlines.

Gligor was again on hand and organised Iran to drive us from Skopje to Priština. 

It was an uneventful 98 km where we didn’t even have to get out of the car to do the border crossings. 

This was fine with us as it was about -5°C outside. 

This next part of the trip had been organised though KimKim, a US based tour company that uses locals to organise everything. 

They provide an itinerary, hotels and a hire car, which is delivered to your hotel. 

The car, a white Opel Corsa, was from Albania and two guys from the rental company had driven it to Priština from Tirana. 

They also gave us a very low tech local mobile for emergencies and a TomTom GPS. 

Now we have two. 

The phone might prove to be useful as we had no mobile coverage in Kosovo. The GPS was useless as the maps didn’t correspond to where we were travelling.

Needing to stretch our legs after the drive we went for a walk through the commercial area of Priština.

Priština is the capital of Kosovo with a predominately Albanian speaking population. In fact we were told that 90% of the entire population of Kosovo are Albanians.

Over the centuries the area of the present day Kosovo has been occupied by many races.

During the Classical Period it was the Celtics and Romans. In the Middle Ages it was inhabited by the Byzantine, Bulgarian and Serbian Empires. And from the 15th to 20th centuries it was part of the Ottoman Empire.

To many, modern Kosovo doesn’t exist, as it’s not recognised by many international governments. Only 112 of the 193 UN member states see it as a real country.

There is an ongoing territorial dispute between The Republic of Serbia and the self proclaimed Republic of Kosovo. It is not a formal member of the Eurozone but it does use the Euro as its currency.

After dinner we got chatting to the receptionist at our hotel, Pritzen. He was interested in why we were in Kosovo and where we had been.  

When we told him we had just spent a week in Macedonia he was amused, describing Skopje as ‘Disneyland’.

I had to agree with him. 

 

Peter Bogdani Library

February 25, 2019. Priština, Kosovo. 

After a sleep in and a late breakfast we ventured out onto the roads around Priština. 

Driving in Macedonia had been a hairy experience and it looked like Kosovo might be similar. 

The Corsa was rather low-tech and underpowered but you wouldn’t want to drive quickly anyway. 

Our main destination was the Gračanica Monastery. It was established in 1321 by the Serbian King Stefan. 

The main church interior was beautifully decorated by frescos, but unfortunately no photos were allowed. 

This was also the case in the Macedonian monasteries and churches that we visited. 

It does leave a gap in the snaps.

After that we drove to Gračanica Lake, an artificial reservoir built in 1963-1966 to supply drinking water to Priština. 

It was a rather boring view so we then just continued back into town. 

In the afternoon we went on foot to explore Priština, following the same path that we had taken the previous evening. This time we had our cameras and much more time. 

The main contemporary feature of the city is the Mother Teresa Boulevard. It is a very wide walking strip that has numerous bars, cafes and upmarket shops on either side. 

We went to the top of the bell tower of the Mother Teresa Cathedral.

Fortunately there was a lift. 

I don’t think my knees could have handled the climb in the sub zero temperature. 

We continued on to the Peter Bogdani Library, the National Library of Kosovo. Designed by the Croatian architect Andrija Mutnjaković and inaugurated in 1982 it is regarded by some as the ugliest building in the world.

It has very unusual architectural that is supposedly a blend Byzantine and Islamic styles. The many domes are said to represent Turkish bathes.

 

Pejë town centre with the Gjeravica Mountains behind

February 26, 2019. Priština to Pejë (Pec), Kosovo. 

The Balkan’s seems to be a society dominated by men. 

On the street men walk in groups talking and smoking.

Many of the cafes seem to be a male domain. In there they sit, talk and of course smoke. 

On our first morning in Priština we went to a cafe that was next door to our hotel. 

It was a ‘man cave’. 

Young and old men deep in conversation who glanced at Thea with a sense of disapproval. 

And again all were smoking. 

On our second and last morning we found ‘iCafe’. It was slightly less a man’s world as there were a couple of women there. 

But again they were smoking.

Yes there are equally as many women around but they don’t dominate the space like the men seem to do. 

On our afternoon walk down Mother Teresa Boulevard we did manage to find ‘Half and Half’ a very funky cafe with great art and atmosphere. 

I now wonder if the half and half was referring to the gender balance. 

After we left the hotel we drove south to Gadime. This was to explore the marble caves that were discovered there in 1969. 

This labyrinth is over 80 million years in the making and extends 5 kilometres into the mountain side. 

At our deepest point we were 250 metres beneath the surface. 

What makes them unique is that they are carved out of pure white marble. 

What would their state be now if the Greek or Roman empires had discovered this treasure trove of building material?

Decimated I guess. 

The big challenge for the day was finding our hotel in Pejë. 

Getting into this small town, at the foot of the Gjeravica Mountains, wasn’t difficult, working out where the hotel and then the car park was. 

After half an hour of driving around in circles and then 15 minutes of Thea exploring the area we finally found the entrance. 

We were the guided, by a Gollum like person, into the underground maze of parking spaces. 

Late in the day, after checking into the Semitronix Hotel, we went for a walk around Pejë. 

The snow capped mountains, behind the village, dominate the landscape. 

This area seems to be predominantly Muslin as cafes, not bars, are everywhere in the shopping areas. 

Once the sun had set, which was at 5:15, we returned to our hotel. 

Another enjoyable, yet in the end, frustrating day. 

 

Ura e Terzive Ottoman bridge over the Erenuk Erenuku River

February 27, 2019. Pejë (Pec) to Prizren, Kosovo. 

It’s strange that in a country that is very Muslim we have visited nothing but monasteries. 

This region was under the control of the Ottoman Empire for 500 years and their influence is everywhere. 

In an attempt to right this wrong we planed to visit our first mosque – that didn’t happen. The directions to the Mosque of Hadum in Gjakovë were so vague, we never found it.

It was therefore back to churches and monasteries.

The Serbian Orthodox Monastery of Pec was built in 13th century in the Serbo-Byzantine style. It was restored during 2006 and is part of the Medieval Monuments of Kosovo and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The complex consisted of several churches, the Church of the Holy Apostles, Church of St. Demetrius, Church of the Holy Mother of God Hodegetria and the Church of St. Nicholas.

The next stop was at Visoki Dečani, another Serbian Orthodox monastery which was also part of the Medieval Monuments of Kosovo and again a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It was designed by a Franciscan friar, Fra Vita, with construction starting in 1327, during the reign of the Serbian King Stefan Dećanski.

In 1331 Dećanski’s son, Stefan Duśan, seized the throne from his father, who he then had strangled to death and dumped in a forrest.

Very Game of Thrones.

Twenty nine kilometres north of Prizren we did discover the Ura e Terzive, an Ottoman bridge over the Erenuku River.

Believed to have been initially built at the end of the 15th century and then expanded in the 18th century, it’s an important example of Ottoman bridge building.

It consists of 11 rounded arches, spanning 190 meters and is 3.5 metres high.

It was rather rewarding to eventually see something from the Ottoman era.

Once we reached Prizren again a lot of time was spent trying to find our hotel and the associated parking. 

This ended in disaster. 

I was turning left, in what I thought was a two way street, and was collected by a car overtaking me at speed on my left.

He glanced the side of the Corsa knocking the front mudguard out of place. 

The Tourist Police, who were nearby, told me to just wait there as the Traffic Police would soon arrive to get all the details.

This was a minor accident and my car was sitting in the middle of the road, so I moved it to the side, as I would have done in Australia – wrong.

The Traffic Policemen, there were two of them, soon arrived and started to interrogate all involved, except me, as no one spoke English.

We used our local mobile and phoned Xheni, our Albanian contact at KimKim. She told us to just wait and then get an accident report from the police.

After the cops had done their thing at the scene of the ancient, I was told to follow them to the police station. By this time they had taken my driving licence and I was getting a little nervous.

The guy in the other vehicle had to go in the police car to the station, as his vehicle was un-drivable. He had been travelling so fast, that after glancing me he had careered off the road and into a tree.

Thea opted to stay in our car while I went into the cop shop, thinking proceedings wouldn’t take that long.

Again, wrong.

After an hour and a half she decided to come into the stations it was dark and getting very cold.

One of the policemen interrogated me with very little English and asked me to write a statement. I then found out that I had caused a real problem by moving my car off the road.

This is unacceptable, as the traffic police can’t then determine how the accident occurred.

The second policeman was interviewing the driver in another room.

It was eventually decided that I was in the wrong and I was issued with a €180 fine. I was told that If I payed the fine now it would be reduced to half that amount, €90.

I had a feeling that I was being set up, until I was told I had to go tho the Post Office to pay the fine and they would drive me there.

Fortunately we had cash, as the banks were closed. I was then rushed to the Post Office, before it too closed, to ‘officially’ deposit the €90.

By this time the two police officers, No: 8738 and No: 4280 were my newest best friends. Even the guy in the other car came out of the interrogation room and apologised for smashing into me.

It was not an experience I would like to repeat but, as it turned out, it was as good as could be expected.

And all in a day’s work when you are tourist.

 

Cafe Konaku right below our hotel and next to the Sinan Pasha Mosque

February 28, 2019. Prizren, Kosovo. 

Our room in the Hotel Prizren was one of the strangest we have experienced. 

It had everything you’d expect except the shower was in the room, at the end of the bed. 

It was a tardis-like glass box, next to the wash basin, and had a motion control for the exhaust fan and light. 

The problem with that was a soon as you stopped moving everything turned off. 

The Ottomans invaded Kosovo in 1454 and in June 1455 Prizren surrendered to the Ottoman army.

The area is decidedly Muslim, with around 40 mosques in the town. 

There was one right next to our hotel and the first call to payer was at 4:30am. 

I know, it woke me up. 

There is a real cacophony of sounds when all the imams start to chant at the same time. 

And they do it five times a day.

Part of the Ottoman legacy is the Old Stone Bridge of Prizren, as it is known, which is over the Bistrica River. Built in the 16th century, it’s an important pathway between the two sides of the old city.

The hill, where Prizren Fortress now sits was first settled around 1,100 BC and the fortifications were built between the 11th and 15th centuries. 

Prizren Castle has been under the control of the Byzantine, Serbian and Ottoman Empires and has a rich history.

For a period Prizren was the first Serbian imperial capital and was called City of the Emperor or Serbian Tsarigrad.

The Ottomans enlarged the fortress and held it until 1912 when it fell to the Serbians in the First Balkan War.

On the steep walk down from the castle we met two young men. They were stopped having a smoke. 

One got chatting to us in a very Yanky accent, which he had picked up from watching American TV networks and YouTube videos.

We got to discussing the benefits of Kosovo becoming a member of the EU or Schengen. He wasn’t convinced the EU was best for the country but believed that joining Schengen was certainly better for him.

Why? Well there were more Schengen countries for him to move to and look for work.

After visiting the fort we wandered back into the old town, near our hotel, and just wandered.

Firstly we discovered that the Sinan Pasha Mosque, which is right beneath our hotel, has Cafe Konaku within the mosque grounds.

It was crowded, not just with men smoking and drinking coffee, but with family groups and lots of young people.

There was also a small bazaar next to the cafe. There was certainly a lot of enterprise surrounding the mosque.

Then I found craft beer. 

Sabaja Craft Brewery only had one beer on tap but another two bottled brews. However the draught was far better than the local pilsner that was on offer everywhere else.

In 2012 Sabaja was Kosovo’s first brewery to go outside the pilsner box and now produces a range of craft beers, designed to challenge the local’s taste buds.

Because winter is the slow time for tourists the bars normally don’t put on draught beer. However that evening we did discover Besimi, a Turkish style family restaurant that was rather busy.

Busy enough to have beer from the barrel that is.

Unfortunately it was a pilsner.

 

The slightly broken Open Corsa in the Shar Mountains

March 1, 2019. Prizren, Kosovo. 

On the previous day’s walk around Prizren we had purchased some strong vinyl adhesive tape. This was to repair the car after the prang. 

With the help of Toia, the receptionist at the hotel, we managed to reattach the dislodged front mudguard and make it all secure.

We then drove above the snow line, into the Shar Mountains, to the east of Prizren. The scenery was spectacular and it was a good opportunity to test the patched up Corsa. Firstly to see if the tape would hold and more importantly to see that there was no serious damage done to the car as a result of the accident.

The round trip was about 76 kilometres and then we returned to Prizren.

In the afternoon we visited some of the local sites, some Christian, some Ottoman.

In 1944 the German army was driven from Kosovo by a combined, Russian and Bulgarian force. Then the Communists took control. 

In 1946 Prizren became part of the Autonomous Region of Kosovo and Metohija within the People’s Republic of Serbia, a state of the Federal People’s republic of Yugoslavia.

If you think we have a coffee culture in Melbourne, then you need to visit Prizren. 

The old part of the city is lined with cafes, which are all full. 

And this isn’t even the tourist season yet. 

Everyone drinks coffee and sometimes tea and they drink it day and night. 

When most of Melbourne has moved from caffeine, to something a little harder, the people of Prizren are still downing their espressos and macchiatos. 

We visited the bar, where I discovered craft beer on the previous night. This time it was a bit later in the evening and, guess what, people we’re still drinking coffee. 

Part of the reason is that this is a predominately Muslin country but it also has a lot to do with the fact that they just love their coffee. 

 

Macedonia and Thea’s big 7O!

April 6th, 2019

February 15, 2019. Doha, Qatar to Skopje, Macedonia. 

We were up at 4:00 am for our 7:15 flight to Skopje in Macedonia. 

I do hate early starts. 

As a parting shot, just to confirm how expensive Doha really was, we were stung $8 for a single shot espresso at the airport. 

It was meant to be a six hour trip but there was a good tail wind and we landed 45 minutes early  

After settling in to our AirBnB we went looking for a supermarket, bank and the restaurant area. 

After three tries we finally found an ATM that accepted our card. 

We later found, after talking to our bank, that they had been inadvertently blocked.

From there we walked into the centre of Skopje and wandered around the Stone Bridge area. 

It was jam packed with sculptures, both monumental and simple. There was one massive monument to, you guessed it, Alexander the Great. 

The rivalry between the Macedonians and the Greeks had begun.

 

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February 16, 2019. Skopje, Macedonia. 

We were in Macedonia to celebrate Thea’s 70th birthday with the family.

Hayden and Andrea were the first to arrive from Berlin. They had a very early start and were anxious to stretch their legs and get some lunch. So we walked into Skopje.

I was glad of the opportunity to return, as the shots from the previous day were dreadful, the sky was leaden and the light poor.

The sun was now out and the sky was blue, much better for our snaps.

Evan and Stephanie arrived from New York late in the evening. 

On our arrival we had discovered Gligor from Zip Transfers. He was a pleasant guy with very good English. 

He became our transport provider while we were in Skopje. He or one of his team drove us everywhere. 

That evening we had takeaway roast chicken, salad and fresh bread, all purchased from the local shopping area.

It was great to get the family back together and just chat.

We were ostensibly in Macedonia to celebrate Thea’s 70th birthday but also, as it turned out, we were also celebrating the pending arrival of Hayden and Andrea’s first child.

It was a very exciting time.

 

February 17, family photo by Nadica

February 17, 2019. Skopje, Macedonia. 

Today was Thea’s birthday and we had arranged to have lunch at Kamnik Hunting Lodge. 

As a surprise for Thea, Evan had arranged to have a family photo shoot. 

We met Nadica, the photographer, at the Lodge at 11:30 and she spent the next 1.5 hours with us taking a huge variety of photos. 

Then we dined. 

The wine and food were amazing and we staggered out of the restaurant late in the day having eaten far too much. 

It was a very quiet night back at the Air BnB.

Kamnik is more than a restaurant as there is also a hotel and, as the name suggests, hunting.

Their private hunting range is 100km from Skopje and there you can hunt wild boar, deer and other game

We were happy just to eat them, not hunt them.

Nadica was well known at Kamnik so we were looked after very well. They even provided a birthday cake for Thea.

 

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February 18, 2019. Skopje to Demir Kapija, Macedonia. 

After breakfast Ev and I caught a taxi into the Avis office and picked up the rental car – a Ford Transit.

We were going to spend the next few days touring around the southern part of Macedonia and needed something large to transport everyone.

Fortunately our trusty TomTom portable navigation system worked and we found our first stop without too much effort.

The Skopje Aqueduct is the only one in Macedonia and there is some confusion as to when it was built. Some say it is Roman, others believe it to be Byzantine and a third say it is from the Ottoman period.

Driving further south we visited Canyon Matka, one of the most popular outdoor destinations in Macedonia, especially for alpine hiking. There were a few people there but we were travelling in winter so the numbers weren’t large.

Matka means ‘womb’ and the canyon and lake covers 5,000 hectares. The artificial lake is the oldest in Macedonia.

The stop for the night was Royal Winery Queen Maria. This is in a wine region to the south east of Skopje and half way to our next destination in Lake Ohrid.

It truely is a royal winery. It was establisehd in 1928 by King Aleksandar Karadjordjevic of Yugoslavia (1888-1934) to provide exceptional wine for the royal family.

He was known as Alexander the Unifier and was assassinated in Marseille, France, by Vlado Chernozemski, a Bulgarian revolutionary.

Obviously not everyone like his unifying.

Being the off season we were the only guests at the hotel and had the pick of the very comfortable rooms.

We even had a private guide to show us around parts of the estate. He was only recently in the job and anxious to share his newly acquired knowledge.

One of the features of the winery were the peacocks and peahens, they were everywhere.

That evening there were a few locals in the bar but the six of us dined alone in the vast restaurant area.

We also sampled some of the estate’s wine.

 

Heraclea Lyncestis (Roman and Byzantine ruins)

February 19, 2019. Demir Kapija to Ohrid, Macedonia. 

In the morning we visited Saint Mary’s Church in Demir Kapija, which we could see from the winery. The church was surprisingly only built in 1937, it looks much older than that.

Back into the Ford Transit we then headed for the Greek, Roman and Byzantine ruins of Heraclea Lyncestis.

Originally founded by Philip II of Macedonia in the 4th century BC, it has little to show from the Hellenistic period. Most of the artefacts are Roman and Byzantine.

Its claim to fame are the well preserved mosaic floors from the Great Basilica. These are richly decorated in figurate iconography from the 6th century, featuring birds, animals and floral designs and came from the early Christian period.

Unfortunately we could not see them, as they were still covered up for the winter. They were explained to us, in great detail, by the local guide. He was happy for the distraction from his off season job as gardener at the site.

We arrived into Ohrid late in the afternoon and settled into our hotel, the Boutique Villa Arte. Again we got upgraded as we were the only guests. We also, for the same reason, got to park the van right outside the front door.

The guy on reception was keen to ‘sell’ us some excursions on the lake. They all seemed too long and too complicated.

We told him we would think about it and let him know in the morning.

 

Lake Ohrid

February 20, 2019. Ohrid, Macedonia. 

Instead of a half day cruise on the lake, which involved lunch, we opted to take a simple two hour trip in a relatively small boat.

This was perfect as it gave us a great view of Ohrid, from the lake and put the town plan into perspective.

Hayden and Andrea decided that the boat trip wouldn’t do much for Andrea’s morning sickness so they stayed in town.

After the boat people returned to shore we all spent the rest of the day wandering around Ohrid. In the late afternoon we climbed the hill to visit Samuel’s Fortress which overlooks the city.

From there we enjoyed a spectacular sunset over the lake.

Ohrid is the largest city on Lake Ohrid and once used to have 365 churches, one for each day of the year.

In 1979 and 1980 both the city and the lake were made Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites by UNESCO.

It was first settled before the 3rd century BC and over the centuries has been inhabited by many empires. Romans, Byzantines, Bulgarians, Serbians, Ottomans and Yugoslavians, to name some, have all called Ohrid home.

We were travelling in Macedonia at the totally wrong time of the year, especially in Ohrid. 

This is a summer vacation spot and people come from all over Europe to enjoy a Mediterranean climate, by a lake. 

The population goes from 40,000 to 160,000 in summer. 

The temperatures were certainly not summer like but at least the sun shone for most of the time and there weren’t those hoards of summer tourists.

 

Peacocks at St Naum Monastery

February 21, 2019. Ohrid, Macedonia. 

This was a day of driving – but not very far.

Our first stop was at the Lake Pile dwelling settlement in the Bay of Bones. This is a reconstruction of a 1,200 to 600 BC lake settlement. 

This Museum on Water was just 16 kilometres around the lake from the town of Ohrid. It’s built over the site of ancient settlements, from the Bronze and Iron Ages. This lies at a depth of 2.4 to 5 metres beneath the surface of the lake.

Over 6,000 wooden piles were discovered here and it’s estimated that there would have been over 10,000 at the height of its occupation. These piles supported a platform that had over 60 houses.

The reconstruction has over 3,300 pile with 24 houses on top. Each house is a display of how life might have been, showing animal skins, cooking, eating and building utensils.

Just up the road from the settlement were the ruins of a Roman Fort from the 2nd century AD.

There wasn’t much there and seemed to be more picnic area than archeological site.

Our final stop for the day, before returning to Ohrid, was to the St Naum Monastery which is also on the lake just another 14 kilometres further on.  This 10th – 16th century monastery was founded by St Naum of Ohrid (830 – 910), who is buried there. St Naum was a medieval Bulgarian writer, enlightener and one of the seven Apostles of the First Bulgarian Empire.

 

St. Jovan Bigorski Monastery

February 22, 2019. Ohrid to Skopje, Macedonia. 

It was only 172 kilometres from Ohrid to Skopje and we had all day, so there was time for a couple of side trips.

The first was to St. Jovan Bigorski Monastery which was off the main road heading towards the Albanian border.

This Macedonian Orthodox monastery, was established in 1020 and dedicated to John the Baptist. It was destroyed by the Ottomans in the 16th century then restored in 1743 by the monk Ilarion.

Much of it was then destroyed again, this time by a fire in 2009.

We were very restricted with our movements, probably due to the ongoing refurbishment.

The monastery sits high on a hill overlooking the Radika River valley.

From the monastery we could see a mosque on the other side of the river.

The Christians and Ottomans were facing off, once again.

Thea had found another mosque that was of interest to see on the way back. Unfortunately it was a Friday and all the streets surrounding it were crowded with cars, full of people also trying to get the Mosque.

We opted to head back to Skopje.

On the way we passed the Mavrovo Lake. The area surrounding the lake was covered in snow and much of the lake’s edges were iced up.

That night we again had roast chicken. It was the easiest to organise, given the limited supplies of condiments and cooking utensils in the AirBnB.

It was also simple, tasty and a break from the heavier Balkan diet we had been eating.

 

The Bridge of Civilisation

February 23, 2019. Skopje, Macedonia. 

It was very cold on our last full day in Skopje but we ventured into the old city, yet again.

It really is a strange city with statues of all genres everywhere you look. Monumental styles sit side-by-side with the humorous. 

My favourite is ‘The Divers’. This sculpture is literally in the Vardar River and shows two people diving in. One is already in the water and you only see the feet, while the other, a woman in a red two piece, is about to take the plunge.

We had had a coffee in Temov, a craft brewery in the Macedonia Square, on our first day. Now it was time to try a brew.

Evan and I tried a beer called ‘IPA The Great’. It was ok but not that great. Temov was established in 2015 and was the first craft brewery in Macedonia. 

The final family dinner was held at Skopski Merak, a traditional Macedonian restaurant that wasn’t far from our AirBnB. 

Thea and I had eaten there on our first night in Skopje and it was fabulous. 

It didn’t disappoint on our last night either. 

As arranged, Nadica the photographer returned to give us prints of the chosen family photo.

A fitting end to another wonderful family holiday.

Qatar – a small country with big ideas.

March 19th, 2019

Doha Hop-on Hop-off bus

February 13, 2019. Melbourne, Australia to Doha, Qatar. 

It was a 14 hour night flight from Melbourne to Doha in Qatar. 

Needless to say we were rather buggered by the time we arrived at 5:30 in the morning. 

Our fatigue wasn’t helped by the fact that we had to queue for over an hour waiting for immigration. 

There were only 7 of the 40 booths open. It was obviously far to early for the immigration officials. 

Luckily we managed to get an early check-in at our hotel, the Movenpick on Corniche Street. 

After a bit of work, a rest and a shower we headed out for a walk. 

Firstly to the Souq Waqif, a rambling market full of all sorts of produce, souvenirs and furnishings. There are even camel sales and a falcon hospital there. 

Falconry is still very popular in Qatar. 

The Souq is over 100 years old but was extensively renovated in 2006. It is probably one of the only places in Doha that has retained its traditional architecture.

It was originally on the waterfront but sadly there is now a road and park that separate the two. This is due to the large amount of land reclamation that has been undertaken in Doha.

We were about to head back to the hotel when we found the Doha Hop-on Hop-off bus kiosk. Our plan had been to return to the hotel and then get the bus from near there in the afternoon. 

At the kiosk they told us that the route that went near our hotel wasn’t running. We decided to take the one that was running, and just about to depart. 

The bus ride was an interesting experience. 

More of a public relations exercise than a city sights tour.

The commentary boasted the growth of the city, the people’s love of the Emir and just how lucky everyone was to have such a wonderful benefactor. 

And of course, highlighting the numerous opportunities to buy. 

There was very little about the history or descriptions of what we were actually seeing. 

It was also six years out of date. 

Doha, formerly Al Bidda, is the capital and biggest city in Qatar, with 1.5 million of the 2 million residents.

It was founded in 1820 and became the capital in 1971, after Qatar gained its independence from the Brits. 

Before that it was under Ottoman rule from 1871 to 1913.

As the bus commentary boasted Doha is the ‘Sports Capital’ of the Middle East, hosting the 2006 Asian games, the 2011 Pan Arab Games and AFC Asian Cup, it’s crowning achievement will be the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Which was, according to many, gained under dubious circumstances.

Doha is a construction site. 

Development, expansion and reclamation is everywhere – as are men in high-vis. 

There is a new building going up right next to our hotel. 

Working day and night, in shifts, there are literally hundreds of men on the site. 

In 2011 there were over 50 towers under construction. Today that rate has slowed somewhat but there is still a lot of work being carried out in preparation for the 2022 World Cup.

Qatar, like Dubai, had made its fortune from oil and natural gas. Both countries are acutely aware that these natural resources will eventually run out.

The answer is to build. 

This frenetic construction is all part of the Qatar National Vision 2030. A plan that hopes to see Qatar as an advanced society capable of sustainable development by 2030.

 

The ever expanding Doha skyline

February 14, 2019. Doha, Qatar. 

Doha is expensive. 

A coffee in the hotel is about $11 and the Hop-on Hop-off bus was $70 each. 

So, determined to make the most of our 24 hour ticket we headed out again. 

This time to stop at some spots we had only driven past the day before. 

Our first stop was at the City Centre Mall. The mall itself was nothing we hadn’t seen before but what did stand out was the Carefour supermarket.

This was the largest I had ever been in and the shelves were packed with items from all over the world.

Everything was labelled with the country of origin.

There were figs from all parts of the Middle East, cheese from France and England and lamb from Australia and New Zealand.

I think that the well-to-do residents of Qatar live very well.

Our next stop was the Katara Cultural Village. This huge area, opened in 2010, is home to many of the cultural establishments in Doha, as well as theatres, an opera house, amphitheatre, conference hall museum and a souq or traditional market.

It even has a beach.

Within the village was the Al Jazeera Media Centre.

Al Jazeera literally means island, referring to its home on the Arabian Peninsula. This state funded news channel was initially launched in Arabic but now has several outlets and broadcasts in multiple languages, with 80 bureaus worldwide.

It has become the go-to, level headed, voice of the Middle East, albeit a little biased towards the Emir and Qatar.

We seemed to be the only tourists at Katara – so much space and so few people.

After making the most of the bus, we walked back along Corniche Street to the Museum of Islamic Art or MIA as it is also known. 

This contemporary structure, with very Islamic influences, was designed by the famous Chinese/American architect Ieoh Ming Pei (1917-2019) and built in 2008. 

At 91 years of age Pei was encouraged to come out of retirement to design the museum. He insisted that it be built on a stand-alone island so that future building would not encroach on the site.

Syria Matters was the featured exhibition at the museum.

This display chronicled the destruction of many important historical areas of Damascus and Aleppo during 10 years of the Syrian war. 

There was an excellent use of panoramic 3D video modelling, which showed many of the buildings that have now been destroyed in their original and current state. They were projected onto light translucent fabric, which allowed them to be viewed from both sides. 

We had a quick walk around a small part of the rest of the museum. This showed how Islamic art influenced many countries. Iran, India, Egypt, Turkey, Spain and Syria were all featured. 

It was a long day of sightseeing but at least we were no longer suffering from jet lag. 

 

The soldier and the saint.

February 16th, 2019

Soldier_Saint

 

Our next adventure is to Macedonia, in the Balkans. This is to celebrate Thea’s big 7Oh.

The area known as Macedonia, which spans both the newly named Northern Macedonia and the Greek provence, is home to two legendary people, one ancient, the other contemporary. 

Alexander the Great (356 to 323 BC) was King of Macedon and born in Pella, a part of ancient Greece.

Macedonia is intrinsically linked to the legend of Alexander the Great, hence the current dispute between the Greeks and Macedonians.

Anjezë Gonxha Bojaxhiu (1910 to 1997) or Mother Teresa, as she later became know, was born in Skopje, in Northern Macedonia.

The two couldn’t be more different.

Alexander was born into Greek aristocracy, a member of the Argead dynasty. He succeeded his father Philip II to the throne in 336 BC, when he was 20.

In his youth he was tutored by Aristotle and founded 20 cities which bore his name. He is often ranked amongst the most influential leaders in history and is regarded as a classic hero.

He was only 32 when he died in Babylon.

Mother Teresa’s first 18 years were spent in Macedonia and then she moved to Ireland and finally India, where she spent most of her life.

In 1950 she founded the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic order that in 2012 had over 4,500 nuns and operated in 133 countries.

In 1979 she won the Noblel Peace price and in 1916 she was made a saint.

She was 87 when she died.

Given the nature of these two local heroes, I think that this trip will be very interesting start to our journey.

From the Balkans we will head into western Europe and then back to the US. This time we hope to do a reverse drive, east to west, across the southern part of the States.

Part 11: South America – Rio de Janeiro and Petrópolis, Brazil.

January 26th, 2019

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March 9, 2018. The Amazon and Manaus to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Today we were leaving the ship and flying to Rio de Janeiro.

We were up on deck at 6am to see the Meeting of the Waters. This is where the black waters of the Negro River joins the muddy waters of the Solimöes River to create the mighty Amazon. 

The Negro River has a ph balance of 6.2 and a temperature of 28°C, while the Solimöes River has a ph of 4.6 and a temperature of 22°C. On joining, the the two rivers run side by side for about 6 kilometres without mixing.

When the waters meet, the fish from one river can’t survive in the other.

The other big difference is in the colour of each river. The Rio Negro is like black tea, while the Rio Solimöes is the colour of milk coffee. 

After we docked and had our bags put into storage we went for a walk around Manaus. Which was rather silly as it was 32°C with a humidity of 90%. 

The Manaus Municipal Market, Adolpho Lisboa was our first stop. The market stalls weren’t that interesting but the architecture was. There were two distinct pavilions. The first was built in 1882 and was constructed with wrought iron. It had wonderful stained glass windows at the entrances. The other was built in a Neo Classical style in 1906, with an imposing painted brick facade. 

From there we walked to the Palacio Rio Negro. Completed in 1911 by the German ‘Rubber Barron’ Karl Waldemar Scholz and originally named as Scholz  Palace. It was renamed in 1918, when it was acquired by the government and used as the seat of power.

Built in the architectural style known as ‘Eclectic’ it borrows its features from many different eras.

Unfortunately it didn’t open until the afternoon, so we only got to see the outside. 

After that we walked back to the main square for a cup of coffee. 

Then it began to pour. This was tropical rain that made the tin roofs shudder and Thea got trapped in the toilet, which was outside, during the second deluge. 

Not wanting to get soaked we opted to get a taxi back to the port to collect our bags and then head to the airport. 

All in all we walked over seven kilometres in the heat and humidity. But it was good to get out after having been virtually confined to the boat for four days. 

It was almost a four hour flight from Manaus to Rio de Janeiro, and that included a one hour time change. 

This would be our last stop before heading home later in the week. 

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March 10, 2018. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

We were staying at the Best Western Premier Arpoador Fashion Hotel. The ‘fashion’ aspect of the hotel was delivered by a series of photos of fashion models that were around the hotel. There was also a catwalk video playing in reception.

It was a good hotel with an excellent restaurant that served a great breakfast.

The restaurant was also open in the evenings for dinner. We ate there on our first night and I had a very tasty seafood with black rice.

The hotel was very close to Ipanema, a small shopping area near the famous beach.

After breakfast we walked to Praça General Osório, a park close to the hotel, then onto Ipanema Beach. 

On the way we found D.O.N. Barber Beer, where I had a much needed haircut. When we walked in the door it seemed to be more about the beer, until we discovered the barbers shop was upstairs. 

I decided that we should return, as they had a good range of Brazilian craft beers. Unfortunately we never did.

Overlooking Ipanema Beach is the Arpoador Rock. From there you can get a great view of both the beach and Sugar Loaf, one of the granite and quartz monoliths that dominate the Rio skyline.

It was 30°C with 60% humidity so we stopped for lunch at Copacabana Beach. While having lunch we were hounded by vendors selling everything imaginable.

In the evening we had dinner at Carretão at Ipanema. This was a classic steakhouse with a fixed price and an all-you-can-eat buffet on the side.

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March 11, 2018. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

There is an excellent Metro system in Rio, so we hopped on the train and went to see the Museum of Modern Art. 

MOM, as you would expect, is full of abstract art, with many of the artists choosing not to title their work.

I have an issue with this. 

By titling abstract art the creator can give it an extra meaning, especially if the title is in itself abstract and needs thinking about. 

So the question is, should an artist title his art or leave it untitled?

The exhibitions at MOM we all created from works owned by the gallery. The curators cleverly themed each exhibit and chose gallery art to complement their idea.  

There was one original show by José Bechara. These featured his paintings as well as metal and glass sculptures. 

Apart from a Jackson Pollock print, a Henry Moore sculpture and a few other internationals, the majority of the work was from Brazilian artists. 

The building is also a notable example of Brazilian Modernism. It was was designed by Affonso Eduardo Reidy and completed in 1955. 

The gallery is situated in Flamenco Park, an urban planning project, on the coast of Rio.

After visiting MOM we walked back through the Flamenco Park area until we found another Metro station.

There are constant warnings about safety in Rio, especially for tourists. We never encountered any problems but we were told on several occasions, by concerned locals, to keep our cameras out of view.

However there must be serious security issues in the city, as everyone seems to live in a cage. All apartments, shops and businesses have very strong looking steel grills in front of the buildings and CCTV is everywhere.

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March 12, 2018. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

We booked through the hotel to go on the ‘One Day in Rio Tour’.

In the morning we only visited two sites, Sugar Loaf and the Cathedral. The rest of the time was spent picking up and dropping off passengers. 

In the afternoon we only visited one site, Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado. We took the train through Tijuca Forest National Park to get there.

All in all it wasn’t good value for money, as the rest of the sites that were promised on the agenda were just a ‘drive by’ visit. 

Then to rub salt into the wound they took us to Carretão for lunch, the same restaurant we had been to two nights earlier.

They need to use smaller busses, to reduce the pick-up and drop-of times, rather than trying to ferry large groups around in full size coaches. 

We would have been better off using taxis and just paying our own way at each of the sites we visited. In fact by doing that we would have been able to get a lot more out of the day than we did. 

And it would have been a lot cheaper. 

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March 13, 2018. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

After doing a ‘drive by’ of the city centre on the previous day we decided to see it in more detail. 

Re-charging our Metro cards we headed into central Rio de Janeiro. 

No sooner had we arrived than it started to rain – this was becoming all to predictable.

Like many cities, Rio’s street names reflect the history of the city and the people who created it. 

The authorities have made this a feature in Rio by including dates and accomplishments along with the name of the person. This is all contained within the street sign.

For example, Rue Martim Alfonso (1500-1564) commemorates the Portuguese explorer and colonial administrator who was the first Royal Governor of Brazil.

The rain cleared in the afternoon and we continued our city tour. We then hopped back on the Metro and went to the Botanical Gardens, which is near the very posh suburb of Leblon. 

Founded in 1808 by King John VI of Portugal, the gardens were originally intended for the acclimatisation of spices that came from the West Indies.

There are now 6,500 different species in 54 hectares of very well maintained area. 

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March 14, 2018. Rio de Janeiro and Petrópolis, Brazil.

On our last day of touring we took a trip to Petrópolis, or The Imperial City. 

The town’s name means City of Peter in honour of Pedro II, the last Emperor of Brazil. Petrópolis is the spiritual home of the Brazilian aristocracy. Founded in 1843, it was the summer residence of the Brazilian Emperors

The area was first settled by Emperor Pedro I who found the mountain climate a good change from  the heat of Rio. His son, Pedro II, ordered a settlement be build with the assistance of the newly arrived German immigrants. 

It’s about 70 kilometres from Rio de Janeiro to Petrópolis, an alpine town of over 300,000 inhabitants. 

Leaving the city we got a feel for how big Rio really is. With over 12 million inhabitants in the metro area alone, it’s not surprising.

Our guide to Petrópolis was Julio, a retired history teacher. He knew his facts and gave a good commentary. 

Our first stop was at a German inspired café, Casa do Alemão where we stopped for a coffee.

Palácio Quitandinha was next, but we could only see it from a distance. Designed by the Italian architect Luis Fossatti, and built in 1946, it was a luxury resort hotel for the rich and famous of Rio. Today the hotel rooms have been converted into privately owned condominiums. While the public areas, originally decorated by the famous American designer Dorothy Draper, have been fully restored.

Part of our tour took us past the Imperial Museum of Brazil. Built in 1845, it was the former summer palace of Emperor Pedro II (1831-1889) and is one of the most visited museum in Brazil.

Germans have had a huge influence on Brazil, especially in Petrópolis. German immigration started in 1824, decades before other Europeans came to the country. The population of German/Brazilians rose rapidly due to the highly successful birthrate among women of German origin.

In fact about one third of the population of Petrópolis have German ancestors.

The last stop in Petrópolis, before heading back to Rio, was the House of Santos Dumont.

Santos Dumont (1873-1932) is regarded, especially in Brazil, as the first person to fly a practical airplane in 1906, preceding the Wright Brothers.

He is a national treasure with countless roads, schools, monuments and of course airports named after him.

He spent most of his adult life in France, designing and flying lighter-than-air balloons and heavier-than-air flying machines.

He believed so much in the future of powered flight that he freely published his ideas and designs without every patenting them.

On our last night we again ate at the hotel restaurant, as we had a very early flight to catch the next morning.

March 15, 2018. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Melbourne, Australia.

We were up at 2:45am to get our flight home. 

It was raining again in Rio de Janeiro so a good time to leave. 

Our flight took us across South America, over the Andes and back to Santiago in Chile. This was only a stop-over before getting a connecting flight back to Melbourne. 

This route took us south, very south. In fact we passed closer to the south pole than we had been on our Antarctic cruise.

Part 10: South America – Foz do Iguaçu to Manaus, Brazil.

January 6th, 2019

February 27, 2018. Puerto Iguazú, Argentina to Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil.

Today we were crossing the border into Brazil, the last new country on this trip. 

We walked the kilometre or so into town to get money and try and find a coffee.

We then took the long way back to the hotel along the Iguazú River. 

It had been raining and was now hot and steamy, we haven’t had tropical weather for a long time.  

Puerto Iguazú is a very tired and rundown looking place. It suffers from the fact that all the big hotels, catering to the many tourists, are out of the town centre. 

They are mainly self sufficient and the punters have no reason to come into town. 

Also many of the restaurants in the town centre only open at lunchtime and not in the evening, when the tourists normally eat. 

During the middle of the day the tourists are visiting the falls.

Crossing the border was very easy. The hotel booked us a taxi and he took us from Puerto Iguazú to our hotel in Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil. 

The immigration leaving Argentina was at a kiosk, where we didn’t even have to get out of the taxi. 

We went over the Tancredo Neves Bridge (1985) and crossed in Brazil. 

Our biggest problem was remembering our limited Portuguese. 

When we arrived at the Viale Tower Hotel it started to rain again. Once it cleared we had a wander around the town area close to our hotel. We also needed to get some Brazilian Reals so needed a bank. There were none open so we ended up a a money changer.

 

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February 28, 2018. Foz do Iguaçu and Iguaçu Falls, Brazil.

We took Public bus number 120 to the Iguaçu National Park. 

It was a slow 14 kilometres. 

There were evacuation signs on the emergency exit, which had a number of graphics showing who had priority. Obese people were first, which was a sure signal that obesity is part of life in Brazil, as it is in much of Central and South America.

We were in Foz do Iguaçu to view the Iguaçu Falls from the Brazilian side – it was a very different experience. 

There were fewer people and the experience seemed less hectic.

From the visitor’s centre we caught a double decker bus down to the falls and from there we walked around the Devil’s Throat, this time viewing it from the Brazilian side. 

We put on our wet weather ponchos (plastic bags) and ventured out into the mist. 

The walk to get there is pleasant, with many viewing points along the way. 

The Iguaçu National Park, created in 1939, was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986. It has an area of 185,262 hectares and borders the Argentinian side of the falls. Together the two National Parks are about 260,000 hectares in area.

In the end we decided that it was really worth seeing the falls from both sides. 

In the afternoon we crossed over the road, from the National Park entrance and into Parque das Aves.

This Bird Park has a wide variety of tropical birds, with many of them being rescued from smugglers. A highlight was seeing the Tocu Toucans. The park was opened in 1994 and is about 16 hectares in size.

 

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March 1, 2018. Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil.

Having now visited the falls on both sides we decided to do something completely different.

The Itaipu Binacional is a huge dam and reservoir, on the Paraná River, just outside of Foz do Iguaçu. The dam has a volume of 12,300,000 cubic metres.

The name Itaipu was taken from an island that was near the construction site and means ‘sounding stone’ in the local Guarani language.

It’s a joint project between Brazil and Paraguay. Construction starting in 1974 and was completed in 1991. 

It has 20 generators producing 103,098,366 megawatt hours of electricity, more than any other dam in the world. Ten generators produce electricity for Brazil and the other ten for Paraguay. Interestingly the Paraguayan generators produce more than the country needs so they sell it back to Brazil.

March 2, 2018. Foz do Iguaçu to Brasilia, Brazil.

Most of the day was spent travelling, as we were off to Brasilia. Unfortunately there were no direct flights so we had to go via Sao Paulo. 

I have come to the conclusion that budget airlines are fooling themselves by putting profit before people. 

Good evidence of this was our flight to Brasilia. We were charged Brazilian Real 80 (A$30+) each to check our bags into the hold. It was cheaper if we had done it online. However it wouldn’t accept our international credit card. 

This exorbitant cost means that most passengers opt to pack everything into their cabin baggage. 

They are often larger than the official size. Then some passengers even carry two bags, where they should only have one. 

Just prior to boarding there was an announcement asking if passengers would like to check in their hand luggage – at no charge. 

There were a few takers with most opting to take their cabin bags on board. They then had to fight for overhead locker space.

Then there’s a repeat of the bun-fight once you land.

Now everyone, who was forced to put their bags in lockers that were behind their seats, had to scramble to get them. They usually do this before the seatbelt sign is turned off, causing more confusion. 

If the airlines didn’t charge, there wouldn’t be a problem and flights would be much more enjoyable, for everyone. 

But then the airlines wouldn’t make extra profit by carrying cargo. Which, to them, is far more important than the safety and comfort of their passengers. 

There needs to be a point where business has to balance their profits over the well-being of the consumers and their staff. 

That night we ate at Coco Bambu in Brasìlia Shopping, a mall just over the road from our hotel, the Culling Hplus Premium.

It was a very pleasant restaurant with great staff. They didn’t speak English but alerted us to the fact that we had ordered too much. 

How many restaurants do that?

 

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March 3, 2018. Brasilia, Brazil.

Brasilia is the capital of Brazil and situated in the Brazilian highlands. It’s a modern city, purpose built to be the nations capital, much like Canberra in Australia.

Founded in 1960 it is now Brazil’s third largest city. The city was planned and developed in 1956 by the urban planner, Lúcio Costa and the modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer.

We were in Brasilia for the architecture. 

The hotel booked us a day tour and we hoped that we would get to see some of the most famous buildings. Our guide was Ira and our small group raced around trying to get a feel for this most contemporary of cities.

In 1987, only 27 years after its foundation, Brasilia was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the youngest city in the world to be given that honour.

Some of the building we visited were; Mané Garrincha Stadium (1974), Juscelino Kubitschek Mausoleum (1960), Dom Bosco Church (1970), Our Lady of Aparecida Metropolitan Cathedral (1970), National Congress Building (1970), The Three Powers Square and the Alvorada Palace (1957).

The highlight for me was the JK (Juscelino Kubitschek) Bridge, constructed in 2002 and based on the idea of a pebble skipping over a pond.

Concrete cancer is the scourge of Brasilia.

It is a particular problem with modern, reinforced steel and concrete buildings. The steel begins to rust within the concrete causing it to expand. It then becomes brittle and cracks and in some cases falls from the structure.

Evidence of concrete cancer is everywhere in Brasilia. There has been some restoration but much more is needed, especially considering the cities heritage listing.

The day was marred by us both getting a touch of food poisoning. 

Ira suggested that we all go and have lunch at a local Brazilian restaurant. It was the kind that you only pay for what you eat. You select what you want and then they weigh it. 

There was obviously something in what we chose that we didn’t intend to get. 

For the rest of the afternoon and the night we felt very sorry for ourselves. 

No dinner that evening.

March 4, 2018. Brasilia to Manaus, Brazil.

Felling better but not yet over our upset stomachs, we were grateful that we had arranged a late check-out. 

The only flight we could get to Manaus, on the Amazon, was at 11:30pm so a day to ourselves in the hotel was welcome. 

We did return to Brasìlia Shopping and had a light lunch but that was about the extent of our travels and our food intake.

 

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March 5, 2018. Manaus and the Amazon, Brazil.

After checking into our Manaus hotel at 3am we tried to get a few hours sleep. 

After a late breakfast we went for a walk around the town. 

As we came out, the rain came down. 

We were on the Amazon and 3° south of the equator so it was to be expected. 

The main feature of Manaus, apart from being the gateway to the Amazon, is the Amazon Theatre.

The Amazon Theatre was built in 1896 during the ‘Belle Époque’ period of the rubber boom. It was designed in the Renaissance Revival style by the Italian architect Celestial Sacardim. The dome is covered with 36,000 ceramic tiles painted in the colours of the Brazilian national flag. 

Manaus is the capital city in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. It is on the confluence of the Negro and Solimões rivers. It was founded in 1669 as the Fort of São José and became a town in 1832.

Manaus is slap bang in the middle of the Amazon rain forest and the embarkation point for boat trips into the Brazilian Amazon. Which is exactly what we had planned to do.

Part of the afternoon was spent trying to book our return flight to Australia.

We have used LATAM Airlines a lot in South America and found that they were the fastest and most economical way to return to Australia. 

Booking this trip wasn’t without its issues. 

As I have winged about before, nothing comes free with these low cost airlines. 

That’s fine if you can work out how to actually pay for the extras. 

Thea spent an hour trying to pay for our seats on the trans Pacific leg from Santiago to Melbourne but couldn’t get the credit card to work. She even phoned the help desk and they were no help at all. 

After battling unhelpful help desks, we got a taxi down to the port at 3 pm and checked in to the Iberostar Grand Amazon. 

Our cabin on the boat, especially the bathroom, was larger than some hotels we have stayed in. In fact it was more like a hotel suite than a ship’s cabin. 

It also had a Nespresso machine and a range of pods. 

For a couple who have sworn off ‘cruising’ here we were, on yet another ship, only a month after we were sailing in the Antarctic. 

The Iberostar Grand Amazon was sold as an all inclusive tour – meaning everything is included in the price. 

Of course there is a caveat on that. 

Everything, doesn’t include the two indulgences we enjoy. 

Good wine and craft beer. 

You could buy wine by the glass, but this was limited to a house red and white, of dubious origin. 

There were four beers on offer, all of them Pilsners. 

What the!

At dusk the ship headed north west, up the Rio Negro, for our first night on the water. 

Compared to the SS Expedition travelling to Antarctica, we were barely moving. 

It was hard not to compare the Antarctic trip to this one within the Amazon region. 

Both were small ships on an adventure cruise, with a large crew. 

However they were very different. 

Antarctica was English language oriented while the Amazon was very much Portuguese. 

Antarctica was wilderness, wildlife and conservation, while the Amazon was more about the indigenous people, experiences and shopping opportunities. 

We didn’t actually sail on the Amazon River until the final morning. 

Which in a way was good for me. 

Because of the ph balance of the Negro River, apparently mosquitoes don’t breed on the water. They only reproduce in the bromeliads, up in the tree canopy. 

Whereas on the Amazon River there is no such issue. 

I liked the Negro.

It was a good theory, until a few days later, when I discovered that there still are things that bite on the Rio Negro. 

And naturally they found me. 

 

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March 6, 2018. The Amazon, Brazil.

In the morning we walked through the Jaraqui Stream area and Luis was our guide.

It wasn’t about animals but about the life, death and regrowth of the Amazon Rainforest. 

Everywhere we looked there was dead, dying or decaying plants and new life springing up. 

The rain held off for the morning but it looked very threatening for the afternoon. 

The itinerary was changed about, as we had to return to Manaus. Apparently one of the generators needed replacing. 

They assured us that none of the activities would be effected. 

Our afternoon boat trip to Trés Bocas was therefore cancelled and replaced by a visit to Cambebas, an indigenous village. 

There was a lunchtime talk about the Amazon Forrest and the effects of the wet season on the water levels, as well as the plant and animal life. 

Thea’s technical problems have followed us to the Amazon and are now effecting everything around us. 

When we first arrived, our room safe wouldn’t work and needed a new battery. Then our cabin door wouldn’t open and we were locked out. 

Even the ship’s breakdowns continued with the outboard engine on our tender dying on the way back from Cambebas Village. 

 

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March 7, 2018. The Amazon, Brazil.

The morning adventure was the boat trip to Trés Bocas and this time Jefferson was our guide. 

This is part of Anavilhanas, the second largest fluvial archipelago in the world. It’s a huge collection of river islands and beaches. 

Tres Bocas is one of the largest islands in the Archipelago. 

This trip was more about being on the river and experiencing Amazonia. We saw Toucans, Macaws, Green Parrots as well as Dolphins. 

This was all done at a distance and made good photography very difficult. Especially as the cloudy skies caused everything to be backlit . 

At one point Jefferson stopped the boat and we just listened to the jungle. It’s too easy to spend time on photography and forget to enjoy the moment. 

In the afternoon, as part of the on-board program, there was a talk on the fish of the Amazon.

Entertainment seemed to be a very important part of life on board the Iberostar Grand Amazon. 

On our first night, after dinner, there was a magician. Then the staff band performed after dinner on night two and then again at lunchtime on the third day. 

The South Americans, especially the Brazilians, love to dance. The performance was definitely aimed at them. 

I can see why Carnival is so popular. 

There was a group of Germans and they were always holding a drink. They never let go of their glasses during lunchtime, while the band was playing and even when they were in the pool.

They were definitely making the most of the open bar policy. 

The afternoon activity was Piranha Fishing. 

We decided to participate in this for two reasons. Firstly it was catch and release, so no fish were actually taken and secondly I wanted to see this mythical creature in close-up. 

Apart from the thrill of being on the river and in the backwaters it was a frustrating experience. 

Firstly it poured down and everything got wet. But worse than that, I didn’t catch a thing. 

And I was the only one. 

There was yet another performer after dinner. This time it was an indigenous member of staff. 

His specialty was flutes and he played at least six different types. 

It was cleverly done as a soundtrack to a documentary video about Brazil, the people, culture, animals and land. 

This played on a screen behind. 

He concluded the short show with his own rendition of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ 

The background video, to this classic song, featured indigenous people from around the word. 

It delivered a very powerful and poignant message. 

In the evening we went Caiman spotting and only managed to get a glimpse of one reptile scurrying into the water – that was it.

 

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March 8, 2018. The Amazon, Brazil.

We were up at 5:30 am for the sunrise.

The sun didn’t rise but Luis had a surprise for us anyway. He took us to see the Ariaú Jungle Tower, an abandoned eco resort.

When it was operating it had about eight kilometres of elevated walkway through the jungle. The guests could drive golf carts from one part of the resort to the other. There were six tower blocks and 288 rooms elevated over the jungle.

It only closed at the beginning of 2016 and very quickly the jungle has reclaimed the site.

After breakfast we were to visit the Pink Amazon River Dolphins. This was with Jefferson, our guide guide from earlier in the week. 

However because of the number of people wanting to do the dolphins trip, we did a nature cruise first. 

There were monkeys, sloths and a variety of birds. 

We also passed through the abandoned resort again. This time from the other side. 

After about ninety minutes we arrived at a small floating platform that was very close to the ship, and our original starting point. 

This is an a opportunity to be in the water at the same time the dolphins are being fed. 

It is supposedly an eco and environmentally conscious activity. However these are wild animals that now rely on humans for their food and therefore survival. 

I was disappointed that Jefferson also fed the monkeys on our way to the dolphins. 

It was great for the tourists but not good for the monkeys. 

At lunchtime the band played again. They normally only play twice, but it was International Women’s Day and the ladies loved to dance. 

The last off-ship experience was to the Rubber Tapping Museum. 

This part of the Amazon region was the heart of the wealthy Brazilian rubber industry, during the late part of the 19th Century. This was the golden age for rubber and there was a large expansion of European colonisation in the Amazon Basin. The rubber was extracted from trees in a very random way, as there were no plantations as we now see in South East Asia. The trees were in the jungle and rubber tappers would spend days at a time out tapping the trees. Slavery, murder and brutality were widespread.

The Rubber Barons got rich but at the expense of the indigenous population.

The Vila Parasío Rubber Museum is built within a film set for a Portuguese movie, titled, ‘The Jungle’. 

The movie was about these barons and their excesses.

 

Part 9: South America – Argentina again.

January 4th, 2019

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February 20, 2018. Buenos Aires to Mendoza, Argentina. 

After a late arrival back into Buenos Aires the previous night it was a very early start for a 6:55 am flight from Buenos Aires to Mendoza.

We were back in Argentina again.

Fortunately our accommodation, Solandes Apart & Wine, allowed us to check-in at 9:30 am, so we could have a bit of a rest before we headed out.

Mendoza is the capital of the Argentinean wine district and everything is geared towards that.

There is also skiing, mountain biking and hiking but we were there for the wine.

The area around Greater Mendoza is the largest wine growing region in Latin America. Mendoza is one of the Great Wine Capitals off the world. The others are regarded as: Adelaide in Australia, Bilbao and Rioja in Spain, Bordeaux in France, Lausanne in Switzerland, Mainz and Rheinhessen in Germany, Porto in Portugal, SanFrancisco and Napa Valley in the USA, Valparaiso and Casablanca in Chile and Verona in Italy.

Mendoza was founded in 1551 by the Spaniard, Pedro del Castillo and named after the governor of Chile, García Hurtado de Mendoza.

 

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February 21, 2018. Mendoza, Argentina. 

Thea’s technical woes continued. 

Two computers had died and now her back-up drive had surrendered to the gremlins. We were now down to one computer and one back-up drive. 

Not a good situation to be in. 

Then, due to the total incompetence of Thea’s website provider, Host Sailor, her site was shut down. 

And they hadn’t even backed it up. 

We felt very vulnerable so decided we urgently needed a second back-up drive. 

In the morning we took the Mendoza Hop-On Hop-Off Bus to explore the town.  

This was a gruelling three hours, on very hard seats. There was a wait of one hour between buses so we chose to stay on. They didn’t follow the route on the map and only about one third of the narration was in English. 

By the time we were back in Mendoza the shops were opening again, after siesta, so we went off and bought another back-up drive. 

To add to our tech frustrations, when we got back to the apartment there was a message from Kate. 

The DHL package had arrived from Buenos Aires, without the broken computer. 

Will this saga ever end?

 

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February 22, 2018. Mendoza (Wine Tour) Argentina.

Main income for the Mendoza region comes from olive oil production with wine next. 

We were staying at Solandes Apart & Wines and, as the name suggests, they had involvement in a winery and could also organise wine tours. They had a arranged for us to have a wine tour with Jorge, a local driver and guide.

Our first stop was at Budeguer a very contemporary winery with great labels and an obvious love of art and good design.

CocaCola is still widely consumed in Argentina and some of the locals do very we’ll out of it.

The Budeguer Winery was started by a wealthy sugar cane grower, Juan José Budeguer from Tucumán in Argentina. He is obviously doing very well out of selling his sugar and this is evident in his extravagant gallery and winery, both of which are run as a hobby.

Interestingly the advertising for CocaCola is still stuck in the 1950s’. Their strategy is all about putting the product on a pedestal – it’s almost a brand worship approach.

Our guide at Budeguer was Jorge’s daughter, who had excellent English and a good understanding of the Argentinian wine industry.

We then had lunch at La Azul, a winery with a pleasant restaurant under a canopy of vine leaves and set with the Andes as a backdrop.

The final stop for the day was at Salentein. This was a much more traditional winery with huge cellars and an abundance of an art in their onsite gallery, all housed in a very contemporary building.

Apart form a great experience we leant two very interesting facts on our Argentinian wine tour.

Wine fact 1: In Argentina they don’t produce champagne in the same building as their still wine.

Wine fact 2: Between tastings, don’t clean your glass with water, as the minerals effect the wine. Use wine instead.

 

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February 23, 2018. Mendoza to Córdoba, Argentina.

Even though we had a kitchen in the Mendoza apartment we couldn’t find a decent supermarket nearby. 

We did manage to get some basic breakfast supplies but they were very average. 

Providing your own breakfast can be one negative when staying in an apartment. It’s much easier at a hotel, especially where breakfast is included.

We arranged to get Jorge to take us to the airport for our flight to Córdoba, our next stop in Argentina. 

There was a small scrap of good news regarding Thea’s broken computer. DHL emailed that, for safety reasons, they had separated the computer from the rest of the package. 

Apparently it was on its way. 

We arrived in Cordoba in time to check into the Hotel de la Cañada and still do some sightseeing in the afternoon.

We were out of the old town area but it wasn’t too far to walk there.

We visited the Córdoba Cathedral, which was originally constructed in 1582 and renovated 2007-2009. Next to San Martin Square, in the centre of the old town. Then down towards Plaza España, past the Church of the Sacred Heart. Built in 1928-1932 and designed by the Italian architect, Augusto Ferrari. It is an interesting construction as it’s not made from stone but concrete.

It was then back into the old city to do the tour of the former Jesuit Block, Convent and Society of Jesus Church which was built around 1600.

Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, it contains the University of Córdoba, one of the oldest in South America.

As well as the university the area contains the History Museum, Jesuit Community, History Archive and Historical Library.

To tour the complex you have to have a guide, which was great as it gave us a good insight into the history.

One of the last pieces we came across was a tiny statue of the Virgin Mary. What made it unique was that she was visibly pregnant.

 

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February 24, 2018. Córdoba, Argentina.

Córdoba is a strange town and seems to lack a soul.

It is the second largest city, next to Buenos Aires, with a population of over 1.3 million. It was founded in 1573 by Jeronimo Luis de Cabrera and named after Córdoba in Spain. It has many historical buildings and of course the Jesuit Block.

Maybe we were comparing it to Buenos Aires, which is probably unfair, but it just seemed to be rundown and lacking character, compared to the capital.

For example Bicentennial Park, like Plaza España, was a garbage dump of tagging and spray cans. 

Lake Crisol in Sarmiento Park wasn’t much better – there was rubbish everywhere.

We were looking for some culture so we wandered into the Emilio Caraffa Museum. Entrance was free as the air conditioner was broken. 

The museum featured works from five Argentinean artists. The program even had an English narrative which was a change.

There were two painters, Aníbal Cedrón and Adrián Doura as well as a photographer, Franco Verdoia and a sculptor, David Rivolta.

The gallery was a pleasant change and the exhibition was well curated with a wide variety of styles. However when we reached the top floors of the gallery it was hot.

They certainly needed the air conditioner up there.

You can tell if you’re not in a good restaurants area, just by Googling, ‘Good restaurants near me’. If McDonalds and Subway come up on the top of the list, you are in trouble. 

We were in trouble in Córdoba, as there was nothing but bars and a huge disco near us. And of course Maccas.

Surprisingly there were 35 brewpubs in the area, so finding a good ‘pinta’ wasn’t difficult. 

Finding wine was another thing.

Córdoba is a university town and in general students are poor and don’t drink wine. Getting both wine and a craft beer was a problem. 

The women drink beer, so wine isn’t in demand, especially in the brewpubs as they cater for the younger market. 

The only students who drink wine come from Mendoza and that understandable – its in their blood, so to speak.

We eventually did find a great brewpub that served both wine and beer and also had an excellent menu as well. It was here that we got the lowdown on how Córdoba ticks from the manager, who was in for a chat.

Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest has never been more evident than in South America.  

Especially when it comes to the breakfast buffet.

It’s a battleground.

They push, they shove and when they eventually get to the buffet, they pile their plates with Andean size mountains of food.

Then they come back for more.

 

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February 25, 2018. Córdoba to Iguazú, Argentina.

We had almost an entire day, after checking out, before our flight to Iguazú. 

And it was raining. 

What else do you do on a wet Sunday but visit a shopping mall. 

Patio Olmos was originally built as a boy’s middle school in 1909. It was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1977, then redeveloped into the mall in 1995. 

There is over 25,000 square meters of retail space, which includes a cinema run by Hoyts. 

I thought that it was strange that the Australian cinema chain would be running a shopping mall in Argentina.

Then I did some research.

Hoyts is actually owned by the Wanda Group, a Chinese multinational based in Beijing. It is the world’s largest property developer and owner of the world’s largest cinema chain.

 

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February 26, 2018. Puerto Iguazú and Iguazú Falls, Argentina.

After getting the public bus to Iguazú National Park we bought our day tickets to explore the Argentinean side of the falls. 

They wanted to know our nationality at the ticket office. When we got our tickets we found that they thought we had said we were Austrians, not Australians as we were even greeted with ‘Guten tag’ when we went through the gate. 

We took the train to Devil’s Throat Station and walked from there to Devil’s Throat. We weren’t the only ones as there we hundreds walking along the path with us.

Devil’s Throat is a spectacular section of the Iguazú Falls and the lookout puts you right over the edge.

The first European to record the existence of the falls was the Spanish Conquistador Álvar Núñez de Vaca in 1541.

He must have been overwhelmed.

Between Niagara, Victoria and Iguazú, I think Iguazú Falls are by far the most impressive. 

Victoria Falls maybe larger but it’s the views that you get from all the vantage points that sets Iguazú apart.

After spending many hours at the falls we took the bus back into town and then walked back to the Three Borders Lookout, which was jut near our hotel. This is the spot that you can see both Brazil and Paraguay while standing in Argentina.

Our hotel, the Raices Esturion, was a fair distance out of down so we were confined to the area surrounding it. On our first night we couldn’t be bothered looking around so ate at the hotel.

It was a buffet, even though the booking.com blurb proudly boasted an À la carte menu.

On our second night, determined not to eat another ‘buff’ we discovered the Amerian Hotel. It was right next door and did serve À la carte, which was excellent.

Part 8: South America – Uruguay.

December 21st, 2018

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February 15, 2018. Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Colonia, Uruguay.

After spending longer in Buenos Aires than expected we were moving on. 

This time to Uruguay. 

Our side excursion package included two ferry rides, a bus trip, accommodation and daily excursions. 

Our ferry from Buenos Aires was the Francisco. It was large, sleek, fast and carried both cars and passenger. 

The ferry terminal was run like an airport with check-in counters and baggage drop. There was even a baggage carousel at the Uruguay end. 

Both on the ferry and the bus transfer to the hotel, not a word of English was spoken. 

There wasn’t that much English when we arrived in Colonia del Sacramento or simply Colonia as it is known. There were only two tourist buses a day that had an English guide. 

Colonia faces Buenos Aires, across the Río de la Plata and was once a Portuguese colony.

Colonia del Sacramento was founded by Manuel Lobo in 1680 under the direction of King Peter II of Portugal.

Over history Uruguay has been ruled by both the Spanish and the Portuguese, however the official language is Spanish. It gained independence from Brazil in 1828 and today is one of the most prosperous countries in Latin America.

It is ranked first in  regard to peace, democracy, press freedom and the perception of low corruption. It also has the most prosperous middle class, with economic freedom and income equality.

Voting is compulsory with 92% of the Uruguayans opting to go to the ballot box. The army is voluntary and mainly used for natural disasters and peace keeping. Marijuana and cannabis are also legal and gay marriage was legalised in 2013.

They certainly are very progressive in Uruguay.

Dinner on our first night was at Típico Nuestro and it will probably go down as one of the worst meals we have had in South America. 

The kababs had been pre cooked and were tough – the beef was inedible. 

There was an extensive list of local craft beers but it took me five choices before they could actually find one in stock. 

I ordered a glass of red wine but, like the beer, it wasn’t available. So I chose another one. The waiter poured what was left in the bottle, which wasn’t nearly a full glass. 

He was content to leave it like that. 

When I ordered another glass of the same wine, it was switched to a different one. 

Do they really think we are that stupid? 

When we came to pay our bill the waiter expected a tip – he got nothing. 

So much for the quality of life and high living standards in Uruguay. We certainly didn’t see it at Típico Nuestro.

 

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February 16, 2018. Colonia, Uruguay.

After breakfast in our hotel we walked back down to the port for our first excursion. 

In Colonia we had both a walking tour and then a days worth of travel on the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus. 

The walking tour of the old town was first, however they gave us a drive around the bus circuit before we started. Here everything was explained in English. 

Apart from this trip at 10am and another at 3pm, all the other Hop-On Hop-Off Bus services were only in Spanish. 

Our guide had excellent English and a great sense of humour. 

An interesting feature of Colonia is the contrast between the Spanish and Portuguese heritage. This is most evident in the architecture and, strangely, the construction of the roads. 

The Portuguese didn’t bother about drainage or sewerage, they just prayed for rain to wash everything onto the roads and then into the river. 

Their roads are concave with a central channel to help with drainage. 

The Spanish roads are convex with drainage in the form of gutters on either side. 

Their more formal approach is probably due to the huge influence the Romans had in the Spanish part of the Iberian Peninsula. 

The housing was also different between the Portuguese and the Spanish. 

The Portuguese use adobe and their houses were usually limited to one storey. While the Spanish built with bricks and we usually two storeys high. 

Another interesting feature of Colonia was the street dogs. (This is the subject of a separate blog)

The historical centre of Colonia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and many tourists make a day trip from Buenos Aires.

After our walking tour around the historic quarter we jumped onto the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus.

A fair drive out of town was the Bull Ring and Casino.

The bull ring was opened in 1910 and could hold up to 10,000 blood thirsty patrons. It only hosted bull fights for eight events before it was closed by the Uruguayan National Government in 1912.

Today it lies derelict.

The bull ring was part of an ambitious tourist project that also included a racecourse and casino. Only the racecourse is still in operation.

 

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February 17, 2018. Colonia to Montevideo, Uruguay.

The morning was taken up with a bus trip from Colonia to Montevideo.

We were staying in the Hotel Aloft, a haven for the tech tourist, with power and USB points everywhere. We were very close to the water, which was great for a stroll after the bus trip.

It wasn’t in the centre of Montevideo but there were good restaurants and coffee shops within the very upmarket area surrounding our hotel. 

This was good as it was Thea’s birthday, so we needed to find somewhere interesting for dinner.

Also just near our hotel was the Punta Carretas Shopping Mall. It was a former prison built in 1910 and designed by Domingo Sanguinetti.

The site was redeveloped and became the mall 1994. Now not much of the prison remains, except the entrance.

Interesting there was a mass break-out of the prison in 1971. A tunnel was used as part of the escape plan and the exit was in El Berretin, the restaurant where we celebrated Thea’s birthday.

Montevideo is the capital of Uruguay and the largest city. It was established in 1724 by a Spanish soldier, Bruno Mauricio de Zabala. This was a strategic move during the constant Spanish-Portuguese conflicts.

 

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February 18, 2018. Montevideo, Uruguay.

We again used the Hop-Off Bus around Montevideo and stopped at Plaza Cagancha (Stop 3) and walked back to Plaza Independencia (Stop 2). We then picked up the bus again and from there we did the rest of the trip back to our stop (Stop 7). 

In Plaza Independencia there was a very impressive statue of General José Artigas (1764-1850).

Artigas was born in Montevideo and was a national hero of Uruguay. He was a democrat, federalist and opposed to monarchism (The Spanish).

In 1850 he died in Paraguay, aged 86, after a long period of self exile there. It wasn’t until 1977 that his remains were returned to the Artigas Mausoleum in Montevideo.

We were fascinated to see so many Uruguayans drinking Yerba Mate Compuesta (A strange drink that requires a thermos with a cup and straw) Yerba mate is a herb used too make a tea beverage known as mate. It was first cultivated by the indigenous communities of the Guarani people in southern Brazil, before European colonisation.

There is also a chilled version which is prepared with cold water and ice rather than with hot water. 

There were four football teams staying at the Aloft Hotel. They were playing in an under 20 competition, the ‘River Plate’ which was hosted by Uruguay. 

The small pool table in reception was never un-occupied.

 

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February 19, 2018. Montevideo, Uruguay to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The ferry trip back to Buenos Aires wasn’t until 7:30 pm so we had another day in Montevideo. 

Unfortunately the good weather ended and rain was forecast. 

The rain held off and we caught a taxi to the Mercado Agrícola de Montevideo. 

Built between 1906 and 1913, it is regarded as one of the largest covered market in South America. 

After a wander around and then a coffee we walked back to the Parliament building. 

The legislative centre of Uruguay is in a massive Neo-Classical building. Construction started in 1904 and it was inaugurated in 1925 to celebrate the centenary of the declaration of independence. 

We then returned to the market and had lunch – it was still a long time until the ferry left.

Part 7: South America – Buenos Aires, Argentina.

December 13th, 2018

February 9, 2018. Ushuaia to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

It was great to get a good night’s sleep on the ship without it rocking. 

Now it was back to the business of travelling. Initially to to Buenos Aires for four nights and from there we would plan the last part of our trip. 

It was a long day of travelling. 

Firstly waiting to get the bus to Ushuaia Airport, then waiting for the plane to actually take off and finally waiting to disembark at Buenos Aires. 

When we arrived it was a balmy 25°C and didn’t drop much below that in the evening. 

I do prefer the warmth to the cold. 

We were staying at the Hotel Pulitzer in the heart of Buenos Aires. On our first night we weren’t wanting to venture too far so we found a great Spanish restaurant, just around the corner.

The hotel had a rooftop bar and we did go there a few times during our stay in the city.

The staff were friendly and there was a real mixture of tourist and locals. In fact the Hotel Pulitzer was a delight, everyone was friendly and went out of their way to help.

Even the breakfast was good.

 

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February 10, 2018. Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

After eight day without the Internet in Antarctica, we found that our hotel in Buenos Aires was ‘down’. So much for how good the hotel was.

Florida Garden came to the rescue. 

This large café not only had good internet but excellent espresso and it was also just around the corner. 

We then did the The Hop-On Hop-Off Bus tour of the city. 

There were three lines, Red, Blue and Green and took about 3.5 hours to complete all three. 

It’s a city of wide avenues, parks, statues and Neo-Classical architecture. 

Buenos Aires sits on the Río de la Plata. This is the confluence of the Uruguay and Paraná Rivers and considered as the world’s widest river span at 220 kilometres. 

A fact disputed by Brazil who believe the Amazon is wider. 

Only in the incredibly Catholic South America would you find a theme park dedicated to the life of Christ.

Tierra Santa or Holy Land claims to be the world’s first religious theme park. Here you can walk the streets of Biblical Jerusalem. They even have an 18 metre high likeness of Jesus who rises from behind a rock every hour.

We didn’t bother to go but just read about it.

Despite this over-the-top religious extravagance there are very few grand cathedrals within the city.

This might have something to do with the size and devoutness of the indigenous peoples who inhabited the land before the Spaniards arrived. 

Unlike the west coast of South America, there were no large civilisations such as the Aztecs or Incas. In the east there were only small groups of hunter-gatherers. 

Typically the Spaniards built their churches over the sites of the indigenous temples, thereby offering a continuity of location. As there were no large temples in Buenos Aires, there were no corresponding cathedrals.

Just down the road was Galerías Pacífico, a mall devoted to the religion of shopping. This was as grand as any church we had seen. There was even a central dome with excellent frescos by the local artists, Berni, Castagnino, Colmeiro, Spilimbergo and Urruchúa.

The building was designed in 1889, in the Beaux Arts style, by Emilio Agrelo as a department store for a store known as the Argentine Bon Marché.

It was used as a torture centre by the military junta from 1976 to 1983 and declared a national historic monument in 1989.

Having been abandoned for years it was remodelled and opened as a shopping mall in 1991.

 

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February 11, 2018. Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

As we still had a few hours remaining of the 24 hour Hop-On Hop-Off Bus ticket we caught the Red Line down to Palermo. We found a great café near the Armenia Gardens and after a coffee started the walk back to our hotel. 

It was about 10 kilometres and we stopped at the Botanical Gardens and the Floralis Genérica, among other spots, on the way. 

In the evening we caught up with the remaining Antarctic group members for dinner. 

 

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February 12, 2018. Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Thea’s new computer, that was only 58 days old, had a fit in Antarctica and wasn’t working. 

After some research she discovered that there had been a recall of that model in early January. 

There was apparently a problem with the battery. 

For Thea, being without a computer is like being without air. 

We had to get a replacement of some kind so we booked another night in the hotel to give us time to see the sights and to shop. 

On the Sunday night we discovered there was a public holiday on the Monday. 

All the computer stores were closed, so shopping would have to wait until the Tuesday 

We continued on the tourist trail and found ourselves in the old part of the city. Much to our surprise we stumbled across of yet another The Thinker by Auguste Rodin.

This must be a least the fourth we have seen on our travels.

 

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February 13, 2018. Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

Expecting to spend most of the day sending our package of clothing and Thea’s broken computer home, then buying a cheap replacement, we were shocked to find that it was yet another public holiday. 

Carnival goes for two days, not one as we thought. 

In the morning we wandered around Puerto Madero. This development, in the waterfront area, is relatively new and there is a mixture of modern architecture and old warehouse buildings.

It runs along the banks of the Río de la Plata and covers an area of about 2.1 square kilometres.

Work started on the port in 1882 and was carried out by the local business man Eduardo Madero, hence the name.

After completion of The New Port of Buenos Aires in 1926, Puerto Madero became superfluous. Then in the 1990s there was a massive redevelopment along the river bank. Now there are shops, restaurants and apartment blocks.

We stopped and had lunch overlooking the river.

In the afternoon we went on a walking tour with Nicolas Hidalgo Frigo, an enthusiastic local guy who runs walking tours as a living and gets paid according to what the tourists think he is worth.

Under the banner of ‘Critical Thinking Tours’ it covered 400 years of Argentinean history, from a Buenos Aires perspective. 

We started and ended near the Pink Palace, the seat of Presidential power. 

The reason, according to Nicolas, that all the public buildings in Buenos Aires are so grand can be attributed to gloating. 

After gaining independence in 1816, the new Argentina wanted to prove to the world that they could build anything the Europeans could – but bigger and better. 

The Argentine War of Independence was fought from 1810 to 1818. This was between patriotic forces, looking for independence, against those loyal to the Spanish Crown. The independence movement was under the command of Manuel Belgrano, Juan José Castello and José de San Martin.

This guy just keeps popping up.

 

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February 14, 2018. Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Now the shops were open, this was going to be the day to get the chores done. 

First cab off the rank was buying the trip to Uruguay. This meant a walk down to the ferry terminal and visiting the Buquebus travel agent. 

Then we went shopping for another computer. 

It was a balance between memory, size and cost and was a lengthy, drawn-out process. 

Next was the DHL to send our Antarctic jackets, thermals and waterproof pants home. 

And of course, now the non functioning computer. 

After a very long day walking up and down Calle Florida and some side trips we managed to get two of the three tasks completed. 

A new computer was just too hard. They were either too large, too expensive or the stock was too old.

There appears to be no market for small, relatively inexpensive PCs in Buenos Aires.

I wonder what the students use.

Calle Florida, the main walking street near our hotel, should really be called Cambio Street. There are money sellers every few metres and on every corner. All you can hear is, “Cambio, cambio.”

Antarctica, the last continent. (The highest, driest and coldest continent on earth)

November 24th, 2018

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February 1, 2018. Drake Passage to Antartica.

There wasn’t much to do today, as we were sailing south towards Antarctica. 

We received a briefing on what birds we might encounter and another on ‘Zodiac operations aboard the G Expedition.’

There was a safety drill and we were then checked for ‘bio security’. We were then given our waterproof boots and G Adventures expedition polar jackets in the ‘Mud Room’. 

The jackets were ‘free’ and bright red – we certainly wouldn’t get lost in the snow.

As Antarctica is a wilderness area, great care is taken to ensure that we tourists don’t contaminate it. Everything that you wear on leaving and boarding the ship is cleaned. We even had to dip our boots into a disinfectant wash. 

I felt like a ram going through a sheep dip.

Normally we don’t do escorted or group tours but Antartica, like Egypt in 2012, was different. And like the Egypt trip we had booked this trip through Hampton Travel and Cruise.

They in turn had gone to G Adventures, who specialised in small group adventure travel.

G Adventure was formally known as Gap Adventures and was established in Toronto Canada in 1990.

Gap which stood for Great Adventure People was forced to change its name in 2018. This was after Gap Inc, the American clothing company, sued Gap Adventures for appropriating their name.

How litigious are the Yanks.

I don’t think it did the company or its founder, Bruce Poon Tip, any harm, as they currently employ 1,500 people and travel to 686 destinations in 134 countries.

They certainly do live up to their old name as Great Adventure People as the staff aboard the SS Expedition were fantastic.

As was the ship.

Formerly a car carrier, the SS Expedition has been converted into a fast, sturdy and well appointed cruise ship.

There are only 145 passengers, which meant that everyone had an opportunity to get off the ship and explore. There were also 69 crew so we were well looked after.

Our off-board adventures were done both on land and in the Zodiacs.

There were also the creature comforts, like a private ensuite in every cabin and excellent views of the rolling seas through a large panoramic port hole.

There were two bars and an excellent restaurant serving international cuisine. 

I even tracked down where to get a half reasonable espresso.

G Adventures pride themselves on their environmental credentials, which was very important considering where we were going.

Antartica is the last wilderness.

It was also the last region on earth to be discovered and was unseen until 1820.

It is governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, which was ratified in 1961 and currently has 53 signatories. The treaty prohibits mineral mining, nuclear explosions or dumping of nuclear waste and military activities.

It does support science, as there are currently about 4,000 scientists conducting research into its delicate ecosystem.

The treaty is due to expire in 2048 and it will be interesting to see what takes its place. Especially considering the expansionist ambitions of countries like China and Russia.

 

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February 2, 2018. South Shetland Islands, Antartica.

We made a very fast journey across the Drake Passage, which enabled us to get our first trip ashore much earlier than usual. 

Our first stop was at the Aitcho Archipelago, South Shetland Islands, where we visited Barrientos and Cecilia Islands. 

Both were very different experiences. 

Barrientos Island was all about the penguins and there were thousands of them. 

Their smell reached us on the ship, well before we arrived on the island. 

There was also a group of moulting elephant seals lazing on the beach as we landed. 

From there we caught another Zodiac to Cecilia Island. This one was all about the birds and also involved, for those who were willing, a short walk to the top of the island. 

The walk was good as we had been on the ship for almost 48 hours and needed a bit of exercise. 

The most we had done so far was walk from our cabin to the dining room. 

For some of the passengers this was a very regular trip. 

After our island excursion, the ship set sail again and we headed for Errera Channel in Antarctica proper. 

We were now at 62° south and heading towards the Antarctic Peninsula.

 

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February 3, 2018. Antartica. 

The morning Zodiac adventure was to Danco Island in the Errera Channel. 

Even though there were plenty of penguins, the views were the hero of this outing. 

It was a slippery walk to the top of the island, but well worth it. 

Apart from the ship and the attendant Zodiacs there were icebergs, islands and mountains in the background. 

On several occasions it started to snow. 

In the afternoon we sailed to Georges Point and had another trip in the Zodiacs. The point was named, like so many places in Antarctica, by people involved in their discovery.

Georges Lecointe was the second-in-command of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897 to 1899.

Here we came face-to-face with the brutal reality of life and death on the ice. We were witness to an attack of a Skuas on a penguin chic.

Penguins are not the brightest birds on the ice and the poor chic had no chance against the relentless predator.

Skuas are strong and aggressive birds living off carrion and the occasional ‘fresh’ penguin.

Later in the afternoon we sailed to Leith Cove In Paradise Bay. We were here for the evening as this was our night on the ice.

I have always held the belief that you really haven’t visited a place, unless you have slept there.

After dinner all those that were going ashore hopped into the Zodiacs and took the short ride to the   ice island in Leith Cove.

We had been equipped with a tent, ground sheets and a sleeping bag, which we had to lug up the hill to the camp site.

Then we had to pitch our tent.

At this point I was wondering if sleeping in Antarctica was such a clever idea.

I hadn’t pitched a tent since I was in the scouts and I had certainly never done it on ice. We only hoped that it would stay up for the night.

There were 23 tents, each with two people, all arranged in a large circle. There were two portable toilets off to one side. I had made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t need to visit them during the night. The temperature was about -4° to -5°C and my sleeping bag was where I intended to stay for the duration. 

A few younger campers joined Blaise, the resident ‘muso’, in a number of songs around a non-existent campfire.

We remained in our tent, in our sleeping bags, with our legs crossed.

 

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February 4, 2018. Antartica.

We were woken at 5:40 am and had to quickly pack everything up. Then it was down to the Zodiacs to be taken back to the ship.

The rest of the morning was spent at Leith Cove. We then cruised through the Lemaire Channel and back again as our path to Pléneau Bay was blocked by icebergs. 

In the afternoon our Zodiac ride was with Sergey Nesterov, the captain of the SS Expedition. The sky was blue, the sea calm and as one of the crew said; “This is just the sort of day that the captain likes to pull rank and take out a Zodiac.” 

It was an experience with amazing icebergs and lots of seals – I think Sergey knew many of the seals personally.

He also had a typical Russian sense of humour which made it all the more enjoyable.

That evening we had an Antarctic Barbecue Dinner and like all good BBQs, it was outside.

There was flame grilled meat of all varieties as well as salads and hot vegetables.

We all sat at the stern of the ship, wrapped in our bright red G Adventures jackets, and ate as quickly as we could, before the hot food got cold.

An experience never to be forgotten – or repeated.

 

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February 5, 2018. Antartica.

Breakfast onboard catered for everyone. 

There were even jars of Vegemite for the Australians and Marmite for the Poms. 

Which isn’t surprising as the Aussies, then the Brits, made up the largest groups. 

The morning was spent in the Zodiacs, cruising around Paradise Harbour and then we visited Brown Station.

We were now on mainland Antarctica.

Brown Station was surprisingly not British, as you would expect, but Argentinian. Named after the ‘Father of the Argentine Navy’ Admiral William Brown (1777-1857). Brown was an Irish born Argentine Admiral who was creator and first admiral of the country’s maritime force.

Brown Station was established in 1951 and is one of 13 Argentinean research bases in Antarctica.

Many of the group made the difficult walk to the top of the hill overlooking Brown Station. The views were spectacular.

I think we were all dreading the descent, as the snow was deep and looking down, it seemed like a long way.

That problem was solved brilliantly by some of the crew who suggested that we didn’t walk down, but slid down.

It was an exhilarating trip, sliding on our bums, down the hillside.

In the afternoon we went to Port Lockroy to visit the British Antarctic Survey’s historic Base A and the Penguin Post Office.

Situated on Wince Island, Port Lockroy was named after Edouard Lockroy, a French politician and Vice President of the Chamber of Deputies. He assisted Jean-Baptiste Charcot in obtaining funding for the French Antarctic Expedition of 1904 to 1907.

Today Port Lockroy houses a museum, souvenir shop and the Penguin Post Office, the most southerly one in the world. We, like most of the passengers, sent post cards or letters home.

From there we went to Jougla Point, on Wiencke Island, just around the corner from Port Lockroy. There was a colony of Blue Eyed Shags and a collection of random whale bones that had been arranged into an almost complete skeleton.

The Polar Bear Bar on the SS Expedition was very popular, especially with the young North Americans, after dinner. They were ‘whooping’ to music that was at least a generation older than they were. 

Blaise, who had entertained us on the island sleepover, performed hits from Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stephens, Don McLean and even Leonard Cohen. 

It was being lapped up by the ‘kids’ and they could sing the old stuff – word for word. 

 

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February 6, 2018. Antartica.

When referring to the weather, Alex, our English tour leader often said: “Antarctica has the last word”

For our final day on the continent we were greeted with foul conditions. 

Forty knot winds, gusting to sixty knots, rain and low cloud. 

Not ideal for launching and landing the Zodiacs. 

Our planned afternoon trip to Hannah Point, Walker Bay and even plan B, to Elephant Point, were all cancelled. 

We then opted for plan C and sailed to Deception Island, which is still regarded as an active volcano.

In the morning Thea accidentally slid down one of the external stairways on the ship and bruised her back. 

The ship’s doctor suggested she rest up, so I went ashore alone.

The bay of Deception Island is a caldera, with a very narrow entrance. This means that it is considerably more protected than the surrounding sea. 

The volcano last erupted in 1969 and then again in 1970 and has left a large crater. 

That’s what we were on Deception Island to see. 

It was foggy when we set out from the ship and got worse as we climbed up to the crater lip. 

It was an eerie sight as the passengers appeared out of the mist, all in their red coats, walking along the crater’s edge. 

We were warned that crossing back over the Drake Passage wasn’t going to be as easy as when we came six days ago. 

The swell picked up over dinner and by the time we retired our beds became a moving target. 

The ship actually provided wedges to put under the mattress. These were designed to stop you falling out of bed with the big swell. 

After dinner there was a Black and White themed fancy dress. Some people made an effort, I wasn’t one of them. 

We then went to the Polar Bear Bar where the Monkey Eating Eagles were playing. 

This is a six piece band with five of the group staff members from the Philippines. 

Apart from passengers, there were a  lot of staff in the bar. 

I had a feeling that this was their night off. 

It was interesting to watch the band perform, with the ship rolling from side to side. But even funnier was seeing people trying to dance. 

February 7, 2018. Crossing the Drake Passage from Antartica.

It was a rather turbulent night as we forged our way north into the Drake Passage. 

We awoke to blue skies and rough seas. Half way through the morning the captain decided to shut the deck. This meant I couldn’t get my daily shot, over the bow of the ship, looking forward. 

To keep us entertained there was a series of lectures. They covered topics like Antarctic animals and birds, history, geography, geology and photography. 

Most of the staff seem to be an expert in one or more of these areas. 

The SS Expedition is small, compared to some cruise ships, and in rough seas this presents unique challenges to passengers and staff. 

Staying upright is one of them.

Showering, cleaning your teeth, getting your buffet meal, or just walking around, are all that much more difficult. 

The only people who could handle us bobbing around like a cork in a bottle were the waiters. In classic waiter style, they could still carry a tray, loaded with dishes, all balanced in one hand. 

By now the conditions had got much worse, there were seven metre waves and 60 knot winds. 

On board the G Adventures staff are divided into three sections.

The ship’s crew, including engine room, navigation and deck hands. They look after how we travel.

The adventure and activities people who look after organising excursions, landings and lectures. They are in charge of what we do. 

And finally the hotel staff, who run the accommodation, laundry, kitchen, restaurant, bar and accounts. They look after how we are housed, fed and make sure we pay for it all at the end. 

And, as we found out, there is also a doctor who is there to look after your physical wellbeing.

At the start of the cruise we were told that the Drake Passage was going to be rough. The doctor suggested that we take sea sickness tablets.

The last time we had been in rough seas was back in the mid 70s’, crossing the English Chanel in a force nine storm. We were OK then but didn’t know how well we would travel now, so we took his advice and swallowed the pills.

We didn’t feel any sea sickness, only hallucinations.

On the return trip, across the Drake, we decided to leave the pills. This was the right choice as we were both fine, even though the crossing was far rougher.

 

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February 8, 2018. The Drake Passage and Beagle Channel.

We were ‘weathering the storm’ all night and in the morning we were still not allowed up on deck. 

At noon the captain headed the ship towards the north east. This resulted in two things, firstly the rolling almost disappeared and secondly we rounded Cape Horn, sailing from the Pacific to the Atlantic. 

We were now headed towards the Beagle Channel and Ushuaia, with hopefully much calmer weather. 

On our last evening, after a cruise de brief, we had a group dinner, then a few of us headed to the Polar Bear Bar for one more evening of ‘classic’ music.

We were now back in Ushuaia and would disembark after breakfast in the morning.

We had travelled 1,695 nautical miles and seen one of the most remote places on earth.

What an adventure.