Wednesday, 25 October 2017

From David and Lee - A Mediterranean Odyssey

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A Mediterranean Odyssey

Air Malta looked after us very well on the 3 hour flight to Valletta and we were soon experiencing Malta first hand from the comfort of out rental car. We had phoned the owner of our rented apartment to let her know we were leaving the airport, "oh you shall be here in about half an hour or so." Now this was only less than 10 km away and this was Sunday afternoon, no traffic right,....Yeh right. Malta would have to be the worst place that I have driven to date, the traffic is very heavy, the drivers are very aggressive and the roads very diabolical, but we arrived safely after a confused GPS tried to send us down one way streets the wrong way. Eventually all was sorted and we bumped and jerked our way down to number 107. Our apartment was magnificent, but the problem of where to park reared it's ugly head, a problem that would recur time and again throughout our  time in the Mediterranean. parking in Malta is by and large free, but no one has a garage and every one parks on a street. Now there must be the same amount of parks  (minus a few) as there are cars on Malta so finding one is always a problem. The highest speed limit that I noticed during our stay was 80 kph but this seemed to have no bearing on how fast people drive here. 
Having said all that Malta is a great place to visit and we have no regrets of having done so.

Top to Bottom.
The sea is crystal clear.
The mind boggles.
The old capital of Mdina.
Yours truly enjoying the View.

One of the highlights is a harbour tour in one of the many tour boats plying for such trade, we chose the "Captain Morgan" and found it great.

Top to bottom.
Valletta Old Town.
There are more super yachts here than you could shake a stick at.
Someone has to pick up the refugees.
There is quite an industry catering for the maintenance of the many super yachts.

We were to later take a drive into the old town where there is a maze of narrow streets, barely wide enough for a car but expected to cope with one in each direction. If I get out of this unscratched I shall be amazed. Still it is a fantastic place and I guess you need to work for it.

The many faces of Valletta.

Another must do is to take the Ferry Boat across to Gozo, Malta's second island so off we went, they say it is quieter over there, well I guess it is but not much. Some beautiful places to see, we really enjoyed Gozo.

 Getting around Gozo, the lower photo is of people swimming               through a hole in the rock out from an inland sea.

All to soon our week in Malta was to come to an end and we caught the Air Malta flight across to Catania on Sicily where we had once again booked a rental car for the remainder of our trip and took the road north past Mt. Etna to overnight in Messina  before catching the ferry boat across to Villa San Geovanni. All was well until it came to find our booked B&B. The GPS sent us up into a very undesirable looking area of town and then, by good luck, we spotted a sign proclaiming the presence of our goal. Unfortunately there was a gate, a very large locked gate. What to do. Suddenly the very large locked gate opened, triggered no doubt by a remote held by the escaping car. We took our chance and were inside a very large compound in which there were several blocks of apartments. None matched the name of our booked B&B. After much ringing of doorbells a kindly lady appeared at a window and asked "B&B?", "Yes" we replied and were directed to another block where once more bells were rung and eventually answered by our host. "Five minutes" was about all we could get out of him, but true to his word he duly appeared some 10 minutes later. Unfortunately he could speak no English but we were promised a lady who could speak English would be along soon. She was but she couldn't, well not overly much anyway. We eventually got booked in and with a restaurant having been recommended set in our sights we were off for our evening meal. We had forgotten of course that Italians don't eat until 8 pm at the earliest, not the 7.30 that we had turned up. Go and sit and have a drink we were told and ushered to a table. Soon a waitress appeared and served us some wine, "it is complimentary" she informed us. After an excellent meal mine host appeared and insisted on us having some desert wine, again on the house. It turned out to be one of our best dinning experiences of the trip and set the scene for what we found to be very hospitable people in contrast to what we had experienced previously  in Italy.
Next morning we headed north to a small fishing village, Scilla (p. Shiella) which turned out to be one of the nicest coastal villages that we had seen in Italy, surpassing, we believe, even Cinque Terre. Unfortunately I had a bit of an oops with my photos for that day so have nothing to show for it.
Next morning we headed east to the Puglia region and what can only be described as a tour of architectural contrasts, from cave dwellings to the famous Trulli houses which characterize the area.

Trulli houses and even a Trulli church.

The Cave Town of Matera.

Matera had a large percentage of it's population still living in caves with little or no sanitation, no power, no running water up until the 1960s. It became known as a national disgrace and a law was passed making it illegal to live in the caves and people were made to move into "new" housing which had been built for them.
Today it is said to resemble a small version of Jerusalem and I have to say that is not a bad comparison. Today me of the caves have been opened as a tourist attraction.
The Trulli houses are said to have their genesis in a tax law from yesteryear where taxes were assessed on the  number of building one owned. The Trulli houses are built along the lines of a hump back bridge and have a Keystone at their apex. If this is removed the whole structure collapses and the tax man can go whistle. They are rebuilt quite quickly when the taxman has gone. Anyway that is the story.
I am typing this at Charles de Gaulle airport whilst awaiting our flight home. As this is happening quite soon I had better stop and get this posted. I shall finish it all off when we get home and catch up on our sleep.

All the best


Sunday, October 22, 2017

All Over The Place

As we are about to leave for home tomorrow I thought it about time to make the effort and have a bit of a catch up. When last heard of we had left Helsinki after a great tour of the Baltic states, incidentally only Lithuania, Latvia and  Estonia make up the Baltic States and technically Finland misses out on being a Scandinavian country as well, I'm not sure where it's status lies.
We arrived back into a grey old England and headed off up to Norfolk where we had booked a cottage near Norwich, a great place to visit and somewhere that we had not previously been. The cathedral was started in the late 11th century and completed  by 1135. It was constructed by stone brought in from France especially for it, being brought up the Wensome and unloaded at Pulls Ferry. How they achieved this is something of a mystery as some of these stones were several tonnes, still they managed Stone Henge and they were absolutely whopper stones by comparison.

Norwich Cathedral, the Cloisters (lower) are second only to Salibury in size.

The following day, the first rainy one since Warsaw, and we were off to meet David and Jenny who had kindly invited us for a day on the broads on their boat. It was a very comfortable affair and the rain mattered not one jot, a great day out and David and Jenny proved to be very hospitable hosts. We called at a country pub on the way home to round off a very enjoyable day. Not all was a bed of roses in Norfolk however, our bijou cottage was bijou in the extreme and there was not even sufficient room for our cases. We had to unpack and store the cases in the car boot. Still it did have a washing machine and so we were able to catch up on our laundry and cook ourselves something for which we had craved for a few weeks now, something, anything with mashed spuds and lashings of vegies.

Another day in Norfolk catching some of the seaside villages on it's northern coast before we drove all the way back down to Bradford on Avon where we picked up our narrow boat for a five day cruise on the Kennet and Avon Canal. 

My attempt at a little artistic photography.

This boat had everything that we could possibly want and we thoroughly enjoyed the slow pace of canal life, calling at pubs for and evening drink and cooking just what we wanted on board. The only trouble was that this boat, ENA, was 47 ft long and not all that easy to keep on it's intended course, still no collisions so not to bad. OH...there was one incident. When it is necessary to moor, one of the crew must jump ashore with a line which is fixed amidships to the cabin top and gently pull the craft to the side. Unfortunately the crew's (no names) feet slipped from under her and she fell flat on her bottom. Judging by the resulting bruise it must have hurt quite a bit. 

Top to Bottom..    The 29 lock staircase at Caen Hill, The good ship Ena crossing the Bathampton Aqueduct and The Skipper concentrating on getting through a lock.

We had little time after the narrow boating trip to get down to London Gatwick where  we were to enjoy Air Malta's hospitality on a flight to Valletta where we had an apartment booked for the following week .
Well that's all for now, I see that the mighty Makos have cleaned out the hapless 'Naki and face Canterbury in the final once again.
Go the Makos

All the best and take care


Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Baltic's (and Finland)

No, I am not dead, not even close, just busy having adventures. It is probably time for a bit of a catch up, so here goes.
I have related the story of our close encounter of the divine kind with his holiness the Dalai Lama but omitted all the other bits of our Baltic tour.
We stared once again on a flight, from Heathrow to Warsaw, arriving in the rain, and that was to  stay with us for the next two days of our visit. This was not allowed to colour our view of the place, it is a beautiful city and well worthy of a visit from anyone tempted to go there.
One cannot help forming first impressions of one's travel companions some of which need at a later date to be revised. First was a young lady that I spotted on the plane. It was her hair which first attracted my attention, it was both a florists and a haberdashers delight with enough flowers to start a florist's shop and sufficient bows and ribbons to do the same with a haberdashery business. It seems she must have sourced her personality from that same places as she could be often heard bubbling away about something. She was definitely one of those people who grew on you.

Laurie had a new hairdo each and every day.

Another such person was Chris, a pony tailed, ear-ringed PhD in Bugology or some such. Anyway Chris became one of our closest friends along the way and along with another couple I don't think we missed an evening of drinks. I never thought that I would share so many beliefs in politics and life in general with a PhD in Bugology as I did with the said Chris. Just goes to show. And so along with wife, Jude, and the other couple, David and Jenny, we would enjoy a pre-dinner drink each night. Now this had an unexpected bonus in that David and Jenny were the proud owners of a 38 ft Cabin Cruiser on the Norfolk Broads where we intended to spend a few days before going Narrow Boating on our return to Britain. They very generously offered to take us for a days cruise on the Broads, an offer which was very gratefully  accepted.
Back to Warsaw where, I must admit, after such a time gap it is difficult to remember much of the detail of what we saw.

Warsaw at night from our hotel window.
(The large building in he background is the 7th of the castles built by Stalin, the first 6 are in Moscow)

All in all I was disappointed in Warsaw but this may have had something to do with the weather. We spent two days and two nights here and it rained the whole time. It could also be that my good wife and I have seen such a wealth of exciting places over the years that the lustre is starting to tarnish somewhat. We shall see.
Eventually the travelling road show moved on with our longest day of the tour, 500+ km and with stops along the way. Our bus driver was excellent, as I guess he should have been, but I think it helps immensely on such a long journey. We were to travel some 1500 km overall. First stop was at Grustas Park near the spa town of Druskininkai where there is a park devoted to old statues from the soviet era that were saved from the scrap heap after the collapse of Communism. It is a crazy pace but one can't help feeling some of what was meant in creating it. It wasn't long before Winston Peters was spotted lurking in the bushes, maybe wondering where his statue would be placed.

Wiley old Winnie checking out the chicken house.

As we went around the park we were at one stage asked to stand aside as a man in a wheelchair was pushed past by his minder. Later as we finished there was a cry, a shout and a flurry of activity as the man was pushed around the corner at the run, Winnie in hot pursuit. Fortunately they made their escape unharmed, but not so one of the members of our group who wanted "That unbeatable close up" and got a wee nip from old Reynard for his trouble.
A not so good sight in this park was that of some brown bears caged for the public to ogle at. To me there is nothing sadder than caged bears, they seem to represent all that is free in their natural  habitat but just the opposite when in captivity. The parks other occupants however deserved to be caged and ogled at by all and sundry, these were among some of the most horrible of men ever to have had the privilege of breathing. Stalin alone was responsible for the murder of some 20 million of his fellow countrymen. OK he was a product of his violent upbringing but no excuses, bad, bad man.

One of hundreds of statues of soviet heroes in this bizarre park.

Onward we pressed to our next stopover in Vilnius the capital of Lithuania where it's medieval old town is classified as an UNESCO protected site.

St Peter's and Paul's Church in Vilnius. Very spectacular!

We only had the one night in Vilnius and tomorrow it was on to the beautiful Trakai Castle where we would break our journey to Kaunas, Lithuania's second city.

Trakai Castle

The next place of excitement was the "Hill of Crosses" just before crossing over the border into Latvia. This site of pilgrimage was started in the 1830s after the 1831 uprising and the tradition of places crosses there has continued ever since. No attempt has been made to count the crosses as the number increases daily but it is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands if not millions in the park. Npw it is not only a symbol of remembrance but also one of celebration. People come to be married, celebrate a birthday or like us, just to look.

There are a few acres of park covered in crosses.
(This is a crazy crazy place)

Lunch today was taken at the entrance to Rundale Palace, a masterpiece of Baroque architecture by F B Rastrilli who was also responsible for the Summer Palace in St Petersburg. In common with the Summer Palace, Rundale is not shy when it comes to displaying it's excesses.

 From top to bottom. The Palace, The interior, The garden and a bevy of beauties we managed to pick up along the way.

The day ended in Riga, the capital of Latvia. Riga is a most lovely city with many streets of Art Nouveau  buildings which are progressively being restored to their former glory.


It must also be home to the worlds smallest coffee cart.

We spent two nights here in Riga and I must say that to date it is the highlight of the tour.
What could be better than Riga?   Tallinn perhaps? Well perhaps is correct but then again perhaps not. I liked Riga, maybe it was some thing to do with a handshake from the Dalai Lamabut who knows.
We arrived Tallinn after two days in Riga with only the briefest of stops for the brave to dip their toes in the Baltic. Now it seems that one would have been better employed tasting the sea water, not refreshing one's toes in it as it has a very low salt content. See what comes through being friendly with a PhD in Bugology. The Baltic has a salinity of just 0.5 to 0.8% compared with the normal 3.5 to 4% in other seas. This makes it borderline fresh water and you can barely taste it. Further, as we were to find later, around half the Baltic freezes  over each winter whereas this would be less if the salt level was higher. There are many reasons for this low salt level but mainly it is caused by very high rain fall and different layers of density caused by vast differences  in depth acting as a barrier to the fresh water escaping.

Tallinn is a city of narrow medieval lanes and is a great place just to wander around.

Just Goofing around in Tallinn

Looking down on the Old Town, Tallinn.

Again two days seemed to fly by all to quickly and so it was that we found ourselves on an immense ferryboat across the Baltic to the capital of Finland, Helsinki. Now this was the largest ferryboat that I had ever come across, carrying some two thousand passengers and boasting a full department store complete with escalators all it seems to get the poor old Finns to part with their hard earned cash. You see one of the prices the Scandinavians have to pay for their generous welfare system are very high taxes, both on  income and sales and so they make regular ferry trips across to Estonia to buy up on all the cheap goodies, much to the delight of the Estonians. The ferry companies are not shy about wanting a slice of the action.  I knew not what to expect of Helsinki but soon learned of it's charms and the price of it's goods, i.e. an evening pint downtown. A beer for me and a Prosecco for Mrs Currin costing some 18 euros, yes almost $30.
The Seafront area is quite charming and I could have spent much longer exploring, but we were very happy with what we were able to see in the time provided. I mentioned earlier how 40 - 50% of the Baltic freezes each winter. Well this causes a bit of a problem on the shipping front as you can well imagine. To deal with this a fleet of five ice breakers are kept in Helsinki at the ready to keep the sea lanes open.

Top to Bottom. The Ice Breakers, a fleet of old sailing boats, The "Church in a Rock" and our ferryboat berthed in Helsinki. (please note the use of magnetic mooring devices, a kiwi invention I believe)

Well that about ends our whirlwind tour of the Baltics, I have omitted  more than I have included, partly through bad memory and partly through lack of time. Needless to say many more adventures were had but to read of these you will have to buy the book, coming to a bookstore near you soon. For now we have a plane to catch and on Sunday a day on the Norfolk Broads. What could be better.
In the meantime take care and all the best.

Go the Makos


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