Thursday, 6 August 2020

A week in Pisa and Lucca that we didn't think would happen

Somehow, despite all the travel restrictions, cancelled flights and general covid-induced chaos, our trip to Italy at the end of July was still possible. A couple of months ago I was convinced it would all get cancelled. But fast-forward to a two weeks before the trip and our plans were still intact, so we packed our bags, put on our face-masks and headed for Pisa and Lucca.

You've probably heard of Pisa, it's got that big wonky tower in the middle of it. Lucca is another city in Tuscany, about half an hour from Pisa by train and a great place to eat yourself into a pizza/pasta induced coma if you fancy it. It's packed with great cafes, restaurants and bars scattered throughout its old town area.

Pisa was probably a lot quieter than usual at this time of year because of coronavirus, which meant Piazza del Duomo where the Leaning Tower is located was less packed with people than it would be normally. Climbing the stairs of the leaning tower cost a slightly exorbitant €18 but it seemed foolish to visit one of the most iconic buildings in the world and not go up it.

Lucca is Pisa's quieter, more laid back cousin and you can spend hours just walking round it, losing yourself down various narrow streets and seeing which part of the city you re-emerge in. All while eating delicious gelato or stopping off for a coffee, of course.     

While travel is certainly possible at the moment, it's different. It was very noticeable in Italy how much more on the ball they are with wearing masks than we are in the UK. Walk into a shop, museum or hotel and you put your mask on straight away or you're not allowed in. Same goes for airports and train stations. Yes it can be uncomfortable in the heat of summer but if it means businesses can stay open because people are following the rules, then that's fine by me. 

I suspect this won't be the only trip abroad I take that requires a face-mask until the magic vaccine comes along and sorts out the coronavirus situation. Ah, what a strange time we are living in right now. The keys, wallet and phone check before leaving the house has become keys, wallet, phone and mask. Well, if that means we can travel more safely then it's a very small burden.

Stay safe, help each other out and remember things will get back to normal eventually. And in the meantime, why not gaze admiringly at the photos below. 

It does lean a bit doesn't it? Someone should probably fix that.
Who knew holidays in 2020 would include wearing a face-mask everywhere? The Leaning Tower of Pisa decided to take it one step further, by issuing visitors climbing the tower with a buzzer you wear around your neck, which goes off if you stand too close to someone else. But that included people in your party, so it went off all the time and was probably a bit of a waste of time and money for the tourism board if you ask me. 

I was challenged to take an 'ironic' leaning on the leaning tower picture. I rose to that challenge.

Keith Haring went to Pisa in 1989 and painted this huge mural on the side of a building near the train station.

Rose and Harriet in front of a door in Lucca that's clearly much too large for them. Or perhaps they are too small.  

A view along the waterways of Lucca. Can't really call it a canal as you couldn't fit a boat along it, more of a walled river I guess.

Lion statue that watches over Lucca. 

The church of San Michelle in Lucca dates back to the 795AD and was rebuilt in 1070. So it's pretty old. And just behind it is an excellent pizza place called Pizzeria Pellegrini that has been going since 1972. Not quite as old but still pretty good going. 

Touristing hard around the walls of Lucca on a four seater bike/wagon. Fun way to spend an hour. 
That's Manel on the front, he is Portuguese but also speaks Italian and English because other countries are much better at learning languages than us British and Irish folk.

The gardens of Villa Garzoni in Collodi. Collodi sounds more like it should be a rural town in Ireland but is in fact a town near Lucca which also contains Pinocchio Park, an attraction much-loved by the Irish contingent on our trip.

A section of Piazza dell Anfiteatro in Lucca. The buildings go all the way round it like a large amphitheatre, hence the name.  

I think this building is the Institute of Botany in Lucca but don't quote me on that. It's in the botanic garden anyway so it's got something to do with plants. 

Ate a lot of gelato on this holiday. I'm not normally one for getting ice cream in a non-edible container but I wanted to pour some coffee onto the ice cream and do a DIY affogato. Because I'm classy. 

Back in Pisa and a view along the Arno river. It's only now, writing this caption that I have realised this is the closest we came to seeing a sunset in Italy. And I bloody love a sunset. You don't have to get up at the crack of dawn for it like a sunrise and you can probably have a drink too. 

We walked the walls in Pisa and once you get beyond the main square you don't actually see much. However I did like the staircase at the exit, so that exposed walk in baking sun was probably worth it.

Piazza Cavalieri (Knight's Square) in Pisa. 

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Cape Town and The Garden Route

South Africa had always been one of those places that I imagined would be great to visit but wasn't necessarily top of my list, with the likes of Japan or Colombia. However, once we decided we were going and I started doing some proper research it was quickly apparent that the country has a LOT to offer.

For a start, food and drink costs half of what it does in the UK. You can go to some very decent restaurants for relatively little money. Then there's the scenery. Once you're out of Cape Town and into the wine region or Garden Route, there's no shortage of stunning views, rolling hills, green forested mountains, endless plains, that sort of thing.

That isn't to say South Africa doesn't have its problems. Poverty is very visible, from the large townships on the edge of all major towns and cities to the homelessness in Cape Town. Or the advice (which we followed) that you should get taxis after dark in the capital. I wouldn't say we ever felt unsafe but the streets did become completely empty after sunset in a way I'd find strange in any other major city.

But every country has its own problems (cough Brexit cough) and to focus too much on them would do South Africa a disservice. I loved it there and would happily go back again. It was always sunny and warm, the aforementioned food was excellent, the people were friendly and there was loads to do and see. There was tons of stuff we didn't have time to do in both Cape Town and on the Garden Route.

Our trip began with three days in the wine region, staying in a homestead on a vineyard near Wellington, followed by a road trip along the Garden Route before heading back for four days in Cape Town. It was 10 days altogether but we could have easily spent much longer there and detoured from the Garden Route a bit more, or spent more time checking out the many amazing beaches dotted along the coast.

If you made me pick some highlights, they might be:
  • Climbing Table Mountain
  • Cape Point Nature Reserve
  • Driving along the Garden Route - beautiful scenery all the way
  • National Art Gallery of South Africa, in Company Gardens (much better art and cheaper entry than the Zeitz Museum, which was a bit pretentious in my opinion)
  • The Stack - restaurant in Cape Town
  • The food in general
  • Monkeyland, near Plettenberg Bay

 Stellenbosch is worth a visit, to wander round and check out the university museum/art gallery and its various cafes and shops.

 Obligatory holiday sunset photo, from the vineyard near Wellington.

The vineyard's homestead and our home for three nights. The bell in the foreground was known as a slave bell, used to signal the start and end of the working day for slaves back in the times of slavery.  There are a lot of these bells still standing in rural areas, acting as reminders of history.

On our way to the Garden Route we stopped at a great example of the 'weird roadside cafe' genre. The menu was exclusively things with chips (or just chips on their own) and it had a barn that contained the world's biggest knitted jumper, complete with certificate from Guinness World Records.

Near Plettenburg Bay was Monkeyland and Birds of Eden. Monleyland is a "free roaming" monkey sanctuary, largely for monkeys that have been abandoned or suffered some kind of cruelty. They are rehabilitated here and some are released back into the wild. I'm not really a fan of zoos or anything resembling them but this was more like a giant forest you could walk through (with a guide).

 One of the lemurs in Monkeyland. It was an odd sensation at first, walking through a forest with loads of monkeys completely ignoring you and running/climbing about but it was a memorable experience and I would definitely recommend.

When you buy a ticket for Monkeyworld you can double up and see Birds of Eden too, which is the biggest bird enclosure I've ever seen - it was vast. Plenty of room for birds of all kinds of species to fly about. Or as these two seemed to prefer, just perch on a walkway and watch people go by. 

Taken from a viewpoint called Map Of Africa, near Wilderness on the Garden Route.

The entrance to the museum just off the central courtyard of the Castle of Good Hope. It was built in the 17th century and changed hands a few times between various colonial oppressors (largely British and Dutch) before it was declared a historical monument in 1936. We went on the guided tour, which was much better than the 'key ceremony' - essentially a bunch of people in old fashioned military uniforms faffing about handing a key back and forth for 10 minutes.

 Some might say this is a metaphor for going on holiday with me for 10 days, but they would be liars because I am delightful company.

One of the colourful buildings in the Bo-Kaap area of Cape Town. It was formerly known as the Malay Quarter and has a largely Muslim population.

 More brightly painted houses in Bo Kaap. It was very photogenic, as you can tell from my top notch photography skills and was an absolute scorcher that day.

  This restaurant in Cape Town is called The Stack and dinner here was one of the culinary highlights of the trip. Big recommend.

Penguins on Boulders Beach, south of Cape Town.

In Cape Point Nature Reserve, looking down at the sea from the cliffs near the lighthouse. This is somewhere I could have happily spent a couple more hours, but we got there a bit late after spending longer than expected at Boulders Beach. 

Trying to take an arty shot of the beach at the Cape of Good Hope.

And here's us doing the tourist photo in Cape Point Nature Reserve. Had to really.

View of Table Mountain just before we started climbing it. When the clouds roll in over the top like that, locals call it the 'table cloth'.

 Cape Town below from somewhere near the top of Table Mountain.

Visiting the District Six Museum was a good way to try to get an idea of the kind of ordeals and hardship people went through during Apartheid because of unchecked racism.

A view of the mountains from Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, which you can happily spend a few hours wandering about in or even take a picnic with you.

Thanks for reading and there's a few more photos from the trip on my Instagram if you're really keen. 

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

A week in Crete (with Instagram photoshoots happening all around us...)

You do have to wonder if, in years to come, people will look back on this period in time and say: "Do you remember when you'd go to the beach on holiday and see couples doing ridiculous photoshoots for their Instagram feed? What was THAT all about?"

Having recently spent a week in Crete, marveling at the absolute lack of self-awareness some people display when perfecting that hair tossed casually about, slight pout, poke arse out photo, it does make you think humanity is in a weird place right now.

But hey, each to their own, we've all got to have hobbies, right? Maybe me writing this and posting it on social media is just as self-indulgent as if I splashed about coquettishly in the water on a beach making someone take hundreds of photos of me. (Maybe that should be the next blog post?)

But I digress. I'm supposed to be telling you about Crete. It was my second visit to Greece, after a trip in October 2015 that took in Athens, Amorgos, Naxos and Koufounissia. This time, it was just one island and one week but Crete is Greece's largest island so there is plenty to explore.

We landed in Heraklion and the plan was to spend a couple of days there, then rent a car, drive into the middle of Crete to stay in a house in the countryside and then onwards to Chania.

The main draw around Heraklion is supposed to be the archeological site of Knossos, which had a palace built on it around 2000 BC. The only problem is, the English archeologist who excavated quite a lot of it in the early 1900s decided to rebuild certain parts of it and these additions looks a bit crap to be honest.

If you're going to Crete and you're a bit short of time, I'd give Knossos a miss, because as the island's big tourist attraction it's also pretty crowded and expensive. And there are so many beaches to explore!

I'm not normally one for a lot of beach time on holiday but when they're as spectacular as the ones in Crete, it's time to get your book out and slap on the suncream. We spent time on Elafonisi, Balos, Seitan Limania and Kalathas. Would recommend them all, but if you're there in summer, don't expect any of them to be deserted hidden treasures. Still, you can usually find a quieter patch somewhere.

One place we didn't factor in enough time for was Rethymno. We only spent an afternoon here but it would have been well worth stopping overnight here. And we certainly should have skipped a town called Bali on the way there. Not sure what I'd read that made me want to visit Bali but it's a packed tourist trap with very little of note.

What I would highly recommend is getting into the countryside and spending a couple of nights away from the busier coastal areas. We stayed in Natura House near Limni, where the owner greeted us with her mother who had made dinner for us and left it in the oven for when we arrived at 9pm! Cretan hospitality is the greatest. (I've hyperlinked the name because we liked it so much.)

A couple of nights in an Airbnb near central Chania gave us time to explore the city's charming Old Town and Balos beach, before catching an inevitably late Easyjet flight back to London.

Now the pictures. I apologise in advance for total lack of Insta-photoshoot material. Next time eh?

Knossos - an example of the kind of bad rebuilding work Arthur Evans inflicted on the site. Even the information boards around Knossos sounded a bit unsure about what the hell he was actually doing.

Boat next to the pool in our hotel near Heraklion. Don't think it's been a seafaring vessel for some time.

Went to a great Cretan restaurant in Amoudara called Mourelo Cretan Food & Drink Philosophy, where we had snails, which is a local speciality. Despite a silly name it's a fantastic restaurant.
Stopped for lunch in a small town called Bali and this cat was probably the highlight.

Would have liked to spend an extra day/night in Rethymno, but half a day here gave us a feel of the place and its narrow winding streets. This is the lighthouse in the town's Venetian Harbour.

Elafonisi Beach was well-worth the drive to get there through narrow, twisting mountain roads. It wasn't quite the hidden gem I was hoping for (everyone knows about it) but beautiful nonetheless.

Balos Beach - If you go here, take a ferry from one of the nearby towns rather than bumping your way along the mountain road that leads to the beach. Our rented Nissan Micra got there in the end but it was a real test for the suspension. Plus, if you arrive by car you've then got about a half hour trek to the beach, although you will to see the whole beach from above.

Chania's harbour at night. If you find yourself having to decide between Heraklion and Chania (that's where the main airports are), go for Chania. It's got more going on, is nice to wander round and is more Greek-picturesque in my opinion.

Another beach reached by a zig-zagging walk down a cliff, this one's called Seitan Limania. It's a small beach at the bottom but swimming between the steep cliffs was one of my highlights of Crete.

At Seitan Limania, inquisitive goats are on the lookout for any food beachgoers might be willing to part with. Harriet's keeping a low profile and hoping they don't guess what's in the rucksack...

"What ya got? Come on, I know you've got some food, don't be holding out on me." 

St Francis of Assisi in a courtyard in the old town area of Chania. 

A floral doorway in Chania

Some of the buildings in Chania reminded me a bit of Havana, especially this one with paint peeling off the facade.