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.

Monday, 6 May 2019

9 days in Slovenia and a taste of Trieste

Welcome back for another installment of my travel blog. I've been writing this for long enough that I probably should be an 'influencer' by now. But for some reason there aren't any companies getting in touch asking me to flog products for them on my Instagram account with 200 or so followers. Must try harder.

This trip took in Slovenia, starting in Ljubljana, where we hired a car and headed to lakes Bled and Bohinj for a bit of hiking. Then northwards to the Vrsic Pass, an amazing mountain road that reaches an altitude of 1,611 metres. Back down the other side of the mountain to Bovec for a bit of white water rafting, followed by the Skocjan Caves, Portoroz and Piran. Then home from Trieste.

Joining me for most of this trip was my parents' second-born, Jason (also known as my brother). Other than a trip to Bruges for our mum's 60th, we've never really been on holiday together, so it was time to put our sibling relationship to the test and see if we could handle several days on the road together.

Highlights of the trip included:
  • Wandering around Ljubljana and it's pedestrianised Old Town, stopping for a coffee here or a beer there
  • Eating a horse steak in Lubljana. Very tasty and barely distinguishable from beef, so I can see how that whole horsemeat "scandal" happened in the UK a few years ago. The only scandal is that I didn't know how good horse tastes until now
  • Exploring the area surrounding Lake Bohinj despite a day of nearly non-stop rain. It's much less crowded than Lake Bled, which has built a lot of hotels and restaurants around the lake
  • Driving over the Vrsic Pass in Triglav National Park. Non-stop incredible scenery for a couple of hours. Saw a few people cycling it too, crazy bastards
  • The Skocjan Caves in south-west Slovenia. Enormous cave network with a giant canyon running through it. Looks like something out of Indiana Jones or that place the goblins live in The Hobbit. They won't let you take photos down there, which is actually quite refreshing and it's so dark they probably wouldn't come out well anyway
  • Renting an e-bike in Portoroz and cycling along Slovenia's small stretch of coast to Izola and Koper
  • Exploring Piran and getting caught in a massive hailstorm while at the top of the town's clocktower

If you're thinking of visiting Slovenia yourself, I'd definitely recommend it. Ljubljana is ideal for a long weekend break and if you have the time to go further afield, the lakes at Bohinj and Bled are only about an hour's drive away. If you go in April like I did, it helps to have flexible plans if rain makes exploring the great outdoors more challenging!

Ljubljana Castle sits on top of a big hill overlooking the city. It's free to have a wander round the castle and its walls, you'll only need to pay if you want to see the museum inside.

The slightly terrifying door of the Church of St Nicholas. Looks like the bishops are coming out of the door at you.

Continuing the theme of doors, this one caught my eye in the Old Town, just by the river. Ljubljana's a great city to wander aimlessly around if you're in a picture-taking mood. 

Multi-coloured buildings on the northern side of the Ljubljanic River which dissects the city.

Bled Island in the middle of Lake Bled. This is about as close as we got on a very drizzly day, although boats were taking plenty of umbrella wielding groups out to the island. In my opinion, Bled's a bit too built up with hotels and various ways to extract money from tourists, whereas Bohinj is a bit more relaxed and nature-y. (Don't try and tell me nature-y isn't a word, I'm a journalist.) 

It's hard to get that 'hey look at me in front of a waterfall shot' when the waterfall is running so powerfully (caused by snow melting and rainfall) that you get soaked standing anywhere near it.

A fisherman trying to catch some dinner on the shores of Lake Bohinj. We got so wet that day we might as well have joined him in the lake. 

Jason goes for a wander near the top of the Vrsic Pass in Triglav National Park. I do have a photo where he's facing the camera but I'll spare you the horror in case you're eating dinner while reading this. 
 The Russian Chapel on the way up the Vrsic Pass, which was built by Russian prisoners of war during WW1.

With the steel cables and metal posts you'd think this bridge was pretty solid but you'd be wrong. Some of the wooden planks looked like they'd give way to a heavier man than myself. Pretty though.

This is the small town of Kanal, which spans the Soča River, about an hour south of Bovec. Don't know if there's much here other than a photogenic river and bridge. The milky-blue colour of the river was certainly something I hadn't seen before.

Salt flats at Strunjan near Portoroz. Back in the days of the Romans, Piran and Portoroz made their money exporting salt and are still doing so today. There's also a much bigger salt farm at Secovlje with a museum, spa and shop if you're a big salt enthusiast.

Nice little courtyard in Izola on the coast of Slovenia. It's a small town that probably gets overlooked in favour of Koper or Piran by a lot of tourists, but definitely worth a detour.

An olive grove near Portoroz. Some areas of western Slovenia are covered in vineyards and olive trees, which makes sense as it borders Italy and shares a similar climate. It also means that in some places you can get a glass of good wine for €1. Yes please. 

The town square in Piran. If I'd visited in the traditional summer months, I'd have got a lot more blue sky in photos but then it would also have been heaving with visitors, so on balance the mixed bag of weather probably wasn't such a bad thing.

Climbed the clock tower in Piran to get this photo just before a full on hailstorm kicked off. Thunder, wind, the lot. Made for some very dramatic views until the weather got so bad I had to abandon my position and head back down to shelter.

A video illustrating just how much rain and hail there was. According to Google Translate,  Slovenian for 'raining cats and dogs' is 'dežujejo mačke in psi'. (Chances are it doesn't actually translate into Slovenian and that phrase is gibberish, but I'm trying to educate AND entertain).

Old guy fishing on the end of a small pier in Piran after sunset. In case you can't see his fishing rod and it looks like he's just staring wistfully out to sea, I can assure you he was fishing.

Piazza Unita d'Italia in Trieste. Only got to spend a day here but it seemed like there was plenty to do if I'd had more time. Loads of good restaurants for a start, plus museums, galleries and the nearby town of Prosecco.

The famous Irish writer James Joyce lived in Trieste twice back in the early 1900s, so he must have been charmed by it. The city claims he wrote part of Ulysses here, but then every cafe in Edinburgh will tell you JK Rowling wrote part of Harry Potter there, so believe what you want to believe.

Fun fact: Slovenia was my 52nd country. I use an app called Been to keep track of where I've been - you can get it for Android here or iPhone here. Because, for some unknown reason, I'm still not an influencer, I won't be getting any money for telling you about Been but you might find it helpful too.