Sunday, December 21, 2014

A rocky start to Portugal

Christmas lights in Lisbon

So off we traipse to sunny Portugal to experience warmer climates. Well, best laid plans and all that but it was damn cold in Lisbon. They are apparently having unseasonably cold weather 10 degrees below normal. At least it was fine, as a few weeks earlier it had been raining cats and dogs.

View from the castle
Lisbon had some other surprises for us. While walking up towards the Castle of St George, Elizabeth felt someone bump into her. She turned around to see a woman so close that they bumped into each other again. Prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt Elizabeth started walking again, but suspicious and on alert. She soon heard the zipper being opened and said 'She just opened my bag' after whipping around to see the lady looking up and around like a tourist and the two men with her huddled around. I checked the bag and the zipper was open but when I looked up they had all vanished. We spent the rest of the day with our bags in front of us. Then that night a rather shady looking gentleman sidled up to me showing me something that looked like a cigar and asked 'Want to buy some hashish?' It was so stereotypical I actually giggled as I shook my head, said no and walked off. According to our hotel manager it is legal to smoke marijuana here but not to sell which comes across as a bit of a chicken before the egg type of thing.

Despite the less than stellar introduction Lisbon and the surrounding towns have shown us a great time. The Castle of St George with its marvellous towers and walls, archaeological ruins and garden with its panoramic views of the city filled a relaxing afternoon. Followed by a walk down through the old streets and culminating in strolls through two city squares full of Christmas decorations.

Cabo Da Roca - Most westerly point of 
continental Europe
We moved to the nearby town of Sintra into a unit with a lounge, bedroom and kitchen including washer and fridge for only $37 AU per night. Oh, the joys of the off season. This was a convenient base for a number of attractions, including the heritage listed city of Sintra itself, Castle of the Moors, Convent of Capuchos, the marvellous coastal cliffs (reminiscent of Ireland except sunny), and town of Cascais. And the town of Belem, home of the famous egg tart pastry and the shop Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, still owned by the descendants of the family who bought the original recipe from the monks back in 1837. Elizabeth could not resist two of them, one for immediate consumption and one for later. Apparently they were very yummy.

Pastries in Belem
But as much as we were enjoying the freedom of our own place it was time for a road trip up north to see a bit more of Portugal. Driving here is a bit of a challenge: speed limits and indicating seem to be optional, their hands are glued to their horns and their favourite pastime is tailgaiting, all while driving on the wrong side of the road, sitting in the wrong side of the car and changing gears with the wrong hand (car rental did not stock autos, period). This should be interesting...

On the Castle of the Moors

The town of Cascais

Convent of the Capuchos

Monument to the sea in Belem

Side view of the same monument in Belem

Cliffs at Cabo Da Roca

Just walking in Sintra

Castle of the Moors

The heritage listed town of Sintra

Fountain in front of Jeronimos Monastery in Belem

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Bath in England leads to Hungarian revolution

After Ireland we took the ferry from Dublin to Wales then drove to the heritage listed city of Bath. It's a place Elizabeth always wanted to get to due to its history and its famous Georgian architecture. We decided to crash at the youth hostel (they take oldies), situated in a magnificent old building, and do our exploring on foot.

We made our way into the city centre coming across the beautiful Bath Abbey church with fabulous fan vaulted ceilings. Next up were the Roman Baths, used since year 1 (seriously 1AD) for every manner of ailment or injury, the only natural hot springs in England. Entertainingly presented with pretend Romans wandering throughout and an interesting blend of ruins and artifacts with interactive exhibitions and media. The Romans used to cover themselves in oil in the sauna and the dirt would come out of their skin into the oil and then they would scrape it off with a trowel. Ewww.

We followed that with a two-hour free walking tour, revelling in the historic structure of this town with its various levels of architecture: more recent inhabitants built on top of the lower levels so the previous Roman structure is underneath. We called it a day around 4:30, the time that it gets dark around here. The next day we visited 1 Royal Crescent (to see how the other half used to live), fully restored to depict the elaborate lifestyle of Georgian times from the bedrooms to the kitchen. The street itself was a picture of opulent indulgence with its sweeping arc of Georgian mansions.

The view from the 2nd floor of No. 1

Royal Crescent

We travelled from here to the town of Hurstpierpoint to visit an old friend, taking some much needed down time lounging around the house watching movies, and going to see some new ones (fyi the new 'Hunger Games' is awesome), after the hectic driving of the Wild Atlantic Way. Eventually we built up the energy to organise a plane trip to Budapest in Hungary and then train to Sopron to catch up with some old and new family members.

Sopron is an amazing old city with Roman ruins of its own and quirky architecture surprising you at every turn. As the world was turning into Christmas mode we got our first experience of what it is like celebrating in a cold climate. In Australia Christmas is more likely to be celebrated with a barbeque and an afternoon down the beach. Stunningly beautiful with its Christmas decorations twinkling in the crisp cold twilight, Sopron put on a display that literally took your breath away and not only because of the debilitating cold. Reindeer and nativity displays were surrounded by running and laughing children wrapped up from head to toe, while adults gathered around large smoking barrels emanating heat from the burning wood fires within clutching large cups of hot wine contentedly being warmed up from the inside out.

Even Elizabeth drinks hot wine in this cold!

The view from the restored Fire Tower

The ballet theatre

As we near the end of 2014 the Sopron ballet company put on a performance that celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Pan European picnic that occurred near the border here with Austria in 1989. Hungary was not a very good citizen in the communist community and had already started being lax with its borders with the rest of Europe. East German citizens were taking holidays here and then trying to stay and this was going to become a problem with the long cold winter. It was a badly kept secret that a picnic was going to leave the borders open for about 3 hours. So while the guards were enjoying a well needed break the East Germans fled to the west. This started a chain of events that would result in the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain. From this tiny town a friendly gesture would have massive effects.

The ballet started with events in 1956 during a previous 3 week period of open borders before the Russians came back and cracked down, hard, and worked its way forward to 1989. Really well done in an intimate old theatre.

Hungary never disappoints and we returned to Budapest enjoying the Christmas lights and a brief flurry of snow before looking for warmer climates to finish off the year in.

Budapest. Arguably the most beautiful city at night in the world.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A very Derry halloween

Derry coat of arms,
castle and a skeleton
So we abandoned our exploration of the Wild Atlantic Way to visit Derry for Halloween. Australia does not take Halloween very seriously and we wanted to get the full Halloween experience from a place that does. Well trust me, Derry takes it very very seriously. There had been celebrations going on all week, shops, houses and restaurants were adorned with skeletons and ghosts and by the time the big day arrived around half the people in the city were covered in elaborate costumes. The medieval wall that surrounds the old town had circus performers riding around on big bicycles, doing acrobatics and blowing fire every night during the week. Parts of the wall were very dark and children would appear out of nowhere in ghoulish costumes and scare the s*** out of you. The night itself saw a huge parade with floats going past for about half an hour followed by huge fireworks over the river Foyle. The city stayed buzzing with excitement until the wee hours and many pints of Guinness were drunk (not by me though).

Peace bridge with guild hall in
the background
Derry is steeped in history and has been a focal point throughout the ages. It sports the only remaining completely intact walled city in Ireland and you can walk along the top of the wall all the way around. The wall was never breached despite numerous attempts. Bloody Sunday occurred here in 1972 and we visited the guildhall where the inquiry into the massacre took place. It was bombed several times but has been renovated and is a magnificent church-like structure. We were offered a free tour while in there and an enthusiastic entertaining gentleman in a typically Irish storytelling style proceeded to give us a thousand years worth of history as represented in the stained glass windows in the multi purpose hall. The Derry city council meets here to try to progress a peaceful agenda but all around the city are reminders of the past and that there is still a long way to go. Even the city's name is contentious; it is widely known as Derry but its official name is Londonderry and the two names are used interchangeably in most facets of the city and on signs.

After Halloween we extended the car hire for another week to catch up on the Wild Atlantic Way again. One of the first places we visited was the cliffs at Sliabh Liag. Remember when we said the cliffs at Achill Island are the highest sea cliffs in Europe? Well, these ones are the other highest sea cliffs in Europe. I wonder how many 'highest sea cliffs in Europe' Ireland has? Nevertheless they were beautiful and high, but again very marshy and bog ridden trekking. I have just about destroyed my hiking boots and they are not even a year old. Will need to replace soon or stop hiking, as my feet are getting cold and wet.

Elizabeth, Shaun and Lucky
Hostels in Ireland are really hospitable. We stayed at a lovely one called Derrylahan with owner Shaun and his dog Lucky. With a fire going every night in the large lounge, we would make dinners in the large kitchen and Shaun would entertain us with stories in the way only the Irish can. The hostel was part of a working farm and Shaun would be relentlessly shooing his sheep out of the garden. We had this kind of welcoming experience at lots of hostels in Ireland.

As we continued along the Wild Atlantic Way we came across many more fabulous sites. The last one I will mention is the Giant's Causeway (not strictly still on the WAW as it's further around on the coast of Northern Ireland). Folk tales abound to explain the mysteries of these weird rock formations that look like paving bricks placed uniformly on the shore but are really really thick, like giant toothpicks stuck in the ground. Created over 60 million years by volcanic eruptions and geologic activities or by the shenanigans of the giants Finn MacCool and Benandonner and Finn's wife Oonagh, depending on which story you want to believe :-) They were certainly worth the visit, and try to get on a ranger hike from the visitor centre as they are always a mine of useful (and useless but entertaining) information.

We eventually made it all the way around and back to Dublin for a few days R and R and then a ferry across to England. Bye bye Ireland.

Malin Head
Carrick-a-Rede bridge

Dunluce Castle
Ballintoy Harbour features as Pyke Harbour in Game of Thrones