South America Post 5 The Galapagos Islands

Leaving Cuba, we had a stopover in Bogota, Colombia where we sampled some traditional food and beer!

Then, off to the Galapagos Islands……. What can I say? Well, being me, lots, of course!!

Our desire to visit was mainly fuelled by awesome documentaries, and impossibly close up photos of unique birds and animals made famous by Charles Darwin among others. There are really just 2 ways to visit. Water based on a cruise, or land based. Anyone who knows me will know that, despite having the best travel sickness pills ever, 9 days on board a very small boat (many have just 8 or 10 small cabins), in notoriously rough seas, 24/7, is a step too far! Water based tours also start at about double the price of land based, so it was an easy choice. We chose a smaĺl, locally based company – Guiding Galapagos and together planned an itinerary mixing geography, local culture and of course wildlife.

We were based on 2 different islands, Santa Cruz and Isabela, a 2 hour high speed ferry ride apart. The ferries are somewhat cramped,

On transfer day we had 2 sudden tropical cloud bursts. One as we were going to the boat on Santa Cruz, and one as we arrived on Isabela island. Everyone, and their luggage, were drenched both times!

We were shown to our new hotel room as the staff were mopping up a large pool of water from the floor, smiling and saying “The rain sometimes comes in!!” Trying to dry our clothes was tricky in 80% humidity, and we were a bit fed up, until we saw this sign in the beach bar.

So true, and it put a few wet clothes back into perspective.

Our accommodation was in small locally run hotels, both clean and comfortable. On Isabela it was the Volcano hotel, almost on the beach, renowned for sunsets. It did not disappoint!

The Galapagos archipelago comprises 21 islands, mostly uninhabited, which straddle the equator, so tropical insects can be a problem. There were actually very few! Another invasion of minuscule ants in true Tom and Jerry style lines was passed off by our hosts with… ‘Don’t worry, they are not offensive’. Well, true, they weren’t hurling abuse at us, but we didn’t want them in our bags, so we used our Boots non deet eco friendly insect repellent at the entry point which seemed to deter them!! We also had the tiniest in room gecko on patrol. Spot the gecko!!

It is amazing how something so tiny can make so much noise!

The islands are in the Pacific Ocean, nearly 1000 km east of mainland Ecuador. They are heavily influenced by prevailing sea currents. The cold Humbolt current coming from Antarctica brings many fish, and this encourages the birds etc. El Nino years are disastrous here, because it prevents the cold current reaching the islands, so there are many less fish, birds cannot breed, and the food chain is in trouble.

There is no drinkable freshwater on Galapagos at all, which is probably why it was not really settled until the 19th Century, despite being ‘discovered’ in 1535. All water here is either bottled or purified.

Darwin came in 1835, and his observations that the animals and birds were unique, and appeared to have adapted and evolved according to their island environment, led to him proposing the theory of evolution, and writing The Origin of the Species. And the rest, as they say, is history!

The islands are now a National Park, full of wonders. Not always the most colourful or dramatic creatures on earth, but definitely unique. For example 15 species of little Darwin finches, each adapted to have a different food source and habitat to ensure survival. This is the nest of a cactus finch.

There are few natural predators here, so many creatures are fearless. We were standing within a few feet of many of the birds and animals we photographed.

The biggest predators were, and are, man himself and his introduced creatures… rats, dogs, cats etc. 35,000 people live on the islands, and balancing their needs with the protected National Park status is tricky and at times, controversial. For example local people are resentful that they are no longer allowed to fish from their own islands due to the protected status, so must pay high prices in the shops.

The wildlife are the stars. Giant tortoises are incredible.

He is eating apples!! Some live to be 150 years old. However they have a managed breeding programme, because in the wild less than 1% of eggs will reach maturity, mainly due to the predators I mentioned. Amazingly, eggs incubated at 28°C will be Male. 29.5°C, female!! Large Male tortoises can be 4ft long, weigh up to 350 kg, and walk several km a day!

The Galapagos islands are volcanic, and are moving eastwards by 5cms a year, as the Nazca plate drifts. Some Volcanoes are active. We climbed to the rim of Sierra Negra, the 2nd largest Caldera in the world. It erupted just last year, for 54 days, and fumaroles were smoking on our visit.

We visited 6 islands, using boats every day. Sea lions are everywhere, literally!!

We also did some hikes, and kayaking, with sea turtles popping up around us!

Amazingly, my vintage 1990’s swimsuits were worn almost every day, and I gradually became more adept at snorkelling. I jumped off the side of boats and RIBS, and paddled around in deep, open seawater, with big waves! I even swam around an island…. with a life jacket on! The fish were lovely.

but we also snorkelled with huge Sea Turtles, 1.5 m sharks, Rays, Sea lions, and even saw an incredibly well camouflaged Sea horse. It was fantastic.

This is a trench where sharks come to rest during the day!!

Some of the most astonishing creatures are the Iguanas. Living dinosaurs. Marine Iguanas blend in with the black lava rock, or grey stones.

They sleep a lot, often in bunches! They sound as if they are hissing at you, but in fact they must regularly sneeze out salt!

Land Iguanas are golden yellow. They frequently shed their skin, so look rather threadbare, but I thought they were stunning.

They have no predators as adults, but are prone to dehydration…. this one literally dried out in the heat. 30°C most days.

There are some gorgeous beaches – Tortuga and Bachas were our favourites, complete with fresh turtle tracks, and newly hatched eggs.

Crabs abound and are a food source for the super seabirds.

One of the most unlikely is the unique Galapagos penguin which has adapted to live, not in Antarctica, but on the equator!

There is also a Galapagos flamingo. Both sexes of bird have the amazing capability of producing milk to feed their young.

We never tired of watching Brown Pelicans, Blue footed Boobies, Noddies and Terns diving into the sea a few metres away.

On Isabela island, we visited Los Tuneles, an other world landscape of hollow marine lava tunnels and cacti!

There we encountered a female blue footed Booby a few feet from the path. She was singing for a mate.

Amazingly, a Male arrived and did his courtship dance right in front of us! It obviously wasn’t good enough, because she didn’t respond, so he flew away dejectedly (we assume!!).

The next day, this encounter was topped. North Seymour island is home to the Great and Magnificent Frigate birds. Last season’s young were everywhere, being fed by parents who regurgitate food for them.

It was breeding season. The males spend 2 hours inflating a huge red neck pouch, and boom with it to attract a mate. It is exhausting!

They were everywhere, and remarkably were within feet of us. Breathtaking!!

Our visit to Galapagos was wonderful. We had good food, (especially fish), met some lovely people from many countries (hardly any fellow Brits!), and were blown away by the wildlife. There were some quirky things… the in car phone for example!

I even managed to take a Turner-esque sunrise shot!

One word for Galapagos… Incredible!

South America Post 4 Cienfuegos, Trinidad and time to leave!

Our night was spent in Cienfuegos, a city in south central Cuba, founded by Fench families in the 18th Century. It has a beautiful waterfront, and on arrival we were taken on a slightly bumpy ‘bicycle made for 2’ taxi ride around the city.

The buildings in the centre are architecturally very different to the Spanish style in Havana, and although the city has many rather tired buildings, they are working hard here to attempt to restore the centre.

Many of the most stylish buildings are now Hotels or Clubs, which only tourists, or wealthy Cubans can afford. And that is the paradox here. It is a communist country, but we could see that there are some people making a lot of money here, while some of their countrymen are very very poor. Equal shares for all? I don’t think so.

We constantly observed shortages. In one town, there was no fuel, in another, no bread, in another no cooking oil.

We went into a supermarket in Cienfuegos. There were just 4 aisles. One aisle had just toilet paper. Another, rows and rows of tinned tomatoes, ketchup and a basic tomato sauce, plus some packets of beans. Another row was cereal and water. Another was locally made colas and pickles.

There was some very expensive meat in a freezer.. and a good selection of alcohol, which was surprisingly cheap. Suddenly we realise how we take the vast array of choice in our shops for granted. Speaking to some local people on the waterfront, they told us they buy most of their meat, cheese etc on the black market as it is cheaper and better.

Our accommodation, Casa Oriente, was lovely. The family made us so welcome and cooked us a gorgeous dinner of prawns with coconut.

The next day, after exploring the city with Tony, we headed for the hills! We had brought colouring pencils, shampoos and toothpastes from home which we gave out in the poorer mountain villages. People seemed so grateful it was embarrassing. We wished we had brought more. These things can be obtained here, but are expensive and poor quality, so people don’t. Toothpaste is £8 a tube, and a cheap toothbrush £6.

Our first stop was a beautiful waterfall, El Nicho, where a local guide led us on a walk explaining all the plants and birds. The air plants covering trees were particularly impressive!

And a weird lizard!

Then on to Trinidad, an old town that was so isolated that the first road to reach it didn’t arrive until 1953. Most of the streets are still cobbled. The architecture is amazing.

All 17th and 18th century. Very colourful, with huge windows that have floor to ceiling, ornate iron screens over them, which keep people out but let the breeze in.

The oldest buildings have wooden screens.

We loved it here, exploring the Cathedral and old family houses. The main square buzzes with music and people, and we joined the crowd, having a Mojito and a Daiquiri!

Wifi is mainly available in public squares like this. You must buy a Government card and use it to log on.

Our accommodation was in Hostal Gisela y Wilfredo. They were so friendly, and cooked us a super lobster dinner which we ate on their roof terrace, with our own salamanders keeping the bugs down!

Next morning, we visited a pottery, and sampled another Cuban rum based drink… La Canchanchara – at 10.30 am! This was necessary to relax our inhibitions enough for a 1 hour salsa lesson. Suffice it to say, thanks to our super teacher, we did well learning the steps, but the required wiggling and shimmying needs a lot of work! We won’t be on Strictly Come Dancing anytime soon!

An afternoon visit to the lovely beach at Playa Ancon was followed by watching the sunset from the roof terrace and a leisurely evening amble.

No supper, we are too full! Dominoes is widely played with a passion!

An early start for our return to Havana, via some old steam trains for Chris to play in

(Health and Safety is an unknown concept here!!), and an old sugar cane plantation village where we tried sugar cane juice. Then Santa Clara, an inland city which was a key victory in the Revolution.

The rebels had been moving westward. Santa Clara was their biggest objective. Che Guevara was leading this rebel group. Battista’s government sent an armoured train containing weapons and engineers to Santa Clara, to move east towards the rebels. Che’s men destroyed the railway line 1km east of the city. As the train moved east towards this point, rebels inside the city lifted the track there with a Caterpillar bulldozer! The train saw the track was gone and reversed back to reach the city, hitting the blockage and derailing. All were captured.Some carriages remain as a museum.

It was a huge victory and Che Guevara has Super hero status. A huge mausoleum and statue overlook the town.

Che was a socialist who grew unhappy with Russian communist influence in Cuba, and in 1965, left to go to fight with rebels in Bolivia, only to be killed there soon after. His body was found in the 1990s and brought to Cuba.

Finally, back to Havana for a night, before our flight tomorrow. Tonight we have an ‘in room gecko’ for mosi control.

A long walk, watching cruise ships arriving and departing. Tourism is the lifeblood of Cuba. It has felt very safe here. They need and love tourists, but if you come, please try and use locally run businesses rather than Government owned or international ones. We spoke to some people at a restaurant who told us that the Army control 70% of the tour companies here. Finally, a last Mojito at the Art Nouveau Hotel Inglaterra, soaking up the sights and sounds of this bustling, musical mixed up country.

Motorways can be empty…but full of potholes.

Our accommodation was always clean, but often with a 1960’s feel! Here is our guide Tony outside our Hostal in Trinidad.

Surprisingly, and thankfully, each one had air con! Everyone was friendly, the food was better than we expected, the buildings were a mix of ornate splendour, simple dwellings, and ghastly, Russian built blocks of flats.

I was tickled by the rows and rows of washing lines we saw, full of vibrant colourful clothes!

It sums up Cuba – vibrant and colourful!

(With our guide Tony, we have been trying to follow the news anxiously due to the Venezuela situation. Tony because the Cuban Government are asking people to sign a paper to say they support Venezuela’s current PM, and could potentially be called upon to fight there. Us as we fly to Ecuador via Colombia which seems to feature centrally in the USA’s aid plans!)

Post 10 The very last days…Home via Austria, Switzerland and France!

Into a less visited, but stunning part of Switzerland, Appenzell, we stopped at a free riverside aire just outside town, and walked in. I used to live in Switzerland, so loved hearing the Cowbells!

Lovely painted buildings, some updated with a modern twist.

Appenzell is one of the older Swiss cantons, and still practice democracy in the old fashioned way. Once a year, since 1403, the community gather in the square. A church service and lunch are followed by 3 hours of voting on local issues. Men vote by raising hands or swords, women with their hands. (It is a little known fact that women in Switzerland were not able to vote at all until 1971!) Photo not mine!

Their shops also sell an alarming array of potential souvenirs! Crossbow anyone!

A lovely, peaceful night, then we treated ourselves to a cable car up to Hoher Kasten, with stunning views at the junction of 4 countries – Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Liechtenstein (and a very strong wind!).

We had coffee in the revolving restaurant . Chris nearly lost his hat!!

We drove past Lake Constance. The opposite shore is Freidrickshafen where Zeppelin airships were, and still are made. We were lucky enough to see one flying over the lake. On to beautiful Stein am Rhein, with the most beautiful decorated houses we have seen.

Finally, to Neuhausen, to see the Rhine falls. Not the highest, or widest, but with a phenomenal amount of water pouring over them each day – up to 600 cubic metres per second in spring spate.

From here, we pressed on across Germany and into France, to spend the night at a lovely free aire near Colmar, next to a pretty grotto for Our Lady of Lourdes!

Next morning, we did a self guided tour of pretty Colmar. The many timbered houses are 15th century, coming from a time when this was a very successful merchant centre.

The church contains a rare 15th century artwork , which was stolen in 1972, and then ‘found’ in 1979! Not exactly portable!!

Ten minutes drive up the vine clad hills into the Vosges mountains is Kayserberg. Also worth a stop. More beautiful houses, and a ruined hill fort with great views.

Crossing the Vosges, looking lovely in Autumn colours, we drove to Champagne country, near Rheims, making a special detour to the Lac du Der. We have wanted to visit here for many years because it is where a rather remarkable bird event happens. Each autumn. Literally thousands of Eurasian Crane fly in here as a stop on their way south for the winter. We were a few weeks early for the larģe numbers… but maybe a few had come early? The huge lake was showing the devastating effect of the Long, dry summer. The water was a long way off. But… what was that… a long skein of birds flying in. Could it be…. yes it was! Crane! In all we were privileged to see about 200 birds before we had to continue our journey.

Arriving at Champagne country, we found a super free aire right next to the river at Mareuil sur Ay. Champagne houses were everywhere, and we awoke to the heady aroma of fermenting grapes…hic!

Our last day was spent doing a lovely walk along the river, doing a large shop at Super U, and visiting the Champagne house of Canard Duchene.

Very interesting it was too. When Chris discovered that Champagne making is quite akin to beer brewing, and 1 vine = 1 bottle, he started to rethink his home brew plans! We also learned that the bottles need to be turned every day. A good bottle turner can turn 40,000 per day! The cellars were built in 1868. They are miles long, and have 11 million bottles stored. In World War 1 and 2, their chateau was destroyed, but many of the cellars were bricked up, so they were never discovered. I cannot drink wine, so Chris enjoyed both glasses!

Then a drive up to Avion, near Lens, just 1 hour from Calais passing through the Canadian war cemetery there. Very poignant.

A super, peaceful, free aire again provided by the village, meant a good nights sleep. Then a 1 hour misty drive to Calais and our P&O ferry home – excellent value for £58 using the Caravan and Motorhome Club discount.

Now… can we make it home in time for the Pub Quiz?

What a fantastic trip this has been. 3,500 miles. We hope you have enjoyed reading it. I will update it soon to list campsites.

P.S We did make it home for the pub quiz… and we won!!

Post 9 Last days part 2 – Italy and Austria!

We like to ensure that our travel days are holidays as well, so we look for interesting things on, or near, our route. At the NE corner of the Adriatic, in Italy, we found 3 little gems.

Firstly, the Riserva naturale della Foce dell’Isonzo is a bird reserve where a 2km walk took us past summer breeding scrapes, and wetlands where wintering birds were starting to arrive. We have also never had such great views of snipe, and, bizarrely, Carmargue ponies!

Then, the drive to the pretty town of Grado, and across the causeway, waving a sad goodbye to the azure sea. The next seawater we encounter will be the colder, and greyer, English channel!

Just north of Grado is Aquileia! This was once the Roman regional capital, and main trading port, long before Venice existed. They are still uncovering ruins, revealing remains of a huge city. They are only ground level ruins, but a short walk revealed the site of the forum, and the vast remains of the Roman wharves, dock ramps and warehouses.

Best of all is the church, or Basilica, which was built in 1031 on the site of an early Romano christian church . Bishop Poppo, in 1031, had a red tiled floor laid over the original 4th century floor. That has been uncovered and is stunning! It is the largest paleo christian mosaic floor in the world. The detail is remarkable.

But look up too. The intricate wooden carved ceiling is 15th century!

The basilica had another treasure – the crypt of frescoes. More stunning wall and ceiling frescoes, painted in the 12th century, preserved because they are away from light.

Really worth a visit, and it set us up for our long journey north into Austria.

Being us, we don’t do things the easy way. We chose to go due north, taking the less used route over the beautiful Carnic Alps. Autumn colours were everywhere. Gorgeous.

Having reached Austria, we decided to take the route over the Gross Glockner pass, as it was a glorious day. Be warned. This is not for the faint hearted, nor a dodgy vehicle. You climb, and descend, steeply up to 9000 feet, with 38 hair pin bends! Just short of the highest point, Boris appeared to give a little hiccough. We had visions of spending the night up thete, but thankfully a few minutes rest to cool down and he was fine. Stunning, if bleak views from the top!

Then down to the glorious scenery of the lake at Zell am See, and the luxury of the Seeland campsite, which had a super restaurant – I had the best fresh trout I have ever eaten, while Chris went for a meatier option! Then the luxury of hot showers, with underfloor heating!

Next morning, we walked around the Lake to the town. Our amazing luck with the weather continues!

Zell am See is in the very traditional Tyrol, so no shops open on Sunday. St Hippolyte church was built in 1514, and is worth a visit.

Then we set off on our long drive through Austria to Switzerland. To use motorways and some other main roads you need a Vignette. Austria do a 10 day pass, costing 9 euros, for vehicles under 3.5tons, like Boris!

Beautiful scenery all the way.

Post 8 Last days….part 1!

Our last day in Croatia was spent on the Istrian peninsula, nearly at the top of the Adriatic sea. Colonised by the Romans, and Venetians, it has a rich heritage, and was part of Italy for many years, only regaining it’s Slavic identity after World War 2. There is a definite Italian feel to the architecture and cuisine here!

Many smaller Autostops for campers have closed by October so we stayed on 2 large coastal sites. Lovely waterside pitches, nice showers and facilities and quiet.. but our idea of hell in July and August with 500 crammed pitches, pool, entertainment and queues for showers! Also, many of them are more than double the price in high season. We count our blessings that we can travel out of season.

We have also had 3 weeks where temperatures have mainly been between 20 and 27 degrees C. Perfect. Others have told us it was up to 40 degs in summer and unbearable.

Our first visit was Pula for it’s remarkable roman heritage dotted throughout the town. The Hercules Gate, Temple of Alexandra and most impressively, the amphitheatre, all date from the 1st – 3rd century AD.

Don’t miss the little church and monastery of St Francis, with it’s 13th century cloister, and beautiful polyptych .

Then up the coast to Rovinj, a truly charming pedestrianised town and port, with a warren of alleyways, and waterside paths with lovely views of the sun setting over the sea.

We walked from our campsite, passing the fishing fleet. A merging of old and new. Sailors sat repairing their nets, next to brightly coloured stacks of plastic trays, giving an idea of the size of the expected catch.

The imposing church of Euphemia is at the highest point , and the atmosphere was made rather surreal by a guitarist outside singing ‘Wish you were here’, by Pink Floyd in a strong Croatian accent!

Inside, a nun was praying while her companion studied her phone!!

We found a tiny, local restaurant, Ulika, hidden away in the old town, and had a wonderful meal there as our farewell to Croatia.

Croatia – conclusions:

1. Beautiful coast and inland, but tourism is huge so areas are feeling quite commercialised, with the potential for Huge crowds. Personally, we would avoid between mid June and mid September, and seek out more remote spots and islands.

2. Quite expensive. No cheaper than UK and in some places more. Most churches and museums charge and entrance fee, only £2 or £3 pp but it quickly adds up.

3. We aren’t beach bods, but met quite a few people who were surprised that the majority of beaches are rocks and pebbles. Sandy ones are rare and get very busy!

4. We ate out a few times, and had to really hunt for non touristy menus. Lots of Pizza everywhere!

5. Island hopping was a lot more feasible with a camper than we thought, and fairly reasonably priced. Not every route takes vehicles. Get a good timetable!

Next, back into Slovenia for a day visiting their 47km coastline, especially beautiful Piran. We parked Boris in neighbouring Portoroz, by the old salt warehouses

and walked the 2km coastal promenade path to lovely Piran, passing this hostel on the way!!!

What a delightful town. Again, very Italianate architecture, with a lovely atmosphere.

Climb up to the Cathedral of St George to see a beautiful ceiling, and statues.

There was a square here, almost filled by its Bellini fountain, with an interesting guttering arrangement.

We had a coffee gazing out over the sparkling water, feeling sad to head inland and leave the clear blue Adriatic.

Inland for 2 last amazing Slovenian surprises. A tiny detour to the middle of nowhere brought us to the church of the Holy Trinity at Hrastovlje, fortified against the Ottomans. Inside are the most incredible, original frescoes, painted in 1490 to illustrate bible stories, morality and the cycle of the seasons to the population who couldn’t read.

The dance of death is the most famous section.

In the UK we have churches with fragments of original wall friezes, mostly plastered over thanks to Henry VIII . This is what our churches might have looked like. A blaze of colour! It was incredible.

Secondly, onto the caves at Skocjan. We have visited many cave systems, but can honestly say these were by far the most impressive. We visited 2km of cave, with huge chambers full of wonderful formations, but the thing that set this system apart was the river, thundering through far below us, still cutting down and illustrating how this amazing place was formed. At times, it had a Lord of the Rings quality!

No photos allowed inside, so these 3 aren’t mine! And yes, I did manage to walk across that bridge.. gulp!

We said a very sad Goodbye to Slovenia, which wins the prize as our favourite country on this trip. Wonderful in every way.

We crossed into Italy and wildcamped in a car park by the cliffs overlooking Trieste Bay.

A very multinational spot. 5 campers there, representing Italy, Austria, Germany, France and GB. Our exact route home!

Post 27 Deja Vu Dubai!

We arrived in Dubai at 7am (2am Japan time.) Excellent flight.. especially the incredible Japanese breakfast.

Chris stuck to croissants! In Dubai we were staying for 2 night’s in an Air BnB on the Palm belonging to Danna and Mike. Mike was our tour guide on day one, and we had booked another day with him to keep us awake! So we arrived at the apartment, did a quick change into shorts and set off, firstly to a bird watching area on the river, where there was a good variety of birds, including lots of flamingoes.

Then we headed to Abu Dhabi, another Emirate. En route we stopped at the Last exit services. Everything in Dubai must be different! This was a highway food stop with a difference. The main building, and all the food outlets were themed on Mad Max films. (Post apocalyptic fantasy which involved a lot of vehicle modification and cut throat survival!) It was eye opening!

The ladies washroom!!

Abu Dhabi is wealthier than Dubai, with more oil, and it was more elegant, with a less frenetic feel.

We first visited a heritage museum explaing how just 60 years ago this area was inhabited by fishermen and desert nomads!

A bit different now!

Then to the Emperor’s Palace Hotel.. originally built as a palace, and now one of the most beautiful deluxe hotels in the world. Real palm trees adorn the corridoors.. I’m wondering if there is room on the landing at home?!

We lived the life having “gold” coffee in the golden lounge! Sprinkled with 23 carat gold.

The skyscrapers are beautiful, and very individual. Apparently these 3 were used in a stunt in the film Fast and Furious!

The most glorious stop was the mosque. Built within the last 20 years, it was enormous, and astonishingly beautiful. Almost everything you see in the pictures is marble, including the inlays on the floor, walls and pillars, or glass. The chandeliers are huge and sparkle in the light. Breathtaking.

We ended the day with snacks at an ethiopian restaurant near the BnB!

Next day we explored alone using taxis and the metro. Uber worked well. We visited the falconry museum to discover the ancient use of falcons and the bond between man and bird. Alongside is the falcon souk, selling…. falcons! Along with every accessory you can imagine! They are highly prized and therefore well looked after.

Then back to the old town, and a snack at our favourite cafe from last time – The Arabian Tea House. Fab!

A walk through the souk,

then the metro to Ibn Batutta Mall where you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a different country, as each area is geographically themed!

Our day ended with a Middle Eastern buffet at Amaseena restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Awesome array of traditional food, with chef Rani to explain what each one contained and how it was cooked. Delicious.

Now we are at the airport, waiting for our flight home and wondering where the last 3 months has gone!!

Post 26 Last days in Japan

To reduce the driving the next day, we drove for an hour at night to a michi-no-eki that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere …what will we find when we wake up!… After a very cold night…around freezing we think, we awoke to find we were on a huge plain and next to a very wide river! Now off to the mountains! We chose a route that climbed up through the Kiso valley, following an ancient Shogun route from Tokyo to the plain. The area is known for its premium quality cypress trees. The cold climate means slow growth. They can take 100 years to reach maturity, but then the tree is tall, with dense, high quality timber. In the ‘olden’ days, this timber was reserved for high ranking persons… anyone else cutting down a tree was beheaded.. or for lopping a branch you lost a hand!

Part way up is a gorgeous village that has been preserved as it was. No TV masts etc!

We had a lovely walk here, and visited the old inn, which is still owned by the 25th generation of the family. A charming guide adopted us and took us from room to room explaining everything. The Emporer once came to visit for 30 minutes. They had a special high table built, with no nails, so that the Emporer would always be above everyone else.

Afterwards, the owner inscribed the table! He also had a toilet built specially for the Emporer… who never used it. So it has never been touched since!

She also explained the family seating positions around the fire. The children had the coldest, smokiest place, so that they could learn to cope with hardship and be ready to face anything in life. Guess who got the best place!!!

Then, we drove on, with tantalising views of the High Alps crowned with snow.

Our destination was Matsumoto and it’s beautiful castle, which would have towered proudly above the plain when it was built in….. The wooden construction of these castles is incredible, using wood like the cypress I mentioned before.

As dusk arrived, we sought out a small restaurant in the town, Kyobashi-soba, which served special soba noodle soup with additions on the side!

Chris hit the sake! Although we did find a brewery but it was closing!

Then 40 minutes drive to our next overnight. Brrrrrr. Really cold tonight. SO glad of the duvet!

Next morning dawned crisp and we headed south to the 5 lakes area. As we drove, gradually Mt Fuji came into view. Wow, it is such an impressive mountain, and we are apparently lucky to have seen it, as it is often shrouded in cloud.

On arrival, our first stop was to be a challenge.

As someone who never gets undressed in front of anyone, has a very modest swimsuit with a skirt, and has spent her whole life avoiding communal changing rooms, this was right out of my comfort zone… but I was determined to do it.

We visited an Onsen. A hot spring bath complex. These are plentiful in Japan, but this one was special. It had a number of different baths, and some of them had a great view of Mt Fuji.

All the baths are between 38 and 42 degrees C. Some are indoors, some outside.

Now here is the rub… Onsen etiquette is strict. Men and women are segregated. Shoes in locker. Then you are given towels. Into the communal changing room where you strip off. Completely! Not a swimsuit or anything allowed. Then you wander into a communal washroom where you sit on a wooden stool and wash yourself thoroughly. Now you are ready to go to the pools. Each one hold between 4 and 8 people. They are landscaped, with rock seats, waterfalls etc. You can wander freely (and did I mention nakedly) between them! It was lovely to see groups of elderly ladies nattering in one pool, two mums and their little daughters in another, 3 teenagers giggling in a third. And I did it. I visited 6 pools. Chatted to several people… mainly in sign language! … and forgot my modesty. Would I do it again? Yes I would! No photos allowed…thankfully!

Next we set off for a walk by Lake Saiko. Did I say ‘by’? I meant UP a big hill onto a high ridge with views of Mt Fuji.

That evening we stayed at a great michi-no-eki beside lake Kawaguchiko. A search for food led us to , a traditional restaurant in a 300 year old building where we sat on the floor and grilled our own food. Beef, duck, boar, whole fish, huge shrimp, quail, squid and veg! Then they appeared with a small vat of veg and noodle soup. Scrumptious.

Next morning Easter Sunday. We did a lovely walk along the lakeside to a shrine, and then drove on to Lake Yamanakako which, despite the haze, looked great with Mt Fuji in the background.

Great use for stepladders!

Another walk here, then onto Hakone. Crossing the mountains we left sunny and hit low cloud. This area is known for parquetry… woodworking to create beautiful multi coloured wooden items, including puzzle boxes.

Supper was in a tiny cafe which served a local version of KFC called Karaage!! Delicious chicken marinaded in soy and herbs, crumbed, cooked, then served with cream cheese, salad and soup! Delicious.

The ferry boats on the lake were rather ornate!

Our night was spent up in the clouds, literally. The Hakone michi-no-eki was at quite high altitude and the clouds came down to meet us!

Next morning…sunny. Our last day, and we needed to sort out our bags, clean and tidy the van, and do a 3 hour drive to return it. We had hit on a cunning plan. We almost passed our airport – Haneda – so we dropped off all our luggage in lockers there, before returning the camper to its base… the opposite side of Tokyo! Then we took the train, with just 1 bag to carry instead of 4… we decided to bring our lovely duvet home! Lightly laden, we were able to stop in central Tokyo, at Ueno park, which we had only seen in the pouring rain! What a difference! The cherry blossom was coming out, and the park was packed with pip up food stalls, and thousands of people picnicking under the cherry trees.

We indulged in Cherry blossom ice cream and explored the park, finding shrines and pagodas.

We also had a strange experience. Our one regret was that we had not been able to visit Hiroshima, and see the peace park. It was just too far south. While in Ueno park, we followed a path that initially didn’t look very interesting. Suddenly we were at a shrine, with a stone dove, enclosing a flame. I will let you read the inscription.

The Origin of the ‘Flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’

On August 6, 1945, US forces dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and another on Nagasaki on August 9 the same year, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in an instant. Even now, many survivors are still suffering from the damage.

Sometime later, Tatsuo Yamamoto went to Hiroshima in search of his uncle, and found a flame of the atomic bomb burning in the ruins of his uncle’s house. He brought it back to Hoshino-mura, his hometown in Fukuoka prefecture. He kept it burning in his house as a memento of his uncle and an expression of his resentment. But years went by, the meaning of the flame turned into a symbol of his desire for abolition of nuclear weapons and for peace. Hosino-mura village build a torch and transferred the flame to it on August 6, 1968. It has been keeping the flame ever since as the flame for peace, with the support of the villagers.

In 1990 it lit the flame here in this memorial and is kept burning.

We were very moved by this.

Leaving the park we caught the train and monorail to the airport. The queuing system was well organised!!

The airport had some interesting shops, and a cool zone with a giant scalectrix racetrack. So Chris and I played…and I won!

All the Mariokart training was worth it!! We found a great restaurant for our last meal in Japan. Turned out it was a Korean Bbq restaurant, which is ironic, because it was better than any meal we had in S Korea, except for the one in the Japanese restaurant!

Emirates don’t have a lounge here, so we could use the Japan Air one until our midnight flight. We were glad we had eaten, as the food choice was poor, but we took advantage of the showers! Shame they don’t have washing machines too! Now for our longest flight.. 11 hours to Dubai. Night night!

Post 25 Captivating Kyoto

Kyoto is a huge city…definitely not ideal for a camper, so we came in by train… the bullet train. A journey that takes 65 minutes using the local train, took 18! It was fast! And smooth.

We planned 2 days in Kyoto, and wanted to see as much as we could using public transport and our feet. We used 3 self guided walking tours which took us to hidden paths we would have missed. Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for over 1000 years, so not surprisingly there are many temples, shrines, castles etc. but they are quite far apart. This would be a challenge! Poor Chris! I get an adrenaline charge in busy cities… whereas I think after a while he would rather be in a field birdwatching!

The one or two day bus and subway passes are good value, but we also used the JR trains which were quick and comfortable.

Day one.

Exiting the station, the bus queues were huge, but efficient marshalling, and some squashing, meant we were soon on our way to stop one. From here we would walk through parks, and some of the oldest streets in Kyoto, still with wooden frames and paper screens.

The biggest treats were that it was warm and sunny, and the cherry blossom had erupted almost overnight. Glorious, but it meant everywhere was extra busy!

There were small temples everywhere, but we had our main goals. Firstly, overlooking the mountains, the amazing Kiyomizu-dera buddhist temple complex, first built in 763, but this renovation was from 1633. The colours were gorgeous, and the highlight is a huge temple, with a veranda hanging out over the side of the mountain.

Some renovation was in progress… we loved the bamboo scaffolding!

Then onto the impressive Chion-in temple complex with the largest gateway in Japan! The timbers were an incredible size.

Next to the lovely Shoren-in temple, with giant, ancient camphor trees guarding it’s entrance. The main hall had beautiful sliding screens with 16th and 17th century paintings.

Next a side step to Nanzenji Zen Temple, rebuilt 1570-1600. This was a lovely oasis with a pretty, zen garden, and gorgeous tiger screen paintings in the Hojo hall.

Now a walk along the 2 km Philosophers path, alongside a canal and lined with cherry blossom and spring shrubs. Gorgeous.

At the top of the hill, (every temple seemed to be at the top of hills …we will have climbed Everest by the end of this trip!), our final stop at Ginkakuji Zen Temple and dwelling house. High above the city, the garden winds it’s way up the hillside. We love the way the rooms are divided with sliding panels so they can be reconfigured in so many shapes and sizes. The 17th century screen paintings were beautiful but we couldn’t photograph them.

Onto a very busy bus to the town centre to find food! A recommended restaurant serving acclaimed Kobe beef wanted over £100 for a steak! Er… no thank you! So we found a great sushi restaurant with conveyer belt!

Then train back to our little camper before we do it all again tomorrow!

Day two, earlier start to try to beat the crowds. We were at our first shrine – Fushimi Inari Taisha – by 8.45. It was still busy!

This is a special place at the foot of Mt Inari. It has been a shrine to the guardian god of abundant rice crops and good business since 711. The shrine buildings are vermillion, the colour of our life force, and which can counteract spells. There are many statues of foxes, guardians of the rice harvest. Since ancient times, worshippers have built shrines up the mountain, and added Torils – huge red gates, so that now the Toril walkway stretches over a mile up the mountain… so up we went. Every one is inscribed with it’s donor and their wishes or thanksgiving message. It was quite moving to witness such belief.

Next, we found a tiny shrine to the frog spirit,

and then headed to the wonderful Nijo-jo castle, built in 1603 by the Shogun leader who unified Japan. It was also the place where the Shogun returned Japan to Imperial rule in 1867.

It was full of paintings, and special wooden Nightingale floors.. the nails squeak like birds singing when you walk. It is said that this was so that no-one could creep up on the Shogun unnoticed!

The ceilings were ornate.. themore decorative your ceiling, the higher your status!

The gardens were lovely and we had some great street food here – duck slices and Octopus balls!

Finally, a train to Arashiyama to see the impressive wooden bridge,

and the Tenryu-ji temple. We hardly left the train station when I foolishly pointed out a poster for a model railway exhibition! Quick diversion to see a very good layout of Kyoto, complete with bullet train… with one slightly bizarre addition!

Back on track, the Tenryuji temple is most famous for it’s garden, one of the oldest in Japan, laid out in the 14th century and little altered. It was gorgeous. The exit leads into an amazing bamboo forest, on an epic scale.

Finally, train back to Mairaba to collect the car. We needed to eat. Tripadvisor showed a cafe, so we headed down a dark street without much hope. Suddenly there it was. A small, very local restaurant! No English. They came and said ‘Sashimi tempura’. We nodded, unsure of what it would be like. It arrived, beautifully presented, tasted delicious and cost less than £10 each including tea and water… and an ice cream at the end. A perfect end to a great day!

PS ..you have to love a city that has cherry blossom handrails on it’s escalators!

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Post 24 Bimbling with Benji!

We collected our little Nissan campervan from Japan campers, named it Benji, and set off on our adventures. The first part involved crossing Tokyo! Luckily, once you learn the rules, most drivers here stick to them…except for speed limits, although these are very low at times.

Our plan is to try to see some quieter parts of Japan, as well as ‘must see’ sights.

There aren’t many campsites, but luckily Japan has a system of Michi no eki, roadside service stations which usually have good toilets and shops, and are free to stay overnight. In fact you see many Japanese couples and families doing just that…. sometimes in the back of quite small cars!

The cherry blossom season is much heralded here. Estimated start dates are published and vary massively from the warmer south, to much later in the north. We might just catch the start in Kyoto, our furthest point south.

We started by visiting….Ikea! We wanted a duvet and some little home comforts!

Then off to the Izo peninsula. There are some small tourist towns, but also some great scenery. We recommend the cliff walk and bridge at the Jogasaki coast, and the New York garden at one end of the walk.

Great strawberry ice cream!

Then we did the amazing 7 waterfalls walk inland from Kawazu. This involved driving an amazing double loop road up the mountain!

Find the main carpark by the tourist information, and get the bus to the top of the hill and walk back!

We crossed the peninsula to some small villages with great rock formations – Dogashima, and a lovely sunset.

Tripadvisor led us to a hidden, very local restaurant, where we had a sensational meal for £14 each, on gorgeous tree trunk slice tables!

A night by a small port, then off up the coast to catch a ferry across the bay from Toi to Shimizu. This cut off a big corner, and provided us with our first view of Mt Fuji. It is huge. Jawdropping!

Then a very long drive up into the mountains where we stop at Takayama with a preserved centre, showing wooden townhouses as they would have been in old Japan. Another great local restaurant where we cooked our own food!

It is cold up here. SO glad we bought the duvet.

Next day the sun is out. We visit the fabulous Hida-no-sato museum of authentic old village buildings rescued when a valley was flooded for a reservoir. Each building is set out with different village activities, and shows how the buildings are constructed.

Then onto 2 real villages, in situ. Shirakawa-go and, our favourite, Suganuma. The thatched roofed dwellings, called Gassho-Zukuri houses, are common here. The boards of straw are winter insulation.

Now onto the Noto peninsula at the North of Honshu. Some great walks at Ganmon rock, including tips on what every rocky shore hiker should be wearing.

Also an 8km stretch of drive-along beach (but the tide was in!), and a visit to the pretty fishing port of Wajima. Everything seemed closed! We eventually found a small restaurant but everything he served had gluten based noodles. The owner/chef was so sorry. ‘Wait a moment’ he said. He then phoned several restaurants, before beaming at us, leaving his restaurant(and customers), and walking us to an open restaurant on the next block!! That is so typical of the helpfulness here.

One other treasure here was Kiriko Kaikan, a museum of floats carried in local festivals. The photos do not convey their size and beauty. The largest are 20 metres high and take 150 people to carry them!

Finally we headed to see some terraced rice paddies at Senmaida.

They have been in use for hundreds of years, and enjoyed a late afternoon walk in this peaceful setting, knowing that directly across the sea is North Korea!!

Post 23 Tokyo, Japan and lots of food!

Japan. Population 129,000,000. Made up of 6,582 islands, but 4 main ones. The largest is Honshu where most major cities are located, including the capital Tokyo.

A land with a history of Shoguns, Samurai and Emperors, intermixed with bullet trains, and futuristic architecture and technology at every turn. I fell in Love with it in the toilets at the airport!! All mod cons. Spotlessly clean. Heated loo seat. Auto loo paper dispenser, Bottom washer, drier and even a music button to press to mask any embarrassing noises.

We knew weather would be potentially chilly here. It is freezing! Sadly our 2 days in Tokyo were accompanied by rain, and even snow flurries! It didn’t stop us enjoying our time here!

Tokyo was massively damaged by the massive Kanto earthquake in 1923, and again by US firebombing in WW2. An amazing, modern phoenix has risen from the ashes, with wonderful ancient buildings and parks interspersed between.

We arrived by train and negotiated the busy streets of Shinguku to find our hotel, Tokyustay. We knew the rooms would be small, but it was great. Small but perfectly formed…. AND it had a super bathroom with the high tech loo.

It took us a while to work this gadget out…it is a hairdrier!

We bought a 2 day metrocard for £8 each and set off to see as much as possible! (That shouldn’t surprise you by now!).

The metro is amazing. So many lines coded by letter and numbers. Each station can have 7 or 8 a entrances up to 1 mile apart so you can walk underground in heated spotlessly clean corridoors, often with nice restaurants and shops. Great when it is cold and rainy above.

First stop Asakusa , an area of temples, shrines and old style shops, giving a feel of what Tokyo would have been like. The Senso-ji temple was beautiful, as was the gateway, decorated with giant straw sandals!!

After this, we
decided a bowl of soup would be nice for lunch and popped into a Ramen bar. Wow…what a bowl of soup. Delicious.

After lunch we headed to the Imperial Palace gardens. The fortifications around the palace are huge. First built in the 15th century, double moats, massive walls and double gates at right angles to each other were designed to slow up invaders!
The Palace itself was closed as the Emperor still lives there! Sadly the cherry blossom is only just coming out. Next week will be great.

Finally back to the hotel and then out for some dinner and a look in the amazing shops. You can buy anything here… especially if it has a plug or a cable attached!

We ventured out to find a restaurant. Everywhere was full! Eventually we got the last 2 seats at a recommended Tempura bar. Wow! We watched the fish and vegetables being prepared and then dipped in the lightest of batter. Meals are served on trays with little accompanying dishes of Miso soup, pickles, rice, sauces.

Every mouthful was delicious. We already ♥ Japan!!

Next day it rained hard! We caught the metro and wandered around the huge fish market. It seems we were a bit late for the tuna!

Next a metro to Ueno, a huge park containing a lot of the National museums and art galleries. We spent a few hours in the main museum, marvelling at the beautiful artwork, costumes and scrolls, some over 1000 years old.

500 year old silk screen.

This funeral sculpture is ver 2000 years old.

This scroll is 600 years old and sets out laws buddhist monks should live by.

Samurai armour!

This embroidery is amazing.

It obviously rains a lot in Tokyo. Everyone has an umbrella, every shop and building has umbrella racks or umbrella bags for them, and the museum had 5 racks with numbered locks to put your brolly in and lock it up!

Finally down to Shibayo, the site of a famous 7 way crossing. We were there at a ‘quiet ‘ time. Hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people wait patiently for the green man, then all cross at once in different directions! Organised mayhem, but fun to watch!

In the evening we headed to Teppan baby, a rather lively local restaurant which specialised in Okonomiyaki… a cabbage, meat and egg pancake, with a choice of ‘extra’ toppings, cooked on a huge hot plate in front of you. Every time someone left the restaurant, all the chefs and waiting staff would shout the equivalent of Goodbye and Thank you, and bow! Great fun and yummy too!


Then back to pack, because tomorrow we collect our campervan… gulp!