Part 8 Dundee, Fife and Glasgow east!

Dundee is the 4th largest city in Scotland, and was always known for the 3 J’s.. Jam, Jute and Journalism. It has recently undergone a huge regeneration of it’s waterfront, culminating in the building of the striking V&A Scotland museum which opened last year.

Our main reason for visiting was to see Captain Scott’s Antarctic exploration ship the Discovery, which was built here and is now on display in it’s home port.

There is a wonderful exhibition about the construction and equipping of the ship, and the expedition itself. The hull was built of 5 layers of different timbers, filled the void with salt to absorb water, and had bridging struts to prevent crushing by pack ice. Provisions included 45 sheep.. many of which were lost overboard, and vast quantities of meats, bottled fruits and vegetables and cheese, to provide a balanced diet and try to prevent conditions like scurvy, but they could not last for the nearly 3 years that the trip took!

The purpose of the voyage was as a scientific exploration of uncharted territory, so scientists and research equipment were all on board, covering geology, botany, zoology, cartography, physics and engineering.

Many of their findings are in use today. The ship itself was remarkable. Solid, with beautifully polished woodwork, and giving a real sense of life onboard.

But nothing could simulate the privations of their stay in Antarctica, at -60 degrees and eating seabirds! Devilled skua was one recipe.. apparently it tasted like devilled rotten fish!

Next door, the V&A’s architecture is supposed to echo the rugged Fife coast. Inside we visited a fascinating exhibition on how videogames are conceptualised and created, plus the problems they can cause.

We were surprised, and impressed, at the amount, and quality of ‘real’ drawing that occurs before the computer graphic stage.

Some games used full orchestra and choirs to record the backing music! The permanent Scottish gallery celebrates all aspects of Scottish design. Highlights for us were the Rennie Mackintosh oak room, an exhibition on the Beano.. DC Thomson publishers are based here, and the last tiara Cartier ever made, which was commissioned here, and contains over 25,000 diamonds.

The Scottish fashion exhibit had a lovely line in 1960’s skiwear!

To avoid city centre parking problems, we had earlier driven across the long Tay bridge, with the lovely views… including of more oil platforms in for maintenance!

We then caught the local train into and out of Dundee from Leuchars, crossing the railway bridge, under which you can see the stone stumps of the first rail bridge which collapsed in 1879 in a storm, killing everyone aboard the train that plunged into the river. A sobering thought. Back to Boris and we drive out to the Fife coast at St Andrew’s. This is the land of sand dunes and many, many golf courses, including the Holy Grail of Golfers, St Andrew’s itself.

The quaint town now has golfing hotels, and golfing apparel shops everywhere. On its south side are the remains of a magnificent 12th century Abbey, and castle, reminding us that St Andrew’s was here long before the first Mashie Niblick!

How has that tower stayed up for 800 years?! Of course, St Andrew’s recently had another claim to fame, and they are not shy about exploiting it!

Next, down the coast to Cambo Sands and our free car park for the night, again with a stunning sea view and the chance of an evening walk on the beach.

Next morning, a 6 mile walk along the lovely shore, and a pretty stream, watching birds and doing our usual beach clean as we go.

On the whole the beaches are pretty good, but we just pick up any plastic, ropes or litter that we see as a matter of course now. Something we can all do whenever we walk along a beach.

Fife is famous for it’s charming fishing villages, and we drove through Crail, Anstruther, St Monans and Elie

before turning inland to visit Loch Kilconquhar and then Loch Leven, a lovely RSPB reserve where we picked up 3 new birds for our species list, bringing our trip total to 99 different species in Scotland. We cannot leave without the elusive 100th! We also had traumatic ‘nature in the raw’ experience. I took this photo of a black headed gull chick on an island nest with it’s parent birds.

Seconds later, a greater black backed gull dived down and snatched the chick. Adult bh gulls mobbed it, but it got away. A sad Springwatch type moment!

We then started our drive across the more built up areas of central Scotland, until we reached the incredible Kelpie sculpture near Falkirk. Two enormous heads of Kelpies, mythical horses, that represent endurance and strength. They are 30 metres tall and stand by a turning pool on the Union canal. We could spend the night here on the lower car park for £5, which we did so that we could walk to see the Kelpies at night. However, being Scotland and mid June, it wasn’t dark enough until after 11pm! It was worth it though.

They gradually change colour, but my favourite shot is this one, with Chris standing next to one to really show the size and majesty of the Kelpies.

From here next morning, it was just 10 minutes drive to the Falkirk wheel. Scotland’s canal network was built 200 years ago as a major transport network for it’s burgeoning industrial output. The two main canals, the Union, and the Forth and Clyde canal, were linked here by a series of locks. The coming of the rail network, and road haulage meant canals fell out of use and were abandoned. Three blocks of flats were built on the site of the locks. In the 1990’s, interest in canals was renewed and a huge restoration project was begun. They no longer had locks, so they looked for ways to link the 2 canals, finally accepting this superb design from a team led by Tony Kettle.

This is the worlds only rotating boat lift, and has been a huge success both as a functioning boat lift and a tourist attraction.

After our boat ride on the lift, we drove to Uddingston, a leafy Glasgow suburb, and caught the train into Bridgeton, in the east end of the city, to meet Margaret, a dear friend from many years ago.

We had a super afternoon catching up, and visiting some fascinating places in a part of Glasgow off the main tourist trail. They certainly have a jazzy taste in cars!

Margaret works in the Glasgow Women’s library, which evolved from a small project set up in 1990, during Glasgow’s year as European City of culture. It has moved into a beautiful old library building, and is dedicated to women’s lives, histories and achievements, plus hosting workshops, literacy classes, history walks and many other activities for the community. Amongst their treasures is this beautiful umbrella stand, painted by suffragettes imprisoned in jail in Glasgow.

They also have an art space, and were recently chosen by the National Gallery to display a newly acquired painting. A self portrait of the little known but highly regarded, female renaissance artist, Artemesia Gentileschi.

Her story is remarkable. Her father was an artist, and recognised his daughter’s talent. He hired a tutor, who raped Artemesia and was put on trial! However Artemesia was subjected to gruelling questioning and physical torture during the trial that ensued, although finally, and very unusually for the time, he was eventually convicted. She rose to fame in Florence and Naples as an excellent artist.

Walking in the local area we visited the People’s Palace, built in 1898 as a museum of people, and daily life in Glasgow from the 1750s.

Behind it are the glass Winter gardens, currently closed, and in front, the Doulton fountain. The largest terracotta fountain in the world, it was the centrepiece of the Glasgow Great Exhibition in 1888. Some fascinating museum displays, reflecting both Glasgow’s heyday as 2nd city in the Empire, and the extreme poverty experienced here. Pictures of ‘Steamies’, tile clad communal laundries, were given extra meaning when we walked across Glasgow Green and saw the metal poles that would once have been connected by lines for people to hang their washing on, after visiting the steamie!

The most dramatic building was a huge, ornate, tile hung facade resembling the Doges palace in Venice.

However, it was Templeton’s carpet factory, built this way in 1888 to appease local residents who didn’t want an ugly factory in their midst! Templetons created Axminster carpets that graced Royal Palaces and cruise liners…including the Titanic!

It now houses a brewery and restaurant, where we had an early supper before saying our goodbyes after a lovely afternoon, and heading south to Girvan on the Dumfiries coast… coming full circle as we again had a view of Arran and Ailsa Craig from our car park stop!

Possibly our last night in Scotland, and our last being lulled to sleep by the waves.

Our last day in Scotland, so we drove around the beautiful coast of Dumfries and Galloway to RSPB Mersehead where we saw Sand Martin to take our total to over 100 in Scotland. Yippee! We also saw Roe deer!

Then to beautiful Rockcliffe and a wonderful, if hilly walk along the coast where we had not one, but two wonderful wildlife experiences. Firstly, Peregrine Falcons, nesting on the cliffs,

and secondly, a first for both of us, two young badgers rooting in the grass on the hillside!

Scotland was really saying goodbye to us in style!

We headed towards Gretna Green and the M6. After nearly 25 days of virtually hold up free motoring, the first thing we saw was a road works sign!!

Part 4 Mountains!

Our objectives for our trip to Scotland were threefold. 1. To attempt a trip with no forward planning at all. 2. In the face of a fairly poor long range weather forecast, to try to dodge the rain as much as possible, and 3. To visit places in Scotland that neither of us had been to before. So, with our route starting to look as though a fly had stood in the ink, and was wandering around the page, it was time to head east again!

Our first stop was Inverary castle, delightfully situated near the head of Loch Fyne. The current castle was started in 1746 to a design by Vanburgh, and was easily the most beautiful one we had seen.

Home to the Duke of Argyll and his young family, it really felt like a loved and lived in home, albeit a very grand one! The main state rooms were stunning, especially the walls and ceilings, which were all original, and so pretty.

Even the weaponry was stylishly arranged!

Outside, the gardens were so well cared for, and again, we had arrived at peak Rhododendron time.

Leaving here, we had picked a nice looking route which headed southeast along the side of Loch Long, thinking we would stop for a late lunch picnic somewhere with a nice view. We were puzzled that there was not one parking place along it’s whole length, but the reason became clear when we reached a small port with MOD fencing around it. A Google search revealed it was the nuclear warhead storage and loading Bay for our nuclear subs!! We didn’t stop to take photos!

A few miles further on and we were passing Faslane our Submarine base proper, closely followed by a tiny cluster of multi coloured graffiti caravans, a peace camp. Our objective was Dumbarton, where there was a museum of shipbuilding. It was all that remained of the shipyards of William Denny, ship designers and builders since the 1800’s. They built the Cutty Sark, and many paddle steamers, ferries frigates and even hovercraft. At the heart of this museum was the 100 metre long testing tank, and some of the beautiful models that were built for testing on it, prior to being created in full size.

We had read that wild camping near Loch Lomond was very difficult, and required the purchase of a permit, and so were rather surprised to find the we could stop free of charge at the car park of the Duncan Mills Memorial railway, adjacent to the Loch Lomond steamship, the Lady of the Lake, which is being restored.

A nice evening walk along the lakeshore was followed by a sound night’s sleep.

Next day we skipped Conik hill as it was hidden in low cloud, and headed for Dukes Pass and the slightly off road Forest Drive, a pretty 7 mile track which passes several lochs. We stopped and did some walks, but were surprised at the scarcity of bird life here.

Then on to lovely Loch Katrine where we had a very enjoyable trip on the 100 year old steam ship, Sir Walter Scott, built at Denny shipyard!

This tiny boat was also steam powered!

We also visited Loch Awe, Brig o’Turk and Loch Venachar before heading to our first campsite for 6 days, the excellent Blair Drummond walled site. It enabled us to get laundry done and catch up with all the housekeeping, as well as visit it’s nearby castle.

Castle Doune is a striking building which is remarkably intact considering it was built in 1380.

This was the huge kitchen fireplace, and these were the marks where they sharpened knives!

Run by historic Scotland, it has a truly excellent, and very amusing, audio guide narrated by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, for this is the castle that featured in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The historical guide was interspersed with audio clips from the film, and it was fun to see visitors split between those who were grinning, or even giggling as they listened intently, and those who just looked baffled… mainly the many foreign visitors. It was my favourite castle of the trip so far!

Next day we turned North and headed for the Cairngorm mountains, stopping at Scone Palace on the way. Again HHA, so free admission, and another excellent and fascinating visit.

Home to the Murray clan, it sets out the history of the family, including their role in the abolition of slavery, but more importantly tells the tale of how, since 840AD, all the Kings of Scotland were crowned here on the Moot Hill mound.

At each coronation all the visiting nobles brought soil from their home and emptied it onto the mound, so it was as if the King was crowned on the soil of all his kingdom. They sat on the stone of Scone, until King Edward pinched it in 1296 and took it to London. In 1996 it was returned to the new Scottish parliament in Edinburgh. The gardens were again beautiful, and contained a lovely laburnum arch.

There was another maze, with an interesting centrepiece

and some peacocks, including a very unusual white one.

We resumed our journey north, stopping at Blairgowrie for provisions, and then driving up into the mountains to Braemar, where we turned on down a minor road to the Lin of Dee. This spot is where the river is squeezed through a small gorge.

It is also the start of a gorgeous walk following the river upstream and onto the moors. We hardly saw a soul!

Now onto our poshest wild camp. Her Majesty kindly makes spaces available for motorhomes to stop free of charge on her car park at Balmoral! Thank you ma’am.

Next day was devoted to walks.. firstly at the Muir of Dinnett, a National Nature Reserve with 2 excellent walks. A 3.5 mile walk passing Loch Dinnett where we saw Red Kite, Goldeneye ducks with chicks, and Oystercatcher and Lapwing nesting in the fields.

On the hill was a beautiful Pictish stone, over 1000 years old.

Then a second walk to Burn o’vat, a beautiful waterfall hidden in an almost circular cauldron carved out by water and swirling rocks.

Access was through a slippery, wet scramble, but the atmosphere inside was quite magical.

We then drove through Ballater, where the proximity to Balmoral is evidenced by the shops proudly displaying the Royal crests.

Then, down a narrow lane to the Glen of Muick (pronounced Mick). This isolated valley is wild Cairngorms at it’s best.

The waterside fields were full of ground nesting birds, including the elusive Black Grouse, a first for us both.

The biggest treat was the arrival of a herd of Red deer.

They were fairly tolerant of humans, and demonstrated that 4 feet is really not high enough for a deer fence, by jumping over it!!

As we left, the sun came out, so we decided to drive north across the snow road high in the Cairngorms, past Lecht ski area. The top was Windy, wild and wonderful!

We thought we might have spotted a Golden Eagle circle high above a mountain top, bit it never came close enough to confirm.

We descended to the Spey valley, and to a wildcamp on the riverside, adjacent to a fishing area. Fishermen came and went, all casting repeatedly in their quest to catch Salmon which were returning and heading upstream. An idyllic setting and a quiet night!

A proper Bimble with Boris.. to Scotland Part 1. Heading north!

So, we are on a proper Bimble WITH Boris! I wasn’t planning to write a blog, but 2 different people today asked “Where is the blog?”, so here it is! In big chunks!!

‘To bimble’ means to wander, and we set off from home with nothing booked at all except supper and a pub quiz with Peter and Tracy in Bracknell! Our goal was to head north for Scotland, but with unsettled weather ahead, our itinerary would be flexible to try to chase the sun. Or the bright days. Or even the drier days. Or even the days with a few gaps in the rain!

During an uneventful drive up the M1 and A1, it was decided that our first stop would be Northumberland.

We never seem to make it past this beautiful area without stopping for a few days. Plus the weather there was lovely… less so further north. Having had a few problems with Boris prior to leaving, we wanted the first few nights on campsites just to check everything was ok.

Now winging it is great fun… but this was late May Bank holiday weekend, and the start of school half term… how would we fare getting a pitch?

All the big sites were full or, understandably, wanted a minimum stay of 3 nights. However, we were very lucky and had 1 night at Pippin’s Park, a 5 pitch Caravan and Motorhome club certificated site in a great location about a mile from our favourite place, Low Newton.

Or do I mean our favourite pub… the Ship Inn, with it’s own microbrewery. The pub was fully booked, but Chris’ soulful expression meant they squeezed us in for a fabulous dinner, followed by a glorious evening walk along the cliffs.

The best night’s sleep I have had in ages was followed by a visit to 600 year old Alnwick castle.. a place we had never visited before. Our HHA membership gave us free admission! A true castle residence, it is home to the Percy family, the 12th Duke of Northumberland. We took the free guided tours, and each one was fascinating.

Today’s top trivia… Harry Hotspur was Henry Percy, 5th Earl of Northumberland. He was a medieval superstar on the battlefield, and got his nickname because he rode into battle so fast his spurs got hot!

When a certain football club was formed in 1882, Harry’s attacking spirit saw the north London Tottenham side adopt the term Hotspur in their name.

Alnwick castle has also been used extensively in films and TV, most notably as Hogwarts in Harry Potter… Chris wouldn’t let me have broomstick lessons which were on offer… he said I didn’t need them…..!!

It was also used in series one of Blackadder… no coincidence that Blackadder’s hapless friend was Lord Percy?!

Downton Abbey, Transformers, Robin hood Prince of Thieves… the list goes on.

Next stop was the amazing, huge, Barter bookshop in Alnwick. This is the largest secondhand bookshop in Europe. It is converted from the old railway station, and, much to Chris’ delight, had model railways running round above the shelves!

Not only great books, but a super little cafe, armchairs and open fires means this great spot is busy all the time, and yes, you can take in your old books and barter for replacements! Another claim to fame is that, in a box of books bought at auction, the owner found the original wartime KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON poster that has since been reproduced in thousands of formats!. The original is on display in the shop!!

We had managed to get 2 nights on the Glororum caravan park, a mile from Bamburgh, so after checking in, we caught a bus to Budle Bay, and did the wonderful coast path walk back to Bamburgh.

The castle towered ahead of us, with amazing carpets of pink campion all around.

Next day, and we had booked a boat trip with Billy Shiels from Seahouses, to travel out to the Farne Islands just offshore. We have done this trip several times before, but each time it is sensational. The Farnes are home to literally thousands of breeding seabirds. Even if you are not keen birdwatchers, you cannot fail to be amazed at the spectacle. We sailed past cliffs where every inch of space was occupied by a nest precariously perched on a minute ledge. Their eggs have pointy ends so they roll in a circle and dont fall out!!

Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwake and Shag jostle for space, and fill the skies and the water.

Then, there are the seals… huge and imperious, resting on land, then slipping into the sea and gliding past like rockets!

Finally, the trip lands on Inner Farne, where Arctic tern are nesting everywhere, even on the footpath, and protective parents fly up and pack at the heads of passers by.

Past experience means a) We were a hat. b) the hat was lined with cardboard!! Very effective peck protection. The stars of the show are always the puffins, and standing feet away from these stunning birds is such a privilege. I even managed a photo of one with sand eels in it’s beak!!

On our way back in the boat we were thrilled with what we had seen, when suddenly the captain asked if perhaps seeing some dolphins might be nice! Suddenly a pod of 5 were alongside us, racing the boat. What a brilliant end to the trip.

Our last day in England (!), we visited Bamburgh castle, again free with HHA.

More austere than Alnwick, it is owned by the youngest generation of the Armstrong family, although they no longer live there. Essentially a Victorian reconstruction, on an ancient castle site, pretending to be an ancient castle!

For us, the most fascinating part of the visit was learning about the first Lord Armstrong. He was an amazing inventor and pioneering industrialist.

He built Newcastle’s Swing Bridge and the hydraulic mechanism that operates London’s Tower Bridge. He created Cragside in Northumberland, the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity. He was the Armstrong in Armstrong Siddeley and Armstrong Whitworth, and was involved in designing aircraft, cars and ships.

He was also a great philanthropist, and this role is carried on today.

Leaving Bamburgh, we drove north, crossing the border into Scotland and driving to St Abbs Head.

We then hiked the 5 mile circuit along the beautiful cliffs, again watching colonies of seabirds. There were a lot of ups and downs, and we were walking into a very strong headwind, so by the end we felt as if we had done at least 10, albeit very exhilarating, miles!

The weather on the east coast was deteriorating, so we decided to head inland and find some indoor pursuits for the next day. Filling up with fuel, we realised we were definitely in Scotland!

We drove to Dryburgh and found a super spot to wildcamp… a tiny, hidden car park near a huge statue of William Wallace. Not a sound all night!! Fantastic.

South America Post 16 – Perfect Peru 4, Lima and Farewell.

Our last night in South America was spent in Lima, a huge city of over 10 million people. We had heard conflicting reports, from “Don’t go there”, to “You will love it”. Certainly, it is a troubled city. Like Rio and B.A, it has large shanty towns which are trouble hotspots, exacerbated by Peru opening it’s doors to Venezuelan refugees, and admitting over a million, with, apparently, no background checks at all, so most people we spoke to, feel that a large criminal element have entered as well.

I had found a small B&B in Barranco, a safe coastal part of Lima, famed for it’s architecture, and artistic background.

The B&B was called Second Home, and was exactly that, the second home and studio of artist Victor Delfin. He had sadly died a few years ago, but his wife still lives there. The building is full of his very distinctive artwork, and we were also to find some in Lima the following day.

Our room was lovely, with a view of the Pacific Ocean. Looking along the coast, we decided Lima is very like Bournemouth! Both set on cliffs, with deep Chines cutting down to the sea at intervals, and even a pier!!

Next day we had booked a 1 day tour of Lima before our transfer to the airport, with Peruvian Local friend, Cindy. She was remarkable. So enthusiastic and knowledgeable about her city. We saw Miraflores, full of early 20th century, European summer houses,

and the famous Garden of Love, with Gaudi style walls, and a Victor Delfin statue.

A festival of Love is held each year, with a competition for the longest kiss. 45 minutes is the record! Then onto the Olive park, planted as an oil crop by the Spanish, where some trees are over 300 years old.

Most remarkably, in the heart of the city, are the remains of some huge pyramids, Huaca Pucllana and Huallamarca, built by the Wari people around 500 AD. Built wholly in mud (adobe) bricks, they were solid inside, with a flat top, and were not burial chambers, but probably for meetings, rituals and sacrifices.

The largest would have covered 15 acres! They could be made of mud because they hardly ever get rain here. Also, mud is flexible if earthquakes strike. Lima is the second driest capital in the world, after Cairo. Water shortages are common, and over 10% of the city is not connected to running water. 20% of the city is classed as shanty town.

Then we headed downtown to the old heart of Lima, which was a wonderful surprise of elegant plazas and beautiful colonial buildings.

Founded by Spanish Conquistador, Pisarro in 1535, This city was the most important in South America for many years, controlling trade and Government in all the other conquered countries.

One week previously, the Government had made the central square, Plaza des Armas, pedestrianised, so it was even quite peaceful.

The fountain is very famous. Throughout the trip we have drunk many Pisco sours, based on the grape brandy Pisco. In July, peruvians celebrate Pisco day, when the fountain runs, not with water, but Pisco, and people queue for a free drink!

Government house reminded us of Buckingham Palace… and then we were told they have Changing of the guard each day!

The other main square is Plaza San Martin, named after Jose San Martin, who liberated them from Spanish rule in 1824.

Many of the old houses in Lima were famous for their beautiful wooden balconies.

We also visited the ornate church of Las Nazarenas,

and the Santo Domingo convent, which is where this first University of Lima was founded.

The convents all had beautiful ancient libraries.

This dais is where students had to read out 3 hour, prepared dissertations to their examiners!

The cloisters were beautiful, with original Spanish tiles dating from 1606.

Our next visit was to a the oldest private house in Lima, which has been lived in by the Aliaga family since 1535. It is a living museum, and was beautiful.

Much of the wall covering, and chair backs, was tooled leather.

We visited the old railway station,

and an old hotel bar, with Spanish wall paintings, photos of old Lima, and a barman who has worked there for over 70 years!

The final highlight was the church and monastery San Francisco, with it’s moorish influenced architecture.

It is most famous for the catacombs. Their construction is so strong, that they are a designated earthquake shelter. Tens of thousands of people are buried here, and the bones are all grouped in rather weird ways!! This intricate pattern is in a huge well, and is composed of femurs and skulls!

Despite this rather macabre spot, we loved Lima, and our guide Cindy said she has seen many improvements here during her lifetime.

We knew that in the 70s 80s and 90s Peru was in the dark period of attacks from its rebel Shining Path terrorist, communist party. However we didn’t realise that tourism in Peru did not really get going again until 2007, so is relatively new.

Sadly, now it was time to head to the airport for our flight home, ending this amazing trip.

We know we are so lucky to have been able to explore this captivating and diverse continent. On the flight home we discussed our overall impressions.

Everyone we met was friendly, helpful, proud of their country, and interested in us. We never felt unsafe.

No upset tummies or nasty insect bites!

We met very few other British people, suggesting it is not a mainstream destination for us, which is a shame.

Most countries were similar in price to home for food, accommodation etc.

Travelling was easier than we expected, and food was great however there is immense poverty, and a huge divide in living conditions etc.

Corruption seems to be rife at all levels in society, from Governments downwards.

Women often seemed to work ridiculously hard, but are a long way from having equality in financial remuneration or status.

Despite the vast size and diversity of the continent, we felt we witnessed more similarities than differences between countries!

We covered 29,358 miles and enjoyed everywhere we visited.

We have tried to pick some favourites because that it what everyone asks us, but it is so difficult.

Favourite countries?

Chris: Chile, Ecuador

Anne: Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Cuba, Bolivia… all of them really!

Best overall moments?

Chris: Cape Horn; Under Iguasu Falls in a rib; Machu Pichu; Cloud forest rare birds; Perito Moreno glacier;

Anne: Seeing Machu Pichu from above; Cape Horn in Force 10; Snorkelling with sea lions and sea turtles; The colour, noise and vivacity of Cuba; The remoteness and solitude of Tierra del Fuego/Patagonia.

Favourite Wildlife experience?

Chris: Swimming with sea turtles, Galapagos

Anne: Frigate birds, Galapagos

Favourite scenery experience?

Chris: Iguasu falls, Glacier Alley

Anne: Perito Moreno Glacier,

Where would you most like to go back to?

Chris: Chile

Anne: Argentina and Bolivia

Thank you for reading our diary, and we hope you have enjoyed coming along with us on our trip.

We would recommend any of these countries for a visit, just use common sense, and please, use local tour companies, guides, accommodation and transport whenever you can, so the local community benefit from your visit. See you next time! XX

South America Post 11 To the End of the Word

A flurry of posts because of 5 days without wifi, and no chance to upload pictures!From Buenos Aires we flew via Santiago, to Punta Arenas, at the southernmost part of mainland Chile. On the flight we got great views of the Chilean Volcanoes.

Out came the thermals, hats and gloves we had lugged with us!

We had an overnight stay here in a charming air bnb, prior to boarding the Stella Australis ship for our 4 day expedition through the Patagonian and Tierra del Fuego fjords, known locally as the End of the World. It certainly felt like it!

We thought of Punta Arenas as ‘just a stopover’, but we were very wrong! It is a really remote frontier town, with many low, functional buildings designed to withstand ferocious winter winds and cold. However it has some real hidden gems! Two museums display the history of the region, from the original tribes through it’s many roles in the fishing industry, security, oil and gas exploration and even a gold rush.

Today, tourism is a vital component of the economy, and the population is growing! Just outside town is an amazing museum, the Nao Victoria. In a hidden shipyard, dedicated carpenters work on ship reconstructions, all carefully reproduced in 1:1 scale, and related to this part of the world. Their star is the Victoria, Magellans ship on which he discovered the Straits of Magellan in 1520 and on whose shoreline we were standing. At 350 miles long, this was a sheltered shortcut avoiding notorious Cape Horn.

Beware of Spanish soldiers…

Then they have reconstructed the Beagle, captained by Fitzroy, who discovered the Beagle channel in 1830, and who later brought Charles Darwin here, a nice link with our Galapagos visit.

Finally the little lifeboat, the James Caird, which, against impossible odds, carried Shackleton safely from Elephant Island across the worst seas in the world to South Georgia. There he arranged rescue for the men he had to leave behind, 24 months after they set sail for Antarctica.

Their rescue ship, the Ancud, is also reproduced here.

Walking in town, a real highlight is the beautiful wall art.

And did we mention the food? We ate at La Yegua Loca, a newish restaurant highlighting local produce. It was wonderful, and we were grateful for the log burning stoves!!

Then, on Sunday lunchtime everything was closed, until we stumbled upon the Parilla los Ganaderos, or Grill of the Gauchos, full of local families. It was fabulous, and we sat next to the traditional bbq where whole lambs are cooked vertically around the flames.

Next, to our ship, a 100 cabin expedition ship.

We were excited and apprehensive at the same time. Weather forecast was poor, and we were stuck in a sardine tin with lots of other people for 4 days!

We needn’t have worried. Our cabin, and all the public rooms were lovely, and then we were greeted with cocktails and canapes for our briefing!

We would sail through the southern most routes of the continent; the Straits of Magellen and the Beagle channel, into fjords and out into the Pacific.

This was an expedition, not a cruise, so no long dresses were required.. much to Chris’ relief!! However the food seemed worthy of a much grander trip, with three delicious meals a day, and a constantly available buffet of cakes, biscuits, tea coffee.

Oh.. and the fully inclusive bar where I discovered the Pisco Sours and Calafate Sours! We were lucky to share our table with Meghan and Scott from New York. A young couple on their belated honeymoon! They were married last year, and it turned out we had the same Wedding Anniversary. They were delightful, and much fun was had.

Most staff were Chilean, and so friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. Each day was a combination of interesting talks, and trips in the Zodiac ribs.

Our route is shown on this map.

After leaving port, we saw just one other ship, and 2 buildings in 4 days! This is a wild and remote place. A hostile environment in which to survive, due to extreme cold, bitter, strong, unpredictable winds, and precipitation. Vegetation struggles too, and wildlife is limited to sea birds, seals, some fish and a few mammals. However there is evidence that early tribes settled here up to 10,000 years ago. Needless to say the Spanish, British and others tried to ‘civilise’ the tribes, but diseases like smallpox, and persecution almost wiped them out. The Yamaga tribe were most remarkable. Each family lived in an open canoe, with a fire in it which the children kept alight. They were no clothes at all, even in winter with temperatures of -25, using seal fat on their skin to keep warm!

Our first excursion was to Ainsworth Bay which provided a stunning backdrop to a very informative nature walk, learning about the sub Antarctic forest.

Amazing mosses and lichens grow here.

Many parasitic plants too, like this false mistletoe,

and this innocent looking plant which can destroy a shrub in a season.

It is rough but absorbent, and the local tribes used it as toilet paper!

This plant is known as the everlasting plant, because during storms it’s habitat can be flooded with seawater, but it just regrows!

This is the Devil’s Trouble, and is apparently a powerful laxative!

We saw fur seals swimming, and birds.

Introduced species are problematic, especially the beaver which is destroying the environment.

In the afternoon we anchored at Tuckers Islets and bounced across the waves on the zodiacs to see Magellanic penguins. So adorable.

We also saw Caracara and an Imperial cormorant colony.

Next day was cloudy, but we visited the incredible Pia Glacier, one of the few which is advancing rather than retreating.

We hiked uphill for a panoramic view. The glacier was constantly creaking and groaning, and we witnessed several calvings as ice broke off and thundered into the water below.

The zodiac ride was like Dodgems with ice cubes!!

Our ship then sailed down Glacier Alley, past 5 huge glaciers named after European countries.

The waiters appeared with drinks and nibbles for each country as we passed! Then great excitement as some Orcas swam past, and then dolphins.

Our foray out into the Pacific was decidedly bouncy, but during our penultimate night we sailed right out to Cape Horn. We knew the weather forecast was bad, and just before dawn we were told that it was too dangerous to get close or attempt a landing, as winds were Force 10, gusting Force 11! Chris and I went on deck while in the lee of the island. The wind was howling, and the rain lashing down, but we saw Cape Horn in the dim light. Somehow it seemed more fitting to experience it like this, rather than on a calm sunny day.

We were just 595 miles from the Antarctic islands, and have now visited the southern most points in Americas, Africa and Australasia.

Later that day, we went ashore and hiked at Wulaia bay, where Darwin landed and first met natives.

It was also home to the barrel post office. Mariners would leave letters for family at home, and when another ship came by it would take letters addressed to places it was heading to. We popped in a postcard, and took one to deliver!

When Magellan first came, he found huge footprints in the sand. They believed the natives must be giants and named the land Patagonia from the old Portuguese words Pata Guan meaning big foot! Finally we sailed to remote Ushuaia in Argentina.

The whole trip was amazing. My travel pills were exceptional, and after rolling around at Cape Horn in Force 11 gusts, I polished off a hearty breakfast!!

The sense of wilderness and isolation here was immense, and we felt a huge respect for early sailors navigating these unforgiving waters.

South America Post 10 Beautiful Buenos Aires

Landing in Buenos Aires in the early evening, on our taxi ride to the hotel we were instantly impressed by the abundance of parks and attractive balconied buildings. It had a more European feel than anywhere else we had been, although the music emanating from shops, cars and parks was decidedly Latin American!! Our small hotel, the Grand Petit Casa would have been right at home in Paris. Tall, narrow and with a tiny, ornate lift that must have been 90 years old!

Invaluable as we were on the 3rd floor. It was in Recoleta, a central and safe district.

Buenos Aires is on the huge River Plate Estuary, and was founded in 1540. It expanded in the 18th century due to successful cattle farming, and in 1816 gained independence from Spain. It has always been a city of immigrants, and is very multicultural. By the early 1900s it was a booming city, with a great love for European art and design, so many buildings have a marked influence from Art Nouveau, Art deco, often in a French style.

Britain built their first metro line, with very ‘London underground’ tiling! Beautiful French style coffee shops abound, with elegant style, stained glass, and amazing cakes! One even had it’s own tango theatre!

We just had to sample them… for research purposes of course!

Having only a few nights in Argentina, I wanted to make sure we had sampled the ‘Best Steak in the World’ claims from every angle, so tonight we were booked into Don Julio’s Parilla, apparently quite renowned, as you have to book months ahead or queue outside. When we arrived at 7pm, there was already a queue, even though the restaurant wasn’t yet open! They eat late in BA. Some don’t open until 8 or even 9 PM!

I had booked to sit at The Bar, which meant you watched them cooking the steaks. Oh my! Sourced from grass grazed Hereford and Angus cattle, these steaks were incredible.

Huge in both length, width and height, they also looked delicious. Our waiter thoughtfully suggested we share, as each steak weighed over 16oz!! They tasted Amazing!

Next morning I had booked Elisa, a local guide who promised to take us to see some ‘hidden treasures’ of the city, rather than the usual tourist trail like the Casa Rosado where Eva Peron addressed the crowds!

First we wanted to visit Recoleta cemetery, famous for it’s ornate mausoleum, created as the 19th century, wealthy families vied to outdo each other, even in death!

Eva Peron is the most famous inhabitant, finally buried here as Eva Duarte, in her family vault. After her death from cancer, aged just 33, in 1952, her body was embalmed and lay in state, but after the military coup, her body disappeared. In 1971, it was eventually traced to Milan, where it had been buried. It was returned to her husband, in exile in Madrid, and eventually back to Argentina and buried, 5 metres below ground, to prevent ‘interference’!

This poignant tomb is of a young woman who died on her honeymoon in Austria. The mausoleum is a recreation of her bedroom, with the girl in her Wedding dress outside with her dog.

Sadder still, are the memorials dotted all over Buenos Aires to the 30,000 people who ‘disappeared’ in the dirty war, during US backed military rule between 1974-1983.

Elisa was true to her word. We visited El Ateno, a beautiful bookshop in an old theatre;

A huge Victorian gothic building in the heart of the city, that we assumed was a museum, or the town hall, but which turned out to be a hugely extravagant building to house the waterworks! These pictures show what the inside was like, and the grand exterior!

Then the stunningly beautiful church, Basílica María Auxiliadora y San Carlos, built in 1906, and where the current Pope, Francis, was baptised.

It is unusual because the stained glass windows are all floral, bearing a striking resemblance to William Morris designs!

It is also where a certain Carlos Gardel sang in the choir. Unknown to us, he is a legend in Buenos Aires. Tango music had it’s roots in the immigrant and poorer sections of BA society. Not just music, but songs with powerful, sad, or sometimes amusing lyrics are a huge part of society here, and Carlos was one of the most loved singers. His picture is everywhere!

Tango was banned during the military years, seen as subversive. Now it is back, with dance halls, outfitters and classes everywhere, appealing to young and old.

We went to a rather edgy steampunk style hall, where a lesson was taking place. We watched in awe, but I only filmed a snippet!

They had an interesting line in chairs too!

The streets in this neighbourhood, San Telmo, also have a decorative style of decorating their houses called fileteado!

Theatre Ciego has a new lease of life as a theatre for the blind. Each performance is in darkness, encouraging the audience to use their other senses.

This street has some interesting benches.

We were completely fooled by these, completely baffled as to why you would leave fabric seats outside. Until we felt them! They were solid! Brilliant.

Then Tango lessons on the pavement!!

We visited a buzzing market, one of many, where really fresh produce mingles with the delicious aroma of hundreds of freshly baked empanadas!

Finally, in a quiet neighbourhood, a tiny barbers shop, run by a 4th generation family. They have preserved the barber shop as it would have been 60 years ago, including equipment and products!

This device once gave you a perm… how I am not sure!!Barber shops were centres for singing, and every week locals gather here to listen to some old tango singers from another era. We were the only tourists, and were made very welcome. It was a lovely atmosphere and a privilege to see.

Chris resisted the pressure to shave off his beard… in the old fashioned way!!

Our last night in BA was spent in Restaurant Roux, named after the sauce, not the famous chefs! We had a wonderful meal, in a restaurant full of regular patrons, judging by the hugging and kissing that was happening as each one arrived. Despite their horrendous inflation, (prices have increased by 50% in a year), the pound is still strong, so our wonderful meal was about the same as a 2 course pub meal at home.

We loved Buenos Aires. A slightly edgy, vibrant, elegant city.

SA Post 2 Havana, Cuba

We arrived in Havana, Cuba in the midst of an apparently unseasonable rain storm of biblical magnitude. Just like everywhere else we have visited in the last few years, the locals told us ‘this shouldn’t be happening at this time of year’. Global warming in action?

Our flight with KLM was excellent. The food was lovely and the lie flat seats very comfy. I even watched 4 films, but highlights were clog cruet sets, and being given miniature Delft pottery houses containing gin! This is a tradition dating back to 1949 and a new design is added each year.

We were met at the airport by Felipe, manager of Wij in Cuba, a small local tour company. His colleague Tony will be driving and guiding us during our stay.

Our bed for 3 nights is in a Casa Particulares in the heart of Old Havana. This is a room in someone’s home.

This one is simply furnished, very clean and with a very blue loo!!

Also ample breakfasts which take care of our 5 a day in one go!!

Arriving late in the evening, we have only glimpsed the city, but can already sense the faded glory, and the passion for music… salsa rhythms resonate from shops, cafes and verandas.

What will we discover tomorrow?

Thursday started overcast, and a cloud burst had affected parts of Cuba. Tony took us on a super walking tour of Havana, gradually introducing us to some history and culture. Yes there are amazing old American cars everywhere. The best ones are pressed into service for tourist trips. More impressive are the 30 and 40 year old Fiats and Ladas, covered in rust but still struggling on.

Sometimes people are shocked in countries like Cuba, because everyone seems to be ‘on the make’. Shortchanging you a few pesos, short measures on the drinks, 5 minutes less on your 30 minute ride. Chatting to local people, we found out that Government employees are paid the equivalent of US$20 per month. People explained that this wasn’t so bad when you got coupons which ensured you got essential foodstuffs, access to Doctors and medicines etc. That has all but gone, but the incredibly low salary remains.

To put this into context, a 20 year old Lada could cost 30,000 US$. Medicines seem really scarce and hugely expensive, even for basics like Aspirin. Some food stuffs are very dear. There are shortages of basic items, and very little choice of brands or quality. Currently soap is in short supply, and it is common to see queues outside shops.

So what might you and I resort to as a way of making those dollars go a little further. A job on the side? A little fiddle here and there? Even professionals like Doctors and Teachers need to supplement their income somehow.

Havana was founded in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, and ruled almost continuously by the Spanish until 1898, apart from short period of British rule in 1764 . Then Britain gave it back to the Spanish, swooping it for Florida!! Then in 1902 Cuba became Independent.

Havana’s architecture is grand. Many buildings were erected during opulent Spanish rule, and photos of Havana’s heyday show it prominent on the World stage, visited by celebrities. Sadly, many of these buildings are falling apart. Many would be condemned in Britain, but faint lights, or some drying clothes show them as still lived in. UNESCO are helping with some restoration, and parts of Havana are returning to their former glory, but it felt as if the luxury hotels and restaurants they now house are mainly benefitting tourists, overseas multinational owners, and some local fat cats, rather than reaching the majority of the population. Having said that, without tourism, Cuba would be lost at present. It is just important to try to direct your tourist spending to local people.

Highlights in Havana are:

The Cathedral, built in 1777:

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The 19th century pharmacies.

The 16th century aqueduct:

The old fort and walls:

The old sea terminal, now used for massive cruise ships:

The wooden pavement, put in so the carriages would make less noise, not disturbing the Spanish Officers during their afternoon siesta!

Beautiful squares with 18th and 19th century Spanish, or Art Nouveau buildings.

This last one shows where the slaves would have slept.

The revolution museum containing the story of the revolution, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban missile crisis.

Women played a large part in the revolution, some holding quite senior ranks.

Also the story of Che Guevara.

Rather strange to visit another site where vehicles and missiles were on display, partly hidden by palm trees, and it was a chilling reminder of perilous times.

We also drove along the Malecon, the coastal promenade, in a 1951 Chevrolet, with waves breaking over the road. The driver immediately turned off the prom for fear of damage to the car. Not surprising, as we later found out that with an original engine, these cars could be worth 80,000 dollars!

The high waves after the rain shows how vulnerable Cuba is to storms and rising sea levels.

References to Ernest Hemingway are everywhere. He had a house here for many years, and was a great sea fisherman. He wrote ‘The Old man and the Sea’ here. We visited his farm house in Cojimar, which was charming, and saw the bars where he drank his Mojitos and Daiquiris.

Hemingway’s bathroom with scales and his weight written on the wall!

Anne has discovered she quite likes a Mojito if it is not too strong!!

We were led to believe that Cuban food was bland and uninteresting, but so far we have been very pleasantly surprised, having some very nice meals.

Not too many birds around, but we have seen Pelicans, Frigate Birds and Turkey Vultures.

We feel very safe here, and walk happily at night in central Havana, despite limited street lighting and the biggest potholes in both pavement and the road surface that we have ever seen. It is a loud, bustling, musical city, whose vibrancy is infectious.

Tomorrow we leave Havana and head west!