Thursday, 24 September 2009

Flam, and kayaking in the Fjords

4-6 September

One of the things we decided early on in our planning for this trip, was to do some Sea Kayaking in Norway. And we finally got there!

Day 1 we met the guides (Erwin and Roger from Njord Kayak) at their base in Flam, and met the rest of our group (Matt and Lisa from the USA, and Charlie and Mary from London). After a few hours of saftey stuff, and stuffing the kayaks full of our gear and food, we took off for a quiet start from Flam up the Aursland Fjord, paddling for about an hour. Saw a Seal swimming the Fjord, and some Harbour Porpoises too. Stopped to walk up to a waterfall for lunch, then back for a few more hours paddling to our first campsite at Stokko. Brief stop at the town of Undreadal before we reached Stokko - it's famous for it's goat cheese, but the store was closed to Kerry's dissapointment! The fjord is really similar to Fjordland in New Zealand, where we have kayaked, except this fjord has people living and working in it. Got the tent up in the rain, and finally warmed up with an excellent stir fry dinner cooked by Erwin. The hip flask of Laphroig and endless stories helped with the final warming up too, thanks Charlie ;-)

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Day 2 saw us getting up quite late, to a huge mass of clouds rolling down the fjord. They never quite reached us, but looked really close. After stuffing everything back in the kayaks again (we took way too much stuff as usual), we paddled up to Stigan (Steegan?) and pulled up on the wharf. From there we hiked up to Stigan Farm - a very famous farm, as it's the higest farm still being worked in the fjords - 500m or so straight up a goat track for 45 mins, perched above the fjord (took some convincing to get me up there, but totally worth it for the view). Very interesting to see how they lived up on the tops of the fjiord - they have cable winches for pulling up supplies, and somehow they managed to get all the materials for a large farmhouse up there. Nobody was too hungry then, so we jumped back in the kayaks and paddled up to the end of the Aurlandsford, and stopped where it joined the Naeroyfjord, a Unesco world protected fjord, rafted up, and had lunch in the kayaks, with ferries and boats driving past thinking we were crazy! We crossed the Naeroyfjord a few times, and disturbed a huge Sea Eagle, who perched in a tree above us and decided we weren't a threat. Paddled to the next campsite, which had a entire beach full of driftwood from the storm that had recently passed through - Rach had great fun building a fire with the damp wood (too many people came and poked at it, ruining my system! haha). Another fantastic dinner cooked by Erwin, this time pasta with pesto and chicken. Maybe it's the fresh air, or the tiredness from paddling all day, but the food on the trip all tasted fantastic, along with Roger's espresso. Evening saw us sit around the fire being entertained by Charlies tales and jokes again, with the Laphroig making the rounds.

fjiord of clouds

Day 3 was a leisurly paddle down to Gundrangen, with lots of stops for snacks and chats. Erwin has been working in the fjords as a guide for 8 seasons, and has spent a lot of time learning not just the routes, but the legends and stories from the locals. There are 'trolls' everywhere - monsters dreamed up to stop the children getting into dangerous situations, and also demon women, unborn children of suicide women as porpises protecting the people who travel on the fjord. It's rather fascinating to hear these stories as you're quietly drifting along the fjord. Arrived at Gundrangen around 2pm, and packed up the kayaks and gear into the Van. A quick 20 min drive through a tunnel, and we were back in Flam. Met up with Erwin, Roger, Charlie and Mary at the local 'pub', which is in a fake viking hall - sounds tacky but was really comftable actually (a rather scary €8 a pint, but by then we didn't care too much), for a few too many drinks (and that Laphroig resurfaced again!), then back to our room for a very rested nights sleep.

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A HUGE thanks to the team from Njord Kayaks - one of the best few days we've ever had.

More photos on flickr here (including some that Matt sent us, which I've shamelessly put on my flickr site!). Still need to get our disposable camera we took on the water developed.

Norway Part 1 - Oslo and Bergen

31st August - 2nd September
We originally planned to go to Norway in October, but the end of the Kayaking season came up quicker than we realised, so a quick scan of flights, and we were on our way to Norway instead of Portugal.

Flew into Oslo and arrived after midnight, at Rygge/Moss Airport, which is a 30 min coach ride out of Oslo. Dropped off in the middle of the city close to 1AM, and wandered aimlessly for a while before we found the Hostel, then managed to wake up everyone else in our dorm while we tried to find our beds, sorry!

The next day we did a combo of sightseeing and shopping for our Kayaking trip - all our winter gear was still in London, which originally we would have picked up prior to heading to Norway, doh. Food is rather expensive - a coffee and spanish tortilla for breakfast each came to about €30 each, ouch. Took a ferry out to the Viking Museum in the afternoon, to see some Viking ships.

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2nd Sept saw us jump on a train to Bergen - took around 7.5 hours, but travels through some of the most stunning scenery beside inland Fjords, over and through mountains, and next to glaciers. Arrived to some light rain in Bergen, which considering they have 270 days of rain a year we were kindof expecting.

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Spent the next morning walking around Bergen, and got some beautiful sun and some great photos. Afternoon we jumped on the train to Myrdal, where we changed onto the Flamsbana Railway, to get to Flam (pronounced 'Flom').

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More photos on flickr :: Oslo :: Oslo-Bergen Train :: Bergen.

Next stop, Flam and Kayaking.

Malaga, Fuengirola and the Costa del Sol

27th August

We took the train down to Malaga on Thursday(the trains in Spain really are pretty good) and Liz (Rach's Aunt) picked us up from the train station and took us to Fuengirola were she lives. On Friday we had a look around a castle in Fuengirola, and took a drive up to Mijas village which is a white town up above the coast. It's very picturesque and has a great view out over the Costa del Sol. We went back in the evening to visit a craft market and watch a group performing Flamenco.

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Fuengirola Castle

Mijas Taxi service, Costa Del Sol, Spain
Burros Taxi, Mijas

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Flamenco, Mijas

Saturday we visited a local market (Rach got some spanish fans and a new dress) and then took the train into Malaga. We cruised around on the tourist bus and looked around the castle above the city. After some tapa for lunch we looked around the Picasso museum which has pieces donated from the Picasso family. By mid afternoon we were blasted from the heat and headed back to Fuengirola for a swim.

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The Alcazabar, Malaga

Liz drove us around on Sunday to visit various castles and White Villages up in the mountains. Some stunning views - most of the castles were ruins where anyone can wander about.

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White Village, Costa del Sol

More photos are on flickr here :: Fuengirola :: Mijas :: Malaga :: Castle Hunting

Next stop: Norway!

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Barcelona and Madrid

22 - 26 August
On Saturday we caught the train to Barcelona with Joce and Bruce in tow. Spanish trains are great - fast (hit around 300km/h at one stage) , clean, comfortable and they run on time! We'd all been to Barcelona before so had no real agenda to do anything.

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We took a look around the Sagrada Familia, a cathedral actually worth visiting, walked along La Rambla, and took the Teleferico (a gonadola) across the harbour. In the evenings we sampled the Paella and quite a bit of Sangria which turned out to be very popular, we had to hold the parents back it was so good.

Me and the Burkes
Waiting for the Sangria in the Plaza Reale

On Tuesday we caught the same train as the parents to Madrid were we parted at the station, they were going on to a tour of Portugal and Spain. We've been to Madrid before as well, so didn't feel like doing to much. After a comical trip to the post office (we were shunted around 4 desks and numerous people, filled out various forms and papers etc. that were eventually torn up, just to post some posters), we wandered along to the Museo Prado to stand in a queue for 1 hour. After getting closer to the front we realised that it wasn't the queue we were supposed to be in, in fact there wasn't a queue for the museum at all. After some teeth gnashing and petty squabbling we had a look at some old paintings - the 'black' paintings by Goya are rather creepy.

More photos here - Barcelona :: Madrid.

Next stop, the Costa Del Sol.

French retreat

14 - 21 August
Stayed a night in a 4 star hotel in Perpingnan, spent the afternoon at the pool, and Rach spent the night with a mild food poisioning. We picked up K's parents from the train station the next evening after picking up the Right-Hand drive rental car, and drove up to the Villa we had rented for a week in the village of Joch. Joch is at the base of the Pyranees and is a tiny place perched on the edge of a hill overlooking the Tet valley. The villa was great and when we weren't tripping about we spent our time swimming in the pool and relaxing on the terrace.

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On Tuesday we went to the market in Il sur Tet, which is on Wednesdays. Instead we drove over a very narrow winding road for about 4 hours to visit Carcasonne, the return journey along the toll motorway was about 90 minutes. There was some great scenery though, we were all amazed when reaching the top of the drive up the mountain to find large flat plains. Carcasonne is a medieval fortress town which is well known for it's Disney like appearance. It's packed with tourists and so forth, interesting to see though.

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On Thursday we drove up the same road but carried on a different route to Andorra. Andorra has it all, skiing in winter, hiking in summer. We decided to go shopping. Again a really interesting drive through some great terrain, until you hit the french border police when trying to back into France. Nobody was being stopped as far as I could tell, I think they just liked adding an hour to everyones journey.

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The rest of the week was spent swimming, sleeping, drinking wine, and generally having a very quiet time, which we really needed, after being on the road for almost 2 months.

More photos are here - Joch :: Carcassone :: Andorra.

Next stop, Spain.

South of France

12 - 13 August
From Milan we took the train to Marseilles. While the scenery along the Cote D'Azur is quite nice, we'd seen it all before going the other way a few years ago though, some sleep was in order.

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Marseilles was stinking hot and full of French tourists. To be honest I can't get to grips with French waiters, sometimes they're confounding aloof, and other times they're great. Lots of fish was eaten, with Kerry having a huge Bouillabaisse one night - a big fish soup, where the fish is taken out and eaten whole as part of the meal. One of the waiters at that restuarant had a bit of an accident, managing to project someone's steak dinner a few meters and smashing it everywhere (which a big dog at another table was VERY happy about!). It's almost as good as the theater at times!

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Us at the Il'de If - slightly crooked!

We took a trip out to Il' De If, which sits off the coast of Marseilles and is where part of The Count of Monte Cristo is set. Only took an hour to buy the tickets, in the hot hot hot sun! Phew...

More photos are here.

Next stop, Perpingnan, and our villa in the mountains.

Milano

9 - 12 August
From Palermo we wanted to go to Sardinia, but the once weekly ferry had left the day before so we pulled up stumps and took a flight to Milan. Ahhhhhh, clean streets.

Milan is really nice but doesn't have much going for it tourist wise and it's even worse in August when most bars/cafes/restaurants/shops are closed for the summer holidays. At one stage we sat down for a beer at a sidewalk cafe only to find a small bottle was 10 euros, we were quickly on our way.

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After some reading we found out it's where they hide Da Vinci's last supper, unfortunately it was booked out until September. They do have a big Cathedral where you can walk around the roof and annoy Japanese tourists trying to take photos though. Woman have to have their shoulders covered when going into the Cathedral but they don't bother telling anybody that until you get to the front of the queue (it's not long however). This gives rise to a cottage industry of Asian immigrants selling scarves/pashminas etc.. outside the front. This is apparently wrong and the security guards chase them off. It's all a bit of theatre however as they don't really want to catch them, since they can't be bothered hauling them off when they do I guess, so they run at them really fast, then stop and stamp their feet until the sellers take off. Much like you would when chasing a pigeon away. We managed to talk one of the Scarf sellers down to 5 euros before she was shooed away and ventured inside. It's a cathedral, exactly like every other one as far as I can tell.

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Found the North Face store, and got some new sandals for Kerry, as his were completely shot!

More photos here.

Next stop, South of France.

Sizzling in Sicily

8 - 9 August
The next night we took a 12 hour ferry to Palermo, it's more like 14 hours since you need to get on 2 hours early, and there aren't any seats. Everybody just sprawls all over the hallways and decks in their sleeping bags and lilos, we chose the bar. After listening to 4 hours of an Italian piano man singing bad covers in English and having everybody dancing and singing along I was ready to jump the plank. Did I mention they ran out of food before the ferry left port?

Anyway we turned up in Palermo early in the morning and walked in completely the wrong direction to the hostel. I say hostel, I really mean flea ridden hotel. We got to try a nice free 'frozen' shot of cappucino from a cafe we got some breakfast in. In the afternoon we visited a catacombs with lots of skeletons dressed up in clothes hanging from the walls, something like 4000 semi-mummified bodies. That might sound a kind of morbid thing to do on a lovely Saturday afternoon, but it was in fact extremely preferable to the streets above which were covered in dog shit and stinking rubbish. How anybody can put up with that I don't know.

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It being a Saturday night we sat outside the Fleatel and had a couple of beers in the bar. It was fascinating to watch the locals careering about on their scooters crashing into bar tables and oncoming cars. It all kind of happens in a chaotic slow motion. We spent a few hours talking to a young boy selling roses - he must have been 12 years old, and sat at our table for a few hours trying to get us to buy roses, eventually he gave up, and just sat there chilling out.

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Next stop, Milan.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Southern Italy

2 - 7 August

After a boring 8 hour ferry ride from Dubrovnik we hit South East Italy, Bari. Bari isn't that interesting and we headed out the next day for Napoli. We stayed in a nice central hostel in an old building that even had it's own statue in the court yard. The best 2 things about Napoli are it's Pizza, which is flippin' amazing, and it's location for getting to other touristy places. I really can't state how great the pizza here is, we waited 1/2 an hour for a table at an unassuming pizza restaurant with paper tables clothes and plastic chairs for what I can only describe as the best pizza I've ever had (Pizza Sorbillo :: google maps link).

The hostel in Napoli (Welcome Inn) was great too - nice staff, good rooms, secure, and a really tasty free Pasta night.

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Pompeii (4th August)
We took the Circumvesuviana (a train that runs around Vesuvius) down to Pompeii for the day. Pompeii is big, dusty, and full of zombified tourists wandering around. As far as tourist attractions go it's got some nice mosaics, and ancient grafitti etc.. The ruins are only partially excavated, so would be interesting to return in a few years to see what else has been found.

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Saw the google streetview 'bike' packing up while we were there - how they got that around the streets I'll never know, as the cobbles are so worn they would amost swallow the bike, and there are huge bollard stones through the whole city that were used to slow down cart traffic, and also as stepping stones that were used for crossing without getting covered in sewage (lovely!).

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The restaurants/cafes surrounding it are best avoided completely, which we found out much too late, the heat must have been getting to us I think. There's lots of street vendors in Napoli selling an iced lemon drink called Granita (kind of like a slushy) for about a euro, it's a great way to refresh the palate before enjoying the mandatory evening beer.

Capri (5th August)
Capri is a tourist mecca in the bay of Napoli. We took the hydrofoil over and spent the day wandering around the island. We couldn't take a boat to see the Blue Grotto because the sea was too rough, I'm not sure they know what rough really means.

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Instead we walked down to Marina Piccolo and took a swim off the beach there. It's got really deep, clear blue water which is great for swimming, and lots of greasy dudes in speedos. To get back to the boat, we caught a tiny little bus back up the hill - fits about 15 people, mostly standing up, and the ride is pretty entertaining with taxis, private cars and buses all fighting to get around the narrow winding roads.

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Sorrento (6th August)
After a big kerfuffle trying to get train tickets down to Palermo in Sicily and spending the morning finding some ferry tickets we took the Circumvesuviana again and carried on past Pompei to Sorrento. I'm sure it's a great place, but after being lots of great places it was just another place, had a nice lunch and an icecream though. An Super Cornetto if I remember correctly, which is like a Trumpet, just lots bigger.

The city perches on top of some stunning cliffs, which makes for sore legs walking down (and a cramped bus ride back up!).

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More Photos - Bari :: Napoli :: Pompeii :: Capri :: Sorrento

Next stop, Palermo (Sicily).

Croatia (pt. The Second)

31 July - 2 August

We caught a bus the next morning for Dubrovnik, deciding to leave the train to it's own devices. Got up really early, as the bus left at 7AM, to find a few people from the hostel that had just got in from a night out sitting on the couch, and one of our dorm mates who was an earlier casualty from that night out sleeping in the dorm sans clothes or sheets! Much giggling ensued, and we probably woke up half the hostel.

Dubrovnik has a nice old town within fortified walls that you can walk around, which we ended up doing in the middle of the day when most people with any sense were hiding inside a pub or cafe. The views are great and it was well worth the effort.

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After that we decided we deserved a beer and ended up in an "Irish" pub in the old town called The Gaffe that was playing the Ashes, refreshments were taken. Wandered to the port area of the old town for dinner at a fish restaurant, and Rach tried out the Squid Ink Risotto, which is black colored from the ink, but surprisingly tasty.

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Check out how brown we're getting! Us, looking out over Dubrovnik Old Town.


Spent most of the next day on the beach and then watched the Tri Nations against SA in The Gaffe, which was packed with New Zealanders and Australians.

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More photos are here.

Next stop, Italy!

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Bosnia

Finally... a blog post! We've not had a lot of internet access over the last month, so have been rather useless with blogging. Prepare for an onslaught!

28 - 30 July.
We caught the bus from Croatia to Sarajevo, Bosnia which takes about 7 hours. The trip is quite nice as it follows the coast down to Ploce, and then heads inland past Mostar and up a picturesque river gorge before dropping down into Sarajevo.

Our hostel was fairly central, about 10 mins walk into town and just down the road from where we were staying was the Holiday Inn which housed journalists during the war with Serbia and Sniper Alley which was a targeted by Serbian snipers in the hills surrounding Sarajevo. We visited the house which was the start of the tunnel underneath Sarajevo airport (controlled by the UN during the war) through to the 'Free Bosnian' mountains, which was the only way of bringing in supplies/medicine etc. when the city was surrounded by Serbian forces.

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The Turkish quarter is like a big market with lots of grills, cafes, and shops selling tourist tat. The smoke from the grills engulfs the central square, I think the best way to describe it is as one big barbeque. It's a good place to get some grilled meat and bread, which is about all we had for the time we were here.

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On the 30th we got up early and dragged ourselves down to the train station for a 7am train to Mostar. We were still sitting on train in Sarajevo station at 9am when started the sick rumour that there was a train strike on, of course nobody could confirm it. A few minutes later we got an email from our Mostar hostel saying there was a strike and we should get a bus. We eventually got to Mostar on the bus, a few euros and hours worse off.

Mostar was very hot as we took a walk to have a look at Stari Most which bridges the river between the Croatian and Muslim sides of the town. This was blown up and rebuilt 3 times during the war, now locals jump off into the river for money from tourists.

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More photos here: Sarajevo :: Mostar
Next stop, back into Croatia to Dubrovnik.