Phu Chi Fa

Had we done it right, we’d have gotten to P̣hū chī̂f̂ā (Phu Chi Fa) in time to see the sunrise. From what I’ve read, we’d have been in the company of hundreds of Thais and a handful of Western tourists who’d made the journey north of Chiang Rai to this rather special, spectacular place. [A little like the hordes that descend on La Boca, Cuba, to see the sunset.] Phu Chi Fa, which translates as pointing to the sky, is a mountain area and national forest park in Thailand in the northeastern end of the Phi Pan Nam Range, 12 km to the southwest of Doi Pha Tang at the eastern edge of Thoeng District in Chiang Rai Province. The drive from Chiang Rai through the farmland and the rice fields and the villages is the stuff that novels are made of. Read more

Golden Triangle - look over at Laos

The city of Chiang Saen in Northern Thailand was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom. It’s had a turbulent history, captured by the Burmese in the sixteenth century and then plundered by King Rama I in the early 1800s. It was left for dead for about a 100 years before gradually being reborn. It’s still enjoying its childhood years though, and has a ways to go before it’s fully grown again. Today, it’s probably most famous for its proximity to the Golden Triangle. We drove around the neighbourhoods marvelling at the old city walls and the ruined stupas and chedis. We stopped by the Mekong River and looked across at Laos, unable to see much with the low-lying cloud but it was nice to know it was there. Read more

When I’m anxious, I don’t sleep. I get antsy. And I’m early. We were at the train station in Ayutthaya about an hour before the train was due to leave, having shared a taxi with a couple of American tourists who also stayed in our Homestay. They were houseless and jobless making the move from CA to NY – he had taken the NY bar exam and was waiting for results. In the meantime, they were travelling. I was bricking it, wondering if our tickets would be fake. For one heart-stopping moment, I thought we were done. Someone was sitting in seat 26. But then I checked our seats and we had 27 and 28. Empty. Whew. We sat and fretted until the ticket inspector had checked our tickets and marked us off on his paper plan of the carriage. I can’t tell you what the relief felt like. We were on our way to Chiang Mai. Read more

I woke up on Sunday with a horrible feeling that everything that could go wrong, would go wrong. So much for Murphy being an optimist. We were heading to Ayutthaya, some 80 km north of Bangkok. The scam-merchant for whose patter we’d fallen was to send a driver to take us to the station. And he did. He came. He collected. And he deposited us at the station where he bought our train tickets, handed them to us, parked us at the platform and went on his way. It was only after he’d left that I checked to see what seat we had and in which carriage, given that we were to have a seat in second class with air conditioning. But no. The scam continued. We had the cheapest of seats – some 20 baht (about 55 cents) – third class standing. No aircon. And on Thai Rail, the journey to Ayutthaya would take some 90 minutes. The fishwives of Moore Street would have taken me for one of their own, such was the litany of names I called him.

We boarded and sat for about 10 minutes before we were ousted by passengers who had seat reservations. Read more

That I laughed out loud when we passed through a place called Bangkhen is somewhat indicative of my state of mind leaving Bangkok. Am addled. Truly addled. I’m trying to decide how I feel about the place and am coming with a bagful of buts and thens and if onlys.

Spot the sucker

Navigating our way from the airport to the city wasn’t bad. We caught the SkyTrain and then change to a metro, getting off at the stop as directed by the hotel. By this stage, we’d been up a solid 24 hours. Add that to the heat and humidity and you get a rather cranky cocktail. Of course, no one we asked had heard of our hotel and given that English is very much limited to tourist English in places and our Thai is so limited it doesn’t exist, it was a struggle to make ourselves understood. Read more

Packing for Thai expectations

Am officially excited. Just hours to go before we take off for a month in Thailand. I’ve never been to that part of the world. I’ve gotten as far as India, and while I’d planned a trip to Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia back in 2001 and previously in 1994, it never happened. I have no idea what to expect as my research has been sadly limited and my Thai expectations are low. Sensibly, I think, we’ve cut back the list of countries we wanted to see to just one and figure if we’re to do it justice without killing ourselves in the process, we’d need a month to do it. Read more

Warsaw markets

I like a good market. I’m particularly partial to flea markets. I like seeing what other people no longer value or perhaps value too much. I’ve often fantasised about building a complete backstory for myself based on framed photos, discarded family albums, and books with handwritten dedications. I’ve fancied that such places must be where the spy people go to find the props to create new lives. I could (and do) spend hours sifting through other people’s stuff. I’ve got an eye for what I want so usually it’s enough to scan a table and see what draws me back for a second look. I like the foodie markets, too, if for no other reason than to see the strange produce on offer. Fruit and veg that I’ve never seen or tasted before. At one of the many Warsaw markets, Hala Mirowska, I saw tiers of eggs marked with various prices – am not sure whether they were from different fowl or just different sizes. It was too wet to venture closer; the battle of the brollies made the whole experience quite an effort. But had I done my homework before I went, I’d have looked for the bullet holes that still remain in the northern wall, lasting reminders of German executions during WWII. The older section is at odds with the massive supermarket that can be viewed from above. It’s like looking down into another world.

Warsaw markets Hala Mirowska

Warsaw markets Hala Mirowska

Warsaw markets Hala Mirowska

Warsaw markets are plentiful. Just behind, Hala Gwardii [plac Żelaznej Bramy 1, Warsaw] concentrates on food-food with some 25 different vendors selling their wares and plenty of table space for punters to sit and eat. Warsaw likes its communal seating. I’m not sure if the table tennis tables and the boxing ring are permanent fixtures, but they added a lightness to the place that in some odd way helped dispel the everpresent sense of man’s inhumanity to man that I feel when I visit the city. We were wandering what was once the heart of the Jewish ghetto, and the horrors of the Holocaust were never far from my mind. That Poland, as a country, didn’t exist at one point in time is mind-boggling. The scars of the 1944 Uprising still remain. But in using old brick rubble to rebuild in the 1950s, the city still retains that oldie feel.

Warsaw Market  Hala Gwardii

Warsaw Market  Hala Gwardii

We happened upon another market – ZOO Market Bazar [Al. Solidarności 55, 03-402 Warszawa, Poland] In its second season, this is the brainchild of Agata and Olivia who rent the plot of wasteland from the city and on the second weekend of every month, rent out stalls to vendors selling vintage stuff and refashioned fashion. They open the place every weekend, regardless, as a laid-back outdoor bar and open-air cinema. Till midnight, the place is an alternative venue for those who like to spend their money on old stuff made new. In the past couple of months, all major shopping centres in the city close on the middle Sundays in the month only opening on the first and last. The women want to encourage people to buy old rather than new and also to encourage artisans in their craft. It’s a marriage made in ethical consumer heaven. A great spot for a beer and a browse.

Warsaw markets ZOO Market Bazar

Warsaw markets ZOO Market Bazar

Some more markets in Warsaw.

 

 

I’m getting increasingly sick of aeroplane travel. Eight of the last ten flights I’ve taken have been at least an hour late in arriving. And what with the ongoing pilot disputes with RyanAir and air traffic controllers on the outs elsewhere, booking a flight and printing a boarding card no longer ensure an on-schedule departure. So we decided to go from Budapest to Warsaw by train.

Booking 8 days ahead, we got some sort of deal – and opted for first class. Two return tickets, first class, came to €126 – €58 out, €68 back. and with as much luggage as we could handle. To get there on WizzAir, without luggage, would have cost the same and more, per person. Okay so the plane door to door might have taken less than half the time (if everything was on schedule) and resulted in airport transfer costs – but the train was so much more comfortable.

There are three departures daily from Budapest (Nyugati). The 7.41 requires a change and gets into Warsaw at the same time as the 8.41, which is direct. Both arrive at 18.56 (and they did – bang on). The 7.41 connects with the 8.41 at Breclav, which explains the same arrival. The overnight takes longer – leaving at 20.15 and getting in at 9.36 the next morning. I could do the 10 hours 15 minutes but the 13 hours and 21 minutes made me baulk.

We had the carriage practically to ourselves until we crossed over into Poland. I found this strange as when we’d booked the tickets, there were only 6 seats left. But when the world and her mother came aboard, I understood. It was standing room only in the second-class carriages and the entire first class was full. The dining car, too, was fully seated. My one and only complaint (I loved the complimentary water and free newspaper when we went through Slovakia) was that the air con was up so high it was bloody freezing while the rest of the train was baking. But apart from this imbalance, it was a very pleasant trip. Plugs for the laptop, table to work on, room to stretch out and sleep. What more could a body ask for.

It’s been years since I’ve been to Warsaw. But I remember being very  impressed with the city, favouring it in my mind over Kraków. I’ve yet to explore but it seems to be hopping. Last night, the street cafés in our neighbourhood were spilling over onto the sidewalks and the mood bordered on ecstatic. I wonder what’s in the Warsavian water.

Hala Koszyki warsaw

Taking a local’s advice, we headed for Hala Koszyki – a food hall over on  Koszykowa, No. 61. It is what the food hall on Hold Utca behind the American Embassy in Budapest could be, if it had communal seating and opened every night. It was great. You order from whichever place you want, take your buzzer, get your drink, find a table, and then wait.

Halla Koszyki Warsaw

We went for Cuban – jerk chicken and mango chicken with cassava hash browns. Delicious. We could have had Mexican, seafood, Thai, French, Italian, Polish – and lots more we didn’t get around to checking out. It’s a particularly good venue if you have a crowd of disparate eaters who can’t agree on where to go. In fact, when we’d been dithering earlier about a neighbourhood Georgian place (which was too hot to sit in and eat) I overheard three people arguing with the guy saying, in exasperation – Look, we can’t agree on what to eat, so we’ll go to Koszyki. What a great marketing strapline.

Hala Koszyki Warsaw

And tucked in between the resturants is a wine shop, a butchers, a bakery, a bookshop, a kitchen shop, and much more. The shops close at 6 but the restaurants and bars stay open till midnight.

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If I had to choose one city to revisit from this trip across Andalusia, it would have to be Granada. Yes, Ronda is beautiful. Yes, Cádiz has some great beaches. Yes, Córdoba has the whole cathedral-in-a-mosque thing going on. Yes, Seville has the oranges. And yes, the roads between these cities link many fascinating towns and villages, too. But my vote would definitely go to Granada.

Alhambra Palace, Granada

Granada was only on our list because himself want to see the Alhambra palace. Truth be told, I was churched-out by this stage and finding the heat difficult to deal with. I’d had just about enough of lugging suitcases in and out of hotels that proved difficult to access as Google  Maps is lagging behind the one-way systems in many of Spain’s old town centres. I hadn’t done any research at all. I couldn’t even situate the Alhambra in history. We had a 6 pm booking (be sure to book well in advance (weeks) if you want to see inside) and didn’t get there with much time to spare. Inside the Palacious Nazaries (access time is noted on your ticket) I saw a father with this two sons in their early teens. In a stern British accent, he was telling the two boys that this was an amazing place, with stunning architecture, built hundreds of years ago, and that they should be grateful to be able to get inside to see it all. The two boys, half-dead with the coupling of heat and boredom, just couldn’t seem to muster any interest. I felt their pain.

What began life as a small fortress back in 899 is now the most visited tourist attraction in Spain with a couple of million and more dropping by each year. The Moorish king of Grenada thought it a fixer-upper and renovated it in the eleventh century. And if we fast forward a few hundred years to 1333, we see that Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada, turned it into a royal palace. Originally white, its walls have been backed to a red in the heat of the Andalusian sun. The detail is spectacular and the gardens something else. But had I a do-over, I’d have gone in the early morning to avoid the heat and to be sure of getting a charged audio guide.

Alhambra Palace Granada

Alhambra Palace Granada

Alhambra Palace Granada

Alhambra Palace Granada

Alhambra Palace Granada

Sacromonte, Granada

The hills above the city are lined with caves. Sacromonte, the neighbourhood known locally as the gypsy quarter, is where all things Flamenco happen. This would be the place to go at night – to see the dramatic shows and hear the soul-filled music. By daylight, the views over the city worth the uphill hike to the Camino de Sacromonte. If you have time, or are fleeing the midday sun, the Sacromonte Caves Museum showcases this rock houses while Sacromonte Abbey takes care of the religious relics.

Sacromonte Granada

Sacromonte Granada

Sacromonte Granada

Sacromonte Granada

Sacromonte Granada

Albaicín, Granada

Lower down on the hillside, across the Darro River from the Alhambra, is the former Arabic barrio of Albaicín. This maze of narrow cobbled streets winds between whitewashed houses suspended in jasmine-scented air. The views of the Sierra Nevada and of the palace itself from Mirador San Nicolás are definitely worth the wheezy climb, but both Sacromonte and Albaicín are also accessible by local bus – if you can figure out the loop-like system. We failed. Twice. But, like the streets of Venice, this neighbourhood is somewhere to get lost in. Treat yourself to time off the tourist track and wander. Of course, if you don’t go early in the morning off-season, you’ll be wandering with hordes of other tourists, but it’s worth the effort.

Albaicín Granada

Albaicín Granada

Bazaar Granada

Eating in Granada

Had we had time, I’d have gone back to El Molino (Calle Molinos, 8, 18009 Granada, Spain) again and again and again. It is the perfect stress-reliever with delicious tapas included with every drink. Complicated ones, too, not just some thrown-together affair designed to appease the tourist. These are the genuine article. And they keep coming, even when you’ve ordered other things to eat. The chap who was there didn’t speak English but couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. The TV was showing footage of some old Flamenco shows which, judging by the reaction of the local regulars, was good stuff.  A delightful place that you can catch on your walk downhill from the Alhambra.

And yes, of course, the Cathedral is spectacular – from the outside at least. The street bazaar seems to offer everything you might possibly want to take home with you. And a walk along the riverside on Carrera del Darro is a must, stopping for a coffee and some delicious chorizo.

Yes, had I to pick one city I’d go back to, it would be Granada. Off-season. In cooler weather. Just under 2 hours from Malaga, it’s definitely doable.

More photos on Facebook.

That’s it for Andalusia. It was quite the trip, clocking up about 2200 km. Next destination is Warsaw … by train. If you’d like to receive similar posts directly to your inbox, sign up on www.anyexcusetotravel.com

 

granada

Granada Cathedral

 

 

By Roger W Haworth, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3208996

The road from Seville to Granada is a long one, especially if your point of origin is Burgau, in the Algarve. We’d already experienced driving from Spain to the Algarve as we’d taken time out from the road trip through Andalusia to take in a wedding in Praia da Luz and five days later, fully refreshed, we were back on the road. We had a 6 pm booking for the Alhambra Palace in Granada, which meant that detour time was restricted to pit stops for coffee and essentials.

Had we had the time to stop along the road, though, we’d have done so at Osuna. Remember the Jack Nicholson movie The Passenger, where his character is assassinated in the Hotel de la Gloria? Well, this was said to be in Osuna but it was actually filmed in Vera, in another province entirely. But the town was used in the fifth season of Game of Thrones. Apparently, it’s similar in style to Écija, with many Baroque buildings to be seen. This, of course, has been duly noted, should we ever find ourselves back in the vicinity.

Even though we didn’t stop to see anything spectacular, I did have time to reflect on the dos and don’ts of driving from Spain to the Algarve.

  • Don’t wait to buy petrol in Portugal. Fill up before you cross the border as it’s $0.30 at least more expensive than in Spain.
  • Don’t ignore the slip road signposted FOREIGNERS when you come off the Guadiana International Bridge. I saw it. In four languages. And I ignored it because it said nothing else other than FOREIGNERS. {If there is another sign mentioning tolls, I didn’t see it.) And, having an EU passport crossing from one EU country to another, I didn’t class myself as a foreigner. BUT, just a few km up the road, it dawned on us that it was for the new electronic toll system. Now we were on a toll road going through electronic toll booths with no toll ticket.
  • If you want to avoid tolls, exit at either of the first two exits Castro Marim/VRSA or Altura/Monte Gordo. If you use them, you’re not liable for tolls.
  • When you buy a toll ticket, don’t wait for any texts other than the first one confirming that you have a balance. It’s not in real time. Add the tolls up as you go along and when you’ve used your allowance, buy another.
  • If you have a foreign registered vehicle, don’t waste time in the Post Office trying to pay outstanding tolls before you leave the country – they only deal with tolls for Portuguese cars.
  • Don’t throw out the toll cards… you might just need them to prove you paid up when in Portugal.

So there you have it. What I wished I’d known when driving from Spain to the Algarve.

We made it to Granada with an hour to spare, saved by an enterprising tout who pulled up beside us on his scooter as we struggled to admit defeat at the hands of the one-way system in the old town. He asked us where we were staying. We told him. He drove ahead and took us there. And then wanted €10 for his trouble. Fair play, I thought. We’d have been lost without him as with sod all Spanish, it’s impossible to know which streets you can use and which you can’t and when.

The final stop of the tour, Granada. But more on that tomorrow.