We’d just spent a couple of nights in Sangkhlaburi in the north west of Thailand having hired a car in Kanchanaburi for our trip. John had enjoyed driving as the roads had been really quiet and the car was virtually brand new. We felt like seasoned travellers driving around but now it was time to return the car and get a lift back to Oriential Kwai. It was so good to be back. Once we’d checked in, there was just time for a quick dip in the pool before going down to the river to watch the sun setting whilst enjoying a beer.
The next day was Sunday and as we’d done quite a lot the previous two days we thought we’d have a fairly lazy day. John went for a bike ride whilst I took some pictures in the garden and had a swim.
It was around mid-afternoon when Evelyn, who co-owns Oriental Kwai with her husband Djo asked if we’d like to go to the local Sunday market. One of the chefs was going to buy vegetables and we could have a lift with him on his tuk-tuk, this was actually a small motor bike with a sidecar. This is a big local market but even so we weren’t ready for how huge it was. Before now we’ve walked into Lat Ya the local village on market day and so we thought this market was in the same place, we were wrong. It was much further, the other side of the main road out of town, quite honestly we would never have found it.
The young chef seemed very pleased to chat to us as he drove along in the searing heat. Our eyes were burning from the dust and hot air even though we were wearing sunglasses, the chef wasn’t though. Dropping us off at the market he quickly disappeared into the crowd obviously heading for his favourite vegetable stalls.
I wouldn’t say we stuck out as we walked around the stalls but we were definitely the only people there who weren’t local. Fortunately no-one seemed to mind me taking pictures and some stallholders were quite amused to see two European tourists.
We eventually found a stall selling bottles of water as our meagre supply had run out. It was just too hot for us so we escaped from the hustle and bustle of this busy market and sat in the park opposite. Only now were we realising we had quite a walk ahead of us to Oriental Kwai. We didn’t want to think how far …! We eventually made it back but not before stopping at a cafe for yet another cold drink. Djo was in reception when we arrived. He took one look at us and couldn’t believe we’d walked all the way from the market. Two very cold beers were quickly put in front of us – we’d earned them!
The next day we got a taxi into Kanchanaburi. There’s a tourist shop not far from the bridge which I like going into. It’s family-run and although most things are covered in layers of dust there are some Thai crafts in there a little more interesting than in the other souvenir shops.
We were so close to the bridge and as it wasn’t crawling with lots of coach parties we walked across. It’s an iconic landmark. I hope that people walking across think for a moment of all those men who lost their lives building the bridge and the infamous Thai – Burma railway.
It was time for a spot of lunch so we walked down to the cafe by the river. We had a prime spot overlooking the bridge with free entertainment courtesy of a water monitor. I’m pretty sure that for the rest of the day we lazed around at Oriental Kwai, swimming, reading, enjoying the sunshine, the wonderful food and the peace and quiet of this wonderful place.
With our holiday almost over we decided to make this day a memorable one and booked to go to Elephant Haven, a sanctuary which opened in 2015 for seven rescued elephants. Elephant Haven is located in Sai Yok, a thirty minute drive out of Kanchanaburi. A mini bus collects you and you join other tourists for the day. We’ve been to several elephant camps before but this one particularly appealed to us as it’s on a small scale. The herd have the freedom to roam, socialise, enjoy a mud bath and cool down in the river Kwai which runs through the sanctuary. In this beautiful setting you can observe the elephants behaviour and learn more about their complex social structure. The emphasis is more about educating the visitors about the needs of the elephants and the work the project is doing to highlight the plight of the Asian elephant.
As you’ll see from these pictures, the elephants are very happy here and not surprisingly we had a fantastic time. It’s the perfect ending to this Blog on our trip to Thailand. We can’t wait to go back and hopefully we will be able to in 2021. Thank you for reading this, the following Blogs will, for a while, be about our trips nearer to home.
Yes we were lucky to go on holiday before Lockdown. Having flown in from Paxi in Laos to Bangkok we got a taxi straightaway after getting off the Airport Rail Link. Before now we’ve had to wait quite a while. Thankfully this driver didn’t keep falling asleep every time we stopped at traffic lights! A bit scary as the traffic in the city is quite manic.
We have stayed in Baan Manusarn, which is a small guest house a couple of times before. As Bangkok goes it’s a fairly quiet area. The pier for the ferry is at the end of the road and there’s quite a few good restaurants nearby. Once we’d dumped our bags we had an afternoon to spare so we headed for the iconic temple of Wat Arun. Last time we were there we had horrendous jet lag and just about managed to drag ourselves around. This time we didn’t pay to go into the main temple as there’s plenty of other buildings you could go in for free. I’m saying ‘could’ as now you have to pay to go into the temple complex. Can’t imagine there’s many tourists visiting there currently or anywhere else for that matter – Thailand isn’t letting tourists in at the moment. Seems to be working as since the pandemic hit the country they’ve recorded just one death. That’s the official figure …
It was a fairly early start the next day as the train to Kanchanaburi leaves Thonburi station at around 8.00. There are just two services each day. You have to allow plenty of time to get to the station as Bangkok wakes up at 4.30am every day and the roads are busy. The huge market by the station teems with life and is where the taxi drops you off. You have to have your wits about you wheeling you case through to the station. The train journey takes about three hours and is an interesting trip but the exciting part for us is arriving! A quick call to our resort and a taxi is organised and we’re on our way heading out of town.
This for us is the most perfect place to stay. We love it here at Oriental Kwai. No wonder it’s Kanchanaburi’s number one hotel on Trip Adviser. It’s a 15 minute ride from the town and as soon as the taxi turns off the quiet lane into the drive, we feel at home, well our home in Asia. There are just twelve cottages and we like to stay in number 11. We enjoy the walk through the beautiful gardens, across the little bridge, past the immaculate swimming pool to the main reception area and restaurant. Late afternoon we like to sit by the river, have a drink and stay there until the sun goes down over the River Kwai.
Djo and Evelien who own and manage Oriental Kwai are lovely people and make you feel so welcome. They opened the hotel in 2007 after clearing quite literally a jungle! Together with help from their families they achieved their dream and their success story continues today. As I write this in the year of a pandemic my man and I are just hoping it won’t be long before we can go back again.
Although we know this area well we still like to do some sightseeing and lots of walking and John did a cycle ride whilst I stayed to take some pictures in the superb gardens. We’d also decided to hire a car this time and drive up to the lake town of Sangkhlaburi in the west of the province.
Picking up the hire car in the town was very straightforward, we’d booked it before we left home. Once you get out of the town the roads are very quiet although this route continues up to Three Pagodas Pass and the Burmese border. It also takes you past the entrance to the Visitor Centre and starting point for visiting The Hell Fire Pass, the name of the infamous railway cutting on the former Burma Railway. Although we have been before we wanted to see the changes they’d made to the exhibition centre.
The Visitors Centre and the Museum had been re-vamped however we both felt that the new layout of the exhibits didn’t have the impact we remembered from our last visit. It’s quite a steep walk down to the railway cutting itself but the impact of this area never changes. It is an emotional experience and the Memorial Walking Trail following the route of the ‘Death Railway’ is a sobering hike albeit with magnificent views over towards Burma. Don’t expect to hear any birds singing as you walk along – there are none. On this visit the walk was closed which was disappointing but we have walked it a couple of times before.
Back in the car and still heading North West we started looking for somewhere to eat. After an hour or so we were beginning to wonder if we’d have lunch at all when I spotted a cafe by the side of the road. No one spoke English – well why would they (?!) and the locals having lunch pretended we weren’t there. We hadn’t a clue what was going to be served up but the main thing was it was all going to be freshly cooked. I believe we had chicken, veg and rice but I honestly can’t remember, we enjoyed it with no ill affects so that was the main thing.
The journey after our pit stop became more interesting as we drove up through the forest and then down to Vajiralongkorn Lake. It’s actually a reservoir that was created when a dam was built in 1982. It’s a huge expanse of water and very impressive. The other thing you notice about this area of Thailand is the diversity of the people. Sangkhlanburi is a small town, traditionally the Karen people lived there. Now there are Burmese people, many refugees having left Burma for the safety of Thailand and people from the Mon tribe and other minorities. Apparently they live together in perfect harmony although there are defined districts with some living in the hills or on floating raft houses and the Mon people who live across the other side of the lake which is spanned by a huge wooden bridge.
As usual once we’d arrived in Sangkhlanburi and found our hotel, Kingfisher House, we chilled out for a while over a well-earned beer – ‘Chang’ as it happens. Time then to walk down to the lake and check out this famous wooden bridge which is Thailand’s longest. It is quite a landmark and was built in 1986 although it looks much older. Unfortunately the bridge known as the Mon Bridge partially collapsed after bad weather in 2013. As the bridge links the main town of Sangkhlaburi with the Mon area of the town, the locals quickly got together and within weeks rebuilt it. How’s that for teamwork? Although it wasn’t late the bridge was deserted as you can see from this picture. This is a very sleepy non-touristy place.
The next day we started off by exploring the town and headed up to see the reclining Buddha. Buddhists try to do a good turn every day, especially on Friday, to gain merit and that’s what a group of locals were doing outside a temple. There was a lot of painting and chattering going on and when they saw us we were invited to do some painting too!
There wasn’t much to see in the town itself and the market was pretty unexciting so we headed down to the bridge again. By now the temperature was in the high 30’s, very hot for walking across the bridge to the Mon village. Most of the shops were just closing but fortunately we found a cafe and I discovered the refreshing merits of Lipton’s iced tea! I managed to find one souvenir shop that was still open thinking there would be lovely Mon crafts to buy, sadly that wasn’t the case but I did manage to buy one or two little things.
Walking back over the bridge the heat was unbearable hence the rather natty headgear (bottom left picture). The little girl with the decorated face is Burmese. The yellow paste is called Thanaka made from ground bark . Its a traditional cosmetic often worn by Burmese people to protect the skin from the sun. The picture top right is of two local women laying out the freshly caught fish to dry.
Very few people in Sangkhlanburi speak any English so going into a cafe or anywhere is quite an experience. Once again we had no idea what we were going to get for lunch at this family-run cafe overlooking the bridge but the omelette and chicken was delicious. The cold drink which took quite a while to make was a real sugar rush job but we drank it of course. They were so kind to us, as though we were the first tourists they’d had there for a while.
After our lunch we drove up to see this rather splendid temple with the equally splendid name of Wat Wang Wiwekaram. The picture below is my favourite from our stay in Sangkhlanburi. It was a beautiful temple and although there would have been lots of monks we didn’t see any until we drove away. There was a group down the road sweeping the street …gaining that all important merit with Buddha.
When we went back to the bridge in the evening to watch the sunset the family from the cafe where we’d had lunch came out onto the balcony to wave to us. We felt very honoured.
We enjoyed our couple of days in Sangkhlanburi but felt that was long enough although we would visit again. We’d seen most of the sights and enjoyed the peace of the place and marvelled at the Mon bridge and the beautiful lake but it was time to get back to Oriental Kwai!
On our journey to Kanchanaburi we stopped at this interesting temple which was clearly a mix of Buddhist temples and Hindu. Quite unusual I think. Amazing statues and once again, no-one around.
The last part of this Blog on Thailand will include pictures from the market we went to which was fascinating and there will also be some pictures of elephants (irresistible), as we spent a day at an Elephant Sanctuary. I thought I’d do this as a separate account otherwise the Blog becomes a bit too long. I suspect this one might be so if you’ve read this to the end – thank you!
After two nights in the sleepy village of Champasak we caught a bus down to Muang Khong. That’s as far as you can go by road so we joined hoards of tourists leaving the bus station and headed down to the waterside. It was quite obvious as we got onto the ferry that most travellers were young backpackers, in other words we kind-of stood out! Seems that one of the islands, Don Det is known for its hippy party scene and is a backpacker’s Utopia. It’s part of the beautiful 4000 Islands archipelago on the Mekong Delta. But Don Det wasn’t our destination, we were heading for the quiet village of Don Khon, the southern-most island and as far as you can go in Laos.
It’s a little confusing as normally you can get a ferry direct to Don Khon but because the Mekong was so low they were not running and so the only ferry was to the neighbouring island Don Det. These two islands are connected by a bridge and the only way we were getting to our guest house was by motorbike taxi. Neither my man nor I had been on a motorbike since the ’70’s! I was a little apprehensive but was assured that my young driver was very experienced. Did I enjoy the twenty minute trip down the unmade sandy tracks – you bet!
The Pomelo Guesthouse is run by Olivia who is Swiss and her Thai partner, Tan. It’s a very laid-back friendly place with excellent home-made Thai & Lao food, basic but adequate wooden stilted bungalows and an endless supply of Lao beer. There was a friendly cat as well so all needs were catered for. The village has around 50 houses and 250 people live there. It’s very peaceful but you can hear the partying going way into the early hours on nearby Don Det.
Before we had our meal we decided to hire a boat to see the freshwater Irrawaddy Dolphins. Again a little confusing as they live in the Mekong close to the shoreline. These dolphins are so endangered that WWF estimates that in the river between Laos and Cambodia there are only around 90 left. It costs about 9USD for an hour’s trip and together with the possible sighting of a dolphin or two, you get to see a beautiful sunset. The boatmen know exactly where to take you. There were only a couple of other boats around and when a dolphin is spotted everyone converges to that spot. They say sightings are pretty certain and especially when the river is low because the dolphins stay close to the shore. It’s so hard to take a picture of them as you’re excited when they appear and of course they dive back into the water quickly. However it was magical to see them and what a precursor to an excellent Thai curry at the guesthouse.
Now any guide book will tell you that the way to discover this area is by bike. There’s the remnants of the old railway line which link the island to Don Khon and is the main route now. It’s called the Don Khon cycle loop and includes a temple, the French bridge, a decrepit old French steam locomotive and the Khon Pa Soi Falls. Cycling is the obvious way to travel and most people do, however that’s all very well if you can ride a bike. Well I can, but I’m rubbish and despite several attempts over the years, I’ve given up on it. They were quite surprised at the guesthouse that we were walking to the waterfalls and in hindsight they were right. It was only a few miles and it was interesting walking along the paths away from the main route but unfortunately after an hour or so the searing heat affected me. What seemed like miles from anywhere we sought refuge in the shade of a disused wooden shelter, drank copious amounts of warm water (it was cold when we left) and ate several polos. After a while I was able to carry on and and thankfully just down the road was a sign to the Khon Pa Soi Falls.
The falls aren’t the largest on the island but they are pretty impressive. It is on the tourist trail but apparently it never gets too crowded. I can’t tell you if you have to pay to go in as we somehow got swept through the entrance with a tour group. There is a wooden suspension bridge to the island which takes you to the main waterfall but that was closed when we were there.
With the temperature still hitting 40 degrees we stopped at the little cafe there to get more water and to ask about a tuk tuk to get us to Ban Khon Tai. The guy at the cafe said something to his lad who was obviously none too keen to cycle to the village in this heat but he did and came back with a Tuk Tuk and we rewarded him for it. Hope we gave him good enough tip?! I’m glad we went to this village because it made us really appreciate where we were staying. Ban Khon Tai was very touristy with cafes and restaurants either side of the street. We had lunch in one of them but it wasn’t anything special and the service was rubbish … our next challenge after that was to find a tuk tuk back to our guesthouse. It wasn’t easy and no doubt we paid over the odds but at least we didn’t have to walk all the way back. It took a couple of beers back at Pomello to sort us out.
If that wasn’t enough excitement for the day, it wasn’t over yet. First of all we decided to take another boat trip to see the dolphins. Our boatman, a real character and a man of few words with a cheroot permanently wedged between his lips took a while to spot any dolphins. We’d booked the sunset trip so we were slightly later than the night before, however seeing dolphins a second time and the most impressive sunset was just perfect.
Once again we had an excellent evening meal complete with the resident cat on the look out for food. Olivia and Tan had left their young assistant in charge as they had been invited to a party in the village. I might have mentioned how quiet and peaceful this island is but tonight they were rivalling Don Det. The only difference was the party was for the locals. They were celebrating the completion of a new house, similar to the ‘Rickfest’ which Germans have when the roof is finished on a new house, only party was on a much grander scale.
We’d seen the tables being set up earlier together with the erection of a large stage so we knew this was going to be some party. Olivia had said that most islanders would be going as it’s expected. What surprised us was how many people were there and how much food was put out on each table plus an endless supply of Lao Beer. For the entertainment there was a compere and a couple of singers accompanied by very loud music. How do we know all this? Well after our meal we decided to be nosy and walk round there to see what was going on. Even though we weren’t standing that close it wasn’t long before a very smartly dressed woman came over and led us to a table full of young people. Whatever she said they quickly moved their chairs so we could join them. What a hoot!
Although only one or two of them spoke a tiny bit of English we were made very welcome and given the flimsiest plastic glasses I have ever seen with Lao Beer and lots of ice. Every few seconds you had to clink your plastic glass which is not easy when they’re so flimsy and you say “Nok”, Laotian equivalent of “cheers”. We didn’t have anything to eat as we had already eaten and to be honest we had no idea what most of the dishes were. As this is Lao everyone and I mean everyone was drinking Lao beer. We didn’t want to let the English side down by refusing too many top-ups but we were also aware that if we stayed too long we wouldn’t be able to walk back to our guest house! These people know how to party!
We slept well that night and were pleased to hear when we checked out that Olivia knew an experienced boatman who could navigate the low waters of the Mekong to get us back to the mainland. We were so lucky as if it was a week later the river would have been too low. Our young ferryman really knew the river and only scraped the boat once. Don’t know how he managed because all the way along you could see the bottom of the rocky river bed, just inches away it seemed.
Our two-hour bus journey back to Pakse was less eventful and quite a boring journey so we were pleased to arrive back at Residence Sisouk and be welcomed back like long-lost friends.
Not sure I should include this last picture. We went back to the same cafe that evening where I polished off a plate of Morning Glory washed down of course with Beer Lao. I love this vegetable but on this occasion it didn’t love me! Fortunately by the time we boarded the plane for Bangkok my tummy had settled a little. Can you spot all the garlic? I didn’t need the side dish of chillies!
So that’s the account of our week in Laos. Next stop Bangkok.
We were very lucky to get away before ‘Lockdown’ and got back home just in time. Heathrow seemed surprisingly normal with a few sanitiser bottles dotted here and there. I don’t think at the time we were ready for what was to come …
Our holiday started off as we flew into Bangkok and then after quite a wait in the airport we boarded a ‘twin-prop’ plane to Pakse in Southern Laos. Although we’d been to Laos a couple of times this area was new to us. Our hotel, Residence Sisouk was built in the colonial style with an imposing teak staircase weaving around the building up to the bar and breakfast room. It’s a small, family-run hotel and was perfect for us. It’s true, there’s not a lot to do in Pakse but we enjoyed wandering round and found a lively bar/restaurant just down the road for our evening meal. Lao Beer, was in much demand! It’s definitely the national drink.
For our first full day we hired a tun-tuk to take us to the small village of Ban Saphai on the edge of the Mekong – very sleepy and that included the cows. It’s described as a having a Handicraft Centre which is definitely nothing to get excited about, not much activity there! We then took a short boat ride to the island of Don Khon which did live up to the description in Lonely Planet. It’s a weaving village and yes almost every house has a loom. We stopped and chatted to one lady who was working away and of course I bought something. Interestingly whenever I wore the skirt, it was much admired.
Back to Pakse for lunch and a siesta before getting the same tub-tuk to Pakse’s main tourist attraction, Wat Phou Salao. There is a road up to the giant Buddha and temple but there’s also scores of steps to the top. We like a challenge especially when the taxi driver looked at me and asked if I was sure I wanted to do it! Blinking cheek! If there’s steps to climb, then we’ll always go for it.
When you get to the top there’s great views over Pakse and the mighty Mekong. The Buddha is striking and also the rows of smaller Buddha statues all donated by the people of the town. There are hundreds of them. The best time to go up to the summit is either sunrise or sunset. Unfortunately the smog was pretty thick that evening so there was no sunset, but a nice golden glow. We enjoyed our walk around at the top and were especially pleased to receive a blessing and buddhist bracelets from a monk in the Wat (Temple). It’s always good to be blessed when you’re starting your holiday.
The next day we travelled by boat along the Mekong to the village of Champasak. It’s not on the tourist trail although it has a certain charm with its traditional Laotian houses and colonial villas. Our hotel was right by the river and we were luckily enough to be given the best guest suite in the place. Nakorn Cafe Guest House was excellent and the food, superb. It was a great find.
After a late lunch we explored the village which was very sleepy. Maybe it’s always like that? The handicraft shop run by a French lady was the one and only interesting shop we came across. School was out so we chatted to some children who were playing in the grounds of one of the many temples dotted along the main road. My man was asking the children the name in Laotian for elephant but every time he tried to pronounce it, it just sent the children into fits of giggles. One thing though, they loved having their picture taken which was great for me.
The next day we started early to try to beat the heat of the day. It’s hard to walk around ancient sites or anywhere else for that matter in 35 degree heat. Most tourists staying in Champasak are there for one reason and that is to visit the world heritage site of Vat Phou complex and temple and we were aiming to do that but it wasn’t our first stop.
It just so happened there was a festival starting that day at Wat Muang Kang. The older ladies were decorating the temple whilst children were trying their luck on various sideshows – much the same as home really. I’m sure if we’d gone there any other day it would have been a peaceful tour round this ancient temple but this day it was just manic. Great to see everyone enjoying themselves.
Our next stop over very bumpy back roads was to a ruined 11th century temple which is undergoing extensive restoration. Basically Hong Nang Sida Temple is a building site. We had to sign a form as visitors although frankly there was little opportunity to to explore the temple ruins. We chatted to a couple of workers who were from South Korea. This country is working in partnership with the Laotian cultural heritage department. Slightly disappointed that our driver had brought us along miles of dusty track as apart from a buddhist shrine there wasn’t much to see except piles of stone slabs. It’s going take some time to re-build this temple!
And then it was on to Vat Phou, the ruined Khmer Temple complex and the main tourist attraction in Champasak province.
This is a vast site at the foot of the Phou Lao mountain built along similar lines to Angkor Wat. By the time we arrived here it was almost midday and 35+ degrees and no shade. Fortunately you get a mini bus to the start of the first complex of temples. After walking through the first section you’re faced with the Phou Lao mountain in front of you …it’s uphill all the way from now on.
I’ve already mentioned that we like a challenge and getting up to the top wasn’t going to be easy but we had to go for it. Steps to each terrace are tricky; apparently there are seven tiers to the top although we didn’t count them. The views of the Mekong and surrounding countryside are stunning and at each terrace there are shrines to both Hindu gods and Buddha. So much to explore at each level and take pictures of course. Reaching the top we certainly weren’t disappointed. Water from a nearby spring comes down the mountain where there’s a makeshift channel so you can cup your hands and drink the wonderfully cold, water. You need reviving after this climb! The covered area by the side of the cliff is recognised as a spiritual place and the buddhist monk in front of us waiting in line to drink made the experience even more special.
Climbing down the hillside wasn’t too bad until we got to the flat area where the sun was at its harshest. Our water by this time had got very warm so we were thankful to arrive at the excellent Visitors Centre where a peculiar green drink revived both of us. The moral of this visit is …avoid going to a large temple complex in the heat of the day.
I’m going to end this Blog here as from Champasak we travelled by bus, boat and motorcycle to the southern-most tip of Laos, a spit away from Cambodia. There are more stories, more pictures to go into the next Blog and it probably won’t be quite as long as this one! I hope you stuck with this first account of our holiday in Laos and thank you if you did.
There has been a bit of a gap between Part One and Two on our trip to Croatia so apologies for that. Despite the current ‘Lockdown’ I’m always busy and when the weather is good, as it has been, I’m out in the garden rather than my office. Anyway that’s my excuse and now that gorgeous, sunny weather has left for a while, it’s on with the Blog …
You might remember if you read Part One that the reason my man and I went to Croatia was to celebrate our fortieth wedding anniversary. John had booked a rather splendid hotel on the Island of Rab. The island is just off the northern coast of Croatia. It’s famous for its beaches and the old town which is full of character and boasts four belfries rather like the ones you see in Italy. It all sounded idyllic so we were slightly surprised on or arrival to be faced with a completely barren landscape. Top left picture below). This couldn’t be it …surely?! Thankfully when you drive off the ferry about five kilometres down the road you hit civilisation and there below is the town in all its splendour.
We absolutely loved Rab and had a great time. The four-star hotel, The Arbiana was built in the colonial style and is right by the seafront. It was a perfect place to celebrate our wedding anniversary and although we had a very disappointing meal, the setting was delightful and there was even a full moon that night. We had a wander around the town before we ate and outside one of the churches was a bride having her pictures taken before the Ceremony. We gave her our congratulations and then told her we were celebrating our fortieth that day which amused her. We wished her well and walked around the corner to look at the gorgeous sunset.
As we were the only ones having a meal at the hotel, (clearly the rest of the guests knew better than we did!), we wandered into the town afterwards to find the square teeming with life with bars full of people, stalls selling jewellery and even a German-style Oompah Band!
The next morning we caught the ferry back to the mainland and had an interesting drive along the coast to the small town of Primosten. It’s actually built on a small island but is connected to the mainland and attracts lots of tourists because of the clear, blue waters which stay warm right up until October! The beach is very pebbly and tricky if like me you hesitate walking over them so I bought a pair of rubbery thick soled shoes. Not surprisingly every beach stall sold them but you don’t see the locals wearing them, I guess they’re used to the pebbles and the sea urchins with are everywhere in the water.
Of all the places we stayed on this holiday, Primosten was our favourite. The apartment was right on the sea front and had been newly renovated by the owners and was superb. I felt quite pleased as it was my choice – I’d chosen it above the three others in the town.
We had a lazy two days in Primosten; great swimming in the clear, warm waters although we never quite got used to lying on the pebbly beaches with just a towel as padding. There were lots of restaurants all along the waterfront – all a stone-throw’s away from our apartment. The seafood as you would expect was superb and I loved some of the small, local shops. It was just a perfect place – very unhurried and quite beautiful, we were sorry when we had to leave.
Our next stop for the last two days of our holiday was near the town of Trogir. It’s a famous place in Croatia and has always been popular with tourists but since the screening of ‘Game of Thrones’ it has seen a huge increase in visitors . The programme used many locations in Croatia which isn’t surprising as many of the historic towns and cities were a perfect backdrop. The harbour at Trogir doubled up as the trading harbour of Qarth; the doorway into the historic old town featured several times and the monastery of St Dominic was yet another location. From the pictures below you can probably see why Trogir was chosen as the ideal location.
It was only a short drive from our hotel, Vila Tina along the seafront to Trogir. Even in the low season the place was teeming. For ‘people-watching’ you can’t do better than have beer at one of the many bars along the harbour side. It was also interesting to see some of the very smart yachts arriving and mooring up there. Walking through the famous gateway into the old town it was obvious why Trogir is listed as a World Heritage Site. – it has a rich cultural heritage with intact medieval architecture everywhere. Great for photographs especially when you come across little corners where no-one else is around.
You won’t be on your own though when you stand outside the Cathedral of St Lawrence. This is definitely on the tourist trail and boasts a superb doorway if only I could have got a clear shot of it without people in the way! We paid 25kuna to go into the Cathedral which included access to the 14th century bell tower. The climb up the circular staircase was well worth it for the fantastic views from the top making sure you didn’t bang your head on one of the large bells!. Climbing all those steps gave us an appetite for lunch but it took quite a while to find a cafe in the old quarter which wasn’t full – goodness knows what this place is like when it’s busy!
We were chatting to the hotel receptionist saying we were going to spend the penultimate day of our holiday in the city of Split. We were thinking of going by bus until she recommended taking the ferry from the little village of Slatine which was just further down the coast. This has got to be the best way to arrive in Split. The ferry is used by locals too and wasn’t expensive.
Split is the second largest city in Croatia and is famous for Diocletian’s Palace built in 305AD for the Roman Emperor of the same name. The palace is a massive structure and covers half of the old town of Split. It’s rather like a giant fortress and was built with four gates none of which survive but you can still see the carved stone pillars and arches. The Palace and the old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was yet another location used in ‘Game of Thrones‘.
Just before we went into the complex I took this picture (below) which I have ‘aged’ a little. I liked this dilapidated building and the clothes on the line made the picture for me. Perhaps I should have photoshopped out the satellite dish and the air-con unit …? Looks like people still live there.
Walking into the basement of the palace gives you a good idea of just how thick those walls are(Picture on the left hand side). Once you’ve walked through you’re then into an amazing open space, a Roman square which feels like a film set -what I would call The Forum but apparently it’s called The Peristyle. It wasn’t overly busy when we were there but I gather in summer it’s not pleasant because of all the crowds. Turning to go into the cathedral there are two very impressive large Egyptian sphinx which are 3000 years old. No-one seemed to mind that tourists were sitting on them!
So far everything is free but you have to pay to go into the Cathedral which was about three euros. Its quite small inside as it was originally built to house just the grave of the Emperor. He ousted all the Christians and it wasn’t until a few hundred years later that the building became a church again. Lots of gold leaf in here.
Of course we had to climb up the bell tower where you had to pay again. Bit of a rickety staircase but it was well worth the climb for the gorgeous views of the city, its harbour and the hills beyond.
After lunch we left the palace through the Golden Gate to look at the statue of ‘Gregory of Nin’. (Great name). It’s an iconic feature of the city and is one of the most visited sights in Split. Apparently Gregory was a Croatian religious leader in the 10th century. Nowadays visitors, including us, give his big toe a rub to bring you luck. You can just see in the picture, bottom right that’s exactly what the little girl is doing.
After all this sightseeing it was time to head towards the harbour, grab a cold beer before catching the ferry back to Slatine and picking up our car.
That evening we went back into Trogir and had a superb meal in the old town. Stunning sunset too which was a fitting end we thought to our week in Croatia. We’d driven quite a few miles, visited several places, enjoyed the weather, the beaches, the people and the history, We didn’t have time to visit Dubrovnik but I think Split and Trogir were enough for us. We would thoroughly recommend a trip to Croatia but maybe avoid the High Season.
It’s been a while since my last Blog and there’s a reason for that … I wasn’t sure whether writing about travel at this particular time was the right thing to do. Then I noticed other travel bloggers were carrying on as usual, so I’ve decided to do the same. My ‘usual’ I should say means that when one of my Blogs go ‘live’ the holiday you are reading about happened a few months ago. I’m always aiming to catch up so you never know, with these current restrictions on travel due to the coronavirus and staying at home I might just do that. Croatia first and then Laos followed by our trip to Thailand, but I’m jumping ahead.
It was interesting how many times Croatia was mentioned last year. (2019). The travel pages featured the country quite regularly and we knew several people who had either been or were going so after doing some research we decided it would be a perfect place to celebrate our fortieth wedding anniversary.
My man had booked an apartment right in the middle of Pula. https://www.citycenterroomsistria.com/en-gb/contact “Don’t take any notice of how the building looks outside,” we were told …and they weren’t joking! Thankfully despite the crumbling exterior the inside was really nice and a stone’s throw away from the city centre. Bags dumped, car parking space found, it was time to explore!
Pula is situated on the tip of Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula and is known for its Roman ruins, picturesque coast and harbour. The arena is impressive and free, that’s if you don’t go inside. You don’t need to as you can see everything from the outer walls.
There are several Roman features in the city and loads of cafes and restaurants. No problem finding anywhere for breakfast in the morning we thought. After doing some more exploring we headed up to the the castle known appropriately as ‘The Fortress’. To be honest there wasn’t much to see inside but the views of the city and harbour from around the walls were impressive.
By the time we got back to the apartment we’d tried the local beer and had a very mediocre afternoon snack. Fortunately the meal that night at the Restaurant Alighieri made up for it. What we hadn’t expected was how hard it was to find somewhere for breakfast the next day. There are cafes either side of the main streets and all of them were full of people …drinking. Croatian’s love their beer and liquors and obviously nine in the morning is when you come out and socialise and drink. Eventually we found a bakers which had a cafe but that seemed to be the only one around.
Having enjoyed croissants and a hot drink it was time to leave Pula and head inland to the medieval hilltop town of Hum. It claims to be the smallest town in the world and has 27 inhabitants, several tourist shops and two main streets with challenging cobbles. It has it’s own charm though and great views although there isn’t a lot if you’re looking for tourist attractions. You pay 10 kroner to park and to access the town you open two enormous copper doors. We tried the local speciality drink which is a brandy which includes mistletoe. (Funny I thought mistletoe was poisonous?) Anyway we survived that but weren’t tempted to buy a bottle. Coming out through the copper gates I spotted the town cemetery which if you have read any of my blogs you’ll know I can’t resist checking out a cemetery. There was one picture on a grave which caught my eye which I’ve included in the composite picture, I thought she was very beautiful.
Leaving Hum you don’t have any option but to drive back along the narrow twisty road which seems to go on for ever. Eventually the coastline came into view and I spotted what looked like an ideal place for lunch …and indeed it was. Don’t know if Bakar is a touristy place but we were the token two. It didn’t take us long to spot the place to eat just by the water’s edge …freshly caught sardines served with chips and washed down with a beer for the equivalent of £6. It turned out to be one of the best meals of the holiday. The cafe was full of locals and you could see why. After we’d polished off our meal we decided to stretch our legs and walk up to the main village. Wow was it steep! The people of Bakar must be very fit!
Continuing along the coast our stop that night was a B & B overlooking the seaside resort of Crikvenica. This seaside town was the direct opposite of Bakar being a popular tourist resort. So popular that when we drove into the town that night for a meal we found it impossible to park. In the end we drove out a little way and found a pizza place. The one thing I’ll remember about our stay was the B & B had one of the smallest and coldest swimming pools ever but there was beautiful sunset that night. Our room had a balcony and faced west so I was able to get a few shots.
The next morning after a superb breakfast at the B & B we followed the coastal road for a while before heading inland towards the UNESCO world heritage site of Plitvice Lakes National Park. Its Croatia’s most popular tourist attraction so we knew it was going to be a busy there. It’s also high up in the mountains so it was bound to be cooler than on the coast but we were ready for it. It’s interesting too that these hardy types eat a lot of meat. An unbelievable amount. It’s fuel I suppose but it’s hard to find a meal that doesn’t come piled high with meat. We ate at our guest house Villa Verde the first night and my goodness it was a hearty meal to say the least whether you chose the meat or fish dish, but at least there was a choice.
Day three of our holiday and what a beautiful day it was for visiting the Lakes. We decided to walk from the guest house to Entrance number 2. As the park has so many visitors including coaches coming from far and wide it’s all very well organised. The walk through the forest was lovely with the sun coming through the trees and so quiet that it was a shock to arrive at the entrance and see so many people.
We managed to get on the first shuttle bus which drops you off at the start of the upper lakes. There are sixteen lakes in all, seven different routes you can walk round and four hiking trails plus the electric boats on the lake and the park bus. We arrived at 9.00am and already it was quite busy but by early afternoon the coach parties were in evidence and many of the tour groups wanted to take over the whole of the paths. Choose a hiking trail if you want to avoid them!
There are twelve upper lakes and four lower ones. The colour of the water is a beautiful turquoise and teems with fish. The waterfalls are so impressive as are the coloured rocks underneath which hopefully you can see in the picture below.
Around every twist of the trails are stunning views, dynamic water features and deep rocks rising all around. The most impressive waterfalls are called Sastavci and when you see the Korana River flowing under the base of the falls it’s a stunning sight.
This national park is very well organised. There is a trail to suit everyone whether you want to spend a day hiking to the upper Lakes or a more gentle stroll around the lower lakes travelling across to the other side on one of the electric ferries. There are plenty of places to buy snacks and there’s also a restaurant and for those preferring not to do too much walking there’s the panoramic bus tour too.
We spent most of the day in the park ending our visit with a well-deserved ice cream before walking the whole way back to our guest house. It had been a fantastic day. We’d walked about twelve miles, seen some wonderful sights and the weather had been perfect, we couldn’t have asked for more. Just to add that the park is as you would expect closed at the moment, let’s hope it won’t be too long before it’s able to re-open.
This seems like a good place to finish this section of my Blog on our trip to Croatia – it’s long enough I think and I’ve got lots more to write about. Hope you’ll stick around for Part II – when I write it!
Midway through our week in Provence and we’re off to Les Baux in the Bouches-du-Rhone department primarily to see the Carriéres de Lumiéres – more about this unique spectacle later.
Perched on a rock, Les Baux dates back to the Middle Ages and is steeped in history. Even the rock itself has a legend attached to it. Balthazar (great name), one of the three wise men, is said to have continued his journey following the star of Bethlehem as far as Les Baux-de-Provence. Where he went after that the website doesn’t say!
The 13th century castle dominates the village and was a key stronghold during rebellions. Les Baux has gone through turbulent times like many Provencal villages but there was a turn of good fortune by the 20th century when it became a major gastronomic destination. We had a pretty good lunch here I have to say although being a popular tourist destination, prices are ramped up.
There’s no doubt about it …Les Baux is an interesting place. We picked up a map from the tourist information office in ‘La Maison du Roy’ which was completed in 1499. We made a good attempt at spotting and visiting some of the major places of interest listed there. I’ll mention just a few:- The 17th century chapel of the Brothers of the White Penitents, the 12th century church built half into the rock, The chapel of weavers and carders built at the same time and the renaissance mansion, Hotel de Manville, built in 1571. However as you walk round this medieval village there’s interesting architecture everywhere. It’s not surprising it’s listed as a world heritage site.
Having spent the morning walking round the village we had lunch then headed off to, what is basically a disused quarry but houses a beautiful multi-media show. It’s one of France’s most popular tourist attractions, Carriéres de Lumiéres
Basically it’s the location of a giant quarry which first opened in the 19th century. The stone is white limestone and was used to build local houses until new affordable materials such as concrete and steel took over. The quarry closed in 1935 and would have remained so if it wasn’t for the French film maker Jean Cocteau. He saw potential in the great stone slabs and filmed there. Then forty years later a guy called Joseph Svoboda saw that the whole area (7,000 sq metres) would be perfect for a sound and light show and Carriéres de Lumiéres was born.
Since that time, every year there’s a brand new show. The 2019 show which was the one we saw featured the paintings of Van Gogh projected on to the giant stone walls. My pictures don’t give the true impression of how it feels to be there, watching these moving images. Someone said it’s rather like being on the deck of a ship and that’s fairly accurate as you do feel as though the sandy floor is moving too. If you click onto the link in this paragraph it’ll take you to the website which features videos of this exhibition. It really is something else and I’m sure the 2020 exhibition which focuses on the work of Dali and Gaudi will be just as fantastic.
With just two days left before leaving Provence we spent the morning in L’Isle sur la Sorgue and the afternoon exploring the area around where we were staying. I wouldn’t say we got lost but our intended circular walk didn’t quite work out that way and we ended up walking through what was clearly private orchards of fruit trees. It’s the perfect fruit-growing area and the apples on the trees look so good. Did we pinch a couple of apples as we walked along …no – they weren’t ready!
For our last full day we were going to treat ourselves to a very special lunch and there was only one place we were going to for that …Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the restaurant at the top of the village, Le Verger des Papes.
On the way there we stopped near to the village of Saint Saturnin lés Avignon so I could take a few pictures of an intact Lavoir – a village wash place. We’d driven passed the building and water mill lots of times and because it looks interesting I wanted to see more. As you’d expect it’s not in use anymore but it was a shame to see the water wheel which had moved the water through the building in a poor state and beyond repair. A sadly neglected site.
So on we continued to Chateauneuf-du-Pape. If you google the place, the first thing it mentions is the famous full-bodied red wines produced from the southern Rhône, and is the main reason tourists flock there. As soon as you arrive you see wine-tasting cellars everywhere. Chateauneuf-du-Pape is a small medieval village about 12 kilometres from Avignon and has around 2200 inhabitants. The ruins of the ancient chateau dominate the skyline and this is where the tourist trail starts as conveniently there’s a large car park by the chateau and its free. Apart from the winter months this village bustles with tourists.
Having wandered around the castle ruins it was time to head to Le Verger des Papes for lunch where once again the food was superb. We would have sat out on the terrace but the weather wasn’t good that day and the view over to the Rhône was pretty murky. Nevertheless we had a great lunch followed by a wander round the village to walk it off a little.
That evening was spent in the company of our lovely friends whom we’ve know for years and are always so welcoming. It’s amazing how my French improves after a couple of glasses of wine! We were sorry to have to say goodbye to them and of course to Provence. There were more goodbyes the next day too as not only were we leaving but our hosts at Le Mas de Mijour are leaving after running the Mas for several years. Thank you Fred and Emma for your kindness, your warmth and your hospitality, you’re going to be a hard act to follow.
Saturday morning and it was time to return our rather smart Mercedes to the car rental in Avignon and catch the TGV to Paris. By sheer good luck we had time in Paris to enjoy a glass of wine outside a cafe near Le Gare de Lyon before getting the Metro to Le Gare de Nord and Eurostar. It was great just to sit and relax in the sunshine and talk about our two weeks away and all the things we’d done. Menton had been great but Provence as always takes some beating. Roll-on next summer when I’m sure we’ll be back again.
My previous Blog ended with my man and I leaving Menton by train and heading for Avignon for the second half of our holiday. We left on a Saturday morning, caught the local train to Nice, then another train to Marseille and the TGV for the rest of our journey. We had to wait a little while to pick up the hire car at Avignon and although it was no hassle the hire company decided to upgrade our car to a rather splendid Merc. It was so whizzy we had to ask where the ignition was!
Having more or less got to grips with this rather splendid car we drove towards the town of Le Thor which is about twenty minutes from Avignon to ‘our’ cabin at Le Mas de Miejour We’ve stayed here for the last five years. It suits us being tucked away at the rear of the owners’ house. No-one bothers you, it’s adjacent to the superb pool there, the garden is private and it’s a perfect place to enjoy a glass of rosé.
We first came to this area about thirty-five years ago, then had a break exploring more of France when the lure of Provence brought us back again. It is our favourite area, we know it very well and it’s never lost it’s charm or appeal. There’s so many places to visit including the delightful medieval villages in the Petit Luberon and the pretty towns of L’Isle sur la Sorgue, Les Baux, Chateauneuf-du-Pape and many more. You’re spoilt for choice.
There is a famous market every Sunday in L’Isle sur la Sorgue. It’s a typical lively French market with an array of local fruit and veg. If you’re interested in Bric-a-Brac this Sunday market is the place to go. Unfortunately though its become very touristy and in the last few years very crowded, you can spend ages just trying to park. We now prefer to visit the town in the week so we can have a leisurely walk round.
So on this Sunday we decided to drive just a few miles away to the large village of Monteux (This is a link to a Blog. The actual website for the town doesn’t mention the wonderful painted buildings everywhere). The whole of the medieval centre is like an artist’s canvas.
As I’ve just mentioned, it’s very peaceful where we stay so we tend to go out in the mornings and then chill out by the pool in the afternoon. Sometimes we’ll have a bbq in the garden in the evening or a meal out, it’s not a week when we plan too far ahead or do lots of things.
The pictures below were taken in the medieval village of Venasque, famous for amongst other things, cherries. We weren’t there this time for the cherry festival but that’s quite something – the producers take their cherries very seriously. If you’re feeling fit you can always walk up to the village which we have done. It’s perched on a steep cliff so the walk is not for the faint-hearted! The 13th century church is well worth a visit and you get a terrific view of Mont Ventoux from the castle. As you can see from one of the pictures below there’s a handy fountain where you can sit and enjoy your wine and free nibbles if there are no seats left outside the cafe. The baguette at the nearby Boulangerie was excellent too.
Our friends who live near Le Thor suggested we take a trip over the next day to two villages in the Luberon which are not on the tourist trail but well worth a visit. They were right – we only saw two other tourists all morning. On the way to the first village of Joucas I made my man stop the car so I could take a picture of the famous hilltop village of Gordes. Now this is a touristy place, they even charge you to park and the price for a beer is just silly. It was featured in that lovely film ‘A Good Year’ about an investment broker who inherits a chateau and vineyard in Provence. That’s what dreams are made of!
Back to our tour of a few Provencal villages … We happily strolled around Joucas in the sunshine admiring the lovely old stone houses, winding pathways and great views over the plain towards the ochre cliffs of Roussillon. Then we drove to Goult, another village perched on a hill with a medieval castle and fabulous views. The steep walk up to the 17th century flour mill with its four sails was well worth it. It has been restored and apparently if you’re lucky it might be open – it wasn’t on the day we were there but you can still admire it from the outside.
All this walking in the mid-day sun meant we were in need of refreshment so we headed into the Luberon to my favourite village, Lacoste. We usually manage to park just at the bottom of the village near to yet another favourite of ours, the Café de la France. The food is great and the views from the terrace are superb. Yes it’s touristy but with a location like this, you don’t mind. As I write this I’m back there now soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying one of their excellent salads washed down with a glass or two of provencal rosé …if only!
After lunch we walked up the steep cobbled street, through the 14th century Portal de la Garde gate and on up to the Chateau de Lacoste. This has had a chequered history to say the least, one of it’s occupants being the infamous Marquis de Sade. One can only guess what when on when he was in residence! Before the fashion designer Pierre Cardin bought it in 2001 the chateau was neglected and in a state of disrepair. We can remember when you could just walk in and look round the ruin, now its been renovated you have to pay to go in. Full price 12€. According to the village’s website Pierre Cardin not only spent a considerable amount of money on the chateau he also bought about thirty buildings which again he has restored. It sounds as though the jury is out regarding what the locals think of this. They’re already used to the many American students who come here every year to study art which has put Lacoste as the cultural, artistic centre of the Luberon.
There’s only so many hilltop villages you can visit in a day and with the temperature still around 25º mid-afternoon it was time to head back to ‘our’ pool. It’s rare for anyone else to be there.
By mid-week we always pop over to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. It’s known for its antiques stores and weekend markets, plus many waterwheels on the Sorgue river which winds its way around the town. In the centre is a very grand 12th century church which gleams in the sunshine having recently been cleaned. The Cafe de Paris opposite is a popular meeting place and good for people-watching as you sit outside to enjoy your beer. Alongside it is an excellent ice cream parlour. The town is very quaint and was once a very important centre for silk and paper-making. Nowadays some of the magnificent mansions have been converted into Art Galleries or antiques centres.
After a leisurely walk around the town we drove just 2km east to the Partage des Eaux. This is where the crystal-clear river Sorgue divides into two. The water is a constant 13 degrees. Although I’ve never swam in it, we did go on a canoe trip once which was fun, especially the section where you have to wade through the cold water up to your waist without the canoe! It’s a popular spot for fishermen and great for a picnic if you want to brave walking across the weir to the opposite bank. We just enjoyed sitting on the seat by the waterwheel watching the river drift lazily along in two directions! We can recommend the local wine at the cafe Le Pescador alongside the river where you can sit in the courtyard escaping from the searing midday sun.
We’re halfway through our week in Provence and a perfect spot to pause this Blog. There’s plenty here including lots of pictures and I’ve still got more for the second half. Hope you’ve enjoyed this account so far. Please come back to read the rest.
My man and I love trains and with the wonderful TGV and Eurostar it’s not difficult to wizz across Europe from London. The departure lounge at St Pancras is always packed with people sitting anywhere they can. All that space as you walk down between the arcade of shops and then at the end everyone is squeezed into this small holding area. Maybe sometimes it’s quieter but we’ve never seen it like that.
The TGV is a brilliant way to travel. You look out of the window at the cars going along the motorway and they seem to be travelling so slow …they’re not of course, it’s us flashing by. Within two and three quarters hours we’d arrived in sunny Avignon before travelling further south to Menton. The train goes a lot slower after Marseille but we didn’t mind; the weather and the terrain told us we were heading towards the glamorous Cote d’Azur with Menton being the last rail stop before Italy.
Hotel Lemon where we were staying for four nights was just down the road from Menton station. It was a perfect sized hotel for us with only eighteen rooms. Ours was right at the top of this French colonial style building, tucked away from everyone, the only snag being …there was no lift. The owner’s son was on hand fortunately and had no trouble taking both our cases, one on each shoulder up the two flights of stairs to our room – we were very grateful as by now we were definitely flagging.
I can’t say our meal in the town that evening was anything special but we made up for it after that. Our first full day there was spent discovering the town and walking along the promenade. Straightaway we loved the feel of the place. Menton is famous for its lemons and has a festival each year. As well as that it has apparently the most days of sunshine of anywhere in France. What a great boast, very good for tourism that’s for sure. As you can see from the pictures above it lived up to it reputation whilst we were there. I had to take a picture of these two art nouveau wall plaques – Alphonse Mucha painted decorative theatrical posters which was why these two were on the wall of a disused theatre. Good to see they hadn’t been vandalised.
That night we had as superb meal, not French but Italian. If you go to Menton do go to Le Napoli, their home-cooked meals are to die for! It’s more a locals restaurant than a tourist place which to be honest gave it a great atmosphere. The food, tasty sauces, the presentation, the price – everything was perfect. It was so good we went back there on our last night too.
Our second day in Menton and we were off exploring the hillside around the town. The Botanical Gardens of Val Rahmeh are delightful and very quiet. Entrance is just €7 which as they say on their website allows you to wander and enjoy the exotic, elegant, organised chaos of their gardens. Do check the opening times as the ‘old retainers’ go for lunch and they will get you out by 12.30 come hell or high water! The gardens are varied with paths winding through. It’s protected from the winds by the mountains which gives this exotic garden a subtropical micro climate.
I forgot to say that on our way up to the hills we walked through the historic old part of Menton and couldn’t believe how many passageways there are. It’s a mediaeval district with tiny houses built into the side of the hill. We never did find a way through to get out at the top road and maybe there isn’t one.
Leaving the garden we walked further up the hill coming out onto a main road and then turned into Park Pian which was full of olive trees (picture top left). It was so quiet and peaceful and a pleasure just to sit there for a while. Our next stop was the Cemetery du Vieux Chateau which as you would expect was equally quiet! If you follow my Blogs you’ll know how fond I am of cemeteries – well photographing them! This one has the best views of the old town and the harbour and some pretty good statues too. I was in my element taking pictures. There’s the grave of William Webb Ellis here. He is accredited with inventing the sport of rugby so this cemetery has become something of a pilgrimage site for rugby fans.
The rest of the day was spent flaking on the beach, reading and enjoying the sunshine. A couple of hours was enough; the beach was very rocky and quite uncomfortable and we only had a thin towel each. There was just one antidote to recover from our aching backs …a couple of beers at one of the bars along the promenade.
The next day we walked from our hotel to catch the number 100 bus which goes along the coast round to Monaco. We missed the stop by the first staircase which takes you up to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin but spotted the second in time for the driver to stop for us. It’s quite a steep walk up to the village which is perched on the edge of a cliff topped by a 10th century castle which offers a fabulous panoramic view. We were lucky to see the view as not long after we’d arrived at the castle the clouds started to roll in. The main tower is pretty much intact and in fact was rebuilt at the beginning of this century. The medieval village has narrow streets, lots of arched passageways and tiny individual shops and of course cafes and restaurants.
After refreshing ourselves with some local beer we made our way down to the corniche by the first staircase and decided to walk back to Menton along the promenade. By now we’re quite hungry and as luck would have it we came across a bakery with a cafe which was bustling with life and selling decent squares of pizzas and yummy cakes – perfect! I’m not sure how far it was to Menton except it felt a fair way so when we got back we headed off to the beach again for another couple hours R&R.
On our third full day we decided to visit Monaco and caught the 100 bus again. Monaco is the name of the country, it has several neighbourhoods and Monte-Carlo is one of these. (I looked this up!).
Our first stop after getting off the bus and walking along a street lined with very expensive shops (no surprise there), was to pick up a map from the tourist information office. We then walked though a small park with tropical plants and a manicured lawn to the ‘Place du Casino’, which says it all. There are four casinos in the Principality with the Casino de Monte-Carlo being the most luxurious. In the front, on the roundabout is the stunning ‘Sky Mirror’ designed by Anish Kapoor to reflect the fountain, the sky and the casino – it does that beautifully.
After watching the very smart limos drive sedately around the Place du Casino we headed off to walk around the marina on our way to the Prince’s Palace. It doesn’t cost anything to ogle these super yachts and it’s an interesting stroll. Loved the name of the motor cruiser registered in Poole …the name says it all. The statue of the diver was very impressive but despite trying to find if it was sculpted after anyone famous I’ve drawn a blank on that one.
The Prince’s Palace of Monaco is the official residence of the Sovereign Prince of Monaco, H.S.H. Prince Albert II. Climbing up to the palace was a good aerobic exercise as there are plenty of steep paths and steps – there is an easier way but we like a challenge. We arrived at the square on the dot of 11.55, just as the guards were coming out. The Ceremony lasted about five minutes and although there were lots of tourists watching we managed to get near the front.
We then went to the shop to buy tickets for admission to the Palace which were 10 euros for adults. To my great surprise there was also an exhibition in the state rooms mostly of photographs and film of the afternoon on May 6th 1955 when Grace Kelly visited the Palace and met Prince Rainier. Less than a year after that this legendary film star married her prince. Sorry to disappoint if you’re visiting the palace this year, the exhibition ended on October 15th 2019. Even so, this 13th century Palace which was restored by Prince Rainier (with no expense spared) is magnificent with a spectacular marble staircase, opulent furnishings, frescoes, paintings and tapestries.
After that we were in need of something to eat but is there anywhere cheap to eat in this city? The answer is yes. Just by the market hall is an outside cafe selling drinks and sandwiches and panini at very reasonable prices. We felt quite pleased with ourselves but as by now it was mid afternoon it was time to head back to the station.
One final thing we wanted to do was to go into the Casino de Monte-Carlo to have a peak inside – not to gamble but to admire the magnificent Atrium. It’s free to go in and photography is allowed. This superb space with its marble columns, frescoes and gold leaf everywhere is just amazing and impossible to photograph without any one else in the shot.
Did Monte-Carlo come up to our expectations? I’m not sure we had any. You can almost smell the money here but unlike Vegas this place is real. If it looks expensive, then it definitely is. It was well worth the visit but great to get back to some reality. For our last night in Menton we went back to the same Italian restaurant and the patron remembered us even down to the wine we’d drunk the first time!
When Saturday morning arrived we were sorry to leave Menton but as we were heading to Provence our sprits lifted fairly soon. We boarded the local train to Nice and then caught the TGV to Avignon. Next Blog … yes, it’s all about Provence!
Visiting a cemetery may not be on everyone’s holiday itinerary but I find them fascinating. So much scope for taking pictures and I don’t mean in a morbid way. There’s usually some beautiful statues and often on gravestones in Europe is a picture of the deceased person. Makes it somehow more personal. In this cemetery in Lisbon we came across a memorial to the firemen who had died in an incident in the city. (The memorial is the small picture below the statue).
At the far end of the cemetery is a separate area of graves dedicated to the men who gave their lives to the fire service. It was a peaceful spot, beautifully maintained with a superb view of the Tagus river with the 25th April Bridge bridge across. The cemetery is called Cemiterio dos Prazeres which bizarrely translates as the Cemetery of Pleasures. This would you believe, has become a popular tourist place to visit.
The website says …”When you walk through the large entrance gates and enter the central square, you don’t really notice how big this 20 hectare cemetery is. The paths along the graves are symmetrical, making Cemitério dos Prazeres look like a miniature city for the dead”. If you look at the picture (above), bottom right you can see what they mean. There are lots of avenues with small houses on either side which are the family mausoleums. They have little ‘front doors’ with glass windows which you can peer through and see the caskets …should you wish. Walking along this avenue felt a little weird so we decided to head out and find a beer. Fortunately as the cemetery is just by the terminus to the no 28 tram line, there was plenty of places to get a drink.
I should mention that if you do visit the cemetery there are famous Portuguese personalities buried there including actors, singers, writers and painters. Open every day of the week 0900-17.00.
And now it was our final day. We decided to walk first of all to the St Vincent Monastery to see if we could get in the church to look round. This imposing building dominates the skyline and is huge! Its name in Portuguese is ‘Mosteiro de Sao Vincente de Fora‘ which means ‘Monastery of St Vincent Outside the walls.’
If you go there don’t be put off by thinking it’s closed; walk through the archway on the right which takes you into the walled garden and the entrance is opposite. For a mere €5 you can wander round and enjoy the church, the collection of paintings, sculptures, the museum, an impressive gallery and from the top of the roof of the monastery you get amazing views. I’ve already mentioned that our friend doesn’t like heights so my man and I went up to to check it out. You can just make it out from the picture above that the rooftop has a balustrade and this runs all the way round. I’m so pleased I went down to tell Liz that it was really safe up there – she came up to the top and loved the all-round views.
This beautiful church is in the heart of the Alfama district. Historically this area was associated with poverty, prostitution and squalor where once the poor and disadvantaged lived. Walking through the narrow cobbled streets with its ancient houses, fashionable shops and trendy cafes you could hardly believe it now. It’s a really interesting area with some very steep stone staircases where you can take in the view at the top before descending down to the maze of alley ways lined with tiny independent shops and bars.
We had a simple but delicious lunch at a cafe perched on the corner of one of the streets. We wobbled on our chairs a bit but there’s hardly any streets in the Alfama District which are flat. The fish was fresh, the beer quenched our thirst and if there were fumes from the cars passing close to our table, we didn’t mind. We had time to chat about our fab week in Lisbon; all the things we’d done and how we’ll definitely come back one day. The Alfama District is where Fado is said to have been born. It’s a melancholic style of singing said to be a deep expression of the Portuguese soul and originally associated with sailors and prostitution. This link will take you to five restaurant in Alfama where Fado is sung. uhttps://www.lisbonguru.com/5-best-fado-restaurants-alfama/ There are lots more restaurants and bars so you need to do your research as meals vary in price. To discover more about this traditional music there’s the Museum of Fado but sadly we just couldn’t fit that in before heading home.
The pictures below were all taken in the Alfama district
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our week in Lisbon. I felt I need to split the Blog into three parts otherwise it would have been too l-o-n-g! Thanks for sticking with it.