Friday, 21 February 2014

England: London

Leonard Cohen live, Greenwich O2
Sunday 8 September 2013: My tenants are moving out of my Wimbledon apartment so now I have a base in London, fantastic. I'll take this opportunity to refurbish the flat, visit friends and family, and take in some of the capital's culture. Two months should be enough - well that's what I think!
Wednesday 11: I meet my chum Andy and we survey the flat - looks like a bomb hit it.
Thursday 12: I take time off to see Geordie boy Alan Price, formerly of The Animals, at a local venue, The Half Moon in Putney, my first decent ale for a while, sorely missed.
Sunday 15: Leonard Cohen plays a great two-hour set at Greenwich O2, for a man of 79 he's fantastic.
Monday 16: Andy comes over and we start on the overgrown garden. At dusk it's fenced, laid to pea gravel and slabs. I'm knackered.
Wednesday 2 October: Two weeks of working sixteen-hour days and I've cleaned all internal surfaces with sugar soap, all holes and cracks have been filled, ceilings painted, light-fittings replaced, double-glazing and central heating have now been installed, I've chosen the colour schemes and bought the paint so now it's time to start in earnest.
Wednesday 16: Two more weeks painting, the new bathroom suite is delivered and installed. More bloody copper pipes to prime, undercoat and finish, aagh. Gas safety certificate is issued.
Friday 18: The new carpets arrive and all are laid in a day despite slightly tacky skirting boards.
Tuesday 22: Andy returns with ladders to paint the external fascias. By now I've planned and refitted the internal doors to fit the new carpets, redecorated all but the kitchen and bathroom - there's light at the end of the tunnel.
Friday 1 November: More sixteen-hour days and I've retiled the bathroom walls and the bathroom and kitchen floors. Ross Electrical arrive and issue safety certificate.
Tuesday 12: External painting complete: fascias, back stairs, balcony and front door. New bed, mattresses, bedding, cutlery, crockery and fire blanket in place. Now it's time to relax, visit friends, take in some culture and, perhaps, see the inside of an English pub. Bugger, I've only got three days left.
Wednesday 13: Trip to Hampshire to visit cousins John & Joe. A good pub meal and an entertaining evening, it's always good to touch base.
Thursday 14: Trip to Hertfordshire to see old friends Stef & Dudley. Another good entertaining meal and more lashings of red nectar.
Friday 15: Trip to Oxfordshire to see friends Rob & Debbie and more of the same.
Sunday 17: Long-haul flight out of London Heathrow to escape the British winter.
Slideshow of England: London (mostly of my refurbished apartment).

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Spain: Camino de Santiago again

Pilgrims cut-out in iron, Alto del Perdon
Monday 29 July: From Bordeaux airport a convenient tram runs through town to Bordeaux St Jean station where I get the afternoon train to Bayonne for the little shuttle train to St Jean Pied de Port. So, once again, I'm at the popular starting point of the Camino Frances, the 500 mile (800km) pilgrim's walking route across the north of Spain to Europe's Atlantic coast.
Tuesday 30: (day 1): St Jean to Roscesvalles (16 miles, 25km) up and over the Pyrenees we go again from France into Spain, and down to Roscesvalles monastery's comfortable albergue.
Wednesday 31 (day 2): Roscesvalles to Zubiri (14 miles, 22km), Municipal Albergue in the former school house.
Thursday 1 August (day 3): Zubiri to Cizur Menor (17 miles, 26km), Albergue de Maibel marching straight through Pamplona.
Friday 2 (day 4): Cizur Menor to Lorca (20 miles, 32km), up to the iron cut-outs and wind turbines atop Alto del Perdon before dropping down to Puente la Reina and continuing through the pretty saucer-shaped village of Cirauqui to a single small room in Jose Ramon Albergue.
Saturday 3 (day 5): Lorca to Villamayor (13 miles, 20km), I couldn't resist stopping for a picnic lunch at the fuente de vino (wine fountain) west of Estella, private Albergue B&B.
Sunday 4 (day 6): Villamayor to Torres del Rio (13 miles, 19km), Albergue Casa Mariela.
Monday 5 (day 7): Torres del Rio to Logrono (14 miles, 21km), newly opened Check-In Albergue and an evening sampling from the town's famous tapas bars - black pudding topped with a fried quail egg, delicious.
Tuesday 6 (day 8): Lograno to Najera (19 miles, 30km), Puerto de Najera albergue over the bridge on the riverbank.
Wednesday 7 (day 9): Najera to St Domingo de la Calzada (13 miles, 21km), Cistercien nunnery with walled garden.
Thursday 8 (day 10): Calzada to Belorada (14 miles, 23km), Cuatro Cantones with indoor pool and good communal dinner.
Friday 9 July (day 11): Belorada to Ages (17 miles, 28km), El Pajar.
Saturday 10 (day 12): Ages to Burgos (22 miles, 14km), Santa Catalina.
Sunday 11 (day 13): Burgos to Hontanas (19 miles, 30km), hostal en-suite.
Monday 12 (day 14): Hontanas to Itero de la Vega (13 miles, 20km), bed in Albergue Mochila with good attempt at English breakfast.
Tuesday 13 (day 15): Itero to Carrion de las Condes (16 miles, 26km), Espiritu Santo nunnery with beds, good choice.
Wednesday 14 (day 16): Carrion to Terradillos (17 miles, 27km), Jacques de Molay bed and linen, good choice but sadly trouser pocket robbed at night, small money.
Thursday 15 (day 17): Terradillos to Calzadilla (16 miles, 26km), Municipal Albergue with solid four-compartment bunks.
Friday 16 (day 18): Calzadilla to Mansilla de las Mulas (15 miles, 24km), El Jardin del Camino with large front garden and bar.
Saturday 17 (day 19): Mansilla to Leon (12 miles, 19km), San Francisco Albergue en-suite double.
Sunday 18 (day 20): Leon to Puente Villarente (15 miles, 24km), El Delfin Verde with large outdoor pool. Had to backtrack to Mansilla (left my diary behind), as no buses on a Sunday, then back through Leon again (not the prettiest part of the Camino).
Monday 19 (day 21): Puento Villarente to La Virgin del Camino (13 miles, 21km), Municipal Albergue.
Tuesday 20 (day 22): La Virgin to Hospital de Orbiga to (18 miles, 28km), Albergue Verde, dinner B&B with afternoon yoga, great choice.
Wednesday 21 (day 23): Orbiga to Astorga (11 miles, 17km), San Javier Albergue and a fine meal opposite Gaudi's super Episcopal Palace, now a museum of religous art, yawn.
Thursday 22 (day 24): Astorga to Foncebadon (17 miles, 27km), Monte Irago Albergue where a local band offer us an entertaining evening of Spanish and Galician folk songs.
Friday 23 (day 25): Foncebadon to Molinseca (13 miles, 21km), up and through the pass of Irago, the highest point of the whole camino, Municipal Albergue bed in converted church.
Saturday 24 (day 26): Molinseca to Cacabelos (13 miles, 21km), Municipal Albergue.
Sunday 25 (day 27): Cacabelos to Vega de Valcares (18 miles, 28km), Albergue Sarracin.
Monday 26 (day 28): Valcares to Fonfria (15 miles, 24km), Reboleira Albergue.
Tuesday 27 (day 29): Fonfria to Sarria (17 miles, 28km), Don Alvaro Albergue.
Wednesday 28 (day 30): Sarria to Portmarin (14 miles, 22km), Santiago Albergue.
Thursday 29 (day 31): Portmarin to Palas de Rei (16 miles, 25km), Bar Central.
Friday 30 (day 32): Palas de Rei to Arzua (16 miles, 26km), Albergue Da Fonte.
Saturday 31 (day 33): Arzua to Arca (14 miles, 22km), Compass Pension
Sunday 1 September (day 34): Arca to Santiago de Compostella (13 miles, 20km) and the haven of an en-suite room in San Martin Pinario.
Tuesday 3: Bus from Santiago to the little port of Cee then a walk along the coast (8 miles, 13km) to Fisterra, a room in Pension Cabo.
Thursday 5: Fisterra to Litres (9 miles, 14km), As Eiras.
Friday 6: Litres to Muxia (9 miles, 15km) and a day exploring the port and lighthouse.
Saturday 7: Bus back to Santiago and St Martin's Pinario, tomorrow I fly to London Stansted, England.
Slideshow of the Camino de Santiago again.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Vatican City State

Behind the facade, St Peter's Basilica
Wednesday 24 July 2013: Rob's learning to cook pasta today and Debbie's shopping so this afternoon I'm off to see the smallest nation state in the world, the Vatican City. It's a fair walk but I soon cross the white line in St Peter's Piazza and, without customs or passport control, I'm in! A half-hour queue to visit St Peter's snakes to the right between the piazza's colonnades all the way to the church doors. I wait in the baking heat with little shade until we eventually reach the cool naves of the basilica, the final resting place of St Peter and more dead heads of the Catholic church than you can wave a papal sceptre at.
Sunday 28: My friends have flown so with more time on my hands I return to the the Vatican queues to climb up St Peter's dome and visit the Sistine Chapel. The panoramas from atop the basilica over the Vatican gardens and across St Peter's Piazza to the Tiber are fantastic. Adding to the thrill is being behind the basilica's facade of statues featuring Christ, eleven of his followers and John the Baptist. Surprisingly, St Peter's statue missing from the group.
After an early lunch another snaking queue precedes my visit to the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel, decorated with Michelangelo's The Last Judgement. More cherubs and biblical scenes lead, via the fascinating map room, to the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo's famous ceiling. Yes, more cherubs and biblical scenes, but exceedingly well executed ones.
Monday 29: Shuttle bus to Rome Ciampino Airport and soon I land in Bordeaux, France.
Slideshow of Vatican City State.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Italy: Rome

Gladiatorial splendour, the Colosseum
Monday 22 July 2013: Casa Santa Sofia is a quiet B&B overlooking a lively little fountain piazza not far from the Colosseum, ideal. I'm in Rome partly because it's my chum Robin's birthday and Debbie, his partner, has set him up, he thinks that they are there alone. So, I knock on their hotel-room door with a bottle of vino and a glass in-hand.
"Where's the party mate?"
I don't think I've seen anyone so surprised (Rob thinks I'm in Japan).
Tuesday 23: After a boozy night, the great gladiatorial amphitheatre is our first port of call. Unlike Greek theatres, built into hillsides, the Colosseum is entirely free-standing making it one of the great wonders of the modern world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Inside you can just imagine fierce gladiators, starving lions and timid Christians crouched in the underground labyrinth below, awaiting their fate. Nearby we explore Palatine Hill, the birthplace of Rome, and the Roman Forum.
It's Rob's 50th today so we dine in the rooftop restaurant of their five-star hotel, great meal.
Thursday 25: The guys are shopping so I head to the Galleria Boghese where there's more cherubs and religious art than I care for. More to my taste is the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna with a reasonable range of modern western art from the usual culprits.
Friday 26: The Panthenon temple, originally dedicated to the gods of ancient Rome, stands behind the great granite Corinthian columns of it's portico. The rotunda's domed roof has a central hole open to the sky for light and air; rain is dealt with by drainage channels in the floor. Continuing on to splendid Piazza Campidoglio I stop for lunch, it's a blisteringly hot day.
Saturday 27: I've walked past the Trevi Fountain previously but today I dally for a while, if only you could jump in, it's still hot here. Heading up to the famous Spanish Steps where there's really not much to write home about I continue to Castle Saint Angelo which sits above the river Tiber and call it a day. The food and service at our evening meal is awful, less said the better.
Slideshow of Rome.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Spain: Camino de Santiago

Art on the Camino, Hospital de Orbigo
Thursday 20 June 2013: Following a night at Pension Madrid in the Spanish north-coast port of Santander I take Alsa's 9:30 bus east, along the coast, to San Sebastian for the 12:30 south to Pamplona and the daily 14:00 bus east across the border to St Jean Pied de Port in France. St Jean is the popular starting point for the 500 mile (800km) Camino Frances pilgrimage walk to the cathedral city of Santiago de Compostella in the north-west Atlantic coast corner of Spain. Feeling the need to get fit I'm going to walk the whole route at pace. The downside is that I'm unlikely to make many friends, I'll be walking too fast for most especially in the latter stages.
Friday 21 (day 1): St Jean to Roscesvalles (16 miles, 25km) up and over the Pyrenees and back across the frontier into Spain and down to the monastic refuge at Roscesvalles.
Saturday 22 (day 2): Roscesvalles to Zubiri (14 miles, 22km), Municipal Albergue in riverside village.
Sunday 23 (day 3): Zubiri to Cizur Menor (17 miles, 26km), friendly Albergue de Maribel with a little suntrap garden.
Monday 24 (day 4): Cizur Menor to Cirauqui (16 miles, 26km), Maralotx Albergue in pretty village with great food and local red wine served in wine cellar dining room.
Tuesday 25 (day 5): Cirauqui to Monjardin (15 miles, 24km), Albergue Peregrinos with beds rather than bunk-beds.
Wednesday 26 (day 6): Monjardin to Viana (18 miles, 29km), Albergue Izar B&B.
Thursday 27 (day 7): Viana to Naverette (14 miles, 23km), El Contaro Hotel en-suite.
Friday 28 (day 8): Naverette to Azorfa (15 miles, 24km), Municipal Albergue.
Saturday 29 (day 9): Azorfa to Calzada (10 miles, 15km), Municipal Albergue.
Sunday 30 (day 10): Calzada to Belorada (14 miles, 27km), Cuatro Cantones.
Monday 1 July (day 11): Belorada to Ages (17 miles, 28km), San Rafael Albergue with mats on the breezy attic floor.
Tuesday 2 (day 12): Ages to Rabe de las Calzados (22 miles, 35km), Liberanos Domine.
Wednesday 3 (day 13): Rabe to Castrojerez (18 miles, 26km), Meson Hostal en-suite.
Thursday 4 (day 14): Castrojerez to Boadilla del Camino (16 miles, 26km), En El Camino Albergue.
Friday 5 (day 15): Boadilla to Carrion de las Condes (16 miles, 26km), Espiritu Santo Albergue with beds in large nunnery rooms.
Saturday 6 (day 16): Carrion to Terradillos (17 miles, 27km), Jacques de Molay.
Sunday 7 (day 17): Terradillos to Calzadilla de los Termanilos (16 miles, 26km), Municipal Albergue.
Monday 8 (day 18): Calzadilla to Mansilla de las Mulas (15 miles, 24km), El Jardin del Camino, dinner, B&B with beds and swimming pool.
Tuesday 9 July (day 19): Mansilla to La Virgen (17 miles, 26km), Antonia Cinia Albergue, bought new backpack in Leonen-route.
Wednesday 10 (day 20): La Virgen to Hospital de Orbigo (18 miles, 28km), Albergue San miguel B&B with little integral art gallery.
Thursday 11 (day 21): Hospital de Orbigo to Rabinal del Camino (23 miles, 28km), Albergue Gaucelmo B&B run by the Confraternity of St James, Southwark, London, with afternoon tea, very civilised.
Friday 12 (day 22): Rabinal to Pieros (32 miles, 50km), El Serbal y La Luna B&B, long day.
Saturday 13 (day 23): Pieros to O'cebreiro (22 miles, 35km), Municipal Albergue.
Sunday 14 (day 24): O'cebreiro to Sarria (24 miles, 39km), A Pedra.
Monday 15 (day 25): Sarria to Ferrerios (9 miles, 14km), Casa Cruceiro Albergue, painful foot forced a short day.
Tuesday 16 (day 26): Ferrerios to Ventas de Naron (13 miles, 22km), O'Cruceiro Albergue.
Wednesday 17 (day 27): Ventas to Melide (17 miles, 27km), Pereiro Albergue.
Thursday 18 (day 28): Melide to Arca (20 miles, 33km), Pension Bar Compas en-suite with massage shower, luxury.
Friday 19 (day 29): Arca to Santiago de Compostella (12 miles, 20km), Hospedaje de Santa Cruz en-suite. Now I feel fit!
Saturday 20: Renfe train (9:59-15:10) to Leon, San Francisco Albergue.
Sunday 21: Alsa bus (15:30-19:00) to Santander.
Monday 22: Shuttle bus to Santander airport for flight back to Rome.
Slideshow of the Camino de Santiago.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Croatia: Split

Croatia's busy ferry port of Split
Saturday 15 June 2013: Based at Diocletain's Studio within the bastions of the old city, I take a couple of days to explore Split's culture and heritage.
Monday 17: I settle into my comfortable 4-berth cabin, which I have all to myself, aboard Blue Line's overnight ferry (20:30-08:00) heading to the port of Ancona, across the Adriatic, in Italy.
Tuesday 18: Express train (15:30-18:56) from Ancona to Rome (more later) where I stay overnight in the Conte Verde Hotel before taking the airport bus the next morning to Rome Ciampino Airport - it's time to split (aaagh).
Slideshow of Split.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Bosnia & Herzegovina: Mostar

War-shelled ancient bridge rebuilt
Thursday 13 June 2013: Walking north from the station into the old town I soon find Mostar's welcoming Pension Isa, my haven for the night.
Friday 14: The city's 16th-century, Stari Most, Medieval bridge, built by Ottoman-Turks to span the steep-sided Neretva river, was destroyed by cynical Croat shelling during Bosnia's fight for independence in 1993. With the aid of international funding the flag-stone bridge was rebuilt and reopened, under heavy security, in 2004 to symbolise the reconciliation of the ethnic groups.
Wandering down the old cobble-stone streets, past low-key vendors and traders, I soon reach the elegant hump-backed arch spanning the swift-flowing Neretva. The traditional practice of young men jumping from the bridge to prove their worth has resumed but the the icy waters below help me resist the temptation. 
After lunch I backtrack to the newer part of town, opposite the station, where several bombed-out and pock-marked buildings remain, awaiting demolition or repair.
Returning to the riverbank to dine I watch the sun going down over the worn-torn city's atmospheric old bridge and reflect on the devastation of war before moving on.
Saturday 15: Catching the 09:28 train back across the border to Ploce I take a bus northward along the Croatian coast to Split.
Slideshow of Mostar.

Thursday, 6 February 2014


Pleasant little transport hub, Ploce
Thursday 13 June 2013: From Dubrovnik's sea-front bus station I soon arrive at the little ferry port and end-of-line train station at Ploce (pronounced Plochee). I have several hours to wait for the next train across the border to Bosnia & Herzegovina but Ploce's a pleasant enough place for a wander, a picnic lunch and a haircut.
Soon I'm on my way again aboard the 17:06 to Mostar chugging inland along the wide canals of the flat coastal plain.
Slideshow of Ploce.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Croatia: Dubrovnik

Red-tiled rooftops on the Adriatic shore
Monday 10 June 2013: Only one-minute walk from the tourist office, the Old Town Accommodation guesthouse, hidden within the city fortifications (with no alley name or house number to help), takes me an hour to find, but it's clean and central - ideal.
Tuesday 11: The classic walled-city, Dubrovnik is a great place just to wander around (at least until the cruise liner muppet groups arrive) and take-in the sights - ornate churches, clock towers, gates, ramparts and steep little alleys speckled with shops and restaurants.
Wed 12: 'The' thing to do in Dubrovnik is to walk around atop the extensive city walls and fantastic it is too with great views over the red-tiled rooftops to the port and cliffs below. Iron gates lead out to the rocky outcrop on which the city was built where tipsy revellers plunge into the Adriatic Sea below, cool.
Slideshow of Dubrovnik.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Kotor & Herceg Novi

Fortified mountainside above Kotor
Saturday 8 June 2013: A two-hour bus ride north takes me to the walled town of Kotor and the Hotel Galia on the waterfront.
Sunday 9: It's a strenuous zig-zag climb up to Kotor's mountainside fortifications high above the town but the views back down are just reward. Apple, pear and blackberry cider are the local drinks of choice, the perry (pear) works best for me.
Monday 10: Heading north again I stop briefly at the small castellated town of Herceg Novi before continuing to the mother of all walled towns on the Adriatic coast, Dubrovnik.
Slideshow of Kotor & Herceg Novi.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Montenegro: Budva & Sveti Stevan

Privately owned isle, Sveti Stevan
Friday 7 June 2013: Taxi ride over the border to Ulcinj in Montenegro, then a bus north, along the scenic coastline to Budva, a pretty old walled-town bustling with pink tourists. Once settled in at The little Hobo guesthouse I stroll south, back along the beaches and limestone cliffs, to the pretty fortified isle of Sveti Stevan, sadly all now just a large private hotel complex.
Slideshow of Budva & Sveti Stevan.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Slow train to Shkoder

Slow train clickety-clacking along
Thursday 6 June 2013: Tirana's cute little train station, complete with hand-written national timetable, is a delight. Few people here take the train as buses are newer, quicker and more reliable but I'm happy to relax aboard a well-worn compartment on the 13:10 service to Shkoder. At just 145 lek (about 85p) for the four-hour trip it's a real bargain - comfortable seats, room to walk around and great scenery, fantastic.
All too soon we roll into Shkoder and I settle into the tiny Hostel Mi Casa es Tu Casa before climbing up to Rozafa Fortress for fine views over the town and surrounding countryside. A black olive salad, grilled steak and, of course, a carafe of local red gold wind-up a great day.
Slideshow of the train ride to Shkoder.