holiday Archives

October 9, 2008

South Africa and Mozambique

Today we are off on a mystery trip. It's only a mystery to husband Keir, who officially doesn't know where we're going. I booked it a few months ago: no mystery for me! Sadly, the combination of anti-malarials, time of year and flight times must have given away the fact that we are going to southern Africa. It remains to emerge whether he has guessed the Mozambique bit (Benguerra Island). Since both my experiences of diving earlier this year have been muted, at best, he has probably guessed I'm keen to go somewhere coastal as well. The books I'll give him at Heathrow will certainly tell all: one on the Kruger and the other on Mozambique, where he can relax and bird-spot and I shall dive (weather permitting).

I've got a name for the pre-departure tailspin that precedes any holiday, but I never seem to get any better at managing or preventing it. In just over an hour we are off, and I had barely time to write this. Although I wrapped up the massive task of page-making our forthcoming Everest book yesterday, that meant leaving packing until today. And this morning I couldn't find my favourite camera, the excellent Panasonic Lumix with an 18x zoom. OK, I'll fess up to having other cameras (2 other digitals and I won't admit how many film-based) but this is THE safari camera. And until I found it, I couldn't start charging its batteries, which takes simply hours ... hence I'm sitting in my office waiting for the light to go off: ridiculous! Actually the combination of dive kit, underwater housing (for the other digicam) and so forth makes for a surprising number of batteries, chargers, adaptors et al, not to mention the wonderful obsolete dive computers.

Time to go now (EDI then LHR then Johannesburg), this entry filed just after mid-day but I'll schedule it ahead (for once) so Keir can't read it before we go.

October 14, 2008

A sojourn at the Savanna Lodge, near the Kruger

We've just been staying at the Savanna Lodge. I had been sceptical of its website claim "the ultimate safari experience", but I was wrong, it's all true. The Savanna Lodge staff are passionate, dedicated and skilful, and the whole day is geared to maximising your chances of game viewing in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve (which borders the Kruger). The morning game drive leaves at 0530, with breakfast served on return. Lunch is at 1530 followed by the evening game drive. (Between the two you can sleep, swim, chill or whatever.) Guests are assigned to a 2-man team which takes you on game drives in vehicles with no sides or canopy. Sitting thus exposed, within a few yards of elephant, lion or leopard, really does feel like the ultimate safari experience.

Keir and I were assigned to ranger Shaune and tracker Nordic - a long-term partnership in which communication was mainly wordless. They had an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time, each depending on each other's skills not only for successful sightings, but also for safety. They read the animal's body language, approach only when the animals are calm, often positioning the vehicle (engine always switched off) so that the animals approach it. Thus we found ourselves amidst a herd of 40-50 elephants, including very young ones and the matriarch, calmly feeding and walking past us, at one point only inches away. Here is one of the many photos I took (telephoto lens unnecessary:):


Elephant, rhino and lion were plentiful and most drives gave us close sightings of these and more. Rhino were even grazing quietly outside our cabin on the day we arrived, although I captured the one below at a water-hole, late afternoon. Shortly after, we saw these two lions near a kill, and they were so relaxed that they resumed mating. Apparently they do this every 15-30 minutes for as long as the lioness is in oestrus - only yards from the vehicle. I felt slightly voyeuristic at first, then just awe-struck.



But the most thrilling sight of all was leopard. Solitary, stealthy and secretive, it's the most elusive of all carnivores. We followed this female as she stalked and killed a baby kudu. The chase was literally breath-taking and the experience utterly unforgettable.


We really enjoyed the excellent Savanna Lodge food and drink: game drives always stop for a sundowner, and unlike many "inclusive" resorts, this one charges nothing for extras, whether drinks, laundry or bathtime luxuries (e.g. lavender oil in a quail's egg). They even give you a blank CD on which to burn your photographs!

October 18, 2008

A dugong while diving

Wednesday was my first day of diving here at Marlin Lodge, and it was sensational. Within the first five minutes, I found myself staring at this weird-looking mammal:


The fact there were a couple of sharks nearby was strictly a side-show. Dugongs are a threatened species, so rare that divemaster Paul had never seen one on a dive before despite 10 years of diving almost daily in these waters. There's a total of about 40 animals in this part of the Indian Ocean, and it's the icon of their Marine National Park. If I hadn't seen manatees in Florida before, I would have thought I was hallucinating. I found out about the dugong only after I saw it.

Dugongs (and manatees) are also known as sea cows, perhaps because they graze on underwater grasses, but (unlike the manatee's) the dugong's tail is fluked like a whale's. Sea cows are related to elephants, and reputed to be the origin of the myth of the mermaid. The photo above is courtesy of National Geographic. For once, I was glad I wasn't carrying a camera, as it left me free to enjoy the magic of the sighting.

It was the first of many dives I made on Two-mile Reef, although yesterday we went further afield to Cabo San Sebastian and dived to 29 metres in crystal-clear water. The journey there through the "washing machine" was a real white-knuckle ride, the motor-boat slamming hard through huge, confused seas. It was such a tranquil contrast then to drop below all that surface noise and share the cool, deep seascape with turtles, devil rays and potato bass. However, the bumpy journey was also rewarded with sightings of humpback whale and lots of dolphins, which was a considerably bonus on top of the diving. Above all, the diving was enhanced by divemaster Paul's relaxed, but highly professional style, which led to safe but enjoyable diving for everybody.

October 20, 2008

On sailing a dhow at sunset, Marlin Lodge

We've been in Mozambique for six days, and Marlin Lodge is stunning. Twice we went on a dhow cruise near sunset. The dhow is a traditional Arabic sailboat with a large lateen (triangular) sail and simple rigging (one halyard, one sheet). They have no keel: heeling is controlled by moving the passengers and/or sacks of ballast. The cruises are provided by the local islanders, in locally owned boats in which the mast looks improvised and sails are patched together from bits of tarpaulin and other material:


Our first skipper was all of 16 years old (his crew a year younger) and the teamwork whereby they handle these heavy, keel-less boats is most impressive. The rig is much more efficient on one tack than the other (where the sail presses against the mast). For our later trip, I had worked out how to get on helm, right across Flamingo Bay as it turned out. This photograph is significant as it is husband Keir's very first image taken with the Leica-lensed Panasonic Lumix camera that I used on safari:


To see how wonderfully elegant these boats are under sail, and why sunset is the best time to enjoy them, words are inadequate, so here's another image.


January 2, 2009

December 2008

It's hard to know what became of December, although the 5th-13th was spent very enjoyably in France, ski-ing with friends and neighbours Aileen and Malcolm Johnson at Val Claret, just above Tignes. We had both the best conditions I can remember, and almost the worst, with two whole days out of seven when I didn't ski at all. However, it was so brilliant when we could that this hardly mattered. Now that the apartments at Val Claret have wi-fi, I routinely take my laptop and regard bad weather as an opportunity to work, rather than a challenge to ski regardless of wisdom. This has had a good effect on my broken bone tally: after three years out of five with successively a serious back and head injury, then broken clavicle, finally just a scaphoid, I was beginning to feel defensive when asked if I wasn't getting past it. Nowadays when blizzards loom, I just get out the laptop. Just as well, too, as a kind fellow skier spotted a mistake in our new Everest guidebook (on the back cover too) that had somehow slipped through all proofreading. Thanks to the magic of email, this was fixed, proofs rechecked and the whole book put to bed just as fast as if I'd been at home.

After the return from Val Claret, there wasn't long before Christmas and I must say that this was the most peaceful, amiable and enjoyable Christmas Day I can remember. I think Amy was partly the cause, but my wonderful family must take some credit too. Probably we were all seeing the event through two-year old eyes this time. Certainly she got super presents: Uncle Sandy provided a music centre with karaoke, and you can see how popular that was:


My pre-Christmas trip to the Early Learning Centre for the grandparent present had started badly, because I naively answered the assistant's questions about age and gender truthfully: this led to my being steered toward a toy ironing station! Once I told them she liked transport, we refocused on one of those garages with lifts, ramps and a helicopter pad and about 20 diecast cars of the right scale to go with it. Sandy and I had a wonderful time "helping" Amy (i.e. preventing her) sticking on the transfers and we all had a great time playing with her toys. Pure magic!


December 9, 2009

Ice diving beneath Lac de Tignes

I’m in Val Claret for the week, the ski resort just above Tignes where I have been coming for 20+ years for a pre-Christmas boost of unrepentant, politically incorrect downhill ski-ing. I keep thinking I should grow out of this, but I constantly rediscover that I am still addicted.

Most lunchtime stops are a bowl of soup in a mountain restaurant, but today was different. I had decided to try ice-diving under Lac de Tignes, with Evolution 2 and it was completely unlike anything I have ever experienced. I mean, I have dived before, but in warm water and maybe a wet suit, not under an ice ceiling in a dry suit having arrived on skis and departing shortly after, also on skis, but winded: because of the high altitude (2100m/7000ft) and low temperature, the regulator delivers less air than you expect, and would freeze if turned up to a normal setting. So you suck air, greedily. And wear blue rubber gloves that are locked on at the wrists.

Courtesy of Evolution 2 and, here are a couple of pictures. They aren't actually of me, but easily could be as everybody looks the same in a dry suit and full-face mask:



The colours are extraordinary. The air bubbles trapped underneath the ice take on the curiously convex, reflective quality of mercury. Unlike when sea diving, there was no fish life nor live corals to view. I was certainly not cold, nor even faintly damp nor frightened. But it was as different from the world of lift queues, après-ski and pisted fluency as outer space.

The instructor holds on to you at first, all part of the beginner treatment, but then asks (in sign language) if you prefer him to let go. Of course I did, but it wasn’t nearly as easy as sea diving, where I am very much within my comfort zone. I found myself fighting the buoyancy and striving to stay upright. I would probably be more competent next time around, but I’m not sure if I need to do it again.

Of one thing I am certain: I will never again look at the blank surface of Lac de Tignes in quite the same incurious way. Now I know what lies beneath, there is literally a whole new dimension on the familiar mountain experience.

January 26, 2010

Madeira: first impressions

Madeira is something of a revelation. It has an attractive climate year-round, thanks to being on a latitude with Marrakesh, moderated by maritime influence and sea breezes. Its mountainous scenery is dramatic and lush, but despite the gradients you can reach anywhere on the island by bus. You can do easy walks along its levadas (irrigation channels) ot make adventurous hikes to its highest point (Pico Ruivo at 1862 m/6107ft).

Roads are good and driving standards high: drivers give way to pedestrians and, even more surprisingly, to each other. They use the euro and GMT here, and you can drink the tap water. We flew direct from Glasgow in 3.5 hours, and yet it is unquestionably an exotic place to visit.

Discovered in 1420 by an explorer called Zarco, in the service of Henry the Navigator, Madeira was soon colonised and has been Portuguese ever since. Enjoying a degree of autonomy, the island seems to take pride in its mother country. The population stands at around 275,000 and there is little crime or political unrest, hardly any litter or graffiti. And although unemployment is high, we have seen only one beggar in Funchal.

Most people speak English and seem welcoming to tourists. The museum attendant who didn’t was more than patient with our questions and body language and pidgin Portuguese. Habsburg ex-Emperor Carlos died of pneumonia here in 1922 after only six months in exile. Winston Churchill painted here in 1950. And because our small, family-run hotel has wifi, I can blog about it direct.

Here are some photos from our first explorations: first the wonderful rooftops of Funchal from its very modern cable car:


There's a fine fishing village at Camera de Lobos (lobos means sealion in this case, though also wolf) where we saw them catching the shark-related espada ("scabbard fish") which we had for dinner (truly delicious):


Finally, here we are, Keir and I, near the dramatic 600-m high cliffs of Cabo Girao:


January 29, 2010

The garden isle

Yesterday we visited two gardens (Palheiro and Madeira Magic). After long weeks of white-out snow in Dunblane, it was especially refreshing and delightful to see flowers in January. And the flowers here have an extravagance, a mad profusion of vibrant colour and some wonderfully improbable forms. Here are some examples, first, the King’s Crown Protea:


Widespread on the island is this amazing Bird of Paradise flower:


Finally here is the Golden Cup, an unusual flower that is be pollinated not by birds, but by bats, because it puts out its aroma only at night. This must be to mutual evolutionary advantage, but I don't yet know why:


February 1, 2010

The three peaks, Madeira-style


Pico Ruivo sounded unmissable. Its summit (1862m/6107ft) is at an impressive height, reached via knife-edge paths and long dark tunnels through the basalt, passing amazing flowers lower down, then centuries-old heather trees and, near the summit, patches of snow. Madeira Explorers even organise a tour that drops you at Pico de Areeiro, lets you climb to Pico Ruivo and then collects you from Achada do Teixera, thus combining Madeira's three highest peaks with a long scenic drive and no backtracking. So I booked with them for Saturday.

Our guide Adriano was excellent, and the group a pleasant bunch of 8 other hikers, all of us going at roughly the same pace. It being January, we were lucky to set off on this itinerary: it has to be rearranged whenever there is too much snow or rockfall. Perhaps it is churlish to report that, as the photo above shows, we were in fairly dense cloud for almost the whole time. Even in poor visibility, you couldn't miss the dramatic skyline and basalt pillars:


The path was so well engineered as to seem disconcertingly tame, with ropes and cables for protection and little drama even on this exposed rock bridge, with sheer cliffs falling away on both sides:


The walk featured a lot of steep staircases and we had to cross the odd land-slip along the narrow path: Madeira's heavy rainfall must create huge challenges for path maintenance. I suppose it was the summit that troubled me the most: the vast timber platform seemed at odds with my concept of mountain summit, with a wide boardwalk leading to a further viewpoint. Doubtless it works well for picknicking tourists. However, my smile below reflects the brief break in the cloud that let us glimpse a breathtaking view of the coast from this lofty viewpoint before closing in again. It was almost enough to overcome my reservations.


February 22, 2010

From New Providence Island

The Bahamas have seemed very exotic to me ever since my elder sister Lindsay returned from there as a bronzed, beautiful 18 year old (nearly half a century ago). Knowing that the diving is supposed to be good, I was delighted when Keir suggested a holiday here, and we had a delightful direct flight with BA on Saturday. Thanks to timely online checkin, we had two exit row seats with more legroom than Business Class, and after only 3 movies (Amelia Earhart, An education and Golden 39) we were in Nassau with only a short transfer to the resort.

Sandals is at Cable Beach, near Nassau on New Providence Island. It's an amazing mixture: the down side is the naff pseudo-classical statues and some cringe-worthy (but optional) entertainment, but there is also the stunning natural beauty of its beaches and private island. We also like the simplicity of all-inclusive: if you've finished eating, you need not hang around for the bill, there's no need to carry valuables and no reason not to have another drink.

Anyway, the diving is included! Fortunately I visited the dive shop on arrival and got a place on yesterday's shark dive, an event that runs only if enough experienced divers sign up for it. We were encircled by dozens of Caribbean reef sharks (harmless if treated with respect, but wild animals all the same) and had magical moments watching them at very close quarters. I'll try to update this with a photo: it being my first dive I wasn't carrying my own camera, but Ricardo, the dive photographer, was in action. The water is cold enough that I went into Nassau on the bus today and bought my first wet suit, which should make a big difference for the rest of the week. It was only $10 more expensive than the rental, and can be re-used on my next dive trip in cooler waters. Some women would rather have a mink coat, but I am delighted with this extremely comfortable garment.

February 24, 2010

The lionfish, the wreck and the wardrobe


Today was my birthday and it's hard to imagine a better start. OK, there was no wardrobe, but there was a wreck and I did find a lionfish. On today's dives I felt really relaxed, truly in my element. (If there is reincarnation I'd like to come back as an otter or dolphin, please.) Thanks to Ricardo Mesa, the talented resort dive photographer, I have my first-ever recognisable photos of myself diving.

I spotted a lionfish lurking on the wreck, and am here pointing it out to my buddy Sean, who hadn't seen one before. They are elegant, extravagant and delicate-looking and deliver a near-lethal sting if you provoke them, so this was close enough:


We just hung around watching it in fascination. If you are into headgear such as fascinators, could this species be a source of inspiration?


Finally, also thanks to Ricardo, here's my parting shot from the wreck, which was called the Steel Forest, and lies in about 21m/65ft of water:


After a peaceful afternoon, we went for a Japanese meal (delicious, cooked and served with theatrical flair by a young Bahamian). Afterwards I got a wonderfully thoughtful present from Keir, who had cunningly concealed it (heaven knows how, my luggage is bursting with dive gear but his seems to contain minimal clothing plus several hardback books of up to 1000 pages each). What a lovely day I've had!

March 1, 2010

An adventurous dive with sharks

On Sunday, my Sandals dives were cancelled because of high winds. However at 11.20 I found out that the Stuart Cove shark-feeding dive would run in the afternoon, leaving at 12 noon. So I scrambled to retrieve dive gear and do the paperwork (two separate liability release forms), then joined the group which had only 7 divers in total, plus a shark feeder (Ingrid) and an underwater videographer (Janine). (I wondered how difficult, in the long-ago days of TV's “What’s my line?” the miming of either of those occupations would have been?)

After a preliminary wreck dive, Ingrid gave us a shark briefing as well as some safety advice. (Dive briefings can sometimes be casual affairs, but on this one, every diver was listening as if his/her life depended on it.) Caribbean reef sharks live for up to 40 years, if lucky enough not to be killed by humans, but aren’t sexually mature until they are about 10-15 years. The death of each mature shark represents the loss also of future shark generations.

National Geographic says that 40 million sharks are killed each year, largely because shark's fin soup is highly valued, especially in China. Finning is a brutal practice in which fisherman cut off the fins and throw back the hapless shark to bleed slowly to death in the ocean. Considering sharks have been around for over 400 million years, it seems shocking that human greed is threatening to make them extinct over a few decades: see Shark Allies.

I had been slightly concerned about the ethics of shark feeding, in case the tourist attraction created a dependency culture. Much to my relief it turns out that the bait supplied by these daily feeds amounts to a light snack that doesn't affect their need to hunt and feed. Sharks are the vultures of the ocean, seeking dead and diseased flesh (carrion) and thus keeping the oceans clean. Jaws movies and general superstition have given them an unfairly bad name.

Live divers are not their preferred food, but they may test if something is edible by biting (which could lead to an accidentally sticky end of your dive if you get in their way). Anyway, these are wild animals and powerful swimmers, and when excited by food their thrashing about creates strong turbulence, so you need to stay alert. If what they bite is unyielding, their teeth are sacrificial: apparently each shark may grow and discard over 20,000 teeth in its lifetime.

I was pleased to see that Ingrid and Janine both put on chain mail protection (there was no cage, just a small bait box). We, the other divers, had only subtle protection: the sharks are supposed to be attracted to the fish bait and the person dishing it out, rather than to us. We were briefed to keep still and follow instructions, at all costs avoiding any thrashing about of arms or legs. Experienced divers try to make minimal movement to conserve air anyway, but we had added incentive on the shark feed. This image shows the lovely Ingrid in her chain mail with excitable sharks milling about her bait; you can just make out some divers kneeling or lying prone in the sand behind her:


Technically, our dive was very simple: we added extra weight to guarantee negative buoyancy and kneeled or lay in a circle watching Ingrid and sharks at the centre. We remained almost motionless for 50 minutes, which sounds a long time but believe me there was not a dull moment. This was, by a long way, the most exciting, engaging and interesting dive I have ever done. Being so close to these acrobatic fish was totally absorbing, rather than frightening, akin to an extreme form of aquatic modern dance.

You can see the dive boat at upper right of this picture, and I am the diver small at lower left. The second image below gives a better sense of how close they came, though the shark image isn't as good:



We were warned that the sharks might knock out our regulator or mask and firmly told not to touch the sharks – but nobody told the sharks not to bump into us. The constant circling, the sharks' extreme closeness and the small group size meant that photography could hardly fail. I even took some decent shots myself, though I freely admit that the images here were all taken by Janine of Stuart Cove. In the one below, I'd just taken out my air regulator to make the photo recognisable, BTW: I don't think I'd have felt as calm if a shark had knocked it out!


April 9, 2011

Jamaica, diving and dolphins

We got back from Jamaica on Wednesday, after ten days of deeply relaxing holiday at the small resort of Ochos Rios on the north of the island. There's good diving along this coast, including a great wreck drive (the Katherine, a World War 2 minesweeper) leading to caverns with narrow swim-throughs and wonderful fish life. And being Sandals, the diving is included in the all-inclusive, which seems almost too good to be true. It seemed a great luxury to have breakfast served on our enormous balcony before going for my first dive:


We enjoyed some fine sunsets and evening strolls:

Keir mostly spent his time reading heavy non-fiction tomes, but went out on a couple of excursions. To my surprise, he agreed to visit nearby Dolphin Cove, where you can touch and swim with these lovely, intelligent mammals. Since Keir hasn't ventured into water outside a bathroom in 15 years, to my enormous delight not only did he swim, but he also enjoyed the experience. Here is the Jamaican dolphin with her Cuban friend giving him a tow through the water:


And here's a view of the dolphin kiss: yep, it's commercial with shades of circus but the animals are well cared for, trained by reward and extremely engaging. We loved it!


September 19, 2011

Lemonade, floor cleaner and fuel

Our final 24 hours in Spain went slightly less smoothly than the rest. En route to La Granja, Keir wanted to stop in Segovia to see its cathedral, and since Saturday parking was a total nightmare I volunteered to mind the car while he did so. Because it was so hot, I thought I'd slake my thirst with a bottle of lemonade that I'd bought for a change from all the agua con gas we'd been drinking. I was so thirsty that the first swallow was substantial - and revolting. Looking in disbelief at the lemonade-shaped bottle, which was lemon-coloured and covered in lemon photos, I discovered it was 1.5 litres of concentrated floor cleaner - friegasuelos!

This was unbelievably stupid of me, although I don't see why the supermarket had to shelve it among the water bottles, just to confuse me. It was worrying that the label told you, if ingested by mistake, to seek immediate medical help and phone an emergency number. This was going to be tricky: I don't speak Spanish, Keir was in the cathedral and the car was improperly parked in the middle of Segovia. After what seemed like an age, Keir returned and I 'fessed up and since La Granja wasn't far, I drove there anyway, feeling worse and worse by the km. On arrival, the Parador got no reply from the friegasuelos phone number and suggested their 24-hour medical centre. Finding it unexpectedly closed, I decided that self-induced vomiting was the only answer ... and had recovered fully by evening.

For some reason, Keir found the whole thing incredibly funny, and keeps making friegasuelos jokes and looked up the fateful square on Google maps and insists on calling it Friegasuelos Square. He also keeps pointing to lemon-themed bottles of various kinds of poison and asking me if they look like lemonade (they don't: the bottles are a totally different shape) and - the cheek of it - reproaching me for not having photographed the bottle in question! Oddly enough, I had other things on my mind than blog photos. I do seem to have become a bit accident-prone while on holiday (with broken bones or torn muscles on the last four out of four) but this was my first self-poisoning incident. I'll never drink straight out of an unknown bottle again!

Throughout the 10 days, our in-car division of labour had worked perfectly: Keir did all the navigation (some of it very challenging) and I did all the driving (mostly easy except the medieval city centres where "roads" sometime narrowed to two metres or less). The only tense moments were on our final drive from La Granja in pitch dark driving to catch our morning flight to Madrid airport. Although we'd covered some 1200 km over the trip, the car (a diesel C4) was frugal and with a range of 130 km still showing at La Granja I was confident we'd get close to Madrid airport on the original tankful. Although Keir mentioned the crossing of the Sierra de Guadarrama, the height he quoted was 1500 m and I thought we'd be OK.

We set off from La Granja in total darkness and climbed and climbed and climbed. By 1500 m the range had dropped to 60 km: it was falling faster than the stock market on Black Monday - each time I looked it dropped another 5 km. Finally we levelled out at 1880 m (6170 ft), by which time the range had slumped to 40 km - less than the distance to the next garage! I couldn't even coast downhill because the hairpins were so severe, but (as I hoped but didn't dare to count on) the range started to increase on the downhill, and we made the next garage with range to spare and considerable relief all round. Since we were in good time for the plane, I'm left feeling I want to return and drive that road again in daylight: it must be very scenic and without fuel anxiety could be very entertaining. And next time, I'd stick to drinking agua con gas.

September 25, 2011

Some Paradors of central Spain

A week after we got back from central Spain, I've been reflecting on the Parador concept and I'm really impressed. The Spanish government operates this chain of hotels, but with results that are refreshingly diverse – unlike most state-run projects. Each Parador is unique, and, beyond celebrating the history of each building, to run a successful hotel is a brilliant way of financing the maintenance of these amazing buildings.

Keir's 9-night itinerary was a clockwise loop around Madrid, starting with two nights in Toledo and proceeding via Guadalupe, Caceres, Jarandilla de la Vera, Ávila and La Granja back to Madrid airport. With temperatures soaring in the high 30s, I was grateful that most Paradors also have swimming pools. It was wonderful to eat our meals al fresco.

And in what other country can you stay in a monastery (Guadalupe), a 15th century castle (Jarandilla), among superb medieval walls (Ávila) and finish up in Philip V's royal summer palace (La Granja)? The Parador in Guadalupe was actually the Colegio de Infantes and a former hospital, but the monastery which houses Guadalupe's Black Virgin was only yards away:


and here is its bronze plaque to the Black Virgin whose miracles are so famous:


The next three photos show the Parador garden and walls of Ávila, and the castle of Jarandilla de la Vera:




And finally, here are the royal palace and gardens at La Granja:



September 26, 2011

Salamanca, and a future student?

I hadn't been to Salamanca since 1990 when Apple held its hypertext/CD-ROM conference in its university, one of Spain's oldest and most famous. We were staying in Avila and for a change took the train from there, which turned out to be a bit slow and inflexible.

We started with the cathedral, by far the largest we visited, and with the loftiest vaulting and dome:



It's a bonus that you can climb on to the roof, along the balconies inside and part way up the tower. This gave great views from new perspectives:


Those images are all of the so-called new cathedral, which dates from the 16th century, but happily (and unusually) the older building wasn't knocked down to make way. It still stands, adjoining its larger cousin – a dignified building of beautiful proportions, with superlative altar paintings:


After the glories of Salamanca's two cathedrals, the afternoon seemed long; siesta hours are a nuisance to tourists on a day trip. We had to wait until 4pm to get into the Casa Lis, the city's brilliant museum of art deco and art nouveau. Sadly, they don't allow photography so I can't post any images.

After we got home, we were able at last to deliver the souvenir we bought for Amy – a sweatshirt from the Universidad Salamanca with her own name below the logo. Here's how she looks in it. I wonder if she will consider a university abroad when the time comes?


January 22, 2012

Costa Rica: the rich coast

When Columbus dubbed it the "rich coast" in 1502, he was referring to his hopes of gold, but the real wealth of this tiny country is its amazing biodiversity. Sandwiched between Nicaragua and Panama, its land area is less than half of Scotland's. Yet its habitats include extensive Pacific and Caribbean coasts, volcanoes (active and dormant), primary rainforest and montane cloudforest. Combined with its rich soils and tropical climate, this makes for an incredible richness of plants, animals, and above all birds. About 900 avian species are resident and Keir is setting about learning to idenitfy some of them – quite a challenge. With only about 0.04% of the world's land area, Costa Rica officially has 5% of its measured biodiversity.

Of only 4 million Ticos (as nationals call themselves), one third live in San Jose. The rest seem to live in national parks and conservation areas. OK, that's an exaggeration, but 25 per cent of its land is inside national parks, and this peaceful country (it disbanded its army under its 1949 constitution) has wisely focused on ecotourism. And it does it very well. Every driver, waiter and boat captain sees wiildlife spotting as part of the job, not just the professional ornithologists.

January 23, 2012

Black night in Corcovado

Corcovado is Costa Rica's least accessible National Park, situated in central America's largest area of coastal rainforest. Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge is a wonderful place, reminiscent of a good African safari lodge in its layout and, most important, the enthusiasm of its staff. I had good diving at Isla de las Caños on the first two days, with pods of spotted dolphin playing in the bow wave of our dive boat. Then, on Saturday night, I made a very stupid mistake.

The rooms are spacious and well-appointed, with safari-style high four-poster beds swathed in mosquito netting. I had been drinking lots of water to stay hydrated in very high temperatures and humidity, so a night-time bathroom visit was inevitable. Not wanting to disturb Keir's sleep, I just felt my way through the tropical blackness without switching on a light. On the return journey, I misjudged my climb back up to the mattress and fell backwards off the bed, hitting my head on a sharp ledge on the way down before landing hard on my ribs.

Abruptly woken by groans of pain, Keir switched on the light, only to be horrified by a pool of blood - mainly on the floor, but also, surprisingly, all over the mozzie netting in which I had become entangled. During the ensuing mopup, his puzzled questions and my feeble attempts at explanation, we both became fully awake - much more so than had I put on the light in the first place! The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions: as usual, the head wound is no trouble (apart from the mess at first) but the pain in my ribs is bad news for hiking, bumpy roads and carrying any kind of weight.

January 24, 2012

The day of the puma

Corcovado has a truly wonderful range of species, but spotting is made difficult by the high density of the lush primary rainforest. You couldn't fail to hear the howler monkeys, but everybody's photographs were distant silhouettes. All my better bird photos were taken elsewhere, against the thinner vegetation of transitional or secondary rainforest.

The dramatic exception to this was last Sunday, when a puma made and devoured a kill only about 10 feet from the trail on which Keir, Tim and Susie were walking. Their guide, Jacob, spotted this young male puma which had just decapitated a large iguana.

The four of them had a magical half hour closely observing the puma while it devoured every scrap, claws and all. They were fascinated by the iguana's gruesome twitching throughout; indeed, some 20 minutes after all its limbs had gone, the tail was still thrashing wildly. Tim was kind enough to share his photographs and even video. Having missed out on this hike because of rib damage, I really valued this vicarious experience of the day of the puma. (All images below belong to Tim Geppert.)




January 26, 2012

On doing things for the first time

One of the great things about being on holiday is that the natural desire to try things for the first time isn't inhibited by the constraints of home life, disapproving children or simple inertia.

The whole holiday is a first of a kind: usually Keir brings at least 5 large, heavy nonfiction hardbacks. This time, thanks to tight luggage limits and the need for some dive gear for me, he brought only his Christmas Kindle, mercifully light and tiny, irrespective of how many books are loaded. And its amazing battery life means that we didn't even need the charging cable in three weeks' heavy usage with two 11-hour flights.

Being away from home is strangely liberating. On this trip, Keir has already not only been swimming in amazing jungle pools but also came with me sea kayaking (at Casa Corcovado), handled some deadly animals and today even borrowed a camera for the first time. Here is Keir in his sea kayak and handling a rainbow boa constrictor and a tarantula at Arenal Ecozoo yesterday:




January 28, 2012

The prescience of the Clay-coloured robin

We've been very puzzled as to why Costa Rica chose the dull Clay-coloured robin as its national bird. With a hundred more colourful and distinctive candidates, it seemed a perverse choice. Asking around we've heard several theories, of which our favourite is that this bird helpfully changes its song each year when the ground is full of worms, thus telling the Ticos that the time is ideal to plant their crops. They chose this prescient bird over its gaudier competitors.

With 900 bird species resident, it must have been an extremely difficult choice. Here are some examples of colourful competition: the Keel-billed toucan and Scarlet macaw are followed by a Ruby-throated hummingbird.




July 4, 2012

Verona for visitors

A week ago today, we arrived in Verona - a surprise trip for Keir's 65th birthday. The surprise was a bit spoiled by his guessing the destination at Glasgow airport (my fault, for suggesting he took a rain poncho, which gave him enough of a clue). But I'd have had to tell him on the flight anyway, because the BA flight arrived so late at Gatwick that it was clearly going to be a matter of jogging to the departure gate for Verona. Apparently they don't guarantee the connection.

Anyway, we made it (just) and had daytime free to sightsee. The Verona card is brilliant value: 2 days for EUR15 gets you in to almost everything, even free bus rides, although Verona's historic centre, within a meander of the River Adige and enclosed by the city walls, is so compact that we just walked everywhere. Shakespeare set Romeo and Juliet here and Verona happily exploits this connection in the shape of "Juliet's house" (complete with famous balcony, constructed c 1930!) and "Juliet's tomb" both of which are pleasant and interesting visits if you don't take an unduly literal approach.

Evenings were devoted to a meal followed by opera, with a civilised 9.15 start and finish times ranging from 1.15 to 1.30 am). Temperatures were in the mid to high 30s!

We started with the Giardino Giusti, created in 1570 by Agostino Giusti, with a wonderful avenue of tall cypresses, glorious panoramas over the city rooftops and a labyrinth which we enjoyed bumbling our way around.


After the Teatro Romano with its fantastic museum of mosaics and statues, we went to the Church of Santa Maria in Organo, famous for its extraordinary marquetry. The music stand in the foreground was made from tiny pieces of wood by Fra Giovanni di Verona:


This extraordinary monk created about 25 of these masterpieces between 1477 and 1501. Here is another in the choir stalls, close up, so you can see how he created the perspective:


July 6, 2012

Verona for opera

Keir's birthday treat was to see opera outdoors in the Roman arena of Verona, and of course this became my treat, too. Long ago, I had got tickets for Verdi's Aida last Thursday, Mozart's Don Giovanni Friday and Bizet's Carmen on Saturday. The whole experience was a total revelation: I had no idea that opera could be staged so compellingly. No effort or expense was spared, and at times the huge stage hosted several hundred performers, professional dancers as well as singers, horses and other animals, and amazing lighting effects. The arena is a giant oval, about 140 m (460 feet) on its long axis, by about 110 m (360 feet) wide.

Not knowing the venue, I had begun with more affordable tickets for Aida, at centre back of the arena, moving us closer the following two nights. There is no sound amplification, and the better of the singers needed none, but we both thought the orchestral sound in Aida muted, not surprising outdoors and from a distance of about 120 m. Still, the ballet was truly superb, and the way the torch bearers filled the whole height of the arena was magical:


Don Giovanni was designed by Franco Zeffirelli and both sets and costumes were amazing. Our seats were superb for this production, and the Don was brilliantly sung by bass-baritone D'Arcangelo. His appearance and acting was great for the role of rake and playboy, although his surname is ironic for the bragging rapist and bully. He is centre stage in this shot of the dinner to which he invites the avenging Commendatore, and the next shot shows his descent into hellfire where he gets his just deserts.



Carmen was also designed by Zeffirelli, and here words fail me. The other two productions had featured live horses on stage, but when one of the soldiers cantered across the crowded stage to break up the fight between Carmen and her fellow worker in the cigarette factory, my heart was in my mouth: at only six rows from the stage, we wondered if we were even safe! The flamenco dancing was extraordinary. Here is Escamillo, Carmen's latest lover, a toreador showing off:


July 8, 2012

Lake Garda: Loch Lomond in the Dolomites?

A week ago, on the day of Keir's birthday, we took a bus from outside our Verona hotel to Lake Garda. OK, it's much larger than Loch Lomond (about 6 times larger, apparently) but it's a very similar shape and its character varies similarly between southern and northern parts. Only the sun shone and it was in the 30s Celsius.

The bus cost less than 5 euros and took under an hour to Sirmione, a historic town situated on an improbable peninsula at the lake's southern end. So we walked into the Hotel Flaminia and were pleased to find our room ready. Its balcony overlooked the lake, so we could see the boats coming and going. The hotel lounge area included a pontoon from which I swam, dodging the swans and boats: of the two I was more nervous of the swans, which don't worry me on land but when you're swimming they kind of tower over you and you feel defenceless.


The hotel is just in front of the castle, Rocca Scaligera, and Keir was pleasantly surprised to find that 65 year olds get in free! Here are some shots of and from the castle:




We walked to the so-called "Grotto of Catullus" (actually a Roman farm, although Catullus had a house nearby) at the northern tip of the peninsula, where Keir also got in free. I was beginning to think "roll on my 65th birthday, there are compensations" - at least in Italy. Here are some more views of this very photogenic place:



May 23, 2015

Grenada diving: wrecks, reefs and a flooded camera

We are enjoying a precious week in Grenada: Keir is chilling, thinking and reading, whereas I am chilling, diving and reading. Sandals takes care of the eating and drinking, as well as running a good dive operation. Some rocky shores, strong currents and big waves ensure that there are plenty of wrecks to visit and also makes the boat diving somewhat challenging, especially regaining the boat from the water.


Above is the view from our room, across its balcony and into the Caribbean where I swam on Tuesday within minutes of arrival. It was meant to be a test shot, having just put my Canon S90 into its housing before taking it for its first underwater outing next day. This was to a wreck called the Veronica L which sank in St George's Harbour and was towed to the Boss Reef. Sadly my housing flooded on the descent, but I took a few pictures anyway. On return, I was astonished to find that although the camera was dead, the images have survived. I hasten to post these images from the wreck before the SD card also dies!




The diver at upper left of the last image maybe conveys the size of the deck machinery in foreground? Although I feel contrite about this being the second camera I have drowned in less than 3 months, I have traced the problem back to a single strand of fine hair (a grain of sand would have done equal damage). Since the housing still seems to work even at depth, as does the wide-angle lens, I am simply going to buy another S90 off eBay, and waste no time on remorse. Salt water under pressure and delicate electronics just don't mix, and the O-ring is at best fragile protection. And without a camera, there are no distractions on the dive, and sadly no more photos to blog with.

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