Saturday, 17 March 2018

When in Rome…


It’s been at least three months since we got on a flight and went on holiday, so must be time to dust off the passports and scratch the travel itch again! It’s also time to escape the winter weather in London – despite a spring-like week, we have now been plunged back into the snow with another blast of cold from the east. I don’t know about you but I am definitely ready for some sunshine and double-digit temperatures now in London!

So off to Rome we went for a short three-night break to cram in some culture, relaxation and some of my favourite food!

Our home in Rome was across the river in Trastevere – so called because it is across ‘tras’ the river Tiber – or ‘Tevere’ in Italian. Trastevere is a lively, colourful and extremely busy neighbourhood, with tourists and locals mingling side by side. Home to hundreds of bars and restaurants we were spoilt for choice and the standard of food and drink was generally very high – as you might expect in Rome.

We ate huge pizzas, stretched thin and stone baked; handmade pasta with delicious carbonara and amatriciana sauces; crispy, deep-fried Roman artichoke and decadent homemade tiramisus. This is no place to visit if you’re watching your waistline, though perhaps the several miles we walked every day might begin to counter the calories as we took in the sights. Perhaps not!

Tiramisu
As an aside, did you know that carbonara doesn’t traditionally contain any cream – just eggs, bacon and parmesan? It seems odd that in the UK it is made with cream. In any case, the Italian version is SO much nicer. We even found a restaurant that specialises in carbonara (and other egg-based dishes) and sat at a table overlooking the kitchen as the chefs prepared our patsa dishes before our eyes. I had a black truffle carbonara and Kev opted for the prawns with citrus zest version – so good!

Carbonara
Even our breakfast pancakes that I whipped up every day from our little apartment we were staying in tasted somehow better than at home – probably due in part to the fresh ingredients and higher quality of flour, since so much Italian cuisine requires a high-grade flour. Anyway, I digress…

On to the historical and cultural sights – of which Rome boasts so many it’s almost overwhelming to read the guidebook! Surely we’d need a month in Rome if we were going to even begin to see everything!

We started with the Coliseum – perhaps Rome’s most famous, or most popular attraction – and understandably so. Battling through the crowds of tourists, the first glimpse of the epic coliseum is impressive and the mind boggles at how it was built without modern day machinery, just human labour. Coupled with the stories of the battles/entertainment that took place within its walls, it is a sight to behold and so richly steeped in history.

The Coliseum

Inside the Coliseum
We continued our stroll through the Forum, taking in the structures and other monuments of ancient Rome, heading via the elaborate Pantheon, up to the ornate Trevi Fountain (throw in a coin over your left shoulder and it means you will one day return to Rome) and down the Spanish Steps.

The Forum


The Pantheon
Next, on to the Vatican city – though we decided against joining the huge snaking queue to go inside, instead choosing to soak up the culture from the outside.

The Vatican

It’s easy to see why Rome is so well-loved, with its cobbled streets, beautiful churches and painted buildings – in equal parts decadent and ramshackle. You don’t need to look far to experience its charm as it’s visible on every street corner and down every alleyway in Central Rome.

We didn’t quite escape Northern Europe’s weather though – and used the torrential downpours and thunderstorms as an excuse to bar hop, sampling some of the delicious local craft beers and locally-produced wines between the showers. I imagine the city is an entirely different place in the forty-degree heat of the summer!

At last on our final day in the city, the sun shone and we enjoyed a day wandering around with the Colegates, who happened to be passing  on their way through Italy (next stop Sicily.) After a final history lesson, pizza and glass of wine in the sunshine, we headed back to the airport for our flight home, already hoping we can one day return.

The Colegates - photo courtesy of Caragh!

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Cartagena (part 2)

We decided to spend our last few days in Colombia in Cartagena, in a nice hotel with cold air conditioning and fast wifi. We even found one with a small pool on the roof, perfect to cool off and relax after wandering around in the heat of the city – and in need of a little bit of luxury for our last few days. Perhaps even more surprising was to find a hotel that even had a hot water shower, which is something of a rarity in Colombia!

As we counted down our final few days, we decided to take it easy and not schedule too much to do. We booked on to a free walk by tour of the old city run by a local volunteer, who showcased architecture, historical facts and culture over the course of the two-hour stroll through the city's walled old town.

Some of the fascinating facts we learned were:

-   There are twenty-nine bank holidays per year in Colombia!

-   Every year there is a competition in the old town and the house judged most attractive doesn't have to pay any taxes (as an incentive for all the colonial-style houses within the city walls to keep up appearances)

Old colonial style house in Cartagena's old town

We also paid a visit to the crypt, part of the old Santa Clara Convent - which is now inside one of Cartagena's most premium hotels. The hotel agreed to keep the crypt intact and to allow public access after the story piqued public interest: when the crypt was excavated, a skeleton with long locks of copper coloured hair was uncovered inside, her hair having continued to grow for 200 years’ after her death. The story was originally featured in Gabriel García Márquez’ work, "Of Love and Other Demons," a tale which blurs fact and fiction and is based on this legend.

Famous Medellin painter and sculptor, Fernando Botero, known for his (often satirical) artworks featuring grotesquely large and exaggerated people and figures (including his take on the Mona Lisa) has one of his statues in the main square to commemorate him. It is said if you touch one breast, you'll come back to Cartagena in a year; touch both and you'll come back in two years. Touch her fat tummy and it is said to bring good luck!
 
Fernando Botero sculpture


Botero's Mona Lisa

We stumbled across some amazing - and highly energetic dancing throughout the city. This traditional Caribbean-Colombian "Mapale" dancing accompanied by fast-paced drumming and clarinet represents an erotic courtship between a man and a woman. It was introduced by African slaves brought to Colombia in a Spanish ships. The movements are said to be based on the movements of the mapale fish when they are out of water.

 
Leaving Colombia, we flew back to Mexico for two nights in Isla Mujeres before our long flight back to London. Two days on the beautiful Playa Norte was enough to make us want to stay longer and continue our travels - but no such luck: reality is ready to resume in London; jobs to be found and money to be earned!
 
Blue skies on Isla Mujeres seafront

 

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Palomino

The next stop on our itinerary was Palomino, a small town on the Caribbean coast with a lovely beach and laid back vibe.

Palomino beach
The beach goes on for miles, but you're not supposed to swim due to strong offshore currents, however, we arrived to find around fifty people in the sea - all fine. So, we took the advice with a pinch of salt, only went in to waist deep and after the waves had broken. It’s too hot to not cool off!

Miles of beach in Palomino
There was glorious sunshine every morning, and we even had a view of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains from the bottom of the garden in our accommodation.
 
It's hard to believe that it's possible to see snow up there when we were stood melting down at sea level, in extremely high heat and humidity! It's apparently the highest peak in Colombia and you can just about make out the snowy peaks in my photo:

The snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada
Mountains in the distance 
In the afternoon, the sunshine would eventually give way to thunderstorms and torrential rain and the occasional power cut.

The main mud road of the town is characterised by several large puddles that fill the entire road, so it takes some time to get anywhere, picking your way around the puddles.
When it rains, we were recommended to just go out barefoot to avoid the issue of soaking your trainers or losing a flip flop in the mud!

We went 'tubing' down the river one day – a much more sedate affair than in Laos – just floating down the river in a giant inner tube, with views of the mountains, until we reached the sea. We just had to be sure to get out before we floated out to sea!
 
Tubing in Palomino
Getting to the start point however was a little hairier - it basically involved getting on the back of a motorcycle taxi whilst carrying our tubes!

All in all, Palomino was a lovely place to stay for a few days. After four nights, we travelled down to Santa Marta, so we could do a day trip into Tayrona National Park.

Once in the park, we embarked upon a six-mile hike along the coast, which was tough as it was so hot and humid. It's also not possible to swim on most of the beaches due to the strong currents and big waves so we had to wait a while before we could cool off.

Tayrona National Park
Most of the park has well organised trails with boardwalks, but parts of the track are very muddy and we had to wade across three shallow rivers in some parts – I think probably due to the heavy rain that has been falling.

Rough seas in Tayrona Park
After two hours of hiking, we eventually reached Arricefes and there's a beach nearby where we could finally swim in a sheltered bay – where cooling off was much appreciated. The park is stunning – wild beaches, huge boulders and big waves. Well worth the strenuous hiking effort.

Huge boulder cracked in half
We were glad we decided against the option of hiring a hammock and mosquito net and staying over in the park – it seemed a fairly horrific experience – though one that Hannah apparently enjoyed when she visited a few years ago! Perhaps as we approach the end of our trip the travel fatigue is setting in and we need our home comforts!

We are now down to our final week – how time flies! First we’ll head back to Cartagena for a few days, then we fly to Mexico in preparation for our flight back to London.

Tune in again next week for the final instalment of the blog (well, for this trip anyway!)

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Cartagena

Cartagena is a beautiful, well-preserved old town surrounded by tall city walls. Much like other old Spanish colonial centres, it has a really European feel – both architecturally and culturally – and within the city walls, there were even horse and carts (like we saw in Seville, Spain and also in Merida, Mexico) ferrying the tourists around.

Gate to the old town

Wandering around the narrow streets
Outside of the old town it’s a different story: the chaotic suburbs descend into traffic mayhem, diesel fumes and an urban sprawl where all Cartagena’s residents live. It was quite a contrast travelling in from the noisy suburban bus station outside of town, into the colourful centre of the old town. Needless to say we stuck to the centre of town once we’d arrived!

The city walls are filled with narrow streets, colourful buildings, brightly painted street art and big shady squares. It’s incredibly hot and humid so we were grateful for the cold air conditioning in our hotel room – the first we’ve had in a while and feels like a real treat!
 
View from the city walls
The best itinerary in Cartagena is to drop all sightseeing plans and get lost wandering around the streets of the old town. We walked miles in the shady streets, popping into shops and cafes for a Colombian coffee and some air conditioning, and strolling along sections of the city walls, taking in the city views.
 
City walls and sailing boat

Strolling around the walls
All the doors in the old town are much taller than standard doors as when the city was built, people used to enter buildings on horseback, so the added height is to cater for the horse and rider.

People’s homes also used to be marked with a symbol if they were one of certain occupations – usually the door knocker is in the shape of one of the following animals to represent the following professions:
  • Lion – works for the king
  • Iguana – rich/noble people
  • Owl – doctor
  • Mermaid – Sailor
  • Dolphin – Fisherman
It was fun to walk around the old town spotting the different animals, though we’ve yet to see an owl…
 
A rich person used to live here...
We stayed in Getsemani, a ten-minute walk outside the centre and a popular location for backpackers. It’s a vibrant area with lots of great bars and cafes and generally the standard of food here is really good. We found a lovely café for breakfast with three resident cats, which serves the best banana pancakes (even better than mine!)
 
Street art in Getsemani
We’ll return to Cartagena in a week or so, ready for our flight back to Cancun before we fly home, but in the meantime, we decided to explore some more of the Caribbean coast and headed north to Minca in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
 
Minca, in the mountains
We spent a couple of nights there and did a spot of hiking to nearby ‘Pozo Azul’ waterfall for a swim, but our day’s adventure got prematurely cut short when the heavens opened and we got soaked through. So much for 100% waterproof Goretex shoes if they get so full of water that you’re squelching around in them! 

Soaking wet!
After a brief stop in Minca, we’re now in Palomino and I’ll fill you in on our adventures here in the next blog post.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Medellin

So, on to country number ten! After two changes of plane in Panama City (one stopover, one broken engine cover) we landed in Medellin. Known as the City of Eternal Spring, for it’s cool climate – so we were able to enjoy a few days away from the heat and humidity of the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica  – though that said, it was a different kind of humidity in Medellin as rainy season has just begun in Colombia, so we had some heavy rain and thunder storms most days.

Medellin is probably most famous for being home to the late Pablo Escobar, renowned drug-lord and dictator. Unfortunately, the recent ‘Narcos’ series on Netflix has glamorised Escobar’s life, which the local people are unhappy about as he brought about a lot of suffering, including kidnappings, murders on the streets of Medellin.
Pablo in prison
We went on a Pablo Escobar and City tour with Fede, the owner of our hostel, born and raised in Medellin, and who experienced first-hand life under the rule of Escobar.
 
Fede was friends with Pablo Escobar’s son at school and so spent time in his family home. Unrelated to this, he was later kidnapped by FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) Guerillas, held hostage for 17 hours, beaten and released only when his family paid the ransom. 

Fede took us to Escobar’s first family home in Medellin, the prison that was both built by and housed Escobar and the house in which he was later shot (apparently by the Colombian Police, though many believe he killed himself before the police could get to him).

The view from the prison was stunning – essentially affording Escobar a view over all of Medeillin – and despite being locked up, he could see exactly what was going on with views over the airports and oversee his business still being run.
 
View from Pablo Escobar's prison cell
On the tour, we also visited Barrio Antioquia, famous for being the dodgy suburb, next to a very well-to-do suburb – and one that the police won’t go in to.
 
Fede drove us through the neighbourhood pointing out to us who was selling the drugs, as well as the ‘watchers’ on every corner, checking for suspicious activity, unknown vehicles and so on… We even saw someone indiscreetly handing over a roll of banknotes in exchange for drugs in broad daylight. Fortunately, we viewed all this from the safety of the car and didn’t stay for long!

Lastly, we went to Comuna 13 -  once Medellin’s most dangerous neighbourhood, now transformed into a vibrant and colourful district, where local residents are no longer afraid to leave their homes – and it’s a destination for tourists alike.
 
Comuna 13

Colourful Comuna 13 
The ramshackle brick houses atop one another climb up the hill, in a very densely populated neighbourhood. Where once the close proximity of the houses meant gang-members could make a quick get-away (it is said there are secret passageways between some of the houses to facilitate an easy escape), then are now painted brightly with street art and a series of escalators run up through the comuna and the streets are filled with enterprising locals selling empanadas and mango ice cream, and tourists taking photographs against the colourful backdrop.

Kev posing by the street art in Comuna 13
We had an alternative view of Comuna 13 when we took a cable car over the city to Park Arvi, where we planned to do some walking, however, it started raining heavily pretty much as soon as we got out, so we stopped for a craft beer and a game of chess at the top then jumped back on the cable car back down as it looked like the thunder storm and rain was about to settle in for the afternoon.


There’s a great foodie scene in Medellin, along with some great local and national beers, which we are gradually working our way through! Favourite so far include Club Colombia, Chapinero Porter from the BBC Bogota Beer Co. and Medellin brewed ‘3 Cordilleras Sweet Stout’.

Live from the BBC (Bogota Beer Co)
Next, we are on our way to Cartagena, via Tolu and the Islas San Bernardos, an archipelago of ten islands in the Caribbean Sea, including Santa Cruz del Islote, the most densely populated island on Earth – every part of the tiny island is covered by houses.
 
Santa Cruz del Islote
We made a stop on Tintipan and spent the afternoon on the beach, but unfortunately it meant for sand-fly bites for Kev!
 
Isla Tintipan
I’ll write again from Cartagena.