A Travellerspoint blog

Lyon II

France photos

En route from Paris to Provence, I returned to Lyon to visit French Arnaud, who I met in Amsterdam. Lyon exhibits an intriguing mixture of architectural and cultural influences due to its location at the crossroads between Paris, the Riviera, Italy and the Alps. It was my second visit to France’s second city, but as always, the experience was very different with a local guide. Arnaud is a former junior butterly champion of France, which made my recent swimming exploits in Paris seem rather lethargic and inconsequential, and the only person I have met under the age of 30 who religiously brushes their teeth after every meal. Originally from Alsace, Arnaud migrated to Lyon for its amiable weather and small city vibe. He informed me that most of his social network are also migrants from other areas of France. Apparently the Lyonnais, like people from the South of France in general, are rather exclusive in their social interactions. Additionally, people from Paris and the West of France, are typically quite arrogant; only people from the East of France are friendly and relaxed! Unfortunately, I have been unable to verify these portrayals with another Frenchmen.

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Upon arriving, I was immediately reminded of my impressions in 2013 that Lyon is an incredibly liveable city. Lyon boasts a comprehensive and user-friendly public transport system, with an efficient and modern metro integrated with an expansive tram network and two funicular railways (connecting the centre to adjacent hilly neighbourhoods); an impressive suite of infrastructure for a relatively small city. Aside from the windy streets of the medieval old town, the layout of Lyon is generally rectilinear, logical and navigable. Like most European cities, the central areas of Lyon are compact and easily traversed on foot or bicycle. Nevertheless, pedestrian boulevards, strategically located public squares, abundant parkland and two rivers cutting through the city (the Rhône and Saône) to form a confluence provide spaciousness lacking in cramped and overcrowded cities like Paris, Barcelona and Rome. Lyon is a visually appealing city of clean streets and historic Mediterranean-influenced architecture, and is illuminated beautifully in the night time (it is known in French as the “city of lights”). The city enjoys the distinction as France’s gastronomic capital and features an eclectic bar scene. Lyon’s location affords it with a climate of warm summers and mild winters and access within two hours by TGV to the Mediterranean coast, the alpine mountains and Paris. Lyon is a unique blend of Northern European orderliness and efficient urban planning with Southern Europe culture and vibe. Overall, its unfortunate that Lyon does not rank highly on the Anglo-centric “world’s most liveable city” indexes.

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I arrived in Lyon on a weekend, allowing Arnaud to act as my personal tour guide. Lyon is comprised of 9 arrondissements, which are municipal subdivisions used in France’s 3 largest cities. On the first day we visited the 5th Arrondissement to the west of the Saône, which consists of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city. The old town is somewhat reminiscent of northern Italian cities, with its Renaissance architecture, narrow cobblestone streets and terracotta roofs all bathed in sunlight. We caught the funicular to the peak of the hill adjacent Vieux Lyon to admire the whimsical architecture of La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviére and magnificent views of Lyon and the Alps in the far distance. The view of Central Lyon is of a veritable sea of ochre red (from the roofing) and buildings of almost uniform height, interspersed only by 2 totally out of place modern skyscrapers. We also visited the nearby Roman ruins and excellently preserved amphitheatre, which are free to explore. Arnaud previously lived within the vicinity of the ruins, which served as a surreally beautiful location to read a book or eat lunch. In the late afternoon, we ambled through the city centre in the 1st Arrondissement, which occupies the peninsula between the Rhône and Saône. The 1st Arrondissement is the primary administrative, commercial and entertainment area in Lyon and features predominately 19th century structures. In the evenings, the banks of the Rhône are transformed into a hub of activity, with Lyonnais enjoying picnics and drinks while enjoying the city lights. Dozens of large boats are permanently moored to the eastern riverbanks and serve as bars or nightclubs in the evenings. We passed one of the most popular boats called “Ayers Rock”, which promoted Arnaud to attempt to mimic the Aussie accent while failing to drop quintessentially French sounds. Not that my efforts in the French language were any better, although everyone seemed to appreciate when I said “merci beaucoup!”

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On the following day, we caught another funicular to Croix Rousse in the 4th Arrondissement, immediately north of the city centre. Croix Rousse is vaguely similar to Montmartre in Paris, with its hilly topography and Bohemian reputation. The area features Lyon’s most famous mural, Le Mur des Canuts. The mural occupies a formally barren wall of a multi-storey building and is a remarkable 3-dimensional illusion of a typical streetscape, replete with shopfronts, cars and landscaping. The mural is updated every decade to reflect contemporary styles. We then ventured down the hills and crossed the Rhône to the 6th Arrondissement, which Arnaud vouched for as the finest in Lyon. The arrondissement consists of Europe’s largest urban park, Parc de la Tête d’Or. We ambled through the scenic park and even visited its free zoological gardens.

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Arnaud was insistent that to properly appreciate French cuisine, I needed to sample foie gras (duck or goose liver). The French are utterly obsessed by foie gras, which is a staple entrée of the traditional Christmas feast. Yet the method of production is extremely controversial, with the caged and immobile birds force-fed corn via a feeding tube multiple times a day to swell their livers to 8-10 times the natural size (if the birds are fed naturally, the liver is not considered foie gras by French law). The ethically destitute practice is thus banned from most Western countries, including Australia. Needless to say, I still feel morally compromised that I chose to eat foie gras, although it was admittedly very delicious. Foie gras is immensely richer in flavour and smoother than paté and is typically eaten with just baguette. The flavour is so overwhelming that its really not an ingredient I could consume regularly. Arnaud, like most of the French, acknowledges the cruelty associated with foie gras. But his love for the taste and its cultural significance eventually supersedes any moral imperative. I suppose every society has an intriguing ability to “turn a blind eye” from inhumane practices; Australians, for example, with our treatment of asylum seekers.

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Arnaud otherwise provided excellent commentary and guidance on the culinary traditions of Lyon, which the French consider to be the country’s foodie centre. The city is particularly famed for its veneration of offal, which on my first visit I regrettably dabbled with by trying calf’s head. On this occasion, my Lyonnais culinary experiences were far less traumatic. I feasted on an incredibly rich and delicious local speciality named quenelle de brodet. The dish consists of fish and a white sauce (roux) which are mixed together, sieved and poached. The resulting forcemeat is served with a creamy crayfish sauce and rice, creating a dish that is so filling I was unable to finish it (very rare). I sampled cervelle de canut, which is a fresh cheese spread flavoured with herbs and shallots, with boiled potatoes. As possibly the only Frenchman who does not like cheese, Arnaud was utterly repulsed by the sight of this dish. I tried saucisson de Lyon, which is a large sausage made from beef and bacon and typically served in slices due to the thickness. The meat topped a very rich green lentils and a red wine stew, creating a lovely comfort food dish for the summer heat. For sweets, I indulged in two of the local sugary treats: coussins de Lyon, which are delectable bite-size pieces of chocolate coated in marzipan, and the spectacular tarte aux pralines, a tart filled with a bright red-rose paste made from crushed Lyonnaise pralines (the idiosyncratic colour is derived purely from food dye, disappointingly) and cream.

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As I expressed my exasperation for the volume and richness of the food the French seemed to eat, Arnaud confirmed that a typical French household would often have 3-4 courses each evening, with obligatory sides of baguette. I have since learnt that Australians, ranked 33rd in the world for average daily calorie consumption per capita, eat approximately 10% less calories than the French, ranked 12th (Australians surprisingly consume less calories on average than every country in Western Europe except for Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands – incidentally the 3 countries with the worst cuisines in the region!). So the theory that the French “eat in moderation” to offset their diets heavy with bread, butter, pastries, cheese and charcuterie is an absolute myth. Yet the French, irritatingly, have a genetic propensity for leanness in comparison with Australia, as only 15% of the population is considered obese versus 27%. Somehow, the French can have their cake and eat it too.

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Lyon lacks the iconic attractions of major European cities and is thus excluded excluded from the mass-tourist route through the continent. Yet the city is evidently very liveable and an enjoyable destination to spend a couple days exploring its intriguing neighbourhoods.

That’s all for now,

Liam

France photos

Posted by Liamps 06:53 Archived in France Comments (1)

Paris II

France photos

With the Gay Games occurring in one of the greatest cities in the world, I couldn’t resist the opportunity of returning to Paris on an extended jaunt through Europe. Since I had already “ticked off” most of the major tourist attractions, my second visit was characterised essentially by blissfully “doing nothing” (excluding attendance at the competition swimming pool each morning of course). Its such a relief to have the mental freedom to simply enjoy a magnificent city such as Paris without the incessant stress of dealing with an itinerary and long queues. After swimming, I spent my free time wandering aimlessly through Le Marais, Montmartre and along the Seine, stopping for 3-course lunches, 3 course dinners, pastries, Provençal rose and Breton cider on the way. Needless to say, I revelled in travelling back to Paris unhampered by a backpacker mindset or budget.

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Paris was one of my favourite destinations I visited on my gap year in 2013 as I marvelled at the city’s illustrious list of iconic architecture and art collections (reflected upon exhaustively in Paris – it seems I was a better writer at 21!). While the nature of my second visit was completely different, I potentially enjoyed the city even more as I contemplated the positive virtues of life in the French capital, somewhat surprisingly. Undoubtedly, my thoughts were influenced deceptively by the minimal congestion experienced in the city due to the traditional exodus of Parisians to the Riviera in August. Nevertheless, I was thoroughly impressed by the lifestyle of Parisians. While London, Tokyo and New York City serve as the pillars of global finance, Paris is an emphatic demonstration of what living should actually be about. The gastronomic capital of the world; the fashion capital of the world. The city of lights; the city of love. A metropolis visually defined by an architectural ensemble totally incomparable with any other place on Earth. An unparalleled adoration for the arts, with museums that individually shame the collections of most sovereign nations. A vibrant outdoor lifestyle, with its idiosyncratic street-facing dining and strategically located (if limited) parks to picnic and savour French wine in. And with comparatively short working hours (35 hours per week), Parisians have ample time to enjoy their remarkable city’s indulgent provisions.

The tiny apartment I stayed in was 20 minutes from the Seine on the northern periphery of Le Marais, the historic centre of Paris. It was a fantastic area to be based for 8 nights, because it was sufficiently far from the ultra-touristic heart of Le Marais while remaining accessible to transport connections and Le Marais’s nightlife. Le Marais’ medieval layout of narrow winding streets differentiates it from most areas of Paris, which typically have grid-like formations and grandiose boulevards. The area is thus idyllic for “getting lost” on a casual walk, while perusing boutique shops and admiring the old sandstone buildings that radiate a golden glow. Galleries, cafes, bistros and wine bars are nestled throughout the neighbourhood, ensuring a constant flow of activity. Le Marais is progressively more busy the closer you are to the Seine, culminating in a bustling area clustered with shopping malls, bars and clubs.

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I spent an afternoon in Montmartre, Paris’s famed hilly neighbourhood that has long been a favourite of artists for its Bohemian culture. Crowning the area on the highest point is Sacré Cœur, the iconic bone white basilica that provides spectacular views of the metropolis. The sloping lawn immediately in front of the structure was an excellent location for me to wile away an hour reading. I ambled through an intriguing square adjacent the basilica filled with over 50 artists offering to paint the portraits of the myriad tourists congregated in the area. It was really fascinating to watch how fast their creations came to life and to observe the stylistic differences between artists. I escaped the tourist hordes by exploring the shady cobblestone backstreets of Montmartre that wind up and down the hills. I visited a beautiful cemetery in Montmartre filled with lush deciduous trees, which somewhat created the vibe that the morbid precinct was actually a celebration of life rather than death. Numerous French celebrities are buried in the cemetery including Dalida, one France’s most beloved divas. Dalida, who recorded music in 7 languages, is synonymous with Montmartre, with a small square named after her and souvenir shops brimming with associated paraphernalia.

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No visit to Paris is complete without an obligatory visit to the Eiffel Tower. Both by day and by night. I ventured back on a very hot afternoon with Australian Katie, who was on her first pilgrimage to the world’s most famous post-industrial structure. Katie was nearing the end of her first Euro trip and our timing in Paris happened to coincide. We met at the Tuileries Gardens and gossiped about work as we ambled along the Seine. Despite its central location, the Eiffel Tower is actually very isolated from other points of interest, and the journey on foot is relatively unpleasant beside roads heavy with traffic. Accessing the Tower from the nearby metro station is also an ordeal, as it requires walking for 20 minutes through throngs of tourists and people selling masses of absolute junk on the footpaths. I don’t understand why the French fail to police the rubbish being illegally sold, especially since their goods (displayed on mats on the paths) block pedestrian movements. While this situation is also prevalent in tourist magnets in Italy and Spain, I’ve never seen it in London. It was even more unbearable at night, when the area heaved with countless people. Nevertheless, I enjoyed a very pleasant picnic in the evening with the swimming club, as we watched the sky colour transform and the Tower eventually dazzle with lights.

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On my first visit to Paris I was underwhelmed by the cuisine, incomprehensibly. Not this time. With a casual disregard for intended budgetary restraint, I consumed a cavalcade of magnifique dishes with reckless gluttony. Despite one harrowing incident of being dragged to an Italian restaurant by Welsh Dave from the swimming club with Australian Hayden, American Ross and American Cameron, I otherwise adhered to my deep religious conviction of eating only traditional food while travelling. I was perplexed by Dave’s penchant to eat greasy international fast-food while in Paris, which I considered to be a somewhat sacrilegious practice by a pastry chef. Dave fortuitously redeemed himself by recommending a restaurant that provided the culinary highlight of my time in France and one of the best 3 course meals I have ever eaten. I started with a heavenly asparagus soup enriched with crème fraïche, which appropriately respected the natural sweetness of the vegetable. For the main course, I had a delicious rare fillet of glazed duck breast in a red wine sauce with mash potato. And to conclude, I cleansed the palate with an intriguing and very refreshing “citrus soup” with segments of fruit floating in a cold, zingy broth. We dined again together on the penultimate night of competition for a pre-1,500m freestyle steak (for debatable benefits). However, it was my entrée of beef marrow served with buttered toast that was most memorable. It was the first time I had sampled the creamy gunk stored within bones – though I wouldn’t say I have become a convert. For the final team dinner, I had fried camembert (impossible not to enjoy), beef bourguignon (passable) and grapefruit curd (I think).

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As I write this entry, I’m beginning to appreciate why my bank account has depleted and my waist line expanded much faster than intended during this trip! I didn’t just reserve restaurant dining for the evenings, I also frequented bistros for multi-course lunches on most days. I justified this excessive indulgence by considering it as necessary for recovery from the swim racing (which was on some days no more than 4 laps). After paying way too much on my first day for a substandard beef bourguignon (there are few things in life I hate more than falling for a tourist trap), I ordered “lunch menus of the day” (most bistros offer changing 2-3 course set menus for a reasonable price) and simply hoped for the best as their descriptions were normally scrawled in French. My banquets included: fried calamari with fennel salad followed by pan fried white fish with ratatouille; pork terrine with cornichons followed by pan fried pork fillet with mushroom sauce and fried potatoes followed by a cheese tasting plate; blue cheese and fennel salad followed by roasted pork fillet with creamy mustard sauce and black lentils; and sashimi with pea puree and watercress, roast chicken and vegetables and poached peach with cream! Further exacerbating my bloated state after each meal, the French generously accompany every plate with a fresh bowl of baguette – which I was always compelled to finish! Amazingly, I also managed to fit in regular visits to the ubiquitous boulangeries throughout Paris for quiches and pastries (tarte aux abricots and tarte aux pommes – oh là là!), sample Breton buckwheat crepes with andouille sausage and salad, and snack on cheese and hummus (some labels of French packaged hummus are very good!) in the late afternoon. I definitely need to implement a strict pre-Christmas detox when back in Australia.

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Paris is definitely one of my highlights of this trip, both because of the unique experience of the Gay Games and general enjoyment of city life in the French capital. And perhaps also because I just really love French cuisine!

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That’s all for now,

Liam

France photos

Posted by Liamps 22:50 Archived in France Comments (1)

Paris Gay Games

No doubt many of you have enviously considered my 3 month trip to be yet another aimless adventure through Europe. While that might be an accurate reflection of my current situation, the primary impetus for my extended absenteeism was to compete as an “elite international athlete” at the 2018 Gay Games in Paris. Ok, ok, I didn’t actually need to satisfy any qualification standards to enter. Indeed, not even my sexuality was a prerequisite – anyone is welcome to participate in the Gay Games provided they support equal opportunities for LGBTI individuals in general society. But I did compete proudly for Queen and Country against people from all over the world and even claimed a medal (… albeit for participation)!

Countless people have asked me, “So, what exactly is the Gay Games?” I’m amazed that so few people are familiar with this major sporting and cultural event, which occurs quadrennially, is hosted by rotating cities, involves over 30 disciplines, 12,000 competitors, dozens of venues and a “Games Village”… and utterly dominates the media landscape! Perhaps the last point is a slight exaggeration, but otherwise the structure of the Gay Games essentially emulates the Olympics. Athletes generally compete for the LGBTI sports club they are members of (not mandatory) and the country they nominate. I competed for Australia with Melbourne’s Glamourhead Sharks, along with around 20 other team members. Some countries officially recognise and provide support for their delegations, with the Australian Government hosting a welcome event at the Paris Embassy for Australian athletes. The Gay Games were initiated in San Francisco in 1982 as a celebration of diversity and inclusion, and have since been hosted throughout North America, Western Europe and Australia (including Sydney 2002). Paris 2018 was the tenth edition of the Gay Games, with the next event scheduled to be held in Asia for the first time at Hong Kong 2022.

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I arrived in Paris two days before competition commenced to undertake some last-minute training and attend the Opening Ceremony. I stayed in an Airbnb on the periphery of Le Marais, which is the historic centre of Paris and the traditional LGBTI and Jewish neighbourhood. Naturally, the area served as the primary heart of the Games, with veritable street parties ensuing each evening. After rendezvousing with most of the Glams on the Friday night for preparatory beverages, we attempted a training session on the Saturday at a beautiful pool near Le Marais, which was overcrowded with slow swimmers who demonstrated minimal swimming etiquette. We regrouped in the evening at Stade Jean Bouin to march with Australia at the Opening Ceremony.

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While the Olympics is fundamentally a demonstration of economic power, the Parade of Nations at the Gay Games Opening Ceremony was instead symbolic of the stark political differences socially that exist throughout the world. While progressive and industrialised countries like France, UK, USA and Australia fielded enormous delegations (643 for Australia!), other advanced but more socially conservative countries like Italy, China and Japan were represented proportionally much less. Only a handful of extremely brave individuals chose to represent African and Middle Eastern countries where homosexual activity is still punishable by imprisonment or even the death penalty. When the Russian team entered the stadium, they received a standing ovation from the crowd in solidarity against the deteriorating LGBTI rights under the Putin regime. The Parade was an explicit reminder against complacency, because while rights and acceptance gradually improve in Western democracies, barbaric repression continues to endure for millions globally.

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Similar to the Olympics, the Gay Games are composed of mainstream sports, like soccer and athletics, and more eclectic events, like dancesport, petanque and speed roller skating. I opted to compete in swimming, which was held in the aquatics venue for the 1924 Paris Olympics. The semi-outdoor facility buzzed with atmosphere throughout the week, as the participating swimming clubs proudly displayed their banners and passionately cheered on their members. While there was a sense of seriousness and climax after months or years of training, there was also an overwhelming sense of camaraderie I haven’t experienced at other sporting events before. People genuinely wanted to know about their fellow competitors and encourage them to achieve their best. I competed in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 1,500m freestyle, 100m backstroke and two relay events. Although I had mixed results, I set a personal best time in the 1,500m freestyle, which I was satisfied with considering my preparation in the preceding two weeks in London, Amsterdam, Bruges and Luxembourg.

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The Games are an illustration that gay culture is far more complex than what prevailing stereotypes imply. The LGBTI community is a microcosm of our broader society, with sporting clubs and people passionate about sport, fitness and competition. This is important to understand, because for someone who does not relate to the more distinctive elements of gay culture, sporting clubs represent an opportunity to connect to the LGBTI community through a familiar forum.

The Games convey another important message: that interest in sport, both in a participatory and entertainment sense, is not the exclusive domain of a particular demographic of society or personality typology. Sport and competition are loved by people of all genders, sexualities and nationalities, so it is therefore paramount that all individuals feel adequately engaged with, encouraged and respected in discussions or participation. I think that being cognisant to this inclusion is especially important in a society where sport dominates the mainstream. And athletic prowess is certainly unnecessary for a fulfilling experience participating in sport - I am most definitely a testament to that (although watch out if you ever find me on a squash court :P)!

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Stay tuned for an entry on Paris itself!

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 12:06 Archived in France Comments (0)

Luxembourg City

Luxembourg photos

Initially, I included Luxembourg City in my itinerary for the solitary and very shallow reason of “bagging” a new country. Fortunately, other motivations would later compel me to visit the city. Since I have travelled very close to Luxembourg twice before, I decided that on this trip I would not miss the opportunity to cross into the Grand Duchy while touring the Low Countries again. Not that there’s anything “low” about Luxembourg (other than its tax rates); the diminutive country is far more topographically variant than the monotonous flatness of neighbouring Belgium and the Netherlands. Nevertheless, my trip to Luxembourg was only fleeting as I restricted my stay to two nights in the capital, exploring its charming old town and green surroundings.

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Luxembourg has been continually occupied by foreign forces throughout most of its history due to its precarious location between France, Germany and the Low Countries. Although the independence of the present-day state was established in 1839, its borders were threatened or invaded during Franco-German conflicts for the next century. Consequently, Luxembourg after World War II became a staunch advocate for European integration, and Luxembourg City now serves as one of the de facto seats of the European Union. The city therefore has similar characteristics to Brussels: bureaucratic, international and multilingual. Yet the city’s architectural heritage, unique geography and lush vegetation give Luxembourg City a tranquility lacking in the Belgian capital. And the locals are noticeably very, very wealthy, reflecting the city’s status as an international banking hub.

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Luxembourg City is one of the smallest capitals in Europe, and yet its layout is very complex and confusing – I was never able to establish my bearings in the city. The old town is located within the Fortress of Luxembourg, which is perched on the edge of a plateau next to 70m cliffs that drop precipitously to the Alzette and Péitruss rivers. The rivers have cut gorges through the landscape and form a confluence adjacent the Fortress. The modern commercial centre of Luxembourg is located on the other side of the Péitruss, while political and cultural institutions are concentrated on the other side of the Alzette. Central Luxembourg is thus physically separated into distinct areas, which also spread across different levels vertically. The dramatic differences in elevation have even resulted in the implementation of free lift services to access the various levels.

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Since Luxembourg City lacks major touristic attractions, I predominately spent my time walking aimlessly through the old town and around its fortifications along the two rivers. The mostly pedestrianised old town is amiable with its pastel coloured buildings, shady squares and cobblestone streets, but its not really evocative of the history the city has experienced. However, the area immediately adjacent the old town is much more intriguing. The preserved medieval sections of the Fortress of Luxembourg forms dramatic scenes with the spires of the old town in the background and the rivers below. They also provide superb vistas of the gorges and the numerous bridges that transcend them at different levels. Beautiful churches and sandstone buildings align the rivers, but the gorges are defined particularly by the abundant trees and shrubbery that establish Luxembourg City’s visual magnificence.

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I made an unexpected trip to Germany for a couple of hours, because why not, Trier is only 50km away! Trier is a relatively small city at 100,000 and on the far periphery of the German heartland. The city’s modern-day obscurity belies a momentous past. Trier is often cited as the oldest city in Germany and served as a provincial capital of the Roman Empire. Roman ruins are scattered around the area, although the only the site I visited was Porte Nigra, a monolithic city gate that still signifies the entrance to the old town. The Cathedral of Trier was reputedly commissioned by Emperor Constantine, and a portion of the 4th century structure forms part of the nave. Most of the cathedral and its four iconic towers date to the 12th century, and as such it is an archetypal example of Romanesque architecture; a huge and visually arresting structure. During the Middle Ages, it was the seat of the Archbishopric of Trier, one of the seven Electors of the Holy Roman Emperor. Trier was also the birthplace of Karl Marx, although I didn’t venture to any monuments honouring him. I ambled through a shopping centre instead.

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While my limited time in Luxembourg City prevented me from appreciating all the nuisances of Luxembourgish cuisine, I did sample a couple of hearty dishes that indicated the local food is influenced more so by German, rather than French, traditions. I ate an enormous boiled pork knuckle with horseradish and potatoes, a comforting dish ideal for the 30 degrees weather. On my second night, I had another stodgy, though wholesome, meal of wheat dumplings fried in butter and bacon and served with apple sauce and smoked salmon salad with a mayonnaise dressing.

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Luxembourg City’s eminent beauty certainly justifies a visit for a couple of days. With more time I would have liked to travel in the Luxembourgish hinterland by hiking through its forests or hopping from one Moselle Valley winery to another. But Paris was calling…

That’s all for now,

Liam

Luxembourg photos

Posted by Liamps 22:43 Archived in Luxembourg Comments (0)

Bruges

Belgium photos

My solitary experience in Belgium previously was a brief visit to the dreary and bureaucratic capital of Brussels. Consequently, I decided I needed to visit a slightly more appealing destination to appreciate the country, so I ventured to the Flemish city of Bruges for 2 nights. I travelled to Bruges expecting to encounter a quaint city that is easily “coverable” with limited time. I was surprised to discover that the old town, one of the best preserved in Europe, is humungous; a reflection of the city’s medieval prestigious as a major international trading centre.

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Just after arriving in Bruges, I met up with Australian Paul and a group of his Australian friends who were on a day trip from Antwerp. A Globo Trip veteran, Paul (otherwise known by his Greekified name Pol Antriou Chenterson, according to his newly acquired Greek passport) is easily the most critical person of the existence of this blog and frequently campaigns for its permanent disbandment. Fortunately, my commitment is immune to the churlish commentary of a dour (and somewhat grotty) individual. I found Paul and his friends grazing on greasy roast chicken at a somewhat sterile takeaway establishment, an unusual choice for lunch in a city renowned for its culinary prowess. We then spent the afternoon wandering Bruges, critiquing the austere interiors of churches and exploring, with much more interest, gift shops laden with Belgian specialties. We visited the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which houses a relic supposedly containing Jesus’ blood (apparently He was a blood donor). As an alumni of the Catholic education system, I was personally incensed that a fee was required to visit the museum where we thought the relic was located. I firmly believe that if you successfully endure 13 years of indoctrination, you should be entitled to free entry at all Catholic associated institutions globally. In protest, I exited the Basilica promptly, though we later discovered the relic is exhibited in a freely accessible chapel… not the museum.

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I joined a free walking tour of Bruges to appreciate the city’s history. The tour commenced from the iconic Belfry, an 83m tall clocktower at the centre of the old town and a powerful demonstration of Bruges’ medieval importance. The “Golden Age” of Bruges lasted from the 12th to 15th centuries as the city functioned as one of the most important commercial centres in the world and the population boomed to approximately 200,000. From 1500 however, the channel that gave Bruges direct access to the sea began silting up, resulting in the city gradually declining and losing prominence to nearby Antwerp as the leading port of the Low Countries. The stalled development preserved the city’s architecture and layout, allowing Bruges to recover economically at the end of the 19th century as one of the first mass tourism destinations. The architecture of the old town is uniquely and entirely “old”, with many buildings serving as traditional breweries.The old town is crisscrossed by canals, which allowed merchants to easily transport goods from warehouses to the port. The canals provide spectacular vantage points to admire the city’s beautiful skyline, punctuated by church spires and bell-towers.

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The expansive old town of Bruges is almost completely unnavigable in the absence of technology. After dinner on my first night, I found myself completely lost as my phone ran out of battery power and I had no recollection of how to return to my hostel. The streets of Bruges wind in a totally illogical manner, the architecture is very similar throughout and the layout lacks a defining geographical feature (like a river), creating a veritable labyrinth where its very difficult to establish your bearings in the twilight. In yesteryears, I would have loved the romanticism of “getting lost” in a beautiful old city, but I’m too old and cynical now to be frustrated by the inconvenience. I bitterly wasted an hour trying to locate my hostel, before finally stumbling upon a street map I could photograph and follow. I was subsequently vigilant with ensuring my phone was adequately charged.

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For such an infinitesimally small and mostly unnoticed country, Belgium’s succession of momentous contributions to global gastronomy is really quite extraordinary. The Belgians are (supposedly) the inventors of chips (or fries / frites) and the quality of Belgian waffles, chocolates and beers are internationally recognised as peerless. I sampled two traditional Flemish meals in Bruges; moules and frites and carbonnade. Moules and frites consist of a cauldron of mussels cooked in white wine and twice fried chips with garlic mayonnaise. Carbonnade is a rich beef stew similar to France’s beef bourguignon, but cooked with beer rather than red wine. Belgium is synonymous with quality beer and I was of course required to sample a few drops, despite my preparations for Paris. Pol’s friends suggested I try a “sour” beer, which is produced from a very unpredictable process of fermentation. The beer was unlike anything I had tasted before, and I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I much preferred drinking cherry beer, wheat beer and a Belgian tripel called Garre, which I found at a historic pub hidden down a side alley and upstairs. The beer has an alcohol content of 11%, so the pub’s policy is to limit 3 drinks served to patrons.

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I anticipated Bruges would be a pretty little town, where I would possibly become bored after 2 days. However, I found that I had grossly insufficient time to explore the entire old town, visit some of the museums and breweries and sample enough beers to feel like I had properly tasted Belgium.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Belgium photos

Posted by Liamps 02:08 Archived in Belgium Comments (0)

Amsterdam II

I travelled to yet another city on this trip that I have previously visited with my venture to Amsterdam, yet the city seemed entirely foreign to my memories. When I was last in Amsterdam 5 years ago, the city was enduring one of the coldest winters in recent memory and was blanketed in snow. On this occasion, the city was experiencing the hottest weather on record (37 degrees on one day), with sunlight drenching the canals for 17 hours a day. I soaked up the Dutch summery vibes by catching up on the Euro adventures of Australian Paul, a Globo Trip veteran, and meeting his girlfriend, Dutch Karin. While Paul and I have travelled extensively, we have only met up twice overseas – and both occasions coincidentally were in the Netherlands! I also rendezvoused with Australian Anne, who is currently working in the Danish water industry, but far more impressively boasts an illustrious Globo Trip resume (with fleeting mentions in 6 entries from Iceland, Norway and Sweden). I had a fantastic extended weekend with Paul, Karin and Anne in one of Europe’s most congenial countries.

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Nowhere in the world have I travelled to a city as absent of cars and congestion than Amsterdam. The centre of the city is full of pedestrians and cyclists, and serviced by trams, ferries, metro trains and intercity trains, while cars are seldom encountered. Sure, some drivers foolishly attempt to navigate through the narrow streets within the Canal Ring, but in comparison to other cities, their presence is virtually unnoticeable. And why would people drive in central Amsterdam, unless they were religiously opposed to any alternative like Peter Stevens (fortunately, his zealotry has waned with age)? The use of private vehicles is completely unnecessary and tedious as the layout is totally incompatible for cars, while connections with alternatives modes have been comprehensively and meticulously provided for despite the intriguing geography. I stayed at a hostel on the opposite side of a large canal that bisects Holland from the Central Station; hesitantly as there is no bridge connection. Yet I found the free 24/7 ferry service between the Station and the northern area of central Amsterdam to be extremely efficient and convenient and rendered the physical separation irrelevant. Central Amsterdam defies the conventional, car obsessed thought process for city planning and implements atypical methods to connect. The streets of Amsterdam are ruled not by motorists but by cyclists, who commute on surprisingly cheap and rickety bikes with boundless confidence against the defenceless pedestrian (tourist). Of the few private vehicles that do ply Amsterdam’s streets, a large portion of them are compact, single occupant electrical vehicles; which are more environmentally and spatially friendly than normal cars. The outcome of Amsterdam’s unique transport composition? A vibrant and crowded inner city full of activity and without the constraints of air pollution, noise and stifling traffic that private motorised transport delivers to most cities – an inspiration for cities globally.

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I met Paul and Karin in Utrecht, a small city located to the east of Amsterdam. Travelling to Utrecht was a demonstration of the efficiency and comfortability of transport in the Netherlands, as I arrived in the centre of another city 60km from Amsterdam in just half an hour. Utrecht is like a miniature Amsterdam, with canals defining a compact old town of beautiful townhouses and historic institutional buildings. The city also consists of one of the most architecturally significant buildings of the twentieth century, the Schroeder House, which evokes the geometric and chromatic purity of the De Stijl movement – a forerunner to later modernist styles. Utrecht’s compactness means that the city centre is easily traversed on either foot or by bike; and the conspicuous absence of motorised vehicles enhances the city’s charm and peacefulness.

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Karin acted as our tour guide for the day and performed her role with aplomb, even if the information she relayed was invariably incorrect. But her enthusiasm and entertainment values were certainly on point, which is more important than the truth (as evidenced by this blog). She further endeared herself by commenting, without any provocation whatsoever, that my towering height and effortlessly attractive appearance meant that I could easily pass as “Dutch”. Appearance was also a subject of conversation regarding Paul, as Karin was fascinated by the descriptions of Paul’s cavalcade of (usually grotesque) hairstyles he has dabbled with throughout the decades. During our tour of Utrecht, we frequently stopped at bustling cafes between short ambles through the searing heat. While I had every intention of sampling Dutch beer, Karin suggested not to bother – just order Belgian lager in the Netherlands. Late in the afternoon we stopped in a tranquil park, where we observed two adolescent girls cutting their arms with a blade gleefully. Paul heroically advised them against the practice, but they scampered off giggling, probably with the intention of continuing the obscene practice in a less public forum.

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I returned to Amsterdam in the early evening to welcome Anne to our hostel on her first visit to the Dutch capital. After an indulgent seafood dinner exchanging stories from the past 9 months since she moved to Denmark, we ventured to one of the city’s constituent tourist attractions: the red light district. The area is unequivocally among the weirdest places on earth, with a bizarre dichotomy existing between the sexually explicit trappings of a red light district and the normality of the tourists crowds (i.e. young families, couples, “grey nomads”, Americans who think a 2 week vacation to Western Europe is the height of adventurism) who leisurely amble through the precinct as if it were a generic theme park. The area is of course incredibly beautiful, with the brothels and sex show theatres occupying stunning seventeenth century townhouses aligning a canal illuminated by the plethora of neon lights. Anne and I eventually escaped the curiosities of the district and enjoyed some midnight beers beside another canal, with the streets still packed due to the oppressive heat.

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Anne and I commenced what would become a marathon day with a picnic breakfast beside a canal, while debating the fate of drunks who fall into the murky waters – with no ladders in sight. We spent several hours exploring the posh neighbourhoods in the west of the Canal Ring, which is composed of elegant, slender townhouses and quaint cafes, and beautified by expansive green canopies and colourful flowerpots. Noticeably absent though were public lavatories, as we wasted ample time attempting to locate a luxury provision we take for granted in Australia. We walked past Anne Frank’s House, where (Australian) Anne provided the first of several humorous pearlers of the day: “Anne Frank was the first female pilot, wasn’t she?” My subsequent description of Anne Frank’s actual identity did not provide quite the same comic relief. We then joined a scenic boat cruise on the canals of Amsterdam. The 20-something hostess quickly warmed to us, as she realised we were the only cool kids onboard trying to make the most of the unlimited alcohol included in the price for the hour long journey. She even remarked (again, totally unprovoked) that we didn’t look like tourists at all and could easily pass as Dutch! In the late afternoon, we ventured to a large park on the southern periphery of the Canal Ring to attend the opening events of Pride Week in Amsterdam. The park was full of colour and atmosphere, so we positioned ourselves on the lawn (with requisite Heineken in-tow) to people watch and attempt to spot clogs (unsuccessful). On our return journey to the hostel, Anne explained how she loves London because of its palpable “hurricane of history” – has anyone ever devised a more inane phrase?! We hopped between bars into the early hours of the morning as Amsterdam continued to exude vitality throughout the hot summer night.

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As previously discovered, cuisine endemic to the Netherlands most certainly does not compete with the heights of the culinary world. With this in mind, I was less restrictive than my customary policy of maintaining a diet “traditional” to the local environ and ate falafels wraps (influenced by migrants of the Middle East) and Indonesian food (legacy of Dutch colonial rule). I did, however, sample a handful of Dutch dishes and copious amounts of Gouda cheese (mainly in the form of free samples). Karin advised Paul and I that the Dutch equivalent to the humble and overrated ‘smashed avo on toast’ is a brown bread roll filled with goats cheese, bacon, honey, pine-nuts and lettuce; a rather impressive sandwich concoction. Anne and I dined at a rare establishment specialising in Dutch cuisine. For entrée, I enjoyed the contrasting flavours and textures of boiled mackerel with blood pudding and sauerkraut, while for main I had a hotpot of a variety of fish in a creamy sauce.

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I was reluctant to populate the early stages of my trip so heavily with cities I have travelled to previously, yet I was so grateful to have returned Amsterdam in summer. The city’s inspiring compactness, efficient transport connections, tranquility, international vibe and fun atmosphere definitely establish it as one of my favourites in Europe.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 22:29 Archived in Netherlands Comments (1)

London V

Greetings Globo Trip aficionados! Indeed, I have again escaped the depressive isolation of the world’s most southerly city to gallivant through Europe for 3 months. The primary reasons for my exodus from the harrowing doldrums of Melbourne’s winter is to represent Australia at the prestigious Paris Gay Games in swimming and attend Irish Claire’s wedding in Malta. Additionally, I will be rendezvousing with European and expatriate friends, bagging a swag of new countries (predominately micro-states) and travelling to a new frontier for me – the Caucasus. The first stop though of my third trip to the continent was an obligatory visit to my favourite city in the world, London.

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My flight journey from Melbourne to London, which came to a total cost of $90 due to clever manipulation of credit card sign-up bonuses, was undoubtedly the most comfortable long-haul trip I have ever made. I don’t particularly like the idea of airline loyalty, but the leg space provided on Singapore Airlines has definitely secured my business into the future. I was truly stupefied that for the duration of the 8 hour flight to Singapore and subsequent 13 hour flight to London, the seat in front of me never encroached uncomfortably onto my being. Needless to say, there was a little shit constantly kicking my seat from behind, but that was the responsibility of her totally incompetent mother, not Singapore Airlines. I was also impressed that between the main meals, passengers could limitlessly request snacks and beverages to ensure we had sufficient calories to persevere through the physically arduous activity of sitting for 13 hours. The highlight of the trip though was the extraordinary views above Central Asia. We were blessed with incredibly clear skies, affording panoramic views of utterly barren mountainous landscapes in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan and interminably flat desert in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. While other passengers were drooling over B-grade Hollywood films or Friends reruns, I was mesmerised by the captivating spectacle below and was amazed by the almost total absence of human settlements (except for when we flew above the fabled ancient city of Merv – that was very exciting!). That was until we encountered the clouds above Russia, where I started watching Pitch Perfect 3.

Problems started in the final 0.2% of my journey’s overall distance when I arrived at Heathrow. One would think that the busiest airport in the world by international passengers would painstakingly ensure that accessibility to other points within Greater London was abundantly clear to foreigners. Yet despite being prepared in the knowledge of the obscure transport connection I required, I was still totally flummoxed about where to go and how to pay (not for the first time at Heathrow). There is a conspicuous absence of non-Travelex associated ATMs (i.e. ATMs without criminally high fees) at Heathrow. Apparently that shouldn’t be an issue, because there are signs everywhere saying that you can use credit cards to board Transport for London services. It wasn’t clear that the bus I required fell outside TfL’s jurisdiction and infuriatingly required cash payment, so I missed that bus and waited another hour for the next direct connection to Watford. Finally, 32 hours after departing Essendon and nearly 48 hours since I had properly slept, I arrived at the pub adjacent Watford Junction to meet my usual London host, British Dave.

With Northern Europe enduring a heat wave and the sun blazing for nearly 18 hours per day, we ventured to Brighton for a traditional English seaside experience. Every second Londoner appeared to have the same idea that Sunday as the motorways were horrendously busy and the town was clogged with coaches. For an Australian, the natural composition of the Brighton seaside was hardly appealing: pebble beach, opaque, greyish water and no vegetation separating the beach from township. The English compensate for the lack of natural serenity with a unique and somewhat whimsical seaside culture. Activity centres around Brighton’s iconic white pier, which supports an amusement park, restaurant and bars. Armadas of deck chairs occupy one side of the pier, while nudists frolic on the other. Victorian-era terraces provide splendid views over the beach and an intriguing interface with the town. Central Brighton is predominately composed of pastel coloured nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings. The quaint narrow streets brim with life on a hot summers day as the patrons from the pubs and cafés spill out onto the pavements. The popularity of Brighton stems back to the reign of Queen Victoria, who retreated to the seaside town during the summer months. She commissioned the expansive residential pavilion at the centre of Brighton, which is a bizarre architectural ensemble of neoclassical and Oriental (i.e. British interpretation of Mughal) influences. Brighton is a lovely destination for a day trip, though most certainly not for the beauty (or lack thereof) of the beach.

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A day and a half after arriving in Europe, I attended the Watford Leisure Centre to ostensibly complete a rigorous training session in preparation for Paris. While that aspiration didn’t exactly eventuate, it was the first of several culturally informative experiences at swimming pools in Europe. Evidently, I think Australians take our incredible aquatics facilities for granted. In Europe, pools are much less common, overcrowded, usually 25m in length, often lacking in backstroke flags and full of terrible swimmers. The most bizarre aspect of European pools is how they generally combine two lanes into one (i.e. swim up one and back down the other), which renders it impossible to time splits properly. Consequently, my swimming session was rather more lackadaisical than I had envisaged, though it did help stem the effects of jet lag.

Since I was on my fourth trip to London, I did not feel the imperative to “tick-off” a cavalcade of tourist destinations during my three full days in the city and instead returned to some of my favourite haunts. After the Monday morning swim, I ventured into Central London to first satisfy my hummus cravings and then aimlessly wander the day away. I ambled through the glitzy neighbourhood of Mayfair and its luxury shopping precinct, Bond Street. As with every visit to this area, I was gawking at the shameless and sickeningly obscene wealth on display; chauffeurs cruise the spotless streets in vehicles worth hundreds of thousands of pounds as their owners peruse the most exclusive shops on the planet. There is no where at all comparable to this area in Melbourne. Admittedly, I momentarily experienced a pang of, “Oh, I wish I could afford this one day!”, but of course, no one deserves such excessive disposable income… unless they use it for travelling! I ambled past Westminster Palace and was grateful I had seen the iconic clocktower before, as it is currently covered in scaffolding. I walked along the River Thames, north through Trafalgar Square and concluded my evening on Oxford Street, where regular Britons shop.

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After the disappointment of the Watford Leisure Centre, I decided to cross Greater London to swim at the Olympic aquatics venue. The constituent venues of the London 2012 Olympics occupy an expansive park in east of the city. The impressive external architecture of the Olympic stadium (currently being converted into the home ground of West Ham United FC) and the aquatics venue, as well as the bizarre red steel sculpture that defines the precinct, justify a visit to the area. Which was fortuitous for me, because the aquatics venue was closed to the general public when I attempted to enter in the middle of a hot summer’s day – the Europeans really are clueless when it comes to swimming pools. Food is the obvious remedy to placate irritation, so I quickly travelled to Borough Market just south of London Bridge for a delicious Ethiopian lunch. Borough Market epitomises gentrification. It occupies nineteenth century steel-and-glass halls and brick warehouses nestled below a rail overpass. It was once a regular, wholesale market, but is now the domain of specialty food stores and populated by tourists. In the afternoon, I perused the Army Museum (wholly underwhelming considering the material the British have to work with), before retreating to read in an amiable cemetery garden near Shoreditch. In the evening, I reunited with British Hermione, a Globo Trip who I travelled with in India for a couple of weeks. Hermione and I clicked immediately when we met on the Subcontinent, so it was wonderful to catch-up on life events and reminisce on “only in India” moments during our all-too-short rendezvous. To appreciate Shoreditch’s famously alternative culture, she suggested we dine at Boxpark. Boxpark is basically a multi-level complex composed of freight containers converted into stylish shops and hip bars and food outlets. The rooftop seating area provides a lively and notably youthful atmosphere to to enjoy the summer twilight.

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On my last full day in London, I had planned to visit the only World Heritage listed site in the metropolis I had yet to inspect, the Kew Gardens. But I decided that $32 was a tad excessive to view a bunch of static organisms, so I instead returned to my favourite area of London, Camden Market. Needless to say, its not the cheap, grungy merchandise I find alluring, but rather the enormous concentration of international food stalls. And the ensemble of food stalls has seemingly trebled since I was last there nearly 3 years ago, expanding into other wooden warehouses adjacent the algae-covered canal. I went for a post-lunch stroll along the canal and then cut through the peaceful Regent’s Garden to reach Central London. I met Dave in the early evening in Covent Garden and we subsequently hoped between traditional and contemporary pubs in London’s most vibrant neighbourhood. I love the pub culture culture in London; on weeknights, every pub in Central London is completely crammed with workers. In the warmer months, patrons collect their beverages from the bar and drink them on the street or in back alleys, creating a vibe akin to a massive street party since there are pubs on virtually ever corner. The pubs are distinguished from other commercial enterprises by their hanging flower markets at the front – a intriguing and universally adopted characteristic of British pubs. We returned to Watford at a relatively responsible hour for Dave, as I had to catch the Eurostar in the morning.

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British cuisine is of course lamentably bland and basic, and I have already sampled most of their stodgy contributions to global gastronomy. Nevertheless, in Brighton I enjoyed a feast of seafood morsels prepared by a charming couple in their seventies that I had never tasted before. I tried a fried kipper sandwich (salty and extremely delicious), a crab salad sandwich (essentially just pureed crab with spices) and a rollmop, which is pickled herring rolled around a gherkin and onion. At the Camden Market, I had a delicious Stilton cheese, bacon and pear chutney toasted sandwich that oozed fatty British goodness. My consumption was otherwise international in nature.

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As always, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to London and catching up with old travel companions. It served as the perfect launchpad into Europe…

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 12:59 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Siquijor and Bohol

Philippines photos

The final two islands I visited on my journey through the Philippines were Siquijor and Bohol in the Western Visayas. Despite their relative proximity and similar naturalistic compositions, Siquijor and Bohol are emblematic of how each Philippine island boasts a unique culture and identity. Siquijor has a population dispersed in several small towns around the island and a relaxed traveller scene. Meanwhile, Bohol is plagued by mass tourism and its tropical island vibes are interrupted by the fumes of the major urban centre of Tagbilaran City. I was somewhat disappointed by Bohol, which is overhyped as one of the premier destinations in the Philippines because of the Chocolate Hills and tarsiers. The “undiscovered” island of Siquijor however was among my favourite destinations in the
archipelago.

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Blindingly bright blue skies eminently helped with my impressions of Siquijor. After several days of solid rain and utter saturation in Dumaguete and Apo Island, I was desperate to bake in the sun and finally have my foul smelling shoes and socks dry. I was delighted on the ferry to Siquijor and in the subsequent days by the clear weather and its transformative impact on my enjoyment of this coastal destination. Siquijor is a small and sparsely populated island, with minimal public transport and yet a surprisingly well maintained road network. The island is therefore ideally explored by motorcycle, although I maintained my reluctance to engage in such a mode and instead opted to walk after the initial tuk-tuk ride. Most tourists stay at hostels and guesthouses strung along the island’s circulation road either side of San Juan in Siquijor’s south-west. I stayed in a quirky hostel up a hill from the road and nestled within thick vegetation, which was owned by a German guy and his Filipino partner. The couple operated a very relaxed, open-air hostel with a homely vibe and pack of obedient dogs protective of guests. I would soon discover that numerous expats live on Siquijor, attracted to the island’s sedentary pace and away from the tourist hordes.

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Siquijor was one of the few destinations I travelled to in the Philippines where beautiful beaches and coral gardens could be accessed without needing to hire a boat or join a tour. The southern part of the island is completely fringed by powdery sand beaches that are absent of pollution or crowds and idyllic for loitering. I spent ample time snorkelling through pristine water and above clusters of colourful corals and beds of seagrass while stalking schools of fish. I decided not to burden myself with the obligations of an itinerary to see all of Siquijor, and instead spent three blissful days enjoying the beaches exclusively in the south. I even attempted a few morning runs, though the searing humidity quickly hindered those ambitions.

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I caught the ferry to Bohol’s main port in Tagbilaran City and immediately continued into the island’s hinterland. I stayed at a lovely rural hostel on a property perched beside the slow-moving Loboc River. The showers and toilets were among the most impressive bathing facilities I have ever seen: private, outdoor “rooms” with bamboo piping and tropical landscaping. The quaint riverside town of Loboc features the shell of an historic Spanish-era church and a road bridge that leads to nowhere. I went hiking in the forested hills surrounding the town to reach a sequence of monumental crucifixes on the ridge lines. On some of the trails, it seemed as though I was the first person to hike them in months as the vegetation occasionally obscured the trails and cobwebs were regularly walked into head first. The views from the top were surprisingly comprehensive as I could see most of the southern part of Bohol including Tagbilaran City.

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From Loboc, I used the local bus network to visit Bohol’s two iconic attractions. The bus rides were rather pleasant, as the road bisected a “man-made”rainforest and we passed paddy fields, small villages and the river. We eventually reached the bizarre landscape of the Chocolate Hills at the centre of the island. As far as the eye can see, the otherwise flat and forested landscape is interspersed by perfectly shaped conical hills with brownish hues. While the scenery is intriguing, its not really an interactive attraction and 20 minutes at the view point therefore suffices. I then visited the Tarsier Sanctuary to view the world’s smallest primates, which are only found on Bohol. Tarsiers are nocturnal creatures the size of a clenched fist and with disproportionately large eyes. The wrap their elongated fingers and toes around slender branches and sleep in this position. When I went to the sanctuary I saw about half a dozen tarsiers, along with thousands of obnoxious Chinese tourists.

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With minimal culinary options beyond the expensive and opportunistic hostel, I left the serenity of Loboc early and spend 1 night in the polluted capital, Tagbilaran City. Although Tagbilaran was just as underwhelming as expected, I did enjoy my best hostel experience in the Philippines. The hostel occupies arguably the city’s most beautiful and historic building; a 1950s mansion set within a tropical garden in the centre of Tagbilaran City. The Filipino owner grew up in the house and inherited it from her father. After living in the US for decades, she and her American husband decided to return to Bohol for their son to be surrounded by family, as he has a disability. Last year, they decided to repurpose the house and have since created an incredible (and very affordable) “home-away-from-home” vibe for weary travellers. The idea occurred to them after joyfully hosting a random American backpacker in their regular house and realised there was an intriguing opportunity. The hostel owners are eminently suited to their roles; they love indulging in long and passionate conversations and embrace all of their guests like family. I only stayed for one night but the farewell was emotional and full of overtures for assistance to reach my next destination. My impressions are that the hostel is essentially operated as a not-for-profit organisation (they own other businesses for their income), allowing them to be surrounded by young, international people and breath new life into the old house.

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Panglao is a small island located just off Tagbilaran City. The island is the constituent hub of tourist activity in Bohol, with visitors staying at tropical beaches around the island. I stayed at a mellow hostel on an organic farm in the hinterland of the island and away from the main tourist drag. While the hostel’s peacefulness and spaciousness were appealing, the 60 minute walk / 25 minute run in the blazing sun / 15 minute helmet-less motorcycle taxi ride (I tried all of the above!) was rather irritating. Nevertheless, the nearby beach was spectacular with its pristine water and white, powdery sands. I went swimming there on my last day on Bohol but quickly spotted what I thought could be a box jellyfish and escaped immediately.

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While staying on Panglao, I went on my second diving excursion of the Philippines. Just like in Coron, I surprised myself with how adept I seemed to be at the basics of diving, particularly with respect to maintaining my buoyancy. However, I still need to focus on slower breathing, as my tank depleted of oxygen faster than my dive partners’. We dived at 3 sites around the reef walls of Balicasag and observed a brilliant array of corals. On the first two dives, we saw 5 huge turtles gliding through the water – one of the great sights of the natural world. On the third dive, we were surrounded by a profusion of fish, including a vast school of trevally moving as a 15m column. Just like my experience shipwreck diving in Coron, the dive tour left me with a thrilling buzz and keenness to dive on every overseas adventure.

The Philippines is a vast and geographically complex country, so 1 month was grossly inadequate to experience everything the archipelago of 7,000 islands has to offer. The Philippines rivals Indonesia as the most naturally spectacular country in East Asia, the country’s culture, architecture and cuisine pales in comparison to its neighbours. Consequently, I’ve had mixed impressions reflecting on the Philippines, although diving, snorkelling, lazying on pristine beaches and canyoning certainly made visiting worthwhile.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 13:52 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Cebu and Dumaguete

Draft

Posted by Liamps 00:51 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Palawan

Philippines photos

When travellers think of the Philippines, they conjure images of paradisiacal islands of white beaches, enigmatic karst formations, verdant interiors and turquoise waters. The archipelago is certainly peppered with such places, although Palawan is cited as the archetypal example. Consequently, while backpacking itineraries are unusually varied in the Philippines due to its unique geography, an absolute staple destination is the spear shaped island located in the far west of the primary island groups. The tourist hordes flock to Palawan to experience the perceived exquisite majesty of its nature, flying or ferrying into the diminutive and physically constrained township of El Nido. Yet with inadequate infrastructure provisions and environmental mismanagement, the island’s former serenity has been compromised by the crowds. Personally, I would argue Palawan needn’t be considered an “unmissable” Philippine destination, especially considering the inconvenience of travelling there.

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El Nido certainly occupies a sublime location, as the town is sandwiched between sheer karst mountains and the coastline. Unfortunately though, the settlement is bereft of cultural authenticity as it is purely defined by the tourism industry it exists to serve. Furthermore, excessive and rapid development in recent years has polluted the beaches and rendered the immediate off-shore waters to be unsafe for swimming. Despite the intensity of touristic activity, infrastructure and services in El Nido are astonishingly poor. Electrical blackouts are common, Wifi is either non-existent or extremely slow, and the only ATM in town is unreliable. I find the last point particularly mind-boggling considering El Nido’s extreme isolation and its utter dependence on tourism financially – surely it would be logical to prioritise the facilitation of cash withdrawal by foreigners in order for them to spend!

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El Nido’s incessant growth in popularity is due to the surrounding archipelago, which constitutes perhaps the most impressive scenery in the country. A melange of small karst islands are scattered off the northern Palawan coast and are easily accessible by boat from El Nido. I went on two boat tours to explore the area and was definitely impressed by the beautiful scenery. The photos were somewhat compromised though by my camera malfunctioning and the cavalcade of tourists following identical itineraries. While most tourists were visually defined by their capitulation to wearing bright orange lifesaver vests, I was fairly confident of my swimming abilities in the still and crystalline waters and instead developed a vivid red back. The stops on each day included pristine, powdery sand beaches, views of dramatic, spiky karst formations and swimming into lagoons almost fully enclosed by karst rock walls. The highlights though were snorkelling above magnificent coral gardens and along reef walls with incredible water clarity. I saw a potpourri of tropical fish, including swarms of (harmless) jellyfish around unsuspecting tourists and numerous lionfish.

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People often ask me why I like to travel on my own. Surely it would be a lonesome ordeal, bereft of conversation and companionship? Invariably I’ve found the opposite is true. By backpacking independently and staying in dormitories, you’re presented to other travellers as approachable and in need of company. Consequently, you meet new people from around the world every day. This is usually a brilliant outcome and a constituent reason as to why I travel – although sometimes it can be irritating. I actually quite enjoy a degree of solitude, if for no other reason than to write this burdensome blog. No doubt readers will be shocked to discover these entries do not magically materialise themselves, but rather take an inexorable amount of time to produce. So there’s nothing worse than checking-in after a long day, desiring only to eat dinner, write and crash, and meeting a chatty clinger in the dormitory.

A perfect example of this painful situation occurred when I arrived at my hostel in El Nido. Lurking on the bunk bed below mine in search of social prey was a Swedish guy I would soon find terribly annoying. While I desperately needed to attend the lavatory and take a shower, he began rambling incessantly about his trip and plans for the evening, which I was suddenly a part of. An hour later I managed to sneak out of the hostel, only to bump into him around the corner. My heart sank in that moment as I foresaw the loss of my evening. He asked if he could join me for dinner, which I begrudgingly accepted. We ate at a street-side falafel stand and met a lovely British couple. He invited them for a drink at a bar him and I were apparently bound for, although I had no recollection of agreeing to this. He attempted to purchase the first round and thereby rope us into a lengthy evening, although the British couple deftly avoided this predicament by claiming they had insufficient funds to partake in rounds. When the British couple departed at 9:30pm, the Swede exalted that he avoids “investing” in couples as they always depart hours earlier than he would deem satisfactory. He emphasised, with a somewhat manic expression, how social “investments” are incredibly important to him while backpacking. Chillingly, I realised I was the “investment” that evening. Purely out of sympathy, I decided to have one more round with him and then disappear. After suffering through a story about how he had apparently confronted an angry bear in the wild and his claim that bears don’t actually kill people, he connected us to a large French group and immediately initiated drinking games. My participation was only fleeting as I used the proceedings to extricate myself from his company.

Port Barton was easily my preferred destination in Palawan. To think I nearly listened to the Swede who moaned there was nothing to do. Indeed, Port Barton is a sleepy hollow absent of the WOW-factor scenery, snorkelling and nightlife of El Nido. But it boasts a beautiful sand beach, jungly backdrop, cheap accommodation, excellent eateries and a very friendly village. Port Barton is therefore ideal for reading, writing and playing cards, the simple pleasures in life, which is exactly what I wanted after 6 consecutive days of 6 hours or more on boats. Port Barton is one of those rare destinations that possesses tourist facilities and an international vibe, without being stifled by commercialisation and the masses. The village consists of a spacious, grid-like layout with dirt (muddy) roads and colourful, airy buildings nestled within thick vegetation. The palm fringed beaches harbours a fleet of bright wooden longboats locals use for fishing. In Port Barton, I rendezvoused with German Eric and Canadian Emily whom I had met in El Nido. After recounting weird Swedish man stories, we explored Port Barton’s nightlife. A night market manifested near the village centre, which notably consisted of half a dozen gambling tables. Along with crowds of other tourists, we watched the locals engage intensely in the games. There was also a table for children (smaller buy-in), where we watched one kid amass a small fortune of notes. Many villagers also congregated at the basketball stadium to watch the local teams play. Basketball courts in Philippine villagers are often concrete and undercover (though open-air) and serve as key community spaces, as basketball is one of the national sports. The other national sport is cock fighting, which was evident in Port Barton by the plethora of roosters leashed in front yards.

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Aside from impressive feasts concocted at the back of the tiny tour boats, the food I ate in El Nido was routinely lacklustre. Not so in Port Barton, where the restaurants were cheaper and substantially better. At my guesthouse, I sampled a rare Filipino vegetarian dish I had yet to encounter that combined two of my favourite ingredients: egg and eggplant! The delectable eggplant omelette consisted of a long, slender eggplant butterflied and cooked in eggs. At a nearby guesthouse, I had fish served in a superb curry sauce (heavy on the turmeric, light on the chilli), which was definitely the best fish I ate in the Philippines. Port Barton though was especially distinguished for its international food scene. Sean would be pleased to read I ate at a vegetarian establishment not once but twice (!). I enjoyed a smashing veggie burger made from chickpeas and ubay (purple sweet potato) with real bread, real cheese and salty roasted potatoes; homemade green tea ice-cream latte (I have finally discovered a palatable coffee drink); and a generous portion of shakshuka (not quite as moorish as my rendition though) with ciabatta and a big salad (great Seinfeld episode – although aren’t they all?). Eric, Emily and I went to an atmospheric pizza restaurant (also vegetarian) that featured an open-aired kitchen, wood-fired oven, stockpiles of quality ingredients, outdoor dining and gargantuan thin-crust pizzas. The restaurant could easily have been located in the Italian countryside. The only two hours I spent in Puerta Princesa, the island’s largest city and transportation hub, I devoted exhaustingly to discover a noodle soup variant supposedly unique to the city – which proved to be disappointing endeavour.

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Palawan is relatively difficult and expensive to travel to and inadequately equipped to cater for its number of visitors. While the beaches and attractions near El Nido are spectacular, more accessible destinations in the Philippines offer similar allures. Devoting as much time as possible to exploring the myriad islands of the Visayas would be a more rewarding use of limited time in the Philippines.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Philippines photos

Posted by Liamps 00:16 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Coron

Philippines photos

While heinous weather inundated most of the Philippine archipelago in the new year, I was fortunate enough to be “stuck” on seemingly the only island unaffected: Busuanga. I did endure a spattering of rain and inconveniently a cancelled boat trip due to the coast guard’s concerns about treacherous waves, but I was pleased not to be marooned to the confines of my guesthouse as tourists were elsewhere in the country. Busuanga is located in the west of the Philippines near Palawan and is commonly, though incorrectly, referred to as Coron. Coron is actually the name of the major town on Busuanga and also, confusingly, a protected island just off the coast. Most tourists stay in Coron Town and use it as a base to explore the interior of Busuanga, neighbouring islands in the Calamian Group and subaqueous attractions such as Japanese shipwrecks and coral reefs.

I flew to Busuanga on New Year’s Day and spent five nights on the island. The flight from Manila consisted of games and prizes for the passengers (the cabin crew were far too excited - it was a total snoozefest) and arrived half an hour early; slightly too punctual for the integrity of the schedule not to be questioned. I sat next to Frenchman Léo on the minivan into town, although it was one of those awkward situations where neither of us had the audacity to initiate conversation and we sat in silence. When I arrived in Coron Town, I inspected two hostels constructed on wooden stilts above the seawater. Despite romanticisms about such an arrangement in the tropics, the repugnant smell from the tepid water was grossly off-putting and I quickly opted for a guesthouse on land. In the afternoon, I climbed to the top of a viewpoint above Coron Town and again crossed paths with Léo, only on this occasion we properly met. Léo was holidaying from the tiresome and hierarchical realm of Japanese commerce in Tokyo and was also 26 – the first of what seemed like an eternity of backpackers I would met in the Philippines sharing the same age.

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The coast guard cautiously cancelled all maritime journeys the following day as a typhoon raged across the south of the Philippines. With our island-hopping tour postponed, I resolved to explore the interior of Busuanga. I decided to attempt to hike to the summit of the island’s highest mountain, which I estimated could be achieved just prior to sunset. Within 10 minutes of walking out of the town centre, I was in a verdant countryside of lush pastures, palm trees, thick vegetation, muddy dirt roads and decaying houses. I had easily escaped the tourists hordes of Coron Town and only saw two other Westerners for three hours. I passed tiny villages with quaint Catholic churches and numerous smiling locals surprised to see a tourist travelling through on foot. I nearly missed the inconspicuous turn-off for the mountain, though fortunately a bunch of friendly children guided me in the right direction. However, I abandoned my plans near the base as a rain clouds suddenly obscured the peak, which would have rendered the ascent worthless. I continued walking to a beach frequented by Filipino families, but was unimpressed by the lack of sand and murky waters. En route, I was stopped by a group of boys playing basketball. Initially gobsmacked by my height, my stature was quickly superseded for their attention by the athleticism of an Israeli guy who could dunk. In the late afternoon, I rejuvenated my weary body at a thermal hot spring adjacent to the coast (alongside hundreds of other patrons). A statue of the Virgin Mary domineered over the main bathing area, which I thought was a rather intriguing sight since such settings in Southeast Asia would often feature a giant buddha.

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Léo and I rendezvoused and joined a group tour of Coron Island by bangka, a Filipino wooden fishing vessel. Léo noted that aside from ourselves and two children, the rest of the group was entirely composed of Caucasian male and Filipina couples; an observation I was distressed to realise I was totally oblivious to. Not that there’s anything bizarre or inherently wrong about this type of dynamic, indeed all of the couples onboard seemed to be in happy and equal relationships with compatible ages. But the Philippines are brimming with unattractive middle-aged (or older) Caucasian males and their multi-decade younger Filipina girlfriends or wives, which is slightly difficult to understand. I suppose I shouldn’t judge though, I’m sure its all for love. With a flotilla of other bangkas, populated more so with tourists than travellers (I’m such a snob), plying the same route and adhering to the same schedule, the tour was characteristic somewhat of a theme park. Nevertheless, the attractions were very beautiful, and our guide was pleasingly a comical larrikin. Coron Island appears to be an impenetrable natural fortress, with imposing walls of charcoal limestone rising dramatically from the water. Narrow steps through the limestone pinnacles lead to two pristine aqua lakes. While we were permitted to “swim” in the lakes, we were required to wear life jackets. The incompetency of a few fools now compels everyone to wear those restrictive vests and be debilitated from swimming properly, which was very irritating. We next ventured to the Blue Lagoon, a spectacular turquoise lagoon surrounded completely by limestone walls aside from two narrow entry points. Contrary to our captain’s advice, the snorkelling in the lagoon was decent, with clusters of coral clinging to the deep limestone walls – especially in the areas absent of the orange tourist brigades. For lunch, the crew cooked an incredibly tasty and generous lunch on open-air grills at the back of the cramped boat. In the afternoon, we snorkelled in three locations off small islands between Busuanga and Coron, with reefs of varying qualities.

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Léo pressured me into signing up for diving the next day, which was exactly the motivation I required. While I travelled to the Philippines with the intention of diving, I was still reluctant because of my concerns about controlling my buoyancy (which I certainly did not master when I did an Open-Water PADI course nearly 5 years ago in Egypt). Confidence quickly restored after a refresher dive with an excellent and attentive instructor, as I surprisingly had no difficulties with buoyancy and recollected the safety protocols. Léo, and Austrian Marie, both unlicensed “discovery” divers, had a slightly more negligent instructor who regularly failed to monitor their locations and led them to depths far beyond what PADI would recommend. No deaths or injuries at least. Along with German Ireen and a Uruguayan couple, we went on a full-day boat trip featuring three dives, including two at Japanese shipwrecks. Almost two dozen Japanese war vessels were sunk by US air strikes in September 1944 and now rest in Coron Bay. The first shipwreck we dived at is one of the largest in the area and covered in interesting corals and sea anemones. It was a surreal experience to swim around a vast decaying structure symbolic of death and destruction that is simultaneously a facilitator for new life. At the second shipwreck, we were surprisingly led inside the vessel by our guides, through the hollow passages and cargo holds. This experience was peaceful and serene, rather than dark and foreboding as initially anticipated. We dived to depths of around 20-23 metres and passed large schools of fish, seahorses, parrotfish and puffer fish. Diving provides a unique and humbling ability to move in literally every direction, so after a brilliant day underwater I was unsure why I had taken so long to return to the sport.

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Léo, Marie, Ireen and I hired a bangka the next day and went on another boat tour of the islands near Busuanga in magnificent sunny weather. My time in Busuanga was the beginning of the longest consecutive period I can remember spending in coastal areas, so I was determined to develop a comprehensive tan. Unfortunately, my torso’s lily white Irish skin and lackadaisical application of sunscreen were no match for the unforgiving Filipino sun, resulting in the rapid transformation of my back into a gnarly crimson canvas. I snorkelled in an area just off Coron Island carpeted with sea urchins and fragments of coral (obviously with a life jacket on). We next returned to the Blue Lagoon, where the colours were even more vivid than the previous day with the penetration of sun rays. We spent most of the afternoon on a small island in Coron Bay and enjoyed almost exclusive solitude on a pristine beach and wood-fired pizzas bought from an Italian-owned pizzeria in Coron Town.

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The only genuinely WOW-factor dish I tasted in the Philippines was at a restaurant in Coron Town that was stilted above (not exactly pristine) seawater. Kinilaw consists of raw fish (typically tuna) marinated in vinegar, chilli, garlic, ginger, onions and pepper. Similar to ceviche, it provides a rare burst of flavour in the otherwise bland Filipino culinary repertoire. In Coron, I began dabbling with the traditional Filipino breakfast of garlic rice and fried egg with longganiza (sweet Chinese sausage), fried corned beef or fried milk fish, though was quickly tired of waking up to such greasiness. Nothing however compares on the greasiness scale to sisig, one of the most popular dishes in the country. Sisig is a sizzling plate of diced pork (more fat than flesh) served with sweet mayonnaise, calamansi (a local citrus fruit smaller than a lime) and a raw egg on top. Delicious, but definitely a contender for the most unhealthy dish on earth I have tried. Slightly more suitable to the hot, humid and coastal environment is inihaw na pusit, which is squid stuffed with a sweet onion mixture and barbecued.

I was exceedingly fortunate to arrive in Busuanga precisely when the rest of the Philippines endured harrowing weather and Busuanga avoided most of it. Shipwreck diving was definitely the highlight of my visit, although I also really enjoyed island hopping with an interesting bunch of people.

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That’s all for now,

Liam

Philippines photos

Posted by Liamps 17:08 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

The Cordillera

Philippines photos

The Cordillera is a mountain range in the north of Luzon, featuring unique tribal cultures and distinctive landscapes. The people of the Cordillera are referred to collectively as the Igorot and successfully resisted subjugation during the three-century occupation of the Philippines by the Spanish. Consequently, the languages and traditions of the region were less affected than areas of the lowlands. The Igorot were eventually pacified by the Americans, and such the area is an isolated bastion of Protestantism within a staunchly Catholic nation. While most Igorot today live in towns and villages, many are still members of hill tribes that engage in (often fatal) skirmishes. Prior to spending nearly four weeks on beaches and hopping between the Philippines’ paradisiacal islands, I decided to loop north from Manila through the Cordillera, specifically to Banaue and Sagada. Banaue is internationally renowned for its rice terraces (touted by the Philippines’ tourism bureau as the “eighth wonder of the world”), while Sagada is used as a base to explore the caves, mountains and valleys located nearby.

When you’re forced to dive into a book with an opening line of, “It was Miss Somers’ turn to make the tea.”, your day has clearly not gone to plan. Perhaps that’s a tad unfair. Agatha Christie’s famed A Pocket Full of Rye, featuring master sleuth Miss Marple, is certainly an addictive read. In fact, I was so absorbed into the plot and fascinated by Marple’s interminable cunning that I finished the novel in a day. Not that I had much alternative. When I arrived in Banaue after a 10 hour overnight bus trip, it was drizzling lightly and the valley was completely obscured by fog. The weather remained unchanged throughout the day, effectively confining me to the guesthouse balcony and dining room. I was not in a position to complain though; the weather was comparatively pleasant in Banaue as a typhoon raged through the southern and central islands of the Philippines. But I was prevented from viewing the fabled rice terraces of the Cordillera, which represent an impressive feet of engineering constructed nearly 2,000 years ago on the slopes of precipitous mountains. The most spectacular reputedly surround the village of Batad, where I originally intended to stay. But since accessing Batad requires a 30 minute hike after a jeepney ride, I decided not to travel further than Banaue in the forecasted thunderstorms. I later regretted this decision, as I discovered other travellers had enjoyed mesmerising, if momentary, views of the wondrous landscape. Banaue, the primary centre in the area, is strung along a narrow highway that winds down a valley. Most of the guesthouses and restaurants therefore boast expansive views of the landscape. I ventured out for a brief amble through the town, hoping to sight the rice terraces. The fog parted briefly and I photographed a handful of terraces, though I was hardly treated to enthralling vistas. At least I had Miss Marple for entertainment.

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I awoke the next morning to find the valley traipsed with the same depressingly wet blanket of clouds and quickly determined the imperative of my immediate departure. I chased the amiable weather forecasted for Sagada, on the other side of the mountain range, and was pleasantly greeted with a few rays of sunlight. I met Filipino Clint from Manila on the minivan to Sagada and his translating skills were particularly valuable in the town. Sagada’s layout is defined by a market square at the top of a valley, from which a steep main road of guesthouses and restaurants plunges down a slope. The constituent attraction of Sagada itself is Echo Valley, which features the intriguingly named “hanging coffins”. In order to visit Echo Valley, we were required to engage a tour guide, though this basically entailed leading us down a 500 metre path and noting a handful of historical points easily deciphered from a guidebook. I soon discovered that visiting virtually every attraction in the Philippines requires an associated tour, and as such the country is comparatively more expensive than others in Southeast Asia. Despite its provocative name, the hanging coffins were less enthralling than anticipated. I thought I would view a myriad of coffins spookily suspended and dangling from trees and cliffs, but instead about a dozen were secured to cantilevered beams and lying horizontally. The spectacle should more appropriately be referred to as the “shelved coffins”. Through a mixture of protestant and animist traditions, locals believe that resting the coffins in the air rather than the earth expedites the process for spirits to access heaven (its quite possible I have unintentionally fabricated that explanation). While throngs of people, myself included, were photographing the coffins, our guide remarked that the most recent shelving occurred in 2010. It made me ponder, how much time must elapse until it is acceptable to treat a grave, tomb or in this case exposed coffin as a desensitised tourist attraction? One year, 5 years, 10 years? The pyramids are effectively the most famous mausoleums on earth (we think), yet no one grieves for those buried inside. So at what point do we forget the dead and gawk merely at the structures they continue to occupy?

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Spelunking is apparently the thing to do while in Sagada. Caves, however, are not exactly my favourite landscape to explore, especially those that are very narrow, very deep and very dark. I therefore compromised and visited apparently the most cavernous in the area, Sumaging, with its cauliflower-like ceiling. The entrance to Sumaging is somewhat hidden within forest and bramble and not indicative of the depth and beauty of the cave. For the first 10 minutes, visitors descend a moonscape of derelict stalagmites and stalactites and clusters of bats. The majesty of the cave commences when flowing water is encountered. For the next 30 minutes, visitors scramble down the smooth, milky surfaces of intriguing limestone formations formed from hydraulic action. Water sweeps across the rock and trickles into pristine pools on four different levels. Limestone plunges into the pools with the curves and irregularities suggestive of waterfalls frozen into stone. I soon realised that despite the “ecological tax” charged at every natural attraction, safety and environmental standards are quite different in the Philippines than Australia. Absolutely no safety equipment was provided and there seemed to be no limit to the number of tourists permitted to tour Sumaging, which was quite dangerous since there was only one access point and the paths were slippery and steep to navigate. I never felt particularly claustrophobic in Sumaging, though when we reached the bottom platform I was certainly ready to escape.

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The highlight of my time in the Cordilleras was a canyoning expedition I did just outside of Sagada. The tour was led by an affable American who had operated in the area for over a decade (and, naturally, had established a second family). Confident in the knowledge that Western standards of safety would be enforced, I had surprisingly no inhibitions about rappelling and jumping down 10-20 metre waterfalls throughout our 7 hour trip. Due to the remoteness and technicality of the route, our group of 5 tourists and 3 guides were the only people in the canyon all day. To access the canyon, we hiked through forest and small villages until we reached the first waterfall. By this point, I had already managed to slip and graze my leg, indicative of what was to come. The first waterfall was effectively a training run at rappelling and everyone descended without difficulty. The next waterfall required us to descend a slippery wall of 15 metres into the pool below. I soon realised how amazingly easier it is to deal with heights when you’re forced not to focus on the stomach-churning void, but at a tangible rock-face directly in front of you. I therefore found the most challenging aspect of rappelling was not at the highest point, but rather at the bottom trying to land on two feet. As the day progressed, we became progressively colder as it was only 18 degrees and we were required to jump into cold water with little more than a rash vest. My shivering was uncontrollable by lunch that a Belgian lady started dotting on me and became known as my “canyoning mum”. On several occasions, we were required to jump from the top of a waterfall into pools hidden from view at the bottom. On each occasion, I managed to stumble and hurt myself, the worst of which was jumping from a 12 metre ledge and landing on the side of my face. I had concentrated so much on nailing the run up that I had neglected to apply a bomb formation once airborne and suffered the consequent pain. At the end of the adventure, I was achingly cold and had cuts and bruises all over my body, but the thrill was well worth the trauma.

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The food in the Cordillera was definitely better than in Manila, probably because of the presence of fresh vegetables. Pancit bihon quickly became my regular comfort-food order, a simple dish of stir-fried glass noodles, vegetables and chicken or pork. I sampled one of the few Filipino vegetable dishes (albeit with shrimp paste), pinakbet, which consists of pumpkin, okra and beans cooked in tomatoes, garlic, ginger, coconut milk and shrimp paste. Unfortunately the presence of the okra made the dish unpalatable for me. The owner of the guesthouse I was staying at generously invited me to attend a feast she had prepared for her grandson. The traditional spread consisted of winter melon soup, papaya salad, roast chicken, mussels, homemade spring rolls, a stir-fried pork dish, kare-kare and a centrepiece of pasta bolognese (classic Filipino!). Kare-kare is one of the signature dishes of the Philippines, with oxtail and vegetables cooked in peanut sauce served with a less appetising dollop of shrimp paste. Aside from the enormous hunks of pork fat that I kept mistaking for eggplant, the dish was indeed rather moorish.

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After spending 4 days in the Cordillera, I decided to rush back to Manila to spend New Year’s Eve in a major city. Departing my guesthouse wearily but healthily at 6:00am, I did not anticipate to arrive at my hostel in Manila at 10:00pm with a cold likely acquired from canyoning and ulcers in my mouth caused by an extremely sour green mango. Nevertheless, the early hours of the return journey were spectacular, as the weather finally improved and we were afforded astonishing views of deep valleys, villages clinging to steep slopes and rice terraces.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Philippines photos

Posted by Liamps 17:14 Archived in Philippines Comments (1)

Manila

After enduring the tiresome gruel of the proverbial “real world” for (almost) the entirety of one year, I have finally returned to the mystical realm of indulgent backpackingism. Unfortunately though, the scale of my current journey is reflective of the dramatically changed lifestyle full-time employment creates. Indeed, henceforth my trips will not be defined by months, but rather weeks or even (horrifically) days. Required to take annual leave while the office closed and thereby forfeit being in Melbourne for the festive season (since I take a strictly geographic interpretation to the concept of leave), I chose to travel to the Philippines for 5 weeks during supposedly the best month to visit. Prior to departure, several ignorant souls remarked incredulously, “You’re travelling to JUST the Philippines for 5 weeks?!”, suggesting they thought 35 days in the world’s second largest archipelago of 7,107 islands was a tad excessive. With slightly more awareness for the scale and complexity of the country, I decided to limit my itinerary to 3 regions: North Luzon, Palawan and the Eastern Visayas. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to also visit the national capital of Manila, despite its maligned reputation.

Manila is located on the northern island of Luzon, one of the country’s largest islands and easily its most populous and important. In a country of more than 100 million residents, Manila is intriguingly the only large city in the archipelago – although roughly one-fifth of Filipinos call Metro Manila home. Manila was established in the sixteenth century by the Spanish to serve as the capital of their East Indies possessions (the modern-day Philippines). It was the first time in history the ethnically and linguistically diverse Philippine islands were administrated by a centralised government, as previously the archipelago was divided into petty kingdoms and chiefdoms. The Philippines as a nation-state is essentially a colonial construct and the country’s offical language is the mother tongue of only Luzon and surrounding islands. However, the Spanish successfully established a binding and enduring identity for the archipelago: the dominance of Christianity, or more specifically Catholicism, with roughly 83% of contemporary Filipinos subservient to the Bishop of Rome. The notable exception is the southern island of Mindanao, which has a sizeable Muslim community. Manila however is staunchly Catholic, and when I arrived in the city at 11:00pm on Christmas Eve, local families were preparing for the biggest celebration of the year – the midnight feast (I assume this ungodly hour for food consumption is another vestige of Spanish influence!).

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Chinatown

In somewhat of a rarity for me, my flight journey from Melbourne to Manila was not disrupted by irksome passengers leaning their seats back or kneeing my seat excessively. Early trip horrors instead commenced on the ground in Manila. After checking-in to my hostel exhausted at midnight, I was annoyed to find random belongings and foot marks on my allocated bed. I moved the items and attempted to sleep, but was awoken by an accusatorial Brit in the wee hours of the morning. He eventually conceded that his allocated bed was also taken when he arrived, so he chose the course of anarchy and randomly selected an unoccupied bed. Thank goodness for my arrival to reestablish civility to the dormitory. The following day, I felt nauseous throughout and struggled in the Manila heat and fumes, either because of a poorly timed bug courtesy of my nephew or the limited sleep overnight. I was so debilitated that I only managed to eat half a bowl of mediocre wanton noodle soup and had to retire at 8:00pm – on Christmas Day!

Manila was once lauded as the “Pearl of the Orient”, bequeathed with a stunning ensemble of colonial edifices the legacy of Spanish occupation of the Philippines. The city controlled a monopoly on trade between Asia and Spanish possessions in Latin America, exploiting its location on a deep bay, and the cityscape exhibited Manila’s consequent significance and wealth. The Spanish constructed a colossal cathedral (destroyed on several occasions by earthquakes – the current incarnation fashions a neo-Romanesque façade), plethora of churches, grand civic buildings in European architectural styles and a grid-based layout, totally contradicting the traditional urban form of Filipino communities. Even after the collapse of Spanish colonial rule in the New World in the early nineteenth century, Manila thrived on the booming Filipino sugar and tobacco industries. This was reflected in the numerous stately mansions constructed for merchants during this period. Manila also flourished on the opium trade with China, and as with virtually every other trading centre in South-East Asia, a large Chinese community evolved (again, as with most other South-East Asian countries, the ethnic Chinese have achieved disproportionate economic clout in the modern-day Philippines). Manila was thus a cosmopolitan, prosperous and opulent maritime centre by the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, the splendour of Manila was entirely destroyed by Allied bombing in World War Two, as imperial Japanese forces were reluctant to abandoned the conquered and strategically important city. The destruction of Manila was so comprehensive that many argue the city has failed to properly recover since. Indeed, the partially restored historic core, known as Intramuros, is a shadow of past glories. There is at least an Iberian vibe with cobblestone streets, small plazas, colourful townhouses, ruins of the old fort and relief from Metro Manila’s clutter. But the area has the sad aura of irrelevance and neglect, forgotten and swallowed by megalopolis’ rampant sprawl.

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Despite its lost beauty and prestige, Manila has exploded into one of the largest metropolises on the planet. The city of Manila itself is actually just one of 19 within the monstrous conurbation of Metro Manila, which is characterised by heaving traffic, crowds and pollution. Metro Manila lacks a comprehensive commuter-rail network and is therefore almost entirely dependent on its tangle of reputedly ever-congested roads. The flotillas of kamikaze motorcyclists synonymous with South Asian cities are strangely absent from Manila, as locals seem to have a preference (and presumably financial mean) for cars. Jeepneys are the constituent form of public transport and are uniquely Filipino. The iconic and colourfully painted vehicles feature open-air compartments at the back with two wooden benches, allowing for 14 people to cram inside. Unfortunately, navigating Manila by jeepney is an extremely difficult task for first time visitors, as they all have different routes and destinations. Three rail lines exist and collectively form a rough ring around the central areas. While the rail lines were not particularly convenient for me (40 minute walk from my hostel to the nearest station), I used them several times to avoid commuting by taxi everywhere. The carriages are were overcrowded and the platforms dangerously narrow, but I found the trains (built by the Czechs, strangely) to be fast, reliable and clean. I was rather fortunate not to experience the full extent of Manila’s notorious traffic, presumably because activity was reduced over the Christmas holidays.

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Jeepney

I stayed in the city of Makati, which functions as the financial heart of the country. Makati is characterised by corporate towers, shopping centres, ornamental gardens and relative cleanliness and order. However, the existence of a strip of seedy bars catering to silver-haired Western gentlemen seeking love in the tropics kind of dampens Makati’s sophisticated front. Hidden behind Makati’s glitz are pleasant Filipino neighbourhoods, which I ambled through on New Years Eve to soak in the local atmosphere. Groups of Filipino families and friends congregated at the front of their houses for street parties, with makeshift karaoke setups de rigueur.

The Philippines were controlled by another colonial power that left an indelible mark on the country’s culture: the United States of America. After the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, the Philippines were “acquired” by the US for $20 million. Imperialism was a highly contentious political issue in the US, as many believed the concept contravened the country’s founding principles. Imperialists argued that advanced countries had a responsibility to educate and develop “uncivilised” societies and therefore colonialism was justified, although no doubt American ambitions for a foothold in Asia was another motivating factor for control of the Philippines. Nevertheless and unlike the Spanish, the Americans demonstrated their commitment to improving the lives of the Filipino population by investing in infrastructure and the education system. The modern-day outcome is that English is spoken widely throughout the islands and more so than in neighbouring countries. The Americans granted independence to the Philippines in 1935, although the republic has remained a close US ally with an oddly fervent passion for American culture ever since (or perhaps anti-culture is the more apt term). Basketball is the national sport, fast food joints are depressingly omnipresent and shopping malls are the favourite haunt for Filipinos to hang. Manila boasts some of the largest malls in the world, with all the Western brands available - at Western prices. The reality is though, the overwhelming majority of Filipinos cannot afford to shop at malls, so the prevailing extreme income inequality in the Philippines is perhaps another undesirable legacy of American influence.

At the hostel, I met a middle-aged woman on her own from Angola; representing just about the last demographic I would ever expect to met at such an establishment. Upon discovering my nationality, she quickly attempted to rope me into her application for a visa to Australia and insist I act as her reference. I soon discovered she had been in Manila for 2 months applying for the visa, only to be continuously rebuffed because she required an Australian contact. Naturally I was completely unprepared for this situation (at breakfast!) as I was distrustful of her motives and unsure of the legal responsibilities I would hypothetically incur. Cowardly, I slithered out of the conversation and hostel, and avoided it thereafter. I am still rather conflicted about what the morally just solution to that dilemma was. If she is genuinely a tourist, its grossly unfair she cannot enter our country without a contact (how can she be expected to know an Australian?) when we can easily travel to her country. Yet I sensed she wasn’t telling me the full story, and my philosophy when travelling is of course don’t listen to your head or heart, but listen to your gut.

Sometimes countries that are not internationally famous for their food have surprisingly delectable culinary scenes (Tunisia, Latvia and Indonesia come to mind). The same cannot be said of the Philippines. Despite its proximate location to China, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia, Filipino cuisine is generally characterised by blandness, fattiness, meatiness and monotony. Pork is ubiquitously consumed, fresh produce is conspicuously absent, while vegetarians have few options beyond steamed rice thrice a day. The national dish adobo is actually quite nice, although every rendition is quite different. Adobo is basically pork or chicken cooked in a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar – the ratio of which is essentially what varies between kitchens. In Manila, I also sampled lumpia, which is an inferior version of the Chinese spring roll. Lumpia consists of a soft wrap stuffed with stewed vegetables (possibly turnip) and a not-so-pleasant sauce. As previously mentioned, Filipinos are alarmingly obsessed by fast food. Manila’s cityscape is blighted by countless franchises of international icons like McDonalds and KFC, as well as local institutions like Jollibees. Jollibees is probably the most beloved fast food brand in the country, with a signature dish of fried chicken, rice and Filipino spaghetti. I have yet to summon the courage to sample this blatant insult to food. Filipinos are strangely enamoured by pasta, while noodles are less readily available. Spaghetti bolognese (sickeningly sweet and probably with pork), carbonara and marinara are constituent components of Filipino menus. Occasionally, the pasta actually looks vaguely authentic, although I stress occasionally. Prepared for the reality of food in the Philippines, I decided not to enforce my normally strict efforts to eat local dishes and I have instead dabbled in a more palatable international diet.

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Chicken adobo

I never anticipated Manila would be a pleasant city, so I at least wasn’t disappointed. For travelling purposes, Manila is really just a transit point to other more interesting places in the Philippines.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 17:15 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Kerala

India photos

The final stanza of my 11 week trip to “Incredible India” (incredible for positive and negative reasons equally!) was spent in Kerala, located at the south-western tip of the Subcontinent. Locals proudly refer to their state as “God’s Own Country”, an apt moniker for a land of palm-fringed beaches, enchanting backwaters, shimmering paddy fields, lush rainforests, cool hill stations and emerald-green tea plantations. With a relatively small population of 35 million, Kerala has comparatively minimal crowds, hassling, traffic and pollution and enjoys a higher standard of living than elsewhere in the country. Its no wonder then that so many long-term travellers to India chose to end their journey in Kerala. I met up with British Hermione, another backpacking refugee fleeing the chaos of India’s North for the serenity of the South, and travelled with her for about a week, completing the typical circuit through the state.

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To think I nearly wrote 14 entries about India without once mentioning my train journeys; probably the quintessential (shout-out to Andrew) travel experience of any trip to India! Blasphemy! Riding India’s huge railway network, a legacy of the British Raj, is easily the cheapest, safest (at least from a functional perspective) and most convenient way of traversing the long distances between Indian cities. And despite preconceived notions, travelling by train in India does not necessarily involve boarding overcrowded carriages with passengers hanging from the rooftops. Such infamous images are relevant only to Bombay’s suburban trains, which unfortunately I was unable to experience. That’s not to suggest travelling by train is by any means a relaxed and orderly affair; far from it! From booking tickets to navigating stations, every stage of a train journey features the classic frustrations of India.

Since travelling by trains is extremely popular, reserving seats or beds can be rather difficult. A seamless online booking system for Indian Railways does not exist (surprise surprise), so tourists must face the ordeal of queuing up for an hour, aggressively blocking queue-jumpers and dealing with intransigent ticket officers who are always terribly irritated you don’t know the 50 digit number of the train you want to board. Finding the right train on the day of travel is the next challenge. I was always sure to arrive at stations with ample time to spare, in order to comprehend their breathtakingly chaotic layouts and find as many officials as possible to confirm where I needed to be (you always want a second opinion on directional advice in India). Once the train arrives, you then need to quickly find the correct carriage (the trains are very, very long) to board, without being overwhelmed by the sudden pandemonium. Locating your seat or bed, usually in the absence of light and with a tinge of fear that it might be occupied, is the next hassle; though that should be the last obstacle. However, you definitely want a device that allows Google Maps to track your rough location offline (iPads seemed to be more effective than phones), because otherwise you’re clueless as to how far the train is from your station… there’s certainly no helpful announcements!

Trains in India are composed of a series of classes. The lower classes feature wooden benches and are virtually free. They’re totally fine for short journeys. The “sleeper” class consists of open planned 8-bed compartments (3 and 3 perpendicular to the train, with 2 parallel on the other side of the aisle), which are also ridiculously cheap. The first time I rode in sleeper class, a benevolent Indian warned me about the dangers of theft on that route (Gwalior – Varanasi) and emphasised I needed to keep my belongings very close. Unfortunately I had booked an upper side bed, which are only 5’5” and boxed in. After a very uncomfortable night squished into my limited space with 25kg of luggage, I learnt my lesson and avoided booking such cramped berths in future. The next class up, 3AC, has the exact same layout as the sleeper class, but provides pillows, sheets, blankets and unnecessary cooling and charges 5-10 times for the privileges. Since it was still cheap for my budget, I preferred to book this class as I felt my valuables were more secure in the absence of lower-income Indians! Such an awful mindset, in retrospect! The incessant staring though does get somewhat tiresome on those delayed, 16+ hour journeys. I generally slept very well on the trains, until the ritualistic alarm started ringing at around 6:00AM on every train; “Chaiii, chaiii… chaiii, chaiii… CHAIII, CHAIII!!!” While I never appreciated the nasal delivery of their advertising, one of the beautiful aspects of train travel in India is the profusion of vendors boarding the carriages to sell chai, samosas, pakoras, fruit, drinks and even full meals at the stations. Also regularly boarding the trains were beggars, often with disabilities, or women with babies, which could be quite confronting and awkward. Overall, I preferred trains to buses, because of the onboard space and to avoid travelling on India’s notorious roads.

Appropriately, I travelled to Kerala from Gokarna by train and arrived in the state’s largest metropolis, Kochi. Known as the “Queen of the Arabian Sea”, Kochi’s location in the Kerala Backwaters enabled it to serve as a major centre in the spice trade for centuries, with Roman, Greek, Arab, Persian and Chinese merchants known to frequent its port. In the fifteenth century, Jews fleeing from persecution during the Spanish Inquisition migrated to Kochi and formed a community that still exists (the “white Keralans”). The Portuguese established the Subcontinent's first colonial settlement at Kochi in 1500, on the northern tip of a peninsula parallel to the mainland. Fort Kochi was subsequently controlled by the Dutch and later the British. Lonely Planet goaded me into expecting a mystical melting-pot of South Indian, European and Chinese cultural influences. Yet Fort Kochi is only moderately interesting and the architectural legacy of European colonialists thoroughly underwhelming. I photographed some of the austere, dilapidated stone edifices, such as churches (Portuguese and Dutch influence) and townhouses, though more out of obligation than awe. I actually thought the most visually stimulating aspect of Fort Kochi was the astonishingly large trees shading the wide streets, though no other traveller agreed with this regularly expressed observation! I spent a day and a half wandering around Fort Kochi’s peaceful streets, soaking up the tropical, small-town ambience in absence of attractions. Aside from the food and reuniting with Hermione, the most enthralling event to occur in Kochi was the discovery of a queue-less ATM that allowed me to withdraw 1,900 rupees ($38) in 100 rupees notes several times over! The cash crisis in India was still very much persisting, so encountering such a facility was an unthinkable dream. Sure, I probably depleted the ATM’s reserve of 100 rupees notes (I was avoiding the dreaded 2,000 rupees notes), but by that stage of my trip in India I had adopted a dog-eat-dog attitude!

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Large canopies of Kochi

Hermione and I attended a performance exhibiting the traditional Keralan dance-style, Kathakali. Unlike the puppetry and dancing we witnessed in Udaipur, the show was unquestionably one of the least impressive cultural experiences I have ever had the privilege of viewing. We were advised to arrive 30 minutes before the commencement of the play, to watch makeup being applied to the faces of the performers – apparently a unique and fascinating insight into the preparation of their bombastic appearances. I soon deduced though that “before and after” photographs would have sufficed. The play itself could hardly be described as any more riveting. Kathakali is a rather idiosyncratic dancing style, characterised by the performers’ dependence on excessive facial expressions to convey a storyline. The performers do little else, other than prancing around the stage incoherently and making animalistic grunts (instead of words). Hermione, an actor by trade, was visually aghast at the ineptitude of the production, which initiated my uncontrollable hysterics and requisite early departure.

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Hermione and I next travelled up to the hill station of Munnar, leaving the humidity of the coast for the coolness of the Western Ghats (an extensive mountain range in South India). We were greeted by overcast and rainy conditions, remarkably the first time I had encountered such weather after 10 weeks in India (if we ignore the unexpected snowstorm I endured while recklessly trekking alone in the Himalayas!). I was rather apathetic about the virtues of travelling to Munnar as I had already experienced tea plantation landscapes in Malaysia and Sri Lanka, which were spectacular yet essentially identical. Indeed, the tea plantations surrounding the town were comparatively dull, especially in the inclement weather. As with any hill station in South Asia, Munnar is overrun with kitsch tourist shops, nurseries, “gourmet” food factories, gimmicky attractions and utter rip-offs. We hired a tuk-tuk to complete the conventional loop of such attractions and were thoroughly underwhelmed. Indeed, Hermione was actually rather unwell part-way through the trip, requiring us to abandon our efforts of squinting through the fog from Top Station to view the state of Tamil Nadu and descend back to Munnar. Fortunately, the weather cleared the following morning, allowing us to view the plantations in brilliant sunlight. In the absence of dedicated trails (no doubt a local effort to prevent independent and therefore cost-free activity for visitors), I decided to forge my own pathway through the tea bushes and eventually untamed bramble to a peak for panoramic views of the area.

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View from the peak

We next travelled to Alleppey, located on the coast and surrounded by waterways, to visit the Keralan Backwaters. On the bus to Alleppey, I sat next to a local who thought our 5 minute conversation was sufficient justification for us to become Facebook friends. I begrudgingly accepted his request, though I deleted him promptly after the daily and needless enquiries about the progress of my trip. This certainly wasn’t the only occasion I encountered harmless and understandable hyper-excitement from Indians. On the first night, we stayed in a wooden bungalow outside of town adjacent to a major canal. Unimpressed by the legions of cockroaches in the room and the host’s persistent encouragement for us to drink spirits immediately after arriving from an exhaustive journey, we resolved to depart the next day. It was somewhat of a shame, because my early morning walk revealed a spectacular local environment. I ambled along ochre-coloured dirt tracks between rice fields, dense vegetation and thatched houses on one side and wide canals of placid and lily-covered waters on the other. I watched locals ply their long, narrow canoes used for fishing and transporting goods as large, wooden houseboats cruised by. I was confronted on my walk by a territorial male turkey. After a brief stand-off, I had to concede defeat as it launched a full-on attack at my legs – the turkey was definitely not bluffing. We relocated to Artpackers.life, situated much closer to the centre of Alleppey and near the beach. The hostel was opened only a month prior to our arrival by a pair of young, entrepreneurial South Indians who had travelled extensively and therefore possessed an advantage over other locals in the industry – awareness for what the discerning backpacker is after. They had converted an historic but derelict building formerly occupied by a local radio station and created a hostel I literally could not fault. They had even painted the imposing stone walls white to encourage guests to paint and imprint their own artwork on the building. The surrounding area was very peaceful, with wide streets, verdant trees, tropical vegetation and buildings pleasantly decayed from the humid climate; an atypical Indian neighbourhood. The beach wasn’t particularly beautiful, but it did provide opportune relief from the incessant heat. However, while thousands of Indians in their colourful saris congregated on the beach to watch the sunset, I was the only person in the water. Presumably, most Indians there were tourists and may never have swam, and therefore were wise not to challenge the very strong current without the requisite skills.

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Canal near our first guesthouse

We joined a group tour of the Kerala Backwaters and were transported by motor boat from central Alleppey to a rural house adjacent the waterfront to begin our journey. While many tourists choose to stay on a houseboat to explore the backwaters, we opted for a tour that employed the more traditional form of vessel: long, wooden canoes moved by levering bamboo poles into the surface of the canals. The canoes are advantageous because of their petiteness and dynamism, which allows them to traverse the maze of narrow canals (roughly 5-10 metres in width) between the major canals where the houseboats cannot access. The scenery within the maze is intoxicatingly green, with palm trees and banana trees densely clumped between paddy fields and the lily-pad covered waters of the canals. The interminable greenery was broken only by thatch houses perched beside the canals and vibrantly coloured clothing drying on crescent shaped bridges and rafters, creating patchworks of rainbows amid the foliage. The men wore traditional Keralan garments with bandana-like headpieces and white cloth skirts, while women fashioned vibrant saris. We were isolated in the tranquility from other tour groups, due to the enormity and complexity of the canal network. Our group concluded the day at the beach in Alleppey to watch a wonderful Indian Ocean sunset.

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My final destination in Kerala and indeed all of India was Varkala, a beautiful beachside town evoking, albeit slightly, a Byron Bay-esque vibe. Varkala is famed for its red cliffs that separate golden-sand beaches from rows of guesthouses and restaurants. Like Gokarna, I was pleasantly surprised by how clean the beaches and inconspicuous the touristic developments are, as the buildings blend in nicely with the jungly environment. The cliff-top walks offer spectacular views over the Indian Ocean and the tepid swells rolling into the coast. In the mornings, I ambled on the beach and was recruited by local fishermen to help pull in the ropes for their massive fishing nets. Despite the oppressive heat and beautiful blue waters, strangely few people were tempted to swim in the beaches. That was because the water was plagued with jellyfish, some of which (I am seriously not kidding) were nearly a metre in diameter!!! However, only frigid conditions will prevent Liam from charging into a surf beach, especially after months bereft of opportunities to swim. I first swam at around midday for about 30 minutes without suffering too many stings. When I returned to the water at sunset though, I was continuously stung and received some properly painful zaps that instigated my hasty evacuation! I fashioned a rather impressive mark on my neck after the ordeal that lasted for nearly a month!

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Locals pulling their catch in

Gorging on South Indian food was undoubtedly our favourite pastime in Kerala. As always, the best dishes were eaten at local establishments with cheap, large portioned and spicy meals rather than tourist restaurants. Hermione in particular was utterly obsessed by dosas and we ordered at least one just about every time they were available. Dosas are enormous, wafer-thin pancakes, spongy-like on one side and crispy on the rather. Usually eaten in the morning, dosas are stuffed with a filling (masala dosa is the most common order – potatoes or vegetables mashed with ample spices) and served with coconut chutney (occasionally ruined with the addition of coriander), sambar (lentil broth) and a spicy, tomato and onion-based chutney. Dosas are absolutely delicious, completely addictive and sorely absent from Melbourne’s culinary scene! Other popular snacks in South India, all served with the same condiments, include vadas (fried, doughnut-shaped, spiced cake), uttayapam (like a hybrid crumpet and pizza base, with onion and tomato imbedded into the dough) and idlis (bland, sponge-like rice cakes). The speciality bread of Kerala is pakoda, which is basically the moorish, buttery roti available in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. It contrasts substantially with the dry, cardboard-like roti preferred in North India. We enjoyed several superb all-you-can-eat thalis in Kerala, with the usual South Indian spread of rice, sambar, light vegetable curries, red onions soaked in yoghurt and green chillies, coconut chutney, pappadums, pickled lemons and cardamom-infused rice pudding. Differentiating Keralan thalis were the jugs of thin-curries provided to slop over your rice; one of which, a tangy, yellow, yoghurt-based broth, was truly divine! Similarly to Andhra cuisine, meat “side dishes” could also be ordered, which usually consisted of beef, mutton or chicken prepared in spicy, dry curries. I sampled the ubiquitous and intriguingly named chicken/mutton/gobi-65, which featured bite-size pieces of battered meat or cauliflower fried in chillies and curry leaves. Despite repeatedly ordering seafood, the only particularly memorable fish dish I ate in Kerala was the first. The sweet, white-fleshed fish was served in a complex red sauce, where the spice was magnificently complemented by sour green mango. On that, it was thrilling to finally be able to eat tropical fruits again with guava, passionfruit and pomelo abundantly available.

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Masala dosa

Thus finally concludes my series of entries about India 2016, more than 12 months after I departed Thiruvananthapuram (try saying that 5 times successively!) International Airport (mind you, I could write another paragraph ranting about my processing experience their, but I’ll just say it was typical India right to the end!). What an absolute rollercoaster 11 week trip to the Subcontinent it was! On so many occasions, I felt desperate to leave and never return, worn out from the countless unbearably frustrating aspects of India. Yet I persevered and consequently enjoyed some of the best experiences of my travelling life. With sufficient time for reflection, I can now say categorically that India is by far the most memorable country I have travelled to, somewhere I think everybody should endeavour to visit at least once. I have no doubt I will return to India, eager to explore regions I didn’t even touch (such as Bombay, Tamil Nadu, Calcutta, Sikkim and the Andaman Islands).

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That’s all for now,

Liam

India photos

Posted by Liamps 19:15 Archived in India Comments (0)

Hampi

India photos

Hampi was by far the most inconveniently located destination I travelled to in India. Yet rerouting my itinerary to incorporate this remote backpacker haven delivered one of the absolute highlights of my trip (rivalling the Spiti Valley). And to think originally I had no intentions of visiting! Hampi is famed for its vast collection of ancient Hindu monuments strewn across a beguiling landscape of boulders, scrub and paddy fields. The traffic and pollution free environs of the area exude peacefulness and rural tranquility; qualities sorely absent throughout India. Utterly exhausted by Indian cities, I was lured into stretching an intended two day stop into a five day stay in Hampi; a refreshing “holiday from a holiday”.

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Before arriving at my paradisiacal destination, predictably I had to suffer through a series of frustrating and classic India experiences. Immediately after disembarking my train in Hospete, I was swarmed by taxi drivers eager to secure my business for a 100 rupees ($2) ride to Hampi. Most of them backed off when I insisted I was taking the 15 rupees bus to Hampi (mainly because I can't stand taxi drivers, not because I'm a stinge!). However, one turdcake stalked me for 10 minutes in his taxi as I walked to the bus stand, begging I hop in for continuously reducing rates. He eventually concluded I was a lost cause and drove up to an Irish guy 50 metres ahead, proceeding to harass him with equal earnest. When the two of us arrived at the bus stand, a teenage boy (usually the most annoying demographic of hasslers) pestered us for the duration of our 30 minute wait. With immense satisfaction, I outlasted the nagging and boarded the Hampi bound bus!

Onboard I met Australian Cody and American Gabriel, who were on break from volunteering at an organisation supporting the Sufi (Muslim) community in Delhi. Cody expressed moderate antipathy towards his homeland (with agreeable justifications), partly explaining his 3.5 years absence with no imminent plans of returning. Meanwhile, Gabriel, an affable native of Florida and insufferable patriot, overtly admonished the supposedly unsurpassed virtues of his homeland. Obviously though, Gabriel was exhibiting rather superb self-deprecating humour, because no one with a modicum of intelligence could believe in the greatness of a country ravished with guns, without universal healthcare, and that elects a xenophobic, misogynistic and imbecilic clown to be their leader. Oh... I suppose Australia dabbled with the latter in 2013... but I digress!

Like most other backpackers, the three of us planned to stay on the other side of the river from Hampi village. Since there are no bridges nearby, we were required to cross by boat. The extortionate boatman demanded we pay more than twice the regular rate for the 30 second journey, because he deemed it to be "early morning" (9:15AM – perhaps indicative as to why the economic development of India is a long way behind China's). Along with Israeli Orr, we chose to wait until 10:00AM when the regular price of 20 rupees kicked in, saving us 30 rupees. We bided our time by spending 30 rupees on breakfast and chai masala, and watching a holy elephant named Laxmi bath in the river.

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Considering the ordeal with the boatman, staying on the opposite side of the river from the famed temples of Hampi seemed somewhat illogical. But my doubts immediately evaporated when we ascended the river banks and arrived in Virupapur Gadde. The one-road village features a long row of humble guesthouses and restaurants, which overlook the river on one side and emerald green paddy fields shaded by palm trees on the other. The village’s tropical setting is contrasted sharply by enormous mounds of ochre boulders that rise bizarrely from the otherwise flat landscape. We chose to stay just outside Virupapur Gadde at the Goan Corner, a beautiful precinct of thatched huts and spacious outdoor communal areas with surprisingly good food for a hostel (it even had a wood-fired pizza oven and tandoori oven (unusual in South India)). The charismatic owner opened the hostel 17 years ago after migrating from Goa, where she had divorced her first husband (very controversial still in India). Goan Corner is now easily Hampi’s most popular backpacker hangout, despite no website, no presence on Hostelworld or Booking.com and no listing in Lonely Planet. The owner cheekily announced she trades purely on word-of-mouth, which clearly works; I was recommended Goan Corner by several people throughout India.

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Unfortunately, Goan Corner and every other guesthouse and restaurant in Virupapur Gadde will be obliterated by the corrupt state government within the next year. The government has announced that the land within a five kilometre radius of the main cluster of temples is now forms an “archaeological zone”. Consequently, the guesthouses and restaurants of Virupapur Gadde, mostly operated by low-income families, will be demolished as they occupy illegal structures. The government’s intention is supposedly to protect the World Heritage listed edifices; but such a noble gesture would be completely out of character for Indian bureaucracy. The government’s disdain for backpacker tourism, which they consider “cheap” and “dirty”, and lust for the financial windfall of luxury tourism more likely explains their actions. Many locals believe that several years after the demolitions occur, suddenly five-star hotels and exclusive shops will pop up where Virupapur Gadde once existed, filling the Minister of Planning’s coffers while rendering the villagers homeless and their businesses crushed. Bloody India.

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After checking in at Goan Corner, Cody, Gabriel and I opted to explore the surrounding area on foot. What was supposed to be a short and pleasant amble to a lake soon became an arduous and seemingly endless expedition under the blazing South Indian sun, thanks to the deception of unofficial signs and Google Maps. While Cody and Gabriel engaged in a riveting conversation about the merits of accountancy, I absorbed the thoroughly unIndian-like serenity of the countryside. We passed herds of goats and water buffalo grazing in the paddy fields, some of which were vividly green while others were parched or completely burnt. We walked through tiny villages where the children ran out to the road, asked for photographs and begged for pens and chocolate (because apparently that’s what white people always carry with them, even in 35 degrees heat!). We briefly stopped at an isolated restaurant and chatted with a dreadlocked Brit. For the past 20 years, he had returned to Hampi annually for six months, utterly captivated by the boulder landscape. For weeks at a time, he would tramp through the wilderness on his own and scale boulders; he contended the only thing necessary to survive is a reliable water source. True hippy, such a rare breed. We eventually arrived at the lake, which was actually just a reservoir, and were confronted with unlikely warning signs about the presence of crocodiles (bullshit). By this stage though, we were more concerned with reaching a recommended guesthouse for lunch. Although virtually in the middle of no where, we encountered a couple of Indian men chillin’ randomly beside some boulders. Obviously they just happened to have a boat we could hire to get to our intended target. Politely declining, we continued on our way, expecting to arrive by foot any minute. An hour later, we finally arrived at the guesthouse and, unimpressed, walked straight past to the next one. After a very late lunch, we were faced with the same, exhausting journey back since very few vehicles passed us throughout the day. Yet just at our moment of need, a Swiss hippy (authentic- two in a day!) pulled up and gave us a ride back to Goan Corner.

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The following day, I returned to the south side of the river to explore Hampi’s iconic monuments. Hampi was formerly the capital of the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire, which dominated South India in the 14th-16th centuries. The city supported a population of more 500,000 at its peak, making it the second largest in the world after Beijing. The city was sacked by a confederation of Muslim Sultanates in 1565, terminating the glory years of the empire and leaving the city in ruins. The surviving fragments of this medieval metropolis are now populated by monkeys and scattered throughout a vast, naturalistic area of boulder mounds, dry scrub and paddy fields. The constituent attractions are located several kilometres apart, which made for a very long day of crisscrossing Hampi in stifling weather. I first visited the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi’s bazaar area, which is easily the most accessible and distinguishing building. The temple complex features three entrance towers (the highest of which is over 50 metres) that lead to a series of courtyards and an inner sanctuary brimming with sculpture of Hindu mythology. I then walked east along the river for 45 minutes, stopping occasionally to admire small temples on its banks and the quirky, half-spherical boats made from reeds that plied its waters. I eventually arrived at Vittala Temple, Hampi’s most famous attraction. The Vijayanagara’s mastery of Hindu sculpture is exhibited in the highly ornate halls within the temple complex, which are decorated with depictions of gods, warriors and animals. The focal point of Vittala Temple is the magnificent stone chariot in the courtyard of the complex, which is dedicated to Garuda (a humanoid bird that serves as Lord Vishnu’s mount). I visited several other structures throughout the day with an unsolicited companion, including the former royal elephant stables and palatial enclosures. I have to admit, I was somewhat underwhelmed by Hampi’s monuments and glad I condensed exploring them into one day. I guess I was expecting Angkor Wat-scale grandeur, but it fell markedly short.

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The next day I ventured aimlessly into the remarkable boulder-strewn landscape with Australian Erin and British Dave. With two Melbournians present, conversation was obviously dominated by food for the duration of the day, to the chagrin of Dave (not that you could expect a Brit to engage passionately in a culinary conversation). Since there were no tracks, we simply ambled across, over and around the boulder mounds, hoping to conquer a summit. We weren’t entirely successful in such endeavours, because thick, thorny bushes usually blocked our paths just before reaching the mounds’ zeniths. We hoped to spot the elusive leopards or other intriguing creatures that inhabit the area (the landscape reminded me very much of Spitzkoppe in Namibia actually, where I spotted an African wildcat), but instead only encountered tourists with mattresses on their back. Hampi is reputedly the best place in the world for bouldering, a sport I had never heard of, and thus attracts aficionados from all of the world who come to scale its innumerable boulders. The mattresses are obviously intended to provide a safe landing if they fall (in the right place).

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We attempted to discover a crossing of the river to circumvent the widely loathed boatman. We found the remains of an ancient bridge, with just the pillars used to support the upper deck surviving. Nevertheless, for the next half hour we crossed the reed-filled river by hopping from one crashed pillar to the next. Upon reaching solid, dry ground, we thought the mission was accomplished. But just like George W Bush, our assessment was premature. We climbed up a slight rise in the landscape and noticed one final, fast-flowing channel, with a width of ten metres and no fallen pillars. We cautiously began crossing the river, but sheepishly opted not to risk our precious electronics and turned back dejected!

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Since Goan Corner was inundated by American tourists (an uncommon occurrence on the backpacker circuit) on the fourth Thursday of November, celebrating their cherished Thanksgiving holiday was an obligatory experience. Australian Cody thoughtfully arranged for the hostel to prepare a shared banquet that all guests, regardless of nationality, could participate in. Apparently adhering to a Thanksgiving tradition, New Yorker Marieke traced hand-turkeys for every attendee. We were required to decorate the turkeys, write down what we’re thankful for and then share our thoughts with the group. Predictably, the 30 plus Americans and Europeans took the activity very seriously and described heartfelt messages of gratitude (with the exception of Gabriel, who brashly venerated the capitalism, freedom and liberty of his country), while the handful of Australians simply took the piss out of it.

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A mass exodus from Goan Corner occurred on my last day in Hampi as we all travelled in different directions within the state of Karnataka. I boarded an overnight bus for Gokarna, a small town by the Arabian Sea which is touted as a quieter alternative to Goa further north. I was dropped off at 4:30AM in the poorly-lit, ghost-like town because I refused to pay an extra 100 rupees ($2) to be driven 6 kilometres further to the beachside guesthouses. I was the only person not to cave-in to the bus company’s disgusting extortion (it was already an expensive ticket and they only announced the extra surcharge once we had boarded), which I’m rather proud of. However, for 15 minutes of walking aimlessly in the darkness, I was concerned made an unwise and unsafe decision. However, I soon discovered a bustling tea house near the bus stand (which is not where I was dropped off!) and retreated there for the next few hours. My experiences that morning were basically the most enthralling aspect of my time in Gokarna. The beach I stayed at (Om Beach) was pleasant enough; clean (rare for Asia) with unassuming guesthouses set amid tropical gardens and free of the neon-lit, overdevelopment that usually define South Asian beaches. But the atmosphere was rather dull (mainly couples and big Israeli groups) and the water unremarkable (appropriate for neither surfing nor snorkelling). The beach is festooned with signs warning against swimming because of treacherous currents and they feature explicit photographs of people that drowned in the water. Two people died at a neighbouring beach during my stay. Yet from my Australian perspective, the water was very tame. I think the high fatality rate must be because most Indian tourists have never seen the sea and don’t know how to swim properly in the sea.

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While I wasn’t particularly enthralled by its constituent attraction, the ruins of the Vijayanagara Empire’s capital, Hampi was nevertheless one of my favourite destinations in India. A combination of an excellent hostel, great company, intriguing landscape and perhaps above all, the reprieve from Indian traffic, hassling and pollution, made for a lovely five days in this soon-to-vanish paradise.

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That’s all for now,

Liam

India photos

Posted by Liamps 16:58 Archived in India Comments (0)

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