Where The River Goes

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Exploring one of the three Ksamil Islands

I’m afraid the internet has been pretty horrendous along the Albanian coast so I’m only getting a moment to update now. We managed to drive 40 minutes from our place in Dhermi to find a working ATM. The next issue was then finding a place that served food! Most were only selling drinks as it seems eating out isn’t popular with the locals and there aren’t any tourists around! Being the only tourists around definitely did have its perks, though.

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It’s been quite surreal at times, partly because half the buildings appear to have been abandonned mid construction and are now ‘shitet’ (a sign which kept popping up repeatedly all over the place and we now think means ‘for sale’). Another surreal feature of the landscape is the bunkers scattered about in the most bizarre places, ranging from the middle of town to cliffs on the coast and fields in the countryside. Apparently they’re remnants from a ‘bunkerisation’ initiative led by Enver Hoxha’s communist government in the latter half of the 20th century. He wanted the entire country prepped and ready for attack from all sides and a wide range of potential enemies, installing around 750,000  of the things all over the country!  No wonder we saw so many. Kids were trained from the age of 12, apparently, to man the bunkers in an attempt to militarize civilians and be constantly vigilant against intruders. Talk about paranoia! All, of course, abandonned with the fall of communism in the 90s. If you’re interested, check out some of David Galjaard’s bunker photography collection: http://www.slate.com/blogs/behold/2014/01/24/david_galjaard_photographs_albanian_bunkers_in_his_photo_book_concresco.html

I think the best way to summarise our exploring will be through providing some highlights, in case anyone’s looking for any tips or recommendations for Albania trips.

1. Ksamil – just south of Sarandë. This little village has some incredibly beautiful little beaches facing out to three little islands (within swimming distance!) Corfu gets very close at this point of the coast so it looks like mountains in the sea.

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2. Blue Eye – East of Sarandë. This was a rather unexpected gem. You pay (equivalent of around £1) to enter the area and follow a river to it’s magical source: a deep and incredibly clear spring aptly named the ‘Blue eye’ of the river. The surrounding hiking trails are beautiful this time of year. Well worth heading out to if you’re anywhere near Sarandë.

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3. Gjupi beach and Livadhi beach. A couple of examples of the options available along the lengthy coast! The colour of the clear water is just jaw dropping. Bear in mind that these photos are straight from my phone therefore not edited, believe it or not!

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Gjupe

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4. Butrint – another hidden treasure, the ruins if the ancient city of Butrint span across an incredible time period, dating back to the Hellenstic era (Greek influence). Legends say that the city was founded by Helenus and Andromache fleeing the destruction of Troy, but it appears it was inhabited long before -right back to prehistoric times. It was later taken over by the Romans in 228 BC before being swept up in the Byzantine Empire. The Venetians put their stamp on it when they purchased the land in 1386 before it was taken over by the Ottoman Empire in 1799! It’s been through a lot! Relics and remnants from all these eras remain at the site. Really interesting – and we were the only people there bar one or two fellow tourists.

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5. The coastal drive between Vlores and Sarandë. The roads themselves were stunning, carving through the mountains which drop down to the sea. There were so many great little spots to stop at along the way.

Dhermi beach

Dhermi beach

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Fun little restaurant built over a waterfall – Ujivara

Porto Palermo castle

Porto Palermo Castle 

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And finally, here’s a delicious trileche pud in Sarandë that I must try to make once we’re back!

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Convenient Parking

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Ok so there’s a lot of catching up to do (roughly two years) but Dad’s requested an update on current travel situation. This will be my first ever post entirely by phone and in the sad absence of a proper camera.  Expect typos, poor grammar etc, the usual. All photos will be straight from my Samsung phone without any editing so you’ll get the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the poor saturation. In fact the internet’s the worst it’s been since PNG so I’ll be delighted if they load at all.
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We arrived into Ohrid, Macedonia, the night before last and headed out to a local restaurant for food. My large pizza cost less than two pounds :s Everything costs around half the price of what you’d expect elsewhere in Europe – judge for yourself from the photos but I definitely think this city is an untapped resource: Stunning scenery, lovely weather, incredibly friendly people and rock bottom prices.
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IMG_8477The one slightly odd thing is the bizarre way in which the term ‘road’ is used. We were directed down roads in our little hire car where there was less than an inch gap between the side of the car and the houses either side of the crumbly cobbled streets, made worse by the fact that locals had parked willy-nilly along the precipices and stray dogs, poles and rocks popped up in unexpected places. We eventually had to reverse out of the town at 4mph and walk back with our suitcases. No wonder the man at the hire car stall had gone over the car with a magnifying glass to note down every minor scratch.
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Although it’s always fun to complain, that’s about as far as it goes with Ohrid. Just beautiful.
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And the flag’s fun too!

This Easter morning we had the rather more challenging feat of driving across the border to the coast of Albania.
We stopped off en route at St. Naum monastery, another idyllic spot. What made St. Naum particularly special were the fresh water springs surrounding it which feed into the lake.
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IMG_8480IMG_8478Across the border you noticed an immediate difference in terms of road quality and the quantity of half built, abandonned constructions. My favourite new addition to the landscape was the frequent appearance of a man on the roadside, poised as if he’s trying to hitch-hike, but on closer inspection he’s brandishing a large trout. They’d effectively just plucked fish from the water and were wiggling them about in front of drivers in an attempt to scrape a living. Very entertaining, if nothing else. We must have passed about 20 of them.
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Although Google maps is the best improvement to life since air con, it really has absolutely no idea what the hell’s  going on with the roads in Albania. Like a slavic bermuda triangle. We ended up on some ridiculous ‘scenic’ routes with potholes formed in the wake of some sort of nuclear apocalypse. We eventually decided to ignore it and emerged onto the Albanian ‘Riviera’.
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Pretty, but so far it appears that ‘off season’ roughly translates as ‘everything within a 40 mile radius is shut until June’. I’ve given up trying to upload photos now as it’s just too slow. Update on our cashless, foodless situation tomorrow.

City Of Black & White

Museum Island

Museum Island

Bubble blower

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We were a little taken aback, on arriving into Germany for the first time, to find the most inefficient train station I’ve seen in quite a while. No clear signs or indication of which train is on which platform at all! Heading into central Berlin, things didn’t immediately improve as there seemed to be nobody there. Perhaps this due to the fact that at 10/11 in the morning the tourists and party-lovers are either still out or are crashing… anyway, having got up at 3 to catch a cheap early flight a little ‘crash’ was a necessary detour before heading out. Airbnb in Mitte – again very easy and very good value.

First stop – the nearest shop in sight to get warmer clothes inc. hat/gloves which I had ridiculously left behind.

Take two – now layered up like the Michelin man it felt safe to venture out into the city.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

Reichstag Building - historical edifice built for the Imperial Diet of the German Empire.

Reichstag Building – historical edifice built for the Imperial Diet of the German Empire.

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In the wake of a snowy winter, all the colour seems to have been sapped from the City. This is particularly evident in the striking Holocaust memorial below.

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It does get a little brighter, however, when it comes to the street art. The East Side Gallery in particular is a must-see! (section of the remaining Berlin Wall covered in ‘grafitti’)

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Topography of Terror - on the site of the old Gestop base you can find a fantastic little summary of Nazi Germany in this small museum.

Topography of Terror – on the site of the old Gestop base you can find a fantastic little summary of Nazi Germany in this small museum.

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Berliner Dom (Cathedral)

Berliner Dom (Cathedral)

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Apple Strudel!

Apple Strudel!

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Overall, I apologize in advance for offending anybody, it was not particularly my cup of tea. Very bleak, stark and sombre. Fascinating in terms of historical content – the scars of past wars are clearly visible and it hosts a phenomenal range of museums. You may consider visiting in the summer, however I felt the stories held by the city seemed to strike even harder in the bitter cold, making it a memorable but fairly solemn experience.

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More Than A Memory

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Finally, I’ve caught up to the present day. Yesterday morning at the bright and early time of 8.30 I arrived back into London after a weekend in Athens. What a fantastic time to visit Greece! The weather was warm and sunny, yet not too hot, and there was barely a tourist in sight (with the slight exception of the acropolis, but you can’t ask for the impossible). The perks of travelling in Europe at this time of year include incredibly reasonable prices. The entirety of this trip, including accommodation and flights, cost less than £100. Incidentally, ‘airbnb‘ is a fantastic site to use when looking places to stay in any of 190+ countries across the world. It basically consists of a variety of houses/flats/studios that the owners are letting out on a temporary basis to tourists. There’s no minimum time period, you can stay for as little as one night. Our flat was an idyllic two bedroomed apartment within 4 minutes walking distance from the Acropolis and with a stunning view across Athens from the balcony window. Use the following link www.airbnb.co.uk/c/sffrenchconstant?s=8 or my personal referral code sffrenchconstant to get a further £17 off your accommodation.

Panorama from the balcony of our airbnb apartment.

Panorama from the balcony of our airbnb apartment.

As the major sights of the city are fairly close together we found it easily manageable to to everything that we’d hoped to achieve at a leisurely pace within two full days. The Acropolis, of course, the temple of Zeus and the national gardens were well worth a visit. Lycabettus hill, the highest point in the city, and Philopappos hill boast spectacular views of the Acropolis and the city as a whole. Don’t shy away from the steep walks up to these points as the walks themselves are a beautiful exploration into the olive groves and natural ‘wilderness’ hidden in the city. Wandering through the city itself, you stumble across one monument and ruin after another. A fascinating city to visit and, in my opinion, a far more pleasant experience than its rival, Rome. Well worth researching the history to whet your appetite before you go.

View from Lycabettus

View from Lycabettus

19th century chapel of St.George atop Lycabettus.

19th century chapel of St.George atop Lycabettus.

Hadiran's library

Hadiran’s library

Classic greek salad in a little balcony overlooking the cobbled street.

Classic greek salad in a little balcony overlooking the cobbled street.

Orange trees are scattered generously across the city. Here's one in the national garden

Orange trees are scattered generously across the city. Here’s one in the national garden

Temple of Zeus

Temple of Zeus

What a great place to stay!! Some ingenious homeless group have tapped into the caves in Lycabettus hill. Fantastic views all day and night!

What a great place to stay!! Some ingenious homeless group have tapped into the caves in Lycabettus hill. Fantastic views all day and night!

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Such a shame that the front of the Parthenon was covered in scaffolding! Ah well, can't have everything!

Such a shame that the front of the Parthenon was covered in scaffolding! Ah well, can’t have everything!

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Temple in the ancient grecian Agora

Temple in the ancient grecian Agora

Temple of Athena looking out over athens from the corner of the Acropolis

Temple of Athena looking out over athens from the corner of the Acropolis

Odeum of Herodes Atticus

Odeum of Herodes Atticus

Walking up Philopappus hill

Walking up Philopappus hill

Little wet sparrow

Little wet sparrow

Lycabettus Hill from below

Lycabettus Hill from below

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Theatre of Dionysus

Theatre of Dionysus

Erectheum on the Acropolis

Erectheum on the Acropolis

Bring It On Home / Christmas In The Sun

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when the weather’s good there’s no place like Cornwall. http://www.westbriton.co.uk/Cornwall-officially-England-s-picturesque-county/story-25893227-detail/story.html. – Watch this space for a fantastic new website guiding you through this spectacular county: http://www.wearecornwall.com/. In the mean time here’s a youtube showcase: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsvjIkECQVI&feature=youtu.be

London too, although one of the most crowded places I’ve ever experienced, has many treasures to uncover. Undoubtedly another must-see destination if you haven’t yet joined the ranks of London tourists!

For Christmas 2014 we travelled to a different kind of ‘home’. As my dad was brought up in Zimbabwe, his three sisters remain scattered around southern Africa, with two of them based in Cape Town, South Africa. A lot of people are hesitant about spending Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere. As you can image, I cannot think of a better way to spend the holiday! To swap the winter for the summer is my idea of paradise. What’s more, to be able to spend such a special time with our relatives is priceless.

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Hout Bay Seal

Hout Bay Seal

Heading towards Chapman's Peak drive.

Heading towards Chapman’s Peak drive.

Dassie

Dassie

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Penguins at Boulders Beach

Penguins at Boulders Beach

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Gansbaii

Gansbaii

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Shark cage diving at Gansbaai

Shark cage diving at Gansbaai

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Stilbaai

Stilbaai

Cable up Table Mountain

Cable up Table Mountain

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Beautiful little sun bird

Beautiful little sun bird

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The Iconic Protea

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Time in a Bottle

It’s been an inordinately long time since I last posted. It seems considerably easier to write when I’m travelling by myself. In addition to this I had a fairly major set back at the beginning of the summer of 2014 in Alicante, on the east coast of Spain. So, reflecting on this, here’s a a few pointers on how NOT to take a holiday:

1. Fly Ryan Air (although I must admit ,at this point, that I have done this since. So hard to resist those low prices! Naturally, they are low for a reason.)

2. Pack far more than you really need for the trip. Including vast amounts of valuables and electrics.

3. Proceed to leave all of you belongings in a convenient bundle, fully in sight. To save time, why not place an advertisement at the front of the property:

“passport, phone, laptop, travel money, wallet, ipod, extensive precious jewellery collection, kindle, SLR camera + telephoto lens. – available here at exclusively non-existent prices, simply time your arrival to ensure you can ‘purchase’ these items when the generous donor is absent. (crowbar not included)”

4. Run out for help barefoot in a towel on realising your donation has been accepted.

5. Have faith in the Spanish police

6. Have faith in the British Embassy

7. PANIC.

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However, I do feel that a certain amount of bad luck is inevitable whilst travelling. The key is how you manage it. Of course, it was not just me affected by this burglary, and without the help and assistance of the kind family I was travelling with I’m not sure how I would have managed. I let my guard down, feeling secure in this scenario, but I would have struggled significantly more had I been alone when it happened. I now believe I’d have a little more composure were it to happen again. It also is highly advantageous to have a helpful insurance policy. Swings and roundabouts, silver-linings etc etc

Now, as I had to withdraw from the delightful prospect of a following trip to Menorca, due to lack of passport, my next venture overseas was our family summer-break to Limoges, France. Shiny new passport in tow, we headed to a beautiful reconstructed barn complex where the entire side of my mothers family amassed for general chaos and frivolity (leaning a little more toward the chaos).

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An idyllic, tranquil part of France, with all of the trimmings you’d expect (great weather, food, pastries, markets etc). I’m going to swiftly move on, however, to the end of the summer. As a group of six school friends we headed to Lisbon for around four days to soak up some sun, some culture but more importantly each other’s company.

First thing that I feel needs to be said: be warned with luggage in Lisbon – it is extremely hilly! It is, However, a great little city to get away to for a short break. Very atmospheric and charming (helped, perhaps unfortunately, by the dilapidated state of many of the buildings). I’ll leave the explanation up to a small selection of photos. This post seems to be encroaching upon the ‘overly-long’ side of things so I’ll continue the catch up in a following edition!

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Have You Fed The Fish?

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“Flowers… are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Last day in Tokyo 😦 I headed out in the early morning to the Tsukiji fish market, following a recommendation from my lonely planet guide book. It was incredibly easy to find, all I needed to do was follow the locals with their large empty baskets, bikes and lorries! It is absolutely gargantuan, undoubtedly the largest fish market I’ve ever seen (and by quite a considerable amount). There were the most bizarre sea creatures for sale in the dingy light including sea cucumbers, urchins and many things that I couldn’t recognise. Men were carving up enormous tuna steaks with what looked like swords and live fish and shell fish scuttled about in every direction. Many stalls had sashimi for sale at quite a price: could only be fresher if the fish was actually eaten whilst alive. Not really my cup of tea!

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Striking buckets full of huge tuna heads, can’t quite get the full scale here.

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After stopping at a bakery, to munch on a rather more appealing steamed chocolate bun made into a bear face, we headed out to Shinjuku in an attempt to find a novelty goods store (mainly thinking of Karl Pilkington’s ‘crisp picker’). We tried out ‘Tokyu Hands’ which, similar to ‘the Loft’ which I tried out in Shibuya, is like a department store which starts to hint at the crazy novelties that we were after. Llama mascara, anyone?

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Looking for bedside table decorations? Jellyfish in a jar should hit the spot. This one's upside down and looking incredibly sorry for itself.

Looking for bedside table decorations? Jellyfish in a jar should hit the spot. This one’s upside down and looking incredibly sorry for itself.

Mount Fuji fancy dress...

Mount Fuji fancy dress…

Final stop of the trip was the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. It didn’t disappoint. Stacked full of the later blooming kind of blossom, it was simply breathtaking. The highlight has to be the traditional Japanese style part of the garden, with a couple of tea houses:

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Trimming the shaped trees

Trimming the shaped trees

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Man staring in disbelief at a cat...quite amusing.

Man staring in disbelief at a cat…quite amusing.

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After a fantastic last day I’m now sat wasting time in Beijing airport…home soon!

 

Last supper (actually breakfast) in Tokyo Haneda airport - finally found some edamame beans.

Last supper (actually breakfast) in Tokyo Haneda airport – finally found some edamame beans.

Bring it on Down

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“I’m on a diet, so I had only five extra helpings.”

– Gagamaru, Sumo Champion 2010.

It seems bizarre to invent a sport that requires its competitors to become clinically obese to stand a chance against their opponents. One of the professionals in this stable was a whopping 192kg.  It was, however, fascinating to watch. Our guide was a lady called Noriko, who takes tourists to watch Sumos in their early morning practices in Ryogoku. There are fairly strict rules that you have to follow in order to watch the practice including complete silence and not moving off the cushion on the floor for the full three hours: Fair bit of pins and needles engendered, as you can imagine. It was incredible how elaborate and ritualistic the practices are, starting with training of the lowest ranking members of the ‘stable’ then working up to the professionals, in white Mawashi (pants).

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Cleaning up the sand ring in between sessions

Cleaning up the sand ring in between sessions

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Surprisingly flexible!

Surprisingly flexible!

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Being back in the Ryogoku area, where we stayed the first time we were in Tokyo, we couldn’t resist visiting our favourite bakery down the road. Was just as fresh and delicious as I remembered. Here’s a bean cake and raisin bun.IMG_7128

With only a couple of days left we then decided to whiz off to Asakusa, one of the top tourist areas of the city with the ‘sky tree’ tower attraction and Sensoki temple. It was however absolutely rammed full of people and not nearly as spectacular as the Kyoto temples, in my opinion.

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Here you can see the sky tower and some bizarre piece of architecture which sort of resembles a gold-plated dog turd...

Here you can see the sky tower and some bizarre piece of architecture which sort of resembles a gold-plated dog turd…

 To cap off our busy day we headed to the Roppongi district of the city, where we had a long awaited reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro. If you haven’t heard of Jiro before, he is an 88 year old sushi master, who’s spent his life perfecting the art of sushi, now running a three Michelin star restaurant underground in Ginza. Unfortunately, after many failed attempts, it became apparent that booking reservations for Jiro Ono’s own restaurant is next to impossible unless you’re local. (Much Thanks to Sheena for all her help with the attempted booking!). We instead made a reservation for his son, Takashi’s two Michelin star branch of the restaurant in Roppongi. Here’s a link to an advert for the film made about Jiro’s life’s work: ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi‘.

We arrived a little early for our reservation time and were the only people in the restaurant. Takashi then proceeded to cut, shape, paint with soy sauce and present to us 19 courses of individual pieces of sushi. These ranged from ‘needle fish’ to sea urchin. My favourites were the medium fatty tuna and, much to my surprise, the giant clam which I was fully expecting to hate. It was bizarre how things which I would normally not even dream about eating were made perfectly palatable, such as roe and sea eel. With only two (and eventually another two) people joining us in the restaurant it felt like a private interview with Takashi who prepared the course, watched us eat it then prepared the next pieces. The sushi is served at the perfect temperature for each individual fish and you’re not supposed to add any soy or ginger. I made the heinous mistake of trying to add a little ginger to the octopus, being pretty squeamish about eating it, and Takashi actually said no and picked off the ginger himself. Overall, yes, It was incredibly good, and it did make me try things that I would otherwise never have tasted but in all honesty I really don’t think it’s worth the absolutely ridiculous price tag. On this occasion I was extraordinarily lucky enough to be treated to the meal, though, so obviously can’t complain! Would definitely NOT recommend this for a budget trip I’m afraid. Certainly a fascinating experience though. Only at the very end did Takashi break his rather stony, serious exterior and come out for a photo with us and to shake our hands.

A rather inconspicuous exterior in the middle of the otherwise highly ostentatious Roppongi hills shopping mall.

A rather inconspicuous exterior in the middle of the otherwise highly ostentatious Roppongi hills shopping mall.

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Sea Urchin

Sea Urchin

Whole shrimp

Whole shrimp

5 (6)

Salmon Roe

Salmon Roe

Medium fatty tuna

Medium fatty tuna

Song To A Seagull

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“The human tongue is like wasabi: it’s very powerful, and should be used sparingly.”

― John Green, Paper Towns

It is absolutely freezing here in Matsushima: Really arctic winds making you constantly wish that someone would invent some sort of nose warmer. We headed out to wander about the area, noticing the complete lack of tourists and, therefore, English. Menus yet again became some sort of guessing game. Last night I had the weirdest array of different types of seafood including some sort of fringed grey thing and a yellow mollusc, I presume, which looked (and tasted) disturbingly like an ear.

We took a trip around the bay in a boat, the highlight of which was the hilarious translation on the hand out we were given:

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It says “It becomes troubled of other customers, and never never put out the customer of a pet taking from the cage, please while embarking.” … Right. That’s clear then. No taking the pet from the cage.

Another amusing moment was over lunch where we eventually managed to order some tuna rolls (following much pointing and miming) then literally were brought to tears by the amount of wasabi jammed into the little pieces. Hot doesn’t seem quite the right word. It feels more like some sort of acid explosion right the way up through your head to your nose and eyes. I have actually acclimatised a little to the Japanese way of sushi: I couldn’t stand wasabi or ginger before, now I’m partial to a little wasabi and there’s never enough ginger. This was far too much however. I left feeling as if my sinuses had just had some sort of toxic probing.

Here's the inconspicuous culprit. Little did we know that little atomic bombs were hidden in each little gem.

Here’s the inconspicuous culprit. Little did we know that atomic bombs were hidden in each little gem.

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We later took the bright red bridges out onto a couple of the islands were elaborate caves and Buddhist shrines have been carved into the sandstone. We also popped into the Masamune museum, Masamune is widely recognised as Japan’s greatest swordsmith, reaching legendary status. I’d never actually heard of him before.

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Finally, the seagulls are worth a mention. There are the most ridiculously large number of them packed into such a small area. And they’re all incredibly vocal.

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Ocean Breathes Salty

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This morning we embarked on yet another extensive train journey in the fantastic, clear weather, giving great final views of Fuji-San. The train network here, in combination with the absolutely incredible tool that is Google maps, is fairly easy to understand so the journey was faultless, again. Such a clear and organised country!

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Six hours later we arrived in Matsushima, 2 hours north of Tokyo on the Shikansen bullet train. It’s famous for being one of the ‘Three Views’ of Japan, and it’s clear why. To me, it’s like a Japanese version of Halong Bay. The area is scattered with 260 tiny islands (shima, in Japanese) covered in pine trees (matsu). It’s incredibly beautiful, particularly in the cool, crisp sunset. I may have to get up for the sunrise though as that would be over the ocean rather than the set which was behind the hills.

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