Friday, 6 November 2009

Stop All The Clocks

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead

Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

W. H. Auden

Sunday, 18 October 2009


I cant believe we've been back in Sydney for almost a year month now and I still havent written about our time in Portugal. Being the last country in our European summer 09 itinerary we arrived in Portugal with mixed emotions. It was sad to be almost at an end to our backpacking adventures and yet we were looking forward to seeing all our friends and family back in Sydney.

I've always wanted to visit Portugal and it didnt disappoint. Our first stop was in Lisboa the capital. We stayed at a fantastic hostel right in the heart of town. The hostel was only a few weeks old and everything was brand new. It had funky modern furniture, great dorms and everything was pretty high tech - with RFID chips as our room and locker keys and Macs available for internet browsing. We got to know the owners during the course of our stay who were 3 young entrepreneurs who really knew how a hostel should be.

It was also the hostel where we met some great fellow backpackers from all over the world and really bonded. There was the most unamerican-American Nick, who was over from Morocco as it was Ramadan there. Nick had a deal with the hostel owners and he cooked many fabulous meals for the residents in exchange for his board. He made a fantastic chicken curry on the first day which totally won me over. The only difference it had to my chicken curry was that it lacked a little heat but the flavours more than made up for it. On many nights we stayed in for dinner with many of the other residents to enjoy Nick's fabulous food over unlimited wine and beer and unforgettable company.

While Nick was busy in the kitchen we got to know a whole band of like minded and crazy people staying at the hostel. There were the two Finnish beauties - Saijja (pronounced Saya) and Lotta who became part of our air band with a couple of extremely friendly French guys (their names escape me). Then there were two more Fins - Artur and his friend who always wore a red hat and was known simple as the guy with the red hat. Nick's meal while tasting great took a very long time to arrive at the table so we had ample time to get to know these lovely folk.

Our time is Portugal and Lisboa in particular really stands out in my mind because of the great food we had. Portugeses food is rustic, simple and delicious. They use a lot of seafood in there diet which Pramod and I ofcourse love. I dont remember ever having a meal that I didnt like.

Coming from an ex-Protugese colony we also felt a subtle connection to the country as we recognised many common words in the two vocabularies and could see the Protugese influence in Sri Lankan food and architecture. Every Protugese person we met there was friendly and welcoming - I really would like to go back again and spend more time there. In Lisboa we went out with our new hostel buddies a quite few times so it didnt feel like we did a lot of touristy things. We did visit the castle overlooking the town, took a ferry across to the other side of the harbour and did a day trip up to Sintra. Somehow the place got under our skin so to speak.

After about a week in Lisboa we went up north to Porto and Braga which were quite different in character to the capital. Porto felt old and gritty especially around the old port. Braga was small, beautiful and cosmopolitan - the only thing I didnt like about it was a big Macdonalds they had allowed in the main historical square with the most out of this world fountain.

Then all too soon it was time to fly back to London to spend a few days there before heading home.

Thursday, 20 August 2009


Granada was our final Spanish destination and turned out to be the most loved. By far the most beautiful of the Spanish cities we've visited, it has a great mix of old and new. Granada's Moorish past is ever present from the majestic Alhambra (the most visited monument in Spain) overlooking the city to Albayzin, a district full of narrow winding streets from its Medieval Moorish past. Even the offerings at the souvenir shops are more Arabic than Spanish.

We stayed at a great little hostel called 'Funky Backpackers' which felt more like someone's home rather than a hostel. In a way we were part of that family for those four days we stayed there as we got to know the family and became friends with many travellers who we met there. In Granada the siesta is more widely enforced than anywhere else we've been to in Spain and soon we got used to the essential afternoon nap as well. We did a free walking tour of Albayzin and Sacromonte and got to know many interesting things about Granada's past thanks to our crazy Aussie guide, Sol. We climbed to a lookout in Abayzin to watch the sunset hitting the Alhambra beautifully and ended the tour at a cave restaurant in Sacromonte for Sangria. Granada has a great Flamenco tradition especially in Sacromonte and as we walked back into town we could hear many cave houses and restaurants alive with its gipsy like songs and frenzied clapping.

The next day we had lunch at a fantastic restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet which had a mix of Lebanese and Moroccan cuisine. We stopped by for some Turkish apple tea on the way back and came back to the hostel for some essential rest at the hottest time of the day. The hostel had cheap dinners on some nights and we stayed in for dinner on several occasions to enjoy Paella and Spanish omelette thanks to Manuel.

On our last day we visited Alhambra with its many palaces, gardens, military compound and towers. That same night we went back to see a special Flamenco show that came highly recommended by all the locals we had met thus far. The Alhambra has a great open air theatre in one of its gardens where many artists have performed over the years and we felt very lucky to see something there. The show was a theatrical Flamenco dance show with a cast of about 25 to 30 with many dancers, singers and musicians. The costumes were dazzling and the skill of all the dancers were breathtaking. It was a fantastic experience to see Flamenco under the starry night with the Alhambra beautifully lit as its backdrop. The show and our time in Granada as a whole is something I will cherish forever and will not soon forget.

Sunday, 16 August 2009


Everyone whose been the Madrid has described it in very unflattering terms so I had low expectations of the place. However, I was pleasantly surprised to like the city in the end. We stayed in a huge hostel in Madrid and were unfortunate enough to stay in an eight bed dorm full of Italian boys who wondered in at all hours of the night and made a ruckuss each time. So suffice it to say we didnt get much sleep there.

We did a walking tour run by the tourist office of the old Madrid and learned much about the city. As there was only one other person on the tour (a lady called Helen from Perth) it was like having our own tour guide. We made friends with Helen and went for hot chocolate and churros(deep fried bread stick things) afterwards and she invited us to come and stay with her if we are ever in Perth. She also told us about her cousin who lives near the Spanish/Portuguese border and runs an organic farm that takes in WWOOFers. We had finally found a place to WWOOF but since we had booked the rest of our days in August we couldnt accept the offer. Afterwards Pramo got a hair cut at the oldest barber shop in Europe much to his delight as his hair was starting to look much like an afro and annoy him to no end.

We visited the Prado museum in Madrid with its sizeable collection of European Art. The museum was well organised and housed in a beautiful building so we really enjoyed our time there. Afterwards we went and chilled out at the Parque del Retiro (Park of the Retreat) for a while and watched people paddling about in the man made lake.

Coincidently one of the people we met in our hostel in Barcelona (Dhileep) also happen to stay at our Madrid hostel and we had the biggest shock to see him in the room next to us when we happen to go by. That night we spent walking around Madrid and showing him some of the places we've seen and visited so far.

Madrid is a big party city and people start the day very late with lunch at about 2-3pm and dinner at 9-10pm and then partying till the wee hours of the morning everyday of the week. Apparently some people try to live the Madridian party life and do a 9-5 job but end up burnt out very quickly. Our tour guide told us that there were more bars per capita than any other European city in Madrid and the young and old alike tend to bar hop with their friends all night long. So if you like to party head to Madrid!

Thursday, 13 August 2009


As expected Barcelona was baking hot when we arrived there. We were exhausted by the time we made our way to our hostel after a 6 hour train journey from San Sebastian. The hostel had everything we needed including air conditioning which we were very thankful for.

Barcelona was full of amazing architecture everywhere you looked. Its home to many out-of-this-world Gaudi creations such as La Sagrida Familia church as well as La Ramblas - a long paved strip full of restaurants, cafes and shops as well as human statues dressed in all manner of costumes to impress the tourists walking by. While many people headed to the beach we went to see all the Guadi creations spread across the city. I liked his stuff just because he didnt believe in straight lines. We also visited the Picasso museum which contained a lot of his work leading up to & including cubism.

I remember Barcelona more for the nice people we met at the hostel more than anything. While many hostels have all the great facilities and places to hang out people dont always mix together. This was not the case in Barcelona as everyone went out together and made friends.

Barcelona is notorious for pick pockets and we were warned by everyone who has been there as well as the people running the hostel to be very careful everywhere. We heeded their advice and escaped without having anything stolen. Some of the others at the hostel weren't so lucky. One guy got his bike stolen from right in front of the hostel and his bag stolen all on the same day.

I really liked Barcelona despite the excess of dog shit & smell of urine everywhere you walked. Its one place I would like to go back to and spend more time in.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

San Sebastian

Our first stop in Spain was San Sebastian, the capital of Basque country on the north east coast of the country. San Sebastian has three beaches surrounding the old part of town which is overlooked by a mountain fortress housing a giant statue of Christ. We stayed in the old town where the party never stops. The old town is a small compact collection of streets full of pintxo bars, restaurants and shops. San Sebastian is brimming with tourists who crowd the beaches by day and bar hop by night.

A visit to San Sebastian is not complete without a visit to some of its pintxo (pronounced pinchos) bars. Pintxos are small h'ordeuvres which consist of a topping such as chorizo, seafood, cheese, omelette etc on top of a crusty piece of bread pierced by a toothpick. The bar top is packed full of plates of pintxos and you basically order a drink like sangria and have as many pintxos as you want. Once you've had enough you tell the bar tender how many you've had and then pay a fixed price for each one you had. The price varied from one to four euros. Then you go to the next bar and start the process all over again. Each bar had its own speciality. We had pintxos many times while in San Sebastian and I have to say I really liked them.

We spent the days in San Sebastian exploring the area surrounding the old town. We climbed to the hilltop fortress for great views of the town, sea and beyond. We walked along the beaches to the end of the bay to see the famous seaside sculptures. At night we would go out for Sangria and pintxos or tapas. The hostel we stayed at was really cramped but had a very friendly feel. On our last day a week long festival started in San Sebastian. Although it rained most of the day it didnt seem to deter the many bands, parades or the crowd. That night everyone in the hostel headed out together to watch the fireworks over the beach. All in all it was a nice end to our stay in San Sebastian.e

Wednesday, 5 August 2009


Bordeaux turned out to be very different from what I expected. It was a very pretty town with wide boulevards, huge squares, plazas and elegant buildings. It felt more refined than Paris in places. Apparently Paris was fashioned in the image of Bordeaux as it was already well-established when Paris was just a 'quasi-medieval' town.

We stayed in the rich area of the town in a budget hotel so ended having to walk quite a bit to get to restaurants and the main shopping strip. In Bordeaux on the banks of the river Gironne is the 'Place de la Bourse' built in the 18th century with two pavilion-like buildings behind a fountain of the three graces. The area in front of the square is dominated by a water feature called the 'water mirror' - a huge flat rectangular area that is sprayed by mist from the ground every 15 minutes or so. The 'water mirror' was a favourite with all the kids and adults alike who walked, slide and played on it for hours. The buildings and the surrounding area was lit up beautifully at night and was nice for an evening stroll. Behind 'Place de la Bourse' was a long pedestrianised walkway lined with shops, cafes and restaurants supposed to be the longest shopping street in Europe. Although I remember hearing the same phrase used to describe the main shopping street in Copenhagen.

We spent much of our time exploring the town by foot and chilling in its gardens and parks. We were there for four nights and found the whole town ghost-like over the weekend especially Sunday. Except for the tourists walking about trying to find something to do there were no locals about and hardly anything open. While there we did find a great supermarket near us with everything you could ask for and more. It had an entire aisle dedicated to cheese and two whole aisles full of wine (one for red and other for white, of course). The wine selection was so huge and cheap we ended having a bottle of wine with salmon & cheese baguettes for dinner for a couple of nights. Oh and when we went to get a baguette (french stick) from the bakery in the supermarket we had a choice from about 10 different types.. the French do love their food and wine!

While walking around town we came across an English pub and since the 3rd Ashes test was on I asked the girl behind the counter if she wouldnt mind putting on the cricket for us. After being shocked by the request (because no one had ever asked for the cricket) she obliged. So we spent a couple of hours watching cricket and sipping beer & cider - spending a very English afternoon in a French town.

Saturday, 1 August 2009


After Paris we headed south west and ended up spending a few days in Tours. Tours is a nice town in the heart of the Loire valley and we stayed in the old town very close to the Loire river. The old town is full of restaurants and bars with the main square surrounded by old terrace houses which look as they are almost leaning on one another. These houses have now of course been converted to eateries and shops.

For a smallish town Tours is quite cosmopolitan with a big variety of restaurants. We even saw a Sri Lankan restaurant there. Tours is also where we decided to have a meal at a traditional French restaurant. The waiters did not speak any English and with our very limited French ordering was a stressful affair. We knew basics like fish, pork, cheese, chicken, beef etc.. so we guessed and ordered a three course meal. The entrees started well enough - Pramo had a potato and sardine salad and I had crusty bread with tuna pate thingy. Then came the main course. Mine was a roast chicken leg with potatoes and salad with an orange glaze which tasted quite good. Pramo who ordered something pork was given a plate with a boiled pork knuckle accompanied by boiled (killed) vegetables. The pork knuckle was pink and looked gross. The look on Pramo's face was classic - he was hoping it was a bad dream. He struggled his way through the main course hurrying along to get it over and done with. Then it was time for dessert. I ordered a creme caramel which was pretty nice and Pramo had ordered a selection of cheeses. France having 256 different types of cheese we were looking forward to trying some of them. His dessert consisted of two pieces of cheese and a leaf of lettuce. One of the cheese pieces smelled like someone's foot and the other was Camembert. So our adventures into French food ended that night as you might have guessed. The next day we had Japanese followed by pizza the night after that.

The Loire valley is famous for chataeux and wine so we did a tour of the area that took us to some of the famous chataeux (Amboise and Chenonceau) as well as wine tasting. Chenonceau castle was impressive as its built on the Cher river connecting the two banks almost like a bridge. We found the huge house impressive with its richly decorated rooms, perhaps the most interesting part was the tremendous kitchen with every conceivable cooking apparatus that was used back in the day displayed for visitors to marvel at. The path leading up to the house is framed by giant plane trees providing much appreciated shade and a welcoming feel. To the left of the path there was a huge maze much to the delight of kids of all ages including myself. Next to the house on the left bank there were beautiful formal gardens layed out with care much like those in the palace of Versailles. On our way back to our tour van we went through the farm house and vegetable gardens to the edge of the property. The vegetable garden had every conceivable vegetable growing in neat rows and beds hedged by small apple trees trimmed to act like a fence. We were very tempted to pick the apples but decided against it :)

Next we visited Amboise castle and saw the grave of Leonardo Da Vinci. On our way back to the town we stopped by a winery for a quick tour and some wine tasting. The winery much like others in the region were using a limestone cave to store the wine which provides the correct level of humidity and temperature for storage. We liked the wines we tried and so ended up buying a couple of bottles.

The next day we spent walking around town and sat by the side of the Loire river having lunch and enjoying the wine we bought the previous day. The afternoon passed quickly over a bottle of wine and it was one of the most relaxing afternoons I've had in a while. That night we bought pizza for dinner and went to eat by the river again. The side of the river we were on was paved along the bank and many people enjoyed walking & picnicing along the bank. Up the river there was an outdoor cafe/bar on the river bank with a band playing to a packed crowd. We went along and sat around enjoying the great band for a long time. The band could be described as folky-funk. They played traditional French folk songs with a violin and accordion to a funk base line. People of all ages stopped by the cafe/bar to listen to the band. It was a most pleasant way to spend our last night in Tours.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009


We spent a full week in Paris in the southern edge of the central district. It was a mixed week full of mishaps and moments of bliss. Our camera stopped working. We were sitting in front of Notre Dame and it wouldn't come on. As this happened on a Saturday we spent the weekend trying to find some place to repair it but everything was closed. So in the end we decided to get a new one and get the G9 repaired in Sydney.

We saw all the big Parisian sights - Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower (by day and night), Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, Champs-Élysées, Arc de Triomphe etc. On our first full day there we stumbled upon a free walking tour and got a great introduction to the city and its history. Being an art museum buff I was looking forward to the Lourve quite a bit. We got there early so didn't have to line up much at all and we got to see the Mona Lisa without standing shoulder to shoulder with 200 other people. Unfortunately as its covered by glass and cordoned off its impossible to get a proper look at it at. While we saw the most famous of the Lourve's works I found it to be too big and spread out to really enjoy. Its size is quite overwhelming and you have to go trawling through rooms and rooms of mediocre stuff to get to see the good stuff.

Musee d'Orsay on the other hand was a more manageable size. It also had all the great Impressionists masters and their famous works to make the trip really worth while. I also realised that the picture that had been hanging in our Bayswater flat was in fact a copy of a painting by Camille Pissarro. It was incredible to stumble upon the original in the museum.

We discovered the Parisian china town a short tram ride from our hotel and had excellent Vietnamese night after night. Neither of us are big fans of French food so this suited us quite well. I was happy enough to enjoy the great croissants, baguettes and crepes during the day and sit down to a bowl of hearty Pho at the end of it. We spent a lot of time walking around the city and relaxing in its beautiful gardens. Jardin de Luxumburg was my favourite with its grand water features and beautiful flower beds. On our way to it we came across a Patisserie with all sorts of intricately beautiful desserts for sale. We bought a couple of desserts and I enjoyed an exquisite mini creme brulee. I was hoping to go back to it but never got the chance.

We did a day trip from Paris to Versailles but unfortunately Pramo wasn't feeling too well and had to go home as soon as we got to Versailles. I on the other hand carried on & proceeded to stand in the queue to get a ticket for over an hour in the hot sun. The French have such convoluted systems - you had to line up to get the tickets (which come with a free audio guide), then you have to line up again to enter the Palace and then once inside you have to line up again to get the audio guide. Its so inefficient when it doesn't need to be. I didn't bother getting the audio guide after standing in the ticket queue for over an hour. Anyway the palace and gardens were quite beautiful and grand but I think I never got over waiting so long to get it so it didn't seem really worth while.

I had high expectations for Paris. Maybe that was the problem to start with. After listening to everyone I know talk about how they like/love Paris I expected to feel the same way. I think I need more time/visits to feel that way about Paris. Its so huge with so many things to see and do that visitors can have a very varied experience of it. Its one place I want to go back to because of that very reason. Maybe next time it will help to have a bigger budget and know a bit more French as well.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009


After leaving Munich we headed west to Freiburg to escape the normal hostel/hotel routine and take the chance to stay with our uni mates Sarah and Riah. Freiburg is a small city near the entrance to the Black Forest and close to the Swiss and French borders. The week we spent there we really liked the feel of the town. Freiburg is cosmopolitan city big enough to have everything you need but small enough that you can walk the cobbled streets of the old town in half an hour. The streets in the old town are lined with fresh water open canals called 'Bachle..' that provide endless play opportunity for kids and a gurgling soundtrack as you walk by. It is said that if you fall into one of these canals that you will fall in love with a Freiburger and stay there forever.

On our first day there we climbed the hill overlooking the town to see great views of the city all the way to the Black Forest. While there we spent the days visiting the daily fruit & veg markets on the grounds of the characteristic gothic cathedral 'Munster' and the nights making simple home cooked meals to enjoy with a bottle of wine with Sarah & Riah. We also got to try great thai in town and spend an evening in a beer garden with Sarah's friends enjoying the beer from the organic brewery across the road. I never drink beer but ended up really liking the local brew which was so easy to drink.

Freiburg is a town we both wish we could find the equivalent of in Sydney. Being Germany there are lots of engineering firms nearby so that you could easily ride to work as both Sarah and Riah do. They have great restaurants and bars and a lively night life yet being so close to the Black Forest there is ample opportunity to go for walks, hikes and rides to feel close to nature. I think we also liked it so much because we had locals to show us around the place. But undoubtedly the best thing about Freiburg was having the chance to catch up with Sarah & Riah. As they say there is nothing like old friends.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Grindelwald, Switzerland

While in Freiburg we got the opportunity to visit Switzerland for a bout 4 days as it was quite close to the Swiss border. We stayed at a place called Grindelwald, about half an hour by train from Interlaken. Grindelwald is a small town on the base of the Swiss Alps with the famous Eiger and Jungfrau mountains providing an imposing backdrop.

The first day we spent in Grindelwald we got picture perfect weather with the sun shining through a clear blue sky. The next two days it rained quite a lot and then again on our last day the skies cleared and the sun shone triumphantly over the snow capped mountains. A lot of the region was covered by cog railways or cable cars that took you to various peaks and lookouts as well as cute small towns in the valleys. We got a rail pass and spent a lot of the time exploring the area by rail and cable cars. It was so serenely beautiful I really cant do justice to the views.

On the first day we took the train to Eigerglacier and did a small hike with the Eiger's famous north face on one side and the sun-kissed valley on the other. We didn't let the rain bother us too much in the next couple of days because it was fun to go in the trains and cable cars while the mist and rain did its best to overcome everything. On our last day we woke up to clearing skies to find all the mountains above 2000m had gotten snow overnight and thus looked pristinely beautiful. We took a cable car to 'First' and did a hike to lake 'Bachalpsee' hidden amongst the snowy peaks. It was ideal conditions for a hike as the sun was out but there was a cool breeze to keep you refreshed. We both thoroughly enjoyed the hike and were really blown away by beautiful Switzerland.

Sunday, 12 July 2009


We arrived in Munich by train from Venice in about 7 hours. While the train was pretty old and not that fast the journey was quite enjoyable as we travelled through beautiful landscapes from the north of Italy and across all of Austria. Munich was cold and rainy when we arrived but lucky for us the hostel was very close to the station. The hostel had great facilities including a bar and an indoor garden with hammocks and couches. They also had free tours of the city which lasted about 3.5 hours and covered all the main sights of the city. We got to know about what it means to be Bavarian and how separate from the rest of Germany it is as well as its significance in WWII.

Munich was very cosmopolitan with great markets, beer gardens and restaurants. We found a good Viet & Thai restaurant nearby which we found ourselves going back to often. They were also lots of good Japanese places all over the city. While we were in Munich the first Ashes test started in England so we spent an entire day in our hostel watching the match in the big screen tv in the bar with some Aussies. So we had a very relaxing time of it.

A visit to the Deutsch Museum is a must in Munich, especially for us engineers with great scientific and technological displays to keep you amused for hours on end. I particularly liked the massive room dedicated to bridges where we got to see models of almost every type of bridge ever built and how they worked. The place was so huge we were too tired to see it all.

A short train ride from the centre of Munich is a fantastic garden called the Englisher Garden. It covered an immense area and consisted of lush green fields in amongst tall majestic trees as well as two beer gardens and a great big lake as its centre piece. We hired bicycles and rode around the lake and throughout the park. By coincidence while riding around we stumbled upon a cricket match played between two regional teams in the area at the MCC (Munich cricket club). We stopped by and watched the match for a while and got to know a very nice German girl who was there supporting her fiancé. The local team had a Sri Lankan spinner (he got a couple of wickets while we watched) as well as an Indian fast bower. It was great fun to watch and Pramo was itching to play with them. We had to leave to return our bikes otherwise we would have been there right till the end.

After returning our bikes we had lunch at the beer garden by the lake - curry wurst & beer. Overall it was a very relaxing and enjoyable day at the Englisher garden.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009


Venice one of those places you have to see for yourself to marvel at its uniqueness. We spent 3 days there and didnt do much else except walk around and get lost in its 'streets'. With space at a premium the smallest gap between buildings are shown as big streets on the maps and with many of these unnamed its easy to understand why almost everyone who has been there gets lost.

Venice is Italy's most expensive city and many people who wish to save money stay in Mestra on the mainland and travel by train or bus to Venice daily. Since we were there for such a short time and factoring in the cost to come into Venice we chose to stay on the island itself.

Venice seems to exist purely for the tourists. Almost everyone who works there comes in on the ferry in the morning and leave by evening along with the day trippers. So the whole place is eerily quiet at night when the remaining tourists fill into restaurants and hotels. I found this to be the nicest time of the day when you can walk past shop windows and gaze at the gorgeous Murano glassware and Venician masks for as long as you like. Both of these Venician exports are hideously expensive, well the originals anyway, and the stuff that is affordable is almost always from China. The Murano glassware in particular was very beautiful with every conceivable colour in every design imaginable from animals and vases to chandeliers, jewellery and chess pieces.

The other main activity on the island is of course the famed gondola rides. It costs about 90 Euros for a minimum hour ride and neither Pramo nor I wanted it that much to justify the cost. It would have worked out better if there were other people to go with but it didnt feel quite right to go with strangers in such a small and intimate setting.

I didnt think there was any one thing is particular which stood out in Venice or any particular reason to want to go back but like I said at the start of this post its one of those places you have to see for yourself.

Saturday, 4 July 2009


I think I liked Florence even before I got there. How is that possible? Let me explain. When we were in Rome, we got to know this young Aussie couple who were staying in the same dorm as us. The girl offered me the book she was just finishing and I took it gleefully having had nothing to read since we left London. The book was a historical novel set in Florence during the Renaissance. Through it I got great insight into life in Florence, the significant places in the city and the role art and religion played in people's lives in that time. The city also had a great vibe. The historical centre was quite compact, the streets narrow but clean and there was art all around you from the statues in the main square to the architecture of the old buildings and bridges to the slow windy river running through the heart of the city. Its no wonder that I fell in love with the place and consider it my favourite Italian city.

We also stayed in a great hostel that had everything you could want from a hostel and more. The rooms were clean and spacey and they had free wifi all over the hostel. There was a cute terrace to sit and relax as well as a small garden full of fruit trees alive with chirping birds throughout the day. But the best part about the hostel was the fact that they provided free breakfast (eggs & bacon or muesli or french toast) as well as dinner (pasta or pizza).

We did the free walking tours of the city run by the hostel and visited the main square, Piazza della Signoria with its outdoor statue gallery, Neptune fountain and Palazzo Vecchio alongside Michaelangelo's 'David'. This piazza was the main gathering point for the citizens of Florence in the olden days where everything from meetings & rallies, hangings, bonfires and celebrations took place. Palazzo Vecchio with its magnificent great hall full of expansive paintings & statues has been the seat of government for hundreds of years and is still used by the governor of Florence for his offices.

The statues in the outdoor gallery are also worthy of note. The two originals include 'Persius' with the head of Madusa and the 360 degree twisting depiction the 'Rape of Sabine Women'. Then of course there is Michaelangelo's David, well a copy of it anyway, standing all white and tall at the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio. We saw the original in the Academia Gallery as does everyone who comes to Florence. The 'David' is remarkable perhaps for its sheer size more than anything else. While Pramo could not get past the fact that the head and hands were too large for the rest of the body. My favourite sculpture was that of Persius in bronze by Benvenuto Cellini. Persius is in perfect proportion and the whole sculpture has a remarkable level detail. The more you looked at the more you appreciated it's beauty. I could sit and stare at it for hours (which I did on most days).

Florence also had the BEST gelato we had tasted anywhere. Our walking guide told us that the city had the highest concentration of gellaterias in Europe and pointed us to one that she thought was good. They made their gelato fresh everyday using the fruits found in the market and boy, did they taste good. I think we had gelato everyday and more than once on some days. The pistachio was fabulous, as was the ricotta, blackberry, strawberry, peach, fig and chocolate sorbet.

A few meters from the main square is the river Arno with several bridges connecting the 2 sides of Florence. Ponte Vecchio bridge is the only original left since the rein of the Medici as all the others were destroyed in WWII and rebuilt since.

No trip to Florence is complete without a visit to the Uffizi gallery where the big guns of Renaissance art are on show. Even after getting there before opening we had to wait in line for about 40 minutes. Then finally after a few unremarkable rooms we saw Botticelli's famed 'Primavera' and 'The Birth of Venus'. Unfortunately they were both quite hard to see behind a glass cover and appeared faded. There was a lot more to see beyond those 2 paintings but I cant remember any of them so I guess that says a lot. I think the Renaissance paintings are bit too hyped up to be honest. They displayed great technique and depicted the human body better than ever before but the subjects all seemed rather dull. A majority of the works tended to be religious in nature, and then almost all of those depicted the same few scenes over and over again, whether its 'Madonna and child', 'Annunciation', 'Adoration of Magi' etc etc. While one could appreciate the skill and talent from a pure academic point of view there was nothing for me that reality struck a chord through the subject. Whereas Renaissance sculpture in my belief is quite brilliant and praise worthy. Always so evocative and with such a superior level of craftsmanship even some of the incomplete works by Michaelangelo displayed in the Academia seemed to be coming alive through the marble.

In the time we spent in Florence we also did a couple of day trips. One to see the leaning tower of Pisa and the other to the medieval town of Siena. We went to Siena a day before the 'il palio' - the annual medieval horse race set in the town square with each neighbouring city region competing to win the 'palio', a painted flag of the Virgin Mary. The town was covered with the colourful flags of the different regions and people wore their team flags around their necks. The atmosphere was quite festive in preparation for the most important event in the town's calendar.

Overall Florence was relaxing and enjoyable. Many nights we walked to the main square after dinner and sat around listening to the basking flute player and watching the gallery of statues and people alike, or strolled down to the river Arno to watch the sunset over Ponte Vecchio.

Sunday, 28 June 2009


Rome is so jam packed with things to see and do I am glad we spent a week there. The power and depth of the Roman empire is evidenced everywhere with history around every corner; statues, monuments, fountains, churches, piazzas, ruins at every turn. We had the chance to see a lot of the city and take our time with it; which was good. We saw the big hits including the Coloseum, Vatican & San Pedro, Spanish Steps, Trevi fountain, Pantheon & Roman Forum.

One thing which I find annoying in continental Europe is that you have to pay to go to museums, art galleries and even some churches. Coming from London where they have world famous museums and galleries full of amazing things free to the public its very hard to get used to. I really appreciate that about London now.

Anyway, back to Rome. The Coloseum was huge and an amazing sight. Reading the descriptions of how it was used I could close my eyes and almost see the place alive in its heyday, full of crowds cheering on the gladiators. I was most impressed with the Pantheon (even more than the Sistine chapel - yes I know most people won't agree with me). Its a circular building with a huge concrete dome that was built as a temple for all the gods of Ancient Rome. It stands at some 43 meters in height with an opening that lets in the sun to light different alters within the temple at different times of the day and is the only intact building surving from Ancient Rome. Seeing it from within is an awe inspiring sight.

I was also pretty impressed by the King Vittorio Emanuele II monument in piazza Venezia, although apparently Romans are not too keen on it. Italians seems to love VE II because he has so many streets and monuments dedicated to him throughout the country, and why shouldnt they love him because he was the first king of an unified Italy. The monument itself is huge with multiple levels & countless statues in a mix of styles which doesnt sound very attractive but its sheer size and sprawl is impressive.

Rome has a great many piazzas and public spaces and we spent a lot of time sitting around people watching. We also did a day trip to the catacombs in the outskirts of Rome and hired bikes and rode along the Appian way - world's oldest highway and the original of the "roads leading to Rome". The Appian way is full of massive uneven cobblestones and some parts were impossible to ride through so we didnt get far with in our bike ride.

In Rome the ancient and modern live side by side in a weird harmony that is hard to comprehend at times. As the centre of the Roman empire and the significance it has for Catholics one can easily see why people flock from all over the world to Rome. I for one am glad to have had a chance to see it for myself.

Roma - Part 2

It doesnt seem right to write about Rome and not comment on the Sistine chapel so here is what I thought. To get to the Sistine chapel in the Vatican museum you have to pass through almost two hours worth of lavishy decorated corridors and rooms with frescoes, paintings, statues, furniture and tapestry. The journey ends in the Sistine chapel which is a huge rectangular room with all its walls and ceiling covered in frescoes. The frescoes are quite magnificant although the most famous sections on the ceiling done by Michalangelo are so far above its hard to make out the details. Nevertheless you stand in awe of it all shoulder to shoulder to hundreds of other people doing the same. There is so much to see in such detail you can really spend hours in that room but its impossible to do one because there is limited seating and the other because of the sheer number of people coming through to the room.

One thing which Pramod and I both couldn't understand was the fact that almost every person in the room (except us of course) were taking photos of the frescoes with flash repeatedly despite the signs forbidding that very act. With the thousands of people that visit the Sistine chapel everyday if everyone did that all those priceless frecoes will not be around for much longer. There were guards in the room, but they seem to be more concerned with keeping people quiet rather than warning them against the use of flashes. We found this attitude quite common throughout Italy, where staff were too busy socialising to enforce the rules of the gallery/museum they are looking after. It's such a pity because they dont seem to either not understand the significance of what they are looking after, or simply don't care. I'm not sure which is worse.

Sunday, 21 June 2009


Getting to Naples turned out to be quite a task. From Crete we flew into Athens with the intention of going to the Peloponesse. But after finding no reasonable accommodation in Napflio we decided to head straight to Italy. So from Athens we caught two trains to Patras and then boarded the overnight ferry to Bari, Italy. The ferry trip was great. Our private cabin was clean and comfy and after a great night's sleep we woke up in Italy. The journey to Naples wasnt finished though as we had to catch a train and a bus to Naples as we missed the daily train to Naples which left in the morning.

The hostel we stayed at in Naples was near the main train station and not in the best neighborhood as we found out. The hostel overlooked a road that ended with a huge supermarket and was full of rubbish. It turned out that the street turned into a market every morning that sold clothes, shoes etc. By 2pm each day the market stalls were packed up and the street was open to traffic again however all the market vendors left their rubbish on the road which were swept up by street cleaners each night. The roat below the hostel was a hub of activity day and night and many times we sat on the balconies and watched the chaos below.

When we checked into the hostel the receptionist basically told us not to carry anything valuable with us in the streets or take anything valuable out for people to see. He told us to only carry a small amount of money at a time and secure all bags properly. He told us to not come and go from the hostel after midnight as the street was not safe. All this was quite a lot to take in on that first day. Nevertheless the hostel itself was clean and spacious.

While in Napoli we had the very best pizza we've ever had. All the guide books recommended a pizzeria that had been around since 1870. This place was quite small and with simple decor. The menu was also limited; they had 2 kinds of pizza margerita(basil, tomato, oliva oil & mozzerella) & marinara (oregano, tomato, garlic & olive oil), soda, water and beer. The pizzas had a thin crust and were made in a wood fired oven. They were so delicious we were left wondering how they could make something so simple taste so good.

During our stay in Naples we had the chance to visit Pompei which was a short train ride away. The ruins covered a huge area and it was facinating to see how the city was organised. There were ruins of temples, markets, shopping streets, residences, administration buildings, brothels, sport and theatre arenas as well as graffiti, casts of people who died in mid expression, frescoes, wall paintings etc etc. Most of the artefacts from Prompei are kept in the National Archeological Museum in Naples, which we had visited the day before. Although the museum is not very well organised it had a superb collection of sculptures and the most complete collection of artefacts from Pompei so it was well worth the visit.

While in Naples we also did a day trip to the Amalfi coast via Sorrento. The Amalfi coast stretches for about 50km and the road is carved into the side of a mountainous ridge that follows the coast line on a very windy path. Along the way there were many towns which spread from the cliff tops down to beaches and the sea below. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking. Somehow it feels impossible to find the words to describe the sense of exhileration and awe we felt that day. The coastal towns such as Positano and Amalfi were so beautiful I felt that especially Positano was far more beautiful that Santorini on any day. We had lunch in Amalfi and headed back to Naples hoping to return to spend a holiday somewhere along the Amalfi coast.

In the 4-5 days we spent in Naples we met some great people in our hostel. Most of the were Aussies or Kiwis travelling around Europe and we had a great time swapping stories over pizza and wine. Being in such a dangerous place brought us closer together and I got a true sense of what its like to stay in a hostel because of it. Come to think of it everyone we had met so far had been very friendly and I'm glad we are staying in hostels because without the people we had met along the way Europe would not have been half as fun.

Thursday, 18 June 2009


Just wanted to write a summary of my thoughts on Greece. I had heard a lot of good things about Greece so I did have high expectations which were quickly deflated.

The touristy parts of Greece were terribly expensive... and everything else was run down and dirty. A lot of the nice places main aim seemed to be to exploit tourists. For example a lot of the restaurants which we went to that had good reviews in travel guides had really gone downhill after the review. They still charged crazy prices, and advertised the good reviews to get customers but the quality of the food was not good at all. We felt ripped off most times. I dont mind having to pay for expensive meals if they were worth it. But that was not the case.

It looked like the government had invested on infrastructure and building public spaces but once built nothing was maintained. The metro is Athens was great because its relatively new from the Olympics but other things were run down and dirty. Most transport and public systems were very disorganised.

The other thing we hated was the smoking absolutely everywhere, including all enclosed spaces. They would have smoking and non-smoking sections, but they were just different corners of the same room. Its not just that but many very young people smoked and it seemed socially acceptable to do so. On the ferry to Santorini there was a football team with their coach and I would say they were about 11-14 years old. The whole team chain smoked including the coach. Also there was a mother with a small girl about 4 years old who was sleeping on her lap and the mum was smoking away the whole time. There seemed to be a lack of awareness or care for the dangers of smoking.

Despite all that we had some good times in Greece. Crete was beautiful and I wish I had more time to explore it, especially by car. Greek salad was yummy everywhere and the olive oil in Crete was divine. Moonlit Santorini was breathtaking. Athens exceeded our expectations in most ways so I would say it is really worth a visit, especially if you appreciate history.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009


Our first stop in Crete was Heraklion the modern, bustling capital of Crete. We stayed close to the old Venetian fort and harbour, within walking distance of a busy cafe and restaurant strip.

About 5km from Heraklion lies Knosses the capital of Minoan Crete, with the most famous of Minoan ruins - the palace of King Minos of Knosses. This site is the inspiration to the myth of the Minotaur. The half man half bull being that lived in the labyrinth below the King's palace. We visited the ruins which are set on a hill and include a huge palace with courtyards, private rooms, baths, fresh water irrigation system, sewerage system and decorative wall paintings & frescos. We even saw archaeologists excavating certain parts of the ruins that were cordoned off to the public.

After a day or so in Heralion we took a bus to Hania. The way to Hania was very picturesque with the bus going through mountains and valleys to end up hugging the beautiful coast line passing small seaside towns along the way. Crete has a lot of scenic variety packed into a small area and I think hiring a car is probably the best way to explore all its beauty.

In Hania we stayed at pretty little pension - a restored Venetian building converted to accommodation on top of a tourist gift shop. If you ever come to Hania you have to stay in the old town filled with small characteristic buildings in amongst snug cobbled paths. We were walking distance from the waterfront and old harbour lined with restaurants where we saw great sunsets on the back drop of the Venetian light house. The food was also better than we've had in all the places to we had been in Greece.

While we were in Hania we also did a day trip to the Samaria Gorge and trekked the 16.7kms downhill to the coast. Samaria gorge is Europe's largest and most spectacular. It is a national park and as no one is allowed to stay in the gorge overnight once you start the trek you have to finish it in about 5-6 hours so you can catch the boat to the next town.

The day began very early as we lighted a bus at 6:15am for a 45 min ride to the south coast of Crete and the head of the gorge at 1230m above sea level. We started the trek at about 7:45am and the first part was very steep, rocky & downhill and we descended 900m in the first 4kms. The rest of the trek was flatter than this and the scenery was breathtaking as we followed the path of the mostly dried up river bed to the sea. There were three rest stops but we kept a very good pace all the way down. Our guide started half an hour after us and ensured that everyone made it to the end where we had a catch a boat to the next town to get our bus back to Hania. As the day wore on and the sun got higher it became very hard to walk on the rocky path down hill. It was a real workout for the legs; especially the knees. Towards the end of the trek we passed through the narrowest part of the gorge which is 3m wide and 300m high. I felt a great sense of achievement to finish the trek especially with my dodgy knee. It was definitely the hardest thing I've even done. I think it was really worthwhile to do even though we were sore for a couple of days after it.

All in all I really enjoyed our time in Hania.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009


After a long and arduos ferry trip spent trying to avoid the incessant smoking everywhere we arrived in Fira, Santorini at about 2am. Unfortunately for us the place we booked via the travel agent (who also booked the ferry) was not at all what we expected. The most irritating thing was the fact that it was right next to the main road leading up to Oia (pronounced ee-ya) and the noise from the constant stream of cars, buses and motorcycles was unbearable.

We didnt get much sleep that first night and after trying in vain to get a different room we decided to change hotels the next morning. Since we happened to arrive on the weekend we couldnt find anywhere decent for the next night and could only change hotels after spending 2 sleepless nights at our original hotel.

Enough said about that. For those of you who arent familiar with Santorini, it is a doughnut shaped island with a piece bitten off in the bottom left hand side. It has been formed by multiple volcanic eruptions over thousands of years(including the biggest volcanic eruption in recorded history believed to have wiped out the Minoeans in Crete in 1650 BC) which left the mouth of the volcano mostly intact and the caldera submerged leaving only a small volcanic island in the middle. Santorini is the volcano mouth part with jaw dropping cliffs made of layers of lava. The views from the clifftop towns to the caldera are amazing in the day and night, but its most famous for its sunsets. Many large cruise ships come into the caldera and boats full of tourists visit Santorini for the day. Many of the tourists we saw were older Americans who could hardly manage to walk the cobbled and hilly paths.

Santorini is very touristy because that is its life blood. The clifftop cafes and restaurants charge exorbitant prices because of the views. While we did have an expensive meal in one of those restaurants overlooking the caldera most times we bought gyros and sat in front of the church in the main promenade and enjoyed the view all the same.

We did a day excursion that took people by boat to the volcanic island in the middle of the caldera followed by the hot springs in Palia Kameni and a visit to a seaside town in Thirasia (an island separated from the Sanotirini mainland). The climb up to the top of the volcanic island was very tiring in the extreme heat of the day and I didnt think it was really worth it.

We also visited the black beach in Perissa for half a day. Many tourists were sun bathing and swimming even though the water was very cold. We didnt really see the appeal of Perissa beach when compared with Fira nevertheless you cant underestimate the sun starved Europeans need to get a tan.

In one of the evenings we visited Oia which is another cliff top town with unrestricted views of the Aegean Sea. Oia is supposed to have the best sunsets (this is what most postcards have a picture of) and many tourists flock to every nook and cranny facing the water to get a look at the sunset. We found a spot in the old Venetian fort and waited for the sunset. I really wouldnt say that was the best sunset especially after seeing so many wonderful ones in the Maldives.

My most vivid and treasured memory of Santorini happened quite by accident. As we were walking back to our hotel one night along the clifftop path we happened to look back at Fira and were amazed by the way the town was light up with lights and the full moon in the distance reflecting on the water. We sat on a set of steps and watched the scene for ages in the cool of the night. I think this view was more spectacular than the world famous views of the caldera by day.. but thats just my opinion. We tried to get photos of it but it didnt seem to capture the full spectacle.

Overall I have to say I found Santorini quite underwhelming & overrated. Even if I ignored the whole hotel saga I still feel this way. It was too expensive and touristy for my liking. Our next stop is Crete.

On a side note.. I had such a laugh in Santorini looking at all these women wearing ridiculous heels and wedges walking with wobbly feet. The paths are so uneven and you tend to climb up and down so much I really couldnt understand the logic of some people. So much for women's liberation if we have to still be in pain to 'look good'.. but I suppose liberation is just that; freedom to do anything and be anything even if that is stupid.

Saturday, 6 June 2009


Our much anticipated Europe 2009 backpacking trip began in Athens, where we flew in on the 3rd of June. Our plane was late and the bus we took from the airport terminated about 3kms earlier than it should have so we had a long walk to find our hostel with all our luggage. We were off to a great start.

In Athens we stayed at a hostel called 'Athens Backpackers' run by a friendly bunch of Aussies in Acropoli, walking distance to the Acropolis & in the heart of the Plaka district - full of shops, restaurants and cafes. By the time we checked in it was about 10pm and we headed out to get a bite to eat. We both realised that it was our anniversary on our way to Athens andd decided to have a sit down dinner.

The hostel receptionist recommended a restaurant nearby called 'God's Restaurant'. I'm not sure who the cook was at the God's restaurant by the food was not that great. On our way back to the hostel, we stopped for Gelato(this is not the watery version you get back in Oz, its proper homemade ice cream). The girl at the Gelato shop let us taste a new flavour which was tequila, chilli & chocolate. It was way too alcoholic for our liking so we ended up buying the Creme Brulee flavour.

While the hostel was clean and the beds were comfy we didnt get much sleep thanks to the mosquitos. The next morning we headed up to the rooftop for breakfast with staggering views of the Acropolis almost touching distance from us. After breakfast we signed up for the daily walking tour of Athens run by the hostel. Our guide was a 23 year old crazy chatterbox Greek girl called Paula. We headed off the in direction of the Acropolis with the sun already high and the temperature in the early 30s. Some of the sights visited in the walking tour included Herod's Odean, Athens First Court (a rock on a hilltop used by Greek elders to preside over criminal matters), Ancient Agora (old marketplace where Socrates used to come to challenge people's views on social and moral questions), Temple of Olympian Zeus, Hadrian's Arc, National Garden, Parliament (watched the changing of the guards at the tomb of the unknown soldier), Olympic stadium (home of the modern Olympics, which is normally not open to the public but we managed to go inside because of some ceremony).The rest of the day we spend sleeping and eating and walking around Plaka.

The next day we made plans to visit Sounio, a 1.5 bus ride that takes you to the Temple of Posoiden & great beaches. Unfortunately as it was a national holiday the buses were irregular and we gave up the idea after wasting a couple of hours waiting. On national holidays all sights and museums entry is free so we decided to make use of this and head to the National Archeological Museum. First we had lunch in Mynastirakas, 2 gyros(open kebab sandwich consisting of pork/lamb/chicken + salad, chips, taziki on pita bread) at a place recommended by lonely planet. We came to love gyros in Athens as it was quick, convenient, cheap and tasty. Lunch was again followed by Ge‏lato.

The archeological museum was well worth the visit, though so much so since we didnt have to pay to get in. They had some great sculpture and egyptian sections. After taking a well earned rest back at the hostel we decide to visit the Acropolis at sunset. This turned out to be a great decision because there were no queues as per normal and we got to the top very quickly. The Parthenon was an impressive sight and it was fun trying to imagine what the whole site you have been like in its hay day. Its so sad that so much of the beautiful sights around Athens are no longer in tact mainly due to war and people's stupidity. If I could go back in time I would have liked to have seen the Temple of Zeus as it was meant to be; not the 12 columns its reduced to now. The 25 foot seated Zues with human size nymph in his hand would have been a spine tingling sight.

After the Acropolis closed at 8pm we headed to the rock right next to the Acropolis to survey Athens from above (also known as the First Court) and watch the sunset. The sunsets in Greece are fabulous due to the excessive pollution and fog levels. All in all it was a great day.

Our third and last day in Athens we spent shopping in Mynastirakas and meandering about town till our 5:30pm ferry to Santorini. Most peope who have been to Athens dont describe in very pleasant terms. While its not the prettiest city I've been to I had a great time there. Plaka was a nice area to be in although very touristy and all the main historic sights are very close by. The city is seeping with history and the Greeks were friendly & hospitable. The Metro was quick and convenient and who doesnt love gyros & gelato? One thing I could not stand there was the excessive smoking. People smoked everywhere indoors and out & some at ticket booths and other enclosed spaces. Mothers, teenagers, old folks.. everybody smoked. It's quite ridiculous.

The other thing I noticed was that the Greeks are crazy drivers. Although not as bad as Sri Lankans they still dont pay attention to any road rules. A lot of them use motorbikes especially women who dont seem to mind big chunky bikes to go about town.

All in all I think that if you are going to visit Greece Athens is well worth a visit.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009


The first weekend of May in 2009 we went to Istanbul with some of our London mates. Lucky for us we had Turkish guides (our mate Efe & his friends/family in Istanbul). We arrived in the dead of the night at our hotel. I wasn't too impressed with the facilities for the price we paid, but the location was very central in Sultanahment the historic part of Istanbul.

Next day we woke up to rain but as determined tourist Pramo, Fede, Cheech, Jase and I headed out to see some of the sights near by. First we arrived at the Blue Mosque the national mosque of Turkey built in the early 1600s and still in use. The interior was covered with patterned blue tiles rising to an impressive height. The Blue Mosque was built with six minarets equaling that of the mosque in Mecca deemed a bit presumptuous at the time. Thus the Sultan paid for an additional minaret to be built in Mecca to restore the correct order of things.

The Blue Mosque is directly across from Hagia Sophia, one of the oldest and most venerated mosques in Turkey. Hagia Sophia was built originally as a church, then converted to a mosque and now a museum. Its a world heritage site but had fallen into disrepair prior to that so there was on-going restoration work when we visited. It consisted of two levels and some of the Christian murals that were painted over when Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque were now on display. When we stepped out of Hagia Sophia the rain has stopped and the sun was out, which cheered up all of us.

Across the road and around the corner was another historic site - the Basilica Cistern. This is a huge underground chamber built in the 6th century to store fresh water for Istanbul. The cistern consists of 336 columns lit beautifully for the benefit of its visitors. Soon it was time for lunch.

We had a relaxing lunch at one of the many outdoor cafes in Sultanahment, with fresh pita bread, dips, grilled meats and soothing apple tea to finish. Only a short walk from the cafes was the Grand Bazaar the oldest and largest in Istanbul. The main concourse was packed with people and every 20-30 meters there were paths adjacent to the main concourse leading to more stalls and shops getting ever smaller. The stalls were full of everything from colourful ceramics, clothes, jewellery, antiques, souvenirs, leather wear so on and so forth. The sellers were very pushy and annoyingly over familiar. Over and over again we were asked where we were from and many were perplexed when we told them we were from Australia; unable to imagine Australia as a multi racial country. Soon we learned to ignore them. After trying in vain to meet some of the London crew that we got separated from earlier we took a break to sip apple tea at a cafe inside the Grand Bazaar. Then we headed back to the hotel to rest before dinner.

Dinner was in Eminonu, on the Istanbul harbour which we got to via the Metro (tram). The sun was setting on the busy skyline dotted with mosques. The Galata bridge on the harbour was lined with fisherman on the top level fishing day and night. The second level was full of seafood restaurants displaying an impressive array of seafood to entice customers. As you walked by each restaurant the maitre d' tried to coax you to come in for dinner. We met our friends at one of the restaurants and feasted on some great seafood accompanied by Raki - anise flavoured alcoholic drink taken with water in a shot glass.

Next day we headed out to the Topkapi palace the Sultan's residence. The gardens were overflowing with tulips in bloom and the palace was situated atop a hill overlooking the harbour - with fantastic views of the golden horn. There were many rooms and exhibits to see inside the palace including Prophet Mohammed's walking stick - in surprisingly good condition ;) .

For lunch we headed into the heart of Istanbul away from the tourist and had an amazing lunch - course after course of beautifully rustic Turkish food full of flavour accompanied by a frothy sheep's milk drink. Dessert which we now knew to be always way over the top in Turkey was surprisingly simple in the form of a semolina pancake with the creamiest home made ice cream.
At the end of lunch we were so full we could hardly move so we decided to walk back to town and head to the Galata tower. On the way we stopped to have some fabulous profiteroles from a cafe which seem to only serve that. The second dessert finished we headed up to the Galata tower - a striking cone capped cylindrical tower overlooking the Istanbul skyline. The sun was about to set and the view was fantastic. Istanbul looked like a vast and crowded city from above. We enjoyed picking out some of the famous sights which we had visited so far along with the Golden Horn and the Istanbul Harbour.

By this stage we were all feeling quite tired so we chillaxed with apple tea and Turkish coffee. Arriving back at the hotel via the tram we showered and headed out for a light dinner. Our hotel in Sultanahment was near a small bazaar that had an open air area with restaurants. We settled outside and had a small dinner enjoying the live music and a whirling dervish performance. We then met up with some more Londoners for dessert of baklava and apple tea before calling it a night.

The next day Pramo and I headed back to Eminonu to the Spice bazaar, while the other guys went to a harem - a Turkish bath. The Spice bazaar was full of colourful sights, sounds and smells. It was smaller than the Grand Bazaar and seemed to be where the locals shopped unlike the Grand Bazaar. We stocked up on Turkish delights and apple tea while admiring the weird and wonderful things on display. After a quick lunch soon it was time to head back to the hotel for a ride to the airport.

Istanbul was an exciting city and a great place to visit over a long weekend. We were lucky to have some locals to show us around and take us on a historical and gastronomical journey we both wont forget soon. I would like to go back to Turkey to see more of the places outside of Istanbul including Gallipoli. Maybe someday I will...

Friday, 1 May 2009


Its been ages since Easter and I just realised I hadn't written about our trip to Cornwall and the south-west of England. It started with a train trip to Bristol where we went to pick up a hire car for our four days in Cornwall. We took the new packs we bought for our backpacking trip in June to test them out.

Friday began grey and with the threat of rain. For the first few hours of our drive it rained quite hard as we made our way to Barnstaple via some obscure B roads courtesy of the GPS lady. We giggled at her instructions but soon realised she was leading us a bit astray when we configured the GPS to avoid the motorways. We decide to switch to the motorway to get there quicker. The rain stopped along the way and the sun started to shine much to our joy.

Barnstaple is the oldest borough in England with the oldest high street in England. It was quite a small town close to the sea and bustling with people. We stayed at the hotel attached to the biggest pub in town. After some burgers at the pub we checked in and decided to head out to check out some of coast line. The drive lead us through some narrow roads lined with hedges and speckled with spring flowers such as daffodils, dandelions, magnolias and tulips. This was to be a common sight throughout the weekend much to my delight. The gorgeous flowers growing wild and free really took my breath away. I never got any good pictures of them as Pramo was driving quite fast past them (to avoid getting stuck in places we couldn't pass oncoming traffic). After a while I gave up trying to capture them on camera and just enjoyed the view with the sun in my face.

We drove along beautiful cliffs with heart stopping drops to white sandy beaches below. The beaches were full of people swimming, surfing and enjoying the sun although the temperature was about 11 degrees ..brrrrr! We went to cute little seaside villages so different to the seaside towns in Australia. I could understand why these places got so busy in summer, the beaches were nice and the towns themselves were small, old and full of character.

We returned to Barnstaple and relaxed in the hotel room till dinner time. As the sun was going down the high street was getting quite empty as people gathered in pubs and restaurants. We went to get some pizza and while waiting realised that the 'pizza express' was in the oldest building in the town. It had a very low ceiling and a little inner enclosure where in the olden days people put shoes for good luck.

The next day we checked out from the hotel and headed directly south to Plymouth via the Dartmoor national park. Lunch was at Princetown in the heart of Dartmoor after which we set about on a hike along a disused railway line. Dartmoor national park is full on flat wide planes.. 'deep wooded gorges, beautiful lake-like reservoirs and tumbling rocky rivers.'. .. We went up a steep hill to the BBC radio tower for long reaching views across the valley all the way to beach. On the way down to join the walking track we met some friendly Dartmoor ponies looking for food from us. The walk was relaxing but tiring and we were happy to get back to the car to resume our drive to Plymouth.

Plymouth was a big city but only 6 miles from the centre we were in beautiful farm country. After the GPS lady led us astray(again!) we finally found the farm house/B&B we were staying at. The farm was set in large grounds, beautifully kept with a large pond as its centre piece. The house was cute & cosy. The couple who owned it were lovely. We were led upstairs to our room with great views of the garden which we enjoyed with a relaxing cup of tea.

After a hot shower we drove back into Plymouth for dinner at the Barbican waterfront. Barbican is the old harbour area which managed to escape destruction during the Blitz in WWII that flattened most of Plymouth. The area was bustling with people & full of seafood restaurants along the water. We ended up having a relaxing 3 hour long dinner at a fancy seafood restaurant.

That night we got a good nights sleep and woke up to a hot breakfast with the owners and another couple who were also staying there. Over breakfast we found out that the other couple had been coming to this farmhouse for about 10-15 years and were now great friends with the owners. They were all such lovely people and it was so nice to talk to them.. our day was off to a great start.

We decided to drive down to Penzance and the west most tip of England. The drive was relaxing and we enjoyed the spring flowers, green fields and the long windy road there. Penzance is a big harbour town on the water which provided a nice backdrop for lunch in the sun. Then we headed to Land's end the west most point in England and to the beautiful cliff side Minack theatre over looking turquoise waters and sandy beaches glistening in the sun full of people enjoying the clear bright day. Minack theatre carved on the side of a cliff was an amazing sight, I would recommend going here if you are ever in this part of England.

Next we headed to St Michael's Mount , a tidal island in Penzance, the Cornish counterpart to Mount Saint Michael in Normandy, France. The path to St Michael's is walkable in low tide but gets completely covered in high tide and you have to resort to taking a boat over. We got there in low tide but as it was coming in quite quickly. All the sightseeing was quite tiring and so we decided to take a break with some Cornish cream tea - scones, clotted cream & jam with a pot of tea. Cream tea is something that the English do really well and I have to say I'm a complete convert although its not great for the waistline to say the least. The drive back to Plymouth was pleasant in the afternoon sunshine and we explored the Plymouth citadel and maritime war memorial as the sun was setting. For dinner we ended up at a great Thai place with a great array of local seafood on the menu. We asked for a spicy red fish curry and was given the hottest thing we had eaten in about 2 years.. it was unbelievably so over the top hot by UK standards but made beautifully. My stomach burns just thinking about it!...

Next day we drove back to Bristol at a leisurely pace and arrived back in London via the train. Cornwall won me over completely and it was one of the most relaxing and pleasant holidays I'd had in a while. That part of England is so beautiful and serene.. I'm so glad we got to see it before leaving the UK.

See photos here.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Pitfalls of an Adaptation

At the height of hype and acclaim for the Slumdog Millionaire recently I got the chance to watch it, finally. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. I mean what is all the fuss about? Its a feel good movie, yes, probably not meant to change someone's life. Sure in that respect it kinda works. Is it worthy of best picture? Hell NO! It's corny and conceited white man's view of India. Enough said about it I think.

I just read a great article by Salman Rushdie on the failures of adapting novels to films. Its well worth a read if you have the time. It got me thinking of the impending screen adaptation of Shantaram, one of the best books I've read in recent times. I really hope they don't mess it up, but what are the chances of that happening? It would be impossible to do the book justice but like Rushdie states the film will have to stand on its own, its own form of art, an interpretation of the essence of what the book is trying to convey.

My dad does a lot of translations from English to Sinhalese and vice versa. Everyone from Shakespeare to Chekhov and Chaucer and many more. He always speaks of it as 'Transcreation', the work reborn as something different in the new sphere, its not a copy, but a new creation holding the essence of the original. Like Rushdie says you may loose something in the process but you can also gain something.

I hope the in the same way Shantaram can come to be something altogether different on screen without loosing its core. Roberts(the author) is suppose to be writing the adaptation and Johnny Depp is suppose to be the main character... hmm not sure how that will go. I love Depp and he is perhaps the most versatile Hollywood actor there is today, so maybe it will all work out... Will just have to wait and see.

Sunday, 1 February 2009


At the end of our time in Sri Lanka we went to the Maldives for a bit of fun in the sun. We left Sri Lanka the day after Shivani and Dinesh's wedding and arrived in Male in the middle of the night. We were staying in an island resort called Bandos not far from Male. When we arrived at the Male airport we were greeted by some people from the resort and taken to the resort by a speed boat. It was exhilarating travelling so fast on the water in the dead of the night.

Bandos is an atoll about 500m in diameter and we stayed in a villa about 10m from the beach. The vegetation in the Maldives is much like parts of Sri Lanka, with tall coconut palms, beautiful tropical ferns and flowers. It also has white sandy beaches, gorgeous aqua blue water and is surrounded by a band of coral about 25 meters in width. The weather was perfectly balmy and the days long and bright a complete opposite to London at the moment.

We spent our time in the Maldives snorkeling and swimming in the ocean several times a day. The sea water was warm and inviting and full of a myriad of wonderful fish and sea life. The coral looked quite drab next to the colour and vibrancy of the fish which were friendly and unafraid of the awkward humans in their snorkeling gear. There were a lot of activities available for the resort guests including scuba diving, para gliding, kayaking, sailing, snorkeling as well as island hopping and night fishing. We took a trip out to snorkel around some other hot spots in the area and were happy to just swim around the island most other times.

As the sun sets at Bandos all the guests flock to the Sundowners bar, a deck out on the water with the sun setting majestically behind it. Waiters serve cocktails while a group of musicians entertain the guests with classic covers and some Maldivian numbers which sound remarkably a lot like some Sinhalese songs. As darkness encroaches guests head into Sand bar, the main bar in the resort.

Sand bar had a lot of Sri Lankans working behind the bar and it was nice to talk to them in Sinhalese and attempt to explain that we were born in Sri Lanka, from Australia but currently living in the UK. Every night Sand bar had something to entertain the resort guests. There was a Maldivian night with traditional singing and dancing and again I was taken aback by how similar the music was to Sri Lankan baila.

The food in the Maldives was awesome. Tuna is native to the area and is available in abundance. We had fish in all forms while we were there. We tried many Maldivian dishes which were similar to Sri Lankan food in many ways and gorgeously spicy. We had the best ever tuna sashimi while there, my mouth salivates just thinking about how soft and succulent it was.

Overall it was one of the most fun and relaxing holidays I've had in a very long time. While the Maldives is expensive I think its worth it. The people are very friendly and its great to experience some of their culture while enjoying the sea and sun. I definietly want to go back someday again.

Maldives from above.

Maldives from below.

Sri Lanka

We returned to Sri Lanka earlier this month after 2 years for Shivani & Dinesh's wedding. We went from sub zero temperatures & snow to 33 degrees and glorious sunshine. We arrived with the war in the north east raging forth and a highly militarised Lanka. Everywhere you looked there are posters of victorious soldiers. Security was high but I guess we were used to this. Though not much else had really changed in the time we were away one thing we did notice was the increase in the number of apartment complexes particularly around Colombo.

Our time in Lanka passed quickly in between fit-ons, shopping trips and visits to friends and family. It was great to see dad looking much healthier albeit a little thin. A lot my Sydney friends were also in Sri Lanka for Shivani & Dinesh's wedding and it was great to catch up with them, most of all my brother who stayed with us at Dehiwala. The wedding was to be at Mount Lavinia hotel an old hotel set by the sea with its own private beach. We had dinner in one of its restaurants called Seafood Cove on the beach. Dinner at Seafood Cove is simple but very fresh. All manner of fresh seafood is layed out in buffet style freshly caught on that day. Customers select what they like and instruct the chefs on how they wish it to be cooked. The fresh seafood is then cooked in front of you and brought to your table. We had devilled prawns, squid and fish deep fried, grilled as well as in a gorgeously spicy curry. These were accompanied by rice & salad. It was a divine experience, sipping cocktails, eating freshly cooked seafood with the sea breeze in our hair and sand beneath our feet. One that I will not forget soon.

The time passed quickly and before we knew it, it was the day of the wedding. It took place on the beach with the sun setting in the background. I was one of the bridesmaids along with 2 other friends. Shivani looked absolutely gorgeous and the wedding ceremony went well. It was great to have a lot of my friends and family there. Dad looked very handsome in his new suit and it was also great to see him having a good time. The send off for the newly married couple was in a done up 3 wheeler accompanied by a papparey band. We had the after party at bu bar just a few hundred meters away from the hotel on the beach.

We left Sri Lanka for the Maldives the next day... watch out for my next post about the Maldives...

See the lanka picture here.