Posted by: travelrat | January 14, 2018

The Blue Eye Spring

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Albania: 15th October 2017

When the Eastern Bloc collapsed in the late 80s/early 90s, Albania came out from under an oppressive Communist regime that didn’t really encourage visitors. So, they’re still trying to get their tourist industry in place, and I think they’re getting there, for we did see one or two things which are still below most people’s radar.

Like the the Blue Eye Springs, which are up in the mountains; a series of springs where the water flows at a constant volume and temperature, all year round. So, they don’t freeze in Winter, or dry up in Summer. It’s an attractive, forested area in which to walk, and, it would seem, from the number of cars with Albanian plates in the car park, a favourite place for local people to spend their leisure time.

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And, it showed what a friendly people the Albanians are; several people offered to help an elderly lady who was having difficulty with the path’

The area gets its name from the main spring, which, from the path above, looks just like a blue eye, winking at you.

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A little way downstream, there’s a little café, with a fountain, where you’re invited to fill your water bottle for free, which many did. And, I’ve got to say, that water tasted better than stuff you could pay a sometimes extortionate price for.

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Posted by: travelrat | January 11, 2018

Raising the Roof

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When I’m manning the Neolithic Huts at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre, I’m often asked how often the thatch needs replacing. Up to now, the only answer I’ve had is that some of the older houses around here usually need re-thatching about every 25-30 years. But, the thatch on these houses is much thinner; it has to be, to allow smoke from the fire to permeate through, for there’s no chimney, or even a smoke-hole.

It has to be emphasised, though, that this is experimental; no evidence has been found to indicate what kind of roofing was used back in the Neolithic; they’re working things out just as the Ancients did; trying different methods, and working out which one works best. Up to now, wheat straw has been used to thatch this particular roof, but now, the time has come to re-thatch it, and they’re using reeds. There was probably a plentiful supply of these, for the houses on which they were modelled were down by the River Avon, at Durrington.

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The renewing of the wattle and daub of the walls, as I wrote earlier, just takes a few enthusiastic volunteers who don’t mind getting muddy, but the thatching is a little more skilled, and the experts had to be called in.

So, we have an answer to how long does it last. About four years come April … bearing in mind the thatch still would probably have remained effective for a while longer. And, they’ve stood up to quite a few heavy storms, so we reckon they’ve got it just about right.

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Posted by: travelrat | January 9, 2018

River Cruising

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With our Danube/Rhine river cruise coming up in a couple of months, I thought I’d look back, and check over some rivers we’ve sailed on in the past. The Nile (twice), the Murray and the Yangtze.

Only recently, I was asked ‘Haven’t you sailed on the Rhine before?’

I have; back in the 70s, but that was a day trip, on the old KD line. However, if we’re counting day trips, we can add the Nepean, China’s Li River, the Elbe and the Gambia River to the list.

I was a bit disappointed with the Elbe, for our press visit to Dresden took place in winter, and the lovely old paddle steamers weren’t operating yet, so we sailed on a more modern boat.

We don’t know which boat we’re sailing on yet, but they differ from cruise ships in that all staterooms and suites (they don’t seem to have anything as vulgar as ‘cabins’) have windows, and there are only, at most, three decks so you don’t spend most of your first day finding your way around. Of course, they’re much more ‘port intensive’ than cruise ships … on this particular itinerary, there’s no equivalent of an ‘At Sea’ day, and, even if there was, you can see a lot more from the deck than just the sea.

And, if you’re unfortunate enough to ‘miss your ship’, a bus or train to the next port of call probably won’t break the bank.

A great advantage most river cruises have is that they’re all-in; your fare covers drinks, excursions and free wifi. These are all ‘additions’ you have to factor in on an ocean cruise … in fact, I never use their wifi; it’s rarely much good and costs an arm and a leg, anyway.

Another thing is, on the last two ocean cruises, we never saw the Captain. On the ‘Murray Princess’, we ‘ate at the Captain’s table’ almost every night …and, on the ‘Edward Elgar’, the Captain helped to serve our meals!

(Apologies if some of the pictures are a bit ropey … some of them are scans of transparencies from way back)

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Posted by: travelrat | January 7, 2018

Train to Machu Picchu: Video

Ollantaytambo Station

Ollantaytambo: 17th February 2017

 At first glance, it might appear that I re-posted the ‘Rocky Mountaineer’ video from 2016. Admittedly, they both concern mountains and trains … and the trains are both blue!

There are differences, though … and to make it quite clear, I’ve included some Peruvian pipe music from a busker in Aguas Calientes. And yes, I did put some soles in his tin!

Posted by: travelrat | January 4, 2018

Head of Steam

Head of Steam museum Darlington

Darlington: 23rd December 2017

The old Darlington/North Road railway station is a most appropriate place for a rail museum, for it was from very near here that, on the 27th September, 1825 that Locomotion No. 1, driven by George Stephenson, set off for Stockton carrying the first-ever passengers on a railway hauled by a steam locomotive,

Contrary to popular belief, though, Stephenson didn’t ‘invent’ the railway. They had been in existence in mines and quarries since mediaeval times, sometimes driven by stationary steam engines, or locomotives. Nor was it the first passenger railway; people had travelled on such contraptions before, but drawn by horses. He was, however, the first person to bring railways, steam locomotives and passengers together, and take them any distance.

The real hero, Locomotion No.1, has been preserved, and is exhibited at the Head of Steam Museum, which now occupies most of the site at North Road Station. Also on show are several locos and carriages from the days of the North Eastern Railway.

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However, North Road station has been largely replaced by the main line Bank Top station. But, the platform is still in use, and serves a minor branch line to Bishop Auckland. You can ride this train to the National Railway Museum’s annex at Shildon … from where Stephenson drove his train to pick up its passengers at Darlington. A historic line, indeed!

Posted by: travelrat | January 2, 2018

Butrint

A Happy New Year to all my readers! 

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Butrint: 15th October 2017

I am surprised that, although it’s a National Park, and has been inscribed as a World Heritage Site, I’d never heard of Butrint before. It’s a ruined city, about 15 km. south of Sarandë, which was abandoned at some time in the Middle Ages, because of earthquakes and flooding.

Mythology says the city was founded by exiles fleeing the fall of Troy, and it’s mentioned in Virgil’s  Aeneid … it was called Buthrothum in those days.

Archaeologists have found evidence of a defensive wall around the city dating from about 500 BC, and it was described as an important port on the Adriatic Sea. The city came into Roman control in 228 BC, and a good part of the ruins we see today are of Roman origin.  But, since then, it’s been ruled by Byzantines and Venetians, who also made their contribution.

In the 16th Century, the Venetians, at war with the Ottoman Empire, shifted the centre of their interest from Butrint, possession of which alternated between the Ottomans and the Venetians for several years, which left the city in a ruinous state, the earthquake probably being the final nail in the coffin. It deteriorated into a small fishing community until the early 19th Century, when the Ottomans, fearing a French invasion from Corfu, established a fortification here.

The wetlands surrounding Butrint are a protected haven for wildlife; 246 species of birds, 39 species of mammals and 105 species of fish have been identified here. But, the only things we saw within the bounds of the old city were … tortoises or turtles? We couldn’t get close enough to see whether they had feet or flippers.

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Topping all is the tower, built by the Venetians, and restored in the 1930s to accommodate archaeological teams. Surrounding it is a substantial piazza, where there are toilets and a souvenir shop. More importantly, as befits a former defensive work, a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.

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Posted by: travelrat | December 31, 2017

Rail to Machu Picchu

 

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Ollantaytambo: 17th February 2017

 If today’s outing had been to anywhere but Machu Picchu, I might have called it off, for I wasn’t feeling too good; the altitude of Cuzco affected me, I think, for I did feel a little bit better as our bus descended into the Sacred Valley to the railway station at Ollantaytambo where we were to catch the Vistadome train, to Aguas Calientes, thence a bus to Machu Picchu.

Ollantaytambo! There’s a name to roll around the tongue, and savour. But, I’ll say no more about it right now, for we’re going to pay a more extended visit tomorrow.

There are several train services, from both Cuzco and Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. There’s the luxurious Hiram Bingham train, which is rated among the Great Train Rides of the World, and is, I believe, classified as ‘if you need to ask how much, you can’t afford it’. Lower down the scale is the Inca Express, which is favoured by local people, and those on a budget. In between is the Vistadome, which we rode. It’s comfortable, large windows … and travels along the same track as the Hiram Bingham, so you see pretty much the same thing. And, we did get fed … something between a snack and a full meal.

You can, of course, walk! However, you need to book, for numbers on the Inca Trail are restricted, and it isn’t open all the time. Twenty years ago, I might have been up for it. We’d seen video from one of the Port Lecturers on the ship, and it didn’t look much more strenuous than the Pennine Way … with the added bonus that there are porters to carry your heavy gear, and pitch camp and cook for you.

When you arrive at Aguas Calientes … also sometimes known as ‘Pueblo Machu Picchu’, it’s a short walk to the bus station … right through a colourful artisan market! The Peruvians certainly don’t miss a trick, for their craft stalls are to be found just about anywhere tourists gather, and most of it is quality stuff. I’d advise don’t buy anything till you return … because, if you do, you’re bound to spot something you like better on the next stall.

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Posted by: travelrat | December 28, 2017

Motorway Services

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It seems a shame to end the year on a Rant, so I’ll call this a Suggestion, just in case anyone who can do anything about it reads these words.

Anyone who reads these pages knows I have a very poor view of the motorway Service Areas in Britain. Dismal, soulless places mostly, although they do seem to improve the further North you go. In all areas, though, you can get fuel at a somewhat inflated price; the wise motorist fills his tank before entering the motorway. Food, of course, mainly franchises, which is sometimes acceptable … and, in some cases, downright good (take a bow, Charnock Richard). But, the main purpose of a visit … well, can you drive long distances without the need to ‘water the horse’ at some stage?

These days, it’s not as simple as it sounds. On leaving the motorway, you follow the blue sign which says ‘Services’ … and drive for another mile or so, deciding on the way whether or not you need fuel, whether or not you’re an HGV and whether or not you want to stay at the motel. Finally, you reach the car park, and enter a complex that could give the O2 Arena a run for its money … and proceed through the milling crowds, past the retail outlets, past the restaurants, past the slot machines, past the writing on the wall … (sorry, wrong joke!) … and finally reach the toilets, usually tucked away in a discreet corner, which you use. And, probably, by the time you reach your car again, you might find you need them again.

Now, they do have similar arrangements on the Continent … but, there are also areas which consist of no more than a car park and a toilet block. Sometimes, there’s somewhere you can get a coffee and a bite, and some have picnic tables. Either way, you can just park up, do what you have to do, and be on your way again with the minimum fuss or hassle.

However, having said all this, they’re an improvement on the ‘good old days’ … when you looked for a lay-by with a convenient hedge behind it.

Posted by: travelrat | December 19, 2017

Albania

Ferry to Sarande

Ferry to Albania

We hadn’t intended to tick another country off the list on this trip, but Albania was just a loud shout across the water, and the ferries were reasonably priced. On the way across to Sarandë, I mentally reviewed what I knew about Albania, which wasn’t much. The capital is Tirana, they once had a king called Zog and they worship Norman Wisdom … and that’s about it, really. I did wonder if a bleat of ‘Mister Grimsdaaale!’ would get me a discount on my coffee, but I didn’t try it.

I hadn’t heard of Sarandë before, although it’s Albania’s second city. It’s a pleasant place; fairly quiet, with few people around. I wondered if that was because it was Sunday, or was it like that all the time?

Albania is slowly recovering from a rather oppressive Communist regime, under which visitors were discouraged. So, it’s relatively untouched at the moment, but it does have potential. The guides were knowledgeable and friendly, and spoke good English, and the bus was comfortable.

We found a tour which would take us to a World Heritage Site, and another attraction popular with local people … but more about those later.

Sarande

 

This is the day that I slip away for a few days for my seasonal break. May I wish all who celebrate it a peaceful Christmas and a Happy New Year, which I hope brings everything you wish for.

 

Posted by: travelrat | December 17, 2017

Arrival at Cuzco and Peruvian Eats

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Cuzco: 16th February 2017.

We arrived in Cuzco in a light drizzle. I have great admiration for the photographer who took our ‘arrival picture’ at the airport, for we didn’t know he was there. Until the following day, when he presented himself at our hotel with the pictures, which he was selling for a very reasonable price.

We were still trying to get used to the altitude. There were bags of coca tea in our hotel room, and an urn of it was available in the foyer 24/7. It’s a bit of an acquired taste, but it’s supposed to do you good. We wanted to eat, but didn’t want to go far, so we settled for the hotel dining room, where, from the somewhat restricted menu, we chose … alpaca!

Here, I’m anticipating a chorus of ‘How could you?’ … but, look at it this way. Alpacas are bred mainly for their wool. In this country, sheep are bred for their wool, but very few people object to eating mutton. Although, given a choice, I think I would go for mutton.

Now, I’ll fast-forward a couple of days, to our last meal in Cuzco. We were taken to a restaurant … I’ve forgotten its name, or TripAdvisor would really hear about it … and promised ‘genuine Peruvian cuisine’. Well, if that was ‘genuine Peruvian cuisine’, you can keep it! Nearly cold rice and badly-cooked chicken; there had been a power cut, but I don’t think that was the reason. I only managed a couple of mouthfuls, then left.

Later, a dot.comrade who has travelled a lot in South America said that certainly wasn’t representative of the food to be had, which was usually excellent. Then, worryingly, he said:

‘Are you sure it was chicken? I believe ‘cuyo’ tastes something like chicken?’

I know about cuyo. Almost everywhere we went in Peru, roadside vendors proffered skewers holding their little grilled bodies. And, we saw live ones, scurrying about the floor in a ‘traditional’ house we visited in Ollantaytambo.

Guinea pigs! I would definitely draw the line there!

Cuyos

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