Posted by: travelrat | October 25, 2020

The Spotty House

On our tour of Iceland last year, we visited the house of local poet and author Gunnar Gunnarsson. I liked the style of the house, which was built of stone, with the mortar between the stones painted with whitewash, or Snowcem or something.

I immediately thought of a visit to the Isle of Tiree in 1993, where some of the houses were built in a similar style and called ‘spotty houses’. I think I read somewhere that they were unique to Tiree; maybe Mr. Gunnarsson had been there at some stage? Or, whoever wrote that treatise hadn’t been to Iceland?

I was sure I had a picture of a ‘spotty house’ for comparison somewhere, but I couldn’t, for the life of me, find it. But … isn’t it always the way … I stumbled over it the other week, while looking for something else entirely.

Posted by: travelrat | October 22, 2020


(NB: NOT the Irish city!!)

At home, I usually drink wine in a ‘screwtop’ bottle. I know there’s a bit of controversy about it, but, for me, the wine is just the same. The main advantage is, if you don’t drink all the wine at one go, you can put the cap back on and put it back in the fridge or the wine rack.

The cork still has its pace, though. That is, ‘cork corks’; in my view, the plastic cork is the invention of the Devil, and should be disposed of responsibly, rather than crushing it contemptuously underfoot as it deserves.

When we stopped in a cork oak grove on our Algarve Jeep Safari, Tomas, the guide, gave such an interesting presentation that I thought it deserved a post to itself.

Cork comes from the bark of the cork oak (Quercus Suber), which can be removed without harming the tree. Indeed, in Portugal, it’s illegal to fell a cork oak. New bark will eventually be formed, making it a sustainable resource. The quality of the cork increases with each ‘harvesting’. The first ‘cut’, when the tree is about 25 years old, produces the lowest quality, which is used for notice boards and such. Thereafter, the cork can be harvested every 10 or so years. In its 200 year life-span, a tree is usually good for up to twelve harvests. The third harvest can be used for wine bottles; anything before that goes for other purposes; Tomas mentioned lifebelts, but I think most are made from plastic nowadays?

Or, fishing floats! I remember we sometimes ‘recycled’ corks from bottles as such; the ‘shop-bought’ ones were usually made of cork, too. With my ‘environmental hat’ on, it wouldn’t be a bad idea if they were once more used in commercial fishing.  

Posted by: travelrat | October 20, 2020

B for…


When I show pictures of Bergen, people often comment ‘You were lucky with the weather! It’s always raining there!’ I’ve since met others who have reported the same excellent weather; I wonder if most visitors just came in the wrong season?

Buenos Aires:

I loved the suburb of La Boca. Those colourful houses are a throwback to the time the early settlers used to painting their houses with any spare paint they could scrounge from passing ships.

Posted by: travelrat | October 18, 2020

Cruising? Not Yet!

Almost every time I check my email, or open a social media page, someone is trying to sell me a cruise. Normally, I like cruising … but this isn’t ‘normally’, I don’t think I’ll be cruising yet awhile, in spite of the blandishments they’re offering. Free cabin upgrade? Nice to have, but I don’t spend a lot of time in the cabin, anyway. Free drinks package? I hope there’s a limit; I don’t fancy cruising with a shipload of drunks. Free gratuities? Roughly translated … we’ll charge you a bit more, and pay our crews a decent wage.

More importantly, will the advertised cruise actually take place?

Some lines have started in a small way, and the ‘Cruise Critic’ website recently published a report detailing the measures taken on two ships, the Costa Deliziosa (in which, you may remember, we cruised in 2011) and MSC Grandiosa, to ensure everyone’s health and safety. You can read the report at

On board ship, the precautions taken can seem somewhat irksome at first, but I can live with them. The measures taken on shore, though, are somewhat more restrictive. You MUST take only the shore excursions organised by the cruise line. You can’t book with an independent operator, nor can you do your own thing. There is no free time, and, if you decide to go AWOL from the group, you won’t be allowed back on board the ship.

And, you must wear a mask all the time you’re ashore.

I must admit, they are sensible precautions, and I’m sure there are people who would be prepared to go along with them. For me, they would take all the pleasure out of exploring a new place. Yes, we do take shore excursions organised by the cruise line sometimes, but also like to make our own arrangements from time to time.

So, it seems like I won’t be doing any ocean cruising for some time yet, until the rules have relaxed some more. However, I’m keeping an eye on it, and I’m especially interested in when river cruising will start again, and what precautions will be taken there?

Posted by: travelrat | October 15, 2020

Algarve Jeep Safari

Algarve: 8th September 2020

The object of the Jeep safari was to show there’s more to the Algarve than just beaches, bars and golf courses. Although it was a little crowded in the jeep, and it wasn’t exactly the last word in comfort, it was an experience not to be missed. 

The 4WD is necessary because the mountains behind the popular beach resorts are criss-crossed with the sometimes extremely hairy dirt tracks that the local people use to go about their business  A lot of that business is growing all kinds of fruit. Also, there were many kinds of herbs, some of them just growing wild. The driver/guide stopped frequently to pick something from the roadside for us to smell.

There was a fleeting glimpse of Paderne Castle, once an important Moorish stronghold. We didn’t go in, or even see it close up, for it was on the other side of the valley from where we were. But, the driver did stop long enough for us to take a quick photo.

We had a coffee break and toilet stop at a bar called the Hamburg Bar at a village called Benafim, before taking to the hills to enjoy the views. We stopped at a cork-oak grove, where the guide gave a presentation on how the cork was won from the bark, and how it was used.  I’ll expand further on that in the coming weeks. At Monte Rievo, we visited a distillery, and sampled the local brew; a liqueur not dissimilar to the aguardiente of queimada fame.

Lunch was at Alte, on an open-air terrace in the Cantina Alte. Pumpkin soup, barbecued chicken and melon chunks. A warning, though! When offered a sauce, DO NOT try it!! I only tried the veriest dab and, believe me, it does not take prisoners! 

We finished the day relaxing by an open -air bathing hole, fed by a nearby spring, which looked more like a stretch of canal.  Then, we returned to Albufeira, sore of behind, but would repeat the experience tomorrow if we could.

Posted by: travelrat | October 13, 2020

A for …..

This is supposed to be a travel blog, but nobody, anywhere, has been doing much travelling lately. Although I’m getting a bit short of material, I’d like to keep it going, so I devised something based on a game some of us played on Twitter earlier this year.

The idea was, we’d post a photograph of somewhere we’d been, working through the alphabet; a different letter each day. That’s what I shall do here, a different letter each week. This should keep me going for at least 26 weeks; I have Q, X and Z covered. And, if things haven’t started moving by then, I can start again, for I do have some items in reserve.

So, let’s begin … of course, with A.

Alaska: Skagway has one of the nicer cruise terminals. No ugly concrete blockhouses here; just a pier, with coaches and a train on the other side. Waiting to whisk you into the interior.

Adelaide: This used to be Rundle Street, one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city. Now it’s the Rundle Mall; still busy, but now pedestrianised.

Posted by: travelrat | October 11, 2020

Michael Palin

I’ve been a fan of Michael Palin (now Sir Michael) ever since he morphed from one of the Monty Python team to a respected travel broadcaster and writer in the late 1980s. His TV documentaries and books cover about three decades, and, in a new TV series Michael Palin: Travels of a Lifetime, he looks back on them.

Like me, he kept a journal of his travels; he also made audio recording of his thoughts while on the road. Readings from both of these, and frequent clips from his films all presented by Palin himself, from the comfort of his study made this a travel programme with a difference. 

The first programme dealt with the series Around the World in 80 Days. It is, of course, a little dated now; for instance, he’s talking about Bombay and Madras … but it’s still enjoyable, otherwise why is it being repeated so often on the cable channels?

There are three more programmes to come, and I’m looking forward to them. They’re broadcast on BBC 2 on Sunday nights at 8.00 pm … but, if you miss them, I’m sure they’ll be repeated many times on other channels.

Posted by: travelrat | October 8, 2020


Last week, I mentioned the chimneys of the Algarve, and how they’d become a kind of status symbol. The higher and more ornate your chimney was, the higher your standing in the community … or, simply, the more wealthy you were. Even the more modern houses have them, although I suspect not all houses have open fires. You could make quite a study of them; maybe even produce a dissertation or thesis about them. But, I’m not going to do that; I’ll just post a few more pictures.

Chimneys are something we don’t seem to do in England any more. In our close of fourteen houses, built in the early 1980s, there’s just one with a chimney! However, in bygone days, they may have been regarded as a status symbol of sorts, it you lived in a bigger house. The number of chimneys might indicate the number of fireplaces, hence how well fixed you were. Even if you were tight-fisted enough not to light the fires in the servants’ quarters, at least, the number of chimneys indicated you could afford servants.

I see a big advantage of the English chimney over the Portuguese version, though. Santa Claus would have a much easier time getting down it!

Posted by: travelrat | October 6, 2020

Hanoi: Street Scenes

I’ve now come to the end of the South East Asia Diary, so I’ll round it off with a slideshow of street scenes from Hanoi. They don’t quite capture how hectic and manic it is … but, you could gain considerable entertainment by finding a quiet place to sit down (they do exist, if you look!) and just people-watch.

Posted by: travelrat | October 4, 2020

More About Plastic

In the supermarket the other day, I noticed a change. Those fiddly plastic bags they used to put in the fruit and veg aisle for any loose items you might buy have gone, and they’ve been replaced by paper bags, which claim in large letters to be 100% recyclable. Environmental concerns aside, they’re a lot more user friendly than the plastic bags, which usually dictated a certain amount of fiddling and blowing before you could put anything in.

I thought of those plastic bags at breakfast in Portugal, where, as a precaution against COVID-19, we were made to put on disposable gloves at breakfast before helping ourselves from the buffet. The gloves were a little bit like those fruit bags, in that they were a bit fiddly to put on, an first, but the knack came with experience. And, I wondered … were they actually plastic, or some other, more eco-friendly material? Were they recyclable? The maitre d’ didn’t know, but there was a receptacle to receive them on the way out, so, hopefully, they were, at least, responsibly disposed of.

We did notice a notable difference to reduce the use of plastic, though. If you like croissants for breakfast, you might like some butter and jam with them. Usually, in hotels and such, you’d be given a little plastic tub of the required food. Not here, though. Various kinds of jam, butter, margarine and low fat spread were presented in bowls on the buffet. You spooned out what you needed into a little dish, which you took to the table.

Big shoutout, then, to the Alisios Hotel. Baby steps, for sure, but at least, steps in the right direction.

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