Thursday, May 1, 2014

Lunch at the Catedral

Woke up this morning to some splendid news - Atletico Madrid had just beaten Chelsea (England) to set up a Madrid derby Champions League final later this month. It inspired me to write this post and I finished it in record time too. There were previously finals that consisted both teams from the same country but this is the first time that both teams are from the same city. I'm a fan of Spanish football and I love the city of Madrid so this is very pleasing for me especially when a team like Atletico, a perpetual underachiever (last league title in 1996 and last European final 40 years ago) emerges from the shadows of the big two. Atletico are also in great position to win the domestic league so it could be a double this year for them. Besides my dream finalists, there is also a certain connection I feel toward this year final. At the competition group stage last October, I watched my first ever European cup game at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Real won that game easily against lowly Copenhagen but who would have thought they will go all the way this year. They are of course giants of European football but then again they have failed to progress further than the semis since 2002 so....

venue for the 24 may final
On the same trip, I visited the Estádio da Luz - home to the Portuguese giants Benfica and the venue of the final on May 24. The stadium visit was impromptu. I was going to watch a World Cup qualifying match between Portugal and Israel later that evening at the Estádio José Alvalade - the other significant stadium in Lisbon and home to Sporting (Benfica cross town rival). I had also earlier watched a league game at Alvalade so I felt that I should at least do a tour or something at the Estádio da Luz. At first, the idea was to pop in for a quick look but I curiously followed an organised tour group into a restaurant. The restaurant is actually a match day VIP area opened to all on non match days. The food was excellent and good value for this level of service and quality. The best part though was the view. While dining here, you can see almost the entire stadium through the full length and width glass windows. At the end of my meal after the organised group had left, my waiter let me in the stadium VIP seating area for a private tour. Perhaps he sensed my enthusiasm the moment I stepped into his restaurant. On the day of the final, I will be doing another safari in Africa... may the best team win.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

There's Something About Malaika - East Africa (D14/15)

Even in November when the big herds had all but moved on down to Serengeti, the density of game here in Masai Mara was still extraordinary. We saw plenty in the first afternoon game drive - little wonder why it is one of the top game parks in Africa. Mara is one of the smaller game parks (approx. 1510 sq km) that I have ever visited but it is still more than twice the size of my home country and it possesses some of the highest density of lions in Africa. It did not take long for us to find them too. Two big male lions sleeping and I noticed immediately the manes on them were conspicuously thicker and darker than those in Selous and Ruaha, presumably due to the cooler year round weather here. Our guide then brought us to a two day old hippo carcass. A lions kill and there were only vultures and a couple of Black-Backed jackals left feeding on it. An interesting spectacle and the biggest carcass and scavengers action I have ever seen but as we edged closer and the wind shifted, the stench and flies became almost unbearable and so off we went. There were also first sightings of topi and Thompson gazelle on that drive for me. Saw a lone lioness stalking a herd of zebras but she was hopelessly expose and did not stand a chance at all. On the way back to camp, we drove by to see the two male lions again. They hardly moved at all since we left but I managed to get a good photo of one yawning, check it out. It was a satisfying first game drive with much less vehicle traffic than expected. Stayed at the Mara Explorer Camp, a small camp which belongs to a large chain. Set within the Masai Mara NP by the Talek River, it was atmospheric and compared to the previous camps in the trip, rather luxurious.

mind blowing experience to have a wild cheetah climb atop your 4X4
Next day, we set out in search of cheetahs and leopards. After an hour or so into the morning drive, we found two cheetahs - a mother cheetah known locally as Malaika and its nine month old cub. It was my first sighting of this elegant cat and it turned out to be the most mind blowing experience! Our guide shut off the engine and shortly after that Malaika approached our 4X4. Then like she had done it many times before, she leaped onto the bonnet and proceeded to climb and sit right above me on the roof frame. Our guide had earlier mentioned that cheetahs here sometimes use stationary vehicles as vantage points and I have also watched it on the Big Cats Diary series before so Malaika's antics did not entirely surprise me. By now, the cub was circling around, hissing and seemingly frustrated for unable to climb up to join its mother. For almost 45 minutes, Malaika sat there hardly moving except to switch sides several times. An hour flew by but it felt more like an instant. Malaika finally climbed off the same way she got up and went back to the bush with its cub. We then had a picnic breakfast on a boulder in the open plains. Because Malaika was probably looking to hunt earlier, we went back to her after breakfast in hope to catch her in action. The cheetahs were still around but this time they were not alone. An adult hyena was approaching. Anxious to protect its cub, Malaika charged down at the hyena and it ran away. Bold move by Malaika especially when it was a large female hyena (it appeared to be pregnant). Cheetahs will not hunt if there are hyenas around so it was time we move on. There was also a sighting of a sleeping leopard but there were already five vehicles ahead of us and we could not get close enough or a proper angle for any photos. The afternoon drive was less action packed but there were interesting sightings of bat-eared fox and an injured hyena.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Valley of the Condors - Peru (D 5-8)

The timing could not be better. The Cruz del Condor was already packed with camera-clicking tourists when I arrived. After settling on a spot near the vehicle drop off point, the first Andean condors emerged from the steep canyon walls circling near another viewpoint 200 meters further down from where I was. I reckoned there were easily a dozen of them gliding around those lucky folks. It was the second day morning of my Colca Valley guided tour out of Arequipa. The city of Arequipa makes an ideal base for such a tour to the Colca Valley. With El Misti as backdrop, its Plaza de Armas is one of the most beautiful squares in the whole of Peru. Spent an afternoon visiting Convento de Santa Catalina - the most visited building from the Spanish era of the city. A city within a city, this beautiful place with its colors, flowers and little streets made me feel like I have traveled back in time. The spectacular 154km drive from Arequipa to Chivay, the main village of Colca Canyon, traversing the high plains of the vast, barren Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reserve. After tasting the rarefied air of the Patopampa Pass (4910m), we dropped sharply into Chivay (3630m). Stayed the night at Colca Lodge - a spa and hot spring lodge by a river set in a tranquil ravine nearer to the town of Yanque. Too bad I got dropped off at the lodge rather late in the afternoon as it was pure magic soaking in one of the stone built thermal pools by river.

best photos taken with my modest compact camera
We were at the Cruz del Condor cliff around 8am when the condors are most active using the thermal uplifts that rise from the valley's shadowy depths. As with other wildlife viewing, the condor sighting was by no means assured so I was ecstatic to see them. Then bit by bit, condors began to appear around our viewpoint and before long, I was completely overwhelmed as they swished by from different directions. Andean Condors are magnificent birds. They mate for life, they both take care of their chick, they do not kill animals, only eat their remains, they live up to 50 years in the wild, and they look the way they do for very specialized reasons. The condors are mostly black, but males have a distinctive white collar around their necks and some white markings on their wings as well. Andean condors are massive birds (wingspan more than 3-meter and male weigh up to 15kg), among the largest in the world that are able to fly. Because they are so heavy, these birds prefer to live in windy areas where they can glide on air currents with little effort. Whether it was having a condor zipping by so close above my head or a family of condors that landed on a rock at the edge of the cliff barely 20 meters away, remained there even as I left, the Cruz del Condor was undoubtedly the finest and most awe-inspiring moment of the entire trip. That is saying a lot especially in a trip that also included a little known place called Machu Picchu.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Watching a European Cup Match

Guess I'm being nostalgia but I still like to refer Europe's premier club football competition by its old name. I arrived in Madrid after a long haul flight in the morning on match day so it was going to be one long day for me. Late morning all over the historic center, the stark FC Copenhagen visiting fans were already in the mood and up for it. Got my first glimpse of the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in the afternoon when I went to collect my ticket from the machine. It is one of the biggest (approx. 85,000 capacity) stadiums and home to one the most glamorous and successful clubs in Europe. I returned to the stadium a couple of hours before the game to soak in some pre-match atmosphere. The first thing that I noticed was the huge police presence for the game and they cleared out an entire road where fans were earlier gathering to watch who's who and I supposed the team buses as well driving into the stadium complex. After being chased off, I sat at a small park near the metro station. As more fans arrived in droves, some of the seemingly intoxicated away fans started to use the park as an open air toilet while laughing and shouting away. This did not go on for long before the police reacted and the offenders were subjected to some rough treatment. I heard loud sirens behind me and saw the Real Madrid team bus with police escort passed by. Pity I could not whip out my camera quick enough.

champions league anthem
I got fantastic 1st tier lateral seat almost right in the center for the game albeit at a price. It was nice to enter the stadium early just to watch the superstars of Real warm up. The regular fans seemed to turn up just in time as the stadium really only got filled up close to kickoff. This was my first European game and I got goosebumps when the famous Champions League anthem was played. Without disrespecting FC Copenhagen, I was hoping for tougher opponents like the Italian giant Juventus but I was really happy just to be there. Throughout the match, I thought the home crowd was rather subdue and even the ultras chanted and sang only in short bursts. By contrast, the small contingent of traveling ultras managed to outdo the nearly 80,000 home supporters for long periods and I thought that was simply amazing. On the pitch however, the home team won comfortably as expected with Ronaldo and Di Maria bagging two a piece in a lively and entertaining match. I managed to capture the second goal by Ronaldo on camera so check them out. This season (actually they have been trying for the past ten seasons), Real Madrid will be gunning for 'La Decima'  - a record tenth European Cup title. Buena Suerte. I hope that someday in the near future, I would be writing a post titled 'Watching a European Cup Final'.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Timeless Athens - The Balkans (D17 -20 End)

Nice to be in sunny Athens for a change after days of relentless rain in Albania - so I thought. This was my second visit and unlike the first when I started off from here, it was the end point this time. Given the generally poor value of the hotels in Athens, I booked an apartment stay two blocks from Syntagma Square (convenient location for a short visit but not when there's a commotion). I also planned for more time here as felt that I somewhat hurried through a couple of years ago not doing justice to this timeless city. After a lunch of my favorite Greek fare (moussaka, grilled sardines and boiled octopus washed down with local beer), I started my afternoon walk at the Zappeio Palace where the 18th World Olympics Collections fair was ongoing. It then dawned on me that the city where it all began was playing its role in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics. Continuing to the Panathenaic Stadium - an athletic stadium that hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 and is one of the oldest in the world. Moving on, I came to a familiar surroundings of the ornate gateway of Hadrian's Arch and the striking Temple of Zeus. Entering Plaka from there and then came my favorite part of the walk - the Anafiotika quarter. A peaceful and picturesque maze little whitewashed houses brimming with flowers bedecking the walls. Emerging from Anafiotika, I found another familiar site of the Roman Agora (marketplace). Its standout structure is the Tower of the Winds - a twelve meter octagonal tower. My walking tour ended at the Hadrian's Library next to Monastiraki metro station. Not a bad workout especially when considering I had just arrived that morning.

anafiotika quarter and acropolis
I spent the next morning window shopping around Ermou Street and downed a souvlaki before setting off to the Acropolis. Taking a different route from two years ago, I approached the Acropolis main entrance via the south slope. At the right place at the right time, I fortuitously caught the Olympic Torch Relay Exchange at the Parthenon but at the same time, the weather began to change for the worse. It started to rain suddenly and my trusty 400 lekë umbrella bought in Tirana was rendered useless under the gutsy winds. It was extremely disappointing but I had no choice but to leave especially when I only entered the complex a while ago. After my visit to the Acropolis got rained out, I slowly made my way by foot back to the apartment. It continued to rain mostly for the rest of the afternoon and early evening so I called it a day for sightseeing. On my third and final full day here, I braved the sporadic rain and visited the Stoa of Attalos, its museum and the Roman Agora. Athens would be a perfect base for travel to the neighboring Balkan states if not for the occasional unrest caused by its economic woes and reforms. Wandering along the streets, stumbling upon an ancient church or archaeological site at a turn in the middle of the city and seeing the glorious Acropolis perched high or illuminated after dark from many different parts of the city, Athens is a gem. And those Greek fare, ouzo and wine.... I cannot wait to go back. Watch this space.

Friday, August 30, 2013

My Favorite Safari Camp - East Africa (D7/8/9)

The full day game drive started at eight after breakfast in camp. Here in Mdonya Old River Camp, they were super flexible with the activities - all I had to do was to let the guide know my preferred activity the day before and he would make it happen. It is a small, simple tented camp situated among beautiful woodland in a relatively remote sector of the Ruaha NP. The comfortable tents have external shower and toilet facilities enclosed by canvas open to the sky. This sister camp of Lake Manze feels more remote, relax and laidback while the service and food quality are just as good. The game drive was not particularly productive although there was a rather intense moment when a young male elephant stopped to sniff around our 4X4 and guide as a herd was crossing the track. For too long, we did not see anything noteworthy til we spotted two male lions of the baobab pride asleep under the bush next to the dirt road around the Kimilamatonga Hill area. At the Ruaha River, the giraffes were visibly nervous, looking back as they walked and the reason behind that was lions. We did not try to get closer as there was an ongoing wildlife filming. For lunch, we stopped by a nice spot along the Ruaha River and went in search of leopards and cheetahs after that. At times, it can be a real struggle to stay awake on these full day game drives especially on a hot afternoon after lunch such as this. At the 'Little Serengeti', we saw Grant Gazelles - a favorite prey of the cheetahs - but no sign of the predators. We searched countless treetops - a favorite resting place for leopards - but it was not to be. All in all, it was a day of mixed fortune for game viewing.

mdonya pride sub-adults

Day 8 was another full day game drive. The morning drive was rather uneventful but there were some sightings of ostriches, my first on the entire trip. Since it was such an unproductive morning, we decided to take an extended lunch at the Mwagusi river bed (same place as day 5 arrival), amusing myself with numerous attempts to get a good shot at a giraffe drinking on the river bed. The animal was particularly paranoid and would stop and look up at the slightest noise or movement around it so that was not the easiest thing to do. After lunch, we drove to the Kimilamatonga Hill again and had better luck there the day before. For the rest of the game drive, the most exciting thing was when a few elephants gathered around the 4X4 when we stopped to let the herd crossed. I was off to Zanzibar next morning and we ran into the Mdonya pride again on a game drive to the airstrip. Most if not all were sub-adults and - judging by their bulging stomachs - had just eaten their fill. Half a dozen could be seen cooling off beside a bush while others were having an after meal drink in a water hole. Emerging from the bush, two more joined in and then more  followed shortly and soon we were in company of twenty something lions. Some gathered around the side near the rear of our 4X4 (directly below where I was sitting) using it for shade. One of them gazed up at me with those guileless sandy eyes from within two meters. Moments like this will forever etched in my memory...

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A 72 Hour Rain - The Balkans (D13-16)

Arrived at noon in Budva - a base for mass tourism on the central part of Montenegrin coast. It has developed around a small peninsula, on which the old town is situated. For convenience, I stayed near the bus station and strolled the beach and old town in the late afternoon. I think Budva is a case of poor planning and over development with towering unattractive apartment buildings and hotels being built wherever there is open space - which unfortunately includes building directly on the seaside. The beach and promenade leading to the old town were also a letdown - crowded (it was Saturday though) and constantly thumping house music with a carnival atmosphere. The old town was rebuilt and completed in the late eighties after an earthquake in 1979. It is quite nice with most of the architecture of Venetian design. On the early bus next morning to Ulcinj, the southern most major town along the Montenegrin coast before reaching the border with Albania. My initial plan was to stay there for a night but changed my mind along the way and decided to travel on to Albania same day. In Ulcinj, the bus left at noon to Shkodra and from there immediately hopped on a furgon to Tirana. After a long day of traveling, I finally got to Tirana in the late afternoon. Before getting there, I did not know what to expect but I slowly discovered that Albania is the kind of place that I like - a country with few tourists and in Tirana, friendly people and good affordable restaurants. Even the taxi drivers in Tirana refused to rip me off and instead just gave me walking directions.

old bomb shelter in tirana
It was raining when I stepped out next morning. Not a storm by any means but the kind of non-stop consistent rain that can mar outdoor sightseeing or activities to a large extent and it continued relentlessly for the rest of my stay there. I spent the whole morning looking for the tourist information office and a travel agency in central Tirana that offered one or two days standard local tours so that I could squeeze more sightseeing and avoid dealing with the tricky local transportation system. I imagined there must be easily half a dozen of such agencies but incredibly, I did not find any. The saving grace of this fruitless day was Era, an Albanian restaurant in a rather trendy entertainment and shopping district of Blloku. It is the sort of place where once you have eaten there, it is hard to move on. And so I braved the rain and ate all my meals there while in Tirana. It was that good. On my last full day in Albania, I traveled 120 km south of Tirana to beautiful Berat. It rained throughout the painfully long bus journey and in Berat too. Its most striking feature is the collection of white Ottoman houses climbing up the hill, earning it the title of 'town of a thousand windows'. Despite the bad weather, I managed to cover most of the main sites with the walk up the steep cobblestone road to the Kalaja (Castle of Berat) particularly memorable. Incidentally, it was still raining as I rode the taxi to the airport the next morning.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Bohemian Rhapsody - Peru (D1-4)

I was delighted to find that one of the most economical ways to fly to Lima was to first get to Buenos Aires and then an onward flight from there. Never did I expect to return to one of my favorite cities (not a big city fan though) again so soon. I would stay for three nights in BA before jetting off to Lima and then return for  another three more nights at the end of the trip. For my first visit, I opted to stay in Villa Crespo, a neighborhood adjacent to Soho Palermo as I wanted to spent more time exploring Palermo - a residential barrio of parks filled with pines, palms, and willows, where families picnic on weekends and couples stroll at sunset. One of its sub-barrios, Palermo Viejo is very popular among visitors for its bohemian vibe and trendy shops, cafes and restaurants. It was Labor Day and the Porteños went to the parks in droves and I had a field day people watching and photographing. Las Canitas is another interesting place not far from Palermo that I like. As in Palermo Viejo, some of buildings particularly the shops and restaurants are unique and artistic in design and fun for photography too. For me, no trip to BA is complete without eating at one of the parillas and one of the very best in town and my favorite is La Cabrera. The bife de lomo is marinated and grilled to perfection and when complimented by a glass of Malbec... just divine.

erotica art in barranco b&b
Arrived late at night in Lima and leaving the next day afternoon, I did not expect to do or see much of the city but the Barranco where I stayed was a surprisingly engaging neighborhood. Barranco is compact with its fine streets, small colonial squares and buildings, where one can still sense the old spirit of Lima. It is also home and working place of many of Peru's leading artists, musicians, designers and photographers.  I was surprised not to see more tourists here. Most of the places of interests and popular restaurants are within walking distance. Lunched at Canta Rana, a popular local restaurant that served up amazing ceviche. I enjoyed a post lunch stroll around the iconic Bridge of Sighs built over a ravine in the middle of leafy trees and watched the world go by at the low key Municipal Plaza. Barranco is also home to several interesting free museums, art galleries and studios. I visited the Artesanos Don Bosco - a studio and showroom in a restored century-old building for handiwork of Andean village woodworkers. Lucia de la Puenta is another interesting but small art gallery around the corner. I stayed in a fabulous B&B that is a guesthouse, museum, art gallery and studio rolled into one. There are many intriguing art pieces on display in the garden and around the pool area and an art gallery with excellent view to the Pacific coast. Too bad I only stayed here for a night.

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