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.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Ruaha - East Africa (D5/6)

Pride of lions under a baobab - saw this fitting image to me of Ruaha within minutes of leaving the airstrip. I first heard about Ruaha National Park years ago from a wildlife film about lions here regularly hunting buffaloes during the dry season. The main reasons for taking on such formidable prey are the dispersal of smaller animals and the absence of wildebeest, a preferred prey of the lions. Over at Lake Manze camp the other evening, I overheard a guest likened Ruaha to 'a land of baobab'. Located in the middle of Tanzania, it is the largest national park in Tanzania covering an area of about 22,000 sq km. It is also uncrowded and despite its size, less than 8000 visit the park each year although the numbers are slowly increasing. We break for a fabulous picnic lunch at a rest point overlooking the dried out Mwagusi river bed. The river which is dry throughout most of the year and acts as a water source for all the surrounding game. It was a busy time of the day at Mwagusi - giraffes, banded mongoose, baboons and impalas were all present. After lunch, we game drove around the Mwagusi area a bit more before heading west to the camp. On the way, I felt a sharp stinging pain on my right arm and found out from my guide later that it was the tsetse flies. Although the human sleeping sickness transmitted by tsetses in this region has been eradicated, these vicious insects still deliver a painful bite and can be really annoying on game drives. Not too far from the camp, we found 2 male lions from the Mdonya pride. Unlike in Selous, off-road driving is actually prohibited here (NP rules) but the guides will readily ignore this rule so getting close to those lions here is still a possibility.

mdonya pride in ruaha

Woke up by hyenas (how often do I get to say that?) which sounded barely a few feet away from my tent early next morning. My tent was the furthest away from the main camp area and thus most likely to have wild animals wandering closer to it. After a leisurely breakfast, set off for a morning (0800) game drive. There was a family of bat-eared fox living near the camp. An adult pair and a pup that was curiously peeping from the burrow. Next, the Mdonya pride and this time more than 15 lions including several cubs, huddling around two bushes for shade. It was the biggest pride of lions that I have seen so far on safari. There were also sightings of some interesting birds like the beautiful lilac bellied roller and the majestic martial eagle. Ruaha is one of those few game parks that are residence to both the greater and lesser kudus. The rarer lesser kudus are extremely shy so trying to take a decent picture of them posed a real challenge. Other notable sighting included a small herd of buffaloes and game viewing was especially sparse on the way back to the camp. Once back in camp, the manager suggested that I have lunch at my tent veranda since no other guest would be back. When I got back to my tent, the table was all laid out and ready for lunch to be served. Nice touch and exceptional service. After lunch, did some reading and watching vervet monkeys playing on the old Mdonya river bed til my late afternoon game drive. The late afternoon drive was a short one (2 hrs) so we were not able to venture too far from the camp and I did not see much of anything. Oh and the tsetses were relentless...

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Dubrovnik vs Kotor - The Balkans (D11/12)

They say whether you are visiting Dubrovnik for the first time or the hundredth, the sense of awe and beauty when you set eyes on the Stradun never fades. Although the shelling in 1991 and 1992 did considerable damage, all the affected buildings have now been restored. Today Dubrovnik is the most visited and expensive city in Croatia. To avoid the heat of the day and maddening crowd, I timed my visit to the city walls and forts about two and half hours before closing. Built between the 13th and 16th centuries, they are still intact today. The entire old town is contained within the walls 2km long and up to 25m high. The views over the town and sea are sublime and it was really nice to see it with relative solitude too. I cannot imagine anyone not feel inspired by a walk along the ancient city walls that have protected this republic for five centuries and it was the high point of my visit to Croatia. Next morning, I got up early for better photo opportunities of the old town without all the people before hopping on a bus into Montenegro.

view from the st john fortress in kotor
The medieval walled town of Kotor reminds me of Dubrovnik in many ways - but it is better. Think a low-key and low-cost Dubrovnik without the crowds. The room I got there from a young lady at the bus station was also one of my favorite (the other was Vis). At the front is the ruins, on the side there is a moat and the south gate to old town and at the back the wall stretching all the way up the top of the hill. Started the steep climb up the old fortress walls four in the afternoon. It was a fairly steep 4.5km climb up a series of sharply inclining steps grafted onto the hillside with sublime view of old town and bay along the way. It took me almost 2 hours of leisurely pace with several stops to rest and photograph to reach the top. From the St John castle, I took in the magnificent views of the flutter of red and orange colored roofs of the old town and the bay quietly shimmering in the distance. If you ask me, Kotor triumphs.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

An Inconvenient Storm - East Africa (D3/4)

Not long after we had left camp for a full day game drive, we saw a pride of lions - 2 adult females and 3 big cubs all resting under trees. We were game driving to Beho Beho hot springs on my third day in Selous. We passed a uniquely picturesque lake filled with birdlife and in the lake stood trees - dead trees. The trees died when the area became flooded but what I found intriguing was that they did not just rot away but remained standing. Just like if the Dead Vlei became flooded again. On we went and another pride of lions and this time 2 males and a female. Unlike in Etosha and Kruger, off-road driving is allowed here so we were able to get really close to the lions although other more skittish animals will simply run away. It seemed like the heat was getting to the lions especially the big males as they panted heavily even when inactive. The manes on the males were also noticeably thinner and that might have something to do with the climate as well. The guide located a kill (wildebeest) hidden in the bush not far away from the lions. As we drove toward Beho Beho, the concentration of game quickly dried up and for a while, even the impalas went missing. Then we arrived at Lake Tagalala, a bird paradise with Marabou Storks, White Pelicans, Pied Kingfisher and others. Along the shore, crocodiles were rushing into the lake to join the hippos as our jeep approached them. We stopped for a picnic lunch in this wild setting - just us with no other vehicle in sight by the lake. What a moment in safari... After lunch, we left Lake Tagalala and drove to the hot spring at the foot of Beho Beho. Apparently I had chosen to visit the hot spring on the hottest day in recent times but I would not leave without taking a dip. It felt lukewarm but the water from the small falls was a bit warmer. My guide and driver joined me in the hot spring for an enjoyable but quick dip. This area in Selous is really isolated and in fact we had not met another vehicle since we left the lions sighting in the morning. On the way back to camp, I was lucky enough to witness the most amazing spectacle of large flocks of Red-Billed Quelea while passing an open area. They formed dark fast moving clouds and dodging and weaving around trees, appeared upwards off the ground as if from nowhere.

nature marvel - flock of red-billed quelea
'Let's go that way,' our guide pointed to the direction of the hyenas. I thought that was an absurd thing to do in a game walk. We had earlier seen several hyenas about 300 meters away and they disappeared behind the bush. Game walks can be really interesting and this morning, I picked up on the characteristic of various animals (giraffe, elephant and hyena) dung, footprints (hippo) and smaller animals and insects (buffalo weaver and lion ant). And thankfully we did not run into those hyenas again for the rest of the walk. The early morning game walk ended quite early so the camp manager had arranged for me to do a short game drive after breakfast. Here in Lake Manze Camp, they are really accommodating and flexible about the activities and the quality of food, service and accommodation have far exceeded my expectations. Because it was not the peak season, I was given exclusive use of the vehicle for two days. The late morning game drive however was a shared drive but it was nice to have others around too. First notable encounter was 2 hyenas sleeping under some fallen trees. All of a sudden, one of them ran out and we followed it and saw it chewing on an impala leg behind a tree before running away. I kind of prefer watching hyenas from the safety of a vehicle. We drove around some more without seeing much until we found vultures feeding on an impala carcass. The carcass looked fresh and it probably died of natural causes. Back at the camp, I was game watching from my tent porch after lunch when I noticed dark clouds ominously appearing. It was supposed to be the beginning of the wet season but the for the past two days, the weather had been great. But now a storm was brewing as I eagerly awaited for the final game viewing activity in Selous. I was saving the sunset motorboat safari not only because it was the most popular activity but also the National Parks that I was going to after that did not have boat/river activity. On the way to the nearby starting point, it began to pour and it was absolutely torrential. I was quickly drenched at the back of the open sided safari vehicle. When we got there, I thought the boatman was going to call it off but he waved me over instead. I was putting on the raincoat handed to me in the boat when we were devastated by a strongest gust of wind imaginable, smashing tree branches, pebbles, sand and other debris at us and only the rope tied to a tree kept us by the river bank. End of my motorboat safari.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Got Gregada? - The Balkans (D8/9/10)

Back to Split again for a catarmaran connection to Hvar. There was enough time for something that I did not get to do during the first visit - climb up the Cathedral of Saint Domnius. It is the tallest structure as far as I could see and offers a glorious unobstructed 360 view of the city. Hvar has long been one of the most popular Croatian Islands. Hvar Town is one of the Adriatic's most bewitching and best preserved historic towns. Starting from the grid of narrow lanes of Old Town known as Groda, I gradually worked my way up the slopes to the Citadel or Spanjola as the locals called it. There is a marine archaeology collection and a former prison among the halls, although the real attraction is the view from the Citadel's ramparts. The mostly intact defensive wall plunge down the hillside towards the terracotta roofs of Hvar Town below, while  beyond stretch the Pakleni islands just offshore. Dinner was the local delight gregada - a stew of fish cooked in white wine and a Hvar specialty - in an old town restaurant. Day two in Hvar Town began with light breakfast and idle stroll along the waterfront to the Franciscan Monastery at the south end. In an unplanned move, I hired a  taxi boat along the marina to take me to the Pakleni islands. The boatman recommended the Palmizana beach - a popular excursion destination of Hvar visitors. The beach is located in a beautiful bay, covered with pebbles and has rocky parts and at the back of which there is a pine tree forest. I found a nice quiet restaurant hidden among the pine trees that served up a mean gregada with scampi - just what I was craving for.

my ride to the pakleni islands
Some say that Korčula is very much like Hvar. But the thing is that after visiting several Dalmatian towns, most if not all will start to appear and feel somewhat similar. It was getting dark when the catarmaran arrived in Korčula and by then I was already used to looking out for those ladies with rooms to rent out waiting at the harbor and bus station. They can be a good source of accommodation for anyone who is traveling during the low and shoulder season in this part of the world. It is easy, safe, convenient and much more affordable and better value than the overpriced hotels. There was also a feel good factor since I knew that I would be contributing directly to the local economy and community. I got another comfortable bargain room just paces from the old town wall. Next morning I woke up to the sound of the distant church bell ringing. Korcula Town sits on an oval hump of land, a medieval walled city with a series of narrow streets that branch off the main thoroughfare. I spent the day, exploring the old town with an invigorating siesta back at my room in between. Korčula may be much like Hvar but one thing that was sorely missed here was the gregada.

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