Foodie Heaven in Buenos Aires & Montevideo

We flew (4 hours) from Lima to Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina, last Monday (19th) arriving in the early evening. The first couple of weeks (see previous posts) of our three week ‘holiday’ were quite tiring with lots of early starts, trekking, and camping. The last week has been quite different as we stayed in a decent hotel and have been over indulging ourselves with the local cuisine, which is heavily meat orientated. Sitting here on the plane home, I’m feeling rather stuffed!

Our hotel, Livian Guesthouse, in BA was really nice, it’s a converted old house that retains it’s original features and situated on a quiet back street in the fashionable neighbourhood of Palmero. I visited BA with Russ back in 2007, and we stayed in the downtown area and and wasn’t to taken with the city, but this time staying a bit further out in Palmero I loved it. Buenos Aires is a city that does things late, people get up late, nothing is open until 11am, and they stay up late and eat late – restaurants don’t get busy until 8pm and stay open until 1am. We took advantage of this and enjoyed some empanadas (Argentina’s snack of choice, a bit like a Cornish pasty with various fillings but using pizza dough) on our first night in a cosy little restaurant in on Plaza Palermo Viejo.

On our first full day in BA we joined the Parrilla tour in the Las Canitas district. Parilla means steakhouse and the tour took us around four eateries (where only ‘locals’ go!) to enjoy some local specialities. First stop was for Choripan, which translates as Sausage Sandwich and is the streetfood of choice in the city. Served with a sauce known as Chimichurri, which is made up of Garlic, Parsley, Oregan, Vinegar, Olive Oil, and Pepper. I absolutely loved it!

Next up was an nondescript pizza place, where we enjoyed a tasty meat Empanada before we went to the main stop, which was the Parrilla. It was barely noticeable from the outside with mirrored glass and a heavy door that apparently always has a sign that says closed, but inside it was packed. The main feature of a Parrilla is the barbecue grill used to cook the meat, a very exciting sight! We had two cuts of steak firstly sirloin, which was disappointingly chewy, and skirt steak that was much nice. The highlight though was the accompanying Provoleta, which is a grilled cheese something of a cross between mozzarella and halloumi, we really liked it.

We were now unsurprisingly very full, but the last stop was at an ice cream parlour – there are all around the city and very popular. A significant amount of the original immigrants to Argentina were from Italy, and therefore there is significant Italian influence in both the culture and cuisine. I highly recommend the tour, it was nice walking between the restaurants and learning something of the area as well as the local cuisine.

After the tour we walked down to BA’s most affluent area, Recoleta. There are lots of art galleries here and as it had started raining made a good shelter, as well as the very grand cemetery, which is the final resting place of many of the countries notable people such presidents and artists, the most famous being Eva Peron.

After the cemetery we spent a while sipping a coffee in the Parisian style café over the road, La Biela, which has a grand and historical feel to it. In the evening back in Palermo, following a tip from the Parrilla tour guide, we had a (late) light dinner of sushi at Nicky’s New York Sushi restaurant. – the food was decent but the highlight was the ‘secret’ 1930’s New York Bar hidden at the back. A very cool place that was like going back in time, you either have to dine at the restaurant or be a member to get in, no photos allowed so you will have to pay a visit yourself to appreciate it.

The next day we joined a free walking tour around the downtown area. We started from the top of the Avenida de Mayo (lots of things are named after May as they got independence from Spain on 25th May 1810) at the congress square and walked all the way down the avenue to the Plaza de Mayo.

Our guide was fun and informative and we learnt several things that were not in the guidebook as we walked past many of the cities key buildings. The most famous being the ‘Pink House’, which is Argentina’s equivalent of the white house but in Pink! The story goes that in harder times cows blood was used to paint the building, and they seem to like to make it pink especially at night.

Unfortunately we had to cut the tour short as it was raining heavily again, a theme of our first two days, but our guide recommended the Guerrin pizza restaurant nearby. We sampled the Fugazzetta Rellena, which is a BA take on pizza – double-crusted pie, filled with cheese and ham, and topped with mozzarella, oregano, and sliced onions. Awesome!

As it was still raining we went for a coffee at BA’s oldest café, Café Tortoni, having opened in 1858. We were recommended to visit here by several people and it’s a place where you can feel a bit of history, and the coffees not bad too!

In the evening we dined at the ‘Argentine Experience‘, which was a little touristy but interesting and very good fun. The experience is led by some locals where you join a small group and learn something of Argentine, which seems to heavily involve food! Firstly we made an Empanada, a traditional one, and a creative one – I made a bird, which was deemed the best and so I won a jar of Dulche de Leche (similar to caramel but made using condensed milk, it is used on everything in BA).

The main course was naturally steak, fillet steak lightly shallow fried in vegetable oil – one of the best steaks I’ve ever had! They taught us how to order a steak in Argentina as generally they will cook it longer than in Europe so it is best to order medium-rare (jugoso) if you want medium (a punto). Of course this was all washed down with plenty of Argentine wine, Malbec being my personal favourite.

After the main course we drank some Mate (pronounced Mat-ehh), which is a strong and bitter tea that the locals sip all day long from a container that looks like a bong through a metal straw – an acquired taste, but I quite liked it. Desert were self made Alfajores, a thick helping of Dulche de Leche sandwiched between two vanilla biscuits, rolled in coconut and dipped in chocolate – heavenly.

It was a really fun experience, we met some nice people and I would say it is worth the hefty price. Unfortunately we had to be up early the next day, not helped by drinking to much wine the night before, as we caught a ferry from BA to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. This quaint little town on the banks of the Rio de la Plata (River Plate) is only 1 hour on the ferry, but it’s a world away from the busy streets of BA – it’s like going back in time.

After a few hours walking around the chilled out streets, enjoying a nice cafe, having a little walk on a sandy beach (unfortunately the weather was not nice enough for sunbathing), and admiring the colonial era architecture we took a bus to Montevideo (2-3 hours away). Since visiting Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, 7 years ago with Russ I have been really keen to come back, the main draw for me is the barbecues of the Mercado del Puerto (Port market). Unfortunately though it’s only open until 5pm so I had to wait till the next day to satisfy my cravings. However, Montevideo is a nice enough place to spend a day or two, it’s much smaller and less busy than BA, and has a nice promenade for a walk around the shore.

We stayed overnight in a grand hotel, Hotel Palacio from another era in the Old Town and had a nice meal of Chivito (a thinly sliced steak sandwich) and a few drinks in a nearby restaurant – it felt like a holiday from a holiday! Next morning we visited the Andes Museum, which provides an insight into the amazing story of a plane crash in the high Andes involving a Uruguayan rugby team 1972. If you have seen the film Alive you will already know something of the story, but the well presented museum brought it to life with lots of survivor stories and artefacts from the crash site.

At lunch time it was time to visit the Market, and I was not disappointed as it had not changed much since my last visited. The smell of the meat grilling over burning logs is amazing! There’s nothing fancy here, you are served by grizzly men with stained aprons, but that’s part of the chrm. I love that you can pull up a stool at the bar of one of the grills and order whatever takes your fancy – the problem is that everything looks so good!

We opted for beef ribs (which I remembered from last time), pork sausage, grilled pepper, and a grilled cheese. It was soooo good!

Sadly you can only eat so much, and we had to leave, but it is great when something lives up to your memories, and I already can’t wait to go back again! After a little walk around the promenade we took the bus back to Colonia and caught the ferry back to BA, arriving in the late evening we opted to have an early (by BA standards) night.

Time flies when you are having fun and the last day of the trip soon came around. After another nice breakfast in the hotel we walked around Palmero and found a nice cafe serving great coffee on a leafy street. It would be nice to spend a day just watching the world go by, but sadly we didn’t have time to waste. We visited the historical San Telmo district, near the city centre, which has cobbled streets, colonial houses, and a nice antique/souvenir market. For lunch we had a Choripan from a little grill at the back of the market, which I would highly recommend – amazing Chimmichurri.

Later we had a look a little stroll along the El Caminito in La Boca, one of the cities poorest neighbourhoods. The El Caminito is a bit touristy but it’s colourful houses and vibrant cafes make it worth a visit.

As the sun was setting we walked along the 12-lane Avenida 9 da Julio (one of the widest city streets in the world) to the Obelisk that commemorates the 400th anniversary of the cities founding.

In the evening back in Palermo we enjoyed a few drinks and a final Empanda – a fitting end to our trip. Yesterday, with heavy hearts (and stomachs!) we took the long flight home, via Sao Paulo and Amsterdam. BA is a great place, we absolutely loved it and already plan to come back – hopefully we can see a bit more of Argentina too, I’m really keen to visit Patagonia.

There’s a few more photos from BA here and Montevideo here.

p.s. Looking back through the photos I realise we ate a lot – the detox starts tomorrow!

Arequipa & Colca Canyon

We spent the last week in the south west of Peru, basing ourselves in the countries second city, Arequipa. We arrived here after taking an overnight bus (10 hours) from Cusco, with Peru’s main bus operator – Cruz del Sur. It was a very luxurious bus with big arm chair seats that reclined 170 degrees, personal airline style TV’s that showed on demand movies in English, and meals served to your seat by a friendly steward. The only bad thing was that we arrived in Arequipa at 6am, which was to early to check into our hotel (we did drop off our bags) and before most cafes were open. Nevertheless we had a little walk around the picturesque main square (Plaza de Armas) until we found a place to have breakfast. Arequipa is known as La Ciudad Blanca (the White City) as a lot of it’s architecture is built from the white sillar stone from the surrounding volcanoes that tower over the city. With lots of colonial architecture it has a nice feel to it.

Later we visited the Museum of Archaeology, which was full of old pottery but had a few Inca era mummies on display, which were much more interesting! We also visited the Convento de Santa Catalina, which is a monastery of nuns built in 1579 by the Spanish and still in use today. It’s a big place that has a Mediterranean feel to it, and it made a nice escape from the busy streets outside.

After lunch at a restaurant on a terrace overlooking the Plaza by the mid-afternoon we quite tired and gladly checked into our comfortable (much nicer and cheaper than the one in Cusco) hotel, Tambo del Solar, on a quite alley near the Plaza. We ended up relaxing there for the rest of the day.

The following day we attended a Peruvian cooking experience in the lovely garden the Casa de Avila. Our teacher was a friendly lady confusing named Lady! From a choice of three menus we chose to prepare the ‘Andean’ option, which included:

  • Soltero de Queso (Salad with beans, corn, sweet potato, tomato, onion, and cheese)

  • Rocoto Relleno (Spicy pepper stuffed with meat and cheese and topped off with meringue)

  • Pastel de Papa (Potato bake)

It was all really fresh and tasty and Lady’s enthusiasm made it a thoroughly enjoyable experience, which we would highly recommend.

After the food we had a go at making the local drink of choice, Pisco Sour, a refreshing cocktail of Pisco mixed with lime juice, ice, and egg white (I preferred it without) perfect for a hot day on the sun loungers in the garden.

Arequipa is the gateway for a visit to Colca Canyon, which a depth of 4160m it is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the USA . To get a good feel for the canyon we opted for a two day one night trekking tour into the canyon. It was an early start as we were picked up at 3:30am from our hotel in Arequipa, which was because it’s a 3 hour drive to the canyon and we had a long day of trekking ahead! No worries though we slept most of the way until we got to our breakfast stop at Chivay and from there it was only a short drive to the canyon, which at first sight was stunning.

Driving along the southern rim of the canyon the first stop at was the Cruz Del Condor (3500m), which as the name suggests is a lookout point for Condors – one of the main reasons we wanted to visit the canyon. Despite the crowds of tourists here we weren’t disappointed as we could see Condors flying along the canyon as the bus pulled up. We spotted at least five Condors, I think two adults and their offspring, majestically soaring along the canyon and also perched on a rocky outcrop right in front of us.

Stunning to see and well worth the early start!

After half an hour watching the Condors we, sadly, had to move on and start trekking a little further along the canyon from Cabanaconde. We met up with our guide, a local named Remi who spoke pigeon English (Lisa was my guide!), and a Dutch couple to make up our group of four. The trek started with a step three hour descent to the bottom of the Canyon, with the sun now blazing it was hot, dusty, and hard on the knees but the views made it worthwhile.

We were tired and happy to reach the bottom and after crossing the Colca river we had a welcome lunch (chicken and rice) cooked for us by a farmer in his pretty garden. The lunch perked us up and the afternoon trek was an easier undulating walk along the canyon. The views were awesome as we passed through several villages and over rickety bridges (Indiana Jones style).

We walked 18km that day (I’m not sure Lisa realised what she was letting herself in for!), so tired and dusty it was nice to reach the refreshing greenery of the Sangalle Oasis, located at a bend in the river, where we stayed the night in a little wooden hut.

It was basic accommodation but there were (cold) showers to wash off the dust and a little bar/restaurant. We drank a beer whilst admiring the night sky above us – if only the sky looked like this back home!

It was early to bed through as we were up at 4am (no such thing as a lie-in in Peru!) to begin the up hill trek out of the canyon, it would be to hot to do this with the sun blazing. It was a 3 hour slog up endless zigzag switchbacks, but we took it slow and steady and made it to the top as the first rays of sunlight hit the uppermost section.

The trekking in the canyon was arguably tougher than the Inka trail. We were tired and hungry so wolfed down breakfast back in Cabanaconde before taking the bus back to Arequipa. We stopped on the way at several viewpoints the highlight of which was Patapampa at 4900m, which offered views of many of the areas volcanoes such as El Misti (5825m) and Chachani (6075m) that overlook Arequipa city.

It was a fantastic couple of days, and well worth the effort if you visit Peru. Back in the city we treated ourselves to a posh meal at the restaurant (ChiCha) of Peru’s answer to Jamie Oliver, Gastón Acurio, expensive by Peruvian standards but the food was very good – I had Chupe de Camarron (a typical dish of the city, prawn soup).

After the trek we took the next couple of days easy and concentrating on the gastronomical aspects of Peru. We visited the San Camilo Market, which is set in a building that was designed by the guy who also designed the Eiffel tower (Gustave Eiffel). It is a colourful and bustling maze of stalls thatsell just about anything – they will put a live frog in a blender for you so you can drink it for supposed health benefits :S

Local restaurants in Arequipa are called Picanterias where traditional food is served, typically from 9am until 5pm. We were recommended one called La Nueva Palomino in the Yanahura district (not Miraflores as there is a street there with the same name that we went to first!). It’s a really characterful place that caters for both locals and tourists with traditionally dressed waiters, a live band, and good food, we opted for the local favourite dish of chicharron (fried pork with corn).

We felt really full after that, but it was very tasty! Afterwards we had a walk up to the lookout point in Yanahura, which has some good views over the city and of El Misti volcano.

We swapped hotels for our last day to the Casa de Avila (where we did the cooking class) as we wanted to take advantage of their lovely garden, which as the weather has been hot and sunny is a great place to relax – the first ‘holiday’ feeling we’ve had in Peru!

We couldn’t leave Peru without trying Ceviche, raw seafood cured with lemon juice and salt. There was a great little restaurant, Las Conchitas, near our hotel, which served up some lovely local prawn and fish Ceviche – I was a little sceptical about eating raw fish but this was really good.

We really enjoyed our time in Arequipa, it gave us a different vibe to Cusco. We flex back to Lima late last night, and stayed in the handy hostel by the airport again. Today we are flying to Buenos Aires in Argentina, where we will spend the last week of our trip – I’m looking forward to some steak and wine!

There’s a few more photos from the last week in Arequipa and Colca Canyon here.

Return to Peru – Cusco and the Inca trail

I’m back in Peru, this time with Lisa who has not been here before. We’ve been here since May 3rd when we arrived in Lima, Leeds to Lima! (via Amsterdam with KLM). We spent our first night in a handy hostel near Lima’s airport as we flew down to Cusco early the next day. I really enjoyed Cusco on my last visit with Russ in 2007, and this time was no different. I love the mix of Inca and Colonial history, the small alleys, and the laidback and friendly people.

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It has changed since my last visit with noticeably more tourists and McDonalds, KFC, and Starbucks now installed on the Plaza de Armas. Nevertheless, it’s a quaint place that is well worth a visit. Cusco is set in a valley and we stayed at a basic guesthouse on the northern slope, which meant a steep 15 mins uphill walk from the Plaza de Armas but meant we had fantastic views over the city.

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We visited many of the same places I visited last time such as the Cathedral (very impressive), the White Christ (worth the climb for good views), San Blas (artists area), and the 12-sided Inca Rock (still not sure how they created this?). There was also some new stuff too, such as the vibrant San Pedro Market where you can buy practically anything – vegetables to handicrafts. Lisa’s Spanish skills are very handy, not only allowing us to get to know the locals but also secure a good deal!

We also visited the picturesque town of Pisac about 35km out of Cusco, which made for a nice break from the hustle of the city. In the towns square there’s a market packed with stalls selling souvenirs to the tourists, but more interestingly some Inca ruins high on the mountain overlooking the town.

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Of course the main purpose of our visit to Cusco was to trek, over 4 days/3 nights, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. We used the same company as Russ and I used back in 2007, and they didn’t disappoint – it was another magical experience. This time I was fully focused on ensuring Lisa had a great experience as this is something she has wanted to do for a long time. Given the altitude (3500m+) and physical challenge she was understandably a little nervous before we set off. We left Cusco early, joining up with our group of 16 trekkers from the 8 Brits, 4 Americans, 2 Aussies, 1 South African, and 1 little German! Plus 2 enthusiastic Peruvian guides (David & Ernesto), and 19 hardy Chaski’s (porters) – big respect to these guys for looking after us (setting up camp, cooking excellent and plentiful food, and carry all the equipment) during the trek.

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Setting off on day 1 it was very sunny and hot, which made for a nice day, but the main challenge was not getting sunburnt. It’s a relatively flat 12km trek along the scenic Urubamba river, passing several Inca ruins on the way, to the first campsite at Wayllabamba.

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Day 2 (12km trek) was all about the challenge of reaching the top of ‘Dead Womans Pass’, at 4200m it’s the highest point on the trail. Thankfully it was a cooler day, which made for nice walking conditions and we took it slow and steady on the steep path to the top.

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From there it’s a steep stepped descent all the way to the campsite at Pacamayo at 3600m. Not our favourite campsite as the ground was hard and cold and we had altitude induced headaches.

In 2007 on day 3 it rained, but this time it was bright and sunny (we were lucky with the weather throughout the four days, it only rained overnight), which was good as this is arguably the most scenic day of the trek – albeit the longest, and undulating 15km to Winay Wayna. The day starts off with a 1 hour climb up to the ruins of Runkuracay before dropping down into the next valley through some Inca tunnels.

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The aptly named ruins of Phuyupatamarca (translated as Town of the Clouds) where we had lunch nearby. The afternoon was my favourite part of the trek as it’s a relatively flat and scenic walk through the cloud forest. Just before we reached the campsite we passed the impressive Winay Wayna terraces, which offered some amazing views down into the valley below – we stayed a while to take it in.

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The final day is a straight forward – except for the 3:30am start! – 5km trek to Machu Picchu. It’s an adrenaline fuelled walk as everyone is itching to get a first glimpse of Machu Picchu, which you get when you reach the Sun Gate (Intipunku) – I really enjoyed seeing Lisa’s face light up when we got here, it is a fabulous sight.

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From the Sun Gate it’s 30 minute walk down into Machu Picchu, where we became another 2 of the 3000 tourists that visit the site everyday. I really enjoyed doing the Inca trail again but I did find the incredible amount of tourists at Machu Picchu a bit of an ambiance killer this time. We queued to take the necessary postcard photos, which of course was worthwhile.

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We spent a few hours walking around the ruins, including a tour from our guides before heading back to the luxuries of civilisation in the town of Aguas Caliente, which serves as the gateway to Machu Picchu. Russ and I stayed overnight here in 2007 and it was a quaint little place, now it has become something of tourist trap with posh hotels aplenty. However, as in 2007, the hot springs that give the town it’s name are a great way to relax the aching muscles!

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In the early evening we took a combination train and bus back to Cusco. The next day we took it easy and relaxed – a visit to the San Christobal cathedral, some souvenir shopping, and a traditional meal of roasted Cuy (Guinea Pig) – tasty crispy skin but not much meat!

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Yesterday we took a tour into the beautiful countryside that surrounds Cusco, firstly we visited the community at Chinchero where the traditionally dressed ladies showed us something of their culture. Then we went to the Maras salt mines, which are an impressive array of pools that capture salty water that runs out of the mountains – the sun evaporates the water and the remaining salt is harvested.

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The final stop was the Inca ruins of Moray, an interesting circle of terraces that was used for farming.

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Later in Cusco we visited the Chocolate museum where we took a 2 hour chocolate making class, using locally sourced ingredients. A very interesting, tasty, and highly recommended experience!

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Last night we took an overnight (10 hours) bus south to the city of Arequipa, which will be our base for the next few days. We’ve got another week in Peru and I’ll write about that in the next post.

Istanbul

Lisa and I have just come back from five days (Nov 5th to 10th) in the fantastic city of Istanbul in western Turkey.  This is a quick post to serve as a reminder for the next time we visit – we enjoyed it so much we already want to go again!

Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey a sprawling metropolis home to around 14 million people.  Split by the Bosphorus sea it is the only city in the world that spans two continents – Europe and Asia.  With this mix of east meets west there is an intriguing magical feeling about this city.

With the Turkish budget airline Pegasus we flew (from Vienna) into the Sabiha Gökçen Airport, located on the Asian side about 50km from the centre of the city.  We took the HAVATAS bus to Kadiköy, and then from there a ferry across the Bosphorus to Eminönü on the European side.  It was a scenic intro with the city’s sights, such as the Blue Mosque, on the skyline.   From Eminönü it was an easy tram ride to the area of Sultanahmet (in the old town) where we stayed in the quaint guesthouse – Naz Wooden House Inn – in a room with a nice sea view.

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On our first day we had a walk around the old town, where most of the main sights are located, which took us past several Mosques.  All very impressive not least the city’s famous Sultan Ahmed Mosque (commonly known as the Blue Mosque).  Built in the 16th century it is one of only two mosques in the world with six spiky pillars.   Massive – inside and out – it is quite spectacle, day and night.

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We walked a long way that day, including along the ancient Sea Walls, through the Hippodrome, and visited the Basilica Cistern – an underground water storage chamber.  With lit up columns and carp swimming around it it is an impressive sight.

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In the evening we strolled around the touristy but nevertheless worth a visit Spice Bazaar, packed as the name would suggest with spices as well as souvenirs.

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We also walked across the Galata Bridge (past hundreds of hopeful anglers trailing their lines into the waters below) to the area of Beyoglu.  This area has a lively nightlife and we had dinner in one of the excellent meyhanes (buffet style restaurants).  The food in Istanbul is great – kebabs (döner, köfte, shish), lahmacun, pide, gözleme, börek, meze (the roasted aubergine is delicious), and of course many varieties of baklava (really got into this!).    There was almost too much choice!

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Day two started a bit rainy so we took it easy and visited the Aya Sofya, Istanbul’s most famous monument (built in AD 527-65).  It was a nice place to walk around and take in the amazing array of mosaic tiles.

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My favourite bit was the ‘weeping column’ (a worn copper facing pierced by a hole), which legend has it was blessed by St Gregoy the Miracle Worker and that putting one’s finger in the hole can lead to alignments being healed if the finger is moist when withdrawn.  I wasn’t sure if my finger was moist or not!

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In the afternoon we visited the Grand Bazaar, an expansive maze of indoor shops selling a variety of wares – sadly most seemed to be aimed at the tourist trade, which put us off slightly.  Nevertheless, it was an interesting place to visit and there was a nice atmosphere, the traders were all friendly and didn’t give us any hassle to buy – although we did buy a few souvenirs.  We enjoyed stopping at the café in the centre (Sark Kahvesi) of the bazaar and sipping a çay (sweet Turkish tea served in a small glass) and watching the buzzing trading going on around us.

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In the evening we relaxed on one of the many rooftop bars in Sultanahmet with an Efes (the local beer, a pils) overlooking the Aya Sofya and Blue Mosque.

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We spent our third day cruising the Bosphorus on the many ferries that crisscross the busy straight.  This was a real highlight, with the sun out sitting outside on the upper deck of the ferry offered some stunning views around the city.

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Whenever the ferry set off it was followed by a gaggle of sea gulls who were obviously used to getting fed by people throwing them bread, which they caught on the wing – we had to join in!

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We went from Eminönü to Üsküdar, which lies on the Asian side.  It’s much less touristy over there than on the European side, but no one seemed to take much notice of us and it was nice to see a bit of the ‘real’ Istanbul.  We walked along the seafront to the Kiz Kulesi tower, something of a landmark of the city having featured in several films.  Along the sea walls there are some ‘cafes’ that have put cushions on the steps of the sea walls where you can sit with a çay and admire the views.  There were hardly any tourists and we didn’t know this was here, it was a great place relax (we got that holiday feeling here!) away from the hustle and bustle of the city – probably our favourite place in Istanbul.

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There is only so much çay you can drink though so later we took a ferry to Besiktas on the European side – quite an affluent area of the city with a grand palace and some other important looking buildings.  We walked up to the Ortaköy, near the mighty Bosphorus bridge, which has a charming square with lots of cafes and restaurants on the sea front.  It seemed to be the place to come for a jacket potato as there were numerous stalls selling these with lots of different toppings to choose from.  We opted for a coffee and a baklava in one of the cafes before taking in a nice sunset over the distant city.

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In the evening we went back to Beyoglu where we went up the cylindrical Galata Tower that dominates the skyline at the end of the Galata Bridge.  It was built to stand sentry over the approach to ‘new’ Istanbul.  We went up in the dark, which meant we had some good views at the top of the lit up city sights – the view never gets boring in Istanbul.

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After another great meyhane meal we went back to Sultanahmet and stopped off for a tea in the Arasta Bazaar next to the Blue Mosque.  It is quite touristy here, but a nice place to relax and watch a traditional Whirling Dervish dance (every evening at 19:30 & 21:30).  We visited on several evenings and really enjoyed the band and the dancers performance.

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Time flies when you’re having fun and our last day in Istanbul soon came around.  Having seen most of the city’s sights we felt able to take it a bit easier and after a lazy breakfast we took the ferry to Kadiköy where we wandered around the bustling produce market.  The stalls were crammed with glistening fish, fresh fruit and veg, as well as many other wares – a fest for the eyes and nose!

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We also enjoyed a nice döner from a busy shop that seemed popular with the locals before catching the ferry over to Karaköy to have another speciality a fish sandwich.  I’m not sure what the fish was but it was really nice and fresh, served with a spicy salad for only a few lira – awesome!

We then walked through Beyoglu along the main precinct (Istiklal Cad), past the grand British Consulate, to Taksim Square – considered the heart of modern Istanbul, although besides a few monuments there isn’t much of interest to see.

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After catching the funicular down to Kabatas we took the ferry back to Üsküdar and went back to the sea wall ‘café’ from where we had enjoyed the view the previous day.  As we faced West from here it allowed us to enjoy a glorious sunset over the Bosphorus with the old town mosques on the back ground – stunning!

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When the sun went down we took the recently opened Marmaray train that links the European (Sirkeci) and Asian (Üsküdar) sides of the city travelling under the Bosphorus sea.  At 55m deep it is one of the deepest railway tunnels of its type, and as it was recently opened the journey was free.  Unfortunately the station we intended to get off at wasn’t yet open so we ended up quite far where we wanted to be and had to take a taxi back, but nevertheless it was an worthwhile experience!

Transport in general in Istanbul is really good, everything ran to time – we didn’t have to wait more than a few minutes for a bus, tram, or ferry – and it’s very cheap to use.  Something some British cities could learn from.

On our last evening, despite being a little apprehensive, we felt we should heed numerous people’s advice and try out the ‘must do’ experience in Istanbul – a Turkish bath.  After checking out the reviews online of several baths we decided on the Suleymaniye Hamam, which has been in operation since 1550 and was reputedly visited regularly by the Sultan himself.   These baths mainly cater to tourists and allow mixed bathing so it was probably a tame experience, but that is exactly we wanted.

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The ‘bathing’ started off in the steamy main room for 30 mins or so, lying on a large hot marble slab to let our bodies sweat and release toxins.   Then we went into a private room where we were both scrubbed and massage (would not have wanted it harder!) by a moustached Turkish guy – a surprisingly enjoyable experience!  Afterwards, wrapped in towels, we relaxed with an Apple Tea (like hot apple juice) to dry off.  Our skin felt really clean and super soft after this, a recommended experience.

Sadly the next day we had to leave Istanbul, but before we did we had one last breakfast (already missing the cheese and potato bake!) on the hotel terrace.

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This time we flew out of the Ataturk airport, which is closer to the city and easily reached by tram and light rail from the old town.

We had a fantastic time in Istanbul, it was even better than we expected – interesting culture, nice cityscape, friendly people (no hassle or agro), and great food.  Now that we have had a tiny taste of Turkey we want to see more, and there is much more to see Cappadocia for example looks well worth a visit.

We highly recommend a trip to Istanbul, our tip if you go is to relax and watch the sun setting from Üsküdar!

There are load more photos here.

Iceland 2013 – to the north and back!

This is the second of two posts that cover my recent trip to Iceland in May 2013, see the previous post for part 1.

It was a long drive, nearly 400km – from the Snaesfellsnes Peninsular to the shores of Lake Mývatn in the central north of Iceland. Not that long drives are a problem is this scenic country as there are stunning landscapes to take in wherever you go. The first 80km of the drive was along a windy gravel road, which meant it was quite slow going but we weren’t in a rush so we took it easy stopping regularly to take in the impressive views. We also had a few coffee and pastry (with such good coffee and bakeries we had to make the most of it!) stops in the towns of Búðardalur and Blönduós. Once we finally met up with the (glorious) tarmac of the main ring road 1, which loops around the country, we were able to go a lot quicker. The road took us through endless lava fields making it feel like we were driving across the moon, and a snowy mountain pass that felt like Antarctica.

It was late into the afternoon when we arrive in Akureyi, Iceland’s second city – although with a population of only 18’000 it’s a lot smaller than Reykjavik. The city (if you can call it that) has quite a setting at the end of Iceland’s greatest fjord and surrounded by snow-capped peaks. We were only just outside the Arctic Circle here and we had expected it to be colder in the north, but it was relatively sunny and warm during our 3 day stay there. We had a quick look round the botanical gardens, which boasted an impressive array of plants given the cities latitude, and a coffee we set off on the last leg of our journey. The clear blue skies made for some awesome views looking back across at the town from the other side of the fjord.

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As we drove towards Lake Mývatn, which would be our base for a few days, we happened across Goðafoss (waterfall of the gods), which rips straight through the Búðardalur lava field along the main highway. It might not be Iceland’s largest or most powerful waterfall but it is no less impressive – one of the highlights of the trip for me. We had a little walk along the edge of the waterfall, crossing a rickety wooden bridge that looked like it was barely hanging on in the powerful water.

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As we got closer to the main step of the waterfall the view of the water crashing into the basin below, framed by sunny skies and snowy peaks, was simply specular.

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We arrived at our cosy guesthouse at Vogafjos on the short of Lake Mývatn at 8ish, nearly 12 hours after leaving Grundarfjörður – it was nice to get out of the car! We were pretty hungry and sampled the house special at Daddi’s Pizza – smoked trout, nuts, and cream cheese pizza – washed down with a bottle of ‘Viking’ Pilsner it was lovely. In the late evening the sun went low (but didn’t set) and the sky went orange and we had a little walk along the picturesque lake – a fitting end to a lovely day.

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It is easy to see why Lake Mývatn is a magnet for visitors to Iceland, nestled on the mid-Atlantic ridge the surrounding landscape is volcanically rugged. There are also plenty of geothermal wonders to admire, walks for all abilities, and the lake and its marshes are bird watchers delight. There’s a 36km tarmacked road around the lake and with our own car we were able to explore most of the area in one day. Before we set off though we made the most of the fantastic Icelandic breakfast, including smoked lamb and trout, provided by our guesthouse in a Cowshed – complete with cows portioned off from us by glass, thoroughly recommended!

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We started the day on the east side at the Dimmuborgir lava field, which is a giant lava field with some interesting lava formations, the name means ‘Dark Castles’ in Icelandic. The locals believe the area is inhabited by trolls – the guesthouse owner told us quite seriously that she had seen two there, and given the creative lava formations it is easy to see how she could.

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I walked through the lava arch in the above photo through the lava field and up to the top of the nearby crater known as Hverfell. Although it looks like volcano crater it is in fact a tephra cone that formed 2700 years ago in a cataclysmic eruption.

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Rising 463m from the ground and being over 1000m wide it is one of the most noticeable landmarks in the Mývatn area. It was a warm day and it was quite hard work going on the steep shale path but the views over the lake from the top made it worth it.

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Mum and Katie had driven around to an easier (less steep) path on the other side of the crater so I walked round the crater rim to meet them admiring the views on both sides. Next stop was at the southern end of the lake where we did a short walk at Skútustaðir around a series of pseudocraters – otherworldly formations that occur when molten lava flowed into the lake triggering a series of gas explosions. It was an easy walk, even with some of the path being covered with snow, with lots of good views to take in and plenty of bird watching opportunities for Mum.

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On the western side of the lake we made a quick tea stop at the Sigurgeir Bird Museum where we spotted an Owl at the side of the road on our drive in. The museum’s artefacts are all mainly stuffed birds, so we didn’t linger long but it was a good place to spot some live birds – particularly through the museums telescopes.

In the mid-afternoon we drove north of the lake through the lava fields along the main highway to the geothermal wonderland of Hverir – a luna like landscape of boiling mud pits, steaming vents, and bright mineral deposits. Unfortunately, despite it being sunny and warm, as soon as we arrived it started raining, which dampened my spirits as I was wearing shorts and a light jacket! Nevertheless, it was interesting to walk around, one must be careful not to get to close, all the natural features and peer into the boiling mud pools that gave the area a powerful rotten egg (sulphur) smell.

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Feeling a bit cold I was keen to getting warmed up and conveniently around the corner was the Mývatn Nature Baths, an outdoor naturally heated bathing pool. The mineral rich water, which has a turquoise colour, is heated by the areas geothermal activity and fed up through the earth below. It was great to be in the warm water with the cold of outdoor air whilst taking in the views. The experience left us feeling warm, very relaxed, and our skin soft – highly recommended!

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Another good day was rounded off with some good food, I had lamb shanks, in the cowshed, washed down with some Viking Beer.

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Next morning after another hearty cowshed breakfast (sadly we only stayed two nights!) we checked out of our guesthouse and drove north of the lake to the Krafla area, which was covered in lots of snow. Krafla is an active volcano that has shaped much of the area around it and it is also the site of a geothermal power station that we had to drive through (literally) on our way up to the Viti crater. Viti is another explosion crater, about 300m in diameter, formed in an eruption in 1724 that lasted 5 years. Today, despite plenty of steaming vents and some boiling mud pools, it is considered inactive. The crater lake was frozen on our visit, but nevertheless it was a nice walk around the crater and we had some excellent views over Krafla on your way round.

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From Viti we drove about 60KM west to the harbour town of Húsavík, which is Iceland’s whale watching capital. It’s a picturesque little town with colourful houses set in a scenic bay surrounded by snowcapped peaks. We came here to go whale watching but before we headed out into the bay we had a quick look in the towns Whale Museum, which told us all we needed to know (and more) about these gracious creatures. There are two companies that run whale watching tours from Húsavík and we did a bit of research to choose – the only difference we found was that ‘North Sailing’ gave you cinnamon buns so we opted for that!

Whales of various species enter the bay from June until October each year to feed in the plankton rich waters here. As it was just the start of the season there was no guarantee we would see any whales, but we were optimistic as tours on previous days had seen several Humpbacks, Minke, and even a mighty Blue Whale. As it was reasonably cold out on the water we all donned warm sea suits for the trip – I already had on several layers so was soon a little too hot!

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Once we were out of the bay we started seeing plenty of sea birds including Puffins, which inhabit the nearby island of Grimsey. As we cruised across the bay the captain announced that we had just crossed from Europe to America as the tectonic plates of each meet in the middle of the bay. We had been cruising for 45 mins or so when the first whale was sighted, a humpback 🙂

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Soon we were surrounded by whales, everywhere you looked, all rising up to the surface to breathe before going for a deep dive to the depths of the bay. We saw their heads as they came up and their tails as they dived down. There were also dolphins and porpoises swimming around the whales and sea birds stealing the leftovers. All this set against the back drop of the snow peaks of the bay it was very spectacular.

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It was a three hour tour but the time went really quick and before we knew it we had to turn around and head back to the harbour. The cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate on the way back deffo made it a good choice! Once back on dry land I couldn’t resist a hotdog from the hotdog stand on the harbour either. Then it was an hour or so drive back to Akureyi where we stayed on a picturesque farm about 10Km south of the city – a slightly random experience due to our hosts being a little odd, but the views were good!

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The nest day was all about the long drive, about 320km, south back towards Reykjavik – although this time it was all on the main highway so there wasn’t any gravel roads to slow us down. View the views it’s not dull driving in Iceland and we did break up the journey with a several stops. Firstly at the Turf Museum at Glaumbær, a quaint collection of traditional Icelandic Turf houses where we sampled some Icelandic pancakes (stuffed with cream) in a 19th century house/tearoom.

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About halfway through the journey we visited the Icelandic Seal Centre at Hvammstangi, which told us all about the conservation of the seals – the population has been severally reduced due to hunting. There were several stuffed seals in the centre but we wanted to see a real one so headed about 30km (gravel road) along the Vatnsnes Peninsula where we found several lazing around on some rocks in the bay ?

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On the way back to Hvammstangi we got a real treat as we spotted a Minke Whale in the bay. It was close enough for us to see it with the naked eye as it came up to breathe after some deep dives.

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Back on the main road it was a straightforward drive to the unassuming town of Borgarnes, which for us was a convenient overnight stopover north of Reykjavik. It’s a pleasant enough place set on a little peninsular off the main highway, and we stayed in a cosy apartment in the town cenre. The city is home to the Icelandic Settlement Centre, which offers an interesting insight into the history of Iceland dating back to the time when the Vikings first settled here. The centre also has a lovely traditional Icelandic restaurant where ate a fantastic meal – I went for Icelandic fish stew, which I was surprised to find had a coconut curry sauce.

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On our last day in Iceland we drove back to Reykjavik, about an hour, along the highway – noticing how it got a lot busier as we got closer, we had been so used to being in remote places even quiet Reykjavik felt busy! In Reyjavik we had a quick stop at the Perlan, which is a complex built around two huge hot water tanks – quite touristy but the views over the city make it worth a visit.

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We were going to try out a new café, but having enjoyed the Sandholt bakery so much the last time we decided we would go back – and made the most of it, the coffee and pastries here are amazing!

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We also did a bit of souvenir shopping and had a look in the city’s cathedral, Hallgrímskirkja, built from concrete to resemble basalt lava flows it’s one of the most standout buildings in the city. Inside it is a warm and bright atmosphere, which compared too many cathedrals I found appealing.

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After a little walk along the harbour, including a quick look in the quirky concert hall, we headed 50km south of the city where we visited Iceland’s top tourist attraction (saved the best till last) – the Blue Lagoon. It’s expensive (40 euros) and touristy, but it’s a special place set in a black lava field it’s a milky blue natural spa. The difference between this one and the one at Mývatn is that the Blue Lagoon is fed by sea water – mineral and silica rich and superheated. As the price suggests, it’s a bit poncy, there’s a bar in the pool for example but nevertheless it was the same relaxing experience and our skin felt soft and silky afterwards and I would recommend you to visit it.

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We stayed in a B&B close to the airport in the town of Keflavik and spent the last evening driving along to the tip of Reykjanes peninsular, which was a nice lookout spot with a surprisingly (all the other beaches we had seen were black volcanic sand) white sand beach.

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I was worrying as the car was nearly out of fuel as we were told to leave the rental car as empty as possible, but made it back to the SADCars depot just before midnight (handy they allow you to return the vehicle so late). After a quick night’s sleep, as we were up early for our flight home, we sadly found ourselves leaving Iceland. It was a fantastic trip that we all thoroughly enjoyed – a stunningly beautiful country with desolate landscapes, abundant wildlife, friendly people, and lovely coffee, pasties, and hotdogs!

I will go back!

I have posted all of the photos from our trip here.