Journey Around the Balkans – Serbia

28 Sep

Entering Serbia on the morning of 26th September, I didn’t immediately notice a huge difference from Montenegro. We did stop at a money exchange counter in the nearest town, after requiring a 2 mile detour because of roadworks. We’ll see how far €50 goes for two nights!

The first stop was at another monastery – this one was called Mileseva – named after Sveti Sava (Saint Sava) who was a famous chap from around here.  It featured some stone swan plant pots, large flags, an informative nun (if you could understand Serbian), and a retouched “White Angel” fresco, depicting an angel visiting the grave of Christ, and a modern art monument of it outside.  The frescoes were in two layers – from the 13th and 16th centuries.  King Vladislav built the place and therefore had his grave there.  Some of the earlier roof space was used to print illicit manuscripts.  Old, small but full of history.

The other 6 nuns, all aged between 17 and 30 were unfortunately busy cleaning and gardening (I don’t think they were trusted with the tourists – or was it the other way around?)  The older nun gave a special tour of the treasury to those that were originally interested.  After several broken inscribed stones, reconstructed pottery etc… we got to the books – one gifted by Catherine the Great (of Russia), one of the earliest written books and one of the earliest printed ones as well.  All well protected behind glass cases.  Also here was a golden and jewel encrusted staff like object that symbolised the independence of the Serbian Orthodox church.  This was granted before the Russian Orthodox church, although the Serbians started later. (They are very proud of this!)

DSCN2383

Some very scenic picnic tables allowed us to enjoy the delights of the bakery produce we’d guessed at in the morning.  I ended with a sausage/salami and cheese flaky pastry (rather dry), and a somewhat more flat-but-moist cheese and ham pastry.  Thankfully I’d also bought the largest moist chocolate cake that fitted in a container.

DSCN2401DSCN2406

Driving on, we stopped at Zlatarsko Jezero (Gold Lake) for a toilet break and coffee. Most found the interior of the restaurant unpleasant due to the smokers. Confrontation was mostly avoided, whilst the asthma sufferers had to content themselves with the fantastic scenery.

Over an hour later, we arrived at the open air museum that was the Old Village of Sirogojno.  After negotiating the newly installed gates, we arrived in the middle ages and were delighted to be informed that we were to be staying in some drafty wooden houses for the night.  I ended up in a 5 bed affair.  It had Serbian TV (not to be recommended), a kitchen and dining room, and an open fire that looked like it hadn’t been touched since Roman times.

DSCN2424

We had a brief introduction to the village from the local guide and then had a chance to explore it ourselves.  The dead/sleeping dog next to the church was a particular highlight.  The cooperage, diary (dairy), fruit drying store, blacksmith workshop, pigsty, barn and stable were all separate buildings to the actual houses.  Families all lived together with up to 20 members in the one commune.  There was also a gift shop.  Apparently not every visitor HAS to stay the night.

20180926_190558

As the temperature sank to near freezing, we gathered for the evening meal in the warmest building of the village and attempted to understand the menu.  It wasn’t that it wasn’t in English, it was more that it consisted of things like “Wedding Sauerkraut”, “Buckwheat pie”, “Kajmak, a serving” and “Moussaka with curled dock and nettle”.  I suddenly felt full.

I had to settle on the sauerkraut, which was a bowl of boiled cabbage with a few shreds of salty meat on top – still on the bone to make it look bigger.  Thankfully, there was alcohol to help you forget the whole experience.  I settled for the “hot domestic plum brandy”, which burned away any cabbage that had accidentally become lodged in my gullet.

The blankets on the bed were well used, and all of the survivors of the bitterly cold night assembled for breakfast in the warm room.  The less said about that the better.  Just never order corn bread!  Following this, some local knitters came to demonstrate their craft (I think they also wanted the warmth) and some of us had a better go than others at knitting.  Mostly, it consisted of them demonstrating, a man attempting, a laugh, an unpicking and repeat.  Fascinatingly, they didn’t mostly use local wool – importing it from Iceland (the country, not the supermarket).

Packing up, we also stopped off at the knitters museum, where fashions from the 1970’s were on display and could apparently still be bought.  Most avoided the dilemna, although a red hat was purchased.  Apparently, there is a saying about red hats and (lack of) undergarments. #NotChecking.  But seriously, the sweaters were winning world fashion awards in the 1980s, much in the same way that Fair Isles jumpers still do today.  At their peak, 1000 were being produced every month (about 3 per knitter day).

DSCN2541

Back on the road, we stopped at a petrol station and I tried a local Slovenia carbonated drink – Cockta.  A bit like coke, but with a distinctly herbal taste.

We arrived at Mokra Gora (wet mountain) for a trip on the historic narrow gauge railway know as Sangan Eight.  It used to link Sarajevo with Belgrade, but was closed in 1974.  It was reopened in 1999 and weaves through 22 tunnels over 15km.  The stations (Sargan and Mokra Gora) are only actually 3.5km apart as the crow flies, but it goes in a figure of 8 loop to help climb the hill.  We like to think of it as an ideal Agatha Christie murder mystery train.  Every time you try to take a scenic photo, a tunnel appears!  We did manage to procure a whole carriage for three of us though.

On the return journey the train stopped at Jatape, where there were opportunities to climb steps, drink coffee, buy ice cream and take photos of cats and dogs.  After accomplishing most of that, we also had a bried scenic stop at the “Love Stone”, which due to some local legend will give you what your heart desires if you touch it, stand on it or kick it (all of the above witnessed).  The local school party were also in attendance.

DSCN2764

Overnight accommodation was just around the corner in Kustendorf. This distinctive mountain village was built by the international film director, Emir Kusturica, for his movie “Life is a Miracle”.  Nope. Me neither. Everything here is constructed from wood and he wanted to recreate a traditional Serbian village, with the exception that all the streets are named after famous film directors. Now days, it is his home, a hotel and also home to an annual international film and music festival.  The Stanly Kubric Theatre didn’t appear to be showing anything, thankfully.  I did spot a pastry shop, a gift shop, a couple of restaurants and some old cars dotted about the non-wheelchair accessible cobbled steps.  Of course, I was staying in the chalet at the bottom of the hill.  Although the whole group argued about who was the furthest away from the top of the hill.  In the morning we had the option of porters to carry the bags back up the hill!

DSCN2727DSCN2735DSCN2755

My very green room, had a children’s playground outside, which we were instructed not to use after midnight.  Having previously bought a flag, I thought it would be appropriate to have my photo taken with it.  Unfortunately, one of the local staffies took a playful liking to it and to me, and I required some help to disentangle ourselves, whilst other members of the group mostly managed to hold off with their uproarious laughter.

20180927_202955

Bee Spit Rakija

Evening meal was substantially nice than the previous evening, with noodle soup and meatballs in tomato sauce with mashed potato.  All followed up with bee spit rakija, served in a traditional test tube glass.

DSCN2758

Heading for breakfast the next morning, the staffie was on his best behaviour as we skipped the queue and sneaked into the breakfast room via the back door.  No rush required though as various deep fried dough balls and the umbiquitous chicken sausage was all that was on offer.  Wouldn’t recommend having mayonaisse on your muesli as some did.  We avoided the “Damned Yard”, the swimming pool and the wellness centre.

Depart after the long trek up the hill with my bags, we headed for the next adventure in Bosnia …

DSCN2773

Thoughts on Serbia …

I only saw a very small corner in the south west, but it was certainly scenic.  Not so mountainous as Montenegro, but nice hills.  The people are far more brusque, but that may be due to language issues.  Certainly, the feeling of superiority of the Serbian Slavs is very apparent.  Not the nicest food I’ve ever had, but then it was all part of the experience.  Avoid the dogs!

Advertisements

Journey Around the Balkans – Montenegro

26 Sep

Leaving Edinburgh on 22nd September and flying SleazyJet to Dubrovnik, Croatia, I was met by my chauffeur and whisked immediately to the border with Montenegro where the 12 cars in front of us caused a 50 minute queue. #FutureBrexitProblems.

DSCN2029

Met the tour guide in the hotel and was surprised to find that I was the only one that had arrived – a first for me! Wandered for 25 minutes into the neighbouring fortified town of Kotor to explore the lower part, buy some souvenirs and eat! They like their cats. They are everywhere.

The following day, the rest of the group (17 in all) had arrived and we met after breakfast for a standard briefing with our guide – Misa (Misha). The itinerary for the day was mostly about climbing. Walking back to Kotor, we started up some steps to the Kotor fortress with some amazing views back over the red roofs and tall Cyprus trees to the Bay of Kotor – a secluded T-shaped piece of water that still manages to fit a cruise ship or three in.

DSCN1775DSCN1769

Some Bulgarians had encouraged some Merkins and others to dance on the top of the fortress.  Meanwhile, the rest of us were just trying to escape the 28°C heat! Descending, we crawled through a hole in the wall (likely not there when they were defending the town from the Ottomans) and headed down a short cliff to a church, and then zig-zagged down the path to the waterfront.

After a quick stop for lunch of squid stuffed with rice and squid, I managed an ice cream before meeting the group for an afternoon boat trip in the Bay of Kotor. The boat included the other Explore group and bounced around a bit, comically soaking some of us, but also damaging a camera of the other group.

After a couple of hours of bouncing around, we passed the natural island of St George, with a monastery on it. The island next door was called “Our Lady of the Rocks”. Every 22nd July the locals have puts rocks in their boats, sailed out and dropped them in the water to create the island. It has a Catholic church as the only building apart from the toilets. Tours of the church were conducted in hushed tones whilst a very officious woman controlled entry and ushered us on. Silver plates that had been donated to request prayers for things mostly featured boats. At least one person obviously wanted their legs included in a prayer though.

The short journey to Perast – not Paris, although the two are easily confused – allowed us to browse more churches, towers, ice cream shops and semi naked locals trying to catch a few rays away from the tourists, by planting their speedos in all the photos. The place only has a population of 350, but there are 21 churches! Outside of each, are tablecloth sales folk who were having a hard time persuading anyone of the need for their wares.

DSCN1974

As the sun started setting behind the steep black mountain that gives Montenegro its name, we headed back to Dobrota and our hotel. An uneventful group meal followed (dodged the Scottish Indy questions), but the gruesome threesome found a pub within staggering distance from the hotel. Despite the lights being off, we persuaded the bar staff to pour a few rakija (the local spirit). Tried the Quince and the Apricot flavours – both nice. Apparently you supposed to sip them! Ah well.

DSCN2074

The following day, the group piled into a yellow minibus fully filling all 18 seats. This was to be our home from crushed home for a while. We followed the road to Budva (no relation to the similar sounding drink) which is on the Montenegran “Riviera”. Not many took up the option to swim, when they saw the the narrow “sandy” beach fully of small pebbles. To get there, we were dropped at the local dogging area and had to walk through the most unattractive part of town, past a mini Eiffel tower. The marina was full of boats of varying sizes, some gin palaces and some that might struggle to fit a couple in.

Budva old town was demolished by an earthquake in 1979 and rebuilt over the next 10 years. It maintains its quaint alleyways and tourist based shops whilst having overly clean stone that makes it looks almost modern. A quick trip to the citadel provided a chance for €3.50 to make its way into the local economy for no particular reason. There were great views, but the overly frilly library tablecloths required a sharp exit. The small “old ship collection” of small ships was the high point of the visit.  Mostly because it was near the top of the citadel. The strains of Abba have been heard most places, but this town could have doubled as the film set for Mamma Mia.

DSCN2068

After more ice cream, we rejoined the bus and headed for Sveti (Saint) Stefan, a posh hotel on an island (Novak Djokovic got married there!) It was connected to the mainland by a small causeway, but us riff raff weren’t allowed anywhere near.

We continued on the coast road to Virpazar, passing through tunnels and being regaled by tales of motorway construction from our tour leader. His mobile phone also has the loudest bike bell notification sound in the world. I mention this only because the motorway stories sent the bus to sleep and his popularity kept waking us up.

Arriving at the hotel, we discovered that every room had a balcony that was larger than the actual room itself. They were also arranged such that we could have a group meeting without too much effort. We headed to the pekara (bakery) that was recommended by our guide, only to discover that despite the sign, the tourist information office that now occupied the building did not serve lunches. We settled on the pub next door instead. Good choice for much cheapness and chicken stuffed with ham and cheese. I’m getting the feeling that they will stuff anything with anything. The cats were nervous.

After a short trip to the supermarket to stock up on supplies, the group boarded a boat and settled in below. As we headed out onto Lake Skadar, the captain descended to baton down the plastic windows, blocking our photography. He snorted somewhat when I asked him to leave one open, not quite understanding. Egg on my face, however, as the “storm” waves rushed over the bow and the waterproofs were donned by everyone else. I did contemplate a jumper. Thankfully, the two large trays of cakes we bought in the supermarket earlier were in waterproof containers and managed to be shared out amongst the group. I had more than my fair share. #DietFail.

We had been hoping to spot the Dalmatian Pelican (aka the white pelican), but the closest I got was the picture on the wall. The boat headed away from Albania and towards the smaller part of the lake. If we had been able to see it through the rain, I’m sure it would have been spectacular. I did spot some cormorants and coots though. The sky cleared on the way back and some spectacular scenery was eventually to be had.

Back on dry land, we were left to our own devices for the evening meal, but the majority headed out to the restaurant owned by the boat captain and we descended, past the toilets, to a lovely cosy wine cellar with eclectic stylings. There were just about enough seats, although we got the children’s table height-wise. Ordering first, we were almost finished the meal before the other two tables had even got their drinks. The waiter did have a small crisis with a tray containing red wine and beer, but he missed everything except the floor. A very nice schnitzel and some red wine later, and we were tempted into some free rakija. Apparently, you are still supposed to sip it. Not content with the great banter of the waiter and owner, the majority of the group headed back to the lunchtime pub for a few drinks, only to discover that our guide was staying there. We made it back to the hotel safely.

Leaving the hotel the next morning, I befriended a rather cute dog. Would have been an odd souvenir but I could have taken him home to fatten up. We drove to a viewpoint on the top of the nearest hill for some last fabulous views of Skadar lake and Virpazar. The road was very steep and the cows using it were not used to a minibus getting in their way.

We came back down to head north into the mountains of Montenegro, skirting the capital of Podgorica, and heading to our next stop – Moraca Monastery. We did pass the construction that Misa had mentioned for the new motorway, with a rather spectacular viaduct being constructed.

The landscape changed dramatically, with towering cliffs overlooking river gorges that only increased in size as we headed further north. Not quite sure why they put solar panels on the shady side of the road tunnels, but we had total confidence in our driver overtaking in the pitch black without being able to see the road ahead. The views were spectacular and no photo can do them justice.

The monastery itself was surrounded by accommodation and ancillary buildings. Large courgettes hung from trellis and young kittens sleepily basked in the sunshine. A water spray kept the vegetables happy in the garden and a large stone monument commemorated the dead of three wars – 1875-1880, 1912-1918 and 1941-1945. Old men in long flowing black cassocks hobbled around the grounds. It was a scene of perfect serenity. Then we turned up.

Inside the church itself, the Serbian Orthodox setup was pretty normal, with an iconostasis at one end and various blue frescoes on the walls. Not overly impressive, but well preserved/restored.

Moving on, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant, as we’d decided as a group not to accept supermarket shopping for a picnic (the choice wasn’t great!) Unfortunately, the choice at the restaurant was even poorer. I had a ham sandwich, which consisted of two large chunks of dry bread and some overly smoked ham. Thankfully, I’d had the common sense to order chips as well. Following that I stretched my legs downhill to the fish pond which they were raising money to create/restore. They hadn’t quite got enough for the fish yet. Or a pond cleaner. Or grass.

I rushed back to the bus, panting from the uphill run, to discover that I was indeed last back. An event that will not be repeated.

Following the Tara river, we reached a bridge that was built in the 1930’s, and then blown up to prevent the Nazis advancing in the 1940’s. One of the men who helped build it was also responsible for blowing it up. His statue was erected as a reminder of events. The bridge is 170m above the water, giving plenty opportunity for the two ziplines that operate from each side of the canyon. Lots of other activities on offer, but no time to do any of them unfortunately.

Arriving at our hotel in Zabljak, we had time to appreciate the spacious rooms, large cloakroom and tiny bathrooms – most with a glass sink where the taps were hidden below and the door had to be carefully squeezed past the basin. We changed into winter gear and headed out into the Durmitor National Park to walk around the Black Lake and its smaller sibling. The path started off well, but degenerated into a rather uneven stoney affair.

We stopped briefly at Tito’s cave, where he spent 9 days in 1943 sheltering from the people trying to kill him – there were a lot of them. Misa gave us the 10 minute talk on the background to the most recent Balkan political issues, dating back over 100 years. It didn’t all sink it, but basically Tito was a communist who did a lot of good, and the people look back on him mostly fondly. The Serbian King fled to London during WWII and his son, the prince didn’t even know the language when he was due to return. Tito took the opportunity and declared a republic (after an election). Tito died in 1980 and things slowly went to pot following that, culminating in the Balkan wars in the 1990’s. Bosnia still has issues. Serbia and Kosovo have issues. Basically it’s all likely to blow up again soon. People have long memories and past issues and current borders don’t really help.

As the sky grew darker, the black lake really took on its name. The road back was a touch chilly and we were all glad that the minibus came to pick us up, despite only being five minutes from the hotel.

DSCN2347

We did venture out again for food and took the shortcut across the darkest path in the world. The restaurant offered “traditional” food, which I was suckered into accepting. Durmitor Steak – rolled steak stuffed with ham and cheese. Thankfully, I hadn’t ordered the burger, which was a large slab of mince that had been stood on by an elephant, with nothing else!

My upset at having the pancake order cancelled by the tour guide was tempered by the arrival of a birthday cake for one of the group, completed with rocket candle. A nice treat and probably better than pancakes! The entire group were offered grape rakija, but with some refusing it, I ended up with two.  Must remember to try only sipping it the next time.

Overnight, the hotel heating was well used, with temperatures sinking to -5°C. As we drove off in the morning, snow was spotted on one of the village roofs. We were at 1450m.

The following morning we headed off back to the Tara bridge, and turned north towards Serbia. After a petrol station stop, the border post was not long in coming, and we crossed the border in less than 25 minutes. The long queues of trucks, however… #FutureBrexitIssues

Overall, Montenegro has been a most unexpected country for me. Full of stunning birthdascenery, nice people and lots of nature opportunities. I didn’t expect to like it so much, but I did. Not really one for the beach though! Am surprised how little industrial agriculture there appeared to be. With a country of only 700,000 people, they do import a lot – even the well known prosciutto makers import their pigs. Would be more than happy to return!

DSCN2363

Day 5 – Polonnaruwa and Elephant Safari

22 Mar

Pancakes and syrup started off a day exploring the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, which reached its height of glory in the 12th century, when it was a thriving commercial and religious centre. The city still maintains many of its spectacular buildings and monuments, with arguably the most impressive being the Quadrangle. This sacred precinct originally housed the tooth relic. It contains a superbly decorated circular shrine which is one of the most ornate buildings in the country.

We start off looking at some bricks that rose to three stories.  The other 4 storeys that were part of this building were made of wood. Together, this was the King’s Palace – Parakramabahu the Great (1153 -1186) to be exact.  We witnessed workers carefully removing the concrete that had been applied in the 1980’s to help preserve it and to help obtain UNESCO recognition.  Thankfully there were also some small remaining pieces of decoration.  And a toilet.

DSCN8460DSCN8611DSCN8515

We avoided joining a saffron clothed monk lecturing white clad school children, but did wonder how 100+ pairs of similarly sized black shoes were going to be identifiable after entering the shrines.  Female teachers or chaperones are obviously a must as well.  Not quite sure who invited Beyonce.

The prince’s pond, outwith the walls, also proved some photogenic shots of the aforementioned.

DSCN8552

Doing our best to avoid the tat sellers, we visited the quadrangle – with all sorts of buildings.  Mostly temples though, so it was hardly worth dressing this morning.

“The Temple of the Tooth”, previously contained this ancient relic, which was the symbol of power for the Sri Lankan kings.  The ”Circular Relic House” contained another good moonstone example, and also provided some shade.  We also saw a 7 tier pagoda, of Thai design, and a large stone “book”.  Too many others to mention!

Tried to get a selfie with a monkey, but it wasn’t playing ball!  Another monkey stole a pen from a school child, but our guide Sunil came to the rescue.

DSCN8622

With some chilled refreshments inside, I managed one more dagoba, this one containing several “image houses” around the main stupa.  One of these contained a collection of very young pups.  Cute overload.

DSCN8655

We drove on briefly, past the ancient commercial hub and walked to the Galvihara – four colossal figures hewn out of solid granite.  The reclining buddha is 14 meters long.  A standing buddha had its arms crossed in a “sympathy” pose.  The other two were sitting meditating buddhas, one surrounded by paintings, or what’s left of them.

DSCN8675

When stopping for lunch, a large group of monks passed by, each carrying a shelter and walking on the side of the road on conveniently placed banana leaves.  The locals had arranged this, when they realised that the Thai monks were undertaking a long route march.  I’m sure a bus would have been quicker.

Managed to skip the rice and curry buffet lunch in favour of a chicken sandwich.

Kaudulla National Park was next on the itinerary – in search of elephants.  Several national parks were potential sightings, but as we loaded up 4 to each jeep and drove off, it became clear that this was the one.  We start off tamely with a grey heron, a sea eagle and an abandoned wasp byke.

Arriving into an open plain by a lake, 4 elephants were immediately in front of us, totally unphased by our presence.  Suddenly, our jeep sped off with the rest, and in front of us was an amazing spectacle of 40-50 elephants heading our way.  Young and old, male and female – all searching for the best grass to eat, and water to drink.  They played in the water, looked after their young – some barely a week old – and shook the dirt off the grass they uprooted before using their trunks to stuff it in their mouth.

DSCN8788

In the distance a huge, lone male with the biggest tusks appeared and headed towards the group.  Egrets scattered everywhere.  Our own jeep herd constantly repositioned itself to keep ahead of the main elephant herd, providing the best photo opportunities.  Elephants were meters from the jeeps, and some had to reverse quickly if they came too close.  The photographers who had loaded up with telephoto lenses, quickly tried to change to wide angle lenses!

As the huge male, crossed some water, it shot a huge plume into the air.  Reaching the main herd, it tickled a female’s back leg with its trunk, resulting in a bigger piddle than expected.

DSCN8850DSCN8871DSCN8894

We repositioned again, to witness three elephants swimming and also some painted storks and lapwings.  Eventually it got to the stage where there were no more pictures possible, and we simply managed to enjoy being so close to such large creatures.

Driving back to the bus, we avoided many bridge building projects on narrow roads.  An ice cream van was a welcome sight as we dejeeped, and it got a brisk business.  King coconut juice was the other option.

Our overnight stay was in Dambulla, that we had passed through the previous day.  Basic hotel, but fully functional.  It boasted several restaurants nearby and we choose a pizza place with fantastic lime juice.  Too much pizza though!  There was still time to relax with a cocktail – Arrack, passion fruit juice, lime juice and soda.  So good you had to try it twice!

Not a bad night.  Bit warm though.

Day 4 – Rock Carved Buddha, Dambulla Caves, Polonnaruwa

21 Mar

Following toast, jam & cakes, we drove for 90 minutes, passing women harvesting rice crops.  We stopped briefly for a few of the group to give a small child a packet of sweets.  I dropped off the forwarding address for the dentist bill.

DSCN8057

First real stop of the day was to the Avukana Ancient Rock Temple – a 12m high Buddha that had been carved from the surrounding rock / cliff.  A new modern roof protects the 5th Century sculpture in its jungle setting.  Not quite sure why.  It is the latest in a long line of roofs.  Although we found it interesting, the monkey frog in the pond was also an appeal, not unfortunately listed in the guide books.  Yes, a frog that looks like a monkey.  It really does.  The statue had a huge wasp nest hanging from its right elbow, giving it a somewhat more striking presence.

Moving on, we also had time to find the cotton that comes from the fruit of the capoc tree, eating some small sweet bananas and some typical Sri Lankan “Hawaiian” biscuits (coconut flavour, of course).  We had a short walk along the side of a large reservoir – stopping for monkeys and plants that react to your touch by closing up, and then reopening.

DSCN8155

We reached the cave temples at the small town of Dambulla and faced some gruelling steps in the heat of the day.  The white clad school kids were all looking fresh as we handed over our shoes to a wild haired man and then trudged to the jobsworth entry attendant.

DSCN8219

We squeezed into the first of five caves to find a reclining buddha.  The second cave contained 57 statues in various poses.  One of these included a cobra hooded Buddha, which was supposed to have protected him when meditating in heavy rain.  These are ~2100 years old.  The third cave had 56 statues, including one of the last king of Sri Lanka.  He stood a respectful pace behind the buddha statues, but looked scary.  Atmospheric lighting and heavily painted rock ceilings made these caves unmissable.  Cave 4 contained an annoying high pitched ant deterrent, so we didn’t linger long time in the smaller caves 4 and 5.

Making friends with more monkeys on the way down, we then headed for a village tour.  Jumping on tuk-tuks, we headed off into the jungle.  Well, most people did, but there weren’t enough tuk-tuks,  so I settled on taking pictures of bullocks, with their owners initials carved into them, until one turned up.  The driver asked if I wanted to take the wheel, and I changed into the front seat.  As I drive an automatic, lurching was the best this could be described.  A clutch was foreign to me, especially on handlebars.  The accelerator seemed to go the incorrect way too.  But I managed a few bits of straight road before handing back to the driver.  Never did get the lesson on where the brakes were.

DSCN8301

Joining the rest of the group at the village hut, we were shown a coconut preparation demonstration.  Taking the outer layer off, cutting it open with a machete (drinking the juice), and extracting the shredded coconut from the inside with a special hand tool.  The two women also demonstrated the grinding of chillies using a large stone.  This was then combined with ground onions and lemon juice to make a coconut sambol.  This was added to the other lunch ingredients – rice and curry! – which we then had to eat off a banana leaf using only our hands.  Much harder than you might imagine.  The secret is to get the correct combination of sauce and rice, to form it into balls and throw it at your mouth.  Water buffalo curd and honey rounded off the meal – thankfully in plastic bowls with a spoon!

What followed was a masterclass in processing food.  Any members of the group who tried to copy, just ended up looking foolish!  Firstly it was pounding the raw rice to separate the shell from the rice.  This was then wafted in the wind (winnowed) to separate the two.  Red millet was ground.  This was slightly easier.  Lastly, we had a demonstration of leaf / frond weaving.  These were used as roofing on the huts.

DSCN8330

After this, we headed to the small lake, where what can only be described as tables lashed to 2 canoes were awaiting us.  One poor local man tried desperately to point us in the correct direction as we slowly burnt to a crisp on the water, with no escape possible.  I was at the front, which meant that the non swimmer was furthest from the supposedly available life jackets.

DSCN8265

Deboating, we then headed for the bullock carts awaiting us.  Tuk tuks and motorbikes were able to overtake, but cars had a huge problem on the narrow roads.  We arrived back and emptied the fridge of the nearby shop of all his cold drinks – which resulted in my drinking Mountain Dew Neon, a high sugar, high caffeine product!

Driving on, we arrived at “The Lake” hotel, Polonnaruwa.  This is a 7th century man-made lake.  The hotel greeted us with a fresh juice drink and a towel to clean ourselves.  Showering was more important than catching the last rays of sun over the lake from the viewing platform around the swimming pool.

The evening meal option was only really in the hotel.  A buffet was available – containing the standard rice and curry, but also much more.  This didn’t suit some of the group who were after the previously promised a la carte menu.

After a tense stand off, french fries appeared.

Other interesting notes from today – only 85% of Sri Lankan homes have access to electricity.  Hoping for 100% by 2025-30.

Also, “How many pecks can a woodpecker peck, if a woodpecker could peck wood?”  20 per second apparently.  That’s a possible 11,000 a day.

Bloody annoying though.

Day 3 – Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Buddhas & Steps

20 Mar

The morning walk to breakfast included meeting a host of local wildlife including a humongous bee, a palm squirrel, and a couple of owls.  Thankfully, none of these were on the breakfast menu, and I settled for toast and jam again.

Our resident bus cleaner offered us frangipane as we boarded our bus and Sunil, the guide, tried to entertain us with some terrible dad jokes.  I laughed.

First stop of the day was to a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the ancient capital of Anuradhapura.  It was originally founded in 500BC and is showing a few tell-tale signs of needing repair.  Well preserved ruins is the perfect oxymoron here.  We passed the incense and candle lighting outside the gates, as the place had previous burnt to the ground.

Inside, after shedding our shoes, and navigating the sand and roughly hewn cobbles, we found out about the 2200 year old bo-tree (where the original buddha became enlightened), buddhist auras, the lotus leaf which looks like a cobra and how long it takes for your feet to burn on any surface.

The offerings in the temple included various flowers, cakes and coins wrapped in cloth and tied to the railings.  A white band was available for a small fee, presumably to help the buyer achieve enlightenment.

As usual, I felt that the tourists with the cameras were somehow interfering too much in the otherwise peaceful atmosphere.   However, without the entrance fees, I doubt that they could afford the props that held the sacred bo tree up.

Reunited with our shoes, briefly, we headed to Lowamahapaya, which consisted of 1600 or so stone pillars which the monks were asked to count.  Presumably a purpose similar to asking Scouts to separate hundreds and thousands into unique colours.

Lots of dogs, some with very large appendices, lay in our path as we headed to several more temples, each with their own burning sand and stone floors.  Shoes on, shoes off.  Briefly, these included the Brazen Palace, once a nine storey residence for monks; the 4th century Smadhi Buddha masterpiece and the Ruwanmel Maha Saya Dagoba – a 90 metre-high dome-shaped shrine towering over the surrounding countryside.

Women chanting, flower laying blokes and painters and plasterers were hard at work up very tall pioneered ladders with lime in buckets.  The monks seemed to be of the clipboard carrying types.  Even the bricks awaiting use were piled into dagoba shapes.  (A dagoba is a Sri Lankan term for a temple, pagoda or stupa.)

DSCN7924

Lankaraya Stupa, Abhayagiri Stupa, a moonstone (look it up), snake charmer, monkey on a bicycle wearing shorts, discussions on mythical animals consisting of 7 real animals on a guardstone, monks dressed in saffron robes, reclining buddhas (are they dead or just sleeping – check the toes are aligned or not!) and twin ponds with more monkeys. After all that, we found a cool spot that sold iced drinks and emptied it of ginger beer.  Jetavana Stupa was then too much for most, as taking your hat off in the middle of the day was getting a bit dangerous, but I managed a quick clockwise circuit.  More monkeys ignored the do not climb signs and scampered up the front of it.

Lunch was a pleasant surprise – The Grand Heritance – which provided the standard all you can eat buffet option, fantastic lime sodas or a la carte sandwich and french fries options.

We travelled 8 miles to Mihintale, which was the site of a momentous meeting between the monk Mahinda and King Devanampiyatissa, introducing Buddhism to the country.  We saw the Alms hall, which had a phallic shaped trough where the monks would fill up with donated rice.  Then it was on to climb the “Great Stairway” – allegedy 1840 steps, but only 250 were used to get to a plateau with three options.  After removing shoes, we firstly climbed a very hot rock face with only a few feet places cut into the slipped polished rock surface.  Several up and downs took most of us to excellent views over the surrounding countryside.  Getting down again was even more of an adventure!

DSCN7966

 

Secondly, we climbed another 200 or so steps to another dagoba – painted white with a red stripe of material around it.  This is being shown, as it is a donation to the monks – to be cut up and used as robes.  I met a jolly North Korean monk in one of the shrines here.  The third climb of 100 steps was to a buddha statue with the best views of the other two.

Descending and returning to the hotel, we had time to freshen up before heading out to a group meal that consisted of rice and curry.  However, instead of the standard 4 bowls, this time we had lots to chose from!  Fish, chicken, coconut sambol, herbs, banana leaf (the best!), chillied lotus, radish curry, leafy salad, lime chutney, poppadums, and lots more!

A great end to a great day!

Day 2 – Fish Market, Toddy Tappers & Safari

19 Mar

Started the day with breakfast, unsurprisingly.  Toast & Jam.  Result.

The group all assembled on time, and our bags were marked, so that they would magically appear in our next hotels room.  The bus driver, Genie, whisked us off for a whistle stop tour of Negombo, including the temple and fish market from the previous day.  This time however, the fish market had much more activity.  Fish were being landed, sorted, gutted, salted and then dried on the sand.  The crows, dogs and egrets were all too well aware that the fish were too salty for their taste.  I gained a lot of information from a local fisherman who asked for a donation for his time.  Unfortunately, I still wasn’t quite used to the currency and ended up tipping him a small fortune for 10 minutes of his time.  However, I can now tell you the difference between ( and mostly identify) cuttle fish from coral fish, bamboo shark from …. sardines.  The 2004 tsunami wiped away a lot of the infrastructure and affected the livelihood of these fisherman.  My guide lives and sleeps in the fish market – a concrete structure that smells of fish and is covered in bird poo.  Wild mangy dogs are his companions.

Back on the bus, we moved on, finding out about the local culture from our guide.  Although 70% of the population are Buddhist, most people are happy to have “god insurance” with 2 religions under their belt.  The Tamil Tigers, previously of the insurgent / terrorist type, now have no problems.  It was clear that everyone was welcome, and they meant it!

Our next stop was to a “toddy tapper”.  We skipped past the “Japanese Elephant” aka JCB to witness the highly skilled climbers perched high up in coconut trees, expertly trimming the coconut branches on a daily basis to extract the natural “toddy” juice that would normally form in the coconut.  A sample was provided – it tasted slightly burnt, but was otherwise pleasant.  It is normally then distilled into Arrack.  One tree produces 2-3 glasses of toddy per day.  Vandals can cut through the high ropes connecting the trees so that workers fall.  Doesn’t sound very sporting.  99% of the workers are male.  No monkeys are used for this highly paid job.

We drove on, past a house displaying white flags, which are a sign of a death in the family.  Sunil also handed out some sweet bananas and raided a field to show a fully grown rice plant.

A brief toilet stop at a hindu temple (Murugan) proved interesting, as they had security guards insisting on the females of the group covering their legs and shoulders.  Despite the fact they weren’t actually planning on entering the temple.  The Intrepid tour company bus also started a parking war with our bus.  Our driver sources some jammy doughnuts, but the smell of poo when I followed where he came from was enough to put me off exploring any further.

Ayubowan – A wish for a long and healthy life – was just one of the many Sinhala words that we didn’t remember.  However, the Portugese have a lasting legacy here in the shape of “wine shops”, which no longer sell wine, but do sell other alcohol products.  Other Sri Lankan claims to fame, including having the first female prime minister of the world.  Exciting mounted when Sunil announced an elephant crossing the road.  Unfortunately, he was only showing the road warning sign.

Lunch at a roadside stop consisted of rice and curry in buffet format.  Chips and sandwiches were also available, but not for me on this occasion.  Ginger beer was the only cold drink available and so was ordered by everyone!

Moving on, the road turned single track as one family had decided to dry their rice on the tarmac.  Chillies and chocolate were also out for drying in the safety of their own land.  At a local school, a collection of motorbikes and tuk tuks were waiting to collect the children.  Our guide informed us that EVEN woman can ride motorbikes now.

DSCN7618

We arrived at Wilpattu National Park and transferred into 6 seater Toyota Landcruisers – open to the elements, but with a roof for shade.  We set off on the lookout for the “Big Three” – elephant, leopard and black sloth bear.  The 2 hour trip, turned into a 4 hour marathon, that was enthralling and yet disappointing at the same time.  I witnessed many different types of deer, monkeys, kingfishers, lizards, crocodiles, water buffalo, egrets, storks, cormorants, peacocks, turtles, dragonflies, jungle fowl, hornbills, bee-eaters, and various other unidentified birds.  As for the leopard, we did see tracks, but not the beast itself.  The black sloth bear was only to be found as a picture on the spare wheel cover.  A single male elephant was however spotted munching away behind some trees.  So distant that we weren’t sure if it was actually an elephant or not.  It definitely had a trunk, but could easily have been a Paul Daniels magic trick.

Returning to our own bus, we drove on to Anuradhapura, an ancient capital, for the night.  A hotel group meal followed with a very tasty Nasi Goreng being most welcome.  Most excellent hotel.

Day 1 – Arriving in Sri Lanka

18 Mar

Arriving in Sri Lanka via Dubai was uneventful, but proved once again that travelling with Emirates is a definite bonus.  Dubai had an Irish band who seemed to be celebrating an Irish 6 Nations win until the early hours.  Missing a flight due to the queue in McDonalds is probably not covered by travel insurance.  Thankfully, I didn’t.  Just.

At 8:30am, after 20 hours travelling, I was met by the Explore rep and bundled into a taxi with air conditioning that didn’t seem to mitigate the outside temperatures.  We drove for about 20 minutes to the nearby hotel in Negombo – a beach resort with a terrible beach that you weren’t able to swim in safely – if you could swim!  I mean, it was covered in sand, and had water and stuff…

The hotel was unable to provide a room, but I met a couple of others from the group, and the three of us took a tuk tuk (for 2) into town.  We wandered around the almost empty fish market, the prison, the site of an old fort and many fishermen either mending their nets or relaxing in their boats – all in the bright midday sun, whilst our sun tan lotion languished in our bags at the hotel.

Seeking shelter, we headed for the Lagoon view restaurant, only to be met with a gloomy room where we persuaded the owner to turn the fans on.  The coldest drink was quickly downed (through a straw, as the glasses weren’t to be trusted) and we exited towards a tuk tuk.  The driver was happy to take us to St. Mary’s church (roof fund required) and to a very colourful hindu temple (for Tamils), where a wedding was taking place.

Back at the hotel, after finding time to check-in, I wandered along the beach, found an ice cream seller, and witnessed crows keeping cool and eating coconuts as well as the locals bathing.  Avoiding the large sail boat owners wanting to take you for ride, was easy, although constantly required.

Walking through town, I saw some modern art, including children screaming at fences.  Hmmm. The group briefing introduced most of the group (17 – 1 to arrive later) and the guide – Sunil (Sunny).  His English is good, but his sentence construction left us all in doubt as to what he was actually saying.  Here’s hoping we all get there.  I’m sure it’ll be fine.

For the evening meal, a few of us went to a local restaurant (whilst the rest stayed in the hotel).  I had rice & curry.  This was actually, several dishes – chicken curry, dahl, pineapple, coconut sambol and a sweet chilli sauce.  Delicious.  All washed down with some local hooch – Arrack.  Very whisky like, and therefore firewater.  Not to be repeated.

A great introduction to Sri Lanka. First impressions – very friendly people, if a little on the hot side!