A Travellerspoint blog

Nairobi - Equator - Isiolo - Samburu

Crossing the Equator - it's all a matter of latitude

35 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day one of our private Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations.

After last night's safety paranoia, the surroundings look peaceful and tranquil this morning as we explore the hotel grounds and load up the car for the great adventure that lies ahead of us.

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An early start to some great birding:

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African Harrier-Hawk

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Streaky Serin

I would have loved to have had some more time to take advantage of the hotel's facilities, but as always there are places to go, things to see.

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It feels good to be on African soil once more, a continent I fell in love with many visits ago and which still touches my heart and soul like no other - that's why, 30 years and 25 visits later, I keep coming back for more.

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Africa, often referred to as the “Dark Continent”, is inherently misunderstood by most westerners and consistently misrepresented by the mainstream global media. Mysterious, complex and enigmatic, there is so much more to Africa than meets the eye.

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#TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou

Today we set out to explore some of Africa's many secrets and hidden wonders, on a voyage along roads less travelled.

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Let's go!

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Heading out of town on the main TransAfrican highway going north, we encounter a number of police check points, each with a vicious 'home-made' stinger across the road. At some they make us stop so that they can check John's papers; at others they just wave us through.

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Wide load on the highway:

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Our first stop is the obligatory curio-shop. The toilets are nice and clean, and the artwork they sell is of high quality. We rarely buy souvenirs, but I do have a weakness for traditional masks, of which I have a wall full at home. I am tempted by an unusual carved set of two 'masks' (maybe not traditional, but beautiful all the same), and manage to negotiate an acceptable price. That'll be my shopping for the week!

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My living room wall at home, full of masks from all over the world!

Crossing the Equator

The Equator is an 'imaginary line' around the middle of the earth, dividing it into two: the northern and southern hemisphere.

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The above picture is dedicated to a friend's daughter who, after having been taught about the Equator at school, excitedly ran home to tell her mum about the 'imaginary lion' running around the centre of the earth.

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The Equator dissects Kenya some 90 miles north of Nairobi.

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Crossing from one hemisphere to another is theoretically painless and unremarkable, indiscernible even. However, always looking to exploit a money-making opportunity, souvenirs stalls have been set up next to the signs which attract camera-wielding tourists and notorious selfie-takers: YOU ARE NOW CROSSING THE EQUATOR

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Coriolis effect
You may have heard about the water going down the plug hole clockwise in the northern hemisphere and anticlockwise in the southern hemisphere, and drains straight down on the equator?

David, our guide, uses a bowl with a strategically placed hole in its bottom, a jug of water and a couple of matchsticks to demonstrate the effect. It does indeed seem that the water changes direction just 20 metres either side of the equator.

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So what causes this? It is something called the Coriolis effect, which is a result of the rotation of the Earth and the inertia of the mass experiencing the effect. This force causes moving objects (including ocean currents, wind patterns and hurricanes) on the surface of the Earth to be deflected to the right in the northern Hemisphere and to the left in the south.

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So far so good.

However, it grieves me to say that according to scientists, the effect the Coriolis force has on a bowl of water is much too small to actually see, especially so close to the equator; and may be better explained by the conservation of angular momentum: any rotation around the drain hole that is initially present will accelerate as water moves inward.

In other words, the person carrying out the demonstration gently encourages the water to travel in the suitable direction by carefully angling the stream of liquid or the placement of the object.

I feel quite disappointed and truly deflated; rather like a child who has just discovered that Santa is not real.

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Please say it is not so!

I study the movements of the guide. I look at the direction of the spiralling water coming out of the bowl as well as the way the matchsticks move. I even try to shake the bowl to make the matchsticks move in a different direction. They don't. Call me gullible, but I still want to believe the effect is true, and if not: this guy is good, damn good!

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After the demonstration and the presentation of a certificate, we are obliged to visit one of the many shops. For fairness, visitors are taken to a numbered shop in turn – one vehicle to number 28, next car to number 29 and so on. Having already done all my shopping for the trip earlier this morning, we do our duty by browsing the allocated store, but despite calls to have a "closer look", we return to the car empty-handed.

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The Birminghum Cool Shop!

A few miles later we stop at a road side stall to buy some vegetables for the evening at North Horr in four nights' time. The accommodation there doesn't offer meals, so we have to bring our own food. Ingredients are more readily available, and offer greater variety, here than they do further north, so now is the time to stock up on fresh stuff.

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John chooses a courgette for our dinner

In this heat, these green tomatoes should ripen to a beautiful red by the time we need them.

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As we head further north, the scenery becomes more and more rural, the countryside filled with pastorialists toiling the soil in age-old fashion.

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Isiolo

The town of Isiolo apparently has a newly acquired status as a 'resort city' (billed as 'the new Dubai'), as part of Kenya's 'Vision 2030' plan. The design is for Isiolo to become a tourist centre to include casinos, hotels, upmarket retail outlets, a modern airport and transport facilities. This brings up a burning question: “why?” The answer lies in the pipeline that brings crude oil from the fields in South Sudan to the ports on the Kenyan coast. With the area's reputation for lawlessness, I guess the government felt it prudent to consolidate the surroundings politically and offer some hope for the future to its inhabitants in order to protect their 'black gold'. John points out the site of the new international airport as we pass.

Wikitravel isn't too optimistic about the town: “Isiolo is the 'last stop' before travelling off the paved road to the towns of Marsabit and Moyale in northern Kenya. Be very aware that Isiolo is not the safest place on earth, and if you are on your own, hire somebody to protect you from the thugs.”

Reading the local news I can see their point...

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Oh, and there is apparently a cholera epidemic here – thankfully we made sure that our inoculations were up-to-date before we left home.

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Isiolo is the north-east’s most important town and a frontier town in every respect, separating the sedate south from the wild, wild north; inhabited by a rendezvous of AK47s and their uniformed owners. Having been rigorously warned by Wycliffe last night not to take pictures of people in the north without asking first, I resist the urge to photograph the gun-toting locals. Probably a wise move.

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I am beginning to be grateful we are merely passing through, although to be fair, we do not notice even the slightest amount of tension or hint of danger. What is noticeable is that the town is inhabited by a larger percentage of Muslims than further south, which is evident by the presence of several mosques and the attire of the people.

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Isiolo is the last big town on our journey, so we stock up with diesel, as do several other safari vehicles on their way to Samburu. In order to ensure the tank is filled to the brim, the vans are either shaken as the fuel goes in; or put up on a one sided ramp to make the most of every available centimetre in the tank.

Fuel (as well as a number of other items) can be paid for by phone using a branch-less banking service known as M-Pesa. Each till has its own number and you dial in from your mobile to make payment. In an area where banks are few and far between, this is a great idea!

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The land is flat, dry and fairly barren here, and the cattle we saw further south is replaced by camels, while straw huts take over from tinned-roofed mud shacks.

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At the side of the road I spot a number of Rendille nomads carrying their entire lives – including the materials to rebuild their huts – on donkeys as they migrate from one place to another. The scene is colourful, exotic and picturesque, and I am itching to take photos, but John's earlier warning resonates in my mind: “People here are not photo friendly, be careful! Don't even snap from a moving car as they might come after us and there are a lot of armed bandits here.” OK then.

Archer's Post

Disappointed we don't get the same level of welcome as President Kenyatta did when he came to Archer's Post earlier this year. Don't they know who we are?

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The Howards have arrived!

Safari time!

We are now entering the wilderness and heading for the verdant bush; ready to come face to face with Africa’s storybook animals. The route to the Jade Sea just happens to be taking us close to one of Kenya's finest wildlife reserves (as you do), so it would be rude not to 'pop in' for some game viewing.

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The expression 'Safari' is derived from a Swahili word, meaning simply 'long journey', although over the years it has taken on a broader meaning, with the dictionary describing it thus:

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Sentrim Samburu Safari Camp

From the gate we head directly to our home for the next two nights: Sentrim Samburu Safari Camp. Located on the shores of Ewaso Ng'iro River, the camp originally consisted of individual safari tents dotted along the riverbank. In 2010 unseasonal and heavy rains created a devastating flash flood which raged downstream, destroying bridges and washing away buildings and tents, scattering furniture and equipment. Sentrim was one of six camps wrecked by the wall of water, which completely demolished the camp, leaving everything covered in a thick layer of mud. Since rebuilt on higher ground and further away from the water, the lodge is now constructed from more permanent material and features individual cottages on concrete platforms with views of the grounds and the river beyond.

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Our room

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View from our balcony

We check in and go for a late lunch, followed by a little siesta.

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Welcome drink

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Glazed pork with rice

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And of course a Tusker

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Siesta on the balcony

Samburu National Reserve

Located just north of the equator in the rain-shadow of Mt. Kenya, the rugged and semi-desert Samburu is a lot drier and hotter than the rest of the Kenyan parks; featuring a mix of wood and grassland interspersed with riverine forest and swamp.

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Samburu National Reserve is relatively small in size compared to the other Kenyan parks, such as Tsavo (which is massive) or even Masai Mara; and minuscule in relation to the Serengeti in Tanzania which has been the destination of choice for our last few safaris: 64km² against 14,763km².

Putting it further into perspective: the area administered by Bristol City Council (our home town) is 110km².

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Samburu Special Five
Most safari-goers – especially first-timers - have their heart set on seeing the 'Big Five', but here in this park the most famous collection of animals to spot is the 'Samburu Special Five'. These are rare species of animals not found in most other East African parks: the long necked gerenuk, Grevy's zebra, reticulated giraffe, Somali ostrich and Beisa oryx.

Having been lucky enough to see the zebra, giraffe, ostrich and oryx back in 1986 when we came to Mount Kenya and Meru National Parks (both of which are in this region), I explained to John that the gerenuk is of particular interest to me on this trip.

When the very first animal we spot on this afternoon's safari is a gerenuk, John dryly comments: “You can go home now then”. I do like a driver with a sense of humour!

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Gerenuk
Looking like something of a cross between an antelope and a giraffe, the long-necked gerenuk is also known as the Waller's gazelle. The name gerenuk comes from the Somali word Garanuug, which is translated as 'giraffe-necked'.

The gerenuk is endemic to the semi-arid areas of North east Africa, from Kenya through to Somalia. The secret to its survival in the harsh conditions of the desert-like terrain, is its ability to go without drinking water, instead obtaining enough moisture from the food it eats.

Entering through the lodge gates directly into the park this afternoon, before us lies the endless plains, stretching out as far as the eye can see: a flat and uniform landscape, speckled with acacia trees. Initially the open savannah is seemingly bereft of any wildlife; then with mounting excitement I pick out a few vulturine guineafowl. Slowly more and more birds and animals come into view and over the next few hours we absorb a string of heart-stirring animal encounters. This is the quintessential Africa of wildlife documentaries, but no matter how many TV programmes you may have watched, nothing prepares you for the real thing.

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Vulturine Guineafowl

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Olive Baboons

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Eastern Yellow Billed Hornbill

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Northern Red Billed Hornbill

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Tawny Eagle

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Blue Naped Mousebird

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Elephant

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African Pygmy Falcon

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White Headed Buffalo Weaver

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Yellow Necked Spurfowl

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Black Faced Vervet Monkey

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Impala

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Dik Dik

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Superb Starling

Reticulated Giraffe

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The reticulated giraffe, also known as the Somali giraffe, is one of nine subspecies of giraffe, and is native to Somalia, southern Ethiopia, and northern Kenya and is one of the Samburu Special Five.

So how does it differ from the more common Masai giraffe?

  • The reticulated is taller than the Masai, especially the males.
  • The reticulated giraffe has lighter brown spots in a polygon shape with straight, smooth sides, while the Masai giraffe has rather unpredictable, very deep brown spots

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  • The reticulated is only found in northern Kenya and Somalia, whereas the Masai is resident in southern Kenya and Tanzania.
  • Sheer numbers – while there is estimated to be just 5,000 reticulated giraffes left in the wild, some 40,000 Masai giraffes roam the African plains.

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Donaldson Smith's Sparrow Weaver

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Common Waterbuck

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Impala

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Gerenuk

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Elephant

John is constantly in contact with other drivers via his CB radio, and gets to hear about a sighting which he wants to check out. In the distance we see a herd of safari vehicles and realise it must be something good.

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We arrive in time to see a lioness out for an evening stroll.

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There are five lions in total, scattered around in the undergrowth.

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Born Free
For those of you who can remember the book and movie 'Born Free', Samburu is one of the two areas in which conservationists Joy and George Adamson raised Elsa the Lioness and later re-introduced her to the wild. The film itself was in fact shot here in the Samburu National Reserve.

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These lionesses could then be descendants of Elsa herself!

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Sign at the entrance gate to the park

Moving on, we come across a kill tucked away under a tree – an oryx partially devoured by a lone lioness.

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On the horizon a black backed jackal eyes the meat hungrily, looking for any opportunity to move in for a meal.

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The moment the lioness starts to walk away, the jackal makes a beeline for the oryx carcass.

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Realising that tomorrow's cold leftovers may be lost to a much smaller rival, the lioness decides to come back to protect her food source.

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The jackal scampers at the mere sight of her, but hangs around in the background for a while hoping for a tasty titbit.

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When the lioness settles down close by her kill to protect it, the jackal slinks off into the bush. For now.

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Kamunyak
Seeing the lioness with the oryx kill brought to mind an unusual story that took place in this park some years ago: the tale of Kamunyak, a lioness with a reputation for adopting orphaned and abandoned young antelopes. Kamunyak (meaning 'Blessed One'), is known to have cared for at least 6 oryx calves, establishing an inconceivable relationship with her unlikely protégés, defying nature and baffling scientists.

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This amazing and bizarre story was told by Saba Douglas-Hamilton in a BBC / Animal Planet documentary called Heart of a Lioness in 2005. I would recommend you watch the incredible film (42 minutes) which is available on YouTube. But I warn you – it does not have a happy ending.

Another congregation of safari vehicles promises a leopard on the hillside in the distance. Apparently. Everyone says there is one there, but no-one seems to have actually seen it. We leave them to it.

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No sooner have we driven away from the leopard traffic jam, John hears word of a cheetah sighting and rushes off. On the way we spot a herd of elephants but decide not to linger in order to prioritise the cats.

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The cat sighting is a false alarm. A wild goose chase. It is now getting quite late, and way past the time we are supposed to have left the park. We head for the lodge but encounter a bit of a road block. Just like the men with guns in Isiolo – you don't argue with these guys!

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A stand-off ensues with a couple of mock charges by the young bull.

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Eventually they disperse and we can be on our way.

Nearby we spot a dead donkey under a bush, most likely killed by a leopard. The leopard doesn't appear to have eaten much, and will probably be back later for more.

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Unfortunately we have to leave – regulations state there must be no driving in the park between 18:30 and 06:00. The time is already 18:50 and we have some way to go to get to our camp. John speeds off on the rocky track with me holding on for dear life. David, however, is fast asleep in the seat, with his head bobbing up and down with the bumps.

Back at the camp we have a refreshing cold shower (when the temperature is 35 °C, a cold shower really is refreshing, trust me!), followed by dinner of Vegetable Spring Rolls with a Dipping Sauce and Chicken Maryland.

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to stop me getting dehydrated in the heat (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed.

Cheers and welcome to Samburu.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:14 Archived in Kenya Tagged landscapes animals birds travel holiday africa safari hot kenya lions equator samburu game_drive undiscovered_destinations safari_vehicle isiolo northern_kenya Comments (1)

London - Brussels - Kigali - Nairobi

The adventure has begun


View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

This long day dogged with delays starts with a 40 minute wait for the bus which is to take us from the car park to London Heathrow. We have plenty of time, so it is not an issue, but it seems to set a precedent for the day - continuing with our flight from London Heathrow being 40 minutes delayed leaving, which makes for a very tight transfer in Brussels.

Once we have touched down in Brussels, we have another delay of ten minutes: sitting in the plane, on the tarmac, waiting to be allocated a gate. The transfer here before the next flight has now become extremely tight. We are finally given a gate and are able to disembark, only to find that the left hand does not know what right hand is doing: although we have a gate, the door connecting the gate to the terminal is firmly locked. Another ten minutes go by before a staff member realises that the tunnel is full of impatient passengers and is then able to find someone with a key. We now have an exceptionally tight transfer.

At the security screening there is a long queue, and we anxiously join the end. Our flight number is called and we are encouraged to queue jump, but the transfer is now exceedingly tight.

Our Nairobi flight leaves from a different terminal to the one we arrived at from London, and the ten minute waiting time for the bus to move us between terminals creates a stressfully tight transfer time. People are now really freaking out – there are quite a few of us from the London to Brussels plane trying to reach the onward flight to Nairobi and the atmosphere is tense.

The six minute walk from the bus drop-off point to the gate seems like an eternity, but we finally make it as the gate is closing. Phew. Having missed connecting flights on several previous occasions, I hate tight transfers at the best of times, and when they are compounded by several delays and total shambles at Brussels airport, it makes for a somewhat fraught experience.

Following the frenzied arrival in Brussels, we can 'relax' for eight hours in a tin can accompanied by a chorus of screaming kids. Oh joy.

A beautiful sunset over Africa and a lightning storm from above helps to make the journey a little more bearable.

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In Nairobi, we are met by Wycliffe from African Journeys, and driver John, who whisk us to our hotel for the night. After the stressful transfer in Brussels and the discomfort of the long haul flight, Hotel Boulevard is an oasis of calm. Coupled with a bad night's sleep last night and a mind-blowingly early start this morning: I feel pooped!

Arriving at midnight, we are simply spending a few hours sleeping here, on our eighth visit to the city they 'affectionately' call Nairobbery. Security measures, including checking the underside of the car as we enter the heavily guarded and fenced-in-to-the-point-of-resembling-a-barricade compound of our hotel, are intended to put our minds at rest. I know it is only a precaution, but it always makes me feel a little jittery, especially knowing the city's reputation.

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to calm my 'frayed nerves' (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed, which we enjoy on the small terrace outside our room.

Cheers and welcome to Nairobi!

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Posted by Grete Howard 08:45 Archived in Kenya Comments (3)

Journey to the Jade Sea

Where to next?

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There's a long story behind this trip – isn’t there always with our holidays?

The saga started last autumn when we booked a tour of Eritrea through a British company called Undiscovered Destinations who offer tours to... yes, you guessed it: 'undiscovered' destinations.

To cut a long story, the Eritrea trip was booked for February this year, but despite applying to the Embassy in the middle of November, we did not receive our Eritrean visas in time to be able to take the trip. Having bought a non-refundable, non-transferable flight (separate from the tour in Eritrea), we were unable to reclaim any of that cost: £1800 down the drain. "Gulp!" As for the land arrangements in Africa, we advised Undiscovered Destinations (UD for short, although David cheekily suggested that they should be abbreviated as “UnDis”) that we would like them to hold on to our money until we could pick another ('undiscovered') destination for later in the year.

A few weeks later we had chosen another holiday: travelling to Burundi in September; and accordingly booked a couple more flights. This time the visa application looked straightforward and dependable. Adventure travel, by sheer nature of its name, is however rarely that uncomplicated. What we didn't count on was civil unrest. Mere days after we had booked, the country's president announced he was going to stand for a third term in office, an unconstitutional and unpopular move. His opponents revolted, many people were killed or injured in the violent clashes that ensued, and an excess of 100,000 people fled the country. The Foreign Office changed their travel advice to “Amber Warning” and suggested that “If you don’t have an essential reason to stay in Burundi, you should leave as soon as the opportunity arises to do so safely.”

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OK, so maybe Burundi isn't such a good idea either. Back to square one. I suddenly had a flash of inspiration: perhaps we can use the first leg of the flights we have already booked (London – Nairobi, missing out on the Nairobi – Burundi part) and arrange a trip in Kenya? The theory was good, and UD were able to put together a fabulous itinerary in Kenya to fit in with our flight dates. Reality, unfortunately is rarely so straight forward. Kenya Airways (as most airlines) will not allow you to use just one portion of a flight. By not taking the Nairobi – Burundi section we would be classed as a “no-show” and they would cancel the remainder of the flights. Oh. Although disappointed that my brainwave wasn't going to come to fruition, I guess it is better to find that out at this stage rather than if we try to board the plane in Nairobi for our homeward flight and find we've been bumped off it.

At this point I cannot sing the praises of UD enough: none of this was due to any failing or wrongdoing on their part. Having booked the flights separately, not through them, they could have said “tough luck” when we didn't get the visas for Eritrea; same with the FCO warnings for Burundi. They didn't. They offered us a full refund, or the funds transferred to another tour both times. I really want to travel with this company as their customer service to date has been exceptional; plus they have so many exciting looking destinations in their brochure for future trips. So I took a another deep breath and yet again booked two more flights (this is getting a little repetitive and expensive) so that we can do their Kenya itinerary.

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Once more UD showed what a top-notch company they are: in order to make up for some of the money we lost from the forfeited flights, they very kindly offered us £400 off this trip plus a voucher for a further £400 off any future holidays we book through them. Considering no part of this has been their fault whatsoever, I think that is extraordinarily good customer service.

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Undiscovered Destinations Website in case you want to check them out

So, we now find ourselves preparing for a bespoke trip to Kenya. When most people envisage holidays in Kenya, their first thoughts are usually a safari (been there, done that) or an Indian Ocean beach resort (been there, done that), but not UD. The hint is in their brand name. Here is how they describe this 'pioneering' trip on their website:

“On this trip we venture to the little visited northern regions, an arid land home to a number of different ethnic groups including the Samburu, Gabbra, El Moro and Rendille, all of whom adhere to very traditional and unique ways of life. We explore the haunting Chalbi Desert, an ocean of volcanic sand where only the toughest species survive; and continue to the mighty Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world. Here we find the El Molo, who hunt the hippos and giant crocodiles that they share their home with. This tour offers travellers the chance to explore parts of Kenya which see very few visitors, giving a glimpse into ways of life that have disappeared in most parts of the world.

Having since researched the places we are visiting and read other travellers' blogs about their sojourns in the area, the prospect of this trip fills me with a healthy mix of trepidation, exhilaration, apprehension, and excitement.

Bring it on!

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:46 Archived in Kenya Comments (1)

Sheffield - Peak District - Bristol

Glorious countryside and a let-down farm

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Peak District National Park

Wanting to make the journey home more than just a drive back, we take a road that cuts through the stunning scenery of Peak District National Park, which became the UK's first national park in 1951.

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This time of year the moors are particularly beautiful, with the flowering heather making entire hillside glow in stunning hues of purple.

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Sandwell Valley Country Park

While I am sure the working 'Victorian farm' is popular with children, as an adult I found it rather disappointing. I was expecting to see a working farm with tools and implements, maybe even workers dressed up in traditional costume. All we get is a small museum to the history of the area, and a few farm animals in a yard.

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Museum

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Hoping to be able to grab a snack or a nice cake, we head for the Tea Shop in the grounds, but the selection is extremely poor and we leave frustrated all round. The best thing about the café is the potted topiary shrubs.

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Just another couple of hours – during which I slept like a baby in the back seat – and we're back home after yet another interesting trip.

Posted by Grete Howard 07:02 Archived in England Comments (1)

Glasgow - Ripon - Sheffield

Ancient abbeys, water gardens and a lovely dinner!

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Leaving Scotland and entering back into England, we make a first stop at Ripon in Yorkshire.

Fountains Abbey

Dating back to 1132 when 13 monks who fled from unrest at St Mary's Abbey in York built their new lives here, the Abbey was once a powerful and wealthy Cistercian monastery. The abbey operated for over 400 years, until 1539, when Henry VIII came along and ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

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The ruins of this once great abbey is now a 'listed monument' and a UNESCO Heritage sire.

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Having been lucky enough to find a disabled parking space near the entrance in the extremely busy car park, we take my dad in his wheelchair and walk through the grounds of the abbey and onwards.

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The grounds are very popular with families who bring their picnics to have on the extended lawns.

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The Abbey buildings and over 500 acres of land were sold by the Crown in 1540 to Sir Richard Gresham, who immediately sold off lots of stone, timber and lead from the site.

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Fountains Hall was built using stones from the monastery.

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By 1767, the abbey and grounds were sold on to William Aisleaby who combined it with the Studley Royal Estate.

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Studley Royal Water Gardens

The abbey grounds lead directly into the Studley estate water gardens, with a mile long path taking you right through the grounds.

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When John Aisleaby (who has inherited the estate at a young age) was expelled from his political career in parliament, he diverted his energies into creating a water garden at Studley.

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He created a romantic atmosphere and built viewing platforms for his visitors to admire the follies across the estate.

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The walk is very pleasant, and despite the threatening clouds, we manage to stay dry for the duration.

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At the other end is a small coffee shop, where we have some refreshments before making our way back. David, pushing my dad's wheelchair, hurries on back to the car as my dad was feeling the chill from the inclement weather; while I take my time strolling through the grounds.

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I get chatting to one of the volunteers, and end up with a personal guide telling me all about the history of the gardens.

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At to our hotel this evening, we check out the adjoining restaurant. We walk out again as quickly as we walked in. The restaurant is like a huge shopping mall food court, where you queue up to pay your entrance fee, queue up to get a plate, and then queue up to help yourself to buffet food from a multi-choice selection. The restaurant is noisy, busy, and not our thing at all!

Instead we drive towards the nearest big town – Sheffield. Near the out-of-town shopping centre I spot a Weatherspoon restaurant and we head for that. Oh, the irony: it's in a huge shopping mall food court! Next door is a Harvester restaurant, an even better choice! The service and food is excellent and we go home very satisfied!

Posted by Grete Howard 07:01 Archived in Scotland Comments (0)

Falkirk Wheel and Loch Lomond

Boat trip and road trip

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View A wee trip to Bonnie Scotland with my Dad 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Every day this last week we have been looking at the weather forecast for this area, and it has not been looking good: severe storms and lashings of rain. Oh dear. This morning, however, it is dry, albeit with some pretty threatening clouds.

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Falkirk Wheel

Up until the 1930s, the Forth & Clyde and Union canals were linked by a series of 11 locks which took the best part of a day to travel through.

In the 1990s, after 60 years of the connection between the two canals being closed, planners decided to create a dramatic 21st-century landmark structure to reconnect the canals, instead of simply recreating the historic lock flight. A number of options were considered for re-opening the passage between the two canals, including rolling eggs, tilting tanks, a giant see-saw and overhead monorails! The final design is claimed to have been inspired by a Celtic double headed spear, a vast turning propeller of a Clydebank built ship, the ribcage of a whale and the spine of a fish.

Hence the rotating boat lift was born.

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Construction started in 1998, with 1,200 tonnes of steel parts assembled in Derbyshire and transported to Falkirk where everything was bolted together (each and every one of the 45,000 bolts was tightened by hand) and placed in position via a huge crane. Over 1,000 construction staff worked on building the wheel.

In 2002 the world’s first and only rotating boat lift was opened by Her Majesty, The Queen.

Here's a few screen prints taken from the official website.

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Once the boat navigates to sit inside the water-filled gondola, the lift takes a mere 4.5 minutes to lift the us to the top level.

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This animation on Wikipedia best shows the wheel in motion:

Falkirk Wheel

When we reach the top, we can leave the gondola: a barrier which has kept the water inside the gondola as we rose, is lowered, sealing the gap and filling it with water.

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From the wheel we travel across the aqueduct at the top, with amazing views of the site and the surrounding countryside.

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The canal then goes through the Rough Castle Tunnel before we have to turn around as the boat is too large to navigate up the staircase locks that would take us to the Union Canal.

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Instead, the skipper skilfully turns the boat around in the winding point and takes us through the tunnel again.

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And back into the top gondola, where we have to wait for another boat to join us before going down, in order to conserve the (small amount) of energy the boat lift uses. Truly an environmentally friendly operation.

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All the while we get a useful and fun commentary.

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Back on dry land and it looks like it is not going to stay dry for much longer!

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The rain does, however, stave off while we stay around and watch a complete circuit of the wheel.

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We are not the only ones watching the show – although I think these juvenile swallows are more interested in food from their parents than the amazing piece of engineering at Falkirk Wheel!

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Firth of Forth

The Firth of Forth is the estuary or firth of Scotland's River Forth, where it flows into the North Sea, between Fife to the north and Lothian to the south. Geologically, the Firth of Forth is a fjord, formed by the Forth Glacier in the last glacial period.

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South Queensferry

We stop for a while at South Queensferry to take some photos of the estuary, bridges and the cobbled streets of the village itself.

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Forth Bridge

The main draw for us to here is the Forth Bridge, recently brought to our attention by its inclusion in the UNESCO Heritage list earlier this summer. The bridge – which dates from 1882 - is considered an iconic structure and a symbol of Scotland. It was the longest single cantilever bridge span in the world until 1917 when the Quebec Bridge in Canada was completed. It continues to be the world's second-longest single cantilever span.

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The rail bridge was the first major structure in Britain to be constructed of steel and currently carries up to 200 trains a day. I you look carefully at the photo below, you can see a train crossing the bridge.

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Loch Lomond

Time for a road trip along the shores of Loch Lomond. But first a stop at a rustic little coffee shop in Balmaha for one of the best carrot cakes I have ever had. We meet a lady who is spending the entire summer travelling around the UK in a campervan, who gives us some very useful tips for a time in the future we would probably like to do that.

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Just loved the café's door-stop!

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Loch Lomond is the largest inland freshwater lake in Great Britain at 39 x 8 kilometres. The loch contains many island and is a well-loved leisure area, popular with walkers, water-sports enthusiasts, cyclists, picnickers and sightseers like us.

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Back at the hotel, we go for dinner, but are all struggling to understand the waitress – the local dialect may as well be a foreign language!

Posted by Grete Howard 11:22 Archived in Scotland Comments (0)

Bolton - Castlerigg - Lockerbie - Cambuslang - Falkirk

An ancient stone circle, the Air Disaster Monument, lots of hot firemen and a couple of impressive horse statues

sunny
View A wee trip to Bonnie Scotland with my Dad 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

The restaurant is a different world this morning.: the friendly, chatty manager goes some way to make up for the disinterested staff last night. We leave in a better frame of mind, and head for Scotland.

But first:

Castlerigg Stone Circle

Down a narrow country lane, in the middle of nowhere, atop a small hill with far-reaching views of the Helvellyn mountains sits the 4,500-year old Castlerigg Stone Circle. Popular with walkers, sightseers and families who are picnicking on this beautiful site; we are unfortunately not alone. This is one of Britain's earliest Neolithic stone circles , from around 3000BC. That is an unfathomably long time ago.

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With the misty valleys and the rolling hills in the background, the site is incredibly atmospheric despite all the other tourists.

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However, with lots of patience (and a little bit of Photoshop to remove a man in a pink T shirt who didn't look as if he was about to move away any time soon) I finally manage to get a couple of tourist-free pictures of the stones.

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Scotland

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Lockerbie Air Disaster Memorial

On 21st December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was destroyed by a terrorist bomb on its scheduled flight between London and New York, killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew on board, in what became known to the world as the Lockerbie bombing. Large sections of the aircraft crashed onto residential areas of Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 11 more people on the ground.

The lady in the Visitors Centre here is a mine of information and incredibly sweet, offering tissues and hugs to distraught visitors.

The Air Disaster Memorial is part of Dryfesdale cemetery and remembrance garden on the outskirts of town. Seeing the list of names on Memorial I am acutely reminded that these are people whose lives were cut short, long before their time, in a cruel and 'spectacular' way.

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These are the names of the victims whose remains were not found following the crash – I feel so bad for the families who never got any closure.

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The whole thing is even more poignant for us, as we had actually met one of the victims, Siv Ulla Engstrom, a couple of times. I remember hearing about the terrible crash in 1988, and reading that she had been working on that fateful Pan Am flight.

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If the list of so many names isn't enough, the individual memorials are too much for me as it brings home to me how each and every one of those names was someone's wife / husband / daughter / brother / child …...

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Thank goodness for tissues.

Hippie Cows

On our very first visit to Scotland in 1974, my mum was captivated by the Highland Cattle with their long wavy hair covering their eyes; and promptly named them 'hippy cows'. The name has stuck ever since.

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Highland cattle are one of Britain's oldest and most distinctive breeds, raised primarily for their excellent meat. They are also seriously cute.

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Cambuslang

Our hotel in Cambuslang, near Glasgow, is a vast improvement on last night. The surroundings, the clientèle, the staff, the food – everything is far superior to yesterday's offering. In fact, I am delighted to discover that the hotel is in fact full.... of firemen who are here for a conference! Always nice to have a bit of eye candy with dinner.

Sorry, no photos.

The Kelpies
After dinner we drive off to see the Kelpies, said to be the largest equine statues in the world. They stand at 30 metres tall (100 ft) and are the brain-child of sculptor Andy Scott.

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Modelled on heavy horses, the Kelpies are 'mystical water-borne equine creatures' (they stand on the Forth & Clyde Canal near Falkirk) and are a tribute to working horses, once the powerhouse of the canals. Falkirk is also said to have been home to the worlds biggest horse: in the 1930′s Carnera hauled wagons laden with soft drinks around the town. Soft drinks? Scotland? Surely not!

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As the largest public artworks in Scotland, the Kelpies attract huge numbers of visitors. Coming at dusk seems to be a good idea, as although we are not alone, it certainly isn’t crowded.

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As we wait for the sun to go down and the lights to come on inside the horse statues, we walk around the sculpture for different angles.

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I also try out different White Balance settings on my camera, coupled with the changing colours inside the horses, to see how it affects the results.

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This red one is my favourite:

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Posted by Grete Howard 07:00 Archived in Scotland Comments (0)

Bristol - Sandbach - Bolton

A wee trip to bonnie Scotland

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View A wee trip to Bonnie Scotland with my Dad 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Inspired by a friend's recent Facebook posting, we are making a road trip 'Oop North' and into Scotland with my dad. We are taking it easy, using two days to get up there, stopping a couple of places along the way.

Sandbach Crosses

Our first stop is in Sandbach, Cheshire, where we find two massive Saxon stone crosses, elaborately carved with animals and Biblical scenes including the Nativity of Christ and the Crucifixion.

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The crosses, which date from the 9th century, dominate the cobbled market square of Sandbach, a rather quaint looking town. Originally painted as well as carved, these are among the finest surviving examples of Anglo-Saxon high crosses in the country.

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I always love the way history is such an everyday part of life in these places, surrounded by families having lunch in the local pub, shoppers and workers, none of whom are taking any notice of the ancient monument in their midst.

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Bolton

As we pull up at tonight's hotel outside Bolton, I can immediately see that that it is in a less-than-salubrious area. The drunk, tattoo-covered, shirtless lads on the benches outside the pub give it away; and the family in the courtyard confirms it. Those poor kids stand no chance with pot-smoking, vodka-swilling, foul-mouthed mothers like that. The clientèle inside are not much better. The food is OK, but the service unbelievably slow, despite there being more staff than customers. The entertainment of the evening is watching the staff running around placing buckets under cascades of water seeping through the ceiling from the flooding washing machine in the flat above; a waitress tripping as she approaches a table and emptying the entire contents of a pint glass into the lap of the customer; and another server taking a sip out of a customer's glass before taking it to their table. The only saving grace of this place is that the meal is cheap.

We retire to our room as soon as we have finished eating. The bedroom window, however, is immediately overlooking the courtyard where the loud, raucous, swearing, shouting drinkers and their screaming kids are sitting. Never before have I been so grateful for a sudden thunderstorm. Listening to the pouring rain is far preferable, and I fall into a peaceful sleep.

Posted by Grete Howard 01:46 Archived in England Comments (1)

Split

Diocletian's Palace is everything I hoped it would be and more. So much more.


View Slovenia and Croatia Wanderer 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Getting photographs without the usual holiday crowds was proving extremely tricky yesterday, so this morning we get up at 06:00 to get out there while it is still reasonably quiet.

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Coming out early might mean that I can get pictures without people in it, but it also makes for extremely difficult photographic conditions with dark shadows and washed out highlights.

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It took a lot of editing at the post-processing stage to get some decent images. Obviously I should have brought a tripod and bracketed my shots, not just for the exposure but for the white balance too. Next time. You live and learn from your mistakes. Hopefully.

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Diocletian's Palace

Ever since I first read about Diocletian and his wonderful palace some 35 or more years ago, I have had a desire to see it. I hope it doesn't disappoint...

An ancient palace built by the Roman emperor Diocletian as a future residence for his retirement in 305 AD, the word 'palace' is misleading, as it is more like a fortress: about half of it was for Diocletian's personal use, and the rest housed the military garrison. The bottom third as seen in this artist's impression, is where he actually lived.

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Today the palace forms the centre of Split, and it has been added to many times over the years, with temples, churches, private residences, shops and restaurants making it a hotchpotch of living history. Today it is a warren of alleyways criss-crossing inside the original walls of the palace. It's like living, walking, eating and shopping in a museum.

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Our apartment is within the walls of the original palace, making it easy to explore before breakfast.

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It's quiet this morning, with more cats than humans. As you might have guessed - I am rather partial to cats!

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Gregory of Nin
The Croatian bishop of Nin is famous for introducing the national language in the religious services in 926. Until that time, services were held only in Latin, which the majority of the population could not understand. Not only was this important for Croatian language and culture but it also made Christianity stronger within the Croatian kingdom.

Rubbing the statue's toe is said to bring good luck and the toe has been worn smooth and shiny as a result.

Originally located in the Peristyle of Diocletian's Palace, the statue was moved outside by Italian occupying forces during WWII. Currently, the statue sits just outside the Golden Gate.

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The Golden Gate
As the main entrance to the palace, the Golden Gate was used by the Emperor Diocletian when he entered his new home for the first time on June 1st 305 AD. At the time it had double gates which acted as a trap for invaders, capturing them between the outer and inner gates into an enclosure. The inner gate was made of solid wood and the outer gate consisted of metal bars, which were lowered when invaders entered the enclosure. There are still tourist traps in the city of course, but of a different sort.

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Like most of the Venetian coastal towns of its time, Diocletian's Palace is full of narrow alleyways surrounded by high walls, arches and courtyards.

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Lavender
Croatia is a major producer of lavender, and it has been labelled as one of the main Croatian souvenirs. Every other craft shop in in Split is selling items made from lavender.

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Perestil
In Roman architecture, a peristyle is an open colonnade surrounding a court; hence the name of the central court in Diocletian’s Palace.

The gate, called a prothyron, connecting the public square to the private quarters, was the only place a commoner would see the emperor as he addressed his people. On either side of the prothyron are little chapels stemming from far after the time of Diocletian; Our Lady of the Belt (1544) and Our Lady of Conception (1650).

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Sphinx
Apparently, Emperor Diocletian was a great lover of Egypt and he acquired more than a dozen granite sphinxes (from 1500 BC) from Luxor. Only three sphinxes remain today including this one on Peristil.

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Cathedral of Saint Domnius
Known locally as the Saint Dujam (Sveti Dujam), the cathedral is the seat of the Archdiocese of Split-Makarska. The 7th century complex is formed from Dicoletan's mausoleum. The cathedral is regarded as the oldest Catholic cathedral in the world that remains in use in its original structure, without near-complete renovation at a later date. The structure itself, built in AD 305 as the Mausoleum of Diocletian, is the second oldest structure used by any Christian Cathedral.

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The Romanesque bell tower of the St. Dominus Cathedral was constructed in the 12th Century.

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Silver Gate
This gate was originally called Porta Orientalis but was renamed into Porta Argentea (Silver Gate) by Venetians, which is what it is known as today. Like the Golden Gate, the Silver Gate also had a Propugnaculum, a defence system or human trap where invaders would be captured between the outer and inner gates. Over the years the gate has had churched added, been bricked up for security reasons and mostly destroyed by the ravages of war. In the 1950’s, the gate underwent a thorough renovation and re-opened.

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Fish Market
Just outside the Iron Gates is the daily fish market. The seafood looks lovely, but we find it somewhat disconcerting that so many of the stall holders are smoking.

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Beautiful grotesques decorate the walls on a building in Split.

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Home and Eddie have the same idea as us this morning, and we keep bumping into them, such as here on the modern shopping street just outside the palace walls.

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Seen in the window of a DVD rental store:

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Trg Braće Radić (Fruit Square)
Now housing various shops and businesses, the square was once home to a bustling fruit market, hence its nickname.

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In front of the 17th century Milesi Palaca, stands the statue of one of Croatia's famous sons – the 15th Century Marko Marulić. Known as the national poet of Croatia and a Christian humanist, many consider Marko Marulič as the father of the Croatian literature.

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Also on the square is the upmarket Croata shop, a tribute to the Croatian tie – I love their door handle!

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To the south of the square, stands a 15th century Venetian tower, built to protect the city from local revolts and Turkish raids.

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Narodni Trg (People's Square)
Commonly referred to as Pjaca, a Croatian form of the Italian word piazza, this 14th century square replaced the Peristil as the city’s central meeting area and it remains so to this day.

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Romanesque clock with the remains of a medieval sundial in front of a larger, older belfry.

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Riva
Recently remodelled following an architectural competition, the Riva Waterfront promenade lies between the walls of the historic Diocletan's Palace on one side and the Mediterranean – and Split Harbour - on the other.

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Cafés and bars are shaded during the day by canvas “sails” which have a built in motor so that they can be turned vertically after dark night and used as projections screens. We are not lucky enough to see any film or other showing the two nights we are there unfortunately. Today we stop for breakfast at one of the many cafés. The food is disappointing but the view is good.

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The Cellars of Diocletan's Palace
Visiting the cellars under what would have been the Dicocletan's private residence, gives us some idea of the scale of his home as the walls supported the palace above. There isn't much to see there now, just large, slightly eerie, empty halls.

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In Diocletan's time this would have been the way to enter the palace by boat, as back then the sea reached all the way up to the Brass Gate which is now on the Riva. Noble guests (such as us) and goods would have arrived through this gate.

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During the time of the emperor, the basement was largely used for storage, mainly food and wine.

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Roman wooden beans which were used to support the ceiling structure.

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The circular cellar room, which is directly under the Emperor's bedroom, was designed to have fantastic acoustics so that Diocletian would be warned if anyone was entering during the night, by the echoes left by anyone passing through. Emperor Diocletian's paranoia paid off as he was the only Roman emperor who died of natural causes.

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Over the years since then, the basement has had various purposes, from living quarters, water storage area, garbage dump and sewage tank!

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The cellars lead into a couple of little courtyards. Standing here, looking up at the surrounding walls and houses, it is incredible to think that this was first built some 1700 years ago and have been added to, bit by bit, over the centuries since then. This place in particular, gives me a feeling of being just a small cog in the large wheel of time.

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All sorts of architectural styles can be seen here, from every epoch since the Dicocletian stood here himself, all those years ago. Quite humbling!

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The cellars were drained, cleaned and excavated during the 1850s. Archaeological discoveries are still being made to this day, particularly in the far corners of the basement.

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4th century meets 21st century – Roman mosaics and a modern flip-flop.

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From the cellars we climb to the roof of the old palace, with great views of the various styles of architecture.

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Vestibul
From the roof we enter the Vestibul, the foyer for the Emperor' residential quarters. The cupola used to be covered in mosaics and marble, these days it is a gaping hole.

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The Vestibul provides great acoustics allowing klapa bands to perform traditional a-cappella songs there – they are very good!

Great harmony!

And that brings us back out to the Peristil again. What a difference from early this morning! The square is teeming with people, tourists, selfie-takers, musicians, “Roman soldiers” posing for charity, people chilling with a coffee on cushions carefully placed on the steps, and big tour groups. I am so glad we came out at the crack of dawn for the photography!

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On the steps, a guy is playing a pan drum, it's the first time I have actually heard one. Love it!

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Pan drum

We seem to be walking around in circles now, and we soon find ourselves back in People's Square, where we take a break with a coffee accompanied by a very naughty ice cream; and spend some time people watching.

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We wander around for a little while longer, past the candy store and the shoe shop – it seems gladiator shoes are the fashion this year!

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By now the sun is high is the sky, and the temperatures have risen. We are hot and tired. Time for a siesta.

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After a refreshing nap, followed by a refreshing shower, we head to the Riva for a refreshing drink.

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And more people watching – one of my favourite pastimes!

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Dalmatian in Dalmatia

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It seems lace shorts are the in thing this year. Worn with gladiator sandals of course.

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As the sun is setting behind the Peristil, we join Homer and Eddie for dinner.

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Not a bad view from the table:

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The food here is pretty good too!

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Chicken stuffed with cheese, wrapped with ham and served on a bed of creamy mushrooms

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Squid salad

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White chocolate cheesecake

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Apple strudel with cream and ice cream

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Chocolate cake

As this is our last night together with Homer and Eddie, we take a final walk around Diocletan's Palace and finish the day with a few drinks on the Riva, watching the natural light fade and and artificial ones come on.

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It is hard to say goodbye, to this beautiful city which has far exceeded my expectations, and of course our friends Homer and Eddie.

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So long, goodbye Split, goodbye Croatia. Until next time.

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Posted by Grete Howard 09:34 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Zadar - Trogir - Split

2300 years of history with UNESCO sites galore

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After a leisurely breakfast this morning, we leave Zadar behind and set off travelling south – taking the coast road rather than the motorway – to Trogir.

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We stop on the outskirts of Trogirfor a spot of lunch at a very nice restaurant. It is empty when we get there, but soon fills up, and I am impressed with the middle-aged waiter who speaks impeccable English to us, perfect Italian to the next table and fluent German to another group. I even hear a smattering of Swedish later. This proves that language skills is not the exclusive domain of the young, and it certainly puts most English waiting staff to shame as they often speak nothing but English, even in tourist areas.

The food is good too – I have what they call “scampi risotto” and David polishes off a plate full of home made sausages.

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As we approach Trogir, the traffic starts to build up, and once we hit the town the cars are very slow moving indeed. We finally find somewhere to park in a marina the other side of the bridge and walk back into town. There are great views of the old town from across the water.

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Trogir

Trogir certainly has a lot of history - the area was first settled by the Greeks in the 4th to the 3rd century BC. In the first century AD, Trogir became the Roman municipality "Tragurium Civium Romanorum" and the city has been added to since, with many of the buildings still standing.

The 12th century St Nicholas' Fortress

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South Town Gate, "Porta Civitatis", decorated with renaissance ornaments and you can still see its original wooden doors.

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The alleys are even narrower here than we have seen elsewhere, and we walk up and down, criss-crossing the whole of the old town. Nearly every alley has a small café with either tables hugging the walls on one side, or spaced out a bit more in small squares of sorts.

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Love these rustic chairs!

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It's a very hot and muggy day and we succumb to an iced coffee. And wow! What an iced coffee it is! More like a sundae than a drink.

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Most of Trogir is in a state of charming dilapidation, rustic appeal and ramshackle chic.

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One of the specialities of Trogir is natural sponges, with lots of shops having strings of them hanging outside, much like one would see garlic in France.

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To save some time (with my poorly knee, my walking is a snail's pace at the moment) David goes off to get the car while I stay and take some more photos.

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St Barbara Church

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City Hall

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When he gets back to the car park, the ticket machine is broken and there is no-one in the booth on the exit gate. Several other foreign tourists are hanging around, unsure of how to get out of the car park. The sign on the booth is in Croatian, but David can make out the word “recepcija”, so goes off in search of a “reception” in the marina. Sure enough, they can sort him out with an exit ticket. Result. The other foreigners are still scratching their heads at the gate.

We meet at the bridge to continue our journey along the coast to Split.

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Despite the fact that I know Split is Croatia's second biggest city, I am not prepared for the sheer size of it. All those modern high-rise blocks of flats – I never expected that! My heart sinks a little. I have wanted to see the Diocletian's Palace for so many years, and now I am concerned that it is going to be a disappointment; that it is going to be surrounded by modern housing.

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We get very lost as we approach the town, with unclear lanes and confusing junctions. We even manage to cut someone up in the traffic, with a screech of tyres!

Eventually we pull up at the end of the road in which our guest house is situated. All the Old Town is pedestrianised, and this is the nearest we are going to get. We take the bags up and David goes off in the car with the owner to find somewhere to park for free in one of the side streets not far away.

The Apartments Matkovik are inside the walls of the old Diocletian's Palace and superbly positioned for the old town.

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I have been worried about having to climb several flights of stairs, but our room is only up one level. Phew. And a very nice room it is too.

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We chill in the room before meeting up with Homer and Eddie for a stroll around the Old Town and dinner. They've been here for several hours already, as they came here straight from Zadar. Eddie is very excited about Split, pointing out places of interest as we go along. His enthusiasm rubs off on me - this place rocks.

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Diocletian's Palace has been on my wish list for years, and I can't believe I am here now, walking around “inside” what was once his home. We even get to meet some of his men.

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Just like the Diocletian himself, they aren't always friendly.

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There are certainly no shortage of places to eat in Split; it is more a question of deciding where to eat.

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Homer and Eddie

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We settle on a pizza restaurant as we all had a big lunch and didn't really want anything too heavy.

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Homer and Eddie go off to climb a mountain – well, a small hill on the outskirts of town anyway – for a sunset view over the city and night time photos. Green with envy I decline as there is no way my knee is up to it.

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I buy a post card instead.

As an alternative to climbing the hill above, David and I take a walk along the waterfront before retiring for the night.

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Posted by Grete Howard 10:42 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Plitvice - Zadar

The beauty of nature is unsurpassed but man can add some excitement to the mix

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After an early breakfast we go off for one last look at the the park before leaving the area for the coast. We take the bus down to entrance one, and walk along the rim for spectacular views over the lakes and falls from above.

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No steps today, just a smooth gravel path with a slight incline; and “balconies” built out over the canyon for viewing.

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Some of the “balconies” overlooking the gorge have the view partly obscured by vegetation which is a shame.

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I make no apologies for the number of photos from this last glimpse and the most beautiful place in the world. This morning I so didn't want to get up; I so didn't want the hassle of getting the bus and walking; I so didn't want the trouble of putting up my tripod to get some milky shots of the waterfalls using my ND filter and a long exposure. I am so glad I did!

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I love how the guy standing at the end of the walkways has turned into a ghostly figure from the long exposure.

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It is with a heavy heart that we leave Plitvice and head for the coast. My knee, on the other hand, is grateful as by now it is hurting like hell. I take a double dose of painkillers (and some) and promptly fall asleep in the car. I wake up just as we come out of a tunnel and turn into a rest area. This is one of the strangest service stations I have ever seen – it is obviously very new, made on a plateau created from the rubble removed during the creation of the tunnel. The whole area is completely barren, and there is a huge welcoming sign advertising that they are open 24/7.

The café itself is almost as barren. A few chocolates and crisps, a selection of alcohol, 3 croissants and 2 rolls. We have coffee. There is plenty of available seating.

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It's like a ghost town until a Swedish two-dad family with three unruly kids invade. Time to leave.

By the time we get to the guest house in Zadar, Homer and Eddie are already having lunch in the conservatory. We join them for some Pršut and Paški Sir – the local ham and cheese.

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Pansion Delfin
The room has an unusual rounded wall, giving the impression we are in a ship.

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Zadar

The whole of the old town of Zadar is pedestrianised, and we are lucky enough to find a parking spot right by the gate that takes us through the old town walls, which we enter to wander around. The Old Town is a strange mix of old (no surprise there then) and some newer parts with fancy shopping streets; narrow alleys, pavement cafés and tacky souvenir shops.

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We have a map, as well as a self-guided walk which I printed off before leaving home, so we are able to figure out what we are actually looking at.

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St Chrysogonus Church
The Romanesque style church was named after Saint Chrysogonus the martyr, a patron saint of Zadar. The church and the bell tower are the only remaining preserved parts of the formerly large Benedictine abbey whose foundations were laid in the 12th century.

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Zadar is smaller than I expected from studying the map back home, and is easy to walk around, especially as it is all flat.

The Forum
This municipal square from the Roman era (1st - 3rd Century AD, so pretty darn old!) is one of the most important among the Adriatic ancient cities. The “Forum” is the name given to all main squares in the cities of the ancient Roman Empire, where the public life of the city unfolded.

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Pillar of Shame
Today is is an open square surrounded by what remains of the temple and buildings from the old days, as well as a couple of churches and the “Pillar of Shame” that was used to chain up people who had committed some misdemeanour or another. What a great idea!

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One thing that amazes me is that the whole area is open to the public, and you are free to wander all around, touch and sit on the 2000-year old stones, yet there is no graffiti or vandalism.

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St Mary's Church and Convent
On one side of the forum is the St Mary's Church, which dates back to 1091.
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The Church of St Donatus
The symbol of the city of Zadar, St Donatus Church from the 15th century was named after the Bishop who started the building of the church usings the remains of the Roman Forum in its foundations

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We walk down the narrow, cobbled alleyways and the wider shopping streets, watching life go by, before arriving at Narodni Trg Square which is surrounded by historic buildings.

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Narodni Trg Square

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City Lodge

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City Centinel

We join the many tourists and locals for a coffee at one of the numerous pavement cafés.

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At Trg Petra Jeronica Square, recent excavations under the pavement has been re-buried to preserve it, but parts are exposed with a glass floor where you can peek at the remains of this Roman city. Pretty cool!

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While we are there, busy photographing, we totally by coincident bump into Homer and Eddie, who took the bus into town some time before us.

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Madije Park
The park named after Queen Jelena Madije and was built on top of the Grimaldi bastion. Dating from 1829, it is the city's - and country's - oldest park, and quite unusual in being constructed on top of a military object. These days it is an oasis of peace with some lovely little cafés.

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The Land Gate
From the elevated position of the park there is a great view of The Land Gate , which was erected in 1543 as the main entrance to the city. Its Renaissance-style decorations include St Krževan on horseback (the coat of arms of the City of Zadar) and the Venetian lion.

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Next to the gate is the small Foša Harbour

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City Walls
Wanting a birds-eye view of the narrow streets of Zadar, we climb the City Walls. This wasn't, however, the view I was expecting...

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Most of the walls were built during the Venetian rule and it was once the largest city-fortress in the entire Republic of Venice. Today, they are mostly used as a car park, and the only view I find of interest is that of the footbridge from the mainland. Of course, David might disagree with that.

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We make our way back down into the city through the back entrance of a huge supermarket (with great views over aisles and aisles of produce) and head for the southern promenade called Obala Kralija Krešmira IV.

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Sea Organ
One of the main attractions here, it the Sea Organ, a novel idea which consists of several stairs that descent into the sea with 35 pipes of different sizes which create “music” (seven different chords and five tones) as the waves crash in. I have never seen – or heard – anything similar before and I rather like it. The sound is really quite peaceful and reminds me a little of South American pan-pipe music.

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In 2006 Croatian architect Nikola Bašić received the European Prize for Urban Public Space for his Zadar Sea Organ project, as the best among 207 candidate projects from across Europe.

The Greeting to the Sun
The other attraction here is the Greeting to the Sun. Created by the same architect who made the Sea Organ, this is a circle of 300 multi-layered glass plates with photo-voltage solar modules which store light from the sun during the day; while after dark a programmed scenario of ever-changing coloured lights move to the rhythm of the waves and the sounds of the Sea organ.

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While we wait for the sun to go down, we people-watch at this iconic spot.

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Any hopes of a good sunset are dashed by dark, threatening clouds looming on the horizon.

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We are joined by Ivan – the waiter who served us a lunchtime in our guest house – and his girlfriend Marta, who are out walking their dogs.

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Little by little the lights start coming on. I am sorry to say they are not as impressive as I expected.

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Suddenly my attention is dragged away from the man made light show in front of me, to one supplied by Mother Nature herself: LIGHTNING!

The lightning is frequent but irregular, and doesn't appear in any one particular spot, which makes it extremely hard to photograph as you cannot predict where it is going to happen next. There are some great forks across the sky, but I never manage to catch them. I do succeed in getting a few shots of the light show, but most are not in focus or very small in the frame. This is the only reasonable picture I get out of the lot of them!

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Eventually the lightning flashes are so faint and infrequent that I give up trying to photograph them, and while I havebeen busy looking elsewhere, the lights on The Greeting to the Sun have come on properly and are now brightly swirling around the circle.

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OK, I take back what I said earlier, this is actually quite cool.

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By the time we get round to thinking about eating, it is really quite late, so we ask Ivan for a recommendation for a good fish restaurant nearby. He suggests the Bastion, which is on the first floor of a four star hotel. We “umm and arr” about what to order and finally settle the fish of the day.

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The waiter comes over to us with the fish on a plate and we choose which ones we would like, settling on a John Dory and a scorpion fish, for the whole table to share. While he takes the fish back to the kitchen for them to cook, he brings us an amuse bouche of tuna in oil.

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Homer enjoys a bottle of local beer.

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When the fish is cooked, the waiter fillets it at the table and places a piece of each on a mound of potatoes and vegetables.

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The fish is very nice, albeit with quite a lot of bones.

The main shock comes with the bill. For the four us, with just 2 beers and four cokes, the bill comes to £250. Gulp. We call the waiter over and asks him to explain. The fish is priced by the kilo, and this is how much they charge. What an incredible rip off. We leave with a VERY sour taste in our mouth.

Posted by Grete Howard 05:31 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Plitvice Lakes National park

Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been!

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We are up early again this morning, so that we can be in the park just after it opens at 07:00, hoping to be there before the main part of the masses. One of the benefits of staying in the hotel within the park area, is that you get your one-day ticket extended for the duration of your stay, at no extra charge, through the hotel reception.

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Today we start at the bottom and work our way up – walking down those pesky 214 steps again to the jetty, where we see a nesting Housemartin.

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On the ferry we bump into Homer and Eddie who set off some time before us this morning.

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Coming out early has paid off, as for a long time we are almost alone on the paths.

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I prefer walking up as opposed to down, for three reasons – it is much easier on my knees, I feel less vulnerable for falling down the steps and I am facing the waterfalls rather than having to constantly turn around to look at them behind me.

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Around every bend of the boardwalk is a beautiful new vista. The whole place is almost unreal - the colours, the clear water, the pristine nature - like it belongs in a Disney fairytale.

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The path meanders, following the contours of the lakes – sometimes out in the open, other times surrounded by thick forest with dappled sunlight forcing its way through the leaves. Plus of course the ever-present waterfalls, cascading over rocks and roots, making their way to the lake below.

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In many places – where the terrain makes it feasible – there are strategically placed rustic benches, where you can sit and envoy these wonderful views.

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After yesterday's problems with the bouncing boardwalks, I try a different approach today: placing my tripod outside the path, actually in the lake/waterfall. This obviously only works where the water is very shallow, and it does feel pretty precarious; from the perspective of either the camera falling in the water, or me as I reach out to set it all up.

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So far we have really only seen small groups of two, three or four visitors, and a few have asked us to take their photo in front of the falls. Most want to return the favour, and eventually we agree.

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Here the elevated walkway is just a few inches above the tumbling, bubbling, gurgling water – I feel so in awe of the way they have laid out the paths here, and there are so many “wow” moments. The boardwalks obviously require a lot of maintenance, we see a number of brand new planks having been recently replaced. Not surprising that they rot, being partially submerged at all times.

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We've been seeing this waterfall – or rather series of falls – for quite some time now, and finally we are up close.

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Then more steps up and more waterfalls.

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Most of the steps are quite shallow thankfully, as there are a lot of them. I am counting the steps and it will be interesting to see just how many we will have walked today by the time we get back to base.

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There are a number of small pools, or dams, created by the action of moss, algea and bacteria, accumulating on top of each other to create a sensitive travertine barrier, which grows at the rate of around 1cm per year.

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The path follows the contour of these dams, meandering for miles around (and sometimes across) the many lakes.

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The national park is home to around 50 different species of animals, including the brown bear, but we knew we were quite unlikely to see many, if any. We spot a little frog in amongst the vegetation, that's all.

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We meet our first large tour group of the day, a group of mostly Asian women, complete with selfie sticks and face masks. Face masks? Really? In this pristine nature? What on earth are they afraid of catching?

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I have also seen a girl in high heels, a couple of mothers with babies in buggies and an elderly gentleman using a rollator. That's a challenge on these uneven paths with all the steps! Good for them!

The boardwalk is made out of roughly hewn logs rather than smooth planks, to blend better into the nature surrounding them. I think it works wonderfully. I am so taken with this place!

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From a distance you can hardly notice the paths unless there are people on them.

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In reality the boardwalk is only wide enough for two people to pass each other. Most people stay in a single line when they meet other hikers, but we come across two German ladies who are hell-bent on walking side by side while talking, so they push me off the edge as they pass. This even though I am using a walking stick and obviously hobbling along really carefully. Charming. Thankfully there is solid ground there, not a lake, or even worse, a waterfall with a steep drop.

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Here are some more pictures from the park. Just because I think it is soooooo beautiful!

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The sun is blaring down and walking up from the lower lakes is hot work, so we stop for a while on a bench in the shade at one of the larger lakes, admiring the amazing colours of the water, the stunning waterfalls, the iridescent damselflies, delicate dragonflies and generally just soaking it all in.

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From here the path leaves the main lakes and climbs up through the forest to reach the exit, still passing small pools with cascades of water tumbling into them.

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From the exit at the top, a bus runs back to the main gate by our hotel. The bus, which is basically a tractor with two trailers, ferries passengers between the three exits from the park and the two gates; all included in the price of the entrance ticket.

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Once back at the gate, we have lunch at the little café there, consisting of a cheese and ham roll, apple strudel and a bottle cider. David is in heaven! Finding cider in Croatia more than makes up for the fact that the roll is incredibly stale. The birds seem to like it though.

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Song Thrush

Back at the hotel we catch up on some sleep with a much welcome siesta, after which I go for a coffee and cake, while David wanders in to the park again.

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The following account and photos are courtesy of David:

I know Eddie wanted to join me, so I go and knock on their door. No reply. I check the café and the bar, no sign of him. Oh well, they've probably gone out exploring.

Taking the bus down to the Lower Lakes entrance, I take a different route to the one we did yesterday – instead heading downwards through a cave with lots of steps. There is no way Grete would have been able to do this with her bad leg. I say cave, but it is more like a tube or a diagonal tunnel, open both ends.

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The steps leads to the boardwalk we were on yesterday and continues on to the largest waterfall in Plitvice.

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Behind me I notice a series of steps rising up on the cliff face, and climb through another tunnel to the top where there are various viewing galleries over the gorge.

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The path continues to the middle lake where the boat takes me back to the bottom of the 214 steps, which I ascend to get back to the hotel.

Meanwhile, back at the hotel, I (Grete) am joined in the café-bar by Homer and Eddie. It appears that Eddie was asleep and Homer sitting on their balcony when David knocked, so they missed his call.

When David later comes back and joins us, we all have a few beers on the terrace before dinner while Eddie and I try to make sense of the politics in the region post-Yugoslavia.

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Steak with Gorgonzola sauce
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Posted by Grete Howard 03:46 Archived in Croatia Comments (1)

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