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Sunset Cruise from Mandina Lodges

What an amazing amount of birds!


View Galavanting in The Gambia 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

This afternoon we are taking another boat trip, this one with two added bonuses: a bottle of wine and the sunset! Hopefully. The sunset, that is, the bottle is most definitely present!

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My plan of action this evening is to take photos of birds just as they take off. I always like a challenge and to step outside my comfort zone. I start with this Long Tailed Cormorant.

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Fishing centre

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I have a soft spot for baobab trees

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Whimbrel

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Wattled Plover

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Black Kite taking off

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Palm Nut Vulture

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Great White Egret

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Preening

I think she's going to fly...

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Here she goes!

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It looks like she is having a blast!

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We see a tree full of Pink Backed Pelicans.

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Yellow Billed Stork

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African Spoonbill

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Goliath Heron

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Black Kite

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Blue Cheeked Bee Eater

The sun is getting low now, and depending which direction I point my camera, the sky glows a warm yellow, glistening in the ripples on the water surface.

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Great White Egret

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Common Sandpiper

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Sacred Ibis

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Sacred Ibis

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Whimbrels

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And they're gone

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African Darter

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Cattle Egret

The sun is only just above the horizon now, as we have entered an area enclosed on three sides by mangroves and an island in the middle.

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Max, the captain, explains we will wait here for the sun to go down and the birds to come back to roost.

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We see a few single birds flying around in the sunset, then coming in to the island to settle down for the night.

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The sun has painted the sky a deep orange now.

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Beautiful reflections on the water

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Where there were initially just one or two, they are now coming in thick and fast, it seems to be never ending, and they seem to appear from nowhere.

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More and more egrets are gathering in the trees, and when you think there is no room for any more birds, a whole lot of others arrive.

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It is hard to know where to look, the birds are coming from three out of four directions, and seem to suddenly appear out of nowhere from behind us with a whoosh. It is an air traffic control nightmare!

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When there is no more room at the inn and the light is fading rapidly, we start to make our way back to the lodge, stopping from time to time to take photos of the sunset. To say this evening's performance has been spectacular is an understatement!

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By the time we reach the hotel, darkness has all but enveloped Makasutu Forest and the twinkling lights of Mandina Lodge welcome us back.

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Dinner

As time is getting on, we go straight to dinner from the sunset cruise; the boat conveniently lands at the jetty right by the restaurant anyway.

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Pre-dinner drink of Pina Colada

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Prawn Cocktail

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Butter fish with Lyonnaise potatoes and a delicious home made tartare sauce

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David's Samosas

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Gambian Rice Pudding with ground peanuts - a very delicate flavour

We decline the offer of an early morning coffee in the room tomorrow, in favour of a lie in, and sneak off to bed after a magical day in Makasutu Forest.

Posted by Grete Howard 15:16 Archived in Gambia Tagged trees birds fishing reflections sunset pelicans kite africa dinner forest birding captain baobab stork vulture ibis egrets spoonbill birdwatching mangroves cocktail west_africa samosas cormorant gambia boat_trip fores sunset_cruise piña_colada darter roost plover bee_eater sandpiper the_gambia butter_fish mandina_lodges makasutu makasutu_forest whinbrel flying_birds birds_flying air_traffic_control prawn_cocktail rice_pudding Comments (5)

Mucumbili - - Santana - Agua Ize - São João dos Angolares

A day full of variety

-50 °C
View São Tomé and Príncipe 2018 - the Lost Islands in the Centre of the World on Grete Howard's travel map.

We wake to the sound of the waves and the chirping birds this morning, and sit on the balcony for a while just taking it all in.

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Laughing Dove

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São Tomé Prinia

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Fishermen going out for the day's catch

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São Tomé Speirops

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An endemic subspecies of the Vitelline Masked Weaver

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Newton's Sunbird - another endemic

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Yellow Billed Kite

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Pin Tailed Whydah

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São Tomé Thrush - the endemics are out in force today, adding to my life list.

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Bronze Mannikin

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Bronze Mannikin

The leaves are still wet from the overnight rain and the birds are using the raindrops for bathing.

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Evidence from last night still sits on the balcony table

The fishermen are out in force now, and from our elevated lookout point, we can so easily see where the shoals of fish are congregating.

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Cattle Egret

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Southern Cordon Bleu

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Beautiful bougainvillea close to our balcony

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Odd looking flowers

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Some sort of a tomato?

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Vitelline masked Weaver - an endemic subspecies

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Yellow Fronted Canary

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Yellow Billed Kite

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I have no idea what they are, but they are pretty

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Southern Cordon Bleu

We reluctantly tear ourselves away from the birds to go and have some breakfast.

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Water melon

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Omelette

I would love to stay here for another couple of days and just sit on the balcony watching the birds and listening to the waves; but we have places to go and things to see.

Neves

Our first stop is in the small settlement of Neves, which is a town of two parts, one of which is known as 'beer central' as it is the location of the country's beer factory, Rosema.

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A collection of ramshackle but charming wooden houses make up this small town, and I make friends with a few children – and adults – as I walk through and 'talk' with them using sign language and a lot of smiles.

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Even the pigs are cute

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São Tomé Central Market

We are back in the capital much quicker than I expected, and it seems the market is in full swing today.

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Private car ownership is fairly rare, and bus service infrequent and unreliable, so most people will take a taxi – or a motorbike taxi – when coming in from the outskirts to do their shopping in town.

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The local bus service

We are not staying in town this time, but heading south along the east coast.

I am very amused by this improvised mud-guard.

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Santana

We stop in the small town of Santana, partly to stretch our legs, and partly to hear the story of the statue of St Ana, mother of mothers.

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In the 16th century, a statue of St Ana was discovered on this site, and a chapel was built on the spot to mark the discovery. For whatever reason, the statue was moved away at some point. As soon as the statue left, the rivers dried up and all the vegetation died. The people of the town all got together and demanded that the statue was brought back, after which everything came back to life again as normal: the river flowed freely and the vegetation flourished.

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The old Sisters' House is now being used as a school.

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Like most of the coastal villages, the people of Santana rely mainly on fishing.

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Laundry day

Every day is laundry day at Abade River, with both banks full of people who come to clean themselves, their clothes, linen, and even bicycles, in the river.

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Agua Ize

As we turn off the main road to take a much smaller track winding its way through the rickety but charismatic small town of Agua Ize, I practice some 'drive-by-shooting'. Strictly with my camera, of course, through the open window of the car.

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It looks like it is laundry day here too.

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The whole town we see today was once part of a large plantation and the buildings were staff housing.

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The plantations at the time were like complete communities, with schools, shops, doctors and two hospitals, a small one for the black slave workers and a much better and larger one for the white European management. Only newly qualified doctors and nurses would be employed in the smaller hospital, and as a result many people died due to inadequate treatment.

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The hospital now lies abandoned and has become an unlikely tourist attraction.

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While the building is no longer in use as a hospital, and is in a sad state of disrepair, it can not really be described as 'abandoned'. These days the former wards are homes to several families.

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I channel my inner Urbex* as we ascend the rickety steps to the upper levels.

* Urbex = an expression given to photographers who explore abandoned buildings, usually by breaking in and often illegally in the middle of the night. The abbreviation stands for 'Urban Explorer.

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Boca de Inferno

Boca de Inferno, or Hells mouth, is a natural phenomenon caused by waves finding their way into a small ravine that leads to a series of grottos in the rugged coastline. A narrow channel funnels the waves around an 'island platform' and under a bridge of basalt stones; later spewing the water out the other side roaring and spraying. Many people have been swept away to their deaths while trying to brave the elements down on the rocks.

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Ribiera Afonso

We pass by the small town of Ribiera Afonso, one of the poorer areas of São Tomé. This place is inhabited by the descendant of the very first settlers, mostly shipwrecked Angolans, who fiercely cling to their traditional ways. Agostinho explains that they have only recently started wearing clothes.

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He also recounts how these people live from hand to mouth, fishing to survive day by day and refusing to plan for the future or even the next day. The local women are said to sleep with the men 'for a fish', resulting in a number of unwanted pregnancies and questionable parentage.

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Roça São João dos Angolares

We make it to this beautifully restored colonial plantation house in time for lunch. And what a treat lunch is. Run by the famous TV chef João Carlos Silva, this restaurant is firmly on the tourist circuit, and quite rightly so.

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Let me take you on a gastronomic journey through Africa and Portugal with a fusion of Sãotoméan and contemporary cuisine plus elements borrowed from other parts of the world: all lovingly prepared by Carlos Silva himself and his small army of friendly staff.

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While waiting for it to be our turn to be called up to the counter where the amuse bouche (which is charmingly translated as “spark of tongue”) is being served, I watch the Portuguese guests (part of a large party) screw their noses up and spit out whatever it is they have eaten. I am now very intrigued.

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First of all we are given a cocoa seed complete with surrounding flesh, which we are to suck on to separate the sweet flesh from the seed. I know from past experience (at a cocoa farm in Ghana) that this is something I really enjoy.

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After spitting the seed out, we take a small spoonful of grated ginger, a square of locally produced chocolate (chocolate from São Tomé is said to be world class) and a couple of peppercorns. So that is what disgusted the previous diners. It's an interesting combination, and both David and I love it!

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A small glass of red wine completes the first of many courses.

The second amuse bouche (or is that the third or even fourth? I have lost count already) consists of a small sliver of fried breadfruit.

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First starter: banana with Misquito flower (no idea), coranto leaf (also no idea), fish, onion, Taiwanese lemon, mango, passion fruit.

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Second starter: green pepper, apple, coconut, courgette, sweetcorn, tuna fish, avocado, ginger, pepper, grated roasted popinki mushrooms

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A small dish of fish roe is served with this.

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I am impressed with how this well-oiled organisation works, even when people arrive late, the staff seem to know who has had what course and they are all attentive and polite, despite the mad rush to get everyone fed. It seems to run like clockwork.

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Third starter: sweet potato, orange ball coated with manioc flakes, pineapple with coconut, okra, 'egg of fish', aubergine, watercress, cucumber. No being a fan of aubergine, okra or cucumber, this is the only dish I find less than superb.

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Fourth starter: malanga root dough wrapped around bacon, marlin, mango sauce.

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It soon becomes obvious that Agostinho comes here regularly, as he knows what all the ingredients are in the various dishes being served, and if he is unsure, the waiter describes them in detail. I am glad we have an English speaking guide though, as the waiters only speak Portuguese and French. My Portuguese is non-existent, and my French only marginally better.

Fifth starter: roast banana stuffed with bacon and cheese, tied with lemongrass, peanut and manioc flakes dipped in pepper.

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Sixth starter: octopus in tomato sauce, green cocoyam leaves, brown bean pueée, rice and egg ball.

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Seventh starter: tomato with misquite flower (still no idea), cheese and bacon; omelette with fever bush leaves (which I think is the same as cassava leaves), crispy deep fried taro dipped in tomato sauce with chocolate.

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Eighth starter: Roasted pineapple with honey, chilli, salt; roasted guava

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Ninth starter: roasted mango with passion fruit. Roasting it has made the mango incredibly sweet; I must try this at home.

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Meanwhile, several of the staff gather at the railings and are looking out over the edge of the balcony – it turns out that someone has been having a crafty cigarette (I have only seen one person smoking in this restaurant, so no points for guessing who), and somehow dropping the cigarette down onto a ledge below, starting a fire! Doh!

So, we have finally come to the main course, which is served buffet style: fish and bean stew, sweet potato, rice, grated cassava, extremely strong pickled green peppers.

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First dessert: crystallised green papaya, passion fruit sauce, Portuguese cheese.

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Second dessert: banana with chocolate, cassava curl, honey sauce.

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Third dessert: selection of ice creams – avocado, isakinki (?), frozen yogurt, lemon; cake, mango sauce

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That finally signals the end of this amazing meal, consisting of 3 amuse bouce, nine starters, a main course and three desserts. SIXTEEN courses in total. That is certainly the most dishes I have ever had for a menú degustación meal.

We collapse into the narrow four-poster bed for a much needed siesta. The room is in a charming traditional colonial style, with no A/C, but a super-efficient ceiling fan.

Later in the afternoon we take a stroll around the plantation house and estate.

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The gardens are filled with eclectic sculptures, some of which are a little too 'weird' for me.

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I am not sure whether Roça São João dos Angolares is a gourmet restaurant with rooms or a hotel with a gourmet restaurant. It certainly has a completely different feel to it now that all the tourists have left and the balcony is almost deserted.

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The main building has six quaint rooms; with a further three in the old hospital building across the yard.

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The main building

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The old hospital

We sit on the balcony with a glass (OK, bottle) of wine, watching the rain.

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At dinner there are only three tables with guests and there is an air of serenity about the place that was most certainly not here earlier.

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The restaurant is no longer a hive of activity with hoards of staff milling around, although there is still an impressive display of fresh fruit and vegetables, many of which are completely alien to me.

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Mosquitoes are kept at bay by a whole host of water-filled plastic bags hanging from the rafters. We saw this in Haiti a couple of years ago too, the idea is that the reflection in the bags scares the insects.

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This evening's meal is buffet style, and we start with a fish soup.

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Marlin in a mango sauce with rice and 'shoo-shoo'.

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Chocolate torte to finish

A few bats are accompanying us this evening, darting around at lightning speed, way too fast to even attempt to photograph. What an amazing day it has been, with such a lovely relaxing finish. Thank you yet again to Undiscovered Destinations for organising this fabulous trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:47 Archived in Sao Tome and Principe Tagged birds beer fishing statue market village river school africa wine birding photography chef fishing_boats chapel teaching hospital laundry abandoned blowhole santana hell's_gate bird_watching central_market neves eco_lodge urban_exploring undiscovered_destinations sao_tome urbex abandoned_hospital mucumbili twitching rosema rosema_beer são_tomé mother_of_mothers pupils agua_ize abade_river drive_by_shooting boca_de_inferno basalt rocky_coastline ribiera_afonso angolan_shipwrecks roça_são_joão_dos_angolares joão_carlos_silva tv_chef famous_tv_chef menu_degustacion tasting_menu sixteen_course_lunch Comments (3)

São Tomé - Agostinho Neto - Mucumbili

Sombre history and a west-coast hide-away paradise

-50 °C
View São Tomé and Príncipe 2018 - the Lost Islands in the Centre of the World on Grete Howard's travel map.

Memorial dos Heróis da Liberdade

Yesterday, at Trindade, we saw the memorial at the site of the Batepá Massacre where hundreds of natives were killed by Portuguese forces in 1953 during a rebellion, and Agostinho was telling us how they were “thrown in the sea, like animals”. Today we visit the spot, at Fernão Dias on the north coast, where those murdered were transported by the truckload and their bodies unceremoniously dumped in the sea off the now-defunct pier.

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A memorial has been erected here too, listing the names of all those killed in the fight for freedom.

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An abandoned ship lies off the coast as if to pay tribute to the fallen martyrs.

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Old Tree

We stop beside a tree, more than one hundred years old, for Agostinho to explain how they used to make canoes.

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I am more interested in playing with a young kid who is selling fruit at the side of the road.

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Agostinho Neto

Named after a benevolent Angolan doctor (late president of Angola) who fought fervently in the battle against Portuguese colonialism, the roça (plantation) and surrounding village is now mostly in ruins and lies partly abandoned.

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The abandoned hospital on the hill

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The old botanical gardens is now the governor's house

Many of the picturesque old buildings (these would have been for the managers) have survived and are now in use.

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Hospital

The old hospital, built as part of the roça (plantation), now lies abandoned, with a number of poorer families having moved into some of its many rooms.

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Unleashing my inner Urbex (Urban Explorer, a popular genre in photography), I wander around some of the abandoned halls and wards.

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Love the home made bicycle

Poverty

Categorised as a 'least developed country', São Tomé is mostly dependent on international aid, and is among the poorest in the world, with more than half of the population living below the poverty line, and 29% in extreme poverty.

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Pounding the corn is extremely hard work, and the locals find it very amusing that I would like to have a go.


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The population of São Tomé is relatively young, with children aged 0 to 14 years representing 44.4% of the population, yet only 38% attend secondary school.

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Blue Lagoon

This sheltered bay is popular with snorkellers as the pristine waters are teeming with fish.

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An ancient baobab stands on the beach – those of you who have followed my blog for a while will be aware of how fond I am of baobab trees.

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Picnic

At a small picnic area, we make a quick stop with coffee, juice, fruit and biscuits.

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This is the place where the Portuguese first arrived back in the 15th century.

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Star fruit. I explain to Agostinho that, although we buy these fruits in the UK, I have never seen one actually growing; and he promises to look out for a star fruit tree for me.

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Taiwanese guava, they taste a little like unripe pears.

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Agostinho calls these carozo nuts, but I believe we know them as 'tropical almonds' (Terminalia catappa). They taste very similar to regular almonds.

Here they are, growing on the tree:

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Dug-out canoes on the beach

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Tunnel

The road hugs the coast on the north-west of the island and at one stage it goes through São Tomé's only tunnel.

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It is a popular place to stop and take photos.

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The coastline here is rugged, with some interesting rock formations and crashing waves.

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As we head inland, we pass imposing old plantation houses and more modest wooden chalets.

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Roça Monte Forté

The old plantation buildings have now been turned into a guest house and restaurant, with a small craft centre and a garden bulging with fruit and vegetables.

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I love this place, it has so much character. The bedrooms look basic but more than adequate, with a bed, mosquito net and en suite bathroom.

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Basket weaving

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Cacao fruit

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Calabash fruit

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Cashew fruit - the nut is the curious dark thing hanging down below the fruit

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Lemon tree

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Love the modern TV screen on the rickety old veranda.

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David takes a pre-lunch snooze while I wander around taking photos.

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Bananas

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View from the balcony

This is the sort of place that we love staying in, but unfortunately it is not to be this time, as we are only stopping here for lunch.

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Grilled bonito fish with onions

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Pumpkin, carrots, cabbage and shoo-shoo (a type of courgette or marrow)

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Fried plantain

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Dessert: cashew fruit and papaya

Another first for the Howards: eating the fruit from the cashew nut tree. It is obviously not that common over here either, as Agostinho takes the rest home for his children, who have never tasted it, plus some seeds to grow his own tree in his garden.

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Mucumbili

After a leisurely lunch we make our way to Mucumbili, our fabulous eco-lodge for the night. We check in and are shown to our room, a rustic wooden cabin built on the edge of the wooded cliff, with a balcony on stilts overlooking the valley and ocean beyond.

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Each cabin has a name rather than a number and I am absolutely thrilled to find that ours is called 'Carambola', meaning star fruit.

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Not only that, we have a star fruit tree right outside!

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We spend the rest of the afternoon on the balcony with a bottle of chilled white wine, watching the birds and the fishermen.

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São Tomé Prinia, and endemic to this island

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São Tome Speirops, another endemic

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Southern Cordon Bleu

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São Tomé Sunbird - yet another endemic

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Bronze Mannikin - not a very good photo, but it is the only one I manage to capture as he is hiding behind long grasses

Above us circle a couple of Yellow Billed Kites, and butterflies and lizards abound.

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This is my idea of heaven: a gorgeous rustic lodge miles from the nearest habitation, lots of birds and other small critters to keep me amused, a glass of something enjoyable and the man I love with no other human sound (or sight) for hours.

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What we do hear, however, is a strange clicking sound. We spend a long time trying to work out what it is. After a while it becomes obvious that it is coming from a bird, but which one? Eventually we discover the answer: the small São Tomé Prinia is somehow flapping its wing in a manner to make a fairly loud clicking sound. How bizarre.

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The noisy little prinia

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Northern Cordon Bleu

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Sao Tomé Speirops

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Prinia

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Cordon Bleu

From our balcony we can see the fish jumping in the sea, causing small ripples on the surface of the water.

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The fishermen all make their way towards that area, but by the time many of them have reached the spot, the fish have moved on.

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Dinner

Dinner is taken in the open-sided restaurant, with each cabin having its own dedicated table.

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Vegetable soup

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Pasta with crab, cream and Parmesan cheese

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This is not quite what David was expecting when he ordered 'apple pie'.

After dinner we yet again sit on the balcony for a long while, taking in the sounds and sights of the jungle after dark. There is next to no llight pollution and the stars are out, but unfortunately so are the clouds for a lot of the time.

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And so ends another delightful day in paradise. Thank you Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 12:27 Archived in Sao Tome and Principe Tagged children birds fish fishing memorial kite paradise tunnel lizard birding fishermen bananas poverty heaven stars hospital baobab cacao rustic abandoned plantations bonito massacre astro martyrs blue_lagoon bird_watching roca eco_lodge undiscovered_destinations calabash astrophotography batepa_massacre prinia endemic_birds vinho_verde fernão_dias memorial_dos_heróis_da_liberdad agostinho_neto urbex abandoned_hospital star_fruit tropical_almonds rugged_coastline roça_monte_forte basket_weaving lemon_tree cashew_nut cashew_fruit mucumbili carambola life_list white_wine cordon_bleu speirops after_dark apple_pie Comments (4)

Free Day in Anjouan

Chilling in the hotel

During breakfast we have a chat with the two British guys and an American girl from the US Peace Corps, who have all been stranded on the island for the last couple of days as a result of the flights being grounded and the ferry not operating due to bad weather.

One of the men has an international flight connection tomorrow morning, and is getting a little concerned that he will miss it. If he has to make other arrangements and stay longer on the islands, he would be struggling, as he has very little cash left and, a very low credit limit on his credit card, and no easy way of getting hold of more cash. While I sympathise with his predicament, it does seem to be a rather irresponsible situation to leave yourself in, especially in a place like Comoros where spanners can – and will – be thrown in the works. He is very well travelled, trying to get to all the countries in Africa before he dies, so I find it all rather odd. I heard Patrice advice him yesterday that they should leave here at 06:00 this morning and go to the airport to sit there all day hoping for a ‘window of opportunity’. “Oh, I won’t be around that early, can you make it 07:30?” he asked Patrice. I find that even more odd – if I was worried about missing my international connection, sleeping in would be the last thing on my mind; I would want to be first in that queue at the airport.

Anyway, we see them all go off this morning, feeling hopeful for a seat on the small 9-seater plane that is flying a shuttle service between Anjouan and Moroni today.

When Patrice arrives, he collects our passports, and after he has taken the others to the airport, he will go and try to and get ferry tickets for us for tomorrow. He tells us he has spoken to the boat captain already this morning, who has assured him that there will be a sailing tomorrow. Inshallah.

Walk?

The area around the hotel is lacking in places of interest or even scenic beauty, with piles of rubble and heaps of trash lining the roads.

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It is too hot to have a longer walk further afield, so we decide to spend the day chilling in the hotel.

Al Amal Hotel

Not being very good at ‘chilling’, I wander around the hotel grounds to look for something to photograph. Anything. Maybe some good macro work? Or an interesting insect?

Nope. The hotel grounds are what you might call sparse. There is no outdoor furniture, no benches, nowhere to sit and enjoy the scenery. It’s pretty bare and rather bleak. I assume this was once a thriving terrace with a cafeteria, tables, chairs, and umbrellas; with stimulating conversation, subdued laughter, iced drinks and colourful cocktails… In the heyday of the hotel maybe? Did it ever have a heyday? I find it hard to imagine.

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I walk around the other side of the building to find the few flowers that do dot the grounds.

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And the scrawny looking local cat, eyeing me suspiciously.

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I do find a sparrow and a carpenter bee as well.

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Even lizards are in short supply.

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To say the hotel is run down is an understatement. It has certainly seen better days and could do with a spot of refurbishment and lots of TLC, but these days Comoros is such a poverty stricken country with tourism being almost non-existent, so I doubt if they are able to spare money for doing the hotel up.

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The entrance to the hotel from the car park

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The reception area to the left and the restaurant straight on.

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The restaurant

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The outside dining area

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The corridor leading to the rooms

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The fusebox on the landing

Swimming Pool

There is a fairly large swimming pool, and a small paddling pool, but no water. I am guessing it is not financially feasible to maintain a full pool with just a handful of tourists (just four at the moment).

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David decides to do a dry run anyway.

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Beach

With no water in the pool, maybe we should try the beach. There is a gate in one corner of the grounds, but it is locked. Which means going up the steep hill to the main road, through the sports stadium and down a series of steep steps to get to the beach. In your swimwear. No thank you.

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Fishing

We watch the fishermen for a while, working in teams of four, with one man in the boat, throwing out the nets, with the other three in the water, splashing around to frighten the fish into the net.

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Chilling on the balcony

Having exhausted the ‘leisure facilities’ in the hotel, we go to chill in the room. The bedroom is the only place with A/C (or at least some of them have), but there is no wifi, or chairs; the restaurant has wifi, but no A/C or comfortable chairs; the reception has comfy seating but no wifi or A/C. We grab a couple of chairs from the restaurant and sit on the balcony for a while in the shade.

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We brought some bubbles with us to play with the local kids, but haven’t seen any children around, so David has to play with himself.

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Sporting my 400mm lens, I do manage to capture a couple of birds from the balcony.

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Common Myna Birds

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Pied Crow

Tripadvisor

You know you are in a fairly obscure place, when even Tripadvisor is confused about where Anjouan is, showing a photo from Ait Benhaddou in Morocco on their site for the island.

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This hotel, despite being the 'best on the island', is not even listen on Trip Advisor. Yet. I have tried to add it and written a review so hopefully it should show soon. .

Even David’s mobile phone seems to have doubts about this place.

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Lunch

The restaurant is calling, as much for the wifi as for the food: with little to choose from, we have another chicken sandwich. Considering there is only the two of us in the restaurant, I am somewhat surprised that the sandwiches take 45 minutes to arrive. Not that we are in a hurry, quite the opposite.

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Patrice arrives with our passports and tickets for the ferry tomorrow. This looks promising. He tells us the others are still waiting at the airport, with a glimmer of hope for a seat on the plane this afternoon.

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The rest of afternoon is spent just chilling, a little siesta, a short walk, some internet time, a drink (non-alcoholic) in the bar… The usual stuff.

Dinner

This evening they have vanilla, but no lobster, so I have to make do with chicken in vanilla sauce. It is absolutely delicious. David has another pizza.

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Later Patrice joins us for a drink and confirms that the one British guy who has an international flight tomorrow morning did get away today, but not until 18:00 this evening. Once the pilot had finished his scheduled flights for the day, he took some of those passengers who were most desperate to go to Moroni in his nine-seater plane, charging them €160 per person. That still has to be worth it to save all the hassle associated with missing your international flight.

As it is still too early to go to bed, I attempt some astrophotography in the grounds of the hotel. There is too much light pollution to be successful, but I have a go anyway. At least we can see the Milky Way quite clearly.

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As soon as we get back to the room, we both complain of feeling nauseous. Some ten minutes later, David starts vomiting violently, followed almost immediately by me. Oh dear.

I go to bed, hoping that having got rid of the content that was bothering my stomach, it will settle it down now. No such luck. I still feel terribly nauseous. Half an hour later I also have diarrhoea. Followed almost immediately by David. It is one of those cases where you don’t know whether to sit on the toilet or kneel in front of it. Thankfully, our urgent bathroom visits do not clash at any time, but they do go on throughout the night. 27 times to be exact, and yes, I am counting.

By around 2 am there is no more water in the tank to flush the toilet, so we start using the reserve from the buckets. By 4am this has run out too. So has our drinking water. If we weren’t already feeling nauseous, we certainly want to be sick as soon as we enter the pungent bathroom. We both feel like wet rags that have been wrung out and turned inside out. We try to get some sleep, but really only doze. Vomiting doesn’t bring any respite or relief from the dreadful nausea, it is constant and overwhelming.

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The buckets in the bathroom. You will be grateful to know that there is no photographic evidence of tonight's experiences.

Food poisoning is all we need for tomorrow’s ferry crossing back to Moroni. Right now I just want to be able to say “Beam us up Scotty” and be transported to home. I eventually drift off into a restless slumber.

This adventure was arranged by Undiscovered Destinations, specialists in trips to unusual places.

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:17 Archived in Comoros Tagged water fishing beach hotel flight cat crow ta lizard chilling swimming_pool run_down frangipani decay passports runs bubbles astro sickness stomach tummy trip_advisor comoros nausea milky_way food_poisoning moroni anjouan al_amal_hotel mutsamudu chicken_sandwich hibiscus vanilla_sauce astrophotography diarrhoea Comments (2)

Chisinau - Cricova - Lalova - Orcheiul Vechi - Butuceni

A varied day for sure - city walking tour, wine tasting, boat trip and cave monastery

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View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day ONE of our private tour of Moldova, Transdniestr and Romania, arranged by Undiscovered Destinations.

As we weren't served any food on either of yesterday’s flights, it has been a long time since we last had a meal, so we head straight for the breakfast buffet this morning. And very nice it is too.

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Any place that serves champagne as a regular item on their breakfast buffet gets my vote.

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For holding the bread hygienically while cutting it, the restaurant provides plastic gloves. Very different - I have not seen this in any of the 650 or so hotels we have previously stayed in.

The Repulic of Moldova

And so it is time to start our exploration of Moldova, yet another of our trips to draw a response of “where’s that?”

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Until 1991, Moldova was part of the Soviet Union, and it sits between Ukraine and Romania in Eastern Europe. It has a chequered history, but now appears to be very stable, politically. The name ‘Moldova’ comes from the river of the same name, which again is said to have been named by a 14th century prince whose dog called Molda drowned in the river.

Itinerary

We are amused to receive a very detailed itinerary from the local agent, setting out our days minute by minute. I see the old Soviet regimented precision style is very much alive and well.

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Chișinău

We start our sightseeing in the capital. Dating back to the 15th century, most of the older buildings in Chișinău were destroyed by extensive bombing during WWII. Rebuilt on a typical Soviet grid system of streets, the city now contains one of the highest proportions of green spaces found in any large European city.

Cathedral

Built in 1936; the cathedral suffered serious damage during WWII, but has since been reconstructed to its current state and today it is the main Russian Orthodox place of worship in Chisinau, as well as the biggest church in Moldova.

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As we enter the church, we can hear singing emanating from inside. There is a service on, and we are not permitted to take photographs of the gilded and highly decorated interior.

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Arc de Triomphe

Built in 1841, the Triumphal Arch was constructed to commemorate the victory of the Russian Empire over the Ottoman Empire in 1829.

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A bell was made by copper smelted down from cannons captured from the Ottomans during the Russo-Turkish war, to be installed in the arch. Unfortunately, when the bell was completed, they discovered that it was too big to fit in to the space allocated, so a separate belfry had to be especially constructed nearby to house the bell (hence the tower between the arch and the church). Doh!

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Belfry

The current bell tower is a replica and was built in 1961 to replace the original, which was destroyed during the Soviet era.

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Parliament

During the civil unrest in 2009 that caused some serious damage to the building, the parliament moved out, to return in 2014. Today we see preparations in place for tomorrow’s celebrations of Army Day, including lines depicting an outline map of Moldova. This national holiday was established to celebrate the anniversary of the establishment of Armed Forces of Moldova in 1991 after the country declared independence from the Soviet Union.

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Ştefan cel Mare Monument

Stefan The Great is a national hero who defended the country against an Ottoman invasion in the 15th century. This sculpture replaces a previous statue to Alexander II (destroyed in 1918 by the Romanian authorities).

It’s a well-travelled monument: being moved to Vaslui (East Romania) in 1940, then two years later returned to Chisinau. A couple of years after that it again travelled to Romania, to finally be returned to Chisinau in 1989.

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City Hall

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Giant chess set

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Monument to popular folk musicians who died in a car crash.

Complexul Memorial Eternitate

Commemorating the Soviet soldiers who fell for the liberation of Chişinău and Moldova during the Second World War, this striking memorial is made up of five stylised ‘rifles’ coming together in a pyramidal point some 25 metres above a central eternal flame.

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Cricova – an Underground Wine City

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Who knew Moldova was famous for its wines? Not me for sure.

Moldova is in fact a country full of wine, vineyards and wineries, with 360,000 acres of the stuff, mostly for export. 250,000 acres of that are commercially grown vines, the rest are smaller family businesses, with grapes strands and recipes that have been handed down through generations.

A very commercialised and slick operation, our visit to Cricova Winery starts with a ‘train’ journey into their cellars. And what cellars they are!

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The wine cellars of Cricova are the second largest in Moldova (after Milestii Mici, which are the largest in the world), boasting 75 miles of underground labyrinthine roads descending to a depth of 100 metres).

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In the 15th century, mines here were excavated for limestone to be used as building materials in the construction of Chisinau; the tunnels were later converted to an underground wine emporium in the 1950s. During WWII, wine barrels were used to hide Jews from the Nazis, and Putin is said to have celebrated his 50th birthday here.

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Pictures of some of the famous people who have visited Cricova Winery.

We are taken on a journey through some of these cellars, first by ‘train’, then a short walk amongst the barrels accompanied by an informative talk about the winery.

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Later, after another little ‘train’ journey, we see an English film about Cricova and its history.

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In the bottling room the guide explains how six workers – all female – spend their days turning the bottles of sparkling wine. One woman can gently twist 50,000 bottles in two days. That sounds like a soul-destroying job to me.

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Part of our group consists of a 13 strong stag party from Israel, who do seem to have already been drinking rather a lot. Despite the guide frequently requesting: “Please do not touch the bottles”, they seem unable to restrain themselves.

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The first time they burst into patriotic songs it is amusing, the next dozen times it just becomes plain annoying. The guide is having a hard time trying to control them, with the rest of us becoming increasingly frustrated by their lack of respect and general disruptiveness.

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Around 50% of the roads are used to store the 1.25 million bottles of wine, the oldest dating back to 1902. I wonder if they would miss a couple? The porosity of the limestone creates a perfect environment to store wines, where the temperature is about 12 °C all year round.

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Not only is the winery full of underground 'streets' where wine is stored, there is a whole little city here, complete with meeting rooms and lounges for relaxing, and it is very popular as a wedding venue.

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The Presidential Suite

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Meeting Room

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Working fireplace with a 60m high chimney!

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Map of the underground city!

At the end of the tour we are shown in to a nautically-inspired Tasting Room. Thankfully the Israeli stag party have not paid for tasting, so we manage to lose them. There are eight of us: a delightful couple of Asian-Africans from London who are here for a friend’s wedding, a young couple from Poland and their friend who have hitch-hiked their way here, a lone Italian guy and us. It is all very civilised.

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Each table setting has two wine glasses plus one for champagne and another for water. There is also a selection of snacks to help clear the palate and soak up the alcohol.

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Four wines are being offered: a very fresh white wine, a light rosé, a very drinkable red and a rather enjoyable sparkling wine; with each one being explained to us.

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Wine making is certainly not a new thing to Moldova – the tradition dates back 5000 years, and is a major contributor to the country’s economy: 25% GDP and 50% of total export earnings. Not only that, this small country (4.5 million inhabitants, about the size of Holland) ranks as 7th amongst the top wine exporters of the world. And to think I have never before tried a Moldovan wine! Until today, that is.

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Before we leave there is the opportunity to purchase some of the wines, at a cost of ca. €2 per bottle. Bargain! We get a red and a rosé, and the couple from London buy a whole case of sparkling wine to take to the wedding.

Moldovan Countryside

Heading out of town, the surroundings change dramatically, from a modern post-Soviet big city, to an eastern European peasant society with donkey carts, one-storey wooden houses in desperate need of modernisation, and frequently-used wells along the side of the road.

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After the pre-lunch snifters, it is time for a siesta in the car until we turn off the main road on to a washer-board effect dirt track. The scenery is picturesque with rolling hills, blue-domed churches and far-reaching fields of sunflowers.

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Lunch at Hanul lui Hangana

Our next destination is the village of Lalova and the Hanul lui Hangana Guest House where we are taking lunch in a beautiful rural setting overlooking the Dniester River.

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Soups are customary for every meal in this part of the world, and we start lunch with a chicken noodle soup called zeama, which is served with smetana (Russian style soured cream) and a whole fresh chilli for nibbling.

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Valeriu is horrified when I pick up the chilli and go to take a bite from it; shouting out the warning: “it is very hot, be careful; it is REALLY hot”. I just smile and carry on, while David reassures our very caring guide that “she will be fine, don’t worry”. Which of course I am.

Branza, the home made brined cheese, reminds me of feta cheese – it is very salty and absolutely delicious, way better than its more famous counterpart! Out of politeness I take one of their home grown cucumbers, despite this being just about the only food I do not like the taste of. I try it to see if my tastes have changed. They haven’t. I eat it out of courtesy, but make sure I have plenty of tasty cheese and the scrummy tomatoes to take the taste away afterwards.

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Stuffed cabbage leaves is another popular dish in this region, where it is known as sarmale.

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Just as I think we cannot possibly eat any more, a dish of cheese-stuffed pastry, called plej placinta, is brought out. They are really fresh and doughy and I wish I could have room for more.

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Throughout the meal, home brewed wine is flowing freely for us with freshly made peach juice for Leonid the driver and Valeriu the guide.

Boat trip on Dniester River

As we walk from the guest house down to the river, we notice a Land Rover parked in the water and muse whether it is a local car wash. It seems a rather odd sight, but we soon forget about it.

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At the end of a small naturally made ‘jetty’, a speedboat is waiting to whisk us off for a trip on the Dniester River.

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The boat is fast, and skims the surface as it speeds past fishermen and fishing birds.

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Many fishermen spend considerable time on the river, staying in specially constructed floating cabins, some of which are quite elaborate and look rather comfortable.

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The opposite bank of the river is Transdniestr, the breakaway nation that sided with Russia during the disbanding of the USSR, despite being officially part of Moldova. A self-declared republic, relations with Moldova are tense after bloody skirmishes in 1992, followed by an uneasy ceasefire.

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Tipova Monastery

From the river we get a good view of Tipova, the largest cave monastery in Eastern Europe. The monastery dates back to the 10th century AD, and is best known as the place where Stefan cel Mare, the local hero who defended Moldova from the Ottomans in the 15th century, got married. The caves have now been turned into a museum.

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In the distance we see what looks like a lighthouse, but as we get nearer we discover that it is in fact the sun reflecting on the gold roof of a church, creating a bright beacon of light! Totally surreal!

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The boat trip is serene and exhilarating at the same time, as we watch eagles soar above and the sunlight sparkling on the surface of the river.

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On returning to the shore, we discover why the Landrover is parked in the water, as the captain floats his boat on to a submerged trailer to pull it back on land.

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For me, one of the highlights about the boat trip is listening to Valeriu in the car afterwards. I am assuming from his exuberant comments that it was his first time in a speedboat, and he is waxing lyrical about the experience, exclaiming that is was the highlight of his day.

As we continue on our journey, Leonid tells me that the owner of the guest house where we had lunch was convinced I was from Romania, because I "spoke fluent Romanian" (the language of Moldova). My conversation with her consisted of the only four words I know in Romanian: “hello”, “please”, “thank you” and “goodbye”. I feel flattered and amused in equal parts.

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David talks to the locals.

Orheiul Vechi (‘Old Orhei’)

The name ‘Old Orhei’ comes from the word ‘orhei’, meaning ‘fortification’; referring to the original (ie old) city built in this place. The position - on a ridge overlooking a valley on one side (now a village) and the river on the other, is certainly strategic.

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The earliest discoveries in this ‘smorgasbord of civilisations’ is a Late Palaeolithic camp site, believed to be some 25,000 years old – give or take a few thousand years. Other settlements date from Copper Age (4,500-4,000 BC), Iron Age (1,200-100 BC) and the medieval period (500-1,550 AD).

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Today Oheiul Vechi is an open-air museum, showcasing a number of man-made caves that pre-date Christianity in the region, created some 2000 years ago by the Dacian tribes. Orthodox monks turned some of the caves into a monastery in the 13th century; and occupied the site right into the 18th century. In 1996, a handful of monks returned to the cave monastery and have since been working on its restoration.

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Here you can see the caves hewn out from the limestone rock underneath a much later chapel (as well as people standing outside the cave on a ledge). We climb up a number of stairs to reach the chapel, followed by a number of stairs down to reach the cave.

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The evening service is just finishing off as we arrive, with solo chanting creating a spiritual atmosphere. We are the only people here, apart from three monks.

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The cells where the monks stayed are very spartan – they would sleep on the hard concrete floor without the use of any mats, and the ceiling was kept deliberately low so that they would have to stoop. The current monks are no longer living here.

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There is a great view over the valley from the ledge outside.

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Ascension of St Mary Church

Built in 1905, the church has recently been restored after it was shut down in 1944 and abandoned during the Soviet era. Services resumed in 1996.

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Butuceni Agro-Rural Pension

Situated in the small village of the same name at the bottom of the ridge, Butuceni Agro-Rural Pension is a collection of traditional peasant houses set inside mature gardens. We are warmly welcomed by the owner, whose English is only marginally better than my Romanian.

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Our room is large and comfortable, with the traditional style under-bed heating!

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In the grounds we find an adorable and playful kitten who keeps us occupied for some considerable time.

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As the light fades, dozens and dozens of house martins hang around on the telegraph wires before retiring for the night.

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Dinner is scheduled for 20:00, but when we wander around the grounds a few minutes before, we are unable to locate a restaurant. Or any sign of human life inside or outside the building.

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After much searching we discover a faded sign on the outside wall of the pension, directing us to the restaurant 200 metres along the road.

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We find the restaurant but it seems to be full of a wedding party, who all stare at us as we walk through. As there doesn't seem to be any other rooms where food is being served, we ask a girl in a national costume (who looks like she works there) about the ‘hotel restaurant’. She speaks no English and my Romanian doesn’t stretch that far; so David holds up the room key while I make eating motions with my hands. She gestures towards some stairs at the back of the hall, and we clamber through a pile of DJ equipment to reach them.

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At the top of the stairs is a very unwelcome closed door that we reluctantly open, leading into a room with one long table full of tourists, who all turn around and stare as we stand there somewhat lost and bewildered. We find a small table suitable for two people and sit down, not quite sure what to do next.

After what feels like a long, awkward period (but is probably just a few minutes), a waitress walks in, and while she initially looks at us quizzically, her face suddenly lights up and she flashes us a lovely warm smile before rushing off again. OK… now what?

She returns with food. Lots of food. Bottles of water and a jug of home made wine. Then more food.

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I love the home made cheese, the tomatoes are really tasty too; and there is enough Placinta du Branza (cheese pie) to feed a large family.

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Friptură de porc (stew) with smetana (soured cream) and branza (brined cheese); served with mămăligă (polenta) which the waitress cuts into segments using a thin string.

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For dessert there is Placinta cu visine, a delicious sour cherry pie.

We feel really bad for leaving so much of the food, and hope there are some very well fed pigs around (in addition to us). All the dishes are delicious, but we had a very late lunch, and there really is way too much food for two people!

We waddle back to the accommodation and retire to bed after the long and varied first day in Moldova.

Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging our trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:42 Archived in Moldova Tagged food fishing boat travel river adventure rural wine lunch pie winery tourism speedboat chisinau vinyards cheese moldova pastry boat_trip polenta orheiul orheiul_vechi dniester_river spee_boat placinta hanul_lui_hangana bryndza plej_placinta sarmale zeama moldovan_food butuceni butuceni_agro_rural_pension mămăligă cricova cricova_winery smetana branza Comments (0)

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