A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about undiscovered destinations

Muscat

Half a day in the capital


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Having arrived at the hotel at 03:30 this morning, we miss breakfast totally and sleep through until we are woken by Housekeeping at 11:00. I am sure this is a sign of getting old: some 30 years ago we would have been up at 07:00 to make the most of our time here in Muscat; today we thoroughly enjoy the lie-in and leisurely start.

Al Falaj Hotel

Named after the traditional irrigation channels that Oman are famous for, the hotel is in a residential suburb of Muscat, with very little around in the way of amenities. The hotel itself, however, is very pleasant, with super-friendly staff, a nice pool and comfortable rooms.

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Hotel entrance

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Lobby

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Self-playing piano in the lobby

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The outside dining area

Interestingly, it has a Sri Lankan Tea Shop off the lobby and a Japanese Restaurant on the top floor.

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Lunch

While not being at all keen on a buffet lunch, there really isn't much choice here. The mezze starter selection is nice, and I enjoy the tabbouleh and hummus in particular.

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Mezze selection

The chicken is a little too dry and I am intrigued by the 'bacon', which looks and tastes exactly like regular bacon. As Oman is a strict Muslim country, pork is banned, so it is probably turkey, but it is certainly a very good imitation.

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Thinking this is labneh in oil, I am very disappointed to find it is in fact pickled Brussels sprouts. I guess it was meant to be for decorative purposes only...

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Fresh fruits and desserts

The chocolate mousse is even better than it looks!

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Aslam, the restaurant manager, comes over to chat with us. Like most of the staff, he comes from Sri Lanka. That could explain why all the main course dishes are Indian-style.

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There are some nice decorative touches in the restaurant too.

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Old Muscat

At 15:00 Said, our guide for the next eight days, picks us up for a short tour. First he stops for a view over Old Muscat, with the City Gate, Forts and Palace clearly visible.

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Bait Al Zubair Museum

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Photography is not allowed inside the museum unfortunately, which is a great shame as there are some amazing displays: clothing and jewellery, including the khanjar, the ornamental dagger worn on a belt. Mannequins show the traditional costumes from various parts of Oman, much of which seems to be inspired by Indian outfits. The Omani wedding displays are my favourite.

Scaled models show the four main forts of Oman: Nizwa, Quriyat, Jabrin and Al Hazm.

The section dedicated to guns is of less interest to me than the kitchen utensils and cooking implements. I am particularly taken with the Al Dallah, the coffee pots that look like they are taken straight out of an Arabian fairytale.

The second part of the museum, housed in a different building, shows old photograph from Oman before the Renaissance of 1970, when the current Sultan turned the country around from a poverty-stricken backwater with just three schools and one hospital in the entire country; to the modern progressive nation we see today.

There is also a wonderful exhibition with winners from a recent photographic competition. Absolutely breathtaking photographs!

Rooms are set out as they would have appeared in the living quarters of the late Sheikh Al Zubair bin Ali (founder of this museum) in the 1940s and 50s. It is interesting to note that most of the furniture came from England and India.

Amongst the exhibits are two items that make me feel particularly old – my very first camera (Kodak 66) and a desk caddy very, very similar to the one I inherited from my grandmother.

The grounds of the museum are nicely laid out, with further exhibits and a miniature village scene.

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There are also a number of these sponsored painted goats dotted around the grounds.

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Kalbuh Bay Park

After a refreshing juice stop, we continue to the Muttrah Corniche from where we will watch the sun set over Muscat.

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The park is a lovely little haven, with fountains and pavilions; and is popular with locals and tourists alike.

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David climbs the watchtower for a better view

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David's view

I love the way the low sun makes the hills disappear into misty oblivion, with paler colours on the further away peaks.

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Off shore is the Sultan's private yacht – better looking than any cruise ship!

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On a hill above the park stands a giant frankincense burner

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Tourists are ferried around the harbour in dhows, the traditional ships historically plying these waters.

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As the sun gets lower, the colour of the sky intensifies.

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Going, going, gone

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We stay for a while after the artificial lights come on along the promenade and on the giant frankincense burner.

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Kargeen Caffe

Tonight is the only night where food is not included, so we wanted to make the most of it by choosing a restaurant very carefully. Usually included hotel dinners tend to be international buffets, and I wanted to try some traditional Omani food. I spent a fair amount of time on the internet searching for somewhere not too touristy, but not so traditional that we have to sit on the floor. This is what I came up with, and we certainly aren't disappointed as we walk in: the place oozes atmosphere. The clientele is a mixture of ex-pats, tourists, families and trendy young Omanis.

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I am not sure how I feel about being watched by a couple of sheep while I eat...

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Labneh plate and breads

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Traditional stuffed bread

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Main course of shuwa and chicken biriyani

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Shuwa - tender lamb traditionally cooked for 24-48 hours in an underground oven.

What a lovely way to end our first day in Oman. Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 11:38 Archived in Oman Tagged sunset sheep museum oman buffet muscat dhow corniche mutrah undiscovered_destinations al_falaj_hotel old_muscat lunch_buffet bait_al_zubair muttrach_corniche muttrah kalbuh_park kargeen_caffe shuwa labneh Comments (3)

Bristol - London - Istanbul - Muscat

Let the adventure begin


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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Sunday 11th February 2018

Premier Inn, Heathrow

Our second attempt at travelling to Oman (being hospitalised with pneumonia saw us cancelling this same trip last year) starts with an overnight stay in a Premier Inn at Heathrow. We do enjoy getting our holidays off to a leisurely start, especially when we have an early morning flight the following day.

At the Thyme restaurant, we enjoy a nice dinner, a few drinks and in my case, a bit of eye candy in the form of the cute Spanish waiter, Pedro.

Grete: “I am enjoying the view”
David: “You are old enough to be his grandmother”

Oh well, a girl can dream...

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A nice fruity cider

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David prefers the regular apple flavour

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Firecracker noodles with chicken - delicious

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David's chicken escalope with sweet potato fries

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David looks lovingly at his liqueur coffee

Monday 12th February 2018

For some reason I never sleep well the first night away on any trip, and this one is no exception.

FlyDrive Meet and Greet

The car is covered in frost as we make our way from the hotel to the terminal building at Heathrow. We have booked a Valet Parking service, but struggle to find the right entrance to the parking area. As we pull off the main road, there are three gates leading to the car park, but only the one barrier on the far right leads to the floor we need to be on, something we realise too late. After the expensive mistake (£4 charge to get out after driving around the 2nd and 3rd floor realising we are in the wrong place), we drive around the block twice before finally locating the right entrance. Third time lucky.

The car parking people were supposed to have called us half an hour before our expected arrival time, but they didn't; and when we try to phone them, the line just goes dead. To add insult to injury, when we do finally find the attendants on the 4th floor, they have no record of our booking. This does not bode well.

Heathrow Terminal 2

We leave the car with them and check in for our flight, then head for some breakfast.

While taking my order, the chatty young waiter asks if I want to add some “beans, bacon, massage..”?

“Massage? Ooh, yes please!”

“Sausage madam, sausage”

Oh dear, you can't take me anywhere.

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Scrambled egg and smoked salmon. Not a sausage (or massage) in sight

London - Istanbul

The plane carrying us on the second leg of our journey from Heathrow to Istanbul appears to have been built for midgets, as I don't even have room to put my legs straight, they have to go either side of the backrest in front.

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Istanbul Airport

At the Security check in Istanbul, the guard asks me where I am going.
“Muscat”
“Where is that?”
“Oman”
“You are going to Oman? On holiday?”

Istanbul airport consists of long, seemingly endless, corridors, with no information boards to indicate which gate we should be heading for to catch our connecting flight. We finally reach the food court, and as we have plenty of time here (we deliberately caught an earlier flight from London as we have missed connections a few times in the past), we grab a bite to eat and drink at the amusingly named Tickerdaze Restaurant.

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Chicken fajita at the front, David's mixed fajita at the back. Very nice they are too

Istanbul - Muscat

We strike lucky on the flight from Istanbul to Oman, snagging a complete row to ourselves, meaning we can spread out with a spare seat in the middle. There is also a bit more legroom on this plane, making for a much more enjoyable flight.

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Muscat Airport

First we join a long queue to purchase our visa, then for immigration. At least the line is shorter than the one for the 'pre-arranged visas', which consists mainly of migrant workers, predominantly from the Indian subcontinent. Apparently, 800,000 of the 4 million inhabitants in Oman are Indians, something that has influenced the Omani culture (especially food) much more than I realised. More about that in future blog entries.

Surprisingly, there are no questions about "how long", "where", "why" etc. when we get to the immigration counter; we sail straight through to the baggage reclaim area where our luggage is already waiting for us. It is all very civilised, and once we're through the X-ray, our driver is waiting to take us to our hotel in Muscat.

Al Falaj Hotel, Muscat

The hotel is expecting us and once we've completed the form and they've copied our passports, the porter shows us to our room. It is now 03:30, but as we are both wide awake, we break open the Duty Free rum and raid the minibar for Coke and Pringles.

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Welcome to Oman.

Apologies for the poor quality photographs, all taken with my mobile phone.

Posted by Grete Howard 09:58 Archived in Oman Tagged flights oman heathrow muscat duty_free london_heathrow undiscovered_destinations turkish_airways premier_inn istanbul_airport flydrive valet_parking al_falaj_hotel captain_morgan Comments (2)

Moroni - Dar es Salaam. Or maybe not.

More problems


View Comores 2017 - Cloud Coup Coup Land or Secret Paradise? on Grete Howard's travel map.

Some of you may remember the saga we had with our international tickets before we left home:

1. The Precionair cancelled tomorrow's flight from Comoros to Dar es Salaam, and re-booked us on Air Tanzania departing at the same time.

2. Emirates, however, issued us with tickets for the section Moroni – Dar es Salaam for today on Ethiopian Air.

Going by what happened on the way over here (Air Tanzania had no record of our booking), it is anyone’s guess where and when we are booked.

Much as I would obviously much rather take the Air Tanzania flight tomorrow, if we don’t turn up for the flight today that has been booked by Emirates, there is a real danger that they will cancel the rest of the homeward flights (that is industry-wide policy: passengers who fail to utilise any part of a flight schedule, are deemed as no-show and all further sections are then cancelled). Hence the reason why we have to travel today as per Emirates itinerary. It means having to get a hotel room in Dar, plus transfers from and to the airprot, so it really is a bit of a nuisance.

Omar arrives early this morning to tell us about the plans for today. He explains: “Ethiopian Air is a very big plane with lots of people and long, long queues. Very, very slow.”

He has therefore arranged for a driver to come and pick up our bags at 09:30, who will stand in the queue for us for a couple of hours (in the hot sun). Another driver will then pick us up at 11:30, by which time the first driver and our bags will hopefully be very near the front of the queue and we can just take over. Now THAT is what I call fantastic customer service.

But it gets better.

A little later Omar phones to inform us that there has been a “change of plan”. My heart sinks. But not for long. Somehow Omar has managed to arrange a VIP pass for us, so that we don’t have to join the queue at all, we can just walk straight in. Wow! These guys are really pulling the stops out to make our journey as smooth and easy as possible.

Moroni Airport

When we arrive at the airport at 11:30, the queue still reaches the grounds outside the terminal building. I can only imagine what it would have been like at 9:30, especially after the slow check in for the ferry we experienced the other day. We walk up to the security guard checking tickets at the entrance to the building, flash our VIP pass and we’re in! Bypassing the long line of passengers snaking around inside the terminal building itself, we really do feel like VIPs – but we are also uncomfortably aware of the stares from the other passengers who have waited a long time. I wonder if Omar also senses this, as he holds the all-important piece of paper in such a way that the words VIP are clearly visible to everyone.

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Ethiopian Air opens up a new check-in desk, just for us. I guess we are very important then. I hand over our tickets and explain we are only going as far as Dar es Salaam, not Addis Abeba as per the notice board. The clerk looks confused. He checks his computer, then calls a supervisor over. He hands back my paperwork: “We have no record of your booking”. I protest: “But we have a ticket!” The clerk agrees that my reservation number is on their system, but our tickets have been cancelled. Groan. Does that mean our homeward flights on Emirates from Dar have been cancelled too? It doesn't even bear thinking about.

Even more confusingly is that it transpires that although this flight will be landing in Dar es Salaam to refuel on its way to Addis Abeba, they do not have permission to let passengers disembark there. It seems the flight, that Emirates allegedly booked us on, doesn’t even go to Dar; there is absolutely no way we will be travelling to Dar es Salaam on this flight today. So what on earth were Emirates playing at issuing us with an itinerary to include this flight? I guess we’ll never know.

At this stage I am feeling rather travel weary, and a little concerned about the other flights we have booked for the return journey. I ask Omar if we can check with Air Tanzania to make sure we are on their flight tomorrow. No such luck: today is Friday and the office is shut. We will just have to hope for the best and come back tomorrow.

Itsandra Hotel

There is only one thing to do: return to the hotel and hope they still have rooms for tonight. They do. In fact, they give us the same room as we had last night.

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Undiscovered Destinations

I ring Undiscovered Destinations (back in the UK) from the front desk to ask their advice – can they I go ahead and buy a ticket for us on Air Tanzania tomorrow? I would rather be double booked so that I know I will get to Dar es Salaam tomorrow and wont miss my international connection.

UD refer me back to what I was saying earlier: if we already have tickets, and the system sees that there are two bookings with the same name and DoB, they will automatically cancel one. This could, and probably would, then lead to us being deemed as ‘no-show’, with the Emirates flight cancelled. Groan. Again, the only thing we can do is hope all is OK tomorrow. At least if we get to Dar, we can fight it out with Emirates at the airport there, should they have cancelled onward flights too. So, basically Undiscovered Destinations are not able to help us with this, however much they may want to.

At this stage I must point out that we did not book our flights through Undiscovered Destinations, so they have no obligation, nor ability, to make any changes or observations in respect of our flights. They have been very supportive indeed of all the problems we have encountered while here in Comoros, all of which have been outside their control. As soon as they heard that we were unable to get to Mohéli Island, they sent an email to assure us that they will cover any extra expenses we might occur as a result of any itinerary changes. I cannot praise their consideration to customer satisfaction enough. This is why it pays, in the long run, to book through a UK based company when travelling to countries that are generally unprepared for tourism.

Lunch

We take our usual place on the terrace and ask about lunch. David holds up his menu and points half way down the page: "I'll have one of those please", much to our favourite waiter’s amusement.

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My tummy still feels very fragile, so I order something familiar: spaghetti bolognaise. “No bolognaise sauce”. What about pizza? "No pizza. We are waiting for a delivery of cheese". I order spaghetti Nepolitana, with just a plain tomato sauce. Five minutes later, the waiter comes back: “No tomato sauce”. We can have spaghetti with chicken in a white sauce. Whatever. That will have to do… Perhaps that empty menu was trying to tell us something.

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I eat the pasta and the sauce, but leave the chicken as my stomach is nowhere near right yet.

Red Guava

We also get some red guava juice, which is absolutely delicious, tasting like fresh strawberries. I will admit my ignorance here: I had no idea there were different types of guava until I got home and started looking it up for this blog. According to the waiter, this ‘red guava’ is found only in the Comoros and is known as ‘peru’. During my research back home, I found that there are ‘apple guavas’, ‘lemon guavas’, ‘cherry guavas’, and ‘strawberry guavas’. Well, I never!

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We wander around the grounds for a while, photographing anything that moves.

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And if it doesn’t move, it gets a helping hand. It’s got to be posing ‘just so’ for the camera, you know!

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Unlike in Anjouan, there are a number of lizards here at Itasandra.

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There aren’t many birds here, however, but plenty of bats flying around.

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People Watching

The elevated terrace at the Itsandra Hotel offers a great view of the fishermen in their rudimentary outrigger canoes in the bay below.

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There is eye-candy for David to admire on the terrace too.

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Late afternoon we return to the room to find that there are no towels. Again. David goes off to find the maid (again), who eventually brings a couple. Which are wet. Again. Is there a national shortage of towels in this country?

As I still am still suffering from the runs, we decide to forego dinner once again and just take it easy in the room.

Our spirits are raised when we receive a text from Emirates reminding us about checking in on line for our flights tomorrow. We are most definitely on the system for those sections still! Phew.

Our last evening

And so endeth our last full day in the little known island nation of Comoros (we hope), nestled in the Indian Ocean between Mozambique on the African coast and Madagascar to the East. Our waiter asked us this afternoon what we thought of Comoros. “Lovely people and culture, corrupt government” was my reply, and I think that just about sums it up. We thoroughly enjoyed learning about their way of life and seeing the two islands of Grand Comore and Anjouan. I am sure we would have come away with a much more positive impression of the holiday in general had we been able to fulfil the Mohéli portion of the trip, as that is where most of the activities we had planned are available. Unfortunately, on this occasion, the poor infrastructure worked against us, creating problems out of everyone’s control. The grounding of the the domestic airline aside, all the other issues we encountered here in Comoros were really just small-fry and only add to the whole adventure experience. The disastrous international flightmares obviously didn’t help matters.

(Look out for tomorrow’s blog entry to read all about our journey home.)

Would I recommend Comoros as a holiday destination? Only to extremely laid back travellers who are open minded and prepared for an adventure and change of plans. Would I recommend Undiscovered Destinations and their ground operators? Most definitely! They have been extremely helpful and nothing has been too much trouble. They have really gone out of their way to minimise any inconvenience to us as a result of itinerary changes. Kudos to them for great customer service!

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Posted by Grete Howard 08:43 Archived in Comoros Tagged flight airport emirates pasta problems dar_es_salaam undiscovered_destinations cancellations air_tanzania moroni itsandra_hotel precionair Comments (5)

Grand Comore Island Tour

A brief glimpse of life on this island


View Comores 2017 - Cloud Coup Coup Land or Secret Paradise? on Grete Howard's travel map.

After a good night’s sleep, I feel ready to take on Comoros: today we have a tour around the main island, Grand Comore.

Breakfast

But first, time to fill our bellies.

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While I hate being presented with a buffet for dinner, I am rather partial to a breakfast buffet.

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David’s breakfast of fried egg, potatoes and beans.

The restaurant is full of sparrows nesting in the rafters and hanging around waiting for the opportunity to grab a few crumbs.

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They are really quite cheeky, swooping in on abandoned plates as diners leave the tables to refill their coffees or whatever.

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Island Tour

We make an anticlockwise tour of the northern part of the island; but first we travel a short distance south along the west coast.

Iconi Cliffs

It was here, in the 16th century, that a number of local women threw themselves off the cliffs rather than allow themselves to be captured by Malagasy pirates to be sold into slavery.

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Kavhiridjewo Palace

Strategically positioned on a rocky promontory, the 15th century Kavhiridjewo Palace was built entirely from lava blocks and still retains some of the walls and defence towers from the time of the last Sultan.

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The Sultan was captured by the French and taken to Madagascar, whereas the Prince is buried here (the larger, more elaborate tomb) alongside his mum (the smaller, simpler grave at the front).

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There are no rivers or other waterways on the whole island, and although there is one spring that feeds the capital, most people have to rely on digging wells such as this one in the Sultan's palace for their drinking water.

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Spider

There is a legend attached to the Guardian of the Palace, the ‘humble’ spider: when the enemy wanted to attack the Sultan, the spider created a web strong enough to protect him. From that day on the Sultan vowed not to kill spiders.

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My on-line searches suggest that this is a female Red Legged Golden Orb Spider, a rather large spider (it is a bit bigger than the palm of my hand) who weaves extremely strong webs.

Witchcraft Lake

In the old days, the people of Comoros strongly believed in witchcraft (many still do); and when the Sultan wanted to win the war, it was only natural that he consulted the local witch. The Sultan was told to kill his slaves and throw them in the lake for the spirits to drink their blood and the fish to eat their flesh, which he duly did (and he went on to win the war).

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It is said that for many years, screams could still be heard until the whole village got together to pray for the lost souls.

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Car Breakdown

As we go to drive away from the lake, the car won’t start. Again.

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The driver fiddles under the bonnet of the car, but still nothing. It fires, then dies. I use the time to wander over to the lake again to take some photos of the egrets in the trees on the far side.

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Still no joy with the car. The driver phones for a mechanic to come and have a look at it. We hang around, photographing more birds.

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Pied Crow

When, after half an hour there is still no mechanic, there is only one thing to do: we have to make a sacrifice!

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An hour passes. There is not much around here, and Yahaya suggests we have to call for another car and driver rather than wait for the mechanic. Of course, soon after the call has been made, the mechanic turns up! By this stage neither the driver nor the guide is anywhere to be seen.

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The mechanic spends less than a minute ‘tinkering’ with the engine and once the other two realise the car has been fixed, we make a move!

Parliament

Politics of the Union of the Comoros takes place in a framework of a federal presidential republic, whereby the President of the Comoros is both head of state and head of government, and of a multi-party system. There are 42 members of parliament, none of whom are women. There seems to be widespread corruption, with the president giving himself a huge pay-rise as soon as he came to power, and all the important jobs going to his mates.

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Friday Mosque

Today is Friday and we can hear the Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

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Badjanani Mosque

Built in a unique Comorian architectural style, Badjanani Msoque (AKA Ancienne Mosquée du Vendredi – Old Friday Mosque) is a symbol of the rich cultural and historical heritage of the country. Originally constructed in 1427, it is the oldest mosque in the Medina in Moroni, although the minaret was added much later, in 1921.

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Plateau Diboini

We drive across the island from the west coast to the east, over the picturesque Diboini Plateau with its seven cones of extinct volcanoes.

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Mount Karthala

On a clear day (not today), you can see Mount Karthala from this point on the east coast. The highest point of the Comoros and at 2,361m, it is the largest active volcano in the world, as well as one of the most active. Over the years it has had a devastating impact on many parts of the country.

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Mount Karthala hiding behind the cloud

Like so many of these type of disasters, the eruption of Mount Karthala has a bit of a legend attached to it: a tired and thirsty holy man wandered from home to home in the village looking for water, but everyone turned him away, apart from one old lady who was generous enough to offer him a drink. Complaining about the bad people of the village, the holy man insisted on taking the kind woman and her family with him when he left. Cursing, he turned to the volcano and with that the lava erupted, flattening the village they had just left.

Heroumbili

During one of the many eruptions (there have been more than twenty since the 19th century, the last one in 2007), the lava from the volcano reached the sea here and created an extension of the coastline land in the village of Heroumbili.

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Reclaimed land on the coast

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The village kids come out in force to interact with us.

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We continue along the north-east coastal road.

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Turtle Island

This small island has been given a 'protected status' to stop locals rowing across and 'harvesting' the turtles who nest here, or their eggs.

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Kissing Rocks

In Comoros, strictly-followed tradition means that the first-born girl must be kept pure until her parents find a suitable husband for her. She is not allowed to have a boyfriend, unlike any subsequent daughters.

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Legend tells of one such first-born girl, who had gone against tradition and her family’s wishes by secretly dating a young man. Hearing of her father’s arranged marriage to a suitor she did not know, she feared what would happen in the morning after the wedding night when all the male members of both families traditionally meet to inspect the bed sheet for signs of blood. She was very much in love, and not wanting to cause shame and embarrassment to her father, she and her boyfriend chose to jump to their death from the cliff.

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As they kissed one final time, their bodies turned to stone. If you look carefully, you can still see them there now, kissing.

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From the top there is a great view of the coastline below to one side and the mountains on the other.

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The house where the daughter lived - now abandoned

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On the road again.

Lac Niamawi, AKA Lac Salé (Salt Lake)

In the 16th century, an eruption demolished the city of Niamawi. In its wake, it left a crater that has since filled with salt water.

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The lake changes colour throughout the day, from brown to blue to green and is said to have healing properties due to its high sulphur content. No one knows how deep the lake is. In 1977 a team of Belgian divers went down to investigate, but they were never seen again.

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Lunch

Near Mitsamiouli we stop at a small restaurant called Mi Amuse, where we have lunch.

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The food consists of barracuda served with sweet and ordinary potatoes, carrots, fried bananas and rice, with a side of pickled lemon and chilli sauce.

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The restaurant, which is also a hotel, has a bar serving alcohol and a nightclub with lively music and dancing of an evening.

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Baobab Prison

As baobab trees get older (this one is a few hundred years old for sure), they very often become hollow in the centre.

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Hollowed-out baobabs have been utilised for a number of different things all over Africa, including as here, a prison

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In the old days, wrongdoers were put inside this ‘organic’ prison for three days, with the added night time punishment of the only light being the moonlight shining down through the gap above.

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Galawa Hotel

“Once upon a time…” Isn’t that how all fairy tales start? Unfortunately this story does not have a happy ending.

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Back in the 1980s and 1990s, this part of Comoros was a really ‘happening’ place, with a luxury hotel that employed 750 people and saw 350 visitors arrive twice a week on charter flights from South Africa.

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Yahaya proudly tells us he worked here for ten years, and Omar was his boss then, as he is now.

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At least the frangipani still flowers

After going into decline following neglect by the Comorian government, the hotel was razed to the ground by the French some fifteen years ago. Promises of renewed interest and investment from Dubai have not materialised and all hopes were dashed by the financial crash of 2008.

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One of Galawa's three beaches, there was a popular beach bar here

Today locals enjoy the warm waters of the Indian Ocean at this site

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They are even enjoying a little song and dance routine as they bathe.

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The only evidence of the former leisure hub is the tiled fountain and a redundant gate (the gate doesn't actually do anything, as we can drive around the side)

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Yahaya also points out the spot where the hijacked Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed in 1996.

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Mtswamwindza Mosque

It was here that Islam was first introduced to Comoros in the 7th century. Mtswamwindza, whose real name is Mhassi Fessima embarked on a journey to Medina where he converted to Islam and then returned to his city, Ntsaoueni, and converted the people to the new religion.

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It was only the second mosque to be built in Africa, and Mtswamwindza is buried here.

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Rain

On our way back down the west coast, the heavens open and throw bucket-loads of water on us. Thankfully we are dry inside the car, albeit a little warm once we close the windows. The roads are horribly potholed from the frequent torrential showers.

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Along the coast we see beautiful sandy beaches, mangroves and lava flows reaching the sea.

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Note the abandoned hull of a car - the whole island is littered with such wrecks, just left where they lost their will to live.

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Road side grocery store

Bad News

Later Omar meets us in the reception of the hotel to tell us the arrangements for our flight to Anjouan tomorrow. There has been a change of plan... Really? That seems to be the theme of this trip.

The domestic airline Int’Air Iles has two planes: one 28-year old Airbus and a small 9-seater Cessna. The government has taken the larger plane to Kenya. We believe (hope?) it is for servicing; as I understand both Réunion and Madagascar have recently banned the airline citing safety issues.

What this means for us, is that we will have to take a ferry (hopefully) to Anjouan Island tomorrow instead of flying; but we will not be able to visit Mohéli Island as planned because there are no ferries connecting the island. The former is not a big deal, but the latter is a great shame, as our stay on Mohéli was to be the main part of our trip and the highlight: that is where we were going to go whale and dolphin watching, see turtles lay their eggs on the beach at night and see the rare Livingstone bats as well a the maki lemurs.

Oh well, there is not much we can do about it, we will just have to make the most of our time on Anjouan. Omar has arranged for us to come back to Grand Comore one day earlier than planned, so that we can easily connect with the new departure date from Comoros, also one day earlier than planned. That means four nights on Anjouan instead of the planned two.

Dinner

The restaurant has run out of lobster (I was hoping to try the local speciality of lobster in vanilla sauce) as well as fries, so it is rice or vegetables tonight (we can't have both).

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Chicken with mushroom sauce and vegetables

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Beef in mushroom sauce and rice

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations, specialists in adventure travel to unusual destinations (such as Comoros), for arranging this trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:46 Archived in Comoros Tagged rain mosque travel volcano hotel lake kids island breakfast crow africa prison spider muslim lunch parliament buffet islam sultan slavery baobab egrets sparrows sacrifice legend breakfast_buffet comoros barracuda undiscovered_destinations moroni grand_comore sultan's_palace karthala_volcano karthala iconi inconi_cliffs malagasy_pirates kavhiridjewo_palace witchcraft car_mechanic car_breakdown pied_crow friday_mosque badjanani badjanani_mosque plateau_diboini mount_karthala heroumbili turtle_island kissing_rocks ivoini mitsamiouli mi_amuse baobab_prison galawa_hotel galawa mtswamwindza mtswamwindza_mosque int'air_iles Comments (2)

Dar es Salaam - Moroni (Comoros)

We're here!


View Comores 2017 - Cloud Coup Coup Land or Secret Paradise? on Grete Howard's travel map.

Much as I love Tanzania, this trip is something totally different. Today we are continuing to the small island nation of Comoros.

“Comoros? Where’s that?” has been the common refrain when I tell people where I am going.

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Nestled between Madagascar to the east and Mozambique on the African mainland to the west, Comoros consists of three major islands: Grande Comore (Ngazidja), Anjouan (Nzwani) and Moheli (Mwali). Internationally, the islands are known by their French names, and I have added the local Comorian names in parentheses.

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It’s not exactly all the rage

The reason you haven’t heard of Comoros lies largely at the door of its total lack of commercial tourism, unlike that which its neighbours Mauritius and Seychelles close by ‘enjoy’ (or endure, whichever side of the fence you are). According to the Tourist Office, the islands receive fewer than 3,000 visitors each year (the last data I could find was from 2011, when 2,497 tourists entered the country). To put things into perspective, the Seychelles received 36,000 tourists in April this year alone.

As described by an online travel deal comparator promoting the islands: “Not many tourists travel to Comoros in the Indian Ocean and for good reason: there is regular seismic activity on top of great political instability”.

Cloud Coup Coup Land

Affectionately known as ‘Cloud Coup Coup Land’ as a result of its numerous (more than twenty) coups d’états since its independence in 1975, with various heads of state assassinated. Subsequent instability has left the small archipelago desperately poor (said to be the third poorest country in the world), unsurprisingly corrupt, and relatively untouched. It has an unemployment rate of 80% and it is believed that around 50% of the population live below the poverty line of US1 a day; and unfortunately it has few natural resources with which to recover its failing economy.

Dar es Salaam - Moroni

Anyway, back to today’s journey.

We are up at the crack of dawn this morning for a 5am pick up for the transfer to the airport. The journey that took well in excess of an hour last night in the terrible traffic, takes us a mere 20 minutes this morning.

Check in

We approach the Air Tanzania check-in desk with trepidation, and hand over our passports. The young girl types away on her computer and we are asked to place our bags on the scales. This is looking promising. My heart sinks, however, when she asks: “Are you travelling with Air Tanzania?” I hand over the original e-ticket plus the email and explain that we were originally booked on the Precisionair flight this morning which has been cancelled and that they informed us we have been re-booked with Air Tanzania instead (see yesterday’s blog for the full explanation). "Ah, that's why I can't find you on my system" she confirms. I hold my breath, waiting for the rejection and expecting her to pass the buck and tell us to go and sort it with Precisionair. She doesn’t. She calls them herself and asks us to sit down and wait while she sorts it out.

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We sit and we wait. And we wait, and then we wait some more. After around 30 minutes the supervisor comes over to tell us “it is being sorted”.

One hour. I go and ask. The supervisor tells me: “It is all confirmed, we are waiting for the second paper to be completed. Just sit down and relax.” I sit down. And relax. Sort of.

We eat the packed breakfast the hotel provided us with while we wait. And wait. And wait some more.

20 minutes before the departure of the flight and 2½ hours after we first checked in, we finally have boarding cards!

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Passport control is very slow, leaving us no time to buy any rum in the Duty Free as we go straight on to the plane.

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As we climb high and leave the metropolis of Dar es Salaam behind, I am looking forward to lazy days on tropical beaches in this ‘hidden paradise’.

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I am surprised to be served a small snack on the short flight – it is only about one hour and 20 minutes long.

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It’s not long before we spot the peaks of Comoros’ highest point, Mt Karthala in the distance.

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The origin of the name Comoros comes from the name given to the islands by an Arab geographer in the Middle Ages: Djazair al ‘Qamar’, which translated into English means Moon Islands. It is said that the first Arabs who arrived in the archipelago were enthralled by the lunar-like landscape caused by petrified lava on the pure white sand of the beaches. Looking down on the coastline below, I can see what they mean.

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Soon we are approaching the small runway of Prince Said Ibrahim Airport in Moroni (I have no idea how this airport got its three letter code HAH).

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At immigration there are two forms to fill in, and my Norwegian passport seems to cause a bit of a stir, with the official calling her supervisor over to check it out. She speaks no English, I speak almost no French and even less Comorian. She keeps repeating “Visa! Visa!” I am not sure if she means I should have obtained a visa before travelling or that she is going to issue me with a visa.

It turns out to be the latter.

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I am very impressed they manage to produce a sticky-backed printed visa complete with my picture right here in the little immigration booth. She even asks me which page of my passport I would like it stuck on. There isn’t much choice in my case, as I only have one single spare page left in my passport; the rest is full with stamps and visas.

After a cursory luggage check in the Customs area, find ourselves outside in the sun looking for someone carrying a sign with our name on it. Again. We look around, nothing. Again. Neither of our mobile phones seems to work here in the Comoros, something we were warned about, so we are unable to call our guide or the office. Hovering by the exit for a few minutes soon attracts the local taxi touts, one of whom speaks a little English. He is thankfully not persistent and we chat to him for a while, explaining that we have someone coming to meet us from a local agency. When, after around 20 minutes or so, our pick-up still hasn’t arrived, he kindly uses his own mobile phone and rings the telephone number we have been given for the local agent’s office. It goes through to an answering machine. He then tries the number the agent supplied for the local guide we are to have for the duration of our stay here, Mr Akim. Success. David talks to Mr Akim and explains that we are waiting at the airport for him. Mr Akim is somewhat perplexed, and stutters as he laments: “I didn’t know you were coming… I am nowhere near the airport…” He sounds genuinely concerned (and extremely confused) and asks us where we are staying. “Take a taxi to the hotel… but the hotel is not booked…” We are both feeling a little tense and rather uneasy by this stage, wondering what else can go wrong, and if this trip is maybe jinxed in some way

Out of the corner of my eye I spot a chap walking purposefully directly towards us, and in his hands I can see a sign “Grete & David Howard”. He introduces himself as Yahaya, and is full of apologies for being late. Great! First a feeling of relief, then confusion. Oh. So, if this is our guide, who is the person we are talking to on the phone?

(It later transpires that the local agent had arranged another guide for us, but didn’t let us, or Undiscovered Destinations, who we booked the trip through, know)

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Waiting for the car at the airport

The car boot is not big enough to take both the bags and close as well, so we drive along with the boot lid open. It doesn’t really matter: these are not fast roads.

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But first we must get the car started. It fires, turns and then dies. Time after time, again and again. We, and the luggage, get out of the car in order to access the spare battery the driver keeps in the boot, and the tools under the rear seat. This is obviously a regular occurrence.

As we approach the capital, we hit a huge, slow-moving traffic jam. “There is a strike,” says the girl whose name I heard as Malika and David thinks is Monica. We take a short cut through some badly pot-holed back streets, and stop at a small shop that doubles as a money changer.

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Pretty beach outside Moroni, the capital

National Museum

On the way to the hotel we stop for a visit to the small, but reasonably interesting National Museum.

All the Comoros islands were created at various times as a result of volcanic activity on the seabed resulting in each of the islands having a distinct topographical characteristic as a result of their different ages.

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Volcanic stones

According to pre-Islamic mythology, however, a jinn (spirit) dropped a jewel, which formed a great circular inferno. This became the Karthala volcano, which created the island of Grande Comore.

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A cross section of the earth, showing Mt Karthala, the still-active volcano on Grand Comore

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Pottery shards

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Coelacanth - the fish thought to be extinct for millions of years until it was re-discovered here in Comoros in 1938

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Pufferfish

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Whale skull

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Shells

A few bedraggled and sad looking stuffed birds

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Caspian Tern

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Common Ringed Plover

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Comoro Blue Pigeon

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Drums and other musical instruments

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Various pots and containers

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Oil lamp - usually whale oil was used

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Outrigger canoe - the museum guide explains that he was a fisherman himself, using one of these for many years; much to his father’s disappointment, as he wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and become an Imam.

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Sugar cane crusher. The juice is later turned into 'honey'.

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Items made from the coconut palm - no part of the plant is wasted

Medina

Walking down through the Medina (old market) of Moroni, we cause quite a stir. There is lots of laughter, pointing and many shy smiles, plus a few requests for us to take them back to England with us. Tourists are a rarity here.

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Fruit and vegetables

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Beans

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Chillies

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Onions

Many Comorians believe that having their photograph taken will bestow them with bad luck, so I am therefore very surprised when this lady actively wants to have her picture taken with me. Don’t you just love the look on the face of the woman behind though?

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Butcher

This lady not just asks us to photograph her young daughter, she begs us to take the child back to England to “give her a better life”.

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I am not sure the girl, however, is equally enthralled with that idea.

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Some more images from the market:

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Shoes

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Tailor

Also in the Medina, behind these elaborate doors, is the palace once used by the last prince of Comoros.

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The Old Town

We continue through the maze of narrow alleyways in Moroni Old Town.

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Similar in many ways to Zanzibar’s Stone Town (they share a lot of history and culture), the old town has many beautifully carved doors.

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As we get nearer to sea level and the large Friday Mosque, the alleyways open up and the vestiges of grand mansions appear, now but sad relics of faded glory.

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Sultan Ahmed Mwigni Mkou Mosque

Historically, Comoros was divided into a number of Sultanates following the arrival of Arab settlers starting in the 11th century. Mwigni Mkou was the biggest of these Sultans, reigning for over 40 years.

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The Town Hall

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Retaj Moroni Hotel

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After checking in and dumping the bags in the room, we head down to the restaurant to see if we can get a small snack for lunch. Passing through the bar, we see a pizza oven and someone rolling dough, which will be perfect as neither of us are particularly hungry.

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Pizza oven!

When we arrive at the restaurant, all they are doing is an international buffet. We both hate buffets with a passion and decide to forego lunch and take a wander around the hotel grounds instead.

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Swimming pool complete with water!

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Dinner

After a stroll to the local supermarket and a nice little siesta, followed by a shower and change, it is time to go down for dinner. This time they do have pizza, which is what we order.

Mine has meat, chicken, vegetables and egg on it – it is the first time I have ever had egg on a pizza.

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David chooses his to be topped with turkey and mushrooms.

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The Retaj Hotel is own by a Qatari organisation, and as such they abide by their strict Muslim beliefs: no alcohol served in the hotel at all!

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It is not quite the same toasting our safe arrival in Comoros – our 139th country – with water!

Starry sky

As we make our way back to the room, I notice the sky is clear and full of stars, so I go and grab my camera and tripod and head for the darker areas of the hotel grounds to look for the Milky Way. Considering we are on the outskirts of the capital, there is surprisingly little light pollution here.

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The land arrangements of this trip was organised by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 00:47 Archived in Comoros Tagged mosque beach travel hotel volcanic_rock market flight museum africa tanzania muslim lava tourism old_town pizza swimming_pool airline islam indian_ocean medina town_hall sultanate hah dar_es_salaam comoros undiscovered_destinations air_tanzania precisionair moroni retaj_moroni coelacanth pufferfish mt_karthala Comments (4)

Danube Delta - Galati - Moldova - Chișinău

The end is nigh

sunny 34 °C
View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Setting the alarm early to see if I can catch the sunrise was well worth it – the river is bathed in a beautiful light this morning as the sun peeks up through the mist.

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It’s not even eight o’clock in the morning and it is already blisteringly hot as we walk down to the jetty to wait for our boat out of the Delta. This region of Romania has not seen a drop of rain since June and farmers are getting desperate.

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The early ferry back to the mainland seems to be attracting a lot of passengers.

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Thankfully it is a much bigger boat this time

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We sit outside on deck, next to a group of Russian men with a couple of youngsters (sons?). They start drinking as soon as they have boarded (as well as chain smoking – it seems to me that everyone here does!), and get louder and increasingly more annoying as the morning wears on.

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There is not a great deal to see along the shores of the canal, especially not once we get to the end of the linear village of Crișan.

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Little Egret

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Common Gulls

So many of life’s necessities here in Crișan and other similar villages in the Delta, have to be brought in from the mainland – including farm equipment, building materials, furniture etc.

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The ferry is most people’s lifeline here, and we make a few stops along the way.

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Andrei enjoys a spot of sunbathing.

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The canal-side offers some inviting beaches, where we see people picnicking and fishing.

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The arrival at Tulcea heralds the end of our Danube Delta adventure.

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Andrei shows us the map of the Delta and where we went on yesterday’s two boat trips.

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Today is going to be a long day, so we grab a couple of pastries at Tulcea before continuing on our journey.

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Plăcintă cu brânză – sweet pastries filled with cheese. (2 lei is ca. 40p)

I giggle to myself when I see the name of the local petrol station. I Norwegian the word ‘rompetroll’ (directly translated ass-troll) means tadpoles; and in my mind’s eye I can just imagine pouring a bucket full of baby frogs into the fuel tank of the car. OK, OK, it’s childish, I know, but this really tickles me!

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We get the ferry back over the Danube to Galați, where we have to call in Vila Belvedere (where we stayed on the way down), as Andrei walked away with his room key in his pocket!

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Blue Acqua Restaurant, Galați

We stop for some lunch at this riverfront restaurant specialising in seafood.

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David chooses a mixed seafood skewer with sweet chilli sauce, which is really nice.

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As usual, I like to scour the menu for ‘new’ food – dishes or ingredients that I have never tried before, are local to the region, or just somewhat unusual. This Snail Skewer fits that bill perfectly. Quite tough and rather chewy, I am very pleased it comes with a spicy Hoi Sin Sauce. Not my best selection, but it is always worth a try!

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The road from Galați to the Moldavian border is mostly smooth, traffic free and winding its way through beautiful countryside. From time to time we see these portable beehives – transported and parked to follow the blossom.

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The outside temperature is 34 °C, but the A/C in the car is efficient. Having suffered really badly with my knee on the way down here, I park myself in the front seat today, something which proves to be an excellent move as have no pain in my knee even after several hours in the same position. Andrei tries to engage me in one of his in-depth and serious discussions this afternoon (this time about crime and the success - or not - of penal reform systems), but I am just too tired.

Andrei worries me when he asks: “Do I need a passport to enter Moldova?” “What? You don’t have a passport?” I demand incredulously. “No, it ran out a couple of years ago.” he answers nonchalantly. For a few seconds I have visions of being stuck for hours, or even overnight, at the border with a passport-less guide; until I remember that most European countries issue ID cards that are good for international travel within EU. As it turns out, we have no problems at the border and we are soon out of Romania, through the ubiquitous no-man’s-land and back in Moldova. We just have to purchase a vignette for road tax, and we are on our way to Chișinău again, just as the sun starts to set.

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Andrei pulls up outside the Codru Hotel at 19:40, and we are thankful that there is no queue for check-in tonight; as we are being picked up for dinner in 20 minutes. Back in the now very familiar Room 313, we have a quick shower and change; and make it to reception with plenty of time to spare before Leonid arrives promptly at 20:00.

Vatra Neamului Restaurant

We explain to the waiter – whose English is only marginally better than our Moldovian – that tonight’s meal is paid for by Amadeus Travel; and ask if there is a special menu, or maybe a set meal that we should be ordering from. He just passes us a normal menu, smiles and walks away. We are nor particularly hungry, and as we have a very early start tomorrow morning (04:30 pick-up from the hotel), we just order a simple dish with no starters, sides or desserts.

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Chicken with cheese sauce

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Pork with cheese and mushrooms

The restaurant is quaint, with antique furniture and several cosy alcoves. We appear to be the only people eating here tonight, although I think there might be a private party in a back room. Strange, considering it is Saturday night.

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Two pretty singers and a chap on a cobza (a kind of lute) entertain us – at least the words to the song are easy to remember should we wish to sing along.

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So, our travel adventure is over for this time. Moldova, Transdniestr and Romania have all been compelling destinations, and despite considerable shared history and culture, they are surprisingly dissimilar to each other in so many ways. Each has given us highlights and new experiences to remember for years to come.

Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for showing us these hidden places in a small world.

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Posted by Grete Howard 09:37 Archived in Moldova Tagged danube adventure dinner snails romania border_crossing ferry delta immigration moldova danube_delta undiscovered_destinations galati traditional_dinner Comments (0)

Danube Delta

A day on the Delta

semi-overcast 31 °C
View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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After the wine and moonshine last night, we both slept well. A little too well I think, as David wakes up with a bad back this morning.

Breakfast consists of a typical continental selection, although I can’t say fish balls appeal this morning.

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Today we are fulfilling a long-time dream of mine; exploring the Danube Delta by small boat has been on my wish list for as long as I can remember.

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Although this is one of the most popular tourist areas in the Danube Delta, it never feels crowded. We do see other boats, of course, but for a lot of the time, it is just us and the awesome nature around us.

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The Danube Delta is not only the world’s largest wetlands; it is also a paradise for wildlife, with over 300 species of birds in its numerous lakes and marshes.

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Grey Heron

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Black Headed Gulls

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Hooded Crow

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Mallard

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Squacco Heron

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Whiskered tern

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Mute Swan Cygnets

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Herring Gull

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Common Tern

It is a struggle to get good pictures of the birds – as soon as we get anywhere near them; they fly off en masse. I am guessing the sound of the outboard engine is scaring them off.

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I try to capture the birds in flight, but my success rate is rather low.

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Pygmy Cormorant

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Marsh Harrier

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Mute Swans

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Hooded Crow

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Great Egret

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Purple Heron

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Great Cormorant

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Grey Heron

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Little Egret

The Danube Delta consists of an intricate network of waterways and lakes, and we transverse many of the tranquil canals this morning. Some are wider than a motorway, others so narrow that two boats cannot pass easily.

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Little Egret

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Floating hotel

The marshes are studded with glorious water lilies.

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After a while David’s back begins to really bother him on the bench-seat – which offers no back support – so he lies down across the boat instead. It’s a hard life here on the water.

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Our cheeky guide Andrei

Out on the lake, the sun glistens magically on the surface of the water.

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A great number of Egyptian White Pelicans arrive here every spring to raise their young, but are usually gone again by this time of year, so I am very excited to see a small flock of them flying in formation right above us.

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From time to time we stop for Pavet, our trusted captain, to remove reeds that have stuck in the propellers. The Delta has the largest reed beds in the world (625,000 acres), which provide ideal spawning and nesting grounds. The floating reed beds – known as plaur in Romanian - are a mixture of reeds, roots, soil, and grasses. Reed was intensively harvested, and large areas drained, during the Communist era; as the regime had plans to transform the Delta into a large agro-industrial zone. These days the reeds are slowly invading the water surface, extending the delta into the Black Sea at a rate of 24m a year!

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The tall reeds dwarf a Little Egret!

The Danube Delta is home to 60% of the world's population of Pygmy Cormorants.

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Squacco Heron

The serenity of these calm backwaters attracts fishermen, sightseers and people just wanting to get out into nature for a few hours.

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The floating hotels look rather cool, but are not as practical as they first appear – their size means they are unable to enter the smaller canals.

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Marsh Sandpiper

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Grey Heron and Great Egret

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Northern Lapwing

There is said to be a lot of wildlife – in addition to the birds – here at the Delta, but all we see this morning is a few horses and some cows.

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More waterlilies.

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Lunch

After a beautiful morning on the water, it is time to return to Crisan and our guest house for lunch.

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For lunch we have …. wait for it…. fish ball soup, followed by…. fish. This time Prussian carp (with the fetching name “crap” in Romanian), as well as the catfish we didn’t eat yesterday; served with the ever-present polenta.

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After a short walk to the local ‘supermarket’ to buy some wine for tonight, it is time for a siesta (and a cuddle with the resident cat) before this afternoon’s boat trip on the Danube Delta.

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This 5000 km² area of floating reed islands, forests, pastures and sand dunes is inscribed as a UNESCO Heritage Site. The still afternoon and lack of other boats on the smaller canals, makes for some gorgeous reflections.

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The Danube Delta is home to 70% of the world’s white pelican population.

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As well as other birds, of course

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Common Gull

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Squacco Heron

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Great Cormorant and Common Gull

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Coot

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Mallards

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Black Headed Gulls

The Danube River is the most international river in the world - its course runs through or alongside nine countries: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine.

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Unfortunately one of the fishing lines gets stuck in the propeller of the boat and we drag it along with us as we move on.

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Stormy clouds + low afternoon sun + glistening water = some awesome photo opportunities.

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The Danube Delta Reserve has the third largest biodiversity in the world, exceeded only by the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Galapagos Archipelago in Ecuador.

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Frogs on the lily leaves

As we make our way back towards Crișan, the low, pink sun shows some promise of a good sunset to come.

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Dinner

Concerned that as tourists we may not wish to eat fish for every single meal, our host serves us pork chops with rice and pickles for dinner today.

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We share the bottle of red wine we bought from the shop earlier, but David is the only one who enjoys it, so he finishes the bottle off.

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I stick to the double distilled plum moonshine. It goes well with the cake made from grapes grown in the guest-house garden.

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Yet another day – the last one in Romania – has come to an end. Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for this totally fascinating private tour of Moldova, Transdniestr and Romania.

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:37 Archived in Romania Tagged birds fish boat travel marshes destinations photography soup delta boat_trip bird_watching danube_delta undiscovered_destinations crisan fishball_soup Comments (0)

Galați - Tulcea - Crișan (Danube Delta)

We've arrived at the Danube Delta, finally.

semi-overcast 32 °C
View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I have a rude awakening from a nightmare this morning, but it’s time to get up anyway. We wander down to breakfast at the Vila Belvedere and are soon joined by Andrei.

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From our guest-house in Galați, the drive takes about half an hour to the ferry port where we cross the Danube to Brătianu.

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Disembarking at Brătianu

Tulcea

A further one hour drive takes us to the large ferry port of Tulcea. This is where the Danube ‘ends’ its journey as a river and empties into the legendary Danube Delta, the largest wetlands on earth.

Built on seven hills like Rome, Tulcea has been an important harbour since ancient times. We only really see the harbour-front part of the town, as we wait for our passenger ferry to take us along the Sulina Canal to the small settlement of Crișan.

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Terasa Scorpion

While Andrei goes off to sort the paperwork for the next three days – special permits are required for us to visit the Delta – we take lunch in a pleasant-looking restaurant on the promenade.

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The service is incredibly slow, so we have plenty of time to people-watch – unsurprisingly, the port area has an transient feel to it – passengers arriving, meeting and leaving. Plus the inevitable beggars that this sort of place attracts. We watch two young lads solicit diners with the hope of being bestowed with some leftover food. They can’t be more than around ten years old, and really should be in school. Andrei suggests they are probably Romani, who make up around 3.5% of the population in Romania.

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Eventually our food arrives – we are sharing a mixed platter containing sausages, chicken fillets and shish kebabs plus a salad and cheesy chips. The food is quite pleasant, but probably not worth the wait.

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If the food was late to arrive, the bill is even slower. Andrei comes back with our tickets and permits and goes in to give them a ‘gentle’ reminder in Romanian.

Navrom Delta Passenger Ferry

Having finally found some seats on the very cramped ferry, Andrei goes off to get something from the car. When he returns he informs us that there is another ferry also going to Crișan; a direct boat and it is almost empty, so we transfer across. We are advised to sit inside rather than on the small deck, as ‘everyone’ smokes outside.

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Apart from it being VERY hot, the seats are quite comfortable, we are sitting right in front of the bar, and the barman has the most amazing Paul Newman eyes! A little bit of eye candy never hurts.

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Crișan

The Sulina Canal was dug between 1880 and 1902, and is the main navigation route for passengers and commercial traffic. For many of the villages on the Danube Delta, a boat along this canal is their only means of access.

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After about 1½ hours, we reach the small fishing village of Crișan, where we will be spending the next couple of nights.
It’s a small linear settlement, with a few houses spread along the bank of the Sulina, with canals and lakes of the Delta to the other side.

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Image from Google Earth

Pensiunea Oprisan

A friendly, family-run guest house, the Oprisan is a 15-minute walk from the ferry port in Crișan.

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The pensiunea has a handful of rooms; and a smallholding out the back with fruit trees, vegetables, pigs and chickens.

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Dinner

We have some free time in the village before dinner. Being a fishing village, it is only natural that tonight’s food is fish.

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Fish ball soup

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Fried catfish

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Pancakes filled with jam

We open one of our wine bottles from Et Cetera Winery, the pensiunea provides some single-distilled acacia-flower moonshine, and Andrei has brought along his double-distilled plum moonshine; so we have plenty of choice as far as alcohol goes tonight.

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Looks like we may sleep well again tonight...

Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for organising this private tour of Moldova, Transdniestr and Romania.

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Posted by Grete Howard 08:49 Archived in Romania Tagged danube boat harbour port romania harbor ferry fishing_village car_ferry danube_delta tulcea undiscovered_destinations galati crisan sulina sulina_canal bratianu passenger_ferry navrom_delta Comments (0)

Sucevita - Voronet - Târpeşti - Galați

Missing shoes, painted monastery, eclectic museum, more moonshine and a long drive.

sunny 32 °C
View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

After all the beer, home made wine and double distilled moonshine yesterday evening, I slept deeply last night; and woke up feeling deservedly groggy this morning.

I sit on the balcony for a while, hoping the fresh air might make me feel better, and when Andrei surfaces, he looks as if he too had a rough night. “Have you seen my shoes”? he asks. We have a quick look around, but no sign of any shoes.

Later, as we go for breakfast, Andrei spots his shoes outside the dining room. Having no recollection of where you left your shoes and how you got back to your room is a sure sign of a good night; bearing in mind that he must have walked across the courtyard barefoot last night.

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Voronet Monastery

Regarded by many as the most beautiful of all the painted churches of Bucovina, Voronet was built in 1488, with the frescoes added in 1547.

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The monastery is often referred to as the ‘Sistine Chapel of the East’, or ‘The Blue Monastery’, due to the intense shade of blue on its frescoes, known in Romania as ‘Voroneț blue’

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The frescoes illustrate biblical scenes and important historical events; and Andrei explains them all to us. I don’t think I have ever met anyone who is as knowledgeable as Andrei; in every subject, not just about the sites he takes us to.

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At this stage I have to admit that so much of it is going whoosh past me today, my concentration and enthusiasm are rather lacking this morning.

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I come away from the monastery with way fewer pictures than I normally take, and not a single note in my trusty note-book.

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Nicolae Popa Museum

In the village of Târpeşti, we visit this private museum, set in beautiful gardens complete with Popa’s eclectic carvings, inspired by Dacian statues.

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Nicolae was a craftsman, artist and collector, who started his amazing collection as a child with his New Year masks.

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The exhibits include ancient archaeological finds from 5000 years ago, more recent agricultural tools, various ethnographic objects such as clothing and belts, paintings and embroidery, and traditional household objects.

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Wounded in action during WWII, and later imprisoned by the communists for his resistance work; Nicolae Popa went on to passionately dedicate his life to preserve Romanian folklore and values.

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Nicolae Popa himself

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He created hundreds of ritual masks and traditional costumes, composed lyrics, organised various folk performances, and wrote several books. His collection of traditional objects and creation of his own artwork continued right up until his death in 2010, aged 91. Today his family continue his traditions.

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Pan for making polenta

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After exploring the museum, we take lunch in the grounds, in the shade of plum trees.

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We start with some home made cheese and bread.

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Followed by the ubiquitous soup. Unlike in Russia, where it denotes beetroot soup, in Romania borsht is any soup soured by the juice of fermented wheat husks.

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Main course consists of meatloaf, creamed potato, salad and a tomato-based sauce.

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On the right of the picture you can see the large jug of water, medium sized jug containing home made wine, and the smallest one with double distilled moonshine. For lunch.

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Galați
As a result of the fairly alcoholic lunch, I sleep most of the time as we make our way south towards the Black Sea. My knee is bothering me greatly, giving me so much pain that I feel nauseous. We stop once for me to stretch my legs, but it is soon agony again once I am back in the car. When we finally reach Galați and our accommodation for the night, the Vila Belvedere, I cry with relief as I get out of the car.

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Feeling somewhat sorry for myself and in pain, we decide not to go out for dinner tonight. We grab a snack in the room and re-pack into a small overnight bag for the trip to the Danube Delta tomorrow.

Thank you yet again to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging our private tour of Moldova, Transdniestr and Romania.

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Posted by Grete Howard 14:39 Archived in Romania Tagged travel museum folklore collection shoes romania monastery unesco hangover undiscovered_destinations moonshine lost_shoes voronet voronet_monastery unesco_heritage_list voronet_blue nicolae_popa popa_museum nicolae_popa_museum ethnographic_museum meatloaf galati vila_belvedere Comments (0)

Tiraspol – Causeni – Et Cetera – Romania

Three countries, three drivers


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

After last night's debauchery, I am in a deep sleep when the alarm goes off this morning. Unfortunately not mine. Debauchery, that is; The alarm is sadly very much mine.

I notice a huge bruise has appeared on my wrist from yesterday’s encounter with the stocks at Bendery Fortress. That’ll teach me. Not.

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As we exit the lift at the ground floor on our way to the breakfast room, there is a burly security guard between the lift and the exit – maybe to stop guests leaving without paying?

We take breakfast in another retro-style dining room, and it appears that we are the first - and only - guests to surface this morning. I am not surprised.

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When Valeriu arrives to pick us up, we tell him about the girls last night. “Oh they are hookers” he shrugs.

Back into Moldova

From Tiraspol it is only about half an hour drive back to the border with Moldova, but we have to make sure we leave the country before 10:04:14! It’s been a memorable visit for sure, but I have to concede that Transdniestr is one of those places you visit in order to be able to say "you’ve been", rather than as a result of any attractions it may or may nor have. Unless you are after stunningly beautiful hookers, of course, then Transdniestr should be right at the top of your travel wish list.

The border formalities in this direction are smooth and easy. In no-mans-land Leonid awaits us and we say goodbye to our Transdniestrian driver Ivan. Soon we find ourselves back in Moldova, singing the old Beatles song “Back in the USSR” at the top of our voices.

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Church of Assumption of Mother of God, Căuşeni

The church is officially closed for restoration, but the curator kindly opens it especially for us and gives us a guided tour.

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The sign says: CLOSED FOR RESTORATION

The church, which dates from 1763, is set three feet below ground level as the Tatars only allowed the construction of churches on the proviso that the roof was no taller than the height of a man on horseback with his sword pointing up into the air.

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In 2002 the roof tiles of the church were all changed with the help of US funds in order to protect the frescoes inside the church from moisture damage. The curator explains how the tiles were made – the curved shape was obtained by forming the clay around the potter’s thigh, and on most of the tiles you can still see their fingerprint.

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Just like we’ve sponsored a plank at the zoo in return for a plaque; in those days the donors who gave money towards the construction of the church had their portraits pained on the walls.

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The first church on the site was made from wood; later stonework was added. In 1977 an earthquake caused a crack in the walls.

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The entire interior of this small, but impressive church – the oldest in Moldova - is covered in frescoes. These are the only preserved Medieval frescoes in Moldova.

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Excellent acoustics are aided by empty clay jars, and the early morning light that enters through the windows is said to create a symbolic cross.

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Three doors separate the nave with the altar area, but only men are permitted to enter this area.

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And now for something completely different...

Et Cetera Winery

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Our last stop in Moldova is the small family owned winery of Et Cetera, where we are greeted by Igor, one of the owners, who gives us a guided tour.

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Frustrated by the lack of high quality wines in Moldova, Igor and his brother Alexander bought the land in 2002 and subsequently planted 50 hectares of vines that they imported from Italy and Georgia. Today they employ 20 people in the production of an excess of 10,000 bottles of superior wines annually.

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The grapes will be ready to harvest next month (October) - they are all picked by hand. The grapes are collected in small boxes; then carefully sorted, with each berry checked to ensure that only the best are fermented.

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Next the grapes are placed on the vibrating table where the berries are separated from the stems and other unwanted bits.

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They then travel up this conveyor belt…

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… to the steamer where the skins are removed…

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… and into the presser. Only the white grapes have the skin removed before juicing; for red wine the skin is retained.

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We are given a glass each and head into the factory which is full of huge storage tanks for maturation of the wine.

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Degustation takes the form of opening a tap on the side of the storage tank!

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Today the bottling and labelling plants are devoid of any action.

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The wine is really excellent and we buy three bottles to take home.

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Back at the Winemaker’s Cottage, the sound of a piano fills the air and we discover Valeriu singing self-composed love songs. This trip seems to be full of surreal moments such as this!

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Lunch at the winery
Lunch is in the bright and airy conservatory, and starts with the unfortunately named ‘Bride’s Placinta’, a cheese and potato pie cooked by Alex and Igor's mother.

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A chicken and vegetable soup follows.

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I ask Valeriu what the main course consists of. “That’s rabbit casserole,” he tells me, “But…” he continues, pointing to the side dish, “That does not have an English name”. “Kasha?” I ask rhetorically (and to Valeriu’s surprise; he obviously isn’t aware of my great love – and knowledge – of food), “that is called buckwheat porridge in English.”

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Romania

After a big lunch with lots of wine, sleep is unavoidable on the four-hour drive to the border between Moldova and Romania; in fact only Leonid, the driver, (thankfully) manages to stay awake.

Exiting Moldova is smooth and easy, whereas entering Romania – and thus the EU – is painfully slow. First of all they want our passport and the car documents, then they check the luggage. Eventually, after queuing for nearly an hour, we are in; and meet up with our new (Romanian) driver-guide Andrei. It is very sad to say goodbye to Valeriu and Leonid, they’ve been such good company for the last five days in Moldova.

But now it’s time to explore new horizons with new people. Andrei is very different to Valeriu – where the Moldavian guide was our age and rather traditional (old fashioned even); his Romanian counterpart is a much younger 'free spirit' and a bit of an anarchist.

Again we doze in the car most of the way from the border, it soon gets dark, therefore making it hard to see anything along the way.

Dinner at Hanu Ancuţei Restaurant

Once we reach Târgu Neamț, we stop for dinner in a rustic and cosy restaurant, as we still have a number of miles to go today.

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Although the menu has a convenient English section, the choice is so great that we ask Andrei to pick something typically local for us. He orders a selection of three dips to start – zacusca (aubergine preserved in oil and spices - absolutely delicious! ), white bean pure with fried onion, and mashed beans with smoked meat.

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We follow that with a soup of veal with beetroot and soured cream, and for afters we share a plate of little pastries.

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Casa Felicia

After dinner, which was accompanied by an excellent botle of wine, we again struggle to stay awake on the way to Sucevita and our accommodation for the next two nights: the delightfully rustic Casa Felicia. By the time we arrive it is nearly midnight, so we merely collapse into bed after a long day with many miles - and three countries - covered.

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Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip to one of the least touristy parts of Europe.

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Posted by Grete Howard 14:50 Archived in Romania Tagged church grapes romania winery moldova vinyard wine_tasting transnistria undiscovered_destinations bruise tiraspol transdniestr church_of_assumption_of_mother_ tirgu_neamt hanu_ancutei hanul_ancutei casa_felicia sucevita căuşeni et_cetera et_cetera_winery Comments (0)

Cormier Plage - Cap-Haïtien - Port au Prince

Back to the Ole Smoke

sunny 34 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day eight of our tour of Haiti with Undiscovered Destinations.

Darkness still hangs over the Caribbean as we go for breakfast this morning, later replaced by an aspiring sunrise which never really amounts to anything.

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In the distant twilight we spot the Anthem of the Seas – The Royal Caribbean's cruise ship - heading for Labadee so that its passengers can spend the day on the beach.

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In the time it takes the ship to make its way across our horizon, twilight has almost been pushed aside by daylight, showing the ship in all its glory. I reluctantly admit that it does look impressive, at least from this distance.

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The sun is still low as we are driven to the airport for our return journey to the capital.

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Arriving at the airport, my heart sinks when I see the long queue of people - complete with huge amounts of luggage - waiting to check in; and when I realise that even the passengers are being weighed ready for the flight, the aforementioned heart plunges further into my stomach. I am therefore immensely relieved when Serge walks past the queue to another check in desk - the poor people heading for the humiliation of having their weight recorded are travelling to one of the outlying islands, not Port au Prince. Phew!

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Pimp my Truck

In Port au Prince Geffrard awaits us, now like an old friend, navigating his way through the morning traffic; all of which is infinitely more colourful and enriched than our min-van.

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Literally meaning 'quick quick', these buses – known as tap-taps, follow fixed routes, but not a timetable – they leave whenever they are full. That is full according to Haitian standards, not European, with passengers often hanging on the back or even sitting on the roof! There are no fixed bus-stops, the passengers knock the roof when they want to alight.

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They are mostly pick-up trucks which have been lovingly home welded and garishly decorated to the point where they resemble art galleries on wheels.

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Often painted with religious names or slogans, portraits of famous people, and intricate, hand-cut wooden window covers, the ubiquitous tap-taps are unique to Haiti.

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Musée Canne à Sucre

Although it is not far from Port au Prince airport, by the time we reach the museum I am feeling decidedly weary. The sun is shining relentlessly, and it's already very hot - I always suffers from the effects of dehydration quite quickly - and severely - and I suspect I have not taken in enough liquids this morning.

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All I want to do is sit down, in the shade somewhere, with a cool drink. Instead we are introduced to the guide who will show us around the museum.

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The first room displays a brief chronicle of Haiti's history, from the Taino Indians through to Victorian times.

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Taino artefacts

I feel listless and disinterested, which isn't at all like me. Normally I love museums, and soak up every word the guides say, but this morning I find myself wandering around the displays aimlessly, not really taking any notice of the explanations offered.

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The museum has the appearance of a haphazard collection of random items, situated in someone's living room.

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Slavery
The second room focuses on slavery, revolution and black history in Haiti. If there is such a human trait as having too much empathy, then I suffer from this condition. Looking at the impassioned illustrations displayed, my mind immediately wants to try and imagine how I would feel if I was in that situation. Damn emotions... STOP IT! If I was indifferent to the exhibits earlier, I now find myself getting quite distraught at the thought of man's inhumanity to man.

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Seeing Haiti today, it is hard to believe that it was once the wealthiest overseas colony in the French empire! However, economic success came at a cost - Haiti's riches could only be exploited by importing up to 40,000 slaves a year. For nearly a decade in the late 18th century, Haiti accounted for more than one-third of the entire Atlantic slave trade.

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Map showing where the slaves came from

Conditions for these men and women were atrocious; the average life expectancy for a slave once they arrived on Haiti was 7 years. Essentially, the owners worked their slaves to death and then just bought more slaves. Those who tried to run away were severely punished and by 1789, there were 500,000 slaves in Haiti.

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Cut-away model of slave ship shows the conditions the slaves were transported across the Atlantic under. Goods at the bottom, people on the middle deck.

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Some of the gruesome ways the slave masters kept their 'workers' in check. It doesn't even bear thinking about how cruelly these people were treated. I find it impossible to imagine how someone would have the mentality it would take to dish out that sort of punishment to another human being, and the fact that it was not just isolated incidents, it was considered the norm.

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Once they arrived in Haiti, slaves were divided into different categories: domestic help, overseers, agricultural workers and those involved in the sugar cane industry.

Revolution
Inspired by the French Revolution, the revolution in Haiti (1791-1804) is the only successful slave revolt in modern times, and makes Haiti the only country where slave freedom was taken by force. A bedraggled group of slaves organised themselves, held a vodou ceremony calling for their liberty and went out with a guerilla war to defeat Europe’s most powerful army.

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Plantations were taken by force, or by using more subtle methods, such as poisoning their masters.

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In 1804, Haiti went on to become the first independent nation in Latin America; it is the second oldest republic in the western hemisphere (after the US); and the oldest black republic in the world. The three main players in the fight for Haiti's liberty were Jean Jaques Dessalines, Henri Christophe and Alexandre Pétion.

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Set in the grounds of the ruined old sugar plantation Habitation Chauteaublond, the museum courtyard features a collection of antiquated material relating to the sugar cane industry.

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17th century water mill, brought over from England, was used to extract the juice from the sugar cane.

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The guide turns the water on for us to show the wheel in operation. As we are the only people in the museum, it makes sense not to have the mill running continuously.

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As well as hydro-power, animals were used to operate this traction wheel.

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Vats for boiling the sugar cane to make molasses for export to Europe where it would be fermented to make rum.

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Belonging to the Haitian American Sugar Company, S.A. (HASCO), this – the first train in Haiti – was used for transporting sugar cane from the fields to the processing plants.

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Relais de Chateaublond Restaurant
Although the gorgeous on-site restaurant is famous for its selection of flavoured rums (such as passion fruit, anise and various herbs), we stick to Diet Coke with our lunch.

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Croix des Bouquets

In the suburb of Noailles is the commune of Croix des Bouquets, famed for its metalwork artisans. The flamboyant movement of recycling metal into art was started some 60 years ago and today there are over 1,000 artisans working in Croix des Bouquetes, hammering away to create intricate masks and other wall hangings from discarded oil drums, car parts and even kitchen utensils.

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We visit the workshop of Jacques Eugene, a renowned artist who was born here in Croix des Bouquetes and now employs several other locals in his studio.

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Like most of the artists, Jacques takes his inspiration from vodou, creating extraordinary wall hangings which are as bizarre (to us) as they are curious.

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Jacques explains the process from the raw material to the finished product: the oil barrel is cut open, burnt and flattened, then a pattern is traced on the surface. The rest is done with a hammer and chisel, metal cutters and artistic skill.

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This handsome mask now hangs proudly in my living room along with the two masks we wore for Jacmel carnival and the one I bought at Milot (well, I had to have something to do while David and Kyle were visiting the Citadelle – that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!)

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In addition to the intriguing masks, one of the most popular designs for steel drum art is the Tree of Life, a symbolic image with a cultural significance to the people of Haiti. Representing immortality, new life, blessings and fertility, the branches of the tree reach into the sky, while the roots burrow deep into the earth; uniting heaven, earth and the underworld. Having seen several different variations on walls in our hotel rooms as well as restaurants, we are keen to pick one out to bring home.

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David also adds a lizard to his collection.

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Making our way back to Hotel Le Plaza (again), we are stuck in a traffic jam (again). The cars are completely stationary, and we soon become aware that several cars in front of us make a turn. Serge goes off to investigate what the problem is, and comes back to explain that there was an accident between a car and a motorbike, and all the bystanders have taken the side of the motorcyclist. They then set about beating the car driver, who very wisely retreated to the safety of his vehicle. That didn't stop the mob apparently, and now they are pelting his car with stones. Justice Haitian style!

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We also decide to get out of here before this escalates. That means driving through a 'less-than-salubrious' neighbourhood, and we are advised to close the windows and put the cameras away. So what do I do? Take photos of course...

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With so many cars having turned around to avoid the melee and are now travelling the opposite direction, the traffic is still terribly slow moving, so it's a great relief to finally arrive at the hotel. This being our third visit to Le Plaza in the last week, it's like coming home.

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Feeling awfully jaded and quite unwell by now, I am rather grateful we don't have any plans for the rest of the afternoon; and after re-packing for tomorrow's journey home, we take a siesta. I notice I have the beginnings of a cold sore on my lip, something that causes me some concern after last time I had one, which developed a secondary infection, resulting a several courses of antibiotics.

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When Geffrard turns up to pick us up later, he brings me a gift from Serge: spicy peanut butter! What a wonderful surprise.

This evening we have arranged to meet up with Jacqui (the local agent) and Paul (the Bradt Guidebook writer we met in Jacmel) for dinner. Jacqui has also invited Dawn (she was at the carnival with us too), who is bringing a friend; so it is quite a happy little band who turn up at La Plantation Restaurant in Pétionville.

The cocktails are good, the food is great and the conversation is even better.

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It's a delightful way to end this tour – we have found Haiti to exceed our expectations in every way. This small nation has so much more to offer than the usual Caribbean attractions of sunshine, beaches and sunset cocktails – although it has its fair share of those too! With extremely welcoming people and an intriguing culture, I am already planning my return visit to delve deeper into its vodou customs and celebrations.

Posted by Grete Howard 05:37 Archived in Haiti Tagged beaches art planes beach history travel vacation hotel museum caribbean artisans photography cocktails revolution slavery pilot metalwork artists aerial_photography slaves spicy haiti undiscovered_destinations canon_eos_5d_iii voyages-lumiere port-au-prince port_au_prince baron_samedi paul_clammer bradt vodou cap-haïtien haitien_revolution haitien_food haitien_art labadee cormier cap_hatien petionville croix_des_bouquets jacques_eugene sugar_cane haitian_revolution peanut_butter Comments (1)

Cap-Haïtien – Cormier Plage

Chill time!

semi-overcast 29 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day seven of our tour of Haiti by Undiscovered Destinations.

Encouraged by yesterday's bird watching, I get up at the crack of dawn to see if there is any more avian life around the grounds. I spot a couple of the usual suspects, but nothing mindblowingly exciting:

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Hispaniolan Woodpecker

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Palmchat

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White Necked Crow

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Juvenile Yellow Crowned Night Heron

Last night we received a text from Jacqui to say she is in Cap-Haïtien this morning on business and would we like to meet for breakfast? Despite her flight being delayed out of Port au Prince, we do have time for a quick catch-up at Hotel Roi Christophe before going our separate ways. To my delight, the hotel serves the legendary spicy Haitian peanut butter. I must get some of this to bring home!

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Cathedrale Notre Dame de Cap-Haïtien

Having been picked up by the driver from our destination hotel, we make a quick stop at Place d'Armes du Cap-Haitien in the centre of town to photograph the recently renovated 18th century cathedral fronted by the modern, well equipped kiddies' playground.

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Labadie

From here the rough and winding road meanders west, hugging the cliffs above the shoreline. Locals have been fighting to get this road modernised and improved (although we see no sign of any work), as the Royal Caribbean cruise ships dock further along the coast. The cruise company has its own beach area here (known as Labadee), and restrictions which forbids the tourists from leaving the private resort have recently been relaxed. The people of Cap-Haïtien are trying their best to get a cut of the tourist dollar by offering tours of the area and enticing foreigners to spend money in local shops and restaurants (and who can blame them?), but the terrible state of the road is putting many people off and making it hard work to get to anywhere. Currently, only a small controlled group of Haitian merchants are given sole rights to sell their merchandise and establish their businesses in the resort (for a fee of course); guarded by a private security force. However, it is not all bad news, as the resort does employ 300 locals and the Royal Caribbean pays the Haitian government $12 per disembarking tourist.

What I do think is a crying shame, is that those tourists do not get to experience the real Haiti; although I guess all they want to do is relax on a beautiful sandy beach and partake in water sports. Controversially, the company continued to dock its luxury cruise ships in the private port immediately after the 2010 earthquake, although they did announced at the time that they would be donating US$1 million to fund relief efforts in Haiti.

Last month, a peaceful but rowdy protest was held here against the upcoming presidential elections in Haiti, blocking the port and causing the Royal Caribbean to temporarily suspend this port stop.

This area and village is called Labadie (whereas the private resort is Labadee), and is named after the marquis de La Badie, a Frenchman who first settled the area in the 17th century.

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View of the coastline

Cormier Plage

We are NOT heading for Labadee thankfully (I can think of few things worse than 3000 cruise tourists in one hermetically manufactured resort) – rather our destination is Cormier Plage Hotel on the beach of the same name.

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“What is going on? The hotel has no food or drink? I am not staying here!” Seeing the sign at the entrance to the hotel, I josh with Serge - it takes him a second or two to get the joke.

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We are shown to our room, which has an unusual split-level layout with a couple of extra beds.The room is large, cool and comfortable, and boasts a terrace – complete with rocking chair - overlooking the grounds and ocean beyond.

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View from the terrace

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Decisions, decision... what to do first? Rocking chair? Hammock? Bar? Swim?

Predictably, the drink wins the day.

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Swimming
It would be improper to leave here without having had a swim in the warm waters of the Caribbean. However, our venture into the sea can be more accurately described as a frolic in the waves than a swim. There is some pretty good surf going on, making it safest and most comfortable to stay in the shallows.

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At least it means I can try out my new selfie-stick with my little waterproof camera. It's not as easy as it looks – least of all because I bought a VERY cheap stick, which means the camera keeps twisting around just at the wrong moment; and without a screen at the front of the camera it is hard to figure out what the result will be like and how much of the intended subject will actually be within the frame.

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It does provide a little light amusement for a while, but I certainly won't be making a habit out of this selfie-taking lark.

Lunch
The food here at Cormier Plage is pleasant but nothing awe-inspiring. David is feeling in need of some traditional comfort food, so orders a double cheeseburger with chips, while I choose something with a little more Caribbean flavour - shrimps creole with rice.

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We're not beach people per se, but we are more than happy to spend a day or two by the ocean. Sunbathing is not our style, but there is something very relaxing about watching the waves from a white, sandy beach, and strolling around the extended leafy gardens with its tropical vegetation, birds and lizards.

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Black Crowned Palm Tanager

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Broad Billed Tody

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Grey Kingbird

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Palmchat

Eureka!
I finally manage to photograph a hummingbird – although not a brilliant picture as it caught me unawares and was there and gone in a flap of a wing - I can safely say my holiday is now complete!

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Hispaniolan Emerald

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The resident cat is on the prowl for an afternoon snack. Lizard is on the menu, but he has to catch it first. He does.

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Thankfully lizards are in plentiful supply here, in the trees and on the walls. I love these little critters who epitomise the tropics for me.

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I thought I heard Danish spoken at lunch, and my suspicions are confirmed when we discover the Danish Consulate in the grounds of the hotel. So... what does a 'day at the office' look like? "Hmmm, spent the morning on a deck chair on the beach, followed by a seafood lunch overlooking the Caribbean, then some emails on my laptop in the beach bar..." What a life! Actually, they probably work very hard and I am only jealous that none of my workplaces were as exotic.

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All this excitement is tiring you know, so David puts his feet up in the rocking chair.

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.

Or should that be hammock?

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"I can hear the sea..." Not surprising after a couple of those potent rum punches!

We are so inspired by these hanging coconut shell lights that we immediately start working out how to incorporate this idea into the refurbishment of our garden gazebo back home. Nothing unusual there, as the last few days of almost every holiday sees David making plans for another home renovation project.

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Dinner
Perusing the menu for dinner, the waiter informs us that they have no fish and no beef. A beach restaurant with no fish? Unbelievable! So that leaves chicken, chicken, chicken or goat. We choose chicken.

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Chicken curry

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Diablo chicken

As the bar (and restaurant) is devoid of any life, we retire to our room instead. We do happen to have a bottle of rum....

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:19 Archived in Haiti Tagged birds sunset beach vacation holiday caribbean hammock palm_trees tropical rum haiti hummingbird undiscovered_destinations rum_punch cap-haïtien carmier_plage labadie labadee cormier Comments (2)

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