The Travel A to Z Lumbers Back with N to P

So much positive stuff seems to be happening right now that I’m wondering if I will ever get around to polishing the A to Z off, but here’s the latest installment.

Nicest Hotel I have ever stayed in:

Now I have stayed in a lot of hotels over the past 50 odd years. In general I tend to think of a hotel as somewhere to sleep and leave my stuff, particularly if I’m only on a short break, but the occasional touch of luxury is great if we are staying put for a while. Price does not always correlate with nice though. For example on the two occasions I stayed in Istanbul I much preferred the small family run Avicenna, near the Blue Mosque, to the beastly corporate Conrad, despite the Conrad having a pool and other mod cons.

The Meltemi Apartments

The Meltemi Apartments

However if I had to make a choice, I’d plump for the Meltemi Apartments in Perissa on the Greek island of Santorini. So what did I like about them?

Our blue and white apartment was pretty much self-contained, well furnished and clean. The air conditioning actually worked, which doesn’t always happen in Greece. It was also close to a number of bars and restaurants and the beach was about five minutes away.

Yassou

There was also a local bakery, which was great for breakfast and a supermarket, where we could get two litre water bottles filled with wine from a barrel for about 50 cents. Not to mention a hoard of cats, like Noodles, so called because the lady who ran the joint fed him on Chinese takeaway.

Noodles and his brother or sister or cousin

The manageress was pretty cool herself and largely left us alone, except for the odd hair care tip, “Use lots of conditioner darlink”. And there was none of that big chain meaningless corporate crap like mission statements or brand identity nonsense.

Our private jacuzzi

Best of all we had our own private jacuzzi on our own private sun terrace. All this combined with Santorini’s relaxing atmosphere, great food, ouzo, beer and Vin Santo made for a great holiday.

Obsession:

Which one? Architecture, food, drink, wildlife, archeology?

No it has to be photographing birds.

Jackdaw Stockholm

Which is something I do everywhere we go even in my back garden,

Green Woodpecker, my back garden

most times these are the same creatures you can see in the UK, like this hooded crow,

Hooded Crow, Peterhof, St Petersburg

although you won’t see one in the south of England, and this fieldfare, both snapped in the grounds of Peter the Great’s palace at St Petersburg,

Fieldfare, St Petersburg

but occasionally something a bit more exotic like this green heron that I discovered helping himself to the koi carp in at our hotel in Cancun Mexico.

Mexican Green Heron

Passport Stamps:

My more recent passports have very few stamps in them, since hardly anywhere in Europe bothers to stamp other European passports any more. Which is a bit of a shame, as I always thought getting a stamp almost made up for the time wasted queuing up at the immigration desk. In my present passport I have stamps from Russia, Mexico and Croatia , but past passport stamps include; Hong Kong, Australia, Fiji, the USA, Canada, Spain, Gibraltar, Finland, Cyprus, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Norway, Greece and Israel.

Santa stamp Finland

I think this one from a Santa special trip to Arctic Finland is quite fun and shows that not all official functions have to be that serious. However for ruthlessly beating a passport to within an inch of its life you could not beat Egypt in the early 90s, where the forces of petty officialdom inflicted all of these wallops within a week.

Egypt, hard on passports!

A to Z of Travel ~ Experience to Favourite Mode of Transport

And so onwards to E

E – Event you Experienced that made you say wow.

Wow!- there have been rather a lot of these over the years, here’s my selection

Me in Red Square: Kremlin on the left and GUM Department store on the right

Moscow’s Red Square and discovering just how big it really is. Like many of the children of the 60s I remember seeing the May Day parades from Moscow in grainy black and white on the TV. Seemingly endless columns of tanks, missile launchers and goosestepping soldiers would march pass the scowling Politbureau, as they took the salute from the top of Lenin’s tomb.

Lenin's Tomb in front of the Kremlin

Even so it was only when we passed through the Voskresensky Gate in 2010, that I fully appreciated how enormous Red Square was, bordered on one side by the Kremlin and the other by the GUM department store, which today is more like a luxury shopping mall.

GUM all lit up and pretty

At the far end 300 metres away was the beautiful onion domed Cathedral of St Basil, where the chapels under the domes are being restored to their former glory.

St Basil's Cathedral

Of course one of the reasons for the square being so huge was fundamentally and horribly practical, it gave the occupants of the Kremlin a clear field of fire to massacre anyone attempting to storm the citadel!

The Pyramids of Chichen Itza in Mexico.

Temple of Kulkulkan Chichen Itza

It’s hard to imagine that these huge buildings dating back to the ancient Mayan and Toltec civilisations were mortared with the same stuff used to make chewing gum! The site itself is huge and surrounded by jungle, real Indiana Jones stuff.

Dachshund Parade Krakow: this happens on the first Sunday in September in the Polish city.

A Knight in Shining Armour

I have no idea why it happens, but it has now been going for about 20 years and some of the costumes are very creative.

His Majesty

We discovered this event purely by luck. It was featured in the easyJet inflight magazine I was reading as we were on our way there.

And just to prove we have the wow factor here in the UK, Stonehenge in Wiltshire.

Stonehenge

I do actually think the stone circle at nearby Avebury is more impressive as a piece of neolithic architecture, it’s far bigger for a start and there is a good pub that does decent food too, but it’s not as complete or as photogenic as Stonehenge.

Other wows would have to include: watching the Sun rise and set over Uluru in Australia, the Great Barrier Reef, Philip Island’s (near Melbourne) Fairy Penguin Parade as the Sun goes down, the rock-hewn city of Petra in Jordan, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, taking a helicopter ride through the Grand Canyon and then another through the man-made canyons of New York city, the Pyramids of Egypt and those of Teotihuacan near Mexico City, The Valley of the Kings and the Temples of Karnak and Aswan, Abu Simbel, the Parthenon in Athens, the mosques of Istanbul and the megalithic passage tomb of Newgrange in Ireland. However they are all on film rather than digital.

F – Favourite Mode of Transport

Local train Moscow Station St Petersburg

It would have to be by train. It’s so much more civilised than flying, you usually travel city centre to city centre without expensive and inconvenient trips to out of town airport locations, you are not subject to so many queues, petty bureaucrats and silly regulations or rip off airport prices. Scenery can be enjoyed as it passes by and you can get up and take a walk.

My favourite rail journeys have been St Petersburg to Moscow, London to Edinburgh (obviously enough) and the Oresund crossing from Copenhagen in Denmark to Malmo in Sweden over the Baltic Sea. Speaking of railway bridges between Edinburgh and Dundee there are two Victorian stunners: the amazing cantelever construction that is the Forth Bridge and the two and a quarter mile long Tay Bridge. Worth the trip alone even if you don’t like Marmalade.

The Tay Bridge enjoying some lovely Scottish weather

Trains

Train journeys are funny things. On the way to work, in overcrowded carriages we actively try not to initiate contact with our fellow travelers, however on longer journeys when the trains are less full there seems to be no such taboo.

On our return from Edinburgh to London yesterday, before we had even left Waverley the three of us had struck up a conversation with the two guys sitting on the table opposite ours. Admittedly our starting point was about how awful long journeys in the UK can be and the bewildering array of prices charged for them.The fact that the toilet at the end of our carriage was out of order and there was no trolley service for second class passengers until Newcastle helped the conversation along all the way to said city, where the train filled up and further conversation became difficult crammed in amidst the iPad and mobile fiddling hordes.

Journeys formed the mainstay of our conversation and we discovered that one of the chaps had worked in Moscow. Now one of my overwhelming memories of Russia was the journey we made from St Petersburg to Moscow on the Sapsan High speed train.

Sapsan Train St Petersburg's Moscow Station.

It took three and half hours to travel the 400 or so miles from St Petersburg’s Moscow Station (very pragmatic the Russians, as the train goes to Moscow) to Moscow itself. All the passengers had seats and we were kept up to date on our progress in both Russian and English. A far cry from what passengers experienced on the the four and three quarter hours it took to get from Edinburgh to London on Sunday, even if we didn’t need the armed guards the patrolled the Sapsan’s carriages.

Nothing like a railway journey to make you realise how big Russia is.

We had paid jut £25 for our tickets from Edinburgh on the internet, however one of our new traveling companions had forked out over £100 for his ticket at the station on the day. To add insult to his predicament, unlike him we had reserved seats and by the time we got to York the train was so crowded that anyone with one of these expensive sameday tickets was standing in the the carriage vestibule all the way to London.  I think railway companies have a nerve charging people those sort of prices and then expecting them to take pot luck on whether they get a seat or not. From what I have heard this is not uncommon between Edinburgh and London.

Added to this whenever you complain to the railway companies they are full of excuses as to how they can worm out of the compensation terms in their worthless customer charters. Apparently engineering works that add an hour and half to your published journey time can do that, because according to them, it’s up to you to find out about them yourself before you travel.

It puts me in mind of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”

“Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”

“But the plans were on display …”

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

“That’s the display department.”

“With a flashlight.”

“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”

“So had the stairs.”

“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”

Rude Veg – childish but still funny

I bought this today. It’s some horse radish root

Horse Radish Root

I know what it looks like.

It’s destiny is to be grated and steeped in vodka for a month or so to create horse radish vodka, which will hopefully be  similar to the one we had in the Shinok Restaurant in St Petersburg where these lovely Ukranian women sang a song to us, which also may have been quite rude.

Lovely Ukranian women at Shinok in St Petersburg