Thursday, August 24, 2017

Spain - Madrid and Toledo

This was a trip we hadn't planned. Due to circumstances (surgery) we had to cancel our planned trip to Tuscany, Italy because the surgeon thought it would perhaps be too early to travel. However, I recovered quickly and at the last checkup, we were told travelling was permitted.

It wasn't easy to find a destination on so short a notice. Either the airplane tickets were too expensive (only business or first class) or the hotels were fully booked. At long last we found something priceworthy plus a hotel that still had rooms. Our destiny became Madrid, Spain. We left early on Monday morning of August 14th and arrived in Madrid before noon. We took a taxi to our hotel (we could have taken the metro, but it would take longer than a taxi ride), which wasn't all that expensive.

We stayed at hotel Vincci The Mint, at the Gran Via, right into the town's center. A wonderful hotel which I can certainly recommend! We had a lovely room, overlooking the busy boulevard, but we didn't hear a thing about the traffic, neither from other rooms. Also the breakfast was more than lovely. When you had booked room with breakfast, you could take whatever item from the menu, as many times you liked! We had something different each morning.


Already that first afternoon we went exploring somewhat. We are not the kind of tourist who plan and plan, reading all kind of travel publications. We just plunge into it. Madrid isn't a town where you can get lost easily, by the way. It's not that big and easy to walk, if you are inclined to do so. It's so nice to just walk around and see all those beautiful buildings.

For the next day (Tuesday) we had bought tickets for the Prado museum online. That's the best thing you can do, as the lines are very long and waiting in the hot sun is not advisable. We could enter straight away. The museum has a large collection, especially of masters of the 15th and 16th centuries. I can tell you, there are a couple of millions hanging on those walls! We took our time seeing everything we were interested in, and paused for a coffee at the museum cafertaria. On leaving the museum, we found a nice place closeby where we had a long lunch.



On Wednesday we took off to Toledo. Departing from the Atocha railway station, there is a Renfe train that brings you to Toledo in about half an hour. You have to buy the tickets in advance, though.  And also be aware, arrive in time because your luggage will be checked.

Now Toledo is a town worth a visit. It's a very old town, where both Christians, Muslims and Jews lived. Each left their mark on the town. We didn't have time to see all of it, but we visited the Jesuit church from which towers you have a most magnificent view over town. There is also the Alcazar, the El Greco house and museum, the Jewish quarter. The speciality of Toledo is marzipan. We went to the convent (don't ask me of which order) where the nuns make marzipan the old way and sell it for a price less than in the many shops. It's quite tasty and not too sweet.



On our last full day in Madrid, we tried to see some more of the city. We went to the park Retiro, close to the Puerta Alcantara. Also saw the Royal Palace but the lines were too long to get inside. And of course, being women, we did some shopping to finish our day!


Thursday, June 29, 2017

Peru - Cuzco

(Continuation of our 1982 trip to Peru and Bolivia)

On leaving Cochabamba in Bolivia, we first took a plane to La Paz, and then went back to Puno for another short stay, in which we had the time to do some shopping.

From Puno we took the train to Cuzco. A ride of 10 hours, through the high mountains of the Andes. At a given time, we reached a height of 4,319 meter! It was a very original trainride, because the train stopped at different small railway stations, and lots of people went on of off the train, some with their livestock in baskets or just plain under the arm! We didn't starve of hunger or thirst either - constantly we were offered goodies, for just some coins.



We had a hotel in Cuzco close to the city center. It was late afternoon when we arrived, so we just put the suitcases in the hotel room and the three of us (our friend Jan always went with us) we went on discovery of the city. It didn't take long before all three of us smelled chocolate - and yes, we did find that bakery where we drank hot chocolate and ate some sweets...

The following morning a guide met us and we went to the ruins around Cuzco. We visited Fort Sacsayhuaman, the religious center of Kenko and Puca Pucara, the red fort that was used to store grain in Inca times.



The next day we went to Machu Pichu. We had to get up very early, because first we had to take a train (5 hours). Then up the mountain (another hour). But it was really worth it! Our local guide had accompanied Prof. Bingham when he discovered the Inca city and was quite knowledgable. For those who have never seen Machu Pichu, well it's one of the most impressive sights in the world! I'm ever so glad I've seen this when there were not yet many tourists.



Friday, June 23, 2017

Bolivia - Villa Tunari and Cochabamba

(Continuation of our trip to Peru and Bolivia in 1982)

We took a flight from Sucre to Cochabamba. We didn't stay there, howver, as a guide (Sara) picked us up at the airport and together with our driver took us to Villa Tunari, deep in the Amazon jungle. We stayed there in a very primitive hostel. It was very hot in the jungle, moreover we didn't have any electricity and almost no water to shower.


Sarah had friends who wanted to show us the Amazon. They also stayed at 'hotel' Sumuqué and after breakfast (which was surprisingly good) they took us on their boat and we sailed on the Chapare River. On the way, the guys fished up some fish (a variety of the piranha). By noon, we just threw anchor and the men made a fire with some branches to barbecue the fish. We ate with some fresh bread they'd brought along - nice lunch! Then we went into the jungle, machete in hand, and got bitten over by various insects, despite the layers of repellant we'd put on. We also had to cross smaller rivers with the use of ropes, which made it quite adventurous. We returned to the hotel for one more night and then the following morning Sara and Rogelio (our driver) brought us back to Cochabamba.

The rest of that day was spent by making a city tour of Cochabamba, with a visit to the ruins of Tiwanaku.  At that time, there was a religious fest going on and the city was crowded by Bolivians. Sara and Rogelio were very nice people -  in fact, all the people we met on that trip were nice and friendly - and on our last day there we went all together for a traditional meal in a local restaurant.



From Cochabamba we returned to Peru (via La Paz) but that's for another time!





Monday, June 19, 2017

Bolivia - La Paz and Sucre

(Continuation of our 1982 trip to Peru and Bolivia)

From Puno in Peru we drove to Copacabana and there boarded the ship which was going to carry us to La Paz, the biggest city in Bolivia (and also the highest: 3600 m.) We drove around the town for a while (staring at the crazy traffic) and then went to our hotel. We dined there for a very cheap price.


The following day we left the busy town and our guide José took us to the Altiplano. We visited Tihuanacu, the city of the Aymara's (pre-Inca). We saw old totems and the Sun Gate. Later that day we also did a short tour of La Paz, where we saw among others the Witch Market, where one can spot all kinds of strange objects, like the foetus of lama's. We also drove through Moon Valley



The day after we took a flight to Sucre, which is actually the legal capital of the country. There, our guide Elisabeth welcomed us. She brought us to our hotel, which was a former hacienda. The whole town, by the way, is built in this style. Then we visited La Recoleta, a convent. From there you had a magnificent view over the town. Next we visited Chasa de Liberdad and San Felipe de Nery. It was very interesting and we liked Elisabeth a lot.

At the moment we visited La Paz and Sucre, there was a general strike going on and this meant some of the planned trips couldn't be made. We also had to eat in a private home because all restaurants were closed.

Something we could do, however, was drive to Potosi (4 hours over bad roads) to see the silver mines. We went inside the Casa Moneda to see how the Spanish robbed the gold and silver to spice the coffers of the Spanish king!



Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Peru - Arequipa and Puno

(Continuation of previous blogpost)

From Lima we flew to Arequipa, which is named the 'white town'. It is situated on 2000 meters of heigt and got its name from the lava stone (coming from the three volcanoes Misti, Pichupichu and Chachani which are all above 6000 m high). We were welcomed at the airport by our local guide Hilda who first brought us to our hotel (near the cozy Plaza de Armas) and afterwards took us on a guided tour of the town.


We saw the Santa Catalina convent - a town within a town, with streets and all - the cathedral and a Jezuiet convent. We lunched in a typical restaurant and tried a chicha, a drink made out of corn. In the afternoon we were supposed to have some free time, but Jan and we hired Hilda for another tour. We drove through the environs with a 4x4 jeep and gasped at the beauty of this region. The rocks showed many different colors and here and there we saw farmers on their fields. We made a stop at a place where only locals come to eat and tasted the biñelos, a sort of beignet with honey. It was so good we took a taxi back to the place at night and tried other specialities of the region.

The next morning we had to board a plane to Puno from Juliaca (the airport of Arequipa). We literally flew between the high peaks of the Andes! Due to a delay at the airport, it was rather late in the afternoon when we reached Puno and so we couldn't do the planned tour. Instead the three of us went to an Indo market, where we bought some local products.


The following day we did a boat trip on Lake Titicaca to visit the floating islands of the Uro indians (or better: from the Amaya, who are descendants from the Uro) and were invited to lunch there. In the afternoon we saw the Chullpas of Sillustani - old tombs of pre-Inca's - on the holy Umayo island. The old indian legend that entering the graveyard brings bad luck must carry some thruth after all, be because it was there my glasses broke!



Friday, June 9, 2017

Peru - Lima

A long time ago, in 1982, Chris and I traveled to Peru (and also to Bolivia). There already was some tourism at the time, but not mass tourism like today. At some places we were quite a sight to the locals! The source for these lines is my diary - I've been keeping one since I was 15 years young and it's a source of information by now.

We were with a small group of 6 persons: an elderly gay couple, a bachelor in his forties, a young guy from Antwerp and us. Needless to say we immediately bonded with Jan, the young guy! We shared many interests and could also laugh together. The air trip took us from Brussels to Paris (CDG) and then to Lima, with stops in Cayenne (French Guyana) and Manaus (Brazil). A long trip, but like always we slept well on the plane. That's something fortunate, as many people can't sleep on a plane. We always arrive well-rested.

The day after arrival we did a sightseeing tour of Lima. We first went to the Plaza de Armas, where we visited the cathedral. Then we saw a museum where the Inquisition had its tribunal. We could see some instruments of torture and also some underground prison cells. We passed by the Torre Tagle palace, one of the oldest colonial houses in Peru. Next we went to see the ceramic collection at the Larco Herrero museum. I especially liked the erotic ceramics! We luched at ‘Los Condes de San Isidoro’, an old hacienda. Full of original 16th century furniture, really impressive.





In the afternoon we went to the residential Miraflores parish, close to the Pacific, where we could spot some seals. We went in the month of August, which means it was summer for us, but winter in Peru. Even though, it still was 20° Celsius, which is not so bad to us. Later on followed a visit to the Oro de Peru museum where we could view pre-Inca relics. We drank something in our hotel and then with Jan went into town to have dinner. A pickpocket got hold of my golden earrings and since then I never wear expensive jewelry when traveling. Luckily grandma bought me new ones!




To be continued! 


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Poland - Krakow and environs

We have been living next door to a Polish family for over 20 years. Yet up to recently, we never considered taking a trip to Poland. But finally it happened - and we don't regret it.

It's only a short flight (1,5 hours) from Brussels to Krakow. We had a hotel out of the city center, but taking a taxi in Poland is not a problem. The countries once behind the Iron Curtain are still relatively cheap to us western Europeans. The taxi ride only cost about 25 €.

Just like Budapest, Krakau is quite an interesting place to visit. For starters, it's an old town, going back to the Middle Ages. And it's surrounded by places that you'll want to see. The most important one of those are the German death camps for Jews, Auschwitz and Birkenau. These are their German names, I can't pronounce the Polish ones. We did a guided tour there, and it was quite impressive. And the smell... Even after so many years, you could still smell the fear of those who were kept there.




Another place of iinterst is the salt mine of Wieliczka. This I know in Polish: kopalina soli. 380 steps take you down in the mine. There are several levels, and the deepest one is around 300 meters of depth. You can see (and taste) the salt crystals all around. I particularly liked the figurines the miners made in salt. They even carved out chapels. Pope John Paul II visited this mine (he was Polish, of course) and one of the chapels is named in his glory.



The Old Town of Krakow is worth seeing as well. Lots of old buildings and a cosy atmosphere. Churches and chapels galore, but also shops, cafés and restaurants. In all of these, you never pay too much. We dined a couple of times (and very well) for less than 50 € for two persons. Another place not to miss is Wawel Castle and its cathedral.




Also, I must say Polish people are very polite and friendly. When we rode on the tram, some young guys immediately gave up their seats for us. You don't see that happening in Belgium anymore! And in shops, pubs and restaurants we were always greeted warmly.

Our neighbor was right in saying Krakow was a good place to visit.