Driving around a couple of developing African countries. How hard can it be??
We had a good look at different options to get us around Rwanda and Uganda. Initially we had engaged a travel agent to sort it all out for us but he had irritated J and IAS not only was He expensive he was also rather inflexible. I think he had a off the shelf plan and didn’t want to deviate from it. Also some of the hotels we would be put in didn’t get great reviews and if you end up paying a lot of money for a crap hotel it can be a tadge annoying.
The decision to go ‘self-drive’ made us immediately excited about the trip in a way that we hadn’t been. It would be more of an adventure. A bit more challenging, it an adventure.
We then looked at different hire car companies and car alternatives. Plan A; a land cruiser with a roof top tent seemed to be illogical as we were not going to use the tent every night so the cost of the tent when we did use it was about $250 a night, which we could get a pretty good hotel for.
We decided to go for a RAV 4 and shopped around to find a company with genuine good reviews. This is harder than it sounds and many companies have fake reviews (watch out for a heap of reviews by people who have only done one or two reviews). I had thought I’d done my due-diligence and found one. Paul, from Rent-a-car Kigali was super responsive and the company had a couple of good genuine reviews on trip advisor.
They use two names in Rwanda - Rent a car Rwanda and Kigali 4x4. In Uganda they trade under Go Gorilla Trekking LTD. All I can say is that I made a mistake…….. At best they are incompetent, at worst they are scam artists.
One employee - Paul - tried his hardest to help, but he was always on the road and often out of contact. Other members of staff, particularly a lady named Mickie, lied, was consistently difficult and in the end deliberately took financial advantage of us.
The story is below. In hindsight we can almost laugh but dealing with this company was more than a little frustrating at the time.
We booked the car for 12 days in Rwanda and Uganda and on every single day, the car and the company had a significant negative effect on our holiday and cost us a lot more money than we had budgeted for.
Day 1: The car (a 2000 RAV 4 with 160,000 km on the clock) arrived on time but without the full set of camping equipment we hired and other important items. Once most of it was provided (including a full set of wheel nuts) we left 2.5 hours late.
Before we left the representative from the company looked me in the eye and confirmed the car could go to Uganda. This was the first porky.
The car was in poor condition; it made noise when we went round left hand corners, had a broken door mirror and was missing an indicator, but hey, this is Africa: we can manage.
When we arrived at our first campsite, in the dark after a rushed 5 hour drive south, we found we had two x old one person tents, none of which were waterproof and lacked enough poles, pegs etc. They were unusable. They were the kind of things you take to the beach for the kids. We paid for a room that night, in a place with no electricity or hot water and cooked scoff on the step of the pace.
Day 2: The messages I sent to the company about the tent were ignored. Bastards.
Day 3: The company told us that they were sending a new tent and a new car that day. I asked why we needed a new car: ‘This one is better’. I asked them to confirm that the one we had could go to Uganda. They said yes..... again. The car did not turn up that day and we had changed plans to be available to receive it. The company eventually contacted us to say it would arrive the next day at our next destination.
Day 4: New car and new tent arrived, much later than they said told us it would, again effecting our plans. New tent was still not waterproof, so from that point forward, we could not camp. The car was a Prado with 360,000 km on the clock and was so empty of fuel, it was running off fumes. I handed over the RAV that I recently filled up.
Day 5: On way back from gorilla trek the car engine got very noisy, warning lights came on and it lost power. I Whatsapp’d the company and they said a new vehicle would be delivered that night between 6-7. This was the night of our 15th wedding anniversary. Despite many reinsurances that the car would be there soon, it never arrived. We spent the night of our 15th wedding anniversary sitting in a small room of a B&B. It turns out no car was never coming as they couldn’t get the authority to get it over the border. The plan had been to return us the RAV4.......
Day 6. After we left the B&B, the owner of the Prado we had arrived so we met him where we were having breakfast. He had been told by the company we had hired his car through that we were getting a new car so he could take his away. Obviously that couldn’t happen so he ‘fixed’ the car and kindly helped us across the Ugandan border before having to make his own way home. He was unhappy with the company too.
Day 7. Leaving our lodge in the early hours, high in the Ugandan mountains, the car had no power and lots of noise from the engine. We limped to park hq, found a mechanic who knew the owner, paid $40 for oil, then left on our trek. On our return we were delighted that the car had been ‘fixed’.
Day 8. In remote jungle, car lost power. We got to a lodge. The owner sent a mechanic. It took 2 hours for him to get to us. At this stage I was happy to write the car off and pay for another. The owner then assured me it was fixed and the mechanic would go with us to next destination. The mechanic got us lost in the jungle then, near the town he lived, the problem started again. We took the mechanic to our lodge (some interesting persuasion tactics were used, best described over a beer), via a shortcut he knew and got bogged in for a while. The last hour was driving in the dark and in Uganda, that’s a challenge.
Once at our lodge, the mechanic took the car for repair in his garage.
Day 9. Car returned to us ‘fixed’. I argued that it probably wasn’t and we needed a new car but eventually, knowing my argument was getting nowhere, decided to set off and if at any stage there was a problem, abandon the car in a town and hire a taxi. Mechanic wanted me to drive him home: a 90 min round trip, so I hired a boda boda for him. We didn’t drive the car that day. The novelty bit was that the mechanic was wearing a Balmain Tigers football shirt, the team from our home suburb in Sydney. He had no idea what he was wearing!
Day 10. We had power problems all day but got to our next lodge, a tense 5 hour journey away. I insisted that I would not drive any further and the company should pay for transfer to Kigali airport. They said they would do. They also promised to refund the money I had paid to hire the camping equipment which proved useless without a tent.
Day 11. Driver for the broken car arrived unannounced to pick up car. Company at this stage were cagey about paying for transfer. After heated whatsapp discussion I gave up and handed keys to driver. I needed to enjoy my last night of our stay in Uganda.
Day 12. Met their representative at their office in Kigali (Mickie). She paid the driver of our transfer, but with a smirk, told me she would give me less than half of the money for the camping equipment. She offered me ‘some Rwandan francs’ too, showing me a very small amount and knowing I was about to leave the country.
At this point it became clear it wasn’t incompetence and the challenges of Africa that were the problem, rather that the companies employees are dishonest. Bastards.
The upside is that we had a bit more of an adventure than we planned and met some lovely people who helped us at various stages. The downside is we didn’t do everything we had planned spent more than we had planned and got a bit pisad off.
But, as I said before, we would opt to self drive again, we would just avoid this bunch of muppets!
83% of adults in Turkey are tee-total. This isn’t coz it’s illegal, it’s a choice. How the fuck to they get through the weekend? How do they meet potential life partners? How do men work up the courage to dance?
Now, I really do understand that not every culture think it is grown-up or clever to drink an expensive mild poison that dulls your judgement, makes many violent, some arseholes, some incredibly funny and wonderful dancers but will also rot your insides and increase the chances of an early death. I understand the point of view as a logical one, but you really can stuff it up your arse.
When walking along a sea front in the sunshine, I want to stop for a beer. I don’t want a frighten mocktail, or fruit juice, or to smoke some sweet smelling tobacco surrounded by miserable looking blokes with beards. It’s for this reason I could probably never fall in love with Istanbul. It’s just too friggin hard to get a beer.
Other than that, it’s rather nice…
We did heaps of tourist stuff; took the hop-on, hop-off bus, took ferries on the Bosporus, visited the Topkapi Palace Museum (excellent), the Hagia Sophia Museum (ok but chaotic), and the cisterns (ok), went into Asia (no friggin beer), went to the Grand Bazar (reasonably pleasant and interesting, but no friggin beer) and watched the religious whirling dervishes ceremony. This last one, in my humble opinion, is crap.
The history behind it that the founder of the Sufi movement decided that dancing in a circle got you close to God, so an overly elaborate ritual was devised. There are about 5 parts to the ritual. To my eyes, 4 were identical and involved 4 men spinning on the spot (ish) whilst slowly circling a man spinning on the spot (proper), in the middle. The last had all 5 men on the outside and no one on the inside. The choreographer was obviously a bluffer. The music is whining crap.
You can’t take photos and if you were inclined, can’t clap ‘coz it’s a very special religious ritual’. Bollocks more like.
We really did only touch the surface of the city but found modern bits, old bits, good food (the Privato restaurant is particularly good for breakfast), lovely views, a sense of energy and we know there is lots and lots more to see. Despite the lack of copious bars, I would be happy to return and explore more.
We were there just before the re-run of the election for the Istanbul government that was being held as Erdogan didn’t like the outcome of the last one (his party lost), so it was a very, very political city. Mostly it was Erdogan’s man that was evident, and there was thousands and thousands of posters/billboards with Binali Yildirim’s face on. I think there was probably 50 of the Justice and Development Party for every one of another party (justice and development for those that aren’t gay, those who do as they are told, etc). There was also lots of very noisey JDP supporters in squares, at ferry ports etc. As an outsider, it looked like not very subtle brainwashing. The very visible heavily armed police presence added to this a bit (riot trucks, armed personnel carriers with remote weapon stations on top, Tourist Police with more weaponry than the SAS etc). Anyway, it was great to see that it didn’t work, and despite all this effort, the opposition won again.
If all goes well, when we next return it will be to a country a little more tolerant than it is now.
So the next day (after much car related shenanigans), we hit the road for Uganda and our second gorilla experience. In the planning, we had thought that day 1 would be so overwhelming we should have two days, so we could savour the experience on the second day. We couldn’t afford Rwandan prices, hence the move to Uganda. Uganda have a number of different places where you can trek from to see the gorillas and some are easier than others. The permits for the easier ones sell out quickly so our lack of organisation saw us going to Nkuringo, well known for being a bit of a bitch.
We had a travel day, getting across the very bureaucratic and Ebola controlled boarder, getting SIM cards and money, then heading off on dirt tracks for 2.5 hours through the mountains to Nkuringo.
Uganda and Rwanda are different and the same. On both sides of the boarder they ask questions on behalf of their national bureau of stats. On the Rwandan side the info is pumped straight into an iPad, on the Ugandan side, straight into an exercise book. This is a micro example of the relative development of both countries. There is also noticeably more plastic rubbish on the roads and in the towns on the Ugandan side (Rwanda is immaculate. We wondered if it was because they have an out 120,000 criminals from the genocide doing community service but noted that everybody seemed to do their bit), and there is a little less order on the Ugandan side too. Really lovely people are on both sides.
Getting to Nkuringo
We arrived at Nkuringo at about 3.30 with two missions; to ensure we had all the details for the next days trek and to find somewhere to stay. Both had mixed success.
We got to the park office shortly before they closed and found a very charming and military bunch of rangers; rifles, saluting etc. We had been trying to book the trek for some time and the principle challenge is the lack of IT in Uganda, so most pick up physical permits from Kampala or have a tour company collect them. Our ‘self-drive’ approach meant that after some to-ing and fro-ing (aka J being bloody persistent), we got a letter from the Ugandan Tourist Baird to show to the head warden. So we met John-Justice, after a young officer marched smartly in to his office, saluted and introduced us. 10 mins later it was agreed that we did have permits, that the day was overbooked but they could make it work. As the rain lashed down, thunder boomed and lightning struck, we kind of hoped they couldn’t make it work and offer us a refund.
The hotel hunt was interesting; the place I thought looked ok was beautiful and as they only had 2 residents in a 90 person hotel, offered us a discount; only US$480 a night…… so we left.
Nearby was the 7 Volcano View Resthouse and we had discovered this was pretty much the only other gig in town. It didn’t look open or finished when we arrived and the combination of torrential rain, mud, a very slow response to us knocking on the door and a general feeling of abandonment meant that the charming young host was rewarded with grumpiness. They had no electricity, could not promise hot water (it was solar and there hadn’t been a lot of sun) and due to the fact there was a guide as the only other guest, didn’t have much in the way of food. For all that, we got a big room with a big bathroom with the potential of an amazing view (if the rain stopped)for less than a tenth of the other place. They also let us use their kitchen (a gas bottle connected to two rings, a sink and a sideboard) to cook our own ‘emergency rations’ that we had been carrying with us. They lit a fire, gave us hot water bottles for our bed, provided beer and the clouds lifted, so we very quickly warmed to them.
We also met the other guest; Wilson, a lovely local ish man with a lovely story involving a short career as an IT salesman that necessitated him buying a 4x4, a loss of job, followed by a demand from tour companies for his 4x4 leading him to get educated as a guide. He ploughs some of his money back into his village; buying sewing machines for the women, putting a cover over the area where the sewing machines are and funding a teacher. The last minimises the drowning of children who used to go to the local school across a log over a river (in one year, they lost 8 children…… we really do not understand how lucky we are).
7 Volcanoes View Resthouse
The next morning started early and involved some car based frustration (more about that later), and we arrived at the starting point at about 7.30. We had heard lots of horror stories about just how hard the Nkuringo treks are, of people being carried out (for US$350… in cash) and of 8 hour epics, so were relieved to see a couple of larger people and some old people. We wanted to be in their groups. We weren’t. We weren’t even with the group that had one man start on a stretcher (not a miss type).
We were with 5 other people, all of whom looked fit. We also had the opportunity to hire porters and as we had researched the positive impact hiring them has on their families, and that they may only get one gig a month (at a min of US$15 for a full days work), we hired two. I was slightly horrified when I met mine, the 5 foot something, 55kg Sabrina, who was to carry my bag for me…….. She, and Gregory who Jodie hired, were outstanding. Sabrina’s lightning sharp reactions vice like grip saved me from falling a number of times and Gregory was invaluable to J.
So we set off at about 8.15 am. The first three plus hours was down hill, initially through villages, then through steep agricultural land, then through very, very steep tea plantations. To quote one of the Americans with us “That wasn’t walking, that was a controlled fall’.
Once at the bottom, sitting at the edge of the jungle, we waited for about 30 minutes for the trackers to tell us where the family were when the stopped moving, then we were told ‘we’re off! It’s about 30 minutes from here.’ Fucking liar......
The next 2 hours or so were spent hacking through thick (impenetrable) jungle, walking up a lot of vertical muddy slopes and wading fast flowing streams. At one stage, ahead of us, I saw the photographer lose her footing, slip off the path and was luckily grabbed by the porter before being hauled back up. The slope wasn’t sheer, but the steepness and mud would ensure the tumble would have been long, fast and painful. 5 mins later, J did he same thing..... and luckily both Gregory and I got a hand to her and hauled her back up. As J exclaimed, sometimes walking in thick jungle on a mountain is ‘fucking dangerous!’. Whilst physically I did not find it demanding, I did think the terrain was the hardest I’d ever walked on for a prolonged period of time. We really did have to concentrate on every step.
Eventually, shortly before 3pm, we got to them. They had settled in thick bush, sleeping and relaxing. One of the women was enjoying an afternoon wank. Some gorillas have no shame. Even on the second time of seeing them, they are amazing and we felt privileged to be there..... as well as feeling just a tad fucked (J, sitting 5 meters from 2 gorillas, one of which was 5 days old; “this is fucking shit”...).
Then we began the walk out. The jungle bit was downhill but a challenge never the less. It was also pissing down by this stage, so when we got to the rivers and streams, we didn’t bother taking off shoes and socks coz we were soaked anyway.. Once out of the jungle, it was about 1.5 hours through tea plantations then us a long slow hill before we reached our cars at about 5pm, some 8.5 hours since we set off. When I say our cars, ours was still in the car park as we are self-drive, but luckily the Americans had room for both us and our porters back to the park HQ. Thank fuck they did; it took us more than a hour in a car; J and I would have died. I loved America so much by the end I considered getting that Stars and Stripes tattooed on my face.
For J, this really was a tough day; probably the hardest walking she had experienced since the rather tough Royal Military Academy Sandhurst exercise called Long Reach that she had completed some 25 years earlier. Sometimes things are tough and once you are in that situation you can do two things; crack on or give up. I always admire J’s ability to crack on. One day she will do so without giving me a hard time. One day.
The Trek From Hell
From Bwindi, we drove through beautiful countryside and jungle around the forest, down onto the plain and to the Ishasha sector of the Queen Elizabeth National Park, mostly along dirt roads. Due to car based frustrations (more about that later), the 5 hour journey to our next destination took over 8 (one breakdown, the mechanic getting us lost in the jungle, then getting us bogged in on a ‘shortcut’ are the highlights). It was dark, we were filthy and we had with us a mechanic that had needed some persuasion to stay with us (I am happy to embellish on the word ‘persuasion’ over a beer, but not in writing!!) when we arrived at the lodge.
Enjojo Lodge was way off our budget, but after the past few days we needed hot water etc. We were going to stay one night, but due to car based frustration, kicked the arse right out of it by staying two. The lodge is in beautiful parkland, has a lake that is visited by all kinds of birds, great service and the cottages were beautifully put together, on stilts over marshland, with open air showers and surrounded by the sounds of nature. Really beautiful and at that point, the nicest place we had stayed on the trip,
During the afternoon, we went on a game drive to the park proper in the hope of seeing the famous tree climbing lions, hippos, elephants and other animals. As our car was crap, lions are dangerous and the park unknown we hired the lodges car and driver/guide to take us. We had a lovely few hours, saw all we wanted including a big male lion sleeping in a tree (king of the jungle = lazy fat bastard around there). On our return from the hippos to the lion, just as we were about to drive through a big group of Baboons, the car hit a hole and we got well and truly stuck.
I’ve never been stuck in an open sided vehicle in a park with dangerous and aggressive animals before but assumed the guide had a plan. He didn’t have a plan, a shovel, a rope, or a diff that worked, so we had to get out and push, in the process getting covered in mud again. After much effort and frustratingly watching the one airborne wheel attract all the power, we were getting concerned, and we all agreed that walking into the bush to try to find wood to put under the wheel was foolish. A few calls later and a small team from a Ugandan Army camp a km or so away was dispatched with a shovel, a machete and an AK47. 30 mins after their arrival, after pushing, digging and J doing a bit of directing of the Ugandan Army, we escaped. All very exciting.
Close to our lodge we, and two other safari cars were halted again by a truck that had spilled a load of long poles all over the road and after a couple of minutes of watching a 12 year old and a 15 year old struggle to clear it, I hopped out to help. After 5 mins or so our guide and another were shamed into helping too. It was towards the end I noticed that the original kids and the owner of the van had decided to stand back and watch us!
Queen Elizabeth National Park
The next morning we left early for the 5 hour trip to what was always going to be a treat; staying in Mihingo Lodge at Lake Mburo and going on a horseback safari. Despite problems, the car got us there and I vowed not to drive it again. The first 70km was through the park was gorgeous and we saw lots of wildlife including elephants by the side of the road. We also had to negotiate patches of dirt as slippery as ice and bogged in trucks. The last 30 km was beautiful too and we saw our first zebras, our first long horned cows and lots and lots of impala.
The approach to the lodge was interesting, involving very basic dirt roads and due to the fact that I miss-read a sign, very boggy roads (‘oh, you took the ‘water road’. Wow. Well done for getting through’) and no sight of the lodge. When we got there we had a real ‘Wow!’ moment when we eventually came across this wonderful organic building on top of a hill, with a pool overlooking a waterhole and views to die for. Our room was half mud/brick, half tent and was incredibly well put together. Enojojo was pushed into second place and I think that Mihingo lodge may be one of the most special places we have ever been to.
Whilst there was 14 cottages, we were the only guests and enjoyed the pool, feeding the bush babies and watching the sun set, before an early night ahead of the following days 7 am start for the horseback safari.
We had two guides - Tom and Charles - and our two horses were massive ex racehorses (J’s was 16.2 hands) his shoulder was above her head) and with them spent the next four hours, walking, trotting and cantering alongside zebras, Impala, giraffes (the horses are a little afraid of these strange creatures and a little hard to handle), warthogs and hippos, as well as lots of other animals. I have to say that the novelty of riding amongst these creatures is very, very special and we would do it everyday if we could.
The last morning, I was up early again and pretty much had the same experience on foot, running with Tom as my guide (didn’t see giraffes but saw all the rest, including getting rather close to hippos) and have to say it was the most fascinating run of my life. The fresh leopard tracks were a bit special too.
Our trip back to Kigali was reasonably straightforward: we had ditched the car and insisted that the hire company paid for car and driver to take us to the airport. Other than the drivers desire to break speed records and a bit of an argument at the car rental office (they had agreed to pay us back for the camping equipment too, but at the last minute decided to shortchange us) it all went well, so well that we arrived 4.5hrs early for our flight. In Kigali, it’s not just that the check-in doesn’t open until 3 hours before departure, the airport won’t let you in, so the first 1.5 hours were spent in a booze free café, then the next three is a very basic lounge before we boarded a thoroughly average Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul.
One of the things that struck us in both countries is just how hard people work. There are no gangs of men hanging around starring like you see in some developing countries and both sexes graft hard. In most developing countries, the super rich have expensive cars, the rich cars, the majority scooters and the poor have bicycles. Here, take one step and a bit steps down. Few have cars of any type, people are lucky if they have a scooter and few have bikes. Most walk or, if they can afford it, hire a mototaxi or a bike taxi. The last are just that; brightly painted, old fashioned, sturdy bicycles with a cushion on the back shelf for one adult, a couple of children or massive amounts of goods to sit on.
They can’t cycle up all the many, many hills but they do manage gradients with people on the back that I would struggle with riding my posh bike on my own. Going down hill, they get some speed up. 60-70 kph. We where passed, in our car, round a corner by a bike with three people on doing about 70kph. Thinking about what would happen if it all went wrong makes my stomach turn.
As I say, most walk. They walk to school, walk to the market and earn money by carrying heavy things from one place to another on their heads. We saw one guy having a bag that needed two people to lift to help him get it on his head. He then headed up a very steep hill. When I looked at the strain on people’s faces, it reminded me of the really tough days in the army when we were carrying 60+kg of weapons, water, ammunition etc up hill and down dale, and we had to dig really deep to get through it. It felt really, really tough. Perhaps I had to really dig deep for a sustained period less than 100 times in a 17 year career. These people do it for 30 years, every single day.
We really, really don’t know what hard work is:
I had a tough day at the office today; loads of emails.
I had a tough day at work too. I carried 70kg on my head to 10 miles of hilly dirt road, but I got $1.
I had a tough day today; the boss wasn’t very pleasant.
I had a tough day too. I pushed on my bike so many huge bunches of bananas for 30km, I couldn’t fit on the bike and every step up hill took all my effort.
I had a tough day in the office to day; back to back meetings that didn’t achieve very much.
I had a terrible day today. No large weights to carry, no banana bunches to push, so no money; I don’t know what my kids will eat tonight.
It is either despite this, or because of this that people are charming, friendly and helpful and makes a visit really interesting and rewarding.
Besides the car crap, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in both countries. You have to understand you are in Africa so there are shortages, roads are crap (in Rwanda the main roads are good, pretty much empty cars) and people can be a bit unreliable and if you do you’ll be fine. Some of the frustration came from peoples desire to not give you bad news, so they will say what they think will make you happy.
It really does feel like an adventure too. It’s not completely mad and difficult like some places can be, but it is a different culture, a challenge and a very different environment. We really want to go back, spend more time and actually do the camping thing properly.
We have considered the pros and cons of the self drive thing and concluded we would do it again. The breaking down was a pain, but through it we got to meet lots of new people and see the very best in the local community. We got to change plans, stop where we wanted, eat alone without the need for small talk to a driver and mostly feel in control.
If it’s not on your holiday radar, give it some thought.
Going Back to Kigali
Rwanda or Uganda for a Gorilla Trek?
So, having done both, how do they compare? If we were to do it again, what would we do differently?
Firstly, I do not think it is necessary to do it twice. Once is magical and the memories will stay with me for a long, long time (and Facebook will remind me every year). Secondly, I do not think that ‘earning the right to see gorillas’ adds anything to the experience. Once you have walked an hour or so in the forest, you know you are somewhere very different and special. Walking 5 hours just makes you tired. If you want to do two different things; combine a hard trek through challenging terrain with seeing the Gorillas, go to Nkuringo, but I recommend keeping the activities seperate.
Also, whilst we only saw a particular family, on a particular day with a particular guide, so know that all these variables can change, the Rwanda experience was better organised, the guide more knowledgeable and communicative and the terrain meant that once we found the family, it was much easier to see what they were doing and the interaction was much better. It may be different with the other families on the northern edge of Bwindi.
The Rwandan permit is almost 3 times the price of the Ugandan one ($1500 v $600), so that is a real factor. Why? Everything is more expensive in Rwanda, but the plan is to use the money to buy land from farmers and increase the size of the park. Thanks to the great work of the authorities in Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, the population of gorillas is on the up. The downside is that now, fights over territories between families have led to an increase in the deaths of Silverbacks. To grow the population more, they need more land. I am happy for my $s to support that. That said, whatever you do is magical, a privilege and totally worth it.
In the early part of our adventure I posted an article on LinkedIn about the benefits of a sabbatical to both employee and employer. One of the points I made was that it helps people get used to change, to adapt, to absorb other perspectives and to think on your feet. After 10 months of adventure we are pretty good at all this stuff and I felt that I may be getting a bit numb to it all. Enter Rwanda.
One day I was driving down the familiar and beautiful roads of Wiltshire, the next, we were walking through the streets of Kigali and we weren’t numb at all.
Rwanda is unquestionably 2 things; hilly and green. Everywhere we look, we see, walk up, drive up to, is covered in green. If you like green, it is perfect. I like green.
Whilst my exposure to Africa is reasonably limited, it is enough to have preconceptions, mostly around chaos, noise, rubbish and a lack of safety. Kigali fuels none of these. It is clean, relatively ordered, friendly, picturesque, mounted on many, many hills and we felt safe. There are lots of quiet streets, good housing, restaurants and bars. We were happy to walk the streets before & after dark as well as get the ubiquitous Mototaxis, small motorbikes that you jump on the back of and weave through the traffic on. The thing I wish we hadn’t done is read about the mototaxis before we got on them after dinner and learned that you are 300 times more likely to die on one than is a car taxi, and the good riders don’t operate after dark as they think it is too risky…….. We made it though.
A bit of a disappointment was our hotel. Remember in the 70’s and 80’s, at the height of the package tour to Spain ramp up, we used to read about “Barry and his family of 7” who arrived in Benidorm for their 2 weeks, all inclusive holiday for £25 and were horrified to find that their hotel was’t finished? Well, if you feel a bit of nostalgia for that, I can recommend The Nest in Kigali. It lacked curtains and a closing bathroom door amongst other things…. I was a bit amused when I asked a team of blokes filling a pick up truck with bricks outside our room at 10pm to stop and said ‘This is a hotel, not a building site”, and he smiled and replied, ‘well it is also a building site’.
It’s hard to call it a highlight, but the Genocide memorial is a really important place to visit. The story of the genocide is horrific and well told here. It is a graphic illustration of what people can do when politicians make them believe someone else is the enemy. The language they used in the early days of social conditioning is the same language that our politicians and commentators are using now (Trump, Farage, Morrison, Dutton, Katy Hopkins, Johnston, Fox News etc). We shouldn’t take it for granted that we are different and would never sink to such depths.
From Kigali he headed south to Nyungwe national park in a Rav 4 we had hired for our trip. More about that later, but at this point the experience caused us to leave Kigali 2.5 hours later than planned, so we had to drive for 5 hours straight to get to the park office to check in for the next days Chimpanzee trek before it closed at 5. We made it with 4 minutes to spare, discovered that we had a 5.30am meet the next day then headed off to find a campsite. We found one in the gardens of an ok guesthouse that had not had power for three days, and set up our tent. It then became apparent that the hire company had given us a tent for one person, with no guy ropes, 3 pegs and a broken pole. Luckily, we could hire a dark room with cold water and they let us cook our scoff on the patio. Not quite the night under the stars we wanted…… but it rained like hell, so perhaps it was for the best.
The chimp trek was fun but challenging, bashing through thick forests and down steep hills. We saw the little blighters but only a few in the trees. They are so agile.
From there we headed north to Kibuye on the shore of the massive Lake Kivu and found a lovely campsite on the edge of a hill overlooking the lake……and hired another room for two nights.
It is a beautiful area and we spent the day on the lake with Emmanuel from Blue Monkey Tours, climbing hills on islands, visiting monkeys with blue balls, swimming and enjoying this spectacular setting. We went back out with him at night to watch the singing fishermen leave at sunset to go fishing for the night. Armed with a bag of wine, we cruised next to them and had a perfect evening.
A backdrop to this was more car issues…… more about that later.
From Kibuye we headed 4.5 hours north to the Volcanoes national park where we were to spend three nights whilst we visited Golden Monkeys on one day and Mountain Gorillas the next. We were due to stay in a campsite for one night and a nice guesthouse on the edge of the park for two more. The lack of a tent on the first night and the fact that the nice villa had a leaking roof meant that we actually stayed in a small B&B in Musanze, hosted by Jane from Bradford and her husband Issac (Volcano view B&B) and, through the two days of car based fiasco that followed, could not have been better looked after.
Our first trek, to see the golden monkeys, was well organised, straight forward, reasonably easy and hilarious. They are such cute creatures and the family we saw were completely unfazed by humans. They also pee on you. Not on purpose but there are a lot of them and they sit in trees and pee a lot.
The second trek was the main event; to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary with a visit to the mountain gorillas. It was a reasonably challenging 1.45 hrs until we found them, walking through fields, rainforest, massive nettles and mud before we came across the family we had been looking for, and we then had the most magical hour with them.
There were three silverbacks (the oldest in the area, at 47, his son and heir and a bald one called Big Ben). Big Ben was not a catch for the ladies but also in the group was a lady who had lost a hand to a poaching snare, who was not a catch for the men, so she and Big Ben were having an elicit affair…
There was a baby of 5 months old, other youngsters and some juveniles, all of which were playful and interesting. They either ignored us (the silverbacks were brilliant and pretending we weren’t there) or played around us. We smiled so much our faces ached. They are so gentle, but so big and powerful, so strange but also rather familiar. I can’t imagine the interaction we had with them getting any better. But we had committed to try.
Our last dash to the UK was a little hectic. The prime reason to be there was Katy’s 40th and Ed & Emma’s wedding, both in Southwold, Suffolk. We also had to pick up a bunch of stuff from various places around England and get it to our removers in Swindon, whose 5th job for us was to ship some of the furniture I had inherited from Mum back to Oz, so we decided to put some of the stuff we weren’t in a hurry for in there too (if you ever need a remover in the Wiltshire area, you can’t go wrong with Kingsley and the team at New Horizons).
We spent the first night with Mel in London (after dashing around town trying to get cameras repaired and finding shoes and hats for the wedding), enjoyed a great curry, some lovely Guinness in a proper boozer on a long spring evening (it made me rather nostalgic about London), then did some ridiculous dancing back at Mels.
Then it was off to Southwold. I didn’t know the area, largely because it’s friggin hard to get to. Our first stop was Ipswich to pick up my morning suit and that’s a town that doesn’t make you want to hang around. As it was a hot day, shirts appeared optional and the shirtless option is invariably taken by those who really should stay covered. There was also a group of about 15 old people standing around the car park ticket machine, getting militant about the new machines that required them to punch in their cars registration numbers first. Those that could read the instructions couldn’t remember the numbers, and those who got that far couldn’t see the letters and numbers on the keys. It was carnage. Those in the queue entertained each other with car park ticket related stories, like the time Mabel went to the hospital for a 4 hour appointment, but it only took one hour……and she’d already payed for 4 hours parking. Fascinating……. It was an interesting way for me to spend 15 minutes of my finite life….
Getting closer to Southwold, we could why people love it, and when I went on a run the next day beside canals, through fishing villages and along the the Southwold promenade, I had my love for the English countryside reinforced.
It was great catching up with the family for Katy’s birthday on night one. Besides Nic, Jodie and I, it was exclusively Lewis and Caths immediate family so we felt very privileged to be invited. It could only have been better if Katy was there too!! That’s right; a very ill husband and a very young child was a combination not compatible with a flight from their home in Milan. Lets hope we can do something before her 50th.
The wedding the following day was pretty much the perfect English wedding. It had all the right ingredients; a beautiful church, a sunny day, a reception in a converted barn set in English farmland, great food and booze, superb speeches (the Best Man really, really nailed it), some great bad dancing but most importantly a bride and groom who clearly loved each other, were best of friends and had lovely friends.
It was great to see John, Pauline, Caroline and the extended family and it was also the first family gathering I had been too without Mum. As she was a big character there was something missing. The slight tension between J and Mum, and constant trips to the bar to ensure Mum was topped up was also missing but I think we would have all preferred to have her celebrating with everyone else.
J ensured that the evening ended in style. On return to the hotel, feeling a bit peckish, she and Nic mounted a restaurant raid, figuring that cereals and stuff maybe left out overnight. The good news is that she was right. The bad news was that the doors were alarmed..... Think wailing noise, owner having to come out and me coming downstairs to see the staff checking the CCTV. J fessed up and they had a reasonable sense of humour about it. It reminded me of kitchen raids in Officers Messes we used to mount as drunken, young, hungry officers.......... Quote from a chef, shouted in the kitchen ‘And the fuckers have nicked all the bacon as well!’.
The wedding and Southwold
From Southwold we made a dash across to Bristol for a night with Guy and Lou. Guy had been a little unwell and a little grumpy at the Tower, so I was determined to see if the grumpiness was related to the illness or a new permanent state. Fortunately it was the former. It was lovely to see them both, Georgina and the Rampe, pride and joy; the garden.
Then a final night in the UK with Nik and Jacqui in Netheravon. Tom and Fiona also came over and we had a pleasant evening BBQ (and it stayed warm and sunny), chatting, drinking and having an occasional jump on a trampoline. There, I ‘enjoyed’ my last run in the UK. Netheravon is on the edge of the huge military training area of Salisbury Plain, a place I know well. It’s a bit of a obstacle for most people as live firing and fast moving armoured vehicles provide plenty of hazards so often you can’t use the roads on the edge of it. To cut a long story short, at the 10km point with two to go, I found myself blocked by red range flags and two choices; another 10km running or asking Jacqui to come and pick me up………. Thank you Jacqui.
After a nip into the storage centre in Swindon, we hit Gatwick and on to the African stage of our adventure with a flight to Kigali in Rwanda on Rwandair.
The Palace of Versailles was high up on ‘my places to visit’ list. The treaty thing, the opulence, the fact they used to shit in the corridors, these things all fascinated me (when they were a bit short of cash, they announced that they would only clear shit from the corridors once a day). The closest I had got to it was a couple of years ago, when I was invited fo a small conference to be held in the grounds. Unusually for Paris, very deep snow scuppered the meeting and we ended up cramming into the front room of my bosses house in a nearby village. This time, we were determined to get there so booked 4 nights in a small hotel (thanks air miles) in the town. We also got to meet up with my old boss Chris and his wife Claudie for cheese and wine in slightly more relaxed and roomy circumstances.
The town of Versailles is as beautiful as it is dull. Once you’ve seen the palace and had a wander around the town you are left with a a very conservative and expensive French town. Think Cheltenham.
I did love the palace though. It, and the gardens are truly magnificent and a great testament to what you can do when you have despotic rulers who spend all their country’s money on shiny things and their mates whilst not giving a dam about the starving population.
The scale is incredible; we spent a day there and didn’t see it all. One of the best bits is the queens village, built to help Marie Antonette feel at home. It was built in the style an old English village, by someone who had either never seen an old English village or had consumed a fuck load of drugs beforehand. It’s more twee than a toilet roll cover made from doilies.
When there, I discovered that it is possible to get in early in the morning and run around the grand canal and adjoining farmland without paying an entrance fee, so whilst running around the town is a bit shit, my following mornings run was rather wonderful.
The Palace and around
When not cutting around Versailles we went back into Paris, a short train ride away. We revisited L’Orangarie museum, a small place that is the home to two huge versions of Monets Waterlillies. Like the garden, it is a place that we can sit for an hour just absorbing them.
We also revisited a restaurant that we have had a bit of crush on – Relais de la Venise. They exist in London and Paris and have a fairly straight forward format; you get a green salad to start with, heaps of lovely French bread then entrecôte, sauce and chips, followed by a very limited selection of desert. The only real decision to make is how you want your steak cooked. If you are a veggie, you get a heap of cheese. My crush wore off a bit as I realised that the formula also includes cramped tables and very off hand service. I think it always has been like that - what has changed is my tolerances/grumpiness.
Another revisit was to the beautiful monument to stained glass that is Sant Chapelle. The last time we were on the way there, I got the ‘get home quickly’ call as Mum had taken a turn for the worse and became a day I won’t forget as I didn’t make it.
We do love Paris. Every time we go, we find new interesting areas, we eat well and learn loads. On this occasion we visited the area north of the massive Eglise Saint-Eustache with it’s great cafes, and restaurants and the most disappointing ‘tower’ you will ever come across (there is an old manor house/ museum that was a tower which is not only lower than most buildings in the area but you can’t actually ghetto out at the top),
It was a lovely few days and sometimes I think maybe I should’ve learnt French after all.
Day trips to Paris
I do love a good horse (nearly as much as I hate a bad one), and in he Camargue, there are lovely horses.
Riding in the Camargue had been high on J’s bucket list for a long time. It was lower on mine due to the risk of getting a bad horse. Horses are a bit like bosses. If you have a good one, life is fantastic. You feel like you are mostly achieving things, it’s easy and fun, but you still have to work hard and listen to the boss when required. A bad one makes every minute a bit of a challenge, and not in a “I’m James and I love a challenge” kind of way. More in a “I’m James, and how many rocks do I need to break before I can enjoy my bowl of cold gruel” kind of way.
I had a good boss in the Camargue and it’s a really beautiful area to see from the back of one. Our horses were a mix between the white local horses and Arabic ones. It was a cross that Napoleon favoured (I have taken snuff from the hoof of one of Napoleon’s horses in the mess at St James’s Palace on one of my last nights in the army. I didn’t mention this to my horse in fear he would think I’m a cunt and throw me in a ditch, and he was perfectly behaved. He tolerated my bad riding.
The Camargue is a mix of lovely countryside, canals, rivers, fields, birds, horses, cows and flowers. Bloody lovely.
We stayed for two nights in Arles on the edge of the area, in an airbnb that was always going to be an airbnb; ie, style over substance and all too minimalist. Arles is nice: some lovely old bits, a couple of really great new buildings and a fresh food market that has great cheese, meat, fruit and bread, and there are some lovely places to run. The only disappointment was that the next door neighbours decided they hated each other, shouted a lot all night, banged and shouted at our door when we helpfully banged on the adjoining wall and made me question if my ninja skills were up to scratch enough to protect us.
From there it was am epic long drive on the peage (that we could afford thanks to our Valencia prudence) to striking distance from Paris. My plan was to drive north until I got bored, jump off the motorway, then find a cheap place to crash. By the time I got bored there was few cheap places to crash……. We ended up in an old grand house in an old grand village with an old (closed) grand cathedral.
At this stage I had thoughts about why I am more at home in Spain than France. Firstly I can have a bit of a chat. More importantly, Spain seems to be just a little bit more open (as in shops and stuff are open) and a bit more relaxed. And a bit warmer……..
We ate bad pizza, drank good wine, went to bed early, had a terrible breakfast and hit Paris.
As we were on our way to Giverny, I hated Parisian driving, and we were on a tight schedule, I didn’t want to drive into the city so we parked the car and all our possessions in a dodgy car park on the outskirts of the city, took a train and hit the embassy. We were very proud of our commitment and without declaring how we voted, we didn’t think ‘How good is that!’ when we heard that the misogynist, shit for brains cunt Morrison was to lead our nation for the next few years.
From there we were off to Giverny, the old home of Monet. I have to admit that I really, really love Impressionism, not because it’s a thing that people are supposed to like, but I love light, joy and romance and, to me, it has a bit of all of this.
The village itself is beautiful but is also heart-stoppingly expensive to stay in, so we opted for an airbnb about 30 mins away. The pictures of the place on the tinterweb looked very Monet but the reality was rather more Hogarth (a bit highbrow, but he painted shit places)…. Or Aggie and Kim for the lovers of daytime TV.. I am very tolerant of mediocrity, but the overflowing laundry bin, the filthy kitchen, a garden that looked like Monet had become a badly behaved alcoholic and the loo that made me want to wash my hands before I did anything in there was too much. We left and found a lovely place in a pretty but dead village and only stretched the budget a little. Luckily when we provided a few pictures to Airbnb and suggested we had been miss=sold the place, we got a full refund.
As I said, I was probably predisposed to like the place, but I have to say that Givernay is magical. In spring, it is full of colour and form. The people who manage to get the shape, colour and feel of the place so right are exceptional people. Despite the fact we shared the experience with many, many strangers (go on a week day) and the weather was not great, I could have spent hours in there. I don’t know why, but I genuinely felt emotional to be there. It was perfect…… for me. If you like nightclubs, hard house and fast living, it’s a bit shit. Actually, I like both, so whop wants to build a great nightclub just outside the village with me?de
Going back to Paris was less leisurely than the trip south, largely due to the Australian Federal election on the 18th of May. Whilst we had registered as being overseas so would not be fined for not voting, we thought it very important to do so and our target was to vote in the Australian Embassy in Paris. As the embassy was staffed by public servants, the thought of opening on a Saturday or not closing early on a Friday was beyond the pale even for the election, so we needed to get back by the morning of the 17th.
We had one last stop in Spain in a town called Vic, four hours north of Valencia. It was chosen as it was about the right distance for the first hop and wasn’t suffering from horrendous hotel prices driven by the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona.
Vic is in the heart of Catalán and politics hung from every wall and lamppost. It has an old and beautiful centre, with a huge square, one of the best cathedrals we came across and a small river running through it. Best of all, we stumbled on the annual cheese and wine festival; J&J heaven, so mostly we ate cheese and drank wine.
From there we headed across the boarder to Perpignan and it was a rude awakening. Our airbnb was in an area that is yet to be gentrified and as soon as we parked we kind of went off the place. The streets were filthy, graffiti everywhere and the area was obviously very poor. We thought our place would be a few streets into the good area so were disturbed to find ourselves standing outside a near derelict, graffiti strewn apartment block waiting for the host. On the upside, the host away obviously an early adopter and had renovated one of the apartments beautifully; it was clean, comfortable and stylish…… but still in a block and area that had a way to go. This kind of put us off the whole town and whilst we did enough wandering to admit that if the start had been different we may have liked the place, we buggered off early the next day to head to the Camargue.
So, a month in Valencia. Why? Well, its friggin great.
We had six weeks or so before cousin Katy’s 40th and cousin Edward’s wedding in Southwold, Suffolk and I was delighted to be invited. Mum had always been the connection with the extended family and I know that I now need to take every opportunity I have to keep in touch with a bunch of people I have always liked.
We wanted the adventure to continue, had to go easy on the budget, wanted a bit of stability for a while and also wanted to get something out of our time, so continuing to learn Spanish was perfect. I got a bit geeky and developed a spreadsheet of about 6 Spanish cities, scoring each place for temperature, cost of living, Airbnb availability, quality of Spanish school etc and Valencia hit the sweet spot.
Valencia is a wonderful city. It has a tremendous history, a thriving city centre and some reasonable beaches. It is also flat, easy to get around in on bikes or foot, has a great public transport system (in a city of 1.7 million, it has a system far more joined up and capable than the one that served Sydney’s 5 million inhabitants) and some great public spaces.
The park that sits in the bed of the old river is particularly special. In the city’s history there has been some terrible flooding, destroying property and taking lives, so in the 60s the decision was taken to divert the river away from the city. What was left was prime realestate in the centre of town. Many cities would have made the most of it (i.e. most money) by building roads on it or selling it off to the private sector, but with great vision the city resisted and turned it into public parkland, with football fields, outdoor gym equipment, lovely trees and flower beds, walking routes, running routes and cycle paths. It is a vein of green happiness running through the centre of the city.
At the start of this century some exceptional buildings were added to it, in the shape of the Opera House, Science Museum, Aquarium and botanical garden. They really are incredible works of art: space age, striking, beautiful. The opera house is on a par with Sydney, perhaps winning on design and losing on setting.
The park provided the foundation of my many runs as I returned to fitness over the month we spent there and every time I went into it I loved it. I have come to realise that having nice places where I can exercise easily is really important to me, and this is where Valencia beats many places, including Medellin.
When one learns something new and complicated, it is a simple fact that you will know far les than you know as you start out. As a language is a lifetime in the learning, a couple of months into trying to learn a new one, it is impossible not to feel incredibly stupid, as the gap between the known and the unknown is huge and seems insurmountable.
In the early days in Medellin, for me, this resulted in minor sulks, tantrums and by each Friday, the need for huge amount booze within minutes of walking out of school.
By Valencia, I was a little better. Importantly I had stopped getting obsessed that some things make no sense in English coz they aren’t supposed to. It is a different language with different meanings and structures. It seems a simple thing to understand but it really isn’t and to do so is a real “coin dropping” moment.
The school we went to - Elealeph (www.elealeph.com) - was great. Mostly our teacher was a bearded giant called Paulo. When he wasn’t a teaching, he was an part time actor and opera singer and he brought his stage presence with him. He wasn’t just funny and engaging, he was really patient with our stupidity and had a great way of getting us to understand stuff. It made learning a pleasure.
The students with us were great too and a real international mix: South Korea, Turkey, Italy, Ireland, the UK, Russia, Poland, the Netherlands, Australia (us), Canada. Everyone had a different reason for being there, some for a week, others for 6 months or more. One was sailing around the world with her partner, another renovating a house close by, one juggling classes with being a single dad in Valencia for 6 months, some with desires to work in Spain. The oldest was in his mid sixties and the youngest 19, at the younger end of the spectrum, and everyone played nicely.
To practice our language skills we went to a couple of intercambios in Rufaza and had mixed results. I had been to one in Medellin, when I could barely order a beer and it was great, using games to get people talking. Neither was up to this standard but the worst was hosted by a disinterested youth and seemed to be orientated towards older English speaking men wanting to talk to backpacking women. All very sleazy. The other was better.
5 hours a day learning one subject is more than a little taxing, so we broke the day up with a glass of wine at lunch, afternoon tea, and once or twice, for breakfast too. This didn’t make us odd, it made us Valencianos!
The city has a great rhythm. Firstly they have 5 meals a day: breakfast (for many, this involves wine or beer, or wine and fizzy water), a late morning snack (sandwich and coffee.... or wine/beer), Lunch at 2-3 pm (a three course Menu del Día with wine), tapas hour at about 5.30, pre dinner snacks and then dinner at about 9pm... at the earliest.
One morning, early on in our stay, we went to the cafe in the market next to our school at about 8.30 am and I was disappointed to see they had not cleaned up from the night before; there were empty bottles of red wine, beer bottles etc on the tables. Observation over the next few days made me realise that it wasn’t from the night before, just breakfast. Don’t be scared by this; it doesn’t feel like a city full of winos as it’s all very civilised. I guess people just like to take the edge off the morning (some really try to blunt it, drinking neat brandy or whiskey with their morning pastries…..).
One of the great Valencia inventions is agua de valencia. It is a drink containing cava, orange juice, gin and vodka. It’s as good as it sounds, is very refreshing and can be a great start to a Friday at school!
There are small bars and cafes everywhere, mostly with great fresh food at ridiculously low prices. I constantly had to check the bill because I thought people had missed stuff off – it was too cheap.
We lived in a barrio called Rufaza, a vibrant place that is being gentrified and sits close to the city centre. There are great places to eat, drink and shop. It has most definitely been ‘found’ though and there are lots of tourists as well as hen and stag parties in the area.
There are many things I like about the Southern European lifestyle; the small markets in many neighbourhoods selling fresh produce, the sociable routine (partly enabled by the low cost of socialising), the little friendly bars, the outdoors stuff (walking to work, cycling in a safe environment, sitting in pavement cafes etc) all combined with a good climate and heaps of history. Perfect.
We had one major frustration whilst there, and this involved the car. WE had concluded that the most economical way to travel to and from Valencia, and to visit places whilst there was to hire a car, picking up and dropping off in Paris (one way rental across borders is horrendously expensive). Avis give me grate rates but you can only book for 1 month and we needed a car for 7 weeks. I asked the office in Birmingham how to solve this and was told it was simple; book for a month and extend before the end. The guy in Paris confirmed this too. It wasn’t simple and in fact took 10 emails, 22 phone calls and three visits to the local office to sort, against a background of some reps suggesting I had effectively stolen the car. It was solved without me spending any time in the slammer with Mr Big, but it was challenge. That said, to go to the office, explain the situation and have a long conversation about it….. all in Spanish……. Often using the right tense, was a bit of a high!
Things we really enjoyed doing there:
• Running and cycling to the beach.
• Treating ourselves to great paella at Casa Camilla near the beach
• Going to a Paella cooking class (lots of booze; still don’t have a clue how to make the stuff)
• Getting the 7 day valencia card and enjoying the bus tour, free/discounted entry to things and free wine and tapas.
• Going to the food and wine festival. Go early as it gets really feral after about 7pm.
• Finding the Bodega Baltasar Segui, a great locals bar in the very local barrio of Benimaclet
• The perfectly sized mini pizzas and perfectly cooked baked cheese at La Finestra in Ruzafa
• The Ruzafa market for morning coffee and a class of wine.
• Doing a behind the scenes tour of the opera house.
• The park. We loved the park.
The bottom line is that my spreadsheet worked. We had a great time in a city I thoroughly recommended visiting and we left a little under budget. Hurrah!
It was great to cross the border into Spain and, for me, I was delighted to be able to start to communicate again…in a fashion. I was glad to remember the word for approximately (aproximadamente) when we crossed the border and I declared that we had approximately the correct amount of duty free in the car……….
We were heading to Valencia for another month at Spanish school and drove via Tarragona and Peniscola, both on the Mediterranean coast.
Tarragona is an ancient city with lots of Roman sites, impressive buildings from every other period after that and lots of modern stuff making it a very liveable city. We also discovered that there thing was cheap aperitifs in the early evening; two glasses of vermouth, olives and crisps for a few euros. It’s that kind of thing that can help us really warm to a country.
One of the attractions of Spain is just how inexpensive it is to live. We found that we could travel, eat and drink well and stay within budget. Everything seems to be about 1/3rd cheaper than France, and booze and food seems practically free.
Peniscola is a little more touristy and expensive, but is a beautiful small town on a rocky peninsula and worth a detour to. Bits of Game of Thrones were filmed here, as well as other films and it’s easy to see why; dramatic vistas, old streets, crashing sea. All very lovely. Like France though, much of it was closed; we think it opened in May, but we still got to sit in a café on the walls, overlooking the sea and watching the sun go down.