Mad Dogs and an Englishman

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The next stop on my dog-sitting odyssey around southern England was Bristol, where I spent a wonderful two weeks with Henry the crazy Red Setter. Like all Red Setters, he was completely bonkers but totally gorgeous. By way of introduction, he planted gentle wet kisses all over my face; I was totally enchanted.

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We didn’t have the best weather for ‘Henry’s Hikes’ but that didn’t deter us from setting off to explore the countryside (wellies [gum boots] are a wonderful invention). Henry set a good pace across the fields and guided me along the many trails through the woods, only occasionally dashing off to chase a deer or fox (he had NO chance of catching up with them but it was good exercise for all involved).

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I also explored Bristol, of course. The iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge, hovering high above the Avon Gorge, was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the great English engineer who was only 24 at the time.

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This was his first ever commission but he later became a giant figure in engineering history with a prolific portfolio including the Great Western Railway, dockyards, steamships, tunnels, etc. Although construction of the bridge started in 1836, it wasn’t finished until 1864 – a few years after his death.

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The SS Great Britain was another of Brunel’s ingenious engineering projects.

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She was the first propeller-driven, ocean-going iron ship, and at the time (1843) was the largest ship ever built. After nine years as an ocean liner, she then carried thousands of emigrants to Australia before being converted to a cargo ship. The inside has been very authentically restored – even down to rats scampering in the kitchen cupboards.

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We even had our own Isambard to show us around.

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All sorts of well-known people hail from Bristol, including the artists Banksy and Damien Hirst, the Aardman creators (Peter Lord, David Sproxton and Nick Park), John Cleese, Cary Grant (real name Archie Leach!), Bop Hope, JK Rowling, Nik Kershaw, The Stig (Ben Collins) … oh, I could go on.

Sadly, I just missed this year’s famous Bristol Balloon Fiesta in August, described in one magazine as ‘a harem of hot air balloons drifting on the blue sky backdrop’. I’ll try to be there at the right time next year.

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But I was there for Upfest, Europe’s largest street art and graffiti festival. Over 350 street artists were invited from around the world, including Bristol’s very own Banksy, of course.

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As Banksy says, ‘People say graffiti is ugly, irresponsible and childish … but that’s only if it’s done properly.’

Bristol has a great affinity with graffiti and is in Lonely Planet’s top five cities for street art. Modern graffiti has its roots in 1970s New York, where tag artists decorated the subway trains. It was vandalism then, but GOOD street art has since become respected and legitimate art.

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The paintings remain on the buildings for a year, before being painted over by artists at the next UpFest in July each year. This was my favourite:

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John Lennon by Eduardo Kobra (Brazil)

Jim wasn’t invited to perform this year so he did his own thing:

 

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One evening I was invited to join some friends at Gifford’s Circus, a small traditional family show that performs on village greens or commons. The only performing animals are horses (oh, and a lone chicken but I don’t want to give too much away).

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I also had a wonderful day at the Zoo. It’s fairly small and all the animals have lots of space to play or hide, depending on their mood, so they’re happy. As a result, the zoo has an excellent breeding programme. In the 1940s health and safety rules were more lax and the zoo keepers’ children could play with the young animals out of hours (it looks much more fun than playing with Barbie dolls).

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But, of course, they grow up. I was fascinated by this majestic pair.

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There were even moving and growling dinosaurs lurking in the bushes.

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When Jim came to visit after the World Athletics Championships the highly-strung Henry came skidding into the hallway and was startled – and then completely baffled – by this other ‘person’ he found.

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All too soon it was time to hug Henry goodbye and move on to Petersfield, where Woody the ‘short-legged labrador’ was eagerly waiting. Wonderful Woody was exceptionally well behaved, obligingly lifting each paw while his harness was put on (even though he hated it), and listening carefully when we said, “NOT on the grass!” then dutifully trotting to the trees at the far end of the garden.

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There were beautiful walks nearby so on went the wellies again. One evening Woody and I had a great two-hour walk across meadows, over stiles and through the woods to Buriton, the next village, and back again. I was intrigued to note that I could also have gone to the nearby villages of Didling and Cocking … but saved those for another time.

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It was a wonderful summer of dog-sitting and I enjoyed seeing Tilly, Mungo, Henry and Woody so tail-waggingly and bottom-wrigglingly happy. They were all gorgeous dogs and great company – though here’s one I definitely wouldn’t choose to look after. Good grief!

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Next stop, the beautiful French village of Talloires on the shores of Lake Annecy for a Scottish wedding! More on that next time. For now though,

Hasta la Wotnot
Gay and Jim

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Two Labs, a magical library and a bloke who wrote plays …

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While Jim was busy tour leading a Trans-Siberian trip, I leapt at the chance to get in a few dog-sitting stints. First up was three weeks in Wanborough, a village in Wiltshire – home of our good friends Fred and Alison and also only a few miles from ‘my’ village, Aldbourne. My charges were two gorgeous labradors, Tilly and Mungo, and Dennis the cat, who were all delightful company.

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Oh yes, there was a house to look after too – an enormous place set in eight acres. The guest bedroom was so far away from the kitchen that, when I got up, I brought down everything I needed for the day.

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There was also a large vegetable plot to look after; striding around in wellies with a watering can, I felt like an extra from TV sitcom ‘The Good Life’. Tilly, Mungo and I spent many happy hours roaming ‘the estate’ and occasionally exploring further afield.

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I bundled them into the car one day to show them my favourite walk in Aldbourne, up Four Barrows; and also did some of the famous Ridgeway walk with them.

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Then I made the mistake of taking them to Aldbourne Doggy Day to see if they could win some rosettes (Answer: a resounding NO). They were so badly behaved I drove them home in disgrace.

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My cousin Lesley came to Aldbourne for the day on her first visit to the village so I played tour guide. We had lunch on the Green overlooking the church and she unsuspectingly asked if I’d been christened in that particular church. That gave me the perfect opportunity to launch into my christening story: when I was about 14 the vicar was looking for recruits and asked if I’d like to be confirmed. I explained that I’d never been christened, so, sorry I couldn’t. His response was: ‘Oh, my poor child! Well, I think we can get around that if you come to christening and confirmation classes at the same time.’ And he clapped his hands together in glee. I, meanwhile, was at a loss to know what to do. I didn’t want to be christened or confirmed, but was too shy to say so. My parents were surprised that I’d signed up but didn’t want to deter me, so they also went along with it. So I attended classes right up until the final week when fate suddenly intervened … the vicar ran off with a lady who lived across the Green! I was saved by a floozy!

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(This is cousin Lesley – NOT the floozy!)

I had a week’s ‘holiday’ in between dog-sits so spent a few days each in Stratford-on-Avon and Oxford. Stratford is, of course, Shakespeare country so in between visits to teashops, I learned quite a lot about the Bard, including that he was born in 1564, the year that the Plague hit Stratford, so he was lucky to survive.

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His birthplace is a rather grand house with beautiful gardens. There are often volunteers in the garden performing snippets of his plays on request.

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When Will studied Greek and Latin at school he learned how powerful language can be. He already enjoyed fairytales, but then became fascinated by the Greek and Latin folklore and his vivid imagination shot into overdrive. The rest is history, as they say.

He had a career as an actor and theatre manager, as well as a playwright. His father made rather fine gloves in his workshop within the house, and – a fact that I particularly enjoyed – was once fined for leaving a pile of muck outside his house.

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Will and his wife, Anne Hathaway, had three children including a boy called Hamnet (no, not Hamlet) who died aged 11. None of his grandchildren produced offspring, so if anyone claims they are direct descendants of Shakespeare they are telling porkies.

Last year marked the 400th anniversary of his death and Jim and I did our bit to celebrate with a few trips to London’s Globe Theatre. We were also in Stratford for a wonderful production of Hamlet. By chance, our performance was being recorded for screening at cinemas around the world, so if you saw it perhaps you saw us too!

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It seems everyone performs Shakespeare’s works in some form or another: plays, films, ballet … hip-hop. Even Homer Simpson does a mean Richard III.

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“Now is the winter of our discontent ….”

Skipping forward, I found one of Shakespeare’s First Folios (the first printed edition of the collected works) on display in the Bodleian Treasures room in Oxford. If that had been lost, we would never have had to study Macbeth et al in school …

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By the way, Shakespeare left school at 15 so there’s hope for us all ….

His daughter Susanna married John Hall, a local doctor. In their house I found these charming artefacts:

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You’d hardly notice …

Quote: Prosthetic noses were worn for cosmetic reasons where a patient’s own nose had been lost or eroded. One of the major causes of nasal damage was syphilis, a venereal disease that eats away at the septum of the nose.

And, the Uroscopy Station. Physicians would diagnose an illness purely from the colour and surface of a urine sample and then check it against their trusty colour chart!

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I mentioned earlier my predilection for tea shops (since last year when I started drinking tea). My favourite tearoom in Stratford was this forties-themed one called Fourteas (that’s rather good, isn’t it?!)

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It’s all in the detail:

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Fearing I would become Shakespeared-out, I moved on to Oxford [which really does mean ‘ford of the oxen’] where the pubs were full of earnest students having mightily intellectual discussions. They looked straight out of University Challenge. One of my favourite pubs was the Turf Tavern, which claims to be the oldest pub in the city. It’s been a pub since at least 1381 so I’d say it’s in with a good chance. A board outside announces it is ‘An Education in Intoxication’.

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Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke studied at Oxford and it was in this pub where he famously drank a yard of ale (about 2.5 pints) in 11 seconds, ensuring himself a place in the Guinness Book of Records.

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Bill Clinton was also at the university in the sixties – perhaps it was in this very pub where he smoked marijuana but didn’t inhale …

Around every corner in Oxford are beautiful buildings.

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Top of my Must Do list was a tour of the Bodleian Library, the main research library for Oxford University. It’s been a copyright library since 1610 and is still used by scholars around the world. There’s also the Harry Potter connection, of course, when it doubled as Hogwarts’ Library.

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In fact, there was a classic gaffe made. In the old days each book had an individual chain attached to its top right-hand corner and also to the shelves for security. In the Potter films the chains were erroneously shown attached to the SPINE of each book (horror!) … but I guess the Hogwarts students could always magic away any damage.

Apart from Silence, the main rule of the library has always been that the books can’t be borrowed and taken home. When Charles I requested to take out a history book he thought that rule wouldn’t apply to him – being King and all – but rules are rules, so he had to get the carriage out and drive over to the Bodleian. However, doors were quickly screwed on to a couple of alcoves to give him some royal privacy.

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Across the courtyard is the circular Radcliffe Camera (Latin for ‘room’) – a private reading room built in 1749. An underground rail track links the Camera to the Bodleian for pulling trolleys of books between the two buildings.

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Second on my list was exploring the hallowed halls of Christ Church, one of the most iconic colleges of Oxford, and known as ‘the house’.

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It’s unique in having a school chapel that is also the city’s cathedral. Before Greenwich Mean Time, all towns and cities kept their own time by the sun. Christ Church Cathedral still does (i.e. services run five minutes behind the normal clock). Every night in the old days the original 101 students were given a curfew warning at 9.05pm (9pm by Oxford time). Great Tom, an enormous six-ton bell, was rung 101 times and the students rushed to be back on campus before the final toll. The tradition of ringing the bell continues, which must be irritating for anyone living nearby … and I doubt today’s students are quite so compliant. But some of them must have knuckled down and studied. To date, the college alumni includes 13 Prime Ministers!

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Tom Tower and Quad

 

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The Great Hall may look familiar – it was Hogwarts’ dining room in all the Harry Potter films.

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Charles Dodgson, whose pen name was Lewis Carroll – author of the Alice in Wonderland books – was a maths lecturer at Christ Church and lived there for 47 years. The then Dean’s daughter, Alice Liddell, was THE Alice.

Christ Church Meadow belongs to the College and a rare herd of Old English Longhorn cattle graze here, right in the city centre.

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Nearby are the Botanic Gardens where Lewis Carroll and the real-life Alice often strolled. It’s one of the oldest scientific gardens in the world.

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Nearby on the River Cherwell, punters attempted to navigate the twists and turns – making for a very entertaining afternoon for those sitting on the riverbank.

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Then it was time to head to Bristol to meet Henry the crazy Red Setter. More on him and my time in Bristol in the next post. But, by coincidence, I found a statue down there of another Bard: Alan John Cutler (known as Adge) who was known as the Somerset Bard, and founded The Wurzels (a ‘70s band from Somerset whom some of us are unfortunately old enough to remember).

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Until next time, Hasta la Wotnot.

Gay and Jim

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By Train in Spain

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As part of Jim’s (seemingly never-ending!) 60th birthday celebrations we decided to tour Spain from north to south. We’d previously visited a few times but never in any real depth. We travelled, mainly by train, from Bilbao in the north to Ronda in the south, with a few stops on the east coast thrown in for good measure. On the way we discovered Spain has probably the world’s largest tomatoes;

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possibly the world’s largest G&Ts!

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and definitely the narrowest streets for driving through …

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We started with a bang in Bilbao where, of course, we visited the extraordinary Guggenheim Museum, designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry. It’s built in limestone and glass, and the roof curves are covered in titanium (the same metal used in many artificial knees).

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Originally he’d had to be persuaded by a few bottles of his favourite wine to take on the project, but he made the right decision. Not only did Gehry become a household name but his astonishing building also sparked the regeneration of Bilbao. The city now welcomes thousands of tourists … including ‘James Bond’ in 1999 when ‘The World is not Enough’ was filmed there.

In front of the museum is a giant topiary dog: a 43ft-tall sculpture of a West Highland terrier covered with living plants and called, appropriately enough, Puppy.

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A few days before the official opening of the Guggenheim, in 1997, the museum came close to being bombed by three ETA Basque separatists posing as gardeners working on the sculpture. Inside the flowerpots they were carrying were 12 remote-controlled grenades. The plot was ultimately foiled, although a policeman died during the struggle and the plaza was renamed in his honour.

We were also very taken with the Vizcaya Bridge – the first mechanical transporter bridge to be built in the world. The architect was asked to design a structure to carry people and vehicles across the river while still allowing the tall ships of the time to pass underneath.

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So a gondola, suspended below the bridge’s upper walkway, ferries passengers and up to six vehicles from one bank to the other every eight minutes. Back in 1893, when it was built, the central area of the gondola would have been for horses and carriages – and 2nd-class passengers. The 1st-class travelled on covered benches on the sides. The locals call it Puente Colgante (hanging bridge).

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We’d been looking forward to reaching San Sebastián [Donostia, as they call it in Basque]. The Basque Country has the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, so is a foodie paradise. The speciality is the Pintxo – a finger-food sized snack similar to tapas. The customers move from cafe to cafe, having one or two pintxos and a pote (slang for drink) in each.

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Our wonderful Airbnb hosts, Iker and Estela, gave us a map and list of their favourite cafes and we happily worked our way through it.

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Pamplona is known for its annual festivals of San Fermin (including the famous Running of the Bulls), held each day from 6 to14 July. We walked the route, which takes the bulls from a holding yard, along various narrow streets of the Old Town and into the bullring. Along the way they try to dodge the idiotic locals and tourists who attempt to outrun them.

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This was as close as we came to the Running of the Bulls.

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In the Cafe Iruna – where Ernest Hemingway is said to have written ‘The Sun also Rises’ – we stopped for their lunch special: starter, main, dessert, bread, wine and water for a few euros each. We assumed that meant a glass of wine but no, … a full bottle each of red and white appeared!

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We staggered out some time later to watch a few weary pilgrims limp into town. Pamplona is the first Spanish city on the Camino de Santiago [for those arriving on the French Way]. This ancient pilgrimage route has various start points but all of them finish in Santiago de Compostela in NW Spain. It was pouring with rain that day so the exhausted walkers were also completely sodden, and I felt rotten trying to take photos of them.

The story goes that the king of Zaragosa had a lisp so everyone else had to call it Tharagoetha too … rather like extras from Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’. The city was originally called Cesar Augusto, which eventually morphed into Zaragosa (try it a few times).

The Nuestra Senora del Pilar cathedral sits in a vast open square in the Old Town. We climbed one of the towers for great views over the city.

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Legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared to St James and told him to build a church here in her honour. A small portion of the pillar is now exposed for the faithful to kiss. I’d heard that the pillar exudes a faint smell of roses so was keen to check it out – and, yes, it really does … though Jim the heathen is convinced a rose-scented air freshener is liberally employed.

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During the civil war two shells were lobbed at the church but they failed to explode. The faithful say it was a miracle but some cynical locals say, ‘typical Czech munitions’.

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Having been seduced by Cuenca in Ecuador last year, we had to visit the Spanish (and original) version. We weren’t disappointed. It’s a delightful little town perched on the side of a huge gorge.

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Its big draw card is the famous medieval ‘hanging houses’.

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Last year Jim escorted a Travel Directors’ group through Spain to Morocco and came back gushing about Valencia. And what a city it is. In a moment of serendipity, good friends from Perth – Paul and Irene – were visiting at the same time and we enjoyed much merrymaking. The drinking water here is full of minerals including chlorine – not great for drinking but perfect for cooking paella, which is important as Valencia is where this classic dish originated.

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We also bumped into Jim’s brother Geoff’s first fiancee, Jan Brown, who was visiting with her husband Graham and we had a rather raucous, gin-infused, night out together!

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In the old days the very wide river Turia regularly flooded the city centre so about 50 years ago it was diverted to the city outskirts. The resulting dry river bed was creatively turned into the Turia Gardens, a stunning nine-kilometre swathe of sunken parkland running through the city centre.

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The locals embrace it for running, cycling, playing sports, picnicking, etc. We walked the length of it and discovered Parque Gulliver on the way.

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Remember in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, when the scared Lilliputians manage to tie down the giant then scramble all over to subdue him? In the park we discovered a giant sculpture of the man himself (lying down, of course) made into a children’s play park. There are steps, nets and climbing ropes hidden around the body and in concrete folds of his clothes – even some strands of his hair are slides – so kids can climb and slither all over him.

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The gardens finish at the stunning City of Arts & Sciences complex, home to the opera house, science museum, aquarium and sculpture park (including one by Yoko Ono).

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In Valencia’s magnificent cathedral we found the Holy Grail, the cup believed to have been used by Jesus during the Last Supper (though there are many other contenders around the world). The holy part is the cup at the top, made of chocolate-y coloured agate. The base, handles and jewels were added centuries later.

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Valencia had bowled us over but Jim had a date with an old friend from his first job in radio, so we scooted down to the town of Bolnuevo in the province of Murcia. Jim hadn’t seen Sheila since he worked with her at Chiltern Radio 30 years ago, so it was a 48-hour fun talk fest.

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Spain’s rail system is superb unless you want to go from Bolnuevo to Córdoba, as we did. So it was a bus ride for us, and a very scenic one at that, with vast fields of sunflowers and olive groves.

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The crowning glory of Córdoba is the Mezquita-Catedral (Mosque-Cathedral). Built between the 8th and 10th centuries, it’s been a religious site for both Christians and Muslims (depending on who was ruling at the time) but has been Catholic since 1236. It’s such a beautiful example of Islamic architecture that the Catholics, rather than building on top of it as usual, built their own church actually inside the mosque. And just to prove its multi-religion-ess, the building is located in the middle of the Jewish Quarter.

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Normal rail service was resumed between Cordoba and Seville – another glorious city with the world’s largest Gothic Cathedral (and yet another one to be built on top of a mosque).

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The cathedral’s other claim to fame is being home to Christopher Columbus’ tomb. Well, possibly.  His remains have been moved at least six times between Cuba, Spain and the Dominican Republic and there is now some grave (ha!) doubt that the ‘body in the box’ is, in fact, that of the illustrious explorer. It could well be his son, Diego. In 1877 a lead box of bones was unearthed in the Santo Domingo cathedral in the Dominican Republic with CC’s name on – and they’ve kept it safely under lock and key ever since, refusing all requests for DNA testing.

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The mosque’s minaret has bricked ramps inside rather than steps so that the muezzin, in charge of calling the people to prayer five times a day, could climb to the top each time on his horse. Smart man. After the Muslims had surrendered the city, the minaret had a bell tower built on top of it known as the Giralda, and tourists can now climb up those very same ramps – trying to avoid passing by the enormous bells on the hour, as they are ear-splittingly loud.

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Seville has more than one world beater. The extraordinary Metropole Parasol in the Old Quarter is the largest wooden structure on the planet (remember that for your next quiz night) and is nicknamed ‘las setas’ (mushrooms) by the locals. It seems a little out of place in among the historic and beautiful buildings but the views from the top are stupendous, and as a bonus, our €3 tickets included a free beer at the top and a free postcard at the bottom!

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The spectacular Plaza de Espana has often been used as a film location, including Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and as Naboo Planet in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.

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Ditching trains and buses for the final leg of our tour we hired a car and drove south to Ronda, a beautiful mountain town which, like Cuenca, straddles a great ravine. Established during the reign of Julius Caesar it’s one of the oldest towns in Europe.

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Despite being built in the 1700s, the main bridge between the two parts of town is still called Puente Nuevo (New Bridge). The room above the central arch has, over the years, been a bar, hotel, prison, and was used by both sides as a torture chamber during the 1936-39 civil war.

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Ronda’s bullring was the world’s first purpose-built space for bull fighting (the first fight took place in 1785). Now it’s only used for three days of bullfighting a year, during their annual festival. We learned that the picador’s first ‘lancing’ into the bull’s shoulder muscle is necessary to release the pent-up endorphins – oh, so that’s okay then …

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Our hotel, the San Gabriel, is a gem. The owner is a film buff who built an exquisite five-seat cinema for guests and has a collection of classic movies to choose from.

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The reason for hiring a car was to explore the famous white villages that surround Ronda. Most are nestled in remote spots on the hillsides and the ones we visited seemed to be caught in a charming time-warp. The villages are surrounded by chestnut trees, which provide a living for the locals.

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Not all of them are white though. To promote the premiere of the Smurf movie a few years ago, the residents of Juzcar were asked if their houses could be painted Smurf-blue and re-painted white again afterwards. The promotion duly took place and the white washers returned … but the villagers said, NO! We like our village blue (a good thing they all agreed). So, there we have it – a smattering of picturesque white villages and a lone Smurf-blue one.

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We could have stayed and stayed in Spain (and maybe one day we will) but we wanted to catch up with friends in the UK and also to continue celebrating Jim’s 60th birthday, so we DID get on that plane ….

Until next time
Hasta la Wotnot!

Gay and Jim

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Slow Boat to Blighty

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Despite a major hangover following a v-e-r-y messy long weekend with 24 mates, Jim somehow managed to negotiate the hazardous journey from Hong Kong to Sri Lanka and board the Magellan cruise ship in Colombo before it set sail at midnight (the fact that he’d left half his clothes behind was another matter). I was already on board, having flown in from Thailand a day earlier.

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The Magellan was on the last stretch of its inaugural 121-days Round-the-World cruise. We had a mere 26 days to enjoy it, so we did.

Entertainment-wise, there is something for everyone on a cruise ship so no chance of getting bored. In between lectures, movies, gym sessions and making friends around the jigsaw table, I was often to be found curled up in a large leather armchair in the library. I was surprised to catch Jim one day in the craft room, making a St George’s Day badge! Even alcoholics are catered for. On cruise ships they are known as ‘Friends of Bill W’ and have regular meetings. It amused me that on the Magellan their get-togethers were held in The Taverners, the English pub!

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Ted and I concentrating on abstaining

Our first port of call was the Maldives: one of the world’s most geographically dispersed countries – covering almost 300 sq kms – with water making up 99% of that. It also has an average height above sea level of only 1.5 metres, so pretty useless if you are into mountaineering. The state religion is Islam and the capital, Male, is dry but the islands – with the tourist resorts – aren’t (otherwise the tourist industry on which they depend would ‘dry’ up). We’d stayed on one of the islands on a previous visit so explored Male this time. We were very struck by the number of young people on the streets and discovered later that more than 20% of the population is under 15 years old.

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Male is a densely populated city and not particularly attractive, but we loved the old Friday Mosque built in 1658 of wood and coral.

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We had a quick stop in Salalah, a port city in the far south of Oman. It’s known as the ‘perfume capital of Arabia’ due to its trade in incense, particularly frankincense. The resin was once more valuable than gold, making this the world’s richest area in 1000 BCE. Used as an essential oil it’s thought to relieve the symptoms of stress and despair; used in traditional medicines, it’s good for digestion and healthy skin. So, at least one Wise Man had thought long and hard about a really useful gift.

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Joy, oh joy, there was no hassling in the souks, only smiles, which sets it apart from some other places in the Middle East.

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Omanis are desperate for their country not to become another Dubai. Sultan Qaboos, who has ruled since 1970, has modernised the country (until the ’70s there were only 10 miles of asphalt road in the whole of Oman) but he believes in keeping the traditional ways too. For two weeks every summer the Sultan camps out in the desert so influential tribal leaders in the rural villages can visit his tent with requests for essentials – usually running water and electricity – and then he MAKES IT HAPPEN (surely that only occurs in fairy tales …?)

We may not have had a sultan to show us around that day, but we did have the next best thing: Omar, our marvellous taxi driver.

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Omar managed to show us all the sights of Salalah and get us back to the ship on time, despite the exhaust falling off his taxi and a front tyre exploding.

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We were all a little apprehensive about the next part of the voyage: the ‘pirate stretch’ between Somalia and Yemen. From the Maldives we’d been able to sail far away from the Somalian coast but we couldn’t avoid it through the Gulf of Aden. The armed private security guards who had been travelling with us since Male would have their work cut out to keep 800-odd passengers plus crew safe. We were advised that if the emergency siren blasted we should either sit quietly in the corridor outside our cabins or go to one of two bars (an easy choice, then).

We were relieved to discover that the Gulf of Aden is dotted with German, British, French and American warships and helicopters guarding the waters against pirates. Despite that, we later learned that two speed boats had tailed the ship for a few hours in the danger zone so our SWAT team gathered their weapons at the stern of the ship and prepared to repel boarders. When the crews of the speed boats saw what they’d be up against, they slipped off quietly into the night. Luckily, we were blissfully unaware of the potential danger while we sipped our cocktails that evening.

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Next came the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea. It’s only 32 kms wide and is divided into two channels by a long island off Yemen, so making it narrower still. The strait’s Arabic name means ‘the Gate of Tears’, so called from the earlier dangers of navigation.

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This was followed by the Red Sea, a narrow strip of water 2250 kms long reaching towards the Suez. This sea contains some of the warmest and saltiest water in the world, so is undoubtedly the best place on the cruise to go for a dip (except that it’s a very busy waterway).

My birthday fell while we were cruising through this stretch so our cabin attendant was able to show off his towel origami skills.

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Jim and I had been agonising for days about whether to go to Petra or Wadi Rum when we reached Jordan. In the end we managed to get to both, thanks to a cunning (and very fast!) taxi driver. Both sites were equally astonishing. Petra was built by the Nabataeans in about 300BCE as part of a major trading route for frankincense, myrrh and spices between ancient Mesopotamia (now mostly Iraq) and Egypt. It’s known as the rose-red city, after the colour of the rock-carved structures and intricate tombs cut from the mountain sides. Petra was eventually abandoned and now only Bedouin nomads live there.

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We then scooted across country to Wadi Rum, a scenic desert valley (Wadi is Arabic for ‘a dry river bed’), where T E Lawrence was stationed during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in WWI.

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The area is often used as a film location, e.g. The Martian starring Matt Damon and, of course, the 1962 version of Lawrence of Arabia. Peter O’Toole, who up till then had never ridden a camel, found the saddles very uncomfortable. He solved this by buying a piece of foam rubber to cushion the seat. Some of the extras on site copied the idea and, if you look carefully, this padding can be spotted in some shots of the movie. The Bedouin nicknamed Peter O’Toole ‘Father of the Sponge’ and to this day many Bedouins still add foam rubber to their saddles.

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One of the main reasons for wanting to do this cruise was to sail through the Suez Canal. The 193-km canal opened in 1869, connecting the Mediterranean and the Red seas, and is now one of the world’s most heavily used shipping lanes.

Like the Panama, the Suez incorporates a few lakes so it’s not always the narrow channel I’d envisaged. But, unlike the Panama, there are no locks to negotiate as the Red Sea and the Mediterranean are at the same level. It also comprises a ‘dual carriageway’ for a long stretch of it.

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As ships come the other way, it often looks as if they’re floating on sand.

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What we learned about Israel while we were there is that it’s tiny (it’s possible – though not by me! – to run across its narrowest point in two hours), in 1952 Albert Einstein was offered the presidency, and hummus-flavoured ice cream is popular. It also has one of the highest life expectancies in the world, even though the State of Israel itself is only 69 years old.

We spent a wonderful day exploring Jerusalem. The best view of the Old City is from the Mount of Olives.

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The Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, was built to support the western side of the Temple Mount and is the most sacred structure of the Jewish people. It has been a site for Jewish prayer and pilgrimage since at least the 4th century.

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The walled Garden of Gethsemane is smaller than I imagined but very pretty.

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The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built around Golgotha, the rock on which Jesus was crucified – according to the Catholic religion. There’s a small opening under the cross through which the faithful can touch the rock.

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Then we found this remarkable souvenir in a gift shop:

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By the way, artist Banksy owns a hotel nearby in Bethlehem – just inside the wall separating Israel from the State of Palestine – called the Walled Off Hotel (oh, very good).

We had a very quick four-hour visit to Gibraltar and discovered that it has more fish and chip shops per sq mile than anywhere in Britain. I just made that up, but it certainly seemed so to us.

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It was a public holiday and all the shops were closed on the day we visited, so I took myself off to an animal refuge centre and spent a delightful hour with rescued lemurs, pigs and parrots. Many of them had been confiscated by Customs or police officers from illegal traders passing through Gibraltar. There was a fantastic walk-through area where the lemurs could come up and touch you (if they felt like it). I also loved the cotton-topped tamarins.

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Gibraltar’s oldest inhabitants are its apes. The 200+ Barbary macaques here are the only ones living wild in Europe. Legend says that as long as the apes stay, Gibraltar will remain in British hands … so everyone will be watching the apes during Brexit.

Our last stop was the beautiful Portuguese capital, Lisbon. The great explorer, Vasco da Gama, set off from here in 1497 and discovered the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope to India and East Africa. His tomb is in the city’s Jeronimos Monastery, which is odd because we also visited his tomb earlier this year in Kochi, India!

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Here’s his tomb in Kochi … and below, the one in Lisbon!

That reminds me of a quote from Mark Twain:  “In a museum in Havana there are two skulls of Christopher Columbus, one when he was a boy and one when he was a man.” (‘The Adventures of Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass’).

A few days later we sailed through the English Channel and up the Thames to Tilbury docks, where the brilliant Tim and Paul met us and whisked us back to Brixton base camp. Thanks, T&P!

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So, we’ll be in and around Europe over the next few months. We’re currently travelling by train around Spain so I’ve been able to practise my very limited Spanish. Saying ‘Hasta la Wotnot’ regularly isn’t getting me very far!

Gay

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Thai High

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Following our multi-dog-sitting stint, we moved to Fisherman’s Village on the north coast of Koh Samui. It’s one of the most well preserved places on the island and there are still some of the old wooden Chinese shop-houses on the main walking street.

 

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We’re staying right in the thick of things so we can walk to all the restaurants, bars, beaches, etc. On Friday nights there is an excellent street market that goes right past our front door.

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The street food is sensational, not to mention the $3 mojitos.

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And I’m sorry, but the food’s too good to share.

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But we’re not too sure about the fried insects.

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There are some beautiful quiet beaches, lined with shady coconut trees. And some great beach bars where we’ve become well known.

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There are also the usual water sports. This gang tried their luck at banana boat riding and we watched their progress for a while. Here they looked very happy.

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And then … oops!

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Jim tried his hand at jet skiing (they don’t call him Mr Cool for nothing …)

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I’m fascinated by the people fly boarding. There’s a long hose connecting the jet ski to the board beneath the boots and the water pressure provides the thrust required. Experienced riders can ‘fly’ up to 15m in the air and do amazing acrobatics.

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On a visit to neighbouring island, Koh Phangan, we found the very beach where the original Full Moon Party took place.

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Full Moon parties now take place all over Thailand and attract huge numbers of backpackers. They’re all-night beach parties on the night of every full moon (and often, the nights before and after). I suspect Jim and I are forty years too old to participate now, but from what we’ve heard they’re very colourful events with lots of loud music, body paint, fire dancing and very probably a scintilla of alcohol thrown into the mix.

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Our friend John (aka Cooperman of the tuk tuk ride in India) arrived for a week of chilling. He certainly did that as the sun disappeared the day he flew in and the rain started to spank down. But never one to let rain come between him and a beer, John settled comfortably into a different kind of wet routine.

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On the subject of rain, apparently during the 1916 flood, the King of Siam – as Thailand was called then – was distressed to spot the country’s flag hanging upside down somewhere or other. The following year the national flag was changed to a symmetrical design so, whatever happened, it would always be right side up. Rather a shame as the old flag was stunning … and who else would notice if it was the wrong way up?

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The main tourist attraction in Koh Samui is the Big Buddha so when we came across this chap one day we ticked it off our must-see list.

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A couple of days later we saw a postcard of the Big Buddha – nothing like the one we’d seen!

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Turns out the Chinese Buddha is fat and happy … and the Thai one isn’t. An easy mistake. We did see this beauty though.

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She is Guanyin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy and Compassion who is believed to protect women and children, the sick and the poor. As that keeps her fairly busy, she’s been given 18 arms (though she may have preferred some assistants).

Another of the tourist sites we were very taken by was the Mummified Monk. Phra Khru Samathakittikhun (I’m sure he was known as Sam to his friends) became a monk at the age of 50 and eventually rose to become the abbot of the temple where he now sits permanently. He foresaw his own death in 1973, at the age of 79, and asked to be mummified in the sitting position in a glass cage (what the monk wants, the monk gets) – though he didn’t request the sunglasses. These were added later to hide his hollow eye sockets, which were frightening young visitors.

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Radiographs of the body have revealed that his brain tissue and organ systems are remarkably intact, although they’re small due to dehydration. He has also become a hatchery for a native gecko species; the lizards lay eggs in his body cavities beneath the skin. Delightful.

My two months on this beautiful island are quickly, and sadly, coming to an end. Jim is already wreaking havoc with his mates in Hong Kong at the Rugby Sevens and when we meet afterwards in Sri Lanka, we’re jumping on a cruise ship to take the slow boat back to London. More on that next time.

Hasta La Wotnot

Gay and Jim

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The Magnificent Seven

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Two months on a tropical island sounds like the stuff of dreams. Then add seven rescued street dogs …

We spent our first 12 days on Koh Samui’s south coast in Thailand at the home of our friend Sarah, together with her husband Simon and son Jack (Jim’s godson) who were also visiting. Sarah has lived on Koh Samui for the past seven years and amongst her myriad other jobs she finds time to rescue street dogs, some of which have been abandoned after being terribly treated by previous owners. Being the softie she is, over the years Sarah has adopted seven of her own.

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All the dogs were in pretty bad shape when Sarah took them in, but she has done a wonderful job restoring their health: medicating, feeding them home-cooked meals and walking them for two to three hours a day. I’m sure they’re all thinking, ‘We’ve landed on our paws here!’

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There are gorgeous, quiet beaches in the south that are perfect for long dog walks. Sarah takes all seven to the beach on her trike and they do love to be beside the seaside!

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One of the tribe is a white husky called Lukno, possibly the only one on the island. When other dogs first meet her, they step back in alarm. You can almost see them thinking, ‘What is THAT?!’)

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Lukno knows all the best places in the woods for a bath

In between walks we explored the island by motor bike and sampled many more beautiful beaches (and beach bars, of course.)

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One particularly hot and steamy day we climbed through the jungle to the top of Namuang waterfall, then plopped in to cool off.

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At the end of the family holiday Jack had some extra baggage to take home to New York!

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Relo4paws is a Bangkok-based company that relocates rescued Thai street dogs to other countries where they’re found new homes. All that’s needed from this end is a volunteer to accompany the dogs on each flight and deliver the paperwork to customs authorities. Jack and his party of 13 hounds arrived safely and were met at the airport by the home-finder and a TV crew who broadcast a heart-warming piece that night.

With Simon heading back to Hong Kong and Sarah flying off to New Zealand for a well-earned holiday, we were suddenly on our own – well, apart from a pack of mischievous mutts.

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Our mission was to keep them in the manner to which they’d become accustomed … no mean feat. They’re all gorgeous dogs but a pack of seven is quite a handful, as we quickly discovered – and they all have their idiosyncrasies. Meal times were always ‘quite busy’!

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Apart from being near the beach, the house is also next to a huge rubber plantation so we had glorious early morning and evening dog walks there.

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Sometimes we’d meet the friendly workers collecting rubber from the tapped trees.

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Thailand is currently the world’s biggest exporter of natural rubber, most of which is used for car tyres. A rubber tree has latex ‘vessels’ in the bark, which spiral up the trunk. Collectors make cuts in a vessel, shallow enough not to harm the tree’s growth, and collect the milky latex in a small bowl tied underneath.

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Rubber trees originally only grew in the Amazon rainforest where the Indigenous people were already making a primitive form of rubber up to 3,600 years ago. The Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, germinated the first seeds outside Brazil (in 1875 someone smuggled some seeds out of Brazil – ‘in the service of the British Empire’, so that’s alright then …) The mature trees were then distributed around the British colonies, mainly in SE Asia, which is why there are so many plantations there today (though they weren’t at that time sent to Thailand as it’s the only country in SE Asia never to be colonised by Europeans.)

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So after a fortnight of long walks, preparing meals, washing up, sweeping hairs and lots of cuddling (times seven) we were exhausted and very pleased to welcome Sarah back! To celebrate we took the dogs up to our favourite viewpoint in the plantation.

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It had been great fun but exhausting, and we needed a holiday! So we moved up to the north coast of the island to a delightful place called Fisherman’s Village. More on that next time.

Hasta La Wotnot

Gay and Jim

NB: A number of you have kindly let me know about missing photos on some of my earlier blog posts. This was due to a glitch in the system that I’ve only recently discovered. All photos have now been restored. Apologies and thanks!

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Tea, Trains (and more Tuk Tuks)

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After the rigours of our tuk tuk caper, Jim and I were in dire need of some R&R so we took the Nilgiri Mountain Railway to the former British hill station of Ooty. It completed our hat-trick of the famous Mountain Railways of India, the other two being the Kalka to Shimla and the Darjeeling ‘toy trains’.

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The Nilgiri route is a mere 46 kms, but takes nine hours due to the incredibly steep gradient. A century-old steam locomotive is used for the first part of the journey as a diesel engine wouldn’t be powerful enough. The railway actually uses a rack and pinion system; the only one in Asia.

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Ooty is an abbreviation of Ootacamund – although the town is also called Udhagamandalam, neither of which exactly roll off the tongue.

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Apparently, the rules for snooker were thought up at the Ootacamund Club in 1882. Some sources say the man responsible was none other than Neville Chamberlain, an army officer, later to become British Prime Minister. Another of Ooty’s sporting claims to fame is being the birthplace of former England cricket captain, Colin Cowdrey. Oh, and there is also an excellent magic shop where Jim spent many happy hours … and rupees. I just liked the sign!

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Even after a few days of this relative ‘normality’, we still felt rather worn down by the excesses of India so we escaped to the tranquility of Sri Lanka.

Arriving in Colombo, we had a seven-hour wait for the overnight train to Jaffna so we headed to the sumptuous Galle Face Hotel for a few pots of Ceylon tea on the grand terrace.

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Prince Philip’s first car is in a tiny museum on the first floor of the hotel. Apparently it cost him just £12 new. I was more interested to know how they got it up the stairs …

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We bought first-class seats on the overnight mail train to Jaffna. I wouldn’t describe it as luxurious. A family of five occupied the two seats opposite us so there were a lot of ‘leg-wars’!

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The 26-year civil war had ruled out visiting the north of the country on our previous visits, so this was a good opportunity to go. Even though hostilities between the government and the Tamil Tigers finished in 2009, there is still evidence of the war with bombed-out buildings and decaying monuments.

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Sadly, there are still very few tourists making the trek and, consequently, little for them to see if they do visit. There’s an imposing temple:

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The formerly impressive fort is still in a bad way but the public library, which was destroyed twice during the civil war, has been restored to its former glory.

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Having quickly exhausted Jaffna’s sights, we did the only thing left to us. We went to the pictures.

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We’d seen the crowds the night before and thought, ‘How ridiculous!’ The following evening, we were queuing with the best of them – right the way down four flights of stairs and out onto the street. This was the Hottest ticket in town!

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Embarrassingly, when the staff spotted us we were ushered to the front of the queue and sold the first tickets for the night.

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The movie starred Vijay, an Indian movie star who is also hugely popular in Sri Lanka. It was pure Bollywood with action, drama, romance, song-and-dance, and comedy – plus a moral message thrown in for good measure. Even more entertaining than the film was the audience, particularly the 40 or so who squeezed in at the last moment to sit in the aisle. Loud whooping, cheering and whistling accompanied Vijay’s every appearance on screen. I have to admit he IS a bit of a hunk and when he ripped off his shirt … the (mostly male) crowd went bonkers!

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Underwhelmed by Jaffna (cinema excepted) we headed to the southeast coast, stopping en route in beautiful Kandy.

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On previous visits to Kandy we’ve seen most of the famous sights including the Temple of the Tooth, the country’s holiest Buddhist temple, which houses a molar that apparently belonged to Buddha. This time we stayed up in the hills with a Sri Lankan family and enjoyed more of the countryside. We discovered that Nicoletta (who we met on the Rickshaw Challenge in India) was also in Kandy so we tuk tukked over for a catch-up.

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One of the best places to people-watch in Kandy is on the balcony of this imaginatively named place on the main street:

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Early each evening the starlings gather in the trees opposite and make an enormous racket. The noise virtually drowns out the roar of the traffic.

For a bit of peace and quiet we strolled around the Udawattakele Sanctuary (aka the Royal Forest Park). The royal family used to bathe in the pool, though nowadays it’s home only to large troupes of monkeys.

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The monkeys had excellent manners while the resident dog was eating dinner … but pounced as soon as he’d had his fill.

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The drive from Kandy to our next port-of-call, Arugam Bay, was a beauty – taking us through gorgeous tea plantations and the pretty towns of Nuwera Eliya and Ella.

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Arugam Bay is a picturesque fishing village but is also considered to be one of the world’s Top 10 surf spots. The fishermen brought in their catch throughout the day so we didn’t even have to get up early to watch them.

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Bullock carts collect boxes of fish from each boat and deliver them to the weighing station on the beach.

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For a quiet fishing village, it was quite a ‘boisterous’ place. Apart from the usual street dogs and cockerels, the bread van played Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’ on a loop as it plied the streets for eight hours each day. The mosque’s first call to prayer was at 5am … but this was tempered for us by Gizmo, the hotel dog, who enjoyed a singalong.

As we were often awake anyway, it was no problem to get up exceedingly early one morning for a wildlife safari to Kumana National Park. No leopard sightings, sadly, but well worth it for the elephants, jackals, boar, crocs … and little-known (to us, anyway) fishing cats.

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One of the highlights we witnessed in Kataragama was puja time at the temple. Stalls line the road leading to the temple selling fruit to be used as offerings.

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We spotted this on the way to Galle:

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And, two minutes later, lo and behold!

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Cricket lovers flock to Galle for the Test Matches. We were there at the wrong time (phew, she says!) but the cricket ground itself is a delight.

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We DID see some cricket, though. Edgar, one of the tuk tuk drivers we met, proudly took us to watch his son bat.

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Navindu Nirmal is currently the captain of the Sri Lankan Under-19s team and – we were reliably informed by Edgar – is destined for stardom. Remember the name. You heard it here first! (He’s on the left, next to Jim.)

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Our friend Simon arrived from Hong Kong to join us for our last week in Sri Lanka. By this time we’d found a wonderful place for us all to stay, in a secluded villa near Unawatuna Beach.

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More visitors arrived – but in the garden this time.

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Emboldened by our Indian experience, we hired a tuk tuk to tootle around in. After India it was like driving a Rolls Royce over a bowling green. There are even road rules … that drivers obey!

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Simon and I took a train along the coast to Mirissa and felt inordinately proud to be met by our personal tuk tuk driver at the station!

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Jim ran into problems with the police (again) at a road checkpoint because he wasn’t carrying his driving licence that day (my fault). They wouldn’t even accept a bribe (where else in Asia would that happen?!) so Jim and the tuk tuk owner had to present themselves at a police station the following morning. I’m happy to report that all ended well.

No visit to Sri Lanka would be complete without seeing the famous stilt fishermen, although these days they earn more from posing for tourist photos than they do from selling the fish.

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The fort area in Galle is a delightful warren of small streets and colonial-type buildings housing excellent cafes and interesting shops. We spent many happy hours wandering around this area and along the fort walls. This hotel balcony was a favourite beer stop.

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We’d been here a month and our visas were about to run out so Simon, Jim and I hopped on a train, plane and ferry to Koh Samui in Thailand to stay with Sarah (Simon’s wife) and their son, Jack, who flew in from New York. In return for gate-crashing their family holiday, Jim and I had offered to dog-sit Sarah’s seven (yes, seven) dogs for two weeks.

More news next time from this Doggy Heaven in the Tropics!

Hasta la Wotnot
Gay and Jim

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