Lisbon

In the 15th and 16th centuries little Portugal was a seafaring superpower colonising countries from Africa, through to the subcontinent, Asia and South America. Without a doubt Brazil was their largest acquisition but there are bits of Portuguese culture in places like Goa in India, Malacca in Malaysia and Macau in China near to our door step. Little Lisbon was a place of influence and power.

Today it is a small low rise European capitol with some historical precincts near the water front as well as a very pretty historic centre. A lot of the city reminds me of San Francisco with steep cobblestoned streets that ancient cable car trams rattle up.

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There is a bridge connecting the mainland with an island that is a dead ringer for the Golden Gate Bridge. As a walking city it is literally not one for the faint hearted as the steep hills leave one gasping for breath.

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It is my birthday and we have just one day here so we set a cracking pace. It is initially a cab out to the waterfront to see the 400 year old Belem Gate and nearby St Jerome monastery complex.

Belem Gate

Belem Gate

Jerome monastery

Jerome monastery

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Jerome monastery

Jerome monastery

Jerome monastery

Jerome monastery

Jerome monastery

Jerome monastery

Apart from being a beautiful Gothic complex it is extra special for housing the burial tomb of the famous 15th century mariner and explorer Vasco da Gama who was the first to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, the tip of Africa, and open up maritime trade with the East. It’s always special to be able to bring to life snippets of what you learn at school when you travel.

Vasco da Gama tomb

Vasco da Gama tomb

Squares, markets, historic neighbourhoods and the St Jorge’s castle on the hill fill this day before enjoying a decadent splurge on dinner. We indulge in a magnificent 9 course degustation in a 2 Michelin star restaurant called Belcanto, one of the top 50 restaurants in the world.

Market

Market

Praca do Commercio

Praca do Commercio

Praca do Commercio

Praca do Commercio

Praca do Commercio

Praca do Commercio

St George Castle

St George Castle

Lisbon from St George Castle

Lisbon from St George Castle

Lisbon from St George Castle

Lisbon from St George Castle

Lisbon from St George Castle

Lisbon from St George Castle

Lisbon from St George Castle

Lisbon from St George Castle

Lisbon Cathedral

Lisbon Cathedral

Santa Justa lift

Santa Justa lift

 

Douro Valley

It is an easy 2 hour drive east along a modern freeway to where the vineyards and wineries that make port are. This is a beautiful landscape of vine covered hills planted on steep terraces. The Douro River lazily winds through the valleys. Dotted around are picture postcard perfect little medieval villages and wineries perched high on the steep hills accessible only by driving up terrifyingly narrow winding drives. Getting around here is really white knuckle driving and mentally exhausting.

The compensation is the tastings of the various ports especially against the backdrop of 2 great vintages. Unsurprisingly it is the vintage ports that are the showstoppers and I am impressed at how versatile and approachable they are young. These are wines that I normally don’t touch until they are at least 10 years old. They can actually be very food friendly when young.

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Any port in a storm

Having watched Australia demolish the Kiwis and book a spot in the finals of the cricket world cup we arrive in Oporto in northern Portugal. I stand at the airport luggage carousel and the minutes tick by. The bags stop coming and ours are not there. For the second time in less than a week our bags have not turned up and this is both our bags and on a short haul flight from London. Modern technology means that as soon as we report the loss they can work out exactly where it is it is in Madrid. Unfortunately the response is a lame email which is never acted on with alacrity and we are at the mercy of the lost luggage department at Madrid. At that stage it is administered by a third party and the airlines don’t want to know us any more. Conveniently the numbers given by the third party as a contact point always seem to ring out. Luckily the bags arrive late the next morning just as we were about to go out and buy some spare clothes to wear.

Port was first made in the early 1700s when, yet again, England was at war with France. Affluent English gentlemen deprived of their favourite tipple of claret from Bordeaux looked further afield. Portuguese red wine was an easy solution except for the small problem of spoilage on the longer sea voyages over. The solution was simple, add some brandy to fortify the wine and it easily survives the hot sea journey. Port was born and this is the whole raison d’etre for this area.

The city of Oporto is actually the second largest in this little country. It straddles the mouth of the Douro river and is the commercial hub of the port trade and has been for hundreds of years. The river still sports a number of smaller barges but I can imagine 300 years ago that it would be congested with wooden sail driven caravels transporting the local wine. All around especially on the river banks are warehouses of some of the great port houses and for a wine enthusiast names such as Dow, Warre, Graham, Croft and Sandeman are all represented and evoke memories of tasting these great wines in the past.

Even if you are not a wine drinker this prosperous city is a great walking city, albeit hilly and one with magnificent buildings such as the cathedral, palace and even the railway station with its blue tiled walls. Hope you enjoy. It was difficult to cull these photos down so I hope I haven’t bored you all.

River banks at Oporto

River banks at Oporto

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Cathedral

Cathedral

Cathedral square

Cathedral square

Cathedral square

Cathedral square

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Cathedral

Cathedral

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Station

Station

Station

Station

Station

Station

Station

Station

Palace

Palace

Palace

Palace

Palace

Palace

Roll out the Barolo

Every time I have been to Italy and driven a car and each time I vow and declare never again! The combination of crazy aggressive drivers and narrow cobblestoned lanes never actually designed for cars renders the experience an absolute nightmare. Nonetheless a 2 day interlude has us in the foothills of the northern Italian Alps and the only way around is a rent a car. I am only minutes out of our arrival point of Genoa airport when I find myself questioning my sanity again. Circles of freeway layer over each other with confusing signage and exits and the inexorable push of crazy speeding locals all around. Arriving at the toll gate some toll gates are have signs with coins overhead some have what looks like credit cards. As I would be paying via card I pull into one of those and the realisation hits that this is for people with prepaid cards and sensors. The tolls are unmanned and within seconds there is a massive truck behind me honking its horn. As the swearing rolls off my tongue and I am tapping the toll booth in anguish the gate suddenly opens and I am in! Of course at the other end without a ticket to scan for payment there is major drama as someone has to be sent over to manually process me. Welcome to Italy!

The reason for this visit is the nebbiolo grape which produces the great red wine, Barolo eponymously named after the region. For me Barolo was a revealation when I attended a masterclass tasting around 12 years ago. Since then it has proved to be an expensive obsession and features prominently in my cellar.  I have preorganised a series of tastings with some of the best producers there.

The area is undertouristed gem. Rolling vine covered hillsides picture postcard little Italian villages and almost no other tourists. The 40+ degree heat is a disincentive to spend too much time walking around but we have our little airconditioned Fiat and we meander on little back roads between tastings and magnificent gourmet meals. The views are beautiful, the wine is beautiful and the food is to die for. There is absolutely no doubt that I will be back.

Enjoy this small collection of images of Barolo.

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Champagne cricket

A champagne cork pops loudly behind us provoking the inevitable ducking of heads. The teams are on the pitch practising last minute drills before the anthem and this is the one match we have really been anticipating. Yes this is Lords, the home of cricket and we are gobsmacked to find that one is allowed to bring a full bottle of wine in here to drink. This is presumably the only cricket ground in the world to allow this.

Of course the match is England vs Australia and at Lords of course we are heavily outnumbered. England come into the match ranked number one in the world and being on home turf there is a condescending smugness all around us. An Australian victory today is about as likely as a Scott Morrison win at the last election. England are as sure of victory as Shorten was and a loss for them today would leave their supporters as devastated as Labor was.

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Australia post a middling target and Anthony and I fear that we may be beating an early retreat. England comes into bat and in the first over the ball crashes into the stumps and sends a shockwave through the crowd. We dare to dream and ultimately prevail with a comfortable win. We have dented the home team’s chance of making finals and they lose their number one world ranking. Happy days! To their credit the crowd was very civilised towards us and we copped a few congratulatory handshakes. Very British!

As great as this experience was it was nothing compared to the elation I was to experience next. It has begun! I was privileged to be asked to be a support person for Chris and Tenae for the birth of my first grandchild. It was always going to be tight as I already had this trip booked and I was upset to be flying out before the birth. I was proud to be a part of the labour via the internet helping with the decision making and coaching throughout what would prove to be a long and complicated labour. I was up from 3 am that night to be involved and help out and regularly throughout the next day in Italy. Beautiful little Phoebe was born when we arrived in Barolo. Looks like will have to invest in some of this wine for her 21st birthday celebration. I haven’t met her yet but I love her to bits!

Tenae, Chris and baby Phoebe

Tenae, Chris and baby Phoebe

Land of faded glory

London is one of the great capitol cities of the world. Once the centre of the British Empire, the pre-eminent power of the 19th century, it is fair to say that there is something here for everyone. I lived here in 1987 and was never bored nor at a loss for something to do.

I leave Heathrow under leaden skies but it is an unseasonably warm 30 degrees. The train takes us through suburbia and for the first time in multiple visits I notice the accumulated grime on the railway embankments and platforms. Paddington station clearly has not seen any cleaning or restorative love for decades nor has the tube which boasts the same rolling stock it did in 1987. Amplifying the sense of neglect is the rubbish bags full of rubbish left on the footpath on our walk to our Airbnb. I am told it is rubbish collection day and due to security issues rubbish bins are no longer being issued but it is not a good look.

We are here of course to see Australia’s last 3 matches in the cricket world cup here and our marathon flight ends inauspiciously with the non arrival of my back pack. I am in London, it is in Bangkok and there is a lot of masterly inactivity happening by the authorities regarding its retrieval. Clad in the one and only set of clothes I have we hit London on our first day starting at Hyde Park and getting glimpses of the changing of the guard through the masses of tourists assembled. We walk 20km winding our way to Westminister all the way to St Paul’s to find that London is less than welcoming for us today. There is scaffolding around Harrods, parts of Parliament and Westminister Abbey. Big Ben is invisible beneath the scaffolding removing one of the iconic views of London. Trafalgar Square is cordoned off for cleaning. Arriving at St Paul’s just before 3 pm we discover that it has been closed to visitors all afternoon for some reason.

 

Little Venice

Little Venice

Notting Hill Blue door

Notting Hill Blue door

Buckingham palace

Buckingham palace

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St Paul's

St Paul’s

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Thames Embankment

Thames Embankment

The day finishes at the theatre. We have secured excellent seats to “The book of Mormon” which we have been keen to see. While it was well acted and witty it was not as acerbic as we thought it would be.

Iguassu

I jumped onto the little ¨train¨ that winds through the park to transport visitors to the starting point of the many walks in the park and went straight to the end stop where the walk to Garganta del Diablo is. The walk is all along raised walkway constructed over the actual river as it winds around to form part of the falls complex. Part way along there is the remnants of the older walkway destroyed by floods in 1992 killing several tourists. As if, in the presence of this example of the forces of nature, we needed any reminding of the intrinsic frailty of humanity. At the end of the walkway is the most awesome and brutal display of nature that I have ever witnessed. Garganta del Diablo means Devil´s throat and it was as if one was staring into the throat of the beast looking into the jaws of hell. The actual drop of this central part of the falls complex is only about 70 metres but because of the volume of water and the force with which it falls the actual bottom of the falls is never visible. Instead a spray of water rises above the height of the falls and is visible around the countryside looking for all the world like smoke from a bush fire. The sunlight plays with the spray forming capricious rainbows which further add to the spectacle of beauty and brute force.

That is an extract from my travel writing in 2005 when I was last here. At that time I was on a basic backpacking trip by myself. I stayed in a dorm in a hostel on the Argentine side. I was blessed with 2 sun days out of my 3 day stay here which, sadly represents the only sunny days I have had here. Iguassu is one of the “big three” waterfalls in the world the others being Victoria Falls and Niagra. This, though, is my favourite. It is bigger, has more water and many more falls than the others. The power of nature and its raw force is on display here and I was keen to share the experience with my life partner this time. Of course if “she who must be obeyed” is with me then dormitories are out of the question and it is 6 star luxury at the famous Cataract Hotel. We are upgraded from a junior suite and most certainly not disappointed.

 A couple of observations about the experience. Firstly it shows that Brazil has not had the troubled economic times that Argentina has had. The cost of anything on the Brazilian side is more than comparable to western prices whereas Argentina is “bargain basement”. Secondly, 14 years on the presence of an extra 2 billion people on the planet is obvious. In 2005 I seemed to have the place to myself. The walkways had few people on them whereas now there was a steady conga line of humanity everywhere. Finally and sadly the weather this time was atrocious and while we still enjoyed the experience, I am going to indulge myself and throw in a few old shots with sunshine and blue sky for what is to be my final post for this trip. Until the next trip (June/July this year), enjoy!

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Now some of the 2005 pictures

76- Iguazu, Sheraton 88- Garganta del Diablo 115-Salto Santa Maria below, Salto Floriano above 116- Garganta, Salto Belgrano 118- Salto Floriano

Buenos Aires

BA is the most European of South American cities. First settled by Europeans in 1536 it was almost 200 years before it was declared by Spain to be the capitol of the territory of the Rio del la Plata, the river that separates Argentina from Uruguay. It was to be another 100 years later in the 19th century that BA became an affluent thriving city on the back of agricultural exports. Wealthy European settlers built European style mansions and established green leafy boulevards.

Today mismanagement by successive dictators and elected leaders has run the economy into the ground. For a western traveller this means great exchange rates and a cheap holiday. Nonetheless the old world grandeur of this city remains along with a vibrant cultural and food and wine scene. This is a truly desirable tourist destination.

The once seedy La Boca district down south near the wharves has now been transformed into a bright and colourful tourist precinct with shops, outdoor cafes and tango dancers on the street.

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San Telmo district is more genteel with tree lined streets and old mansions.

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The Catedral Metropolitana opposite the Casa Rosada is the main cathedral of BA and is famous as the parish church of our pontiff Pope Francis. It also houses the mausoleum of General San Martin, national hero who led Argentina to independence.

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The floralis generica is in massive area of parkland surrounding the art gallery. It was designed and paid for by Argentine architect Eduardo Catalano. The aluminium petals open during the day and close at night.

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Our tour de force for our last night in BA is seeing Verdi’s Rigoletto at the magnificent opera house, Teatro Colon. Opened in 1908 it is considered to be one of the 10 best opera houses in the world. Seven stories high it dazzles with gold paint inside. We secure seats just 3 rows from the front for a fraction of the cost of a ticket back home.

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Halfmoon Island

It is with sadness that we don all of our thermal layers and venture out looking like “teletubbies”. The gloom and the steady snow has thinned out the numbers going out which is disappointing. This island gets us up close to chinstrap penguins and as an unexpected treat we see a row of juvenile elephant seals.

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The reverse crossing of Drake’s passage back to Ushuaia is rough and more reflective of its normal state right up until we round Cape Horn.

Cape Horn

Cape Horn

Deception Island

Dawn on our last day in Antarctica sees me on the bow of our ship at our arrival at Deception Island. I have 3 layers of clothing on but the wind chill as we approach Neptune’s Bellows has me cursing inwardly that I didn’t don my parka. I am not alone and many of us drop down to the deck to allow the ship’s railings to provide some protection from the wind chill.

Neptune's Bellows

Neptune’s Bellows

Deception Island is the remnant of a collapsed volcano. A breach in the crater walls allows acces into the submerged caldera and this is the evocatively named Neptune’s Bellows. To the right there is a large gap in the volcano’s wall named Neptune’s window. As we pass through the Bellows a vast sea “lake” opens up and low snow capped hills surround us, the land around is like a moonscape. Through the dark overcast gloom we make out the various abandoned buildings on the volcanic “black sand” beach, all in a state of disarray courtesy of eruptions in 1966 and 1969. The latter eruption resulting in the abandonment of all human habitation here. Despite the icy waters and the snow all around this is still very much an active volcano and one that could erupt again at any time.

Neptune's window

Neptune’s window

Wilkin's Hangar

Wilkin’s Hangar

Ruined British Base

Ruined British Base

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Deception island is near the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. As such it is the de facto gateway to Antarctica and it is a microcosm of man’s involvement in Antarctica. Initially it was a whaling station and as we come to a halt here I close my eyes eyes and imagine those days. Whalers harvested the blubber from the whales and cast off the rest of the carcass. The pebbly black sand beaches must have run red with whale blood, the surrounding waters a foul “soup” of decomposing whale. The stench must have been revolting! Ashore there are rusting massive fuel tanks and smaller rusting vats used to boil and purify the blubber. The whalers left in 1931 and the British arrived here in 1944 to establish Base B.

Deception Island was a safe and sheltered harbour. In 1928 South Australian explorer and adventurer Hubert Wilkins sailed down here with 2 aircraft with a mission to be the first to fly over the South Pole and across Antarctica. The plan to use sea ice was thwarted by a warm season so a hanger was constructed on the beach as well as an airstrip 2300 feet long and 40 feet wide with a couple of 20 degree bends all rolled out with a basic primitive roller. From here he conducted the first flights over Antarctica but failed to fly over the South Pole or over the continent.

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Today on whaler’s beach all is deserted and be buildings that remain lean precariously and are crumpled as a result of the volcanic eruptions. It was the last eruption that forced the evacuation of the British research station in 1969.

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Before returning to our ship we were offered the option of undertaking the polar plunge, braving the icy Antarctic waters. Unsurprisingly I took up the option and stripped down to bathers. At the request of a bikini clad respiratory physician we buddied up and ran into the frigid water. People have asked me if it was exhilarating and my response is more prosaic, it was freezing!

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