Before you track me down, drag me into the streets and beat me to a pulp, hear me out.
Yes, the Taj Mahal is beautiful.
Yes, it is elegant.
But where is its soul?
Before you track me down, drag me into the streets and beat me to a pulp, hear me out.
Yes, the Taj Mahal is beautiful.
Yes, it is elegant.
But where is its soul?
When was the last time a building stopped you in your tracks?
Your eyes widened trying to take it all in and your mouth fell open in awe?
Mehrangarh Fort did that to me in November 2017!
Abhaneri? Where’s that?
Stepwell? What’s that?
In short, it is a must-visit place on your next trip to India.
India – population 1.324 billion people (2016).
Intimidating? A bit.
Friendly? Without a doubt!
Promotional Blurb: ‘When a Gandhi dies, nobody is safe.’ An assassination, a romance. A hijacking, several nuclear explosions and a religious experience … just some of the ingredients in the latest tour de force from the bestselling author of the Carpet Wars. In the searing summer of 2004, Christopher Kremmer returns to India, a country in the grip of enormous and sometimes violent change. As a young reporter in the 1990s, he first encountered this ancient and complex civilisation. Now, embarking on a yatra, or pilgrimage, he travels the dangerous frontier where religion and politics face off. Tracking down the players in a decisive decade, he takes us inside the enigmatic Gandhi dynasty, and introduces an operatic cast of political Brahmins, ‘cyber coolies’, low-caste messiahs and wrestling priests. A sprawling portrait of India at the crossroads, Inhaling the Mahatma is also an intensely personal story about coming to terms with a dazzlingly different culture, as the author’s fate is entwined with a cosmopolitan Hindu family of Old Delhi, and a guru who might just change his life.
Picture this: it’s late Friday afternoon in Paris. We have finally arrived back in the City of Light after missing our train in Vernon (near Monet’s home at Giverny). The reason for the missed train was because we had been advised by some officious Frenchman, that we must pull our bikes apart, and bag them up, to be allowed to board the train. Sparks flew from both our spanners and our finger tips as we frantically disassembled the bikes but alas, the train doors slid shut and the train slowly pulled away from us and out of the station.
What makes us, all of a sudden, decide to step away from the comfort of our ordinary lives, and into the Great Unknown?
One day I am a plain-Jane, sensible-type. The next day I have locked myself into an adventure that is guaranteed to take me well out of my comfort zone.
In 2010, I was hankering to travel, but as my ‘better half’ couldn’t take time off work, I was looking for an adventure that would give me some sort of context or framework to travel in. After much searching and comparing, I decided to volunteer for a month in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Unbeknown to me, international volunteering is big business and some companies charge substantial fees to place a person in a volunteer role. Part of me still can’t understand the logic of paying for the privilege of working for free, but it was a good introduction to the contradictory nature of my time in Vietnam.
The company I chose to travel with is called IVHQ, based out of New Zealand. They seemed to have the largest range of volunteer opportunities at the most reasonable price, and they were happy to accept ‘older’ volunteers like myself. My teenage-gap-year days are far behind me, and I wanted to feel comfortable that my skills were going to be appreciated and useful, as well as providing me with a genuine opportunity to contribute.
The fees they charged covered the sourcing of a placement, my accommodation, meals and some local transport. I would also have local contacts in Hanoi to provide support and information. Not that I am a chicken or anything, but an Asian city with no local language or knowledge can be a tad intimidating.
Following multiple clarification emails, it was confirmed that I would be living in an apartment, not the organisation’s volunteer hostel. While more power to them, the thought of living with 40 squealing and partying 18-year-olds, made my blood run cold. Give me a bit of peace and privacy any day.
After the usual chaos and stress of packing and shutting down my business for a month, I was on the plane. Vietnam Airlines was a good introduction to my ultimate destination. The lights didn’t work, the video/entertainment didn’t work, the food was questionable, and there were various other broken and worn out parts of the plane’s interior. But, the staff were friendly, we took off and landed on time, and in one piece, and I knew I just had to go with the flow.
Hanoi airport was the typical chaos and cacophony of an Asian airport, with their hawkers and hasslers. Thankfully I was greeted by my local contact and transported to my hotel, only to find that the hotel had transferred my booking to a different hotel around the corner. I was quickly learning that things worked differently in Vietnam.
In the heart of the Old City, I played tourist for a couple of days, and then I was moved to my apartment in the north-western suburbs of Hanoi. During our trip through the suburbs, the taxi driver knocked over a lady on a motorbike, but he didn’t blink, slow down or stop. ‘OK’, I said to myself, ‘we obviously do things differently in Vietnam’.
There was some initial confusion, as my local contact tried to drive me to the volunteer hostel, until I gently, but firmly, confirmed that I was to live in an apartment. The taxi changed direction, and my new home became one those non-descript, high-rise apartment blocks that you see crammed closely together in rabbit warren streets, clustered on the fringes of countless Asian cities.
The apartment was quite spacious and the living areas were simply furnished. There were a few things lacking like beds, linen and the remotest hint of cleanliness or hygiene! Yes, it was filthy! I quietly inquired about the housekeeping arrangements and was told that a cook came daily and a cleaner once per week. Perhaps that week was in 1984!
My room was a bare mattress (none too clean) on the floor and a few scraggly wire coat hangers dangling precariously from electrical wiring protruding from the walls and ceiling. Before leaving Australia I had confirmed that all linen would be supplied, but obviously that had been lost in translation too. Luckily I had packed a silk sleeping sheet and brought along an old beach towel. That became my linen for the next month.
But again, the local staff were warm, friendly and welcoming and I was determined to make the most of the experience. After finding the local supermarket, I purchased the complete suite of cleaning materials and scrubbed my room and shared bathroom from top to bottom. Believe me, I am no neat freak, but even I could not live in someone else’s scum and grunge.
The apartment turned out to be a comfortable and enjoyable location with enough interesting flat mates over the month for me not to feel lonely. A trio of Irish girls had me in stitches with their aversion to bugs and anything else that crawled. There would be squealing and shrieking, and they would all be standing on their beds or chairs as I rushed in to remove the offending creepy crawly.
Like many Asian cities, electricity was sometimes an optional extra. Huge lightning storms would take out the whole suburb or maybe it was just our turn to lose power. Not a drama except for the lack of cooling and light. One day I returned to the apartment block and had to walk up 27 flights of stairs in the pitch dark! Phew! My work out for the day.
I enjoyed living amongst the local Vietnamese people and I suspect I would have been one of only a handful of Westerners in the whole suburb. Being tall, white and female, I attracted a fair bit of attention as I walked to the supermarket or to catch the bus. Once I said hello, good morning or how are you in my best Vietnamese, people would break into beaming smiles and return my greetings in their best English. Never underestimate the power of a genuine smile.
The daily commute to VietHealth was equal parts interesting and entertaining. As other commuters entered the bus there would be a stampede to sit next to me as I was a source of free English lessons for the next hour. Rarely have I felt so popular or so useful.
When I wasn’t conversing in English it was a joy to stare out the window at the overloaded bicycles, motorbikes and small trucks. One day we passed an old man on a bicycle carrying a four metre long ladder through peak hour traffic. Yet, it seemed effortless to him and no inconvenience for the surrounding traffic.
If I wanted to step out of my comfort zone on every level, then I got that in spades just by living in Hanoi.
Have you ever step right out of your comfort zone?
What: Volunteering with IVHQ starts from $180 per week, with over 33 countries to choose from.
Where: Living in the north-western suburbs of Hanoi and working in the north-eastern suburbs.
When: I visited in May. Like Goldilocks, not too hot and not to cold but a bit of everything weather-wise.
Why: Volunteering ticks all the boxes of culture, contribution, challenge and friendship.
How: I flew to Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines. I am not sure they would be my airline of choice but at least I lived to tell the tale.
Who: Myself, four Irish girls, one American girl, and sundry bugs and bities.
Related Posts: For a walking perspective of the high mountains of Vietnam, have a peek at my post about walking at Sapa.
Related Blogs: For another expat perspective of living in Hanoi, have a look at, https://petersbigadventure.com/2015/07/29/peters-guide-to-living-in-hanoi/
For those people who don’t know me well, I am a planner and an organiser. Yes, I would like to be more chilled and ‘go-with-the-flowish’, but after 50-odd years on this earth, I have found that approach just doesn’t work for me. I need goals and I need exciting things on my horizon to keep me motivated and interested.
Many years ago I developed an aversion to birthdays. Not that I despised getting older, although who wouldn’t want to turn the clock back a tad, it was just that I would look back on the previous 12 months and wonder, ‘where did that go’ and ‘what did I achieve’?
Most times I felt like I had accomplished a big, fat nothing. This was inaccurate and no way to think about my life, so I decided to change. Each birthday I would sit down and set myself some small challenges for the next 12 months. Then, I would stick this list, big and bold, on my fridge door. This provided no end of amusement for visitors to my house, but more importantly it kept me honest and kept me focused. Subsequent birthdays were greeted with slightly less trepidation, and a degree of excitement, as I set myself even more ambitious goals.
Without wishing to be morbid, I am now at a stage in life with more years behind me than in front, and it is time to really ‘up the ante’ on the goal-setting front.
Yes, the list is back on the fridge door, and as a sign of the times, it is now termed a ‘Bucket List’. Perhaps this is a poor choice of words, and I do not plan on going anywhere soon, except to remarkable, exotic overseas and Australian destinations.
I am always open to suggestions and here, in no particular order, is the Bucket List so far:
The Mississippi River Trail: A cycle route that starts in Lake Itascain Minnesota, USA, and finishes near the mouth of the river in Venice, Louisiana. It covers 3 600miles (5 794km), using the Mississippi River as the common theme or motif. In the past, the USA was never really high on my travel wish list mainly because the cultural contrast was not significant enough. However, this trip has captured my imagination because of the many states we will pass through – their different climate, architecture, history, scenery and accents. Yes, it will take us around three months, but what a way to experience a country.
India: How do they cram so much chaos, colour and culture into one five-letter word? The thought of the scale of the population in India frightens the pants off me, but I am busting to get there to experience such their vibrant culture. I am not brave enough to do this solo or via independent touring so I am currently researching cost-effective and well-regarded tours that will give me a small insight into this country. Fingers crossed, I get to tick this one off the list in 2017.
Trains Through Asia: I am not sure if you have come across The Man in Seat 61? He has to be world’s largest train nut, and what a wonderful resource he has created for rail-travel fans. The loose plan is to fly into Singapore and then train (and bus where necessary) north through Malaysia, Thailand and finishing in Luang Prabang, Laos. Again, a fantastic way to experience a variety of Asian cultures, move slowly through the changing countryside, and meet the locals.
thrown into the mix. This walk starts at Irun, near the border of France, and follows the Spanish coastline until you cross into the province of Galicia, then turning south-west towards Santiago de Compostela. This is a tough walk apparently, due to the mountainous terrain, so we had better start training now!
That is just a small sample of what’s currently on the list. I think it’s a nice mix of active, overseas, cultural and the Aussie, but I am more than happy to print out a longer list or buy a larger fridge to display it!
So, now it’s your turn. What is missing from our list? What cracker destinations must we add?
What: The Bucket List is open to all suggestions. I figure once the appeal of sitting on a long haul flight fades, our focus will change and we will travel much closer to home.
When: Anytime, and any length of time.
Why: Who needs a reason to travel?
How: Planes, trains, automobiles plus by boat, on foot, by bicycle.
Who: Myself and The Brave Man* and anyone else up for adventure.
Related Posts: Watch this space
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!
It is not often that charity, community and culture collide in an event that turns into a genuine win, win, win. The annual Sculptures in the Garden event at Rosby Wines in Mudgee is one of those true winners.
Mudgee, in Central West NSW, is well-known as a weekend escape to enjoy rolling hills, fresh foods and a diverse range of delicious wines to accompany both the view and the victuals. Adding another string to the tourism bow is the ongoing growth of cultural activities such as sculpture.
Kay Norton-Knight of Rosby Wines has been a long-time supporter of the local arts scene and is an accomplished artist herself. Six years ago, Kay rallied her friends and family, identified a worthy charity, and Sculptures in the Garden was born.
As with many community events, SiG (as Sculptures in the Garden is fondly referred to) started out small with just over 100 works, and has experienced exponential growth each year. In 2016 the exhibition featured 234 works ranging from 20cm high to 6m high, and with price tags from $100 to $18 000.
Even if you are not in the market for a piece of sculpture for your house or garden, this event is simply a charming day out. All the sculptures are cleverly placed in the gardens and surrounds of the rustic Rosby homestead, providing a picture-perfect backdrop to the many works. The local Guide Dogs committee provide sumptuous catering and Rosby wines are available by the glass, or bottle if you feel so inclined.
This year’s event was blessed with stunning Spring weather – ideal for wandering through lush gardens and striking artworks, with a glass of wine in hand. Over 3 000 people did just that over the weekend.
But SiG is not just about standing back and looking at art. There was also an opportunity to learn. On both days of the exhibition, there were sculpture walks led by local artists as well as garden walks. A new event this year featured a panel discussion that delved into the importance of public art and its place in the Mudgee region. Edmund Capon AM OBE, the nominated VIP at this year’s event, had plenty of insight to add to the conversation.
The ‘cute’ factor was nailed during a puppy training session, delivered by Karen Hayter from Guide Dogs NSW. The audience melted and drooled over the latest litter of golden pups.
Children were not forgotten in this event. Other than the fact that they could run and play to their hearts’ content through the gardens and paddocks of Rosby, kids also had an opportunity to design and submit their own sculptures. The children were enthusiastic and excited to be able to show off their creativity, and their display demonstrated that there is some serious budding talent out there. A sign of things to come.
SiG has a more lasting impact than just an annual weekend. As well as generating significant funds for the Guide Dogs and tourism traffic throughout the region, it also provides an opportunity for the Mudgee community to connect with a number of signature pieces on a longer-term basis.
The SiG exhibition has four separate acquisitive prizes. Mid-Western Regional Council, Sculptures in the Garden, Moolarben Coal, and Friends of Sculptures in the Garden all provide funds to purchase pieces that become part of a permanent exhibition in the Mudgee CBD.
Mid-Western Regional Council is progressively developing a sculpture walk along the banks of the Cudgegong River. The river meanders through Lawson Park and the sculptures add additional interest to the riverside walk. Currently there are ten separate sculptures, and these will be added to from this year’s SiG. A true statement piece, the 4.4m high ‘Taking the Plunge’ by Stephen Irwin, was one of the three sculptures purchased this year. It will definitely catch the eye of passers-by AND generate a great deal of discussion.
One of the things I really love about SiG is how it makes sculpture totally accessible to Joe Public. I don’t have to be an art-buff to be able to enjoy and recognise the skill of other people. I think this has something to do with the fact that the art is all outdoors in a natural setting – no stuffy galleries or pretentious crowds.
Unlike the gigantic works on show at Bondi’s Sculptures by the Sea, most of these works are also financially accessible. For sure, not everyone would be in the position to snap up an $18 000 masterpiece for their backyard, but as the smaller pieces are quickly red-dotted it is nice to know that in their new homes they will create interest and add colour to the landscape.
The volunteer team that organises SiG are to be congratulated for all their hard work. They have created a significant and valuable inclusion in the regional tourism calendar, appealing to a different set of interests, as well as having developed an event that raises valuable charity dollars, and exposes plebs like me to the ‘yarts’.
Mudgee may be rich in food and wine but visitors and community alike can also enjoy a new kind of richness – a richness of the soul. Hard to measure but no less important.
Now, are you motivated to fire up the welder?
What: Sculptures in the Garden is a two-day arts event. The entrance fee is $5.00 per person. Food and wine is available each day. Stay for an hour or all day. Accommodation is available on site at the winery in the Rosby Guesthouse from $150.00 per night.
Where: Rosby is located at 122 Strikes Lane, Eurunderee, NSW, 2850 – an easy 15 minute drive north-west of Mudgee.
When: Annually – the second weekend in October.
Why: Add some culture to your wine escape in Mudgee and drive home with a permanent memory of Mudgee in the form of a work of art.
How: You will need a car to get out to Rosby. No public transport is available to the site but taxis are available from Mudgee.
Who: Rosby is home to Kay and Gerald Norton-Knight. The event is created and operated by volunteers.
Related Posts: Watch this space…
Related Blogs: For another, almost local, perspective on SiG, plus some good photos of the 2014 event, have a look at https://conventandchapel.com/tag/mudgee-sculptures-in-the-garden/
I don’t know why a lot of people pick on Tasmania and give its residents a hard time about having 11 fingers and two heads!
Yes, it is only a small island dangling off the bottom of Australia, and perhaps it is off the ‘main drag’ of tourist destinations, but it punches well above its weight on a whole lot of levels.
Until 2011, I had never spent much time in Tasmania. Sure, I had seen plenty about it on TV, and had once been locked in a conference room in Hobart for a week, but I had never had the opportunity to really explore. Many people had told me it was green and lush, like a mini-England, but it was time to go and find out for myself.
Luckily for The Brave Man* and I, we have some good friends in Hobart who invited us to go sailing with them around Bruny Island for a couple of days. I will talk about that in a separate post at a later date, as it was such a special experience – a true feast for all the senses.
There is nothing like exploring a place with the locals to get all the inside information on their patch. The thing I particularly enjoy is that you get to explore a place at a much deeper level – the economy, the politics and what makes a community tick. A true warts-and-all picture.
I can safely say that Tasmania won our hearts. Tasmania is the complete package when it comes to the variety of things to see and do. It’s a terrible cliché, but ‘there is something for everyone’ in this postage stamp-like state.
Hobart is well-known for its convict and pioneering heritage. Settled in 1804, many of its handsome sandstone buildings remain intact, giving the city a feel of grandeur and grace. Other than a stroll around the distinctive wharf area – the final port for the annual Sydney to Hobart yacht race – a journey to Hobart would not be complete without a visit to MONA.
MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, just has to be seen to be believed. Even if you are not an art lover, go there for a complete reorientation of your senses. I do not have an artistic bone in my body but even I could appreciate the diversity and depth of most of the art works.
The MONA experience started with a relaxing ferry ride from the Hobart wharf, up the Derwent River, to the foot of a sandstone cliff that encases the Museum. Where things started to challenge normality was when I had to walk four storeys underground to disappear into a world of wackiness and confrontation.
I spent most of the next four hours laughing outrageously, laughing nervously or being completely gobsmacked! I have no idea whether those were appropriate responses, and perhaps I was showing my complete lack of culture and civilisation. There was the Fat Car, a plump and pumped up Porsche, as a commentary on our flabby and obese lifestyles. There was a tribute to Madonna which included a wall of 40 televisions, each featuring a person singing ‘Like A Virgin’ off-key. There were Egyptian sarcophagi and a truck in a hall. Yes, a full-size semi-trailer four storeys underground, wedged in a hallway. Go figure!
By the end of the visit, I was physically exhausted and almost sore from the sensory overload. Such an assault on the senses, both positive and negative, has left a deep and lasting impression. Call me crazy, but I think it is worth a trip to Hobart just to experience MONA. It has not converted me to become a modern art fan, but it has certainly put Hobart on the cultural map!
Reeling from all that ‘culcha’, we borrowed a car and headed west out of Hobart to see as much of Tassie as we could in the short time remaining. In another post, I will talk about the excellent range of day walks we enjoyed, but here I will focus on the ‘built’ tourist attractions.
If you have the opportunity, another ‘must see’ is The Wall in the Wilderness. Located at Derwent Bridge, midway between Hobart and Strahan, a sculptor is creating a breathtaking work of art in wood. The Wall is made up of three metre high panels of wood, all joined together to form a solid visual expanse. These panels are being progressively carved to highlight the history of the central Tasmanian highlands, starting with the Indigenous people and including the timber industry, pastoralists, miners and Hydro workers. The skill involved is simply outstanding – a wagon has every spoke, chain and rope carved individually and separately to stand out in relief. When we visited in 2011, the wall was around 40 metres long, with the final length to be 100 metres. I agree that sometimes wood turning and wood carving can be a little twee, but this is art in a wooden form. Don’t miss it.
Back in the car, we joined the stream of grey nomads heading west towards Strahan. It gave me pause to wonder whether we had automatically and involuntarily joined the Grey Nomad scene, and although I wasn’t overly happy about it, we were travelling out of school holiday time, and we simply had to roll with it. Literally! Get stuck behind a grey nomad in a caravan or camper, and even though Tasmania is small, it takes a long time to roll anywhere!
The West Coast Wilderness Railway was a highlight for the train nut in our travelling party. The steam train puffed its way from Queenstown to Strahan, through some of the most remote and picturesque landscape you could ever come across.
Queenstown is a bit of an anomaly in the normally leafy Tasmanian countryside. It is a moonscape, battered and barren as a result of over 100 years of copper mining. It is a tired community with little going for it other than being the starting point for the tourist railway. I am sure the loyal locals would beg to differ, but the down-at-heel feel and multiple empty shops indicated to me that its time has passed.
The negative impacts of the copper mining history can still be seen today with both the Queen and King rivers classified as toxic. A perfect example of paying for the mistakes of generations past.
The West Coast Wilderness Railway is unique because it includes an ABT Rack and Pinion system on part of its track to manage the steep inclines. It strains and groans as it rattles and ratchets its way up the mountain. I wondered if we were going to make it, while the train buff was almost hanging out the carriage window, counting every rack and every pinion. Constructed in 1897, the rail line’s main purpose was to transport massive loads of copper to the port at Strahan, but now it specialises in massive loads of tourists…or loads of massive tourists. Other than being a very pleasant way to spend a day, we were educated about the pioneering history of the region as we rattled along the route, with a number of stops where we could pan for gold, explore ruins and stretch our legs.
Returning to Strahan, we spent the rest of our visit wandering around the streets and docks. Strahan is a charming port town, perfectly set up for tourists with a range of intriguing art and craft stores, and plenty of top quality food and beverages. Wood carving, wooden artefacts and timberyards are prominent, and The Brave Man* bought a few Huon pine offcuts as a memento of his visit. Not the most exciting souvenir in my opinion, but each to his own!
Unfortunately, time beat us and we had to point the little car back towards Hobart. I have only covered a few of the highlights we experienced. There is just so much history and beauty crammed into this gem of an island. One day when we sign on as full-time grey nomads, we will return.
Tell me, what do you recommend we see the next time around?
What: MONA is open every day except Tuesdays. Entrance fees are $20 for adults or free if you are under 18 or from Tasmania. The Wall is open seven days and entrance fees apply. West Coast Wilderness Railway is $100 per person including a shuttle bus from Strahan to Queenstown.
Where: MONA is located 11 kilometres north of Hobart – approximately 25 minutes by water, or 20 minutes by road. The return ferry ride costs $20.
When: We visited in Autumn. The days were cool and crisp, and thankfully the Rain Gods stayed away.
Why: Choose Tasmania if you would like a short break with lots to do in a small space.
How: We drove and, other than the slow traffic, it was the best and most flexible way to move about.
Who: Myself and The Brave Man* and multiple senior citizens.
Related Posts: Watch this space…
Related Blogs: I am not the only one to wax lyrical about a road trip in Tasmania. For a younger and groovier perspective have a look at http://www.worldofwanderlust.com/life-time-tasmanian-road-trip/
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!
You would think that walking from Seville in southern Spain to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain would be MORE than enough walking, but there has never been a better city to explore on foot than the UNESCO World Heritage city of Mérida.
Mérida is around 200km due north of Seville, or eight days walk. I entered the city over the bridge built in 25BC, made up of 60 perfect consecutive arches, and I knew I was in for something special.
In desperate need of coffee, I followed winding, cobbled streets and emerged into Plaza de España to be greeted by not only copious amounts of tasty and reviving coffee, but the heart of the city. The plaza was just coming to life – yes, it was pretty early, but the throng grew and it became a hub of chatter and gossip. Even the ubiquitous Spanish storks thought it was the best place to reside.
I think that Australia has a lot to learn from countries such as Spain. Either by good luck, good management or tradition, towns, cities and even the smallest villages in Spain have incorporated central spaces for people to meet and socialise. This has to be good for the soul as well as building a strong sense of community. It also gives the areas a warm, bubbling vibe. It attracts tourists like me and we stay and spend money. What is not to love?
Anyway, back to the history…
Mérida was established in the first century BC as Emérita Augusta, the capital of Roman Lusitania. It occupies a prominent position on the Silver Route (Ruta de la Plata), the main transport route for moving goods (especially silver) from southern Spain to the north, and is the basis for the 1000km-long Camino Via de la Plata trail. The Romans left behind lasting reminders of their occupation which are a feast for both the eyes and minds of amateur historians like me.
With only one and a half rest days in Mérida, I had to be selective about how I was going to spend my time. There is so much history, I simple couldn’t see it all.
The Tourist Office in Plaza de España sells tickets that include entry to many of the archaeological sites. For €12 you can access the Theatre and Amphitheatre, the Alcazaba, Circus and more. It comes with a handy map which shows you how to navigate the city to reach these sites.
My first stop was the Amphitheatre, a stage where burly gladiators wrestled with beasts. This building preserves some of its original elements, like the grandstands, the box and the gallery. I could almost hear the roar of both the audience and the ferocious animals fighting for their lives.
The Teatro Romano right next door to the Amphitheatre was erected between 15 and 16BC and can seat 6000 people. The original stage area is dominated by two rows of columns, decorated with the remains of sculptures of deities and imperial figures. When I visited, workers were busily constructing temporary stages and sound systems. I am not sure what performance was planned but I suspect it was opera. How cool would it be to watch any show against such a historic backdrop? Each Summer they hold the Mérida Classical Theatre Festival, apparently one of the most important of its kind in Spain. Now that would be something to see and a perfect excuse for me to return.
On the same site are a number of gardens and excavations revealing detailed friezes and parts of Roman buildings. It must be a nightmare to build anything in this city. As soon as you start digging a footing or similar, you find yet another Roman, Visigoth or Moorish relic. What I don’t get is where all the dirt comes from that hides the generations of construction? These are big buildings, how do they get buried so deep underground? Obviously more research is required on my part.
Back to the map again and off to the Roman Circus. Again, my imagination ran wild with the roars of the crowd and the pounding of the horse’s hooves. This is one of the best preserved circuses to be found and also one of the largest at 403m long and 96m wide. The stands could hold 30 000 spectators. What a sound they would have made when their charioteer was winning.
The Aqueduct of the Milagros is simply gobsmacking. How something so large and so old can remain standing for so long, I will never know. It is commonly known as ‘Los Milagros’, or the miracles, because of its ability to withstand the tests of time. More than 800metres of the aqueduct have been preserved and some sections are 27m high.
The Diana Temple was similarly astounding. An awesome piece of architecture squeezed into the Mérida CBD. I love how such history is juxtaposed with modern buildings right next door.
If I had had more time I would have liked to visit the National Museum of Roman Art. With more than 36 000 artefacts – all of which were found in Mérida and its vicinity – apparently it is an excellent snapshot of the history of the city and its Roman legacy. Again, that will have to wait until next time.
As I explored the city, I bumped into a few of my fellow walkers. Andrea from Italy was equally impressed with Mérida and he thought it contained the best range of Roman ruins outside of Rome. High praise indeed.
There were arches and forums and Christian churches and bridges and Moslem citadels. My brain hurt, my feet hurt and I simply couldn’t take more in. I suspect it is possible to spend days in this magical city and still not feel like you have seen it all. Even with a flying visit to the Arab fortress, the Alcazaba, I felt I didn’t even start to get my head around that period of history which followed Roman occupation.
Time and energy beat me, and with a flattened camera battery, I retreated to Plaza de España. Sitting there, I started to wonder what it would feel like to grow up and live, amongst such significant history. Would the locals become a bit blasé about it all as they stroll past yet another 4th BC dig site on their way to the supermarket?
How good would it be to go to school in Mérida and study ancient history at the same time? Not only could you study history but you would walk past it on your way to school. Or maybe I would be just another bored school kid, more interested in the playground and Pokemon Go than a pile of dusty stones.
More things to ponder as I shouldered my backpack and stepped out into the dawn, northbound once more …
What: Mérida is a city of around 60 000 people strategically placed eight walking days north of Seville. I had a rest day there as part of the Camino Via de la Plata and stayed at a nice little hotel called Hostal Senero, tucked in a small street near Plaza de España.
Where: Mérida – is about 200km north of Seville.
When: A rest day, so two nights in September 2014. Cool mornings and beautiful blue sky days.
Why: I had done some research before leaving Australia and all the forums etc raved about Merida as a perfect place to rest and soak up some ancient history.
How: I walked into town but it is also accessible by train, regular buses, or you can fly into Badajoz (about 50 km to the west of Mérida).
Who: Myself, and two hardy and inspiring Canadians.
Related Posts: For more information about walking the Camino Via de la Plata, have a look at https://melsonebigadventure.wordpress.com/category/two-feet-walking/camino-via-de-la-plata-2014/
Related Blogs: For more photos of Roman ruins, have a look at: http://www.takingontheworld.net/world-travel-blog/spain/merida
Read About It: For background information and guidebooks on the Via de la Plata, have a look at Book Depository
As a kid, I remember a few trips to Newcastle – a grimy, dark and often raining place that seemed to be trapped in an industrial fug. The city economy, once famous for its ship building and steel works, has since been rationalised into non-existence. I know I am a late bloomer but it was a joy to discover Newcastle on brilliant, sunny Autumn weekend.
Newcastle didn’t automatically pop into my mind as an ideal ‘getaway’ but I have had to revise my estimation. A family commitment meant that we were destined for this coastal city and The Brave Man* decided to make a weekend of it – catching up with friends and generally enjoying what the city had to offer. We were not disappointed.
He did some bargain hunting via Wotif and found the Newcastle Beach Hotel for a discounted $129 per night. Yes, the hotel was a little dated but the rooms were large and comfortable and ours had a great view over the rooftops of the city and harbour area. I suspect the other side of the building had sea views. It was a little off-putting that everything was automated, with push-button entry cards and not a human in sight, but I guess that made for ultimate independence and flexibility. The best part was the location – right at the very top of the CBD on Hunter Street and the shortest sea-breeze walk to the beach and salt-water pools.
Another plus was the ready access to places to eat. I am the first to admit that I am no gourmand. I hate cooking, and all those TV foodie shows drive me to despair. If you are reading this blog hoping for gastronomic insight, then put down your computer/tablet/phone and step away now. I am a food pleb!
Due to the late hour we grabbed a quick Thai meal at Sticky Rice, just around the corner. ‘Quick’ was the operative word as the food seemed to materialise at our table within minutes – steaming hot and tasty. The serving sizes were ambitious but we did not admit defeat.
Saturday morning dawned bright and clear and we met up with friends for a brisk walk along the coast. I know I am strange but this is my definition of ‘a rage and a good time’. Our walk followed the coastline from Newcastle Beach right up to Merewether Beach – around 5km. This walk has a number of different names but incorporates The Bathers Way (from Nobbys Beach to Merewether Beach) and the Newcastle Memorial Walk (from Strzelecki Lookout to Bar Beach).
In my book, the walk along the edge of the sea is a ‘must do’ activity – especially if you can manage it at sunrise. To start the day with surfers bobbing in the waves and both seabirds and hang gliders making the most of the thermals – nothing could go wrong. A refreshing sea breeze cooled us as we huffed up the stairs and puffed down the paths. It is a lovely walk but be prepared for an elevated heart rate along the way.
The reward for being so healthy and virtuous was a reviving coffee and muffin at the Merewether Surf Life Saving Club Kiosk. We joined the jumble of dogs, leads and strollers and queued for our coffee, happy to watch the local sun-worshippers and enjoying a laidback Saturday morning vibe. The truly virtuous would have walked the return trip – but not us.
In amongst some family commitments we did manage to wander through the Newcastle CBD. It is pleasing to see so many parts of the city being rejuvenated, with old buildings being repurposed as funky bars and interesting shops. The monthly art and design markets and the Newcastle Writers Festival added to the buzz on the streets.
Dinner at the Green Roof Hotel in Hamilton and their Meatball restaurant was a new experience. You can order anything you like as long as it’s a meatball! El Mexico featured pork meatballs over corn chips and guacamole – interesting but missing something essential somewhere. Am I starting to sound like a foodie yet?
Sunday rolled around, our watches were adjusted to reflect the end of Daylight Saving time, and we tossed our clothes back into the bag. To offset some of the damage done to our waistlines in the previous 24 hours, The Brave Man* donned his neck-to-knees and headed for the sea baths and I stepped out onto the coastal walk again. The water report was ‘fresh and crystal clear’ and there was plenty of local sea life sharing the pool to distract swimmers from completing their laps.
We had a last dose of sociability and caffeine at Estabar as we caught up with more friends. Maybe it was the salt air but everyone was friendly and cruisy. We almost felt like locals too. Estabar, overlooking Newcastle Beach, offered an up close and personal view of the half-marathoners sprinting by as part of the NewRun event. We were suitably impressed but not inspired enough to put down our knife and fork and join in. The 10-kers looked more our style, especially those at the tail-end carrying cans of Coke and enjoying a chat. I am not sure if that is the true intent of the event but it has to be better than sitting on the lounge in front of the TV.
All too soon we were back on the road home to Mudgee. The Hunter Expressway has made a noticeable difference to travel times and we went from the centre of Newcastle – with a stop and an eagle-eye on the speed-limit – in 3.25hrs. Too easy.
Thank you Newcastle for the right mix of activity and interest. We will be back.
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!