Monday, 31 August 2015

Luang Prabang: Life at a leisurely pace in Laos!

We arrived in Luang Prabang and instantly became calmed by the change in pace from the busy streets of the capital city, Vientianne. Riding bicycles becomes easy on these typically country village streets and you can walk easily to any significant sites. Luang Prabang sits on the beautiful Mekong River and we only had to walk down a laneway to access the numerous restaurants that overlook the main waterway. It has a French influence and cafes and bakeries are everywhere. Flat bottomed boats and canoes pass up and down and there is a fascination in watching the comings and goings that take place.

French style lampposts blend in with a Laos streetscape.

Bicycling is easy on the quiet streets!

 There are many restaurants, bars and cafes in Luang Prabang. Food is very cheap and beautifully diverse. My favourite place for dinner was on the riverbank. It was run by a wonderful French chef who had given up the streets of Paris to build up a business with his restaurant and across the road, a B and B, which he was renovating with that touch of French class! He showed us through, and we wished we had known about it as it was beautifully restored and cheaper than ours! C'est las Vie!

Enjoying French cuisine and coffee by the river!

The main temple, Wat Xiens Thong, was a short walk from our digs, it has beautiful buildings with the most amazing gilded features. From there it was over the bamboo bridge across the Nam Khan River. This bridge is washed away each year and rebuilt! At dusk, everyone walks through the street markets to go up the hill to catch the view of the sunset over That Chomsi, 300 steps up. It is very crowded but amazing views!

The ornamented tree of Life at Wat Xieng Thong. 

Finely decorated temples.
Crossing the Nam Khan River at sunset.
Sunset over Luang Prabang.
Colourful street markets: spices and dried fish.

We booked several tours locally while there. One was to the waterfalls nearby where tourists can swim in the rock pools and I paid to visit a bear sanctuary on the way to the falls.. These sun bears are rescued from poachers who milk them for their bile: only a small fraction apparently of this despicable trade. I had a beautiful soup and noodle dish, while at my feet was a cat and a rooster! Only in Laos!

Waterfalls at Kuang Si.
Bears sleeping in the Bear Rescue Centre!

Our trip up the Mekong River to the Ban Pak Ou Caves was a lengthy one and a half hours, but the scenery was superb. There are 170 or so steep steps up to the cave entrance, inside there are thousands of small buddhas. To my surprise, we found that Australians had contributed to the complete restoration of this cave. On the way back, we stopped ashore at a whisky village which made local whisky and rice wine. Dead snakes, centipedes and cockroaches add to the flavour - tasting is optional but I tried some without additives! There were beautifully crafted silk scarves and clothing though to compensate for the tasting! Our night cruise of the river with dinner included, proved very entertaining as we stopped at a small bamboo riverside stage where ethnic dances were performed by a small group of local villagers. The costumes as always were beautiful.

Inside the restored Buddha cave.
At the base of the caves, only 300 more steps up to go!
Snake, scorpion and cockroaches are added to the wines!
Choose your poison, I mean whisky!

But the main attraction in Luang Prabang was the dawn parade of monks who receive alms and rice from the tourists and villagers. There were about 200 monks, young and old, and they processed in single file down several back streets. Many people were entirely respectful, but some tourists were not and stepped in front of them with flashes going off, something you are told specifically not to do. We saw many of these parades all over Laos and Myanmar and they were so amazing each time.

Young monks gather at the temple site.

Monks young and old follow in single file for alms at dawn.

My Tip:
Take your sense of humour on tours as it can be quite uncomfortable in longboats and prepare for those stops beside the river where you have to get to shore on small bits of wood! Water bottles and snacks are essential for long boat or bus trips and laugh with the locals as they are always obliging!

Have you ever encountered disrespectful  tourists on your travels?

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Glimpses of a Beautiful Past in Granada, Spain.

What springs to mind when the word Granada is uttered is the beauty and serenity of the La Alhambra and General Life complex that sits on the top of a mountain overlooking the main city area of Granada below. Located in Andalusia, Spain, this is a palace and fortress complex that was constructed on top of older ruins in the mid 11th century by a Moorish Emir. The palace was built in 1333. They were left to decay and rediscovered in the 19th century and restoration was begun.
Lower entry portal to the Alhambra

Palace of Charles V courtyard.

We arrived on the train from Seville and booked our tickets for the complex, which included the Granada Cathedral and a hop-on/hop-off bus pass, for the next day. Alhambra is high up and has a great view of the Sierra Nevada mountain alps, where the residents of Granada want the Winter Olympics, so they announced on the bus. It takes a full day to see everything on offer as it is absolutely packed with tourists and you have to book for certain sessions to see the various parts. In fact, it is better to book online before arriving in Granada due to its popularity. By getting there early, you can escape some of the huge crowds! There are a few outlets for food items, but we carried our own bread rolls made up for lunch, some fruit and stopped for snacks where necessary! Also it can be very hot: hats and water are a good idea!

From a balcony of the Nasrid Palace.

Firstly, we visited the Palace of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor where the courtyard has high columns rising 2 stories, reminiscent of the Roman ampitheatres. Next it was our group time to visit the main Nasrid Palace which has had many parts restored to their former beauty and is undergoing constant renovation work. It has areas of beautiful tiles, elaborate wood carvings and tranquil pools and fountains, gardens and balconies. The Moorish influence is everywhere, the highlight being the Patio of the Lions with its beautiful fountain! Words cannot do justice to the intricacy of the patterning and tiles in this Palace.

Courtyard in the Palace.
Patio of the Lions, a beautiful fountain!
Ornate ceiling in the Palace.

From there, we visited the military fort Alcazaba, which is nearby. Here there are archaeological digs going on and you can climb the watchtower for great views of the city. From there, you can walk up to the spectacular gardens of the General Life. There are perfectly shaped cypress trees leading into gardens  with beautiful water features, fountains hedges, flowers and trees. It is quite a long walk but well worth it!

View from the Watchtower.
A stroll through Generalife gardens.

Serenity in the gardens.

After a quick look at the baths of the Mosque, we decided to walk back down to the city through the winding path and cool trees. We found a welcome restaurant in the Plaza Neuva for well earned tapas and refreshing beverages!
 My Tips: Plenty of water for rehydration, good walking shoes, plenty of patience for those determined crowds!
Have you ever been in an area of such beauty that it makes you sit down and just meditate on your surroundings?


Saturday, 15 August 2015

Reflections: What I Learnt from Problogger Training Event

I've discovered I'm not a small fish in a big pond! I belong to a 'community' and my homemade blog business cards cut from Albanian maps are totally ok!

Despite my newbie status, people who have immense followings have given those precious few minutes to speak personably with me, sharing their hard earned knowledge or a friendly hullo! This is amazing! 

If you count how many bloggers are at this conference, it adds up to millions of posts. These posts can change the lives of so many more people. I have found blogging can not only provide a living, it can deliver compassion through charities, enable those with invisible differences in this world to become visible and can deliver one person's passionate agenda to any part of the globe. 

Thank you Problogger for encouraging us to share our own small vision in this way! Bloggers of Australia should be proud of our position as global ambassadors and we CAN change lives and make a difference!

Saturday, 1 August 2015

La Sagrada Familia: Gaudi's Gift To the World.

 Ah, Barcelona, the very name evokes that beautiful city with its tree lined Las Ramblos, where you can stroll down that long wide street feasting on local foods, markets, ices and popping into every shop you can imagine, satisfying the senses and enjoying a vino or two! It is also here that Antoni Gaudi has gifted to the world his masterpiece: the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia which rises high above the city, superior even to the skyscrapers that dot the horizon. Gaudi began this church in 1882 and it is ongoing today, expected to be completed in another 50 years, but progress is slow and the architectural demands as immensely demanding as when it was begun! Only donations and entry tickets provide the money to complete this amazing structure.

The amazing "umbrella" of lights overhanging the altar area.

We had booked our tickets online through the services of our concierge at our apartment, just a short walk from Las Ramblos and an easy metro ride to the basilica. I will never forget coming up out of the metro and encountering the majesty of this enormous church with its grotesque towers and seemingly ill-fitting fa├žade! It takes your breath away... and delivers it back with the most amazing vision of saints, geometrical patterns, animals, gargoyles and this is just the outside! As you enter the church, you can have an audio guide, which we took, or a local guided tour.

Looking upwards to the towers is amazing!

As it is visited by 3 million people a year, it is always crowded - but somehow, the sanctity and beauty of the interior overwhelms you and you feel at such peace. This is because of its vastness and an interior that stretches far up into the stained glass heaven created by the sky reaching windows. There is so much light, unusual in such a huge building. The choir stalls are curved and undulate around the second story above the main body of the church. Below there is the crypt area, where Gaudi's remains are kept. He died in 1926 from injuries received after being hit by a tram.

 Massive stained glass windows give a large amount of interior light.

Another overwhelming experience was ascending and descending the towers, we chose one as there are long lines and timed bookings given for both. You are whipped upwards at unnerving speed in a very confined lift. Next, you take the crossing between the tower section at great height and gaze downwards and out to the city views! "Vertigo not allowed," I told myself... only to face the steep downward spiral staircase; where we all cling on for dear life and reflect on the medieval notion of using never ending circular stairwells that are in many European castles.

View from the top over Barcelona.

From the outside, you can again marvel at the cranes and ongoing building that does not seem to detract from the massive high you experience from visiting this modern masterpiece! Lastly, we visited the small museum and wandered across the road to one of the many outdoor eating areas where you can continue to admire Gaudi's legacy.

My Tips: Forget your usual ideas of church architecture and embrace the incredible ideas of Gaudi! Also it's cheap, quick and easy to take the local metro or bus rather than taxis.
Do you have preconceived ideas about places like me? I expected ugliness and found only beauty.