Cinque Terre

We left Rappalo in the pouring rain and travelled an hour along the coast to Levanto. This was the perfect base from which to explore the Cinque Terre as it had a campsite and a railway station. We had never really heard of the Cinque Terre before we arrived in the region but more Lonley Planet research from Emily revealed this beautiful Unesco World Heritage site.

The name literally translates to “Five Lands” but really means the five villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. These beautiful villages are perched on the side of the cliffs on one of the most sun-drenched and languid stretches of coast in all of Italy. As a result it is one of the most tourist-packed.

We originally wanted to explore the villages on the Sunday but found out the night before there was a 24hr train strike. Dam, another enforced beach day, not terrible.

The next day we arrived at the station early, along with hoards of other tourists. The train arrived 20 minutes late and was already full so it was a bit of a squeeze and reminded us of the Tube back in London. We thought we were being clever by heading to the furthest village first bit it seems everyone had the same idea.

Riomaggiore is the most southern village of the Cinque Terre. The origins of Riomaggiore date back to the 8th Century, when the inhabitants of the Vara valley, searching a milder climate to raise grapevines and olive-trees without the fear of pirate raids, moved towards the coast.

The town climbs up along the ridges overlooking the sea and it is characterized from the typical stone houses with coloured façades and slate-roofs.

After an hour exploring we headed back to the station where Emily found some colourful tiles to admire before heading to get to our next stop, Manarola.

Manarola, built on a high rock 70 metres above sea level, is one of the most charming and romantic of thevillages. The tiny harbor features a boat ramp, multicoloured houses facing the sea, a tiny piazza with seafood restaurants.

Along the main road the boats are pulled onto dry land on trolleys every time the sea is rough. Although there is no real beach here, it had some of the best deep-water swimming around these parts.

The village is all ups and downs, with steep narrow alleys leading to the sea. Another peculiarity of Manarola is a pyramid in white cement whose peak can be seen rising between the taller houses and is used as a navigational reference point for all those at sea.

We missed out Corniglia so we could spend longer in the remaining two villages of Vernazza and Monterossa.

The small fishing village Vernazza is probably the most characteristic of the Cinque Terre and is classified as one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. Vernazza was founded about 1000 A.D. and was ruled by the Republic of Genoa starting in 1276. The medieval castle, Belforte, was built in the mid-1500’s, primarily to protect the village from pirates.

The tiny port is surrounded by subtle colourful pastels and the charming piazza is lined with good restaurants and bars. The village is surrounded by very steeply-terraced olive groves which are said to produce among the finest olive oil in the country.

We enjoyed an amazing lunch right beneath the castle. Emily opted for the lasagne and I opted for a local speciality of genovese pesto gnocci.

After lunch and buoyed on by the locals, I changed into my swimmers and dove into the cooling waters for a refreshing dip. Bliss.

Last but not least came Monterosso, which is the largest of the five. The village is located on hills cultivated with vines and olives. The vegetation surrounds the built-up area like an embrace; its amazing beaches, its beautiful reefs and the sea’s crystal clear waters make this small village one of the most hospitable of the Ligurian Riviera. It is probably the only one we would consider as a fly and flop location.

The village is divided in two parts marked by the medieval tower of Aurora.

The new part of town, Fegina, is full of life with quality hotels and restaurants. It is also dominated by the famous concrete statue of the Giant, built beside the terrace of a local villa. This statue was created at the beginning of the 20th century by Levacher and Minerbi, an architect and a sculptor, and represents Neptune, the god of the sea. Now it has become the symbol of Monterosso.

We never really had the time to lounge on the beach so I think we will keep this one in the bag for a revisit someday.

Sainte Maxime, the Patron Saint of Thunder?

We woke to an ominous sky for our last day in the St Tropez area. We decided to enjoy a lazy morning and watch Love Island. Yes we are both obsessed. We finally managed to finish the 1st series. No, we can’t even remember who won but it’s fascinating entertainment.

By the afternoon things didn’t look much better with the sky but we were getting cabin fever so we decided to brave it, pack our cagoules and cycle the 3km to Sainte Maxime. It sits across the gulf from Saint Tropez and I would hazzard a guess that a large proportion of the worlds fanciest and most expensive yachts have anchored off its shores.
Sainte Maxime seemed to be a more family orientated town and recent developments include a new cultural centre built with a cinema and activities for both children and adults. The new road from Le Muy to Sainte Maxime has made the whole area more accessible and it is increasingly attractive as a holiday destination. The largest source of revenue for Sainte Maxime is the summer tourist industry but the city is very much alive all year round with approximately 14,000 local residents. Property is being built along the coastline and restaurants and bars with music are springing up everywhere. However, the town retains its local traditions and there are several festivals throughout the year in celebration of its history.

Unfortunatley for us about 5 minutes after we arrived the heavens opened, the sky lit up and thunder rumbled so loud it shook the shop windows. We ran into a post office to send some postcards to our parents (let us know when you get them please) and then waited under a facade for the storm to fizzle out.

After about 20 mins the rain had subsided enough for us to at least wander around and find somewhere to have a warm drink. We settled upon Maison Du Chocolat as I really felt like a hot chocolate and Emily needed a cake. Yes needed.

Feeling refreshed and realising the rain was not going to stop we dragged ourselves out of the Chocolate shop and wandered the town in our very stylish get up – we really embodied the South of France chic.

Who would have thought that we would find an Artisan Boulangerie with yet more iresistable sweet stuff that we needed. We reasoned (fooled ourselves) that we must try the local speciality of tarte tropezienne.

Oh my they were good. Like little fluffy clouds made of cream. I wish I didn’t have such a sweet tooth. With our bellies full of sugar we peddled extra fast along the empty cycle path back to Harvey for some more Love Island. Losers…

The beautiful bay of Roses

We nailed leaving L’Estartit Les Medes campsite in about an hour and a half. Not bad considering that includes Emily’s morning teas, showering, breakfast and packing up your whole home and taking it on the road. The plan for this day was to end up in a campsite called Salata near Roses. En-route we had wanted to get to the top of the impressive Montgri castle but upon closer inspection it would have taken us about 1.5 hours to go up and back down. Emily had read that there was an equally impressive view from Montgo Castle about half way along our route. Another time Montgri.

Image result for montgri castle

It only took us about 40 mins to make it to Montgo Castle. HaRVey was feeling particularily chilled out for the journey until he was asked to climb a hill so steep it was first gear only. He also didn’t much care for the decreasing width of the roads near the peak. We thanked him for his effort and rewarded him with a prime spot in the empty car park so he could see the bay unfold in the distance.

Not surprisingly we could see Montgri castle in the distance and slightly below our altitude. Boom, glad it was Harvey making the climb and not us. Montgo castle was pretty plain to be fair and the only two doors were locked so we couldn’t get to the top. We did do a little insta-posing from the steps as the back drop of the blue sky looked very cool.

After an hour of wandering around and admiring the view and watching the many speed boats and pretty sail boats pootling about we had a spot of lunch. Sharing the magnificent view with the white washed villas with bleached terracotta roofs to the azure waters below.

They looked so inviting that we decided to take a chance and see if we could find a spot by the beach. Normally we avoid entering the smaller places for fear of getting stuck in a narrow street full of parked cars. This one however had a very cheap empty car park with shade for Harvey under a lovely plane tree. Luck of the Christies strikes again.

What a great little find this was. Mainly Spanish and French families, a few classy restaurants and the bluest clearest waters we have seen in the Med so far.

We stayed for about three hours taking several dips in the pristine cool waters before once again donning our warming sunshine coats. The kicker for me is that I still have my cold urticaria. I thought it had gone as I didn’t have a problem for 6 months in SE Asia. As soon as I hit the med sea I realised that it was back with a vengeance. 20 mins in the sea and without fail a rash appears where ever I am cold. Never mind, people with the same condition have it much worse and it goes away as soon as I am warm again. Thank god for continental summers.

We were sorry to say goodbye to Cala Montgo but our next destination was calling and I wanted to get there in good time to watch the 8pm world cup match between Nigeria and Argentina. I wanted to see if Messi could ignite a lacklustre Argentine side but more importantly to see if Maradona would fall off his perch flipping the double bird. Surprisingly still alive and still entertaining. I think the bottom picture was taken when he found out his Moscow mule wasn’t gonna make it.

Diego Maradona

Anyway we arrived at our new location of Salata campsite which is about 2 miles away from the main town of Roses. The walk into town was along a beautifully clean promenade lined with a mix of typically Spanish touristy bars and more modern Mediterranean chic. Even at 6pm there were plenty of people sunbathing on the beach and the more energetic playing football and beach volleyball. We made it all the way to the Marina, touched the obligatory arbitrary point (usually a big rock) and turned around to make it back in time for the match. A pretty full on day and just the type of day we love.

Exploring the Costa Brava

We had one more day and night in Mataro before carrying on up the costa (Sid James would be proud). I recently learned that Costa Brava means “Wild” or “Rough Coast” and stretches from the town of Blanes to the French Border. We decided to bypass the unfortunately named Tossa de Mar and the Brits abroad destination of Lloret de Mar. Instead we headed for a midday walk around Sant Feliu de Guixols.

We used an iPad app called “Camping Card” to find motorhome parking right in the centre. There are thousands of these gems all over Europe and the kicker is that they are mostly free unless you overnight. We are getting less and less nervous about leaving Harvey in random places but he had the company of 12 other RV mates.

As with most new places it’s best to head to the tourist office to find out what there is to see and get a map. This one happened to be situated in a beautiful 10th-century monastery.

The very helpful lady guided us to the main placa through beautifully quaint tree lined streets.

We headed down the main street directly to beautiful beach and port.

On the far side of the port lay a coastal path that climbed high up into the hills. This would definitely get our steps up and make us earn our lunch. We were cooled on the way up by the pine scented breeze sharing the magnificent views with gorgeous villas and a friendly Gull.

Watching the little white sail in the distance did bring back some memories of slogging up and down this coast in unfreindly seas, so I was glad to be on land and ready for my lunch.

As luck would have it we wandered down the coastal path and right into a little food festival called Nomad.

So many amazing food choices from very creative food trucks…

F

But of course I can’t resist a Crepe so this was our choice before heading back to HaRVey and setting off to Estartit.

Blissful beach and peaceful paddie fields

It was hard to tear ourselves away from the pretty town but it was time to hit the beach. Taking advantage of the free hotel bikes we cycled the busy 3km along the main road. Not the most calming experience so we promised ourselves to find a more peaceful route back.

The Vietnamese are great at the hustle and true to form we encountered many women trying to coax us to park our cycles with them. For a fee or free if you buy a water. When you first rock up to a place it appears that you have to park with them, some even have whistles to look more offcial. We are getting better at being hard faced and working out which is the best deal.

An Bang beach is huge. Over 6km of whitish sand and very clean. The beach is pretty busy close to the main entrance but as it is so long there is always space if you want to get away from it all. We picked a couple of sunbeds under some dried bamoo umbrellas.

After a lovely day listening to podcasts and taking several dips in the chilly south China sea we grabbed a table at beach bar.

It seems the beer was a little too strong for some.

What a great little vibe this place had. Cool music, great bar and tasty BBQ chicken.

Someone clearly has the same philosophy…

Given our bikes didn’t have lights we thought it best to head home before dark. This time we found a route through the paddie fields. Green as far as the eye could see with little concrete lanes between them.

We even saw a woman laying on her buffalo. We suspected she was hustling again wanting money for pictures but we just snapped from a distance and quickly and cycled on.

As day turned to night we had one last fright as a pack of dogs came running out at us protecting their territory. We managed to scare them off by shouting even louder and swinging the bike at them. With that shot of adrenaline we peddled fast for home and the safety of the hotel. Enough adventure for one day…

Marvellous Marble Mountains

10-04-18

Hoi An Old Town and beaches have been wonderful and it was hard to tear ourselves away but we decided to go on a day trip to take in the famous Marble Mountains. We hired a scooter from a local family near the hotel and made the 20km journey up the coast towards the city of Danang. That’s after we fell victim to the classic petrol scam whereby the attendant fails to clear the pump usage back to zero before pumping ours. This results in us getting half the petrol that we paid for. The guy was relatively aggressive and ‘spoke no English’ so we let it slide. Apparently these little scams happen frequently in Vietnam and can include getting incorrect change at restaurants and catching taxis with rigged meters that run fast. It’s only usually a dollar here or there but it gets tiresome.

The road to Danang is well paved and has a dual carriageway but the driving is still completely out of hand. You share the roads with water buffalo, bicycles, speeding cars and almighty juggernauts. People drive way to close to you or better still, drive at you on the wrong side of the road. All the while you are immersed in a cacophony of incessant horn beeping, shouting and bike motors. It’s an experience that keeps us on our toes.

The Marble mountains are a set of 5 craggy marble hills that punctuate the otherwise flat landscape just 10km south of Danang. Each mountain is named for the natural element it is said to represent; water, wood, fire, gold, earth. Thuy Son, the mountain that we visited is the largest and most accessible.

It has a number of natural caves linked together by walkways.

The caves contain Buddhist shrines and a full representation of heaven and hell, with grizzly looking depictions of torture in the base of the cave and a heavenly view at the top of an insanely steep staircase.

The surrounding gardens are adorned with wonderful flowers, ponds and beautiful pagodas with stunning panoramic views out to China Beach.

We saved the best for last with Huyen Khong Cave which has a small corridor leading to a cathedral like space illuminated by natural light.

The shafts of light glowing upon the Buddhas and Cham carvings made the place feel very atmospheric.

We had a great time exploring the area before heading back to the hotel for a well earned dip in the pool.

The weather here is amazing but incredibly warm and we start sweating upon immediate exposure to the sun which means we are getting through t-shirts at a rate. We also have a knack for spilling ice cream and other street snacks down ourselves frequently which can’t help with laundry turnover.

We walked into town in the evening which is such a magical experience. The old town’s pedestrianised lanes are bustling and the buildings are illuminated by a mass of colourful lanterns.

Hoi An just glows and it’s impossibly romantic. The river dissects the old town and everyone takes to their rowing boats as the sun goes down.

The water reflects the colourful hues of the lanterns everywhere and women sell candle lit lanterns that you can buy and release on the water. We made a couple of wishes before setting ours free to float away.

All the heritage buildings boast open air terraces which make them perfect for sunset cocktails or dinner with a view. We found a quiet little restaurant with amazing people watching and great food. Vietnam is definitely up there in producing some of the best food we’ve had on this trip and each region has its own specialities. Last night I tried Cau Lau which consisted of home-made thick noodles and marinated roast pork, served with fresh herbs, bean sprouts and crispy pork skin. It was insanely tasty and cost about 2 quid. The diet starts when we get back!

Cambodia and the Temples

A big shout out to the Phuket Airport hotel. They know their niche and they nailed it. Close to the airport, obvs, beaut of a pool, neat lush gardens, fast WiFi, cheap clean spacious room, free transfer to the airport at 4am!

We arrived at Siem Reap airport at 7am only to realise we had left our passport photos in checked baggage. “Not to worry you can avoid this necessity with a fee sir”. At least we got our visas, even if it did cost us a little extra.

Our hotel, Sakmut Boutique, offered free airport transfer and true to form they greeted us at the arrival gate with a sign and they managed to spell my name right. Exceptional service for roughly £50 a night. They bill themselves as an “Affordable Luxury Hotel”. I think we would both go along with that. As we had arrived so early they offered us free breakfast. Pretty amazing given checkin is normally 2pm and that our room was ready for us to bag drop then chow down.

This bad boy was waisted on us #lazybones

We used the rest of the day to catch up on blogging and sort out accommodation for further down the line and work out our plans to explore Siem Reap.

We decided that the best way to visit the vast amount of temples was to spread it over two days with a pool day in between.

Small Circuit

Angkor Wat – Undisputedly the largest religious building in the world. A massive 3 level temple mountain style structure dominated by 5 central towers.

Two monks enjoying the lake at the entrance to Angkor Wat.

I know it looks empty but we got lucky with this shot before the crowds took over

This little one had enough temple action

Plenty of cheeky monkeys feasting on scraps

Ta Prohm – made famous by the film Tomb Raider.

This was one of my favourites as it was the most atmospheric. The jungle has definitely taken over in parts and has made it more beautiful than some of the restored parts.

Bayon – The Bayon’s most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene and smiling stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak.

It’s funny when you visit a lot of temples in a day or two. You get to understand the saying “same same but different”. On the whole we enjoyed visiting so many as we did it at a leisurely pace and didn’t try and squeeze in too many. It was also nice to quench our thirst with a cold one at the end of a hot sticky day.

Khao Sok National Park

As we left our great Phuket digs the guy gave us a wonderfully tacky key ring with the name of the guesthouse “Glitter” embossed. I just looked at Emily and she smiled. If your called Gary and travelling around Thailand the last thing you want is a little label that says “Glitter”.

The journey from Phuket to Kao Sok National Park would take around 4 hours on a bus. I don’t really mind the bus journeys too much but they do eat into your day. We decided to get an early one so we could go on a canoe trip in the afternoon. Time for a little nap then.

The bus dropped us off at the side of the road and we managed to score a ride in an old jeep with no roof to the Paradise resort. Sure it was nice but Paradise was over egging it somewhat.

IMG_3593.jpg

IMG_3592.jpg

Being the dry season the river was a little low but we climbed into our inflatable kayak and the guide paddled us down the river.

GPTempDownload.jpg

GPTempDownload.jpg

As you can see I was still tired from the journey 😜

All along the route a local dog called Coffee followed us. At one point he even tried to get in the boat and I had to fend him off until he got the message. We saw lots of monkeys fooling around on branches over head. We even saw a snake in the water looking up in hope that one of the monkeys would fall in.

The scenery was stunning and at time reminded me of a summers day in a Welsh valley. So green and lush.

Halfway along the river we stopped and the guides heated up water in bamboo and made tea and coffee. A nice treat.

Four Days in Phuket

18-03-18

Having enjoyed a wonderful few days on the peaceful island of Yao Noi, we took a speedboat over to Phuket to experience the ultimate contrast. Phuket is just 36km away but the two islands are worlds apart in terms of culture, vibe and footfall.
Phuket really is an ‘anything goes’ island that attracts huge numbers of package tourists with its dizzying array of attractions engineered to relieve you of your hard earned bhat. We’re talking anything from tiger ‘sanctuaries’ to snake shows, adrenalin sports and ladyboy cabarets. Whilst we’d read that the beaches have retained their tropical beauty, we were a little sceptical about whether we’d enjoy the rest of the island.

IMG_7384.jpg

We decided to base ourselves in Kata, a beach town located approx 20mins south of the infamous Patong. Patong is a party town, famed for its cheap booze, sleazy bars and all-round debauchery. Whilst Kata has a buzz and plenty of tourists, it’s much quieter than Patong and has a stunning beach.

IMG_7373.jpg

The sand is so fine and the sea is wonderfully calm and inviting and we happily whiled away most of our time at the beach, reading and listening to podcasts. We also discovered The Surfhouse, a cool beachside bar with a ‘double flowrider’ surf simulator as it’s centrepiece.

IMG_7168.jpg

Always keen for adventure and trying something new, Gary was keen to give it a go and by calling upon his snowboarding experience he got the hang of it immediately. It looked really tricky but so fun. The wipeouts were also pretty spectacular.

We rented a scooter on one of the days to visit Phuket Old Town on the east of the island which was great.

97F17BFF-06D5-4A00-9271-390D86A8479E.jpg

The old town has a core of beautiful Sino-Portuguese architecture and many of the buildings have been lovingly restored to their former beauty.

IMG_7306.jpg

We wandered down lanes with wonderfully colourful shopfronts adorned with gorgeously ornate fresco work and decorative tiles.

IMG_7324.jpg

Phuket Town also has a neat collection of cool street art that is reminiscent of the talent we saw in Georgetown in Malaysia.

3EB171EA-F456-4AD6-8718-A749FAA7D591.jpg

We stumbled across a cat cafe which I couldn’t resist. This is basically a place where you can grab a coffee and a slice of cake and pet a load of pampered pussycats that laze around.

IMG_7261.jpg

Such a strange concept but I loved it. I think these felines had been over pampered because they were very aloof when it came to tummy tickles and cuddles. Not sure Gary was particularly enthused by the whole experience but he did approve of them serving beer.

IMG_7224.jpg

IMG_7252.jpg

Just enough time for Gary to get his hair cut in a supercool barbers before we headed for some dinner. Haircuts have tended to be nerve wracking affairs since we’ve come away, with a worry that Gary’s requests will be lost in translation and he’ll come away with a bubble perm or skinhead. Thankfully this place was pretty good (although painfully slow) and we left happy.

IMG_7257.jpg

We found a wonderful restaurant to have dinner in before heading back. I had my first taste of lamb since we’ve been away and Gary had the signature dish of steak and tempura prawn. It was delicious and made a lovely break from the usual Thai.

Big shout out to the awesome markets and street eats that we’ve indulged in since arriving in Phuket. There is a lovely little evening market close to our B&B that serves the most amazing pork ribs that we’ve become addicted to.

D161789A-C5A1-4772-9151-5DC9EC256854.jpg

Exploring food markets and gawping at all the fresh veggies and exotic fruits is my favourite thing to do in a new destination and makes for incredible people watching.

F5496589-1185-4532-94E6-B03A9DD75D5A.jpg

We’ve really enjoyed our time over the last few days and we are so pleased we uncovered an alternative Phuket to the stereotype it’s become famed for.