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Discovering Pafos

Pafos (or Paphos) is a popular destination in southwest Cyprus, famous for its beaches as well as its archaeological sites. Thanks to the lovely Mediterranean climate, when I visited at the end of September the weather was still great, with warm temperatures and sunny days and without the excruciating heat (and huge tourist crowds, too) of the summer.

The first thing that I learnt when I arrived is that Pafos is made of two main parts: Ktima (Upper Pafos), up on the hill, and Kato Pafos (Lower Pafos), where the harbour is.

This part of town currently looks like a building site because of lots of renovation work that is preparing the town for the events of next year, as Pafos has been selected as European Capital of Culture for 2017. Saying that at the moment it all looks like a big mess is probably an understatement! Yet just walking around you can get the feeling of what this area is like, with beautiful colonial buildings and a much more relaxed atmosphere compared to Kato Pafos.

Kato Pafos
This is the main tourist area, very popular (and crowded!) thanks to the restaurants, bars, shops located mainly around the harbour area. The promenade is a great place for walks and people watching at any time of the day (sunsets here are beautiful!) and the castle at one end of the harbour offers good views of the area from its upper level (Euro2.50 entrance fee). The beaches in this part of town aren’t that great, yet they can get quite crowded during the day.
Behind the harbour lie the Pafos Archaelogical Park and the lighthouse.

But one of my favourite parts of Pafos was the coastal walk that leads from the Pafos castle  to the Tombs of the Kings, the other main archaeological area in Pafos. I walked it at different times of the day – even after dark – and always loved it!

Do you want to know more about the archaeological sites in Pafos? That’s for the next post :-)

The Lion Rock of Sigiriya

Half an hour away from Dambulla (easy bus ride) lies another UNESCO World Heritage Site: Sigiriya.
This site of historical and archaeological significance built in the 5th century consists of a complex of gardens and buildings, with the most impressive part – the ruins of the fortress – located at the top of a granite peak about 200m high. The name ‘Lion Rock’ comes from the gateway built in the shape of a lion, on a small plateau halfway up the rock.

A visit requires you to walk to the summit via over 1,000 steps – staircases attached to the sheer walls of the rock. Given the forecast for another sunny and very hot day, I decided to make an early start and I began my ascent at 8:30am. Clearly everyone else had had the same idea as we quickly got stuck in a queue!

The climb itself wasn’t hard (mind you, I recently completed the BT Tower Climb in London – 842 steps – in 8 minutes, so I may not be a good reference point!). The excruciating heat in the final part made it challenging, though. Paramedics patrolled the area and I saw someone being taken away on a stretcher after passing out in the heat.

Once you reach the top, in addition to the ruins of the fortress you will enjoy amazing views over the surrounding landscape. Pidurangala rock is at a stone’s throw away too.

Back to ground level, do not miss walking around the gardens, another key feature of Sigiriya, and visiting the museum, with a lot of information about this amazing site.

People and colours of the Kalpitiya peninsula

A 3.5-hr ride in an overcrowded bus with no a/c, followed by 35 minutes in a tuk tuk, took me from Colombo to Alankuda Beach, in the Kalpitiya peninsula.
Located less than 150Km along the west coast of Sri Lanka, this area is slowly growing as an attractive tourist destination. Its main draws are kitesurfing (thanks to the strong winds that characterise the area) and dolphin and whale watching. Most local people are fishermen.
When there, I spent a few hours exploring the village of Kalpitiya as well as Alankuda Beach. The local people were very friendly and keen on having their photos taken, while showing concern at seeing my friend and I walking in the harsh sun of the late morning with no hat or umbrella!

Here are some of the images that I captured in the Kalpitiya peninsula:

A massive thank you goes to my friend Carolyn of Udekki resort for showing me around the area and giving me a lot of information about it!

A few hours in Colombo

Despite its lacking major sightseeing attractions, Colombo is worth spending a few hours wandering around. If you can bear the excruciating heat, that is.
Here is my pick of sites, in the order I visited them:

#1. Central Bus Stand. This is the main bus station, you will arrive here from the airport and it’s also a handy arrival/starting point if you move around town by local buses, like I did (buses are overcrowded but travelling with the locals is fun!).
The bus station is very chaotic, with dozens of buses coming and going every minute and hundreds of people waiting or running around. Asking for information can be an interesting experience – there are a couple of booths with officers from the Sri Lankan Transport Board but you can also approach the bus drivers. You may often find someone willing to walk you to your platform, or you may just be given vague directions with fingers pointed at ‘somewhere’ in the distance.

#2. Pettah market. I loved it! Spread over several streets, this chaotic area offers many photo opportunities. Head for the food area, characterised by colourful displays of groceries, meat and fish. This is a photographer’s heaven as the people are often keen on having their photos taken and will happily pose for you. Then walk around the area but watch out as all streets are very crowded and you will have to constantly avoid tuk tuks, carts and men carrying heavy loads on their shoulders.

#3. Colombo Fort. No, there is no fort. This area is undergoing modernisation and is where most old colonial buildings (many of which are now government buildings) are. The Old Dutch Hospital, now turned into a series of shops and restaurants, can be found here. Although I enjoyed taking a break from the heat by checking out the shops, I didn’t find the Old Dutch Hospital much interesting. The Sambodhi Chaitya is instead worth checking out, with its white stupa perched about 20m off the ground.

#4. Galle Face Green. A strip of grass and promenade facing the sea, this is where the locals hang out, often at sunset. Despite the heat (I visited around lunchtime), families and groups of school kids crowded the small pier and the viewing platform at its end, while lots of couples enjoyed the view from the benches along the promenade. Food carts were everywhere.

Being my first days in the Sri Lankan heat, I didn’t last more than a handful of hours, so I missed temples, museums and parks in Colombo. I will keep them in my wishlist for another visit.

Magical Lantern Festival in London

The Year of the Monkey is here!

According to the Chinese calendar, Monday 8th February 2016 is the first day of the New Year.
London’s annual Chinese New Year celebrations are the biggest in the world outside China, and usually revolve around a main parade between Trafalgar Square and Chinatown.
This year, however, an additional event is having a huge success around town: the Magical Lantern Festival!

Set in the gardens of Chiswick House, in West London, this huge installation is described as an extravaganza of lights and illumination, and will entertain you for well over an hour.

Giant hand-sculpted lanterns are scattered along the exhibition trail, with subjects ranging from animals to plants and flowers, to fairytale scenes. It is totally amazing and you will feel like a child in a magical playground!

And when you reach the end, all you want to do is to turn around and do it all over again…

A slice of Switzerland in Uruguay

If you are a chocolate addict and are looking to satisfy your sweet tooth with some proper stuff while in Uruguay, look no further than Nueva Helvecia.

Formerly known as Colonia Suiza, this town in the Colonia area (South-West Uruguay) was founded in 1862, having received a large influx of immigrants mainly from Switzerland.

However do not expect to see wooden chalets like in the Swiss Alps. The town looks quite Uruguayan – in my opinion – although most buildings display shields representing the Swiss cantons. A walk around town doesn’t take more than an hour and to be honest is not particularly interesting.

But then there are the chocolaterias! Taken to one of them (called Tante Eva) by a fellow backpacker, I tried a few different home made chocolate bon bons and medallones, with a variety of fillings from dulce de leche to coconut. Absolutely delicious!
That final touch made the brief visit to Nueva Helvecia totally worth it.

A photo from my archives: Whitstable

Whitstable, UK, 2007.

Just over 60 miles from central London (1.5 hours on the train from London Victoria) and on the north coast of Kent, Whitstable is a small seaside town mainly famous for oysters. The Whitstable Oyster Festival takes place here every year during the summer.

With its sandy and peaceful beaches, its 19th-century buildings and even a castle, Whitstable is a very enjoyable destination for a day trip from London.

A photo from my archives: Live 8 London

London, UK, 2005.

2nd July 2005.
A string of concerts took place in 10 different locations around the globe. Watched by an estimated 3 billion people, it was defined the greatest show on Earth!

Someone from the London hostel where I was staying had a spare ticket for the “Live 8 screens area” in Hyde Park. I took it. The opportunity to be part of this huge event couldn’t be missed, and it didn’t really matter that we were not allowed into the area where the Live 8 concert itself was held. It was only a few hundred meters away anyway.

So armed with bags of crisps, snacks and drinks we went. And from 2pm until late night we watched world famous bands and singers appear on stage and deliver some of their best music (check out the line up here). The crowd sang and danced all the time, and the atmosphere was incredible!
For a non festival-goer like me, Live 8 London remains a great memory, and its upcoming 10th anniversary a good excuse to post this photo of my (now long lost) ticket!

A photo from my archives: The boats of Xochimilco

Xochimilco, Mexico, 2007.

Located 28 Km south of the historic centre of Mexico City, Xochimilco is a borough mostly famous for its 170 Km network of canals. These canals, together with a series of artificial islands, have made Xochimilco a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Colourful gondola-like boats called trajineras are very popular with tourists and the canals can get very busy on Sundays, when also the locals enjoy spending some relaxing time here.


A photo from my archives: Agra Fort monkey

Agra Fort, India, 2007.

A monkey is trying to shelter from the bright sunlight on a hot afternoon at the Agra Fort.

Less than 2 miles away from the more famous Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage site in itself. Characterised by red-coloured walls, this amazing walled city features a mix of Hindu and Islamic elements. Four gates positioned around the sides of the fort offer an additional display of beautiful 16th century architecture, with the Delhi Gate the masterpiece of this.

A visit is highly recommended! But beware of the monkeys…