Next Chapter – New Blog

Life moves on; and I’ve taken courage in both hands and am now in West Sussex – out of my comfort zone in more ways than one, but loving the challenges, and joys of discovering a new life, in the country.

I would love to hear from you – do keep in touch.  Emma 🙂

https://theoaksselfcateringwestsussex.wordpress.com/blog/

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Love to my boy.

I wrote this post six months ago.

Bless my boy.

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So

this is where we part, My Friend,
and you’ll run on, around the bend,
gone from sight, but not from mind,
new pleasures there you’ll surely find.

   I will go on, I’ll find the strength,
life measures quality, not its length.
One long embrace before you leave,
share one last look, before I grieve.

   There are others, that much is true,
but they be they, and they aren’t you.
And I, fair, impartial, or so I thought,
will remember well all you’ve taught.

   Your place I’ll hold, you will be missed,
the fur I stroked, the nose I kissed.
And as you journey to your final rest,
take with you this: I loved you …

Copyright © Jim Willis 2002, All Rights Reserved

‘Bench Series 36’: Metal Bench!

'Bench Series 36': Metal Bench!

‘Bench Series 36’: Metal Bench!

Jude, Author of ‘Travel Words’, a wonderful blog inspired by her travel notes and diaries over the years runs a great linky called ‘Bench Series’.

Here’s my first contribution: I took this shot on a bright morning this February.

It was the first day this year when you could really feel the sun: I walked down to the Herne Hill weekend market, and South London seemed to be smiling – as though the sun had lifted the weight of winter chill.

This photo is taken from the top of the hill in Brockwell Park.  Sitting on the bench, there are wonderful views over the London Skyline.  But I thought smooth curve of the metal arm, with the bright sun brimming thorouh and bouncing off the bench rails, was a good sight too!

Check out Jude’s ‘Italian’ style metal benches in San Diego,

and other contributions too:  ‘Bench Series’: September – Metal Benches.

The End of an Era: Cuba II

Valadero: April 2015.

Valadero is the closest I’ve got to a classic ‘paradise’ holiday.

If it’s the closest I ever get, that will be just fine!

Near enough to Havana, and a perfect foil to that city’s bustle and mesmerising wonders, a trip west to what is possibly the Caribbean’s most exquisite stretch of beach resorts.  A sunny, slim peninsular edged by over 20 km of white sandy beaches and clear waters.

The first tourists visited Varadero as early as the 1500, and for centuries it was considered an elite resort for Spanish conquistadors.  Tourism there remains the greatest source of income by a long way… in a way, it’s an escape from ‘real life’ – for Cubans, too – there is a check gate to pass on the way into the resort, and Cubans have to have a reason for passing through: it’s not a residential area, and access is restricted.

For true relaxation, we choose a hotel resort with even further access restrictions: No Children!

Lovely as they undoubtedly are, not having their excitement, energy and noise meant that the atmosphere was deeply relaxed.

An ‘all inclusive’ holiday, well done, has to be the best way to relax and re-charge.

For me, it was like ‘detox’.

Everybody needs that once in a while.

Holiday Info:  We stayed at the Royalton Hicacos Resort – All inclusive luxury: Royal Hicacos Resort, Valadero, Cuba.

I booked a two destination holiday with The Holiday Place – if they haven’t got a ‘package’ you want, then you can choose which hotel you’d like to stay in, and they’ll tailor the holiday for you.

http://holidayplace.co.uk/

I will use them again – and hope to return to the Royalton Hicacos before too long, as well.

Cuba, Valadero, Early Morning on the beach.

Cuba, Valadero, Early Morning on the beach.

The end of an Era: Cuba I.

Havana, April 2015.

It’s been a difficult few years.  For a number of (albeit unavoidable) reasons, I haven’t been ‘away’ for years – have worked through holidays and kept my head down to a degree that, I think, it’s been difficult to raise it above that focused, target driven level.  Have honed the ability to keep going when every bit of me wants to stop.

‘Just do it’ and then it’s done… onto the next thing has become my personal, unvoiced but regularly internally rehearsed, mantra.

It may  It does sound self-indulgent, but it’s important to recognise when ‘life’ is so full that there isn’t much time for ‘living.’

So this year, determined to do something different and see another environment, I wanted to book not only a ‘holiday’, but a trip of discovery – inward and outward.  To broaden my horizons, stop for breath, and put some perspective into my thinking.

“When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.” – Henry Ford Read more: http://www.keepinspiring.me/uplifting-quotes-for-difficult-times/#ixzz3kI8cVs9O

“When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.”
– Henry Ford
http://www.keepinspiring.me/uplifting-quotes-for-difficult-times/#ixzz3kI8cVs9O

With the changes in relations between US and Cuba, there will undoubtably be huge changes which will sweep across every aspect of ‘Cuba’.  A country that has been strangely isolated; a ‘time warp’ – detached from the rest of the world, (difficult to realise just how thoroughly detached until you see the society, life, environment for yourself). Cuba is clearly on the brink of huge and irreversible evolution.  What better place to experience before those changes take hold?

The largest city in the Caribbean, with over 2.2 million residents; but no commercial adverts at all: That has more of an effect on the everyday life, street landscape, and material focus of the population than one could imagine.

No brand names – other than those on shiny US bonnet badges!

Cuban Cars - like being on a film set, but for real!

Cuban Cars – like being on a film set, but for real!

Havana’s majestic architecture reflects its Spanish roots in many ways –

Founded in the 16th Century it quickly became a flourishing, fashionable city.

Frequented by Americans escaping from prohibition and looking for a good time.  Gosh, they must have found it here!

I can only imagine Havana in its hey-day: like a film set, but on a monumental scale.

Square in Havana; step back in time.

Square in Havana; step back in time.

The glorious, weathered relics remain – like a gracious old lady living in threads of once rich clothes.  In a still imposingly grand, but gently dilapidation palace.  Surrounded by memories and tangible evidence of what once was, but gracefully and proudly getting on with life as it now is.  With a smile.

While all around is increasingly deteriorating.  Slowly crumbling.  The decay, strangely, apparently unnoticed.  Or at least unquestioned.

But with the structure and elegance of former years feeling still – almost – near enough to salvage and reinstate.

Havana’s people are amazing.  Remarkably, admirably resilient.

Living in houses without roofs, hanging their washing on lines strung between glass less windows, extraordinarily ambivalent about parts of their building gently crumbling away.

Streets lined with the most what once must have been the most stunning and luxurious buildings: beautiful plaster, grandiose proportions, now only evident in part.

Magnificent architecture, intricate metalwork, stunning marble staircases, and the remnants of beautiful tiling.

Hedonistic memories of exotic times all around.

Havana showcases a vast range of architectural styles.

Harmony is reflected in the people and the environment: despite the hardships that are so clearly part of everyday life.

Just as Havana’s surprisingly eclectic mix of people rub along happily together, so influences from Spain, America, France and Russia are evident, shoulder to shoulder, in the city’s blocks.

Similarly, buildings draw references from major architectural periods from the last half century.

No wonder, then, that part of Old Havana have been included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.

I’m not particularly widely travelled, but Havana is, so far, the only City I’ve ever been to where the guide books are so very much better left at home (with regard to restaurants and accommodation, I’d say that was obligatory!)

At the time of our visit, about 80% of the economy was estimated to be unofficial; almost officially unofficial!

So the usually trusty brands of guide books really don’t seem to know what they’re talking about – perhaps they can’t keep up with the pace of change.

Or perhaps, more likely, they just have to recommend what officially exists… Believe me, the official restaurants are not worth visiting.  Next time, I’ll go hungry rather than return to their unwelcoming, distilled, loveless premises.  If you want to pay London prices (really!) for food that is likely to smell of rank oil, go once for the experience. The menu may look promising (as long as you don’t compare the prices with what you’re used to paying at home – more than I’d expect to pay at a restaurant of my choice in South London!).  But when it comes to what’s brought to the table, it is likely to be pretty uniform – fried food without garnish, unattractively slapped onto a simple, greasy plate, and clearly cooked without any imagination, intuition or apparent care / interest.

Contemplating the dessert menu turned out to be a rather awkward process of illumination of the dishes apparently being offered on the menu: The reluctant waiter, who had given the impression all evening that his two solitary ‘mugs’ customers were disturbing him from something far more important explained with what seemed to be increasing incredulity at our stupidity, that despite the ‘menu’, the desert choice was actually between ‘desert’ or ‘no desert’.

We had one of each.

The latter was the better choice.

When we finally plucked up the courage to venture into a privately run restaurant, it was like a revelation – perhaps actually, a revolution!

Stark comparison to the unmotivated staff serving whatever they could find in the largely empty ration stores and cooked by ‘chefs’ who have clearly lost the joy of cooking and ability to taste; so worn down by rations and sub standard ingredients.  

In unofficial, privately run cafes and restaurants kind, attentive staff welcome you as though a personal guest, into a a well cared for, warm atmosphere.  Small and intimate rather than cavernous, silent and cold.  They offer simple but appealing menus – a range of fresh dishes that were actually in stock.  Simple, tasty, fresh cooking.  Jamie Oliver would have approved!

Starkly contrasting to the ‘official’ establishments’ uniform smell, taste and greasy coating of over-used vegetable oil.  Their bland dishes accompanied by ‘black beans’ which tasted as though they’d come out of a tin that would have been so much better left unopened. 

Why had it taken so much courage for us to venture away from the guide-book recommendations – pop up restaurants, unofficial eateries in Cubans homes and family hosted paladares are what all the blogs about Cuba are buzzing about – for the sake of your taste buds, your pockets, and to get a genuine feel of ‘Cuban hospitality’, chuck the guides, go with the flow and do it the Cuban’s way!

When I got home, I bumped into a neighbour.  He was chatting about the foul rain there had been in London – admitted that ever since his cellar had flooded (briefly) some five years or so ago, he was anxious every time he opened the cellar door and went down the steps gingerly, still imagining that he could smell that characteristic ‘damp’ in the air.  At a time when ‘Mindfulness’ is all the rage as a means of reducing stress and gaining balance in our lives, those hardy, happy Cubans have something to teach us about living in the moment, and making the most of what we do have. Simply.  No fancy titles or theories.  They ‘Just Do It!’

Holiday info:

We stayed at the Hotel Telegrafo right in the centre of Havana – on the main square, on the corner of Parque Central.  Although in the oldest part of the city, this isn’t an area covered by the Unesco patrimony – but a great position, nonetheless.

Built in 1860, the Telegrafo was completely reconstructed in 1911, and then opened as one of the most modern, high profile hotels in the city.  It has a glorious history; raising it’s profile by apparently having been one of the earliest hotels of the region to supply telephones to each room, and dining tables.  As a result, it was (in it’s time!) considered one of the most desirable hotels in Cuba, and hosted high profile politicians & businessmen.

The Telegrafo now still has a definite art deco feel to the interior and furnishings.

In fact, one could (if being honest, but not very kind!), say that the interior hasn’t changed much since then… kept clean, but not appearing to have been updated.  Or, with regard to bathrooms, maintained beyond the essential.

But we chose the Telegrafo for just that – a dive straight into real Havana.  And we got it, in every way 🙂

So I wouldn’t return to the Telegrafo, but I would recommend it as a very well positioned, authentic hotel for a short stay.

It is great value for what it is.

But you’ll probably need a proper breakfast after 2 or 3 days, so that’s the maximum stay I would suggest.

And remember why you chose it!

“Life is 10 percent what you make it and 90 percent how you take it.”  Irving Berlin.

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday ±4: Happy, Frosty New Year.

Out with the old.  Make space for the New…

“Stop looking at the past and all the things you can’t change.  They’re done and over with.

Now is the time for you to look to the future, grasp it by the hand, and decide where you want to go.”  

‘Chasing Nikki’, Lacey Weatherford: http://catalystquotes.com/category/life/page/2/

xXx

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
― Albert Einstein

xXx

Linking with Wordless Wednesday – click on sidebar image.

Czech Mate: Prague.

Four days,

Three nights,

Two totally exhausted girls,

One memorable time (for all the right reasons!)

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Nestled in a natural fording place on the Vltava River, a tributary of the Elbe, Prague is a City like no other. Intertwining, deeply cobbled streets flanked by monstrous buildings whose bold architecture stands testament to the pride, conflict, and passion that Prague has witnessed through the centuries.

Not a trace of the action-packed, budget conscious, backpacking trips that Daughter number 2 is used to – this one was designed for Ease, Rest and Relaxation.

Having to balance my budget to some extent, I chose a top hotel that was situated outside the main town – in Phara 5 (5th District; just a short distance from the City centre).

After an efficient check in, and a reassuring introduction to our room, we ventured out and over the Vltava, keeping intentionally to the outskirts of the main City.

Crossing the first bridge we came to, we were drawn to an interestingly ramshackle collection of stalls on the Rasin Embankment.  It turned out to be a Farmers Market – what a find – buzzing with locals preparing for the festivities of the coming week.

There was a definite emphasis on ‘health’ and ‘natural’ products at the market.

Wonderfully fresh looking vegetables – their odd shapes and earthy presentation proudly clarifying their status as ‘low food miles’ and Organic foods.

Home crafted style honey, potted preserves, pickled vegetables and inedibly ‘healthy’ looking vegan, wheat free and vegetarian foods were being snapped up by trendy looking locals.

The market had a gritty atmosphere to it – making us feel at home, having left West Norwood just a few hours earlier… cosy beds traded for the crisp, grey wind on the banks of the broad River Vltava.

At one end, a motley bunch of musicians were playing –

clustered around an Amy Winehouse sounding singer…

Enjoyed by a crowd of Bohemians, who we were glad to join for some time.

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Then her lanky, shabby, middle-aged colleague took over.

Suspense – what would be his ‘turn’?

He jiggled about a little as his fellow musicians paved his way,

then gently began to join in, making increasingly audible ‘popping’ noises with his lips…

Weird, wonderful, boldly confident in an unassuming sort of way, and totally individual.

A happy and perfect finale to the ramshackle, somewhat bizarre market.

And a fitting introduction to Prague!

Wacky, Weird and Wonderful.

Wacky, Weird and Wonderful.

 The fact that the Vltava slices through the centre of Prague makes it a relatively easy city to navigate.

We followed its broad bank, admiring the military style rows of grand buildings either side.

Prague - River flanked by rows of grossly grand blocks.  Painted soft orange, deep yellow, soft green or cream - all sporting the uniform red-clay roof tiles.

Prague – River flanked by rows of grossly grand blocks. Painted soft orange, deep yellow, soft green or cream – all sporting the uniform red-clay roof tiles.

Visiting just four days before Christmas, the Christmas Market in the Old Town was a must.

But a somewhat disappointing one, it has to be said.  Stroppy stall holders, crowds, bustling without the joy.  Rows and rows of tacky souvenirs, over-priced cups of  poorly made tea, served without grace on dirty table cloths, all wrapped in a chill air.

Moving on, from desire to leave the area as well as to keep moving and a little warmer, we made our way to the castle… the only way was up  🙂

Despite having been advised to take a tram, nothing is too to walk in Prague – and doing so helps prevent frozen limbs in winter, I’m sure!  So we climbed the deeply cobbled streets; eyes set on the prize looking down at us from the hilltop.  On the way up to the Castle, we were able to stop and look over the river – breathtaking views of Prague, and the lines of buildings – blocks created through the ages, reflecting different social & political periods and architectural styles – like strata plotting timelines in an ancient mountainside.

‘The Castle’ turns out to be more of a town in itself.  Buildings & renovations dating back from the 13th century to the present day.  Originally home of Bohemia’s Kings and now housing Czech Republic’s presidents, architectural styles through the ages are represented in grand proportions: Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-classical.

The waxy glow of the street lamps lends a warmer glow to Prague, despite the fact that temperatures inevitably plummet even further once the daylight has left.  It must be simply stunning in the summer; vines on the hillside basking in sunshine, a sparkling Vltava sporting pretty tour boats, and cafes spilling over the cobbles with lazy lunches (and cheap beer??!).  But dark winter evenings, lit by the ivory light from wonderful old lamps, combines with the magical architecture, misty winter chill and cobbles to create a truly memorable atmosphere, too.

Prague by Night: Charles Bridge.

Prague by Night: Charles Bridge.

We briskly walked back over the river and to the suburbs of town, happy to slip into our pre-booked sauna and soak up some deep heat!

Day 2 called for a more positive return to Old Square.

Wonders to admire: fire char baked pork roasting on huge spikes, traditional potato pot in oversized paella pans to taste.  A good-looking, even better sounding singer crooning on a swiftly erected stage listen to, whilst roasting under plentiful gas heaters…

Mystical, charming, magical and bold.

Reportedly one of the largest festive markets in the Czech republic, and having risen to the heady heights of featuring in ‘The Archers’ as the seasonal short break destination for Jennifer & Brian, I have to admit to finding the market somewhat of a disappointment… Perhaps my standards are too high now that London’s local markets have developed to include such enthusiasm, interesting variety and inciting atmosphere… spoilt with our local West Norwood Feast, Crystal Palace Food Market & Herne Hill… bursting with character and passion that seemed to be missing in Prague’s tourist trap effort.

But we did enjoy a pop up concert, and tasting Christmas traditions – huge hams roasting over red coals, a mizture of potato gnocchi, saucerkraut and ham… soggy, slightly greasy and better in anticipation than reality!  Also a fascinating sweet, cylindrical pastry called a trdelnik.  Rolled around metal poles, stretched over hot coals and turned by chains at either end; sold hot, dusted with cinnamon, sugar, and nuts.

Church of Our Lady before Tyn, Old Town square.

Church of Our Lady before Tyn;

an immense Gothic edifice whose 15th century towers rise  80 metres above the surrounding Medieval streets.

Despite the jostling and hustling of packed crowds visiting the pretty Christmas Market, you can still soak up the legions of tumultuous history… heresy, revolutions, plots, and reform.  Perhaps less has changed than you first think… more harmonious and settled now, but still a bustling market square at the heart of the town, a focus for locals and visitors alike.

Vltava River's many magnificent bridges.

Vltava River’s many magnificent bridges.

Next time, I’ll take a hike up the old clock tower in the Town Hall to take in an aerial view of the city… didn’t occur to us at the time, but the birds eye view would have been worth the climb, I’m sure.

Just North of the Old Town Square is the Jewish Quarter.  Yet another side of Prague – a more tranquil atmosphere, slower pace and greyer colours (trimmed with copious amounts of gold) to other parts of the city.

Jewish Quarter, Prague.

Jewish Quarter, Prague. Reminiscent of Paris’ grand, leafy boulevards with fine boutiques; gold encrusted, inside and out.

Walking along the main street felt like entering a Grimms Fairy Tale book… gothic towers looming eerily over grey skies, defining the road with strangely intimidating dark spires.

Having had a very high recommendation to visit a particular cafe, next stop was to find Wenceslas Square.  Another busy hub; the heart of the New Town, a business and cultural focus.  More Christmas market stalls in what was originally designed to be a horse market, the square was named after the patron saint of Bohemia.  Wide boulevards.  Literally stunning, edged as they were with fringes of trees sporting fairy lights.  Again, especially attractive in the dark haze of a winter’s night, marking out the twinkling bare branches engagingly.

View from Wenceslas Square, Prague.

View from Wenceslas Square, Prague – photo taken before the tree lights came on, but still pretty impressive!

We were so grateful for this tip from a local – Ovocny Svetoxor (literally translated ‘fruity cinema‘) would have remained an undiscovered gem without it.  There are apparently branches across Prague, but the one we visited in the passage Svetoxor is the spearhead, having been here since the 70s… the psychedelic, block decor remains shocking but totally on trend (just not the same trend as anything else within a fair distance!).  Bright, fast and fresh.  Outside is an array of multi-coloured, glossy ices – too watery to be ice cream (and too frozen to try, despite looking otherwise irresistible).  Fruit cakes, gateaux, sundaes, freshly made juices… I never knew that Heaven was based down this little alley in Prague!

Despite being small and packed, we found deep lime green seats to sink into, and enjoyed the freshest juices I have ever tasted.  Then back through icy streets, now veiled in darkness but glowing in a romantic haze of the ivory light of street lamps.

Our third day – packed with pottering.

We walked along the top ridge from our hotel towards the castle – breathtaking views of the city in the crescent of the hill below.  Stretching out on both sides of the broad icy river.

Back through streets, admiring the huge painted blocks; wondering what was going on inside.

Watching tourists being whooshed around in jolly cars or traps pulled by impatient horses.

We found a huge Tesco, and had to go in to ‘spot the differences’… there were as many surprising similarities with regard to products and packaging as differences – a whole isle (double-sided!) of chocolate – acres of pastries and breads and unbelievably cheap alcohol.   (Interestingly, no drunks though).

Walking around Prague in darkened streets felt safe – even as we stepped away from the centre of the city, making our way through graffiti littered streets to the outer district of our hotel.  It was interesting staying further afield – seeing the environmental changes as we crossed through the city zones.  Also watching more Czechs busy about their daily life, uninterrupted by mobs of tourists doing an impression of a couple of girls in IKEA  on a wet Sunday afternoon.

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One seasonal sight that we would have totally missed had we been staying in the more trendy centre of town was the local Christmas preparations… heaps of Christmas trees being sold and marched home. As they would be on the streets of London, but these had many fewer needles.  And those that were there, were longer and finer than those of the Norway Spruce or similar found at home.

The tradition of eating Carp is another that is not shared at home.  We were introduced to this on our first day, at the locals Farmers Market on the Rasin Embankment.  Large blue plastic bins filled with running water and tightly packed with huge, sad fish.  Jostling for space so that their fins often looked damaged.  Being prepared on stalls that were reminiscent of the mass executions held in past times in the old square.  Blood literally running down the street.  Fish heads, placed upright next to their decapitated bodies as the scales were vigorously scraped off.  Desperately, pathetically gasping their last airless breath as their mouths continued to open and close before realising that their lungs were no longer attached.

One morning, walking through the outer district, we saw an old lady ahead.  Looking forlorn – motionless on the pavement.  As we neared, we noticed the familiar smell and sight of the large blue buckets.  She had chosen her Carp and it was being prepared.  She stood further away and turned as we passed, holding her head in her hands.  Without looking, she gave a gasp as the clever cracked down.  Although it seemed in a way barbaric, the fish were always kept in running water, and killed swiftly and professionally.  Perhaps one day we will try fresh carp, to better understand the tradition which is clearly still so popular.

The observation Tower by night.

Back to the warmth of the sauna for the final time.

And another wonderful supper.

Top Tips:

If flying from Stanstead, book short-term car park –

well worth it, especially at that time in the morning!

Pre-book a private transfer from the airport –

great value and saves worrying about being ripped off!

If you’ve got them, take thermal trousers to go under jeans –

and waterproofs to go over them.  If you haven’t got them, do!

Just enjoy – it’s a wonderful city, I’m sure equally so for different reasons

all through the seasons…

:-)

🙂