Lace hankies and floodwater – finding myself in India

Lace hankies and floodwater – finding myself in India

I want to remind you that despite how people might appear on the outside we never know the whole story about what’s going on in someone’s mind.

It’s also good to be reminded that happiness (and loneliness) doesn’t only depend on external factors or material things and that no matter how bleak things sometimes seem to be, they usually improve.  My tattoo of a peacock (India’s national bird) reminds me daily of lessons learnt when I got soaking wet in the monsoon rains in India.

Peacock decoration on a door in Agra, India

Peacock decoration on a door in Agra, India

I first wrote this article just one year after I the breakup of my marriage.  I travelled to India with Explore and travelled with a wonderful group of people – and whilst it’s a cliché – India truly was a life-changing experience for me. My children had chosen to cut me out of their lives, I was being bullied in work and I was floating around in a (prescription) drug induced haze following an emotional breakdown.  I needed a change and I needed it quickly if I were to begin to rebuild my life and my self-esteem back up.

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Lace hankies and floodwater

 

I have been at my loneliest whilst sat on an exquisite beach in Mexico and I have been at my happiest soaked to the skin in the monsoon rains in India.  Let me explain.

A luxury holiday in the Caribbean.

 The turquoise Caribbean sea lapped against the hot white sand whilst emerald green hummingbirds darted around the manicured grounds of the five-star gated holiday complex.  I lay on a sunbed gently toasting in the sun whilst a waiter brought me iced cocktails and my biggest decision of the day was whether to wander down to the beach or stay next to the pool.

I knew that I was privileged to be able to holiday at such an amazing place, but I was hungry to see what lay beyond the gates and to meet the real people of Mexico.

luxury and hot white sands in Mexico - but I felt lonely

luxury and hot white sands in Mexico – but I felt lonely

One day on this holiday, my husband and I joined an organised coach trip which took us from our resort to the iconic Chichen Itza site.  We drove through towns and villages and we were offered tantalising glimpses of people going about their day to day business.  After exploring the ruins I strolled ahead of my husband among the small stalls set up under the trees by local people.  This was more like it; I spoke no Spanish yet I felt comfortable here among the people who were doing their best to attract tourists to their handicraft stalls.

I wandered around intending to buy a couple of small things which cost just pennies from a group of ladies who proudly showed off a small baby to me, but I was persuaded by my husband to move on; that we didn’t need to buy the cute little handkerchiefs that they had made.

Later that evening, as we sat in our hotel restaurant eating food that the stall holders could only dream of, I was angry for allowing myself to be dissuaded from buying a couple of  lace hankies and years of unhappy experiences crowded into my mind.  Sat on the beach the next day, I couldn’t stop the tears as I realised that despite being on holiday in such a beautiful place, I was deeply unhappy and feeling lonely in our relationship.

It was on that holiday in Mexico that I began to seriously question the path that my life was taking.  By the following June I had decided that things couldn’t continue as they were and when I really began to question the status quo, my life as I knew it imploded.

Finding myself in India 

One year later, in the August, I was holidaying at the other end of the scale.  I had travelled to India during the monsoon season with the travel company ExploreI had been in a pretty bad way emotionally and a friend had suggested that I could do with a break.  She recommended Explore and as I was not in any position emotionally to travel solo I took her up on her suggestion and I found myself in India with a small group of 16 travellers.

local travel in India - trains in the rain

local travel in India – trains in the rain

Advertised as touring India on a shoestring we were travelling on local buses and trains and mostly staying in small low-budget hotels.  Whilst we had the security of a travel guide we also had a lot of free time.  (Continue reading to the end of the article and discover how I ended up in India when I had intended to book a cycling trip in Italy!)

On my second day in Delhi I was riding in a tuk-tuk with three other people – almost strangers to me at that point – when flash floods engulfed the city streets.  We had decided to use our free time and take a tuk tuk around the city when the rain began to fall.  Drains blocked with rubbish soon began to overflow and the waters began to rise.

tuk tuk in India

tuk tuk in India

Our driver ploughed on into the floodwater, oblivious to the fact that it was now well over the sill of his vehicle and was lapping around our hips on the back seat.  I have to admit to being a little scared at that point and then, with our bags raised above our heads, and smoke belching out of the submerged exhaust, the machine coughed and then stopped.

Assuring us that he would manage to re-start the machine and refusing all offers of help with a push, our driver indicated that we should get to some higher ground.  We gingerly stepped out and waded through thigh-deep water to take some shelter in a shop doorway.  Joining a group of cheerful Indian ladies with their sodden saris trailing in the water I tried to ignore the obvious lumps of sewerage which were floating past (thankfully at that stage I was oblivious to the dysentery that would soon follow) and the desperate poverty that was present all around us.



My group of friends chatted about the rain and we worried about how we would ever find our way back to our hotel because the unpronounceable street name had been washed clean from the paper on which it had been written.  We glumly looked out over the messy, untidy street where the filthy water was running and we tried to squeeze some of the rain water out of our clothes and our hair.

walking in the monsoon rain in India

walking in the monsoon rain in India

On the contrary, the ladies giggled as they watched some men who had waded out to help push the tuk-tuk up a slope and then like men the world over, gathered around scratching their heads and offered mechanical advice – totally unfazed by their soaked clothes and the water lapping around their knees.

The women told us that whilst the floods would cause many deaths (that year was particularly bad), the monsoon rains always brought a welcome relief from the sapping summer heat and it irrigated the parched land.  The monsoon season was to be celebrated because the consequences should it ever fail were unimaginable.

The first stage to my recovery. 

I stepped out from under the shelter and I raised my face to the deluge allowing the warm water to wash over me, imitating the little children who were playing excitedly around us.  They had long ago discarded their clothes and their little brown bodies shone as they splashed and laughed in the rain.

street life in India - life goes on - despite the rain

street life in India – life goes on – despite the rain

Marooned in the shabby backstreets of Delhi, surrounded by water and sewerage, the jewel-bright colours of the women’s silk saris reminded me of the humming-birds in Mexico. These ladies weren’t focusing on the negatives at all.  They would have to wash the mud out of their clothes, their homes would be damp and travel during the monsoon season would be difficult but they could count their blessings that the rains had come and they laughed and chatted together.

I was in a strange country with nobody who I knew, yet I was not lonely. I was truly happy and like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis I felt reborn.  I was taking back control of my life, and as I began to come out from the shadow of my marriage, my own identity blossomed and I decided that I liked the person that I was becoming.  I couldn’t wait to see what I was capable of achieving next.

Continue reading below the image and discover how I ended up in India when I had planned to spend 5 days cycling around the vineyards of Tuscany.

If you want to build your self esteem and maybe travel alone by yourself one day why not try the Smash the Pumpkin Project for a month (click here for more information).

If you want to take a holiday but you would prefer not to travel solo I can totally recommend Explore. They are so good that I have actually taken 4 trips with them and I have made many long term friends via them. This link will take you to their website where you can book your dream trip.

If you would like to read a book which explains how you can become stronger through mindfulness I have just the thing for you.  This introduction to the subject of mindfulness might just set you off on your own personal journey of self discovery (click here to purchase)

book cover - Becoming stronger through mindfulness

Becoming stronger through mindfulness

 

I had planned to go to Italy! 

I have already explained that my friend recommended that it might do me good to take a short break away from my problems and she gave me her Explore brochure.  I wasn’t in a good place emotionally having recently experienced an emotional breakdown and needing some time on anti-depressants.  One afternoon, I took my towel and a bottle of cider down to the communal garden of the small apartment block where I was living and I settled down to choose my holiday.

I remember deciding upon a 5 day cycling tour of the vineyards of Tuscany in Italy. A bit of exercise, plenty of pasta and wine and some beautiful European countryside would be the perfect start to my recovery. I don’t remember much else because the cider, the anti-d’s and the sun all conspired together and I fell asleep in the sun.

The Taj Mahal - that booking error possibly changed my life - Finding myself in India

The Taj Mahal – that booking error possibly changed my life

Obviously I got myself back into my apartment and settled down for the night because the next morning I woke up in my bed with a thumping headache and a nagging suspicion that I had booked my holiday.  This feeling didn’t go away so I contacted the company and trying to ignore the fact that it must sound totally weird, I asked the operator on the end of the phone to confirm my holiday details for me.

She reeled off my travel date just 6 weeks later and confirmed that I would be flying into Delhi for the start of my two week trip around the Golden Triangle of India.

‘You mean Tuscany…for 5 days….cycling?’  I questioned her.

‘Nooooo, we spoke yesterday and you definitely reserved and paid in full for your trip to India.  You will be leaving in 6 weeks time and you will have a lovely time.  It’s one of our best trips!’

Suddenly I had a flash back to the previous afternoon and I remembered waking in the garden and finding that the wind had flipped the page of the magazine over to the India trip. It had obviously attracted me so much that I had gone into my apartment and phoned the company to reserve my spot!

I had several options open to me at that stage.  I could

  1. a) feel sorry for myself and weep loudly down the phone
  2. b) change my holiday to Italy and probably lose a percentage of my booking fee
  3. c) pull up my Big-Girl Pants and embrace the experience.

Thanking the operator for her help I put down the phone and wondered how the hell I could go about applying for an Indian visa.

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Finding myself in India

Finding myself in India

 

The Universe will give you what you need.  I didn’t think so at the time but I was certainly ready for India and I needed it at that exact moment in my life.  Relax and accept what comes along.

You WILL deal with it.

 

 

Getting naked at Playa del Torn, Catalunya

Getting naked at Playa del Torn, Catalunya

I knew next to nothing about naturism in Catalunya until I began setting myself personal challenges.  I had never taken off my clothes off in public but I felt that I needed to give it a go.  I am a mentor to people with low self-confidence and low self-esteem helping them achieve self belief through a series of personal challenges – and as it’s only right to practice what I preach I am always looking for ways to stretch myself.

Luckily I have the perfect challenge partner in Debs who is often even more up and ready for things than me and so the other summer we decided to push our boundaries and discover how much self empowerment we could achieve. Click here to read more on self empowerment

Make sure that you continue reading to the end of this article for the tale of a very funny incident that happened on the nudist beach at Playa del Torn in Catalunya last summer!

Getting naked at Playa del Torn

The first challenge that we set ourselves that summer was to visit a naturist beach.

Playa del Torn beach, Catalunya

Playa del Torn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Close to the town of Hospitalet de L’Infant on the Costa Dorada in Catalunya there is a large naturist resort – i.e: naked people as opposed to a naturalist site where you go bird-watching and such-like.  It is important that you do not get the two words confused!

This resort, complete with pools, restaurants, and campsite attracts naturists from all over Europe and it’s on a wonderful position up on the cliffs behind a long stretch of soft golden sand. Playa del Torn (or Platja del Torn in Catalan) is a large public beach with a lively xiringuito (beach bar) down on the sand where people from the local area mix with the campers.  During the summer months a little gazebo is set up on the beach where you can get a fabulous full body massage from Albert who normally works in Barcelona and the occasional beach vendors wander along selling artisan jewellery or sunglasses.  The beach has a lovely friendly family atmosphere in the locality of the campsite and the beach bar whilst further along the beach is gay friendly.

Debs and I parked the car near the beach of Playa del Torn and we set off along the cliff path which runs next to the campsite.  We had not taken more than 10 steps when a woman came out of a gap in the low hedge from among the camper vans and walked along in front of us wearing absolutely no clothes and carrying a loaf of bread under her arm.  Walking past the caravans and the tents I could see that everybody was carrying on their daily business – playing cards, standing and chatting around the barbeque, reading or cooking BUT the majority of them were stark staring naked.  Toddlers chased each other around yelling enthusiastically and groups of teenagers hung around looking cool (most of the teenagers were wearing bikini bottoms or swimming trunks for modesty.)

I suppressed my giggles as we walked down the steps to the beach where a volleyball game was in progress, feeling like I was in a Carry On film.  Reaching our chosen spot with as much space around us as possible Debs and I stripped off our clothes – and I promptly lay down flat and stayed flat for as long as I possible.

As the day went on I progressed to swimming in the warm sea – what a fantastically liberating feeling that is with no bikini – and I had a massage from the wonderful Albert.  The massage was a piece of cake after the trauma of booking my session with him.

Tickets needed to be bought at the bar in the xiringuito – and my personal challenge was to buy mine without covering up and wrapping a sarong around my body.  All well and good and I was feeling quite pleased with myself as I crossed the hot sand – until I wove through the tables to the bar (it was lunchtime and busy) and it dawned on me that my bare bottom was head height to the diners faces.  Of course there was a queue at the bar and I had to wait there, standing with my naked bum just inches from a poor man’s dinner and feeling the insides of my stomach curling up with embarrassment!!!!

I managed to relax later on as Albert kneaded all of the knots out of my tense muscles whilst I lay in the shade of his gazebo.  He told me that he worked as a masseuse in Barcelona but that he decamped to the beach for his work during the summer.   When I confessed to Albert that it was my very first visit to a naturist beach he replied how brave I was to actually have a massage (naked) right out there in the public eye and I realised that I was beginning to enjoy myself.

Personal challenge achieved I felt great as Debs and I returned to the car – in fact we returned to Playa del Torn many times throughout the rest of the summer and we progressed to drinking in the bar and then making friends with groups of both campers and locals.  It was idyllic standing and sitting around chatting as the sun went down and the moon came up over the horizon and looking back, it was always gratifying to realise how relaxed I had become with my own body image.

A naturist beach is a great leveller.  Without clothes on people usually soon realise that not even the elegant couple who turns heads as they walk across the beach lives up to the media driven image of perfection once they remove their clothing.  Cellulite, flabby bits, scrawny bits and dangly bits are everywhere.  Bodies are decorated with both tattoos and scars, boobs may be missing and piercings glint in the sunlight.  It all seems less important somehow.  Smiles, facial expressions and laughs become what define beauty and we can all wince together at sunburn in delicate places.

Scarlet Jones naked at Playa del Torn

Scarlet Jones naked at Playa del Torn

Snorkelling in the dark

My second personal challenge that summer was to attempt a night time snorkel.

I am not at all confident out of my depth in water and I am terrified of waves in the sea.  Debs and I had already spent the day snorkelling around the rocks in the little bay of Sant Jordi d’Amalfa on the coast of Catalunya and the sea was lovely and calm as we made our way up to the beach hut at dusk where Plancton have their base.

We were given our equipment – a wet suit, snorkel and mask, an arm band with a flashing light and a waterproof torch while the instructors told us how we should conduct ourselves and pointed out some of the things that we could expect to see.  And we set off BUT we turned left instead of right and walked down to the next bay where the sea was anything but calm.

I had already told one of our instructors how nervous I was and she (Eli) stayed by my side as I got into the water.  I was only waist deep but the waves were crashing over my head, and whilst terrified I pushed through beyond the breakers until I was out of my depth.  The rest of the group struck out for the sea while I attempted to sort out my mask which kept on leaking.  Eli took my hand and we swam slowly out – and then I panicked.  I had a vision/premonition/past experience – I don’t know – but I KNEW that if I continued I would surely drown.  I can swim but all of a sudden I lost the ability to keep my head above water and I just had a dreadful recurring feeling that I was going down under the waves.  I panicked even more as I noticed Eli backing away – I could hear a little voice from my swimming lessons as a child saying that you keep your distance from a drowning person – but Eli pushed the dive float to me and waited patiently while I got my act together talking calmly to me, but I knew that the overwhelming fear that I was feeling wasn’t going to go away.  I had to get back onto dry land immediately or I would be feeding the fishes.

Clutching the float as if my life depended on it we made our way back through the crashing breakers.  I was so relieved to be back on the damp sand and promising Eli that I would now be fine she went back to join the others while I sat and watched the shooting stars above me in the dark sky and thought about my experience.

Had I failed at my personal challenge?  No.  Of course not.  I had pushed myself to get into the rough water in the dark in the first place and whilst I had failed to snorkel in the dark I had given it a go.  Would I do it again?  Probably not!  I had tried my best and I can see no real reason to attempt it again.

Driving on the wrong side of the road

I was initially nervous about driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road in Spain, but it didn’t take long before I was zooming around everywhere.  I got lost plenty of times (no surprise there) but I enjoy driving and it’s a dream in Catalunya because apart from in the town centres there is very little traffic.

I used to be very afraid of heights until my year in South America.  In Peru I eventually got used to careering around the Andes in chicken buses with the drivers high on the coca leaves that they chewed, both to stay awake and also to counter the altitude sickness, but I was still very nervous the first time that I had to negotiate a truck down a narrow track from the mountain in Spain where I was staying.  In fact, I put the trip off for ten days until I ran out of food.  A friend offered to deliver me supplies but I stubbornly declined – this was just another challenge which would prove to me that I was capable of coping by myself.

So early one morning I set off down the mountain. Nope, not in the truck but on foot!  I wanted to see for myself where the ‘dangerous bits’ were as well as the passing places.  Because I could take my time and look where the dodgy bits were I began to relax although it did take me nearly two hours to hike back up to the house.

To celebrate my epic hike in the heat I opened a bottle of wine – which of course also had the effect of postponing the inevitable until the following day – but I am pleased to say that I eventually made it down the hairpin bends and now I hammer up and down the mountain like a rally driver!

Since that summer I have also ridden my motorbike over to Spain crossing the English Channel on a twenty four hour channel ferry and riding solo down through Spain during an epic storm.  On that journey I was so glad that I had been perfecting my Spanish because I got horribly disorientated in Bilbao and I needed to ask directions.  My phone had stopped working, the name and address of my hostel had disintegrated and my map was in soggy pieces.  I squelched into a bar where half a dozen men leapt to my attention and helped me before sending me out into the rain again, this time in the correct direction.

 

facing my fear of heights

Facing my fear of heights in Catalunya

Immersion in a foreign language

Catalan is the first language of the majority of the people in this region of Spain which is great for me and others who are learning to speak Spanish.  Because Spanish (Castilian) tends to be the second or even the third language here, people often speak slower and can use simpler vocabulary.

I loved speaking with Andres who farmed close to the place that I was living that summer.  He was extremely patient with me, rephrasing words or acting out verbs so that the conversation flowed as best as it could although I did have one hilariously epic language-fail one evening.

I was a bit flustered as I answered the door and invited Andres to sit and wait while I finished up my conversation with a technician in the States.  My laptop was open on the bench as I was in a ‘live chat’ with the other guy.  In my best Spanish, or so I thought, I explained to Andres that my website was broken but there was a man in the States who was going to look at it and mend it remotely from his end.

I didn’t really understand why Andres abruptly stood up and shot out of the door mumbling something about going to check on his plum trees in his field however I returned to my conversation with the expert on the other end of the chat window.  Twenty minutes later there was a tentative knock at the door and Andres hesitantly poked his head into the room.  After assuring him that I was finished and my computer was now functioning perfectly I got on with the business of cooking dinner, wondering why Andres kept giving me strange looks.

Halfway through our meal Andres began to chuckle as something obviously dawned on him.  It turned out I had mispronounced the word for webpage.  I had put the stress in the wrong place which totally changed the word and therefore the meaning.

I had apparently informed Andres that my VAGINA was broken but there was a technician in the US who was looking at it down the camera on my computer – and I just needed Andres to wait for fifteen minutes whilst it was mended!!!!!

It’s always a bit daunting when you don’t speak the same language and you need to communicate.   It is the easy option to only mix with people who are the same as you and avoid difficulties; but we also communicate via body language, facial expressions and sign language and the results when you make the effort can be so rewarding.  Learning another language is another way to stretch your comfort zone.

 

Rio Ebro at Benifallet

the Catalan countryside

 

If you would like to know more about how you can receive a personal challenge that is emailed to you every fortnight, drop me a message and we will arrange a free call and I can explain more and while you are about it, sign up for my email list and get regular updates and more of my stories sent to you.

And now for that funny story that I promised you.

Our friend Toni and his partner make lovely artisan jewellery from natural products that they sell at Playa del Torn and we have got to know them over the last couple of years.  In keeping with the naturist element of the beach they wander up and down selling their products whilst wearing no clothes.

One day after spending some time chatting to Debs and I, Toni and his partner continued walking along the beach – Toni was holding a tray with some little shell anklets on it.

A sudden gust of wind blew the jewellery into the sand – with one piece ending up between the butt cheeks of a guy who was lying face down and asleep.

Toni was in a quandary.  Everybody watching held their collective breath as Toni made several attempts to pick the anklet up from the guy’s crack.  He decided to go for it but just as his grip tightened around it, the guy woke up and rolled over onto his side.

A dozen or more of us who were watching collapsed with laughter at the frozen tableau.  As the guy rolled over his bum cheeks had gripped the anklet tight – he froze as he looked up and saw a naked guy bending over him and holding whatever was trapped between his buttocks.

The guy’s wife was also laughing too hard to explain to her husband straight away as Toni backed away and his own partner was creased with laughter as she collected up the rest of their jewellery.

If you would like to know more about my time in Catalunya you can read some of my other posts here:

Exploring the Ebro Delta in Catalunya

Cat Fishing in Catalunya

The Catalan referendum: an opinion piece by Scarlet Jones

This article has been updated since it was first published in September 2015

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Playa del Torn

Playa del Torn, Catalunya. Getting naked and other challenges

 

Playa del Torn challenges

getting naked & other challenges

 

 

5 reasons NOT to visit Finland in winter

5 reasons NOT to visit Finland in winter

Should you visit Finland in winter?  

Won’t it will be cold and dark and expensive!

Finland in winter: Tampere in the snow

I began to wonder why I had decided to visit Finland in winter as my plane landed at Tampere and all that I could see through the swirling snowflakes was a flat, grey and white landscape. I negotiated the stairs of the plane with warnings to hold on tightly to the handrail due to the thick coating of  ice on the steps and I walked out into the biting cold.

Finland in winter is cold. The Tampere winter time is cold.

I spent six days in and around Tampere in winter I am very happy to be able to contradict all of the warnings that I was given before I set off

It’s always cold in Finland!

 

Of course it’s cold in Finland in winter, but people dress accordingly and buildings are well insulated and toasty-warm inside.  Go out for an evening in any city in Britain in the winter and you will always see people dashing between bars and clubs dressed in short sleeved tee-shirts, girls teetering around on spikey heels and nobody wears a jacket or a coat.  In Finand there’s a no-nonsense approach to the cold.  Layers, layers, hats, scarves and gloves and more layers are not only the sensible choice but the only choice if you want to avoid hypothermia or frostbite.

Shops and buildings are well heated and often have a double-door porch entry system and they have polar strength double or triple glazing.  Duvets are super-light but super-warm and showers are piping hot.

But the cold here is different to the cold in the UK and many other parts of the world.  It’s not loaded with damp which creeps into your bones and your chest.  It’s sharp and crisp and freezing but invigorating and it makes your senses come alive.  The snow prettys everything up like a layer of fresh white paint and it also dampens noise.  My hostel thoughtfully had a large box of coats and wraps just inside the front door so if you ever needed to dash outside for anything you could throw on an extra layer.

So don’t let the cold put you off.  Wear sensible boots or shoes, take plenty of layers and get outside.  Walk in the forests among the pines where the snowflakes float gently down and birds are eating the jewel-red berries.  Catch glimpses of the frozen lake between the trees, and then find a steamy, warm cafe and cup your hands around a hot mug of coffee and treat yourself to a tasty cake.

 

It’s always dark in Finland!

 

Of course, the further north that you go in the winter the hours of darkness are longer, but in Tampere in January we had daylight for at least six hours a day.  Yes, often the daylight was a soft dove-grey as the falling snow curled over everything and it felt like peering through fogged up glasses but snow also reflects, so once it was dark, everything had a cool glow aobut it.

Street lights illuminate the paths and the shadows retreat deeper down alleys due to the whiteness of snow layering everything.  Buildings are brightly lit and peeping through the windows you can see rooms cosy and clad with pine and warm with crackling  log fires or they are funky and bright in a Scandanavian Ikea type of a way.

After settling in at my hostel I checked out the map and needing to go out and find something to eat, as is my usual practice I asked at reception if there were any places that I should avoid walking on my own after dark.  With a raised eyebrow the receptionist replied ‘It is often dark in Finland’.  As self-preservation is high on my list while travelling solo I then asked if there were any districts or areas of the city which I should be wary of wandering into.  With a complete look of incomprehension the reply was ‘Of course not!  This is Finland!’ 

 

The Finnish language makes no sense to anybody: unless they are Finnish!

Yep!  I can’t argue with this one BUT despite always apologising for their bad English, the majority of Finns that I met spoke impecable English.  And Swedish.  And sometimes Russian or another language or three.  In my six days there I managed to learn two words – kiitos which is thank you and hei which is hello. And I have subsequently learnt that the Finns do not use all of the letters which are available to them in their alphabet.

If a sound is duplicated then they have dropped one of the letters and adopt the other – for example, in English the letter C sometimes makes the same sound as an S and sometimes makes the same sound as a K – the Finns don’t faff about with complications – they have all but dropped the C from their language. So at least if you are learning Finnish the alphabet is shorter.

 

Everything is expensive in Finland!

 

Costs are comparable to those in the UK – with winners and losers across the board.  Granted I stayed in a hostel during my Tampere visit BUT the prices and the quality of accommodation were excellent. Check the latest hostel prices at this link. There was also a hotel element to the hostel that I stayed in (The Dream Hostel) so you didn’t have to do the whole dorm experience and I managed to get a return flight to Tampere for £49 with a budget airline!!!!  That’s an insane price and there was also a realistically priced bus transfer from the airport to the city too.

Coffees, beers and food are similar prices to the UK (as I only had carry-on baggage I didn’t even glance at clothing or gifts) but I was pleasantly surprised as I had expected much much worse.

So get yourself a cheap flight and visit Finland and for budget priced but NOT budget style accommodation book in at the Dream Hostel, Tampere (a more detailed post on my time here will follow another time), grab yourself some Euros and go visit.

You can read more about staying in a hostel at this link to another of my articles here: Hostel tips and how not to behave in a hostel

If you still don’t fancy staying in a hostel (but please do check out the Dream Hostel first) then you can get the up to date prices for hotels at this link to Agoda

The Finns are a cold, silent people!

 

True – you will walk around the streets and people will not be smiley and enthusiastically greeting you, but whenever I stopped and looked a bit lost or I struggled over my map, somebody would usually check and ask if I needed any help.

I visited a church which was disappointingly closed, but Sari, the lady who was sweeping the snow off the path outside it, offered to open it up for me and show me around.

I visited a museum and I was helpfully told that if I were to return after 3pm there would be free entry because it was Friday and later at the museum I learnt about the history of Finland and I also learnt that, while you cannot stereotype a nation, the Finns are a people of few words and are generally shy.  This was written up on the walls under some of the exhibits and while it may be true, the people that I spoke to were warm, friendly, interesting and helpful.

I mostly navigated my way around the city of Tampere with the help of  a free, self-guided walking tour on a map which I obtained from the tourist information office but once inside cafes and coffee shops  and once everyone had shed some of their layers of clothing, I invariably got a smile and warmth from people.

So, if you have a few days free and you can find yourself a convenient flight, do visit Tampere in Finland in winter.

 

Other ideas for a Finland winter.

 

I really want to return in the summer and see the stunning landscape without its cloak of snow and ice.  Finland in winter was spectacular with a monochrome beauty but it must be drop-dead gorgeous with its many lakes and islands, andwith trees and flowers and colour in the summer.

If you don’t want the challenge of travelling solo, Explore do some fabulous sounding tours to Finland too.  You can even go on a brown bear watching weekend!… Check out their latest tours here

And for the latest in flight offers I always use Skyscanner.  Try searching with their monthly option for the best deals:


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Finland in winter: a winter wonderland
Finland in winter. Frozen lakes and fjords
Swimming with whale sharks in Mexico – Debbie’s story

Swimming with whale sharks in Mexico – Debbie’s story

Swimming with whale sharks could be on my bucket list – if I wasn’t so afraid of water – so when my friend Debbie told me that this was one of her biggest dreams I excitedly followed her plans.

I want to share her story with you and hopefully inspire you to chase the one thing that you have always wanted to do.  Put aside the excuses and start the ball rolling today – and please do comment at the bottom of this post and tell us your one big dream. (Click on the links in the text to find out more)

 

Inspirational people – Debbie’s story

 

  1. You have just returned from a solo trip to Mexico. Why did you choose to go there? 

I went to Mexico because I’ve always dreamed of swimming with whale sharks, and at this time of the year (July) there are huge numbers off the coast of the Mayan peninsular.  I went for three weeks and most of my trip was based around the water and snorkelling with the wildlife.  You don’t have to get in the water either.  I took a catamaran trip and I kayaked too. Mexico and Belize have the second largest reef in the world off their coastline, and I also crossed over the border and visited Belize for a couple of days.  However there is more to Mexico than water sports.  There is lots of history, ruins and temples – I only went to a small part – Mexico is vast.

 

 

  1. Why did you go solo? 

Partly because nobody was free to come with me and swimming with the whale sharks was something that I really wanted to do.  In the past I would never have dreamed of travelling solo, not until I went travelling with yourself last year (we backpacked together for 7 weeks in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand), and then I realised that when you stay in hostels you are never really travelling alone.

Travelling with you (and doing your confidence building course before hand) made me more knowledgeable about this type of travel (solo).  With knowledge comes confidence and therefore I was confident enough to book this trip solo to a country that is in fact reasonably dangerous. 

 

  1. Did you ever feel that you were in danger? 

There was one episode – when the police were after someone.  There was a manhunt for somebody from one of the drug cartels who had killed a police officer.  I heard the gunshots whilst I was sitting outside a restaurant drinking the first of my 2-for-1 margaritas.  The staff immediately ushered us all inside the building and quickly fixed bars across all of the windows to prevent us from entering.

Were you scared? 

I watched the police in the street run past armed to the hilt.  Personally I wasn’t frightened although there were people running into the restaurant for sanctuary and many of them were scared and crying.  They were hiding behind the pillars.  In true British style I ordered my second margarita and waited it out.  The only time that I felt nervous was walking back to my hostel through streets that had been locked down and felt like a warzone.  

 

  1. Why did you choose to stay in a hostel rather than a hotel or an apartment? 

Well as I mentioned above, when you stay in a hostel you are never actually travelling alone.  It’s altogether a more friendly experience.  You can cook and eat with other guests, travel together and share experiences.  I would never want to stay in a hotel from choice.  I don’t want the restrictions of a hotel (unless it’s for a romantic break!). For more tips on staying in hostels click here

 

  1. Did you ever feel lonely? 

One day I received bad news from home.  I had just arrived at a deserted hostel – not even the owners were there – so I jumped straight on a bus to where the life was and got chatting to the waiter in the coffee shop, but otherwise, no. 

If you are not ready to take a trip like this solo, why not take a look at what Explore have to offer?  I have travelled 4 times with them and I would highly rate them – Scarlet Jones

  1. How do you think you would have coped if you had got sick? 

I can speak the (Spanish) language which is one major hurdle overcome and I had good travel insurance.  I felt quite confident that I would be fine if I were to get sick.

I use Alpha Travel Insurance.  Get your competitive travel insurance quote here – Scarlet Jones

  1. What were the top highlights of your trip? 

Swimming with whale sharks!  I wasn’t disappointed at all, however, all of the excursions that I did were all great and also the best bit was making new friends.  I have been invited to visit a family in Colombia that I met on my catamaran trip and also to Mexico City by a flight attendant!

swimming with whale sharks

swimming with whale sharks – courtesey of www.whalesharkencounter.com

  1. And the worst? 

After a six hour hot and dusty bus journey I arrived at my next hostel to check in.  There was nobody around, just a faded handwritten notice on the door directing visitors to the run-down little house next door.  There I found a friendly family who had a key and got me into the hostel.  They were very helpful but it turned out that the owners were away and I was the only person (guest or staff) rattling around in the place.  This coincided with me receiving my bad news from home.  However, despite this, my spirits were lifted when the grandfather of the family next door invited me to sleep in one of their hammocks with his family if I didn’t want to be alone in the hostel.  I declined but the thought was there.

 

Swimming with whale sharks

 

  1. Tell me about your experience of swimming with whale sharks 

I had been very thorough with my research before I booked my day out and I wasn’t disappointed.  I chose to go swimming with whale sharks with the Whale Shark Encounter from Cancun who do a lot of conservation work.  We were one of the first boats to arrive at the expected whale shark site and because of that I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the water with these magnificent fish.

The experience was wonderful – to swim next to a 30 metre long creature, looking into its enormous mouth, seeing its gills and its eyes.  You know they are watching you but they are beautiful gentle creatures.  I would do it all again

 

  1. What next? 

I am thinking about going to see blue whales, swimming with dolphins in the wild and I would love to do a 3 day trek and boat trip to see orang utangs in the wild in Borneo.  By visiting these animals in their natural habitat in an unobtrusive way with responsible companies and guides can help to provide an income for local people who find it in their interest to protect the environment and the species.  For instance, in the case of Whale Shark Encounter that I used in Mexico, all employees are from the local community and the company has the National Geographic Snorkel’s Certificate.

  1. What advice would you give to anybody who wants to travel but who has friends that either don’t want to go where you want to go and or can’t get the time off work 

I would say, just do it. Research it, stay in hostels but don’t be too regimented with your plans.  I literally only had the first few days booked and planned and I made arrangements as I went.  As long as you have internet access and a smart phone it’s all so simple.

I would also recommend that anybody who is nervous about travelling solo for the first time that they take a course.  I initially followed the Smash the Pumpkin Project and then later, I joined you (Jane at Scarlet Jones Travels) on a trip through Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, both of which taught me a lot.

These things gave me the confidence to travel solo and made me realise that I didn’t need to wait around for friends to be free to travel with me.

 

  1. What saying or mantra resonates the most with you? 

As I was racing across JFK Airport in New York to make my onward connection to Mexico I saw this sign.  I stopped briefly to take a picture but it really struck a chord.

‘Live the international life.  We travel not to escape life but for life not to escape us.’

inspirational quote

Inspirational quote from JFK

 

  1. I know that you had problems as a result of flight delays. How did you cope with that?  What were your initial feelings and was it as bad as you had feared? 

I was a little bit disappointed as I had my tour to go swimming with whale sharks booked for the following day and I wanted to be organised and relaxed for that.  I did everything in my power to catch the connecting flight but I missed it by minutes (due to delays with the first flight).  As I arrived at the gate, staff came out to tell me that they were sorry but the gate had been closed and I had missed the plane, however they immediately directed me to a help desk who organised a hotel and a flight the following morning.

I was nervous but I decided that it was just another experience and part of my travels.  I got to spend a night in New York where I met some very friendly people including a man who bought me a cheesecake!  I was apprehensive but I knew that the airport staff would fix things so I relaxed and told myself to chill.  I also got chatting to an air steward who sat with me on my first flight and explained the layout of JFK and my options should I fail to make the connection – we are still in contact via email, and he invited me to stay with his family in Mexico City.  None of this would have happened if I hadn’t missed my plane.

I use Skyscanner to search for and book all of my flights – Scarlet Jones

 

  1. Would you return to Mexico

Yes I would and I would recommend Mexico even if you are not into water sports.  I would love to visit Mexico City, the north and the Pacific coast and I would certainly love to go swimming with whale sharks again. 

 

  1. And to sum up – do you have any tips for would-be solo travellers? 

If you are in Mexico and you plan to hop over to another country and back, be careful with the taxes that you might be asked to pay when you leave and enter across the border.  For instance, if you are due to leave by air at a later date you should not have to pay taxes to Mexico if you pop over to Belize by boat (you will still have to pay Belize customs).  I researched this topic from other travel blogs whilst on the way to the border and I subsequently held my ground and (correctly) declined to pay the requested taxes when leaving Mexico. I also managed to get a refund for an Irish couple at the border who had been unaware of this rule and had initially paid up without questioning. 

If you are inspired by Debbie’s story and you would like to travel alone but you are still a bit nervous why not travel with me later this year  – I am going to Myanmar Singapore and Malaysia

Would you travel solo and take a trip like this?  If not, drop me a line below in the comments and let me know what is stopping you – or alternatively tell us about your own experiences when you chased your dream

 

 Useful Links and information:

Travel Insurance from Alpha Travel Insurance

The Smash the Pumpkin Project – build your confidence and self belief 

Are you too old to stay in hostels?

Hotel tips: and how NOT to behave in a hostel

Getting sick while travelling in S E Asia

Travel with me in Malaysia later this year

Small group adventure holidays with Explore

Guide books to anywhere from Lonely Planet

Find a place to stay with Agoda

Search and book your flights with Skyscanner

Swimming with whale sharks in Cancun – www.whalesharkencounter.com

Scarlet Jones Travels contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions are akin to you buying me a cup of coffee and keeping me on the road so that I can continue to bring you articles and information. Thanks for reading!

 

Discover Porto, 9 highlights and top things to do

Discover Porto, 9 highlights and top things to do

If you’re looking for a European city to explore I can certainly recommend Porto (the second largest city in Portugal) for you. In this article I’ll help you to discover Porto with my 9 highlights and top things to do.  Porto is romantic and brimming with history, it has amazing food and drink and the people are extremely friendly – you should seriously consider visiting this up and coming destination.

the river D'ouro - highlight of Porto

River life in Porto

I initially chose to visit Porto because I found some very cheap flights on Skyscanner  (click here to try their search anywhere option?), but also, because it was the beginning of the season, there was also plenty of cheap accommodation available (check out the latest prices on Agoda here)

 

Getting to Porto

 

Before I set off I had been living in the same location for a few months and I was getting itchy feet.  I need to stretch myself occasionally and remind myself what I am capable of so I played around with the Search tool on Skyscanner* and when a too good to be true deal to Porto turned up I was away.  As I was living in Spain I did consider letting the train take the strain or even using a car share which I have done many times before, but the flights were cheap and the airport a simple metro ride from the city centre, so this time, the plane it was.

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Discover Porto: my 9 highlights and top things to do.

 

When I visited I was lucky enough to meet up with a friend who is studying in the city (we met on the slow boat from Thailand to Laos).  Eduardo very kindly took me along for a traditional Portuguese meal and showed me some of the sights.  I also took two separate free (for tips) walking tours with Citylovers Tours and between Eduardo and the tour guides I learnt much of what makes the northern Portuguese tick.

1.  The D’ouro River

The river dominates Porto.  Called D’ouro- meaning the river of gold, this major waterway is the lifeblood of the city.  The old town grew up around the port, with stone buildings crammed onto the steep hillside on the banks on one side while the storage and distribution cellars of the port wine companies were built across the water.

the busy riverside - a highlight of Porto

the bustling riverside at the weekend in Porto

Six bridges cross the river, but by far the most spectacular is the Pont de Dom Luis 1 right in the heart of the city.  The bottom tier carries road traffic and pedestrians, the upper level the tram and pedestrians.  Look out for the young men collecting money from the gathering tourists and daring to jump off the bridge and do walk across both the top and the bottom levels in the daytime and after dark.

One night, my friend Eduardo drove me up to a viewpoint at the Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar high above the city for a birds’ eye view which I loved so much that I returned to see the sunset a few evenings later.  Eduardo explained to me how maybe as recently as fifteen years ago Porto had little night life and much crime, but it has now been cleaned up by the police and the politicians – and the residents are reclaiming the streets again.

must see in Porto - the riverside at night

must see in Porto – the riverside at night

New bars, coffee houses and restaurants are springing up everywhere and there is now a vibrant nightlife scene encompassing art, food and music.

Porto is hilly but there are buses, trams, funiculars and even a cable car which can take some of the strain; so take your time wandering around and enjoy the relaxed ambience and stop and listen to the music from the buskers who can be found playing on many of the street corners.

tram - highlight of Porto

the tram is now mainly just for tourists

 

2.  The beach

 

Make sure that you take the local bus down to the beach which runs down and around the corner of the coast from the river estuary.  A grand promenade runs behind a long stretch of golden sand where the big waves from across the Atlantic thunder ashore and are a magnet for surfers.

If you have the time, go along to the little streets in the area known as Matosinhos where you can order fish from one of the little restaurants and ask for it to be grilled on a barbeque on the street in front of you.

the beach in Porto at sunset

make sure that you get down to the beach in Porto

Porto is also a popular start point for walking the pilgrim route of the Camino de Santiago.  I saw several people walking purposefully northwards along the promenade, their scallop shells hanging from their rucksacks; and if I do ever get around to attempting the walk, I think that Porto to Santiago would be my first choice of route.

 

3.  The countryside around Porto.

 

I had met Raj from Nepal on the free walking tour with Citylovers Tours and we decided to take the train together to the small town of Braga.  This town is famous for the number of churches and religious buildings.  It’s very relaxed and offered a nice escape from Porto and the train ride alone through the Portuguese countryside was worth it.  The tourist office told us about a couple of places to visit outside Braga that were easily accessible by bus although I have to confess that Raj and I were feeling lazy and we didn’t bother to go outside Braga.

Don't miss Braga when you visit Porto

Braga on a sunny day

In the summer you can take a cruise along the river to see the hillsides along the D’ouro valley covered with vines – I had hoped to go pop along by train because the scenery is beautiful but I missed the early train and didn’t have enough time.

The railway station in the centre of Porto is also well worth a visit and there are always people admiring the tiled artwork.  The huge tiled pictures tell the stories of the history of Porto and also show off the opulence of the city to arriving passengers.

the wonderfully tiled station in Porto is well worth a look

the wonderfully tiled station in Porto is well worth a look

 

4.  The buildings

 

Much of the old town and the area clustered around the riverside is UNESCO listed thanks to the beautiful architecture.  Tall narrow town houses are squashed together, many are tiled, most are painted in rich colours and the majority have ornate balconies, railings and shutters.

a highlight of Porto: the UNESCO listed buildings

a highlight of Porto: the UNESCO listed buildings

The huge Plaja Libertad is flanked by restaurants and hotels and topped by the grand civic building which sparkles a brilliant white in the sun and is lit by amber spotlights after dark.

Bolhao Market is the oldest in the city and has a worn down shabby feel.  Walk around the upstairs terrace and you will feel that you are transported back in time, although due to rumuurs that this is the next public space that will be renovated, many of the traders have already moved out which gives the place a down-at-heel feel.

don't miss the highlights of Porto

The majestic Plaja Libertad

 

5.  Porto’s parks and green spaces

 

Porto certainly does well with green spaces.  The City Park which is actually on the outskirts of the city is a huge green space with meandering paths that circle around a lake and attracts runners and cyclists – as does the whole promenade area along the beach road.

the park on the prom - 9 highlights of Porto

the park behind the prom – 9 highlights of Porto

Crystal Palace Park contains a stark green dome – squatting among the trees like a space ship and which houses a sports centre but the park itself has great views of the river and the hillside below.  Another park worthy of a listing here is the …which has a lake and some cute sculptures among the trees.

Right in the city centre is a green space at the foot of the Torre dos Clerigos.  An enterprising bar owner has taken advantage of this position and supplies blankets for lounging on in the sun.  Cool music plays in the background and I was told the bar becomes an outdoor club in the summer.

the art deco house in the grounds of the Art Museum

the art deco house in the grounds of the Art Museum

The Contemporary Art Museum is surrounded by gardens and farmland.  There are landscaped ponds, long driveways underneath grand trees, strange sculptures and the pink art deco house which houses further exhibitions.

 

6.  The churches of Porto

 

Porto has many churches which vary enormously from the stark and bare to the ostentatious Igreja de Sao Francisco which creaks under the weight of all the gold.  Many of them are tiled on the outside – (as are many of the other buildings too).  The tiles (mostly blue and white) were put on the buildings to combat and protect the structures from the humidity as well as being a means to show off the prosperity of the city in the past.  The tiles repel the damp during the winter and reflect the sunlight in the heat of the summer and are a feature all across Portugal.

the tiled churchs are a highlight of Porto

the tiled churchs are a highlight of Porto

The Cathedral is on a high point above the city where it can be seen by people approaching from the river.  Unusually behind the university there are two churches (one is the Igreja do Carmo) that have been built virtually next to each other.  It wasn’t allowed for two churches to occupy share the same wall so the tiniest little house was built in the small gap between them to get around that ruling.

I already mentioned the Torre dos Clerigos above.  It is a good climb up the 240 stone steps to the top of the 75 meter high tower but you get fantastic views of the terracotta roofs of Porto, the river and the countryside beyond.  The church attached to the tower contains a small museum and you can climb up into the galleries that overlook the altar.

the view from Torre dos Clerigos over Porto

the view from Torre dos Clerigos over Porto

 

7.  Food and drink in Porto.

 

Portugal is very reasonably priced and the food is good.  Pork is a favourite and every part of the pig is eaten – the people from Porto and the north are traditionally called triperos – tripe eaters due to their love of that particular speciality.  Bacalao (salted cod fish) is a staple dating back to the days when people had to salt their fish to preserve it and apparently you can now find over 1000 recipes for bacalao.

some of the many great restaurants in Porto

some of the many great restaurants in Porto

I decided not to do a port wine tour but I did want to sample the various types of port.  Luckily I didn’t have to take part in a tour for this and I stumbled upon the 3+Arte Cafe.  This is a co-working space for creatives with a bar and good wifi – so despite being by myself I ordered a tasting set of three different types of port wine to test and compare.  I spent time working on my computer and ignoring the strange looks from the people who were eying up the three glasses of port that were in front of me.

port in Porto

port in Porto

Cafe Majestic is one of Europe’s oldest cafes and with its art nouveau frontage is certainly special.  The prices match but if you can grab a table  and you want to soak up the atmosphere of times gone by, just order a coffee and watch the world go by.

 

8.  The Harry Potter connection.

 

The Harry Potter books from J K Rowling contain several connections to Porto.  The author lived in the city for a while and some of her inspiration came from the things that she observed.  Groups of university students wander around the city conducting strange (to outsiders) ceremonies for the novices but noticeably they are dressed in black woollen capes similar to the ones worn by the students of magic in the books.

the waterfront in Porto

the waterfront in Porto

The Lello Book shop got so inundated with tourists wanting to look at the interior with its carved wood features and the staircase (was it the inspiration for Hogwarts?) that they have now resorted to charging an entrance fee; although that is refundable off the price of any book purchased.

Scarlet Jones Travels is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

 

9.  The people are always the highlight for me.

 

The people from Porto remind me of the Spanish but they are calm, quiet and extremely polite.  That is not to say that the Spaniards are not, just that the Portuguese are more so. Portugal has been in economic crisis for some time now and food, drink, transport and accommodation costs (for tourists) are probably among the cheapest in Western Europe at the moment.

catching a quiet few moments in Porto

catching a quiet few moments in Porto

My history lessons in school didn’t focus on Portugal at all so it came as a surprise to me to learn that the country also suffered under a dictatorship for many years.  There were in fact three successive leaders who ruled with fear and over the years many innocent people were tortured or simply disappeared.

The nickame for the Golden Anchor bar near to the university translates to the Portuguese name for (head) louse and, legend has it, got its name from the days when the city was full of government spies.  It became illegal for more than 3 people to gather and talk in a group on the street so the bars became places for chatting.  The landlord of the Golden Anchor was believed to be sympathetic to the people and would scratch his head to indicate that there was a suspected spy in the bar listening to the customers.

If you would like some more inspiration for things to do in Porto from another perspective, then read what the Crazy Tourist has to say about the city …click here.

The people that I met

 

And for me, as always, what made Porto special were the people that I met.

Rui from Paris who has inspired me to walk the camino from Porto, Erika from Germany for your fun company, Raj from Nepal and Rita and the rest of the super friendly staff at the Porto Lounge Hostel  Thank you to Eduardo for giving up your time and showing me around and introducing me to the smaller, more traditional places where the Portuguese hang out and also Maria and Patricia from the walking tours.

People watching on a sunny Sunday in Porto

People watching on a sunny Sunday in Porto

Thank you everybody for sharing your stories with me and for giving me yet more insights into the strength of the human spirit.  I support and encourage people to change their lives with the Smash the Pumpkin Project, but you change mine.

If you are looking for a romantic city break try Porto

If you are looking for a romantic city break try Porto

When I was in Porto I never got around to visiting the golden clad Igreja de Sao Francisco, taking the train to Coimbra or the boat/train down the D’ouro valley to the vineyards.  I never ate tripe either so I shall just have to return, although not specifically for that!

 

Where to stay in Porto.

 

I stayed at the Porto Lounge Hostel which easily makes it into my top ten of the cleanest, brightest hostels that I have stayed in.  If you have never stayed in a hostel there is nothing to be afraid of; do give it a go.  Many hostels now even offer private en-suite rooms and if you’re nervous about the required etiquette in a hostel you can read my guide on how NOT to behave in hostels (but please bear in mind that encountering problems such as the ones in my article are very rare).

happy and bright - inside the Porto Lounge Hostel

happy and bright – inside the Porto Lounge Hostel

I travel slowly, working from my laptop but there was plenty in and around Porto to keep me occupied all week, although had I got fed up, Lisbon was a relatively short train ride away.

*If you don’t have a specific destination in mind, Skyscanner has a great facility which allows you to input any destination from a specific airport and will subsequently call up all flights which can be sorted into price order.  Give it a whirl at this link – but be careful – it can be addictive (Do let me know if you succumb and you book something ;-))


Thank you for taking the time to read this article.  Make sure that you don’t miss out on future posts by signing up and following me at www.scarletjonestravels.com where you can get your free guide –7 days to a more confident YOUonce you have entered your email address.

And finally, don’t forget you can plan your own trip with this Lonely Planet Guide which you can get at this link

the wine cellars by night in Porto

the wine cellars by night in Porto

Discover Porto, 9 highlights and top things to do

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Porto for Pinterest

Porto

This article may contain affiliate links. If you click on one of these links and subsequently make a purchase you may generate a small amount of commission for me which will enable me to continue travelling and bring you more informative articles such as this.

 

Cordoba, Cuenca and Teruel: Road Trip Spain: The Final Leg

Cordoba, Cuenca and Teruel: Road Trip Spain: The Final Leg

Reluctantly leaving the city of Cadiz behind, Debs and I began our journey north on the final leg of our road trip Spain.  Cordoba, Cuenca and Teruel were our final destinations and Cordoba was the place that I had been looking forward to the most.

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Cordoba

In Cordoba our accommodation was in an AirBnB apartment where we stayed with the friendliest family ever just outside the old city walls (to earn a discount on your AirBnB stay click through this link)

Our hosts Quique and Valle were amazing and enthusiastically gave us tons of information about the things to see and do in their home town, proudly telling us how we could save money and what we really shouldn’t miss.  They gave us some great tips, such as…

  • Visit the Mezquita when it opens at 8/8.30 am and you not only get free entry for the first forty five minutes but you can get the amazing mosque with its many pillars virtually to yourself.
  • Go to the Victoria Market – a food hall in its glass box structure for a flavour of the southern specialities
  • Buy very cheap beer and wine in the little Que Canas bar and choose free tapas from a huge list.  Not only free, these tapas were enormous, eliminating the need to buy lunch or dinner.

Although the autumn air had turned chilly we could see the many pretty patios and courtyards which locals decorate with flowers during the spring and summer and are quite rightly, a huge tourist attraction.

We crossed the old arched bridge that spanned the Guadalquivir River and we wandered around the Jewish quarter and the historical centre.

Cordoba, Cuenca and Teruel

The Roman bridge in Cordoba

The highlight of Cordoba for me was a visit on my birthday, courtesy of Debs, to a demonstration of the magnificent trained horses of the Royal Stables.  The show at the Cordoba Equestrian Centre  was truly spectacular as skilled riders showed what their animals could do – the steeds perform intricate dressage steps perfectly in time with each other and with the music.

Cordoba, Cuenca and Teruel

the amazing horse show

As usual, we hunted out a free (for tips) walking tour, this time with Cordoba a Pie and Ricardo led us around the best sites and the narrow cobbled streets.  Like many small towns, these maze like streets were built in this confusing way for a purpose – here in Cordoba it was mainly to preserve privacy of the rich Muslins with dead ends ending in the beautiful courtyards.  Ricardo showed us El Panuelo (Tissue Street) which is said to be the narrowest street in Europe and the Roman Temple as well as the arched Roman bridge and the impressive gate at one end of it.

the Roman gate in the old town

And the Mezquita was spectacular.  We were actually the first ones through the door when it opened in the morning (the first 45 minutes are free admission), and the early start was worth the effort as we more or less had the place to ourselves.  First Moorish then later Christian the hall of pillars oozes a calm and a spirituality.

Cordoba, Cuenca and Teruel

the stunning Mezquita

After Cordoba we were off to another city beginning with the letter ‘C’….

Cuenca.

Driving in to Cuenca with a useless map it took us a couple of hours to find our small pension that we had reserved.  Next time I do a road trip I think that I will treat myself to a Sat Nav (this one by TomTom covers Western Europe too) By the time we settled in it was dark so we wandered around in the cold for a bit, finding a cute bar to sit in and recovering from the stress of driving where we probably weren’t supposed to drive.  I regretted breaking my rule of checking behind me when walking when, at midnight, standing in a dark street and confronted by a bank of old wooden doors that all looked the same, we realised that we didn’t have a clue where we lived.  We had earlier left our room which was in an annexe of the hotel without checking the address!

Refreshed after a decent night’s sleep once we found the correct front door that our key fit

ted, Debs and I set out the next morning to explore.  The temperature was a frosty zero degrees, in stark contrast to the twenty six degrees that we had been baking in in Alicante just a couple of weeks before, so we walked briskly to the top of the old town and we crossed the scary metal bridge to take a look at the famous hanging houses of Cuenca.

The bridge was scary because of its height but also because the wooden floor was lethally slippery and the parapets were rather low.  There are not so many of the hanging houses left in Cuenca now in Cuenca now, but they are very pretty.  Dating back a few centuries the wooden balconies hang out high above the ravine which must give one an amazing feeling as you dine inside at the windows or simply stare out over the scenery.

Cordoba, Cuenca and Teruel

The old town in Cuenca per ched high above the cliffs

As Debs and I climbed the track behind the old town we couldn’t believe the views and I would certainly like to return and hike some of the many footpaths and trails in the area. Much of Cuenca has been built along the top of a sharp ridge that falls steeply to both sides down to rivers below but the views and the surrounding countryside are very pretty.

As part of my attempts to improve my Spanish, Debs was pushing me to chat to random strangers.  In the streets in the upper part of Cuenca my victim was a street cleaner.  Happy to lean on his broom for a while after I had asked him the best place for a coffee, he chatted away to us and then he pointed out a mountain that was painted with a pair of blue eyes.  With the overhanging rock-face the eyes looked just like a lady wearing a hijab.  We would probably never have spotted it if I hadn’t spoken to my ‘victim’ and he told us about a doomed love story between a Christian man and a Muslim lady.  He painted her eyes high above the town so that she would never be forgotten.

Cordoba, Cuenca and Teruel

The eyes of the Moor

Our final destination was…

Teruel.

I had never heard of the town but Debs had added it to our list because it is always highlighted on the Spanish weather channel with its extremes of temperatures.  Apparently it gets scorching hot in the summer but we were there as a cold snap hit the south of Spain and it felt Arctic.

Cordoba, Cuenca and Teruel

one of the bridges in Teruel

Our arrival was funny as Debs drove up and down one of the streets about 10 times and I tried to spot our hotel that we had booked.  Google maps, and the street signs were telling us that we were in the correct place but for the life of me I couldn’t spot the entrance among all of the little shops.  Parking up to ask somebody we fell about laughing as we realised that we had totally discounted the large 3 star hotel – the Isabel de Segura on the corner of the street, but which was our super bargain for the night. Check out the latest prices here

We had gone from being squashed together in the smallest tent on the planet, to a wooden shed in the mountains to a 3 star hotel.

In the same way as searching for the hotel, we also searched for ages for the square with the statue of the bull in the centre.  That was also a trick that Teruel played on us because the bull was quite tiny and stuck up high on a column – we had walked past it several times without spotting it.

Cordoba, Cuenca and Teruel

The tiny statue of the bull

Teruel was interesting but at the end of our tour was like the warm-down after an exercise class.

The next day Debs pointed Betty the Berlingo north east and we headed on back towards Catalunya.

Our trip had taken 20 days, we had slept in twelve different places and we had driven more than 2000kms.

Here’s that link to the sat nav systems that I mentioned in the post – this would have saved us quite a bit of time when we were driving around the towns

If you would like to read about the trip in its entirety you can click on the following links.  Feel free to message me with any questions that you may have as I am more than happy to answer anything about our destinations

You can find information and the best prices for the hotels, hostels and campsites where we stayed in the relevant articles, or in the round up below, and for more information, why not read the Lonely Planet Guide to Spain…Buy Now!

Camping Alpujarras, Laroles, Sierra Nevada, click here for latest prices

Bungalow Camping Trevelez, Sierra Nevada Check the bungalows out here

Granada – Camping Motel Sierra Nevada – we camped but bungalows are available

Ronda – Pension Rondasol – find out more here

Cadiz – See availabilty for the Casa Caracol here

Seville – AirBnB

Cordoba – AirBnB

Teruel – Hotel Isabel de Segura – 3* hotel – Best prices here

And here are a few more images for you to pin if you would like to bookmark this page for reference later

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