A Travellerspoint blog

Cuba - Fria

semi-overcast 24 °C

Everything flourishes under the Caribbean skies in the verdant valley of Viñales in western Cuba, and we feel like extras in a romantic movie set in the tropics in the 1800s…
The farmer of the land surrounding our comfortable abode harnesses his oxen to plough the land. His trees are laden with bananas, papayas, guavas, mangos and avocados, and piglets and chickens grub in the fields of corn. Vultures swirl overhead in search of a snack at dawn and the mother hen keeps an eye on her flock. The fighting cockerels have other concerns as they loudly crow their prowess. Sunday is fight day – some will be stew on Monday.

This angelic corner of heaven has been spruced up a notch in the past year. Almost every house has been given a makeover since our last visit and every other one is cashing in on the B&B market. But with the ever increasing crush of tourists there is a danger that this particular lily will become overly gilded…
The same is true of eateries. A dozen or more establishments have opened up shop in recent months and with so much competition a good meal still only costs $10 ($15 for the whole lobster). It is interesting to note that one enterprising restaurateur has seized on James’ fictional detective, David Bliss, as the name for his establishment. How could we resist eating there?
‘Build it and they will come,’ according to the maxim and it certainly seems true in Viñales where a fleet of tourist–laden air-conditioned buses turn up daily from Havana. But air-conditioning is for foreign cissies: the locals rely on their open-topped buses…
Cuba is a land of stark contrast between the rich and the poor, but everyone shares in its vibrant, noisome and colourful culture. Exotic flowers like bougainvillea, hibiscus, frangipane and orchids grow like weeds and everywhere is the tobacco - green and lush – bursting with life while promising death…
These shade grown plants, south of the tobacco capital of Pinar del Rio, are recognised as the source of the finest cigars in the world.
This is the dedicated plantation owner, Hector Diaz, who delighted in escorting us around his award-winning estate…

However, we have been clipped by a Polar vortex and midday temperatures have barely hit the mid-twenties – Celsius for the past couple of days. It is enough to make the locals dig out their winter woollies. With such bone-chilling temperatures it’s not surprising that the pristine aquamarine sea and mangrove-fringed beaches of Cayo Jutias were almost deserted…
Who would bathe in this tepid water except for us brave Canadian polar bear types?

Posted by Hawkson 11:23 Archived in Cuba Comments (7)

Cuba Libre


semi-overcast 26 °C

We had not intended blogging from Cuba because of limited internet access, but a new day has dawned. Uncle Sam has finally abandoned his spiteful attempt to demoralize and destroy his downtrodden neighbour and has torn down one of the last vestiges of the Iron Curtain. Who knows what tomorrow will bring to this tropical isle with its palm-fringed sun-drenched beaches and its exuberant and generous peoples.
We can’t let this momentous day pass without taking a snapshot of Cuban life that will permit future visitors to judge the consequences of communist Cuba being unshackled by its capitalist neighbour. So this is Havana today:
It is a city of broken pavements with legions of ruined, but architecturally elegant, buildings; a city where beautifully restored five star hotels rub shoulders with crumbling hovels; a city of manicured tree-lined boulevards and garbage strewn back alleys; a city where stylish fashionistas stroll amongst gangs of dishevelled labourers and assorted idlers; a bustling city that is full of music and life day and night. This is the cupola of the Capitole, a previously hated symbol of American imperialism which is now being restored for the Cuban Congress…
Havana’s store’s shelves may be full but the range and quality of goods is limited. For example: this week one large supermarket had two aisles jammed with thousands of bags of flour, but no tea, no coffee and no baking powder. Another had a stack of tea, but no flour, no coffee and no baking powder. And so it goes – the only item that is universally stocked is Cuban rum and, it appears, no one has baking powder. However we are aware that there is a thriving black market, and imagine our surprise when James made pancakes for us and Lourdes, our Cuban hostess, and she magically produced a bottle of finest Canadian maple syrup! Who knows what will happen when, (and if), WalMart and Future Shop hang out their shingles here. Hotels and tour companies are already being swamped with enquiries and American cruise ships are on the horizon…

Two million pre-revolution American gas-guzzlers prowl the streets as taxis and a shared ride of any distance costs just 40 cents. Forty cents was also the amount we paid for a major concert by popular Cuban singer Haydee Milanese and her very famous father, Pablo, in the National Theatre of Cuba. Many prices are quoted in Cuban Nacional Pesos and there are 25 Pesos to 1 Cuban dollar (equivalent to a US dollar) which is also called Pesos. So “One Pesos por favor” can mean 4 cents or 1 dollar depending on where you are and what you are buying. Consequently, many uninformed tourists pay twenty-five times as much as asked for goods and services (and the Cubans are too polite to point out the mistake). The average Cuban survives comfortably on $40 US a month, but that’s not difficult when fresh eggs are 4 cents apiece..

Despite the years of hardship and deprivations; despite the number of families torn apart by those who have fled to seek a softer life in Miami, (and the countless thousands who drowned in the attempt), the Cuban spirit has not been broken. They are a happy, noisy, fun-loving, sophisticated and big-hearted bunch and we feel privileged to be here on the day that their wall came down.
Today is also momentous for us because in the next few hours someone will be the five hundred thousandth reader of our blog. This could be you dear blog follower wherever you are. While we know that our blog has been read more than 499,000 times we will only know if you are the half a millionth reader if you tell us. So, click on the “Comment” button below and tell us when America imposed its five decade long blockade on Cuba and we will send you a valuable prize if you are the ‘one’.
Good luck. Hasta luego nuestros amigos from Havana, Cuba, Libre, on January 17th 2015.

Posted by Hawkson 07:56 Archived in Cuba Comments (10)

England’s Green and Pleasant Land

sunny 13 °C

To cap off our London visit we went to the Royal Albert Hall and joined the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the regimental band of the Royal Scots Guards, together with 80 voices of the Royal Choral Society and three tenors, in a regal programme packed with some of the world’s best known and loved classical pieces. And finally, to raise the roof, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with canons, muskets, fireworks, bells and organ – absolutely unforgettable...
However, perhaps the most emotional spectacle was when us, and several thousand Brits, stood to wave Union Jacks while singing Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem a la Last Night of the Proms. It’s enough to make you believe that Britain still rules the world…

After a few days soaking up the many wonderful sights in the heart of London we slipped off to the gently rolling Cotswold hills in the western part of England….
This part of the country is known for its centuries old limestone cottages and legions of elegant manor houses and stately homes. This is quintessential England: chocolate box cottages; bucolic pastures; spreading oaks; and a myriad of babbling brooks misting the air in the frosty autumn sunshine...
Many of the picturesque towns have changed little since the 15th century. This is the much photographed riverside village of Bourton-on-the-water…
…and these almshouses were built for Burford’s poor parishioners in 1457…
While many of the buildings in this part of the country are at least 500 years old there are numerous that have been around far longer. The City of Bath is world renowned for its Roman architecture and two thousand year old baths, and there are many Saxon churches dating from the 8th century. The spire of this church in Burford was erected by the Normans in 1175…
Burford church was nearly 500 years old when the English beheaded Charles 1st and England briefly became a republic under Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads. Not everyone was happy with the way that Ollie was running things and in May of 1649 a thousand of his troops mutinied in Burford. The insurrection was started by men called Levellers who believed that once the king had lost his head everyone would have a share of the crown jewels – Yeh. Right! (as we Canadians say). ..
The ringleaders were quickly rounded up by the Roundheads and executed in the churchyard – and that was nearly 400 years ago when our hotel, the Slaughters Inn in nearby Lower Slaughter, was newly built...
Winter is upon us and we are now heading home for Christmas. A huge thank you to all the people who helped us as we made our way around the world in the past 72 days. Now we are taking a short break but will be blogging again early next year when we cross the line to explore the rich cultures of South America. In the meantime we wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
P.S. Copies of our inspirational travel guide, Slow Train to China, are still available and might make an ideal Christmas gift for someone looking for a little adventure. Just contact us and we will pop a copy in the mail.

Posted by Hawkson 10:17 Archived in England Comments (2)

Munich – We’re Not Here for the Beer

rain 12 °C

Although Munich is renowned today for its annual vomiting contest, (generally known as Oktoberfest), it is equally famous as the home of many of the world’s most successful manufacturers like BMW, Audi, Adidas, Puma, Grundig and Siemens. Munich is also home to some spectacular historic architecture including the enormous gothic city hall which is at the centre of the city’s Christmas Market…
Bavaria was ruled by members of the Wittelsbach family from 1180 - 1918, although by the time that the flambouyant Ludwig II took the crown in 1864 the real power was in parliamentarian’s hands. However, despite the fact that Ludwig broke the royal bank with his madcap buildings, the family kept a firm hand on their crown jewels and chief among them was their colossal palace, The Residenz, in the centre of Munich. Building began in 1385 and continued for centuries. The palace simply grew and grew as subsequent monarchs added big lumps to suit the times and their tastes – sometimes a little OTT...
The palace eventually had 130 major rooms around 10 courtyards with hundreds of ancillary chambers and staff quarters. Fortunately for our knees only 90 of the rooms are currently open to the public – although some of the halls are a route march in themselves. This banquet hall – the Antiquarian built in 1385 – is more than 200 feet long…
Allied bombing in WWII destroyed many of the buildings in the Residenz complex but it has been faithfully restored. However, while the Allies were flattening Munich in the 1940s, the Nazis were knocking big holes in London. It too survived and has been restored to its former glory – and what a glory it is. We often enthuse about all the amazing historic buildings we see around the world, but none compare with the architectural magnificence of London. This is The Royal Albert Hall…
Along with numerous royal palaces, the thousand year old fortress of the Tower of London and the capital’s iconic parliament buildings, there are hundreds of truly breathtaking buildings in this historic city. There are vast museums like the Victoria & Albert, the Science and the Natural History…
However, entry to all the national museums and art galleries in London is always free so there are crowds – everyone loves ‘free’ - but with museums like the Victoria & Albert having more than ten miles of exhibition galleries it’s always possible to find a quiet spot…
London has street after street of Georgian and Victorian masterpieces dating from the mid 1700s…
Regent Street, a mecca for the world’s wealthiest shopaholics, was built in the early 1800s and rebuilt a hundred years later. If you have to ask the price here you definitely can’t afford it. But it costs nothing to wander up and down and gaze in awe at the spectacular Christmas lights...

There is much more to England than London so now we are heading off to the country - to the beautiful Cotswolds. Hope to see you there in a few days.

Posted by Hawkson 01:20 Archived in Germany Comments (7)

Eine Kleine Popmusik in Salzburg

sunny 14 °C

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is everywhere in Salzburg, which is not surprising because, in some ways he was the Justin Bieber figure of his day. It has often been said that Mozart was created just to make the rest of us look stupid, (whereas Bieber manages to make us all look brilliant), however there are similarities. Both started very young.
Mozart was composing and performing at the age of five and touring Europe at the age of six, although he didn’t really top the bill in Salzburg until he was appointed Court Musician to the Prince Archbishop when he was seventeen. His holiness lived in gilded digs atop Salzburg’s massive medieval fortress - Hohensalzburg…
This is a part of his gold studded bedroom ceiling…
…and he had a cathedral the size of St. Paul’s in the city below…
But the Arch-skinflint, Count Hieronymus Franz Josef von Colloredo-Mannsfeld, didn’t see why he should pay a tin-pot piano player more than a pittance for entertaining his guests in the court theatre and his regal concert hall in his fortress…
So, after four years living on peanuts, Mozart became a bad boy. He fell out with the Archbishop and was forced to hit the road. He ended up in Vienna beating out dance numbers for the fashionistas of the day, but he wanted to be taken seriously so he spent most of his spare time writing operas. He soon became a hit and the big bucks started rolling, but it went to his head and he blew all the cash and died penniless at 36. Now if Mozart were around today he, and his agent, would be raking in a fortune in franchise and copyright fees. There are entire stores filled with his brand-name liqueurs, chocolates and perfumes …
Half of the café’s, restaurants and bars in Salzburg have worked his name into their menus and logos...
This is the Mozart dessert at the Panorama Restaurant in the fortress…
And, on any given day, there are more Mozart concerts in Salzburg than a conductor can shake his baton at. But Salzburg has much more to offer than Mozart. In addition to the fortress that dates back a thousand years, (the largest in Europe), there are many splendid buildings more than 400 years old. This is the enormous Mirabell Palace, built in 1606, where the Mozart family performed and where much of the movie version of “The Sound of Music” was filmed…

The pedestrian friendly streets of Old Salzburg have been walked by thousands of history’s most famous and infamous figures. Kings, queens, princes and emperors have passed this way – and with good reason. Salzburg is a beautiful city that is full of life; of history; and of Mozart.

Posted by Hawkson 01:22 Archived in Austria Comments (6)

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