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On my first full day I visited the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This was the home of the Kings of Siam from the 1780s to the early 20th century. Unfortunately, the day I was there the halls of the actual palace seemed to be closed – at least, I couldn’t find any way into them. But the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and all the associated shrines, statues, etc, were open so I concentrated on them and just walked through the palace grounds later. First, though, a few words about getting to the location, and my first impressions of Bangkok.

The site is close to the Chao Phraya river, which runs along the western side of the main city. The river is very wide and busy, with boats of all descriptions running up and down it and calling at a large number of piers on both sides. There are many traditional and historic sites along the river – various temples and other sites, including the Grand Palace (which actually sits a bit away from the river, but not far). Included in the various boats was the ‘Tourist Express’ boat, and this was the one I used. But I had to get to the river first, of course, and it turns out that there’s a SkyTrain station at the main pier on the river. (In fact, of course, it’s the presence of the SkyTrain station that’s made that pier the ‘main pier’.) The SkyTrain is an elevated railway with two separate lines. It’s modern, clean, and blissfully air-conditioned. This was important as Bangkok was very hot all the time I was there – 35° every day, and no lower than 27° or 28° in the evening.

The Grand Palace is one of those places that have a dress code – basically, no shorts, no skin-tight leggings, skirts below the knee, and covered shoulders and midriff, for both genders. The way it was applied was a little strange (or even unhelpful). Continue Reading »

Bangkok – Overview

lotus_flowers

Lotus flowers

I’ve just had a short holiday in Bangkok; just four nights, which gave me three full days. This was in the context of a longer holiday which included a 10-night cruise from Dubai on P&O’s Oceana. The few days in Bangkok were before the cruise, and you can read about the cruise here, in my Cruise Blog.

As usual on my trips to Asia I flew with Emirates from Manchester, which gives me the opportunity to break up the journey with a transfer at Dubai. This does extend the overall time from about 13 hours to 17 or 18, but I think that being able to stretch my legs for up to three hours at Dubai airport does me good – I’m really not sure how well I’d do with a non-stop flight of 13 hours or so. So I was on a flight from Manchester at 1:30pm on Monday 4 February, arrived at Dubai at just after midnight local time on the 5th, boarded an onward flight to Bangkok at about 3am and arrived in Bangkok at around 1:30 pm, local time. As ever, the flights were long and boring, but thanks to the comforts of Emirates’ A380 aircraft were not too not too uncomfortable; and being able to have a break between the two flights was definitely a good idea.

I stayed at the U Sukhumvit hotel in Bangkok. This is a four star hotel in the Sukhumvit area of downtown Bangkok. I found it good in some respects but not so good in others. The good points were that it was competitively-priced, the staff were friendly and helpful and there was an excellent roof-top pool, bar & restaurant area where I took most dinners. The room was a good size, was clean, and pretty much everything worked. The bathroom especially was very good, and there was plenty of storage. However other aspects of the room were rather uncomfortable. I could never quite get it cool enough, and generally felt a little warmer than I really wanted to. Secondly, there was no chair or table, just a high work surface under one of the windows, and to sit at this there was a high stool. I just wanted a simple chair that I could sit in and plant my feet on the floor!

The hotel’s location was a bit mixed as well. It was up one of the lanes off Sukhumvit Road, and it was a 10-minute walk from the main road to the hotel. Getting down to the main road was OK, in that the hotel had a free tuk-tuk service on demand to take you there, and once arrived at the road there was a modern mall with shops of many kinds, a station on the SkyTrain elevated railway, and a number of bars and restaurants. The problem came with getting back to the hotel. It was necessary to walk from the main road, and at the end of the day that 10 minutes’ walk seemed very long and hot – especially after enjoying the truly impressive level of a/c on the SkyTrain. But at least being half-a-mile up the lane meant that the hotel was quiet – Sukhumvit Road itself was insanely busy, well into the early hours.

So I got to the hotel in the late afternoon on arrival day. After showering and changing, I explored the area, which basically meant going down to the main road, wandering around the mall, checking out the SkyTrain station, and then wandering back to the hotel. I’d had a small meal before I did any exploring, and later had an even smaller meal during the evening. But I wasn’t late to bed that day, after spending so many previous hours travelling.

My holiday ended on Wednesday. I was at the airport by 11 o’clock, in the air before 2 o’clock, and getting through UK Border and baggage reclaim between 4:30 and 5pm UK time. I got my car back at 5 o’clock and after successfully negotiating the M25, M40, A43 and the M1, I reached home shortly before 9pm – can’t complain about that. Then there began the post holiday round of unpacking, washing & ironing, of course.

So what did I think of the holiday? After all, this was my fourth visit to Crete in successive years – am I all ‘Crete-d out’? Well, there were times when I was beginning to think so. However, my overall conclusion is that I enjoyed it and I had a good time.

I came to like Heraklion a lot. I mentioned in an earlier post that I was surprised that the town didn’t make more of its port; well, I think I’ve got over that feeling. What I came to realise is that Heraklion isn’t primarily a tourist town, or a resort – it’s the capital of Crete and most of the restaurants and bars are catering primarily for a Greek population. In fact, given that it’s a good-sized city it’s an urban, educated and professional population at that. The number of tourists in Heraklion itself is quite small, I think, and is dwarfed by the local population. Once I’d realised this, I came to enjoy it. Most of the people I was seeing were therefore local people getting on with their lives.

In contrast, Agios Nikolaos was completely touristy. That was probably the most unsatisfying day of the holiday – I got hot and tired and didn’t really discover anything new. And I found the restaurant I visited for lunch less welcoming than the non-tourist restaurants in Heraklion. Little things – in Heraklion, no sooner had you taken your seat in a restaurant or bar but a glass of water would be placed in front of you, together with a small bowl of nibbles, all free of charge, whereas at the restaurant at Ag Nik I had to ask for water, and when it came it was in a bottle that I had to pay for.

Chania, too, shared some of the touristy aspects. The harbour front is undeniably beautiful and I always enjoy walking along it, but it’s also the case that the greeters at the restaurants are undeniably pushy, and again you can get charged for things that you’ve come to take for granted in other places. (Of course, I do recognise that you also get that amazing view.) I enjoyed visiting some lest touristy places, so here’s an honourable mention of the Galileo Cafe, which is on the harbour front, and the Melodica bar on Sifaka, away from the harbour altogether. And I enjoyed really exploring parts of Chania that I’d not been to in previous years – the Splantzia area, for example.

So overall it was a good holiday. But next year I don’t think I will be returning. There will hopefully be other family events happening, on dates that aren’t yet known, so I won’t be making any plans for the late spring or summer.

Crete 2018 – Chania

Chania Harbour from Kastelli (iPhone)

I finished my holiday with a couple of full days in Chania. I had been wondering what I would do with myself – was I mistaken to have gone back there for a fourth time in as many visits? – but the answer was ‘no’. It’s as beautiful as ever, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and I do enjoy just walking around.

Of course I refreshed my memories of the places I already – the lanes around the harbour, the walk out to the lighthouse, and the climb up to Kastelli overlooking the harbour, and I enjoyed seeing them all once again. But I also managed to find one or two places that I hadn’t visited before, the Archeological Museum of Chania, and also the Splantzia area.

The museum was OK. To be truthful, there’s no way it could match the the glories of the Archeological Museum in Heraklion. Chania doesn’t have a Knossos on its doorstep, and while there has been a settlement in the Chania area for a very long time, it seems as if it was always a minor place in the high Minoan period (proto- and neo-Palatial periods) – it only came into some prominence in the later post-palatial or Mycenaean period. And of course, the fact that Chania was then built on top of Kydonia doesn’t help archaeologists – in a place like Chania you can only dig when a site is available, which isn’t often. But there were some lovely Roman mosaics in the museum; indeed, I would say that it’s stronger for remains from the Classical and Roman periods than the Minoan.

I enjoyed exploring the area around Splantzia square. I’d seen (from a distance) one obvious sign of its existence on each of my previous visits, the minaret of Agios Nikolaus church, but had never been able to get up close. This time I did. But what’s a minaret doing on a church? Well, the answer is that after the conquest of Crete by the Ottoman Turks in the 17th century, most churches were converted into mosques, and gained a minaret; then when Crete became fully independent in the early part of the 20th century, the mosques were converted back to churches and the minarets demolished – except (in Crete) in the case of this one. The church was originally part of a Dominican monastery, and there are some ruins in the area around the existing church that I assume data back to the monastic period. Since the Dominicans were a western (Catholic) order, I believe that the monastery would date from the Venetian period.

I also did a sunset cruise. I’d done one of these on my first visit, on the good ship ‘Irene’ and I was disappointed to see her moored up in a far corner of the harbour looking rather sorry for herself – lots of rust streaks and generally not in a good-looking condition. But I found that the sunset cruises were being run this year in a smaller but still traditional boat, and on my final evening in Chania I went on one. It was pretty much the mix as before – a short boat trip out to an island a couple of miles off Chania harbour; sit there in the gentle swell for 40 minutes or so while some people went for a swim; then enjoy some refreshments of fruit and raki; and then as the sun dropped below the island, the run back to the harbour. It was advertised as being from 7:30 to 8:30, but in the event it was more like 7:45 to almost 9pm.

And after that I spent the rest of the evening – until quite late, actually – in the Melodica cafe-bar on Sifaka just outside the Byzantine walls. I’d visited it last year on a hot afternoon, and did the same this year, but this was the first time I’d visited during an evening, and I certainly had a relaxing time. Excellent Cretan wine, and a bit of conversation – recommended. It’s definitely not a tourist place – I was the only non-Greek person there – but welcoming and peaceful.

Chania Harbour from the breakwater

Sunday was the day I transferred from Heraklion to Chania. This was to be by bus, and I already know it would be a long journey – anything up to three hours. Check-in time at my hotel in Chania was two o’clock and I wanted to be there no later than that. There was also the fact that I couldn’t really get any lunch until after I’d checked in, which was another argument for getting to Chania as close to check-in time as possible. So I walked down to the bus station (getting rather hot in the process) and arrived there at just after ten o’clock.

The buses run every hour on the half-hour, and I was able to get a ticket for the next bus, at 10:30. I’m never sure if they check how many tickets they’ve sold, but probably they do – the buses are generally full, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen people refused boarding at the starting point. Anyway, this bus was certainly full on leaving Heraklion but it slowly lost passengers as we went westwards. The main exodus was at Rethymno, which is about two-thirds of the way to Chania. But progress was fairly leisurely, with frequent stops and some departures from the main road – for example, the bus went into the centre of both Rethymno and Souda, from each of which it then had to get back onto the main road. All in all it was almost three hours three hours after leaving Heraklion that the bus rolled into the familiar surroundings of Chania bus station. The ticket cost just €15.something, which was a bit more than I remembered.

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The Venetian Loggia, Heraklion

On Saturday I spent a final day in Heraklion. I went out early in the morning (well, ok, “early-ish”) to re-take some shots of places that I’d taken a couple of days earlier and wanted to repeat, and that hour or so went well. I still hadn’t visited the Archeological Museum so that was on my list of things to do, as was just exploring the city – and putting together in my head the various places I’d strolled through so that I had a better map of it.

First target was the Venetian Loggia, and I think I got better shots of it today. I also learned its secret – it’s not, in fact, Venetian at all; it’s a (very) faithful reconstruction of the original Loggia. Apparently, the original (which was first built in the early 17th century) was damaged a number times over the following centuries, by earthquake, fire and battle. The Ottomans re-purposed it, of course, but with Cretan independence in 1898 proposals began to be made to restore it. However, nothing came to fruition – indeed, exactly the opposite, as the first floor was demolished around the time of the first world war, and then the remaining ground floor was similarly demolished. Nonetheless it was “restored” following the second world war, though I’m not clear on how much was restoration and how much was reconstruction. Nevertheless it’s a beautiful building and worth photographic attention. If I’d been keener I’d have gone out even earlier, but I’m on holiday after all.

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View of the inner harbour, or lake, Agios Nikolaus

Agios Nikolaus (or ‘Ag Nik’) is a smaller resort 40 miles or so east of Heraklion. I’d read about it, and the guidebook suggested that it was perhaps one of the prettiest harbours in Crete. So I decided to take a look, and took a ride on the KTEL bus. The journey took about 90 minutes, and the bus was pretty full both ways.

I’d seen some pictures of Agios Nikolaus and it did indeed look attractive. One thing I hadn’t understood was that the waterfront area (which consists of an outer and inner harbour, a marina, and a couple of public beaches) is surrounded by steep hills. The only way from the bus station would be over one of these hills, and indeed moving around the town seemed to involve hills quite frequently. In the Cretan sunshine this wasn’t the best news, and somewhat dampened my  enthusiasm for the place.

The harbour is indeed very attractive, and is of course surrounded by restaurants and bars. I had a meal here, and for the first time on this holiday I had to order water with a meal – I’d got used to having a bottle of chilled tap water magically appearing. Certainly a glass-full… but not in this place, so I had to order a bottle of mineral water.

Having eaten I explored. I was trying to not have to climb the hills too often, so I walked up a street called Sfakianaki which apparently led to a beach on the actual coast. Even this had a bit of a hill, but soon enough I was looking at the beach. Then I followed a path to the right which would take me along the coast to the marina. Well, it did, and the stretch of coast path was attractive, but the marina was a disappointment. It’s just a series of yacht mooring stations; there’s no activity around them at all. I did enjoy one area, and that was what looked like a boat repair yard, or at least an area where boats that needed repairing had been beached. One boat in particular took my eye – wooden-built and in traditional style. I was able to walk around it (not on board) and take some pictures.

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The Venetian Loggia, Heraklion

I spent yesterday, the first full day of this holiday, just walking around Heraklion. Apart from the two flying visits mentioned in yesterday’s post it was my first encounter with this city. I’d heard many things about it, both good and not-so-good. I had a good-enough map with a couple of suggested walks marked on it, so I decided to follow the map – with the occasional detour to follow my nose – and see what I would see.

At the end of the first hour or so I was pretty enthusiastic about the city. I was surprised at how much of the old town appeared to be intact – I had read that it was badly damaged during the battle of Crete in 1941. However, many of the buildings appeared to be old – Venetian era – and there are a number of specific structures from that time. For example, there’s the Venetian Loggia; the church of St Titus; and a number of fountains, including the Morosini fountain in the middle of the old town. It also helps that many of the streets are pedestrian-only; and of course there are restaurants and bars by the hundred. (As regards the old buildings, I also gather that some of the better ones – the Loggia, for example – have been reconstructed, several times.)

A few hours later I wasn’t so sure. I’d followed the walk to its end at the Archeoligical Museum and had then continued, aiming to get to the port; this appeared to be not far beyond the museum, albeit down a hill. However I was surprised at how difficult it was to make my way that last distance, and how little there was around the port area once I’d got there. The old town, which is up on the hill, is surrounded by wide roads (dual carriageways in UK-speak), and these roads run between the old town and the port. There is therefore a definite discontinuity between the old town and the port. And as I said, once you get there there aren’t many attractions. There’s the old Venetian fortress that I visited last year, and you can walk along the quay side for some distance, but that’s it – very little in the way of bars and restaurants.

I don’t want to be too down on Heraklion – it’s an attractive, busy and vibrant place, but some decisions years ago have restricted their options somewhat. One advantage, however – the KTEL bus station is on these main roads so the buses aren’t trying to get around the wider city too much.

After leaving the port I eventually worked my way back to the Archeological Museum, arriving there at about 3 o’clock. When I’d walked past it a few hours earlier it was an ocean of peace and calm, but this time the covered courtyard outside was packed with people. Looking closer it was obvious that they were a party from a cruise ship. Indeed, they were several parties; I saw at least three differently-numbered badges. I eventually got to speak to one of the guides, intending to ask how long their visit would last. it took a minute or two to make myself understood but the guide got the point. “One hour”, she said, “you come back in one hour and we will be gone!”. Then she leaned forward and said quietly to me “is a good idea, I think….”. Having been on cruise excursions many times, it was interesting to see it from another perspective. In the event I didn’t return – I found a glass of wine in a bar and decided that it would mark the end of my explorations for the day.

Is he landing in the car park?

It’s early summer so it must be time for another trip to Crete. This is my fourth in as many years. On previous visits I’ve based myself at Chania in the western end of the island (with side-visits to Paleaochora), but this time I’m having four nights in Heraklion. It’s the largest city in Crete and lies on the centre of the north coast (all of the largest cities and towns are on the north coast). I visited Heraklion a couple of times already – once on my first trip to Crete when I did an excursion to Knossos and the archeological museum in Heraklion, and the second time was last year, when I did a day trip to Heraklion on the public bus.

Given that I was going to spend the first few days in Heraklion it made sense to fly in to Heraklion airport rather than Chania. A number of airlines do that route – step forward, Ryanair – but my experience with them was so uncomfortable in 2016 that I preferred to not use them. BA do flights to Heraklion, from Gatwick, so I planned the trip to drive to Heathrow the day before, do a Premier Inn Sleep-Park-Fly stay and leave the car at Heathrow, get the coach from Heathrow to Gatwick, and fly to Heraklion. Then the flight home, which would be from Chania, would be back to Heathrow where I’d left the car.

So far, that’s all worked out well. I drove to Heathrow on Tuesday and then had an afternoon in London. Wednesday was a long day – up early to make sure I got the car into the car park system in time for the coach to Gatwick and then the flight to Heraklion. Unfortunately that was delayed (late in-bound aircraft) so we arrived at Heraklion rather later than originally planned – about 9pm instead of 8:15. What with waiting for bags, etc, it was gone 9:30 before I stepped out of the airport. And then the fun really began.

I’d havered between getting a taxi to the hotel or using the bus. My original plan had been the bus as I’ve heard bad things about Greek taxi drivers, but there was some uncertainty as to whereabouts in the city the bus would go – it was likely to be a city bus rather than the long-distance KTEL coaches that I’m used to – so I’d decided to get a taxi. (This meant getting Euros at the airport, of course.) Then I ran into a big problem – there were no taxis! In fact there was a sign at the taxi bay, “Taxi Strike”! Not good news, at approaching 10pm when I was feeling tired. However, away in the distance I could see an illuminated sign for the Bus Station, so I dragged my bags over there and found a ticket shack where I bought a bus ticket into town for €1.60, fora bus “in 10 minutes….”. I shouldn’t have been so doubtful – the bus (#6) duly turned up, we sat for about 5 minutes, and then it trundled off. I was checking progress with Google Maps on the phone, but just when I was thinking we were at a good spot to jump off, the driver announced that we had indeed reached “The Centre”. So it was then about a 15 minute walk with my bags to the hotel, where everything went well. Then, despite, the time, I went back out for drink or two.

Next post – first impressions of Heraklion.

‘Friendship of the People’ fountain, Alexanderplatz

On my last afternoon I went on a walking tour of East Berlin – or at least, around some remnants thereof. I organised this through AirBnB – it was one of their ‘experiences’ for Berlin and was advertised as “East Berlin with a travel book writer”. The walk lasted for just over three hours and to be honest was quite tough going – I was pretty tired by the end, as we were on our feet through most of what was a hot afternoon. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It gave a fascinating glimpse into some aspects – probably some of the better aspects, to be honest – of a vanished state.

The first half of the tour was a walk along Karl-Marx-Allee. This runs eastwards from the Alexanderplatz area in what was East Berlin. In fact we began with a quick look around Alexanderplatz itself and had the various buildings explained to us. Some were definitely GDR (German Democratic Republic, i.e. East Germany) era, and some, to our surprise, dated from earlier, the 20s and 30s. That said, most of what was there before WWII was barely there by the end – I read that in 1945 the Red Army fought it way through Berlin via Alexanderplatz and I gather that as a result pretty much everything there was destroyed. After the war the station was repaired and brought back into use, some of the existing buildings were restored and the rubble of other buildings was removed, thus leaving space for GDR-era new buildings.

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