Melbourne – What a great city!

After 6 months off to recover from knee surgery our expectations of Rogers’ success in the Australian Open weren’t that high. We just wanted to see him play again. What a decision that turned out to be! We didn’t see all his games live in the Rod Laver Arena or we would’ve been looking for jobs to finance our flights home but we did see some and we were in the grounds to watch the remainder with the crowds. We watched the final on the bigscreen on the hill outside the Rod Laver arena with Mary & Chris from Noosa who we had housesat for. We were very lucky to meet and watch both the womens and mens final with them. The final with Roger playing Rafa had an electric atmosphere  and being able to enter the Margaret Court arena to see Roger with the trophy was an added bonus. A major bucket list tick and one of the highlights of our travels. Now if he lasts to March 2018, a trip to Indian Wells could well be added to the list of places to go. We were also lucky enough to watch several of the big names practising – Novak Djokovich, Serena Williams, Stan Wawrinka, Martina Hingis & Grigor Dimitro – plus plenty of other games.

Big Bash Cricket was also on, so since we had visited the MCG but never been to a game we decided this opportunity couldn’t be missed. The Brisbane Heat – captained by Brendan McCallum and coached by Daniel Vettori – were playing The Melbourne Stars – coached by Stephen Fleming. Unfortunately, Brendan was on a one match ban for this game but it was still exciting and the Heat won so another late night but we went home happy.

Victoria Market is always a must visit when in Melbourne but I’m not sure it’s as good as it’s always been. However the indoor food vendors were as good as ever and cheese, spices and wine were on the list of purchases.

South Melbourne Market was also a day visit. We decided to walk from Docklands which was slightly challenging but it did help to keep the kilometres up. Peter enjoyed the raw oysters and I had an aggressive Chinese back and shoulder massage. As usual he hit the most troublesome spot in my shoulders and I have been pain free since but the pain of the massage at the time had me wondering if I would even get up off the bed!

The cloudy weather in Melbourne had been disappointing so when we had the opportunity and the sun was shining we decided to head to Rosebud beach on the Mornington Peninsula. Peter had camped there for 6 weeks at the ripe old age of 19 so this was a return visit for him – some 40 years later. It was an hour train ride to Frankston followed by an hour bus ride. Rosebud is a shallow beach on Port Phillip Bay where we could walk out 300 metres and the water was still only waist deep. The beach was dominated by young families enjoying the last days of the school holidays.

It was a sad day when an out of control young Australian drove his car down Bourke Street and killed and injured several people. There was an outpouring of anger followed by love and support by Melbournians. The same issues as we have in New Zealand came to the fore – why didn’t the police stop him before this happened, why do they have a “do not chase” policy, why was he out on bail? All valid questions but with equally valid answers. We were lunching in Preston with Gail and Reece from Lower Hutt and Chrystal, Jim and Hannah from Palmerston North before heading into the city to the Myers’ sale. Luckily we were so busy getting our 10,000 words in each, lunch took longer than planned or we all could have been in Bourke St.

26 January – Australia Day and our 32nd wedding anniversary. We love the way Australia celebrates their National day, though they are now also experiencing questions about whether Australia Day is an appropriate celebration. It’s impossible not to notice the way families celebrate together and the parks and gardens were full of people enjoying each others company after watching the street parade. We celebrated our wedding anniversary by going to the tennis and having a few extra treats.

Chinese New Year – Year of the Rooster – and the year that both Peter and I were born. Melbournes’ large Chinese population along with the many visitors in the city for all the events just adds to the celebrations with street parades, street performers, fireworks and markets on the South Bank. Yes, it was crowded, but the atmosphere was worth mixing it with the crowds.

We stayed 2 nights with Hilary, Carl and Evie, originally from Wellington. What a pleasure that was! Meeting 9 month old Evie for the first time was wonderful (even though she had a cold and wasn’t her normal self) and catching up with everything they have been up to since arriving in Melbourne just under two years ago was amazing. They live in the inner city suburb of Richmond, close to everything, including the tennis. How kind it was of them to let us stay between housesits.

Two years ago we met Sharon & Rob from Silverstream on the steps of St Pauls Cathedral in London. This time we met them again on the steps of St Pauls Cathedral in Melbourne and enjoyed a lovely brunch in Degraves street together.

Kelly, one of Morgans’ friends from St Orans College has made a good life for herself in Melbourne and we enjoyed her company in a well known café, Barry, in Northcote. I’m sure the French waiter fancied Kelly so we got very friendly service. It was great to catch up with Kelly after several years and hear her thoughts on life in Melbourne.

 

 

 

Meeting good friends from NZ and making new ones by housesitting made this visit to Melbourne even more special.

Housesitting in Victoria, Australia

 

The only reason to go to Melbourne in January is the Australian Open tennis. There are plenty of reasons to go any other time but in January you have to mix it with tennis fans, loads of tourists and the changeable weather so there has to be a good reason and that would be watching Roger Federer  play. We were very lucky to find two wonderful housesits in Melbourne which allowed us to stay in this lovely city from 8 January to 1 February. When we first started looking to go to Melbourne, we couldn’t find any housesits that were the appropriate dates and the few that we did apply for we didn’t get. So we were very happy to hear from Chelsea & Ryan, who lived in Kingsbury, were off on holiday to Bali and needed someone to look after their 10 month old puppy – Benji – and older cat – Wilbur. Benji was an extremely intelligent Staffy x Ridgeback who just wanted to be around people and be friends while Wilbur gave Benji a wide berth due to his over enthusiastic puppy nature. The twice daily dog walks kept us walking 5 to 10 kilometres a day along the local pathways and through the parks where there were plenty of birdlife and kangaroos to keep an eye on.

Kingsbury is a suburb in the northeast of Melbourne, and the home of the La Trobe University.  There were 2 shopping centres within easy walking distance for groceries so life wasn’t too difficult. Public transport to the city was easily accessible using the local Myki card which Chelsea & Ryan lent us and we were a 5 minute walk from the tram or the same to the bus and train option – both ways had us in central Melbourne in 45 – 50 minutes for a return journey cost of $8.20. This is the maximum daily cost, so no matter how much we used the metropolitan transport system we never paid more than $8.20 per person per day. The north eastern suburbs of Preston, Thornbury and Northcote were all close by on the tram and had good coffee and shopping.

Our next housesit was in a 9th floor apartment in Docklands looking after 2 Ragdoll cats – Adele and Oliver for Anna & Samantha, a mother and daughter from Invercargill. These two cats were absolute characters – Oliver had a handbag fetish and at every opportunity he had his front half in my handbag digging out the contents. Adele was a little lady who was slightly bullied by Oliver but follows his every move then gets fed up with him so retires to sleep in the handbasin.

Docklands is in the free tram area so we had to make an effort everyday to keep up our walking and only catch the tram if we were in a hurry e.g to get to the tennis to watch Roger play! It is also a major financial area with main offices of ANZ, CBA, KPMG and several more plus is home to the Etihad stadium.

We had magnificent views across the water to Harbourtown outlet shopping centre and Melbournes’ giant observation wheel – The Melbourne Star – whose lights dominated our night views.

Whatever the mood, Docklands offers attractions, shopping, entertainment and dining and of course we made the most of all of it. The one thing with shopping is that anything bought to go in the 20kg bag means something must also go. This thought has influenced shopping decisions for the last 14 months which has probably saved the budget on many occasions.

So thanks to these lovely people we were able to enjoy all the trappings of Melbourne.

 

Queensland – Noosa

Life in Australia is very easy for Kiwis especially when you run into nice people with well kept homes who go on holiday and need their pets and homes looked after.

We arrived at our next housesit in Noosa Heads and Chris & Mary were out but Lennie the Dalmation was there to meet us. Mary had left a little treat in the mailbox for us to give him but he was so horizontal we had to look for him behind the plants. He didn’t even notice our arrival.

Home was a lovely house with all the mod cons including a television outdoors so on the 35+ degree days we could sit outside in the cool breeze and watch Big Bash Cricket, Hopman Cup tennis, Brisbane tournament tennis or Dr Phil then hop in the pool to cool off when necessary.

Our job here was to look after Lennie which was very easy and enjoyable at home, but Lennie’s little problem was that he hated other dogs, so the walks were interesting when other dogs came onto his radar. We quickly got to grips with the best way of dealing with it if a diversion wasn’t possible – apologise to the dog owner and just keep walking with Lennie trying to get to their dog and acting like he would like to take a chunk out of them. Truth is, I don’t think he would but it wasn’t for us to test – our job was to love him, exercise him and keep him safe. The odd cat on his radar had the same effect so paying attention while walking was crucial. He was always a little less enthusiastic if he had already walked 8kms. Peter assumed two roles – chief dogwalker and Poolboy – keeping Lennie under control and the pool leaf free with the help of Dolphin, the pool cleaning robot.

 

Noosa is a swanky resort town with beautiful beaches, tropical rainforests, smart restaurants and  designer boutiques. The well healed beautiful people share Hastings Street and the main beach with the athletic bods, surfies, backpackers and families. There is a place, activity or just a space on the beach for everyone in this lovely Queensland town. Over the Christmas period I swear most of Brisbane move in and it was faster to walk than try to drive anywhere. The council have tried to alleviate the traffic problems by making the buses free from Boxing Day until 4 January. I’m not sure it has been very effective but parking is free so I guess that doesn’t help. Parking was a big discussion point in the local media so perhaps they should adopt the extortionate parking costs from the UK to solve the problem and raise some coin.

Noosa can be a little confusing for newcomers with Noosa Heads, Noosa Civic, Noosaville, Noosa Springs and Noosa Junction all in the area with a river and waterways crisscrossing it all. Then there’s roundabouts everywhere. It took a little while for us to get our bearings.

There are several beautiful beaches in the area, all worth a visit though the open Pacific ocean beaches have wild surf and the Lifeguards see plenty of action. We visited Sunshine beach which was a little quieter than Noosa Main beach and you could enjoy a drink on the balcony of the surf club and admire the views. There were stingers in the water and I was stung on the foot but it wasn’t too uncomfortable and disappeared after about half an hour. Sam was our only casualty when his knee locked up while in the surf and he had to be helped from the water. Morgan at 23 weeks pregnant wasn’t much help to him. We also walked the 4km round trip through the bush to Alexandria Bay, an unofficial clothes optional beach which is not recommended for swimming but one of Noosas pristine beaches. While it is close to everything, once you have made the trek through the bush it feels untouched, remote and is certainly beautiful.

Heading north of Noosa up the river towards Tewantin along Gympie Terrace there’s more upmarket shops and loads of water activities available. Morgan booked us into Paddleboarding and had us out early one morning, thinking it would be calm. Not that calm believe me, but I did manage to stand up and paddle against the tide and into the wind and not end up in the drink. Can tick that one off!

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Paddle boarding

Noosa National Park features spectacular coastal scenery, is a refuge to local wildlife and has several well signposted walking tracks. We managed 3 of the tracks but had to start at 6.00am as parking is impossible at any other time of the day – well actually it’s even difficult at 6.00am!

The wildlife is in abundance, not just in the National Park. At our home in suburban Noosa Heads, we had a koala in the trees, kookaburras laughing in the same trees, bush turkeys, rainbow lorikeets, a yellow tailed black cockatoo and of course the big black crows. Over the back fence there was an animal walkway under a road which gave free movement to the kangaroos and anything else. Peter spotted a 50cm goanna which promptly ran under our deck. Then of course there were the fruit bats that frequent the sky at dusk. And just to top it all off the 8 water dragons that were content to run around the outdoor restaurant in Eumundi and the Bluefaced Honeyeater that landed on our table at the café in Hastings Street.

We were lucky enough to catch up with some special people while there:

Daryl & Darla Templeman from Wellington, who are currently living south of Brisbane in Beaudesert, made the trek up to visit us for a day and we enjoyed coffee at a local cafe, lunch by the pool but more importantly their company and a 12 month catch up.

Lauren & Graeme Clemett, also originally from Wellington, now living in Hope Island, Gold Coast visited as they had business in the area. We enjoyed drinks, dinner, a visit to Cottontree, lunch in Maroochydore and a Rose by the pool before they headed off south again. Such fun to catch up with people after quite a few years.

And of course, Morgan & Sam – Morgan with our new grandbaby on board. We will have to wait until the end of April to meet this precious little person.

We were fortunate to have friendly neighbours who extended their hospitality to us. Christmas Eve drinks were next door at Pauly and Louises’ where the outdoor table and chairs were moved onto their front lawn and available neighbours dropped by. New Years Eve drinks were in the cul-de-sac just 20 metres down the road where the street was closed off and tables and chairs moved into the middle of the road. We headed to the waterfront to see the fireworks then back to the local New Years Eve drinks where neighbours came and went over the course of the evening depending on children, teenagers, tiredness and generally how everyone felt. Nice way to see in the New Year.

The café and restaurant scene in and around Noosa was exceptional and as everyone can imagine we tried as many as you can possibly fit into a 3 week stay, almost all of which were fantastic.

Thank you to Mary and Chris for going on holiday and letting us look after your lovely home, pool, the lovable Lennie and allowing us to enjoy Noosa and surrounds over Christmas and New Year.

 

Queensland – Scrubby Creek

 

The journey to Brisbane from Oman took 28 hours and 4 flights – Muscat, Dubai, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Brisbane. Emirates checked our bags right through to Brisbane even our last 2 legs on Singapore Airlines. What were the chances of them arriving on our flight? I gave them about 30%. Peter was a little more generous. Yep they lost them! After 2 hours at the airport doing the paperwork and armed with an emergency Singapore Airlines toiletries bag each, plus $150 AUD given to us by Singapore Airlines we jumped on the train to the city using our Queensland Rail cards we bought 2 years ago. It was an expensive $17.50 each and we could have got to the city cheaper but “Hey it was late and we had been transitting for 28 hours”. We had one night in Brisbane where at 11.00pm we hunted down our first Australian coffee in Elizabeth Street and it didn’t disappoint. The next evening it was on the commuter express train for a 3 hour ride to Gympie to start another housesit looking after 3 dogs and 11 sheep, 12 kms west of the town.  Two days after our arrival in Brisbane our bags were delivered to us.

Our housesit was well into the country in Scrubby Creek up a no exit metal road sitting on a hillside overlooking a small valley and reserve bushland. Apparently dingos live in the reserve but none came out to greet us. However, one of the neighbours Jack Russell terrier had recently been attacked by a dingo so they were definitely nearby. Jan and William welcomed us to their little piece of paradise with fresh vegetables, (unlimited asparagus – we just had to walk out and pick it), fresh fruit (bananas & Pawpaw) and all the herbs you could wish for. We had 2 kelpies – Tango & Sheila – and Monty the Marrema whose job it was to guard the sheep. If you’ve seen the movie Oddball about the dog who saves a penguin colony then you know what a Marrema is. They are an Italian breed of livestock guardian dog whose inbred guard skills are a delight to witness. William told us when we were out walking there would probably be snakes, goannas, and all sorts of critters within a few metres of us but they wouldn’t be interested so long as they didn’t get any surprises. So the rule was, if we went anywhere in the long grass Tango walked in front of us as our snake guard dog. We enjoyed seeing the fruit bats and treefrogs but not the cane toads which were easy to catch, bag, freeze to kill and bin. Thankfully the local 1.6 metre goanna  didn’t show his face to us – not sure who would have got the biggest fright if he’d appeared – him or us? In fact, the local fauna were very shy during our stay which was probably a good thing.The exception was the tree frog who visited the kitchen window every night.

Jan gave us her car so we could go into town and see some of the surrounding area. We had been in the area before so we were very happy to relax and not move too far away. Our first night we helped drench the very fat Dorper sheep. They were so solid it was like handling large, strong, wriggling bricks on 4 legs.

What else did we do?

  • We visited Jo & Dale just 25 minutes further inland at Lower Glastonbury. Jo and her family chased horses around the showjumping circuit in the Wellington area at the same time as us. It was nice to meet Dale and the cute & lovely 5 month old Ashley.
  • Rainbow Beach. This is a coastal town in the Wide Bay-Burnett region which is both a popular tourist and holiday destination and the gateway to Fraser Island (World Heritage Listed) via the Inskip Peninsula. On our way back we visited Tin Can Bay but our timing didn’t coincide with the daily visiting dolphins.
  • Visited Eumundi Markets – Australia’s premier artisan markets which has an ethos of “we make it, bake it, grow it & sew it.” I did make my first purchase for the forthcoming Drysdale grandbaby but didn’t go overboard as would have been so easy to do. It was, however, a great people watching experience so we drank coffee and watched everyone else unload their wallets. This is not a cheap Asian import market.eumundi-markets-3
  • The Farmer & Sun, Gympie. Locally grown fruit & veges make this a great place to browse and shop (though not the cheapest) but the best part is the quality coffee at the adjoining coffee shop.
  • Mary Valley Scenic Drive – Cattle farms, Macadamia farms and endless rolling hills. Kenilworth in the Upper valley is worth a visit for a stop at the cheese factory and of course a coffee stop
  • Woolooga – a small community west of Gympie –population 65 – where we stopped for lunch at The Rusty Ute Café with good coffee, good cake and a really friendly owner who was happy to share his local knowledge.
  • Camel Farm across the road– this is the third time in the last 12 months that our paths have crossed with camels. This time it was a farm where they are milked twice daily. Wayne is starting to develop the market for the milk and also making soap. The camels came from central Australia and were wild when they arrived. They have been tamed, which took much patience and dedication, and a breeding program introduced. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to see them being milked as they won’t produce milk with strangers in the shed. We were able to join them in the paddocks without any issues although we stayed a couple of metres away from Mother and new baby. The fresh milk was very white and delicious to drink – especially out of a wine glass!

     

  • Visited and did our shopping in the town of Gympie. With it’s population of about 20,000 it sits on the Mary River which is often the source of severe flooding. The last time the area was declared a natural disaster area due to flooding was 1999.gympie-town

So that was our small farming experience in the Queensland hinterland at the end of the north Brisbane train line. We shared stories and solved the problems of the world on the back deck with Jan & William, assisted by Williams’ special edition Drysdale  craft beer and some NZ Drift Pinot Noir. Thank you to Jan & William for sharing their piece of paradise with us and for delivering us to Noosa for our next adventure.

Muscat, Oman

Muscat was a bucket list trip for Peter and yet again he turned up trumps. Due to it’s position north of Yemen on the Sea of Oman I was a tad nervous but in this case I clearly had to eat my words.

Muscat is the capital and the largest city in the Sultanate of Oman. It is situated on the coast of the Sea of Oman and sits right at the foot of the Hajar mountains. The mountains divide the city into 3 areas and when the current Sultan (Qaboos bin Said al Said) took control from his father in a bloodless palace coup his aim was to make the country an international destination and completely modernise it through rapid infrastructural development. This he has achieved with great results that has led to the growth of a vibrant economy. Oman is an absolute monarchy and the Sultan has complete control.  He is now in his seventies, without a son and heir, and has recently spent many months in Germany due to ill health. No direct heir to the throne is causing some concern as Oman is facing economic issues due to flagging oil prices and diminishing reserves. It has a population of 2.7 million people with only 2 million of them being Omani, the remainder being Indian, Egyptian, Bangladeshi or Phillipino.

Muscat is a city built amongst the rocky mountains and the 3 different areas are joined by huge highways carved through the rock. There are no skyscrapers in Muscat. All new buildings must be no taller than 8 floors, and be either cream or white. These rules are to encourage building out not up and therefore enlarging the city.

The easiest way to get around is by cab, however, you must negotiate the fee before getting into the vehicle otherwise you can guarantee you will be overcharged. We were caught once when he told us to hop in quickly as we were near an intersection then tried to charge us 10 Rial for a trip that should have cost 6 Rial. Eventually we got him down to 8 but couldn’t stop and get out as by then we were on a motorway. As we only had 2 full days we decided the easiest way to see everything was on a 24 hour hop on hop off bus with 10 different stops. It just happened to go past our hotel and the friendly drivers would drop us at our hotel door. It was a difficult decision to do the bus and not individual cabs as we do try to support local business when travelling but the bus was definitely the best option due to it’s frequency, slow pace and value. So what did we see:

-The Royal Opera House built on the Royal orders of Sultan Qaboos of Oman is an impressive modern white building with it’s luxury restaurants, cultural retail market and formal landscaped gardens.

-The Al Alam palace is one of the Sultans 7 Royal residences throughout the country. It has a Gold and blue façade and is flanked by Portugese forts built in the 16th century.

-The Parliament Building only completed in 2013 is a traditional low rise Omani style building which unfortunately is not open to the public

-Shatti Al Qurum beach is the centre of the tourist zone with it’s warm, shallow, waters and near all the big hotel chains

-Qurum park is a large and attractive park with a lake, plenty of trees giving shade making the perfect picnic spot and family area

-Marina Bandar Al Rowda is a fully equipped marina housing yachts and launches with restaurants, swimming pool, spa pool and is the base for dolphin tours and sunset cruises

-Mutrah souk retains the atmosphere of a traditional Arab souk selling everything from rugs to jewellry to perfume but is now housed in a modern building – must be prepared to bargain hard

-Mutrah stretches along the Corniche which is also the main port and houses the fish market where the daily catch is delivered to be sold. The port is also home to the Sultans private yacht and is a cruise ship destination. In 2 days we saw 3 cruise ships enter the harbour. It is also a good place to see the giant incense burner on the hill.

The local mosque was just across the road from our hotel and the call to prayer 5 times a day meant the area was always busy. With Friday being the Muslim day of worship, it was interesting to see several thousand men coming to pray carrying their prayer mats. Mosques are built with terraces so worship can take place outside as well as inside.

To celebrate our last night in the Middle East we decided to treat ourselves to an all you can buffet dinner. It was well priced with a huge variety of both meat and vegetarian dishes – no pork of course. The first 2 nights we ate the local street food which was delicious and incredibly cheap.

We had 2 days of enjoying the unique Arab atmosphere that is Oman and it’s people. We learned more about the Islamic faith than we ever knew and met some friendly and informative Omani people along with many migrants who work in Oman and return to their homelands and families just once a year. How difficult it must be to have to live so far away from family in order to support them. We are so lucky living in NZ.

Ras al Khaimah & Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

We arrived at Dubai International Airport at 2.30 am after a great Emirates flight which was only half full. We took up residence on the sofas upstairs in the lounge with food and drink then snoozed until 8.00am when we jumped on the Metro to Union Station. We managed to get the last 2 seats on the bus to Ras al Khaimah where we were housesitting 2 fluffy cats.

It turned out Maksy and Bobbles lived on the first floor of an apartment building which is part of the Al Hamra Village, Beach & Golf resort (Google it – amazing) on the coast just a 25 minute cab ride from the centre of Ras al Khaimah and inside secure gates with security guards at every entrance. This village had everything including a huge mall, a marina with restaurants and coffee shops, a golf course and a very expensive Medical Centre which just happened to be running a free Medical Check promotion which we took advantage of. And yes we are still healthy! The beautiful pool and sun loungers were just below our balcony and the beach was a 5 minute walk across the road. The temperatures ranged from 25 to 35 degrees and swimming in the Arabian Sea felt like being at a spa everyday with warm, calm, very buoyant waters making floating for hours very easy and relaxing. We found ourselves a Nero café in the mall which served excellent coffee at NZD$6.00. You can have you car washed while you shop at the mall for less than a cup of coffee. The Spinneys supermarket had excellent produce but it was very expensive especially the fresh meat and vegetables. It was considerably cheaper to buy cooked meats and salads from the deli.

Bargain buys in the UAE are cigarettes and petrol.

On the recommendation of our homeowner I joined the RAK Ladies Facebook Group which enables the women of the area to assist each other especially any0ne new.They use it to ask anything they want to know about events, services, shopping and anything else that comes to mind. A very good idea!

The UAE are celebrating their 45th year of Unification this December and the whole country is coloured red, green, white and black– even all the clothing shops had clothes displayed in the national colours.

We drove a large Ford SUV around the village where it was relatively safe and the speed limit was 25kms so couldn’t get into too much trouble but still, driving for us was illegal. The roads were full of huge 4×4’s and SUV’s. Visitors to the UAE can only drive a rental vehicle and we weren’t convinced we wanted to drive on those motorways at the high speeds they travel anyway. So when we left the village it was by cab.

Our first trip was into the city to check out the Corniche, the old city, the evening markets and one of the many malls. The next one was at 6.00am on a Friday morning to go to the Camel Racing. This was the highlight of our time in RAK. The track is 10 kms long and the camels have a small robotic jockey on their back that has a small whip attached which is activated by their owners/trainers who chase the race in their 4×4’s beside the track, beeping their horns. It is crazy, exciting, dangerous and incredibly fascinating. There were only 4 Westerners on the track and the Arabs were very friendly, welcoming and happy to talk to us about the racing.

We had a wonderful time in Ras al Khaimah and  thankyou to Bernice for going on holiday so we could enjoy her home, cats and surrounds.

Our next stop was Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE and capital of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, the largest of the UAE’s seven emirates. It is the seat of the UAE government and is a large and advanced metropolis. This was just an overnight whistlestop but long enough for us to realise that yet again we had missed seeing a major event – the F1 Grand Prix final. We did however spend an afternoon and morning walking the city. It was a city of beautiful parks, nice beaches, another lovely corniche, amazing shopping, incredible buildings, both historic and modern, including the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque. We were lucky enough to see the Red Arrows flying formations over the city the day before the F1. It was then back on a plane to Muscat, Oman.

Cyprus

Troodos Mountains

We departed the beautiful coast and headed into the Troodos mountains and in the process left 30 degrees and moved to 12 – 15 degrees. Why did we do this? I have no idea!!!

Our home for 3 nights was a Mountain House in the Kavounras  Cottages at Kyperounta perched on the side of the hill and affording amazing views over the valley but due to the elevation the temperature dropped to single figures in the evening. We froze!

There are beautiful picturesque villages dotted all over the mountains, all joined by an excellent roading system. We spent 2 days traversing the mountains in Fiona Fiesta – sometimes the steep hills proved a challenge for her but perhaps that’s what you get when you pay €19 per day. She did manage to survive, though there were a few irritated Porsche, Audi and Mercedes drivers who didn’t appreciate our uphill speed or lack thereof. The lower southern slopes were covered in grapes supporting the local wineries and as indicated by the abundance of the above vehicles the area looked relatively affluent with beautiful traditional houses mixed with modern architecture

Our favourite villages were Omodos, Kakopetria, Platres and Troodos, all of which were picture postcard with cobbled streets, cafes and surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

Our biggest surprise was the old Asbestos mine, how it’s shaped the landscape and economy and the extent of hills that have been mined to takeout 1 million tonnes of Asbestos. Mining only ceased here in 1984 due to the greater awareness of health risks and at this time was a major employer in the area. The terraced hillside is being landscaped and turned into a Botanical garden.

Ten Byzantine period churches from Troodos mountains are listed as Unesco World Heritage sites. Unfortunately we couldn’t see all of them but those we saw had the most amazing frescos, murals, paintings and woodcarvings dating from the 11th to 17th centuries.

Mount Olympos, at 1951 metres is the tallest peak in the mountains and is now the site of a Military Radar station. On our way here we met a 34 year old German IT Specialist from Nuremburg who was on a 2 week cycling tour of Cyprus. He had recently completed a 3 month cycle trip of New Zealand and had stayed in Featherston with friends. It’s a small world! The Troodos mountain area was already quiet due to the tourist season having finished so it was a little isolated and remote for us but still extraordinarily beautiful.

Nicosia.

Nicosia is the capital of Cyprus and is now the only divided city in Europe. We spent 2 days inside the 16th century walls on both sides of the Green Line. Almost everything of interest lies within the historic walls where a labyrinth of narrow streets reveal churches, mosques, and colonial style buildings built during the time of the British occupation. The city walls were completed in 1567 by the ruling Venetians, are 4.5 metres thick, the shape of a star with 11 bastions, 3 gates and are well preserved. We started with a walking tour of the Greek side which gave us a good background of the city and its’ history during the various rulers of Cyprus along with visiting many of the important historic buildings inside the city.  In 2003 the border was opened between Turkish Cyprus and Greek Cyprus and the Ledra Street crossing in central Nicosia was opened in 2008 for 24 hour crossing. We crossed the Green line on Ledra Street into Turkish Cyprus and spent a morning visiting the Venetian column in Ataturk Square, the Girne Gate, one of the three gates in the city wall, and wandering the markets. We had met Eleni & Savvas in Sofia on the walking tour and were lucky enough to share lunch and an afternoon with them. They gave us insightful knowledge on the history of Cyprus and the thoughts of the locals.

Ayia Napa

Our last few days in Cyprus was spent in Ayia Napa and the surrounding area of spectacular sandy beaches that are washed with the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean. We drove to Deryneia to see No Mans’ Land (Buffer Zone)and look across the border to Famagusta, an area where thousands of Greek Cypriots lost their homes at the time of the Turkish invasion and were moved south to Greek Cyprus . These homes are now occupied by Turks. We spoke to a tour guide in Larnaca who has been back to see her family home but she isn’t allowed to stay. There is still a lot of pain experienced by both sides and emotions are still very raw. After 40+ years, reunification talks are still taking place and in fact are happening this week in Switzerland. The people we met are hopeful but doubtful that it can truly happen.

Ayia Napa is known as the Ibiza of Cyprus where countless bars and entertainment venues provide neon lights and raging nightlife – not quite our scene. However, having heard that the main tourist season had finished we decided to book our accommodation in the middle of the city amongst all the clubs, something we wouldn’t do in July, August & September. While there were still some clubs open it was relatively quiet and we had a very enjoyable 3 nights in a lovely apartment above a café that had superb coffee and Apple cake – and I even managed to get the recipe from a lovely Romanian lady. Our room had a balcony where we enjoyed breakfast each morning and looked across a roundabout to the Ayia Napa Monastery. This roundabout gave us many laughs as numerous drivers parked on it, double and triple  parked on it, talked on it, went the wrong way round if they could get to where they wanted to go quicker, but nobody had any issues with any of it. So, of course, we had to try going the wrong way when we had the opportunity. Not sure Fiona Fiesta was comfortable with that, but we did it anyway, and celebrated our one opportunity at breaking a law that nobody cared about! There were several Scandanavians staying in our apartments and we found out that they come to Ayia Napa for 3 – 6 months in the Northern winter. At the end of their holiday they pack up their apartment furnishings which are stored in the basement waiting for their return next year. The highlight of this area was Konnos beach which has to be the calmest, warmest, clearest and most beautiful beach. We swam and enjoyed the sunshine here and sat up in the café just taking in the atmosphere on 3 occasions. We finally managed to replace Peters suitcase in Ayia Napa. Although it wasn’t the perfect case, price negotiations and a healthy discount managed to ensure that Kermit (yes it’s flouro green) joined our travels.

Observations of Cyprus

  • They drive on the LH side of the road making life easy for us
  • Cypriots all speak excellent English and study internationally
  • If you make a mistake while driving or anything else they are very forgiving and laid back
  • They love to chat and find out about you. We do too, so we met some lovely people
  • Vegetables from the local markets were cheaper than the supermarkets
  • Beef & Lamb was extraordinarily expensive so we ate pork and chicken
  • According to Peter the fish was average – according to the locals the Med pond is fished out
  • Cyprus is full of archeological digs and they say there is another 100 years of work to do
  • So many beautiful churches
  • It is a member of the EU and the Brits have moved in for their retirement – not a bad idea actually
  • It’s just across the water from Syria and the British military are strong in Cyprus. Bombing was happening in Aleppo but there was no indication of it
  • There’s a strong hidden military presence, mostly intelligence and surveillance making it the eyes and ears of Europe.
  • Great walking tours in all the cities
  • Cyprus has numerous wind farms
  • The Cappuchino Freddos are unbelievable and I am converted to iced black coffee with whipped milk on the top.

We loved Cyprus and its’ people and could easily have stayed longer than 6 weeks.

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Fiona Fiesta

 

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Cyprus

In our quest to chase the sunshine the next stop was Cyprus and just a short 2 hour flight later we exited the plane to 35 degrees and bright sunshine. A bus into Larnaca city and a 5 minute walk and we were in our apartment in the middle of the city just 2 blocks back from the beach and across the road from an all night café and bar. We had 5 days in Larnaca during which time our mission was to plan our 6 weeks in Cyprus, find more accommodation, hire a car and enjoy the beach and sunshine. We quickly found Coffee & Cake, our favourite café just around the corner who made great Cappuchinos and Cappuchino Freddos with fast WiFI, so we were able to plot the next 6 weeks. We found a lovely apartment in a holiday complex in Tersefanou, just 16 kilometres south west of Larnaca and an easy bus ride. We had fallen on our feet as the German owner (Christoph) needed a good reference on Air B&B so gave it to us at a reduced rate. It was very comfortable and in a complex with it’s own café & bar (happy hour cocktails Monday to Friday NZD$5.00) beside a lovely pool. The complex had about 150 apartments in it, most of which were empty and according to Christoph many still belonged to the developer. We had difficulty understanding the lack of overseas tourists in Cyprus at this time of year, considering the temperatures were still over 30 degs, the bright blue skies, and the warm sea temperatures. To us it seemed perfect for an end of summer holiday. Given the temperatures in Northern Europe have reached single figures our only conclusion, which was confirmed by Christoph, was a complete lack of marketing. Initially we booked this for one week but Christoph wanted his apartment full and was prepared to drop the price considerably for a one month stay so we decided that the accommodation price was so good we were better off to stay put. Anyway, wherever we wanted to go was never more than an hours’ drive. Having heard you can get a good deal on rental cars we decided to do the rounds of all the local companies. Prices ranged from €19 to €40 per day and we eventually hired Fiona Fiesta from a British website at €19, of course. So what did we get up to in our first few weeks in the beautiful Cyprus?

Larnaca

Larnaca is Cyprus’ third largest city with a population of about 85,000 and the port for south Cyprus. It is known for it’s Finikoudes Beach, a sandy strip in the city centre backed by a palm-lined seaside promenade lined with bars. We did both the free walking tours which covered the old Turkish Cypriot area, visited workshops of some very talented potters, walked the old town, learned the history of Cyprus and all it’s rulers since 647BC and visited the Church of St Lazarus which is said to have been built over the tomb of St Lazarus. While it is now a Greek Orthodox church it has been both a Catholic church and a Mosque during the Ottoman rule. Our apartment in Larnaca was in a very noisy area which didn’t bother us but the guy in the apartment next door who talked loudly on his phone on his balcony right beside our bedroom from 2.00am until I finally got up and yelled at him was very annoying. He was louder than the all night bar across the road.

Limassol.

Limassol is the second largest city in Cyprus with a population of 180,000 and the historical centre located around its’ medieval Limassol castle. It is the wine centre of Cyprus and is another major port. We did another walking tour around the old town and found the best café with excellent, cheap coffee and food, and great service. We also visited a co-operative of artists who made musical instruments, painted icons in the traditional way, made ceramics, and performed traditional music. We were treated to cake, demonstrations of the musical instruments and explanations of the painted icons. We walked the palm fringed Limassol sculpture park along the waterfront, looked across the city beaches and out to the ships waiting to dock at the port. We returned to Limassol for a second day to enjoy the atmosphere and take in some more of the historical sites. Really loved this city with its’ easy going vibe and is somewhere that would be easy to live for an extended period due to its culture, theatre, outdoor dining and city beaches. Interestingly, 50,000 Russians live here with their own Russian radio station and newspaper.

Paphos

We made a quick one day visit to Paphos, a coastal city in the south west of Cyprus with a population of 35,000. Since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and the loss of the major tourist areas of Famagusta and Kyrenia to Turkish occupation, the government invested heavily in roading infrastructure and the International Airport, to promote the area to tourists. Now the economy depends largely on tourism along with the cultivation of bananas, grapes and tobacco which is due to a large irrigation system in the area. I’m ashamed to say that we probably didn’t put enough effort into Paphos. We understood that it is a Package tour city for the British, similar to the Portugese cities on the Algarve which was probably the main reason we underestimated its’ historical value. We walked the waterfont, enjoyed the sunshine, had lunch and visited the castle before heading to Aphrodites rock, which legend has it is the place where Aphrodite, the Goddess of Fertility, rose from the sea. The saying goes that all who swim in the water at Aphrodites Rock will have eternal beauty! Hmm, not convinced! Someone I know was determined to have a swim there – bit late for his fertility! Or was it just the topless bathers on the beach?

Local villages

We were living in the village of Tersefanou which gave us easy access to the motorway system, and was mostly holiday apartment complexes but had a good locally owned convenience store, a fruit and vege market well stocked with local produce and a local hairdresser. Over 4 weeks we quickly made friends with the locals and Linda & Irene, two travelling Scottish lasses all the way from Gourock, west of Glasgow. Two kilometres away was the village of Kiti, which had everything including our favourite, Cafe51, with the best Chocolate cake in Cyprus. Then a further 2 Kilometres was Pervolia, another lovely little village where many British have made their homes. Here we found our favourite surf bar on the road to Faros Beach. We stumbled in there after walking 10 kilometres in the hot midday sun (35 degrees) and needing a beer. It is frequented by the local English – what do they say about Maddogs and Englishman? We returned twice more for the fresh food but more importantly the hospitality of the owner who was friendly and engaging and had spent a considerable amount of time down under.

Beaches.

The coast of Cyprus is littered with lovely beaches which are warm enough to even get me in the water at every opportunity. Most days we would stop at a lovely beach for a swim. So far we have taken a dip at Konnos, Larnaca, Faros and Governors Bay. All the beaches are incredibly clear, shallow, warm, not very tidal, no surf and perfect for idling away the hours sunbathing and swimming. We returned several times to Governors Beach which was always quiet and sometimes we had it to ourselves. It has a lovely cliff top restaurant where the daily budget was always stretched to accommodate a delicious fish meal for Peter.

 

After 3.5 weeks we were mightily impressed with Cyprus and with 2.5 weeks to go we were excited to be heading to the mountains, going to Nicosia to meet friends we met in Sofia and ending at the beach again in Ayia Napa.

Bulgaria

Our first stop in Bulgaria was Varna on the Black Sea. This was to tickoff the bucketlist item. It certainly didn’t disappoint. Sun, beaches, hot temperatures, cheap and good food, nice people, and easy to walk.  Varna is a city of about 300,000 people and is one of the beach playgrounds of the Russians who frequent the beach resorts all along the Black Sea coast. We had an extremely interesting free walking tour led by a local historian who is a published author on the area, spoke impeccable English and gave good restaurant recommendations. The airport was new with all the latest bells and whistles and the bus to town was just 3 Lev ($2.35NZD) for us both, with the locals and the conductor telling us which stop to alight. Then it was a 10 minute walk to our B&B. This is where it all went wrong. The B&B host wasn’t there despite us having an agreed time so we waited 1.5 hours until we got in. She told us there was a little water leak and how to turn off the water when we weren’t using it and it would be fixed Tuesday – seemed workable. Then I went to use the washing machine only to find that it didn’t have a door. She promised to fix before 12.00pm the next day – Monday. She didn’t show. Tuesday was a public holiday so really nothing was ever going to be fixed until Wednesday and we left Thursday, so no point. We have since involved AirB&B and sorted out a good discount. This was the only negative of Varna.

Our next Bulgarian stop was Plovdiv, second largest city in Bulgaria, where Ainslie joined us. Plovdiv is the second oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. We did the walking tour of this city of seven hills, of which now there is only six because they needed the rock from one hill to lay new paths for the regeneration of the city. We managed to walk up 3 and enjoy spectacular views over the city, wander the Old City and the relatively new and hip area called Kapana with it’s bars, cafes and restaurants. Ainslie convinced us to do an Escape Room, against our better judgement, but I have to admit that we had a really good time and would definitely do again.

Then it was off to Sofia, the capital city and home to 1.2million Bulgarians. Here we did a walking tour of the city and also a food tour which is highly recommended and we returned to two of the restaurants visited on the tour to enjoy traditional Bulgarian and amazing vegetarian food. We were also taught the traditional dance, the Horo and drank Bulgarian herbal wine. We met a young guy from Palmerston North on the Food tour, and wouldn’t you know it, he knew someone that we knew! There were comments from some Germans that NZ’ers always ask each other if they know someone else from NZ but this was the first time they had seen it actually happen. One interesting thing here is that tipping is not really required however in restaurants it is generally expected that you will round up the bill and in some places they will round it up for you and not give you change. We were happy to tip the rounded amount but not even getting the change to do so took a bit of getting used to. Another challenge was remembering that nodding the head is “no” and shaking the head is “yes” – weird!

Bulgaria has had a chequered history of rule since the 4th century and it is only since the early 90’s that they’ve regained a democracy. The country now has 10% unemployment and seems to be reaping the rewards of joining the EU with good roading, regeneration of cities and a reasonable lifestyle and education, even though the average monthly salary is about NZD$800.

So that was almost 2 weeks in Bulgaria. I had a cough and cold for 7 days of it so we took things a little easy but still managed to average walking about 10 kms a day. We were lucky having our favourite tour guide, Ainslie, with us for some of it. We were sad to wave her off back to London with the thought of not seeing her again until sometime next year when she might visit downunder.

 

Macedonia

Since Ainslie couldn’t join us earlier than 23 September in Bulgaria, we decided to go to Macedonia after Varna so it was off on an early flight to Sofia, followed by a 4 hour bus trip to Skopje, 1 hour of which was at the border. Luckily we weren’t removed from the bus to have all our bags examined as were others.  Macedonia is a land locked Balkan country of mountains, lakes and ancient towns. It has been ruled by the Greeks, the Byzantines, the Ottoman Empire, the Russians, and the Bulgarians over centuries. It became the Socialist Republic of Macedonia after the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991 but is still arguing with Greece over its’ name. Skopje has a population of 500,000 and looks like a massive building site due to a government funded plan developed in 2010 to revamp the city. It is the city of statues with thousands of statues everywhere and more going up everyday. We did another free walking tour here. Just a note on FWT’s – they are a worldwide concept, they are advertised as free, however it is generally understood that they are a tip based service where you recompence the guide for 2-3 hours of his time and knowledge, it is usually their only source of income. It’s shameful how a growing number of tourists – mostly Europeans – skulk away during or even at the end without a donation. Todays examples – a German who tried to pay NZD$0.01c in Serbian money and 8 Belgians who tried to pay NZD$3.50 for all of them. We have some sympathy for young backpackers but these were middle aged, middle class people. Our guide declined these offers as it showed disrespect to his service. After the tour we joined the guide for a drink of the local alcohol (fruit brandy) which had a serious effect on our ability to walk home. During this time everything was discussed – religion, politics, tourism, income. It transpired that he was an Economist who studied in Belgrade, worked in London for an Italian financial services company, was a Colonel in the Army who saw active service and now he’s a walking tour guide.

So everything in Skopje is about Alexander the Great – the conflict over whether he was Greek or Macedonian, Mother Theresa, she was born in Skopje and statues.

Just to add to the excitement here we were woken by a 4.0 Earthquake just 10 kms deep and 13 kms from Skopje, then another in the afternoon 5.3, 10 kms deep and centered on Skopje. Despite us being well used to Earthquakes in Wellington these were both very scary. The old Railway station clock has been left at the time the 1963 earthquake struck when it stopped.

On a lighter note we took the opportunity to upgrade our personal grooming – cut, colour and dry for me NZD$20.00, cut for Peter NZD$3.00.

Then it was just a 3 hour bus trip to Ohrid which took 4 hours because our bus broke down.

Ohrid is on the shores of Lake Ohrid and is one of the oldest human settlements in Europe. Built between the 7th and 19th centuries it has the oldest Slav monastery and many more Byzantine style buildings dating from the 11th to 14th centuries. It is the Queenstown of Macedonia without the adventure tourism. You can fly direct from many European cities cheaply and the summer temperatures are well into the 30’s. The lake is so clear – you can see 22 metres deep and is relatively warm even in September – not warm enough for us to swim in, though there were some hardy souls still swimming. We spent the week enjoying the sites and relaxing in 25+ degs. It’s a lovely city to walk and most of the historic sites were easily accessible via the winding cobblestone lanes in the old city.  So what did we see?

  • St Jovan of Kaneo Monastry –founded at the end of the 13th century and dedicated to St John the Baptist. Its scenic location and distinctive Byzantine style architecture make it one of the most photographed places in Macedonia.
  • The ancient theatre of Ohrid – near the centre of the city is an open air Hellenistic style theatre built around 200BC. During Roman times it was used for gladiatorial battles for executing Christians.
  • Admired the view from Tsar Samuils Fortress – was one of the greatest strongholds in the Balkans
  • Took a boat trip to the Monastery of St Naum at the southernmost part of Lake Ohrid near the Albanian border. St Naum is a cross shaped church that enjoys a picturesque view over Lake Ohrid. Just a short walk or boat ride from the monastery you can visit the crystal clear emerald springs that feed the lake and a small but beautiful church with an internal spring used as a resting place for tired travellers.
  • Ate Burek, shopska salad, Macedonian salad, Aegean salad, Ajvar and almost everything else on offer as it was cheap and delicious.
  • Saw President Tito’s holiday home on the shores of Lake Ohrid
  • Managed to get ourselves amongst the diplomatic Protection Squad during a visit to Ohrid by the Serbian Prime Minister – all black suits, sunglasses and guns!

Then another 1.5 hour bus trip to Bitola

The second largest city in Macedonia which is mostly known for its famous street Sirok Sokak which is lined with cafes that turn into bars at night and where all the chairs face the street for people watching. It is THE place to see and be seen in Bitola no matter the time of day. Again a lot of men in the cafes and bars – not sure where all the women were?

Since arriving in the Balkan states we have taken up Passive smoking and vaping. Everybody here smokes or vapes. Have they not heard of lung disease or do they just not care? Even the bus driver smoked while driving the 8 hour journey from Bitola to Sofia. But then he also talked and text on his cellphone, drank coffee and threw his cup out the window so it was an interesting trip.

How to ride a scooter in Macedonia:

  • no helmet
  • helmet hanging from handlebars
  • helmet on head not done up
  • down steep cobblestone hill, no helmet, talking on cellphone
  • small child standing in front, no helmets
  • small child standing in front, small child pillion, no helmets

Macedonia was as interesting as it was beautiful, with it’s no nonsense people who mostly spoke some English, its cheap economy and delicious and healthy food. A must visit!