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Highlights of Thailand – Part 3 (Chiang Mai)

One of the primary destinations in Thailand for most tourists is Chiang Mai, and this was no exception for us. This old, culturally rich city is located in the northern part of the country, about 689 km (428 miles) from Bangkok. We definitely noticed that the weather was slightly better than Bangkok—a little cooler and less humidity.

One option for getting to Chiang Mai is an overnight train from Bangkok. We decided to go this route.

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Our train to Chiang Mai. (Bangkok Station)

Having done an overnight train in Egypt from Cairo to Luxor, we knew what to expect and the journey was similar, although this trip might have been a slightly smoother ride. It took about 12 hours (7 pm to 7 am). Upon our arrival at the Chiang Mai train station, we got a taxi to our hotel, left our bags there and then took off exploring on foot.

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Our hotel in Chiang Mai. Great location, inside the old city.

There is an abundance of things to do in Chiang Mai, from visiting temples in the old city, to getting into the surrounding mountains for all kinds of adventures. We spent two days here, one day in the town and one day in the surrounding countryside.

The old city (founded in the 1200’s) is laid out in a square with a moat surrounding it. It was the capital of a tributary kingdom to Siam, and hence its many monuments and temples. We arrived on New Year’s Day, but it seemed to be pretty much a normal day around town.

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At one of the temples we visited in Chiang Mai, they had a breakfast social going on and offered us a treat (noodles in banana leaves).

Temples were open, restaurants were open, and tour companies were open for business too.

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Wat Phan Tao temple. This was a very unique temple, made out of wood. We almost felt like we were in Norway with the wood structure.

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Wat Tung Yu temple.

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A procession at Wat Phra Singh temple.

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Donation station in Wat Prah Singh. Buddhist monks are revered in Thailand and receive many donations.

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Wat Chedi Luang, from the 14th century. Earthquakes from as far back as the 1500’s have taken their toll on this old structure, also known as the Ancient Pagoda.

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A reclining Buddha from the 15th century. It faces the Ancient Pagoda above.

About 30 minutes outside the city is the golden temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai’s most famous temple. Traffic up to the temple was busy and slow, but we managed to make it just before dusk.

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You climb 309 steps up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

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Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple. This beautiful temple is gilded in gold. The whole complex sits on a hill overlooking Chiang Mai.

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Buddha images at Doi Suthep temple.

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The lovely ornate terrace overlooking the city of Chiang Mai at Doi Suthep temple.

On our 2nd day, we knew we wanted to get up into the mountains, and there were lots of tour companies who offered various treks. We arranged day trip that did the following: A visit to a butterfly garden, and a visit to a Karen Long Neck tribal village, a hike up to a falls, lunch, an elephant ride (which was personally quite a story), and a raft trip down a river. A lot in one day, but it was a perfect blend of activities.

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The women who wear these brass rings are from a sub-group of the Karen people, called Padaung. The ancestral home of these people is believed to be Burma, but others believe it to be China. The long neck is considered to be of great beauty and attractive to a potential husband. Many Padaung have migrated to Thailand from Burma to escape the physical and political oppression of that country’s past regimes.

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My son on the trail to the falls.

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Another view on our hike. Some backpacker shelters.

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At the falls – there was a great little pool at the base to cool down and enjoy after the hike.

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I was asked to ride “bareback” on the elephant’s neck. My first experience at doing this – I was just hoping I wouldn’t fall into the river!

From Chiang Mai we flew to Krabi for a beach adventure, I’ll cover this in my next post!

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Highlights of Thailand – Part 2 (A Day Trip to Ayutthaya)

On our 2nd day in Bangkok we decided to take a day trip to Ayutthaya Historical Park a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is an incredible set of ruins, covering a large area. Visiting them was almost an afterthought. How crazy of me. It would be a huge mistake to miss this impressive sight on a visit to Bangkok.

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A view in Wat Chaiwatthanaram. (Wat means temple). This is one of the temple groupings in Ayutthaya.

The ancient city of Ayutthaya was the original capital of this region of Thailand, and dates back to 1350 AD. It was razed by the Burmese in the 1700’s, leaving behind a wealth of interesting ruins. Ayutthaya is located 85 km north of modern Bangkok, and can be reached via auto, bus, river boat (on the Chao Phraya river) or train. We chose to take the train from the main (Hua Lamphong) Bangkok train station.

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Hua Lamphong Train Station in Bangkok.

This was a convenient way to go since we were planning to take the overnight train to Chiang Mai that evening, and we just stored our bags at the train station during our day trip.

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We had to laugh at this sign in the baggage storage area at the train station – there are rats!! Luckily our bags were intact when we got back from Ayutthaya.

It was about a 1.5-hour journey to the town of Ayutthaya.

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Our train to Ayutthaya.

Once you exit the small train station, you then take a little boat across the river to the ancient ruins.

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The Ayutthaya Train Station.

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The Chao Phraya River crossing the far side is where the ruins are located.

I highly recommend a visit to Ayutthaya – the old temples, palaces and other structures are massive and interesting to visit. We were able to visit 4 major groupings in about 4 hours.

The ruins are spread out, in groupings scattered over a large area and require some sort of transportation to visit – walking would be impractical from site to site, especially in the heat. All kinds of transportation rentals are available, from bicycles, to tuk tuks (motorized rickshaws), to mopeds. Or, you can arrange a day bus tour from Bangkok. Once we crossed the river, we rented mopeds and had a blast zipping from one site to another.

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Our son and daughter on one of the mopeds.

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Wat Maha That. Our first grouping of ruins at Ayutthaya.

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A main thoroughfare in Wat Maha That.

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Another view of Wat Maha That.

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Wat Chaiwatthanaram. The second set of ruins we visited, and perhaps the most impressive. They are located the furthest away from the other ruins.

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What Phra Si Samphet. Our 3rd set of ruins. It was the holiest temple in Ayutthaya (the temple itself was destroyed). These Stupas (or Chedis, as they are known in Thailand) housed the ashes of kings.

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Buddhist monks at Wat Phra Si Samphet, enjoying a day of touring.

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Wat Phra Ram, our final temple ruins in Ayutthaya.

Since our visit fell on December 31st, the ruins were open for free. Otherwise, there is an entrance fee to each location.

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New Year’s Eve at Ayutthaya – a great way to spend the last day of the year.

Our moped rental company provided us with a map of the major sites and suggested a route to follow. There are signs in English at each location giving a short history and explanation.

 

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Highlights of Thailand – Part 1

We visited Thailand as part of a three week trip through Asia, which also included Cambodia and Vietnam. Although there is so much more that could be visited in Thailand we concentrated on three locations:

  • Bangkok (including a day trip to Ayutthaya)
  • Chiang Mai
  • Railay Beach (across the bay from Phuket, on the Andaman Sea)

All three places were wonderful and are highly recommended. I will do a post on each major location. Thailand is a great country to visit (friendly people, relatively inexpensive, great food and amazing sights) and someplace that we’d love to visit again. In particular, the beaches and islands of the Andaman Sea are beautiful and alone are worth the trip.

Central Bangkok

Since we only had a couple days in this huge city, we decided to spend one day in Bangkok itself and then one day in Ayutthaya, the old capital city (now in ruins), about a two hour train ride north of Bangkok (I’ll do a separate post on this fascinating place).

Since many of the main sights in Bangkok are along the Chao Phraya River, which runs through the center of Bangkok, we took the “hop on, hop off” river boat (known officially as the Chao Phraya Tourist Boat) and got off at several stops going one direction, and then enjoyed the ride all the way back to our starting point.

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One of the typical tourist river boats – lots of open air seating.

There is a subway (metro) stop (Saphan Taskin Station) near where you catch the boat, making the transportation connection easy.

Below are a couple of key stops along the river:

Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn)

This is a major Buddhist temple complex, a symbol of Bangkok and one of the tallest temples (76 meters) in the city.

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A view of Wat Arun and the surrounding buildings.

Wat Arun was built in the early 1800’s. It is decorated in thousands of tiny seashells and Chinese porcelain.

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The main edifice of Wat Arun.

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Detail of decorations of Wat Arun.

As the name implies, the views of this temple are best in the morning or evening.

The Grand Palace

Don’t miss the Grand Palace. Because we were visiting right before the New Year holiday, we were told by locals that the Palace was closed, but as we soon learned, this was a scam (they wanted to take us other places) and the Palace was indeed open (note: weekdays only).

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The main residential palace at the Grand Palace complex.

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The Grand Palace grounds contain a large number of interesting structures–some ornamental, others are functional and used for state events.

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Another view of the Grand Palace grounds.

The exterior décor of the palace buildings is quite spectacular and feels a little surreal; it gives one the idea of the wealth of Thai royalty.

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View of the exterior walkway around the Ordination Hall.

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Detail of the exterior decorations of the Ordination Hall.

The most important structure here is the Ordination Hall, which houses the Emerald Buddha.

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The Emerald Buddha (very small and hard to tell, but he sits at the top of the golden altar). I snapped a quick picture.

Note: It’s a good idea to wear long pants and modest shirts the day you visit the Grand Palace, otherwise you will have to stand in a long line and rent a pair of long pants and cover-ups, which is a hassle and takes time. We had to do this, and while the process worked it was a bit of a pain.

Temple of the Golden Mount (Wat Saket)

This was not a stop on the river, but is pretty close to the Grand Palace. We took a tuk tuk (motorized rickshaw) out to the temple, which sits on a small artificial hill, constructed in the early 1800’s. There is a fair held here in November of every year, following a Buddha relic worshipping ceremony.

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My wife and son getting a tuk tuk ride.

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The Golden Mount Temple.

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Lifelike miniture images of Buddhist monks at the Golden Mount with offering bowls below each.

Since Bangkok is flat, it doesn’t take much elevation to get a good view of the city. The temple itself was not all that exciting, but the walk up the hill was enjoyable as were the views from the top.

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A panoramic view of Bangkok from the Golden Mount.

Lucky Buddha

We made a quick stop here, with the local folks showing us how to make a proper offering at this Buddhist temple. It’s more or less a scam, but was still fun.

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My son making offerings at the Lucky Buddha.

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Another view at the Lucky Buddha temple.

Asiatique Pier

This a major hot spot for restaurants, shops and fish pedicure services. Nice setting on the river.

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A Bangkok evening hot spot along the Chao Phraya River.

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My daughter getting a fish pedicure at the Asiatique pier.

Just taking the boat ride along the river is entertaining as well. Here are a few views along the river…

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A view along the Chao Phraya river – a mix of the old and new.

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A typical scene along the Chao Phraya River.

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A view of the Bangkok skyline from the Chao Phraya river.

A view of Eze and the coast from the gardens right above the village, where a castle once stood.

A Few Days on the French Riviera

Following our visit to Corsica, we spent a few days on the Cote D’ Azur, or as it is also known, the French Riviera. This is a beautiful part of France, with little villages clinging to steep hillsides overlooking the blue Mediterranean. It’s easy to see why this area has been a mecca for tourists and the famous and wealthy for decades. As I’ve stated before, France is a favorite country of mine, and this part of France just reinforces my view.

Nice. Nice is the 5th largest city in France, with a wonderful setting on the Mediterranean coast. Nice was founded by the Greeks and colonized by the Romans. They picked a great spot. Nice has a long seafront promenade (Promenade des Anglais) filled with joggers, young couples and folks out for a stroll.

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The Promenade des Aglais in Nice. The beach consists of more pebbles than sand, but was very clean.

The promenade is lined with large hotels, shops, restaurants and extends for several kilometers.

Nice’s Old Quarter (called Vieux Nice) is on the eastern end of the promenade, next to a promontory point (Colline du Château) which can be climbed via 300 or so stairs for great views of Nice and the surrounding coastline.

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A view of Nice from Colline du Château.

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Nice’s Old Quarter.

The Old Quarter has narrow quaint streets, good restaurants and wonderful shops filled with art-worthy sweets and gelato!

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Even though these look like the real thing, they are just incredibly artistic sweets.

Evidence of the Roman era is still visible, including the ruins of an arena, basilica and a village. The ruins are about a 30-45 minute walk from the Old Quarter.

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The Roman ruins in Nice.

Going east from Nice, here are a few sights:

Villefranche-sur-Mer. Just east of Nice is the village of Villefranche-sur-Mer, located on a protected bay. Like many coastal towns in Corsica, Villefranche-sur-Mer has an old 16th century citadelle (Citadelle St-Elme) that now houses the town hall and two art galleries. This is a very quiet, scenic (and clearly well-to-do) spot right between Nice and Monaco.

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A view of Villefranche-sur-Mer.

Eze. I had heard from several people that we needed to visit Eze. Eze is just east of Villefranche-sur-Mer, and is practically on the border with Monaco.

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A view of Eze and the coast from the gardens right above the village, where a castle once stood.

Eze is a gorgeous 14th century fortified hilltop village overlooking the Cote D’Azur. It is postcard perfect.

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One of the alleyways in Eze.

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Another perfect spot in Eze.

The only thing that “bothered” me is that it is completely a tourist town with numerous boutiques and shops and of course lots of tourists. However, we loved the setting and views.

Monaco. The Principality of Monaco is next door to Eze and is one of the tiniest countries in the world (as well as the world’s oldest monarchy). Monaco is a tax haven and its wealth is evidenced by the number of Lamborghinis and Ferraris racing down the winding streets.

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Monaco’s harbor and surrounding area, as seen from the hilltop fortress area where the royal palace is located.

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Street scene in Monaco.

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The world famous Monte Carlo Casino in Monaco. Only for serious gamblers!

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Monaco’s cathedral, where Princess Grace and Prince Rainier III were married in 1956.

Given how small the country is, we quickly found a car park after crossing the border and explored the country on foot, walking up and down the steep hills and winding our way through a maze of apartment buildings built practically on top of each other—it reminded me just a bit of Hong Kong.

Going west from Nice, here are several other sights:

Cannes. Known for its famous International Film Festival, we thought we’d check out Cannes. This area suffered major flooding damage just a year ago, and although there were still some signs of the flooding (piles of damaged goods in a few places) for the most part you wouldn’t know this area had been touched. The Old Town with an 11th century clock tower and the 16th century church called Notre-Dame de l’Espérance sit on a hill overlooking the harbor filled with huge yachts and the more modern part of the city and famous beachfront.

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The old clock tower in Cannes, right next to the 16th century church.

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A view of Cannes and harbor.

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The InterContinental Carlton luxury hotel in Cannes, built in 1911.

St-Paul-de-Vence. This is a walled hilltop village not far from Cannes. It is a magnet for artists, with numerous art galleries and studios. It is a beautiful sight sitting perched on a hilltop not far from the coast.

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A view of St-Paul-de-Vence.

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The gated entrance into St-Paul-de-Vence.

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The 13th-14th century Keep (Donjon) in St-Paul-de-Vence. Used as a prison years ago.

Vence. This town is probably the poor sister of St-Paul-de-Vence and Eze. It was the most authentic town of the three, feeling more like a typical French village. The historic center’s layout is based on a Roman design-encircled by an oval wall. There are lovely old churches and little squares tucked away in spots throughout the town.

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One of the small squares in Vence.

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Street scene in Vence.

When traveling through this area, be aware that the roads are narrow, with sharp curves and speedy drivers. Traffic is fairly heavy, especially going west from Nice. Even though distances are not far, it will take a bit longer to get to these locations than you might expect.

 

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The Isle of Corsica – One of the Hidden Gems of France – Part 3 of 3

From Bonifacio (for information on Bonifacio, click here, for a map of Corsica click here) we spent our last few days working our way north along the east coast to Aléria and then on to Corte in the interior, then Calvi (on the northwest coast) and finally Bastia (also on the east coast), our final stop in Corsica. On the east side of the island there is a little more flat terrain near the coast and therefore the roads are faster.

Aléria. The little town of Aléria has an old church and castle-like building that holds a museum and ticket office for the nearby Roman village ruins.

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An old little stone church in Aléria, near the Roman ruins.

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The Roman ruins museum in Aléria.

There were a number of ancient settlements around this area, but it was the Romans who built the harbor port city known as Aléria starting in 80 BC, which was inhabited throughout the duration of the Roman Empire. The ruins are not extensive, mainly foundations and a few baths remaining.

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A view of part of the Roman ruins of Aléria.

Given the proximity to Italy, one would think the Romans would have colonized Corsica more. But then, like now, with its rugged topography, Corsica was more of a hinterland and was never completely conquered and brought under the domination of Rome

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There are a number of old Genoese (14th-15th century) bridges in Corsica, this one is near the road on the way to Corte from Aléria.

Corte. I expected Corte to be a little village, and I was surprised to see that it was a good sized town. Corte was the capital of Corsica during its period of independence in the mid 18th century.

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A view of the old town of Corte, with the fortress sitting at the top.

In the main square, there is a statue of Pascal Paoli (1725-1807) the founding father of Corsica.

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The main square in old Corte with the statue of Pascal Paoli to the right.

Even 250 years later, there are bullet holes still visible in the buildings surrounding Place Gaffori, marking the fight over independence that took place here.

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Place Gaffori in old town Corte. Note the bullet holes in the building.

The old town slopes up a hill located in the middle of a deep valley. The Citadelle and 15th century fortress sit atop the old town, commanding a good view of the surrounding valleys. The old town below the Citadelle has several small squares, churches with narrow alleys, and restaurants. Although not visible from the main town, the fortress has a very modern, large museum and conference center located next to it. Corte is home to the aptly named Corsica Pasquale Paoli University, where students speak Corsican.

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Looking down on the old town of Corte from the fortress.

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The old 15th century fortress in Corte, photo taken from the Belvedere, a scenic view spot.

There are also a few old hilltop towns in the great vicinity of Corte, located off very narrow steep and winding roads up in the hills.

Calvi. From Corte, we traveled north and west over to Calvi, another extremely picturesque town situated on a beautiful bay surrounded by mountains.

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A view of the beautiful town of Calvi with its magnificent bay and Citadelle.

Calvi is a jet-setting hotspot in the summer with numerous sailboats and yachts filling its docks and harbor. The huge Genoese Citadelle at the entrance to the bay really dominates the whole area.

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A closer view of Calvi and the Citadelle.

There is a nice beach here too, overlooking the harbor and town. The Citadelle was pretty quiet, at least during the time of year we were there (October).

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The entrance to Calvi’s Citadelle.

We enjoyed sitting by the harbor and having our lunch.

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Calvi’s harbor, lined with outdoor cafes.

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There is some evidence that the explorer, Christopher Columbus, was born in Calvi. Hence the name of this souvenir shop.

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We stayed in the picturesque small town of Lumio, just across the bay from Calvi.

Bastia. From Calvi, we crossed back over to the north east coast and made our last stop in Corsica. We were really surprised at how large Bastia was. It is a major city and the commercial hub of Corsica. Like many coastal Corsican towns, Bastia has a large Citadelle overlooking the harbor (Vieux Port) and a scenic and large old town area.

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The harbor of Bastia. The twin towers of the 16th century church of St. Jean Baptiste are a local landmark.

Bastia felt similar to many large European towns with multiple squares, shopping streets, great churches and restaurants lining the harbor and squares.

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A major shopping thoroughfare in Bastia.

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Interior of the Oratory of the Confraternity of the Holy Cross. This church contains the Holy Crucifix of Miracles, discovered drifting on the sea by two fishermen in 1428.

Bastia’s Citadelle streets were fairly quiet, and the area had a non-touristy feel. There are good signs pointing out historically significant buildings in this area.

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The Louis XVI gateway into Bastia’s Citadelle.

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A street scene in Bastia’s Citadelle.

 

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An old building in the Citadelle. I’d hate to have to work on or rebuild these walls!

Bastia has decent sized airport, so it was easy to fly back to Nice from here, which kept us from having to backtrack across the island to Ajaccio. This third post concludes our tour of Corsica. We highly recommend visiting this wonderful island!

If driving in to Bonifacio, this is your first stunning view. The "Stronghold of the Standard" bastion was used until the 18th century by the Genoese to defend Bonifacio.

The Isle of Corsica – One of the Hidden Gems of France – Part 2 of 3

From Ajaccio we worked our way south along the west coast towards Bonifacio, which is located at the southern end of Corsica. Two interesting locations on the way to Bonifacio are Filitosa and Sartène.

Filitosa

Filitosa is one of several prehistoric sites on Corsica and probably the most well known, having earned UNESCO World Heritage status. This site is privately owned. It is located about 65 km (40 miles) from Ajaccio. Although not far, it takes about 90 minutes to get here on the roads that follow every curve of the hilly country. This site dates back as far as the early Neolithic era (6000 BC), and covers a pretty large area. Surprisingly, the ancient artifacts here were not discovered until 1946.

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One of the earliest dwellings at Filitosa.

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One of the most detailed and best preserved menhirs at Filitosa. There are also carvings on the back, representing the physical back of a human.

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A field of menhirs in Filitosa.

There are upright carved stones in human form (called menhirs), temple structures, a quarry, some fortifications and foundations of Bronze Age huts.

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A lookout platform at Filitosa.

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A chamber in what is called the Western Monument.

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This place is called the Central Monument at Filitosa. It has a commanding view of the countryside.

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The enchanting hill where the monuments are found. It has a feel like it could be a location right out of “The Lord of the Rings”.

We found Filitosa quite interesting. Allow a couple hours for a visit. We got there first thing in the morning and had the site largely to ourselves. You can obtain a guidebook at the site and there is a small museum as well.

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The town of Propriano, just south of Filitosa. It has a beautiful harbor surrounded by mountains. We stopped here between our visits to Filitosa and Sartène.

Sartène

This town is known as “the most Corsican of Corsican towns” and is in a picturesque hillside location. It also has an attractive old town center. The type of stone used here for construction gives the buildings a very austere appearance.

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View of the exterior fortifications of Sartène.

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Street scene in Sartène.

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Old doorways in the center of Sartène.

We enjoyed wandering through the streets and admiring the old buildings.

Bonifacio

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If driving in to Bonifacio, this is your first stunning view. The “Stronghold of the Standard” bastion was used until the 18th century by the Genoese to defend Bonifacio.

If I had to pick just one favorite place in Corsica, Bonifacio would be it. The unique sight of a massive fortress and medieval town jutting straight up from the little bay on a narrow strip of land is striking. The Republic of Genoa took control of Bonifacio in 1195 and the whole of Corsica in 1294 after defeating the Pisans. Bonifacio became an autonomous city of the Genoese republic in 1388 and even issued its own coinage.

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The steep walk up to the old medieval fortifications from the harbor.

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A view of the old medieval town of Bonifacio from a cliff walking path.

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The last part of the ascent into the bastion of Bonifacio.

No wonder this town withstood numerous sieges, and was considered such a strategic spot. One siege by the King of Aragon (a region of modern Spain) lasted for 3 months. In the end, the King, even with his mighty fleet, could not take Bonifacio and he left in defeat in early 1421.

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Looking down on Bonifacio’s harbor from the bastion.

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Another view of the walls surrounding Bonifacio. You can walk along most sections of the walls.

We spent two days here and you could easily spend more. This is perhaps the most popular spot on Corsica, and it does receive cruise ship visitors. There are a number of beaches in the vicinity and good coastal walks too.

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The steep Escalier du Roy D’Aragon (King of Aragon’s Stairway) can be appreciated from a boat excursion. This stairway accessed a water supply in medieval times.

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Climbing the 187 steps of the Escalier du Roy D’Aragon. Doing this a few times a day will get you in great shape!

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The walk along a pathway below Bonifacio, accessed by the Escalier du Roy D’Aragon.

We took a boat excursion (highly recommended) for a view of the cliffs and old village which somehow clings to the top of the cliffs–you have to wonder when the whole town might fall into the sea.

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A view of Bonifacio from our boat tour. The houses are literally at the edge of the cliffs.

Boats will also take you to nearby islands which have good beaches. Since we were just past the swimming season, we opted for the coastal tour with a glass bottomed boat, and as part of the tour we were able to go into a small secluded grotto and a beautiful small bay-very cool.

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Inside the grotto on our boat excursion.

In my last post, we’ll cover the Roman ruins of Aleria, the interior village of Corte, Calvi and the north eastern city of Bastia.

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The Isle of Corsica – One of the Hidden Gems of France – Part 1 of 3

When we mentioned to friends that we were going to Corsica, the typical response was “where is Corsica?” Even though it’s part of France, relatively few people in the U.S know much about this island. For the record, Corsica is just north of Sardinia (another great island, which belongs to Italy) and is closer to Italy than it is to France.

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A map of Corsica. We started in Ajaccio on the west coast and ended in Bastia on the northeast coast.

Corsica is a relatively remote part of France and Europe—it’s rugged, mountainous, and sparsely populated, especially in the interior. Corsica has had a tumultuous history, with several nations (such as Spain and France) and medieval city states (such as Pisa and Genoa) staking their claim here over the centuries. Even today, the island is a very independent part of France, and there have been separatist struggles over the years. As a tourist, there is very little evidence of this, except for some banners or signage in the interior villages of the island.

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A burned out car near Ajaccio – evidence of the Corsican mob? Hard to say.

As a sign of its independent roots, Corsica has its own language (more similar to Italian, although everyone speaks French also), and road signs are in French and Corsican.

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An example of the excellent food found in Corsica – with heavy Italian influence.

Corsica offers the tourist a large variety of things to do: hiking, climbing, four wheeling, mountain scenery, kayaking, beautiful beaches, prehistoric sites and some very cool old fortified towns with huge bastions. We visited in October, and while the island was quieter, the weather was still good. During the summer, the towns on the coast are a magnet for sailboats and yachts from all over Europe.

We spent about a week on Corsica, starting our visit in Ajaccio and then taking a clockwise one-way route through the island. We rented a car and although distances aren’t far, the roads are winding and fairly slow. Luckily the local drivers were pretty patient with us as tourists, but I pulled over to let them pass every chance I got.

Ajaccio. We flew in to Ajaccio from Nice. It was a good place to start our trip. Ajaccio is the capital of Corsica and the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. It has a quaint old quarter, situated on a bay on the west coast of the island.

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A view of Ajaccio’s harbor.

Napoleon, the early 19th century emperor of France, looms large over Ajaccio, his image can be found in several spots in Ajaccio.

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Statue of Napoleon in the form of a Roman emperor in old town Ajaccio.

One of the main sights in Ajaccio is Napoleon’s home and the church where he was baptized.

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The street in Ajaccio where Napoleon was born. His house is the building with the green shutters behind his caricature.

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The orange hued Ajaccio Cathedral, where Napoleon was baptized.

Like many costal Corsican towns, Ajaccio has a 15th century fortress guarding the entrance to the protected bay. The fortress is still used by the military and therefore is off limits to tourists.

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Ajaccio’s Citadelle or fortress, built originally by the Genoese, housed resistance fighters during World War II.

Coastal and Mountain Scenery. We took a day trip north of Ajaccio through the mountains and along the coast. It is a stunningly beautiful island, and even in October I was impressed how green the island is. We had just one day of rain during our visit.

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The village of Ota, near the Spilonca Gorge, a mountain park and hiking area.

There are little villages nestled high on the steep hillsides. The backcountry has some great trails and rushing rivers. The coastline of Corsica is a mix of rugged terrain and secluded beaches.

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The beautiful coastline on the southwestern side of Corsica. In the distance is the island of Sardinia.

Towers. There are 15th and 16th century towers dotted all along the coast, 91 of them in total, which were watch towers on the lookout for pirates and also light houses for the Genoese sailors.

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This tower, called Tour de la Parata is close to Ajaccio.

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A view of the small town of Porto, north of Ajaccio, with its 15th century tower (left side of image).

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Another tower along the west coast of Corsica.

Many of the towers are not accessible, but a few are. They give the coastline a unique feel, standing as they have for centuries against the wind and the waves.

Pisan Churches. Also throughout the island are tiny churches from the medieval era, many built by the Pisans in the 12th and 13th centuries. Each is unique, but the style is generally familiar to what one finds in northern Italy.

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The little 13th century Saint Michel de Murato church near Bastia.

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A close-up of one of the carvings on the exterior of Saint Michele de Murato.

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This 12th century church, Eglise de la Trinite et de San Giovanni, is near Aregno, Corsica.

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La Canonica. This little church was built by the Pisans in 1119 on the site of a 4th century basilica. It sits next to some Roman ruins, near Bastia.

In parts 2 and 3 of my posts on Corsica, I will review other sights and towns as we traveled south and east around the island.

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The Canary Islands – Part 2 of 2 (Tenerife)

Let’s just call it what it is…Tenerife is beautiful and it’s easy to see why it’s the most visited spot in the Canary Islands, and one of the top destinations in Spain and Europe, for that matter. Tenerife is the largest (and most populated) of the Canary Islands, and the north/west and south coasts are especially beautiful. It’s only a short (20 minute) plane ride away from Gran Canaria. The 12,198 ft volcanic peak of El Teide dominates the island and is the highest point in Spain. Probably the second most popular sight is Los Gigantes, a stunning set of high cliffs jutting out of the ocean on the very southwest coast.

Puerto de la Cruz

This is a primary tourist hub on Tenerife and it’s where we stayed. Its location at the midpoint of the island on the northwest shore provides a good base for exploring the island and is quite a beautiful setting – with the waves crashing over the jagged volcanic rocks along on the shore.

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The rugged and beautiful coastline of Puerto de la Cruz.

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An evening scene in Puerto de la Cruz – lots of diners fill the streets in the evenings.

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A church in the main square of Puerto de la Cruz.

El Teide National Park

The soaring volcano mountain of El Teide is a national park and contains a lot of rugged terrain. Going from sea level to 12,000 feet in elevation within just a few miles (as the crow flies) means you are ascending at a very steep rate and negotiating a lot of switch backs.

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A volcanic outflow “flower” in the park.

The roads on Tenerife and ascending into El Teide National Park are narrow, steep and winding. Once you get into the park, there is a nice visitor’s center with good maps and signage.

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A view of the peak in the distance.

There is a (expensive) tram that takes you within 600 feet of the summit, but to climb the last 600 feet you have to plan ahead and make a reservation.

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The tram going up to the top of El Teide.

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Near the peak of El Teide, where the tram ends.

Otherwise, you can hike around the peak just below the summit for the views and scamper through the jagged volcanic rock, which looks other worldly. Unfortunately, on the day we had allowed for our visit to the park and peak the lower elevations were socked in with clouds for a period of time, but we were still able to get a few views.

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The moon-like landscape of El Teide National Park.

Los Gigantes

This is the postcard view of Tenerife. In fact, it was a post card I saw in a friend’s office that put Tenerife on my “must see” list. At the port, you can arrange a boat trip (of varying lengths of time) that will take you for a tour, including whale and dolphin watching, depending on the time of year.

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A view of the port of Los Gigantes with the cliffs in the background.

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A dolphin comes near our boat.

Your boat tour will also stop at the beach for a short time, or you can arrange to disembark at the beach and take another boat back, which is what we did. While we were on the beach, a huge boulder came crashing down off the cliffs which could have easily killed someone. Luckily, it fell and rolled (at great speed) right between some very scared tourists who were running in every direction. It happened so quickly I could not get any video footage.

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The black sand beach among the cliffs of Los Gigantes.

The best access to Los Gigantes is by taking a boat tour out of the nearby port town of the same name. You can also hike down from the town of Masca (discussed below).They aren’t joking when they say on the hike down from Masca and at the beach to be extremely careful of loose rock.

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Enjoying a swim at Los Gigantes.

Masca

The main reason people come to the little village of Masca (in addition to seeing the beautiful setting), is as a starting point for hiking down through steep ravines to the cliffs and beach of Los Gigantes.

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The winding road going into Masca. On most of Tenerife you are either going up or down!

It’s about a 3-hour hike, and once you reach bottom you can catch a pre-arranged boat back to the port. Most people take a taxi to Masca to begin their hike, since it’s a one-way route (unless you’d like to spend a few more hours ascending straight back up the gorge).

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Looking up into the narrow gorge of Los Gigantes. Hiking up through this gorge leads to the little village of Masca.

A couple other great beach areas are shown below.

Los Cristianos

Near the southern most tip of Tenerife is Los Cristianos, another scenic beach spot and viewpoint, with the island of La Gomera in the distance. Ferries to other islands depart from here.

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The beach at Los Cristianos.

Playa Americas

This resort area (near Los Cristianos) is a major tourist hub for southern Tenerife with a great beach and numerous hotels and restaurants. If you’re after nightlife, this is where you’ll find it.

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The beach at Playa Americas.

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There’s even a Hard Rock Cafe in Playa Americas.

Small Quaint Towns

Just like on Gran Canaria, there are some quaint small towns in the interior that are worth a little time exploring.

La Orotava

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La Orotava is known for its sand murals – in particular this square – see below.

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The square in La Orotava is transformed by sand murals – I wish we could have seen this incredible artwork – I had to settle for a picture of a picture! I wonder how they deal with wind?

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A display showing how the sand murals are created.

La Laguna

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The town of La Laguna is near the airport at the northern end of Tenerife. It was the headquarters of the Spanish Army in the 1600’s. It has a very quaint old quarter.

Vilafora

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The Iglesia de San Pedro Apostol in Vilaflora, a hermitage from the 1500’s.

 

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The beautiful golden altar in the Iglesia de San Pedro Apostol.

If you have to pick just one island to visit in the Canaries, make it Tenerife. You will find a little bit of everything here – stunning scenery, beaches, mountains, pretty villages, good restaurants and nightlife. Five million tourists a year can’t be wrong!

Another view of the rugged volcanic landscape found on Gran Canaria, near Pozo de las Nieves.

The Canary Islands – Part I

Overview

If you want to visit a part of Europe that most Americans aren’t familiar with, consider the Canary Islands, an archipelago of 7 islands belonging to Spain located off the west coast of Africa. We wisely decided to visit the Canary Islands following our two weeks in nearby Morocco. We visited two islands (Gran Canaria and Tenerife), which are two of the largest and most developed islands. There are direct flights from Casablanca to the Canaries.

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A map of the Canary Islands. We visited Gran Canaria (the circular island in the lower center) and Tenerife, to the northwest of Gran Canaria.

Even though these two islands house most of the local population, you can find remote and quiet areas very quickly. We really enjoyed this part of our trip. The difference between Morocco and the Canaries was a bit of a culture shock (the pace of traffic, roads, lifestyle, etc.), and we felt we were stepping from one world to another after our 1.5 hour flight.

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The landscape of Gran Canaria, near the caldera of the volcano that was the island’s origin. The elevation here is about 6,000 feet.

For a combination of rugged volcanic mountains, loads of hiking trails, beautiful beaches and small quaint European towns, the Canary Islands are hard to beat.

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A sign showing hiking trails in the mountains of Gran Canaria.

The Canaries are only about 100 miles (depending on the island) off the coast of Western Sahara, a region of Africa administered by Morocco. While Spanish is the primary language, the high number of tourists (and residents) from the UK make English more common than in mainland Spain. Even though these islands are close to the Sahara Desert, they have a mild climate and pleasant temperature all year long. The climate zones vary greatly within each island and from island to island due to changes in elevation and the prevailing winds. Some areas are a bit desert-like, other areas are forested and green, and you’ll find everything in between.

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The Guanches were the native people of the Canary Islands, who were essentially wiped out during the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands.

To get around each island we rented a car (the roads are good, although sometimes more narrow than mainland Europe). To get from island to island there are numerous flights as well as ferries (we flew to save time).

I’ll share a bit about Gran Canaria in this post and then share more about Tenerife in my next post.

Gran Canaria

This island (and its largest city, Las Palmas) is the capitol of this region of Spain and the main business hub for the Canaries. Although the island is not big (about 35 miles diameter), many of the roads are narrow, steep and winding, so it takes longer than you might think to get across the island. There is one major freeway on the eastern shore.

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One of the main beaches and boardwalks in Las Palmas, Playa de las Canteras.

Columbus visited Las Palmas to take on supplies on his first voyage to the New World.

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Statue of Columbus in Las Palmas.

There is an excellent museum about his voyages and world exploration at the end of the 15th century. He also is believed to have lived in this building as well.

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The exterior of the Museo de Colon (Christopher Columbus Museum) in Las Palmas.

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A map showing the route of Columbus’ first voyage – 1492-1493. He stopped in Las Palmas on his way to the new world.

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One of the exhibits in the Museo de Colon, showing the interior of a sailing ship of Columbus’ era.

There are other sites to visit in Las Palmas as well, including a great cathedral.

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Las Palmas Cathedral – Catedral de Santa Ana. Located near the Museo de Colon.

 

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Interior of Catedral de Santa Ana.

Beyond Las Palmas, there is a whole island to explore, with small quaint towns and rugged mountains.

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The town of Arucas on Gran Canaria

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In the town of Arucas, there is a Gothic church (Iglesia de San Juan Bautista), which is not old, but quite beautiful and will remind visitors of the great cathedrals of Europe.

A couple other cute towns are Teror (don’t let its name frighten you away!) and Firgas.

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Street in the town of Teror.

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The Basilica of Teror, quite beautiful inside.

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Many of these little towns have some sort of iconic site. Firgas, not far from Las Palmas, has a waterfall cascading down a street.

The southern shore of Gran Canaria has high cliffs that are an imposing sight and a lovely fishing village, Puerto de Mogan.

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Puerto de Mogan is an upscale little village on the southern shore of Gran Canaria.

The landscape at the higher elevations reminded us of our home state – Colorado.

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This spot is known as Pozo de las Nieves, and is the highest spot on Gran Canaria. It offers views of the island of Tenerife, which can (barely) be seen above our heads. Also, just over Robyn’s head is Roque Nublo, a famous landmark and sacred spot to the Guanches (the native population).

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Another view of the rugged volcanic landscape found on Gran Canaria, near Pozo de las Nieves.

Grand Canaria is a gateway to the Canary Islands and definitely worth a few days of your time. In my next post, I will share some information on Tenerife, another “hot spot” in the Canaries.

 

 

 

The Gateway of India, on the shores of the Arabian Sea.

Mumbai – The Gateway to India

Our last stop in India was Mumbai. We really didn’t know what to expect. Having read books like “Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts, and seen movies like “Slumdog Millionaire”, we had expected a more chaotic and grimy city with vast slums, but what we found was a vibrant, modern and quickly changing city. The city center has a bit of a European feel, probably not surprising given the British colonial influence during the 19th and 20th centuries.

While there is no question that poverty is widespread, the city also has beautiful parks, shops, restaurants and promenades.

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One of the many elegant buildings in Mumbai.

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A beautiful beach area in Mumbai – in the exclusive part of the city.

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This is an interesting park. It’s built over the top of huge water storage tanks.

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A typical apartment building in Mumbai.

We were in Mumbai for two days, which gave us enough time to get a feel for this fascinating city. Through our hotel, we hired a driver to give us a tour of some of the key sights.

Below are the main places we visited:

Victoria Terminus Station (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus). This visually stunning building is a major landmark of Mumbai. As one of Mumbai’s main train stations, it is a busy place. The exterior is a weird combination of Gothic and Moorish design.

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A view of Victoria Station in Mumbai.

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Another view of Victoria Terminus Station.

Gateway of India. This is another landmark of Mumbai, and was built to commemorate the landing of the King and Queen of England in 1911. Construction started in 1913 and was finished 11 years later. It was the ceremonial entrance to India for Viceroys and Governors of Bombay (Mumbai). The last British troops to leave India in 1948 passed through the Gateway on their way out.

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The Gateway of India, on the shores of the Arabian Sea.

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The elegant Taj Mahal Hotel, near the Gateway of India.

The Dharavi Slum. These are probably the most common images that come to mind when thinking of Mumbai. If you’ve seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire, the setting for much of the movie is the slum from which the protagonist comes (and which are close to the Mumbai airport).  Also, the book Shantaram, which is about an Australian man running from the law, describes the author living in the slums of Mumbai while making friends both with locals and foreigners.

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Many of the slum dwellings have exterior latrines that drop waste directly into the canal.

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Another view of the slums– don’t drink the water!

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Life on the streets in Mumbai – note the gentleman bathing out of a bucket.

While these slums still exist, they are shrinking as the government bulldozes old neighborhoods and puts the population into new high rise accommodations. It’s likely that one day the slums will be just a memory.

Contrary to what might be a typical perception, these slums are a beehive of hard work and productivity. We saw industrious people everywhere working with all kinds of materials: metal, glass, leather, cloth, dyes, and pottery clay to name a few.

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Metal items being loaded on a truck.

Many items are being prepared for recycling and very little, if anything, is wasted.

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Recycling washing machines in the slums.

The people working here seemed to be very willing to let us wander around and check out their shops and working environment.

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Mixing the pottery clay.

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A pottery worker in Dharavi slum.

The Fishing Village. Another area of industry in Mumbai is the fishing village. Boats and nets are everywhere and the smell of the sea is strong here. Not an area where I’d want to relax on the beach, but an interesting stop!

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A view of the fishing village.

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On the “beach” at the Fishing Village. I wouldn’t want to swim here, but we did see a gentleman swimming in from his boat (actually you can see his head right behind my head to the right).

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Colorful fishing boats with a contrast of housing in the background.

The Laundry (Dhobi Ghat). This was one of the most fascinating parts of our tour. Huge volumes of clothing and other items from hotels are hand laundered here.

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The huge outdoor laundry.

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A worker washing clothes.

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Another view of the laundry. Not sure I’d want my clothes washed here…

Clearly there is a system, but the volume of washing and variety of activity going on here boggles the mind. There are many laborers working in the various basins of water – washing, rinsing, and hanging clothes out to dry.

Leopold’s. This popular restaurant and bar figures prominently into the book “Shantaram” and therefore we had to stop by. It’s always fun visiting a place that you’re read about and seeing it in real life.

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Leopold’s Restaurant–pretty good food here!

The Mani Bhavan. This was Mahatma Gandhi’s residence in Mumbai. The whole residence has been turned into an excellent museum, containing exhibits about his life, with many pictures, displays and documents with the writings of this remarkable man who used nonviolence to have so much impact on obtaining India’s freedom from Britain.

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The Mani Bhavan, Gandhi’s residence in Mumbai, now a museum of his life.

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A room where Gandhi would sit and weave his cloth.

Although the rest of India offers so much to the tourist, a visit wouldn’t be complete without a stop in Mumbai.