Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Sydney - A wander around some neighbourhoods

Paddington Reservoir Gardens
Having had two months in New Zealand, we were back in Sydney, Australia. Regular readers with good memories may recall that we did spend a couple of days here before we went to Uluru, but I am writing about all of our time here now.

Sydney is one of those cities that everyone has heard of, perhaps because The Sydney Opera House is one of those iconic landmarks that everyone recognises. Add to that the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Bondi Beach, a host of bars and restaurants, and at least the perception of perpetual sunshine, and you have a city that features on most people's travel wishlist.

One of the things that we like about London, is that it is almost a series of small towns and villages, each of which have their own character. Some great, some not so great, but they all add to the diversity and flavour of the city. Sydney is very much like this too. There were some areas that we thought were lovely, and would return to time and again, and others that we could happily live without.

University of Sydney
Let's start with where we stayed, which was in hostels in the Kings Cross area. Now in London, Kings Cross used to be known for its prostitutes and drug addicts, but it has cleaned up its act these days. In Sydney, Kings Cross still has its share of sex shops, with the ladies in their fancy undies outside trying to tempt you in; you may feel slightly less tempted in the off peak hours, when the ladies generally seem to be rather older and more haggard looking. Don't be put off Kings Cross though, as this side of it is only small and is actually reasonably discreet, and the area has a nice relaxed feel to it, good transport, lots of hostels (or backpackers as they call them here) and decent places to go out.

Just to the west of Kings Cross, you can take one of the staircases down to the wonderfully named area of Woolloomooloo, which has a few places to eat, and leads on to the Royal Botanic Gardens and then to The Harbour area and Opera House. But we'll come back to that later.

South of Kings Cross takes you through Darlinghurst, which has a few nice cocktail bars, such as 'Eau de Vie' and 'Love Tilly Devine'. Whilst there are no particular 'attractions', is quite a pleasant walk through Darlinghurst, with plenty of places that you can stop off for a drink, and there are quite a few art galleries if that interests you.

From Darlinghurst you can continue walking on to Paddington, Newtown and Surrey Hills.

Paddington overall felt a little too smart for us. To continue with the London comparison, it felt a bit like a wannabe 'Chelsea', with too many fashionable boutiques and people trying to dress like off duty film stars. That said, there were a couple of good points. There was the rather charming
Paddington Reservoir Gardens, which is an old water reservoir that went out of use in 1899 and was transformed into a sunken garden in 2009. And then there is the Paddington Market, which is on every Saturday, and has many interesting stalls from lots of local artisans. I was tempted by many pieces, but restricted myself to a bright red ring made on a 3D printer, and a Sydney Opera House charm for my bracelet.

Our favourite area was Newtown. It had a far more down to earth feel, with great bars and interesting shops. Sadly, Holy Kitsch!, a shop that specialised in Day of the Dead style skulls of various forms, wasn't quite as good as we had hoped it would be. This was a good place to wander around, with some decent cafes and bars, including the deservedly very popular Brewtown Newtown - if you go, do try the doughnuts.

Surrey Hills was good too, again, quite a few decent cafes and bars. This was one of those areas that is good for people watching, with a good range of people coming in. It does feel a bit like an area in transition, like it may lose some of its more interesting side to a more uniformly upscale style; I do hope it doesn't, as it has a great mix at present.

White Rabbit Collection
One area that had promised quite a lot, but didn't really deliver, was Chippendale. It had sounded like it had some really interesting shops and galleries, but when we were there at least, there didn't seem to be that much. Perhaps we were just there at the wrong time, and the better places were closed. It was a pleasant enough area to wander around, and there was the White Rabbit Collection, an interesting gallery of Chinese Art, which had a lovely café with a great selection of teas, and some surprisingly good scones.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Cordoba, Spain - part two (Throwback posts)

Another place worthy of a tour around is the Palace of the Christian Kings. The current structure was built by King Alphonso XI El Justiciero (The Righteous) in 1327, but there are still a few remnants of the older Roman and Moorish buildings. It is an impressive palace, and there are some lovely gardens to walk around.

The 1469 marriage of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, united Spain, and in 1492 the monarchy left Cordoba and the palace was give to The Inquisition Court, where it would have been the site of some terrible acts of cruelty in the name of Christianity.

For anyone whose only knowledge of the Spanish Inquisition is that Monty Python sketch, I'll give you a brief run down. With the wars with the Moors having come to an end, and the Catholics in power, focus had been shifting towards religion, and a desire to make Spain a solely Catholic country.

Religious intolerance had been growing in Spain for some years, predominantly against the Jews. Many had been forced to convert to Catholicism, and were known as 'Conversos'. Some, however, had converted in public, but continued to practise Judaism in secret; they were known as 'Murranos', and were deemed as highly dangerous to the Catholic regime. In 1478, Pope Sixtus IV issued a Bull (an official papal letter) permitting Ferdinand and Isabella to establish The Inquisition, to seek out and put an end to heresy. In reality, of course, much of what occurred was more to do with strengthening the power of the unified monarchy, and with individuals using it to further their own interests.

In 1492, Jews were given a stark choice of Catholic Baptism or exile, and somewhere between 40,000-160,000 Jews left Spain. In 1526, Islam was banned in Spain. Whilst many Moslems accepted a forced conversion to Catholicism, these 'Moriscos' were still regarded as dangerous, and by 1614, some 300,000 of them had been driven out of the country. In the 16th and 17th centuries, The Reformation saw the rise of various Protestant religions spread across Northern Europe. In Spain, the spread was largely halted, as anyone associated with Protestantism was quickly arrested and dealt with. With Jews, Moslems and Protestants kept at bay, focus turned to Catholics who had adopted ideologies that differed from that of The Inquisition, and they too were persecuted.

The Spanish Inquisition lasted from 1478 to 1834, and was active in Spain and its colonies. As well as people being denounced for their actual religious beliefs and practises being outside of the accepted form of Catholicism, many people were turned in on that pretext, but in reality for other, purely selfish reasons. Once arrested, the victims would be tortured into confessions. If they survived the torture, they were required to denounce other heretics, and if guilty - which most were found to be - punished. The number of those said to have been executed varies widely depending on the source; the lowest suggest 3000-5000, while some others suggest up to ten times that amount. The most serious and unrepentant heretics were burned alive at the stake, especially in the early part.

This was not a good period in Spain's history, but let's not get too critical, as it certainly isn't the only country with skeletons in its past. We did visit the Museum of the Inquisition, which has a large, private collection of Inquisition period torture instruments. This also reminds us that other countries did their own share of terrible things, as the items here aren't all Spanish. There are some truly awful bits of equipment here, designed purely to inflict suffering. It is a fascinating place to visit, but I have to say that I left with renewed horror of the capacity that we humans have to do terrible things to one another.

Enough of that. I think it's time to move on swiftly to nicer subjects.

One of Cordoba's famous past inhabitants in Cervantes, who lived here as a child, and included reference to the Plaza del Potro in his famous tale of Don Quixote. It is a pretty little square, and the old Inn, that Cervantes may well have visited, is now home to the Centro Flamenco Fosforito, which turned out to be one of our favourite things to do here.

The centre is a great little museum about flamenco music, song and dance, with lots of information about its history and people. The bit that we really liked though, were all of the interactive music exhibits, where you could attempt to tap along in time to the flamenco rhythms. Nic and I spent ages trying to outdo each other. We were lucky to have the place mostly to ourselves, so try to go along when it is quieter, for the best experience.

Needless to say, we also found a few places to eat and drink here, and our favourite was definitely La Siesta, just down from Plaza del Potro, in Calle Enrique Romero Torres. The street is much quieter than the main square, and full of restaurants, but this one had excellent food at good prices. Top choices for us included the Berenjenas fritas con miel de cana, a kind of tempura aubergine with honey, and Natillas con canela y mousse de galleta, which it describes as cream custard with cinnamon and cookie mousse, but I just call delicious. We went back a few times.

In the main square, you really should try Bar Santos, a tiny tapas bar that is famous for its tortilla, which for anyone who hasn't tried it, is a sort of potato omelette. The ones they have here are huge great thick wheels of tortilla, and they are stacked up in the bar in huge numbers. Their popularity is justified, it is an excellent tortilla.

We certainly didn't want for good places to eat and drink here. There was a great little beer place, which I can't remember the name of, but I expect you'll come across if you wander around a bit. The final place I will mention is just slightly out of the main tourist area, but worth popping along to is you have time. The Mercado Victoria is a gourmet food market, which has a few stalls with raw ingredients, but is mostly prepared foods of various different cuisines. It is a nice place to go for some good and varied food, but it is busy.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Christchurch - Arthur's Pass

Arthur's Pass trip
The friends that we were staying with in Christchurch left us to amuse ourselves during the weekdays as they had to work, but at the weekend, they took us out to Arthur's Pass, which is the main crossing point over the Southern Alps from one side of the island to the other.

Castle Hill, Arthur's Pass trip
On the way out, we stopped for elevenses at the Sheffield Pie Shop, which is a well known place to get an excellent pie It was certainly very tasty, so I would recommend it if you're passing by.

Don't worry if there is no space to park out in front, go round the back and you will find a car park. Just don't expect to get a seat when it is busy (most of the time).

Castle Hill, Arthur's Pass trip
Well fed, we carried on until we reached our first stop off at the lovely Castle Hill. Easily reached just off the main road, this is a collection of limestone rock formations that are interesting in themselves, but made better by the backdrop of snowy mountains

Castle Hill, Arthur's Pass trip

Castle Hill, Arthur's Pass trip
Castle Hill, Arthur's Pass trip
It amused us to see people walking along with huge great mats on their backs, presumably in case they fall when climbing.

Lake Pearson, Arthur's Pass trip

A little further along, we paused for a while to see the view over Lake Pearson.

Arthur's Pass village
From here, the road climbed steadily upwards, as we worked our way towards the 900m high pass. At this time of year, it is a simple drive, but in the winter, snow chains are a must and the road can be closed entirely. We stopped off at the Arthur's Pass village for a drink and snack, and to watch the kea, large alpine parrots that can be quite comical in their behaviour.

Otira lookout, Arthur's Pass
From the village, we carried on just a little further to the Otira viaduct lookout, to see the old and new bridges that forms the crossing point in the mountains. Part of the reason for coming here is to see if we can spot some more kea, in the more natural habitat than those in the village.

Otira lookout, Arthur's Pass
Unfortunately there was no chance of that, as some group had decided to have a prayer service of some kind there, and were busy singing, chanting and waving huge great flags around.

On the way back, we just about resisted the urge to stop for another pie, but we did succumb to an ice cream.
Castle Hill, Arthur's Pass trip

Arthur's Pass trip

Arthur's Pass trip
Arthur's Pass trip
Lake Pearson, Arthur's Pass trip

Arthur's Pass trip

Arthur's Pass trip
Lake Pearson, Arthur's Pass trip

Arthur's Pass trip
Arthur's Pass trip

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Christchurch and Akaroa

The earthquake obviously had a huge impact on Christchurch, but that isn't all I'm going to tell you about here. Whilst the city was badly damaged, there are a few aspects that remain. 

New Regent Street, Christchurch

One place worth a wander down is New Regent Street, with its forty colourful painted shops in the Spanish Mission Revival Style, which were built by H Francis Willis in 1930-2, as a new concept in speciality shops.

And if you’re wondering, no, I don’t know why there were three wizards sitting outside one café, except that I assume that they were thirsty.

Bridge of Remembrance, Christchurch
The city has a lovely old tram system, which is back up and running. It will take you past the Bridge of Remembrance, built in 1924, originally to commemorate those fallen in WWI, but now remembering those who died in all wars.

We also took a drive out of the city, through pretty countryside and along some very wind roads in places, to nearby Akaroa. The village is on the Banks Peninsula and sits in a bay on the remnants of an old volcano. Its name means Long Harbour.

It is a pretty little village of only about 700 people, and has a heavy French influence, that can be seen in its buildings. It is best to try to time your visit to avoid the arrival of a cruise ship, as it can get pretty busy then.

We took a little boat tour out into the bay, largely for a bit of wildlife spotting. We saw a few New Zealand fur seals along the rocks, and we were able to brave the swell of the mouth of the bay to catch a view of the little Hectors dolphins.

We were also very pleased to spot what we were reliably informed was not just a Little Blue Penguin, but rather their close relation, the White Flippered Penguin, which in endemic to this area and is only distinguished from the Little Blues only by the larger band of white along the front edge and back edge of their flippers. Penguin type number eleven. 

Fur seals, Akaroa
Fur seals, Akaroa

Hectors Dolphins, Akaroa
Hectors Dolphins, Akaroa
White Flippered Penguin, Akaroa
Little Blue Penguin, Akaroa

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Cordoba, Spain - part one (Throwback post)

Our last main stop in Andalucia was Cordoba. It was a city that I was quite pleased to be going to, if for no other reason than to see the mosque-turned-cathedral that I had seen so many beautiful pictures of.

As it turned out, I ended up feeling a little disappointed, although to be fair, I recognise that my disappointment is probably unreasonable. Cordoba is actually quite a good place to visit, with some interesting sights and great food, and I have to say that overall, I enjoyed having been there, and would recommend it to others.

So why did I feel let down? Well, there were two aspects that caused it. The first was the tourists and the touristy nature of the place. Now I know that complaining about tourists might seem hypocritical, but for me there are different kinds, and places have different ways of dealing with them, some of which are better than others.

Unusually for us, we were staying in a little hotel, that was right on the square where the mosque is. From the moment that we arrived, we felt that kind of claustrophobia that you (or at least I) can get from being constantly amongst a crowd of people. Now bear in mind that I have lived and worked in London for years, so I am quite used to crowds, but some crowds are worse than others. Here, even in off season, we found ourselves constantly coming up against big coach groups of loud, selfie stick toting tourists, who were apparently blissfully ignorant of the concept of personal space.

This kind of tourist, that appears to have no regard for anyone else - locals or other visitors - irritates me. I know I should be more patient, but I'm not. So having multiple groups of them immediately around where we were staying, added to the number of tacky souvenir shops nearby, and I can't say that it put me in the best frame of mind for the city. In fairness, things improved greatly once you moved further from this main square, but you know what they say about first impressions.

The second thing, was the Grand Mosque itself. I think this was one of those cases where something has been hyped up, and the photos that we see of those lovely red and white striped arches, are so carefully set up and edited, that reality can't quite live up to the expectation. It isn't that the building wasn't remarkable, but rather that, without the perfect lighting and camera settings, it just doesn't normally look like those stunning photos.

But enough with the negative and on to the more positive now; the mosque - or Mezquita de Cordoba - is still beautiful. It was built in the 10th century, when Cordoba was at its peak, by Emir Abd ar-Rahman III. You enter through the elegant Patio de los Naranjos (Patio of Oranges), and inside are greeted by row upon row of the lovely arches. The red and white stripes are created by alternating the use of white stone and red brick, and they sit upon pillars of granite, jasper and marble.

After the Catholics took control in 1236, the mosque was consecrated as a cathedral, and over the next few hundred years, Catholic elements were added, which in my opinion, detract from the original.

If you are visiting on a tight budget, then you can get in for free and avoid the normal €8 entrance fee by going between 8:30-9:30am (Mon-Sat), but you must go around in strict silence.

Aside from the mosque, there are quite a few things to visit here in Cordoba, and we made it to a few of them. One was the Torre de la Calahorra, which is the fortified gate on the other side of the old Roman Bridge. It was originally built by the Moors, but was restored and added to by King Enrique II of Castille in 1369, in his efforts to defend the city against his brother, Pedro The Cruel.

The gate itself is OK, but the main reason to visit is the Vivo de Al-Andaluz museum, which gives an interesting look at life in Cordoba in the 10th century, when it was home to Christians, Moslems and Jews. It is only a small museum, and the exhibits are a little mixed in quality, but there are some really quite fascinating bits, which for us made it well worth while. And there are great views from the rooftop.

That's all for today, I'll continue our stroll through Cordoba in the next post.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Christchurch – The 2011 earthquake

Our final place in New Zealand was Christchurch, and we were staying with some friends who we met when they were our first Airbnb hosts in London, back in 2012, before they emigrated.

Visiting Christchurch felt slightly strange, as the city is still showing the scars of the devastating earthquake that hit it in 2011.

Driving into town, there are building works everywhere, as they work to rebuild the city. It felt a little odd to park in a clearing where you know that a building once stood; the rubble on the ground and a small section of graffiti covered wall are all that remain of it now.

Earthquakes are neither new nor unusual in New Zealand. It apparently has some 15,000 a year, although only (only!) about 100-150 of them are big enough to actually feel. Christchurch has had its share over the years. One in the early hours of September 2010 was pretty bad, hitting 7.1 on the richter scale, but due to the time, and the strict building laws, the city and its people were relatively unscathed. That wasn’t the case just under six months later.

Old Cathedral, Christchurch

The earthquake that hit the city at 12:51 on 22 February was an aftershock from September and only 6.3 on the richter scale, so could have passed by with only limited damage, but for the fact that it hit a shallower faultline and for effects of the liquefaction.

The fact that this quake was less deep, only around 5km below the surface, means that the ground motion was around four times faster than previously, so caused far greater damage.

That motion also caused the liquefaction, which is basically where the waterlogged layers of silt and sand below the ground's surface are shaken so badly that they turn into liquid. That sludge moves, causing foundations to collapse. Where there are cracks in the ground, the sludge rises up and, together with the sewage from the inevitable broken pipes, floods the area and homes. The ground in some places becomes like quicksand.

As a result of this, the destruction was terrible, and many people were caught up in it. Between the falling buildings, and the fire that followed, 185 people lost their lives, 130 of them in just two office blocks that collapsed. Some of the suburbs worst hit by the liquefaction may not be re-occupied for many years.

Around the city, you can still see the notes left on buildings by the search and rescue teams to record that they had been cleared.

Quake City, Christchurch
If you are in Christchurch, I would highly recommend a visit to Quake City. It may sound a little like a Disney ride, but in fact it is an excellent exhibition about the earthquake, giving some really good explanations, and telling the story of what happened that day.

I suggest allowing plenty of time, because whilst it is small, one of the most compelling elements is the string of videos with survivors, rescuers, and the families of those who died.

Whilst obviously moving, it isn’t overly graphic or gloomy, and is done in a very tasteful way. It does, however, give you an excellent insight into what it was like to be there. In our opinion, it was well worth the time spent watching.

Snapa Crapa, Christchurch
On a lighter note, we also learned about the Snapa Crapa. After the September quake, many sewage lines were damaged, making inside toilets unuseable, so residents created temporary longdrop toilets in their gardens. Some of them became quite elaborate and inventive. The Snapa Crapa was one entry in the 'Show Us Your Longdrop' website competition.

RE:START, Christchurch

One thing that we noticed around town, was the ever present sight of shipping containers. If there is a shortage of them anywhere else, you know why – they’re all here.
Re:START, Christchurch

They are used as offices on the building sites, they are acting as supports for the facades of buildings where the rest of the structure has been demolished, and most interestingly, they have been used to create Re:START, a temporary shopping and food area.

Cardboard Cathedral, Christchurch
Another temporary structure, that has garnered huge interest, is the cardboard cathedral. The city’s old cathedral was partially destroyed in the quake, and is unsafe; the plan is to rebuild it eventually, but given the scale of the works needing to be done here, that is some way off, and it is currently deconsecrated.

The Cardboard Cathedral was intended as an interim solution, although having proved to be so popular, it is now expected that it will be used as the local church once the old cathedral is finished. It is, as the name suggests, made largely from cardboard. There are obviously some other materials used – more shipping containers for one thing – but the inside is definitely cardboard. It looks very impressive.

From outside, you can see that there is a definite twist in the outline of the building. This isn’t the cardboard collapsing, it is part of the design by Shiguru Ban.
Cardboard Cathedral, Christchurch
Cardboard Cathedral, Christchurch

185 Empty White Chairs, Christchurch

Near to the cathedral, is the most poignant reminder of the earthquake. It is a simple idea – 185 white-painted chairs, of varying sizes and types. These empty seats, all looking towards the cardboard cathedral, provide a very effective memorial to those who died.