Rio we go…walking one of the world’s most famous cities

Rio from Mt Urca

The peaks and troughs of Rio de Janeiro

A walking holiday wasn’t the plan when I arranged a last minute summer trip to Rio de Janeiro – but Rio had other ideas.

For a start, its iconic Christ the Redeemer Statue, on the 2,310 ft. summit of Mt. Corcovado, is right in the middle of a beautiful subtropical forest in a section of the Tijuca National Park and has an exciting walking trail.

For another thing, its other famous peak, Sugar Loaf Mountain, is reached via two cable cars to two summits. The first, Mount Urca, is only 720ft high and almost begs you to walk, for the spectacular views and the little monkeys that pop up on the trail in the hope that you are carrying bananas.

Then there’s the promenade of Copacabana Beach which is two and a half miles long and takes you on to Ipanema beach. You can’t stop walking when you’re in Rio.

I had only packed a pair of trainers but my first stop was Mt Urca. It was a beautiful day so I walked and enjoyed the views and met one or two friendly monkeys – marmosets – who quickly lost interest in me when they saw I had no bananas.

When I got to the top of Mt Urca, where there is a helicopter landing pad, restaurants and tourist stalls, I was told by the staff that I couldn’t get up to Sugarloaf because I should have bought a ticket for both cable car trips at ground level.

They only let you buy on top of Urca in high season, I was told, so I had to console myself with the thought that the views from Urca are said to be around as good as those from Sugarloaf.

To get to Sugarloaf, I took the Metro to Botafogo station with the intention of walking to the Red Beach – Praia Vermelha – where you get the first cable car. However, some UNICEF workers who were fundraising outside the station advised me not to walk as it was not safe. I had to get the bus.

Personal safety is something you have to take seriously in Rio as its favelas are notorious slums and there are neighbourhoods you simply can’t afford to stray in to. So I took the bus but, I have to say, the streets I looked out on en route looked pretty ordinary to me.

Urca was a good little warm-up for Mt Corcovado. Nearly everybody visiting Rio, regardless of religion or even lack of religion, does the Christ the Redeemer landmark. But the waiting times and the cost of the funicular railway to the top seemed quite ridiculous. The other option, a mini-van service, didn’t seem very attractive.

No, to escape the crowds and make more of a pilgrimage of it, we – my son Daniel and I – decided to walk it and I am so glad we did. It has left an indelible memory with me of the beauty of Rio.

With the helpful advice of locals, we got the bus to Parque Lage, a tranquil and historic city park, where rangers control the access to the trail. You have to sign in your names and the time you start on the trail but there is no fee.

The hike is about two hours and it is only for the able-bodied as there is a small stretch where a rope line has been installed so that walkers can haul themselves up a particularly rocky terrain. The monkeys – capuchins – were bigger here and not so visible as the marmosets. They stayed high in the trees looking down on us. You can also often see toucans, hawks and skunks although we were not that lucky.

It is basically a jungle trail without views until you get to the top where you have the most fantastic view of all! Once at the top you pay the entrance fee into the monument – about £5 – and congratulate yourself on the money you saved by not being transported there.

It’s crowded with people on the summit so you have to squeeze in for the best views. On the day we went, most of the tourists seemed more interested in selfies of themselves, with arms outstretched like the redeemer, rather than any other more thoughtful kind of experience.

I was visiting Rio in August, their winter, but it felt like summer and I consider myself lucky to have been able to fly from Lisbon in Portugal on a British passport. No visa requirements and the Portuguese airline TAP made the 4,700 mile journey in to a relaxing ten-hour trip.

As I was on my own on arrival, prior to meeting up with my son, I was careful in my choice of hotel going for a modest Ibis which was part of the huge Nova America shopping complex in the north zone of the city. Not far from the Maracana football stadium but a bit off the main tourist trail. I thought I might see more of Rio this way.

I know the Ibis brand well from motoring in Europe. It’s almost exactly the same all over the world and I was sure of a good night’s sleep and probably a reasonable breakfast. Finding my way around Rio de Janeiro international airport was hard so I gave up on a bus or train journey and hailed a taxi. Although I know a little Portuguese, the driver and I could barely communicate but he went in to action when I told him my hotel was on Martin Luther King Avenue.

Off we went on a journey through the infrastructure of Rio. Every time I gave the driver a questioning stare he smiled and said: “Martin Luther Kingie, no problem.’’ I was wrecked with anxiety by the time the welcoming lights of the Ibis came in to view.

The hotel was a good choice, right next to a Metro station and inside the huge shopping mall which had high security fencing and access. I found out why when I took the Metro next day and gazed out on the shanty towns around it.

The breakfasts were good with a first class selection of tropical fruits. I spent the first half of the week in the Ibis and the second half in the Ibis Budget next door. Total cost £250. The taxi ride from the airport was about £20. On my return I took a bus for just a few pounds.

The restaurants and hotels on the main street at Copacabana beach had a slight air of decadence and a hint of great expense to me but the lively side streets had plenty to offer. We took lunch in a restaurant offering dourada – golden bream – as a lunch special. The dourada caught in these parts are king-size and the fish was served as a large steak in a mild curry sauce. Very enjoyable and about £20 for the two of us with beers.

The beach itself is just one huge fun strip and two of the most enjoyable pastimes seemed to be drinking coconut water from huge fresh coconuts and playing footvolley. By midday there is one long line all the way along the beach, near the water’s edge, of groups of men, women, boys and girls, playing footvolley.

At night, the entertainers hit the beach. There are live bands, crooners, funfairs, shows, all kinds of activities. Next time I go to Rio, it will be with my wife and I will book a hotel in the Copacabana area.

 

Go West, but not too far, to enjoy the sub-tropical climate of England’s Scilly Isles

Skybus flight to Scilly Isles

The view from the Skybus from Exeter to the Scilly Isles

IT’s hard to believe that a short plane or boat hop from the west coast of England can take you to a sub-tropical paradise but the Scilly Isles are said to be probably Britain’s best-kept secret.

The five inhabited islands in the archipelago, 28 miles off Lands End in Cornwall, bask in the Gulf Stream and boast white sand beaches and flora and fauna you don’t see in England.

One of the most exciting ways to arrive is by the Skybus which flies to the islands from Land’s End, Newquay and Exeter.

It offers spectacular views and a ride you won’t forget easily in a Twin Otter 16-seater plane.

On landing at St Mary’s Island, one of the first things I noticed was the ubiquitous and fascinating aeonium plant.

This large rubbery multi-headed succulent, which looks like a cactus sprouting cabbage heads,  comes in green and red versions and basks everywhere in the greenery of Scilly as proof of its claim to a sub-tropical climate.

The Scilly Isles are places of great contrast and Tresco, the second largest island,  is perhaps the best example of this.

The Abbey Gardens, in the sheltered southern tip of the island, is able to support a range of wonderful southern-hemisphere plants.

Yet the exposed granite outcrops of its northern shores are sculpted by fierce Atlantic gales during the short winter period, creating a rugged and heather strewn landscape more familiar to Britain.

The gardens were started in 1834 and also house the Valhalla marine museum of figureheads reclaimed from the ancient  shipwrecks the island was once notorious for.

There are some interesting north of England connections here with some of the ships built in the region. One was the River Lune, an iron barque of 1,172 tons built in Wallsend in 1868.

Although only 11-years-old, her wreck fetched no more than £55 after she went down on the rocks.

Cars are not allowed on Tresco making it an ideal spot for a complete getaway and the best way to enjoy the island is either by walking or cycling. The coastal rambler pathways and beaches beg you to explore them.

St. Mary’s is the largest island of the Scilly Isles at 2½ miles by 1¾ miles and is home to about three quarters of Scilly’s population.

This is where all visitors arrive and either stay or are filtered out by boat journeys to the other islands – Tresco, Bryher, St Martin’s and St Agnes.

St Mary’s is served by three means of transport – a steamship company and a heliport are based in Penzance. Flights operate from Newquay, Exeter, Bristol and Southampton airports.

Useful website:http://www.simplyscilly.co.uk/




Huelva – Spain’s fascinating south west corner

Columbus ships La Rabida

Replicas of the Columbus ships

Columbus statue La Rabida

The Columbus monument

No getting away from Huelva’s iconic explorer

Columbus (406 x 342)Its name doesn’t trip off the tongue like Barcelona or Madrid and it’s certainly not on the list of top destinations for visitors to Spain.
In fact, the small Andalusian city of Huelva, and province of the same name, is one of the least visited of all in the country. Yet it has so much to offer – from beautiful beaches to magnificent mountains and a maritime history second to none.
To say the city’s links with Christopher Columbus are understated is to put it mildly. In this area, Columbus, an Italian, lived for two years while he strove to win the backing of the Spanish crown for his expeditions to the New World and the discovery of America.
Statues of Cristóbal Colón, as he is known in Spain, are everywhere, the most prominent being the giant Columbus monument on at the confluence of the rivers Tinto and Odiel. His exploits also form the centrepieces of several museums.
I think they are maybe taken for granted in Spain and certainly don’t seem to be being sold to the outside world to the extent that they could.
On the Río Tinto estuary, the Muelle de las Carabelas (Harbour of the Caravels) is a quay with life-size replicas of Columbus’s three ships: the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María, built for the 500th anniversary celebrations in 1992. Yet when I arrived in mid-September, just after the end of the Spanish schools’ summer holiday, I found I had picked the wrong day. It had just started to close on a Monday. Disappointed visitors were wandering around aimlessly after making the trip to see it. The centre itself, although modern, looked tired, like a neglected fairground attraction, and in need of a big tidy-up.
Getting there by car had proved a challenge as signage for La Rábida from the city centre was virtually non-existent. Not far from the replica ships is the very well kept Monasterio de Santa María de la Rábida where Columbus stayed with the monks and expounded his plans while waiting for the royal go-ahead from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. The monastery is next to botanical gardens full of exotic plants and has a museum detailing the discovery of the New World and Columbus’s life. You could quite easily spend a day at La Rábida.
Another Columbus site is Palos de la Frontera, a small fishing village on the River Tinto 10km upstream from Huelva City where, in 1492, Columbus set sail westwards to make history after recruiting mariners from in and around the village for his trip.
There are still more Columbus sites but I had better stop there and mention a couple of other things.

A British connection

Huelva city has a major historical industrial connection with Britain. Its famous copper mines, worked by the Romans, were sold in to a British headed consortium and the Riotinto Company Ltd. was founded in March 1873.!
The mines became one of the world’s major sources of copper and sulphur and the Riotinto company brought with them many British workers and to make Huelva a home from home built typically Victorian houses to accommodate them. They are even credited with bringing football to Spain.There is still much to be seen of this influence in museums and architecture and also the huge Pena del Hierro mine and the mining railway. The metal quayside built by the Riotinto company at Huelva port is now used as walkways by the locals and is well worth a visit.
The Huelva region is also home to the Parque Nacional de Doñana, one of Europe’s most important wetland areas with an incredible variety of wildlife in its sand dunes, marshes, pine woods, salt flats and freshwater lagoons. It is one of Europe’s last remaining habitats for the endangered lynx and the rare Spanish Imperial Eagle. The best time to visit is in winter and spring when the park is full of wildfowl. In winter thousands of geese and ducks arrive from the north, while in spring there are many flocks of breeding birds, including herons, spoonbills and storks.
In the north of the province is the gently rolling Parque Natural Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche, a protected area with excellent walking opportunities.
For me, the best thing about Huelva was wandering around the city in the early evening when everyone spills out in to its abundant parks and open spaces to enjoy themselves. Skaters, cyclists, joggers, keep fit enthusiasts and strollers invade these areas along with young children and their parents. It is one continuous open air festival until night falls. What a quality of life!

Ten great days out on the French Riviera

 

French Riviera - hilltop village of Eze

Hilltop village of Eze

French Riviera – Côte d’Azur – to do list

*Have a day out in Monaco during the week of the Monaco Grand Prix. It’s often said that Monaco is the star attraction of the French Riviera without being part of France. The tiny principality has been a symbol of wealth and glamour ever since its Prince Rainier married Hollywood star Grace Kelly in its cathedral in 1956. Visitors can gamble in the casino made famous by James Bond or watch the luxury yachts sitting quietly at anchor in the stunning harbour. But you don’t have to be a high roller to enjoy it. Its superb gardens and terraces, with dazzling views, are free and the locals give a warm welcome. And see my video clip below about grand prix day.

*Have a walk along the Promenade des Anglais, Nice, followed by a drink in the sumptuous Hotel Negresco, where doormen still dress in the manner of the staff in 18th-century mansions. In 2003 it was listed by the government of France as a National Historic Building. The main thoroughfare of Nice, the capital of the Côte d’Azur,  is named after the English after the wealthy 19th century visitors, who made it one of the first European resorts for travellers from the UK, stumped up cash.

*Take a train ride to Italy. It is inexpensive and total value for money. For a few euros you can ride from Nice to Ventimiglia, just over the border. The sights along the way are fantastic and include Monaco and Villefranche-sur-Mer.

*Visit the perched village of Eze, a medieval village perched like an eagles nest on a narrow rocky peak overlooking the Mediterranean sea. The ancient fortified village is still crowned with the ruins of its 12th-century fortified castle sitting on a narrow rocky peak. The castle grounds house the well-known Jardin Exotique

*Enjoy a scenic walk between the Côte d’Azur villages of Villefranche-sur-Mer and next-door neighbour Beaulieu-sur-Mer. This walk of around three quarters of an hour starts in Villefranche’s historic harbour, a favourite with cruise ships. It also takes you past Villa Nellcôte, the exotic location famous as the place where the Rolling Stones recorded their Exile On Main St album.

*Visit the Manet museum in Nice and Vieux Nice – the old town. The museum, on a hill in the Cimiez neighbourhood, houses the collection the artist and his heirs left to the city. The old town is an atmospheric honeycomb of narrow streets, dotted with Baroque churches, vibrant squares, shops and restaurants. Great place to eat out and party at night.

* Cannes is famous for its prestigious film festival which this year is from May 15 to 26. It has museums, churches and art galleries to see but the main attraction seems to be sitting in a cafe along the shore and watching people go by. If you don’t want to spend you can enjoy the seaside from one of its many piers and jetties.

* Inland slightly from the coast, the small town of Grasse is noted for being the centre of production for many of the world’s best perfumes. Visitors can visit the perfumeries that are strewn around the village or head out into the hills and enjoy walking through the unspoilt countryside.

*Hire a car and drive with care the French Riviera coastal roads between Cannes and Monaco. Enjoyable, with a feast of sights for the eyes, but to be avoided in peak holiday periods.

*Antibes, halfway between Nice and Cannes, sits atop the ruins of the fourth century BC Greek city of Antipolis. It has beaches and a port, an enjoyable old town, fortifications, good hiking, and a great Picasso collection.  It also has a traditional daily market.

Verona and Lake Garda – a great two centre holiday in Italy

Verona, Italy

Verona, Italy

THEY are only a half hour journey apart but, for a memorable holiday full of contrasts, Verona and Lake Garda go together like Romeo and Juliet.

Of course, that”s what a lot of the tourist trail in the ancient Italian city of Verona is all about. The story of the two young lovers had been going the rounds for a long time before Shakespeare came along.

But he spun it in to a classic in which the pair belonged to rival families, one supporting the Pope and the other Emperor Frederick I.He set the scenes of the ball , the balcony , the secret marriage , the farewells , the suicide of Romeo and then of Juliet all in Verona in around 1302.

Shakespeare wrote this in 1597 without ever visiting the area. Verona later obliged by finding the buildings where these events might have taken place and tourists have been flocking for decades to see the balcony, Romeo”s house, Juliet”s tomb, etc.

But perhaps even more impressive than all this is the very real Roman amphitheatre, commonly known as The Arena, which dominates the city. The third largest in the Roman world after the Coliseum in Rome , it is 500 ft. long by 420 ft. wide and 100 ft. high. It could accomodate nearly 25.000 spectators.

Its origin is believed to date from the end of the first century and musical performances are still given in the theatre as it has perfect acoustics.

Verona was always an important city because of its strategic postion and in the Middle Ages was regarded as the key to northern Italy. So it abounds in architecture and fortifications which reflect the various stages of its history.

An example is its main art museum housed in what was once a castle – Castelvecchio – which was the most important military construction of the Scaliger dynasty which ruled the city in the Middle Ages.

The abbey of San Zeno is said to be the greatest example of Romanesque architecture in northern Italy, and is composed of three stages: the actual building during the ninth century, its renewal between 1120-1138 and an enlargement which followed in the same century.

After filling your head with history you can relax alongside the scenic paradise of Lake Garda which used to be a big favourite of wartime PM Winston Churchill, who liked to capture its beauty in his paintings.

Another part of the magic of Garda is dining out beside the lake at night. It is regarded as one of Europe”s most a href=”http://www.deutschgluecksspiel.de/” charming lakes – over online casinos/a 30 miles long and ranging from 1 – 10 miles wide throughout its length, and  over 350 yards in depth in certain areas.

Ferries cruise between the villages that dot it and you can cruise the ferries all day at reasonable prices taking in spots like upmarket Riva, at the north of the lake, and the beautiful village of Limone, named after its plantations.

You can take a ride in a cable car up Monte Baldo for a stunning view of the lake at the resort of Malcesine which offers an incredible panorama at a height of 1850 m.

The most famous town on the Lake is Sirmione which is home to the “Rocca Scaligiera” castle which is one of the main attractions of the Lake. Built by the Scaligieri who were warlords of Verona and Lake Garda, and who during their time prior to the Venetian conquest of the mainland ruled most of modern-day Veneto.

The economy of Lake Garda embraces wine production, fine cheeses and small artisan workshops as well as tourism. In the winter everything closes down. Best times to visit are during the spring and autumn months.

In the summer months, the climate of Lake Garda can be very hot and humid, and often these months the high pressure of southern air clashing with the colder mountain air can create thunderstorms on a regular basis.

Also, the roads around the Lake can be a bit overrun with motoring tourists rather like the Lake District in England. A good time to use the ferries.