Monday, 19 September 2016

Bucharest Bound

Summer in the city - chill out, relax and enjoy Barcelona!
It's time for Bucharest!
Old ladies and shawls - myth?
My trip through South America had ended, I'd returned to Catalonia after 3 years away and spent June there getting to know Barcelona again, but still this wasn't 'reality' yet, a normal life. I started summer in a city that loves summer, relaxing on the beach and walking it's streets and enjoying what it had to offer. Reality had hit in some ways though - I was very strapped for cash. I managed to find a teaching job for July, teaching 9 - 15 year olds in a summer camp in Romania, so that was my next destination - a little bit of work and a little bit of a holday. Not a bad combination really. I didn't really know much about Romania before going there - a few famous people (Nadia Comăneci, the famous gymnast who, in 1976, became the first person ever to score a perfect 10), the capital city (some people think Sydney is the capital of Australia, or Rio for Brazil so...) and of course Dracula. I also have a few friends from Romania that I met way back in my days in London, friends that have been telling me I must go and see this very beautiful and yet unspoilt European country. Finally I would have my chance to visit, enjoy and debunk all the stereotypes and myths that surround the country - was Dracula actually from here and was his name actually Dracula? Do all old ladies wear head scarfs? All the answers to the important questions and more would soon be discovered. I flew from Barcelona at about midnight and landed in Bucharest at around 3am, not a great time to be flying but it was the cheapest. On the up-side, my company had organised a hotel transfer and a hotel for the next few days before heading to the camp - the guy also spoke English, but I was in no mood to talk at this time. I was here, and straight to my hotel bed for some sleep before heading out into the city.

Typical apartment buildings in Bucharest.
The 'Onion' domes of a church.
A fountain on the main avenue.
Lonely Planet describes Bucharest as 'a city that is hard to love,' but I'm not sure about that. These travel books like to sound catchy and funny, maybe making a terrible place seem not so bad or a so-so place sound like it is THE place to see before you die. Bucharest was neither of these, and that's OK. It's not a grand city like Rome, museums and 2000 years of history, Medieval buildings or little Piazzas with cute coffee shops, and it's not the busy metropolitan city that is London, the hustle and bustle of suits going to work, the fight on the metro and Happy Hour on the Thames at your local. Nor is it Barcelona with the modern buzz and new tourism mixed with traditional stores and locals going about their business, National Monuments everywhere you look. I have a theory about Great Cities though - you need a wide, navigable river (like the Thames or Seine) for your city to sit on (Bucharest is 60kms from the Danube) or to be a coastal city with a harbour for people to come in by (Sydney obviously comes to mind with the most perfect and beautiful harbour, but New York is there too). 

One of the many beautiful churches in the city of Bucharest.
A big, blocky apartment building, with a difference!
Bucharest architecture (and a BIG can of Pepsi).
This is isn't everything though I guess, and Bucharest (and Romania) has had a hard time of it in general and is making up for it as best it can. The Romans first had a go here way back when and really 'Romanised' the place, which is why the language here is still a 'Romance' language (thus in the same family as Spanish and Italian), the Turks also gave it a going over for about 400 years from the 15th century, and in WWII they made the mistake (or had no choice) of teaming up with Germany before changing sides in '44 and then facing the Russians. After this, they were forcibly made a 'Socialist Republic' and the people and the country did it tough until, in 1989, they overthrew the Soviets and emerged once again as free people. Romanians remember all of these things and are looking to the future, which has become brighter after joining the European Union in 2007. There's nowhere left to go but up from here! Seeing the city, there is everything you see in a modern European city - a Zara store, McDonald's and various other fast food chains, more clothing stores and electronic stores. It just doesn't have that International European city feel about it, most people here are from here, unlike Barcelona or Paris where there is nothing but tourists flooding the streets with their selfie sticks, bad fashion and sun-burnt faces. Since joining the EU, Romanians are travelling more and becoming more and more European - hopefully this won't change them too much! Change and modernise but please don't lose your identity and culture - and don't change your bakeries, they are awesome!

That's one big building!
A view of the Parliament House.
Beautiful churches are everywhere.
After a quick nap I headed out into the heat that is summer in Bucharest - it could put Spain to shame! Not as humid and a Sydney summers day but reaching the mid 30s, it was hot but not unpleasant. The first thing on the list to see was obvious - the Government building in the centre. I walked up the broad avenue from my hotel to the centre of the city, a 10 minute walk, going past the communist style apartment buildings, big square things that aren't pretty but are functional. The Palace of the Parliament (Romanian: Palatul Parlamentului) is a colossal building and really deserves this adjective - I have never seen anything as big as this, it's sheer size is quite impressive, even though it's not very attractive. Perfectly symmetrical, it's kind of a big square with 'wings' at each corner, or a fat X, either way, it's the same no matter which way you look at it and the only thing unsymmetrical about it are the windows - some people like their windows open and some prefer air-con. Plans for construction started in 1978 as was supposed to look like the government building in Pyongyang in North Korea (another square Communist monstrosity), but actual construction started in 1984 and it was eventually finished in 1997, 8 years after the fall of Communism here. The building holds the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies as well as the National Museum of Contemporary Art, conference rooms and more than 1,100 individual rooms on 12 floors - it is the 2nd largest administration building after the Pentagon and 3rd all time biggest building (with a volume of 2.5 million square metres) after the Kennedy Space Centre and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Mexico. 70% of the building is empty - what a surprise! I had to stand a far way back to fit it in the frame of my camera - the building is a monster.

The Palatul Parlamentului.
A city church.
People are always praying.
Another thing that I noticed here is the amount of people who go to church, but not just 'go' but really mean it with all their heart and soul. Europe is, on the whole, not an overly religious place anymore - yes there are grand churches and cathedrals, but they were built hundreds of years ago and aren't really popular with the kids as much as they used to be. Greece, although I've never been, would have to be one of the most religious countries (if Greeks in Australia are anything to go by), their churches encased in gold and icons of Saints and Jesus. In Romania, it is like this - the church always has people in it, no matter what day of the week it is, and usually a lot of people too. Beautiful to look at from the outside and the inside, these churches are different from most in the rest of Europe - here, it is Orthodox, and they know how to make a church look beautiful and Holy at the same time. They are not huge, tall structures trying to impress you with how many stones are in the building and how large they are, making you look up at the arches and at the stained glass windows. These churches are smaller and don't have the usual shape, instead are more squat and compact on the inside, wall to wall with decoration and gold, on the outside there are at least 5 onion-shaped domes pointing upwards to the heavens. I never stopped being amazed at how beautiful these churches are inside - that and the people that come to visit cross themselves (the father, the son and the holy spirit) twice, kiss the church's artefacts and icons of Saints, and sometimes there is even a queue. You also need to cross yourself when you see a church, start a car trip or cross the road. Well, not the road, but pretty much every other time.

Busy in church today - and it's only Tuesday!
Vlad III the Impaler AKA Dracula.
Art Museum.
A strange combination of old 19th Century buildings and blocky , ugly, 60s Communist apartment building, Bucharest is an interesting city. Just over 2 million residents, you can see that it's a busy city, shops selling anything you could want and people getting on and off the metro, buses and trams. It's a normal city, and why shouldn't it be? Does every city have to be the best you've ever been to? Why can't we have less expectations for these things and enjoy what it is. The bakeries on the other hand are not ordinary - cheap prices to start off with, and Romania is very affordable for Europe, but the variety of bread and treats that you can get is wonderful - it's hard not to drool every time you walk past one, and they are everywhere! The Old Town of Bucharest of very pleasant though and worth a wander around, not just for the architecture but the places to eat and drink too. A pint of beer will cost you less than 2 Euros in most places and a decent meal maybe 5 or 6. There is a vast variety of food to be had, from traditional Romanian fare of sausages and other meat with sauces and salads to Turkisk or Greek food. The indluence of the East and Mediterrean is big here in terms of food - kebab shops and Greek barbecue restaurants to name a few. Wander around after lunch and find a secret church hidden in between majestic stone office buildings, a 19th Century building holding the nations treasure in it's Art exhibition and a memorial commemorating the fall of Communism or the Jewish people who did during the Holicost - there are things to see and do here, just take your time and see what you find and you may be surprised by this city.

The beautifully decorated facade of a church in Bucharest.
More church visiters.
Holy water on tap!
I only had a few days in the city before I had to start work at the summer camp, which was the reason why I was here in the first place. Although you don't need that long to explore the city, I can't say any really bad things about it - it's not on my list of top cities to visit, nor is it terrible, it's just in the middle somewhere. It'd been fun here, the people are friendly and most speak English in the city, which is great because Romanian isn't easy. I was heading up into the mountains, 2 hours North of Bucharest, for the next 4 weeks and really looking forward to seeing the countryside, something which is known to be absolutely stunning. I had hopes of not just teaching kids but also exploring the area and even seeing the famous Bran Castle and anything other surprises that came my way. Plans were forming in my head about where I'd go and what I'd see, but the fact was it was only three days down and my journey in Romania had just begun.

Beautiful places or worship and very devout people - a good combination.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Back to Barcelona

The big 6 month trip from bottom to top - with plenty left for next time

Exit stage left - Goodbye Chile and South America.
Hello Europe!
All good things come to an end, and so my time in South America had too. I'd moved to Chile from Australia in February 2015 to find work as an English teacher and see a bit of the country while I was there. From then until December I saw a fair bit of Chile, Pucon, Santiago, Valparaiso, Valdivia, Puerto Varas and of course Patagonia in the south. In December it was summer time, and that means travel time, so I headed south, as far south as I could go to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, then up through El Chalten and Calafate and onto Buenos Aires, stopping off for some wine in Mendoza before going back to Santiago. My journey then took me up through the driest desert in the World to Bolivia where I visited the Salt Flats of Uyuni, Potosi, Sucre, La Paz and finally to Lake Titikaka on the border with Peru. Bolivia was a definite highlight, so much culture and tradition (and colourful clothes!), but Peru was also wonderful - who can say anything bad about being able to see Machu Picchu? From Cusco, a city that I loved dearly, to Arequipa (another gem of Peru) and Lima (avoid it if possible) then all the way north to Ecuador. Ecuador is green and mountainous, Baños with its active volcano, Cuenca with its colonial charm, Quito with it's hussle and bustle, but the real star of this country is The Galapagos Islands (which was nearly bought off the then cash-strapped Ecuador by the States in the early 20th Century). 

The 'Presence of Latin America' in the Casa del Arte of the University of Concepción
Last time I'll see one of these, possibly forever.
Goodbye Cuba.
So far this had taken me up to the end of March - 4 months of travelling wasn't bad, but I wanted more. My legs were stronger but I was feeling the tiredness of carrying my house around with me... and my wallet was definitely slightly lighter. I crossed the border into Colombia and immediately knew this was the right decision - Bogota and Popayan being the real treats for me here. So many friendly people in Colombia, food and atmosphere no matter where you went (including being in a music video clip in Cartagena!), I fell in love with the country and started to wish I'd moved here to teach rather than Chile (Sorry Conce!). To top things off, after a month and a bit in Colombia, I headed to Cuba for 2 weeks before heading back to Europe and reality. Cuba is a country I would love to say that everyone needs to go there, but I don't want to say that about any country as the more tourists in any place kind of ruins it, but on the other hand if you are going to go, do it now or very soon as it is changing rapidly. Never before had I done such a long trip of just travelling, and maybe I won't again, but it was done and I felt younger, more energised and balanced from it like nothing else before. I was starting to think that I was too old to pack up all my belongings into a backpack (sell or give away what doesn't fit) and move to a country you've never been to before, so it would be Spain this year and nothing crazy for a while.

Nothing says "Barcelona" more than this building.
The face of Barcelona.
Barcelona is a welcoming city.
I sat on that plane, all these great times and great people replying in my head, and I felt a little sad that it was all finished. On the other hand it made me happy knowing I had made a great go of it, never said no to a new place to go and new experience, I was still in touch with a few real friends that I'd made (you know who you are) and I was ready to settle down a little and find a job, a place to live (no more hostels!!) and most importantly, get paid. I was tired, very tired - I don't know how people travel for years at a time without feeling this weariness. The feeling that you have to see something, go somewhere, take photos of some national monument in some country wears you out! I love travelling and I don't get bored of it (much prefer it to work as well), but sometimes it's important to stay in one place for a while, spend time with good friends (not ones you've just met but ones you've had for years) and even time doing nothing but sitting on a sofa and eating your own cooking. All these emotions and feeling were going around in my head and heart, I was feeling positive and happy about the future still and really looking forward to being in Barcelona again. The flight was the only bad thing though - I will never fly Aeroflot again. My meal was served after 2 hours of taking off, and I was starving, but I wasn't offered a glass of wine or even a beer. I politely asked for a cold one and the flight attendant gave me a blank look - at first I thought it was my Australian pronunciation of beer (beeeer rather than bi-er), but after saying it a few times and then asking for wine (and making a drinking sign with my hand), she told me that they don't serve alcohol on Economy Class. How rude!

Catalonia's Parliament House.
The tiny streets of Barcelona.
Barcelona Cathedral.
After 13 hours to Moscow, a wait of 4 hours at the airport and 3.5 hours back to Barcelona, I was finally home in my 2nd home. I'd never lived in Barcelona before, always being just outside the city in the wonderful village of Cardedeu, I always knew it had a vibe, a feeling about it that makes everyone want to live here. Although there are many bad things about being in the centre of the city, and I was staying in Bari Gotic, one of the oldest neighbourhoods where the streets are only wide enough for motos and the next apartment building is about 2 metres away. It's noisy - people don't seem to sleep in this country and even less in summer, drunk tourists litter the streets at all hours and to top that off a lot of streets smell like a communal bathroom in a student house without a maid. I will only talk about the good things though as I wasn't noticing the downside - I was in Barcelona! Staying with a good friend, it was like being home again - a sofa, a room to myself and a kitchen I could use and not be worried about catching some sort of hepatitis infection. It was also smack bang in the centre - a walk to everywhere. Being slightly jet-lagged, due partly to the bad connection on my flight and part to the ridiculous no booze in cattle class policy, I didn't sleep my first night and decided to head out and see things in the early morning light. I strolled down to the beaches of Barceloneta, something I had never really done before. It was nice to refresh in the water and have a swim, although the water is far to calm for me (I'm Australian so I need waves and the risk of drowning or being eaten by s shark), it was great to soak up the sun and enjoy the view. After being in Chile for a year (cold water at every beach) and travelling around South America inland, I hadn't seen a real bikini for some time and here in Spain girls don't bother to much with the top half - ahhh Barcelona!

The beaches of Barceloneta on the 1st of June.
Placa Espanya.
The Arc de Triomf.
Over the next week or so I walked around the city, rediscovering places or even find brand new things. Barcelona is full of mystery, little pockets of the city and backstreets that you just have to find on your own. Luckily I'm a great tour guide so I found the best places. The Barcelona Cathedral should always be on the list if you haven't seen it before, but it's always worth another visit. Sitting right in the middle of the city, this huge Gothic structure was built between the 13th and 15th Centuries and is always full of tourists. You can climb to the roof and see the famous gargoyles or just sit in the plaza in front and watch the 'guiris' take selfies. Wandering through the medieval streets you can see so many things, from graffiti and street art to cool cafes, bars and eateries, but don't forget to look up and notice the architecture too. If you want to see a truly impressive church, head for the Santa Maria del Mar (Saint Mary of the Sea). Built in the 14th Century with the aid of the guilds of the city lending manpower, it's different from most churches due to it's shape - although Gothic, it doesn't have the 't' or cross shape that most churches do, instead it's a kind of elongated 'D' shape with the pillars forming 3 aisles. The stained glass inside is worth a visit alone, along with the very tall and thin columns soaring to the ceiling. There are so many beautiful things to see in this city, the Arc de Triunfo, the Palau de la Musica (Music Palace), Casa Batllo (one of Guadi's designs) and so many 'normal' buildings that run along the Passeig de Gracia, the main road from Placa Catalunya and the neighbourhood of Gracia. Walk, explore, get lost and find your way again but just enjoy the sights.

Montjuic and the National Museum.
The roof of Gaudi's Casa Batllo.

Tibidabo and the church on top.
Somewhere always fun to walk to is Montjuic, a hill near Placa Espanya. You get out of the metro stration and you are in one of the busiest roundabouts in the city, a converted Plaza de Torros (now used for concerts as bull fighting is illegal in Catalonia) and the National Museum of Catalonia looking down on you from the hill. During certain times in the year you can come here and see the 'Magic Fountain' of Montjuic, a colour and music show with the fountains, but even at any other time of the year it's still a beautiful place to see. You walk up the stairs either side of the fountain which runs in the middle, it's a great view of the Museum and water and I couldn't help myself and stop at every intersection to take (more) photos, just like everyone else. Once you reach the top you have to side-step the junk-sellers (or wait for the cops to come and then they're gone) and people with selfie sticks, but the view is worth it - right over the cascading water, over the square and traffic, further past the city and right up the mountain to Tibidabo, the highest mountain around Barcelona. On top of this mountain, which you can climb and get a view back towards the city and the Mediterranean, sits the Tibidabo Amusement Park along with The Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor (Expiatory Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus). The construction of the church started in 1901 with the crypt and finally finished with the towers in 1961 - the Catalans take their time building it seems, just like the Sagrada Familia, which is still under construction.

Fruit on a church? Si señor!
Columbus pointing the way.
Gaudi's UNESCO church.
The most famous church in Barcelona, and probably one of the most in the World, standing alongside the Hagia Sophia in Instanbul, St Paul's in Rome and Notre Dame in Paris, in Antoni Guadi's Sagrada Familia. Construction started in 1882 and in 1883 Gaudi became involved - taking over the project and transforming it with his architectural and engineering style, combining Gothic and curvilinear Art Nouveau forms. Sadly he died in 1926, hit by a tram while crossing Gran Via, at the age of 73 (it's a dangerous road but now the motos and taxis are the main concern), leaving his greatest project less than a quarter finished. The church suffered delays due to the Civil War and work started again slowly in the 50s. In 2010 the Sagrada Familia was declared 'half-way done,' and a projected end date of 2026 was proclaimed, just in time for the 100th anniversary of the architect's death. It is a wonderful building, wether you like it or not, and even though it's unfinished it's still a UNESCO site. There are two main sides to it, the 'Nativity' facade and the 'Passion' facade - the former telling the story of Jesus, his birth and deeds, and is the oldest part of the church and personally overseen my Gaudi himself. The newer side, clearly seen by the colour and condition of the stone, tells of Jesus' death and crucifixion - it is far more rigid and square than the flowing North East side of the birth. My favourite side is the oldest part, but there are elements of the newer part I like too - there is always the towers and the fruit, something that probably shouldn't be on a church, but somehow it works.

The city skyline from Montjuic.
Goodbye (for now) Barcelona.
The arches of Old Barcelona.
Barcelona is a great city to hang out in and even live in. I enjoyed my time here in June, relaxing after my trip and rediscovering a city which I had never really lived in before but had visited many times. They say 'absence makes the heart grow fonder,' and I think in case it's true - I never really loved this city before. I could appreciate it, admire it, but never really loved it - coming back I think I have realised what I knew to be true all the time - we do have feelings for each other. It was also great catching up with friends, going out and seeing them in the heart of the this Catalan city, then walking back early in the morning to go home without the need for a bus, train or GPS even. Ever since the 1992 Olympics, which put this city on the map, Barcelona has continued to grow in popularity and shouldn't be missed - my advice is to come here in June or even September if you want warm weather, August is just far too busy. After a month here I was on my way to Romania for a Summer Camp in the mountains just outside of Bucharest. I could have worked here for July but I figured why not go somewhere new and different - and I was being paid for it too! It would be my first Summer Camp in a long time, my first time to Romania and my first time working since November.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Santa Clara and Trinidad

"Until Victory Always," Che's 'catch-line.'
Church in Santa Clara.
Your choice, as long as Che's on it.
My time in Santiago had been relaxing, exciting and very worth while - a good alternative to the capital and with nowhere near as many tourists or tourist traps. I think it remains as the most authentic city in the country, but something that may not last for too long considering how Cuba's tourist industry is starting to boom and cruise ships from the States are now starting to arrive. Let me say here that I don't think the arrivals of the Americans will ruin Cuba as everyone I've met have been saying - "Get to Cuba before the Americans ruin it!" Tourism can 'ruin' any country or city, and it's not dependant on where the visitors come from. Cuba has changed and will continue to change in the coming years - trade restrictions will be lifted, companies will move in, people will have modern phones and access to the internet and information like the rest of the World. Will this be a bad thing? It depends how the Government control the foreign investment and trade agreements. I know people want the 'authentic' Cuba where there are still old cars, no internet and propaganda posters everywhere to make great selfies to show your friends, but would you want to drive a car from the 50s, not be able to buy a new flatscreen TV or a cool digital camera or smartphone or even have a choice of more than 1 kind of cheese? No, of course not, so don't think that these people will stay the same, but that's a good thing as many people here are poor and just want to be like everyone else - to have consumer choice as well as modern conveniences. What I want to stay the same is the Cuban culture, free health care (it's better than the States!), music and traditional way of life to some degree (like Bolivia in South America compared to Chile for example), but on the other hand I want the people to have better lives too. Tourism can be a wonderful source of income for good change, but it's a double-edged blade and you have to be careful how you handle it.

The Battle of Santa Clara monument - The Armoured Train (El Tren Blindado).
The statue of Che at his memorial.
"Glory to the Heroes."
Laurel and I got a 'gringo' bus this time to Santa Clara, dreading another truck ride and willing to pay the price of 33 CUC price for a 12 hour bus journey with air-con and comfy seats. We found a room in the city for 15 CUC a night, much cheaper than anywhere else we'd found in Cuba so far. The city itself is quite small and quiet and not many tourists either. There isn't much to see, but we had breakfast in the plaza and noticed that you could still see scars from the war - a big green building in the centre still had bullet holes in it's facade. I knew that this was the city in which Che fought an important battle of the war, so we headed to see the war memorial. This battle, which took place in December of 1958, was in fact so decisive that within 12 hours after the defeat of the army and capture of the city, Batista fled Cuba and Fidel's forces took Havana and control of Cuba. The battle is also depicted on the 3 CUC note and Che on the 3 CUP note - which got me thinking, where have you ever seen a 3 anything note? 1, 2 5 and 10 yes, but 3? Ok so the Euro goes to €500, which is crazy, but at least it's a nice round number. Anyway, the War Memorial there was interesting and only 1 CUC to see it - it was in an open park and could probably get away without paying but that's just rude. There is the armoured train that the rebels took out, a few weapons that they stole, along with loads of propaganda about how Che was a military genius and how well the battle went. There wasn't a lot of fighting really, Guevara used the bulldozers from the local university to pull up the rails, resulting in a derailed train and shaken up troops tumbling out asking for a truce. An announcement on Radio Rebelde signalled the surrender of the Santa Clara troops, and basically the end of the war.

The placa near Che's monument, and the storm coming in.
The Battle of Santa Clara on the 3 CUC note.
Ernest Guevara on the 3 CUP note.
The last thing we saw in Santa Clara before jumping on a bus, as we had decided to move on to Trinidad, was the Che Guevara Monument. You wonder where the tourists are, and this is your answer - getting selfies with a 10m statue of the man. A big stone wall depicts the battles and victories of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, a now larger-than-life character and the most recognised face in the World - people know the name, but most of the time not his real name Ernesto, nor that he was actually Argentine and not Cuban. Someone did a great marketing job on this one. To enter you must leave your bag, camera and even mobiles in a locker - strictly no photos. Inside you see the plaques of 7 combatants who fought in the revolution, including Che. There wasn't anything that I read that said his real body was here so I did a little research when I had an internet connection again. After his death in Bolivia in 1967, after all the photos and parading him to the press. a military doctor amputated his hands and his body moved to an undisclosed location and. The hands were preserved in formaldehyde to be sent to Buenos Aires for fingerprint identification and then later sent to Cuba. In 1995 a retired Bolivian general revealed to author Jon Lee Anderson, author of "Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life" (a great book to read if you want to learn about the man), that his Guevara's remains were buried near an airstrip in a small town called Vallegrande in Bolivia. On October 17 1997, Guevara's remains, with those of six of his fellow combatants, were moved and laid to rest with military honours in this Mausoleum here in Santa Clara. Che really is buried here.

The Che Guevara Monument.
The local cafe.
Goodbye Santa Clara!
We left Santa Clara for Trinidad, 8 CUC and 3.5 hours away, but we knew it would be far more touristy. Trinidad de Cuba is a World UNESCO listed city, mainly for it's colourful houses and beautiful town centre and church. We found a house outside the centre but only 10 minutes walk away and chilled out for the rest of the day, deciding to hit the city (and crowds) tomorrow. Although very touristic it is still a beautiful city - colourful, colonial houses around Plaza Mayor and the Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad. There is still the small stores that I love here in Cuba, but they are out out of the city, closer to where we were staying - the closer you get to the centre the more tourists there are and the higher the prices go. Finding dinner was a little difficult, as we both wanted a cheap and traditional meal, not some restaurant for Westerns charging far more than they should. A guy approached us on the street, begging, or maybe it was his birthday I can't remember, but we refused him and then immediately asked for a nice and cheap place to eat - in true Cuban style, he helped us find a little restaurant (in reality it was a woman's living room) that served 3 courses for 3 CUC - far more than we could eat! After dinner we thanked the guy and 'tipped' him for the find. Walking home we noticed that there was a shop selling art and souvenirs nearly every second building - I had a look in some, and although it was always the same, there was some nice artwork. If only my backpack wasn't already overweight and full to the point of bursting. Next time.

Cuban art in Trinidad.
People watching.
A Santería priest.
Bright and (fairly) early the next day, we headed out to really see the city - aiming for the suburbs in the hills. It didn't take long before we'd left behind the tourists, bars selling mojitos and stores selling production art and entered the real part of the city. The houses were still colourful but less restored, some with a horse out the front (local taxi) and just people living their lives for themselves rather than for the hordes of Europeans in town. It was far quieter up here and more relaxed too. We still found a small cafe for a coffee and a cold drink, we also found some curious locals wanting a chat - no many people came up this far it seemed. You get a good view of the city from this vantage point, the church, buildings and plazas, but also of the hills around the city too, green with trees and almost a jungle.

The view from the bell tower on top of the convent.
Very realistic street art in the suburbs of Trinidad.
Remember these?
We came back from the tranquil suburbs back into the 'real World' of Trinidad, but to avoid the crowds a little we visited the Convent of San Francisco, which was also the National Museum of the Struggle against Bandits.  In here you can see photographs, documents and equipment, such as weapons and vehicles, showing the battles of the 'bandits' or counter-revolutionary forces against the new Cuban government. Although interesting, it didn't take me too long to lose interest, but that could have been the heat too, which had already put two of the museum attendants to find a comfy chair for a siesta. Next thing to do was climb the stairs and see the view from the bell tower - not a hard climb but a very rewarding one - the whole city of Trinidad stretches before your eyes. From this vantage point we saw a storm rolling in and felt the wind pick up - it was time to head home for the afternoon. We didn't quite make it and got soaked on the way home, even though we ran like crazy people through the streets to get home. The sun came back out immediately after we'd got home (of course) but now we were cool and ready for a nap, hitting the town later on.

That storm came in really quickly and caught us off-guard.
2 girls showing off for the tourists.
A man and his dog.
The town is beautiful and most of the streets are cobbled too. There are restaurants and cool bars, music happening in the squares and more expensive restaurants, but the most interesting thing we found here was a small 'museum' about the revolution and Cuban history. Finding it by accident (I had stopped for a photo), we went inside and had the history of the country explained to us by a lovely elderly man who was very hard to understand. He was part of a group of retired guys that take care of the museum - and sit around all day playing cards to calling each other names. He must have spent nearly an hour talking to us, showing us around and pointing out memorabilia, never asking for a cent, but well deserving of a tip, which he got. My opinion of Trinidad had started to change and I was a little sad to leave, but the time had come. I had 3 days left here, 1 of which was needed to get back to Havana, 1 to relax and see a few things I'd missed in the capital, and the last one for making my way to the airport. Having already caught a truck to Santiago and a bus to Santa Clara and here, I thought it was time to mix it up a little - we hired a private taxi to Havana. This sounds expensive but turned out cheaper than the bus - we were sharing the trip with 2 Israeli girls, so there were 4 of us in the car, and I also haggled it down a little. 3 and a half hours later we were in Havana, back to our old casa privada for the next 2 nights. My time in Cuba was up, there was no changing that, no extended the time, I had to leave and go back to real life. My flight was from Havana to Moscow, changing there for a flight to Barcelona - my new home for this year.

Beer and a sunset in Havana from a rooftop bar on my last night - thanks Cuba!

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MyUncleTravellingMatt. May 2016.

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...