Ice Ice Baby: Exploring El Calafate

Before I begin, a word of warning. Should you wish to travel, as we did, from Puerto Natales, Chile, to El Calafate, Argentina, the bus is simple and comfortable enough: six hours, approx £12. What is not advised however, is to lose, as Leo did, the PDI receipt he had received upon entering Chile. The importance of this small, flimsy paper is never expressed, unless you are travelling alongside someone who has been to Chile before. “Make sure you don’t lose your PDI.” “Keep your PDI safe.” “You’ve got your PDI, right?” I checked repeatedly; I was assured, repeatedly. Of course, he didn’t have his PDI. There is an immediate US$150 fine if you reach a border without said receipt. (Only the smoothest talking Argentines are able to wriggle out of it!) Ye be warned.

Anyway, after this border-based drama, we arrived once more in Argentina. El Calafate was wet, muddy and, near the bus station, there wasn’t a discernible pavement in sight. So, obviously, we decided to camp! However, not wanting to dwell in our tent longer than necessary, we hit the town.

The main avenue is, as expected, lined with tour companies, souvenir shops and restaurants. Amidst the tourist traps, in an inexplicably gnome-themed market area, lies a quaint ‘librobar’. Books and bar, my two favourite words! ‘Borges y Alvarez’ has all the chunky wooden charm one might expect from a lodge or a library; and the walls are lined with books, quotes and beer taps. We sipped delicious artesanal beers whilst reading amusingly dated material and generally soaking up the ambience. We were in El Calafate for two days; we visited said establishment twice!

Inspired by a local guide book (written many moons ago) we wandered in search of Laguna Nimez. Unfortunately, we were a little travel-spoilt and this lake appeared to be just an underwhelming marsh. If you squinted there were some far off flamingoes and the occasional tiny iceberg floating on Lago Argentino beyond; but, truth be told, it wasn’t worth the five minute walk from town!

Instead we caved in and splashed some cash on a slap up meal. With several restaurants offering Patagonian lamb (most showcasing its very carcass over a fire, in the front window) we opted for the location offering 2 for 1. Salty, meaty, delicious. Far better than any campsite meals being prepared as we waddled home.

But the following morning was our main event: we scaled the hillside staircase back to the bus terminal and boarded our budget shuttle to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. We were going glacier spotting!

The Perito Moreno glacier is one of the easiest glaciers in the world to access via road. Hence its popularity, especially with the elderly! Our bus driver was particularly knowledgable and affable, thus we utilised the 80km journey to learn some random trivia. He stopped to show us the impressively huge Lago Argentino, and to point out the Calafate bush, from which the town gets its name. He also explained some loophole law wherein you are allowed to kill a puma legally once it eats one of your lambs. Man’s excellent intrusion on the food chain.

Anyway, I was a little distracted by the window-side views. Snowy mountain peaks played hide and seek amongst the clouds and, eventually, one face of the enormous glacier swelled into view. Much like glacier Grey, even from a distance it was impressive.

Shortly after, we pulled up to a visitors centre and cafe, told we had four hours to ourselves, and sent on our merry way. Once you can tear yourself from the hot drinks and free wifi, the glacier sits just behind the building. “Look, there it is!” I shouted and pointed and skipped with glee. From here, it seemed like I was looking at a perfectly formed, rectangular damn between the lake and the mountains.

Rush along the metal walkways, closer and closer to the ice face, and it just gets better! Blue, jagged, looming and, thanks to the water echoing ominously within, seemingly alive. Up a few stairs and you can see from above: thousands of jutting peaks atop an enormous meringue. We had read that the ice mass was the size of the city of Buenos Aires (presumably before the city sprawled and the ice receded) which seemed unrealistic… until we were there! There was honestly no end in sight.

As the tourist boat chugged past, the sheer height of this 70m edifice became all the more apparent. Every cleverly positioned viewing platform offered yet more spectacular photo opportunities. Who knew ice could be so enthralling?!

A definite highlight (aside from the ice cold beers we sipped at the ice face) is catching sight of enormous chunks of ice that break free. The sound and the sight come separately, as buildings-worth of ice collapse into the water below. A dramatic splash is followed by perfectly concentric ripples emanating across the lake. Moments that remind you of the constant movement of this imposing city of ice.

We circled every available platform, as it was a view I would never tire of. But, eventually, as a Patagonian fox emerged from the woods to usher all the tourists away, we boarded the bus and waved goodbye to the perfect mirror lake, with its representation of upside-down mountains. It was time for us to return to the librobar, then to pack up our tent and board our impossibly long bus north! (Note: the famous Route 40 closes until mid-October, thus, the only route north is in fact south, and then up the other side of the country. Oh joy.)


Torres del Paine; Towers of Pain

As two people more accustomed to enjoying a milanesa, copa de vino and a siesta than to any hard exercise, we took it upon ourselves to attempt the totally self-guided 4-5 day “W Trek” through Chile’s Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. It seemed like “Towers of Pain” was an apt name for what lay ahead!

We packed our bags with what we thought were the bare essentials: tent, sleeping bag, camp stove, food, and some warm clothes. And yet, somehow, our rucksacks seemed to be twice the size of everyone else’s! The envy was indescribable! But still, armed with paper maps and assured that everything else would become clear, we soldiered on.

Day one: an early bus from Puerto Natales takes us to the national park, wherein we are immediately charged the entrance fee (11,000CLP) and threatened with twenty years in prison should we accidentally set anything on fire. Deeper into the wilderness (thankfully still by bus) and we reached the catamaran service across Lago Pehoé. Bouncing for half an hour across the gloriously turquoise lake was our first taster of the park’s cruel wind. Blue water, green hills, white mountains and a little waterfall to boot, finally excitement began to trump tiredness. At the other side of the lake lay Paine Grande lodge, and behind it, a barren field for cheapskate campers. Naturally, this is where we set up our temporary home.

Luckily bag-free, we set off for our practice walk: the first leg of the W. All the uphill and downhill rocky terrain, and paths that transformed into rivers, forced us to focus on where we placed our feet. But when we did lift our weary heads, we were dazzled by the transition from the sunny waterside, to the imposing and stark valley (seemingly designed by Tim Burton) up ahead. A rather grey sky dampened the scenery, until it acted as a backdrop from the bright blue and fluffy looking icebergs, floating on the aptly named ‘Lago Grey’. They overexcited us and signalled our approach to the grand Grey Glacier.

From a mirador, where the wind made standing upright near impossible, we could spy the glacier, as it forced its way around a dark rocky island. Despite the clouds, the wind and the distance, the ice sprawled as far as we could see! More than satisfied with the views, and consciously aware that we had to make it home before nightfall, we cut this first walk a little short and headed back to where we began. Luckily a little scout-hut shelter enabled us to cook dinner out of the wind, before we bedded down.

Day two: Packing all of our worldly belongings back into our rucksacks, today’s walk was painful. Although, apparently “Paine” actually derives from the local indigenous word for “blue”; which explained why the surrounding lakes (and luckily for us, the sky too) were the most perfect shade of blue I’ve ever seen. Deluxe colour palette perfect. But as the sweeping views became hemmed in by thick forest, luckily we were able to escape the wind monster. I say “monster” because we could genuinely hear a distant roar, warning us to stable our footing, just moments before the blistering weather attacked. As such, the steep ascent to Miradors Frances and Britanica (which formed the central spire of the W) were deemed too dangerous to tackle; and thus our “W” trek became a giant “U” instead. (Or a W if you are writing quickly, with sloppy handwriting perhaps.)

Much to our chagrin, this weather warning also meant that the free of charge Camp Italiano, buried in the woodlands, across a proper ‘Indiana Jones’ style swing-bridge, was also closed. We were allowed to rest there, cook ourselves some food and regenerate some energy, but ultimately, we were kicked out. And so, bags back on our backs, we trudged on to the next campsite. Los Cuernos lay far downhill from where we were. We followed the downward direction of multiple streams and waterfalls (stopping to drink from some, like proper survivors) until we reached a tranquil pebble beach at the shore of the enormous lake that had dominated our view all day. Next to the beach lay the woodland lodge, with a roaring fire and an even hotter price tag. Somehow they figured they could charge £50, per person, per night… to camp?!

Despite our fervent disagreements, “but the other campsite was free?!”, we made little headway with the stubborn receptionist. She suggested we walk to the next location… six hours further, setting off a mere 45 minutes before sunset. Thus we changed tack: we spoke to another member of staff, who simply said “See those rocks? Go find yourself a place hidden behind there.” We chose a spot, we built a wall to shelter us from the wild wind, and we chose to blatantly ignore the ‘no cooking’ signs. Rebellion was the name of this game, and, with a warm bowl of food and a spectacular mountain/lake view from our tent, we won.

Day three: Unfortunately, when one settles upon a life of rebellion, one must follow it through. The main trek path led directly back through the extortionate campsite, thus our third day began with a little off-roading. We found a waterfall, some steep scree and some spikey scrubland, and we traversed the lot. Finally back on the trail, we plodded onwards. Stopping only for a quick picnic in the most scenic spot imaginable, today’s walk was distinctly long. Not noticeably steep, just long. We waved goodbye to our beloved blue lake, and even to the imposing glacial mountains, as the landscape transformed into rolling green hills and black sand underfoot.

One word of advice to budding trekkers: the clearly signposted pathway is not always the one you ought to take. This is how we found ourselves far off track, apparently on the cycle path! Thankfully we were equipped with the one wild backcountry tool you should never be without: an iPhone! As such, we navigated our way around the duck pond we came across, past the wild horses, and back to the proper path which led to the several dramatic bridges we needed to cross. Excitement over, I was ready to sleep. Unfortunately for me, the Hotel Las Torres was deceptively far; and from the entrance, the “adjacent” campsite was yet another twenty minutes walk! Such a cruel trick! We nestled our little tent between some trees, cooked dinner and tomorrow’s lunch (like outdoor domestic goddesses) and collapsed.

Day four: Today was the big one, the final push, the climactic point. After an uncharacteristically windless night, I was raring to go! We trekked back to the hotel, then onto the path proper. Today’s journey seemed to be defined by just one direction: up. It was gruelling and it was seemingly endless. That is until we reached the steep valley, which framed snow up ahead and the noisy river below. Here we were treated to a little downhill (which I actually resented as I knew it only meant more inevitable uphill lay ahead!).

Past the Chileno campsite (which was closed for construction) we were sent on a winding detour amongst the trees. Rocky clambering and a multitude of muddy bogs suggested that this was not the famously well-trodden path! No Indiana Jones bridges today, but a lot of precarious log structures helped us to cross waterways on our forestal ascent. Meanwhile, we had to take particular care not to tread on all the tiny birds running around on the floor; it’s like they’ve missed the memo about wings!

At approx 500m altitude, you can find another free woodland campsite. Here we stopped for lunch and the loo before our final stretch. Lucky we did, for the last forty-five minutes of the four-hour mission were something else entirely. What had seemed steep and rocky before faded into insignificance now. As the trees cleared we started on the incredibly sheer, treacherous cliff face of rocks, scree and ice. (Both dangerously and amusingly, the ice sometimes disguised deep holes, which I enjoyed watching Leo fall in!) But, after an unsafe scramble, there they were: Las Torres! Two stark protruding peaks, clear as day, with the third partially enshrouded in cloud. Stunning, dramatic and like nothing I have seen elsewhere.

Tourists aside, the mirador across the lake was serene. The silence was broken only by the creaking ice or the occasional rockfalls. Even seeing people for the first time in a long time (and quietly judging the one-day hikers) couldn’t detract from the marvel of nature here. Everyone was awestruck (or had their mouths full with picnics!). We took hundreds of photos, attempting to capture our proud faces alongside the arresting majesty of the location- but nothing could quite achieve it.

So, as clouds began to close in, we headed the long way home. Everything we had walked today already, but in reverse. And with increasingly painful knees, even downhill was a curse. Arriving back at the hotel grounds, we immediately celebrated with crisps and a beer, which made the extra 2km to our tent seem easier! We had earned this. Four long, but rewarding days. We had been turned away and forced to improvise. We had camped wild, and had even managed to hold Leo’s rucksack together with sellotape! We had marvelled at our surroundings consistently, but now, waving goodbye to the sunset shadows of the three towers, we were ready to sleep indoors, to shower and to stare in awe at the step count on my phone! (118,370 steps to be exact! Or 75km. In case you were wondering too!)

A Quick Tour of Chilean Patagonia

Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales: Two relatively unremarkable cities in themselves, popular largely for being gateways to the beautiful Patagonian nature beyond. But we still managed to enjoy a variety of offerings: cultural, gastronomical and down right silly.

Our first taste of Chile, on our journey northwards from Ushuaia, was a ferry across the Magellan Strait. With an overpriced pancho (hotdog) in hand and oscuro dolphins (which we thought may have been tiny killer whales, before they started leaping) swimming alongside, we thought we might like this country!

Punta Arenas felt clean and safe, with wide pavements and some beautiful buildings stemming from European (largely Croatian) settlers. And yet, the beauty of the surrounding water was marred somewhat by the greyness of the waterside concrete “park”. And with every alternate establishment being either a hair salon or a strip club, we worried how we might entertain ourselves for our twenty-four hour stay.

First stop, a visit to the main plaza, complete with the giant statue of an explorer quashing the local indigenous population. Apparently the custom is to rub the big toe of the underdog, not for good luck but the opposite: to bring about your eventual return to Punta Arenas.

Blighted by the first rain of our trip, we took refuge in the museum of Palacio Braun-Menendez. An incredibly ornate stately home dating from around 1903, maintained in excellent condition by forcing all visitors to wear elfin overshoes! Some of the back rooms had been converted into an informative museum of the history of Punta Arenas; whilst below stairs played host to some art installations, apparently. It looked more like malfunctioning plumbing displays to me!

Once the weather cleared we took a wander towards the cemetery, because I’m always intrigued when graves are demarcated as tourist attractions! With much more space than the cramped and labyrinthine Recoleta Cemetery, this place was huge. It also seemed to incorporate far more of a cross-section of society: from grand mausoleums to small, colourfully adorned tombstones. But aside from the somewhat morbid surroundings, the inappropriate highlight has to be the topiary. Each path is lined with hundreds of trees, creating a maze of sorts; and each tree is carefully trimmed into an inescapably phallic shape. One shouldn’t giggle in a cemetery, but some gardener in Punta Arenas was having a right laugh!

After such a highlight, we were done with this city and moved northwards to Puerto Natales: a town whose main street can be identified by back-to-back tourist agencies. However, we found a glorious hostel and, in preparation for our forthcoming trek, we made ourselves at home and did wonderfully little. As the wind and rain howled outside, we stayed warm indoors with cuddly dogs and delicious home cooking. More milanesas than you’ve ever seen!

When we did venture outdoors, it was to sample the local cuisine in a bustling no-nonsense restaurant that had all the hard surfaces of a canteen. Piles of meat and draught beers bigger than your head; we liked this place! No tourist in Chile can escape without sampling a cheap and cheerful ‘completo’ (a humble hotdog, pimped out with tricolour toppings) and no self-respecting supermarket can open its doors without first decorating the room from top to bottom in Chilean flags and banners. Thus even feeding ourselves became a tourist activity.

Having eaten everything, we finally felt ready to tackle Torres del Paine…

The End of the World is Nigh

Sun, sea and snow-capped mountains. A magical trio that you quite literally have to go to the end of the earth to find adjacent to one another.

As we disembarked our plane in Ushuaia, into the modest ski-chalet style airport, I was surprised and delighted to find that it was gently snowing. Everyone was wrapped up warm as they waited for one of just three bus lines that wind their way back and forth around the city.

Along the seafront, immense piles of shipping containers and impressive cruise ships exemplify this active port city. Aside from the astonishing views of Chilean mountains across the Beagle Channel, it’s the road signs here that provide some of the best photo opportunities. I’ve never seen such numbers pertaining drivable distance; we were a mere 3094km from where we began earlier that day!

For when photo taking in the blistering cold gets tiresome, a plethora of cosy bars offer shelter. With glorious heating, eclectic antique decorations and a bottle of red wine by your side, it’s easy to forget you’re basically facing the Antarctic winter. (One bar which warrants the long and unaesthetic walk to the industrial outskirts of the sprawling city is “Kuar”; the panoramic seafront windows certainly didn’t disappoint.)

Back outdoors and, naturally, avoiding pricey tours or excursions, we explored our spectacular surroundings on foot. Beyond our little house which sat at the edge of the ever-growing city, at the end of the end of the world, was the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego.

We walked most of the way there from town, wanting to soak up as much of the stark surroundings as possible. Looming mountains, sparse, sinister trees and scrubland horses were all overshadowed by the sheer joy that comes from shattering the ice in frozen potholes and puddles.
We made it as far as the final station for El Tren del Fin del Mundo and decided to hop aboard a transfer bus, to save our poor legs. What we didn’t realise was that this was the most painfully slow train on the planet; it took nostalgic stream train journeys to a whole new level and waiting for its arrival shifted from “scenic” to “laborious” quite swiftly.

Eventually, we made it as far as Bahia Lapataia. The very end of Ruta 3 and a bay framing the vista beyond. Despite the abundant photo miradors intended for noisy visitors to enjoy, I have never heard silence quite like I did here. Everything was totally at peace (and thus the perfect spot for a picnic!).
Trekking back towards civilisation, the variety of lakes, trees and neck-craning views abounded. Whilst there was little by way of wildlife, we repeatedly spotted pairs of geese: one white, one mottled brown. It turns out these are the logo of the park, thus I became suspicious that they had been planted as subliminal advertising of some sort!

From the far west of the city (and in fact the whole country) to the looming heights above, our next trek took us unendingly uphill: Cerró Martial. The vaguely outlined paths surreally transported you from a woodland that wouldn’t look out of place in an autumnal English scene, seamlessly to winter in Narnia! The snow was surprising, glistening and deep. It signalled the ski piste up ahead. Out of breath and unaided by battling the powerful wind, we climbed as high as we could. Unfortunately not all the way to the glacier atop the mountain, but high enough to admire the panoramic variety of shades that constituted the water and the mountains, whilst darkness crept in and the city began to sparkle. At the foot of the ski piste sits a charming tea house offering spectacular cakes and a taste of retro England (more than 13,400km from home), only with infinitely better views.

On our final day, we were a little more gentle with ourselves and took a bus to Playa Larga- Ushuaia’s only beach. Covered in pebbles and bloody cold, it took me right back to my childhood on England’s south coast. But this beach was long and shallow, for just feet behind it stood wild woodland. This really is the land of juxtaposed scenery! All of the trees, clearly wind-beaten, were gnarled and almost horizontal. Much like me by this stage.

We took ourselves home and prepared a gourmet leg of Fuegan Lamb. Turns out the local nature was delicious both inside and out.

As the souvenir shops suggested, Ushuaia’s offerings also include penguins, a former prison and seasonal skiing. But for us, it was the landscape unlike anything we’d ever seen that championed this charming city at the end of the world.

Free Fun in Buenos Aires

Despite spending the longest time in this city on my last trip, almost even committing to calling it home, I experienced another side to BA this time around. The Bargain Hunters Buenos Aires.

Having seen all the tourist hotspots before, and driven by promos and the constant search for free entertainment, we sampled some of the city’s under-publicised cultural delights.

The musical offerings alone were plentiful and diverse. At Centro Cultural Kirchner (CCK), housed within the imposing former post office building, we sat in a civilised salon listening to a classical trio at midday. Same day, same building, but up in the space-age rooftop cupola, an indie band combined harmless pop with jazzy, even reggae, beats and a bizarre, unexplained dumb-show performance alongside. In a distant neighbourhood, at Usina del Arte, a somewhat sinister German acca pella choir starkly juxtaposed the head-banging rock band playing on the roof outside. And for those less inclined to formal schedules and settings, the market-flooded streets of San Telmo played host to busking brass bands and a parade of stomping drummers. There’s never a quiet moment in this city!

For those looking for more classically Argentine music, obviously tango rules. CCK offers a weekly afternoon milonga where locals young and old (and the occasional gringa stepping on people’s toes… guilty) dance together to a live orchestra. Unfortunately we missed the instructive session and were forced to brave the dance floor as novices. After kicking just a few strangers, I was beginning to feel like a proper dancer; until the professionals dazzled us with a performance. Even an amateur, al fresco tango show in a San Telmo Square proved that my dance skills had a long way to go yet!

Such musically diverse cultural centres as CCK and Centro Cultural de Recoleta also offer a vast array of exhibitions. Some distinctly more notable than others. The ‘Naturaleza’ exhibition at CCK offered a strange spread, including an underwhelming room full of potatoes; but an excellent and interactive room full of balloons saved the whole reputation. Similarly interactive, a magnetic photography exhibition that allowed us to create our own mural (naturally I selected only cute dog pictures) was the singular notable room in the disappointing Recoleta Centre.

The MAMBA (Modern Art Museum), as might be expected, favours exhibitions over performances altogether. Less interactive; more angry and political. Also an unexplained giant spiderweb dominated the top floor. Worth a look, but with just three rooms, it’s not exactly a grand day out.

(NB. You would do well to avoid the National History Museum; as the walls are decked in written information, but there is an underwhelming lack of artefacts.)

To complete the cultural extravaganza, I confess, we did part with some pesos. We took a guided tour of Teatro Colon. This spectacularly ornate architectural feat, dating from 1889, was unlike other theatres I’ve frequented (and, believe me, I’ve seen a lot of theatres). With seemingly infinite balconys surrounding the auditorium, there doesn’t seem to be a bad seat in the house (except perhaps the basement formerly reserved for widows to hide their dignity!). Complete with a tour guide who sang samples of opera amongst his trivia, I didn’t even need to see a show to enjoy this cultural excursion.

Outside of the arts, other peculiar pastimes included an impulsive visit to a boat museum moored at Puerto Madero (think Titanic meets Pirates of the Caribbean) and a free ride on the historic tram of Caballito. Beyond that, a walk around the city’s eco reserve takes you to the coast of the Rio de la Plata and into a world vastly different from the modern skyscrapers that surround it. (However, as the word ‘eco’ suggests, this park is all natural, so swamps and algae are favoured over glamorous, or even functioning, water features.)

When we did spend money it was mostly on food and drink. But this needn’t break the bank either. Eating like a local at Banchera pizzeria, we stood at a bar and devoured pizza slices that took the phrase “deep pan” to a whole new level. Similarly vertical eating, choripans ought to be eaten upright and on the street- from a van or market stall. But this street food is far from grotty: most vendors offer a surprisingly sophisticated salad buffet to top your greasy hot dog (and a stand at the entrance of the San Telmo indoor market are single-handedly leading the chori-revolution, offering a gourmet take on the classic). Throw in plenty of happy hour cervezas and you’ve got gastronomy on a budget!

Traversing the city on foot, one truly comes to realise just how different it can be. From bohemian San Telmo, where market stalls balance atop the cobbles, to the chic European avenues of Recoleta, where even the street benches are faux plush! Elsewhere, the streets of La Boca (famous for the colourful Caminito) can be defined by a pervasive match day atmosphere: crowds gather around cars playing music, to enjoy al fresco drinking and share in the striking blue and yellow team colours of Boca Juniors. From tourist sights and cultural delights, to living like a local, my beloved Buenos Aires didn’t disappoint second time around and it still exudes a palpable and varied buzz.

Street-life: the rhythms of Rio

Having just recently booked flights for my long-awaited return to South America (they say third time’s a charm!) I began taking a trip down memory lane:

Famed for Christ the Redeemer, the Olympics, Copacabana beach and bikini waxes therein, Rio de Janeiro is the city that effortlessly shifts from golden sands to verdant hills, from scorching sun to biblical rain, and from entirely deserted streets to drunken crowds.

But to focus on the natural wonders is to overlook the true essence of Rio. As I learnt, Carioca life is vibrant, musical and exists most purely on the streets.

The labyrinthine cobbles of bohemian Santa Teresa, which I called home, contrast the insanity that consumes the adjacent Lapa district. As crowds gathered beneath the imposing colonial aqueduct, we flocked to drink cheap caipirinhas and dance to impossibly eclectic music. The mysterious array of hanging, dusty bottles in the quaint ‘Casa do Cachaça’ street-side shack seems rather to belong on ‘Diagon Alley’; each fiery flavour warmed us up to hit the streets. On Friday nights, the crowds multiply tenfold. Any car brave enough to tackle these roads becomes trapped amongst the street-partying revellers.

I found a more relaxed buzz watching the waves, downtown at Praça Mauá. Dominated by the spaceship-style building that houses the ‘Museum of Tomorrow’, this spot remedies the eerie silence of the out-of-hours business district. Infused by the continent-wide penchant for sitting outdoors of an evening (which I adopted with aplomb), the plaza boasts unrivalled people watching! Skateboarders threw shapes, live bands accrued impressive audiences and post-modern security guards did laps on segways! Praça Mauá also offers the most spectacular sunset, followed by gazing at the twinkling headlights crossing the impossibly long bridge to Niterói.

Beyond partying and people watching, street markets can be found in most neighbourhoods come Sunday afternoon. Santa Teresa’s market offers a heavy vintage focus; down the hill, neighbouring Gloria’s stalls range from carefully displayed fresh fruits, to pungent fish and flea-market floor piles. For me, street market synaesthesia defines that “holiday feeling.” And if the sights and smells are too overwhelming, an abundance of deep-fried pastels and coxinhas offer some comforting beige!

Of a Sunday, my favourite spot is undeniably Praça Sao Salvador. Artistic stalls, food and booze edge of the square, yet the main focus lies on the central gazebo, crammed with musicians. Oldies, with the full orchestral spectrum of instruments, treat the surrounding crowds to a performance. Once they tire, a samba band takes up the reigns. Locals, young and old, welcomed us gringos to join the carefree fun in the sunshine.

Finally, perhaps most famously, Monday nights play host to the Pedra do Sal street samba extravaganza! Little more than a dead-end street in the middle of nowhere, thanks to its amphitheatre shape, abundance of street art and copious bunting, this party spot floods with people. Crowds come from far and wide to revel in the live samba and, as ever, to sample the creative drinks provided by street vendors.

Day or night, for shopping or dancing, the winding roads are much more than a means of traversing this diverse city. The streets are the thronging veins of Rio de Janeiro.

Dublin for a Day: the James Joyce edition

As enthusiastic readers of James Joyce (or at least aspiring to be so), we began with a shot of Jameson’s Irish Whisky before our obscenely early flight to Dublin. With just one day to soak up the culture, we had to start as we meant to go on!

A ridiculously short flight later and we hopped straight on a DART train out of the city. Through many stations that we couldn’t pronounce (several with Joycean claims to fame to excite us) we began our day as Ulysses begins: at the Martello tower in Sandycove, where Joyce, and his characters, lived. Now converted into a miniature museum, this impressive collection boasts of first editions, private letters, Matisse illustrations and even a plaster cast of Joyce’s dead face. Up some unsettlingly steep and narrow stairs, the rooftop gun deck quite literally blows you away, with high winds and lovely views to boot.

Back at ground level, we did some seaside rock clambering, as a wimpy substitute for plunging into the Irish sea at ‘Forty Foot Bathing Place’. Even an octogenarian, with a fag on, put us to shame.

A quick, small town breakfast, and it was back to the big smoke. This is where the ‘Alternative Tour’ of Dublin truly began. Following in the footsteps of Joyce’s plot lines (and a wonderfully enthusiastic academic) we nipped into the ornate and Latinate All Hallow’s church- through the back door of course.

If reading dense literature in situ isn’t entirely your thing, but you still fancy some James Joyce culture, there is nowhere more fitting than Sweny’s Chemist. Still decked out like the old-fashioned Candy Man’s shop in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and staffed by a man bearing an uncanny resemblance to Doc Brown, in a long white coat, this former chemist (where soap was dramatically purchased in Ulysses) is now dedicated to keeping literature alive. The proprietor is undoubtedly the highlight; the most eccentric man in Dublin, maybe the world. He’ll regale you with anecdotes of his life, show off about the number of times he’s read Ulysses and how many languages he speaks (37 and 6, respectively) and, if you’re truly lucky, he’ll serenade you in Gaelic. Who knew such a tiny shop could be so full of utterly bizarre delights?!

Through the dramatic and imposing grounds of Trinity College Dublin, down the Irish equivalent of Bond Street, and we reached ‘Davy Byrne’ bar and restaurant. Whilst I can only apologise for my incessant comparisons, this historical haunt struck me as a cosier version of ‘Cafe Tortoni’ in Buenos Aires (see previous blogs for my Argentine adoration.) Here we sipped our first Guinness, split a gorgonzola sandwich and ruminated on just how literary we were being.

Next stop: The National Library of Ireland. Almost entirely decked out in various shades of green, the domed reading room just oozes intelligence. Couple that with the poshest toilets I’ve ever encountered in a public building and we were onto a winner.

This was where we experience the first instance of our lecturer’s silver tongue. Determined to visit the exact locations described in the book, we somehow blagged our way into the librarian’s private office. Nice vaulted ceilings, but otherwise, an office.

Having caught the ‘we can get away with anything’ bug, the next stop was obvious: the National Maternity Hospital! Bearing around 10,000 babies a year, this is a popular, but far from touristic site. However, our need to see the brand board room, where Joyce’s characters enjoy a late night drinking session, was paramount. I was almost consumed by embarrassment as the hospital staff considered the bizarre request, but I confess, I never would have pictured such a grand dining hall whilst reading. A long way from hospital sterility, this room felt literary.

From here we walked all the way up into North Dublin, beginning to feel the aches that I can only assume Leopold Bloom was plagued with. The wonderfully photographic O’Connell Street splices the city, across the river, as only a monumental boulevard can. Unfortunately, Dublin is currently plagued with unsightly (and inconvenient) roadworks, so we once more took refuge in an atmospheric Irish pub.

Another Guinness later and we realised both the James Joyce Cultural Centre and the Writers Museum had closed whilst we were chatting. Thus we moseyed a little, past numerous cookie-cutter Georgian houses, the Jesuit schoolhouse of Joyce’s early life and up to Eccles Street, where a hospital (admittedly with a Ulysses plaque) stands in place of Bloom’s house. After a long day, we made it back to the beginning of the book; in empathy with our character, we came “home”.

To truly feel the journey of the book, we circumnavigated Dublin entirely on foot. Attempting to recreate a modern epic in just a day is perhaps an impossible task, but, with day-return flights from Leeds for less than twenty quid, it seemed rude note to! And, now that I know I can go on holiday in less time than it takes to get the train home, I’ll no doubt be back to sample the delicacies of the Temple Bar.

Fun at the Fringe; a long weekend in Edinburgh

Admire the views from atop ‘Arthur’s Seat’; play with medieval weaponry at the castle; scale the treacherous heights of the Scot memorial; these are all the things I intended to achieve on my first trip to Edinburgh.

Instead, I spent five days hidden from the sunlight (please allow my poetic license, after all, this is Scotland!) in dank, underground venues, begging people to entertain me. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival!

The streets are crowded by up-and-comers desperate to pass on their flyers (and as much information as they can convey in seconds), along with pop-up venues, street performers and fairy lights. There’s a fine line to be drawn between someone who has taken full advantage of the ‘drink until 5am’ Fringe-specific licensing laws, or an avant-garde performance artist. Anything goes and everything is constantly buzzing.

Edinburgh itself strikes budding photographers with its somewhat labyrinthine, multi-levelled streets; each lined with unanimously ‘ye olde’ buildings and bearing quaintly amusing names from yesteryear. But beyond these thick grey walls lie hundreds upon hundreds of Fringe theatre venues; from a pub, crammed full of garden chairs, to a pungent nightclub corridor, if you can fit more than ten people, you can put on a show.

Owing to my (not always voluntary) frugal lifestyle, I relished the abundance and variety of free fringe performances on offer. As expected, they request donations at the end, but they lack all pressures of forced enjoyment. Sometimes this, unfortunately, leads to an unenthusiastic audience and a comedian perturbed by their lack of response; but, other times, gems can be uncovered in the most unlikely of places.

Surviving, by and large, on word of mouth (unless you nab a copy of the ‘PBH Free Fringe’ programme) here’s a rundown of my free theatrical spoils:

‘The Simpsons taught me everything I know’: ideal for shamelessly fan-girl-ing the iconic show. Yianni Agisilaou teams flawless impressions, with crowd-pleasing quotes and unexpected trivia. Perhaps comedy is less daunting when you know the exact sense of humour your audience is seeking; and we lapped it up!

‘Jollyboat’: pun-tastic comedy musicians. Somewhat inexplicably dressed as pirates, this duo take pleasure in all things nerdy, through song! I can see the Pokemon and GOT numbers flying off the shelves; whilst The Bible, retold through rap, will be scaling straight to the top of the charts!

‘Mothers’: a Cambridge sketch comedy trio, these guys strike a balance between developing their own ‘Inbetweeners’-esque characters and some totally surreal sketch moments. Also relishing in several musical moments, the highlight was a poignant rap: ‘Living at Home’. This hit home which much of the twenty-something audience; observational comedy meets ridiculous, flamboyant flair.

‘Trevor Lock’: bizarrely enough, this hour-long stand up set contained not a single joke, or even attempt at conventional comedy. Purely based on deadpan delivery, brazening out some of the most mundane material, to the surprise and delight of the waiting crowd. Turns out, observational comedy can please the whole audience, when the only observations are set within that very room.

‘Viking Longboat’: shout out random words, throw your ideas into a hat and watch this improv troupe enact your brainchild, in desperate pursuit of a logical storyline. Silly, unexpected and certainly diverse!

‘Brickhead’: this mime comedian’s flyer showed such great promise, but in reality, his show was marred by the pumping salsa sounds from the club downstairs; that and the fact he relied on a single, unfunny movement sequence. We left before giving him the chance to get any better, so, by all means, try it for yourself- if you dare!

‘Positions’: I caught the first performance of this witty two-man play, so they were understandably a little jittery. The tale of a young couple, separated by oceans and language barriers, but together through Skype and choreographed movement sequences. Unfortunately, they too were intruded upon by the sound of an adjacent gig; but try not to let that put you off!

‘Free Footlights’: a mixed bag of student stand ups and sketch snippets. Around eight acts, for the price of one (well, free actually!), with a comedy compere, who often stole the show in between. As expected, some acts were distinctly better than others, across the two days that I frequented the showcase. Personal highlights included a sensationalised and eloquently written tale of “Broken Britain” from Adrian Gray, and some notably silly observations from Rob Oldham.

‘Made to Measure’: my first taste of performative Spoken Word. I braced myself for a preaching poet, with a brick wall back drop, but was gloriously surprised by this comedic duo. They followed a flowing narrative, with observational witticisms and effortless poetry, bringing multiple levels of meaning and emotion to a basic ‘journey to work’ tale. I was sold.

As one might expect from the second largest global gathering, after the Olympics (n.b. Just according to my friend, and unverified), the festival probably wouldn’t enjoy such long term success without a small fee charged by most of the shows. Picking and choosing from the thousands of shows on offer can be mind-numbingly tough, but, the odd sell out certainly makes some decisions for you!

Drawn mostly by recommendations, knowing the cast members, or simply following the crowd, these lucky shows comprise my latest bank statement:

‘Margaret Thatcher: Queen of Gameshows’: a weird combination of political satire and glitzy drag cabaret. A big budget slice was clearly spent on glitter and, although there was a little too much audience participation for my liking, they nailed everyone’s favourite gameshow tropes. Not exactly ‘laugh out loud’, but, certainly cleverness compounded with impeccable impressions.

‘The Leeds Tealights: Tension’: another student sketch group, combining everything from Spanish sitcoms to the ubiquitous Brexit joke (this one particularly outdid many other Fringe attempts I reckon), via stupid outfits and prop comedy. A mental mixture of ‘what should I expect next?’

‘Boys’ by Aireborne Theatre: remember ‘Skins’? Well this is ‘Skins’, but with people who can actually act! Running at just under an hour in total, the piece necessitates exhaustingly high energy and highly-strung emotions from the six-strong cast. They all perform effortlessly and convincingly (which is no mean feat, considering the amount of “alcohol” and “narcotics” the script demands!)

‘Goodbear’: the best way to describe these two former Leeds Tealights is ‘silly’. Their incredibly accomplished sketch show runs fluidly, through their acute control of physical comedy and a seamless soundtrack. The characters presented are as varied as they are wacky, each one adding another layer to the lads’ performative repertoires. It’s a sell-out for a reason!

And finally, if you want to escape the smelly student riff raff, the Edinburgh International Festival runs concurrently to the Fringe. Staged in the “real” theatres, I had a delightful sojourn back into truly accomplished theatre, thanks to having a man on the inside (“yes I will take those free tickets off of your hands.”)

‘Shake’: This retelling of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’, almost entirely in French, regained the abundant sense of fun and comedy so often lost in studying the Bard. Sir Toby and the Fool compered the whole event, with musical interludes and even ventriloquism. The whole piece was strung together with multi-roling and on-stage costume changes, not only highlighting the underlying tropes of this cross-dressing tale, but also harking back to the fun and frivolous origins, as well as providing a sense of surprise at the end, which has been lost from the plot across four hundred years of repetition! That is not to undermine the honesty of emotion shown in scenes between the lovers; but this production certainly didn’t need to dwell on the soppy stuff! (As is probably apparent, this show was a highlight for me and my ongoing Renaissance literary love affair.)

Edinburgh has all the offerings of a huge city, in a compact, ‘carry on bag’ fashion. Thus, if you’re lucky enough to have a plethora of theatrical, ‘Fringe-enthusiast’ friends, be they performers or lowly audience members, you’re bound to bump into them time and again,  amongst the hoards of tourists. Thus, this trip was dedicated solely to long-overdue catch-ups and the unending search for new talent. The sightseeing can wait until next year!

London Life: Holidaying at Home

Not far from the suburban bliss of drinking red wine by my garden fireplace, an abundance of surprises line the London streets. It seems a crying shame that I so often skim over many of these wonders, until provoked to explore by a visiting friend demanding a tour guide. It took but a single afternoon to refresh my vision and rekindle my love affair with London Town. Turns out one’s travel bug can sometimes (very occasionally) be satisfied close to home.

It is universally recorded that the minute we Brits sample even a slither of sunshine, the shorts are on and everyone hits the streets. This first became apparent as our path was repeatedly interrupted by an inexplicably huge number of cyclists. Apparently there was some sort of city-wide celebration, all in the name of person-powered vehicles. However many wheels you had, whether you were reclining, upright, or backflipping on a BMX, PrudentialRideLondon was a bizarre people-watching moment (and one that almost convinced me to join in!)

First popping our heads in at St Paul’s Cathedral, we accidentally found ourselves ruining some glorious wedding photos and made a run for it; a picturesque run in fact, across the Millennium bridge, that leads directly into the Tate Modern.

Unbeknownst to me, the gallery had undergone an overhaul. It was a major struggle to find my way to my favourite, dimly-lit, womb-like comfort of the Mark Rothko room. However, this exploration lead not only past numerous iconic artworks, but also to the newly instated tenth floor viewing platform. A stone’s throw from St Paul’s, the Shard and all manner of other weird and wonderfully shaped skyscrapers, the Tate offers a new viewpoint of a view that never gets old.

Continuing along the sunny Southbank, we veered off into Gabriel’s Wharf for some lunch and respite. This cove of shops and restaurants is a trendy, arty haven from the bustling city streets. Whilst still bustling (after all, we were still in the capital on a weekend!) the wharf offers a distinctly different vibe to the streets of London proper. Most notably, it offered me a beer, in a square, under an awning: my very definition of a holiday.

The only thing that could have enhanced that holiday feeling was the very thing that happened next! Mere metres from our quaint lunch spot lay an inexplicable and overexcitable street festival, dedicated to all things Colombian. We sipped Aguila, absorbed the now comforting smells of arepas, empanadas and everything deep-fried and even browsed a market of souvenirs we both already owned from our time as honorary Latinos. The small ‘Colombiamente’ stage housed a lively cumbia band and even the Barranquilla Carnaval Queen herself! Despite being hosted in a distinctly smaller setting than she may be accustomed to, la Reina tried her very best to whip the crowd into a frenzy; luckily for her, a bunch of beyond-tipsy Latinos didn’t take a whole lot of convincing!

On the verge of impulsively booking flights back to our favourite continent, we thought we ought to escape. Little did we expect that, once again, a few steps further along the Southbank lay yet more summer fun! The National Theatre, renowned internationally for being the erudite home of British theatre, was the last place I would have anticipated to find an outdoor stage hosting a camp, drag queen extravaganza!

‘The River Stage’ at the National is staging a different takeover each weekend of summer, and we were lucky enough to stumble into the set from ‘The Glory’, a Haggerston-based cabaret club. Not normally being one who particularly enjoys drag acts, this array of drag queens (and kings!) joined together to surprise and delight me, with a celebration of all things camp and karaoke. The audience were just as flamboyantly attired and giddy as those on stage, making it clear that not everyone had arrived here by accident!

Once the tiaras had been awarded, the show came to a close and we resumed normal touristing. This lasted all of one minute (“Look, there’s the London Eye”) before we were once again engulfed by a foreign and unexpected land: ‘The Wonderground’, to be precise. Apparently, each year the Southbank Centre hosts a circus spectacle, housed in a popup fairyland, not dissimilar to the Wild West; who knew?! The foodie smells, craft beers and twinkly set design transport you far from the Southbank; that is until you notice the looming glow of the London Eye overhead.

Back across the river, dancing to buskers and the chimes of Big Ben, brings you within walking distance of the glorious Porterhouse pub, in Covent Garden. (This was the first actually intentional station of my tour!) Hosting a hundred-odd international beers and a live gig three nights a week, this pub perfectly balances the vibes of ‘glamourous’ and ‘dingy’ and is one of my top spots in town. A little reminder that I was still on home turf.

The following morning saw us brave the crowded streets of Camden (apparently closing the Northern Line did nothing to deter the tourists!) for some fish and chips at a market stall and a lounge on the beach. Whilst this sounds distinctly more like a day trip to Brighton, what we saved on train fares, we spent at the bar on the rooftop terrace at the Roundhouse. Home to the annually beloved ‘Camden Beach’, one can drift off in the sand, to a land of laughter, Ibiza-beats and free Coca Cola; all under the watchful eye of the looming adjacent office blocks, so topless sunbathing is unadvisable!

This weekend reminded a self-confessed travel-junkie of the fun to be had on her doorstep (or, at least, within the reach of her Oyster card!) If you choose to sample some (or all) of the locally brewed and/or Colombian beers on offer, then an outing such as this ceases to be a cheap day out. However, each of the outlandish activities themselves were entirely free and gloriously unexpected. Had I come across any one of these events whilst travelling I would have been sure to gush about them in a blog post; thus I thought it only fair to give my home town a shout out of its own.

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