Dear Meg, Down a laneway in Ballarat is a hidden gem that inspires a true sense of community at its best. Pip had recently seen a feature story on…
Food is Free Laneway Ballarat
Down a laneway in Ballarat is a hidden gem that inspires a true sense of community at its best.
Pip had recently seen a feature story on the ABC’s Gardening Australia about Ballarat’s Food is Free project. So, when arriving in Ballarat on our Victorian road trip, our mission was to find the laneway where Food is Free is happening.
It was not the best day for a walk as it was bitterly cold, with the wind-chill factor making it difficult to walk because we were freezing. But we persevered and eventually found the Food is Free Laneway.
From the Gardening Australia story, we already knew the Ballarat Food is Free Laneway was founded by Ballarat resident, Lou Ridsdale in October 2014 and that it is located in the laneway beside her home – at 305 Ripon Street South; near the corner of Ripon Street South and Warrior Place.
We also had foreknowledge about the purpose of the Food is Free Laneway; that it is, as the name implies, about sharing food for free. People drop off their excess produce which is then accessible to all at no cost (except perhaps a chat with a neighbour). This sharing has gone a long way to building community interconnections and engagement.
The Laneway is lined with boxes and tables of fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs that are donated by the public for people to take as they want. There are also drawers of seeds, and excess pots and jars for the taking.
We didn’t meet Lou but chatted to the volunteer who was manning the laneway and keeping things in order. She told us that a team of volunteers help out at the site. This is important as people will want to drop off, for example eggs, but only fresh veggies, fruit and herbs can be accepted.
The Food is Free Laneway is a unique project for sustainably managing excess food, assisting those less advantaged, and building community through collaboration. It is a credit to Lou and the volunteers, who donate their time to this community initiative. It is also a credit to the Ballarat community who have embraced Food is Free.
As we were leaving, a lady arrived to drop off some vegetables. We were off to find hot soup.
Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain a copyright of Joanna Rath.
There is something about New Orleans that gets under your skin. There are not many places I hanker to go back to a second time, but New Orleans (affectionately referred…
There is something about New Orleans that gets under your skin. There are not many places I hanker to go back to a second time, but New Orleans (affectionately referred to as NOLA – New Orleans Louisiana) is the exception. Built on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, it is history, culture, colour, vibrancy and life in a neat package.
I was in New Orleans with my sister and brother-in-law. We were booked on a 7-night, paddle steamer cruise on the Mississippi River. As we were embarking the cruise in New Orleans, we had decided to spend 6 days exploring New Orleans before taking the cruise.
The following itinerary was ours of the making, but easy enough for anyone to follow or manipulate to their individual liking. We allowed ourselves lots of free time while still doing all that we wanted. The plantations tour and that of the bayous were organised from Australia before we left on this trip. 6 days was an ideal length of time to see New Orleans and surrounds for the first time. Enjoy this visit through my eyes.
Sleeping in New Orleans
We stayed at New Orleans Jazz Quarters. This is a delightful Creole-style bed and breakfast dating from the 1800s. It is in a fabulous location opposite Louis Armstrong Park on the perimeter of the old French Quarter; with easy walking access to much of the city.
Jazz Quarters comprises of 11 unique cottages and suites; all accommodated in a gated complex with a high level of guest security. Free parking and WiFi are available.
We had the Marsalis Luxury Cottage, with its high ceilings and decorated with classic period furniture from the 1800s. At the time of visit, the cottage comprised of two bedrooms, a large living room, a big bathroom with a very deep bath, and kitchenette. We were very comfortable in this cottage and found the living room a great place to relax.
New Orleans is home to a number of architectural styles. The Marsalis Cottage reflects the Shotgun House style. These are narrow rectangular homes raised on brick piers, with a covered narrow porch supported by columns. The term “shotgun” comes from the suggestion that when standing at the front of the house, you can shoot a bullet clear through every room.
Initially we felt housekeeping was very poor as our rooms weren’t serviced and cleaned daily. When we questioned the lack of servicing, we happily accepted the explanation that the cottages are only serviced once guests have checked out. However, they did sweep the floor for us when requested as we had brought leaves into the cottage.
The staff were very friendly, and breakfasts were a two-course, home cooked affair.
Note: At the time of writing (upon checking Jazz Quarters’ website), it appears the Marsalis Cottage no longer has a living room; having been replaced with an additional bedroom. And breakfast is no longer included.
Day 1: Exploring the French Quarter
Note: We arrived in New Orleans the night before.
This morning we took a self-guided walking tour of the French Quarter – thoroughly exploring the Lower French Quarter. Being set in a grid pattern, the French Quarter, the historic heart of New Orleans, is easy to walk around and find your way. My sister was our guide and Eyewitness Travel was her resource.
Heading from Jazz Quarters to the Mississippi River, we walked down Esplanade Avenue – a broad, tree-lined, 2-kilometre-long residential street bordered by beautiful old Creole homes. Our first stop was the flea market within the French Market where I couldn’t resist buying a t-shirt emblazoned with a transfer of a voodoo doll with a pin stuck in it.
Map of Lower French Quarter – courtesy of Eyewitness Travel “Top 10 New Orleans”
Places of interest we visited included:
Walking the length of the French Market, which also incorporates a farmer’s market, and runs parallel to North Peters Street, we turned right into Ursulines Street. Our destination was the Old Ursuline Convent on the corner of Ursulines and Chartres Streets. Built in 1752, the Old Ursuline Convent is the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley. We took a walk through the Convent. Of most interest were the rooms telling the history of the Battle of New Orleans between Great Britain and the United States. We never did find the stained-glass window depicting the Battle of New Orleans which Eyewitness Travel wrote can be admired in the Convent’s chapel.
Opposite the Ursuline Convent is Beauregard-Keyes House and Garden. Built in 1862, many famous New Orleanians have lived in the house; the most notable being the Confederate General, Pierre Beauregard. General Beauregard only lived in the house for 18 months but because he was such a famous Civil War hero, the house still bears his name.
The ‘Keyes’ part of the house’s name is attributed to the author, Frances Parkinson Keyes. I have to admit I have never heard of this author but have heard of General Beauregard.
The Beauregard-Keyes House is built in the ‘raised center-hall cottages’ architectural style – a style reflecting urban versions of French-Colonial plantations. Raised Center-Hall Cottages are typically raised on piers to five feet or more above ground level. They have deep, covered front porches supported by symmetrically placed columns and accessed by a central stair.
We were not able to go into the house or gardens this day as there was a film crew onsite.
We then made our way to Jackson Square. This is a great place to sit and people watch as there is so much going on. Around the Square are artists selling their paintings, tarot card readers, and jazz bands competing with each other for tourist attention. While my sister and brother-in-law went into St Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square, I spent a lovely half hour watching a band entertain the crowd who were obviously enjoying their music.
A band plays to the crowds in Jackson Square, New Orleans
St Louis Cathedral, formally called the Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France, is said to be the oldest cathedral in the United States. Originally built in 1724, due to destruction from a hurricane and from fire, the cathedral has been rebuilt twice. Visitors are reminded this is a working church, with mass held daily.
We were now well and truly ready for coffee and headed to Café du Monde on Decatur Street; famous for its beignets. Beignets are square pieces of dough, fried and covered with powdered sugar. Café du Monde has been serving them since 1862. They were yummy and worth fighting the crowds for a table. But, then again, I do have a sweet tooth. I got the feeling my sister and brother-in-law did not share in my ecstasy.
Heading back to Jazz Quarters, my final stop was at The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. Voodoo was brought to Louisiana by enslaved Africans from West Africa and is now counted as one of New Orleans’ many tourist attractions. According to the guide books, the museum provides insight into the mysteries of Voodoo in its hallway and two small rooms packed with voodoo artifacts and examples of voodoo practices. I have to admit that I left the museum as bewildered and ignorant as I entered. And, if I am going to be honest, I found the museum a bit bizarre. Voodoo remains a mystery for me. Even so, I recommend visiting the museum as it is really quite unique where museums are concerned. I doubt you will experience anything else like it.
Information on voodoo dolls, New Orleans Voodoo Museum
The Voodoo Museum, at 724 Dumaine Street, is open 10.00am to 6.00pm, 7 days a week. General admissions is $7.00 USD. However, entrance to the gift shop is free. There is no formal tour of the museum.
Before leaving Australia, I had done some research on voodoo dolls and was keen to buy one as my memento of New Orleans. The Voodoo Museum’s gift shop sold voodoo dolls, but they were made of moss – Spanish Moss to be exact. I was informed by museum staff that the dolls made with moss are the more traditional voodoo dolls; and I really wanted a traditional voodoo doll. However, I was worried that if I bought one, I wouldn’t get it back into Australia even with declaring it. Australia has very strict biosecurity requirements regarding plant material. I would need to think about this one.
Walking around the streets of the French Quarter, it was the cast-iron balconies that caught my eye. I never tired of admiring them and taking photos.
Day 2: Voodoo and Wealth (and not in the same sentence)
This afternoon we went out to the Garden District. But this morning I was on a mission to buy a voodoo doll.
My ‘no moss’ voodoo doll
My research in Australia had come up with 8 voodoo shops I could buy voodoo dolls from. As I walked from shop to shop, two were closed, leaving three to find a doll I liked and would not be confiscated by Australian quarantine. I ended up buying one of the voodoo dolls made with moss that I had seen in the Voodoo Museum yesterday. I decided I would risk how quarantine in Australia were going to deal with it. Just to be sure I ended up with something to put in my home, I bought a voodoo doll from Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo on Bourbon Street that is made of calico and stuffed with cotton. No Spanish Moss anywhere! According to the label on the doll, it is a “voodoo doll for spiritual strength”. Marie Laveau (1794-1881) was the most powerful and eminent voodoo queen in New Orleans.
Catching a bus this afternoon to Canal Street, we took the St. Charles Streetcar out to the Garden District. Streetcars are icons of New Orleans and similar to Melbourne’s trams. The St. Charles Streetcar is the most famous as it is said to be the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the world.
The Garden District provides great insight into how wealthy New Orleanians live – in grand mansions on large blocks of land, with beautiful, lush gardens and well-kept lawns. These were the homes built by wealthy city merchants, bankers and planters.
On a self-guided walking tour of the Garden District, our first stop was Lafayette Cemetery. However, we failed to realise there are two Lafayette Cemeteries. Turning right into Washington Avenue after getting off the St. Charles Streetcar instead of left, we ended up at Lafayette Cemetery No. 2. Our intent had been to visit the famous, walled Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 with its lavish, ornately decorated tombs; where tombs tell the story of a yellow fever epidemic.
This was our first introduction to above-ground tombs and vaults, for which New Orleans is famous. Burying people in the ground is not manageable in New Orleans due to the city being below sea level.
Above-ground tombs in Lafayette Cemetery No. 2, New Orleans
What the walk to Lafayette Cemetery No. 2 did reveal was a very clear delineation between the haves and have-nots in the Garden District, as noted in the houses on either side of St. Charles Avenue.
Walking back up Washington Avenue and crossing St. Charles Avenue, we explored the area around Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 – the area of the Garden District we had set out to sightsee.
Our focus was on the homes of the Garden District, with their typical “raised center-hall cottage” architectural style. The Garden District provides great insight into how wealthy New Orleanians live – in grand mansions on large blocks of land, with beautiful, lush gardens and well-kept lawns. These were the homes built by wealthy city merchants, bankers and planters.
Our walk took us to:
The Gothic Revival styled Briggs-Staub House, at 2605 Prytania Street. This style of architecture is rare in New Orleans because Protestant Americans say it reminds them of Roman Catholic France.
The Gothic Revival styled Briggs-Staub House, Garden District, New Orleans
Colonel Short’s Villa, at 1448 Fourth Street. Built in 1859, this historic residence is one of the most stunning in the Garden District. The house is famed for its cornstalk, ironwork fence.
Robinson House, at 1415 Third Street, was built for a Virginia tobacco merchant. It is one of the grandest and largest residences in the Garden District.
Robinson House, Garden District, New Orleans
Finally, we stopped outside Carroll-Crawford House, at 1315 First Street, with its ornate cast-iron balconies.
Carroll-Crawford House, Garden District, New Orleans
Day 3: Bury Them High
After a morning of leisure, we took an afternoon tour of St Louis Cemetery No. 1. The entrance on Basin Street, just outside the French Quarter, was a 5 minute walk from Jazz Quarters.
It is not possible to enter St Louis Cemetery No. 1 without a licenced tour guide. This is because the cemetery has been subjected to much vandalism over the years. We chose a tour with, Save Our Cemeteries. At $25.00 USD per adult, the tour of St Louis Cemetery No. 1 conducted by Save Our Cemeteries is more expensive that that provided by others (with a going rate of $20.00 USD). However, Save Our Cemeteries is a not-for-profit organisation “dedicated to the preservation, promotion, and protection of New Orleans’ historic cemeteries through restoration, education, and advocacy”. This appealed to us as we felt we were contributing in a small way to the conservation of New Orleans’ history and culture.
Tours with Save Our Cemeteries operate 7 days a week at 9.00am, 11.00am and 1.00pm. Allow 1.5 hours for your tour.
Opening in 1789, St Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the oldest cemetery in New Orleans, and the most famous. There are many renown New Orleanians buried here, none of whom I have heard of. The exception is that of Marie Laveau, the most famous of all (or infamous, depending on where your views lie), and only known to me because I visited the Voodoo Museum yesterday. According to our guide, many believe she continues to work her magic from beyond the grave. That’s why people leave ‘offerings’ at her grave.
Eyewitness Travel tells you the above-ground tombs are due to New Orleans being below sea level; that, prior to above-ground tombs, when the Mississippi River flooded, the bodies would float to the surface. However, our guide told us that having above-ground tombs was to copy the French style of burial. Who do you believe? There is, no doubt, truth in both versions. Whatever the reason, the above-ground tombs are fascinating to see. Some are very ornate; some have fallen into decay; whilst the largest contains 70 vaults. Generations of families are interred in the one tomb, in vaults on top of each other.
In the know:
The going price for a plot at St Louis Cemetery No. 1 is $40,000 USD (approximately $58,518 AUD).
The actor, Nicholas Cage has purchased his future, pyramid-shaped tomb in St Louis Cemetery No. 1
A word of warning:
The tour of St Louis Cemetery No. 1 takes 1.5 hours. There is very little shade in the cemetery and New Orleans can get hot. I recommend you take plenty of water, dress lightly, wear a wide-brim hat and use sunblock.
The jazz scene:
New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz. The two are synonymous. As such, we felt we could not come to New Orleans without experiencing a jazz club. With this in mind, we had dinner this night at Three Muses on Frenchmen Street – a jazz club offering tapas-style share plates, cocktails and live music all under the same roof. Bookings are essential.
The food was very good. I recommend the mac and cheese if it is still on the menu. However, jazz is not a genre of music I like. So, I can’t say I enjoyed it.
Day 4: A Step Back in Time
Once again, a lazy morning before taking an afternoon plantations tour with Tours by Isabelle. This tour (“Small-Group Louisiana Plantations Tour from New Orleans”) took in two sugar cane plantations – St Joseph Plantation and Houmas House Plantation and Gardens – with pickup from Jazz Quarters.
We deliberately chose a tour that took us to different plantations from that offered as a shore excursion on the river cruise – the famous Oak Alley with its much-photographed tree-lined walkway to the front door. We wanted to get a varied view of Louisiana’s famous plantations.
Built in 1830, the 1000 acre St Joseph Plantation is a historic plantation located on the banks of the Mississippi River. It is one of the few fully intact, still working sugar cane plantations in Louisiana. I enjoyed the tour of St Joseph Plantation house. Our guide was a distant family member and you got a real feel for how the families lived and their relationships. She brought the rooms we explored alive with her stories.
The grounds include buildings (cabins, kitchen, schoolroom), which can be explored, that were a part of the historical slave quarters. And there is a gift shop if you are so inclined.
Houmas House, built in 1840, is set in beautiful gardens with huge, old oak trees leading up from the river (from the levy bank to be precise) to the front of the house. Called (according to its brochure) the “Crown Jewel of Louisiana’s River Road”, the 16-room house and gardens reflect the opulent lifestyle and grandeur of the successful sugar barons who once lived in Houmas House. The house itself has been better restored than the house on the St Joseph Plantation. Although well organised, I found the tour of Houmas House, conducted by guides in period dress, to be very boring as it primarily focused on descriptions of the furnishings. I left the tour about halfway through (had seen enough and had enough) to explore the extensive, formal gardens on my own. The gardens alone are worth the visit to Houmas House.
This half-day tour was booked through Viator before leaving Australia. A check of Victor’s and Tours by Isabelle’s websites show this exact tour is no longer on offer but there are still a variety of plantation tours available.
Day 5: Rivers, Swamps and Bayous
Our organised tour today wasn’t until early afternoon. So, we spent the morning resting, reading, and laundering (not me).
This afternoon we were picked up from Jazz Quarters by Pearl River Eco-Tours for their 3-hour, “Six Passenger Swamp Tour”. After an hour’s drive from New Orleans we arrived at the Pearl River and Honey Island Swamp. We chose this particular tour because we thought the smaller boat (skiff) would give us a more personal tour than the larger, 20/25 passenger boat. And it did. Being a much smaller boat, it was able to go into swamps and bayous that the bigger boats are not able to navigate.
The Mississippi River Delta is famous for its bayous; particularly the bayous of Louisiana and Texas. They are wetlands and eco-systems like I had never seen before. We saw alligators, bald eagles and other bird life, snakes (venomous and non-venomous), diverse plant life, and hardwood (Cypress) swamps. Many trees were shrouded in Spanish Moss. [There’s that moss again!] This is true Cajun country. Our guide was very informative, and I came away knowing much more than when I started. We all thoroughly enjoyed this tour and definitely recommend it to others.
The Six Passenger Swamp Tour was organised from Australia without a hitch.
On the day, Pearl River Eco-Tours was well organised and our pick up from Jazz Quarters was on time.
Day 6: A Unique Sculpture Garden
We weren’t required to board the boat for our Mississippi River cruise until mid-afternoon. So, we took the Canal Street streetcar to City Park at the end of the line.
Covering an area of 1,300 acres, City Park is one of the biggest urban parks in the United States. Situated in the park, in the New Orleans Museum of Art, is the Sydney & Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. This sculpture garden now occupies approximately 11 acres of City Park, with over 90 sculptures from national and international artists. I found some of the sculptures quite bizarre. There are two I will remember for a long time to come:
The first being a sculpture of a man covered in small birds pecking him.
The second was also of a man but this sculpture is a man hanging from a scaffold by his feet.
I kick myself now for not taking photos of these sculptures.
The Besthoff Sculpture Garden is free and open to the public 7 days a week. Summer opening hours are 10.00am to 6.00pm, while winter hours are 10.00am to 5.00pm.
Before embarking our boat, I couldn’t resist buying a bracelet from Tiffany’s.
Our time in New Orleans was relaxed and set at a leisurely pace. We gave ourselves time to see all what we wanted without being rushed. What a great city.
With hindsight, our time was truly well spent. There was nothing I regretted doing and nothing I wished I had done.
As reflected by my sister and brother-in-law…
Overall, we loved New Orleans’ atmosphere of fun, liveliness and colour. We enjoyed walking around areas of old suburbs, the bayous boat trip and lunch at the famous restaurant, Galatoire’s. Also, it is a very easy place to walk around.
A word on safety:
As a female traveller, I did not go out at night on my own (usual precaution) but was always accompanied by my sister and brother-in-law. And, on most occasions at night, we took taxis. However, during the day I always felt comfortable and safe walking around on my own. And did so a number of times for several hours.
Footnote: The moss-made voodoo doll did not make it past quarantine in Australia. I was not even allowed to have it zapped – gamma radiation to make safe for keeping.
Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. Unless specifically stated, all photos are my own and remain a copyright of Joanna Rath.
Prices and opening times quoted in this post are correct at the time of writing.
Mosi-oa-Tunya, “the smoke that thunders” is an apt name given to Victoria Falls by the Kalolo-Lozi people. The spray that rises above Victoria Falls truly does look like smoke. And…
Mosi-oa-Tunya, “the smoke that thunders” is an apt name given to Victoria Falls by the Kalolo-Lozi people.
The spray that rises above Victoria Falls truly does look like smoke. And this ‘smoke’ can be seen from some distance. I had a clear view of the ‘smoke’ rising from the Falls from my hotel in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, one kilometre away.
The ‘smoke’ from Victoria Falls rises above the skyline
Walking around the escarpment on the Zimbabwean side of Victoria Falls, the roar the Falls produce from the volume of water crashing over the edge of the gorge makes it difficult to hear conversations.
Victoria Falls is located on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. I travelled to the Zimbabwean side of Victoria Falls in November 2016. It was the end of the dry season; with November being ‘low water’ for the Zambezi River. When the Zambezi River is in full flood (usually February or March), Victoria Falls forms the largest curtain of water in the world. At my time of visit, Victoria Falls was at 40% capacity. And yet, it did not disappoint.
I will be writing a detailed itinerary blog post on my visit to Victoria Falls in the near future. But for now, I just want to showcase the majesty of “the smoke that thunders” from my camera’s perspective – to let my camera do the talking.
My camera’s perspective of the smoke that thunders: a walking tour
My camera’s perspective of the smoke that thunders: a helicopter tour
Due to Victoria Falls’ reduced volume of water cascading over the edge of the gorge, I wasn’t going to take a helicopter flight over the Falls. At the last minute I changed my mind – one of my better decisions. My camera’s perspective gained a unique angle of the smoke that thunders.
Which camera perspective do you prefer?
A note on protecting your camera
Walking along the escarpment, you and your camera are going to get wet from the spray spewed up by the sheer volume of water crashing down the cliff face to the floor below.
Whether or not you keep yourself dry is up to you. But it is important to keep your camera dry if you want it to continue working.
I have a DSLR camera and have tried two different professional ‘raincoats’ for my camera. Each time, I revert back to my tried and tested method of a plastic bag. I attach the lens hood as this provides some protection for the lens glass and filters. Then, using a wide plastic bag that is longer than my camera body and extended lens (300mm), I make a hole in the bottom of the bag. I slip the lens through the hole and secure the plastic bag to the lens with a rubber band. Pulling the plastic bag up over the camera, the camera is kept dry, I have good access to all the camera’s dials, I can clearly see through the viewfinder and see the back of the camera, and I have plenty of room for my hands. And the lens can still be extended and retracted.
My experience of professional camera raincoats is so opposite to that of my plastic bag. I found them restrictive, providing poor visibility through their plastic window, and having limited space for my hands.
I also carry a microfibre cloth so I can wipe the water droplets off the lens glass.
Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. Unless specifically stated, all photos are my own and remain a copyright of Joanna Rath.
I love having high tea and have partaken of a few around the world. It always makes me feel spoilt and so special.
I love river cruises. Having been on 13 cruises, I am happy to admit I am addicted to river cruises.
Bring the two together and, for me, you have an experience made in heaven.
Last Sunday was Mother’s Day in Australia. What better way to celebrate Mother’s Day than to spend it with my daughter? Her choice of celebration showed just how well she knows me. My Mother’s Day treat was a high tea river cruise.
The high tea cruise on the Yarra River is operated by Magic Charters, Melbourne. The two-hour cruise sails from Victoria Harbour, Docklands to Williamstown, Hobson Bay (return) on Saturdays and Sundays from 2.00pm to 4.00pm.
Boarding was done incredibly efficiently by the crew. At the gangway, we gave our name, were given a table number and off we went. Our table was upstairs and, while the boat holds up to 130 people, we were not crowded; with plenty of space between tables. I had held concerns that we might be required to share a table with strangers. I did not want to do this as I just wanted to spend the time exclusively with my daughter. But tables were set for two, three and four people; with larger groups also catered for.
The tables were set with white linen tablecloths and napkins, with china crockery and silver cutlery. A red rose was on each table. It all felt very posh and added to my feeling of being pampered.
Our high tea was a relaxed experience with efficient, friendly and attentive crew. We even had the option to help the Captain sail the boat – a spacious catamaran.
The serving of food was well-paced throughout the duration of the cruise. Magic Charters was not scrooge over the amount of food; and all that was provided was yum.
Once away from Docklands, I was surprised by the ugliness of the section of river the cruise took in. This is an industrial harbour with all that goes with that – oil tankers, container ships, cranes, and holding tanks. This is not a picturesque landscape and not what I expected. I hadn’t given it much thought, but I assumed there would be much green space. However, at one point, we did get a fabulous view of Melbourne’s skyline under a very moody sky.
Melbourne city skyline from the Yarra River under a moody sky
High tea menu
As soon as we were seated, we were offered sparkling white wine, which flowed throughout the cruise. Orange juice was an available alternative.
A tiered plate of hot and cold savouries was the first food to appear on our table; consisting of finger sandwiches, rolls, pies, tarts and arancini balls.
Our next tiered plate was filled with warm scones, jam and cream (plenty of cream) on the lower tier and various deserts on the top tier. Deserts included tubs of panna cotta with raspberry, macaroons, chocolate brownies and cupcakes.
According to Magic Charter’s website … “We can cater for some special dietary requirements such as vegan, gluten free, dairy free and some other. Please advise us about your special dietary requirements when you place your booking with us.”
A note on cost
The two-hour high tea cruise normally costs $118.00 per adult through Magic Charters. However, occurring one Sunday per month, Magic Charters sells their high tea cruise at the ‘special promotional price’ of $69.00 per adult, and can only be booked through their website. Vouchers can also be purchased through RedBalloon and Groupon at $79.00 per adult.
At $79.00 per adult, this high tea river cruise is value for money. If you have an afternoon free in Melbourne on a weekend, I highly recommend you add the high tea river cruise with Magic Charters to your itinerary.
Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are Meg Speak’s and remain the copyright of Speak Photography.
In mid-April 2019, I travelled with a group of friends to view North East Victoria’s silo artwork. Empty grain silos are scattered around rural Australia. Silo art projects (with the…
In mid-April 2019, I travelled with a group of friends to view North East Victoria’s silo artwork.
Empty grain silos are scattered around rural Australia. Silo art projects (with the first being undertaken in 2015) have become a national phenomenon; appearing in Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australian, South Australia, and Queensland. The silos provide a canvas for creations that are reinvigorating some of Australia’s smallest and remote regional towns. They have become a lifesaver for rural communities; bringing tourism to towns that have been seriously struggling due to economic decline. These towns now have a future.
Perhaps the best known are the painted silos in western Victoria; in the Wimmera-Mallee region. These 6 painted silos stretch for a distance of 200 kilometres from Rupanyup in the south to Patchewollock in the north.
I will be taking a road trip with my sister to these painted silos at the end of April. But that is for another post.
Google map of North East Victoria silo art trail
North East Victoria’s painted silos are located in four small towns between Yarrawonga and Benalla – Tungamah, St James, Devenish and Goorambat. They are fairly recent attractions to these town, with the first being painted in 2018 and are within close proximity to each other – a distance of 33 kilometres from first to last.
Why you should see the silo artworks
This is street art at its best.
The murals are painted on an unusual ‘canvas’.
The artworks are in a public space; in open-air galleries that are open 24 hours a day / 7 days a week. And they are free to visit.
It is artwork on a massive scale. How many paintings do you know that require an extended cherry picker to complete?
The murals painted on the silos depict local history and fauna; giving an insight into the area.
The silos themselves have been ‘painted’ on Australia’s rural landscape since the 1920s.
Google map of Wodonga to Tungamah silo art
Coming from Wodonga, North East Victoria’s silo artworks are an easy one-day road trip. From this direction, the first painted silos are at Tungamah; about 1 and a half hours from Wodonga.
Leaving Wodonga on the M31 (Sydney to Melbourne freeway), turn off at the Rutherglen/Yarrawonga exit (B400; Murray Valley Highway). At Rutherglen, take the C372 to Tungamah; skirting the towns of Bundalong South, Yarrawonga South and Boomahnoomoonah (no, I have not made up this name).
Coming from Melbourne is not, in my opinion, a day road trip. The first painted silos from this direction are at Goorambat – a distance of 228 kilometres; taking about 2 and a half hours. Staying overnight in Benalla might be a good option.
From Melbourne, take the M31 (Melbourne to Sydney freeway) to Benalla. At Benalla, take the A300 to Goorambat.
Google map of Melbourne to Goorambat silo art
Tungamah silo art
The Tungamah concrete silo highlights Australia’s dancing Brolga. Famed for their elaborate courtship dance, Brolgas are Australia’s most iconic birds. There is even an Australian Christmas carol about dancing Brolgas.
A number of traditional Aboriginal legends and dances are associated with the Brolga, with movements mimicking their graceful performance.
The Kookaburra painted on the metal silo is a well-known symbol of Australia’s birdlife. The Kookaburra is also the inspirational subject of a children’s song.
Silo art of dancing brolgas and kookaburra at Tungamah
Western Australian street artist, Sobrane painted the birdlife on the Tungamah silos using spray cans and roller. Internationally known for her signature bird inspired art, Sobrane is the first Australian female artist to take on a silo art project.
St James silo art
The wheat silos at St James are painted with a sepia-toned portrait of Sir George Coles, the founder of Coles supermarkets and a local of St James. His first store opened in 1910 in St James township; with the shopfront captured on the silo under his portrait.
The horse and cart being painted at the time of my visit on the third silo depicts how the wheat was originally delivered to the silos.
Silo art of C.J. Coles at St James in north east Victoria
Local artist, Timothy Bowtell painted the murals on the St James silos. Timothy is due to complete the horse and cart mural by the end of April 2019.
Devenish silo art
Focusing on the role of nurses in service and how that role has evolved over time, this artwork is a visual tribute to the 50 young men and women from the Devenish community who enlisted in military service in the First World War. The artwork represents the historical image of a First World War nurse juxtaposed with that of a female combat medic.
Melbourne street artist, Cam Scale, has captured the past and present and acknowledges the important role our medical personnel play in caring for military and civilians during wars and national disasters, including peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.
At the time of visit, Cam was putting the finishes touches to the Lighthorseman he has painted on Devenish’s final silo.
ANZAC silo art at Devenish with artist at work
Cam Scale is a well-renown fine artist and mural painter in Australia; exhibiting work in galleries across Australia and internationally.
Cam works primarily with aerosol, oil and acrylic, specialising in large-scale figures and portraits.
Goorambat silo art
The Barking Owl painted on the concrete silo is a tribute to this endangered species. With fewer than 50 breeding pairs in the wild, the Barking Owl is the most threatened owl in Victoria. North East Victoria remains a stronghold for wild populations.
Ironbark is the Barking Owl’s habitat. This tree is depicted in the forefront of the typical, Australiana farming scene on the second silo.
The third silo features three Clydesdale horses that resided in Goorambat. Clydesdales are an intricate part of the Goorambat area. They are literally the work-horses of the country and rural areas like Goorambat might not exist without them.
Jimmy Dvate is a Melbourne based artist and graphic designer. He is passionate about conservation and is particularly keen to highlight the plight of endangered species.
While in Goorambat, don’t miss the beautiful mural of “Sophia” painted by the artist, Adnate inside Goorambat’s Uniting Church. Painted in 2017, Sophia was created to depict the female aspect of the Holy Spirit. This tradition draws on the spirit of God as it manifested in the Old Testament times and the post Pentecostal period. Sophia is by nature wise, nurturing, comforting, inspirational and ever present.
‘Sophia’ mural painting in the Uniting Church at Goorambat
You can visit “Sophia” daily from 9.00am to 5.00pm.
Where to eat
We had morning tea, cake and coffee, at the Tungamah Hotel. I recommend the lemon slice.
We lunched at Goorambat’s Railway Hotel. With an extensive, reasonably priced menu, we were spoilt for choice. My hamburger was delicious.
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Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. Unless specifically stated, all photos are my own and remain a copyright of Joanna Rath.
Travel magazines and tour companies have named Sri Lanka as one of the destinations for 2019 – a must see, bucket list destination. I travelled to Sri Lanka with my sister…
Travel magazines and tour companies have named Sri Lanka as one of the destinations for 2019 – a must see, bucket list destination.
I travelled to Sri Lanka with my sister and brother-in-law for a 23-day trip around this teardrop shaped island. This was a private tour with our own driver. However, it is also possible to travel around Sri Lanka by taxi, bus or train.
I still hold mixed feelings about my trip to Sri Lanka. After all, we can’t always expect to like everything about every country we visit. That said, Sri Lanka held some highlights for me that are well worth mentioning, such as walking the railway line between Ella and Demodara and our visit to Geoffrey Bawa’s garden. I also highly recommend visiting Galle Fort. In fact, it is worth staying at least a couple of nights.
Galle Fort is a historical fortified city, with the New Town of Galle located outside the walls. Galle is situated on the southwestern tip of Sri Lanka – a distance of 126 kilometres (78 miles) down the west coast from Colombo (Sri Lanka’s capital).
Why visit Galle Fort
Galle Fort is rich in history; with 400 years of history spaning Portuguese, Dutch and British colonialism. Built by the Portuguese in 1589, the Dutch seized the Fort in 1640 and extended its fortifications, which survive to this day. The British modified the Fort after Galle was handed over to them in 1796. Galle Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and remains the best example in south and southeast Asia of a fortified city built by Europeans.
Galle Fort is protected by a wall (ramparts), with 14 bastions, that has seen little change since completion by the Dutch in 1729. The fortifications run for 3 kilometres and are over 1 metre thick. Inside the Fort is a mixture of architecture, with Dutch-colonial buildings, ancient mosques and churches, and grand mansions. Here you will find cafés, restaurants, boutiques, museums, and hotels. It is also a thriving commercial centre.
With an area of only 0.52 kilometres square within the fortifications and being relatively flat, Galle Fort is easy to walk around and to see everything. It is also a good base for day trips to the southern beaches, gardens, tea factories, rain forests, and nature walks.
From Colombo to Galle Fort
At the suggestion of our driver we took the coast road to Galle rather than the expressway. While taking the expressway would have been quicker (approximately 1.5 hours as opposed to approximately 3 hours), the coast road, according to our driver, is more interesting; more scenic. And it was. Hugging the coastline, we passed through many small villages which provided a glimpse into local daily life; where farmers and fishermen continue to live and work as they have done for generations.
This was our first real experience of driving in Sri Lanka. I have been in many a country where I thought the population as a whole are terrible drivers, but Sri Lankan drivers take the prize. Their idea or practice of passing is downright scary. Picture this … You have a two-lane road just wide enough for two cars, with one lane for each direction. Suddenly, your lane has three vehicles abreast (including your own, with your driver on his mobile phone) as two vehicles want to pass one, and there is a bus coming in the opposite direction. No one gives way as all four vehicles come abreast and all you can do is close your eyes and hold your breath. And yet, I never saw an accident.
I learned a valuable lesson on this drive – don’t ever think of doing a self-drive holiday in Sri Lanka as you may never survive the experience. Their driving and use of the roads are, for these foreigners, positively frightening. My brother-in-law was never able to relax when we were driving. For some reason, he always managed to get the seat with a clear view out the front windscreen. Causing him to remain transfixed on the traffic and in a perpetual state of anxiety.
We arrived in Galle Fort mid-afternoon. Our hotel for the duration of our stay in Galle Fort was the Fort Bazaar, inside the Fort itself.
The Fort Bazaar (at 26 Church Street, Galle Fort) was formerly a 17th century merchant’s townhouse. Opening in 2016 in its current status as a small, boutique spa hotel, its 18 rooms are very spacious, cool and furnished with comfortable four-poster beds. Unfortunately, at the time of stay (April 2017), the pool and spa were not yet completed, and they were still waiting on a liquor licence. However, it is in a very central location within the Fort and complimentary tea and cakes were served daily between 3.00 and 4.00pm. My kind of hotel. I could not fault the staff, who were friendly, attentive and helpful. Sri Lankan hospitality at its best.
Note: The Fort Bazaar, according to a recent view of its website, now has a pool, a spa, and a liquor licence.
Due to the lack of a liquor licence (which did not suit at all), we booked dinner in the restaurant at the Galle Fort Hotel (at 28 Church Street), which came recommended by guide books.
The Galle Fort Hotel was a former gem merchant’s mansion. The restaurant’s setting was picture perfect, with the tables set up on the wide veranda overlooking the pool and garden.
However, dinner was less than ordinary, and the service was very slow even though there were only a few diners. In the heat and humidity, all we wanted was a cold drink to start with. But, once seated, we were suddenly invisible. We were starving by the time they remembered to take our meal orders. We do not recommend the restaurant in the Galle Fort Hotel.
A walk around Galle Fort
Over dinner, we decided to make an early start for our walk around Galle Fort, its bastions and ramparts (walls) the next day, so that our walk would be completed before the day got too hot. In hindsight, it makes no difference in April, heat-wise, what time of day you venture out as it is always very hot and wet (humidity, not rain).
On this day that we decided to do our walk, the humidity was 80% and caused some havoc with our DSLR cameras – fogged up lenses and constant error messages. While I have never found out conclusively if these problems were due to the humidity, it is certainly something to be aware of.
The humidity also impacted on my clothing. I wasn’t just dripping perspiration, I was completely wet. I was wearing a dark pink t-shirt that I had washed several times prior to this trip. However, the pink dye was coming out of my t-shirt. It stained my body, and my camera strap and my camera where they were touching the t-shirt. To top it off, the colour was completed bleached out of the t-shirt where my backpack was touching it – to the point where my t-shirt looked as though it had been tie-dyed.
After a leisurely breakfast at the Fort Bazaar of fresh fruit, bacon and eggs, and freshly ground coffee, we set off on our self-guided tour (walk) of Galle Fort.
(Map courtesy of the Fort Bazaar)
All Saints Anglican Church
Walking up Church Street (Galle Fort’s main thoroughfare) towards the main gate and the Clock Tower, we passed All Saints Anglican Church (its stumpy steeple, a distinctive landmark) and the Maritime Archaeological Museum
The tombstones laid in the floor of the Dutch Reform Church
Our first stop was at the Dutch Reform Church. Originally built in 1640, the floor of the Dutch Reform Church is laid with tombstones which were moved there from the Dutch cemeteries. The oldest of which dates from 1662. There are more tombstones in the grounds of the church.
Leaving the Dutch Reform Church, we continued up Church Street, making our way to the Clock Tower; our starting point for our walk along the Fort’s ramparts.
Heading east and past the Main Gate, we walked up onto the ramparts at the Moon Bastion with its Clock Tower that was built by the British in 1882. From here we were able to look down the ramparts (east and west) to the Star Bastion and Sun Bastion.
This is the most heavily fortified section of the ramparts as they protect the most vulnerable side of the Fort – the northern landward side. Galle Fort is surrounded on three sides by the Indian Ocean.
For those cricket fans…These northern ramparts provide a good view of the Galle International Cricket Stadium outside the Fort. This massive, 30,000-seater stadium has hosted more than 100 one day international matches. Australian bowler, Shane Warne claimed his 500th Test wicket at the Stadium in 2004. In 2010, Sri Lanka’s legendary cricket player, Muttiah Muralitharan played his last match at this venue. However, as at July 2018, the Galle Stadium was a risk of loosing its UNESCO World Heritage status due to the unauthorised construction of the 500-seat pavilion.
Turning south, we came to the Fish Market Bastion, where we left the ramparts to walk through Court Square. Here we stopped at the Old Gate. This was the original entrance to the Fort, with the Fort side of the gate inscribed with the Dutch East India Company’s coat of arms. The port side of the gate is adorned with a British crest (which replaced the original Dutch crest).
Court Square is shaded by magnificent, massive banyan trees with branches that seem to spread forever. The Square houses the law courts (with the lawyers standing around in their black suits) and the Old Dutch Hospital (now home to shops and cafes).
Galle Fort lighthouse on Point Utrecht Bastion
Heading south down Hospital Street, we found ourselves at Point Utrecht Bastion which is dominated by the lighthouse. Built in 1938 and standing 18 metres high, the lighthouse is still in use.
At the lighthouse, we climb back up onto the wall; walking along the southern rampart towards Flag Rock. Along this southern section of the wall, families were gathered on the shaded grass; picnicking and playing cricket.
Walking past the Meeran Jumma Mosque (which looks very much like a European Baroque church), we came to Flag Rock located on the southern-most end of the Fort. People dive from Flag Rock into the ocean – described as daring free-style divers. I did see one young man run along the top of the rock and dive from it. “Idiot” might be a better description than “daring”. “Clearly potty” is how one guide book describes these jumpers. Perhaps they have insider knowledge of exactly where the submerged rocks are?
We finally headed north as the ramparts hugged the west coast. We ended our ramble along Galle Fort’s ramparts near the army barracks, just before the Clock Tower where we had begun. Here we cut across the village green, past the Army Barracks as I had thrown a hissy fit; being upset that we were still walking in the heat. This was a short cut back to our hotel and a welcomed decision.
The guide books and tourist brochures inform you the walk along the ramparts will take 90 minutes. We took almost twice that length of time due to the heat and constant stopping to take photos. It’s surprising how hard it is to lift your feet when weighed down by heat and humidity!
We made a couple more stops before heading back to our hotel for a well-earned rest in a lovely cool room.
A long cool drink on the wide veranda of the luxury Amangalla Hotel was warranted before visiting the Manor House Museum (at 31-39 Leyn Baan Street – entrance is free). This is a private collection of antiques and miscellaneous objects (described by one guide book as “outright junk”). The collection belongs to Abdul Gaffar, a local gem merchant, and is on display in a restored Dutch house. In my opinion, Gaffar has a serious hoarding problem, with rooms and cabinets stuffed full of old typewriters, cameras, telephones, crockery, spectacles, jewellery and old Chinese memorabilia. To describe this collection as bazaar is being very kind and generous. It was just downright weird! For that reason alone, it is worth the visit. The museum does provide insight into some traditional crafts with presentations of lace embroidery, gem cutting and jewellery making. However, be cautious if you suffer from asthma because the museum is very, very dusty.
Lunch was at the Serendipity Arts Café; recommended by one guide book as a place to eat. The food was good (had a very tasty chicken club sandwich – not very imaginative of me) but I would not recommend it as it was not atmospheric; as was foretold.
We were back at the Fort Bazaar in time for a rest before partaking of the hotel’s scheduled afternoon tea and cakes served on the terrace.
This night we had dinner at The Fort Printers (39 Pedlar Street). This elegant, small private hotel (a restored 18th century mansion) was a printing facility in its former life. The original printing press is on show in the lobby of the hotel. We had discovered this hotel on our morning walk. I found the menu limiting as I am allergic to seafood and this was the speciality of the house. My sister and brother-in-law do not suffer from the same affliction and loved the menu choices. However, the menu did include chicken, lamb and vegetarian dishes. The restaurant is in a lovely setting in a courtyard around a small pool. We were tucked into an alcove at the side of the courtyard that afforded a good level of privacy. Which was just as well as our conversation became quite lively and animated. Even so, we were not forgotten. The staff were friendly, attentive, knowledgeable about their menu, and ready to answer any questions we had. The food was so good, we went back a second night.
And so, our first 24 hours comes to an end. But not so our stay in Galle Fort as we spent a further day venturing outside of the Fort and into the countryside beyond; visiting the Martin Wickramasinghe Museum, Kataluwa Temple, the coastal village of Willgama, and a final stop at the Peace Pagoda. But that’s another story.
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Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and unsponsored. Unless specifically stated, all photos are my own and remain a copyright of Joanna Rath.
Dear Pip, Having travelled as much as I have, I should no longer be surprised by how easily things can get lost in translation. But on this occasion, my physical…
Simien Lodge – sunset in the Simien Mountains
Having travelled as much as I have, I should no longer be surprised by how easily things can get lost in translation. But on this occasion, my physical comfort, or more precisely, my physical discomfort enabled me to create my own meaning to communication.
Yesterday I arrived at the Simien Lodge in the Simien Mountains National Park and had to haul my jacket out from the bottom of my bag. This was the first time I needed my jacket since arriving in Ethiopia. It could have something to do with the Simien Lodge being at an altitude of 3,260 metres above sea level – the highest lodge in Africa.
The rooms in the Simien Lodge are spacious, with a good-sized bathroom; including a shower that I was actually able to turn around in (an issue in Ethiopian hotels). But the room was cold, and, after a very thorough search, I couldn’t see any means for heating the room.
Due to my arrival at the Simien Lodge after a very long drive (getting anywhere in Ethiopia involves a long drive), I decided to have a rest and worry about the heating when I went down for dinner. Given the altitude and my hut being on top of a hill, I wasn’t going to walk up and down unless I absolutely had to.
Piling the blankets and quilts from the spare bed onto mine, I climbed into bed thinking that at least I would be warm for my rest. How wrong could I be! Even with an extra layer of clothes and my jacket on, I was still cold. Needless to say, I went down for dinner as soon as the restaurant opened.
My first stop was at Reception where I asked if there was any way of heating my room. I was advised that after dinner I would be provided with “a plastic card for the bed”. I assumed this would be like a hotel room key card that you slot in to activate the room lights; that I would slot this card in somewhere in the room that I hadn’t as yet located, and it would activate an electric blanket. An electric blanket would be most suitable. That it would be an electric blanket I hadn’t seen yet did not register. I should have known, don’t ever assume! The ‘plastic card for the bed’ turned out to be a hot water bottle. To say that I was disheartened by this method of heating my room, is an understatement. How was I going to be warm? However, the hot water bottle worked a treat. I was snug in bed all night and had a great night’s sleep. That the room itself was cold mattered not one bit.
Tomorrow we leave for Gondar where, I am assured, it will be warmer.
I love coffee. I have drunk coffee in many, many countries with varying degrees of appreciation. Well now I have found coffee heaven. It’s in Ethiopia and there is a…
I love coffee. I have drunk coffee in many, many countries with varying degrees of appreciation. Well now I have found coffee heaven. It’s in Ethiopia and there is a whole ceremony wrapped around the making and drinking of it.
Ethiopia is the home of coffee. The coffee plant originated in Ethiopia and the beans were first brewed in the 11thcentury. So, they have had a lot of practice doing stuff with coffee. The coffee ceremony is an integral part of Ethiopian culture and hospitality. It is an important social occasion.
Ethiopians have a delightful story around the discovery of the benefits of coffee. A goat herder noticed his goats acting excitedly and ‘dancing’ on the hind legs after eating bright red berries. When he tried the berries himself, he felt energised. He grabbed some berries and rushed home to tell his wife who told him he must share these “heaven sent” berries with the monks in the nearby monastery. The monks did not share the goat herder’s elation, believing the berries to be sinful; to be the work of the Devil. They tossed the coffee berries in the fire. However, the smell of the roasting coffee beans had the monks rethinking their view of this sinful drug and removed the coffee beans from the fire. They crushed the coffee beans to put out the glowing embers and covered them with hot water to preserve them. The aroma of the coffee had all the monks wanting to try it. After which, they vowed to drink coffee every day because they found the uplifting effects of the coffee helped to keep them awake during their holy devotions. And so, history was made.
I loved the ceremony as much as the coffee itself. Unlike Italy where coffee is drunk quickly whilst standing, making and drinking coffee in Ethiopia is not to be rushed as no step is to be missed.
Wherever I travelled in Ethiopia, the coffee ceremony was always the same. There was something reassuring in this familiarity and about the smell of fresh grasses that were invariably laid on the ground.
First, the raw coffee beans are rubbed together in water in a pan to remove the skins on the beans. Then they are roasted over a charcoal brazier. This releases the aromatic oils out of the beans. The hostess – I never saw this ceremony conducted by a man – brings the pan of smoking, roasted beans around for you to waft the smoke towards you; to draw in the aroma of the roasted beans.
Once roasted, the beans are ground with a mortar and pestle. Traditionally, the mortar and pestle are made of wood.
The jebena I bought in a local market in Bahir Dar
While this is happening, water is being boiled in a “jebena” – a traditional Ethiopian clay coffee pot with a bulbous, round bottom; a long narrow neck topped with a wooden or straw stopper; and a handle.
Once the coffee beans are ground, they are added to the boiling water. The combined water and beans are boiled for a couple of minutes and then rested to allow the coffee powder to sink to the bottom of the pot.
By this stage, if you are a coffee lover like me, the smell of fresh brewed coffee will have your mouth watering in anticipation of what is to come.
Finally, the coffee is poured into small, handleless china cups (very much like Turkish coffee cups). The pouring is done from as high as possible above the cups – from about a foot above the cups. The coffee is usually served with popcorn or peanuts.
Ethiopian coffee is drunk sweet and black. In fact, very sweet – 2 to 3 teaspoons of sugar. Mind you, the teaspoons are minuscule. I learnt to enjoy black coffee. However, by the time I left Ethiopia, I was drinking the coffee with a bit less sugar.
When partaking of coffee in Ethiopia, etiquette requires you to have three cups of coffee. The first cup is to welcome you, the second cup is about friendship and the third cup is to say goodbye. Remember, these are very small cups, so having three is less in quantity than a mug of coffee.
Ethiopian coffee is the best I have ever tasted. The two women I was travelling with told me I said, “Oh, that’s good coffee” every time I have a cup of coffee. This must have driven them mad because we had lots (and I mean lots) of cups of coffee. Finally, one of my travel companions told our diver/guide that Ethiopia needs to change its tourism slogan from ’13 months of sunshine’ to ‘Oh, that’s good coffee’. He just laughed.
If you want to see a city reinventing itself, then now is the time to visit Materia – especially the revitalisation of the Sassi di Matera. Matera’s Sassi has a…
If you want to see a city reinventing itself, then now is the time to visit Materia – especially the revitalisation of the Sassi di Matera. Matera’s Sassi has a colourful history that has seen it go from the earliest inhabited city in Italy, to a place of national humiliation, to Italy’s pride. This history, all of which is still visible today, makes the Sassi di Matera a matchless tourist destination. Matera’s Sassi has been reborn and now is the time to witness that rebirth while Matera celebrates its recognition as a city of culture.
A brief history – from shame to gain
Italy’s southern city of Matera (along with Bulgaria’s, Plovdiv) is the 2019 European Capital of Culture. For this honour, Matera receives hundreds of millions of euros to develop infrastructure and present year-long cultural and art activities; activities designed to improve the quality of life in the city and to strengthen a sense of community. It is expected that being a European Capital of Culture will bring fresh life to the city and will enhance Matera’s cultural, social and economic development. It is an opportunity for Matera to showcase itself internationally and to boost tourism. An opportunity Matera needs in order to reclaim its dignity and credibility in the eyes of Italy and the world.
This is a chance for Matera to leave behind its reputation as the “Shame of Italy”. The object of this shame is the Sassi di Matera (literal translation from Italian, “Stones of Matera”). The Sassi are a prehistoric troglodyte settlement and people have lived in these cave dwellings since 7000 BC.
In his book, Christ Stopped at Eboli (published 1945), Carlo Levi put the Sassi di Matera on the world map when he highlighted the poor living conditions. He painted a picture of abject poverty. Malaria, cholera and typhoid were rampant in the Sassi. Families and their animals were living together under the same roof in dwellings with no natural light or ventilation, no electricity, water or sewers and there was a high infant mortality rate.
The Sassi became an embarrassment for the Italian Government. So much so that in 1950 the Prime Minister declared a state of emergency, and plans were put in place to move the Sassi’s inhabitants out. By 1952 the Sassi was empty; abandoned through forced removal.
After sitting dormant for a couple of decades, the Sassi started to go through a transformation; starting in the 1970s with artists and hippies rediscovering Matera’s Sassi. This urban renewal, and a younger generation expressing their desire to have the caves brought back to life, led the Italian Government to pass a law in 1986 to repopulate the Sassi; connecting water and electricity and subsidising restoration work in order to encourage the Sassi’s revival.
And the people did come – restoring caves as homes, hotels, restaurants and bars. But many are still uninhabitable.
The Sassi di Matera’s revival was further cemented in 1993 when listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for being “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region”.
A new image of the Sassi is forming and the tourists are coming. The Sassi di Matera have been transformed and Matera is the 2019 European Capital of Culture.
My visit to the Sassi di Matera
The Sassi are carved into the limestone cliffs of a ravine gauged out by the Gravina River. My first sighting of the Sassi di Matera was from across the ravine. What I saw from this vantage point was a mass of caves clinging to the steep slope. On top of these caves is the new city of Matera – a unique juxtaposition.
My hotel room – a restored cave in Le Grotte della Civita
My second introduction to the Sassi was my hotel, Le Grotte della Civita. Sitting on the edge of the ravine in the most ancient Sassi area, Le Grotte della Civita consists of 18 rooms. All the rooms are individual caves that have been beautifully restored whilst retaining their original features. The furnishings are simple but tasteful, with much of the lighting provided by candles. Breakfast, served in a reclaimed cave that was a church, was typical of Southern Italy – breads, cakes, pastries, James, meats and cheeses. This was truly a memorable place to stay.
Carving on the facade of the Church of Purgatory
Skulls decorate the Church of Purgatory doors
Matera has 180 churches; 40 of which are in the Sassi, including the Cathedral and the rock-cut Church of Santa Maria di Idris. My favourite was the Church of Purgatory. Completed in 1747, its recurring and only theme is that of death. The baroque façade of the church and its doors are covered with carvings of skulls, skeletons and crossbones. While a church focusing on death might seem a bit Grim Reaper-ish, it was actually fashionable at the time of construction, as death was not seen as the end but as the beginning of a new life.
The house-like facades are a deception as they ‘front’ caves
While the Sassi look like a mass of houses, the house-like facades are only that, as the ‘houses’ are dug well into the rock, thereby forming the caves Matera is famous for.
Sassi caves on caves and roads on cave roofs
Houses in the Sassi are often built on top of other houses and many of the streets are built on the roofs of houses.
One would be forgiven for thinking the Sassi are a place of shadow and crampedness. But not so. The squares in the Sassi are sun-drenched open spaces flanked by cafes, shops, churches and restaurants. And great for people watching.
I took a walking tour with a local guide in the morning to get acquainted with the Sassi. This included learning the history of the Sassi di Matera, visiting a cave dwelling for a glimpse into past life and viewing one of the ancient Rupestrian Churches that date back to the Middle Ages. However, what I enjoyed most of all was just walking around on my own – exploring narrow ‘streets’, talking to the locals, checking out their cafes, and having all the time I wanted to take photos. You will need comfortable shoes to walk around the Sassi. And don’t forget, the Sassi are built on the side of a ravine. So, there are lots of steep steps.
2019: Matera is one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2019
2014: Tourism starts to take off. Most likely due to Matera being announced as one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2019. Matera has 4 years to prepare …
1993: The Sassi of Matera is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
1986: Change in Italian law and people are encouraged to return to the Sassi
1952: Abandonment of the Sassi through the Italian Government’s forced removal of its inhabitants
Prehistory: (approximately 9,000 years ago) People first inhabited the Sassi
A bit of trivia for you: Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, “The Passion of the Christ”(2004) was filmed in the Sassi di Matera as too was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St Matthew”. It would seem Matera’s Sassi makes for a great ancient Jerusalem.
Are you going to Galway (Ireland) or Rijeka (Croatia) in 2020? They are the European Capitals of Culture for 2020.
Want to take a self-guided walking tour around Venice?…
Cultural insensitivity is, in my opinion, a sign of deep disrespect. I leant this the hard way in Varanasi (India) when I “innocently” took a photo of the cremation pyres…
Cultural insensitivity is, in my opinion, a sign of deep disrespect. I leant this the hard way in Varanasi (India) when I “innocently” took a photo of the cremation pyres on the banks of the Ganges River. It took my guide a lot of talking, much apologising and payment of money to appease the men who supply wood for the pyres. In my defence (but no excuse), I had not been informed not to take photos of the cremations.
I was mortified by my wrongdoing. Even though this occurred a number of years ago, I still beat myself up about it. I was not new to international travel and would have described myself as culturally sensitive. To this day, I cannot explain what made me think it was okay to take such a photo.
So, when our guide in Mongolia advised us on local customs before our 2-night stay with a nomadic family, I felt a deep sense of appreciation. And that of relief; that I was not going to commit any social or cultural faux pas through ignorance. I have a strong belief that knowledge is power, and I was about to meet this family in a “powerful” (culturally knowledgeable) position.
So, what lessons did I learn from my Mongolian guide?
First up, our guide requested we not immediately take photos of the family but to get to know them a little first. This, I felt, was a more than reasonable request and one I knew I would have no trouble complying with because I often feel uncomfortable photographing people. However, given this was a photography tour I was on, the family expected photos to be taken of them as they knew this was a part of our learning.
We were then informed that we can ask any questions we want, with the guide translating for us as the family doesn’t speak any English. I suspect this also gave the guide the inadvertent opportunity to ‘censor’ any inappropriate questions – a good filtering system.
When you enter a ger, you must always go to the left. Don’t circle the interior of the ger. If you need to go to the right once inside the ger, go back to the door and then go to the right.
Do not touch a person’s head or shoulder, as to do so, is taking that person’s luck away.
Touching a person’s feet (with your feet) signifies you want to challenge that person to a fight. If you do touch a person’s feet unintentionally, shake hands with that person or touch their arm. By doing this you are saying, “I didn’t mean that” (to challenge to a fight); it removes the challenge.
Do not throw tissues in the fire. The fire is a holy thing and throwing a tissue in the fire is contaminating the fire. This was important to know as one by one we were coming down with colds.
Whatever is offered (that is, food or drink) must be accepted and you must taste whatever is offered or, at least pretend to taste it by putting the food or drink to your lips. There is another alternative if offered a glass of vodka. You can put your ring finger in the vodka, remove your finger from the vodka and flick your ring finger into the air. Thereby, flicking drops of vodka in the air.
Don’t step on the threshold of the ger. You must always step over it.
When offered something, before taking it, touch it with your right hand while supporting the elbow with the left hand. This is also followed when giving something. The exception to this is when offered or giving a meal.
When exiting religious buildings, eg temples, step out backwards so that you do not show your back to the interior. To show your back is to show disrespect to the gods.
The children in Mongolia don’t get their hair cut until between 2 and 5 years of age. For girls, this is usually between the ages of 2 and 4 years. Whereas boys will have their first hair cut at 3 to 5 years of age. The reason for leaving the first cutting of children’s hair until this age is because it is believed they are born with their mother’s hair. The cutting (more like shaving) of the hair signifies the child becoming their own person and is celebrated with a hair cutting ceremony.
The khadag is a long piece of silk cloth (like a scarf). It comes in 5 different colours – blue, white, yellow, green and red – with each colour having its own unique significance:
Blue is the most sacred colour in Mongolian culture; representing Mongolia’s eternal blue sky. The blue khadag is the most common and can be given to anyone, regardless of age, to show respect.
White represents milk and is the symbol of purity. It is often given to mothers.
Yellow represents the sun and is the symbol of wisdom. It is given when you greet monks.
Green represents earth; being in tune with nature. It is the colour of inner peace and is only used in religious rituals.
Red represents fire and blood (as in circulation). It is the colour of life; of prosperity. As with the green khadag, it is not used to greet people but is only used in religious ceremonies.
To give or offer a khadag to someone or something is to show respect; the ultimate offering. To give a blue khadag to a person or animal is the highest form of respect. Driving through Mongolia, I would often see sheep and horses with a blue khadag tied around their neck. Our guide explained this is showing respect for the animal and it can’t be killed/eaten.
The cairns (shrines) throughout Mongolia are mounds of rocks and stones for offerings. Photograph by Speak Photography
The cairns (stone shrines known as ovoos) that dot Mongolia are festooned with khadags, primarily blue ones. Most Mongolians are Buddhist, but Shamanism still remains an integral part of Mongolian life. The cairns are erected by locals and travellers as a means of providing offerings to the local spirits; thus, showing their respect and honouring the spirits of the surrounding land. When you come across a cairn, you should always stop and show your respect by making an offering. The ritual entails walking around the cairn three times in a clockwise direction. As you do so, you make an offering while making a prayer or wish. This might be for a safe journey, good health, good fortune or for much needed rain. The offering can be a khadag, food, money, vodka, etc or a small stone. If you are in a hurry and don’t have time to stop at a cairn, the driver will honk the horn three times. At one cairn, our driver offered a blue khadag. We settled for a small stone each time we stopped at a cairn – and there were many.
My conclusion? Don’t forget to know before you go.
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