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Belgium – Mechelen, Lier and Bruges

One of the things I enjoy about staying in one area for a couple of weeks is having the time to visit the lesser known towns not just the obvious places. One of those was Mechelen – about 45 minutes by train from Antwerp. This town dates back to 1473 and has a traditional town square and a wondrous cathedral (St Rombouts). Once again a summer festival was about to start so they were getting the square set up for that – they do make the most of summer here.

The streets and square of Mechelen with St Rombouts Cathedral

The best bit was taking a cruise on the River Dilje through the town – no crowds – only six of us on the boat and within 5 minutes we were drifting quietly past some lovely apartments and converted warehouses and I could spend time deciding which one I would pick if I was buying one (the Art Deco style white one with the huge windows I expect!)

We also passed the three colorful houses known as “Houses of the Little Devils” as they are adorned with carved demons. Perfect day.

Cruising the River Dilje and the Houses of the Little Devils

The still waters of the River Dilje in Mechelen

Of course I had to visit Bruges (or Brugge as the Flemish speakers would call it). It takes about 90 minutes by train from Antwerp.

Walking into town from the station I stopped off at the newly renovated Gruuthusemuseum which has been newly renovated.This used to be a medieval mansion owned by a very rich brewer in the 15th century and all the floors (very creaky wooden ones) have survived intact. As you walk through you get to see a mix of art, tapestries, lace, sculpture and the private entry to the passage direct into the neighboring church. They have done an excellent job of this restoration and it was thankfully not busy at 10 am.

Exteriors of the Gruuthusemuseum and attached church

Bust of Charles V, stained glass windows, tapestry and inlaid wooden trinket holder inside The Gruuthusemuseum

The chapel with secret passageway into the church, local lace and crockery

Yes the Centre of Bruges is pretty but it is teeming with tourists – I visited on a Thursday and had to work hard to take these photos without millions of other people in them! I liked the town and can understand why it has become so popular but like Venice and Florence I think it would be better to visit outside of the summer season.

Main square in Bruges and waterways everywhere

Beautiful buildings along the waterways at every turn plus the narrow Alley of the blind Donkey

More love of comics and the Wall of Beer – which is very long indeed – this is just a snippet

Talking of preferred smaller towns, I jumped on the train once again for just 20 minutes to visit neighboring Lier. I suppose it could be argued that this is a suburb of Antwerp but it is definitely a town in its own right – where there are virtually no tourists – just locals enjoying the summer time with a few strong beers!

The main square in Lier plus examples of some of the houses when you head down a side street

Picture perfect and quiet waterways and lanes in Lier

Loved the hand carved wooden sign posts too.

The Zimmertoren – with its beautiful clock that tells the time, the zodiac, the stars, and probably makes a beer as well!

So in summary – it was the smaller towns in Belgium that I enjoyed the most – especially at this time of year. If you find yourself in this part of the world make sure to visit some of them.

Seychelles (country 114) – a very wet three days

I’ve mentioned before that I am not a wild fan of beach destinations and now I have remembered why – when it pours with rain as it did in my three days here – bar a couple of hours there is very little else to do except watch TV box sets – am loving Succession and read and plan more travels in 2020 – so that’s what I did. However, given I was in Mauritius I knew I would never be closer again (2.5 hour flight) so decided it made sense to stop by and add it to my places visited list

A quick visit to Victoria, the smallest capital in the world – was indeed quick – it was very wet and very small. A market and a Hindu temple and ten minutes to walk around. Too wet to visit the botanical gardens

Market and inside the Hindu temple in the smallest capital in the World – Victoria

For the two hours that the sun came out I grabbed a taxi driver and asked him to drive me around the island – pretty I guess. I understand that the rules of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other UAE locations have brought up a lot of land and are building holiday homes and hotels there. It made me laugh that although they own their massive holiday homes they all choose to stay at the Four Seasons when they visit!

Beaches but also too much over building for rich visitors – the locals are not keen on this sale of the land

Beaches of Beau Vallon where I was staying

In a way I quite enjoyed the drama of the stormy weather – and at least it remains at least 26 degrees here however wet it is:)

Storms are gathering and the light in the building is looking back at my abode.

Off to colder climes for a bit on my next stop ………

Mauritius (113th country) – lots of beach chilling and Walking with lions

Great relaxing end to our visit to South Africa was a six day chill in Mauritius – another new country for me.

Our hotel – Sands Suites was situated on Flec en Flac (love saying that!) beach. Even when it rains it clears up very quickly so an easy place to just sit and watch the ocean.

Sands Suites Flic en Flac

We also took a walk through the forest along the coast to Tamarin Bay – very pretty.

Tamarin Bay

A huge highlight for us was Walking with the Lions at Casela Park (thanks for the recommendation Lorna) and sanctuary. Luckily these animals are well fed (!) and you get an hour walking and interacting with them. Very cool – once I stopped being scared!! We spent our hour with two white lionesses. Magic.

Watching the girls do their thing

Walking with lions involves being led by them as you hang on to their tail. And like household cats they love a good petting

As we walked around the park we encountered more lions on the safari drive.

Lions having fun

And very excitingly we also got up close and personal with the white and golden tigers. They are BIG. Apparently they tried to do visitor interactions with them way back when it they tended to attack for the fun of it – so as that was not very good for business they stopped it.

Tyger Tyger burning bright

The ocean does t just look good during the day- it also produces a lot of sunsets like these.

Sunset from Sands Suites Flic en Flac

And finally I had to say bye to Trudy and Alan – as they headed off back to the UK while I am off to another beachy spot.

The end of a great trip to Southern Africa

South Africa – Hermanus, Swellendam and Franschoek

A two hour drive took us to the charming town of Hermanus – especially famous for its whales – and we did see some from the hotel deck. But the real “Wow factor” for me here was the stunning hotel we were in – The Birkenhead House – designed by the same people as the Silo Hotel mentioned in my previous post. This is what I call classy luxuries bliss – and it was complimented by amazing food – all meals included – and while this is not something I would usually do – once you get here you are glad you did as you don’t want to leave the place for even a minute.

Public areas in the Birkenhead Hotel

Contemporary and comfortable design is key at the Birkenhead House

My bedroom and plunge pool at the Birkenhead House

Then after a breakfast that looked like this ……

Luxe brekkie at the Birkenhead House Hotel

it was wonderful to take a 90 minute cliff walk into Hermanus to walk some of it off and enjoy the views along the way……

Cliff walk into Hermanus

Only to return to this ……

Home made scones with a view at the Birkenhead House Hotel

Just as well I only stayed for two nights….

Another two hour drive took us to the town of Swellendam. A very pretty small town and nice to stop at a less touristy place for a night. The scenery en-route was stunning and the local Drodsky Museum was nicely done.

Classic views on the road to Swellendam

Dutch cape houses including our bed and breakfast at Hotel Roosje van der Kopp

Finally, we finished our time in South Africa with a visit to the lovely Franschoek – a much busier place than when Trudy and I last visited decades ago but still absolutely charming.

We loved the Hugenot memorial and museum – really interesting info on how they came to settle in the western Cape and who knew Roger Federer was descended from them and had visited his relatives there?!

The Hugenot Memorial in Franschoek

The Hugenot Museum – with boy in pink hot pants ?!?

As for the food – goodness it was good. The first night we went to Reuben’s which we loved (and the chef is a local) and I enjoyed two kinds of steak tartare.

Eating at Reuben’s

and the the second, to officially recognise Trudy’s birthday year, was the fantastical La Petite Colombe – the pictures are only half as good as the food and the experience. A must visit if you are in the area.

A zen feel to the food at La Petite Colombe

The surprises keep on coming at La Petite Colombe

Yummmmm

We also enjoyed our stay at Plumwood Inn – very convenient for the Main Street yet tucked away too.

And of course you can’t visit this area without doing at least one wine tasting day which we enjoyed in Stellenbosch for the whole of our last day – forgetting we had to be up at 5am for our flight to …….?(watch this space)

Scenery around Stellenbosch and the vineyards are looking good

Trudy, Alan and I enjoying a day at some local wineries in Stellenbosch

Have already booked a longer stay in SA for early 2021!

South Africa, Cape Town

Now it is time to explore Cape Town and the Western cape of South Africa. I already know I will return here for longer so this short visit was a nice taster and reminder of a wonderful city – last time I was here was around 1993 – things have certainly movie on since then.

Our apartment was a five minute walk from the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront area – this is the place where everything happens in Cape Town so it is great to be close by. By day it is a fun place to visit to eat, shop, listen to live music and generally watch the world go by. By night it is very prettily lit and buzzing – also very safe and well patrolled by security guards.

Day time at the Victoria and Alfred waterfront with Table Mountain in the background

Night lights at the V and A waterfront.

On the next sunny morning we headed off to the impressive Kirstenbosch Botanical gardens – massively large area to wander about and enjoy flora and sculpture – would definitely recommend.

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens surrounded by mountains

I wanted to take a look at the Silo Hotel (formerly an actual silo) which many people had recommended to me. I went for lunch and loved the interior design of the place – I didn’t know at the time that I would be staying in another hotel by the same owners when I reached Hermanus – more of that shortly.

Exterior and interior of public areas at the Silo Hotel

On a much more sober note we toured the District 6 area and the township of Langa. It is always difficult to decide whether it is a good idea to be a tourist in these kinds of places – not because they are scary but because you don’t want people to feel they are being stared at. This tour was better because once we reached the township we got off the bus and a local resident took us around and explained how the townships began and how they were slowly (way too slowly) being modernised into more acceptable public housing and less corrugated iron – but they are still overcrowded and the wait for some for the better style of housing has been more than 20 years.

How people are living in the townships near Capetown

The District 6 Museum was well put together explaining the history of the area where people were segregated into different “varieties” of colour – black, Malay, coloured and of course had most of their rights curtailed as a result and they were housed in different areas so many families were pulled apart if they were interracial at that time. The definitions of each group are awful to read as you consider that humans took the time to classify other humans like this. If it was not clear what group you belonged they did a pencil test – this involved putting a pencil in your hair – if it stayed put you were black if it fell out you were coloured. How strange and distressing we humans are at times.

Traditional African recipes embroidered on cloths

District 6 Museum of life in the townships and the resettlement of the coloured people during apartheid

Zimbabwe (Victoria Falls) to South Africa (Capetown) via Pretoria, South Africa by Rovos Rail luxury trains.

I always love a long (and luxurious of course!) train journey so taking Rovos Rail – first from Victoria Falls to Pretoria and then a day later on to Capetown- is the one to do in Africa for a longer trip.

Rovos Tail was started by a train enthusiast Rohan Vos who originally bought a couple of carriages to beautify and use with his family but now it is available to everyone and includes beds, a bar/lounge an observation car and a dining carriage.

It takes a while to get use to the jerking and brake sounds on a train when you are trying to sleep but the movement seems to do the trick and there’s lots of time for afternoon catch up snoozes. The food – four course dinners but sensibly sized portions – was consistently superb and they offered a great choice of South African wines.

Exterior views of our train with observation car at the back on a brief leg stretching night stop.

Plush interiors and dressing for dinner is required- makes it very orient express like!

Out first stop was the Hwange national park in Zimbabwe when we went out for a 3.5 hour early morning game drive. We were lucky to spot a pair of cheetahs in the distance plus zebra, antelope and a dozy pride of lions who looked liked they had been well fed recently – always good to know when you are a tourist! Certainly seeing the African wildlife again has made me want to do another proper safari when I can.

Zebras, cheetahs and antelope

A lazy pride of lions

After three nights on the train we arrived at Pretoria for an overnight stop at a hotel. This is not the most interesting place on earth but I’m glad I had an afternoon and morning there. On arrival we visited the Union Building where one of the SA parliaments is housed (the other is in Capetown). The building bottom left is an old synagogue now in disuse so no access allowed but it was also used for the infamous treason trials of many political prisoners including Mandela and Sisulu.

Old buildings in and around Church Square in Pretoria

A wonderful sight is the giant sized Mandela sculpture looking over the city. We saw some little 4 year olds come up to see it and they ran up to it shouting “we love you Mandela” completely unprompted – they were genuinely excited. He is so beloved here – and for good reason. We need a few more like him around the world.

The giant Mandela sculpture. I barely reached his calf muscles!

On our second day in Pretoria we headed to the Vortrekker monument high above the city – which is a memorial and museum to the primarily Dutch settlers who trekked to this part of the world and started a new life here. Unfortunately for them, the Zulus and other tribes were already here and wanted to defend their land, so there was a lot of bloodshed on both sides and this is not skimmed over in the museum although it is only really focussed on the Dutch side of the history. I loved the giant stone frieze which was made up of about 50 panels depicting the stories of what happened including the important role the pioneering women played in starting a new life. Well worth a visit.

The exterior and interior of the Vortrekker Monument in Pretoria

Some of the stone reliefs in the museum area below the monument

Back on the train again for a two night journey – first stop was Kimberley – the world famous source of much of the world’s diamonds and where De Beers first started chaired by Cecil Rhodes (who seems to be loved or hated depending on your disposition about imperialist!) who originally made his money in the diamond mines. Some of the mines were still open but the one that we went round is now a museum town replicating the mining heyday and includes the famous Big Hole – it is the largest man made hole in the world. We had a great guide who had worked in the mines and was passionate about diamonds – and after all who can blame him; if they were good enough for Elizabeth Taylor, they are certainly good enough for me!

Kimberley and the BIG HOLE

The final stop on the train was a cute town in the middle of nowhere called Matjesfontein. Originally a “nothing place” the concept of making it a small town where visitors would stop to see how people lived back in the day came from a Scotsman – and he was right – people do come – although it certainly wasn’t crowded at all – other than the 40 or so of us on the train.

Buildings in the town of Matjefontein – and wait, is that Harry Potter serving at the local bank?

An excellent museum (Marie Cawdon Museum) actually on the station platform had all sorts of interesting collectibles from Victorian times – cameras, kitchen equipment and my favourite – the apothecary – it was a huge place (remember we are in the middle of nowhere) – I loved it as much as I loved stretching my legs.

Geeky train signalling levers and signal Comms plus the old apothecary

And so our train journey of rattling sleep, fantastic food, varying scenery, windswept observation carriage moments and lots of delays (trains here give British Rail a run for their money) ended in Capetown 6 days after we left Victoria Falls and traversed a large chunk of Zimbabwe and top to bottom of South Africa.

The end of the line…..

And now on to spending time in Capetown and surrounding areas – apparently there is a lot of wine to be tasted around here – as if I didn’t know:)

Zimbabwe and Botswana (111th and 112th countries) – a three day visit – wild animals, colonial splendour and the waterfalls

Joined my friends Trudy and Alan – to celebrate her big birthday year – for a trip around Southern Africa which started in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe where we stayed at the splendidly colonial Victoria Falls Hotel.

Exterior views of the Victoria Falls Hotel shared with some local warthogs

Interiors of the Victoria Falls Hotel where they make a darn good gin and tonic.

On day one we walked one kilometre to the entrance of the Falls. Visit at this time of year means the falls are at their lowest levels so some falls are not yet visible but equally it means you can see the falls that are visible without a massive spray getting in the way.

En route from the hotel to the Falls

The wet part of the Falls

The dry part of the Falls – all this will be under heavy water in four or five months

The Vic Falls Park borders onto Zambia and this is where we met a young baboon who clearly wanted to show us all his/her best sides for instagram worthy shots – so here they are before this one becomes famous!

This youngster loved posing for the camera

In the evening we booked a sunset Zambezi river cruise – cocktails and dinner were very enjoyable indeed.

On our second day we had an early start for a day in Chobe National Park in Botswana and after innumerable border patrols were were in another country.

We started with another cruise which at this time of year is a great time to see animals as they are in plentiful supply near the waters before the rains come and they can go further inland for their food.

We saw African buffalo, elephants, hippos, impala and crocs.

African buffalo – not sure who’s watching whom?

African crocs – not too scary compared to those big buggers in Aus

I never appreciated that when hippos are in the water they are generally walking rather than swimming – they are bad swimmers! But they are less log-like when you see them on land – and they like to spend the day on land at this time of year.

And then so many elephants ….

This area is amazing for elephant watching at this time of year

Highlight was stumbling across a group of elephants having a wild mid bath – so lucky to see this

In the afternoon we went off for a game drive – saw lions in the distance but no leopards:(. However lots of impala – so pretty. Sadly we also saw three elephant carcasses – many are dying of starvation due to lack of water which means lack of food.

Impala in the beautiful Savannah’s of Chobe

And finally we endeavoured to enjoy enjoying ourselves in various parts of Zimbabwe!

Me, Trudy and Alan

7 day train journey next…….

UK, London – Canary Wharf, Tower of London early viewing, cheese, Pre-raphaelites exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery and lunch in a county pub

I’m staying in Canary Wharf on this trip – a place I never liked working in but really have enjoyed living in for the past two months. It is much more lively than it used to be in the evenings and at weekends and has much more of a community feel. Loads of shops, restaurants and great transport into central London. Another attraction for me is the vast number of fabulous sculptures all around – including a Henry Moore that is on loan to Tower Hamlets for a few years. Here are some examples.

Sculptures in Canary Wharf including the reclining lady by Henry Moore and the sitting man who is so life like you want to go and chat with him!

I’ve taken the opportunity on this trip to search out some unusual walks and tours and last week I used walks.org for a pre-opening visit to the Tower of London. This means you get in before opening time, watch the opening key ceremony where the Tower is officially opened (only about 20 of us) and then you are able to get in to see the Crown Jewels before anyone else has got there (sadly no photos) but this is definitely the way to visit the Tower. Our guide was a “Blue Badge” which means she has studied all aspects of London history and she was very knowledgeable as she took us around the interior and exterior parts of this wonderful structure.

Old and new in close proximity – the Tower is slap bang in the middle of the City of London and has many famous modern buildings within sight. Only in London!

Below the beefeater who explained the ceremony plus the Royal Guards and keeper of the keys march to the East gate to open up the Tower. Apparently this ceremony take place because whoever was King at the time I visited the Tower one day and just waltzed in without anyone checking who he was (those were the days) and so he introduced a daily opening and locking of the Tower – it has been done twice every day since the 14th century!

The ceremony of the Keys

I thought the sculptures below were some sort of temporary work by a resident artist for no good reason but actually these sculptures tell a story – from the 1200s the Tower of London used to house a menagerie of exotic animals – most sent as gifts by foreign countries. Sadly most of the animals died quite quickly as they didn’t like the climate and they were cramped. In 1835 150 animals were dispatched to their brand new home – the London Zoo at Regent’s Park. I never knew about that!

Memorial at bottom left is close to the site where royals – including Ann Boleyn and Katherine Howard were beheaded. Apparently Queen Victoria wanted a memorial for Anne Boleyn – no-one quite knows why but some think the stories about her that circulated were a set up and she was not as naughty as she is often made out to be.

At the National Portrait Gallery, a new exhibit called the Pre-Raphaelite sisters opened. In my teens and early 20’s I always enjoyed the image of these ladies – long flowing copper coloured curly hair, languid looks and colourful gowns – effectively these ladies seemed the complete antithesis to me so they always fascinated me.

This exhibit takes an interesting approach as each room is dedicated to one of the ladies in the group and shows artworks of them, tells their personal story and also shows art by many of them – many were talented artists in their own right not just vacuous models but they had less appreciation – as always seems to be the case. They and the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood had very close relations – and I mean close (next book I have to find is a history of all the characters – it will be saucy!). Some of these ladies came from high class families and some from working class but they were certainly fairly Bohemian in their style. Loved this exhibit – paintings by Rosetti, Burne-Jones, Millais, William Morris and many others. If you are in London it is a definite – GO!

Check out the hair – so envious!

Allegorical Parintins and drawings – love the swathes of colour

more gorgeous paintings

And of course – Millais’ Ophelia.

Elizabeth Siddal one of the Pre-Raphaelite sisters sat in a bath for this one – for a very long time. The water got very cold and she got very sick. Artists!!

A quick stop to 20th Century Art and I snapped some of my favourite female rock icons – also from my teens and early 20s.

Sade, Kate Bush, Blondie and Annie Lennox – strong female role modes of the 80s

And below a cheese moment – one of my favourite shops is La Fromagerie in Marylebone High Street – now expanded to include a café – also delicious. Well worth going to if cheese is your thing.

Is there a cheese they don’t have?

Yes this is a lunch of cauliflower cheese and burrata. No judgement!

Autumn has arrived and I met my friend Terry for a lovely pub lunch at the Duke of Cumberland in the village of Easebourne -Henley – in West Sussex. I was very impressed with the outdoor smoking area top right – yes that is a fire and plenty of room for smokers to sit and chat. Also interesting that many old telephone boxes in small villages, rather than being pulled down due to lack of use in a digital world, have been repurposed as storage for defibrillators – great idea.

Those views on a sunny Autumn day – bliss