India part 3: Sambhar

A huge lake that seemed to stretch all the way to the sky greeted us upon our arrival in Sambhar. Only a two hour drive from Jaipur, Sambhar Heritage Resort has two locations – one in the town of Sambhar and one the other side of Sambhar Salt Lake, the largest salt lake in India. We got a little lost finding the resort but we made it eventually and had our breath taken away by the stunning views across the lake.Shreyans, the manager, welcomed us to Sambhar Heritage Resort. We were given a drink of fresh guava juice with a rim of salt from the lake, and then shown to our rooms which were Swiss tents.The resort rooms are all tents because the land is owned by the government and so permanent structures are not allowed to be built there, other than those already there. One such building is the resort restaurant, NaCl, which is 150 years old and was built by the British. We had a delicious lunch in NaCl and around 3.20pm we set off for our local tour.We were asked if we’d rather drive along the road or across the lake, to which we said definitely across the lake! As it’s dry season the water level in the lake is lower than usual and so it’s possible to drive across part of the lake bed as a shortcut to the other side. We stopped for a few minutes to admire the view and look at the flocks of flamingos through the binoculars Shreyans had considerately brought with him for us to use.As we continued on our way we saw a few nilgai which is the largest of the Asian antelopes and whose name means ‘blue cow’. The females are brown and the males are a blue-grey colour. We got quite close before they bolted.Sambhar Salt Lake is 9% salt with a maximum depth of only 3.5 feet and is about 90 square miles. In comparison the ocean is usually around 3.5% salt.Across the curve of the lake we reached a small peninsula. Here we visited Shakhambari Temple, where there are Indian records showing there has been a temple here for at least 2000 years.In the temple we were blessed by the priest and each given a red bindi, our first of the trip. We then climbed up to a viewpoint where we had a 360 degree view of the lake and the hills behind.In this part of India Marwari is the local language and only a couple of the staff at the resort speak English. Shreyans’ English was excellent, which may be why he was our main contact and guide while we stayed in Sambhar.Once we’d had our fill of the views we drove back through a local village and to a small shop, encountering a few local animals on the way.We went back to the resort where we picked up bicycles so we could cycle along the dam across the lake. After a rather bumpy ride Shreyans showed us agood place to stop and watch flocks of flamingos fly overhead while the sun set. It was beautiful.We cycled back to the resort, and my bike chain came off for the second time whilst Toby’s bike broke completely; he got a ride on the back of the motorcycle Shreyans had ridden in on the back of, while he walked back with Toby’s broken bike.We had a few minutes chilling out in the room then met around 7pm for dinner, which was included in our tour package. We had an Indian feast! To start we had vegetable, noodle and coconut milk soup followed by an appetiser of tikka paneer. We then had palak paneer, mushroom curry and dal, accompanied by garlic naan, saffron rice and salad. This banquet was finished off with a hot carrot pudding, which was interesting in both flavour and texture. I quite liked it but the others weren’t so sure!We ended the evening playing Monopoly Deal with a couple of glasses of beer (or Bacardi breezer in my case) in Jo and Nikki’s room, before a very quiet night’s sleep interspersed with the sounds of wild animals.After a breakfast with all of the food, we went on a tiny train that seats only six people plus staff. It’s around 100 years old, stopped working in the 1970s and was renovated in the last couple of years to be used as a tourist attraction. It still has the same engine as when it had originally. It was used initially by the Britishers and engineers to check on the salt production. They always had to have five people on the train (three in the driver’s cabin and two in the back) as when they got to the far end the train had to be physically picked up and turned around to go back again! So for safety, we also had to have five people as well as us in case the train needed to be picked up and turned around.We rode the train out to the salt pans, with a short stop for the points to be manually changed. The colour of the water, and the stillness was incredible.At the salt pans water is pumped from the lake to the salt pans to a depth of 3-3.5 feet. It is left for about three months didn’t which it evaporates down to about 1-1.5 feet. Salt crystals form on the surface and once they get to a certain density they sink to the bottom. You can literally put your hand in the water and scoop out a handful of salt crystals.The larger pans use tractors to scoop out the salt crystals, the smaller ones in town are done by hand. Once the salt has been removed the remaining water is pumped out back to the lake. This left-over water has a very high bacteria content which means algae grows well which attracts the flamingos to the lake. Workers then remove the top layer of soil in the bottom of the pan by hand, add a fresh layer of soil then pump fresh water in from the lake and the whole process starts over again. Start to finish it takes around 3.5 months. As this is a government enterprise the salt is sold at only 5 rupees per kg. This is very cheap as most companies sell their salt for 12 rupees per kg.We stopped out by the salt pans while the manager Shreyans explained the process to us, and then waited while the workers collected some fresh salt to give us.There are 32 or 33 salt pans here and they produce 10% of the salt consumption for all of India. Sambhar salt is just for Indian consumption, it isn’t exported as mostly Himalayan salt is exported from India.This was our final experience in Sambhar, and absolutely fascinating. We were each given a small pot of the salt that had been collected for us to take home. A perfect souvenir before setting off for our next stop, Jodhpur.

India part 2: Jaipur

We arrived in Jaipur around 10pm after a long day sightseeing in New Delhi followed by a long 5 hour drive. There was a bit of a mix up with the rooms but we (or rather, Toby) got it sorted and we eventually got to bed. We had breakfast at 8am and left at 9am to pick up our local guide, Arvind.

Arvind was a fountain of knowledge about Jaipur. He told us that Jaipur is known as the Pink City, it was founded in 1727, and built by the Hindu Maharaja Jaising. The red ochre colour of the buildings means good luck and welcoming, and was chosen by the Queen of Jaipur at the time. The interior city is 10 square km and surrounded by a wall with gates on the four sides, with a 2 mile 40 yard long straight road from the Sun Gate to the Moon Gate. Hindi is the main language in Jaipur, which is one of 18 languages spoken in India.

Our first stop was the Palace of the Wind. It has 5 floors, lots of tiny windows and was built in 1799.

Next we headed to the Amber Palace. Once we arrived in the small town surrounding the palace, we were asked whether we wanted to ride an elephant up. Toby and Nikki rode an elephant (all the elephants that walk up to the palace are well-looked after and only do a maximum of five trips a day, and are all female); Jo and I went in the car up the hill. Around the town and the package is a 12km long wall, like a mini version of the Great Wall of China. It was built in the 16th century, around the same time as the palace which was completed in 1592 by three different kings and took 25 years to build. In the town is also a palace from the 10th century with the same name.

The town next to the palace, Amber Town, is over 1000 years old. The town and palace names are the same, named after the Hindu goddess Amber, goddess of art. There was a 400-year-old painted fresco of the Hindu goddess Lakmi with lotus flowers, which is her flower and the symbol of prosperity and good luck. In the palace is a saffron garden; saffron is only grown in three places in the world: in Kashmir, India, in Spain and in Iran. Within the palace are two separate areas, the winter palace and the summer palace on opposite sides. In the winter palace is a mirrored room made with glass imported from Belgium. Interestingly, the Maharaja had a wheeled chair as he had 4kg of jewellery that he wore and so he couldn’t walk when wearing it all. He had 12 wives, and each wife had her own apartment within the palace.

Another thing our guide told us was about the Indian caste system. Hinduism is all across India, and there are 4 castes – priest is the highest level then warrior, merchant and lower caste. Maharajas are all warrior caste, which means the priests are above them although don’t have any wealth. Families are very traditional in India; people must marry within their caste and around 90% of marriages are arranged. When daughters get married their parents must provide a dowry, which means that in a poorer family with several daughters some of them may never marry. However the divorce rate is very low with only 5-10% of marriages ending in divorce. Unfortunately, due to this traditional outlook, a high percentage of women are still illiterate, mostly in the countryside.

Next we went to see Jal Mahal, the Water Palace, which was built in the 18th century and was where the Maharaja and queen would stay in the summers.

Jaipur is known for block printing fabric. Wooden blocks are used (minimum 1, maximum 7) or metal blocks for silk, to print intricate designs on a large sheet of fabric. This fabric is then turned into clothes, scarves, cushion covers, bed spreads and much more. Only vegetable dyes and all natural fabrics are used. Once the fabric has been printed it is then left in the sun for 40-60 hours then washed 2 or 3 times to fix the colours. They have to stop production in monsoon season, but otherwise it continues all year. According to the manager of the store, block printing is like a married man, never perfect! But that’s part of what makes it unique. More than 400 families living in nearby villages work on this project. After the demonstration we looked around the shop where they sell all the products and we were shown samples of all the different fabrics. None of us bought anything, although it was all very interesting.

Next it was time for lunch, and this time we had a buffet for 600 rupees at Aanandam restaurant. The food was fine, although not as good as lunch the previous day.

After lunch our guide took us to the City Palace, or the Palace of the Maharaja. We decided not to go in as cost was 3500 rupees (about £35) for the full tour, 2000 rupees (£20) for half or 700 rupees (£7) just for the museum.

As we were leaving we saw a small boy (who we had also seen at the Water Palace) who wanted to show us some magic. As it seemed he had followed us all the way there and waited for us we agreed to watch his magic show. He was actually really good. We just hoped that the tip Toby gave him wouldn’t be taken from him by older street children.

Next we went to Jantar Mantar, which means ‘instrument of calculation’. This is a large complex of huge astronomical instruments that are part of the buildings. It was built in 1728 by the founder of Jaipur city and took 6 years to build. The various instruments are used to calculate the angle of the sun, planets and constellations, as well as make people’s horoscopes. You can also find the biggest sun dial in the world here, and loads of chipmunks running up and down one of the trees.

Finally our guide took us to a spice market stall, some flower stalls and a small bazaar (which was really a line of small shops) selling jewellery, shoes and clothes.

On the way back to our hotel we drove past Albert Hall, which was built in 1876 and named after Prince Albert who came over from London to visit Jaipur around that time.

For dinner we explored the area near our hotel and eventually found a place not too far away. We ended our stay in Jaipur with some tasty food and a couple of drinks.

India part 1: New Delhi

Travelling from Hong Kong to New Delhi, India, turned into a bit of a saga. To begin with our flight time was changed to an hour later. We boarded for the new flight time of 8.35am and then sat on the tarmac until finally taking off at 10.10am. Probably because of this delay, we then had to make an unscheduled landing in Varanasi to refuel! We eventually landed in New Delhi at 3.50pm, 3 and a half hours later than scheduled. By the time we got our luggage, found an ATM and got sim cards, the driver who was picking us up to take us to our hotel had been waiting around 7 hours for us! I felt really bad for him, but there was nothing Toby and I could do except explain and apologise.

Another hour and twenty minutes later, and we arrived at our hotel for the night where we met our friends Nikki and Jo who we would be travelling with for the next two weeks. We had a delicious dinner of paneer tikka butter masala with garlic naan in the hotel restaurant, and then went straight to bed.The next morning began the first day of our tour. At 9am after breakfast we were collected from our hotel by our driver, Swami, who was to be with us for the whole two week tour. We picked up our local guide for the day, Shiva, and drove to our first site: Jama Mosque.

A flight of steps rose up to the entrance, where we had to leave our shoes and rent a long robe (women only) to wear over our clothes. Built in 1650-1656, Jama Mosque is the largest mosque in India and is still used for religious ceremonies and services as well as being a tourist attraction.

After a tour of the main courtyard and building, we were asked if we wanted to climb the tower for an extra 100 rupees. Of course we said yes, and proceeded to climb the 120 very narrow, steep and twisty steps to the top. At the top there was no barrier around the stairs so it felt rather precarious on the tiny landing, especially as there were four other people already up there. However, it was definitely worth it for the view.

After returning the robe and paying a small fee to the man who was looking after our shoes, we drove to the Rajghat – the memorial for Mahatma Ghandi. He was cremated in Delhi and his ashes were scattered in the rivers of India. The stones of those rivers were then placed around the memorial.

It was very peaceful, and I found it quite surprising that such a large, green area was in the middle of New Delhi after all the noise and dust of the traffic just a short distance away. Flying just overhead were many eagles, which I also found surprising as I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many in one place in the wild.

We drove past the president’s house which was surrounded by people setting up for celebrations for Republic Day on 26th January. We weren’t allowed to stop as tourists aren’t allowed in any of the 340 rooms in the president’s house. India has a president as well as a prime minister; our guide Shiva told us that the president is just a signatory with no actual powers and the prime minister is the main person in charge. He also told us a little of the history of India: Independence Day is celebrated on 15th August; India was ruled by the Moguls 1246-1857 and ruled by the British 1857-1947. He also told us that Muslims always used red stone for buildings with some white marble to make it beautiful, apart from the Taj Mahal which is all white marble, whereas the British always used sandstone so this is how you can tell who built various buildings.

The India Gate was our next – very brief – stop. A huge war memorial of the British times and reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe, it was built 1912-1929 at the same time as the president’s house and parliament buildings. This is the VIP area of the city, with all the buildings designed by the same architect, Edwin Ludynes.

Our next stop was a delightful restaurant called Suribachi for lunch, which was so delicious! We shared dishes of paneer butter tikka masala, cauliflower curry, broccoli roasted with yogurt and cheese, garlic naan and saffron rice. I tried to order fresh lime juice but instead was given salted lime juice. I asked for sweet lime juice instead and they just added sugar to the same drink so it was still salty, if a little less so. I tried to ask again for sweet not salty and the same thing was repeated. On the fourth attempt I finally managed to get a fresh drink with just sugar and no salt added! A classic example of the language barrier in effect, but I was none the worse for wear and tried a salty lime juice drink I would never have ordered otherwise.

After lunch we were taken to a shop selling carpets made from Kashmir wool, pashmina and silk. We were given a talk about how the carpets are made on a hand loom: a carpet 2.5ft by 4ft takes 5 months to make; a carpet 6 by 9ft takes 14 months with 282 knots pet square inch, and costs £1485 delivered to your home somewhere in the world; the largest size carpet takes 2.5 years to make. They draw the design on graph paper first then transfer it to a coded chart, which they follow on the loom. The carpets are hand-knotted: each knot is individually tied, pushed down into the row and cut. Each is cut downwards which gives a diagonal direction to the pile, and you can then tell the difference between a hand-knotted carpet and a machine made carpet. Also cutting the threads diagonally gives a different shade of colour depending which direction you look at it, dark one side, light the other, which machine-made carpets don’t have. Then the row is pushed down and the base threads are switched front and back before repeating the whole process with the next row. The edging is done separately. When the carpet is finished on the loom it’s taken off and trimmed with special scissors flat on the floor. Only natural vegetable dyes are used to dye the threads. The back is as good as the front with the design, which is another way of telling hand-made carpets from machine-made. The carpets are always washed before being sold as they have been on the loom for months, or sometimes even years.

Our final stop of the day was Qutub Minar, which is named after the person who designed it and had it built, and is a UNESCO World heritage site. It was built in 1193-1210 and is 72.5 metres tall – the tallest building from the 12th century – with 379 stairs to the top. The buildings next to it were built in the 4th century as a Hindu temple but then were converted into a mosque when the minar was built.

In 1296-1311 work on the nearby Alai tower began. It was planned to be 150 metres tall but Alai, who was building it, died and no one else thought it could be done so it was left unfinished and only the base remains.

Once we left the Qutub Minar our tour guide Shiva left, with a tip of 1000 rupees from us, to catch the bus. We set off on a 5 hour drive to Jaipur after a fantastic first day in New Delhi, India.

Exploring more of Naples

As we’d had such a hectic day on Saturday with our day trip to Rome, my sister and I decided to have more of a chilled out day on Sunday.After breakfast we walked down to the seafront where we saw one of Napoli’s castles. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to go inside, but it was impressive nonetheless.

We walked along towards the harbour and stopped in a small park for a short rest in the shade and to work out where we were going next. We wanted to see the Piazza del Plebiscito, but due to construction work the stairs up to it were closed.

This meant we had to walk down to the seafront, where we were greeted with a stunning view of Naples Bay and Vesuvius opposite. We decided to stop here and try the granita we had been seeing everywhere – a little like slushies but made with actual fruit juice and so much more delicious. It was really lovely just sitting and relaxing by the bay.

We then walked up to the Piazza del Plebiscito – a huge open square with the Palazzo Reale di Napoli (Royal Palace of Naples) on one side and the Basilica Reale Pontificia San Francesco da Paola facing it.

After admiring the Piazza, we walked down Santa Lucia street and camber across a funky-looking cocktail bar called Misture. Of course, being on holiday it would have been rude not to stop and see what they had to offer! We weren’t disappointed. The cocktail menu was a deck of cards with a different cocktail on each card as well as a few cards explaining the history of Naples. When we finely decided which cocktails to try, they arrived along with delicious nibbles to snack on.

Although the cocktails and nibbles were delicious, we thought it might be an idea to have some proper food for dinner, so we asked the barman for ideas. He recommended a restaurant called Ciru next to the other castle and the harbour. I have to say, the salad I had was decidedly underwhelming, however the views were gorgeous.

Finally, we got a taxi back to our B&B and went to bed. Our nice relaxing day had ended up with us walking over 13,000 steps or 8.4km (5.25 miles)! Still, it was a really lovely day.

Day Trip to Rome

When we were organising our holiday to Naples, my sister Sarah and I decided to do a day trip to Rome. We booked as much as we could in advance – train tickets, guided tour of the Vatican, entrance to the Colosseum and Roman Forum – and we were very glad that we did. It meant we skipped most of the queues and saved us a lot of time which we then spent doing other, more exciting things.

We had an action packed, tiring and brilliant day. Starting off with possibly the best train service ever on the train from Naples to Rome at 8am, we got free soft drinks and snacks plus a nearly empty carriage meant we could both sit facing forward (we both get motion sickness and can’t deal with travelling backwards). After a bit of a search through Roma Termini train station we eventually found tourist information, got a map, found out where everything was we wanted to see and how to get there, and got a metro ticket for the day.

Our first stop was the Spanish Steps to followed by a short walk to the Trevi Fountain. Lots of people of course, but definitely worth seeing. I had forgotten how big the Trevi Fountain is, and my sister was very impressed by it.

From here we headed back towards the metro and stopped at a small cafe to share a four cheese pizza for an early lunch, before going to the Vatican for our guided tour.

The three hour tour around the Vatican, including the museum, the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica, was a whirlwind tour that gave us a snapshot of everything the Vatican has to show. I’m going to do a separate post with all the photos I took inside the Vatican because there are just so many! Here’s the entrance though…

After the Vatican tour ended at 3.30pm, our Colosseum entry began at 4.40pm so as our feet were aching from so much walking already we decided to get a taxi there so we could sit for a few minutes. Definitely worth the 8 euros, especially as we drove past the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, affectionately known as ‘The Typewriter’.

The Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine next to it are very impressive, and although you can see both of these without paying a penny the entrance ticket gives you access to the Roman Forum as well as the inside of the Colosseum. Inside there are many displays with information about the history of Rome and artefacts which were found in and around the area. Specific tours can even take you down to the floor of the arena and into the pits underneath where the gladiators and animals waited before the games.

The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill are more examples of the spectacular achievements of the Roman Empire, just a short walk from the Colosseum. There you will find temples, monuments, statues and ancient government buildings where the Roman Senate itself was founded. Beyond these is the Circus Maximums, which was the first and largest circus in the Roman Empire, where chariot races were held.By the time we finished looking around the forum, we were starving so we went in search of the closest restaurant. The place we eventually found was Angelino ‘ai Fori’ dal 1947, where we had delicious food and cocktails (although my sister didn’t like her aperol spritz!).Finally we made our way to the station for our train back to Naples only to find out that it – and all the other trains to Naples – had been delayed by around 2 hours. Luckily we were able to get on an earlier train that had also been delayed, meaning we only left Rome about 40 minutes later than planned instead of 2 hours. Despite this it was an epic, if exhausting, day.

My advice to other people? Spend at least 2 days in Rome so you’re not shattered after trying to fit everything in!

Naples!

The first day of mine and my sister Sarah’s holiday in Italy began with getting up ridiculously early for our flight to Naples. We managed not to argue despite the grumpy tiredness of everyone, and due to my sister’s boyfriend very kindly driving us to the airport we arrived in good time – only to find our flight had been delayed for an hour. When we eventually boarded the plane we found out the reason for the delay: the pilot hadn’t shown up for work and the captain we had had only found out he was flying our plane 20 minutes earlier! All credit to the new captain, he got us flying as soon as he could and we arrived in Naples a little over an hour later than planned.

At the airport we were greeted by Enrico the host of B&B Foria, our home while in Naples. After a short drive we were welcomed by Teresa and shown our room, which we were very happy to be able to check into straight away despite arriving 2 hours before the official check in time. Luckily we’d been able to sleep a little on the flight, so once we’d freshened up we were ready to explore.

The first thing we needed to do was find food, and after a short walk we found an amazing seafood restaurant with huge lobsters in a tank.

We shared a bottle of wine (has to be done for the first meal of the holiday!) and a platter of calamari and prawns, although this came out after our main courses instead of before due to our lack of Italian!

I had a delicious seafood risotto and my sister had homemade linguine with two types of shrimp. Really filling and tasty. We were also serenaded by a man playing well-known (by the other customers) Italian songs on guitar, which added to the great atmosphere.

After all that food we were extremely full and took a very slow walk down to Napoli Central train station to find out how to get there for our visit to Rome the next day. On the way we saw what looked like a castle with a huge stone entrance. One of the things I love about Italy is how you come across random ancient buildings and monuments.

More exploring (at a slow pace as we were still full) followed until we found a cute little cafe bar to stop and have a break in. I also had to finish writing an article, so I did that while my sister read her book.

By this time we were quite tired so we headed slowly back towards our B&B a different way. We walked past an old church which had a free art exhibition on, so we took a look around and saw some stunning pieces as well as the wonderful building they were in.

After this we came across a gelato shop, so of course we had to try some. Sarah had chocolate truffle and I had hazelnut. I think mine was tastier!

We then accidentally found Napoli cathedral so had a look around there once we’d finished our gelato. It’s a beautiful building, although quite hidden away – you don’t realise it’s there until you come across it.

By the time we finished looking around it was 7.30pm so we headed back to the B&B via a little market and a shop to pick up some olives to nibble on. The rest of the evening was spent chilling out ready for our trip to Rome the next day.

Paris!

I haven’t published anything for a while because I’ve been super busy starting a Masters in Education through distance learning at the University of Bath, plus, well, life. Rather than getting further behind while trying to catch up, I thought I’d write a quick post about my trip to Paris while I’m still in Paris, and sort out the rest later.

Paris! Always a beautiful city, always so much to see and do with a landmark around practically every corner. Here for a few days with my friend O, the time has just flown by.

I arrived Tuesday evening, getting to my hotel (Le Glam’s Hotel) in Port d’Orleans around 8pm. Although quite a small room, the hotel itself is very nice, the staff are friendly and it’s very conveniently located near bus, tram and metro stops. And with the temperature exceeding 30 degrees every day I was very pleased to find that the room has air conditioning.

After checking out the room and dropping off my things I set off again to go and meet K, a friend I’ve known for many years who now lives in Paris. I say now, he’s lived there with his wife and two (soon to be three) children for a few years. It was really lovely to catch up over a glass of wine and a bite to eat. The last time we saw each other was about 2 years ago, so there was a lot to catch up on and not enough time to say everything. Still, we made the most of it and a few hours flew by, and before we knew it it was time to say goodbye again.

On Wednesday my friend O arrived around lunchtime, so the first plan of action was to find food. We went to a funky car-themed cafe called Auto Cafe, a short walk from our hotel. I had delicious hot goat’s cheese on toasted rye bread with rocket salad, and O had a huge smoked salmon salad. We couldn’t resist dessert so shared caramelized French brioche with salted caramel ice cream – scrumptious and just the right amount.

For the afternoon we decided to go and see the Eiffel Tower and then figure out what else to do. Both of us have been to Paris before so there wasn’t a mad rush to try and see everything, which was nice. Unfortunately the area under the Eiffel Tower is now closed off and you have to go wait in a big queue to through security before you can get in. It was much too hot to do that, so we walked around to the other side of the park where we could at least get a good view of the tower.

By then it was time for a coffee break; O found a little place called Terres De Café a short walk away which served good coffee (for her) and tea (for me).

The rest of the afternoon we spent at the Louvre, and even though we spent several hours there we still didn’t see everything. We didn’t even make it to the second floor! Most of my photos are on my camera which I haven’t had time to download yet, but unfortunately it ran out of battery towards the end of our visit so here are a few photos from my phone.

This is just a few of the many, many photos I took. Let me know if you’d like to see more and I’ll make a gallery.

The building itself is a work of art with elaborately painted ceilings and carvings everywhere, behind all the stunning sculptures and paintings that make up the contents. If you haven’t been I thoroughly recommend a visit.

The following day we met a friend of O’s, who lives in Paris, for lunch in the Jardin Des Tuileries. Although it was once again a scorching hot day (around 34 degrees) it was really lovely sitting in the shade under the trees, chilling out, chatting and eating ice cream.

As the Musée de l’Orangerie is in the grounds of the gardens and we both love Monet that was our next port of call. Les Nymphéas or The Waterlillies is a stunning collection of paintings. If you’ve never seen them in person the size of them will stun you. The main floor of the building was specially designed by Monet to display the finished pieces – two oval rooms each containing four paintings, one on each side of the room. Natural light filters down from the ceiling, adding to the ambience. It would be wonderful to experience this with an empty room and silence as the paintings take up so much of the atmosphere. Unfortunately, it’s always busy, probably due to their reputation around the world. And they are still well worth going to see.

The next floor down hosts other exhibitions, permanent and temporary. Masters such as Renoir, Picasso, Gauguin, Cézanne and Matisse, to name but a few, line the walls with an array of art to suit every palate. The temporary exhibition we saw portrayed the influence of Monet and his waterlillies on other artwork, particularly the abstract movement, with artists such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler displayed alongside various other works by Monet.

Having enjoyed our fill of art for the day, we met a couple of other friends who live in Paris for a few glasses of wine and a platter of cheeses – divine! We didn’t stay out too late, however, as we had an early start the next day. Versailles!

What a wonderful place to visit on our last day in Paris. Especially as neither of us had been there before. One thing I strongly recommend if you go there is to get your tickets online before you go. We got there around 10am, as that was the time we had booked the tickets for; there was a horrendous queue stretching all the way across the main courtyard. Apparently people were queuing for around 2 hours, with no shade in temperatures well over 30 degrees. By the middle of the day it had reached 37 degrees! I was very glad I’d brought sunscreen, sunglasses and an umbrella with me. (Yes, an umbrella – also useful as a sunshade on hot days – a little trick I picked up from living in China!)

As we’d already bought the tickets we could skip the giant queue and go straight to the entrance – and another queue, this time for a security check. Luckily this one was mostly indoors and so in the shade, so at least I wasn’t at risk of getting sunburnt. Plus it moved quite quickly and then we were in the grounds of the palace.

If you’ve never been, the size – of not just the palace itself but also the gardens – beggars belief. It is huge. The gardens literally stretch as far as the eye can see and then even further. The building is covered in opulence and luxury, both inside and out. Ornate gold decorations catch the sunlight and temporarily blind you as you walk around the interior courtyard. It is simply spectacular.

After almost two hours exploring the State Apartments, we decided to go for an early lunch in the Angelina restaurant. Again we made the right decision as we were nearly at the front of the queue for the restaurant opening at 12pm, which meant we got a table quickly and were served quickly. The individual salmon and spinach quiche was tasty and just the right amount, followed by possibly the best raspberry macaron I’ve ever had (and I love macarons). By the time we left around 45 minutes later, the queue for both the restaurant and the snack bar next door stretched out of the door and halfway when the stairs.

A post-lunch stroll was definitely in order, so we then headed out to the gardens. Fountains, hedges, trees, sculptures and endless paths beckoned us onwards, accompanied by classical music playing tastefully from hidden speakers.

We saw quite a few people driving round in golf buggies, and if we’d realised quite how big the gardens were we would have hired one ourselves, especially considering how hot it was. Luckily the trees provided plenty of shade, apart from down the main boulevard which was too wide for the shadows to reach anywhere near the other side.

By this point a cold drink and a rest were in order so we bought drinks and found a bench in the shade a little further along the canal to sit, cool down for a bit and enjoy the view.

We still had time for some more exploring, so we then headed for the Grand Trianon. A majestic building filled with mirrors and ornate decorations, but not quite as grand as the palace itself. It was built by Louis XIV of France as a retreat for himself, his wife and a few select guests, away from the strict etiquette of court. With its own gardens, it’s almost a miniature version of Versailles.

By the time we finished exploring the Grand Trianon it was time to head back to the station for our train back to Paris. Luckily there’s a Little Train that takes passengers between different points of the grounds for €4 each, as we were both fairly worn out with walking so far in the heat.

Once back in Paris we went straight to meet our friends (the same friends who we met the previous day) for dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant. Once again my umbrella came in handy as the weather went from 37 degrees to a thunderstorm and downpour in no time at all! Bizarrely, once we were seated in the restaurant and our friends had arrived, the rain was interspersed with large hail stones. Very odd! Aside from that it was a lovely meal, and we followed it up with drinks on the river with a view of the Eiffel Tower. A really lovely end to a short, busy and exciting visit to Paris.

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I wrote the first part of this post while sitting in the gardens of Versailles when we were enjoying a short break from our day out at the palace. It was around 37 degrees and scorching hot in direct sunlight, although quite pleasant in the shade and with a bit of a breeze. The rest I’ve written on my journey leaving Paris and going back to the UK, during my in between time at the airport while waiting for my Mum and my next flight, and during this week while I’ve been in Croatia. Guess where my next post will be about?!

No Shopping Challenge Week 11

Another week has been and gone. Time certainly flies when you’re running around at work and hanging out with your friends!

Last week was a bit of an expensive one for Shenzhen (although still cheaper than most of my recent holiday! You can check out my musings on New Orleans here, Miami here and Costa Rica here.). This was mostly due to it being a good friend’s birthday and St Patrick’s Day all rolled into one. My spending for Saturday ended up being 963rmb (£110), although this included laser tag, food, taxis to Shekou and back (about 70rmb/£8 each way), a food shop which I haven’t done for ages (muesli, yoghurt, veg and the like), and of course, lots of drinks on the pub crawl in the evening!

My total spending for the week including that was 2419rmb (£275), so 1456rmb (£165) on all food and transport the rest of the week, including eating out with friends three out of five nights (one meal, mala tang, was only 20rmb/£2.30 including a soft drink!).

One other item that hiked up my spending for the week was medication. Something I don’t talk about very often is that I suffer from depression and have done on and off for years. Currently I’m all good, which I expect is to do with the medication I’m on as much as how great my life is at the moment. This means I want to keep taking the antidepressants in order to maintain that oft-precarious balance. Of course, China doesn’t have the amazing NHS, so my work pays for health insurance for all staff. Luckily my medication is covered, but we’ve just changed insurance companies due to increased fees. Whereas before the full cost of visits to the doctor and medication were covered, now there’s a 20% co-pay, meaning I have to pay for 20% of the cost. For a one month supply of antidepressants I had to pay 399rmb (£45). Yes, £45 for 20%, meaning (in case you can’t be bothered to do the maths) £225 for the whole amount. For one month. That included seeing the doctor for about 2 minutes to get a repeat prescription, with a consultation fee of 300rmb (£34).

Some people complain about the 20p rise to £8.80 for a prescription charge on the NHS, with a free visit to the doctor included. If you didn’t appreciate the NHS before, you certainly do when living abroad! My advice would be to treasure the NHS and do whatever you can to make sure it doesn’t get privatised. Otherwise you might end up paying £225 every time you go to the doctors.

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Whilst I may have spent more than intended this week, I’ve still not bought any ‘stuff’, and my birthday presents to people are staying as treats, meals or activities, so I count that as a successful week.

If you have any thoughts or comments about anything I talk about, please let me know!

No Shopping Challenge Week 10

Back in Shenzhen and back to work after a fantastic three week holiday for Chinese New Year.

Which of course meant I was wiped out after work on Monday so the only money I spent was 2.4rmb on the bus home. Tuesday I had a bit more energy and time so I used these to catch up with friends over dinner (363rmb/£41 – more expensive than we thought it would be!) at as little Spanish place called Mambo. I also used some of my time to pay for the deposit and book accommodation for Summer School, where I will be studying for my MA Education which I’ve just started. I’m not counting the cost of the MA in my ‘no shopping challenge’ as this was already arranged before I came up with the challenge idea. I am, however, going to buy as few books as possible and instead read them online through the university library.

Wednesday was another catch-up dinner followed by the local pub quiz, which we actually won! We won 1000rmb of vouchers for The Brew between 7 of us, so 100rmb each plus a drink each next time. Not bad, even if I do say so myself! Total spending for all drinks and dinner for both of us that night was 548rmb (£62).

Usually on Thursday I go to D&D, but unfortunately I ended up going home early from work with a migraine. I guess the plus side to this was that I didn’t spend any money on dinner, instead sleeping for most of the rest of the day and then just managing toast. My only outgoings were the taxi to and from work (37.5rmb/£4.25 both ways) and 100rmb (£11.30) to top up my phone.

On Friday I had to stock up on muesli and yoghurt (67.4rmb/£7.65) as I finished the last of it for breakfast. A small group of us decided to go and see ‘Black Panther’ at the cinema after work as it was the first day of its release in China – and for 35rmb (£4) it was definitely worth it! This time I even remembered to bring my 3D glasses so I didn’t have to buy a new pair! Of course, we had to have dinner before the movie as well: shrimp quesadillas, chips and bogof cocktails for 153.6rmb (£17.45) at Blue Frog was pretty good.

My final night out for the week was on Saturday, and this time there was no alcohol involved! A friend had arranged a movie night at a private cinema for a group of us – 63rmb/£7 for 4 hours in a comfy room with a group of friends watching movies – it was great, and really nice to do something a bit different. I would definitely recommend it.

Sunday came round much too quickly as usual. I woke up quite early but stayed in bed reading for a few hours before finally deciding I was too hungry to stay in bed any longer. Once again I resisted the urge to order takeout, and raided the freezer instead for my last frozen meal from previous cooking escapades. I spent the rest of the day alternating between studying and watching ‘Legends of Tomorrow’, which meant I spent no money at all (and stayed in my pyjamas all day).

My total spending for week 10 was 1442.4rmb (£164.50) plus the accommodation and deposit for Summer School. Still no takeaway or stuff!

No Shopping Challenge Week 8

Costa Rica!

Although I’ve relaxed my budget for food while I’m travelling, I’m still trying to stick to the ‘no buying stuff’ aspect of my challenge. So far the only things I’ve spent money on in Costa Rica have been food, accommodation and transport, and I’m going to try and keep it that way.

I’ve been here almost a week with my best friend from home, E, and it’s been fantastic. Although it’s less expensive than the US was, I’ve still spent a fair amount as we’ve been eating out for almost every meal and doing lots of fun stuff.

We began the week, having just arrived in Playa Chiquita near Puerto Viejo, Limón, heading to the nearest beach with the best reviews – Punta Uva. One of the staff at the lodge we were staying at persuaded one of his friends to drive us there when there were no taxis available. This turned out to be a fortunate turn of events for us as he was a font of information about Puerto Viejo. He recommended places with the best coffee, the best Asian food, the atm with the shortest queue and various other useful titbits. The journey from where we were staying to one of only three ATMs in Puerto Viejo, back past where we were staying to Punta Uva and Arrecife Beach (definitely the best beach in the area) cost 10,000 Colones or $17.50 between us. Not bad for a 30-odd minute journey with free advice.

We then spent some time at the most stunning beach with warm, clear water, which was just perfect.

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Since I wrote the first part of this post I’ve been busy doing holiday stuff, so I’m going to summarise my spending for the rest of this week. Otherwise it’s going to take a long, long time and I’ll just end up repeating what I’m writing on my post about my travels. If you’d like to find out more about what I did in Costa Rica, please have a look at my other blog posts here and here!

To summarise, all my money this week was spent on: taxis and tuktuks to and from the beach, restaurants and various places we explored; food and drink; cocktails; entry to the Jaguar Rescue Centre; horse riding along the beach and through the jungle with Caribe Horse Riding Club; transport from one side of Costa Rica to the other and back to the airport; accommodation; and tattoos.

I managed to resist the urge to buy things by telling myself they were all things I didn’t actually need, which is true, so almost all my spending was on food or transport apart from my various holiday activities.

Saturday we had half a day in Miami. Since we’d met up, we’d been talking about getting tattoos together (E’s idea!): as a memento of our trip, our friendship and a significant birthday this year for both of us. It would be E’s first tattoo and my 12th. After trying – and failing – to find somewhere to get the tattoos in Puerto Viejo where we were staying, I looked into tattoo artists in Miami. I found an article about the top ten artists in Miami and emailed a couple of places on the list who weren’t too far out of our way, to find out whether they’d be able to do what we wanted in the time we had available. Only one place came through, and it just so happened to be Love Hate Tattoo, where Miami Ink was filmed a few years ago! This made the tattoos even more special and everything went according to plan (even if that meant getting very little sleep. Stupid flight times). This, of course, has added a significant amount to my spending this week ($262.50/£190), however, I’m much happier spending that money on a beautiful tattoo with a beautiful person than on more stuff that I don’t really need.

My last stop this week was Bolinas, California, a lovely little town where my aunt and uncle live. My uncle picked me up from the airport on Saturday evening then treated me to entry to see a reggae band at the local community centre and a glass (well, tin cup) of wine.

Sunday was very chilled out. After breakfast I took a stroll into town taking a few photos on the way. I had lunch ($37) at the Coast Cafe – the only restaurant in town – bumped into my aunt by the People’s Store, met up with my uncle, bought a few food items (my uncle paid) and went back to the house for the evening.

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My total spending for the week was $579.62 (£415) plus $222 (£160 between us) on our accommodation for the week, plus the tattoos. Not too bad for a week full of fantastic food, awesome adventures and gorgeous scenery!