12th & 13th February 2023. The Epic Apocalypse Tour in Madrid (Spain)

The year 2020 was going to be so amazing that I actually would have had to choose the things I wanted to do and sacrifice others. It didn’t turn out that great in the end, with lots of rescheduling and cancellations. I was eventually able to budget time and money for one of those rescheduled events – the joint concert by the metal bands Epica and Apocalyptica in their Epic Apocalypse Tour. For a while, however, there was a bit of uncertainty with dates, as they bounced between Sunday 12th and Monday 13th of February, so I needed to juggle work dates in order to make sure I’d be free on Monday. In the end, I was all clear, all the concert-related activities were set for Sunday evening, and I decided to make a two-day trip out of it – I needed to take a hotel for Sunday anyway.

I arrived in Madrid around 9:30 in the morning. I had some time before my first appointment so I walked into one of the large parks of the city Parque del Buen Retiro, which is part of the Unesco World Heritage Site Paisaje de la Luz (Light Landscape), officially called Paseo del Prado y el Buen Retiro, paisaje de las artes y las ciencias, declared in 2021.

Parque del Buen Retiro was built in the 17th century for one of Felipe IV’s palaces, and it was opened in the late 18th century as public park. The park was almost destroyed during the war against Napoleon’s troops in the early 19th century, so most of it has been rebuilt. Aside from the obvious flora, it features sculptures, fountains, buildings… It is home to a lot of birds, and unfortunately a large number of invasive and fearless monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus), whose culling has been controversial in recent years. I got to see common blackbirds (Turdus merula), a European green woodpecker (Picus viridis) and a European robin (Erithacus rubecula).

One of the most important features of the park is the sculpture Monumento al Ángel Caído, which represents an angel falling from grace. It was originally designed by Ricardo Bellber, who made it in plaster in 1877. It was later cast in bronze and the original plaster destroyed, and eventually the sculpture was made into a part of a fountain in 1885. Around the area, there is also an ancient water mill, and to my surprise, the almond trees (Prunus amygdalus) had started blossoming.

Retiro Park collage: a pathway with trees and bushes on both sides, ducks, and a robin.

Retiro Park collage: a water mill, blossoming almond trees, and the fallen angel fountain

At 10:15 I had a guided visit to the Real Observatorio de Madrid (ROM), commissioned around 1785 by Carlos III, as an centre to develop and study astronomy, geodesy, geophysics and cartography. The main building is the astronomical observatory, built by Juan de Villanueva in what then was the outskirts of the city. Today, ROM belongs to the National Geographical Institute (IGN), and it is home to the National Astronomical Observatory, the Central Geophysics Observatory, and the data gathering division of the National Volcanic Service, though no measurements are taken there. The main astronomy measurements are carried out in the Centro Astronómico de Yebes, in a town around 80 km north-west of Madrid. The observatory is also part of the Unesco World Heritage Site.

The visit comprises three stops. The first one is the main building, called Edificio Villanueva, which has three rooms – the main rotunda with a Foucault pendulum, the library, with the spot where gravity was first measured in Spain, and the “Time room”, where the sun used to be traced to determine the hour.

ROM collage. A small Neoclassical building, an inner room with a pendulum and telescopes, a telescope and a 19th century library.

The second stop is the Great Telescope, a replica of one that William Herschel built in the 18th century – Hershchel was one of the greatest telescope makers of the time, and is credited with discovering the planet Uranus, two of its moons, and two moons of Saturn. The telescope was destroyed during the war against the French, but later rebuilt thanks to the number of laminates that had been preserved – the original had a focal distance of 7.6 m and a 61-cm diameter mirror (which is displayed in the main building), and Herschel himself considered it the best he ever built.

Herschel grand telescope: a wooden scaffolding structure keeping a huge black tube pointing at the stas

The final stop, the little museum of “Earth and Universe Sciences” has a small collection of ancient instruments used for astronomy, navigation, and geophysics. There are also a couple of seismographs – one of them new, which is up and running – and material retrieved from the volcanic eruptions of El Hierro in 2011 and La Palma in 2021.

Collage. Ancient telescope, old tide measuring device, an old globe, and lava bombs

I had planned for a typical sandwich at an iconic bar afterwards, but I ran into a political demonstration. Thus, I scratched that idea and took the underground westwards. When I was in Egypt, one of the places I visited was Lake Nasser, created by the Aswan High dam. The lake swallowed a lot of villages and monuments, but a few of them, such as Abu Simbel and the Temple of Philae were saved by Unesco. Between 1960 and 1980, a total of 24 monuments were saved, and five out of these were presented as “grants-in-return” to five countries which had offered exceptional technical and financial assistance to the campaign – Germany, Italy, Netherlands, the United States and Spain, the latter being impressive as Spain was in the middle of the dictatorship, and pretty shunned by the international community at the time.

The monument was a small and ruined temple in the now-flooded town of Debod, to which it owns its name Templo de Debod (Temple of Debod). Dedicated to the god Amun, it was built around the location of the First Cataract of the Nile, some 15 km south of Aswan, about 2200 years ago, though the core of the building may have been older. The monument was actually affected by the original dam at the beginning of the 20th century, and it was covered in water for most of the year, which destroyed its colours and damaged the reliefs.

During the Unesco salvage mission, it was dismantled, and eventually granted and taken to Spain, and “freely” reconstructed – a lot of information had been lost, and there were missing blocks. National stone was used to fill in the gaps, and the gates (remains of the pylons) were built in the wrong order, according to some old pictures. The restorers built an air-conditioning system, a wooden roof, and the main hall was closed off with a glass door and window panes. Today, the temple is open to the public at weekends, but unprotected from the Spanish weather – rather different from the Egyptian one – and pollution, it is rapidly deteriorating.

I went inside the temple once when I was a child, and I had a clear memory of it that kept surfacing when I was in Egypt – so I wanted to go back. The entry is free, but capacity is reduced, so I had to queue for almost an hour to enter. I finally matched my memory to reality. The interior of the sanctuary has a small chapel and some carved stones had been taken to a makeshift second floor to display them as a little museum.

A collage of a small Egyptian temple - it has two floating gates that lead up to the main building, which is small with four columns. One picture shows a tiny and dark inside room with an altar.

After the temple, I got lunch on the go, then walked towards the hotel to check in and change clothes. Around 16:15, I set off to La Riviera for the concert. I had a Meet and Greet ticket and had to be there before 17:00. Personnel from the venue were extremely nice, and there was no chaos at all, even if things had been a little disorganised and some fans were lacking M&G confirmation emails. Everything was well-handed and everyone who had paid for an upgrade got through. There were about 30 people to meet and greet Epica and we were ten for Apocalyptica.

Apocalyptica is a Finnish four-man band – Eicca Toppinen, Perttu Kivilaakso, Paavo Lötjönen and Mikko Sirén – founded in 1993. They are “semi-officially” a symphonic metal band, but they’ve ventured into everything from Metallica covers (which was their origin) to pure classical works. They have a very specific style heavily using classical cellos and combining them with modern drums. They currently collaborate with American – self-identified as Cuban in the concert – singer Franky Perez for vocals.

Meeting the four of them was really fun. I got autographs and took the most epic picture I’ve ever taken with a band or artist before. As we were only ten, after it was over, I had time to buy some merchandising and still be the second person to settle on first row – despite having decided that I was going to sit back and relax.

Apocalyptica white and black poster, signed by the four members

General admission started at 18:00, and the crowd was surprisingly tame throughout the whole thing. The venue filled up and the supporting band, Wheel, came up at 18:30. Wheel is a Finnish progressive metal band that consists of James Lascelles (Vocals/Guitar), Santeri Saksala (Drums), Aki ‘Conan’ Virta (Bass) and Jussi Turunen (Lead Guitar).

Wheel Setlist

  1. Hyperion
  2. Blood drinker
  3. Movement
  4. Vultures
  5. Wheel

Wheel playing, each member at his insturment: bass, guitar, singer and drummer

The second band was Epica, which I remember having listening to back when the world was young. They are a Dutch symphonic metal band currently composed by Simone Simons (lead vocals), Mark Jansen (rhythm guitar, vocals), Coen Janssen (keyboards, synthesizer), Ariën van Weesenbeek (drums), Isaac Delahaye (lead guitar) and Rob van der Loo (bass). Simone can go insanely high with her voice, and she has an amazing presence on stage, and the whole band has an immense amount of energy – she also reminded me of a comic character. The keyboardist had a lot of personality too, and he was extremely fun.

Epica Setlist

  1. Abyss of Time – Countdown to Singularity (recording)
  2. The essence of silence
  3. Victims of contingency
  4. Unleashed
  5. The final lullaby
  6. The obsessive devotion
  7. The skeleton key
  8. Rivers
  9. Code of life
  10. Cry for the moon
  11. Beyond the Matrix
  12. Consign to oblivion

Collage of Epica playing, showing different members at their choice of insturment - singer, bassist, guitarist, and keyboardist with a portable keyboard

Finally Apocalyptica came on stage, and it was extremely fun. The things those guys do to their classical cellos would make some classical musicians cry, but the sound is super-powerful. We had Franky Perez for vocals, and a very fun moment regarding “listen to our classical music album at home, because we still feel like death metal”. They interacted a lot with the public, and it felt somehow very friendly / warm – yes, I’m talking about metal here. It was really that fantastically weird.

Apocalyptica Setlist

  1. Ashes of the Modern World
  2. Grace
  3. I’m not Jesus
  4. Not strong enough
  5. Rise
  6. En route to mayhem
  7. Shadowmaker
  8. I don’t care
  9. Nothing else matters
  10. Inquisition Symphony
  11. Seek & Destroy
  12. Farewell
  13. In the Hall of the Mountain King

Apocalyptica playing with Franky Perez. Perez is in the foreground, dressed in black. The thee cello-playing members are in the frame, playing. The drums peek behind them, but you can't spot the drummer

Apocalyptica playing at La Riviera. They have classical cellos. Two of the members stand on the sides, playing their cellos. Another one is walking swinging his as if it weighed nothing, The final one is slamming drums in the background.

We finished off just short of 23:00, I bought off some fast food for dinner, and headed back to the hotel to have a shower and get some sleep. I was woken up early in the morning due to the cleaning crew and the garbage mini-vans noises, but I did not leave bed until 9:00, then set off at 9:30. I bought some cold coffee on the way and walked into the former royal palace gardens, now public park Jardines del Campo del Moro.

Though I’d seen the gardens a few times before, this was the first time I actually walked into them. Despite the frost covering everything, I got a nice view of the palace and different fountains and buildings sprinkled throughout the green – Chalet de Corcho, is a small hut with coloured windows; and Chalecito de la Reina a wooden house that is currently closed. I was insanely amused by a little grass-cutting robot.

Jardines del Campo del Moro. Collage. It's winter and most trees are grey and bare. At the end of the walkway stands the Neoclassical Royal Palace. Two smaller buildings - one of them is white with brown beams, reminscing of German architecture; another one is a small kiosk with colourful windows - red, green...

I wandered around for an hour or so, then headed off via underground to the National library of Spain Biblioteca Nacional de España for the absolutely worst guided visit of my life. Like… it’s true that it’s free, but tickets run out within hours of coming out – on the 20th of the month, for the following month. I’d actually been trying to do this since Covid lockdowns ended… It turns out, we did not see any real books, we could not even peer into the reading area, the book and reading museum is closed and the only information we got was… that the guide did not like the Library. We did not get to see anything interesting or that we could not see on our own, and we did not get to learn anything, so this was a huge blunder. Live and learn – but it was one of the few things that was open on a Monday. The library is a huge Neoclassical building with a fantastic marble staircase inside. The doors and gates are protected by intrincate ironwork fences.

Biblioteca Nacional de España. A Neoclassical building in white and grey tones. The exterior has columns and statues of writers. The interior showcases a pair of twin staircases with the statue of one of the most important library directors between both.

I met with family for a quick lunch and then we went for a walk. We had thought about going to one of the terraces to see the cityscape, but it was closed because it was a Monday. We ended up at the Parque del Retiro park again to make some time and walk. We sat in the sun for a while, then went to see the Palacio de Velázquez there. Currently, it’s part of the modern art museum Museo de Arte Reina Sofía, and I did not really care much about the exhibits, but I like the building. Architect Ricardo Velázquez Bosco built it in brick (with ceramic tiles by Daniel Zuloaga) for the Mining Exhibit in 1883, inspired by London’s Crystal Palace, now gone. The interior is pristine white with hints of iron architecture, but the building’s official style is “neorenaissance historicism” whatever that means.

Palacio de Velazquez: A brick building with large windows and tile decoration. The inside is all white with bits of iron architecture.

Velázquez Bosco and Zuloaga also came together when they designed another building I really like, the glass-and-iron greenhouse Palacio de Cristal, which was built to home tropical flora and fauna from the Philippines in an exhibit in 1887. In front of the palace, there’s a small pond home to some cheeky ducks and geese.

Palacio de cristal. A huge greenhouse with a dome, and two wings. A white duck wanders in the foreground. Between the greenhouse and the duck there's a small pond.

Then, we went to have a snack. Trying to find something on the map before the trip, I’d come across a place called La Mejor Tarta de Chocolate del Mundo, which translates to “The best chocolate cake in the world” and that had to be tried! It was really nice, even if the place was pretty small and felt a bit cramped.

A slice of chocolate cake in front of mugs and teapots

We finally took a stroll down towards the sunset, and I took the train back without much of a hitch, then drove home

2nd January 2023: Lies or oblivion? {Egypt, Winter 2022-2023}

I was awake at 6:40, but no phone call ever came. I was distressed because this gave way to two options. Either the tour guide had lied to me, or someone had forgotten that I existed. Neither was a happy thought. I tried to cheer myself up with a cup of Espresso from the room complimentary bar, and around 8:30 I went to have a quick breakfast. I was not hungry and to be honest quite upset. I had insisted five times about this beforehand.

A bit after 9:00 I tried to call the ground agency, Galaxia Tours, and I texted them through the website. But around 9:20 I said screw it. The hotel had a mini travel agency – I had noticed this because we had made an attempt to go see the light and sound show at Giza on the 30th, which the tour guide had walked around. Instead of telling us “you won’t have the time” he had deflected every question we asked about it.

Had I had more time to organise things, I would have hired the mini-agency to take me back to the Egyptian Museum, the Museum of Egyptian Civilisation, or even the Valley of the Whales. However, since the tour guide had mislead me, I was out of time. Then again, the hotel was not in actual Cairo, but in Giza [الجيزة], and a nominal 20 minutes away from the Giza Plateau and thus the pyramids, so I hired a tour over there. And, believe it or not, I ended up… on a “camel” – actually a dromedary – for a few hours.

I had been resisting doing a dromedary ride of any kind out of concern for animal welfare, especially after seeing how they were treated at the Petra site in Jordan. However, this time it looked like it was the best option to spend my three hours around the pyramids, introducing Moses the dromedary (Camelus dromedarius).

Moses the dromedary kneels looking at the camera over his shoulder. He exudes personality

I checked out at the hotel, left my luggage at reception, and was driven towards the The Pyramids of Giza Archaeological Site [مجمع أهرامات الجيزة]. My driver was a bit creepy, so I tried to keep it light. We arrived at a backstreet next to the Great Sphinx [أبو الهول] entrance, from where I had a great view. This entrance was a bit different from the one we had used on the 31st next to the tourist bus parking lot. Most people using this entrance were Egyptians, and they were thoroughly patted down. Upon entry though, the view was astonishing – the Sphinx, and Pyramid of Khafre standing right behind it, the Pyramid of Khafre [هرم خفرع], the Pyramid of Menkaure, with the Pyramids of the Queens peeking to the side.

A front view of the sphinx, with three pyramids behind it. The pyramids decrease in size from right to left

Riding the dromedary was easier than I thought. The trickiest part was managing his kneeling down and standing back up – I did get a cramp on the very first standing up – but it was mostly a matter of leaning forward and backwards. Through this new walk around the Giza Plateau I got to see the modern cemetery on the left, then we moved onto the archaeological site itself. From this side, I saw the path that joins the Great Sphinx with the Funerary Temple of Khafre and the Pyramid of Khafre. I also got to see the Tomb of Queen Khentkawes I [مقبرة الملکه خنتکاوس] and the Central Field of Mastabas and rock-cut tombs. It was weird, having such a vantage point of view! I got used to the rocking very quickly, so I got a few good pictures.

Two views of the archaeological area of Giza, with pyramids in the background and low, excavated tombs in the foreground.

My guide – and Moses – took me to a a different Panoramic Point of the Pyramids, the picture perfect one, a few metres south of where we had been the previous day – this spot is not reachable from the bus, but I honestly cannot calculate if I would have had the time to get there and back the previous time – it’s hard to estimate distances in the desert, and the pyramids are too big to gauge good references.

A general view of the area of Giza. All the big three pyramids and the small six are visible.

We rode around the Pyramid of Menkaure, and actually passed between two of the Pyramids of the Queens.

A collage showing the approach to the Pyramid of Menkaure. The smaller pyramids of the Queens are in the foreground, and the camera seems to go through them until it focuses on the bigger pyramid.

Then we moved on towards the Pyramid of Khafre. Coming closer was really cool, as I could see the granite blocks that would have made the pyramid smooth back in the day, along with the rest of some columns. Also, two sides of the pyramid are actually somewhat sunk in the ground, with a vertical wall of rock-cut tombs. I know I was paying for it, but being able to walk around the pyramid felt special, and allowed me to feel awed at the size and technology again, considering these were built about 4500 years ago.

The pyramid of Khafre. The top is still smooth as granite blocks have not fallen. At its foot, you can see the granite blocks that have fallen, some aligned next to the pyramid so you can guess how it would be smoothed. Another picture shows the moat like structure around the pyramid - it is the back-wall of some tombs

The Pyramid of Khufu stood to the left, and we continued our ride towards the Central Field of Mastabas and rock-cut tombs and the Tomb of Queen Khentkawes I.

A view of the Great Pyramid from behind.

A number of basement-like structures excavated in the desert. They are the tombs of the nobles and the pyramid builders.

I dismounted again and walked into the Valley Temple of Khafre [معبد الوادي لخفرع]. This time, not running and with fewer people, I got to see the megalithic structures for real. I also could go to see the rump area of the Great Sphinx of Giza.

Collage showing the sphinx with the pyramid of Khafre behind it; the megalithic temple through which you access it; then a lateral view of the sphinx and a view from the rump.

Afterwards, there was an “essence shop” experience, but as I told the lady I would not be buying anything, she dispatched me really fast. My driver got only creepier in the way back, so I tipped him and ran off to the reception of the hotel, where I sat down to wonder whether someone would pick me up from the hotel, or they would forget me like they had for the dray trip. Fortunately, I spotted some people I had seen during the New Year’s Eve party, and it turns out that they had the same pick up. That was good, because handling the transfer for Cairo Airport – and the airport itself – would have been more stress than I was willing to deal with. I actually think I was forgotten indeed, but this family was not – I did approach the representative they pointed out, and made him aware of my existence. Firmly.

At 14:05, we were off on the mini bus towards the airport, and it took a bit over an hour. Meanwhile, they gave me a questionnaire to fill in – I tried not to get personal, nor attack anyone, but I was very sincere about the things that had gone wrong. Being forgotten is not a nice feeling.

We reached the airport past 15:00. There were two security controls for luggage, and one pat down. In the second control, the guards got money to let a group go before me, and the guard actually gestured that money would make things go faster. However, waiting had an interesting consequence… I met the people who went on the day trip, to Saqqara again, and they entered other pyramids there. So there had been another day trip – and again, lied to, or forgotten about?

But I had had my own fun, so I did not let that rile me up. I checked in, dropped my luggage, got my exit visa and settled down to wait – I was now just destined to have to listen to We wish you a Merry Christmas on loop for as long as it took to board. I got myself a cheese sandwich for lunch – this was past 16:00 by now, I was a bit hungry after only a fast breakfast. Cairo Airport is anything but traveller-friendly. Half the shops were closed, but without signs, so they just yelled at you if you walked in. There are no sitting areas next to the gates, just the shops, and I did not want to sit on another floor and rely on their English to know when boarding was ready, so I just walked up and down “a few” times. I was lucky enough to be next to the gate when boarding started – with yet another X-ray control, getting separated by sex, and being frisked. And yet, you have to take off your shoes, but you are allowed water bottles on the plane… Weird.

We finally took off around 19:30 for very uneventful five-hour flight. We got dinner on the way, which was unexpectedly nice, and I had a window seat, extra water, and got to see Cairo goodbye.

An aereal view of a city at night. The streets are lit, and light pollution diffuminates in the background. There is a black line in the middle, north to south - the Nile.

Overall balance: things were left unseen, and maybe one day I’d go back to see the rest of the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, and the new Grand Egyptian Museum. Possibly the Valley of the Whales. But I don’t really feel I must come back any time soon. It was the adventure of a lifetime, and I am very grateful I got to live it. I do admit, however, that I dropped by my travel agent’s to make it known that someone had either forgotten me, or lied to me, and that I was not happy – similarly to what I had done with the questionnaire. I don’t know if I’ll ever get a reply, but I have to say the experience has left me not feeling up to trusting anyone with my travelling for a little while. Though I had to admit, my first solo experience with a group was all right… nice people all around, so I’ve been lucky in that department.

1st January 2023: The Lotus Flower {Egypt, Winter 2022-2023}

I read somewhere once that you should start the year doing what you love, that is why I decided to go out on the 1st January 2022. I could have never imagined 2023 would start as it did, in Cairo [القاهرة] of all places. As a settlement, Cairo can be traced to the Babylon Fortress, built around the 1st century BCE, but its real foundations were laid in the second half of the 7th century by the Fatimid dynasty. The city survived the Caliphate and kept spreading. Today, it is the largest metropolitan area in Africa, and the 12th in the world with 22 million people.

After waking up around 7:00, I was the first in my group to go down to have breakfast, and when I did, I saw that the breakfast buffet had added a ‘hangover’ buffet – Ibuprofen, Strepsils, painkillers in general… I thought it was hysterical. To be honest, I was tired and sore from the pyramid climbs, and probably a bit hungry since dinner had been… strange. One out of three was dealt with after some coffee and a very… British breakfast somehow – scrambled eggs, potato wedges, roasted tomato, a sausage… this gave me energy for the day, which we were to spend in the Unesco World Heritage Site Historic Cairo.

Departure was scheduled for 9:00 – too late, in my opinion. First, we got caught up in the horrible traffic. Then, when we arrived at our first destination, we had to turn around because the bus parking lot was full. On the way we caught a glimpse of the City of the Dead (Cairo Necropolis, or Qarafa [القرافة]). In this area, tombs, mausoleums and houses cramp together, up and down. Some people have made their houses out of the mausoleums due to Cairo’s crazy urbanisation. The City of the Dead was created almost at the same time as the city of the living.

Cairo, City of the Dead from the moving bus. A bunch of low constructions with flat celings or domes, with some trees sprinkled inbetween.

We also saw the ending of the Cairo Citadel Aqueduct [سور مجرى العيون]. Though originally designed during the Ayyubid period between the 12th and 13th century, it was later reworked by several Mamluk sultans (13th – 16th century) to expand water provision to the city. Today, it does not carry water, and it is under ‘redevelopment’ in order to display it as a heritage monument.

Aqueduct. Built in dark grey bricks, it has been buried by the sands of time so only the upper part shows.

Finally, after way too many scares with the bus, we reached the area called Coptic Cairo. It is located in what used to be the fortress of Bayblon, and in order to access it you have to go down a flight of stairs that feels way too long due to the pyramid climb. I do know a thing or two about soreness, and as I was hopping down the stairs as fast as I could, someone complained that it was unfair that I was ‘fresh like a lotus flowers’ while they were sore. That made me laugh – I guess I’m more used to being in pain than others.

The Coptic Catholic Church is the main branch of Christianity in Egypt. The Coptic Church seceded from Catholicism in the 5th century due to disagreements about the “nature of Christ”. Coptic Catholics believe the same general things as other Christian faiths, and fast a lot – 40 days before Christmas (7th of January), and 55 before Easter. They have a different Pope and rules for priests. Copts are a minority in mostly Muslim Egypt.

Our first stop there was the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus [ϯⲉⲕⲕⲗⲏⲥⲓⲁ ⲛ̀ⲧⲉ ⲛⲓ⳥ ⲥⲉⲣⲅⲓⲟⲥ ⲛⲉⲙ ⲃⲁⲭⲟⲥ ϧⲉⲛ ⲡⲓⲥⲡⲉⲗⲉⲱⲛ]. Christian traditions tell that the Holy Family fled the Massacre of the Innocents. In the nativity narrative, Herod, King of Judea, ordered the killing of all male children under two years near Bethlehem, in order to get rid of the “King of the Jews”. Having been alerted by an angel, Joseph took Mary and infant Jesus to Egypt. According to the tradition, they rested in the cave underneath the church, now turned into a crypt. The church is dedicated to the two martyrs, who died for their faith in Syria in the 3rd century CE. The building, erected in the 4th century, has a central nave and two side aisles, with 12 columns, probably quarried from Ancient Egyptian monuments and temples.

Collage. The upper part shows the Coptic chruch. The walls are made out of red brick, and the altar is hidden by a wooden structure. The lower picture shows a crypt with a small wooden altar, brick ceilings, and white columns

We then made a small stop at a Roman Tower, one of the Roman emperor Trajan’s addition to the original Fortress of Babylon (not that Babylon, the name was probably corrupted from the Pharaonic name). Trajan also created a quay back to the Nile, which has now dried out.

Ruins of a rounded tower built in white and red bricks. The colours alternate to create horizontal patterns.

We had a small stop at a bazaar shop, then we went into the so-called Hanging Church [الكنيسة المعلقة or ϯⲉⲕⲕⲗⲏⲥⲓⲁ ⲉⲥⲓϣⲓ], officially Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church [ϯⲉⲕⲕⲗⲏⲥⲓⲁ ⲛ̀ⲧⲉⲑⲉⲟⲇⲟⲕⲟⲥ ϯⲁⲅⲓⲁ ⲙⲁⲣⲓⲁ ϧⲉⲛ ⲃⲁⲃⲩⲗⲟⲛ ⲛ̀ⲭⲏⲙⲓ]. It is called the Hanging Church because it would have been suspended over the water gate of the Roman Babylon fortress – though today the ground is higher and the view is less impressive. It was built somewhere between the 7th and 9th centuries, and holds over a hundred icons. It is built in a basilica style, with 13 pillars representing the apostles and either Christ or Judas – depending on where you read. The rich decoration, with mosaics and reliefs, especially on the outside, mixes Arabic and Coptic motifs.

Collage of the Hanging church. The façade is sandstone, carved with Coptic and Arabic designs. Then there is a courtyard with a staircase that yields to a white building with two bell towers and a wooden porch. The lower picture shoes the interior, with the altar behind a wooden structure, very decorated ceilings and bare stone columns

That was all for Coptic Cairo, as we moved on towards what should have been our first stop – the Citadel of Saladin | Qalaʿat Salāḥ ad-Dīn [قلعة صلاح الدين الأيوبي]. There was going to be a high price to pay for all that time in the bus that morning, we just didn’t know yet. The Citadel was built by Saladin in the 12th century CE. Saladin was the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty. He became Sultan of Egypt in 1171, fought the Christian Crusaders, and conquered Syria. He was considered smart and noble, even by his enemies.

A sand-coloured wall with two minarets peering from the background

In the Citadel, we visited the Mosque of Muhammad Ali [مسجد محمد علي] in the Southern Enclosure, also called the Alabaster Mosque. It was built in the first half of the 19th century in the Ottoman style, and had to be completely restored in the 1930s due to cracking. It has two minarets, and a metal clock tower – the Cairo Citadel Clock, which apparently was a gift in return for the Luxor Obelisk that currently sits in Paris. The mosque has a courtyard for ablutions, and although the interior is usually carpeted, the carpets were out for cleaning, which created an interesting effect. It was my first time in a mosque, and I was pretty impressed by the huge glass lamps. Most of the courtyard and the interior are covered by alabaster – the upper part of the interior is only wood – and the mausoleum of Muhammad Ali is built in Carrara marble.

Muhammad Ali Mosque collage: from the outside, it has two domes and two minarets. It is built in stone, brick and slate. The inside courtyard is built in white-grey alabaster, with an ablution fountain in the middle and a metal clock tower that feels out of place. The interior of the mosque is also built in alabaster, and the lights reflect on the floor, creating a dizzying effect. Everything inside is carved and decorated with tiny motifs

Before leaving, the Citadel, we went towards the wall to catch a view of what is modern Cairo, in what we were told is called the Wall of Saladin, which is basically the limit of the Citadel. Looking very carefully, one could spot the pyramids in the background, among the high rises.

A ruined medieval wall, with a view of Historic and modern Cairo in the background. A floating image superimposed shows a high-contrast close-up of the skyline, making the pyramids visible through the haze

Afterwards, we went back to the bus to find the restaurant we were supposed to have lunch at – a “luxury boat” on the Nile that tried to short-change two of us – a travel-mate for 20 EGP and me for almost 60 EGP. We had nothing of it, though I had to be a bit more forceful than he did. We finally got into the most interesting part of the day at 15:17 – The Egyptian Museum in Cairo [المتحف المصري]. Considering that the museum closed at 17:00, this was outrageous. We had to run through the museum, with the tour guide complaining that we were not fast enough – he actually grunted that I was not there when I was. Considering how many people there were, we spent time trotting behind the guy, trying not to lose him.

We saw – thankfully – the Tutankhamun Galleries, with his sarcophagus and mask. I say thankfully because at this time, the treasures were scheduled to move onto the Grand Egyptian Museum next to the pyramids within the same month – and the tour guide could not even tell us where exactly the treasure was. We also saw most of the masterpieces:

  • Galleries of Yuya and Tuya (18th Dynasty), containing most everything regarding this couple, including the Book of the Dead
  • Statuette of Khufu (Cheops) in ivory, a tiny representation of the pharaoh, the only sculpture of his in existence
  • Scribe statue CG 36 (Fifth Dynasty)
  • Menkaure triads, in alabaster (Fourth Dynasty). Statues of deified Menkaure.
  • Narmer Palette, a cosmetic palette considered the “first historical document in the world”, documenting the union of Lower and Upper Egypt by Narmer (Dynasty 0, 3000 BCE) with the first hieroglyphs
  • Bust of Akhenaten, Amonhotep IV
  • Sphinx statue of Queen Hatshepsut
  • Small wood sculpture compositions from different tombs
  • Sarcophagi from several pharaohs and noblemen
  • Rahotep and Nofret (26th century BCE)
  • Statue of Seneb and his Family (25th century BCE)
  • Face of Queen Hatshepsut

Cairo Museum Collage: a view of the building, striking pink; the first gallery showing the top of a few pyramids and some colossal statues; sarcophagi.

Cairo Museum Collage: Close up of a black basalt sarcophagus, showing colourful hieroglyphs; canopi jars; a sitting scribe; a spynx.

Cairo Museum Collage: Face and Sphynx of Queen Hatshepsut; bust of Akhenaten; mummy

By the time he actually cut us loose, it was almost closing time, 16:40. I managed to wander a little on my own, and at least catch a glimpse of some colossal statues and the exhibited pyramidia (tops of the pyramids). I am not going to lie, I was miffed. We should have gone out of the hotel earlier, and if the bus could not enter the Citadel, we could have walked for ten minutes rather than waste an extra hour driving around Cairo. The best, though, was still to come. My travel-mates had come later than me, but they left earlier than me – almost 12 hours earlier. Back in Aswan I had tried to organise a day trip for myself for the second, and throughout the bus rides, I insisted thrice about organising something, but was just told that my pick-up was 14:00.

We were driven around Cairo for a little while after the museum until we reached the area known as Islamic Cairo | Al-Mu’izz’s Cairo [قاهرة المعز], the heart of the Unesco Heritage Site – it is also known as Historic Cairo or Medieval Cairo, and it existed before the current city expansion, built throughout the Middle Ages around the Citadel. It is surrounded by a wall, that can be crossed through a number of monumental gates. We had a walk down Al-Muizz li-Din Allah al-Fatimi Street [شارع المعز لدين الله الفاطمي], the most important artery of the historical city, with a number of historical buildings, such as the Qalawun complex [مجمع قلاون] and the Mosque-Madrasa of Sultan Barquq [مسجد ومدرسة وخانقاه الظاهر برقوق]. At the end, there is a tourist market that we were told was Khan al-Khalili, but I was not able to find the historical part of this famous souk, and to be honest, I did not feel too comfortable hanging out alone – we were given an hour of time to ‘do shopping’ here. Though the street itself was quite neat, and the buildings were nicely lit, again, I was not in too much agreement with the timing, and the shopping area was not welcoming at all – at one point I was sent a child to beg me for a pound, and she kept crying around me. One should never give money to beggar children, as it encourages the practice, but it was hard to force myself to ignore her.

A collage of Medieval Arabic buildings at night, lit in pink and green lights. The decoration is rich and ellaborate. The street is full of people.

When we came back to the bus, we got on route towards Al-Azhar Park [حديقة الأزهر], and a supposedly famous restaurant with views. Though it has very neat views from the terrace, the set menu was weird. The barbecued meat was okay, but it came after way too much rice and fries. I’m not sure how much the restaurant got from the extra trip price (60€ per person) though.

A collage. The biggest picture shows the Mosque of Muhammad Ali in the background, lit in purple for the night, with a darkened garden leading up to it. Two other pictures show the entrance to the restaurant, and a small Arabic fountain. The other two picrures show Cairo skyline, and the food we were served: Egyptian bread, hummus, and a barbecue of chicken and lamb meat

Most of the group was exhausted and they had to leave at 3:00, so we just bailed out on the rest of whatever was planned. I insisted on the following day and I was told I’d receive a call to my room the following morning. We said goodbyes to the tour guide, and I said my goodbyes to the rest of the group.

I went to bed wondering what time I would get that call. I set my alarm clock for 7:00 just in case.

31st December 2022: So high! {Egypt, Winter 2022-2023}

The breakfast buffet at the Cairo hotel was definitely better-stocked than the one on the motorboat, but we did not have time to linger. I was more than a bit giddy because today was the great day. The traffic was horrible, but as we were stuck there, we caught our first sight at the pyramids! The haze and smoke over Cairo [القاهرة] are thick in the morning, so instead of heading directly to Giza, we turned our back from it and drove off towards Saqqara [سقارة]. Both Saqqara and Giza are part of the Unesco World Heritage site Memphis and its Necropolis – the Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dahshur.

Two pyramids in the background through the window of a moving bus. The quality is not that great as the glass is somewhat tinted and the weather is hazy

Memphis was the capital of Ancient Egypt during the Old Kingdom, for eight dynasties. It flourished during the Sixth Dynasty (24th – 22nd centuries BCE), but started a decline at the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty (16th – 13th centuries BCE), first in favour of Alexandria, then of Thebes (Luxor). If Memphis was the city of the living, Saqqara was its city of the dead, the cemetery.

The Necropolis of Saqqara [أهرامات سقارة] starts off right at the end of the area where the fertile land from the Nile ends, so you cross from a date palm forest to a scorching dry desert. The burials there predate the Old Kingdom, and the oldest tombs belong to the Second Dynasty, and here the first pyramid was built. The timeline for burials was Abydos (which we did not get to see) → Saqqara → Giza (both of which we would see that day) → Valley of the Kings.

A garden or forest of palm trees from the bus. There's a low stone fence in the foreground.

Our first stop was the Necropolis of Teti. Teti was the first king of the Sixth Dynasty (24th century BCE) in the Old Kingdom, back in the time when the Egyptians had started working on elaborate burial sites. Thus, he had a pyramid complex for himself, his queens and officials.

Teti’s vizier (and probably son-in-law) Kagemni was buried in the necropolis. The type of funerary monument built for him was a mastaba. A mastaba [مصطبة] is type of burial, maybe a precursor of the pyramids – it is a rectangular structure with inward sloping walls built using mud bricks. They remained common among non-royals for over a thousand years after Kings were buried in pyramids.

Thus, we went into the Mastaba of Kagemni, vizier to King Teti of the Old Kingdom. The inner walls of the mastaba are decorated with coloured carvings of every day’s life, and mourning scenes for the deceased. There are lots of fishing scenes, featuring hippopotamuses, crocodiles, catfish… and cattle rearing work.

Mastaba of Kagenmi. Collage showing the narrow entrance, flanked by two carved warriors. A view of the walls of a reddish building. Carving on walls, some of them coloured, showing fish, a cow being milked, and Ancient Egyptian people carrying offerings

After the vizier’s tomb, we went into our first pyramid, the Pyramid of Teti [هرم تتي] himself. The pyramid today looks just like a hill from the outside – under all the rubble there is a big pyramid, along with three smaller ones, and a funerary temple. The pyramid was opened in 1882, and despite the poor condition of the above-ground area, the corridors and chambers inside very are well-preserved. This pyramid is one of the first ones with carved funerary texts – a number of rituals and spells called the Pyramid Texts. The entrance to the structure is downwards. A ramp leads into a narrow and low corridor which ends in a vestibule that in turns opens into three small chambers to the left, and the mortuary chamber to the right. The King’s sarcophagus remains at the pyramid, with carvings inside – the first carved sarcophagus ever found.

A rubble-like pyramid and shots of the inside. A very narrow and low passgeway, a sarcophagus in a pentagon-shaped room, and the decoration inside the sarcophagus.

I am not sure I can describe the high that I felt when I went inside the pyramid. It was like breathing history. Unfortunately, we had to move on too quickly. Fortunately, there were more things to discover! We got out of the bus to see the line of three pyramids – Pyramid of Unas, the Step Pyramid of Djoser, and the Pyramid of Userkaf.

A view of three pyramids. The one in the foreground right is little more than rubble. The one in the middle is not smooth, but it has five steps. The one in the background left is mostly hidden and only a flat tip can be seen.

Djoser was either first or second king of the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, sometime around the early 27th century BCE. His architect Imhotep is credited with the design of what possibly was the first ever pyramid. Djoser Mortuary Complex comprises the enclosure wall with a colonnaded entrance, a number of Heb Sed chapels, where dedicated priests honoured the different gods of Ancient Egypt. The roofed chapel area opens into a large patio, which used to be surrounded by a mud brick wall – today only the entrance stands, having been recently restored. In the middle of the open court, stands the Step Pyramid of Djoser [الهرم المدرج للملك زوسر].

Complex of Djoser, collage. The first picture shows the reconstructed wall, made of mudbrick, and the pyramid. Two other pictures show the inner columns of the hall, and the final picture shoes the pyramid again, it has five steps and it is not symmetrical.

The Pyramid of Userkaf [هرم أوسركاف] was built for the founding pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty (25th century BCE, Old Kingdom). The pyramid and all the surrounding funerary structures were pillaged in antiquity, and time has taken its toll – the structure is a core of rubble that looks like a huge anthill.

The pyramid of Userkaf, mostly collapsed, with a ruined stone path leading to it

The Pyramid of Unas [هرم أوناس] is even more decayed. Unas was the last king of the Fifth Dynasty (24th century, Old Kingdom), and his is the smallest pyramid of the Old Kingdom, but the first ever in which funerary texts were inscribed. Some of the outer casing is still visible, and there are also some remains of the mortuary temple in front of the pyramid, but most of the complex it is unstable rubble. Nevertheless, I’m a bit sad we did not get to go in and see the texts.

Pyramid of Ulnas. The upper part is mostly sand and debris, and the bottom shows blocks of stones collapsed

We overlooked the New Kingdom Tombs and the Persian Shafts, tombs of the high officials in Persian Egypt between the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. The tombs are connected together underground, but again, we only saw them from the outside.

Several funerary structures made out og mudbrick, and a deep square pit

We went back to the coach and were shown to a carpet / tapestry “school” which was a bit unsettling as it felt like a cover for children’s work. Then we drove off back towards Cairo and Giza [الجيزة], where we ran into a ten-lane traffic jam. However, we eventually made it to The Pyramids of Giza Archaeological Site [مجمع أهرامات الجيزة].

The tour guide had been trying to talk us out of stepping into any Giza pyramid claiming that “all of them are the same”, and we had already been inside one in Saqqara. This time, however, we did not buy into his “recommendation”. Part of the group wanted to go in, and of course I was among them – I might have been a bit worried about claustrophobia, but I did not want to miss the experience. All of us chose to enter the Great Pyramid of Giza [الهرم الأكبر], attributed to the pharaoh Khufu, aka Cheops, the second pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty (26th century BCE, Old Kingdom). The pyramid stands 137 m high, nine lower than when it was built, due to 46 centuries’ worth of wind erosion. At the time of construction, it was the highest man-made structure, and it remained so for almost 4,000 years, until in 1647, it had eroded to 139 m, slightly lower than the Strasbourg Cathedral in France (142 m, built in 1439). Ancient Egyptians used 2.3 million large blocks that total to 6 million tonnes in weight.

The Great Pyramid of Giza from afar and from its very foot, a wall upwards.

We were lucky enough to start queuing for entry during “lunch break” so we did all our little climb without sharing the space with anyone climbing down in the opposite direction. First, we went up the outside of the pyramid towards the entrance, then we went inside. There was a narrow, tear-shaped corridor, then you start the actual climb through a 1 m x 1.3 m passageway that ascends 40 m to the Great Gallery, which is also narrow, an extra 47 m upwards and 8.5 m high. And finally, we reached the King’s Chamber with the sarcophagus, dead in the middle of the pyramid. For a few minutes, we had the chamber for our little group, which was even better. When we were ready to leave we went our way down and did not cross many people either. The emotions I felt being there, inside the Great Pyramid, were amazing. I know it is not reasonable, but the feeling was exhilarating. It was being inside history, 46 centuries of it. It was just awesome, in the literal sense of the word.

Inside the Great pyramid: a very long narrow and low passage that feels claustrophobic, two shots of the Great Gallery, A-shaped; a picture of the mortuary chamber, with the naked pharaoh's sarcophagus inside.

Afterwards, we went back to the coach, which drove us around the complex so we had a view of the pyramids from one of the Panoramic View of the Pyramids points. There, we got to hang out for about 20 minutes as part of the group took a dromedary trip. From the view point we could see the Great Pyramid, the Pyramid of Khafre [هرم خفرع], the Pyramid of Menkaure [هرم منقرع], and the Pyramids of the Queens [أهرامات الملكات]. The Pyramid of Khafre (aka Chefren, Khufu’s son; Fourth Dynasty, 26th century BCE) measures 136 m, and it still has part of the original limestone casing at the tip. The Pyramid of Menkaure (aka Mycerinus; possibly Khafre’s son; Fourth Dynasty, 26th century BCE) is the smallest one, “merely” 62 m high, and rather unfinished because the pharaoh died prematurely. In the background, stood the modern city of Cairo.

The three main pyramids of Giza stand in the middle of the desert. Three small in comparison pyramids stand on the right. There are tiny modern buildings in the background. The image is repeated, with the names of the pyramids written on the second one: Khufu on the left, Khafre in the middle, and Menkaure on the right, next to the small Pyramids of the Queens

And just like that, it was over, except it was not, because we still had a little while to see the Great Sphinx of Giza [أبو الهول], which is a reclining lion with a human head, made out of limestone. It measures 73 m long and is 20 m high. It is part of the mortuary temple of Khafre, so it is probably his face the Sphinx bears, dating from the 26th century BCE. The Sphinx is currently missing its nose and beard. To access the Sphinx, first we went by the dried up Nile dock and we crossed the Valley Temple of Khafre [معبد الوادي لخفرع]. The temple was built out of megalithic rocks of red granite. The Sphinx was… pretty in a weird way, he had a very pleasant head, despite all the pidgeons.

A view of the sphinx with two pyramids in the background. The dried Nile dock, and a megalyth-temple.

The sphinx, looking right.  There are lots of pidgeons on his head.

Then, we were driven back into the Cairo chaos to a restaurant for lunch. By this time it was around 15:00, and the menu was fixed. I was highly amused by the fact that the tour guide had tried to up-sell this place as a high-scale seafood restaurant. We were served rice with squid in different ways – breaded and in tomato sauce – three prawns, and fish. The best thing, honestly, was the Egyptian flatbread Aish Baladi [عش بالدي], and the view – after all the name of the restaurant was “Chestro Restaurant Pyramid View” for a reason.

A view of two pyramids with the sun setting to their right. The picture is surrounded by smaller pictures of Egyptian food - pickled vegetables, Egyptian bread, calamari with tomato sauce, rice with calamari, a roasted seabass

After our very late lunch, we headed off to the last visit of the day – yet another shop. Finally something I was interested in, a place where they had papyruses. Papyruses are made out of the papyrus plant (Nile grass, Cyperus papyrus), a type of flowering sedge. Here, someone explained the process of making the papyrus paper. I found something I liked, a reproduction of Tutankhamun’s jewellery box with a guarding Anubis (currently at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo).

A painting on a papyrus. It shows Anubis in jackal form sitting on a box. The lower part shows a man holding a papyrus plant, next to it different utensils to make the papyrus paper. On the left, the real box showing the jackal on top.

It was around 19:00 when we got back to the hotel, where the tour guide informed us that (the now free) dinner gala would be held from 20:00 to 00:00. We had a bit of a laugh about being so not ready – since nobody had brought any kind of formal clothes as most of us had not booked the dinner – and we arranged to meet at 21:15, since we had finished lunch late. I had a shower, then went downstairs. We met at the agreed time, and spent some time taking pictures, and in the end… we were almost late for dinner! By the time we sat down it was 21:30… and the buffet only ran till 21:45…

Food was not so great, and even less worth 190 €. The singer was terrible, the exotic dancer… was more like a stripper, and I ended up defending all our grapes to the death. To be fair, it was a nice detail that the tour company got us twelve grapes each to celebrate the New Year’s. Despite the time and quality hiccups, we had a lot of fun. We counted-down to the New Year with the Egyptian time, and one hour later connected to the Spanish TV in order to listen to the bell tolls for midnight and eat our grapes. I had another shower and went to bed, though I could not sleep till the other hotel party finished at 2:30.

Shots of the New Year's Eve party at the hotel: two Christmas trees, a napkin folded like a tuxedo, some food, table decoration and a screen reading Happy 2023

It didn’t matter too much though, as the buzz and the high from the pyramid experience kept me content until there was enough silence to zonk out.

30th December 2022: Philae and the Aswan – Cairo jump {Egypt, Winter 2022-2023}

Belonging to the city of Aswan [أسوان], the Philae Temple [فيلة] complex is currently part of the Unesco World Heritage Site Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae. When the first Aswan Dam was built in 1902, the monument became semi-submerged, and it would have completely disappeared after the completion of the High Dam. Between 1972 and 1980, through the International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia, it was dismantled and reconstructed over at Agilika Island, 20 m higher.

The main feature in Philae is the Temple of Isis. Isis was the major goddess from the Old Kingdom to the Roman period. Isis was the spouse of Osiris, and is considered a mother and protector goddess, divine mother to the pharaoh, and mourner of her husband. In the Osiris myth, after he was killed and dismembered by Seth, Isis looked up and down Egypt to gather all the pieces. After she did, she breathed upon him to resurrect him, they conceived Horus (there are more or less gory versions of this), and Osiris went back to the Underworld, where he became lord of the Afterlife. Isis was the longest-revered goddess of the Ancient Egyptian religion – her cult survived in Philae until 550 CE, when Christians took over, defacing the gods and carving the Coptic cross all around.

I left for breakfast having vacated the room, suitcase ready at the open door, and hoped for the best. I settled my drink tab, which rounded up to 235 EGP; however, with the same smirk I had been given the previous day, I reminded the person at reception that they owed me ten pounds. The debt was honoured and I left with a giggle – yes, it was not that much money and I could have let it slip, but nope. Not this time. After that, our luggage was loaded onto the bus (luckily) and we drove off to a tourist dock to board the boat to Agilika island, which we reached after a few minutes. We landed and climbed up towards the archaeological site.

The Temple of Isis holds the general structure of an Ancient Egyptian Temple, with a pylon, a court, a hall and finally the inner sanctuary of Isis. An obelisk stands before the pylon, in the outer court that has been preserved.

Collage. View of the outer wall of Philae, with the colonnade and the pylon; entrance to the sanctuary, richly engraved with deities and hyerogyphs; a cat sitting in front of the columns.

When looking carefully at the pylon, it shows the different water marks from the time the temple was submerged – at two different levels, depending on whether it was flood season or dry season. During the rescue, a cofferdam was built around the original constructions to dry the area out. Then, between 1977 and 1980, the whole complex was dismantled into 40,000 blocks, moved and rebuilt. The old position can still be spotted 500 m away, marked by the remains of the metal anchors for the cranes.

Close up of the pylon showing carvings of Hathor and Horus. Two water lines can be appreciated above and below them

Another structure in the island is the unfinished Kiosk of Trajan. I even managed to be alone in there for a heartbeat.

A cube-like structure built from columns, with the river behind them.

The final building is the Temple of Hathor, Horus’ wife.

Collage. A ruined building with derelict walls and a few standing columns - from land and from the river.

Next in the plan was shopping (joy -.-“) and we went to an essence shop. The lady claimed that Egyptian essences were the base of many brand-famous perfumes. I have no idea, but I was irked by the rigid sex separation of scents, and I developed a rash from one of the testers… While some people in the group shopped, someone else found the adjacent papyrus shop, and a small number of us went to snoop there.

After being spared a second shop – this one for spices – we were shuttled to the airport to take our charter to Cairo. It was a surreal experience through which I was patted down twice. The airport segregated by sex because you got the pat down even if you cleared the metal detector, which was weird. Also, it turned out that we had an extra suitcase in the bus! Creepy!

Our tour guide did not fly with us. When we landed in Cairo [أسوان], we were taken to the hotel by another representative, who assigned rooms and called our names in the bus, before we even arrived, but did not hand the cards until we were there and had handed in our passports for check-in. It was of course too late to try and go to the Pyramids light show – seriously, everything would have been so much easier with a “sorry, no time”, especially considering the crazy Cairo traffic. At this point we were already planning to try it on our own – I had found out that the hotel had a mini travel’s agent that we could use.

A traffic jam heading to the Cairo airport traffic control. The green neon on top reads Welcome to Cairo

We met up for planning – and paying for the Night Cairo Walk, which was to take place the following day – and I sat down to catch up on everything that had happened in the days when I had been internet-less (have I mentioned that it was not such a bad experience?).

The whole trip was a New Year’s special and came with an optional 190 € dinner that I had not booked because… no. I had packed some cereal and chocolate bars just in case, and it turned out that only one couple out of our eighteen-people group had reserved it. There had been a tiny riff-raff when I asked my travel agent about dinner that day, and she received an email about the “Gala Dinner” being compulsory (demanding the extra money), and I asked her to reply that nope, I would not be attending.

Well, that night we were told that the local agency was treating us to the dinner – my theory? The restaurant they had agreed for the Night Walk would not take us for New Year’s Eve, the walk would be impossible due to people celebrating. Thus, they found themselves in a tough spot – so they used the spare from the overpriced optional trips to pay for it. Then, the night walk was bumped to the first of January. Looking back, I believe that they had completely overlooked the NYE factor.

Also, the hotel not only had free Wi-Fi, it also had complimentary water in the rooms, and free mineral water during dinner. And a bed that did not vibrate. It was a good night’s sleep. But before that I took a shower so long and so hotm, that I almost glowed in the dark afterwards.

29th December 2022: Abu Simbel and Nubia {Egypt, Winter 2022-2023}

Modern eras have brought lots of different needs and technologies, and both become one when we think about harnessing nature. The Aswan dam is one of such examples. There are actually two of them. The Old Aswan Dam was built in the wake of the 20th century (1899 – 1902), and the newer, Aswan High Dam was completed in 1970, creating Lake Nasser. The rationale was securing fresh water for Egypt and stopping the dependence on the Nile floodings; however there have been associated problems – not only environmental such as the habitat of the Nile crocodile and the loss of fertility in the delta; thousands of people were displaced from the to-be-flooded area, and houses and whole villages were swallowed by water. A lot of these villages had their own cultural heritage, which was to disappear forever. Thus started Unesco’s International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia between 1960 and 1980. This effort relocated as many as 24 monuments (one of them, the Temple of Debod, ended up in Madrid, Spain) to safer grounds. The temples of Abu Simbel are probably the star of the rescue efforts.

The Abu Simbel [أبو سمبل] Complex is part of the Unesco World Heritage Site Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae. It comprises two buildings – the Great Temple of Ramesses II and the Small Temple of Hathor and Nefertari. Both of them were carved out and into a sandstone cliff on the West Bank of the Nile during the reign of Ramesses II or Ramesses the Great (14th-13th Century BCE, Nineteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom), considered one of the most powerful Pharaohs in the New Kingdom, who reigned for many years. It was lost to time, and only rediscovered in 1813 and excavated in 1817. The Complex was relocated to higher ground between 1964 and 1968 to prevent its sinking in Lake Nasser. In order to do so, the mountain and the temples were cut into huge blocks and built 65 m higher and 200 m back from the river. The relocation managed to keep the relative position to the sun, but shifted it by one day – the temple was designed so the first ray of sun hit Ramesses’ face in the sanctuary on the 21st of October and February, and now that happens on the 22nd.

At some point one has to wonder what was more impressive – building the complex, or relocating it so you can’t really tell. The mountain itself is hollow in order to reduce the stress on the temple after the move, but wow. Just, wow.

As far as I understand, buses are not supposed to stay longer than a couple of hours in the complex. Our disembark time was 2:30, and even if I went to bed ridiculously early, I did not get much sleep because my cabin was above the motorboat rotors, and my cabin vibrated like hell. Before we left, we had a choice of coffee or tea, and we were given a “picnic” consisting on some sweet bread with… buffet leftovers, a piece of fruit and a small juice – that was traded often.

The trip each way was 3.5 hours, so we wanted more than the 30 minutes the tour guide wanted to give us, and we were there between 6:30 (though we did not enter the site until a bit later) and 9:00. Fine, I own up – I was late coming back and only made it to the bus at 9:08. The tour guide was so not amused by that.

Arriving at the Abu Simbel site, you approach from behind the mountain, and as you surround it, you’re greeted by Lake Nasser [بحيرة ناصر], the reservoir created by the dam. The sun was climbing up slowly when we arrived, still with sunrise colour.

Sunrise over a lake. There is a lonely palm tree on the left

You keep turning and you are greeted by the four colossi that flank the entrance to the Great Temple of Ramesses II. The colossi represent deified Ramesses II, to whom the temple was dedicated along the gods Amun, Ra (in his Ra-Horakhty advocation) and Ptah (creator of the world and patron of craftsmen). The inside features a hypostyle hall with columns carved in the shape of Ramesses colossi, a colonnade hall and the inner sanctuary, where the venerated gods were revered.

Panorama of both Abu Simbel temples: Ramesses II to the left, Nefertari and Hathor to the right. The sky is blue, the monuments are orange-gold, and a lot of people gather at the entrances.

Collage of the Great Temple of Ramesses II: façade with four sitting colossi; inner hall, with colossi against the columns; an carving of Ramesses in a war position; inner sanctuary with the gods and Ramesses sitting, the light hitting their faces.

To the right stands the Temple of Hathor and Nefertari. Here, Queen Nefertari is represented as big as Ramesses and shown with the horns of the goddess Hathor, both signs of her importance (consorts were usually represented knee-high of their kings). The inner area has a hall with rectangular columns carved and painted, and the sanctuary features Hathor as a cow emerging from the mountain rock.

Small Temple of Abu Simbel colllage: Entryway with the colossi; inner hall with the face of Hathor carved into the columns; carving of Nefertari with the goddess' crown; inner sanctuary with the image of a woman with a cow head coming out from the wall, the light hitting her face

Despite really, really not wanting to leave, I made my way back and ran into two other people from the group. We had to leave through the tourist bazaar and were just slightly late. On the way back, slightly more awake than when we had left, we did not get to see any mirages, but we crossed the old Aswan Low Dam [خزان أسوان]. We had a view of the power plant on one side, and on the other side the First Cataract of the Nile, a series of rapids that have been slowed down by the building of the dam. In ancient times, it was believed that the Nile sprouted here and flowed both north and south. The main part of the cataract is now under the dam, and the remaining rapids have been turned into a nature reserve. There are Ancient Egypt remains and engravings in some ruins on the islands.

Views from the low Aswan Dam: southern side calm waters and power plant; northern side rapids

We were back on board the motorboat at 12:35 for lunch, and met again around 16:15 for a felucca sail on the Nile [نهر النيل] around the Aswan [أسوان] area. Before leaving, I decided to exchange 20 € into Egyptian pounds in order to have some change for the couple of meals we had outside, just in case I needed pounds to buy drinks. For convenience I chose the reception of the motorboat. They short-changed me, twice. First, they used a 23 EGP / 1 € exchange rate, while the official rate is 25 EGP / 1 €. Then, the guy at reception calculated 460 EGP and gave me 450, smirking “I owe you 10 pounds.” Stay tuned for the conclusion of the story.

The felucca sailing had been rescheduled from the following day so it could be tied to the trip through the Nature reserve and the Nubian village (and possibly to accomodate the charter flight times). A felucca [فلوكة ] is a traditional sailing boat, usually with one sail. Feluccas are still used for transportation through and across the Nile, and from ours, we caught some interesting views.

A sailboat docked with a precariously narrow plank to board it

A view of a sailboat on the Nile from another sailboat. The knots and ropes of the boarded felucca are visible in the foreground.

We got to see the Tombs of the Nobles | Qubbet el-Hawa [قبة الهوا] (Dome of the Wind), which I wish we could have visited. The tombs date back from the Old and Middle Kingdom with dignitaries and governors from the Fourth Dynasty to the Roman period buried here. The site is still being excavated, and also part of the Unesco World Heritage Site Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae, even if it is neither Nubian nor between them.

A ruined structure perched on a bare mountain or dune. On the left there is a building, and on the right some open façades in stone.

We also sailed by the Mausoleum of Aga Khan [قبر اغاخان] and the family house beneath it. Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, was a religious leader among the Nizari Isma’ilism, a branch of Islam, and he was buried in Aswan after his death in 1957.

A building perched on the top of a mountain. It has a dome and several towers. A similar building stands at its feet, painted white, in the middle of a garden

Apparently I missed some dancing as I was taking pictures of the site. Then, the people from the felucca sold us some trinkets, and finally we transferred to a different kind of engine boat, from where we sailed off towards Salouga and Ghazal Nature Reserve [محمية سالوجا وغزال الطبيعية] (the rapids formed by the First Cataract), around Seheyl Island [جزيرة سهيل], and a great sand dune. The Aswan area is famous among birdwatchers for its diversity. We got to see some glossy ibises (Plegadis falcinellus), little egrets (Egretta garzetta), reed cormorant (Microcarbo africanus), maybe an osprey or two (Pandion haliaetus), some corvids and stilts… Up the dune we made port at, we also caught sight of a couple of Egyptian beetles (Scarabaeus sacer).

Collage: a rocky island surrounded by rapidly-running water, and several birds wadding and mid-flight

Collage. Two views of a huge sand dune: the buildings look tiny against it. A picture of a scarab walking on sand and leaving its print. It is a bit biger than a 5cent coin

The Nubian village, Gharb Seheyl [غرب سهيل], which is little more than a big bazaar. We were invited to the house of a man who claimed to have been a dancer for the Spanish Teatro Real. We hung out there for an hour or so, and eventually were let off to walk around the village, a succession of shops selling the same trinkets as everywhere else, plus women trying to sell “Nubian dolls”. The house we were at kept live Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus), and at a lot of places we saw some mounted ones, I guess for tourist’s entertainment, but that did not feel quite right.

Collage of the Nubian village: a view from a rooftop, showing the houses painted in sand and blue colours; a shop with colourful trinkets, flowers, and statuetes; a Nile crocodile staring up; a dromedary passing by a souvenir shop.

After sunset, we sailed off back to the motorboat, without stopping anywhere, even if the whole city was lit. The boats were also shiny with neons and bright colours.

Collage: boats at night, docking and navigating the Nile. Two views of Aswan: lit ruins of the tombs of the Nobles, a mosque and a hotel

At the motorboat, we just had dinner and I went to bed early to catch some sleep. When I arrived at the cabin, I discovered that the staff had taken one of my beds away. I guess they got tired of making both of them as I used both bed covers? I was amused, just like I had been by all the figures they made out of towels (I got swans, a crocodile, and a monkey) though I wish the cleaning had been a bit more… thorough.

27th December 2022: Early start and late delays {Egypt, Winter 2022-2023}

Not that 5:00 is a nice hour for anything, but it’s definitely a nicer hour to get up than to take a plane. Leaving was scheduled for 6:00 (with sail-off at 14:00), and I would not have minded had it been earlier to be honest. However, given that most of my group had arrived at midnight, there might have been a riot…

Breakfast was not too well stocked, but there was coffee and eggs for energy through the morning as we were going to be out from 6:00 to 14:00 – a full eight hours. We started late because the tour guide was late… not a good sign. The group had 18 people plus him, and he really did not sound either enthusiastic nor particularly knowledgeable to be blunt. We had a coach booked for us and we set off to visit the main elements in the city of Luxor [الأقصر] and its surroundings, the Unesco World Heritage Site Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis. We started towards the West Bank of the Nile, the bank of the dead, where the ruins of the Necropolis are.

Our first stop was Medinet Habu [مدينة هابو] a Pharaonic complex, whose most important building is the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III. It was the last monument built in the area, during the pharaoh’s reign (12th century BCE, Twentieth Dynasty of the New Kingdom). The basic structure of an Ancient Egyptian or Pharaonic temple is the pylon – court – hall. The pylon is a massive wall separated in two parts in which a narrow passage acts as gate. The court is a colonnade, and the hall is the area where the sacred spots can be found, covered and darker.

In the case of the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III, the complex is surrounded by a mud brick wall with an extra pylon. The temple is decorated with carvings that depict the pharaoh as a great warrior smiting all his enemies. The structure used to be connected to the Nile to the point that there was a so-called Nilometre. In Ancient Egypt, taxation was determined by how high the Nile floods were – or were not.

Collage of the Mortuary temple of Ramesses III: The pylon, the columns, a bare gate and one decorated with rows of hieroglyphs

After the temple, we continued off to the Valley of the Kings | Wādī al-Mulūk [وادي الملوك]. Between the 16th and 11th centuries BCE, after the pyramids had been proven easy to find and pillage, the pharaohs from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth dynasties were laid to rest here. The tombs are excavated into the rock and here was where Howard Carter found Tutankhamun’s grave in 1922. The ticket grants admission to three “standard” tombs, and the most emblematic ones require a separate fee. Our guide pressed us not to buy a ticket for Tutankhamun, and did not even mention other tickets – at this point I decided that I had to read beforehand about what we were going to do the following days in order to be prepared for his attitude.

A scorching valley opening to both sides with grey-white hills going up. Everything looks sandy and dusty,

The first grave we visited was the Tomb of Ramesses IV (KV2) (12th century BCE, Twentieth Dynasty of the New Kingdom). It consists of a long and richly-decorated corridor that ends in a mortuary chamber where the sarcophagus still stands. It has been open to visits from antiquity.

Tomb: a long corridor with painted and carved hieroglyphs. In the background stands a bare sarcophagus in pink granite

The second tomb was the Tomb of Ramesses IX (KV6) (12th century BCE, Twentieth Dynasty of the New Kingdom), which was unfinished at the time of his death. The entrance corridor is wide, with the walls covered with glass. In this case, the burial chamber was unreachable.

Tomb collage: a long corridor decorated with hieroglyphs and a close up of a painted boat taking the deceased to the underworld. The corridor ends in stairs that go down towards the mortuary chamber

Our final grave was the Tomb of Ramesses III (KV11), whose temple we had seen before. The interesting thing about this tomb was that it ran into another one as it was being built, so the corridor actually has corners before reaching the empty burial chamber.

Tomb collage. Details of the different engravings and hieroglyphs. The burial chamber has thick columns and it has a downwards slope. The columns are decorated with further hieroglyphs and images of the gods

After the Valley of the Kings, we headed back to the Eastern Bank and made a stop at the Colossi of Memnon [تمثالا ممنون]. Each of the four statues was carved from one huge block of rock, and they signal the entrance to the funerary temple of Amenhotep III (14th century BCE, Eighteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom). The temple is currently being excavated, and it would have been the largest in the West Bank.

The four colossi. There are two in the foreground, sitting down. They don't have faces. Two others can be guessed in the background, though one is just a block of rock

Afterwards, we got stuck for a stupid amount of time at an “artisan stonework” shop – a tourist trap to buy souvenirs. Boy, was I miffed, especially when this took out time from temples in Luxor. The first stop in the Eastern bank the was Karnak Temples Complex [الكرنك]. Karnak is a succession of temples, pylons and chapels that started around 2000 BCE, during the reign of Senusret I (20th century BCE, Twelfth Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom) and continued for 2000 further years, with more Pharaohs adding their own structures. The most impressive area in Karnak is the Hypostyle Hall, open to the sky now with a number of columns ending on an open papyrus capital. Other features are the obelisks of Hatshepsut, one standing, the other fallen.

The complex was dedicated to the Theban triad: the god Amun, the goddess Mut (the “mother” goddess with the head of a vulture) and their son Khonsu (god of the moon). Amun was the creator of the universe, and later his cult was merged with that of Ra, the god of sun and light, thus the appearance of the god Amun-Ra, to whom the main temple was dedicated. The huge complex expands right and left, but unfortunately we had little time to explore due to time constraints.

Karnak complex: the entrance pylon, the columns in the hall, decorated with scenes from Ancient Egypt's daily life, and an Obelisk

We moved on to Luxor Temple and the Avenue of Sphinxes, also called Rams Road [طريق الكباش]. The Avenue joined Karnak and Luxor, and was flanked by ram-faced sphinxes all along its three kilometres – though the four best preserved ones were taken to Cairo to create a monument in one of the squares. The avenue has actually been walkable since 2021, and you can go from one temple to the other on foot.

A long line of sphinxes with human faces and lion paws

Luxor Temple [معبد الأقصر ] was dedicated to the rejuvenation of the monarchy, and many pharaohs were crowned there. It was founded around 1400 BCE, and throughout the centuries has come to host a mosque. In front of it, stands an obelisk, whose twin is in Paris. Behind the obelisk stands the pylon, the court, the colonnade, and a final court before the sanctuary chamber.

Luxor temple: The pylon with an obelisk in front, two sitting colossi and two parallel rows of columns from the hall

We were back on the boat just a few minutes after 14:00 for lunch, and then I found my way to the sun deck to see the sail off… which did not happen till 16:00! All that running through the temples for… nothing. I was not pleased, but I refused to get angry. Instead, I read up on what was to come, did some bird watching – I caught a flock of ibises – and watched the sunset.

A flock of birds flying against a bright blue sky. The curved-down beak suggests that they're ibises

Sunset over the nile. The sky is orange, the suni s almost white, and there is a trail of light on the water

In the late evening we reached the floodgate at Esna, which we should have crossed around dinnertime. We got stuck waiting for our turn behind a large LNG ship and a lot of other motorboats. In the middle of nowhere, I was able to see the stars very clearly, and that was pretty.

26th December 2022: Timing, timing {Egypt, Winter 2022-2023}

Since Madrid is a horribly busy airport, apparently 5:00 is the right time to schedule a charter – and take off late anyway. The paperwork insisted on arriving at the airport with a three hour’s margin, and I did precisely that, reaching Terminal one at 2:06. I was slightly worried that the charter would not be shown on the screen, but it was there, literally the first flight. A number of tour operators had come together to charter around 200 people to Luxor, and as it was not a regular flight, there was no way to obtain boarding passes online.

I had to queue for about an hour in order to get my pass, and just as I was leaving the check-in counter, I heard that 90 people had been checked in, and the line was about even longer than when I had joined. There were three check-in counters and the process was really slow – there were problems with the conveyor belt for starters, then people would not have their passports ready or had weight issues with their luggage. I… handed over my passport, put my suitcase up, received my pass, and was out in less than two minutes… So I have no idea what all the issues were…

Security was also pretty fast even if I got stuck behind a family who didn’t take their electronics out, tried to get big liquids in, and couldn’t get their boarding passes sorted out to go through passport control. I found my gate and I sat down to snooze. We were the only plane leaving from the airport, and we were late by 20 minutes…

I slept for a couple of hours until we got breakfast, then slept again until we landed in Luxor | Al-ʾuqṣur [الأقصر ]. As my visa had a already been processed, I got a sticker and filled in the immigration card. Then I went through immigration, picked up my bag, and we were waived through customs. It was a bit of a chaos as different guys yelled up the names of different operators until we found our groups. A guide told me I’d be riding the bus with him as I was the only one heading for the motorboat “M/S Opera”, I’d be getting off first in 15-20 minutes.

Egypt Visa Stamp on a passport. It marks Luxor as point of entry and Cairo as point of exit

Luxor is located on the east bank of the Nile, covering part of the ancient site of Thebes, which comprised an area for the living (eastern bank of the river) and another for the dead (western bank, the current necropolis). Thebes was the capital of Egypt during the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom, and today the site of Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis is recognised as Unesco World Heritage Site. The bus drove off and we got to see Karnak [الكرنك], the Avenue of Sphinxes and the Temple of Luxor [معبد الأقصر]. The guide laid out the plans for his group to have lunch and then go off to visit both the temples of Karnak and Luxor to make the most of the time in the city. I thought this was a fantastic idea (I’d be sorely disappointed later when I realised I was not part of those plans).

Temple of Luxor from the bus

About 40 minutes later, way out of the city, the guide informed me that the bus driver had been unable to find my boat, but that he would drive me there now. They were leaving because they had reached their pier. Thus, I was driven back to Luxor, alone in the bus, to a shady alley that eventually got to my motorboat. I was worried that I was keeping the rest of my group back… It turned out that the 17 other people from my group arrived at night! I was not alone on the motorboat, of course, but my tour guide said I should “just relax”.

I entertained the idea of going out to explore, but I’d heard a few horror stories about travelling Egypt alone, and the dock was in a bit of (read: very) shady place; besides, I was pretty much out. It was colder than I expected (apparently, I managed to arrive through a cold wave in Egypt, go figure), so I divided my time between the sun deck and the cabin, reading and dozing off from time to time. Though my cabin didn’t have views, the sun deck had some nice ones of the West Bank of the Nile, where the tombs of the most powerful pharaohs are. The motorboat looked right out of a Mummy film if not for the fact that it was in colour. However it looked charmingly garish – though the cabin was a bit chilly, and the heating wouldn’t work. Since I had two beds, I planned to use both covers to stay warm.

A collage of the motorboat: From the outside, it looks like two train carriages welded together. The inside is full of carpets and decorated wood. The sun deck has a swimming pool and some hammocks.

At some point during the evening I looked up and saw that the light had shifted, so I climbed up to the sun deck and caught some amazing sunset views over River Nile [نهر النيل].

Sun setting over water

To be honest, by 20:00 I just wished dinner time would come and I could grab a bite to eat, a bottle of water, and then take a shower and go sleep for real. I tried to buy Wi-Fi access, the receptionist understood me, but decided to play dumb, so I decided to forgo that altogether. Furthermore, I was growing antsy because I wanted to know the plan for the following day – for waking up purposes – and where I could exchange some money for tips and so on.

I caught the tour guide at dinner and at least managed to secure a time to leave the following day, which was the most important thing. I was not too keen on him by this point – I think he was just miffed he had to start working 12 hours earlier just for one person, and not bothering to hide it, so communicating with him was hard, since he did not seem to have straight answers to my questions – well, at least I knew what time to get going. After dinner, I went to the sun deck again. I was not going to get to see Karnak lit up for the evening, but at least I saw the West Bank.

12th & 13th November 2022: Santiago de Compostela (Spain)

Here’s a little secret – people don’t like flying on the 13th, even less when it’s a Tuesday. Thus, I came across a bunch of awesome offers for the 13th of December, which unfortunately I could not take up due to work uncertainties. What I could muster was a mini getaway on the weekend of the 12th/13th of November, to the northern Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela. There were a few reasons for this choice – one, cheap flights; two, I’ve recently started considering a route through the so-called Camino de Santiago (St. James’ Way); and three, pandemic shuffled ‘Holy Years’ round so there was a special gate to the cathedral open that I wanted to see. I flew out around noon on Saturday and came back on Sunday night. It was a perfect plan for a decompressing getaway.

Santiago de Compostela is known as one of the most important pilgrimage cities in the world. According to the Christian tradition, the tomb of Apostle James was found in the area in Middle Ages (different sources vary throughout the 9th and 11th century), and the pilgrimage to visit the remains became one of the most important in the Christian faith, alongside Rome and Jerusalem, to the point that the pavement proudly states that “Europe was built on the pilgrimage to Santiago”. While I’m not religious, I have a thing for religious architecture, and as mentioned above I’ve been thinking about the Camino for a while, and visiting the goal felt a good way to start organising how I wanted to look at things.

However, let’s say it wasn’t the most perfect getaway ever. Though the flight was on time, and pretty short, there was turbulence – not something too out of the ordinary, but here’s something you might not know about me. Back in the mid-nineties, I sort of crash-landed in the Santiago airport, so let’s say I was not so invested in a bumpy flight.

As the flight had been very cheap (about 30€), I had decided to splurge a little in the hotel – and I found a not-so-bad offer of half-board at the Parador de Santiago – Hostal Reyes Católicos, downright at the centre of the city. It is located in the old pilgrim hospital, and it is a magnificent building, aside from a five-star hotel. I arrived around 14:00, and the room was not ready – fair enough. I wanted to get there early in order to drop off my luggage, and make sure I could arrange my dinner reservations for a convenient time. One of the reasons I decided to book half-board in the Parador was to guarantee myself a meal late in the evening, as I had booked a walking tour at 20:00, and the main restaurant served dinner till 22:45.

Wide shot of the Parador. It shows a severe building with an ornate gate. The sky is bright blue.

Unfortunately, the check-in staff “had booked me” at 20:30, and they asked if that was okay. I replied it wasn’t, and explained the reason stated above – the staff then said that they could accommodate me at 22:00 at the secondary restaurant, but not at the main one. I answered that then I’d have dinner at 22:00 at the secondary restaurant then, but the staff asked me to check the menu. I stated that it did not matter. I needed my dinner to be at 22:00, and if the main restaurant wasn’t available, it would have to be at the secondary one. The staff asked me to check the menus, and I explained again that I had a tour from 20:00 to 21:30 – I needed dinner at 22:00. I thought that was resolved, and as it was too early to get a room, I picked up my camera, left my backpack in the locker room, and went on my merry way to explore the outdoor “monumental route” within the historical city Ruta Monumental de Intramuros. The old city of Santiago is part of the Unesco Heritage Site Routes of Santiago de Compostela: Camino Francés and Routes of Northern Spain Caminos de Santiago de Compostela: Camino francés y Caminos del Norte de España.

As I had tickets for different activities in the cathedral booked for the previous morning, and the Sunday forecast was rain, I decided to do most of the walking on my first afternoon. I started off in front of the cathedral façade in the square Praza do Obradoiro (the Artisans Square), which hosts the town hall in the former Neoclassical palace Pazo de Raxoi, the Parador itself, and the main – but closed, will get into that later – entrance to the cathedral Santa Apostólica y Metropolitana Iglesia Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, with its Baroque façade called Fachada del Obradoiro.

Baroque façade: two towers and twin set of stairs, fenced away.

I walked around the cathedral, and stopped at all the other squares: Praza da Acibecharía (the Black Amber Workers Square), Praza da Quintana de Vivos (Living Villa of the Living Square) and Praza das Praterías (the Silversmiths Square).

A collage of views of the cathedral of Santiago.

I walked down Rua do Villar, which is the closest to a main street the historical town has. I strolled around the historical centre – there are many interesting buildings and churches, alongside the market. At some point I entered a bakery, but I kinda ran away when I heard the prices they were charging.

Santiago Route.  An archade, a fountain, an ornate corner with a coat of arms carved into it.

After an hour and a half or so, I found the convent-turned-museum Igrexa e Convento de San Domingos de Bonaval that has become the ethnological museum of the Galician people Museo do Pobo Galego. The museum itself was not too spectacular, but the building itself was fantastic. One of the most amazing things was the triple-helix staircase that joins the different floors on one side, and the remains of the gothic church (where I got to climb the pulpit). To the side there’s the pantheon for illustrious Galicians, including one of the few female historical figures in Spain – poet Rosalía de Castro.

Monastery and museum. The pieces include a humanoid stone idol, some Christian figures in polychromated wood, and two pipes

View of the triple staircase, from above, from below and through the door from one of the sides.

A view of a gothic chapel, showing an empty altar.

This was around 16:30, and even if I was not even a bit hungry, my legs shook a little. Thus, I decided that I needed to find a supermarket to buy a snack – I only had coffee before I left for the airport at 9:00. Before getting to the supermarket though, I walked around the former orchard and graveyard of the convent, now a picnic-friendly park Parque de San Domingos de Bonaval, full of ruins and fountains.

The previous church, from outside, on the right. There's a winter tree in front, and some old niches on the left wall.

I grabbed my snack and went back to the monumental route until I was back at the Praza do Obradoiro. I walked around to see the sunset, and caught a glimpse of the light playing on the façade of the church Igrexa de San Frutuoso, and some nice views from the adjacent park (which turned out to have been another graveyard) Xardín do Cemiterio de San Frutuoso.

Santiago sunset. Upper picture shows the church of Saint Fructuoso, and the lower one a view of the nearby park with the sun setting in the background

It was around 18:00 at that time, so I could finally check in – which I did, only to find out that the staff I had talked to had decided not to book my dinner in the end, which lead to me needing to explain about my tour again to a new staff who told me they couldn’t book me at 22:00 on the secondary restaurant! It had to be at 21:45, but they could notify the restaurant that I would arrive a bit later. I was really not impressed by the whole thing, even less when I apparently needed a bellboy to guide me to my room and carry my backpack– and of course get tipped.

I had my snack and then went on to explore the building. As I did, the sun completely set, so the different lights were cool. The Hostal Reyes Católicos used to be the pilgrims’ hospital. It is a huge rectangle with four interior cloisters named after the four Christian Evangelists, the inner areas having been refurbished into the rooms.

The four gothic cloisters of the Parador. Two have some greenery on them, the other two are just grey and built.

A few minutes before 20:00, I left for my tour. Although I’m not a big fan of tours and group activities, I had had my curiosity piqued by a “theatrical visit” of the historical centre of the town called Meigas Fóra. In the area of Galicia, a meiga is a type of traditional witch, good or bad, depending on what side the person speaking about them is – in this case, the guide being a supposed-meiga, of course they were all neat and nice. The tour was supposed to tell about the different legends and interesting supernatural trivia of the town, but just ended up being a bit watered-down walk around those graveyards-turned-parks I had walked before. The coolest thing was finding the pilgrim’s shadow Sombra del Peregrino, a fun game of light-and-shadows in one of the squares around the cathedral.

A view of the cathedral of Santiago at night, illuminated, on top. On the bottom, a column casts a shadow onto the wall behind it - it seems to be that of a man with a walking cane and a travel hat.

Hilariously though, as we were walking, someone approached me to ask in wonder if on top of taking the tour alone, I was in Santiago all by myself, in total awe of someone travelling on their own. She said that she would never be able to do so – while she took selfies of herself because the people she was “touring” with could not be any less interested…

After the tour I went to have dinner – guess what? At 22:00 h! Let’s say that it was not the greatest experience. The restaurant staff had their hands full with a table of around 20 drunk “pilgrims” who had come all the way from South America and were rightfully celebrating – albeit loudly and a bit obnoxiously (all that pilgrim wine, no doubt) – that they had reached the end of the Way. The rest of the patrons were, including myself, four one-person tables, which made me wonder if they just don’t book one-person tables in the main restaurant after the first shift. The floor staff – basically one working waiter, and one wandering waiter – was overwhelmed by the table, and it took me over an hour to finish my dinner – which was some local octopus (pulpo a feira), a roasted great scallop (Pecten maximus, not only a delicious shellfish, also the symbol of the town and the related pilgrimage, called vieira in Spanish) and a piece of the typical almond pie (tarta de Santiago).

Dinner: pulpo, a scallop and a piece of cake.

Then I went to my room for a nice hot shower and to get some sleep. I was surprised then to find no extra blanket in the wardrobe, though there was an extra pillow. This was around midnight already so I decided not to hit reception for the extra blanket and just cranked up the air-con on and off to stay warm. I slept on and off, too, but it was not too much of a long night.

The next morning I had breakfast and set out for my day at the cathedral, Santa Apostólica y Metropolitana Iglesia Catedral de Santiago de Compostela. Santiago was built around the 7th century legend that the apostle James the Great, Santiago el Mayor, was buried in the area of Galicia, after having reached Spain to convert it into Christianity. In the 9th century, a tomb was discovered among some abandoned Roman ruins, and the local bishop had “the certainty” that it was the Apostle’s tomb. The bishop informed the King, who was the reported first pilgrim, and later ordered that a church should be built to commemorate the finding.

As the number of pilgrims grew, the church became too small, so subsequent temples were erected. The current interior was built between the 11th and the 13th century in a very pure Romanesque style, but the exterior was covered in the 18th century, in a very adorned Baroque style, which is also the style of the altar.

The most important piece of the cathedral is the Portico of Glory Pórtico de la Gloria, the Romanesque entrance to the 12th-century cathedral, with 200 sculptures carved in stone in the three-archway portal. The entrance now is locked away, you have to pay to see it, and photographs are not allowed.

For starters, I climbed up to the roof of the cathedral and the bell tower – not really the bell tower but the “rattle tower”, as the bells chime on the eastern tower, and the rattle is played on the darker, western tower. The roof was restored as recently as 2021, and from there there are some nice views of the town.

The towers of the cathedral from the room, and some aereal shots - one shows the Parador cloisters from above.

Between visits, I went inside the cathedral, where the pilgrims’ mass was about to start. I might have stayed out of curiosity had I been in town for a longer period. Then I visited the portico – since pictures were not allowed, I’ve rescued some 1995 ones from when I were in town as a teen.

Three shots of the  very baroque altar in Santiago - it is heavily decorated and painted gold. On the bottom right, a silver urn, also very ornated, supposedly where the remains of St. James are.

A collage showing several sculpures of the Portico of Glory - Romanesque statues richly coloured and decorated, they look placid

After wandering the cathedral for a bit longer, I made the most out of the last hour of sunshine to head to the park Parque da Alameda to find the spot Miradoiro da Catedral next to a huge centennial eucalyptus tree (Eucalyptus globulus labill) Eucalipto centenario, a 120-year-old specimen, considered one of the oldest eucalyptus trees that was planted in Europe after captain Cook “discovered” Australia and the species was introduced by Fray Rosendo Salvado.

A panoramic view of Santiago, showing the cathedral.

My next stop was the museum of pilgrimages and Santiago Museo de las Peregrinaciones y de Santiago, which was free due to the Covid recovery plan. It features a collection of items related to Saint James Way, and other important pilgrimages of the world, including the Japanese Kumano Kodo [熊野古道], and the Muslim Mecca Pilgrimage Ḥajj [حَجّ]. The upper floors are dedicated to the hagiography of Santiago / James through the Way and in the city.

Museum of Pilgrimages. A collage that shows a wooden statue of Santiago on a white horse, sword raised; other depictions of Santiago as pilgrim; some paper scallops decorated by kids; and a Japanese sacred gate.

Later, even though I should have gone to eat a bite, I headed to the monastery and museum Mosteiro de San Martiño Pinario, religious complex built between the 16th and 17th centuries, though the inner areas and chapels date from the 18th century. Today it’s a cultural centre, and alongside the church, it features a museum with block prints, fossils, an ancient pharmacy… The church has the most baroque Baroque altarpiece I’ve ever seen, and two choirs – one behind the altar, and the other one up on the second floor.

Exterior of the monastery, including the double downward staircase, and a picture of the interior, showing a very Baroque altar painted in gold.

Finally, I stepped into the museum of the cathedral Museo de la Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, which features the entrance to the cloister, library, and the upper galleries, aside from artistic and religious treasures such as the original stone choir, wooden carvings, and tapestries. I was also able to access the upper galleries and look at the rain in the Praza do Obradoiro, and later the crypt.

A collage showing the cloister of the cathedral of Santiago while it rains outside, and the former Romanesque choir, carved in stone.

Romanesque arches and columns built in stone, and a cast ceiling.

After one last visit to the cathedral and its shop, I got myself a last souvenir – a silver and black amber bracelet I had seen upon arrival, and took a taxi back to the airport in order to fly back. All in all, I was not too impressed by the city nor its inhabitant, and I was pretty disappointed in the Parador. I think it has put me off the idea of doing the Camino as much as I thought I wanted to, but not every trip is perfect, I guess, and I hope my memories warm up with time.

A silver and black amber bracelet. The silver is very fine, and the gem is bright black.

Walking distance: around 11.68 km (18659 steps) on Saturday and 10.58 km (16931 steps) on Sunday, not counting airport transits

14th October 2022: Pamplona, the city of the bulls, and Olite {Aragón & Navarra Oct. 2022}

In order to avoid crossing Zaragoza, we tried to go around it. Unfortunately, trying to save up 30 minutes, we ended up wasting an hour at the entrance of the highway, and we reached the city of Pamplona or Iruña. Today, it is the capital of the region of Navarra, which is roughly the size and shape of the old Kingdom of Navarra, which existed roughly between 1162 and 1512, when it was conquered by the Catholic King Fernando.

There had been a slight misunderstanding on who was going to plan the day – I was convinced my father had not wanted me to do it, but when we arrived he turned to me and I was supposed to know. In summer, I had drafted a small itinerary, but as he was supposed to have taken charge, I had not gone further. It turns out, I should have. Fortunately, I still had the map on my phone and the opening schedules on my travel notebook. Unfortunately, I had not really delved into all that the city has to offer and we missed a few interesting thing

Thus, I tried to take charge, but not too much because it’s hard to balance that with my parents. Even if we have travelled together before, I tend to let them do the planning and only insist on some stuff I want to do or see, and that’s how they end up at dinosaur parks (≧▽≦).

We left the car in a parking lot underneath the congress centre and walked towards St. Nicholas Church Iglesia de San Nicolás de Bari Eliza. The first building dates from the 1100s, and it was built along the now-disappeared walls, as a defensive construction at the same time as a religious one. It was demolished and rebuilt location makes the building awkward, and to add insult to injury, we arrived almost at the same time as mass started, so we just took a quick look.

Iglesia de San Nicolás de Bari Eliza - exterior with pointed arcs, and inside, showin the altar

We walked to the next church dedicated to St. Lawrence Iglesia de San Lorenzo, actually associated to the Unesco World Heritage Site Routes of Santiago de Compostela: Camino Francés and Routes of Northern Spain Caminos de Santiago de Compostela: Camino francés y Caminos del Norte de España. The current building is Neoclassic, and the façade was rebuilt at the beginning of the 20th century when the original was damaged during war. On the right of the main nave, a side chapel holds the famous sculpture of St. Fermin, the patron saint of the town. The chapel was built between 1696 and 1717, when the sculpture was placed there. Every 7th of July, the sculpture is taken out in the religious procession. From the 6th of July and for a week, Pamplona celebrates its local festivals, famous around the world for the encierros, or running of the bulls. While there are similar runnings all throughout Spain, the encierro in Pamplona was popularised by Ernest Hemingway, the American novelist, in his work “The Sun also Rises” (1926).

Church of Saint Lawrece - Neoclassical façade and interior, with the sculpture to Saint Fermin, the patron saint, in a red cape and a mithra, surrounded by red and precious metals.

We continued onto main street Calle Mayor, which ends at the main square Casa Consistorial de Pamplona, which opens to the main square Plaza Consistorial. The building was erected between 1951 and 1953, though the project kept the 18th century façade, halfway between late Baroque and Neoclassic.

Pamplona town hall / council hall, with flags hanging from the balcony.

We continued onto the cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary Catedral de Santa María la Real de Pamplona. The building is Gothic (French Gothic, actually), with a Neoclassical façade designed by Ventura Rodríguez (who also worked on the Basílica del Pilar in Zaragoza). One of the most interesting things in the cathedral are the paintings on the walls and columns themselves, just non-religious decorative motifs. In front of the altar lie the tombs of King Carlos III of the Kingdom of Navarra, and his wife Leonor of Trastámara (or Castille).

Cathedral of Pamplona, including a close-up of the bright polychromy in red and blue, and the altar, from far away and a close-up. The most distinctive feature are the pointed arched and the very clean masonery.

In the inner area, there is a beautiful cloister, and you can climb into the false ceiling, see the kitchen of the former convent. And, let’s not forget – they have a stamp, because it is one of the “official” starting points of St. James Way, Camino de Santiago, and also part of the Unesco World Herirage Site related to it.

Collage: Cloister in Pamplona cathedral. The gothic ars are pointed and ornate, standing on bright green grass. One of the corners shows a fountain, the other the iner walkways

We stopped for lunch, then we walked by one of the “iconic” points of the bull-running, the corner at one of the streets of the route – Esquina de la Estafeta, and continued on until we reached the bullfighting ring Plaza de Toros de Pamplona, but since we are not big into the culture, we did not enter.

We did stop by the sculpture to the bulls and runners Monumento al Encierro, a huge bronze composition with a number of real-life pieces: nine bulls (six fighting bulls and three guiding bulls) and ten runners.

This bronze sculpture represents several life-sized bulls and runners. The runners are in front of the bulls, and one of them has been trampled.

Finally, we went to have a stroll alongside the walls of the former citadel Ciudadela de Pamplona. Although now it is a park, and only the foundations are left, the Citadel was one of the most important defensive constructions in the Spanish Renaissance, in the shape of a five-pointed star.

Several angles of the Ciudadela of Pamplona park. Not much is seen except for the building foundations, though they stand two or three metres high.

After that, we took the car and drove towards the town of Olite also known as Erriberri , where we were going to sleep. The town was home to the Monarchs of Navarra, and today there are two distinctive buildings – the old palace Palacio Viejo de Olite, where the Parador de Olite stands, and the new palace Palacio Nuevo de Olite. Originally the most extravagant Gothic castle in Europe, it burnt down during the war against the Napoleonic troupes, and was rebuilt in 1937 using the philosophy of bigger, cooler more teeth. We checked in at the Parador and I collected my stamp. From our room, we could see the main structure of the old palace, as we had a very long balcony.

Old palace of Olite. There is a tower on the right and an old Medieval house to the left. The building is made of irregular masonery and the windows are perfectly rectangular.

We went for a walk, and were surprised at how many people there were in the area. We sneaked into the church Iglesia de Santa María la Real, but did not take any pictures as (once again!) mass started. We planned to come back the following morning as it was barely a 30 seconds away from the door of the Parador.

On the left, a modern red-brick house stands on older arcs. The façade sports a protection made of intricate white ironwork.
On the left, a Romanesque church, blocked by construction and a tractor.

We walked around for a little and were not too impressive by the Medieval city centre, but we did find the typical balconies and the Romanesque church of St. Joseph Iglesia de San José.

We were beat, to be honest, it had been a stressful day after a short night’s sleep, so we turned in early after dinner. I did not even think to wander round to see if I could get any cool pictures of the area, because the area was packed and I was exhausted.

13th September 2022: Wadi Rum (and the bus) {Jordan, September 2022}

I had a boiled egg, potato hash-browns and coffee breakfast because my body was craving salt, I guess. Then we set off on the bus, where we ended up spending around seven hours (the 412 km are supposed to be done in 5 hours and a half, but that does not take into account bad traffic). Urgh. Our first stop was a viewpoint over the whole canyon area.

Wadi Musa valley panorama, showing the deep gorge from above

The second stop was a souvenir shop that had probably somehow bribed our guide or driver for it. None of us even bought anything, but we were forced to be there for about half an hour before we could continue to the only organised activity for the day – a two-hour jeep tour throughout the Natural Reserve and Unesco World Heritage Site of Wadi Rum | Wādī Ramm [وادي رم]. It is the largest wadi “valley”, created by alluvial fans and wind deposits, rather than the idea of a river bed. They are often found in deserts.

During the tour in Wadi Rum Reserve [محمية وادي رم] we drove through the desert and stopped at some rock formations that had built a gigantic dune. Wadi Rum used to be a granite and sandstone rocky formation. Thousands of years worth of wind eroded the sandstone back to sand, forming and shaping the desert dunes. Huge granite structures still stand, such as the Seven Pillars of Wisdom [عمدة الحكمة السبعة], just at the beginning of the route. One of the stops is the tourist-named Big Red Sand Dune, which you can climb for kicks, giggles and some nice views of the landscape.

Driving into Wadi Rum. The roof of the jeep is visible, along with a rock formation in the background. Between us and the rock formation there is the other jeep, causing a dust cloud

Back of a dune we had to climb, and the rock + sand landscape that could be seen from the top. Wind erosion marks have created soft ridges. The rocks are red-grey and the sand is rose-gold

Then we drove off to see some petroglyphs, and were offered dromedary rides. These petroglyphs, depicting early humans and their cattle – bovines and dromedaries – are the reason for the Heritage status.

A rock wall with some dromedaries in the foreground + a close up of the petroglyphs engraved in the rock, also showing dromedaries (by JBinnacle)

Finally we were shown a Bedouin tent at the feet of the Lawrence Canyon, a beautiful rock formation with faces of Jordan monarchs. Unfortunately, we did not get to see any onyx or fennec foxes, but I did see a small lizard. The Bedouins treated us to a cup of tea, but then we had to tip the driver about 10€…

Lawrence Canyon, a deep cut in the rock filled with sand at the bottom + details of engraved faces and Arab script, a lizard and a bit of tea, along with a traditional Bedouin coffee maker

Afterwards, we started off our trip back northwards back to Amman | ʻAmmān [عَمَّان]. Though the trip is supposed to take about 4 hours, it was way more than that, and we did not arrive at the hotel until way past 18:00. We went through the security checks and ended up learning that we could not travel between floors, so we could not go to the others’ rooms using the lifts, and the stairs were blocked… Well, at least we had… views?

A view of Amman skyline in the dark

After we managed to regroup, we had dinner and decided to try to check in online for the flight next day’s flight – and I was successful. Apparently, the airline only cared about us filling in our Covid certificate to enter Jordan, we were on our own for the way back.

12th September 2022: Petra {Jordan, September 2022}

Petra | Al-Batrāʾ [ٱلْبَتْرَاء] is without doubt the crown jewel of Jordan. It was the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom, and a strategic point in the middle of the trading routes. Nabataeans were one of the nomadic Bedouin tribes in the Arabian Desert that eventually settled and established the capital of their kingdom around the 2nd century BCE. Soon, Petra became a major trading hub and flourished as the Nabataeans were extremely skilful in harvesting rainwater and agriculture in the barren deserts. The Nabataeans also became very good at carving the sandstone of the canyon where they built their city. They lived in caves in the rock and created intricate façades in the sandstone of the mountains surrounding the site.

Eventually, water dried out and Petra fell, becoming a lost city, a tale told by crusaders when they returned home. In 1812, Swiss traveller Johann Ludwig Burckhardt “discovered” Petra for the Europeans, and excavations and archaeological expeditions took place throughout the 20th century. At this time, a Bedouin tribe, the Bidouls lived in the area, and in 1985 they were resettled in a nearby village built by the Jordan government before the site was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.

As part of the concessions made for the Bidouls, they were given sole rights to the exploitation of the archaeological site, and their traditional customs were declared Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage. Unfortunately, these traditions have devolved today into blatant child labour, peddling, and animal abuse. Barefoot children run after tourists to sell trinkets, women handle myriad of stands illegally selling rocks and fake archaeological artefacts along with imitation jewellery, cosmetics, decoration and so on, and men offer the services of thirsty and sad-looking donkeys, dromedaries and horses to move round the area. And while I can understand choosing to ride an animal in the long distances and heat, I saw a poor dromedary covered in red graffiti made by tourists that made me want to scream at people.

In 1989, Petra was featured as the lost city of Alexandretta in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, something that is considered the start of the Western tourism in the area. The film features the entry canyon, the Siq, and the Treasury as the Temple of the Holy Grail, possibly inspired by the crusade references from the Middle Ages. Aside from being a Unesco World Heritage Site, Petra is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and a geoarcheological protected area.

We were picked up at 8:00 and driven to the visitor centre. We had been warned beforehand to say no to anyone trying to rent / sell us anything as long as we were with the guide, who insisted on “taking care” of us for a couple of hours until he gave us free time until 18:00.

As you leave the visitor centre behind, there is about a kilometre and a half of barren desert. To the right of the trails stand the Djinn Blocks [أنصاب الجن], so named because the wind makes a sound around them (a djinn is an invisible spirit, sometimes called a genie, from the pre-Arabian mythology that was later incorporated into Islamic theology). On the other side of the path stands the Obelisk Tomb [مدفن المسلات].

Petra: Djinn Blocks and Obelisk Tombs (by JBinnacle)

The following area is the canyon Al-Siq [السيق], another kilometre and a half’s worth of walking between two fantastic rock walls. The Siq is an opened fault that was subsequently eroded by wind and running water. It was used as the caravan entry to Petra, and the lower area shows rests of Roman roadway, and the water canalisation built by the Nabataean. There are also some sculptures, both religious (baetyli) and non religious, such as a merchant with their dromedary. Some of the side fractures have brick dams to protect the main route.

Petra: Different views of the Al-Siq, including the waterways  (by JBinnacle)

At the end of the Siq stands The Treasury | Al-Khazneh [الخزنة], the most famous building in town, built in the 1st century BCE, probably as the Mausoleum of Nabataean King Aretas IV. Older tribes of Bedouins thought there was a Pharaoh’s treasure in the upper urn, so they tried to shoot it down throughout the 19th century. I had wanted to go up to the view point, but the locals made sure that you could not do it on your own so you were forced to tip them and support their submerged economy – thus, I decided against it in the end.

Petra: first view of the Treasury through the Siq, and main façade (by JBinnacle)

The canyon opens to the right and you move onto The Street of Façades, flanked by Nabataean tombs. As the canyon opens, to the left stands the Nabataean amphitheatre [المدرج النبطي ] and to the right, the Tomb of ‘Unayshu carved into the rock.

Petra: Different façades, Nabataean amphitheatre, and Palace Tomb (by JBinnacle)

Once in the open, turning back you can see the Royal Tombs, from left to right Palace Tomb, Corinthian Tomb, Silk Tomb and Urn Tomb. To the right there are the remains of a Byzantine church that we did not climb to.

Petra: overview of the Royal Tombs carved into the mountainside (by JBinnacle)

The Colonnaded Street holds the Temenos Gate, the Great Temple [المعبد الكبير] on the left and the Temple of the Winged Lions [معبد الأسود المجنحة]. It ends on the Qasr al-Bint [قصر البنت], the only building in the traditional sense that it is still standing after thousands of years of erosion and earthquakes.

Petra: Colonnade street, Great Temple, and ruins of the gates and the only standing building (by JBinnacle)

Here we made a stop at the restaurant / bar to have a drink and gather a little strength before we took on the 850 upwards steps on the Ad-Deir Trail. The hike was a bit difficult due to the uneven steps and the donkeys constantly going up and down, carrying tourists. The views of the canyon were spectacular, and at the end of the hike stands the largest stone-carved building in Petra, The Monastery | Ad Deir [الدير]. It is 47 m high and 48 m wide, built in classical Nabataean style – an interesting detail is that the columns are purely decorative, and not at all functional. I enjoyed the hike, but apparently my family did not.

Petra: Different views of the Monastery Trail, up and down. The lower pictures shows and overview of the whole valley, 800 steps down (by JBinnacle)

Petra: Façade of the Monastery, a building carved ito the mountain side in reddish sandstone (by JBinnacle)

After the Monastery, we made our way down, leisurely, and stopped at the places the guide had told us about. We decided not to hike up any more sites and just strolled back to the visitor centre. From there, we stepped into The Petra Museum [متحف البتراء], where we could see some of the found artefacts and decorations up close and protected from erosion.

Petra: Overview of the Museum, pieces of the Nabataean piping, chapitels, teselae and a reconstruction of a Nabataean man's head (by JBinnacle)

We finished around 17:30, so we just set to wait for the bus at whatever shadow we could. Having read a lot of bad reviews about Petra by Night, I decided that 9.5 hours / 15 km (24326 steps) in the site had been enough and I did not need to walk the Siq again illuminated by candles. Yay me getting over my FOMO. We had some dinner in the hotel – and what I really regretted was not packing my bathing suit, because I would have loved a soak in the swimming pool.

13th August 2022: Smoothness in Chaos {England, August 2022}

As rail strikes rolled out both in London and the rest of England, I was thankful I had found out in advance. The hotel internet was patchy and I would have had trouble booking a coach ticket for the airport. I decided not to try and cram more than I had already on my plate for the day, and stick to my booked tickets and original timing.

I took an underground line to Victoria railway station, from which I went to find out where my airport coach would leave from. After that, I walked from Victoria coach station towards Westminster, stopping at Westminster Cathedral, a rather out-of-place Neo-Byzantine building, which serves as the Catholic cathedral. Designed by John Francis Bentley, it was completed in 1903. It was closed for service, unfortunately.

Westminster Cathedral, a Chrsistian neo-byzantine building: a view of the exterior, in white and red brick, and the open doors showing the inner altar from afar

Due to the strikes and potential issues, Westminster Abbey had rearranged its opening hours, and waived all the “entry times”. So basically it was a bit on the chaotic side, though I arrived for my own timeslot, as I had calculated that would be all right for the tour I had signed up for. The abbey is officially called Collegiate Church of Saint Peter at Westminster. It was a originally a Benedictine abbey, and William the Conqueror, in 1066 made it the “official coronation ceremony” place, and many Royal Weddings have occurred there. It is built in the Gothic style, with Neo-Gothic towers. Furthermore, most British monarchs were buried there, along with a number of personalities that were either earthed there, or had memorials erected – Darwin, Newton, Hawkins, Shakespeare… The Abbey features a 19th-century wooden choir in the middle, and an outer cloister in early Gothic style. It was bustling with people fighting the audio guide and extremely hot though. However, this completed my tour of the Unesco World Heritage Site of “The Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s Church”

Westminster Abby, a Gothic Protestant Cathedral. Collage showing the towers and main entrance, the inner Norman altar in golden wood, the ceiling in the nave, and the cloister

Before the train strikes and the chaos in English airports, I had booked a 12:15 “Westminster Abbey hidden highlights” tour as my last activity in London before taking the Stansted Express to the airport. The change of plans meant I had to take the 14:00 h coach instead of the 15:00 h train to be at the airport by 16:00, to make sure that I would have plenty of time to go through security. That meant that I unfortunately had to cut the tour short. Event then, I got to see St Margaret’s Church, the old Medieval sacristy, the inner chambers of Samaria and Jerusalem, and got close to coronation chair. Not bad at all, even if I unfortunately had to miss the library to walk back to the station.

A collage showing an archaeological excavation (very professional holes on the ground, some showing a hint of brick foundations); the Coronation Chair and the hanging flag over it; ornate wooden ceilings; and a mythological-themed tapestry hanging from a wall

I have to say that the return was exhausting. Even with one hour difference, I got on the coach for the airport at 14:00 and did not land until 22:00. However, flying out of Stansted always has a good thing – goodbye sushi!

Tray of sushi and sashimi

All in all, this non-weekend weekend was an amazing mental break! Even if the last day did not work as originally organised, I had a heads up in order to prepare my contingency plans. I got to see something that I always wanted to see – and even if Stonehenge was smaller than I thought, it was not disappointing. Also, I checked that entering the UK after Brexit is pretty much the same as before, so I can organise more escapades in the future, because I still need to go to Jurassic Coast…

Walking distance: 11.27 km / 16672 km

12th August 2022: Stones, the reason for the trip. Lots of Stones {England, August 2022}

I was convinced I’d sleep like the dead and set a couple of alarms. Unfortunately, laundry and house service got going at 6:30, and woke me up. At least, the room had a kettle and some instant coffee which, along with one of the sandwiches I had procured the previous day, got me going. I made sure that the camera was charged, put everything I needed into the backpack and strolled off. My hotel was close to Earl’s Court, and I was walking to South Kensington to check out sandwich and coffee shop. And – to my eternal surprise – to queue for a museum! I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people waiting for a museum to open in my life.

I’m referring to the Natural History Museum, one of my favourite ones. This time, it was a must, so I booked free entry with the special exhibition – “Dippy is Back”. Dippy is the diplodocus cast replica that used to stand in the middle of the museum, the Hintze Hall (where now the whale skeleton hangs). Dippy was the first of its kind to go on display in the world. The original skeleton was discovered in 1898 by railroad workers in an area called Sheep Creek, in Wyoming, USA. At the time, Andrew Carnegie had made a fortune in the American steel industry, and become one of the most important philanthropists in the US and the British Empire. He paid for casts of the bones to be made (some sources also say that he bought the actual skeleton, some that he had sponsored the dig) and sent to museums in Europe and South American. For the first time the public got to see a whole dinosaur skeleton, which was actually named Diplodocus carnegii after Carnegie. Dippy was gifted to the National History Museum in 1905, and was exhibited there until it went “on tour” around the United Kingdom in 2017.

Here is a little trip down memory lane: back in the mid-nineties I was a teenager in London with my English class. We had free time and they wanted to go to Harrods, so… instead I got myself into the Tube to go to the Natural History Museum just to see this dinosaur (I also ditched the group in the British Museum, but that’s another tale). The point was that I was around 14 or 15, bouncing through London by myself, on my way to see this very cool dinosaur! And I did not have to listen to people being rowdy, nor try to keep the peace in group – I was alone (scared out of my skin, true), but I was free by myself. And for me, that was very important, even if I would not come to realise that until recently.

The fossilised skeleton of a diplodocus, seen from the front. Lots of people are trying to take pictures with it

I saw Dippy again in 2011 when I went to London, but I was surprised when he was not there in 2018, shipped around the country in a travelling exhibition. For some reason, knowing that it was there made me really, really want to see it again. Since the pandemic, you need to reserve at ticket at the Natural History Museum, even if it’s free, so I booked mine for 10:00, to be there first thing as they opened – thus the queuing-before-opening.

Originally a gallery of the British Museum, the Natural History Museum was first designed by civil engineer Captain Francis Fowke, and then it was revised by Alfred Waterhouse, who redesigned the façades in a Romanesque-like style, with architectural terracotta tiles to withstand the British weather. These tiles have flora and fauna decoration and reliefs. The building was finished in 1880, and all the material had been moved by 1883. In the 20th century, the museum rebranded itself as a separate entity from the British Museum, and in recent years different areas and expansions have been opened.

Anyhow. The gates opened a little before 10:00 (If I lived in London I would totally be a member and stroll the museum before opening hours), and the queue started moving. There were lines for ticket holders and non-ticket holders, but my ticket was not even checked. Thus, I just moved towards the area where Dippy was and spent a while there. I felt a little emotional, thinking that, in a way, I owe that dinosaur one.

After seeing Dippy, I wandered around the dinosaur gallery for some time, then I went to buy a sandwich and have a coffee and a painkiller, because I had a long day ahead of me and my head was buzzing a little – I needed to get that under control beforehand. At 11:40 I took a coach with a company called Anderson Tours for an organised day trip: Stonehenge Special Access – Evening. Even though I am not too keen on guided tours, I will admit that they can be handy at some particular circumstances. They will never become my preferred choice of travel, in this case, choosing a tour was the best option.

Regarding Stonehenge, if you want to get up close and personal with the stones, you need a VIP ticket, which means you have to be there before they open to the general public, or after they close, and for that you need transportation – either a taxi, or renting a car, and a hotel as close as possible. The Stonehenge VIP ticket is around £50, and I booked my tour for £135, a full-day tour, including coach, Stonehenge at sunset, and two other destinations, with pick up and drop-off near my London hotel. In the end, that was cheaper than a taxi or a rental plus a hotel near the site (I did a lot of maths before deciding to book this). Anderson Tours offers different combinations of “Stonehenge and…”, with places like Bath or Bristol. However, those are easily reachable by train, and I can explore them on my own. Nevertheless, there was a particular trip that interested me – it went along two or three spots that are a bit off the beaten track, and related to the theme – a Neolithic tomb and another stone circle. This particular tour happens only on certain specific Fridays, thus why my “weekend” away was not such a weekend, as I had to make sure I was in London on the 12th.

The first stop of the day was West Kennet Long Barrow. A long barrow is an elongated prehistoric (3800 – 3500 BCE) stone monument that has been linked to the worship of the dead and the ancestors. Sometimes, human remains have been found in them. If one imagines what Great Britain was at that time, the south-east area would be the one with less tree coverage, and therefore the best option for primitive people who had started to settle and use agriculture. The counties of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset have a lot of chalk-rich soil (the Salisbury Plain), which makes it difficult for tress to root and grow. Thus, it would have been easy for the primitive humans to settle and build their villages and monuments. Today, the whole area is known as Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site, listed by Unesco in 1986, and it includes over 700 prehistoric monuments from the Neolithic and Bronze Age.

Collage: elongated mound of dirt on top. On the borrom, the gate. On the left the protective slabs, standing upright, and on the right, the entrance. It is a construction of vertical walls made from grey slabs and another slab on top. The interior is dark.

West Kennet Long Barrow is situated in the middle of a farm. There is a tiny parking lot to the side of the road, and a fifteen-minute walk to the barrow itself. It is one of the largest built in Britain, and around 50 sets of remains have been identified, along with pottery, beads and other personal items. Around 2000 BCE, it was closed down and barricaded, then discovered in the 19th century and scientifically excavated and restored in 1956. It is private property under the care of British Heritage. Apparently, all these sites have become a point of pilgrimage for neo-pagans, and on this day, there was a bunch of them chanting inside the barrow…

On the opposite side of the road from the barrow stands Silbury Hill, a mound or artificial mountain. It stands 30 metres high, with 160 metres in diameter wide, and it is estimated that half a million tonnes of material (mostly local chalk) were used to build it throughout several generations of humans. It cannot be climbed, due to a collapse a while back, that would have been neat!

View of a small hill and dry grass.

After that, we headed off to the village of Avebury, which hosts the largest Neolithic stone circle, with smaller circles inside. It originally had over 100 stones, and it might have built between 2850 and 2200 BCE. Today there is a village in the area, with a few shops and museums in the centre, and a lot of sheep grazing the area. Around three quarters of the circle is still standing, along the henge (long ditch that used to be built with the stones in Neolithic circles).

We had two and a half hours in Avebury – a bit too much, I would say – to explore the Avebury Stone Circle and Henge and its sheep. The guide told us about ley lines and trees that were supposed to have inspired Tolkien’s Ents from “The Lord of the Rings”, and I needed to ask about the geology of the stones – here I learnt that they are made out of sarsen, like the Stonehenge ones. Sarsen refers to silicified sandstone blocks, common in the area, and it has been proven that the ones used in the megaliths come from Marlborough Downs, some 25 km away (35 km from Stonehenge). Once we were dismissed for our “free time”, I walked along the three fourths of stone circle remaining.

A collage showing different megaliths from the Avebury stone circle. Small pillars mark the spots where the stones have been lost. There are some sheep grazing on dry grass.

There are other places to visit in town, such as a Medieval manor with a dovecote. The stables of the manor are the site of the archaeological museum is hosted, and here I made a mistake. I should have got in, but I wanted to visit the church, and by the time I was done, the museum was closing down. Live and learn. There is also a tiny chapel, and a lot of souvenir and “crystal” shops.

The Church of Saint James dates back to the 1000s, though later centuries saw the addition of many items, such as the aisles and the 15th-century wooden roof. The nave and the chancel are separated by a one-of-a-kind wooden rood / screen with an original 13th century base. There are Saxon windows and a Norman font. It is a fantastic little church.

Gothic church, from the outside. The inside shows a wooden Normand altar, the standard altar, and a carved stone baptismal font

Finally, the time came. At 17:30 we met up on the way to the coach, and then we started off towards the highlight of the day – Stonehenge. Stonehenge was erected between 3000 and 2000 BCE – the primitive human somehow got the sarsen stones into Salisbury plain and planted them so they stood in a circle. They measure up to four metres long, and some of them are arranged in the shape of trilithons – two large vertical stones (posts) support a third one (lintel) which is set horizontally on top of them, with carved studs so the structure fits like a snap. There is a tear-shaped monolith standing a few metres away called “Heel stone”, which marks the entrance.

Some of them are indeed collapsed now and some are covered in lichen – there is a special type of lichen that only grows in three places in the world, and that is one of them. For thousand of years, these stones have remained standing, and the first historical study of them dates from 1666, carried out by an English antiquary, natural philosopher and writer John Aubrey, and has been restored a several times, especially during the 20th century, when they were roped off and a fee charged for entry.

Currently, the stone circle belongs to the Queen of England, and according to the British Ancient Monuments Bill, it cannot be touched or altered in any way that is not to preserve its current status. In 2020, a core taken from the stones during the 1958 restoration was returned. This allowed researchers to analyse the composition and prove that the megaliths are indeed sarsen from the Malborough area.

The rules when you are allowed into the stone are “simple”: do not touch the stones, do not step on the stones, do not hug the stones, do not lick the stones, do not get naked among the stones. Judging by the tone in the guide’s voice, all that has happened before. Apparently, there are a lot of ley-line believers, neopagans and neodruids wanting to “connect” with the earth energy there (there is even a “yoga at sunset group”). In a kind of compromise, they allow you to take off your shoes and socks – which I did not do.

According to archaeologists, Stonehenge was designed in alignment the Winter Solstice sunset. The site was probably a celebration of the end of the worst of the winter before days started getting longer again. Other theories propose that it was originally a burial site that became a place to worship the ancestors.

The great thing about the after-hours tour is that you get to see the sunset around the site. Our timing was 18:45 – 19:45. The guide was nice too, and gave us “permission” to wander around and did not expect to listen to him all the time – don’t tell me twice. I explored and wandered to my heart’s content. We stayed there for about an hour, and it was really cool. I mean, not magical or “I feel the magic of the earth” or anything, but the circle is a fantastic piece of engineering, especially considering it was built five thousand years ago, before writing was even invented. Sometimes, humans are neat.

Stonehenge collage. Two shots of the megaliths standing on dry grass, from the outside; the sun shines between the darkened stones. One shot from the inside of the circle, showing the megaliths circling inwards.

It was over sooner than I would have liked, but about an hour later we were back on the bus after hitting the souvenir shop – where I got a guidebook – and we arrived in London around 22:00. When I got off the bus I just walked to the hotel, had my sandwich. Good thing I had left the window open, too, as it made the temperature slightly more tolerable – I own up though, I slept with the fan on, but… like a rock. Or a stone.

Walking distance: 11.96 km / 18742 steps
Coach distance: 317 km

11th August 2022: 21 hours straight of ups and downs in London {England, August 2022}

The first thing I had to do was waking up for a 6:30 flight – though considering I did not sleep very much that night due to the heat, I’m not sure if that it counts as waking up. The previous day, the airline had sent warning emails about arriving at the airport early – three hours before the flight would have meant being there at 3:30, so… not really. I arrived at the airport around 5:10, and I was at the gate by… 5:20, I’m not even kidding. While I normally do not queue to enter planes – the advantages of backpacks, I just kick them under the seat – I had been assigned seat 1A, which meant I had to put my luggage into the overhead compartment. I had decided to take a small backpack too, because I would be carrying it around for a while, and it would get searched in a couple of places.

Surprisingly, despite Brexit, the Ryanair strikes, airport chaos, and the fact that apparently the automatic passport reader cannot cope with my new look, I made it into the United Kingdom first and straight to London without a glitch. Not only that, I managed to get my Oyster recharged without any problems, and as soon as I had bought some food, I was on my way to the first stop of the day: Crystal Palace Park, for which I got to ride the shiny new underground line, the Elizabeth Line, then the Overground. Even though there are another couple of landmarks (that might warrant a visit when / if the restoration project finally goes through), what interested me in Crystal Palace was a collection of Victorian sculptures – the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs.

Though Ancient Greek already knew about fossils before the current era, it was in the 19th century when it hatched as a “science”, according to some spurred by Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”. Fossil hunters ran amok, excavating and spoiling the North American badlands. In England itself, Mary Anning kept discovering cool things. There was a sort of a “Dinosaur fever” – the Victorians became fascinated with all things prehistoric. In 1852, a number of extinct animal reconstructions were commissioned to be erected in the gardens of the Crystal Palace, after the World Exhibition. Using the knowledge available at the time, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkings, a natural history illustrator and sculptor, who did his best according to scientific knowledge at the time.

Not all the animals represented are real dinosaurs, but the nickname stuck. From today’s standards, most of the reproductions are extremely inaccurate, with some exceptions, such as the ichthyosaur (discovered by Mary Anning around 1811), and the plesiosaur (of which Mary Anning also found a skeleton in 1823, and then another in 1830 – I love that woman). Today, the park is organised in several “islands” where you can see the sculptures, though the water was a bit down due to the heatwaves:

  • Amphibians and therapsids: Dicynodon and Labyrinthodon
  • Marine reptiles: Ichthyosaur, Mosasaurus, Plesiosaur and Teleosaurus
  • Dinosaurs and pterosaurs: Hylaeosaurus, Iguanodon, Megalosaurus and Pterosaur
  • Mammals: Palaeotherium, Anoplotherium, Megaloceros and Megatherium

I have been aware of these sculptures for a long time – since I was a child and started liking dinosaurs. However, only recently did I find out that they really existed, and where they were. I arrived at Crystal Palace station a little after ten (making whole travel from the airport about two hours). I walked by a small farm with typical fauna such as… an alpaca, then I ate my sandwich overseeing the first island.

A collage showing differet statues of prehistoric creatures. Some try to be dinosaurs, and they look almost comically wrong, like giant iguanas or chameleons. There is one plesiosaurus looking rather acurate - it has a long neck and flipers. Finally, some mammals: a deer with huge antlers and a tiny horse-looking creature

I walked around for about an hour and then I set on my way back. Though I had planned to have a relaxed day at first, I had to adjust due to cancellations and train strikes. It was around that time that I calculated that I could actually cram my original Thursday and Saturday plans onto Thursday, plus the alternative plans I had made if I tweaked the time a little. So I back-rode for another hour towards the city.

Near Tower Hill stands the Sky Garden, on the 35th floor of the 20 Fenchurch Street building, designed by Rafael Viñoly. Sky Garden is considered the highest garden in London, and a fantastic viewpoint of the city. I almost accidentally came across the option to book a free access ticket for this – while I had not wanted to pay for any morning / early afternoon activities in case my plane was delayed, I figured out that I could book this for free, especially as they go stupidly fast! I made my 12:30 timeslot with a few minutes to spare, but I was let in after a queue, ID check, X rays and metal detection.

The Sky Garden features two terraces full of plants (landscaped by Gillespies), a couple of restaurants and bars, and an “open” gallery which has glass above your head so the feeling of opening dissipates – the glass is stained and scratched. It was one of the “must-do’s” in London I had never visited before, so I thought it would be a good opportunity. Fortunately, they have relaxed the rules on no bottles because of the unusual high temperatures.

After wandering around for a bit, I continued onto Saint Dunstan in the East Church Garden, the ruins of an old Wren church destroyed by The Great Fire of London and destroyed again during the Blitz (World War II bombings). Dating back to the 1100s, it was opened as a public park in 1970. Aside from being a very cute building park I wanted to see for a while, a music video by the band VAMPS was filmed there.

Ruins of a gothic church turned garden, with hanging ivy and bushes overgrowing the walls and windows

As it was lunchtime, the park was bustling with people, so I just had to move on rather quickly, and went back to the underground to get to the area of Westminster. I had originally booked tickets for Saturday (back in May) but then they were cancelled due to “repair work” going on that day (I do wonder if it was a security measure related to the strikes though).

But of course, first I feasted my eyes on the very new Elizabeth Tower clock tower aka Big Ben – though Big Ben is one of the bells in the tower, but nobody really cares about that any more.

Elizabeth Tower, shining gold with the restoration. It almost looks fake. The clock marks Quarter to two.

The Palace of Westminster or Houses of Parliament is the centre of the United Kingdom’s turbulent political life. The current palace was built after the previous one was destroyed by a fire in 1834. The new palace was erected in the Neo-Gothic style, and it was mostly finished by 1860, although it did open to be used in 1835. There was a competition regarding the design, which was won by sir Charles Barry. The Palace of Westminster holds the two chambers where the British government meets – the House of Lords and the House of Commons – alongside the Norman Porch, St. Stephen’s chapel, and the different corridors where the MPs vote or discuss state matters. I’ll forever be amused that “for security reasons, photography is not permitted in these chambers with dozens of cameras for TV broadcasting and Internet streaming”, but alas. The woodwork on the Norman Porch ceiling is fantastic, and some of the decoration choices, such as Churchill’s sculpture are… interesting. It is noteworthy that it is part of the Unesco Heritage Site “Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s Church”.

Collage: a view of the houses of parliament (London), with the Elizabeth Tower on the left. Two shots of the Norman Hall, a huge ward with an intrincate design of wooden ceiling. A gothic corridor with a wooden door and some coloured glass panels

Afterwards, I just found my way to the hotel – though I had to wander a little to find the nearby supermarket, bugger those never-ending attached-house neighbourhoods, rested for a little and then went to the station to go to the theatre – I wanted some extra time to check out where my airport coach would leave, so I gave myself 45 minutes for a 22-minute trip. It turns out there was train trouble and I was barely on time, taking an alternative route instead of the direct one.

When I realised my flight timing would give a free evening in London, I booked tickets for the Apollo Victoria Theatre to watch the “Wicked”. This musical tells the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” from the point of view of the witches, and somehow gives the “Wicked Witch from the West”, Elphaba, an amazing personality and backstory that resonates a lot with me. For the same price as the ticket I was eyeing back in the day, I found a VIP upgrade just one seat over, so I was entitled to a drink and “snacks”, an early entry, along with access to the “Ambassador Lounge”, a tiny reception hall with access to a private restroom.

“Wicked” was great. The actress who plays the main character, Elphaba (Lucie Jones) came out a little yelly though in her solos. The duets with the other female singer (Glinda, Helen Woolf) were fantastic, and the male love interest’s (Fiyero, Ryan Reid) song was absolutely great, even though he is a character I have never cared for.

Apollo Victoria Theatre: the inner theatre, showing a dragon and a closed curtain showing a map of Oz. The outer theatre: there is a sign reading Apollo Victoria Wicked, and everything is lit green. The VIP lounge, with a glass of soda, and some chairs. The cast at the end of the show, taking their goodbye bows.

By the time I was out, the trains were running again, and one-to-three-minute delay on a line that runs every five minutes or so, and I was at the hotel by 23:00, absolutely beat. The room was extremely hot, because London is absolutely not ready for heat, so I had a snack in front of the fan, took a shower and then got some sleep – 21 hours on the go were over. Funnily enough, by the time I went to bed, I had that wobbly-world jet-lag feeling I have after my first day in Japan. It must have been the barely sleeping the night before. I fell asleep very fast.

Walking distance: 30.52 km / 46192 steps

25th July 2022: Half a day {Salamanca, July 2022}

Mondays are always tricky because a lot of things close then. We reprised our latte/croissant and visited the Tourist information office that claimed that everything was open – which… was incorrect. My companion wanted to see Iglesia de San Marcos, a Romanesque church which has an interesting circular shape, probably built in the 11th century (that we had found in the book we got from the cathedral).

A Romanesque church. It has a round nave and a short bell tower with two bells.

We saw the local market Mercado Central de Salamanca, designed by the same architect as the Casa Lis. As this is a public building, it was in working order – though funnily enough, all the fishmongers were closed – no fish in Salamanca on Mondays! The building is modernist, with iron structures and colourful windows.

A Modernist building with colourful glass windows

To finish off the morning we went to visit the palace Palacio de la Salina, also a public building so also open. The architect in the project was Rodrigo Gil de Hontañón (who also designed the University building in Alcalá de Henares). It was built in 1538, mainly in Plateresque style, with some Italian elements.

The patio of a Plateresque palace, in gold tones with a lot of decoration on the stonework

Right across the park from the palace there is a lonely Renaissance tower Torre del Clavero. It was a 15th-century defence tower, with a square base that turns octagonal in height.

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We walked around for a while longer, had lunch, and our train back left around 3:30. It was a rather uneventful trip full of gothic, modernism and iron, which I really enjoyed. I keep trying to get to like guided visits, and I have somehow got fond of climbing up towers.

Walking distance: 11737 steps / 7.31 km

24th July 2022: Up, up and down {Salamanca, July 2022}

After a latte and the best croissant I’ve had in a long time, we went over to see the gothic palace Casa de las Conchas, which was built between 1493 and 1517. The façade is decorated with sandstone-carved shells (concha, in Spanish). The exterior sports ironwork-protected windows, and the interior a patio with artistic arches.

The gothic palace called House of Shells. There are hundreds of them carved on the façade. The inner patio is carved in golden stone, with very thin columns and lots of decoration

It was still early for our visit to Palacio de Monterrey, a 16th-century Renaissance palace inspired in the Italian style of the time, combined with Plateresque decoration, which was heavily imitated later on in the 19th century. The building currently belongs to the House of Alba, probably the most prominent Spanish noble family. The House opened the palace to the public, and the inner area cannot be photograph – it was weird anyway, with some antiques and art pieces, but all of it was… prepared and staged, though the carpets were rolled out of the way. In this case the only option to sneak out a picture was from the tower, as a member of the staff followed us all the time.

Monterrey palace, built in golden-like masonery. The roofs and towers are decorated, and there is a row of windows alongside the upper floor.

Next, just in front the palace, we visited the 17th-century church Iglesia de la Purísima, in Italian Baroque style. Its altarpiece is considered to have one of the best images of the Virgin Mary in her Immaculate Conception advocacy.

A Catholic altar showing the Inmaculate conception in the centre, she is dressed in blue, and standing in front of golden clouds, with angels around her. The back of the altar is built in white stone, and ornate.

Our next spot was the second university of Salamanca, the see of the Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca, a building called La Clerecía. As the original university went secular, the Jesuits built a clerical university. The building, built in Baroque style between the 17th and 18th centuries is composed of a church, a cloister, a patio and a magnificent staircase, forming the complex (read: guided tour) called Vita Ignatii.

Collage: On the left, a very baroque church from the outside, also showing the gold inner altar. On the right, some shots of the upper and lower cloister, the patio is ornate and reddish, the staircase is made completely out of stone.

Then there are two towers that give out really awesome views of the town, named Scala Coeli, the stairs to the Sky.

Views of Salamanca from the above: the dome of the church from the outside, the cathedral, the House of Shells, and the bells.

It was rather hot, so we had some unremarkable lunch and went to the hotel to wait out the blunt of it. It did not really work, and we eventually tried our luck with some more sightseeing. The first stop was the garden known as Huerto de Calixto y Melibea, based on a literature work Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea or La Celestina. It is considered the first Renaissance writing in Spanish, and it echoes with Romeo (Calisto or Calixto) and Juliet (Melibea), with an extra character, the old matchmaker Celestina, who is a horrible person trying to break the lovers up to marry Melibea to someone else. Though the writing does not have a firm setting, some say that it is probably Salamanca, where the author attended university. It was nicely shaded and had nice views.

Gate to the gardens, a bust of Celestina (the fictional character), from the cathedral, and some flowers: star-shaped and orange, bell-shaped and red.

Then, we wandered off to see the bridges over the river Río Tormes again: both Puente de Enrique Estevan and Puente Romano. Next to the Roman bridge there is a statue of a verraco (ancient Celtic sculpture) Verraco del Puente Romano, which is supposed to have been there since the 16th century. A bit to the side, there is yet another literary monument, which represents the book El Lazarillo de Tormes, Lazarillo being the word for “guide dog (for the blind)” in Spanish (such an eye-seeing dog). Also written in the 16th century, it is considered another of the peak writings in Spanish, telling the story of a young lad who learns to survive by gathering street-smarts and shedding off any morals he ever had, finally settling in Salamanca with his unfaithful wife: Monumento al Lazarillo de Tormes.

Collage. The historical bridges in Salamanca: the Roman one, made from stone with wide archs, and the iron-architecture one, in greyish-green. Sculptures: Lazarillo with his master, and a prehistoric bull or pig, with a flat head

Then we found a very air-conditioned and interesting place – the automobile museum Museo de la Historia de la Automoción (which reminded me a little of the Megaweb Toyota City Showcase and History Garage in Tokyo). It has a lot of classic cars, and some historical pieces such as vehicles that belonged to dictator Francisco Franco or the writer Camilo José Cela (and air-con).

A collage of some cars: A Rolls-Royce, a Ferrari, a Wolkswagen 600; and a Harley-Davidso

I had then booked myself an evening visit around sunset time, to go up the towers of the cathedral, an experience called Ieronimus, with the hope to see some cool sunset and night views. It makes sense, right? Wrong. I should have realised when it turned out to be a guided visit that most of it would be inside, listening to the guy fanboy his own city – then he started speaking about the Lisbon earthquake and its effects in Salamanca and gave out wrong information. I stopped listening to him at that point. There was a light/music show in the cathedral, and I did get some neat pictures, but honestly? The choir concert in the old cathedral would have been a much better choice, had we known about it.

Views of Salamanca at night, with the gothic architecture highlighted by the illumination. The city looks Romantic and mysterious.

Walking distance: 13017 steps / 8.00 km

23rd July 2022: Plateresque Salamanca {Salamanca, July 2022}

Officially in western Spain, Salamanca stands next to the Tormes river and sports a Unesco World Heritage title for its old town. I was five or six the first time I was there, so it’s not like I remembered anything from it, except memorising excerpts from the book El Estudiante de Salamanca (José de Espronceda), my favourite Spanish Romantic poet.

Salamanca is known due to its university, which is considered one of the best in the teaching of Spanish as a second language, the oldest Spanish university and one of the oldest in Europe, founded in 1218. There are actually two universities, but we shall get to that later.

There is a period in Spanish history referred to as the Gold Century, Siglo de Oro (Not an actual century, the given dates are between 1492 – the year when the Catholic monarchs finished conquering the country, Europeans realised America existed, and the first book on Spanish grammar was published – and 1659 – when the Pyrenees treaty was signed after the war with France). It was throughout this period when Salamanca thrived, especially late-time Gothic styles and early Renaissance ones. Then of course Baroque later on, but you know my stance on Baroque by now I guess… The mixture of late-gothic and Renaissance gave way to a unique style, Plateresque – with a strong Gothic base and a blend of Mudéjar, Flamboyant Gothic, Lombard and Tuscan Renaissance elements and decorations. Plateresque is characterised by heavy decorations sculpted onto the main architecture, especially in the typical fusion of doors and altarpieces. The motifs are plants, animals, shields and medallions… All and all, an impressive style considering we are talking about carving stuff on stone – in the case of Salamanca, a lot of it is sandstone, which gives the old city a golden tone.

We had to take a couple of trains, but and made it to Salamanca around 10:30, and were in the city centre a few minutes later. After dropping the luggage at the hotel – I had been requested the hotel to be near the cathedral and I found one which was literally across the street from one of the flanks. Then again, here’s the thing – Salamanca has not one but two cathedrals: the Old Cathedral Catedral Vieja de Santa María and the New Cathedral Catedral Nueva de la Asunción de la Virgen. Apparently, instead of building over the old one, they decided to keep both, making the historical complex unique in the country.

The New Cathedral was built mainly in Gothic style with later Baroque add-ons, with an ornate Plateresque façade. It was commissioned by king Ferdinand V of Castile, and built between the 16th and 18th century, in the Gothic style, even though this was at time when Gothic was already in decline. However, the town authorities wanted it to “match” the old Romanesque cathedral. A cupola and a choir were added in the Baroque period, and the façades were decorated in the Plateresque way (in a 20th-century restoration, someone thought it would be funny to add an astronaut to the decoration, causing some hoaxes to pop up afterwards). The most important architect who worked in the new cathedral was José de Churriguera, one of the leading Baroque architects / sculptors / urbanists.

A very ornate Gothic cathedral. The entrance has so many carvings that it actually looks organic, if not for the fact that it is made out of golden / reddish stone

The New Cathedral connects to the old Cathedral, which is late Romanesque / early Gothic in style (I know, it’s confusing. Historically, the old cathedral is between Romanesque and Gothic, and the new one between Gothic and Renaissance – and this is the reason why the Gothic makes the two cathedral “match”). It was built between the 12th and 14th centuries. The most impressive thing in the Old Cathedral is the altarpiece, in which the highest-quality paintings were made by the Italian Dello Delli. On the way out, I let myself be tempted by a paper guidebook of the city – which was helpful because we had to remake all of our plans a couple of times.

Interior of a Romanesque church - the nave has very high and severe-seeming columns

Afterwards, we headed off to the main university building Universidad de Salamanca, the first university building. The university was founded by King Alfonso XI in 1218, which makes it the oldest university in the whole Spanish-speaking world. The most important building today is the Escuelas Mayores, the upper school, built between 1411 and 1533. The façade, which looks towards the newly-discovered New World is sculpted in the Plateresque style, with a ton of decoration – and the most famous motif is the frog that stands on top of a skull. The university was built around a cloister for the students of old, and it has the most amazing library I have seen in a long while – selfishly (I’m joking of course) closed to the public. There is also a chapel and the classroom where the Spanish academic Fray Luis de León, who was famously jailed for four years, and picked up his lectures with “as we were saying yesterday”. The cloister has two floors since the 19th century, and in the centre there is a small giant sequoia (which I thought was a simple fir). There are chapels, and halls, and areas where university holds events.

Very ornate entrance to a building. there are two doors (four or five times as tall as a person) and the decoration, all carved in stone, is on top. Three floors of decoration, with columns and shields. A close-up shows a frog on top of a skull.

The problem with Salamanca is that the entries and exits of the building make you have to backtrack a lot (and the horrible street lights), but I love Gothic so I did not mind wandering around anyway. After the Escuelas Mayores, we went to another university building the lesser school or Escuelas Menores. Today, there is a cloister which dates from 1428 with a Baroque upper veranda. In one of the side halls there is a fresco panting that used to be in the library and that was moved over in 1950. The fresco represents a night sky was used in teaching.

Gothic patio and a suck picture of a fresco painting, showing stars and the representation of constellations

We had lunch, then we went to the Dominican monastery Convento de San Esteban and its church. The current monastery dates from 1524-1610, and it was built over the previous one. The façade of the church is considered the best example of Plateresque, and José de Churriguera also worked in the main altarpiece. The monastic building has a portico with Italian loggias, typical of the Renaissance. The cloister is mainly Renaissance with Gothic features, and a small temple in the middle. The ambulatory in the cloister has beautiful Gothic columns and nerves on the ceiling.

A convent, built in ornate gotic style. The covered corridor around the cloister shows pointed arches and rich decorations

Right in front of the monastery stands the Dominican convent Convento de las Dueñas. The building is Baroque, and before being a convent it used to be a palace – which has caused the convent to have some eclectic elements of architecture, such as the Mudéjar arch mosaic or doors. The inner cloister is Plateresque and full of roses and flowers.

A Baroque building. The inner patio is decorated with plants and Moorish-seeming blinded arches

Next, we found the tiny Romanesque church Iglesia de Santo Tomás Cantuariense, where I happily sicced the oh-so-bored guide onto my companion.

Small Romanesque church in reddish-gold stone. It has a tiny bell tower.

After a stop for a cold drink we went to the Art Nouveau and Art Déco Museum Museo de Art Nouveau y Art Déco Casa Lis, which is one of those places that takes itself very seriously and does not allow photographs. I got scolded for having my camera to my side even closed – but I have to admit that I did sneak up a few things with the phone, mostly because I wanted a record of the central hall with the glass ceiling, and the green windows from the inside, more than the decorative details, though some of them were pretty nice. The Lis house was built by Andalusian architect Joaquín de Vargas towards the end of the 19th century for the first owner, Miguel de Lis.

A Modernist building with brightly-coloured glass in the ceiling and walls.

We headed to the main square Plaza Mayor for dinner, and then to see the pretty lights. On the way we found the other university Universidad Pontificia and the palace Casa de las Conchas, which we would visit the following day.

The main square was another of the city landmarks first designed by Alberto Churriguera, and later one of his nephews – it seems that the Churriguera family claimed dibs on doing stuff in Salamanca. The square is fantastic by day but when night fell and the lights were turned on, it was unbelievable. We had some local sausages and cheese for dinner at one of the street tables in the square.

A plate of sausages and cheese, and two views of the Main Square in Salamanca, one in daylight, one at night, and lit up. The square buildings have a lot of windows and arches on the ground floor

Afterwards, I wandered alone for a while, to revisit some of the sights at night, and a couple of new ones.

Salamanca at night. The cathedral is lit and the ornamets almost shine. The Modernist house is lit in green and blue lights.

I headed off to the riverside of Río Tormes, which as any river has bridges. The first one I found is the Puente de Enrique Estevan, commissioned in 1891 in order for the town to be ready for the new cars. It has six iron arches and at night it is lit in bluish light. A few minutes downstream stands the older stone bridge Puente Romano, which according to the legend was built by Hercules – it dates back to the first century, but it has been heavily rebuilt and reconstructed through the years, especially after it was damaged by a flood in the 17th century.

A collage showing an iron bridge, and a stone bridge, both lit in the dark

Finally, around midnight, I went back to the hotel for a shower and sleep.

Walking distance: 17269 steps / 10.76 km

30th May 2022: The Slopes of Mount Teide {Tenerife, birthday 2022}

Due to the amount of near-misses, I had started thinking about this as the luckiest unlucky trip in a long time. Unfortunately, this was the day the luck ran out. As I woke up and turned on the phone I received the notification that the cable-car to go up Mount Teide was closed due to bad weather, which was a bit of a blow. I mean, I was in the middle of the natural park, without anything to do within a couple of hours by car as the hiking trails are closed on Monday mornings as it is then when the mouflon population is controlled – using rifles. I did not want to end up shot.

If you consider that the island Tenerife is one big volcano, Mount Teide is the most famous eruptive fissure. Considering it an independent item, it is a stratovolcano. The cone stands around 7500 metres from the sea floor, with an emerged 3715 m above sea level. Its base is located on a previous crater called Las Cañadas. Mount Teide last erupted in 1909, so it is still considered an active volcano, and it hosts a bunch of towns on its slopes, that might get obliterated in an eruption. Aside from being a National Park, the area is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Historically, an eruption was reported by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Most recent eruptions happened in 2805, 1798 and 1909. Looking back, Mount Teide formed around 160,000 years ago, after the collapse of Las Cañadas. The last summit eruption happened in the 9th century, which caused the black lava blocks that seem to run down the slopes.

The whole point of my being there was going up the mountain, so I resolved to try and do that. I knew there was little chance I could make it to the top even with the access permission, but I would try. I decided to gamble the track Sendero de Montaña Blanca, which is the most typical one. For this, I had a good breakfast and started walking around 9:45 am. The track runs 8 km and starts at an altitude from 2348 m. If you have the permission, you can access the track Sendero de Telesforo Bravo that peaks the volcano at 3718 metres.

A stone and tile marker, with a map of the trail.

The first part of the morning, I spent on Montaña Blanca. I hiked around 3 km upwards in an hour or so. A park ranger told me that the bad weather was actually strong winds and to be careful. I’d never hiked with wind, so I decided that I would not do anything stupid. As I walked, I went by the accretion balls affectionately called “Teide Eggs” Huevos del Teide.

Collage: The Montaña Blanca trail. The landscape is desertic, reddish and brown, and there is barely any vegetation. When turning back, the sea peeks in the distance, and when looking up there are black rocks from an eruption.

Eventually, I reached the actual foot of Mount Teide, and this is when things got hard – and spectacular. The slope became much steeper and the wind made it hard to move forward. I walked between the two dark petrified lava flows, and could see Montaña Blanca and the Atlantic Ocean beneath.

View from the slope of Teide. Montaña Blanca is underneath, in red-gold. To the sides, the black and dark grey rocks trailing the old lava flows

I reached Refugio de Altavista at 3260 m around 14:00. At this point I was two kilometres away from the next station and 650 m away from the crater. Unfortunately, the elevation was still around 500 m. At this point the wind was very strong and shortly after the refuge I saw an area of the slope I knew I could climb up… but I knew I wouldn’t climb down with such strong wind, not safely. So I realised I had to turn back, even if that meant I wouldn’t see the peak, much less reach it. However, it was the sane thing to do.

Standing in the middle of the two solidified coladas - looking down there are black and grey rocks, and the sea in the horizon. Looking up, only more rocks.

It took me two and a half hours to hike down, and I made it back at the Parador around 17:30. I had a shower and I felt tired, though not as sore as I imagined. For dinner, I tried some local speciality “wrinkled potatoes” papas arrugadas, which are boiled in saltwater, and they are so high-class that can be eaten without being peeled. They come with some dips, a bit too spicy for my taste, but they were delicious.

Small voiled potatoes and three small bowls of sauces. The potatoes are unpeeled and they look wrinkled.

I was a bit bummed that I did not manage to reach the crater, but I think I did a good job, almost 1000 metres up and down. I guess it just meant I had to go back at some point…

29th May 2022: La Orotava, Icod de los Vinos & Parque Nacional del Teide {Tenerife, birthday 2022}

I got up rather early in the morning (especially considering that the Canary Islands are an hour behind my usual time zone) and I was surprised at how many people there were already on the streets of Santa Cruz de Tenerife before 8:30 on a Sunday morning. I drove out of the town and headed north-west, where I came across my first stop – a viewpoint of Mount Teide called Mirador de Humboldt honouring the German explorer from the late 18th century (though I kept thinking that there was a missing penguin opportunity there). The viewpoint overlooks the ocean and Mount Teide, which Humboldt climbed in 1799.

Mount Teide, a volcano, looms in the background. The top is bare and barren, but the slopes look green and fertile, with plantations and some villages. In the foreground, there is a bronze sculpture of Alexander Humbolt, sitting on the low wall of the lookout, and looking to the side.

I continued driving towards La Orotava, the municipality which Mount Teide actually belongs to. After parking the car, I walked towards the historical centre and ended up at the square Plaza de la Constitución, which stands next to the church Iglesia de San Agustín. Mount Teide loomed over the streets, ready to celebrate Pentecost Sunday. And guess what? The main church is called… Parroquia Matriz de Nuestra Señora de la Concepción. The initial hermit church was built in the 15th century, and it was completely rebuilt in the Baroque style throughout the 18th century, though the interior was remade in the 19th century and there was yet another renovation in the 20th century. It is considered the most important building of the Canarian Baroque.

A collage of La Orotava. The buildings are built with white plaster and black volcanic rock. Mount Teide peeks from the background.

The most representative construction in La Orotava is the “house of balconies” Casa de los Balcones. The house was built in the 17th century. The façade shows a front-long balcony on the third floor, and five smaller balconies on the second, all of them made from dark teak wood. The interior holds a museum, but I decided to give that a miss because I reached there at the same time as a very disorganised group of forty or fifty people who were going in at the time.

A colonial house. It is built in white brink. It has three floors. On the ground, there are brown windows. On the first floor, five balconies, with decorated ironwork. On the second floor, a long balcony or gallery in dark wood.

Instead, I went back to the car and drove towards Icod de los Vinos. There, my first stop was the butterfly house Mariposario del Drago, since the ethnographical museum Museo del Guanche is closed.

A collage showing colourful butterflies - red, orange, blue, black, black and white. One of them is chilling on the shell of a turtle, and another one is caught mid-flight. Most are on flowers and plants.

The butterfly house stands next to a botanical park Parque del Drago built around the symbol of the town – and maybe the whole island – the Drago Milenario. This is the largest and oldest specimen of Canary Islands dragon tree or drago (Dracaena draco). Folklore says that it is a thousand years old, hence the name “the thousand-year-old dragon tree”, though in reality, it is probably around 600 years.

The dragon-blood tree. It has a knotted grey trunk and bony branches. Around it there are bright-green palm and laurel trees

The park, built around the drago, holds local species trying to reproduce the local biotopes with height, there is also a small volcanic cave. It was here where where I managed to catch my first glance at the local fauna – two of the endemic lizards (though not as big as the one I had seen in the museum): lagarto tizón (Gallotia galloti) or tizon lizard, a blue-spotted male and a brown-striped female.

Two lizards. One camouflages on the grey and brown ground. The other on has a brown tail, but the body is black and bright blue

Then I went back to the car to climb up a crazy slope until I reached the visitors’ centre of the lava tube Cueva del viento. A lava tube is a “cave” formed the flowing lava of a volcano. As the outer part solidifies, the inner core continues flowing until it empties the tube. The guided visit is the only way you can enter the tube, so I had reserved that a few weeks earlier.

The visit started with a small introduction in the visitor’s centre, with a lot of “gotcha” questions on the guide’s part. I tried really, really hard not to be a smartarse, but I did sit down on the floor at a point because I did not feel like standing around for twenty minutes. The important information we received was that there were two types of lava that had formed the island of Tenerife: pahoehoe and block lava.

Then we took the centre’s vehicles to the outer area of the cave, where we could see the solidified lava, now turned into stone. Pahoehoe lava is basaltic, it flows slowly, and it is the responsible for creating the tubes. As it flows and solidifies, it creates undulations and wrinkles. On top of it, only small trees and bushes can grow.

Old Pahoehoe lava trails. The rock looks wrinkled or similar to pillows.

Block lava is more acidic, with a higher silica contents, it flows less and creates “blocks” as it solidifies. Pines can be found growing on top.

Pines around an old colada, which seems rocky and broken.

The cave itself was very cool. Unfortunately, there were a couple of families with kids and grandparents, all trying to be braver than the next – and thus acted loud and boisterous. More interesting information – mummified guanche aboriginals had been found in the cave, along with remains of a giant rat and lizard that were the ones reproduced in the Museo de Ciencia y Antropología de Tenerife. It is one of the biggest lava tubes in the world, with up to three levels and maybe 18 km of tunnels, though only a short walk can be had.

Inside the lava tube. It looks alien, like the rock is going to start dripping any second

Back in the parking lot, I had a snack and headed off towards the Parador de las Cañadas del Teide, where I had booked my next couple of nights. On the way, I went through several amazing volcanic landscapes that I could not photograph as I was driving. However, I did stop at several lookouts throughout the Parque Nacional del Teide.

Mirador de Samara.

Pines growing up on the dusty remains of a lava flow. In the background, there are three mountains - three craters of the same volcano

Mirador de las Narices del Teide, which shows the collapse on the mountain during the last known eruption.

A view of the black collapse of lava from the last eruption. Everything is barren, brown and grey, except for a black spillage coming down ominously. The sky is blue in the background, which makes the whole thing look even more bizarre.

Mirador Zapato de la Reina.

The top of Teide. This is the point where vegetation has become scarce, with low bushes, that creep up the slope. The summit looks naked.

Finally, I arrived in the area of Las Cañadas del Teide or Las Siete Cañadas where the Parador de las Cañadas del Teide stands. I was lucky that the season was good to see the flowering bugloss Echium wildpretii (tajinaste in Spanish), an endemic flora species mostly found on the Teide slopes. After checking in I wandered around the different tracks and paths – Cañada Blanca, Roques de García and Mirador de la Ruleta, which show the different stages of various volcanic eruptions.

Mount Teide rises in the background. It looks wrinkled due to the different eruptions. At its foot, a low building, looking completely out of place. In the foreground, small bushes in grey and green.

Collage: Different rocks and structures created by lava and erosion, the rocks are reddish or grey, and they have weird shapes. The tajinaste is a tall bush, with tiny red flowers, it stands about 1m above the rest of the plants.

I turned in early, and I had booked my dinner in the Parador both nights I’d be sleeping there, so that was an easy one. The staff made it a little awkward though, even if I was not the only solo traveller around. After dinner, I tried to get some pictures of the night sky, but I was unsuccessful.