23 September 2010

Prost! Oktoberfest [Day One]

Having already been on one big trip this month, and with more travel on the cards, budget was important when planning my trip for Oktoberfest. Flights were expensive and accommodation was even worse, so a group tour was about my only option. I settled on Top Deck – coach transport from London to Munich and tent accommodation. About as budget as you can get. Not to worry – I have camped in tents plenty of times before, and the 18 hour transit each way would give me a good idea whether I was up to the massive trip I have planned early next year (which will include several huge bus-trips).

Friday afternoon at 1pm we set off from London, heading for Dover. From Dover we jumped on the ferry to Calais, then finally onto the coach that would take us all the way to Munich. We departed Calais about 8pm, immediately things started to get a little rowdy. There was a stag party on our trip whose aim was to drink constantly for 4 days, no sleep allowed. The journey was about as good as it could have been really. The bus was not overly spacious, but not cramped, it was comfortable enough, warm, reclining seats. Couldn't ask for much more really. Along the way we were taught a traditional Bavarian drinking song which was quite cool, and it ended up being very useful; they sung it in every single tent about every 10-15 minutes. At about midnight Ross (tour leader) turned the music off and put on a DVD, for those who wanted to sleep. Problem was the volume on the DVD was up louder than the music! I got in a few hours sleep here and there – enough to get me by.

1200kms, and four countries later, we arrived in Munich. Along the way visiting Luxembourg for my first time, too bad it was the middle of the night and we didn't leave the bus. We got into Munich about 8:30am, dropped gear into the tent, had a quick breakfast, and then headed out to discover the festival. First we spotted the massive ferris wheel and roller coaster, both so big they looked as though they belonged as a permanent fixture in a large amusement park. We went for a quick wander, past stalls selling souvenirs, pretzels, all kinds of sausage... past the massive beer tents (you really can’t call them ‘tents’, they are HUGE halls). Most had elaborate exteriors, painted and decorated in the colours of the beer house. Many with huge props and flags. At about 10:30am we tried to get a seat in Hofbräu and Löwenbräu – but there was no chance, it was absolutely packed! And the first beer wasn't even served until midday. While there I saw some friends from London (the TNT crew) who I knew were going to be at the festival, but in amongst a couple of hundred thousand people chances were slim I would bump into them. Unfortunately they didn’t have a spot at their table, so I decided to go out and watch the parade.

17 September 2010

One crazy week in London

It has been non-stop ever since getting back from Morocco. Nothing major, but lots of small events in a short time, so I thought it justified a post.

First up, Monday night - a very cultured evening out at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms. I have wanted to visit Royal Alert Hall for months now - ever since seeing a DVD of a gig The Killers played there. It is an an amazing circular building, beautifully decorated. There are three levels of tiered seating, and above a series of intricate arches. Above that, a massive roof with a field of upside down mushrooms, or flying saucers (see pics) - apparently they improve the acoustics. That evening the Royal Scottish National Orchestra was performing, with Stéphane Denève conducting and Paul Lewis on piano. I'm not a huge fan of classical, but hearing it live in that venue, I can completely understand how people get so passionate about it. It is really something you need to experience to understand. At times the music was soft, and light; barely audible, and other times it was overcoming and all-powerful. The music really did tell a story, the two hours flew by.

Three days later, Thursday, I went to see the New Zealand band Fat Freddy's Drop. If you are an avid follower, you will know this is the second time I have seen FFD in London, and although the first was good, it was not great. I firm believer in second chances, so I gave them another go. And I am glad I did. They put on an awesome show, music - perfect, stage presence - couldn't fault them. For those interested, a couple of vids:
Wandering Eye

Friday evening I went out to a show that I had bought tickets for 10 months earlier. A show that had sold out in a day. I went to see Muse at Wembley Stadium.

16 September 2010

Dodgy Snake Charmers - Marrakesh [Day Nine]

I woke before 7am drenched in sweat. The heat was immense and I just had to get out of the room. While sitting on the terrace reading my book I saw the tortoise! He was soooo cool. And friendly too. I played with him for a while (video), racing up and down the terrace (I won, but he was pretty speedy). At one point I put my finger a bit close and he decided to see what it tasted like. I think it was a love bite, because after five minutes we were best mates.

A quick shower and I was ready for the day - I was heading to the Ourika Valley, to see the Berber (North African indigenous people) villages and the Setti Fatma Waterfall. I was picked up from the hostel and after a couple of quick stops to pick up other keen travellers, we were off. On the way we were told that the guide at our destination was not included in the price. That is strange, as I didn't see that on the advert. But not a problem, I thought, I would just wander around by myself.

The journey was interesting - from enormous uncontrolled intersections on the outskirts of Marrakesh, to the wide open plains of desert. The further we drove the greener the scenery got, with more trees and plants popping up. Before long we were following a river and heading up into the mountains.

Lost in the Souk - Marrakesh [Day Eight]

I had a flight to catch at 10am, so I was up and out the door at 7. When outside, one of the girls had mixed up the date of her flight. She had been out all night, got in and checked her details to find that she was due to fly at 9am that day. She had called a cab and was in a panic because she needed cash. I pointed her in the direction of the nearest cash machine, and said had a bit of time to kill and would wait for her cab to come. She got cash, came back, the cab arrived, and she said 'why don't you just come along'. Why not I thought. We got to the airport, the damage was €30. She hands me €15 and goes to get out of the cab. Ummm, I thought I was just coming along for the ride, I had plenty of time and was quite happy to take the metro. Anyway, being the good person I am I ended up paying half for the cab. On a travellers budget, that's about a days food budget, or 4 beers. 4 BEERS!

So I had a loooong wait at the airport. One observation about the Madrid airport - they have areas for smoking in the departures lounge. But these are not sealed in any way, so all the smoke just wafts out. The whole departures lounge stinks of smoke. I managed to find somewhere that I could actually breathe and chilled out for a bit. While sitting on the floor contemplating life, I got thinking about my time in Spain. I had such a good time, but I couldn't help feeling a little regret that I went with a group. After the La Tomatina fiasco, I didn't really see much of the staff at all. They didn't get everyone together as a group to do anything, which is one of the main reasons people travel with tour companies. I was OK because I quickly found some awesome people to hang out with, but others in the group weren't so lucky. One girl did not have a room-mate, and being hotel accommodation with no communal area, there is nowhere to meet people. She literally spent half of the time in her room alone. To be honest, I probably wouldn't have gone to this festival had it not been for the tour company - I didn't even know about it until I saw it on their website. But now YOU know about it. So just go, book yourself flights to Madrid, accommodation, and have a killer time. And you can do it for half as much as I did.

A few hours later I was touching down in Marrakesh - the gateway to the Sahara. Stepping off the aeroplane felt like stepping into a hair-dryer. The heat was immense and I was covered in sweat within seconds. Having spent the last four days getting by with hand gestures alone, I cautiously approached the information desk and said 'English?'. The woman spoke better English than me, I was blown away. She told me where to catch the bus to town and pointed me toward the closest ATM. On the bus, and again I cautiously started speaking to the driver. And again, fluent English. Impressive.

It was a short but interesting journey. The roads were chaotic; cars, trucks, scooters, bikes, horses and people everywhere. Scooters and motorbikes seemed to be the preferred mode of transport, most with 2+ people hanging on the back. Others had huge loads, I saw one with a enormous stack of trays of eggs held on with a bungy cord. There were also these very strange motorbike/cycle hybrids, that had a small engine as well as pedals. I guess they would be pretty handy if you ran out of gas...

I jumped off the bus at Djamaa El Fna, the main market square in Marrakesh. I felt as though I had landed on another planet. The square was absolutely massive - one of the largest in the world. While searching for a specific cafe - the starting point for directions to the hostel - I first came across a guy sitting under an umbrella with a monkey. Both just sitting there watching the world pass them by. I then heard a high-pitched noise, some kind of musical instrument. It got louder the further I walked - and then I saw... there was a guy sitting on a rug charming a snake! I was blown away. I quickly decided that Marrakesh was awesome!

15 September 2010

Hey, Toro! - San Sebastián de los Reyes [Day Seven]

My nights sleep in one word; restless. I was constantly waking up, whether because I was worried about missing the run, or I was so nervous about it, I'm not sure. Maybe a mixture of the two. I was up at 7:15, donned the traditional while shirt and red panuelo. While banging and crashing I woke up Kent, who had already run once in Pamplona. It didn't take much convincing to get him to come down with me.

By 7:45am we were on the course and pumped. It was a strange feeling, the senses seemed heightened, and time slowed down to a crawl. Those 15 minutes seemed to take an eternity. Then the shot went off. I jumped about a meter in the air. Compared to the next 30 seconds, the previous 15 minutes went by in a flash. My heart was racing, head thumping, brain telling me to get the hell out of there. People around me started running, but I held firm. Seconds later I could see a mass of people sprinting straight for me. I stayed right where I was. Then I saw them. HUGE bulls with massive horns and hooves pummelling the streets. I made a snap judgement, they seemed to be heading down the left hand side of the road, so I quickly sprinted over to the right, and I was off. I could literally hear their hooves behind me. I turned for a split second to make sure I wasn't going to be run down, and in that time some idiot stopped directly in front of me. I stumbled, almost falling. The bulls were right on me now, the first already making its way past. A girl slammed into the back of me and couldn't keep on her feet. I saw her go down and cover her head, the bulls hooves just inches from her. I tried to stop but there was no going back, a tide of people were pushing me forward. A second later the bulls had passed. I turned to see the girl on her feet (phew!) and chased the bulls right down to the stadium, where the doors were literally shut right in front of me.

13 September 2010

RUN! - San Sebastián de los Reyes [Day Six]

Wearing my beer induced invincibility jacket, I agreed to meet at 6:30am the following morning to go and watch the bull run. FAIL! I don't know weather my alarm went of and I slept through it, or sometime in the night I turned it off, but I woke up at 7:30am with a pounding headache. Not wanting to miss the action I dragged myself out of bed. (Quick observation - the park that last night was trashed was now absolutely spotless. Impressive!) The crowd was not as heavy as predicted, and I managed to get a decent spot to watch the run at 8am.

I randomly saw Steve, Curt and Jared from the group out in their whites and red panuelo, looking shit scared! As the clock struck 8 there was a huge BANG! Even I jumped and I wasn't even running. Now the tactic is to wait until you can see the bulls before you start running. That way you can see where they are heading, and get the hell out of their way. Not everyone can hold their nerve long enough and they just take off as fast as possible. It was a good 30 seconds before I saw any movement. First there was a huge mass of people running as fast as they possibly can. Centimetres behind them, six MASSIVE 500kg+ bulls, as well as six steers were chasing them down. It was all over in a flash, with no major incidents.

12 September 2010

La Tomatina: Just add tomatoes - Bunol/San Sebastián de los Reyes [Day Five]

Up before 5am, on the bus, and on our way. I attempted sleep, which came in short ten minute stints. It didn't help that the bus driver had the aircon set to 'freezer'.

We arrived in Bunol to total chaos. Buses, cars, trucks, scooters, people everywhere. The staff gave us a very quick run down on the festival... actually, that is giving them more credit than deserved, it was the information sheet that we had already been sent via email. We could not find a park for the bus, so we all piled off and within a couple of minutes, we were off into the madness.

The crowd got thicker the further we walked. The sides of the streets were lined with locals selling goggles, drinks, all kinds of food. I'm not sure if you are aware, but Bunol doesn't have a lot going for it. This is their one chance in the year to make some money - and they took the opportunity for all it was worth! Within about 10 minutes I could only see two others from the group through the crowd, so we decided to stick together. Finally we came to an open square that was absolutely packed with people. There were high buildings on every side with walls covered in thick blue tarpaulin. This looked like the spot! We pushed our way through into the centre. The atmosphere was insane! The sun was beating down, thousands of sweaty people crushed into a small area, chanting, jumping, yelling, singing. There were people throwing down buckets of water into the tangle of bodies below, each followed by a huge roar. People chanting "AGUA! AGUA! AGUA!" (water) and singing Spanish songs. Beach balls were being bounced around over peoples heads, it reminded me of a festival, but about 100 times more intense.

10 September 2010

The Missing Museum - Porto/San Sebastián de los Reyes [Day Four]

I had half a day left in Porto, so making the most of it, I headed out to (what I was told was) the museum district. What I found was suburbia. Normal streets, houses, shops, people... Not even a hint of a culture. I continued to wander and stumbled upon Jardins do Palacio de Cristal (Gardens of the Crystal Palace). I found beautiful, lush green grass, trees, colourful flowers, a florescent green lake (don't ask me!) as well as some curious peacocks and cheeky ducks.

The gardens also house the Pavilhao Rosa Mota, a massive dome shaped building used for sports and concerts. On the far side of the gardens I discovered breathtaking views over the whole of Porto old town. I spent a good 30 minutes just wandering around, admiring the view and taking photos. I was suddenly very pleased I had been given such poor directions.

9 September 2010

On The Port in Porto [Day Three]

Up early and off to the local markets - Mercado do Bolhão. It was full of fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, fish and other bits and pieces. There were woman selling sardines out of a polystyrene container, people peeling potatoes in an alleyway, and massive stalls full of fake flowers... All quite random really.

A short walk away is the Dom Luis Bridge - a massive two levelled arch bridge spanning the river Douro. On one side is Porto, and the other Vila Nova de Gaia. Although only separated by a bridge, these are completely separate cities. The top layer of the bridge provided amazing views over the colourful Porto old town and the river. As soon as I reached the far side, as predicted, it started to rain. I made my way down the hill to the waters edge to got up close and personal with rows of rabelo boats (you can see the miserable weather in the photo).

8 September 2010

Old men in speedo's - Porto [Day Two]

It was a weird (but amazing) sensation to be staying in a hostel, and being able to stay in bed. Normally I only stay a weekend, and am up at 9am to pack and check out. Today, I was the hungover guy that gets to lye in bed while everyone else has to drag their asses up and out the door. Bliss.

My plan for the day consisted of only one thing - the beach. Living in London for the last 18 months has meant extremely limited beach action, and intended to make the most of it. When I woke at about 10am, the weather outside was decidedly average - warm but not hot and plenty of grey clouds hanging around. So I didn't feel to guilty about going back to sleep for another hour.

When I finally resurfaced, the weather was not much better, but the helpful staff informed me that it was due to clear up during the afternoon. It was also forecast to rain the following day - so it was now or never. I made my way down to the bus stop and proceeded to wait at least 40 minutes for the bus. Little did I know, but the outward journey was to be much, MUCH better than the return.

I got off the bus about 1km too early, but it was all coastline so I decided to go for a walk up along the beach. There were lots of people around (mainly older men in speedo's... *shudder*), sunbathing on the sand or swimming in the water. Most of the beach was covered in huge rocks, only leaving small bays of sandy shoreline.

7 September 2010

It's not unusual - Porto [Day One]

Public transport was not my friend early one August morning. Having booked a 9am flight, I naively thought that I might not have to get up at ridiculous o'clock. But to catch my 9am flight, I needed to be at the airport for about 7:30 am. Buses from Victoria station take about 75 mins, and run on the hour, so I had to book one at 6:00am. To get to Victoria - only an 8 minute journey - the only train ran at 5:00am. So as it turns out, a 4:30am start. Not cool.

I arrived in Porto to beautiful sunshine. As soon as I stepped off the aeroplane I could smell the salt in the air - it reminded me of being home. I instantly knew I was going to like this place.

I jumped on the metro and headed for town. The metro was amazing - clean, plenty of space, amazingly maintained - one of the best I have ever ridden. The journey was interesting - I got the feeling Porto was an old city coming to terms with the modern world. Crumbling stone walls and brightly tiled buildings were scattered amongst apartment blocks and all kinds of industrial buildings.
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