One of the inevitable consequences of long journeys abroad is the period of adjustment afterwards. Everything that’s been put off or ignored while you’ve been off exploring must be dealt with on your return. I’ve done these kind of trips so often that I can mitigate the worst of it, but even so it took about two weeks after my return from South America before I felt that I’d caught up with the life I left behind.
Delivering write ups of my travels was part of that catching up, and that element of the checklist was ticked off about a week ago. Still, there are a few thoughts that never quite fit into the posts that I’ve already put up. So for the sake of completeness, here follow a few suggestions for anyone who might be tempted to follow in my footsteps.
Bring a Guidebook: First off, don’t rely on my words. Get yourself a guidebook. Lonely Planet usually serves me well, but your mileage may vary. Even though the Internet has usurped many of their functions, a collection of suggestions about places to stay, sights to see, and culinary delights to sample will serve as good bus or train reading in the space between places. Lonely Planet’s guidebook for South America added a hefty lump to my baggage, but it did what I needed (except perhaps in Rio, where its broad approach was spread a little too thin).
Pack According to Your Needs: This will depend heavily upon your habits and plans, but it’s possible to minimise what you’re carrying on a long overland trip. I generally go for a daily bag containing everything vital to the trip (passport, electronics, medicine, etc.) and a larger backpack containing clothes and anything I don’t need immediate access to. Judicious trimming of what you bring will make this even more functional: I only needed to use a laundry once during my three-week-plus trip, and I kept dirty clothes separated in waterproof internal bags.
Stray Dogs Everywhere: Start in the west and travel east and you’ll notice a change from canine to feline. Chile and Argentina both have stray dogs aplenty, though most of them look as though they’re well fed, and I didn’t come across any who were unfriendly. It wasn’t until I hit Buenos Aires’ main cemetery that I saw cats in the open. By the time you reach Rio, balance has been restored, though the marmosets on the Sugarloaf are surely an outlier.
Don’t Rely on WiFi: I did without buying a traveller’s SIM card for my phone, figuring that a bit of disconnection would be good for me, and that WiFi would fill any gaps that there were. Which was more or less true: wandering around cities is better if the world doesn’t intrude on your thoughts, and there’s WiFi aplenty in public spaces. However, be aware that most of these WiFi networks are unsecured, and even in hotels, where the networks are more secure, the strength of the signal may not be the best. In short, accept the disconnection and know what you’re going to need before you go online. (And don’t use data roaming except in an emergency—the 30 seconds that mine was active before I remembered to turn it off cost me about €20.)
The Roads are Pretty Good—Mostly: After driving north and south through Chile, my ambition to some day traverse the entire Panamerican Highway is stronger than ever. Probably not all of it will be as nice as the route between Santiago and La Serena, but what I experienced was exceptional in terms of quality and views available. I didn’t have much to complain about when it came to the main roads in Argentina and Uruguay either, so renting a car for travel is a definite possibility.
Don’t be a Competitive Driver: This is more of a general rule, as opposed to something specific to South America. Drivers who overtake at high speed, dive into the tightest of gaps between cars, and are allergic to the use of indicators, are best left to their own devices. Especially when you’re a foreign driver. If there’s going to be any consequences to that kind of behaviour, the further away you are from it, the better.
Carry Cash…: Many places will allow you to use debit and credit cards, especially in and around the major tourist sites, but it’s always handy to have some cash if you’re planning on exploring further afield or if the tourist stuff holds little interest. Of course, if you’re country hopping, that means you’ll need to make use of currency exchanges, either in banks or the smaller cambios. Also, the usual rules for travellers apply: don’t keep it all in one place, and don’t flash it around either. As always, be safe.
…but Beware of ATMs: If you need cash, you’ll likely need to turn to ATMs, of which there are plenty. Most of these will be in indoor lobbies, so they’re safe enough to use, though take the usual care. The major issue is that the fees for using them are not small. Limit your usage accordingly, because those fees do add up.
Trains are good, but buses are your friend: I’m as big a fan of train travel as you’re likely to find, but buses are the better option in South America. The passenger train network is disconnected, and the one I did take was a good bit slower than the bus alternative would have been. Buses go pretty much everywhere, and the major cities are connected by coaches run by multiple companies. Do your research and you can get where you need to go cheaply.
Go for comfort…: On the coach routes, you’ll often have the option to opt for “cama” or “semi-cama” seats. These will be on the lower tier of double decker coaches, and they’ll provide you with well-upholstered seats with lots of legroom and an ability to recline far enough to provide you with an opportunity for snoozing. Pick the right coach provider and you may even be offered snacks.
…but mind the view: The one problem with those cama or semi-cama seats is that since they’re on the lower deck of the coach, you’re going to lose out on some viewing opportunities. You can mitigate these problems a bit by selecting the right seat when booking your trip. For example, when crossing the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza, sit by the right window for the best views, and sit on the left when going the other way.
Avail of “las verduras” where you can: Especially in Argentina and Uruguay, meat is a way of life. Vegetarians are going to have to put a bit of extra effort in, and vegans might find themselves restricted in terms of their dietary choices. (Well … more restricted.) That said, there are some really good verduras and frutas to be had, and if you’re not aiming to pursue a purely carnivorous diet, you should grab them whenever you can.
Brazil is different: There’s a lot of commonality across the three Spanish-speaking nations I visited, but once I landed in Rio, there was enough of a change to inflict just a little culture shock. Whatever preparation I’d done for the start of the trip went out of the window, and I was more or less starting again. Language was a particular issue, with Spanish and Portuguese far enough apart that there was little knowledge to transfer, and few people speaking much or any English. In short, put the effort in to learn a little about the country that you’re visiting. But isn’t that always the way?
It’s absolutely worth it: Sticking to road and rail to cross a continent is something that I’ve done four times now. Seeing the landscape close up is a massive improvement over staring at it out of a tiny plane window. Getting outside of the big cities, or just walking around a city from dawn to dusk and knowing that just a week or two ago you were sat by a different ocean is an amazing feeling. Every trip generates thoughts of things that you could have done or moments that you might have missed, but focus on the good memories. Trips like this will generate plenty of them.
Ah, Rio de Janeiro. City of blazing sunshine, sultry heat, and tropical mountains piled up around bays of crystal clear waters washing onto white sand beaches. Or, in my case, a city of clouds, rain, humidity, and walking. Lots and lots of walking.
Such are the problems of travelling in South America in winter, I suppose. I’d been lucky enough as far as Montevideo, but Rio was a lot further north and east. I’d planned to get there by bus, via São Paulo, but I’d already ditched that plan in favour of flights, accepting a bit of extra carbon guilt in exchange for more time to explore. Courtesy of Azul, a much nicer short-hop carrier than Ryanair, I was dropped first in Porto Alegre’s Salgado Filho International Airport, then into Rio’s city-centre Santos Dumont Airport.
A nighttime landing meant the city was nice and cool, but plans for getting to my hotel ran into a non-functional metro card dispenser, so I ended up walking instead of taking the tram. Luckily, my hotel, the Lapa Ville in the Santa Teresa neighbourhood, was as central as could be, if a bit basic in its amenities. Stage one of my Rio visit successfully achieved, I chilled out for the evening and made plans for the next few days.
My first full day in Rio was the one with most of the walking. The first item on the menu though was the Escadaria Selarón, which was just around the corner from the hotel. This lesser-known sight of Rio is a fabulously colourful tiled staircase, the work of one artist, who has expanded it over the years with contributions from around the world. I also explored it on the best morning I’d see in the city, with sun and heat to match the best Irish summer.
As Santa Teresa is so central, another short stroll took me to the Lapa Arches of the Carioca Aqueduct, and beyond them to the conical mountain of the Metropolitan Cathedral, far newer and more imposing than any of the cathedrals I’d seen so far on this trip, with its cavernous interior just about illuminated by the light pouring through great banks of stained glass. I peered in before moving on, doing a little more of a wander around the city centre and picking up both some cash and a USB charger to replace the one that went missing somewhere in Montevideo.
A brief visit to the Praça Quinze de Novembre (November is the month here, not July) waterfront was as far as that walk went though. I needed a few items from my hotel room (hat, sunglasses, extra sun cream), so I grabbed them and moved on after a short break.
I should have known better than to tempt fate. On this pleasant day, I decided to walk down to the railway that climbs to the famous Cristo Redentor statue overlooking the city, but the long walk down Rua do Catata and up Rua das Laranjeiras was all the time that was needed for the rain to start falling. And keep falling. By the time I reached the Corcovado tram station, the top of the mountain and the statue were completely lost in rain and clouds. Somewhat reluctantly, given the length of the walk, I decided I’d try again later.
I did manage to salvage something from the trip, picking up a Rio Card for the city’s public transport system, which got me back to the Cinelandia stop near Santa Teresa. Lunch at a nearby restaurant was a let-down, but I wanted to get something out of the day, so I headed to the nearby Museum of Modern Art (after figuring out how to cross the lanes of traffic in between). The Museum was pleasantly air conditioned, and some of the exhibits were interesting enough, but I kept on moving, and before long I was on my first Rio beach.
Flamengo Beach, unlike the more famous (and longer) Copacabana, faces the Baía de Guanabara instead of the Atlantic Ocean, but it shares the same white sand, and it was nice to take off my sandals and just walk in the surf. And get wet. Next day would be shorts, I decided then.
The day still had enough time to take another shot at either the Sugarloaf or the Cristo Redentor, so I had a decision to make. As it was a bit windy and I couldn’t see any cable cars crossing to the Sugarloaf, I decided that the Cristo was the way to go. I thought I might even be able to catch the sunset up there. Sadly, the rain and clouds had other plans, and by the time I made it to the tram, it had shut up shop for the evening. An offer of a taxi alternative didn’t seem that appealing, so I called it quits and headed for home base.
Day One had been a bit of a bust, but at least my hotel was just around the corner from a range of bars and clubs. So I got to sit and chill out with beer and fries at a street side table and watch Rio’s (somewhat meagre) winter crowds wander by before it was time for sleep.
Given how badly day one had gone, my second and last full day in Rio had to be a busy one. I headed straight down to the Largo do Machado metro station and up the familiar road to the Corcovado tram. This time, despite warnings that I wouldn’t be able to see anything, I bought a ticket anyway, and after twenty minutes of ascending through the cloud forests that flank the Corcovado mountain on which the Cristo sits, I was dropped at the base of the mountaintop complex and climbed up to see Rio’s most famous face.
Except that the big lad was being a bit shy, and by the time I was at his feet, his head was lost in the clouds. Everyone else was sheltering from the rain under plastic ponchos, whereas I had only an umbrella to keep the rain off my shorts, sandals, and t-shirt. Luckily, the clouds soon cleared to a round of cheers and the mountaintop became selfie central. We even got a view of the city and the bay below, though the clouds never quite cleared enough for that view to become as epic as it promised.
So that was one sight down, with one to go. I came down from my mountaintop meeting with god (sans tablets of stone but plus a couple of fridge magnets) and headed for Pao do Açucar, better known as the Sugarloaf. The metro dropped me off at the Botofago station, and I walked the rest of the way to the cable car. It’s a two-stage trip, first to the Morro da Urca and from there to the Sugarloaf itself. Not quite as tall as the Corcovado on which the Cristo stands, it offers just as good a view because it stands right at the mouth of the bay. Plus, taking the trip to the top gives you a chance to wander around the forest trails there, and to spot the marmosets begging for scraps from the tourists (you’re not supposed to feed them, but people do anyway). The best bit of it though was looking down on the planes as they approached Santos Dumont either through the mountains surrounding the city or from the mouth of the bay.
Despite the rain, it had been a productive day, and there was plenty of daylight left. I wanted to make use of it, so I looked into the Museu de Ciencias da Terra, which seemed interesting (and had dinosaurs!) but was sadly closed. So instead, I walked some more. The Ladeira do Leme climbed over a saddle between two peaks, and beyond was the Copacabana. Not as deserted as the Flamengo had been the day before, it was washed by some serious Atlantic surf, and even my shorts weren’t enough to save me from getting a bit damp.
I passed by some foot-volleyball players showing serious skill, but I didn’t want to stick around too long, as evening was finally drawing in, so I went in search of the local metro stations. There were some issues with the Rio Card again, as I needed to top it up, but before too long I was back at Cinelandia, returning to the hotel to rest my feet before another evening of beer, fries, and cocktails, with samba music providing a backdrop at the Leviano Bar. I even dropped in on the local Irish bar, where decent beer wasn’t enough to make me take part in a session of death metal karaoke.
The last day in Rio was also the last day of the trip. So I dawdled over packing and made sure everything was in order before checking out. After two days of venturing south, I turned north instead, aiming for the Sao Cristóvão stop, where I had access to the Park Quinta da Boa Vista. The plan was to visit the National Museum, but it turned out to be closed. (Something of a theme for Rio in the winter.) Thoroughly closed, as in surrounded by scaffolding and gutted on the inside. So I wandered around the park instead and said hi to the cats.
Back across the road and a short stroll away was the Maracanã Stadium. If the Centenario in Montevideo had all the history, the Maracanã was a temple to football on a gigantic scale, having hosted both the Olympics and the World Cup. Runners were circling the entire complex as I walked widdershins, and I was getting a little sunshine for the first time in a few days, so all was going well enough.
I checked my travel plans for the evening at the train station before heading back into town, getting off at Central and heading down the Av. Marechal Floriano before angling north to the Museum of Tomorrow on the waterfront. If the rest of Rio’s attractions were underpopulated, this one was packed, with a queue that only got longer. A multimedia marvel in a building that looks like a spacecraft come in to land, it was an excellent way to use up what remained of the day, as was the restaurant underneath, where I enjoyed some grilled fish and a disturbingly alcoholic caipirinha as I enjoyed the view.
That was more or less it though. One last walk down the waterfront to the hotel and grabbing my bags, then a three-stage trip to the airport. That was the plan, at least. Except that on stage two, I was seized by a moment of fear. Had I screwed up the time difference and missed my flight? Rushing wouldn’t have solved the problem, but it did make me feel a bit better, so I used up some of the last of my cash to finish the trip in a taxi to Terminal 2. Was I too late?
No. No I wasn’t. Panic over, after double-checking the departures board. My long journey across South America was at an end, and British Airways was waiting to take me away. And that is as good a place as any to end. Thanks for listening, and farewell.
(Okay, there’ll be an epilogue later. But you’ll have to wait for that.)
Ferry ports are rarely impressive things. Thus my first impression of Uruguay was mostly of concrete and rust. I didn’t have time or opportunity to explore the reputedly beautiful city of Colonia either, for we were loaded straight onto a bus for Montevideo (comfy, if a little frayed). The driver wasted no time in getting us going either, taking us out of the port city and onto a main road that was still under construction in some parts but otherwise ran smooth and straight through the countryside.
As for that countryside, it proved remarkably familiar in a lot of ways, with green grass, hedgerows, and both cows and sheep in abundance. These were interspersed with more tropical vegetation, and every so often there would be the glimpse of a bird the likes of which you just don’t see in Ireland, but otherwise I was starting to feel very much at home. When I reached Montevideo, this feeling faded, but only a little. It’s a bustling, active city, like a cross between Dublin and the cities of Buenos Aires and Córdoba that I’d only recently passed through.
A long walk along Av. 18 de Julio (July was obviously an auspicious month in South American independence) from Terminal Trés Cruces brought me at length to Independencia Plaza, where the massive and oddly shaped Palacio Salva stands above an equestrian statue of José Gervasio Artigas (itself above his mausoleum). My hotel, the Lonely Planet-suggested Hotel Palacio, was just a street away, and I was soon settled into a cosy, old-style room, with a balcony that offered a view over, well, a man varnishing an expanse of wooden decking.
I had enough hours of daylight left to explore a little, so I spent my time walking out to the end of the harbour’s breakwater as the sun faded from the sky, then having a chocolate caliente at Piwi, before retrieving some money from the bank machines (after a bit of struggle) and eating a Uruguayan speciality, a chivito sandwich, with a Chopp beer, before returning to the hotel. I’d been having second thoughts about the travel plans for the latter half of my trip, and a few hours walking around Montevideo had decided those. As what would prove to be a nine-hour thunderstorm rolled in, I made some changes to the week to come.
Even as I was wandering through Montevideo on that first night, I’d been recasting my plans for the rest of the trip. The plan had been to spend just one full day in the city, then head out on the following night on a 31-hour bus trip to São Paulo, spend a night there, then head on to Rio de Janeiro the next day. However, that stretch had already faced some changes—I’d been considering jumping on another bus to Rio after only a few hours. A short stay in South America’s megalopolis held little appeal, and it was time better used in Rio.
But Montevideo deserved better as well, and though it would mean abandoning my bus ticket, I had another option. I could spend a decent amount of time in the Uruguayan capital, then hop on a plane to Porto Alegre on the 15th, with a speedy connection to Rio from there. It was a far more appealing approach, though it would also mean eating some a carbon footprint hit. With my arrival in Montevideo, I’d crossed from Pacific to Atlantic, and that was the ground travel I was interested in. As the thunder rolled, I made the bookings, and the next morning amid the misty remains of the storm, I sorted out an extra two nights in the Hotel Palacio.
The rest of my time in Montevideo and Uruguay divided into three days and three parts. The first was exploring the Ciudad Vieja (old city) and the headland that it’s built on. The second was using a tourist bus to explore some of the city’s outer reaches. The last, a Sunday, would be a necessary day of rest, though it would have its own points of interest. It wasn’t as complete an itinerary as it could have been—I could have used the city’s extensive bus system to range as far out as tree-filled Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park, and given more time I might have spent a day in the resort of Punta del Este (though at this time of the year it would be a ghost town)—but overall I’m happy with my decision.
The morning of the first day, then, was all about museums. The first of those was also the best. Museo Andes 1972 celebrates the story of the Miracle of the Andes, in which a Uruguayan rugby team crashed high in the Andes in winter, near the Chile-Argentina border, and some of those who survived the crash lived through seventy days on the mountain before rescue. The museum fills its limited space with relics of the ordeal, as well as plentiful descriptions and video overviews, but it also examines the philosophy of survival in the face of such odds and the inspiration it has provided for others since then.
More wandering down to the waterfront and around the oldest parts of the city, where relics of the colonial era can still be seen, brought me at length to the Museo del Carneval, a much more open space that celebrates the history and vibrant life of Montevideo’s carnival, a celebration every bit as central to the city’s culture as Rio’s more famous version is to its. There are masks and costumes aplenty, along with videos of past carnivals, but the key to the museum is its focus on the history of the event, from an era when each neighbourhood had its float to the more modern, sponsored era.
The mist wasn’t easing at all as I kept on wandering, and the tops of the taller buildings were lost in low cloud. This at least kept the temperature mild. On subsequent days, when the sun came out, the temperature tended to drop. The last museum also had a familiar name: the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art. This time, though, it had more space than either of the previous two I’d visited, it struggled to fill that space up with pre-Colombian relics, art-related or otherwise. There were things worth seeing there, and the entry fee was paltry, but it was the more modern exhibits that garnered the most interest, such as a collection of masks from cultures around South America and photos of the Mapuche people, one of the few native cultures not completely erased by colonial efforts.
After a frankly excessive pork-based lunch at the El Puerto market, which is something of a meat-lover’s Mecca in these parts, I went hunting for a relic from a different age. During World War II, the German pocket battleship Graf Spee found itself pinned in Montevideo harbour after the Battle of the River Plate and was subsequently scuttled in the shallow waters just outside. Some pieces of the ship have since been brought to the surface, but they’re not widely advertised (Nazi paraphernalia are a bit of sketchy topic these days), and the anchor and ranging tower in particular are hard to reach. With the help of a tourist office worker and a nod from a security guard, I got through and wandered around the Buquebus ferry terminal for a little while before snapping some shots of these pieces of the Third Reich lost far from their home.
There wasn’t much more to the day than that. As darkness fell I learned that political gatherings and protests are much less of a cause for concern in Uruguay than in Chile and Argentina, with one such gathering in Plaza Independencia providing its own musical accompaniment in the form of drums and singing, as well as the odd rocket. That was more or less it though. I retired to Patagonia bar for some beer and nachos and headed for bed not long after.
If day one was random rambling and stumbling across sites of interest, day two had a plan. That plan wasn’t mine though—it was the tour bus company’s. After peeking at Ciudad Vieja’s cathedral, I headed down to stop zero, where I paid for a 24-hour ticket and climbed aboard. A top-deck seat wasn’t warm, but it offered the best views as we headed out along Av. 18 de Julio, heading for points east. I hopped off at the 1 de Mayo Plaza, where I explored the Legislative Palace and its surroundings, as well as the nearby market, where I grabbed a sustaining ice cream before rejoining the bus tour.
By the next time I jumped off, the sun had come out again, providing a little warmth as long as you stayed in its light. I took a stroll around the greenery of El Prado park, enjoying some sculptures, one of which, the Monumento a la Diligencia, I would see another version of later in the trip and another of which celebrated the native Charrua inhabitants of Uruguay. There was also a photography exhibit in the open air, some parakeets to spot, and a quick look around the nearby botanical gardens, but I was determined to get my money’s worth from the tour bus ticket, so on I went again.
After a twist in our course that brought us near to the Trés Cruces bus terminal, we headed into a large area of parkland, the highlight of which was Centenario Stadium, where the first football World Cup was held in 1930. As a kid I’d read about this tournament, which Uruguay won, and it had sparked my desire to visit this nation. Thirty-plus years later and here I was, ducking into the Museo del Futbol to take a tour through Uruguay’s (and the world’s) football glories. “La Celeste” won not only the World Cup but also a couple of Olympic Games back then, so most of those glories were a bit faded, but it’s a jam-packed location, even for a non-football fan like myself, and getting to take a walk around the inside of the stadium, with its massive winged tower, was a treat.
Circling the stadium after leaving the museum, I spend a few minutes watching a kids’ football game on a dirt pitch and an ox-and-cart monument to match the horse-and-cart Diligencia I’d seen earlier in El Prado park. There was a bus calling though, so I was soon back on board and heading for the beach. I stopped off in the naval museum first, for a refresher on the Graf Spee and the Battle of the River Plate (including a deck gun retrieved from the sunken ship). There was plenty more there too, including a cannon from Nelson’s HMS Agamemnon, complete with examples of cannon shot that demonstrated just how heavy and damaging those earlier big guns could be.
After that, it was all beach, all the time, as I headed south and west, then just west. I fulfilled my transcontinental plan by dipping a booted toe into the sea at Pocitos Beach, then kept on going, following the line of the Rambla coastal road until it brought me to De Las Carretas Point, the most southerly point before reaching the Ciudad Vieja headland. In the late evening sun I passed parascenders testing their parachutes, then went as far out on the headland as I could before returning to the Faro and climbing its 76 steps to enjoy the late evening sun in the company of a few other romantic souls.
I stayed as late as I could, though not quite late enough to catch sunset, before time forced me onwards—rather than walking all the way back, I wanted to catch the last tour bus to Ciudad Vieja. That meant some serious walking at speed in the dusk light, and I motored past the Montevideo golf course and Rodo Park in the dusk light until I came to the amusement park at Punta Carreras. Sadly, I didn’t have time to indulge under the light of the waxing moon, instead just enjoying the cheers and cries of those who did while I waited for the bus to arrive.
My tour having taken up the entire day, I found myself too late to indulge in another meat extravaganza (probably a good thing) at the Mercado, but a little way uphill I found Alvarez, a restaurant offering more civilised options, including pizza and fine beer, and enjoyed those heartily instead. A street party provided a nice surprise instead of dessert, complete with dancers and drummers, but the last of the night was spent in The Shannon Irish bar, not too far from the Hotel Palacio, so I didn’t have too far to stumble to bed.*
If Sunday was sunnier than Saturday had been, it suffered from the fact that Montevideo isn’t really a Sunday city. Most places are closed down, though I did secure some orange juice and avocado toast from Piwi**. I popped into Teatro Solis for a look around and a fridge magnet, and I descended into the Artigas mausoleum under the equestrian statue in the middle of Plaza Independencia, which is an impressively large and solemn space. However, some skimming of WiFi networks had told me that there was sporting drama to be had, and I returned to Hotel Palacio to watch the end of the fifth set of the Wimbledon men’s final.
Which ended up taking several hours. When it was done, I re-emerged blinking into the afternoon light and headed for the Palacio Salvo, the largest building on the plaza and once (though only briefly) the tallest building in South America. A concrete edifice with an oddly bulbous tower, it served first as a hotel and then later as apartments and offices, in which station it still exists. Our tour guide took us around several floors, from the roof to the mezzanine, showing off the view, the fine fittings that guests were presented with, and the slightly shabbier side of the servants’ quarters.
I wasn’t quite done with walking though, and I headed downhill and south from the plaza to the shoreline, where the day was ebbing away and I was determined to catch the last of it. A stroll past some of the few parts of the seafront that I hadn’t walked yet brought me to somewhere more familiar: the harbour breakwater that I walked out to on my first night in the city. This time I arrived in time for sunset, and I climbed up on the concrete harbour light for a better view, once again joined by several souls in search of a view worthy of ending a day.
We got that, though I didn’t have much luck in the rest of the night. The lack of places to eat that were still open forced me to resort to McDonald’s, and it was only afterwards that I discovered that the Patagonia Bar was not only open but serving pizza. That would have been a nice thing to learn a little earlier. Still, I had one last beer to round off my stay in familiar style and headed hotel-wards for a final night of comfort amid this most pleasant city.
Packing and checking out took little time the next day, and after more avocado toast and orange juice at Piwi**, as well as a poke around the gorgeous bookstore beside the Hotel Palacio, I hoisted my bags and headed out along the Av. 18 de Julio. Trés Cruces Terminal was quickly navigated and I found myself on a COT bus heading for Punta del Este. Unfortunately I wasn’t heading for the beaches, and after a run through the very pleasant looking suburbs of the city and the equally appealing Roosevelt Park, I encountered the last of the pleasant surprises Montevideo had for me.
I’ve been to my fair share of airports at this stage, and I have to say that I don’t think any of them are as appealing to see or experience as Montevideo’s Carrasco International Airport. A graceful arch of concrete conceals an open and airy space within, and checking in and getting through security is so easy as to be almost a delight (comparatively speaking anyway—the security theatre doesn’t require you to take your laptop or liquids out of your bag. Almost before I knew it, I was through duty free and in the queue to board a tiny Embraer 190/195 jet, only heavier by a couple of souvenirs and treats.
Uruguay was done, Brazil awaited.
*If my mum is reading this, I don’t drink too much on holiday, especially not when I’m drinking alone, and I do eat properly. Well, I eat whenever I’m hungry anyway.
The customs station on the Argentine side of the Andes crossing that took me from Santiago in Chile to Mendoza wasn’t unbearably cold, for all that it was winter and the roof’s insulation was fraying and falling away in multiple places. More importantly, it was efficient, moving an entire coach, its passengers, and their luggage through and out in about an hour. However, our trip was already delayed, and that combined with a couple of police stops further down the road, meant that I only got to see the first part of the trip in daylight.
The Argentine side of the Andes is notably different from the Chilean side. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the geological forces that heaved up the mountains, as the Pacific is ground under the continental plate. But part of it is probably due to water and ice as well: most of South America’s rivers flow east from the Andes, and the rivers and glaciers there have alternately left massive deposits of sediment on valley floors and carved narrow channels through them. All around are vast sweeps of red gravel and great stacks of sedimentary rock heaved up and tilted, creating bands of cream, grey, and red that colour the mountains.
Unfortunately, the best sights of the descent were lost in the dusk.
There’s no railroad that runs through the mountains on this route, though there must have been one once. Our bus ran parallel to an old single-line track that was still intact in many places, but broken up or buried under landslides in others. Perhaps it might get remade some day, and if so it would be well worth riding, but for now I suspect that the tunnel that took us across the highest part of the crossing has been stolen away and will not be given back.
In darkness I arrived in Mendoza, capital of Argentina’s wine region. Sadly, my stay was as short as it could be. I stepped across the street from the bus station into the spartan Hotel Bari and rested my eyes for as long as the sound of cars and barking dogs* outside would allow. Once up and showered, I had a breakfast of tea, cereal, and pastry smeared with dulche de leche, then headed back to the bus station. This time my Chevallier bus was completely on time and not completely full, so I got to sit back and relax as the winter sun shone down and we drove east, first to San Martin and San Luis, but eventually to Córdoba, where I would be able to actually explore a bit before the train to Buenos Aires. No wifi on this bus, despite what the sticker on the door promised, but the USB plugs provided power and the seat reclined, so I was able to rest and write and even watch a little Umbrella Academy as the miles flew by.
Living on these would be pleasant, but probably brief.
After a brief stop in a bus station along the route, where I was able to refuel with pastries and coke, the bus trip brought us ever closer to an escarpment running north-south, some distance southwest of Córdoba itself. The view they provided was spectacular, rising as they did from the flat plains of north-central Argentina, but the setting sun beat us there, and sunset had come and gone by the time we crossed over. In darkness we passed by several smaller towns before we came at last to Córdoba itself, entering town from the west and driving through the centre before pulling into the Terminal de Ómnibus about ten minutes behind schedule. After a short delay to grab my bags, the Casa Urbana Hotel was only a short walk around the corner and proved a step up from my Mendoza lodgings. It was late though, so after grabbing some meatstuffs and starch at the La Herredura buffet nearby, I settled in for sleep and a day of exploring to come.
The corner of Córdoba I’d arrived in wasn’t the most prepossessing. Bus stations rarely inhabit the best part of town, and it took the dilapidated Estación Córdoba railway station nearby to make the bus terminal look good. Once again, it was clear that Argentina had once had an impressive rail network but had long since let it go to seed, to the point where there are only two trains per week between the country’s two biggest cities, even though the land between them is almost perfectly flat and open.
Looks impressive, but it’s mostly a hollow shell, part of which is used for events.
That was a concern for the following day though, so I went exploring around the streets to the north of the Casa Urbana, eventually making my way to the Plaza San Martin, the heart of the city. My Lonely Planet guide hadn’t been much help in giving me an idea of what Córdoba had to offer, so I took advantage of a waiting open-top tour bus and climbed on board for an hour-and-a-half spin around the city’s highlights. I’d recommend it to any new visitor, though Argentina’s winter, while dry, can be cold in the mornings and proved chillier than any of my time spent in Chile. Not quite enough to make me put on my gloves, but enough to make me think about it.
Dropped off by the bus where it had started, I found myself essentially replicating its path on foot throughout the afternoon, with a few variations. A black-bun burger in the Black Pan restaurant before exploring malls and the Museum of the Natural Sciences, with its tiered exhibits of Argentina in the present and the distant past of megafauna before the Great Biotic Interchange and the arrival of humans upset the applecart of South America’s biosphere.
Yes, these megafauna are particularly charismatic, even if they’re dead.
My wandering eventually took me to the Parque de las Tejas, a broad green space filled with activities for kids and athletes in the southern half of the city. I spent a pleasant hour wandering its winter-parched fields and avenues before the long stairway that acts as the park’s ceremonial entrance deposited me not far from my hotel. Having spent the better part of the afternoon just walking, I decided that a rest might be in order, and I retreated to the Casa Urbana, where all the staff were focused on the Argentina-Chile third-place game in the Copa America. In my room I watched it too as I updated my notes and charged my phone.
I did manage to venture out again after dark, this time across town to the Antares Córdoba bar, where a couple of cheap pints of craft beer were more than enough for this traveller’s underfed stomach. I solved the underfed problem with some ice cream next door and some provisions from the supermarket across the road from the Casa Urbana, but the combination of beer and ice cream was enough to send me to sleep before too long.
All of this lights up in rainbow colours at night.
Of my last day in Córdoba, there’s not much to say that I haven’t already said. I packed and checked out after an Argentinian breakfast of toast smeared with dulce de leche and fruit, then went for an extended walk to use up the hours between checking out and my train journey. My loop this time was a smaller version of the day before, and this time in the opposite direction, but it took in part of the colourful Juniors district too, including a bust that looked rather too much like Peter Cushing in Star Wars for comfort, and a brief revisitation of the Parque de las Tejas. With more time, I’d say there’s much more to be found in Córdoba, but my time was up, and I grabbed my bag at around 1330 before heading down to Estación Córdoba.
I wasn’t the only person taking the journey, as the neglected grandeur of the old station featured a long queue, albeit one that shuffled on pretty smoothly. Soon enough I was seated in Seat 61, and after a brief snooze we were off. The initial part of the journey saw us crawl through some of the poorer outskirts of the city, with kids throwing stones at the train more than once, but soon enough we were out and into the countryside. Not accelerating though. This is a slow service—I calculated the speed at 32km/h at one point by timing the distance between kilometre markers on the road running parallel.
Still, the land remained resolutely flat throughout. We passed grain fields and wetlands, as well as through the backyards of several small towns, and even as far as the horizon there hadn’t been much sign of a rise in the land. It reminded me of the American Midwest, with its level crossings and isolated towns. As we cruised on slowly, the sun began to set, and I used up some of my limited battery (no USB connections here) continuing my viewing of the Umbrella Academy and writing up my notes.
I’d tried, when booking, to get a first-class seat, but things didn’t work out that way, so the one I had was in standard class. It wasn’t too uncomfortable, though with no reclining, there was a limit to how good my sleep was going to be. I kept on scribbling and watching as the darkness came in (the little girl beside me showed some interest in the Umbrella Academy, so I had to turn the screen away at some of the more violent bits), but after the lights were turned out at 2200, it was time to hunt for sleep. In this I was successful, more or less, though my neck didn’t thank me for the sleeping positions I chose.
With dawn came wakefulness, and the lights came back on around 0800. We crawled into Buenos Aires some time around 1015, a little behind schedule but not too much. Estación Retiro is one of those grand old cavernous spaces, with signs here and there of the expense that went into making it, but rather more signs of neglect (albeit less than in Córdoba—the rail lines around the capital are clearly better looked after and more used). As water and trail mix** do not a solid meal make, I grabbed a slice of pizza for breakfast in the station before going in search of my hotel.
Of course, walking out of the hotel and spotting a tall tower all alone in the middle of a green square, the Torre Monumental, was always going to distract me. What was I meant to do? Ignore it? No. I went straight to that sucker and bought a ticket to the top, enjoying the views of the city and the Rio de la Plata in the morning sun. My need to climb tall things having been satisfied, I finally descended and shortly thereafter found the Bisonte Palace hotel, my lodging place for the next few days. It was still a bit early for check in though, so I ditched my main bag and went off to get a feel for Buenos Aires.
Like most larger cities in South America, there’s a lot that’s relatable for Europeans. We’re all infected by the 20th century American virus, and Europe’s earlier colonial efforts have had plenty of effects. (That Torre Monumental was until the Falklands War known as the Tower of the English.) The Avenue 9 de Julio cuts through the heart of the city like the Champs-Élysées, and is named after Argentina’s Independence Day (coincidentally the day after I arrived). A little way downhill and to the east is a Docklands area that would be pretty familiar to Dublin visitors, though at a larger scale and with far taller buildings for the nearby financial institutions.
One thing that is entirely Buenos Aires’ own is the Costanera Sur, a wetlands park that flanks the city on the east, providing access to and views over the massive Río de la Plata estuary (only debatably a river in its own right, it’s the confluence of the Uruguay and Paraná rivers as they reach the sea). As it was winter when I visited and roamed around, there weren’t too many birds to be seen in the protected lagoons within the park, though I did spot some large, predatory-looking waders that I’d be fascinated to learn more about. Thankfully, I didn’t spot any snakes or alligators, despite warnings to alternately keep an eye out for them or not feed them. Which may amount to the same thing in some cases.
As I was tired, I didn’t do much more exploring beyond having a look round the locality of my hotel in order to secure some proper food and bottled water. Uniquely for this section of the trip, I have three whole days in this city before I have to depart, and with Independence Day set for the second of those days, I have good reason to be rested and ready to enjoy it. Also, what’s with the lack of Natural History museums in Buenos Aires? Don’t they have a lot of fascinating dinosaurs here? Sigh.
So, my timing in general wasn’t the greatest for Buenos Aires. The Monday I arrived saw most of the city closed or only half-heartedly open, and Independence Day the day after was much the same. If anything, the city was even more shut down as people took advantage of the public holiday. I tried and failed to get the hotel to do my laundry for me, and eventually spent part of the morning doing a loop around the centre of the city, exploring down the Florida shopping street, across to the obelisk in the centre of Av. 9 de Julio and the massive topiary “BA” that people were queuing to get their picture taken in front of, and beyond to the theatre district on the other side. Interesting but not highly active. Luckily, I had an appointment for the afternoon.
A friend of mine from my old Masters course in Dublin settled in Buenos Aires a few months ago, and I met him at Retiro Station at around 1400. Together we rambled southwards as far as Plaza de Mayo, with its pink-coloured Casa de Rosada, as he told me stories of his own travels across South America (far more extensive than mine), then eastwards across Puerto Madero, the Dublin Docklands-alike, to the edge of the Costanera park, where we sat down and had some very tasty Choripan Completo sandwiches, washed down with Coke.
In a straight line west from the Plaza de Mayo is the Plaza del Congreso, where we headed once fed. Once again there were signs of protestors, and of cops keeping their distance, but the main attraction was the architecture. I’m no expert, but some of the buildings are absolutely gorgeous, with tall, narrow domes and baroque decorations across their facades. The influences are a complete mix of European styles, including French, German, Italian, and classical, and simply walking along any of the old neighbourhoods would be a treat for any architecture fan.
For us, we followed the Av. Entre Ríos until we found ourselves surrounded by bookstores. There we dropped into the El Ateneo Grand Splendid, a former theatre converted into a bookstore and now featuring three or more floors of bookshelves arranged around the central hall. We’d made a serious loop around the city though, and the sun was setting, so food and drink were again an issue, so we headed back to the vicinity of my hotel. The On Tap craft beer bar was closed due to the holiday, but the Natacha cafe nearby could at least provide more straightforward refreshment. The rest of the evening was lost in The Temple Bar (!) just a few doors down, where slightly underwhelming beers mixed well enough with solid burgers and a subdued atmosphere (Argentines generally start eating and drinking later than us Irish) until it was time to part.
My last full day in Buenos Aires was the first day I got to see the city alive, crowded with people and traffic. It was also a day of walking a loop, the largest yet. First to Florida for medialunas and black tea in the Florida Garden cafe, then south along Av. Leandro Niceforo Alem, where I ran into a phalanx of cops in riot gear lurking near a crowd of protestors beating drums to a dance rhythm. I passed them all by and started my museum visiting at the Museo de la Casa Rosada, in the cellars of the presidential palace, where I experienced a run through the history of the presidency and a fascinating mural chamber in the company of a gaggle of schoolkids.
I dropped into the cathedral on the other side of Plaza de Mayo, but then I headed further south along Calle Defensa, under flyovers until I reached the Museo de Arte Moderno, which highlighted the fact that although pre-Colombian art was cut short, there are still art movements very much indigenous to this continent. In particular there were excellent exhibits from Max Gómez Canle, who mixes natural landscapes with unnatural intrusions to fascinating effect, and Flavia da Rin, who makes herself the subject of her art, altering her face and form to various effects.
After passing the fascinating San Telmo galeria market, the southernmost extent of my wanderings came at the Parque Leandro and the Museo Histórico Nacional, where I went through another run at the history of Argentina and South America at large, this time focusing on the revolutionary era and all leading to the sword of José de San Martín himself, guarded by a soldier in historic garb. (Many countries in South America have their own revolutionary hero: in Chile it’s Bernardo O’Higgins, in Argentina San Martín, and in Uruguay José Gervasio Artigas.)
The time had come to turn the loop though, so I headed west along Av. Caseros, all the way to an overpass that provided shelter to some of Buenos Aires’ many homeless. Beyond this was the Plaza Constitucion railway station, another reminder of the railway glories that Argentina once had. From there I turned north, first along Calle Salta and then along Av. Entre Ríos again, this time all the way north to the Recoleta cemetery.
Recoleta is one of the city’s most upmarket neighbourhoods, and the cemetery is where anyone who is anyone in Argentina is buried. Lanes lined with mausoleums intersect across this space, with some of the shrines still well tended while others have long since started to crumble. Almost all of them have been designed to within an inch of their lives, for what’s the point in being dead if you can’t still outdo your neighbours? This was also the first place in South America that I came across any free-roaming cats. As in Ancient Egypt, they still act as guardians of the dead.
I’d walked my feet off at this stage though, so it was time to close the loop. South along Av. Alvear with its ultra-swanky shops and hotels, to the French Embassy on Av. 9 de Julio. As a bonus, not only was I able to rest in the hotel for a while, I also bought some fridge magnets, got my ferry ticket printed for the next day, and picked up the laundry I’d left at a nearby laundrette that morning. All told, my most productive day in the city by a distance.
For my last evening, the plan had been to go for a steak dinner with my college friend, but it turned out that he couldn’t make it, so I headed out on my own later in the evening to Parrilla Pena, an old-school grill, where I was served enough steak and chips to put me into a meat coma. I struggled through a dessert of flan/creme caramel and dulce de leche, then staggered back to the hotel. Plans for a nightcap in On Tap were set to one side as I settled for an early night to get started on the hard work of digestion.
That was mostly it for Buenos Aires and Argentina. The next morning I was up early to purchase provisions and pack, then check out and stroll the ten minutes distance down to the ferry terminal. Buquebus do regular services across the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay, and I was taking the noon boat to Colonia. A quick passage through immigration and a short wait in the boarding lounge, then shuffling onto the ferry itself (paying a little extra for business class gets you a glass of sparkling wine and a comfy seat on the upper deck). Then the ferry itself took off into the mists wreathing the massive river and the country where I’d spent most of the past week was consigned to memory and these notes.
*Stray dogs are a fact of life in Chile and Argentina. Less so the further east you go, it seems though.
**I’m convinced that trail mix exists mostly to convince you that you’re not really that hungry. Or that almost anything else is actually edible.
Chile was always going to be a scramble. Perhaps we should have realised how much of a scramble it would be, but it was a unique situation, so I’ll cut ourselves some slack. The Lawyer, the Doctor, and I were in the country to view a total solar eclipse (a story I’ve already told), but we were also each in the Southern Hemisphere and South America for the first time, and while we were all experienced enough at travelling, we were well outside our comfort zones. For myself in particular, while I’m used to travelling alone, travelling with friends is a less common experience.
We’d divided up the duties before arriving, with the Doctor, who was landing the day before the rest of us, dealing with accommodation and myself with car hire. The latter wasn’t too hard to arrange, but the crowds flocking into the country for the same reasons as us, as well as the vagaries of Internet booking, meant that the Doctor had a harder time of it, dividing our time in Santiago between the Luciano K and Magnolia hotels, and arranging a beachside apartment in the Agua Marina complex in La Serena.
As the Lawyer and I flew in (on separate flights, mine delayed) to Santiago, the city wasn’t showing its best side. The morning light struggled through the clouds over the Andes and the coastal mountains that cradle the city, but the airport delivered us through customs and baggage reclaim without too much of a struggle. Our hotel had arranged a taxi to pick us up, with my Irish name replicated closely enough to be recognisable.
The drive into town took us past plenty of slices of the city, with the sights of wooden pallets stacked high, walls daubed with massive murals, and the now grey, overcast skies making me think of Belfast and the glorious 12th that it’s always a pleasure to avoid by being in a different country, and if possible a different continent.
Once we’d rendezvoused with the Doctor at the Luciano K and dropped our bags, we could do some proper exploring. The Doctor had done some reconnaissance the day before and showed us around the city centre, taking us up the Cerro Santa Lucía, a sculpted peak in the heart of Santiago, with monuments and viewing points aplenty. From up there, we could see the contradictions of the city’s architecture: like most older cities, it maps its history through eras of enthusiasm and decline, with modern skyscrapers rising amid older areas both wealthy and drab, occasionally preserved but often neglected.
For the rest of that day and the next, we experienced as much of Santiago as energy and jet lag would allow. The city is easy to walk, though there’s a good metro system if you’re in a hurry, and it boasts some excellent museums. The one we liked best was the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, which showed a full array of artworks from across South and Central America, limited though these were. It’s a sobering reminder of just what was lost when the New World encountered the Old—civilisations that were developing along parallel tracks to our own but were snuffed out and much of their art and memory lost with them, as well as the chance to ever know how they might have developed, given the chance.
As for nightlife, we weren’t the most active partakers. We became fans of the restaurant Holy Moly and the nearby Opera de Catedral bar, with burgers and beer at the former and pisco sours (and more beer) at the latter. Despite it being the heart of winter it was still worth enjoying the rooftop bar at Opera de Catedral, but we probably enjoyed being in the cellar of Holy Moly more, especially when the Copa America quarter final was on, and we were treated to a penalty shootout between Chile and Colombia. (A return trip to watch the semifinal between Chile and Peru after the eclipse was sadly less successful for our adopted team.) The Doctor and I also ventured across the river to the Cerro San Cristobal and to the Gran Torre Santiago at the Costanera Center in Santiago’s financial district. Both offered incredible views of the city and the mountains surrounding it, with the tower in particular worth visiting for the well-designed viewing floor and skydeck.
When the time came to drive to La Serena, our base for the northern half of our trip, my car booking proved to have been a solid one, though the car we were given was an odd Chinese brand, with Tesla trappings in the form of a massive LCD control panel, but little of the Tesla refinement (a delay of a few seconds when trying to use the screen, assuming it responded at all). Still, the five hour drive north was pleasant enough, with a single stop at a crowded filling station enough to refresh and refill us. As driver, I didn’t get the full benefit of the often stunning views as this section of the Panamerican Highway moved from mountainous terrain to rocky coastlines, but the Lawyer and the Doctor certainly enjoyed it, and the road was never too crowded, even at the regular toll booths.
We arrived in La Serena early enough that it wasn’t yet jam-packed with eclipse watchers. Our apartment, while chilly, was right beside the beach, so we did get to stroll along the sands and enjoy a Pacific sunset, in between which we were interviewed by a Brazilian reporter—one of many present for the event. Decent burgers but slow service were had at Bastad & Burger right beside our apartment, and we had an early night for the early start we were expecting the next day.
Of the actually eclipse experience I’ve already written, so for the morning let’s just say that we were well organised and ahead of most of the crowds, getting out onto Route 5 (the Panamerica) and climbing into into the mountains of the southern Atacama desert along several switchback sections. We’d read our instructions well and followed the signs to the La Silla base camp rather than the eclipse party camp that the normal road would have taken us to. A fleet of minibuses took us up to the mountaintop, where we joined hundreds of others in waiting for and enjoying a close-to-ideal eclipse experience.
Descending in the darkness and driving back along the 5, things got a little more tricky. The switchback sections of the road were navigated without too much trouble, but long before we hit La Serena we hit a tailback. One that went on and on, keeping us stop-starting and crawling for an hour and a half before we reached the lane closure that was the partial cause. That and the numbers of cars leaving the eclipse viewing sites were a warning of what the next day would bring.
Our last day in La Serena saw us trying to get around some bank and card issues that had been only partly sorted out during the car hire experience. This entailed leaving the beachfront area of the city behind for the commercial centre, crossing the dirt-tracked area in between, and navigating the city’s one-way system before we could even begin to deal with the banks and get the funds we needed for our accommodation. Still, we managed it in time and had one last look at the beach before getting in the car and setting off at around noon. A little later than planned, but a five hour drive and eight hours before the car was due back was plenty of leeway, right?
Wrong. The Panamerican south to Santiago was a nightmare. The one sensible thing we did was to fill up the car as early as we could, as every subsequent filling station featured ever-longer queues. Every toll station along the road south now resulted in a massive tailback as everyone quit the area of the eclipse for the capital and/or the airport. None of the tailbacks were as bad as the one we’d endured the night before, but together they added up, and it was long after dark that we found ourselves at the outskirts of Chile’s capital, trying to follow the signs for the airport. (On our trip north, we’d missed a turnoff and ended up heading south through the city instead, eventually restoring ourselves to the right direction through guesswork and drama.)
After some tense moments, we finally pulled into the car rental site with ten minutes to spare and gratefully returned our off-brand Chinese SUV without any more scratches than it had when we got it (but quite a bit more desert dust). A shuttle to the airport and a taxi into town at last brought us to the Hotel Magnolia, by far the most luxurious of our lodgings. We had just enough time to venture out to Holy Moly for one last round of beers and burgers, as well as Pisco sours before and after in the hotel bar.
That was more or less it for me though. While the Doctor and the Lawyer had another full day in Santiago to shop and explore, I was heading for the bus station the next morning, after eating my fill at the Magnolia’s excellent breakfast buffet. Farewells were said and I was off, first on the metro and then (after an hour’s delay) on the bus heading east into the Andes, where tunnels, valleys and switchbacks took me above the snow line and into Argentina, my last view of Chile being down a narrow rocky valley into the sunset land beyond.
Belem Tower, perhaps the best known sight in Lisbon, if not all of Portugal.
Dublin around the time of the Ides of March is a perilous place to be, packed with tourists and locals eager for an excuse to party and imbibe a beer or two. Getting from one end of O’Connell St to the other can take up most of St. Patrick’s Day if you’re unwary. Most years, I stay at home while the parade’s on or make the most of the long weekend in quieter gatherings with friends. This time I took myself out of the country entirely and spent five days in Portugal instead.
This isn’t a thorough description of what I did on that trip. If you want that, you can check it out here: Portugal 2018 What it is is a brief run through the best parts of the trip, which took in two cities, lots of walking, and nearly as much in the way of custard tarts. I’m not sure how well the latter two balanced out in the end, but I hadn’t put on any weight by the time I came back.
(Yes, this travel diary is exceptionally out of date at this stage. Such are the perils of following a procrastinating writer.)
I’ve only been to one of these places before, so I’ll focus on the other one. There’ll be a bit about Belgium at the end, but mostly this is about Luxembourg. A word of warning though: I’m writing this under the influence of a day of travel compounded by a 90 minute delay for a Ryanair flight. So take every other word with a grain of salt.
Luxembourg was the third micro-nation I hit on this trip, but it’s on the edge of deserving this status. It’s bigger than most of the European micro-nations put together, and where San Marino and Liechtenstein were small enough that you could see from one side to the other on a clear-ish day, Luxembourg is big enough for its corners to be just as scruffy as those of larger nations.
What Luxembourg does have in common with its smaller brethren is that it’s rich. Having sat at the heart of European affairs since the days of the European Coal and Steel Community, the old city is a commendably neat and tidy revamp of a former walled citadel now turned fortress of finance. There are some very expensive, very shiny cars driving around the place, is what I’m trying to say.
Not that you’d recognise the place as a former fortress if you approached it from the west side. Where massive bastions once stood are now broad avenues and neatly tended gardens. It’s only on the eastern side of the city, where the last remnants of the original Bock fortress stand, that you can get an idea of how valuable this place used to be. Founded in the tenth century (there’s a whole legend involving a river mermaid), the Bock commanded a view over the river below, and over the centuries tunnels and storerooms were carved out of the rock below,
You can still wander those passages, and I did so on the first night I arrived. The last tour group was leaving as I arrived, so I had the place more or less to myself for the next hour and half—there are arrows placed in the ground pointing to the exit, but there’s no set path through the narrow passages and the caverns that open out onto views on the valley below. It was only when I became worried they’d close the place with me in it that I started to pay attention to the arrows and found my way out.
Luxembourg in the day is a much neater and more understandable prospect. The national museum covers the thousand-year story of the nation over several floors, the lowest of which are carved into the rock below the city, with massive models demonstrating how Luxembourg was shaped over the centuries. Once, when the House of Luxembourg were kings of the Holy Roman Empire, the fate of nations was decided here. Now the decisions made in council chambers are more abstract but no less weighty.
In the end, Luxembourg felt a little neat and sanitised. Like San Marino, everything has been cleaned and polished, and you have to dive down into the valley to get a better sense of the place. A special mention ought to go to the viewing platform north of the Bock, where you can stand on a glass floor and contemplate the multi-storey drop below.
So then, on to Brussels and the end of the trip. I’ve been here multiple times and like both the people and the place. So apart from an evening of a little food and a little drink, I wanted to see if I could look at something further afield. The options were the battlefield at Waterloo (to annoy someone who’ll never read this) or the beach at Knokke, to complete my journey from the Mediterranean to the north sea. Of course, the beach won.
Not that I had much time to spend there. Courtesy of Belgium’s leisurely trains and the extremely long avenue leading from the train terminus to the beach, I had no more time at the water’s edge than it took to take a couple of photos and wet my feet. (In point of fact, I’d misread the timetable and had around half an hour more than I thought, but a few minutes was all I got.)
Which brought the whole journey to an end. What had started in the parched streets of Palermo on the island of Sicily, had taken me north through Italy, across the Alps to Switzerland, on to the familiar city of Brussels, hitting three small nations along the way, came to a close on the sands of the North Sea, caught between tourism and a massive seaport on the horizon. Yes, there would be a journey back to Brussels and on to the airport and from thence to Dublin, but that was it. Another journey ended.
I’ll get around to absorbing it and adding any extra thoughts in a while. For now, thanks for reading and I hope you’ve enjoyed these posts. More detailed descriptions of what I got up to will appear in the Travels section above soon.
There’s going to be a lot packed into this one, so pay attention. As soon as you leave Milan, headed for Tirano, you’re in the Alps, racing along the shores of Lake Como towards the mountains. To an extent, this doesn’t even feel like Italy anymore, or at least not the Italy I started in, back in Palermo. This is Alpine territory, of high, green meadows and bells ringing in valleys overlooked by mountains that rear up, shouldering their rocky peaks above a mantle of forest.
If you like trains at all, I’d recommend the Bernina Express as the way to see the Alps. From comfortable seats before panoramic windows, you’ll have a view of clear mountain streams, those green valleys, viaducts, mountains, glaciers, high lakes, and everything else that the Swiss have spent centuries learning how to build on or through. I saw it in the late summer, when green was the predominant colour, but in the winter it all turns to white and the experience is said to be every bit as impressive.
As for what was waiting on the other side, Liechtenstein is an odd little country, with an emphasis on the little. I’d been planning on staying two days, but two things cut that short: First, I saw most of Vaduz in the process of one morning stroll (to give you an idea of scale, the map of the city includes house numbers), and second, it’s stupidly expensive. Which makes sense given that it’s a tax haven of sorts, and it did give me a bit of warning with regard to what Zurich was going to be like, but it was still a shock.
So I spent one night and a few hours there instead, enjoying the clear mountain air and the views, which were only a little spoiled by clouds that cut off the tops of the mountains. Liechtenstein’s tiny territory is bordered by the Rhine and the mountains, and it takes little more than half an hour to cross from one to the other. Perhaps the most fun thing to visit was the football stadium—they’re very proud of the national team here, for all that they’re the ultimate in European minnows. Or at least they were until Gibraltar somehow got a team of their own.
Stroll over the bridge across the Rhine and you’re in Switzerland. You don’t even have to do that much if you’re a mobile phone—mine kept swapping between Swiss and Liechtenstein carriers every time I approached the river. When I eventually took the bus out of town, in search of the Sargans Bahnhof where’d I’d get the train to Zurich, this was one reminder of my travelling ways I was glad to leave behind.
In truth, there’s not much culturally to separate the two nations. Maybe the Swiss are a little more uptight, at least on first encountering them. Unlike most places I’ve been, where they’ll switch to English as soon as they figure out where you’re from, the Swiss will assume that you know what you’re doing if you try to speak a language not your own. So be wary if you want to try out your foreign tongues here.
As mentioned, Zurich is expensive. Evidence of this can be seen in the houses that line the waterfront of the Zurichsee and the slopes to the east, and proof can be found every time that feel like going for a drink or eating out. Try to keep that to a minimum if you want your funds to survive a few days here. I’m generally not too proscriptive when it comes to spending money on holidays, but even so I couldn’t justify visiting a restaurant with €40 main courses.
Saving money is possible though: there are 24-hour and 72-hour travel passes, which will speed your way on the many public transport options and a lot of museums. Mine took me on a round trip of the northern half of the Zurichsee, down from the heights of the Uetliberg mountain to the west of the city (some might say it would have been more sensible to take the tram up, then walk down, instead of the other way around), through the excellent Landesmuseum and its exhibits, and then up the eastern slopes of the city too, to where the city zoo sits right next door to the FIFA world headquarters.
(There’s a joke to be made here about amoral creatures with insatiable appetites, trapped in a structure that should never have been built, but I’m sure someone else can construct it better than I could.)
In short, if you make a bit of an effort, you can enjoy Zurich on something resembling a sensible budget. If you make the most of the Co-Op supermarkets that are everywhere, you’ll probably even manage much better than I did. It’s worth the effort too. While I loved Liechtenstein for its quiet isolation, I enjoyed Zurich for its reserved honesty. There’s plenty to do and see, and lots of narrow alleys, steep streets, hidden parks and other places to discover. The Landesmuseum exhibit on Swiss history is open, if regretfully so, about how Switzerland’s history of democracy, neutrality and isolationism has had its downsides. If we could be so honest about ourselves in Ireland, it would be a big step forward.
Let’s start with San Marino, as it was the reason that I was in Rimini in the first place, rather than being a bonus added on to a stay in Italy’s Adriatic beach resort. Founded in 301AD, if you believe the local legends, San Marino rests on and around Monte Titano and likes to refer to itself as the “Titanic Republic”. Which probably counts as overcompensating, given that it’s the third smallest nation in Europe (only Vatican City and Monaco are smaller, and those two are essentially just cities).
It’s not like it really needs to compensate for anything, as San Marino offers plenty to stun visitors. Perched on its mountain peak, it commands views across a good chunk of northeastern Italy. Rimini and the Adriatic are easily visible on a clear day, and the valleys of Italy’s more mountainous interior are just as open to viewers from on high. Maintaining your independence across the centuries was undoubtedly made much easier due to being able to see pretty much any threat long before it became a problem.
The first impression of San Marino, just off the tour bus from Rimini, might be a little underwhelming though. This isn’t a picturesque ruin: it’s a working, living city (albeit one heavily weighted towards tourism). The stonework is neatly chiselled and well maintained, and the streets are spotlessly clean. It can all seem a bit quaint and even kitschy. The overabundance of tourist-trap shops doesn’t help, even when half of them also seem to be selling guns.
Step away from the well-groomed northern part of the mountain though and you’ll find more interesting sights. Clean and cobbled streets give way to (well-tended) mountain paths that lead up to and between the three towers that protected San Marino in days gone by. Each of them are well preserved, but their sites and prospects are still breathtaking, especially that of the lonely third tower, a single edifice that rises up on the edge of a cliff, commanding views to the east, south and west.
As a tick on the list of nations to visit goes, San Marino didn’t disappoint. I just wished that I could have learned more about it. As mentioned, tourism seems to trump all, and the State Museum is a little light on the actual history of San Marino, preferring to load up on local artefacts and fill in the gaps with strange items from foreign lands donated by local grandees. It’s all a little lightweight, and given that the other museums nearby include a Museum of Torture and a Museum of Vampires, detailed history proves thin on the ground.
Oddly, Rimini fares better on that front. I say oddly, because my first experience of Rimini was of a battlefield of a beach, occupied by an army of deckchairs. This place is resort central, and any Italian charm is flattened under the need to welcome and feed as many guests as possible, divest them of their money, and shuffle in the next crowd. Not to my taste (though I did enjoy the chance for an early morning dip in the Adriatic).
Venture onto the other side of the (railroad) tracks though, and something different emerges. Rimini was once Ariminum, a coastal town formerly inhabited by the Etruscans and others. Plenty of Roman relics remain, not least in the layout of the compact city centre. It’s not a large place by any means and is likely dwarfed by the beach resort that shares its name, but it’s worth strolling through. For one thing, it has lots of charm in its own right, and for another that stroll might just take you across a 1,995-year-old bridge built by the Emperor Tiberius, which still serves as a (single lane) crossing for cars. How many times in your life are you going to get to walk across something like that?
In short, San Marino is definitely the big draw here and deservedly so. Its mountaintop vistas and winding streets are worth spending a good chunk of a day exploring, though you’re likely to tire of it long before it tires of trying to sell you stuff. Rimini, on the other hand, is worth persevering with: beneath, or rather behind, the trappings of a modern day beach resort is a charming little town with plenty of its own history and culture to root around in. I’m glad I had the chance to do so, and it made me happier about deciding to stay there in the first place.
(Apologies for the delay on this one – things have been hectic since I got home. Well, hectic-ish. Next one will be along sooner.)
This is going to be all about Pompeii. Well, almost. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who’s had a look at my bookshelves or knows of my historical preferences. As much as the Romans could be an unpleasant bunch, they had an unrivalled influence on western civilisation, and there’s enough of their writings and edifices that remain to get a pretty strong idea of what life in their time was like.
Pompeii, that most famous relic of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., demonstrates both just how much of ancient Rome we have access to and how distant we still are from it. Streets of fast-food vendors, sports stadiums, the mansions of the suburban rich, and brothels in the back alleys of the red light district are all there to be seen. However, so are stepping stones across streets that allowed citizens to keep their feet out of the rivers of sewage that flowed downhill. So while a lot of Rome might have been familiar to us, there’s a lot more that would have given us pause. (More on that later.)
A guided tour through Pompeii is a good introduction to the city that Vesuvius buried, but you ought to set aside more time to explore afterwards, as no tour is going to do any more than hit some of the highlights. Two of the most impressive parts of the city—the Villa of the Mysteries and the Amphitheatre—lie at diametrically opposite parts of the site, and most tours will stick to the central section instead.
To complete your Pompeiian experience, there are a couple of options. You could visit Herculaneum, the other victim of Vesuvius, which I didn’t do, or you could head to the National Archaeological Museum, which I did. That museum is split between the relics of Pompeii and the Farnese Collection, which is one of the finest gatherings of classical sculpture in the world, outdone only (possibly?) by the Pope’s own collection in the Vatican. At least one of the Farneses was Pope too, so there’s been some cross-pollination.
That collection certainly shouldn’t be missed, but the Pompeiian relics are just as interesting. The mosaics and frescoes are some of the best you’ll see anywhere, including the famous mosaic of Alexander the Great from the House of the Faun (a copy of it now sits in the original house in Pompeii). Rather more amusing is the collection of Roman erotica that’s tucked away into a corner of the museum, guarded by a warning (in Italian) that kids aged 14 or less maybe should go get their culture somewhere else.
You see, one of the things that the excavation of Pompeii did was to puncture forever the image of Romans as dignified elderly types, delivering fine speeches to other dignified elderly types. Whatever truth there is to that image, the Romans were also open and frank about sex and obsessed with dicks. (all right—phalluses.) Even the moralistic Augustus was said to have his own private book of porn. The museum’s collection of erotica includes a range of frescoes kept away from the general public and some completely explicit sculptures, including a Mercury adorned with multiple penises, Pan having sex with a goat, and a winged dick suspended from a chain. Frankly, after roaming these rooms for a little while, you’ll run out of synonyms for male genitalia and need a breather. Or possibly a cold shower.
Naples, much like Palermo, only really comes alive at night. Once the sun has gone, people crowd the shopping district that runs downhill from the National Archaeological Museum, past the Piazza Dante and along the Via Toledo. Perhaps it was just that it was a Friday night, but it certainly seemed to me like everyone was out and having a good time. At least for as long as the weather held—before the night was through, the night was rent by a particularly impressive storm, with Jupiter tossing around thunderbolts a couple of time every minute.
Luckily for me, I was already safe indoors and away from the torrential rain at that stage, having circled back to my lodgings via the Piazza del Plebiscito and the impressively solid Castel Nuovo. Still, if there’s any fitting way to end a visit to the vicinity of Vesuvius, it’s with a demonstration of the fact that natural forces are to be cowered before whenever they start to throw their weight around.