Monthly Archives: January 2016

Toulon Take Two

There are possibly very few that would land from a holiday the other side of the world in polar opposite conditions to the UK on a Monday evening and even contemplate recovering from a sleepless flight, jet lag & post amazing holiday blues to be up at 2am to shower and be in a taxi for a bus to Gatwick at 3am on the following Friday morning. But then I am of course unique!! (Many would say ‘special’ but let’s steer clear of that term shall we?!!)

Last here in mid November for a long weekend without rugby owing to the atrocities that occurred in Paris on the 13th of November, it felt only right to me to be making the return trip to this rather beautiful town of Toulon in the South of France. Temperature 10 degrees higher than the UK and far sunnier (nothing tho compared to what I had left in Cuba last weekend however). Time flies so quickly and one can only live to regret. This time (Fri eve) last week I was in a deserted island – white sand crystal blue waters in the Caribbean. This week I’m in the South of France and next week I’ll be preparing my house in Bath ahead of it being photographed to go on the market on the 18th of this month – all being well.  Pretty sure that the rest of this year will not be quite as jet set but it certainly feels like my feet have hardly touched the ground in 2016 thus far!

We are in the same hotel and so the sights sounds and surroundings are, thankfully, all to familiar. I think that this helped in my decision to book to come out with Bath Supporters Travel without consulting friends if anyone else was coming too. Having booked it was great to hear that I won’t be ‘alone’. I tried a nap on arrival which failed miserably thanks to some maintenance work including a drill taking place in the next room just as I was nodding off. I headed out for a walk and a beer before heading to a familiar pizza place on the harbor for some food. The water appeared calm, yet the masts of the boats in the harbor were all dancing away. Sitting watching them all dancing around in the harbor did make me feel a little bizarre – couldn’t work out after a while (or was it the wine?!!) if it was me or the boats that were bobbing around when time came to get the bill!


Saturday was a lazy day for me. I’d decided against the Supporters’ Travel trip to Marseilles and wine tasting as I wanted some relaxing time on my own and not to be rushing around like a loon. Having already been to this city I didn’t feel the urge to sight see. Instead I wondered around the harbor a little and had coffees and hot chocolates and people watched. By far the best activity. The day was somewhat overcast as well and so the photos would not have beaten those taken on the last trip. There were certainly not the mass of Bath shirts present in every bar and cafe as there were back in November and I had traveled over only with 17 others and not the previous 40 odd. it was rather sad but then also understandable that those that came last time might not have been able to have made the return journey.

Match day finally came around and I sat in the Harbor with a beer before hand soaking up the match day atmosphere. There were many more Bath Supporters around town now in all of the bars and restaurants as well as the Touloun fans – the harbor had returned to the hive of activity that it was the last time that we were here. The sun was out – your couldn’t really ask for a more glorious day for rugby. My friend Virginie had driven all the way over from Montpellier (which I later found out was a 4 hour drive – had I known it was that far I would not have suggested her coming all that way!) and arrived about an hour before the game and so I waited for her in the Reception of the hotel as it was going to be easier for us to find each other there with the amount of people milling around.

Once inside the stadium we found our seats relatively easily and caught up and took in the ground and the surrounding area. While the city is beautiful, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the stadium has lots of beautiful views, its mainly several blocks of flats many of whom would have excellent views over the ground, for free! The seats were as uncomfortable as ever. I still don’t understand why the French stadiums never have the supporting back to the seats – just the scooped out seat. It was interesting to notice as well teat the crowd was once again fenced in. I assume to stop anyone from running onto the pitch either during or after the game? We had ordered our tickets from Toulon direct and so we were not surrounded by Bath fans, but there were a few dotted around us. Before the match was anywhere near started we had sung both of the National anthems of both teams. I found this rather strange but apparently it is what they do at Toulon before each European Match. We had a song that was sung by about 6 gentlemen int he middle of the pitch which Virgine had described as the song of the Provencal region. That seemed to go on and on and not a huge amount of audience participation but there were still quite a number of supporters from both sides to enter the stadium. The final chant before the kick off was the Pillou Pillou  essentially – Toulon’s version of the Hakka. I have no idea what he is saying or if indeed it is meant to be understood but it was sung/chanted by ALL of the Toulon crowd with him. And then kick off happened and we were under way.


As per usual many confused looks from near by supporters over the volume of the shouting out of the mouth of a female, but I was, as always determined that the Bath boys would hear that though we might not be mighty in numbers we were mighty in noise and passion. A fairly even match was played and certainly a performance from the boys that as a supporter you could be proud of. We may not have ended up in winning but we showed that we CAN play as a team and show some passion, something that has been sadly lacking from our game as of late. Spirits weren’t too down heartened post match as we could have been slaughtered. Sadly we are highly unlikely to win or even come runner up in our group to progress any further in Europe this season, but then maybe that what we need a a team at the moment – just to concentrate on one competition?


  
An early start on the Monday morning did not leave me partying all night on the Sunday evening, I spent some time with Virgine and her mother post match, followed by dinner and then bed for me whilst I left others to carry on showing the French how the Brits drink post rugby. The last European weekend of the season for me – I wasn’t heading on to Dublin next weekend. Who knows where we will end up next season supporting the boys, hopefully another new city to explore for me!

 

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Havana good time . . . 

The last day of the holiday was an opportunity to catch up on a load of things that we still wanted to do or see more of that which we saw on our first couple of days in the capital. For many of us the first stop of the day was the Havana Club Rum museum. So we headed out there on foot only to discover that it was closed owing to New Year and the holidays. Gutted! We still took a few pictures and if course couldn’t resist a mojito at 10am in the morning – well some of us did anyway!!


Managed to lose whoever it was I had planned to do various other bits & pieces with and so I ambled around slowly on the way back to the Parque Central not far from the hotel where I got lots more photos including of Hotel Ingleterra as well as the Grand Teatro and the Capitolio Nacional which was covered in scaffolding sadly so didn’t look as majestic as I had hoped. I partook in a coconut water – fresh coconut which was in ice with the top lobbed off and a straw in. I took in the busy-ness of the square in the heat of the midday sun. It was awesome. 
Several if the others were partaking in the atmosphere on the terrace of Hotel Inglaterra as we said goodbye to a few that were not leaving on the main flight majority of us were booked on. I coordinated to head out in the open top car ride in one if the awesome retro cars (originals mind). Ivor chose a fantastic bright pink one and off we went on a tour of Havana. I had my bearings ok for most of it as our guide wasn’t brilliant at being, well a guide! The trip down the Malecon with the huge waves crashing over the wall were amazing – managed to miss them all when trying to film them in my phone – mighty irritating!


I also headed to Paseo del Prado which was not far from the hotel and meant to be very picturesque – glad I did amble down there as it was indeed stunning. I headed into Sloppy Joe’s for a final mojito before heading back to the hotel for a final shower and packing before heading on the long journey home to 2016 in the UK.

Che goes up again in my estimations 

After an early start of dragging what felt like a dead body in my case across half of Trinidad (ok so we were the closest possibly but pulling a case on the cobbled streets at stupid o’clock in the morning = not my idea of fun and made the whole short walk feel endless!) we headed out to a scenic viewpoint of the surrounding area and posed for a quick group photo before heading on to Santa Clara.

The whole group (with out Marlon – our guide)

Santa Clara is one of the largest and liveliest cities in Cuba – so the guide book tells me – essentially owing to its large student population I guess. It is also the sort of main place of pilgrimage for any Che Guevara fans too as it is here that his body was finally laid to rest. It’s inland from Trinidad in a sort of north west direction almost in the centre of the island of Cuba (that would be of course, Linda, the infamous LANDLOCKED island of Cuba!)

The main focus of the city now really (bar the University) is the Complejo Monumental Ernesto Che Guevara. Its on the south west side of the city about 1km from the centre and it is here that gigantic, no seriously, MASSIVE monument (pretty classic Cuban revolutionary style – big, bold & concrete!!) to Che lies. There are grey steps leading up to four big chunky monoliths atop the tallest is the impressive, dominating statue of Che – dressed in his usual military gear and on the move with his rifle in hand. Spreading out in front of this is the Plaza de la Revolución – similar to that in Havana and mainly just an open space with two huge poster boards the far end of the square to the monument with revolutionary slogans inspired by Che himself.

By far the largest Cuban flag I’d seen was flying here

Me with the mural of the march from the Sierra Maestra to Santa Clara & the eventual victory over Batista’s troops

You can just about squeeze me in the bottom of the picture when trying to get the whole monument in one shot!

Trying to show just how big the monument was at one end if Plaza dear Revolución

Underneath this monument and sort if behind was where you entered the Mausoleum and the Museo and Memorial al Che. No bags and obviously no cameras were allowed at all in either of these and in the mausoleum itself, clearly no talking. The queue was long and it appeared that those of us wantibg to go in, pay our respects and so on were all lined up according to tour group and were being called up a group at a time.

The mausoleum is a softly lit (and cool which was very much appreciated at this time if day as I was melting) the atmosphere of respect and reverance was moving. Che’s remains lie in a kind of tomb in which has an eternally flickering flame, also here are the remains of several of the Peruvians, Bolivians and Cubans that died with him in Bolivia, each of whom are commemorated by a simple stone portrait which has been set into the wall.  An ideal place of remembrance for such an icon in Cuban history and indeed culture.

The small museum dedicated to his life was fascinating with a whole load of photos on the walls showing Che from his early childhood through to his life as a rebel in the Sierra Maestra to his role as a Cuban statesman in the early years of the revolution. It was amongst these photos that I spied him playing rugby and it transpires that he once played for Argentina! This made me chuckle a lot. Other than photos there were other bits and pieces that he had owned and worn throughout his life as well as a plethora of his guns, I’d switched off by this stage as while interesting, I’m not sure I wanted to see lots of the guns that he used in combat but still it gave you quite a good picture of his entire life rather than just the sections linked to the  revolution.

Once we had finished looking around there I popped out to see the memorial cemetery which was further back behind the monument. Here were the memorial graves of a number of the casualties of Che’s rebel column – Column 8 which he led from Sierra Maestra at Santa Clara. As they pass away even up to now they are being added with their rank and dates of their life to the cemetery. Quite moving.

Our next stop before we carried on to Havana was another monument that is key in the history of the city. The Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado. Essentially it’s the derailed wagons of an armoured train that have laid in this spot since they were toppled off the tracks during the Battle of Santa Clara back in 1958. That was between the dictator of the time – Batista‘s forces and about 300 rebels led by Che & is believed to be one of the last military encounters of the Revolution. Batista had sent over 10 thousand troops to the centre of the island from Havana to try and prevent the rebels getting any closer to the city – one of the main components of the defensive manoeuvre was an armoured train. Che took the upper hand by using only a small number of his troops to use a bulldozer to raise the rails of the tracks where upon the train crashed and they advised 408 officers & soldiers within it who soon after surrendered. The train it’s self was used by the rebels as a base for further attacks. It’s quite a weird monument for such a historic moment as it’s essentially sort of strewn all over the road with traffic passing close to it and almost as if it’s a stumbled upon monument rather than a site of huge significance to the Cubans. Clearly a must for a photo or two – it literally has been just left where it had fallen.

Even the bulldozer was still there!!

Obviously a few additions to the scene to remind people of the significance of the location

Traffic gayly passing by as if this were just another piece of road with no historical significance?!

From here we headed to the same hotel as we were in for our first few in Havana a shower and some severe repacking was needed before I went anywhere or did  anything! We had our last meal altogether with Marlon as well of course and no trip on the bus was EVER going to be without another rendition of Bilandos and so we sat – right outside the hotel all of us partaking in one final sing song before heading in (or out!).

 

Cruising the Caribbean on a catamaran 

Im not sure if there really is a better way to spend the first day of a new year other than chilling out on a deserted island. This was one of two optional extras some of the group had made the choice of a trek into the countryside and a visit to a waterfall over a catamaran trip out to Caya Blanco. As much as I’d have loved to have had the time to do both I had been looking forward to this trip especially from the moment I booked the trip. 

It was a fairly smooth ride over to the island where we were to be spending all day. There was the option to go onto the island straight away or stay on the boat and do some snorkling a bit further round. A few if us decided to settle on the beach over the snorkling. I’m not a massive fan and there were not that many to go round the entire boat. We got the drinks in and enjoyed the peacefulness of the island. 

I made a run for the sea – it was just calling me – mid way through a conversation with Dot. Throwing clothes off as I got closer. The water was warm and crystal clear and the sandy beach was white. Picture postcard beautiful. The only disturbance was the massive amount of hermit crabs crawling literally everywhere. Quite off putting in case one randomly climbed over you.

Here Dot & I can be seen putting the world to rights after several rum & cokes!!


There was another lady not from our group who was enjoying the tranquility of the location as well but when some of the others were chatting and giggling in the sea she shushed them. Never shush a giggly girl – it will just make it all much worse! I think the house level raised a notch after that!! 

We had lunch on the island as well and it was lovely to be in such heat by the water. The iguanas behind the kitchen were really quite amazing, such prehistoric looking creatures surrounded by a carpet of the hermit crabs of all sizes. 



Once we had our fill of the sunshine and turned a wee bit pink we headed back to the mainland on the catamaran and thankfully the coach was waiting for us to take us back to the main square. We went to try and find the place that we saw selling ice-creams yesterday but sadly it was closed which was a real shame. We did, however find some pretty impressive Pina Coladas which most definitely did the job and as a result we had to have two rounds of them!! Delicious 

L-R: Dot, Katy, Becky, Me, Nicky, Lisa

Pina colada’s – the best ones EVER, made even better by the awesome company

Leading the crowds into 2016

Didn’t have too bad a nights sleep with the air con on full blast and the mozzie killing machine whirring around too I was quite surprised all things considered! Breakfast was find out on the balcony and we met the owner – well I assume that she is as she introduced her self to me as Lydia.

We were having a walking tour of Trinidad this morning with Marlon as our guide. The fact that we had pretty much seen most of it last night int he dark meant that the walk was relatively quick! We met at the usual spot of the green hotel in the square (thankfully the shortest walk for us) before heading off to tread the cobbled streets of the rather quaint colonial town. One of our food stops was at the local ration provisions store.

Like most communist regimes food is rationed in Cuba. Everyone is issued with a booklet for their rations which they take to a special store where they can collect their rations on a monthly basis. Prices and amounts per person are set by the government. This is to ensure that no one in Cuba starves. It is the basics so that you wont starve but it is not enough to live on. Whether young or old, in employment or not, sick or healthy – everyone gets provisions of rice, corn flour, sugar, salt, soap, coffee, fruit preserve, eggs, toothpaste, evaporated milk, oil, pasta and some meat. The get for example – 5lb of rice a month for 0.25 pesos. As good as that sounds they don’t always have everything available all of the time. They have, for example, at the moment a shortage of salt and no evaporated milk so instead they ave powdered. Once you have your monthly allowance (which gets checked off in the ration book) that’s it. No more. There are other stores where you can buy goods, buy they are a lot more expensive. Cubans are all paid in pesos by the government and only a few CUCs. The pesos are used for the rationed items mainly as well as for paying the household bills and the CUCs are for buying the ‘luxury’ items.

One of the group chatted to a security guard at a bank and established that he was paid 300 pesos and 26 CUCs a month. As you will be able to see from the image below – the total amount for the food for a month is only 8.67 pesos. There are other expenses that are really cheap for the locals, such as bus tickets. The real value of things in in CUCs and it is really only those that deal with tourists that are paid in this ‘luxury’currency. We tipped local tour guides on average 25 CUC on our day trips for example and our bus driver got 200 CUCs (he was with us all week) as suggested by our guide for the week who got 310 CUCs from donations from all of the group. Its really only these people that can afford to have mobiles (an iPhone handset cost around 600 CUCs) and rum and smart fancy clothes. One CUC is worth 24 pesos. so if you are wanting to buy a bottle of rum or 3 CUCs but don’t have any, you can also buy one for 72 pesos. This is another reason why the lines are so long at all of the exchange houses as it is not only tourists changing money but Cubans changing from pesos to CUC and the other way around. 300 pesos doesnt really last you very long at all. Private businesses(self-employment) were allowed and encouraged by the government in the early 90’s after the dissolution of the Soviet Union (Cuba’s main trading partner) left them in a dire state. Cubans don’t get to keep all of their hard earned money though – they still have to give a percentage of what they own to the government (I see this as taxes but Marlon our guide was adamant that no Cubans were taxed). (Thanks to Val – a fellow traveller – who remembered most of this info in a post of hers that I have ‘borrowed’ the info from)


It was a really heartening experience I must say. I was pretty taken back by the poverty and the fact that in the 21st century here was a country still surviving on rations. Another sample of living in a time warp – I thought all of the old cars and joy of no advertising splashed everywhere was enough! Opposite this shop was the shop where you could also go and buy your bread and the the markets were the places for fruit and vegetables. Though most of their vegetables seemed to be root veg and the rest such as carrots and green beans were tinned. You would have thought in a country that uses their land so much to grow their fruit and veg but yet no green veg seemed to be grown – maybe it was the wrong time of year or climate – I don’t know. Their fresh fruit though – amazing!

From here we headed to a museum which was, as so many of the museums are, a former accommodation for one of the rich families of the area that has now been turned into Museo de Historia Municipal museum logging the details and items from the various years of living in Trinidad and included several rather fine pieces of furniture. You had to pay 5 CUC to take photos (seeing as you only pay 1 CUC to get in I wondered if this was just a ploy to get tourists and that maybe they didn’t need to give much of this money to the government? Is that a bit too skeptical of me? Well I coffed up none the less! There were amazing views out over the red slate roof tops of colonial Trinidad in the tower where we saw the only example of health and safety in Cuba thus far this trip as people were being restricted from ascending the tower too many at a time. The staircase was wooden and pretty steep, but definitely worth it as you will see from the photos below.


From here we headed up to visit a local artist and his wife not far from Plaza Mayor and look at the work in his studio. It was absolutely boiling. I was literally sweating buckets and made use of one of the chairs in the small gallery as we listened to Marlon translating for us what the artist was explaining about his fascinating work and immense talent. He took old plains of wood that had been thrown away from the shutters and used these to create his masterpieces by using them like lino and creating these frankly amazing masterpieces which he used photos of the elderly of Cuba that he had taken randomly on the street and once he had created the piece he used acrylic on it to help bring it to life even more. I was blown away by the detail in them. They take anything between a week to a month to crete and the one that has no pain on is the one that he was currently working on and had so far spent 15 hours on it. He was preparing for  an exhibition, I forget where that was going to be but I had already asked Marlon how much the pieces would be sold at and he said anything from $350 – $500 dollars. I’m not sure I was taken enough to want to buy one but they were fascinating and simply incredible pieces of art. His wife was also a crafty lady and created embroidery tops and crochet tops as well. Unfortunately (and fairly unsurprisingly) ladies with a larger chest were not really very likely to be able to find a top which was sad as I wanted to support them by buying something and the tops were beautifully made. I ended up in purchasing a small bag that was made out of ring pulls from cans that were crocheted together. Not sure when I will use it but I can see it being used at some point! Its only tiny anyway and they had been so welcoming, I felt I wanted to support them.

After our trip to the artist we had free time before we met up to go and book our trips the next day. I pootled around a little getting incredibly warm int he sunshine and all too aware that I didn’t have any suntan lotion on. Wasn’t needing burnt shoulders ahead of our potential visit to the beach tomorrow. I ambled down streets there and there soaking in the beauty of my surroundings, the cobbled streets, the brightly coloured houses the sunshine and of curse the beautiful blue sky. The views were simply sublime. So surreal and such  time warp, so untouched by tourism it was beautiful. When i say untouched by tourism I think I mean more that there is not hordes of hideous advertising everywhere. No coke signs everywhere, no beer advertising in windows. When the Americans break back into his country that is going to be one of the most noticeable changes I think. Places such as this will totally loose their charm. It makes me feel so sad that this beautiful colonial town is going to be so ruined by commercialism in due course.

  
  
  

After our free time we were all meeting up outside the green hotel on the square, I made a visit to the El FLortidita here to cool down with a daiquiri – not sure I really need are reason, made of crashed ice it was a welcome cooling drink! As I sat there with a couple of others from the group that I found in there who had a very similar idea. There were loads of the locals coming in an out while we were sat at the bar getting handfuls of cool beer and we were convinced that there was a guy that was doing home deliveries of boxes of beers. It was quite amusing just watching the comings and goings!

Having caught up with the rest of the group in the square we went to the HavanaTour office to book our day excursions for the following day, a separate expense. I was not torn in the slightest. There was a walk in the valley with a  waterfall trip and other exciting sending things, or a trip on a catamaran to a deserted island for some swimming white sandy beaches and crystal clear turquoise sea. It was a no briner. Out of the two I had made my choice when I had booked this trip back in April. From here the salsa dancers went off to there additional class, not my cuppa and so the remained of us, nearly all I think headed into the green hotel for beer, lunch, air con and some wifi!

After heading back to the casa for a spruce up and a bit of a lie down before the evening s entertainment it was apparent a little shut eye was really not going to happen as the household had music blaring, we heard it as we were walking from the square and I said it sounded like it was coming from our place. There were to only youngsters but some oldies as well sitting on the steps outside the house with a guy that we assumed they would be burning at midnight. I had a shower and lay in the air conditioning for a while just having some quiet time.

The evening meal I had ensured that we had together for and was not far from the ‘Steps’ where we were planning on being for midnight. Marlon had done a good job at managing to get us in – there are 20 of us with him and the driver after all. Another buffet style meal with several salad type things and a soup choice for starter. Everything seemed to have peppers in bar the sucking pig and chicken that was on the roast. Essentially my last meal of 2015 was meat, meat and more meat!

We headed to the Steps which had way more people than anticipated on them and that Marlon had though, possibly because there were more tourists? Hard to tell. We ordered drinks in their masses. I am NOT a fan of New Year. Never have been. It not my thing at all. Too many nasty memories and ‘looking forward’ new starts and all that bollocks. The depressive in me shines through like a beaut. I was proud of myself. Ok I may have been a little quiet in the half hour lead up and not be stand and chatty and driving and laughing but Im always in bed well before the fateful hour. I may have been spotted at one point and suggested (jokingly) that I might like to stand up and join in at some point. But I managed to survive it, mojito in each hand. No one was calling it and so decided that would be my focus. Used the timer on the iPhone and kept a close eye letting the remainder of the group that I would start us (which then turned out to be the entire of the steps) in the countdown into 2016. The music never stopped it was just yours truly. I thank you (curtseys). I lasted about 45 mins before heading home, via a rather large diversion s the short cut I thought would work easily without a map, well it didn’t! We wondered through a small few gatherings on the streets as we treaded the cobbles trying to find our way home and to our beds. Tired but excited to be heading out to the island in the morning.

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