Day Three: Birthday Trip in Post (or Still) Pandemic Time. My actual birthday today…

It was a beautiful day: bright sunshine, late spring, abundance of flowers…

Myself and my local host (she is an American living in Portugal for nearly 30 years) decided to head further north to visit the area on borders with Spain called Minho valleys. This part of the country is rarely visited by tourists and there are plenty of very authentic villages there where time “has stopped.” One is called Castro Laboreiro. Nearby, there are ruins of the medieval castle perched on the top of the cliff which offer sweeping view of the entire area. We figured that it will be a great spot for birthday picnic.

Well. It turned out to be a looong picnic including proper siesta-nap afterwards. Late afternoon and we are heading towards Lindoso: another beautiful village. The views along our road are truly dramatic.

River Minho

The major attraction in Lindoso are traditional medieval granaries. Yes, they look like small chapels, but are actually used (one per household) to store any food supplies protecting them from rats and other “not invited animals.” These chapel-like granaries are very characteristic of the entire Galizia – the historic area which includes both border areas of Spain and Portugal

And then: back to Ponte de Lima. What for birthday dinner? My choice is simple. I love “pulpo,” octopus, and there is plenty of it in this area of the country. Baked with greens and potatoes, it was delicious.

Good night. See you tomorrow…

Day Two: Birthday Trip in Post (or Still) Pandemic Time. Two very different adventure.

I left London and arrived perfectly on time to Lisbon: no surprises here. The surprise was at the checkpoint at airport by entering into European Union (UK is not part of it anymore). The immigration officer – a nice young lady – took my passport and asked about purpose of visit. I answered: visiting friends and touring Portugal. She was astonished: “In such times? With all these social restrictions requirements and measures?” I calmly replied that I consulted with Portuguese embassy in Washington DC and was assured that it is fully Ok to visit Portugal and that there are no restrictions on traveling, etc. Further, I had an email from the Portuguese embassy confirming this in writing. The immigration officer took my iPad (with email) and began calling. I do not understand Portuguese but it looked like she was transferred several times to higher-and-higher bureaucratic levels before someone finally made a decision: I was admitted into the country. Yet, the immigration officer made a big face and said that they will communicate with their embassy in Washington and ask them to “change the message.” Ironically, while I was admitted into Portugal, there were a few other foreigners from the same plane (including one American) who were stopped and not permitted to enter the country. At least, not in time when I left from airport.

I picked up the car: it will be a long drive today: nearly 500 km (340 miles). My final destination is Ponte de Lima, the oldest chartered town in Portugal (yes!), situated on North of the country, close to borders with Spain. I have some friends who live there. The straight drive would take about five hours, but I also had one important stop to make along the way. The first destination was the city of Lamego and there were two reasons for this visit. First, an astonishingly beautiful Cathedral. Called Shrine of Our Lady of Remedies, it attracts pilgrims looking for healing from all around the world. My next important destination are Caves De Raposeira – the winery which produces by far the best sparkling wines in Portugal (4-6 years secondary fermentation).

Yes. I tasted all of them and they all were very good. I ended up buying eight bottles of Gran Reserva Brut 2015. Still have to go 170 km…

Day 1: Birthday Trip in Post (or Still?) Pandemic Time

Ok. I made it to London. But before venturing into the city, a few words about interesting experience of flying with British Airways from Los Angeles. Despite my expectations and hopes, the plane was nearly full: not much social distancing as you can see from the picture.

And I was Okey with this, but couple “innovations” – presumably as respond to Coronavirus – were annoying and did not make any sense. First, no alcohol was served in either of classes. Yet, all soft drinks and juices, and coffee and tea were poured in the same manner as always. Is alcohol especially strong “transmitter” of virus? Second, when it came to food, instead of traditional trays and some hot dishes (normally, there would be a vegetarian choice), everyone was given two cartoon boxes. One had bottle of water and oreo cookies. Another contained a piece of pizza Margherita. Further, neither utensils nor napkins were present. I really wrap my head trying to figure out how these innovations help to stop the spread of the virus.

London was….beautifully sunny and…full of people who simply enjoyed this late spring day: no masks and a lot of fun. I guess they figured that positive attitude combined with sunshine is the best remedy against the virus.

It was midday and I was hungry. Cafes and restaurants closed? Not a big deal. London has several covered markets with wide selection of delicious foods.

The ultimate choice for a picnic was a bench on the bank of Thames river.

Blue goat cheese, rye bread with dried apricots, strawberries and glass of Sauvignon Blanc

And then I walked for hours. My last visit to London was more than 20 years ago. In the meantime, city added quite a few fairly “modernistic” looking buildings. Furthermore, the “newcomers” are nicely blended into the city’s old architecture. I loved this style a lot.

Tower Castle in front of three recent “additions.”
Tower Bridge and new City Hall (looks like a dom)

After about four hours of walking I was looking for a nice place to relax and…bingo – the best chair ever

Okey. One more “classic mandatory” picture of Tower Bridge

And then I waked to Piccadilly Circus station. There were other subway stations much closer than this one, but I wanted to check out one thing. In the past, the area near this Piccadilly Circus was place to gather for scateboard folks. Well, a lot of things have changed, but not this one. Young generation of scateboard fans enjoy their hobby as much as their “fathers” 20 years ago

Tomorrow I am off for Lisbon.

Portugal: Birthday Trip in Post (or still?) Pandemic Time

During past several years, it has become a tradition to go for some fun trip on my birthday. Tonga, Italy, Andaman Islands, Croatia, Austria – to name just a few destinations which were wonderful “birthday presents.” Clearly, this year was somewhat of a challenge. How to find a country which would be: a) reasonably safe in terms of Coronavirus and fun to visit (I did not feel like going to South Korea or Byelorussia) and b) are open for foreign visitors (a lot of countries do no let foreigners in now). And then I learned that Portugal not only lifts a lot of restrictions domestically (shops, museums, restaurants are open), but also opens for foreign visitors. To make sure, I communicated with Portuguese embassy in Washington and they confirmed that this was the case. By the way and quite amazingly, Portugal has much lower rates of Coronavirus cases than its bigger neighbor, Spain.

Finding a ticket turned out to be a logistical nightmare. So many companies canceled flights that remaining options required many changes and long layovers. But here I am: San Francisco to Los Angeles, 8 hours there, then to London, 20 hours there (which is Ok with me), next day – Lisbon. The first leg, SFO – Los Angeles was easy, but…with interesting surprise. See picture below:

After landing in Los Angeles I was supposed to re-check the luggage. So I walked to luggage area expecting to wait (as always) and also see many other people expecting their items. But as I approached, the only what I saw was my lonely suitcase waiting already: it came in matter of a few minutes and there were no other passengers with luggage.

Short walk to International terminal and…another surprise: it was nearly empty

Wow. Anyway, my plane should leave for London in one hour (hopefully). I will try to “report” from London tomorrow.

Last Day in Mirissa

…began from enjoying sunrise on the beach which – rare occasion – was absolutely empty. My hunch was that both locals and tourists were in the process of recovery from the last night’s celebration of Poya (see previous post).

I re-visited for a few hours my “personal paradise” – the Madiha beach.

And then I went for my last treatments to Ama Ayurwedic Medical Center. A lttle bit of self-disclosure. Part of the reason for this trip was the course of procedures – according to Ayurwedic practices – intended to improve quality of sleep and rest during night time. I found Ama last year, but the time was too short for any serious course of treatments. This year, it was six day long ordeal carefully planned by Amali and her husband – the owners of Ama (they are fully licensed medical doctors). Essentially, the course consisted of detoxification, a number of dietary restrictions (most interesting was that you cannot eat/drink anything cold), and, most importantly, procedures called Shirodhara and Shirolepa. Shirodhara is a form of Ayurveda therapy that involves gently pouring special warm oils over the forehead (for about one hour) and can be one of the steps involved in Panchakarma. The name comes from the Sanskritwords shiro (head) and dhara (flow).

Shirodhara has been used to treat a variety of neurological disorders, memory loss, bad sleep.It is also used non-medicinally for its relaxing properties. Studies also report that Ayurvedic Shirodhara is a safe option to improve sleep quality among people who have sleep problems.[2]Shirodhara is also effective in treating mental conditions such as anxiety, and mental stress. Some people say that calming effect produced by Shirodhara is similar to that obtained with meditation

Shirolepa is another form of panchakarma therapy. It is also a type of treatment performed on the scalp, in which p of various herbs and medical powders are made into a paste and applied in the scalp. The scalp is then covered and tied with special kind of leaves which interact well with the scalp. This therapy also useful in rejuvenation therapy. I am not going into details of all procedures. Suffice to say that it was a very powerful, interesting, and positive experience. And so it was time to say both “thank you” and “good bye” to Amali and her husband.

It was late afternoon when I went home to pack things and take a taxi (2 hours, about $60) to Negombo. Wow! A nice surprise was awaiting me. My AirBnB hosts cooked for me a “last supper:” either to enjoy before the ride or to take with. I eat some and took with me some. Beautiful flavor combination: coconut roti, dhal, flavorful fish dish, and steamed vegetables.

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Time to say “good bye” to my hosts at Sofian Garden Villas who really made me feel part of their family

…the Day Was Not Quite Finished

After full day in “personal paradise” (see previous post), I returned to Mirissa and realized that something is going on. Powerful sounds of drums, crowds of local festively dressed people, children wearing national/folks costumes: the town looked very different compared to what I left in the morning. The center of activities appeared to be local Buddhist temple

This dance/drums/drama performance lasted a few hours. So, what was the whole thing about? It was celebration of Poya Day. Poya is the name given to the Lunar monthly Buddhist holiday of Uposatha in Sri Lanka, where it is a civil and bank holiday. Remarkably, full moon day is normally considered as the poya day in every month. That is, they have all this fun and “no work day” every month. The performance was finished and evolved into night processions and fireworks, but I was exhausted and call it a day. Tomorrow was my last day in Mirissa.

Personal Paradise Found

I liked Mirissa – the place where I stay, but…it feels a bit too commercial. You know what I mean: restaurants and bars on the beach, too loud music, too many people and somewhat “less friendly” locals. And so I was looking for some less spoiled place, something with a nice beach but as “natural as possible.” It was not an easy feat: Southern Sri Lanka is well known for its beaches and it is very popular destination for both domestic and foreign tourists. But…sometimes there is a small piece of “hidden paradise right around the corner.” One of backpackers told me about Madiha beach – only about 10 km from Mirissa. So, I hired tuk-tuk, went there and indeed found a very personal paradise

While on the beach I saw only handful of foreigners: mostly local children and their parents

However, even in Madiha there are a few hostels and guesthouses where one can stay. Most remarkably, there is a place which is called Doctor’s House. It is a complex of funky looking houses which include restaurant, cafeteria, mini-golf, billiard, couple interesting shops: essentially, all what a foreigner in Sri Lanka may need while staying for vacations.

I went there to check it out and find something for lunch. My efforts were rewarded 100%. Sri Lanka’s version of American apple-crisp was banana-crisp topped with fresh passion fruits. It was outstanding.

A Day in Uwadalawa National Park

No trip to Sri Lanka is complete without visiting and doing “safari” in one of this country’s many national parks. My choice was Udawalawa national park. That is for three reasons. First, geographically it is reasonably close to Mirissa where I stay (about 2.5 hours drive). Second, it is somewhat less visited than other parks – hence, smaller number of people and jeeps competing for the best viewing area. Third, it has – besides other animals – truly abundant elephant population. And I love these animals. The procedure of visiting all national parks in Sri Lanka is fairly the same. First, you need to find a driver who will get you to the entrance (I do not recommend renting a car and driving yourself unless you are super-adventurous). Second, by the entrance to a park you will find many jeeps with guides/drivers waiting for you (you cannot go into park by yourself): you can either have the entire jeep for yourself or split the cost with other people. Finally, after you enter the park by a jeep, you need to buy a ticket. Of course, there is another option. You can find someone where you stay (in my case, these were my hosts in Mirissa) who can arrange the entire package for you. It will not be cheaper, but you will get better/more reliable guides and drivers. Long story short, my entire day of adventure was priced at 19,500 rupees – about $ 110 US. Not bad. Here is my beautiful and very personal jeep.

When we entered park, the first order of business was to locate elephants. Which is not always easy. But we were greeted right away by cheerful monkeys.

Look at these mountain climbers
Happy family

I was truly touched by this picture of “nature symphony:” water buffalo accompanied by thre small beautiful birds

And, yes, we did find elephants bathing in one of the lakes

Further, it looked like one family would take turn after another “using” this natural bathroom. A new family arrived with cute baby-elephant

Leaving the park, the last nice sight was that of deers in a company of a peacock

I was fairly hungry after full day of adventures and bumpy roads. Hence, the choice for diner: whole grilled fish – local variety called red mullet.

The Day of “Hiking Around”

One can spend a day on the beach lying under the sun OR one can explore a good portion of coastline without leaving the beach. The latter option was my choice of a day on the beach. The first swim was before 7 am, when the water felt noticeably warmer than the air.

Then breakfast and I took off. First interesting destination: a peninsula or island depending the level of tide.

I swam there, the view from its top was quite beautiful, but, sorry, my camera is not waterproof: hence, no pictures. The next bay – for whatever reason – attracted local fishermen (I did not see them elsewhere).

And then probably the most picturesque spot on the coast within walking distance from Mirissa. It is called Coconut Head. Combination of palm trees and surrounding blue ocean waters make for an exquisite stop to rest.

This place also attracts surfers: the waves are big, but “beginners friendly.”

I spent on Coconut Head most of the day reading and swimming in a small bay downhill. And after day of hiking and swimming, one can afford a powerful dinner.

Vegetable Kottu Roti was served with five homemade sauces “to play the flavors,” locally caught fish was cooked in lemon sauce and freshly pressed papaya juice was divine.

I am off to Mirissa…

I woke up early, at around 6 am. The destination for today is Mirissa. It is a small town on the south coast approximately 150 kilometres (93 mi) south of Colombo. Mirissa’s amazing beach and “mild” social/night life make it a popular tourist destination. But it is also a fishing port and one of the island’s main whale and dolphin watching locations. I will be there for 7 nights. But first, my favorite breakfast – freshly cut watermelon:

The new highway E01, probably the only “real highway” in Sri Lanka, allows to reach Mirissa in just 2,5 hours. My place is called Sofian Garden Villas: I found it via AirBnB. To my surprise, when arrived, I discovered a bunch of bicycles of all possible sizes. It turned out that I share this house (a big one) with Danish family. Father, mother and three children travel all over Sri Lanka by bicycles.

You would ask: where is the picture of the family? Well, you know, they are fairly relaxed in Scandinavia with being naked. And so, half of the family was totally naked. Given air temperature and sunshine this was indeed a very natural thing to do. Sure enough, they asked if I am Ok with this and I responded that this is totally fine. But…taking picture of the family was not an option. The rest of the day? Simple. First, a few hours at Mirissa wonderful beach.

And then, finding a good place for another Kottu Roti. This time made with fish.

The abundance if accompanying sauces was overwhelming, but …I managed nicely. Good night!