The Alhambra – Fighting for Paradise

The Alhambra – Fighting for Paradise

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For hundreds of years men have fought, cried and died for their share of this mystical place and this week would be no exception. I cried when they told me that tickets had already sold out 5 days prior to our visit. I died when my boyfriend told me that the only way we would go to see it was if we joined the most expensive and longest guided tour of place and I re tied the bows on my shoes and prepared myself to jostle and fight, if need, be for an uninterrupted picture of the Lion’s Patio once I saw the hundreds of people waiting outside the closed gates at 8.30am. Are they buying tickets?But you said it was full?! We could have just come and bought entrances but now we’ve got to do the tour!*Gremlin face*, which was accompanied by the same sort of feeling that you get sometimes when you manage to board a really full train and then after pushing in yourself, you turn around and start resenting anyone who squashes in after you. Can’t the doors just close already?! *THERE IS NO MORE ROOM!

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When at 8.45 am an announcement was made to the people of the massive queues that all the on the day tickets had now been sold out, I no longer felt the need to mentally abuse the epic tour that had helped secure our place. “Aww! Those poor people!” I said trying to sound genuine but failing to mask the smug look which was spreading across my face as I rolled my ticket in my hands like Gollum… So silly thinking they can just arrive on the day… they should have booked the tour like we did*…

*and then turn and simply ignore the accusatory and damning looks and focus on your sugar frosted doughnut

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We entered the gates and into an oasis of calm and beauty. Whereas Granada down below looked arid and dry, here we were emerged in lush green gardens and the sound of running water was everywhere. Water, was the first thing we saw and heard and interestingly was made the theme of our tour. Once Saltan Mohammed I conquered the province of Granada he set about constructing a fortress to protect it from invasion. However over the next 800 years the Moroccan kings would come to know this place as home and battle grounds and defense lines were turned into a royal city and into a vision of paradise with lush trees, plants and flowers – a far cry from the nomadic life and arid hills of Morocco where these peoples had originated from. Everything, from the sustaining of the live stock to the hammam spa where the Sultan would relax, was built and made possible thanks to the ingenious engineering feats carried out to bring this baron mountain side water. An irrigation system built on the concepts of gravity and upward force enabled this life garden of Eden.

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I loved the view from the Alhambra, sometimes through arched windows and sometimes peeping out from behind flowers. The gardens were immaculate and in full bloom. Flat, calm water fountains reflected the sky and linked the Earth to the heavens, Oranges hung from the trees and the sound of running water was everywhere. It was so cool despite the hot summer’s day. It was simply lovely.

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Alhambra means the Red One and it was called this because the walls are terracotta red color but also because it was said that its founder Mohammed I had red hair and blue eyes.

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It became a labor of love and a real jewel in the crown of the Moors and when the Catholics eventually took back the mountain side, the young King having been defeated in battle and forced to yield up his family home broke down into tears. He was told by his mother “to not cry like a woman what he could not defend as a man”…And you thought your mum was harsh to you sometimes…*Tough Love

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A treaty was signed and the Spanish agreed not to destroy the fortress and such was the love that the moors had for the Alhambra that they didn’t destroy it either and preferred to hand it over. They were told everything would be preserved except for all religious buildings and sites. The bodies in the cemeteries were dug up and taken into the mountains by the King in order to save them from the wrath of the “invaders”. As we gazed down over Granada we saw 22 Church bell towers which had once been Minarets and were converted once the moors conceded.

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The palaces were beautiful and had some great architecture. I loved the ceilings and the ornate walls, mosaics and ceiling stars. The Lion’s Patio was particularly spectacular, with the animals required to be represented imperfectly by the makers because Allah was the creator and humans were not. Interestingly people still live in the Alhambra and there are a few family houses which now operate as hotels which are now passed down from generation to generation. They may however not be listed on Expedia, although I’m sure someone’s given it a damning report on Trip Advisor * Poor Location, no shops, far from city center…

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So it came down to the french (trust the bloody french!) and Napoleon to be main bad guys of this story and who are regarded as the main destroyers of the Alhambra. Having been defeated by the Brits at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon lost his grip on Europe (well directly or indirectly, sooner or later, whatever… I had to get the Battle of Waterloo in somehow!) and on the night of the retreat from Granada, they planted explosives throughout the palaces and the gardens. Some were detonated and this destroyed large parts of the walls, the souks and the fortresses, but luckily before anything else could be blown to smithereens a Spanish soldier disconnected the bombs and saved the Alhambra. Hurray!

The Alhambra was huge, larger than I could of imagined and the quality of the buildings, the gardens and the views was incredible. I really loved my visit and can not recommend it enough! Make sure you book in advance though and it can get very busy in the summer (the day we went around 10,000 people also went!), to take some money to buy food once through the gardens and to go if you can early in the morning when it is less hot. I wore converse trainers which were essential for over 4 hours walking and a bottle of water to avoid having a cheeky drink from one of the fountains. I would also recommend the guided tour (Water!) 😉

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Wearing

Top – United Colours of Benetton

Jean shorts – Bershka

Trainers – Converse

Sunglasses – Ray Ban

What Lies Between the Yellow Lines of Andalucia

What Lies Between the Yellow Lines of Andalucia

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        In Andalucia I am alive. I am closer to the rich red Earth when I pick the olives and the oranges from the trees and when I watch the glowing sun go down behind the Eucalyptus trees and the tumbling hills. Everything including life seems simpler here when I drive by the horses in the arid fields and more magical when I hear the dresses and the dance of the women and the song and the voices of the men. Be careful because a trip down here could turn your dreams on your head, could make you loose your heart and throw riches to the wind for love and simple pleasures. I gaze at the little white washed towns. I gaze at the tanned strong men with dark hair, dark eyes and mysterious ways taking their well groomed stallions with shinning fur and plated mains down to the village fair and all I can do is watch and long to run away from my comforts, money and possessions and leave it all behind to spend a life in the arms of a raggle-taggle gypsy-o.

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Indeed each little community, each little cluster of white houses could be an ideal setting for such a love story, or the inspiration behind such a scandalous and romantic love song. This field was where they lay, and that horse was the one that the Lord used when he rode out to try to get her to come back to her servants and goose feathered bed. The little church overlooking the sea of the a fisherman’s village El Terron where we had lunch could have been the place that they got married one warm summer’s night, in secret, witnessed only by the stars and the gaze of moon.

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Those are all the things which rush through my mind as we travel deeper into the countryside. But who really knows what lies behind those low houses with tiled porches and barred windows? And what life fills the gap between the yellow lines framing both humble and noble buildings alike?

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Are these lines an attempt by men to bring some order to a life otherwise determined by God, or are they just a way of marking where order ends and where the passions of the human spirit begin?

Wearing

White top – SALSA JEANS

White shorts – BAY

Wedge Flip Flops – GUESS

Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O is a famous Scottish folk song which I came to know through the Walking Wounded ‘s (Hackney) version of it. It has come to be one of my favorite songs 🙂

Click For more my post and photos of Seville – Colores de Sevilla

Click For my photos and post of my trip to the Sierra of Huelva

Click For more pictures of my Andalucian inspired outfit

When in Rome…

When in Rome…

 Strange as it may seem now, a few years ago, after having flown around the world all my life, I developed a massive fear of flying. I don’t know if any of you reading this have ever felt such irrational fears? It got to the point where I would embark and with every turn, bump or even sound I thought the plane was going down. Anyone who got up to the toilet I would scrutinize as I thought they were a terrorist. If someone had said put a gun to your head and play Russian roulette or board and fly on a plane, I would have felt safer to pull the trigger. Enclosed, trapped, no way out, no control. Horrible. So, I made a stand and said no more flying. For the next THREE years I traveled everywhere by coach, train or car. My family would set off and I would join them, sometimes thousands of miles away a few days later.

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For those who haven’t experienced them, coach journeys are long, smelly and worst of all you meet and can’t escape from weirdos. This wasn’t quite life in the fast lane.  So, I decided it was time, time to fight to the fear. After 3 years of remaining Earth bound, I booked two flights to somewhere not too far, but somewhere where I had always wanted to go – Rome. It took a lot for me to make that first journey, but facing my fears is what I had to do. The city was so wonderful, the sites so interesting. It was then that I vowed never to let fear hamper my life again.

I would greatly recommend going inside the Colosseum and and buying the Colosseum Tour. We did ours through SP.Q.R tours, which gave us a free tour of the Palatine Hill and the Forum Panorama. Really I felt that this day was the highlight of our trip. Just a short walk away, up a large boulevard is the majestic Victor Emmanuel monument. In the evening I would recommend Plaza di Fiori, where we had wine and listened to beautiful music. Another must see is the Pantheon, an architectural marvel, which is close to the Fontana di Trevi and Piazza Navona where I had the best Capuccino ever! Just walking round the little streets and finding a pretty cafe is really romantic in this city. We had a week, so we also went to see the Circus Maximus and the abandoned Roman Baths, which are further out. The weather that day was stormy, so we got some great atmospheric shots. It was incredible how the murals were just left to the rain and it was even possible to walk on them. This city just has so much culture and history. In most cities this would be the main attraction! Plaza del Popolo was lively and this was the best place for shopping! Villa Burghesa offered great views over the city. I would recommend hiring an electric tuk tuk to pedal round the grounds.

Finally, the Vatican, a whole country in itself, with nuns and gigantic religious statues galor. Vatican City, one of the most sacred places in Christendom, attests to a great history and a formidable spiritual venture. A unique collection of artistic and architectural masterpieces lie within the boundaries of this small state. At its centre is St Peter’s Basilica, with its double colonnade and a circular piazza in front and bordered by palaces and gardens. The basilica, erected over the tomb of St Peter the Apostle, is the largest religious building in the world, the fruit of the combined genius of Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, Bernini and Maderno. We did the tour, but apart from enabling us to jump the queue (which was massive), I wouldn’t really recommend it. A great way to bypass this is to read to Angels and Demons by Dan Brown (one of my favorite books) and look out for all the places referred to and discussed in that. When you go to the Vatican don’t forget to bring some food and water with you, as your day will be long and there are no places to buy anything once inside. Don’t forget to see Castle Sant’ Angelo on your way back to the city.

My night with Miss Roma

My night with Miss Roma

So here are some pics of my more recent trip to Rome.  I spent the evening with my friend Sonia, who not only officially the most beautiful woman in Rome but also most likely the nicest person too! I met her in Plaza di Popolo, where we had super (pasta of course) and then walked to the Fontana Di Trevi where we had some of the city’s best ice cream, then to the Pantheon and the Colosseum.

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Thank you Sonia for a lovely evening 🙂

Rice, Oranges and Whale Bones

Rice, Oranges and Whale Bones

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Old bones lie, it would seem, washed ashore by the sea. A graveyard, carcasses picked clean and now bleached by the sun. Smooth and sharp they criss-cross into infinity. A whale struggles and breaks free jumping into the air from the little water  which remains, crystal clear, dangerously blue. Perhaps the fish found themselves stuck here that time when the river overflowed. Many died, so channels were diverted. Trees now grow, people run and children play on a giant man, where water once gushed and cooled the city’s banks. Yes, this is how these creatures came to be here, I am sure.

The sea is close, sometimes I think they can smell it. But the plains between the graveyard and the water are dry. There is no return for these poor creatures now. Passed the port and out of the city, we travel along the sea front.

Behind us is the earth, where the farmers toil and the trees grow ripe with fruit.

All I see now is water, on both sides. The lake to the right and the sea to the left. Little boats and reeds. A girl wears a traditional costume. Further on we go. Here there are fields, but they are not dry, not these ones. These ones are are flooded. Must we walk on water? Little white triangles appear on the horizon. It feels like I have traveled to the end of Valencia, to the end of the world. Passed the Cathedral and the ancient fish, the fields and even over the sea itself.

We have found it, and what humble beginnings for such a source of fame. When the men cooked in the open air of their orchards near lake Albufera, could they of known? That it would be you, la Paella, you, who would end up conquering the world?

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Farewell to Cuba

Farewell to Cuba

The last dance is always the one that I remember most. Today was our last day. The thought made my heart clench. I look back now at the photos, like a lover smelling scented clothes. I am propelled by my feelings and by my memories into a place which is unique, even to the world. The sounds become real, the smells the colors. I know I am not there and yet somehow this feels so real.

The impressive Grand Theater of Havana looms ahead, the Cuban flag perched proudly blows in the wind.

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Pass the ever grandiose buildings and arrive quickly at El Capitolio. Domed and all white, it cuts an authoritarian figure and towers over the dainty colorful houses, which are opposite it. I can see myself laughing and joking. I press the camera shutter, but never quite at the right moment. Half a car, no car but somehow never a whole one.

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Round and round we go up as far as the gate to China Town. The  Old Railway repair yard is still rusty. The cigar factory is shut, although I don’t think it was like that when I was there. Sometimes memories play tricks. If I am wrong, it doesn’t matter, tomorrow I will go back but this time I will open it.

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Lunch in a sumptuous Italian in China Town. We are served by Cuba’s own Abercrombie and Fitch models.  White shirts tight over their strong muscular frames. The sugar is sweet but not as sweet as Carlos. They have blankets for if we are cold (such gentlemen), and probably spare shirts for when their old ones split from too much muscle flexing. Obviously they all fancy me. This is how I remember it anyway…

All the clientele are locals and many parties are couples on dates – Was it lunch or was it dinner that I had here? Either way its not the best place in the world to bring your girlfriend if your trying to convince her that you are the most attractive man on the planet. So yes, the food is really good, best ravioli outside of Florence and great price… Anyway back to the service…

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We walk back to the hotel, passed El Floridita, and back down towards the sea to our hotel.  I feel sad. This is when the bags are loaded and when we hug our new friends goodbye. The journey back to the airport, back home, back to reality is short. Too short.

I will miss you Cuba but I will see you soon, I promise this is by no means goodbye. I never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.

Cienfuegos – the city of a thousand fires

Cienfuegos – the city of a thousand fires

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It felt as if we had well and truly left the countryside as we rolled through the grandiose gridded city of Cienfuegos. The heat rose from under our feet, and crept up our bodies quickly stifling our senses. This is the city of the sun, the city of a thousand fires.

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Cienfuegos lacked Havana’s charm, it was less lively, there was no music. The main square was however beautifully done up, with gardens, large revolutionary symbols and drawings of Che and his slogans.

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The highlight of the plaza, the Casa de la Cultura Benjmain Duarte.

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The tuk-tuk sprinted down the main boulevard down to the sea. The heat made the lagoon air smell of the city’s sewers. Lovers sat under trees and boats glided motionless on paper still water.

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Down the main boulevard we careered. Sat on the bicycle we gained a little height and so we were able to escape the heat emitted by the tarmacked road which had become overwhelming, especially when we were engulfed by the fumes of the cars spluttering past. Now we could enjoy glimpses of sea through gaps in the lavish houses with the wind in our hair.

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The mansions were grand, their architecture fascinating but somewhat lacking in taste. The Only Way is Essex but on Mojitos. Although it is said that wealth can seldom be subtle, double exterior staircases cascading down pastel facades must be seen as a step somewhat in the wrong direction. Indeed, is a great social success not a pretty girl who plays her cards as carefully as if she were plain?

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Past the yachting club and the double fronted domed house with tennis court and tropical garden.

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We finally saw looming ahead of us at the end of the Punta Gorda, the diamond of the crown, the real gem, the Palacio del Valle.

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Once a casino, this Palace now stands as a beacon of culture. Magnificent and towering, it is built in a style  reminiscent of Spanish-Moorish art with influences of Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque and Mudejar arts.

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Spanish carvers made the gateways, mosaics and Spanish ceramics adorn the walls and stained glass taints the views. Beautiful crystal allegories are painted on the marble staircase. Cornices crown the entrance to the halls and doorways, the ceiling are high and the rooms spacious. The living room is  Empire in style paneled in gold and pink marble with applications of bronze and white marble floors.

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Palacios del Valle stands aloof at at the end of the Punta Gorda, a reminder and testimony of a golden age of Cuban opulence and wealth.

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I feel that it is not worth spending a full day at Cienfuegos. It was though a great way to break the journey from Trinidad to Havana. We stayed at a really nice casa particular called Apartamento Independiente Eduardo & Odalys on Avenida 56 number 5306 (Altos)/ 53 y 55. We had our own little apartment with bedroom, living room and kitchen. The shower pressure was better than in the casa that we stayed in Trinidad but there was no air-conditioning. It was very close to the station so it was easy to get there from the bus on arrival from Trinidad.

Between Mountains and Sea – Trinidad

Between Mountains and Sea – Trinidad

“Homage to the Greats”, the very best of John Travolta and Patrick Swasey. More than an hour of their very best moments from Greece songs to Saturday Night fever dance routines, to Dirty Dancing finales and romantic moment from Ghost. So much jiving, pelvic thrusting, tight trousers and comb backs. Only in Cuba would a macho cigar smoking bus driver have the balls to choose and then play such a video on the long trip down from Havana to Trinidad. Probably the best bumpy coach journey I have ever done, with air-con and great scenery, which was interrupted only when a pit-stop was announced where sandwiches and recommended pina coladas could be bought.We had wondered how early was too early to start drinking in Cuba, apparently according to the driver, 10am would be considered fine.

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It took a little bit of time adjusting from the grand boulevards of Havana to the tiny narrow streets and low houses of Trinidad. The coach stopped, randomly it seemed, on a relatively wide road, surrounded by low lying houses. It was all a lot more rural than the vibrant city which we had left behind. Trinidad, Havana’s Country Bumpkin cousin. There were almost no cars. We could not see the main square so at first it was difficult to get our bearings.

Our plan had been to compare the different casas particulars which were apparently around the main square, but as we weren’t sure where that was and where the main boulevard was, we could not do this. No need to panic though, although we did slightly at first. As the coach pulled up my sister turned to me with watering eyes and with a little lip quiver said the words: “Don’t like it”.

Luckily, as we got out of the bus, we were greeted by locals offering us their homes to stay in. After talking to a few, after some recommendations from others, I decided to trust and go with the flow. A young man, very well spoken, very professional, told me in a couple of quick sentences above the chaos, that he his family had a casa particular, that we could come and look at it and see if we liked it. That it had air-conditioning, a double room with refrigerator, on suite bathroom, a patio and offered breakfast and meals if needed. He told me it wasn’t far, and that his friend would take us and our bags to the house and that if we didn’t like it we could go elsewhere. The price of all casas particulares in Cuba are 35 pesos per night.

I looked through the chaos, people grabbing bags, tourists like sheep amongst wolves, wide eyed and scarred, and decided I had to go with the young guys. I couldn’t see any alternatives. I hoped it would be fine, but if it wasn’t we would probably have spent the first night there anyway. All our bags were loaded onto the tuk tuk. It would have been impossible anyway to lug them around, as all the street of Trinidad are cobbled.

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The fit young driver put on some pumping music and pedaled away. We even made a quick stop to buy rope to help secure an extra bag we had to the bike. This took us up a massive hill, a sort of unnecessary detour, but all done for our comfort. I offered to get out and push. The young cyclist looked at me as if I was insane and laughed. He was man enough for this and in no way wanted the villagers to see him being pushed up the hill by a girl. He egged my sister to get on, even though we were already full to the brim, and turned the music up louder. This was his public challenge, a real peacock display of masculinity. He made it up the hill very slowly, beads of sweet forming on his toned arms. He had made it. I was impressed, the villagers shouting encouragement were also impressed. My gamble had paid off, the house was lovely, probably the best in the town. We ended up staying 4 nights instead of 2.

Trinidad is in fact picturesque and charming. Together with the nearby Valle de los Ingenios, it is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. The journey down from Havana is long but definitely worth it. The houses are colorful, pastel with wrought iron gates. The streets are cobbled and many people still get around by donkey and trap. The Plaza Mayor, is an open air museum, statues and brass canons adorn the streets, the church is framed by tall palms. Every other house and restaurant is also a museum. They are filled with antique furniture, musical instruments and cutlery from ship wrecks. Roof terraces look over the city and stone angels watch over you as you eat. We went to Sol Ananda twice and would highly recommend the experience of dinning in a museum. Your stay here will be peaceful and really relaxing as the town is very tourist friendly without loosing an ounce of its authenticity and heritage.

We really enjoyed walking around. Every day we did something different. Go before 5pm to the Museum Municipal and make sure you climb the very rickety and windy, extremely narrow staircase to the top of the museum’s tower for a stunning view over the town. Look at the San Francisco Convent and mountains down to towards the see. We tried to go as late as possible, as the sunset in Trinidad is legendary. This would be a great place to see it from, but unfortunately the place closes before the sun goes down. In fact, we almost got locked in waiting for it.

Another great place to see the sunset from is from an old abandoned abbey at passed the main plaza, at the back of the town up a small hill. The area which is walked through to get to it is quite poor, so we didn’t stick around until dark, but the view of the sea down below and the sunset was beautiful. Even if you don’t go out of your way to see the sunset, the sky is light up orange and pink most nights and the buildings glow.

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Just beyond the main plaza, there are casas de la musica, free open air spaces where musical performances are conducted by bands which go on long into the night. Locals show off their moves and will encourage others to join in. An old man teaches a young Australian backpacker salsa and both have an amazing time and laugh despite the language barrier. He has to be more matcho, lead with confidence and look her in the eyes. This is is a local hang out for the towns young and is enjoyed by both tourists and locals. The party is then continued at the cave nightclub, a nightclub in a cave which is great fun!

Trinidad is between mountains and the Caribbean sea. One of Cuba’s most famous beaches, Playa Ancon is a 15 minute drive away. It was very hot, hotter than in Havana. Every day we would go to the beach at around 9am. The family’s uncle Miguel would take us in his 1954 Buick and would collect us at our arranged time, usually 3pm. We would talk and he would tell us about life in Trinidad. He said he was saving up to go and visit his family in Miami as the laws in Cuba were to be relaxed soon. It was a great way to spend the hottest hours of the day. One of the days we paid 10cuc each and went out to the coral reef and snorkeled.

The sea was teaming with multicolored fish. The Catamarans were moored on the shore and there was no need to pre-book. We went early,  just paid on the spot and were the only ones on the boat and at the reef, it was really magical. There are a few resorts along the coast and so the beach is comfortable and there is ample shade and places to get cocktails and drinks, although I would bring your own food. Our family made us sandwiches, which were included as part of the breakfast so we took those.

Trinidad is unspoilt and a true Caribbean gem. Its petrol station sells no water or juice only rum and gasoline.The history of the place is unmissable and the colonial architecture and scenery is very special. The people here live in true harmony with their surroundings, so the city although a museum is also making history itself. There are some great items made locally, and everyday streets become markets. We bought hand embroidered table clothes, which will one day become our family air looms, hand made Cuban hats for 3cuc, necklaces, wicker work baskets and musical instruments. The quality of the souvenirs here are incredible and all from locals.

Now all I have to do is go back and share this secret and bring all those who I love dearly to Trinidad.

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