Burundi is one of only eight countries I haven’t visited. I’ve been through the airport at Bujumbura when I visited Rwanda but in those days the country was torn by internal conflict and deemed to be too dangerous to visit. I have to go back if I’m to reach my target of Every Country in the World. But I’ve got mixed feelings. Burundi is ranked as the poorest country in the world by GDP. Wikipedia cites 'poverty, corruption, instability, authoritarianism, illiteracy, and more’. One of the smallest countries in Africa, Burundi is densely populated and employment chances are grim, so young people emigrate in search of opportunities elsewhere. This has also been rated the unhappiest country in the world. Let’s see.....
I’ve travelled from Uganda. Both countries are in the central, Great Lakes of Africa region, The Heart of Africa. Burundi lies along the second deepest lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika. And I’m going to be exploring Burundi with smiley guide Justin and handsome young driver Sammy. They talk to each other in Kirundi, the sole national language.
Bujumbura is strategically important, as the largest port on Lake Tanganyika. It’s also the biggest city and economic capital of Burundi. So, there are government buildings in differing states of repair, lots of small shops and a few monuments. The monuments are surrounded by iron railings, painted in the national colours. You have to pay an arm and a leg to enter and this includes an obligatory guide, who recites speeches you can read from the sign boards. I peer through the enclosure at the Park of Presidents and talk to some ladies filming a video at the Unity Monument.
The Unity Monument was erected in 1991, by Tutsi President Pierre Buyoya, as part of the effort to defuse ongoing tensions between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. So, this seems like a good moment to introduce a little history. Twa, Hutu and Tutsi peoples have lived in Burundi for at least 500 years. As with Rwanda, the relative ethnic proportions are roughly 85% Hutu, 15% Tutsi and 1% Twa (the indigenous pygmy forest dwellers).
Burundi was an independent kingdom, until 1899, when Germany invaded and it became part of German East Africa. Following the First World War, the League of Nations "mandated" the territory to Belgium. After the Second World War, Burundi was amalgamated with Rwanda and designated a United Nations Trust Territory, named Ruanda-Urundi . It was jointly ruled by the Germans and Belgians.
Burundi gained independence in 1962, initially as a monarchy, but the regime quickly became unstable. A republic and a one-party state was established in 1966, but internal conflict continued. Horrifyingly, civil wars and genocides resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. The situation is slowly stabilizing, but the country is still described as being in political and economic chaos.
There are great views across the city from the monument. It's reached after a hill climb through some extremely affluent villas mansions and embassies, which stand in stark contrast to the low rise tin roofs down the valley.
Just outside Bujumbura, at Mugere, is another, not-to-be missed, monument. This marks the spot where Henry Morton Stanley is supposed to have caught up with David Livingstone in 1871 - I presume. They've added statues to the original etched stone erected by the Belgian colonists. Very sadly, this is another claim that turns out to be untrue. The famous meeting actually took place in Ujiji in Tanzania on 10 November 1871, as Stanley' himself, writes in his book, "How I Found Livingstone". The pair did visit Mugere, a few days later, by canoe from Ujiji, exploring rivers which might flow out of Lake Tanganyika.
Along the lakeside, beyond the port, are myriad beach hotels and restaurants. The Atrium does lovely food and you can watch the waves rolling from your table. But, with main courses at ten GBP it’s extortionately expensive for Burundi. Justin takes me in there, but refuses to order food for himself.
For lodging, I've been sampling one of the best five star establishments, The Club du Lac Tanganyika. I've a lake view from my room, which is comfortable and pleasant enough, with ethnic fabrics. It would be nice if the TV worked, the entrance hall light would stop flickering and the shower didn't instantly flood the bathroom. (And yes the staff do rectify it all after a reminder). There's a large blue 'semi Olympic ' swimming pool with peeling paint on the bottom, a gym, conference facilities and a restaurant with beach outlook, friendly staff and slow service.
There's a national park to the west of the city ( and almost at the Rwandan border), where the Rusizi River wanders into the lake. Red churning waters contrast nicely with the vast sparkling blue expanse of Tanganyika. It’s a good spot for another tranquil boat trip, with bloats (apparently that’s the correct collective noun) of hippo keeping their usual wary eye on us, bobbing up and down, and a sole crocodile. I'm not sure if this is Gustave, a Nile crocodile, rumored to have killed 300 people here. He's big enough. And there are numerous pelicans and other water fowl. The boatman has a guide book and insists on showing me each species we come across.
The Burundi countryside is beautiful. Justin says this is 'The Country of 1001 Hills'. One more than Rwanda. The roadside towns have small crumbling brick built shops and stores. The markets are utilitarian and crammed with shoppers spilling onto the tarmac. The Burundians are fervent Catholics. Their homes might be small and in need of repair, but each village has an enormous brick built church, many of them modern. And I’m told the priest often has to conduct several services a day, to cater to demand. On the way, a stop at a huge church at Ijenda, built in 1941. A crowd gathers to gape as we try to take pictures of storks nesting in a tall tree.
Bujumbura is home to a million people. The remainder of the eleven million population live off the land. At first glance this doesn't feel like the poorest country in the world, or the unhappiest. For the most part it's tidy and clean. There is little litter. The men are clothed in neat western dress and the ladies are beautifully turned out in bright printed fabrics and headscarves. The baskets they carry on their heads are often beautifully woven and decorated.
The people sometimes wave and smile - calling ‘mzungu’. There aren’t many of us Europeans around especially in the deep south. At others, the Burundians are quiet but not hostile. They don't want their photos taken unless money changes hands. The myth still persists that I will sell their picture to National Geographic for a lot of cash. A few small notes do change hands at times. I don't know if it’s good to encourage this attitude, but the recipients are very grateful rather than hassling.
The poverty is evident, however, in the streams of villagers trudging the roadside wielding hoes or carrying water. Subsistence farming and the development of plantations has led to deforestation, soil erosion and habitat loss. The main crop is coffee, followed by tea. But only the government is allowed to grow for export. There are also maize, cassava, bananas and pineapple. Its thought that Burundi has some substantial mineral wealth: nickel, copper. But there aren't the resources to find out.
There are few vehicles other than bicycles loaded to the gunnels with provisions (for sale or just bought or exchanged). It takes three or four people straining, to push them up the many slopes. On closer examination much of the clothing especially on children is ragged and in need of a wash. Queues for petrol stretch three cars wide round the block in Bujumbura. Sammy has filled up in the middle of the night.
South, to what the Burundians claim is the Source of the Nile. We’re climbing immediately, with ongoing gorgeous panoramas beneath. The Source is deemed to be important. It’s signposted almost from Bujumbura, although it’s 115 kilometres. It feels like twice that distance. Chinese influence hasn't stretched to these roads yet and potholes proliferate, where there is tarmac. Most of the 14 hour return journey involves African massage on unmade roads, which are agonisingly slow. Not Madagascan level, just uneven enough to be awkward.
I'm not sure if guide Justin had factored in a 7.30 a.m. to 10 pm day. Driver Sammy looks exhausted . He has never ventured this way before. But he's enjoyed the sights and taken plenty of selfies.
The Source of the Nile here has a government guide, of course. And an odd little blue tiled channel, with a tap. It's not clear exactly how the tap is fed, but a scramble uphill is a pyramid. It celebrates this discovery by a German, Dr Buckhart Waldecker in 1932 and patronisingly pays tribute to Speke, Stanley and others who showed an early interest, like Eratosthenes and Ptolemais. I'm not sure what to make of this and I perhaps foolishly point out that other countries have opposing claims (see post on Jinja), to be the Source of the nil. But the Burundians are as adamant as the Ugandans that the Nile originates on their land. And there’s a superb 360° view of the surrounding hills.
We have to leave in a hurry as the Vice President is due for a visit and crowds of smartly dressed guests are beginning to arrive.
Next stop, responsible for a large portion of the massage experience, is so called German Fault. This is an impressive break in the escarpment, with plummeting cliff walls, marking the separation of the central plateaus and the Kumoso Valley. There’s a great panorama of the valley from the Nyakazu plateau, at an altitude of just under 2000 metres. The Germans invaded here via Tanzania and were initially pushed back by the King of Burundi, because of the forbidding terrain.
Sammy, Justin and I take turns having our photos taken on a strategically placed rock, against the dramatic backdrop, (that's Tanzania behind us) in a variety of combinations. Two boys fetching water peer over a rock to watch us with astonishment. It seems that the Vice President is on his way out here too. It's customary to decorate the roadside with banana branches when a VIP is visiting. And I thought they were for me!
Last stop, on this journey, is the five stage waterfall on the Kagera River. It nestles at the end of a forest passage of very tall African tulip trees. There's just enough water still flowing to make it impressive and there's a terrifying suspension bridge to view from thrown in. In addition, there are viewing platforms for all five stages, if you don’t mind steep, slippy paths.
The next outing is to the political capital of Gitega. This route is partly National Highway 1, built by the Chinese. But there are still plenty of craters to manoeuvre around. More fabulous views including the Kibera National Forest, where there's a stop at a Twa (pygmy) village.
The villagers dance and the children sing. It's well organised and moving. They have so little. There are few pygmies in evidence. They have intermarried and most of the inhabitants look to be of the same size as the remainder of their compatriots. The grave-faced chief is an exception. He's new to the post, chosen Justin says, as he is a true pygmy and can properly represent his people.
At Gitega, there are more fenced monuments and the German governor’s house. now used, perhaps fittingly, as a prison. The main draw at Gitega, and Burundi's only real tourist attraction, if you discount Lake Tanganyika, is the drumming sanctuary at Gishora. These drummers are UNESCO recognised and famous for having appeared in film and pop songs. perhaps most notably in Joni Mitchell's 'The Hissing of summer lawns'.
The story goes that the Gishora Drummers originated when the last king of Burundi, Mwezi Gisabo, gave some men two cattle as a reward for his victory, over the rebellious chief Ntibirangwa in the second half of the nineteenth century. They used the hide to cover their drums. The body of the drums is traditionally made from Cordia Africana, a flowering tree sometimes known as Sudan teak. More interestingly, in Kirundi, the tree is known as the “umuvugangoma,” which means “the tree that makes the drum speak.”
Drumming is important in Burundi, as it is throughout Africa. It has always been a key part of the king's enthronement, funerals communication and battle. There are many drum groups, some of which included women. But this group is run by local boys and men, known as Abatimbo who descend from the ancient lineage of Abanyigisaka, run the sanctuary. They are the descendants of religious leaders who held senior positions within the royal court. The government has introduced contentious new rules that ban the participation of women in drumming. In addition, the Gishora Drumming Drumming is now mostly limited to official ceremonies. Private events require authorization, which is subject to a fee, of course.
The tour includes the king’s hut and other dwelling areas, very similar to the one at Butare in Rwanda. The performance is aleg scale and involves about 30 men. They make a dramatic entrance balancing the heavy instruments on their heads and led by a spear toting warrior. There is ritual dancing, poetry and great deal of leaping. All joyful and thoroughly uplifting. Even if it is just done for the tourists nowadays, it's worth a visit. If you can excuse the lack of inclusion.
Sadly, as I've already suggested, Burundi seems keen on overcharging tourists. and making visiting as difficult as possible. Most countries have now abandoned Covid testing and just demand the vaccination certificate. Burundi requires a test within 72 hours pre-entry and another on arrival at the airport. You have to book it online and prove this to be allowed in. And it costs 100 USD cash. The visa on arrival is 90 USD. That's a whopping bill, just to cross the border.
I also require a test to leave. Justin says we will do it Saturday morning, before we leave for Gitega. He sends me the requisition link, just before he's due to arrive, with a message to say that he's gone to the bank to pay as required. We manage to rendezvous an hour later, when he tells me that he's discovered that the banks don't open till 11 on a Saturday and there's a lengthy queue at the test centre.
Plan B is mooted. It’s unorthodox and I'm not going to describe it. But it only costs the same as the legally required route. And results are apparently guaranteed. The latter is predictably not quite true. My certificate citing a negative result arrives about an hour before I'm due to depart for the airport. It's just a tad stressful.
I've also just received an e-mail from our esteemed government. It advises against travel to all the places I've just been to.
And when I've finally got over the stress of obtaining my PCR test, departure from Bujumbura provides another contender for worst airport on the world. Melchior Ndadaye Airport (BJM,) is Burundi's only international airport. In fact, it's the only one with a paved runway. It's named after the first democratically elected president of Burundi, who was murdered in a coup d'état in October 1993, three months after being elected.
There's a huge queue to get the PCR test checked. VIPs, such as the national volleyball team, are ushered past to hold us up even further. Then, there's a queue to get your visa checked. Why? I'm leaving! Then, a queue to screen the bags. No-one is looking at the monitor. Then, an excruciatingly long queue to check in and go through immigration and get my visa checked again.
It's roasting hot. There isn't so much as a fan. And the whole check in process is being done manually, with the clerks taking photos of each handwritten baggage tag and boarding pass. I've carefully reserved my near the front window seat many months ago. But my boarding pass says it's free seating. Aaargh ! I just have time to buy a bottle of water in the departure lounge, before we board. And then it’s another hour before we take off. They've overbooked.
I’m touring Uganda anticlockwise, starting from Entebbe. It's a return visit, as last time I only dipped into the eastern corner, to Jinja and the reputed source of the Nile, from Kenya. This trip has begun with a bang. Literally. Twice. I woke up to find that a coke bottle had exploded in my fridge. There was a mess of sticky brown ice to clear up. Then my taxi turned up to take me to the bus station and the driver brought the tail gate down on my head. I now have a dent in my throbbing left temple. If I'm lucky I will get a black eye to match the one I picked up on my last trip when to Tunisia.
Finally, on the bus, the bus driver denies boarding to a young guy who looks as if he had a rough night. But more importantly he doesn't have a ticket. The would be traveller doesn't take it very well. He empties his daypack and trolley bag and throws the entire contents at the bus. It's not the best of starts.
Add to that the queues at Heathrow. Terminal 5 is heaving. It takes an hour in the check in queue, 20 minutes to get to the entrance to security and 20 minutes in security before I get airside.
I've already had a run in with my favourite airline (not) BA, who have given my paid for exit row seat to someone else. They rarely answer the phone, but I managed to get through to customer services which I discovered is now in Cape Town. Though they haven't been able to train the staff yet. It's an hour there before I finally get to speak to a supervisor who sorts the problem. I'm now in the exit row by the toilets, treated as a gangway by all the passengers. The plane is old and the screens tiny with wavery pictures and touch screens that send you back to the beginning of the film all the time.
Thank God for Qatar Airways on the second leg. Polite, modern, spanking clean, entertainment that works and heaps of food. Though masks are demanded on both legs.
Immigration in Entebbe is the usual African chaos, with no adherence to any form of queuing rules. But I'm eventually in and out again and Hannington and James are waiting to greet me. Two guides just for me! Happy-go-lucky James is a trainee along for the ride and ready to polish his skills.
The official languages in Uganda are English and Swahili. But Hannington and James speak to each other in Luganda, as do most of the Ugandans. It's the language of Buganda, the largest of the Ugandan kingdoms, centred on Kampala. And Uganda derives its name from Luganda (Yuganda). Uganda has four main kingdoms and many more chiefdoms. These are credited with maintaining a strong culture of good behaviour amongst the friendly and affable people. The kingdoms are the Toro, Buganda, Bunyoro and Busoga.
The road round Kampala, east and north, is generally good, especially on the new toll section, but the traffic is slow through the urban areas, the road lined with small bustling markets. The buildings in the small towns are constructed wild west frontier style, with high brick stepped facias and shady pillared verandas. Stacks of red bricks stand drying in the fields. Most of the embellishment relates to advertising for telephone companies. Open air pool tables with thatched awnings. And solitary petrol pumps guarded by hopeful assistants.
All manner of dress: traditional with headscarves western long and short and nearly all immensely colourful. Chickens in cages, huge green hands of bananas strapped precariously onto bicycles, families of up to 5 crammed on motorbikes. Motorcycles and scooters are called “bodabodas.” They’re cheap transport.
Further on, long horned cattle and flattish agricultural country, red termite hills erupting at various intervals. Plenty of maize and rippling sugar cane. The cane is being harvested and loaded onto top heavy trucks which lumber past. Cassava, mangoes, bananas. The cassava is drying by the road in pieces or pounded. Rows of bean and coffee processing plants. Tall fan like papyrus, used for roofing and decoration It's placed outside buildings to signal a party. Watch out for it!
Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary was established in 2005 to reintroduce rhino into Uganda. Uganda was home to both the black rhino and the northern white rhino, but both indigenous species were wiped out by civil war, poachers and plain habitat mismanagement ,by 1982. Six southern white rhino were initially donated by Kenya and Florida(!) and the population is now 33. It's the only place in the country where you can find rhinos and it's a convenient stopping place on the way north, 100 miles from Kampala.
We creep out in single file to see seven of the pachyderms (have to get that word in somehow), in two groups, slumbering peacefully. Mostly young males, farting and snoring. There's a female Luna, who is pregnant. When she has her baby, the males will have to form their own group as she won't be looking after them any more.
There are also warthogs (Pumbaa of course) skipping around, and the odd bush buck sliding out of the bushes.
Further north, gorgeous rolling velvety hills. The road is a big dipper as we venture on to Murchison Falls. Here, astonishingly, is a two lane highway but they’re still constructing it, the rust-red soil churned up, the edges lined with JCBs. More hard work in the heat. The Chinese engineers always immediately distinguishable in their straw brimmed hats.
Murchison Falls is the biggest national park in Uganda. The Nile runs east-west through the centre, with the game congregated in the northern areas, which are mostly exceptionally pretty emerald savannah, dotted liberally with fan palms. Who wouldn't want to live here ?
The lodge in the park is packed. They must be grateful for the custom. Things are only just reopening after Covid. This is Hannington’s fourth safari this year and his sixth since 2019. There are lovely sweeping views from here, down to the river. This is the Albert Nile which links Lake Albert with Lake Victoria. Although landlocked, Uganda consists mainly of the Nile Basin and is at the heart of the African Great Lakes. Lake Kyoga is the largest entirely Ugandan lake, and also notable is Lake George. Uganda shares Lakes Albert and Edward with the DRC and the huge (and largest lake in Africa) Victoria, with Kenya and Tanzania.
The eponymous park falls are billed as the most powerful in the world. They’re not very high, but still spectacular, as the Nile is forced through a six metre wide channel, thundering into a churning cauldron. You can view from up top or down the bottom. The latter involves a surprisingly long three hour boat trip. Two hours upstream and one back. There are crocodiles, elephants, antelopes and heaps of hippos to entertain us.
The elephants, protective of their babies, are much more unhappy about boats than they are cars and bundle the little ones away rapidly, forming a protective barricade of elephant backsides. They swivel back as soon as we pull away. One baby hippo unintentionally uses its mother as a waterslide. The boats keep a wary distance from the hippos and from the falls themselves, when we finally reach them. The impact causes plenty of foam and current and the zoom lens is required for any meaningful shots.
A road takes us to the top of the falls, where you can peer over the edge (almost) and get a real sense of the power of the boiling waters cascading over the edge. There’s a fantastic view back along the Albert Nile. You also get soaking wet and have to avoid the clouds of buzzing tsetse flies. Unluckily I've worn blue ( in addition to not donning my cagoule) and acquire four stings.
Safaris in the park are delightful and the game prolific. Giraffe, elephant and buffalo arrange themselves round every corner. Antelope abound. The square jawed Jackson’s hartebeest is the largest. Water bucks and bush bucks pose obediently. Kobs are the Ugandan equivalent of impala, redder brown without the distinctive black vee on the rump. They are abundant, flinging themselves across the tracks with gay abandon. The diminutive oribi, with their two tiny horns, follow suit. They make good prey for leopard, who can drag them up trees easily.
A large leopard has draped one a across a branch and lazes 20 metres up, every so often switching position to gnaw at another chunk. It's entertaining for the punters, as the relieved guides vie to get their clients to a reliable sighting. Every time we meet another van we have to stop and check what they have seen. There are a lot of vans. And there're already a gratifying number of ticks on my animal and bird checklists.
Our journey south again involves a stretch of unmade road lined with traditional villages. Square and circular huts with grass thatched roofs. (They're selling rolls of the stuff by the roadside ) Tilling the soil with metal hoes looks like very had work.
Toddlers wave excitedly. Children and lines of women trudge along the roadside balancing yellow waterfilled Jerry cans on their heads. Too many villages still don't have pumps or wells. There are also a few large gated mansions. Hannington says they belong to government officials.
The road signs are British style. So are the many sleeping policemen (in every town and village ) and the speed cameras. The lollipop ladies here use red flags instead of circular signs to escort children across busy roads.
Hoima is the centre of the oil industry. This where all the companies and construction folk have based themselves. It's the nearest city to the game park. The Chinese have built all the roads round here to give them access to the newly found oil. Sadly, they found it in the middle of the park. The issue was debated in parliament, but money won of course. The animals are being moved to other areas. Let's hope they like their new homes.
Hannington has no watch and little idea about distances. He underestimates wildly. So our ETA is usually way off the mark and lunch eaten long after my stomach has started rumbling. He’s not always easy to understand. When Ugandans speak English, they often replace “l” with “r,” so play becomes pray. A toilet stop is usually a short call. Though there’s also the long call.
Further south, the scenery increasingly gorgeous. Hills and mountains. Emerald tea plantations. Climbing up to Fort Portal, a tourist city with green cloaked views in every direction. We’ve just crossed from the Bunyoro kingdom to Toro. The king’s palace at Fort Portal has the best view in town.
The other side of Fort Portal the scenery is better still, as we skirt the Ruwenzori Mountains. The country sits at an average of 900 metres above sea level. Both the eastern and western borders of Uganda have mountains. The Ruwenzori mountain range contains the highest peak in Uganda ( Alexandra - 5,094 metres). Winston Churchill famously referred to Uganda as ‘The Pearl of Africa'. He was right.
There’s a bad day on most trips, or at least one that isn’t as good, and my first day in Queen Elizabeth Park is it. The Bush Lodge just outside the park, at Kazunguru, insists that my reservation is for a tent, not the Banda hut with en-suite by the water, described in my itinerary. The small, sweltering tent on offer has an outside shared ablutions block five metres away. No thanks. They argue that no Bandas are available, until I show them my itinerary hard copy and then there suddenly is one. Hannington says that the office of his company agree that a Banda was booked.
There are tranquil views from the veranda, of crocodiles and hippos in the Kazinga Channel, which separates Lake George from Lake Edward. It’s forbidden to walk alone to the huts at night. Escorts are required, as a pair of warring hippos wander the grounds constantly after dusk.
Chimp trekking in the Kyambura Gorge is the first activity here. It’s not as frenetic as the tracking in Rwanda and only involves sliding down a rainforest covered gorge and crossing two bridges over hippo frequented rivers. The first bridge is rickety, with slats missing and the second a fallen tree. Thankfully, the uniformed ranger, with his AK 47, is happy to assist. But the chimps are similarly uncooperative and stay firmly in the tops of their trees, peeing down from above. They are not really habituated. A second group, the other side of the river, are even more elusive. There’s a very cute tiny baby, but sadly my photos show him peering round his mother's backside. It's not pretty viewing.
Later, we go on a game drive, but there is nothing to be seen. Just a couple of water buck and small herd of kob. The dry yellow savannah stretches to the mountains and Hannington spends two hours driving us literally round in circles, searching for a lion and cubs he’s been told were there this morning. The only good bit is the sunset over the Ruwenzori Mountains. Very disappointing and I’m not happy. Hannington responds by sulking all through dinner. His parting shot - the office have told him that they think there was a mistake with my booking and they agreed to two nights out of the four in a tent. I told him I’m not leaving my Banda.
Next morning, Hannington tells me that I definitely have to move. I’m still not convinced, but the hotel manager says Hannington’s known all along that I should be in a tent. That’s what was booked and I was only in a Banda as a favour. I’ve read that Ugandans don’t like confrontation. Never shout at a Ugandan. But I do and there are tears (on my part).
To cut a long story short, I’m now in another lodge. It lacks the rustic charm of Bush Lodge and sadly there are no views at all from my room. But it’s a little palace with two enormous beds and a long thin bathroom. The toilet isolated at one end like a throne. The electricity can go out at any time for 4 to 24 hours. It’s known as load shedding. Most of the lodges have their own generators but of course those are known to play up too. My shower and hair wash is cut short mid lather tonight.
The game drive next morning is a little more productive. There are a herd of buffalo, a lioness (from a distance) and some hippos playfighting. There’s queue of vans along the track, a sure sign that there’s been a big cat sighting. But Hannington says I’m not allowed to look. These vans have paid for ‘The Lion Experience’ and the rangers have tracked their prey down for them. No money, no lookee.
In the afternoon, a boat trip along the Kazinga Channel. This is where all the wildlife have escaped to. The banks are lined with elephants, consuming their requisite 100 litres of water a day and in the interim squirting the liquid, or dust, over each other. The many babies have a great time rolling in the mud and linking trunks. The groups of buffalo lounge in the water, a wary distance from the elephants. The hippos can’t decide whether to duck or take centre stage, alternating between the two.
There are scores of different birds, crowned cranes (the national bird of Uganda featured on the flag), yellow billed storks, great and lesser pelicans, three types of kingfisher, fish eagles (one makes an audacious dive and scoops up a fish in his talons right under our noses. He’s much to fast to photograph). Cormorants, goliath herons, great herons and the boringly brown hamerkop (but notable because they have the biggest nest in the world according to our guide and their name refers to their hammer shaped head) and marabou storks, (on the ugly 5 list along with the amusing pumbaas of course). The warthogs are everywhere running along with their tails erect like car aerials. The name pumbaa means stupid in Swahili. That’s even more unkind than putting them on the Ugly 5 list. We meander along the channel, waterside scenes the whole way, to a fishing village and back again.
My last day in Queen Elizabeth Park also calls for patience. Today, we’re in search of the tree climbing lions of Ishasha. They are reputed to wake up early, go hunting and then climb into trees to sleep for the rest of the day. It’s a two hour drive up a very bumpy track to this part of the park. And the lions have been up and come down again when we arrive, according to the rangers. It might have something to do with the fact that they’ve been burning off the long grass and nearly the whole area is a scorched and still smoking. If I was a lion I wouldn’t be that keen on padding across it.
We spend the whole morning driving round in more circles, but the lions are even more reluctant to appear then the rest of the wildlife in these parts. I’ve been told (too late and possibly unreliably) that only one pride remains. A dozen or so cats were poisoned by locals, as they were thought to be taking their cattle. James and Hannington spend a lot of time on the roof of the van vainly looking. The only sighting is a veritable parliament of eagle owls, all surprisingly alert, and a blue monkey. There are a lot of monkeys in Uganda.
James is a little vague over the names (and even more so about the spellings) of the wildlife, so I’ve challenged him to write a list of everything we’ve spotted in both parks. This is my agreed sightings list, in James’ order:
Side striped jackal, crowned crane, egrets, tree squirrels, ground squirrels, ground hornbill, snake eagle, yellow throated longclaw, African jacana, marabou stork, open billed stork, hippo, Rothschild’s giraffe, African buffalo, African bush elephant, nightjars, vervet monkey, patas monkey, olive baboon, black and white colobus monkey, common hare, black headed heron, grey heron, goliath heron, white backed vulture, permanent vulture, lion, leopard, Uganda kob, water buck, African pied wagtail, Egyptian goose, yellow billed black back, slender mongoose, marsh mongoose, white tailed mongoose, common warthogs, long tailed starling, Bunyoro Rabbit (at night, quite rare), blue monkey, red tailed monkey, topi (from a distance), hamerkop, long crested eagle, fish eagle, eagle owls, scarlet ibis, common bulbul, weavers, tawny eagle, bush buck, oribi, Jackson’s hartebeest, side striped jackal, cattle egrets, oxpeckers, red turaco, bee eaters, flycatchers, kingfishers, bustard (careful with the spelling here), guinea fowls (known here as wild chicken), northern common bee-eater, Cooper’s sunbird, black and white cuckoo, barbets, yellow billed stork, pelican greater and lesser, cormorants.
Food in most of the lodges relies on quantity rather than quality. It’s international buffets, pasta and some sort of chicken is the norm. Potatoes here are known simply as Irish to distinguish them from the indigenous sweet potatoes. Dessert is usually a tropical fruit plate: passion fruit, pineapple, watermelon, small sweet banana and mango if I’m lucky. When we stop for lunch its usually heaps of fries and fish (tilapia from the lakes) or chicken. Hannington and James eat what they term local food. Stews: beef or goat with lots of starch; cassava, big (bland) bananas, pumpkin and rice. Some of the lodges are a little more up market in their offerings, tiny pink lamb chops with mustard sauce is my favourite. Pork isn’t served at all in some restaurants. In villages there’s usually a ‘pork joint’- for roast meat. A “rolex” is an omelette wrapped in a chapatti.
It’s a very busy road through from the DRC to Kampala. The scenery is still gorgeous. There are numerous crater lakes in the Queen Elizabeth Park, evidence of past volcanic activity. Indeed, some argue that sulphurous odours indicate that they are still bubbling. Or road takes us through a scattering of these, the mountains beautifully reflected in the still water. Lake Nkugute is said to take the shape of Africa, a newish dam, creates the horn. An old man with a wooden rowing boat is fishing for crayfish, who nip his hand whilst he brandishes them aloft.
More neatly tiered tea plantations. And police road blocks. President Museveni lives in this area and it's apparently also a high risk accident zone. There are almost as many checks as in the DRC. Hannington has his licence confiscated and is made to pay an overdue speeding fine. I have to loan him 150,000 shillings so we can get back on the road. Finally, we make progress. We reach the Equator – I’m having my photo taken at the designated markers, (on some of the several main roads it crosses you have to make do with a small brown sign) when a small Ugandan boy sidles up. His parents are giggling from their car. ‘He wanted his picture taken with a mzungu, (foreigner).’ they call.
Mabamba Lodge is up a 20 kilometre bumpy track in the rainforest above Mabamba Bay on Lake Victoria. There are amazing swamp and lake views. I have a small bungalow with views across the rainforest. The jungle noises are loud at night and the monkeys throw fruit onto my roof.
Farida, from Kampala, who I met on the Caucasus train in 2017 is coming to join me for a trip into the swamp in search of the rare shoebill (only 3-5,000 left in the wild). They're sometimes wrongly referred to as shoebill storks, as they've now been classified as a family all on their own. Their closest relatives are actually the pelicans.
We have a motorised canoe, but our crew are young and inexperienced and make hard work of poling through the narrow channels as jacana hop on lily pads and kingfishers and heron swoop by. There are ominous thunder clouds rolling over head. Nevertheless, the boys know the way to a, so very rare, it's almost unheard of, shoebill's nest.
The male is standing guard, motionless and silent, except for a swivelling dinosaur like head and huge beak 30 centimetres long, (shaped like a clog). It's either a monster dreamed up for Dr Who or an offbeat cuddly toy. A very tall one. The bill is sharply hooked to help grab prey. The shoebill feeds on fish, snakes and even small crocodiles and baby monitor lizards, lunging suddenly in surprise attack. This is a solitary and possibly fearsome creature and unsurprisingly receives a mixed reception amongst the locals, who often view them with suspicion.
The baby is on the grass nest, camouflaged by the undergrowth. We can glimpse him when he fidgets and preens. It's difficult to get a clear shot of either, because of all the waving papyrus stalks between us. Sadly, we are not the only people who know about the nest. It's become world famous. We're soon surrounded by other boats, with more experienced navigators edging their craft around us. The twitchers wander all over everyone else's canoes, hefting their huge lenses and raising them in unison every time the baby moves.
One guy has flown specially from France for the event and spent the whole week by the nest. He has four cameras. He tells me that the mother is out hunting for food while dad acts as security, fending off snakes and birds of prey. When mum comes back she feeds the baby and tends to him giving him a shower from her beak and shading him with her wings. Dad goes hunting in the afternoon. He gives his catch it to the female who swallows it and regurgitates it an hour later partially digested, to feed the baby.
Two eggs are laid, on a nest maybe two metres wide, at the end of the rainy season. The parents constantly add grasses to it. However, only one bird is allowed to live, to maximise the chances of survival. If the stronger baby doesn't murder their sibling the mother starves the weakest to death. That's nature.
We're fascinated and would dearly like to see the mother return, but naturally no one has any idea when that will be. The clouds are getting darker and more boats are arriving. Time to depart.
Farida whisks me off into the capital Kampala. 8.5 million of Uganda’s 42 million, population live here. Ironically, the name derives from the impala that are now only found in a couple of small parks in Uganda. The ultimate contrast to the last few days. Traffic laden. Full of fumes. It's one of the fastest growing cities in Africa. Bustling with streets of several storied blocks, mini scrapers in the centre. Small malls, open fronted shops of all kinds, a couple of theatres. Farida’s family own some of these buildings. Her father has accumulated considerable property over the years and she points out some of them as we inch past. Further out, villas scattered across he undulating suburbs
There are no stand out sights, but we take in the independence monuments (Uganda was a British protectorate from 1894-1962 -they were keen to preserve Nile trade routes), the national cultural centre, a mall (excellent cheesecake), some craft shops and the long established Sheraton Hotel. The beautiful-in-its-simplicity Bahai Temple competes for the best view of town, with the top of the Ghaddafi Mosque minaret . You have to pay to enter there. They won't even let you take a photo from outside unless you stump up. And they've recently started to insist that women wear headscarves and cover trousers too.
There are also, of course, government buildings and the parliament. Uganda has had a troubled history since independence, with tensions arising between the kingdoms, and especially resentment towards the larger Buganda kingdom. Milton Obote, from the north was able to gather enough support over time to seize power. But he was eventually deposed by Idi Amin, who ruled as a dictator, for eight years. It’s estimated that Amin was responsible for the deaths of up to half a million Ugandans. His regime came to an end when Tanzania invaded, in cooperation with Ugandan exiles. Uganda's current president, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, took power in January 1986 after a protracted six-year guerrilla war. Following constitutional amendments that removed term limits for the president, he was able to stand and was elected president of Uganda in the 2011, 2016 and in the 2021 general elections
We also indulge in an exceptionally good meal, no banquet, at Izumi, a Japanese-Thai restaurant in a shady street full of upmarket eateries. Farida orders far too much and it's all delicious. Really good to meet up again and she showers me with presents from Uganda. An excellent day !
Entebbe is located on a Lake Victoria peninsula, 22 miles southwest of Kampala. It was once the seat of government for the Protectorate of Uganda, prior to independence, in 1962. The city is the location for Entebbe International Airport, Uganda's largest commercial and military airport. Entebbe is also home to the State House, the official office and residence of the President of Uganda.
I’m staying at 2 Friends Beach Hotel. Beach is a little bit of a stretch. The lake is so vast, it's certainly like being by the ocean. Don’t swim in the lake (or any of them for that matter), you risk bilharzia. And there is sand. Held in place by netted stone walls that defend against the battering of the waves. A couple of tiny smelly strips allotted to fishing boats. The rest is manicured (well sort of ) covered in trees and requisitioned by the various hotels arraigned along the lakeside road. Its all beach bars and restaurants and I even see stacks of sunbeds. But what with the trees and thatched awnings there's no way for the sun to peep through. There are sunbeds by the goldfish pond like swimming pool directly in front of the hotel though.
An hour in the evening discussing the woes of the world with the owner, Icelandic Hinrik and an English guy from Derbyshire who has made Uganda his home. Both are very content and wouldn’t consider returning to Europe.
But I can't hear the word Entebbe without thinking of the famous raid on the airport in 1977, when the Israelis rescued 100 hostages kidnapped by the militant group of the PFLP-EO and Revolutionary Cells.
It’s still a problematic place. I’m trying to get to Burundi next. The president is flying out today and security is intense. The car is searched thoroughly before we can enter. Vehicles are not allowed close to the departures area. I have to drag my bag uphill on a bumpy track. And it’s not till after check in that I discover that my flight time has been changed for the third time. I’m doomed to spend five hours airside. And that gets extended. They’ve given us free food vouchers and no firm departure time, which is ominous. And my biro has leaked ink all over me and my tee shirt. It’s another one of those days.
Tunisia was the first country I visited in Africa and a first encounter with Arab culture. There were a lot of jokes about how many camels I might be worth. I had also hoped it might be a chance for some spring sunshine. But the weather was disappointing - it wasn’t really warm enough to sunbathe.
This is a much anticipated revisit to Tunisia, after a very long gap. My guide is Noureddine, from Nabeul, near Hammamet, which, coincidentally, is the beach resort I stayed in on my last visit.
Tunisia lies at the crossroads of the Mediterranean and so, is a melting pot of cultures. The country is named after its capital city and is home to Africa’s northernmost point, Cape Angela. It is the smallest nation in North Africa, having a population of 11 plus million. It's a surprisingly green wedge, dipping into the Sahara. And, according to Wikipedia, it’s the only truly democratic Arab nation.
Tunisia was inhabited by the Berber peoples from very early times. The Phoenicians began to arrive in the 12th century BC, establishing several settlements. By the 7th century BC Carthage had emerged as the most powerful. It became a major mercantile empire and a military rival of the Roman Empire, but they grew too strong. The Romans defeated them over successive Punic Wars and flattened much of the country to ensure no resurgence. They (or Byzantines) occupied Tunisia for most of the next 800 years.
The Arab Empire, most notably the Aghlabids, took over gradually after this and Christianity gave way to Islam. The Ottoman Empire established control in 1574 and held sway for over 300 years. The French conquered Tunisia in 1881. Tunisia gained independence under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba, who declared the Tunisian Republic in 1957.
I’m beginning in Tunis – that’s where my plane landed. It’s home to almost three million people if you count all the suburbs. It sprawls along the hills edging the Mediterranean (the Gulf of Tunis), behind the Lake of Tunis and alongside its port (La Goulette).
And naturally, I have to start at the core, the ancient medina, a World Heritage Site. Tunis is a good introduction to African cities. It has minarets in abundance, crumbling palaces, culture and a suitably chaotic souk easy to get lost in. It’s delightfully authentic, with covered arcades and baby blue balconies, the brightest of bougainvillea spilling over them. The guest houses here are dars, the equivalent of Moroccan riads, built round courtyards. Refined and relatively undistinguished from outside they brim with style and interesting design once though the studded doors. There are plenty of blue doors to match the balconies, though it seems that bright yellow is also in fashion.
The laid back stallholders are happy to chat. I’m shown how to make the traditional Tunisian red hats – they have a whole souk to them selves. They’re flatter than the Moroccan or Turkish varieties and are known as chechia. It’s a complicated process. They are crocheted from wool, (huge at that point), then wetted, battered, combed, dyed, moulded and baked till they are small and felted. The traditional burgundy colour comes from cochineal ants, but there are plenty of other colours and designs for men and women. Though I’m not tempted.
There are window displays of ceremonial clothes - Tunisian men wear a costume called a 'jebba', a long sleeveless tunic worn over a shirt; a vest known as a 'farmla' and trousers named 'sarouel. The most important ceremonies are weddings and circumcision, which seems to feature heavily. Noureddine tells me about his own circumcision, which was roughly 50 years ago. It takes place when the boys are about 6 years old and he was circumcised with his younger twin brothers. There was no anaesthetic used in those days and it was just a family affair – so no doctors either. His father demanded that he not cry as Noureddine was to go before his siblings. He said it wasn’t easy to obey. He was then taken to bathe in the sea, on the grounds that the salt would be helpful in healing the wounds. No holding back the tears at that point.
The other highlight is the old Al Zaytuna mosque, dating back to 698 and utilising 160 columns from the ruins of Carthage.
East of the medina, through the Sea Gate (also known as the Bab el Bhar and the Porte de France) lies the modern city, or Ville Nouvelle. It’s traversed by the Tunisian Champs-Élysées, the Grand Avenue Habib Bourguiba, named after the ‘Father of Independence.’ The colonial-era buildings abut various government buildings, which I’m not allowed to take pictures of, and the Independence Monument, on Independence Square. In-between, the imposing (French built), St Vincent de Paul Cathedral, still used for Christian worship.
Three lane highways weave past the airport and alongside the salt lake, mountains shrouded in mist beyond. This is up and coming Tunis, the suburbs of Carthage, La Marsa, and Sidi Bou Said. The embassies are moving further and further out this way and the shores of the lake are lined with fancy restaurants and chain hotels.
This once centre of the Punic empire nestles in the suburbs of Tunis. Carthage is famous for controlling much of the Western trade in the luxurious purple dye from the murex shell. Legend has it that Carthage was founded by the Phoenician Queen Dido (Elissa of Tyre). In 814 B, after requesting a place to settle from the resident Numidian prince, Dido was told that she could take the equivalent of the hide of a bull. She cut the hide into strips and so, was able to claim a considerable quantity of land. She chose to base her city on a hill top and called it Qart Hadasht, meaning new town.
The hill is now known as Byrsa. The Phoenician settlement was destroyed by the Romans and rebuilt again by Julius Caesar and then Augustus, who named it Cartago. He flattened the summit to build the forum, temples and library, which were destroyed in their turn by the Vandals. As if that wasn’t enough layers of history, the French built a cathedral on top of that. The towering Acropolium Cathedral is dedicated to St Louis (IX) 1890. Nowadays this cathedral is a concert hall and art gallery.
The famed ruins of Carthage are, surprisingly, spread over several sites, sprinkled around suburbia. They are, frankly, a little underwhelming. Most of the sites are Roman or later. There are the usual temples, theatres, an amphitheatre modelled on the Roman Colosseum, numerous baths and temples, and a circus. Byrsa Hill is overrun by tourists, the buses decanting streams of sightseers have come from the gigantic cruise liner we can see down in La Goulette. It’s a great view, across the port and lake, when I can find a gap in the crowds.
Fortunately, the buses can’t get to the ‘lesser sites.’ The Roman amphitheatre, also destroyed by the Vandals, is thankfully, quiet. It was designed to hold 50000. Today, there’s only me and a couple admiring the remnants of columns and imagining the lions emerging from the tunnels beneath. I’ve read that it wasn’t just animals and gladiators here. They used to flood this one for mock naval battles.
Noureddine is chauffeuring me around the various remains by car. But there’s also a light railway you can jump on. Next up, is the theatre. This one is down to Hadrian, dates from the second century and has been adapted and reconstructed for concerts today. Its original 5000 audience capacity has been expanded to 12000 for the annual film festival.
Finally, the ruins of the the Zaghouan Aqueduct of Hadrian ( he seems to have built everywhere). There are several long undamaged stretches, and in its heyday it was 132 kilometres long. The adjacent cisterns, 24 of them, held 50-60000 cubic metres of water.
Sidi Bou Said is the epitome of blue and white Greek villages. except it’s in Tunisia. Whitewashed domes and curly balconies. Jettied windows. Profusions of bougainvillea. Narrow streets and very steep steps. Minarets instead of church towers. It’s perched on a cliffside, with views to the Mediterranean and the lake. Sidi means holy man and this place was founded by the Sufis. Later, it became the ultimate bohemian village, made famous by Paul Klee, who took up residence here with August Macke and Louis Moillet.
It’s a great place to wander and souvenir hunt, though it's also a magnet for day trippers, who toil up hill from their buses, past the large tourist orientated market. Its popularity means enduring hassle from the many ceramic ware vendors and also some grossly inflated prices.
My hotel is a labyrinth of beautifully styled rooms layered into the cliff. The chambers and suites are linked by numerous staircases; it takes several days to work out what leads where. Most of the rooms have tiny balconies where the occupants eat their meals. (there’s also a plate glass dining room with views to the sea). The food is as gorgeously presented as the rooms.
My suite has sea views, but no balcony. There are two minuscule swimming pools and a sunbathing terrace with three beds. As it’s pushing 40 degrees it’s a little hot to go without shade. There’s a road winding down to the port, a very long way below and a stretch of sandy beach. But there’s no shade on that either and it’s packed with locals. I discover a long staircase leading back up to the village. But the climb is extremely hard work. As I’ve said many times, paradise is never perfect.
And now we’re off to Sousse. Past Hammamet. Again, it’s mostly highways and I’m fascinated by the elaborate topiary lining the routes. All the trees and bushes have been cajoled into the most elaborate of spirals and other intricate shapes. Northern Tunisia is pleasantly green and this area is scattered with golf courses. Tourism brings in much needed currency. This is yet another country where there is huge inequality and fluctuating levels of poverty that are directly related to civil unrest.
Sousse was also a Phoenician settlement originally. It’s now the third largest city in Tunisia, after Tunis and Sfax. The medina here has massive walls. In the centre is the also ancient Aghlabid dynasty (Muslim 800-909) fort or ribat. It’s part of a chain built along the coast during the crusades. Not one, but two, rows of arched crenellations either side of the battlements. Monks (or religious soldiers) were quartered here, so there is both a prayer room and a watch tower There are purple skies overhead and a sticky climb up steps of assorted sizes, for the panorama of the walled city and the casbah atop an adjacent hill.
There’s also another very old mosque. This one also dates from the ninth century.
We eat dinner at La Fiesta, a small tourist restaurant close to the sea and the many hotels. Unsurprisingly, it’s run by a friend of Noureddine’s (my guide as is often the case seems to know just about everyone in Tunisia) and Ben Khalifa Majid sits with us and chats all the while I’m eating. But the food is good. Mezze and perfectly cooked fish. No complaints.
My guest house, Dar Antonia, also promises much. I’m given a tour, another roof top view and a modern meets palatial bedroom. I have a mezzanine day bed area and stairs to my raised bed, which is decorated with a huge golden arch. The mezzanine is reached by a wooden ladder that doesn’t seem to be attached to much. It’s used to hang the towels from the shower cubicle wedged in beneath. I don’t think I’ll be going up there. And, much to my chagrin, I walk straight into the plate glass shower wall whilst reaching for a light switch. I’ve collected a wonderful black eye. Any photos from now on will include sunglasses.
Monastir is another tourist town further down the coast. More golf courses. Noureddine says that the name is derived from the French for fort, but I think it’s actually monastery. The ribat here is very restored, but it was the setting for the films Jesus of Nazareth and Life of Brian. There’s been a lot of filming in Tunisia. The main sight is Bourguiba’s Mausoleum. Monastir was his home town and he built it well before he was deposed, and then died, but it’s still venerated.
Mahdia is the third town of the coastal Sahel region, historically important, with yet another ribat. It’s cloudy. So this city is not especially scenic today, in the dim light. There’s a large fishing harbour and attached market. A huge cemetery stretches below the ribat and down and around the Phoenician harbour. This dates back to the ninth century BC, when Mahdia was a Phoenician military settlement.
Muslim Mahdia was founded by the Fatimids in 921 and briefly made the capital of Ifriqiya. (eastern Algeria, Tunisia, western Libya and Sicily at one point). Carthage preceded it and Kairouan and Tunis followed. From the promontory and lighthouse there are panoramic views across to the beaches, promenade and modern hotels of today’s resort town.
The Roman amphitheatre at El Jem is in much better condition than the one at Carthage, though it’s a little smaller. Noureddine says it was built by Julius Caesar, but Wikipedia says it was the third on the site and that this (one of the best preserved Roman buildings in the world) was built around 238 AD, probably by the local proconsul Gordian, who became emperor as Gordian III. No-one is quite sure.
This amphitheatre, built to seat 35,000, did not only survive the Vandals; it was used as fort to defend against them, and later others. It’s also been used as a mining centre and a market place. It deserves it’s UNESCO status.
We’re driving south, away from the green, arable areas of Tunisia. This is olive tree belt. Mile after mile of silvery rows stretching to the horizon. The olives at La Fiesta were small, black and sweet. I’ve not been so lucky since. For variety, every so often, pistachio orchards, or pomegranates, the trees adorned with red flowers.
The motorway bypasses Sfax and we stop in Al Maharas, a small fishing town. It has a coastal park crammed with sculptures. This is where they host an annual festival. At our café stop, the bar tender unlocks a special toilet for me. I’m glad I didn’t get to see the others.
The people are friendly, don’t speak much English but generally some French. All the menus and additional signage are in French.
There are few dogs in this country; Tunisians like cats. They stroll everywhere, generally in reasonable condition. The locals put out fish and other leftovers and house the kittens in cardboard boxes. The felines vie for attention- and shade. There’s usually at least one cat that has sneaked under the car when we park up.
It's been a long day. Now the olive groves are giving way to arid biscuit coloured sandstone, at times rising high into mountains with a few wadis beneath. The eastern Atlas mountains and the Sahara beckon.
Tamezret is my home for the night. It’s an old Berber village ensconced on a hilltop; my hotel is delightfully situated on an adjoining hill with views across the rocky desert and to the old village.
This area around here and towards the small town of Matmata is known for its troglodyte houses. The inhabitants have made an industry of welcoming tourists to view their cool and immaculate dwellings and selling them honey and other gewgaws at the same time. The houses are centred on dug out pits or courtyards. The cell like rooms are hollowed in rows, appropriately reminiscent of beehive combs.
In Matmata itself, the main attraction is a troglodyte hotel - the Hotel Sidi Driss, used to film the Skywalker homestead on Tatooine, in Star Wars. George Lucas liked this area. Beyond, the buttes and mesas of the desert. Past another scenic village, Toujane, is the town of Tataouine(!) and several more Star Wars sites. The most scenic, by a mile, is the Berber granary, Ksar Ouled Soultane, on a hilltop. The locations are liberally decorated with film props. Some look more authentic than others.
More arid, but stunning mountain landscapes to Chichini. This Berber village is surrounded by towering mesas. There’s another ksar resting high above. And sadly, a huge echoing tourist restaurant with broken Wi-Fi and expensive bad food. Turkey kebabs with the meat completely frazzled. And they have strong tea with mint in it, but won’t make tea with only mint in it as there is no hot water. Unbelievable. At least there are views through the mountains from the breezy window.
And there’s an excellent panorama across the flat desert visible from the village on top after a painfully stiff ascent. Coming down isn’t much more comfortable. The stone path is steep and slippy. Most of the villagers have sensibly abandoned their lofty cave dwellings and relocated to houses on the lower slopes.
South and West and there are increasing signs of proper, drifting sand. Large herds of camels meander across the road in front of us. Smaller herds of goats and fat sheep waddle past, followed by their nomad tenders. Our newish tarmac follows old desert tracks and the guide pretends he hasn’t gone the wrong way as we arrive at the oasis at Ksar Ghislane much later than the signposts had predicted
I’m in a tent at Hotel Pansy. It’s advertised as a luxury camp, but the description isn’t exactly accurate. It could definitely do with some TLC. The light switches are hanging off the wall. The concrete floor and shower are stained, peeling, and worn. The mirror is filthy. The newish owner explains that its luxurious compared to other local offerings. I’m not sure I buy that as an excuse for misleading the punters.
On the plus side there’s a huge natural swimming pool and if you fight your way through the trees and scrub a magnificent view to the Sahara and a sand sea, the Grand Erg Oriental. (Workers are busy clearing the way with JCBs). There’s a pretty good view of the camp and oasis from the camp watch tower too.
It’s always good to meet sand dunes and these stretch away to the horizon. But this biscuity offering is not as impressive as others - Mauritania or neighbouring Algeria for example. Lawrence of Arabia doesn't quite work here. Nevertheless, this is Tunis’ adventure centre. Rows of quad bikes, lines of resting camels, pacing horses, all waiting to bear travellers into the Sahara. A natural hot spring pool surrounded by tented cafes welcomes their return.
I’m rudely awoken by the sound of thumping music at 6.30 a.m.. The workers are back to clearing the trees and dancing and singing as they go along. There’s no electricity yet and my concrete bathroom is dark so washing and putting in my contact lenses is a precarious business.
The food here is a little hit or miss too. Dinner is a weird meal - fried egg on a turkey escalope, very spicy ratatouille and spaghetti and no ice for my G and T. But at least they have that. Breakfast is eminently missable. Sachets of coffee and chocolate. No hot water. Or cold water for that matter. Bread. Margarine. A boiled egg. A cheese triangle. Honey. Some sort of wrapped bun filled with chocolate sauce.
120 kilometres north to Douz, through pancake flat desert, then north and west to Tozeur across the Chott el Djerid salt flats. These are mostly devoid of salt, but there are some glittery encrusted areas and a rosy pink pool area. It’s scattered with more Star Wars artefacts to create photo opportunities for tourists like me .
This region is sprinkled with oasis towns and at least one and a half million date palms giving welcome shade and creating pretty avenues . They are irrigated by solar powered pumps. The oasis town of Tozeur has a ceramic design all of its own. The Saturday afternoon medina is quietly authentic and residential. Archways, closed studded doors and the odd minaret. Groups of children peep out, chatter and point, posing for pictures. The medina seems small, but it’s frighteningly easy to get lost in the narrow streets.
Now, we are in pursuit of more film sites in the villages around Tozeur. The mountains here have zigzag backs, like dinosaurs.
Chibika has a spring and a far reaching view across the desert and oasis. We share it with Tunisian families enjoying their weekend and participating in a village festival. Exuberant children race around the zig zag paths and study the pools.
Tamazgha has the waterfall Grande Source at a ravine end. They got a bit carried away when they named the waterfall, but this is the desert.
Mides has the most stunning ravine views. This is where Kristin Scott Thomas died in the English Patient. Raiders of the Lost Ark also made use of the scenery here.
The driving in Tunisia is typically African. No one uses their indicator before they pull out. Lorries straddle both lanes. Noureddine toots at them furiously. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t, and they won’t budge. He berates them and does exactly the same thing himself. Sometimes, he takes his hands off the wheel to clap to music, I have been foolish enough to play on the car system. That’s not the only time we wander off the tarmac. I dare not doze, even though it's very tempting in the heat.
Most of the approaches to the towns are guarded by sleeping policemen. These may be signalled by faded paint, if we are lucky. Too often, there’s no paint at all. Hitting the bumps at pace isn’t much fun. We have to stop to have the rear number plate fixed back on.
Noureddine doesn't believe in going slowly in order to admire the scenery. and to be fair, we have long distances to travel. It’s not unusual for us to bowl along at double the speed limit in the suburbs. There are numerous (genuine, awake and alert) police posts along the way 'checking documents'. Noureddine is stopped for speeding at one of those, but he isn’t fined. ’I told them my brother is a captain of police. It’s true,’ he boasts.
The oil fields stretch towards the coast, in the other direction. Then we reach Gafsa. Mining for minerals and iron ore has underpinned the economy for many years, especially under French rule. Gafsa is the centre of the phosphate industry – we zoom past several quarries and processing plants. The town appears to be doubling in size. The suburbs are dotted with red brick construction.
I’m still alive - just. Heading north again the countryside is once again green. And there are small round carpets under each of the olive trees.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site city of Kairouan was founded by the Umayyads in 670. Kairouan was the Aghlabid capital after Mahdia, a powerful trading hub and centre of Islamic scholarship. As well as more magnificent palaces, it is famous for the Great Mosque of Sidi-Uqba with a square minaret and more marble columns brought from the ruins of Carthage. The prayer hall has 414 columns supporting horseshoe arches, whilst there are more than 500 columns in the whole mosque. Legend says you can't count them without going blind. The Great Mosque, on the edge of the medina, was originally built when Kairouan was founded in 670 AD, so it’s the oldest mosque in North Africa and one of the oldest places of worship in the Islamic world. It’s a major pilgrimage site. For Muslims, seven trips here are said to equal one hajj to Mecca
The UNESCO souk is tranquil - as usual there is more activity in the narrow alleys around the main covered bazaars than in the centre of the medina. This is a more genuine souk experience, locals intermingling with tourists in the carpet bazaars and glittering metal workshops. I'm saying the night in the Kasbah Hotel, built right into the medina walls. Lovely staff.
Perhaps the most interesting stop is the Aghlabid Basins, outside the ramparts of the medina of Kairouan. Wikipedia says they are considered to be the most important hydraulic systems in the history of the Muslim world. They had a total storage capacity of 68,800 cubic metres. They’re not exactly beautiful, in themselves. Striking maybe - there is too much dirt and litter. But the reflections are pretty.
Dougga is a great end to my Tunisian journey. Noureddine says that the town’s original name was Thougga, meaning rocky. Wikipedia suggests that its from the Phoenician for 'roof terrace'. This makes sense. It has to have one of the best views in the country. Dougga is UNESCO listed, as 'the best preserved small Roman town in North Africa'. It's baking hot, but this proves an advantage, as no-one else is daft enough to be here exploring, the streets, houses and tunnels.
There are Punic ruins - a temple with a cleansing bath and walls from the Phoenician period, later adopted by the Romans. Most of the Roman remains date back to the second and third centuries AD. The theatre, also one of the best preserved examples in Roman Africa, seated 3500 spectators, and is still used today. Next up, the Capitol, with huge monolithic columns. Covering all bases, it's dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva Augusta. alongside a forum and separate marketplace. The Arch of Alexander Septimius beckons in the distance, before the temple of Caelaestis, picturesquely set a little further off, (much to Noureddine's annoyance), through a grove of olive trees. Juno Caelestis was the successor of the Punic god Tanit.
The streets leading between the buildings bear the marks of carts and there are holes in the doorways to tie up your horses. Not to mention the sewers beneath. You can lift up stones to see them. Roman times are easily imagined here, amongst the villas, mosaics, gymnasium, brothel and the Antonian Winter Baths. (Two other bathhouses were built outside the city centre, for the summer.) We wander through the tunnels where the slaves used to heat the water to get to the three bathrooms. There's more uncomfortable clambering up and down the steep steps. Noureddine insists we see the unconscionably sociable latrines.
At least we get to see the best of the panorama. This is not just a Roman and Phoenician site. The Numidians first settled here and there is an almost unique mausoleum (Ateban) on the slope, that dates to the second century AD. (Its inscription is housed in the British Museum).
At its best, food in Tunisia is tasty, spicy and beautifully presented. There's couscous and pot baked lamb and chicken of course. And the speciality is brik - egg or tuna encased in a batter envelope. Lunch is too often bland food, in nasty tourist restaurants, totally lacking in atmosphere. I’m not happy, but Noureddine says they're the only places that are reputable. He doesn’t want to risk food poisoning. And who am I to deprive him of his free lunch where he’s known? I resign myself to enduring a string of such meals, or going hungry. It could be worse. And I get to sample dromedary (it's ok, resembling beef ). Parts of Tunisia are renowned for boar and hunting brings in the tourists. Muslims, of course, do not eat pork, but boar is on offer at one of the soulless lunch stops. It tastes as its name suggests.
On the plus side I've been offered fruit juices (strawberries are in season) and G and T in some gorgeous settings. Sidi Bou Said and the dars - palm trees illuminated at night. Very romantic...
Arriving in Tunisia is trouble free. No queues. Free visa on arrival. No Covid requirements, other than showing my vaccination certificate before I board my Nouvelair flight.
Leaving is not so easy. The queues at immigration are almost worse than watching paint dry. Interminable. And they won’t accept dinars once you’re past immigration, which is tough, as you can’t change them. It would be nice if they told you beforehand.
And they have changed the time of the plane by an hour, without telling me, and it's running late even beyond that. We’re delayed even further, as they have also altered the departure gate, without notifying the passengers. I only found out, as a little Turkish lady told me. I’m still sitting on the aircraft waiting for them to round up the stragglers.
Every single food item on the Nouvelair menu contains tuna (except the crisps and chocolate bars), which is fine if you like canned tuna. I suppose it’s because this is Tunisia…
Finland joined the EU, together with Austria and Sweden on 1 January 1995. It is the European Union’s most sparsely populated country.
Finland was the eighth most expensive country in Europe, according to a Eurostat study published in 2020.
N.B. The speeding fines in Finland are calculated on the violator’s total income.
Finland’s capital, Helsinki, occupies a peninsula and surrounding islands in the Baltic Sea. It is home to the 18th-century sea fortress Suomenlinna, the fashionable Design District and diverse museums.
As with the other Scandinavian countries there is the right to public access – camping hiking and foraging are allowed almost anywhere in the countryside. Most tourists enjoy the including hiking trails, fishing opportunities, and water sports like sailing, canoeing, and swimming in the national parks.
The Arctic Circle area of Finland is home to part of Lapland (which spreads from the edge of Russia, through Sweden and across northern Norway). Scandinavians use the word Lapp to refer to the indigenous Sami people, who have been living in the region since ancient times. The Sami people prefer to use their own language and name this region "Sápmi".
No sign of Father Christmas, (well it was the summer when I was there), or many people at all for that matter. Roughly 180,000 people inhabit this one third of Finland. But there are plenty of reindeer. which form the backbone of the Sami Culture. Lapland’s capital, Rovaniemi, is actually shaped like a reindeer's head with antler-like arranged streets. There are also millions of mosquitoes, buzzing around in black clouds. Going to the loo is not easy when you're being relentlessly pursued. It is key to expose as little skin as possible.
The Sami people were selling reindeer skulls and antlers from little road side clusters of tepee type dwellings. Lapland nowadays is more synonymous with winter adventures - husky sledding, snowmobiling and, of course, the Santa Claus Village. If you are fortunate, The Northern Lights can be seen from Lapland. It’s also a good place to experience Polar night – in the winter or the Midnight Sun in the summer. It's not easy to sleep in our two man tent, with the eerie light in the “Land of the Midnight Sun”.
Finnish Lapland is low lying with bogs, small lake and rocky inselbergs. There is flat taiga - pine trees, as far as the eye can see. . West and north, we gain altitude, and there is taiga and, then dwarf birch and endless bleak tundra. Onwards to Norway.
From Stockholm to Helsinki, an elegant little city on a peninsula surrounded by small islets. The capital of Finland is the northern most metropolis in the world, and the northern most capital in the European Union. Helsinki was established as a trading town by King Gustav I of Sweden in 1550, as the town of Helsingfors. It was intended to rival the Hanseatic city of Reval (today known as Tallinn in Estonia). Helsinki was slightly relocated over the years, but remained fairly insignificant until the 18th century, when it formed a close knit triangle with Tallinn (50 miles to the south), Stockholm in Sweden (250 miles west) and Saint Petersburg in Russia (190 miles to the east).
My hotel is on a harbour inlet, optimistically called the Seaside Hotel. Well technically that's true. Beyond is the Gulf of Finland, a finger of the Baltic Sea. Hence Helsinki’s nickname, the Daughter of the Baltic. There are cruise liners parked on the opposite terminal, gigantic even from here.
No wonder Finland is home to Santa Claus. It’s still Christmas in March. Gorgeous thick snow everywhere. And it’s slippery, where it’s thawed and refrozen. The interesting part of Helsinki is very small – all roads seem to lead to the central north-south boulevard, Mannerheimintie. It's flanked by institutions and lined with monuments, including the National Museum, tracing Finnish history from the Stone Age to the present, the imposing Parliament House, the Stockmann Department Store, The Finlandia Hall and Kiasma, a contemporary art museum. It also bypasses a very grand railway station.
To the north end the Helsinki Olympic Stadium – the city hosted the games in 1952. Here, to the west, a church hewn out of rock, in 1969, the Temppeliaukio. It doesn't look very exciting from the outside and you have to pay to go in. On the west coast of the peninsula, parks and the Sibelius Monument. This consists of over 600 steel pipes (up to 9 metres long) unevenly grouped together at various heights, with the highest pipe reaching over 27 feet in the air. Unsurprisingly, it has attracted mixed reviews from critics who are unsure how it is supposed to evoke Sibelius. But it’s pretty, in the snow. There’s also a minute, very picturesque red roofed café with a welcome fire pit, alongside the frozen river. The Cafe Regatta boasts that it’s the Café of a 1000 Tales.
In the other direction, around the harbour, the 'Old Town', a series of baroque government and university buildings clustered around the Lutheran Cathedral in Senate Square. It was built as a tribute to Tsar Nicholas I. Just to the south of this is the harbour and the ferry to the Suomenlinna Islands. It’s all presided over by another cathedral, the largest Orthodox cathedral in Western Europe, the Uspenski .
To the southwest of the harbour, the Market Square, containing the Tsarina's Obelisk and a market building or food hall - a relaxing place with some international foods on offer. (There's a smaller version near my hotel.) Then the edgier Design District, arranged around the Design Museum. As one would expect, it's crammed with designer shops and a lot of coloured glass. Contemporary is the term I think. Helsinki has one of the highest urban standards of living in the world.
The five Suomenlinna Islands are reached by ferry and a lot of fuss over tickets. Which cost me 13 euros in all instead of 5, as no one knows how the payment system works. There's no link between the turnstile opening and the use of my credit card. A fact I discover much too late.
The boat crunches through the hexagons of ice bobbing like a giant cocktail maker and panicking all the seabirds out for an afternoon stroll on the water. Suomenlinna (The Castle of Finland) is now a UNESCO heritage site and the main tourist excursion from Helsinki . You can see the forts (built by the Swedes), visit the cafes and museums and have a picnic.
Porvoo, the second oldest town in Finland, is an hour’s bus journey east of Helsinki. The road heads onwards to the Russian border and St Petersburg. This definitely is the land of the silver birch and Russian architecture.
The main attraction here is the Old Town, centred on the medieval, stone and brick Porvoo Cathedral. The cathedral has burned down five times (the last fire was in 2006), but the interior is said to be original. It's surrounded by narrow, steep streets and predominantly wooden houses from the 17th and 18th centuries. There are plenty of variety of restaurants, coffeehouses, bijou shops and liquorice stores.
Down by the riverside, the picturesque, red-coloured wooden storage buildings are a proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s also an old railway station, with tourist trains in Summer. There’s no need to use the bridges to cross the river for the view. The water is frozen solid.. Nearly all the boats have been removed from the harbour, leaving scarlet buoys queued up and lonely.
The newer part of town near the bus station has a pretty park with a statue of Johan Runeberg, Finland’s national poet. One of his poems was set to music and became Finland's national anthem. A block or so further on is Runeberg’s, former home. A yellow ochre wooden building built in the 1800's, it’s now a museum with the rooms set up to depict life in Runeberg’s time.
Read more about Finland here.
Sweden has an extremely low crime rate (well, since Viking times anyway), but there are frequent reports of taxi scamming. I used Uber and didn’t have any problems.
Sweden is fairly expensive compared to other parts of Europe, as wages are generally good. But it’s the cheapest country in Scandinavia and some goods and transport cost less than in the UK. And no-one expects a tip.
Forget cash. I used my credit card the whole time. Some places do not even accept cash - partly thanks to Covid. The only time I needed any coins was at a public toilet which wanted to charge me 5 krone to open a door. I waited for someone to come out and nipped in the door.
Sweden joined the European Union on 1 January 1995, but has rejected NATO membership, as well as Eurozone membership following a referendum. The currency is the Swedish Krona
I'm revisiting Stockholm, the so called Venice of the North, because I don't have any surviving photos of my first trip, which was a very long time ago, and because what I do remember is that it was an exceptionally nice city. That time I took a car ferry from Elsinore (Helsingore) in Denmark to Helsingborg. No bridges in those days - and not so many Scandi thrillers either. This time I'm flying from Oslo.
Stockholm was founded on a small island, now called Gamla Stan (Old Town), which is where my hotel is situated. It faces out over Lake Malaren and its many inlets and bridges, that link the islands and give Stockholm its soubriquet. Today, the capital has engulfed 14 islands, which require more than 50 bridges to join them. Ferries and water taxis shuttle you to the different sights (all the signs are in English) on special tourist day passes. Well they do in the summer. In March, much of the lake is still frozen and the streets are covered in ice, snow and too much gravel. It's impossible to wheel a trolley case along them. Or avoid slipping over on the patches that have been missed by the gravel. Some attractions don't even open until mid June.
A boat trip round the archipelago is an excellent way to orientate. And the three hour hour excursion to Vaxholm, to the north east and back is running, though it's a little like being on an ice breaker at times. And happily, I'm accompanied by friend Alison, who is in Stockholm at the same time.
First of all, the boat navigates through the islands of Stockholm, with a grand stand view of Gamla Stan. We stop to admire the bridge to up and coming Sodermalm, (to the south of course), described as the most vibrant area of the city. Then we are chugging past forested islands that vary from long-ish to minuscule, most of which carry splendid snow dusted timber homes of red or yellow ,with ornate boathouses. Many began as simple cottages and have been expanded over the years into magnificent affairs. It seems to be de rigeur to buy a house out here when you're rich and famous. Most of the Swedish people I’ve heard of have owned one, including Bjorn Borg and ABBA. There's also the odd castle peering through the tree tops. And a very tall chimney stack signifying a waste water treatment plant.
It's a sunny day and warm enough, just, to sit out on deck dressed in my ski gear and wrapped in a blanket. We're fortified by hot drinks from the bar. You can even order lunch , for the return journey, from the pretty restaurant. there's a commentary delivered from here, though I can’t decipher most of it outside.
As we approach Vaxholm there's a stiff. chilly breeze, which accounts for all the ice in the water, a churning mass behind us. Vaxholm is a summer town, described as charming by all the brochures. Most of the buildings are made of wood. I always thought that this was because it was the most easily available construction material and intrigued to see how many cities have been destroyed by fire at some time in their history, as a result. But apparently, houses are built of wood so they can be easily demolished in the event of war.
Vaxholm is presided over by a fortress. This has been a strategic point in Sweden, needing to be reinforced to keep both he Danes and the Russians out, over the years. It was built in the mid nineteenth century but fairly quickly became superfluous. It’s now a museum and guest house combined.
Food in Sweden is delicious and mostly nutritious. There's a lot of fish, with several different varieties of my favourite pickled herring and assorted castle like edifices, created with bread and cream cheese and prettily decorated with smoked salmon and plenty of prawns. (Absolutely delicious). Venison and pork cheeks with lingonberries, (actually, everything seems to be served up with lingon berries), beef tartare, Jerusalem artichoke soup with bacon and mushrooms. Breakfast buffets are beautifully presented with seed sprinkled breads, yogurts and fruit.
Less healthy are the tempting cakes buns pastries and ice cream (misleadingly called glass in Swedish). The speciality seems to be a bread bun filled with almond paste and lashings of whipped cream. The windows are full of these semlor, which are Lenten buns. They appear every year after Christmas and are treats to be eaten up to Easter. Just like Cadbury creme eggs. Though how they equate with Lent I'm not quite sure. It's also known as a kingslayer. Even more mysterious, and no link to Game of Thrones at all that I can see. Coffee and cake (usually a cinnamon bun) combined are known as Fika and advertised at most cafes.
Dinner at three different restaurants: all excellent. Nytorget 6 in the edgy Sodermalm district is a very popular bar and restaurant with modern decor. Glashuset (Glasshouse) on the waterfront and Stockholms Gastabud in the old town a shabbily chic ( in daylight) and traditional place that doesn't take bookings. I queued for 15 minutes. But it was worth it.
You can walk to much of this compact city over the bridges. The warren of cobblestone streets and gabled timbers of the Old Town (Gamla Stan) with the thirteenth-century Storkyrkan Cathedral (it's covered in scaffolding but there's an abundance of other green spires too) and tall, colourful houses are especially enticing. There are architectural surprises in all directions, a lot of baroque, the odd touch of nouveau and, down one of the many alleys, Brantingtorget, a statue in a fountain at the centre of a circular courtyard. Also, of course, all the modern Scandi chic in the many ultra-stylish shops and cafes.
West of Gamla Stan, Riddarholmskyrkan Island, reached via the Riddarhuset, the highly decorated House of the Nobility. Riddarholmskyrkan has views across the harbour to Sodersmalm and north to the City Hall, other government buildings, the National Theatre and shopping areas.
North of Gamla Stan, on a tiny island all of its own, with a manicured garden is another grand edifice, the Riksdagshuset (Parliament Building).
To the north east, quaysides packed with sightseeing boats, palatial hotels and Östermalm. This is the most expensive and leegant area of Stockholm, where where the locals do their upmarket shopping. Smart bars and restaurants line Stureplan Square,. Designer boutiques dot the area near Östermalms Saluhall, a fancy food market with stalls selling traditional specialties like gravlax and smoked shrimp. Cultural venues, include more churches, the Swedish History Museum and the imposing National Library of Sweden.
Gamla Stan is home to the Royal Palace (or Slotten), still the official residence of the King and used for state visits and ceremonies. There's the bed the queen slept in when she stayed. And lots of gilt and red plush.
When the first defences were erected on this island in the eleventh century there were no other buildings. As the medieval castle grew, so did the number of surrounding dwellings. The castle was extended and refurbished till it reached its resplendent best on 1697, when most of it was destroyed by fire. The current mammoth baroque building rose from the ashes.
There are various offshoots included on the ticket. The Three Crowns Museum (the symbol on Sweden’s coat of arms). tells the story of the palace history and the treasury contains the crown jewels. It’s not quite the Tower of London, but the various coronets are suitable sparkly. And tiny. Did they perch on top of their heads?
The Queen's Palace is some distance away, at Drottningholm (literally Queen's Home). It’s a very pleasant location, an island on a tranquil lake inlet. The original stone castle was built by John III of in 1580 for his queen, Catherine Jagiellon. But that one burnt down in 1662. The replacement served as a regular summer residence of the Swedish royal court for most of the eighteenth century. Enormous formal gardens stretch into the distance. More plush. Some chinoiserie and a series of busts of Roman emperors. In the summer there are boat trips, but the water is frozen here and we have to use Uber (or a bus and train).
There are well over 50 museums in Stockholm, including the galleries and royal palaces. Something to suit all interests: post museum, army museum, medieval Stockholm. Some are free. And if you want to see them all you'd better book for several weeks.
Most of the museums are grouped around Gamla Stan. The most prominent and famous is probably the Nobel Prize Museum, the twin to Oslo's Peace Museum. It's relatively new, (and closed at the moment) but located in the former Stock Exchange Building (Börshuset), on the north side of the Stortorget. As stipulated in Alfted Nobel's will (he invented dynamite), the peace prize is presented in Oslo and the chemistry, medicine, literature (and since 1968 economics) prizes in Stockholm. (Norway and Sweden were united as one kingdom in his lifetime.)
There's a whole series of browsing opportunities at Skeppsholmen, a tiny island alongside Gamla Stan, reached by a bridge from the 'mainland '. Most prominent. the modern art museum and a toy museum. Circumnavigation is pleasurable. There are plenty of interesting buildings, the red brick Admirals’ Chapel, arsenals and various boats, all along the quay.
Further south, I extend my walk across a bridge to walk round the even smaller Kastellholmen. As the name suggests, there's a diminutive red castlet ,with a round turret sitting atop the island. And right at the tip a sailing brig- The Three Crowns. Most of the boats are covered in winter suits - strong white coverings to protect them from the snow and ice.
Back on the mainland, and a little further east, towards Ostermalm, another bridge runs to larger Djurgarden Island. Here there's a more eclectic mix of museums and attractions. Skansen was the first open air museum in the world and is also thought to be the largest. Vernacular buildings, and a few more modern offerings, are scattered over the hillside. Costumed attendants mill around offering advice and a sort of authenticity.
One of the most visited attractions is the Vasa - a sixteenth century warship, named after King Gustav Vasa, which sank on its maiden voyage and was preserved in the saline waters of the Baltic. It's Sweden’s answer to the Mary Rose. Alongside, an amusement park, Gruna Lund, offers, apparently, ‘27 adrenalin inducing rides.’
Possibly the most fun is the ABBA Museum, where you can dress up as your favourite band member and perform on stage. If you're so inclined.
There’s a good, fast railway line from Stockholm to Arlanda Airport and beyond to Uppsala and it’s a short walk through shopping streets to the old town, on the east side of the Fyris River. The rushing water, pools and bridges provide a pretty backdrop for pavement cafes and restaurants.
Uppsala is the long-time ecclesiastical centre of Sweden (since 1164), the seat of the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden. Naturally, it’s home to Scandinavia's largest cathedral – Uppsala Cathedral, where the Swedish monarchs were crowned until the late nineteenth century. (They elected not to be formally crowned after that). The cathedral is crammed with important tombs and chapels, most notably the tomb of King Gustav Vasa and the remains of Saint Erik, in a gold casket. He’s a sort of Swedish Thomas a Becket, but he was murdered by the Danes in the mid twelfth century. Miracles began to happen shortly after his death….There’s also a very good café.
Almost alongside is the pretty red brick Holy Trinity parish church, This one was inaugurated in 1302, but was restored after it was badly damaged in a fire in 1702
Uppsala Castle, is on a high mound .with some great views over formal gardens and the city. It was built on the site of the former residence of the archbishop by aforesaid King Gustav Vasa. This time the parallels are more Henry VIII and Wolsey. Gustav Vasa confiscated the Archbishop’s castle, demolished it and built his own Renaissance style castle from the ruins. The royal family got their comeuppance. The new castle burned down in 1704, and its remains were used to provide materials for the new palace in Stockholm (the last one was also destroyed in a fire). Since then the replacement has been one of the several royal residences of the Swedish monarchs, expanded several times over its history. It's not the most exciting palace I've ever seen. For some reason, it reminds me of a Premier Inn.
Today, Uppsala is probably best known for the university which occupies most of the buildings in the old town, around the cathedral and below the castle. Founded in 1477, Uppsala University is the oldest centre of higher education in Scandinavia. The original university building, the green domed Gustavianum, is now a museum of curiosities. Nearby, the equally ornate Carolina Rediviva Library displays a sixth century Silver Bible. Parks, monuments, squares, runic stones and and an old throne or two separate the many other university departments, which are equally architecturally diverse.
Among the many Uppsala alumni are Anders Celsius, and Carl Linnaeus. There’s a Linnaeus Museum and Garden, on the other side of the river, but it’s closed. Well-known Uppsala residents today include filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. But todays' students are not studying. There's a peace protest wending its way through the steep streets of the old town, chanting and banners waving.
Sigtuna is your stereotypical tourist must see, said by some to be the oldest town in Sweden. And according to Norse mythology the part time home of Odin. There’s a medieval-style town centre with restaurants, cafes and small shops and a church (usually, but not always in ruins) every few yards, Runic stones are scattered around. The old main street (Stora Gatan) has low built wooden houses. This is Sweden's first pedestrian street. Erik Segersäll stood here in 970, forged the new Sweden and proclaimed himself king. Steps and even narrower streets lead to several handicrafts shops and the cutest old tiny town hall. Down below, the frozen waters of Lake Malaren provide an idyllic backdrop. There’s a langlauf track across the ice and a natural skating rink
There are restaurants and cafes aplenty of course, though none of them are open at ten in the morning. The owner of one takes pity on us, through he’s astonished to see anyone out so early at the weekend.
Last time I left on another overnight, ferry from Stockholm, across the Baltic Sea, to Turku in Finland. There was a very good smorgasbord buffet on board. This time I'm also going onto Finland. But I'm flying direct to Helsinki. You can read more about Sweden here.
The kingdom of Norway was established in 872 as a merger of many petty kingdoms and has existed continuously for many years -1,150. From 1537 to 1814, Norway was a part of the Kingdom of Denmark and Norway, and, from 1814 to 1905, it was united with the Kingdom of Sweden. The country was neutral during the First World War and remained so until April 1940, when the country was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany until the end of World War II.
Norway has a very low crime rate.
Norway has one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world. It ranked first on the World Happiness Report for 2017 and currently ranks first on the OECD Better Life Index, the Index of Public Integrity, the Freedom Index and the Democracy Index.
Norway is not a member state of the European Union (EU). However, it is part of the European Economic Area (EEA).
Oslo is my last European capital to visit. It's not exactly charming, like Bergen, but it's a small and sweet. A pleasant and easy place. It's spacious, with plenty of green areas. And the city is shown to good effect under cloudless skies.
Norway’s ancient capital wasn’t always called Oslo. Founded in 1040, its name was originally spelt Ânslo or Áslo. In 1624, a great fire destroyed large parts of the city, and it was decided to rebuild it closer to the Akershus Fortress. At the same time its name was changed to Christiania, in honour of the ruling monarch, King Christian IV. Between 1814 and 1905, Norway and Sweden were united in one kingdom and Oslo was the co-official capital, with Stockholm. In 1925, the city was renamed Oslo.
I've been wandering for about ten miles. Partly because the weather is good, partly because I get to see a lot more, and partly because I can't work out how to buy a tram ticket without downloading an app or opening a credit account. You can't pay on board. And also because I didn't pick the most logical route. I'm blaming Google.
Oslo Cathedral isn't the grandest building I've ever seen, but it's the building used to host all the main ceremonies required of the Church of Norway, like royal weddings. It dates from the late1600s, but was partially rebuilt in the nineteenth century.
South of the cathedral is Eidsvollsplass, running into Wesellsplass, a magnificent square and park lined with grand buildings, theatres and hotels. The park was preserved not so much for aesthetic reasons; it was more a case of NIMBY. The owners of the stately mansions didn't want tall buildings opposite them. To the north is the parliament building, the Stortinget, with its half rotunda. The parliament has only one voting house - a system known as unicameralism.
In the centre of the grassed area, statues and monuments and an outdoor skating rink, only open at the weekend. To the south, the National Theatre (Ibsen is often performed here) and the Royal Palace (Slottet) and Park. The Slottet is reached by steep steps and you're greeted by a statue of King Karl Johan in Palace Square. The palace was built for him (and he gave his name to the long street I've just walked along), but he died before it was finished in the 1840s. It's a smaller version of Buckingham Palace, though you can get much closer here. You're allowed to tour at weekends.
Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel (1833 - 1896), the inventor of dynamite, bequeathed the funds to found the Nobel Prizes. He stipulated that the annual presentation of the peace prize should take place in Oslo. (The other four- now five- prizes are given in Stockholm.) No-one is quite sure why he made this choice, but the kingdoms of Norway and Sweden were united, during his lifetime. The Peace Centre, a converted railway station, mounts exhibitions, offers tours and hosts peace related debates. It is right on the harbour, on the Aker Brygge, looking over the Oslo Fjord, along with a scattering of fish restaurants.
The Nobel Peace Prizes are actually presented annually, in December, in the imposing Oslo City Hall (Radhuset), just over the road. It is striking rather than attractive, built of large medieval style red bricks and has two colossal towers. The eastern tower has a carillon set of 49 bells.
It's a peaceful walk along the quayside, past moored schooners and brigs and some colourful warehouses. further round, the Akershus Fortress and old town, around which the new Christiana was constructed. The old town was always known as Oslo, though most of the sights, mainly churches, are now in ruins. The original medieval castle was built in the thirteenth century, but since then it has been transformed first into a fortress and then into a renaissance palace and residence of the royal family. It's open to the public, but only at weekends at the moment.
The National Opera and Ballet building dominates the next section of dockside. It's-cunningly designed to mirror the plates of ice on the finger of fjord on which it stands. Steep paths and walkways lead up to viewing platforms, on the top decks.
Next to the Opera House is the Munch Museum, Oslo's very recent version of Tate Modern. There was a competition for the design and the project was put on hold at least once, due to budget wrangling. There is a great of plate glass and long escalators, leading you to the various exhibitions and views across the harbour and the city. Not everyone loves the winning design. According to Wikipedia, it has been branded the unofficial world's largest collection of guard rails.
As you would expect, most of the paintings on display were executed by Edvard Munch. He was extremely prolific; the museum owns 26.000 of his works. The Scream, his iconic piece, takes pride of place. Most of us can identify with the anguished subject. But fewer folk would know that there were actually four copies of the Scream made - two paintings and two pastels. The museum owns three of them and rotates these on the display. One copy of the Scream was famously stolen in 2004, but the police managed to get it back. The museum is busy, even though the streets are quiet and you have to crane your neck to get a view.
Other modern and impressionist painters also feature - Dali, Picasso, Magritte.
Back past the palace and park, through the city centre, down the lengthy Karl Johans Gate mainly pedestrianized street (1200 metres long), lined with small shops. and by the cathedral again, into the suburbs of Uranienborg. Large affluent wooden structures and peaceful streets. It's a two mile stroll to the Vigeland Sculpture Park, set within the largest green space in Oslo, the Frogner Park.
Norwegian sculptor, Gustav Vigeland has assembled 200 sculptures to represent the cycle of human life. It's the largest sculpture park by a single artist in the world and it's entertaining, rather than enchanting. Surrounding the park are various enormous sports halls, skating and swimming, and further south, on a little peninsula is The Viking Ship Museum. But it's closed. (very) long term for renovation.
The Hotel Bristol isn't quite Claridge's, but the wintergarden restaurant is posh and expensive. Mind you, everywhere in Oslo is expensive. It's the second most expensive city in the world (according to one list- they're all different). The country has the fourth-highest per-capita income in the world.
There are chandeliers, arches and panelled gilded ceilings. And plenty of well heeled ladies eating cakes from silver tiered stands. Afternoon tea is 490 krone (over 40 pounds) so I reckon it will have to serve for dinner as well. Teeny cakes, a macaron, finger sandwiches and freshly baked scones with clotted cream and lemon curd. I wonder if that would be allowed in Devon?
The place where I'm staying, a sister hotel to the Bristol, on the same block, isn't Claridge's either. But the rooms are Scandi and elegant, with a squeezing of lime. The staff are exceptionally friendly and helpful. And it boasts it has the best breakfast in Oslo. They may be right. It's a glorious buffet selection. Like most places in Oslo they all speak good English. (Most of the signage is in English too). I've also noticed in some restaurants, that the common language amongst the multi lingual staff is English.
A taxi from Gardermoen Airport to the city centre is 100 euros and it takes an hour. The airport train takes 20 minutes and is about 20 euros. It's a no brainer. Though Google not having its finest hour in Oslo and tells me that my hotel is 3. 5 kilometres from the station, so I take a taxi. That's another 20 euros. Even when I discover that its actually only half a mile and the streets are reasonably flat. Which is why I'm wheeling my trolley case through a dark and chilly Oslo at 5 in the morning to get the train and then the plane to Stockholm.
The train is super efficient. You can even scan your boarding pass and print out your bag tag. And you only have to be at the airport an hour before take off. I hope.
Read more tales from Norway here.
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