A Weekend at Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda

Standard

When you think of Africa, what springs to mind? Just give it a quick google image search and see what comes up. Safaris? Wildlife? Picturesque landscapes by any chance? The odd tyrannical regime aside, Africa is perhaps best known for all these things and over the past weekend I was fortunate enough to see why.

I was in the largest of Uganda’s ten national parks, Murchison Falls National Park, in the North-West of the country. Though I usually tend to avoid tourist traps and resent being gawked at like I’m a walking payslip for some disinterested guide, there are times when i’ll make exceptions. This was one such time.

Hard to see why I was making an exception?

I was coming from Kampala with the rest of my ICS Challenges Worldwide placement group; a grand total of forty-six of us piled in two buses and strapped in for what would be a seven-hour coach journey. A few stops along the way broke this drive up nicely and enabled me to wolf down a Rolex for lunch (no, not the watch, a popular street food out here). Eventually, we arrived at our hotel in Pakwach, pretty groggy and in dire need of a Nile Gold, Uganda’s answer to Fosters. After several of these, we called it a night and prepared for the ridiculously early 5:00AM start; given that I’m not a morning person, I don’t think there are enough characters left for me to express how I truly felt about this.

Despite all my protests, morning did come, and it brought with the safari trip we’d come all this way for. Such an early start meant swift entrance into the park and hopefully a chance to see an assortment of animals because of the milder weather. This was slightly scuppered by the fact that one of the buses went off-piste and got stuck; queue the rescue team. Despite seeing an abundance of giraffes, buffalo and antelope, an early start wasn’t as successful as we had hoped and we were forced to head towards the Nile crossing in search of pastures new.

Early morning game driving

Once the short ferry ride was over, we headed for a typical Ugandan lunch of rice, a bean sauce and a chapati. Despite having already had a month’s worth of these types of lunches, it still hit the spot. A pretty bleak morning quickly transformed into a blistering hot afternoon; as we were just about to begin hiking up to a viewing point, the timing couldn’t have been better. In actuality, ‘hiking’ may be a very grandiose term for walking up a footpath (yes, that was Peep Show-influenced).

As we rose up the peak, more and more of the waterfall revealed itself to us until we were greeted with a full panoramic view. Customary selfies and group shots taken, we descended down from our perch to the top of the waterfall itself, a place called the ‘Devils Cauldron’.  Here, the water from the Nile is condensed into a narrow gorge before bursting through at great speeds, creating a rainbow in the process. This was certainly the climax of the day; pictures don’t quite do this justice.

The view of the falls from the top… not bad

Though it was now time to begin making our way back, our day was far from winding down. We took this opportunity to go on another game drive to try and spot some more of the famous ‘Big Five’ that had so far alluded us. This was a resounding success. We spotted no less than eight lions, some on the hunt, others just taking the opportunity to lie around in the evening sun. We too used the setting sun to our advantage, taking the ubiquitous photos of the horizon and the animals upon it that’s expected from a safari.

Giraffes in their plenty

To say we have now reached the turning point is a bit of an understatement and in the infamous words of the Eurythmics: ‘Here comes the rain again.’ My word did it pour. Thunder and lightning complimented the rain and cracked the sky, lighting it up in its entirety. We were still deeply rooted in the national park and the dirt track roads that had already proven to be hazardous had now become flowing rivers of mud. There was genuine concern that we may not make it back to the entrance, especially when we couldn’t get a clear answer from the driver about distance or time. With an attitude taken directly from ‘We’re Going On a Bear Hunt’, we slowly and steadily made our way through the mud until eventually we reached the entrance, and salvation.

Such a topsy-turvy couple of days, though infuriating, epitomised Africa as a whole. All the highs and lows matched the general experience of being in this chaotic continent, but hey that’s just the way it is. You can go with the flow or get washed away by it, either way, Africa just sort of happens all around you, so embrace every minute.

Advertisements

Facilitation Day Number 1: my first experience of Smart Toto and their partner NGO’s

Standard

I’d found that I’d been lost ever since starting at my enterprise in Kampala, but it was always more metaphorical than anything else. The ins and outs and who’s who of a small publishing company, Smart Toto, took some getting used to. First, day one rolled by and then just as quickly day two disappeared as well. Enter day three and that familiar lost feeling, only this time, there was nothing metaphorical about it. I was literally lost, in central Kampala, a part of town I was yet to explore.

I say lost, but that may be a strong term. I did have my counterpart, Patrick, and three of the Smart Toto team with me. All Ugandan. All calm as you like. A bit melodramatic? Possibly.

(left to right) Patrick, Mago (the founder), Adia (operations manager) and myself (Mzungu) at the Smart Toto office

We were in Mbuubi, a region of Kampala, to conduct what Smart Toto refer to as a facilitation day. As a non-profit, they focus all their attention on social impact. Specifically, they aim at increasing the literacy rates in the youth population so that they are better prepared for the world that awaits them. These facilitation days are a huge part of that focus. Essentially, some of Smart Toto staff will go out to a partner community of theirs with copies of their books and help teach and promote reading and writing amongst the youth. In this case, the partner was called Children of Ssuubi, which translates to Children of Hope, derived from the fact that they provide a centre of learning for young boys from the street.

Reminiscent of a youth centre in the UK, the programme provides a space for the children to come to during the day where they can access basic necessities. Many of the street children are unfortunately accustomed to a life of abuse and exploitation, often having to beg to try and earn just a small amount to live from. Children of Ssuubi provides them with an alternative. A place where they can feel safe, cared for, and most importantly, begin to feel like children again. With an age range from about five to fifteen and with the boys coming from a number of areas across Kampala, the programme openly represented one of Smart Toto’s key messages in their book, ‘Sharon’s Song’, which was to be read today.

Side view of the Children of Ssuubi complex

After setting up three lots of benches outside and then dividing the boys into age groups, we began. Ssuubi led the sessions and Smart Toto facilitated them, ensuring that the learning plan set out beforehand was put in place. The aim was not just to get the boys reading the book, but also to get them thinking about the messages it contained.

One of the boys setting up the benches for the groups to sit on

In one excerpt, the importance of personal bonds is emphasised by Sharon’s relationship with her two cousins. The trio are represented as the alternative to a group of bullies who are giving Sharon a hard time. With the support of her cousins, the bullies are chased away, and Sharon is clearly displayed in the more favourable position. Not only was this used to show the boys the value in close friendships, but it was also an obvious separation between good and bad, something the majority had never been taught before. Such a lesson epitomised the Smart Toto ethos and underlined the connection between their product and their mission. The service they offer to their partner communities doesn’t simply stop at the handing over of a book; no, it endures and transforms into making sure the book meets its function and the key messages contained within it are taught and understood. Only in this way can Smart Toto help realise their goal of nurturing a literate younger generation to create confident, educated citizens so crucial in the future of Uganda.

‘Sharon’s Song’ being read aloud in one of the groups

It should come as little surprise then that Challenges Worldwide would pick such a driven social enterprise like Smart Toto to work closely with.  Even just a quick browsing of the Challenges website reveals their key criteria in assessing the businesses they want to work with. The tagline, ‘Prosperity isn’t just about counting wealth’, is perhaps no more applicable anywhere else than it is to the work of Smart Toto. In this phrase, Challenges are making clear reference to the worldwide SDG’s (Sustainable Development Goals), specifically no poverty, quality education and gender equality to name a few. In just the little information I have included already, it should be apparent how Smart Toto fit the bill, particularly in their commitment to education and reducing inequalities.

One of the boys speaking aloud to the group

But I divert too much- back to our day! With Luganda being the primary language in Uganda, the idea of these sessions was to promote the reading, writing and speaking of the English language. I was told beforehand that there were different levels of English and it might be hard for myself to understand; however, I was incredibly surprised! All of them were encouraged to read aloud and I didn’t have to strain to hear them nor fill in any gaps in my understanding.

The writing was of a basic level but enough to show progress and promise. The boys were given a small double-sided blackboard as words were first written and understood in Lugandan before being translated and written into English. The vocabulary taught was focused on emphasising values such as ‘love’ and ‘honesty’, which the boys may not have been taught before. I myself learnt that ‘Enyuba’ translates as ‘Home’, an interesting little fact but nothing to write enyuba about…

Practicing their writing with blackboards and chalk

All in all it was a pretty successful day for both organisations and an absolutely fascinating one for Patrick and I. We were aware what with being assigned to a publishing enterprise specialising in children’s books that inevitably, we were going to come in contact with their target audience, but to do so within their own community as part of an outreach day was even better. It was an interesting way to learn about what our business actually does and how they maintain their niche.

Interrail pit stops- my European findings

Standard

As I sit here, a mere day from my graduation, the impending reality of a worry-free summer and the possibility of filling it with more adventures from abroad hits me. Where shall I jet off to next? Shall I return to Asia? Interrail for a third time? Or do I take on a new challenge before my graduate mortarboard cap even has a chance to reach the floor?

Such contemplations always lead me through the same thought process- where shall I go, how do I get there, and where do I stay whilst I’m away? The latter of these three has always been the one I struggle with most. I’ve always had to put serious thought into my accommodation as there are several factors of importance: location within the area; facilities; social activities; and of course the all-important question of price. All of these are crucial in my decision to stay somewhere. As I look back in retrospect on my European travels, some places stick out far more than others. Here’s but a sample of some of these gems and the reasons I hold them in such high regard.

1. The Odyssee Hostel, Berlin.
Located in Eastern Berlin, this hostel offered a lot. The facilities were modern and clean and though I stayed in a large dorm, security and space was certainly not an issue. With both an in-hostel kitchen and a Kaiser’s supermarket just down the road, cooking for yourself was made nice and easy- very convenient when travelling on a budget! In terms of experiencing Berlin, the former industrial complex turned alternative hub that houses restaurants, bar and clubs such as the ‘Raw Tempel’ nightclub was only a 10-minute walk. This is a great alternative to the similarly nearby Berghain, probably now just as famous for its ridiculous queues as it is for it’s techno. The Odyssee also offered a ‘Happy Hour’ session for it’s guests where big bottles of beer were a measly 1, making it incredibly easy to get nice and tipsy before hitting the Berlin nightlife.

The reception/bar area at the Odyssee with the visible ‘Happy Hour’ sign
Photo: Odyssee Website

Price: €15-20 per night in a dorm

2. Hotel Canyon Matka, Macedonia.

Looking down on the secluded Hotel Canyon Matka

A hotel that is a true favourite of mine. Already written about extensively in another one of my articles, this is a gem hidden amongst the Macedonia countryside. With a lakeside location and a view from the rooms that looks out upon said lake, the scenic beauty is an obvious attraction for this hotel. Complimenting this idyllic lake is the many different hikes and water sports available- I myself tried my hand at kayaking. With an in-hotel restaurant serving up great food at great prices, a lot of it freshly caught in the lake, you can find yourself with virtually everything you could need here. For a more in-depth review of the hotel, here’s my article reviewing my memorable stay at this fantastic hotel.

Price: Dependent on time of year, best to ring/email to enquire

3. Greg and Tom’s Beer House, Krakow.

One of the dorms at Greg and Tom’s
Photo: James Antrobus. Flickr.

In a city as beautiful and historical as Krakow, one might not expect to see a hostel whose sole purpose is to get its guests well and truly inebriated and to party Polish style. Whoever Greg and Tom are, their hostel certainly lived up to the name ‘Beer House.’ Though not completely kitted out, it offers everything you could need for a few days stay. The dorms are spacious and simplistic, consisting only of bunkbeds, and the showers, though shared, are kept nice and clean. All in all, the bulk of your time here will be spent either in the bar/restaurant area down stairs or in the kitchen/dining space available to guests upstairs. Here, guests can enjoy dinner included in the price of the room (perfect for travelling on a budget) as well as enjoy a drinking session thrown most nights by the hostel that inevitably leads into a bar crawl and eventually to a club- something definitely worth doing!
For some of the abundant non-boozy activities that Krakow has to offer, go no further than the reception at Greg and Tom’s. From here, you can book numerous tours and excursions including tickets and travel to the must-see Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum. Likewise, the hostel is situated within Krakow’s Oldtown and is the perfect base from which to explore the attractions of the city – it’s a matter of minutes from Krakow’s ‘Rynek Główny’, the beautiful main square of the city.

Price: 10-14 per night in a dorm

4. Hostel Mostel, Sofia.

The outside space of Hostel Mostel
Photo: Jwalsh. Flickr.

Prior to my stay, I’d heard a lot about this hostel from various website suggestions and from the works of the famous blogger, ‘Nomadic Matt’. It was not to disappoint. The location, for me anyways, was completely ideal. Close enough to the cities attractions and bustling main streets and yet far enough away as to not be caught up in the noise and aggravations of the same streets during the night. Despite being in the centre of the city, you couldn’t help but feel as if you were completely cut off from the outside world. On its doorstep is a local produce shop where you can buy food and drink, and next to this is a free of charge ATM. It was perfectly situated for guests both leaving and returning to the hostel. Once again, for those on a budget, this is another ideal hostel. Meals were available and although not totally free, they were incredibly cheap. Bar crawls with the option for drinking at the hostel beforehand were also available for a small fee and proved a great way of socialising with other travellers. Such big social and outdoor areas also meant that if you didn’t fancy a drink it was still easy to meet people. Private rooms are available in a range of numbers but I myself found that the dorms were great value compared to others I have stayed in across Europe. Not only were they big in size but they were comfortable, clean and security was far from an issue. Nomadic Matt hit the nail on the head when suggesting Hostel Mostel.

Price: €10-16 per night in a dorm

‘Osteria Sottoriva,’ Verona. – a suggestion from a local

Standard

Entrance to Osteria Sottoriva

Writing about Italy has always seemed of great ease to me. The home of such a rich and visible history; the producer of maestros such Pirlo and Totti; the catalyst for the Renaissance of art and culture across Europe. It is truly a country able to offer something to just about any interest.  Add to this growing list a place synonymous with food.

Having already established itself as one of the finest eateries in the city across various web forums, ‘Osteria Sottoriva’, located just near the Casa di Romeo, certainly did not disappoint. Having used the hit online hospitality service ‘airbnb’, my girlfriend and I struck the motherload when our hosts also provided for us a list of their own restaurant recommendations. Wanting to use the advice from our local source, we stuck to their sugesstion and on the third night came across this little eatery.

We’d been told explicitly to ‘get there early – it’s sure to fill up!’ and fill up it did. Opening at 6pm, we figured that turning up at 6:10pm would mean we’d have the pick of a few tables. Oh how wrong we were. With only one candlelit room of about five tables, all packed tightly together, we were luckily offered the final two spaces on a table with another, Italian couple.

The Menu and the ‘Little Help’ Section

Given that neither of us are fluent in Italian, a rustic little place like this, run and frequented by locals, could have posed a few problems. This did not prove to be the case. Not only were the staff well adept at English, but they also provided a menu with a section titled ‘Little Help’ that explained not only the food on offer, but also the Osteria policy of ‘No Bookings’. Customers may be asked to move tables together to make room.

This provided an atmosphere I have little experienced in England. There was a perfect balancing of intermingling and separation, allowing your dining experience to be both public and a private.

After making the difficult decision of what to order – my girlfriend going for the lasagne whilst I went for ‘Le Crespelle’ (similar to crepes) – the wine and parmesan were brought out. It’s so typical of Italy that one can order half a litre of red wine for next to nothing. To place beside that one of my favourite cheeses created a sight as beautiful as any Da Vinci painting.

Wine and Cheese night anybody?

That old saying, ‘you eat with your eyes first’, was certainly true; however, my mouth was far from disappointed. The prongs of my fork could only just contain the multitude of flavours that oozed from the egg pasta pancakes. A combination of vegetables and rich ricotta cheese sounds simplistic and yet was nailed to perfection.

Our main courses, Lasagne (right) and Le Crespelle (middle)

Not having much of a sweet tooth, I’m never one for ordering dessert, which in this case was just as well because our waitress brought out complimentary coffee shaped puddings which, to be fair, weren’t all that bad. These, alongside the complimentary bread and just the general friendliness of the staff, made us feel treated, like we were being really looked after as customers. Add to that the more than reasonable price and you’ve got yourself a winning combination. I know for sure that when I return to Verona, Osteria Sottoriva will be one of the very first places I visit.

The ‘Telegraph Travel Show’: a brief insight

Standard

The entrance to the Telegraph Travel Show

**This article was originally written for and posted by The University of Warwick’s student newspaper, The Boar, and can be found on this link.**

Whenever I open up Instagram, usually in the midst of a lecture too much to handle, the scroll is always pretty much the same. A few comical memes appear on my home screen, a few likes are dished out here and there and then this process is repeated routinely until the ‘recent posts’ are no more.

However, occasionally this practice can offer up some surprises and it was in the midst of this browsing that I came across something a little bit different in the form of the Telegraph Travel Show. The following of well-known traveller Gunnar Garfors had not only notified me of the event but had also granted me free tickets. As if this wasn’t enough incentive to go, upon arrival I was greeted by a goody bag filled with the weirdest assortment of stuff, some more expected than others- the Lactose free milk was certainly a surprise!

The event itself was a three-day affair to be held in London’s ExCel. As it would happen, Garfors would be a guest speaker on day one, Friday 13th January. Comparable to university careers fares, the various stalls were set out in grid formation and assigned to different companies offering excursions and opportunities across the globe. Some companies offering the more adventurous trips were able to compliment these opportunities through innovation in their stalls- ‘Peru safari’ for example brought one of their 4×4’s to promote their trips.

IMG_3797

Peru Safari’s 4×4 truck brought along to advertise the company.

Of course, with such a layout it made it easy to wonder around between countries deciding which one you wanted to visit next. However, if you’re like me and can’t decide on where to go, the ‘Genius Bar’ in the centre of the show is the perfect place for you. This bar boasted a collection of travel experts willing to give advice in a range of areas, including which stands were best to visit in the show. If you’re completely lost in your travel plans or stuck for inspiration, they were the people to see.

IMG_3792

The Genius Bar at the centre of the Telegraph Travel Show

Another prominent feature of the show, labelled the ‘Destinations Theatre’, played host to an array of specialist guests covering a wide scope of travelling themes. All those I saw were exceptional but Garfors was very much my highlight. He is one of the few able to claim to have been to every country and did so as a hobby traveller, meaning he also maintained a full-time job alongside this. At 37 years old upon completion, he is the youngest to have achieved this feat. It was after having read his book, ‘198: How I Ran Out of Countries’, that I was hooked on his stories about his time in some of the worlds obscurest locations, so when I learned his talk was titled ‘Why I am Going Back to the Least Visited Countries in the World’, I was naturally intrigued.

He started with a brief discussion of who he was for those who didn’t know and then detailed the countries least visited and why he would go back.

Garfors dicussing his time in Afghanistan visitng a Burkha shop

I found both Garfors and his anecdotes so intriguing, particularly on what he calls ‘The Stans’, that I’m now all but determined to visit Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan in the near future.

Admittedly, ‘Travel’ may have not been the most applicable term. Perhaps the ‘Telegraph Holiday Show’ would have been more appropriate. This is not to suggest any sort of disdain towards the show- it was well worth a visit if not just for inspiration alone! However, as a final year university student looking to do some sort of volunteering work abroad, I found myself to be of a rare breed. The show was packed with middle-aged couples looking for a cruise or a company tailored holiday. There wasn’t a single volunteering stand! If you’re still in the student mind-set and reluctant to spend vast amounts of money, this is perhaps the place to window shop your options as opposed to booking anything.

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele: a (brief) pizza lover’s tour of Napoli

Standard

Now the feasting of Christmas is over and the accompanying fasting is soon to begin, I find myself reclined in the same gluttonous comfort that has debilitated me before. Such a feeling transports me from Christmas time in my Southwestern home back to my Italian travels from summers before. Where today roasted turkey sits firmly in my stomach, previously, it was Neapolitan pizza that sent me into this loll.

Naples, as im sure you are aware, is well renowned for its expertise in pizza. Thinking myself somewhat of a connoisseur, I was determined to do my research and sample the top pizzerias within the city according to the various forum websites out there. Little did I know what lay in store for me.

Of course, I hadn’t come to Naples simply because of my love of pizza. I’m also a current Classics student and so the rich variety of history and artwork throughout the city was vastly appealing. It just happened to work out fantastically well that next to the majority of these landmarks stood a highly-rated pizzeria just waiting to be sampled. When in Rome…well, Naples.

The first of these I came across was en route to one of these famous tourist attractions. Pizzeria Aiello, positioned right next to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (the Naples National Archaeological Museum to the non-Italian speaker), gave me a slice of what to be expected from the city- pardon the pun.

Small eateries such as this are by no means a rarity in Naples. As well as Aiello, I stumbled across a few that were of the more innovative sort- Pizzeria Giuliano in particular stands out due to its English inspired pizza, aptly named ‘Pub’, that was topped off with the adventurous sausages and chips. It may sound a little odd but trust me, it’s worth a try. Alongside this they also offered an equally adventurous Italian counterpart by creating their ‘Lasagne’ pizza. Two types of pizza that shouldn’t really work and yet somehow Giuliano managed to pull it off.

5861666912_104b64dc82_o

The busy dinner service at da Michele. Photo: Flickr. yashima. 22/06/11

Though I had tried what seemed like an endless amount of pizzerias in a very limited amount of time, there is one that will always stay with me. ‘L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele’ was quite simply, outstanding. Much like the other pizzerias, da Michele is sandwiched between bustling streets littered with landmarks and shops alike. It’s been in this prominent little location on the Via Cesare Sersale since 1930 and it’s not hard to see why. All I had to do was walk ten minutes in pretty much a straight line towards the city centre from the Garibaldi train station and there it was. Every review I had read showered it with praise, making me think that it’s reputation and central position meant it was going to be busy. Very busy. By the time I’d turned up for my first taste it was packed out the door with punters. The only thing i could do was wait…and wait…and wait.

img_3521

My order number at da Michele.

They had a very down to earth system when it came to the queue. A simple green slip of paper with a number on it reminiscent of a raffle ticket acted as our reservation guarantee. Mine was ‘72’ and because I didn’t know the first number they had served when I arrived, I wasn’t exactly filled with confidence. When I was finally called to a table, I was absolutely buzzing. 

It seemed to be the sheer simplicity of the place that was its greatest attraction to me. Much like another hidden gem of mine, the Pho Binh restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, I was greeted with only two options upon the menu, Pizza Marinara or Pizza Margherita, with the option of doubling the amount of Margherita used. This could be rephrased in an English sense as ‘no cheese, cheese, or lots of cheese?’. The recipe and method has little changed since the restaurants beginning, but why ruin a winning formula? As there were four of us dining we decided to ask for a combination of the three, ordering a Marinara, two Margheritas and a double Margherita.

1856608392_003cd70132_o

The Margherita at da Michele. Photo: Flickr. Sami Keinänen. 1/11/07

We could see directly from our table the kneading and flipping of the dough and the crafting of the pizzas before they were placed in the clay oven. A matter of minutes later and we were in play. It’s hard to describe exactly how good these pizzas were. Exceptional? Superb? Fantastic? I suppose any one of these will do.

We took a very brief break from our devouring of these pizzas to look up and see that on the wall was a face we all recognised. Julia Roberts, who famously ate here in the travel memoir turned film Eat Pray Love, looked down upon the diners from a photo upon the wall commemorating this. It seemed we were in good company when it came to appreciating the pizza here.

The whole experience- authentic diner and pizza combined- more than justified the number of awards upon the sticker filled door we passed on our way into the pizzeria. Having that many consecutive TripAdvisor awards is no coincidence. da Michele is a place that I will always look to return to whenever I’m back in Naples. It’s a pizza lovers paradise that i cannot recommend enough. 

The Hotel ‘Canyon Matka’, Macedonia.

Standard

I remember returning from Interrailing a couple of years ago, absolutely shattered and yet still with the energy to tell every one of the thousands of stories to just about anyone ready to listen. They all greeted me with the same questions: how was Budapest? Amsterdam? Berlin? Every single one of these European hotspots received avid attention, unsurprisingly so. Yet the one place I wanted to talk about more than any other, the place that surprised me so much, was the one place no one had even considered. Macedonia.

Sandwiched in the midst of Europe, this small, overlooked nation revealed unto me and a few friends the wonders in which it beholds. Hot weather, a view, and a massive lake- what more could you want? How about a four-star hotel? Well then, you’re in luck.

sam_1219

One of our first views of Matka Canyon

Much like a mirror of the country itself, the hotel ‘Canyon Matka’ finds itself hidden amongst surroundings receiving little, if any, attention from English tourists. We ourselves were not exempt from this. Before embarking across Europe, we did some, but not a lot of planning when it came to the route. Essentially, we had a list of the major places everyone wanted to see, the others we figured we could just wing while we were out there; if anyone had heard of something worth seeing then we could deviate from this route and go and see it. It was very liberal. Fortunately for us, this led us to Macedonia.

On a train in the middle of Eastern Europe, we came across a page in a guidebook we had ‘acquired’ from a hostel detailing this lake, ‘Matka Canyon’, that was surrounded by mountains and some medieval heritage. Perfect.

Having arrived in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, rather late in the evening, we had to spend the night there in the part of the city known as ‘shanty town’- a pretty sketchy experience with a story to be told another time. As soon as morning broke, we were keen to find our way out to Matka and so asked the lady at the hostel for the different ways in which you could get out there. Luckily for us, there was a regular bus that left as early as 7:00AM and was only the equivalent of around fifty pence for a one-way journey. Forty minutes later, we arrived at the canyon.

The very early stages of our planning foresaw us staying in what were described as wilderness refuges along the sides of the lake, presumably designed for small groups to camp in. However, as we scaled the incline up to the dam and moved beyond it, we were hit by the sudden emergence of a medieval monastery, next to which was the hotel ‘Canyon Matka.’

The initial approaches by the concierge to entice us in to stay were rebuffed in favour of finding these lakeside retreats- admittedly because it sounded like a pretty cool thing to do. The more he spoke, the more we were swayed, and as soon as he mentioned that we could get it at a cutthroat price because today was the last day before the start of the season, we were sold. He also mentioned something pretty amazing- we would be the only guests.

The exact figure in Macedonian Denar escapes me, but I know we were paying around the same price as we would have in a hostel, but instead we were getting a four-star hotel in a canyon. That’s £7-£8 and we had upgraded to first class. Result!

10272772_10203927881986277_2800185379577947663_o

Sporting a Toy Story bag on our hike

The rooms here were all totally unique in size and style and each offered different views of either the lake or the mountains. With only ten rooms to offer to guests, the hotel was a quaint little retreat more suited to the likes of the Caribbean as opposed to central Europe.
The hotel itself had a wide range of activities they offered as well as others that they liaised with the local community living beside the lake. The first of these we chose was a monumental hike across the mountains upon direction from the hotel. As mentioned, beside the hotel was a medieval monastery, St Andrea’s. This was but one of a number of identical monasteries scattered throughout the gorge. The hotel gave us the directions to a route that wound around the mountains and led us to a few of these. After nearly four hours of climbing in the blistering heat, we decided to stop after reaching one on a peak directly opposite the hotel. From here, you could look right down upon the hotel itself. We even managed to somehow connect to their WIFI and attempt to facetime one of our mums- if only she’d picked up!

sam_1242

Looking down on our hotel from the hilltop monastery

That evening, after a much needed shower, we found that the hotel’s claim about us being the only guests there was indeed true as we ventured down for dinner in their restaurant for a three-hour stint in which no one else was seen or heard. This of course meant we were truly treated like kings. We ordered all manner of freshly caught main courses- the most memorable being a fish literally scooped out of the fish net aquarium that was right next to the veranda our table sat upon.

The setting would have been perfect had it not been for the Enrique Iglesias CD that the hotel had on loop. Turns out there is a limit to the amount of times you can listen to Hero. It was clear though that all the staff were glad we were there as they kept bringing out complimentary food and drink for the four of us. I believe by the end of the night we had had two free bottles of wine, three free shots of vodka, and two bowls of homemade crisps. This was probably of course to keep us well topped up so we would keep spending money but we didn’t seem to care. In comparison to the UK this was all still pennies. We ordered more drinks and snacks and even left a decent tip to which the waiter’s face lit up- money well spent!

After a rather ropey morning, the second day was spent doing activities that were again on the hotel’s recommendation. A local Macedonian who spoke absolutely no English offered us a boat ride downstream to a collection of deep caves. Keen to check them out, we of course accepted and set off. This time, it was to be the four of us, and some rather quirky Argentinian guy who just wouldn’t stop taking selfies.

The boat ride was outstanding. We drifted on down the river not only soaking up some incredible views, but also seeing how the peoples lived within the canyon; the rickety wooden houses even had small balconies held up with wooden beams that extended into the lake.

sam_1208

The lakeside houses of the local community

Though I was quite keen to see the depths of these caves we were headed towards, my enthusiasm was soon sapped when the guide mentioned to us that it housed rather a lot of bats. I hate bats. Though I found myself ducking down repeatedly in fear from the over flying bats, I did manage to see the cave from all sorts of angles. Every cloud.

The day, and our time at Matka canyon, was topped off with us kayaking back towards the hotel. Though I can’t claim to be very good at this, as I’m sure my friends can attest to, it was a great way to see a large part of the river at our own leisure. The water was practically crystal clear and we were informed it was actually safe to drink, which we took full advantage of. Matka truly did have a wide variety of adventures to fit all kinds of interests and needs.

So, as a final note, whether you’re looking for seclusion, a holiday of activities, or just a relaxing stay without breaking the bank, the Hotel Canyon Matka is more than the perfect place. We found our stay to be the highlight of what was an exciting two and a half months across Europe. It’s somewhere that I’ve recommended to everyone I’ve met about to go Interrailing, and it’s somewhere I shall keep on recommending to those I meet in the future. I cannot stress enough, It’s quite simply amazing.