Every few months I read the same basic article about the ‘rebirth’, ‘rediscovery’ or ‘renaissance’ of the sleeper train, but I’ve never ‘forgotten’ about them in the first place! I’d take every trip by overnight railway if money, time and tracks allowed.
No surprise, then, that Randi got us tickets for the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Fort William for my birthday. We met after work by one of Euston’s unglamarous platforms, stashed our bags in our Club Twin room and headed staight for the Club Car (as you do) for a sumptuous dinner, drinks and dessert while the outside world faded into darkness. I’m not 100% sure if I’ve ever eaten haggis before – this blog doesn’t say – but that evening really kicked off a haggis streak over the next week or so. It was all excellent, as was the Highland Breakast the next morning, by which time the scenery outside had transformed into breathtaking Highlands beauty. Surely plenty more people would ‘rediscover’ sleeper trains if there were more of them.
Our train pulled into Fort William at 10am, after which we checked into our Airbnb and took a walk along the Cow Hill circuit trail, which offers great views from the summit and then a walk through the woods on the way back.
That night we were joined by Katie and James, who drove up from Edinburgh to hang out for the weekend. James had already staked out Steall Falls as a place he really wanted to revisit, so on Saturday afternoon – after Katie, James and Randi ran parkrun in the morning – we set out on this popular hike to the promised waterfall.
The most unusual part of the Steall Falls trail is the option of crossing the river on a wire bridge at the end. This isn’t necessary to complete the walk – it’s a there-and-back, so you can always turn around here – but it is the only way to get close to the waterfall itself. In my case, I took full advantage of the sibling dynamic: clearly, once Katie had decided to cross it, I wasn’t going to miss out and had to follow her. (Everyone we saw seemed to have a different method for moving their feet, but nobody fell in.)
Once we got to the other side, Katie and I enjoyed the close-up views and swapped notes on how badly we expected to be hurt if we’d fallen off the wire. Then thoughts turned to getting back. After my initial suggestion (cross the slippery rocks over the fast-flowing water) was rejected, I was proud of myself for spotting a useful tree further downstream which could serve as a useful river-crossing device. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that this was merely stream #1 and there was in fact another river to get back to, at which point ‘just taking my shoes off and wading back barefoot’ became the chosen strategy. Cold, but effective.
Tash had recommended the Highland Cinema as a good lunch spot in Fort William, and while eating here Randi and I had decided to buy tickets to see Oppenheimer on Saturday night after Katie and James returned home to Edinburgh. I hadn’t actually been all that enthused by the trailer, but Christopher Nolan’s name is a draw and I did really enjoy the film itself. In some ways it has a surprising focus: it’s not really about Oppenheimer’s leadership of the US’s atomic bomb programme, or their use against Japan, and is centered more on his later struggles with the US government and the political manoeuvrings of the Atomic Energy Commission chair, Lewis Strauss. Stauss is the villain of the film and, like all good villians, he makes some good points. But the audience’s sympathy lies, I think, with Oppenheimer – and that’s a strange place for the “father of the atomic bomb” to end up.
Instead of heading staight back to London, Randi and I both worked the next week from Edinburgh, where we were also joined by Kira on her first visit to Scotland. (Shout-out to the lovely American couple from Cleveland on the train back from Fort William after taking a week to walk the West Highland Way. I’m pretty sure they had intended to play a nice game of cards together, but never got the chance as we just kept talking to them.) Other than working, the three of us mostly spent the week walking, drinking and watching many episodes of Scotland’s Home of the Year on BBC Scotland, a show in which one of the three judges pays brief lip sevice to recognising “environmentally friendly” homes during the intro but then always awards the highest marks to the largest, most energy-intensive houses in the middle of nowhere.
Then, on Saturday, we got to Fringe!
- Enquiry Concerning Hereafter – a loving tribute to the friendship between David Hume and Adam Smith, set in Smith’s old house and with very intimate staging. Objectively, I didn’t think it was the greatest drama in the world because the problem with “you’re brilliant because of this” and “no, you’re brilliant because of that” is an obvious absence of dramatic tension, a problem not fully ameliorated by adding Charon (y’know, the guy who ferries souls to the underworld) to the mix. Subjectively, stuff all that because I obviously loved it. It’s a play about my two favourite philsophers talking about their philosophy! If you are already a fan of something, there’s nothing wrong with fanservice. And the best part was Adam Smith’s interrogation of Charon on the monopolisitc practices of his boat service.
- Shamilton – you know what this is, because we saw it last year, but for the record: an improvised Hamilton-esque hip-hop musical about a public figure nominated by the audience at the start of the show. This time we got the (slightly sanitised) life of Kanye West, with a healthy dose of Taylor Swift rivalry. It was fantastic, as usual, and inspired us to book a showing of Improv Shakespeare for our upcoming Chicago trip.
- What The Veck? Songs in the Key of Strife! – to almost exactly replicate our pattern from last year, the five of us (Katie, James, Kira, Randi and I) decided that we should squeeze in one more show, chosen semi-randomly from the Fringe app just a few minutes before it was due to start. This turned out to be the low-key but delightful Tom Veck singing silly songs and handing out naff raffle prizes (the naffle) from which our group won repeatedly.
Back in London, Kira had persuaded me and Randi to see The Pillowman with her on Friday night. My expectations were very uncertain not because I thought it would be bad, but because with my history of going blind triggered by certain types of content I might only get to enjoy the first few minutes of this “gruesome”, “macabre” play about torture and mutiliation. I prepared myself by booking a seat at the end of the row with the perfect escape route, and we had dinner together first at Toyko Diner (where my mum took us before seeing Patriots) so that, y’know, we’d still have had a nice evening.
Anyway, I needn’t have worried because I really, really loved this play, and the dark comedy style was – for me – hilarious rather than panic inducing. This production is a revival of the 2003 original, which starred David Tennant as a short-story writer with the silly name (Katurian Katurian) who is interrogated by two agents of the unnamed totalitarian state in which they live when his terrible tales seem to have been the spur for real-life copycat incidents. In the revival, Lily Allen plays a gender-swapped Katurian, while Steve Pemberton and Paul Kaye play the good-cop/bad-cop policemen Tupolski and Ariel.
Obviously I would love to pop back to 2003 to see Tennant’s performance, but having read some negative reviews about Allen I have to say that I thought she was great. Yes, Steve Pemberton is amazing and steals the show with some of Tupolski’s lines, but the whole cast was excellent and I’m very grateful to Kira for including us in her London theatre spree. Randi and I have spent a long time talking about this play since!
Hej! We spent last week in Sweden with Catherine, AJ and their incredible baby daughter and – to be honest – we’re all about ready to move to Stockholm and share a flat together. But in the meantime, let me gush about what a great week we had. 😊🇸🇪
Having arrived pre-armed with the Stockholm Go City pass for our two full days in the capital, we started our whirlwind tour with the Fotografiska museum of photography. Well, technically we started with a very nice lunch in the bougie restaurant on the top floor of the Fotografiska, but we worked our way down to the art eventually. I think the exhibition we all liked was Diana Markosian’s Santa Barbara, a recreation of her mother’s migration from disintegrating post-USSR Moscow to California as a mail-order bride. (This was especially resonant having only just seen the play Patriots in London with my mum on Friday night, but more on that later.) That day we also made it to the Nobel Prize Museum – the coolest part of which is a toss-up between reading some of Einstein’s letters and the mechanical ceiling display in which every Nobel Prize winner slowly circulates around a track. If you’re someone who’s reading this and feels you might be close to winning a Nobel Prize, I hope this is the incentive you need to keep going.
There is something charmingly mad about Stockholm. It just seems like a massive effort to build a whole city around many little interconnected islands, but of course everything is organised brilliantly (at least through the eyes of a tourist) so the next morning it was easy to catch a ferry across to Skansen, the world’s oldest open-air museum which is part-zoo and part homage to pre-industrial Swedish life. We wandered around, admired the bears and puzzled over why Catherine’s ancestors decided to leave such a charming and idyllic country and get on a boat to Minnesota instead. (Side-note: the island of Djurgården also boasts its own theme park, Gröna Lund, which we didn’t visit but whose rollercoasters were teasingly prominent in the skyline. Next time!)
After an outdoor lunch (and wine, lots of wine) at the very sunny Rosendals Trädgård garden café, we meandered along the riverbank to a cluster of museums, popping into the Nordic Museum, the Vasa Museum and the Viking Museum, where AJ and I encouraged his child to arm herself with a Viking sword while Randi and Catherine drank beers outside, blissfully unaware. Of these, the Vasa is the most striking – the whole museum being built around a largely intact 17th century Swedish warship which was recovered from Stockholm’s harbour in 1961.
Once you actually read the exhibits, however, things get a little disappointing. Why, you might ask, was a 17th century Swedish warship lying at the bottom of Stockholm’s harbour in the first place? The answer is because it sank a few minutes into its maiden voyage. Was there a sudden storm? An iceberg? Attack of the pirates? No, it turns out the whole design of the ship was structurally unsound from the very beginning and would have never coped with even a light breeze. So, in reality, the museum is a monument to a total failure. Sweden being Sweden, they were sophisticated enough in 1628 to hold an inquiry into the disaster, although since the King was partly to blame it’s maybe not surprising that it failed to reach any definitive conclusions.
For the second half of our trip we took a ferry to the island of Gotland where, allegedly, Eurovision winner Loreen lives. (To be clear, that’s not why we went, and this unverified intel was provided later by a friendly but possibly unreliable witness who stood behind us in an ice cream queue.) Aside from possibly being Loreen’s home, Gotland is famous for the medieval town of Visby and its beautifully-preserved historic centre, which is dotted by many, many church ruins and encircled by a very much not-ruined defensive wall. Visby is where we stayed and also where we enjoyed a great walking tour by a cheerful British immigrant to Gotland, albeit one who left out any mention of the fearsome Victual Brothers – a gang of pirates who plundered Gotland during the 1390s before being expelled by some Teutonic Knights. My suspicion is that telling this story would have made the town wall seem less impressive.
In addition to lots of eating and drinking in Visby itself, we also set aside a day to visit the much smaller island of Fårö, which has a tiny population (around 500) but is a popular summer spot for Swedes and just a short hop from Gotland on a car ferry. Despite being so small, it’s kinda incredible how different its east and west coasts are. One side is all windswept rock formations and shrubland, whilst we emerged onto the other to find sandy beaches and a sparkling blue sea. (The relaxed music from the beach bar was so incongruous it felt like we’d stepped out of reality into one of those dreamlike metaphorical cut scenes from a film.)
For lunch the island is blessed with a wonderful little pasta place, Pastamakarna, which is staffed mostly by Fårö residents and serves up warm, hearty bowls of pasta which made us all very happy. In fact, this is a good moment to sing the praises of all of the food we ate in Sweden, from our daily cardamom buns or the egg and caviar breakfast sandwich I picked up from a bakery at Stockholm Central to the ‘Chef’s Choice’ mystery meatballs on takeaway night, the amazing pickled herring or the tasty sourdough bread. As Randi and I had a later flight on Sunday morning, we also got to sample/gorge on the breakfast buffet at the fancy hotel which Catherine very generously donated her points for us all to stay at on the last night back in Stockholm. Would recommend.
To sum up: Sweden is great, and let’s not think too much about the other half of the year when those long, light summer evenings get inverted. Our only major failure was failing – twice! – to turn up early enough to bag spots on the English-speaking tour of the Swedish parliament, but – if any Swedes are reading this – please note that we did not pretend to be Swedish speakers and sneak onto that tour instead, as other tourists definitely did. We did make it to the ABBA museum on the last day, however, of which my favourite part was simply watching clips of Eurovision presenters from 1974. My, how things have changed.
But honestly, I think I would be happy to share an apartment for a week with Catherine and AJ just about anywhere, especially when there’s someone fun to play with who has now mastered the art of walking around, laughing and swatting me with a fly swat. It was also so nice to be able to just stay up chatting late into the night, even if AJ did sometimes insist on making us guess answers to Swedish quiz questions. Can’t wait for our next adventure!
As mentioned above, before leaving for Sweden my mum treated us to Patriots as an early birthday present: a Peter Morgan play about the rise of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky in the ashes of the former USSR, his early support for Putin as his protege/puppet and then his dramatic fall from grace and exile in London as Putin turned out to be less controllable than planned. It’s such a fascinating story – the type of play where you’ll find yourself ingesting giant Wikipedia articles on the Tube home afterwards, trying to work out how much is true before concluding that it’s basically all true, at least so far as the basic facts. Even the events which I lived through (such as the poisoning of Litvinenko) is now a shock to remember that it happened. And the lead actors were both great: Berezovsky with all of the bullying charm which a kleptocrat requires, and Putin permanently seething with such suppressed rage that you can see it in how he walks. Another great play this year.
This first weekend back after Sweden has also been super busy, starting with Alison Hook’s retirement party on Friday night at QPCS. Ms Hook was my GCSE English teacher and all-round extraordinary organiser of so many trips, programmes, summer schools, productions and publications – the kind of force of nature which you take for granted at the time, but I’m so glad that so many people were there to pay tribute. (In fact, it was surprising how many former students and teachers I actually knew.) After staying over at my mum’s I got to hang out with Josh, Anna and Cora on Saturday morning – including more sandpit playtime! – before some shared birthday celebrations at Ottolenghi Spitalfields in the evening with mum, Randi, Tash and Cormac.
It is my birthday tomorrow, in fact, so finishing this blog before midnight is now a race against time while I’m still 33. But happily I can sign off on a wonderful (and very unexpected note) because today Randi and I got to spend most of the afternoon with my friend Jen, who lives in New Zealand but is visiting for a couple of weeks. I last saw Jen in 2016 but we had such good conversation about everything under the sun, and (as is maybe a running theme here) there’s basically nothing better than reuniting with a good friend. Especially when the sun is shining, you have a table at the Honor Oak and there’s a three-tier birthday lemon cake waiting for you back home…
It’s been a busy few weeks! A few weeks ago I attended Booking.com’s annual partner conference in Amsterdam, held on a grander and flashier scale than last year and – most excitingly – included an appearance from 2014 Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst at their big party on Wednesday night. I think I actually missed Eurovision that year, so I’m glad I finally got to see her perform, although it was her cover of the instantly recognisable Everyway That I Can (Turkey, 2003) which was the biggest crowd-pleaser of all.
Amsterdam itself was as lovely as ever, even in drizzly March. Public service announcement: the trains accept contactless card payment now, so the “standing confused beside the ticket machine” phase of your trip is now a thing of the past. Hurray!
After getting back home on Thursday night, Randi and I finally made it to Tash and Cormac’s new flat for a wonderful ‘London Supper Club’ Friday night with my mum and Cormac’s dad Brendan. Alongside a true feast of Indian cooking we enjoyed a riotous night of poetry, songs and one interpretative tin whistle performance (you’re welcome) which really buoyed us up into a cheerful mood for the whole weekend. It also inspired me and Randi to read The Importance of Being Earnest aloud together one evening a few weeks later. Who needs Netflix, really?
Talking of readings – a few days later, at the stone setting service in memory of my great uncle Leonard, many of our family dug deep into our email archives to perform some of Leonard’s famous emails from years gone by. For most people this would probably be pretty dull, but Leonard’s emails were certainly flights of storytelling… even if the story he was telling was normally a tale of trial and tribulation. Thanks to my friend Simon for inspiring us with his Charles Dance-esque interpretation of Leonard’s writing a few years back.
For some professional entertainment, Randi and I also saw Sleepova that Saturday at the Bush Theatre, a play about the enduring power of teenage friendship as four girls go through life’s ups and downs during their GCSE years. Everything about this play just worked for us: serious themes, but always funny, warm-spirited and life-affirming at the same time. I’d never been to the Bush Theatre before but it’s as close to perfect a venue you can get, with strong vibes of the Tricycle in its glory days. All four characters felt real and relatable, albeit with some subtly different attitudes to the generation I remember (because I’m old now) but always played with warmth and humanity which kept you rooting for them all. You really know a play is working when one of the characters tells her parents something that she shouldn’t, and the audience all instinctively sighs together with frustration. Highly recommended. (I mean, the run is over now, but in theory at least: highly recommended.)
Even more culture: a week earlier Randi and I had a very rare movie night in and watched Everything Everywhere All At Once, the Oscar-winning universe-hopping surrealist sci-fi comedy centered on a Chinese American immigrant family and their quest to save the multiverse and/or save their laundromat from an IRS tax audit. Unlike Sleepova, you’ve probably seen this already and don’t need me to describe it to you. But it’s very good, and a real delight to see a film so brimming with creativity and imagination. Also, I should note that we finally finished Our Friends in the North after I (falsely) promised to Randi that the final episode must be more uplifting than those couple leading up to it. It was a promise made with the best of intentions, but sadly proved inaccurate.
Recently, while having brunch with Josh, Anna and Cora, we learnt that Josh and Anna were planning a romantic couple’s getaway together to Thorpe Park. Unfortunately I didn’t mask my excitement at the idea, nor the fact that I still had a day of annual leave to burn before the end of March, and that’s how I ended up inviting myself along to Josh and Anna’s rollercoastery day out. Of course, it was totally worth it, especially as it included a sleepover of our own the night before so I got to spend even more time with Cora (who now talks all the time!).
The next morning the three of us set out for a day of rides and ride analysis, of which my main conclusions are (a) Saw is probably Thorpe Park’s best all-round rollercoaster now, but (b) I’m really glad I went off to ride Stealth again because – although Josh and Anna aren’t fans – it’s up there as one of my favourite rides of all time. It’s been years since I was last at Thorpe Park and investment (along with visitor numbers) has fallen away since I was a teenager, but they are now finally working on a new rollercoaster so I guess we’ll just have to go back again once it opens…
Finally, in exciting and still slightly surreal news, I’m very happy that my friend and colleague Kira has just successfully made the move to the UK. By a weird twist of fate she’s spending her first few weeks in Willesden Green, so on Friday night we celebrated her arrival at the excellent Beer + Burger. But by Sunday the wheels were already in motion for Randi’s South East London sales pitch, and together with our colleague Patricia we enjoyed a great shakshuka and challah brunch at ours before playing some energetic rounds of Cobra Paw and a good game of Citadels. Then, since we’re all still excited by the novelty of it being light and sunny outside, we walked over to Crystal Palace together for ice creams and dinosaurs. More South East London at its best! And all part of Randi’s plan.
Randi and I already had plans to to visit Bristol this Easter weekend, since – although I’ve heard many good things about the city – my only actual experience of it was a brief (and very odd) day trip for work back in my Groupon UK days, and that was to an offensively ugly office building which I hoped wasn’t representative of the whole place. Happily, once we knew Kira would be in the country by then, we managed to persuade her to join us and so the three of us took the train up on Friday and stayed in an Airbnb loft in the fancy Clifton area. (Yes, as in the Clifton Suspension Bridge – which is indeed very cool to look at and walk over.)
I really, really liked Bristol from what I saw. Because it’s so hilly and green, and because so many of the buildings are built from Georgian stone (and on roads which refuse to form straight lines but instead criss-crossing crescents at different levels) there’s just a lot to look at and admire as you walk around, without mentioning the colourful houses, beautiful artwork and harbour area. We basically did a lot of walking – including through the expansive Leigh Woods – interspersed with a lot of eating, from authentic Cuban food to a proper pub roast on Easter Sunday itself, plus a very healthy number of Easter eggs. We also enjoyed Victoria Park and the M Shed museum, rewatched Free Solo together and played a couple of big-money games of Dominion Prosperity.
When humanity really comes together to solve a problem, don’t bet against us. For decades, we’ve struggled against the idea that the only way to attend a 1977 ABBA concert in-person was either (a) to be alive in 1977, or (b) to travel back to 1977 using a time machine. Option A is, of course, deeply exclusionary to anyone born after 1977. Option B, on the other hand, is fraught with risk. What if your time machine breaks down and you become stuck in the late 70s? What if you accidentally kill your grandfather? What if you’re so focused on trying to keep your grandfather alive that you fail to live in the moment and don’t properly enjoy the moment?
Fortunately, technology has solved this highly specific problem with ABBA Voyage, a ‘virtual concert residency’ held in a purpose-built stadium next to Pudding Mill Lane DLR. (I can’t stress how incongruous this station is. There seems so little reason for it to exist other than ABBA Voyage that the merchandise store is built into the entrance.) After Randi’s parents bought themselves tickets to the show ahead of their upcoming London visit, we might have made our envy a little too obvious because they then generously gifted us a pair of our own – thank you! – which is how Randi and I ended up rocking up to experience this marvel for ourselves.
I loved it on three levels:
- Because who wouldn’t enjoy an ABBA concert?
- Because some people in the audience are more exuberant and/or wearing fancy dress, and from our seats we had a perfect view for people watching. Special love to the four friends sitting in front of us in matching outfits.
- Because the technology is very impressive. There’s a lot of well choreographed light and video, and while the enlarged versions of the ABBA avatars (‘ABBAtars’) on the giant screens just look like a decent video game, the actual-size ‘holograms’ themselves are utterly indistinguishable on stage from the real thing. By the end I was starting to fall into wild conspiracy theories that they were actually animatronic or projections onto real people or some other ruse.
Pedants’ corner: no, they aren’t actually holograms; it’s an updated version of the Victorian Pepper’s ghost theatre trick from 1862 involving laser projections, mirrors and mylar. Weirdly, when I got home and started hunting through YouTube for a satisfying explanation of how this works, most people seemed more interested in explaining “how do you recreate 1977 ABBA with computers in the first place?” rather than “how do you take your recreation and make it look real on a stage?”. If you’re wondering, the way you recreate 1977 ABBA is by making 2021 ABBA wear motion capture suits and dance for five weeks. But that bit seemed obvious.
Back in 2023, Randi and I also received a mysterious box from Toggolyn which turned out to contain – amongst other things – EL: The Chicago Transit Adventure board game. Thank you two, too! We also journeyed up the Bakerloo line for brunch with my mum and then Austin’s 2nd birthday party, which was lots of fun. Last weekend, though, we escaped London entirely for a trip to Oswestry…
At least, that was the plan, until we woke up on Friday to discover that the taxi companies of Oswestry had pulled their cars off the road thanks to all the snow and ice. Not to be defeated, we decided to take the train as far as Wolverhampton and stay overnight in (another) emergency Premier Inn before making the final connection to Gobowen station the next morning and walking the final few miles to Oswestry once the temperatures had risen and the sun was out.
(Yes, it is stupid that Gobowen – population: 3270 – has a railway station while Oswestry – population: 17,105 – does not. Of course, as is usually the case, Oswestry did once have a station of its own but this was closed in 1966 as part of the “let’s be wrong about basically every aspect of town planning” trend which was in vogue at the time. Once I get my time machine up and running, I will attempt to address this once I make sure my grandfather is out of harm’s way.)
After checking in to our amazing B&B we met up with Lucy, whom – it was frightening to realise – I haven’t seen in person for nine whole years. But putting this scary thought aside, it was really lovely to catch-up while she led us on a beautifully snowy trek along the Shropshire Way. Later that evening, suitably warmed-up again, we all had dinner together in a cosy village pub (you know, the type with a fireplace) and argued about whether London really needed a purpose-built venue for virtual ABBA concerts. (I still vote yes.)
On the way home we passed on seeing any more of Wolverhampton (sorry, Wolverhampton) in favour of getting the tram to Birmingham and hanging out there for a few hours before our final train home. (If the closure of Oswestry’s railway station upset you earlier, take some comfort that the modern West Midlands Metro mostly runs over the old path of another closed line, so there’s always hope.) The past may be a foreign country, but that doesn’t mean you can’t visit.
We’re back! And in the style of previous travels we’ve brought back from our honeymoon plenty of stories, photos and bug bites 😀
Although Medellín is only Colombia’s second-largest city, after Bogotá, it manages to one-up the capital by being the only Colombian city with a metro system. Given this, there are two distinct areas which tourists tend to stay – El Poblado and Laureles – which are both easily accessible via metro but otherwise pretty self-contained. Fortunately, Randi’s colleague Daniela had already steered us towards Laureles which is the more residential and quieter option, although reading beforehand that it was ‘less touristy’ didn’t quite capture the vibe. Laureles has everything a tourist might want – the main strip is filled with bars, restaurants and pandebono – it’s just beautifully green, too, with trees and plants lining every street. The nearest station (Estadio) is more conveniently located than its equivalent in Poblado, being built to serve a large sports complex which hosted the 2010 South American Games. Point being: if you’re trying to decide between staying in Poblado vs. Laureles for a first-time visit to Medellín, we’re officially #teamLaureles.
Wherever you stay, the taxi from the airport will take you through the Túnel de Oriente which is worth calling out in its own right. It’s an 8km road tunnel dug through the mountains, which only opened in 2019, and if you grew up playing the “try to hold your breath until the car leaves the tunnel” game as a child you’re going to be sorely challenged by this one.
After checking-in and doing some light exploring/relaxing we decided to rouse ourselves for an evening trip to Poblado for dinner. This turned out to be an excellent decision – partly because of Randi’s tasty pisco sour with red wine, but also because it helped to shift us onto the right timezone and make the most of our limited nights in Medellín. And the metro itself, you ask? Why, the metro is excellent. It’s easy to use, fast and frequent… but my favourite feature is its impatient opening of the doors to the train before it has fully come to a stop at the station. It’s very efficient!
The next day we rode the other direction for a walking tour of ‘comuna 13’ to the west of the city. Whenever a tour is themed around street art you can be sure it belongs to the “this area used to be very poor and dangerous” genre, although this is a relatively extreme case given that the neighbourhood, also known as San Javier, was one of the most violent areas in Colombia during the 80s and 90s thanks to its unenviable position at the centre of the narcotics trade. The turning point came in 2002 with a massive government military operation (Operation Orion) against the guerrilla groups, although the narrative gets a little murky here since the armed helicopters, troops and paramilitary-backed ‘disappearances’ also resulted in hundreds of casualties for local people.
For our tour guide Lara, who was born and raised in the district, you could sense some tension between her intense pride in the area’s subsequent transformation with the ongoing lack of truth and reconciliation following the conflict. There’s a reason why civil wars are the worst. And so, the spirit of hope and optimism is channeled into street art and – quite wonderfully – escalators. As it turns out, one of the major regeneration projects in this (very hilly!) neighbourhood has been the installation of six outdoor escalators, and people absolutely love them. We did too.
Although we didn’t have time for Medellín’s largest park, we did also visit the smaller Cerro Nutibara Pueblito Paisa (complete with a replica Antioquian village at the top) and make a very brief journey into the historic centre to see Plaza Botero (the one with the cheerful statues). We also really enjoyed walking around the sports complex by Estadio – places really do feel different when the climate doesn’t require buildings to have walls – and, on a more prosaic note, walking about our local supermarket thanks to the high-energy Colombian dance music playing in the background. I am not sure this would work in Forest Hill Sainsbury’s, but it’s worth a try.
I did attempt to assemble the necessary ingredients to make tea here, but with all the elements against me – unpleasant tea bags, liquid milk only sold in bags – I just gave up and switched to delicious Colombian coffee instead. At least, I thought it was delicious. Apparently a common tourist complaint is that the coffee in Colombia is not actually that good since all the best stuff is grown for export, but since I’m not normally a coffee drinker I didn’t have much basis for comparison and I enjoyed it.
Hiking & Rafting
The next few days were the most active and energetic part of our trip, starting with a two day there-and-back hike through the countryside around Medellín with Expedition Colombia. Our guide, Juan, was fantastic and very tolerant when we became obsessed with trying to take photos of ant trails in an Attenborough style. The walking was satisfying but not especially demanding, alternating between jungle sections and hilly fields where the trees had been cleared for small-scale subsistence farming. We also passed plenty of gold mining in the river (allegedly not the most poisonous kind) and had a couple of breaks each day for swimming, delicious lunches which came wrapped in banana leaves and a trip to the base of a waterfall.
On the journey back we were also joined by a Canadian traveller, Shane, whose enthusiasm for a dead snake was commendable. The previous night we had all debated politics over dinner at our homestay – genuinely one of the tastiest dinners we had over our entire trip, by the way, and that’s a high bar – but amusingly the thud of the rain hitting the metal roof during the thunderstorm meant that we were all effectively shouting at each other despite the discussion not actually being that contentious. Shane’s guide also accompanied us back, together with his latest mule. Having grown up in the same hills we were walking through (he pointed us to his childhood home in the distance) with very little money, it was a truly great day when he earned enough to afford his family’s first mule and no longer had to carry everything through the mountains on foot.
Our next night’s stay was in a truly breathtaking lodge nestled right in the hills and overlooking the river, which also came with its very own pet cat. Again, living in a climate where you don’t have to bother with walls completely changes the type of spaces which become possible, and it was a magical place to sit and read until the sun went down. For the onslaught of winged creatures which made their appearance after the sun went down, the bed also came equipped with a decent mosquito net.
The final day of the action-adventure phase of our honeymoon was rafting down the river rapids, which was incredibly fun. I’m glad that we’ve done rafting before, and hence Randi’s translation of the Spanish safety briefing wasn’t the first time anyone had ever told me what to do if I fell out of a raft. Especially since, later on, I did indeed manage to fall out of the raft! Fortunately Randi impressed everyone else on the boat with her quick reflexes to pull me out again.
To be honest, the experience of being swept along the river was equally enjoyable as rafting down it and during some quieter moments many of us chose to jump in and float anyway. At one point we also stopped to explore a waterfall tucked alongside the riverbank. Our fellow rafters were lovely, including the guys from Aruba who taught us about their home country. I also want to thank Francisco’s relative who gifted me with a waterproof bag a couple of years ago during our Secret Santa in Santiago which proved incredibly useful to hold the hiking boots we needed for the very steep, hour-long descent to the starting point in the first place. During this hike someone else managed to drop their helmet over the cliff which is actually worse than falling out of a raft, right?
After the rafting, we were driven back to the Expedition Colombia offices – where we briefly became impromptu guests at an English lesson for staff and local teenagers – before a further two-hour drive to our next destination, Guatapé. Although our driver was great, Randi’s baseline assumption when being driven along mountain roads at night is that we’re all going to die, so when we successfully arrived at Bosko both (a) alive and (b) just in time to order dinner before the kitchen closed, it was in a mood of wild exhilaration.
Bosko describes itself as a “luxury glamping hotel” and, for someone who was really looking forward to several days of uninterrupted holiday reading, the set-up was absolutely perfect. Everyone has their own private dome located off a little private path. (Our dome was a crystal dome, giving us amazing views from our heated bed plus a very confused bird who arrived every morning to peck at the glass.) There were also Sky Pools (great for reading), an outdoor seating area where truly exceptional meals are served (also great for reading) and private terraces if you prefer room service instead (even more reading). The centre of Guatapé is easily within reach – just a 20 minute stroll – without impinging on the luxury of Bosko’s aura of calm. I loved this place. A fair chunk of my 2023 annual review of books will be thanks to Bosko.
Guatapé itself is a very pretty town and major tourist destination thanks in part to its colourful street art and decorated buildings. We enjoyed some excellent lunches here! The other thing you’re meant to do is climb the steps of El Peñón de Guatapé which we tackled earlyish one morning before it got hot. I have to say, this is probably the best-run “climb to the top of something tall” tourist attraction I’ve ever seen in my life. There are first aid stations at the top, bottom and halfway up – with defibrillators! – plus segregated up and down routes so you don’t have to negotiate a crowd in both directions. Waiting at the top is not merely a nice view but also multiple shops, stalls and seats. It all tricked me into thinking that this must be more of a challenge than it actually is, but we’re actually only talking about 659 steps here. Good job, whoever is in charge.
Finally, a stay at Bosko also comes with use of their kayak, so Randi and I took this for a spin one morning and ended up challenging each other to a couple of timed buoy-to-buoy races. So, for posterity, here is where I will record that Randi won the first slalom 1:36.42 to 2:13.72 (that’s what happens if you keep overshooting the final buoy) but I clawed back a victory 44.90 to 52.40 on the second sprint. And we left it at that, because “best of three” is not a good approach for a honeymoon. (Very happy to go back for another stay and rematch, though.)
For the next stage of our holiday we flew to Cartagena, a walled city on the Caribbean coast with a very different vibe to the other parts of Colombia we’d seen. I roll my eyes when tourists start critiquing areas for being “too touristy” (as if their own tourism doesn’t count) but the the tourism in Cartagena certainly has a very different feel to Medellín or Guatapé. In part, that’s just because there’s significantly more English-speaking as opposed to Spanish. Elsewhere we got the sense that most people were coming from other parts of Colombia or South America, whereas Cartagena is – in part – catering for cruise ships of (predominantly American) visitors. As such, there’s also more pushy street selling of drinks, hats or horse-drawn carriage rides – those rides often being accompanied by groups of men running alongside and offering their services to rap at you.
It’s not the worst place for this stuff by a long way – it was just noticeably less chill, and I was frankly relieved to discover that the hats were a front for drugs because I was finding it difficult to believe that there were any uncovered heads left in the city to market to. All in all, I’m glad we went here – and the colonial-era streets are indeed lovely to walk around! – but I’m also glad this wasn’t our introduction to Colombia.
The best part about our visit to Cartagena was the discovery that Randi’s family friends Brianna and Drew happened to be in town at the very same time. We joined forces on a walking tour (appreciating our guide’s patriotic support for Miss Colombia – apparently not a niche thing, as we also found a photo of each year’s winner on careful display in one of the central plazas) and later reunited for dinner together that evening which was super fun. The second best thing in Cartagena was the pandebono shop just down the street from our wonderfully located Airbnb. Here we found not just savoury but sweet pastry options, with ‘pastel chocolate’ and ‘pastel arequipe’ (dulche de leche) quickly becoming my favourite things.
But rather than spending the rest of our trip within the walled city, we decided to pack our small backpacks and take a holiday-within-a-holiday for two nights on the largest of Colombia’s Rosario Islands, Isla Grande…
The boat ride to the island takes about an hour, and we stepped straight off the dock into our home for the next few days: Hotel Isla del Sol. This is a totally self-contained little world with its own beach area and swimming pool, catering to day-trippers as well as those staying overnight, and we really enjoyed the daily rhythm by which a new crowd of people would arrive mid-morning, fill up the place with activity for a few hours and then depart on the afternoon boat back to Cartagena, leaving the relatively small number of us with overnight rooms to enjoy a peaceful, “summer camp after summer is over” vibe. We swam, lounged in our hammocks and enjoyed our all-inclusive dinners sheltered from the evening winds.
Oh, and Randi and I also got an hour-long massage. This is only the second professional massage I’ve ever had, and the first which didn’t turn out to be the rather more brutal Thai variety. So, at the risk of sounding too obvious, it was incredibly relaxing and wonderful and I did not want it to end.
Talking of Thailand: for no particularly good reason we expected Isla Grande itself to be similar to the island of Koh Lipe, but there’s actually a lot less development. We did wander out from our resort a few times to explore (and find a larger beach) but aside from the other hotels scattered along the seafront the rest of the island seemed to be pretty rural, with homes and villages connected by quiet, sandy paths and routes through the forest which we hoped were largely snake-free. This isn’t a complaint – in fact, some quiet beach time was the whole attraction of Isla Grande over Cartagena. Just picture it as a simple place within a National Park, not a resort with bars and restaurants.
And bonus points for our boat ride home, which detoured through more of the archipelago so we could see some of the mangrove forests before speeding back to Cartagena!
Why did we pick Colombia for our honeymoon in the first place? Partly it was inspired by our previous travels elsewhere in South America. It’s a continent we both love and is particularly special to Randi as a place where she can practise Spanish. But we also wanted to explore somewhere new, and Colombia seemed to have a little bit of everything we collectively wanted: cool cities, hiking trails, mountains for Randi and beaches for me. After booking our flights we mostly forgot about doing much planning in the hectic pre-wedding phase, but everyone who’d already been to Colombia was so positive about the country (“the best place I’ve ever visited”) and helped us out with a ton of great recommendations and suggestions. Thank you!
Basically, I’m just here to tell you that people are right about Colombia. We had such a wonderful time and – as you can hopefully see from the abundance of photos – a decent variety of exploration and relaxation. I am curious to see Bogotá, although I’m holding out for their own metro system to open (projected date at time of writing: 2028).
For our final night back in Cartagena we did go out for a moderately-expensive fancy meal, which had cool vibes and decor but food-wise was actually nowhere near as enjoyable as our final lunch in town the next day at a small Peruvian place. (“When ordering this drink, comment that you want to live your sensory experience” it noted on the English-side of the menu beneath the chicha morada. I have no idea what this means. But the sensory experience of our lunch was top notch.) And then we reluctantly flew home, with the disappointment at being back in the real world leavened a little by being able to take the Elizabeth Line home from Heathrow. We will miss you, Colombia.
I love my laptop. I deliberately splashed out on something expensive back in 2018 and it has served me well ever since, even travelling all over South America and South East Asia with us so that I could blog as we went. The only compromise I made at the time was not paying for as much storage as I could, which finally came to a head when I got back from Colombia with a bunch more photos and videos plus – very excitingly! – the professional video footage from our wedding ready to download. So I was very proud of myself when I realised that for less than £100 I could acquire both a bigger SSD and the right size of fiddly screwdriver to upgrade it myself. Thank you, instructional YouTube videos! Now my trusty companion has space for many, many more adventures to come…