Entryways 101

My collection of doors has reach saturation point. So, it’s time once again to disseminate to the faithful.

Gothic Quarter, Barcelona (2023)

Orgosolo, Italy (2022)

Paris, France (2022)

El Raval, Barcelona (2023)

Canterbury, England (2023)

Corcovado, Costa Rica (2023)

Castelsardo, Sardinia (2022)

Born, Barcelona (2023)

Dorgali, Italy (2022)

Musée Rodin, Paris (2022)

Sagrada Família, Barcelona (2023)

Hermosas Ranas

I didn’t expect to spot any of these tiny amphibians on our trip to Costa Rica, so was amazed to notch up at least eight different species. Thanks primarily to the fantastic guides on our rainforest night walks, of course. But I was proud to have found the two types of poison dart frog pictured here all by myself (although they were jumping about in low light, and hence those particular photos aren’t great!).

A couple of quick factoids: according to National Geographic (and who doesn’t trust them?) there are 149 species of frog in Costa Rica. They like the moist lowlands best, so are most commonly found around Arenal and the central/south pacific areas, which we were lucky enough to visit, but they can be found all over the country. The frog that most people associate with Costa Rica is the Red-Eyed Tree Frog, and it was certainly the species we saw the most – and my personal favourite – hence its multiple appearances in the highlights below.

Poison dart frogs are arguably the more interesting though, secreting toxins from their skin in self-defence and having vivid aposematic coloration or markings (to deter predators). For centuries, the indigenous tribes of the rainforest have used their poison to tip blowpipe darts for hunting (hence their common name). There are over 170 species in the world – we saw three of them: the strawberry poison dart frog (or “blue jeans” frog); the green and black spotted poison dart frog; and the striped poison dart frog (not pictured).

Hope you enjoy this selection…

Red-Eyed Tree Frog #1

Milk Frog

Green and Black Spotted Poison Dart Frog

Yellow Cricket Tree Frog

Red-Eyed Tree Frog #2

Morelet’s Tree Frog (or Black-Eyed Tree Frog)

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog

Red-Eyed Tree Frog #3

Red-Eyed Tree Frog #4

Rivers, ranches and (lots of) rice

Paul and I have just returned from a 10-day stint in Leeds looking after our nephews and niece, whilst my sister and her husband escaped to the sun. It was lovely spending so much time with them and actually not nearly as difficult as we’d feared – the months of anticipation, when all sorts of horrific scenarios had percolated in our minds, happily baring no resemblance to the reality. I’m going to miss bedtime cuddles, hide-and-seek in the woods, snowmen building and story-time. I’m even going to miss “helping” with homework (even though this had limited/mixed success). And the glasses of wine in front of the fire, stroking their ragdoll cat Popcorn, were peaceful and restorative. Although it wasn’t all easy, and I have to say I’m very glad I no longer need to play tea-time bad cop, prizing the Nintendo Switch from a protesting 8-year-old; and my knees are grateful for respite from my niece’s cute but tiring imaginative play sessions, which invariably saw my reluctant tiger being bossed around by her strict zookeeper.

Safely ensconced back in our London flat, I’ve turned my attention back to editing our Costa Rica photos and can now pick up the story where I left off…. So, after Tortuguero we next stopped for a few days in rural Sarapiqui, Heredia Province. Our lodgings were very basic but had a lovely infinity pool overlooking a steep-sided valley and were well-located for La Tirimbina biological reserve (one of the main reasons for visiting). Relaxing in the grounds on our first afternoon, we spotted what looked like a skinny flying turkey (later identified as a Crested Guan), as well as a precarious iguana balancing on the high branch of a kapok tree, a strawberry poison dart frog (locally referred to as “blue jeans”) and a bushy-tailed tayra (related to the marten family).

But these wildlife spots were nothing compared to the delights of our night walk in La Tirimbina. Armed with flashlight, enough Deet to floor a professional wrestler, and our darkest clothes, we crossed the country’s second longest suspension bridge – swinging unsteadily over the Río Sarapiquí – and entered the reserve. Tirimbina protects 345 hectares (852 acres) of pre-montane tropical forest, hosting a wide array of different ecosystems and over 9 kilometres of walking trails. Charlene, our friendly and incredibly knowledgeable guide, helped us find scorpions, tarantulas, cane toads, frogs, basilisks, howlers, geckos and stick insects. Her eyesight was phenomenal: I have no idea how she managed to isolate them within the impenetrable blackness. Paul and I got most excited, however, by the sprightly armadillo that crossed our path (twice!) and a fur-de-lance snake, the most venomous in Central and South America, with a bite that can be fatal to humans.

We were so impressed with the forest, we returned the next night to be educated by William on all things bat-related. Costa Rica has more than 100 species of bats, making up 50% of the country’s total mammal population, and 70 of those species can be found at Tirimbina. While some eat insects or feast on blood, most species feed primarily on fruit, pollen and nectar. With the aid of humane ‘mist’ nets, so delicate (and expensive!) that we respectfully kept our distance, the staff captured a range of bats to show us up close: a docile proboscis bat, a common tent-making bat, a Honduran white bat, and the larger frog-eating (or fringe-lipped) bat. Wearing thick leather gloves, our guide gently held each flying mammal so that we could closely observe their wings, spindly arms and odd little faces. And then – allowing time for us to set up the slow-mo functions on our camera phones – released them so we could observe close-up flight. Absolutely fascinating!

For a change of pace, we booked ourselves on a white-water rafting trip on the Río Sarapiquí the next day. Having never been rafting, I was little trepidatious. But need not have worried, as our guide expertly navigated us along a 13km mixture of class 3+ rapids and calm pristine water surrounded by lush flora and fauna. The company, Aguas Bravas, were very professional – providing all the protective gear and tuition – but also really good fun, encouraging splash fights between boats and seeking the most thrilling routes. Along the journey, we saw two ospreys, a large ringed kingfisher (the biggest in the Americas), and plenty of egrets, herons and sandpipers. We arrived back at the lodge very wet but very happy!

The other highlight of this part of the trip was La Selva research centre and biological reserve. It’s a working field station and our guide, Joel, had spent over a decade there researching plants and insects. The reserve is owned and operated by the Organization for Tropical Studies, a consortium of universities and research institutions from the US, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico, and is recognised internationally as one of the most productive field stations in the world for tropical forest research. Our short trek, which barely scratched the surface of the 1,500+ hectare reserve, took in primary and secondary forest, as we crossed suspension bridges observing some of the 1,000+ plants and 250 trees in the area. In less than three hours, we ticked off the great tinamou (one of the most primitive birds on the planet), a helicopter damselfly, a two-toed sloth, three very beautiful keel-billed (aka rainbow beaked) toucans, a Central American whiptail lizard, several black river turtles, a red-webbed tree frog, two pale-billed woodpeckers (the Woody Woodpecker variety), and a milk frog (which the guide got particularly excited about).

Leaving Sarapiqui behind on Day 7, we next visited Arenal volcano in the north-western province of Alajuela, taking a short trek over the lava fields to look out over the 85 square kilometre man-made lake. To put that in perspective, the biggest lake in the English Lake District – Windemere – is a measly 17km long and 1.5km wide. The hydroelectric project is a key part of Costa Rica’s green energy policy and when first created the lake provided 70% of the country’s electricity. The Costa Rican people are understandably very proud of their record when it comes to sustainability, conservation and green energy. And it can be no coincidence that the country has ranked first four years’ running in the Happy Planet Index (HPI).

Speaking of happiness, we called into the little town of La Fortuna for some hot wings at a local bar, had a cracking hot chocolate at Cafe Fusión, and bought some rum and plantain chips from the local supermarket, before spending the evening relaxing in the Ecotermales hot springs. We were told that the hyper-thermal magnesia filled waters perfectly and naturally balance quantities of calcium bicarbonates and magnesium, which have analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and muscle relaxing properties. Who knows! But I can tell you I found sitting in the 41°C pools, cocktail in hand, with waterfalls gently massaging my back to be very medicinal indeed.

We crossed the lake by boat the next day, in order to reach the rural hills and valleys of Cabaceras. After a three hour drive, passing homely farmsteads and over serene sun-baked fields, cutting through fords and witnessing the birth of a little calf, we arrived for lunch at Rancho Heliconia. The ranch has a blue flag for sustainable practices and specialises in growing coffee. Its owner, doña Roxana, belongs to one of the original Costa Rican families to settle in Cabaceras; she’s a joyful, imposing, enthusiastic woman who makes you feel like you’re visiting family. Her cheese, produced using traditional methods, was delicious, and we were taught to prepare traditional corn tortillas (the basis of the Costa Rican diet since pre-Columbian times) before sitting down to slow-cooked lamb, spicy chicken, the obligatory rice and beans, and plenty of that scrumptious cheese with a seaweed dressing. Whilst visiting, you’re also encouraged to plant a guanabana tree – one of the native species – as part of a local rewilding project.

Driving onwards to Monteverde, before checking into our hotel we stopped at the Curi-Cancha Reserve for another night walk. This time our guide was not as great – whilst clearly knowledgeable, Eric was quiet and taciturn and we didn’t therefore have a great experience. To be fair to him, I think he’d been working since dawn, the weather had become wet and windy, and the group he was leading was larger than he’d have liked. Anyway, it was still great to see a sleeping orange-bellied trogan, two mottled owls, a green toucanette, tarantula, spotted wood thrush, and a sea of dancing fireflies. We’d see Eric again the next morning – his grumpiness having subsided somewhat – but clearly working two jobs does nothing to alleviate his temperament.

I’m going to pause there again and return to cover our time in Monteverde properly in another post. For now: Pura Vida!

Black crested guan

Mottled owl

Helicopter damselfly

Rainbow billed toucan

Green iguana


Fiery-billed aracari

Pura Vida!

In the indigenous Bribri-Cabécar tradition, spirits make a person sick for violating the established norms or because society has lost its balance. Well, I’m not sure what specific conventions I may have inadvertently infringed, but I certainly felt I was being punished when the dreaded second line materialised on my Covid test less than 48 hours after returning from Costa Rica.

In the various tribal traditions of the rainforest, healers used to dress in animal pelts, carrying carved wooden sticks in the shape of the aiding spirits of alligators, snakes, monkeys and birds. The shaman put tobacco (and other, ahem, plant-based substances) into nasal inhalers; and the healing rites were accompanied with musical interludes from ocarinas, maracas and drums. Mujer chamán, or female healers, would cover themselves in elaborate body paint, evoking the skin of jaguars and reptiles, and dance in earmuffs and thongs.

I tried all of this, of course. But in the end it was the Paxlovid anti-virals, couriered over from Guy’s Hospital, that saw me right. At the time of writing, I have had my first decent night’s sleep since our return from Central America, and writing this blog post feels like a minor victory. Sure, there are plenty more useful things I could be doing with my Sunday, now I’m able. Help my husband with the backlog of washing, for instance. Or get on the phone to Virgin Media to argue against their extortionate £11 price hike (is TiVo really worth it?!). But I’ve chosen to indulge my desire to sift and edit holiday photos. Surprise, surprise. Or at least to make a dent in the process!

So, where to start? Well, controversially maybe, I’ve decided to start at the beginning. Which was the capital city, San José. But I’m not going to dwell there long, because I’m sorry to say I didn’t like San José all that much. There were some nice parts, and true to form I enjoyed perusing the brightly-coloured murals around the university neighbourhood and old railway. We also really loved both the Pre-Colombian Gold Museum, housed in a brutalist subterranean building next to the diminutive opera house, and the Museo del Jade, which happily happened to have a Salvador Dalí exhibition alongside the world’s largest collection of green mineral. Both collections feature a fascinating and bewildering range of erotic statues, glittering ornaments and cultural artefacts; and you can while away hours in their cool embrace. But, in general, I found the capital uninteresting and a little unloved. Which was a shame.

Before leaving for the Caribbean wetlands, we did however enjoy a noteworthy meal at Jaguar Negro, a predominantly Mexican cantina, where I celebrated my birthday with seared tuna steak, shrimp risotto and cortezas de cerdo (giant pork crackling!), washed down with a tequila and ginger cocktail. Not much to complain at there.

The next morning, though, we were up early to head east to Limón province and start the holiday proper. After a hearty breakfast of gallo pinto (rice & beans, a staple we would come to know intimately throughout our stay), we made our way to La Pavona (an approximate 3 hour journey) to board a motorised passenger boat to Tortuguero. With our luggage safely stored on a different vessel – and with assurances we’d see it at the other end – we sat back and enjoyed the 90 minute ride through scenic mangroves and rivers, watching for wildlife and gently sweating in the 80%+ humidity.

Parque Nacional Tortuguero is one of Costa Rica’s 34 national parks, a staggering number for a country that’s slightly smaller in size than the state of West Virginia (or about the same size as Denmark). It’s a popular area for seeing sea turtles hatching, but you need to visit in the wet season for that; we were there instead to see the abundance of wetland fauna and to experience a genuine “jungle cruise”.

Our home for the next two nights was Laguna Lodge, a basic but charming hotel with sprawling grounds and a great situation – the Caribbean coast easily walkable on one side and an al fresco bar overlooking the titular lagoon on the other. After a short mosey round the local village – where we gaped in awe at a 40ft parade of leaf-cutter ants – and an essential watermelon daiquiri, we felt justified spending the rest of the day relaxing by the pool, as Montezuma oropendolas (a type of weaverbird) and bright yellow kiskadees sang out from the surrounding trees.

The main event, of course, was the next day’s boat safari along the canals and waterways. Fortified with a salad of papaya, melon and cassava (yum!), we let our guide navigate us through the stunningly lush verdant green river habitats, fringed with palms, wild mango, crabwood, fig and breadnut trees. The protected park comprises 19,000 hectares of rainforest, beach, mangroves and lagoon, with over 300 species of bird, 100 different reptiles, and around 60 species of mammals. We obviously only saw a small part of it, but were surprised at the range and volume of critters to be seen. I’ve pasted some of my favourite snaps of the wildlife below.

Our chaperone, though quiet and somewhat humourless, was clearly incredibly knowledgeable, with an uncanny ability to spot even the tiniest flash of colour, indicating the presence of a lizard, warbler or other rare delight. I loved every second of the trip, gleefully taking in the reserve’s wonders, learning about conservation efforts, and snapping away with my camera. It was disappointing to head back to the hotel’s private dock three hours later, but I consoled myself by immediately getting out my dorky ornithology guide and contentedly ticking things off whilst munching an empanada and sipping ‘toad water’ (agua de sapo, a sludgy but delicious mix of sugar cane, limes and ginger).

After another swim, we got out our binoculars to explore the grounds of the hotel, including a ‘tamed’ area of rainforest in which we almost got lost in what looked suspiciously like a raptor cage from Isla Nublar. Amazonian kingfishers, yellow-throated heroes, and grey cowled wood rails were added to the tally. Later that evening, we were also lucky enough to spot some red-eyed leaf frogs in moist vegetation near our chalet. See my upcoming dedicated frog post for photos!

I’m going to stop there for now, and pick up the story another time. Leaving you with the image of us bouncing away on a boat taxi the next morning, the sun beating down mercilessly on Paul’s encroaching bald patch, joyfully spotting caimans, vultures and iguanas along the marshy banks.

Pinnated bittern

Howler monkey

Jesus Christ Basilisk

Little blue heron

Neotropical cormorant



Plumed basilisk

Green ibis (credit: Paul Adnitt)

Bare-throated tiger herons

Northern jacana chicks

Montezuma oropendola

Bandits and Anarchists

Whilst on holiday in Sardinia earlier this year, I spent a day in the fascinating town of Orgosolo. For many hundreds of years, this bandit town – hidden high in the hills of the Nuoro region – was a place to hide the kidnapped and elude the authorities. It would have remained an isolated and ignored hamlet, were it not for its inhabitants’ spirit of resistance and the artistic flair of a local teacher.

In the late ’60s, having successfully resisted the military’s plan to create a base on common land used by shepherds, a group of local political anarchists created a mural in the town commemorating the event. Francesco Del Casino, a local art teacher and communist, worked with disadvantaged youths to turn this isolated piece of art into a trend. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, huge cubist graphics were created throughout the town – on walls and gates, window shutters and rocks – recounting a host of global social injustices, from Vietnam to Gaza, or calling for Sardinian independence.

The brightly coloured paintings and frescoes have been well-preserved, and artists now travel from across the globe to contribute to the spectacle. Some tell the story of the province’s customs and traditions, the rural way of life; others continue the anti-establishment, socio-political themes of the early works.

To see every mural (there are ~150) would take several hours, but you can pick up a map in the small central town square that helps you navigate the main streets and includes informative descriptions of over 70 works. Here are photos of a few of my favourites…

A Tale of Two Cities

I’ve been very lax on here of late, so now trying to rectify that. First off, a summary of two much-needed post-Covid mini-breaks.


Believing all attempts to leave the country to be thwarted in perpetuity, it was a pleasant surprise to find ourselves sitting in departure gate 23 at Gatwick airport last October. Fully vaxed, with the paperwork to prove it, we were headed to Mallorca for four days of sunshine. Like a tiny child on Christmas morning, eyes wide with awe and wonder, I gave a little whoop as we taxied down the runway. And then, suddenly airborne, almost two years of fear, boredom and frustration behind us, I breathed a sigh of contentment, settling back with book and podcast for an uneventful flight to the diminutive Balearic isle.

The holiday was magical. I remain resolute in my desire to never take such things for granted again. Palm trees, seafood, sand, sea, ice-creams…the smell of salt and suncream in my hair, which is my absolute favourite smell in the world. Everything was perfect. Sure, we were bound to see it through rose-tinted (sun)glasses after such an unprecedented enforced absence, but Palma proved a genuinely great location for our first escape.

The city itself is a great size for gentle evening promenading (our favourite pandemic pastime). The imposing Gothic Santa María cathedral, majestic harbour, maze of Arab inflected streets, delicious tapas bars, boutique shops and fish markets provide plenty of distractions without overwhelming a card-carrying sightseeing over-strategist such as myself. I didn’t feel the need to overfill our days, or rush from pillar to post. Happy instead to rest, absorb and indulge.

Nearby Playa de Illetes and Cala Major provided swimming and tanning opportunities, and a day trip to Port de Sóller should be on everyone’s list. A beautiful marina, sandy bay and estuary await, at the end of a diverting trip through the hilly interior of the island. And as the wooden tram trundled home through olive and citrus groves, I reminded myself how stupidly lucky I am.

Of course, I can’t finish without listing some restaurants of note: La Bodeguilla being our undisputed favourite (prawn carpaccio; Mallorcan black suckling pig; polpo with iberico and slow cooked egg…we’re planning a return visit mainly to eat there again!). Aromata, Arume Sake bar, and La Rosa were also great, but I’d advocate for the mouth-watering chuletón steak at the unassuming El Patxi in Santa Catalina over those. Que viva España!


Little effort having been required to reignite my passion for European jaunts, I found myself united with one of my favourite travel buddies (my dad!) in spring of this year for a trip to the Spanish capital. Quite the contrast to Palma, the sprawling metropolis is crammed with sights and this hapless tourist was unable to resist sliding back into bad old habits. Armed with guide book, map and refillable water bottle, I marched us in erratic zigzags across the city, attempting to tick off all the attractions in a familiar fit of holiday mania.

Luckily, my far more sensible companion had some (limited) success in reigning me in, forcing the odd pause for pintxos, obligatory ice-creams, and breakfast churros. Still, if you are planning to tackle Madrid I would suggest focusing on fewer locations and allowing time for relaxation. Especially given its size demands regular metro trips, which can eat into your time considerably. Having said all that, there weren’t many things we saw that I wouldn’t recommend…so it’s really a case of being more ruthless in your choices.

Our first day took in Parque de El Retiro, quite possibly the prettiest and most varied city park I’ve visited. With its central boating lake, rose gardens, “crystal palace” (Palacio de Cristal), wooded picnic spots, fountains and only-known public statue of Satan, there’s enough here alone to occupy half a day. The fact that we also crammed in Plaza Major (one of the handsome central squares), Palacio Real de Madrid (official residence of the Spanish royal family), Mercado de San Miguel, and Catedral de la Almudena (a twentieth century Catholic church built on the site of a medieval mosque) is testament to my aforementioned over-enthusiasm and explains why our feet were throbbing for days.

We weren’t done there though. Before dinner we also squeezed in a visit to Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, the excellent modern art and sculpture gallery. Once a hospital, the building is worth visiting on its own merits, with its airy central courtyard and modern glass annex (plus a cafe serving excellent vermouth!). Many make the pilgrimage to ogle Picasso’s admittedly impressive Guernica, but I actually preferred discovering new works by Dalí, Juan Gris, Picabia, and – my favourite piece – Miró’s Hombre Con Pipa. Well worth having on your itinerary.

Dinner, when it finally came, was at the really excellent Malacatín, where we enjoyed traditional cocido madrileño. Open for more than 125 years, and one of the original twelve ‘centennial taverns’, the restaurant is protected for preserving the cultural heritage of the city. The stew consists of broth, chickpeas, cabbage, and a selection of meats (pork belly, morcilla, jamón serrano, beef shank) and is absolutely delicious.

After an aborted attempt to visit the hilltop city of Toledo, through which I fostered a deep and ineliminable hatred of Atocha train station, the following day was spent at the botanical gardens, Museo del Prado, Calle de las Huertas (the neighborhood of Spanish writers), Plaza de Oriente, and Puerta del Sol (the busiest public square in the city and site of the wild bear and strawberry tree statue, Madrid’s famous coat of arms).

Large and imposing, the two-hundred-year-old Prado is not one of my favourite galleries. The dark and dour works of Goya, El Greco and Velázquez are not my thing. However, I wouldn’t have missed seeing Hieronymus Bosch’s staggeringly bonkers and stunningly beautiful Garden of Earthly Delights, nor the macabre and haunting Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel. As for the rest, my dad managed to google a list of highlights, and we amused ourselves by proclaiming “nothing to see here” as we passed by unfeatured masterpieces. Cocktails on the roof of Palacio de Cibeles rounded off the day.

Armed with our passports, having navigated 3 miles of subterranean passageways and sacrificed a few goats, we were finally allowed on a train to Toledo the next day. Perched atop a gorge overlooking the Río Tajo, Toledo was known as the ‘city of three cultures’ in the Middle Ages, a place where Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities peacefully co-existed. Sephardic synagogues, Visigothic and Roman ruins, a grand Gothic cathedral, and several interesting museums and galleries are packed into the small walled city. You need a whole day to do it justice, allowing time for tapas on one of the lantern-strewn medieval streets.

Amongst the highlights, I’d recommend Monasterio San Juan de los Reyes, with its peaceful cloisters and remarkable chapel. And save some time for walking the city walls and taking in the views over the Tagus river and countryside.

Our trip ended with a tasty meal of clams, scrambled hake, and baby lamb chops at La Castela. There you have it: two very different cities, with the common through-line of delectable Spanish cuisine. A not at all displeasing way to get back in the saddle.


Generally acknowledged as the worst of the national lockdowns, ‘Lockdown 3.0’ – which started officially on 5th January 2021 and drifted interminably through winter and into a grey, drizzly spring – has been, to put not too fine a point on it, resoundingly s**t.

Dark and cold for most of the last 4 months, the Covid-19 pandemic has once again robbed us of seeing family and friends, deprived us of entertainment (cinemas, theatres, gigs…all legally banned) and forced us to convert living into office space. Any sense of fascination for these unchartered waters, or gallows humour (such that it was), has long since departed. And the novelty of regular Zoom calls has dwindled. We’ve hunkered under blankets, stuck out our bottom lips, and refused to show any more of that bl**dy British stoicism our Prime Minister is so keen to eulogize.

And yet… As we enter May, there are signs to be hopeful. “We’ve been here before!” the more hard-core pessimists declare. And it’s becoming easy to slip into that mindset. Especially when, for the third time in as many weeks, a social engagement has been postponed due to dreary weather. WOE IS ME! WILL THIS ORDEAL NEVER END?!

Yes. Yes, it will. On 21st June. And – actually – things will be pretty much back to normal from 17th May. They will. We will be able to hug again, and drink together in the warm, and stay over at each others’ houses….and finally watch ‘Nomadland’ on the big screen. Basic human rights restored!

So I will not embrace the mantra du jour: “It’s the hope that kills you”. I’ve watched far too many Disney films in my day for that. Hope is a wonderful thing. Today I get my second dose of the vaccination. And I look forward. To a warm, long, sunny summer. To trips around the UK. To meeting friends’ new babies for the first time. To sharing picnic food. To seeing my mum and dad. To parties. And weddings. And meals out that don’t involve sitting in scarves under makeshift awnings.

I am hopeful.



NHS art





‘Courage’ photo credit: Simon Bibby

Ingresses / Egresses

It’s been a fair while since I updated my collection of doorways. So given how cold and cloudy it is today, I decided to rectify that. I love rummaging through photos, reminding myself of holidays past, digging out options and putting together a series. I discovered some beauties, so it was hard to whittle down. But here’s where I landed…

Umbria-000 - 79

Paciano, 2019


Delhi, 2014


Valencia, 2019


New Orleans, 2016

Green door - Dulwich village

Dulwich Village, 2021


Nice, 2014

Umbria-000 - 157

Orvieto, 2019


Barrio del Carmen, 2019


Algiers, 2019

Chris Sienna pic

Sienna, 2019 (Credit: Chris Adnitt)

Norfolk: Boats

Playing with different light and camera settings on the North Norfolk Coast… It’s hard to take a bad photo when you have this to work with! Looking back at these pictures from autumn 2019 has inevitably made me wistful. 17 days to go before Lockdown 3.0 starts to ease…fingers crossed for nice spring weather and plenty of options for day trips.











Buddhist Mountain Retreat


Located in the Wakayama Prefecture, about 60km south of Osaka, Kōya-san is home to an active monastic community established over twelve centuries ago for the study and practice of Esoteric Buddhism. The priest Kukai (posthumously known as Kobo Daishi) founded the monastery deep in the mountains, far away from worldly distractions, so that Buddhist monks could practice their faith in peace and tranquillity. After the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and Kyoto, it was therefore a perfect place for Paul and I to relax for a couple of days.

Don’t let the distance put you off. Yes, it takes three separate train rides and (surely) one of the steepest funiculars in the world to reach, but the journey isn’t stressful (travelling in Japan is a dream)…and trust me, the effort will be rewarded. Kōya-san truly is a secluded sanctuary, nestled away in a highland valley between eight mountains (often likened to the eight petals of a lotus flower) and with one of the most stunning collection of buildings you’ll find in the whole country. It’s film-set like perfection is a living postcard for Japan.

EE-Koyasan-030 (11)

I loved the place instantaneously…despite the incessant grey drizzle that greeted us. And was super excited to check in to Eko-in, our temple lodgings for the night.

Dosho, one of Kobo Daishi’s disciples, built Eko-in 1,100 years ago as a place for calm reflection. ‘Eko’ meaning “bless the light”. I felt more relaxed straight away, as one of the resident monks guided us to our traditional washitsu room, complete with tatami flooring and fusuma sliding doors, where green tea and nibbles were waiting for us. The space was only around 10 square metres, and would be where we ate, slept and relaxed for the next 36 hours; the monks changing our furniture around according to the time of day. The only snag: communal bathrooms and toilets were a fair walk down the hall…a good job we would be abstaining from alcohol for the duration!

After fortifying ourselves with the sweet sesame buns, and refusing to let the rain hold us back, we borrowed a couple of ubiquitous large, translucent brollies from the monks and set out to explore the hillside retreat. Kōya-san is only 4km east-to-west and 2km north-to-south, so easily navigable on foot and perfectly do-able in such a short break.

We headed first to Dai Garan, the second most important area of Kōya-san after the cemetery (more on which later): ‘Dai’ meaning great and ‘Garan’ deriving from the Sanskrit for a quiet and secluded place (you see a theme developing, I hope). The area is made up of four main buildings: the Konpon Daito (Great Pagoda), Kondo (Golden Hall), Fudodo (the oldest extant building in Kōya-san, now designated a national treasure) and the Miedo (Portrait Hall). Now, a confession: we did return to this beautiful place the following day, when the sun was out and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, so I’m cheating and posting mainly photos from that second day.




Kobo Daishi is said to have planned the Great Pagoda as the centre of the whole monastic complex. It took seventy years to build – ultimately having to be completed by his disciple Shinzen – and, at almost 50m high, it’s a magnificent construction. The Konpon has, though, been destroyed by lightning strikes and fire five separate times, so the structure you see today is far from original. Eventually, when sense prevailed (and the appropriate building materials became available), it was re-constructed in ferroconcrete with wooden overlays, to try to avoid the problem happening again. Fingers crossed!

The whole area is quite magical, with moss covered torii gates, dragon guardians, and ancient wooden halls bedecked with lanterns. You’re also more likely to see pilgrims (passing through on the Kii Mountain route) than you are tourists, which is very pleasant indeed.




Given we were close, we also visited Rokkaku Kyozo, a hexagonal sutra repository that houses a complete copy of the Buddhist scriptures in gold ink; as well as Kongobuji temple, the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism. I think this latter temple might have my favourite rock garden in Japan (a close call: lots of strong contenders). It certainly holds the prize for being biggest, at over 2,000 square metres; the 140 pieces of granite having been dragged to Mount Kōya from Shikoku and the white sand all the way from Kyoto. The resulting rock formations in Banryutei garden are designed to resemble dragons emerging from a sea of clouds. Enchanting. It’s always so tempting to sneakily create new patterns in the sand…but the stern-faced gardeners were unlikely to have found this amusing.

The temple also has one of my favourite interiors: the intricately painted sliding doors in the Yanagi-No-Ma (Willow Room) and in front of the Buddha hall depict the four seasons, as well as cranes, rivers and the surrounding landscape, all in beautiful lacquer.




Back at Eko-in, we changed out of wet clothes and attended a meditation with Moshi, one of the resident monks. There are 117 temples in Koyasan, 52 of which are set up as lodgings; and the main reason to stay in one is to take part in the various ceremonies, rituals and meditations alongside the monks. This afternoon’s session was a Ajikan meditation: contemplation of the Sanskrit letter “A”, which is drawn on the image of the moon. The letter “A” represents the Cosmic Sun Buddha, Dainichi Nyorai, and the purpose of the meditation is to make the practitioner and the Sun Buddha become one. Posture is extremely important: you need to sit with your legs crossed and ideally your knees touching the ground, your thumbs touching and your hands making a circle. You must thrust out your stomach and hold it in tension, whilst at the same time relaxing all other parts of your body, and your eyes should be neither open nor closed, in order to watch both the external and internal world at the same time. It’s bloody difficult.

Back in our washitsu room, we enjoyed a traditional Buddhist vegetarian dinner (Shojin-Ryori – see my blog 29 Seasons of Tofu for a full account of this delicious meal) before heading out with Moshi for a nighttime tour of Okunoin, the largest cemetery in Japan. There are more than 200,000 graves in Okunoin, and walking through it in the dark is an atmospheric – if not downright spooky – experience. There are no dead in the cemetery, it is said: only waiting spirits. And Kobo Daishi himself has not passed on; he took himself into the woods on the mountainside towards the end of his life and is there still to this day, meditating for eternity behind a closed gate. The community’s head monk takes him a meal every day and is the only one allowed to go through the gate (I’m not able to confirm, but I suspect this monk is quite portly). But one day – so the apocalyptic prophecy goes – Kobo Daishi will finish his meditation, and it is then that all the souls “resting” in the graves will rise up.

Moshi guided us along rain-shimmering trails, past tall cedar trees and moss covered tombs, stone lanterns casting their glow and lighting our way. He pointed out the five pillars of Buddhism in structural form (earth, space, wind, fire and water) which sit alongside our consciousness; and explained how Shintoism and Buddhism have come together in Japan, which is why you often find Shinto shrines within temple complexes. We were also told to note the numerous depictions of Jizō Buddha, the guardian of youth and patron deity of deceased children and aborted fetuses. He’s usually represented as a small, cheery looking dude, and worshippers tend to knit little hats and clothes to adorn his statues. I later learned, however, that Jizō is also regarded as the Bodhisattva of hell-beings…so felt a little less warmly towards him after that.



We followed the path through the forest and up to Kukai Mausoleum, a very sacred place where no food can be consumed and no photos taken. Once you cross the Gobyo no Hashi bridge, we were told, you have entered a higher level of the sacred. At this point, you must throw water over one of the Buddha statues lining the route, cleansing yourself for the journey ahead. Preferable, we quickly decided, to the original ritual of bathing in the freezing mountain stream.

The mausoleum is a stunningly beautiful hall, flanked by the Toro-do lantern pavilion. Legend has it that some of the gold lanterns have been burning continuously for 1,000 years. Around the back is a giant lantern with gold lotus flowers. This is the innermost sanctum, where the gate behind which Kobo Daishi meditates can be found. Moshi paused here to recite a sutra, and whilst he chanted I stared around is awe, thinking myself very privileged to see such a special place.

Making our own way back to Eko-in, we lost the crowd and took time to absorb the place, wandering the dark trails alone. Maybe a little too contemplative, since we only just made it back to the temple in time for the 9pm curfew, apologising to the waiting monks for our tardiness. Slinking back to our room and dressing in traditional yukata, we hung out playing card games for a while, but – knowing we’d be up at 6:10am for morning meditation – hit the hay quite quickly.

Waking to the sounds of monks chanting in the main temple hall, we joined our fellow lodgers for the first of the day’s ceremonies. I can’t pretend to know what this one was about, but there was cymbal clashing, repetition of a low, humming mantra, and an iron pot was hit several times; then we were invited to light incense and quietly shuffle in a circle around the hall, bowing to Buddha. Moving on to a second temple building, we were next invited to join the Gomakito (Homa fire ritual).


This ceremony is unique to Vajrayana and Esoteric Buddhism and is considered one of the most cognitively powerful. It is performed by consecrated priests and acharyas (religious instructors) for the benefit of either individuals, the state at large, or indeed all sentient beings. The fire is believed to have a powerful cleansing effect, both spiritually and psychologically; the ritual destroys negative energies, detrimental thoughts and desires, and bestows blessings. We were told to write a prayer/wish on a wooden stick, which was later thrown into the fire, along with seeds tossed by our acharya. He also splashed the flames with liquid, fanned the fire and rubbed (what looked like) rosary beads, whilst other monks chanted and banged a taiko drum. At the ritual’s climax, we were invited to waft smoke from the fire onto parts of our body that might be in pain. It was certainly dramatic…and incredibly smoky!

Our futons had been removed while we were gone, so with no chance to returning to sleep we had a quick dip in the public baths (Paul reporting that the men were much more reserved than the women) and then revisited the cemetery. It was great to experience it in a whole new light – and a particularly glorious, blue skied light at that. A completely different atmosphere to the preceding evening.

Having exhausted the delights of Okunoin, we caught a local bus up to the imposing Daimon gate at the edge of town, walking back through the village to revisit Dai Garan and stop for a casual lunch of katsu and donburi. Just time for a quick kimono purchase, from an elderly lady on the main drag, before catching the funicular back to the station. Onward to Osaka…