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Costa Rica 2016 General

Costa Rica Days Nine to Fifteen – Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste. 

Packing a week into one post here to spare the reader. Solid delivered a smart new SUV to the hotel exactly on time and we paid extra for the sat nav, a garmin device that we hadn’t booked but seemed a good idea when it arrived with the car. It was hopeless, and entirely to blame for the two hour journey to the airport which should have taken 30-40 minutes. Our passengers were very calm, although we started eating into their margin for error and I think they must have been relieved to hop out and check in as the atmosphere in the car was starting to get a bit tense and the air was starting to turn blue with the description of what I would do to the sat nav once we had time to deal with its errant behaviour. It must have been configured to the “ignore the direct route using motorways or dual carriageways and take the most circuitous route possible through heavily congested areas clogged with Saturday shopping traffic” setting.  

    
   
Four hours after dropping our passengers we arrived in the resort area of Playa Hermosa. That worked well to some extent as we could only check in at 4pm anyhow. I was tired although the roads had been easier than anticipated once outside of San Jose and having the car have us great flexibility. In fact I’m not sure the second week particularly the return from the resort to the airport for the homeward journey would have worked without it. 

What a beautiful place. I won’t say too much as I don’t want to spill the well kept secret of this little piece of heaven, although I accept that the three or four readers of this blog are all members of family anyhow 😀

The apartment was functional but just fine. The resort was on an incline that made a ski jump look horizontal but that was good for the ticker and kept us well exercised all week.

We enjoyed some of the most perfect days I can remember. Light brown volcanic sand too hot to walk on was fringed with palm trees between which were hiding some delightful beach front restaurants. Light breakers in the 28 degree warm sea, where pelicans fished within arms reach and frigate birds wheeled in the deep blue cloudless sky. Weather was either hot (37 degrees) and dry or hot, dry and windy. The breeze was perfect but even when still, the dry heat was perfectly pleasant. Sunsets every night, that got more and more dramatic as the week went on. Anyone fancy sitting through seven hundred photographs of sunsets? I’ve got the collection.  

    
 Self catering meant we kept the budget sensible, with prices being racy in the small onsite shop and also Caribbean like in the restaurants and bars.  

    
   
One night walking back from the hotel a monkey walked past us, having seen iguanas on the beach and long tailed birds on the balcony. It was a real unspoiled tropical paradise. Shh… Don’t tell anyone…

We had a couple of excursions, one to a pottery village and the other to a waterfall where I swam and took in the ambience. We went to Playa de Coco where we eventually found the little restaurant we were looking for which was a triumph.  But we were always happy to head back to our little apartment on the hill and soak up another day of sun and scenery.  

    
     
 We could have stayed a month. The journey back was uneventful as by now we had learned to keep the Garmin switched off and we arrived at the airport safely in time for a long Denny’s and the flight via Bogota. 

We had a brilliant holiday and the news that came through that Mum had successfully been operated on and was making a good steady if painful recovery was the icing on the cake. Would we recommend Costa Rica? Absolutely, and now that Delta and BA are flying direct from Gatwick to Liberia, the tourism from UK and Europe will grow fast. I’d get there soon, before it gets spoiled. But no need to visit San Jose, unless you have to. 

For more photos of our trip, please visit Flickr

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Costa Rica 2016 General

Costa Rica Day Eight – Cahuita to San Jose

i went down to the National Park for a swim, having stood under the shelter of a nearby shop round the corner of the hotel while it bucketed down with rain for fifteen minutes or so. 

Having been told off previously for swimming in the area that wasn’t flagged as safe, I asked this time where it would be ok for me to do so. The guides at the entrance send me some 800 metres or so down the beach where they told me I would find a green flag area suitable for bathing. 

When I got there it looked really dangerous with a huge rip tide and coconuts and drift wood being washed up the shore in very heavy breakers. The cynic might say that by sending swimmers far enough away from the front desk, the guides wouldn’t be disturbed by the sight of anyone drowning. It was much more dangerous today than where I had been swimming the day before. Oh well, lovely scenery and I took the path that ran alongside the beach back to the entrance and swam in the hotel pool instead where a lovely sunny spell was enjoyed watching a bird building its nest in a nearby tree. I warned the others to step over the huge beetle that was trying to escape the pool enclosure and after a lovely hour or more we packed and went to the bus station to get the 11am bus to San Jose. 

   
  That had been overbooked so we were encouraged to take the next bus at 2pm which would have space rather than taking the risk of having to stand for the 5 hour journey. We went and had lunch and I tried to secure a hire car from Puerto Viejo although that proved impossible and in any event would have meant a seven hour car journey via San Jose. 

I did manage to get a car hire secured for the following day, having tried all the main operators without success as they were all fully booked. Solid would deliver the car to our hotel in San Jose at 10am the following morning. 

And so we left Cahuita after lunch to go back via the bus station for the lengthy and tricky bus journey back to the capital. Tricky because the bus we were now on had no working windscreen wipers and the driver wanted to get that fixed at Limon, the only scheduled stop an hour into the journey. No one was sure how long that would take and so we were starting to think San Jose would be a very long time later that day, if at all.

The driver had a change of heart after about an hour and decided to risk the journey without windscreen wipers even though it was well known that one section of the trip would almost certainly guarantee rain. 

It did. Rain. And very heavily. And by this time it was dark. I decided I would close my eyes and in so doing I was probably simulating the visibility the driver had. Not very much. We could either have the window open and breathe whilst being drenched with rain water, or keep the window closed which created a thick fug like a classic London pea souper fog of Victorian gothic proportions. The condensation running down the inside of the windows was almost as fast flowing as the rain sweeping in torrents down the outside. Exciting times!  

 The good thing about the trip was that I became keen to arrive in San Jose – a feeling I had never expected to have after my first visit to the city.  

Tired but pleased to be alive we checked back into our hotel and went for a last night meal, which was at a slightly dysfunctional Italian restaurant where we were the only customers and were outnumbered by the waiting staff who still managed to take ages to get the wrong orders delivered. That didn’t dampen our spirits however and I suspect adrenaline was still flowing for most of us after the bus journey across the mountain range earlier.  

   
That concluded our trip around the country and we offered to drive the English couple to the airport the following day as we would be going past it on the way to Playa Hermosa – assuming of course that Solid car rental were as dependable as their name implied.

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Costa Rica 2016 General

Costa Rica Day Seven – Cahuita

Today was a free programme so we decided to walk back to the Tree of Life to attend their daily guided tour at 10am after having failed to get to the location the previous afternoon. The tour proved a popular choice with several in the group – the day was very wet to start with which put an end to the horse riding ambitions of some. 

The longish walk was very pleasant and we found the venue easily enough this time – sure enough just a few hundred metres further from where we had reached the previous day. We stopped to photograph some of the local flora and walked on past the sanctuary to a beach which was wild, open and being used for horse riding a half a mile or so further down the road.  

   Once back at the sanctuary we joined a group of about twenty or so and paid our ten dollars to join the official tour led by the owner Patricia. She was assertive and no-nonsense as I suspect you need to be in order to deal in distressed animals in this part of the world. Most of the animals seem to be supplied through the government and were either orphans or mistreated pets that had been abandoned or confiscated. Clearly the programme was designed to rehabilitate as many as possible but equally there would always be a hard core that were too domesticated or too traumatised to successfully reintroduce to the wild. One sensed that Patricia was easily offended if there was any question about her motivation or programme. It must be a fine line between being commercial enough to survive and not looking too much like a zoo. I think she got that blend just right and we had an interesting tour over the next couple of hours, learning about all sorts of flora and fauna that we wouldn’t have otherwise seen close up. 
    
 The sloths were the cutest. No contest. And as we had read that the sloth sanctuary some 20 mins away by taxi was often thought to be a little bit on the commercial side, we were please we were seeing the abandoned baby ones in the Tree of Life who were clearly very well looked after and in need of that attention. After some somewhat blurry photos of the one up a tree the previous evening, we got some more somewhat blurry ones closet up today. Obviously sloths although are far from fast moving are tricky to get in focus.  As you can see, this is the two toed sort, based on his front leg, not the back ones. They were super fussy eaters, only going for leaves in the most prime condition. 

 We also saw various monkeys, terrapins and turtles, parrots, coatils, raccoons, deer, various birds and a whole host of plants.  

    
   So a good morning was had by all. We had eaten the bar of homemade chocolate grown and processed on the premises by the time we got to the restaurant stop on the way back to town. Just time for a quick drink before lunch which we had in Cahuita centre in a small restaurant next to the karaoke bar after walking back past the school and through some of the other streets of this small but characterful town.  I then went to the national park for a swim on the beach while Heather rested from the humidity in the hotel. I got told off for swimming in a red flag zone so chastened but otherwise refreshed I went back to change in time for our transport to Porto Vieja which left at 4pm.  We wandered the town after drawing cash and found a great spot by the side of the cheese grater reef break to watch the surf and soak up the atmosphere. We then joined the others for dinner at the Red Chilli where we had a lovely fusion meal of Thai/Japanese food – later chatting to the owner who was a character from Sussex.  Puerto Viejo was a lively spot, but I could see why the choice was made to hotel us in Cahuita – just a lot calmer and a bit more undiscovered. 
   Back to Cahuita it was for us then and only a few night caps… early start tomorrow back to – oh no – San Jose! 

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Costa Rica 2016 General

Costa Rica 2016 Day Six – Tortuguera to Cahuita

An amazing day and among the best of the trip. We breakfasted well and having settled the bar bill which was approaching the size of the GDP of Swaziland, I decided it would be a good time to try the hammocks. Epic fail. The rope couldn’t stand my enhanced weight and I dropped like a stone to the deck where I bounced straight up again a bit like a wheeble. Great hilarity all round and luckily only my pride was seriously hurt.  

 Into the boat for a fantastic three hour high speed boat ride through the park on a waterway that ran parallel with the coast for about 45 miles. The luggage was substantial which meant grounding at times and there was one moment when we thought we might need to get out and push, not such a good idea given the crocodiles which were in evidence. 

  
Occasional light showers but most of the time fresh air in the face, sun in the sky, the most incredible scenery with monkeys and bird life to be spotted along the way. This could have gone on all day for several days as far as I was concerned.   

 Eventually Willy dropped us off in the industrial outskirts of Limon, where we were supposed to be transferred to a local bus to take us to Cahuita, but the majority voted to pay an extra $5 to stay on the mini bus all the way, a decision which seemed very practical given the amount of luggage and that the public bus might be full or delayed etc. So we arrived in the sleepy village of Cahuita earlier than scheduled and had lunch in Ricky’s bar after checking into the Hotel Vas, where we were please to see a large room and a swimming pool.

After lunch we walked through the town and towards the Tree of Life animal refugee, but after walking for an hour or so in humid and showery conditions we returned to the hotel just short of the final destination which was supposedly 3km from town but turned out to be more like 3miles. A lovely let stretch though and I topped it off with a swim in the sea at a stretch of black sand beach that had been cleared of coconuts and driftwood and was just near an elegant looking yoga resort. 

We stopped at a reggae bar for a margarita on the way back and took in the views of the rough surf and the classic Caribbean palm lined playa negra. 

Fully refreshed we went out to a lovely Restuarant that evening on the sea front where instead of snapper we had fillet of sea bass. We had to move when a torrential downpour forced us all indoors, but that also meant we got to see the sloth making its way along the telephone wires at a surprisingly fast pace for a sloth.  

 We were ourselves sloth-like in leaving for the hotel and missed the kareoke which sounded like the group had a hilarious time when we heard the reports back. 

A lovely day. 

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Costa Rica 2016 General

Costa Rica 2016 Day Three – La Fortuna

Waking to the sound of traffic confirmed we were very much in the centre of the town and we made our way down the street a few hundred metres to a very nice establishment for breakfast of smooths and eggs and beans – this time in Valentines Day mode, with the chair backs sporting red muslin. 

Thereafter we were at a loose end. Not for us the sinew straining summit of the local flat volcano, but rather some gentle souvenir hunting, including some slothful fridge magnet shopping and an amble down the road to the bridge where we should see the very same, although the reality was iguanas rather than snoozing fur balls.  

    
    
   
Marciscos fish lunch after a very lazy morning, and whole sea bass fried substituted for snapper was delicious and nutritious. While settling up a taxi became free and we headed for the Ecotherm hot springs a little way out of town on the way to the volcano.

$36 well spent we thought as we changed in good modern facilities and then barefooted down to the choice of five pools all of which boiled us gently to varying degrees as we sipped our piña coladas under a canopy of green jungle foliage. What a tough life. 

Two hours was enough to both go wrinkly and get dehydrated despite replenishing ourselves with drinks from the bar.  After avoiding the lead cutter ant procession back to the elegant but hot water free changing rooms, we were back to the town with our same taxi driver via the funeral cortège. We freshened up for our meeting with the rest of the group for dinner at a typical Caribbean themed sports bar and restaurant where we had coconut shrimp and seared tuna respectively.  After a pleasant evening getting to know some of the larger group who we were now joining with, we retired to the domed bar over the road for a nightcap or two.  

    
   

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Costa Rica 2016 General

Costa Rica 2016 Day Four – Tortugera

An early start with a quick dash to the ATM as the next few days would otherwise be cashless. Not sure how much we were being charged for taking money out but it seemed very variable. Then we sardined ourselves into the mini-van along with too much personal luggage – you’d think by know we would know etc. and off we went to cross the country for the 130km or so to the North East coastal park area of Tortugera, stopping on our way for a cup of coffee and a couple of bathroom breaks, passing extensive fields of pineapple plantations and banana fields that stretched out forever.  

    


Gloria told us we couldn’t stop at one point due to the drug traffickers that operated in the area. Under cover of banana forests no doubt.

At the final stop we transferred the piles of luggage onto a long slim boat which got lower into the mud banks before a superhuman effort by the prehensile helmsman pushed the bow loose to float again. The human cargo then got on board and donned life vests that superficially covered parts of our torsos. We sped off downriver at waterskiing speeds dodging submerged trees on an adventure much akin to heart of darkness.

We were the last of the groups to disembark at All Rankins lodge at the furthest edge of the small riverside settlement of Tortugera. A very quaint and charming site right on the bank by the airstrip and within a very short walk of the ocean which we could hear clearly from our cabin A set in the middle of the small complex. We were settled in by worldly wise and laid back Willy, an immigrant from Jamaica who had a charming smile and a twinkle in his eye.

After lunch of chicken, rice and beans (and an extremely hot home made fermented kimched type cabbage) all washed down with the odd imperial, we had a free period to explore the area. I headed across the airstrip for a walk along the beach while Heather rested in the humidity of the afternoon. Stunning scenery and miles of deserted brown black sand scoured by rough riptides made the perfect backdrop for some shots of driftwood and the occasional sea bird.  

 Willy then took us by boat to the sea turtle conservation centre where we spotted a flock of green macaws squawking overhead.  

    
 An interesting hour or so learning about the successful conservation project for green turtles although the outcomes for the leatherback and hawksbill varieties were still uncertain.

If fishing was easy.....

We walked into town where sadly a change of plan meant that instead of visiting the Buddha cafe, which looked great, we had a wander through the town which took all of ten minutes before a glass of wine and then back to the lodge for dinner of fish, rice and beans. Tasty although smothered in enough garlic to keep the vampire bats away. We drank Willy out of wine of all types and got to know some of the other members of the party better as a result.

We slept well.

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Costa Rica 2016 General

Costa Rica 2016 Day Five – Tortugera

The start was postponed from 6.30am to 7.30, not due to any fuzzy headedness I hasten to add, but I think because we were on holiday. 

After celebrating one of the party’s birthday and 10th grandchild being born by cake and candles, we were off by boat into the park after buying tickets for entrance at the newly built facility. An amazing few hours followed with sightings of various jungle inhabitants like howler and spider monkeys, baby sloth, iguana, caiman and bundles of birds. Cameras clicking like turnstiles at the big match, we snapped and oohed and aahed away, craning and straining to get the best views and the best shots for the album. Great fun. Eventually after a splendid sighting of a caiman grinning at us from a log down a side creek we sped back into town, happy snappers indeed.  

 We then went on foot to the interior of the park, which complimented the boat trip perfectly. Muddy welly sploshing through the first parts of the short trail we spotted spiders, snakes, anteaters, lizards, more monkeys and Tango the toucan – my personal favourite.  

    
    
 This may be a time when pictures speak better than words and I’ll address that when back in the land of more adequate wifi.  Not complaining though – it was amazing to be able to email from the bus on the wifi from La Fortuna the previous day – isn’t technology remarkable! 

We noticed when getting back for lunch – fish rice and beans were no surprise, that we were leading the drinks leaderboard by some margin. We added a few imperials to our tally and settled in for an afternoon editing photos and enjoying the scenery. 

Back to the village later we avoided kareoke by a whisker and instead settled for rice with prawns before a fresh shower on the boat trip back, Gloria having rescued tile slapping dominoe playing Willy from the local taverna. 

An early night and we left the nocturnal frogs in peace, deciding we’d had enough wildlife for one day.  

    
    
    
 

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Costa Rica 2016 General

Costa Rica 2016 Day Two – La Fortuna/Arenal

After a good breakfast with fresh fruit, rice and beans and egg to set us up for the day, we set off by taxi to the bus terminal where we found a very smart terminal buzzing with comfortable quality coaches heading for various destinations across the country. 

    
 Ours took about 4 1/2 hours to go the 131 km – a journey which would take about 2hrs 40 minutes by self drive car. It was more enjoyable to spend the time on board, looking at the terrific views and the regular stops to pick up locals gave added interest.

We climbed to 1600 metres and agreed with Gloria that sitting in the front made sense as the road snaked its way through hills and valleys. The vegetation changed constantly, although I was sorry that I hadn’t photographed the beautiful orange blossomed tree we saw in and around San Jose as they disappeared shortly after leaving the city. We saw over 100 raptors, including two types of buzzard and a vulture. Obviously loads of small mammals about in the dense sugar cane fields and lush pastures.

After three hours we stopped briefly for a comfort break where two bananas were half the price of going to the bathrooms, but it was good to get out and stretch the legs, although we nearly left David behind when he was slightly tardy getting back in the coach. We handed back our pass tickets and the rest of the trip was busy, with standing passengers swaying as we continued to make slow but steady progress across the low lying fertile plains that led to the Arenal volcano and the nearby tourist town of La Fortuna.  

    

The weather changed from clear sunny skies at the start to cloudy and drizzly conditions near the end, so sadly the volcano we had come to see was shrouded in low cloud although the shape of it was still unmistakeable.

We checked in to the Cabinas Oriuma hotel – well more of a motel really, after a short walk from the bus station at La Fortuna de San Carlos. After booking the walking tour for the 3pm departure with Desiano tours in the town, we had a swift tasty salad and smoothie at a lovely new restaurant near the centre. The hotel is basic but central, and once we were given towels and the remote for the television we decided against the extra $10 for air conditioning, just relying on the ceiling fan to spread the humidity around the room a bit.

We were picked up by Julio and the travel company and bumped our way across town to pick up a very pleasant and friendly American family from New York whose two young girls were obvious adrenaline junkies by the sound of their itinerary.

The trip up the slopes of the primary forest to the foot skirts of the volcano was contrastingly low key.

Once there, we enjoyed views over the lake while we balanced on the lava flow from the 1992 eruption. Up to 6 years ago the site of the volcano must have been spectacular, with regular rock eruptions, ash and gas and at night, hot rocks visible at a distance. Today, although the volcano is graded as “active” it looked very passive. All was quiet apart from the oriol birds in the forest making a loud call while apparantly self righting themselves on branches although we never saw them do this. We saw one fly overhead and several parrots as well as things that were called turkeys although they looked like large fat pigeons to me.  

    
 After an imperial beer back in the coach we were back to the town where we met for dinner at 7.30 at the Caribbean Restuarant we had looked at earlier for a dinner of seared tuna and coconut shrimp.

We had decided against the tough hike the following day, although David was up for that, so he retired early while we sat up for a glass of wine across the road from our hotel where we greeted Gloria going out for a late night out with a local guide in tow.

An early-ish night for us too after battling the sticking bathroom door. The traffic noise couldn’t compete with our tiredness so a good rest was had in temperatures that were much less sticky than they had need earlier on. The hotel owners had both got very new very expensive cars which I first thought were the results from profiteering on the hotel side given the very basic nature of the accommodation but I later read were probably because they were also the local vets as well as hoteliers.  

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Costa Rica 2016 General

Costa Rica 2016 Day One – San Jose

We flew from Heathrow with Avianca airline – Colombia’s national carrier. We had a great meal in Heston’s Perfection Cafe in the massively improved and very smart Terminal 2 after having been dropped off by wobbly Rod (car wheels need aligning). Heston’s fish and chips were brilliant – crispy and light, with an optional pickled onion spray which became my base perfume for the evening.

The flight went well, with some red wine to ease the journey and we were soon waking up to the descent into Bogota, where things were understandably quiet at 3.30am their time (8.30 ours). The cafe opened at 5am in the impressive and spotlessly clean terminal. Just after we were ripped off by the shop for two bottles of water for $10.50. Why do they do that? It doesn’t do their tourist trade any good.

The cafe served brilliant coffee – Colombian of course and cheese and jam with pitta type breads.

The short flight to San Jose set off on time at 8am local and 90 minutes and a squashed empanada later we bumped through the turbulence to a landing applauded by many of the other passengers and we were in cloudy but warm Costa Rica.

A short transfer by pre-arranged taxi to the Hotel Rincon where we left bags and went out to wander the city before getting access to our room after 2pm.

I’m afraid it has to be said – San Jose isn’t the prettiest of cities. That’s being kind.

We looked for redeeming features but didn’t find any to speak of although the downtown area leading to the central market coughed up some increasingly bizarre examples of humankind and the market itself was a medieval labyrinth of offal and loofahs.

The El Patio Restuarant in the Balmoral Hotel gave us coffee and respite from the wind chill factor behind a curtain of plastic sheltering us from the cacophony of the central avenue walking street. 5 loud Americans left us to the slothful service which was later apologised for as we shivered our wait for the perplexing change from the 10,000 Colones note we had paid for the $6 bill.

I was thinking it was expensive at $33 based on my misunderstanding of the exchange rate so it was a relief to recalibrate my thinking and realise that 500 colones to the dollar – 750 to the pound, was going to make this holiday less expensive than first thought.

The Steifl pub that was supposed to offer good craft beer disappointingly didn’t sell white wine, only red. This was another recurring theme of the city as well as an apathy for serving customers that left us cold to the welcome – colder than the increasing wind chill, so we left there and after rejecting one traditional restuarant and being stumped by the closure of another ended up walking back to one we had seen earlier which had a balcony overlooking the Avenida Central which looked a good spot for lunch and people watching.

Locals had filled up the place with a lively noisy atmosphere which we added to with sizzling fajitas and enchiladas and a glass of white to enjoy while dodging the draughts slicing through the plastic sheeting dividing us from the throngs below.

On the way back there was a red carpet out in front of one of the few decent looking buildings to welcome what was obviously an important visitor and presumably designed to stop them dropping into one of the potholes or disappearing into the deep gutter on the side of the road lined with saluting guards and flashing policemen (the bikes, not the bobbies).

We got access to our room and were able to shower change and rest having met Gloria the diminutive but irrepressibly cheerful Cusconite guide who would be our guide for the trip.

The hotel settled us in nicely into our small and slightly damp dungeon like room – of course leaving and entering could only be achieved by push button security from the front desk which made the place feel a little more like a leafy prison than it did to start with when we had to wait for our genial jailor to release us onto the streets for a vain attempt to get a glass of white wine ahead of our 7pm pre dinner tour meeting. That attempt involved trying to track down the Craic – the local but invisible Irish bar and another attempt to be served white wine after being ignored for a reasonably lengthy time in a cafe filled with other gringos seeking hospitality refuge from the savage streets of hooting trains and polluting buses.

So we settled back in our hotel gardens where happy hour spilled over into happyish two hours over a bottle of Savignon Blanc for £14.

At 7 we joined David and Gloria in the lobby for a brief briefing which we probably should have suggested was done over dinner, but no harm done.

We enjoyed a very pleasant dinner of Fettucine Marisco and Caesar Salad over the road at the Cafe Momba(?) where we tried to work out which 6 cities in Europe Gloria should prioritise on her planned visit. David proved to be very interesting company – a well traveled Spanish origin doctor settled in Ottowa.

And so the day ended back in our dungeon where the noisy dogs and early movers didn’t much interrupt our slumbers.