We spent two days in Manaus as part of our Viking Cruise. Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon basin, was not a place I ever thought I’d visit, simply for its remoteness. It’s 1000 miles inland from the mouth of the river and it is the furthest you can go along the river in a cruise ship.  Its existence can be explained in one word and that is rubber.

Manaus

Manaus was founded in the late 1600s at the confluence of two rivers, the River Negro and the Solimões River, forming the Amazon as we know it.  The city’s heyday came in the late 1800s as a result of the rubber boom.  We spent two days in Manaus, one day visiting its colonial centre and another at the meeting of the waters. 

To understand Manaus, you need to understand rubber

Christopher Columbus first noted rubber on his exploration of the Caribbean and brought it back to Europe. Fellow explorers noticed that indigenous tribes used rubber to waterproof their shoes and clothes.  

Dr Joseph Priestly is said to be the first person to use it as an eraser, but it was Charles Goodyear, who dropped rubber and sulphur on a hot surface, turning it black but pliable, and so the tyre was born.  

Turns out there are a lot of rubber trees, Hevea brasiliensis, in the Amazon.  Amazon tribes would score a tree and wait for the sap to drain. At first these tribes were enslaved to collect the rubber by settlers who were so abusive that ninety per cent of the population died out. Eventually, new harvesters were needed to be found and so the industry advertised. 

Adventurers from the United States and Europe came to Brazil ready to make their fortunes. In 1906, the world consumed sixty million pounds of rubber and in total, forty million pounds came from the Amazon. Rubber plantations were actually just vast tracts of land given to people with means by the Brazilian government. 

Rubber harvesters came to Brazil, not as slaves, but still penniless. Each was then schmoozed by a plantation foreman who signed them up for service and sold them supplies. Before leaving, each new harvester was presented with an invoice for the schmoozing and supplies – often it would take over a year to pay back their debt.  

Each harvester would extract rubber from between 85 to 100 trees, which would then get boiled, rolled in 225 pound balls and marked with their own stamp, ready to be floated down the river for sale. At each plantation there would be a large house for the owner, an overpriced pub and a store selling exorbitantly priced goods – it was through debt that the rubber barons kept their indentured workforce. 

Yungjohann – a rubber harvester 

Details of the life of a harvester are primarily known through the diaries of John C. Yungjohann a Dutch-American who sailed from New York to Belem in 1896. 

He came with high hopes, only to succumb to the tactics of the recruiters. By the time he reached his ‘patch’ many of the small team he’d joined had yellow fever. The recruiter abandoned the group, leaving them to build lean-tos in which to live and cook their rubber. 

He was a shrewd survivor. Firstly he cut a path between the rubber trees through the dense forest to avoid getting lost and in his first year he’d collected enough rubber to almost clear his debt. He only bought the most essential supplies from the plantation shop at inflated prices, ergo increasing his debt and instead adjusted his diet to eat foods that could be obtained from the land or forest – acai berries, brazil nuts and drinking sassafras flavoured with vanilla instead of coffee.  

Yungjohann eventually survived ten years in the forest repaying his debt, surviving fevers, tribal wars and an alligator attack that wiped out a whole year’s rubber crop in one fell swoop. It was his friendship with the local tribe that ensured his survival – he helped to defend women and children when other tribes attacked and they nursed him back to health when he fell ill.  

In his final year, he collected nearly 4 tonnes of rubber stowed in a cave – enough to clear his debt and earn him a small fortune. However, he was so ill he was unable to ever cash it in – friends had to track him down in the forest and carry him to a steamship to go to a hospital in Barbados where he convalesced for 11 months, and never returned to his rubber stash.  

Amazonas Theatre 

As a result of the wealth enjoyed by the rubber barons, Manaus enjoyed a golden age. It was the second city to have electricity after Rio de Janeiro and it was also well-known that the city was a hotspot for diamond sales. As part of our tour, we visited one of the vast mansions built for the rubber barons, the Palacio Rio Negro for Karl Waldemar Scholz, in 1903. 

 Those barons needed somewhere to get dressed up and show off their wealth. The Teatro Amazonas or Manaus Opera House was built with European marble, crystal chandeliers from Italy and tile work from France, the ballroom was floored in wooden planks from the rainforest. All at the cost of $2 million dollars.

And to celebrate rubber in all its glory, they used the substance to pave the driveway to ensure that the rattling of horse and carriages wouldn’t be heard during performances.  In all their finery, rubber barons didn’t want to be too hot, so huge ice blocks were placed outside the building’s vents with giant fans ready to blow in the cold air but were so noisy they’d drown out the singers.  

Unfortunately, by the time the first opera was ready to stage, half the company was plagued with yellow fever and half the cast died.  The opera house remained closed for much of the century, they simply couldn’t get anyone to visit. 

Outside the theatre stands San Sebastian Square which replicates the two waters of the Rio Negro and Solimões River, with the classic Portuguese two-tone tiles in an undulating design. Our next stop was the Museum of Indigenous Tribes which hosts a variety of exhibits from local peoples. 

By mid-1900s, British explorer and probably what we would now call, bio-pirate, Henry Wickham stole 70,000 rubber tree seeds from under the noses of the rubber barons. The seeds were sent back to Kew Gardens who sent them to new plantations in British colonies Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore.  Unfortunately for the rubber barons the seeds did amazingly well and that was the end of Manaus’s rubber boom. 

Mercado Municipal 

From the port, it is a short walk to the Mercado Municipal, a bustling marketplace that sells fish, tropical produce and medicinal herbs and is designed by the Eiffel workshop, the chap behind the famous Paris landmark. 

 With our limited Portuguese language skills, we sat down at a local cafe and ordered a round of tapioca pancakes. These were thicker than your average crepe with the thickness of a tortilla with a floury texture. The flavour came from the fillings and we tried barbecued banana, a cheese (a bit like halloumi), grilled meats and omelette. We also had grilled chorizo sausage with chips. A lunch of kings. 

Meeting of the Waters 

On our second day, we took a local boat to see the meeting of the waters, where the Rio Negro and the Solimões rivers meet. Here they run concurrently for several miles, the dark blue waters of the Rio Negro with the muddy waters of the Solimões river. 

The water from the Rio Negro flows from the jungles of Colombia and gains its colour from the plant materials that steeps through it. The water temperature is on average 28 degrees and flows slowly.

Conversely, the Rio Solimões contains a large amount of sediment from the Andes Mountains, is cooler at 22 degrees and flows faster than the Rio Negro at 6km per hour. It’s the difference in flow rate, temperature and density that prevents the river from mixing. Downstream the river encounters several obstacles that churn the water together. 

On our boat, we spotted pink river dolphins or botos, which have the largest bodies and brains of any freshwater dolphin. And they’ve adapted to swimming in murky waters of the Amazon, as their vertebrae are not fused to their necks, this means that they can turn their heads 180 degrees to manoeuvre through tree trunks and rocks after prey.   

Local legend goes that at night the pink river dolphin turns in a man and has his way with innocent local women, who bear him children, before sinking back into the river. 

We took about an hour to reach a lake, where we disembarked into even smaller boats like large canoes to get a closer look at river banks, seeing birds, fauna and other wildlife. The tourist centre was built as a floating house.  Before heading home we walked to see the giant lilies, which we’ve seen in the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens, but never in their natural habitat. 

Pin me – two days in Manaus

#AD We were invited to the press night for Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense which is currently showing at Chipping Norton’s Theatre until 15th February 2020. 

The show has actually been produced by two Cotswold theatres, The Theatre Chipping Norton and the Barn Theatre in Cirencester, and is about to embark on  a 17-week tour of the UK, taking in over 30 regional theatres, arts venues and village halls. It’s the longest ever tour Chipping Norton Theatre has created to date. 

This production was written by the Goodale Brothers and uses PG Wodehouse’s famous upstairs-downstairs comic duo Jeeves and Worcester who originally sprang into the literary world from the pages of The Code of the Woosters.  

It’s a classic ‘play within a play’ as we see aristocratic buffoon, Bertie, hire the theatre for the night to present his one man show detailing spectacular misadventures including the theft of a silver cow creamer and a narrow escape from unwanted matrimony. In typical fashion, it seems that Bertie hasn’t thought much into the practicalities of his show – and in steps Jeeves to save the performance. 

The play is directed by Chipping Norton Theatre’s artistic director John Terry and features just three actors, Matthew Cavendish as Bertie, Andrew Ashford as Jeeves and Andrew Cullum as Seepings.  

The cast did an amazing job at carrying the audience along this wacky tale managing scenery with comic panache, Cullum’s train stop was particularly memorable and both, Ashford and Cullum were especially adept at transforming into multiple characters.  At one point, Ashford as Jeeves has a three way conversation with himself! 

Cavendish (Bertie) was a really exuberant protagonist and performs regularly with Mischief Theatre, appearing in The Play That Goes Wrong in the West End and on Broadway, as well as Peter Pan Goes Wrong and A Comedy About a Bank Robbery in the West End. 

This  show originally premiered in 2013 at 5 Richmond Theatre with the lead roles being played by Stephen Mangan and Matthew Macfadyen, then transferred to the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End. It won the 2014 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.

Director John Terry said, “If ever there was a time when the world needed the sunlight, optimism and wit of P.G. Wodehouse, it might be now. Anarchically, brilliantly funny, and a huge theatrical challenge to bring to the stage, we are delighted to be remounting this fantastic comedy.”

Tickets available via Chipping Norton Box Office:  https://www.chippingnortontheatre.com/

Parintins in Brazil hosts Brazil's next largest festival after Rio's carnival, known as the Boi Bumba, which we experience as part of a Viking Cruise.

One of the things that Viking Cruises specifically tries to do is to take its passengers to ports which are less frequented by other cruise lines. That certainly felt the case with Parintins, a town which sits on Tupinambarana, a group of adjacent islands surrounded by the convergence of four rivers. The endless surging current divided the once singular island into four, making Parintins an interesting example of the Amazon’s power.  

Parintins in Brazil hosts Brazil's next largest festival after Rio's carnival, known as the Boi Bumba, which we experience as part of a Viking Cruise.

Of all the places we visited along the Amazon, Parintins was the most normal place, a small town filled with all the essentials local people might need – a market, large church. However, each June, it hosts Brazil’s largest carnival celebration after Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival, known as the Boi Bumba.

Parintins is making use of cruise tourism and has built a convention centre only a short walk from the disembarkation point especially to house shorter performances of this yearly carnival.  The Bull Festival recounts the folk tale of two bulls whose teams strive to outperform each other. The tension mounts until the appearance of a shaman results in a joyous celebration in the life of the bull.  I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t exactly terribly clear what was going on all the time, but it really didn’t matter. 

This was no toned down tourist show, the thirty strong cast donned fabulous carnival costumes and performed long gymnastic routines which lasted up to ten minutes apiece to the lively heart-pounding music.  There were flotillas wheeled too and from the stage, which took great co-ordination, and there were several carnival stars who emerged in full technicolour glory. In all, the show lasted a full awe-inspiring ninety minutes. 

We had a full day in Parintins, so Tom and I had a great walk around the town and lunch in a bar overlooking the river, called Carne Na Tabua, – cassava chips and deep-fried manchego-type cheese bites with a chilli sauce. Back on the Viking Sea, which has a specific focus on destination fare, we had Brazilian churrasco (or BBQ).

Sometimes you get a tempting Groupon deal and a Japanese afternoon tea at Zoo Sushi in Stratford upon Avon for £10 ahead was extremely enticing.  

Japanese afternoon tea at Zoo Sushi17

Zoo Sushi is just a short walk from Shakespeare’s birthplace and I’ll confess that I’d never heard of it and I certainly had no idea that there even was a sushi bar in Stratford. It’s a small place with a colourful frontage and a handful of covers inside. 

Japanese afternoon tea at Zoo Sushi1
Japanese afternoon tea at Zoo Sushi13

As with all Groupon vouchers, it can be hit or miss. I booked in advance, about two weeks ahead for a table for two at two o’clock. It was busy when we arrived but there were a handful of tables free, although it was evident from the waitress that she was glad we’d booked a table, she’d obviously had to turn some others away. When we were there, the sushi bar and tables were managed by two staff, the server and sushi chef. 

Japanese afternoon tea at Zoo Sushi7
Japanese afternoon tea at Zoo Sushi23

It was clear that the sushi was all made fresh to order, whilst some elements of our afternoon tea could be pre-prepared. Zoo Sushi has got a distinct animal vibe going with its decor and we had two mugs of green tea served in a giraffe and a zebra. 

Japanese afternoon tea at Zoo Sushi5
Japanese afternoon tea at Zoo Sushi1

Our afternoon tea was served on a three-tier stand and consisted of several different types of sushi – sashimi, California rolls and nigiri. I’m not a fan of sandwiches so it was good to have something a bit different and there was a really good selection include prawn, tuna and salmon.  

On top of that, we had a slice of matcha flavoured sponge which had a tiramisu type texture, plus a vanilla sponge and creme brulee. And the top tier included two fruit pots with whipped cream and several different flavoured macarons. It was a good amount and we left full. 

You can get that Groupon voucher here https://www.groupon.co.uk/deals/zoo-sushi. We’ll definitely go back next time we are in Stratford and looking for a spot of lunch.  I still think Zushi in Banbury is probably better for food choice and general ambience. 

It’s also worth noting that there’s no loo at Zoo Sushi, you’d need to walk to the one across the car park!  Or just go steady on that green tea. 

Back in November, we were gifted a stay at The Plough Inn in Cold Aston, which is just between Cheltenham and Bourton-on-the-water, as the team launched their new winter menu. The Plough is a proper country pub, 17th century in fact, with Cotswold flagstones, original beams and a roaring fire. It was bought by Tom and Josie a couple of years ago, after deciding to follow their foodie passions. The team is completed with Cliffy, assistant manager and Jonathon, head chef. 

Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston
Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston

The pub is an ideal stop if you’re out in Bourton, and are looking to avoid the hordes of tourists which cram into the tearooms and pubs in the village – being just a short drive away.  We arrived at 7pm after a long week at work and were ready for something hearty as befits the season.

Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston

The Plough is a big supporter of local farmers and had recently changed to a winter menu – a mixture of classic and more unusual pub dishes. To start, Tom and I shared the English charcuterie board with remoulade, cornichons and toast (£9) and a side of sea salt coated padron peppers. 

Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston

For our mains, it was a really tough choice but between us, we had the slow-cooked beef shin with tagliatelle (£12.50) and the loin of local venison with dauphinoise potatoes, seasonal greens and a Madeira jus (£21) – read all this with the Masterchef voice-over lady in your head! It’s not often that we see venison on the menu and having tasted Tom’s, it was beautifully cooked, tasty, tender and just slid down your throat.  The kitchen at the Plough has a charcoal-fired Bertha oven which added an incredible flavour to my slow-cooked beef shin. 

Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston
Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston

And with dessert, I had the blackberry and Wood Brother’s gin posset with homemade shortbread and Tom the warm treacle tart with Devon clotted cream. Two very solid choices (£6.50 each). 

Normally one of us is driving, but as we were staying over, so we had a couple of glasses of orange wine. Now, this is not some sort of fruit punch, but a wine that has an aromatic flavour and golden colour. It’s actually a type of white wine which is made by leaving the grape skins and seeds in contact with the juice, creating that deep-orange hued finish. Ask the team for their recommendations. Tom also commented on the fact that the pub had a good selection of craft beers, he had the Beatnik Dark IPA. And to top it off a gin flip nightcap – gin, conker coffee liqueur, egg and a double espresso. 

So, fully sated, we headed to bed, we were staying in the Notgrove room. Each room is named after a local village and The Plough Inn has three letting bedrooms above the pub which are accessed from a different entrance rather than through the pub. 

Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston

The rooms have been renovated and decorated sympathetically to preserve the character of this grade II listed building. Our room was decorated in a cool blue with a super king bed and a cosy faux, sheepskin rug which was a delight to bury your feet into in the morning. The bathroom was also stocked with 100 Acres Apothecary toiletries, a brand I’m particularly fond of for its use of natural and indulgent ingredients and is made in the Cotswolds. Our room is available from £130 a night. 

Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston

The Plough has a straightforward breakfast menu – full English with whatever combination you may like, plus plenty of hot coffee and freshly brewed tea. I heard several guests comment on the crockery, which we all liked very much.  

Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston
Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston

There’s no dedicated parking for the pub, but enough space in the village to park (although I don’t know if that annoys the neighbours?) Having said that, it’s clear that the pub is both popular with visitors and locals, as the bar area was packed on Friday night with friends and family enjoying a couple of pints. It’s also a good spot for walkers, as there were plenty of muddy boots left in the hallway before ascending the stairs to the bedrooms.  So if you’re looking for a getaway to blow away the post-Crimbo blues, then this might just be the spot for you!

More information available at http://coldastonplough.com/