Malaysia: Jungle trekking

– Shhh…listen! Abdullah understood me and stood quiet. The music of the jungle was so loud in reality, all the insects, birds and animals had something to say. I couldn’t recognise any but Abdullah, my tracking guide that day in Taman Negara jungle, he could. He understood that wild language and started to whisper their names to me. I was thinking how forests in Europe are so quiet compared to the jungles of Asia.

Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur

I left Singapore shortly, no matter how amazing a city is, for me the real wonders are further, away from the glass and iron and concrete. I landed in Kuala Lumpur an noon, I took a bus and then a taxi to arrive in front of the 57 floors tall building where my accommodation for the next nights was. I was proud of myself, I managed to find my way through the city. KL was not as posh as Singapore but seemed to me more alive. The traffic jam was crazy and il started to look like that Asia I was imagining before. We ran on the large streets and suspended passages, by sky scrapers, among hundreds of bikers wearing jackets with the back side in the front, as a shield, meant to protect them.

The infinity pool in KL

– Wow! I couldn’t help exclaiming when the guy who accompanied me form the reception opened the door to my studio. It feels so good to have a bit of spoil when traveling and, c’mon, a 5 stars accommodation for a few nights never hurt any adventure spirit. The place was huge and the interior design so luxurious. But the view won on me: through the glass walls of the living and bedroom, the sight was breathtaking: ski scrapers, busy roads, a mad city revealing itself down there.

But the actual reason I have chosen this fancy place, besides the fact that in Europe I could no way afford that, was this:

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Who needs Marina Bay Sands, 350$ a night, when you can get this in KL for 50$. The Petronas Towers view was spectacular, seen from the edge of the infinity pool, was a moment to remember. I wished I could live there! My thought, while watching the city turning on its millions of lights as the sunset shades turned the twin towers into golden shapes, like two gods of the city. Amazing KL!

Street food adventure in KL

Was about time to get back to what I love the most: discovering a city by foot. After about 2h wandering the streets in central KL, I arrived in…… I took it personal when fireworks started to set the sky on fire, I felt welcomed. The therms “busy street” here were become too little said. It was an ant nest. Restaurants with opened kitchens and plastic tables and chairs in front, huge hot pans were shaken above tall flames, an effervescence of tourists mixing the uproar of locals, merchandise on stalls, fruits, meat, seafood. Make a choice if you can! I had some coconut water from a stall and found a free chair in the corner of a table. Luck gets sometimes strange shapes, mostly when we are hungry. And I was. I was now part of this crowd, for my wok.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,

The desert was a long expected one: durian. Finally! I got a better price easily at one stall and I found myself in front of two big pieces of the stinkiest of fruits, wrapped in plastic. I knew it’s better to taste it quickly before smelling. But I did’t. And the 1st thought was: At least I did’t buy a bigger piece… But then I taste. And for the first time in my life, was something I couldn’t decide if it was either love or hate. One thing is sure: the reactions I’ve seen on the web are just drama queen type. It is not so bad, even if 1st time is a bit strange. The smell is very strong, it’s why it is forbidden in hotels and airports. But it’s a must try.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, durian

Still pinching myself to make sure I really was in KL, I went back to my Platinum building, on streets flooded with so much light that a butterfly was still up, at midnight.

I was getting high on Asia. I fell asleep staring with eyes wide opened, from by bed, to the city skyline in front. A wall of lights, impossible to resist to.

Taman Negara jungle

In 2h I was up again. Was still dark when I went out of the hotel, the driver was already waiting for me, in a jeep in front. I was the only client that day, so a VIP tour.

Sun was his name, he was an Indian living for 3 generations already in Malaysia. We talked nonstop all the 4h as the ride to the jungle lasted. I was only muted in the end, when the road through the jungle was getting deep into the heart of Taman Negara, the 130 million years old jungle, home to tigers, wild elephants, birds and insects. I was speechless in front of this green wild wonder, with huge trees raising above the mist of the morning. We made a short stop and so I felt for the first time what 80-90% humidity feels like. But I was living a dream: to see the jungle.

Abdullah, my guide, was waiting for us at the tourist information point. We were introduced and minutes after I was following him as we went deeper and deeper in the woods. The further we went, the thicker the vegetation became. And humidity! Soon I was completely drenched, my clothes all wet and I felt as I was walking through water. Only there it was just air.

Abdullah was unbelievably knowledgeable, like a living encyclopaedia of Taman Negara. I saw ants of 2cm big that Abdullah said when they bite, are taking a pice of flesh and it hurts like crazy. He showed me all sorts of plants, used by the old tribes, the indigenous people, as food or poison, to built shelter or made glue and even sand paper. He told me how to figure out which fruits are good and which are not following the monkeys tracks. How to find the North and a few ways to stay safe if you get lost in the jungle. I always knew nature is providing us with everything and still, before Taman Negara, I was so far away of the true magnitude of this. Mother nature truly offers us EVERYTHING.

The sounds of the jungle were incredibly loud and my new friend recognised many of them. I have never imagined the jungle so noisy. Sometimes a bird was flying as we approached or a bush of fern was moving. Abdullah was indeed a man of the jungle and with every step we became more connected, united by this deep love we both shared: love for love.

Taman Negara jungle, Malaysia

– You see this place in the back, on the path? he said at one point

– Many years ago, while guiding a group of English people through the jungle, a tiger came out of the bushes, looked at us for a few seconds and then crossed the trail and disappeared behind the leaves.

– What did you do? came my silly question.

– Nothing. We were all frozen. Now the tigers are far, they have learned to avoid humans and stay deep in the forest. But maybe we get to see one today, he winks at me.

The forest was indeed deep. To reach its top point I hear one needs a whole week. Every end of day you have to arrive in one specific point in order to find the shelter build there and be protected over night. Abdullah shares with me a recent story of one guy who somehow got lost in the woods for 2 weeks. He was a guide there all his life. After missing for a few days, he was believed dead. Miraculously he was found after 2 weeks. In a perfect condition, which was unexplainable. Only one thing was strange about him: he was convinced we was lost in the woods for one night only. No signs of mental problems and no explanation for his story. Abdullah revealed that he was believing in which craft, practices not so unheard in Malaysia and mostly among the Orang Asli tribes. These people, called the original people, that are believed to be the oldest inhabitants of Malaysia, are perfectly adapted to the jungle which is their home, their source of living, their whole life.

Taman Negara jungle, Malaysia

The adventure in the jungle continued with a long expected experience: 600m journey through a canopy walk, at 30m high, above the trees. Instead, I hated it. I was so petrified that my whole body was shaking and I thank to all the saints in heavens when finally got my feed back on the ground, in one piece.

Taman Negara jungle, Malaysia, canopy walk

– How was it? Abdullah, who was waiting for me down, close to the river, asked.

– I thought I’ll love it but I hate it.

A wise saying says Be careful what you wish for.

We both jumped in the boat that was waiting for us at the shore. The river was like coffee and milk. We headed straight to the middle of the jungle, where the Orang Asli tribe was living. We were suppose to spent there one hour but when we left we realised we have stayed almost 4. Maybe that guide’s story was after all real: in Taman Negara time stops.

Next: meeting  the Orang Asli tribe in Taman Negara

 

Singapore – views and glam at Marina Bay Sands

All the lights of that part of the world, shaping the irregular and mind blowing skyline of the city that stands as a country. Called by some Sing city, by others Sun city, by me, that evening, simply like this: “Hello, Singapore!” I done it properly, raising one chalice of Stella at the sky-bar on top of Marina Bay Sands. The most expensive Stella I ever had for the best city by night view I ever got. Singapore was as promised: hypnotic.

Trip to South East Asia

Was about time to set my foot in Asia. For too long I have postponed this journey.

Just a  few weeks before that, I was wandering the white streets of Polignano a Mare, in beautiful Puglia of Italy, wondering how could a place so far away and so different make me happier than what I already loved: summer in Europe.

Start of a great journey

Before tasting summer in Asia, I got hit hard by an early fall in Switzerland, during a layover in Zurich. I jumped on a plane in a summer day, with 30C temperatures and landed in a rainy and cold Zurich where late August meant 14C temperatures and people in coats. This October mood, with leaves starting to turn yellow, really took me by surprise. And I was wearing a t-shirt here… 

Zurich, Switzerland

But a bit of luck was there for me though: I got right in the middle of a Swiss fest, in the old town. Swiss street food, loud music, people singing and dancing and lots of beer and… pot smoke clouds. It is legal there and this seem quite ironic since I was flying to a country where you could get 10 years in prison for that.

Zurich, Switzerland

 Zurich was anyway perfect for a long walk before a 12h flight. But was just enough. 

The challenge: 12h flight

I successfully survived it, my very first long haul flight, thanks to Swiss Airlines. They were best.

A bit tired, a bit numb and a bit lost in translation, I landed in Singapore. I’ve learned that an airport tells many about the city and so was Changi Airport: so cool and so… automated. Somehow took me an hour to finally take the MRT, the train, to the city centre.

Hello, Singapore!

I arrived in Little India, an area in Singapore, little after sunset. I easily found the hostel, took a refreshing shower and I was already out on the streets, ready to taste Singapore.

First impression: it’s a jungle of skyscrapers. Second: it is the cleanest city I ever been to.

1st mission: food! So I headed to Chinatown. The more Singapore I saw, the more perfect it looked. Clean, rich, developed, organised. It looked too perfect to be inhabited but still it is, by 5,8M people.

No homeless people, no beggars, no dirty streets or funny smells. Like a utopia that makes cities in old Europe look savage and rough.

I arrived on a street full of restaurants on both sides and what surprised me was the high number of meals offered by each. Some menus were in Chinese only.

A little further, on a few stalls with fruits, I saw the king of fruits: durian. I was waiting for this moment. I live on fruits, all kind of, and the idea that there might be one I won’t like was intriguing. I felt the smell from a few meters distance and knew it must be it. The price: 30S$. So I have postponed the experience.

Singapore, Asia, Chinatown

Pushed by hunger, I finally took a sit on a large terrace. In the kitchen, partly visible from the outside, was a noisy madness. Somehow, plates of food came out every 10 minutes. 

I played it safe and ordered dim sum with shrimp, a beef wok and some Asian beer. As I wait, I’m hoping in the end I will leave full and satisfied. Next to me a family of 4 Americans has a table full of seafood in front of them. 

My dim sum arrives in a nice small basket. It’s hot and steamy, tasty and perfectly done. The sauce is hot as hell and spicy is not my thing at all. I was warned before about how spicy Asian food is. Here comes the second course. I taste and OMG! My mouth is burning. It is so hot and spicy and delicious. I’m melting… The beef is so tender, almost creamy, like from another world. The first bite got me straight to the Heaven of foodies and forgot me there. Was so spicy that half of my body was burning, but I wouldn’t stop. 

My first food experience was perfect. I then wandered the streets downtown Singapore, feeling the size of an ant among the tallest buildings on Cecil Street, Central Blvd and thinking: Gosh, what a city!

Gardens By The Bay

I saw the icon of Singapore, Marina Bay Sands, from the distance, mirroring its three silhouettes in the bay. What a view!

Gardens By The Bay, Singapore, Asia, beautiful places, travel, solo traveling

I headed towards Gardens By The Bay first, which is near by. I saw the blue supertrees getting bigger as I was approaching. Impressive is too little said, it’s spellbinding but still… There’s a still. It looks so man made. Nature does it better than us when it comes to natural landscapes. It’s the master after all, we’re just copying.

The view with the lake and the supertrees changing their color in the night is sublime.

I spent a lot of time just gazing at this wonder. I then found a tree, a real one this timee, with pink flowers and surrounded by a scent that kept me still. The perfume was divine. It was frangipani, the flower that will later become the light motiv of my trip to Asia.

Marina Bay Sands – At last!

If you say Singapore, you say Marina bay Sands. I read so much before this trip about Marina Bay Sands and how to get to its iconic infinity crazy pool that I went nuts. The conclusion: it is impossible if you are not a guest.

I also read about all the scenarios made by people desperately trying to get there, sometimes changing into white bathrobes in elevators and pretending they forgot the key or trying to make friends with guests only to find a way to get there. But the vigilance of personnel has no weak points so I have found no stories of success brought by tricks instead of credit card.  

I also took into consideration to book one room, but hell, we’re talking about 350$ here! All I wanted was a glance to the pool and a photo but from what I read it seemed they won’t even let you enter to take a look for a sec if you’re not a guest at MBS. So here’s what I did:

First of all I got all the info I needed: I found out there is an Observation Deck. To get there you have to pay an entrance fee, about 23S$. But you don’t see the pool, since this is a level under, so not interesting for me.

 I got some hope after reading about the restaurants which were part of Sands SkyPark, at the top floor, no 57, where the pool was. Apparently to get there during the night you also had to be a guest, non guest were not allowed after a certain hour. You could only go during the evening, the early hours, if you made a reservation and payed for a voucher of about 20$. That seemed ok but in the end I didn’t make any reservation in advance.

I decided to just try to get there as I arrive in Singapore, no tricks and no lies.

Marina Bay Sands is a top luxury hotel, worldwide famous. Rule no1 is a common sense one: to dress accordingly. So I did. Of course I was wearing flip flops during my walk in the city but changed those with a pair of nude flat sandals while in Gardens By The Bay. I made sure before I left my hostel in Little India to put on a light summer dress and to change my regular traveling bag with a nice classic one.

I approach the huge entrance of Tower 3 at Marina Bay Sands. A number of luxury cars were parked around, limousines were arriving one after another as if it was the Oscar’s night in Asia. Was the definition of posh, for sure. 

Inside also it looked spotless, very glam. I thank myself I did put some lipstick on before.

I pass by the large doors of glass and enter the immense lobby with concierge offices on both sides. I head to someone there and tell him I would like to have a drink at one of the top floor restaurants and ask if it is possible at that hour. It was passed 11PM. He answers politely: “Yes, please. Welcome!” and directs me straight in the front. This side is as big as a boulevard, with luxury stores on the left and a fancy lounge bar on the right. I find the entrance of Lavu restaurant, which I have read about before. I ask the guy there again for directions for CÉ LA VI Club Lounge. He points it a little more further. A few more steps and I’m in front of a young woman and a men, both tall, good looking, black tie. I’m so glad I wear that Chanel lipstick… After all stories I read online, I was expecting a long look and a “Sorry, but…” type of answer.

I repeat the question about the drink. They are both very welcoming and I get another “Yes, please, welcome!” answer. The woman approached me to mark my wrist with a stamp. I’ve read about this too so I wasn’t surprise. I ask if I have to pay anything, as previously red on a few blogs, and she said was no need to. She accompanies me in front of the elevators.

– It’s floor number 57, she repeats smiling before the doors close.

I am quite surprised. So no reservation, no hour limit, no access fee, no questions about the room key to get to floor number 57, the forbidden one for all outsiders. The spot in Singapore where everyone wants to get to.  

The elevator doors open few seconds later and as I looked a bit disoriented in that dark lavish lobby, a girl approaches right away, smiling. She welcomes me and directs me to the lounge.

There were few people left there. I take a look and I realise it’s not the right side, with that spectacular view from the pool, the one I saw in all the photos. I can’t even see the pool from here and I have no idea where it is. I want to order a beer but they don’t serve anymore at that hour. Damn! No view, no pool and no drink. I want to leave, that’s it! I tried… didn’t work.

As I head back to the elevator, I see the top deck has multiple security points, with stuff personnel present there to ensure exclusivity for its hotel guests. Would be quite silly to try to fool them. And embarrassing, in my opinion.

Before I reach the elevator to leave, I see a door opened on another side. I want to take a look there. It’s another entrance to the terrace. The second I am outside and feel the fresh breeze from level 57th floor, I see it! The most famous pool in the world! A girl smiles as she sees my reaction and approaches. She is one of the three personnel ensuring no non guest will pass through there. I finally turn my heat from the pool and tell her that I am not a guest but I would love to see the pool, I won’t spent there more time and I promise not to jump in the water. We both laughed and surprisingly she says that she would have allowed me to enter the pool area for a look with no problem but, unfortunately, the pool was closed just minutes before. She gives me a confiant look and apologizes again for the inconvenient. As I turn around to leave she stops me and says I can still see the pool from the night lounge, adding I can get a greater view from there. She points the right direction and yes, she was so right!

I enter the lounge club, pass through the interior and arrive again outside, on the terrace. This time I was on the right side. Next to the pool, in front of the best part of Sing city’s skyline. The pool is mind-blowing, covering the entire rooftop. It is much bigger in reality than in photos. Facing the city’s skyline and its millions of lights it looks so blue and so posh, with white sunbeds by the water and high palm trees. Just by being there you were feeling spoilt.

Marina Bay Sands, infinity pool, Singapore, Asia

I find the perfect table right at the edge, where the view is spectacular. I rest my head against my arm and loose any time notions. I made it to Marina bay Sands… And nothing else matters when in front of our eyes is like this: 

Marina Bay Sands, infinity pool, Singapore, Asia

I ordered one chalice of Stella and just stare at this marvelous skyline of Singapore, feeling as if I was on top of the world. Oh, wait, I actually was.

I wished I’ll come back.

Next: Malaysia: Trekking through a 130M years jungle

 

 

 

   

 

10 Instagrammable spot in Chefchaouen

Top 10 most Instagrammable sport in Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen, The Blue Pearl of Morocco, was made famous by Instagram. That’s a fact. No other article in any well known magazine or tv show on any mainstream media could even get close to that exposure.

I confess, it’s how I heard about it and also how I got crazy about it. Like for many other beautiful places, a photo on Instagram was the starting point.

It is also said it’s one of the places ruined by Instagram. It’s an opinion I don’t share at all. I was able to walk the blue streets with barely one-two locals around, many times all alone and that in the middle of the day. It was a weekend in March, with perfect weather. The place was not at all packed with tourists, as I expected after reading some info on the internet about how spoilt it is. Except a Chinese store that seem to me out of place there, no offence to anyone 🙂 the Moroccan village in the mountains kept its untouched charm.

Probably the biggest advantage is that tourism is bringing a way of living in a place where aren’t so many other options. And if that place is not at all crowded and still looks pretty much untouched, that’s just perfect to me.

After two days of wandering the streets of Chaouen, here are my favourite spots:

No 10 – For many it’s no 1. For me is the 10th because everyone has photos there and has become too photographed now. You don’t want a copy cut, right? So the famous stairs with flower pots are not my fave but definitely not to miss. Don’t worry, you can’t possibly do that since they are on the main street heading to Ras Elma.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places 

No 9 – It’s also a street with colorful flower pots but not so famous as the iconic one before. You can also have a different angle here and a bit of originality compared to place no 10.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

No 8 – I call it the tunnel, is all blue and it looks like a game of light and blue. Also found on the main street. Impossible to miss. Wait there until someone passes by for a nice shot with a live presence.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

No 7 – This one is for sure the most beautiful entrance in a house I have ever seen. It’s a little hidden, but if you wander long enough, you can’t miss it. Or have some fun and play a game: walk till you find it.  

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

No 6 – The very center of Medina is such a laid back heaven! Locals gather here to talk and I just admire the place and the view to the mountains. The fountain in the middle is a masterpiece. I could stay there for hours, just watching the kids playing.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

No 5 – The mosque of medina, a white bright spot in a blue sea. Even more beautiful under the deep blue sky. A true Moroccan style wonder place. And those blue steps look fabulous. Any local can guide you there.

No 4 – The top view over Chefchaouen at sunset. As the sun says goodbye to another day, another color has its triumphal entry: orange. And trust me, you wanna see how that orange melts on the blue city, among cactus leaves.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

No 3 – The Instagram heaven spot. It will cost you 5 dirhams to enter, it is privately owned and a business opportunity. It’s madly blue and has all the props you need to play as an Instagram whatever you wanna be there. How to find it? By luck 😉

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

No 2 – That’s a little difficult to get to since it is located at the top floor of a private house, one of the oldest in Chaouen. The most beautiful balcony I have ever seen. Just couldn’t help having it on second place here.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

No 1 – the bluest steps in the world. This is not verified but I bet it is so. This is like a mirage. It is famous but it’s still my favourite place in Chefchaouen. It’s very easy to find. As you pass Dar Chefchaouen, not far from the gate entering the medina from the city centre, turn right in a few meters after and continue straight a little. There you are, look left and be amazed.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

P.S. If you pass Dar Chefchaouen, take a look inside to its beautiful building with balconies and interior yard with the beautiful small round fountain right in the middle. And please say hello to Ahmed!

 

Morocco: blue memories of a perfect day

Good morning Chefchaouen!

If I only knew, that day, when I woke up with the sun, what an amazing day will be…

Who couldn’t have guessed, it started just like any other ordinary day… wouldn’t! I open my eyes to a white and blue room, with hand painted blue furniture and wide blue wooden doors, long blue curtains and a small wrought iron window, nicely carved into the white rough wall. I jumped out of bed losing no second of a morning walk on the streets of Chefchaouen, as its blue shades were becoming brighter and its people were waking up to a beautiful sunny Sunday.

Without any trace of tourists in those morning hours, it felt empty and cosy. Had that rare laid back mood that only small towns have the bliss of having.  

I had those streets all for me and I took lots of photos on my way, all the way up to Ras Elma. I was there again but for a different reason than the day before, when I ran to see the best view of the city called the Blue Pearl. This time all I needed was a fresh orange juice, from those oranges kept in buckets filled with cold water. I was the first customer and the owner barely noticed me as he was busy washing oranges by the small wooden table he called his living. A few local Berber women wearing those straw hats with colorful pom poms were arranging the merchandise, the carpets, on a stone wall. They were soon after open for business.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

I found my breakfast too, three delicious hot round donuts bought from a local place where a woman was preparing the dough while her husband was frying each piece in a meter wide hot pan, filled with oil. I loved how she puts all three donuts on a blade of dry grass, making a knot before she handed it to me. That’s what I call bio and plastic free. I trusted the locals waiting in line in front and I’m glad I did and so had a perfect traditional local breakfast. I must have been a sight eating with my mouth full and oily hands, sitting against a blue wall, enjoying my breakfast and watching the people passing, since a Chinese woman wanted to take a photo with me. It took me a few minutes to understand what she actually wanted. Well, people…

I don’t know wether was the orange juice, the donuts, the sunny day or the blue streets, but I got a purple idea: I wanted to have photos of myself in Chefchaouen. Was too beautiful not to, though usually I prefer the photos without people, myself including. There was only one slight detail to fix: the photographer. I was there on a solo trip.

With a well prepared Spanish phrase, I went straight to Ahmed, my host.

– Yes, of course, I know the right person. My nephew is a professional photographer and YouTuber…

He smiled and then gave me a complicit look:

– But do you wanna pay?

I got over the initial surprise, since I was rather expecting a “Nop, sorry” answer and assure him I was willing to pay smth… While saying this I was just hoping that Spanish sentence won’t put me now in the situation of having to pay for the services of a professional photographer.  I had no budget for that.

Ahmed passed me the phone, it was his cousin, the father of the photographer, who happily spoke French. All was arranged, we were waiting for the photographer to finish his school.

I felt relief, if he was that young, the cost must be decent.

One hour later I was following Ahmed on the streets on Chaouen. I didn’t understand where we were going. I thought all was canceled and he was going to help me take some shots.

We passed through a beautiful piazza with restaurants and terraces and we stopped in front of a house next to.

– My cousin lives here. Come, come.

I now understood where we were. Ahmed introduced me to his family, his cousin and his wife. A little girl was playing on a tablet, ignoring as, as all kids do.

Ahmed left soon but not before he assured me from the open door I was in perfect safety. I didn’t felt other way.

I started to talk to Saniya about her family, her three kids including Ilias, the one we were waiting for to help me with the photos, her studies at the university and how she learned English so well.

Ilias wasn’t coming…

She took me outside to see the terrace. What a view! The mountains and part of the city with its blue houses and the bluest sky above us. Her house was one of the oldest in Chaouen, she said. She took an orange out of the tree there and offered to me. I was so happy to finally have an orange straight out of the tree. It was so terribly vinegar-ish and seeing my face, Saniya brought me some honey on a plate. It was delicious, a little bitter and very dark, made from some flowers in the mountain area.

Ilias still not coming…

Saniya kept excusing herself for his late and tries to keep me entertained. She also calls people that might know where her son went after school instead of coming home, as usual. No answer…. Of course the conversation was great, she was lovely but it was almost the afternoon, my last day in Chaouen, outside was a perfect sunny day and I was indoor, waiting….

Saniya excuses herself for a few minutes and when she comes back she has her arms full of colorful clothes. I looked at her with surprise, not knowing what was her intention or if that had anything to do with me…

And then I saw there were Moroccan kaftans, the most beautiful I have seen, with handmade embroidery, made of silk or velvet.

I entered her game on the spot. I was dying to try those….

We went in a back room, behind two large curtains: all was red inside, big pillows against the walls, all covered in old wool carpets.

– See these? They are very old, more than 100 years old.

I try all the kaftans, one by one, each one is a piece of art and they fit perfectly. Some of those she wore at special occasions, like weddings in her family.

She even brings me some shoes which are the perfect match. Her daughter looks at us with big eyes as we came back in the first room, laughing. She totally forgets about her tablet and comes to look closer as Saniya is trying to arrange a pink light veil on my head.

– I never done it for someone else except myself, you know…

We were laughing and probably making a lot of noise. Her husband comes from outside and looks at us with the biggest surprise, seeing me wearing a long cream kaftan with golden embroidery from neck to waist and long wide leaves ending also in golden embroidery.  

– You look like a Moroccan girl now, he sais.  

Saniya takes me to see the rest of the house. It is huge, with three levels. Her husband had two moms as his father was married with two women.

– You need a big house for two wives, Saniya jokes about.

We reached the top level and as I entered the room I am stoned: an arch with two columns mark the entrance to the most beautiful room with red pillows and carpets and a broidery ceiling carved in the wall. It can’t be described in words:

I am blown away by this place and I tell her she lives in a palace not a house.

Soon after we hear Ilias arriving home.

He is so surprised to see someone looking so Moroccan.

We took plenty of photos wearing the kaftans and I felt like Sheherezade in a palace.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

After I changed back my clothes and I promise Saniya I will be back to kiss her before leaving, when we finish taking the photos on the blue streets. And so we leave, Ilias and I, ready to have some photo fun time.

I found out that he is quite a YouTuber and Instagrammer too, with a serious number of followers and a lot of knowledge about editing videos and photos and all that’s related to social media. He wants to become a journalist and the more time I spent with him I was more and more convinced he will be a brilliant one. He is smart, well educated and with a beautiful character. And he took the best photos I could have ever dreamed I can have in Chefchaouen and helped me discover the most Instagrammable spots in that wonder blue city.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

After two hours I had a new friend. We walked all the blue streets, through the bazar and among colourful shops, I bought, of course, my Chefchaouen bracelet (I buy bracelets not magnets) and a bottle of precious argan oil, the beauty miracle of Morocco. We stopped taking photos as I felt I had enough of that for three lives from now. We had a late lunch at one of the restaurants in the piazza, close to his house and we talked about religion, politics, extremists, islam and his future plans. He loves Morocco and plans never to leave it.

– Where else can I get food like this except here?

I couldn’t agree more, there’s nothing like the food from places we call home.

As evening was closer, I said goodbye to Ilias and his parents, insisting that he accepts some money from me as a big thanks for that day. I promised to come back one day to Chefchaouen to visit them. And I thank Saniya for that fantastic day.

I had a henna tattoo in the street and left happy for one last walk through Chaouen, still not sure I was really there or I was dreaming. Still not convinced those streets were really that blue. Too blue to be true!

A night delayed bus took me back that night to Tanger, the initial starting point of my Moroccan trip and the next day, an afternoon flight, back to Madrid. Tanger was nice, old, with friendly people and had its charm of city on the shores of The Med. But after that blue mirage… nothing could impress me much.

Tanger, Morocco, beautiful places

Before going back home I had one last stop, long time planned and almost missed because of Ryanair flight delay: Museo del Jamon, in central Madrid, in Sol.

I confess, I behaved as a true foodie and bought a plate of three types of jamon that big that I was ashamed with. But I regret nothing.

So this was Morocco and my beginning of March, this year. Actually a slice of Morocco but the yummiest for me. There’s more to see there and I have to go back.  

Next trip: Asia, 2nd time there. Fingers crossed 🙂

 

Morocco: The Blue Pearl of Chefchaouen

I got there right in time, after a race on the blue streets, among colorful shops, locals inviting me in their stores, tourists wandering too slow or photographers trying to get the best shot. I was only hoping that was the right direction to the best panoramic view of what is called the Blue Pearl of Morocco, Chefchaouen. I got to the river, crossed the bridge and followed the stairs up. The scent of oranges from the stalls around, selling fresh juice, gave me a boost of energy. Behind a bush of cactuses I saw the sun saying goodbye to that day as its orange light was pouring down on the blue houses of Chaouen, as locals call their home. Ras Elma offered wat was promised: a perfect panoramic view for a gorgeous sunset.  

The way to Chefchaouen

I had a blue obsession for a couple of years already: The blue city of Morocco, Chefchaouen. A name I even had difficulties to spell at first.   Like many other beautiful places I was, at one point, dreaming about, as Petra or The Great Pyramids, this too seem so complicated to get to. But when there’s a will there’s always a way and so that day came and my plan was done: flying to Madrid, the next day to Tanger, Morocco, both low cost flights and get a cab from there to Chefchaouen. Voila!

Madrid

I love Spain and Madrid makes no exception. Being in its capital for the second time was a joy. And another happy occasion to taste the best ham in the world: Bellota jamon.

I already knew how to get to Sol, the city centre. It was almost midnight when I arrived in Plaza de Cibeles, but the city was so alive. It’s one of the reasons I love it so, for its constant fiesta vibe. I followed the boulevard and then the little cobbled streets where people were partying in small pubs, with tapas and cerveza con limon (beer and lemon juice), towards my hotel in Sol area. As I passed a corned and found the place, I stopped in a Awww moment. The best surprise for that time of the year! After months of cold winter, on March the 7th, Madrid welcomed me with a street full of cherry trees in bloom. Plaza del Angel was truly a corner of heaven. So spring was coming…

Madrid, Spain

The plan was to wake up very early the next morning, to see a little of Madrid before leaving to Morocco. I precisely wanted to get to the very 2 gems I so mistakenly missed during my previous visit. I don’t usually follow the plans when they evolve me being an early bird, still at 9am, my small yellow backpack and I left the hotel and head to that very one spot famous for the best top view of the city: Circulo de Bellas Artes. And so it did, the view was fabulous as the city was waking up in a morning rush, below by eyes, below the clear blue sky of March.

Madrid, Spain, beautiful places

My next wish was Palacio de Cristal, in the middle of Retiro park. I was so close to give up since I didn’t have so much time left. I give it a try, hurried my steps and follow the alleys until I got to this wonderful building, a palace made entirely of glass, mirroring its shapes in the lake in front, where ducks and swans and turtles were enjoying the spring sun. And so I declare this my most favourite place in Madrid.  

Madrid, Spain, beautiful places

Hello, Morocco

Lesson learned: never leave without a pen, mostly to countries when you need to complete a visa form. It’s about time I keep this in mind.

Happy Women’s Day, a boy said to me, handing a pink rose. A lady invited me to have some sweets. And so I was beautifully welcomed to Morocco.

Since it took me longer to complete that visa form, because of the missing pen and I was among the last to leave the airport of Tanger, I missed my change to find a big yellow taxi, a shared one. So I start the negotiations in my not so perfect French with the only one left, a 70 years old taxi driver, stubborn as a mule. After 15 minutes I got nowhere so I accepted its price: 60 euro to Chaouen.

I jumped, pretty disappointed, in its old cream Mercedes and so we left to Chaouen, as he called it.

Welcome to Morocco, he said, just like the taxi driver in Egypt, after he scammed me of an extra 5 euro.

I was expecting to see a lot of vast dry lands, instead Morocco, this part of it, was incredibly green, with billions of colorful tiny flowers covering the ground. The air blowing from the open window, messing up my hair, brought scents of grass and early spring. We stopped at one point as the taxi driver wanted me to get a look at what was a beautiful valley between three green hills and a dark lake among them. If seen in a photo, without knowing where it was, I could have place this spot anywhere, but never in Morocco.

We talked about his family, his life in Tanger, his favourite places in Morocco, how Casablanca was not so nice but Marrakesh was great, about Sahara and the Morrocan food.  

After 2h of speed driving among green lands, passing through the beautiful white Tetouan and a few other small villages where locals, mostly women, were selling products in small markets and men were hurry to get to the afternoon prayers to the mosques, I started to see the first signs of blue. My excitement was on the rise… Soon after we were in Chefchaouen city centre, a part which looked modern, with new buildings, with cars and people wandering around and most of all, not so blue as expected.

Since my taxi driver didn’t trusted my Google Maps, we wandered around in vain, sent to different hotels by locals that didn’t actually understood where I needed to get to. I soon understood what was happening, meaning I was losing time, and insisted that we follow only my directions. In a few minutes we were close to my hotel, right in front of the entrance gate to the medina, the old town, as they call it.

He pretended he didn’t had any change and I won’t find a place to change money there, thought I insisted we find a money change office since we left Tanger and he kept promising we’ll do that in Chefchaouen. I got really mad for this new scam that cost me an extra 10 euro but all I wanted was to leave this taxi driver for good and go see the blue city I was dreaming about.

Another lesson learned: always change money

My yellow backpack and I were now in the middle of a busy street with not so clear idea where to head to. I was in a very bad mood after that scam. I had to find my hotel in a labyrinth of small streets, according to the map and I already knew Google Maps is not helping in places like this. I tried my chances entering what seem to be a gate, like an arch opening in a stone wall, following many locals and 2-3 tourists. This was like stepping into another world, the blue world of Chefchaouen. In a second, all was blue, all shades of blue. Literally all, wherever I was looking. The old medina blued my mind on the spot, surpassing instantly all what I have previously ever seen in all the photos of this corner of the world. The bad mood was now forgotten as I was getting more and more charmed with every step.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

– Where are you from? An old beggar dressed in old grey rags asked me as I arrived in front of him, catching my breath and all smiling. He was sitting at the end of a street made of big cobbled steps, a crossroads of three blue streets, with his back against an old wall, also blue, of course. As the sun rays reached his face half covered in a white beard, lighting the marks left by all the years he had lived, he looked like someone in a Pulitzer awarded photo. He smiled when I told him I have just arrived.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

I stopped in admiration for a gorgeous tall blue door, sculpted in a wall and happily, right next to it, I saw the name of the hotel I was looking for. The small square interior yard, with a few round tables and chairs and a little round fountain in the middle, offered, from inside, the perfect view to this old building. It was three levels high, the 4th was the blue sky. Each floor had a surrounding terrace with white columns and a blue door on every side, painted by hand with colorful drawings, a technique that I later found out was specific to this place.

I met my host, Ahmed, who spoke almost 0 English and French. With the 3 words I know in Spanish and many sight we understand each other perfectly.  

I wandered the blue streets and it was so incredibly beautiful, I thought I was dreaming. Every corner was a blue little story, with small windows carved in the walls or the beautiful blue doors in all the forms and sometimes even the steps were painted in blue. The only color non matching that blue everywhere were the cats and the kids playing around. I took photo after photo and I couldn’t get enough of this blue everywhere.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

I really needed to change some local money to buy some delicious looking desserts I saw, so I left the old town and went to the city centre, where the taxi driver dropped me earlier that day. After 10 minutes of wandering and asking people, I found the exchange. It was just a few meters from where my taxi driver said there’s no exchange in the area. God damn scam.

Now that I had some dirhams in my pocket I realised I really needed to eat and drink something. The tiny slice of pizza from Madrid was long gone and I was very dehydrated too. I follow a small crowded street with a few fast foods and local restaurants. I saw one serving fish. It didn’t look promising but I trusted the TripAdvisor stitcher on its door. I felt a little adventurous to eat fish there but I was starving. I ordered using mostly signs since the owner spoke Arabic only. And I waited for what seemed to me an eternity. I was the only person in the restaurant, so another good sign. Not. I was melting of hunger with little energy left but I almost exclaimed when the owner came back with two big plates, one with rice and fries and another, much bigger, with a large fish, a lot of fried calamaries and 5 little fish. A mountain of food was in front of me! The calamaries was just as delicious and soft as those I had in Vernazza, in Cinque Terre, the best I had in my life and the fish had that sweetness that only fresh and wild fish has, something so rare these days. All seasoned with fresh lime zest. Unbelievable good and I finished all.

I was afraid now that maybe I didn’t understood the price when I ordered. But nop, all that and a big bottle of water was less than 5 euro. I loved Morocco on the spot!

As round as I was, after that huge meal, I wanted to catch the sunset. And I did. I reached the panoramic view point at Ras Elma and caught the sky on fire above the blue city of Chefchaouen. I so wanted to come here and now I couldn’t believe it.

I bought lots of deserts on my way back, home made cakes. At dark the medina was not so spectacular, that blue needed light. I ended up a perfect day with a 10h sleep. I needed it badly.

Next: making friends in Chaouen

 

Finland: looking for Santa in Rovaniemi

I love Mondays. Those well spent. Like this one, in the end of January. Driving through the heart of cold white Lapland, in the happiest country in the world, Finland. The bus was moving like a red spot on a black line, the road splitting in half the white land, the pine forest. Oh, the orange rays of the light from that long lasting Arctic sunset, I already knew I’ll dream about it back home. I looked outside the window and saw a bright intense sung dog, a vertical rainbow line uniting the sky and the forest somewhere in the far.

It was a brilliant decision not to hurry to catch the early bus to Rovaniemi. Levi was far more beautiful, with its trees more sugar-ish, the cold more crisp and the winter there more wonderland-ish than any other place on Earth. Of that I’m sure. A few more hours spent in Levi were a bless, the small town was looking even more wonderful than it did the 1st day I arrived. Another night of -30C and peaceful snowing with tiny ice crystals made me wonder, that morning, when I opened the door and felt as if a frozen wall of polar air hit me: how much beauty this place can get?

No traces left of any other colors except all white.  

Compared to that, Rovaniemi was a contrast. Instead of the winter wonderland in Levi, I found myself here in rather dull urban place, modern, organized, clean, simple, in one word: scandinavian. No trace of winter sky resort atmosphere, of those epic frozen wooden cabins and snow monster trees. I also missed that dry cold in Levi as Rovaniemi was warmer and I wasn’t turning white anymore, because of the ice particles covering my clothes. Still, it needed less than 15 minutes for the water to start freezing inside the bottle, before I reached the hotel.

In spite of this start, I knew I had wonders waiting for me here too.

My last night in Lapland and my last chance to see the northern lights in this trip. And like any other person that had seen the aurora once, the wish of seeing it one time was replaced by the dream of seeing it again. But… chances were low due to the forecast. I must have checked the weather forecast for hundreds of times in those last days. I was obsessed. Three hours before the tour I had my eyes on was about to start, I knew I’ll rather regret I went and didn’t see anything then to regret I didn’t try. So 100 euros were to be lost or a great experience won. In the 3h I have left until 7 PM I went to Arktikum, the only museum dedicated to life in the Arctic. I don’t need museums when I have the cities streets or markets and their vibe, but this one is a good collection of interesting facts about a fascinating area, the far north. Not to be missed.    

Hunting the northern lights. Second episode

– Where are you from?

One of the guys from the tour agency asked me as I arrived at 7PM in their office, on the main street in Rovaniemi.

– Ok, give them all warm suits, rubber boots. And add 2 pairs of wool socks for each.

I already had 7 layers on, including a down jacket under the main one, thermals, fleece, wool socks, two layers sky pants and two layers gloves. I knew will be a long and extremely cold night with -30C so I received all indications with a smile.

I was having a deja vu, a lot of what was happening seemed a replica of last year’s night in Tromso, when I witnessed the superb 360 display of the northern lights. I met the rest of the group, 2 Brazilians and 2 Japanese. We all put on all the clothing we received and left the city in a minivan. It was taking us to a dark and remote area outside, away from the city light pollution, a perfect spot to see the northern lights, as we were told with much confidence by our guide, a funny Englishman.

The sky was perfectly clear and the night so dark. Was I that lucky? It seemed the beginning of a perfect night. We drove for about 45 min on a narrow icy road, sneaking through the pine forest. We were told we might see some wildlife, reindeers or a fox or even a moose. Our guide assured us he will pay attention and let us know. In the very cold nights, the animals like the reindeers walk all night long, to keep them warm.

At one moment, right in front of our car’s lights, a huge moose on the right of the road. The next second he made a confident jump a disappeared in the woods.

– The moose, look, look, there’s one. I said excited.

– Where, where… the others reply looking in all directions as the animal was already gone.

The guide didn’t even heard us. He was for sure such a sharp observer…

I further trust my own eyes but we got no other wildlife around.

The others must have believed I was hallucinating.

Our guide stopped to check the sky. Nothing, we continued. At the second stop he called us out of the van. Two beautiful straight green lines were defining the horizon in the far, changing their shapes very slowly.

– So folks, these are the northern lights, the guide said. With these you never know, you take what’s offered, this might be all for tonight but we surely hope for a full show. So let’s go further.

I had my camera set by our guide, since I still got no idea how to use it properly and pressed the button. Nothing happened. I waited… still nothing. Damn, it’s too dark, I thought and prepared to close it. And then on the monitor I saw I actually did a photo. My very first photo of the northern lights which considering my skills and the most unpropper conditions, is perfect.

We arrived at the cabin, like a small b&b where other folks were waiting. The hill with our promised perfect spot was near. I entered the cabin checking the sky one more time to make sure all was good and clear. It was black and full of stars.

We didn’t spent more than 15 minutes inside. All I needed to use the toilet having a mountain of clothes on me. An when we went out, the shock: the entire sky was cloudy. I never, but never… saw such a rapid change. Still a single star was visible among the clouds.

– Who ordered clouds for tonight, our guide joked? Please take them back.

We had a short hike to the top of the hill. It was the most perfect spot, a wide area surrounded by tall pines, with a lavvu tent built and a wooden bench near, covered with snow. All white around.

Igor, the very tall and very full of energy guy that joined us from the cabin prepared the fire inside the tent. He was from Slovenia and moved here, in the heart of Lapland because he loved the cold and hated the heat.

Steven, our English guide told us a few info about the northern lights and how they are formed. It was so daks and terribly cold. A frozen flake fell on my nose. The worst of the bad signs that a northern lights hunt night might show. We entered the tent to enjoy the plenty of food we had: sausage on a stick, mini pancakes with cheese, all cooked in front of the bonfire. We were all still hoping and waiting for a miracle.

After a while, many of us kept going out in turns to check for the sky. I watch them all coming back and I saw the optimism was leaving us all in the face of reality. The weather was way too bad to change. I knew it’s like that with natural phenomena, you can never curse the weather. Many think that once they will set foot in the North, the northern lights will immediately light the sky as it gets dark. Well, not quite so.

Or not that night. I wasn’t actually sad. I wanted and hoped to see it again but I knew I will continue the hunt no matter what that night had to offer. But for my new friends, I deeply regret it. Coming from far away places, Brazin, Japan, wishing so deeply to see it and leave without. The following nights the forecast was even worse.

We spent the time inside the tent, laughing at all the stories told by our amazing guide about the northern lights and the people coming from everywhere to fulfill a lifetime dream, to see the wonder. From those with medical conditions that do not allow them to see the aurora lights and, ironically, they find this out as the lights happen in front of them and they see the others reactions while they can’t see anything, to those who don’t care at all about it and come only to please a dear one, ending up being the most vocal and excited member of the group as an unbelievable display of red and purple and yellow and green lights dance frantically upon them.

We guessed our future in the old Finnish way, using melted metal on fire which is after dropped in a bucket with cold water. The shapes it gets tell the life and fortune you will have in the future. Well, I can’t reveal mine…

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

After all it was a good night. No aurora on the sky but the lights were in all of us, we made friends, laugh and had a great time. Thanks to our guide’s magic: turning a not so lucky night into a fun one, he was great. We all left with one thought in mind: the hunt continues!  

Santa’s Village

Rovaniemi worldwide fame is based on one thing: it means home for the most beloved old grandpa in the world: Santa Claus. Since I had always a very special feeling about Christmas, special meaning I am totally crazy about all the sparkling and the shining related to it, it was really a duty to come here and meet this guy.

The next morning I took the bus from the city to Santa’s Village, outside Rovaniemi. And here, though it was one month after Christmas, I immediately smell it in the air: the joy, the fun, the happiness, the childhood feel, shortly: the Christmas spirit.

At the entrance I booked a reindeer sled tour. I couldn’t help it. It was a perfect sunny day with the bluest sky that can be and gorgeous white trees all around. A huge snowman was smiling in front of the building with three red towers, where Santa’s Official Office was. Christmas carols were heard all around.

I saw a corral and over its wooden fence a few reindeers by the sleds covered with reindeer skins. I jumped in one of the sleds and so the 15 minutes, the short option journey, started.

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

It was beautiful in that winter scenery but something bothered me. I am well aware of the fact that reindeers are not born to pull the sled I sit in so I wished this to be the second and last experience of this kind.

You don’t have to be necessarily a kid to enjoy this place. It’s easier, once you’re there, you’re a kid again.

I wandered around after in a forest with glass igloos, all covered in ice. At one point a few sleds pulled by reindeers passed by and then disappeared further in the woods.

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

I couldn’t wait more, I had to find him. I had to meet Santa. I figured out he was somewhere in the large building at the entrance since it was written Santa’s Official Office. A few souvenirs stores were inside. I saw some stairs made of wood and went up but I ended in another store. Where was Santa?

I follow some arrows I see on the walls and I arrive in one round room with wooden walls and small chairs with high backrests. It looked like a fairytale house. In the wall there are a few small doors made of wooden planks, on one of them was written Baby Reindeer Daycare. I see another sign Elves Only. I pass then through a dark corridor. A round shaped wooden door rises in front of me and I try to push it. It opens without my help and the happy face of a girl dressed in red and green, with big sharp ears and a tall green hat jumps in front of me. She’s an elf! In the room where she came from there are more elves.

– Come, come, she sais, Santa is waiting for you.

Fortunately it’s just me now there and all I can say when I see the old man with the longest curly beard, red suit with with huge slippers, sitting on a big wooden chair in the middle of the room was:

– Hi, Santa… With a silly smile, I felt intimidated and probably I would have started to tell him a children’s poem if he would have asked me to. Who says we ever grow up… No, we don’t! All we need is something like this to get us back right in the boots of our childhood.

And so I had a more then 10 minutes conversation with Santa in his very house in Rovaniemi and trust me, he looked real. I told him about my trip to Levi and how amazing I find Finland, about the phenomenal sun dogs and the crisp cold, about winters at home and how we love Christmas when children still sing Christmas carols in Christmas Eve, while my mum bakes the best cookies and the house smells like vanilla and cinnamon. We took photos and laughed and in the end he said thank you in my language which melted my heart for good.

It costed me 50 euro to have the photo and video with Santa but this was not the time to save budget.

The sun was almost leaving the sky of Rovaniemi. I took a walk to the Elves Farm Yard, to the huskies court and the snow sculptures village. Walking around I found another resort of glass igloos. I wish one day I can afford the 500 euro per night price to sleep in one of these and dream eyes wide opened while the aurora dances the skies above me.

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

As it was getting dark and very cold and I had an evening plane to catch, I left all that magic behind, leaving Santa’s Village and leaving so this incredible Lapland, that have now become one of my favourite beautiful places.  

I arrived in Helsinki with a 3 hours delay due to a snowstorm there. My baggage was broken and I was struggling to pull it on the streets completely covered in snow. I was all sweaty and somehow keep on getting lost until I finally found my hotel. It was 4am and I was tired and angry.

I said goodbye to amazing Finland in the best finnish way possible. My last day there I spent it in Helsinki, where I met my amazing Finn friend, Christianne, whom I once got to know in London, years ago. We took the ferry and went to Suomelina, sailing among the huge ice blocks covering the entire surface of the Baltic Sea. We wandered there and had the best Finn cuisine lunch: simple and delicious cod fish.

We went back in the city and she got me into the most authentic Finnish experience: sauna + swimming in a sort of warm outdoor pool, with snow around it + the ice dip. Not once but twice. There were pieces of ice in that water and the hand support I used to get in was covered in thick ice. As a guy perfectly said before he got in: it’s a mental thing. You feel you’ll dye as it is so cold it hurts like hell but actually those very seconds make you more alive than ever. After that I felt no cold and walked barefoot in knee deep snow, wearing my swimsuit only and feeling as if it was summer. Instead was windy from the sea, also snowing, and my towel was soon frozen. Two Japanese covered in long black down jackets were filming us.  

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

So this was Finland. This place somehow got me loving the cold, because when it’s too beautiful, it’s not cold at all. An unforgettable winter wonderland I will now dream to come back to.

P.S. I now know the secret of the happiest country in the world.

Next: The blue pearl of Marocco

Finland: Leaving Levi in love

I followed the arrows. Small chairs with high backrest were arranged against the wall in a round room with wooden walls, a wooden writing desk with a reading lamp on, a few opened letters and many boxes of presents on my right, on a small door made of wooden boards also was written Baby reindeer daycare. I continued through a dark tunnel, crossed a small bridge built over what seemed to be a small frozen lake. I think I saw a big sled. Bells were ringing slowly and joyfully reminding of Christmas, its spirit was here, in spite of what the calendar was showing: end of January. Magic was in the air… A round door opened right in front of me, to a room full of colors. I couldn’t see more. A petite person show herself behind the opening door. She had green clothes and a tall green and red hat. I saw her ears, big and sharp. She was an elf! With a large happy smile and a big welcoming gesture of her hand she whispered quickly:

– Come, come in, Santa is waiting for you!  

Leaving Levi

The fantastic sunset on top of Levi hill, next to Santa’s Secret Cabin may have been breathtaking, spellbinding and overwhelmingly astonishing, but it was starting to be so crisp cold outside. A little bit of breeze made it even dreamy. Excitement can’t keep warm endlessly, I was shivering and felt I will freeze down there if I don’t start immediately my way back to the top. The way back was a joke, so easy compared to the the drama and circus to get down there before. I took many last looks as I left, I couldn’t help it.

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places

I took the gondola on my way down to the city. While descending I half unzipped my coat and noticed the border was frozen on the inside. Yeah, that’s what I call cold, I was freezing on the inside now. Happily the headache in the morning was gone. Might have been due to the difference of temperature the day before. 5h outside at -20C, the best cure. For another 4 euro the bus took me back to the centre, and again to the Tourist Information Centre. The same girl from that morning was so enchanted when I shared with her the adventures of my day and described her the phenomenal snow dogs I saw on top.

– It’s very rare to see that, you know, you were lucky.

Yes I was and I knew it. A day before I heard for the first time about snow dogs and a day after I witnessed this wonder with my own eyes.

I was asking too much from an already amazing day but I tried  my chances and asked if the evening tour we talked in the morning, for the northern lights, was finally decided. She blew all my hopes saying it was canceled, chances were low, due to the weather.

Levi, Lapland, Finland

It was around 4PM and almost dark. It was too beautiful outside and I was too excited to be in Levi to go back to the apartment and stay indoor to warm up, though I needed that. I took a short walk to the lake, to enjoy the beautiful blue hour light reflected on the complete white around.

Levi, Lapland, Finland

The lake was turned into a vast white surface as it was completely covered with snow and surrounded by high pine trees and a few houses with red or yellow walls and white porch in front. A sublime landscape, but I was too frozen to walk any more metters and my fingers couldn’t take any more photo. And above all these, I was starving. I saw K5 hotel near, like an oasis of warm and wellbeing. I knew about it from the internet. After a whole day spent outside at -20C, this was my heaven. Simple, warm and cosy: a dim light inside and low volume music, lit candles on each table and a fireplace spreading a comforting mood while outside, in that cold, my beloved white sugar trees, a straight line of high white pines were tempting me from the large igloo like wall made all of glass, to come out again. Not so fast… After 3 hot teas and a hot pumpkin soup I felt alive again.

While I was coming back from the lake I passed by a Lapish tent with a big bonfire place in front, with round wooden seats covered with reindeer skins. It was a Saami restaurant with a super tempting traditional Lapland menu. Was still closed then but the dinner was starting in one hour, and anyone interested could attend based on reservations made inside the 5K hotel reception.

I wasn’t decided what to do, to spent or not 60 euro on a dinner. I finally took my decision 10 minutes before dinner started, was, of course, to go.

The armchair by the fireplace was now vacant so I sit there. I was trying to do a Instagram worthy photo of my white snow boots next to the fire when I heard loud drums beats and the notes of a yoik. These are songs interpreted by the Saami people, the nomad population in the far Northern regions. I got to know their amazing culture last year in Norway. Their simple way of living in a perfect harmony with nature, their legends, food and songs: yoik, are fascinated. In the old times they were burned alive, believed to practice witchcraft when heard singing like this. A man dressed in traditional red Saami clothing came in the lobby singing, inviting us to follow him to the restaurant in the tent and so to start a Saami evening. We all followed. Inside the restaurant, built deep in the ground, was dark and warm and felt sort of homy. A big fire in the middle, who’s flames were reaching high, cracking and spreading smoke and a scent of cooked salmon. A few big pieces of fish were lined up around the fire, to fry. Walls made of wooden pillars, with reindeer skins and horns hanged upon, small wooden tables and chairs covered with reindeer skins.

They started bringing the food and we started filling our plates. And then again. I had the best dinner! From reindeer hearts and tongues to ribs, stew and steak, barbecued salmon with herbs, wild mushrooms, cranberry sauce and sweet mashed potatoes with butter. It all ended epicly with a warm desert made of some sort of sweet cheese and milky warm sauce. After two turns around to the pans placed by the fire, I couldn’t move nor breath nor blink. I was full and round now. This is what happens when you put a foodie in front of an opened buffet with home cooked traditional food. We then listed to stories and yoiks sang by the fire. It was a perfect time in the heart of white Lapland.  

Levi, Lapland, Finland

I said goodbye to my wonder called Levi with a last 2h walk in that winter wonderland, with white icy roads, puffy trees, white houses… white everything. One of those moments I would have wished to stay somehow trapped forever, as inside a time loop and with no regrets or memories of anything else but that. Just like the boy in The Snow Queen story, to keep on living there like in a crystal ball with a never ending fairytale like winter inside. Just us, winter and I, in a perpetuum cold and limitless beauty. It was the last night in Levi, a dream made true for which I feel too grateful.  

Levi, Lapland, Finland, beautiful destinations

 

But Rovaniemi was waiting! And Santa was there, and reindeers and huskies, ice glass igloos in white forests and a night spent at -30C, hunting for the northern lights.

 

Finland: How to find Santa’s Secret Cabin

I woke up that day of January in the absolute white winter paradise. After a night of ice crystals falling from the skies at -30C temperatures, I opened the door in the morning to the Finish version of Narnia. The sugar trees from the day before were now even more loaded of snow powder. Not even the tiniest part of everything around have escaped this white beautification. The mountains of snow around the main road were even higher, the streets completely icy and white and the traffic signs just a pale remembrance of any other colors that ever existed before this complete white. So bright was all.  

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places

I had big plans for that day and I needed “fuel” for that. Sandwiches with salami, garlic cheese cream and cherry tomatoes, Skyr yogurt with apples and Runeberg torte, the famous Finnish cake, made my breakfast perfect and cosy since they all were in the fridge from the day before.

First stop: the tourism information office, where I was hoping to get some info about how could I get to one of the most epic and over photographed places in Finland: Santa’s Secret Cabin. It looks just as its name disclosures: a wooden cabin with a high porch with a top view, in the middle of a winter wonderland. The place has once served as a movie set, a movie about Santa Claus, of course.  

There was only one organised snowshoeing tour going there each Monday. The price was about 100 euro and I would have been crazy enough to pay this but… it was Saturday that day. The girl at the office explained me a lot in too many words, showed me directions and maps. I didn’t get anything in the end. I only remembered a phrase I have read on a blog recently, that in was between two slopes, on top of the Levi hill, where you can get by the gondola.

I took the bus, payd 4 euro one way (told you already Levi is a budget killer) and in 15 minutes, after a gorgeous ride, I arrived at that gondola place.

The girl in the coffee shop that sold me the tickets for the gondola gave me tons of confidence when she assured me that Santa’s cabin was at 10 minutes walking from the top.

Next I was in a gondola, on top of the white forest of high pine trees, heading straight to the top of Levi hill. I draw my head nearer the icy glass window so I could see better the amazing shapes of the trees I was passing by, covered in snow and big icicles hanging down their branches. I knew Santa’s cabin roof should have been visible from the gondola, right before reaching the top and I did looked in all directions but I didn’t see any cabin or roof. Was nothing but white everywhere.

The ride ended as the gondola reached the top and when I got off, picture this: coming from -25 to -8 feels like a too fast delivered summer, a bright sun spreading its orange rays on a sparkling cover of snow, people in colorful suits wandering around the top, on skies and snowboards, a wooden cabin with a Carlsberg sign above its door was almost completely covered in white….The air around was sparkling and shining as millions of ice crystals were filling the atmosphere. A great view but I was there for a higher mission so I immediately started looking for the famous Santa’s Secret Cabin. I asked a woman holding a map, she never heard about it. I asked another one, this time with a professional camera hanging on her neck, so a sign. I presume she was a photographer and might know or even planning to get there. I got nothing again but two badly framed photos of myself and that Carlsberg cabin. This is THE CHALLENGE when traveling alone: getting a decent framed photo of myself in a beautiful place, considering I hate selfie sticks and never used them.

I went right then turned left. Nothing. Looked up and down. Only slopes. I remembered about what was said on that blog: it was somewhere “between slopes 10 and 11”. It was also saying you can’t get there without snowshoes or sky cause you’ll be literally swimming in very deep snow which means risking an injury… But was not the time and place for pessimistic thoughts.

I walked a little bit down to get a little closer to one of the slopes. I look down in the valley. It was a 180’ view down there to Sirkka, to forests the and roads below. Right in the middle there it was, at about 500m, in a perfect winter dream scenery, Santa’s Secret Cabin’s surrounded by trees covered in snow and right next to another cabin, this time smaller. It looked dreamy and I got so very excited and hurried to get there.     

I tried to go straight down but it was so steep it made me dizzy to even look in that direction. Then I tried to follow some old traces left by someone in the snow before. I was swimming in snow like knee deep for a few meters and then the traces disappeared suddenly. It seemed they couldn’t go further either. Then I tried a different strategy, walking in parallel, like in sky, to make it less steep and easier to descend. It seemed longer but easier for a few more minutes. I was stepping carefully, as the snow was breaking under my feet in wide portions of ice. Sometimes I managed to stay at the surface, but for too many times I went deeper in the snow with one foot or both. Was like walking on a frozen lake where ice was too thin and it kept cracking under my weight. I was holding my breath with every step wishing I wasn’t born such a gourmand. I actually had no idea how deep that snow was, sometimes I went down 30-40cm. But it got deeper every time. At one point one of my feet was buried completely, hip high, and I had to grab the frozen snow around the hole with both hands to pull myself out. This crater was formed close to a big rock and it hurt my feet a bit when falling. That was it! The last drop:

F—k it, I can’t do this and it’s not worth the risk.

I looked back at the starting point in the top. I had barely walked down a few metres. The sun disappeared under a few puffy clouds and the valley was now almost hidden in a foggy vail. It was just me trying this madness, no one else. I stopped on top of a rock to avoid getting deep in the snow once again, I found my balance, got the camera out of my bag and snapped a very pissed off photo of that Santa’s Secret Cabin down there and impossible to reach. It looked wow even from that distance, like a winter wonderland.  The photo I took was bad and I was going to delete it for sure soon after. I turned around and started climbing back to the top.

I got back to where I came from easier then the descent. I took another photo of the previous wooden cabin with the Carlsberg logo hanged above the door, the one right in front of the gondola exit. I was trying to convince myself that was a nice cabin too. I remembered what the girl at the coffee shop said: 10 minutes only…  Maybe she knew a secret easier path or she had snowshoes…

I abandoned the mission and started walking around. The snow was so frozen and was making such a noise. At 10m away I saw a group of three small cabins and I decided to get there. I took a lot of photos, at least I will have something…

A couple, both on snowboards, were sliding down the slope at the left, he fell and she started laughing. A few minutes later I saw them down there, at Santa’s Cabin. It seemed this was the only way to get there, sky, snowboard or snowshoes. I had none, only a last drop of hope left. I was now right under the gondola cables and some people in the cabins were looking at me with a “what the hell is she doing there alone” expression on their faces.

I still had the itch. I thought I should just look again down there, one more time, to check how far was the cabin from that point…. A few steps further, on the snow that didn’t crack this time and I got to the point where I could see straight down there. It was a little closer now but still too far away. But what do I see now? There were two people there, playing in the snow. Not the couple I saw earlier. It was a man and a boy, they seemed to have such a great time. They too probably got there on skies, I thought. Lucky them! They were two little black spots moving, on the white snow. The boy was making snow angels and throwing snowballs. They must have been there for some time. Soon, they seemed to be preparing to leave, and this made me curious to see how they were going to do it. I was expecting to see them grabbing their skies or snowboards or snowshoes and head down the slope. But no sight of those. They were actually on foot! That totally gave me hope! Could I get there too???

When I saw they started climbing the hill back to the top, I knew I could. This was how they got there, avoiding the deep snow and the steep parts using that side of the slope be. I couldn’t get there from the point I first try but now it looked easier. Oh my, I was so excited.

If I could manage to walk straight and fast enough a distance of about 30m, in front of me, I could intersect them right at half way. I could from there follow their traces down to the cabin. That might work for me too if it did for them. But those 30m were the problem as it was a portion where rocks could be seen raising above the snow. So I couldn’t tell how deep snow was or how frozen. Adrenaline was kicking in. I started with small but rapid steps. A few times I got deep in the snow but got out again fast. I was in such a hurry to meet them at half way. The piste machine have passed by their side and left long straight parallel lines which I could see now in the snow. I was getting closer to them and I heard their voices. The cabin was growing in front of me as I was getting closer. They were walking fast too and I realised was going to miss them. So I shout at them from the few meters left between us:

– How did you got down there, is it difficult?

Of course I could see all that, but I needed some moral support I guess.

Happily the man heard me and they stopped to catch their breath. He answered with a smile. Sure it was so damn difficult. Their red but happy faces proved it.

I had more courage now that someone was there, closer. From the point I was it seemed piece of cake to get down there, following the traces left by those two in the snow. And so I did and I made it to the cabin. The sun came out from the clouds in a small window, tracing a perfect vertical orange line of light. What a view, of the two cabins in front of me and the “snow monsters” around, those small pine trees completely covered in snow. The admiration stood me still. Few minutes later I started taking photos. Lots of them.

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places

I saw a group of 6 girls climbing on snowshoes. They arrived there too and asked me to take some photos of them together and then they paid back the favor the same way.

I went inside Santa’s Cabin and they took some photos with me on the porch. Good photos this time. Perfect ones.

– Is it easier to descend on the way you came? I asked them.

– Oh, no, no, no way, it was very difficult for us to climb all the way up here, it is easier from the top.

They left as they came from. I was happy I also had photos of myself in that beautiful place.

Levi, Lapland, Finland, beautiful places

I was again alone. The closest people were at about 50m, on the slope on the left, far enough to preserve the silence around me. I was preparing to leave as I already had plenty of photos with that amazing winter sunset when I saw a strange colored light on the sky. It was a vertical line of light, similar with the one still traced by the sun, only this one was colored. I looked better. It was a rainbow! It can’t be a rainbow on the sky with no drop of rain, at 20 negative, on a clear sunny winter day, I thought. I remembered a fragment of conversation I heard the day before, during the snowshoeing tour, when the guide was talking about a rare phenomenon that occurs in crisp cold sunny days in the Arctic areas, when the sunlight interacts with the ice particles floating in the atmosphere, producing two rainbows.

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places

It was called sun dogs or sun phantoms. The name doesn’t do any justice to that fabulous view. The sunset sun was now framed by two intense colored rainbows, placed at equal distances. First I saw the one in the right, then, soon after, the one in the left. I was stoned. How could it be, I barely understood what the guide was talking the day before, and a day after I was witnessing this magic? It was mind blowingly stunning, no words can describe it. For a sudden a thought crossed my mind: am I still alive, is this earth, is this real? It so was! It was nature at its best game: doing masterpieces of natural beauty to leave us speechless. The white snow all around was now turned into an orange see in the sunset light and sparkling particles of ice crystals in the air were shining like millions of diamonds that surrounded me. If something can be too beautiful, this was the place!

I took countless photos. The lens of my camera soon froze, three beautiful ice flowers covered it and it was too cold to manage to wipe them off. My fingers were hurting me because of the cold. I used my phone. Soon it’s battery died of the cold but happily I had a power bank. This was not an event to miss. It brought tears in my eyes as I was feeling grateful to live it. I wiped them off so they won’t stop me from seeing what surrounded me.

The two rainbows were now so intense, coming down from a curtain of clouds. Time stood still for a long and spellbinding Arctic sunset. I saw the reactions of people on the slope. The all stopped wherever they were when they saw it and didn’t move.  

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places         

This was by far the most sublime winter view I ever saw in my life. I saw many white winters with sparkling snow and sugar trees, true, not as “sweet” as the Finnish ones in Lapland, deep puffy snow, icy streets, blizzards and frost, frozen lakes and white mountains but I never saw a winter sunset like this, so long and so orange, with two rainbows in the skyes.  

Thank you Finland! Like this, you blew my mind totally, that day of January.

 

Finland: A frozen wonder called Levi

My heart was beating so fast I could hear it. I was holding by breath with every step, hoping my feet won’t go, this time, too deep in the snow. It was frozen at the surface but I had no idea how deep that snow was. I was mumbling to myself, angry and anxious, hoping I won’t break a leg, or hand or even my neck at the next step. I felt nervous, hot and sweaty, though there were 10 negative outside. There, on top of Levi hill, was that “hot” compared to the temperatures in the valley, where all was white and frozen at -25C.  

And there I was, walking down on the steepest portion of the hill top, right between two slopes and under the gondola cables. The frozen snow was creaking loudly under my feet. I knew it was just a matter of time until I will fall. One of my feet or maybe both will fall deeper again in the snow and each time this happened, the snow was deeper than the previous times. Santa’s Secret Cabin was in front of me, but it was still so far away, in the valley. It seem impossible to get there this way. I stopped.

Helsinki

At last in Finland! I was so incredibly excited as I landed and the first think I laid my eyes on in the airport was Smash, the salted snacks covered in chocolate I discovered last year in Norway and made a passion for. And Skyr, the fruit yogurt I had a crush on in Iceland two years ago, that can be found in Scandinavia only. It has proteins, of course, like almost every food in the North.

I found Helsinki under a blanket of snow, white and cold and welcoming. At negative 8 I remembered how strong cold is felt when you’re not used to it anymore and I was hoping this will just help me acclimate faster for what was to come next, the real cold, in Lapland.  

My hostel was very close to the central station so I wandered around the centre that evening.

I went to see the famous Oody Central Library launched in December. It’s a wow modern architecture building made of glass and wood. With trees inside, wooden amphitheatres where you can lay down and read and countless white shelves with all the books you can imagine. It makes you feel like reading a good book inside.

Oodi Library, Helsinki Finland

The streets of Helsinki were quiet and empty as I left the library, around 22 o’clock. I had a delicious salmon soup with a great top view in the last restaurant I found open late that evening.

Levi

Next day I woke up early, put on as many layers as I could and left for the airport.

At one moment, in the waiting area, I was about to ask an asian girl, dressed very lightly, if she really knows where she’s going…

In the last weeks I was constantly checking the weather forecast. There were -30 there! I panicked and started shopping immediately: new thermals, new sky pants, a down jacket for under, two layers gloves and two layers scarf, wool socks and so on. I was prepared. I thought.

A few minutes before landing the captain shared with us some useful info: welcome to Kittila, the temperature outside now is -30C.

“Yeah, let’s do this!”

My courageous smile froze out a few seconds later, when I saw the air traffic control tower of the small airport in Kittila. It was completely covered with ice and the scene looked like something I saw only in movies shot in Antarctica.

It got even crazier when I finally went outside the airport. The first breath was so cold it made me cough. Next ones too. I felt my whole body contracting as that deep cold was cutting my face like thousands of needles.  

Inside the bus for Levi I got back to my senses and thought:

“Damn, how am I going to be able to walk outside in this cold for more than 2 minutes?”

I remember what my Finnish friend wrote me the night before: Don’t worry, in the meanland it is cold but also dry and you don’t feel it so bad. I thought that’s just a Finish theory about cold, made up by people who love cold anyway.

For sure it didn’t work so far with me.

Waiting for the others to take their sits in the bus I took a look around, at the trees nearby. My fear that there will not be enough snow and I won’t be able to see those winter wonderland landscapes that made me so crazy desperate to come to Levi, has vanished. It was more than I could have dreamt of: Lapland was welcoming me in its best: white sugar trees everywhere. This is the most sublime view that winter offers to nature, when even the smallest leave or grass gets completely covered in white ice crystals and all that exists after is white.

The 16km to Levi were a drive through a white fairytale. The road was sneaking through a forest of perfectly white pine trees, tall and majestic.

We very soon arrived in a white town, surrounded by high slopes and white woods and crossed by streets with white sugar trees.

I was quite afraid to get out again in that cold but I had to leave the bus at this point.

Damn it was so terribly cold! The skin on my face hurts me and the air is so dry and cold that I keep coughing with every breath. It’s freezing me on the inside. I cover all my face with the scarf that’s knitted on the outside and fluffy fleece in the inside. It works, it is bearable now. I can’t use the phone more than 5 seconds cause my fingers freeze and I’m afraid my battery will die suddenly, leaving me completely disoriented. I can’t read the names of the streets because all the marks are covered in white icey crystals. I saw from the bus some buildings that seem to be the place I had to get to, but the check in was in a building in the centre.

Using Google Maps as little as I could without having the battery dead or my fingers frozen, I find the office. Thank God this is a small town.

I try to open the door and my hand freeze on the doorknob.

Wow, this will be fun! I say to myself.

The two ladies inside welcome me with a big smile. I was for sure in a hilarious state, all frozen.

– Such a beautiful summer you have here, I say, laughing.

– Yess, it’s really cold these days.

I get the key and in 10 minutes, after facing the frost once again, I reach the door of my studio. I would have been happy with a room only and even with a shared bathroom but this was the cheapest I found. And Levi is for sure hell expensive. Anyway it was perfect, warm, cosy, super central, with all you possibly need inside including a sauna and close to a market store.

There were not so many organised activities during the weekend in Levi and I had in mind a snowshoeing tour on top of the hill that was starting soon that day. It was on a Friday. It’s worth mentioning a slight detail: the  name of the town is Sirkka and the name of the hill is actually Levi, but now everybody calls the place Levi.

I had 30 minutes to add more layers on and to leave the house and try to catch that tour.

Sirkka, Finland, Levi, Lapland

The cold outside hit me like a wall again. The town was the visual definition of frozen. I have once experienced -20 for like 2 nights but was nothing compared to this because it didn’t last that long. Here in Levi it was around -25-30 for the last two weeks and so. The streets, the traffic signs, the houses, all you could see was white. It looked unreal, unbelievably beautiful. Few people and cars on the streets, mountains of snow, wide sky slopes with plenty of space for everyone, sugar trees completely white. The snow was making a loud noise under my feet. I walked by a lady who was literally frozen. Her coat, her hat and the scarf she had over her face were all white, covered with ice crystals. I have seen this before only on National Geographic covers or BBC Earth documentaries, never with my own eyes. I always thought those people, looking so frozen, must have been close to death. I meet others looking the same. I was walking for 10 minutes when I looked at my gloves. I thought was some sort of dust, but no. It was ice. Then I took my phone out to check my face. My black scarf covering my face was all white, also the faux fur of my coat started to turn white. I was literally freezing and I wasn’t cold at all. I wasn’t coughing anymore when breathing. It was happening what I was praying for. My body was adapting very fast to this new environment. Nature works miraculously!

I got to the Tourist Information Centre right in time and I managed to book the tour 10 minutes before it started. I was so happy they have agreed to take me so last minute.

I wanted to wait outside. I had this strange feeling that I was starting to like that cold. I loved seeing everybody covered in ice, it looked so extreme and exciting.

One guy was preparing hot tea and coffee in front, on an improvised stall on big car wheels. He had made a big fire, boiling water on top of it.   

 The mini van arrived and I, since I was the last one to come, I was invited to take the middle sit in the cabin. I couldn’t be happier, it was uncomfortable but the conversation with the lady driver and the views were all that mattered. We drove through the white woods covered of snow, until we reached the top of the hill, a wide plateau where only small pines could be seen rising out of the snow in surprising shapes, like fantastic beasts. It was sunny and cold but not that type of white bright sunny day. In January, in Levi, at 170 km North of the Arctic Circle, the sunrise was turning soon into sunset during the 4 hours when the sun rose above the hill. A pale orange light shines over the endless white. A small wooden cabin in the valley was completely frozen and looked magical but was too far to get there. The air was so strong.

We put on our snowshoes and start our way down, stopping from time to time for information. It wasn’t cold anymore but I prefered walking constantly. Sitting still for more than 5 minutes wasn’t fun at all. My phone had reached from 100% battery to 35% in just 20 minutes, without even using it. The perspective of not being able to take a photo there was not good. Fortunately I had my camera too and its battery was handling cold way better than my iPhone. Taking many photos was no option anyway, all it needed were 10 seconds for my fingers to freeze. I tried to push it longer but the pain of frozen fingers was really bad.

Walking on snowshoes was new to me and so fun. It does a great job keeping you at the surface, otherwise we would have been swimming in 1m or deeper snow.

Sirkka, Finland, Levi, Lapland

As we started descending from the top, the pine trees got bigger and the views even more spectacular. There they were, the famous winter postcard views of Levi I was dreaming about since I saw the first photos about this wonderful place.  

White sparkling snow, orange-pink sun light from a perfect long lasting sunset, pine trees so covered in snow that they stopped looking like trees and rather like creatures from other worlds. Each tree became a masterpiece, as each part of it was covered with ice crystals, like small translucent leaves.

Sirkka, Finland, Levi, Lapland

I was walking behind with one of the guides and we talked about Finland, winter in Finland and how amazing nature is.

  • You surely are taking advantage of your time here, he said when I told him I have arrived in Levi about 2h before.
  • Is it always this cold here?
  • Not always that cold. I can take it ok when it’s like that, but when it goes below 30, then you really feel the cold and it gets difficult to stay outside longer.
  • You know I’m surprised I don’t feel the cold as I did when I arrived.
  • Sure, you are starting to adapt. And here in Levi, because it’s dry, the cold is bearable.

So, again this theory I first heard from my friend.

– How cold does it get here.

– The coldest I remember is -44C

– Oh, wow!

His eyelashes were white at the top and his blonde beard had small icicles. I was just as frozen. We both laugh about this. The others were also and everybody was taking frozen selfies. All men had their beards covered in ice. On my coat I noticed small crystals of ice were forming.  This is something too amazing not to be lived at least once. I know I will need to repeat this not just once.

We stopped by a wooden cabin, completely white and frozen, with its small windows all covered in white ice. A red snowcat was wandering around, pushing the snow and forming 3m high mountains of snow around. It was getting dark, it was the blue hour. In winter, in these moments all becomes blue. The snow was shining like billions of white diamonds, the tall pine trees were looking like white ghosts and the sky was a pale blue. Ice flurries were falling down. It was indescribably beautiful. We had blueberry hot tea and delicious fresh cold cakes. I realised then this was all I ate that day. Such a blessing are the days too exciting to remember about details such as food.

Sirkka, Finland, Levi, Lapland

We crossed the forest among trees, snowshoeing in puffy fresh snow, shaking the most loaded branches, allowing the snow to cover us completely. We were all in that group, for sure and with no exception, winter addicts for life. All grown ups were kids again, back in childhood now, laughing and falling in the snow, sliding on their bums. This is how we got back in the town, loudly and full of joy. The same as I used to during those long white winters of my childhood, with my friends, on my street, in the woods behind our house. With our clothes wet, faces red and hands frozen, ignoring our parents threatening us and demanding to immediately enter the house or else… Who cared, we had the snow!

I missed the cracking snow under my feet and the mountains of white snow taller than me, as I used to see when I was 10. That dreamy winter I  found again in Levi, together with all the joy I had in those years being a child.

No northern lights dancing that night. But who cared… I felt like I was 10.  

 

 

      

Egypt: sleepless Cairo and the Pyramids

“Don’t be afraid of life! Don’t be, because then you will not live at all” These words are worth repeating.

This was the answer of the Egyptian Bedouin when I asked where was the location of the latest bomb attack that killed 4 people, 3 days before my arrival in Egypt, right there, in Gyza, close to the pyramids.

The whole scene was quite funny and we laugh loud about it on our way back to Cairo: we were a group of 5, a few people from Ecuador were joining us and I didn’t wanna pronounce this question, using the word bomb, in the middle of the street, up high on a camel, and maybe risk to ruin like this other people’s great mood. So I was calling repeatedly Ehab, my guide, asking him to please come closer to me, as he was riding his horse few meters in the front. He couldn’t hear me. Mustafa, who was closer, heard me repeatedly calling Ehab and he kept insisting what my question was. So I tried to be discreet and almost whisper it. He suddenly stopped, turned his horse to me and with a large gesture of his hands and head, together with the most convincing smile, he shout it loud: No, No, No, Nooo bomb, Noo boooms here, Nooo, don’t worry, don’t, it’s safe, look… very safe!

He definitely made us all laugh and he laughed with us.

Mustafa continued his wise thoughts: “If you want to do something, do it, don’t postpone, because you never know.” This “never know” means so much everywhere not just in Egypt because “Never Knows” are happening anytime, anywhere. It took me most of my life so far to feel the truth in these words. This remembered me about the text tattoo of a women I once met in Lagos, Portugal. She was a dive instructor.

“I know when I was born,

I know what’s my name,

I know where I’m from and who I am

And I know that one day I will die

But as long as I’m alive, I shall live”  

“I shall live” was what I told myself in the early morning of January 1st 2019, struggling to wake up after that crazy Egyptian New Years Eve feast.

I miraculously managed to have all arranged in Cairo: hotel, driver and guide, so I could take 100% advantage of my short stay in the city, see more and hear more than I could my myself. They were waiting for me in the airport as I arrived. This was one of the only 2 times when I afforded such a spoil: to find my name written on a piece of paper, in the hands of someone waiting for me with a friendly smile, in a far away country, on a far continent.

My first very view of Cairo was from the plane’s window. The dark limestone city was drowning in a cloud of mist, trying hard to breathe on top of it.

Cairo, Egypt, The Great Pyramids, beautiful places

But the view that will stay tattooed in my mind is the one from its highest point, from the Citadel’s garden: an 180’ view of this mega city, home to more that 23M people, the most dense city in the world. And right there, looking far and near in the same time, the sharp silhouettes of two pyramids like two arrowheads penetrating that milky mist in the horizon. It’s impossible to project this out of imagination and I can’t possibly describe it as it deserves. It’s impressive and only seeing it can bring the real feel of this wild, intense urban vibe, like a living creature breathing down there, under a loud, constant rumor of car horns. The craziest traffic I ever witnessed rules the streets of Cairo. Ehab, my guide with the most amazing green eyes and the fastest walking person I ever met, was telling me tales of this wonder city. One hold me still, when I asked about his siblings.

It’s a long story, he said. I like long stories, I encouraged him.

And then he told me his family misses one member: his elder brother, who was killed in the revolution, during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. I could sense in his tone how this wound is still deep.

We left the Citadel heading to the city centre by car, and very soon we got stuck in that impossible traffic, becoming part of it. We arrived in the old part of the town, on a small street with ruined buildings on each side. All streets there looked like this. I had the feeling anything could happen there but it did felt safe. A small place to live on a street like this in Cairo costs around 5000 dollars, I was told. For sure life is not “en rose” on the streets where homes cost that much, but wandering there, if you have the guts and don’t mind locals looking and a bit of dust, is something. Ehab probably felt me ready to jump out of the car. He didn’t got the time to articulate his idea, to go for a walk, cause I was already in the middle of the street, taking a deep breath as if I was high in the Alps in Austria. Finally outside, on the old streets of old Cairo!

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Ehab buys baked sweet potatoes for me from a young man’s with a stall covered in fire red burning coals that was filling with smoke half of the street. We talk a little, where I’m from? is it my first time in Egypt? as he takes in his hands a hot potato from the fire, splits it in half in his palm using a big machete and encourages me to taste while is still hot. I loved it! We cross a small street market where people were selling fruits or vegetables right there, at the side of the road, on the ground or on improvised tables. I take a photo of a woman from the distance. She was like a black veil fluttering around. Ehab then tells me I should pay attention, some women don’t like to be taken photos and she was protesting too but I didn’t noticed.

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places

A young man leaves an old traditional bakery from a building that looked deserted, with walls once painted in light blue. He carries on his head an improvised 2m long and 2 levels high wood rack full of bread. Arabic bread, puffed up, looking like balloons. He leaves me speechless with his skills. And that’s not all. Next he jumps on a bike and carries on like this, with that on his head, among the cars and people in the street, leaving me stoned. I had to have a pitta bread like that, after seeing this. Ehab again buys one for me with white and black sesame seeds on top, from a stall of three women. They were also dressed in black robes and wear a hijab, but with their faces uncovered. I share the bread with Ehab, it’s crunchy and delicious and unsalty.

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

I realise later this was all I ate that day until dinner, but who cared about food when I had so much more. We eat pieces of bread while walking, I look around and sometimes take photos. I must have answered at hellos and where I was from countless times. People were looking with curiosity first, smiling to us. I realise I am the only non Egyptian person there.

– Tourists don’t come here, they think it’s dangerous, Ehab says.

– But look around. Since we walked, did you feel unsafe?

– No, not at all…

– People look when they see tourists and sometimes try to sell things to them cause they know tourists have money.

And as they need money desperately and you can see this easily everywhere in Egypt, they get pushy and so the tourists get scared.

– If you find yourself in need or in trouble here anytime, just ask for help and everyone will treat you as if you were their sister.

I believe his words, spoken right there, in the middle of the real Cairo.

Not taking a walk on these streets, the ones outside the centre, means missing the whole thing here.

It’s a spectacle of reality. Stalls with huge pieces of meat, like half a cow, hanging outside a shop, as the owner was sweeping the dust from the stairs in front. Long rows of something looking like fried sausages hanging down in front of so many stalls placed in almost every corner. I am curious and I want to taste but Ehab says I shouldn’t. I must have felt too Egyptian already, I wanted to try all.

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

He hesitates at giving the answer why I shouldn’t eat that: because it’s dirty, he said in the end.

– For us, for me, I can even drink water from the Nile, it’s ok, but for you, you will get sick. Your body is not used to it.

I was happy I didn’t follow my crazy foodie adventurous itch after I read on the internet that in Egypt infectious diarrhea is a common disease.

We arrived in Tahrir Square and I wanted to hear more about the revolution here. It is said and Ehab confirms that 30M people took the streets of the city in that time. The Arab Spring hit Egypt hard. Thousands were killed, as his brother. A new regime came in power but after a while people were again in the streets, protesting against it. Now the military controls the state but people are again disappointed.

– It will happen again, you think?

– I think so, he have to, it’s the only way to change things and we will keep trying, says Ehab.

One of the craziest things to do in Cairo is crossing the street. The Egyptian way as Ehab calls it. There are only a few crossings or traffic signs even in the centre and tens of people are crossing the streets any moment in each point they please, among the cars.

The first times we did it I felt I had to close my eyes, at least I won’t see as I get hit by a car.

There’s even a technique: you don’t run, cause then you will panic the drivers, you’re crossing calm, looking into their eyes to make sure they see you and let you cross. They always do but doing this feels extreme.

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

Right there, in Tahrir Square, in a gorgeous building that was once a palace, it’s now the Egyptian Museum. I don’t do museums but this one is not a museum, is rather a fairytale of pharaohs, queens and gods, with spicy stories of love and death and treason, mummies, tombs, hieroglyphs, golden sarcophagus, secrets and myths. From old papyrus scripts to sandals of the pharaohs, to jewelry and fans made of ostrich feathers and sculpted ivory, to pieces of furniture that blow your mind. All the treasures discovered in the pharaohs and queens tombs from the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens are there, including old photos showing the tombs as they were discovered, how everything there was put in place. I found out that so many tombs are still buried in the ground together with the mysteries of this unbelievable civilization.  

The mummies rooms were for an extra charge but totally worth it and Tutankhamun golden death mask, one of the star pieces of the museum, is beyond any words.

I ended this fabulous first day in Cairo with a cruise on the Nile with dinner, with belly dances and Sufi dances performances and the most amazing Egyptian music. I never saw Sufi dances before and since I was the only tourist there, the others were all Egyptian, I was for sure the most excited about. It’s basically whirling around for more then 30 minutes in a form of physically active meditation while performing moves symbolising praying or expressing different types of feelings. The costumes are some sort of heavy fabric dresses that start lifting as the performer swirls, reaching up to three different layers. In this moment it becomes unbelievable there’s a person there. Really incredible!

I went to sleep that night feeling exhausted, hoping I will rest like a baby. But nop, the mosquitos had big plans.

Day 2

The next morning we left for Gyza, where the pyramids are. We drove for about 30 minutes through parts outside Cairo, with small dusty villages. It was one of those times that made me remember again that there’s more out there, not just a comfortable but ordinary way of living in a big city where people wait for the green light to cross the street. This same people say Egypt is not safe, is dirty and poor. I would now say it’s different and for that amazing, it’s friendly and for that so warm, it’s generous and therefore so impressive and most of all is richer in experiences and knowledge than most of the places I’ve been so for. And for that is unforgettable.  

As we were approaching Gyza, at one point, 3 or 4 men jumped in front of the car forcing us to slow down. They were saying something in Arabic, looking agitated. They started hit the car with their hands. Ehab made them a sign, told them something in Arabic without opening the windows and we continued. I was perfectly relaxed but couldn’t help myself thinking how this could have been more serious without having those guys with me, Husain, the driver and Ehab.

Unforgettable is for sure the first sight of Cheops Pyramid, the great one. I know it since I was a child. I wouldn’t even dare then to wish seeing it in real life one day.

We went to the camel stable where we met Ibrahim, the owner. I knew I wasn’t going to get up on a camel again because I hate this from all my heart.

He started telling me a long story about how I really needed a camel for two main reasons: to avoid the people inside the plateau that are trying to sell stuff to tourists and sometimes become very disturbing and hard to get rid off and second to better walk there, since is’t desert, so lot of sand. For the long tour he wanted 100 euro.

At this point, I exclaimed: Yalla, habibi (Cmon, my darling)

He started laughing, we all laugh and start talking about my trip to Egypt, about my family back home, about my country, about how I am not from one of those rich countries and finally I got 35 euro the price. Probably I could get it lower, dunno.

We went out to take the camels and then I saw one of them had a very bad wound on her face from that stupid piece of metal attached to the rope she had around her head, the one used by the owners to hold them or, as I saw after, to force them knee down so that the tourist on top can get up or down as he pleases, as many times as he pleases. In this case I was that stupid tourist and I still feel terrible for supporting this. Those camels weren’t well treated. The Pyramids can be seen perfectly and in perfect safety even without riding a camel, the distance is not big at all and the sand is perfectly walkable. Now I know it and I also know the camels hate to knee down. They are tall and massive animals so this must be painful to them since they have to be forced to do it.  

With this thought troubling my mind, we left to the plateau together with a group of 5 people from Ecuador and accompanied by one of the employes from the stable, Mustafa, my Bedouin friend with smart philosophies. Since I took the first camel, the one that looked in very good health and without any injuries, I was behind him all the way so we got the chance to talk a lot.

He called me queen and each time he was saying it I was protesting I am not one so shouldn’t be called so.

Mustafa has 3 big wishes: to finish school, which he also added is impossible.

– I’m old and I’m a Bedouin, I never went to school.

The other 2 are to go to Mecca once in his life and the last one, to finish the house for his family.

– Then I will be happy, Queen, he said.

On our way, he was constantly tipping some people we met. I presume he didn’t had so many debts to give back that very day and the reason was another, to let us pass through.

The view from the top of the plateau is absolutely fabulous. The group of pyramids all together, camels, horses, carriages wandering around and in the right there’s Cairo, like a sea of limestone buildings. Ancient and present, silenced and noisy, all together.

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations 

And to really feel the true Egypt, nature added a crazy wind blowing the sand and forming a mist of sand as if we were in the middle of a sand storm. It came from nowhere, out of the blue sky. I must have had sand in the depths of my soul too.

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

I must have been too excited about the pyramids to notice a detail like this but at one point I felt my feet a little heavier. Of course, I had camel poop on my shoes, allover. Somehow, with some sort of high precision skill, I managed to step in with both my feet. Probably it happened while Mustafa kept insisting I should take a photo kissing a camel, on the lips… those huge lips, and I kept refusing since that camel male was acting rather like biting me instead of kissing. And I saw in Israel how camels bite look. 

Before leaving Ehab took me to a friend of his, a lady that first showed me a rock where to stay and in less than one minute took 10 photos with all sorts of positions of me and the Sphinx. I’m not a fan of this type of pics but was fun and she is the best for that.

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

On our way to Memphis it started to rain. In Egypt is rains 3cm a year. I probably got 1 out of those 3 and Ehab has joking saying I got to see all seasons in Egypt in one day. I checked my phone for the weather forecast. The forecast was one I never heard before: Dust.

After one more short stop in Saqqara, where other group of pyramids is and where I saw the best hieroglyphs, but where the wind was unbearable and the sand was hitting my face as thousands of needles, we went back to Cairo. Was almost sunset. Time flies in this city. I said goodbye to Ehab who assured me that now not only I have a brother in Cairo, him, as we used to joke about, but an entire family, his family. Yes, this is true Egypt.

I was so protected during those two days and never left alone which was a huge spoil. But it was about time to have a stroll all alone in this city. It was getting dark now but the streets were full of people. Again, as in Hurghada, mostly men. At one point I had to cross the street, a large street full of cars. The Egyptian way of crossing. And I did it. It felt like a success getting on the other side. Did I felt safe all alone in Cairo, in the evening, crossing the street through that crazy traffic. Yes, absolutely. My only regret was I didn’t have more days here but my big wish became to come back for more.

I ended my unforgettable trip to Egypt with an evening greatly spent in El Fishawi, the oldest cafe in Cairo, right inside Khan el-Khalili famous bazar. To draw an idea of the place, this was the most crowded place in the most dense city. This place is profoundly crazy. It’s small and crowded beyond imagination, you almost step over people and tables with shisha pipes and fried and salted sunflower seeds to pass the entrance and finding a place there is a mission impossible. It’s grim with lots of sumptuous pieces of old black furniture. Books, lamps, old photos of famous people who have been there in the past, huge mirrors with their ruined glass and a fat cat sleeping on a very tall piece of furniture looking like a throne. It’s a 200 years old cafe, it has not just seen history, it has lived it, having famous guests as King Farouk of Egypt in the 1930’s. After I hate it, I started to love it. It’s a must see.

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

This is Egypt, the country where I arrived feeling scared and I left thrilled and more rich. I know more now about history, civilisation, about Muslim culture and traditions, about life’s most valuable aspects and I definitely know more words in Arabic.

I knew from that very first evening when I was walking alone in the night bazar in Hurghada that Egypt was really getting to me and I will miss it every day now, until the day I will get back.

And the answer to the most famous question about Egypt I was repeatedly asked: Is it safe? It’s not just safe, it’s perspectives changing.

Next: Lapland, Finland

 

 

Traveling solo since 2010