Croatia: Legends and charm of Dubrovnik

Can’t be a better time to remember my rainiest summer holiday than a rainy evening of May. If now I’m happy for the forests surrounding my hometown, the fields with tall grass and all that’s green and alive is finally enjoying rain after a dry spring, I wasn’t so happy that day, arriving in Dubrovnik on a ferocious storm……

Dubrovnik under waters

I felt lucky when I found tickets for the buss departing in 10 minutes from Split, heading to Dubrovnik. It was going to rain heavily, the dark clouds and winds weren’t joking, and the first heavy drops started hitting the window next to my seat very soon. The rain continued the whole trip, in violent episodes, as we passed through Bosnia Herzegovina and back to Croatia, and finally reaching Dubrovnik. A light rain, a afar away thunder and a sky that seemed to get brighter. I was optimistic those were the last drops and I can walk to my not so far accommodation with my clothes dry. But little do I know about rain… In a few minutes the drops became more frequent, the sky got darker and the wind was blowing the rain towards us, under the bus station roof. Should I take a taxi? But was very close…. I saw a little pub across the street which seemed a good refuge. By the time I’ll have lunch, rain will stop. But little do I know about rain… All I could do was sneaking under the roof of a tinny newspapers kiosk that was on my way. And that was it! A curtain of water started falling down, violent and determined to cover all in water. Lightnings, thunders and strong guts followed by darkness. The afternoon became evening under the black clouds. In a few minutes all got flooded, the street I had to cross to reach that pub and the pub also. So no more lunch! No more refugee. I was stuck under the tinny roof in the middle of a storm. I decided to buy an umbrella from the lady only to hold it in front of me under that shower. People were running, cars were swimming and soon nothing moved but the rain and wind. I was now sharing the tinny roof with other 4 people. We exchanged empathy smiles. After 30 minutes the rain calmed down but the whole place was a lake. A car drove by and we all watch the driver to see if he’s gonna have the same faith as the one before him with a X5 BMW with German numbers and now a dead engine. His car survived but we all had to hold our suitcases up from the waves of water coming from the street. After another 30 minutes of waiting and watching the terrible effects of the storm, I finally find a safer zone to walk away, hoping there’s no canal opened under the ankle deep water.  And so I was welcomed to Dubrovnik!

– How come a girl like you is not married?

After climbing up and down a few tens of steps, when I finally got out of the flooded area and I was misdirected by the only person I meet, I was finally found by my host looking all drenched, this time form the effort not the rain. And there I was, in their living room. My hosts were two nice seniors renting 2 rooms of their apartment to support their pension income. Nice and curious like people who have reached a certain age. The homemade sweet cherry soften my tongue and I answered simply:

– I haven’t met my perfect match.

Classic. But I got support immediately.

– So sais Ana, our niece. She is 33 soon, said his wife nodding her head.

– She doesn’t trust men these days, continues her grandfather.

I even got pancakes with homemade quince jam so I was opened to any question now that the storm was forgotten, the sun was up and my foodie spirit was spoilt.

The 1st best moment in Dubrovnik was opening the window of my room. The area where  my accommodation was was built on a hill. I was at 9th floor. The blue sky, the clear fresh light after the storm and the panoramic view of the city by the sea was a gift.

It took a 30 minutes walk to the old city of Dubrovnik, a distance that I was going to hate the next days and regret Split and the perfect location I had there. Dubrovnik is pricey and I thought I did a good deal. Only thought…

 Old town of Dubrovnik

Finally I was in front of the drawbridge to the Old Town, via Pile Gate! Packed with tourists. Once I crossed it, Dubrovnik, the so photographed and talked about one, began. Placa, or Stradun, the main street, appears like a straight and wide limestone channel beneath grand ancient houses.

Dubrovnik Olt Town, Croatia, Dalmatia

The glistening limestone pavement walked with thousands of visitors each day connects two of the gates to the citadel, Pile Gate and Polce Gate. With small restaurants or shops on each side, it is a sudden prelude to what seems to be a different world, an ancient one where seeing a knight at the corner won’t seem here out of place. Like in Venice, one you cross the bridge, the wonder world begins. The Rector’s Palace, Sponza Palace, the Cathedral, Church of Saint Blaise, Clock Tower, the Large Onofrio’s Fountain and the little limestone streets offering teasing sights to the terracotta roofs and the long stairs passages hidden in the shade, behind the bright facades in Placa.

Croatia, Dubrovnik, stairs in Old City
Old Town, Dubrovnik, Croatia

I like it and all I wanted to was wander. And so I meet the see, the cobalt blue Adriatic, still rough after the storm earlier that day. Next to St John Fortress strong waves were exploding in thousands as they hit the massive walls build in the 16th century.

I called it a day with a glass of Dalmatia white wine and a local treat: black rice, enjoyed at Dalmatino restaurant in the old town, where I was lucky to get a table, outside, on the busy little street. Dubrovnik was more alive now, under the stars, in a beautiful summer night.

  Walls of Dubrovnik

My plan for that bright clear sky morning was a walk on the citadel walls. A perfect start for a day in Dubrovnik. The old town is surrounded by a wall so thick that on top of it there’s a narrow cobbled alley, a 2km long walk that offers the best views of the old town.

Croatia, Dubrovnik, Old Town

A fresh morning, just before the sun starts to burn is the best moment for this. The sea of square shaped terracotta roofs, hundreds of them, meet the Adriatic blue where Lokrum island is the only green spot.

City Walls, Dubrovnik, Croatia, Adriatic Sea

It’s an Instagrammable picture perfect view, one among many others: The Placa, the baseball stadium, the Large Onofrio’s Fountain. King’s Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms viewed from the height of it walls and after from its little streets kept me busy all day with long walks interrupted by ice-cream short breaks in places like the Franciscan Monastery where one of the oldest pharmacy in the world still exists since 1300.

Dubrovnik, Croatia, sea view

A swim on Banje beach cooled down the day and my nerves. After a failed attempt to find a restaurant with local food, that was placed high on Mount Srd, an adventure that took me way far from all the mainstream spots frequented by tourists, trespassing a few private properties, I ended up going down again on the same killer steps that took away every drop of energy. At least I got to see more of Dubrovnik, the less accessible part, including bird’s eye views towards the bay. And as usual, I tried to get to know a place in my own way.

Croatia, old town Dubrovnik

The golden hour turned the limestone old town into a golden citadel, where the rush inside the restaurants kitchens matched perfectly the one on its busy streets. And so the evenings begin.

Close to the Large Onofrio’s Fountain, next to the stairs of the Franciscan monastery lies one of the living legends of the citadel: the Maskeron, a 20cm wide weird gargoyle head coming out of the wall like a tinny step. It’s easy to miss it, unless there are people gathered around. It is said that those who manage to stay on top of it, keeping the balance while also take off their shirt, will be lucky in love. Therefore, encouraged by the myth, boys, girls, even adults were testing their balance with more fun then success. The performances were attracting passers by from the street and each time someone was getting close to fulfilling the challenge, applauds and encouragements were filling the night. The kind of night that  I already knew will turn into an amazing memory of one of my beautiful places, finally discovered:  the old and charming Dubrovnik.

Next: Kotor, Montenegro

 

 

 

 

 

 

Croatia – Plitvice Lakes and so much more

The narrow path was going up. Every person in front of me was like an obstacle meant to slow me down. I was trying to be as polite as someone in a desperate hurry can be. I was literally running and sweating but the worse was that I had no idea if the direction was right. At one point people became very rare obstacles. I looked down from the edge of the cliff and the view was spectacular, a row of people was crossing the long wooden bridge above the turquoise water of the lakes and a big high curtain of waterfalls was opening in front of them. All in a beautiful green scenery painted in all shades. A few seconds for a photo I’ll always have so I stopped… No faces that I could recognise around. My heart was beating so hard I could hear it. Damn it! I had to admit it, my biggest fear that day has happened: I got lost in Plitvice.

Split, what a nice surprise!

The summer of 2019 have been awarded ever since winter to Croatia. My 10 years old birthday tradition demanded a new place to be enjoyed that summer. Another two reasons were Plitvice Park, present in many tops of the most beautiful places in this world and… King’s Landing. After the fatal and disappointing end of Game of Thrones, I had to see Dubrovnik.

After a short stop in Zagreb, I flew straight to the seaside, to Split. At the end of a short walk from the port, where the bus from the airport dropped me, I easily found my hotel: tinny, basic but cosy, with a little park in front where tall pines were cooling the hot July afternoon air with their dark shade and where cicadas were singing their summer hits, right next to a very fancy and pricey hotel and…. now comes the best part: a few meters away from the beach, one of the most frequented in Split. My booking wasn’t that generous with these precious details and I was terribly happy to have my expectations so exceeded.

Beach in Split, Croatia

A few minutes later I was, of course, already out in the street, ready to start counting many steps on my Garmin bracelet that day. I had a frugal beef salad in one fast food kiosk recommended by my host. Waiting for the sun to be more friendly and less burning, I wandered around, on quiet streets with beautiful old villas with little balconies nicely decorated with flowerpots. I discovered a little church with limestone walls covered with fuchsia bougainvilleas, those flowering factories that I adore. A few palm trees in its yard were making it look so like it was somewhere on the Italian coast…

A late afternoon swim and a lazy time on the beach in front of my hotel assured me that finally my summer vacation was ON. This time made in Croatia.

Split, Croatia

Evening by the Adriatic in Split

It was amazing to discover that Split was way more beautiful than I imagined. As I walked by the yachts aligned in the harbour and reached the beautiful promenade build in yellowstone and called Riva, the central stage for the city life during the day but mostly after dusk, with restaurants on one side, facing the sea, and palm trees on the other, it was obvious why Croatia is making so much money out of tourism. I couldn’t wish for more in a summer evening at the end of July then one of those places where holiday never seems to end.

I left the lively boardwalk behind and followed a song that seemed to come from a street somewhere in the back. A party? No… The 1700 years old columns from the Diocletian’s Palace, that have seen so much history, were now witnessing a wedding. And as events like this are not always seen in an ancient site, the place was now a huge gathering of tourists and wedding guests where the bride and groom, golding red wine glasses up in their hands, were the main voices of a song that all the guests seem to know by heart. This happiness was so contagious that all the people around were smiling. The toasting continued late into the night as I passed again by the place. An important day was starting early, in just a few hours, so was time to call it a day. A great one!

OMG, Plitvice Lakes

I’m not a morning person. But there are two things in this world that would make me jump out of bed at early hours: a beautiful place I want to see, that I already payed for.

Like Cinque Terre in Italy, like Benaghil, the beach inside the cave in Portugal and like so many other beautiful places I heard about before seeing them, Plitvice was a little obsession. I wanted to get there.

Split at 7am was something I wouldn’t normally enjoy. Fresh and laid back, like all places by the sea in the morning. I arrived at the meeting point 10 min earlier. To avoid the hustle and bustle I payed for a small group tour to take me to Plitvice, 250km from Split.

At about 11am we were in front of one of the entrances in the national park. The parking lot was packed with big buses bringing tourists from all the cities on the coast, also from Dubrovnik and even as far as Zagreb. A few tourists who didn’t had a tour booked and came by themselves were trying to buy entrance tickets. They were told to wait and see, at that hour all tickets were already reserved by the tour operators. The joy of summer high season…

– The authorities had to limit the daily admissions to the park, they had to, the place was too crowded before, our guide told me.

Then, with a little map of the itinerary in the hand, we were directed to the tourist bus. After a short ride, we reached the starting point. I looked at the map… I’m terrible with these things and space orientation in nature. “I hope I won’t get lost here” I thought, thinking about what the guide repeated a few times during that morning, “If you get lost, you’re on your own, we will have to leave at 5pm from the parking lot.” I wasn’t in the mood of socialising but I tried to remember o few of the people in the group by the clothes they were wearing: the tall blond guy in shorts, the Spanish girls, the Indian family…

It started like this:

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

The more we advanced, the greener and wilder it became. Like an Avatar land of wonder where lakes with the clearest water were either reflecting the trees around or offering perfect views to their depths, where plenty of fish were moving among fallen tree trunks now covered with dark green algae. Swimming was forbidden. The Spanish girls I was with at one point, we couldn’t stop fantasying about a swim in that paradise. The place looked spotless, no track of garbage as if the thousands of people wandering around every day didn’t exist to spoil it. The park was well taken care of.

As we walked deep into this trekking paradise made of a chain of 16 terraced lakes, united by waterfalls, walkways made of wood across the water were offering breathtaking views.  My photos took time, I wanted to breath in this place and take my time so I lost sight of any person from the group. I was too relaxed to care and I still had plenty of time to enjoy this:

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

And this:

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

The place was becoming crowded and at one point we even got blocked and had to wait for about 30 minutes. The moment I figured out people were actually waiting in line to take a photo in a specific place in front of a waterfall, I went further, outrunning the crowd. I found another spot, even better.

Waterfall in Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

An electric boat inside the Plitvice park links the 12 upper lakes with other 4 lower lakes. By chance I suppose I got to the jetty in the same time as many others from the group. A short boat ride took us to a new starting point, this time to Veliki Slap, a 78m-high waterfall, known as the Big Waterfall, the largest fall in Plitvice and in Croatia. The landscape was constantly changing, from unreal turquoise lakes to forest clearings where the sun rays were sneaking in and again to lakes, this time with light blue shades, with shallow waters where hundreds of fish were swarming in peace right next to the narrow path where, this time, no one else was walking. Such a bliss! For a few minutes I was all alone, sitting in the shade, watching all those fish so close I could touch them and hearing nothing but the birds. I stopped and look around at how wonderful this place could be. Waterfalls everywhere, small and big, solitary or covering an entire wall where water was pouring down noisy on parts covered with vegetation or on rocks. The picturesque landscapes were indescribably beautiful, with picture perfect spots every few meters.

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Time was running out and one of the main attractions, the Big Waterfall was close. As if all the people in the busses that morning were gathered here in the very same time, the narrow path leading to the place was very crowded. I saw two women in the group but they were too fast to follow if I still wanted to enjoy the views I was passing buy not running as if I was on a treadmill at the gym, facing a window with nothing to see. I was in a hurry now and I got a few shots from above. It was impossible to stop for more then one second since we were now packed, moving like a human snake formed by hundreds.

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

I got down only to take a look from the bottom of the fall all the way to its top. A few seconds was all I had. I started running up again, grateful that most of the people were heading down and not up so I could move faster. 30 minutes left to find the parking lot where the bus was waiting. The top view of the Big Waterfall hold me in place for a few seconds in a aww moment.

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

It was so hot outside. The perfect blue sky from the morning was now turning lighter. The way up was dusty from all the people walking up and down. I got to a crossroads. I made a choice though I wasn’t sure. Then I turned back, took another way. At one point the crowds were far away and I could run. 15 minutes left. Then 10. I thought OMG! Then, one minute later, oh shit! Where the hell was everybody? I saw light, a sign and I was out in a parking lot, a huge one with a few busses. Now which one is ours? I saw an information office and went to ask them. Damn it! it was another parking lot! The one I had to go was down the alley, then turn left, continue straight, then at the sign turn right… the king of answer that can drive one crazy even in a relaxed moment. I ran on the alley back again. 10 minutes passed the meeting hour. I was already thinking wether I will sleep in the woods or beg for a car to take me somewhere, anywhere where I could find public transport. I was desperate but in a way accepting the drama and looking for solutions as I was left alone there. And then, I saw in front the Indian family! They were running too but seemed to be more confident about the direction then I was. I followed them and I finally found the right parking lot, the bus and the guide:

– Why didn’t you called me to wait for you? I waited for your call…

– I didn’t think I will be in time so…. I was barely articulating the words but I was so relieved! I wasn’t going to sleep in the woods that night! And I had all the beauty of Plitvice with me now, as a dear memory.

Right now, as I write this, in my balcony back home, after a month since I have escaped my quarantined big city and returned in my hometown to wait here or better times, these memories are so sweet. From the slopes of a mountain, between two high hills covered with forests and a river, nature has been my comfort where the song of birds have silenced any bad thought and the scent of acacia flowers in bloom makes me grateful for this never expected break from a constant rush and optimistic for the better times to come.

Next: Dubrovnic and Kotor

My fave 10 Instagrammable places in Bali

Bali is so touristy it hurts. But Ohh so beautiful also it makes you wanna go back there. An island of green, with rice paddies, waterfalls, jungle views, beach sunsets with skies set on fire, temples… Endless possibilities to discover beautiful places and shot great photos. The place always does the job. All it’s left is to frame the image and shot the photo.

I searched, I read, I choose. The places that charmed me the most are these, Instagrammable, famous, visited and so photographed.

10. Butterfly Park – Who doesn’t love an up close photo with a huge butterfly?! How about 10 butterflies? The place houses about that many species of Bali butterflies, including some protected ones. Huge, gorgeous and delicate. You’ll witness as they hatch, fly, eat flowers nectar, mate and eventually die falling on the ground. The Atlas moth is the special guest of the park, a nature wonder with its wingspan up to 25cm.

Butterflies in Bali, Butterfly Park

9. Campuhan Ridge Walk – picture perfect jungle on the right, a few cottages perfectly blending in the lush vegetation, high grass fields waving in the wind on the left, a narrow winding paved trail in the middle. A perfect short walk outside Ubud that can easily turn into a few hours long walk among rice fields, small cafes and little villages. Take the time and enjoy the golden hour and sunset here.

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

8. Lotus Caffe Ubud – I can’t get enough of the lotus flowers in bloom in the interior yard of the famous Lotus Cafe in central Ubud. Early in the morning you can enjoy the place in peace. Then cross the street, forget about any notion of time and get lost in the labyrinth of Ubud Traditional Art Market. Don’t hesitate to taste all the fruits you see on the stalls and you’ve never tried before. My favourite: salak, snake fruit. But beware of instantaneous addiction.

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

7. Tirta Empul Temple – One of the most iconic places in Bali. Wear the sarong provided at the entrance and follow the purification ritual inside the temple. Don’t miss the pond full of huge koi fish and enjoy the serenity of the place.

Tirta Empul Temple, Bali, Purification ritual

6. Kelingking Beach in Nusa Penida – a short boat ride to one of the most spectacular beaches, not only in Bali or Asia, but in the world. Crystal clear waves hit the bright gold sand beach. Shades of blue meet shades of yellow at the base of the iconic T-Rex shaped cliff that has become one of the most Instagrammable places in Bali. Mainstream but still gorgeous. Not to be missed.

Kelingking Beach, Nusa Penida, Bali

5. Sunset in Kuta beach – Bali without a sunset? No way! The suns puts on the skies a breathtaking show as it says good night to Kuta beach. I thought people are exaggerating about this. Not they’re not. I’ve never seen before a sunset that conquers the entire horizon and sets it on fire like this. Grab a green coconut, sit on the sand and enjoy the 180′ sunset.

Sunset in Kuta, Bali, Indonesia

4. Besakih Temple – known as Mother Temple, my favourite by far. The oldest, biggest and most sacred temple in Bali. Doesn’t happen every day to see 86 (no kidding) temples in one place. That’s how many form the huge complex surrounded by breathtaking views of Mount Agung, still an active vulcano and scenic rice paddies and hills. This doesn’t mean other iconic temples should be missed, like Uluwatu or Tanah Lot.

Besakih Temple, Mother Temple, Bali

3. Rice paddies, Ubud – prepare yourself a little before you will be charmed by Tegalalang Rice Terraces. Behind Lotus Cafe in Ubud you’ll find a secret path. Don’t be afraid to venture among cottages and backyards. At one point, a see of green will be revealed in front of you. And that’s my favourite place in Ubud, serene, quiet, like a beautiful secret well kept. At the end of the path, surrounded by rice paddies, sits Sweet Orange Warung. Delicious lunch & the best view.

Ubud, Bali, rice paddies

2. Tegalalang Rice Terraces – the image you have in mind about Bali is probably this. Wild jungle and high palm trees surround the hills transformed in rice paddies, large terraces where white clouds mirror their shapes in the so many sunny days. A magnet for tourists, so wake up early to be there soon after the run rises and the light is perfect for photos, and you’ll have the place only for yourself.

Tegalalang Rice Terrace, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

1. Waterfalls of Bali – All of them For nature aficionados, adventure seekers, trekking fans or simply beauty admirers, Bali is a piece of heaven where some of the most spectacular waterfalls found their ways through the lush vegetation of the jungle. A true paradise, Tukad Cepung Waterfall is a breathtaking beauty and represents my favourite place in Bali from what I’ve seen so far. Not just the waterfall itself, hidden in a cave, where the sun rays reach only in the mornings, but the wild surroundings and the feel on untouched nature beauty. Take a step close to the waterfall and watch the sky as the water drops cover you in seconds. Tibumana Waterfall is another beautiful one.

Tukad Cepung, top best waterfalls in Bali

Private tours are an excellent way of seeing what you really want to see in Bali, with the help of a local driver. For about 30$ a day, you’ll have an amazing time. Or rent a scooter, cheaper and more adventurous. But beware of accidents, one unfortunate event like this can let you quite skinned, in pain and with a ruined holiday.

Tip – For night street photography + a great foodie spoil, head after dark to Gianyar Street Night Market.

Street food Bali, Ginyar, chicken satay

For my second trip to Bali, I’ve already saved a few places too see, like Lembongan island, (closed after the earthquake when I was there), Gates of Heaven in Lampuyang, Ulan Danu Temple, Thousands Island Viewpoint and Rumah Pohon Treehouse in Nusa Penida.

Next: Croatia and Montenegro

 

 

 

 

Bali: Temples, monkeys and butterflies

Memories in the time of corona

I tried but I just couldn’t… Between those long hours of working from home and the few minutes of sneaking outside when the dark covers well enough the deserted city, so that my secret strolls feels less as a guilt, I was tip toeing through my mind, through my memories. I didn’t wanna wake up the monster…. But as every glass of red wine sipped on my couch brings back the scents of Tuscany, the sweet potatoes I just baked in the kitchen bear the feel of wandering the streets of old Cairo, the black sticky rice pudding I made this morning brings a sweet air of mornings in Ubud…. the wanderlust monster is so awake. The sound of a plane earlier before made me run to the window, open it wide, only to check the night sky and see nothing… Still, I knew it was there….

At one point, weeks ago now, we’ve put living on hold, without knowing. Yes, there’s life behind walls, there’s work, dear ones, passions…. but the trees, the grass, the puffy white clouds on a blue sky, the waves, the so many things we love, these are all outside the walls.

1 hour and 45 minutes. This is how long the sun visits my balcony every day, if the sky is clear. And if the wind blows, I might feel some perfume from the blossom tree far beneath. I love every minute of it because I know I will have again more of what I love. From all the beautiful places I have so far seen, I now miss the most those I haven’t yet. But for right now, I’ll feed the monster with some memories… and I’ll adapt & wait.

Last hours in Bali

Wayan, my driver and guide and now friend, came earlier that morning, looking handsome, with a white turban and a blue sarong.

– Here, that’s for you, he said as we got in the car, and gave me a black plastic bag. Sticky rice cooked in small packs of banana leaves, algae pudding and a little plastic bag with orchids.

– This one, from my mom, if you wanna go to the healer, it’s good to offer him flowers as a gift.

We talked the other day about my intention to see a healer in Ubud, an experience I wanted to have but in the same time I felt unsure and intimidated: What if it’s true what it’s said: that person can look into your soul and read it like in an opened book…

I thanked him for his kindness practicing my 3 words so far Balinese and I started devouring all he had brought. I only stopped when I was too full. Yet, never too full to taste a new fruit. Was jackfruit’s turn. People were selling it by the road, entirely or already cut in small pieces and put in plastic bags. The woman we bought it from assured me it was freshly cut. Ignoring all the Western rules about food hygiene and eating peeled fruits in Asia, I had that jackfruit and it was delicious and with no regrets later.

Tanah Lot Temple

Probably the most spectacular places in the world where temples were build are in Bali. Tanah Lot is one of them. The rock that houses the temple, a pilgrimage Hindu site, faces the strong waves since the 16th century, in perfect solitude, on a rocky beach who’s shores are turned green by the algae. A ceremony was undergoing and tens of worshipers were moving around. I entered inside the cave, I drank from the holy tirta (spring) and when I came out I received the Bija, grains of rice washed with holy water or sandal wood placed on my forehead as a symbol of praying and wisdom by a pujari, the temple’s priest.

We took a few steps on the rocks covered by algae, with the majestic silhouette of Tanah Lot in the back and we asked a passer by to take Wayan and I a few photos. I was so happy to have participated in the ceremony and wear the Bija.

Temple in Bali, Tanah Lot
Bali temple, Tanah Lot

Back in the car wanted to know more about the healers in Bali and I kept asking Wayan about this. He said he never actually saw one in person but he heard about one frequented by many locals in his village, including his mom. She, on the other side, believes in “these things”…

– She goes sometimes to see this old man, and then she comes back and….aaa look, the Butterfly Park is here.

– What? Where? Here? I turned my head and yelled: STOOOOP!

A sudden break shook my head and the sharp noise of wheels broke our conversation about the healer.

– What happened, why you said stop? he asked calmly.

– Sooorry, I didn’t expect you’ll stop like this….

Probably any of my friends back home would have killed me for this. But not Wayan, he is the ZEN-est person in the world. I was half out of my car window already, looking at the back, for the big and colourful sign in front of the Butterfly Park.

– I have to get it, I won’t stay long, pleeease, I have to see them….

I have heard about the place but I had no idea was in our way that day. So I left Wayan in the parking, to take a nap and I went inside the garden…. I got the entrance ticket and opened the door to what seemed to be a huge greenhouse. A black shadow instantly crossed in front of my eyes, almost touching the tip of my nose. I made a step back. It was huge: a black butterfly just like the one I was chasing in vain the other day. I followed it for a sec and when I finally looked around, all was moving. Not the plants but the hundreds of butterflies. The plants and many flowers around were packed with them. There were about 10 different species, the biggest butterflies I ever saw, black, white, yellow, one almost transparent, blue, orange and black…. I watched each specie closer, observing every little detail. It was heaven, and an empty one since just me 5 other people were inside. Time has then stopped as I let myself carried out by this butterfly magic.

Butterflies in Bali, Butterfly Park

Inside the greenhouse, hidden in the back, was another greenhouse, smaller and much  darker, with little windows and no plants inside. Hmm… I went there. Wow! Cages filled with cocoons were covering whole the place. A worker was sitting on the ground, picking the cocoons from a big pile of leaves, putting them all together in a basket. We exchanged smiles and he points silently to one of the cages. I got closer and witnessed life and beauty in the making: a few butterflies were just hatching, trembling and slowly stretching their crumpled young wings to a new life, that of a few days only. In a far corner, separated from the others, I noticed something moving. I got closer, determined not to scream and embarrass myself  if I will get attacked by that beast. Cause that’s what it looked like. I was so introduced to the majestic Atlas Moth, the largest in the world, with its wingspan reaching up to 25cm. An absolute wonder with large velvet wings. It surely looked intimidating for someone like me, who’s afraid of anything larger then a fly, but hearing that it has no mouth, I felt encouraged. It lives up to 2 weeks, relying only on its body fat, and it’s a nature’s wonder. Holding it in my palm, completely covered by its gorgeous wings, feeling its trembling fading slowly as it fell asleep in my hand, feeling its weight was simply magical! I truly had the butterfly effect, right there, in my palm.

Bali, huge butterfly Atlas moth

This corner of paradise stands as a conservation centre for many species of butterflies of Bali, housing many of those also protected by law. I left the Butterfly Park happier.

On the way to Besakih Temple

I was still thinking weather to go or not see a healer, the balance being rather closer to no then yes, when we stopped at a gas station. The road was a straight black line splitting in half the rice fields. On one side a row of high palm trees was mirroring into the water as the rice had just started to grow, on the other the crops were ready to be harvested and people were working on the fields. I got closer to a fence to take a better look. Four women were there, with their feet and hands black in the thick mud, carrying large baskets with green rice. One of them saw me. She suddenly stopped and for an instant I felt like a spy. Then she reached her lips with her palm wide opened and released it widely towards the sky with a large kiss sent to me from the green fields, together with a great smile. I answered her back the same way and wave my both hands to them.

Rice field in Bali

– What did you saw there? Wayan asked me in the car.

– I just got a kiss from a few nice ladies.

Wayan didn’t quite understood but also didn’t insist. I was still smiling, looking outside as we drove by villages and rice fields and people. I was collecting visual memories.

 Mother Temple in Bali

The most important, the largest and holiest temple of Hindu religion in Bali, sitting still on the slopes of Mount Agung for more then 2000 years. The complex of 23 temples is known as Mother Temple or Besakih. This was the temple I wanted to see most of all!

Wayan had this idea to let me go visit the temples with a local, apparently a friend of his. They know the entrances, are allowed inside anytime, can bring people with them and I can see more with him then with a regular tour, Wayan promised. I suspected it was just a way to help a friend earn some money but I played the game. Still, I didn’t agree to pay what he asked first: 25$. I said 5. Wayan didn’t intervene. We continue and finally I greed to support the locals and be a good visitor and offer 10$. I then read that some people were asked at the official entrance some donations that can go up to 100$. I guess it depends on luck and negotiation skills.

My “guide” was in his 50s, short, slim and suuuper fast. I did my jogging following him through the village, to the secret entrance he knew. He told me about the temple, its history, the big religious festivities it holds throughout the year and about the last time Mount Agung, the volcano, woke up from its sleep covering all in thick volcano ash and damaging parts of the ancient temple. That was 2 weeks prior my visit. Unfortunately then it was a cloudy day and the author of all those damages was hidden in the clouds.

– It can erupt anytime, you know.

I looked towards the place where I knew the imposing volcano was, hoping that day it won’s woke up. Nor many more after for the sake of people there.

We had a 4 legged companion, a dog, my guide’s dog, who kept starting fights with all the dogs we met in our way. We was trespassing following his master. So constantly it was the two of us and 4-5 different dogs fighting and chasing one another around. Quite a noisy apparition in the little village, that made people look outside their yards and windows to see what was happening. Finally the dog gave up when the number of its opponents got to big for him. He looked at us disappointed and finally listened to his master and went back.

The temple was breathtaking. Or should I say the temples… around 80 of them. We passed from one to another, admiring huge shrines, high pagodas with up to 10 layers of roofs each, some smaller but all with their perfect black shapes made of what seemed to be some sort of straws perfectly build together. The Balinese gates, the high and large steps build in black stone and the multitude of statues of gods were giving the place a mystic air. We met almost no other tourists.

Besakih Temple, Mother Temple, Bali

– You see their faces, it’s both the good and bad. Just like in every one of us: the good and the bad are part of us in the same time.

From the top of the main structure, Pura Penataran Agung, the Great Temple of State, build in stone, the view was incredible. Temples as far as I could see. A faded line of grey smoke was rising up to the sky in the horizon. Probably a ceremony in one of the temples. A cold breeze from the hights of Mt Agung reminded us that in Bali, the first days of September, the sun sets soon after 6PM se we should hurry to get back.

After the previous experience with the restaurant where Wayan took me the other day, where I actually payed for the view to the rice fields, (which I admit, it was great) rather than the food…. I should have ran from the first sign: large white plates…. this time he listen to my words: local food. We went to the night market in Gianyar, his town, a few minutes drive from Ubud. Chicken satay, for me, of course and it was great. Plus, the atmosphere of eating with locals at one of the long tables covered with red oilcloth that were placed in front of the stalls where roasted piglets and chickens were served as food among hot pans lifted in the air over the high flames or bowls with vegetables waiting for their turn. In front was the food, but the cooking show was in the back.

Street food Bali, Ginyar, chicken satay

An unfortunate event has happened as I entered back my chalet: the entrance door became a deadly weapon for a curious lizard that has sneaked inside while I was away. I tried in vain to save the poor creature while Wayan was waiting for me outside, to drop me in the centre of Ubud. I came back really affected by this accident.

I ended the day with a late dinner at Dewa Warung, one of the open space warungs on the main street with bars and pubs in Ubud, listening to traveling stories shared by the people with whom I shared the table. The place was packed with travellers. Another favourite of mine is the nearby warung Biah Biah, where the food is delicious and served on banana leaves, but I like trying more places. The evening shower was just starting when I left so I found shelter under the roof of a store nearby. Huge drops were making people run and the street empty. Ubud is so peaceful on any weather, but rain, rain in particular has a special feel here. I have to say, I like it more then in other places.

It was late when the rain stopped and I could finally walk to my accommodation. I was walking concentrated, trying not to fall since my flip-flops were wet and slippery, when I heard “Hello, dear!”. It was the masseuse who helped me with a late massage the other night, though they were preparing to close. She was from Sumatra and she used to be a man. I wished her good night. I love this, when I travel in a place and get to know some people.

In front of my door was a black spot, an army of huge ants were devouring the poor dead lizard. Nature has turned a tragedy of one into the benefit of others.

Time to leave

Bali, street in Ubud

I had a few hours left in Udud so I spent them wisely: wandering the streets, buying more silver rings with abalones shell in the market, getting lost among stalls with merchandise and paintings, gazing at the lotus flowers at Lotus Cafe. And finally visiting my relatives. I couldn’t leave without a visit to Monkey Forest. I found the monkeys smarter and more civilised then my human fellas. It was funny to watch the two species with so much in common interacting.

Monkey Forest Ubud, Bali, wildlife

Wayan came an hour late. He had a wedding to attend in his village. After a warm and long good bye with my hosts, we left for Kuta, where I was planning to get my last amazing sunset on the beach and my last delicious chicken satay at Bamboo Corner. The traffic was terrible. When we finally reached Seminyak, it was almost sunset time. I wanted to stop but Wayan kept postpone the moment until we reached Kuta. The sun was gone. I was so disappointed and angry with him. I had one last wish: the chicken satay at Bamboo Corner. We split, he left to park the car and I went to get my last supper in Bali. I tried to contact Wayan again, I couldn’t. My connection was dead. I panicked after a few attempts that we lost each-other and we’ll be late for the airport. I decided not to go to the restaurant until I talk to Wayan to make sure we’re in time. I don’t know why I needed extra assurance. When I finally reached him, he was at Bamboo Corner and had no idea where I was. It took us many more minutes to find each other since he had no idea where McDonald’s in Kuta was. I was now desperate. The sunset was lost, the dinner too, now all I wanted was to catch was my flight. When I finally saw Wayan, all sweaty and desperate, I didn’t wanna kill him anymore. We literally ran to the place where he had parked the car, which was at the end of the world. If I only knew…

– I’m so sorry you lost the sunset. And dinner.

– Yeah, me too.

That was our last conversation until we reached the airport. The trip was a nightmare, we were blocked in the traffic, nothing was moving and the minutes were passing. I was so afraid I will lose my flight to Singapore. The next day I had my flight back home. Miraculously, the car started to move. I got in that plane. And so I left Bali, in a total chaos. Probably the only easier way. It’s always hard to leave a beautiful place. And Bali is special. As the plane took off, I promised myself I will be back.

Good Bye Asia!

My first taste of Asia was phenomenal. Back home, for 3 full weeks, every single night I dreamt I was back there, swimming with green turtles, gazing at skies set on fire at sunsets, defying luck on crazy rides on scooters, tasting new foods, praying at all gods and above all falling in love with the world, our world to explore.

8 months have passed and I was back for the second dose, this time in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. But about this, soon. The third Asian adventure was about to end today. I should have visited by now the Great Wall of China, be enchanted by sakura season in Japan and finally fly to the Philippines where I had big plans. All these were postponed…

But no matter what, the thrill for the next beautiful place is here. In the heart.

P.S. Yesterday Wayan shared on Facebook photos with his family’s rice field in Gianyar, planted with his own hands. There’s lockdown in Bali too and no work at all now for people living out of tourism, as Wayan. But as always, he’s smiling.

A few days after I arrived back home, I wrote him. We both apologised for the chaos in that last evening. And we stayed in touch since then. I sent him photos with white winter in Europe and he sends back the forever green of Bali. I hope we’ll meet again soon. He still owns me a sunset in Kuta and a chicken satay 😉 The last, as usual, is on me.

Next: Croatia and Montenegro

 

Bali: Best one day tour close to Ubud

Rice paddies, temples and waterfalls

First big thing I did that fresh morning was chasing a huge black butterfly through the garden in front of my bungalow. I saw it from the terrace as I was just out of bed and I ran down the stairs in pyjamas. But he was not into photos, apparently, and made my mission an epic fail. After a short hide and seek among the banana trees, he left me for the frangipani flowers up in the trees. The rain shower the night before was a bliss for the lush vegetation around. The scent of frangipani was now spicing the morning. I picked up a white flower and placed it between my fingers, like a ring. I raised my hand up and took a photo with the blue pool in the background, surrounded by the green of the paradisiac Balinese garden. Ahhh… mornings in Bali!

Then, back to life with another spicy breakfast: fried rice, fruits, black tea. The one the  day before, with black rice was the only non spicy exception I had in all my trip to Asia. My bungalow neighbour came along the alley. With his frizzy hair and loose clothes he looked like an artist looking for the meaning of life. He asked something in French, I answered back. Hmm… French people, funny how some presume everybody speaks French in Indonesia. Then a voice interrupted my thought:

– Good morning, your driver is here, waiting for you. For that day I had big plans so I arranged this the day before with my host. I abandoned my hot fried rice and ran to meet him.

He was in his late 20s, maybe, though with Balinese people looking so serene, age is quite a riddle. With beautiful Balinese traits reigned my a happy smile and kind eyes. I immediately complimented the sarong he was wearing and he liked that.

– Well, we are going to the temple, soo…. And so I met Wayan.

I insisted he joined me at my table for breakfast, so we can talk more about the plans that day, he did pleased for only 2 minutes, then excused himself and left to wait for me at the entrance. This was inappropriate for him, as he was not a guest, so I let it like this.

The huge Toyota Land Cruiser outside, with beige leather seats and Wayan opening the door for me as my host was waving to us at the gate made me wander again: why would I spent any more cents on holidays in Europe when I can have this for 30$ the whole day??? Asia is definitely perspective changing…

Wander: Tegalalang Rice Terrace

As the first rays of sun were caressing the rice paddies, Wayan and I were already walking on the tiny alleys built between them. Small terraces filled with water, where the rice was growing, were drawing the landscape in perfect lines in tones of green. All shades of green. In some parts the crops were young, like sparse green lines raising from the muddy water, in others thick as hair, completely covering the surface. It’s no wander Tegalalang Rice Paddies is one of the most iconic places in Bali: photographed, posted, Instagrammable and so liked and shared. Wooden cottages in the front and green rice paddies as far as you can see on each side, delimited by coconut trees where the jungle seemed to have taken back what was hers. We went up following the narrow path, while I was taking tens of photos and constantly stopping to take in all that spellbinding beauty and fill my eyes with it… And so we reached the top, where the views all around were spectacular. Such views deserve… a swing, to make the photos look even more spectacular. Sure, someone with initiative thought to give a hand for more Instagram likes, install the swing and start a business asking for a fee. And, boy, that fee was pricey! Wayan tried to negotiate for me. It didn’t worked out, the owner of the swing kept his price. I also tried, with no success. So I used my last negotiation weapon: the leaving technique. The owner didn’t even glimpse.

– God damn it, I can’t make peace at all with this guy!!! I told Wayan, half amused and half pissed off.

– I thought you really don’t want to pay and you want to leave….

– Sure I don’t want to pay but I want that damn expensive swing! Let’s go back, I’ll pay, whatever! It’s not like I do a swing over the rice paddies every day.

With my deepest philosophy of life when it comes to high prices, we went back. I payed the price but told the owner he’s a stubborn guy and he’d better not drop me down there, tens of meters down, cause for sure I’ll be back and haunt him for the rest of his life. We all laughed, after all, this was Bali, all here is about truly living. I was being prepared to be launched up high in the air, into the rice paddies abyss. Wayan got my phone, he was in charge of the photos. The first swing blocked my breath: it was sooo up high! But the views conquered all fears. The next one was even higher and my hands turned grey as they clenched around the ropes of the swing. From the third, I finally enjoyed it: the wind in my hair, the air above my feet, the speed, the fresh scent and the top views of Tegalalang Rice Paddies. And so, Bali swing was checked out of my to do experiences and the photos Wayan took were fab!

Now other tourists were starting to wander around and the feeling that the place was ours entirely vanished. The magic left, the beauty stayed. Two women came to the swing, they made a long face hearing the price and started a shy negotiation attempt. No success. I slowly whispered one of them: “I tried too, he’s stubborn as a mule.” And so they payed.

Tegalalang Rice Terrace, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

As we followed the path back, I asked Wayan a few practical questions, like how much rice can you get from a 3m long parcel, how many crops you can have in a year, what processes are needed, what happens when the rice is mature enough to be harvested. An interesting fact: the land belongs to the state and it’s being rented to people so they can use it to grow rice.

Believe: Pura Tirta Empul – the holy springs and the ritual of purification

Besides beauty, the next feeling that is omnipresent in Bali is the spirituality. For a thousand years, Balinese Hindu worshipers and people from all over the world and of all religions have been drawn to Pura Tirta Empul (Holy Water Temple) where the sacred springs, said to be created by The God Indra, are believed to possess healing and magical powers.

The temple from the outside looks as it’s trying to keep the secret of what’s inside. As we passed the entrance, the story unfolds. The beautiful architecture brings back the old times into the present, with Hindu Gods carved into the dark grey stones, the decorations and most of all the silence around impose a deep sense of respect for traditions, history and spirituality. First think was changing my dress with a green sarong surrounded by a red sash. This was provided at the entrance, for 10k, only for those wishing to perform the water purification ritual, which of course I was going to and which includes offerings, meditation, prayers, bathing process, water drinking directly from the springs and in the end taking the time to figure out how all these made you feel. Here’s how it goes melukat, the purification ritual:

Tirta Empul Temple, Bali, Purification ritual

 Purification Ritual at Tirta Empul Temple

  1. To do it properly, meaning do as the locals do. Start with an offering to the gods in the first section of the temple, called Jaba Pura. The small square plate made of dry palm leaves contains rice, leaves, even sweets, colourful flowers, stick of incense and can be bought as it is. Or, you can prepare it yourself and get more involved in the process.
  2. Next, in the section Jaba Tengah, there are 3 pools with 22 water spouts in total. The first and biggest has 13, next 3 and 6. Start with the first, from the left, from the second spout, skip no1 as it is for children under 10 (though many use no1 also) and no 11 and 12, which are destined for rituals performed for the dead, which are cleansed immediately after they pass away, as an essential part of their preparation for the after life. In front of every spout repeat this ritual: join hands, recite 3 times the mantra “Ooom”, rinse your head and face with water 3 times for body and soul cleansing then drink 3 times and spit out that water (eliminate the negative). Then again drink 3 times and this time swallow, it is said to be for healing. It’s all related to no 3: the 3 gods: Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva. In the end put your forehead under the water, for protection. This will be repeated to all the other spouts, 2-10 and 13.
  3. Go to the second pool, which is about karma, repeat from left to right in front of every of the 3 spouts, just as before.
  4. Go to the 3rd pool, which is believed to cleanse the body of any illness. This time start from the end, from right to the left. The last spout, the one in the left here, is believed to be the most powerful, The Tirta Empul, which gave the name to the temple. here some say the ritual should be done 7 times. And that’s it. Relax after.

Truth is, I found so many contradicting information about how the ritual should be done correctly, like weather to drink or not the water or that women should tie the hair or even about which spouts should be used and how….  The best is to ask a local there who seem knowledgeable and willing to help in change for a tip. Even so, probably some parts will be “adapted” on the way.

In conclusion: I did drink the water. More then 2 years have passed since and I’m alive. Thinking about the fish in the pool where the springs come from the ground, not to mention the ritual involving the dead….this might sound crazy. Still, at that moment, I was somehow absorbed into the energy of the place and thought more about karma then the bacteria in the water. I don’t know if the feel I got in the end was due to the water, a bit cold and so refreshing. Or was due to the good night sleep or the vitamins in the breakfast, etc…. but I felt different: lighter, as if my bodyweight had suddenly reduce, my mind was free from all concerns and a positivity had wrapped my spirit. I don’t know what, but there’s something about that place. Although the purification ritual I have performed was far from what’s called right, I left Tirta Empul filling truly and deeply purified, body and spirit.

Indulge: the waterfalls  – Tibumana and Tukad Cepung

The sight of a guy that had just suffered a scooter fall brought me back to reality.  He was literally skinned on a large portion of his hip, his bum and hand. He was with 3 other friends, just parking their scooters, walking in his underwear while with a hand he was holding up the material of his underwear, revealing his completely skinned butt cheek. It was indeed a hard core view that stayed in my mind, related to all past and future scooter rides.

We followed a path through the jungle. Gosh how green it was! The first waterfall we stopped to was smaller but the landscape around made it look as if we were on a deserted island, somewhere in the promised paradise. I have a thing for waterfalls and Bali is the place to go for people with “my obsession”. There’s something in their power and how nature looks untouched in their surroundings as if waterfalls are ancient guardians of its beauty. Besides all the rice paddies, the temples, the beaches… the OMG factor in Bali are its waterfalls. We took a few photos as I was sitting 2m away from that little one and in a few seconds I was soaking wet under that natural shower.

Waterfall, Bali, Ubud

Next was Tibumana waterfall. We walked deeper into the jungle, passing by durian trees with thorny fruits hanging down the branches,  banana trees carrying their huge red flowers and cocoa trees. We followed the stairs and the curtain of vegetation soon revealed a nature’s wonder: the Tibumana waterfall. Words are powerless. It was an irresistible invitation for a memorable swim.

Extotic waterfall in Bali, Tibumana waterfall

As I was completely charmed by the place, Wayan left me and went a bit further to talk to a friend of his he met there. I later joined them. The place by the river was fill with zen  stones, I noticed them immediately and approached a few which needed a closer look.

– Hi does all these, you see, Wayan told me.

– You mean all those zen stones sticked together with I don’t know what king of glue? It’s impossible otherwise, I joked.

It seemed indeed impossible but yet those zen stones by the Tibumana waterfall in Bali that day of September were mocking all Physics lows we know. I checked them one by one from each angle. My conclusion:

Zen stones in Bali, Ubud

– I got not idea how you do it! We all laugh.

– You know except a few, they resisted even the earthquake two weeks ago.

He meant the earthquake that killed nearly 500 people in Lombok that year, the island close to Bali, and was seriously felt in Bali too.

We left, him with me convinced he’s some sort of Hindu magician 🙂

The wonder: Tukad Cepung

If I only knew what was next….The photos that led me to this waterfall showed maybe 1% of it’s true beauty. That 1% made me really wanting to see it, so I was prepared to see another beautiful place in Bali, but not the best waterfall I ever saw. I few minutes of not so easy trekking through the jungle… The vegetation got wilder and thicker, the path steeper, in some parts very slippery. It seemed this one was hidden well, deep into the jungle. High trees carrying large lianas pouring down the walls. It was like a corridor left once by a large powerful river that in time got smaller, a long narrow passage with straight walls meters high, on top of which the lush vegetation was exploding, sending bits of it down to us through the lianas.

Tukad Cepung waterfall, jungle trekking, Bali, Indonesia

It got darker, the sky was now just a small blue line above our heads, sending little light down there. It was unbelievable, nature couldn’t get more exotic then this, I told Wayan. Water was pouring down those walls like curtains of small, almost invisible waterfalls. It was extremely humid, which very well explains the vegetation so dense inside the passage. I climbed a huge rock for a photo. Got a few scratches, totally worth the sight from the top. We arrived to a cave, passed through it and got out in the light again when I felt small particles of water touching my face like a wind. We followed the river and entered another cave, bigger, and behind its walls, we heard the echo of some voices. A few steps further the waterfall revealed its wonder.

Tukad Cepung, top best waterfalls in Bali

A straight curtain of water was pouring down, from the green of the jungle and the blue of the sky to the dark of the cave. One more problem: it was packed with people, Instagrammers like, turning the place into a never-ending photoshoot. But as patience is always rewarded, I somehow felt the right moment might come. And it did. As by magic, at one point everybody left, one by one. I quickly went back again, inside the cave, walked closer, paying attention to the slippery rocks in the water. I got drenched even at many meters away from the fall. It was now all mine… No other sound but the water falling. I raised my hands to the sky, closed my eyes and let thousands of water drops fall on my face, covering me like I was part of it. It left like I was flying in another world. A few seconds later I opened my eyes again, preparing to leave and I saw Wayan was not the only one saving my moment into a photo for later. A few guys with real cameras were taking a few shots too. One said to me to wait a bit more there as he did a few more. I didn’t mind, it wasn’t me the subject, I just addend a touch of yellow to an already perfect place.

Feel: my first Balinesse massage

After such a day of wonders Wayan and I went back to Ubud, planning the next day and talking about his family, about the famous healers and the Balinese food. I was too happy to be tired. I had one more thing to try: a Balinese massage. I picked one place randomly on a street in Ubud. Light music, candles, petals… A lady came and offered me a tea while she prepared the place. So after a day where every cell of my soul was moved, it was time for my body to feel the same process. Fists, fingers, elbows, she took care of every muscle and bone. That pain was good. Made me feel I was alive and happy in Ubud.

“Was just another day for only me in Paradise”… if I can reinterpret Phil Collins song.

Next: last 2 days in Ubud

Bali – the OMG of Ubud

The sound of the rain drops touching the large leaves of the jungle. From all the wonders of Ubud, this simple memory is my favorite. It’s my ticket back there every time I close my eyes and think about that beautiful place.

The start of September is still dry season In Bali, but that green needs rain. So in all the evenings I have spent in Ubud, rain came to visit the town and gave it a little fresh good night kiss.

It was past 11pm in a rainy evening when a taxi stopped in front on almost hidden gate, on one of the few main roads in Ubud, close to the huge white statue of Arjuna, the Hindu God, at the intersection of Jalan Raya Ubud and Jalan Raya Andong.

Two people and a big suitcase came out, laughing a bit too loud for the quiet around. I was ending a 2h great conversation with my taxi driver, a father of 5 who was so kind to drive me to Ubud at that late hour. We shoke hands as the gate opened and he saw I was now in good hands, with my new host. I entered following the young man who opened the gate and a wave of frangipani perfume surrounded me in the dark, as an irresistible invitation to enter. It was all black at first but little by little the surroundings were revealing: first I saw a few small shrines with Hindu Gods statues and offerings, then a small paved alley, which we followed, passing by a small pond covered with water lilies, then huge white frangipani trees, after a small pool hidden behind a dense curtain of banana trees… and finally the whole garden in its full beauty magically protected by the dark. A “WOW” escaped my lips…  Alice in Wonderland couldn’t have felt more charmed then myself in this paradise like place!

Another host came, a little older man, wearing a green sarong around his waist and a white turban on the head. Smiling, he welcomed me with a Balinese bow.

– Welcome! Your bungalow is waiting for you.

I couldn’t hide my surprise and enchantment when he showed me a 2 levels high wooden bungalow, with a large white canopy bed, two bathrooms, two large terraces, one at the entrance facing the jungle and one in the front, to the pool and garden. The windows were of glass only at the first level, all the rest was opened to fresh air that so took the freedom to wonder freely inside. There aren’t many things I love more then sleeping in opened air… It was perfect! I was expecting a room in a bungalow and I got a palace instead. For less then 10 euro per night this made me wonder what reasons I still have to spent any more holidays somewhere else.

Next thing I had to deal with was a very tangled situation: trying to save my hair from a short cut the next day. The swim in the rough sea and a two hours scooter ride earlier that day left my long blond hair looking as a complicated nest of some sort of bird. It felt unfixable… When I arrived, I throw a glance on the list of services from a beauty saloon I saw inside the garden, just in case I needed to pay them a visit next morning, to fix my hair with the scissors. It was that bad! But miraculously, a long cold shower saved it and the bird’s nest was gone. Feeling fresh and happy I submerged in a deep sleep, hearing the song of the last drops of rain falling on the leaves.

Day 1 Ubud revealed

My condensed marathon in Asia was planned to end in Ubud, with a well deserved quiet time. So in the 1st day I woke up late. An arrow of light have found its way in through the opened windows, straight through the curtains of my canopy bed and finally reaching my hand. Now, in the morning light, all my excitement about that place and its garden from the night before suddenly grew 1000 times more. As I jumped out of bed and went out on the first terrace, the jungle said “hello” in all its green beauty, with unknown sounds and scents. Then I crossed the room, opened the door and ran on the other terrace, this time the garden said “hi there”, with its blue pool as the only contrast in a sea of green, banana trees in bloom, frangipani… Perfection!

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Breakfast was served in the middle of the garden, by the small pond covered with water lilies, where a few koi fish were now awake. Black rice, fresh fruits and black tea! A rare and delicious occasion when food was now spicy, an exception since I arrived in Asia.

Ubud, a place I heard so many things, was out there, waiting for me. I followed the little street outside my accommodation and in minutes I was walking the main street in Udub, with shops, restaurants, coffee places, temples and ohh so many tourists. The place was pretty touristy but definitely had its charm and though I do not believe much in the influence of energies, if there is a place on earth that could change this view, it’s Bali, for sure. That peace and perfect serenity can’t only be related to its beauty and green, there’s something more about this place…

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

My culinary adventure continued as well, I bought a few pieces of all the fruits I found on my way that I have never seen before, sold by people near the market, out of big baskets. I fed on the curiosity in their eyes every time they hurry to cut into pieces a fruit I said I have never tried before, to have me taste it right there and see my reaction. I payed back every gesture of generosity with great excitement and a small quantity I bought. My favourite was by far snakefruit, because of the texture and its taste that reminds me both of pineapple and pomplemousse.

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

And so, tasting fruits I found the market in Ubud, with huge paintings, carvings, all sorts of art pieces. I totally lost any track of time there, buying bracelets made of lava and silver rings in geometrical shapes with abalones mother of pearl. I did what I like best: wander, without a map, a direction or any time constrainment. I entered each of the temples I found on my way, wore a sarong inside provided from the entrace, admire all the details inside and sneak peak to see people praying or bringing offerings and lighting candles.

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

I found a hidden alley with a sign and I thought: why not… I walked away from the street, among backyards, following a narrow path by a small dirty river in a very underground area, I passed by a durian tree with big durians hanging down and out of the blue, all was green in front of my eyes. I remembered a post from a friend who was in Ubud once, saying about the rice paddies there, a hidden place that can be found somewhere behind Lotus coffee. Happily there was no one there except 2-3 people working on the paddies far away.

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

A little path with high coconut treen was splitting this endless green in half, huge squares of paddies on each side, a small broken cottage on the right, a man crossing the way, carrying buckets and tools, his feet and arms black, covered in mud after a working morning. He sends a smile, I answer the same way. I kept looking back, then turn around, then again black, trying to capture all details of this beautiful place. The sun was up, turning the fields into mirrors where clouds were reflecting and the blue sky was turned into silver.

At the end of the alley I found a warung, Sweet Orange seemed to be the name. I could use a light lunch so I entered…. The small terrace inside, with views to the rice paddies, was decorated with coconuts husk faces and Balinese art pieces. I took a seat at one small wooden wound table, on a wooden chair and ordered fried noodles with chicken but asked if they could keep the meat away and a dragon fruit smoothie. I enjoyed my delicious lunch while watching two women in the front, working on the rice paddies with the feeling that I will later remember this moment as one of the best places for lunch in my life. And that I can now confirmed it happened multiple times.

I went back on the busy streets of Ubud where a durian ice-cream tempted me this time. The place had its walls ceiling packed with small yellow lizards which first looked as a cook wallpaper. Only it was one full of life. The sunset time found me wandering the Campuhan Ridge Walk, a famous spot, which I also found by chance. Funny how this happens each time we dedicate the time and patience to a place and we choose to enjoy without a map. The incredible green of Ubud on this side got me in love head over… flip-flops, as I walked by the jungle, among other people, tourists or locals, on one famous cobbled path heading far from the city’s madding crowds of tourists, bikes, cars…

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

And finally, a day painted in green ended in flames… It started with an invitation handed on the street, in front of a temple, by a boy.  It was about the fire dance that was supposed to take place in exact one hour, inside a temple nearby. A chance to catch the story presented in this show from the beginning, not almost the end as in Uluwatu. So not to be missed. I bought one ticket from him and when the time came I took a sit on one of the wooden benches inside the temple’s yard. The fire dance, known as Kecak, began. The performance mixes acting and dancing in beautiful costumes and it narrates the story of Asia’s most epic, Ramayana. Gods, a prince and a princess, a fight between good and bad that ends with a jaw dropping performance: a barefoot dance on hot coals left behind a huge fire made of dry coconuts. As the rhythm grows, the moves intensify and smoke and fire and sparks of light are filling the air in front of an audience left speechless. In the end, woken up from that magic by the frenetic applauses, I had a moment of truth thinking and realising: I am in Ubud!

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

A late dinner with chicken satay and tongue killing hot peanut sauce, (what else)…, in a warung recommended by a policeman – not for hungry reasons but rather for craving reasons, a raw Balinese chocolate tasting and a late rain shower that found me back in my perfect bungalow. That’s how my day in Ubud ended. Listening to all the raindrops hitting the vegetation around, hoping that the insects and the lizards will stay away of my bed.

I fell asleep thinking why don’t we live all days like that, refusing to stay awake for the answer.

Next: Wander, believe, indulge: 3 days in Ubud

Bali: swimming with manta rays

What’s marvellous in life is the unexpected, the unplanned that lies behind that magical number 24, the hours defining every day. It can bring the most unbelievable situations and you never know in the morning that by noon it might be the happiest day, or the saddest. I once read this: “Don’t judge a day by a few minutes”. But it’s exactly what we’re doing. And a day to remember can start as crazy as this:

Nusa Penida 

I didn’t wanna look down! Simply the idea made me dizzy. Every muscle was tensed as I was struggling to somehow move forward on that narrow path, a damn combination of steep and sandy, full of roots and stones meant to make it even harder to track. Sharp rocks on the left served as the only support for an endless row of people coming up. On the other side, the ones going down, including myself, had nothing to grab but a very bad line of fence made of thin brunches and separating us from a 200m deep void. This hell’s path destination was… a beach. Not just any beach, Kelingking Beach, one of the most spectacular, instagramable and praised around Bali. Getting there was not a joke and in flip-flops this seemed even more hard core. I was trying to grab anything that looked secure while also staying away of the nasty monkeys. One of them was pulling a woman’s t-shirt and yelling. Sure I like monkeys but I had to much to deal with already. I looked ahead, among the crowd, to search for any hope that the path will eventually get smoother, at one point. Someone coming up dropped the answer to all of us heading down: “You didn’t even started, it gets worse after this part…” Before I even got to process this, I felt my right foot was sliding down, reaching under the fence, the second one followed half way. The sand was moving beneath me and I felt my entire body pulled under the fence, to the edge, with my feet hanging in the air and a sense of terror grabbing my heart like sharp claws…

I instinctively grabbed the fence which was now almost above me and in a fraction I pulled myself out, back on the track. My heart was bumping and my head was starting to process the danger I was in just seconds before. The people around were too busy to observe my ordeal. For me that was more than enough to decide I didn’t care at all about that beach beneath. So adios, Kelinking Beach! Anyway I never understood how some people see Kelingking Beach in a T-Rex shape…

Kelingking Beach, Nusa Penida, Bali

Back on the top, I had to admit the view was truly breathtaking: white waves drawing moving lines, separating the crystal blue of the sea from the sparkling ivory shade of the sand line. A few steps on the left, down there, in one unreachable part, where the waves were violently heating the cliffs, there they were! Black spots swimming around like some ghosts of the seas – the manta rays. 5 or 6 of them, and only a void between us. I was then the kid in front of the closed candy shop. 

Kuta, 7am

After the previous day in Nusa Penida and the 1st unsuccessful attempt to get to Manta Point, I decided to skip Seminyak and sipping cocktails on the beach bars all day long for a second try to see the manta rays. Was the last chance before I headed to Ubud and further inland in Bali.

That early morning no taxi was waiting for me in front, to drive me to the jetty. I had to find one. In a place famous for partying all night long, like Kuta is, 7am is rather a time to turn on the other side and continue sleeping. Still, I saw one guy with a scooter close to the entrance gates of the beach and I ran to him. He looked as if he had just fell out of bed that second. It was about time I try the scooter taxi in Bali. The next second we were running on the large street in Denpasar, among cars and tens of other scooters. It was fun and wild as long as I ignored all the thoughts about falling over with that taxi. He was very talkative and nice and this helped a lot. He was very interested in one specific subject: if in my country sex before marriage was allowed.

In 15 minutes he dropped me to Sanur and promised to wait for me there at 5 o’clock, and go to Uluwatu where I was hoping to see the fire dance, a traditional Balinese show.

Nusa Penida again

Since this was not my 1st day here and I already started to know the prices in Bali, this time I negotiated hard. I was still new into this skill but the more I did it, the more I liked it. It took a while until I finally got a scooter taxi, one of the few left in front of the jetty after everybody have left. He was a bit older then the majority of the other guys and less pushy. He finally accepted my price as a compromise.

I had a pleasant deja-vu while running again, in the back of the scooter, on the narrow dusty streets of Nusa Penida, among villages, Balinese temples, small warung, (local places serving food). The first stop was Kelinking Beach, which I have missed the day before and in spite my fear of height at that moment, it was unbelievable. There is so much more about Nusa Penida and are so many places to see there which I found out about only after I left. All those, including the Kelinking Beach down there, are my so many reasons to go back to Bali.

But the reason I was there again were the manta rays. It was high season for that, so perfect timing. My guy drove me after again to Chrystal Bay, like the day before. I tried again to find a boat and again the only price I got was too high. No groups at that hour. I was disappointed, angry, hungry (I had nothing to eat yet that day) and above all the weather was bad, it was cloudy, looking as if was going to start raining any second. But what was the most annoying was my scooter driver. It seemed to me as if he didn’t give a damn, though he saw how much I was struggling to find a solution and how much I was trying. I presumed his attitude was because of the price I offered him, which was not cheap at all but rather more fair and not one for silly tourists. We finally left Chrystal Bay and on the way back to the jetty, I presumed, I was thinking only about how I missed this opportunity by not even trying. None of us was saying anything. I saw the shore in the front and the boats and my guess was confirmed: he was actually taking me back to the jetty, more then 2h before the scheduled boat back to Bali. Great! What a wasted day! I was so angry with him and the situation. Of course, he wanted to get rid of me to get another customer that day…. I was thinking to a 3rd day in Nusa Penida, the next day, but that meant less time in Ubud and the rest… so not a good idea.

I was surprised when he turned on the left…. I still didn’t say anything to him. We stopped on a beach nearby, with a few wooden cottages in the back where people were selling different stuff.

– Let’s try here too… he said.

When I saw 2-3 of them were selling tours, I saw a ray of light. He took me straight to a lady he knew here. Briefly, the only option to go for an hour to Manta Point was to get a boat by myself. The price, 50$. With a group in the morning was 20$, some told me even 10$. She also mentioned that on that hour and weather the chances are low and that even in the good mornings some people have barely saw one manta ray for a few seconds. I was willing to give it a try anyway. While we were talking, a guy came. He wanted some information for the next days, he was staying in Nusa Penida. I jumped in and told him if he wants, I can share the boat whit him that day too. I was hoping to share the price, of course. He answered without even looking at me that no, he was tired, he planned to do this early, the next morning. He listened after a bit to what I was talking to the lady about the price and I felt there might be a chance he changed his mind. I said, this time without the smile, just looking over my shoulder for a sec:

– It’s 25$ in case you decide to come, I go alone now anyway….shall we go? I turned to the guy with the boat.

And, the grumpy guy finally decides to come too! He really wanted to do it and he decided to try twice, in two days. I was more then happy to hear it, but I stayed cool as ice.

In a few minutes I was in a boat with 6 Spanish guys, the grumpy guy and 5 others we had to drop in Lembongan and the men with the boat. I understood from what they were talking that the grumpy guy almost got arrested for marijuana possession. Laws in Indonesia are very strict when it comes to all sort of drugs and he got away only by paying a huge fine.

After Lembongan all that was left for the 3 of us was to get to Manta Point…. The sky was dark, it was a bit windy and the sea was wavy. The air was salted and I felt cold. I had 0 envy to get into water that day. What was I thinking…. and besides all these, it was 3pm and I was truly hungry. I had all these thoughts in my mind when the boat slowed down close to a golf where I could see another boat. We headed a little further, straight to the shore which was actually a 2m perfectly straight wall, covered in moss, where the lever of the sea was growing and decreasing as the currents were moving. One turquoise spot further signalled a place with sand beneath. All the rest was dark deep blue. But there I was the first black shadow passing by, a few meters away from the wall. Then another one, and another one. The mantas were there!

Nusa Penida, Bali

– Here they are, you are lucky! Go, jump in….! The guy with the boat said.

I looked at the grumpy guy. He, like me, was analysing the place. I was afraid and so was he. The currents seen very strong there and though I am a decent to good swimmer, I didn’t know I could swim there without being smashed to the wall by the current.

Nusa Penida, Bali

We were asked if we want life jackets and fins. The grumpy guy took fins, I didn’t took anything. I was thinking that maybe I should just watch from the boat….The only thing that made me jump it was the insistence of our guide who assured us it was ok and the water was not cold.

And with my heart beating hard and quite terrified, I started one of the best experiences I was given to live: swimming with the manta rays. Nothing can describe the feeling. After minutes when I couldn’t get by breath to a regular level because of the effort to swim there, I finally got my balance and though it was maybe one of the roughest places to swim, I did it for almost an hour. An hour when the mantas came back and forth, centimetres away from me, approaching with they mouths opened, as they were feeding on the plankton, and right in the last second before the impact, they gracefully turned under me as all I could see then was black. They were huge and impressive and such gorgeous creatures. I knew it is forbidden to touch them but one of them touched me slowly while passing by. I was almost floating, making no moves so they feel safe and swim among us, enjoying their meal. We were lucky to be the only boat around for most of the time. After another one came but still we were about 5 people in the water, swimming with the mantas and practically just waiting for each of them to pass by us.

Swimming with manta rays in Nusa Penida, Bali, Indonesia

At one point the grumpy guy asked for a life jacket and asked me if I need one too.

– huhhh…It’s hard swimming here…. I said I was ok and prefer swim freely. I guess this was the moment when he finally started to see me with different eyes because after that se kept call me “sister” and we became friends. After all, we shared a magic moment together and our eyes were shining.

Swimming with manta rays in Nusa Penida, Bali, Indonesia

Our guide took us photos and was in charge with filming with my camera. I was the last to get back on the boat, after taking one last look to the black beauties in the water. Only this time I needed help, my body was so tired and my muscles ware not responding to my commands, I barely managed to bet on the first step and Jonas pulled me up in the boat.

We left leaving the mantas to continue their feast. We all 3 made a cry of joy as we left. We really did it and according to our guide this was a rare moment where there were no boats around and so many mantas in the same place, swimming around. I already know that nature offers moments like this only when she wants so. But when they happen, magic happen.

Swimming with manta rays in Nusa Penida, Bali, Indonesia

As we arrived back to were we started, the lady and my scooter driver came running toward us to the boat as if they knew we had great news! I jumped on the beach and run to hug the lady and then to my driver to whom I didn’t have words good enough to thank him.

The last to hug was Jonas. He gave me his number, (he had no social media accounts), and a few weeks after I send him the photos and videos with us and the mantas. He asked me how I was doing and ended with “Thank you, sister!”

My day was not over. After water, fire was following. When back in Sanur, my scooter driver in Bali was waiting for me and for about 45 minutes we drove 60/h, on the back of its scooter, to Uluwatu temple. I still thank God I have survived that race but since I am alive I can say I am grateful for that adrenaline dose.

We arrived late in Uluwatu and find our way among the monkeys in the park, these ones were big and more aggressive then the ones in Nusa Penida. Dancers in colourful costumes were lighting the night and sparks were reaching high in the air. The cowed was as hypnotised in front of this dance with fire as the main performer. Far in the horizon, the black shape of the Uluwatu temple was splitting the red sky in two. The sunset was over, the night was gaining.

After another crazy hour drive, among cars and now hundreds of scooters, we arrived back to Kuta. I changed some money, I avoided being scammed at the money exchange with a classic trick in Bali and I finally had some food for that day, in a place recommended by my driver, Bamboo Corner. And so I was introduced to my first chicken satay with peanut sauce and gado-gado. It was so delicious and so spicy and I still dream about going back to that place and order the same thing 3 days in a row. And the price… around 5 euro, two meals + beer.

I soo love Bali!

Next: Ubud, Bali

 

 

 

Most Magical Christmas markets in Europe

How precious are now my memories of past Christmases!

Those old times when I needed a ladder to fix the golden star on top of the big natural Christmas tree, decorated with the same decorations every year, always on Christmas Eve, never sooner. Puffy bright white snowdrifts, taller then us, red frozen cheeks, that crisp cold and the huge snowflakes falling, my old wooden sled running down the hill, the delicious scent of baked cookies coming from my mom’s kitchen, the carolers’ bells outside, all my best friends from the small street that served as the scene for my amazing childhood… And I can not forget the Christmas carols my friends and I sang from door to door, in our neighbourhood, in the most expected evening of the year, the Christmas Eve. The presents under the tree come second to all these joys thanks to which I am now among those that love Christmas truly madly deeply.

And this Christmas joy takes me every year to the amazing Christmas markets throughout Europe. I love them all, some maybe a little more:

Paris Christmas Market

Paris in December, Christmas market in Jardin des Tuileries

This year Avenue des Champs-Élysées was no longer the scene of the main Christmas Market in Paris. Instead, the joy was placed in Jardin des Tuileries, a perfect location if you ask me. Close to Place Vendôme and its stylish jewellery stores, where a handsome butler dressed in red invites you to see the mind-blowing diamond necklaces at Cartier, close to Louvre, under the ray of light sent to the sky from the far Eiffel Tower, with the big white wheel and white wooden stalls serving French délicatesses from oisters and all sorts of cheese, to soup a l’onion or raclettes. Paris is always a good idea, I use to say. And a great one in December, even during the big strike. And if you get there by January the 5th, don’t miss out the fabulous Christmas tree in Galeries Lafayette, where this year’s Christmas decorations theme is inspired by the amazing bees.

Paris in December, Christmas tree, wonderland, Galeries Lafayette

Reykjavik in December

Reykjavik, Iceland, December mood, Christmas market

December in the North is special. I tested it a few years ago in Iceland. Trolls legends, myths about the elves and a land of fire and ice like I have never elsewhere. Sure it has also its dose of Christmas spirit market: an ice rink, animated with kids skating around, surrounded by a few stalls serving hot drinks and hod-dogs (I love Islandic hod-dogs) in central Reykjavik. It is very different from the Christmas mood in Germany, Bavaria for ex, for sure not so colourful and joyful but it’s magical in its own Nordic way.

Germany – Munich winter wonderland 

Christmas Market in Munich, Germany

And speaking of the German Christmas mood… if you wanna be amazed, just head straight to Bavaria! Because Germans take Christmas very seriously, probably the most serious in Europe! You will feel like a child again wandering among the wonderful stalls, every one of them looking like a winter fairytale. There was even a traditional contest held every year to honour the best decorated stalls.

Munich Christmas Market, Germany

The food is the best, the roasted almonds with caramel and cinnamon are something to dye for, the sweet hot glühwein will get you dizzy and wanting for more and the stores windows will make you wanna stare in front of each one forever.

Munich, Bavaria, Germany, December, Christmas market

Plus, there are so many Christmas Markets in Munich, I only got to see about 5 of them. The Medieval Christmas Market was fantastic, looking as if I was back in 1600.

Austrian cities and the wonderful Christmas markets

Close to Munich, there is another Christmas markets hot spot, in the very heart of Tirol region, in Austria. The white snowy Alps surrounding Innsbruck, with its gingerbread like colourful houses by the river that splits the city in half, the stalls selling baked maroons, glühwein, apfelstrudel or yummy wursts seasoned with sauerkraut, it all looks and tastes as in a mix between the Sound of Music and The Snow Queen movies put all together. A place where meeting Santa on the street comes naturally.

Innsbruck, Austria, Tirol, Christmas Market, December, winter in Austria

This is no way all that Austria has to say when it comes to Christmas Markets. For sure its capital, Wien, is among the most popular destinations in December and its Christmas Markets, found everywhere around the city, look just so Christmasy with their pretty stalls that make you crave you could buy everything.

Wien, Austria, Christmas Market, December

 

But my favourite place in Austria, in December, is actually the city of music, the birthplace of Mozart: Salzburg. This city looks as if it was made especially for the Christmas spirit. Add a bright full moon shining above its main square Christmas Market, surrounded by snowy mountains, with a choir of carol singers interpreting “The Firs Noel” Christmas carol in front of an old church and there it is, the perfect December post card.

Salzburg in Austria, Christmas Market in December

Bratislava winter fairytale

Bratislava, Slovakia, Christmas Market in December

Blackcurrant mulled wine, traditional bread and goose fat with red onion and even delicious Asian food were among the treats I choose in Bratislava Christmas Market. This city holds the Christmas mood with pride, tempting visitors from its richer and fancier neighbour, Wien, with great prices and a beautiful old town. Bratislava offers a great place to enjoy December in a great European style.

Prague – a scent of Christmas

I still remember the scent of freshly baked gingerbread in Prague. With traditional Czech music, plenty of treats and a variety of hot drinks, in a city old square that looks sublime and ideal for a Christmas Market, with the huge Christmas tree placed in the middle, Prague is also among my beautiful places and favourite destinations in December.

December in Prague, Christmas market,

There would also be a few words to say about London and Milan in December, but those are a bit older memories and for sure Christmas Markets there have changed a lot since when I was there during December.

Wherever you may be, at home or away, with family, friends, loved ones, pets or even alone, just do that: let the Christmas joy tickle your soul and enjoy it. It really is the most wonderful time of the year. And let’s not forget there is one place where Christmas lasts 360 days a year and that is Rovaniemi in Finland, where Santa’s official home is.

XOXO

December, Christmas, Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

 

 

 

 

 

Bali: let’s talk Nusa Penida

7:00 am, Kuta, Bali

I’m telling you this: Everyone would be a morning person on his first day in Bali. Including myself. I was up, fresh, anxious to go.

Walking on the small alley, across the garden, still quite blind at that early hour, I almost stepped on something that looked at first like a little bunch of everything. I couldn’t quite tell what it was and why was it right in my path. Little baskets, the seize of a palm, made of dry leaves and filled with rice, frangipani flowers, candies or other foods, decorated with incense sticks that were spreading a strong scented smoke in the morning air, were placed on the ground. Everywhere, so I had to make a last second jump to avoid one. In the front I saw a small shrine representing a god, with more of these stuff around. Of course! Those must have been offerings prepared by the people for the Hindu Gods. In Bali these offerings are called canang sari.

The taxi driver from the night before was waiting outside, to take me to Sanur, for the ferry to Nusa Penida island. What a nice morning as Kuta was waking up! On the way I saw what a serious thing those offerings are in Bali. They were literally everywhere, in front of every house, restaurant, big temples, small temples, shrines, even by the roads. And the next abundant thing were the scooters. Thousands of them, showing already the signs of the mad traffic later in the day.

My taxi driver helped me find an exchange office. This was the 4th Asian currency in 10 days, so, damn, I was totally lost in exchange when it came to Indonesian money. We then reached the jetty, I got my tickets and headed by myself to the beach where the boat was waiting. By the way, a very ugly, muddy and dirty beach with waters looking like 3 days old tea. But the mood was something else. People from every corner of the world were there, and not a single posh looking one. It was a very laid back atmosphere, as if each of us knew a fabulous day was to start. Serene faces, probably my first contact with the Bali effect.

Nusa Penida’s wow mood

One hour later I stepped on the beach in Nusa Penida. Tens of scooter drivers were waiting in front of the jetty. Scooter taxi. In a few seconds, most of them have left with clients. Some tourists were renting scooters and I wished I had the guts to do that too. I said my ok to the first guy with a scooter who stopped me, after a short eye scan to make sure he looks safe. I agreed the price on the spot and we left. Later in the evening I learned I payed him 3 times what was usually the price. Some lessons needed to be learned.

In a few seconds we left the jetty and the beach behind and we rode on narrow bumpy streets, passed through small villages, by bannanas plantations, small warung (the small businesses that offer food everywhere you look in Bali). In some parts, too many maybe,  people have left their marks on the island, a lot of construction going on, in others the landscape was still untouched and nature was winning, covering everything with a vibrant jungle green. The breeze smell like happiness and peace.

Nusa Penida Bali, beautiful destinations, beautiful places

– Will you take me to Manta Point? I wasn’t sure if he didn’t hear me or he didn’t know the place. My scooter driver who’s name I couldn’t pronounce after 3 attempts so I gave up, didn’t answer.

After a while we stopped in a small village, his village as he said and he excused himself for a few minutes. Meanwhile I saw some towers, the Balinese kind and decorations behind a high concrete wall. Probably another temple, I thought, like the so many that made my head turn on the way, so I just headed there straight, on a narrow path between locals houses. I found a large gate and entered, amazed by the beauty of what seemed to be a small temple. A shrine inside was decorated with fresh flowers and plenty of offerings. Was beautiful and so peaceful. This until the very next second when I was running out the gate, as a barking angry pit-bull was chasing me. Dear God! Who keeps pit-bulls in temples? I stopped running only after I was out in the street.

– Dogs in a temples….chasing people… I mumbled while meeting my friend driver, pretending I was relaxed but I was as scared as hell.

– Yeees, home temples, many people have so they can honour the gods in their home and so protect it. And so I found out about home temples and that I was actually trespassing someone’s property. Bali was an island of surprises.

My now friend presented me his brother and they exchange the scooters. Apparently ours was broken and needed to be fixed. We continued our journey.

– Do you know where Manta Point is? I started once again…

– Yes, but you can’t drive there, only boat…

– Then how can we get there?

– We will, I show you.

Broken Beach

We stopped in a scooter parking, actually a very dusty place where everybody left their scooters. We followed a path like everybody else and soon the blue sea was drawing the horizon in front of us.

Broken Beach, nusa Penida, Bali, Indonesia

An Asian woman, dressed in a long translucent dress, totally out of place for where we were, carrying a heavy makeup case from one place to another, was driving her 2 friends crazy while she was posing like a celebrity on the very edge of the cliff, miming what looked like some sort of Titanic scene. So this is how instagrammers die for a photo, I thought. I was in flip-flops, shorts and t-shirt, wearing only sunscreen on my face. Couldn’t care less but the place looked like a photo shooting set. There were more of that woman’s specie around, men too…..

Instead I climbed a dry tree around, one with a funny shape, that my driver lead me to for a nice shot. The Broken Beach was like a window formed on one side of the shore with high straight walls ending down into the rough waves. The high cliffs were reaching far in what was an impressive 180′ landscape. Angel Billabong’s natural pool carved by the waves into the rocks, was a crystal clear green wander, opening to the blue sea. The salty breeze was caressing my skin. It was perfect with one,  I was hungry.  I was too busy to eat since the night before.

My driver friend came carrying a paper bag with something fried, hot and oily inside. I remembered about Bali belly and how I should avoid funny foods… Maybe just a bite so I won’t refuse him as a rude person. Ohoo… and that one bite was just the start. Those were mango fritters, slices of mango fried in some sort or crust, very popular in Bali, mostly with bananas. With mango, trust me, are divine. I ate them all, I forgot about any Bali bely, I could die after and be happy.

Crystal Bay

Another scooter ride and we arrived on a beautiful alley with high palm trees on each side. The path was becoming sandy as it touched the beach in the front. This was finally a nice beach. Sandy, clean, crystal blue sea. It was also a starting point for Manta Point but at that hour of the day I could only take a private boat for 60$. Too much! I tried to negotiate, it didn’t work.

Crystal Bay, Nusa Penida, Bali, Indonesia

My friend insisted I could still see some manta ray if I swim there, further from the shore. If I was lucky. He also promised it’s a place great for snorkelling. I left my clothes on an area where there were not so many people, close to the rocks, where a small brook was rushing from the island to the sea. The sand was covered with small fragments of corals, polished by the waves. From here I could see the entire beach, guarded by a curtain of palm trees, with a few boats near the shore, with the beach bar, with a few guys selling green coconuts to the people on the beach. I couldn’t wait for a swim after all the dust on the way. I swim far away from the shore, did some snorkelling, saw some nice corals and fish. Nothing wow and no manta ray around for sure. After about an hour, I decided that was it, to get back to the beach. I started swimming back when I realised the water was getting shallow, too shallow and I got in an area surrounded by corals. Sharp corals. This didn’t seem ok at all. I tried to find a place where the water was deeper as I was almost touching the corals while swimming. This means serious bruisers as these creatures are as fragile as rough. I tried to move very slowly. Not no mention that I had no indention of harming one, as these beauties grow 1cm in a year. But the currents were nasty and since I was approaching the beach the waves got stronger. At one point one just rolled over me and for a sec I totally lost it. I was starting to be quite scared. I looked back, another wave was coming so I moved as fast as I could. Happily and miraculously I got to the shore, exhausted but not bleeding at all.

Riding a scooter with a salty wet hair in the middle of Nusa Penida, after a well lived day, this is something to live for. Only one thing was bothering me: the manta ray I didn’t got to see. This wish was now growing to obsession.

I got back to the jetty right in time to get the boat back to Sanur. My taxi driver from that morning was no where to be found, though he has promised to wait for me there. I looked for him for about 15min and then got another one. The ride back to Kuta took forever! I so learned another Bali lesson: never a car taxi, always a scooter taxi, as thousands of scooters passed by us constantly while we were blocked in that hell traffic jam. The sunset was soon happening and I was still far away from the beach. Every minutes was like forever, I felt like running.

– I think will be better if I leave you here, if we drive will take more then an hour.

I jumped out of the taxi and literally started running, hoping the direction was correct. But somehow, I always get the right way to any beach. It seemed a never-ending street completely blocked with cars, scooters, people moving, with restaurants and stores on each side, music in one side, traffic jam noise everywhere. It was a madness! But in spite all that… all was orange.  Incredibly orange! Never seen before orange! Sunset was happening! Too many people walking too slow! I finally saw the gates to the beach, Kuta beach. And as I finally entered the beach was like I stepped into another dimension.

Sunset in Kuta, Bali, Indonesia

The biggest sunset display, one like I have never seen before, a 180′ wonder made me stop in awe. The sun was gone now but the horizon and the whole sky was in fire. So this was the famous sunset in Kuta, so praised and talked about. I believed it myself. It’s one of a hell fire sunset, burning Kuta out and send it straight to the night vibes of summer partying in Bali. Amazing!

Next: obsessively searching the manta rays in Nusa Penida

 

Indonesia, Bali: take me to Kuta beach

Jungle on the left, jungle on the right, myself in the middle, somewhere. With my hair flying in the wind, I was running on a scooter drove by a local on a dusty bumpy road. Banana trees with large leafs, some taking a bow and offering heavy green bananas, others, more proud, only red banana flowers, all were guarding the road. It was indescribably green. And wild and untamed. Every single time another scooter or car was passing by, magic was happening: we all became invisible in a thick cloud of dust. No one cared!

– Could you take me after to Manta Point? the scooter driver nod his head. Must have been the 5th time I was telling him this in the last 30 minutes, since we left the jetty.

Some dreams are old, other new. Mine was just two days ago born and was already taking me to a famous place, called Manta Point, where Andrew has told me the other days, in Mabul island in Malaysia, how he experienced something out of this world: swimming with the manta rays. September is a perfect time, he added. So there I was, dreaming eyes wide open that day, on another island: Nusa Penida.

Hello Bali

It was evening when I landed in Denpasar, the airport in Bali. Carrying my yellow padded backpack and scratching the allergy on my arm, which I was now officially calling “The revenge of the zebra prawns in Malaysia”, because, of course, of how I got it.

First thing I did arriving in Bali was searching through trash bin, in the airport. This is what emptying your pockets in the wrong moment brings you. My huge suitcase was the only one not showing up. I realised it just after I had decluttered my pockets, throwing away everything, including my ticket with the evidence that I had a luggage. I’ve managed to find it in the trash, ignoring some curious looks and soon after I was reunited with my belongings.

– How much? I needed to get to Kuta

– To Kuta? 20$ The lady answering was organising the taxi drivers waiting in front of the airport exit.

– That’s too much, it’s not even 4km… I left pretending I didn’t hear her asking how much I want to pay.

– Will you drive me to Kuta? I said to a young men I meet a few meters after, following the universal wisdom: the younger, the cheaper.

And so, with 10$ I got in front of my guesthouse in 20 minutes and I also booked a trip for the next day. I knew prices in Bali are cheap but I had no idea what Bali cheap means. I was going to learn it, the hard way, in the next 24h.

– See ya in the morning, at 7am. The taxi driver left, leaving me with my smiling hosts, in the lobby build outside, in the yard. I was welcomed in a beautiful garden with warm smiles and the famous Balinese greetings, joined by a bow. I was starting to feel excited: I was in Bali. A boy showed me my room which was actually an apartment. Huge! The bathroom was the size of my bedroom back home. Ant the price? 5 damn $! I felt as if discovering that Paradise exists.

I was hungry and it was getting late so I left my stuff and I rushed out to check the surroundings in that place named Kuta… and grab some food. I kept repeating one mantra to myself: watch your gourmand mouth, stay away of the Bali belly, getting sick while alone here is bad, bad, bad.

Bali belly is just as famous and terrible as the Delhi belly in New Delhi.  It keeps you in the bed or should I rather say: on the toilet, for a few days. The rules are simple: only bottled water, even when brushing your teeth, no peeled fruits from markets, no fresh anything, and God forbid, no street food! That’s the devil. Meanwhile I kept hearing in my head my Aussie friend, Ilana, telling me a few months before, while we were tracking in Petra: “Don’t worry, you’ll get the Bali belly, everyone does, we all did, but you’ll be fine, cmon, you’ll enjoy Bali”…

I was so determined to play it safe. Until the first street food stalls I met around the corner. They also had green coconut so who could resist??? It’s been 24h already since my last green coconut in Mabul. I got fried rice and shrimps, thinking that street food might be ok since is well cooked on fire. The lady was way over nice to serve me since they were closing the place. She stopped from what she was doing to take my order and then ask the cook, a guy next to her, to make one last fired rice for me. It was good, quite delicious, but I was eating and thinking how bad it will be if I will spend the next days in bed… vomiting and trying in vain to live outside the toilet.  I was quite frightened of this perspective and stopped eating after a few bites.

– Finished? the lady asked me?

– I am soo full, yes, was super good, thank you… I was so lying considering that I ordered it saying I was starving. And the idea I was wasting food, which I almost never do, made me feel so bad.

She brought me a spoon to use it for the soft interior of the coconut, that white soft part which is so delicious in green coconuts. I was alone, sitting on the margin of a long metal table with white plastic chairs. The surrounding street-food stalls around, decorated with tens of photos of dishes that they serve, were closing also, washing dishes, throwing garbage, preparing the next day.

Even if I knew I shouldn’t judge Bali by the impression Kuta leaves, I couldn’t stop thinking: what’s all that? A short walk after my frugal dinner, on the main street, didn’t help me change that poor impression. With the beach on one side, big but too dark to see much though the impressive Balinese gate at the entrance, hidden after behind a 2m concrete wall and the pubs on the other side, passing by Hard Rock caffe and a few night clubs, all these didn’t help me doubt my first and bad impression of Bali. Is this all? Can’t be! That high gate to the beach, the famous Kuta beach, that was the only one related so far to how I imagined Bali. And what I could see from the beach, the wide beach with high palm trees, was promising more.

I went to my room, took a cold shower, again (no hot water apparently) and fell into a deep dreamless sleep at the end of a long trip and the beginning of a fantastic new one.

 

 To be continued: Nusa Penida and the famous sunset on Kuta beach

 

 

Traveling solo since 2010