First day in Jordan: Bedouins, traditions and history

I had to stop to catch my breath. We did it! We climbed all the 800 steps carved into the rainbow colored rocks of the canyon, all the way up to the Monastery. I wasn’t dreaming. I was in Petra. “You can’t say you saw Petra if you don’t see the Monastery”. I heard this too many times the night before, in the restaurant, from the Jordanian guy who was trying to convince me and a couple of Americans to pay more to a Bedouin guide who could get us there. And now, Christine and her husband, they had made it too. Instead of a guide they opted for two donkeys to carry them for most of the way up. I waved my hand towards them, from the top of the rock facing the Monastery, as they were resting in the shade of one of the two large stone walls guarding the ancient monument. And I got back two thumbs up as an answer.

The view was unbelievable. I must have turned in circle a few times. The canyon where we came from in the front, hidden behind the rocks, the vast plateau with the Monastery facade in the left, where a donkey was trying in vain to get a few centimetres of shade from a pillar, a few kids were following a herd of goats with long years and two Asian girls were taking selfies. In the entire side in the back and the right were deep valleys with rocky mountains and sharp cliffs of dark green, contrasting the reddish shades of the so dry canyon. And they were reaching as far as you could see.

At 5am the day before I left Jerusalem. I was even more grumpy than the hostel host that was already awake and come barefoot to open the large entrance door for me, wearing only his shirt and looking like a cricket with his naked skinny legs. Who cared after a night when I couldn’t shout an eye… Maybe it was the too sweet black tea’s fault, the one offered by my Palestinian new friend or the stories about his life, which triggered a storm of thoughts in my head. The morning sky in Jerusalem was divine. The sun was coming out from a huge puffy cloud, spreading orange-pink shades and a multitude of rays of light so amazingly well defined, like in those old paintings depicting God. If you don’t believe in anything, Jerusalem will raise some questions to you and if you believe, probably some answers.

I was in no mood of socialising with the rest of the group. We drove by a wire gate with surveillance cameras for many km before finally reaching the border with Jordan.

Hello Jordan

The first impression of Jordan, right after crossing the border, was of that of a country facing strong economic difficulties, to say it gently. I’m not coming from a rich country myself, poverty and hardship is not something never seen before for me, but life there seemed tougher. It was the middle of the Ramadan month. Small towns with dusty streets, tiny shops with little to offer, mini eateries with almost no food and barely one two clients, simple buildings with 2-3 floors and old commercials in Arabic, small square houses with small windows. Only one color: limestone. From buildings to the streets, people’s clothes and the dust all around, all was matching that same color – limestone. I thought Israel landscapes were arid, but Jordan looked like a desert and the towns we drove by looked almost deserted. Rarely I could spot silhouettes of men wearing grey or beige thobe, touching the ground, or women covered in black niqab. All were moving slowly. A group of kids started running towards our bus, waving their hands. As kids everywhere, they were full of joy. Days after I realised I had no photo taken with the places I first saw in Jordan. I was completely absorbed.

As we were leaving little towns behind, an open plateau was stretching far away in that burning sun. Because of the heat, the distant areas seemed covered in mist. The road was just a line between two identical sides. And right there, where almost nothing grew and water exists only when brought by rain, a large black tent was rising sometimes out of nowhere. More like a large blanket suspended on a few wooden posts, with nothing else around on sides, just a few carpets covering the soil. A few goats around, surrounded by a fence or usually free. Always a blue water storage tank near. Never many people around. Sometimes only a woman in black niqab with a child following a herd of goats, other times two young men doing something around the tent, often 3-4 people sitting under the tent. All men wearing shemagh to cover their heads. Those were the Bedouins, the so called pure blooded people of Jordan, the first to live on these dry lands. For the next days their simple lifestyle in the middle of the digital age and comfort will not cease to amaze me. These people are the first to see the sun in the morning and the last to watch it in the evening. They don’t live in the wild cause they are often close to the cities and what we call civilisation, turning heads away from the comfort as we know it and living a different way, their own way. Closer to nature, in harmony with nature. For the Bedouins outside means home. These people of the desert, nomadic populations living in regions of North Africa and the Arabian peninsula, are free people.

Jerash, Jordan

We stopped in Jerash. The Pompeii of the Middle East. Except here, sand was preserving the ancient treasure of the city built by the Romans. Majestuous gates, colonnaded avenues, temples and theatres, all speak of times of fame and glory of the ancient city, once an important imperial centre. It was so beautiful and so terribly hot, I was using a scarf to cover my hands. My head was burning and the hat I forgot home was now becoming a basic need.  

We passed through a small bazar. I talked to a vendor about my country and his. He sold me a pomegranate juice. I felt I was alive again. And we left.

The places and people I saw when we first entered Jordan had nothing in common with the capital Amman. Beautiful buildings, large streets, residential areas, nice stores, parks and a crazy traffic. Basically the description that could suit any other capital. Only one thing in common: the limestone color. The city was proudly wearing an all limestone shade.AmmanThe cooler breeze and the panoramic view of the Promised Land on top of Mount Nebo were another treat to be spoiled with by Jordan. The place where Moses looked down in the past to what we call now the Dead Sea, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. And where now, Steve, an american born and raised in US, with old Jew origins, whom I’ve talked a little before about accents in US, asked rhetorically how come the Muslims admit the existence of Moses but without accepting the legitimate right of Jews to live in those lands.   Mount Nebo  It was passed afternoon and my last meal was more than 20h before. Others in our group of about 15 people were in the same boat. First we started joking about it and teasing Wael, our Jordanian guide who was really trying to find a place selling food. But in Jordan they take the Ramadan very seriously. Most of the people fast until sunset. This means almost no one sels food, as this is considered a temptation for those who fast. All the small restaurants he knew were closed. Every time we stopped and Wael went out of the bus in search of food, coming back empty hands there was a general  AAAA to be heard. First we joked about it and so we started talking to one another. As only a few places in the bus were occupied, since we were a small group, everyone had empty seats around. Now hunger crossed these barriers. Finally Wael came back successfully with two bags of some pastries. I wasn’t so happy when I got mine. But one first bite and I was the happiest. It was delicious, still warm and all filled with dates cream and some sort of spices. I still have gourmand fantasies with that.

The sun was burning less strong when we arrived in Madaba. In that place I got the chance to watch the making of two of the most amazing handcrafts: the handmade natural stone mosaics inspired by centuries of mosaic making tradition in Jordan and sand drawing inside bottles. The last one is something you can’t believe if you don’t see it: in a bottle with many layers of colored sand, a woman using only a stick was moving rapidly the sand inside and the results were camels, palm trees, mountains and whatever the client wanted. All in a few minutes. Here masterpieces are created every day. We tried local products in a store, delicious dates, walk a few streets and finally, after a long search, found my hat for the next days, with a nice discount offered by the owner of the shop: a beautiful white and red shemagh.

It was dark when we arrived in Petra. After the AirBnb in Tel Aviv and the poor hostel in Jerusalem, a four stars hotel felt soo good. The view was unreal, as the hotel was on a cliff above the canyon. We had an amazing dinner, I talked a lot with my new friend from Australia, Illa and finally went to sleep exhausted but happy to be in a country that was slowly revealing its wonders. And ready to add something new to those I called my beautiful places.

Next: Petra and Wadi Rum  

One day and one night in Jerusalem: about love, hate and friendship

It was late. Don’t know how late but the full moon was up the clear sky. I was sitting on the very top of the ancient limestone wall that surrounds the Old Jerusalem, facing the muslim quarter. In front of my eyes, as far as I could see, was an entire hill, all covered with houses and thousands of lights blinking. So this is where that 70% muslim population of Jerusalem lived, I thought.

– What are all those lights? I asked as soon as we got to the wall, high enough to see above it.

– It’s the lights of the Ramadan, he answered.

None of us took our eyes from it.

I come from a country with more than 95% christians, but I remembered then I’ve heard this before. Muslims use lights in their houses, during the Ramadan, similar as we, at home, use for Christmas. It was an unbelievable view.

Earlier that day I woke up soon after 5am. This is when the muslim prayers start. You’ll hear it even if you’re deaf. I tried to ignore it and sleep again but in seconds the christian bells started too. I thought what a great idea it was to get a room in the old Jerusalem, meters away from all the holy places … Since I had no chances of sleep anyway in that noise, I decided I should try to see if I can enter one more time the holly tomb, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This was 250m away and I wanted to be able to finally say the entire Lord’s Pray, since the evening before we were so rushed by the Greek monk who wanted to close the church gates, so I couldn’t even finish it.

The streets were empty, except a very few early merchants who were opening their stores. One I talked to, the day before, insisted I will be his first customer that day, to bring him luck. He wanted to offer me a cashmere scarf for a good price. The price was good only after a short negotiation, and so I got myself with a beautiful purple cashmere scarf.

The church was almost empty, for my big surprise. Inside, about 8 priests of different religions were performing a mass in Latin, in front of the now closed holy tomb. Around them, on four wooden benches on each side, a few catholic sisters were listening, joined by 3-4 tourists and one guy dressed like Jesus. In Jerusalem nothing seems too religious. I joined this small gathering and for about an hour I assisted to the most enchanting mass I ever saw. And in the end, I was happy to be among the first people to enter the holy tomb and left so pleased this time I could finally say the entire Lord’s Pray.

I spent the rest of the morning and afternoon wandering the streets, among the stalls, merchants, tourists, christian monks, muslims and ultra orthodox jews. I had delicious foods like warm arabic pancakes or freshly baked baklava filled with vanilla cream, and of course, humus. Lots of it. I headed to the Mount of Olives, then the Gethsemane garden, with the oldest olive trees I ever saw and lost of bougainvillea flowers, shortly entered a muslim cemetery, went again and again on Via Dolorosa, entered the Church of St Anne: the birthplace of Virgin Mary, then Damascus, Dung, Zion and Lion’s gates of the city, The Garden Tomb. I couldn’t stop walking! The heat took all my energy but in the afternoon I started again my marathon through Jerusalem, this time tasting the new city. I walked from Jaffa Gate to Mahane Yehuda Market. This new part of the city is different but you can still feel the special atmosphere. I never saw so many types of halva as in this market and I heard a jewish saying I liked: If it’s for free, in means two. There’s no other people to have such a deep relation with money and business and no other people who could have said this better. Jews are born to make money.

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As I got back to the old city I decided, what else, but to walk its streets one more time. It was the last evening there, in the morning I was heading Jordan. It was getting dark but you don’t realise this while being inside the covered labyrinth of Jerusalem streets. The stalls were closing one by one, leaving the streets with more space as the majority of the tourists were gone now. I had no idea where I was going. At one point I realised the street I was walking was getting more and more crowded again. But the people were not tourists, they were all muslims. In a few minutes it was a river of people, women, men and children, rushing on that street. I’ve noticed that children were all having one toy: different types of guns. Well, toys of the Middle East…

No one was looking at me in any way, as if they didn’t even noticed the only blonde there looking lost. But I wasn’t lost, I was curious where all those crowds were going. For a few minutes I continue in the same direction, trying to see if I meet any other tourists, like me. None. I thought maybe I was, accidently, on a street I wasn’t allowed to be if not a muslim. It happened that morning to be stopped by two army officers to enter one street. Only muslims were allowed that area for the entire week. It was impossible to get back in the opposite direction, too much people.

Men were carrying small carpets on their shoulders, they were either alone or in group of men, women were usually with children. Only a few families with both parents. I saw in front two Israeli police officers. The sound of what was now already the familiar muslim prayers was hearing loud. I knew where they all were going. To the mosque. To Temple Mount, one of the sacred place for muslims, where is believed that Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.  

I thought, probably, at one point, I would be stopped to join them and so I stopped myself and sit on some stairs, trying to look busy with my phone but I was actually watching the hurried passers by. One guy approached me through the crowd, trying to get as close as I could hear him saying: – – – Don’t stay here, come over there, I have a chair and tea.

I was happy I could finally ask someone about what was going on.

He told me, as I suspected, it was the evening prayer during the Ramadan and thousands were going to the mosque. And of course, non muslims are not allowed but I could see the mosque during the day. I regretted I missed that place during the day, I got no idea how I forgot about it.

He told me soon the street will be empty again as everyone will have reached the mosque. And so it happened in a few minutes. Now we could finally hear each other speaking. He had a table outside, in front of a small house with two windows at about 1m high from the pavement of the street and an old wooden door, and he was selling hot tea. One type only, menthe, already sweetened. He offered me a cup. It was a hot evening and that was the sweetest tea I ever had, my blood must have been sweet too after. He still had some tea left and hopped to sell it to the people as they were leaving the mosque, very soon.

He asked me where I was from, how long did I spent in Jerusalem, how I liked it, if I got the chance to see the mosque and the muslim quarter. I told him what I saw during the day and than he said, if I want, he’ll show me the muslim quarter. I wasn’t sure what to answer, he saw my hesitation and he addressed what I thought to be a strange question: are you friendly with muslims? I said, surprised, I’m friendly with everybody and as I was saying it I realised this might sound silly. But his English was not perfect and I understood what he meant. He wanted to say if discrimination was the reason of my hesitation.

I was sitting on the chair, drinking my tea. He was a few meters away, in front of me, on the other side of the street. I felt he prefered this distance. I was thinking I didn’t wanna wait to much since it was getting late, I wanted to leave. As if he heard my thought, he started to close the stall sooner, putting everything inside the house, before the people were coming back from the mosque. He mentioned he’s not a believer cause he likes too much to smoke and so he doesn’t fast, as he was taking the table and all the other stuff inside. He rushed out the door soon after, head to the street in front, making a sign with his hand: come, I’ll show you.

He was a Palestinian born and raised in Jerusalem, he was working in constructions in Tel Aviv cause there he could earn more money. He had an elder brother married with two wives. He has two children with each of them and was working “as a slave” to support them all.

– Isn’t enough trouble already with one woman, why two? I joked

– True!  

We were heading to the Western Wall and when we got there I stopped for a few minutes to take a look. The lights there were so strong as if it was daylight. He continued and stopped a little further, waiting for me.

One of the two policemen there invited me to enter, I said I’ve already been there the day before, joked a little and followed my new friend.

He looked as if he was constantly running. I decided to test his speed, walk even faster and kept walking in front of him. We started almost running

– Why are you walking that fast?

– I only try to keep up with you, I replied. If you’re walking fast, I can walk faster, I told him as if I were launching an invitation to compete. He seemed to enjoy it but he was definitely not used to it, so it seemed.

We entered almost running and laughing in the square where the Great Synagogue was.

– See, this is the Great Synagogue. But except the mosque, where you are allowed to enter during the day, the jews don’t allow anyone to enter.

– Really? But I din entered in synagogues in other places…

– Not here. Not in Jerusalem. Here you can’t.

We started walking on some narrow streets where there was no one else. I stopped, searching for other people, to make me feel safe. He realised it and said I don’t have to worry, I was safe. He took me then in a place that looked like an old abandoned garden. From there we could see a part of the old city. We sit on what it was a part of a demolished wall, in front of us children were playing.

– See, they are palestinians and jews, they play together. This is how we live here, in Jerusalem, all together.

We talked about the neverending war, about the little chances to ever make peace there, about what he thought about the jews and I told him what the jews I talked to were saying about the palestinians. We talked about terrorism, about Syria and the violence that generates violence.

As we left, we met another guy, he was wearing the Israeli police uniform. They saluted each other, shook hands happily and said a few words in Hebrew.

– You see, he is my friend, he’s a jew. He works for the Police but he is my friend.

Next he wanted to take me somewhere. We walked a little and got to the wall. A part of the huge wall surrounding the old Jerusalem. In a few steps we were on top of it. The view there was astonishing. As far as I could see, in front of me, there was the muslim quarter, an entire hill covered with houses, and in every house, a light was blinking. I think there can’t be a better image of that time of the year for muslims, the Ramadan. It was quiet.

We sit on a bench, looking at the lights, and there he told me the story of his life. About his childhood, his work, how difficult it was to live there as a palestinian, about his father who died recently of cancer, after months of suffering in hospital, how close they were and how every single evening he spent with his father before, offering him a cigar and a drink, talking about all in the world.

He saw my knowledge about the arab culture was poor and he told me about the Ramadan, their traditions and beliefs, how weddings took place and are arranged in traditional families.

And eventually, we got to the sensitive part: the personal life.

– Have you ever loved someone? I asked. At first he said now and then, word by word, he started talking.

He grew up together with a cousin of his, attending the family events and holidays, playing and seeing each other becoming adults. All their lives they were talking about how they will get marry and start a family. This is common in some cultures, marrying a cousin. He started building the house without saying anything to the family, as he needed to support his future family. He was working as a crazy to finish it faster. And one day, he finds out she is getting married. And this was the point where his life stopped and all his dreams ended. I tried to tell him that it was an episode in his life, that lots of other good things will happen and he has to stay oped. He didn’t care. He only asked me how I got over someone I loved. He listened as if this was impossible to happen to him. The recent death of his father added even more sorrow. I don’t think I ever meet someone more discouraged by life. He didn’t care not even if he was to die that second. I so hope what I told him will make him even think about forgetting and moving on.

When we said goodbye, later that night, he told me he once was a guide for someone who thought he is an Israeli, cause he was speaking Hebrew. And that someone didn’t like muslims at all. This finally explained his question from when we met, if I was friendly with muslims.

At the end of the day, this palestinian friend of mine took his palm opened in his. Now he was doing the same with my hand, and started closing a finger for every sentence below:

I am born and raised in Jerusalem

I speak Hebrew

I also speak Arabic

I’m a Palestinian and now you know me

And today, my friend, I was your friend

Too many thoughts kept me awake that night. Maybe also that tea with too much sugar. I realised I didn’t remember the name of my Palestinian friend. I wish I did. I will though remember him like this: the one who showed me the other part of Jerusalem and shared his personal story with me. One name means nothing to this.

At the end he told me that when we were in front of the Western Wall he got a few meters away to wait for me because he was not allowed to enter that area. Because he was a muslim.

– What! I sad. I didn’t know that!

And there it was, finally, the difference between us. Not a real or natural one, but one imposed by the others.

After all, I met him on Chain Street.  

Sunday in the Middle East: Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the Dead Sea

We were indeed an international gathering around our table, eating falafel in pita or chicken shawarma, on the rooftop terrace in old Jerusalem, as Anita have well said. She was the super nice girl, with contagious laugh, chocolate skin of Indian roots and with the perfect English accent of someone living in London. Then there was the guy from Venezuela, now living in Miami, one of the very few religious in the group, also the most funny. The single traveler girl from Germany, the two guys from Australia and the American (I think) man who was sitting next to me in the bus. He was quiet, on the road, he almost never took his eyes off his tablet. He was following online our itinerary from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as we were driving among the yellow hills of the Judean Desert, hundreds of meters below sea level, with unreal views. Well… people.

The Judean Desert, below Sea Level

 

We were now finally enjoying the food, after a well spent long morning at the Dead Sea, speaking about everything: from the mosquitos in Brazil to a subject that we all had a lot to say about: how pricey Israel is. I was a newcomer, in my second day, but had already enough experiences to fully agree on that.

Tel Aviv was, the day before, my first taste of the Middle East, but Jerusalem was promising to be a feast.

All of a sudden, above all our voices, of people coming from everywhere to eat on that terrace, loud sounds of muslim prayers, coming from the high minarets, started filling the hot dry air. In a second, the christian churches bells followed, like in a competition. What a concert is was! It felt exciting and I knew then I was in a place that was promising more than I was expecting. I tried, with little hope, to put some order in my hair. No chance, was too much of a mess, the salt from the Dead Sea earlier that morning was still there.

The Dead Sea and the theory of floating

That day I woke up at 5. For not a morning person this is tough. I did some unwanted fitness while pulling my baggage for 30 minutes on the streets in central Tel Aviv. My not so fun way of saving money. But mornings have this gift of making us happy, including me. The fresh air, sleepy people walking dogs or watering small gardens, that silence before the city wakes up. Love it, every time. Since I was heading Jerusalem for the next couple of days, I thought a guided tour is a good idea to get more information about the place. I ended up in a bus with a driver which was mute to us but constantly speaking with God knows who on the phone.

For me was barely the end of spring in terms of temperature when I left home and I thought Tel Aviv was suffocating when I got there. I’m ok with both strong heat and cold as long as I have a few days to adapt. Not this time. The closer we got to the Dead Sea, the temperature was rising. When we stopped at a gas station and got out of the bus, I was melting. Only the three camels there seem to be fine in that dry heat. But there was hope, in the horison, among the palm trees, I could spot the Dead See.

The Dead Sea

If you think you can imagine the feeling of floating in the Dead Sea, as I proudly did, well, you can’t. I thought it’s like floating in water as usual, but maybe just easier. Nop! Actually your body is way higher, at the very surface of the water and you feel like a pressure keeping you straight and up. I’m glad I didn’t bet I will be able to swim cause any try was just making me laugh. All you can do is flip from belly to back or sitting as if you are in an old armchair, knees up and bum down. And the deeper you go, the more difficult it becomes to touch the bottom with your feet and stand. All you can do is floating and what’s so cool! But keep your mouth shut and most of all, your eyes protected by sunglasses. The smallest drop of water in your eyes will send you immediately in the hell of all pains. Of course I tasted the water on my finger the moment I got there. There’s no word to describe as salty it is, it’s bitter sour salted. Or dead salted.

But where was the mud? Aaa, finally! On the right side of the private beach we went, I found the famous mud from the Dead Sea, the worldwide used ingredient for beauty products, the very one that is said to make your skin so perfect. you’ll love it yourself. All the area was covered with that precios nature gift. I walked outside the protected zone, spoiling my feet as if I was walking in a jar of cream. I soon found out the purpose of the protection line when I got knee deep in the thick mud. That adventure brought me fast to the shore for some other fun episode: covering my body with mud. Others followed the idea. In 5 min the sun was burning my now black skin. I needed a good float. It took me minutes to remove the mud. Now that I tested this, I can tell, indeed: it is the best spa treatment I ever tried since the Blue Lagoon in Iceland. My whole skin was now so slippery, I could make a dolphin jealous. After that, there’s no way to leave the beach without a long shower, if only you don’t plan on turning into a salt sculpture.

I climbed the hill to the bus taking many last glimpses of the Dead Sea. Another bucket list wish accomplished. Great experience! All there looks so quiet. No waves, just dry empty hills around. It’s amazing what nature can create.

We left, driving through a dry vast land, towards a wall of palm trees waiting for us in a perfect line. I was going to get used to this sights for the next 9 days. Most of these areas are like that.

We passed by Jerash, the oldest city in the world. It was close to Jordan river. All I could see was a sight of the city from far away. We were suppose to get closer but the itinerary was changed days before for security reasons. This was one week after the official opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem. I was so pissed off I couldn’t see more.

Jerusalem, a place to understand

We entered old Jerusalem walking through Jaffa Gate, the one close to the new city centre. The entire old city is surrounded by a tall limestone wall and the entrance is possible only through its gates. Old Jerusalem looks like an island from another time of history in the modern world that surrounds it. Once you leave behind the new Jerusalem, with its fancy stores, expensive hotels, coffee shops and crazy traffic, you step into another world. But that’s my kind of place and it doesn’t look like any other I’ve seen so far.

Its small streets, paved with big blocks of stones, from the christian, muslim and jewish quarters, have names written in 3 languages, in this order: Hebrew, Arabic and English. All together are forming a labyrinth like a huge bazar. And inside there, muslims, jews and christians, all together, run their small street shops. All looking the same, just a few meters deep from the street pavement, all stuffed with goods. They sell all you can imagine, from carpets, local sweets, spices, cashmere scarves, clothes, shoes, jewels, perfumes and beauty products to fresh meat or crucifixes and rosaries. By the merchandise you can tell the religion of the owner or you know you’re in the christian, muslim or jewish area. The natural light is poor inside or even replaced by artificial light since sun doesn’t get down there. Most of the streets are covered, like endless corridors of not more than 3m wide, where you immediately feel like wander. It takes 1 min to get lost, forget about the time and space and really enjoy it. But the multitude of scents, that is hallucinating: spices, myrrh smoke, freshly baked pastries, squeezed fruits, all together mixed with arab music, fragments of discussions in all the languages reaching your ears from the sea of people covering every centimetre of these streets.  

Our guide was talking and talking and almost running through this huge mass of people. Of course I got lost the moment we came out of that rooftop terrace where we had lunch. I looked desperately for someone in the group. I had no idea where I was, where they were going and which direction to take from the 4 crowded streets in front of me. It was indeed a miracle when I finally saw two Greek girls I recognised, they were lost too but at least they seem to know where the rest of them were.

We went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the place where Jesus was buried and were now hundreds of christians were waiting in line to enter the holy tomb. Sometimes the wait was exceeding 4 hours. Others were praying on the large red marble stone in front of the entrance, where Jesus body was prepared to be buried, keeping their heads and palms down, on the stone and touching it with different personal objects. At the second floor it was said to be the very croix on which Jesus was crucified, many were waiting here too, to say a pray.

We then walked the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus carried the croix and passed to the muslim quarter to then to the jewish one, heading the Western Wall, the holiest place for jews and, as I found out there, the most guarded place on earth. I could say the entire Jerusalem looks like this, according to the number of Israeli police forces I’ve seen, two on every street corner, men and women, sometimes pointing their rifles straight in front. We passed the security check before descending. In front of the famous wall, made of limestone big square blocks, with grass growing on it in places, on the opposite side, sitting in the shade, there was a group of about 20 military forces, talking and laughing, all wearing big weapons. Men and women could approach the wall on two separated sides, men in the right, women on left. Men’s side was bigger thought it didn’t seem to need more space since the number of men and women looked the same. I was walking towards the wall when a girl wearing a t-shirt was asked the cover her shoulders. Modest clothing, covered arms and legs, is recommended in Jerusalem, mostly for entering the holy places of all religions represented there. Also, since it was the Ramadan, and the muslim population in Jerusalem is around 70%, it is recommended to be more respectful, cover more skin and avoid eating on the streets since most of the muslims are fasting from sun rise to sun set. Even without considering these, the burning sun would have had kept me covered.

As I got close enough to the wall, I saw the thousands of wrapped small pieces of paper carrying the wishes of all the people that came here before and find a little spot in the wall to hide their prayer.

Western Wall

From the top, the view of this place is really impressive and I recommend getting to know more about its history and why it represents all the world for the Israeli. 

It was late afternoon when we left Jerusalem and passed through the Palestinian territories in the West Bank, heading to Bethlehem to see the Church of the Nativity. I wish I could have seen more of this area, of Palestine, maybe go to Ramallah, talk to more people there. The difference was visible instantly, both economically and culturally but I didn’t seem, not even for a second, that I would have felt unsafe if I were alone on the streets there. One thing we have in common for sure: it was full of graffities against Donald Trump.

When leaving Bethlehem, we were told the short way we came in from was blocked so we had to drive more through the city to reach another exit. This was just perfect for me since I could see more, even a wall. That wall. The big tall concrete wall, all covered with graffiti and messages for peace and against discrimination, that separates the two countries. But this time, no one was praying in front of it. It’s quite difficult not to get into politics at all when talking about Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

It was 6pm when the bus dropped me back in Jerusalem, close to the old city. All the others, including the very nice people I got the chance to meet, were going back to Tel Aviv. I felt so blessed for finally having more time on my own now and the chance to see on my own more of this place that got me already hypnotized. And I was exhausted, hungry, thirsty, dirty and a bit smelly after walking and sweating all day long in the sun, at 35’C. I was praying to all saints that my hostel in the old city will be close and easy to find. I knew it was close to a main gate of the city. But which one? And yes, it was that one, Jaffa Gate, the best possible location, 250m away from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the christian quarter. In 5 minutes I was in front of the stairs, feeling so relief.

The owner was an old muslim guy, really grumpy. I was too exhausted to care and I thought it might be because of the fasting. It was the middle of the Ramadan month. I would be biting people at the end of a day of starvation, so I had empathy for him. A boy showed me my room. It was terrible but was no surprise since I read the reviews before, still I took it for the location and price. What I didn’t expect were the very dirty sheets. The good part was that both the room and the bed were large enough and the private bathroom was a welcomed surprise. The improvised shower inside brought me back my self esteem. After, I used the big pink beach towel I found on the bed, which was clean, to lay on it on so I won’t touch the dirty bed sheets. It was so hot I didn’t needed more. All I needed was what I had. I felt perfect and happy I was in Jerusalem.

I went out before the sun set, wandered the streets alone, talked to a few merchants and had the best humus. I found out that the way to say hello In Jerusalem was: Hello, where are you from? I entered the holy tomb, I whispered a prayer and watched the Greek monks closing the big gates of the church, the holiest place for the christianity, while a group of catholic sisters were singing religious songs outside, on the big stairs of limestone. It was a peaceful night, I went to bed only after I watched for a while the full moon shining above one of the oldest cities in our history, with its Mount of Olives and its Temple Mount, in the best panorama of the city that my modest hostel was so lucky to offer. I already knew now Jerusalem is not a place to see, it’s a place to understand and feel.  

 

How I survived 10 days in the Middle East: day 1 – Israel, Tel Aviv

I was lying on a bunch of pillows and colorful carpets in a big Bedouin tent, made of only a few high wooden pools and a black rough membrane of camel hair. Our host was making the food for us: pita bread, prepared on a piece of wood, right there, on the ground and cooked on a large pan heated above the fire in front of us, served with labneh (goat yogurt) with olive oil, dry mint and green olives. I was drinking my mint tea while talking to the Thay blonde young woman about how it took her years to get her visa and be able to visit her boyfriend’s county, Israel. There I was, in Israel, at the shore of the Red Sea, a stone’s throw away from Jordan and Egypt.

It was the 10th day of my holiday in the Middle East, my back was all sunburned, the skin of my hands was never that dry, my clothes and I were dirty and smelling like camel but it was the purest freedom and happiness.  So…who says Mondays are no fun?

How I got there, with a big smile on my face and memories for a lifetime?

10 days go, on a hot Saturday morning, I arrived in Tel Aviv. I received my 3 months stay permit after a series of question that lasted for about 10 minutes at the passport control. It was the Sabat, almost no one was working and the only way to get to the city was by taxi. I knew taxi sharing was common here and when Boris, a russian israeli taxi driver approached me, all I needed was a couple to share the drive with. And so we were 3 on our way to the beach front area in Tel Aviv, for 50 bucks, a good deal. Boris was so talkative and had no problem in sharing intimate details about him and his wife, but the word he pronounced the most was “money”.

I was tired from the 1 hour night sleep, thirsty and hungry when I reached my AirBnb room. The apartment was shared with two really nice guys and its location was ideal, right there on the beach, in front of Ben Gurion iconic statue representing the first prime minister of Israel in swimwear, doing a handstand on Frishman Beach. Summer was already here in Israel, though it was only the end of May, it was a laid back August mood. The beach looked perfect, with clean turquoise water, soft sand and packed with people, all tanned and fit and cool, singing or skateboarding, speaking all the languages. The large boulevard by the sea was full of rainbow flags as the LGBT pride was to be held in a week or so. The tall buildings in glass facing the Mediterranean sea, with fancy hotels or business centers were completing the image of a present, cosmopolit, and alive city which I did not expect to be this amazing.

Tel Aviv beach

After a slice of cold watermelon, one of the best I ever had, I was ready to explore a new beautiful place.

I started walking the promenade towards old Jaffa, where a friend have told me about a restaurant where they serve you 20 types of mezze on the house. That is something a foodie can never miss.

Yafo in Hebrew or Yaffa in Arabic, the ancient port that has stories to tell about Solomon, Saint Peter, Andromeda and Perseus, was the place I first saw the two big cultures, the Jews and the Arabs, separating and mixing each other. The old buildings with dusty antiques shops where an old Jew was selling hundreds of big old silver rings on a silver plate and the small street food restaurants where muslim man were selling pita bread and humus and many more, all had names in both Hebrew and Arabic. Al-Bahr Mosque (Sea Mosque) and Mahmoudiya Mosque with their minarets reaching as high as Jaffa Clock Tower, built of limestone, as most of the buildings I was going to see and live in the next 10 days. I wandered the empty silent streets of old Jaffa in the afternoon heat. It smelled like good fresh food, spices and oriental perfumes, and the light  notes of a song in Hebrew, similar with Greek music, reached my ears.

Hunger determined me to head to the port, a few minutes away, where I immediately notice The Old Man and The Sea terrace by the impressive number of plates on every table. And here I had an unforgettable food experience. As soon as I sit down, my table was covered with not less than 12 small plates of different starters, from humus, falafels, all sorts of salads, fried cauliflower + hot pita bread and freshly squeezed lemonade with mint. Again, this was on the house, for free, no money… Though this was more than enough, I had to order something and a big plate full of shrimps in garlic butter cream have joined the feast. It was more than I could eat but I did my best. It all ended with zalabyieh or lokma (deep fried dough soaked in syrup) and tea made of fresh mint. Incredibly tasty and on the house again. I thought I was in paradise.

After this feast was rolling towards Neve Tzedek, one of Tel Aviv oldest neighbourhoods, a fashionable area with avant-garde design stores, handicraft shops, trendy and stylish bistros, white small houses and most of all full of bougainvillea flowers which I simply adore. While you wander its quiet street, enjoying the shade of trees in blossom and playing with lazy cats that are everywhere, indulging yourself in a cozy small village like atmosphere, when you look back you are brought back to reality by the view of tall shiny skyscrapers that seem to touch the clear skies.

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I was amazed by Jaffa, enchanted by Neve Tzedek, I was so satisfied after a gourmand fest, was wearing a new bracelet on my hand (I buy bracelets instead of magnets) and all I wanted more was to head to the beach for a swim. The water is perfect, I was told by Gal, my host and I thought we might just have different standards of appreciating water temperature, though I don’t mind cold water for a swim. I let my feet feel the sand for the first time this year and touch the waves of my beloved Med. It was close to sunset and Gal was so right, the water was more than perfect.

I ended a beautiful day on the beach in Tel Aviv, watching the sun hiding beneath the sea, feeling the warm salted breeze on my skin, with my feet hidden deep in the soft sand, not even realising how rapidly the city lights replaced the day. A couple of good conversations with locals about Israel and Palestine and how this place is now the safest on earth made me smile thinking of my friend how was here last year and told me the opposite.

The start of my journey couldn’t have been better and safer. And as soon as the sun was rising again I was to discover more, as I was heading the Dead Sea, Jerusalem and parts of Palestine.

To be continued… soon 🙂

Weekend in Paris: Have a perfect Sunday

When you wake up on a Sunday morning and the second you open your eyes you realise  you’re in Paris, you know it’s not gonna be an ordinary boring Sunday. I jumped out of bed barefoot, pull back the curtains and opened the window from the small balcony of my room. I was at the top floor, in a 400 years old building and 200 years old hotel, on Rue Saint-Antoine, in Les Marais, two minutes away from Bastille. What a gorgeous spring sunny day it was! The rush in the street was the sign that a new day has started and I had to quickly become a part of it.

I had already in mind that this 5th visit in Paris to be a little different. I wanted to see the other face of my favourite city, not just the famous places I’m so found of, but the places where tourists and even Parisians don’t usually go for a Sunday walk. So after an amazing Saturday that has ended at 5am, I was determined to discover a few hidden gems in Paris.

The first destination was a street known as the most beautiful street in Paris; happily, it was quite close to where I was and I decided to walk. On my way, I stopped a little at Bastille Market, a flea market opened on Sundays and Thursdays, to wander a bit among the stalls full of regional products, fruits, vegetables, oysters and everything you might think of, and why not, have a cheap and nice breakfast there. The moment I laid my eyes on a stall full of tens of types of cheese, I knew I have met my breakfast: black truffles cheese. I left happy, eating small pieces of divine tasting cheese from a plastic bag.

In 15 minutes I found Rue Cremieux. If not the most beautiful, certainly the most colourful street in Paris. And the most “Instagramed” apparently. I took a few photos, of course… and played with a gorgeous Persian white fluffy cat, who was getting its daily admiration dose while posing in an opened window. Then I headed to Gare de Lyon, at 5 minutes away, to take the metro which was suppose to take me to my next stop: Little Sri Lanka.

Rue Cremieux, Paris

The top semi-secret and un-touristy Paris neighbourhood was anything but the fancy city of Paris I knew. The moment I went out from La Chapelle metro station, I was in a different city, on another continent. Shops selling Indian sarees, opulent dresses with large golden necklaces, stones, silk, all shinning and sparkling, right next to tinny shops with spices, old cell phones, accessories, indian food, there it was everything. From men with large moustaches and coloured turbans, eating rice with their hands in small and dark restaurants, to guys sitting in the corners of the streets doing I got no idea what, to women wearing proudly the red Bindi on their forehead. Now I believe those who say in Paris there are parts of it where you don’t feel as in Paris. Even though I did not feel unsafe, I was alert and I wouldn’t risk to walk those streets after dark.

I had one more stop to complete my wish of getting to know Paris better. The 3rd on my list was Belleville. Don’t judge it by the name cause it doesn’t reflect the beauty of the area, which looks more like any city getto, with old grey buildings where no one seemed to live, closed shops with empty windows, small fast foods with no clients and plenty of graffiti. Rue Denoyer is a masterpiece of street art though, with about 30m of walls completely covered in graffiti, with activism messages and photographers trying to get the best shoot of the place.

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Belleville

I was heading to my beloved Montmartre, thinking that it was enough of something else for one weekend, when, passing Jaures and Stalingrad stations I really saw from the train the streets and areas there, where, indeed, I wouldn’t wanna be not even during the day. Groups of young men gathered at the corners of the streets, people, probably migrants living in tents, others sleeping on the pavement. The contrast is striking compared to central fancy Paris.

Right in front of Abbesse I met my friend, who’s living in Paris and for the next 10 minutes he gave me a speech about how reckless I was to wander alone in those areas. Maybe I was, a little, but I always believed you can only feel a city on its streets, but not those packed with tourists.

Weekend in Paris: The Perfect Saturday

There are two types of people: those who like Paris and those who don’t. I’m in the 3rd category: I adore Paris! The French capital was the first city I wanted to see abroad and it was love at first sight. And so I came back, again and again, enjoying mon amour during New Years Eve, then in summer, in autumn, winter, but never in spring….

Three years have flown away since my last trip to Paris and I was missing it terribly. So I new it was about time to go back.

It was Saturday, 6am and I was flying to my favourite city for the 5th time, this time, in spring, which is said to be the best time to see Paris. I already knew how to get from Beauvais airport to Porte Maillot and from there, by metro, directly to Les Marais, where my hotel was. It was almost 10 am when I got in Place de la Bastille, coming up from the dark underground in the most beautiful sunny day of spring, with perfect blue sky and trees in leaf and blooming. Imagine the record level of my excitement since earlier that morning I was leaving my town, all covered with 20 cm of March snow-surprise…

Since check-in at the hotel was at 2pm, I left the luggage there and start my weekend in Paris. Wandering the streets in Les Marais I realised it was Saturday morning, so many markets should have been opened. I love those places, markets have recently became one of my must do’s when I’m away. I try see at least one every time I visit a new city, to get a glimpse of how people really live there, to feel the atmosphere, the rush, see the colours, the merchants and of course… taste the foods. Speaking of food, I was already starving when I got to Les Enfants Rouges market (The Red Children), the closest and best reviewed market I found in that area. It was already packed with people, locals, tourists, some very dressed up since it was in the chic Marais, all looking to buy something, either fresh products from the stalls or a lunch from the restaurants around. I saw a few vegetables and fruits I have never tasted. I like this, when a market keeps surprising me like that. It was nice wandering around but I was actually on a mission: eating something, the sooner the better, since hunger is not something I can manage with too much elegance.

But nothing seemed to call for me… and than I saw it. Right there, in the middle, it was a French gentlemen making sandwiches. Huge sandwiches, with tons of ingredients from different sorts of ham and cheese to avocado, tomatoes, lettuce, fried onion, olive oil, fresh basil, champignons… you name it. The way he was preparing each sandwich kept me in place: it was a real cooking show and the dream of any foodie. While speaking to each client, joking and repeating “Miam-Miam”, he was taking with his hands big quantities from each ingredient, one after another, from the many bowls in front of him, building a tower of them, than holding all together between the two slices of fresh bread and fixing the masterpiece with two wooden machete on a big hot plate where the cheese started melting and all the flavours were becoming the best sandwich in the world. Cause, lucky me, that’s what it was according to TripAdvisor. This was Chez Alain Miam Miam. With 5 people in front of me and other 10 behind me in just 10 minutes after, I waited there for an hour, watching Alain doing what people were praising him for so much on the internet. His black t-shirt was all covered with flour and all the other ingredients as he kept wiping his hands on it. I don’t know how the hour passed, I finally got my own best sandwich in the world, with everything you can imagine, and left the market looking for a quiet place to devour it. I found it in Square du Temple, a little park just down the Rue de Bretagne. And so it was by breakfast, lunch and dinner that Saturday, since after that all I could wish for was a big bottle of fresh orange juice and french strawberries, a spoiling moment on a bench in Place des Vosges. That place is so… Parisian and I was glad it was 2 minutes away from my hotel.

Place des Vorges

In the afternoon I had once again my favourite stroll route in Paris. Leaving from my hotel on Rue Saint Antoine, which changes its name after in Rue de Rivoli, among thousands of passers by carrying shopping bags on one of the most famous shopping streets in the world, passing by the beautiful Paris city hall, Hotel de Ville, walking along the banks of the Seine where people were enjoying a sunny afternoon sitting on the grass, close to the water, where a girl was singing and another was dancing, cause nothing is out of place in this city. Artists on the bridges were earning the bread of that day and I was heading Notre Dame Cathedral just to admire it from the bridges around. I continued walking by the Seine till I reached Pont Neuf and then Pont des Arts, now freed from the weight of all the thousands of lockers put there by lovers coming from everywhere, lockers that were still shining there three years ago.

IMG_2234I entered Louvre interior square. Just as beautiful as I first saw it on January 1st, 10 years ago, when my dream of visiting Paris was coming true and when I wasn’t yet bitten by the travel bug. I love sitting there in front of the large pyramid of glass, on one of the stone benches at the margin, watching people of all nations taking millions of photos. I took one, with the sun in the best position possible.

Louvre, Paris
The sun at Louvre, Paris

Spring was at its place in Jardin des Tuileries, right before really starting its colourful and alive show, strong enough though to have the magnolias covered with white or pink flowers and the daffodils looking pretty in contrast with the green grass. Sunset time was closer when I reached Place de la Concorde, with its always busy traffic, The Grande Roue de Paris and the Eiffel Tower rising in the orange horizon. No better place to live a perfect sunset than Pont Alexandre III. Three brides with their grooms were having photo shootings, each having around their teem of advisors for the best shot and the professional photographer.

As the dark was covering the city of love, I was heading to Champs Elysees. Each time I come to Paris this most famous boulevard has something new to show me, like the shop with Arabian perfumes in precious bottles, this time. But also many I already know, that are bringing back old memories. L’Arc de Triomphe was now without the huge French flag dancing in the wind beneath it. This didn’t seem to affect the number of people taking photos here. I crossed half of the boulevard that looked as spectacular as I remembered with all the red and white lights from the cars driving down to Concorde. After a 20 minutes walk on the fancy and empty Avenue Kleber, which stole my last forces, I got to Trocadero. A few years ago, on another Saturday evening, I danced Tango for the first time here, among other couples. The Eiffel Tower was just as bright and I watched it turning its lights off for the Earth Hour.

Eiffel Tower

I did not called it a day, not yet… You just don’t do that when in Paris, on a perfect Saturday night. Went back to the hotel, this time by metro, to save the last drops of energy I had after 20 hours of being awake. Got my red lipstick on and head to Montmartre for another magical midnight in Paris, admiring the top view of my favourite city from the stairs of Sacre Coeur, packed with people at that late hour, strolling on Place du Tertre while all the artist are gone, having a glass of Bordeaux at the old Moulin de la Galette and of course, a French kiss. Or more 😉

 

 

My Top 10 Beautiful Places in Venice

I started writing this list in the first day of spring, in March, at midnight, when outside was snowing with huge fluffy snow flakes. From my window all was white, beautiful and perfectly calm. It was the last and so unwanted winter episode that made (almost) everyone crazy throughout Europe. I thought then it was the perfect moment to mind travel back to Venice, back to the Carnival madness and to my favourite beautiful places there.

I don’t know where time has flown away so fast. Now spring rules the cities and our livers with summer like temperatures, blue sky, blossomed trees and flowers scent in the air. Anytime actually is a perfect moment to remember Venice. Soo…

First, let’s agree something. On blogs, sites, forums are countless tops and lists of do that – and go there – and eat that – and you must’t miss… blablabla. My advice: read and ignore 80%. The rest of 20% that maybe you’ll consider nice to do, you’ll remember for sure. it’s a fact that no one can make a top appealing to everybody. So if you’re not into museums, with long waiting lines, but rather prefer to walk till you drop on the streets, you think shopping while traveling is a waste of time, you chase sunsets and panoramas and are never too tired for a late night walk, you are not afraid of getting lost, you are more likely to choose street food instead of restaurants and you simply can’t say no to ice-cream… than you might find some ideas for Venice:

10. The Carnival. There are two types of Venice: the one during the Carnival and… the other one. Make sure you get to see the first and take part at the feast, because true Venice is during those weeks, when the city goes wild and fancy. You will feel as a time traveler among all those people in costumes of counts and countesses. Buy a mask, wear it and dance in San Marco. I got mine, a beautiful black one, from Zago & Molin, for 15 euro.

Carnevale marks Venice

9. Best panorama in Venice can be seen in Campanile, the tallest building in the city. The entire lagoon, the Lido, the roofs, all under the majestic picks of the Dolomites.

8. A classic one never hurt anyone. So go for a gondola ride! Take it from Rialto Bridge, go behind one of the most famous bridge in the world and head to the narrow canals with small bridges. See Casanova’s house and enjoy the gondolier’s Italian love songs and   stories about the old times. The maximum of people is 5, so if you want to save some bucks, share the ride with other people and you’ll pay 16 euro each.

7. Have some fun getting lost. Venice is a labyrinth. Try finding San Marco without using Google Maps. Start, let’s say, in Piazzale Roma. It’s not so much fun getting lost while searching for a toilet. Been there, done that 🙂

6. Walk. Eat. Enjoy. Repeat. You’re in Italy, it’s pretty hard to have bad food. Well, I did but let’s just call it bad luck. Follow your instinct and maybe check TripAdvisor, if you don’t like taking culinary risks. If you like Neapolitan pizza, try Rossopomodoro, close to San Marco. For ice-cream addicts, Gelato Fantasy is the place.

5. Have a Prosecco at Caffè Florian in San Marco. Established in 1720, it is said to be the oldest café in the world. Imagine all the events that happened in three centuries. The place is not cheap, but it’s worth every penny. During the Carnival, when all the people wearing costumes gather in San Marco, it is an ideal place to admire them.

4. For those who enjoy the vibe, the colours and flavours in the city markets, the best place in Venice is Mercato di Rialto. And I guarantee you won’t leave without buying some fruits or food.

3. Find your quiet place. Escape the noise and find Calle Tranghetto Vecchio, a small dark street. Step into the light, on the wooden bateau bridge built at the end of it, facing a beautiful 180′ view of the Grand Canal. Watch the boats passing and enjoy the view away from the crowds.

The Grand Canal view

2. Midnight walk. Even during the busiest times like the days of the Carnival, you’ll own the city after midnight, when most of the people are already dreaming in their beds. Instead, you’ll live the dream. San Marco is now finally empty, quiet and amazing.

San Marco by night

1. Sunset on Rialto Bridge. This is my favourite view in Venice. The palaces, the Grand Canal, the seagulls and the gondolas, all in the orange sunset light. And if you feel like, take a waterside-bar break and enjoy a glass of Italian wine. Now that’s a moment you’ll always remember.

Now all you have to do is buy the tickets to Venice and have some great time in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

P.S. “Never to go on trips with anyone you do not love.” ― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

The feast and the city that can’t be described: Venice

9AM, a rainy Saturday, the first weekend of February. Where would you want to be? I’m sure there are some great answers out there. But guess where I was: in Venice. I was just back from a trip to Northern Norway and the first thought that crossed my mind at 4AM, when the alarm rang, was: What the hell am I doing again? But wanderlust is a serious disorder so at 7 o’clock in the morning I was already flying to Venice, to live the madness of the Carnival once again. It was the second weekend of the event and 4 of my friends were already there.

It was the rainiest of days! 5 euro spend on a too small and too fragile umbrella, the moment I got off the bus, in the middle of Piazzale Roma and the rain, seemed the best business that could have been made that day, at the corner of the street. Wasn’t so, cause the wind was messing up with my investment and my new and useless umbrella was doing anything but protecting me from any rain drops. Mostly was making me crazy! And so, in the pouring rain, with a closed umbrella newly added to my baggage, I was crossing the large bridge build with ground-glass, leaving behind the ordinary real world  to enter Venice, a place that looks and feels as if a piece of the past have survived the present. And once I got right there, on top of the arch bridge, among the passers by moving on fast forward, the wind and rain teasing my face, I pressed Pause and stopped. It was too beautiful. The city was now revealing itself: so many bridges, paved small streets by the canals, the colourful buildings, the boats and of course the iconic wooden pillars raising up from the water. And I whispered for myself: Hello Venice, told you I’m coming back…

Rain seemed a minor challenge compared to finding the hotel. This was an endurance test since Venice is indeed a labyrinth. And since Google Maps choose the best moment to have errors of locating me, all I could count on was my poor space orientation. After crossing 6 bridges, walking in circle and saying a few curses, I reached the destination.

One hour later I was outside the hotel, on the large street heading to the centre, to San Marco.  I took a deep breath of the cold humid air. The rain had stopped but the streets were still almost empty. How scary rain can be! I was starving so I entered the first bar with the green TripAdvisor sticker on the door, dreaming of a delicious Italian focaccia. Inside, two asian ladies were busy serving at the bar. I thought maybe this was not a good sign but I didn’t want to be rude and leave. And so, politeness served me the worst possible sandwich: fast-food bun, mozzarella, lettuce full of water and tasteless tomatoes. But no way a sandwich could spoil my mood. And all I could wish for was to wander the streets, all of them. Hearing that my friends were busy buying Italian leather bags on sale, I couldn’t be more happy. So I could enjoy the city by myself. A bliss!

With every minute the streets were more and more crowded, people were coming out from everywhere, like mushrooms after the rain. I was walking straight on. The large street with tiny restaurants and stores on each side was now too small as the human wave was heading to Rialto Bridge and San Marco. Among the crowd, I started seeing the first people wearing carnival costumes, either couples or small groups of friends. Each time I couldn’t help myself to stop and admire. The noise was growing, bringing together talks and laughs. And so, without realising, I entered the Carnival’s atmosphere and I indulge myself in its magic.

Tight streets looking like secret corridors were escaping from the large street of which, all of us, strangers, were now part of. I managed to creep suddenly to the right, don’t even know why I did it. After a few meters of walking through the small space left between two buildings, in almost dark, I got to the canal and into day light. A wonderful 180′ view opened in front of me, just for me, as I stood there alone, for minutes, on the wooden bateau bridge. Boats were passing by the colourful buildings with beautiful windows, offering a postcard view of Venice. And there was silence.

I was heading to Rialto Bridge when something amazing just happened: out of the grey cloudy skies, the sun came out suddenly. I quickly went up the stairs of the bridge, among the crowd, running to get to see this view before the sun disappears again. And WOW, was indescribable! The view of the Grand Canal with all those gorgeous colourful venetian palaces, the black elegant gondolas floating slowly back and forth, the small restaurants by the water, the wooden pillars raising out of the water, the seagulls flying high and on top of all, the sun sending rays of light through a small window of clear sky in the clouds. It was sunset, one to admire and to remember.

As I was getting closer to San Marco, the streets were more and more grouped, smaller and smaller. I wandered each one I liked, letting myself guided by wanderlust only. Of course I got lost and of course I loved it. I crossed more than 20 bridges and walked even more paved streets. Getting lost on the small streets of old Venice, stepping from one to another and than another until you start recognising places, is the only way to really feel this unique place. There were people in costumes, wearing masks, everywhere you looked. Counts and countesses, dukes and duchesses, in velvet or silk, with lace and embroidery, with silver white tall wigs or large hats with big feathers, jewels and opulence. Masks were sold everywhere, in traditional ateliers or on market stalls, thousands of models, from 5 euro to hundreds.

This was not 2018 anymore. We were back in time a few hundreds of years before. If there’s a place where you can travel through time, that’s Venice during the carnival. And San Marco was the stage of the event, where all the magic characters of the carnival gathered to be seen, admired, complimented and taken pictures with. There was no other place I wanted to be.

Later, when my feet couldn’t take it anymore, I met my dear noisy friends in a restaurant close to San Marco and presented them with great pride the hand crafted black colombina mask I have bought from a traditional atelier, Zago & Molin. We all left the restaurant wearing our masks, ready for a Saturday night in Venice during the Carnival and many reasons to come back again.

 

 

 

 

 

My Top 10 Beautiful Places in Norway

The 8 days I’ve spent in Norway this January were one of the best holidays I’ve had. It  definitely exceeded my expectations.  The thing I loved the most in this country is the perfect mix between civilisation and nature, with a strong accent on preserving the second. In the most remote areas you could spot a cosy cabin and right there, at the corner of a major city you could experience views, landscapes, that only pristine areas can offer.

Sooo… Here are my faves based not only on what I personally saw, but also on what I found out talking to people there, so anyone who reads this could plan an even better holiday.  Sharing Is Caring, so here it is :

  1. Tromso: After all I’ve seen and heard about Norway, this would still be my first choice. It was the highlight of my holiday and a place I went crazy about since I first read about it, a year ago. Luckily, I got there fast. Why I like it? because it’s different from all I’ve seen before. It’s in the Arctic and you’ll feel it the moment you step your foot there. From beautiful landscapes of the fiords, to hills, small mountains covered with snow that surround you from all sides, to frozen vast lakes, to small fiords where the ocean takes the form of a river, surviving the cold without turning into ice; to breathtaking top views of the city where sunset is wow. And there’s more: the activities that you can do: husky dog sledding, seeing the wales, feeding the reindeers, getting to know the Saami culture, the indigenous people living for centuries in the far North, finding their stories, history and traditions. And even more… the northern lights. Tromso is one of the best places in the world for that. And, is not that cold compared to other regions around.
  2. Lofoten: I haven’t been there but it’s the new Tromso in therms of how much I wanna get there. Everybody I talked to in Norway had told me that this place is a corner of heaven. It was constantly the answer to the my question: where do you go on a holiday here, in Norway? It’s also a good spot for the northern lights. Me, I still can’t decided wether to see it in summer or winter.
  3. Train journey from Oslo to Bergen. If you wanna see one of the most beautiful railways in the world, by a ticket for this one. Words can’t describe this. I was sorry the time passed so fast when i finally arrived to Bergen, after 7 hours. If you book online, about one month in advance, as I did, it will cost you 20 euro. You can also stop in Myrdal and take the train to Flåm, on the even more famous Flåmsbana, a one hour train journey which is said to let you speechless.
  4. Bergen: In a recent top I’ve seen of the most romantic and less visited cities in Europe, Bergen was no 1. And I can confirm this. This city, a fishing village in the old times, is now the second largest city in Norway and it is adorable. Those small white houses on the tiny paved streets will make you wanna walk until you get lost again and again. Just forget about destination or time passing and enjoy it. And if you get to Bergen, go see the spectacular top view of the city on Fløyfjellet, the top of one of the mountains around, over 300m high. You can find the cable car starting point in the centre but I recommend walking to the top to see all the views. It will worth it. For those who love hikes, Bergen is a perfect place, with plenty of trails around.
  5. Stavanger: And speaking of hikes, here comes a spot with spectacular ones. You’ll surely recognise from photos seen before Pul Pit Rock (Preikestolen), a steep cliff which rises 604 metres high above the Lysefjorden and offers a breathtaking view. Or Kjeragbolten, a five-cubic-meter large stone suspended above 984m deep abyss, right between two mountains. And if you liked that a lot, you will also wanna see Trolltunga, (Troll’s Tongue), 700m high, offering a magnificent view of lake Ringedalsvatnet in Skjeggedal.
  6. Atlanterhavsveien: or The Atlantic Ocean Road. I think it’s the most spectacular  road I’ve heard of and a true masterpiece of engineering. Imagine a crazy ride on this 8 km road, that looks like it’s floating on the ocean, during a storm.
  7. Oslo: The capital of the country is not to be missed, no matter how much you would love nature and staying away of the city madness. Vigeland Park was my favourite spot, I’ve seen it on a snowy evening and was fabulous.
  8. Hurtigruten: in case you have the time and you want to see the entire western and northern coast, between Bergen and Kirkenes, this ferry journey is a good idea. It sails almost the entire length of the Norway, from the arctic circle and back to the south, completing the round-trip journey in 11 days. It was described as the “World’s Most Beautiful Sea Voyage”.
  9. Svalbard: The most curious fact about this region is that it is forbidden by law to die here. There’s a rational explanation for this: the ground is frozen so the body can’t be buried. But life in one of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas on Earth is something worth experiencing. Glaciers, frozen tundra, polar bears, reindeers and Arctic foxes. Also, the northern lights can be admired here, in the endless polar nights during winter time. The sun takes its revenge during summer, with 24 hours of light and the midnight sun.
  10. I will let this open for suggestions, if anyone has.

We plan our escapes depending on our preferences. Wether we want to try new experiences, or to push ourselves to the limits or we prefer to relax and enjoy the places in quiet. In the end, the best holiday is the one that each of us prefers. So enjoy!

My best friends in Tromso: 200 hungry reindeers

I was a passer by in Tromso, Northern Norway, for a few days. People like me come and go, hoping to come back, but never knowing if that place that got so deep into their heart will ever be seen again. We, tourists, travellers or those wanderlust infected, try to see in a blink all we’ve read about on TripAdvisor; we taste the food, try to spell the language, talk to locals, take lots of photos, post them and then talk about how it was with family and friends. But this land actually belongs to them ever since before we existed, before Tromso was a tourist hot spot and a popular hashtag on Instagram, from old times, when no borders were drawn in the North between the regions of Lapland, from Norway to Sweden, Finland and Russia. Back in the days when winters were harsh and snow could reach more than 2m high, the reindeers were already there.

They still live free on the hills of Troms, many of them in herds which are taking care of by the Saami people, the indigenous population in the North. This union lasts for hundreds of years, in perfect harmony with nature, both parts helping each other survive the rough conditions in the Arctic. And a family just like this, with a herd just like that, of 200 reindeers, I was visiting in my last day in Tromso.

For someone like me, coming from a place where reindeers are the fantastic flying creatures in Santa Claus stories, actually seeing them for real is a true excitement. The moment I got off the car and saw a few reindeers behind the fence, on the white vast field covered with snow, among big snowflakes, all I wanted to do was run there and hug every single one of them. But, I hold my breath a bit cause we met our guest first: Lune, a beautiful tall woman, with long red hair, blue eyes like ice, snow white skin and the kindest of smiles. Do you know that type of person that you like instinctively and immediately? That was her. There can’t be a more friendly host. We were invited in the lavvu tent, a very high one made of wood piles and some sort of beige material, with a whole in the top where I could see the big snowflakes coming down to us and disappearing before reaching the fire above. This is specific to Lapland and the people living here for centuries.

We all gathered around the big fire in the middle of the lavvu tent, sitting on wood benches covered with reindeer hides. It was warm and a light scent of wood and smoke made me feel so comfortable. We were told that our mail job for that day was to feed the reindeers, all of the 200 hungry souls outside the door. And since we were going to have a bucket full of food, they will be make an exception and be friendly. In the wild, it’s not gonna happen, they usually run when they meet people but now, during the cold months, the Saami family was protecting them from predators like the links or the sea eagle. The last one usually attacks the small ones by injuring them and than waits patiently a few days until they die. Since during the last years the eagles were protected by the law in Norway, their number has increased and they now represent a main danger for the reindeers. But the worst is climate change. Maybe the most affected areas are those where cold is a vital condition. If we can cope with a few hot days, with an unusual rain fall or with The beast from the East (the recent cold wave that affected most of Europe last week), warm temperatures in the Arctic are fatal for many species. Rain for example was not seen before in those regions, during the winter months. A few days with positive temperatures and rain are followed by icy temperatures and so the ground gets covered by a thick layer of ice that the reindeers in the wild can’t break so they can reach food. So they starve or get too weak to survive the predators.

Maybe one of the most amazing example of how perfect everything is organised in nature is that related to the reindeer’s horns. They grow and fall as a natural process but those belonging to the males, if found in the wild, are picked by the Saamy people while those from females are never taken. They are very easily decomposed and high in calcium. So the female will get back to that place to eat it after she has her calf, this will help her produce milk. Also, other animals like foxes enjoy a good dose of calcium in the harsh conditions in the Arctic, where every source of nutrients is valuable.

And so, with a very good reality check about life in the North I took my bucket full of food and entered the paddock. I couldn’t make more than one step cause 5 reindeers surrounded me, each of them trying to get his head first in the bucket and keep it as long as he could there, enjoying his meal. While one was eating another one was coming from his side and using his horns was telling him that he had enough and was time to leave the bucket for the next one. I wanted to get in the middle of the heard, 20m away so I hold the bucket up and walked as fast as I could. Once there, I was surrounded by reindeers, some big, some smaller, some brown, others almost white, some with small horns, other with big large horns and some even with only one horn, looking quite funny. It’s true, in the first minutes, seeing some of the males with large horns coming towards me fast or starting to hit others with the horns I was a bit afraid. But they are the cutest and harmless creatures. While they were eating I got the chance to touch them and feel how thick and soft in the same time is their fur, the horns that look just like bones and their fluffy noses, breathing with noise every time I got close to them. I think I spent around two hours with them. Since we were told to try to feed the shy ones too, I accepted the challenge to get the bucket to the shyest reindeer of the heard, the one that ran every time someone was getting 3 m close. I moved slowly, closer and closer, stood still when he looked ready to run again and let him come. Finally I won his trust and he came to eat.

It was a beautiful place, a large field surrounded by the forest, mountains and hills, nearby a fiord, all was white and it was still snowing. The sky was turning pink as 1pm o’clock was announcing sunset. I tried the lasso and the 5th try was a success. I took a short reindeer sled ride and I was happy I choose the short option so I could spend more time feeding 4 buckets to the reindeers.

I could have stayed there another 2 hours when lunch was served: freshly reindeer stew, a traditional meal served at weddings by the Saami. Was very good but it didn’t felt right that after playing with the reindeers I was now eating one of them.

We gathered once again around the fire, in the lavvu tent. Now it was snowing so heavily  outside that I couldn’t see a thing. Lone, our host, told us stories about the history and culture of its people, about their traditional clothes full of motifs, each of them having a specific signification like weather the man or woman were married, a signal for others to keep the hands off. She showed us the traditional Saami shoes, made of reindeer or seal skin, with fur on the bottom used in order to prevent slippage. We’ve learned craftsmen secrets like how to remove the hair from the reindeer skin with the help of the water from a river. It was a wonderful lesson about the Saami culture, no better place for that. We ended the day singing yoiks, traditional songs of the population in the North. Those sounds are so out of this world that during the middle age people who were heard singing them were accused of witchcraft and burned alive.

I left the farm happy. It was the heaviest snow I ever saw falling in my entire life, in 1 minute outside the tent I was all white, covered in snow. But that’s how it should be there in the Arctic and that’s what make the reindeers happy.

 

 

Traveling solo since 2010