Finland: looking for Santa in Rovaniemi

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

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

No traces left of any other colors except all white.  

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

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

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

Hunting the northern lights. Second episode

– Where are you from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The others must have believed I was hallucinating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

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

Santa’s Village

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

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

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

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

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

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

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

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

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

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

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

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

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

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

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

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

Next: The blue pearl of Marocco

Finland: Leaving Levi in love

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

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

Leaving Levi

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

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places

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

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

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

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

Levi, Lapland, Finland

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

Levi, Lapland, Finland

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

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

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

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

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

Levi, Lapland, Finland

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

Levi, Lapland, Finland, beautiful destinations

 

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

 

Finland: How to find Santa’s Secret Cabin

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

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places

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

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

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

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

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

Levi, Lapland, Finland, beautiful places

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

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places

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

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

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

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places         

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

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

 

Finland: A frozen wonder called Levi

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

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

Helsinki

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

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

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

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

Oodi Library, Helsinki Finland

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

Levi

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, let’s do this!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Yess, it’s really cold these days.

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

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

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

Sirkka, Finland, Levi, Lapland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sirkka, Finland, Levi, Lapland

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

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

Sirkka, Finland, Levi, Lapland

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

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

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

– How cold does it get here.

– The coldest I remember is -44C

– Oh, wow!

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

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

Sirkka, Finland, Levi, Lapland

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

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

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

 

 

      

Egypt: sleepless Cairo and the Pyramids

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

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

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

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

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

“I know when I was born,

I know what’s my name,

I know where I’m from and who I am

And I know that one day I will die

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

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

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

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

Cairo, Egypt, The Great Pyramids, beautiful places

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

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

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

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

LRG_DSC00736

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

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places

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

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

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

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

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

– No, not at all…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

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

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

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

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

– It will happen again, you think?

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

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

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

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

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

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

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

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

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

Day 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations 

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

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

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

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

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

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

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

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

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

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

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

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

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

Next: Lapland, Finland

 

 

Egypt: Paradise Island and cheers to 2019

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

This plain and simple truth was Mustafa’s answer to my question about the exact place where a bomb attack has killed 4 people 3 days before, in Gyza, a short drive from Cairo, the place where we were. My cat like curiosity… Mustafa was the Bedouin guiding us from the camel ranch to the plateau where the ancient Pyramids were, fascinating people for over 4500 years. My guide recommended a camel ride for two reasons: to avoid the people trying to sale souvenirs, that can get pushy sometimes and to more easily walk through the desert sand on the plateau.

And so, here I was again up on a camel, though I have swore myself I will not ever do it again after my first camel ride in Israel. Why? Because of the permanent feeling I’m gonna fall down and break something. This seems even more close to happen when they kneel, only then I get close to smashing my face to the ground. And as camels are not at all short animals, chances are high. Plus, they also seem to hate it, getting in their knees on and on and on. I was trying to ignore this while on my right, the Pyramids and the Sphinx were offering one of the most iconic views, that of a world wonder.

December 31st

2018 was a fabulous year! It was so rich in experiences I couldn’t have ever dreamt so far or wished it will be that much. From the northern lights at the Arctic Circle in Norway to the rose city of Petra in Jordan and my first bare footsteps on the desert sand in Wadi Rum, from the streets of Jerusalem to the tea plantations in Sri Lanka or the green rice paddies in Bali, from the breathtaking views of Kuala Lumpur or Singapore skylines, from infinity pools, to the jungle sounds in Taman Negara, the 130M years old forest. This year gave me so much. 15 countries with 13 of them seen for the first time, 3 continents, my first trip to Asia (I really need to find the time to write about this adventure) and my first steps in Africa. 30 flights and my first long haul flight of almost 13h to which I survived successfully. More than 35 cities, 3 islands and I don’t remember how many incredible beaches and sunsets. But most of all the people, the amazing people everywhere and the absolute feeling of faith in humanity. It’s truly a world of wonders and people really are good and caring.

There was no better way to end such a year than a trip to Paradise. Paradise island in Hurghada. It surely looked as its name was promising. Turquoise clear waters, white sand beach, sunbeds in the shadow of low umbrellas made of palm tree leaves and an unbelievable underwater paradise with colorful corals and plenty of fish.

At least the misfortune from the previous day in Luxor, when I was taken to the “never heard of” Valley of the Queens instead of the iconic Valley of the Kings, brought me something: endless excuses from the owner of the tour company, which I didn’t necessarily needed and a VIP status on this trip to Paradise (Island), with everything included. This one was really helpful since I was so messed up to forget in my hotel room my brand new snorkeling set and the beach towel.

Paradise Island, Hurghada, Egypt

I was actually hoping to stay away from this guys by planning this trip with the help of my new friend Nura instead of the guy at the hotel reception, who first booked the Luxor trip. But it seemed I ended up on their tour again. The way I found this out was quite funny: when I arrived to the port, where the guy who came after me at the hotel drove me, I was met by another guy who asked me again about Luxor. Since I saw still irritated about the subject, I made a little drama starting with “better don’t ask me”. Soon after I found out he was the owner of the agency. The reason I insist on this is that I was so surprised they actually cared so much, the owner of the agency came in person to meet me because of what he heard: someone was not happy with his service. He even waited for me in the port when we came back and drove me back to the hotel, promising me a free tour to Luxor whenever I come back to Egypt again or any other tour I wanted for free or even a discount for a PADI certificate when he heard I was interested in. He miraculously got me to the point where I wasn’t upset at all anymore and I told him I really can’t accept so many instead because that won’t be fair. Well, Egyptians really take hospitality to a level I never seen before.

Paradise island offered us a perfect hot summer day in the middle of winter, actually my first experience like this. Replacing boots with flip flaps and the winter coat with a swimsuit is heaven… And yes, I entered the Red Sea and yes, as they all said already, the water temperature was perfect. If only I wouldn’t have forgoten my snorkeling set and the one I was given wouldn’t have been damaged to make me breathe water… Even so, I saw enough to confirm that Egypt coast is ideal for observing the underwater world. It can compete to famous places for diving from Malaysia and Indonesia. 

At 8PM in that evening I still had no idea how I will spend New Years Eve. I was so tired I could have slept immediately. But I remembered what my grandmother always says: your new year depends on what you do the night before it starts. So I wasn’t going to risk a whole sleeping year.  

It all arranged by change. I went out on the hotel terrace to play with a cat. It was an amazing evening with 18C. I decided to take a walk and buy some chips and water. The main street was so alive. The possibility of sleeping wasn’t so tempting as I got contaminated to that energy. I saw Gad, a restaurant Nura recommend. It was a fast food and a restaurant in the upper level. I went up and had the best shawarma in my life, on a plate full of deliciously cooked meat slices, a big plate of fries, garlic sauce and salad of veggies freshly chopped. I got a message from Mandy, one of the guides from the trip to Luxor. I have sent him earlier that evening a message to tell him that Paradise island was indeed a paradise, as he said. On the way back from Luxor he made me promise I will send him a message with my opinion. He was right in front of Gad and he was hungry. He joined me for dinner and we decided to meet after for a drink. I was in desperate need of a shower after that day on the beach.

At 11PM we met in front of my hotel, as he was living right nearby. And what was to come was the most crazy New Year’s Eve I ever lived. Egyptians do know how to party wild! They might not have the spectacular fireworks show in other places, but they have all it needs for a memorable fest: the joy of life.

We meet two of Mandy’s friends, great guys too, and we had whiskey and then guava and chips and oranges brought especially and immediately for me when I said I’m not so much into drinking alcohol. It was an old office with a screen showing images from the security cameras outside. I found out this became common for any building in Egypt after the revolution in the Arab Spring. A large window was opened to the street and it felt like a summer night outside.

Hurghada, Egypt

00:00 o’clock found me on the front seat of Mandy’s old car, with the side windows opened completely and loud Egyptian music playing, mixing with all the other songs played in the main street we were driving slowly, through crowds of people, with his friends singing and dancing on the back seat, shaking hands with others in the street. Men, women, children, all were outside, celebrating. A few fireworks were shot in the air marking the first seconds of 2019. I said my wish full of hope and so happy. We continued in a club where Mandy managed to got us in, the owner was a friend of his. We got a front table, ordered beer for the 3 of us and celebrated together with Egyptians, Ukrainians and Russians there. The dance floor was on fire. People were dancing, men were dancing. I don’t get to see this very often in other places. Two men started a fight at the entrance. It was violent but it bothered no one and has ended soon. The atmosphere was just like Egypt, loud, intense, alive and so addictive.

It’s unbelievable how wrong we can be when we just don’t know. 3 days before I was arriving in Egypt feeling quite worried. And here I was now, only 3 days after, at 2am, celebrating New Years Eve with 3 Egyptian men I barely knew. Perfectly safe and enjoying the best time, more than I could have hoped for. I was happy I came alone, this couldn’t have happened otherwise. Mandy showed me the photos posted minutes before, on Facebook, by some people from the tour to Luxor. They were a big group of friends, all together in the photo, all in black tie, wearing the classical New Years Eve shinning hats and holding champagne glasses inside a nice restaurant from a luxury resort there in Hurghada, surrounded by other people, also tourists. That photo could have been taken anywhere, mine in Egypt only.

Open your eyes means open your world. And as long as we’re alive, cause truth is no one is getting away alive from this life, we shall live.   

  

Egypt: Time travel in Luxor

Day 2

Walking among those great impressive columns of limestone, all covered with hieroglyphs signs, some still in perfect condition and even preserving the colors they were painted in more than 4000 years ago, was something indescribable in words. I grew up being fascinated by the ancient Egypt, with its pharaohs and queens and Gods and pyramids and temples and mummies and legends… Its all! Who thought one day I would walk the streets of Thebes, the old ancient capital of Egypt, the present Luxor. On these dry lands, my favourite ancient culture was once risen, flourishing in the old times, and now, in the new times, I was here, simply living a childhood wish. I was more enchanted than a kid could ever be in a candy shop, while walking around Karnak Temple, staring countless minutes in front of Ramses II statue, of every wall or column or block. Everything had a camel color, all was covered with hieroglyphs that I could even touch if I wanted so. The temple was changing its shades as the sunlight ruled upon it in the afternoon, beautifully contrasting the blue sky above. From the reddish colors around me to the blue sky above me, my eyes followed the perfect straight shape of the old Obelisk, this pointed pillar representing then and now the petrified ray of the sun God Ra. I walked the Avenue of Sphinxes to the great Temple of Amun, resting by the Sacred Lake after circling around a statue representing a scarab for 7 times. This is a superstition for good luck. I already felt lucky. I was in Luxor.

3am that day

Traveling and going to dreamy places means not just beautiful photos and fresh looks. It’s also about LOT OF sleep deprivation and LOT OF energy squeezed out of your body.

I woke up feeling deadly tired. The previous 2 nights with almost no sleep and the crazy first full day in Egypt consumed too much of my fuel. But the temples with pharaohs statues and colorful hieroglyphs were waiting. Luxor was waiting. I jumped out of bed and on my way out of the hotel, through the ringing screening machine at the entrance, I grabbed my breakfast in a bag handed by the guy at the reception. He was so sleepy too. Also sleepy and even grumpy were the 3 Egyptian guides in the bus. A big bus with only few people inside. Even so, I was not allowed to stay on one of the seats in the front. Saying don’t sit there to a sleepy person is like saying don’t touch that to a hungry one. Made me furious but I let it go and fall asleep. I was woken up to make some room for a Chinese girl who wanted to sit right next to me. I thought why the hell she wants to sit right next to me in an empty bus and I offered to move one raw in the back so I can still enjoy 2 sits. I was told it will be a full bus that day. This was after one hour of picking up people from all the resorts in Hurghada. Jesus! I realised it will take forever to finally leave for Luxor. After another 2h, the sun was rising and we were still driving from one place to another to get the people in. Three women came and occupy the seat I first wanted. Just great!

At least I realised 2 things: 1 – Hurghada was way bigger than I imagine the first day, when I said is huge and 2 – my hotel was the poorest. Still, was the most central and I wouldn’t have traded it for none of those 5 stars resorts placed in the middle of the nowhere.

After more than 3h spent together in the bus while picking up the entire group, a breakfast served on our laps and another 3h on the road to Luxor, who wouldn’t became friends? Even myself and the Chinese girl did.  Nice, talkative, a little messed up up, enough for me to liked her. She was actually a Canadian, moved there with her family when she was 7. She was in love with scuba diving and traveling through Egypt all by herself. She was teaching kids with special needs in London and her name, which I wasn’t able to remember, signified, in Mandarin, yellow firebird.

She takes terrible photos though. She and many others I met in Egypt cause I came back home with so many photos in which one of my feet didn’t make it entirely. Just details…

11am that day

We arrived in Luxor after a more than 3h ride, on a dusty road filled with old cars. Every time we were entering and leaving a city or a village, there was a small security point where army men wearing bulletproof vests and rifles were looking at every car passing by. Some cars were pulled over for checking. We passed through large cities like Safaga and Quena, but most of the road was through villages. Not much of a difference anyway. Cities or villages, they all looked the same: dusty, filled with people looking the same and dressed the same, in shades matching that unbearable dust that was everywhere, kids running and waving to us, old houses, some bearing old marks of arabic words written on their walls, other looking as if they were waiting to be demolished soon, stores selling barely nothing with no customers seen around. So many people rushing everywhere as if life itself was entirely developing on the side of this very road. Very few women, like small moving black dots wandering unnoticed in that permanent mist of dust. If inside the cities some women were only wearing a hijab, leaving their faces uncovered, in the rural area no woman face was to be seen.

Men were outnumbering women by far. Always men, on every street, in every car, in front of every store and in each small gathering, in front of a house, sitting on the remains of what once was a wall or simply on the ground, smoking. Everybody was smoking, even our driver inside the bus. Egypt looks like a country of men. As we were driving through this spectacle of life in Egypt, I didn’t wanna miss any detail of it, of any street or any corner. I reached far, looking on the little streets, going deep among the houses, searching for small gestures or faces, having only 1-2 seconds until we drove further. We stopped at one point blocked in the traffic. A man was vomiting on the side of the road, another left the car to see if he’s ok, an old car in front of us was full of sheep, from another one laud Arab music was filling the air, a little further a young man and a women were changing sights, smiling and in love. I had no idea where one city or village ended and another started, they seemed all connected by the canal of water running on the left side of the road. On some portions I couldn’t see any water in the huge amount of garbage down there. I wished I could be invisible, get down the bus, walk unnoticed, cross the street, walk the streets in that village, enter its houses, see the women faces left uncovered maybe, listen and understand what people talked about. And tell them I was already regretting to stay there 5 days only.

Out of the blue the dust was gone and green fields of clover replaced the dusty villages we now left behind as if they never existed. It looked similar to the rice fields in Indonesia, with people in light clothes and bare feet working those fields. Tens of white egrets sit on those fields and the water canal that now looked clean enough to drink from it. Green palm trees and bushes of pink, orange and white bougainvillea beside the road. My Chinese friend just woke up and her reaction “Where did all this green came from?” made me laugh. Indeed, it came from nowhere. And then we saw the Nile. Everything there was a gift of the Nile. Luxor was beautiful, green and fresh and intense, filled with marks of what once was the capital of the ancient Egypt, Thebes.  

Mandy, one of the guides, was so pissed off because we were constantly leaving the group like two lunatics, wandering around the site at Karnak Temple. He started yelling at me that he didn’t wanna lose us there. Egyptian manly personality… Mine is also far from being better, so we yelled at each other for a few minutes, in the middle of the site, in the middle of a sea of tourists.

We left Karnak Temple as I took one last look at its wonderful columns we left behind.

We soon arrived at the backs of the Nile, this gift from God which is, in its turn, offering us all, since forever, this amazing country. Dahabiya boats with large white sails were moving up and down the Nile.

The Nile, Luxor, Egypt, beautiful places

We crossed the river to get to a restaurant for lunch. One hour later, we left to Hatshepsut Temple, driving for a while through a desert valley of limestone, with straight walls where old tombs were built inside. The story of queen Hatshepsut is fantastic and so was her temple. Daughter, sister and wife of a pharaoh, she takes the role of a pharaoh when her husband dies and her son was still too young to rule. She somehow manages to rule Egypt for 21 years, becoming the first great woman leader that we know of in history. She was the only woman buried in the Valley of the Kings.

Hatshepsut Temple, Luxor, Egypt,

This was supposed to be the next destination, The Valley of the Kings, a place I could not wait to see, the place where all the pharaohs were buried. At one point, after leaving Hatshepsut Temple, the group was split in two by the guides. I had no idea why, no one did. My Chinese friend was sent together with other people in two small busses. I was sent to our previous bus, with a few people already waiting there. It seem strange so I went to the guide again before leaving and ask why were we split. He waved his hand in a rush and sent me back to the bus. We left a few minutes after the two small busses with the rest of the group. After driving for about 15 minutes we stopped. And so I find out that I was in the Valley of the Queens not the Valley of the Kings. I have never even heard before about this place. I was ready to explode. I was told that, apparently, the price I paid was for the cheaper version of the tour, for the queens not the kings. I had no idea there was such a difference since I was told from the hotel the program included the Valley of the Kings. I was too angry and pissed off and I didn’t enjoy at all this Valley of the Queens, which was actually really nice.

Valley of the Queens, Luxor, Cairo

We went deep down, inside two tombs with empty square rooms, all covered with hieroglyphs. All that was found there was now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. In one of the tombs was found the sarcophagus with the mummy of the daughter of  Ramses. One of the Ramseses actually since there were no lett than 18 pharaoh named like this.

Even if all the other few were feeling just as angry as I was for missing the Valley of the Kings so stupidly, I was the only one making a big deal out of it. Because for me it was a big deal. The entry price was 100 Egyptian pounds for the Valley of the Queens and double for the Kings. A difference I would have paid with no hesitation if I only knew. I felt disappointed and fooled but determined to argue about it and bring the subject back in discussion constantly for the rest of the trip. And so I did. Soon all the 4 Egyptian guides realised I wasn’t going to get over this as they thought and started apologizing for the misunderstanding. It didn’t help either and I was ready to fight the guys in my hotel for messing this up.

This seem to be the leitmotif of every place I like and I wanna go back to: I somehow always skip something I really want to see.

We ended the tour on Banana Island, a small island on the Nile. We met here the rest of the group and had guava, bananas and oranges, all produced organically right there, on the island. It was so green and lush. Eating those delicious fruits finally made me just a slight less angry. Seeing the photos taken by the Chinese girl in the Valley of the Kings also helped. It looked similar to the place I was unintentionally taken to, an open valley of limestone, with tombs carved inside the mountain.

On our way back, the sun setting behind Banana Island made the entire Nile look as if it was on fire. The red sky, the black tall palm trees on the island we left behind, white boats with large sails floating on those endless orange and dark blue waters and a hypnotising Arab song played loud. I reached my hand down the small boat and touched the Nile. It was an unforgettable sunset!   

The Nile, Luxor, beautiful places 

We drove back to Hurghada on the same dusty road, through the same villages, filled with people. Only now, at night, there were even more of them outside, on the streets. This time gathered around fires. So many fires lighting that dark dusty mist and thick smoke filling the air. It was an unbelievable atmosphere of feast for no reason. Of celebrating nothing or maybe everything: a day was ending, a new one was to come. So celebrating life itself.

I reached my pocket and pulled out a little white paper with my name written in Hieroglyphs, by one of the guides: 3 birds and a river.

Egypt: December Summer in Hurghada

Day 1

Old buildings of limestone, square simple shapes, dusty streets, more cars than one can imagine. A general rumour, car horns, constructions noises, traffic jam reached my ears. It was the most dense, vibrant and mindblowing top view of a city. It was so big and so alive as if it was breathing beneath my eyes. This is how the home of more than 23M people looks like. This is Cairo. And from the top, the tall wall of The Saladin Citadel, I saw for the first time, in the horizon, in a cloud of dust, two pyramids.

Hurghada

After 16 hours spent beautifully on the streets of Prague and a night spent in the plane, I landed in Hurghada, on the coast of the Red Sea. Second time this year at the Red Sea, first time in Egypt, first time in Africa.

The first challenge: finding a pen to complete my visa paper. It took me 15 minutes for that. Everybody seemed to be awaited by a tourism agency that was taking care of all. Everybody except me. So I was among the last to leave the airport and one of the few with no transport arrangements.

At 6am there were not so many options to take me to my hotel. I started regretting not taking the offer from the hotel when I couldn’t negotiate for less than 15$ with a taxi driver. He quickly placed me and my luggage to another taxi driver in the front and they started a minutes long fight in Arabic, not at all disturbed by me standing there and looking tired and pissed off. I guessed he wanted more money. We finally left in his very old car, with stickers in Arabic everywhere. In a few metres he takes a ticket from a machine and says, in a poor English, that will cost me 5 more euro. Snap! If 30 minutes ago I landed being quite frightened by the news I got from my mom the night before, while in Prague, about the bomb attack the day before, that had killed 4 in Gyza, close to Cairo, and I was promising myself I will be quiet, let it go, never start a contradiction with anyone, now I was ready to fight this guy who was rubbing me of my 5$. So all fear was gone and I raised my tone telling him to stop this price raising or I will leave the car immediately. I agree to pay the damn 5$ more, highlighting it’s just because I’m too nice to him. He ended this tourist scam wishing me Merry Christmas and welcome to Hurghada. Such a welcome! And anyway Christmas was ended two days before.

As we were driving, I didn’t like what I saw from the taxi window. At all. I was expecting the exotic images from the brochures, with posh pink large hotels, palm trees, vegetation, white beaches and turquoise waters. No sight of that. All looked under construction and never to be finished, with deserted streets where rare old cars, looking too old to be used were driving to fast. Small stores looking dusty and unwelcoming. The green tall palm trees of my imagination were small, looking dusty and dying. I was hoping this was probably outside the city. Nop, that was it. The so called centre looked just as bad.

Hurghada, Egypt beautiful places

With one last small hope I arrived in front of the hotel. And so this has  vanished too. Golden Rose deserved a more suited name: Dusty Rose. It was surrounded also by buildings under construction. This seemed to be a pattern of the area. I descended the taxi in my winter coat and a cloud of dust made by the taxi wheels on something that looked like sand and small stones mixing the ground in front of the entrance. The only nice thing was a beautiful pink bougainvillea covering a corner of the green tall fence whose leaves were all yellow from the dust. When I approached the door, the scanning machine in front, which I first believed was deactivated, started an alarm that seemed at least to have woken up the guy at the reception. I entered a mall like this but never a hotel. I was never before in Egypt, true. A terribly looking Christmas tree in a corner, all covered in dust too, was trying in vain to charm up the place. I needed a deep breath. I got more cheered up by the hospitality of the guy at the reception. Happily my room was ready. Large and clean, with a nice balcony facing the sea, through some palm trees, dusty too. If I looked down, the view was bad.

I was so tired and wanted to sleep like a bear in winter but hunger and thirst were way stronger. And even stronger was my ambition to prove myself this trip was a good decision, that this was better than just another New Years Eve at home, in a restaurant of a nice hotel, a nice club or bar, with family and friends. But most of all I was keen to change the terrible impression this place have left me so far. I had a positive feeling in spite all of there.

Was anyway too late to catch one of the tours I was interested in, involving snorkeling, the no 1 reason that brought me in Hurghada, since all were leaving around 8:30. And seemed anyway too cold to such an activity. Where is the so praised summer in winter in Egypt, I was wondering, hoping that it was still to early in the morning. I forced myself to wear shorts and sandals and went out of the hotel to hunt something to eat. At first I was freezing. The second, I felt too naked for a place where I could see only men and literally no women. At least I had a wind jacket on that brought some confidence too. I went to see the beach next to the hotel. Close to the water was nice, with umbrellas made of palm tree leaves. In the back though, there was a bunch of broken beach chairs and God knows what else, left there for no reason but to spoil the image of the place. But there is no beach front I wouldn’t like. I left promising the guy at the entrance to come back later. The main street was getting more alive now compared to when I arrived, with shops selling golden jewelries, tons of them, or clothes, all too flashy and nothing of my taste, but I wasn’t there for shopping anyway and taste is not to be commented on. Still it had this feel of slum, of street that we see in the bad areas of a city everywhere in this world, except here with old commercials written in Arabic to remind one which part of the world it was.  

Gurghada, Egypt, beautiful places

One more last hope took me to Hurghada bay, where the port and the promenade were. On the way there I stopped and buy a pack of Cheerios with cheese and water. That’s what hunger and thirst does to me: reducing pretentions. I had to wipe off the dust on the pack of Cheerios with my hand before opening it. I was already getting used to this and find it funny. Not so funny was stepping accidently in a puddle of slimy water, while as has distracted with killing my hunger. Yeap, I was wearing sandals and was gross.  

I saw a guy calling me and waving his hands to me from the entrance, he did not insist too much so I continued walking. Later I saw there the security check machine and I understand what he wanted from me, as from everyone else entering the area: to do the security check. He wasn’t insisting since I really looked like a lunatic tourist, nothing to represent a potential danger.

The promenade was beautiful, the first place I saw in this country that looked more taken care of, I thought then. In a few days after I was going to change my view and appreciate more quite the opposite of this, but more about that as my days in Egypt developed. If beautiful means nice restaurants, terraces, palm trees and spaces with vegetation, no dust here and the most perfect crystal clear turquoise water, with fancy white boats floating and colorful fish that could pe spotter in the water, than this was a beautiful place. Add a gorgeous limestone huge mosque a bit further and it’s a view impossible to criticise. It was empty still, no people.

Hurghada, Egypt, beautiful places

At one of the two stalls there selling tours I meet Nura. There is no happier face than hers. She is a petite woman with nice forms and a robust and always allert body. Her face, framed by a black hijab was wearing all the freckles it could accommodate. It was that type of meet that transforms people into friends immediately. Her 4 years old daughter was like quicksilver. She offering me, out of the blue, her entire chocolate bar she was chewing, was the sweetest moment of a day with a crazy start.

Thanks to Nura I had a better deal than the one from the hotel for the last tour that day: 2h in a boat with glass bottom. Since I had nothing better to do, I took this.

I still had one hour left to kill. I spent it fully on the terrace of L’Imperatore, an Italian-Egyptian restaurant, conveniently placed in front of the boat for the tour, who’s owner was so nice to offer me a salad and a mango smoothie though the place was not open yet. More about the hospitality of Egyptians I was going to find out on many occasions the next days. In this country, this corner of the world that frightens the tourists, I was treated more as a queen or as a family member than as a customer.

Hurghada, Egypt, beautiful places

Happily the sun was stronger now and was not so cold anymore so the boat tour was great. Seeing the shore from the distance was even more beautiful. Now it looked like the brochures images in my head. On the other side, a vast island, Giftun, was stretching like a yellow line in the turquoise waters, among darker spots of coral reefs. We saw plenty of fish and corals but I was expecting more from the famous Red Sea.

Hurghada, Egypt

When I got back to the hotel I lost more than one hour in the lobby, the only place with wifi, searching on the net and trying to decide what to do next. Makadi Bay tempted me the most from the start, but Nura was saying there are only resorts there and nothing to see, she tried to convince me to arrange a taxi to take me to El Gouna, but the guys at the reception were saying there’s only beach and was too far away, they were suggesting Dream Beach instead. They made me crazy, all my initial plans of snorkeling in Makadi were not possible since it was too cold for me to jump in the water. I only had 3h of sun left and I decided I wanna spend them on the beach, any beach.

The closest beach, the previous one was the winning option. It was beautiful but windy and so cold. Still there were people in the water. 2. And 8 on the entire beach, with me included. I don’t need 30’ to convince me to go for a swim, but when a young blonde woman looking scandinavian came, dropped her clothes and in 1min she was swimming, while I was in a jacket and all covered in beach towels, I thought something’s not right. How warm that water could be? I had some conversation with one of the guys there which I wanted to be short to have a quiet moment.

I left the beach little before the sunset, I was literally frozen. I was in despair thinking at the possibility of being close of this underwater paradise and still not be able to take a swim. I decided I will take that swim no matter what the next days.

I wrote Nura on WhatsApp. She came with Jackie, her daughter and took me to a tour of the city as they were heading home. Jackie was on the back seat, her hands full of money and for the entire trip she talked to me in Arabic and a few words in English. She is adorable. We arrived in El Dahar Square right before getting dark. It was like madness, a crazy traffic, cars and people going everywhere. No rules, no lanes, no traffic signs, no crossing marks. Nothing. Only lots of cars, all sort and sizes and all looking really old (except Nura’s car) and lots and lots of people. All were crossing as they pleased, through the middle of the square, among the cars. But one thing mattered here, in this pure chaos: the car horn. This is how they are doing all the moves, outrunning another car, changing the direction or touring. That’s why it’s a madness of car horns.

I was still the frightened tourist, thinking about bomb attacks, stabbings and kidnappings, when Nura left me on the side of the square, promising to come back in 2 hours in the same place. The idea of getting lost there was a nightmare. I was comforting myself thinking Nura wouldn’t have left me there if it would have been dangerous. Many crazy paranoid thoughts were messing with my head.  

Hurghada, Egyps, beautiful places

She left and I was now all alone, trying to cross the large street full of cars driving chaotically. I got to the other side with all 2 legs and 2 hands. There were stores everywhere selling everything. I headed towards the most lighted street I saw there. I was aware, at first walking fast, trying to keep distance from every person. And there were lots of people but no tourists. I barely saw 1-2 couples of tourists, that’s all. This is what mass media stories do to us: scare us. I was alone, at dark, in the night bazar in central Hurghada. I bet on all the money in the world none of my friends would do it. But that’s why I was there alone.

With every step I was more confident. No one was staring, calling names or cat calling me. I actually got more of these in my own country. Sure, many were looking but just as people in my hometown would look to a woman wearing: because it’s different. Instead many were smiling friendly as an encouragement. It was an amazing vibe, so alive, so real, so natural, so true life.

Hurghada, Egypt, beautiful places

A funny thing happened. I was invited in a shop with beautiful Egyptian pieces made of stone. I knew it’s a custom. Then I was invited in a small space in the back. At this point I became a bit stressed. The owner wanted me to write something about his store in my language. He saw I was standing there without moving and assure me nothing will happen if I sit a moment so I can write my message. A small table with small glasses of tea on it and colorful carpets on the chairs around. I wrote, in my language: welcome to the most beautiful store in Hurghada and teach him how to say it. Latin languages are so different from Arabic so this was so funny. Then I stand up preparing to leave when my heart stopped. They have closed all the lights. I thought that was it, I was looking for it since I came here and made a sudden move to try to jump and run outside, like a last desperate try to save my life. So help me God I thought. And then I heard the men around, about three of them: no, no, look, is shines. I thought: What the hell shines, as I was coming to realise I was a bit weird and maybe was not the case to be scared. I could hear my heart beating as my eyes were getting used to the dark and I finally could see the phosphor marks in the large statues in the store. Hieroglyphs and ancient Egyptian signs were so bright and incredibly beautiful. How stupid I was, I thought, trying to look as natural and relaxed as one close to have a heart attack could fake it. I just hope for them was not so obvious how I felt in what I thought to be my last moments in Cleopatra store. Before leaving, I told the owner the next day I will head to Luxor. He was from Luxor and was thrilled to tell me a little about his hometown. He taught me before leaving the magic sentence for a foreigner to say in Egypt, in case of trouble: ‘iinaa min huna (I am from here), he gave me a present, the Egyptian symbol for good luck, a scarabee bracelet I still have on my wrist when I write this and showed me where to eat good, right in the middle of that street. He put me to promise him I will go back in two days, on Dec 31, to tell him how it was in Luxor. I didn’t promise but I so regret I wasn’t able to go back and do so.

Hurghada, Egypt, beautiful places

The place I was recommended to eat was a place I was just stepping by before and it shocked and amused me how incredibly dirty it was. A small room in white old tiles, with tall glass windows looking really oily, with small metal or wood stars, too dirty to tell, going upstairs, two huge pans outside with hot oil where a boy was frying something from time to time. Inside a man was grabbing food from the tins around him using only his hands, other two were bringing new tins full of all sorts of food. One was pouring something that looked really gross from a big basin, that looked as if no water and detergent have touched it for years. I do not exaggerate, the place looked terrible, rather suit for those missing a few days of food poisoning. I had no idea what to take, no one spoke a word of English. So I took what I saw. Someone before had a plate full of a few meals looking very good and fresh. But seeing the meat storage there, I thought I should better not go for meat in such a fancy place if I wanna leave the toilet the next day. But the place was full of locals buying food as takeaway. I said to myself: now or never and took a soup and some pasta in front, only because I could point them. I was shown to take a sit to the only table. Was smelling like food inside as if they were cooking for an army. The food was quite delicious. The next days I had many times that type of soup, called lisan asfour, or bird tongue soup, but that was the best. I ate my dinner under the surprised looks of people entering the place and seeing me there, eating. Their first surprise was immediately replaced by smiles. Two little girls watched me constantly while their mother, who was wearing al-amira, the two pieces of black veil leaving only the eyes visible, was in vain trying to stop them from staring. She also turned, I saw the smile on her eyes and I smiled back with a hand gesture and a blink instead of it’s ok, are kids. And like that, we understand each other. I paid and right before living a saw many people buying something then the window. I used the excuse I needed something for breakfast, on the way to Luxor. I aswed that were some small balls and I was immediately hand one, by hand, from inside. OMG. It was falafel, which of course I know, I had it in good restaurants, I had it in Israel, in Jordan but this was the king of falafel. The best I ever tasted. I took some fried spicy eggplants. Also delicious. I left and took a photo of the place from outside. I will never forget it as the place I was laughing about considering it too dirty and where I actually have such a good and authentic food experience. And the next morning I was in perfect health.

Hurghada, Egypt, beautiful places

I walked among people, thousands of people on those little streets as if I really meant ‘iinaa min huna, I was from there. Men wearing taqyia, headscarves and long camel thobes with large scarves hanging down their neck, woman with their faces covered with al-amira or wearing only a hijab, holding grocery stores in one hand and the hand of a child in the other. And I felt secure. I thought it was the place to take amazing shots for a photographer which I am not but I did took some photos: with a store called ISIS, the name of an ancient goddess, with a spices store with tens of spices in colorful bags outside, with a stall where a woman was baking corn, waving her hand with an old newspaper as sparkles of fire were filling the air above her head, with the boy selling fruits in the market that wanted me to take his photo smiling, with the merchant who sold the first raw dates I ever had, with the cages full of hundreds of live chickens or the huge pieces of meat hanging outside, in front of the meat stores.

Hurghada, Egypt, market

I bought a bracelet, a bag of tea and fresh dates, I was invited in more than 10 stores, I was asked where was I from and if I liked Egypt. I said yes and it was pure true. Those two hours showed me so much and turned upside down many of the perceptions I had before. I am definitely not someone who gets scared easily, but of Egypt, I was afraid.

Hurgheda, Egypt

Nura came for me as planned. She found me smiling with my entire body and carrying many bags with the things I have bought. I told her all, in one sentence: Nura, this is incredible I think I’m starting to love your country.  

Wait to see Luxor and Cairo she said. And I couldn’t wait for more!

  

 

 

 

 

 

3 awesome days in The Netherlands

Usually the first day of December finds me in a Christmas market, somewhere in Europe, where the holiday spirit is in the air, with my eyes glowing, my heart melting and my fingers warming up on a too hot cup of mulled wine. Instead, this December meet me in Scheveningen, the most popular stretch of sand in Holland, right between The Hague and the North Sea.

The Hague

The first glimpse of the sea made me whisper: How I’ve missed you!Once I got off the tram, I followed my sea lover instincts to led me to the beach, among seagull cries. It was sunny, cold and windy, all three in the same time. The hard wind blowing made the entire beach look like a small version of the desert during a sandstorm, with sand blown away at my feet from one side to the other of this lange beach. The North Sea was dark blue, with sea foam made by the strong waves moving around on the wet sand at the shore. Tens of colorful kite surfers were riding those big white waves to the shore and than back to the sea. It was a summer feel in winter and a perfect spot for one of the most beautiful beach sunsets of 2018.

Scheveningen, The Hague, The Netherlands, beautiful places

Back to the city streets, I walked those in central Hague for hours that evening, passing by The Binnenhof complex countless times, watching the skyline of the city mirroring its hundreds of colorful lights into Hofvijver’ waters. Old and new mixed together in a rare pleasant city view, the tall blue shaded buildings of glass and steel accompanied by the old brown walls built in bricks. A couple of white swans was completing the image.

I feed my foodie spirit with an amazing beef stew fries at Frites Atelier and a delicious dinner in Chinatown, at Woenk Kee.

My very first day in The Netherlands ended with a fairytale: a brief history of the country projected by a show of lights and sound on the beautiful old facade of The Ridderzaal.

AmsterDamn beautiful

Happiness comes in many forms. Sometimes as a sunny day surprise  when you’ve been bracing yourself for a long forecasted rain.

After a ride among the purest Dutch landscape, with green meadows full of Holstein cattle and white fat gooses, with black huge windmills in the horizon, I finally arrived in Amsterdam in the most beautiful sunny day of December. Warm and calm as an early spring day. If you think you can imagine what a city full of bikes and bikers looks like, well, you can’t. Outside the central station there were thousands of bikes parked. Thousands in rows. A view that brings a smile on the grumpiest of faces. A strong scent of pot was Amsterdam’s welcome.

A pleasant surprise was that my hotel was right in front of one of the most iconic spots of the city: The Damrak, with some gingerbread look like buildings reflecting in the water. The second not so pleasant surprize was that the hotel was in a full process of refurbishing and it was a total mess. An extra reason to leave my super light baggage and run out.

I don’t do history or art museums or any other touristy activities that involve spending time indoors, in crowded places, based on a previous schedule. Instead I decided to leave it all on chance, skip the over photographed places like I Amsterdam sign in Museumplein, removed a few days after that weekend. With a bad connection that kept Google Maps in my pocket and a big walking mood in a sunny day, I decided to discover the city without any help. And just like that, by chance, I found, one by one, my favourite beautiful places in Amsterdam.

De Waag, this 15th-century old building sits on Nieuwmarkt square on one purpose: to charm the passers by. It worked with me. It looks like a fairytale castle with towers in the middle of the vibrant city. And at night, when it rains, with all the lights reflected on the wet pavement it’s too beautiful to forget. If you head to Bushuissluis Bridge, there’s another perfect pic of De Waag.

Amsterdam, beautiful places

After Damrak, with its narrow houses and gingerbread look, you’ll think nothing can be more wow. And then, a few steps away, another very cool Amsterdamish place can be spotted from Armbrug Bridge. In looks a bit Venetian with a touch of the north as the eyes reach further, at Sint Olofssteeg, a narrow canal bordered by straight buildings on each side.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Right across the chic Cafe de Jaen, look for a street who’s name you can’t pronounce. Too long and complicated. But it offers a great spot of Amsterdam also, with the buildings lights beautifully reflecting in the canal waters.

Miss a little bit of more Dutch mood? The Mill Diamonds, which hosts a jewelry store is a must find and The Gooyer, a must go, for the amazing beer tasting in the brewery there. Beer in a Dutch windmill, that was a first for me. I sincerely confess, I skipped Heineken Experience. No judges please. I like beer but I guess Guinness Storehouse in Dublin is just enough of beer manufacturing experience for me.

If there was still any hope, I got in love head over boots with Amsterdam once I arrived in The Nine Streets area and Prinsengracht Prince’s Canal. Turn around on those bridges for a 360 amazing view of Amsterdam canals. So damn beautiful and unforgettable.

You can’t be in Amsterdam and miss the Floating Flower Market Bloemenmarkt. It’s the place for tulips but not only. One day, when I’ll spend my springs peacefully in the garden, I will know there to come for flowers bulbs.

Too much walk and no food is not the sign of a happy city break. I followed the water, walking by the canals, until I reached Albert Cuyp street market. The place was just as alive as any market and place with good food can get. The fries from Pietersma, with their own special dip, were delicious, followed by a super stroopwafel and a nice conversation with the owner of Original Stroopwafels stall about the original recipe from Gouda. As his son promised before I had my first taste of this heavenly desert: it was a life changing experience. It’s so good you’ll have fantasies with after. And in the end I had to find some room for a small portion of poffertjes, mini pancakes with powder sugar and melted butter. It was worth the effort to eat all. And since now I was already round after all that food, I rolled over back to the centre.

Amsterdam, my beautiful places

Finally Red Light District, a place with actually a very rich history and I mean it. A history of sex industry dating back to 1300s, when women carrying red lanterns met sailors in the port, as Amsterdam was a major trading harbour back then. Now the oldest job in the world is still practiced on the little cobbled streets, inside small houses, except is has been legalised since 2000. I wandered the area curious to discover this infamous area, by far the most crowded in Amsterdam. A true carnival of vice, as called by Lonely Planet, with sex shops showing huge dildows in their windows, strip private shows, women sex workers wearing lingerie, seen in small brothel square windows. All was red and smelling like pot. It’s an experience to see it.  

Amsterdam, Red Light District, beautiful places  

I said at the beginning of this I don’t do museums. Well, this was before Amsterdam. I couldn’t resist the sex museum, I was also tempted by the prostitution museum and that of illusions. Cannabis museum is worth seeing too but I totally loved the cheese museum where I tasted about 20 types of Dutch cheese. Right next to this is the tulip museum. Yes, Amstredam has plenty of canals but also museums.

I left the city in the evening, after 2 full days, heading to Eindhoven for my flight back home. I was in love!

Next Prague and Egypt

Italy, Puglia: the perfect hidden gem

A narrow silent street in central Bari. A large open terrace on top of an old building. It was midnight already and a huge full moon was lighting the sky of this night in the end of July. At the round glass table with six seats, I was having the purest Italian fest: freshly baked sfogliatelle from the miraculous near pasticceria Fittipaldi, still warm and crunchy, with their tens of layers in cinnamon flavor and full of cream. I was making my eyes busy trying to decide which balcony on the building in front was more beautiful. My God, for moments like this, how I love Italy!

The one hour spent earlier that evening in front of the building, trying to find a way to enter using the smart lock that was apparently stupid that time, assisted on the phone by two Russian girls, didn’t even existed anymore. Nor the pain in my feet, from the so damn silly idea of wearing high platforms on that day back home, at work and after, going straight to the airport and then all the long walk to find my B&B. It didn’t matter.

I was in Italy again, the second time this year, after Venice in February, and that’s more than I could ever thank for.

The long night walk in flip-flops through Bari, on the promenade by the Adriatic Sea, watching the people, the discussion with the Italian guy about how he saw more of my country than I and I saw more of Italy than he so far did, and of course the long walks on all the streets of the old town, again and again. All these were hints of a great trip just happening.

Alberobello

The next day, the moment I opened my eyes I was already excited. Wonderland was my destination. I grabbed some hot pastries with tuna and mozzarella from a random coffee shop in the station. It sent me straight to the heaven of taste, so surprisingly good it was. After 1h40 I put my first step in Alberobello, a place made in fairytales that I so wanted to see since the first photo of it came before my eyes, years ago. And there time has stopped. I have no idea for how many hours I walked the tiny streets among hundreds of trulli, the whitewashed stone huts with conical perfect roofs made of grey, flat slate-like stones matched together, bearing white signs of mystical origin, christian or primitive, dating back to old times and cultures venerating the sun. Today, still believed to protect the house from demons or just for good luck.

Alberobello, Italy. Beautiful places

I entered the small shops with colorful local craft products, pottery, jewelry, embroidery, I stare in front of so many trulli I lost any track of time, I had a huge delicious and creamy italian ice cream, I spent minutes to take each photo to avoid the crowds and I long enjoyed a 360 top view on the roof of a local shop.

A short summer shower made everybody disappear in the tiny restaurants around. All I wanted was a glass of red wine, bread and fresh olive oil.

I left Alberobello only after I was fully convinced that I walked every street at least two times.

Alberobello, Italy, beautiful places

I spent the evening walking the limestone streets of the old town in Bari, just randomly, so I could enjoy every sight found by chance. From the lively Piazza Mercantile to the quiet streets around Basilica Di San Nicola, where old neighbours were having long and loud conversations sitting on wooden chairs in front of their doors, under windows with hang-drying clothes. It smelled like good home cooked food and it felt like a happy life.

I choose my dinner by the number of people in front of La Tana del Polpo and the seafood was great, in a very warm Italian atmosphere and with talkative hosts. Was a perfect day and another one was to start in the morning.

Lecce

I was planning to get to Polignano a Mare, one of the pearls in Puglia. And as pearls are expensive, the accomodation there was too. So for a 2 euro train ticket, it seem a better deal to stay in Bari.  But sometimes the plans in the station don’t match those in the train. Sometimes… As far as I knew, the trip was about 1h. After about 15m,  we stopped in Monopoli. This was the station after Polignano. Ups! The Italian girl next to me who spoke very little English confirmed.

No one asked for tickets, the train was full, there was 1h20min to Lecce. While the girl was making conversation, I decide to continue the trip to Lecce and of course to rick a fine.

I got to Lecce with no budget injuries. After more than 30min waiting in a bus station where no bus to the center stopped and another 60 in a local bus that surrounded the city, stopping for 30min at the last station, I finally arrived in the centre, pissed off, thirsty and with zero interest of seeing the city. It was very hot and dry, very few people around, empty terraces and quiet. I walked a little feeling that I should be some place else than the heel of the boot. I took the next train to Polignano. 

Lecce, Italy, beautiful places

Polignano a Mare

The whitest streets with the most beautiful balconies are in Polignano a Mare. Since it has taken me so long to get here, all I needed was a good swim. The famous Lama Monachile Beach, a small area with white stones, surrounded by cliffs with cubic buildings built on top was more beautiful than any photos I’ve seen of it. But painful. First, was packed with people. I finally found 1m free to lay my towel quickly before it gets occupied too. And took a deep breath to have the courage to start walking bare feet the other 3m distance to the sea. Walking on those round white stones can be classified as torture minding my still injured feet from the high platform sandals, plus the last two days of nonstop walking.  

Polignano a Mare, Italy, beautiful places

But when I finally could swim, I felt a huge relief resting my feet. The view was amazing from this point, inside the cliffs around the beach were deep caves where people entered swimming and where a couple was kissing. I swam further until the noises from the shore got lost and replaced by those of the waves hitting the cliffs. I could see the entire cost of Polignano.

 Getting out from the water was torture ep 2. Plus I was all dirty because of something in the water. Hopefully rotten algae. It didn’t matter.

Polignano a Mare, Italy, beautiful places

I wandered the streets letting myself lost in that place and I got right in time to enjoy the sunset in the best point. The orange in the sky was reflected on the limestone houses, leaving the sea darker now. Close to me was a fisherman. But the sea was at at least 50m down.  

Polignano a Mare, Italy, beautiful places

That evening in Bari I went to try Al Pescatore, the most famous seafood restaurant in town, recommended by everybody. No tables, it was full with people dress nice and looking fresh. I wasn’t going to wear something else but flip-flops no matter what. After all that walking was a matter of survival. I finally got a table and had an amazing dinner while all the other guests were going crazy for some football players arriving there. I’m more into fish and wine than football. I ended a nice day with a huge ice-cream, gazing at the blood moon total eclipse.

Monopoli

I could walk the little streets of Monopoli in a summer day forever. White houses with colorful windows and balconies with flowers, competing one another for the most beautiful balcony title, little shops, churches and olive trees. The Porto Marzano Beach though didn’t convince me to go for a swim. It was a sandy beach but I had more masochistic taste. In Porto Vecchio I couldn’t find a boat to take me to Polignano. Or maybe they didn’t understood me. I left by train, feeling a bit tipsy. My late breakfast just earlier that day was olives and many types of cheese, salami, prosciutto and red wine. On holiday all is permitted.

 

This time Polignano spoiled me with the clearest blue water of the Adriatic Sea, as a farewell to remember. I took a last walk on those nasty stones on the beach, a long swim and a last look at this place that has now become one of my favourite beautiful places. I said my goodbye to that deep blue of the sea from the top of the famous Grotta Palazzese restaurant.

After Taormina in Sicily, with its red oranges scent and salted lemonade, the Ligurian coast with the so chic Portofino, Rapallo and Camogli, Amalfi and Positano with their lemon perfume, the sophisticated Capri where everybody drinks champagne and the restaurants have views to the blue Med and white pianos, the breathtaking views of Cinque Terre with my beloved Manarola and Vernaza, Tuscany with those dreamy landscapes and incredible wines, it is hard to decide what to see in Italy. How about all? In each of these places, when I was there, I thought that was the best in Italy. And this July, for me, Puglia was the best in trully la bella Italia.  

Traveling solo since 2010