Tag Archives: experience

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: 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

Jordan: The desert wonder of Wadi Rum

Have you ever slept in the desert? This is a question I wished one day to answer Yes.

From all the movies, stories, documentaries, the Geography classes, the desktop wallpapers, the desert seemed a place of wonders. And as we left Petra in the afternoon, blown away by this place, taking a one last glance from the top, to the immense canyon, I was finally living that very day.

We drove through arid places, where rocks were more often seen than any kind of vegetation. Close by a railway that seemed it was coming from nowhere and going everywhere, shaping its way through the dust. I was sleepy after that intense hike in the heat, in Petra, but I refused to close my eyes.

We got to the desert bedouin camp right in time. 30 minutes before the sunset, just perfect for a sunset chaser like me. In that orange light, the small white tents lined up among palm trees look so wild and cosy in the same time. It was an oasis in the middle of the desert. A green spot on a light tan and brick red colored paint.

Wadi Rum, Jordan

In a few minutes, my Australian friend and I got our key. We were offered to share a tent together. We weren’t strangers anymore so this was just fine for both. Ten minutes later we were climbing the narrow path of the big cliff next to the camp, going up to the view point. I dropped a few short glances as we were climbing in a hurry. The view was getting better and better to the point of whoaaa when we finally got on top. “The Valley of the Moon”, as Wadi Rum is often called, was right there, beneath our eyes, changing its tones as the sun was preparing to leave us, hiding behind a mountain far away. This looked as any other planet except Earth. The winds were blowing sands among the sharp cliffs raising in the far. It was a 360 view of wonder that had then became one of my favourite beautiful places. We sit there and admire what nature so masterfully created in one of the most breathtaking sunsets I ever lived. Was one of those moments you wish you were stuck forever, beautiful and peaceful, as daylight was turning dark.

IMG_1026

We followed the path once again, all the way down, among the small lamps now lighted. Our bedouin hosts, in black thobes, were finishing dinner for us. Goat meat cooked for many hours in a hole in the ground, covered with wood fire. They called us to assist as the feast was brought out, spreading flavours and making us feel starved. It was delicious, accompanied with many other traditional dishers, humus, of course and the dinner ended with many slices of sweet and cold watermelon. We all ate until no other move was possible except talking. We gather all together, the portuguese couple, the American professor, my friend and I, and under a sky full of stars and a shining full mood we talked about everything, from technology, to Jewish history, to religion, to Vietnam war, climate change, English accents around the world, politics and bad leaders and the beautiful country we were in, Jordan. It couldn’t have been better than it already was.

I fell asleep in the tent, feeling a light fresh air breeze blowing over my nose from outside, listening to all that music of the desert, from birds or other creatures I did not know. Sleeping in the desert is pretty cool, I thought, smiling.

I woke up early in the morning, went out the tent in the freshest morning air. The sun was up and a red air balloon was floating on the blue sky. The big parrots in the cage were up too. It seemed as all the birds in the world were up there, still invisible.

A lazy breakfast with freshly baked pita and amazing meze was there to spoil my senses. Soon after, we were up in the jeeps, driving through the sand dunes and cliffs. Were we on Mars? It looked so. At one point we stopped, the entire ground, as far as I could see, was cracked because of the drought in small shapes almost identical. No trace of sand, only limestone shade ground, trodden by heavy rains and dried by too many days in the burning sun. We drove further until we met a herd of camels. I thought how come they were free there, in the middle of the desert but I noticed they had their feet tight close so they could only move on a small distance. They were moving in a perfect row, one following the other, about 10 or more.

The rocks we drove by had all sort of shapes created by the winds. From a wall perfectly straight, used by the bedouins in the old times to communicate through echo, to a huge mushroom shape, columns and great arches. Through these wonders we arrived to the sand dunes. I never thought before that two different shades of sand can stay so close to one another without mixing each other. But I do believe my eyes and that was in front of me. Our guide even joked about how people are coming during the night to put back every small piece of sand back to where it belongs. He gave a funny look to someone asking in surprise “Really?”

My aussie friend and I were now busy climbing the dunes barefoot, up and down our bums, again and again. I felt both pity and pleasure every time my feet were touching the symmetric winding traces in the sand, leaving foot marks behind.

IMG_1130

We drove further and I wished this day would never stop. An open space covered with brick red rocks in different shapes was stretching far as if the entire world was Wadi Rum and nothing but. My friend and I we understand each other in a look. In a short distance, behind a rock, there was the most perfect, high and big sand dune. I saw it the second we got there and I was craving to be on top of it. We felt the rest of the group. My friend started running up, putting a hell of an effort into it. I was only walking fast but it felt as if I was on a treadmill, moving in the same spot. “You gotta run fast, like this” I heard. I ran as fast as I could, now it was working, and when I almost lost my breath, I was up. I lay down on top of the dune, next to the long traces let in the sand by maybe a scorpio and listened. First my heart, still beating fast from the effort, then nothing. Perfect silence. We sit there quiet, nothing was there to be said, but so much to admire. And this was my moment in Wadi Rum. I wanted to save this with all my pores and cells, to keep it as a memory and maybe relieve it with eyes shut when at home, while telling my family and friends about how amazing Jordan is.

We left the desert charmed and head to Aqaba, on the shore of the Read Sea and then passed back to Israel. In Eilat I said goodbye to my now new friends from all over the world and took a group photo together. They were going back to Jerusalem and I was staying by the sea for the next 5 days, (since my Egypt visa had been denied), doing snorkeling among colorful corals, making friends of exotic fish and a huge octopus, sunburning my back really bad and eating dates and humus all day long. Well, I did make human friends though, among them an ex trader of ancient jewels from the Tuareg people in Africa who was risking his life to get there and sell the pieces after to rich collectors in Switzerland.  

But right there, in Eilat I discovered another world of wonders, the underwater world. New and fascinating. An experience that led me to other ones three months later, in Malaysia and Indonesia.   

P.S. My French teacher died today. To him I owe the pleasure of speaking this language that I love and the delight of so many wonderful conversations in France, Austria, Spain, Israel and even the far Indonesia.

Bon voyage, Monsieur.  

Petra: lost, found and too fascinating

A few days ago, a friend who’s planning a trip to Jordan soon, asked me: Petra, is it truly worth it or it’s more like photoshop?

Years ago I saw for the first time, in some newspaper, an image of the Treasury, the most iconic facade in Petra, with its columns carved into the high cliff. I thought seeing this place is a dream too big for me. Expensive, far away, arab country, not safe and difficult to get to… But I never thought it might be photoshop. Instead I instinctively hoped I could get there one day. Maybe…

Five months ago, one morning in June. I was probably the most excited tourist at the Petra Visitor Centre, the starting point for the visits to the lost city. From our hotel restaurant, in that early morning, I could see the panoramic top view of the sandstone canyon which has been hiding the city of Petra for more than 2000 years. Rounded cliffs of different heights, all gathered together, as far as you can see. No clue of what’s inside.

We followed a dusty large path in a valley, among other groups of tourists, carriages and horses carrying those who didn’t wanna walk. I wanted to step on every centimetre. My brand new walking sandals, bought especially for my first journey in the Middle East, were made for this trip. We started seeing cave tombs carved into the wall stones, perfectly round shaped, what was left of once imposing statues of gods and two huge columns marking the majestic entrance of the city. We followed the path guiding us deeper and deeper inside the canyon. This 1,2 km long gorge is called the Siq.

 

Its walls of sandstone, high and straight, looked as if they were all polished with sandpaper. A true nature masterpiece, shaped by the floods that sometimes, in spring or winter, are covering this place. In the old times as well as in the present ones, the water continues to take the lives of those accidently caught inside the canyon in a bad time. People are describing these events as torrents of water coming suddenly and silently from the top, pouring down like rivers, out of nowhere, giving no chance to anything that’s breathing down. Besides these, are the earthquakes. In 693 A.D. Petra was hit by a devastating earthquake that destroyed most of its amazing water management system and deep canals built to control the floods, left the city in ruin, forcing large numbers of its inhabitants to flee. And so the city was forgotten for more than 1000 years, until 1812.

 

The more we walk inside, the more stories I heard about the Nabataeans, the ancient Arab tribe that founded this wonder rock-cut city, once a flourishing caravan centre for the scents of Arabia, the silks of China and the spices of India, at the very crossroads of Arabia, Egypt and Phoenicia. Their commercial skills, knowledge and beliefs, together with the courage they stand up against the brave Greeks and the conqueror Roman Empire are now amazing stories to listen or read about. This enigmatic city, half built, half carved into the mountains, among passages and gorges, continues to amaze the modern world. Not only they were fighting the drought to survive, but recent discoveries brought to light proofs of existing gardens, crops and even a large swimming pull. All these 2000 years ago, in the middle of the desert. Our imagination can’t even reconstruct now the greatness that this place once had.  

 The deeper we went inside the canyon, the narrow the path was becoming. Looking far up, all what was left to see of the sky was a tight blue line. The sunlight has now found its way down to us. It was midday. Two bedouins were resting in the shade, on a few rocks, listening to a Rihanna song played on a phone. Dressed in jeans and t-shirts, with their head covered with turbans and smokey eyes from kohl makeup, a technique they still use to protect the eyes from the sun light.    

As sun rays were now coming down the sandstone walls, the entire place was transforming, changing its color. The light brown walls from before were now turning reddish, with the curved lines in different colors becoming more visible. The reason for the other name of Petra, The Rose City, was now revealing.

It was spectacular. As most of the tourists were already ahead, also my group, I was lucky to catch a few moments when I was all alone, among the walls of the canyon. And it was almost silence. And like that, was perfect.  

This natural beauty was only preparing me for the best to come. I entered an area of the path so narrow that the sunlight couldn’t get to. In front it appeared unexpectedly the shape of the iconic image I once saw in a newspaper. Half of the immense facade of the Treasury, while the rest of it was still hidden behind the corner. In a few other steps the narrow path of the canyon ended into an open large space, surrounded by rocks and flooded by sunlight. In the middle, the Treasury was sitting like a king. Was bigger than I expected. The facade with huge columns is impressive, in the middle of what was once the centre of Petra.

 

Bedouins with dark eyes and colored turbans, riding camels covered with colorful rugs, chariots pulled by beautiful horses, donkeys, marchands selling souvenirs or bedouins style jouleries, tourists posing for photos that will make their friends back home so jealous, others climbing a cliff for an even better photo. I couldn’t decide in which direction to look first. It was another world and with an effort of imagination, if I could exclude the tourists and keep only Petra and the bedouins and camels, I wasn’t in 2018 but hundreds years in the past. This was the best feeling that Petra gave me: of time traveling.

My new Aussie friend and a guy from the group, Australian too, we were on a mission called the Monastery. We turned left, leaving the Treasury behind and we continue straight, following the way in an open valley. This must have once been like a main boulevard. The high straight cliffs around were housing round shaped caves with 2-3 rooms inside, that served as houses for the rich people of Petra, in front was the Amphitheatre, with all 15000 seats carved into stone, a little further the columns of the ancient temple, with pink oleander growing next to. We were asked many times if we want a ride by bedouins with donkeys or camels, but a polite: no thank you very much, convinced even the most insisting ones. We were advised by our guide not to make promises in vain. If you want a ride, take the ride, if not, say it as you too believe it. The bedouins are making a living out of this, they might seem pushy to the more sensitive tourists, but we had no problem.

 

I couldn’t resist not petting a camel in a group of 5, resting in the shade. I asked someone there for directions. We were on the right way and soon we reached the first steps. They were “only” 800 more. And so it started. It was so hot and dry now, no shade. I had my new red and white keffiyeh tied on my head, by our guide, Wael, in a very Jordanian style. It didn’t seem impossible to replicate, but I would need a few tries for a pretty close result. This people definitely know best how to deal with extreme heat and wearing it felt so good and so local.

On our way we met a few merchants with stalls improvised among the rocks, in tents, with colorful rugs on the ground, selling handmade bedouin jewelry or just water. I bought a regular stone from a little girl with the most beautiful eyes.

Petra, Beautiful places, destinations

The large steps were carved into the stone, going up as a large spiral. Rainbow steps, I called them, because of the many coloured lines in the sandstone. As we were going up following these never ending stairs, the views were fantastic, changing constantly as we could see the canyon beneath from different angles. The more I saw, the more I understood why this place is one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, but also a nature work of art.  

I felt my heart beating like crazy and the sweat running down my face. The people we met, total strangers, were encouraging us now with: you’re close, almost there, totally worth it. Probably we looked like in need of that. We passed by an improvised bar selling cold lemonade, where our guy abandoned us for a cold drink. All I needed was to finally see the Monastery. A few steps more ended in an open plateau and in the right, there it was! Even bigger than the Treasury, or at least it seemed so then, the beautiful Monastery, with huge columns carved into the mountain that make your eyes reach the sky when you try to follow their structure from bottom all the way up to the top, is just astonishing. Now I believed those saying you won’t see Petra unless you see the Monastery and you climb the 800 stairs to get there. Only a few people were around.

 

As if 800 steps were not enough, we followed Wael advise and climbed the rock in front of the Monastery. It was one of the best 360 views I was ever blessed to see. The canyon, the Monastery, the deep valleys, the mountains with sharp cliffs, covered in green, contrasting the rose shade of the canyon.

Petra, who’s name comes from the word stone in Greek, truly let me “stoned”.

The lost city, the found city, the rose city, for me the dream city, Petra is now one of my favourite beautiful places. A historic treasure for us all, this place it’s indescribable. I felt like I haven’t seen anything before coming here. It is not so expensive as I once thought, not that far, not at all difficult to get to, people are amazing and I got closer to a culture that is beyond fascination. In Petra, time traveling is possible.

 

   next: My first trip in the desert – Wadi rum

Jordan: Bedouins, Traditions & Wonders

First day in Jordan

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

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

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

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

Hello Jordan

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

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

Jerash, Jordan

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Petra and Wadi Rum  

Top 10: My Beautiful Places in Venice

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

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

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

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

Carnevale marks Venice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grand Canal view

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

San Marco by night

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

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

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

Top 10: My Beautiful Places in Norway

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

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

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

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

My best friends in Tromso: 200 reindeers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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