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

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

Sea Level point in Judean Desert

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

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

All of a sudden, above all our voices, of people coming from everywhere on that terrace, loud sounds of muslim prayers, coming from the high minarets, started filling the hot air. In a second, the christian churches bells followed, like in a competition.

It was exciting and I knew then I was in a place that was promising more than I was expecting. I tried with little hope to put some order in my hair. No chance, was too much of a mess, the salt from the Dead Sea earlier that morning was still there.

The Dead Sea and the theory of floating

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

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

The Dead Sea

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

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

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

The Dead Sea

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

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

Jerusalem, a place to understand

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

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

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

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

We then walked the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus carried the croix and passed to the muslim quarter to then to the jewish one, heading the Western Wall, the holiest place for jews and, as I found out there, the most guarded place on earth. I could say the entire Jerusalem looks like, according to the number of Israeli police forces I’ve seen, two on every street corner, men and women, sometimes pointing their rifles straight in front. We passed the security check before descending. In front of the famous wall, made of limestone big square blocks, with grass growing on it in places, on the opposite side, sitting in the shade, there was a group of about 20 military forces, talking and laughing, all wearing weapons. Men and women could approach the wall on two separates sides, men in the right, women on left. Men’s side was bigger thought it didn’t seem to need more space since the number of men and women looked the same. I was walking towards the wall when a girl wearing a t-shirt was asked the cover her shoulders. Modest clothing, covered arms and legs, is recommended in Jerusalem, mostly for entering the holy places of all religions represented there and also because then it was the Ramadan and we were in a place where muslims are about 70%. Even though, the burning sun would have kept me covered.

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

Western Wall

From the top, the view of this place is really impressive.

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

When leaving Bethlehem, we were told the short way we came from was blocked so we had to drive more through the city to reach another exit. This was just perfect for me since I could see more of the city, even a wall, a big tall concrete wall, but this time one that nobody is praying to. It’s quite difficult not to get into politics at all when talking about Jerusalem or Bethlehem.

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

The owner was an old muslim guy, really grumpy. I was too tired to care and I thought it might be because of the fasting, since it was the middle of the Ramadan month. I would be biting people if I were that hungry. A young boy showed me my room. It was terrible but I was expecting this from the reviews, still I took it for the location and price. What I didn’t expect were the very dirty sheets. Happily both the room and bed were large enough and surprise: with a private bathroom. I used the big pink beach towel I found, which was clean, to lay on it on the bed so I won’t touch the dirty bed sheets. It was so hot I didn’t needed more. With this improvisation and a long shower I was perfect.

I was in Jerusalem.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tel Aviv beach

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0140

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

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

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

To be continued… soon 🙂

My Top 10 Beautiful Places in Venice

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

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

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

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

Carnevale marks Venice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grand Canal view

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

San Marco by night

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

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

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

My Top 10 Beautiful Places in Norway

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

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

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

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