Tag Archives: single traveler

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

Middle East Sunday: Jerusalem, Bethlehem and The Dead Sea

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

The Judean Desert, below Sea Level

 

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

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

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

The Dead Sea and the theory of floating

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

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

The Dead Sea

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

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

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

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

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

Jerusalem, a place to understand

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

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

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

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

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

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

Western Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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