Tag Archives: solo woman traveler

Kenya: 12H safari in Maasai Mara (2)

After 6 hours of riding across the vast savanna, I was getting so high on Maasai Mara. It must have been around 12pm but time in the wild is counted by the sun only. We were all contemplating in silence those fields as our minds were processing the images we’ve fed them so far. Too much to believe. The dream that brought us all to Kenya was happening, we were living it.

As the dust was a provocation we thought we got used to, the next level was quite annoying: the flies. First 2-3 of them and seconds after they were everywhere. In our eyes, ears, mouths and no techniques we used would discourage those kamikaze. Then came the odour… We understood soon why all these: the golden fields of the savanna turned dark. Thousands of wilderbeasts were occupying Mara as far as we could see. Zebras were joining the party in much small numbers, like black and white spots on that paint. I have never seen so many wild animals in one place and never thought this could be even possible in the wild.

– There! This is the Great Migration, I heard Richard, our driver and guide saying. And my thought completed his words: …and this is why is called one of nature’s greatest shows of Earth.

Kenya, Maasai Mara, The Great Migration, Serengeti

We finally arrived to the river, this ground 0 spot of the Great Migration from Serengeti to Maasai Mara, one huge national park split between Tanzania and Kenya. Here, down the hill, we escaped the flies and the smell. I instantly recognised the place as if I was there before multiple times. The deja-vu feel was caused by the mind-blowing images in National Geographic where hundreds of wildebeasts were rushing into the river into a cloud of dust and death as many of them got straight into the jaws of hungry crocodiles waiting down there for their Migration festive meal. We stopped a few meters close to the edge and wait. All the other people in all the other jeeps and vans were playing the same game: waiting for a river crossing. To feed our rush for excitement and our primary instinct for kill. A crazy game I got myself dragged into during those days in Africa. Though I condemn violence in all its forms, I was surprised and ashamed to realise I also joined the club into that thirst of blood, of kill. Somehow… there it seems justified, on that primordial movie set where life and death meet in the most natural form: the kill to survive.

5am – start of a great day

Terrible night! Though I was exhausted, I’ve barely slept. The noises all around I couldn’t identify played like riddles all night long, the suffocating smell from all my 8 mosquito repellent I used before sleep, the feeling that there was someone inside my tent that made me jump out of sleep, the unexplainable real sensation that someone touched my shoulder at one point… and in the end the morning chill that woke me up.

I used my phone in the dark to find the opening in the mosquito net of the bed and rapidly reach the light switch on the wooden wall separating the tent from the bathroom built behind it, with an open roof. Well, at least I slept in fresh air… I then checked the zipper of the tent, with no lock, the only thing separating me from the outside that night…

As there was no other furniture, I used the second bed, which was empty, instead of table, chair and closed. And started to dance. The mosquito proof dance which meant that any time significant areas of my skin were left uncovered or unsprayed with insects repellent, I had o move a lot. On the shower or on the toilet, I wouldn’t stop “dancing”.

I finally put on a lot of clothes and I completed my declaration of style for that safari morning with sox and sandals. Too cold to care: 10C. Yes, Africa, exactly! Not that hot as a European might think.

At breakfast I found out half of my safari buddies had also endured a bad sleep while the other half slept like babies. But we had a whole day safari in Maasai Mara ahead of us and that was the best thing in the world in that morning at the end of August.

– Haaaa, did you hear the hyenas last night: eeww, eewwww, eeewwwww. That was Richard’s good morning….

I exchanged frightened looks with Ariadna, the Venezuelan woman in our group.

It was 6am when we left the camp, following other jeeps, heading towards the sunrise spot in the horizon. The sky was in flames, the safari day was starting. What a great feeling!

In the first hour we saw a cheetah, two lions wandering around in the distance, probably preparing for a hunt, hundreds of wildebeasts, of zebras and Thompson’s gazelles, an ostrich male, warthogs, buffalos…

Kenya, Maasai Mara, The Great Migration, Serengeti
, wildlife

We drove further until there were no other jeeps in sight. On top of a hill we met a family of giraffes formed of more then 15 members, including 3 calves. We stopped the van and observed them for some time from just a few meters distance. They were so calm and quiet, moving slowly from one acacia tree to another, curling their long tongues around the big thorns on the branches to reach those tinny leaves, spreading their long legs and bending their necks all the way down, to reach the grass. In this position in which they look soo hilarious, like some clumsy gymnasts, we’ve learned that they are the most vulnerable towards predators. They only do it when they feel safe. Otherwise, their kick can kill a lion on the spot. Such a majestic creation they are.

Kenya, Maasai Mara, The Great Migration, Serengeti, wildlife

The next live performance was “acted” by a group of 10 elephants, mothers and their calves. Their society works like this: the males are solitary while females live in large groups lead by a female leader. Richard broke the rules and got us off the track for a few meters, bringing us so close to them until we could even see their eyelashes. He stopped the engine again and we observed them in complete silence. Time was paused for all of us there, turning seconds and minutes into frames and memories made to last all our existence. At times they looked straight to us, peacefully, rising their massive heads to just check on their new visitors. What could they be thinking about us?

Kenya, Maasai Mara, The Great Migration, Serengeti, wildlife
Kenya, Maasai Mara, The Great Migration, Serengeti, wildlife

A massive buffalo was approaching fast from the other side of the field, looking not so happy to have human spectators at that early hour, so we had to leave in order to avoid getting dangerously close to the one who’s reputation is of being the deadliest animal in Africa.

I couldn’t stop thinking: is our presence there right? In the wild, in their world, as little as we left of it to them. It is intrusive, to call it straight. I felt it often there, during those 7 days of safari, in many situations. Sometimes big predators as lions or cheetahs have to change their hunt plan just because 10 jeeps filled with curious humans got in their way to take some photos or make loud excitement noises. In the savannah reality, us, humans, with all our reactions, devices, cameras with huge lenses, we no longer look as the one specie that has evolved so much… It’s somehow a funny scene and we look dumb.

But in spite of all this interference, the fact that we are intrusive there, it’s a compromise that is digestible up to one point: all animals there are free, they can hunt, eat, fight, mate, wander, sleep, raise their offsprings as they please. They have adapted to this human presence. It’s common to watch hunt scenes taking place a few meters away from safari jeeps or see lions from very few meters distance, as we did later that day. I won’t believe it unless I lived it: two young male lions, sleeping next to a bush, for a little shade in that hot afternoon, ignoring completely the jeeps filled with people, moving in circles around them.

Kenya, Maasai Mara, The Great Migration, Serengeti, wildlife
Kenya, Maasai Mara, The Great Migration, Serengeti, wildlife

Still, everybody is that calm and that safe only as long as humans stay in the jeep. It’s totally prohibited to step off the car during a safari. We once saw a lion suddenly changing its direction just because he felt a human was on the ground at more then 500m distance. One safari guide had troubles with its car and had to check it for a few seconds. For us, the only times we walked on the fields of Maasai Mara were for those nature calls that really demand it: a visit in the bushes. Always on higher ground, chosen carefully by Richard. Peeing in the wildest wild, after you just saw what can get you, is really something to laugh about. After…

Picnic in the savannah

We left the river site where no crossing seemed to be in plan for the next hour to look for a quiet and safe place to have our lunch. After a few tries nothing seemed good enough for our Richard. We were all hungry… Then we saw it, this huge acacia lonely tree in the middle of a field with tall golden grass where a heard of zebras were enjoying the fiesta. The ideal place. We stepped off the car, walked around a little, breathe that hot dry air then laid down under our tree and had the best picnic in the world, watching the zebras nearby. Happiness is made of moments like this.

Kenya, Maasai Mara, The Great Migration, Serengeti, wildlife
Kenya, Maasai Mara, The Great Migration, Serengeti, wildlife

To cross or not to cross

By the river we occupied again a still vacant spot close to the edge and joined the waiting ritual. Thousands of wilderbeasts were turning the horizon dark, some part of large groups, others marching in long lines one after another, in a perfect rhythm. A group of hypos were relaxing on a sand bank by the river.

Kenya, Maasai Mara, The Great Migration, Serengeti, wildlife
Kenya, Maasai Mara, The Great Migration, Serengeti, wildlife

A few crocodiles raising their heads above the muddy water from time to time. By that river that day every living creature was waiting: the wilderbeasts for one of them to have the courage to initiate a crossing so they all can follow, the zebras for the wilderbeasts to go first, a strategy they ofter apply, the crocodiles for their opportunistic fresh meal and the people to see some action and witness how animals are being killed on the spot, without them feeling guilty for it.

Kenya, Maasai Mara, The Great Migration, Serengeti, wildlife

I’ve noticed a group of zebras moving a lot, going back and forth around the edge, approaching then distancing, forming a circle and making a lot of noise. They looked as if they were up so something but keep changing their minds. I started paying attention, they wanted to cross the other side. A few others seemed to be calling them from the other side with noises and moves close to the edge on their side. It was an unbelievable scene: they wanted to cross but were afraid.

A larger group of wilderbeasts was forming close to the edge as well. A few times one of them was rushing up to the edge, but then suddenly stopped, coming back slowly and discouraged. It’s how the crossings happen during the great migration, it all starts with one crazy fella that starts running out of the blue towards the edge and all of a sudden hundreds, thousands follow into the river. Some broke legs, some are drowning, many are hurt by the crowds crossing over them while a few get eaten by the crocodiles. But most of them, around 2 millions, survive and so they complete a journey meant to bring them from Serengeti to Mara where in that time of the year the grass is greener. They do this journey every year, facing death in the face and pursuing with living.

Every time a wilderbeast was getting closer to the edge, we stopped breathing. Time stopped and all eyes were in that direction, cameras were ready… but nothing happened.

The only ones who seemed that were having a plan were those zebras. After many hesitations, “talks and argues” and calls from their friends on the other side, they finally rushed to the edge of the river and started the descend. Down there they analysed wisely which is the best spot to cross and finally they got into the water, did it and got away with it. All got alive on the other side, welcomed by the ones there who were watching their crossing all this time, in silence. Their victory was enjoyed on our side too, with applauses.

Kenya, Maasai Mara, The Great Migration, Serengeti, wildlife

And that was the only crossing I got to see. I left Mara the next day to continue my trip to Amboseli. A few days later a Russian woman joined our group, what was left of it after we started splitting. She showed me photos with the crossing that took place the very next day. Well, as I like to say: it is what it is and what should happen happens.

Richard was talking the whole time on his satellite phone to other guides. He seemed to know everybody we met and by the afternoon of that day we even got convinced he also knew all the lions in Mara. He was laughing and enjoying each time we were telling him this.

Only this time he was getting agitated and pushed the acceleration until our old white van seemed to be on a race of tearing itself apart on the bumpy tracks of Mara. We got to a small river and almost got stocked there in the mud. He won’s say a word about why all this. We arrived in an area with trees when he finally slowed down. From a few meters away I saw the sleeping beauty of the savannah: high in a tall tree, on a large brunch in the shade was laying a gorgeous leopard. Around it jeeps, people, cameras, photographers. Nothing could bother its sleep.

A few minutes after, as we were all charmed by its beauty, he woke up, turned its head towards us, open its eyes with the wildest and coolest gaze I lived to see, yawn showing its jaws and fell back to sleep. The show was over. We had 4 of the big 5: lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard.

Kenya, Maasai Mara, The Great Migration, Serengeti, wildlife

Richard tried to start the engine so we could move. Nothing, just a little engine cough. He tries again. Ups! Nothing. There couldn’t be a better moment for an engine to stop working then sitting under a tree with a wild leopard, a naturally born killing creature.

– Now who’s gonna push the car? He looked towards us and we stopped laughing instantly.

He was just having fun with us. He started laughing seeing our confused faces. Another jeep approached us from the back, pushed us until finally our engine started. We left the leopard sleeping and as soon as we got far enough our little adventure turned into loud laughs. We felt drained of every drop of energy. 12h were coming to an end and the sun was kissing the horizon again, preparing for a savannah sunset. We were dusty, exhausted, every cell of my body hurt but I was so absofuckinglutelly happy.

I took a shower being grateful for this gift in the middle of those dry lands. When I got out I thought I heard something which I didn’t wanna believe was true: my whole tent was conquered by a zzzzz-ing. Mosquitos were everywhere! It was getting dark and as the generators were not yet on, I had no light but I thought I saw something flying around inside the tent. Was not an impression. Was a bat… So reality was like this: a tent filled with mosquitos and a bat flying freely inside. I had no malaria pills but bats eat mosquitos. What could I do… I took my tusker beer bought by Hosea, my driver in Nairobi and left the tent to join my new friends and end a great day with a great evening. Thank you Kenya!

PS: that night I slept like a leopard

An animal was killed every 3 minutes by trophy hunters over the last decade. 1.7 million animals perished like this. An industry worth 340M every year. (Euronews)

Once among the world’s most iconic hunting destinations, Kenya has had a national ban on trophy hunting since 1977. But poaching still exists, in spite all efforts, everywhere where “trophies” are still alive. I can’t stop wonder one thing: how is it possible to see those animals in the wild and the only urge that comes out of all this is to kill, to destroy.

Kenya – Nairobi: start of journey

The sun had almost completed its journey for that day. Just another one for it and an unforgettable one for me. It had nothing but the seize of a palm left to shine light and as I looked around, towards the huge umbrella acacias, I thought: if only I could stay like this forever, with my zebra print bracelet made of camel bone on the left wrist and the red beaded one from mama Masai on the right, with the image of the three lionesses resting in the golden grass, by the palm trees near the swamp, the 24 elephants crossing the path in a cloud of dust, the sleeping hyenas and the hypos in the swamp of Amboseli….

The savannah was like this: complete.

I wrote these lines a year ago, watching the sunset in Amboseli, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro with its white peak of snow, at the end of a 7 days safari in Kenya because I wanted to be able to read it after and feel what I felt then: completeness. 

27 days before

A safari in Africa was always a dream that seemed to big. Or should I say too expensive. After I came back from Puglia, Italy, in August, I was wandering online, looking for my second trip of last summer. It was when I found out about an event I did heard before, one of nature’s great wonders, The Great Migration, how it’s called the world’s largest migration of wildlife. Over two million animals migrate from Serengeti, in Tanzania, to the greener pastures of Maasai Mara, in Kenya. It’s the wildebeest who set the start, followed of course by other animals. I remembered my reaction when I read on a website the animals that was guaranteed to see in each park. Lions were called abundant and guaranteed to see in Mara. It seemed a marketing line at that moment…

I bought the tickets 20 days before the departure and what followed was a marathon of emails and messages to a significant number of tour operators. Some didn’t answer, some were starting the conversation from 4000 euro for 3 days of safari, others had packages of 10-25K. I soon found out Kenia is not a cheap destinations when it comes to safari, but absolutely doable if you work enough to plan the trip. So I meet Rachel, the one that at the end of 37 emails in a week had me as her customer. I started from a 2 days safari and she got me sent the advance for a 7 days safari: Masai Mara, Amboseli, Nakuru.

The plan was done, the reservations made, my safari wardrobe bought, plus a telephoto lens for my camera, the vaccine for yellow fever checked, the visa obtained. After the 7 days safari, I planned a few days on the coast, in Diani beach, close to Mombasa, for some relaxing beach time. Kenia was already giving me butterflies like no other destination before. 

Arriving

After a few hours stop in a hot like hell Doha, I arrived in Nairobi at midday. The airport seemed a lot smaller than others I’ve been before in Europe or Asia. My name written on a sheet of paper at the entrance was what I was looking for. Josea was my driver from the airport to my hotel. I was so excited and talkative and we became friends very quickly and by the time I reached the hotel we had the plan for that day. He needed extra money for his girl that needed a heart surgery in India and I needed to see Nairobi with a local.

A 3m high concrete wall and an iron gate opened when we arrived. Three men with riffles came out and check the car, only after we were allowed to enter. I was going to find out that this is common in Kenia for places destinated to tourists. 

– Hello sister, was the salute that made me smile so many times in Kenya. Welcome to Nairobi! First time here?

Kibera – o glimpse on life in the largest urban slum in Africa

I felt immediately as I landed in Nairobi what it feels like to feel different because of the color of your skin. As soon as I left the airport, I saw no other white people on the streets, in the cars, in the shops, in the markets. It felt strange. 

Josea and I we drove on the streets in Nairobi center that looked as if it could be placed in any other country: tall buildings of offices, large boulevards, parks, fountains, busy crossroads. Then we left the central area and continue until a sea of rusty roofs appeared out of nowhere.

Kibera slum, Nairobi, Kenya,
Top view over Kibera, Nairobi

I was curious to see it the moment I read that there were walking tours organized there. Tours for white people in clean clothes to see the black in extreme poverty. As if we all don’t have our poors in our own cities in every single country on this earth. But as a friend who came back from Mumbai once said, their poverty is more of a poverty then ours. 

Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world and the largest in Africa is home to, some say 1M, others 1.4M, Josea said almost 2M  Actually, a look from the above tells the truth: only God can know. 

Kibera slum, Nairobi, Kenya
Street in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya

A fact is that 60% of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, 4.4 million people, live in low income settlements, meaning slums. They occupy occupying 6% of the land. So 60% on 6%. There’s no need of Communist ideology to see this gap is too deep and too dark. And so was the life in Kibera the day I was there and all the others that followed. Poverty can’t be described and I won’t even dare to try it. It can be seen but will continue to be never understood by those who were offered more simply by birth. Because one with a full belly will never understood the one who’s starving. 

I left ashamed towards the people in Kibera we drove by that day. Ashamed because it’s not fair. I didn’t leave the car and took no photos except thiese on the street we first entered the area. 

Kibera, Nairobi, Africa
Kibera, Nairobi

After I went quiet, as the street got more and more narrow and I saw the cobweb of streets that were only accessible by foot and that went deep into the heart of Kibera, from which I stole images of faces and little fragments of life scenes. I was just a passing view of a car with a white woman that day. But for me it was a thousand of perspective changing images. The start of a lesson offered by Africa, a place it’s impossible to come back from the same as you left.

Nairobi for tourists

The Giraffe Centre, established to protect the endangered giraffe that is found only in the grasslands of East Africa, a place where you can feed the giraffes, was just closing. As we left, a warthog was crossing the little alley to the parking lot. This was my first encounter with the African wild life and got me head over flip-flops excited. Josea was amused by my reactions. Next, he had to stop the car by the road for the second encounter: a tree filled with marabou storks. I crossed a heavy circulated road just to get closer to a gate where I could see them better. It started to look like the Africa I was dreaming about.

Giraffe Manor

My phantasy of visiting this place and see the giraffes sneaking their heads on the windows and chewing bites on the plates on the beautifully arranged table, stayed a phantasy. The place was accessible only for guests, which in perfectly understandable when you pay between 500-1000 $ for a room. Maybe some other time. As Josea started telling me about the fields of Mara packed with wild life, I instantly forgot about it. He took me after to a shop selling Maasai art. Those masks and mahogany sculptures were fantastic but all was very expensive. A great sculpture piece could cost up to 15k $. I bought my zebra bracelet made of camel bone there, for about 12$. The one I wore after in every single day of that trip.

Carnivore is the most famous restaurant in town. Opened since 1980 and included on the list of the best 50 restaurants in the world, the place is a heaven for meat eaters, with its all you can eat buffet and the huge round barbecue in the middle and a hell on earth for vegetarians. It used to be very exotic in terms of menu, in the past, until Kenia imposed a ban on game meat. 

It was packed with white tourists wearing safari outfits  and the gates kept opening and the armed guards kept checking on the jeeps bringing the guests for that night. It was nice but too Westerner for the taste of someone like me, too hungry for the Kenyan culture.

Dinner in Nairobi

Josea fulfilled my wish: we went for dinner in a local restaurant, “where he would go for good local food”. We entered a large covered terrace with white plastic tables and chairs. Nothing posh. All eyes turned to the entrance, to us. The clientele was entirely formed by locals. We stopped at the counter where a refrigerated display case was full with pieces of raw meat. I let Josea made the choice but as I saw him picking a piece of ribs with more bones then meat and not looking good at all, I started thinking that the biscuits I bought with me from home, for emergency reasons only, might be my dinner that evening. The meat was taken to the barbecue. I was so hungry… A lady came for the order and stayed for a conversation. She looked at me smiling as I was exposing all my excitement for finally being in Kenia, “to see the lions”.-

– When I see you people flying here from the other side of the world to see the lions, and I see them every day from my kitchen window! she laughed and made a move in the air with her hand while my jaw just dropped.

We talk and talk and my dinner was no where to be seen. I started reaching my eyes for it every 5 minutes. When a tall men carrying a large plate approached our table, with a big piece of meat on it that was so hot it was still frying, spreading a steam of barbecue all around, I fixed my eyes on it. He cuts it into pieces and the lady brings a few bowls with cabbage salad, tomato, pepper and onion salad and a plate with the African polenta as I named it, only their ugali is white not yellow. It didn’t look fabulous. The first bite totally changed my philosophy about food: it was the best, sweetest, juiciest, crunchiest barbecue I ever had. It absolutely confirmed all the rumours I have heard before about Africans the masters of barbecue. Those goat ribs in that evening in Nairobi were so much praised in all the stories I’ve told my gourmand friends after. We ate and talk and laughed and I knew that Carnivore couldn’t offer me that. It was the perfect start of a week long safari in Kenya.

Next: 3 days safari in Masai Mara

Istanbul: the city I once fell in love with

7 years ago in December I found a cheap ticket to a new destination, a city I haven’t seen yet. I went with a friend and I had one of the best weekends in my life. This is how and why I fell in love with Istanbul, the city on two continents. The surprise city that got me from having no expectations to being thrilled, drunk and ultimately in love. With its cobbled narrow streets on a rainy day, its tasty food, its mosques and sound of prayers, the colours of the Grand Bazar, its nightlife and, finally…. one of its inhabitant. What else could I have asked from a city?!


15h in Istanbul

Any return to a city I love is pure joy and Istanbul is on top of that list, even for a 3rd visit. So a 15h layover was an opportunity I couldn’t miss even-though I had to pay the price of a sleepless night. After all, layovers are nothing but free visit and a chance to see more of the world.

At 7:30am Taksim Square was sleeping. The restaurants on the little streets around were all closed. And I was hungry and needed wifi and a place to leave my luggage for 10h. Anywhere this would be a challenge but not in Turkey, a country were hospitality is the way of living. One shy question to a waiter arranging the chairs in a restaurant and the door opened for me and soon the food was served and the wifi turned on. I left a big tip and multiple thank you.

Now getting rid of my luggage for the next hours. The only options I found online were either too far or closed. I got the idea to ask for information a person that could actually offer the solution, a guy in a travel agency. He got the idea and came with the suggestion to store my suitcase for 10$. Problem solved. I was now free as a seagull to wander the city until evening and discover new places or see again my already favourite ones. Some call it most instagrammable spots, I call them simply my beautiful places.

The Old Tram

In Taxim Square there was something I missed on my previous two visits in the city: Nostalgic İstiklal Caddesi Tram, shortly the Old Tram, that brings the mood of the 19th century straingt to 2020. You know it’s coming when the busy street gets empty in the middle. It’s fun to watch people jumping on its back and makes great photos too. 

Sultanahmet wonders

The heart of the city and one of the places that I could visit 1000 times and more and love it every time. I took the metro from Taksim to Kabataş and then change the line straight to Sultanahmet, in front of the gorgeous Hagia Sofia.

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Sultanahmet

For the first time, the line to enter inside the famous Blue Mosque was this time doable so I entered inside. Usually it’s a wait of at least 1h and a discouraging line. I walked barefoot on the soft carpet covering the pavement inside the dark interior where high stained-glass windows allowed little light inside, among worshippers whispering the morning prayers. 

Ohh the perks of being a morning person, which I will never be! The early hour got me inside a place I first time missed because I didn’t know about it, the second time I confused it with another but the 3rd one was the lucky one for Basilica Cistern, used in the old times to supply water to the Great Palace of Constantinople. Now used for great photos mostly.

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Sultanahmet

As a bonus of the area are the colourful houses a few meters away from the entrance to Basilica Cistern, on Yerebatan street, just in case there is not enough time to go to Balat and Fener, famous for their rainbow like streets.

The Grand Bazaar

Wandering the little streets around the bazar until I find an entrance, playing this search and find game is one of my favourite activities in Istanbul and I do it every time I am in the city.

Getting lost inside it’s the next most favourite. Being one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 streets and more then 4.000 shops spread on an area of 30K m², the place is a labyrinth. It is huge, colourful and vivid. My favourite are the stores with hundreds of Turkish lamps. Enter inside one and feel just as dreamy as in a story from One Thousand and One Nights. Taking photos is forbidden but if you start with a conversation and ask nicely, they will allow it gladly.

The Grand Bazar, Istanbul, Turkish lamps

The afternoon found me in Eminönü, one of the oldest neighbourhoods of Istanbul which also stands as the city’s crossroads. Probably my favourite area for expressing the very essence of the entire city in one place. A live photo as seen from the Galata Bridge, with its spectacular views to its iconic landmarks: Bosphorus Bridge and the Süleymaniye Mosque, with the boats moving up and down between the docks, the crowds wandering the streets from the Spice Bazar nearby and the seagulls singing their songs over the sea, people, mosques and bridges. An always stop to my favourite baklava place in town, discovered by chance during visit no 2: Acemoglu Baklavari. It’s totally worth risking a diabetes here once you decide how many types of sweets to try (J)

Istanbul desert, Turkish sweets

I took my box of treats and devoured them while walking on Galata Bridge, among its tens of fishermen reaching their fishing poles for the catch of the day. This street show is all about life in the old Istanbul, of past, present and future, for a long as the bridge will stand there and the sea beneath it.

Galata Bridge, Istanbul, fishermen

Karaköy

Men at bar in Karakoy neighbourhood, Istanbul

Located on the other side of the harbour, this is the place for funky cafes, cocktail bars mix, hipster boutiques, old family-run shops in Ottoman-era buildings tattooed with street art and graffiti, a veritable art gallery in open air. Galata Tower watches over with a restless eye since the 13th century until nowadays.

Karakoi, old Galata, Istanbul, Turkey,

My hours in Istanbul were blown away in the air by the Bosphorus breeze. Evening came with grey clouds of the forecasted rain for that day. I left the city sinking in a silent blue hour, spreading over the mosques, the bazars, the fishermen on Galata Bridge and all the other favourite places I have there. I wished I had another glass of wine with a view at 360 Istanbul, the bar in Taksim Square. Next time.

Next: Hygge in Copenhagen

Abu Dhabi: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and more

My feet were burning! A hot long day of wandering got me exhausted. I touched the sea and felt it as if it was a step to heaven. Cold and calm. I entered knee deep with a Hmmm whispered to myself only. The sunset light melted the skyscrapers on Corniche Street into liquid gold, ready to ooze into the sea. It was my long expected moment. And then I heard in the back, someone was approaching:

– Excuse me, please step out of the sea. Is forbidden after 6pm. I’m sorry…the law…

“Ohh, Abu Dhabi, don’t do this to me!”…


Almost midnight

A never-ending 3h night bus ride took me from Dubai to Abu Dhabi the night before. Finding a taxi driver that spoke good English, with no Indian accent, was the first big and good difference that happened in the second Emirates city I came to see: Abu Dhabi. He was from Uganda and my 3 Swahili words turned our conversation into a friendly one.

The second difference, a lavish one this time, was the 4 stars hotel by the sea in central Abu Dhabi I afforded. In Dubai that would have been a fantasy. Thanks to the late room service and the Indonesian restaurant downstairs I had chicken satay with peanut sauce and nasi goreng, Indonesian fried rice. What a dinner at 2am!

12pm

I overslept, damn it! Or my phone didn’t rang… Or maybe I ate too much to late…

I took a look at the hotel pool and fancy interiors and left. I lost more then an hour looking for an exchange office. After the posh Dubai, Abu Dhabi was just another city: large empty boulevards, a few fast food restaurants, shops with ugly dirty windows and an unbearable heat.

After sweeting 2l I finally jumped in a taxi and drove to the very reason of my visit there: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, ranked by travellers in the last 2 years as the world’s second favourite landmark, according to TripAdvisor, after Angkor Wat in Cambodia. (about that one soon). A place I found about from Instagram….

After a 30min drive the white minarets of the Grand Mosque started to be visible and soon was clear why it is called Grand, cause it’s huge!

No entrance fee, all man and women were split in groups to the changing rooms. I wanted a burgundy abayas, a robe, those looked prettier, but I got a light brown one instead. Only two colours available to rent, for free as well. The garment had a hood so you can cover your head, which is mandatory inside. The rule is simple: no visible ankles or head. If anyone wants to wear her own clothes, no problem, as long as that rule is applied.

I then joined the row of hundreds of people going in, passing by the other hundreds getting out. When I stepped out into the light and all became suddenly bright white around, I know I have arrived to another beautiful place I so much wanted to see: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was sublime!

Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The strong sun shining right above and the perfect blue sky made the whole place look like an Arabian Nights white palace. The details were gorgeous.

Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The interior yard was surrounded by a no crossing tape so that no one could pass over the limit, on the mosaic forming large flowers spreading all over the white yard. There were special spots where photos could be taken, so photographers, instagrammers, likes addicts and others have all the conditions they needed for the perfect shot and the best memory.

Well that for a change was a struggle to me: I was alone. And I only wanted one nice photo of myself with the mosque large yard in the back. If possible no minaret getting straight out of my head. Simple? Nop! It took me an hour to get it and 7 people who tried. In vain. I got either an ID type photo, either one without my feet, one without my forehead, of course the one where a minaret coming straight out of my head, a few with my eyes closed and many on the move… I felt discouraged after all the options I could think of for how to ruin a photo ran out. I thank everyone for their (usually) one photo taken. The 3pm free tour was lost. I stood in a corner and admire the place. It was too beautiful to care about a photo. The photo opportunity spot I was sitting got empty, when a Japanese couple came. He had a camera. I thought I should ask him nicely for a photo, like I did previously with other 3 people carrying good cameras…. He accepted smiling. That’s a good start, some people look interrupted… I found my place. He made a two steps more in the back. Hmm…another good sign, not a close up photo this time, huh! He gave me back my camera and they leave before I could check the result. I never do this on the spot, my reactions can hurt feelings.

I catch them up in a few minutes, among the crowds.

– You take great photos, thank you so much. I love it.

– Yes he does indeed, isn’t it, his wife confirmed smiling.

Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

He was one of those rare begins born with a natural gift for framing a photo. We changed a few words and they told me about another free tour starting in 30 minutes and what they saw during the previous one where they can enter inside the mosque.

It was getting late and after a wandered around a little bit more, I decided to follow the crowds and see the interior of the mosque without a tour inside.

Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The interior was just as dreamy as the white yard, with the biggest chandeliers I ever saw.  After all, 545M $ for 22K square meters, about 4 football fields, do look fabulous, inside and outside!

Marathon walk on Corniche St

It looked like this beautiful! I almost destroyed my Havaiannas flip-flops rushing on the endless boardwalk, from Al Ain Palace all the way up to Corniche Beach, 5,2km in less then 30min. Passing by passers by, runners, playing kids, The Lake Park, and then Abu Dhabi Beach.

Sunset on Corniche street, Abu Dhabi

When my feet were hurting me close to an unbearable level, I arrived.  I crossed the beach, threw by flip flops on the sand and stop when I reached the see. What a feeling! It was too cold for a swim and too empty but perfect to cool away a hot long day. The beach at sunset looked fantastic, surrounded by glass skyscrapers on one side and the silver sea on the other, quiet like a hot day in the desert. I was happy there, all I had was all I needed. I didn’t even noticed the guardian:

– Excuse me, please step out of the sea. Is forbidden after 6pm. I’m sorry…the law…

So I found out in Abu Dhabi you can’t swim at sunset. That’s why there was no one in the water. The sea was cold anyway. I sit on the sand and admire the place and enjoy my peace and excitement: I finally was in Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi, Corniche Beach

I left the beach when was already dark. I took a taxi and asked him for a good restaurant with local food. I almost wanted to kiss him 10 minutes later when I saw in front of my eyes 3 big letters: GAD. My favourite place to eat in Hurghada, Egypt was in Abu Dhabi too. I ate until I couldn’t breath any more and talked about Egypt with the waiter there.

I walked on Sheyk Zayed Bin Sultan Street that evening, happy I added a new country to by beautiful collection and more new beautiful places. That evening of January, with 28C temperatures, the streets were filled with people, the restaurants, the terraces, the bars, the coffee shops… The heart of the city was beating. The big world was there and I was part of it, me and my wanderlust, ready for my next flight. How I will miss that feeling of perfect freedom later this year.

PS: lesson learned – always check the check in conditions when I book a room inside the airport. I didn’t that time and it cost me tones of stress, 100 euro lost for another room, outside the airport and almost my connection flight for back home.

Next: one day in Istanbul

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Croatia: Legends and charm of Dubrovnik

Can’t be a better time to remember my rainiest summer holiday than a rainy evening of May. If now I’m happy for the forests surrounding my hometown, the fields with tall grass and all that’s green and alive is finally enjoying rain after a dry spring, I wasn’t so happy that day, arriving in Dubrovnik on a ferocious storm……

Dubrovnik under waters

I felt lucky when I found tickets for the buss departing in 10 minutes from Split, heading to Dubrovnik. It was going to rain heavily, the dark clouds and winds weren’t joking, and the first heavy drops started hitting the window next to my seat very soon. The rain continued the whole trip, in violent episodes, as we passed through Bosnia Herzegovina and back to Croatia, and finally reaching Dubrovnik. A light rain, a afar away thunder and a sky that seemed to get brighter. I was optimistic those were the last drops and I can walk to my not so far accommodation with my clothes dry. But little do I know about rain… In a few minutes the drops became more frequent, the sky got darker and the wind was blowing the rain towards us, under the bus station roof. Should I take a taxi? But was very close…. I saw a little pub across the street which seemed a good refuge. By the time I’ll have lunch, rain will stop. But little do I know about rain… All I could do was sneaking under the roof of a tinny newspapers kiosk that was on my way. And that was it! A curtain of water started falling down, violent and determined to cover all in water. Lightnings, thunders and strong guts followed by darkness. The afternoon became evening under the black clouds. In a few minutes all got flooded, the street I had to cross to reach that pub and the pub also. So no more lunch! No more refugee. I was stuck under the tinny roof in the middle of a storm. I decided to buy an umbrella from the lady only to hold it in front of me under that shower. People were running, cars were swimming and soon nothing moved but the rain and wind. I was now sharing the tinny roof with other 4 people. We exchanged empathy smiles. After 30 minutes the rain calmed down but the whole place was a lake. A car drove by and we all watch the driver to see if he’s gonna have the same faith as the one before him with a X5 BMW with German numbers and now a dead engine. His car survived but we all had to hold our suitcases up from the waves of water coming from the street. After another 30 minutes of waiting and watching the terrible effects of the storm, I finally find a safer zone to walk away, hoping there’s no canal opened under the ankle deep water.  And so I was welcomed to Dubrovnik!

– How come a girl like you is not married?

After climbing up and down a few tens of steps, when I finally got out of the flooded area and I was misdirected by the only person I meet, I was finally found by my host looking all drenched, this time form the effort not the rain. And there I was, in their living room. My hosts were two nice seniors renting 2 rooms of their apartment to support their pension income. Nice and curious like people who have reached a certain age. The homemade sweet cherry soften my tongue and I answered simply:

– I haven’t met my perfect match.

Classic. But I got support immediately.

– So sais Ana, our niece. She is 33 soon, said his wife nodding her head.

– She doesn’t trust men these days, continues her grandfather.

I even got pancakes with homemade quince jam so I was opened to any question now that the storm was forgotten, the sun was up and my foodie spirit was spoilt.

The 1st best moment in Dubrovnik was opening the window of my room. The area where  my accommodation was was built on a hill. I was at 9th floor. The blue sky, the clear fresh light after the storm and the panoramic view of the city by the sea was a gift.

It took a 30 minutes walk to the old city of Dubrovnik, a distance that I was going to hate the next days and regret Split and the perfect location I had there. Dubrovnik is pricey and I thought I did a good deal. Only thought…

 Old town of Dubrovnik

Finally I was in front of the drawbridge to the Old Town, via Pile Gate! Packed with tourists. Once I crossed it, Dubrovnik, the so photographed and talked about one, began. Placa, or Stradun, the main street, appears like a straight and wide limestone channel beneath grand ancient houses.

Dubrovnik Olt Town, Croatia, Dalmatia

The glistening limestone pavement walked with thousands of visitors each day connects two of the gates to the citadel, Pile Gate and Polce Gate. With small restaurants or shops on each side, it is a sudden prelude to what seems to be a different world, an ancient one where seeing a knight at the corner won’t seem here out of place. Like in Venice, one you cross the bridge, the wonder world begins. The Rector’s Palace, Sponza Palace, the Cathedral, Church of Saint Blaise, Clock Tower, the Large Onofrio’s Fountain and the little limestone streets offering teasing sights to the terracotta roofs and the long stairs passages hidden in the shade, behind the bright facades in Placa.

Croatia, Dubrovnik, stairs in Old City
Old Town, Dubrovnik, Croatia

I like it and all I wanted to was wander. And so I meet the see, the cobalt blue Adriatic, still rough after the storm earlier that day. Next to St John Fortress strong waves were exploding in thousands as they hit the massive walls build in the 16th century.

I called it a day with a glass of Dalmatia white wine and a local treat: black rice, enjoyed at Dalmatino restaurant in the old town, where I was lucky to get a table, outside, on the busy little street. Dubrovnik was more alive now, under the stars, in a beautiful summer night.

  Walls of Dubrovnik

My plan for that bright clear sky morning was a walk on the citadel walls. A perfect start for a day in Dubrovnik. The old town is surrounded by a wall so thick that on top of it there’s a narrow cobbled alley, a 2km long walk that offers the best views of the old town.

Croatia, Dubrovnik, Old Town

A fresh morning, just before the sun starts to burn is the best moment for this. The sea of square shaped terracotta roofs, hundreds of them, meet the Adriatic blue where Lokrum island is the only green spot.

City Walls, Dubrovnik, Croatia, Adriatic Sea

It’s an Instagrammable picture perfect view, one among many others: The Placa, the baseball stadium, the Large Onofrio’s Fountain. King’s Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms viewed from the height of it walls and after from its little streets kept me busy all day with long walks interrupted by ice-cream short breaks in places like the Franciscan Monastery where one of the oldest pharmacy in the world still exists since 1300.

Dubrovnik, Croatia, sea view

A swim on Banje beach cooled down the day and my nerves. After a failed attempt to find a restaurant with local food, that was placed high on Mount Srd, an adventure that took me way far from all the mainstream spots frequented by tourists, trespassing a few private properties, I ended up going down again on the same killer steps that took away every drop of energy. At least I got to see more of Dubrovnik, the less accessible part, including bird’s eye views towards the bay. And as usual, I tried to get to know a place in my own way.

Croatia, old town Dubrovnik

The golden hour turned the limestone old town into a golden citadel, where the rush inside the restaurants kitchens matched perfectly the one on its busy streets. And so the evenings begin.

Close to the Large Onofrio’s Fountain, next to the stairs of the Franciscan monastery lies one of the living legends of the citadel: the Maskeron, a 20cm wide weird gargoyle head coming out of the wall like a tinny step. It’s easy to miss it, unless there are people gathered around. It is said that those who manage to stay on top of it, keeping the balance while also take off their shirt, will be lucky in love. Therefore, encouraged by the myth, boys, girls, even adults were testing their balance with more fun then success. The performances were attracting passers by from the street and each time someone was getting close to fulfilling the challenge, applauds and encouragements were filling the night. The kind of night that  I already knew will turn into an amazing memory of one of my beautiful places, finally discovered:  the old and charming Dubrovnik.

Next: Kotor, Montenegro