Tag Archives: traveling

Finland: How to find Santa’s Secret Cabin

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

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places

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

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

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

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

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

Levi, Lapland, Finland, beautiful places

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

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places

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

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

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

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places         

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

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

 

Egypt: sleepless Cairo and the Pyramids

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

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

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

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

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

“I know when I was born,

I know what’s my name,

I know where I’m from and who I am

And I know that one day I will die

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

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

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

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

Cairo, Egypt, The Great Pyramids, beautiful places

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

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

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

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

LRG_DSC00736

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

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places

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

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

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

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

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

– No, not at all…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

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

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

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

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

– It will happen again, you think?

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

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

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

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

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

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

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

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

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

Day 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations 

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

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

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

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

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

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

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

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

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

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

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

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

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

Next: Lapland, Finland

 

 

Egypt: 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!

  

 

 

 

 

 

Italy, Puglia: the perfect hidden gem

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

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

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

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

Alberobello

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

Alberobello, Italy. Beautiful places

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

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

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

Alberobello, Italy, beautiful places

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

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

Lecce

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

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

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

Lecce, Italy, beautiful places

Polignano a Mare

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

Polignano a Mare, Italy, beautiful places

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

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

Polignano a Mare, Italy, beautiful places

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

Polignano a Mare, Italy, beautiful places

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

Monopoli

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

 

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

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

Petra: lost, found and too fascinating

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Petra, Beautiful places, destinations

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

   next: My first trip in the desert – Wadi rum

Jordan: Bedouins, Traditions & Wonders

First day in Jordan

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

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

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

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

Hello Jordan

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

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

Jerash, Jordan

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Petra and Wadi Rum  

Love, hate and friendship in Jerusalem

One Day and One Night in Jerusalem

It was late. Don’t know how late but the full moon was up the clear sky. I was sitting on the very top of the ancient limestone wall that surrounds the Old Jerusalem, facing the muslim quarter. In front of my eyes, as far as I could see, was an entire hill, all covered with houses and thousands of lights blinking. So this is where that 70% muslim population of Jerusalem lived, I thought.

– What are all those lights? I asked as soon as we got to the wall, high enough to see above it.

– It’s the lights of the Ramadan, he answered.

None of us took our eyes from it.

I come from a country with more than 95% christians, but I remembered then I’ve heard this before. Muslims use lights in their houses, during the Ramadan, similar as we, at home, use for Christmas. It was an unbelievable view.

Earlier that day I woke up soon after 5am. This is when the muslim prayers start. You’ll hear it even if you’re deaf. I tried to ignore it and sleep again but in seconds the christian bells started too. I thought what a great idea it was to get a room in the old Jerusalem, meters away from all the holy places … Since I had no chances of sleep anyway in that noise, I decided I should try to see if I can enter one more time the holly tomb, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This was 250m away and I wanted to be able to finally say the entire Lord’s Pray, since the evening before we were so rushed by the Greek monk who wanted to close the church gates, so I couldn’t even finish it.

The streets were empty, except a very few early merchants who were opening their stores. One I talked to, the day before, insisted I will be his first customer that day, to bring him luck. He wanted to offer me a cashmere scarf for a good price. The price was good only after a short negotiation, and so I got myself with a beautiful purple cashmere scarf.

The church was almost empty, for my big surprise. Inside, about 8 priests of different religions were performing a mass in Latin, in front of the now closed holy tomb. Around them, on four wooden benches on each side, a few catholic sisters were listening, joined by 3-4 tourists and one guy dressed like Jesus. In Jerusalem nothing seems too religious. I joined this small gathering and for about an hour I assisted to the most enchanting mass I ever saw. And in the end, I was happy to be among the first people to enter the holy tomb and left so pleased this time I could finally say the entire Lord’s Pray.

I spent the rest of the morning and afternoon wandering the streets, among the stalls, merchants, tourists, christian monks, muslims and ultra orthodox jews. I had delicious foods like warm arabic pancakes or freshly baked baklava filled with vanilla cream, and of course, humus. Lots of it. I headed to the Mount of Olives, then the Gethsemane garden, with the oldest olive trees I ever saw and lost of bougainvillea flowers, shortly entered a muslim cemetery, went again and again on Via Dolorosa, entered the Church of St Anne: the birthplace of Virgin Mary, then Damascus, Dung, Zion and Lion’s gates of the city, The Garden Tomb. I couldn’t stop walking! The heat took all my energy but in the afternoon I started again my marathon through Jerusalem, this time tasting the new city. I walked from Jaffa Gate to Mahane Yehuda Market. This new part of the city is different but you can still feel the special atmosphere. I never saw so many types of halva as in this market and I heard a jewish saying I liked: If it’s for free, in means two. There’s no other people to have such a deep relation with money and business and no other people who could have said this better. Jews are born to make money.

IMG_0444

As I got back to the old city I decided, what else, but to walk its streets one more time. It was the last evening there, in the morning I was heading Jordan. It was getting dark but you don’t realise this while being inside the covered labyrinth of Jerusalem streets. The stalls were closing one by one, leaving the streets with more space as the majority of the tourists were gone now. I had no idea where I was going. At one point I realised the street I was walking was getting more and more crowded again. But the people were not tourists, they were all muslims. In a few minutes it was a river of people, women, men and children, rushing on that street. I’ve noticed that children were all having one toy: different types of guns. Well, toys of the Middle East…

No one was looking at me in any way, as if they didn’t even noticed the only blonde there looking lost. But I wasn’t lost, I was curious where all those crowds were going. For a few minutes I continue in the same direction, trying to see if I meet any other tourists, like me. None. I thought maybe I was, accidently, on a street I wasn’t allowed to be if not a muslim. It happened that morning to be stopped by two army officers to enter one street. Only muslims were allowed that area for the entire week. It was impossible to get back in the opposite direction, too much people.

Men were carrying small carpets on their shoulders, they were either alone or in group of men, women were usually with children. Only a few families with both parents. I saw in front two Israeli police officers. The sound of what was now already the familiar muslim prayers was hearing loud. I knew where they all were going. To the mosque. To Temple Mount, one of the sacred place for muslims, where is believed that Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.  

I thought, probably, at one point, I would be stopped to join them and so I stopped myself and sit on some stairs, trying to look busy with my phone but I was actually watching the hurried passers by. One guy approached me through the crowd, trying to get as close as I could hear him saying: – – – Don’t stay here, come over there, I have a chair and tea.

I was happy I could finally ask someone about what was going on.

He told me, as I suspected, it was the evening prayer during the Ramadan and thousands were going to the mosque. And of course, non muslims are not allowed but I could see the mosque during the day. I regretted I missed that place during the day, I got no idea how I forgot about it.

He told me soon the street will be empty again as everyone will have reached the mosque. And so it happened in a few minutes. Now we could finally hear each other speaking. He had a table outside, in front of a small house with two windows at about 1m high from the pavement of the street and an old wooden door, and he was selling hot tea. One type only, menthe, already sweetened. He offered me a cup. It was a hot evening and that was the sweetest tea I ever had, my blood must have been sweet too after. He still had some tea left and hopped to sell it to the people as they were leaving the mosque, very soon.

He asked me where I was from, how long did I spent in Jerusalem, how I liked it, if I got the chance to see the mosque and the muslim quarter. I told him what I saw during the day and than he said, if I want, he’ll show me the muslim quarter. I wasn’t sure what to answer, he saw my hesitation and he addressed what I thought to be a strange question: are you friendly with muslims? I said, surprised, I’m friendly with everybody and as I was saying it I realised this might sound silly. But his English was not perfect and I understood what he meant. He wanted to say if discrimination was the reason of my hesitation.

I was sitting on the chair, drinking my tea. He was a few meters away, in front of me, on the other side of the street. I felt he prefered this distance. I was thinking I didn’t wanna wait to much since it was getting late, I wanted to leave. As if he heard my thought, he started to close the stall sooner, putting everything inside the house, before the people were coming back from the mosque. He mentioned he’s not a believer cause he likes too much to smoke and so he doesn’t fast, as he was taking the table and all the other stuff inside. He rushed out the door soon after, head to the street in front, making a sign with his hand: come, I’ll show you.

He was a Palestinian born and raised in Jerusalem, he was working in constructions in Tel Aviv cause there he could earn more money. He had an elder brother married with two wives. He has two children with each of them and was working “as a slave” to support them all.

– Isn’t enough trouble already with one woman, why two? I joked

– True!  

We were heading to the Western Wall and when we got there I stopped for a few minutes to take a look. The lights there were so strong as if it was daylight. He continued and stopped a little further, waiting for me.

One of the two policemen there invited me to enter, I said I’ve already been there the day before, joked a little and followed my new friend.

He looked as if he was constantly running. I decided to test his speed, walk even faster and kept walking in front of him. We started almost running

– Why are you walking that fast?

– I only try to keep up with you, I replied. If you’re walking fast, I can walk faster, I told him as if I were launching an invitation to compete. He seemed to enjoy it but he was definitely not used to it, so it seemed.

We entered almost running and laughing in the square where the Great Synagogue was.

– See, this is the Great Synagogue. But except the mosque, where you are allowed to enter during the day, the jews don’t allow anyone to enter.

– Really? But I din entered in synagogues in other places…

– Not here. Not in Jerusalem. Here you can’t.

We started walking on some narrow streets where there was no one else. I stopped, searching for other people, to make me feel safe. He realised it and said I don’t have to worry, I was safe. He took me then in a place that looked like an old abandoned garden. From there we could see a part of the old city. We sit on what it was a part of a demolished wall, in front of us children were playing.

– See, they are palestinians and jews, they play together. This is how we live here, in Jerusalem, all together.

We talked about the neverending war, about the little chances to ever make peace there, about what he thought about the jews and I told him what the jews I talked to were saying about the palestinians. We talked about terrorism, about Syria and the violence that generates violence.

As we left, we met another guy, he was wearing the Israeli police uniform. They saluted each other, shook hands happily and said a few words in Hebrew.

– You see, he is my friend, he’s a jew. He works for the Police but he is my friend.

Next he wanted to take me somewhere. We walked a little and got to the wall. A part of the huge wall surrounding the old Jerusalem. In a few steps we were on top of it. The view there was astonishing. As far as I could see, in front of me, there was the muslim quarter, an entire hill covered with houses, and in every house, a light was blinking. I think there can’t be a better image of that time of the year for muslims, the Ramadan. It was quiet.

We sit on a bench, looking at the lights, and there he told me the story of his life. About his childhood, his work, how difficult it was to live there as a palestinian, about his father who died recently of cancer, after months of suffering in hospital, how close they were and how every single evening he spent with his father before, offering him a cigar and a drink, talking about all in the world.

He saw my knowledge about the arab culture was poor and he told me about the Ramadan, their traditions and beliefs, how weddings took place and are arranged in traditional families.

And eventually, we got to the sensitive part: the personal life.

– Have you ever loved someone? I asked. At first he said now and then, word by word, he started talking.

He grew up together with a cousin of his, attending the family events and holidays, playing and seeing each other becoming adults. All their lives they were talking about how they will get marry and start a family. This is common in some cultures, marrying a cousin. He started building the house without saying anything to the family, as he needed to support his future family. He was working as a crazy to finish it faster. And one day, he finds out she is getting married. And this was the point where his life stopped and all his dreams ended. I tried to tell him that it was an episode in his life, that lots of other good things will happen and he has to stay oped. He didn’t care. He only asked me how I got over someone I loved. He listened as if this was impossible to happen to him. The recent death of his father added even more sorrow. I don’t think I ever meet someone more discouraged by life. He didn’t care not even if he was to die that second. I so hope what I told him will make him even think about forgetting and moving on.

When we said goodbye, later that night, he told me he once was a guide for someone who thought he is an Israeli, cause he was speaking Hebrew. And that someone didn’t like muslims at all. This finally explained his question from when we met, if I was friendly with muslims.

At the end of the day, this palestinian friend of mine took his palm opened in his. Now he was doing the same with my hand, and started closing a finger for every sentence below:

I am born and raised in Jerusalem

I speak Hebrew

I also speak Arabic

I’m a Palestinian and now you know me

And today, my friend, I was your friend

Too many thoughts kept me awake that night. Maybe also that tea with too much sugar. I realised I didn’t remember the name of my Palestinian friend. I wish I did. I will though remember him like this: the one who showed me the other part of Jerusalem and shared his personal story with me. One name means nothing to this.

At the end he told me that when we were in front of the Western Wall he got a few meters away to wait for me because he was not allowed to enter that area. Because he was a muslim.

– What! I sad. I didn’t know that!

And there it was, finally, the difference between us. Not a real or natural one, but one imposed by the others.

After all, I met him on Chain Street.  

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.  

 

How I survived 10 days alone in the Middle East.

Day 1: Tel Aviv, Israel

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

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

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

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

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

Tel Aviv beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued… soon 🙂

Weekend in Paris: Not a lazy Sunday

When you wake up on a Sunday morning and the second you open your eyes you realise  you’re in Paris, you know it’s not gonna be an ordinary boring Sunday. I jumped out of bed barefoot, pull back the curtains and opened the window from the small balcony of my room. I was at the top floor, in a 400 years old building and 200 years old hotel, on Rue Saint-Antoine, in Les Marais, two minutes away from Bastille. What a gorgeous spring sunny day it was! The rush in the street was the sign that a new day has started and I had to quickly become a part of it.

I had already in mind that this 5th visit in Paris to be a little different. I wanted to see the other face of my favourite city, not just the famous places I’m so found of, but the places where tourists and even Parisians don’t usually go for a Sunday walk. So after an amazing Saturday that has ended at 5am, I was determined to discover a few hidden gems in Paris.

The first destination was a street known as the most beautiful street in Paris; happily, it was quite close to where I was and I decided to walk. On my way, I stopped a little at Bastille Market, a flea market opened on Sundays and Thursdays, to wander a bit among the stalls full of regional products, fruits, vegetables, oysters and everything you might think of, and why not, have a cheap and nice breakfast there. The moment I laid my eyes on a stall full of tens of types of cheese, I knew I have met my breakfast: black truffles cheese. I left happy, eating small pieces of divine tasting cheese from a plastic bag.

In 15 minutes I found Rue Cremieux. If not the most beautiful, certainly the most colourful street in Paris. And the most “Instagramed” apparently. I took a few photos, of course… and played with a gorgeous Persian white fluffy cat, who was getting its daily admiration dose while posing in an opened window. Then I headed to Gare de Lyon, at 5 minutes away, to take the metro which was suppose to take me to my next stop: Little Sri Lanka.

Rue Cremieux, Paris

The top semi-secret and un-touristy Paris neighbourhood was anything but the fancy city of Paris I knew. The moment I went out from La Chapelle metro station, I was in a different city, on another continent. Shops selling Indian sarees, opulent dresses with large golden necklaces, stones, silk, all shinning and sparkling, right next to tinny shops with spices, old cell phones, accessories, indian food, there it was everything. From men with large moustaches and coloured turbans, eating rice with their hands in small and dark restaurants, to guys sitting in the corners of the streets doing I got no idea what, to women wearing proudly the red Bindi on their forehead. Now I believe those who say in Paris there are parts of it where you don’t feel as in Paris. Even though I did not feel unsafe, I was alert and I wouldn’t risk to walk those streets after dark.

I had one more stop to complete my wish of getting to know Paris better. The 3rd on my list was Belleville. Don’t judge it by the name cause it doesn’t reflect the beauty of the area, which looks more like any city getto, with old grey buildings where no one seemed to live, closed shops with empty windows, small fast foods with no clients and plenty of graffiti. Rue Denoyer is a masterpiece of street art though, with about 30m of walls completely covered in graffiti, with activism messages and photographers trying to get the best shoot of the place.

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Belleville

I was heading to my beloved Montmartre, thinking that it was enough of something else for one weekend, when, passing Jaures and Stalingrad stations I really saw from the train the streets and areas there, where, indeed, I wouldn’t wanna be not even during the day. Groups of young men gathered at the corners of the streets, people, probably migrants living in tents, others sleeping on the pavement. The contrast is striking compared to central fancy Paris.

Right in front of Abbesse I met my friend, who’s living in Paris and for the next 10 minutes he gave me a speech about how reckless I was to wander alone in those areas. Maybe I was, a little, but I always believed you can only feel a city on its streets, but not those packed with tourists.