430 meters below Sea Level – Visiting the Dead Sea

Everybody knows that the mountain Everest is the highest point on the face of the Earth, and it is definitely on my to do list. But before I save $30K for the group climbing excursion, I decided first to pay a visit to the lowest point on Earth – the Dead Sea.

It is located right in middle of the Middle East and is officially is shared by Palestine, Israel and Jordan. However after taking the Highway 90 from Tel Aviv down to this area and passing by what (according to the map) should be the Palestinian part of this lake, it seemed like it is completely under Israel’s  control. Well, but we’ve already known that Israel is not particularly good in sticking with the border lines

So, we rented a car in Tel Aviv and after less than 2 hours we were crossing by the dessert mountains and palm trees forests. It was midday of Saturday, so the road was empty with only few cars passing by.

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One thing that impressed me about this wonder is the perfect, mirror-like reflection of the Dead Sea. Here is the closer look to it:

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If you look deep enough, you can see the Jordan mountains thought the clouds

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No, he is not lying on the bottom of the sea here. He is floating!

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A piece of salt from the beach

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We spent a night in Ein Bokek, not a town, rather a hotel strip. Do I recommend it? No, not really, hotels here are very expensive and quite old. Also, almost no eating out/going out options available. But again it was the beginning of January.

In the morning, we gave a lift to a couple of hitchhikers, who spent a night on the beach and woke with mosquito bites on their faces (not sure if they slept at all). So, don’t do it either!

Around the Dead Sea

So, the Dead Sea can be fun for some time, but as it is not recommended spending more than 15 minutes in its salty waters, you might get bored quite quickly. But there are a few other things you can do around here.

Masada

A very special site for many Israelis and Jews. Masada is remainings of an ancient town, situated  on the top of the rock. A heroic legend of Siege of Masada attacks locals to visit this place,  for others it is a chance to look over the Dead Sea and the Judean desert from 400 meters up:

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You can hike up or take a cable car

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Ein Gedi hikes:

Ein Gedi is described as an oasis in the dessert and offers a number of hiking routes situated across the shore of the Dead Sea. We stopped at Wadi David and did an hour long hike to the David’s waterfall and back.

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One of the smaller waterfalls on this hike
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David’s falls

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We made friends with these little guys…
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and stayed way from him

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Ein Gedi kibbutz & Botanical garden

The local kibbutz (commune) is situated on the hill overlooking the Dead Sea and mountains. The community here runs a hotel and a famous Botanical garden (in the middle of the dessert!) with plans from all over the world.

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Looks like a house on a tropical island…

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and then and here it was a time leave back to Tel Aviv.

At the end of this blog I would like to share a few tips, should you be interested in visiting Palestine. This trip was too short for us to do so, but here is what I learned from my research:

Jericho (the city of Palms) – if you are in the Dead Sea area do not miss out on this town in West Bank. Believed to be one of the oldest villages in the world offers plenty of archaeological and Biblical attractions.

The Dead Sea area is quite badly reachable by the public transport, so to travel around here you will need to rent a car (or hitchhike). But with a car rented in Israel you will not be able to visit West Bank. Here is one of the alternatives for you to rent in Jerusalem.

Note to myself: next time I am around the Dead Sea I want to stay here.

Exploring the 3 islands of Malta

The teeny tiny spot in the Mediterranean sea – this is how Malta looks if you try to find it the world atlas. But then in December the 3 of us decided to zoom in to see what treasures this country, settled over the three islands, is hiding inside.

Malta’s surprises:

  1.  The traffic is on the wrong side of the road – it is the legacy of the British rule and influence over the island. The special relation is very much visible in the everyday life: crowds of the British tourists; shops like M&S and Costa cafes to cater for their taste and prices which are more similar to the UK than other Mediterranean countries.
  2. Language –  the sound of Maltese took me by surprise. People behind me in the plane were speaking something that was completely unfamiliar to my ear, so I made a conclusion it was Hungarian… Only later, I realized it is the original Maltese language, which vocabulary is 52% Italian/Sicilian, 32% Siculo-Arabic, and 6% English, with some of the remainder being French. But don’t worry, your won’t have to break your tongue – English is co-official language of the country.
  3. Churches, churches everywhere… Malta tops the list of the religious believes and is easy to see why: everywhere you look you see church(es) in the horizon. Only in Gozo alone you can find 46 churches and it’s a big number for a 67 km² island.
  4. And it is not the only list, where Malta is leading. Malta is also European country with the best LGBT rights. A big lesson to be learnt here for many other secular, yet very conservative, governments, including my native Lithuania!

and now let’s hit the left side of road and start the trip:

Valletta

The capital of Malta and the World Heritage Site. Tiny, feels more like a district than a city. Valletta begins with a panoramic view on the hill at the Upper Barrakka gardens and ends with Fort Saint Elmo all the way down the hill. The famous Saint John’s Co-Cathedral is right in the middle – don’t miss it!

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Gozo

Only half an hour on a ferry and you are in Gozo – the second biggest island of Malta. img_6638img_6637img_6636img_6635

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Azure Window

This rock is one of the biggest attractions in Gozo. Impressive from up close!

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Cittadella

Already from the ferry you can see the crosses of the citadel. A walk through the tiny streets of this walled city is a must. The panoramic views from the top are just spectacular.

Mdina

The old Malta’s capital and another World Heritage site. We were only able to reach Mdina in the evening, and it was breathtaking. Tiny streets, little light, almost no people. Could not get more mystic…But then out of the sudden the light inside this city went out… The only light that was left was from the full moon…

Blue Grotto

Another spectacular nature creation in the main island – the Blue Grotto. Look at it from up the hill and then go down to take a small boat ride through the caves.

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Marsaxlokk

Probably the most popular Sunday’s village in Malta with well advertised traditional fish market. On this day you have locals coming in from around the island and double as many tourists trying to glimpse at this “famous tradition of selling fish”.

The market is just like any other market, anywhere else around the world. But it is a beautiful place for a seafood lunch in the terrace.

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It was a 3 day visit to Malta, and even though we tried to see as much as possible, we had to leave a bunch of things for the next time. Malta is a beautiful mix of nature, architecture, history, and holiday fun for those who visit in the summer. I am definitely coming back again… maybe next December…

and last but not least… a few restaurants, we tried it and we loved it:

La Pira in Valletta for local Maltese food and wine.

Filippo in Marsaxlokk – Italian seafood place in the middle of the most famous market in Malta.

Life in Medina part II – Tanger blues 

Tangier was the second city we visited during our Morocco excursion. And if one knows that the next destination is a sunny place on the cost of the Mediterranean, one just can’t wait to get there. So were we! We shortened our time in Fez, jumped on the train, hoping to reach Tangier just before the sunset…

…it turns out the train service in Morocco is not that great, disturbances are common and not very surprising for locals. So 300 km and 8 hours later, just before the midnight, we arrived to Tangier.

Leaving 1000 year old Fez’ Medina and arriving to the modern Tangier’s train station felt like a time travel. The surroundings were quite different from what we left behind: skyscrapers with the international hotel names on them, perfect roads etc…

Then the taxi driver ‘by mistake’ took us to the similarly sounding hotel on the other side of the city, and we were back to reality. The defense mode was on again.

It was the middle of the night when we finally reach our little Dar Jameel hotel, right in the middle of the Medina. And yet again Morocco did its magic! Shabby on the outside, but breathtaking inside. We sat down for some mint tea and absorbed the beauty of Moroccan signature interior design, its colors and structures.

The next morning after the traditional breakfast on the rooftop we started to discover the old and new Tangier.

Tangier is blue

In Tangier, Medina blends in the mixture of different shades of blue, some from the sky and some from the sea. The white-blue houses, shops, pottery, carpets… Everything is blue! img_6345img_6376img_6360img_6342img_6368img_6377img_6344

Stairway to Kasbah

The Medina here is like a mountain. Climb it! It gets better with every stair you take. On the top of the mountain you will find Kasbah museum, which previously served as residence for Morocco’s sultans. It was closed for us, but I wish more luck for you.

Again, Medina here is a maze, enjoy it, get lost in it, peak into the local life, and of course, sip the mint tea on every corner.

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The cool Tangier

Due to its proximity to Europe, and the recent political situation, over the past decades Tangier has become a cool place to visit. With its art nouveau buildings, 70s style cinemas, the legendary cafes in  petit and grand socco, Tangier is full  of tourists, artists, traders. Again, it’s like a time travel back to when deals were made by shaking hands, and bargaining was an art on its own.img_6371img_6366img_6335img_6355img_6354img_6353img_6370img_6369img_6336img_6365

The new Tangier

The girl that we met on the train told us:

“You will love Tangier. It’s like New York. It never sleeps.”

In the search for this Tangier, we left the Medina, so see a little part of the new city.

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And then it was the end of our short holidays. We took the white Mercedes taxi to the airport,  leaving behind this newly discovered life in Medina. Morocco is not an easy country to travel: the tourist here equals the walking wallet, not everything works smoothly, be ready to bargain till you drop. But these are the minor things.

Morocco is beautiful! Still untouched by western trends, at least in its Medinas…

Go! See it for yourself!..

Life in Medina part I – Fez, Morocco

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When days start to get shorter and shorter here in Brussels, the best way to keep your vitamin D high is to find a sunny weekend escape destination. To be honest, I have never heard about Fez before finding a cheap Ryanair ticket. But  as soon as I saw Google describing Fez as Morocco’s cultural capital, I did not need to know more.

It was the last weekend of October, 3 hours flight, 30 minutes drive from the airport and we found ourselves in a 1000 years old Fes el Bali, a world heritage site. We had 2 days in front of us to learn everything we need to know about Fez and what’s life like in this Medina.

Medina is a Market

First of all, Medina is a market, and here you will be offered to buy beautiful artisan handicrafts (leather, pottery and of course carpets are Fez’s specialties), you will also be intensively approached by the locals offering you a private guide, a very special shop, the best restaurant, and many other ‘hidden secrets’. The thing a bout the market is that you need to know how to bargain, and to say no, and you will need to say no here many times…

A little advice, if you are on the budget or you  are really not interesting in buying anything, the easiest way to do it is by not entering any shop. Shop keepers here are very skilled sellers and they know  how to do it. It will only take them to see a doubt in your eyes and you will end up leaving a shop with a carpet/lamp or a tea set…

All sorts of leather goods are Fez’s specialty. Head to the tannerie Chouara,  the biggest open air leather coloring fabric. It is a big tourist attraction (and a trap). Be ready for a mix of smells and to say no to  very persistent sellers and ‘guides’.

Donkeys of Medina

The 9000 tiny streets of medina are closed to cars therefore donkeys do the transportation job here. They carry anything and everything, from Coca Cola cans to gas containers.

Medina is beautiful

The walls of Fez guards hidden beauties, waiting to be discovered by you. You will need to work hard to find it. The old city is full of Riads – private houses with gardens, also called paradises by locals, and thick  grey walls are separating them from street passers.

Medina’s underground world

Every neighborhood inside the Medina share two main facilities, essential for people living inside the walls. The oven – to have fresh bread and tajines, cooked in the right way. and Hammam a necessary ritual and a treat for your body. What many passes by without noticing are the people, who make it possible, in their little caves:

Medina’s forbidden mosques

Mosques in Morocco are only accessible to the Muslims. Therefore, we were left outside, on our toe tips, trying to get a glimpse at their beauty and the inner life from the doorstep.

Medina is full of life

Before the sunset go down go to to one of the medina’s gates, then sit down, order the sweet the a la menthe, relax, and watch the people pass by. The streets will get busier, the real market for the locals will open, watch and learn the tricks of getting the price down. As the sun is going down watch the contours of the city, the walls, the palm tress. Relax and don’t rush, you are in Morocco now…

A day in Hebron, West Bank

A trip to this Palestinian city was not in our initial itinerary but the description of the Hebron Dual Narrative Tour sounded too good to be missed! The tour offered a day trip to Hebron, the biggest city in the West Bank and Palestine’s largest commercial hub. However, it is not the shoe industry that is making this city a hot topic in world news, but rather the stabbing incidents and expanding Jewish settlements (which are internationally viewed as illegally based.) The tour offered an opportunity to spend half a day with a Palestinian guide to hear more about what is like to live in this Palestinian city heavily controlled by Israeli military forces. Then, the other half of the day is spent with a Jewish guide listening to the other side of the story, meeting the spokeswoman of the settlers community and seeing first hand the life from the settlers’ point of view.

You see, Hebron is split into two sectors: H1 is controlled by the Palestinian Authority and H2 is controlled by Israel. Around 120,000 Palestinians live in H1, while around 30,000 Palestinians along with around 700 Israelis remain under Israeli military control in H2 (numbers according to Wikipedia). The Palestinian population in H2 has been gradually declining.

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The story of the occupied Hebron

Shortly after arriving to Hebron (which is rather easy by using public transportation and without any passport control), our Palestinian guide Mohammed met us on the steps of the most important city monument: Sanctuary of Abraham or the Ibrahimi Mosque (known as Cave of the Patriarchs to the Jewish counterparts). It is a place where (citing fellow blogger Rick Steve) Muslims and Jews are sharing Abraham. Mohammed took us inside to tell us more about the site’s historical and religious importance to both parties. He spoke about the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre of 1994 and how these events changed Hebron affecting the lives of all Palestinians living there.

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Sanctuary of Abraham or the Ibrahimi Mosque
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The entrance to the Mosque

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Abraham’s tomb shared by Muslims and Jews, but Muslims and Jews have a bulletproof glass to separate them.

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After the visit, we sat down with Mohammed for an open conversation about the future of Palestine and what it is like for Palestinians to live in Hebron. The main message Mohammed wanted to convey was a call to end the discriminatory restrictions posed on Palestinians living in Hebron. He spoke about the political aspects of the conflict over Palestine and how both the Israeli government and Palestinian National Authority are failing the Palestinians. The solution he saw for the conflict was a one, secular state with equality for all – Israelis and Palestinians.

Also, Mohammed walked us through what is left from Hebron’s Old Market, once a cultural city center, now it is a single street of vendors with hardly any customers. Walking through it, it really felt like our group of 15 were the only people passing by. As far as the rest of the area previously part of the Old Market is now called ‘the Ghost Town’. It is completely inaccessible to Palestinians, we were able to visit it together with the Israeli tour guide.

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One of the many checkpoints dividing the city’s heart
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End of the market – First glimpse to the settlements
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Net separating the market from the settlers or from anything that can be thrown down

After the tour of the market and quick shopping from the locals, we were invited to taste the local cuisine prepared by Mohammed’s family.

Here we said our goodbyes to Mohammed and joined Eliyahu McLean for a tour of …

Liberated Judea and Samaria

Now Eliyahu had his chance to tell the story of Jews living in Hebron for his plea in what he called ‘to show who is the bigger victim’ in this conflict. We visited the Jewish side of the Cave of the Patriarchs. He told us about the local settlers interpretation of the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre.

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He took us deep into the ghost town, the area only opened to Israelis, tourists, international Observers from TIPH – basically everyone, except Arabs. He spoke about the everyday challenges that local Jews face while living in Hebron – the land, as they believe, that has been promised to them by God. Then, he took us to the Jewish Heritage Museum in Hebron and explained the history of Jews and Muslims living in this city peacefully together, the sad consequences of  the 1929 Hebron massacre, and the story as to how the first settlement started in Hebron (again, settlements are illegal according to international law.)

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It does feel very empty in here…

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As we sat down with the spokeswoman of the Hebron’s Jewish community, she spoke about what is like to live in Hebron and how her family was affected by the local violence. She shared her vision for Hebron as the city where everybody lives peacefully together while obeying to Israeli law. After experiencing a lot of personal pain, she was not ready to look for compromises with the Arabs. She had her trust in God to find the solution…

Next, Eliyahu took us for a walking tour around H2 giving us more details on the life of the settlers. He made sure to mention all incidents (stabbings) that happened in the area justifying the huge presence of IDF in the area.

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This visit has no conclusions. There are no winners in the city of Hebron. Religion is a curious thing and very dangerous when it’s fundamental.

One thing I suggest – visit Palestine! It is easy and very accessible, people are friendly and they want their story to be heard.

The top 3 experiences in Georgia

Georgia – a country with a very successful word of mouth marketing campaign… at least in Lithuania.

Every Lithuanian can tell you a few good things about Georgia but only some lucky ones have gone to check if this land of honey is for real. I haven’t had the pleasure to see it myself yet, but I already know that it is a country with the most welcoming people, wine and food there is to die for, and nature… ohhh mountains… 

So as soon as Jurgita and Gediminas came back from their Georgia exploration trip I asked them to share their tips & tricks. And this is what they had to say…

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Jurgita and Gediminas in action

In Georgia wine is offered more often than water, including a glass for breakfast on the house. Make sure no to refuse, this could be treated as an insult. When in country, be ready for Georgian hospitality, that will fill your adventurous soul with memorable experiences. And here are 3 things you must do during your trip:

1. Visit Mountains

Georgia is a country of mountains. Forget Batumi, there are nicer beaches and seaside towns in Europe. Our plan was to spend 4 days in Svaneti, flying there from Tbilisi with local airplane. Unlucky us, heavy rain changed the programme, our flight was cancelled. We decided to skip other alternative – a 10 hrs ride by marshrutka to Mestia, and ended up having a closer trip to Kazbegi mountain – 3 hours drive north from Tbilisi. Breath-taking scenery…

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Arranging a car was super easy – we just stopped a taxi in Tbilisi and asked the driver to bring us to mountains next day. Short negotiation for a price and deal was done.

Asking your B&B owner for a ride is also a great option, though usually such offer comes even without asking and with additional sightseeing suggestions and glass of local wine (this is supposed to help you make a right decision).

2. Taste local food

Eating all-up can be tough challenge – portions are huge, dishes are heavy in sauces. Wine or local spirit drink ča-ča is definitely good for digestion. Food is rich in meat (lamb, beef especially), baked vegetables, pastries. Chachapuri with cheese is very filling for lunch, ‘ponchiki’ (cream-filled pastry) is great for afternoon dessert.

3. Visit Tbilisi

Tbilisi is a remarkable example how new is blending into old. The city is soaking in western culture, Dunkin’ Donuts being top trendy place for fashionistas and hipsters (despite the fact that quality service is still far away from the western standards). For sightseeing we took super fun free tour with Anna, who showed us nooks and crannies, shared so many stories, insightful comments and funny observations about Georgians.

*Btw, we believe free tours with locals are the best way to explore city! If you are interested, check free London Grafitti tour.

Religion plays an important role in local lives. Whenever a Georgian sees a church, he crosses himself three times. Even when driving a narrow mountain road. Anna told us, that young generation are also strictly into religion. She witnessed a group of young girls, dancing in an open-roof bus when driving around the city and promoting event. Suddenly, when seeing the church, all girls stopped dancing, crossed themselves, and then continued dancing like nothing happened.

Georgia is so vivid in colours, tastes, nature, sounds. Lured us so much that we are planning a comeback, hopefully this time rain will not stop us to go to Svaneti mountains.

We recommend:

  • Free Tbilisi tour with Anna
  • To eat in Tbilisi: g.Vino, Funicular – best ‘ponchiki’; cream-filled pastry; Machakhela – eat with locals.

Nida – the biking challenge

Kursiu Nerija or Curonian Spit is  a tiny,  50 km  long piece of land, accessible only by water transport thus beautiful, green, fresh aired place. Often called the Lithuanian riviera offers a unique scenery of dunes, forests and white sand Nordic beaches.

This place takes its rightful place in the UNESCO heritage list. The spit is harshly protected from urbanization and is a perfect location for camping, hiking and biking. The local government do strongly encourage you to leave your car in Klaipeda, the other side of Kursiu Marios – Curonian Lagoon and take a bike as the main mean of transportation and enjoy a  nice & easy 50 km ride through a (flat) forest.

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A passage through Kursiu Marios – Curonian Lagoon from Klaipeda, Lithuania
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The navy ships of Lithuania
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The Port of Klaipeda
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The seagull
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First timer at the Baltic coast

With the lagoon on your left and deserted beaches on your right, biking here is a perfect form of meditation. If you travel off the season you are very likely not to meet any people in 10 km or 20 km.

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Empty
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Beaches

The spit is famous for its dunes. A number of them are under strict protection and are not accessible to tourists. My personal favorite is the Naglis dune. The latest biking discovery Vecekrugo dune – possibly the highest point of the spit. The dune of Parnydis is the most known and it will take your breath away…

There are several fishermen villages across the spit. Nida being the biggest and the most famous one – right at the end of your biking challenge, next to boarder with Russia’s Kaliningrad.

This place is very special for me, and for many Lithuanians. It is unique, untouched, somewhat mysterious and very  wild. I hope it stays like this. I hope I will bring my children here one day and they will bring theirs…

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Long trip through dunes – Ilga kelione per kopas

Aš, viską praūžęs,
Rūkais užsirūkęs,
Geriu
Žalių vynų
Nakties.
Geriu
Žalią tylą,
Geriu
Žalią šilą.
Geriu
Ir apsvaigęs
Einu. 

Paulius Širvys

Pacific 101: San Diego to San Francisco

If you’re planning a road trip through California then the 101 is your route. It takes longer than a faster alternative – Interstate 5, but having tried both, it’s so much worth the time. Every stop you make – it’s a new scenery, from little towns, to beautiful long Californian beaches to walks though the forests and dunes. It’s a constant change of altitude, green and blue shades but … it’s California…sun stays up in the sky wherever you go (well not around San Francisco – but they told us the heavy rain weekend was bad luck… yeah right…).

The 101 is 2222.97 km long and connects US West’s the south and north through four different states.We (mostly me to all fairness) drove from San Diego to San Francisco and this is how it went:

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Orange County – The Palms Avenue
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Laguna Beach
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Palms trees come in every size and shape
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Happy US
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The Squared Motel
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California Coast
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Reflecting on life – part I
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Reflecting on life – part II
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Almost LA
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Santa Barbara!
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US in Santa Barbara
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101 at its best
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Walk to the beach through dunes
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The Eagle is surveying US
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Happy you
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Happy US
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To San Francisco!!!

And if you put it all in about 40 seconds you get something like this: