Semana Santa in Andalusia is a very special celebration. For locals it is a life long tradition, inviting to come back home to their own or their parents villages, meet their childhood friends, enjoy free afternoons and extra days-off. For people of faith, this week is a spiritual journey, taking through various stages of excruciation and revival. And for the rest, it is a street spectacle and an opportunity to join the famous Spanish street fiesta.
It has now been 10 days that I am living in the south of Spain region of Andalusia. Many of the things that represent Spain around the world have originated from here. And bullfighting is one of them. I know, there is a wide debate about banning the bull-fighting, and some regions of Spain have done it already. But by the look of things here, Andalusia will be the last one, if ever, to let it go…
It was the middle of August and we found ourselves in the old city of Jerusalem. The historic importance of this place just blew my mind. The four quarters, the mixture of traditions, stories, lives… It is a cradle of our civilization and the axe of the world!
This blog is from a year old trip in California, but there is something about these murals and street art in the Mission district that I felt I have to write about. Don’t worry I will not write a lot, because here you have to look and listen to what these paintings are telling you. Most of them are from the 70s, but with the latest political realities around the world it repeats the same old truths.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
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!
Only half an hour on a ferry and you are in Gozo – the second biggest island of Malta.
This rock is one of the biggest attractions in Gozo. Impressive from up close!
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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…
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…
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.
- Free Tbilisi tour with Anna
- To eat in Tbilisi: g.Vino, Funicular – best ‘ponchiki’; cream-filled pastry; Machakhela – eat with locals.