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!
As it does not feel like spring yet, I keep on coming back to the pictures from my last summer trips. The Greek island hopping trip, that we did last August, is something I was meaning to share for a while now. It was yet another grim and rainy Sunday afternoon in Brussels, I desperately needed to see some sun. So I went back to Santorini…pictures… A few days on this island last summer was spent simply enjoying the gorgeous views, hiding from the daytime heat, reading and trying out specialties of different tavernas.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!..
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…