I don’t believe that there is an ancient lava field flowing beneath the ground. I don’t think it causes an electric current that draws people from all over the earth to its center. I don’t think that the electric current has curative powers or even gives people extrasensory powers. I don’t think restorative energy flows upward from the ground and can be felt if you believe in it hard enough. The well-dressed lady in the art gallery does. In fact, she is convinced of it. She told me about it at length after I had complimented her on her ceramic work and had only known her for a few minutes. She described it in detail, with eyes twinkling and voice whispering. I think she was speaking from a place in her heart and was being totally serious. She truly believed…but I didn’t. I wish I did…but I don’t.
I do however believe that there are places where magic might sometimes be real. Places where people from different backgrounds and with different ideas come together to share dreams and create energy that can be felt. I usually find these places a little ways off the normal path. In places that are a little uncomfortable or difficult to live in without seeking out the assistance of others. Somewhere beyond the first line of mountains, or in the thick of a forest. Up a long valley just past where the last bridge crosses the river. Maybe in a desert full of strange trees and giant granite boulders that rise up out of the ground in odd ways and with shapes that require you to name them. Places so high and so dry that most people without enough time would write them off as a wasteland. Places with immense beauty that might not be apparent at first glance.
These places are usually populated by people that see things a little differently. Artists, writers and creative types abound. Maybe a few outcasts are mixed in. Hippies, bikers, free thinkers and people that found life in the normal places just wasn’t for them. Maybe people that are looking for a new beginning or at least an opportunity to live with a few less rules. Conformity is generally not necessary but acceptance of others is.
I think when we eventually decide to stop traveling we would like to settle in one of these places. We have discovered a few of them along our way. After being exposed to so many different cultures, cuisines and ways of life for the last few years, it seems it might be difficult to return to what we used to call normal. Regular life just feels uncomfortable.
We can feel the end of the journey calling. It is still only a light viewed faintly in the distance, but with each passing month, it grows brighter. It feels as though we should begin planning an exit strategy. For the first time in our lives, we will be choosing a place to live based on what our interests are and not just what we are forced into by school, jobs or convenience. It is a more difficult choice than we expected.
We haven’t retraced our path often over the last 7 years. 3 years ago we spent a month in the high desert of Southern California. We thought it had some of the magic we might be looking for. The Mojave Desert town of Joshua Tree just felt right then and we wanted to see if it could be a permanent stop some day. It might be worth taking a second look.
Joshua Tree is a small town of only 4,000 or so people. An eclectic mix of citizens populates the town. Artists, hippies, retirees, free spirits and ex-military are common. Rock climbers, musicians, bikers, tourists and temporary residents fill out the mix. The town anchors one of 3 entrances to Joshua Tree National Park and, for us, provides the easiest access to the most attractive parts of the park. It has one bar, one coffee shop and a cool vibe that we like.
We arrived during the two-week arts festival. Resident artists open their homes and studios to visitors and it provides a unique window into that segment of the population. It is an excellent time to make your way around the area meeting artists. The houses are spread out and visiting a couple dozen takes you along many dirt roads and into many areas you might have missed otherwise. The artists are all friendly and seem glad you made the effort to find them.
We bought a yearly pass to the park and put it to good use. We visited almost daily during our stay. We hiked desert trails, climbed boulders and saw lots of animals. Bighorn sheep, coyotes, rabbits and even a bobcat made appearances during our stay. We found the best time for sightings was during the weekdays around sunset when we mostly had the park to ourselves. After record rainfalls last winter the animals are plentiful and look heavier than we had seen in the past. We even pulled over to watch many tarantulas cross a section of road one evening just after the sun went down.
Of course, sunset and sunrise are the most beautiful times to visit the park. If the skies are filled with the right amount of clouds there is a good chance for incredible sunsets. The vivid colors are amazing, sometimes so bright it appears the entire sky has caught fire. Cloudless days can be just as amazing if you visit the park after dark. The Mojave Desert has some of the darkest skies anywhere in America and on moonless nights the stars can be incredible. We brought snacks and chairs and made our way a short distance into the desert and waited for the light show to begin. The Milky Way was incredibly bright and the stars shined so intensely that I don’t remember ever seeing so many. The desert was so dark and quiet, it seemed we were alone in the world.
We enjoyed our afternoons relaxing around the town. Whether discussing authors in the local bookstore, having a chat with the librarian or enjoying a perfectly brewed cup of coffee under a shade tree on a patio, most days were spent relaxing in the perfect weather. While the rest of the country has taken a turn toward winter, we enjoyed warm afternoons and pleasantly cool nights for our entire visit.
We were surprised at how easy it was to make friends with people we met. We enjoyed their stories and they seemed impressed with our travel stories from recent years. We had an opportunity to look at a few houses during our stay. The town has become increasingly popular with people from the Los Angeles area. Good because they have brought with them great style and have made many improvements to some of the local housing. Unfortunately, with the new popularity comes increased prices and less availability of housing.
I don’t know what the future will bring for us once we decide to settle down more permanently. We may find a home here in the high desert or we may not. If we do, I think we will find an incredibly beautiful place with lots of friendly and interesting people. If we don’t then we at least got a second look at a place that has a little magic and a lot of beauty amongst the boulders and crazy trees that we found during our stay.
It’s noticeable as soon as you disembark the train from Tokyo. Things just look a little different. Everyone’s shirt is not fully tucked in. People are a little rounder and some are a few weeks past due for a haircut. There is litter on the street. Not a lot, but after the scrubbed streets of Kyoto and Tokyo, it is visible. A couple of older guys stand under the “No Smoking” signs, sharing a story and puffing away. Both have on baseball hats and looked like they didn’t spend a lot of time choosing their wardrobe today. The smell of fried food drifts from somewhere nearby. People tend to wander, or maybe just walk with a little less purpose here. Voices are a little louder and everyone doesn’t stay in line. It’s immediately clear you have arrived in a different part of Japan. Welcome to Osaka.
We struggled to choose a 3rd city for our visit to Japan. Kyoto had been an obvious choice. History, culture and sophistication. Tokyo was an easy decision. Modern, stylish and fast paced. We thought about something to the north or in the green countryside. Maybe something in the southern islands. Our budget is pretty tight and we were feeling pinched after rent, food and transportation. We really needed to find a place that had a lot to do, good transportation and wouldn’t require too many moves.
We had begun our travels in Japan at Osaka’s huge Kansai Airport a couple of months earlier. Normally we are one way travelers, but this time had chosen a round trip from San Francisco. So eventually we were going back to Osaka. Perhaps we could locate ourselves in Osaka and save some time and money on connections later in the month. Could we find enough to keep us occupied for a whole month?
Osaka is known for two things in Japan. Business and food. A common greeting in Osaka is “Have you made any money today”?. Even in a country as obsessed with food as Japan, Osaka stands out as being a mecca for foodies. It is said that while a person from Tokyo will spend his last dollar on fashion, a person from Osaka will always opt for food. One restaurants motto is “Eat until you are bankrupt!”. Maybe this explained the slightly expanded beltlines that we noticed upon arrival.
Our apartment was once again very small, but well located in the Namba area. Close to transportation and with a nice view from the 11th floor balcony, the apartment offered everything we needed, although without many luxuries. It was bright and clean and the simple furnishings had been recently upgraded. It was perfect and proved to be everything we needed for a comfortable stay.
Best of all, we were just a few minutes walk from the famous tourist area of Dotonbori and visited it often during our stay. Dotonbori is a neighborhood that stretches for about 8 blocks along the Dotonbori Canal in the Minami area of town. People have come here for hundreds of years and the area is so famous throughout Japan that it has produced some iconic images. During the day it is packed by shoppers and tourists buying souvenirs and eating any variety of foods, many cooked right on the street. At night the area really comes alive after the sun goes down and the lights come up.
Filled with huge neon billboards, music, smells of fried food and blinking lights the area is reminiscent of a beachside boardwalk tourist area that provides anything to amuse a visitor. Wall dragons, giant moving crabs, huge illuminated puffer fish and a famous mechanical drumming clown called Kuidaore Taro have become iconic symbols of the city. Kuidaore was a mascot for a popular restaurant and generations of Japanese built family memories posing for photos in front of the clown. The restaurant is no longer open but Kuidaore has a special place in the center of the strip where all visitors must continue traditions and pause for a group photo.
Probably the most favorite street food here is called Takoyaki. Basically a golf ball sized pancake made from batter formed in a special rounded pan, this theatrically cooked street food is enjoyed by nearly everyone and is hard to pass by without sampling more than once. Tako (octopus) and tempura bits are added to the ball as it is being cooked. Once golden and rounded, a special sauce and mayonnaise are drizzled over the top and dried bonito is sprinkled on top to give a nice crunch. By description they may not appeal,, but they are actually delicious, cheap and very addictive.
The entire area was completely destroyed during World War II but has returned bigger and brighter than ever. Perhaps our favorite area to stroll were among the tiny alleys just south of the main street of Dotonbori. The alleys are lined with tiny restaurants and bars that provide a glimpse of the area when it was a theatre district long ago. The tiniest alley of all has a street museum which uniquely gives a feeling of what life was like here before the bright lights of modern times. A small shrine is hidden amongst the alleys and provides a moment of solitude amongst the commotion not far away. Visitors throw water over a statue at the shrine so often that it is now covered with moss and is quite beautiful.
A few blocks from our house was perhaps the best street market in Osaka. Kuromon Market is a seafood lovers paradise. If it is found in the ocean and can be eaten, you can find it here. Scallops, shrimp, sea urchins, eel and every type of fish imaginable can be had. Many shops will grill your selections to order over charcoal fires or in a sizzling wok. While the seafood markets are king, beautiful cuts of Kobe (Wagyu) beef can be had along with some of the most spectacular fruits and vegetables imaginable. While visitors can be found, patrons are mostly local and give the market an authentic feel that was fun to share during our nearly daily visits. The market runs many blocks and with a more robust budget we probably would never had eaten anywhere else in town.
Osaka’s malls are not to be outdone on the food front either. Unless someone was starving, I don’t think I would ever recommend eating in a mall food court. Not so in Osaka. Every major department store has a basement food areas that are must see attractions for any visitor. Prepared foods are wonderfully displayed in glass cases. Both savory and sweet flavors are equally catered to,, but deserts perhaps draw the most attention. Beautifully prepared and packaged, the sweets are designed to appeal as much visually as they are to a persons sweet tooth. Every shiny color in the rainbow is found in the assortments of gorgeous preparations. A massive gourmet food market will usually be found on the lowest basement floor of each store. Here is where you will find the best of Japan’s bountiful ingredients. We always made time to gawk at the perfect melons, peaches and grapes that have to be the finest examples of agricultural goodness anywhere. The perfectly formed produce has incredible prices that precluded us from sampling with anything but our eyes. I don’t know who would pay 50 dollars US for a cantaloupe or 25 dollars for a bunch of grapes or a set of 3 peaches but just the thought of sampling some of these always left our mouth watering.
The convenient transportation connections near our house made it very easy to make our way around town. We visited the waterfront area of Osaka’s massive harbor. We found giant Ferris wheels, more malls and a world renowned aquarium. The area was especially gorgeous at sunset.
We also had easy access by train to enjoy areas outside of town. We made an easy day trip to Japan’s first capital of Nara less than an hour away. Known for its World Heritage site temples and free ranging deer, Nara could have easily filled more than the one day we had to visit. We even had an opportunity to see a unique dragon boat festival on a lantern decorated lake that entertained thousands of attendees with costumes, music, food and intricately designed boats floating slowly on a mist covered lake.
Back in Osaka, a last area that we enjoyed was called Shinsekai. Shinsekai means New World in Japanese and was an area that was designed in the early 1900’s to represent the new modern world that Japan and Osaka were to become. Designed to be resemble parts of New York combined with parts of Paris, the neighborhood spreads around the massive central Tsutenkaku Tower and is adjacent to the city zoo and the large Tennoji park.
The area presents a slightly run down carnival like atmosphere of glitzy and gaudy signage. Rickshaw runners provide visitors with tours of the streets that are filled with restaurants, gaming parlors and brightly lit amusements. While here we learned the story of Billiken, the golden colored mascot of the area. Billiken was originally found outside an amusement park that was located in the area. While the park only lasted for 11 years, Billiken has remained as a symbol of the area and perhaps has been adopted by the whole city.
Billiken is large, golden and has a impish smile on his baby like face. His likeness is found throughout town and quite noticeable everywhere. Around the base of his statue is the motto “The God of Life as it Ought to Be”. He has a look of someone who enjoys life and knows that life is meant to be lived with enthusiasm, enjoyment and perhaps a little less conformity.
We thought that Billiken was the perfect symbol to represent our visit to Osaka. We found a city where hard work has built a modern economic powerhouse where everything once was a ruin. However, it appears that while Osakans believe in focused labor and aggressively chase a rich industrial future, they have not forgotten that life is meant to be enjoyed. Fun, food and a little less formality are obvious everywhere and made this unique city a perfect place to conclude our travels throughout Japan.
I have seen the future. It is filled with tall buildings, bright lights, endless noise and millions of people. Excitement, entertainment and enjoyment take place above your head, below your feet and in your face. The future goes non-stop and doesn’t conform to any normal positions of the clock. It’s bigger and more bright than I ever imagined.
The future is reached by a train that speeds across the countryside at 200 miles per hour. The train passes volcanic mountains, verdant rice fields and miles of well tended farmland. It arrives on schedule, to the minute, in a massive station filled with well dressed people moving at a pace that immediately demands your full attention. Like a choreographed dance, the pedestrians move fluidly and efficiently through the maze of underground passageways, all the while multitasking with the latest smartphone that everyone interacts with continuously.
A taxi provides transport to an apartment in Ikebukuro, a somewhat distant neighborhood of Futureworld. Typical here, the apartment is tiny and equipped with everything needed, but nothing extra. A slight lean to the right yields a skyline view of Shinjuku that shines brightly at night from our tiny balcony. A busy 4 lane freeway runs very close outside the window 24 hours a day. That doesn’t seem unusual except our apartment is on the seventh floor. Highways in the sky in this land of tomorrow.
As a tourist, where do you start?
Need to find a restaurant? Been to cities where there is one on every corner? In the future they have one, or more, on every floor of multiple multistory buildings for multiple blocks in a row. It is estimated there are 100,000 restaurants here. Plastic food recreations display the menu in brightly lit windows. Every variety of food is available in every kind of restaurant. From glimmering penthouse view restaurants with the latest fusion cuisine to three seat open grills with meat on a stick and charcoal fires. If you want it, you can find it.
Want to share lunch with the animal kingdom? There are cat cafes, dog cafes, owl cafes and rabbit cafes where, for a fee, you can be accompanied by a pampered furry friend. You can dine with a penguin (or two). You can watch a robot show or be entertained by a host of animated characters of any number of types. A full on disco, decorated with neon colored fish tanks is available, if you need one.
You may ask where the nearest old town area is. A place where things slow down to a quieter pace. A place where a tourist can relax and stroll slowly through some historical old world culture center from days gone by. It doesn’t exist in the future. There are some ancient, ornate temples here or there. But look up above the ancient structure and try not to notice the second tallest structure in the world flashing its lights in the clouds above.
Wherever you go, you will probably go by train. Metros below the ground. A driverless elevated trains passes through and above the futuristic building in the harbor . Monorails speed passengers to the airport. A last tiny tram rumbles roughly through the valley of skyscrapers that have grown around its rickety rails. You may ride all of them in a single journey to some trendy corner of Futureworld.
The metro is not just a form of transportation. It is an amazing engineering feat that is a destination in itself. More than 120 miles of track. 179 stations. 6 billion passengers a year. Grocery stores, restaurants, clothing stores, bakeries and souvenirs are all located underground. Virtually an entire city underground. With the right combination of elevators, escalators, and subways, you can leave the front door of your 40th floor apartment and travel 20 miles to your office in a distant skyscraper office building . Return home in the evening, stopping at a gourmet market and picking up your dry cleaning, all without seeing the sky. No need for an umbrella in Futureworld.
Shopping is an art form here and everyone seems well practiced. Teenagers start young in the eclectic streets of Harajuku. Schoolgirls in uniform crowd Takeshita Street looking for the latest outlandish styles. Boybands with cotton candy colored hair make an appearance outside a trendy bistro, swarmed by giggling fans with smartphone cameras. The styles are beyond anything I have seen and reflect a life in a city that changes trends by the minute instead of by the year.
In Futureworld, malls are destinations and are always full. Our local mall is called Sunshine City. Appropriate as we have spent many a rainy summer afternoon there. Also fitting because it is more of a city than a mall. It has two indoor amusement parks, a museum, a performing arts center, an aquarium, an international food area that must have 40 full scale restaurants. It has an virtual reality attraction called Sky Circus which is located on the 60th floor of the attached office building. That’s correct, 60th floor! It has a center atrium where some performance is usually taking place. Perhaps a meet and greet with the latest J-Pop idol or any number of Pokemon or anime characters. Not the normal local mall.
As shoppers become more sophistacated they eventually migrate toward the Ginza. Every big city has designer stores, but not like this. The streets are blocked to vehicles on Sunday. It is the perfect time to make your way down the cavernous main shopping street. If big budget shopping has a mecca, Ginza is it. Every famous designer, jeweler or electronic manufacturer of any note has a multistory complex dedicated to their wares. The stores are packed with shoppers and judging by the stylish customers, sales must be good.
You may think that a megacity of 30 million people would be reminiscent of some grungy futurisitic movie where grime and despair have invaded every portion of existence. I haven’t seen it. No graffiti. No litter. No homeless people. People are orderly and wait in lines. Women leave Gucci purses on chairs to save their place while waiting in coffee shop lines. No one takes their chairs or more importantly their purses. Everyone bows and seems polite. Shopkeepers seem genuinely glad that you have chosen to do business with them. Mothers encourage youngsters in strollers to wave back to old strangers visiting from far away. There is no tipping in Futureworld.
This has not really been a normal tourist month spent in a faraway destination. There really is not a defining example of what it is like to live here. It is too big, too complicated and too diverse to define. It is too intense to get to know intimately. There are too many crazy things at the end of too many tiny alleys in too many districts to ever see in a lifetime, much less the time I spent here.
I was wowed by the great cities of Rome, Paris and Los Angeles. They are wonderful and each stands by itself as a great world treasure. Tokyo is different. I’m not really wowed, I’m dumbfounded. At times I have come around a corner and been stunned by what I have seen. My jaw has literally dropped. It doesn’t seem fair to compare other cities to this metropolis. It is my new standard for bigger and better. Everything past this point will be compared to what I have seen here. If this is the future, I can’t wait to get there.
Vacations, like sunsets, were designed to be temporary. A continuously lit neon sky, filled with rainbow colors from end to end, certainly creates emotions too intense for endless consumption. While no gourmand refuses a piece of rich, creamy chocolate at the end of a delicious meal, even the most dedicated sweet lover would assuredly tire of an endless diet of cocoa flavored goodness.
Like a spoiled debutante complaining about not having enough closet space for her shoe collection or an overindulged teen bemoaning his sore fingers after playing video games all day, there is an obvious danger in complaining about being on endless vacation. No one really wants to hear your lament. If only we all had such troubles.
However, I have to admit that as we begin our 7th year of continous travel, we do catch ourselves complaining once in a while. We have now lived in 85 cities in 40 countries. If this trip were a cat, it would surely have exhausted seven or eight of its 9 lives. While hardly a day goes by when something doesn’t happen to make us pinch ourselves to make sure we aren’t dreaming, we do find ourselves, at times, questioning the sanity of living a life of constant change.
After 18 months of circling Europe and the Mediterranean fringes of Africa and Asia, we needed a little break. It was time to go home. Time to see relatives face to face and perhaps ask a doctor for a professional opinion about our actual state of health. After a steady diet of buses, trams, subways and taxis, we thought it a good idea to spend a little time behind the wheel of our own car. Maybe a month without rice or pasta. Time to have a few french fries with our meal.
It was wonderful to see everyone. Some looked a little older and some looked a lot thinner. We had full blown conversations with babies who we used to just laugh with. We remembered how good gravy tastes on mashed potatoes. We excitedly met future family members and saw people we shouldn’t have been away from this long. It was good to be home. We had been gone so long we forgot how much we had missed.
Despite what we see on the nightly news, America seemed pretty much the same. Maybe a little fatter than I remembered it. Gas was cheaper and the supermarkets had more choices. Houses were bigger than I remembered and the traffic was a little worse. Televisions now look more like movie screens, but cars are as big as ever. The ability to drive came back to us quicker than we thought it would. The guy in my new drivers license picture definitely looked older. The doctor said we didn’t seem too much worse for all the wear. It was odd to understand every conversation around us.
It wasn’t long and we were on our way again. The month passed much too quickly. We loved Europe and are sure we will go back soon. But this time we wanted to try a different direction. Somewhere with a unique culture and a way of life that, while similar, is so much different. Time to cross a different ocean. A little less pasta and a lot more rice. It was time to take on Japan.
We arrived in Kyoto late in the night. The cab driver had white gloves and a dapper hat. He bowed when we paid him. He didn’t want a tip. Is this a real place? Our apartment is small. We only have one burner to cook with. The shower room is designed for water to spray outside the tub. The washing machine and air conditioner have no buttons in English. I hit my head every time I walk through a doorway. We love it.
The weather is insane, jungle, center of the sun hot. The thermometer says 95, but it feels like 105. You sweat through your shirt walking to the bus that takes you everywhere. The city is huge and everything of interest seems to be spread out to the farthest reaches of town. Beautiful green hills surround the town and some of the most beautiful temples and shrines are located in them.
The streets are unbelievably clean. No litter is found anywhere. No one smokes on the street. People wait in line and are polite. Bus drivers bow to the passengers when they have shift changes. Old people do not stand on buses when young people are sitting down. People keep their conversations quiet. It is remarkable.
Kyoto is said to be the cultural capital of Japan, but it is much more. More than 1600 shrines are located here and the old style wooden houses, called Machiya, can be found in many areas, especially around the Gion neighborhood in the center. However, the train station and some of the department stores in downtown are as modern as any we have seen. The shopping area has any designer brand you could desire. Many Japanese tourists dress in beautiful kimonos and pose in front of the must see sites, but others are dressed stylishly in the most modern fashions. The past seems perfectly preserved within the very modern present.
We have spent our days touring the city from one end to the other. Temples, markets, shrines and bamboo forests have all been destinations. Walks along beautiful rivers during the day and through narrow, lantern-lit alleys in the nights will be long remembered. The hours spent huddled in an 800 year old temple during a blinding afternoon rainstorm when it didn’t seem possible the air could hold that much water, will be with us for a while.
We were hypnotised by the deafening sound of hundreds of cicadas as we sat alone in an ancient Buddhist cemetery outside a stunning mountainside temple that we surprisingly had all to our selves one afternoon. We found ourselves stunned by the beauty of our first sighting of a Geisha as we sat alongside a tiny stream that runs past ancient wooden houses. Her tiny steps and flowing kimono made her appear to float as she made her way quickly and silently across a tiny ornate bridge nearby.
We made our way to Arashiyama bamboo forest early one morning to avoid the crush of tourists that descend every afternoon. Our effort was rewarded as we listened to the early morning wind pass through the giant shoots that towered 100 feet above us. We loved the taste of the shaved ice we enjoyed in the shade of the tiny alleyway outside an ornate Shinto shrine. The ice cream and sweet bean paste additions were unexpected but delicious.
We loved our time at home. It was wonderful to visit loved ones. It is them that makes home what is. We didn’t miss America as much as we thought we would. It will always be home, but as we start our 7th year of our journey, we realize how much we enjoy our time discovering new places. We still have not cured our wanderlust. As always, we have found a few things to complain about. But nobody wants to hear about that.
There is a place along the waterfront where people gather during the day. In the small park with the palm trees, near the fishing boats, the old men spend cool mornings to discuss politics, sports, share gossip or tell stories of the days gone by. They talk passionately, voices raising and lowering like the tide, using their hands to emphasize important points. Sometimes during the heat of the afternoon, when shade takes on a premium, the benches fill with small groups of men enjoying tall bottles of cool beer. If it is a weekend, someone may produce a guitar and impromptu singalongs occur. Everyone participates, their voices harmonizing perfectly as they resonate through the trees and out over the beautiful harbor.
In the evenings, when the sun is preparing to retire behind Marjan Hill, people, mostly young, begin to fill the nearby pier. They gather in pairs or small groups to watch the marble buildings of the historic old city turn orange as the sun retreats. They sit among the fisherman’s nets as the sky changes colors and the buildings begin to reflect in the calm water of the turquoise harbor. Lights come on along the promenade that hugs the harbor in front of the ancient Roman palace that makes up a large part of the old town area. The sound of laughing voices, clinking bottles and lapping waves mix with the bustle of nightlife coming from the promenade to create the perfect mood as day turns into night. There is a place along the waterfront in Split, and everyone should see it.
There is a place in a tiny square near a church that has been used for an untold eternity. The square is perfectly aligned to take maximum advantage of the shade of the stone buildings that surround the square and the gentle cooling breezes that make their way from the nearby sea. A quiet café with tiny tables occupies a prominent portion of the square. The chairs are arranged side by side on one side of the table, in the Parisian way, to give the best opportunity to watch the well-dressed passersby. Perfectly chilled mugs of frosty local lager are served. The smell of grilled seafood comes from nearby. A view of the towering fortress that dominates the center of the tiny town is perfectly framed above the square. The frosty lager helps build the courage to attempt, or celebrate the success of, a climb of the ancient ramparts.
The fortress, used by pirates in ancient times, presents a sweaty challenge for those who attempt the climb. The narrow trail twists steeply upwards from the tightly woven alleys of the red roofed town below. Signs warn of hazards the steep stairs may present to the old or out of shape. You pass through an arch and begin your ascent, tightly gripping the poorly spaced rails that must be used to pull yourself up the steep marble steps. A difficult ladder completes the challenge for those who desire to see the commanding view from the top of the narrow parapet. The effort is rewarded for those who accept the challenge. Breathtaking views over the town, sea and nearby beaches are unforgettable. The deeply blue River Cetina splits the town in two as it flows between the hard rock mountain canyons that lead from inland towards the immense sea. There is a place in the town of Omis, just south of Split and everyone should see it.
There is a place along the raised wooden walkway above the wetlands where nature’s beauty will overtake you. It will happen after the crowds of bus tourists thin and you find yourself alone, staring across the crystalline water, fish swimming in small groups below you. They fight for position in a calm area between the flowing grasses of the countless streams. The bubbling water flows from an unseen place between the trees that thickly surround the area. A tiny, multicolored finch chirps loudly and melodically from a branch above, attempting to be heard above the white noise gurgle of the flowing water. The sound of mighty flowing water comes from somewhere beyond the trees and drowns the outside world making you feel alone in this Eden like setting.
Further along the path you find tiny lookouts through the trees which give brief previews of the grander visions to come. Descending steep stairways, waterfalls surrounding on both sides, you pass the swimming area that attracts so many bathers on these hot early summer days. A wonderful waterfall provides a superb backdrop for the bronzed swimmers. It is the last of several successive falls that cascade down the mountainside. Leaving the swim area you begin your ascent up the steep mountains steps on the opposite bank. You will be rewarded with successively superb views as you take advantage of the convenient overlooks along the way. The most impressive stop of all was created for a long dead emperor, the cement extension giving perhaps the ultimate view of the falls. There is a place along the boardwalk in Krka National Park and everyone should see it.
There is a place that takes ones breath away, not only from the effort necessary to reach it, but also from the astounding view which presents itself to those who make the effort. It is reached after an early morning ferry ride in the calm waters of the Dalmatian coastline. Split’s towering bell tower slowly drifts into the distance as the ferry threads its way through the islands to your destination. Perhaps you choose to enjoy the sunshine on outside decks or stay below to enjoy a cool drink. Docking in Stari Grad, you hurry to catch a waiting bus. Past the vineyards, olive trees and rows of fragrant lavender the winding road offers jaw dropping vistas along the stunning Adriatic coastline. The harbor appears like a postcard vision as you descend toward it. Stunning sailboats rock gently in the crystal harbor as sun kissed crew busily address morning chores.
Enjoy a refreshing drink along the promenade or perhaps a perfectly prepared seafood snack of only the freshest ingredients. Approach the stairs of the hill slowly, as there are many. Pass through the arched gates of the walled fortress and begin the ascent. More stairs await so keep your pace. Follow the switchback through the pine trees and herb garden enjoying increasingly incredible views. When you reach the fortress head straight for the flag that waves briskly at the top. Step to the edge and be amazed. The harbor spreads below, perfectly framed on three sides by gorgeous red tile roofs. In the distance a chain of islands leads outwards, each with sandy coves and dark green trees. Boats anchor in crystal waters or create V shaped wakes as they weave their way through the waters. In the distance, the mountainous island of Vis sits in a cloud bank seemingly floating above the ocean below. There is place at the top of the fortress in Hvar and everyone should see it.
We have been travelling for in Europe, Asia and Africa for 18 straight months. 2 ½ months of that time has been spent in Croatia. When we share our stories with people we meet along the way, invariably one of the first questions we are asked is what our favorite place has been that we have visited. It is really not a question that is answerable, but we usually mention France or Italy or Thailand. I truly believe that after our excellent month in Split, we may have to begin our answer by saying, “There is a place called Croatia and everyone should see it.”
Sometime during your childhood, probably on a family trip to a not too far from home beach destination, you saw your first one. You had finished your day at the beach. You had finished your ice cream cone or cotton candy. Someone mentioned the need to purchase something to bring home as a remembrance of your time spent together. You searched out a curio shop whose window had “souvenir” written in 4 languages. You entered through the shell strands that hung in the doorway. You made your way past the postcards, magnets and T-shirts. Along the back wall, alongside the polished rocks, nautical themed statuettes and aprons with silly puns, you found your first one.
You hesitated to pick it up because it looked so fragile. It was round and made from thick glass. Inside was a tiny town surrounded by water. The town had colorful houses with red tiled roofs. Towering church steeples and castle towers with colorful flags waving from the ramparts were interspersed between the houses. A wall surrounded the city and a large square was located in the center.
Maybe your mother noticed your fascination. She picked up the object and put it in your hand. It was heavy, almost like a crystal ball. You held it with two hands as she motioned for you to make a soft shaking motion. The tiny flakes took flight inside the dome and instantly created a magical, winter wonderland where snow endlessly swirls around the buildings and never seems to actually touch the ground.
Perhaps for a moment, you pictured in your mind what life inside the tiny town was like. Maybe you envisioned medieval shops selling hot chocolate and perfectly warmed pastries. Fashionable boutiques with glass storefronts displaying hand knit sweaters and hats made from only the softest types of wool. Smiling children bouncing along cobbled pedestrian streets on a tiny toy train that plies the narrow streets daily. Restaurants with friendly waiters standing in the doorways beckoning visitors to enter warm dining rooms that smell of grilled meat and delicious stews. Townspeople dressed in festive costumes entertaining onlookers in the town square underneath the large clock on the perfectly preserved town hall. Everyone bundled warmly against the chill and happily enjoying a sunny, yet freezing world apart from others outside their tiny wonderland.
Is there such a place as this tiny town of your imagination? Could your imaginary world inside the snow globe actually exist? Is there a place where it is always winter, even when the rest of the world is warm? There is such a place, and we lived there for a month and it is Tallinn.
We arrived in Tallinn after midnight on a foggy and freezing night. The short flight from Helsinki was less than an hour. Exiting onto the tarmac the air was shockingly cold, enough to make you lose your breath. We were happy to arrive after a long day of travel from Edinburgh. It was a short taxi ride to our new apartment. Entering the walled Old Town was like entering a different world. Cobblestoned, uneven roads led through the arched entrance in the towering city walls. Medieval towers loomed above us in the misty night air. Church spires pointed upward like giant rockets ready to shoot skyward. We found our apartment easy enough. The owners kindly left the heat on and the house was pleasant. The warmth was greatly appreciated on the cold night.
We envisioned our stay in Tallinn as a bit of a break from aggressive travel. We were looking for a classic European beauty where we could spend some time resting and planning our future travels. Tallinn is located on the edge of the Baltic Sea. South of Helsinki, east of Stockholm and west of St. Petersburg, Tallinn sits at a natural crossroads between its much larger neighbors. Estonia is a tiny country with a population of just 1.3 million people of which 400,000 live in the capital. The old town shows influences from many of the countries that have ruled over the country at different periods of history. German, Danish, Russian and Finnish architecture and features are evident everywhere. It seemed a nice place to settle in for a month.
We chose our apartment to be purposely close to the Russian Embassy. Our plan was to obtain a visa and visit St. Petersburg and perhaps Moscow after our stay in Tallinn. We visited the embassy early on our first morning after stocking the refrigerator with tasty treats from the nice market nearby. After some translation difficulties they recommended we visit the visa office located just outside of the old town area. It was difficult to find and when we did, we did not get good news. We were basically told that if we weren’t on a tour, cruise ship or staying at a major international hotel, the likelihood of getting a visa was very small. It was a little disappointing but we were glad we hadn’t booked an apartment or forward transportation prior to getting the visa.
Winters in America are generally thought of as being unpleasant times of year. We think of winter as a time of rain, cold, mud, slush, moisture and just general uncomfortableness. We do not have “proper” winters. Proper winters as described to us are limited to the far northern or southern areas of the globe. A proper winter is a time of cold and possibly some snow. The cold is dry and if it does snow, it does not melt into a quagmire of mess. The skies are usually blue and if you stay in the sun and dress warmly, it is generally quite comfortable and pleasant.
Tallinn has proper winters. Despite the freezing temperatures, we found we had very few days when we couldn’t spend some time outside. We enjoyed walking tours of the town with friendly guides who explained the troubled past and bright present histories of this tiny country. On the walled hill above town called Toompea, where government offices and many embassies are located, we often found visiting groups enjoying the beautiful views over the old town area and onward over the sea towards Helsinki. Tallinn has beautiful squares surrounded by colorful medieval buildings that have been perfectly restored. We made a trail of benches that had the best sunshine and least wind and frequented them daily on our walks through the town.
There is no lack of shops filled with wonderful handmade items in the city. I don’t think we have been in any city that had a better developed handicraft industry. Intricately knitted items of hand spun wool were abundant. Fine linens, wood items, pottery and art were plentiful and of high quality. Unique antique stores with items from different periods of Estonia’s past can fill endless hours of browsing.
The chilly air did not curtail the café crowd from enjoying outdoor dining and drinking opportunities. The afternoon sunshine and lack of wind in the main town hall square always drew large crowds to the tables that fill it. The direct sun as well the heat that was reflected off the walls and paving stones had diners removing heavy topcoats on many days. Coffee shops, bars, breweries, museums and chocolate shops are everywhere and provided plenty of warmth on days that were best spent indoors.
Many houses in Estonia have adopted the nearby Finns obsession with Sauna culture. Our apartment had a wonderful sauna inside. A first for us during our travels, we enjoyed many evenings thawing chilled bones after long days spent in the chilly weather. The trees were beginning to sprout leaves and grass was growing thicker as we were getting ready to end our brief visit. Posters were seen everywhere advertising upcoming festivals and outdoor events. Spring was definitely in the air and the citizens of the city seemed excited about the possibility of partaking in summertime activities. We were a little sad that we would not be around to share in the excitement. However we will always remember our nice month spent inside our perfect little snow globe by the sea.
A biting chill rides the frozen wind that crosses the esplanade in front of the castle. Visitors tuck closer behind the ancient ramparts hoping to find a protective lee, a moment of relief from the sand-like frozen mist. It proves fruitless as the gusts swirl and twist as though they originate from every direction. The ancient castle is perched high on its volcanic outcrop and looms mightily above the city below. When viewed from the streets of the lower city on stormy days like this, the castle appears to be floating in the clouds, sometimes visible and sometimes not.
The sound of a lone bagpipe carries strongly upward from the streets of the New Town far below. Its distinctive sound, so engrained in the culture of this part of the world, can fill the heart with longing and melancholy. Yet, on days like this, the sound penetrates the weather, and provides the hopefulness and inspiration to make the best of what the day might bring. Muted streetlights cast shadows on Princes Street, the wide boulevard below. Double-decker buses carry late commuters along the moist streets. Pedestrians stride briskly along the broad sidewalks, past ornate Edwardian storefronts, wasting no time getting to their destinations. It’s late March and winter still hangs heavy over the city.
If gray is a color, then no city has cornered the market better than this. Starting from the sky and looking down toward the cobbled street stones on this stormy day, the shades seem uncountable. Common vocabulary terms of light gray or dark gray don’t do justice to describe the lack of color. You often find yourself reaching for less used descriptors. Ash, platinum, gunmetal, charcoal, nickel, gray-green, blue-gray, asphalt and battleship become common terms. You may discover yourself reaching for more, perhaps taupe or puce uncomfortably roll across your tongue.
The architectural history of the city is easily traceable as you walk downhill from the castle along the high street toward the royal palace. In medieval times nearly the entire town was located along the wide street now called the Royal Mile. Only small parcels of land were available next to the road running along the natural volcanic rock spine that flows downhill from the castle. In ancient times these small plots were massively developed with some of the tallest and most densely populated buildings anywhere in the world at the time. Impressive stone facades line the street. Built to stand up to the elements and impress, they spread their broad shoulders high above the street.
On cloudy days, the gothic spires of the many ancient churches along the mile literally reach skyward into the clouds. St. Giles is the most famous. It provides a welcome break from the weather on a stormy day. Towering arches rise high above the pews, softly but colorfully lit by the immense stain glass windows that fill the church. Although fairly modern by this church’s standards, the ornately carved Thistle Chapel inside conjures images of Knights and Kings in times past.
Numerous tiny alleyways called ‘closes’ are located along the entire length of the Royal Mile. They lead to tiny courtyards surrounded by large buildings that provided crowded housing for the early citizens. Rich and poor mixed together in these tenements. When passing through these arched passageways on a stormy night or gray windy day, it is easy to see where favorite Edinburgh authors Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson and J.K. Rowling found inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or some of the darker passages of the Harry Potter books. The cold drafts, dark shadows and foggy mists can inspire a chill in anyone’s dreams.
The stormy days and chill filled nights may force the visitor indoors. This is not necessarily a problem as Edinburghians have created a wealth of indoor activities to chase away the gray of winter. A host of world class museums, as nice as any in Europe, seem to be around every corner. The National Museum of Scotland is amazing and requires multiple visits. Visits to the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Museum on the Mound and National Gallery of Modern Art can easily fill a day. The Writers Museum and displays at the National Library are interesting and provide excellent afternoons indoors. All are outstanding and all are free.
Cafes, Pubs and Bars are always filled with friendly people who are willing to have a chat. Stylish, well informed citizens are proud of their country and heritage. Coffee, Tea, Gin, Beer and of course Whiskey each have loyal devotees who are willing to share their knowledge with the less informed.
Time passes and the gloomy skies eventually give way and spots of blue sporadically appear. Almost magically a few yellow daffodils are noticed as you pass the towering Scott Monument along Princes Street. The next day you notice a few pink or white flowers in the budding trees. Recently turned flower beds begin to fill with colorful flowers in the abundant parks of the city. Window boxes are hung out on windowsills of palatial Edwardian townhouses adding a welcome softness to normally stern facades.
It is time to head up the hill to Queens Park, the undulating grass covered hilly area behind Holyrood Palace. Take an easy hike around Salisbury Crags or perhaps follow the young and fit to the top of Arthur’s Seat for commanding views over the entire city and all the way to the sea. The cities different periods of development are noticeable, roads growing wider as your eyes travel from the dense inner city outward to the surrounding countryside.
Another sunny afternoon can be spent viewing monuments on Calton Hill which towers over the inner city and provides the best views if you are lucky enough to catch a sunset. The nearby seaside town of Leith is an easy bus ride away. The once gritty town depicted in Trainspotters is slowly (and perhaps grudgingly) giving way to gentrification. Perhaps a tour of the retired HMS Britannia, the former Royal Yacht of Queen Elizabeth on a sunny day will give you an idea of the excitement surrounding a royal visit.
Sunny days also bring opportunities to purchase an inexpensive day pass on public buses for trips outward into the beautiful green countryside that is found north of Edinburgh. After crossing the choppy water of the Firth of Forth, narrow two lane roads lead the way through wooded farmlands and lush pastures. Horses, ponies, cows and of course sheep with heavy fleece ready for shearing after a long winter are everywhere. Recently tilled fields, separated by tall hedges, appear ready for planting soon.
A visit to Saint Andrews, the legendary home to golf, is enchanting for day trippers as well as golfers. Classic architecture of the historic city center filled with restaurants, cafes, and shops draw visitors for sunny afternoon strolling. A long sandy beach and stunning coastal walkway leads along the gray-green sea and past the ruins of an ancient castle and cathedral.
Edinburgh is known as Festival City. It is known worldwide for its almost never ending outdoor party that runs non-stop for most of the summer. Unfortunately we were not here to visit in the best part of the year. Nevertheless, once we adjusted to the hour to hour weather extremes that make up Edinburgh’s early spring, we found the city to be one of our favorites. Any challenges or frustrations encountered with the weather were easily overcome with an extra layer of clothing or an interesting conversation with one of the warm hearted citizens. Most assuredly we will return one day. This is a four season area of the world and surely each is worth seeing.
When most travelers discuss the premier time to visit a destination, the commentary usually revolves around the best weather or lack of crowds. Paris in the spring. New England in the fall, the Taj Mahal just after the monsoons stop and before the heat returns. Rome in any time except the draining heat of summer. Dreams of uncrowded beaches and palm trees blowing in a warm breeze fill our thoughts. Uncrowded museums and easy tickets to cultural attractions rank high for some.
Unfortunately everyone generally agrees on the same timing and the term “season” was invented. In popular places the best time of year may not be synonymous with the best time to visit. Some savvy travelers have mastered the so-called shoulder seasons. They hope to avoid spending all their time in line while not giving up the ability to sit in that outdoor café along the picturesque boulevard without wearing a winter overcoat. Others may purposely visit off season, just to feel they are experiencing the area by themselves.
We have recently begun to look at the proper time to visit in a different way. What time period would have been the most interesting for you to visit the place of your dreams? For most destinations there is an era that most interests you. Perhaps it was the curiosity generator that originally drew your interest to that place of your dreams. Which era of Paris most interests you? Napoleon’s Paris of the late 1700’s or Hemingway’s Paris of the 1920’s? Maybe sharing coffee in Montmartre with Picasso or Monet? The ornate palaces and gardens of Versailles or perfect people watching in a neon lit cafe on the Boulevard Montparnasse?
We have found that it doesn’t matter what “season” it actually is outside if you use your imagination and spend part of your vacation “time travelling”. You can see Rome from the eyes of a gladiator or an emperor by visiting the Colosseum and Roman Forum. Maybe take a little “Roman Holiday” and share a gelato on the Spanish Steps, channeling a little of Audrey Hepburn or Gregory Peck. Put on a skinny tie and hang out on the Via Veneto waiting for Sophia Loren or Federico Fellini to arrive in an Italian sports car. An afternoon with Michelangelo studying which colors look best together in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.
The best destinations always have a musical, culinary or literary history that can be discovered no matter what the weather is like. Great cities usually contain architecture that represents many different periods of time. These things are there always and can be experienced no matter how many tourists crowd the beaches or well-known museums. There are many ways to visit Mexico. You can experience it through the eyes of the Mayans by visiting the ruins at Palenque. You can follow Steinbeck to Baja California and the Sea of Cortez. You can choose which Mole suits your taste in the tiniest cafes of Pueblo. None of these rely on perfect timing of reservations at that popular beach resort in Cancun. Time travel is possible in any time of year and no matter how many people crowd a city. That’s because time travel resides in your imagination, which is the always your best guide through any destination.
We thought of time travel when we were planning our 6 week trip to Morocco. We tried to pick destinations that best captured different eras of Morocco’s history. After our time in Casablanca, Marrakech and Essaouira we moved on to our final three stops….
Fes does not seem like a destination in the hills. You get some sense of the change of terrain as the train starts inward from the coast at Rabat. By the time you pass Meknes you know you are going uphill, but not quickly. You really don’t get the sense of its location until you walk through the so-called Blue Gate (Bab Boujloud) that is the beginning of the Medina. This is the end of car traffic and from here the maze of streets, alleys and tiny squares quickly transports you 1000 years back in time. It takes little imagination to conjure being an early foreign visitor encountering the exoticness of Fes that has changed little since the Middle Ages.
After the brief level ground in the gate area you start downhill into the center of the medina, almost as though you are being propelled by a magical force towards an ancient mystery. Visitors probably pick either the wide street (Rue Talaa Kebira) or the narrow street (Rue Talaa Sghira). If you go left to the wide street (which is really narrow also) you are almost immediately grabbed by the smell of grilling, heavily spiced meat. A group of cats waits impatiently outside of a poultry dealer on one side. A camel head is proudly displayed in a shop on another side to show the freshness of the recently butchered meat on display.
A little farther down the hill is the Megana, the ancient water clock. It no longer functions but is interesting to ponder before you enter the ancient school of Medersa Bou Inania. The craftsmanship of the tiles and woodwork of the courtyard are amazing. Picturing students studying the Koran in the quiet courtyard just steps from the commotion of the busy alleys outside is easy. Don’t forget to stop for a mint tea at the Café Clock before following a heavy laden donkey farther down the hill through the maze of every type of shop imaginable.
At the bottom of the hill past the Henna Souk we take time to admire the Nejjarine Fondouk and Fountain. The Fondouk is a meticulously restored building where wealthy merchants stored wares they brought to the medina to sell. The rooftop provides airy relief from the busy courtyard outside the beautiful building and allows nice views of the hills that surround the ancient area of the city. No visions here of modern Morocco, with the exception of thousands of satellite dishes.
Nearby we visit the leather tanneries that have been in operation for a thousand years. You view them from high above and hold a mint leaf to your nose to protect from the strong smells. After viewing the souk where they construct elaborate wedding decorations normally only seen in a grand Bollywood epic, we begin our ascent back up the hill to the gate where we began our journey back in time several hours before. The hill is steep and necessitates many stops in the tiny artisan markets along shop filled passage. Passing back through the Blue Gate we are returned to the modern city of Fes.
Chefchaouen is not a place we knew much about before arriving. The city is popular with photographers who come to see a town that is almost entirely painted a lovely shade of blue. We rented a tiny old house in the medina. It was unheated with the exception of a leaky ancient gas stove. The night air was oddly frigid during our stay. We tucked into our beds at night under many layers of blankets and were grateful for hot showers in the morning.
Chefchaouen is located high in the Rif Mountains of Northern Morocco. The Rif Mountains are famous for its production of hashish. The blue buildings and smell of hashish made us think of backpacker havens of the late 1960’s. Visions of wide eyed young people following early Lonely Planet guides and travelling to exotic locations in search of spiritual meanings, cheap food and easily accessible highs filled our thoughts.
Chefchaouen was, by far, our favorite city we visited in Morocco. So much so that I hate to mention it to anyone in hopes that it never gets ruined. It is everything that the young hippies must have wished for. 3 course dinners for 5 dollars. Friendly children that greet everyone with a hearty “Hola” showing their Spanish roots. Happy people who dress as they did many years ago. While we didn’t partake, the smell of hashish was prevalent everywhere and we were offered some often. The old part of town is located at the base of steep, rocky mountains that rise out of green valleys with crystal streams. Women do their wash in chilly rivers. At times the blue of the city walls mix with the crystal blue sky perfectly and give an effect where you feel you could be walking in the clouds themselves.
We walked to the Spanish Mosque at the top of a nearby mountain to watch sunset one evening. The sky began to glow as the sun set over a distant mountain range. Brilliant colors of red, purple, yellow and orange contrasted against the sky blue of the city below. The sunset seemed to last forever as the lights came on in the city below. The sunset call to prayer began at one tiny mosque. It echoed off the surrounding mountains of the area as other mosques began their amplified calls also. The cacophony of sound reverberated around the valley below until it began to sound like harmonic bees buzzing aggressively. Truly one of the amazing sites I’ve seen in years of travel. The smell of hashish in the air was great, but I thought it was unnecessary on this night.
It was easy to imagine ourselves as young travelers in the 1960’s as we descended the mountain in the gathering darkness of a perfect night in the mountains of a spiritual land far away.
Intrigue, exoticness, and conspiracy around every corner. A city with a location at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea so valuable that nearly every major world power sought to control it at one time or another. So important that for many years it was deemed an international city and enjoyed a reputation as a place where nearly everything was possible and all was available for a price. An ancient walled city that rises abruptly from the blue sea, whitewashed so it stands out so brightly it is easily visible from the Spanish coast in the distance.
In addition to the ancient medina, a modern city has grown along the beaches that stretch along the warm coast. We arrived and found our modern, high-rise apartment with views to the ocean from the 6th floor windows. We liked the city right away. We were greeted by warm weather and after a couple of cold weeks in the mountains and we looked forward to ending our long journey on a high note.
As an international city and, for many, the entryway to Africa, Tangier has attracted a unique crowd of adventurers who have sought both the exoticness and the freedom the location provided. In the 1950’s a group of authors grouped here to take advantage of the cost of living, lack of drug enforcement and creative atmosphere. Following in the 1960’s the city became a sunny, laid back, party stop for the jet set of the movie and music industries.
We enjoyed visiting the cafes that became so well known for their famous clientele. The Cafe de Paris was a favorite. Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams held court here. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and almost all the Beat writers made visits. They lived in the cheap hotels nearby and drank in the bars that catered to sailors and international clients. The cafe oozed history and every visit was enjoyable.
Many visits to the tiny square in the medina called Petit Socco were filled with tea or coffee enjoyed with the perfect street side table to watch the citizenry pass by. Café Tingis and the Café Central were favorites in the afternoon after long walks through the steep hills of the medina. Not far away was the venerable Hotel Continental which still clings to it perch above the harbor and while long past its glory days was worth a visit to view a grand dame of Tangier lore.
We had drinks at the classic Caid’s Bar located in the Hotel Minzah. A real life Rick’s Café of Casablanca fame, the hotel was once the host to anyone who was famous in Tangier. Views across the pool to the port were excellent and it took little imagination to see visions of past glories.
The Rolling Stones made the Café Baba famous when they visited. Located midway up the hill, the café looks like it hasn’t changed since they left. The smell of hashish met us as the door. Mint Teas were perfect pick-me-ups for the mixed crowd of mostly local youth. A real favorite and well worth a few visits. The nearby Kasbah museum was as interesting for its architecture as for the items contained inside.
We enjoyed our time travel six week journey throughout Morocco. It was challenging and quite different from how we have travelled for the last couple of years. The people were friendly and the food was good. We probably didn’t pick the best season to go. But as we hoped, if we chose the right era to view each destination in, we had an excellent time in a unique place that we had only seen in our imagination.
Many years ago, we were walking on the Corniche along the Nile River in Aswan, Egypt. It had been a scorching summer day at Abu Simbel and the breeze from the river felt wonderful. The sky was crystal blue as the sun made its way toward the horizon on the far side of the river. Watching the bustling activity along the waterfront was fascinating. Ferries carried people and cargo back and forth across the quick moving river. Boxes, animals and people were loaded and unloaded as workers took advantage of the coolness of the early evening to complete their heavy workload. Band music could be heard from a passing river cruise ship in the distance.
Most interesting to me were the feluccas, Egypt’s classic form of river transport. The beautiful sailboats with white canvas sails tacked to and fro utilizing the prevailing winds as gracefully as sea birds catching thermals on a summer afternoon. The scene could have been from any era, perhaps even biblical times.
A man dressed in a traditional jellaba approached us very formally and asked us if we would like to sail on one of the feluccas around nearby Elephantine Island for sunset. I could not think of anything that would be more exciting. The breeze was perfect, the sun was setting, the water was calm and we were certainly up for an unforgettable, unplanned adventure. Conscious that nothing is free, I of course asked how much we would be charged. We were not very worried about money as we had an ample tourist budget but knew that many shady vendors often took advantage of naïve tourist’s failure to set a price before using a service. The well-spoken man smiled and told us that, of course, we would only pay what we thought the ride was worth after we were finished.
The excitement of the opportunity overwhelmed better judgement and we boarded the boat. The men on the boat, one appearing to be the captain and one the mate, cast off the lines, set the sails and negotiated their way into the busy channels that surround the island. The wind caught the sails and the boat picked up speed. The mate nimbly climbed the single mast above our heads to adjust the sails to pick up even more speed. We were off and it was everything we could have hoped for.
After we settled down and found our course, I asked again how much we would be expected to pay. A wide smile from the captain was all that greeted my question. A shrug of his shoulders and a noticeable move to avoid eye contact followed. A few minutes later I asked again and he just moved away in the boat.
I began to have a terrible feeling that I had made an awful rookie traveler error. I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the hour long ride even though the sunset was incredible, the waves were minimal and the breeze cooled our sunburns to the point we actually wished we had brought a sweater. I dreaded the impending controversy we were going to have when we reached the pier and I was given the final bill. I was sure an argument would ensue when I was told the price would be hundreds of dollars that I had no intention of giving up easily. When our cruise was over everyone got off the boat. I clinched my camera and wallet tightly. Everyone was smiling but me. An incredible experience was ruined for me because I knew what was coming next.
I asked the man in the Jellaba how much our cruise would be. He asked me what I thought it was worth. I said I would have no idea how to price such an adventure and told him he should tell me his best price. My body tensed as I prepared for the inevitable bad news. It seemed he took forever to get the words out. I felt adrenaline pulsing and my fight or flight reflex kicking in. Why was I such a fool to let this snake take advantage of me.
I don’t remember the price he quoted in Egyptian Pounds, but it worked out to be about 20 US dollars. For 3 people to take an hour long cruise on the Nile at sunset with a crew of two expert seamen. I would have gladly paid twice the price, if not more. It was one of the most memorable things we did during our entire Egyptian holiday and it cost less than a meal at McDonalds.
I guess the point of the story is that I had let my sense of dread ruin an incredible adventure. I was so sure I was going to be ripped off that I couldn’t relax and enjoy the fun. I realized that dread was a horrible thing for travelers. I think that fear of being taken advantage of is one the things that ruins far more vacations than actually being ripped off. It dominates many travelers’ tales and seems to be a major topic of conversation wherever tourists gather. Of course it’s true you can be ripped off. You need to watch your money and be aware of your surroundings. It is difficult when you don’t speak the language and you don’t know the local customs. We want to be friendly and trusting to others and some people do take advantage of this to do wrong things. But you can’t have dread. It takes the fun out of travel and makes you distrust even the nicest of people.
Nevertheless, I suffer from the curse of dread. I admit it. I think the worst. I am not a trusting person. Almost any kind gesture I receive is met with suspicion. I purposely avoid situations where I feel I may be taken advantage of. I don’t like merchants in marketplaces. I hate bargaining. Bartering is not my friend. I prefer set price mass transit to dealing with shady cab drivers and tuk tuk’s. I avoid places that don’t have prices listed on menus. I don’t eat things that are put on the table that I didn’t order. I suffer dread.
It’s why I never went to Morocco before….
Bogey and Bergman never came here. Churchill and Roosevelt visited during World War II to plan Hitler’s demise. The French definitely came here. They left a language and a lot of stylish buildings. I really didn’t have much of an idea of what we might find when we arrived after our 30 hour flight from Montenegro. We were so glad we had found a room at the Madrid airport for a few hours of restful sleep.
Casa, as the locals call it, reminded me of Mexico for some reason. The farms and rural building on the main freeway from the airport looked like so many we passed through in Central Mexico. Lots of sheep, but no camels. I don’t know why I thought I might see one.
We stayed in a fairly modern apartment in an office building just outside of downtown. It had a Starbucks downstairs. People dressed very Western. Traffic was busy and the roads were not well taken care of. The weather was warm enough and we were glad to get out of the big jackets we needed in Europe.
We tempted fate and tried our luck with the so-called Petite Taxis that run continuously along the roads everywhere in Casa. The tiny red cars are everywhere and are the easiest way to get anywhere. You put your hand out, they stop and you tell them where you are going. If it fits their planned route, you get in and you are off on a wild ride to your destination. They may or may not pick up others along the way and you may make a few stops before you get where you are going. We possess little French and no Arabic so communication was difficult. To get home we said “Starbucks” and they all seemed to know where it was. We never stopped in Starbucks but we were glad it was there
Despite warnings of evil taxi drivers shamelessly preying on helpless tourists, we found the taxis to be fun, cheap and kind of exciting. We could go virtually anywhere and when we gave the driver 20 dirhams (about 2 dollars) they usually smiled and saluted. Many gave change! We looked forward to the drivers picking up other passengers. Spirited conversations always ensued and although we couldn’t understand, it gave us a local connection that we enjoyed.
We visited the Hassan II mosque on the seashore a couple of times. It is absolutely stunning. And huge. The minaret stands 690 feet high. It towers over the area and is even topped by a laser at night. Amazing.
We visited the Medina and the old French downtown area. The medina was small and crowded and the vendors were a little aggressive. Probably necessary as a warm up for other cities we would visit in the future. We had our first of many mint teas in the scenic “Café de France” on one the main boulevards the French laid out in downtown. It made for great people watching and provided a shady seat to rest weary legs.
We are not much for theme restaurants and had misgivings about visiting “Rick’s Café”, a tribute to the famous café from the 1942 Bogart movie. Rather than being touristy, we found it to be beautiful and very reminiscent of what anyone who has ever seen the movie would want it to be. We chose the bar to sit at since we weren’t eating and enjoyed a nice strong drink that would have made Bogey proud. It was strong and cold and absolutely perfect.
Our week went quickly and we were soon off to our second stop of our trip to Morocco.
Riding the train from Casablanca to Marrakech it seemed difficult to get the song out of our head. I hesitate to write about it because it might start going again.
We arrived and found our apartment. Located just outside of the Medina, it was quite disappointing. The internet didn’t work and the water leaked from the bathroom ceiling. We decided we would stay for 10 days as Marrakech seemed like the place that most represented our idea of what Morocco would be like before we arrived. Hmmm. Look before you leap.
We stayed outside the medina, as we thought it would be easier to find things we needed. We wanted to prepare most meals at home to save money and life in the Medina would be fun but more expensive. Many people elect to stay in a restored Riad, which is one of the huge old houses in the Medina. We visited several and they were beautiful and even stunning and when we thought of our leaky bathroom, we often wished we had of stayed in the walled area.
It was a short walk or an easy Petite Taxi ride when we did want to visit the walled part of the city. The medina is huge and at first overwhelming. Thousands of shops selling every kind of item imaginable are spread throughout the many souks that fill the medina. The vendors can seem aggressive at first, but after a few days of visits we got accustomed to the pace and the people actually began to seem friendly and helpful. At first we found we couldn’t stop without being asked what we were looking for. We found if we said we were just enjoying a little shade and rest, they smiled and said “Welcome to Morocco”.
We enjoyed many breaks for tea on any of the many terraces in the small cafes that are found down every alley. The spice markets and metal workers were our favorite places to visit. A few ancient palaces were visited. The tilework and carved plaster facades were wonderful and we enjoyed the opportunity to rest without spending money.
We did have one unfortunate incidence with an attempted pickpocket. It did ruin our day and make us feel suspicious of everyone for a while, but also served as a reminder to not relax too much.
Of course we made several visits to the famous Jemma el Fna square in the center of the medina. Snake charmers, musicians, dancers, drummers, juice and food vendors and monkeys are everywhere. The noise is insane at first. A giant nightly carnival that has been put on every night for 1000 years. Best described as live action channel surfing. The time just around sunset is the best. The food booths reach full production as hungry customers flood in from the direction of Koutoubia Mosque. The scene is best viewed with a mint tea from one of the balconies of the restaurants that surround the area.
10 days proved to be too long as we didn’t find a lot to do outside of the medina. We did enjoy our first Tajine and it was delicious. We did visit Jardin Majorelle, a garden that was owned by Yves Saint Laurent when he lived here. Also the modern area of town called Gueliz was nice and provided a glimpse of the modern Morocco of the future.
We anxiously boarded our bus for our 3 hour ride to the beach town of Essaouira. We were excited to leave the big city and get back to the ocean. The ride was nice and we saw our first camel just before arriving. We also saw goats in trees. We didn’t stop to see them but it was an odd looking sight.
Essaouira gained fame in the 1960’s as a hippie hangout and continues to have that vibe today. The white walls of the old city rise directly from the sea and were built by the Spanish to protect the city from pirates in ancient days.
A large beach runs south of town and a busy fishing port operates just outside the walls. Inside the walls, narrow streets wind through the tightly packed buildings. Plenty of souvenir shops and restaurants greet the visitor but you get the sense that this is an actual town instead of just a tourist destination. We rented a Dar, which is a smaller version of a Riad right in the center of town. It had several rooms on 4 floors with a beautiful terrace above that. We loved it from the moment we got there and despite hundreds of trips up and down flights of stairs during our week long stay, we were very glad we stayed there.
The location of our Dar made access to the town simple and we took many strolls around town during our stay. The citizens were either very friendly or indifferent to our presence. We loved walking along the docks at sunset when the traditional blue wooden boats returned with the catch of the day.
Essaouira proved to be the favorite part of the first half of our trip to Morocco. We were able to let our guard down a little. The weight of dread was slightly lifted as we strolled the wide beach in the afternoon. It was a welcome respite from the constant aggressiveness of the medinas we had visited. Watching sunsets from our terrace was relaxing and it was nice to take a quiet break at the midpoint of our trip. We are heading north now and I’m sure the apprehension will return. Hopefully a nice week in Essaouira gave us a chance to reflect on our visit so far and realize that most of our worries are imagined. Dread is something that will definitely ruin a traveler’s adventure and I hope we can keep it at bay for a few more weeks.
I believe I always wanted to travel. My family had a very old atlas in the house and even as a child I loved to thumb through the pages and look at the colorful maps displayed inside. The book was huge and had heavy covers and thick paper that made a distinct sound when you turned it. Pastel pink, green and purple countries filled the pages. Thin black lines connected the cities and different size dots indicated the relative populations of each. Rivers and lakes were marked by a wonderful shade of light blue. Creating journeys along the roads or waterways to the most intriguing sounding places was an interesting pastime.
I remember writing down the names of the countries or cities that sounded the most exotic. I knew nothing about the places other than their name, but they inspired me to want to see them one day. When I was very young I have distinct memories of my dreams of Zanzibar, Samoa, Burma and Bombay. I was fascinated by the island below India called Ceylon at the time.
Of course travelling in real life is different than running your fingers along the pages of a well-worn book. While inspiration still comes from a variety of sources, travelling outside of the pages of an atlas entails limits not found inside of your own imagination. For most of my life, time, budget and responsibilities often took precedence over my desire to visit these far off places of my dreams.
We were asked by a friend recently how we choose the cities that we visit. Our methods are definitely not consistent and have changed throughout the years. Of course, like everyone, we were interested in seeing the most famous cities first. Paris, Rome, Venice and Bangkok were on our list as well as everyone else’s. As all travelers know, the more you travel the more you realize how much there is to see. There is always something just over the next mountain that given just another day or two you could have gotten to. There is always justification to take another trip. Prague, Budapest, Cairo and Penang are all secondary trips that were, at one point, just past our original destinations.
As time went by monumental and magical destinations became as important as the exotic cities of the world. We saw Cusco because of Machu Picchu, Siem Reap because of Angkor Wat, Lhasa because of the Potala Palace, Agra because of the Taj Mahal and Yogyakarta because of Borobudur. I don’t think we would have spent much time in Giza, if not for the Pyramids.
As time goes on, photography has become an important hobby to me. It is the perfect companion to a life lived on the road. When we are discussing our next destination we always check the difficulty and expense of travel arrangements. We certainly check the availability and location of apartments for rent. We check for activities that are of interest in the general area we are considering. However, final arrangements are never made until we check photography sites for photos that might be taken. We peruse various online photo sharing sites for the best pictures of an area. Often photos are taken from locations that we would never have visited if we hadn’t wanted to capture a beautiful vista. We have even visited locations almost entirely due to work by talented photographers who have gone before us. We spent an entire month in La Spezia, Italy due mainly to the nearby beauty of the Ligurian coastline. If not for the photogenic beauty of the Cinque Terre, Portifino, Lerici and Portovenere I don’t think we would have visited this magical area of the world.
We have often spent time just prior to a sunset taking some form transportation to an elevated location to find just the right vantage point over a spectacular setting. While others see the colorful photograph of a gorgeous cityscape, the finished photograph often sparks our memory back to the journey we took to get to the location.
As we were discussing places to go after our month long visit to Dubrovnik, we finally decided on a hopefully magical destination for our future travels. Unfortunately budgets just did not allow us to go just yet. We needed two weeks to find airline tickets that were in our price range. As beautiful as if was, we didn’t want to spend two more weeks in Dubrovnik.
A few months back Nanci returned to the U.S. for a short time and I was travelling by myself in Montenegro. We were inspired to travel to Montenegro by a photograph of the city of Kotor. When Nanci returned home, I never got around to taking the photograph. The photo is taken from the ramparts of an old fort above the city and I just couldn’t find the motivation to make the journey by myself. It sort of bothered me as the “one that got away”.
As Kotor is only a two hour (and less than 10 Euro) bus journey away from Dubrovnik, it seemed like the perfect place to spend our time while we waited for onward transportation. While waiting I would be able to attempt to capture the scenic vista that I had missed before.
Kotor is located at end of the spectacular Bay of Kotor, which is called simply Boka locally. The bay lies in an incredible location between towering mountains that rise straight from the sea. While the area appears to be, and is often called, a fjord, it is technically called a ria or submerged river bed. Whatever it is called, it is as gorgeous as anywhere on the planet. Kotor is a walled city and, while smaller, bears a slight resemblance to Dubrovnik. Inside the walls, it is obvious that the construction of the buildings take inspiration from its Adriatic neighbor, Venice.
What is unique in Kotor is the city walls run up the side of the mountains above town and end in a large fortress at the top of the mountain. The hike to the top is more than 1000 stairs and is popular with adventurous cruise ship passengers that arrive in droves during the summer. Despite the beautiful weather we enjoyed during our stay, it is not the typical season for tourists and we again had the whole town to ourselves. No cruise ships, no massive yachts and no tour buses. The fashionable shops, sophisticated boutique hotels, beautiful restaurants, lovely cafes and stylish bars inside the city walls rarely had anyone inside but a lonely proprietor busily studying their cell phones.
Everyone in tow seemed to speak perfect English and was genuinely glad to have someone to talk to when we visited. We had time to visit a long overdue dentist. 5 fillings, 2 cleanings and X-rays for 250 dollars was an unbelievable price for first class work. We had a nice apartment for a good price and generally just enjoyed strolls through the narrow city streets or along the quiet waterfront.
To get to my picture location I had to climb about half way up the 1000 steps to the fortress. I’m glad it was only half way, because I did it five times trying to get the perfect sunset over the city and city lights below. I can’t really say I achieved my goal, but as always, the picture will remind me of the difficult climb and breathtakingly dramatic views over the city and bay as the sun went down and the lights of the city came on. Because of the location of the mountains, the city gets dark very quickly and I will always remember my mad dashes down the hill before it became too dark to see the steps.
We enjoyed our short time in Montenegro and are now off to further adventures. Like looking through the pages of the old atlas many years ago, I realize how many exotic and wonderful places there still are to see in the world.