When it comes to feelings about the desert, there really is no indecision. You are either in or out. There is no in-between. Some see it as a wasteland, hot, arid and forbidding. Sand, sky and scrub. Certainly not worth visiting, much less living in. Others see it as everything they have ever dreamed of. A perfectly blank canvas where they can create any story their imagination can render. A vast landscape of endless opportunity whose only limit is one’s own vision. The latter are the people who made Palm Springs.
Utilizing what they had, the first visionaries took advantage of the hot dry air and natural thermal baths. Imagining cures for a host of conditions amongst the cactus, smoke trees and palms they built curative spas designed to give sufferers hope. People came from all over the country to spend time resting and rehabilitating in the shadows of the towering San Jacinto mountains that tower over the surrounding area.
The 1930’s were a time when America’s Wild West was long gone but Hollywood westerns were all the rage. Enterprising Palm Springs entrepreneurs found ways to cater to the desires of city slickers who wanted to experience an era they had missed. They founded ranches where visitors could come and spend time riding horses, working with cattle or just eating hearty food around a roaring campfire. Singing songs by a chuck wagon fulfilled the romantic dreams of these “dudes” who wanted to spend days riding the range and nights camping under the brilliant stars that are still visible today.
Hollywood made many of these western movies in the rugged canyons nearby Palm Springs. The stars took a liking to the laid-back lifestyle and word got around quickly that life in the desert provided an opportunity to let loose without the prying eyes of the Hollywood gossip machine. The Tennis and Racquet Clubs were popular and massive pools provided the perfect landscape for a decadent cocktail culture. Glamour was king as large Spanish Revival mansions began to sprout in the downtown area. The Movie Colony, Las Palmas and Mesa neighborhoods roster of residents began to read like a whos-who of popular celebrities of the time.
The celebrities wanted entertainment and enterprising impresarios provided it. Bars, restaurants and nightclubs opened in the downtown area. Ritzy hotels provided luxurious surroundings for those who wanted to reside temporarily. Casinos, technically illegal, opened in the nearby deserts. The mafia made inroads. Bands played, liquor flowed and people danced late into the night to big band sounds. Visitors commonly reported VIP sightings. Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were just a few of the luminaries frequently seen around the town.
The post World War II era was a time of prosperity and change for Americans. Many found financial opportunities that hadn’t existed in their life previously. They wanted to live the good life. Relax, live a little and enjoy a bit of luxury that hadn’t been available for the masses for a long time. Freeways were built throughout the country that made travel easier. The space race made people dream a little bigger. Palm Springs was advertised as easy to reach luxury for the common man. Hotels were built with massive pools heated by endless sunshine and shaded by towering palms. People arrived in masses. Fashionable stores opened along wide boulevards to cater to their desires. A casual style was popular. Tiki bars, Hawaiian shirts, dark sunglasses and cocktails in the evening with friends.
Many people who sampled what Palm Springs offered wanted more. They were easily enticed to establish at least a part-time residence. These new jet-setters weren’t interested in old styles. A new style of architecture that matched the era was needed. A modern style of flat roofs, large pools and glass-walled opulence that broke down the barrier between outdoor and indoor living became all the rage. Large tracts of affordable houses with high designs were built by competing architects and builders. Maybe no place in America better displayed what the “future” might be like. Abundant enthusiasm was everywhere.
In the surrounding area vast palm lined golf courses, a dizzying 120 for a population of just 500,000, were built. The neighboring desert communities of Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Palm Desert and La Quinta were expanded and developed. Gated communities lined the wide roads named after celebrities. Houses were built along the fairways, designed for affordable luxury and a relaxed country club lifestyle that seemed possible even for common people. A place to celebrate their hard earned success after a life of work. The deserts lack of water seemed distant as 1 pool was built for every 4 people and air conditioning helped combat the afternoon heat. Year-long tans were possible. Long imagined dreams were coming true. A comfortable retirement could be had that was filled with entertainment, activity and companionship.
Somewhere Palm Springs lost a bit of its way. Boxed between these newer communities and the towering mountains the city began to be seen as a retirement community. Palm Springs didn’t have the room to expand to meet this new market and perhaps it suffered a little. With the jet age, many of the celebrities drifted to further, more cosmopolitan locales. Palm Springs had always sold a dream and perhaps it lost a bit of its imagination. Perhaps it’s Golden Age had passed. It sat, preserved in the desert heat waiting for a new set of dreamers.
But the desert always welcomes people with visions. Artists rediscovered the area. Members of the LGBT community, sometimes disenfranchised elsewhere, found acceptance. Creative people, often outpriced in other areas of expensive California, found that the low prices of the desert offered opportunities. A new generation of Southern California creatives tricked up the existing hotels, revitalizing them with style reminiscent of their storied past. Stylishly hip young people Instagrammed fun-filled weekends to the world. The popularity of mid-century modern architecture and style drove many to rediscover and restore the vast reservoir of stylish houses found in most neighborhoods. Small motor courts were turned in to exciting hidden enclaves favored by young celebrities and the stylish wealthy. Modern hotels and spas were built, all with a style that tipped it’s hat to the past.
This new Palm Springs is what we found on our month long visit to the desert. We caught the end of the season (anytime avoiding the summer heat). We rented a cool mid-century modern styled apartment in the Racquet Club Estates area near the wonderfully revitalized Riviera Hotel. We found stylish shops to visit along the twin boulevards of Indian Canyon and Palm Canyon Drives. We spent scorching afternoons at happy hours in old-school cocktail bars reminiscent of Rat Pack days or re-imagined Tiki Bars that perfectly capture the colorful past. We visited the coolest retro hotels where we found stylish SoCal hipsters enjoying themselves in football field size pools. We toured uniquely styled houses that have been restored so well that they probably exceed their past glories. People were friendly and welcoming and we enjoyed many conversations in the cool cafes in the stylish downtown area.
Our favorite memory will be the tour of a house for sale next door to Frank Sinatra’s famed Twin Palms estate. Once owned by his lawyer, the layout suggested late-night cocktail parties attended by celebrities partying around the gorgeous pool surrounded by luscious palms. Closing our eyes for just a minute, we felt we could almost hear Dean, Frank and the rest of the Rat Pack cavorting next door late into the night. We saw a lot of things during our month in Palm Springs that they would certainly recognize and definitely would approve of. We felt the original founders would be proud of the current crop of dreamers that seem to be once again imagining Palm Springs future.
Perhaps the essence of travel is discovering if your dreams are real. We conjure images of far-off locales based on what we read, hear or desire and spend a lot of time and effort searching to discover if the vision we see in our head can be matched by any form of reality. While most don’t see past a warm sea, gentle breeze, swaying hammock and slightly bronzed skin, a few have more vivid visions of their own personal paradise. Some travelers have more advanced imaginations and maybe their travel palettes have a few more additional colors than the average housewife visiting Hawaii has.
Throughout history, some of these ‘destinations’ have become legendary. Whether they actually existed or not, their descriptions have driven many an intrepid soul to follow their calling, no matter the cost or hardship that may have had to be endured.
Countless conquistadors spent their lives searching for El Dorado, the city of gold and untold riches, some undoubtedly meeting perilous fates during their journey. Although it may have been just myth, the explorer Ponce de Leon will always be associated with the search for the eternal life provided by the Fountain of Youth. Whether just in fictional accounts or not, the Holy Grail and it’s promise of eternal abundance led many Arthurian knights on fruitless journeys. While probably based only on legend, many an ancient mariner must have spent their nights on watch keeping one eye out for the utopian paradise of Atlantis.
A more modern destination that may only exist in the writer’s imagination is the Tibetan city of Shangri La. Described by British author James Hilton in his 1933 book “Lost Horizons’ as a mystical valley high in the isolated mountains of the Himalayas and populated by a harmonious people who lived happy and nearly immortal lives. The name has now become synonymous with any utopian paradise where people might find eternal satisfaction. The novel was such a success that many areas have claimed to be the inspiration for the book’s location. China even officially renamed the city of Zhongdian in 1997 to take advantage of the book’s notoriety.
This Chinese Shangri La is located at nearly 11,000 feet in the northern mountains of Yunnan Province. With towering mountains surrounding a valley, friendly people and an ancient lamasery high atop a nearby peak, this version of Shangri La seemed to be a good destination for the second 3 weeks of our tour of China. We would head north from Kunming stopping in several ancient towns, gradually gaining altitude until we reached our final destination high in the mountains. Could we find the promised paradise? We were destined to try…
The bad weather of Zhangjiajie had delayed our departure flight for a couple of days. After a couple of days hanging around the hotel and enjoying the cultural treasure that only the local McDonalds could bring, we were finally able to depart for our next destination of Kunming. We were leaving late in the day, which meant a long wait in the airport before departure but the airport was nice and we strangely had it almost to ourselves for the whole time we waited.
Kunming was just a brief overnight stay before we found our onward travel. Arriving after dark, the city gave off an odd vibe as so many of the buildings were brightly lit up. Even hospitals had displays that were more reminiscent of Las Vegas than the large modern city Kunming looked like the next morning. We would again be traveling by buses which are cheap and frequent in China making for easy scheduling. Just show up and buy a ticket on the next bus and off you go.
The bus journey was a long 6 hours. The views were nice as we climbed upwards towards our first destination of Dali. Small farms were visible in tight valleys along the way. Many tunnels and bridges made up the route. We were the only tourists on the bus and the locals seemed more interested in sleep than scenery, so most closed curtains so we could not see as much as we would have liked. We stopped along the way in a nice rest area and made friends with the local dog and stocked up on cookies for our ride.
Historically speaking Dali is an ancient city with a long past. Once it was a kingdom of its own, separate from the rest of China. Modern Dali is made up of two cities, the old and new. The new section where the bus station is does not give off much of the history that we were seeking for this trip. Upon arrival, we caught a taxi and made our way to the old section of town.
Located in a wonderful location between a huge lake to the east and snow covered mountains to the west the old city holds a perfect position to spend several days. After China opened up to tourists, Dali became a popular backpacker destination. With friendly locals and cheap prices, many came for brief stays and ended up hanging around for longer periods of time.
In deference to Dali’s backpacker past, we chose to stay at a wonderful hostel just outside the western gate of the walled old town. We joined an excellent collection of travelers, all with different goals for the city. Some were there to tour the villages that surround the lake, some were here to hike the canyons in the nearby mountains and some seemed to have made a home of the hostel and mostly wanted to take advantage of the cool air, blue skies and cheap beer.
There was a camaraderie between the mixed group that we found enjoyable. Spirited conversations took place around the nightly fire, pool table and bar area. Food and drinks flowed each night of the 6 nights we stayed. Fresh-faced gap year students mixed with salty travelers who gave off auras of many nights spent in shady foreign nightspots. Certainly, future books would be written about adventures had in this area.
We spent our days wandering the streets of old town. Cafes and small restaurants filled our afternoons. Dali does not offer much in terms of ‘must see’ places, but the town is perfect for wandering and just enjoying the blue skies and springlike weather that are so uncommon in China.
We seemed to be the only Westerners in town as we rarely met foreigners during our days. We continued to be a curiosity to locals and many stopped us to take pictures with us. It was rare that we set on a bench enjoying the warm afternoons without people pointing and sneaking a photo of us. A tour group of 50 spent 20 minutes of their city tour posing with us, in groups and singles until every possible combination of pose had been captured. If there is a Chinese Facebook, we must be famous somewhere.
Nights were spent sitting in the restaurant, listening and participating in conversations with young people just getting started with their travel stories and grizzled travel veterans who probably didn’t desire us to know their “best” adventures.
Soon enough we were off again, climbing higher into the mountains to our next stop of Lijiang.
Into Thin Air…
A three-hour bus ride brought us higher into mountains. Old lungs, age and overweight American bodies began to betray us as we made our way up the hill to our next hotel. Excellent views over the ancient city rewarded our effort as we met the family who runs the small inn. We drew pictures with the young girl while Grandma cooked our breakfast. We quickly made friends and through sign language, smiling and “Ni Hao” greetings we felt at home.
Lijiang was nearly destroyed in 1996 by a terrible earthquake that left more than 300,000 people homeless. The Chinese government completely rebuilt the old city which now is a World Heritage Site. Winding lanes along tiny streams with ornate bridges and gorgeous ancient architecture greet the visitor as cool afternoons are spent meandering the stunning city. Historic inns, picturesque squares and intricately carved woodwork are all to be discovered on breathtaking walks during the clear sky winter days.
To some, it may seem a bit Disneyfied, but we found it to be spectacular as we visited Wu Mansion, Black Dragon Pool and any number of courtyard houses. Sacred and snow-covered Yulong Mountain dominates in the distance from most points of the old city. 5 days were spent watching Naxi dancers in the square, Tai Chi practicing locals and enjoying delicious meals of mysterious meats and vegetables we had no idea existed.
Almost no English is spoken in the town, which made conversation difficult. All of the stores along the narrow walkways have translated signs but even these did not always help us determine what was for sale. We still do not know what is sold in the “Copper is Petrified Pork” market.
In the Mist…
The air grew thinner as we ascended further north into the even greater heights towards Shangri La. Our bus drove along dizzyingly narrow roads of the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge area. Tiny mountain mining towns along the winding river, populated by more sheep, pigs and yaks than people lined the narrow passages.
Eventually, we made our way out of the narrows and into an area of large plateaus filled with tiny farms. Prayer flags and stupas marked the road as the air grew thinner and the architecture became more Tibetan in style. Thousands of pigs ran wild and the clothing of the people took on a homemade quality that we had not seen in other areas of China. More influenced by Lhasa than Beijing the area displayed a very different atmosphere than we had seen before.
We were a little shocked our first visions of Shangri La. Ultramodern buildings and unique architecture of a combination of Tibetan and Chinese style lined the wide boulevards of the city. Skies were crystal blue and the air was frigid with a constant breeze. While we had expected a tiny village dominated by a huge monastery, we were surprised by construction everywhere that reminded us of a ski vacation village in the high mountains.
Nearly the entire old town section of Shangri La was burned in 2014. The government has again nearly rebuilt the entire area maintaining it’s unique architecture of wooden buildings and narrow streets. We found our hotel along the narrow pedestrian-only streets and liked it immediately.
The hotel was small and decorated in a style representative of an Indian/Tibetan lodge. A warm fire in the common area greeted us as we enjoyed our ginger tea served by the gracious hosts. It helped compensate for the lack of oxygen and warmed us from the chill.
We spent our 4 days walking the streets of both the old town and more modern surroundings of the new city. We have never visited such an odd place in all of our travels. It is difficult to describe without seeing. We made our way by city bus to the Songzalin Lamasery that lies along a mountain range just north of the city. It was spectacular. Smaller than the Potala Palace in Lhasa but still grand, we spent hours walking through the buildings that are occupied by some 600 monks. The interior of the buildings featured painting covered walls telling the story of Buddha. Huge carved statues of Buddha soared high in the towering interiors. Gold covered urns and statuary surrounded the giant icons and beautiful tapestries hung everywhere. The smell of incense and candles filled the air and created a magical ambiance. Despite the grand appearance, the entire complex gave off a feeling of simpleness and peace. It was the highlight of our 3-week visit to Yunnan province.
We followed our dreams and imagination to the heights of the Himalayas much as described by James Hilton in his book many years before. I don’t know if we found our Shangri La, but we thoroughly enjoyed our journey to the heights of Yunnan. We saw places we had never seen before and enjoyed strange food and music that we did not conjure in our imaginations. We enjoyed unique cultures and interacted with strangers that eventually felt like friends. While we did not find eternal life, rich abundance or a magic land of incredible wealth I suppose we did, in fact, find everything we were looking for. Maybe it was the journey to Shangri La that was exactly what we had dreamt of.
Any traveller who has taken more than a few trips will develop a travel style. A typical pattern of behavior that leads to the greatest enjoyment of the area around them. Some will find the companionship and easy planning of group tours best suit their tastes. Some may find the adventure and self-sufficiency of independent travel more to their liking. Solo travels to exotic locations fit the desires of a few intrepid souls. The frugal life of a backpacker surrounded by thatched walls may be the calling of for some. Life on a luxury cruise ship or in ritzy hotels may make up another voyagers dreams.
As happens in all areas of one’s life, other people are going to judge you. You will be ranked according to the travel choices you make and the way they are perceived by others. Those who follow a microphoned guides flag on a well-worn route in some old school European capital will not be thought of in the same light as those who huddle around a faraway pot of spicy broth shared with exotically dressed locals. Those who road trip through the amusement park filled countryside of a palm-fringed beach paradise will not rank well against the intrepid soul who sails independently around the gale wracked cape of a storm-ravaged no man’s land.
However, if there is one thing we have discovered, it is this. If you are having fun and are content with what you are doing, it doesn’t matter what others think. In the last 6 1/2 years, we have tried many different travel styles. From road trips on bumpy Central American highways to backpacking through the sweaty backroads of Southeast Asia to cushy long-term stays in slick seaside bungalows in toney European dream cities, we have probably tried all the different varieties of travel.
Over time, we have found our style. Renting apartments for a month or so in comfortable locations has become our norm. Places with access to well-stocked markets where we can shop for local ingredients that make up the majority of the meals we prepare ourselves. Locations that offer good transportation infrastructure that allows us to move easily around the area we live. Good access to communications so we can stay in touch and easily access the information we need to stay on the road continuously. Places that are easy on the eye and, if they are off the beaten track, not so far that we couldn’t get back pretty quickly if we needed to.
For sure, we do not occupy the highest rungs of the most intrepid travelers. But we have had a lot of fun and, although at a snail’s pace, managed to see some pretty far reaches of the globe. Although we have surpassed our travel dreams, there are still a couple of countries that are high on the list that we have hesitated to take on. As best as we can guess, they require quicker moves and less normality than we are used to in our chosen travel style. These countries provide less access to the easy pace, routine, communication and normalness that makes up our travel life. They are both vast countries that may possess the most diverse landscapes anywhere on earth. They need to be seen. We have visited them both in years past, but never on our own or without someone else’s help. One of them is India and, to be honest, we are still not up to that challenge. The other is China….and we are going.
We left our tiny Hong Kong apartment in the early morning before the subway rush began. We struggled to get our overstuffed suitcases through the turnstiles and down the rapidly moving escalators. After a couple of quick line changes, we reached the East Rail Line that would take us to the border at Shenzen, China. It was only a one hour ride but our excitement was intense. We easily acquired our 10-year Chinese visas during our stay in Hong Kong, so we had everything prepared for our crossing. Entry was smooth. We cashed our Hong Kong dollars and got Chinese Yuan from the ATM. We were in.
A pleasant ride on the Shenzen subway took us to the massive Shenzen North train station. Towering ceilings, high-speed trains, McDonalds and KFC greeted us in the futuristic station. Our first glimpse of ancient China was anything but old. We boarded our shining new train for our rapid ride to Guangzhou. We have ridden high-speed trains in France and Japan, but this train seemed smoother and faster. Passing 300 kilometers per hour got us to Guangzhou quickly. We only had a brief stay in this massive terminal before we caught our second high-speed train onward to our final destination.
A couple of hours later we arrived in Xingping, a tiny town on the Li River halfway between larger Guilin and Yangshuo. This area of the Guangxi Province is most famous for its beautiful and unique limestone karsts that populate the entire area. Guilin was the hub for this area’s tourism until Yangshuo developed enough to support the many tourists. Among the major interests of the area are river rides on rafts, hiking in the hills or riding country roads on some form of two-wheeled conveyance. The most beautiful scenery in the area may be along the river in the small town of Xingping which is said to resemble Yangshuo before it was developed.
After our initial impression of fast-moving trains and gleaming engineering, Xingping presented more of the picture of China we expected. The potholed roads and bad or nonexistant sidewalks looked even worse in the light rain that was falling when we arrived. The town is very small but no one seemed to have a clue when we asked them directions to our hostel. In fact, they did little more than stare at us and point in different directions. We have become used to at least someone speaking English but China was going to be different. Sign language was going to have to work.
Luckily we spotted a homemade sign for the hostel and arrived after a wet walk. The night was arriving just as we were. The hostel was old but attractive in a rough way and as we met some of our fellow travelers we felt we had started our Chinese adventure on the right foot.
We passed our 3 days in Xingping simply. We walked along the river and took a ferry to a nearby village. The rain kept us from hiking the spectacular mountains that rose high above the river but the weather was still warm enough that we weren’t kept inside much. Everyone was friendly towards us and seemed to greet us with the phrase “Hello, Babu”. We eventually figured out that they were saying “bamboo” and were referring to the bamboo boats that give rides down the river. Much of the tourist trade is selling boat rides and they were just making us an offer. It was a question rather than a statement. We enjoyed walking the cobbled ancient street that ran through the town. We toured an ancient Chinese theater that has been in operation for an eternity.
In the days of old, many fishermen in the area traditionally used cormorants to fish the waters of the river. They tie the bird’s necks so they cannot swallow and light lanterns to attract the fish to the boats. They let the birds do the work unless they are using nets. The fishermen are mostly gone now, but a few still demonstrate their skill on the river. We were able to locate one of the old gentlemen and enjoyed spending some time with him on the river as the sun set on our last evening.
The next day we made the short move to Yangshuo. If mass tourism hasn’t quite found Xingping, it has definitely discovered Yangshou. We stayed nearby the famous West Street area of town. West Street runs from the main access road into town down towards the river. It is lined with every type of tourist attraction you could think of. Wax museums, underground ice skating, loud discos, themed restaurants and hawkers loudly trying to attract attention to whatever they might be selling. It is loud, brash, garish and was quite a shock after the quiet streets of Xingping.
Luckily our hotel was quiet. We spent our three days in Yangshuo enjoyably. We hiked up one of the nearby karsts. The view was incredible from the top and well deserved after the breath-stealing climb up the thousands of muscle destroying steps. We walked the pleasant streets of the small town that was much quieter in the mornings.
Most daringly we even rented scooters for a whole day. Riding in the traffic of town was frightening even though the scooters were pretty easy to ride. Helmetless and with no warmup we thrust ourselves into the busy streets and hoped for the best. Once we arrived in the countryside the traffic subsided and we began to enjoy the freedom of making our own way through the unique mountains and farms that made up the scenery. We enjoyed lunch in a local restaurant in a tiny town with chickens, ducks and cows wandering just outside the open air setting near the river.
We spent one night in Guilin to make onward transportation easier. The town was modern and seemed huge compared to the first two towns we had visited. We did get out to visit the colorfully lit Sun and Moon temples on a lake in the center of town. It made a fitting end to a busy first week in China.
Brad and Angelina…
Our second week began with another bus ride. Heading north this time, we got our first experience with the Chinese highway system. 6 hours of some of the most amazingly engineered road we have ever travelled on.
The freeway to Fenghuang had more tunnels and bridges than we had ever seen. It was almost as if the designers were attempting to make a statement. At times, it seemed we were continuously either in a tunnel or on an elevated bridge. The tunnels, some more than a mile long were cut through the rough mountainside. The bridges spanned the valleys in between the mountains where small villages and farms lay along the rare level ground. Sweepers in orange suits patrolled the roadsides every mile or so, sweeping the roads to apparently keep a nice shine on the engineering achievement.
Our next destination was the ancient Chinese river town of Fenghuang. Popular with Chinese tourists but less known by the western world, this city lies along the Tuoliang River and was founded more than 1400 years ago. The ancient center has been well preserved and offers the visitor a chance to witness how China must have appeared to visitors many years ago.
Stone city walls, stilt raised houses and narrow streets that lead to bridges of many designs greet the visitor in the central area. Open only to pedestrians, life in the old city comes with all the smells, noise, dampness and congestion one might expect in an ancient city. Wooden guesthouses line the cobbled streets and vendors pull carts laden with goods down alleyways filled with open restaurants and vendor shops. Having noodle soup from a steaming pot in an open-air food stall on a misty morning as the town awakened on a winter morning fulfilled our dreams of China from the olden times.
Spending late mornings and early afternoons wandering routes along the river and across the many bridges or down the many alleys and up the winding streets of the city made for interesting days. We never saw another Western tourist for our entire stay. Chinese tourists and locals seemed to find us quite interesting and we always attracted a crowd wherever we went. Everyone, especially children, seemed to be tickled when they would say “hello” and we would answer back. So many brave locals asked for pictures with us that at times we felt like celebrities. At first flattering, but a little irritating after a week, we had our first taste of what it might be like to be famous. We could understand why many celebrities might become testy.
If the daytime beauty of the city was unique in our travels, the nights were even more so. The entire town along the river is lit just after dark. Not a few buildings or select streets. Everything, literally everything is aggressively lit. Multi-colored lights make the bridges, temples, houses and ancient dwellings glow like a Chinese version of Disneyland’s Main Street, USA. Every version of music from classical Chinese to bongo drums to Karaoke to thumping disco is piped at full volume over the riverside. The peaceful surroundings of the morning become a strange nightclub that continues loudly until 11:30 PM when the cacophony thankfully stops. Nowhere we have travelled has such a dramatic personality change from morning to night.
Farther north in Hunan Province, we reached our next destination. A three-hour bus ride brought us to the small town of Wulingyuan. Located just outside of the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, the town gives off a bit of a ski area vibe. Winter finally caught up with us and the weather turned colder and a chilly haze hung in the skies.
Zhangjiajie is most famous for its towering mountain peaks that rise abruptly above the valley floor below. When viewed from the surrounding mountains these peaks rise through the nearly constant mist and create a unique vision that has inspired artists for centuries. Most recently it is said that much of the inspiration for the settings in the movie Avatar were taken from this classic Chinese wonderland.
We found our nice guest house a short distance from the bus station. The park was located a short walk from the park. We purchased our 4-day pass and made plans to visit the park over the next few days. We were told that the heavy clouds might hamper our view from the upper peaks so we decided to hike the lower portions of the park to start our tour.
Much of the town was shut down because we were so offseason. We had our guesthouse to ourselves and made good friends with the owner and his family during our stay. Mostly only small local restaurants were open and we were welcomed and remembered in each place we stopped to eat. The restaurants generally did not have menus and the fact that they remembered us and our orders made communication on our second visit much easier. Many seemed surprised that we returned more than one day and we quickly felt like regulars.
The park has free buses which transport you everywhere within the park. We used them to take us to several nice trails that we enjoyed leisurely strolls on. Many Chinese tour groups were visiting but we saw very few independent tourists.
On our second day, rain kept us from the park. However, the longest cave in China is located a few kilometers from Zhangjiajie. The perfect place to stay dry on a rainy day! Upon entering the cave we took a half mile boat ride to the end of the cave and then made our way back to the entrance over the next few hours. The cave was warm and with all the stairs and hills, we eventually were in short sleeves and felt much warmer than the winter day we had left outside the cave. The cave was spectacular and for some reason free when we visited, which was nice for our tight budget. Like in Fenghuang, the Chinese decided to garishly light the cave with multicolored lights. It made the cave interesting to look at but in some ways we felt it diminished the natural beauty of this scenic wonder.
Finally, we got a clear sunny day and we had our best day in the park. We rode the 1000 ft outdoor elevator to the top levels of the park and hiked trails to get views over the scenic peaks below. The tallest peaks were over 1000 meters and when viewed from the lofty trails above were among the most incredible natural views we have ever witnessed on our journeys. We returned to the valley floor after a full day by taking the skytram lift. It carried us down through towering peaks and gave an incredible birdseye view of one of the great natural wonderlands anywhere on earth.
We felt lucky to have been granted at least one sunny day to view the park. The next day the weather turned cold again and sleet and snow forced the airport and lifts into the park to close. Our flight was canceled and we had to extend our visit while we waited for onward transportation.
It proved to be our only hitch during our 3-week visit to China. We are glad that we decided to try a different style of travel. The change of pace has been challenging at times and forced us to do things that we normally would not. We have gotten out of our comfort zones and taken on challenges that we weren’t sure we could do without help. Perhaps we will be inspired to reevaluate our travel style in the future and add a little more risk.
For now, we are on our way to the next 3 weeks of our visit to China. Hopefully, it goes as well as the first 3.
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.
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.”
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.
There is an apartment in Seville. It is at the end of the callejon, past the tiny bodega where they have futbol and cups of good wine. The tiny alley is narrow and the smell of food drifts from the kitchens of the houses that line it. The days of the fish stew are the best with intense aromas that yield a mixture of sweet and sour. At the end of the alley you find a heavy framed metal gate with artistic flourishes that leads to the courtyard. The courtyard has a stone fountain and marble floor that feels cool to the touch even on the hot days, as it most always is.
Three flights of stairs are climbed to reach the apartment. The stairway is accented with the famous blue azulejos tiles. The building is unusually quiet most times. In the right time of day you hear the man practicing his flamenco guitar, strumming endless chord progressions, accompanied only by the gentle tapping of his foot. The pretty girl across the courtyard leaves early in the morning and comes home late at night. She dresses well and must have a good job. She sometimes wears a flower in her hair, usually a color to match her dress.
Above the apartment is a terrace where the laundry is hung to dry. It is painted white to reflect the sun’s rays and is intensely hot. The residents hang the clothes early to avoid the sun themselves. As the breeze picks up during the day, the clothes blow in the wind like the sails of the wooden ships that left the port here many years before. This is the hottest city in Europe and the cloudless blue skies dry the clothes faster than any machine could. They dry stiff and feel starched and will need to be lightly ironed before they can be used.
The sun rises late, after eight, so it is easy to start the day early. In the days before you adjust to the time change it is a pleasure to walk the streets while it is still dark. The lights are on and it feels romantic and slightly mystical as you make your way through the narrow cobblestone streets. With little effort you can see visions of Carmen leaving the tobacco factory to meet her bullfighter or Don Juan returning from late night liaisons with an unnamed lover. You are keenly aware of the history the ornate walls have witnessed. Columbus and Magellan walked here while planning distant voyages to exotic lands. The Catholic kings ruled here and before them the Moors and before them the Romans. Each group left their marks and with only the slightest imagination they are clearly visible in the early light of day.
Breakfast is eaten early and quickly. If your breakfast is in a café you will probably have juice and toast and a thickly rich coffee. On Sundays you might satisfy your cravings for sweetness with the churros and decadent hot chocolate from the small shop with the large line. Everyone sits outside at the casually arranged tables. The conversation is muted as many read newspapers or chat quietly. Everyone seems to smoke, perhaps daring fate itself, as many spend their lives doing here on the southern tip of Spain.
If you choose to shop for yourself and time is not critical it is better to find each item of the meal separately. Visit the carniceria for meat, pescaderia for fish, panaderia for bread and maybe a small vegetable market for whatever is in season. After three visits they will remember you. People eat what is in season and what is fresh. Most visit markets daily. The best of the old style mercados have been preserved in the neighborhoods of Triana, Macarena or Arenal. They have been refurbished but have kept the original style of small owner operated stalls filled with delectable goodness. Beautiful tiles tell the vendors name and what his specialty is. Olives, oils, spices and cheeses fill jewel-like glass cases. Delicious Iberico hams and cured sausages hang as advertisements to entice the hungry. Vegetables are arranged in artistic displays of color and flavor.
Life centers on the many plazas. One size plaza does not fit all needs. Some are large and surrounded by designer shops showcasing the latest styles. Some are filled with tourists who look hot and uncomfortable and hungry. Some are more residential and filled with children with soccer balls and bicycles. The best plazas have popular bars and restaurants filled with customers throughout the day. It is said that the tapa was invented in Seville. El Rinconcillo bar is one of more than 1000 places serving tapas in the city and credited with having invented the tapa. It has been turning out food and drinks since 1670 and may be the oldest restaurant in Spain.
Our small Seville apartment sits just outside of Plaza Alfalfa. Plaza Alfalfa is the perfect combination of all the plazas. This is where the Romans settled before there was a Spain. Surrounded by local merchants and tiny cafes it has the perfect mix of humanity to make for the best people watching. Old ladies, babies in strollers, teenagers with their first loves, diners passionately discussing subjects over large cups of sangria or small glasses of beer. The plaza is filled from early morning until late at night. It has tall trees to provide abundant shade and is blocked to traffic. Dancers often practice and a constant game of soccer goes on throughout the day, the players changing as they are called to do other things. Children on bicycles and skates play in the evening after school and before dinner. They easily weave between passing tourists following maps and looking for hard to find street names. Later in the evening diners fill the tables to enjoy drinks and tapas from one of several restaurants that all have outside tables. Everyone seems to know each other and no television could compete with the entertainment found here.
Days are spent here touring the city. It is a city built for walking. The buildings are tall and built close together to provide shade during the heat of the day. The Moors brought orange trees to the city and they line streets everywhere. They provide a wonderful smell in spring and cooling shade all year long as they keep their leaves in all seasons. Perhaps cursed by the vanquished Moors, the oranges are sour and not good to eat. Mixed with enough sugar they can be used for marmalade that the English like.
Seville has its share of world class sites. The Cathedral is the third biggest in the world and the Alcazar that housed first Moorish kings and then Spanish royalty is filled with intricate passageways and formal gardens. La Giralda stands above everything and can be seen from everywhere in town.
I believe the essence of the city is found while walking along the Guadalquivir River in the evening as the sun is setting. Couples hold hands as they walk past the bullring. The breezes are cooling and the air is refreshing. The colorful buildings of Triana reflect in the water. The lights on the Isabel Bridge come on and a magical ambience overtakes the city. Perhaps the spirits of the artists, adventurers, kings and queens of different cultures take over the city again and lead the people on journeys of their own through the streets. Spirits of bullfighters and flamenco dancers abound and help the inhabitants, tourist or local, find a true passion that life was meant to have.