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.
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.
Great writers have a talent for placing their stories in spectacular locations that stand up to the masterful mix of words they are attempting to blend on a printed page. They use their imaginative powers to construct a town that serves as the canvas for the conversations and actions of their characters. The setting of a well told tale is sometimes as important as the stories themselves and can even become a character itself.
It’s likely they set their story in an ancient storybook of a town nestled tightly by a beautiful blue sea. The sea should be warm and calm and dotted with luscious islands colored dark green by thick foliage. Steep hills of jagged rock should rise sharply along the shore from the crystal waters. These rocky hills should show the wear from ions of storms that shaped them into perfect swirls that protect the land beyond. The cliffs should have tiny turquoise bays interspersed among them to provide easy access to the sea. Behind these cliffs the mountains should climb abruptly to great heights topped only by great puffs of perfectly white clouds in clear blue skies.
Perhaps a castle or walled city should rise above the cliffs. The walls of the city should be tall and broad and have angles that display confidence and strength. Immense bastions should anchor the corners and together with the castle stand ominously above the tiny sheltered bays and make a foreboding presentation to anyone with threatening ideas. Inside the walls, there should be grand stone buildings of intricate designs and great creativity. Churches, palaces and royal houses should line the steep staircases that provide access inside the walls. Marble streets that shine in the day and reflect the moonlight in the darkness of the evenings separate the buildings and provide a grand promenade. Fashionable people should make their way along the well-worn marble avenue and music should be heard around any corner.
Outside of these walls, through arched passages and across tiny bridges, we should find whitewashed houses made from cut stone. Mounted sturdily along the cliffs, the houses are topped with red tiled roofs that stand in severe contrast to the richly blue colored skies. The houses are surrounded by strongly built rock walls, palm trees and colorful bougainvillea. Lemon and orange trees, full with colorful ripened fruit fill every garden and open space. Tiny roads route throughout the tightly placed structures and all terminate eventually in the picturesque harbors they surround. Boats of every shape, size and color should transit these harbors, carrying goods and people to and from far off places and thusly enrich the people, both monetarily and culturally.
These talented authors could imagine this setting after long hours in a dimly lit room or they could do as we did and spend a month in gorgeous Dubrovnik, Croatia.
We rented a small apartment in a 15th building just a stone’s throw from St. Blaise Church inside the walls of the Old City. The square is just inside the Ploce Gate, the eastern entrance to the Old City. It is flanked by the church, Sponza Palace and the Rector’s Palace and is the main gathering point for any events that happen inside the city walls. Although the majority of the huge crowds that swarm the narrow streets in summer were gone, it seemed there were a never ending variety of activities taking place just outside our 2nd floor windows. So much so that we rarely needed to go far to find our days entertainment.
Dubrovnik puts on a winter festival which brought decorations to the streets and squares. We went out one morning to find the entire Stradun, the main street of the Old City, decorated with lighting displays and a giant Christmas tree in the square. Small, decorated food booths lined the Stradun and each served some type of tasty traditional food or drink. Speakers were mounted and played soft music for the hundreds of tourists and locals who spent chilly evenings celebrating the season along the ancient boulevard.
Popular bands, choirs and folkloric musicians often gathered on the churches steps to entertain. Dancers in colorful traditional costumes entertained frequently, showing intricate footwork and highly choreographed movements. Crowds of many sizes gathered in the square and along the street according to the popularity of the performers and the time of day or night.
The cities beauty has been discovered by filmmakers as well as authors. Hardly a day went by when we didn’t discover camera crews set up somewhere in town. Of course Game of Thrones has become a massive international hit and many come to visit the familiar settings they have seen in the fictional “Kings Landing” location of the show. The soon to be released latest episode of Stars Wars shut down activity along the Stradun and other locations for weeks as major filming took place. A large temporary medieval village is under construction just outside the walls for an upcoming major release called Robin Hood: Origins set for 2017. We spent a good portion of 2 days following the filming of a Bollywood music video that worked its way around different locations near our house. We were surprised how close we could get to the major Indian celebrities who certainly would have been mobbed in their own country.
We were lucky to see the Croatian President when she came to town to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Old City during the 1991 conflict. Few remnants of the attack remain inside the walls of the city. The damage is most apparent when viewing the red tiled roofs of the town. Buildings that were damaged during the war have shiny new tiles instead of the more worn originals. More than 75 percent of the buildings inside the walls were damaged or burned during the shelling.
We took advantage of easy transportation outside the walls to make excursions to the new part of the city also. The crowded summer beach season is over and the cruise ships have mostly departed, so we had the beaches, boardwalks and pedestrian promenades to ourselves. Although the water was a bit chilly for swimming, walking along the rocky beaches gave us spectacular views over the crystal water bays and rocky shorelines. It was a little bit of a shock walking between the huge modern hotels after spending a few days immersed inside the ancient Old City walls.
Visits to nearby towns and islands were easy and equally as quiet during our stay. Especially nice was a day trip to the tiny town of Cavtat just south along the so called Dalmatian Riviera. Recently discovered by Hollywood celebrities and music stars, the town surrounds a beautiful bay and serves as a much smaller and quieter version of its more famous northern neighbor.
The best and most popular way to see the city is by walking along the ancient walls of the city. A circular route runs all the way along the ramparts and allows unparalleled views over the houses, fortresses, streets, churches and harbors of the town. It is very easy to conjure the cities medieval past. Visions of a mighty medieval city filled with worldly residents takes little imagination when viewed from any of the majestic towers that rise above the monumental fortified walls.
Dubrovnik is certainly a city which justifies its reputation as one of the world’s most picturesque. It is obvious to see why so many authors and filmmakers have been enchanted by its beauty. Few places that we have visited could visually compare and certainly this city deserves its place among the destinations that everyone should put on their must see lists.
We were sitting on a bench in Campo Santa Maria Formosa, one of the larger squares in Venice, when a very stylish couple set down on the bench next to us. The man pulled out a map and began studying it intently. To make conversation, I mentioned to the lady that I thought I spent way too much time studying maps myself. She surprised me by telling me that she never bothered reading them at all!
Perhaps she didn’t have to be bothered with maps because her husband did most of the work, or possibly she had come upon a travel philosophy that I had not put into practice very often. After a few minutes, her husband folded the map up neatly and they generally walked off in the same direction as they had come from. They seemed to be content to know where they were, but weren’t much interested in where they were going.
I thought about it afterward and decided that Venice was the perfect place to try out this new travel strategy. Could you entertain yourself in Venice without having a specific agenda? Could you use your map just to identify where you were, and not where you were going to? Venice is an island and in truth if you come to the water you can simply turn around and go the other way. You really can’t get too lost.
We had already spent our first week or so in Venice making plans and setting out to see specific items along the way. Rialto Bridge, Piazza San Marco, the Rialto Market, the Arsenale, various museums or some of the beautiful palazzo on the Grand Canal. While we learn our way in new towns quickly and generally have a pretty good sense of direction, I can’t say getting everywhere went smoothly. Venice was a city that was set up to be transited by boat, not land. Traversing from one island to another through narrow passages, over bridges and across plazas with no clearly marked streets is how you get around. Having to consult a map every 5 minutes when you first arrive is normal routine.
To be honest, it gets a little frustrating. I love the maze-like setup of the town. The small squares, beautiful churches and hidden courtyards create a magical ambiance that I have rarely seen elsewhere. However managing them easily is no small task. Perhaps letting the streets take you where they want and worrying less about the destination would solve the problem.
We packed a lunch one day and set off with not much more than a general direction to explore. Signs are conveniently found throughout town with general directions on them. “Per San Marco” or “Per Rialto” meaning the direction “for Piazza San Marco” or “for Rialto Bridge”. If you have a basic understanding of where the big landmarks are, you can wander toward them in a general direction and not get too lost. When you get tired of walking, simply head back towards home. Not too difficult for us, as we live directly between the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco, the two places with the largest amount of signs directed at them.
This day we headed off toward the train station as a direction, “Per Ferrovia”. We knew that the old Jewish Ghetto was on the way. The art deco train station is an attraction in itself. The huge church of Saint Giovanni and Paolo was something to see. If we let our imagination go and curiosities guide us, what else might we discover?
It didn’t take long to discover Libreria Acqua Alta. In English, the High Water Bookstore. Venice has periodic flooding throughout the year known as Acqua Alta. Because the bookstore is located on the first floor of the building, the books are susceptible to water damage several times a year. The multi-lingual character who owns the store, Luigi, has organized his books throughout the store on shelving made of different types of boats. Everything from tiny model boats to giant full size gondola. He has created many humorous displays in his store that is full of well-fed, obviously spoiled, cats. While talking to him about Venice, I asked him if many famous people ever stopped in his store. He said, “Of course, all the time”. I ask him who they were and he informed me “I don’t know any of their names.” How did he know they were famous? He explained, “Everyone is famous“! A unique character and a most fascinating store.
Later during our wandering day, we stopped in the quaint Campo Santi Apostoli to eat our sandwiches. The shops in the square were closing for lunch and workmen from the neighborhood were stopping to eat. Because the day was nice, many mothers and fathers were going for an afternoon walk with their young children. A man was playing an accordion for tips nearby. Many of the always present fur coat wearing older Venetian ladies were socializing in the square. Another man crumbled bread in his hands and gave a unique whistle sound. Small brown sparrows came from everywhere around. While the ever present pigeons were of course interested, the sparrows were going absolutely crazy. They seemed to encircle his entire body. I wondered how long it must have taken him to “train” the wild birds.
It is hard to be in Venice long without noticing the orange colored drinks that seem to be on everyone’s table each afternoon. We ask and found out they are called a Spritz. It is a mixture of Prosecco Italian sparkling wine, Aperol orange flavored aperitif and sparkling water. Normally served with an olive and a slice of orange, they are seemingly on every table during happy hour. We had never had one but promised we would try one before leaving Venice. After finishing our lunch in the Campo, we saw the perfect place to try one in.
So many of the bars in Venice are really only meant for tourists. The prices are way above our means and frankly rather exorbitant for anyone. This was definitely not that kind of bar. One table for 2 in the front, 3 tables inside and the requisite standing only bar inside. Old pictures of Italian families and ancient sports teams decorated the walls. You got small plates of salami to go with your drink. Only one older man sat at a table near the bar. No music and no television present. We ordered and grabbed a table. 2 other older men entered and greeted everyone. They obviously knew the other man at the table and started a very loud, very theatrical and obviously passionate conversation in Italian. I have no idea what they were saying but to watch their conversation was as interesting as any play I have ever seen. Other customers or employees were immediately included in their show and we stayed thoroughly entertained while we enjoyed our drink.
We never really got to any of our planned destinations that day, but it really didn’t seem to matter. It was a wonderful day in Venice and it seemed that a new surprise was just around each corner. Travel and life will always be about schedules, appointments and staying on course. We are rewarded for being punctual, organized and efficient. Maybe once in a while we have to remember to just wander a little and see what can be discovered without a map.
We will be leaving Venice in a few days. It is hard to believe it has already been a month since we arrived. It has been one of our favorite places to visit ever. Everyone needs to put it on their list of places to see. The city itself and the surrounding islands of the lagoon at times seem to be a museum to some romantic moment forever captured in time. I hope it can always be here for everyone to enjoy.
This is a story of love, beauty and dedication. Like the sea, the wind and the land, it goes on forever and cannot be changed by the passing of time. The tale must be read to the end, or you cannot understand. The narrative has taken years to write, but will only take minutes to read. It is a timeless drama that many others have experienced and no doubt have shared on these pages before. Hopefully you have, or will, experience a similar tale in your travels and more importantly in your life.
There is a land, far away, where the mountains rise directly from the sea. Somewhat barren and rocky, they tower over the azure sea, majestically rising to granite peaks a thousand feet above. The August sun warms early and angrily blisters the land as it rises. It is hot, too hot, and refuge from the intensity is sought by everyone and everything as the day passes. On good days, cooling breezes flow across the Bay of Kotor and provide some relief from the onslaught. On bad days the air flows from the rocky inland and punishes all who contact it.
A town sits by this calm sea, no doubt founded by those who found their lives intricately interwoven with the rhythms of the sea. Houses rise from the shore and follow the rocky ridges upwards. Built of cut stone from the surrounding hills, they follow the natural curves of the land. The hills are steep, aggressively steep. Directions are not given by compass coordinates, but rather with a fleeting finger pointing simply upwards or downwards. Down to the cooling seas where white sailed boats ply the harbor, or up to the tiny plazas, simple churches and shady cafes that await strong legged visitors with tasty delicacies from the sea. Two ancient forts anchor the town. One high above the Old Town, and one overlooking the crystal bay, shining beaches and winding oceanfront promenade. The forts stand as evidence of the need to protect this paradise from intruders in bygone days.
A main thoroughfare winds upwards through the town. It follows a serpentine path upwards and is perhaps the only route that was possible for the early residents. How it was carved centuries ago from the rock face is difficult even to imagine. Automobiles have made their way to the road and improvements have been made. It is best to use the mind’s eye to view the scene as it was in the past, and not as it is today. Stories of ancient days are easier to imagine as you traverse the narrow stairways that run aimlessly between the tightly woven houses. Seeing visions of medieval fisherman, merchants, craftsmen and perhaps pirates come effortlessly as you slowly meander the countless winding paths.
Sun kissed children wander the streets unsupervised. Their skin is brown and their hair faded by the summer sun and endless days spent swimming in the ocean. They play soccer energetically on cement fields narrowly cut from the mountainside in the morning and move retiringly slow in the afternoons when swimming and sun have drained their bodies of their near endless reserves of energy.
Older residents are found gathered early in the main square centered on the ancient church. An old woman sells vegetables and flowers from handmade baskets in the shaded corner that catches the early breeze. She leans against the cool marble stone and wears a loose fitting, faded and colorful dress. The lines on her coffee brown face announce a life of soft smiles and warm embraces. Men passing through the square greet each other heartily, all baritone voices and hearty laughs. All stop to drink of the cool water that flows freely from the ornate fountain that anchors the square. Legend says that its waters assure health and vitality to all who drink from it. No one passes without a sample of the magic.
Soon enough, visitors fill the narrow streets, stairways and passages between the stone and pastel colored facades of the city. They dress in brightly colored swim attire; all floppy hats, cover-ups and sandals. A few well-heeled travelers forsake the beach and choose to spend the day shopping in the trendy boutiques that line the central promenade. They of billowing dresses, high heels and exactly arranged hairstyles covered with the perfect hat to complement their purses and pearls. Much less interesting than the residents, the visitors move rapidly and interrupt the tranquility, peace and pace of the gentle morning. It is time for the smart traveler to return to tiny apartments for cool drinks and long lunches.
Evenings are spent on sea view balconies overlooking unkempt gardens. Shiny pomegranates, peaches, figs and pears ripen in the bright sun. An arbor of purple grapes fills an area of morning sun, its fruit hanging low on the timeworn vine as it matures slowly. Plump, deep red tomatoes of the most amazing color, sit fat with flavor on vines that need to be tightly braced against the weight of the perfectly developed fruit. Olive trees and citrus fill the rest of the garden with full foliage and magic aromas that promise delicacies that will be enjoyed in seasons to come.
Swallows fly crazily in the moments before sunset, working aggressively to remove the insects from the air. Distant boats cross the calm sea below, their wakes forming perfect V’s as they follow their course through the flat bay. Bats arrive magically from their hidden places and fill the air above to remove whatever last remnants of intruding insects were missed by the swallows. Lightning flashes in the far distance from some storm that will never enter this glacier cut bay paradise of sand and sea. An Italian love song plays in the background and provides a melodic melancholy that enchants the night as faint whispers of lovers mix with the innuendo of the gentle breeze. Wine glasses can be heard, tapping together. Memories of a lifetime are being created everywhere around me.
Alas, that will not be my memory of this enchanted land. You see, for the first time in 5 years, I am travelling alone. These are memories that can only be created together with a loved one. True memories of romantic lands and faraway places can only be captured in hindsight when shared together, long after the moment has passed. I promised you a story of love, beauty and dedication, and thus you will have one. Not this regular story of times in faraway places where dreams came true for others.
My story is of a love that was created 30 years ago, thousands of miles from where I find myself tonight. It is a story of careers, children and hard work. It is a story of celebrations, accomplishments and shared fulfillment. It is a story of a love between two people that transcended difficulties, strife and unpleasantness. The love flowed onward and eventually carried us one day to an impetuous decision to add an extra dimension to our shared memories. To travel the world to see and experience all that it had to offer.
This is a story of the beauty of world that we found together. Spectacular sunsets over verdant mountains. Endless rivers that flow through thick jungles where men have rarely passed. Astounding skylines of cities so beautiful, it did not seem possible that men could have created them. Astonishing monuments built by kings and queens and common people who only sought to leave the world more beautiful than they found it. We have seen beauty in the people of all colors, religions and ages that populate this tiny earth. The beauty of people who have helped us, despite our inability to communicate, when things seemed hopeless. The magic beauty of a mother who allows us to hold a smiling child at the perfect time when all the world seemed a foreign place.
It is a story of the dedication of a wife who followed her husband’s dreams to see all the exoticness, color, intrigue and fascinations that might be found across a good part of the globe. While we have shared on these pages many glossy photographs and sometimes poetic prose of many of the moments of the last 5 years, let it be known that you saw our world from only one side of a carelessly focused lens or rapidly scribbling pen. You could not have seen the dedication it took to spend countless nights on hilltops fleetingly waiting for a sunset to develop so the “perfect” photo could be taken. You could not have seen the dedication it took to spend hundreds of sweaty nights in uncomfortable beds with unexplained noises filling the night so your husband could spend a few days in some oddly alluring venue. You could not see the dedication it took to spend thousands of hours spent looking for a supposed paradise-rainbow at the end of a distant third world road. You could not have seen the abundant laughter and unfortunate tears that filled the time between our infrequent posts.
Too many days pass without me saying how much I appreciate the company, compassion and comradeship my wife has displayed towards my crazy ambitions, not just in the last 5 years but during our entire 30 years together. Tonight, as I close my eyes under a crescent moon in a land far away, I find myself dreaming of the days ahead, spent with the person who hopefully knows how much she means to me.
The tiny room is only slightly lit by the pre-dawn sky. Outside the window, two cruise ships have moored in these last few minutes before dawn. The ships are lit like giant Christmas trees against the grey Rio Tejo. The sky to the east of the river begins to develop a faint orange band along the horizon. The bright white buildings that flow down the hillside to the river reflect the early light and begin to glow with the warmth of the early morning. The red terra cotta roofs, the tiles still wet from the mist of last night, begin to shine. With the growing light of day the maze of tiny alleys and interlinked stairways become visible. The river begins to glow red now as the scattered clouds reflect the first rays of the rising sun. Another day has begun in the Alfama neighborhood of Lisbon, Portugal.
The small café across the alley has set up its tables already. The smell of pastries and coffee fill the air. The regulars are arriving. They have voices that fit their faces. Lyrical, expressive, passionate, energetic with a small wrinkle of humor. They talk in normal volumes but the sounds carry loudly between the narrow walls of the cobblestone street. The men have voices that sound of cigarettes and sea air. The women’s emphasis on certain syllables makes them understandable in any language. Most voices sound of worry, work and struggle. This is the fisherman, boatmen and shopkeepers of the neighborhood. The latest generation of the hundreds of generations of working poor that have lived here since before recorded time. People who live in a world where there isn’t enough for everyone and you have to stay aggressive to get your share.
Returning to the view from the window over the river, the day begins below. The sun rises and the light becomes white again. The gas man carries the heavy bottle up the narrow stairs for an early delivery. Windows open to let the fresh salt breeze clean the night air from the ancient houses on the hills. Soon laundry will fill the lines. Summer has gone and drying will take longer. Practiced hands deftly apply the wooden clothespins in the perfect patterns to catch the breezes. The women wear house dresses and have conversations across the alleys from the tiny windows of the small houses. Rough laughter and animated voices. Your coffee is ready and you take your first sip. The fresh air and caffeine work their magic. The night clears and another opportunity for adventure begins.
Perhaps the adventure today takes you on a trip throughout the city. There are many distinct neighborhoods and areas to be explored. Called a “City of Seven Hills” for a good reason, Lisbon presents a challenge for the legs no matter which way you travel. Thankfully Lisbon has a network of trams and funiculars to take you up, over and through the hills with ease. The noisy and crowded cars are a cacophonous introduction to the populous of this busy city. The tram routes look serpentine when viewed on a map for the first time. The map doesn’t do justice to the excess of hills, cliffs and valleys that need to be crossed to get from one neighborhood to another. Perhaps the only route that visitors need to know is that of the famous Tram 28.
Starting from the hills on eastern side of town near the castle, number 28 winds its way below and around the hill the castle is built on. It is a steep walk up the hill from the tracks to the castle but well worth the effort to see the views from the impressively restored ramparts. Two beautiful miradouros (lookouts) are easily accessed and also provide wonderful views over the city, especially at sunset. The tram narrowly clears both buildings and pedestrians along the narrow streets. Occasionally it stops to allow trams from the opposite direction to pass. The streets do not always provide room for parallel traffic. You can tell the difference between tourists and locals by their reaction to the narrow misses.
Number 28 continues its journey above the Alfama neighborhood with its gorgeous views towards the river. Tall white faced churches tower above the tiny red roofed houses of this oldest of all Lisbon neighborhoods. Continuing down the hill you pass the ancient cathedral called the Se. It is possibly the oldest building in Lisbon. Building began in 1147 but recent excavations underneath have found remnants of Moorish, Roman and even Visigoth settlements from long before the Portuguese arrived.
Finally (but only briefly) you reach the level part of town called the Baixa. After the 1755 earthquake and tidal wave destroyed the city and killed 80,000 people, Lisbon had a unique chance to totally redesign itself almost from scratch. The citizens did a wonderful job. The Baixa has grand boulevards and squares lined by ornate buildings. Some streets are blocked from traffic and covered with wonderful hand cut black and white stone blocks. The blocks are laid to create graphic patterns that add unique beauty and perfectly compliment the shops and restaurants that fill the area. Look for star shaped patterns as they are said to protect from earthquakes.
Starting back up hills on the western side of the Baixa, the trolley strains as it navigates the tight turns and steep streets that lead upwards towards the Chiado neighborhood. The tram is now packed to standing room only and hopefully you have a window seat view. Signs warn to watch for pickpockets. Fat wallets of unsuspecting tourists excitedly enjoying the views of the opulent stores and sumptuous cafes of the area make easy targets for unscrupulous types. Chiado was the grandest part of town in days past. The facades of the cafes and shops are ornate and the day is still passed shopping for the latest fashions in the well-heeled boutiques.
We end our day’s adventure with a ride down the famous Bica to the waterfront. Built in 1892 it climbs steeply from the near the Mercado on the riverfront to the Barrio Alto area high above. Climbing nearly 700 feet up the side of the steep hill, the tiny funicular must have seemed a miracle to people who made a daily journey down the hill to find groceries in times past. The sun is beginning to set along the river as we make our way back towards our tiny Alfama home. The sun paints the sky orange behind the 25th of April Bridge which looks like a twin sister of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Arriving back in Alfama we make our way through the tiny maze of alleyways and steep stairs, pausing just briefly to catch our breath. Perhaps we refresh ourselves with one of the favorite local snacks. Pasteis de Nata is a Portuguese custard-like egg tart with just the right amount of sweetness to replenish energy from climbing hills all day. Or perhaps a stop at the local Ginjinha stand to ease your aching muscles. Ginjinha is local liquor made from pouring alcohol (maybe brandy) over top of a local sour cherry. Add large quantities of sugar and maybe cinnamon and drink from shot glasses. Available from a local lady who makes and sells the concoction from behind a split level door in her living room, a couple of shots will go a long way to easing tired muscles.
To finish the evening perhaps you may want to attend one of the many music performances in the tiny Fado clubs found everywhere in the Alfama neighborhood. Fado is a traditional Portuguese music that first appeared in the 1850’s. It is said to be the ultimate expression of the Portuguese emotion called “saudade”. Saudade is a yearning for something no longer at hand or something impossible to attain. Sailors feel it at sea and emigrants feel it for those left behind. It’s saudade that fosters the tightly knit Portuguese communities in the world’s cities and saudade that brings migrants home after long periods away. Fado is the music that expresses the emotions they feel when they are away.
Standing at the window where the day started many hours before, the sounds of Fado can be heard drifting over the roofs and alleyways of the maze like streets below. The cruise ships left long ago and the churches are lit over the hills of the Alfama. The evening has turned cool and the melancholy sounds of the singers voices carry from below and mix perfectly with the smell of the salt air and wonderful memories of an excellent day exploring the beauty of Lisbon.