A Travellerspoint blog

Exploring Albania

Ancient Greek ruins tucked away in a seldom-visited Mediterranean country

sunny 79 °F

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The Ancient Illyrian city of Byllis and its commanding view of the Albanian countryside

We'd been at it for nearly seven hours straight, pacing through ancient ruins under the warm Mediterranean sun. It felt good to sit back on the cafe verandah, taste the well-earned lunch and sip a crisp Albanian beer. While the others concentrated on the food, I could barely take my eyes from the panorama beneath me -- line upon line of hills fading away into a bluish afternoon haze. You could see this would be a hard land to take from its inhabitants, as each hill could be a fortress, and behind each fortress, yet another one.

That was one of the things that intrigued me most about Albania. Some claim that the descendants of the Ancient Illyrians -- tribes that fought the Greeks nearly 3000 years ago, still walked this land calling themselves Albanians. And you could see it in the facial features, too. If a group a school children would file past you at one of the ancient sites, maybe two thirds would be what most would expect: Olive skinned, dark haired -- typical southern Mediterranean complexions. The other third, though, would be fair skinned, blond or tawny haired, with gray eyes. The same eyes looked down from these hills at Greek invaders, at Alexander the Great's army, at Romans, Turks -- centuries of foes who had tried to put their mark upon this land. But still the gray-eyed mountain folks were there. And language experts bear this out, saying modern Albanian preserves elements of those Ancient Illyrian voices.

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The ancient Roman arena at Durres -- our base for exploring Albania

Scott and I began our trip in the seaside town of Durres, which the Romans called Dyrrachium. It was one of their chief ports when they ruled the peninsula. It is a pleasant town, with a very Italian seaside "passegiata" or evening stroll. People sat at cafe tables drinking beer, children ran around or played soccer, and teenagers clumped together to socialize.

Our hotel wasn't far from the line of Byzantine era walls, which ended in a 3-storey tower built later by the Venetians, nowadays turned into a bar with wonderful views. We walked the line of the walls our first afternoon, chancing upon Durres' most famous site, its 2nd Century A.D. Roman amphitheater. Only about half of its stone bowl remains, and houses sprout from its upper reaches. Most of the stone seats are gone, pilfered away over the centuries to build newer structures. You can clearly see steps, though, and the slope and curve of the amphitheater, the largest in the Balkans. There is a grassy area at the bottom where gladiators fought and died. Archeologists have excavated some of the tunnels underneath, and you can prowl through them in the gloom, running your hands along the Roman stone, listening for echoes of the crowds chanting the names of their favorites.

Our second day in Durres, we set out to navigate the local "furgon" or minibus system. As in other countries, these minivans post a sign in their window with their destination. Once the seats are filled, it departs. So, there is no schedule, but the prices are cheap (around 200 Albanian Lek each way, or $2). As we walked through the Durres bus station, we saw plenty of larger buses going to other towns and cities, but none to our destination of Kruja. We saw only a couple furgons, too, none going there, either. When we asked around, taxi drivers descended on us trying to con us into paying 20 euros for a ride there. They were remarkably unhelpful -- lying and saying no furgons went to Kruja (despite the fact our guidebook said they did). When we wouldn't bite on their fares or their tales, one driver made a mistake by trying a new angle. He would line a furgon up for us for 12 euros (no doubt, getting his "take"). In doing so, though, he revealed to us where the furgons actually were -- about 50 yards further down the main street. Sure enough, we saw a steady line of furgons cruising by with signs in their windows. We took one going to Fushe-Kruja (or "Kruja on the Plains" about 25 minutes from our destination). Our prospective taxi driver was left empty handed while Scott and I were out about $4 each for our ride and transfer in another furgon to Kruja itself.

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Kruja is the walled town of Skanderbeg -- Albania's medieval hero who fought the Turks

Kruja is a town built upon steep slopes. At its top is a castle that was ruled by Albania's medieval hero, Skanderbeg. He fought the Turkish invaders, uniting the divided Albanian clans into a successful war of resistance. Many times Skanderbeg -- or George Castriates, his real name -- drove Turkish armies from Albanian lands. Two of his more famous victories came at Kruja. A museum inside the castle tells Skanderbeg's tale in enthusiastic detail -- my guidebook calling it a "Skander-fest" for the interested. It was neat to see the amount of historic relics they had collected, including letters from European leaders responding to Skanderbeg's calls for assistance against the Turks. In one room, I read a letter from the Doge of Venice praising Castriates' fight and waffling (as only medieval Venetians could waffle) on whether they could send men or money to help).

Sadly, not a lot of Kruja's castle remains -- a couple lines of walls and one forlorn, boarded up tower that looks more like an Italian belfry. However, the atmosphere on the hilltop is superb, with steep cobblestone streets and a tiny village with houses surrounded by stone walls and penned up livestock. We visited one house (still lived in) that had been converted to an Ethnographic Museum, displaying the way a wealthier Albanian family lived centuries ago. The current owners give tours and are descended from the local chieftain. And finally, we visited a small Islamic shrine belonging to the obscure Bektashi sect. The old caretaker gave us a tour, and even showed us his family's living quarters built into one of the castle wall's outer towers. He led us atop the circular stone platform to take his in his majestic view of surrounding villages and valleys.

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Skanderbeg's statue stands in the hilltop town, reminding the Albanians of their glory days

We then trekked back downhill through Kruja's covered bazaar, which is lined with more souvenir shops that an visitor could possibly see. Nothing caught my eye as we paced along, peeking at the ceramic statues of Skanderbeg, brightly patterned wool fabric and merchandise festooned with Albanian's distinctive black two-headed eagle upon a red flag. Since the day had been so cheap, Scott and I splurged and talked a furgon driver into hauling us the 45 minutes back to Durres for $20, with no wait.

As we pulled back into the bus station in Durres, I prepared myself for the next challenge. We'd agreed to hire a cab for the next day's sightseeing. Albania has a wealth of ancient and medieval sites, and I had been steadily been quizzing people on a "do-able" day trip that crammed in as many sights as possible. Unfortunately, the roads and mountainous terrain meant that only about two sites in one day seemed possible. We'd decided upon the Greco-Roman city of Apollonia and the nearby medieval monastery of Ardenica.

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The entrance to the Orthodox monastery of Ardenica

Since earlier that day, the taxi drivers who tried to mislead us were all relatively older men, I sought out a younger driver. Plus, it's been my experience across the world that the younger generation speaks more English than their elders. Since my limited Italian had proved remarkably useful in our trip, so far, I took the lead. In Italian, I asked if he spoke Italian (he did), then if he spoke English (a bit). I explained what we wanted to do in Italian, as best I could. He understood, but also felt squeezing anything more than Apollonia and Ardenica in would be too much. We agreed on a price of $40 per person for a day's sightseeing, although he said it would be his father (who was from that area) who would actually pick us up in the morning. He swore his father spoke good Italian and better English.

To his credit, his father was prompt...actually 15 minutes early. It quickly became evident, though, as we set out at 7 am, that his father was nowhere near as proficient in either Italian or English. However, we seemed to be getting by on his and my less than fluent Italian, so I didn't worry. After about 40 minutes of driving, our good 4-lane divided highway degenerated into a rutted, two lane road that slowed us down to a fraction of our earlier speed. Another 45 minutes saw us turning off and climbing a lane to the top of a hill, cloaked in fragrant pine trees. We spotted the monastery's bell tower, and shortly turned down its gravel drive.

We stepped through a wooden gate set in a high, stone wall, hearing deep singing come from the stone church directly ahead of us. The beauty of the monastery's buildings held me for a minute. It was easy to see the Byzantine influence on the design. I took some pictures, then ducked inside the church. Its dark interior was lit by candles and filled with the Orthodox prayer/chant/song of a service in progress. The walls were covered in soot-darkened frescoes, through which the faces of medieval clergy peered down upon us. My gaze was drawn to the front of the church across which stretched a massive iconostasis encrusted in gold painted decoration. Along its length, circles of soulful icons depicted saints, angels and the Mary.

Through a doorway beyond the iconostasis, we could see one of the monks in a richly decorated red robe. His voice filled the church, along with that of a family who were participating in the prayer and response. The mother's voice was particularly beautiful, and echoed off the church's cool plaster walls. We watched and listened for awhile, then stepped outside to further explore the monastery. Since monks still live there, half of it was closed off to us. What we saw, though, was gracefully designed and peaceful looking.

Back in the car, we rejoined our rutted road and were shortly bouncing through the driver's hometown of Fieri. Beyond, I noticed our first concrete bunkers. These small, domed concrete structures litter the Albanian countryside, the mad genius of their departed dictator, Enver Hoxha. The communist strongman so feared an invasion by the other powers he eventually sealed off the nation from all outside contact. He had these sometimes absurdly small bunkers built for each citizen to be able to man when the Americans came...or Russians, or Yugoslavs, or whoever his paranoid worries dreamt up next. Nowadays, farmers use them for storage, or they sit abandoned like giant concrete mushrooms in the rolling landscape.

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The Ancient Greek town of Apollonia

Once at Apollonia, our driver rounded up an English speaking guide, who led us on a walk through the main sights of the Ancient Greek city (later taken over by the Romans). After we admired the columns of the restored Bouleuterion and steep bowl of the theater, the guide was pleasantly surprised we wanted to see more. We tramped through the hillsides where he pointed out a crumbling amphitheater being unearthed from the concealing vegetation. He took us to an overlook where he could outline the foundations of a sprawling Roman villa in the farmers fields beneath us. Then, obviously happy when wanted even more, he led us on a circuit of the town walls, pointing out the successive layers of Greek and Roman stonework. For a final treat, we climbed a hill to his favorite photo spot. The theater, temple columns and medieval monastery behind it blended together in a panoramic view. As he finished his tour, he urged us to visit the monastery which housed many of the artifacts unearthed at Apollonia. Despite our urging, he refused any tip or payment, which led me to believe he was actually one of the archeologists or their assistants working at the site.

The monastery was wonderful, as he said. Its collection of statues, columns, giant urns and other superb relics of Apollonia were arrayed underneath the roofed walkways and balconies that encircled the walled complex. The grounds were idyllic, built of warm, cream colored stone and rich brickwork with gardens and cypress trees softening its interior. A lovely bell tower, whose stairs you could climb to the top, added to the site, enabling you to take it all in with one glance.

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Beautiful Medieval monastery set in the midst of Ancient Greek and Roman ruins

As we returned to the car, our driver made a surprising offer. He would take us to the ancient site of Byllis -- one that I'd ached to see after reading about, but had heard was too remote to include in any other day's sightseeing. I asked him if it wasn't too far away, but he said "No problem." So, lunch was put on hold and we began a nearly two hour climb eastwards towards snow-capped mountains. The road got steeper and finally we emerged onto a triangular-shaped plateau atop the highest hill in the area. Ahead of us, we could see the town walls of Byllis, a stronghold of those ancient, fair-skinned and gray-eyed Illyrians. We parked near the cafe, going inside where we found a book detailing a self-guided walking tour. Our driver order lunch to be cooked while we explored. Only one other carload of visitors was at the site, so it seemed like we had the ruins to ourselves. Sheep and goats grazed peacefully across the site, the music of their bells accompanied by the wind that blew across the hilltop.

I have been to many ancient sites across the world, but few match the setting of Byllis. On all sides, a deep valley dropped away dramatically. For to the east, the sun glinted off the ice caps of mountain peaks, but we were at the highest point in the immediate area. An ancient city on top of the world, Byllis' atmosphere was incredible. And although the walking tour was not easy to follow (there were no signs or placards on the buildings), it didn't really matter much whether you were looking at the tumbled remains of a basilica, stoa or thermal bath. We paced alongside the walls, peered over fences at temples, looked down from rocky knolls at the ring of a theater, and eventually were able to align Byllis' layout with our guidebook map. At the driver's urging, I hopped a fence to wander through the Agora (market place), and explored a row of columns in a later period church.

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For me, the highlight of the trip, a visit to the ancient, hilltop, Illyrian town of Byllis

After more than an hour of wandering the hilltop, we returned to the cafe and had our long delayed and well earned lunch. I sat staring at the panorama of line after line of Albanian hills slowly fading into infinity. While Scott and the driver gorged themselves, I was entranced. This had turned into one of those days that are the real reason that you travel. The places you see, the people you meet and the spectacular settings combined to make your spirits soar, to truly give you a "travel high." At that point, you don't worry how your pictures may turn out because you know the images are set into your memory. I will always be able to picture myself sitting on that verandah and that line of hills stretching the distance.

Sated, we endured the long, bumpy three hour ride home in silence. As we handed over our payment to the driver, the one stain on the day emerged. He wanted extra money for taking us to Byllis. I had no problem with that, but I was disappointed he waited till the end to "shake us down." I'd pressed him closely when he offered, and gave him many chances to say he'd charge more. In the long run, the Byllis portion of the trip was well worth the extra $40 we forked over. Twelve hours of driving and sightseeing in your own vehicle is well worth what essentially cost each of us $5 an hour. I just resented him not giving us the choice. And probably subconsciously, I was annoyed at being bringing me down from my travel high.

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Berat is a beautiful rustic town, gleaming with white stone houses

The next morning, we tramped back to the bus station and located the one going to our next destination, Berat. Called Albania's loveliest town by guidebooks, it is located in the south, nestled among steep hills. Scott and I quickly found our hotel in the steep Mangelem quarter of town. There, the stone houses rise up the slopes of a wooded hill crowned by a sprawling castle. After unpacking, we grabbed lunch, then began the climb up the slippery cobblestone road leading up to the castle.

It was Monday, and we later found that many of the sights are officially closed. However, the castle is also home to a tiny village of about 200 people. So, the gates were open and the inhabitants (and other visitors) were coming and going, so we pressed on. The castle walls, towers and fortifications were impressive and extensive. We wandered amongst them for more than two hours, locating tiny, sealed churches throughout the site, ruined mosques and scenic views at every turn. Like all the other days we had in Albania, the weather was perfect. The sun warmed us from the clear blue sky, with just enough of a breeze to keep it comfortable. We wandered around, enjoying the spectacular views down towards Berat and the surrounding valley, as well as the grand castle setting.

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The castle walls and tower at Berat were an atmospheric place to wander for a couple hours

Later that afternoon, we hiked through the town and crossed the river to the Gorica quarter. The views of our own Mangelem quarter as the afternoon sun struck the serried ranks of houses were dramatic. As my gaze wandered up the slopes to castle, with its walls and towers sprawling atop the hill, I spotted the 13th century church of St. Michael. I'd read that it was perched precariously on the slopes between the castle and town, but hadn't been able to spot it from above. From Gorica, St. Michael's golden colored stones shone in the afternoon sun like a beacon. I pointed it out to Scott and vowed tomorrow to find the path leading down from the heights. I assured him that I'd read it was "steep, but safe." We continued on our wanderings, but my eye kept returning to St. Michael gleaming above us.

Castle and gate atop the hill above Berat, AlbaniaWe had been making daily visits to internet cafes while in Albania. That evening, I smugly gloated in my daily e-mail update about the perfect weather we'd experienced so far. I should have known better, and the folly of my hubris was driven home by the thunderclap that awakened me the next morning. I heard rain pouring on the cobblestones, sighed, and went back to sleep. Later, after breakfast, we were cheered to find that the rain had stopped when we ventured forth.

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The view from the hills overlooking the town of Berat

We started in Berat's Ethnographic Museum, touring another traditional Albanian house, then trekked back up to the castle to visit the Icon Museum in one of the castle churches. I asked the caretaker if any of the other churches were open today, she said yes, but that was proven wrong, a short time later. As we retraced our footsteps from the previous day, my goal was to find the path to the church of St. Michael. Just as we found an archway leading to steps going downhill, one of the villagers who'd tried to attach himself as a guide to us yesterday, showed up. We asked him if this was the path to St. Michael and he eagerly bounded ahead, gesturing the way. I smiled as he rambled on in a mix of Albanian, Italian and English, thinking of Gollum leading Frodo and Sam into Morder. Scott suggested it might be worth a few hundred lek to be sure of the path, and I agreed.

When we left the stone steps, though, and began to cut across the scrubby slopes, Scott became more and more hesitant. His boots did not have the traction of my hiking shoes, plus he admitted he was a tad bit afraid of heights. When I saw him scooting down the hillside on all fours, I knew he'd never make it. He turned back, and Gollum...er, the guide and I continued on. However, after we'd gone another fifty yards, the guide backed out, too. He gestured at his hip or back, explaining away in Albanian to my uncomprehending ears. He pulled out his packet of aspirin as proof of his medical condition which prevented him from leading foreigners down steep hillsides. He DID at least point out the path for me before he hurried back uphill after Scott.

Church of St. Michael perched high above BeratI paused for a moment. Scrambling down a steep, unfamiliar slope alone, with no one around, didn't seem the safest course. I could fall, break a leg, and no one would know. Then again, the path WAS supposed to be doable. I strapped my camera bag tighter over my suede "Indiana Jones" jacket, pulled my hat down firmly, and mentally told Short Round who was saying "Big meestake, Indy!" to stow it. Within a few yards, the path became much steeper than I'd expected, forcing me to hold onto the trunks of bushes to keep from sliding. At one switchback, I caught sight of the path as it edged path a cliff face. It got even steeper! Nowhere, though, did I look at a stretch and wonder if I could navigate it -- everything seemed within my ability.

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Gorgeous views await your every turn wandering through Berat

When I made the final turn and spotted the church, I let out an involuntary "Wow!" The church of St. Michael stood, just 30 yards away down the path, gleaming as it had yesterday in the now bright sunshine. As I approached it, I noticed the gate was locked. However, the wall surrounding it was low. So, I shinnied up and over, dropping down on the far side to explore further. Up close, it wasn't quite as spectacular, and it was obviously falling into disrepair. The padlocks were new and shiny, but there were no other signs of recent occupation or use. Hopping back over the wall, I began the more physically exhausting (but technically less difficult or dangerous) climb back up. Once back back within the castle walls, I took the steps to a nearby tower and sat down, removing my sweat drenched jacket and hat. As the sun and breeze dried me, I ate one of my power bars and drank my water, laughing inside at this trip's "Indiana Jones moment." Later, I climbed back through the village, found Scott, and we trudged back down the hill -- one of us noticeably more tired than the other!

Later that afternoon, while wandering Berat's central square, we ran into another American, James, who is serving two years in the Peace Corps in Albania. He quizzed us about our travel experiences in Albania, and Berat in particular. Part of his job is to help the local government develop tourism. He seemed perfectly suited for it, being young, outgoing and enthusiastic. His cell phone rang while we were talking, though, calling him away to meet some friends arriving into town.

Scott and I crossed the bridge into Gorica, again, this time intent on exploring its winding, cobblestoned lanes. We had the idle goal of checking out Gorica's two churches that we'd seen from across the river. We were defeated by the village's stone walls, surrounding the tightly packed buildings, which seemed to join them into one long structure with no entrances or side streets. We explored the passages we came upon, but they all ended up dead ends or leading into a family's courtyard. I told Scott we were in the same situation as a medieval attacker would be: Confused, channeled against stone walls, and unable to see any landmarks on which way to go find the center. I waved the white flag and we exited Gorica's maze, joining the open riverside road.

While having a couple beers in our hotel bar that evening, we ran into James and his friends. We scooted tables together and joined into one big party of Americans, French, Israelis and Germans, swapping travels stories. James and his friends entertained us with humorous stories about their experiences in Albania. Scott quizzed them about the differences between "good" raki -- Albania's fiery national drink -- and "bad" raki. I told them it didn't matter, it all tasted like turpentine! We had a blast and I gave out my website to everyone, so hopefully I'll hear from them, again.

That evening's bash proved a fitting end to our travels in Albania. We awoke early the next day and caught a bus to Tirana. Once there, we had less than an hour before heading to the airport. So, we took in some sights on Skanderbeg Square, then jumped on the Airport Shuttle that James had told us about. A short time later, we sat back in our seats as we took off from Albania's tiny airport, into the afternoon haze, climbing higher above the endless line of hills beneath us.

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:07 Archived in Albania Comments (0)

Italy's Amalfi Coast - the most beautiful in the world

Plus the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculanaeum, and centuries-old hilltop towns

sunny 80 °F

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Gorgeous Positano on the incredible Amalfi Coast

I don't think I'd be able to go back and write a travelog for this trip, which I took more than 15 years ago. It was my only solo trip to Italy, so far, but I think it was probably my favorite. I flew into Rome, then took a train to Naples, and the local Circumvesuvia (named after Mt. Vesuvius, which looms over the countryside) line to Sorrento. There, I rented a moped and spent a week exploring the south of Italy. I made it all the way south down to Metapontum -- the sole of the "boot" of Italy. I took lots of wonderful photos, some of which I have scanned and uploaded onto this page.

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Street scene in Pompeii - one of the most interesting ancient cities in the world to visit

===Pompeii===

One of the main reason I came to Southern Italy was to visit Pompeii and Herculanaeum -- two Roman cities that were destroyed when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Sorrento is a great place to base yourself out of to visit them (and the Amalfi coast, below). It is a pleasant, tourist-friendly town with seaside views and plenty of nice hotels.

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The Theater in Pompeii

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A Roman villa excavated in Pompeii

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Pompeii's arena, or Colosseum

===The Amalfi Coast===

In my opinion, this is the most beautiful coastline in the world. The road clings to dramatic hillsides whose cliffs sometimes dive deep down into the blue-green sea. Coastal towns seem to rise up from the sea like multi-colored wedding cakes. Castles and forts guard the rocky coastline. It seems impossible to drive without stopping every mile or so to admire the breath-taking views and drink in the amazing panorama of land, sea and town. Exploring its sights on a scooter was a perfect way to do it. It was easy to pull over and take pictures whenever something caught my eye -- which as every 50 yards or so!

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Approaching Positano along the road clinging to the cliffside of this gorgeous coastline

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Rocky beaches, tiny towns, medieval fortifications and the blue, blue sea are all part of the scenery, mile after mile

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A medieval fortification clings to a rocky point along the coast

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Sunset strikes a red hue on the hills bordering this spectacular coast

===Herculanaeum===

My last day in Italy, I visited the Roman town of Herculanaeum. Where Pompeii was covered by Mt. Vesuvius' ash, this town was covered by lava flow. It is equally well preserved, if less well known. Wandering its streets was like a dream. So many relics of the ancient days stood there under the hot sun, ready for the visitor to touch or run his hands along. The colors on the murals were vibrant, more than 2,000 years later.

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The interior of a Roman villa -- a wealthy noble's country home, with its colorful frescoes and mosaics

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I will never forget the striking colors which lay covered by lava for almost 2,000 years

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The spout of this fountain seemed to be smoking a cigar with its dry pipe projecting from its mouth

===The Southern Italian Countryside===

Rural, southern Italy is full of photogenic charms, everything from Graeco-Roman ruins (the Greeks colonized Southern Italy before the Roman conquest) to hilltop medieval fortifications to quaint villages basking in the sunshine. The week I spent zooming along the road in a moped was one of the most scenic I'd spent anywhere in the world. Each day, my command of Italian became better and I could converse easier with the welcoming, easygoing inhabitants. When I reached the Mediterranean coast in the far south, I knew I had to turn around. It was a long way back to Sorrento, and my time was running out.

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The rugged, hilly countryside of southern Italy is cut by rivers and gorges

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Visible from miles away, hilltop temples or monasteries decorate the countryside

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An ancient mode of transportation on a modern roadway greets the visitor to Southern Italy

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Terra cotta rooftops and a village church spire warmed by the afternoon sun in a Southern Italian town

Posted by world_wide_mike 11:50 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Egypt - Ancient Wonders

Cairo, Giza, and a Nile Cruise

sunny 85 °F

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Detail of the Hellenistic Egyptian ruins at Philae - an island near Aswan, Egypt

The pyramids...Ramses II's colossal temple Abu Simbel...the sprawling temple city of Karnak -- I'd wondered beforehand what would be the highlight of Egypt for me?  I'd never guessed it would be the island temple complex of Philae, a tiny speck of land in the Nile at Aswan.  As we leapt onto the dock from our tiny boat, though, the afternoon sunlight was striking an inviting peach glow from Philae's walls and columns.  The temple was not overrun with large groups of tourists, like the pyramids had been, a day earlier.  Our guide did not rush us through our visit, either, for a change.  We lingered, marveling over the thousand year old carvings on the walls: The pharaoh smiting his enemies, the gods conferring their favor on him, and hieroglyphs and images on every surface.  After finishing our tour of the complex, our guide waited in the cafe, while Jenny and I wandered the island, exploring semi-ruined temples, tumbled city gates, and taking photos at our leisure.  This was the tonic we'd needed, after our jumbled arrival in Egypt two days before.

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The last remaining of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World - the pyramids at Giza

The best part about our arrival in Egypt was the jet's approach to Cairo airport. I was in a window seat watching as we followed the Nile south, seeing the cultivation and slowly increasing signs of urbanization. As we turned to line up for landing, the ground below abruptly turned brown. And there, spread out beneath me, like an architect's drawing, were the pyramids of Giza. What a sight! Unfortunately, this auspicious arrival was short lived. We soon discovered that our luggage had not made it on the plane. Since we had four hours of connection time in JFK, the obvious culprit was Delta -- who probably did not bother to connect our bags to EgyptAir. Our local Egyptian tour company, ironically named Delta Tours Egypt, helped us file our claim, then drove us to the Hotel Zoser in Giza. After more than 24 hours of travel, this 4-star hotel was an air conditioned oasis of comfort. We'd both been expecting something a little less deluxe, considering how inexpensive our package was. We relaxed a bit, then went out to explore our surroundings, including finding a shopping mall for clothes in case our bags didn't show up the next morning.

I am not a fan of guided tours.  We'd booked this one because I'd read that certain sights in Egypt permit only a limited numbers of visitors per day.  We didn't want to get "closed out" of seeing a highlight, so thought a tour a necessary evil.  Plus, we figured transportation could prove difficult to arrange on our own.  And finally, the price was simply too good to pass up: $595 for 10 days, including all our hotels, transportation, three night Nile cruise, many meals, and our own private guide.  Our sightseeing program began the next morning with our visit to the pyramids of Giza (plus a number of other sights).  We had our first miscommunication with Delta Tours almost immediately, though.  When our guide and driver showed up, they insisted we were supposed to check out of the hotel.  The itinerary they'd given to us the day before stated we didn't check out till that evening.  They shooed us back inside, anyway, to hurriedly pack our few belongings.

So, what to say of the pyramids that visitors haven't been saying for more than 4,000 years?  The thing that struck me first was how big they are when viewed from afar.  They are a man made mountain on Cairo's skyline, thickly massive and towering much higher than any building.  Seeing them while driving down the street is akin to looking up in Seattle and catching a glimpse of Mt. Rainier.  As we drove slowly up the plateau, there was a great view of them, gleaming brightly in the morning sun.  We'd expected them to be blanketed in tourists. The mob scene that awaited us did not disappoint.  Our guide gave us a quick briefing/explanation in the air conditioned comfort of the van, then turned us loose to explore Cheops, the first and largest pyramid...for 30 minutes.  The deadline irked me, but we knew we had a lot to see that day, so didn't protest (we were a defiant 15 minutes tardy).  All we had time to do was circle the base of the pyramid, fighting off all the hawkers selling various souvenirs, or the tourist police trying to scam bribes by pointing out good spots to take photos.

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The Sphinx

From Cheops, we drove to a vantage point where all three pyramids were lined up photogenically.  Hundreds milled around the same place, though, edging in front of each other for that "me standing in front of the pyramids" shot.  It's interesting to note the photographic tendencies of various nationalities.  Japanese and Chinese stand at rigid attention in front of the sight, while Italians and Spanish play cutesy games like holding out their palm, so the photographer can frame the shot so they appear to be holding aloft the pyramid...or kissing the sphinx, or whatever.  Me, I like to take a shot of the sight with as few people in the frame as possible (unless I want someone in there for scale).  But yeah...good luck with that at the pyramids!
From the scenic overlook, we drove to the pyramid of Chephren.  The guide once again gave us her air conditioned briefing, then cut us loose.  The attractions of Chephren are that it still has some of its original limestone facing at the top and bottom, and that you can actually go inside it.  No cameras are allowed, and the ascent/descent is not for the feeble...or claustrophobic.  You immediately plunge down a shaft set at about a 30 degree angle.  the passage is so low that you must go bent over double, and it is barely wide enough for two people to pass.  With no ventilation, the heat and humidity were thick as a sauna.  The panicked looks on some of the faces going the other way told me that perhaps this experience was not everyone.  When Jenny and I finally entered the burial chamber, there really was nothing to see: Bare walls and an empty granite box where the sarcophagus had lain.  Any paintings had long ago worn away.  It was fascinating to be inside a pyramid, though. Plus, being in reasonably good shape, it wasn't the traumatic experience that others were having.  It WAS nice getting back outside in the fresh air, though!

From Chephren, we drove to the Sphinx for the day's biggest tourist mob.  Honestly, I never expected to have Egypt to myself, but the short amount of time at each sight that our guide parceled out meant we had to hurry in, wrestle the crowd to snap a few pictures, linger tardily for a few moments, and scramble back to the van.  I wasn't particularly enjoying Day One of package tour travel, but it was about to get worse.  First our guide suggested a switch in itinerary, replacing the stepped pyramid of Saqqara (one of the oldest, a kind of proto-pyramid) with the Egyptian Museum -- which was scheduled for when we returned to Cairo, towards the end of our 10 days.  I said No. I wanted to study up before our museum visit, but was secretly afraid that somehow we'd end up not getting back to Saqqara if we lopped it from today's itinerary.  She then took us to the "Perfume Museum" -- a visit that was not on our itinerary, and nothing more than a hustle to try to get us to pay $240 for four bottles of perfume...er, excuse me, "essences."  We bought nothing, but I was seething that our guide had skimped time on world class sights like the pyramids and the sphinx in an attempt to snag a commission on what we might purchase.  We made it clear that we wanted no more unscheduled stops at papyrus factories, carpet museums or anything else of the kind.

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Saqqara - not a true pyramid, but a six-layered Mastaba, a forerunner of the pyramids

Saqqara was dry and dusty, but an interesting sight, nonetheless.  Technically, it is not a true pyramid -- it is a six layered, pyramid shaped mastaba.  Contrasting its crude stepped sides to the perfectly formed, sharp angled masterpieces at Giza was interesting.  Plus, there were way fewer tourists there, and we were allowed to roam free and explore the site.  Upon returning to the van, we were told the bad news that our bags had not showed up on today's EgyptAir flight, either. 

We went downtown and met with Delta Tours' president (to pay for our tour). He promised they'd do their best to get the bags sent to Aswan (our next stop) when they arrived.  In the meantime, he agreed to postpone our Nile felucca boat ride and substitute a visit to the shopping mall to buy more clothes.  Afterwards, our driver took us to the Khan il-Kalil market to browse its tangled alleyways for souvenirs, for an hour or so. Jenny and I were worried that we'd never get our bags, at this point, and were fairly unenthusiastic shoppers at the bazaar. It was interesting to watch the behavior of the Egyptians during Ramadan, though.  Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink during daylight hours. So, at sundown, things got quite festive in the bazaar.  Wealthy merchants set up tables in the street, gaining Allah's blessings by feeding folks for free.  Men and women would stake out their spots at the tables, patiently waiting as the merchant and his family set out bread, juice and then a foiled-wrapped dish of cooked chicken or fish.  When the sundown prayers commenced, the scarfing began. As we walked by, folks eagerly motioned us to join in on the feast. Jenny and I demurred, but did eat a quick dinner of kebab in a cafe on the square.

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The island temple of Philae - much of it from the Hellenistic era, when Egypt was actually ruled by Alexander the Great's successsors

Finally, we were taken to the train station. Through my travels, I've always enjoyed trains.  In my opinion, it is the most comfortable form of travel.  You can get up and walk around, unlike in a bus or car.  You can see the countryside go by, unlike in an airplane.  They are usually faster than buses or cars, but slower than airplanes.  They're a great compromise...except for overnight trains to Aswan!  Our train was the noisiest, jerkiest rattle-trap I'd ever ridden on.  Sleeping in our sleeper cabins wasn't easy even with earplugs. Nevertheless, it got us to Aswan, where our tour company picked us up and whisked us to our hotel.  Along the way, we were given the best news we'd heard since arrival in Egypt: Our bags were waiting for us at the Aswan airport!  After claiming them and snatching a quick shower at the hotel, we were off for another day's sightseeing. 

Here, we met Mohammed, our guide for the next four days.  First, he took us to the "Unfinished Obelisk." It would have been Egypt's largest, but work on it was abandoned when it developed a large crack.  Then, we were off to the Aswan High Dam, which actually wasn't that spectacular, as dams go.  Back in town, on the Nile's banks, Mohammed hired a small boat to take us out to Philae island, which is the site of a temple complex with buildings dating from several eras of Egyptian history.  The main temple is dedicated to Isis and is constructed in the ancient Pharaonic style, with twin triangular "pylons" flanking the entrance. It was built during the period of Macedonian Greek rule, or the Ptolemiac period.  These descendants of Ptolemy, Alexander the Great's general, embraced Egyptian culture -- to the extent of some even marrying their own sisters, daughters or mothers to legitimize their line.  They depicted themselves as reigning pharaohs on the temple walls and in statuary, in full regalia, wearing the double crown of upper and lower Egypt.  Philae's walls and columns, carved with intricate depictions of gods and pharaohs, glowed golden in the late afternoon sunlight, complimented by a gorgeous blue sky. One monumental building from the mid-Roman era caught my eye. It was constructed by the emperor Trajan, who styled himself as a Roman Alexander the Great.  It soaring columns and symmetry reminded me of the Tetrapylon in the Roman ruins of Palmyra, Syria. 

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Majestic Abu Simbel - the reconstructed temple to Ramses II is truly a highlight of Eygpt

The next morning was our earliest of the trip: Mohammed and our driver picked us up at 3:15 am for our trip to Abu Simbel, near the Egyptian-Sudanese border.  He explained that we had to join a convoy for the three hour drive, I assumed for security reasons.  So, we stopped at a police checkpoint, which checked out our vehicle from the outside, and then were motioned down the street to the assembly point.  At first, we hoped it would be a small convoy, as there were only two other vehicles present.  Then the first tour bus showed up.  And another.  We sat and waited --reminding me of my "hurry up and wait" Army days.  Eventually, more than 60 vehicles, from cars to vans to tour buses, were lined up when the convoy was finally motioned forward.  What followed was laughable.  If the convoy was for security reasons, I think I understand the outcome of the Arab-Israeli wars a bit better!  It was like a herd of New York taxi drivers unleashed as each vehicle tried to pass the other, and the slowest vehicles were left behind in the dust.  We never saw a police or army vehicle during the entire drive up or back.  Probably the most annoying part of the convoy, though, was that it meant nearly the entire day's worth of tourists descended upon Abu Simbel at the same time.  If I were to come again, I would try to overnight there, so that I could experience an Abu Simbel lonely of tourists.

Nevertheless, Ramses II's masterpiece temple was impressive.  It sits on the banks of the Nile, its entrance guarded by four 70 feet tall statues of the pharaoh gazing serenely eastward.  As guides are not allowed inside (to prevent bottlenecks), Mohammed gave us his description outside the main entrance, as we stood gazing up in awe.  He then waved us forward and we took photos, then ducked inside.  Although packed with people, the temple was incredible.  On either side of the main aisle, 20 feet tall statues of Ramses doubled as columns.  All four walls were carved with hieroglyphs or scenes of the pharaoh slaying his enemies or receiving the blessing of the gods.  One entire wall was carved with depictions of the Battle of Kadesh, Ramses bloody draw (which he glorified as a victory) with the Hittites.  I'd seen images of these carvings for years in books on Egyptian history.  It was amazing to see them in person, and my neck was soon sore from looking up, examining it.  I saw the ordered line of Egyptian chariots, their archery tumbling Hittite charioteers to the ground. I found the depiction of the Egyptian camp, its walls composed of tombstone shaped infantry shields, beset by Hittite hordes. I even located Ramses' legendary pet lion on the wall.  After exploring the temple thoroughly, we went "next door" to Ramses' temple honoring his wife, Queen Nefertiri.  Its line of statuary flanking the entrance was nowhere near as gigantic as Ramses' temple, but was still huge and impressive.  All too soon, though, it was time for us to join the "convoy" back to Aswan. Once back in Aswan, we checked into our Nile cruise ship.  Dozens of these boxy but luxurious ships ply the river between Luxor and Aswan.  Most of the guests on ours were from a large, German tour group. Our cabin was nice, though, and the food was...well, okay.  Nile cruise cuisine is definitely not up to the decadent standards of Caribbean ones!

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The ruins of the Temple of Satet on Elephantine Island

After lunch, we decided to take a ferry across to Elephantine island, which was the main inhabited area in the ancient Egyptian days.  Our ferry docked in the middle of Elephantine's "Nubian village," inhabited by descendants of the ancient Nubians, an African people who alternated as enemies, allies, subjects and overlords of the Egyptians. We were looking for the Temple of Satet, and despite our long, looping path across the island, we did eventually find it. We stumbled across a number of other ruins on the way, and met some interesting people, too. It was definitely a pleasant afternoon, and we would remember it as a nice interlude of exploration by ourselves amidst all the guided tours. Later, in the evening, we delved into Aswan's bazaar, where Jenny picked up a number of gifts for her family. I had no luck finding what I sought: A limestone obelisk liked I'd seen in our Hotel Zoser's gift shop.

We were awakened the next morning rather abruptly by a phone call from Mohammed: "Get up!" We had less than an hour to see the Temple of Komombo (where we'd docked early in the morning) before the ship sailed. Our information from Delta Tours stated that we'd see Komombo AFTER breakfast. We'd inquired the night before, and been told breakfast was at 8 am. Turns out there was a change, and we sailed at 8 am, eating breakfast after sailing. We scolded Mohammed for not giving us a solid itinerary. We'd seen one posted in German in the lobby for the large tour group, but no one had given us any kind of schedule for the ship. Our hurried visit to Komombo was all the more frustrating because the place seemed overrun by tourists from a fleet of cruise ships. The effect of the early morning light on the temple was lovely, though, and Jenny and I snapped photos rapidly. The 2nd Century B.C. temple was dedicated to two Egyptian gods, one of which was the crocodile-headed Sobek, who was clearly depicted in carvings on the walls. We lingered as long as we could, then hurried back to the ship, five minutes before sailing.

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Carvings on the Temple of Komombo, sacred to the Egyptain crocodile-headed god Sobek

After breakfast, Jenny and I went up on deck to watch our passage up the Nile. One thing I found unusual about our three day cruise north from Aswan to Luxor, was that we actually spent only one calendar day in motion. We left after midnight of our first "night" aboard the ship (so early Day Two, in reality), and would dock late that same night in Luxor. So, we knew this would be our only chance to watch the Nile scenery slide by. I was immediately struck by the stark division between cultivated, irrigated land and the desert. The greenery on the banks was lush and thick with crops and vegetation. Just beyond, and much closer than I'd expected, was the lifeless brown of the desert. Villages passed by on both sides, each replete with square stucco buildings, mosques and hanging laundry. Children cooled off swimming in the water (must be no Nile crocodiles here!), and oxen, donkeys and farmers worked under the fierce sun. Ahead and behind us, we could see we were in the middle of a long column of cruise ships plying the waters. When ships passed going the opposite direction, each blasted its horn merrily.

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Sun sets along the Nile, perfectly by the minaret of a mosque

We were ready and waiting when we docked at Edfu. Mohammed, Jenny and I were the first ones off the ship, and he quickly hired a horse drawn carriage to take us to the Temple of Horus. This was another Ptolemaic era temple, and was the most complete one we'd see in Egypt, with all of its roof, columns and walls intact. Just inside the entrance, 18 huge columns shaped like papyrus plants soared to the dim ceiling. Each was carved in bands, alternating rows of hieroglyphs with figures of gods and people. Mohammed pointed out the significance of various carvings as we worked our way back towards the inner sanctuary, which housed the sacred boat carrying the god's image. Normally, you can climb up to the roof of the temple at Edfu, but it was closed today. So, Jenny and I contented ourselves with exploring every nook of the sprawling complex. Mohammed made sure we'd seen everything we wanted before leading us back to the ship. He was catching on that we enjoyed taking our time and were not content with superficial visits.

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A typical Nile cruise ship sails past ours

That evening, we had a good time with our tablemates on the cruise ship, Dennis and Jenny (easy name to remember, eh?), from California. This was their second visit to Egypt and they gave us some good advice. At both Jenny's prompting, I told them stories of my travels to various places around the world. I felt uncomfortably like I was dominating the conversation, so I kept asking about the Californians' own considerable travels. They were good companions after dinner, as well. We enjoyed drinks on the upper deck, watching our ship's progress through a series of locks.

The next morning we awoke in Luxor, where our cruise ship was docked directly across from the famous temple. However, Mohammed led us to a waiting car for our day's visit to the Valley of the Kings, where the pharaohs of New Kingdom Egypt (around 1000 B.C.) dug their tombs into the cliffsides. The tombs were fascinating, their painted walls still replete with lifelike color. Each tomb was composed of a passageway (MUCH wider than the pyramids!) which angled downwards, passing through anterooms before finally arriving at the burial chamber. It seemed every inch of wall and sometimes ceiling was decorated with paintings. We filed past, amazed and incredulous that we were looking at images more than 3,000 years old. Our tour included visits to three tombs (Mohammed chose Ramses I, III and VI, if I remember correctly), but you could easily visit more in a day. However, they DID begin to look the same after three, and the sun beat down upon the white rock furiously, sapping our will to lobby for more tomb visits.

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Another must-do in Egypt -- the Valley of the Kings with its temples buried deep within the rock

Next, we drove to the Valley of the Queens and visited the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. This interesting woman reined as pharaoh for 21 years -- having herself depicted on temple walls as a man with false beard, wearing the double crown, and so on. Eventually, her irked and passed over son engineered her overthrow and erased her name from all monuments. Hatshepsut's sprawling temple was designed to impress her subjects with the story of her divine birth, and thus fitness to rule. Constructed on three levels, the temple has wide plazas that the sun beat down upon without mercy, making visitors scurry to the shade of its columned porticos. One of the temple's wings was dedicated to my favorite Egyptian god, Anubis. His image on the walls still retained its color, despite being painted in 1470 B.C. After a brief stop at the Colossi of Memnon, we returned to the ship, having successfully stretched our visit almost two hours longer than the schedule regimented. Mohammed apologized that this meant we'd missed the ship's lunch, but we laughed and told him we'd skip lunch every day for more time at the sites, if needed!

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Some of the paint on the columns, still surviving after millenia

The day's heat must have affected Jenny's head, because I was able to talk her into eating lunch in the modern, air conditioned confines of...you guessed it...Pizza Hut! Another country, another Pizza Hut dined at! Afterwards, we stopped by an internet cafe to update everyone, then walked the main drag back towards the ship. Luxor is the reputed "hassle" capital of Egypt, and it lived up to its billing. It's impossible to walk 50 yards without some tout trying to sell you a carriage ride, boat ride, souvenirs -- whatever. It seriously detracts from the experience of an otherwise pleasant town. As we neared the ship, the late afternoon sun's rays bronzed the columns of the Temple of Luxor enticingly. We paced along the fence, taking photos and breathing in the beauty...our reverie interrupted regularly by calls of "Felucca ride? Caliche?" We returned to the fence later that night to use my mini-tripod to get some shots of Luxor illuminated.

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Temple paintings on the walls at the famous female pharaoh's temple, Hatshepsut

After dinner, we spent a pleasant time with Mohammed, looking out over the temple from our upper deck. Jenny and I enjoyed a couple Egyptian beers, while Mohammed, a good Muslim, had tea. As he is an Egyptologist (and a staunch partisan of his favorite pharaoh, Ramses II), I plied him with tough questions like, "Who really won the Battle of Kadesh?" and "Do Egyptians consider the Kushite/Nubian Pharaohs of the 22nd Dynasty 'Egyptian'?" I had a fun time, teasing him for his partisanship and pride. Of all our guides in Egypt, Jenny and I enjoyed Mohammed the most. He sensed our interests and responded to them, allowing us more time to sightsee, and plying us with details he might not have otherwise with less historically minded tourists.

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The Temple of Luxor illuminated at night

The next morning, as we crossed the street from the ship to Luxor temple, we were amazed to see it pretty much free of other tourists. Mohammed joked that he'd arranged a private visit because he liked us so much. It made our time in that soaring temple all the more special to have it to ourselves. The columns seemed even more incredibly tall as we wandered among them. The statues of Ramses II, who in his 67 year reign had lots of time to leave his mark on Egypt, were everywhere, and gigantic in size, but as smooth and perfect in proportions as an ancient Greek athlete. Awed, I took dozens of photos. Jenny was obviously enraptured. I smiled as I watched her following in Mohammed's wake, unconsciously mimicking his gestures as she listened spellbound to his descriptions.

From Luxor, we rejoined Tourist Egypt with our visit to the sprawling temple city of Karnak. The soft early morning light had given way to mid-day's harsh glare, so I took fewer photos here, even though the ruins were as impressive and the columns even greater, if possible. I wasn't as bothered by the tour groups elbowing past us as I had been in other places, after this morning's gift of Luxor alone. Much bigger in size, Karnak seemed to stretch on and on. So many temples, obelisks and rows of columns crowded in upon each other that it overloaded the senses. You couldn't really plan a visit, but had to wander its maze numbed by the size, scale and splendor of the place. With our visit concluded, we had to bid goodbye to Mohammed. He was catching a bus home to Aswan, so we exchanged e-mail addresses and I promised to send him a link to this travelog once it was written.

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So many must-see's in Egypt! Here, the Temple of Luxor

To be honest, Luxor seemed a little empty without him, and Jenny and I kind of coasted the rest of the day. We visited the Luxor Museum (saw two pharaoh's mummies!), lingered over meals, found an internet cafe to update everyone, and wandered the streets. We were biding our time till our sleeper train back to Cairo. It was a bit easier to doze off, this time, as we knew what to expect. However, we were much happier to see the beds of our hotel Zoser in Giza, the next morning. We had a short nap there, then were picked up for our final "scheduled" day of sightseeing (the day after was a "free day").

We started the day with the medieval era Citadel of Saladin, though we actually visited only the Muhammed Ali mosque on the fortress' hilltop grounds. Our guide was different than our previous Cairo one, and she was quite chatty, going on at great lengths about Egypt's more recent history. I thought it was particularly interesting how she rationalized as a GOOD thing the Islamic tradition of allowing four wives, from a woman's perspective. I didn't quite buy her story that "women outnumber men in Egypt," so if she wants to get married, it'd have to be as a second wife. I think she was just trying to be a good Muslim, selling the infidel tourists on Islam's benefits.

Afterwards, we delved into Coptic Cairo, visiting two Medieval era churches and one synagogue (which requires government permission for Jews to hold a service there). Then, the day's grand finale was the sprawling Egyptian Museum. Our guide did a good job of touching on the highlights, then allowing us free time to roam and wander. Seeing King Tut's gold mask was my favorite. Although I'd seen countless photos of it, the beauty and grace of the artist's work comes through best in person. We skipped the mummies, as we'd seen some in Luxor, and basically wandered through various sections. I also liked the reconstructed chariots from the tombs -- they were much bigger than I'd envisioned them.

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Carved columns at the Temple of Karnak

We closed the day's sightseeing with our Nile felucca (boat) ride, which we postponed from our earlier stop in Cairo. It was definitely a different perspective from the chaotic, crowded streets. It was quiet out on the water, and a relaxing way to unwind from our rapid paced sightseeing. After dinner, we wandered the streets, as it was Ramadan's final day. We learned that the main celebration would be the next day -- our last night in Cairo.
We'd been debating on what to do on our "free day" in Cairo. We'd been leaning towards visiting the City of the Dead (Cairo's medieval cemetery), which was supposed to be fascinating. In the end, we chose to hire a taxi, though, and visit Darshur -- site of the Red Pyramid (Egypt's first, true, smooth sided pyramid). Our guidebook said it was off the tour bus circuit, and that from there, we could get views of two other pyramids, including the interesting "Bent Pyramid," which predates the Red Pyramid. We decided to splurge a little and used the hotel's taxi desk to hire our car (I'm sure it would have been cheaper on the street), figuring the language barrier would be less of a problem with a hotel taxi. I'm glad we did, as for about $20 each, our driver took us the 45 minutes to the Dashur, let us wander as long as we wanted, and tossed in a visit to the ancient capital of Memphis for free.

The Red Pyramid was great. It is called red for the color of the granite blocks that it was constructed with. The guidebook was right, and there were very few tourists present. When Jenny and I climbed the pyramid to its entrance, then followed the shaft down into the burial chamber, we were the only visitors. It was equally as steep and claustrophobic as the shaft at Chephren, but with no other people present, much less stuffy and humid. It was neat to be alone in the center of an actual pyramid, looking up at the triangular roof of the burial cavern. Not quite an Indiana Jones experience, but the closest we'd come to it in Egypt! Once outside, we circled the base of the pyramid, and had a good view of the so-called Bent Pyramid. This construction began as the first attempt at a smooth sided pyramid, but when the foundations began to show signs of extreme stress, the top one third of the pyramid was completed at a less steep angle. This gives it a "bent" look, and almost the profile of a circus tent. We couldn't visit that pyramid because it is inside a military base. As a matter of fact, Dashur is so close to the base that we had a plain clothes policeman follow us around the pyramid to make sure we didn't make a break for forbidden territory!

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The Red Pyramid of Dashur -- off the beaten path of the tour bus crowds at last!

Our stop at Memphis suffered in comparison to the Egyptian Museum the previous day. There is a colossal statue of Ramses lying on its back that was interesting, but the rest of the open air museum was short of anything unique. We then drove back to the hotel, dumped our stuff, and wandered out for a late lunch to a local restaurant which specialized in spicy chicken. The streets were packed with post-Ramadan revelers, and they only got more and more crowded as the day went on. We gave up trying to get into an internet cafe, as they were all jammed with teenagers. All the restaurants and stores were similarly packed, and it was interesting wandering around, enjoying the festive atmosphere.
We'd decided to cap our Egypt trip with the Sound and Light show at the pyramids on our final night. We knew it'd be cheesy, but the chance to see the Giza pyramids illuminated at night seemed worth it. The show lasted quite a bit longer than I thought it would, and the pyramids lit up were impressive. The narration was cheesy, as I expected, supposedly recounted by the Sphinx itself, which was 100 yards or so in front of us. The laser light projection of a pharaoh's face on its features was cool, though. I was equally amazed at the stupidity of the crowd, though, who constantly tried to take flash photographs of the pyramids, more than a mile away. All it did was blind everyone around them for a few seconds, having no effect on a subject that far away. You think they'd learn after the first attempt that the flash was having no effect on their picture, other than to throw into stark illumination the backs of the heads of the people sitting in front of them! Ah, well...I guess I needed one final reason to vent my appreciation of tour groups!

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Sun sets along the Nile turning it to gold

So, all in all, Egypt was an amazing time with incredible sights. I think, with proper research, it would be quite possible to visit Egypt without a tour package. You could arrange your hotels ahead of time and simply hire a driver for each day's sightseeing. I am not disappointed with the memories from our tour, though: Philae Island on a golden afternoon; Luxor Temple to ourselves one magical morning; The studious lectures of our Egyptologist Mohammed -- all are wonderful pictures that will stay in our heads for years. Picking one place as the highlight of 10 days in Egypt is a meaningless exercise, in the end. There were too many...orange sunsets on the Nile, a vibrant painting 3,000 years old, all the colors, all the sights of the big palette that was Egypt...one highlight after another.

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:19 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

A Few Hours in Monaco

Day trip while leading students on an EF Tours to France

sunny 83 °F

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Monaco's Old Harbor

So, I hit country #89 ever-so-briefly during a student tour to France that I was leading. We wrapped up our week abroad in France with a day trip to Monaco. Much as I wanted to play James Bond and indulge myself in the famous Casino, alas, when leading a group of middle and high schoolers, you make sacrifices. Of course, seeing how every cruise ship with a 100-square mile radius must have been in port that afternoon, too, maybe it is a good thing I didn't try! I'll have to save that experience for another visit.

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Tucked along the French Riviera, the inhabitants of Monaco look out on stunning scenery every day

I did get to see Monaco's breath-taking scenery, though. So, this blog entry is mainly photos. We did a short walking tour, and then we were given an hour and a half to wander and eat lunch. The funny thing about that is it always seems you lose at least an hour of that sightseeing time on lunch! Oh well. Enjoy the pictures!

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The palace for Monaco's prince - somebody important came out as we were walking by, as the police stopped us to let them pass

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Not sure if this is a business or a home, but it certainly is beautiful

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The tiny kingdom is running out of land, so is constructing new space for buildings out over the water, like these high rises

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Like elsewhere in the Mediterranean, the historic sits side by side with the modern

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Here I am at right with my tour group - it was a good group of kids and adults!

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:17 Archived in Monaco Comments (0)

I’ve Been to the Mountain

Climbing Christoffel Mountain? Hill?

sunny 86 °F

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The view from atop Mt. Christoffel

So the first sight that I planned to see in Curaçao was actually the last one I visited. Back when I was first deciding whether to go to Curaçao or not, reading about the hiking in Christoffel National Park tipped the scale from “undecided” to “sure, let’s do it!” Most visitors to the park climb the 1,220-foot peak. Of course, the height prompts banter that it is a hill - not a Mountain. Well, the fact that they don’t let you start the ascent after 10am because of the heat and steepness of the trail tells you it can be grueling. This meant my alarm was set for its earliest time this vacation (5:30am), so that I could make the drive there and get there in the first hour after the visitors center opened at 6 am.

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The steep peak of Christoffel gleaming in the morning sun

All the reviews and reports that I had read said it should take you about an hour each way. Some said it was more like an hour and a half, so naturally I was interested to see how I stacked up against the average climber. I was wearing my closed-toe, hiking sandals, and had two water bottles in the pockets of my cargo shorts. I carried my camera bag, not a backpack, so I wasn’t equipped for speed. And no, I am not making excuses already...!

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the view looking north as you climb the path towards the summit

The Viaitors Centre and the road to the trailhead were easy to find. I would discover the trail up the Mountain was equally easy to follow. Bright yellow blazes, or dabs of spray paint in the shape of arrows or markings on rocks, roots, or branches meant that I never strayed from the trail once. The hiking started out fairly easy, and it was shady and, if not cool, at least not hot in the morning sun. As you ascended, though, it became more difficult. I had to be careful where I put my feet and how I braved myself as I leveraged my way up tight spots. It was a beautiful morning, though, and I felt like I was making good time. The view was nice and continued to get better and better as I made my way up. I did not snap so many pictures going up as the lighting wasn’t the best. When I reached a large rock spray painted “Half”, I looked at my watch. I gave myself a thumbs up - 30 minutes exactly.

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As you spit the TV/Radio toowers you’re almost there!

Navigating the pathway after that, though, changed from “where do I place my foot?” to “What do I hold onto to pull myself up that boulder?” I saw my first group going down shortly after. The third person had a leg that was pretty scraped up, so I felt good that I hadn’t had any troubles. Any pathway disappeared as I got to the top and it simply became a job of clambering across boulders, working your way ever upward and closer to the peak. The yellow arrows gave good suggestions where to pick your way upwards. Soon, I was there, and I could hear the ten or so hikers already there talking and laughing. I looked at my watch: 1 hour, ten minutes. What made that feel worse, though, was the family with this - I kid you not because I asked - 3-year old coming down as I reached the summit. Sigh. At 55, have I truly lost that ,any steps?

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Me atop Mt. Christoffel

The view from atop Christoffel was fantastic. There was no real flat platform, and being on top meant more clambering around to look at all the different vantage points. I’d read that you could see the entire island from atop, and other than some haze at the opposite Eastern end, I would agree that it is true. I took lots of pictures and breathed it all in. I enjoy hiking and always try to do at least one day hike on all my trips overseas. The top got steadily more crowded as later-starting hikers arrived. After perhaps 45 minutes atop, Christoffel, I began my hike down. I honestly feel clambering over rocks is harder going down than up. And to prove it, I slipped and fell early on my way down. I was stunned for a second, but worked my ankles and legs, discovering I hadn’t done any real damage. My left legs was scraped up a bit, though. I guess that with all the sharp rocks I was lucky to have only a few scrapes from my tumble. I was considerably more careful and slower the rest of the way down.

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Looking down on creation from the top of the world (at least in Curaçao)

Reading up on Christoffel, It had said there were driving trails (and other hiking trails...um, no thanks!) in the park. These turned out to be a real letdown. The scenery of Christoffel National Park is mainly scrub and thorn brush, with cacti thrown in for good measure. It honestly was not that exciting. The views out to the ocean were okay, and the hike to the Boka Grandi Bay was cool. Watching the deep blue swells of Curaçao’s northern coast crash against to rocks was fun. Of course, I had done that yesterday on my snorkeling expedition, so it did not have the same novelty it might have had otherwise. I would recommend visitors skip the rest of the park’s sights. Come for the climb, then head to a beach to soothe your aching limbs in the sea. There plenty of amazing beaches in the area, and you will enjoy your time there much more than circling around the park’s one lane road staring at the same sun-blasted thorn bushes.

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Hikers relax and enjoy the view from atop the mountain

I had climbed the mountain, though, and my body had that satisfied ache you get after a good hike. I could now call my trip to Curaçao quits, now that I had seen the fiat sight I planned.

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Boka Grandi Bay, the only other really worthwhile sight, in my opinion, in Christoffel National Park

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:05 Archived in Curaçao Comments (0)

In Search of Flippy the Sea Turtle

Snorkeling in Curaçao again

sunny 85 °F

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Scuba divers leaving the surf at Playa Piskado - a popular haunt for sea turtles

It was a no-brainer to book another snorkeling trip on Curaçao. I had seen two of my top three sights I’d wanted to see (Tugboat, Blue Room), so I searched the web for an outfitter who could nail number three for me. I wanted to visit Playa Piskado, in hopes of swimming with sea turtles. This is no aquarium experience, but a beach where sea turtles frequently swim offshore. I booked Yellow Adventures to take me there (no guarantee of turtles appearing). Would Flippy appear? That was the question. Oh, Flippy is a reference to an imaginary sea turtle dreamed up by some of my Model United Nations students to illustrate their resolution.

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The crashing surf at Shete Boka National Park

I was picked up at 8:45 am and whisked off to the Hilton, where Yellow Adventures has their desk. The eight of us who’d signed up checked out snorkel equipment, paid our fees, signed our waivers (in case Flippy was in a surly mood?),and were off to our first stop. Twenty plus minutes of bouncing around in the back of a tricked up pickup truck and we arrived at Shete Boka National Park. It is known for its gorgeous sea views, and we hiked to a couple of overlooks to watch the deep blue sea crashing against the rocky north coast of Curaçao. I had fun trying to time my camera shots with the explosions of spray which greeted the bigger waves smashing into the shore. I love rocky coastlines - one of my favorite trips was hiking England’s Cornish Coastal Path.

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Catching the explosion of spray as wave meets rocky shore

Next up was the main event: Playa Piskado. Would Flippy appear? Or would my $89 be all but wasted? Much to my surprise, our guide informed us she would not be accompanying us into the water. I asked her which was the best place to see the turtles, and she gave us some tips. We grabbed our snorkel gear and walked to the beach from the parking lot. As we’d pulled in, I had seen scuba divers gearing up. I remarked to the young Dutch couple in our group that I considered that a good sign. With the multitude of sites that scuba divers can access, to see them going to one that snorkelers could get to meant it must be pretty good. I put on my fins and waddled awkwardly into the surf, stumbling where the rocks and sand drop off steeply. Not 100% sure where to go, I decided to follow the scuba divers. The water was fairly murky because of the surf near the shore and the sand on the bottom stirred up by the scuba divers. As we got further out, it cleared noticeably.

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Playa Piskado - where sea turtles swim

Eventually, I decided to push ahead of the scuba divers as they were moving so slowly, I felt. I paddled my flippers into the blue gloom of the water. I saw very few fish, instead noticing the ocean floor littered with anchors, rope, occasional coral, and sea weed. As I ventured further out, I chuckled to myself. Here was Mr. Sharkaphobia leading the charge ahead of everyone. Just to be safe, I made a 90 degree left turn and swam parallel to the shore. I swiveled my head constantly, looking for Flippy (or you-know-what, which I tried to keep out of my mind. My mask was clear and my breathing good - no leakage or fogging. Ahead of me, I saw a shape headed directly towards me. Could it be? YES! Flippy!!!

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Playa Knip -home to the bluest water I saw on Curaçao

He wasn’t the biggest guy - maybe a foot and a half to two feet long. He swam right by me, so I changed directions and followed. We swam together for 15 minutes. We were told not to touch the turtles. So, I remained motionless whenever he got close. Once he swam within a foot of me, his dark eyes looking into mine. He surfaced every few minutes or so to take a breath of air. It was so cool to see him gliding along. Suddenly, I caught sight of movement on the ocean floor. A massive sea turtle was rising towards the surface. I abandoned Flippy to follow his grandpa for awhile. After Gramps disappeared into the gloom, I headed back towards the beach. As I passed the pier, I ran into a number of sea turtles feeding. I ended up losing count of how many turtles I saw. Truly, a moving experience, though I was saddened by the amount of trash I saw in the water. I thought back to my students’ cause, which was cleaning the oceans of garbage that turtles and other marine life ingest accidentally, often leading to them choking and dying. I would hate to think of my real Flippy or his Grandpa dying from eating plastic or some other human trash.

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My first real relaxing at the beach in Curaçao

Our next stop (as if we truly needed one after that experience!), was at Playa Knip. The Dutch couple had been there earlier in their trip and said the water was amazingly blue. Sure enough, one look at the beach made you want to run full speed and dive into its aquamarine, gemlike waters. It was definitely the most beautiful beach I had seen in Curaçao. If I ever come back, I WILL swim there!

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Although I haven’t talked about the, much, Curaçao DOES have beautiful beaches!

Our final stop was for lunch and swimming at Playa Portomari. This was another stunning Curaçao beach. In the end, I was very happy we stopped there. As surprising as it may seem, I had yet to “hit the beach”on this trip, yet. The sand was white and soft, the water was a gorgeous pale blue, and the vibe was as relaxed as you can imagine. It was a perfect way to end the day - reclining on a beach chair, soaking up the sun, and looking around at the amazing scenery. Although Flippy and his family made my day, this was the perfect end to the afternoon. Truly, today had been a no-brained, and I was glad I’d booked this trip!

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A happy me after swimming with Flippy

Posted by world_wide_mike 19:42 Archived in Curaçao Comments (0)

Kayaking the Green and Blue Waters

Helping save Curaçao one tree at a time

sunny 83 °F

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Standing proudly with my paddle, after my day with Ryan de Jomgh’s Kayaking Expeditions

One of the reasons that I iike to read other people’s travel blogs is they often give you ideas about what to do in a country you’re planning to visit. I was so busy leading up to my Curacao trip that I essentially did no research ahead of time. I knew I had never been there, and I knew there was lots more to do than lay on a beach. And that was about it. So, while waiting out my four-hour layover in Toronto, I took advantage of the free airport WiFi to read up some about my destination. More and more each year, I have found TripAdvisor to be a good “crowdsource” of information. One thread led me to the blog “Curacao in 91Days” (http://curacao.for91days.com) - written by a German and American pair of travelers. One of the things Juergen and Mike did was go kayaking in Curacao’s mangrove swamps.

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Curaçao’s rocky coastline, where the second half of my kayaking would take place

I try to seek out new experiences when traveling, and though I’d been kayaking before , this sounded different. An internet search revealed their guide’s Facebook page, Ryan de Jongh’s Kayak Experience (https://www.facebook.com/Ryan-de-Jonghs-Kayak-Experience005-999-561-0813-131252130259872/). The 47-year old Ryan is a competitive sport kayaker and adventurer who has dedicated himself to protecting Curaçao’s environment. His signature cause was to replant and reestablish Curacao’s mangrove forests. Many of these vital marine ecosystems had been cut down and destroyed by industry throughout Curacao’s colonial and more modern past. He began a project to literally replant these one tree at a time. He would load up his kayak, and a second one that he towed, with seedlings and then paddle along the coast to a new bay to replant them. It took a lot of trial and error, hours of sweat, and relentless dedication, but he has succeeded. The mangrove that we would paddle through today was nursed along by him and is now a thriving part of the island’s environment, again.

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The kayaks, next to a section of the mangrove forest we would tour

I reached Ryan by phone and he said that he was available this week to lead a tour. I selected the tour that began at Santa Cruz’s mangrove because it also included a visit to the Blue Room - a sea cave I’d read and seen videos about and was very interested in visiting. Ryan showed up in his doughty van painted with his company’s advertisement, along with his sister and niece, who were visiting from Aruba and wanted to go along. After a quick stop at the marine institute, which he helped fund, to pick up another kayak, we were zipping along toward Curaçao’s western coast. Along the way, he told me the story of his amazing life -which, honestly, was worth the price of the tour itself. One of the most astounding aspects of it is his adopted sport of long-range kayaking. He has solo kayaked across the Caribbean Sea from St. Maarten to Curaçao - a 22-day journey that stopped at 17 islands along the way (many tiny, uninhabited one-night camping stops). I didn’t even know long-range kayaking was a sport, but at one time, Ryan said he was ranked number two in the world. He also circled the coastline of Curaçao as a fund-raising stunt for the marine institute, taking 36 consecutive hours to complete it. His next adventure is to row across the Atlantic Ocean in a specially-constructed craft, which he estimates will take him two months.

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Looking towards the sea from where we launched the kayaks

When we arrived at Santa Cruz, we offloaded the kayaks into a small creek that led to the ocean. However, we would be going the other way, through what looked like an impenetrable wall of mangrove trees. There was a “tunnel,”of sorts, though, and Ryan taught me that you don’t paddle through, but instead pull yourself through by grabbing onto branches and roots. My first thought was that my friend Keith Finn, an avid kayaker, would love this excursion. A couple minutes of pulling ourselves through the mangrove tunnel and we were in an open patch of water, completely surrounded by vibrant green mangrove trees. We paddled a ways, then pulled ourselves through another, longer passageway. We emerged in a pristine waterway, like a small pond. Here, he stopped us and told us the story of how he replanted Curaçao’s mangroves. We saw a sea hawk and other bird life, but otherwise, it was a quiet waterway, nature’s filtering system at work.

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The beach at Santa Cruz bay

Next, we took up our paddles again and return to our starting spot, where we lifted the kayaks across a tiny embankment so we could reach the sea. Our two kayaks began the slow paddle out to sea, and then across Santa Cruz bay. The waves were not that bad, and I never felt that I was about to be swamped or overturned. We used the wind at our backs to cross the bay and paddle along the rocky coastline towards the natural cave called the Blue Room. We could see a small yacht anchored ahead, and I guessed that was where the cave would be. Kayaking is hard work - for me, the toughest part is finding a comfortable position. I had to keep shifting myself during the paddle. With no back support in the multi-person kayaks, I never really found a spot for my legs and butt that was truly comfortable. It took awhile for me and my fellow novice to find a good rhythm and to avoid paddling in a zig-zag path. The experience paddling with the wind would come in handy on a return journey against it.

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The kayaks, pulled up onto the beach, after our journey to the Blue Room and back

After maybe 15-20minutes of paddling, we arrived at the Blue Room, and Ryan anchored our canoes. He explained how to enter the cave safely without scraping your head against the jagged rocks. Then, it was overboard into the warm Curaçao surf and its clear blue water. We followed Ryan to the entrance, watched him enter, and then ducked under the water to make our way into the cave. The interior was batched in a vibrant blue color. As the tiny opening was covered up by the ocean swells, the water and light would become an even deeper blue. Most of the floor is sandy, which reflects and intensifies the color. I wished I had brought snorkeling gear or even goggles so that I could open my eyes underwater for the full effect. If any readers happen upon this entry prior to going, definitely take some sort of gear. With my contact lenses in, I couldn’t risk opening my eyes and losing them. Still, it was an eerie, otherworldly experience in that small, fluorescent Blue Room.

For a video of what it looks like in here, check out this YouTube link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?vl=en&v=zReLUHyuo4E

It was somewhat entertaining watching me try to clamber back into my kayak - even with Ryan steadying it. Thank goodness for the floating, waterproof bag, otherwise my camera would have gone to the bottom! Yes, I tipped the kayak and plunged back into the water, spilling hat, water bottles, and the bag into the water. We retrieved it all and started over, this time successfully. The 20-minute paddle back to the beach wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. We stayed close to the rocky shoreline - Ryan pointing out nesting iguanas - where we were sheltered from the wind. When we finally had to cut across the open expanse of the bay, our novice paddling team kept up with Ryan and his sister. My dignity was spared the ignominy of being towed back by Ryan - which he offered several times if we felt we were tiring. Honestly, kayaking would be easier (I feel), if the seat had a back rest and was elevated slightly so my legs could be lower than the level of my butt. I will have to ask Keith about that, but I understood this was a beginner’s multiperson kayak, not one tailored to an individual’s body.

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It was a great day listening to Ryan’s stories and his efforts to help Curaçao’s environment. He is a fascinating person and is truly living the life he chooses. I learned a lot this day on the water, and was so glad I’d read the blog entry about his expeditions and was able to join one!

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:33 Archived in Curaçao Comments (0)

Two Days of Relaxation

Allowing myself to slow down in Curaçao

snow 86 °F

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Say hello to my little friends!

One of my plans for this trip was to not be as go-go-go as I normally am on overseas adventures. The last six weeks have been a bit rough, and I needed the relaxation time, too. So, following the awesome snorkeling excursion, Monday and Tuesday in Curaçao were fairly relaxed. There was a lot of wandering around Willemstad, searching out interesting historical sights and museums, as well as plenty of strolling through shops to see if anything caught my eye. After meeting the Iguana Brothers at Hato Caves, I was tempted by a really cool, green, iguana t-shirt. And wouldn’t you know it? A guy carrying around two take iguanas and getting tourists to pose for pictures with them came along within an hour.

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The sea wall protecting Fort Amsterdam’s battery, which guarded the harbor

On the historical side, neither of the forts guarding Willemstad’s harbor are very interesting. Fort Amsterdam is now the government’s offices. The former barracks are spiffed up and the whole thing gleams with fresh paint. There is a historic church inside you can visit, but at $10 and with so-so reviews, I passed. The battery’s sea wall looks historic in its golden-colored stone shining in the sunlight and fresh ocean spray, but other than that it’s is fairly ho-hum. On the opposite shore, the Rif Fort has been converted into a modern shopping mall. It also has its historic sea wall protecting its battery, but inside is a slice of modern suburbia. How it attained UNESCO World Heritage site status is a mystery to me!

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Flamingos in the Curaçao countryside

One cool little side trip out of town was to see salt flats about a half hour away that are home to pink flamingos. I’ve seen them at the zoo, of course, but it was neat to see a wild flock. The best part was when a half-dozen that we’re in a different section suddenly took off and circled the water, landing next to the rest of their community. I had just put my camera away to pull out my iPhone, when the movement occurred. feature you see a half-second of video. I regretted deciding NOT to bring my new camera’s zoom lens. I haven bought a new camera bag and really didn’t have room for it. While waiting for the bus back to town, I talked to an elderly local, asking if he knew bus times. When his wife drove up, she generously gave me a ride back to Willemstad. It certainly helps being friendly with the locals!

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West African masks and drums at the Hura Hulanda Museum

One unexpected discovery was the Kura Hulanda slavery museum in Willemstad. I was certainly not expecting the sprawling, world-class sight that it is. The breadth of excellently displayed items is amazing: Sumerian cuneiform tablets; Bronze Age weapons, pottery, and metalwork; Islamic artifacts like the doors from the Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu; cast bronze statues from Benin; wooden and fabric African masks and statues; and so much more! The first-hand writings and pictures detailing the slavery experience in Curaçao (and the world) was intense and fascinating, yet repelling. Many artifacts were displayed - chains, shackles, uniforms, weapons, period paintings and drawings - all brought home man’s inhumanity to man in graphic detail. I really liked how the exhibits detailed its lesson while celebrating the cultural achievements of people involved in the experience at the same time. There was even the front page of a newspaper from Springfield, Ohio, talking about African-Americans struggles for rights in post-Civil War United States!

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Artifacts from Curaçao’s slavery past are touchingly displayed

I spent more than an hour exploring every room of the sprawling Kura Hulanda. For a History buff like me, this was a great find. I really liked how it told the story of everyone involved in a detailed, non-preaching way. The museum let the facts and exhibits speak for themselves. It was the perfect example of how to show something, rather than tell.

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Medieval manuscripts are displayed along with Colonial ones from slavery days to tell the story of the various cultures involved in the world slave trade

After visiting a tasty local barbecue spot for lunch, I went back to my hotel for a quick nap. A post-nap visit to the Maritime Museum couldn’t hope to compare with the Kura Hulanda. Definitely a place visitors could skip. I also checked out a local art gallery, relaxed in a breezy square, and generally enjoyed a coup lazy days. I have more exiting things on tap - kayaking, hiking, and swimming with sea turtles. These last couple days were a chance to wind down from a hectic and stressful end to Winiter. My goal of having some down time was achieved, and it was a pleasant two days.

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World-class artifacts from Sumerian, Assyrian, Persian, Roman, Ethiopian, and more are part of Kura Hulanda’s stunning collection

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:14 Archived in Curaçao Comments (0)

Snorkeling a Shipwreck on Curaçao

Man-made sights compete with nature’s underwater display on snorkeling excursion

sunny 86 °F

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Curaçao’s coastline contains a bounty of snorkeling and dive spots

Curaçao is popular as a diving and snorkeling destination. While researching where to snorkel, I read about Tugboat. It is the sunken remains of a tugboat that sank more than 50 Years ago, and has been encrusted with coral and is a popular hangout for sea life. The pictures I’d seen were really cool - you can easily see the outline of the wreck and various rusted features of the boat. I have always thought it’d be cool to dive sunken World War II ships, but since I never learned to scuba, I have never had a chance. Here was a wreck in shallow enough water that snorkelers could experience it.

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Our first snorkeling stop was off of a calm beach

I had my hotel contact the company I’d picked out and book it. They would be coming by after breakfast, and the trip would last four-plus hours. It included two snorkeling stops and a visit to a colonial era fort. Unlike other snorkeling excursions I’d been on, this on was not by boat. Both spots are very close to the shore, and we traveled by van. Our guide arrived only a few minutes late, and we made one more stop to get pick up more participants. Half of those on the tour were from a cruise ship which had docked early that morning. The company provided all the equipment and had two guides in the water with us at all times.

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Not the landscape you expect for an amazing snorkeling experience!

I don’t consider myself an experienced snorkeler by any stretch of the imagination. I have found that key thing for me is to remain calm, and not panic. I am a more than a little bit paranoid in the ocean - I have “sharkaphobia,” or whatever the technical term for that is! The more nervous I get the more my mask tends to fog up, making me stress even more. The company had an interesting innovation to cut down on mask fogging: baby shampoo. The guide smeared the inside and outside lens pieces with baby shampoo. You rinse it off right as you get in the water and it cuts down on fogging up. It worked like a charm for me.

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Snorkelers returning from viewing Tugboat’s amazing sights

The first stop was at a section of coral maybe 30 yards offshore. The water was very clear and a nice temperature - chilly when you first get in, but fine after a minute or so. There were 5-10yards of rocks at the waterline, but once you got past that, it was a sandy ocean bottom. Lots of various colored fish clustered around the massive growths of brain coral, and other types that I don’t know the name of! Most of the fish were about the size of your hand or smaller, through there were a few brightly-colored wrasse (I believe), patrolling among the coral outcrops. I was pleased to find that I was able to remain calm and float above, around, and in between the outcrops. Previous snorkeling trips, I have to admit, would often see me glancing around nervously, expecting to see a shark looming out of the blue gloom. I was even able to violate my “never alone” rule and explored the coral and schools of fish without the safety blanket of somebody all but tethered nearby.

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Colonial era Fort Beekenberg overlooks turquoise waters

The next stop was the famous Tugboat, and I was surprised to see scuba divers gearing up in the parking lot, too. I have seen too many Jaws movies to probably ever try it, but the documentaries do make it look fascinating. It made me happy to think that, with the whole of Curaçao’s coastline open to scuba divers, Tugboat was considered interesting enough for them to dive this site. It was further out, our guides warned, and there would be more current. I resolved to stick close to the guides on the swim out to and back from the wreck (maybe a little less than 100 yards). I was proud of how I kept calm and never felt the “where’s the shark?” panic begin to rise. I focused on keeping sight of the guide and swimming and paddling with my flippers. I saw two returning scuba divers beneath me just before we arrived at the wreck. I realized it was the first time I’d ever seen someone scuba diving in the ocean with my own eyes. They looked bigger than I expected, strangely enough.

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NOT MY PHOTO! Internet image of Tugboat (I did not have an underwater camera

And there it was! Just like the pictures I’d seen on the internet - the rusted brown remains of the tugboat, clearly recognizable. It was encrusted with coral, and you could seee schools of brightly-colored fish all around and inside the wreck. Fields of brain coral, sea cucumbers, sea ferns, and other plant and marine life surrounded the tugboat. I floated above it, starting at the stern and exploring its entire outline in a slow loop. The superstructure of the boat was maybe 10 feet beneath me. I swam through clouds of fish, holding my hands out for them to cluster around me, and they even bumped into my fingers, hoping for handouts. This was amazing, I thought! Larger, solitary fish fed on the bottom, while the smaller schools swam together protectively. I even noticed schools hanging out near me, adopting me as a big brother.

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The ruined quarantine ward not far from our snorkeling spots

One of the highlights was the foot-long octopus that scurried across the bow of the ship, then wedged himself away in a coral outcrop. My favorite fish were the school of deep purple colored ones that gracefully changed directions as one. I don’t know my fish breeds that well, so can’t rattle off the types that I saw. However, it was definitely the coolest snorkeling experience I have ever had. I could feel the current, but it never made me nervous. I was so focused on circling and exploring the wreck and watching - and swimming among - the fish that I never had a chance to let my imagination runaway with me.

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Fort Nassau, which we did visit, overlooks Willemstad’s harbor

One of the oddities of snorkeling Tugboat is the industrial look to the area. Ther are two oil rigs right off the rocky shore. Neither appear to be in operation anymore, but it is not what you expect to see as you snorkel turquoise Caribbean waters! On a headland overlooking the cove is colonial era Fort Beekenberg. It’s ruined round ramparts gleam ruddy in the afternoon sun, providing yet more man-made contrast to the underwater nature scenery. The tour reviews I’d read said we visit the fort, but oddly, we drove right by it to visit the ruined husk of colonial era quarantine ward for sailors carrying contagious diseases. And after that, we did stop by hilltop Fort Nassau, which has a 360-degree view of Willemstad and its expansive harbor.

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Curaçao’s working, industrial coastline

One of the caveats about Curaçao is how industry intrudes on idyllic landscapes. Curaçao’s oil refinery is a sprawling eyesore. Also, we were told it’s harbor is in the top seven of the world’s natural, deep-water harbors, and it is lined with industry. This is no quaint, traditional island of grass hits and palm trees. Instead, it is a prosperous working island whose perfect temperatures and dependable sunshine tempt visitors to its shores from around the world. And on this day’s sightseeing, I saw that it’s environment beneath the seas is equally tempting.

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Despite its industry, Curaçao’s natural beauty and climate beckons visitors from around the world

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:02 Archived in Curaçao Comments (0)

Curaçao’s Quaint Dutch Waterfront Enchants Under Stars & Sun

Trying NOT to lose possessions along the way...!

sunny 83 °F

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The Willemstad waterfront lit up at night

This was almost the spring break trip that never happened. At the last minute, things fell into place and I was winging my way to sunny, warm Curacao after all, while Columbus fought off the lingering clutches of winter. Although this would be country #87, I immediately proved some things never change. Upon unpacking at the Boutique Hotel t Klooster, I realized I’d left my iPad in the seat pocket of the plane. This was AFTER leavingit at the ticket counter in Columbus that morning and not realizing it till I was past The security checkpoint. Sigh. I guess I will never shake my inner Hansel and Gretyl, leaving a trail of my things across the world! Luckily, both worked out and I am able to type this blog entry on the iPad.

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Daytime view of the waterfront

After making sure my iPad was in safe hands and could get it tomorrow, it was off to get some supplies and find dinner. It was obvious that Cafe Old Dutch was popular with both locals and visitors. The food was excellent and the beers were tasty, too. A peculiarity of paying by credit card in Curaçao is all prices are first converted to U.S. dollars before charging. Supposedly, the former Dutch colony’s Guilder is pegged permanently to the dollar at 1.75. After dinner and a few beers, I walked to the Wilhelmina Bridge, a pontoon bridge that spans the ocean inlet which the capital city of Willemstad is built around. A cool feature is thaa it is lit up at night with changing colors. An even cooler and imminently practical feature is it is a swinging bridge. When a large ship needs to pass through to the inner harbor, it detaches from one side and a tug pushes in open, swinging like a door against the opposite shore. Once the ship passes, it swings shut, the gates open, and pedestrians can cross again.

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The Wilhelmina Bridge lit up at night

Many of the waterfront buildings are bright, Caribbean colors but colonial Duth in style. Their facades lit by floodlights, it is a pretty sight on a warm spring evening. The central town is very walkable with a handful of museums and sights - and of course shopping, as Curaçao is a frequent cruise ship atop. As in Holland, nearly everyone speaks English, so it is a convenient and easy destination for Americans. I think many Dutch also vacation (or live or work here as expats).

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A tugboat tows in a freighter past the waterfront towards the inner harbor

I would see evidence of that popularity the next day. Since the Hota Caves are a ten minute walk from the airport, it made sense to begin my sightseeing there. Afterwards, I could pick up my iPad and hopefully hold onto it from this point forward in the trip! Taxis are expensive on the island -the 20-30minute ride to the airport costs $35, flat fee. On the way back, I’d experiment with Curaçao’s bus system, which locals say is not well advertised nor easy to figure out. My short experience is that it operates on what is jokingly called “island time,” which means don’t expect punctuality! Still, if you have time to wait, it is vastly cheaper.

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The Hota Caves

I timed it right for the every hour on the hour cave tour. About 15 people were gathered for the English language tour, while there was a half-dozen for the Dutch one. The Caves were interesting, but certainly not spectacular. The no photography prohibition was annoying, and I snapped a few surreptitious shots with my iPhone. The guide’s jokes caused the cruise ship crowd to chortle, but seemed a little tired to me. It was cool when they flicked out the artificial lighting and let us see how truly pitch black it was that deep inside the Caves. Apparently, they were used as a hideout for runaway slaves until the Dutch caught on and barred the entrance. No Arawak Indian paintings or petroglyphs have been found inside the Caves, but carvings are on display outside the Caves down a signposted trail. They are very hard to detect or spot, and are not very interesting.

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Tourist can visit the Caves only by guided tour, but don’t need to book in advance

Upon returning to Willemstad, I picked up a SIM card for my phone because they are very useful for navigating a new country. After a late lunch, I explored the area around the Wilhelmina Bridge, where the bus had dropped me off. The waterfront was even more scenic with the late afternoon sun gleaming on the brightly colored buildings. I saw a tugboat pulling in an ocean-going freighter, and the bridge subsequently swinging closed. Lots of shoppers and tourists were out walking around. There were plenty of souvenir shops and booths all around downtown Willemstad to tempt them to spend their dollars or guilders.

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This gentleman was happy to pose for me outside the Caves

It was hot (83 degrees), and I felt it was time for a break. I headed back poolside to relax and cool off. I would have to figure out where to go for dinner eventually. There’s nothing wrong with a little relaxation, and besides, tomorrow would be a full day.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 14:36 Archived in Curaçao Comments (0)

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