Serbia in 2011 was still a very rough place to be. I’m glad I went, but it wasn’t easy. I look forward to returning to Belgrade someday. I felt as scarred as the city by the time I left – and that’s reflected in this decidedly unfair remembrance that I wrote soon after.
Belgrade is more than a gritty city filled with bad graffiti and dog turds. I know it. and while I found pockets of what seemed like paradise, for the most part, the city felt like what it is, a scarred and damaged war zone where unspeakable atrocities have taken place. Despite having the reputation of being the Paris of Eastern Europe and having the best night life of just about anywhere in Europe, the Serbians I met generally said the nightlife wasn’t so great. While I didn’t visit the many museums of Belgrade, I still did get a sense that this is a cultured place with a highly educated population. I wanted to experience that, but somehow just missed it.
From the apartment I’d been staying in, I wandered to a hostel called 1001 Nights. The owner ran a clean place with a friendly vibe. I arrived at around 8 a.m. and he offered me coffee and rakia. I accepted. Nearby was a wonderful little cafe called JazzYoga which had great jazz playing and illustrated yoga postures on the walls. The food was carefully crafted healthy vegetarian fare. These two places told me that there is certainly more to Belgrade than graffiti, dog turds, and obnoxious fans of the former regime.
In fact, as I walked around, I saw signs of cultured life just about everywhere I looked. In a city of approximately 1.7 million that has been influenced by Turks, Celts, Romans, and many others since it was founded in the 4th century there are signs of art and refinement everywhere you look…if you look past the dog turds and bad graffiti which were everywhere. One thing that was disturbing me but took me a while to figure out was the lack of diversity in Serbia. Serbs are almost 100% white. No blacks, no browns, no coffee colored, no shades other than white and often with blond hair and blue eyes. I usually live in incredibly diverse places and having no skin diversity was frankly pretty creepy. The fact that Belgrade is nicknamed “White City” and has a magazine named the same just made it creepier. Utah has more diversity.
In many ways it is like a nightmare with the stories of kidnappings, organ stealing, human slavery, bombed out buildings, ripped up streets, and utterly shitty grafitti on every possible surface. While for the most part, the Serbs I met were kind, intelligent, and gracious I had to wonder if the interior landscape is as scarred and fucked up as the exterior landscape.
I spent the day wandering through streets of the city. I strolled down the main pedestrian shopping area Knez Mihailova Street and then took a little side trip to the Bohemian cafe section. I snapped a few photos of the famous horse riding statue of Mihailo Obrenovic in Republic Square. I saw quite a few giant cathedrals and plenty of museums that I didn’t get the chance to visit because they were closed on Monday. The Temple of Saint Sava was impressive in its massiveness though only dating from about 1935 so not an ancient site by any means.
A highlight was a visit to the massive Kalemegdan Fortress which was once the cities main military fortification. These days it is the Serb version of Central Park. The park is filled with museums (closed on Mondays) and has wonderful views of the old fortifications, some interesting public art, and incredible viewpoints of the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers.
Housed within the fortress is the Belgrade Zoo. I have to say, I’ve never seen so many bizarre animals in one place before. The highlight was this massive white tiger that sat in it’s cage looking about the size of a VW bug. I’ve never seen such an impressive animal. This is the king, never mind the lion.His name is Khane and he was awe inspiring. In some cases only a small fence separated me or other visitors from the many big cats, wolves, or dangerous ostriches of the zoo. I’m certain that people have lost limbs or body parts in this zoo which is housed in an ancient fortress. I spent the better part of four hours wandering around the zoo and getting up close and personal with the animals. Because it was freaking cold, there weren’t a lot of people there. Just me, the caretakers, and a handful of others. The animals from tropical areas were inside a winter barn which was heated for them, must be a long winter since the barn wasn’t all that big judging by the number of animals inside. Think Noah’s Ark. Oddly, there was a section of the zoo that seemed to be all domestic dogs put in zoo cages. I wonder if they were wild dogs caught amongst the dangerous packs in the city. The man at the hostel told me that people are killed by dogs on a regular basis in Belgrade. Seems like a big problem.
I enjoyed my day of wandering around in Belgrade though I have to admit that I’d been feeling a vague sense of unease since I had arrived in Serbia. It’s a little hard to describe, but suffice to say that I have felt the same thing in the United States, in particular after coming back to the USA from places like Canada. I kept looking over my shoulder. I wasn’t really looking for dogs, though that might have been part of it. It was more like I felt like I was being watched. I felt completely observed, just as in the United States. In the USA these days, if you look around you will find a camera, someone is watching you and chances are there is someone with a gun not too far from wherever you might be (FBI, CIA, DEA, Park Rangers, Forest Service, City Police, State Police, Highway Patrol, Homeland Security, Federal Marshals etc etc etc). Serbia feels the same way.
Later, when I returned to the hostel I asked the owner what the sign that was flashing outside my window was for. To my surprise, he told me it was for a laundry. Sex is used to advertise everything in Serbia it seems.
In 2009, I was on the verge of marriage and changing my life forever. To get a little clear headedness, I went to Luxembourg to get some coffee. While that sounds pretty extravagent, I was already in Belgium, on my way back to Morocco after going back to the USA to gather the necessary documents – so it was only a short train ride away.
Luxembourg is a parliamentary representative democracy with a constitutional monarch; it is ruled by a Grand Duke. It is the world’s only remaining sovereign Grand Duchy. The country has a highly developed economy, with the highest Gross Domestic Product per capita in the world as per IMF and WB. Its historic and strategic importance dates back to its founding as a Roman era fortress site and Frankish count’s castle site in the Early Middle Ages. It was an important bastion along the Spanish road when Spain was the principal European power influencing the whole western hemisphere and beyond in the 16th–17th centuries.
Luxembourg is a founding member of the European Union, NATO, OECD, the United Nations, Benelux, and the Western European Union, reflecting the political consensus in favour of economic, political, and military integration. The city of Luxembourg, the capital and largest city, is the seat of several institutions and agencies of the European Union.
Luxembourg lies on the cultural divide between Romance Europe and Germanic Europe, borrowing customs from each of the distinct traditions. Luxembourg is a trilingual country; German, French and Luxembourgish are official languages. Although a secular state, Luxembourg is predominantly Roman Catholic.
History of Luxembourg
The written history of Lucilinburhuc (i.e. Luxembourg) starts in the year 963, when Siegfried, Count of the Ardennes, and founder of the Luxembourg Dynasty, had a castle built on the territory of the present-day capital of Luxembourg. This castle was the origin of the establishment of a town, which later was to develop into a formidable fortress, known by the name of ‘Gibraltar of the North’. At its height, the fortress was girdled by three ring-walls studded with 24 forts, and linked underground by a 23 kilometre network of Casemates. In 1994, Luxembourg City was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list.
After a long period of foreign sovereignty (Burgundian/ Spanish/ French/ Austrian / …), the Congress of Vienna settled the destiny of the country, by raising it to the rank of Grand Duchy, and by giving it as personal property to the King of the Netherlands William I of Orange-Nassau. The personal union between Luxembourg and the Netherlands lasted until 1890. During this period the political independence and autonomy were strengthened, and the democratic institutions were developed.
The 11th of May 1867 is one of the most important dates in the more recent national history: The Treaty of London reaffirmed Luxembourg’s territorial integrity, and the political autonomy which had already been granted by the Treaty of Vienna of 1839. Furthermore, Luxembourg was declared perpetually neutral, and the great powers agreed to guarantee and to protect the neutrality of the Grand Duchy.
Since 1890, when the Crown of the Grand Duchy passed to the elder branch of the House of Nassau, Luxembourg has had its own Dynasty. The present ruler, H.R.H. Grand Duke Henri, succeeded his father, Grand Duke Jean to the throne in October 2000, after having been appointed as “Lieutenant-Représentant” -the Grand Duke’s official deputy- on March 3, 1998, as provided for by Article 42 of the Luxembourg Constitution.
Grand Duke Jean’s mother, Grand Duchess Charlotte, Duchess of Nassau, Princess of Bourbon Parma, died in 1985. Grand Duke Jean and his wife Grand Duchess Joséphine-Charlotte, the sister to Albert, King of the Belgians, have five children Henri, Jean, Guillaume, Marie-Astrid, and Margaretha. (See also The Grand-Ducal Family and especially monarchie.lu)
Executive power is in the hands of the Grand Duke and a Cabinet of 12 ministers. The legislative power rests with a Parliament (Chamber of Deputies) elected by men and women over 18, all of whom in Luxembourg have the right and duty to vote.
Despite its neutrality, Luxembourg was occupied twice by German troops during the two World Wars. The Battle of the Bulge was to a great extent fought on Luxembourg territory. In 1948, the country gave up its neutrality, to join the various economic, political, and military organisations of Europe. Already forming a close economic union with Belgium since 1921, the Grand Duchy is a founder member of the EU, and was host to the first European institutions in 1953.
In 2008, I left Hawaii in the midst of the great recession. My entire life changed as a result. One of my early stops after I had crossed America by train was the city of Valencia in Spain.
Valencia is a city known the world over for the Oranges that bear its name. And yet, most Valencia Oranges come from Southern California – or so I thought until a bit of research indicated that most now come from Florida. And did they originate in Valencia, Spain? Nope. They originally came from India. Who knew?
Its name comes from the city of Valencia, Spain, known through history for its sweet orange trees, originally from India. The patented orange hybrid was later sold by William Wolfskill to the Irvine Ranch owners, who would plant nearly half of their lands to its cultivation. The success of this crop in Southern California led to the naming of Orange County, California. The Irvine Company’s Valencia operation later split from the company and became Sunkist. Cultivation of the Valencia in Orange County had all but ceased by the mid-1990s due to rising property costs from urban sprawl, which drove most of what remained of the Southern California juice orange industry into Florida and Brazil.
Almost two months on the road. I’ve been from Honolulu to Portland to Sacramento to Salt Lake City to Ogden and back to Salt Lake City to Chicago by way of Denver to Boston to Providence to Lena’s town to New York City to Barcelona to Valencia and now going to head to Alacante.
Valencia is the capital of the autonomous community of Valencia and the third largest city in Spain after Madrid andBarcelona, with around 809,000 inhabitants in the administrative centre. It is the 23rd most populous municipality in the European Union. Valencia is also Spain’s third largest metropolitan area, with a population ranging from 1.7 to 2.3 million. The Port of Valencia is the 5th busiest container port in Europe and the largest on theMediterranean Sea, with a trade volume of 4.21 million TEU’s.
Now, the country. Spain is remarkable. The bars don’t really start happening until midnight. From noon to about five pm most everything is closed. As I travel from East to West I start to see California everywhere I look only instead of adobe missions, I see huge stone castles and massive block apartment buildings built around narrow lanes. The water of the Mediterranean is the same incredible blue of the water in the Philippines.
The craggy mountains and yellow stone with brightly painted houses on rocky ground excites me. The cultures all seem to be individualistic, as if this were some nation cobbled together from many tribes Catalan, Valencian, Basque, and Spanish and yet, they are all a part of this incredible country that discovered the new world, or at least made the horrific contact and then proceeded to dominate, decimate, and reshape the cultures there.
From the gypsies I saw playing accordion and fiddle on the train to the musician/beggars who stand guard with palms out in front of the churches to the celebration of South American dance I wandered upon my first night in Valencia, there is a vibrancy to this culture that is perhaps best summed up by the concept of memento mori, the idea of something to remind one that death is perhaps not as far away as we may think it to be.
I can see this idea in the works of Picasso, Gaudi, and Miro but even in the way that my Spanish friends seem to live their lives. There is a feeling that seems to say that one must spend the last dollar, catch the siesta now, or love the woman of your dreams in this moment because the moment might be taken from one at any time. I think this is perhaps what most resonates with me here in Spain, this idea of carpe diem or living the present moment to the fullest.
Valencia was founded as a Roman colony in 138 BC. The city is situated on the banks of the Turia, on the east coast of the Iberian Peninsula, fronting the Gulf of Valencia on the Mediterranean Sea. Its historic centre is one of the largest in Spain, with approximately 169 acres; this heritage of ancient monuments, views and cultural attractions makes Valencia one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. Major monuments include Valencia Cathedral, the Torres de Serranos, the Torres de Quart, the Llotja de la Seda (declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996), and the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències (City of Arts and Sciences), an entertainment-based cultural and architectural complex designed by Santiago Calatrava and Félix Candela.
As to my language studies, they are somewhat hopeless it seems. As I learn Spanish it is corrupted by my little French, then there is the Spanish as spoken by Italianos and Catalans. A guy in Valencia told me that the Spanish lisp (Buenath Notcthes) is the result of a king they once had who had a lisp and everyone in the country decided to speak like him. In any event, my Spanish vocabulary is growing, but confused and when I tried to speak Arabic to the Moroccans at the less than spectacular Pension Milano, I found that it is locked up for the moment in an inacessable part of my brain. As I start to access it, my vulgar spanish becomes corrupted by Arabic as well….
Cest la vie. Que sais. Al hamdallah.
The Museu de Belles Arts de València houses a large collection of paintings from the 14th to the 18th centuries, including works by Velázquez, El Greco, and Goya, as well as an important series of engravings by Piranesi. The Institut Valencià d’Art Modern (Valencian Institute of Modern Art) houses both permanent collections and temporary exhibitions of contemporary art and photography.
At this point, I have considered to discard my coffee cup and French press several times. I like the invention, but it seems unnecessary since coffee is one thing that is readily available and cheap. I’ve not used it nor my metal water bottle yet in Europe, but I have the feeling that as soon as they are gone, I will find myself wanting them maybe one more week and then I can get rid of the cup and press. They are easily replaceable and they haven’t been used on this trip yet at all, the water bottle it is more useful and I will keep it. (future note: both have been incredibly useful and are still with me 3 years later)
The city of Science and Technology was amazing to see, but was it worth the cost? Valencia is integrated into an industrial area on the Costa del Azahar (Orange Blossom Coast). Valencia’s main festival is the Falles. The traditional Spanish dish, paella, originated in Valencia.
The buses are more expensive between cities than I expected, I think this may be to the rise in gas prices last summer. 20-30 Euros for each leg so far. The ferry to Morocco should be about the same. Accommodation runs 10-20 euros each night in the hostels and pensions.
As for couch surfing, it isn’t really so much a way to save money as to meet new people and make new friends. If I hadn’t of couch surfed in Barcelona, I would have spent far less, but the experience would also have been far less. To be a good couch surfer, I think one should provide something to ones host, a bottle of wine, beers, a meal…something. Perhaps I am too generous, but this seems a small price to pay for the generosity I have recieved from my hosts.
Two months into this and almost 1/3 of my funds are gone. Yikes. We will see..the time will pass and the road will have its way with me as it always does. The lessons learned will be more than to simply be able to get by in other regions of the world, it will be more like how to get by in this life.
Once I hit Turkey, I will examine the prediction a client of mine once made to me when I was a stock broker. He said something like “Your destiny is to manage a guest house on the banks of the Bosphorus” , perhaps he was right, but if not then I will move on to India and then most likely to Korea to teach English… there is a lot of road between here and there though….
On our honeymoon trip to Turkey back in 2010, my wife and I were excited to visit the famed Blue Mosque in Sultan Ahmet, the monument and tourist section of Istanbul.
The Sultan Ahmet region is named for Sultan Ahmet I who ruled from 1603 to 1617 AD. The Sultan Ahmet Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque was built near the Aya Sophia to provide a greater wonder than that of the Hagia Sophia. It was commissioned by the Sultan and designed by Mehmet Aga and what the Aya Sophia offers in terms of interior is surpassed by the exterior of the Blue Mosque.
Just a short walk from the Aya Sophia, the Blue Mosque was also crowded with tourists.
In all of Morocco, the only Mosque that non-Muslims can enter is the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca. In Turkey, anyone can go in. We entered the Blue Mosque with reverence but some Muslims from other countries get a little outraged to see Buddhists, Christians, women in shorts, and other non Muslims inside one of the world’s great mosques.
As we entered it was nearly the time for prayer and the guards were getting the non-Muslims to leave. Prayer was a little different from prayer in both Morocco and Hawaii.
The call to prayer in Istanbul is coordinated between the many mosques so that you don’t get the same warbling effect you get between mosques in Morocco all sounding the call to prayer at slightly different moments. Instead, it is more like a symphony with the various mosques singing point and counterpoint. The call to prayer itself is different than that in Morocco and many Turkish Muslims don’t know how to read Arabic script, the language of the Koran. They often know the words, but not the meanings and thus the prayers can be less detailed than those of Arabic speaking countries.
When the mosque was built, it rivaled the Kabaa mosque in Mecca and the six minarets were equal in number to those of the Kabaa. In order to keep the peace, Sultan Ahmet built a seventh minaret in Mecca in order to show that he wasn’t moving the center of Islam to a new capital, though in effect, that is what he did, at least for a time.
The Blue Mosque is a geometric wonder in that the outer courtyard is exactly the same size as the interior and it’s proportions and measurements all align with the concepts of sacred geometry. It was built in the ten years between 1606 and 1616. Sultan Ahmet I died just a year after the Mosque was completed. His tomb is located in a separate building nearby.
Entry is free but restricted to Muslims during the time of prayers.
My first trip to Japan was too short but wonderful. I visited Osaka and Hiroshima. On my last day, I woke up and had Japanese breakfast before walking to Osaka Castle and visiting the temple which honors the patron of the city on the way. The castle was stunning and huge – much more than I expected – mostly though, I was impressed by the moat. After this I took the subway back to my hotel and checked out. Then I walked to Namba Parks, a building with a forest built on it and bought a hard to find toy for Sophia at Japanese Toys R Us. Then I shopped in various malls and ate a nice tempura and sashimi lunch before I caught the electric train towards the airport. I had far too much time before my flight, so I got off the train early in a small looking town and had a coffee, walked through some shopping centers and went to a grocery store. I may have been the only foreigner to visit that town on that day…no one spoke any English at all. It was nice. Then to the airport, still feeling I had too much time but actually, with customs and check in and other stuff – I only had about an hour waiting past the check in and customs. I made a friend in line and we chatted at various times through the travel process. On the flight, I slept and then arrived back home in Honolulu, Hawaii. It’s always nice to come back to Oahu, but I’ll miss Japan.
Arriving in Osaka – I admit, I found myself confused. The Japanese I thought I had learned just went away instantly, but luckily workers at the airport seemed used to speaking English and I was able to rent a wifi unit which powered my phone for the two days I was there. I changed $100 USD for about 11000 Yen and with the help of Google, found my way to the Dotonburi neighborhood using the train.
Japanese people are simply fun for me to watch. I try not to stare. The cute kids playing on the train, the exhausted workmen, the hipster youth, the giggling work girls. I love the diversity within the Japanese themselves – I think they are a beautiful people, in general. And yes, I find Japanese women to almost universally be attractive – and slightly bizarre at the same time. From the dignified mother watching her kids on the train to the elf-like girls in the ramen shop to the grandmother type who made the crazy beaker coffee yesterday – not a romantic attraction, although certainly there are beauties that inspire me, but more of a simple liking of them – I simply like Japanese women. Japanese men are also pleasant to meet and talk with – the young barman last night ( I got a beer in an Irish pub owned by a cool Osaka guy, father of four young kids, never takes a day off, has a nice place). I was led there by the night manager of the hotel when I simply asked where there was a pub – he decided I wanted an Irish pub and after much looking at maps and having the desk girl (she was lovely) explain things to me – which I understood quite well – he decided to walk me there.
I had the best bowl of ramen in my life in one of the privacy slurping places – and ordered a side of green onions with peanuts which were like heaven. At the aforementioned coffee in beakers bar, I met a very nice older Aussie couple.
As I walked through the neon lit streets of Dotonbori. I was exhausted, but exhilarated and filled with a sense of happiness. The canals and the lights and the shops and the delighted people watching puppies in the window of a pet shop. And the entire time, I felt safe. No vague sense of being followed or being worried about getting mugged or getting my pocket picked. The tiny slightly smoke-stinky hotel room is fun in it’s difference from a western hotel.This is simply a first taste of a country that I hope I can come back to again and again and again.
I made this trip back in 2012…it seems like it was aeons ago. I considered finding a way into North Korea, but at the time it was beyond my budget in both time and money and I had a new child at home and was just learning what it feels like to have another human completely dependent on your choices – so I opted to go to the less visited DMZ in Sokcho, South Korea. This was after my first trip to Seoul and before my trips to the Penis Park in Samcheok and Busan in the South.
I should start out with a rather silly confession. When I was a pre-teen there were two shows I watched I Love Lucy, Gilligan’s Island, Little House on the Prarie, and M.A.S.H. I can still tell you the names of every character on each show and outline the plots of nearly every episode even though it’s been more than 25 years since I would watch those shows after school and before bedtime. For those who don’t remember the shows, Little House on the Prarie was the story of the Ingles family as they homesteaded on the Great Plains in the 1800s, Gilligan’s Island was about a group of castaways from a Hawaii sailing tour, I Love Lucy was about a funny lady from the 1950s, and M.A.S.H. was the story of the U.S. Army 4077th Mobile Surgical Unit during the Korean War.
Don’t worry, this post has nothing to do with most of those shows (though my psychological makeup probably has a lot to do with the show) and not much to do with M.A.S.H. aside from the fact that every preconception I had about South Korea, North Korea, or all of Korea was pretty much based on an American TV show made in the 1970s about a war that took place in the 1950s. This is probably the reason I was so surprised to find an ultra-modern nation rather than rice paddies and water buffalo as I had subconsciously been expecting.
In any event, since the Korean War had played such a large part in my childhood development through M.A.S.H, I knew that I would pay a visit to the DMZ that sits between North and South Korea. DMZ stands for Demilitarized Zone and is an area where it is prohibited to have weapons, armies, or military facilities. The two Koreas are technically still at war but they signed an armistice back on July 27, 1953. The Korean DMZ is a 248 km long and 4 km wide (155 x 2.5 miles) swath of land that runs between Kim Jong Ils wacky North Korean regime and the ultra modern South Korean industrial state. This is the world’s largest DMZ and it has been active for more than 50 years now. The amazing thing about the DMZ is that since no humans have been in it for most of the time it has existed, nature has almost fully recovered and it is filled with wildlife, forests, and more despite once being ruined by the horrors of war.
So, I wanted to visit the DMZ. I was going to go to the DMZ from Seoul but when I saw glossy tourist brochures and realized it would mean riding a bus with a tour guide and then taking an escorted walk into the (Panmunjan) area before getting on the bus again for an awful tourist lunch, I decided that there had to be a better way. I figured I would find it even though when I asked in Seoul, nearly everyone told me that this was the only way to see the DMZ.
In Sokcho, I looked at the maps and realized that I was actually closer to the DMZ than I had been in Seoul. I asked the proprietor of the guest house about it and he told me that if I took the number one bus to the end, then hitch hiked, I would be able to get to the DMZ and the Unification Observatory in Gangwan-do. From Sokcho I would go to Goseong and then onwards by thumb past Hwa-jin-Po Beach and finally, I would have to walk a bit and I would be at the Unification Observatory which sits on the South Korean Side of the DMZ and overlooks the mountainous coastline heading up the North Korean coastline.
Of course, I wanted to visit North Korea since I had been fairly interested in Kim Jong Ill and his wacked out claims to have invented the toaster, shot 18 holes in one in a round of golf, and of course his prolific movie making, opera writing, and novel penning which defies human capacity. The problem is that to go to North Korea is way more money than I could possibly afford. This was probably as close as I’d get. I was nervous about hitching to North Korea, I thought about trying to find cheap car hire, but ultimately the idea of hitching appealed to me, so I decided to go for it anyway. This might be my only chance to see it before it disappeared in a cloud of nuclear smoke.
I got on the number 1 bus and rode it to the end of the line at Goseong. From there I got out and stuck out my thumb and a father and daughter picked me up. They didn’t speak any English but they understood that I was heading to the DMZ. They took me up the coast through the concrete tank traps and along the barb wired Hwa-jin-Po-Beach where they dropped me off and I walked along the cold winter shoreline which was lined with barbed wire every inch of it’s beautiful length. Since the two countries are still at war, this is to protect against invasion, though in the summer months they open up the barbed wire gates to allow families to enjoy the gorgeous sand and shoreline. In fact, during the active war, this part was under North Korean control and Kim Il Sung used to bring his rotund son Kim Jong Il to play on these very shores.
From there, I caught a ride with two guys who were taking a weekend leave from their military duty and had driven overnight to come up and see the DMZ. These Korean soldiers were big guys, much taller than me and even though we didn’t have any language in common we ended up having a fun day together going through checkpoints, climbing to the Unification Observatory, and walking through the Gangwon-do DMZ museum.
At the observatory, we looked out over Mt. Geomgangsan and Heageumgang. Gangwon-do is the only divided province in the country with half belonging to the North and half belonging to the South. Looking at North Korea to the north there were mountains, coastline, and an empty road leading into the distance. Not a human soul in sight. And I might add that there were three other visitors at the DMZ observatory and they were all Korean. No tourists except me sandwiched between my new Korean soldier friends.
We had a light lunch of wet noodle fish kabobs dipped in sauce at the small restaurant at the observatory and one of the Korean soldiers bought a souvenir scarf which he then surprised me by presenting to me as a gift. It was a sort of traditional paisley pattern orange bandana with a map of the area of Gongwan-do showing North Korea, South Korea, and DMZ plus the towns that exist. No towns exists in the DMZ and to the North they are hidden in the folds of the incredible mountains.
Our final stop of the day was the DMZ Museum which is the only DMZ museum in the world. The museum presented a history of the Korean war, the separation of the country, the creation of the DMZ, and the hopes for peace and unification some day. There was something very special about going through this museum with my new soldier friends and each of us writing our wishes for peace on the leaves of the peace trees inside. The museum detailed the entire DMZ, had a large collection of relics from the active part of the war in the 1950’s, as well as lots of information about North Korean attempts to tunnel under the DMZ, infiltrate beaches with mini submarines, and sabotage the South Korean government with spies.
The tunneling in particular is amazing since these weren’t like mineshafts but more like underground highways being carved out to move huge numbers of troops, armor, and equipment. From the DMZ and the world under Seoul, I can see one thing…Koreans love to dig tunnels. If this were middle earth, the Koreans would be the dwarves, though I was certainly the dwarf next to my tall new friends.
Grand total for the day was about 15000 won or $15 U.S. versus the nearly $100 a tourist trip from Seoul would have cost. So, I saved $85, made some new friends, had a unique experience, and didn’t have to ride a bus with a bunch of annoying blue haired baby boomers. All told, this day was a huge success.
As a bonus, I guess I could combine my childhood TV with my experience and write a new series called “Little House on the DMZ”. At the end of the day, my friends dropped me off in Sokcho and headed back to their base while I suddenly had a new understanding about Korea, the Korean War, and the DMZ. I still hoped that at some point I would see a rice paddy or a water buffalo though…
On my first trip to South Korea, back in 2012, I found many wonders. I disocvered the joys of the Penis Park and the value of Love Motels as well as visiting the DMZ and exploring Seoul, Busan, and Samcheok. All of that was spectacular, but the thing I loved most were the Korean bathhouses , jjimjilbang.
My favorite thing about Korea is the jinjabongs. I know, best is a word that one shouldn’t really use when writing about world travel since it’s such a subjective word, but here it applies. Korea is filled with wonderful things but the jingabongs (or jjimjilbangs) are the most wonderful.
So, what are they? Well, unlike Hamams in Morocco or Turkey, these are not just places for bathing and massage. These are full blown social zones. The thrid place extraordinaire. As you can see, I’ve become a bit of a bathhouse aficionado (okay, how gay does that sound?) and I found these to be without compare.
So, once again, what is a jingabong? Okay, it is a bathing place, and it’s a place you can get a massage…and more. Let me just describe the process. I didn’t take any pictures but found a few on the web to show you. Plus, a Vagobond reader provided these links which are the jjimjilbang I went to in Hondae http://www.vesta.co.kr/ and the other in the area which is the www.hotelnongshim.com/.
For usually less than 10 Euros you can check into a jingabong for 12-16 hours. They are open 24 hours. When you check in they will give you jingabong clothes. Usually simple shorts and blouse, sometimes colored white for me and pink for women. You will also be given a locker key. Go in, take of your shoes, find your locker, grab a towel, and take off all your clothes (no room for modesty here, but I should point out that the locker and bath rooms are segregated by sex.)
Once you are nude along with all the other guys or girls, head into the bath room. First of all, you should make sure to shower in the stalls first. No one wants to share a bath with the backpacker grime that has accumulated all over you. After washing, you have a choice of a number of tubs ranging from cold to very very hot.
Jump in, soak, try not to be bothered by the fact that you are the hairiest person anyone there has ever seen. In fact, aside from there being tubs and steam rooms, an assortment of yellowmud, pine, charcoal, or salt saunas, a cold room and an oxygen room and a few special rooms where you can choose to get a massage, it’s not so different from locker rooms all over the world. So, that’s it?
Nope. This is where it gets really cool. You finish your bath and maybe you chill out in the massage chairs or get some electrolyte drinks from the vending machine. Then you throw on your ‘jingabong clothes’ and lock your stuff up in your locker. Don’t forget to bring money with you, you’ll want it.
You will now enter the area where the sexes meet. You’ll find that there are mats and pillows, plenty of space to lie down on the floor, multiple TV rooms, extensive manga libraries, video games, a restaurant, more massage areas, private rooms, and excercise areas just for men and for women. So, you can grab a meal, enjoy some tea, grab a mat and take a nap….
In fact, you can have a beer, go to the cinema room, go to the smoking room, or do just about anything you can do in the outside world but in a nice, safe, quiet little cave complex where stress seems to disappear. You can nap (but do be careful of your key while you nap since your valuables are presumably in your locker.)
Wait a minute…if it’s open 24 hours and you can shower, sleep, stash your things in a locker, drink, and eat there and you are allowed to stay there 12 hours or more, why don’t people use it as a hotel?
Ah-ha! Now you have it. Show up at night, have a nice shower and a relaxing bath, enjoy dinner, watch some television, lay down on a mat, sleep, and wake up for another shower in the morning. In fact, the facilities are better than most hostels or one or two star hotels and you are paying around $10. Not to mention the food is good, it’s easy to make friends, and you leave feeling completely refreshed.
My only regret is that I didn’t discover jingabongs until near the end of my time in South Korea. I should have avoided most of the time I stayed in hostels or love motels and just stayed in the jingabong. In Busan, there is even a view of the sea from the baths of the jingabong.
I love jingabongs. In fact, I love all kinds of bath houses. I can’t believe I just said that….
I love Sevilla. I was there in mid 2009 and again in 2011. It was one of those places where – if I hadn’t of been on a schedule – I would have been very happy to hang around for a longer period.
In doing a little digging, I find that this was the home of one of the greatest Sufi mystics ibn Arabi (aka Dr. Maximus)
A vastly prolific writer, Ibn Arabi is generally known as the prime exponent of the idea later known as Wahdat-ul-Wujood, though he did not use this term in his writings. His emphasis was on the true potential of the human being and the path to realising that potential and becoming the perfect or complete man (al-insan al-kamil).Some 800 works are attributed to Ibn Arabi, although only some have been authenticated
Also it was the home of Ibn Khaldun, the first real anthropologist, so my forefather by educational lineage.
…an astronomer, economist, historian, Islamic scholar, Islamic theologian, hafiz, jurist, lawyer, mathematician, military strategist, nutritionist, philosopher, social scientist and statesmanâ€”born in North Africa in present-day Tunisia. He is considered the forerunner of several social scientific disciplines: demography, cultural history,historiography, the philosophy of history,and sociology.
Finally, as if that isn’t enough, Seville is the setting for Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in which Christ returns to earth and is arrested
The main portion of the text is the Inquisitor explaining to Jesus why his return would interfere with the mission of the church. The Inquisitor frames his denunciation of Jesus around the three questions Satan asked Jesus during the temptation of Christ in the desert. These three are the temptation to turn stones into bread, the temptation to cast Himself from the Temple and be saved by the angels, and the temptation to rule over all the kingdoms of the world. The Inquisitor states that Jesus rejected these three temptations in favor of freedom, but thinks that Jesus has misjudged human nature. He does not believe that the vast majority of humanity can handle the freedom which Jesus has given them. Thus, he implies that Jesus, in giving humans freedom to choose, has excluded the majority of humanity from redemption and doomed it to suffer.
Seville was also the famous home of Don Juan, the world’s most notorious lover.
Don Juan is a rogue and a libertine who takes great pleasure in seducing women and (in most versions) enjoys fighting their champions. Later, in a graveyard Don Juan encounters a statue of the dead father of a girl he has seduced, and, impiously, invites him to dine with him; the statue gladly accepts. The father’s ghost arrives for dinner at Don Juan’s house and in turn invites Don Juan to dine with him in the graveyard. Don Juan accepts, and goes to the father’s grave where the statue asks to shake Don Juan’s hand. When he extends his arm, the statue grabs hold and drags him away, to Hell.
(Originally Published 03 APR 2009)
Below are a few more pictures I took when Iwas fortunate enough to visit this fabulous city. I hope I get the chance to go back again someday and simply enjoy the scenary and the food with nothing further on my agenda.
#flashbackfriday – Back in 2009 – I had to make a mad dash trip from Morocco in North Africa to the USA so that I could get the paperwork and documents necessary for my Sahara marriage (2010) – it was a crazy trip that took me across Canada by foot and thumb, back to my hometown of Big Bear Lake, California, and many other places – among them – a very fast stop in Ireland where I had the opportunity to sip some Guinness, drink a little whiskey, and take this beautiful outing to Wicklow and Glendalough…
Yesterday in my jet lagged no sleep state I signed on to a tour of some pretty places outside of Dublin. As mentioned earlier, the guide was pretty good except for the fact that he didn’t tell me I wouldn’t get a ride back to where he picked me up until the end of the day and then dumped me off I’m not sure exactly where.
I don’t remember a lot of what he said, lots of the same tourist jokes you hear all over the world. Pointed out where James Joyce mother lived and the homes of some fictional characters from ‘The Dubliners’. Yes, real homes of fictional characters. He wasn’t shy about his dislike of the English despite most of the other passengers being old English ladies. Also there wes a French couple that spoke no English and a couple of Germans.
I like old English ladies. They told me about their gardens and the lovely places back in England. They had a million questions about Hawaii and Morocco and so my guide skills came in handy.
Hey, what’s the loch ness monster doing in Ireland?
We visited Glendalough in Wicklow County and drove through the moutains and peat bogs. A few mountain towns and a stop at a little village for lunch. Unfortunately, all Irish villages look like fake country villages. I had a bowl of veggie soup that was pretty good.
Situated right in the heart of the Wicklow Mountains National Park, Glendalough is one of the most visited locations in Ireland, with over 1 million visitors a year.
We stopped and looked over a lake they call Guinness Lake due to it’s black waters and white sand beach (and the fact that the water to make Guiness comes from it)
Glendalough gets its name from the Irish language. Gleann dá locha literally means the ‘Glen of the two lakes’. We stopped at a waterfall that was …you know…it was a waterfall from the road.
And then we drove back listening to the kind of Irish music that makes me feel like it’s Christmas and actually…I hate Christmas.
The saving grace was the old English ladies with thier over the top cheerfulness and their sarcastic wit. Also since I was the only one who speaks any French besides the French people, I did chat with them for a bit too…they spoke no English and we had a surprisingly decent conversation considering the state of my French. I need to improve that.
A lot of the tour was about St. Kevin, although this legend of St. Kevin wasn’t included but I found it online:
Perhaps the most famous legend is the one about Kathleen of the “eyes of most unholy blue”. She is said to have pursued the handsome Kevin in a bid to captivate him, ignoring the fact that he was bound by holy vows. He became annoyed and repulsed her by beating her with a bunch of nettles. She later sought his forgiveness and is said to have become a very holy woman, noted for her grate sanctity.
Nothing like beating a woman with a bunch of nettles. What a guy!
Here is the tour description from the company’s website.
Tour Ireland with Over The Top Tours. We’ll show you Ireland in a way that larger coach companies cannot. Experience fun and adventure off the beaten track.
We offer you the opportunity to enjoy this land of mysterious mountains and spectacular valleys.
The tour starts over the Dublin mountains and into the picturesque Sally Gap. Experience breathtaking views with complimentary coffee! Wicklow is widely known as the “Garden of Ireland” Stop where you like and when you like along the route.
See the famous film locations for Braveheart and Ballykissangel. Visit hidden lakes and luscious waterfalls. Travel the by-roads to beautiful Glendalough and after a healthy walk, time for lunch* and a drop of the famous brew. Returning home via the depths of the Wicklow mountains passing the scenic lakes of Blessington.
I thought about going down and collecting those coins but instead I just added one more and made a wish. Also wrapped my arms around St. Kevins cross and made the same wish, I’m not telling what it was. That’s me reflected in the middle and a couple of my old English lady friends on either side.
By the way, lunch and the ‘famous brew’ were not included and were overpriced at the little stop which is why I opted for coffee and the famous veggie soup.
Ireland is sort of like Hawaii in that there are lots of stone walls everywhere, sort of like the Pacific Northwest as there are lots of blackberries and people with big red noses everywhere, and like nowhere else really…I like it, but as I’ve said before recently, I’m finding travel to be more humdrum and boring than ever before, in particular this kind of tourist trip.
Here is more on Glendalough: Glendalough, or the Glen of two Lakes, is one of the most important sites of maonastic ruins in Ireland. It is also known as the city of the seven Churches. Fourteen centuries have passed since the death of its founder, St. Kevin, when the valley was part of Ireland’s Golden Age. The two lakes, which gave the valley its name, came into existence thousands of years ago, after the Ice Age, when great deposits of earth and stone were strewn across the valley in the area where the Round Tower now exists. The mountain streams eventually formed a large lake. The Pollanass river spread alluvial deposits across the centre of the lake and created a divide to form the Upper and Lower Lakes. The Glenealo river flows in from the West into the Upper lake which is the larger and deepest of the two lakes. Before the arrival of St. Kevin this valley (glen) would have been desolate and remote. It must have been ideal for St Kevin as a retreat and area to be ‘away from it all’. Kevin died in 617 A.D. at the age of 120 years and his name and life’s work is forever entwine with the ruins and the Glendalough Valley. The recorded history of the wooded valley dates from the 6th century – the dawn of Christianity in Ireland. For 500 years it was one of Irelands great ecclesiastical foundations and schools of learning. The establishment was attacked, burned and plundered by the Danes, who were based in the stronghold of Dublin, a shortish distance away, and making it an easy target.. Glendalough, despite extensive fire damage in 1163 A.D. prospered until the early 13th century. In 1163, Laurence O’Toole, Abbot of Glendalough, who later became Irelands first canonised saint, was appointed Archbishop of Dublin.
The arrival of the Normans in Ireland sealed the fate of Glendalough, as in 1214 the monastery was destroyed by the invaders and the Diocese of Glendalough was united with the Sea of Dublin. After that, Glendalough declined as a monastic establishment and gradually it became deserted.
The buildings fell into decay and more than 6 hundred years elapsed before a reconstruction program was started in 1878. Further work was carried out in the 20th century Today the valley of Glendalough is extensively wooded and a comprehensive network of walk ways have been completed and continually improved, which provides good access for the visitor and researcher to wonder the valley.
(Originally posted 02 October 2009)
In early spring of 2009, I was in an existential crisis. I’d fallen for a girl in Morocco and far too quickly, we’d decided to get married. I felt trapped but at the same time I was in love and wanted to marry her – something inside me or inside her wouldn’t let me escape. I had varying degrees of panic, emotion, and fear along with a sense of things already being written and no chance of changing what the future would be. I had one chance to get away…away from rings and engagement parties and expectation – bureaucracy combined with poverty could save me. She knew I didn’t have any money and also, when I set out travelling, I hadn’t brought things like my birth certificate or other paperwork I would need for marriage with me.
A friend had offered me a kayaking guide job in Alaska and I proposed to her that I leave, work for the summer – gather my paperwork, and then come back and have a wedding. My thought process was that if we allowed ourselves five or six months apart – our emotions would cool and we’d probably both decide it was better not to get married. I didn’t have enough money to fly direct to Alaska from Morocco – so I had to be creative with what I had. I booked a flight from Morocco to Madrid, a flight from Madrid to Germany, Germany to Ireland and then a round trip flight from Dublin to New Jersey. I figured I would take the ferry from Maine to Canada and then hitchhike to Alaska. It might sound crazy but that was the cheapest way to do it and this was in the days that I was still paying cash for everything – I didn’t have a credit card only a bank account and a debit card. The European flights cost me a combined total of about $150 USD using Ryan Air. The trans-Atlantic round trip cost about $600. That left me about $300 to get across Canada and I figured when the work in Alaska was done, I would be able to pay for a flight back to New Jersey if I wanted to actually go through with the wedding at that point.
There was only one problem – my bank saw all this European activity and the ferry ticket to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia and they shut down my debit card and cut me off from all the money I had. By the time I was boarding the ferry in Portland, Maine where I’d couchsurfed with two awesome waitresses, I didn’t know it but all I had was enough money in my pocket to get $4 Canadian…and that’s all I would get for my trip across Canada. Also, one other hitch – when I’d landed in the USA, I found an email from my friend in Alaska – they’d already given the job to someone else – there was no job waiting for me. I couldn’t write about this at the time – maybe I shouldn’t be writing about this at all – since I ended up eventually going back and marrying the girl in Morocco – but there I was. Trying to figure out what the best course for my life was – trying to take control of my destiny – but my destiny was already laid out. I had thought there might be escaping it, but I’ve come to believe in powers greater than ourselves guiding our every decision. I believe that free wil is an illusion…an important one, but still an illusion.
With no plan, I decided to proceed across Canada by thumb and by foot.
Canadian Customs can be tricky. They sometimes are angry that American customs treat them badly. The same happens on the other side – unfortunately for me, I was targeted by an angry middle-aged Canadian customs agent. I’m convinced I reminded her of some guy who had done her wrong in the past, because she was relentless tearing through my bags…asking me suspicious questions in a machine gun patter….and ultimately, because she was convinced there must be something – she used drug wipe cloths inside a used book I’d bought in Portland, Maine and told me that it had tested positive for heroin. She read my journal angrily and when I protested she said “Why? Is there something in here you don’t want me to read?” “It’s my diary,” was all I was able to say. After several hours of interrogation and being locked in a small room – eventually a supervisor came and apologized to me – he said that someone had used duct tape to tape thedust jacket on the book and duct tape often came up as a false positive with that particular test. I didn’t see the agent who had ‘apprehended’ me again. I was led outside and released into a beautiful spring day in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
I spent a few days with a lovely couchsurfing host named Carla. She was the chief reporter for the newspaper in her area and she led me to pickled aliens, student pinwheels, and I got to go to the Mayor of Yarmouth’s birthday party and eat some delicious mayor cake. Nova Scotia was amazing. I loved it. Acadian culture is a mixture of the French, English, and Native American people who lived in Eastern Canada over the past several hundred years. I said goodbye to Carla and stuck out my thumb.
Next came the hitch hiking. Hitchhiking is always a little bit risky. Hitching in Canada is safe but you run the risk of being left out in the prairie for a cold cold night. I traveled 2922.1 Miles by thumb and foot in 11 days. You don’t want to be in any country with only $4 Canadian…but if you have to pick one, it should be Canada.
Halifax is where the maiden voyage of Titanic really ended, with the most lasting legacy from the sinking located here. The world was stunned in 1912 by the loss of the liner Titanic on her maiden voyage. Halifax, Nova Scotia, located on the eastern coast of Canada, has one of the most moving and intimate connections with the Titanic disaster, playing a key role during the tragedy’s aftermath and becoming the final resting place of many of her unclaimed victims.
Three Halifax ships were involved in the grim task of recovering victims – many of whom were laid to rest in three of the city’s cemeteries. Rows of black granite headstones, each inscribed with the same date, April 15, 1912, are a stark reminder of the disaster.
In Halifax, I stayed with an amazingly funny girl named Anna – again through Couchsurfing. We hit thrift shops and out of the way and off the beaten path tourist locations. We had a blast. I almost didn’t want to leave. Actually, I didn’t want to leave – but I felt like I had to. I moved onward to Quebec City.
Quebec City is gorgeous. While the cities of Europe are very nice, they always felt like something was not quite right about them. I think it’s because I’m a North American and we North American’s have a different sense of space, nature, and certainly history. Quebec City (like Victoria in British Columbia) has the charm of old Europe, the flavor of nobility, and the essence North America.
Most of my first day was spent in the beautiful Musee de Civilzation. A natural place for an anthropologist to end up I think. They had several interesting exhibits, one on Egyptology, another on the long lasting effects in North America of the 7 years war which it turns out led to the French Expulsion from Nova Scotia, the war of Independence in the states, and most likely to the horrid treatment of indigenous peoples in Canada by the English after the much more enlightened treatment of the indigenous by the French. Full citizenship to genocide including the use of disease ridden blankets by the English. My favorite was a look at creatures from outer space in fact and fiction.
I met up with my absolutely awesome couch surfing host, Kelie. Over the next few days – she showed me as much of Quebec City as she could and frankly, each moment I was there made it harder for me to leave. She was one of the coolest people I met in my travels. And yet, I was to keep meeting cool people on this trip across Canada. I’d lived so close to Canada in Bellingham, Washington during the 1990s…I should have spent more time in Canada.
I left Quebec with that same feeling of being driven by something larger than me. That largers something drove me into the large province of Ontario. Ontario is huge and to drive along Lake Superior is more like driving along the ocean than anything else. I caught unmemorable rides all the way to Thunder Bay when i got picked up by Dawn and Leah. They liked my hat and they took me home to Sudbury where we spent the next few days recycling cans, drinking, having parties, going to parties, and absolutely loving life.
Sudbury is an interesting place. 1.8 billion years ago a huge meteorite smashed into this area. It was composed of mostly nickel. Then about 150 years ago the Canadians started mining here because of the nickel. The nickel mining process is incredibly environmentally destructive and until about five years ago Sudbury apparently looked like the surface of the moon because of the huge slag piles from the mines.
This is a railroad town and sits on the trans Canadian highway, so it has a familiar feel to it. Feels a lot like Bellingham, Washington to me. The people are an interesting mix of weeded out bums, artists, musicians, and environmental activists.
Thomas Edison visited the Sudbury area as a prospector in 1901, and is credited with the original discovery of the ore body at Falconbridge.
During the Apollo manned lunar exploration program, NASA astronauts trained in Sudbury to become familiar with shatter cones: a rare rock formation connected with meteorite impacts. However, the popular misconception that they were visiting Sudbury because it purportedly resembled the lifeless surface of the moon dogged the city for years.
Dawn had just bought a car and hadn’t yet learned how to drive. She offered to take me to Winnipeg, Manitoba where she wanted to visit a friend – if I were willing to teach her how to drive. Dawn is a midwife and again – one of my favorite people ever. Off we went! We picked up another hitch hiker along the way and finally, she dropped us both off in Winnipeg at a truck stop. The other hitchhiker wandered off but Dawn and I were all torn up at having to part company. It was hard to say goodbye! I forgot my travelling hat and about a month later, the lovely girl mailed it to me.
From Winnipeg I hitched to Calgary where I finally managed to get Paypal to let me access some of my funds through my debit card. I got a cheap hotel room before heading off into the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I got a ride to the rockies early but after that – no one was stopping. Late in the day, I noticed that I was being followed by three bears – a mother and two large cubs who were hungry after their long winter nap. A chain link fence stood between me and them as they walked on the railroad tracks and I walked on the road. As the road and the tracks got closer, I began to worry that the fence might end because the three bears were watching me intently.
Thankfully, a retired park ranger was driving by and stopped. He invited me to stay at his house and the next day drove me through the Rockies taking me to Banff, Lake Louise, the Three Sisters, and many beautiful spots. He dropped me at the base of the mountains on the British Columbia side and paid for a hotel room for me. All the way across Canada, I had people offering me shelter, buying me meals, taking me to their homes or getting me hotel rooms. I was awed by the sense of human deceny I found in Canada.
The next morning I caught a ride early from a guy who looked like he was coming off a serious bender. Turned out he was. He told me horror stories about his wife and best friend who had gone into the porn business together and then abandoned him to make their own movies. He offered to give me his and her wedding rings and the Rolex watch she had given him – I was broke and probably should have accepted but didn’t want the karmic weight he had attached to them in his tales. I politely said no but accepted when he offered to buy me breakfast at a Denny’s in Vancouver.
After breakfast I walked from Vancouver down to the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine, Washington. When the border guards asked where I was coming from, I lied and told them I had taken a day trip from Bellingham – which is what most people crossing the border were doing. I walked across the border and called my friend Dave in Bellingham, he drove up and picked me up.
That’s how I went across Canada by thumb and foot. It was awesome. I love Canada.
From 2009 to 2013, Morocco was home for me. While I didn’t live in Fez for all of my time in Morocco (only about six months) it was the closest city to the town of Sefrou, where I lived the rest of the time I was there. Fez was where I found expat friends, a job, nightlife, and much more. It’s where my daughter was born. I love Fez. I wrote this back in 2013, when I was still going there on a regular basis – even substituting once in a while as a cultural tour guide in the heart of the medina.
I first came to Fez, Morocco on a 3 a.m. train from Tangier. I’d been in Morocco (and Africa for that matter) for less than 12 hours and the adventures that followed are far too numerous to tell here but they involve a girl, a Berber Nomad marriage in the Sahara, a baby, and the fact that four years later, I still find myself living just 28 km South of Fez with my Moroccan wife and our baby daughter.
The point of all of this, is that Fez is one of the most remarkable places on the planet and if you take a trip into the Arab world- Fez is an astounding starting place that will enchant you, fill your camera’s memory card, and affect you for the rest of your life. Perhaps not in as profound a way as it has me, but the truth is that I’ve never met anyone who has visited Fez with nothing remarkable to share when they went home.
The ancient medina of Fes-el-Bali is the largest car free urban area in the world in addition to being the oldest inhabited medieval Islamic city left in anything like it’s original state. With more than 9,500 narrow streets, alleys, and twisty turny paths, it’s no wonder that people who have lived their whole lives in the medina still sometimes become lost.
As a visitor, you will most likely first come into the medina through the massive maw of Bab Boujaloud where you will be called to dine on meat heavy tajine dishes or huge golden piles of couscous. The touts can be overwhelming at first, but you don’t need to worry because the days of the truly aggressive touts and false guides are now a thing of the past – the tourist police have reined them in.
Before you venture into the medina, you should understand that donkeys and mules have the right of way – they carry crates of coke, baskets of grain, and everything else that needs heavy transport in the medina and they will, run you over. So, pay attention and don’t get distracted by the magnificent architecture, the women scrubbing orange blossoms from the tile doorways, or the heady smell of mint flavored tea. Welcome back to the 7th Century.
While you are in Fez, there are a few things that I recommend you must do. First of all, a tour of the medina with a licensed guide is essential in order to get yourself oriented. A guided tour will bring you to the Karouyine University and the mosque of Moulay Idriss as well as take you down many of the streets and alleyways where some of the most beautiful architecture hides.
Personally, while the fully restored palaces and riads are magnificent, my favorite destination to show visitors is the crumbling Glaoui palace. While not preserved or restored like the Batha Museum or the Karouyine Mosque, or perhaps becuase of it, the Glaoui Palace is overwhelming.Not as stinky or touristic as the famous Fez tanneries and yet there is something truly awe inspiring in this famous, decrepit but still beautiful house.If you read Gavin Maxwell’s Lords of the Atlas, it is even more so.
While you’re in Fez, I think it is essential to stay in a Riad in the Medina. New ones open every day, so there is always a deal happening somewhere. It’s best to check. You can spend anywhere from $20 to $1000 per night – I recommend somewhere in the $50-$100 range for the best value. Make sure that breakfast is included – especially if you pay $1000.
The Nejjarine and Bou Inania Mederasas are beautiful examples of classical Quranic schools. Inside you will be bowled over by the intricate tile (zellij) and woodwork. The artisans of the Fez medina are an astounding living museuem of tha ancient arts and crafts of Morocco. Rather than taking the standard tannery tour most hotels or riads offer – my suggestion is to book an artisanal tour with Artisanal Affairs.
Another destination that isn’t on most itineraries is a trip down Taala K’bira to the donkey parking area next to Palais Jamai. For a more conventional tourist stop, visit Dar Batha (pronounced bat-HA), the home of the Batha Museum. An absolutely gorgeous restored 11th century house of sculpted wood, wrought iron, sculpted plaster and tile work. The gardens offer a respite from the of the medina and inside a treasury of embroidery, carpets, jewelry, pottery, and coins compete with one another to astound you.
A visit to the Fez Medina can be overwhelming and that’s why a rest at Cafe Clock is well worth your time. Grab a date milkshake and a camel burger or sit on the roof with a cafe latte and look out over the 366 minarets of the old medina and listen as the call to prayer warbles at you from every direction. There’s also free wifi and a full cultural program of everything from henna, oud classes, calligraphy courses, Gnawa music on Sundays, and Moroccan cooking courses.
For me, the best times to visit Fez are late Spring and early Summer when the temperatures have climbed above freezing but not yet to the scorching range. Early June also offers the World Festival of Sacred Music in Fez which draws incredible musicians and interesting speakers each year.
Fez is known as the spiritual and cultural capital of Morocco. A visit at any time of the year will show you why. I recommend three to five days, though, like many others, you may find yourself still here three to five years later.