This is an excerpt from my book “Vagabonds: Sometimes Getting Lost is the Point” . It’s available as an ebook for kindle or ebook readers. Over the next several months we will be exploring some of these amazing vagabond characters from the past (and present).
Traveling round the world doesn’t usually involve conquest of foreign lands but for Temujin, also known as Genghis Khan, conquest was probably just a means of travel. Starting with nothing as an exile and prisoner means he was certainly an extraordinary vagabond.
Genghis Khan was a nomad, in other words he was a world traveler of sort. Genghis Khan’s real name in his childhood was Temujin. When his brother poisoned his father Temujin killed his brother and in punishment he was thrown into forest, he was held in prison by his former friends after that. After few years, Temujin rose up as a powerful leader and united the tribes of the Mongol people. With this goal accomplished, he and his Mongol hordes targeted many and far lands. From the time of his unification of the Mongol tribes, the Mongols called him Genghis Khan.
Genghis Khan first attacked the Tangut tribes to the west of the Mongol homeland. His first important foreign venture was not an easy one, but he brought the tribes of Tangut to their knees by 1209, which was the beginning of his empire. Genghis targeted east and south after that, this was the land ruled by Jin Dynasty of China. Genghis Khan captured Beijing, bringing the pressure to the Jin emperor and managing to restrain the complete northern half of the kingdom.
Kara-Khitan which is called “Xinjiang” today by the Chinese government was the next battleground of Genghis Khan. With just 20,000 soldiers, the Mongols brought the surrender of Kara-Khitan by 1218. Now Genghis Khan’s empire extended from shores of China in the east to Kazakhstan in west.
This was not enough and Genghis Khan desired more. He set his eyes on his new neighbor, the Khwarezmid Empire. It stretched from Kazakhstan to the banks of Persian Gulf, surrounding most of Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and half of Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. At first Genghis Khan tried to establish a booming trade partnership with Khwarezmids, but the leader of Khwarezmid attacked his 500 man caravan. After this, he foolishly refused to pay compensation for his act. Genghis Khan later sent his group of ambassadors to the Shah of Khwarezmid in a hope to have some kind of political trade relationship. But the Shah refused his proposal, Genghis Khan invaded Khwarezmid and executed the Shah. After this horrible conquest of Khwarezmid Empire, he headed across Afghanistan and northern India.
By the end of his life, Temujin had conquered everything from Asia all the way to Europe’s doorstep. Most of modern Turkey, parts of Greece, and even portions of Bulgaria, Romania, and Russia were his domain.
As a world traveler, he spilled a lot more blood than most, but the fact is he controlled the largest contiguous empire in history and saw more of the world than most people ever will.
As a tourist to one of the most visited cities in the world, it is a bad idea to visit without booking your hotel in advance. In addition, since there is more than a little bit of trickery and thievery in Rome, travel insurance isn’t a bad idea either.
Arguably one of the most historic cities of the world, it has moulded so much of today’s western world culture, tradition and language. You will find this unmatched concentration of history in a city populated with modern Romans that live and work with their unequivocally Roman style. Many of the great achievements of Roman times can be admired in its streets. Who visits Rome will be astonished by its grandeur and style. Discover the Vatican museums, be wondered by the monumental Coliseum, walk along the Piazza Navona, visit the Spanish Steps and enjoy great views of St. Peter’s basilica where is housed one of the greatest artworks of human kind: The Last Judgment, by Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Here are a couple of hotels that I found to be worth the price while I was in Rome and a few to avoid.
Hostels and Budget
Alesandro Palace Hostel – Near Termini Station, pretty good breakfast, free wifi and a helpful staff. Free pizza parties too.
Alessandro Palace Downtown – Free wifi and computer use, great breakfast, fun dinners and parties, great location, funky building.
Avoid Hostel Beautiful and Hotel Beautiful 2. I got bedbugs here, no wifi, dirty bathrooms, stinky place, scary elevator, filled with creepy people when I visited.
Hotel Charter – This was listed as a 2 star hotel but I found it to be closer to a three star with newly remodeled bathrooms, comfy mattresses, and a very friendly staff. Free wifi, breakfast at the cafe next door was discounted, and nice little perks like delicious candies waiting for you in the room.
Hotel Montreal – 3 star hotel but 4 star treatment. Free breakfast. Be sure to request an inner courtyard room or you will get street noise. Nice place to have a drink at the end of the day.
Favorite Boutique Hotel – Ripa Hotel – Modernist comfortable hotel in the midst of classical architecture. The change between the two is nice and the comfort and service provided here is worth the cost. Four stars +.
Hotel Regina Baglioni- best five star hotel in Rome. Housed in an Art Deco palazzo on the famous Via Veneto, the elegantly furnished guestrooms and suites offer a stunning fusion of turn of the century glamour and contemporary technology. The hotel’s prime location ensuring most rooms also offer superb views of Via Veneto and the unique Roman cityscape.Mix with the local elite in the exceptional Brunello Lounge & Restaurant.
Worst hotel in Rome: Hotel Galeno. Don’t stay there, but you might want to do what I did and go there to see what an awful hotel is really like. One review said “Like a Gulag but without the friendly staff”
Amarillo really is best by morning – or so they told me when I got my marching orders. I was to be up early and clothed in jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, hiking boots and hat — ready to roll.
It was a leisurely drive out into the flat countryside, past gently nodding oil wells and silently turning turbine windmills past miles and miles of mesquite and desert. The vacant landscape gradually changed as we headed toward Elkins Ranch, where I was promised a hearty chuck wagon breakfast in a spectacular setting. The land, suddenly, was no longer absolutely flat. Trees appeared, and the hint of a gorge turned into magnificent canyon vistas.
Palo Duro Canyon is 120 miles long, as much as 20 miles wide, with a maximum depth of more than 800 feet — all formed by water erosion from the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. Who knew this stunning site was hidden below ground level in the panhandle of Texas!
I climbed into a jeep for the rough ride down the canyon roads to the “Cow Camp” chuck wagon. Touted as the “second largest” (after the Grand Canyon), it is a dazzling site – miles of striated rock forming the walls of rugged valleys. The summer rains had left the vegetation green and lush, with wildflowers in profusion — but the scent of breakfast interrupted my reveries.
There’s something about food cooked over an open fire. I don’t think I’ve ever had better scrambled eggs, biscuits, sausages or coffee. I’ll bet, however, that the hardscrabble cowboys of the Old West never tasted the watermelon and cantaloupe served that morning.
As I finished my second cup of coffee (and fourth biscuit), local singer and songwriter Ed Montana tuned up his guitar and serenaded the breakfast group, starting with (what else?) “Amarillo By Morning”.
I’d been to Amarillo many times before, but all of my visits were confined to that narrow strip on either side of I-40. If I thought about the city at all, it was as a rest-and-refuel stop on my way driving somewhere else.
How wrong I was, and part of the evidence is visible right from the interstate: the American Quarter Horse Heritage Center Museum, a 36,500-square foot facility showcasing the history and modern activities of the American Quarter Horse.
I had always wondered what happened to the other ¾ of the equine – but the 12-minute introductory video told me the real story behind the name. The horse (the most popular breed in America) was named for the quarter-mile track that it was bred to run back in English Colonial times. The combination of racing and gambling in this country has deep roots.
Quarter Horses moved west with the pioneers, who found them strong, agile and possessing an instinctive understanding of bovine behavior that makes them perfect for cowboys. When you watch rodeos, it’s the horse you see anticipating every move of that calf. There are some 3 million in the United States, according to the American Quarter Horse Association.
Horses need saddles, so I wandered over to the Oliver Saddle Shop where I happened to find a member of the third generation – Richard Oliver – hard at work. He said it takes about a week to make a saddle, and he does 45 or 50 a year (there’s a 10-month waiting list). Fortunately, I wasn’t in any hurry for a saddle (priced from $2400 on up, averaging $6000), but the hand-tooled leather belts are to die for.
If there are cowboys, there must be Indians. I didn’t find the real thing in Amarillo, but I did find a great little museum at Kwahadi with a small collection of art and artifacts.
Although it shares its name with an historical group of Comanches, this isn’t an organization of Native Americans. It’s an innovative program begun almost 70 years ago as a Boy Scout troop and now sponsored by Kwahadi Heritage, Inc. The young dancers (girls also participate now) learn the traditional dances of Plains and Pueblo Indians, and perform them in Amarillo and around the world. The digs for a dance troop includes a terrific collection of art and artifacts.
Another surprise was the Panhandle-Plains Museum. The magnificent Art Deco building (from 1932) houses an outreach effort of the West Texas A&M University that tells the history of the region. I discovered that Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado named the Palo Duro Canyon in the 16th Century. The name means “hard wood” and refers to the ubiquitous juniper.
Great signage gives a short course in the geology of Texas from Precambrian to the present. A replica of Palo Duro Canyon points out 280 million years of history that entered modern times when Charles Goodnight acquired most of it as a cattle ranch in 1876.
There are the usual collections in the museum – period costumes, guns, buggies and wagons – but my favorite gallery told about oil and gas production in the Texas panhandle.
Don’t forget that Amarillo straddles the iconic American highway: Route 66. Signposts point out the route through town for this legendary U.S. highway, and vestiges of its glory days still can be seen.
It isn’t often I encounter a man so sweet from head to toe.
But what should I expect of one made of almond paste and sugar?
He’s one of 12 life-size figures on display in the Marzipan Salon, the upstairs museum inside the Café Niederegger, famous throughout Germany for its marzipan confections.
The particular object of my interest is the figure of Thomas Mann seated, appropriately, with book in hand. The 1929 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was born in Lübeck where his grandparents’ house served as the setting for his novel, “Buddenbrooks.”
The home still stands not far from the café and operates as a museum, as do museums devoted to two more Nobel laureates from Lübeck: Author Gunter Grass and former Chancellor Willy Brandt.
Lübeck reached prominence centuries before any of these three came along. Designated a free imperial city in 1226, it became the capital of the Hanseatic League, a powerful confederation of 200 city-states banded together against pirates and warring nations to protect their trade in the Baltic. Unlike sister Hanseatic city, Hamburg, some 40 miles away, many of Lübeck’s medieval buildings still stand, earning the old city’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
St. Mary’s Church: Germany’s third largest church was built to show off the power of the Hanseatic League. Begun around 1200 in Romanesque style, builders changed their minds, switching to the Gothic style of the massive limestone cathedrals then being built in France.
But Lübeck had no limestone. When it was completed in 1350, St. Mary’s was the largest red-brick church on the continent and became a model for about 80 churches scattered through the Baltic region. Its middle nave remains the highest brickwork vault in the world.
Bombed by the British on the night before Palm Sunday in 1942, its roof burned and towers came down. Since restored, the bells that fell that night have been left embedded in the floor as a memorial to world peace.
Inside you’ll also see a huge astronomical clock and the world’s largest mechanical organ with 10,000 pipes, one more than 36 feet long. Outside the church, a bronze figure of a devil, with horns rubbed shiny by passers-by, should intrigue you.
Legend has it that when the church was being built the devil thought it was to be a wine cellar so he enthusiastically helped the builders. When he discovered a holy place instead, he fell into a rage, throwing boulders and creating all sorts of mayhem. City fathers appeased him by promising to construct a wine cellar next door in what is now the town hall.
Dining at the Schiffergesellschaft:
Saying it is a mouthful, for sure, but dining here is a pleasure for the mouth and a feast for the eyes.
Since 1535, this house built in Renaissance style with stepped gables has served as the meeting house of the skippers’ and sailmakers’ guild. Now leased as a restaurant, it serves traditional German fare, but be prepared to share a communal table unless you can snag a seat at individual tables along the wall.
Order the duck breast with apples and red cabbage or the wiener schnitzel with fried potatoes. While you wait for your meal, look around at the wooden beams, the huge chandelier, ship models, the long oak tables and benches ending in posts decorated with the coats of arms of captains who commandeered the Hanseatic League’s ships.
Members of the guild still meet here on Tuesdays for informal chitchat.
You can’t miss it; the turreted red brick fortified gate, now tipped slightly forward, sits as a landmark at the main entrance to the old town. Built in the 15th century with red brick, black glazed tiles and a terracotta frieze, it was meant to both intimidate visitors and repel intruders.
Inside you’ll find a museum devoted to the history of Lübeck with a scale model of the town in the Middle Ages and exhibits describing the Hanseatic League. The gate was once equipped with 30 cannon, none of which ever fired a shot. Check out the turret with fireplace where tar was heated to be poured down a pipe onto enemies below. One room devoted to medieval instruments of torture just might give your nightmares.
Panorama from St. Peter’s Tower: Built as a church in the 13th century and enlarged in the 16th century, this building now serves as a gallery and coffee shop.
What makes it special, though, is the view from the top of the tower. Walk up or pay a few euros to ride the elevator for a panorama of green-clad belfries, red-brick buildings and red-tile roofs. From this perspective you’ll see that the Altstadt, the old town, is built on an island, the better to protect it from invaders.
The Trave River and canal completely surround the medieval city.
Town Hall and Marketplace:
Lübeck’s Rathaus, one of the oldest town halls in Germany, was built as a hall for trading cloth.
Begun around 1230 with the erection of a large wall with three towers and two wind holes, it was added onto several times, including a sandstone front section put up in 1570. Lübeck’s Senate still convenes in the council chamber.
The Marketplace on the plaza in front of the town hall is a good place to sit on a nice day, enjoying a coffee or a beer and watching the world go by.
Marzipan at Café Niederegger:
Lübeck is so famous for its brand of marzipan that any confection of almonds and sugar marked “Lübecker Marzipan” is protected by law as an authentic product of this city. Several big companies ship it around the world.
The most well-known, though, is Niederegger founded in 1806. It operates a store, café and museum just a few steps from the Town Hall. Walk into the first floor stop and you’re greeted by a riot of confections, including 300 varieties of marzipan as well as pralines, nougats, cakes and other pastries, many beautifully wrapped.
Upstairs, the café serves breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and early supper. Whatever the time of day, be sure to order a steaming cup of fresh-brewed coffee and a slice of the house specialty: a nut torte.
Another flight of stairs (or elevator ride) leads to the museum with its 12 life-size figures, mostly notables from local history. You’ll also find Faberge-style eggs three feet tall and a model of a ship that took marzipan chefs 350 hours to create. A video explains how marzipan is made and exhibits in a hallway are devoted to the history of marzipan, which dates back to Persia in the 10th century. In Europe it was packaged in little boxes called mataban, from which the candy took its name. Knights carried the boxes of treats from the Middle East home during the Crusades.
Ferrara, Italy is well off the beaten path of most visitor’s travel plans when they come to Italy – and that contributes to exactly why you should take the time to stop in this charming cobble-stoned Northern Italian town.
More than just having the chance to enjoy a medieval Gothic town including a rather beautiful duomo (cathedral) and plenty of delicious cuisine – the big draw to Ferrara is being able to explore the massive Castello Estense which sits, surrounded by a story book moat with drawbridge, right in the center of this charming little town.
Ferrara owes it’s charms to the architect Biaggio Rosetti and his patron, Ercole d’Este who was forward thinking enough to hire him and ask that he fuse the old and the new into Italy’s first modern town. Ferrara is a UNESCO world heritage city.
For those who are interested in history or famous persons (or who enjoy watching the series The Borgias) the son of Ercole d’Este was Alfonso, the final husband of Lucretzia Borgia. Lucretzia is actually buried in Ferrara.
Castello Estense was built first in 1384 and then later modernized during the reigns of Ercole and Alfonso. Modernization continued until the 19th century – but because of the size and effectiveness of the initial design, the castle remains a wonderful example of Renaissance architecture with elements of the Gothic and Medeivil.
Within the castle, much is as you would expect, massive kitchens, dungeons, hidden twisted passages – but there are a few gems hidden away. For example, one doesn’t expect to find an orange grove on the roof of a tower – but here there is one.
The Ducal Chapel is equally surprising, not for it’s ornamentation, but rather for it’s lack of frescoes and decoration which is easily contrasted with the rich frescoes and ornamentation of the Chamber of Dawn just a bit further. The surprise here are the massive mirrors which haven’t been added so tourists can see the ceilings easier, they were a part of the original design! In fact, this room (and the two following) were known as The Mirror Suite. Slightly further on the nude Greek figures wrestling on the ceiling are the defining feature of the Hall of Games.
While there is much more, the truth is that exploring this castle needs to be done in leisure and in person for maximum enjoyment. Once you’ve done that, my suggestion is that you head out into Ferrara, hire a bicycle, and then dig into the local culinary specialty cappellacci di zucca which is a round pasta stuffed with pumpkin and served with al burro e salvia – or butter and sage.
One thing is for certain, you won’t be disappointed with a visit to Ferrara, Italy.
There are few places I’ve traveled where I feel so completely at ease as the Lombardy region of Italy. I’m not sure if it’s the quality of the air, the familiarity of the way people look, the food, or something all together different, but Lombardy certainly speaks to my soul.
While Milan and Bergamo are both wonderful places to explore Italian art and culture, there really isn’t much better than getting away from the cities and visiting Lake Como – one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and a crown jewel of Italian masterpieces. Lake Como is the third largest lake in Italy.
Lake Como is shaped like a large inverted Y and has nine major towns and dozens of small villages along its shores. The easiest town to reach is Como since one can get a train from Milan, Bergamo, or elsewhere for next to nothing. The transfer station is at Monza, on the outskirts of Milan and from there you have a direct journey to San Giovanni train station in Como. Since the journey is only a few hours and incredibly cheap (6.25 Euro each way from Bergamo) this makes for an incredible daytrip. Another option is to come from Lugano, Switzerland through Chiasso.
To come from further abroad you can take overnight sleeper trains from Amsterdam via Duesseldorf, Cologne, Frankfurt and Basel.
Of course if you want to stay (and trust me, you will want to stay) there are a great variety of Hotels and Hostels in Como and the surrounding towns that offer everything from luxury to simplicity.
Lago di Como sits at the base of the Alps and the top of the inverted Y sits amid gorgeaous alpine scenery. For those who are curious, Como is a border town with neighboring Switzerland.
Como was a popular destination as far back as the Roman era and has a considerable history even before that. Touristic sites include the beautiful lakeside mansions and the Sacro Monte di Ossuccio or Sacred Mount of Ossuccio which is part of a group of chapels leading to a monastery and a UNESCO world heritage site.
Tremezzo, Griante, Menaggio, Nesso, Bellagio, Verrena, Bellano, Colico, Lecco, and Cernobio are the other towns that surround Lake Como. Perhaps you thought the Bellagio was only a casino in Las Vegas? It’s a beautiful little Italian town and like all the towns and cities around Lake Como it has gorgeous villas, lush botanical gardens, and incredible churches – but the big draw is the views of the lake and the Alps surrounding it.
Getting around Lake Como is easy. If you have a car, motorcycle or bicycle – the roads are just fine. Buses are cheap and frequent between the towns but the best way is to take the boats. Like Istanbul, this is a region that relies on ferries to move from one place to another.
A funicular runs up one of the mountains and offers spectacular views plus some incredible sites within the town itself.
If you are interested in more than historic sites, Lake Como offers a huge variety of outdoor activities from sailing, boating, hiking, camping, walking, strolling along the water, fishing, and even kite surfing or flying lessons!
Finally, for a reader and writer such as myself, Lake Como is a special treat (not to mention as a geek, I appreciate that I’m actually at Star War’s Naboo) but- in literature we have:
Legend has it that at the height off her career, Sophia Loren became fascinated with eels and asked that they be incorporated into one of her films. The most beautiful woman in the world, the greatest actress of her era – and she was asking to co-star with slimy electric tubes that have the capacity to creep most people out…what in the world was happening here? And what the heck was so special about eels?
Sophia Loren wasn’t the only one to wonder this. Sigmund Freud spent an entire summer slicing eels apart to find their sex organs – he didn’t succeed. In fact, to this day, the sexual life of eels remains a mystery and the place where it takes place, Mexico’s deep Sargasso Sea still holds the mysteries – but one thing is certain – such is the power of the eels urge to reproduce that it drives them from the far points on the globe – places like Iceland, Turkey, and the small Italian town of Comaccio which sits on a lagoon where the Po River meets the Adriatic Sea.
The lifecycle of the eels is, frankly, rather astounding. The females lay a couple of million eggs which hatch into little leaf-like things and then drift across the Atlantic before growing into tiny ‘glass eels’ – these then continue to the place where their genes come from where they grow for several years before heading back across the Atlantic to the big eel orgy at the bottom of the Sargasso Sea.
But there is more to the eel than that – they are one of the few creatures in the world that can effortlessly move from salt water to fresh water, they produce an electric current which they use to hunt their prey, they are fairly long lived with lifespans of up to 85 years but they die after spawning. They are also very tasty and around the world they are said to offer some incredible benefits to those who eat them. For example, drinking wine that has been infused with eel skin is said to cure alcoholism, eating the heads (or any other parts) is said to create massive sexual desire and health, and more.
But, back to Sophia Loren. While she didn’t talk about the eels in her memoirs, what we do know is that in 1954 she played a worker in an eel factory in the film La Donna del Fiume – or the Woman of the River. The film was set in Comaccio and shows Sophia at the height of her beauty proudly displaying her armpit hair and a can of pickled eels.
As to Comaccio itself, this beautiful Italian town is worth more than a short visit. The best way to see Comaccio is by bicycle – don’t be surprised when you find yourself wondering if you’ve accidentally wandered into Venice. The city is composed of thirteen different islets which are surrounded by canals, ponds, and the Po River Delta. All the this is connected together by a series of beautiful bike paths, hiking trails, and even a couple of great Italian Gelato shops. Bikes are available from the tourism authority.
Comacchio is one of those wonderful gems that you don’t find much about in the guidebooks, you don’t see a lot of travel writers writing about, and as a result – a holiday in Italy becomes much more affordable, less crowded, and interesting when you go there.
The city is located in the Emilia-Romagna region and is roughly half way between Venice and Bologna. In fact, in it’s history, the city was once a main rival for the salt trade with Venice and has shifted from independent to subject city of Ferrara and Venice both. Today, the salt ponds still exist and the city has a couple of tourist draws – bird watching in the Po River Delta has become a big business and visitors flock there (sorry for the pun) all summer to see flamingos, cormorants, falcons, and more in a beautifully preserved estuary environment.
In addition, you can visit the eel canning factory and museum. While it may not sound all that interesting, in truth, it is and you will find out more about the eels, their migration, their importance to Comacchio, and see the every interesting specialized tools the local population used to farm and harvest them. In addition, you can eat them and drink some very nice local wine here as well. Plus, they have a theater that shows the Lady of the River in a constant cycle.
There is much to do in Comacchio – from shipwrecks recovered from the lagoons to the massive nature reserve to strolling through this UNESCO world heritage city center – you won’t get bored. If you do, you can head to some of the nearby beaches, ride horses, or take a boat ride through the canals in a Gondola for much less than you have to pay in Venice.
The eel pickling museum has 12 working fireplaces where from October to December you can eat the eels just the way the locals always have. Heads removed and roasted on spits. Maybe you can figure out the secret of the eels, but one thing for sure, you will find them delicious.
If you want to eat fresh eels in Comacchio, you will have to get them in autumn or winter but the pickled variety are available year round. If you want them to costar with you in a film – La Donna del Fiume is due for a remake – right Hollywood?
Before I start talking about my own adventures, it’s more than worthwhile to introduce you to some of the great resources that exist here. Spend a little time reading these articles and you will see why Bulgaria is far more interesting than you might have imagined.
This article on Eccentric Bulgaria perhaps isn’t fair to all of the people of this country, but certainly it paints a picture of what part of the national psyche is like. This is a country that likes to pickle and display the hearts of it’s national heroes, even when they have bullet holes in them.
In Haskovo during this past Orthodox Easter, thousands of citizens spent the holiday in tents. Some even slept in their cars. The reason was not some weird local custom, but people’s belief in the predictions of astrologist Emil Leshtanski. Shortly before the holiday, he foretold an earthquake as devastating as the one in L’Aquila. When the promised cataclysm did not happen, Haskovo’s citizens threatened to take legal action against Leshtanski.
But it’s not just the oddness of Bulgaria that has enchanted me. The warmth and beauty of the people and landscape (even though it is in fact very cold at the moment) has really made me happy to be here.
Have a look at Great Places in Bulgaria and you will see that this is a country of mountains, waterfalls, monasteries, beaches, nature, and beautiful ancient cities.
And then there is Bulgarian folk music. I’m an instant fan. Like Turkish Art House music, it touches my soul in ways that I would never expect.
As a funny side note. I want to tell you all that I never know what the hell is going to happen in this life. I don’t know what I will do, but I trust that if I pay attention, the right decision will become obvious. In this case, after I made the decision to come to Bulgaria (and I had really no idea why I made that decision, it just felt right) I requested a couch in Sofia. I got no reply so I posted in Last Minute Couch Requests and a nice guy offered to host me. When I looked at his website, what was it called Vagabond.bg! Later, sitting in a restaurant with friends before my train from Istanbul to Sofia left, a Mexican song came on just as I was telling the story of the Bulgarian vagabond hosting me. The lyrics of the song …Vagabond, Vagabond, Vagabond. I’ve no idea what the song was, but there it was. And since arriving in Bulgaria, I’m in the flow and I’m certain that it’s where I am meant to be at this moment.
The three pictures in this post are some of my favorites though I took hundreds. These pictures from top to bottom are more interesting though – read on to find out why.
When you are in Rome, whether it’s for a day or a week, one thing you have to do is visit the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. If the ticket price of 15 Euros sounds a little high, let me assure you, it’s not. What you will see inside is worth every penny and more.
I’d like to introduce you to some of the wonders that I came across as I wandered through this incredible collection of the world’s most wonderful art.
As in much classical art, there was an abundance of angry dudes and sexy nudes – and there was a bunch of art too.
1) Despite the angry security guards saying ‘No Picture, No Video’, nearly everyone was taking photos in the Sistine Chapel. That included me. When I showed this picture to my wife she was disgusted “Aggghhh, how obscene to think you could depict God in a painting. You can be sure that painter is in hell.” Not exactly what I was thinking as I looked at one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces.
Coming in, you find a staircase and as you wind your way up it, you will notice that there are more than a few canoes and canoe paddles from the many places that Catholic missionaries have landed, converted, and conquered. For some reason these struck me in a bad way…although it was a magnificent collection of canoes. Moving on…
2) When I first saw these saints painted in the niches, I thought they were real people. A photo can’t capture just how three-dimensional some off these paintings are…astounding.
If you are only going to visit one museum in Rome, certainly it should be the Vatican Museum. Add in a trip to the Colosseum, and a stop in Vatican City and you’ve followed the Vagobond itinerary to see Rome in a day. It wasn’t built in a day, but I feel like these three stops and the transport between them give you a good chance to get a feel for the what was once the capital of the Roman Empire and is still a masterpiece of a city.
The price of the Vatican museums might seem kind of steep at 15 Euros but when you consider that it includes some of the most famous art the world has ever produced and the celebrated Cistine Chapel, suddenly it starts to seem more reasonable. Museo Vaticani is a must see.
3) I’m not a religious man and I’m nowhere near Catholic, but this painting spoke to my soul. Note the hanging bodies, the monk, pleading and the people in the background seemingly just having a chat…this was real life. It lives on.
Even though we followed the good advice to go to Ephesus (called Efes in Turkey) late in the day to avoid the busloads of tourists from cruise ships, we still found it to have a population that may well have been in excess of what it held when it wasn’t a ruin.
Lots of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese tourists were there. We were surprised to see two young Turkish girls go up to a Korean group and ask to have their picture with them “Can we have a picture with you? My friend is a big fan of Koreans.” Really, that’s what they said…in English. Then they all posed together for about fifty photos.
We had brought a lunch with us. We picked up a huge sandwich and some fries for 5 lira from a Libyan guy in Selcuk and then caught the minibus out to the site for 4 lira each. The entrance fee was 20 lira per person (2010) which you would think would include seeing all the ruins, but they want an additional 15 lira each to see the terrace houses which are well preserved and have some great mosaics, I know this because I looked at pictures of them on the internet after we chose not to pay the extra 30 lira.
While Efes is magnificent and I don’t regret seeing it, I have to say that because of the crowds and the high fee, it isn’t something that I would consider a must see, in particular if you have spent time in other well preserved classical cities (such as Volubulis in Morocco) .
People have been living cities in this area for about 8000 years. At about 1050 BC, it was a port city for the Greeks called Apasas. In about 300 BC, one of Alexander the Great’s generals changed it to Ephesus. For the Roman’s it was the capital city of the state of Asia. It was founded as a city dedicated to the Goddess Artemis who represented hunting and the moon.
The Romans called her Diana. Ephesus stopped being a port city when the sea receded about 600 AD. The city was also controlled by the Persians during its long history.
Within the city there were an amazing number of statues that I am surprised have not been looted. Hanane said she thought they were all fakes. I didn’t want to believe her. Her reasoning was that things couldn’t be that old – my emotional response was that of course they could be.
The gorgeous Library of Celcius makes the perfect photo opportunity, for everyone, and no one got a solo shot while we were there. In fact, we saw some guys who were intentionally photo bombing people’s shots at the last second. At one point the library contained 12,000 scrolls. The Goddesses of goodness, thought, knowledge, and wisdom ( Arete, Ennoia, Episteme, and Sophia) grace the exterior.
A short way up we found the Roman men’s toilets near the Roman brothel. The toilets were of an ingenious design with a hole on top to go in and a hole on the bottom to wash in. Apparently there were brushes that sat in a trough of running water that ran around the toilets. No divider walls. I can’t say what the whores were like.
The Great Theater was indeed great and we were amazed to eat our lunch at the top and hear the whispers of Chinese tourists on the stage floor. It was built to hold 24,000 people and is the greatest theatre of the ancient world. Personally, I think it deserves a better name.
The Gate of Hercules was also quite nice to admire too as were the many statues. As we wandered around and looked at the statues, I began to think that maybe Hanane was right and that many of the statues at Ephesus are indeed fake. It just seems strange that conquerors and ancient souvenir hunters would leave such beautiful treasures out in the open. On thinking about it, I think they are fake too.
Imperial Meknes is a bit off the beaten track of Moroccan trips that usually hit Marrakech, Fez, Casablanca, and maybe Tangier. In my view – people are really missing out on a true wonder. The good news is that you don’t have to deal with crowds of tourists. The bad news is that Meknes doesn’t really cater to tourists.
Before I get into that though, I should give those who aren’t familiar with Meknes and its history a bit of background (via wikipedia of course!)
The original community from which Meknes can be traced was an 8th century Kasbah. A Berber tribe called the Miknasa settled there in the 9th century, and a town consequently grew around the previous borough.
The Almoravids founded here a fortress in the 9th century. It resisted to the Almohads rise, and was thus destroyed by them, only to be rebuilt in larger size with mosques and large fortifications. Under the Merinids it received further madrasas, kasbahs and mosques in the early 14th century, and continued to thrive under the Wattasid dynasty. Meknes saw its golden age as the imperial capital of Moulay Ismail following his accession to the Sultanate of Morocco (1672-1727). He installed under the old city a large prison to house Christian sailors captured on the sea, and also constructed numerous edifices, gardens, monumental gates, mosques (whence the city’s nickname of “City of the Hundred Minarets”) and the large line of wall, having a length of 40 km.
The taxi dropped us off in the Place Hedim which reminded me a lot of Jmma el Fna in Marrakesh but without the circus atmosphere or the touts. There were the usual merchants selling hats, fake adidas, djellabas, blankets, and trinkets. The square itself is beautiful and we were approached by exactly zero touts!
From there we wandered into the Dar Jamai museum. This old riad has seen a lot of history and now houses a beautiful collection of Moroccan handicrafts. The architecture, gardens, and displays were beautiful, but sadly it looked as if some of the restoration work was done by second rate apprentices. concrete patches slapped on beautiful zellij and mosaic floors unevenly retiled. Hopefully in the future, all of this will be restored to the quality of work it deserves.
Its been 11 years since I first visited Volubulis in Morocco back in 2009. I look forward to returning someday.
Since coming to Morocco a year ago, I’ve wanted to visit the ancient Roman ruins of Volubulis. Each time I’ve planned to go, something has kept me from it, until now.
Before the slideshow, I should give you a bit of historical background :
Volubilis is an archaeological site in Morocco situated near Meknes between Fez and Rabat along the N13 road. The nearest town is Moulay Idriss. Volubilis features the best preserved ruins in this part of northern Africa. In 1997 the site was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In antiquity, Volubilis was an important Roman town situated near the westernmost border of Roman conquests. It was built on the site of a previous Carthaginian settlement from (at the latest) the third century BC, but that settlement overlies an earlier neolithic habitation.
Volubilis was the administrative center of the province in Roman Africa called Mauretania Tingitana. The fertile lands of the province produced many commodities such as grain and olive oil, which were exported to Rome, contributing to the province’s wealth and prosperity. Archaeology has documented the presence of a Jewish community in the Roman period.
The Romans evacuated most of Morocco at the end of the 3rd century AD but, unlike some other Roman cities, Volubilis was not abandoned. However, it appears to have been destroyed by an earthquake in the late fourth century AD. It was reoccupied in the sixth century, when a small group of tombstones written in Latin shows the existence of a community that still dated its foundation by the year of the Roman province. Coins show that it was occupied under the Abbasids: a number of these simply bear the name Walila.
The texts referring to the arrival of Idris I in 788 show that the town was at that point in the control of the Awraba tribe, who welcomed the descendant of Ali, and declared him I
mam shortly thereafter. Within three years he had consolidated his hold on much of the area, founded the first settlement at Fez , and started minting coins. He died in 791, leaving a pregnant Awraba wife, Kenza, and his faithful slave, Rashid, who acted as regent until the majority of Idris II. At this point the court departed for Fez, leaving the Awraba in control of the town.
Volubilis’ structures were damaged by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, while in the 18th century part of the marble was taken for constructions in nearby Meknes.
In 1915, archaeological excavation was begun there by the French and it continued through into the 1920s. Extensive remains of the Roman town have been uncovered. From 2000 excavations carried out by University College London and the Moroccan Institut National des Sciences de l’Archéologie et du Patrimoine under the direction of Elizabeth Fentress, Gaetano Palumbo and Hassan Limane revealed what should probably be interpreted as the headquarters of Idris I just below the walls of the Roman town to the west. Excavations within the walls also revealed a section of the early medieval town. Today, a high percentage of artifacts found at Volubilis are on display in the Rabat Archaeological Museum.
Earlier this year, before her 1st birthday, my daughter had the opportunity to visit the real home of Santa Claus. No, we didn’t go to the North Pole. Nor did we go to Lapland. We didn’t visit with the elves or travel through the snow.
We were in Demre, Turkey. If you don’t believe me, you can read a little about the history of Santa on Wikipedia or you can just read on and trust me with the facts.
If anyone ever tells my daughter that Santa is a made up person, I can show her pictures of us visiting where he really lived. He was a real person. A person named Nicholas.
If you are one of those people who says Santa Claus isn’t real – you’re right because he’s long dead, but he was real. He was a real person, so if you are one of those people who say Santa Clause is a fictional or imaginary character – you are wrong.
Santa Clause was born in the town of Patara, Turkey on the Mediterranean Coast. If you visit today you will find (much to the surprise of many) Santa shops, Christmas shops, and everything Santa you can imagine in this mostly Muslim town. At the time he was born, Turkey wasn’t yet a country and so despite being Anatolian, he was Greek. A Byzantine Christian to be precise. For those who don’t know, Istanbul was the capital of Byzantium and called Constantinople in those days.
His parents left him as a wealthy orphan and he used his inheritance to help the poor who weren’t as fortunate as he. In particular, he was generous with children and traveled the known world distributing gifts and help to the needy.
In 325 A.D. He became the Bishop of Myra (Now Demre, Turkey) and was a part of the Council of Nicea who cobbled together the Holy Bible from a vast assortment of documents. He died December 6, 343 A.D. In fact, in many parts of Europe, December 6 is a day to give gifts and exchange presents.
Here’s a story you won’t see in Christmas cartoons…one of the most famous stories of St. Nick’s generosity was when he gave three orphaned girls dowries so they would be able to marry and wouldn’t have to become prostitutes! It was this gift that some say led to the giving of presents on Christmas today!
In the 10th century – Myra was attacked by Italian sailors who carried away all the relics of St. Nicholas to Bari where they still sit today. He is the patron saint of archers, sailors, and children to pawnbrokers.
After his death, he was attributed with miracles aplenty. He brought boys murdered by a butcher back to life, he kept a ship from sinking with his prayers, and he levitated one sailor from the water to save his life. Hmmm…I believe he can fly!
Clement C. Moore, an American professor of divinity, was the one who turned Saint Nicholas into Santa with his 1823 poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas.” The poem provided the inspiration for the first portrait of Santa Claus, drawn by newspaper cartoonist Thomas Nast in 1870.
After he died, he was made a saint and a tomb was built for him in Demre. The Church of St Nicholas was built over that tomb in the 6th Century. It is a ruin now, but still a very beautiful piece of Anatolian Byzantine architecture. Many of the mosaics and frescoes have survived. There is a tomb there, but the bones are in Bari.
St. Nicholas is the patron saint of Russian Orthodoxy, so it’s not surprising that on peak days (around December 6th) you can find up to 60 buses per day of tourists – mostly from Russia. The government of Turkey issued a Santa Claus stamp in 1955 and have heavily promoted ‘Noel Baba’ as a tourist draw. It’s a pretty good one if you ask me.
To celebrate Halloween, here is another monster story, but this one with a twist – it’s a mummy love story. I first shared this back in 2011. Enjoy!
When you travel the world you come across wonderful things, but some of them touch you more than others. The story of an ancient Korean mummy and his heartbroken wife hit me hard as I traveled and thought of my wife at home, pregnant with our first child. My own journey here was very random as I had come to Andong with no idea of what to do or see and when the bus passed by Andong National University, I figured it was a good place to wander around since Universities tend to have free libraries, galleries, cheap food, and interesting people who speak English.
It was my good luck to find the free archeology museum where the Andong mummy lives so that I could discover this story. It’s a famous story by now, but maybe you haven’t heard of it yet. Everyone in Korea knows it though and when the mummy was found and the letter with it was read, it touched hearts around the world. On this day, it touched my own.
The 16th century mummy was found by archeologists in Andong City and identified by researchers at the Andong National University as Eung-tae, a member of the very ancient Goseong Yi Clan. Eung-tae was in a wooden coffin in a earth hardened tomb. The archeologists were very excited to have found a male mummy, not a common thing in South Korea. His beard and clothing were still preserved and they found that he was fairly tall at five feet nine inches, which even today in Korea would put him above the average. On his chest, much to their surprise, they found a letter from his wife, which is actually how his identity was revealed.
The letter was heart-breaking and over the next few years led to novels, films, and even an opera. Here is the text of the letter translated to English:
To Won’s Father
June 1, 1586
You always said, “Darling, let’s live together until our hair turns gray and die on the same day. How could you pass away without me? Who should I and our little boy listen to and how should we live without you? How could you die before of me?
How did you bring your heart to me and how did I bring my heart to you? Whenever we lay down together you always told me, “Dear, do other people cherish and love each other like we do? Are they really like us?” How could you leave all that behind and die ahead of me?
I cannot live without you. I want to go to you. Please take me to where you are. My feelings toward you I cannot forget in this world and my sorrow knows no limit. Where can I put my heart now and how can I live with your child missing you?
Please look at this letter and tell me in detail in my dreams. I want to listen to your words in detail in my dreams and so I write this letter and put it in with you. Look closely and talk to me.
When I give birth to the child in me, who should it call father? Can anyone fathom how I feel? There is no tragedy like this under the sky.
You are in another place, and not in such deep grief as I. There is no limit and end to my sorrows and so I write roughly. Please look closely at this letter and come to me in my dreams and show yourself in detail and tell me. I believe I can see you in my dreams. Come to me secretly and show yourself. There is no limit to what I want to say but I stop here.
The letter and the mummy made me suddenly aware of the risks I was taking by traveling and being away from my wife and the child she carries. It was at that moment, that I just wanted to go home, to be with her. From there forward, my journey held no joy for me. Certainly I met wonderful people, saw interesting things, and yes, I enjoyed myself, but my heart was no longer in it. I just kept thinking of this woman, weeping upon learning the death of her husband, weeping as her child was born, and struggling through life as a single mom and without the man she had come to depend on.
Perhaps it was for this reason that I didn’t have a desire to take any great risks, to test the limits of my endurance, or to push the limits of my already very limited budget. It would be several months before I would be able to permanently be at home with my wife and our unborn child, but upon meeting the mummy, I made a promise that I would make certain to be there for them. And so, from Andong to Busan, back to Seoul, back to Kuala Lumpur, to Singapore, Jakarta, and back to Turkey I walked carefully and kept in mind that there were two people waiting for me and relying on me. And now, I am home- back in Morocco with my wife and our child will be coming in a month or so. Suddenly, I can relax and much of the tension I felt while away has melted since I know that my wife and child have me with them at this very important time.
The story of the Skull Tower in Nis, Serbia is a cautionary tale about power and rebellion. It is called Cela Kula in Serbian which means…”Skull Tower”.
The Serbs were far from happy being in the Ottoman Empire and they had began a rebellion in Nis which sits on the Constantinople Road running through Sofia, Bulgaria to modern day Istanbul. The 1809 rebellion was put down and the skulls of the rebels were used to build a tower as a reminder to anyone else who wanted to rise up against the Ottomans and Sultan Mahmud II.
Here is some of the history from Wikipidia:
On May 31, 1809 on Cegar Hill a few kilometers northeast of Niš, Serbian insurrectionists suffered their greatest defeat in the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottoman Empire (1804-1813). The insurrectionists’ advance towards Niš was stopped here and, when the far stronger Turkish forces attacked, the battle was ended by the Serbian commander Stevan Sineli, who sacrificially fired at his gunpowder depot in order to avoid surrendering to the Turks, killing himself, the rest of his men, and the advancing Turks.
After the retreat of the Serbian rebel army, the Turkish commander of Niš, Hursid Pasha, ordered that the heads of the killed Serbs were to be mounted on a tower to serve as a warning to whoever opposed the Ottoman Empire. In all, 952 skulls were included, with the skull of Sin?eli? placed at the top. The scalps from the skulls were stuffed with cotton and sent to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) as proof for Sultan Mahmud II.
The tower stood in the open air until the liberation of Niš in 1878. By that time, much of the tower had deteriorated from weather conditions or from the removal of skulls for burial by relatives of killed rebels. In 1892, with donations gathered from all over Serbia, a chapel designed by the Belgrade architect Dimitrije T. Leko was built to enclose what was left of the tower. Today, only 58 skulls remain, including that of Sineli.
In front of the chapel stands the monument to Sineli, and a small relief depicting the battle, both from 1937. The monument commemorating the battle in the form of a guard tower was built in 1927 on Cegar Hill by Julian Djupon. The lower part is made out of stone from the Niš fortress.
Skull Tower was declared Monument of Culture of Exceptional Importance in 1979, and it is protected by Republic of Serbia.
Like much of Serbia, I found the Skull Tower to be creepy and lacking any sort of contextual explanation – I had to search for that later. To get there I had to walk about two kilometers from the center of Nis. The ever present dog turds and tagging were constant while the sidewalks were not.
Along the way, I stopped to eat the Serbian delicacy Borek, basically a filo dough pastry stuffed with cheese or meat. It was a bit greasy, but overall pretty delicious. I bought a yogurt to wash it down while sitting in a grungy little park with some senior citizens who had no idea what to think of me joining them as they ate their boxed lunches.
At the tower, there was no signage. I walked around it, took some pictures of the external chapel, but the doors were all locked so I couldn’t get inside. By this time, the borek and yogurt had caused my bowels to become a bit upset and I needed to find a toilet so despite my desire to see the tower of skulls, I went towards a dirty little bus station nearby to see if I could find a toilet. At the bus station, the lady asked me if I wanted to see the tower. I explained that I needed a toilet first, but yes, I wanted to see it.
A tiny little dwarf of a woman came out and led me to the very dirty bathroom (which I was very happy to have access to) and after I paid her the very reasonable entrance fee of 100 Serbian Dinar, she led me to the chapel where she pulled out her huge ring of keys and unlocked three locks to let me in. She watched curiously as I snapped some photos and tried to ‘feel’ the place. It felt like I expected, creepy.
When 19th century traveler Alphonse de Lemartine visited Nis in 1833, this was his experience.
“ My eyes and my heart greeted the remains of those brave men whose cut-off heads made the cornerstone of the independence of their homeland. May the Serbs keep this monument! It will always teach their children the value of the independence of a people, showing them the real price their fathers had to pay for it. ”
It made me think of something – which has caused more than a few people to claim I was being disrespectful, but which was, after all, what it made me think of. The Tower of Skulls is a powerful symbol of Serbian Independence – but since I’m a child of 1970s America – the entire time I was there, I was thinking of this….
If you haven’t yet downloaded and played with the Iwahai app, you are really missing out. There are still a few bugs to work out, but for the most part – it’s already a fun way to explore and share the world. Need proof?
Easily done – but you’ll need to download and open the app before you can check out these amazing markers. And since you have the app now – why not add some memories of your own on there? Share some insider knowledge. Make a recommendation. Or – say hi to a friend. The more you add and share on Iwahai – the more fun it will become. Bring your friends on, Iwahai is free, it’s easy, and it’s fun.