The Fully Integrated Backpacker Treehouse Resort – Kadir’s Treehouses

Treehouse Hostel Turkey OlymposThe most surprising thing about Olympos is the huge volume of choice when it comes to places to stay. Since Thailand, I haven’t seen this many bungalows, backpackers, or pancake stands – perhaps the hardest part of coming to Olympos is picking where to stay.

Since we wanted to come here for four days, we opted to split our time between two of the most famous tree house resorts. The first, Bayram’s tree houses, I should point out that this is the off season, so it was pretty calm and quiet, but even so there were some serious drinking sessions around the nightly campfire.

Treehouse Hostel Turkey OlymposAfter two very fun days there, we moved up the road to Kadir’s Treehouses.  While there are tree houses and bungalows here – it would be more appropriate to call it Kadir’s fully integrated backpacker tree house resort and bungalow complex and village – but that might be too much of a mouthful. We had plenty of opportunity to meet with Kadir himself and to explore the property –

Kadir came here 25 years ago when there was nothing in Olympos but farmhouses and shepherd camps. He left a career in economics in Ankara behind to tune in, turn on and drop out – well after the hippies of the 60’s but well before the hippies of the now. His parents and friends told him he was crazy but he bought a piece of land next to a stream in Olympos, built a tree house, and carried what he needed from up the mountain or bought it from the nearby farms.

At this point, a few backpackers started coming to see the ruins at Olympos and a couple of them asked if they could rent his tree house for the night. Then it happened again. And again. So he built a second tree house – but more backpackers came. So he built more. And within a couple of years he had tree houses, bungalows, and even a couple of bars to satisfy the thirst of the the backpackers.

Turkey Treehouse HostelThe nearby farms saw his success and they copied the model. Now, while I didn’t hear anyone say this overtly, there seems to be some bad blood between the farmers and Kadir these days – on the one hand, Kadir is the stranger in a valley filled with family – and on the other, people stole his business model and then – according to one source – when his property caught on fire while he was away – just let it burn and didn’t notify anyone until it was too late. Kadir says that when he arrived his tree houses, bungalows, bars, and even the trees were completely gone. I’m assuming that no one was here when it happened since Kadir said that nothing was saved.

So Kadir built again. Today, his sprawling complex still has a few tree houses – including one built on a huge 750 year old cedar stump that Kadir bought from the government and then trucked down here! It’s his log-o now.

During peak times, Kadir hosts as many as 350 backpackers! His complex has a nightclub (The Bull Bar), a Pizza House, The Hanger Bar, an activity center, a volleyball court, a huge fire pit, and the downstairs restaurant/bar where dinner and breakfast are served which feels like it could have been imported directly from Alaska. This is even including the bartender Simon who wears a red plaid lumberjack shirt and even though his English is very good always replies “Thank you very much!” even when it doesn’t fit. (As in Alaska – the odds are good but the goods are odd)

Kadir is usually playing backgammon, snapping photos on his Galaxy Note, or wandering around. The bungalows and treehouses are colorfully painted and built in a haphazard, Tom Sawyer treehouse way which includes half bent rusty nails and railings that feel as if they might break under your hand. If there is a downside to Kadir’s – it is that the size and numbers create a sort of junkyard feel to parts of the complex with disused furniture being piled in unused corners and piles of broken plumbing or wood scraps tumbled around devil may care – but then, that adds to the overall feel of the place. Sanford and Son meets Tom Sawyer. Kadir’s is about a 20 minute walk from the beach but the stream and mountain views make that a pleasant journey.

Treehouse Hostel Turkey OlymposWe stayed in a deluxe bungalow facing a gorgeous rock face and the beautiful clear water stream. It was big, clean, had AC and heat, hot water and was comfortable. We found the included breakfast and dinner to be tasty and filling. All of this for about 25 Euro per night, is a steal and one of the best deals going in Turkey, if you ask me. If you want to go even cheaper – you can rough it in the treehouses or sleep in the dorms, but honestly – the lack of comfort and privacy wouldn’t be worth it for me. Still, the backpackers we spoke with who were doing that, loved it.

What’s next for Kadir? He told me he has found a new location where no one goes yet and this time he is going to open an eco-resort. It will be his fourth property – he now has a family resort, Kadir’s Garden, Kadir’s treehouses and then Kadir’s Eco-Resort – the moral of the story? Sometimes it pays to drop out and go live in a treehouse!

Fire on the Mountain – Visiting the Ancient Chimera in Olympos, Turkey

One of the highlights of visiting Olympos is a trip to see the fantastic Chimera fire on the mountain. These fires have been burning for tens of thousands of years and even when you douse them, they quickly reignite. It’s not a huge surprise to find that numerous tales and legends have grown from these – but by far, it is the Greek story of the Chimera and Pegasus which is the most well known. Rather than retelling again (it’s in the video above) – here it is from the most prevalent source on the internet:

Homer’s brief description in the Iliad is the earliest surviving literary reference: “a thing of immortal make, not human, lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle, and snorting out the breath of the terrible flame of bright fire”.

Hesiod’s Theogony follows the Homeric description: he makes the Chimera the issue of Echidna: “She was the mother of Chimaera who breathed raging fire, a creature fearful, great, swift-footed and strong, who had three heads, one of a grim-eyed lion; in her hinderpart, a dragon; and in her middle, a goat, breathing forth a fearful blast of blazing fire. Her did Pegasus and noble Bellerophon slay”Chimera Fire Turkey

Sighting the Chimera was an omen of storms, shipwrecks, and natural disasters (particularly volcanoes).

The Chimera finally was defeated by Bellerophon, with the help of Pegasus, at the command of King Iobates of Lycia. Since Pegasus could fly, Bellerophon shot the Chimera from the air, safe from her heads and breath.

It’s said that the people were so happy at the defeat of the beast that they held a special games to celebrate and lit the torch commemorating the games from the flames…yes, the Olympic flame comes from here.

While most of the treehouse resorts will organize trips to see the Chimera – since we had a car (and a baby) we opted to drive ourselves. The winding road took about 45 minutes from Olympos and then the hike of 5 km or so was another 45 minutes – be sure to bring a flashlight and to wear shoes with good grips since the trail can be treacherous – especially in the dark which is the best time to experience the magic of this amazing spot.

Camel Wrestling in Selcuk, Turkey

Camel WrestlingCamel Wrestling. Sounds dangerous. I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I saw it on Couchsurfing as a group activity for those near Izmir in the town of Selcuk, Turkey.

While it is a little hard to understand the excitement that one feels in the crowd, it is motivated by the thing that Turks love and get the most excited about. Money. It’s the bets that make the sport worth while and if you aren’t betting, chances are that you aren’t really enjoying things to the fullest. Still, it is important to understand what is happening if you are going to be a spectator. I was going to write an article about the intricacies of this amazing sport, but it turns out that someone has already done that:

Burak H. Sansal over at 2Camels.com writes: While the Spanish have bullfights, and the Italians cockfights, and the English go hunting with hounds, the Turks have camel wrestling. Camel wrestling is now mostly restricted to the Aegean region though it was once more widespread in Anatolia. In the winter you will see elaborately saddled camels being paraded through the villages with the owner extolling just how his camel is going to make mince-meat of anyone rash enough to challenge his beast. The camels are all fully grown bulls specially fed to increase their bulk further, and the sight of them wrestling one another would seem to promise some spectacular action.

In reality it doesn’t happen and camel wrestling is more akin to comedy than to blood- sport. Bull camels normally wrestle and butt one another in a knock- out contest for precedence in a herd, and more importantly, precedence in mating. In the arena two bulls are led out and then a young cow is paraded around to get them excited. It’s very easy to know when a bull is excited as streams of viscous milky saliva issue from his mouth and nostrils. Mostly the two bulls will half-heartedly butt each other and lean on the other until one of them gives in and runs away. This is the really exciting bit as the bull will often charge off towards the crowd, with the conquering bull in pursuit, and the spectators must scramble hurriedly out of the way.

And that’s about the size of it, but the real interesting part is in the crowds. Horns, drums, and the smoke of a thousand cooking fires as the spectators, mostly men, barbecue camel, sheep, and chicken – drink raka and beer – and place huge wagers on which camels will win. While I wasn’t exactly sure how the events themselves work, watching the camel spit fly was entertaining (from a distance) and weaving through the elbows only crowd to see the various fires, tables, and sweet spots that were set up was exotic as hell.

Camel WrestlingThe strange thing for me was just how much camel meat was actually consumed at this event which was in a way, honoring camels. And yeah, in case you are wondering, I got a camel sausage sandwich and it was delicious! Spicy, not as hairy as sheep sausage and was the perfect thing to watch the camels wrestle by. That and some raka.

To be honest, two hours of the camel wrestling was enough for me. I took a lot of exotic camel pictures, but since I wasn’t getting drunk or betting on the camels, or having a barbecue with friends – it was actually pretty boring once the medieval festival aspect of it wore off.

It really was like being in a time long long ago with the drums, the smoke, the sounds of the camels grunting and fighting, and the sound of the nasal ne floating on the sausage smoke breeze.

 

The Paris Catacombs – 6 Million Human Skeletons Up Close

Paris CatacombsWhen people began to get sick in Paris in the late 1700s, they did the natural thing – dig up all the 6 million corpses and artistically arrange them in an abandoned stone quarry under the city.

I admit that I am drawn to underground attractions (literally) and the more macabre sites around the world, if there’s a tunnel, a skull or mummified human corpse on display, I’ll probably go there. So of course, in Paris, the catacombs were on my must see list. Two out of three – check.

Since I only had six Euro the last time I was there and the cost of a ticket is 8 Euro, I had to miss it, but this time I was flush, so I caught the subway to Montparnesse, gave the vendor my 8 Euro, and descended into the bowels of the city where even though I had read about it and knew the numbers, I was astounded by the sheer volume and artistry of the human bone arrangements.

Before reaching the bones, I had to descend 19 meters on a rusty circular staircase, then walk through wet stone tunnels where I found a view to the massive aqueduct below and a model of the Port-Mahon fortress created by a former Quarry Inspector well before the bones were brought. The model itself was quite creepy, like a miniature city of the dead waiting for inhabitants. (The sculptures of the gallery of Port-Mahon made by a quarryman called “Décure”, veteran of the armies of Louis XV, who carved in the wall a model of the fortress of Port-Mahon, principal city of Minorque to the Balearic Islands where he would have been a time captive by English army. Finally restored and exposed by a specific lighting, they constitute an undeniable curiosity of the circuit re-opened to the public after 13 years of closing.)

In truth, the overflow of dead bodies had become a serious health risk in the 1700’s since the church made a huge profit on burying people in the ‘fashionable’ cemeteries – it is after all Paris and always has been. So they would put more bodies than the earth could decompose in the most expensive plots and it took the government condemning and shutting down the cemeteries to put an end to stuffing more status starved dead rich people into the chic districts.

Paris CatacombsIt was a police lieutenant, Alexandre Lenoir, who came up with the bright idea of putting all the human remains into the abandoned stone mines.

Twelve years of bone filled wagons emptied the city’s dead into the caverns below where they sat in piles and heaps for twenty-two more years until Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, decided to turn the bone piles into an artistic monument which also incorporated gravestones and funerary monuments such as could still be found. Stacking the femurs and skulls in artistic fashion was difficult work and one can reasonably ask where are the finger bones, scapula, and toes since only skulls and femurs seem to have been used. The answer may lie buried in the rest of the vast network of combing tunnels that create a city of the dead beneath the city of love. And since it is Paris, it’s indeed a beautiful city of the dead.

Reaching the Paris Catacombs

The entrance to the Paris Catacombs is located at 1 avenue of Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy near the Montparnesse Cemetary. You can reach there by the Paris Metro station Denfert-Rochereau or by taking bus #s 38 or 68. If you are taking the Paris Open Tour, take the yellow line and depart at the catacombs exit. Entry is 8 Euro per adult.

Getting out of the Catacombs

You do a good long bit of walking down beneath the surface of the city. The catacombs extend hundreds of miles but only a small portion is open to the public. However, you do come out quite a distance from where you go in and it is completely disorienting. After coming out you will see plenty of confused looking people squinting into the sunlight and looking at maps and for non-existant street signs. Here is the simple way back to where you started. Come out of the Catacombs, turn right, walk to the next big street, turn right, walk back to Denfert-Rochereau, it should take you fifteen to twenty minutes. Or, just find the metro and go back underground.

 

Off the Beaten Track in Paris – Get your Baton in Gear!

Paris off the beaten track
…Eiffel Tower…Louvre...Champs-Elysées; been there, done that – it was fun, but there’s more to Paris than this. The City of Light is full of wonderful hidden gems; you just need to know where to find them. Join me on a little tour, away from drunk English, moody French and bossy Germans, and discover off the beaten track in Paris.

Sewers of Paris
Paris has one of the most remarkable sewer networks in the world and you can now see it with your own eyes! Take a tour down under to learn more about the history of this huge sewer system. Definitely a different view of the city.

Goutte d’Or
Take metro line 4 and hop off at Chateau Rouge. The nearby Goutte d’Or district has a lot of inhabitants of African origin. These people know good food, so whilst wandering around, make sure to check out one (or more) of the many restaurants. Also not to miss is the street market at Rue Dejean, which is held every day but Monday.

Paris off the beaten trackThe Great Mosque of Paris
The beautiful Mosque of Paris was inaugurated in 1926 to honor the North African countries that had helped France during World War I. You’re most welcome to visit the Mosque and join a tour of the building, the courtyard, the Moorish garden and the marble Turkish baths whilst enjoying a cup of mint tea.

Le Marais
Le Marais owes its beautiful buildings of historic and architectural importance to its former inhabitants, the Parisian aristocracy. When they moved to a different district, Le Marais became home of Paris’ main Jewish community. Nowadays, Le Marais is one of Paris’ most popular districts, housing art galleries, fashion houses and uber trendy restaurants.

Sainte Chapelle
Everyone knows Notre Dame and Sacré Coeur, but Paris has a lot more beautiful churches that are well worth a visit. Sainte Chapelle is one of them. Located at Île de la Cité, this stunning structure is a prime example of ‘rayonnant’ Gothic architecture. Both interior and exterior will blow your mind, but the real show-stealers are without a doubt the huge stained glass windows.

Paris off the beaten trackButtes Chaumont
If you feel like getting out of the city crowd, why not head to a lovely public garden? With all its attractions, Parc des Buttes Chaumont is more than just a park. There are several cliffs and bridges, a huge waterfall, a lake and several beautiful gardens. An absolute must-see is the belvedere of Sybil, a Corinthian style monument, situated at the top of a 30 meter high rock.

Lapin Agile
If you’re looking for some entertainment and queuing for Moulin Rouge is not your idea of fun, a visit to the Lapin Agile might be just the thing for you. The Montmartre cabaret owes its fame to renowned artists like Picasso and Apollinaire. Sit down at a wooden table and enjoy a range of French songs, some dating back decades.

Buddhist Temple
Do you like surprises? Take a metro to Paris’ Chinatown! At the Avenue d’Ivry you’ll find the Buddhist temple L’Amicale des Teochews de France. Just around the corner is the beautiful decorated pagoda of the Temple de l’Association des Résidents d’Origine Indochinoise, which is hidden in an underground passage that looks like a parking garage entrance. The best things are found where you don’t expect them!

Catacombs
Deep down beneath the beautiful streets of the city, you can check out the remains of 6 million people in Paris’ catacombs. Based in the underground tunnels of what once were Paris’ stone mines, this unique museum is more than worth a visit, if you can deal with some smell and cold. Visits aren’t recommended for young children.

Paris off the beaten trackThe Passer-Through-Walls
In the Montmartre district, at Place Marcel Aymé, you’ll find a famous statue called Le Passe-Muraille (or The Passer-Through-Walls). The sculpture is based a short story of French novelist and cross-genre writer Marcel Aymé, about a man who discovers he can walk through walls. Definitely a must-see if you’re in the neighborhood.

Do yourself a favor on your next trip to Paris: leave the flocking to the sheep, and you’re bound to enjoy a different perspective of the city…you’re also less likely to get fleeced. One more thing – if you happen to pass boulangerie Paul on Rue Buci give a little wave – chances are I’ll be sitting outside sipping a frappe and trying to guess your nationality.

Snow Hiking in Turkey – Izmir – Bornova – Manisa

Bornova Snow Hike

Our time in Turkey was some of the best that we had anywhere. We will always look fondly back on adventures like this one.

Adventures in foreign countries can be complex or they can be simple. One of the reasons I loved living in Manisa was because of the Manisa Tennis and Hiking Club. They made hiking adventures simple.

I met up with the club at the usual location in Tarzan square on a Sunday morning. As usual, everyone there was healthy, happy, and ready to get hiking and eating. Part of the fun of this club (and probably all Turkish clubs) is how much emphasis is put on the food. The packs were loaded and this wasn’t just going to be a normal outing in the snow. This was going to be a good old fashioned snow hike/sausage roast over an open fire in the mountains.

The club had arranged a bus to take us to the highest point in the mountains between Izmir and Manisa. It was going to take us higher but since there was quite a bit of snow and ice, the road was closed down. The driver let us out at the bottom and we began carefully working our way up the mountain road. More than one hiker slipped and fell but no one was seriously hurt.

Bornova Snow Hike Along the way we stopped to drink tea and have breakfast. The location was pretty but not very good for those of us who hadn’t brought something to sit on! It was a cool ass place! Ha ha.

Further on we came to a small village where the snow had trapped the inhabitants in. They didn’t seem to mind a bit. One problem did seem to be sewage leaking from somewhere though as the smell of urine was incredibly strong throughout the village. I’m not sure why, but I watched where I stepped.

We hiked up into the hills further through virgin snow and past woolly cattle who didn’t seem to mind the snow drifting in the least. They ran in a small herd. I don’t know why, but there aren’t all that many cows in Turkey which makes beef incredibly expensive. In fact, all meat is expensive in Turkey in comparison with North Africa or North America or Europe. I haven’t really figured out why.

Bornova Snow Hike Finally reaching what seemed to be a peak of sorts, we started to gather wood for our weenie roast. Once again, the choice of spots wasn’t the greatest for those of us without pads to sit on, but since my Turkish is minimal I went with it, even though a more comfortable spot was not very far away with places for people to sit.

After a few misguided efforts to start a fire with large or wet wood, finally wiser heads prevailed and we managed to do things the proper way with small dry tinder, small dry twigs, and plenty of room for the fire to breathe. After that, it was sausage time.

Turks love sausages. Obviously not pork, mostly sheep or some of the more expensive ones are cow meat. We roasted, we ate, we drank tea, and then we covered up the fire with snow and set off back down the mountain.

Down the hill, through the village, down the road, and with only one injury that caused some tears, we made it back to the waiting van. On the way we passed plenty of Turks who had come up from either Manisa or Izmir playing in the snow. Snowmen, plenty of picnicking, and as I smiled at two senior citizen couples enjoying the snow, one old man nailed me with a snowball! I wasn’t the only one laughing. His wife looked scared at first that I would be mad, but how could I be!

Bornova Snow Hike

Vietnam Travel Tips – Easy Riders and Sweet Spots in Vietnam

Finding hotels and hostels in Vietnam is the easy part. The hard part is starting your trip around the world. Make sure you include Vietnam on your round the world itinerary and follow these Vietnam travel tips.

There are many travel opportunities in Vietnam. Historical remains are scattered all over the country. Its rich culture and legacy has been attracting travelers from different countries. The Vietnamese are friendly and warm. Touring around the country isn’t difficult because locals are there to assist you.

Easy Riders in Vietnam

Vietnam motor bikeAdventure is absolutely experienced in Vietnam. One tour not to not miss is Dalat’s Easy Rider. Easy Rider provides a special tour by you riding on a motorcycle.

While you might choose to hire a car or a motorcycle, travelers will have a closer view of Vietnam’s attractions like the Central Highland, Mekong Delta, and Ho Chi Minh. This is also the best way to meet the locals and taste authentic Vietnamese cooking along the countryside.

The price is usually $60 to $75 depending on the route taken. Easy Rider has been featured in many guide books. .

 

Top Tourist Sites in Vietnam

Vietnam’s mountains, beaches, cities, and historical sites are major attractions to travelers.

Old Quarter of Hanoi- This is situated in the city of Hanoi. Shopaholics will truly enjoy the streets of Old Quarter. Shops of different goods and services flourish in the area. The tube or tunnel houses of ancient Vietnam still remained in the town’s street. Restaurants, art galleries, and craft stores offer a great way to explore the culture of Vietnam.

Halong BayHalong Bay- This is a World Heritage Site affirmed by UNESCO. It has unique and remarkable grottos and caves. travelers must see the 3000 small islands scattered in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Hue- This remarkable site is one of Vietnam’s spectacular cities with deep historical remnants such as the Royal Citadel, Flag Tower, Royal Palace, and Royal Tombs.

Temple of Literature- The disciples of the great philosopher considered this temple as a holy place. Vietnam’s first university was built in the area since 1076.

Being an upcoming tourist destination, the infrastructure, including communications, is getting better day by day.International calling services and internet access are provided in all major hotels and resorts and the postal service is available 24 hours a day.

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum- This is the most visited spot annually. This place is popular as the resting place of the country’s most significant leader. The museum displays figures of the communist leaders and military collections.

Top Hotels in Vietnam

Vietnam is a paradise attracting thousands of travelers. Accommodation in Vietnam is pleasant and affordable. It is a perfect holiday vacation spot for families and for solo travelers. Most of the luxurious and major hotels in the country are found in the cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh such as:

Majestic Hotel- It has been in service since 1925. The hotel has an ambiance of complete elegance. They offer big discounts in travel packages. Accommodation includes free airport pick up, Wi-Fi access, and a smoke free wing. They have a spa, fitness center, and swimming pool for your leisure time.

Hilton Opera Hotel- This hotel is near the Old Quarter. Tourists will surely be pampered in their guest rooms fully furnished with cable TV, internet access, and work areas. Delicious Vietnamese cuisine is served in their fine restaurant.

Continental Hotel- This is situated in the center of Ho Chi Minh convenient to other tourist destinations in the city. The hotel is built with classic architecture and their restaurant serves Western cuisine.

You will never get bored on a Vietnam tour. Hiking, jungle trekking, and water sports are some of the recreational activities you can enjoy while you discover the wonders of Vietnam.

Make sure to include Vietnam on your trip around the world.

Pooping in the Christmas Manger – A Catalan Tradition

This was the first Christmas blog I ever posted – waaaaaay back in 2005….things were different then, this was a different blog, but it’s still a fun bit of Christmas!

Pooping in the Christmas mangerPooping in the manger. Okay…this is a Christmas tradition I can get behind. I love this. Here is an explanation for this strange Spanish Christmas custom from Wikipedia.

The Story Behind Pooping in the Manger

A Caganer is a little statue unique to Catalonia, and neighbouring areas with Catalan culture such as Andorra.

In Catalonia, as in most of Italy, South France and Spain, the traditional Christmas decoration is a large model of the city of Bethlehem, similar to American Nativity scenes that encompasses the entire city rather than just the typical manger scene. The Catalans have added an extra character that is not found in the manger scenes of any other culture. In addition to Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the Shepherds and company, Catalans have the character known as the Caganer. This extra little character is often tucked away in some corner of the model, typically nowhere near the manger scene, where he is not easily noticed. There is a good reason for his obscure position in the display, for “caganer” translates from Catalan to English as “defecator”, and that is exactly what this little statue is doing — defecating.

The reasons for placing a man who is in the act of excreting solid waste from his posterior in a scene which is widely considered holy are as follows:

  1. Just tradition.
  2. Scatological humor.
  3. Finding the Caganer is a fun game, especially for children.
  4. The Caganer, by creating feces, is fertilizing the Earth. However, this is probably an a posteriori explanation, and nobody would say they put the Caganer on the Nativity scene for this reason.
  5. The Caganer represents the equality of all people e.g. regardless of status, race, gender everyone defecates.

Pooping in the Christmas mangerThe exact origin of the Caganer is lost, but the tradition has existed since the 18th century. Originally, the Caganer was portrayed as a Catalan peasant wearing a traditional hat called a barretina — a red stocking hat with a black band.

The Catalans have modified this tradition somewhat since the 1940s. In addition to the traditional caganer design, you can easily find other characters assuming the caganer position, such as nuns, devils, Santa Claus, celebrities, athletes, historical figures, politicians, Spanish royalty, and other famous people past and present, including Pope John Paul II, Salvador Dalí, prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Princess Letizia and even Osama bin Laden.

The practice is tolerated by the local Catholic church. Caganers are easiest to find before Pooping in the Christmas mangerChristmas in holiday markets, like the one in front of the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia, which has tables and tables of caganers. Caganers have even been featured in art exhibits.

The caganer is not the only defecating character in the Catalan Christmas tradition—another is the Tió de Nadal, which also makes extensive use of the image of human waste production. Other mentions of feces and defecation are common in Catalan folklore. One popular Catalan phrase before eating says “menja bé, caga fort!” (Eat well, shit strong!).

Santa Claus – Extraordinary World Traveler Vagabond

Real Santa ClausSanta Claus – He’s Not Who You Think He Is

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.

Real Santa ClausIn 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.

Six Facts You Didn’t Know About Santa (From Natalie Sayin’s Turkish Travel Blog)

 

So, how did he become Santa Clause?

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.

Real Santa ClausAfter 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.

 

10 Great Oddball Things in South Korea

Someday when I stop traveling, I might actually catch up with myself.  While I was in South Korea, there were a number of odd things that really caused me to go “Hmmm….you don’t really do this or see this kind of oddball stuff anywhere else…”  I’ve been meaning to put together a post of them all since then…and finally, it’s time. Enjoy my 10 Great Oddball Things in South Korea

Sun Cruise1) The Hotel shaped like a ship – while I didn’t stay there, I paid a short visit and just thought – wow, this must have been expensive to build. Located on a coastal cliff in Jeongdongjin and opened in 2002, the resort  is a specially designed cruise ship on land. It is 165 meters in length, 45 meters in height, and 30,000 tons in weight. The Sun Cruise has 211 rooms, both condominium and hotel style, a Western and a Korean restaurant, revolving sky lounge, a night club, a karaoke, and sea water pool. It also offers 6 state-of-the-art function rooms for seminars and workshops.

2) Jimjilbangs – For usually less than 10 Euros you can check into a jingabong for 12-16 hours. They are open 24 hours.  Part bathhouse, part social club, part hotel, and part something else entirely – they are my favorite thing in South Korea.

3) The North Korean Submarine – I know, it’s not terribly exciting. A bunch of North Koreans got their submarine stuck on some reefs and abandoned it. This prompted a deadly manhunt that lasted over a month (25 of the 26 crew members were shot dead and the South Korean casualties, civil and military, tallied 17). It’s just odd that it is sitting there. Oh, yeah, and by the way, there is a US Warship there too…I don’t think it was abandoned though.

4) Going to the dentist for a teeth cleaning. Okay, this might be the oddest of them all. It’s about $50 but when you travel a lot you need to take care of your teeth and why not have it done in a place where you don’t know the language. I’m pretty sure they cleaned my teeth. It felt like it anyway. (Thanks to the Vagablond for the teeth tip)

5) Sokcho’s North Korean Village and ferry – Sokcho is interesting by itself but when was the last time you got pulled across a body of water (by hand) by a North Korean exile?

 

6)  Karaoke (whatever it’s called in Korea – I think it’s Norebong-ing) Anyway, it’s not like in the US. You and your friends (or just you) rent a private room and bring your own drinks. No audience. Definitely not recommended that you go by yourself. I went with a Dutch girl from the hostel and we had fun once we had drank enough.

7) Underground Shopping, Museums, etc -Koreans love to dig tunnels and you will find an amazing world beneath your feet when you take the time to look. This is especially true in Seoul and around the DMZ.

8) Love Motels – These are really cheap hotels generally and themed. Unlike karaoke, you can actually go to these by yourself, just make sure the walls are thick enough that you don’t hear the people who didn’t go by themselves. By the way, don’t be surprised if they offer you a menu of women to choose from – not required.  These are a great budget option (the love motels, not the women)

9) The Penis Park. It’s a beautiful natural park next to the sea – filled with dicks. Seriously, a must see place but not for the shy or easily aroused.

10) The De Militarized Zone – No trip to South Korea would be complete without visiting a war zone.  The war is still active and the DMZ is still being tunnelled under. You can visit at a few locations and even set foot in North Korea. Why not?

 

7 Offbeat Adventures in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Old China Cafe KLWhile in Kuala Lumpur back in 2011, I did more than just drink beer and watch street walkers, I also saw some very cool places and attractions you might not have come across.

 

The Old China Cafe

Old China Cafe was a great lunch of Malay-Chinese cuisine and had an interesting feel. Finding it was the hardest part but a friendly guy sniffing glue on the corner pointed me in the right direction. I’m lucky to have been in China before it’s modern transformation…this reminded me of that.

From their site:

This building was the guild hall of the Selangor & Federal Territory Laundry Association. The guild was set up at the turn of the century and moved to this part of Chinatown in the 1920s.
As the guild members prospered, the founding members moved to this building in 1930. The two large mirrors that face each other are traditional feng shui mirrors that Chinese believe would perpetually reflect the good luck when the first rays of the morning sun light up the interior.

Even the interior doors still have wooden latches. This type of pre-war (World War One/1914-1918) shophouses may not last forever. Already several in the neighbourhood (Jalan Panggong, Jalan Petaling and Jalan Balai Polis) have either been demolished or renovated beyond recognition.

Old China Café tries to maintain a semblance of the Chinese community’s old social life which will soon fade into history.

Bukit Nanas ParkBukit Nanas Forest Reserve. Sitting in the center of ultra-modern, ultra-urban Kuala Lumpur is a rainforest preserve where you can hike across wooden bridges, see monkeys, and get your feet muddy on tropical trails. Since 1906 the 11 hectares of the preserve have been a beloved spot for locals and visitors to get away from it all by heading to the city center. Great trails and for tree lovers you can check the signage to discover Kapur (Dryobalanops aromatica), Keruing bulu (Dipterocarpus baudii), Jelutong (Dyera costulata), Meranti pa’ang (Shorea bracteolata) and Rattan (Calamus manan) and many other trees. A botanical herb garden, orchid area, nature center, and jogging trails all make this a more than worthwhile nature stop in the center of the city.

Ain Arabia is a completely neat idea to me. Sure, Malaysia is a Muslim country, but it’s not an Arab country. If, however, you want to experience the Arab world of the Middle East while visiting Southeast Asia, the place to head is Ain Arabia. The street is located at Jalan Berangan in Bukit Bintang. Oddly, the area seemed to be filled with mostly Arab tourists and I’m told that during the month of Ramadan, many Arabs come from stricter countries to avoid the enforced fast. Since I lived in Morocco, I found the Sahara Tent Restaurant and the Berber laundry service to be more than a little bit odd.

Cosmo's World KLCosmo’s World Theme Park gives you a chance to experience a theme park but without having to go outside so you can enjoy the air conditioning. The park is located at Level 5, Berjaya Times Square. It fills 380,000 square feet and has separate theme parks for adults and children called Galaxy Station and Fantasy Garden. Sorry, the Fantasy Garden is the part for kids…Still, you have to love indoor roller coasters and a ride called the DNA mixer sounds like it is much more adult than it really is.

Little India. Indians are one of the three main ethnic groups in Malaysia so Little India makes sense. For those looking for an Indian experience without going to India. This works. Jalan Masjid India is one of the oldest parts of the city and dates back to 1870 when the Indian mosque was built.
Little India is the heart of a thriving neighborhood built up around the mosque. It is filled with colorful flowers and garments and is easy to reach. Just get off the tram at Masjid Jamek Station or walk from China town.Bales of saris, shops heaped with gold, traditional pharmacies and gorgeous glass bangles fill the shops and delicious aromas come from the many restaurants which offer tasty Indian snacks like samosa, ghulab jamun and vadai.

KL Bird and Butterfly ParksThe Bird and Butterfly Parks. The Bird Park and Butterfly house are located in the Lake Gardens, a 60-hectare reserve since 1888. It is the world’s largest free flight, walk in Aviary. The butterfly park has over 6000 butterflys and more than 120 species…and they are alive not stuck to pin-boards.

National Planetarium. I’m a sucker for planetariums. I just love them. It’s the blue domed building above the Lake Gardens and has a space museum that includes replicas of ancient observatories. The planetarium shows were in English and not only interesting, but fun. Of particular note was the very nice juxtaposition of traditional Islamic architecture with the space age. Very nice.

New York Foodie – The Best Places for Food Shopping in New York City

by Sarah Spigelman exclusive for Vagobond

Murray's Chees Shop

New York isn’t just the best place to eat; it’s one of the best places to shop for food. No need to subscribe to pricey specialty food email lists to obtain the latest in hard-to–source foods.

Stop stockpiling foreign candy that gets you in trouble with customs every time you try to come back from London. And please…let’s say goodbye to big box supermarkets that sell tomatoes that look gorgeous and taste like candle wax.

Here are just a few of Manhattan’s very best food stores, sure to give you everything you need to feast at home.

KalustyanKalustyan’s – this Indian food emporium offers literally anything you will need to make a meal from the subcontinent. There is a wall full of spices so potent that your eyes may tear – but at the same time, your mouth will water. Need paneer, chickpea flour, or kaffir lime? They have it. Or maybe you want a huge bag of Brazil nuts, strained yogurt from Greece, or foreign candy bars. Don’t sweat; they have that here, too. If all else fails, you at least owe it you yourself to try some food at the tiny upstairs café. It might not be fancy, but it is the best Indian food that you can get outside of your Bengali mom’s house.

Eataly—Mario Batali strikes gold again with this humongous Italian emporium. This place isn’t just a supermarket; it is a full-on destination. Along with the piles of exotic mushrooms, Italian dried pastas, and imported fruit like Sicilian blood oranges, you can have cooking lessons or wine classes. There is a European style food hall, with many small restaurants focusing on just one thing – fish, vegetables, pizza, or pasta. Also, stand at counters and try meats, cheese, or wines. Finally, for the ultimate experience, head to Manzo, an acclaimed beef focused restaurant right in the heart of the bustling store.

Zabar’s-come on to the UWS for a little nosh. This is the place where you come for Sunday brunch – for soft, chewy bagels, whipped cream cheese,Zabar's and the gest assortment of smoked fish in the city. Smoked salmon, kippered salmon, smoked trout, whitefish salad, and everything else you can imagine to make a fantastic spread. Also load up on gourmet olives, luscious cheeses, homemade hummus, and artisanal crackers and breads. Don’t underestimate the stuff you can get at Zabar’s –they roast their own chickens; have an extensive prepared food section, and a coffee section that carries the aroma of the best Starbucks in the world.

Esposito's Meats by afagenEsposito’s – this old school butcher shop is what NYC used to be like, before the infusion of big chain grocery stores. Esposito’s is a tiny store in Hell’s Kitchen where anything and everything meat can be yours. Shins, marrow bones, veal breast, and whole baby goat – literally, anything that you want is either in stock or will be ordered for you. The fellas behind the counter couldn’t be more accommodating or helpful –they will tell you how to cook that chicken breast so it is tender and flavorful. Pick up some homemade mozzarella and local Italian bread while you are there and make sandwich fit for a king.

Hmart 1 by @JyonnnnHMart—goodbye, USA, hello Korea. This store, where the windows are papered and the location is in the middle of a harried street, houses an entirely different world. A world of 50 lb. bags of rice and dried squid sold like potato chips. A world of thinly sliced sashimi and an entire freezer case filled with dumplings and potstickers. A world of peach flavored gummies, coffee flavored milk, and instant noodles that are way beyond the stuff you had in college. It’s also a world of prepared bibimbap, kimpab, and anything that you might need to take a gustatory trip to Korea.

Big Food Challenges in Florida

Florida is known as a place where everything is bigger and better – the theme park rides, the sports and certainly the food. If you’re the competitive type, why not check out some of the restaurants below, all of which offer unique challenges for the truly hungry.

Whether you’re on holiday with your kids or enjoying an intimate break, sweltering over the Inferno Soup at Nitally’s, chowing down a 48oz steak or eating ice cream from a kitchen sink, you’re sure to have a great story to take home with you whether you pass the test or not.

48oz Steak Challenge at Don Shula’s Steak House

48 oz steakLaunched by former NFL coach Don Shula in 1989, this restaurant chain quickly gained a reputation as one of the best places in Florida to sink your teeth into some prime Angus beef. Each restaurant is themed after the Miami Dolphins’ “Perfect Season” that Shula presided over in 1972, when the Dolphins became the only team in NFL history to finish the entire season undefeated.

Orlando holidays in Florida wouldn’t be complete without sampling their famous 48oz Porterhouse steak, dubbed “The Shula Cut”. Holidaymakers who manage to finish all of this titanic T-bone in one sitting are rewarded with induction into the restaurant’s 48oz Club, which would certainly provide a few bragging rights back home.

However, guests have their work cut out for them if they’re planning to beat the record of superfan Taft Parker, who to date has eaten over 175 of the giant steaks – earning a commemorative football from Don Shula himself for his achievement.

Shula’s Steak House Orlando, Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel, 1500 Epcot Resorts Blvd, Lake Buena Vista, Florida 32830

Inferno Soup Challenge at Nitally’s

If you’ve got a taste for the spicy stuff, you may have finally met your match at Nitally’s Thai-Mexican restaurant in St Petersburg, Florida.

This challenge isn’t for the faint of heart: the Inferno Soup contains fresh ghost pepper. At over 400 times stronger than Tabasco sauce, it’s the hottest chili known to mankind – in fact, it’s so hot the Indian government has reportedly considered using it in non-lethal hand grenades.

For good measure, the restaurant throws about a dozen other varieties of pepper, including three kinds of jabanero, into the dish.

The owners of Nitally’s initially offered a $150 (£96) reward to any steel-tongued guest who can finish the soup in less than 30 minutes, but as of July 2011 not a single customer has managed it – prompting them to raise the jackpot to $800 (£512).

Challengers must be over 18, stone-cold sober and “of sound mind and health” before they can tackle the Inferno Soup Challenge, as well as remaining seated throughout. Any takers?

Nitally’s Thai-Mex Cuisine, 2462 Central Ave, St Petersburg, Florida 33712

20 Tacos in 40 Minutes at Poblano’s

Poblano’s Restaurant in Clearwater, Florida is a local favourite among lovers of burritos, enchiladas and tequila. The truly adventurous, however, can put their guts to the test with the 20 Tacos in 40 Minutes challenge. The crispy fried tortillas filled with shredded beef, cheese and lettuce are a staple of Mexican cuisine, but it takes true grit to step up to the bar at Poblano’s and earn a place in the restaurant’s hall of fame.

The tacos are served ten at a time and diners are expected to clear their plates completely to succeed. If they do manage to chow down the full 20, the house pays for the meal and the challenger receives a T-shirt and has their photo mounted on the wall of the restaurant.

A word of warning, though – only 13 people have completed the challenge since it was launched a couple of years ago. Reigning champion Adam went above and beyond to finish an incredible 30 of the spicy snacks in the allotted time.

Poblano’s Mexican Grill & Bar, 2451 North McMullen Booth Road, Clearwater, Florida 33759

The Kitchen Sink at Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlour

Americans love to round off a meal with a good ice cream sundae, and entering this classically-styled parlour in Dania Beach, Florida is like stepping back in time to the age of soda jerks, Cadillacs and rock ‘n’ roll. There’s also a dessert on the menu that’s a meal in itself and then some.

The Kitchen Sink isn’t just a clever name – it really is served in a full-size kitchen sink, plumbing and all. The servers behind the counter are invited to let their imaginations run wild putting everything they can think of into the colossal sundae, with toppings including marshmallow, chocolate, strawberries, cherries, fudge and sprinkles.

In this case there’s no reward for finishing the food besides the satisfaction of a job well done, but at $12.95 (£8) per person – for a minimum of four diners – it’s a whole lot of ice-cream for your cash.

Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlour, 128 South Federal Highway, Dania Beach, Florida 33004

Eddie’s Monsta Burger at Eddie’s Bar & Grill

Eddy's bar and grillIf you’re a burger lover and you think you’ve seen it all, Eddie would have you believe otherwise. From the outside it may seem like just another waterfront burger joint in Dunedin, Florida, but it has achieved local fame thanks to one truly daunting menu item: the Monsta Burger.

Featuring 3lbs of beef created from six of the restaurant’s normal half-pounders and “all the fixin’s”, this colossal burger is even served with a pound of French fries on the side! Finish it all within 30 minutes and you’ll get a T-shirt and your picture on the Wall of Fame, as well as a free meal.

Fail, and it’ll set you back $24.99 (£16), but why not have a go at one of Eddie’s other challenges? The super-spicy Fire-in-the-Hole Chicken Wings will net you $100 (£64) in gift vouchers if you can chomp down 13 in 15 minutes, or alternatively there’s an enormous tray of nachos offering the same prize if you can finish it in half an hour.

Eddie’s Bar and Grill, 1283 Bayshore Boulevard Dunedin, Florida 34698

Mummified Love in Andong, South Korea

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!

Andong MummyWhen 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.

Andong Mummy Love LetterThe 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.

Andong MummyThe 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.

Cela Kula – Nis, Serbia’s Skull Tower

Nis Serbia Tower of SkullsThe 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:

Nis Serbia Tower of SkullsOn 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.

Nis Serbia Tower of SkullsThe 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.

Nis Serbia Tower of SkullsAt 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….

%d bloggers like this: