Quebec City Revisited – Musee de Civilization

Quebec

Most of my day was spent in the beautiful Musee de Civilzation. A natural place for an anthropologist to end up I think. They had several interesting exhibits, one on Egyptology, another on the long lasting effects in North America of the 7 years war which it turns out led to the French Expulsion from Nova Scotia, the war of Independence in the states, and most likely to the horrid treatment of indigenous peoples in Canada by the English after the much more enlightened treatment of the indigenous by the French. Full citizenship to genocide including the use of disease ridden blankets by the English. My favorite was a look at creatures from outer space in fact and fiction.

Bologna, Italy – Pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca

Bologna Italy Catholic Pilgrimmage

I should begin by making it clear that I’m not a Catholic. I believe in the God that makes it possible for me to worship with all of the people of the world, so when I found out that there was a famous pilgrimage in Bologna, Italy I determined to make the pilgrimmage since I was already in Bologna as a guest of Emilia-Romagna Tourism.

The Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca is a destination for pilgrims from all over the world and while I was in Bologna primarily to worship the food and architecture, I decided to make the trek to the magnificent sanctuary which sits atop the Guardia Hill and serves as the most prominent landmark in the beautiful city of Bologna.

Here is a complete list of  Hotels in Bologna, Italy – because even pilgrims need a place to sleep! (Complete and up to date reviews and pricing)

Bologna is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which is ‘the people’s umbrella’ which consists of more than 53 kilometers of covered walkways which developed from the medieval habit of extending the first floor of houses out over the sidewalk. The extensions were then supported with wooden beams and stone – and eventually, they became public space within the city. The result is that people in Bologna need not carry an umbrella even in the most violent downpour because they can get just about everywhere without stepping out from under the porticos. While there are many famous portico walks, the longest of them is the trek to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca.

This amazingly long and uninterrupted portico stretches from Porto Saragozza where you will find the Museum of the Beata Virgine di San Luca. The towers and crenalated porticos which house the museum dates back to the 13th century but had famous design work done on it by the noted 19th century architect Giuseppe Mengoni.

Virgin of Saint LukeFrom Porto Saragozza pilgrims remove their shoes and begin the 3,796 meter (about 2 1/2 miles) climb up the longest uninterrupted portico in the world.  The portico has been in place since 1433 and each year the famous artifact, which is a Byzantine portrait of Madonna and Child, is carried in procession from the Sanctuary, down the hill, and then back up. The porticos were designed by Gian Giacomo Monti and later continued by Carlo Franceso Dotti and others. The section completed by Dotti is perhaps the most amazing in terms of architectural values as it utilizes a huge number of perspectives and vanishing points which enhance the feeling of awe as the pilgrims climb the steepest sections.

While I wasn’t there for the procession, there were still hundreds of pilgrims marching shoeless up the hill and stopping along the way to say prayers, make signs of the cross, and in some cases weep. There were Malaysian nuns, South American groups, American devotees, and Chinese catholics marching and chanting side by side.

The reason is that Byzantine portrait which is said to be the work of the famous evangelist St. Luke, author of the Gospel of St. Luke in the new testament. Interestingly, he is credited as being the first to paint icons of the Virgin and Child. The effigy is the patron saint of Bologna. Upon reaching the top, the Sanctuary opens up in a wonderous display of outdoor Baroque architecture that is both beautiful and adds to the sense of wonder before entering the sanctuary.

I arrived, with the pilgrims just before Mass was to begin. As I said, I’m not Catholic, but when I saw nuns tuning up guitars and felt the hushed electricity of the pilgrims as they began to sit, I decided to stay for Catholic Mass, which was a first for me. I can hardly imagine a more serene or exciting setting and while I didn’t understand the words, I felt the tears of the old Italian couple next to me and afterwards joined the true believers as they wound through the sanctuary to come for a closer look at the Madonna and Child.

The sanctuary itself was also re-designed and enlarged by Dotti and carries a very solemn and profound energy. I found it very interesting to be in Italy, looking at a painting brought from Constantinople (Istanbul) a thousand years before listening to prayers in a language that wasn’t my own after traversing 666 arches (how odd they should use that number) to reach it with hundreds of barefoot pilgrims.

I offered my prayers to God asking that my own wife and child be kept safe while I was away from them and stepped out to enjoy the beautiful walk back down into Bologna – I was fortunate in that on the day of my pilgrimage, the sun was shining brightly.

Ferrara, Italy – From Castello Estense to Cappellacci di Zucca

Ferrara, ItalyFerrara, 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.

Castello d'EstenseThe 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.

View from Italian CastleWhile 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.

 

Lake Como, Italy – A Beautiful Daytrip from Bergamo or Milan

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.

Lake ComoWhile 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.

Lake Como SwansTo 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.

Lake Como gardens and villasComo 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 VillasLake 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:

Mark Twain who writes about Lake Como extensively in The Innocents Abroad. Ernest Hemingway used the Lake as a setting in A Farewell to Arms when his character Lieutenant Henry talks about taking a vacation to Lake Como. Victor Frankenstein married Elizabeth in the vicinity of Lake Como in the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley anLake Como Parkd Fyodor Dostoevsky mentions Lake Como in his novel Notes from Underground.

In addition there is Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities which has Maria Ruskin escape from New York to Lake Como and The Poems and Fragments of Catallus, In Praise of Como, Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed , The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, August Strindberg’s magnum opus play Miss Julie, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame, and Gladys Theodora Parrish Huntingdon’s novel Madame Solario. There are certainly many more – and did I mention it’s also Naboo?

One thing for certain. It’s a beautiful and relaxing place and I look forward to returning.

 

Photo Essay: Bird Watching on Italy’s Po River

Seeing flamingos in the wildDuring my time in the Emiliga Romana region a few months ago, I was fortunate to be able to take part in a bird watching tour on the Po River. With more than 350 species of birds having been sighted in the Po River Region, this is a territory that at first glance looks unvaried, but is actually quite surprising richness.

Indeed, the agricultural landscapes vary much more than the human eye can see. Birds can profit from this, finding what they need to feed themselves and, in some cases, to breed.

This is one of the best places in the world to watch herons, kites, kestrals, and of course, flamingos. I didn’t have the fancy bird-watching camera that many of the other passengers on the boat had, but I still managed to catch some images that I hope show how nice the day was.

In particular, there was a large group of senior citizens from Belgium who are part of an RV camping club, these folks with tattoos and piercings on wrinkled old arms are exactly the type of old person I hope to someday be.

While it was exciting to see the Peregrine Falcon, a red-footed falcon and the lesser kestrels, the highlight for me was just being on the water and seeing this unique landscape filled with pink flamingos!

In addition, the French speaking tour guide pointed out some fish smuggling camps. An interesting note was that there are always two doors in the smuggler cabins so that when they see the patrols coming they can run out the back and escape in their long fishing boats.

I’m very grateful to Emilia Romagna Tourism for setting up this trip.

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Sheet Music & Toilet Seat Art – 13 of Bologna’s Offbeat Museums

A visit to Bologna, Italy is usually characterized by great food, exploring the wonderful architecture, perhaps doing the Portico walks, checking out the tall towers, and perhaps enjoying music, art, or cinema at Bologna’s many festivals.

Offbeat Art in BolognaHidden in the midst of all of that, are several wonderful offbeat museums that are definitely worth your time.  First of all, near the train station and slightly away from the center is a museum filled with works that just about no one thinks of when they go to Bologna – Modern Art.

The Museum of Art Moderne Bologna or MAMBO is bursting with treasures both inside and outside. The Museum covers Italian Art from World War II to the present.

The Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Bologna opened in 1975 in the spaces specially designed by artist and architect Leone Pancaldi; it was born in the atmosphere of intellectual fervor that pervaded the city at the beginning of the Sixties. Before GAM’s opening, more than a decade of events, exhibitions and competitions had taken place in hope of its construction, culminating in the opening activities joint under the title “A museum today.”

Inside you’ll find a wide array of rotating exhibits and a wonderful permanent collection that ranges through such an eclectic mix as tribute to New York break dancing videos to Toilet Seat art (which, by the way, the security seems a little uptight about – when I began lifting the lids to see the symbols painted under them, a very upset guard began yelling at me in Italian and then followed me the rest of the way through the museum – my contention is that there was art under the seats, so obviously the artist intended it to be seen!) Due to the close scrutiny, I was unable to take a photo of this wonderful toilet seat display.  Shit!!

Mambo museum in Bologna
A shot of the wonderful Marcel Boadthaers at MAMbo in Bologna, Italy

When I visited there was an immensely interesting  Marcel Broodthaers  temporary exhibit which highlighted his artistic path and how it developed over the course of an extraordinary career that lasted just 12 years, from 1964 to 1976. Titled, Marcel Broodthaers. L’espace de l’écriture, the exhibition was extraordinary.

Another Bologna Museum that I found to be well worth my time was the Museo Internazionale e Biblioteca Della Musica (International Museum and Library of Music). While this was a small museum, for music lovers it is a must see.  Tucked away inside the 16th century Palazzo Sanguinetti, this museum was designed to hold the musical objects of the city of Bologna, but quickly grew to become an international library for sheet music! With wonderful murals, a delightful old curator, and plenty of old instruments – you won’t be sorry if you pay a visit.

Offbeat Art in BolognaThe frescoes alone are worth the price of admission as they are meticulously restored 18th century examples of Neo-Classical and Napoleanic art that are unlike just about anything else in the city.

Here is a blurb from the museum’s website:

The first and most important intent was to bring awareness to the greater public of the rich variety of musical heritage that the Comune di Bologna owns and has kept for a long time. Until now, much of this heritage remained confined in warehouses for various reasons – the first and foremost being the lack of adequate space – and was only brought out occasionally for temporary expositions.

The museum’s core musical collections were created by Franciscan Father, Giovanni Battista Martini in the 1700’s who was not only a great scholar and collector but also the teacher of Johann Christian Bach and Wolfgang Amadé Mozart. In addition to enriching his library day after day, gathering manuscripts and musical works of various kinds, Padre Martini collected portraits of musicians.

Offbeat Art in BolognaFor me, the most fun was to see the instruments: lutes, flutes by Manfredo Settala from 1650, the pochette, various little violin, the ghironde, the serpentoni, the extraordinary series of horns and cornets from the 16th and 17th centuries, and finally, the tiorba, which is in the shape of a khitára.

So, as you can see – Bologna offers much more than just food and architecture. Here are a few more museums you may want to explore while you are in the heart of good living.

1) The Tapestry Museum in Villa Spada
2) The Leccaro Collection of Modern Art
3) The Herb Museum
4) Missionary Museum of Chinese Art
5) Civic Medieval Museum
6) Museum of Comparative Anatomy
7) The Toy Soldier Museum
8) Resistance Movement Museum
9) Industrial Heritage Museum
10) The Communications Museum
11) The Museum of Bee Keeping

If those thirteen museums aren’t enough for you, there are about fifty more within the center of Bologna and that ought to keep you busy!

 

Sophia Loren and the Eels of Comacchio

Comachio EelsLegend 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.

Comachio EelsBut, 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 thComachio Eelsat 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?

The Vatican Museums – Three Paintings Out of Hundreds Not to Miss

Hand of GodThe 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) Vatican paintingsWhen 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.

Powerful and amazing.

Vatican paintings

7 Architectural Wonders of Florence, Italy that are not to be missed

Florence. Perhaps no other city in the world evokes as many cultural, artistic, and architectural visions as the capital of Tuscany in Italy.  Home of the Renaissance, this city filled with museums, palaces, and churches holds a huge number of the world’s cultural treasures. Perhaps, the most important of  Florence’s sites are the Baptistery, the Ponte Vecchio, and the Cathedral, but the San Lorenzo library is certainly the finest example of Michelangelo’s architectural gift and should not be missed.

Those who are on last minute holidays or seeking the Italian Renaissance, need only look upon the palaces, buildings and squares of Florence for each of them are masterpieces.  Many of them built by the most admired artists of all time. In Florence, when you want to see the work of Michelangelo or Brunelleschi – there is no need to go indoors to a museum.

1) Piazza della Signoria is an L shaped plaza in the heart of Florence that serves as the historical and cultural center of the city. While unremarkable in terms of design itself, it is the surroundings and the history of this piazza that make it a must visit location.  Surrounding the piazza you will find The Uffizi Gallery, the Palazzao Vecchio, the replica of Michelangelo’s David, statues by Donatello, Cellini and others and as if that isn’t enough, the Piazza marks the place where both  return of the Medici family was and the famous Bonfire of the Vanities took place. The radical priest, Girolamo Savonarola who burned the books and treasures of the Florentine elite was later himself burned in the square – the exact spot is marked.

2) Palazzo Vecchio which literally means “Old Palace” is still the focus of the piazza. It was built in 1302 asthe seat of Florentine government and is still used for the same purpose. As such, only portions of it are open to the public. This was the original palace of the Medici family. The clasic blocky castle-like architecture is not centered on the tower for a reason, it was actually built around a tower which is far older and served as the substructure of the current tower.  This is a Romanesque building with many Gothic elements.  Inside is a treasure trove of courtyards, salons, and more than a few priceless artistic works.

3)Ponte Vecchio is a wonderful closed spandrel bridge which crosses the Arno at its narrowest point and is believed to have been first built in Roman times but is first mentioned in the year 996. The bridge still has shops along side it and a hidden walkway along the top so that the Medici didn’t have to expose themselves to the public when crossing. It was originally constructed in wood but wasdestroyed by a flood in 1333 and rebuilt of stone in 1345. Culturally interesting is that right on the bridge is the place where the concept of bankruptcy was born. The statue of Cellini in the center is surrounded by a small fence festooned with padlocks. Lovers will lock the padlocks and throw the key in the river to bind them together forever. A sign surrounded by locks forbids the practice. Urban legend says that the tradition was started by a padlock shop owner on one side of the bridge. Smart move.

4) Torre della Pagliazza is also called the Byzantine Tower and the Straw tower. This is regarded as the oldest building in Florence (7th century) though there are several other candidates that might fit that description better, but none of them quite so wonderful as Pagliazza Tower. The tower today has been incorporated into the very nice Hotel Brunellesci but was once accommodation of a different sort – a female prison. This is the origin of the name “Straw tower” – female prisoners were given a bit of straw, a luxury denied to male prisoners.

5) The Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistery of St John) is also said to be the oldest building in Florence though it was built in the 10th century and so is not. Still, it is old and the stories of it being the oldest are based on the fact that it sits atop earlier structures – one even rumoured to have been a Roman temple to Mars. It is particularly famed for its three sets of wondrous bronze doors which have only recently been put back in place after extensive restoration and preservation work was done on them. The three sets were made by Pisano, Ghiberti including the famed East doors called by Michelangelo “The Gates of Paradise”. The Bapistery is built in a Florentine Romanesque style that served as inspiration for the later Renaissance styles to emerge in Florence.

6)The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore also simply called the Duomo of Florence was built from 1296 when the first stone was laid.The dome created by Brunelleschi with its exquisite facing of polychrome marble panels and the cathedral itself designed by Arnolfo di Cambio (who also designed Palazzo Vecchio). The dome is the largest brick dome ever constructed (completed in 1496) and the cathedral remains one of the largest in the world. The competition between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi was fierce to see who would get the commission for the dome – when it was awarded to both jointly, Brunelleschi feigned sickness until Ghiberti bowed out thus leaving full credit to Brunelleschi. The drama between the two is the stuff of great film and literature. The dome itself is made of more than 4 million bricks and pre-saged the mathematics that were later used to define it. Brunelleschi’s innovations served as inspiration to a young apprentice who worked on the dome’s lanern – Leonardo Davinci.

7) The Basilica of San Lorenzo Library is in the center of Florence’s straw market district and is where most of the Medici family are buried. This building is also claimed to be the oldest in Florence and has a pretty good claim since the church was consecrated in the year 393. The building was designed by Brunelleschi and contains Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library. The entire complex serves as an important bridge between the old architecture (pre-renaissance) and the new architecture which followed it.

Cappadocia – Goreme – Fairy Chimneys and Rock Cut Churches

Goreme Cappadocia TurkeyIn Central Anatolia lies a land that looks like it comes from The Lord of the Rings- Cappadocia. Even the name has the ring of a fairy tale Kingdom.

“I, Sir Vago of the Kingdom of Cappadocia, do ride forth to seek out new lands and great fortunes.” – or something like that, though Cappadocia was never a kingdom of its own and in fact was a place of troglodyte refuge for Christian outcasts and societal misfits.

The landscape of massive stone chimneys (wistfully called fairy chimneys) and dream like rock formations are the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. From the 4th to the 11th Century a community of Christian refugees carved an unbelievable number of churches from the stones. Houses were also carved and the traditional livelihood was agriculture until the 1980’s when a tourist boom started.

A new friend we met in Goreme, Cemil, has lived there since that time and he remembers when there were only three hotels in Goreme. Now there are hundreds and  when we arrived, they were almost all full. No need to tell you what the number one industry is now. Many people come to Goreme just so they can enjoy Cappadocia Balloon Tours. There is nothing quite like floating over the fairy chimneys as the sun comes up.

Goreme is a magical place and filled with charm. An interesting fact  is that in Goreme, it used to be that if a man didn’t own a pigeon house, he wouldn’t be able to get married. These days there must not be many marriages, though more likely is that that particular tradition was tossed aside with agriculture when tourism became so lucrative.

Virtually everything in Goreme is directed at tourists from the hot air balloons to the travel companies, tour companies, restaurants, and tourist shops. Unlike other tourism hot spots though, the prices seem reasonable and the people don’t seem so hungry for the hunt.
Goreme Cappadocia Turkey
It’s one of the things that really makes me sick about tourist places is that the people who work in tourism tend to forget that the clients or customers are real people, instead they become prey. It’s the same for criminals, people become prey and they are something to be hunted. I went through it myself as a tout and as a stock broker, if people simply become a means to an ends, life becomes much less magical and satisfying. While we did encounter quite a few people who were on the hunt in Goreme, it was less than r Fez and the hunt itself was less in your face than either place as well.

We had a very nice breakfast with our friend Cemil at the Blue Moon Hotel before heading out to the Goreme Open Air Museum. this is an astounding place, though no more so than Goreme itself. The big draw at the Open Air Museum are the rock cut Byzantine churches and the painting and frescoes they contain. Admission was 15 lira each.

Goreme Cappadocia TurkeyFlash photos weren’t allowed and several guides told us not to take photos at all which was a bit extreme(they say the flash destroys the color of the old paintings). And in fact, everyone was doing it.

The rock cut churches had interesting pews and tables carved in them, graves which had been robbed or excavated in the floors, and of course the paintings. This was a monastic community and then became a pilgrimage site for Christians in the 17th Century.

Hanane was not overly impressed with the paintings, in particular the Red Ochre made very little impression on her. “I could get up there and paint the same thing right now. They’re fake.” By this point, we were laughing each time she called something fake but I still think she was partly serious. Once again we opted to skip the extra fee, this time 8 lira each to see the frescoes in the Karanlik Kilise. I feel no regrets over that. I really hate to pay an entrance fee only to be faced with another entrance fee.

Goreme Cappadocia TurkeyWe exited feeling that we had both seen enough churches. While we didn’t have the time this visit to go to the underground cities, it was a nice thing to whet our appetite with the rural charms and comedic tourist hunting that takes place there. As examples of how the hunt is conducted in Goreme you can look at the names of the Pensions. Flintstones Pension, Bedrock Cave Hostel, Ufuk Pension, Shoestring Cave Pension and more. We were recommended to try the Peri Cave Hotel, though as I wrote previously, we were very fortunate to be staying in the Moonlight Cave Suites.

We strolled through the Rose Valley and then went back to Goreme village where we had a bad dinner, at Cappadocia Pide Salonu. Not recommended. Awful.

From there we hiked up to the highest point in Goreme and watched the sun go down and the lights of the fairy chimneys flicker on in Goreme. A bottle of wine would have made it perfect.

From there it was back to our cave to enjoy the hot tub, king size bed, and overall luxury of the Moonlight Cave Suites. Warning – don’t scroll down or you will see more of me than you want to.

too much exposure

The Egyptian Hustle

I was fortunate to be able to visit Egypt just shortly after the Arab Spring. It was an unplanned trip. I hope you enjoy my narrative of it.

Cairo EgyptThe Egyptian Hustle

The hustle in Egypt is relentless and from my perspective anyway, downright shameful. Don’t get me wrong, I call both Morocco and Turkey home, so I understand the hustle from the carpet vendors in the Grand Bazaar asking three times the price they want because the guidebooks say tourists should ask for half price to the Moroccan haggler that will overcharge you by 1000% just because he can. I don’t dig that stuff, but they at least have something in common that I can respect. Once you agree on a price, that’s the price. Not so in Egypt.

Granted, my experience is limited to airport hustlers and taxi touts but within a short time, I noticed something that offended me far more deeply than being over charged. Egyptians continue to try to gouge you for higher prices even after you have agreed on a price. The price goes up when you pull out your wallet, if you pay in advance they then tack on extras like the ‘airport ticket’, and even if you shake on it – they will tell you a higher price immediately and try to wheedle it from you. That, to me is offensive. The violation of the agreement.

I can live with Egyptians (and Moroccans and Southern Italians, Greeks, and other North Africans) violating my ideas of what the que (line) should be and why it should be respected. Frankly, I think it is a reason why their societies are less successful than say those of Turks, Northern Italians, Brits, Germans, or Americans. So, I hate my idea of the line being violated, but I loathe the idea of the handshake being nulled. The most classic example of a deal done. When an American shakes my hand, looks me in the eye and tells me something – and then it changes – I honestly feel a desire to maim and hurt them. With the Egyptians, I just feel an intense sadness because the handshake isn’t even worthy of a lie. The agreement of a price, isn’t even an agreement.Certainly, a society where agreeing on a negotiated price holds no weight – isn’t a society I want to be in for even a day more – no matter how cool the Pyramids might be.

Cairo EgyptThe Oasis Hotel in Heliopolis

The name certainly sounds nice, but like the agreement on price, the name holds no meaning at this particular establishment. I’m certain that I’ve stayed in worse hotels. The hard part is remembering where and when that was. The one positive thing I can say is that I didn’t get bit by any bugs – but, I did have to sleep in a room that smelled like it had been fumigated hours before I arrived. I woke up coughing Raid fumes at 3 am. In fact, I woke up a lot. This wasn’t due to anything buy my own paranoia.

The door had been kicked in so didn’t close securely and the security bolt had been ripped off but replaced with just one undersized screw so that didn’t make me feel any better. The windows didn’t bolt or secure and the one chair in the room was too small to fit under the doorknob and the clothes bar from the closet wasn’t long enough to make the windows close.

The bathroom appeared to have not been cleaned in years – if it had been, it was only a bad cleaning. In terms of the room itself, it was a 1980’s TV and an air-conditioning unit that continually dripped water on the carpet (and had been doing so for years) while rattling and banging. The noise from the street was too much to sleep with the window open and besides, I had odd security fears since I am traveling with cash and jewelry I bought for my wife in Turkey – not something I usually do, but I expected a short layover with a controlled environment – not this madness.

Cairo EgyptThe sheets had about a hundred holes in them and the shower curtain was covered in mold. This is a 3-star, they assured me at the airport before I foolishly handed over my $50 without seeing the room. Not something I would normally do, but I needed to be back at the airport to catch a connecting flight. And there I was – sleeping on a massive mattress covered with holes and waking every thirty minutes as doors slammed and lights flashed across the windows. At 6:30 – I was fully awake feeling cleaner without a shower, besides no towels. Breakfast was unrecognizable meat cooked with onions and some sort of awful beans. I like middle eastern food. I’ve had delicious Egyptian food, I’ve had breakfast all over the world – but this, I don’t know what this was except awful.

This sucks. I never wanted to visit Egypt like this. I wanted to have wonder and excitement, not frustration, disappointment and complete and total uncertainty. This is my fault – I pressed the buy button. I took the single leg of the flight. I blew it.

Even the coffee I got in the airport was a hustle. 21 Egyptain pounds it said on the board and when I gave the barrista 21 EGP, he told me, “No” you have to pay the tax and rang it up as 26 EGP. I told him “If you have to pay a 25% tax on a cup of coffee, it’s time for another revolution” and he didn’t smile but said “This is the airport, there is a service charge.” This after making me wait ten minutes, go back to the counter and ask for my cup of brewed coffee. I’m not at all in love with this place. Huge no smoking signs and three people smoking under them. They told me to wait until 8 AM for standby but then made me wait until 8:30 AM and then said “There’s no space, this is a full flight” but they knew that at 6:30 AM when they told me to wait until 8 AM.

The driver last night was on the phone with someone and kept saying “No money” and it was quite surely in reference to me since I was paying as cheaply as possible. He asked for a $1 million dollar tip. He got nothing. Nor did the hotel. Nor did the barrista, except he took it in the service charge. It’s amazingly difficult to get out of Cairo and I just want to confirm when and if so that I can make plans – take a tour, go somewhere else, figure something else out – anything. It’s this limbo situation in a hustler touristic hell that is unbearable. Maybe all of Egypt is like this, I hope not, but so far, this is what all of Egypt is like to me…ugly.

The wifi in the airport is the sort that doesn’t work on my netbook or my phone or my kindle. It comes up as limited connection. So I can’t plan anything here either. The hijabi ladies at the reservations center told me to wait for one hour to see if I can confirm a flight for tomorrow or the next day. It’s going to cost me something like $400 but it will be first class – hahaha. Shit. I can at least afford it, but I’d rather use that for something else since I’ve already paid for one ticket.

But shit, I’m in Egypt. No matter what they tell me, I’m going to sort things out after that. I’m going to find a hotel, get a decent room, use the internet, visit the Cairo Museum, see the Pyramids, visit Luxor, buy my wife a Nefertitti necklace like Granddaddy used to get for Ganny and move onwards. Dammit, I just want to go home and see my daughter. I’m trapped in tourism hell.

My head hurts – the bad AC, the bug spray, the lousy sleep, the lumpy mattress, and constant feeling that I might be robbed or molested by bedbugs in the Roach Oasis. I found my Raybans though – that’s a good thing. Maybe these ladies will find a solution for me. Maybe this can all be turned around. I hope so.

Awful ideas come a thousand at a time to me. For $400, I can fly to Tunis and then onward to Casablanca. At least I think so. Or maybe I could figure out a way to go to Libya. Maybe I can discover a way to traverse all of North Africa in a shitty yellow cab.

Quite frankly, it is tourism that has ruined the world. Capitalism first, then tourism. People should just stay home. I should just stay home. I don’t even think that’s possible for me – especially since I don’t have a home. Where is my home?

Big Bear? Nope. Bellingham? Maybe, sort of, but not really. Myrtle Creek? Nope. Portland? Not really. Honolulu? Might be the best bet, but I’m a mainland Haole so it can never truly be mine. Seattle/Tacoma – Not at all despite being born there. Sefrou? I hope not. Istanbul? I like it, but I’m not even Turkish. Redding? Jesus – almost worse, no definitely worse than Sefrou. But at the end of the day, home is where my hat is hanging and it’s hanging in Sefrou with my wife and daughter – so for the moment. Sefrou is home. I want to go home – I don’t care about the hat, I care about my girls.

I should develop some sort of plan.

1) Talk with the reservations girls and see if they can help me

  1. Find someplace with internet or rent a nice hotel room
  2. Arrange some kind of tour, since I’m here
  3. If necessary – find an alternate flight home or just pay the necessary total
  4. Go home and never leave on a solo trip again unless my way home is already secured

And it turns out that the girls at the reservations office in Terminal 1 were able to help me. They got me a flight two days later for a $38 change fee. I used the internet and found a nice, cheap hotel near Tahirer Square – Invitation Hotel for $38 for two days including breakfast and a night cruise dinner on the Nile, an all day Pyramid Tour, and a private car back to the airport the morning I leave for about $72 more. So, $150 more and I have a very nice Egypt trip. Yes, I would have paid $200 at any time in my life to see the pyramids and the Egyptian Museum.

Cairo EgyptThe Egyptian Museum

Overwhelming is an overwhelmingly understated word when it comes to the Egyptian Museum. Over 130,000 artifacts dating from Egypt’s massive history. Yes the King Tut mask is magnificent. Yes the mummies are creepy and cool. And yes, it is an amazing journey through a history that most of us are at least passingly familiar with. I spent an afternoon just bopping and bouncing from room to room and letting whatever caught my attention catch my attention.

A statue of a pharaoh with an incubus on one side and an Anubis (I think) on the other. Perhaps it was two gods – one with jackal head and one with falcon head.

The household items and furniture. A beautiful folding chair with a leather back and a detailed design of the symbol of eternity (a man sitting cross legged with arms outstretched) embossed upon it. The still comfortable looking couches and neck rests – I want to try one.

King Tut’s knife with the golden sheath and handle.

A funerary box with a ‘family’ of tiny blue sarcophagi mummy boxes arranged peeking over like Moroccans on a rooftop.

An incredibly fine marble statue of a Roman or Greek.

The mummified animals. The massive crocodiles were wondrous but the dog and monkey arranged staring at one another really blew my mind.

The burned out shell of the former governments ‘Democratic’ headquarters next door and the completely stripped out Museum shop. The lack of uniformed guards inside but the eyes of the very watchful men in each of the rooms who are assigned security duty.

These, no doubt, are the men who, when fires were burning as the coup/revolution took place – took the truncheons and guns of the police they had been fighting and lined up around the museum – reportedly saying “This is our history and if it disappears, we will never get it back.” They were unable to stop the first looters who stole a reported (but probably more) 50-100 items but they kept the bulk of the collections (and the most important pieces) safe for 12 hours until the army sent troops to take over. All of that was part of what blew my mind. The burned out cars in the parking lot next door, the eyes and lack of uniforms of the guards, and the real story behind the history.

Also overwhelming was the massive hugeness of the collections and the arrangement though without placards, audio tours, or a guide – I found myself enjoying it and able to simply wander and let my eyes fix on a treasure and then discover it. I see wonderful things.

Cairo EgyptNile Cruise

This had the potential to become yet another layer of hell and upon setting foot on the massive boat, I almost immediately felt regret at booking this dinner cruise – especially since I was on my own and everyone else on the cruise was in large groups. One wedding group, a couple of birthday groups, some traveler groups – but no one else on their own.

The big boat and the mediocre buffet along with the tacky dining room, the unsmiling waiters, and what certainly promised to be unremarkable dance had me sitting on the edge of a table for eight with a party of four on the other end unable to look out the window and feeling slightly creepy as the karaoke began in the saloon. So, I ate my meal – the most remarkable piece of which was a pickle salad with small red peppers – and then I went up on the main open deck and decided to skip the entertainment. After all, I can see whirling dervishes, a dancing dwarf (yes they had one and I’m a bit sorry I missed that ) and belly dancers (okay, I admit it, I also regret missing them because they might have been sexy, but then they may have been old and wrinkly too with flabby elderly bellies – somehow I doubt that, but it makes me feel better) anywhere but I can only see the Nile and Cairo in Cairo on the Nile.

Cairo EgyptI don’t regret my decision to go to the upper deck because night on the Nile was both magical, real, and surreal. Small party boats with blaring speakers and a profusion of neon lights zipped by with guests sitting on them. Egyptian sail boats (I want to know how they are rigged) and windsurfers tacked by us at amazing speeds. The lights of the city, the skyscrapers, but mostly – it was my new friend Ibrahim, an Egyptian artist who sells souvenirs on the boat (though I must admit, he didn’t sell any that I saw – not even to me.) It was extremely enjoyable to feel the wind from the Nile and talk to this guy about life in Egypt, his home near Giza, the revolution, and his art. His art is pouring colored sand into bottles and then using wire to make pictures with it, building ships in bottles, and creating sand paintings of Nefertiti and other Egyptian scenes. His work was beautiful but the themes were so kitschy that I couldn’t even bring myself to ask about the prices. Maybe it was the bright colors or maybe it was something else – but I simply didn’t really want his work, even though I almost convinced myself that I did. The one thing I considered buying was a sand painting of Nefertiti – okay, I admit it, I regret not buying it.

As we left the boat, I saw the dwarf in his costume and a couple of guys showing each other pictures of the belly dancers – I have the memory of cruising on the Nile and making a new friend. No regrets.

The Pyramids

Cairo EgyptI don’t know how mind blowing the pyramids must have been before there was tourist infrastructure and aggressive touts, but judging by how astounding they still are today they must have completely blown the fucking minds of every person who came upon them. I know they blew my mind.

My driver picked me up at 8 am and we drove out towards Giza but continued on to Saqqara, home of the oldest of all the pyramids, the famous step pyramid which the Egyptian government (or someone) seems to be in the act of rebuilding. This pyramid is considered to be the one that started the whole trend. Nearly 7000 years old, it was built for King Djosar by the great Egyptian architect Imhotep. Surrounding the pyramid are many complexes of buildings which it seems no Egyptologists have firmly labeled yet. In other words, nobody knows – except for perhaps the touts who will be more than likely to tell you the definitive answer.

Despite my driver’s warnings about the aggressive touts – I found them to be much less hassle than the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul or the medinas in Fez or Marrakesh – of course, there were only about ten touts there and I was the only tourist that I saw – I was dressed in black like the foremen of the construction and I spoke enough Arabic I think they all thought I was an engineer working there. Now is the time to come to Egypt if you want to experience the Pyramids, Luxor, or other amazing ancient places without crowds. The touts though, are tricky – several asked for my ticket and then said come with me – which sounded official but was actually just a way to give me a tour and grab a tip or fee – but I already know that trick and took my ticket back and walked away ignoring them. In fact, I may have ignored some real security as I walked past the construction fence and into the areas marked closed. It was just me on the ground and all the slaves, eh, workers doing whatever they were doing to the pyramids above. Just me and a 7000 year old pyramid – leather bags full of pot shards, an open door that led down into where-ever it led – the tomb? The burial chamber? I don’t know. It was dark and I didn’t have a light. I didn’t really want to fall into a 500 foot shaft and have some future archaeologist find me and say “Hey, what’s this guy doing here?” as he picks apart my bones. But, I touched the pyramid. In fact, I pissed on it. I marked it as my territory.

Cairo EgyptThe step pyramid is only one part of a vast burial complex that served the city of Memphis (not Tennessee). There are several more pyramids in various states of disrepair in the area. Our next stop was a series of old kingdom tombs where the touts were slightly more aggressive and annoying. I attribute this to a busload of Mexican tourists who arrived at the same time as I did.The touts began directing people where to go, closing doors to parts of the complex, and enforcing the no picture and no camera rules – until they would get a tourist alone and then they would say “You want me to take your picture in here? It’s okay.” Frankly, this offended me more than the touting – the rule is there to protect these treasures and preserve the feeling of specialness inside the monuments – I therefore declined, as did most of the Mexicans. I saw one of the touts manage to get a couple of bucks from one old woman, but mostly, they were just annoying. The police ignore it and I’ve heard, they sometimes even participate.In post Arab-Spring Egypt, tourism is way down and the economy isn’t doing so hot either. People have to make a buck and support their families, that’s not always so pleasant for those of us who are fortunate enough to be visiting.

In fact, though, it’s less pleasant for the Egyptians. As we drove to Saqqara, we passed dozens of Carpet Schools. I asked my driver and he said that in this region, people are very poor and can’t afford to send their children to school. The children have to work at an early age. Families send them to ‘Carpet School’ where they work 9-12 hour days weaving rugs. As the driver explained “You and I can’t do that work for that long because it will destroy our eyesight and give us arthritis.” My heart broke as I realized what he was telling me – these ‘Carpet Schools’ are child sweat shops to make Egyptian rugs.

From Saqqara, we drove to Giza. My driver wanted to stop at a perfume factory but I told him I wasn’t interested. He wanted to go to the Papyrus Museum (another factory) but again I wasn’t interested. Suddenly, he was less interested. He told me the price to get in the pyramids, explained how big the complex was, told me about horse and camel rentals but wouldn’t tell me the total price. He was a nice guy, my driver. An old guy with a funny habit of saying “Do you understand?” where most people say “You know?” I don’t know how much he makes for the tour without the commission, but it must be disappointing when a cheapskate like me comes along.

Cairo EgyptThe horse renter gave me his spiel and offered me a special discounted price of 280 EGP for a 1-2 hour horse ride around the complex. That’s about $45 – and it was about 100 EGP more than I paid for the tour I was told was all in. I told my driver never mind. My enjoyment was gone. I didn’t care about the pyramids anymore. Take me back to the hotel. I was done. We ended up at 160 EGP which is about $25 US and include $10 for the entry ticket. I’m so glad I did that.

My Bedouin guide, Alex, kept all the touts away from us and we took the long ride around the plateau so that I was able to truly experience the majesty of the pyramids at Giza and the feeling of what it is like to be alone in the desert with the Great Pyramids – on a horse. I’ve never specifically wondered what it would be like to ride an Arabian horse across the Giza Plateau and be alone with the Pyramids – but now I know.

Cairo EgyptAs we rode up to the Sphinx, I saw the seats from the Sound and Light Show of the Pyramids – the seats don’t appear to have changed since the movie Moonraker where James Bond fights with ‘Jaws’ at the pyramids. Inside the temple of the Sphinx, there were no more than ten people. Jaws wasn’t there. The touts tried the ticket trick again, and failed again, and Alex waited outside with the horses. I asked the Sphinx a question and the answer was a riddle.

We rode back into Giza town like cowboy movie heroes on funny saddles with funny stirrups. My driver offered to take me to a few more locations to buy souvenirs, but I told him to just take me back to the hotel. We were supposed to see the famous Red Pyramid, but honestly, I’d already seen everything I needed to.

On Souvenirs

I’m not sure why, but I thought it would be very cheap to buy souvenirs and a small gold necklace for my wife in Egypt. I suppose my mistake was easy enough – with tourism down, the cost of hotels and tourist activities are lower than ever in Egypt. I made the assumption that this would also include tourist items and that the domestic economy would be such that buying some luxury items would also be cheaper. I think it was a fair assumption and it might even be true in some areas, but certainly it wasn’t true anywhere I went in Cairo.

Cairo EgyptI quickly determined that buying any sort of souvenirs near the pyramids was a huge mistake as the prices began at around $20 and I was pretty sure these were $1 items. My next stop was a small mall near Tahirir Square where I found a gold merchant who told me that gold was at a premium in Egypt because no one was certain about the currency. There went that idea, but I figured I might try at the airport and maybe I could actually find something unique in the airport shops or the duty free. Yeah, right – at the airport, a stuffed camel doll made in China was $20 with no room for negotiation. That was my other quest – something special for my daughter – a baby. I couldn’t bring myself to pay $20 for a toy that would be $3 in the USA, $5 in Turkey, $7 in Morocco, or less than $1 in China. As to the gold in the airport – a small pair of scarab earrings that must have weighed just a gram each were $276. With gold at $50 a gram or thereabouts – I couldn’t do it. Especially when he told me that they sold by the piece, offered no guarantee, and would not provide me with a weight or certification.

I’d been to a few of the souvenir shops around Tahirir Square and found that the prices were approximately 300-1000% of the price they should be. In addition, the gift shops at the Egyptian Museum, gift shops at the Pyramids, and elsewhere were poorly stocked. Cheap ‘papyrus’ scrolls and Chinese made junk souvenirs with ancient Egyptian themes seemed to be the things that were in abundance. None of which I was looking for. I visited a hijab shop, thinking that perhaps I could get my wife a fancy Egyptian hijab, but fashion, especially Islamic is so foreign to me that I couldn’t really find my way to purchase a hijab, besides which, I don’t really want to encourage her to wear a hijab anyway. Toy stores and kids stuff – I didn’t find anything. I thought about getting them fancy Egyptian djellabas but the truth is, to me, they looked just like Moroccan Djellabas. My wife doesn’t like perfumes – so that was out. Moroccans don’t really seem to appreciate souvenirs, so I skipped that. I thought I might buy a kilo of fancy Egyptian dates – but the dates were all fresh. I bought a bag and put them in my checked bag hoping customs wouldn’t take them from me. Still, I needed something. Egyptian glass seems beautiful and delicate so I bought four delicate little glass bottles for Hanane and a brass scarab for me. I actually would have loved to find a fancy reproduction of King Tut’s tomb knife for me but never saw anything like that. For my wife, I was looking for a necklace my grandmother used to wear – a gold disk with a bust of Nefertiti on it on a delicate gold chain. No luck.

Cairo EgyptFinally, I arrived at the airport with just the glass and the scarab. I still needed something so I purchased some expensive food products at duty free. $35 for some fancy dates, some sesame crackers, and some jasmine honey. More than I would pay for them in the USA, I’m fairly certain – but you can’t go home without presents and souvenirs of some kind. I’m still hopeful they might sell something decent on the plane….

The Invitation Hotel

I feel very fortunate to have found the Invitation Hotel. Wonderful location right near Tahirir Square, a great friendly staff, and best of all – a clean room, with nice sheets, satellite TV, internet, and air conditioning.

The manager when I arrived was friendly, helpful, and honest. There was no hustle with her. She smelled like my grandmother which I’ve managed to figure out is a smell of Gigi perfume and stale cigarette smoke. For me, it’s quite a nice smell when blended onto a woman with finely sculpted eyebrows and a friendly attitude. She helped me set up my tours, took payment, got me a cold drink and helped me with many things.

Overall, the hotel was a great place for the two days I was here and the price was perfect. About $25 per night. The night/morning guy was a hefty Egyptian with a pleasant demeanor but that unfathomable attitude of hating you while he smiles. He was a lazy dude. In the morning, I had confirmed that breakfast was at 8 am repeatedly, but at 8 when I woke up, he told me, “I’ll get it in 15-20 minutes.” Since I had pickup at 8:30, that wasn’t going to work. I asked him to get me some coffee right away and do his best to get breakfast – he flounced away in that huffy fat guy in his 20s kind of way. We had a bit of conversation but it was hard to take anything he said seriously, mainly because he was a spitting image of my former boss, Spencer at the ill-fated TechPlanet in dot com Seattle circa 2000. How in the world had Spencer ever been made my boss?

The hotel itself was good with some minor annoyances. The bathroom in my room was being redone and they opted to continue the work while I was out – when I returned it was still being worked on. I had to use the toilet, but had to wait twenty minutes. After the pyramid tour, I returned thirsty and asked for a bottle of water. The girl at reception told me she would bring it to my room. 30 minutes later, I was still waiting. It was only when I got in the elevator that I found the 8-year-old boy they had sent to fetch it returning with it.

To be fair, there is a mineral water shortage in Cairo. It can be hard to get and the prices have gone sky high, though the guy who charged me 20 EGP for a small bottle at the museum was a robber.

And then, the tour recommendations – I don’t recommend a dinner/dance cruise to any solo travelers – that was a mistake even if it was nice to be on the deck above looking at the Nile and Cairo. The pyramid tour didn’t include ticket prices, a guide, or water/lunch. It was budget, but I could have done better outside of the hotel.

Fly the Hajji Skies

Cairo EgyptAs usually happens when I catch any flight to Morocco, and I can only assume as happens whenever you mix Moroccans and airplanes – chaos ensued. Add to that, the fact that most of the passengers were pilgrims returning from the Hajj (the sacred trip to Mecca that all Muslims are to conduct – if possible- at least one time in their lives) and hilarity quickly becomes a part of the equation. The hilarity is a result of the fact that most of these pilgrims are old, taking the one trip of their lifetime, and all very proud and happy that they have fulfilled their life’s mission. The waiting room at the airport rang with the calls of Ya Hajj and Ya Hajja (loosely translated as “Hey honored person who has completed your sacred duty (both male and female)). Once you have completed the Hajj, you are called Hajj or Hajja. It is a great honor and you can see it as these old Moroccans call each other Hajj, yell out the name to call their friends and loved ones, and every other oldster who is now a Hajj or Hajja turns to look.

Still, these are Moroccans and so regardless of respect, Hajj or not, when it comes time to form a queue and move forward, they press into a tight wedge shape and everyone begins shoving. I stood back out of respect for their age and their new status, but the other Moroccans I saw let the dynamic of the line push them forward. The Moroccan line is a living and pulsing thing of awfulness and if I didn’t need to sometimes get somewhere, I would refuse to take part. But, I need to get in the wedges to get a taxi, to buy food, to get government work done, and more. So, I am forced to be a wedgii as well. “Ya Wedgii” I managed to hold back until the second bus and then I was among the last to get on the plane, but this was a mistake because my seat was all the way in the rear.

Most Moroccans don’t know much about assigned seatings or the protocols that go with bag stowage, first class, economy class, or anything else that is fairly standard knowledge in the orderly western travel world. So, there was complete and total chaos as all the Hajj and Hajja tried to stow their pilgrim baggage anywhere they could, got told to go to their assigned seats, and made a muck of things. The young Lebanese guy in the seat next to me laughed himself silly. So did I. The poor flight crew came out of the cockpit and tried to order things, but it was next to impossible until one guy, possibly the Captain – started yelling and screaming about things. I’m glad it’s not just me that loses his patience with this stuff.

Finally they had all been seated and stowed their bags and then the constant trips to the bathroom began. The flight was, after all, delayed and these are old people with most likely weak bladders and swollen prostates. I decided to wait until the tide ebbed – but it was a near constant stream (haha). Finally I took my turn and was very glad I didn’t have to make #2 because I forgot that Moroccans (especially the old and the untraveled, don’t do well with no bucket to wash with.) The western toilet is a strange phenomenon to these folks and they soon had the spotless EgyptAir toilet looking like a toilet on a Moroccan train. The sink was filled with water of almost certain washing the bum provenience, water was all over the floor, the seat, and everywhere. Later I began to see old folks trekking into the bathroom with empty water bottles to use to wash. This is life – and it’s actually pretty funny from a outsider perspective.

They are sweet, nice people. The girl next to me has sweet, dreamy eyes behind a flowered scarf that covers all but her eyes. She is traveling with her husband and the henna on her hands plus their youth makes me think they are perhaps on their honeymoon. I’m fairly certain her husband is not Moroccan, but she may be. In any event, I try not to look at her out of respect for her veil and her husband, but it’s a bit hard.

Elsewhere on the plane, the flight crew is struggling to deal with the demands of the Hajj and Hajja but failing pretty badly. There was one European woman who ended up carrying her and her husband’s meal trays back for them. I can imagine that for anyone unfamiliar with the chaos of Moroccan travel, it must be completely insane and probably unbearable. Many of the old people smell like slightly stale pee. I suppose that’s normal for just about any old people. Of course, there is more chaos to come when we arrive in Morocco but I think I can outpace them to the immigration, but I may be stuck behind them in customs.

Cairo Burger King Doesn’t Do It Your Way

Cairo EgyptWhile it’s normal for travel hubs to be more expensive than the surrounding areas – I truly hate this practice. Why is it that I have to pay $10 for a $5 meal just because I am trapped behind security? Ah – wait…it’s because I’m trapped. Captive.

A chubby bald Brit with fake headphones (okay they were real but he wasn’t listening to anything just wearing them to avoid having to talk to people – I bet he read that in a guidebook somewhere) was in front of me and a bunch of Moroccans and other Arabs kept crowding to the front. I was a bit stuck because I couldn’t really just shove past him but as long as I was behind him, I was never going to get anywhere. Finally, after yet another group jumped in front of him – he left in disgust cussing under his breath. With relief, I shoved my way to the front and was the next served.

I ordered a Whopper meal, regular size. The cost was 41 EGP. He added something and the price went to 46 EGP – “What’s that?” I asked. “The tax” he told me and pointed to the sign. It said 10% will be added. Apparently they round up. Next he added 8 EGP more bringing it to 54 EGP. “What’s that?” I asked, more curious than angry. “Super size” he said. “I don’t want supersize” I told him. “Now we only have supersize” he replied “Nothing else.” “Can I have Barbecue Sauce?” I asked “3 EGP” he told me. “That’s okay, I told him, I don’t want it.” By getting a 41 EGP meal I thought I was saving a bit from the 60 EGP for breakfast at the next place – but actually, I should have gotten what I wanted to begin with – though it might have cost me 75-80 EGP with the tax, service and whatever other extras they might add on.

The Glaoui (Glaoua) Palace in Fes, Morocco

Slightly outside of the UNESCO classified Fes Medina, you will probably miss something extraordinary, unless you take the time to go and look for it. The Dar al Glaoui, the Glaoui Palace, a crumbling reminder that power is fleeting.

While a lot of people mention Paul Bowles novel, The Sheltering Sky as the ultimate in capturing the essence of Morocco, for me, it was a different book that succeeded in capturing not only the Moroccan mentality, but also the soul of the country itself. Gavin Maxwell’s Lords of the Atlas: The Rise and Fall of the House of Glaoua 1893-1956 is perhaps the ultimate in coming to understand Morocco.

Consider this review from The Library Journal

British author Maxwell accomplishes the twofold task of detailing the daily life, customs, and rituals in pre-independence Morocco and of recounting the rise and fall of El Hadj T’hani El Glaoui, the legendary tribal warlord through whom the French ruled one of their prize colonies in North Africa. Maxwell, who died in 1969, considered himself an explorer and wrote of faraway places; here he introduces readers to the harshness and beauty of Morocco. He shows how the blend of Berber, Arab, and black African races created an extraordinary cultural mosaic and explains how the French colonialists recruited the Atlas Mountain tribal warlords to subdue the other tribes.

As the chief beneficiary of this policy, El Glaoui was able to rule most of southern Morocco in an absolute fashion, until Morocco’s independence from France in 1956 brought an end to the rule of a very colorful warlord.

At times it is necessary to remind yourself that not only is this a true story, but that most of the events portrayed took place in the 1900’s! It is a fantastic account of the power behind the French Protectorate, and a reminder that politics has always been a filthy business. Anyone planning a visit, or who has been to Morocco, especially the Glaoui kasbahs of the High Atlas, should read this book, as should fans of bloody, political intrigue.

I should point out though that the book has more than a few critics who generally say something like this: “If you want a book singing the praises of a few thugs who made good during the French mandate (Primarily on prostitution) A book filled with unsupported (And frankly slanderous) comments, a book written by a man who clearly doesn’t know the first thing about Morocco, Islam or Arab culture and a book that’s basically a rip off from someone else’s then this really is the book for you. ”

After all that, hands down, this is my favorite touristic destination in Fes. It’s not as well kept as the Batha Museum, not as grand and glorious as the Karaouyine Mosque, not as stinky or touristic as the famous Fez tanneries, but there is something truly awe inspiring in this famous, decrepit but still beautiful house.

The palace is owned by 14 families who have fallen on hard times in Marrakech and France but is lived in and taken care of by Abdou, an artist. He was born there and lives there with his sister. He is the third generation born there and while not a Glaoui, he is happy to be there and try to keep it from falling in on itself.

The palace is generally closed to the public but usually open to the public via Abdou and his sister who are happy to show you around the 150-year-old palace comprised of 17 houses, stables, a mausoleum and cemetery, Quranic school, hammam, garages and two large gardens. While generally the tour is composed of seeing a few salons, the haram, the massive kitchen and a few of the courtyards, it is possible to see a bit more if you are careful and polite and the weather lines up for you.

Apparently, the palace complex is for sale for several million dollars. A steal for anyone who gets it since it would be like owning your own miniature al-Hambra (which it was actually designed after). The entire house is a masterpiece of painted wood, zellij (mosaic tile), carved wood, fountains, and also the first modern bathroom to ever be built in North Africa complete with original plumbing.

If you do buy it – try to get a few of Abdou’s paintings thrown in. Total hidden treasure. I would tell you how to get there, but it would be a waste of time, because you would get lost and have to ask someone anyway – so, just go to Batha and start asking people how to find Abdou and the Glaoui Palace – they’ll know exactly where you mean.

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