No matter how many sunsets I have seen, I always scramble on a rock, peak, or headland to admire the next one. I pause in awe. I sigh. I quiver with a sudden rush of inexplicable emotions, longing for the tenderness of human touch, or simply remaining in idle contemplation.
A knot of feelings – affection and sorrow, warmth and remorse, happiness and sadness – lingers entangled in the chest, as if something is lost forever, leaving though a wet trail, an invisible Ariadne’s thread, towards hope. For, somehow, the sunset seems to carry at the same time the pain for an end and the joy of a beginning: light and dusk, lucidity and mystery, the masculine and the feminine in a yin-yang embrace. Even though the sunrise should be expected to arouse similar feelings perceived from a reverse point of view, it never does. Despite its magnificence, it seems to be missing the mystery touch: an essence of tears locked inside a momentarily erratic, elated breath.
There has been no trip without a sunset photo. Blurry or grandiose, with flaming skies or subtle crepuscular lights, there is always a snapshot clipped lovingly among the pages of my travelogue: a memoir of an eerie moment whose elusiveness will never be captured by my camera and poor photographic skills but will always be interpreted by the primordial Oracle within the human heart. Leafing through my scrapbook on a cold winter morning, I handpicked some that hold a special meaning for me.
We were strolling with my friend down Rue Beaubourg, about to reach the Seine and cross l’Ile de la Cite towards Saint-Germain-des-Pres on the other side of the river, when we noticed a faint rose glare illuminating the habitually colorless buildings. Still surrounded by tall walls and with no visibility of the island yet, we paid little attention to the detail, but for the fact that it was apparently getting late and we should hurry if we did not want to lose our restaurant reservation. We hastened our pace, and we were quickly washed up by the Boulevard on the quay, just in time to witness the celestial sphere being set aflame above the familiar Parisian skyline, the water reflecting the crimson hues, and a bateau mouche ready to cross dimensions towards the fairyland.
Great Wall of China
It was our longest day on the Great Wall, and by the time we reached Jinshanling, the sun was about to set. The Dragon shook the last remnants of the day off the rocky flakes of its body. The embrasures and the watchtowers were diligently detailed against the titian sky, and the cobblestones were momentarily veneered in gold before the night turned everything into amethyst, melanite, and jet.
Cape Sounio, Greece
The Temple of Poseidon rose behind us, its presence the cornerstone of the Greek psyche erected along the energetic meridians of immortality and enlightenment. Ahead of us, King Aegeus perpetually mourns the loss of his son through the wakes and moans of the sea, and, out of habit, we stretch our eyes as well to figure out the color of the passing sails. Against the setting sun, we can never tell: the sails will always be black, and we are often tempted to follow the doleful father into Poseidon’s underwater chambers. But then we remember that, ultimately, Aegeus was mistaken, and there is hope coming invariably our way.
Along the Inca Trail, Peru
On the third day of our hike towards Machu Picchu, we reached the camp at Chaquiqocha (altitude: 3700m), with a great view on the Sayac Marca ruins. The surrounding mountain peaks alternated in shades of blue, toying with the clouds, hiding and surfacing, like giants with an eternal childlike predisposition. Ahead of us, the path plunged into a deep descent towards Intipata – the Sun Gate – remaining concealed, for the moment, in darkness. The sky seemed endless, and the heart was ready to open up to mysteries untold. It was the night the milky way shone brighter than before, and stars kept shooting in celebration. Despite the bitter cold and the very early start the next morning, we delayed as much as possible retreating to our tents, because that night – or was it the land, the spot, the trail? – had been too mystical to easily let go.
Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca, Morocco
The tallest minaret in the world surged towards the heavenly heights, bathed in the twilight, salt-kissed by the Atlantic Ocean rumbling at its feet. We had just arrived in Casablanca, our last stop during our Imperial Cities’ trail, after having hiked on the Atlas Mountains and wandered with the Berbers in the desert. We took our last pictures and hurried away, for we still wanted to explore the old medina before flying back home the next morning, and we were advised not to linger inside its narrow alleys after the sunset, given our foreign looks. Still, we ventured into the experience, and we were lucky to discover the authentic heart of the city: a place raw, crude, and much less touristic than other old Moroccan towns, but original and fulfilling.
Jimbaran, Bali, Indonesia
We sat at a fish taverna quietly settled on the seacoast, amongst a colony of several similar establishments lined up as far as the eye could reach. The tables and chairs were firmly rammed into the sand, the waves kept lapping on our bare feet, the shade of the itinerant peanut seller who lingered around during the afternoon hours dissolved now behind the colorful jukungs pulled away from the sea, and a platter with crabs and shrimps served with baked potatoes, tomato dips, and vegetables landed in front of us. We were already five days stranded in Bali due to a volcanic eruption on a nearby island that discouraged all airline companies from flying to and from Denpasar airport for a few days. We looked at the sun setting on the horizon, we played with the straws in our fresh coconuts, and we smiled at each other: it was not so bad after all!
Masirah Island, Oman
The day was coming to an end. It was my name day. We pitched our tents along the crescent curve of a small beach on the southwest side of Masirah island, a nook deserted like all other beaches on this land, but of a biblical beauty. The sun set in dark mauve waves, and we barbecued our fish – a gift from friendly Omani fishermen – along with baby corn and potatoes. In a while, 50 – 60 turtle eggs were going to hatch at our feet, as we had unwillingly set our camp next to the nest, and we would spend the evening hours protecting them from predators, and observing them taking their first steps in life. It was going to be an unforgettable night. For the moment, though, we were still watching the sun dive down into the sea.
Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, Abu Dhabi, UAE
A pair of flamingos flew off against a sky painted in brushes of golden tones. We sat quietly in the bird-watching observatory of the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, monitoring the evening rituals of numerous species of birds around the lake. Most people picture the UAE as pure desert, dotted with a few cities of eccentric modernity. Few have witnessed and enjoyed the beauty of its biodiversity. There, in the serenity of the moment, it felt as if we had transcended to another land, and the noise of the urban life stretching just a few kilometers away had faded away into oblivion.
Falaj Al Mashayikh, Oman
The sun was setting, and we were left with just a few minutes to find our next camping spot. We were on a road trip in Oman, aiming for the Wahiba Sands for the night. We finally had to settle among the last clusters of ghaf trees a few kilometers away from the sand dunes, for we were soon to be plunged into abysmal darkness. The last drops of daylight glided down the exhausted branches like a libation to the ground, and the sun spread its arms towards the universe in a last, goodnight embrace.
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
We had received warning of an upcoming storm and were forced to leave the comfort of our boat, relinquishing our long-awaited overnight stay on the jade waters of the Ha Long Bay, for the safety of the land. The archipelago of the ancient limestone formations – solid curved backsides of Jurassic creatures covered in turfs – remained placid, in a similarly serene twilight ambiance that seemed to foretell nothing of the imminent turmoil. We stayed ashore, spending the evening at an itinerant café settled under one of the Corniche coconut trees, crouched on Lilliputian stools or mats spread on the pavement, smoking the traditional Vietnamese pipe, drinking bitter black tea, and munching on sunflower seeds. The night remained peaceful. The squall never came.
By the Tissa Lake, Sri Lanka
The path was narrow and muddy; our footprints left long lasting marks of our presence. On one side, paddy lands stretched out, dotted with faceless figures who, trudging through the swampy ground, were trying to wrap together the last tasks of the day. On the other side, Tissa lake – a 3rd c BC artificial reservoir – extended proudly, reflecting the protective arches of Indian rain trees. Crocodiles lazed on tiny island formations, and countless species of birds tweeted the last gossip updates before nestling down.
November 2010: Palmyra basking under the gilded shades of the autumn sunset, just a few months before the break of the civil war. A photo – a moment – of historical importance.
Kythnos Island, Greece
We settled at anchor for the night at the Kolona Bay of Kythnos island. I had already spent almost a month sailing in the Aegean and the Ionian Sea. It was the end of August, summer was coming to an end, and my life was about to change drastically in a few days when I would receive a call that would push me to consider moving to the UAE. But, at that moment, I did not know anything yet. I just breathed the essence of Greece deep into my lungs and dived into the pellucid waters, going after the last rays of the sun. The sea around me was clear and fresh, yet it felt thick as mercury. Little did I know that this kind of liquidity was soon to be the nature of my reality.
Forbidden City, Beijing, China
A line of photographers settled quietly along the moat next to the Forbidden City. They could just be amateurs, though their serious technical equipment dwarfed to nothing my newly acquired camera in its maiden voyage. Still, when the twilight turned the ornamented rooftops into exotic shapes and the tranquility of the moment reflected on the violet water, I ventured a photo of my own.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou
Originally found: http://www.myunusualjourneys.com/a-scrapbook-full-of-sunsets/
The night bestowed its opaque veils on the mountains and, little by little, our camp disappeared into the dusk. Only a headlamp flashing here and there would indicate an occasional movement. We would gather around the fire waiting for the dinner to cook, relaxing on the rugs with a cup of tea, our feet finally resting free of the hiking boots. The stars would twinkle above – confident and strong before the moonlight would fade them away – and the milky way – the “fruity way” as the Bedouins call it – would illuminate the heavens’ boulevards. And although we were hungry and the aromas wafting out of the cauldron would make our mouths water, what we were really looking forward were the tales our guides were keen to share after the meal. For, there is a storyteller inside every Bedouin who, like his father and grandfather before him, continues to pass on knowledge and wisdom to the next generation by keeping the oral inheritance alive.
The Tale of the Magnificent Tracker
Bedouins are legendary trackers and, rumor has it, there are some who can recognize each of their goats or camels just by their imprints on the sand, or can understand if a footprint belongs to a man, a woman, even a woman who has already given birth to children. All of them, however, pale when compared to the Magnificent Tracker and his superior skills.
Once upon a time, there was a prominent sheikh who invited a Bedouin tracker to the wedding of his daughter. The tracker had to travel from afar so, when the night fell, he stopped at a rich person’s house and asked for shelter.
“How is it possible that you have been invited to the wedding, while I, a sheikh myself, have not been honored with such an invitation?”
“I am no ordinary tracker,” the traveler explained. “I have a unique ability to analyze signs and discover hidden information.”
“Give me an example,” replied the puzzled sheikh.
The tracker looked around and, after a few moments, he noted:
“Your horse is the son of a cow.”
In shock, the sheikh turned around to look at his beautiful horse that was standing a bit further away. It was a magnificent animal, pride to any horseman.
Quite upset with what he considered to be a false and ridiculous comment, he shouted: “This is impossible. This animal comes from generations of powerful horses; how could you even think there can be any connection to a cow!”
“Ask your people,” replied the tracker calmly. “You will discover that I am right.”
Indeed, the sheikh asked those who had been taking care of the horse and, to his surprise, he learnt that when the foal was born, its mother died, so they had to put it next to a cow to be fed.
“How did you know?” asked the sheikh in amazement. “Nobody knew about this, not even me. And no one could ever suspect. What is your secret?”
“There is no secret. As I told you, I am an excellent tracker, and I can interpret all the signs I see. When horses need to wave the flies away, they nod their heads up and down. Yours moved its head right and left, the way cows do. It was clear it had spent a lot of time with them.”
Impressed, the sheikh opened his door to the tracker and welcomed him to his home, asking his servants to bring bread and cheese so that they would dine.
After dinner, they both sat under the stars talking, until, at some moment, the sheikh asked the tracker: “Now, please tell me something about myself.”
“I would never do that,” the tracker resisted. “You are my host, we just had dinner together; you are my friend now.”
The sheikh insisted and, finally, the tracker said reluctantly.
“Although you think you are the son of a sheikh, in truth, you are the son of poor people.”
For a few moments, the sheikh remained speechless, unable even to grasp what the tracker had just told him. After he recovered from the shock, he asked for his father who, being an old man, had retired long ago from running the estate and was living in peace and silence.
“This man insists that I am the son of poor people,” shouted the sheikh, pointing towards the tracker. “Is there something I should know?”
The old man looked at the sheikh in sadness.
“My son, this is true. When we were young, my wife and I could not have children. A young couple who worked on our estate just had twins. So, there I was, a man of power and property but without an heir, and this couple had two babies whom they did not have the means to feed. We agreed to take one of the kids and raise him as our own, passing on our name and wealth to him. It was for the best, as everybody gained from this arrangement – you, most of all.”
Overwhelmed by the revelations, the sheikh turned to the tracker and, with a broken voice, he asked him to explain how did he uncover this secret that had been hidden for so many years.
“A true sheikh would have prepared a royal dinner to honor a guest of my status,” replied the tracker gently. “Instead, and despite your admiration for me, you offered me bread and cheese – a very humble meal. This shows that, regardless of your wealth and rank, you still think and act like a poor person. Because abundance does not depend on our surroundings; it always sprouts from within.”
The Tale of the Grateful Man
Once upon a time, there was a Bedouin man who lived in a tiny village and had a son named Youssef. When his son grew old enough, the father gave him five golden coins – all his savings after a lifetime of hard work – and urged him to travel to bigger villages and start his own business.
Youssef thanked his father and set off on his journey. After several days, he reached a small town where people were getting ready for the funeral of an old man. The young guy helped the villagers to dig the grave, but when the time came to bury the deceased, a big commotion arose. The old man had left debts and, unless they would be settled, the creditors refused to allow the body to be buried. Unfortunately, the old man did not have any children or family, and the fellow villagers were poor and could barely handle their own expenses. No one could afford to pay the amount, and the soul of the old man risked remaining restless forever. At that moment, Youssef decided to intervene and pay the debt himself, considering that he is young and strong, and can always earn more money, while the burial of the old man was not something that could be postponed. He met with the creditors, and he finally had to pay all his five golden coins to settle the outstanding amount.
Penniless, he went back to his father, having no clue as to how he could start again. The father collected all the food he had in the house and divided it into two, keeping half for himself, and giving the rest to his son for his new journey. He advised him though that, if he had to choose a business partner, he should make sure it would be a man who would wait for him at the dinner table and would never start eating without him.
Youssef set off again with his father’s blessing and his share of the food in his bag. He passed through several villages and numerous inns, and every time he would explore a potential business partnership, he would follow his father’s advice: to test the partners, he would pretend he had something to do just before dinner and, then, he would return to the table only to find everyone eating without waiting for him to come back.
Finally, he reached a village where he met an old man. They started talking, and he realized this was a man with a lot of knowledge and abilities, and he could become the perfect partner. He reran the dinner-test and was excited to see that, when he returned to the table, the old man was still waiting for him without having touched the food, so that they would eat together.
“I am too old and weak to do any physical work,” the man said, “however I can handle the negotiations and close the deals. Then, we split in half all the revenue, which, I think, is a fair deal.”
Youssef agreed, and they started a business that grew more and more every day, for they were both hard working and ethical, and collaborated in harmony.
Many months passed by, and they finally reached a land where a wealthy Sheikh had a daughter who was cursed: every time she would marry, the next morning her husband would be dead. Youssef saw the young woman from afar and fell in love with her beauty, so he decided to take the risk and marry her; the old man would hide behind a wall, checking on what was happening during that fateful first night to protect the new groom from any danger.
The sheikh agreed to the marriage and, at night, the couple receded to their room which was covered in carpets and was beautifully decorated with expensive furniture. The old man hid behind a column and kept his eyes open for the upcoming danger. Indeed, after a while, a huge snake crept from under the bed, slithering towards the young man, who, properly warned and prepared, turned and slain the serpent, setting his wife free from the curse. The next day, the sheikh’s men who arrived to dig a new grave, found, to their surprise, the couple healthy and happy.
A few weeks passed by and Youssef decided it was time to return to his father. The sheikh gave him fifty camels and the three of them – the couple and the old man – set off for their journey. While they were traveling, though, the young man took his partner aside and told him: “Now I am married, and I have enough property to stay with my father. I think it is time to stop our collaboration and say “goodbye.” Of course, based on our agreement, half of everything I own now is yours, so you can take the twenty-five camels and live prosperously for the rest of your days.” The old man shook his head: “Your property is not only the camels; you also have your beautiful and rich wife, I am entitled to half of her too!” Youssef looked in shock and disbelief: how could his trusted partner utter such horrible words? Then, the old man smiled: “Fear not, I was only toying with you. I am the soul of the man whose debts you paid so that I could be buried. To return the favor, I have been by your side ever since, helping you and protecting you. Remember: whatever you give to others, it always comes back to you, multiplied and in unexpected ways.” And, with these last words, he vanished, returning forever to the land of the dead.
The Tale of the Treasure Mountain
Next to the Ein Hudera Oasis, there stands a tall mountain with several heaps of sand on one side. Although it looks no different than the rest of the surrounding landscape, this is not an ordinary mount. In its depths, it hides a treasure that was seen only once and, ever since, people have been trying to regain access to it.
Many generations ago, there was a young Bedouin who, as he was walking in the region, fell into a crack and landed inside the mountain, in a cave that was full of golden coins, jewelry, and priceless artefacts. Somersaulting with joy, he picked a few coins – as many as he could carry – and exited on the other side of the mountain, in Wadi Rum, rushing to tell his story. When he returned though with his friends and the necessary bags to carry more of the treasure, he was unable to find the entrance to the chamber again. Since then, people keep digging to find the doorway and, at night, one can sometimes hear voices coming from the depths of the mountain: they are the spirits who guard the gold, scaring the treasure-hunters away.
The Tale of the Good Friend
Once upon a time, there were two young men, Mohamed and Ahmed, who were very close friends. Since the day they were born, they shared everything together – their games, discoveries, thoughts, and dreams – and were never seen apart except for when they returned each to his house to sleep.
A prolonged drought came, though, and the people in the village had to leave their homes for more hospitable lands. The two friends went separate ways, as Mohamed’s father moved his family close to the Nile where he successfully grew camels and goats, and Ahmed’s family moved to another part of the Sinai mountains. The boys kept thinking of each other, and whenever a traveler would come at their door, they would eagerly ask for news of each other.
Years passed by, the boys grew into two handsome men, and there came the time for Mohamed to get married. He naturally invited Ahmed to the wedding, and, for the first time, Ahmed traveled towards the Nile to reconnect with his friend. Just before Ahmed’s arrival, though, Mohamed’s father died and, consequently, the wedding should be postponed. However, Mohamed did not want his friend to feel guilty and unwelcomed, as if he had brought bad luck with him, so he decided not to tell him anything and, instead, conceal his sadness and proceed with the ceremony – even though it would be a mariage blanc. A few days later, as Ahmed was walking by the Nile, he noticed a beautiful girl. By the way she wore her hair, it was clear she was a maiden and, her charm and grace were such that he immediately fell in love with her. He confessed his feelings to his friend who, in the description, recognized his “wife-to-be”; still, he did not want to cause any sorrow to his dear friend who, he could see, was deeply in love, so he did not reveal his connection to the woman and, instead, urged him to proceed with marrying her. The new couple left to return to the mountains and only there did Ahmed learn the truth.
More years passed by, and Mohamed – who had never learnt while his father was alive how to take care of their animals properly – gradually lost all the family fortune and was reduced to poverty. In his misery, he believed he could find refuge and support at his friend’s house – who, in the meantime, had built a fortune himself – and, as such, he sold the little he had left and moved to the mountains. Ahmed indeed opened his arms to welcome his dear friend, however, when Mohamed asked him to share his herd with him, he remained silent for a moment, and then he said: “My animals do not belong to you, I do not see why I should give any of them to you.”
Devastated with despair and a bitter feeling of betrayal, Mohamed left and, for several days, he roamed the mountains, contemplating on his life, even considering whether he should continue living or not. One night, though, as he was sitting on a rock, he noticed two people coming his way, their faces entirely covered, carrying a big, heavy box. When they saw him, they approached him and asked him to keep an eye on the box, as they would go back to town and bring another one. Indeed, they returned with a second chest and, once again, they asked him to guard them both so that they could fetch a third one. When all three trunks would be there, they would split them in three. If they would not return, though, Mohamed could keep the two boxes. Hours and days passed, and the two men never appeared again. After losing hope that they may come back, Mohamed opened the boxes to discover a small treasure in each of them. Thanking his good fortune, he returned to the town where he bought new camels and goats and started a business. Also, one day, a young woman accompanied by an old lady, passed by his house and asked to stay with him to help with the household. He accepted gladly and, to be socially correct, he married the woman.
In time, Mohamed’s business grew and flourished. As a rich man once again, he decided to invite all the prominent men of the town, including his friend, to a feast. Once they all gathered, he started sharing his story: the years he spent by the Nile, the growth and decline of his family’s fortune, the death of his father, his white marriage, his return to the mountains, and finally, the betrayal of his friend.
“This is my so-called friend,” he said, pointing towards Ahmed.
The rest of the men moved uneasily and looked at Ahmed with disbelief.
Ahmed remained silent and a soft smile formed on his lips.
“Had I given you my animals when you asked me, you would have repeated the same mistakes as in the past because you would have neither knowledge nor appreciation for what you would possess. I was one of the “bandits” though, and, with this small trick, I gave you the money you needed to start your new business – where you succeeded based on your hard work and the necessary knowledge you gained on the way. I also sent my sister – whom you married – and my mother to help you in the house and embrace you with love. But you had to go through the disappointment and hardship to gain the wisdom you have today. This was my biggest gift to you, my dearest friend.”
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou
Originally found: http://www.myunusualjourneys.com/storytelling-around-the-campfire/
Since its inception, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has identified and preserved dozens of culturally significant sites around the world. From historical buildings to natural marvels, each heritage site is spectacular in its own right.
Many UNESCO sites are staples for world travelers, like the Taj Mahal in India or Yosemite National Park in the United States. But many countries around the world have their own gorgeous heritage sites that, for the most part, fly under the radar. Be sure to add these 11 underrated UNESCO heritage sites to your bucket list.
1. Ningaloo Coast, Australia
Often overshadowed by the Great Barrier Reef, the Ningaloo Coast is a haven for rare aquatic life and a tremendous attraction in its own right. Nestled off of Australia’s remote west coast, visitors can swim with rare whale sharks and see otherworldly coral formations. It might be a bit further off the beaten path, surrounded by remote sand dunes and tiny towns, but this site is definitely worth adding to your Australia itinerary.
2. Hanseatic Town of Visby, Sweden
One of the best-preserved medieval cities in Scandinavia, the Hanseatic Town in Visby is a delightful retreat. With medieval walls, spiraling churches, and adorable rooftops, this town feels like it’s straight out of a fairy tale. A simple stroll through the cobblestone streets of this charming and cozy heritage site will transport you back in time for a holiday you won’t forget.
3. Huascarán National Park, Peru
Peru is home to some of the most dramatic landscapes in the world, and if you’re visiting the famous Machu Picchu, why not make a side trip to the gorgeous Huascaran National Park? Home to towering mountain peaks (including Peru’s tallest mountain) glacial lakes, and tropical forests, it’s everything you could ever want from a natural UNESCO site and more.
4. Mir Castle Complex, Belarus
It’s not a surprise that one of the biggest attractions in Belarus is called “peace” in the native language. The Mir Castle Complex consists of peaceful gardens and a towering fortress influenced by Gothic, Renaissance and Rococo design. With a long, mythical history to back up this historic site, this underrated fairytale attraction will charm the pants off you.
5. National History Park – Citadel, Sans Souci, Ramiers – Haiti
The structures at the National History Park in Haiti represent the dawn of the nation’s independence. Following a 14-year struggle by the island’s black slaves against the colonists, the independent Republic of Haiti was born. The Citadel, Sans Souci Palace, and buildings at Ramiers remain a testament to liberty, as they were the first monuments to be constructed by black slaves who had gained their freedom.
6. Bukhara, Uzbekistan
The city-museum of Bukhara is a true wonder to behold. Adorned with 140 architectural monuments – including stunning mosques and schools – this city remains a testament to the era of the Silk Road. The entire historic district is part of the UNESCO protected area, but worth a special visit are the Po-i Kalan religious complex and the Ark of Bukhara.
7. Gulf of Porto, Corsica
Red granite cliffs towering above beautiful blue seas – it’s not hard to see how this region earned its UNESCO status. The coast of the Gulf of Porto is marked by exceptional wilderness and eroded red cliffs. This tiny island in the Mediterranean was formed by volcanic eruptions which gave the rocks their unique, carved appearance.
8. Australian Convict Sites
These 11 penal sites were built by the British Empire and housed exiled convicts during the 18th and 19th centuries. Scattered along the Australian coast, they represent the widespread colonial expansion of the British Empire and its effect on the territories they controlled. Among these sites is Port Arthur – a Tasmanian town and open-air museum that draws thousands of visitors each year. Located just outside Hobart, the penal site is just one of these incredible sites.
9. Tsingy de Bemaraha Integral Nature Reserve, Madagascar
Featuring karst limestone formations, large mangrove forests, and diverse wildlife, the Tsingy Nature Reserve is a stunning protected area. Until the 1990s, the only guests of this remote area were lemurs and birds. But since it was established as a national park, more and more visitors have flocked to experience this rich territory.
10. Shibam, Yemen
Also called the “Manhattan of the Desert” this ancient town in Yemen is famous for its mudbrick high-rise buildings. These incredible structures can rise between 4-11 stories, and have long protected their inhabitants from Yemen’s unforgiving heat and Bedouin attacks. The city is almost 1,700 years old and was once a beacon of wealth in the Arabian peninsula.
11. Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
Boasting 16 breathtaking lakes connected by waterfalls, this national park is one of the most stunning natural gems of Croatia. With lush green vegetation surrounding these beautiful waterholes, it’s no wonder this park attracts thousands of visitors each year.
RELATED: 7 Can’t-Miss Croatia Day Trips
12. Rock Islands Southern Lagoon, Palau
Mushroom-shaped islands pop out over turquoise water in Rock Islands Southern Lagoon. Previously unidentified species are continuously being discovered by eager marine biologists, making this site breathtaking from above and below the waterline.
13. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA
Carved into the cliff of this US National Park are some of the best preserved Native American dwellings in the country. With over 5,000 archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, this park protects a rich and awe-inspiring history. Not to mention, you can find some pretty great hiking trails that will lead you through this history in an unforgettable way.
14. Fatehpur Sikri, India
India’s most famous historical site, the Taj Mahal, is not its only notable addition to the UNESCO list. The Agra city of Fatehpur Sikri is an architectural treasure trove. Featuring its own stunning palaces and mosque, this city might have been a historical disaster for the Mughal empire, but it remains a testament to India’s architectural brilliance.
15. Garamba National Park
One of the last remaining homes of elephants, rhinos, and giraffes in the Congo, this expansive and beautiful national park is the pièce de résistance of African wildlife. One of Africa’s oldest national parks, Garamba is also one of the most threatened of the UNESCO sites due to extensive poaching.
Repost from The Discoverer
The landscapes of Tuscany might be familiar to many; however, it is only by roaming through the villages and walking on the seductive curves of the vineyard-covered hills that a visitor can grasp some of the serenity and healing calmness this region emanates. Life here is patient, mystic, and vivid, just like the wine that joyfully hums the years away in the silence of the barrels. The colors are succulent and tasteful, the open window shutters are an invitation to felicity, and attention to detail turns every moment into a unique experience.
Naturally, each village that dots the Tuscan map has a charm of its own. Choosing only a few seems unfair. Still, some left a stronger impact – an impression worth sharing – and below are details and photos to inspire any future visitor.
With its 14 tall towers (meager remains of the original 72 towers) that have turned this village into the iconic “Manhattan of Tuscany,” San Gimignano is certainly a destination not to be missed. Like most villages in the region, it has been built on the top of a hill and the first signs of inhabitation date back to the Etruscan times. More solid constructions appeared during the Roman era in the 1st century BC, and, for several centuries afterward, the village experienced a steady development, especially since it was conveniently located on one of the most important pilgrimage roads from Europe towards Rome. Its emblematic earmark – its towers – were erected during the 12th and 13th century, primarily as a sign of wealth and informal rivalry among the affluent families, each one competing on building the tallest construction as a proof of prosperity and power (some of the towers reached up to a height of 70m.) Finally, order by the Council according to which no tower was allowed to be taller than the one adjacent to the Palazzo Communale put an end to this constructing frenzy.
The village was heavily weakened during the 1348 plague that decreased its initial population of 13,000 people by 70%. The decline continued till the 17th century, and San Gimignano reached an all-times-low during the 1631 plague with a reported population not amounting to more than 3,000 individuals. Growth came back from the 18th century onwards: many buildings were restored, and the village turned into a central touristic destination with increased agricultural production in the surrounding valleys.
Bigger and much busier than other Tuscan small towns, San Gimignano has kept its medieval ambiance quite intact (mostly thanks to the slow economic development that lasted for almost four centuries); its alleys, exhibiting delightful examples of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, are of breathtaking beauty.
Follow the signs towards punto panoramico and enjoy a dazzling view of the valley. Stay until the sun recedes behind the towers amply bestowing gold and lavender on walls and hills, and, if you are lucky, grab a table at the small café on that terrace to enjoy this nocturnal transformation over a glass of Vernaccia di San Gimignano (the famous local white wine produced by the ancient endemic variety of Vernaccia grapes). Do not omit the almost obligatory visit to Gelateria Dondoli which proudly bears the title “The Best Ice Cream in the World” (a title that’s hard to support, despite the several awards, since ice cream in most gelaterias in Tuscany is simply divine); pass by the artistic and historical museum SanGimignano 1300 where you can admire a stunning maquette of the village which allows for an all-embracing connection with its charm; finally, be adventurous and don’t shy away from any passage, open door, art gallery, courtyard, or delicatessen that will offer the opportunity to the discovery of an unmapped corner – a memory to be cherished as a priceless trophy, much more important than the items included in the typical to-do lists.
Another gem on Tuscany’s treasure map, Montepulciano is renowned not only for its scenic roads and the panoramic view on Val D’Orcia’s lavishly green slopes, but primarily for its pork, cheese, and wine (Vino Nobile is considered among Italy’s best).
Despite the Etruscan settlements since the 3rd and 4rth c. BC and the subsequent Roman presence, the village – a loyal ally to Florence – enjoyed its golden period from 1390 till 1559, i.e., till the moment Florence finally conquered its rival city, Siena. After that turning point in history, Montepulciano lost its strategic location advantage and gradually declined.
Visit the several small wineries that, usually, hide more secrets in the background than the mere bottles of wine displayed in the window. Personally, I was thrilled with Cantine Pulcinoclose to the entrance of the village, where wine and cheese ferment in an ancient Etruscan tomb, hidden in the shadowy cellar in the basement. Fall in love with the round pecorino heads ripening on wooden shelves, aromatized with red wine, spices, tomato, or even ashes; indulge in wine tasting even as early as 10 am; and enjoy the fulfilling bliss that simple, high-quality food brings to our lives.
Named after a variety of oak trees once covering the region, Montalcino is another typical medieval village offering stunning views of valleys dotted with olive groves, vineyards, and smaller settlements. Connected with Siena, it followed the latter’s history of wars and development; it started deteriorating after it was conquered by Florence. Today, it is thriving mainly thanks to its distinguished Brunello di Montalcino: a wine that is produced entirely out of the Sangiovese Grosso grapes of the region and requires a long aging process of 5 years. Despite being a very small town, it is divided – like most medieval Tuscan cities – into quarters, each one carrying its separate colors, songs, and drum beats. They all still meet twice per year in an archery contest where participants are dressed in medieval attire reproducing customs from bygone times.
If you reach the village at sunset, stand for a while at the small terrace close to the entrance and absorb the unfolding of the dusk’s veils over the ancient valley. It is guaranteed this will leave an indelible mark in your heart.
Castellina di Chianti
Sometimes, a village is just cute and beautiful, and that’s enough. This is the case with Castellina di Chianti, the entrance of which is decorated with the big black rooster standing on a red circle: the typical symbol of Chianti Classico found in all wine-producing villages of the Chianti region. The streets are few and colorful, the wooden shutters widely open welcome the passersby into the mysterious coziness of domestic life, flowers embellish every corner, and the shops offer typical Tuscan delights.
There hides a small local treasure: Gelateria in Paese, what the residents of Chianti consider to be one of the best gelaterias in the region – and, admittedly, it is!
Even though this village is tiny – just a small community on the top of the hill, surrounded by ring-shaped walls of a total length of 570m – there is more to it than what initially meets the eye. This spot was of strategic importance during the Florence-Siena wars and, being closer to Siena, it acted as a defense fortification for the city. In 1554, control of the town’s garrison was handed over the Givannino Zeti who had been exiled from Florence and who, later within the year, to reconcile with the Medici, offered the keys of the village to Florence – an act of absolute betrayal according to the locals.
The town is also mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy, its circular turrets used as a metaphor for the ring of giants encircling Hell.
Today, one can enjoy the medieval ambiance evident not only in the typical stone buildings but also the several armors decorating the entrances of shops or museums. Traverse the short road between the two main gates – Porta Fiorentina and Porta Romana, each facing towards the respective city; climb on the walls and walk along the circumference; and repose on the grass of a tiny park in the center of the village, mingling freely with the few relaxing residents.
San Donato In Poggio
This is another undisclosed little gem in the Chianti region. Despite its typical architectural style and lack of significant historical background, San Donato in Poggio is one of the most charming corners of Tuscany. There, we discovered – after local suggestion – the pizzeria Palazzo Pretorio where one can taste the best pizza in Chianti, a renowned baba dessert, and pannacotta with white chocolate and pistachios. We were also surprised with the town’s rather vibrant activity during the late evening hours. Most villages – even the biggest and most touristic ones – seem to fall into sleep after 9 pm and dinner arrangements later than that time seem absurd and impossible. Still, in San Donato in Poggio, we had to wait till 10 pm to get a table, while the streets were dotted with a few coffee shops buzzing with locals enjoying the cool spring evening air. The reasons behind this increased nocturnal activity remain a mystery, yet the experience was very refreshing and joyful.
Was it the beautiful sunny day that made all flowers in Radda in Chianti shine even more brightly than normal? Or was it that, after a week in Tuscany, we had already learned to fall in love again and again with every picturesque corner? I cannot be sure. On the surface, Radda seems to be just another village in the region (even though one of the main wine-producing villages in Chianti); yet, there is something elusively special about it.
Sit in the main square, by the lion fountain, facing the decorated wall of Palazzo del Podesta and bask under the sun with a glass of wine. Explore the short subterranean medieval path dating – as per the sign – back to the 14th century, hiding a couple of very inviting cafes in its vaulted passageway. Check the shops that seem to offer a wider variety of merchandise compared to the standard tourist options, and, be ready to discover that, even though your stay was no longer than an hour or two, this was a village worth visiting.
With its triangular square and renovated medieval buildings in the old part of the town, Greve is scenic and quaint. Located in the heart of the enlarged Chianti region, it is famous for its wine but, also, its olive oil (that is more delicate than the stronger ones from the south), its truffle hunting, and wild boars. The Cinta Senese boar is unique in the region and well-known for its high-quality meat. It should be noted that the town is home to Macellaria Falorni, one of the oldest and most renowned butcher shops of Italy. The wild pigs roam in the surrounding hills and forests, and we were told of several stories that take place during summer, when the heat pushes the animals into the green vineyards, or, sometimes, even into the pools.
Based on its agricultural production, its central location through an extensive road system, and the surrounding manufacturing facilities, Greve has developed today into the main market of the region. It remains comparatively vibrant even during the late evening hours and is a must-destination for those interested in excellent Tuscan cuisine. Among the numerous options, make sure you visit La Castellana in the nearby Montefioralle (less than 1km away from Greve’s main square), where not only you will enjoy the exquisite food (try anything with truffles: it is simply superb!) but, above all, you will be treated as a guest in a Tuscan family home, feeling the essence of the famous local hospitality. Since the place is tiny, make sure you book well in advance.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou
Author Konstantina Sakellariou
The Roman architecture – one of the most important legacies of the Roman Era – evolved echoing the character of its creators and their need for organised structures, practical solutions, and flamboyant celebrations of the Empire’s grandeur. Influenced by the Egyptian and Greek architecture, the Romans adopted the elements that best reflected the requirements of their new society, discarded any minimalistic features (like the Dorian style) that were too plain to the Roman eye, and invented the vaults, domes, and arches which were to define Western engineering for the centuries to come. Roads and major traffic arteries, bridges, aqueducts, arenas, and public baths further complement the construction designs and networks that dominated a large part of the antiquity’s known world. The essence of all this glory is still palpable, especially while rambling around the currently turf-covered remnants of the Roman cities that dot the lands of the once-mighty empire.
As a rule, most urban planning outside Rome followed a similar pattern: two wide axis streets (a north-south one known as the cardo, and an east-west one called decumanus) with the town center located at their intersection; a forum; temples, theaters, and public baths; some well-developed villas; and many ordinary, mud-brick abodes.
Leaving aside major, well-known metropoles, there are five Roman towns outside Italy worth exploring in depth.
- Volubilis, Morocco
I visited Volubilis on a cloudy spring day, when the grass had the joyful viridity of youth, millions of flower buds – which obviously preferred the yellow and orange hues and remained indifferent to any other color – merrily decorated the landscape, and the storks were engaged in their housekeeping activities, nested on the capitals of the standing columns.
Located at the south-western fringe of the Roman Empire, the city – today a UNESCO World Heritage Site – played an essential role in the history of the region, while its wealth is still evident in the size of its public buildings and the beauty of the mosaics that decorate in situ the floors of many excavated villas. Like most Roman cities, it was built on the remains of an older settlement, the specific one being Phoenician and then proto-Carthaginian, founded around the 3rd century BC. The town grew from the 1st century AD onwards under the Roman sovereignty, becoming the ancient capital of the Roman-Berber kingdom of Mauretania and tripling in size. Its name is probably derived from the Latinization of the Berber word “Walilt” which means “oleander” – apparently, a tribute to the plant that grows abundantly on the softly-curved slopes of the surrounding valley. Located amid fertile plains and olive groves, Volubilis owned its prosperity to the production and trade of olive oil which was central in the city’s life, since its use, aside from cooking, included lighting, bathing, healing, stock raising, and heating. Fifty-eight olive-pressing complexes have been discovered so far in the site while the flourishing commercial activity of the city is confirmed by the more than 120 shops that have been identified up to now.
Volubilis’ prosperity reached its peak during the 2nd century AD when most of its prominent buildings were constructed. At the end of the 3rd century AD and following several upheavals in the empire, the Roman dominion came to an end. The town turned into a Latinized-Christian community, and then (in the 8th c. AD) into an early Islamic settlement, becoming the seat of Idris ibn Abdallah, the founder of the Idrisid dynasty and the state of Morocco. Idriss I lived outside the city’s walls, launching from there his several military campaigns that led to the conquering of Northern Morocco, and it was in Volubilis that he was assassinated after three years of ruling. His son and successor, Idriss II, moved the seat of the new state to the recently founded city of Fez and, finally, Volubilis faded into obscurity. Its buildings remained relatively intact until the 18th century when they were significantly damaged by a Lisbon-based earthquake, and later they were looted, their remnants used for the construction of the nearby city of Meknes.
Today, only half of the city’s beauty has been brought to light and the excavations – which started since the 19th century by the French and continued throughout the whole period of French sovereignty – still progress, albeit at a slow pace.
Enjoy ambling along the Decumanus Maximus street and imagine its smoothly paved surface (some of which is still visible), the footways and arcaded porticoes on either side and the dozens of shops that extended beyond. This street separated the old from the new part of the city, and at its north-eastern point, it is adorned with the Tingis Gate. Pass under the Arch of Caracalla – built to honor the homonymous Roman Emperor who, unfortunately, had already been murdered before the arch was completed; visit the Basilica and the Capitoline Temple; explore the remains of the public baths and aqueduct; check the reconstructed Roman olive press; and, above all, enjoy the magnificent mosaics of the richly decorated mansions for which Volubilis is famous.
- Philippi, Greece
The city of Philippi – another UNESCO World Heritage Site – was originally founded in 360 BC by colonists from the island of Thasos (in collaboration with the city of Athens) and its first name was “Krenides”. The area was known for its fertile land and the rich in shipbuilding-timber mountains and marshes. Most importantly, gold mines had been recently discovered nearby, and the settlers did not delay circulating their new gold and copper coins.
As expected, a city with such wealth and potential would not remain without predators for long. Just four years later, in 356 BC, Philip II, King of Macedonia (and father of Alexander the Great) was called to the rescue against the Thracian tribes that were already threatening the colony. Instead of merely offering his support, though, Philip II, acknowledging the opportunity, conquered and fortified the city, putting it under his rule and giving it the name with which it is still known today: Philippi. As per historians of the time, Philip II exploited the gold mines of the region extensively, increasing at unreasonable levels their production to generate more than 1000 talents of gold per year – an astronomical amount for the time. This wealth rapidly turned Philippi into an economic power in the Kingdom of Macedonia and contributed significantly to the grand military campaigns of the era.
The city followed the growth and decline of all other Hellenistic states and would have remained just a ghost of its former glory were it not for a random incident that changed the course of history for both the town and the then-known world. In 42 BC, outside its western walls, two Roman armies – the democrats Brutus and Cassius who had assassinated Jules Caesar on the one hand; Octavian and Antonius, followers of Caesar’s policy on the other – fought in what has been recorded as “the Battle of Philippi”. The Democrats lost, Cassius and Brutus committed suicide, and the outcome marked the end of the Roman Republic, paving the way for the establishment of monarchy in the Roman Empire. After his victory, Octavius converted Philippi into a Roman colony and named it Colonia Augusta Julia Philippensis. As a result, the city developed into an economic, administrative, and artistic centre, especially during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.
Around 100 years after the Battle of Philippi, in 49/50 AD, another event left an indelible mark on the city’s countenance: the visit of Apostle Paul who founded there the first church (meaning, Christian community) on European soil and was even imprisoned for a while. Today, none of the buildings of the 1st century AD remains, except a small space into the ground which, legend has it, was used as St. Paul’s prison. As time passed, the new religion prevailed over the Roman syncretism, and the Greek language replaced the Latin one. With the recognition of Christianity as the official religion of the empire in 313 AD, the transfer of the capital to Constantinople (only about 450 km to the East of Philippi), and the presence of Via Egnatia (the major road connecting East with the West) that ran across the town, Philippi gained additional glamour and became a bishopric. Its famous Octagonal church and its three Basilicas of exquisite elegance and substantial size conveyed – and still do, even though all these buildings lie in ruins today – the magnificence and importance of the city during the early Christian period.
A series of earthquakes at the end of the 6th and beginning of the 7th century caused severe damage to many edifices – the Basilicas included. Some of this damage was never repaired. This, along with several raids that had started since the 4rth century and continued throughout the history of the Byzantine empire put the city in considerable strain. Its strategic location helped it survive –occasionally even prosper – until the 14thcentury when, under the Ottoman dominion, it gradually faded away, leaving behind only the memories of a bygone era.
Walk under the stone arches that are close to the theatre – the first thing that any visitor notices when entering the archaeological site; step onto Via Egnatia whose slabs are still in place; explore the Forum complex which, of course, follows the standard structure of most Roman cities. Above all, prepare to spend quite some time discovering the secrets of the Octagonal Church and the three Basilicas which are quite unique, at least for Greece. Being an Athenian – and unable to completely shake off the slight arrogance of self-importance that comes with my heritage – I was startled to find in Philippi such a strong legacy of the early Christian era, when in Athens the Byzantine churches date mostly from the 10th century AD onwards and are tiny in size and modest in design. Nothing compares to the flamboyant – yet elegant – celebration of the new religion found in Philippi, so close to the Capital – the radian centre of that era.
- Gerasa, Jordan
Gerasa (“Jerash” in Arabic) is regarded as one of the largest and best-preserved Roman cities outside Italy. Also known as the “Pompeii of the Middle East” (given its size, the extent of excavations, and the level of its conservation), the “Antioch on the Golden River”, or the “City of 1000 Columns”, Gerasa never ceases to amaze the visitors with its glamour.
Although the area was inhabited since the Neolithic times (as it is common in all Eastern Mediterranean), the city seems to have been founded at the site of an earlier Semitic village either by Alexander the Great or his General, Perdikas, on their way towards Mesopotamia. From the mid-1st century BC, Gerasa fell under the Roman dominion, and Pax Romana allowed for economic development and enhanced activity. The rise and decline of the various empires in the region is reflected in the ruins of the old city, where remnants from the Byzantine era (including numerous churches), the Crusades, the Umayyad Caliphate period, the Mamluks, the Ottoman occupation, even remains from a synagogue, all intertwine in a kaleidoscopic presentation that allows the more-than-2000-years-old tale of the Middle East to be summarized in less than two acres.
Walk through the Oval Forum down the cardo maximus (the main street) with the impressive line of columns on either side, ending up at the North Tetrapylon; sit on the stairs of the main theater or the hippodrome; take a photo next to the Arc of Hadrian; explore the Temple of Artemis; most of all, enjoy the innumerous, beautiful ornamentations that are scattered everywhere, among columns and broken stones – a testimony to the city’s eternal grace that neither time nor the incessant changes of power in the region can ever take away. And, if you happen to be visiting Jordan in summer, make sure to check the calendar of its Summer Festival and enjoy a performance or two in Gerasa, surrounded by the ancient marbles that, over centuries, keep on reflecting the soul of the human stories.
- Palmyra, Syria
It seems that Palmyra was always destined to be in the midst of military turmoil. The recent destructions are just another blow along the city’s turbulent history whose origins date to the second millennium BC – or, even beyond. The area was inhabited from the Neolithic times, but its growth has been recorded from the Hellenistic years onwards. Initially a sheikhdom with a tribal social structure, Palmyra is famous for its wealth due to its prosperous trade, as well as its military character and efficiency in combat – a quality that led to its nickname as “Sparta of the Orient” by Irfan Shahid.
Located in the middle of a fertile oasis, the city is surrounded by vast desert; indeed, during my trip to Syria, the landscape of the highway from Damascus to Palmyra was so exhaustingly dull and desolate that it made me wonder whether it was worth the effort just to see the ruins of another Roman city which would probably be similar to all other Roman towns around the world. But I was mistaken. Palmyra stands out as a unique case, with a history so complex and exotically intricate that it is difficult to comprehend with only one visit.
Originally an ancient Semitic city named, as per the earliest references, Tadmur (which possibly related to the palm trees that were, and still are, surrounding the town), it was later called “Palmyra” by the Greeks. The Palmyrenes were a mix of Amorites, Arameans, and Arabs, and their culture and religion, even though influenced by the Greco-Roman empires, always remained oriental and distinct. The locals had their own dialect, the Latin language was rarely used even during the Roman era, and Greek was used by the wealthier members of society in commerce, diplomacy, and politics. The Romans (especially Emperor Hadrian who was a great admirer of the Greek civilisation) allowed Palmyra to maintain an autonomous status, following the structure of the ancient Greek city-states. Despite all their influence though – also evident in the frequent use of Greek names by the locals – the Greeks were never fully incorporated in the indigenous society and were always (understandably) considered as foreigners.
The first three centuries AD brought significant growth to the city, evident in the construction of several monuments of considerable grandeur. From a mere caravan stop-point on the Silk Road that connected the East with the West, Palmyra developed into a wealthy trade centre with established colonies in surrounding trade hubs and whose revenue depended on agriculture, commerce, and taxation.
The peak of Palmyra’s history was in the mid-3rd century AD, when it turned into a kingdom based on the military successes of Odenaethus (who was initially just the ruler of Palmyra, and gradually acquired the titles of “King”, “Governor”, and “King of Kings” after his repetitive victories against the Persians). Following the assassination of Odenaethus and his son Hairan I – who had been crowned co-King of Kings and was the official successor – the throne passed on to Odenaethus’ ten-year-old son Vaballathus, and, indirectly, to his mother and guardian, Zenobia. Zenobia had a similarly ambitious, expansive, and successful military career, and during her reign, Palmyra’s Kingdom extended from Egypt to Ankara. In the beginning, the Roman Emperor, Aurelian, engrossed as he was in several upheavals in Europe, did not challenge Palmyra’s growing power. However, once Zenobia and her son assumed the titles of Augusta and August (emperors) respectively, he marched to Asia and defeated the Palmyrene army, pushing Zenobia back to her capital city. Initially the Roman Emperor spared the town and did not destroy it after its capitulation; however, an uprising by Zenobia’s relatives in 273 AD led to a new defeat of the Palmyrenes, and the town was finally razed to the ground.
Palmyra, whose geographic location continued to be important both for military and commercial purposes, followed the ebbs and tides of history, passing through the Byzantine empire, the Arab Caliphates, the Mamluk period, and the Ottoman era. Peace was restored for a while after World War I, only to be disrupted again over the past years with the Syrian Civil War.
We cannot be sure of the ancient city’s status once the war is over. It will not be the first time Palmyra’s monuments will have been destroyed, but we cannot know if we will be able to admire them restored within this lifetime. Still, the memory of the famous Temple of Bel and Temple of Baalshamin, the valley of Tombs, the Diocletian Baths, the Senate, the Great Colonnade (the city’s 1.1 km-long main street), the Funerary Temple, and the Diocletian walls – to name just a few – will shine eternally. For, destruction is only temporary. The beauty of human creations has the power to live forever, as its energy in the global conscious and subconscious can never fade away.
- Baalbek, Lebanon
As you may have noticed by now, my Greek ancestors enjoyed assigning their own, Hellenized names to many ancient cities, and it is these names that have often gone down in history – in many cases still being in use. As such, Alexander the Great and his successors gave to Baalbek the self-explanatory name of “Heliopolis” (actually “Heliopolis of Syria or Phoenicia”, to distinguish it from Heliopolis in Egypt). The name translates into “City of Sun” referring to the solar cult that was prominent there since ancient times. The city was always acknowledged for its strategic position, as it was located mid-way between Beirut and Damascus on the route that connected the port of Tyre with Palmyra, and was surrounded by the fertile Bekaa valley. Its turbulent history followed the rise and downfall of the various empires and sovereignties of the region. Its archaeological complex was repeatedly destroyed by earthquakes, wars, and religious conflicts (the latter, especially during the early Christian times), while its monuments were often pillaged for building materials to be used elsewhere.
Heliopolis was a well-known oracle and pilgrimage site (considered to be one of the two largest sanctuaries of the Roman Empire), and experienced considerable growth during the first three centuries AD, until the rise of Christianity. Its beautiful complex of three temples (dedicated to Jupiter, Venus, and Bacchus) has been described by ancient historians or travellers as a “wonder of the world” or “one of the finest examples of Imperial Roman architecture at its apogee.”
The Temple of Jupiter – initially mistaken for the Temple of Helios, i.e. the Sun – was also known as the Great Temple (due to its size and magnificence) or the “Trilithon”, (“Three Stones”) because of three megalithic stones at its foundation. The engineering mechanisms employed for the construction of this temple remain a mystery since the Roman cranes were not strong enough to pull stones of the size and weight that we find there at the required height. Unfortunately, subsequent calamities led to the destruction of most of the temple’s 54 Corinthian-style columns (the beloved style of the Romans), including the use of eight of them by Justinian in the construction of the Hagia Sophia Church. The six columns in a row that, today, still stand tall resisting the mighty weather of the valley and the blows of history, have become a beloved symbol for the Lebanese people.
When setting eyes though on the temple of Bacchus which, by a favourable nod of Providence, has survived in a rather good condition, one cannot but stand in awe, for it is one of the largest Roman temples surviving today, enriched by some of the most refined reliefs and sculptures of antiquity. The impact of its unparalleled elegance can be surpassed only by the experience of enjoying a concert at its footsteps during the Baalbek Summer Festival. The energy emanated from the ancient marbles is so strong that it promises to turn any event into a memory to be cherished for a lifetime.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou (unless stated otherwise)
The above presentation includes a rough summary of the historical background of each city based on my understandings, readings, and information by local guides. However, as the history of each place is very complicated involving many eras, there may be mistakes in the descriptions above, due either to my lack of professional knowledge or oversimplification in the presentation of events. If you notice any unforgivable error, please contact me directly, I would be only too happy to make the necessary corrections.
To continue exploring the world, complement this article with articles like Seven Cities to Fall in Love With, Seven Temples in Asia to Add to the Bucket List, A Tour to my Seven Favorite Churches in Athens, A Road Trip through my Favorite Tuscan Villages, A Journey through the Historical Landmarks of Samothrace, or Twelve Places to Visit in Lebanon outside Beirut.
Author Konstantina Sakellariou
The sacred Rock of Acropolis, crowned with the eternal jewel – the Parthenon – radiates an energy so formidable that dwarfs any other historical remnant in the old neighbourhoods of Athens. The compelling impact of the Classical era often leaves little room for the subtle whispers of stories that unfolded in the following centuries. And, yet, the trails of the Hellenistic, the Roman, the Byzantine, and the Ottoman times intertwine elegantly among the narrow alleys, inviting every passerby to a more profound exploration of the city’s adventurous past.
Even though Athens was under Ottoman occupation for almost four centuries (1458 – 1833), the remains of that period can easily be overseen, even by the locals. No minarets are rising to the sky, while many buildings, having been constructed on ancient sites, were destroyed by an archaeological frenzy in the 19th and early 20th century, when the recent history was not considered significant enough to be preserved. Still, a careful observer can distinguish some fragments of that era and, with tenderness and imagination, the pieces can be put together, recreating the aromas and ambience of a time that has left much deeper marks in the Hellenic psyche than what we care to acknowledge.
The Benizelos – Palaiologos family mansion
On the street nearby the present Metropolis Church, there stands one of the oldest remaining houses of Athens: the mansion of the Benizelos – Palaiologos family (both names belonging to the noblemen of the city with roots lost in the Byzantine era and the heart of the once-mighty empire). The residence follows the konaki architectural form – a typical style of the 18th century, common throughout the Ottoman region.
Below the building, we can see today ruins from the city wall of the Later Roman Period (3rdcentury AD), a period that followed the destruction of Athens by the Heruli tribes. The house has two floors: (i) the ground floor (or katoi) with the auxiliary rooms where the agricultural produce was stored (often in big, clay jars – pithoi – half-buried in the ground) or processed; and (ii) the upper floor (or anoi) with the residential rooms – the winter ontas, that is, the room with the fireplace that served as bedroom, sitting room, and reception hall, and the hayiati, that is, the wood-covered, semi-enclosed space that connected the ontas rooms and was used by the family during the summer months. The upper floor is characterised by two rows of windows that allowed the rooms to be bright and warm, and the sahnisi – a protruded construction supported on the outside by beams – which increased the size of the residential areas of the mansion.
The most important characteristic of these wealthy houses of the era was their autonomy: the spacious courtyard which had a fountain and a well, and the presence of wine and olive presses.
The back side of the house with the sahnisi
On the ground floor, remnants of constructions dating to the 16th century have been found and they are probably associated with the life of one of the most prominent women of her time: Rigoula Benizelou who became a nun changing her name to “Philothei” and, shortly after her death, was recognised as a Saint (hence, known ever since as Saint Philothei). She was born into a wealthy family and was forced to marry at a very young age (a common practice back then, used to protect the young girls from ending up in the harems). Her husband, much older than her, died soon, and she refused to marry again. Instead, she became a nun and dedicated her life and fortune to help the poor, Muslim or Christian, especially the women, buying also several of them out of the harems. She founded a monastery close to her house (currently hosting the archdiocese), and the radiance of her work was so strong that, today, the names of three suburbs (Philothei, Kalogreza, and Psychico) are associated with her. Considered as a threat by the Turks, she was arrested and tortured and, in 1588, after a second attack, she died of her wounds.
The Bathhouse (hammam) of the Winds
The Hammam of Abid Efendi (or Bath-House of the Winds, a name that prevailed due to the building’s proximity to the Tower of the Winds) is the only remaining Ottoman public bath in Athens. Initially constructed in the 15th century, serving men and women alternatively, it was significantly altered in the 1870s to be able to accommodate both men and women simultaneously. The present edifice with its neoclassic façade does not remind of the style and ambience of the Turkish baths; hence it is easily missed by the passersby.
Public baths were not an Ottoman invention: they existed since the ancient times and were greatly enhanced by the Romans. However, their previously secular character turned into a more religious one, and it was obligatory for all Muslims to go to the hammam twice per week. The Ottomans preferred their baths to be built in areas with running water – based on the superstition that the stagnant water allows the evil spirits to thrive, while the running water carries them away. Hence, they never used the bath facilities they found in any of the cities they conquered but, instead, constructed their own.
This hammam was one of the three oldest in Athens, and followed the typical architecture: a waiting and relaxation room with fountain, carpets, and decorations, surrounded by smaller, changing rooms; a warm room, where temperature was kept at 20-25o C; and a hot room, where temperature was maintained at 35-40o C. After the alterations, the waiting room is much more minimalistic (for everyone familiar with the original Turkish baths, the ambiance is lost, and even the subtle sound of an oud playing in the background cannot cover the gap), and there are two bath areas: one for women, and one for men.
The heat was built in the furnace and circulated by an underground system (ypokafsta) in all the rooms, where it remained, preserved by the thick lime on the walls, the marble floors, and the lack of any aperture to the outside. The ceilings were decorated with round openings (often called “eyes of the elephant”), which were covered with glass and allowed the sunlight – also carrying healing properties – to enter the dark rooms, without risking the leak of any heat. The baths operated until 1965; today, they have been beautifully restored (in some corners, the illusion of humidity on the walls has been maintained) and are used as a museum or exhibition area.
In the old days, before the alternations of the building, the colour of a towel hanging at the door signalled whether the bath was to be used by men or women. The hammam days were sacred, sometimes having a stronger ritualistic significance like when coming of age, before the marriage, after giving birth, or before going to war. The supply of the bath equipment (clothes and towels, metallic bowls, and pattens) from the husband to the wife was often included in the marital contract, and the days to the hammam were like a small excursion, especially for the women. They would arrive with family and friends bringing baskets with food, and after the bath, they would eat and drink, sing and dance, engaging in gossip and beautification activities. The walls of the hammam have heard some of the most intimate stories of that time, for, in the penumbra and the heat, the heart opens, and the worries are washed away. And, despite the superstitions that prevented the bathers from stepping on any after-bath waters (for, they carried the evil spirits), and inspired the women to leave the hammam carrying bread and salt in their chests (as a shield against the evil eye), the most profound purpose of the hammam – the cleansing and healing of the soul – was always accomplished.
The Upper and Lower Bazaar
The heart of the Ottoman city was beating in the market, which, in Athens, had three essential parts – the Upper Bazaar, the Lower Bazaar and the Wheat Market: all, naturally, located in the areas of the ancient markets.
The Upper and Lower Bazaar were taking place around the ruins of the Library of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. There, on the Pandrosou street that leads to the Monastiraki Square, there are a few marble stairs (known as “the little stairs of Pandrosou”) where, today, one will most probably see numerous cats resting and eating throughout the day. During the Ottoman era, this spot was the starting point of the central market street and marked the separating line between the upper and lower bazaar. The Upper Bazaar extended on the right of the stairs and was famous for its luxurious textiles, the aromas, incenses, and beautification products from the Orient. On the left (towards the Monastiraki Square), one would walk into the Lower Bazaar which surrounded the ruins of the Hadrian Library and extended further down towards the Hephaistos temple and today’s neighbourhoods of Monastiraki and Psirri. The area closer to the Library, shaded with pergolas, was the vegetable market; the region around the Hefaistos temple was known for the blacksmiths’ workshops, while other zones accommodated the tanneries or other factories of an industrial character. The area surrounding the Pandrosou stairs hosted a series of barbershops that operated until the end of the 19th century and acted as small infirmaries and social haunts as well.
The market was mostly frequented by men. Women were rare – maybe only a maid or two occasionally sent on an errand – and were always received with comments that would drive them quickly away. Besides a trading area, it was also the region where political unrests would unfold, or petty criminals would be punished.
Towards the end of the 19th century, though, there was an urgent need for the relocation of the market which could no longer accommodate the increasing number of the city’s inhabitants but, also, prevented any excavation project. The relocation project was delayed continuously, until, in 1884, a massive fire (suspected arson) destroyed the bazaar putting people’s lives at risk. After that incident, the construction of the new bazaar on Athinas street was accelerated, and the market is still hosted there. However, it never acquired the warmth that the old market used to have – it never managed to follow the social heartbeat of the city.
The Lower Bazaar area was dotted with other significant constructions, most of which today have entirely disappeared.
Inside the Hadrian Library, there are the remains of what is believed to be the oldest Christian church in Athens, the Tetraconch. Initially built in the 5th century (probably by the Empress Evdokia, also known as Athinais), it stands out by its distinct architectural style, its location within the administrative centre of the city, and the quality of its materials. The church was destroyed during the Slav invasions and was rebuilt in the 7th century (the four columns and the part of the apse that we see today date to that period). Finally, it was enhanced into a basilica in the 11th century, dedicated to Virgin Mary (the church was called “Megali Panagia” – a name derived by the belief that the oldest icon of Virgin Mary, painted by Saint Luke himself, was kept here). Once Athens came under the sovereignty of the Ottomans, its residents were initially given special privileges in honour of the city’s glorious past. So, in the beginning, the Athenians could continue to use the Parthenon as their metropolis church. These privileges were soon withdrawn after an attempted revolution, and the metropolis was moved to Megali Panagia church.
Near the church, there were also the Kousegio, that is, the building where the elders (dimogerontes) of the city held their meetings, and the school of the monk Grigorios Sotirianos – the first school of Athens – built in 1720.
On the western wall of the Hadrian Library (the one that is still standing, easily recognisable with its Corinthian-style columns), there used to lean a small Byzantine church of the 10th – 11th century called the Church of Agios Asomatos, or the Church on the Stairs. It belonged to the Chalkokondyli family – another famous family of the noblemen of Athens – that restored it in the 16th century. Today, only some faded remains of a mural can be seen on the marble wall, as the rest of the church has disappeared.
Behind the western wall of the Hadrian Library, there was the voevodaliki, that is, the administrative building where the governor (voevodas) was based and lived. It was the tallest building in Athens but, following the fate of many other buildings in the area, was destroyed both by the fire of 1884 and the archaeological excavations that disregarded any civilisation dating after the Roman period.
In the market area, there was also the famous Clock of Elgin – a tower with a mechanical clock (the first in Athens) donated by Lord Elgin as a “thank you” gift for the many monuments he had already seised from the city. The clock was destroyed during the Greek revolution against the Ottoman Empire; the tower was temporarily used as a prison during the years that followed, and the whole construction was destroyed at the 1884 fire.
Opposite the western wall of the Hadrian Library, there are the remains of the mansion of the Logothetis family. The property of the family significantly increased when they bought – at meagre prices – land from the Athenians that were fleeing the city after the Venetian troops of Morozini left in 1668 and the wrath of the Ottomans was expected to be ferocious. In the 18th century, while Logothetis was the Consul of England, Lord Elgin was hosted in this mansion, and many of the stolen marbles were stored there before finding their way to London.
Next to the Logothetis mansion, there is the little chapel of Agios Elissaios, built during the Ottoman era. It is best known for the fact that one of the greatest Greek writers, Alexandros Papadiamantis, renowned for his devoutness, used to chant there, and many representatives of the Athenian literary circles attended the mass just to listen to him.
The Tzistarakis Mosque
The mosque was built in 1759 by the Ottoman voevoda (governor) of Athens, Mustapha Agha Tzistarakis on the area that is known today as Monastiraki Square. It was also called the Mosque of the Lower Fountain (being next to the second biggest fountain of the city, similarly constructed by Tzistarakis), or the Mosque of the Lower Market.
For the lime required for its construction, the governor ordered the demolition and use of one of the columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus – a decision that would prove to have disastrous consequences. The plague that tormented the city the following year was perceived by the superstitious Athenian society as a punishment for the sacrilege performed as, according to their belief, the removal of the ancient column allowed the evil spirits to escape into the city, bringing sickness and misfortune. The gravity of the situation ultimately led to the dismissal of Tzistarakis from his position.
The building was initially restored in the beginning of the 20th century, and then, again in 1966 to be used as a place for prayer by the deposed King Saoud of KSA who had found refuge in Greece, staying at the luxurious hotel Asteras in Vouliagmeni (it is said that during his stay, he was handing out gold watches in lieu of tips, something that fueled the vivid imagination and gossipy creativity of the Athenians for many years).
The Wheat Market
The wheat market (the third part of the broader bazaar area during the Ottoman era) was taking place within the ruins of the Roman Agora. It was the central market for wheat and olive oil, which were sold mainly in July, while, during the rest of the year, more food products were traded. The ancient gate of Athena Archegetis (the second most prominent remain in the area after the Tower of the Winds) was the entrance to the market and, during the Turkish occupation, was known as Pazaroporta (that is, the Gate to the Bazaar). On one of its columns, the official valorisation (called narti) of the wheat and olive oil was displayed for the use of the merchants.
The Fethiye Mosque
The Fethiye Mosque was the first Islamic temple of the town, built on the ruins of a Byzantine church (just a few meters away from the Wind of Towers), on the occasion of the visit of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1458. The present structure though is much more recent, as the original mosque was demolished and rebuilt in 1668 (at the beginning of the second period of the Ottoman occupancy of the city, after the departure of the Venetian troops that had conquered Athens for a few months). Only a fragment of the original mihrab remains, while the minaret was torn down shortly after the end of the Greek revolution against the Ottoman Empire.
After the liberation of Athens and the creation of the new Greek state, the mosque was used as a school, later as barracks, military prison, even military bakery, and, finally, as a storeroom for the various antiquities unearthed from the surrounding area. The building deteriorated significantly until its recent restoration, and today it is used as a space for cultural events.
The Tekke (Tower of the Winds)
The Tower of the Winds is a prominent landmark in the neighbourhood, its presence and name having overshadowed the rest of the Roman market (agora). The Greeks refer to it and the surrounding area as “aerides” which means “winds”, and the street leading there (one of the first streets to have been constructed in Athens when it was declared the capital of the newly-founded Greek state) is called “Aeolou” (Aeolos being the ancient god of the winds).
It is an octagonal marble building constructed by Andronikos Kyrrhestes in the 1st century BC to serve as a solar and hydraulic clock, as well as a wind vane. It is considered to be the world’s first meteorological station.
During the Ottoman era, the tower was turned into a tekke, that is, a place of worship for the Sufi, and there are several drawings of that era, showing dervishes twirling inside its limited space.
Kuzuk (kioutsouk) Mosque
A few meters away from the Tower of the Winds, there lie the scarce remnants of a small mosque, known as the Kuzuk Mosque (“kuzuk” meaning “small” in Turkish). Having passed in front of these stones thousands of times almost oblivious to their presence, I was surprised to learn of the mosque’s existence, even though the semicircular shape of the mihrab is still distinguishable. It is said that next to this mosque, there was a hammam (one of the oldest in the city), but no trace of it remains today.
Opposite the Tower of the Winds and the Fethiye Mosque, there used to be the Medresse (the seminary of the Muslims), complementing the neighbourhood which already had three hammams nearby, a mosque, a tekke, and the wheat market (staropazaro). Constructed by Mehmet Fahri in 1721, as per the inscription on its gate, this Medresse was much smaller than similar institutions in other regions of the empire; yet, it was a proof that the Turks of the 18th century, even though they were a minority in the predominantly Christian society of the city, considered Athens their home and were solidifying their future presence.
The school was a rectangular edifice, designed almost like a Greek monastery, with rooms (used by the boarders) surrounding a courtyard where a huge plane tree spread its branches. Under the shade of this tree, the leaders of the Ottoman community gathered to relax in a purely Muslim environment, discussing the latest developments, drinking coffee and probably smoking their hookahs. According to the legend, they were under this tree when they learnt of the 1821 Greek revolution against the empire, and it was there that they decided to kill all the Christian men of the population as a precautionary measure – a decision that, thankfully, was annulled by the kadi (who, nevertheless, when a year later the city fell into the hands of the Greeks, lost his life). During the revolution, the Ottomans turned the Medresse into prison – a use that was maintained by the Greeks too until the beginning of the 20th century. The beautiful plane tree acquired a morbid role since it was from its branches that those sentenced to death were hanged. It is said that the living conditions in this prison were so inhuman, given the small available space and the number of prisoners, that the deep relief of those finally departing from them has remained as an idiom in the Greek language through the expression “farewell to the plane tree”.
Today, the plane tree is long gone – I think it was burnt by a thunderbolt – just like the rest of the building. Even the several chimneys that were rising – like a series of low minarets – have disappeared, preserved only in gravures and drawings of that era. The final demolition was concluded by the archaeology department that dug the plot in search of more important findings from the antiquity; some also talk about potential treasures that the Turks may have hidden in the earth. Nothing exciting has been found so far, and the area today is overcome by weeds, being home only to the neighbourhood cats. Only the main gate – decorated with marble designs that are closer to the ancient Greek tradition than the Muslim one – still stands intact, receiving little attention from the passersby.
Photo credits: © Konstantina Sakellariou (unless otherwise stated)
To explore Athens in more details, complement this article with a visit to Iliou Melathron: one of Athens’ most beautiful mansions, the House of Katakouzenos, the beautiful Mets Neighbourhood, and a tour to my seven favourite churches.
Paris is one of those destinations you do not visit just once in a lifetime. The first sojourn is – unavoidably – consumed in exploring the standard touristic landmarks, but, once this is completed, the city opens her arms – sometimes in an elegant and coquettish way, other times, in a crude and unrefined manner – inviting the visitor to an initiation process that leaves none untouched.
The more I travel around the world, the bigger my desire to experience life through the eyes of the locals. And, although the City of Light is still (to me) a mystery not fully deciphered, I have developed an indicative list of preferences which I share below for all those wishing to explore the city a bit deeper.
- Spend some time in the numerous parks
Paris is full of small and large parks dotted with statues, benches, and fountains, their narrow pathways shaded under the protective canopy of plane or chestnut trees. Stories reverberate in every corner: from the footsteps of Jean Valjean and the first amorous heartbeats of Marius and Cosette in the Luxembourg Garden to the various scenes captured by the Impressionists in their effort to grasp the meaning and behavior of light, color, and shadow in a frame.
Promenade through the same paths, and stretch (like the locals) on chairs and chaises longues at every (rare) appearance of the sun. Read a book, listen to the humming chatter among friends, follow a game of petanque, or, like me, just sit watching the sky (which, for some reason, always seems broader in Paris) and the fast-changing cloud formations that make the weather so unpredictable in the city. Make sure you add les Tuileries, le Jardin du Luxembourg, and the garden of Palais Royal in your agenda and allow enough time to enjoy the experience.
- Visit the local food markets, the boulangeries, and the patisseries
Despite the attractiveness of the plentiful bistros and brasseries, do not rush to spend all your time (and money) there. Search for a local market and amble around the various food kiosques, spending (naturellement!) more time at the cheese corner. A nice seller may help you (with some cheese-tasting) to choose from the various options, and you will leave with small precious packages to devour over a picnic lunch. Once you have also selected a few fresh fruits and vegetables, pass by the nearby boulangerie (baker shop) to grab your freshly baked, still-warm baguette (ask for la tradition which is my favorite) and, if you want to feel like a real local, start munching the top of the bread while you are still walking. Finally, since no meal is complete without dessert, do not omit to choose something from the mouth-watering variety offered in every boulangerie-patisserie. Although croissants, eclairs, and fruit or lemon tarts are a “must,” do try la religieuse, la tropezienne, or a gateau basque as well. No risk of getting disappointed by any choice!
- Get involved in some of the art events offered daily by several museums or galleries
Museums are not usually my first choice when visiting a city for just a few days. I get too fascinated by the real life around me and too engaged in understanding the subtle details of the town to prefer the rather static environment of an exhibition. However, passing by Paris without getting involved in any of the numerous art events that are organized by museums or galleries is as if one has neglected a crucial aspect of the city.
Avoid the big crowded institutions and choose instead a small museum or a temporary exhibition where you can spend a couple of hours lost in the world of art. The most significant benefit is not the artistic enlightenment per se but the deeper understanding of France’s historical and cultural background, especially over the past couple of centuries. Most exhibitions are currently curated in a storytelling style, transporting the visitor to a parallel reality which is as virtual as a movie and as tangible as the presented art objects. The dialogues, think-tanks, and additional analyses complementing each exhibition are indicative of the level of the ongoing exchange of ideas, the character of the city, and the Parisians’ perpetual attempt to keep digging deeper into the wonders of human creativity.
- Stroll around Le Marais District
Le Marais is a historical (and aristocratic) district that will undoubtedly steal your heart. In my mind, it represents the ideal Parisian neighborhood, as if coming out of a book or a movie. Start from the St Paul church and allow yourself to get lost among the narrow streets with the old buildings, the cafes, bookstores, boutiques, and antique stores. On the way, you may wish to rest at the cozy tea shop of Mariage Freres (a gourmet tea company founded in 1854 by the Mariage brothers). Prepare to spend quite some time just choosing your tea among the various intriguing options (especially if you are a tea lover like me), and do not neglect to taste a cake or two. Last time, I chose the green-tea madeleines which were simply divine and would highly recommend them. Your steps may later lead you to Place de Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris and one of the most beautiful in the city. As you walk under the arcades, you will frequently stop in front of the windows of the several galleries, and, if you are not already full, you will be tempted to sit at one of the brasseries. Many well-known politicians, aristocrats, and artists resided in this square during its 400 years of existence, Cardinal Richelieu at No. 21 (from 1615 to 1627) and Victor Hugo at No. 6 (from 1832 to 1848) to name just a few.
- Do not leave Bastille out of your plan
Paris is much more than just its fancy center with its luxurious arrondissements. If one wishes to understand further this fascinating and controversial city, one needs to venture into other neighborhoods that may be a bit off the beaten track for the typical tourist. La Bastille represents an easy first step, since it has turned, over the last few years, into a hippie-style area with several opportunities for entertainment. Just a few decades ago, it used to be a wood-processing and furniture-making neighborhood, occupied by the respective merchants and workers. Today, under the general process of gentrification that has changed the face of many neighborhoods in Paris (and elsewhere), Bastille is what the locals call a “bo-bo” district (i.e., “bourgeois – bohemian”). Relatively affluent residents moved away from the center of Paris towards less developed urban areas, renovating them, but keeping at the same time a friendlier quality of life and a rather “bohemian” style. Walking down the streets of Bastille, away from the Haussmannian influence of the center, one can enjoy the simpler facades, that, yet, emanate style and elegance.
Pass by the old La Pause Café (I did not find its ambiance very interesting, but the cafe is famous especially after featuring in a movie), or Le Bistro du Peintre (which is similarly old and well-known, with an amazing art-deco interior); search for various expressions of street art in corners and nooks; spend some time people-watching; pass by the flea-market which, like any flea-market around the world, may have precious treasures hidden under piles of uninteresting paraphernalia; and do not leave before a quick visit to the Blé Sucré that is considered to be the best patisserie of the neighborhood.
- Go to an evening concert in Belleville
Once a working-class neighborhood, Belleville has turned over the past few decades into a colorful, multi-ethnic district with a relatively alternative character. Street art and large graffiti are quite dominant, while the artistic ambiance of the community is reinforced by the ghost of Edith Piaf who was born and grew up there, numerous other artists, and several features in the French and international cinema. The area has not been immune to gentrification, and its style has been influenced by the ongoing changes. Still, it remains quite unusual and, as such, it was recognized in 2016 as “one of the most unique neighborhoods in the world.”
I attended a concert of manouche (gypsy) jazz in a small brasserie (where the music was much better than the food). The jolly ambiance and the ongoing change of musical ensembles on the tiny stage of the restaurant gave the night an entirely different feel.
- Connect with initiatives like L’ Alternative Urbaine to discover some of the most authentic neighborhoods
L’ Alternative Urbaine is an association for social and occupational inclusion that uses urban walks as a pedagogical support and re-mobilization of people who are unemployed or face other precarious conditions. Joining one of their tours gives the visitor the opportunity to connect with some of the most authentic corners of Paris through the eyes of the locals – and the amateur guides can share a point of view to which we would otherwise remain oblivious.
- Ramble around Bois de Boulogne
Allow some extra time to explore Bois de Boulogne, one of the biggest parks in Europe and the second in size park in Paris (being slightly smaller than Bois de Vincennes). There is so much to do there that it is impossible to fit everything in, in just one day. Roam around the English landscape garden with the numerous lakes, or explore the Chateau de Bagatelle with its beautiful formal French gardens; visit the zoo or the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil, a complex of greenhouses holding a hundred thousand plants. Take the boat towards the cute Chalet des Iles for a coffee or tea, or walk towards the Hippodrome. Visit the Luis Vuitton Foundation with its futuristic architecture or the GoodPlanet-Domaine de Longchamp Foundation where you can watch the HUMAN documentary and TERRA exhibition. Above all, enjoy the enchanting landscape and the interaction with the joggers, dog-walkers, or painters that you will undoubtedly encounter along the way.
- Discover the most enchanting cafes in museums
Besides their exhibitions and their occasional architectural interest, museums often hide another treasure: a café-restaurant with an ambiance so magical that it can be an amazing experience by itself. Search in Paris for these bijoux which promise not to disappoint you. For example, the café-restaurant at the Jacquemart-André museum is the actual dining room of the family that built the house, and you can savor a salad, coffee, or a piece of crunchy mille-feuille under an original Tiepolo ceiling. On the other hand, at the Quai Branly museum, you will enjoy a much more modern surrounding with a breathtaking view towards the Eiffel Tower. Exploring the hidden trail of such beautiful cafes is an adventure by itself – and a most gratifying one!
- Take the train and spend one day out of Paris
Within a couple of hours distance from Paris, there are several incredibly picturesque towns, usually with a well-preserved castle worth visiting. Paris is almost like a state within a state, so venturing for a day into the countryside can offer a more holistic experience to the traveler. Either choose a destination in advance or – for some extra adventure – go to one of the main railway stations and jump on the first departing train. The train journey in France is an experience on its own, especially if one comes from a country where the network that connects all towns and cities is not as efficient or friendly. The moment you cross the outskirts of Paris, you will immediately feel the difference. It is not just the landscape which is, of course, covered with lush forests and far-reaching fertile fields, reminiscing several Impressionist paintings as if nothing has changed over the past 150 years. It is the contrast between Paris and the rest of France which is unmistakable and gives a hint about the internal complexities of the country.
As an example: during my last trip, I visited Nogent-sur-Seine, a quaint little town just one hour away from Gare de Paris-Est, nestled (as the name implies) by the banks of the Seine river. It has kept its 19th-century atmosphere intact, with its charming residences, traditional timber-framed houses, and a substantial artistic inheritance, since it has been the birthplace of Marius Ramus, Paul Dubois, Alfred Boucher, and Camille Claudel (all famous sculptors of the late 19th century). The town is also known for having inspired Gustave Flaubert for his novel Sentimental Education.
Since it was raining heavily, I spent most of my time in the Café de Bellevue (which has excellent cuisine and very reasonable prices) and in the newly-opened Camille Claudel museum which is truly inspiring. There are several other attractions (including a nuclear power plant that fumes next to the river in total contrast to the rest of the landscape!) and beautiful trails to follow into the surrounding fields – which, due to the weather, I will just have to explore another time.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou
Complement this article with more cultural trips in Italy (A Road Trip Through my Favorite Tuscan Villages), Lebanon (Hidden Treasures in the Old City of Tripoli), and Greece (A Tour to my Seven Favorite Churches in the Historical Center of Athens, Exploring Samothrace: Personal Tips and Preferences, and A Journey through the Historical Landmarks of Samothrace).
The world is crowded with temples, humble or extraordinary, where people flow together to bestow their prayers, acknowledge their fears, and ask for divine support in their dreams. Built at the convergence of meridians of higher energy and spirituality, many of these holy places also indicate political power, highlighting earthly and selfish motives; yet, all of them enclose the echo of the human heartbeat, the essence of laughter and tears, and, hence, they have been, and will forever remain, revered and sacred.
While traveling and hiking in Asia, I crossed paths with the following temples which, for some reason, left a permanent stamp in my memory. Some are landmarks – and rather touristic – others are more ascetic and secluded. And although the hidden gems might seem more appealing – or, at least, more mysterious – every place is majestic on its own, sometimes for reasons I cannot understand but can deeply feel.
- Jela Dzong, Bhutan
Jela Dzong (a fort and a monastery) dates back to the 16th c, strategically located at an altitude of 3,450m on the mountainous path between Paro and Thimphu (the two largest cities of Bhutan). Through the centuries, the travelers could pause there to pray, rest, and replenish their supplies. Like all places in the country, this monastery is also surrounded by a legend, according to which, Zhabdrung – the founder of Bhutan – being chased by the Tibetan army during the 15th c invasion and accompanied by the protective deity Mahakala, managed to escape to the mountains. At the precise location, the deity saw that Zhabdrung was safe, and, as a result, separated from him (apparently, “Je” means “separation”).
Today, Jela Dzong is rather deserted and in ruins, and is not regarded as the most famous or beautiful temple in Bhutan. I think it has never been. However, during our hike on the Druk Path trail, imitating many travelers from old times, we stopped among the wrecked walls to pray and rest. There, under an unexpectedly beautiful Buddha statue, among wafting incense and a couple of monks, we meditated at the sound of Om-Mani-Padme-Hum, and although our bodies got quickly cold on the barren ground, our hearts warmed up next to the spirits and deities that reside there for ages. Coming out of the building, escaping from the large pieces of ice melting from the roof and falling loudly at dangerous proximity to our heads, we watched the sun shining brightly, the wind flapping through the Tibetan flags, the rhododendron buds breathing open welcoming the upcoming Spring, and the sacred Himalayan peaks rising proudly above the clouds. The blessing hummed in our soul for the rest of our trip, and, I believe, it is still there, for we all shiver and tremble in inexplicable joy whenever we recall those few moments at Jela Dzong.
- Tengboche Monastery, Nepal
Nestled at an altitude of 3,867m in the Khumbu valley of Eastern Nepal, Tengboche Monastery is accessible to the numerous hikers but not to the mere tourist. Built in 1916 at the site where Lama Sangwa Dorje, a clairvoyant spiritual master, left, a few centuries ago, a footprint on a rock while meditating, it is today part of the “Sacred Sites Trail Project” of the Sagarmatha National Park (a UNESCO Heritage site). Being the only shrine on the path to Everest, it has gained tremendous sentimental value for the Sherpas and mountaineers who attempt to summit the tallest peak in the world. Even though it is still vibrant and prosperous (as indicated by its 60 monks), the Tibetan monastery has been destroyed twice: at the 1934 earthquake, and in 1989, in a fire caused by a malfunction in the electric circuits. With the support of the international community, it has been restored, and, in its chilly rooms, surrounded by famous Himalayan peaks, all Everest expeditions receive the necessary blessing with incense burning and mantra chanting.
Unavoidably, every hiker towards Everest or Everest Base Camp passes by the monastery twice, since the trail is linear and not looped. Both times, reaching the holy site is something that needs to be earned through managing steep ascends on treacherous paths. For our group, though, Providence kept an additional surprise: a snow storm of unexpected vigor and tenacity that lasted for almost two consecutive days, erased all paths, prohibited our visit to the monastery on our way up, and turned everything into hostile icy mud on the way down. My memories connected with Tengboche include a delirium of joy upon the sight of the deep fresh snow, and the taste of a juicy yak steak at the cottage next to the monastery while drying up around a heater operating with dried yak poop. Then, on our descent, frost and hostility awaited us in a lodge challenged by lack of electricity, but also hope because the hardest part was behind us, and Namche Bazaar, green slopes, and civilization were now finally close.
- Temple of Literature, Hanoi, Vietnam
Built in 1070, the Temple of Literature in Hanoi is one of the several temples in Vietnam dedicated to Confucius and scholars. It consists of five courtyards constructed in linear form, i.e., one after the other, while maintaining the traditional components of balance and serenity. In the first two, the scholars could relax and disconnect from the outer world while resting among trees and gardens. The third courtyard includes the Thien Quang well, introducing the element of water to reinforce the harmony of the place. It is only after traversing this rectangular pond that the visitor can enter into the true sanctuary of the temple: the Stelae of Doctors, the fourth courtyard with the building where Confucius and his four disciples are worshiped, and the fifth courtyard, added in 1076, with the Imperial Academy.
The Stelae of Doctors is an impressive area which includes 82 remaining steles of carved blue-stone turtles, erected to honor talent, bearing the engraved names of the 1307 graduates of 82 triennial royal exams. The Turtle is one of the four holy animals in Vietnam, a symbol of longevity and wisdom (the other three being the phoenix, the dragon, and the unicorn); touching the heads of the steles used to be an act for good luck. Although today this is forbidden as the turtles remain out of reach, the area maintains an imposing energy that enfolds the visitor and cannot be overlooked.
The Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national university, constitutes the most thrilling part of the temple. Many students lived and studied there, underlining the importance that was given to education. Emphasis was placed on the teaching of the Chinese language, literature, philosophy, and history. A series of exams led up to the royal Đình Examination (Thi Đình), during which the monarch himself posed the questions to the finalists.
Today, students take their ceremonial end-of-the-year photos in the temple. During my visit, the fourth and the fifth courtyard were buzzing with life, and lines of young Vietnamese women with, surprisingly, only a few men, posed for group photos in front of the main buildings: flower wreaths on the heads, broad smiles on the faces, and the afternoon breeze winnowing casually through the ao dai dresses.
- Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China
Hordes of tourists flood the open spaces among the various buildings, posing for photos with the Hall of Prayer of Good Harvests – the familiar round-shaped temple – in the background, squeezing at the entrances for a hasty peek inside (maybe another photo too), or yelling “hello” while standing at the center of the Circular Mound Altar to confirm the quality of the famous echo effect. Thousands of Chinese occupy the benches and corners of the vast garden area, some enjoying a calm tai chi sequence, others playing with a gymnastics’ silk ribbon, or competing over a mah-jong game. Kids chase each other, the elderly smoke heavily and gossip, and life is vibrant in this complex of temples.
Since the early 15th c, emperors – the representatives of heavenly authority on earth – have been standing in the same spots in much more seclusive ceremonies, to offer sacrifices to Heaven and pray for abundance in the harvest season, confident that the echo effect carries their words clearly to the welcoming ears of the gods.
Heaven is dominant in the royal-blue tiled roofs and the circular shapes of the constructions; Earth, represented in the square and rectangular patterns, merges with Heaven in a balanced connection and unification. The complex’s design is based on the use of sacred symbols, embodied, for instance, in the utilization of the number 9 (which represents the Emperor) and its multiples for the stairs and structure of the Circular Mound Altar, or the number of pillars in the Hall of Prayer of Good Harvests (four in the center, twelve in the middle, and twelve outside representing the four seasons, the twelve lunar months, and the twelve Chinese hours respectively). Ceremonies were held twice a year, at the solstices, and attention was paid to the accuracy of the most minute detail since even a tiny mistake was perceived as a bad omen for the months to come.
Despite the noise and the ongoing rush of people pushing and dashing around, I have found this temple one of the most peaceful and serene areas in Beijing. Maybe it is the mystic symbolism of the place that energetically conveys the feeling of life in harmony. Or, perhaps, the abundant blue that joyfully and placidly rolls on the roofs and dribbles on the ground. I have stood silently amidst the cacophony of the loud crowds, and, for a few moments, every sound faded away, and only vision remained, vibration, and a feeling of connection with Heaven through the ether that stands, as a conductive element, in between the immortal souls.
- Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan, Iran
The vestibule leading to the central chamber of the mosque was dim, sunken in gloom, and peculiarly twisted. My eyes tried to adjust, still carrying the brightness of a sunny autumn day. I followed the flow of the crowd that squeezed its way through the narrow path and was propelled into the main hall. There, under the stunning dome that emerged out of the darkness soaring with the loftiness of veritable elegance, I stood in awe and almost fell on my knees to surrender to the power of the Divine.
Sheikh Lotfollah mosque was built at the beginning of the 17th c during the reign of Shah Abbas I of the Safavid dynasty. One of the four main attractions around the Naghsh-i Jahan Square in Isfahan, it easily stands out with its eloquently decorated dome reflecting everlasting grandeur under the sunlight. It was meant to be used only by the royal court and not the public (unlike the Imam Mosque nearby, on the same square); hence, it does not have minarets, and its structure is much smaller, limited to one dome, without interior iwans or courtyards. An underground corridor (not in use today) was connecting the Ali Qapu Palace (across the square) with the mosque, ensuring that the women of the harem would be protected as much as possible from any exposure. The winding dark corridor leading to the dome chamber is an architectural device: on one side, with its L-shape, it solves the challenge created by the fact that the entrance iwan and the mihrab could not be aligned (as a result, the dome does not stand exactly behind the entrance, as can be observed from the outside); on the other hand, it reinforces the humility in the heart of the faithful, before the latter reaches a state of ascension when standing under the dome.
Words are poor to grasp the essence of this dome’s splendor. Rings of bands, ornamented with arabesque designs and decreasing in size as they move towards the center, guide the eyes of the worshiper towards Heaven. There, a peacock – a symbol of awakening, spirituality, guidance, and protection – is discovered, its head painted at the center of the homocentric circles, its long tail formed out of the beams of sunlight coming through the dome, resting elegantly on the adorn surface: a manifestation of the physical and spiritual elements in permanent union. Turquoise cable-form designs connect the low dado with the base of the dome, a link between Heaven and Earth. The asymmetric symmetries, the balance of movement and stillness, the toying of glazed and non-glazed tiles, the attention to every detail that plays its individual, subtle, yet eloquent role, the acknowledgement of perfection’s elusiveness – all, concepts repeated in the designs of the famous Iranian carpets as well – reinforce the ennoblement of the spirit and the cleansing of the human heart.
- Kirinda Rajamaha Viharaya, Sri Lanka
The humble, white stupa is located on the top of a rock overviewing the sea. At its bottom, the waves from the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean crash loudly on the flat formations of the rocky beach, in the familiar wildness of a primordial song, painted in the unfamiliar – to me – malachite colors of the Asian waters.
The temple is simple and modest. As per the myth, in the 2nd c. BC, King Kelanitissa (or Kawanthissa) was forced to sacrifice his daughter to calm the enraged waters that were flooding the island (possibly an ancient tsunami). Consequently, Princess Viharamahadevi was put on a boat and left alone at the mercy of the waves. Miraculously, the story has a happy ending, with the sea levels receding and the princess surviving, landing on the beach of Kirinda, where she got married to the local king. The temple is dedicated to her and commemorates the story of her sacrifice and survival.
We climbed several slippery, stone-carved stairs to reach the shrine, passing by a few cows feeding freely inside the holy area, and a sizable statue of a standing Buddha, recently erected, ensuring that the temple will not be missed. At the top, and after walking anti-clockwise several times around the sanctuary in prayer and meditation, I lied on the rocks, tasting the salty wind on my lips, gusts messing with my hair, my back firmly in touch with the earth, and my core open to a receiving state of gratitude. Sometimes, the energetic presence of the four elements surrounding a temple is enough for the worshiper to experience ecstasy and bliss.
We ambled down the hill, towards the beach and the small fishermen’s village. Stalls of dried fish and decorative animals made out of shells lined up on either side of the small dirt path. The sea was dominant everywhere; it seemed there was no other sound but its rumble: a song, a moan, and a howl merged into one voice. It was a moment of peace.
- Pura Desa Puseh Batuan, Bali, Indonesia
Bali, the “Island of a Thousand Puras,” is a spiritual haven, dotted with thousands of shrines, lavish or modest, sprouting in the center of every village and the entrance of any small shop or house.
Pura Desa Puseh, situated in the highly artistic village of Batuan in the Gianyar region, is neither the biggest nor the most important temple on the island. However, it was the first one I visited and, hence, its impact remained clearer and its memory much more compelling than other Balinese shrines which might be aesthetically superior. Built at the beginning of the 11th c, it belongs to the type of temples (Pura Desa) reserved for the founders of a village and the worship of Brahma and Vishnu. Centrally located, it stands as the religious and ceremonial heart of the region, with traditional dances performed twice per month to please both the gods and the increasing number of tourists.
The entrance is a split gate guarded on either side by the Dwarapala spirit: two mirroring statues representing good and evil and the balance between the two – a message that the existence of the one is impossible without the presence of the other. The gate leads into an open-air worship area with several buildings and innumerous statues. The ornamentation of all constructions, influenced by the Indians, the Dutch, and the Chinese, is breathtaking. The whole sanctuary seems to be vivid, dancing at the pace of the cosmic rhythm, protected through bulging-eyed spirits, playful and apperceptive to the joy of life. The statues impersonate ancient figures, demons, and mythological creatures, entangled with lions, elephants, lotuses, and other floral patterns in a festive confusion. Carved out of the ashy, volcanic sandstone found in the local river banks, they encompass the power of lava, the breath of water, the stability of the stone into which they dry as time passes by, and the lightness of the air enclosed in the perspiration of the material and the grace of their movement. Leaving the temple, one feels infused with comfort and elation, confident that communication with the spiritual realm has been achieved while respecting the earthly essence of our humanity.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou (except for the photos of Tengboche Monastery and the dome of Sheikh Lotfollah mosque)
Photo credits of Tengboche Monastery: © Ibrahim Al Rekhais
Photo credits of Sheikh Lotfollah dome: unknown
Author Konstantina Sakellariou
Repost from: http://www.myunusualjourneys.com/seven-temples-in-asia-to-add-in-the-bucket-list/
There is something delightfully delicious hidden at the core of every backpacking (i.e., multi-day hiking) trail. The almost monotonous repetition of steps over a few days in a row brings peace, clarity, and solace in the heart and mind – the way meditative processes always do. The stamping of the feet on the ground echoes like an intimate conversation with the Earth who turns from a mere base into a divine Story-Teller and talks in archetypal riddles. And, although at first, a hiker may feel a bit awkward – as if wearing slightly misfitting clothes – in an environment so far away from our urban awareness, gradually, the vibrational gravity of nature sets a tempo to which all beings get synchronized, creating a unity beyond what our conscious minds could ever fathom. Ultimately, every such trail is nothing less than a sacred pilgrimage: a path towards wisdom, a treasure-hunt adventure, a holy grail out of which we are offered the drink of immortality.
Rarely can a one-day or two-day hike reach such depths. It is the time spent on the path that truly unveils the magic, so, what may initially appear as a challenge is one of the most substantial advantages of the experience. The length of a trail, though, the unpaved passages, the arduous ascents, and the steep descents may be daunting for many. The potential lack of adequate amenities, especially as far as shelters and restrooms are concerned, is often discouraging and unnerving. However, there are trails of only moderate difficulty and, yet, unsurpassable beauty, available for those who would like to get a taste of such an expedition without having to train too vigorously in advance or get too uncomfortable on the way. Below, I share my experience on five favorite backpacking trails that, I believe, should be on everyone’s bucket list.
- The Great Wall of China
All travelers to Beijing have spent a few hours on the Great Wall of China. Hiking on its ramparts though for a few days in a row is an entirely different and much more fascinating experience: there is a sense of freedom – as if riding a mythical beast – and a false feeling of dominance over forces that, in reality, are too strong for our human nature. Solid and renovated at parts, crumbling and ravaged at others, the Great Wall is not merely a symbol of power: it breathes power and emanates intensity, perpetually reverberating the echo of soldiers, peasants, and horses.
Given the size of the Great Wall, the duration of such a hike is up to the discretion of the hiker. I spent six days trekking on the parts that extend only a few hours away from Beijing, and felt quite satisfied and fulfilled. A few more days would not have made a big difference; instead, they would possibly be just an unnecessary stretch.
Overnight stays on the Great Wall are forbidden, so every night we receded in one of the nearby villages, staying at small family-run guest houses which, although basic, were clean and comfortable, with proper restrooms, shower facilities, and free Wi-Fi. Compared to many other trails, this was pure luxury. As a cultural experience though, these visits to the villages would rate rather averagely. The interaction with the locals is limited due to the language barrier and the short time spent in their proximity, while I also found the lack of colors and the dominance of grey quite dull.
There is no altitude challenge on this hike, and the trail is, for the most part, very well defined. The biggest difficulty is the extremely steep inclination which often reaches up to 70%, the endless number of crude and uncomfortably high stair-steps, and the wave-like path that is almost never flat and smooth.
Spending a few days on the Great Wall guarantees several hours of absolute serenity, as one stands almost alone, humbled amidst the grandeur of the surrounding structure. These moments become even more precious when compared to the clamor and cacophony of the overpopulated touristic parts of the Wall, which, unfortunately, are unavoidable. Prepare for stunning panoramas, otherworldly sunrises, compelling sunsets, and a thriving natural landscape. And, when rising on the top of the towers stretching your eyes to embrace the vastness, you will be able to grasp to its fullest the strategic and historical importance of this enormous construction, as well as the human ego that, inevitably, has left its stamp on the stones.
- Sapa Region in Northern Vietnam
The Sa Pa region is situated in the North of Vietnam, next to the borders with China. A mountainous area with numerous villages and different ethnic tribes, Sapa is a backpacker’s heaven. The paths indolently unfold through rice fields, water streams, and bamboo forests, while the interaction with the locals is always colorful – literally and figuratively!
Sapa is a broad area, so the length of any hike is, once again, at the discretion of the hiker. I spent six days trekking from village to village, which was pleasant and satisfying.
Each night, we were hosted by a family who had turned their abode into a guest house (with respective accreditation). In these lodges, the upper-floor storerooms are usually transformed into sleeping rooms, with mattresses (placed on the floor acting as beds) and mosquito nets; the kitchens are adequately equipped with utensils, and the restrooms (which are in the yard, separate from the rest of the house, with squatting toilets and, sometimes, warm water for showers) are relatively renovated. These lodges are plain huts, comprising of wooden planks put together in a rather loose way, with big gaps in-between that allow the cold and humidity to pass through. Still, one sleeps on a decent mattress with a roof over the head, and the occasional hot water is a real luxury.
These trails are very comfortable. The only difficulty we encountered was due to the continuous rain that had turned the paths into a muddy and dangerously slippery terrain. The mud was so thick and sticky that, most of the time, we felt we were skating on the surface, while, every night we had to scrub it off our shoes before going to bed.
This trip is mainly a cultural exploration since the travelers have the opportunity to go through the areas of the Black H’Mong, the Tay, the Giay, and the Red Dao people – all with their individual clothes and jewelry, separate origins, and distinct financial sustainability. There are areas that are more barren, and others that are lush and fertile. The locals’ behavior changes depending on the productivity of the land: sometimes they are silent and remote, other times, smiling and communicative. One cannot but admire the colorful presence of the women who, though quiet, are resilient and hard-working, having an impact on the economy of the area and the cultural experience of the trekkers.
- The Druk Path (the Path of the Thunder Dragon) in Bhutan
The Druk Path follows the footsteps of an ancient trading route that connects the two largest cities and valleys of Bhutan: Paro and Thimphu. Hiking along mountain ridges, praying in old monasteries, fishing in mystical lakes, and conversing with the forest deities are all included in this adventure that is destined to enchant every visitor, luring him on the same path again and again.
It takes six days to complete the trail, walking at a moderate pace that allows the hiker to reach each camp in the mid-afternoon hours.
This trip is a pure backpacking experience, which means that one sleeps in tents, and nature serves as a restroom (though at the camps we had our portable toilets as well). Showers are unavailable, warm water is prepared only for morning ablutions, and proper sleeping gear is necessary as the nights on the mountains are quite cold.
In general, this path does not include very steep ascents or descents. Still, as it stretches along the ridges, it reaches an altitude of around 4,000 m., which is not to be taken lightly. A good physical preparation in advance, a slow and steady pace, and consumption of plenty of water are necessary to avoid the frustration and dizziness of mild altitude sickness.
There is something extraordinary about Bhutan which is hard to define in words. It may be the myth about its gross domestic happiness, its unspoiled nature, the serenity along the paths, the subtle spirituality that almost urges the traveler to hum “Om Mani Padme Hum” at the tempo of the hiking pace, or the small number of visitors that makes everyone feel like an explorer discovering untouched territory. Do not postpone your traveling plans for too long: although still pristine and exclusive, Bhutan is not immune to change and, despite its government’s efforts, it may soon evolve into a touristic destination.
- Summiting Mt. Toubkal in Morocco
Atlas Mountain is North Africa’s greatest mountain range and Mt. Toubkal its tallest peak with an altitude of 4,165 m. (the tallest in Northern Africa and the Arab World). The path that we followed started from Aguersioual (a short drive from Marrakesh), and passed through traditional Berber villages, waterfalls, the Imlil valley and village, shrines, and gorges, before zig-zagging up towards the summit.
If one aims only at summitting Mt. Toubkal, this can be achieved in just two days. Otherwise, hiking the numerous trails of the Atlas Mountains can take much longer and depends on each hiker’s preferences. Our expedition lasted for four days, which, including the summiting accomplishment, was more than enough for me.
Dining room in a lodge in a Berber village
While on the trails of the Atlas Mountains, we stayed at guest houses in the villages and they were all clean and comfortable with shower facilities and warm water. On the night before the summit day, though, everyone must stay at the Toubkal refuge where rooms and dining tables are shared with all guests in communal harmony, with no separation between men and women. There is a friendly ambiance of comradeship in such lodges that surpasses the mild discomfort, and, in my memory, it represents one of the best moments on the trip.
This is not just a trail that reaches an altitude of 4,165 m; it is a trail with a summit day, which translates into a very early start in the middle of the night, a vigorous push to the summit, and then a protracted descent that stretches beyond the mountain lodge all the way down to Imlil. Summit days are always very long and tiring and, admittedly, they are not my favorite – despite the motivation of a tangible goal and the satisfaction of conquering a mountain peak. Additionally, the path during the summit day is covered in snow, and frequently one has to wear crampons. The rest of the trail though is of moderate difficulty and very manageable by anyone in decently good physical condition.
Besides the obvious advantage of ticking an important summit off one’s bucket list, this is a cultural adventure. The Berber villages are wild and untamed: pockets of rich history that have been influencing the broader region for centuries. Connecting with the land, the myths and prejudices, the financial challenges, and the potential opportunities over a glass of Moroccan tea or a table with warm bread, olives, and tajine is rewarding on its own.
- The Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru
Several Inca trails lead to Machu Picchu; however, the Classic one that starts at the 82nd km (or the 88th km) from Cuzco is among the most popular. It passes through cloud forests, dense jungle, old Inca settlements, and small farmhouses, while it is populated with many llamas, deer, rare bird species, sacred snakes, peaceful Spectacled bears (which unfortunately I did not see, as they are, indeed, elusive), spirits, and ghosts.
This is a 4-day trail which, in the beginning, ascends towards an altitude of about 4,000 m, and, on the last day, descends steeply towards Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes (the Machu Picchu village). Once at Machu Picchu, many buses connect the archaeological site with the small town, however, on the day that we arrived (which was a national holiday) the queues were so long that, despite the frequency of the itineraries, it seemed impossible to take any ride. We finally hiked down to the village cutting through the slopes on a well-defined path that takes around one hour to descend.
We camped all the way to Machu Picchu: three amazing nights under the stars, the milky way, and the Crux, overviewing the valleys, talking about spirits and eerie presences, influenced by the energy of the path. There are some, relatively decent, restrooms along the way but we also had private portable toilets at our camps.
On the second day, the path ascends towards Warmi Wañusqa, or “Dead Woman’s Pass” (a pass that resembles the shape of a supine woman), at an altitude of 4,200 m. This is the toughest day, as there is a significant gain in altitude that may cause temporary dizziness. However, as soon as one traverses the pass, the trail descends and, with the most difficult part behind, the hiker can enjoy the grandeur of the surrounding landscape.
This trail has been officially labeled as a pilgrimage since this had been its purpose for hundreds of years. Although the Sun Gate and Machu Picchu are the desired destinations – admittedly, of great importance – for me all the treasures were hidden along the path. Visiting the sites without stepping on the footsteps of the Incas seemed almost inconsequential. There are unspeakable beauty and energy on this land – something elusive and yet strong; an intangible presence that transcends time and space, building bridges of knowledge and transformation that seem to go beyond the boundaries of our rational understanding. Experiencing it first hand is probably the ultimate objective – the real destination – of this adventure.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou
About Konstantina Sakellariou
Despite the raw charm of every hiking trail or any wavy sea road, there is something intoxicating about exploring a city. It could be the diversity of the individual creations quilted into colorful patchworks that cover, protect, and enhance the history of mankind; the synchronized drumming of countless steps thudding on the pavements, bonding with the pace of a beating heart; or just the anonymity, the numerous choices on entertainment, the effortless connectivity with the rest of the world – even a city’s noise and ruthlessness.
It is easy to list the major metropolises of the world that are already part of every traveler’s bucket list. However, here are seven, more alternative towns and cities one should visit in a lifetime – and, perhaps, even live there for a while, hoping to connect with the psyche of the community and the unique tapestry of the past, present, and future.
- Cuzco, Peru
Cuzco was for almost four centuries the capital of the Inca empire (12thc. – 16th c. CE). Nowadays, it has been officially declared the Historical Capital of Peru and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nestled in the mountains, at an altitude of 3400m., it leaves every visitor literally breathless upon arrival.
The Inca footprints are not very visible in the city. Coricancha, the most important temple of the Incas – the naval point of their empire, dedicated to the Sun, covered, once upon a time, in sheets of solid gold, and hosting for centuries the mummies of the deceased emperors – lies today in ruins, most of them covered by the Christian church the conquistadores built on the same site using the rocks of the pagan shrine. One can better admire the eminent civilization by visiting the site of Sakaywaman, just a few kilometers outside the town, reading in parallel the detailed descriptions regarding the Inca lives and achievements in the pages of “The Royal Commentaries of the Inca” by Garcilaso Inca de la Vega, a veritable royal descendent.
The historical center of the town bears a strong Spanish influence, evident in the central Plaza des Armas (a regular square name in every Peruvian city), the cathedral, and the other buildings crammed on either side of the narrow streets. Moon around, absorbing the vibrant colors of the city; observe the numerous ladies who pose for photos in their local outfits next to their llamas in exchange for a few coins; fumble through piles of traditional artefacts in search for something that feels, even faintly, as part of the lost Inca treasure; or leaf through relevant books in the few bookstores. Visiting the various cafes and restaurants is a treat on its own, given the artistic creativity and ingenuity each place exhibits – not to mention the flavorful, mouth-watering dishes of the Peruvian cuisine.
In the evening, many cafes or small clubs host live bands with traditional music, dancing, and singing, while one can indulge in a few pisco sours. And, if the visitor walks past the mains square on a clear night, she can observe the illuminated statue of Christ on the nearby hill: a white figure floating in the darkness with hands reaching out towards the town, offering a permanent divine blessing to a sacred city and humanity.
- Thimphu, Bhutan
Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, is a small city of fewer than 100,000 people. It lies peacefully within the pleats of the valley of the Wang Chuu River, at an elevation of 2250 – 2650m, which makes it the third highest capital in the world by altitude. Despite being the political and administrative center of the country, Thimphu relies on Paro, the second-in-size town in Bhutan, some 50 km away, for an international airport.
The city is not ancient, and, hence, does not offer renowned palaces or temples one cannot enjoy in other Buddhist countries. Still, it is a precious jewel, a place with an ambiance so unique and peaceful, the visitor has trouble parting with. Just walk in its streets which are barely big enough to handle two lanes of cars and the increasing traffic; muse upon the colorful buildings and the animals or phalluses painted on the walls for protection; exchange smiles and friendly handshakes with the locals; follow the orange wakes of the passing priests; and enjoy the mountainous air and the feeling that Providence gave you an opportunity to step back at a time when everything was pure, simple, and noble.
- Isfahan, Iran
“Esfahān nesf-e- jahān ast”: Isfahan is half of the world.
It only takes a few steps in the city for the visitor to understand that this is not just a flattering Persian proverb. Isfahan’s beauty, energy, and ambiance are sublime, and it really feels as if a large part of the world has been embroidered in the flying carpet the city represents.
Twice a capital in the long history of Persia, Isfahan witnessed the rise and fall of several empires and eras, and felt the influence of the Achaemenid Empire with Cyrus the Great, the Parthians, the Sassanids, and the Seljuqs, to name just a few. The city reached its peak in the 16th and 17th c. CE with Shah Abbas the Great, and, besides its economic importance, it is known for its significant role in Iran’s culture, as expressed through its music, fine arts, architecture and engineering. Over the centuries, Isfahan has been a testament to Persia’s embracing of diversity, welcoming in its neighborhoods large communities of Armenians and Jews (according to the 10th c. Persian historian Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamedani, the latter found that Isfahan’s soil and water were of a quality similar to that of the Holy City of Jerusalem).
Stroll around the Naqsh-e Jahan Square where the sophisticated elegance of Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque outweighs by far in my eyes the imposing presence of Imam Mosque; bargain with the small shop owners in the bazaar over a minakari pot; ready yourself for protracted negotiations and several cups of tea if you are interested in purchasing an Iranian carpet; and embrace the fragments from Heaven that have fallen around in various shapes and designs of bright blue: the famous blue of Isfahan. In the evening, do not neglect to cross the Khaju Bridge, where the lights toy with the shadows of the playful Iranian youth, and songs caress the old walls in reminiscence of love and passion. And, if you are invited by the friendly locals who picnic in the parks to share a cup of tea and a piece of barbari bread with tomatoes, cucumbers, and maast-o khiar, thank your good stars for offering you a taste of how beautiful life can be.
- Fez, Morocco
Few cities have aged so elegantly and managed to preserve their authentic colors in the wrinkles of their alleys, like the old medina of Fez. The city, whose importance has been effervescing for centuries in the cauldron of history stewing with so many spices that it is impossible to summarize the turns and twists in just a few lines, now stands as a rich heritage site, sustaining its traditions through the several guilds that operate almost untouched by time.
The medieval capital of Morocco, the so-called “Mecca of the West” and “Athens of Africa,” is the largest car-free urban zone in the world. Once the visitor crosses through one of the large portals and, leaving behind the more sophisticated Jewish neighborhood, finds herself within the protective encircling of the old walls, a world from the past unfolds as if the centuries have stalled in the crossroads. The ancient city includes numerous quarters that are characterized by a prominent trade or guild: the vegetable market with coffins full of aromatic and colorful produce; the meat market with camels’ heads and hoofs dangling from hooks at face level with the passersby; the traditional leather tanning factory run by the same families generation after generation, still using pigeon poop for the softening of the leather, red poppies, indigo, saffron, and green mint for the coloring; the knife-sharpeners with their manually operated wheels; old apothecaries selling more herbs than modern medicine, argan oil, soaps, scrubbing creams, and essential oils presented in those old glass bottles that were used decades ago in the pharmacies of the West; and textile shops where, on traditional looms, strings from the cactus leaves are woven into what is known as the “Moroccan silk.” Beware: entering any store is a time-demanding experience since you will unavoidably go through an educational tour regarding the goods offered and their origin, before having to face the lengthy selling process from which it is extremely tough to get out intact.
Within the town’s labyrinth of alleys, occasionally so narrow that one person can barely go through or, other times, wide enough to allow a couple of mules and a handcart to squeeze through, one can indulge in traditional Moroccan restaurants (I have eaten the best pastilla there, and the tastiest Moroccan-style lamb stew with plums). Finally, the University of Al-Qarawiyyin, declared by UNESCO and the World Guinness Records as the oldest existing, continually operating university in the world, being also the first educational institution to award a degree, stands as a proud testament and reminder of the rich religious and scholarly heritage of the city.
My last memory of Fez is on the terrace of a renovated riad in the evening: the smell of jasmine oil emanating from my still warm skin after a Moroccan hammam, a thin rain tiptoeing on the glass roofing of the courtyard, and the canvas of the old medina unfolding with dots of light interspersed in the dusk. I almost cried with the beauty of the moment, and just when I thought my heart could not take any more, the call for prayer rose and echoed in the dome of the sky, as if coming from the most profound depths of the soul of the earth.
- Ubud, Bali (Indonesia)
I do not belong to the tribe that has fallen in love with Bali. Ubud, however, is a bijou of serenity, and a visitor can only be blessed there with the fortunate strokes of serendipity. The healing power of the town starts with its name, which is based on the Balinese word “ubad” meaning “medicine.” The various medicinal herbs of the region are not only available to the few initiates but, today, are included in the different recipes of fresh juices and salads, served in picturesque cafes and restaurants next to statues of happy Buddhas, ponds of peace, and lotus buds.
Happiness rolls joyfully through the surrounding rice fields and finds its way into the Tek Tok dance performances, the canvases of the displayed paintings, the mischievous games of the monkeys in the sacred Monkey Forest, the Balinese food, the hands of the masseuses, and the smiles of the people who, despite the increased tourist waves, still do not speak enough good English. The few roads are protected under the curves of the penjors, and one should pay attention not to step on the countless canang saris that dot the streets, the entrances of shops, and the doorsteps of all houses. There is a lot of love spread out with abundance, like butter and honey on a toasted slice of home-baked bread, and it is shielded from the evil spirits by long lists of customs and traditions, incantations and prejudices, songs, gods, statues, and shrines that decorate the prime spot of every house, garden, or store.
Do visit the temples, the museums, the art galleries, the cafes, and the gardens. Stand next to elaborately carved, dancing statues; pose among the lotuses; explore each day using all five senses to the maximum. Laugh at the dogs that invariably start barking in the middle of the night as if sounding the alarm for an upcoming Demon attack. Look straight into the moon, and wait for the moon to smile back. Above all, do not forget to fall in love with life.
- Chania, Greece
Chania is the second-in-size city of the Greek island of Crete and, to me, the most scenic and charming town in the area. Inhabited since the Neolithic period, it was already a major hub of the Minoan civilization (3650 – 1400 BCE), and remained prominent throughout the tides and ebbs of time: over the Classical era of the Greek Civilization, the Byzantine epoch, the period of the Venetian dominance, the Ottoman Empire, and the most challenges pages of the history of modern Greece.
Every passerby – be he a conqueror or just a visitor – did not just leave a footprint. On the contrary, they all got incorporated into the essence of the city: the long frothy lace of the seashore; the Venetian-style harbor; the lush slopes and fields; the narrow alleys of the old town; the Omalos plateau; the ghosts, legends, and tales. They wore with pride the black sariki on the head, held tightly a musket, ready to fire in celebration or defense, and were finally reborn through the womb of the city – a womb that has been fertile for millennia, giving birth to prosperity, knowledge, education, and some of the most prominent men and women in history.
I have visited Chania several times, but my most important memories come from my childhood when I spent a full year there. It was the time the color of the sea left a permanent stamp in my gaze, and the taste of the land still ferments inside, allowing me to carry something of magnificence with me forever.
- Sapa, Vietnam
When I arrived at Sapa town in Northern Vietnam, after a fun – though a bit uncomfortable – night on the train from Hanoi, I found rain, clouds, and the Black Hmong women wrapped in their colorful outfits, stalking us to sell some of their artefacts. When I left, the town was dipped into a fog so thick that we almost had to grope our way through the streets (missing our hotel a couple of times due to lack of visibility). Hence, I did not see the beautiful lake next to which the town seems to rest, and was not able to take any photos of my own. Despite the circumstances, Sapa was one of those places that managed to get under my skin and cast spells that caught me unawares.
The town is perched among the mountains of what is known as the “Tonkinese Alps,” next to the Chinese borders, and spreads out an arras of rugged, authentic beauty. The valley was originally inhabited by people we know nothing about who disappeared leaving numerous petroglyphs that form some kind of 15c. CE cadaster. Today’s inhabitants (mainly the Hmong and Dao), came later from the Chinese highlands.
The few streets are crowded with minibusses struggling to squeeze through the limited space, and representatives of the Black Hmong, Dao, Giay, and Tay ethnic groups, all with their district dress code, their joyful colors, and their tireless efforts to sell – admittedly charming – artefacts to the tourists. Shops with hiking gear, silversmiths, a vegetable market, and welcoming cafes and restaurants offering Vietnamese culinary delights, warm wine, a fireplace, and, unexpectedly frequently, Italian pizza and pasta, pretty much complete the picture. It might not seem much to an outsider. Yet, it is a small diamond, a bit rough around the edges, shining through the slippery mud of the surrounding rice fields and mountains.
All photos (except the port of Chania, the ones of Sapa, and the map): © Konstantina Sakellariou
(Photo credits for the photo of Chania port, Sapa, map: unknown)
Original Post: http://www.myunusualjourneys.com/seven-cities-to-fall-in-love-with/
About Konstantina Sakellariou