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The phone call from my brother came in December. "We've rented a house for a week in July." Oh, how nice. "On Lundy." I tried not to snort, and somehow managed to keep my composure. "It sleeps five, so would you come to make up the numbers?" Umm...I think I'm busy that particular week, yes very busy, such a shame. "Well, if you change your mind..."
Lundy, that little speck of land in the Bristol Channel, famous for being part of the shipping forecast and home to lots of puffins. Why would I want to spend a week there? I mean, don't get me wrong, the idea of being marooned on a small island in the middle of nowhere does appeal, but given the choice I'd opt for an island a bit further away, perhaps somewhere a little warmer. Palm trees, white sand, that sort of thing. And anyway, why would I want to be marooned on a small island with my family? My friend joked that if I did go, one or more family members would be coming off the island in body bags. No, this didn't sound like a holiday for me.
I'd been to Lundy twice before, on day trips, and they'd been enjoyable days. I was 12 years old at the time, so the whole boat trip thing was an adventure, and it really was quite pleasant to see a seal in the wild for the first time, albeit from a distance through cheap binoculars from M&S. The first day trip was sunny, and we'd walked the length of the island, seen the lighthouses, bought postcards, spotted seals, had ice cream. The second trip a year later was less successful, as it was foggy, we saw practically nothing at all and returned cold, wet and miserable. That too had been July. So, having exhausted all the sights in a few hours ashore, what on earth would I find to do for a whole week?
But they're persistent, my family, and by June I'd been worn down, bludgeoned into saying yes, although far from convinced that this was a good idea. First of all, I had to get there, not easy for someone with no car living in the north east. National Express got me as far as Milton Keynes before breaking down, and when finally a replacement bus did take me to London, I was left with a mad dash to catch the last train from Waterloo to my brother's house in Surrey. Day two was a cross country drive in a westerly direction in the company of someone whose taste in music is firmly stuck in novelty records of the 80s. It was a long journey, and I wasn't in the best of moods when I met up with my other brother that evening in Ilfracombe, having spent two hours in a traffic jam between Stonehenge and a pig farm with Modern Talking as the soundtrack.
After a quick trip to the supermarket for provisions, we had an hour or so to walk around Ilfracombe in the rain. I climbed to the top of a hill, from where Lundy should have been clearly visible, lying only 20 or so miles off the coast. Where Lundy should have been, there was just mist.
Loading the bags onto the ship is the first sign that you're heading off to a different era. Bags are placed in fishing nets, then hoisted up by a crane and a man with a beard and a yellow sou'wester. Without much ceremony, we doggy-paddled our way out of Ilfracombe harbour, a few hardy holidaymakers waving us off from underneath umbrellas. An hour and a half later, there was a commotion on board. People were leaning and pointing, binoculars appeared, heads nodded. Couldn't be sure, but was that a flashing light up ahead? A patch of grey on the horizon began to look a little more solid, like an island almost. Indeed, it was a confirmed sighting. Lundy was out there still...but not really getting much closer.
Gradually, the island loomed larger and larger, and it became just about possible to make out buildings. First a lighthouse, then a church, then a white manor house in a valley. Then people, lots of them, all waiting in a queue in the rain on the jetty. How very British. Disembarking, we passed all the day-trippers and strangely I couldn't help feeling just a little bit smug. You're just here for the day, I'm here to stay, so there. Never mind that it had taken me three whole days to get here...getting to Iraq had actually been quicker!
Luggage is loaded onto the back of the island's one vehicle to be driven up the hill, but humans are made to walk. It may only be a small island, but Lundy can certainly do hills very well, and this one is not for the unfit. Somewhat out of breath, we reached the village and made our way to the accommodation office. "No need for keys," said the cheery volunteer at the desk, "the door'll be open." And it was. We could have been anybody as we just sauntered through the front door of Government House. Well, no, I suppose it was fairly safe to assume we were the ones who had booked it, as only people who were staying on the island were allowed to board the ship, but it still felt very relaxed.
Government House is one of a handful of properties on Lundy rented out by Landmark Trust as self-catering accommodation, each one unusual and quirky in some way. You can opt to stay in the 13th century castle, or the Old Light, or the former schoolhouse. There's even a property at the far end of the island with no electricity and no other buildings around to spoil the views. Ours was one of the newer properties, having been constructed using odds and ends from other ruined houses on the island, supposedly for the governor to live in, but he chose to live elsewhere for some reason. My brothers had chosen wisely though, as the house had a semi-private garden in a sheltered position, sea views from every room, and enough bedrooms not to have to put up with any sibling snoring competitions. The best thing was perhaps the fact that it was just a hop, skip and a jump from the Marisco Tavern, the heart and soul of island life.
That first night, we headed over to the tavern for a meal, and quickly discovered that it's not just a pub. It may be small, but it's a library, a games room, a cafe, an information centre, a restaurant, a bar and a work of art. The walls and ceilings are covered in flags and lifebelts and other nautical bits and pieces, all salvaged from ships wrecked on Lundy's rocks. A hearty portion of scampi and chips arrived, and once that had been washed down by a pint or two of Old Light bitter (Lundy's own, although no longer brewed on the island), I was beginning to forget that I wasn't supposed to be enjoying myself. Maybe Lundy wouldn't be so bad.
I read somewhere that Lundy attracts three types of visitor. First there are the divers, attracted by the clear, pristine waters of the island's marine park. Then there are the twitchers, here to stare through binoculars for hours on end, retiring to the pub at night to compare notes on kittiwakes, puffins and lesser-spotted winged things. The third type are the terminally lazy, those who come to do nothing at all. Now, here's where I take issue with that. I'm no diver, and certainly have no real interest in watching birds, but I don't think any of us were particularly lazy on Lundy. It may only be three and a half miles from end to end, but Lundy packs in a lot of paths and monuments to explore. I ought to mention that I am no stranger to walking, as I walk to work every day in Durham, a round-trip of just under eight miles, so I assumed I'd be walking to the northern tip of Lundy with ease every day. It can be done, if you stick to the main path down the centre of the island, but it is so easy to be distracted, to follow a hidden path and end up scrambling down a cliff face to get to a secret beach. You can spend days walking on Lundy and not use the same path twice, so it often feels like a much bigger island.
During the week, three day trips from the mainland were scheduled, so on our first day, we decided to try and fit in all the "sights" while the island was fairly empty, leaving the hidden paths as our plan to escape the crowds. Our first stop was St Helena's Church, which seems enormous considering the size of the community. Doors are always open, although services are rare as the vicar lives on the mainland and hardly ever visits. Judging by the visitor book, not many tourists do either, unless they are escaping the rain or recovering from seasickness. Then it was on to the Old Light, Lundy's most iconic building. Slap bang in the middle of the island on its highest point, this handsome stone lighthouse was built in 1820, a major achievement at the time. However, the architect hadn't bargained for Lundy weather, and the life-saving light at the top was often shrouded in mist, proving ineffective and invisible to the ships it was supposed to guide. No longer a working lighthouse, the cottage next door is now a holiday let, while the tower is open to be climbed. At the top of a lighthouse, what do you expect to find? Why, that's right...deckchairs! It's certainly a fantastic view, the whole island spread out beneath you, with Devon and South Wales visible on a clear day.
Down below, in the island's cemetery, a cluster of Celtic crosses commemorate former islanders and one or two victims of shipwrecks, while four odd-shaped stones in a corner remain a mystery. Thought to date back to the 5th century, nobody really knows if these are gravestones or not, and not even the expert archaeologists are sure what the Latin inscriptions mean.
Just beyond the lighthouse compound, a path leads you to some steps which seem to disappear down an impossibly steep cliff, but don't be put off. Keep going, down and down, ignoring the screaming birds swooping above your head. You turn a corner, and suddenly there is a house right at the bottom. Roofless now, this once housed a family of thirteen, employed to man the Battery, a stone hut even further down the cliff with a pair of cannons which were fired every ten minutes through the night, taking over from the Old Light in bad weather. The cliffs on either side are nesting sites for seabirds, so this is a prime location for birdwatchers, but even if you're not into birds, the climb down is definitely worth it for the views and the sense of remoteness. This even feels remote from the village, and the family that once lived here spend months at a time without venturing up to the village, not so hard to believe when you're puffing your way back up the cliff.
It's on this western side that the cliffs are the most dramatic and wild, buffeted by Atlantic winds and waves all year round. Further north, look out for the Devil's Slide, a popular cliff with climbers which lives up to its name, looking similar to an overgrown slide dropping steeply into a ferocious sea. Here, I first spotted the island's famous St Kilda soay sheep, all shaggy and brown, and by the looks of it, closet thrill-seekers, as they like to graze on the most unlikely bits of grass in impossible locations on the cliff face. There are plenty of goats around too, and I always thought it was easy to tell my sheep from my goats, but Lundy challenged that.
Another well-hidden set of steps leads you over a small hill and down to the North Light, a dramatically located lighthouse built in 1897 to replace the Old Light. Some of the more energetic day-trippers might make it here, but for the most part this is a quiet and remote corner of the island, perfect for sunbathing (yes, we did have some sun...). Don't let the steps put you off, or the Keep Out, Private Property signs...the lighthouse is not manned any more, operated remotely from the mainland, so you can wander round the outside and even peek in a window if you're so inclined. More exciting is the little tramway leading to nowhere. This used to be the way goods were brought to the lighthouse, hauled up a crack in the cliffs then pulled along in a trolley.
Steps down to the water's edge are still accessible today, but are not for the faint-hearted. This is not somewhere you want to trip up, as Lundy is an island without a single handrail or fence or warning sign, and I rather like that...it forces you to think for yourself, make up your own mind and take responsibility for your own risk. I ignored my own logic and followed the steps down to a stone platform, sitting for a while to take in the surroundings. The Atlantic meets the Bristol Channel at this very point, and you can see the waters merging, the two currents making white-crested waves far out to sea. You can even see how the weather changes too, and many days there was a visible line where the clouds ended and the sunshine began, usually splitting the island in two. I spent a morning sitting in the sunshine reading a book on the sheltered east coast, while my brothers had rain and mist on the west.
I got the feeling I was being watched. A lobster fisherman in a small boat was bobbing up and down over by the lighthouse, but it wasn't him. No, something else was watching me, I was sure. Then a head appeared amidst the waves, whiskers twitching. We regarded each other with surprise for a minute or so, before my new friend the grey seal disappeared with the splash of a flipper. Not for long, though, as he reappeared a bit closer, eyes trained on me. His mate came splashing over to see what the fuss was about, then another. Three almost dog-like heads bobbing up and down, as fascinated with me as I was with them. I'm not a wildlife fanatic by any means, but it was impossible not to be amazed by this.
On day-tripper days, it became almost traditional to run down to the little flagpole under our house, mug of coffee in hand, to watch the ship come in, the passengers following each other like sheep, placing bets on how long it would take before someone deviated from the road and clambered up the hillside through our garden. Once one starts, others follow, and soon you've got a stampede of tourists who suddenly find themselves in the middle of your al fresco breakfast. Some apologize, some ask for directions, some just look sheepish and head back the way they came. We amused ourselves by shouting things like "and another one, Andrew, get the shotgun!", but as we were quick to learn, there is no private property on Lundy, visitors are free to wander almost anywhere they like.
It sounds silly, but it really did feel like an invasion of sorts, our quiet island overrun with the masses, shouting at each other and sitting on every available bench. The M.S. Oldenburg only carries a couple of hundred of passengers, but on a small island you're soon outnumbered. Luckily, it is very easy to escape, as most visitors end up recovering from the climb up from the jetty by writing postcards in the tavern, and few stray further than the Old Light. The whole east coast and its sheltered coves reached by hidden paths is generally a good bet for some solitude, only occasionally coming across other "residents" who've had the same idea. My favourite area was below the Quarterwall Cottages, four houses where workers at the nearby quarry once lived, now overgrown ruins. A path leads alongside a small duckpond down to several inaccessible coves where seals howl like dogs as they bask on the rocks. One cove you can access is Quarry Beach, although to reach it, you have to follow a very rough and steep path through nettles, negotiate a ladder and then haul yourself down a rock with the aid of a rope. Quite an adventure just to dip your toes in the sea.
Evenings on Lundy began to fall into a pattern. First we'd stand by the flagpole and watch the M.S Oldenburg disappear on the horizon, again, feeling a little bit smug that we were left behind. Then it'd be over to the pub for a few drinks and something to eat, stumbling back at 11 for a game of cards, often finishing our game by torchlight, caught out by the electricity going off. Electricity is in short supply on Lundy, so no televisions, no music systems, no games consoles...you make your own entertainment, until the generator is switched off every night around midnight. It must be one of the few places in England where you can still experience true darkness, only a few lights twinkling in the distance if it's clear enough, and the occasional flash from a lighthouse, otherwise there's nothing to interrupt your view of the stars.
I was surprisingly sad to leave Lundy at the end of the week. I arrived there thinking I'd already seen it all, but left having realised that there's still more to do. I haven't yet snorkelled with the seals, I haven't yet climbed Old Light at night, I haven't yet got a decent photograph of one of the elusive miniature Sika deer, I haven't yet experienced Lundy in winter, arriving by helicopter, and more importantly, I haven't yet spotted the famous bird that gives Lundy it's name, the puffin (Lund-y in old Norse means Puffin Island). I suppose those are good enough reasons to return one day.
The M.S. Oldenburg sails a few times each week from either Bideford or Ilfracombe, depending on tides. The trip takes around 2 and a half hours, and on a clear day, the views along the North Devon coast are spectacular. Day-trippers usually get four or five hours ashore, enough time to see quite a bit of the island, but tide times mean some trips are much longer than others. A day return is currently £33.50, so not the cheapest day out but certainly worth every penny. Those staying on the island have special sailings from Ilfracombe on Saturdays costing a little more (you're paying for your luggage to be transported from the jetty to your accommodation), and in winter, the only way to reach Lundy is by helicopter from Hartland Point.
To stay on the island, there are 20 self-catering properties owned by Landmark Trust and bookable through their website. Properties are not cheap, especially in summer, and the most popular houses are booked up well in advance by regular visitors. There's also a campsite in the village, and hostel accommodation is available in The Barn. Accommodation details and other brochures about the island can be ordered from the Lundy website at www.lundyisland.co.uk .
Facilities-wise, don't expect all the mod cons, as that isn't what a trip to Lundy is all about. While most properties have electricity, you're not encouraged to bring too many electrical items with you...leave mobile chargers behind, as there's very little network coverage anyway. The Lundy shop is the only place to buy provisions on the island, and its the sort of place where you can spend literally minutes perusing the shelf, as half the store is given over to souvenirs like postcards, t-shirts and Lundy's very own postage stamps. Certain food items can be ordered in advance, and it's probably worth doing a shop at Tesco in Ilfracombe before boarding the ship, unless you want to eat in the pub for every meal. Prices are a little higher than the mainland, which is understandable as everything has to be brought in by ship. You can open up a tab at the shop, although be warned... my brothers suffered from island mentality almost from arrival, and would head to the shop every single day, buying supplies whether we needed anything or not, so our bill was quite alarming by the end of the week!
The Marisco Tavern serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee and cake, and stays open until 11pm every night. A shame they're so strict about closing time on such a remote island, but I suppose they have to get everyone out before darkness is switched on. Meals are fairly ordinary pub food, nothing special and not cheap, but huge portions.
Prepare for all sorts of weather. We had sizzling temperatures and hot sun, followed by cold winds and mist, with everything else in between, often all on the same day. There's something about the air on Lundy which encourages sunburn, and nearly everyone on the island had bright red faces at some point. You'll need both sun cream and waterproofs. Oh, and seasickness tablets for the crossing, as it can be surprisingly rough even on the brightest of days.
Had it not been a brand new flatscreen television, I would have thrown a cushion at it. Or perhaps something a little heavier. A mug of coffee maybe. Or a rock.
Top Gear. Driving sports cars through Iraq on the BBC on Boxing Day. It got me so mad. There they were, wearing bullet proof vests and cowering under helmets that looked as if they were leftover props from Allo Allo, thrilling audiences with tales of danger. Would they be shot at by a terrorist around the next corner? Would they be blown up by a roadside bomb? How long would it be before one of the idiotic trio would be kidnapped or beheaded? Would filling the car doors with sand make them bullet proof? After all, they were in Iraq, which, as Jeremy Clarkson felt he needed to remind us every few seconds, is one of the MOST DANGEROUS COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD!
It had me spitting feathers. It had me clenching my fist. It got me so worked up that here I am, barely a week later, writing a review on dooyoo.
You see, the programme gave the impression that they were entering a warzone, somewhere so perilous that it would be a miracle if any of them got out alive. But this was not Baghdad, or Mosul, or Basra. This was filmed in Erbil, the main city in the almost-breakaway region of Iraqi Kurdistan, a place where Americans are more likely to be greeted by handshakes and offers of tea than a shower of bullets. In April, I spent two weeks backpacking through Iraqi Kurdistan, and spent several days in Erbil, so was quite keen for my family to watch Top Gear in the hope that it might go some way to convince them that it really wasn't the stupid idea theytold me it had been. Unfortunately, it took Jeremy, Richard and James a good 15 minutes of the programme before they mentioned Kurdistan and removed their costumes, declaring it to be beautiful and safe, by which time Erbil had been left far behind. It was almost like an afterthought, and my mum did not pick up on it at all, still utterly convinced that Iraqi Kurdistan is a hostile place in which to backpack.
Time to try and put things right.
Erbil (or Arbil, or Irbil) is the largest Kurdish city in Iraq, and goes by the name Hewler (or Hawler or Hawlar...who cares about spelling, really?!) in Kurdish. You won't see many Iraqi flags, if any. No Iraqi soldiers either, and the only US soldiers you're likely to see are in Erbil on r&r. Instead, you'll see the red, white and green stripes of the Kurdistan flag with a big yellow sun in the centre, fluttering above every building, lining every street, appearing in windows, on cars, even on carpets in the bazaar. Kurdish songs blast out from tea shops where customers in traditional Kurdish baggy trousers chat in Kurdish, not Arabic. In fact, you're hard pressed to find any evidence you're actually in Iraq, other than the moneychangers with their makeshift tables in the streets and their mountains of Iraqi Dinars waiting to be exchanged for a few dollars.
Top Gear tried its best to find the most derelict corner of the city to film, all broken doors, piles of rubble, and barbed wire, but really, Erbil isn't like that. They somehow managed to miss the Citadel, quite a feat as it stands on a mound in the middle of the city, visible from nearly everywhere. At the entrance, you'll be greeted by Mubarek Bin Ahmad Sharafaddin, also known as Ibn al-Mustawfi, a famous Kurdish historian reading a historical tome on a plinth, busy ignoring the kids climbing all over him. At the gate, a soldier with a big gun checks your bag, says "selam" (hello) and opens the way for you to enter the oldest continually inhabited urban area in the world.
Built on top of ruins dating back millennia, Erbil's citadel looks impressive from down below, but as soon as you enter, you realise the last few decades have not been kind. Up until a couple of years ago, this used to be a densely populated slum area, overcrowded with families fleeing the violence in other regions of Iraq, slapping up makeshift walls and roofs inside ancient mansions, allowing the original structures to fall down around them. Then the Kurdish Regional Government and UNESCO stepped in, moving the refugees out to purpose built houses on the edge of the city, leaving just one family behind to keep the record. Nowadays, most of the narrow lanes and collapsing mansions are fenced off, but you can still walk through the middle of the citadel and enter one or two restored buildings.
On the right as you enter is a surprise, a sign that someone is thinking of tourism. The kurdish Textile Museum is a well-kept display of traditional carpets and rugs in a beautifully restored mansion. Free to enter, it was packed on the day I visited. A busload of excitable Iraqi women from Baghdad happily rubbed shoulders with half a dozen American soldiers on a guided tour. I wasn't even the only tourist, as an Australian girl wandered in looking for postcards. We couldn't find any in the museum shop, so tried our luck next door in perhaps the most optimistic shop in all of Erbil, one choc-full of souvenirs...old maps of Iraq, old notes with Saddam's grinning face, a few carpets, lots of antique silverware and jewellery, some dusty books in a dozen languages, but sadly no postcards.
Back outside, I sat for a while by the statue, taking in the view of the chaotic city streets down below. To my right, the covered Qaysari bazaar, to the left an outdoor extension of the bazaar, and right in front of me, a grand square with crowd-pulling fountains. In the distance, the low rise bazaar area gave way to taller, more modern structures. A shopping mall here, a 5 star hotel under construction there. Erbil is undergoing a lot of development, cranes popping up all over the city.
A Kurdish student came over to chat, unable to control his curiosity any longer. Where was I from? What was I doing there? What did I think of Kurdistan? Could he take my photo? I stood by the statue, feeling very self-conscious and awkward as he snapped away with his camera phone, and soon a small crowd had gathered, young men taking it in turns to photograph their friends with the foreign tourists. Even the soldier manning the gate abandoned his post to take a quick snap.
It was all very odd. I tried to kid myself that they mistook me for Brad Pitt, but alas, every other tourist I met in Iraq experienced the same phenomenon. Down in the square, brand new fountains proved to be a magnet for photographers, both amateurs with the latest iphones, and professionals with ancient polaroids advertizing their prices on pieces of card hung round their necks. In the late afternoon, families swarmed all over these photographers, the women arranging their kids and their ice creams in groups within spraying distance of the fountains, the men sloping off to the tea shops on the edge of the square for a glass of chai, a smoke and a gossip. It was about as far removed from the rundown dangerous Erbil of Top Gear as possible.
The Qaysari Bazaar, a maze of alleys, passageways and hidden staircases, could well be one of the oldest markets in the world, although most of it looks fairly new nowadays. Instead of feeling the pressure to buy unwanted bits of tat, I actually had the opposite problem in the spice section. First it was a handful of raisins, then someone pressed a walnut in my hand. "Bashi?" Is it good? Here, try these dates! Have you tasted pomegranate nectar before? Here! Mister, Erbil honey! I tried hard to pay for the little bag of roasted chickpeas I'd been handed, but the stallholder was having none of it. "Welcome, welcome. Kurdistan is good, no?"
The citadel was one area of the old city, but surely not everyone can have lived in such opulent palaces. I wanted to find the old Erbil outside the citadel walls. My search began in the busy streets surrounding the Qaysari Bazaar, but I wasn't having much luck, as anything old seemed to have been torn down to make way for glass and steel, cement and breeze block. I spotted a side street leading behind a restaurant, and decided to investigate. Around the corner, concrete was replaced with mud brick, a row of old Erbil houses each with ornate patterns in the brickwork and a balcony hanging over the street. More prominent than the balconies were the electricity wires, thousands of them twisting round lampposts like nightmarish birds nests, each one a different colour as the neighbours attached themselves to the power supply using ingenuity and a lot of masking tape. I wouldn't like to be an electrician in this city!
Similar streets can be found all over Erbil if you look hard enough, but the handsome characterful old houses are in a sad state generally, many seemingly abandoned and probably slated for demolition unless someone steps in to save them. It will be a shame if Erbil's old neighbourhoods are lost completely in the rush to modernize, but unfortunately that seems to be what is happening, little by little.
But it isn't just new offices and apartment blocks, shopping malls and hotels that are mushrooming in Erbil. Parks are a speciality of Kurdistan, attracting hordes of families and groups of friends on Thursday evenings and Fridays. Foreign visitors won't go unnoticed for long, and the constant photo shoots by fountains and lakes can get a little tiresome, but as a place to meet new Kurdish friends, the parks can't be beaten. Each one has its own centrepiece. The Shanidar Park has erbil's one and only art gallery in a bizarre structure resembling a cave on the inside with stalagmites and stalactites strewn around among the artwork, a fake waterfall cascading from the roof. The Minare Park is big on water features too, all lit up in different colours at night, but they can't compete with the centuries-old Sheikh Chooli minaret, marooned in a bed of roses in a quiet corner of the park, another reminder that Erbil is an ancient city.
The queen of parks, though, is Martyr Sami Abderrahman Park, out by the international airport (Top Gear must have driven past this at some point, as it is huge, but obviously it didn't fit the image they wanted to show...). Acres of well-thought out gardens, two lakes, fountains galore, quiet lawns, noisy adventure playgrounds, statues hidden in flower beds, cafes serving tea and popcorn, a stage for traditional dancing on Fridays, one of the city's top restaurants...it all happens here, especially at weekends when many of the park-goers dress up in their traditional clothes to parade up and down and generally show off. There's even a little noddy train. Hell, there's even a speedboat offering thrill rides around th big fountain in the middle for a handful of dinars.
It's a happy place now, but not so long ago, this was the site of one of Iraq's most notorious prisons where political prisoners were tortured. Another reminder of the country's troubles is a sombre monument at the centre of the park, a hundred or so names carved into a black slab of marble. These were the victims of a 2004 suicide bomb attack, the last attack of its kind in Erbil and hopefully something that will not happen again.
On my last day, I trekked out to the brand new Jalil Khayat Mosque, as advised by some new Kurdish friends I'd met in a park. They'd told me it was modelled on the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and from the citadel mound, it did indeed look a little bit like it. However, up close, it doesn't look anything like the Blue mosque. I'll concede that there are blue tiles, but that's about all. Instead, this is an amazing piece of modern islamic architecture, incorporating traditional brickwork and adding bright blue tiles and almost phallic domes, and decorative doorways that hint at Iranian influences. I made the mistake of visiting on a Friday when the mosque was busy with worshippers, so I was unable to enter, but just to see the outside was worth the long walk.
PRACTICAL DETAILS: Tourist visas for Iraq are almost impossible to get, but luckily you don't need one to visit Erbil...the Kurdish Regional Government hand out free 10-day visas to most nationalities at border crossings and airports, valid only for travel within Iraqi Kurdistan. Erbil's international airport is attracting more and more airlines from around the Middle East and Europe. Austrian Airlines were one of the first to offer direct flights, and they've now been joined by Lufthansa, Air Berlin, Royal Jordanian, Gulf Air and Turkish Airlines.
However, flights into Erbil are very expensive for the region, so most tourists (read backpackers) arrive overland from Turkey. The border crossing is Habur, between Silopi (Turkey) and Zaxo (Iraq), a well-used crossing with hundreds of lorries queueing on both sides. Taxis from Silopi take you over the bridge to the Iraqi side, guiding passengers through all the formalities, and it all takes about an hour to enter Iraq. In the other direction, it can take several hours, as every vehicle is checked thoroughly for smuggled goods...I was stuck on the bridge in no-man's land for 7 hours.
From Zaxo (stay long enough to see the beautiful old bridge, Piro Delal), it is just over an hour to Dohuk, the first major city and a nice place to spend a couple of days. Transport to Erbil is easy to find, as shared taxis ply the route all day long, but you have to check the route the driver is planning to take, as some take the risky road through the outskirts of Mosul, not somewhere you'd like to break down. Make sure your taxi will be taking the slightly longer but much safer route via Ain Sifni and Baderash, which stays firmly within Kurdish held territory. A similar dilemma faces the traveller hoping to continue onto Iraqi Kurdistan's other major city, Sulaimaniyah (Slemani), as one route takes you very close to the unstable city of Kirkuk...the American soldiers on duty at the Kirkuk checkpoint were surprised to say the least when I turned up in a shared taxi, but were happy for me to continue once they found out we'd only be using the ringroad to skirt around the city...it was a nerve-wracking 15 minutes though. The other safer route is via Koya and the spectacular mountain road to Dukan, but transport connections aren't great and I had to wait a couple of hours in Koya for onward transport.
North of Erbil is the even more spectacular Hamilton Road, winding its way through the mountains to Haji Omaran and the Iranian border, passing several waterfalls and summer resorts. If you saw the Top Gear episode I've been referring to, you'll know the road I mean, and even the presenters had to admit that it is spectacular.
To the south, taxis and buses leave for Baghdad, but you'd be a fool if you tried to board one. Don't even think about it!
Checkpoints are a frequent feature of roads in Kurdistan, but they are generally not a problem. The soldiers on duty were always polite and friendly, and English speakers were often brought out to speak to me, usually to ask me questions about football or politics rather than to look at my documents. They are quite thorough when searching through bags though, so be patient, and remember, it is because of these checkpoints that Iraqi Kurdistan hasn't suffered from the indiscriminate attacks that have plagued the rest of the country.
Hotels are plenty in Erbil, ranging from the former Sheraton, now called the Erbil International Hotel, and a handful of business class hotels in the posher suburbs, to US$5 a night fleapits down by the Qaysari Bazaar. I stayed in three hotels during my time in Erbil, all in the bazaar area: a sleepless night at the filthy and noisy Hotel Qandil (15,000 dinars); a slightly better night at the cockroach infested Hotel Shahan (30,000 dinars); and a great few days at the friendly and spotlessly clean Hotel Bekhal (25,000 dinars).
Foodwise, Erbil is hardly a gourmet's paradise. For the first couple of nights, I found it very hard to actually find any food at all once the sun had gone down, except for ice cream, fruit juice and a lone kebab grill in the street. Then I was introduced by some new friends to Souk Iskan, a street of kebab shops, lahmajoon parlours and burger joints. Lahmajoon is a pizza-like bread with just spicy minced meat as a topping...served fresh and hot, it is delicious, and also very cheap. More upmarket restaurants are to be found in the suburbs, especially the Christian quarter of Ain Kawa out by the airport, where there is even a German restaurant and bar. Alcohol, by the way, doesn't exactly flow freely in Erbil, although there are quite a few bars tucked away down side streets, and plenty shops sell Turkish beer and stronger stuff...most hotels do have notices banning alcohol on the premises, and public drunkenness isn't tolerated, so I'm not sure where you'd drink it though. Tea is the drink of the streets, and chaikhanas are everywhere...mainly male-only though, so women should expect to cause a bit of a commotion. Juice and ice-cream bars are also everywhere...try pomegranate juice and tamarind ice cream.
Language...well, some Kurdish phrases are very useful! Many older people speak fluent Arabic, although some are understandably reluctant to use it. There's a Turcoman community in Erbil and many investors are Turkish, so Turkish can be useful sometimes too. Many younger Kurds have lived in Europe, so it isn't uncommon to meet fluent English, German or Swedish speakers too.
Safety is a big concern of any traveller to Iraq, and I'm not going to pretend everything is rosy in Iraqi Kurdistan. Mosul and Kirkuk are under an hour away by road from Erbil, so trouble is not far away, but this rarely spills over into Erbil itself...the last bomb attack was in 2004. You can wander around freely in the streets of Erbil without fearing for your safety, but after dark it is probably best not to wander too far and to stick to well-lit roads.
Money can be problematic, as most of the cash machines I found were out of action or suitable for local cards only, but this will change soon. For now, bring cash, lots of it, and change it on the with the moneychangers on the streets.
Well, I think that's probably enough! If you got this far, well done! I could happily talk about Erbil and Iraqi Kurdistan for hours and hours, as I enjoyed my trip there immensely, but realise that it isn't a destination for everyone. For now, it would suit those looking for a destination completely off the beaten track, preferably someone with a sense of adventure and an interest in the region...it's not a particularly challenging destination, but it isn't easy either. Erbil is not packed full of attractions, and those it does have are not really world class, but you don't really visit Erbil for museums and monuments. You come to experience a large Kurdish city, a city of parks and fountains and incredibly friendly and welcoming people.
"You're going where? Is it safe?"
Anyone who watched the news in the late 90's will have heard of Prishtina. War correspondents in khaki bullet-proof vests standing on rooftops with the sound of gunfire in the background is not really the best advertisement for a holiday anywhere, and ten years on, Prishtina hit the headlines again. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, and Prishtina became the newest capital in the world. Most in Kosovo looked to be celebrating, but others were angry and reports of rioting were rife in the news.
So it was hardly surprising when, one month later, the German traveller looked a little alarmed as I announced my plans for the following day. I have to admit to being slightly concerned, as Kosovo had been in the news practically every day since independence, and nobody seemed to know what was going on. I needn't have worried.
After some initial confusion in Skopje bus station, I boarded a Prishtina-bound bus and little under an hour later, we arrived at the Macedonia-Kosovo border. Lots and lots of soldiers, some local, others labelled KFOR (the NATO-led force) with flags on their shoulders. Greek, Armenian, Lithuanian, Polish...it seemed half of Europe was here, brandishing guns and looking stern.
"Why you coming in Kosovo?" asked the frowning border guard, his uniform decorated with a new badge, the flag of Kosovo, yellow map and six white stars on a blue background. I mumbled something about tourism, expecting my answer not to go down too well. He looked me up and down, then broke into a smile before stamping my passport with a flourish. "Welcome in Kosovo!"
Arrival in Prishtina was uninspiring. The bus station is separated from the city by a ring-road, and the hundreds of decrepit grey high-rise blocks stretching as far as the eye could see did not really tempt me to risk my life dodging the speeding cars to get to the other side. There weren't any crossings anyway. The only other tourist on the bus was making a day trip of it, and had just two hours before the last bus back to Macedonia. He was a speed traveller, three countries a day, that sort of thing, and had decided to walk from the bus station. I can imagine him sat in a hostel somewhere that evening, boasting about his day in a depressing war-torn city, having seen nothing but an ugly suburb. I had a bit more than a day. In fact, I had ten days, and I sincerely hoped there was more to the city.
Not having a common language, somehow I managed to persuade my taxi driver to take me to a cash point, so I could get some cash (Kosovo uses the Euro, like nearby Montenegro) before heading to the city centre. We sped through the tower blocks and turned a corner to be greeted by someone I had not expected to see. Bill Clinton, grinning and waving at me from the side of one of the blocks. A little further on and we passed his wife Hilary, commemorated as a Disco Bar and Patisserie.
My guesthouse was located on a hill above town in the slightly upmarket Velania quarter. Known as "The Professor's", this was Prishtina's one and only backpacker hostel, run by an elderly professor with a vigorous handshake and good English. Unlike the noisy dorm rooms of other backpacker hostels on my Balkans trip, this one had rooms, en-suite with televisions, lots of hot water, heating (it was March and bitterly cold, so that was important), and a communal kitchen, all for just a couple more Euros than a dorm bed in Skopje or Sofia. The only thing it lacked was other backpackers. Armed with a locally produced pocket guidebook on loan from the professor, I set off down the cobbled lane to the centre of Prishtina.
Bill Clinton grins from tower blocks, Hilary dances in cowboy boots at a disco patisserie, and yet another famous face lurks outside a bookshop on the main street. Mother Teresa, an Albanian from Skopje, is treated as one of Prishtina's own, and has the whole street dedicated to her. Her diminutive figure stood wrapped in shawls shielding a hungry infant, her plinth being used by a tradesman selling Spiderman costumes, and opposite someone played the piano under a tent as snowflakes began to fall. It was all very surreal.
Mother Teresa Street (Rruga Nene Tereze) is the heart of Prishtina, newly pedestrianized and, when the sun comes out at least, full of people wandering around without purpose. Shoe shiners sit at benches gossiping with old men, traders crouch selling tissues and cigarettes, men in black leather jackets sip macchiatos with Prishtina's most stunning girls at pavement cafes. The buildings can't really be described as pretty, but it isn't ugly. It's unusual. So soon after independence, there were also lots of stalls selling Kosovan souvenirs. Key rings, t-shirts, posters, mugs...anything you can get a Kosovan flag on. The new flag has some stiff competition from the Albanian flag though, and you'll see almost as many black eagles on red backgrounds all over town.
Another statue marks the end of Nene Tereze, this one less well known internationally but a local hero nonetheless. Skenderbeg, an Albanian officer in the Ottoman army who rebelled against the Sultan several centuries ago, now sits above his horse in the shadow of the brand new Kosovo Parliament building. Glass and steel, tall and imposing, perhaps the best thing about this building is the reflection of Prishtina, old and new, in its wall of windows. Prishtina may seem a normal city nowadays, but outside the Parliament is a reminder that there was trouble not so long ago: photographs of the hundreds of missing people, pinned to the railings alongside flowers and candles.
A busy road stood between me and Prishtina's old centre, but unlike the hideous road by the bus station, this one seemed to have a pedestrian crossing. I pressed the button and duly waited for the green man to flash. Two kids ran across from the other side without looking, seemingly unflustered by the zooming cars passing behind them with inches to spare. Right next to me, a young woman pushed her pram straight into the traffic, horns blaring and cars swerving, she took no notice and made it to the other side without even breaking into a run or a sweat. I was still waiting for the trusty green man. He flashed, and I naively thought the traffic might stop. Indeed, some cars did slow down, but just when I thought it was safe to cross, a dozen horns announced the arrival of speeding vehicles from a side road, all hurtling towards me. Green man was flashing, but I was stuck in the middle of the road with cars both in front of me and behind. It was not funny, and it wasn't funny every other time it happened to me either. No matter whether it was red or green, I always ended up having to run the last few steps to the safety of the kerb. I never did get the hang of Prishtina's traffic rules.
Prishtina has not fared well through its history. Under communism, the old quarter was systematically torn down. Mosques, churches, houses, all razed to the ground, the Ottoman bazaar buried under concrete in order to modernize. And not having any clear laws in the last decade, new buildings have popped up higgledy-piggledy without much planning. Basically, it's a mess. But a few monuments did escape the bulldozers, and they are certainly worth seeking out. Directly opposite the Parliament building is one of Prishtina's three big Ottoman mosques, the Charshi mosque which is actually the oldest building in the city. Behind it, you can't miss the Kosovo Museum, as it is a century-old mansion painted canary yellow. I tried on several occasions to have a look round, but it always seemed to be closed. I say seemed, as the main door was actually open but the metal grille inside was firmly locked and not a soul was around to let me in. A shame, as I hear that some of the artefacts looted in the war have been recovered.
Behind the museum, another Ottoman mosque stands next to a tall clock tower (Sahat Kulla). Every Ottoman town in the Balkans worth its salt has a clock tower. Skopje has one on a hill; Tirana's overlooks its main square. Prishtina's stands in what looks like a semi-official car park. But at least the clock is right.
Over the road, you come to Prishtina's main mosque, the impressive Xhamia e Madhe (grand mosque). Old men tend to congregate around here, especially towards midday on Fridays, feeding the pigeons and gossiping in the courtyard. If you only go in one mosque in Prishtina, make it this one. The caretaker is friendly and welcomes visitors outside the main prayer times.
Taking the small side street below the mosque, you might stumble upon another Ottoman house. There's no sign, but wander through the gate and you'll find yourself in the Emin Gjiku Ethnological Museum, which has been restored to its former glory and now houses some interesting exhibits on Albanian culture. The guides speak English and are happy to take visitors on a tour around the collection of three restored buildings. I asked if they had a lot of visitors, and the guide proudly showed me the guestbook. I counted less than a dozen entries since Christmas (it was mid-March). Perhaps the lack of visitors might be down to the lack of sign?
The Ottoman bazaar may have been razed, but a new one has taken its place. Known as Treg in Albanian, Prishtina's central market is a chaotic jumble of temporary stalls in a few rubbley streets. Those with cash from neighbouring countries should note that this is one of the few places in town where you can change Albanian, Bulgarian and Macedonian notes. Elsewhere, you have to rely on finding a working cash machine that accepts your card, which is easier said than done. A machine that accepts your card one day may decide to refuse you the next, but luckily there are plenty to choose from.
The market area is one of the best places in Prishtina for a quick cheap local meal, and the choice is really between Qebaptore and Byrektore. A qebaptore serves a range of kebabs and kofte (meatballs), and the ones in the market are packed at lunchtime, smoke and steam from the traditional ovens streaming through the windows. A byrektore is more of a breakfast venue, with burek (pasty filled with cheese or meat) and other pastries on offer, along with good strong coffee in some places.
Modern Prishtina has an eclectic mix of architecture. A walk down Luan Haradinaj Street will take you past plush office belonging to NGOs and UN agencies, upmarket clothes boutiques, half-finished apartment blocks, even a few red-tiled roofs. But you can't fail to notice the huge triangular building with the spiky roof. This is BoroRamiz, a sports complex, which had an enormous poster of a local war-hero plastered on one side. More importantly, down below on the pavement is one of Kosovo's newest monuments. The word "Newborn" stands in two-metre-high yellow letters, covered in signatures of all those who celebrated Kosovo's independence on the 17th February 2008.
Not far away is perhaps Prishtina's most unusual building. Some say unusual, others are less diplomatic, preferring the adjectives ugly and vile. Grey Lego blocks covered in scaffolding and topped with green domes, that's the best way I can try to describe it. This is Kosovo's National Library, and deserves to be seen. Local legend has it that when it was first opened, the honoured guest cutting the red tape asked when the scaffolding was coming off. Well, the scaffolding has certainly come off the building next door, but not because it is finished. The shell of a Serbian Orthodox church stands neglected on a patch of waste ground, surrounded by barbed wire. In the 90's, Milosevic wanted to build the largest Serbian Orthodox church in the region, and when war broke out, plans were understandably put on hold. I was told in a nearby café that nobody really knows what to do with it now, so it just stands there looking sad.
On my final day in Prishtina, I left my guesthouse and instead of heading down to the city centre, I climbed up to Martyr's Hill behind Velania district. A derelict monument provides a playground for kids and excellent views over the city, while nearby, a couple of rows of graves draped in red wreathes and photos commemorate dead soldiers of the KLA (Kosovo liberation Army). Not far away, another tombstone stands alone, guarded by soldiers. This is the grave of Ibrahim Rugova, Kosovo's leader who died a few months before realising his dream of independence. Look out for a huge mural of the man on the side of a colourful apartment block on Rruga Nene Tereze.
Those in a rush could probably "do" Prishtina in a few hours if pushed. There aren't that many attractions, and tourists used to hours of sightseeing in more traditional city break destinations will probably be disappointed with what Prishtina can offer. But I stayed several days and was never bored. For me, the attraction lies in walking and people watching, chatting in cafes and eating burek. With independence a recent event, Prishtina had something of a party atmosphere, and when the sun came out between snowstorms and rain, the streets were packed with people just walking. Perhaps because of all the international organizations that have been working in Kosovo for the last decade, Prishtina has a very lively restaurant and bar scene. All sorts of cuisine can be found, Mexican, Thai, Turkish, Indian, Italian...but my favourites were the local restaurants specializing in Albanian food. There are several around town with dishes like Tave Elbasani (meatballs, eggs and yoghurt baked in an oven) and Flia (layers of pastry and cream cooked on a fire), washed down with local Peja beer or Stonecastle wine, but two I liked were Te Pishat (off Nene Tereze) and Liburnia (off Luan Haradinaj).
I did not see all of Prishtina. No doubt someone will read this and say "but you didn't go to Gracanica". Gracanica is the Serbian "enclave" a few kilometres south, housing an ancient monastery complex and most of the Serbs who left the city after the war. No I didn't go, as after independence, it was difficult to find out what sort of reception I would have got in the Serbian areas. There was rioting in Mitrovica, a half-Serbian town in the north of Kosovo, so warnings were posted about visiting other Serbian enclaves. From what I hear, I would have had no problems, and I regret not going now, but it's an excuse to go back soon. Likewise, I did not get out to see Germia Park (parks can be miserable in the rain and sleet, so I opted to stay somewhere within easy reach of a café!), the battleground of Kosovo Polje, or the archaeological site Ulpiana.
Anyone heading to Prishtina for more than a couple of days should really make an effort to get out of the capital and see something of the rest of the country. I made two trips, the first to Gjakova (four hours by bus to the west) where the old bazaar has been mostly restored since being burnt to the ground during the war. The second trip was far more rewarding, to the south east to Prizren (again, four hours or so by bus). If ever Kosovo finds itself on the tourist trail, Prizren is likely to be the highlight, with its well preserved Ottoman centre, narrow cobbled streets, restored mosques and hammams, stone bridges and fountains, Turkish restaurants and trendy cafes, the League of Prizren museum and a ruined castle on a hilltop with snow-capped mountains in the background. A sadder sight is the ruined Serbian quarter on the castle slopes, deserted and fenced off. Even so, Prizren is beautiful and I certainly recommend a day trip or a longer stay there.
Prishtina is easy to get to. British Airways flies direct to Prishtina Airport from London, while budget carrier Belle Air serves Belgium, Germany and Italy. Other airports make good gateways too, with Skopje in Macedonia just three hours away by bus, and Tirana an overnight bus ride through stunning mountains. Using budget airlines, I made Kosovo the focus of a longer trip starting in Sofia and ending in Dubrovnik. Kosovo is also one of the only countries in the world to allow all visitors in without a visa, so if you happen to be in the neighbourhood, you have no excuse!
Now is a good time to visit Prishtina. Tourism is developing slowly, with a new guidebook out (Bradt guides), a city guide (In Your Pocket dot com), and a couple of British tour operators now offering city breaks in Prishtina and longer tours around Kosovo. It won't be to everyone's tastes, but if you're bored of the standard city break destinations and want something a bit different and off-beat, give Europe's newest capital a go.
Tunisia suffers from a bit of an image problem.
For decades, Tunisia has been well and truly on the tourist map. Enormous hotel complexes line all the best beaches, where sunburnt Europeans lie nose-to-nipple under a thousand and one parasols. The sand is white, the sea is azure blue, the sun is strong...should be package holiday paradise then. But somehow, Tunisia doesn't quite hit the spot. The food's a bit foreign, they whinge. The entertainment's not quite Ibiza. The people are too pushy. A Moorish arch or two on the "traditional" high risery surrounding the pool is exotic enough for some holidaymakers, who dare not venture too far from their sun loungers for the whole duration of their trip. Those who do escape from the zones touristiques complain of having to run the gauntlet of a million eager salesmen. If they aren't trying to sell you a carpet or a stuffed camel, they're trying to touch up your wife. It's all a bit much.
Backpackers don't rate the country much better either. It's overrun with tourist sheep, herded from place to place in their air-con buses, a mass of touts and postcard sellers clamouring in their wake. Tunisians have been corrupted by this mass tourism, nowhere is left untouched, not a single sight in the country has escaped the tour bus brigade. And anyway, it's far too tame for the hardened backpacker. Too easy, not adventurous enough. Say you're going travelling in Tunisia, and the backpacker will snort and sneer and scoff. Go to Mauritania by bicycle, they'll say. Hitchhike through Afghanistan. That's real travel. Tunisia? Pah! Tunisia's for wimps!
So, you've got package tourists who can't/won't tear themselves away from the beach unless its for a spot of souvenir hunting in an "authentic" touristy souq or for a camel ride in a "genuine" desert oasis...and snobbish backpackers who are far too busy working out how to get their visas for Iraq and Somalia to bother with somewhere like Tunisia. What does that mean?
It means that the rest of Tunisia is unspoiled and waiting to be explored by the curious independent traveller. And that's exactly what I did.
**** **** **** **** ****
Before I carry on, I'd better explain myself a bit. I'm an Arabist, one of those masochistic individuals who studies how to pronounce all those guttural grunts and growls, like kh and gh and 'a, for fun. I like my holidays to come with minarets and souqs, sugary tea and a heavy dose of language immersion. Combine that with a love of taking the road less travelled, and that might help explain why many of my reviews are about remoter "more hardcore" corners of the Arab world, like Yemen and Sudan. However, recently, limited finances have forced me to look a little closer to home for adventure, and in the last couple of years, British Airways has come up trumps, offering return flights to Tunis for less than a train ticket from London to Newcastle.
So, now that I've spent a total of seven weeks visiting "the other Tunisia" I think it's about time I wrote a review, and maybe persuade a few sunbathers to hop on a bus to see a slice of the real Tunisia, or convince a few backpackers to drop their snobbery and give little Tunisia a chance. I'll start with the capital, as that's where most scheduled flights land and where I began and ended both of my trips. Then I'll move on to some attractions in the north, before heading down to warmer climes in the southern deserts and eventually hitting some of the less crowded beaches. What you won't find in this review is anything about the major resorts. Hammamet, Nabeul, Sousse, Monastir, Jerba, Port el Kantaoui...I avoided them all, so if you only want to read a review about any of those places, stop reading now.
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Tunis surprised me many times. My first surprise came just after landing at 10 in the evening and taking a taxi from the airport to the medina (old city). Everything was so quiet, so dark. I was expecting Tunis to be more like Cairo or Damascus, the streets alive with people and cars until well past midnight, pavement cafes heaving with customers, shops and restaurants open for business. But the cafes in the square at the entrance to the old city were piling up the tables and pulling the shutters down, a few teenagers half-heartedly kicked a ball around, old men in anoraks and scarves swept rubbish along the gutters, and a few stray dogs ran amok in the deserted streets. Tunis sleeps early.
Tour groups do sometimes include Tunis as a day trip. Buses drop them off near Bab al Bahr, where Colonial Tunis collides with the centuries old Arab medina. They are paraded up a narrow street of wall-to-wall souvenir shops to the Zeitouna Mosque, and after everyone taken shoes off, taken a few photos, put shoes back on, it's off up another souvenir filled alley to emerge at another square, where the bus is waiting to whisk them off to the Bardo Museum or the ruins at Carthage and more souvenir shops in the clifftop village of Sidi Bou Said. Take my advice, and make the trip to Tunis on your own...instead of following the tour groups into the souvenir market, follow the steady stream of Tunisians heading into an equally narrow alleyway, take any street to you right or left, and get completely lost. You'll see more of Tunis than any tour guide in charge of a herd of 40 can show you.
Getting lost in the medina is really the only way to sightsee. You can try and use a map, but the streets, lanes and alleys twist and turn so much that you'll soon get lost anyway. If you stumble upon the right alleyway, you might come across one of the many museums, a tomb of a holy saint, an Ottoman-style mosque, a covered spice market, a traditional café where old men in red chechia hats smoke chicha pipes and sip strong black coffee. The fun is in finding these things by accident. Go looking for them, and you'll never find them.
Outside the medina, the two old suburbs of Montfleury and Halfaouine offer more of the same with even less chance of collision with another tourist. Mainly residential quarters but just as old as the medina, they are both great places just to walk, following your nose through archways and discovering scenes of everyday life, a world apart from the souvenir shops around Zeitouna Mosque where English, French and German words outnumber Arabic ten to one. Film buffs may enjoy hunting out locations used in Boughedir's film "Halfaouine" (if you're intrigued, you can download it from certain dubious websites for free...).
After dark, the old quarters are not the safest places to be if you don't know where you are going. No street lights, lots of suspicious characters lurking in the shadows, and the huge potential for getting hopelessly lost. As the sun sets, make your way instead to Avenue Bourguiba, the main artery of modern Tunis, and the streets on either side. The architecture is an eclectic mix of French colonial, art deco, Islamic and concrete monstrosities...look out for the enormous cathedral, the clocktower and a hotel built like an upside down pyramid, then pick a pavement café, order a mint tea and do a spot of people watching.
Close enough to Tunis to be considered part of the city, most tourists end up visiting the ruins of Carthage and the ultra-picturesque village of Sidi Bou Said, where whitewashed houses with blue doors command amazing views over the Gulf of Tunis and the mountains beyond. Pretty as it is, Sidi Bou Said can be a nightmare if you have an aversion to tour groups, so try to visit early morning, or at sunset when the views far outweigh the crowds. On the other side of the Gulf, a string of more downmarket resorts line the shore. I visited Hammam Lif, popular in colonial times with Europeans, but now a bit of a backwater. The beach isn't great, but it's an interesting place to visit, especially on a summer weekend when the promenade is packed with locals escaping the heat of the city. Regular trains from central Tunis operate to the resorts, both posh and not-so-posh, for less than the price of a cup of coffee back home.
Just an hour away by high-speed minibus is the ancient port city of Bizerte (Benzert in Arabic). The harbour is impossibly photogenic, lined with whitewashed houses reflected in the water where colourful fishing boats bob up and down. The harbour used to be a canal leading to Lake Bizerte, until the French came along and filled it in, so nowadays it is like a Tunisian Canale Grande. Where the harbour meets the sea, a perfectly rectangular Kasbah stands guard, huge brown walls encircling a maze of narrow streets off-limits to cars. Beyond the Kasbah walls, the medina stretches inland...no particular sights to see, but like Tunis medina, a great place to get lost for a couple of hours. Bizerte also has beaches, wide curves of white sand very close to the old port, but amazingly Bizerte has been spared the mass development of other coastal cities. Maybe the sand isn't white enough, or maybe it is the incessant wind which batters the north coast, but whatever the reason, Bizerte remains an undiscovered coastal resort which should attract planeloads of sunbathers. Personally I'm glad it hasn't.
I boarded a louage (minibus) heading inland past Lac Ichkeul National Park to the often overlooked town of Beja. Walk around the dilapidated but atmospheric medina or the Spanish-looking town square, and locals will be astonished to see a foreigner. Sit in a local café, and you won't be on your own before long, as some curious soul will come and chat with you. Away from the tourist resorts, Tunisian hospitality is on a par with that of other Arab countries, and I found it very difficult to pay for my drinks in Beja.
Further inland, towards Algeria, is another friendly town, Le Kef, a town that has really benefited from being quite a distance from the coast. If Le Kef was within a stone's throw from a beach, you wouldn't be able to move for tour groups. As it is, Le Kef remains fairly off the beaten track, and is certainly one of the highlights of any trip to Tunisia. A castle on a hilltop above a spectacular old white mosque, with steep cobbled streets spilling downhill in all directions, Le Kef is one of those places that you can see in two hours but can easily stay for two or three days.
Close by are two of Tunisia's finest archaeological sites, Dougga and Bulla Regia. I intended to visit both, but spontaneity won at the bus station, and I ended up on a louage heading to Makthar, a mountain village with an equally impressive set of Roman ruins. The old man at Makthar's only hotel and bar was so over the moon to have a foreigner in his establishment that he had to have a Celtia beer to celebrate. The following day, I was able to enjoy having the ruined city of Makthar all to myself...well, apart from a few hundred sheep and a gaggle of chattering local women picking dandelions.
Gafsa isn't the most beautiful of towns in Tunisia, but it is a useful place to break a journey between the north and the southern deserts, and it isn't without charm. In the heart of Gafsa's medina are two Roman pools, both still in use as splashing grounds for Gafsa's kids and overlooked by a great café. The abundance of palm trees is the first hint that the desert is not far away. Just a couple of hours south, and you're in the desert proper. Tozeur may once have been a fascinating place, an ancient town built around a desert oasis, but unfortunately it has been discovered by tour buses, and the Ali Baba factor is high. Visit the excellent museum in the old town, guided by a very friendly Tunisian woman who likes to burst into song during her tour, and take a walk around the nearby oasis villages, but then get on a louage heading west.
Thirty minutes later and you're in Nefta, a much more relaxed town where tourism is not the only means of survival. Groups do visit Nefta as a side-trip from Tozeur, but never for more than an hour, so most of the time Nefta is a peaceful place. Impressively built on clifftops either side of a valley called Le Corbeille, Nefta is quite a traditional place. Mosques and marabouts abound, and at night you can hear local Sufi brotherhoods chanting well into the night.
Crossing the desolate Chott el Jerid, a huge expanse of salt full of mirages, you pass through a cluster of oasis towns before arriving at Kebili. The modern town is unremarkable, but three kilometres along a path through palm trees and you come to Old Kebili, a city in ruins, abandoned as recently as the 1980s. It may be abandoned, but Old Kebili is not deserted, as a few of the marabouts (like small mosques) still operate. It won't be long before one of the kids spots you, and reports you to the men who run the Old Kebili museum. They'll track you down, and give you a very informative tour of the place. My visit coincided with Mawlid an-Nabi, the Prophet's birthday, not a huge celebration nationally but marked by certain Sufi brotherhoods, and I was taken to join in the festivities with the local Aissawiya branch at their marabout on the edge of Old Kebili. Five or six elderly men in traditional clothes sat on a carpet in the dusty courtyard chanting religious verses as one of them played out a fast frenetic rhythm on a hand-held drum. Another man produced a reedy pipe, a second began to sway, then turn, then whirl. On the corner sat the women, all covered in robes and silent, save for the occasional wail when emotions ran high. At one point, a skewer was produced and the whirling man pierced his cheek with it, smiling as flecks of blood dripped off his chin and stained his white robe. I'm not quite sure what the point of that was, but he seemed happy enough. This was quite an event, not something put on for tour groups but something 100% genuine.
Afterwards, my guide took me to his pet project, the museum. He seemed concerned that the people of Old Kebili were being neglected by the government. Plans had been made to turn Old Kebili into a sort of Aladdin-style theme park, but my guide was determined not to let that happen. He wanted to encourage tourism, but low-key tourism, independent visitors, not huge groups that would soon overwhelm the place. Instead of the theme-park idea, his dream was to rebuild the old houses, provide electricity and water, and hopefully entice some of its former inhabitants back to live there. I wish him luck.
Random conversations in bus stations can have unexpected consequences. That was how I ended up in Gabes, discussing politics and religion with three engineering students at an all night café by a petrol garage, toxic fumes belching out of a factory on the far side of a patch of wasteground. Yasser was very insistent that I come and stay with him and his friends at their very modest one-room house, and I'm glad I accepted. Gabes may not be the most beautiful city in the world, but a chance to experience Tunisian hospitality and make new friends more than made up for that.
ALTERNATIVE COASTAL RESORTS
Sfax does not get a good write up. Apparently it's a transport hub, a place to change buses, little more. But Tunisia's second city has a lot to offer. Just a few hours down the coast from touristy Sousse, Sfax's medina couldn't be more different. There's not a souvenir stall in sight, and that's mainly to do with the complete lack of tourists. Instead, you have one of the most atmospheric medinas in the Arab world where little has changed over the centuries. Aside from extensive labyrinthine souqs, two excellent museums (one in the Kasbah, one in Dar Jellouli, a traditional house) are well worth seeking out, before relaxing with a coffee and a chicha pipe in my favourite Tunisian café, Café Diwan, set in the old city walls. Modern Sfax is quite a happening place too, what with all the upmarket clothes' shops and trendy cafes and restaurants lining the streets between the old city and the port.
From the port, board a ferry and in just over an hour, you're on the Kerkennah islands, cruelly labelled the poor man's Djerba. At first sight flat and quite ugly, these strange islands have an unusual beauty and are so laid back you can easily stay much longer than you intended. Resort development is limited to a couple of small hotels next to a patch of sand in Sidi Fredj, and all the other villages feel very remote and far removed from the chaotic mainland. I stayed in the islands' capital, Remla, where a couple of bed and breakfast type places offer a friendlier and cheaper alternative to the beach resorts. Hiring a bike is the best way to explore, as the islands are totally flat. No need to rush anywhere, but there are a few places to aim for, like the old tower of Borj Hissar where the guardien will greet you with a big smile and a glass of rosemary tea, the boathouse containing the boat Habib Bourguiba (Tunisia's first president) used to flee the French, and Kerkennah's bizarre museum in the village of El Abbasia, whose exhibits range from photos of circumcision ceremonies to the skeleton of a whale. But what you really go to Kerkennah for is to relax. The beaches may be poor, the landscape flat, but the people are friendly and laid-back, and some Europeans love it so much they return year after year.
If none of the places described above appeal, and you're set on staying in a resort, I will recommend one. Mahdia is less developed than its neighbours to the north, and as such it retains a lot of charm. The old town is situated on a headland, some of the houses literally hanging over the water. Souvenir stalls have invaded the medina, but it is easy to escape them and head through photogenic Place du Caire, past the great mosque and Borj el Kebir castle to the seaside cemetery, ruins of a Fatimid port and the lighthouse at Cap d'Afrique. The beach, wide and sandy, stretches away to the north, the first couple of kilometres packed with locals before reaching the zone touristique and the big beach hotels. Maybe because of this distance from the hotels, Mahdia doesn't feel spoilt in the way that Monastir or Sousse does, and the carpet salesmen are not quite as pushy either.
FOOD AND ACCOMMODATION
In the queue at check-in for my flight home, I overheard some holidaymakers complaining about the food. Apparently the bacon was overdone and dry, and they'd never eaten such a terrible steak, and that's saying nothing of their idea of desserts. Well, I guess they had only eaten in their hotel, as for a start bacon isn't eaten in Tunisia, what with pork being forbidden in Islam. European food cooked by Tunisians in bulk for a hotel buffet...it's never going to be a culinary delight, is it?! In fact, you're more likely to get sick from eating at a hotel buffet...think how long the lukewarm mush has been sitting there in the heat.
To anyone who complains of the food in Tunisia, I would say they should go into a Tunisian town and pick a restaurant, any restaurant that is packed full of Tunisians. The food will be hot and freshly cooked, and you might even like it, stranger things have happened! Tunisians like their spices, and nearly everything comes with some hot harissa sauce. Couscous with some sort of sauce (meat, chicken or fish) is always a good choice, as is kefteji, a sort of stew with lamb meatballs accompanied with bread and salad. Brik al-azm (brik al-oeuf) is a pastry filled with a fried egg and tuna, notorious as being quite messy to eat. For snacks, try a brochette (a baguette filled with grilled lamb, salad, olives and harissa) or a mrawi (like a crepe, filled with cheese, tuna, salad, olives, harissa, egg, or whatever you choose), followed by some sort of sticky sweet like baklava or makroudh.
Alcohol is available in certain places...package hotels will have bars, but outside these you can't rely on finding a drinking hole, let alone a female-friendly one as local bars tend to be male only. Celtia beer is available in some restaurants though.
Cafes are a great introduction to the Tunisian habit of...doing very little! Many of my Tunisian friends can easily while away an afternoon drinking tea, smoking chicha and gossiping loudly in a café. Again, most are male-only, although most towns have a few cafes frequented by local women (try Avenue Bourguiba or the medina cafes in Tunis, and Café Diwan in Sfax). Tea is strong and sweet, often flavoured with mint...sugar is added before boiling, so you have to request your tea without sugar if you can't stand sweet drinks. With coffee, ekspres is an espresso, kappusan is an espresso with a splash of milk, served in a glass (not like a cappuccino), and alonjey is an espresso with a shot of water. In certain cafes, you can get qahwa arabiya or qahwa turkiya, traditional style coffee boiled up with sugar (ask for saadeh if you don't want sugar). The chicha pipes you see everywhere contain tobacco, sometimes flavoured with apple (bi tufaah) like in other Arab countries, although Tunisians tend to prefer plain tobacco in their pipes. They do not contain hashish, as some tourists claim.
Breakfast is easy to arrange...French-style bakeries are everywhere offering croissants and other pastries, and it is perfectly ok to take a bag of croissants to a local café and eat them with a glass of tea.
Hotels...well, the package hotels by the beaches are like beach hotels the world over. Travelling on a budget, every Tunisian town has at least one place to stay. The big cities have a wide choice from 5* to unclassified dorm-style places, often found in the medinas. The cheapest hotels tend to double as brothels, but you're unlikely to get past the door of these places anyway, so it's not a problem. The next level up is the male-only hotel, where you pay for a bed in a shared room. If allowed to stay, women will probably find them uncomfortable, but for male travellers they are fine, and a good way to meet Tunisians. Up a notch are the budget hotels which offer rooms, not just beds, and these are usually acceptable for women...check for female staff or Quranic verses on the wall at reception, which show the hotel is respectable enough. Medina hotels tend to be cheaper, and are great for experiencing life within old city walls, but not so great to find after dark. Prices should be shown on an official document at reception, so there is little chance for overcharging or bargaining.
Hotels I used: (£1 = 2.5TD in 2007)
Tunis: Hotel Milano - just inside the medina close to Bab al Bahr - very cheap, but only female friendly if you can fill a room. (6TD)
Hotel Qatar - outside the medina, but on a well-lit road, slightly more expensive, female staff, clean shared bathrooms. (12TD)
Bizerte: Hotel Africain - family run place close to harbour. (8TD)
Beja: Residence Hiba - bizarre place in old building just off main square, friendly but no hot water. (18TD)
Le Kef: Hotel la Source - colonial building at bottom of hill, run by friendly blind Algerian man. Some rooms have balconies with views. (15TD)
Makthar: Hotel Maktharis - colonial building, rooms above noisy bar, but friendly and clean. (12TD)
Gafsa: Hotel Alaya Bacha - noisy, next to bus station, rude owner, dirty shared bathrooms, not recommended. (10TD)
Tozeur: Residence Karim - opposite caleches, friendly, rooms around tiled courtyards, roof terrace views over oasis. (15TD including breakfast)
Nefta: Hotel Habib - on the main square in the heard of the medina, very friendly, clean but basic. (10TD)
Kebili: Hotel Ben Said - above a cafe opposite small mosque close to bus station, clean and basic. (8TD)
Sfax: Hotel Medina - quiet hotel in centre of Sfax medina, hard to find at night, hot showers, female-friendly. (8TD)
Hotel de la Paix - in the new town, old gloomy colonial building, strange atmosphere but ok. (14TD)
Kerkennah: Residence Riad - very friendly excellent B&B in Remla, brand new, bikes for rent. (15TD including breakfast)
Mahdia: Hotel Corniche - on seafront halfway between medina and zone touristique, very good value. (12TD including breakfast)
Tunisia is easy to travel around, because of the fantastic network of public transport. Buses leave at set times, but for a little extra cash, you can take a more comfortable minibus (louage). Louages leave whenever they have enough passengers, so on popular routes you never have to wait long. On less popular routes, make your way to the louage station early and you'll be on a louage within an hour or so. Trains also connect Tunis with cities on the coast (Sousse, Monastir, Mahdia, Sfax, Gabes), although they are quite a bit slower than taking a louage. Also, the seat number on your train ticket may well mean nothing once you get on the train!
CUSTOMS AND CLOTHING
One of the most common complaints about Tunisia concerns harassment. Tunisia is a Muslim country, and although it is nowhere near as strict as somewhere like Sudan or Saudi Arabia, Tunisian society is still fairly conservative in comparison with Europe. Men don't wear shorts in the towns...they are for the beach, the football pitch or the bedroom. Women never wear shorts, ever. Although a lot of Tunisian women don't cover their hair with a scarf, they do tend to dress modestly. So, with this in mind, it explains why so many tourists complain of being harassed or touched when they walk around town in shorts and vests. Cover up a bit when you leave the beach, and locals will respect you more.
Touts in tourist resorts and parts of Tunis can be over the top. I find the best way to deal with them is pretend not to speak any language they know. Being Estonian or Georgian or Icelandic usually stops them dead! Or just ignore them completely. Don't make eye contact, don't shake their hands if they claim they know you from before, don't accept anything like tea if you're not willing to part with your cash. As soon as you've formed some sort of bond, however slight, the salesman will become more and more insistent. Claims of insulting their traditions is rubbish...this is for tourist markets only...go to a real Tunisian market where local people do their everyday shopping and you'll see how a souq really operates. No pressure to buy, and any offers of tea are more likely to be genuine rather than some scam to get your money.
***** ***** ***** *****
I think I've written enough now, and if you've got down this far, well done you! Anyway, I hope I've managed to persuade at least some of you to give Tunisia a second chance. I've seen quite a lot, but have barely scratched the surface. There are still a hundred and one Roman ruins in the north, more remote oases in the desert, and I've never ventured south of Gabes yet...still, another reason to go back.
Poor Koper. Move this port to another location, and you wouldnt see the cobbles for daytrippers. There would be busloads of all nationalities herded round the Praetorian Palazzo, elbowing and shoving each other as they climb the steps up the cathedral tower, jostling for a waterside table in overpriced fish restaurants, and spending tolars galore on coffee and cakes in cosy cafes.
And why arent the narrow lanes of Kopers old town thronging with scantily-clad camera-toters? Well, Koper suffers from what I call the Trieste Syndrome. If youve read my review of Trieste, you might remember that the reason that city is neglected by the tourist trade is because of its much more spectacular neighbour Venice. Koper has the same problem. Slovenias short Istrian Riviera is maybe not as dramatic as its Croatian counterpart, the waters less clean, the beaches too stony or too small. So beach-lovers head elsewhere. Those into picturesque fishing villages will bypass Koper for nearby Piran, one of the most beautiful towns on the Adriatic. And then big majestic Venice is only an hour or so across the water. It doesnt help that the guidebooks tend to sum up the place along the lines of, Koper is a useful transport hub, implying that the only reason youd want to come here is to change buses.
Koper is unloved. I happen to quite like unloved cities look at Diyarbakir, Trieste, Alexandria. All of them under-rated, neglected, written off as somewhere to miss out, somewhere to change trains. But with all three, Ive ignored questions like what do you want to go there for? and found intriguing cities with a lot to offer if you make the effort and scratch the surface. Koper was exactly the same. Everyone in the Trieste Youth Hostel was either heading for, or had just come from Piran, and nobody could quite get their heads round the notion that I was going to Koper. By the end of that evening, even I began to have doubts.
But Im glad I did board that bus with the four elderly women at Trieste bus station. Im glad I didnt join the sheep with their backpacks on the bus to Piran. If I had done that, I would never have experienced Kopers youth hostel, the Dijaski Dom Koper.
Arriving in a city by bus is usually a disappointing event, and Koper didnt buck the trend. All five of us passengers piled off in a vast concrete bus station surrounded by dual carriageways and a building site. All around me were factories, apartment blocks, shopping malls. Asking for directions to the hostel saw me tramping the length of one very dull, straight road heading into what seemed like more of the same. A little light rain did nothing to lighten my mood. Narrowly evading being mown down by a bus on a pelican crossing, a few obscenities might have passed my lips, not aimed at the bus driver in particular, but at the drab suburbs, at the busy lanes of traffic, at the factories, at all those smug travellers who got on the right bus and who would by now be strolling along the waterfron in Piran, which would no doubt be bathed in sunlight. That thought was worth an extra obscenity.
It was then that the old town just loomed out of nowhere. I turned a corner, passed under an archway, and suddenly the traffic noise disappeared. I was in a steep cobbled street which twisted and turned its way past mediaeval stone houses before depositing me in Titov trg, the heart of the old town. With a palazzo on one side, a loggia on the other, it was quite some sight, but with the rain not giving up easily, I took a right turn and quite by accident arrived at a modern structure claiming to be a youth hostel.
Things did look positive, what with the Hostelling International sign on the door. Inside the cavernous reception area, I hunted around for someone to help me. There were lots of young people around, so I guessed it was open, but where did I check in? A gloomy office seemed the most likely bet.
Prosim? Can I help?, came a voice from within. My well-rehearsed Slovene phrase for hello, do you have a room? was greeted with much mirth, before the body behind the voice emerged to ask why I had come. Or at least, thats what I think she said, as she spoke no English, French or Italian. We garbled and stumbled our way through the check-in process, the receptionist seemingly confused that a tourist had not only found his way there but had the cheek to ask for a bed. I was given a key and a student was bellowed at to take me to my room.
As youth hostels go, this wasnt bad at all a largeish room with three beds, and a window overlooking the street. Then there was a knock at the door. A young man came in, and was very perplexed to find me there. He introduced himself as Miha, said he was a student in Koper, and then ran off again, returning with bagloads of books. It was my turn to look confused. He must have sensed my confusion, as he explained that this was a student dormitory for secondary school pupils, but that tourists can stay if there are beds free. He then promptly went to sleep.
Maykal, Maykal! Passport! Passport! Ive had that screeched at me on many occasions in the past, but over an intercom in a youth hostel was a first. The receptionist was in fits of giggles when I passed her my documents, giggles that only increased when a student mistook me for a Slovene and asked me for the keys to the piano room. It was all a bit bizarre, so I made my escape back to the pretty square Id passed through earlier.
The 15th century Praetorian Palace was under renovation on my visit, so I cant tell you much about that. I can however wax lyrical about the equally old Loggia on the opposite side of the square, or rather, the enticing kavarna (coffee house) located on the balcony. After sipping a badly-needed kava (coffee served like the Italian espresso, strong and black), I decided to indulge on a cokolad. Id heard the woman opposite me order a cokolad, and she was duly served with a hot chocolate. Not just any hot chocolate this was dark, thick and eaten with a spoon, and for a chocoholic like me, this was something I couldnt just ignore. The waitress did try to fob me off with a paltry kakao, but I was insistent, cokolad it would be. A tip for any other chocolate fans out there ask for chokolad, prosim, and if she asks, topli? give her a hearty ja!.
With chocolate no doubt smeared all over my face, I wandered down Kidriceva ulica with its many quaint shops and cafes. I tried to ignore the smells of freshly baked burek, but having skipped breakfast, I ended up buying two of the greasy but delicious cheese pastries from an Albanian vendor hiding down a backstreet. Happily nibbling on my burek, I blundered through the alleys in my usual fashion. Ive said it a thousand times in other reviews, but really, to explore a town, go and get lost in it. My parents always like to know where they are going, my brothers always have to pinpoint their exact location on a map, but I dont care if the road I choose takes me right out of my way. Exploring a town this way, you might discover buildings, monuments, shops that other tourists wont ever set eyes on.
That evening, I dined at a pizzeria called Atrij. It was somewhere in the old city and I found it by chance, coming out of a quiet backstreet to be confronted with an unexpected garden with tables and chairs. To come to Slovenia and eat pizza is a bit of a disappointment, but all the other restaurants in town were seemed to be upmarket fish restaurants, not an option for fish-hater me. Still, Koper has very close links with Italy, being just over the border from Trieste, and a thriving Italian community still exist, so the pizza was as good as any in Italy.
Returning to my hostel, I walked past several bars packed with what looked like students. I would have liked to have had a pivo at one of them, but nature was calling and the only place I could think of to go was the hostel. I could always come out later, or so I thought. The stairs up to my room were in darkness, not a sound to be heard in the corridors. My watch told me it was just after 9pm, so I thought it a little strange. In my room, Miha was already dressed for bed.
Did the porter shout at you? he asked.
Oh, we have a curfew in here. You must be in bed by 9, and the lights go out at half past.
He then confessed that it was great to have a tourist in his room, because it meant he might be able to persuade the night porter to let him read magazines late into the night. I asked how old the students in the dormitory were.
This is for 16 to 19 year olds. Those over 20 have another dormitory over the road. They are allowed to stay up until 11!
Miha was 19. 19 year old students in England dont go to bed at 9pm they go out!
Sure enough, just after half past, someone knocked loudly on the door, before barging in. A heated discussion went on between Miha and the nightporter, with several hand gestures towards me I busied myself with re-arranging my bag, and kept well out of it. Suddenly the porter bounded towards me and took my hand, crying Benvenuti! Miha was ecstatic hed been given permission to keep the light on for as long as I wanted!
The following night, I was assured, a slightly deaf porter might be on duty, and Miha began to conjure up ways to escape outside without being detected, so he could show me some of Kopers nightlife. It wasnt to be, as the same porter was prowling the corridors when I crept in just before lights out.
On my last day in Koper, I took a walk along the seafront. Kopers coastline was made for inline skaters, with a wide tarmac path snaking its way from the old town along the bay and round the headland to Izola and Piran beyond. Everyone was on skates. Little children being towed by their mums, groups of teenagers doing jumps and spins, couples gliding past arm in arm, even two oldish women gave it a go, raucously laughing as they clung on to each other. I walked as far as the headland, and turned back to look at the view.
Kopers old town used to be on an island, my tourist map informed me, but I couldnt work out how. But from this angle, it all became clear. The towers and steeples of the old town rise up slightly, and I guess there has been a lot of land reclamation since the island was joined by a causeway a couple of centuries ago. Now, where there used to be sea, you have a concrete beach and a shopping centre.
Back in town, I walked round the town walls, and arrived at the port. Koper is Slovenias major port. Actually, it is the only port in Slovenia, as well as being the port of choice for Austria. If ships are your thing, then a walk around the port area will be interesting, as boats from all over the Adriatic dock here and you can hear all sorts of languages being spoken.
If only Koper had somewhere cheap to stay, other than the hostel. I dont like the whole curfew idea anyway, but 9pm was just ridiculous. Maybe the situation in the summer is different, once the students have gone home and it wholly becomes a youth hostel, but during term time, you are treated like a naughty schoolkid if youre running late. It was amusing at the time, and I enjoyed chatting to Miha and a couple of the other students, but it would have been so much nicer to have a bit more freedom.
Getting to Koper is easy. One thing to remember if you are coming from Italy is that Koper goes by the Italian name of Capodistria on bus timetables. From Trieste, frequent buses hop over the border, and the journey took just under an hour with a very brief passport check at the border. With Slovenias entry into the exclusive European club, they might not even stop at the border any longer. Buses for Izola and Piran leave from behind the big supermarket near the seafront. Piran deserves all the fuss. It is a stunning red-roofed town jutting out to sea on a finger-shaped promontory, and well worth a day trip, especially out of season. For Slovenias capital, Ljubljana, you need to tramp up the dual carriageway to Kopers bus terminal, from where buses also leave for Croatian Istria and Trieste (Trst in Slovene).
Koper isnt the sort of place to veer madly out of your way to visit. Like I described Alexandria a few weeks ago, Koper is a living, working city, where tourism is just a hobby. You can spend a day or two enjoying the place, but by then it is time to move on. Visiting Koper as a day trip from Piran might leave you questioning why on earth youve come Koper cannot compare with Pirans beauty. But the other way round works well stay in Koper and make a day trip to Piran. Koper is a good introduction to Slovenia, convenient for those cheap Ryanair flights to Trieste and a pleasant town to rest up in for a couple of days. Use it as a springboard for the rest of Slovenias many attractions.
(Before I get lots of stick from those expecting a review of Amasra...Amasra comes later, so if that's what you're after, scroll down!)
On a wintry morning in County Durham, a little after nine, I stumbled out of bed and dragged myself, half-asleep and clutching a piece of burnt toast in my hand, over the road to a converted barn. From somewhere in the fog, a cow mooed at me. A bitterly cold wind hit me full in the face. It began to rain. Yawning, I knocked on the barn door.
Buyurun! Late again. Now, repeat after me geliyorum, geliyorsun, geliyor
four equally tired-looking faces looked up as I took my place, mouths moving unconvincingly through the present tense of the verb to come.
geliyoruz, geliyorsunuz, geliyorlar. Good! And again, geliyorum, geliyorsun, geli
While the teacher wrote rules of Turkish vowel harmony on the blackboard, we traded confused looks and raised eyebrows, our breath coming out as steam, as the heating had packed up again in this neglected little corner of Durham University.
Now, if the last vowel is an a, an undotted i, an o or a u, your stem will be formed with
My mind drifted. It was too early to be as energetic as the teacher, too cold to concentrate. The walls of the tiny classroom were bare, save for a dirty old poster in the corner. Colour had long since deserted the poster for warmer climes, the edges tinged with brown and beginning to curl. It was an old advertisement for tourism in Turkey, showing an elderly man in a flat cap leading a donkey laden with hay past a couple of ancient timber houses on a cobbled street. I began to wonder if such a place still existed in modern Turkey, kept safe from over-enthusiastic property developers with penchants for concrete and high-risery. Probably not.
the final vowel is an e, the suffix will be what, Maikli?
Lesson over, I paused beside the photo before going home. It wasnt just one street. In the background, where I expected to see drab apartment blocks, there were hills covered with similar rickety wooden houses. It was all very picturesque, quaint even. My teacher caught me looking.
Safranbolu. Cok guzel. A very beautiful place.
Id like to go there, I said.
Yes, you should. But first you must get to grips with these verb patterns. Now come on, out! I need to lock up.
x ------ x ------ x ------ x ------ x ------ x ------ x ------ x ------ x ------ x ------ x ------ x ------
While the intricacies of of Turkish verb endings managed to elude me for much of that year, especially around exam time, the name of that town must have somehow lodged itself in my mind. That summer, when I spotted a bus office in Istanbul selling tickets to Safranbolu, on a whim I booked two seats for myself and a friend who was traveling with me.
What did you go and do that for? my friend asked incredulously. I thought we were going to the beach. You know, Kusadasi, Bodrum?
Well, no rush, we can go to the beach afterwards. Its not far, I lied. But it was only a half-lie Safranbolu is near the coast. Just not the Aegean, where my friend had visions of partying until dawn in a big resort. He picked up his guidebook to the Turkish Coast, going quite pale when he located Safranbolu on the map, a million miles away from Aegean revelry, but very close to the albeit unfashionable Black Sea coast.
What the he started
Trust me, youll love it! I only hoped I was right.
x ------ x ------ x ------ x ------ x ------ x ------ x ------ x ------ x ------ x ------ x ------ x ------
Stepping off the bus the following day, my worst fears seemed likely to be confirmed. The town was a nothingness of half-finished concrete blocks and petrol stations, not a cobble or a flat-capped elderly man in sight. I bit my tongue and concentrated on getting the bags, sensing that my friend, whod been remarkably quiet on the journey, was working himself up for a bit of an outburst. Just as tempers were bent on exploding, a middle-aged woman approached and asked if we were going to Safranbolu.
Is this not Safranbolu? I asked.
No, this is Kirankoy. Safranbolu is down in the valley. Turn left at the end of this road and youll see it.
I strode out of the bus station, my friend trailing reluctantly behind me. After passing the last of the concrete blocks, the road began to descend steeply into a green valley. Without warning, a picture-postcard view rose up out of nowhere. Red-tiled roofs, brown and white Ottoman houses, a turreted wall on a hilltop, donkey carts trundling over well-worn cobbles, an old woman draped in shawls, bent almost double carrying a load of firewood on her back. It was just like the poster on the classroom wall. Actually it was better.
Tantrums forgotten (a big grin had taken over where a surly grimace had left off), we set about finding a bed for the night. We didnt have to look very far. No sooner had we entered the town, a sprightly octagenarian came running out from a side-alley.
Oda ister misiniz? Do you want a room?
We followed him through the narrow streets as they twisted along the contours of the valley, stopping outside a centuries-old, three-storey stone-and-wood house. The upper portions of the house overhung the street, almost dangerously as if they were about to collapse. But then every house was like this. Wooden shutters on the second floor burst open, and a headscarfed female face peered down at us.
Fatima, we have guests! the old man informed her.
Seconds later, we were ushered up the stairs by a diminutive old lady with a beaming face. Everything about the house was old the low wooden beds, the heavy oak doors, the Ottoman-style furniture, the Persian rugs, the old-fashioned stove gurgling away in a corner. But the best bit was the bathroom. What I took to be a wardrobe turned out to be a hidden door. Ducking through an extremely low doorway led me to a cupboard-like room containing a simple hole-in-the-ground toilet and a minute sink. It felt like one of those houses you had always wanted to play hide-and-seek in as a child.
Come! Eat! our hosts called.
Plates of white cheese, olives, tomatoes, aubergines and dolma (stuffed vine leaves) vied for table space with two types of freshly-baked bread and a huge jug of vishne (cherry juice).
Spirits were high as we set off to explore after that delicious dinner. The sun was setting, which gave the town a sort of magical air. Following our noses, we came across a tiny sign for a café. In the backgarden of a restored mansion, we ordered tea and listened to some traditional Turkish music. Not exactly a wild party on the beach, but my friend seemed happy enough. When it came to leave, we realized to our horror that we hadnt got a clue where our lodgings were. It was no use asking for directions, as wed stupidly not taken the name of the family or a contact number! How on earth were we going to find our way back in the dark? We wandered around aimlessly for half an hour, going first this way, then that way, thinking it must be up here only to hit a dead end or awaken a dog in slumber.
Rescue came in the form of a small boy who just happened to be walking past. We must have looked lost, because he asked,
Youre the ones staying in the Karaosmanoglu house, arent you?
Erm, well, we might be, why?
Its this way, and he skipped off up the hill. I suppose there cant have been many foreigners in town, otherwise I just cant explain this coincidence.
Whereve you been? Weve been worried! said a concerned Fatima looking at her watch, reminding me of my parents when I come home late.
Sorry, we got lost, was my lame excuse.
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Our bellies full of bread, cheese and local honey, we ambled into town the following morning to explore the place thoroughly. Our first stop was the most prominent building in town, the Cinci Hani. A Han is another name for a caravanserai (kervansaray in Turkish), a type of bank, hotel and storeroom all in one. Merchants used to sleep overnight here, resting their heads in the rooms upstairs, storing their good downstairs and their animals tethered in the courtyard. This particular Han dates from the 16th century, and UNESCO has donated considerable sums to restore it, which meant that we could only really admire the building from the outside.
Some workers saw us looking, and invited us to step in the doorway. Forget all ideas of metal scaffolding and loud tools spraying sparks in all directions. This restoration project was underway in the traditional fashion, using wooden planks as walkways, archaic-looking pulley systems and the most modern tool seemed to be a hammer. It didnt in any way detract from the beauty of the building in fact, it made it far more interesting than it probably would have been empty.
Peeking into a couple of mosques (the Koprulu Mehmet Pasa Camii and the Izzet Pasa Camii, for those who feel the need to ask), our next stop was the Yemeniciler Arastasi, which loosely translates as scarf-makers alley, a neat row of craftshops reached via the mosque courtyard. This is one place where tourism is really noticeable, as anything that is made in the workshops here is aimed at the tourist market. But dont let that put you off. Safranbolu has yet to break onto the beaten path, and is only really popular with Turkish tourists. However, that does not mean there are no English speakers around, as we found out when we sat at a gozleme stall.
And what is a gozleme? It is a sort of thin pancake with cheese and herbs inside, said the waitress helpfully as we scanned the menu for something we recognized. While we munched on our tasty snack, she told us in fluent English a bit about the towns history. There are two parts to old Safranbolu. First of all, there is Carsi (pronounced char-shuh) where the market was built. Carsi lies in the bowl of the valley, protected from winter winds, so people built their winter houses down there. In the summer, the lack of winds means oppressive heat, so the rich began to build summer mansions on the slopes of the valley, in an area now known as Baglar (pronounced baa-alar). We were sitting in the old artisans quarter, which has recently been revived by UNESCO.
After getting hopelessly lost in the winding alleys of Carsi, we found ourselves on a road heading uphill, and soon the aforementioned turreted wall could be seen in the distance. Hidirlik is a pleasant park in what looks to be the grounds of a former castle, but is actually not. Anyway, castle or not, the park makes for a great place to get your bearings over a cold drink, as the café has stunning views of the whole town. It is amazing that Safranbolu has escaped not only the intrusive concrete aprtment blocks which have sprouted up in almost every old city in the world, but also it has escaped the notice of all but a handful of tourists.
That evening, we returned to the house early, hoping not to upset the landlady again. Unwittingly we interrupted a family party, which we were invited to join. A glass of raki was thrust in my hand, and a relative began to play the lute. More bread and cheese was brought out, more raki poured, and I dont remember how I got up the narrow stairs that night. The bruise on my forehead did suggest I wasnt careful of the low doorway though!
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Bright and early, with not-quite-clear head, we boarded a minibus to the coastal town of Amasra, two hours away through some spectacular mountain scenery. Our first view of Amasra was from above, a narrow promontory jutting out into the sea, covered with red-tiled roofs, the sea around it, the bluest of blues. From that point, it took us nearly an hour to descend the twisting road down the hillside, not really ideal with a hangover.
Although not a big resort, Amasra does have a holiday atmosphere, especially in high summer. All the pansiyons were full, mainly with holidaying Turks, and it took us some time to find a place to stay. Our lodgings were at the far end of the promontory, in a family house overlooking Amasras pretty harbour. A walk around Amasra doesnt take long; it is still, at heart, a fishing village, and the steep hillsides prevent any further expansion.
There are no real sights in Amasra, apart from the view of the town itself. If you look hard, you can probably find traces of an old castle, a few crumbling historic houses, maybe even a museum. But you dont come to Amasra for that. You come for the beaches, and there is a long and popular sandy beach just next to the harbour. All afternoon we lazed on the beach, getting sand stuck on newly-applied suncream and washing it off in the Black Sea.
I should mention that the Black Sea certainly is no Mediterranean. Whereas I can happily swim for hours in the Med during summer, the Black Sea is decidedly chilly. Clean and clear it may be, but after ten minutes splashing around, we both needed to warm ourselves under the hot sun. Maybe this is why Amasra does not feature in the package holiday brochures?
For me, a beach should be long, wild and deserted, and Im afraid Amasras town beach did not do it for me, despite the great location and wonderful views of the houses perched on the rocky peninsula across the bay. To solve this problem, we hopped on a dolmus (local minibus) to a place called Bozkoy Plaji, a strip of white sand backed by nothing but thickly forested hillsides. There was more animation in the sea too. In contrast with Amasras calm-as-a-millpond waters, Bozkoy had crashing waves which pounded the sands relentlessly. Swimming in a rough sea is always far more enjoyable, and it must also do something to keep out the cold, as I was happy to swim for a good half hour before admitting defeat. Bozkoy was almost deserted, except for a few groups of students and a tiny beach café. For anyone into camping, this must be a prime location, and indeed there were a few canvas palaces hidden in the trees.
Nightlife in Amasra is, like the town during the day, relaxed. There is one outdoor disco which blasts out Tarkan and Sertab (the two most popular Turkish singers of 2001) to a mainly local crowd. If dancing is not your thing, head to one of the many waterside cafes for a glass of tea and a game of nardi (backgammon). Fish restaurants not surprisingly abound in Amasra, and there are a number of kebap and pide places along the harbourfront too for those who cant stomach fish, like me.
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Amazingly this little known corner of Turkey is just a few hours away from Istanbul! Six hours in a plush air-con coach seems like no time at all once youve had your complimentary tea and cake, and watched a film or two. Services to Safranbolu are not that frequent though, as I think only a couple of bus companies serve that route, leaving early morning from Istanbul. From Safranbolu to Amasra, you can catch the daily direct minibus early morning from Safranbolus main square, or for those later risers, you can take a bus to Bardin and connect to another bus for Amasra. If you are heading along the coast from Amasra, be warned that transport is difficult. Buses go as far as Cide, where you change for the next town, and so on all the way to Sinop. It doesnt look far on the map, but the road is bad and with all the changes, it takes most of the day to get to Sinop.
Where to stay? Well, in Safranbolu, we stayed in the Karaosmanoglu Ev Pansiyonu, where a room with breakfast and evening meal goes for less than $10 a night. When you enter Safranbolu, turn left at the braying donkey, follow the chickens up to an alleyway by a mosque, straight on past the sleeping dog and up a cobbled street on your right, then actually, I dont have a clue how to find the place again! Either ask around, or let someone else take you in. There are plenty of old houses now operating as pensions, some of them quite upmarket too.
Amasra has one largeish hotel by the beach, and dozens of pensions. We stayed at the Kale Pansiyon on the promontory with possibly the best views in all Amasra. Our spotless and spacious twin room had a balcony and a very powerful hot shower, and we had access to the family kitchen and fridge. All that for just $7 a night.
Safranbolu has the potential to become one big tourist trap. Either that or it will become a soulless museum town, its inhabitants finding it too expensive to stay. I really hope this doesnt happen, as Safranbolu is a very special place architecturally stunning, yet at the same time, a lived-in town. A lot of restoration is taking place, but it still has that run-down appeal that I love about old cities. If you find yourself in Istanbul with time to spare, youd do well to spend it in Safranbolu, with maybe a few days at the beach in Amasra. Both towns have a lot to offer, and yet remain fairly off the beaten track. My advice is to get there before the crowds do.
The best travel experiences are those which are not planned meticulously beforehand. If you have no plans, nothing can go against them
if you have no expectations of a place, you wont be disappointed. My unexpected trip to Alexandria in Egypt falls neatly into this category. Let me set the scene
Now, due to unforeseen circumstances involving an expired visa, a dead goldfish and a fat customs official (long story ), I found myself on a plane heading to Cairo from Sudans chaotic capital, Khartoum, completely unprepared for my arrival. Id been in Cairo before, seen most of the tourist sites, and had a few days to kill. Staying with Sudanese friends does tend to make one lazy, and I was rapidly falling into a routine of sleep, telly, lunch, sleep, tea, coffee, chicha and sleep. It would have been very easy to keep up this routine for the remaining few days before my flight home, and my Sudanese hosts were encouraging me to do this. To be a good guest in Sudan, you should show that you feel at home by taking a nap on a bed, then stuffing yourself silly on whatever refreshments are brought out, answering the question how are you? until everyone is convinced that you really are fine, and finally dozing back off again, zzzzzzz .
But I reasoned that I wasnt in Sudan, I was in Egypt, so things would be different here. I would not be forced into spending my days in slumber in a friends flat oh no, I would be active, adventurous, energetic! I resolved to get up early the following morning and head to Cairos Ramses Station to see where a train could take me. Where are you going?, my hosts asked me in the morning, looking concerned at the thought of me doing something for myself. We have grapes, you must eat grapes, then well all go. But eat grapes, then go!
Three days later, I managed to drag a sleepy Sudanese named Bahr (sea) along to the station, all prepared for a day trip to somewhere. Between us, wed got a camera, some money and our passports what else do you need for a day trip? This was Bahrs first ever train trip, at the tender age of 24, so he was all in awe at the vast railway station, and nearly wet himself when a train chugged into the platform. Id bought tickets to Alexandria, as there happened to be a train leaving in ten minutes. What did we know about Alexandria? Absolutely nothing!
Well, thats not quite true. While writing a university dissertation on ancient medical techniques in the Middle East, the Roman city of Alexandria popped up in the references quite frequently, so I knew it to be a historical place famous for medicine and learning in general. I also knew it to be a big industrial port, and feared that industry would have suffocated any evidence of history, leaving a polluted port with no redeeming features. What did Bahr know? Well, he knew it was by the sea, and that, for him, was a good enough reason to visit. As well as being his first ever train journey, it was also to be the first time to see the sea, and that explained the big wide grin that stayed on his face for the entire train trip.
On arrival in Alexandria, we picked up a leaflet from the tourist office, and immediately set off to explore. Leaving the impressive colonial-looking station building, we emerged into a well-kept park. For a city of Allah knows how many million, the streets were remarkably calm and clean, especially compared to Cairo. We followed our minuscule city plan down En-Nabi Danyal Street, through a clothes souq, past the Centre Culturel Francais and a Roman amphitheatre to Saad Zaghloul Square.
On three sides of this rather impressive square stand more grand colonial buildings, including the famous Cecil Hotel, where someone called Winston Churchill once stayed. But my companion wasnt interested in how former British PMs spent their holidays. No, Bahr was staring straight at the fourth side of the square, at his namesake, the Mediterranean Sea. We sat on the sea wall, watching fishermen cast their rods into the crashing waves, the odd big wave splashing our feet. The sun was shining, a cool breeze blowing in from the sea, and in front of us a sweeping view of the perfectly curved Eastern Harbour. Brightly coloured fishing boats bobbed up and down in front of an imposing square castle at the very end of the bay, while looking the other way, the brand new Biblioteca Alexandrina seemed to rise from the sea like a crested wave. Bahr was in his element. Semha shadeed, wallahi! (My God, very beautiful)
A pleasant walk along the corniche brought us to one of Alexandrias modern attractions, the Biblioteca Alexandrina, better known as Alexandrias new library. What on earth is this Maikli doing, visiting a library on his holidays? you might well be asking. The answer lies in Alexandrias past life as the centre for learning in the Roman Empire. Many, many moons ago (my leaflet informs me it was founded in 2300 BC), there used to be an amazing library of ancient manuscripts containing the most up-to-date medical theories in all the world, until it was burnt to the ground, perhaps signaling the beginning of a decline that sent Alexandria into the background. Now, with financial help from the Greek government, Alexandria is back on the map with a stunning piece of modern architecture containing thousands of books, ancient and modern.
Even if you are not the remotest bit excited over books, and the thought of touring a library when you could be out in the sun sends a wave of boredom through your brain, you cant come to Alexandria without seeing it. To gain access inside, head round the back, opposite Alexandria University, to the ticket office, where you will be bewildered by the array of different tickets on sale one for the library itself, one for the art exhibition, one for the manuscript museum, one for this, one for that, with all sorts of combinations available. Add to this a multitude of prices (Egyptian, non-Egyptian, foreigner, foreigner-Egyptian (dont ask!), student, international student, senior, elderly, child, family ) and youll soon be wishing you had a degree in tourism management just to be able to decipher the thing! If you are not Egyptian, then a tour round the library could turn out to be quite pricey, as each section costs between 10 and 20 Egyptian pounds. As we were doing Alexandria on the cheap, we plumpted for the basic library tickets and made our way to the entrance.
Now, with all the hype and the excessive security measures (think Heathrow and double it), I was expecting a magical world of books where any tome on every subject was to be found. After all, the big plan was to have the biggest collection of books in the Middle East. However, like many a planned holiday, the reality fell somewhat short of the plans, empty shelves speaking volumes about over-ambitious projects. Take away the manic Japanese holiday-snappers and the multi-national tour groups herded along the aisles like sheep, and what you have is basically a university library. Maybe the magic was all hidden away in locked rooms, the keys to which are purchased along with a combination elderly child non-Egyptian day ticket, but I have to say the library is far better on the outside.
Before leaving the library behind, we spent a few minutes admiring the building itself, surrounded by a shimmering blue pond with all the alphabets of the world carved into sandstone walls. The building rises from the ground and doesnt seem to reach great heights, but what surprises many visitors, including myself, is that inside there are seven floors.
Next stop were the beaches. Bahr desperately wanted to swim, but time was disappearing as quickly as the sun, and there was a definite chill in the air. Watching the sun set behind Fort Qaitbey (the afore-mentioned square castle), we decided to be spontaneous and stay overnight. Along the corniche are hotels to suit most budgets, from olde-worlde classic hotels like the Cecil and Windsor charging and arm and two legs for a room with a view, right down to the Blue Riviera Hotel, where an elderly French Madame will rent you a spotlessly clean room that hasnt changed its décor since the 1950s for around US$5. You can even see the sea if you ask someone to hold onto your legs and stretch out from the balcony, craning your head to the right. No prizes for guessing where I rested my head in Alexandria
After checking in, we wandered back along the lengthy corniche to the city centre, where two pairs of tired legs happily collapsed into wicker chairs at a streetside coffeehouse. (I should perhaps mention that Bahr, like most Sudanese, look upon walking as one of lifes little discomforts). Over an ahwa (coffee) and a chicha (nargileh, hubble-bubble, waterpipe or whatever you know it as), we fell into conversation with a local who was puffing away contentedly on his own apple-scented chicha.
Swimming? At this time of year? Are you mad?! If you must, dont swim on the beaches near here. You should take a taxi along the corniche to Maamoura or Montazah, where the beaches are cleaner. But it is too cold! Go to see the Roman ruins, or the boat-builders of Anfushi instead.
We reassured him that we were both quite sane, and mentioned that it was Bahrs first time at the seaside, which he obviously thought was cause enough for a celebration, so another round of coffee and more coals for the chicha were ordered. After dining on koshary (pasta, rice, lentils and a spicy tomato and chickpea sauce why on earth dont they make this in Sudan?!), we found ourselves stumbling back along the corniche to our hotel, vague memories of cheap Egyptian whisky with our new Egyptian friends wafting in and out with the sea breeze.
I do enjoy a good lie-in, probably more than most. But when I am in a new city that needs exploring, hangover or no hangover, I force myself to get up and out before the sun becomes too hot. Bahr did not have the same inclination to go sightsee, and obviously was not accustomed to copious amounts of cheap spirits. His eyes could not be prised open, and he himself could not be prised out of bed. I think he had a headache.
So it was alone that I discovered the delights of Alexandrias Anfushi district, where the fishing boats are picturesque and beg to be photographed. Round the headland, I followed the sound of banging hammers and came across several boats in-the-making. The boat-builders were not at all surprised to have a foreign tourist invade their territory, and in fact were quite welcoming, literally forcing me to have a glass of tea. Abdel Malik and Mozamil explained that they had been building and repairing boats all their working lives, but added that strangely neither of them enjoyed sailing them. Their busiest season is apparently summer, when Cairenes by the hundreds descend on Alexandria, rent boats and crash them into rocks because they havent a clue how to steer them. The waters around Alexandria are notoriously dangerous for their undercurrents, and I was warned not to swim at any beach unless a lifeguard was there to keep watch. I promised not to, but the waves didnt seem as big as they had been the day before, and promises are meant to be broken, arent they?
On the way back, I lost my way in the narrow maze of twisting streets with crumbling Ottoman mansions overhanging the road. Blundering through the backstreets without a map is one of my favourite ways to explore a new city as I wrote in my Trieste review, it is far more enjoyable when you dont know that an intricately carved doorway is lurking round the next corner. You can stumble into centuries old mosques, find hidden alleyways that lead into bustling souqs, discover a new coffeehouse.
Back at the hotel, Bahr was just about back in the land of the living. After a wake-up coffee, we flagged down a taxi and pointed at a stunning sandy beach pictured in our leaflet. The driver nodded, and claimed to know exactly where it was, so off we sped away from the city. As corniches go, Alexandrias wasnt bad but if pressed to complain, I would say that I am not mad keen on 6-lane highways lined with 1960s apartment blocks. It was also sad to notice that nowhere was more than a slow amble from a MacDonalds, Pizza Hut or KFC. The beaches may well be sandy, but who can relax with a deafening motorway in the background?
We continued to speed along the coastline, and I remember thinking, it cant be that far! Wed agreed on 15 Egyptian pounds, but when the driver pulled over in a nondescript backstreet to ask for directions, I could foresee a mild disagreement over the fare. And I was right eventually, we were dropped off in Abu Qir, where the beach certainly did not look like the one in the brochure (things rarely do!). It was blatantly obvious that this wasnt where wed asked to be taken, and that the pictured beach was back in the direction of town. A heated discussion ensued, involving a handful of nosey locals, and we ended up paying rather more than 15 pounds.
Abu Qir did not appear to be the paradise we were hoping for, but there was a sandy beach, there were people swimming, and it did not have a motorway or a fast-food chain in sight. We rented an umbrella and chairs, and quickly disrobed for Bahrs first ever dip in the sea. A crashing wave knocked me sideways, filling my ears with tiny stones and bits of seaweed. A second took Bahr off his feet, sending him bum over tum in the shallows we felt like a couple of fools, and judging by the muffled laughter coming from the picnickers further down the beach, we looked like a couple of fools too. The waves were powerful, but once youd got past the breakers, all was calm and amazingly clear. Unfortunately, Bahr was not as keen a swimmer as I was, and quickly retired to the shade of the umbrella, unable to be coaxed into the sea for a proper swim. Probably just as well Ive since heard that several holidaymakers drown every week during the summer, and thats when the waters are calmer. This was an October afternoon!
You cant come to Alexandria and not eat fish. Or at least, thats what we were told. I would have been quite happy to feast on fuul and felafel, not being a lover of fish, but sometimes you have to compromise. We asked around, and the general consensus was that we had to buy fresh fish and take them to a little shop in Abu Qirs small marketplace where they would be grilled in front of us for a modest fee. While the fish were being charred on the coals, I bought some freshly baked bread, and we took our meal back down to the beach, just in time for another spectacular Alexandria sunset. It looked as if wed have to spend a second night in the city a long day trip then!
The following morning, we returned to Anfushi for a second look at the fishing boats, this time with camera in hand, and investigated the area around the castle. Fort Qaitbey was built on the spot of the famous Pharos lighthouse, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. If you can dive, there is an underwater museum where traces of ancient Alexandria can be seen through a diving mask. If you cant, you just have to try and imagine how Alexandria would have looked back then. Fort Qaitbey is now a naval museum, something that didnt exactly inspire me to shell out for the tickets we contented ourselves with the view from the recently regenerated Ras at-Teen corniche area where the citys young and trendy pass their time cracking open sunflower seeds, eating popcorn and trying to impress members of the opposite sex.
The whole district had been spruced up for tourists, with newly surfaced promenades lest they should topple off into the sea, maps in foreign languages in case they should lose their way, caleches (horse-drawn carriages) for weary limbed sightseers. But where were the tourists? Aside from the coachloads at the library, I hadnt seen a single other foreigner. OK, it was off-season, but Cairo was thronging with them. Why dont they come here?
The answer probably lies in the fact that Alexandria hides its many attractions well. There are many nice aspects to this city, but an awful lot is quite ugly. If it is beaches you want, head to Marsa Matruh or Sinai. If it is ancient monuments, then youll be better served in Luxor, Aswan or Cairo. Alexandria just cant compete, and has decided not to bother. Instead of forsaking tradition for tourists, swapping fuul for banana pancakes, Alexandria has remained a living, working city, and for me, it is all the more attractive for it. People seem genuinely friendly, not something I can say for places elsewhere in Egypt where the tourist dollar is craved for. It is probably not worth jetting out to visit just this one city, but if youre in Egypt, save a couple of days at the end of your trip for Alexandria. After all, it is only two hours from Cairo.
All too soon, it was time to leave. My leaflet informed me that I still had plenty more to see, like the Anfushi Tombs, Pompeys Pillar, Al-Shatby Necropolis, the Catacombs of Kom El-Shoqafa the list goes on. Oh well, all that means is that I have many reasons to return to Alexandria for a second visit.
"The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advise against all non-essential travel to SE Turkey, places east and south of and including the cities of Diyarbakir, Van and Mardin." This cheery sentence was ringing in my ears as the minibus pulled up at Diyarbakir's enormous black basalt city walls, firecrackers sounding all around me. Thoughts of PKK violence and racial hatred did come to mind, as Diyarbakir is well-known throughout Turkey as being a majorly important Kurdish centre and a fairly lawless place. My travelling companion, a Turkish friend I studied with in Syria, climbed out of the bus and stood next to me. BANG! A firecracker exploded just by our feet. "I see the Bayram celebrations have started already," she casually remarked before marching off into the darkness in search of a hotel. Despite all the warnings, Diyarbakir had calmed down a bit by 2000, although the journey here still wasn't completely without risk. I hadn't planned to come this far east...this was supposed to be a quick hop over the border from Syria during the Eid/Bayram holidays, long enough to visit maybe one or two towns, and head back to school in Damascus. That was before a crazy Turk had decided to accompany me, and out plans grew and grew...and so, late one evening, we found ourselves at Dag Kapisi (Mountain Gate), the main entrance to what remains of Diyarbakir's old city. I have to admit that Diyarbakir would never win any beauty contests. It is an ancient city built on the banks of the River Dicle (Tigris) and surrounded by what are reputed to be the longest unbroken walls after the Great Wall of China. However, inside the walls, the buildings tend to fall into two camps: old and decrepit, or modern, concrete and soulless. If you are not put off at first sight, the Diyarbakir rewards the visitor with hidden mosques, barely-functioning churches poking out from behind trees and rubble, narrow alleyways leading to busy m
arkets. What really attracted me to Diyarbakir was not historical wonders...Diyarbakir had a strange atmosphere, something like that of a frontier town, which in a sense, I suppose it was. Kurdish women rub shoulders in the market with Arab traders from the south and Turkish army generals...you hear all sorts of languages on the streets. Because of the troubles, there is a heavy military presence here, with a result that Diyarbakir felt like a city waiting on tenterhooks, not totally at war, but not totally at peace either. At first, it seemed as if everyone viewed us with suspicion...after all, not many foreigners had ventured inside the walls for several years, so the question on a lot of people's lips was what the hell were we doing there! The first morning, we took a walk down the main artery of the old city, on the look out for a pastane or bakery. Over a cake and a warming cup of tea, we struck up a conversation with the cafe owner, a young Kurdish man who was very pleased at having two foreigners eating at his place (even though my friend was Turkish, coming from Istanbul was considered the same as coming from abroad!). His friend came in from his clothes' stall just round the corner, and after refusing to let us pay for our breakfast, they closed their businesses and took us on a tour round the city! A very embarrassing event really...it is amazing how generous people can be at the most unexpected moments. Our first port of call was the Deliler Han, a former caravanseray now transformed into a very posh hotel and restaurant called "Otel Buyuk Kervansaray". We had a look around the reception area and briefly glimpsed the courtyard where there was a large swimming pool with views down towards the shining Dicle River, but we were shuffled out by the receptionists...apparently non-guests are not allowed unless they look the part! Nearby, we climbed up a tower set into the walls...I don't think I would
have found it on my own, so it was a good job we were with locals. From here, we had access to the city walls, and took a walk along them all round the city. In places, you have to make acrobatic leaps of faith over sections that have disintegrated, but for the most part they are fairly in tact. One section near the castle enters a military area, and we were turned back by some very surprised-looking soldiers. This was Kurban Bayrami, the Islamic festival which commemorates the slaughtering of the ram by Ibrahim. All day we had seen pick-up trucks race past with whole families crouched in the back, young children clutching worried-looking sheep in their arms. In the south of the old city is a sort of wasteground, and this was used for Bayram festivities...a small funfair had been erected, the big wheel adding some much-needed colour into this remarkably grey-brown city. Feeling peckish, our new hosts bought us some Turkish bread from a bakery and took us back to their cafe to cut it up and present it with baklava and another glass of tea. Apparently this is quite a normal thing to do...take along a loaf or some other food, hand it to the waiter and as long as you buy a drink or something, you can eat it there...problem yok! I can't think of anywhere in Britain that allows this... After our delicious lunch, we headed over to Ulu Camii, the Great Mosque, one of Diyarbakir's more impressive historical monuments. I waited in the courtyard while the other three entered the prayer hall to pray. An old man in a flat cap and fairly ragged clothes spotted me and attempted to chat with me...well, this was my first visit to Turkey so at that time I knew nothing of the language...I'm not even sure if he was speaking Turkish! In the end, he grinned a toothless grin and handed me a little bag of sugared chickpeas and shuffled off to wash for prayers. Diyarbakir is also home to a good number of Christians...Greek Orthodox, Syria
n orthodox, Armenian Catholic...they're all here, each denomination with its own church. The first church we came across was almost totally in ruins, just the walls standing and a makeshift altar in one corner under a tarpaulin. After years of neglect, the roof had finally caved in, and the congregation of nine couldn't afford to repair it. I forget which particular church it was, but it was certainly in a sorry state...with grass growing tall on the floor, chickens running amok where pews had once been, it was almost beautiful in a sad kind of way. The caretaker's family lived in a shack within the church grounds, and had built a small temporary church in a cow shed. They also said they had applied for grants from certain cultural organizations, and were hoping for restoration work to commence soon... Just round the corner, we paused outside a nondescript building with a door that barely carried out its function, tied on with rope and string and cloth. Eventually someone came to answer our knocks, and we followed them through a dark passage into an enormous grand courtyard. This was the Syrian Orthodox Church, also short of a lira or two, but functioning rather better One of the priests came out to greet us, sporting an enormous beard and dressed in robes, surrounded by a babble of children. Midway through the conversation, he suddenly turned to me and asked me a question, and my friends had to explain that actually I was a foreigner. Immediately, his reaction towards us soured a bit, I'm not sure why, but for a few moments we felt distinctly unwelcome. One of them must then have told him that I was studying in his native Syria, and suddenly he broke out into a huge smile and welcomed me in Arabic. Replying in Arabic pleased him even more, and he agreed to give us a quick tour round the church complex. Again, this church had a minimal congregation, but somehow found the funds to run a small orphanage. Our hosts lived just round the co
rner from this church, yet this was the first time in their lives that they had dared to enter. That evening, feeling fairly full after two quite hefty meals, we found a traditional baklava shop selling a local delicacy. Su Boregi is a very sticky sweet with that thin noodle-like pastry covering a layer of white cheese, all drenched in honey...delicious as it was, one portion was quite enough for the both of us! The following day, the local police hinted strongly that maybe we would like to move on. The Kurdish New Year, Nowruz, was approaching, and although I'd have very much liked to have seen the festivities (which involve jumping over fire to burn away bad luck and bring in good luck), there had been violence in recent years and the police didn't want to be responsible for any trouble involving us. Never being one to ignore friendly suggestions from burly men wielding kalashnikovs, we said goodbye to our friends in the pastane, and boarded a bus to the interestingly named town of Batman. Unfortunately, interest in Batman stops at the name, as it seemed to be just a large industrial city. However, we had heard about a little village on the banks of the Dicle called Hasankeyf, had to pass through this concrete mess to change transport. Swapping an air-con bus for a minibus with bald tyres and a tie-on door (seems to be a trend in this region, tie-on doors!). For the duration of the ninety minute trip, I was wedged between an old woman's shopping bag, which seemed to contain only massive green leaves, and a worried looking sheep held by an even more worried-looking young boy. Arriving in Hasankeyf an hour before sunset was maybe not the best plan ever, although we did have time to explore the village before darkness crept in. Hasankeyf is a tiny place with a huge history. The village is littered with ruins, and while the ruins themselves do not rival places like Petra or Palmyra, the stunning location makes up for all that.
After taking the obligatory sunset photos of the ruined bridge over the Dicle, some local children led us up the hillside, passing cave-houses, some of which are still lived in today. Some of the inhabitants have now abandoned their caves in favour of the "new village" (which is still centuries old), and a group of cave dwellings has been transformed into a popular outdoor cafe. At the top of the hill are the remains of a castle with great views of the river and the village down below. For me, Hasankeyf was the highlight of my brief trip to SE Turkey, but unfortunately future visitors may not get to see it. You see, Hasankeyf is destined for a watery grave, as a huge dam is scheduled to be built upstream, flooding the entire valley. If this goes ahead, only Hasankeyf's castle will stand above the water level, but experts believe the pressure of the water will cause even that to collapse. At one point the British Government was rumoured to be financing part of the dam, and a couple of villagers asked me to tell Mr Blair how beautiful their village was. The dam has been put on hold, but still the fate of Hasankeyf is unclear. There are plenty of hotels in Diyarbakir...for those with money to burn, there is the Kervansaray, as mentioned above. Due to the lack of tourists, I doubt there would be any problem finding a room available if you just dropped in. If you are watching your lira like we were, then there are a number of cheapish places just inside Dag Kapi on Kibris Caddesi. We randomly chose the Hotel Dicle, which offered room for $10 per person...this wasn't the cheapest place in town, but I'm not sure how comfortable my Turkish friend would have felt as a single female in a really cheap hotel. The Dicle was warm (it was April, so everywhere in this part of Turkey is freezing cold!), clean and the staff handled all the police registration fuss for us, so no real complaints. In Hasankeyf, there is an Ogretmen Evi, which i
s a house for visiting teachers...knowing what teachers' houses are like in Sudan, I imagine it is pretty basic, but we didn't stay overnight...we hitched our way back into Batman, before hitching throughout the night on the mountainous roads to Lake Van...but that's another story, coming soon maybe... Transport in Turkey, I have since found out, is excellent, although things in the SE are a little more, shall we say, relaxed. Also, because of the recent troubles, make sure your documents are in order, as there were frequent police roadblocks on all roads in and out of Diyarbakir. As a rough guide, the journey to Mardin on the Syrian border took us three hours and cost a couple of dollars. hitching is possible, although not advised ever...being on a budget and wanting an adventure, we gave it a go and it worked, although in hindsight it was probably a very stupid thing indeed! Buses run to nearly every town from just about everywhere, and most of the buses are fairly comfortable...they certainly beat the British National Express buses! To sum up...hmmm...well, Diyarbakir can only be described as strange. I like strange places, but know many who don't, and I think a lot of my friends would not have enjoyed spending a couple of days in this neck of the woods. It is maybe not the best place for an induction in all things Turkish, and Diyarbakir is certainly no Istanbul, but if you are willing to hunt around for your ancient karavanserays rather than have them handed to you on a plate, then consider including Diyarbakir on your itinerary, preferably as part of a much longer tour of Eastern Turkey. Those worried about safety shouldn't be...in 2000, things were on edge a little but the region was fairly peaceful and we had no real problems going where we wanted. Apparently the security situation has improved a lot in the last couple of years, and I can imagine that Eastern Turkey is a fantastic place to visit...stunning mountain lan
dscapes, towns untouched by tourism, genuinely friendly people...writing this, I'm itching to go back!
### Sorry about the choice of location for this review...but according to dooyoo, Syria doesn't exist at all! As soon as Syria and Damascus are added as locations, I can move this review to its proper home...can anyone tell me if it is possible to add locations to this site?### If you've read my Damascus review, you'll know that I spent 9 months living in Damascus while studying Arabic, and saw nearly every corner of Syria. I'm not going to repeat myself with descriptions about Damascus or Aleppo, so this will be about the rest of Syria. For an introduction to the Middle East and Arab culture, Syria is a good bet...not too "foreign", yet exotic at the same time. Travel there is very easy, and so is getting a visa (apart from at the border...go to an embassy in your own country, otherwise you'll be turned back!). Not wishing to sound like a piece of tourist literature, but Syria does seem to have everything to offer a tourist...friendly people, great food, cheap prices, deserts, mountains, ancient ruins, fascinating cities, castles, and a coastline. And it has the advantage of being one of the few places yet to be invaded by MacDonalds and Coca Cola. But tourists seem to think of Syria as a dangerous country, until they go there themselves. Syria is nearly crime-free...virtually no street crime...that's not to say it doesn't happen, but I feel safer walking down dark alleys in a Syrian city than down a well-lit street at night in England. The main threat to your life will be from the traffic...crossing roads can be a nightmare. People often write that Syrian drivers are terrible, but I think they must be quite good...to be able to drive like they do and not have an accident is quite an admirable skill!! During nine months, I only saw a couple of minor traffic accidents, although experienced one or two hairy moments! What are the downsides to travel in Syria...well, litter is one that sticks
in my mind. The Syrian mentality when it comes to litter seems to be "why throw rubbish in a bin, when there is a perfectly good beauty spot to dump it at?" And I suppose the lack of bins doesn't help either. It just means that wherever you go, there will be plastic bags and drinks cans surrounding you. Then there are the mukhabarat...or secret police. Although they are trained mainly to listen out for Syrians speaking badly of their president or praising "the Zionist enemy" (i.e. Israel), there are two departments especially for foreigners. No-one knows who is mukhabarat...it could be the waiter in that nice cafe, or the old woman next to the carpet shop, you just don't know. So don't allow the conversation to progress onto politics...avoid at all costs, even if you think you know them well. Some foreigners use codes to talk about Israel, such as "Disneyland" or "Iceland". Don't panic if you do let something slip...more than likely you won't be hauled into jail and beaten...but you might not get that visa extension you were hoping for. Bureaucracy was something that drove me mad...but getting an extension on a tourist visa should be fairly straight forward...it's only when you want complicated things like residence visas and permission to leave Syria (once you've become a resident, you have to get one of these), then you'll need a lot of patience and a fair amount of good luck (it seems to help if you are a female, and wear a low cut top just for the occasion...I did not have this advantage!). Money can be a problem, as there is only one bank which is the government bank (at the moment...it is rumoured that foreign banks will be arriving soon). You can't get money to you once inside Syria, as credit cards are next to useless, and there are no ties between the Central Bank of Syria, and foreign banks. Travellers' Cheques are a pain to change, although it can
be done in banks and on the black market (but be discreet...try asking foreigners living there, who can recommend a good dealer), but cash is better, more specifically, US Dollars. If you run out, you can access cash machines (ATMs) in Beirut (Lebanon...about 3 hours by road from Damascus) and amman (jordan...six hours by road from Damascus), but make sure you have a multi-entry visa for Syria, or you'll end up stuck! (lebanon has no Syrian Embassy, and Syria has no Lebanese embassy...treated as "one nation, two countries" but not much help to the traveller!...and Jordan is a difficult place to get a Syrian visa...trust me, I tried!) Back to the nice things...well Syria has an awful lot to see.The standard tour group will visit, the spectacular desert ruins at Palmyra (Tadmor in Arabic), Crac des Chevaliers (one of the best preserved Crusader castles), the roman ruins at Bosra, and the cities of Damascus and Aleppo. These sights are the most touristy in Syria, which is not saying much...at least not yet, anyway. For instance, I took my parents to Palmyra in the height of the tourist season, and we counted at most 50 other people...which spread over a huge site (mostly free to enter, by the way) is hardly crowded...in fact at times it felt as if we were the only ones there. But I would recommend leaving this "tourist trail" and visiting some lesser-known sites. Hama is a beautiful small city (half of which was demolished in 1982 after an Islamic uprising against the government, but we don't talk about that....) on the banks of the Orontes River. Its main attractions are the norias, or water wheels...they are enormous, and if the river is in full flow, then the noise they make is tremendous...but if you go during a dry period, they will be a little bit disappointing to say the least, so come after rain! Homs is mainly an industrial city, but interesting for its souqs and the Khalid Ibn Walid mosque. Nearby are
some deserted ruins, the best being those at Afamia (Apamea) which rival Palmyra for size and beauty, but when I went, it was just me and a few sheep. This part of Syria is surprisingly green as well, lying between two mountain ranges, and getting a fair amount of rain in winter. The mountains are nice, but not nearly as spectacular as Lebanon's mountains (the white peaks you can see from the Damascus-Aleppo highway and Tartus looking south are in Lebanon). It should be good for hiking, but the Syrians aren't great outdoor enthusiasts ("why walk, when you can go by bus?") so there are no paths marked, and of course the government would never allow a foreigner access to detailed maps. The coast is disappointing...don't come to Syria for a beach holiday. Passable beaches do exist north of Latakia (at Blue Beach, which is privately owned by two huge hotels, and at Ra'as al-Baseet, probably the best of a bad bunch), but for the most part the coast is polluted. Tartus is a pleasant city, but there isn't much to do there, apart from taking a boat out to Arwad Island (marketed as a Syrian version of a Greek Island, with added rubbish...a LOT of rubbish) and making trips into the mountains to see villages such as Safita, and less well preserved crusader castles. South of Damascus is the Hauran region, which includes Bosra...if you are into ruins, then there are plenty here to see, like Shabwa (half ancient roman city, half lived-in village) and Qanawat. And a bit further to the west is Jolan, more famously known as the Golan Heights. This might strike fear into some readers...I mean, who would dream of visiting a war zone...but you can visit Quneitra, a city which was demolished by the Israelis when they withdrew in 1973 (?) and now lies within the UN Buffer Zone. This is an essential part of a trip to Syria, if you can stomach all the propaganda. You have to get a permit from the Ministry of the Interior in Damascus (take
your passport...it will take five minutes), then take a bus to the nearest vilage to the "front line" where you will be assigned an army guide. Your guide will tell you (or rather point out to you, if you don't speak Arabic) where you can and cannot go, and will show you the main "sights"...the ruined mosque (climb the minaret for a great view, it will be your only chance to climb a minaret in Syria), the deserted shopping street, and the Golan Hospital, now little more than a shell. There is a restaurant right next to the Israeli frontier, and you can sit and look at Israel with rented binoculars while sipping your tea. It seems to me that it is a bit of a game of cat and mouse...the Arabs blast nationalistic music across the frontier, and the Israelis retaliate by sending jeeps hurtling down the dust track on their side, causing huge dust clouds to engulf the restaurant. A very peaceful war zone! Near to Damascus are several Christian villages, some of which still speak Aramaic, although this seems to be a bit limited nowadays, and the only Aramaic you are likely to hear is on a folk cassette or at one of the monasteries in the pretty village of Ma'aloula. But my favourite region in Syria has to be along the Euphrates River, around Ar-Raqqa, Deir ez-Zur and the Iraqi border. Next to no tourists venture this far east, so you will have all the attractions to yourself. There are loads of ruins along the banks of the river...Halabiyyah, Dura Europos, Mari, and Mayadin...and don't miss swimming in the river (apparently it is bilharzia free, and seems to be fairly clean). Getting around Syria is easy...there is always a bus going to wherever you want to go, so you rarely have to wait longer than an hour at any bus station. As long as you are not picky about comfort...there are some exceptionally comfortable buses, but they only do the main routes, and for outlying villages you will be relying on minibuses, or
service taxis, where there are no limits on the number of passengers inside! It is extremely cheap to travel, though....you can cross the country on one of the better buses for US$10 (a ten hour journey from Damascus to Qamishle in the far north-east). Not knowing Arabic is not really a problem...of course, it does enhance a trip to Syria, but there are enough English (or French) speakers around. But even the most badly pronounce Arabic word will go down well! Clothing deserves a mention...Syria is predominantly a Muslim country, with a large Christian minority, so dress doesn't have to be as conservative a many people might think. A few basic rules...no shorts (you certainly won't argue with this if you visit during the winter months!) for men or for women, and if you want to "fit in" a bit better, most syrian men wear long sleeve shirts, not t-shirts. For women, you don't need to cover your face or hair...Christian women and some of the more liberal Muslim women dress pretty much as they like in the main cities, although they never expose much flesh, so you should do the same. Leave behind suntops and shorts! Don't wear anything too tight...unless you want a lot of harrassment from the men. If you plan on visiting any mosques (and you can't come to Syria without at least visiting one mosque) then women will need a headscarf to cover their hair. Some mosques used to foreign tourists have special gowns for hire, but in smaller, more out -of-the-way places, you'll need to bring your own. Don't forget that Syria gets surprisingly cold in winter, sometimes even getting a smattering of snow on the ground, causing the country to slip momentarily into chaos! Bring warm clothes for winter, and at least one warm item for summer...it gets quite cold in the mountains, as well as in the desert at night. One thing I have noticed tourists do is try to "go native" by wearing "traditional" clo
thes...well this is OK as long as it only goes as far as wearing a keffiyyeh (the Arab head-dress, or Arafat's tablecloth, as my Mum calls it!) as a scarf...but others go further, and risk the ridicule of the locals, who dress pretty much as anyone else does...jeans and a shirt. One of the worst cases of a tourist going native was an American man on a tour in Damascus...he'd bought a white jellabiyya (one of those long flowing robes which men wear in the countryside)...but forgotten that his rather loud Garfield boxer shorts were on view to everyone!! One of the main attractions of Syria is the genuine hospitality of the people...on a number of occasions, I have been stranded in villages, and invited to stay with a family...all payment is refused, although you can try to repay them via the children by giving them sweets or postcards etc...especially at Eid time (Eid is Arabic for festival). Don't give sweets, money or pens to children who accost you in the street though...this is one of the negative effects of tourism, and one not limited to Syria. The food has a reputation of being tasty but dull...and most restaurants have exactly the same menus...lamb kebab, chicken kebab, hummus, tabbouleh (a type of salad) and various other dips, all served with flat Arab bread which is delicious when hot, but boring when cold or from a supermarket. In the home, it is a different matter...you won't find this type of food in restaurants, so if you get the chance, don't turn down an invitation to eat with someone at their home. Summer is hot...very hot, so not really the best time to visit. Winter can get cold, but it is a short winter...I had sunshine well into November, and winter was over by mid-February. spring and autumn are the peak seasons...more visitors (still not many though) and good weather. If you are looking for a slightly different destination for your holiday this year, but don't want anything too &qu
ot;exotic", then Syria may well fit the bill. Ehlen wa sehlen fiikum ;@P
When I mention Sudan, what is the first thing that springs to your mind? Is it terrorism? Or maybe war? What about famine? Or perhaps you have visions of camels in a desert, blistering temperatures under a hot sun? Well, if you had any of these thoughts, you?d be partly correct. Yes, there is an ongoing civil war in parts Southern Sudan, and tribal conflicts in many other areas, but the north remains safe, and new peace talks will maybe bring the war to an end soon. Yes there may have been a couple of terrorists of Sudanese origin, and Osama Bin Laden did use to live in Khartoum, but there are probably more terrorists in London or Paris than there are in Sudan. Yes, there are hungry people, famines caused by drought?but there is more than enough food in places, and you?ll be fed and fed until you burst if you come as a tourist. Yes the weather is extremely hot, although it isn?t just sun all day long?we have a rainy season during which flash floods affect huge regions of the country. And Sudan does have desert, an awful lot of it?as well as mountains, savannah, swamps, forests and the longest river in Africa, the Nile. Sudan may not be at the top of your travel plans list, probably somewhere round Azerbaijan and Yemen, but as I showed with those two destinations, Sudan has far more to offer than the media gives it credit for. I?ve been living here for a year, and think it may be time for me to put a few thoughts down about the country. I?ve already written a review for Khartoum, so I won?t bore you with more words on that city, but I have plenty more to say about the rest of the largest country in Africa, particularly about my city, Kassala. Sudan will never become the new Nepal, Mexico or Thailand...there just aren't enough attractions, and the cultural restrictions certainly aren't to everyone's tastes. If you're hoping to be astounded by archaeological wonders or wand er round medieval covered souqs, then look instea
d to Syria or Turkey or somewhere else in the Middle East. Sudan does have many archaeological sites, such as the Pyramids at Meroe and Jebel Barkal, but they are small and fairly difficult to reach. The souqs are mainly modern affairs, and, though often lively, hardly compare with the bazars of Istanbul, Aleppo or Sana'a. What you will find is a country almost completely untouched by tourism...there isn't much for tourists, but you'll be made to feel very welcome and you'll experience a country that not many other people have. Whatever attractions Sudan does have, other countries have better...for example, there are some nice mountains in Kassala, but there are some spectacular moutains in other parts of the world. However, Sudan does seem to have a monopoly on one thing, and that is hospitality. The Sudanese are incredibly friendly and welcoming to foreigners, and while that sounds like a huge generalization, I have to testify that it is true...everywhere you go, people will invite you to drink tea, take rest, eat lunch, stay the night, etc....it is amazing how some of the poorest people on earth are some of the most generous. To travel anywhere in Sudan, you need a multitude of documents?copies of your passport, visas, travel permit, photo permit, archaeological permits for visiting ruins. I?ll start with mentioning a few places that are easily visited without too much fuss. From Khartoum, the easiest places to go lie in the north. Mr. Bin Laden funded the tarmac road which heads along the banks of the Nile as far as Atbara, passing some of Sudan?s most important archaeological ruins. The Pyramids of Meroe (known locally as Ahram Bajrawiya) suddenly pop into view a few hours out of the capital, in the middle of nowhere. About thirty black stone tombs poke upwards from behind orange sand dunes, volcanic crags in the background and not a soul in sight. Built during the Meroi tic period, these tombs are supposedly far older than the Pyra
mids of Giza, and although I?ve never been to Giza, I?m sure Meroe is more spectacular, not least because of the total lack of decorated camels and touts. Atbara is usually ignored by those few tourists who come to Sudan, and to be honest there isn?t a great deal to do here, but the town has a unique atmosphere. It is the centre of Sudan?s railways, and contains many examples of British colonial architecture around the railway station, which makes the town pleasant to wander round. From here you can take an epic train journey east to the coast through the Red Sea Hills. If all goes well, you?ll be in Port Sudan 18 hours after leaving Atbara, but that doesn?t allow for sand covering the tracks, cows blocking the line or passengers falling asleep on the roof and falling off, something which happens quite regularly I?m told. We had to wait two hours while a search party went off to rescue some poor soul who rolled over and off?amazingly he suffered a few bruises only! Port Sudan is one of Sudan?s big disappointments. Hot, steamy, busy, industrial, dusty?it would seem as if the city has nothing to redeem itself (funny how all my Sudanese friends describe it as ?beautiful?). However, visit Port Sudan around the Prophet?s birthday (Mawlid an-Nabi) and you?ll find a party city?well, as much of a party city as you?ll ever find in Sudan. A huge square is devoted to Sufi prayer tents, kebab stands, stalls selling sickly sweets, and music blaring from every corner. The beaches of Port Sudan double as communal toilets and rubbish dumps, so swimming isn?t really an option in the city. For that, head south for an hour to the ancient port of Suakin. Set on an island, Suakin is a ruined city of coral houses and palaces. Legend has it that a king once built a palace with a room for each of his wives?there are supposed to be at least 360 rooms, so he must have been a very busy and a very exhausted man! The water round Suakin is clear blue, the sand a
dazzling white?and I?ve been told that the snorkelling just offshore is amazing. But be warned?Suakin is hot and extremely humid! Nubia is the region in the north of Sudan, a desert land where civilization is only possible due to the Nile. A very bumpy bus ride across desert tracks will bring you to Dongola, a pretty, laid-back town on the banks of the river, surrounded by palm-groves. Not much happens in Dongola, but it is a relaxed place to base yourself if you want to visit some of the ruins nearby. We made the trip north to Kerma to visit a Nile-side ancient fortress. The journey along non-existent tracks through remote villages was definitely worth the effort, even though we somehow managed to miss the ruins completely and got ourselves stuck in a small town that goes to sleep with the sun! South of Khartoum, things are a little more tricky?with just a normal travel permit, you can visit Wad Medani, Gedarif, Kosti and El Obeid with no problems, so I shall start with these. Wad Medani is the capital of Gezira region which lies between the Blue and White Niles. A typical Sudanese city, you?ll be able to explore endless souqs, and smoke chichi (nargileh) on the banks of the river at sunset. Monkey lovers should head to a nearby forest, where the monkeys run riot mid-afternoon, whooping and yelling at picnicking families. Gedarif is a major agricultural town on the way to Ethiopia, while Kosti on the White Nile is a good place to eat fish?neither town is particularly interesting, although if you are not fond of aching bottoms from long bus rides, they are useful places to break your journey. El Obeid, in the Kordofan region, is famous for being the center for Gum Arabic (unfortunately mis-spelt on the factory itself?I hope they don 217;t know what the real meaning of what they wrote is!!). Like many a Sudanese town, the centre is just one big souq, with anything and everything on offer. El Obeid also has a large Christian population
, and boasts a huge cathedral built by the Italians. If you get the chance, have a walk round the gardens, and maybe one of the caretakers will open up for you?inside, it is a colourful affair, full of bright religious paintings. Just across the road is a huge new mosque, built with Saudi money?however, a bit of a planning hiccup now has Muslims praying in the direction of the Virgin Mary in the belltower! All the places mentioned above are easy to visit, and any tourist to Sudan could manage to get a bus to any of those towns without experiencing any difficulties. There is a lot more to Sudan, and while much of the south (Juba, Malakal, Wau, etc?) and west (Jebel Marra, El Fasher etc?.) remains off-limits, there are a couple of places that can be visited with a bit of effort. Kadugli lies in the Nuba Mountains, an area of tribal conflict which has just become peaceful again. The town has a very African feel to it, unlike the other towns of the north, and the scenery is reminiscent of England at times, albeit an England with round mud huts dotted everywhere. Green hills and trees everywhere, Kadugli is a very nice place to spend a few days, walking round the traditional and rustic souqs, sipping tea in the shade of colonial houses, getting lost along the narrow alleys of the mud hut suburbs, and climbing some of the mountains for sunset views of the town. Security police are friendly, but are really not sure what to do with tourists?you will have to register, and repeatedly show your documents, but this is not too mush of a problem. The security police in Kassala, in Eastern Sudan, are another story. If you have ten travel documents, they will want eleven?if you produce an eleventh, they will suddenly demand twelve. The reason lies in the border conflict with Eritrea which has raged within sight of Kassala for months. The situation in the city is calm (otherwise I wouldn?t dream of living there!), but it is a real struggle to get in
to the city in the first place. Once you?ve run the gauntlet of security police, you?ll soon see why Kassala is Sudan?s prime honeymoon location. Backed by the weirdest mountains you can imagine, surrounded by lush fruit orchards, and cut in two by a seasonal river (the Gash), Kassala is, in my opinion, the most beautiful part of Sudan. In the colourful souq, you?ll see a mix of tribes not seen elsewhere. Haddendawa men with big afros brandishing even bigger swords happily bargain with Rashaida women, whose heavily decorated veil covers their mouths but not their hair. Beni Amir with tribal scarring on their faces stroll past Hausa children, originally from Nigeria. You can?t come to Kassala without trying the coffee on Totil Mountain. Take a minibus to the village of Khatmiya on the mountain slopes late afternoon, and just follow the crowds to one of the little cafes built into the rocks. Round straw huts on huge boulders can give the impression you?ve just wandered onto the set of the Flintstones. The coffee is thick, black and strong, heavily laced with ginger, and accompanied by popcorn. Make sure you sip the water from the well of Totil?as the story goes, drink from the well and you will return to Kassala one day. Afterwards, have a look at Sayyed al-Hassan?s tomb?he was a local holy man, and tomb is now a site of pilgrimage attracting many women for some reason. Locals don?t object to non-Muslim visitors, as long as they show respect for religious customs (take your shoes off when approaching the tomb, and women should cover their hair). Khatmiya is the oldest part of Kassala, and probably the most photographed too?not without good reason. The Gash river runs through the town, cutting it in two. If you visit in the dry season, it can be hard to imagine a raging torrent of water coming from the Eritrean Mountains, as all you?ll see is a flat expanse of sand. For nine months of the year, it is used for football training and kara
te in the early evenings, and is a pleasant place to walk. As soon as the rains come, the banks of the Gash rival Totil as the top location for couples ?mixing?, huge crowds coming to see the muddy water flow past. Unfortunately, in August 2003, Kassala was hit by devastating floods, with many parts of town totally destroyed including parts of the souq and the university (where I work). Over 300,000 were left homeless after this little-documented disaster?it makes me angry to think that it didn?t even get one mention on the BBC back in Britain. Maybe now is not the best time to visit Kassala?food shortages, dirty water supplies, no electricity, many services disrupted, and a lot of building work is going on, not to mention the outbreak of disease. Hopefully Kassala can recover?if it can, then it will no doubt once again be the most beautiful place in Sudan...I?ll keep you posted ;@P Of course, there are many places I have not yet visited, like Dinder National Park, the ruins at Marawi and Karima in the north, and Nyala, a wild-west town under a bit of strife at the moment. I will update this review as and when I get round to visiting these far-flung places. Accommodation in Sudan ranges from top class (in Khartoum and Port Sudan only) to basic male-only dormitories with smelly toilets and river-water bucket showers. In the major towns, there is usually one place resembling a hotel (by hotel, I mean a place with rooms containing just one or two beds), but often the only choice is a local laconda?while it is nice to sleep on a rooftop out in the open, you don?t always get the good night ?s sleep that you need. Also, bring a mosquito net with you, as malaria is a problem in Sudan?I?ve had it, and it was not something I?d recommend! Transport in central Sudan is fairly good, with buses leaving Khartoum for most towns quite frequently until late afternoon. For Atbara, Gedarif, Wad Medani, Kosti, Kassala, Port Sudan and El Obeid, yo
u can travel in style on one of the ?tourist? coaches?National Express has nothing on these buses, which are punctual (unlike everything else in Sudan), serve food and drink, and entertain you with films (albeit at full volume!). These are relatively expensive, but worth every dinar for longer journeys. Cheaper buses mean less legroom, no air-con, louder music, and less frequent stops for ?essential business??they are also more likely to break down. Then come the haflas, overgrown minibuses which ply between towns and more remote villages, no road too bumpy. There is also a train network, with lines between Port Sudan and Atbara, as well as the Khartoum-Atbara-Wadi Halfa line which connects with the ferry to Aswan in Egypt. The border with Egypt is open, and is easily crossed. You can cross to Ethiopia south of Gedarif, the first town in Ethiopia being Gonder. The border crossing at Kassala/Tessenei to Eritrea has been closed since 2002, but with the end of hostilities, it may be reopening soon. As far as I know, the border with Chad is fairly difficult to reach because of the problems in Darfur State, but I did meet a German who had cycled from Chad, so I guess it must be open. The other borders remain firmly shut. Sudan is an Islamic country, and it operates under Shari?a Law. Things have become more relaxed in Khartoum recently, but for the tourist, the main drawback is that alcohol is forbidden. It doesn?t mean you won?t find it, as there are always people willing to break the law, but it is not widely avail able. Penalties are strict if you are caught. Of course, if you are an alcoholic, you won?t have even considered coming here in the first place. The other effect on tourists is dress?women are expected to cover their heads and dress modestly, although non-Muslim foreigners don?t have to do this. However, you may feel more comfortable if you do, as less attention will be paid to you. Men should also dress modestly?Sudanese men
only ever wear shorts in bed, and you should do the same. Sudan is not an easy destination for the traveller. The amount of difficulties faced getting visas, and sorting out paperwork once in Sudan, may put many people off coming at all. If you do decide to come, you need to do a bit of forward planning to make the best of your trip?if you only have a couple of weeks, you might find yourself stuck in Khartoum waiting for documents to be stamped and signed, and that would be very frustrating. If time is limited, then the best idea is to get in touch with a local travel agency who can do all the running around for you. Once you?ve got round the bureaucracy, you are free to enjoy what Sudan has to offer. As I said before, the attractions are hardly amazing in comparison with other parts of the world, but what makes Sudan special is the people and the almost total lack of other tourists. If you can take the heat and are prepared to rough it a bit, if you can cope with dirt, dust, electricity cuts, bruised knees from bumpy buses, frequent security checks, if you don?t need luxury at every turn?then welcome to Sudan. If that doesn?t sound like you, then maybe you should stay away, and enjoy the country from your armchair instead.
When planning a holiday, Sudan probably doesn't immediately spring to mind. You probably think "who in their right mind would go to Sudan on holiday?", and I wouldn't blame you for thinking that. Sudan doesn't feature in glossy travel magazines or holiday brochures...instead it is a regular among the BBC World News items on war and famine in Africa. For that reason, tourists tend to give Sudan a wide berth, and the Sudanese government doesn't exactly encourage the adventurous few who do dare to enquire about visas. So why am I here? I live in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. I am here as a volunteer English teacher, working in a no-frills secondary school...but aside from teaching, I have managed to do the "touristy" things in Khartoum, and will use this space to try and make it sound like an attractive place. I thought teaching was hard, but this is much more difficult! Sudan is not a pretty place. There are nice views and pleasant places to visit, but it can't be described as beautiful. At least, I have not seen anything to persuade me to write otherwise as yet. Khartoum, a huge sprawling metropolis, is not immediately likeable. It is hot, dusty, poor, chaotic, crowded... There are few old buildings, the rest made from concrete, either half finished or half demolished (sometimes hard to tell). The few colonial buildings left over from the British era are in such a bad state of disrepair that they are hardly worth braving the heat to track them down. But in spite of all this, Khartoum grows on you. The location of Khartoum is slightly special...it lies at the confluence of the Blue and the White Niles. And yes, they are different colours, the one being a sort of muddy grey, and the other a dirty brown. Across the White Nile is Khartoum's more traditional cousin, Omdurman, while facing Khartoum on the opposite bank of the Blue Nile is Khartoum North, more commonly known as Bahri. Bahr
i is mainly a residential and industrial suburb, and apart from a couple of riverside cafes and a busy souk, there is little to tempt the visitor across the bridge linking it with Khartoum. Why do I like Khartoum? Well, I like it for all the reasons I listed above...it is hot, dirty, chaotic, etc...it all depends on mood. If I am in a bad mood after a hard day's teaching/crowd control, then the last thing I want is to be accosted by a thousand and one beggars with missing limbs in the heat of the day while trying to navigate the heaving souqs to locate my bus, a rusty pile of metal which somehow manages to move. The chaos will give me a headache, I will snap at anyone who dares to shout out "khawaja" ("foreigner!") at me, and I will curse the city to Hell and back. If, on the other hand, I have had a good day (and this is more likely), then I see it all in a completely different light. On these days, I can't think of anywhere I would rather be than being jostled in the souqs by Dinka tribesmen and covered women with tribal scars on their faces. Being slowly crushed on a local bus is seen as one of lifes little pleasures, especially when all thoughts are drowned out by the unique sound of Sudanese pop music. The dusty streets are "rustic", the decay "adds to the character" of the place, the heat becomes bearable, the chaos is vaguely amusing. You have to prepare yourself for Khartoum. The chaos, the heat and the poverty will hit you hard as soon as you step out of the plane. It might seem like an India with no redeeming features. If you come expecting the worst, then you'll find it not too bad at all, but come expecting a charming Arab city with five star luxury, and Khartoum will be your version of Hell. If you can do without luxury and comfort, then maybe you'll enjoy your time in Khartoum and the rest of Sudan. For someone stuck in the city for a few days, then the
re is more than enough to do, so I will start by talking about the attractions in Khartoum. Your first introduction to the city will probably be Souq Arabi, the huge melee of buses, rickshaws, beggars, fruit juice stalls and shops that forms the centre of Khartoum. On the map, it looks like a rectangular plaza, but in reality it is a collection of bus stations based around a large mud-brick mosque. Buses come at you from all directions, as do the beggars....there are thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons who have descended on Khartoum in the last decade, each one with their own tale of misery...the problem is deciding who to give your money to. Although crime is rare in Khartoum, this is one place to watch your bag. After a fruit juice or six at one of the many stalls, you could do worse than visit one of the two museums. There are actually meant to be four museums in Khartoum, although I've only seen two of them open. The main one is the National Museum of Sudan, an extensive collection of ancient artefacts from all around Sudan. The ground floor deals with the archaeological finds, while the top floor has paintings lifted from churches of the old Christian kingdom of Dongola. Don't miss the temples, taken down brick by brick, transported to Khartoum and reconstructed in the museum's grounds. Look hard and you can see some graffiti left over from 19th century excavations. If archaeology isn't your thing, then outside in the ruin-strewn gardens is a pleasant cafe where you can contemplate what the crocodile pool once looked like when it had water and crocodiles in it. The second functional museum is the Presidential Palace Museum. This houses a bizarre collection of gifts that the various leaders of Sudan have accumulated from foreign dignitaries. Look out for the first piano in Sudan (maybe been dropped down a flight of stairs in its lifetime, methinks), the Persian chess set, and an unusual orname
nt from the Omdurman Abbattoir Union. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this museum is the building itself...it is housed in a former Anglican church, complete with plaques commemmorating the lives of British soldiers who died here. Again, this museum has a garden cafe, and a greenhouse containing cast-off presidential cars. The ideal location for graduation photos, or at least, that must have been what a group of Thais thought when they arrived en masse in gowns and mortarboards one Friday afternoon! Don't ask me why.... Both museums cost 100 dinar, which is less than 50c/30p. Also note that these are two of the very few places in the country selling postcards, so stock up here! Museums aside, there isn't an awful lot to do in Khartoum. Down by the University of Khartoum is an impressive cathedral, although the gates have been locked every time I've tried to enter, so I cannot wax lyrical about the interior. The mosques, as far as I know, are off-limits to non-Muslims, which is a shame, as one or two of them are very striking. Once you've finished church and mosque spotting, then the next thing to do is head down to the Nile and sit admiring the view while sipping tea or mango juice at one of the riverside cafes. There are plenty to choose from, all rough tables on dirt floors, all charging more than normal but still well within the budget of a rich "khawaja". Take any bus heading to omdurman, and you'll pass a string of such cafes just after the national Museum. For the adventurous, you can take a boat over to Tutti Island for 15 dinars (i.e. nothing). This is not for the faint-hearted or the infirm...the motorized boats sit very low in the water, are crammed full of passengers and could capsize at any moment in the strong currents of the Nile. Tutti is a peaceful haven though, a traditional mud-brick village of dust roads and farming land. This is the place to come in the late afternoon, when the
weather becomes cool enough to explore the maze-like alleys, and the sunsets from the boat terminal are among the best. If you walk the length of Tutti, then you'll come across another boat terminal with even more rickety canoes heading over to Omdurman. Omdurman, although technically part of the metropolis of Khartoum, is a city in its own right. Omdurman is much more traditional than Khartoum, and actually has something to show for its fairly short but infamous history. When the British conquered Khartoum, the Sudanese leader known as the Mahdi set up camp opposite the city, founding Omdurman. Nowadays, you can visit the Mahdi's house (Bayt al-Khalifa) which is now an interesting small museum showing how the Mahdi and his family lived. Next door is a colourful and striking conical tomb surrounded by palm trees...this is where the Mahdi is buried. Unfortunately, non-Muslims cannot enter, so you'll have to make do with the view from afar. Along the river banks are the remains of Omdurman's mud-brick defences. I say remains, as there really is not much left, but with a few good cafes nearby, these might be worth investigating if you have the time. A better trip would be to Omdurman Souq, a confusing area of narrow street markets about a mile inland. Although this souq is nothing in comparison with Damascus' Souq al-Hamidiyyah, or Sana'a's Suq al-Milh, Omdurman Souq can be a fascinating place to wander round, particularly in the late afternoon. Like other Arab souqs, each street tends to sell a different type of product...one row of shops sell beads for jewellery, another has spice stalls stretching as far as the eye can see, another street is dedicated to bicycle parts, while another doesn't actually sell anything at all...ebony-skinned men in pure white jellabiyyas and turbans sit behind tables with one item on display. The ones with axes are labourers looking for a day's work, while those with a ligh
t bulb on show are electricians waiting to be hired. It is more for the diverse mix of people that Omdurman Souq is interesting...where else can you mingle with Dinkas and Bileng tribesmen with tribal scars on their foreheads, Arab merchants transporting their goods on donkeys, African women in brightly coloured tobes? On Fridays, most of Khartoum and Omdurman shuts down completely right up until sunset. Cafes and juice stalls tend to stay open, as do museums, but shops and transport are less reliable. On a Friday afternoon, one thing to do is to pay a trip to Hamd en-Nil Mosque where Sufis or Whirling Dervishes do what they are famous for...whirl in the sand to the complicated rhythms of Sudanese drumming. Khartoum is a safe place to walk around, day or night, despite its somewhat negative image abroad as something of a terrorist stronghold. If you listen to the Western media, Sudan is a very unsafe place to visit, and yes, parts of the country are. But here in Khartoum, there is very little evidence of the on-going war that rages in the south of the country, nor of the tribal conflicts around the Eritrean border. Crime does exist, but compared to Western cities, it is negligible. The greatest hazard comes from crossing the road. Sudanese hospitality is known throughout the Arab World. I know it is a stereotype, but in general the Sudanese are a happy bunch, extremely friendly and helpful to foreigners. Chances are you will meet new friends on buses and will be invited to their house for a meal. Take my advice...accept, but never accept more than one invitation in one day, as death by overfeeding is not the most pleasant way to go. Transport is cheap and fairly fast and reliable. The only problem for the tourist is the complete lack of signs on the buses...there is no way to know where the bus is going, and even shouting out your destination won't help you much. You just have to trust a local to put you on the right bus.
Normally, I am one for walking round cities, but Khartoum challenged that due to the extreme heat (temperatures are often in the high 30's and low 40's, and the sun is strong). Distances between points of interest are long, so getting to know the bus system is really the only way to get around the system. The buses never charge more than 60 dinar for any ride, and a "kamasaari" collects the fares on board. To stop the bus, you click your fingers at him (and it is always a "him"), and he will hiss at the driver to stop. Amjads are a faster, more comfortable and more expensive alternative to buses, although they never cost more than 100 dinar. Rickshaws are another matter entirely. Sometimes you might be lucky and find a khawaja-friendly rickshaw driver, but nine times out of ten, you will be ripped off unless you know how much it should cost. Taxis are the luxury way to travel, as they have no meters and you are at the mercy of the taxi driver...don't go near them! Sudan isn't really noted for its sumptuous and delicious cuisine. The main staple is "fuul", fava beans boiled to a mush and mixed with salt, goat's cheese and chilli, scooped up with bread from a metal bowl eaten by the roadside. Sometimes it is nice, but sometimes it tastes exactly how it looks...a bowl of s**t. Restaurant food is not really exciting at the best of times, and is mostly limited to lamb kebabs, lamb shawarmas, chicken shawarmas, ta'amiyya (felafel) and burgers. Sometimes you can strike lucky and find roast chicken or fried fish, but on the whole Sudanese restaurant food is uninspiring and stodgy. On the other hand, if you happen to be invited to a Sudanese home, then don't miss this opportunity to try Sudanese specialities such as Aseeda and Tagaliyya. Like most Arab countries, tea is very popular, served black with cardamom, cinnamon or mint, or with powdered milk. Either way it is always extremely swe
et. Coffee is also good, served thick, strong and black with lots of sugar. Kerkedeh is a tea made from hibiscus leaves, nice hot but better when chilled. Fruit juices are excellent and cheap (between 30 and 50 dinars per glass). The standard ones are orange, mango, lemon, grapefruit and guava, but don't neglect the local ones like a'aradeeb (a thick brown juice) and sha'eer (a white milky-looking drink with a vague hint of pear). Juices are always served from slightly grubby tupperware containers filled with ice, but don't worry too much about hygiene...tap water here is not only drinkable, it is actually quite good. Beware of extremely sugary orange juice though.... If fruit juices aren't your thing, then fizzy drinks are available at all shops. Pepsi, Mirinda (orange or red) and Stim (apple) are the favourites, although I prefer the Sudanese Bizianos, which tastes a bit like cough mixture at first, but grows on you quickly. Drink from the bottles outside the shop, as they want the glass bottles back! Sudan is a Muslim society, and has abided by Shari'a Islamic Law since 1983. That doesn't mean that the women are veiled completely, and it doesn't mean it is a country of fundamentalists and terrorists. The women generally do cover their hair with loose lengths of material called "tobes" or just plain headscarves, but many do not seem to be too bothered if these slip off in public or not. A Western woman would not be expected to adopt local styles of dress, but she should dress modestly and not show too much flesh. The Islamic laws also prohibit alcohol, but that does not mean it doesn't exist in Sudan. Many Sudanese enjoy an illegal drink or two, and many social gatherings among the upper classes would not be the same without a bottle of expensive whisky. Keep your distance from locally produced alcohol, though....known as Aragi, it is made from dates and smells just like paintstripper...do
n't ask me what it tastes like, I never got that far! Nightlife doesn't really exist...in the evenings, people gather in parks and cafes, and sip tea until 11pm when all parties are expected to end. Weddings, if you should be invited to one, are fun and raucous occasions with lots of African-style dancing and food...but again, these end at 11pm. Did I mention the heat? Well, the weather so far has been hot and sunny all the time, temperatures in the forties, and the occasional rainstorm. When it rains, mosquitos come out in force, so bring mozzie repellent and a protective net...and don't even think of coming without malaria prophylactics. All in all, this review probably won't make you rush to the travel agents to book your flight to Khartoum, and I wouldn't really advise anyone to come to Sudan on holiday just yet. There is a lot of potential here for tourism...river trips along the Nile, diving in the Red Sea, trekking in Jebel Marra in the west, camel racing with the Nomads, the mountainous town of Kassala, safaris in Dinder National Park, the ancient ruins and pyramids of Marawi and Dongola...just the infrastructure needed to attract foreign visitors is not there. In Khartoum and Port Sudan, 5* hotels do exist for businessmen, but other than that you're looking at $3 a night flop houses. Don't expect comfort, fine dining or lots to see and do. Come if you want to see a country virtually untouched by tourism, you can cope with a bit of grime and poverty, and are looking for a bit of an adventure. Even then, I'm sure there are many more worthwhile places to visit in the world before Sudan begins to tempt. If you have the chance to visit friends or relatives in the country, then I would seriously consider going, but if not, maybe you should try elsewhere.
Trieste must rank as one of Europe's most under-rated cities. Lying in the forgotten north-eastern corner of Italy, for years almost cut off from the rest of the country by the so-called Iron Curtain, the port city of Trieste (Trst in Slovene) is neglected by the tourist crowds in favour of its better known and more beautiful sister venice. I must admit that passing through Trieste by train five years ago en route to Slovenija, there did not seem much to stop for. It seemed ordinary, nondescript, industrial, consisting solely of factories, cranes and mist. A town made to be forgotten...and forget it I did, until I happened across Ryanair's website offering flights to Trieste Airport for a ridiculously low sum. A quick glance at a map, and my head was filled with ideas of a short trip to Slovenija, a country I had wanted to re-visit for some time. Trieste would just provide a convenient and cheap gateway, nothing more. Arriving at Trieste's tiny airport, the idea was to get myself to the city bus station as quickly as possible, leaving on the first bus to Koper, a medieval town just over the frontier. Quick and easy, so I thought...at least that was the plan. The fact that it was Easter Sunday and that Italy was a religious country had not entered my mind! I had also not bargained for the uselessness of the airport bus system, so when finally a bus dropped me off at the bus station, it was too late to move on any further. No reservation at a hotel, hardly any Euros, and absolutely no idea where to start looking for a place to stay. As for my Italian linguistic skills, well I could remember how to ask for a francobollo (a stamp) and find out where the nearest bar was, but that wasn't going to help me find a bed for the night! After walking around the station area for an hour or so, trying to figure out my next move and cursing the city, the airport, the buses, myself, life in general...I jumped into a taxi asking for "ostello" on th
e off chance that there might be a youth hostel in Trieste. The taxi sped off back along the coast road towards the airport, and ten minutes later, just as I was seriously wondering if there was about to be a case of abduction or homicide, the driver pulled up outside a grand yellow-painted building on the seafront, announcing "signor, ostello!". A wave of relief swept over me as I saw the blue triangle logo of Hostelling International, and a second one hit me as I found out that a bed was available. Something else hit me as I walked into the dormitory...the nasty odour of sweaty feet. Even though the one and only window was wide open allowing a slight breeze to come in off the sea, fourteen hot, sweaty, snoring lumps of flesh packed in like sardines, and unwashed clothes draped everywhere, made me suddenly remember why I hate youth hostels! Is there something wrong with me? I mean, I'm 22, I love travelling, can cope with the most offensive of hotel rooms, and have a strict budget to follow,so by rights I should love youth hostels from the bottom of my heart. But there is something peculiar about them, something I cannot stand. Is it the petty rules, the curfews and the lock-outs? Is it the silent breakfasts of stale rolls and "strictly one cup of weak Nescafe per person"? Is it the "no privacy showers"? Well, no, I'm not keen on any of those aspects, but what I find the mostirritating are my fellow guests, particularly the ones who never stop yacking about places they've been on their six-month grand tour of Europe, mispronouncing every place name. Whatever you've done, they've done it better. Wherever you've been, they've always been further. I call them wiwis ("when I was in...", Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, Trieste. The following morning, after my one cup of weak Nescafe and stale roll, I gathered up my stuff and set off along the promenade in search of a
bus. Still not in the best of moods, due to lack of sleep and a particularly mundane dialogue with an Aussie wiwi, my mood brightened somewhat with the sight of dawn over Trieste and its seaside suburb of Barcola. Eight kilometres is a long way, and I had intended to take the bus, but as it was such a nice morning, I chose to walk into the city centre. Passing the outdoor cafes and the marina of Barcola, I noticed that it was deathly quiet. Maybe I was just early? So I plodded on, alongside the train tracks into the transport hub of Trieste. Again deathly quiet...what was going on? Hearing church bells in the distance, it dawned on me that it was Easter Monday, quite possibly a public holiday. My worst suspicions were confirmed by the lady at the ticket kiosk. "Non c'e", she replied when I asked about buses to Koper. My first reaction is unrepeatable! What on earth was I going to do for another day in this industrial hellhole? And how could I survive another night at that hostel? I stomped out of the bus station, badly in need of an espresso, so headed into the town centre. The first surprise greeted me five minutes later. Rounding a corner, suddenly there was the Canale Grande before me. Forget any similarities with Venice's namesake...this grand canal is most definitely unpretentious, but arguably more likeable. While it doesn`t even try to compete with Venice`s canals, it is an impressive sight, filled with tiny boats, and surrounded by outdoor cafes, churches, fountains and old palazzos.On Easter Monday morning, the place was almost silent...hardly a soul in sight, until the church bells began to ring, and churchgoers flooded into the waterside cafes. If this was anywhere else but Trieste, I`m sure it would be thronging with tourists, but on that morning, it was just me, a couple of fishermen, some dog walkers, and local coffee-drinkers. At the far end of the canal, there is a large building which I took to be the
town hall...I could be wrong, but remember, I wasn't planning to stay longer than a few minutes in Trieste so had no guidebook or map with me. Next to it was a Serbian Orthodox Church, the Chiesa di San Spiridone, and a bit further along is the Palazzo Gopevic, with red and white chequered tiles which reminded me of the Croatian flag. Trieste is where the cultures of Italy, Austria, Slovenija and Croatia merge, and signs of this cultural diversity can be seen in by walking down a single street. A group of Slovene shoppers sit eating Austrian pastries in an Italian cafe opposite a Serbian church and a Croatian palace! You won't find that in many cities... A little further along the seafront brought me to the vast Piazza Unita. Again, the square was quiet, with only a few families feeding the pigeons and sipping espresso in the cafes. To get my bearings, I took a walk down one of the many concrete piers on the sea side of the square. From the end, I saw that Trieste had many more surprises in store for me, and decided that maybe it wasn't such a bad thing, being stuck here for another night. If things had gone according to plan, I would have left Trieste with the same impressions that I arrived with. Instead I had the opportunity to discover a truly unique city devoid of foreign tourists. I decided to head uphill to what looked to me like a castle on the hilltop. Usually, I would have a guidebook to help me find specific sights, so this was a completely new way for me to sightsee. Blundering round the narrow, twisting streets leading off behind Piazza Unita, I stumbled upon a miniscule Roman amphitheatre, just one of Trieste's many Roman remains. Unlike Roma, where ruins stretch as far as the eye can see, Trieste's ruins are interspersed with medieval houses, parks and shopping streets. Finding a trace of Trieste's ancient history is an unexpected event, and for me, this was one of the highlights of being lost in Trieste. I
always say that the best way to get to know a city is to get lost in it, and again this proved to be the best strategy. If I'd have found the tourist office open and picked up a map, chances are I would not have enjoyed Trieste as much. It is much more enjoyable to stumble upon an amphitheatre or a Roman archway by accident than it is to know exactly what is round the next corner. Heading upwards, the streets become narrower and twistier, until you reach the Cathedral of San Giusto on the hilltop next to Trieste's castle. here, I encountered the only sign of tourism in the city...two tour buses with elderly Italian tourists, and a small stall selling drinks and postcards. Still, the hilltop was big enough for two tour groups and me, so i wasn't complaining at all. The park between the cathedral and the castle is filled with some bizarre sculptures, and makes a pleasant place to write postcards, sitting on a wall with a great view over the rooftops below. I happily spent the next few hours exploring the older parts of Trieste, before taking the bus back towards the hostel to investigate an imposing white structure i had spotted from the sculpture park. A five minute walk from the hostel led me to Miramare castle, set in acres of parkland on a headland. Remarkably, the parkland is free to enter, but don`t expect it to be deserted, especially at weekends or on holidays. On Easter Monday, the place was jam-packed...but there was still room to escape the crowds, as there are several paths criss-crossing the cliffside. The castle is open to the public too, for a fee, but if you`re feeling cheap like I was, you can be content with peering in the windows on the ground floor! Probably more impressive on the outside anyway...Miramare really dispelled the myth that Trieste was an ugly polluted port city...the parkland is a nature reserve, while the surrounding coastline is a marine reserve. One problem I found with staying at the host
el was the lack of restaurants nearby. The curfew at 11pm is not such a difficult rule to stick to, as the last bus from Trieste centre leaves at 9pm. But this means that either you have to eat in Trieste fairly early, or face a long walk into Barcola where there are a few pizzerias and fish restaurants. After a full day's sightseeing, the thought of a 3km walk to Barcola is not exactly relished! The following morning, I was actually quite sad to leave Trieste, although I was itching to get to Slovenija. The bus station has, on normal days, several connections with towns in Slovenija (Koper and Piran are very well served), Croatia and beyond, so Trieste makes an ideal gateway to this region. But don't be a fool like me and try to rush from airport to border...you'll miss out on this unusual city if you do. Trieste should not be overlooked. There is more than enough to see and do in the city and its surroundings...who needs Venice and its crowds when you have a fascinating Italian/Slavic city almost empty of tourists (well, foreign tourists anyway) just down the road?!
Azerbaijan isn't on the top of everyone's "must-see" list, and most people haven't got a clue where it is. Some might have heard of it because of oil, and others might remember hearing about it's long-awaited independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, but that's about it. From reading a couple of articles on the net about travelling to Azerbaijan, I was lead to believe that it was just a concrete jungle built on a landscape totally destroyed by oil. It did not sound promising, but, ever one to disappear from the tourist trail as much as possible, I decided last summer to pay a visit to this unusual and bizarre country wedged between the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea.
Travel in Azerbaijan is not exactly like going on holiday to Tenerife. It is bl*&dy hard work, let me tell you! Firstly, there is the lack of tourist infrastructure...not many travel agencies, lack of hotels outside Baku (the capital), and a haphazard public transport system. The refugee problem resulting from the dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabagh has taken up most of the hotel beds in the country, and this dispute certainly hasn't helped Azerbaijan's image abroad. But, if you can cope without facilities and comfort (don't expect there to be constant water and electricity...or even any at all), then Azerbaijan is definitely worth considering as a destination.
Baku, the capital, was a pleasant surprise. Before my trip to the capital of Azerbaijan, I'd seen pictures of "nodding donkeys" in a polluted environment, and apartment blocks stretching for miles. Nobody had told me about the well-preserved old town, the tree-lined promenade alongside the Caspian Sea, or the streets of the oil-boom town filled with shops, cafes and "beautiful people".
The old city is maybe not the most atmospheric of places, although you'll still find stone houses leaning over cobbled streets where head-scarved women stand and gossip. But many streets are in the process of being "sanitised", buildings spruced up and renovated, converted into the headquarters of a dozen international oil companies. If you've read the wonderful book by Kurban Sa'id, "Ali and Nino", which is set partly in Baku, then you may be a trifle disappointed. Ali Shirvanshah would be turning in his grave if he could see the oil barons' mercedes or the fashion boutiques which have now invaded the once-quiet streets of his city.
That's not to say there isn't anything to see in Baku's old city. Right at the heart is the enormous Palace of the Shirvan-Shahs, the prime tourist attraction of Baku. It costs a few hundred manat (the Azeri currency) to enter, a few thousand to take photos, and a few thousand more if you want to bring a video camera in. What gold-toothed Gulia does not tell you as she happily relieves you of your manat is that much of the complex is under extensive renovation, so at present access is severely limited, and photo opportunities are few and far between! Sounds like a rip-off, but then you realise that you might be the only tourist that week, the fee is not really that much when you convert it to sterling, and somebody has to contribute to all that repair work. The parts you can access are undoubtedly impressive...
The other main draw in the old part of town is Baku's most famous landmark, the Qiz Qalasi, or Maiden's Tower. This oddly shaped structure used to mark the seafront entrance to the city, but now it stands like a beached whale at least 100m from the shore. There are many legends surrounding this tower, the most popular being that of a king who wanted to marry his own daughter. She agreed, but wanted him to build her a tower first...and when he had finished the tower, she threw herself off the top, to avoid marrying him! If you want to follow in her footsteps, you can climb the tower for a small fee, although throwing yourself off isn`t totally recommended. This is the place to come to get your bearings, as some of the best views of Baku can be snapped from here.
In an arc surrounding the old city walls is the Oil Boomtown, built in the 19th and early 20th centuries by all manner of businessmen who made it rich quick. Grand mansions and wide boulevards, this is where Baku's beautiful hang out. Fans of architecture will have a field day, as each of the oil barons tried to outdo the next, the mansions becoming larger and more bizarre as the years skipped by. Today, this is the heart of commercial Baku, where you'll find the majority of shops and restaurants.
Fountains Square is THE place to be seen, lined with trendy cafes and bars, although it is sad to see that the most popular cafe is the one with the golden archways...yes, yet again old Ronald MacDonald has bagged the best location and spoiled the atmosphere of a pleasant square. Walking through Fountains Square in the early evening, it is hard to believe that this is where Europe and Asia meet. It feels totally European, and could just as easily be a square in the south of France. But there are always reminders of nearby Asia...the beggar children from Nagorno Karabakh, the call to prayer from a nearby mosque (albeit, semi-drowned out by Madonna or Tarkan), two old men playing nardi (backgammon) on a park bench, fiddling with prayer beads between throwing the dice...
Round the corner is Nizami's Museum of Literature (Nizami is Azerbaijan's most noted writer), although unless you have a deep knowledge of Azeri literature, your enjoyment will be limited to admiring the building. Bright azure and turquoise tiles, Persian style, form the backdrop for a row of statues, six of Azerbaijan's leading writers and poets, but don't ask me to name any!
Walking along the promenade, you can get a good view of Baku's eclectic architecture. A ten minute stroll will bring you to a strange monster of a building. I've never seen anything quite like it...a cross between Soviet architecture at its worst and Moorish architecture at its best, if you can begin to imagine that (probably not easy!). Well, this is in fact the Government House. Behind it lies an enormous square, flanked by two obscenely ugly structures sitting like bookends, both former Intourist hotels, the Azerbaijan and the Apsheron.
The promenade is worth wandering along just to escape the busy streets and the heat, taking refuge in one of the many teahouses or waterside restaurants. But be warned...the Caspian Sea does give off some rather alarming odours at times!
On a hill to the south is maybe the best vantage spot in all Baku. A long flight of stairs runs adjacent to a sadly disused funicular railway, leading to Martyr's Lane, a large cemetary dedicated to those who gave their lives in the struggle for independence in 1991, and more recently, the war with Armenia in the province of Nagorno Karabagh. It is quite eerie walking between the gravestones in complete silence. You might feel as if you are being watched, and indeed you are...each of the gravestones has the face of the victim carved into it.
From up here, you can see how the city has exploded from behind the old city walls...tower blocks stretch as far as the eye can see. Look to the south, and you'll see one of the oddest sights in the world...hundreds of nodding donkeys (I don't know the proper term for these oil pumps), pools of black shiny water, oil flames. It provides a stunning scene for a sunrise or a sunset though...as someone once said, there's much beauty in physical deterioration.
There are many such views in Azerbaijan. On the road heading south out of the city, you'll pass Shixov Beach. Someone has obviously decided to make this into a tourist paradise, and I must admit they have given it a good shot. The sand is raked and cleaned regularly, beach umbrellas and sunbeds are provided, and there are even a couple of good beach bars. You could almost believe you were on the Mediterranean. Almost. If you look inland, you could. But look towards the sea, and you can't really ignore the whopping great oil rig which lies within swimming distance! A surreal sight.
My guidebook described the shape of Azerbaijan as a chicken in full flight, with the Apsheron Peninsula forming the beak. This is the centre of oil production, a place so polluted by oil that it has a strange appeal, and is one of the must-see attractions of Azerbaijan. It is close enough to Baku almost to be considered within the city limits, and it is an easy day trip from the city. One of the most popular destinations is to the Ateshgah in Suraxani. What is an ateshgah, I hear you ask? Well, it is a Zoroastrian fire temple, and not having been to one before, I thought I'd pay it a visit. Although the Zoroastrians have long since departed, the fires continue to burn inside, and it is now protected as a state museum. As busy as Azeri tourist spots go, I was again the only visitor, waking the caretaker from his slumber. He waved away any attempts at paying to enter, my admission fee consisting solely of promising to drink tea with him on my way out! As unusual as it was to look round a fire temple, I left none the wiser for the experience, as the caretaker knew very little about the place, and the captions on the exhibits were in Russian only.
Heading north, you soon reach one of the most polluted places in the region, if not the whole world. Sumgayit. Huge chemical works and factories rusting on barren land, the earth stained a reddish brown from leakages and fumes. Pipes twist like tentacles between the derelict hulks, the shells of freight trains lie on tracks to nowhere. No signs of life, save for a lone man hurdling a pipe on his way home, a fresh loaf of bread in his arms. Bleak and
depressing, but in the evening light strangely beautiful.
However, there is another side to Azerbaijan...the Caucasus mountains. Places like Shexi seem like worlds away from the polluted landscapes on the coast. A picturesque old town surrounded by perfectly-rounded green hills over which the tall peaks of the Caucasus poke their heads. You could be mistaken for thinking that time has not moved on for a long time in Shexi. A row of wood and stone houses, many containing shops selling the sticky Shexi halva, run beside a mountain stream heading uphill until the Xan Sarayi (Khan's Palace) comes into view, surrounded by evergreen trees. With the only other tourists I met during my two week trip round the country, two Russians living in Baku, I took a guided tour of the surprisingly small palace compound. Next door, a couple of museums would have undoubtedly been interesting if only the curtains had been opened to allow enough light in to make the exhibits visible (no electricity again!). If ever Azerbaijan makes the tourist trail, Shexi is sure to be the major pulling card.
Deeper into the mountains is the small town of Zaqatala, the only place where I felt at all uneasy. No one spoke to me, preferring to stare right through me, and people seemed to be waiting for something to happen. Even the cows eyed me suspiciously. Back in baku, the reason for this became clear...I read an e-mail from the Foreign Office website with a report advising against all travel to the Zaqatala region due to political unrest.
Close to the Daghestani border in north-west Azerbaijan lies Quba, a rather run-down town where clapped-out cars swerve expertly round gaping potholes to stop outside modest white-washed cottages or brightly coloured wooden mosques (which bore a remarkable resemblance to Methodist Churches!). Life here revolves around the nardi board, and throwing dice in local park is THE thing to do during the afternoon. I liked the place immediately. Across the river opposite Quba's decay is the prosperous town of Krasnoya Sloboda, noted for being the only all-Jewish town outside Israel. Here sparkling Mercs speed past flash restaurants and brand new synagogues, and the skull-capped boys are more likely to shout "Shalom" than "Selam". Back in Quba, I asked two local students about the relationship between the Muslims and the Jews...did they get on? "We don't really get on with each other. They tolerate us, and we tolerate them, but that is as far as it goes". Still, it is far, far better than the situation in Israel.
As I said, travel in Azerbaijan is not exactly stress-free. There are so many hurdles to jump over. Transport is a problem...roads are not brilliant, and I cannot imagine how on earth the buses keep running (maybe they use vodka instead of petrol!!). Distances are not huge, as it is only a small country, but it can take hours to get anywhere (Zaqatala-Baku is a seemingly never-ending 10 hour trip), and those hours seem even longer when you see the state of the inside of buses! Why is it that I always pick the one seat which does not recline, but the passenger in front's seat reclines so much that his head is practically in my lap?!!! There is next to no information for tourists, and not many English speakers, so at least some Russian or Turkish (very similar to the Azeri language) is essential. Bus stations can be a nightmare, even if there are several people handing out bus times and prices...they tend to be extremely unhelpful, but in a friendly way!
Visas are also difficult, as tourist visas are only issued if you have an invitation from someone in the country (which basically means you are forced to book a tour or a very expensive hotel). I managed to get a business visa through a friend of a friend, but that was very lucky. Border guards are often not paid well, and will look at foreigners as a good source of money, so bribery and "official fees" are common at borders.
Accommodation in Baku caters for all budgets, from Hyatts and Sheratons, through the former Intourist hotels, right down to the cheap and cheerful Hotel Araz, where the friendly owners charge $11 for a spotless room with its own babushka (gold-toothed granny) to make the tea. Outside Baku, the situation is dire, with one exception...the Hotel Kervanserai in Shexi. For $7.50 you can stay in this restored 19th century caravanserai (a pit-stop for merchants). There may not be constant electricity or water, but the welcome is warm, and the atmosphere is great. Plus the gardens hide one of the best restaurants in the country. Elsewhere, there is usually at least one hotel, usually ex-Intourist. In Quba, the octagenarian owners (a comic pair if ever there was one!) charged me $3 for a very basic room, but you will sleep well here, and you can at least venture into the bathroom at this hotel. In Zaqatala, the rooms should come with a health warning. And don't even think of venturing onto the balcony! But if you meet one of the hundreds of refugees living in this hotel, and they invite you to see their living space, you'll soon realise that your three dollar room is a palace in comparison. The refugees live here because they have no choice, which made me question the ethics of paying for the privilege of staying.
Food in Baku is no problem...in fact, the azeri restaurants are outnumbered by the huge numbers of Indian, Chinese, Italian, Turkish, fast-food etc...you won't have any problem finding something to eat in Baku. Away from the capital, you'll be at the mercy of the chef...no menus here, you'll eat whetever he has in his kitchen, usually dolma (stuffed tomatoes and peppers) or some variety of kebab, but you can come across some more interesting items like sturgeon kebab with pomegranate sauce.
Azerbaijan certainly isn't for everyone. Go to Azerbaijan if you want to see an interesting country before tourism spoils it (probably no need to rush!). If you can cope with a bit of hardship, live without constant 5* luxury, and can battle your way through bureaucracy galore, then maybe Azerbaijan is for you. There are certainly many reasons to visit, and maybe one day, the country will attract plenty of visitors, but for now, it remains firmly off the tourist trail. If you can't hack a bit of adventure and uncertainty, then maybe you should look elsewhere.
It sounded simple. Walk through the jambiyya (dagger) souq, turn left at the sleeping dog, pass the 17th century hammam, and follow the clucking chickens through a small door. There, I would find Ali and his one-eyed camel. A friend who had returned from Yemen a year earlier had given me an envelope full of photos, so armed with these and directions not dissimilar to the ones above, Osama (my former Arabic teacher) and I set off through the souqs of Old Sana'a in search of one-eyed camels. Of course, a walk in Sana'a's old city is never simple at the best of times, especially if you are looking for something in particular. Within minutes of passing under the Ottoman gate of Bab al-Yemen, we were hopelessly lost in the Suq al-Milh. Literally translated as the "Salt Market", this is the collective term for the maze of streets and alleyways comprising the main market area of Sana'a. Despite the name, you'd be hard pressed to come across someone actually selling salt, but you will find almost anything else...spice stalls overflow with saffron and cinnamon, covered women from the Tihama wave sticks of frankincense for sale at 100 riyals a bundle, old men in robes hammer away at jewellery and jambiyyas in tiny workshops, while young children rifle through piles of second-hand clothes. A wrong turning took us to a former caravanserai (sort of a hostel for traders), now the site of a suq dedicated to the sale of raisins (Suq az-Zabeeb). Now I have to confess that I always thought a raisin was just a raisin, but I was sadly misled...over one hundred different varieties of raisin are available here, ranging from the ordinary to the extraordinary, a special type bought by bridegrooms to "spice up" their wedding night. But we hadn't come here looking for raisins. We were on a mission, and had to get moving. Half an hour later we were still disorientated and bewildered in the labrynth of alleyway
s, but neither of us would admit to being lost! Osama has lived in Sana'a for 15 years, and I spent the previous summer living in the old city, navigating my way through the suqs at least twice a day on the journey between home and school...still we both managed to get lost there on a daily basis! Spotting a familiar building, we took a side street and ended up at the Sa'ila, the dry riverbed which cuts the old city in two and is used as a road for most of the year. Osama checked his watch, and looked anxiously at the fast-setting sun. We would have to abandon our mission and try again another day. You see, it was Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, when all good Muslims refrain from all food, drink, cigarettes and sex during daylight hours. I too was fasting, although I was not required to. But for a foreign visitor during Ramadan in Yemen, it is much easier to follow suit and fast alongside the Yemenis, as no food is available during the day, and munching on a biscuit in front of several hundred hungry faces is not the best way to make friends! Plus it gave me the unique opportunity to sample some of the specialities only consumed at Iftar, the breaking of fast. We had maybe an hour to get home before the sun disappeared and fast could be broken, so we quickly headed to Maydan at-Tahrir (Liberation Square) to board a dabab (minibus). On a normal day, finding the right dabab is no easy task, but an hour before sundown in Ramadan, it soon becomes chaos of the highest degree. Throngs of people wait around for a minibus heading in their direction, and you can forget any ideas of orderly queues...when one approaches it is strictly an "every man for himself" affair. Men in flowing white robes and sports jackets, a dagger at the waist, throw themselves towards the open door; children crash through legs; old men with walnut faces put their walking sticks to good use; fully veiled women bash a path through the crowd with their
shopping bags, scraping their knuckles down the spine of anyone who stands in their way; all this while the dabab is still moving. Eventually, we find ourselves jammed in the second row of a dabab, and throw a few coins at the driver. We're off, with seventeen passengers and two bewildered hens sharing six seats. One minute later, the dabab stops to let off a passenger who didn't want to take a ride but was just swept up in the crowd. Progress is slow, with the streets packed with people hurrying to buy sambosas from street-side stalls. We buy a bag of the greasy fried parcels filled with meat and spices, and proceeded down a rubble-strewn street to Osama's humble home in the new part of Sana'a. As we entered, shouting "Allah, Allah" to warn the females of my arrival, the muezzin began the call to prayer, signalling the end of the day's fasting. A glass of qishr (a drink made from the husks of coffee beans) was thrust in my hand, and the whole family broke fast in the traditional way, with a single date. After prayers in the local mosque, it was time for the serious eating to begin. Sambosas were handed round with loaves of freshly-baked flat bread, plates of rice, chicken, vegetables and extra spices appeared. All the standards of Yemeni cooking were there, as well as a few Ramadan specialities such as shfoot. Now shfoot was not my favourite dish of all time, as I'm not a huge fan of dairy products, but as a guest, and a foreign one at that, I was expected to eat more of this than anyone else. Shfoot is made from a crumpet-style dough soaked in sour yoghurt, coloured with green fenugreek and spiced with chilli, served stone cold. First impressions are never great, but this is a dish you can get used to quite quickly if forced to eat copious amounts every day! Salteh, Yemen's national dish, arrived on a metal plate to keep it boiling. A stew made from an unknown meat (better not to ask exactly what
meat!), whatever vegetables are available, and topped with a bizarre thick concoction of fenugreek and hulba, salteh contains enough spice and heat to burn the roof of your mouth off, and is an essential part of any Yemeni meal. Iftar was completed with a bowl of mahalabiyya (a semolina-type dessert flavoured with rosewater) and a glass of cardamom-spiced tea, then we made straight for Ha'il Street to buy our evening's supply of qat. Qat is a substance widely misunderstood by foreign visitors, many of whom make assumptions and opinions about the leaf without actualy trying it. As a regular chewer of qat while in Yemen, I ought to explain a bit about the stuff. Often compared to coffee and amphetamines, qat is classed in many countries as a class C drug, legal in Yemen and Britain, but highly illegal in the US and the rest of the Middle East. It contains similar ingredients to amphetamines (cathinone), but has similar effects to drinking a bit too much coffee. Qat is a national institution (some go as far as labelling it Yemen's national narcotic!), with the majority of Yemenis chewing qat at least once a week, if not every day. The effects of qat are not immediate (one reason why it has not become a popular drug outside Yemen), and take second place to the company and conversation which accompanies every qat session. Qat makes you talk, qat makes you think...so the main reason for chewing is social. In the first hour or so, it can be a real struggle to feed the bitter-tasting leaves into your cheek. The trick is not to chew too fast, and not to swallow the leaves themselves, but just the juices. There is an art to qat chewing, a science almost, and any chewer will be only too happy to explain all this to a beginner. (I wrote my dissertation on the science of qat chewing, so if anyone is interested in finding out more, let me know!). After a while, conversation comes easily, and the atmosphere becomes much livelier.
It isn't unusual for heated debates to spontaneously occur...I once found myself arguing over the finer points of Spanish history with someone equally as clueless about the subject...we almost came to blows over it!! Then follows the Hour of Solomon, when the chewers gradually sink into their own thoughts, the silence broken only by the occasional slurp of water, or utterance of "alhamdulillah" to excuse a random burp. As the light began to fade, silent figures with bulging cheeks slip off into the darkness, bringing the qat chew to a close. In Ramadan, qat chewing takes place at night, not in the afternoon, so when I left Osama's house, it was well past midnight. But the streets were not empty, the city not sleeping just yet. In fact, after dark, Sana'a becomes alive with whole families out parading the streets and shopping in the suqs until just before dawn. With insomnia-inducing qat in my cheeks, I decided to join them and spent a couple of hours strolling through the suqs, which, due to power shortages, are lit by candles, something which makes Sana'a all the more enchanting at this time of year. My lodgings were in the old city too, in an ancient mud-brick "gingerbread" house, the type which Sana'a is famous for, now converted into a hotel, the Taj Telha. My room, on the fourth floor, was basic...stone floor, wooden bed, minimal furnishings and a very basic bathroom. It cost me US$14 per night, which is expensive by Yemeni standards, but you are paying for the experience of staying in an ancient house. I was the only guest at the Taj Telha, and many other hotels were empty. My visit was in December 2001, and world events had made sure that Yemen had been firmly struck off people's holiday itineraries. The Yemeni government also brought in new visa restrictions which made it almost impossible for any foreign visitor to gain entry to the country, so at that time, I was one of only a handf
ul of Westerners remaining in Yemen. I saw one other Westerner, a diplomat who hurriedly got in his bullet-proof car surrounded by armed guards. But was it dangerous? No way! OK, I was stared at by everyone, and had one or two uncomfortable conversations about politics, but I never felt threatened, even though an Al-Qa'eeda base was known to be situated just 50km from Sana'a. Everyone I met was just happy to see a foreign tourist at last, as the tourism industry in Yemen has been shattered by 9/11...hotels and souvenir stalls have gone out of business, travel agencies struggling to stay open, hundreds of people put out of work. At first I was concerned that it would be too dangerous for this visit, but after the first day it became clear that Yemen was no more dangerous than it had ever been...and I still felt safer there than walking the streets of Birmingham. Just before dawn, I was woken by drums beating. This is the traditional way to wake people so that they can enjoy breakfast before fasting begins at dawn. I took a couple of loaves of bread to the rooftop, and watched the sunrise. It was an amazing experience, watching the city wake up, muezzins striking up simultaneously from the hundreds of minarets which pierce the skyline. Down below in the streets, the faithful made their way to mosques for prayers, but soon after, the city returned to silence. Daytime in Ramadan is subdued, and many choose to sleep in the mornings. I too decided this was the best strategy, as qat had ensured I took particular interest in the ceiling that night. With the end of midday prayers, Osama returned so we could complete our mission from the previous day. This time, there would be absolutely no dawdling in the suqs, and we joked about the silliness of getting lost in a city we both knew extremely well. So, after three hours of wrong turnings, a visit to an art gallery in a restored samsarat (where the suqs' money was stored overnight), and a brief
peek at a hammam, we eventually tracked down the elusive Ali at his mill in the heart of Old Sana'a. I handed him the envelope of photos, and his face broke into an enormous grin! Foreign visitors are rare enough to be remembered for a long time, and not many Yemenis possess cameras, so a photo arriving from abroad is a memorable occasion. I too wanted to take a couple of pictures of Ali and his famed one-eyed camel, but I was out of luck on this particular day. Ali's mill is a traditional one in which a grinder is pulled by an animal to pound the grain, and usually the animal is blindfolded in one eye to make it walk round in circles. Ali was lucky to own a one-eyed camel who walked in circles naturally, and it was him that I had come to see. But the camel had been taken to a bustaan (one of the many picturesque gardens to be found in Old Sana'a) to get some air...poor thing was too dizzy to work! X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X I think I ought to point out a few things about safety. As I said above, Sana'a feels like a very safe city to walk around, but there are risks. Recently there has been a spate of bombings, although these have not been directly targeting foreigners (maybe because there are so few anyway!) but government buildings. Kidnappings still occur, and foreigners are prime targets for this...over the last few years, an alarming number of foreigners (diplomats, businessmen, and tourists) have been taken hostage, sometimes from the centre of Sana'a, and on a couple of occasions the hostages have died. Most of the kidnappings take place in areas of the city where Westerners tend to congregate, so it would be a wise idea to steer clear of the embassies and Western restaurants in the Hadda quarter of Sana'a, and places like the Sheraton Hotel and the Sana'a trade center. The old city the other areas of the city centre are pretty much safe (any kidnapper would have problems finding
his way out of the old city if he decided to take a hostage there!). But remember that most hostages are looked after extremely well, often laden with gifts upon release. And remember too that the majority of kidnappers have their own motives for kidnapping, and are not connected with any terrorist groups. The most usual reason for kidnapping is to use the hostage as a bargaining chip with the government to try and get money for a new mosque or a school or some other vital facility for their village. Since September 11th, certain measures have been taken by the government to combat terrorism and try to halt the kidnapping. These affect foreign visitors in two main ways. The first is that visas are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain without signing up to an organised tour. Secondly, once inside yemen, there will be restrictions on travel within the country. In December, I was unable to leave Sana'a at all (no bad thing, but a bit annoying), except for a brief visit to Wadi Dhahr, just beyond the city limits. To travel anywhere in Yemen, you need a travel permit listing all of your destinations and dates...although this is annoying, these measures are in place for your own safety...if you suggest travelling through a known kidnapping zone, then you simply won't get the permit. don't think of going anywhere without the permit, as there are checkpoints on all roads. Terrorism...I didn't know it at the time, but while I was there the Yemeni Army stormed an Al-Qa'eeda base just 50 kilometres from Sana'a. The first I heard about it was from a panicked phone call from my family in England. This just goes to show how difficult it is to know what is going on in Yemen once you are there. Things change quickly, and often the last people to know are the Yemenis themselves. I'm not trying to put off any potential visitors...in fact I'm trying to do the opposite, as Yemen's tourist industry badle needs a boost.
Just for the moment, it might be better to postpone a trip to Yemen unless you are willing to take an expensive organized tour, or limit your visit to Sana'a. Hopefully the situation will improve and travel in Yemen will become easier.
When planning your next holiday, a trip to the Middle East probably doesn't spring to your mind immediately. Images of suicide bombers, terrorist attacks, sexual harrassment, a lack of alcohol and Saddam's grinning face tend to put many visitors off completely. The US and British governments' travel advice don't really encourage travel to many parts of the Middle East either. But this is a shame. A real shame. The Middle East does have its fair share of problems, I won't try to deny that, but can anyone name a region which is problem free? Yes, there are a lot of trouble spots where things could badly go wrong, but for every trouble spot there are at least 50 places where you can visit with no problems whatsoever and have a fantastic time doing so. The trick is to ignore any negative aspects you might have heard, and go to make up your own mind. First of all, where exactly is the Middle East? Now there's a question and a half! No two people seem to agree on that...for sure, it includes the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi, the Gulf States etc..) and the countries of the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, etc..). Linguistically and culturally, we can include Egypt too, but if we do that, we have to include most of North Africa. Then there is Turkey...is it European or Middle Eastern? And Iran? For the sake of this review, I'm going to include all of them...not that I have been to all of them, but I will attempt at persuading a few of you to visit the region by giving a brief overview and some opinions of my own on travelling in the area. OK, the most popular places for foreign tourists are undoubtedly Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia. These three countries have long had a tourist industry, in the case of Egypt based on the famous Pyramids of Giza, Luxor and other archaeological wonders. Turkey and Tunisia both have amazing ruins too, but most tourists are more interested in a holiday on the beach. Well, that's fine...there's no
doubting that the Middle East has some fantastic beaches, and certain places like Turkey's Mediterranean coastline, the beaches of Tunisia, Israel and Dubai are all well geared-up to welcome foreign tourists by the plane load. If you take a holiday like this, you'll enjoy it, but you won't see anything that is culturally typical of the region, and you'll miss out on a lot. The Middle East has lots to offer, more than many people think actually. Everyone automatically thinks of the Pyramids, surrounded by desert and camels. Yes, there are deserts and camels, but did you realise there are also snow-capped mountains, forests, grasslands, lakes, huge rivers...? If you think of who lives there, you probably think "Israelis and Arab terrorists" as that is what is shown on the news. True enough, I suppose, but there's a lot more to it than that. For a start, although the majority of the population are Arabs, each area has its own characteristics...I mean, Syrian Arabs are very different to Tunisian Arabs, who are in turn very different from Yemeni Arabs. Each country, each district, hell each village has its own culture, waiting to be discovered. Then there are the minorities...the Kurds, the Druze, the Circassians, the Nubians etc.... And don't forget, Turks are not Arabs, neither are Iranians. They are three separate ethnic groups which happen to share a region and a religion. Safety is often a big concern, but the likelyhood of being the victim of a terrorist attack is very remote...just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and theoretically it could happen anywhere. Crime, on the other hand, is not really a problem at all. Pickpockets do of course exist, but I think it would be fair to say that if you dropped your wallet in a busy market, nine times out of ten it would be handed straight back. Theft brings shame upon the family, so it is not just the threat of being punished which puts off potentia
l thieves, more the humiliation it would bring to the whole family. So, on the whole, crime levels are low compared to Europe and the States, and I can confidently say I feel safer walking down an unlit alleyway in Damascus at night than walking down the main shopping streets of London during the day. So, enough of that! Where to visit. For a first time visitor to the region, several countries come to mind. I wouldn't recommend travelling somewhere so different that you just about get used to the culture shock before it is time to go home. Leave those sort of destinations until later...they are not going anywhere! Egypt is an obvious choice...lots to see, and you'll be in the company of thousands of other tourists too, as Egypt is firmly on the tourist trail. But from all accounts, many visitors can't cope with the general hustling of the tourist touts, omnipresent at all tourist attractions in the country. Unfortunately I think many visitors don't return to the region because of the vivid memories of being ripped off or constantly hassled by tour guides or whatever. So maybe I should recommend alternatives. TURKEY Turkey is a good choice for breaking you in gently. It is European enough for first-timers to relax, while there is enough Middle Eastern flavour for the holiday to be labelled "exotic". Istanbul, although becoming touristy and plagued by many a tout, cannot fail to impress. The coastline is also beautiful, and attracts thousands of tourists each year during the warmer months. The standard tours of the country take in the strange fairy-tale cave houses of Cappadocia, the ruins of Ephesus, and a beach or two, finishing in Istanbul. Yet Turkey offers fantastic scope for getting off the beaten track. The north coast alongside the Black Sea receives few foreign visitors, even though parts of it are stunningly beautiful...places like Amasra, Amasya and Safranbolu, yet to make it onto the tourist trai
l, or the plain bizarre city of Trabzon. The east of the country is where you'll find ancient towns with ancient traditions, tall mountains ideal for trekking, and some of the friendliest people imaginable...and not a tour bus in site. Travel in Turkey is easy, helped by an efficient bus network, one which is streets ahead of the British public transport system. There always seems to be a bus heading where you want to go at whatever time, most buses are comfortable and fast, and relatively cheap compared to Europe. Language is not a problem either, as many younger Turks know English very well, and it is not too hard to pick up the essentials of Turkish (trying to learn more than the basics is an uphill struggle though...trust me, I've studied it for two long years!!). Officially, Turkey is a secular country, although the predominant religion is Islam...now this might strike fear into some readers, but it shouldn't. Turkey is fairly liberal compared to other Islamic countries...alcohol is available everywhere, women wear basically what they want, etc...but to get to know the country well, you should make the effort to learn about the culture and try to fit in. Oh, and the food is delicious! Forget all the horror stories about package tourists getting food poisoning...this is more likely because of hotel buffets. Forget too any thoughts of dodgy kebab shops in European cities frequented by the inebriated after a night out. Even the fussiest eater will find something to his tastes in Turkey, whether it be one of a range of kebabs, the mixed meze starters, or just plain cheese or meat pide (the Turkish version of pizza). TUNISIA Another "easy" destination would be Tunisia. Now, I have to confess to only having visited the country on a beach holiday, but it was not your typical beach holiday. I took a flight only deal, and headed down the coast away from the big resorts to the smallish coastal town of Mahdia, staying in
a basic hotel overlooking the wide sandy beach. Again, this is a country which is popular with tourists while providing many escape routes for those sick of crowds. Walking around the city of Sfax, I did not see another tourist, even though it was a fascinating city and my visit was in the peak summer season. Instead, I was able to explore local souks (markets) without any hassle from touts, and chat to a few locals in a teahouse. A hundred kilometres up the coast, groups of scantily-clad Germans and Brits sing karaoke by the pool, beer in one hand, sun lotion in the other...it depends what you want, but this type of holiday can be had anywhere, so if you come to somewhere like Tunisia, you should make the effort to explore the country, even if it is only one day away from the beach. Tunisia is easily accessible from Europe, with charter airfares quite low. Travel in the country is also fairly easy, as there are reliable trains and shared taxis (louages). Again, there are plenty of attractions, not all heaving with tourists. It is markedly different from Europe, while there are enough similarities, especially on the coast, to make a first-time visit easy. JORDAN For the more adventurous, I can heartily recommend the countries of the Levant...Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. I would mention Israel and the Palestinian Territories, but I haven't been there and maybe now is not the time to go. But Jordan has been in the tourist business for many years now, mainly due to the stunning ruined city of Petra. Think of the Indiana Jones film, "the Temple of Doom"...you know, when they come to a cliff edge and look down to see an amazing tomb carved into the pink rock? Well, that is just one of the sights to be seen at Petra. You won't be alone there, though...the tour bus crowd have certainly arrived, although recently the place has experienced "a quiet period" due to certain world events. So now is the time to visit petra if you can
't stand being surrounded by the bum-bag/fanny-pack brigade. Petra is not the only site to be seen...you can spend days wandering the magnificent deserts of Wadi Rum with Bedouin guides, famous as the location of "Lawrence of Arabia", floating in the Dead Sea, snorkelling off the reefs of Aqaba on the Red Sea, clambering the Roman ruins of Jerash. SYRIA and LEBANON Syria and Lebanon have never really had good publicity. Lebanon is still considered a war zone, even though the 17-year-long civil war ended in 1992, while Syria is black-listed as a country supporting terrorism. I lived in Syria for 9 months, studying Arabic, saw pretty much all of the country, and made a brief trip to Lebanon, so I feel the need to stick up for these two destinations. Despite the somewhat negative image, both countries have several sites worth seeing and have attracted more than a trickle of tourists. Again, both are experiencing a quiet period at the moment, so now would be an ideal time to go. Let's start with Lebanon. I must admit to having only seen the cities of Beirut and Tripoli, and missed out on the spectacular mountains and archaeological sites such as Ba'albek, but never mind...I enjoyed the trip enough to want to return. Beirut is something of a party city, recovering fast from its war-torn image, although evidence of the war is never far away. You can be sure to have a good time in Beirut though, with its beaches, clubs and fantastic restaurants (Lebanese food is famous throughout the world, and for good reason), and the country is small enough to be visited in a series of day trips from the vibrant capital. Tripoli is a more conservative place, a picturesque old Arab medina with narrow alleyways, beautiful mosques and crowded souks. The coast, although built up, would make a very pleasant place for a seaside holiday, and the mountains are favoured among hikers and skiers..yes, you read that correctly, skiers! Ok, it isn
39;t the Alps, and you shouldn't come to Lebanon with the sole intention of skiing, but I've heard that the snow is pretty good...in fact I can testify that the snow is good. I was intending to spend a day skiing, but on my way to Beirut from Damascus, we were caught in a blizzard, snowing so thickly that the mountain roads were closed and the ski resorts cut off! Syria is a good introduction to the Arab world. Not too many tourists, so the tourist sites are relaxed, empty even. There are certainly plenty of things to see such as the extensive desert ruins of Palmyra, Crusader castles in surprisingly green hills, a pleasant (if somewhat mucky) coastline, creaking waterwheels in the historic riverside town of Hama, picturesque Christian mountain villages, and of course the labrynthine old cities of Damascus and Aleppo, two of the oldest continuosly inhabited places on earth, each with their own attractions. The whole country could be described as off the tourist trail, but it is possible to delve further into "undiscovered" territory...my favourite region was along the Euphrates River in the east of the country, where the emphasis is on meeting the people and learning more about their way of life rather than seeing the sites. You can also visit an active war zone, even if it sees little action these days...a trip to the ruined city of Quneitra in the Golan Heights is a must (if you can stomach the blatant propaganda) to try to understand the problems this region faces All three countries are easy to travel in, with good and cheap transport systems. However, travelling here is slightly more stressful than travelling through Turkey...the bus stations are chaotic at best, and without knowledge of at least basic Arabic, you could have one or two hitches. But the people are generally very friendly to foreigners, there is always someone around to help you, and you'll be treated like a guest everywhere you go. The hospitality is inc
redible, you'll be invited to drink tea with complete strangers with no hidden motives, just for plain conversation and curiosity. This will change for the worse once the tour buses arrive, and it already has in certain popular places, but the hospitality is still there. YEMEN Once you've got a taste of the Middle East, it might be time to branch out and go somewhere completely different. Yemen stands out as being the perfect destination for the adventurous. This is a country which has been closed to tourism for many decades, opening up in the last fifteen years or so, so you'll find a society where traditions are strong and Western influences are rare. Yemen is quite honestly one of the most interesting, most beautiful destinations in the world. I can't get enough of the place, and even spent three months there studying in Sana'a, the famous mud-brick old city. Nothing is geared up to tourism, because there are hardly any tourists there. Frequent cases of kidnapping doesn't encourage tourism, neither do Islamic fundamentalist terrorist attacks on Western targets in the country, so Yemen has remained unnoticed by much of the tourist industry. A shame on one hand, as less people will have the chance to experience this country for themselves, but a blessing on the other, as Yemen can retain its culture for that little bit longer. If you make it to Yemen, do not expect first-class facilities. Expect to be shocked at the poverty, expect not to be able to visit all the things you want to see, expect not everything to go to plan...in fact, just expect the unexpected! There are 101 reasons to visit Yemen, and almost as many not to go. It is fairly expensive to get there (travelling overland is difficult...Saudi tends to get in the way), and getting a visa is a bit of a hit and miss affair since September 11th. Once there, you might not be able to leave the capital, Sana'a, because travel permits are not always issue
d. This is no bad thing, as Sana'a is worth a good week to explore, but if you've spent a lot of money on the airfare, it would be a bit of a shame not to see a bit more of the country. But the overall friendliness of the people is unbelievable, everyone is very hospitable, whether they work in hotels, the government, beg on the streets, or are part-time kidnappers...you will be treated with care as you are a guest who needs to be looked after. The food isn't to everyone's palate, nightlife is a little lacking especially for women, and society is strict so you'll have to cover up (strictly no shorts or suntops for anyone!) and no alcohol is available, but Yemen provides a challenge for those looking for something a bit "off the wall". ELSEWHERE Of course there is plenty more to say about Middle Eastern destinations...the Gulf States and Oman all have their own charms, but as I've never been, I can't comment. Likewise, I can't share the secrets of Morocco's souks, Algeria's deserts or Libya's oases. Iran is on my wish-list, somewhere I've wanted to visit for a long time, as is Iraq as I've heard many good things said about Iraq's tourist potential. My next Middle Eastern destination will be Sudan, where I'll be working for the next 12 months...ancient cities on the Nile, extreme heat, dust everywhere, camel markets, tribal wars...generally an un-loved place with no tourists...sounds my kind of country! We shall see. OK, maybe I ought to say something about the Arabic language. It is not a language that can be picked up easily, although I recommend that all visitors should at least make an attempt at the basics...no matter how badly you pronounce it, it will be appreciated. If you plan to stay a while in the Arab world, then maybe you should consider taking a course at a language school there...I studied in both Damascus and Sana'a and can recommend good Arabic lang
uage schools if anyone is interested...send me an e-mail and I'll gladly try to help! I ought to mention the weather too. Probably the first thing that springs to mind is the heat...and yes, summer in Damascus or Istanbul or Cairo is unbearably hot with temperatures regularly in the high 30s and 40s. But that is summer, the time of year when those who can afford it escape to the mountains or the coast. Spring or autumn are ideal for visiting most places in the region, as the heat won't be oppressive, and you might experience the occasional rainy day. Winter is a good time to visit the Red Sea and the Gulf, although my december trip to Jordan was a wee bit chilly at times. Syria and Lebanon were downright miserable in winter, much to my friends' disbelief back home...I mean, Middle East equals desert, right? Wrong! I have never been so cold as I was in Damascus that winter! We had snow, sleet, rain, wind...and yes, it might not have been anywhere near as cold as Birmingham was, but you notice it more when there is no central heating! You still get the occasional sunny day, but don't expect to be particularly warm...you'll actually be glad of that headscarf if you are female!! Yemen has its own climate, and as most visitors to that country stay in the mountains, I will only talk about that. Summer is perfect...clear blue skies with a daily downpour in the evening, but temperatures rarely above 30. In winter, it is a bit more variable, but not much...days are still warm and sunny, but it becomes quite cold at night. Yemen's coast though is sweltering during winter, and unbearable in the summer because of the humidity. All in all, Middle Eastern weather is not just sun and more sun, with a bit of sun for a change...if you know where to head and when, then you can freeze to death too! I hope through this mish-mash of a review I have helped to dispel a few negative images about The Middle East and maybe even convince a few of you
to give it a try. If anyone does decide to take the plunge and visit an Arab medina, ski in the Lebanese mountains, enrol at a Sana'ani language school, or hole up at a Syrian monastery in the desert because of this review, then I'd love to hear from you!